The House


Deadwood

Deadwood has never shied away from theatrical flourishes that make metaphors concrete. But the one that kicked off Sunday's episode—a portentous, King Lear-style thunderstorm that howled through town and turned the already muddy streets into soup—was so capital-D Dramatic that during certain shots, one half-expected the camera to pull back and reveal a proscenium arch framed by velvet curtains. Dramatically speaking, a storm was about to hit the camp; what simpler way to say that than with an actual storm?

On this gray, wet morning, the Deadwood Pioneer published a letter by Sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) to the family of a miner who was murdered for trying to organize against his boss, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). Hearst, a gold mining tycoon who aims to rule Deadwood by destroying its burgeoning sense of law and order, was in a vulnerable spot for the first time since arriving in Deadwood. In the past few days he had already been humiliated by the public death of his feared chief henchman in a street fight (the killer was Dan Dority, boss strongman for Hearst's main business rival, Al Swearengen) and by his subsequent arrest by Bullock for cursing and threatening the sheriff. Fearing Hearst's wrath, the town's most influential citizens then gathered to discuss a pre-emptive strike against any gunmen he might hire; but instead of using force, they decided to publish Bullock's heartfelt condolence in the Deadwood Pioneer, in order to "bear witness" to the man's death and bring the camp together against Hearst and his minions.

As the storm winds blew, the newspaper's publisher, A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) and his constant companion and maybe-protégé, the telegraph operator Blazanov (Pasha D. Lynchnikoff), went from storefront to storefront, delivering the paper. It was a Robert Altman-style narrative hand-off device, moving us from location to location and character to character while building dread of Hearst's response. A succession of simple but meticulous shots by director Ed Bianchi—the show's most elegant storyteller-- invested this elemental display with Old Testament coldness. (The wide shot of Blazanov and Merrick entering the Grand Central Hotel in the background, while two out-of-focus pots swung and clanked in the foreground, was pure John Ford.) After 52 minutes worth of anxious anticipation, the human storm finally arrived, heralded by hoofbeats of Hearst's hired guns riding into town and assembling beneath Hearst's balcony.

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TAGS: Austin Nichols, brian cox, Cleo King, david milch, deadwood, franklin ajaye, Gale Harold, Gerald McRaney, ian mcshane, jeffrey jones, Kim Dickens, king lear, pasha d. lynchnikoff, powers boothe, queer as folk, richard grant, robin weigert, sean bridges, timothy olyphant


Miami Vice

Michael Mann's stylish exercises in existentialist dick-swagger have always been off-putting to me, almost hysterical, but Miami Vice, no joke, is one of the best Hollywood films of the year. This movie materializes and soars out of a splendiferous, almost sci-fi ether (almost every image is as intense as the great waterfall sequence from The Last of the Mohicans), with none of Heat's overblown macho posturing, Ali's bogus high-mindedness, or Collateral's muggy view of the world. Mann treats Miami like some dead thing, flipping it over so he won't have to look at its tacky-pastel surface—essentially the only side of the city people who've never been there are familiar with. The truth is that the muggy, perpetually-nighttime Miami of the film is one that is authentically and grippingly envisioned, so deeply in fact that criticism of the film's allegedly blank slate is almost insulting. Rex Reed, who never met a film with avant-garde proclivities he didn't hate (during the final showdown between the cops and druggies, the barrage of bullets comes to resemble a nervous solar system of exploding stars and spinning flying saucers), has faulted Miami Vice for having no plot and for toasting seemingly indestructible characters that don't exist in the real world, while others have griped about the questionable glances that Sonny (Colin Farrell) and Isabella (Gong Li) exchange. This all feels like a willful misreading of this subtextually loaded work: Every time Mann lingers on an actor's intense gaze, he is considering the secret language the film's world-traveling undercover agents use to scan their environment, and the pain and pleasure their silent tongue rouses. The shot of Farrell and Gong coasting to Cuba on Sonny's boat (called Mojo, because he likes mojitos) is one of the most ecstatic images of the year, not just because the boat appears to coast on air toward an almost-round horizon, with Moby's "Anthem" playing on the soundtrack, but also because it serves as a corrective to all those films that have literally (Michael Bay's evil Bad Boys II) and figuratively (Sally Potter's Yes) walked all over Cuba's political nightmare. Not only does Mann understand the variety of races that live in Cuba, but he also understands the country's haunted distance and arrested development, using it, pace Sean Burns over on Matt Zoller Seitz's blog, as a parallel to Sunny and Isabella's relationship. The film isn't better than Scarface, but its style is like a vice, almost sinfully deep.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: ali, bad boys ii, colin farrell, gong lee, heat, miami vice, michael mann, moby, the last of the mohicans, yes


