2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

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Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

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Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

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David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Miranda Richardson, Spider

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Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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Saturday, August 07, 2004
Someone who looks so severely at L.A. as often as Michael Mann does must love it in some unusual way. Like Heat before it, his new film Collateral tells a sorry tale about the people and the city of angels, indicting cold-blooded professionalism through an equally cold-blooded mood piece. Neither as sprawling nor operatic as Heat, the L.A. of Collateral is one deadened to stagnancy by its inhabitants’ obdurate industry. The habits of Max (Jamie Foxx), a cab driver, are introduced in the opening minutes and routine of the taxicab’s comings-and-goings is like a never-ending enclosed circle of activity, investing the city with motion and action and noise and people but never going anywhere. Likewise, arriving airplanes are often captured in the corners of the frame in Collateral, descending into the basin never to leave again. Nothing is expulsed from the L.A. except the dead, and the life of the workers of the city just gets worse.

Max has the night beat, circling a nocturnal but always active Los Angeles. His life is his job, and not so deep within this thriller is a thin but scathing portrait of urban professionalism. One only has to take a long look at the slick night shots of the city, the glossy and near neon-black downtown and the industrial sprawl working at all hours, and one extrapolates Mann’s enduring criticism of alienated modernity to a city full of people dedicated to their jobs and nothing else.

The professionalism can be seen in Max’s ingrained pride the shape he keeps his cab in and his deep knowledge of street routes, and can likewise be seen through his first important passenger of the night, a beautiful lawyer (Jada Pinkett Smith) who is charmed not only Max’s respect for his profession but his vision for future business success. But Max is not the only professional in L.A., and the danger of those unending inbound flights is that they inevitably will bring something rotten to the city, and they do in the form of Vincent (Tom Cruise). Vincent needs to make several stops that night and then return to LAX and leave as soon as possible-the man hates L.A. and cannot seem to see its kindred professionalism as his rightful hunting grounds-so he negotiates to hire Max’s car for the night. Vincent chats him up at first, finding out just how good a cabbie Max is, and then he teaches Max what hard-hearted workmanship really is. Vincent is a hired killer. Ex-military and highly trained, Vincent is in town at the dead of night to permanently silence several witnesses in an upcoming trial, and he is using Max to help him get around. Like any normal human being Max reacts hysterically when Vincent drops a dead man onto his cab, and this is the first step in a surprisingly character-driven and ambiguous separation that labels Vincent as an unsympathetic professional and Max as a empathetic, distinctly human worker bee.

One of the most attractive things about Michael Mann’s oeuvre is how deeply and completely he uses genre while picking stories imbedded with the urban pathos he so favors. And so Collateral-in its slight absurdity of situation and coincidence, in Cruise’s shock of steel-grey hair and unwavering assurance, in Max and Vincent’s loose moral banter-has all the silly conventions of genre film and Mann does nothing to subvert this material. Indeed, he is very much in his element, constantly retooling the brooding male burdens that have obsessed his entire career. One could see this straight-minded stick-to-itiveness as the reason Mann is often labeled a mainstream studio director; in essence a skilled craftsman within the system. Stuart Beattie’s script for Collateralis unambitious and often unimaginative-Mark Ruffalo is arbitrarily in the film as a detective who breaks with the ethical code of his job and goes out of his jurisdiction to catch Vincent-but Mann’s astute vision and precise staging keeps the tension in the film constant and engaging, and at the same time offering a scathing, if highly conventionalized, portrait of a city.

Shot in high-definition digital, Mann visualizes Collateral stagnating in the cold modernism of the 1990s; even the music sounds stuck on mid-nineties rock grooves and Vincent seems anachronistically surprised at the pervasiveness of Koreans populating the city. With the digital aid of the cameras the film captures the high-gloss of black night, showing the flip side to Heat’s cold blue daytime 90s modernism in night’s obsidian gloss of anonymous buildings and the unnatural light of the city, revealing smoking industrial plants and backlighting palm trees.

There is a beauty to the city at night in this slick perspective, revealed years and years after people like Mann and William Friedkin showed the world what an atrocious place the city was in harsh daylight. But its beauty is a stylization in the sense that Cruise looks great in his cold pro getup, coasting the black streets on a mission delivering bullets as silver as his frozen pompadour. The line connecting the sense of cool inbred Mann’s immoral male protagonists to the slick beauty of L.A. at night casts a foul, neo-noir association between this killer and these dark buildings and the city’s nightlife.

