Friday, March 20, 2015

The Gunman

THE GUNMAN: Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Idris Elba, directed by Pierre Morel (115 min.)

Maybe it's the lowered expectations I had going in, or maybe I have become so starved in these early months of 2015 for a halfway decent film, but I found myself gradually buying into The Gunman. While the film has nothing new to offer in really any way, something about it works. Some of the time. It's a fight to praise the film, yes, but the performances seem to keep the film above water, a film that has a painfully predictable screenplay and hits all the proper notes of action formula. But it is March, and for March you can do much worse.

Sean Penn bulks up and goes shirtless an awkward amount of time to play Jim Terrier, a mercenary for hire in the opening scenes of The Gunman. Jim is working to protect humanitarian workers in the Congo, including his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), but he is also working a parallel contract that involves the assassination of a government official. When Jim pulls off the assassination he must flee the continent, leaving his girlfriend in the care of Felix (Javier Bardem), a jealous civilian worker who obviously played a hand in Jim's departure. The assassination also happens to send the Congo into a tailspin.

Fast forward eight years and Jim, still haunted by his actions, has returned to the Congo to do some humanitarian work. Almost immediately an attempt is made on his life, and he returns to London to try and figure out who is responsible and why. This is where the film falls into its painfully recycled formula, with double crosses and globetrotting to luxurious locales including London and Barcelona, among others. There is also the trusted "guy who knows everything about the seedy underground" who gives Penn all the information he (and the audience) needs, played by Ray Winstone. There are a few things the story tries desperately to do to freshen up the static storyline, including Jim suffering from brain trauma that cripples him and may even kill him, and a love triangle between Jim, Jasmine, and Felix.

Felix is married to Jasmine in the present, in a marriage of convenience, and Bardem lights up the screen in his small role. Felix had some profit to gain from the assassination, and has since become a drunk living in the Spanish countryside. Bardem shines like a beacon in the background of formula, but once he exits the proceeding the film struggles to stay afloat.

The action scenes in The Gunman are creative enough to hold interest, and a shootout near the midway point involving a fire in a bathroom feels decidedly fresh. There is also a showdown near the end of the film that I found myself quite involved in, because Penn's character doesn't feel like a superhero. He is vulnerable just enough to make him interesting. Some complain the film doesn't have enough action, but it sure felt like there was plenty to me. The relationship between Jim and Jasmine, however, is a mighty struggle. The film grinds to a halt when these two exchange platitudes seemingly pulled from every other movie ever written. "I thought about you every second," Jim tells Jasmine in his apology. Yawn.

Which leads me to the screenplay, the real problem here. While there were a few good ideas scattered throughout, and director Pierre Morel made the best of his beautiful locations (the climax at a bullfight in Barcelona is especially nice looking), the screenplay absolutely crushes any hopes the film had of being memorable. From the outset, and I mean the very first few seconds, everything that was to come could be easily figured out by anyone whose seen more than a dozen or so action films.

Without Sean Penn's devotion and physical dedication to the role, and the wily turn from Javier Bardem, The Gunman would be absolutely dead in the water. It is a real effort to praise the film, but something about it worked on a simplistic level, enough to where I can't absolutely deny the film's existence. I recommend it for anyone who wants to get away for two hours, but just barely.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why It's Time To Recognize Michael Mann's Miami Vice As The Great Film It Is.

Preconception can doom a film, regardless of the film's ultimate merits. Occasionally, critics and audiences go into a picture with ideas and notions about what they should see, so when they see something that doesn't match up with what they had already imprinted in their memory, negativity creeps into their opinions. Backlash builds, and a film can be crippled no matter how good it may be in the face of what was expected.

Michael Mann's 2006 film, Miami Vice, exists in the realm of his 80s police drama in name - and names - alone. Prior to the film's release, in the months leading up, the very mention of Mann returning to his wildly successful hyper-colored cop show filled audiences and critics with images of alligators and pastels. Colin Farrell and Jaime Foxx were set to take over the roles of Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, and with the brilliant crime-drama mind of Mann at the helm, anticipation built in the summer of '06. And then, when the film hit theaters, fans of the show left scratching their heads, wondering what they had just seen.