The Last of the Mohicans

Spurred by this weekend's lively and often contentious discussion of Miami Vice director Michael Mann—macho poet or flashy fraud?—I offer the following piece on The Last of the Mohicans, originally published in the 2005 National Society of Film Critics anthology The X List, edited by Jami Bernard. (Caution: nothing but spoilers ahead.) For a concise, thoughtful look at Mann's filmography through 2002, see Anna Dzenis' Senses of Cinema article. Odienator's review of the movie version of Miami Vice is here. My Star-Ledger article on the original NBC series is here.

A romantic drama set during the French and Indian War, Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans is a primal epic of survival and the overpowering urge to reproduce. Reworking the same-named 1936 movie, Mann and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe transform their literary source, James Fenimore Cooper's chaste frontier potboiler, into a passionate tale of tough, simple men fighting and dying for land and women. In the movie's political/historical background, Native tribes, white settlers and British and French military forces compete to control the mountains and forests, which they hope will be overrun someday by their descendants. Mohicans shows that both an individual's goal to mate and pass on genes and a civilization's desire to possess and transform the land issue from the same biological urge. As articulated in the original 1992 version, and deepened in Mann's 2002 director's cut, the major characters are driven by the need to control, protect or perpetuate their bloodlines.

The film's central triangle sees Nathaniel "Hawkeye" Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), the adopted white son of Mohawk warrior Chingachgook (Russell Means), competing with British Col. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) to defend and possess Cora Munro (Madeline Stowe), Duncan's presumptive fiancée and the daughter of a British colonel. A secondary triangle echoes the first: Nathaniel's adoptive brother, Uncas (Eric Schweig) pairs off with Cora's sister Alice (Jodhi May), then loses her to Magua (Wes Studi), a Huron warrior whose wife and child died in an attack ordered by the Munro sisters' father, Col. Edmund Munro (Maurice Roeves).

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TAGS: daniel day-lewis, eric schweig, madeline stowe, maurice roeves, michael mann, russell means, steven waddington, terry kinney, the last of the mohicans, tracey ellis, wes studi


The Divas Are Coming: Album Cover Edition

Christina Aguilera, Back To Basics: The cover of Christina's upcoming double-album speaks to me. It says, "Hi. I'm Christina Aguilera. You may remember me from such hits as 'Genie In A Bottle,' 'Dirrty,' 'Fighter,' and 'Grind That Ass (Up Against My Crotchless Panties While I Talk Dirrty To You With My Faux-Ghetto Accent),' but I'm cleaning up my image and getting back to basics." It also says, "Yes, I'm going to dress up like a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hollywood pin-up while evoking the great African-American songstresses of the past. Am I being forced to adhere to a racist standard of beauty or just being a coy contradiction?" As for those "high fidelity recording" graphics on the cover, at least her image-making is thorough.

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TAGS: beyoncé, cassie, christina aguilera, janet jackson, jessica simpson, justin timberlake, paris hilton


Miami Vice

The TV show Miami Vice is a relic of the 1980's, a weekly descent on a fancy speedboat into a pastel-colored Heart of Darkness full of sex, drugs and, worst of all, macho posturing. Filmmaker Michael Mann and series creator Anthony Yerkovich took NBC boss Brandon Tartikoff's description of "MTV Cops" and built a show around it; the title has become synonymous with Reagan-era excess. Mann's theatrical visuals were edited for maximum adrenaline; entire set-pieces played out as short films cut in sync to the songs of the era; the sense of stylistic overload was leavened only by fleeting references to current events.

When Vice became the latest in a line of TV shows scheduled for movie upgrades, it came attached to the show's master stylist. Back in the day, Mann's sole purpose was to bring an 80's movie into your home every week. Now, freed from the content restrictions of NBC censors, I expected to see what Vice might have looked like if HBO were doing TV series back then. Either Mann was going to give us a jolt of 80's nostalgia, reminding us why the show was so terrible yet compulsively watchable, or he was going to play it straight, upping the angst quotient and macho bullshit, muting the color scheme, and reminding us why you can't make a ho into a housewife.

