Category Archives: Movie reviews

Movie review: ‘Miami Vice’

Awash in the blacks and blues of a fresh bruise, Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” plays hard and mean to thrilling, often harrowing effect. Mann, who was an executive producer of the influential 1980s television series on which the movie is ever-so-loosely based, obliterates the glib sunshine and pastel glamour of the show to forge a dark, frighteningly real universe of undercover law enforcement and globalized crime. It delivers what no other movie this summer has or likely will: the pure pleasure of watching an intricate, perfectly calibrated machine kick, shoot and crank with dazzling power and efficiency.

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That might sound oddly heady for a movie called “Miami Vice,” a title that instantly evokes Reagan-era gilt and South Beach deco. Don Johnson in a white linen blazer/pink T-shirt ensemble and an equally suave Philip Michael Thomas amid a backdrop of neon, glass bricks and palm trees — those soft-rock memories should be dispensed with. Instead, brace for an unflinching contemporary crime drama that makes no concessions to pop nostalgia or mocking remakes such as the no-brow “Starsky and Hutch.”

People forget that TV’s “Miami Vice” was more than its stylish, trend-making veneer, but a crack cop drama presenting sophisticated criminal situations through intelligent, movie-worthy writing that delved deep into character and emotion. Mann takes that as his springboard for a surprisingly emotional character-driven thriller that takes itself so seriously, there’s hardly a smile in the two-hour-plus epic.

While the plot is as rudimentary as a “Miami Vice” TV episode — vice cops Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) go undercover for the FBI to unravel a multi-tentacled, international drug ring — Mann laces it with the themes and macho philosophy he’s so obsessively explored in similarly expert crime pictures “Manhunter,” “Thief,” “Heat” and “Collateral.” His heroes are really antiheroes who dwell in the shadows of film noir, be it James Caan’s riven criminal in “Thief,” Tom Cruise’s solitary hitman in “Collateral” or a superb Farrell as an undercover agent who drifts dangerously over the line.

The complicated loner wavering between the right and wrong — the blurring of human duality — fascinates Mann and has always been his subject. These men (Mann’s is a fiercely male-centric universe) are vessels for ideas and themes about choosing a way of life and pursuing it with as much iron-willed integrity the world will allow.

This is the loner’s existential struggle, which he carries out with a heavy heart and pensive mind. Working in either crime or law, he’s acutely aware of his mortality and life’s cruel vagaries. “Time is luck,” Farrell tells the woman (Gong Li) he falls in love with, as her life skids out. The same line is said in “Manhunter” — “Time is luck. I know the value of our days” — as well as “Heat,” when Robert De Niro’s career thief muses, “I know life is short, whatever time you get is luck.” (Sharp-eared Mann fans might also notice the reuse in “Vice” of the nicknames “sport,” from “Manhunter,” and “slick,” from “Heat.”)

Helicopters slash the skyline and power boats knife the ocean. High-tech surveillance gadgets crackle and heavy artillery blasts. Within the dizzying action and disorienting nation-hopping, a whip-fast Foxx and a brooding Farrell, who smolders with long, Johnsonesque hair and unchecked stubble, stand sturdy. The actors’ chemistry is sufficient and both men cut intense, sympathetic figures, whether they are taking down scum — the movie crawls with furry creeps and bald thugs — or making passionate love to their women. Mann’s lingering depictions of sex are the epitome of adult intimacy rarely seen in a Hollywood film.

There’s not a dud in the superlative cast, including Li’s flinty dragon lady, Naomie Harris as Foxx’s cop girlfriend, John Ortiz as the drug middleman and Luis Tosar as the drug kingpin. Mann’s dialogue, funny and profane, has a hard, urban pop, and the soundtrack is filled with interesting choices, from spare electric guitar and moody synthesizers to songs by Moby and Audioslave.

How “Miami Vice” is put together is as compelling as the story and characters. A notorious perfectionist, Mann demands technical verisimilitude, nailing the intricacies of how criminals and cops think and operate, down to their clothes, words and twitches.

He and cinematographer Dion Beebe return to the handheld high-definition video they used in “Collateral,” bringing a grainy, documentary vibe to the action that’s unnerving. It’s non-style taken to high style, soaked in ocean blues and inky nocturnal blacks. There’s not a wasted shot.