There were no alligators, no pastel colors, no bright colors at all really. The Miami Vice film didn't resemble the successful show in just about any way, outside of the fact that Crockett and Tubbs were involved, and they were cops. Critical and audience response was lukewarm at best. While some critics praised the film, many left the theater feeling hollow, and some missed the point entirely. Claudia Puig of USA Today said "All this movie has in common with its ancestor are speedboats, shotguns, and drug-dealing Colombians." Puig, along with the majority of critics and audiences, were so consumed with what they expected, that they forgot to acknowledge what they were seeing. What they were seeing was one of Michael Mann's very best films, and one of the most direct and visually stunning crime dramas of all time.

Farrell and Foxx are Crockett and Tubbs, and much of the criticism towards this film over the years has been their lack of chemistry on screen. They barely seem to talk to each other when they go undercover in some of the most threatening situations on the planet. This is the very point. These are two undercover officers who have lived and breathed almost every second with each other in some compromising situations, seemingly for years. They are more than partners, more than brothers, they must function as one mind sometimes to stay ahead of the criminals they are infiltrating. Their lack of dialogue with each other is the most realistic aspect of the story, and it fits where these characters are in their lives. The absence of exposition doesn't keep Crockett and Tubbs from being fleshed out, in my mind it only enhances their history with each other.

Consider the way they're filmed when they're involved in the same scenes: almost always in the same shot, rarely are they separated unless the scene calls for it. If it is Crockett thinking about or interacting with Isabella (Gong Li), or Tubbs worrying about the fate of his girlfriend and coworker, Trudy (Naomi Harris), they are shot separately. But in the moments where the job is top of mind, they are exclusively framed together:

Another knock on the film is that the plot is convoluted and left too blurry. Not the case. And on top of that, the criticism that a film is not explained enough is a lazy critique. If everything is laid out on the table in a paint-by-numbers screenplay, everything becomes watered down, lacking any tension. While the audience is trying to keep up with loyalties and the dealings of Crockett and Tubbs, the tension of the scenes and situations stays palpable because of the lack of absolute clarity. 

And, much like the intended silence between the two cops, the scarcity of plot description is purely intentional in my eyes. Mann's idea with Miami Vice is to drop the audience right in the middle of the lives of these officers, as evidenced by the superior theatrical cut (not the director's cut, which loses some steam in the opening boat race) that opens abruptly, with Crockett, Tubbs, and their undercover team working to nab some sex traders in a club. The jarring entry immediately puts the audience on their toes, and forces them to work through what is happening as it is happening. 

Working from that, Mann's intention to drop the viewer right into the action is his way of making the viewer feel like a participant, not simply an observer. In the secret conversations and back room dealings, what is left unsaid would most certainly be the case in the real world, so any lack of that member of the cast who is put there just to bring us in (a la Ellen Page in Inception) creates an immediacy, and an intimacy with these characters and their current situations. The audience is sitting in the room with Crocket and Tubbs as they work their deals, not observing from a safe, well-informed distance.

Not enough action. Another poor criticism. Saying Miami Vice is dull or lacking of any real action is a personal opinion I suppose, but I found plenty of action here. There was not action for the sake of action, sure, and there were really no explosions aside from the trailer park in the film's third act. If you need more action and car chases, fine, but don't ignore the action that is here. Speaking of that trailer park scene, the assault on the trailer is rife with tension. Even in the action scenes, the moves of characters are quick, concise, and lean. The final shootout is procedural in nature, and the leanness of the action keeps this picture firmly in reality. 

Aside from the internal structure of Miami Vice, the look of the film is stunning. Mann uses deep-focus composition and his digital mastery to create a rich world of deep, dark colors. The majority of the film takes place at night, but the day scenes are rich with detail, especially the scenes in Cuba. The scene pictured above, with Crockett and Tubbs standing in front of a purple night sky, is one of the most captivating and beautiful shots in any of his films. 

Michael Mann is most comfortable in crime drama, and his best films outside of The Insider (Thief and Heat), deal with both sides of the criminal element. But Miami Vice is easily his most overlooked picture, and maybe his last great film. It never got the love it deserved on its initial release, and is too often ignored these days. It's time for everyone who cares to take another look at this film with a new perspective. Don't go into this film with Don Johnson in your mind, go into this film expecting a lean, brilliant thriller. You won't be disappointed. 