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TAGS: ali, anthony yerkovich, colin farrell, dion beebe, edward james olmos, Gong Li, jamie foxx, jay-z, john ortiz, Luis Tosar, manhunter, miami vice, michael mann, naomie harris, the insider, the proposition


Vice Precedent

Miami Vice

A version of this article appeared in The Star-Ledger Dec. 9, 2005.

"You've got to know the rules before you can break 'em. Otherwise, it's no fun." So says detective Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson), who shot, punched and caroused his way across South Florida alongside partner Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), scowling boss Lt. Castillo (Edward James Olmos) and the rest of the Miami Vice squad. That wisecrack might have been a bumper sticker on Crockett's Ferrari Spyder, or it could have been an inspirational quote emblazoned on the door of the Miami Vice production offices—the birthplace of a revolt against TV conventions, a stylistic revolution whose aftershocks are still being felt.

When I use the phrase "stylistic revolt" in describing Vice, I'm not talking about clothes and grooming (although Johnson's stubble, sockless Topsiders and T-shirt-and-sport coat combos will always be visual shorthand for Reagan -era fashion). I'm talking about the show's style, which was not televisual, but brazenly, even affectedly, cinematic. Owing more to 1940s film noir and 1960s European art cinema than to any TV dramas being made at the time, the show superimposed ripped-from-the-headlines details about prostitution, drug smuggling, arms dealing and covert war onto a pastel-noir dreamscape, and gave American TV its first existential drama. Even after the innovations of its NBC predecessor Hill Street Blues, which brought '70s movie grit to primetime, most hourlong '80s dramas still felt stodgy, even primitive. By and large, dramatic TV storytelling still consisted of people walking into brightly lit rooms, hitting their marks and then talking, talking, talking in close-up. Vice peeled out in the opposite direction.

"Vice" was born when Brandon Tartikoff , NBC's entertainment president in the early '80s, scribbled "MTV cops" on a cocktail napkin and approached Anthony Yerkovich , then a "Hill Street" producer, about making a series out of it. The phrase reads like a glib marketing label, and at the time, it probably was. But series creator Yerkovich and executive producer Michael Mann (whose movie version of Vice just opened) took it further than anyone could have imagined. The result was a visually musical series, a place where actors and filmmakers could play around like musicians, noodling and jamming.

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TAGS: abel ferrara, Don Johnson, edward james olmos, georg stanford brown, miami vice, michael mann, paul michael glaser, philip michael thomas, Thomas Carter


Summer Singles

Summer Singles

With so many new big-name singles dropping this summer, I thought it was time to christen a new blog series devoted to capsule reviews. It won't be limited to singles and videos though; as Slant's music section continues to grow and reviews are delegated to different writers, I don't always have the opportunity to comment about full-length releases, so I may post short reviews of current albums as well as older, recently discovered ones from time to time. For now, though, here are a few summer singles that are creating buzz:

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TAGS: a public affair, cassie, fergie, jessica simpson, justin timberlake, me and u, sexyback, single review, the killers, when you were young


Deadwood

"No one gets out alive, Doc."

That's Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) talking to the tenderhearted, terminally ill Doc Coch ran (Brad Dourif) in Sunday's Deadwood. Swearengen's terse statement didn't just reveal the empathy that has become his watchword; it was the key that unlocked this episode's unexpected sweetness and wrenching power.

Death has always hovered over Deadwood; like many hard-edged TV dramas, it's set in a savage universe that kills characters without warning. But Deadwood separates itself from nearly all other such series—with the possible exception of ABC's "Lost"—by portraying death (and its kissing cousin, near-death experience) not just as random individual tragedies, but as communal events that have the power to change the course of human events.

On this series, unlike many others, no deceased character is ever forgotten; we are frequently and pointedly reminded of their passing, sometimes when we least expect it. Some invocations are straightforward—Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) visiting the grave of Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), for instance, and talking to him as if he were standing right there. Others are more subtle: Seth and Martha Bullock (Timothy Swearengen and Anna Gunn) walking the adopted daughter of Seth's mistress, Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker), to school, a ritual they would have done with their own son if he hadn't been trampled by a runaway horse.