Since 1995’s “Heat,” Mann has been our greatest living action-crime director, edging ahead of past giants Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer. The technical bravura and artistic depth Mann brings to his films has few rivals. He respects his craft and his audience. “I ain’t playin’!” blurts a character in “Vice.” Neither is Mann.

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Movie review: ‘The Wrestler’

Masterful struggle: From its star to its surroundings, ‘Wrestler’ keeps it raw and real

Jan. 9, 2009, Austin American-Statesman

Mickey Rourke, bless his heart, looks like a big basted bird in “The Wrestler,” a wincing character study of a macho man whose life’s passion has skidded to its expiration date. Rourke’s professional wrestler — a tights-and-tattoos brand of brawler — isn’t going down easily, though, and it’s this internal battle, not the cringingly theatrical ones in the smack-thud ring, that Darren Aronofsky’s brutal yet remarkably sensitive character study is about.

Rourke gleams with blood and sweat through much of the movie, and he radiates a bizarre, battered physicality that almost seems fabricated from old rubber. He’s Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a wrestling icon coming off the high of his glory years in the 1980s, when he was a superstar bone-cruncher, vanquishing the likes of the Ayatollah and other garishly named combatants. Bronzed and bulging on steroids, with a puffy, engorged face, Rourke’s Ram looks chiseled from red clay, like the less sunburned brother of Hellboy.

The film opens in a blast of hard-rock nostalgia, with vintage posters of the Ram’s classic bouts streaming by to the throb of Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health (Bang Your Head).” Then it goes dark and the screen portentously reads: “Twenty years later.”

Before it lights up again, you hear a wheezy, phlegm-larded cough, the requiem for a beaten and lonely man. The camera pans in on Rourke, sitting sweaty, head down, in an empty locker room. He’s just finished a bout, which has taken all he has. He’s the pugilist at rest, a self-styled warrior who has endured a life of blows and bloodletting in the name of gladiatorial entertainment.

The shot shimmers with melancholy beauty, bathed in fluorescent lights and cementing right there the movie’s soul-stripping concerns.

So much of Rourke’s resigned and furrowed performance, heralded as the actor’s unlikely comeback, emanates from his flamboyant appearance. His look reveals volumes about the character: the paid-for tan and spangly spandex pants; the steroidal heft and the peroxided, Portuguese man-of-war hair cascading down his back. These are the trappings of showbiz, choreographed wrestling included, and the traps of maintaining high-voltage vanity. (The Ram even drives an old Dodge Ram van. He clings to that kind of chintzy pride.)

But vanity’s a dicey addiction for a guy in his mid-50s who uses his body as a weapon. He’s dented, perforated and creaky. His ticker is on the blink. He wears a chunky yellow hearing aid, an exquisite touch by the filmmakers that telegraphs a violent past and a compromised present. Continue reading

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Movie review: ‘Spellbound’

June 13, 2003, Austin American-Statesman

A wonderfully bizarre transformation occurs in Harry Altman when the rubbery 12-year-old is stumped by a word during the National Spelling Bee: He turns into Jim Carrey.

In the documentary “Spellbound,” Harry stands at the microphone and is lobbed the word “banns,” a seemingly slayable little noun that wraps its tentacles around Harry’s brain and squeezes tight.

The boy chokes, and the struggle within his head is displayed in an anarchy of facial contortions that would make Tex Avery blush. His face resembles a wrestling match under a sheet, twisting this way and that, stretching, crinkling, tongue flailing, eyes bulging.

Looking as if he sipped strychnine, not so much stalling as trying to shake free the proper letters, Harry is told by the judges to get a move on. We worry about the child.

“Spellbound” works on us like that. We start to worry about the eight children who are its subjects as we follow them from home and school to the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., the Olympiad of word nerds. We want the lot of them to win, vanquishing gnarly, polysyllabic octopi like “cephalagia” with hand-on-hip aplomb.

But of course not all triumph, and the tension that mounts as the kids painstakingly excavate letters from their heads like paleoanthropic bones — epochs seem to pass between each halting D and Y — is as gripping as anything in theaters right now. (That includes “2 Fast 2 Furious,” which seems to have spelling difficulties of its own.)