Monday, March 9, 2015


CHAPPIE: Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, directed by Neill Blomkamp (120 min.)

Chappie is a mixture of just about every other "robot" movie around, existing somewhere between Robocop and Short Circuit. It exists between those films in theory, but resides below both of them in quality. Come to think of it, I'd put Robocop 2 and Short Circuit 2 above Chappie, a mean-spirited, cynical mess of tone that is so aggressively hateful it created anxiety in me at times. Maybe Neill Bomkamp had a good movie somewhere in the early stages of development, but somewhere along the way things fell apart in just about every conceivable way.

Taking place in Blomkamp's native South Africa, the film revolves around a crime-addled Johannesburg in need of stronger police presence. A young tech nerd named Deon creates a robotic police force that is successful, but Deon wants the robots to do more. He wants them to have their own intelligence, to be self aware, because Deon has never seen any movies about artificial intelligence so he has no idea what could ever go wrong. Deon is a technical wizard, but as a character, he is an idiot. Just like everyone in this film.

When Deon's request to use an out-of-commission robot to experiment with his self-aware program is shot down by the corporations' boss, played by Sigourney Weaver (as she continues her string of thankless, spare roles), Deon steals the robot. But he is then kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi, despicable criminals who are also pure idiots. Ninja and Deon are looking for... wait for it... one last score to settle their debts with another deplorable South African character. Their plan is to steal Deon's "remote control" to the robot police force which will help them... I'm getting winded.

Anyway, the robot is implanted with the new program at Ninja and Yolandi's hideout and has the mind of a child, though he learns, adapts, and understands at a breakneck pace. Oh, and his battery is fused, so he has five days to learn everything and help these criminals with their heist. But Deon wants him to be a nice robot. He gets named Chappie, and then Ninja's ingenious plan to toughen up Chappie is to dump him off on his own where he is beaten and tortured in a cynical scene. He could easily be destroyed and the plan would fail, right? That would be my thought before abandoning the robot, but what do I know.

Then, after he is beaten with rocks and set on fire (after it is established he is basically a child, so, put those images together and see how you feel) Chappie is picked up and tortured in a follow up scene of senseless brutality by Vincent Moore.

Oh, wait! There's Vincent Moore, idiot number forty in this film, played by Hugh Jackman with a mullet and a Steve Irwin costume (because he's Australian, get it?). Vincent has his own version of a police robot, a giant machine that operates by reading human minds. But his program has failed over and over, despite his devious attempts to succeed and his endless peering at Deon over cubicle walls while he holds his rugby ball (he's Australian, get it?). I bet his program didn't work because the machine is the size of an office building and it takes an airplane hangar to house and operate a single unit. Also, you would think when all the robots are shut down and chaos ensues in the streets that he might be the prime suspect, but that would require a character with a brain.

Chappie is an absolute mess in every way imaginable. I hated this movie. As evidenced by this manic plot description, villains and bad guys and characters fly at us with reckless abandon, and the only one that isn't just a deplorable human in one way or another is the robot. All of these characters do things that are purely inexplicable, careless, and seemingly filled with vile human indecency. And they act in unbelievably idiotic ways.

Consider this scene: Vincent desperately needs a usb key from Deon, so in order to try and get it he smashes Deon's head into his desk and threatens him with a gun. In the office. Full of coworkers. But, hey he was just kidding, no hard feelings, right? Seriously, the entire robot police force is sabotaged and nobody even thinks to look at the guy who threatened the creator of the robots with a firearm in front of an office full of people.

The final showdown has all of these characters interacting in an assault on the senses that is such an overwhelming barrage of noise and nonsense that it's hard to focus on any one thing, and impossible to care. The screenplay bounces from one tone to the next, and lacks any of the satirical notes that might make it actually work. A sharp satirical angle say, like, Robocop, would have been a smart play. Instead, it's paint-by-numbers dialogue and nauseating predictability.

Now, Chappie himself was a cool robot, with some funny moments, but in a movie that is sometimes needlessly violent, aggressively cynical, and lacking any real identity, the humor is easily forgotten. Just as this film should be, immediately.