The show's sensitivity to pain and loss is so acute that it even extends beyond the series' roster of lead and supporting characters, embracing people you never even knew when they were alive. At the end of the fourth episode of season one, the vigilante pursuit of Wild Bill's killer was interrupted by the arrival of a horseman who rode into town bearing the severed head of a Native American—a bit of terrorist street theater, designed to divert Deadwood's citizens from their domestic anxieties and unite them against a (manufactured, it turned out) external threat.

But rather than discard the head after it had served its purpose, Swearengen ended up stor ing it in a box in his office. From time to time—often when he needs to think out loud and can't endure conversing with characters who likely aren't as smart as he is—Swearengen will haul out the box and address it like Yo rick's skull. Grotesque as this description may sound, Swea rengen's conversations with the head illustrate the show's empa thy; the gruff Western gangster, who in Season One electrified throngs of hoopleheads with speeches about "dirt-worship ping heathens," tenderly addresses the box as "Chief" and has, over time, gifted it with the personality of a wise warrior—Swearengen's equal and perhaps even his shaman.

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TAGS: abc, Anna Gunn, bob dylan, brad dourif, Gerald McRaney, geri jewell, hbo, ian mcshane, jeffrey jones, Jim Beaver, keith carradine, Kim Dickens, lost, molly parker, Omar Gooding, pasha d. lynchnikoff, powers boothe, robin weigert, shelter from the storm, the star-ledger, the wire, timothy swearengen, Zach Grenier


The Bad News Bears

"All baseball pictures are about redemption of some sort" - Odienator

During these hot days of summer, a man will look for relief in baseball and beer, and no movie delivers baseball and beer better than The Bad News Bears. That's the real beer of director Michael Ritchie's 1976 original I'm talking about, not the nonalcoholic equivalent served up in last year's remake. Bears is one of the finest American films of the 70s, and watching the remake only adds to my appreciation of its glory. Richard Linklater's version follows the first one closely, yet still manages to go wrong at every turn—it even muffs some baseball fundamentals, like how to field a grounder down on one knee. The original never commits such errors. It is funny, tight and triumphant, and it clocks in at a brisk 102 minutes. Here then are nine reasons—enough to field a team—that make The Bad News Bears endlessly watchable 30 years later. Play ball:

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TAGS: bill lancaster, jackie earle haley, jerry fielding, michael ritchie, tatum o'neal, the bad news bears, Vic Morrow, walter mattahu


Brian's Song

Society says that real men don't eat quiche, and they don't cry. Today's 5 for the Day takes issue with the latter, offering up five movies that are guaranteed to put a lump in the throats of my fellow Y chromosome owners. For the sake of "society," we can christen this piece "Five Movies It's OK for Guys To Cry At " or "Kleenex: It Isn't Just for Porn." So read 'em and weep, and if you're a real man, you'll chime in with your own choices.(Peer pressure...it's fantastic!)?

1. Brian's Song. (1971) "Ernest Hemingway once said 'Every true story ends in death.' Well, this is a true story." So begins perhaps the greatest love story between two straight men ever committed to celluloid. Brian's Song is a 1971 TV movie starring Billy Dee Williams and James Caan, both one year removed from the movies that would make them legends (Lady Sings the Blues and The Godfather, respectively). Billy Dee plays Gale Sayers and Caan plays the title character , Brian Piccolo. Caan has never been looser or more charming, and you'd be hard pressed to find him generating more chemistry than he has with Williams. It's the 60's and, despite their different races and the fact they're competing for the same position on the Chicago Bears, Brian and Gale become close friends. When Sayers is injured, Brian and his wife are there for him, helping him rehabilitate his wrecked knee. Sayers and his wife are able to return the favor when Brian falls ill. Since this is a true story, I can reveal that Brian is diagnosed with malignant cancer and dies. This is no disease-movie-of-the-week, though; it's a devastating and moving 74-minute celebration of a life cut short, superbly written, directed, acted and scored (by Michel Legrand). I dare you to watch Sayers' award acceptance scene, or the leading actors' final scene together, and not be moved. Just thinking about it hits me like a 2 x 4 to the tear ducts.

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TAGS: 5 for the day, Billy Dee Williams, brian's song, Chuck Connors, Dorothy McGuire, fess parker, field of dreams, gary cooper, james caan, kevin costner, old yeller, richard dreyfuss, stand by me, the pride of the yankees, tommy kirk







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