As Max’s cab steadily and fatefully rolls from stop to stop the humanism in him gradually juxtaposes its lack in Vincent; night itself is used by the later to make clean, efficient kills and by the former so he can relax and meditate away from the stress of his chosen career. Vincent’s cold inhumanity, taken to grotesque heights by the end of the movie when the Mann gives him the cinematic characteristic of a movie monster or horror-film serial killer, is suppose to the be ultimate in alienated professionalism, and the horrible thing is just how well Vincent fits into the L.A. landscape. Constantly asserting that the cab job is part time until he gets things going, but then admitting to driving the taxi for twelve years, Max himself is constantly in danger of slipping into the urban inhumanity as well, and his confrontation with Vincent is like a living nightmare of the ethics and morals of a professional life in a city. The two men’s brief, thinly written characters are invested with an ethical ambiguity that helps push their interaction above petty thrills.

Like the best of all Tom Cruise movies, this one is in part a critique of Cruise’s mythos. A cold, respected professional who, like clockwork, does the one thing he is good at and places himself on efficient repeat, Vincent is left alone in the city that he has so much power over but so little human connection to. This is no isolated criticism; Mann himself is dealing with same themes as a director, keeping his film steadily in the realms of convention but at the same time challenging the convention by investing it with purpose and meaning-the artist as human. Creepily, Vincent himself attempts to assert his own humanism by appreciating jazz, but the appreciation is a self-serving and mechanical one. The killer enjoying a trumpeter’s improvisation and drawing a line to the way he improvises an assassination is more a misguided appreciation of well-trained workmanship that can adapt and respond to variables than identifying anything human in the flow of the music.

The badass epitome of Mann’s hybrid genre film and lustrous picture of urban alienation are two climactic action scenes so perfectly staged that the line between the film following conventions-as they are both action scenes required by the narrative and the genre to complete the plot and satisfy the audience-and direct illustrations of Mann’s latent themes is blurred into obscurity, the result rendered magnificent to behold. In one, a victim on Vincent’s list has set himself in the middle of a Korean dance club dubbed “Frenzy,” and the depersonalized chaos of the sequence is manifest in the killing spree that follows it while a faceless and careless crowd dances on. Vincent blazes through body guards and FEDs, killing a number as bones break and gunshots rings out and with the crowd of youths continuing to grind away to the music one feels lost in a hip, cold world full of people who work themselves stupid and unwind by just blending into the regressive activity and agitation of the soulless masses in a non-work environment.

The second sequence is simultaneously the best homage and most impressive update of Orson Welles’ classic house of mirrors climax in The Lady from Shanghai, here transposed to the top of a L.A. sky rise whose power has been cut by Vincent to spook his target. Up there the lights of the city reflect and refract through the gigantic office windows and play tricks of light and illusion on the manifold layers of glass and mirror that adorn the modern office. Vincent, stalking his victim, is bewildered and fooled by the sight, trapped and lost in the center of the silent, unforgiving urban center. In this moment, among others, Mann directs the viewer to the idea that Vincent, seemingly at home in this cold world, really is an extreme and is home no place, not even the urban atrocity that is Los Angeles. Beyond the blossoming humanism in Max, it is in the environment of the city itself that reveals its rejection of such a heartless professional prick as Vincent.

That Mann manages to keep tension churning furiously throughout Collateral’s surprisingly long running time is a measure of his skills with genre. But it is the way he also weds the genre to the cold-blooded conflict of inhuman professional destitution between a L.A.- friendly sociopath killer and a flicker-portrait of a cabbie’s emerging humanity is a marvel of cinematic fulfillment. The work is at once brash and obvious as well as highly stylized, but also subtle and creepy and incredibly precise in its superlative hybrid construction. On the scale of a high-epic cinematic opera like Heat it is a minor work, but Collateral is the work of a master and the master has produced something great, and most importantly something that raises him above mere “moviemaking.”