The thrills and misspells in director Jeff Blitz’s remarkable debut — it was nominated at this year’s Oscars and won the jury award for best documentary at South by Southwest in 2002 — spring from a gently probing narrative about those kids in school you either haughtily ignored or on whom you inflicted industrial-strength wedgies. Unless, um, you were one of them.

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Movie review: ‘Wendy and Lucy’

Minimalist drama’s tale of survival resonates in current economic times

 Feb. 20, 2009, Austin American-Statesman

In the minimalist heartbreaker “Wendy and Lucy,” Michelle Williams plays Wendy with a premature perma-frown and a youthful spirit that’s crumpled slowly like a recycled can. Lucy is her faithful pup, a golden mutt with dark, serious eyes and the sangfroid of Robert Mitchum.

She’s a good dog. Wendy’s striving to be good, too, but fate and circumstance have thrown up a gauntlet of bad luck with no room in which to budge. With impressive calm and fierce nonjudgment, the movie puts you in Wendy’s shabby sneakers and taps into our morbid economic moment when it can seem that a dog is all you have.

Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her scruffily lo-fi “Old Joy” is a desolate story told in miniature with almost forbidding quietude. It crackles on life’s lowest, most natural frequencies, banishing slash-cuts and musical cues, except for the singsongy, slightly eerie tune Wendy sometimes hums, and courts the rustle and flow of its woodsy Oregon setting. Such a threadbare aesthetic speaks of self-conscious formalism, yet form and function here are gracefully and expressively wed.

The story, what little there is, starts in mid-sentence, with Wendy and her steady companion stopping in a small Oregon town on their way to Alaska, where Wendy plans to get work in a cannery. “I hear they need people,” she tells an old parking lot security guard (an extremely un-actorly Walter Dalton) who becomes her angel in hard times.

Wendy has an exhausted voice for her age. It’s breathy and weary and assumes a pitch of exasperated despair as her troubles mount. Her car breaks down, she gets caught shoplifting dog food and, topping things off and setting the nonplot in motion, Lucy disappears.

Wendy searches for Lucy and, with no money, tries to get her car fixed. That’s it. But of course that’s not it. The movie’s a symposium in American poverty, about how people living on the brink of destitution can land there with a shift in the wind. It’s about how people respond to a woman whose only problem seems to be chronic bad breaks. It’s about how you and I respond to that dude and his dog with a cardboard sign at the intersection — our fellow citizens and brethren. Wendy becomes different things to different people: parasite, criminal, an everywoman in need. It’s about our state of affairs, right now.

Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond, who displayed a similar fascination with the dispossessed and marginalized in “Old Joy,” purposely strip Wendy of backstory and even much personality, and this could challenge viewer empathy. Williams, sporting cut-offs, a tomboy shag and vacant eyes, recedes into the role, making Wendy a wraith in society, all but invisible. It’s an entrancing anti-performance.

You could say that nothing happens in “Wendy and Lucy,” but if it were your life, everything happens. The movie doesn’t make it easy on pleasure-seeking viewers. It proudly basks in the quotidian now and lives in its exquisite details, be it Wendy washing and changing in a dingy gas station bathroom or walking past graffiti that simply says “Goner.”

In its stubborn airiness “Wendy and Lucy” grants you gaping spaces in which to wander with the protagonist and feel her metastasizing despair. Without melodrama or the clanking machinery of by-committee plotting, the movie engenders a sense of effortlessness that snares you in its lyrical spell.

It’s tempting to call this frowsy story a tone poem, but it’s not. It’s cold, naked prose, scratched in gravel with a stick.

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Movie review: ‘Greenberg’

March 26, 2010, Austin American-Statesman

Ben Stiller looks gaunt and shrunken in “Greenberg,” Noah Baumbach’s bilious comedy of discomfort that isn’t afraid to let its tender side show, if only in stingy glances. Stiller isn’t a tall man to begin with, but his physical presence here is rumpled, crumpled, matching his character’s interior life, that of a guy hitting his 40s with rancor and confusion. He’s in a stunted state. Even next to the movie’s German shepherd he looks small.