Sunday, August 01, 2004

The Village

[Note: Reading anything -- and I mean anything -- that even wanders near plot discussion for this film runs the risk of blowing the whole enterprise. I'm going to be as vague as possible, but don't say I didn't warn you anyways if you figure something out based on my words.]

To paraphrase a line from Roger Ebert, if a man has directed several great films, it's only a matter of time before someone gives him a whole bunch of money to make a really bad one. And "The Village", the latest film from M. Night Shyamalan, is bad. Really bad. Laugh-out-loud bad. Sure, it looks great, but the extraordinary command that Shymalan has over his images this time out is attached to a story that would barely pass muster on "Night Gallery". I fear the problem may be with Shyamalan himself. Looking at how this might have happened, I can see one of two scenarios: Either nobody wanted to upset Shymalan by informing him that his characters, his dialogue and in fact his whole concept sucked green weenies... or someone did bring it up and he wasn't listening.

The plot involves... well, if you've seen the commercials, that's about all that there is, really. There's a remote village bordered by woods in which nasty ugly beasties reside, and all the village denizens are warned not to go into the woods lest the beasties eat them and then wreak vengeance upon the village for disturbing them. I'll not say much further so as not to spoil the film even as I advise strongly against wasting cash on this solemn, arrogant misfire. Suffice to say, the nasty things get more aggressive and then there is a sudden turn of events that requires a hearty soul to brave the dangers in the woods. It's not so much the outline of the story as it is the specifics that irks: Because this is a Shyamalan film, we expect twists and shocking revelations, and when he dutifully delivers, it's a big letdown. To call the secrets concealed in this film cheap would be insulting to dollar stores everywhere. I'd love to grouse at length about exactly why this film is the stupidest thing on two legs I've seen in some time, but again, I'm trying to be polite to those who haven't seen this and want to. Let's move on.

But then, maybe we won't move on -- we'll just take a sidelong jump. Now, I've mentioned that the script is silly. This would be acceptable, of course, if the whole film was meant to be silly, or if it at least exhibited a healthy self-awareness about its ridiculousness. Alas, the goofiness on display is only exacerbated by Shyamalan's funereal directorial style. It's one thing to use deliberate pacing to draw out suspense and keep the audience on edge, but there comes a point where deliberateness crosses over into self-seriousness. Shyamalan can usually ride the line between the two without crossing over, but here he seems to have forgotten the offbeat sense of humor that saved his other films from turgidity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stilted dialogue. Everything is high-flown and formal. Nobody says three words when they can say ten. The actors do what they can with their lines, but the only ones who stand out are Joaquin Phoenix and Adrian Brody (neither of whom have much in the way of actual dialogue) and especially Bryce Dallas Howard, who infuses her stodgy lines with a spunk and life that makes them semi-believable. If she can make this much of an impression with the meager pickings here, she should be amazing in "Manderlay".

This would all be positively unbearable if Shyamalan wasn't also a talented visual filmmaker. But talented he is, so the film exerts a kind of fascination for some time before it completely falls to pieces. The director makes everything look appropriately austere and moody, and he gets a major assist from the extraordinary cinematographer Roger Deakins. In particular, the major narrative complication that occurs a little over an hour in is perfectly designed and executed. The use of tight framing and close-ups give the scene a potency that would be absent from a traditionally filmed scene of the same ilk. Moreover, playing the scene with a minimum of dialogue not only feeds into the sense of unease that mushrooms into horror this one time only, but it also keeps us from giggling at any potentially dopey dialogue and undercutting the scene. (In fact, the sound design in the whole film is great, providing the tension that Shyamalan's script forgot to include.) There's another absolutely gorgeous shot near the end of the film that makes brilliant use of the color red ("the bad color", as we're told), even if it does look a little too much like a CD cover. So the technical aspects of the film are faultless -- pity the story stinks.

In fairness, I can see where Shyamalan may have been attempting some form of social commentary with this story, but he can't keep his focus on whatever message he wants to send. He's got something on his mind, but his devotion to the thriller genre and his obsession with twisty endings undermine his struggle to make himself clear. It's a hopeless muddle -- a failure as drama, a failure as horror and a failure as allegory. You couldn't make a more perfect parody of a typical Shyamalan film if you tried. Next time out, Night, maybe you should get a writing partner or something. And stop taking yourself so goddamn seriously.