This is Stiller stripped down and vulnerable, his jester’s suit swapped for an outdated sweater that screams — no, mumbles — inertia. Stiller’s darker side, hinted at in some of his sad-sack comic roles (“Flirting with Disaster,” “The Heartbreak Kid”), emerges ready to rumble, snipping and gnashing at the world like a less smug Larry David. It’s as funny as it is pathetic, a portrait of a guy who’s barely tolerated because he can barely tolerate himself.

Stiller plays Roger Greenberg in “Greenberg,” Baumbach’s alert and wise meditation on early-midlife disappointment and the drawbacks of being a jerk. The movie’s squirmy accuracy bears the pained specificity of autobiography, like the writer-director’s coming-of-age saga “The Squid and the Whale” and indulgently dysfunctional “Margot at the Wedding,” tragicomedies whose emotional violence is slightly offset by the ouchy humor mined from neurotic extremes.

Fresh off a nervous breakdown in New York, like an aging Holden Caulfield, Roger has come to his rich brother’s home in Los Angeles to house-sit while the family is on vacation. His goal is to actively “do nothing” except catch up with friends (the great Rhys Ifans is one of them) and an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the story with Baumbach), none of whom especially wants to catch up with Roger after some bitter fallouts in the past.

Roger makes a reluctant connection with his brother’s personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), a frowzy yet comely young woman who comes to the house to feed the dog. It seems unlikely she would fall for the prickly, off-putting Roger, who is almost 20 years her senior. But Florence is herself a damaged flower. She moves with an irresistible gawkiness, a kind of fatigued self-awareness, and speaks in a voice of breathy boredom.

Like many heartbreakers, Florence doesn’t realize what a knock-out she is. Her beauty is a mystery to her, and she doesn’t know how to present it. When Roger and she hook up for the first time — a cover-your-eyes comedy of errors — Florence apologizes. “I get kind of nerdy” during sex, she says.

This is Gerwig’s first major role after a series of micro-budget mumblecore movies (“Baghead,” “Hannah Takes the Stairs”), and she’s terrific — affectless and luminous, acutely attuned to how Florence’s insecurities inform her speech, mannerisms and movement.

She’s the optimistic heart of the story to Stiller’s gloomy soul. His existential crisis is about worthlessness, whacking that midlife wall of diminished ambition and shriveled hope and walking about dazed. He’s a human bruise in a constant wince. He pushes Florence away.

“I should be with a divorced 38-year-old with teenage kids and low expectations in life,” he tells her. (“Normal stuff is really hard for him,” she tells her friends.) Theirs, at best, is a fretful romance, and it’s fascinating.

The later films of Baumbach, including the poignant, almost perfect “Greenberg,” are told with the granular realism of a short story in The New Yorker. They’re hermetic, mercilessly personal, savagely honest, all of which passes as a type of morose sophistication. They feel messy and rich.

Baumbach, also in his early 40s, shoots with a homely naturalism that’s both shaggy and invisibly fussy. He’s a hip humanist with a taste for bile and an eye and ear for people not getting along. Yet he wants things to work out. That takes work, brute emotional toil between bodies. His movies are sincere and never jokey. The uncomfortable laughter they generate can seem like snark, but actually it’s high drama.

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Movie review: ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

Sept. 8, 2000, Austin American-Statesman

In Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s beguiling and respectful documentary, it’s not the eyes of Tammy Faye that strike you; it’s the “I” of Tammy Faye.

Sometimes, it’s the why.

The former Tammy Faye Bakker — “the first lady of religious broadcasting,” RuPaul intones in his dignified narration — is now Tammy Faye Messner, thank you. But Tammy Faye remains very much her own person. No need for a trailing surname for this walking, weeping exclamation point of a Christian diva. The third designation is mere clutter; it trips the euphony of that perky pair of names — Tammy Faye! — which strike a sugary note, like “taffy” and “happy.” And “daffy.”

Both the I and the why come into compelling play in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” as the filmmakers make a swift but satisfying sweep of her living soap opera, rooting out soft answers (she just is) to hard questions (why is she so…Tammy?).

But if it knowingly coddles its subject, the movie doesn’t stint on cold facts. Its sobriety is filtered through the adoring scrim of camp. The movie wants to be as fun as it is informative — luxuriating in the cheese while telling a true story of ruptured pieties — and there it succeeds.

“Eyes'” most indulgent moments supply spurts of comic relief. When RuPaul poses the question, “What ever happened to Tammy Faye?” — an allusion to “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” in which Bette Davis scowls through a fright-mask of cosmetic overkill — and when sock puppets coo chapter titles, we are being winked at and accorded permission to giggle.

Permission, frankly, is not necessary. The high drama of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s rise and fall is mottled with so many ironies and eye-popping instances of bad taste that laughing is the only reasonable response. (To despair for the Bakkers depicted here would be a reflex of compunction, not logic.) Make no mistake: The filmmakers included the scene of our heroine lip-synching Christ’s praises, in the desert, atop a camel, for a chuckle.

Tammy Faye is shown doing many things that would kill any normal self-conscious person with mortification. But she deflects ridicule with chirpy obliviousness. In this way, she’s a smart cookie. She comes across as a sport, a beaming and forthcoming survivor who takes refuge in the belief that she’s more brie than Velveeta.

She takes her vanity in stride. She looks like a down-stuffed teddy bear — an Ewok painted by Fellini — and her moppet voice is high and gummy. She’s the first to tell you her notorious fake eyelashes, those starry splats, are inseparable from who she is. She strokes fussy lap dogs during interviews and radiates an airbrushed glow. Continue reading

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Movie review: ‘Police, Adjective’

A police drama that takes its time to find meaning in everyday patrol of the streets

Feb. 26, 2010, Austin American-Statesman  

“Police, Adjective” is a slow-mover with snap reflexes. Eating dinner, reading aloud from the dictionary —these activities are the apex of physical commotion in Corneliu Porumboiu’s glacial but transfixing cop procedural, which follows a tiny, dead-end case with a dispassionate eye and a quietly bristling pulse.

It’s a slog, but in a good way. Its thematic force is a cumulative wave that rises out of the spindly narrative. The hero is Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young cop in a small Romanian town who’s assigned to bust a teenager for merely supplying, not selling, hash to his friends. Cristi, a pragmatist with a conscience, has no stomach for a petty arrest that will, in his view, ruin a kid’s life. His superiors pressure him to conduct a sting operation and haul the teenager in. Cristi refuses.

Most of the movie unfurls in painstaking real time. Cristi tails the teens and watches them smoke joints from afar. He paces. He buys a cup of tea. He waits, watches. We are with him the whole time. So much for the rote American crime thriller of slash cuts, foot chases, guns and a rumbling soundtrack. There’s no musical score. Shots are long and unbroken and never in close-up.

This sort of parched, paint-drying realism is nothing new in film. From Chantal Akerman’s experimental cinema (“Jeanne Dielman …”) to the recent formalism of Carlos Reygadas (“Silent Light”), the detached fascination of quotidian routine — the minutiae, the tedium — has served drama searching for deeper meaning, something to penetrate the passive watching experience and linger long after.

Next to the cryptic title, hints about what “Police, Adjective” is about creep in during seemingly throwaway scenes, such as one in which Cristi and his wife argue about the meaning of lyrics in a vapid pop song and, later, when his wife finds a grammatical error in one of his police reports. By examining language and the technical definition of words — not our subjective spins on meaning — the movie slyly critiques the inflexible laws of old communist Romania and their slipping relevance in the post-Nicolae Ceausescu era.

In this, the movie is of a piece with Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest” and Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” signal works in the so-called Romanian new wave. Times are tough there, and the films depict a nation fettered by bureaucracy, broken, displayed in moribund shades of crumbling concrete, barren streets and autumnal skies.

“Police, Adjective” takes its time, becoming a marvel of pacing; its temporal patience is practically brazen. It doesn’t get you until its extended, single-shot climax in the office of Cristi’s flinty captain (Vlad Ivanov, mesmerizing). The movie comes alive with cerebral excitement during a verbal exchange that’s beautifully tempered and intelligent. Cristi is dressed down, forced to recite from a fat dictionary as the captain, now a Draconian schoolmaster, snaps, “Do you know the meaning of the words you use?”

The answer is at once expected and heartbreaking.

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