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collateral poster

director: Michael Mann     (2004)

Max (Jamie Foxx – taxi driver); Vincent (Tom Cruise – hitman)

          Right in the beginning of Collateral, there is a long shot that director Michael Mann holds with the camera still and the taxicab pulling out of the cab station for the nightshift.  It is late afternoon and Max (Jimmie Foxx), having just cleaned up the cab and prepared for his night of work, rides off into the. . . well, not quite the sunset, but close.  A wall.  There is a large, building-sized mural on the wall opposing the cabs, and the shot holds there long enough for us to get a good look at it.  It is a western scene – a cowboy riding on a white horse chasing down this wild eyed and raging black bull.  There are mountains, rugged and rocky, in the distance and everything else is just the open plains of the wild west.  There is a clear parallel that Mann draws on throughout this film, weaving his tale of city suspense and action in with the genre of the wild west, the cowboys riding into town and shootin’ it up, taking care of their own business regardless of the law and gunning down their enemies.  The image repeats – Vincent’s (Cruise) boss is located in a cowboy bar, the hats and western getups crowding around the club; the coyotes jogging across the empty streets like it were the far off, deserted planes.  Vincent has that cowboy make up, the carefree killings, the swinging into town to do his job; the hired gunman.  He takes it with a modern feel; the big shoot out is in an LA club, the modern day saloon, he draws his gun with the quick draw of a cowboy but holds it cupped in two hands like the modern cop. 

collateral1 mural

          The point though I think is much deeper rooted into the film.  Mann creates this very desolate city.  It is the sparse, sprawling LA – but they are downtown and the streets are empty.  There is an overwhelming sense of these isolated buildings, wide, blank streets, a ghost town of sorts.  There are people milling about, crowded into bars and clubs or walking the streets, but their placement leaves the city feeling empty, sparsely populated.  All of this is juxtaposed against the steady, unbroken flow of the freeway – the lights repeatedly shown flowing in the background, continuous, always present but passing by, flowing unnoticed.  It adds to the sense of the empty buildings, the downtown streets where no is out.

          Even more so, as the film goes along, the action taking place, the suspense, the Hollywood aspects, there is this dark underlining to the night.  It is difficult to pin down, but it is there, and as the film goes on, the darkness of this rises up, eventually dominating the final scenes.  One of Mann’s themes that he seems to return to in many of his films is the man against the system; courage and bravery defined as the actions of a lone man working against a much larger force.  The Insider – family man, not a hero in any other sense, takes on the money and power of the tobacco company; but his fight is against the propaganda, the idea, the dominance of power and corporate rule in this country, and it is that that Mann sees as making him a hero.  Ali – a film that deals only passingly with his boxing and focuses much more on the man; the civil rights example, the man who carried a country ideal on his shoulders by answering to no one but himself, by taking on the government and the draft and, far weightier, the racism and oppression that it issues and distributes in its foundation.

collateral2          Here, in Collateral, it isn’t as easy to see immediately.  For a while, it seems like the battles being fought are simply Max verses Vincent.  But there is this underlying element that slowly rises.  Vincent spills out dark philosophy on the meaninglessness of lives, on the alienated, the indifferent.  It borders on nihilism.  But the reason the film works and is tense and engaging is because his talk is almost convincing at first.  He draws you in.  He talks about the modern world where no one knows one another, where the city is full of people who don’t see those around them, do nothing for them, care nothing for them.  He mentions Rwawanda – ‘10,000 people killed before sun up; people haven’t been killed that fast since Nagasaki, Hiroshima; did you do anything about it?  Did you sign up for Amnesty International?  Did you even bat an eyelash?  I kill one fat slob – a bad man – and you have a hissy fit.’  Vincent doesn’t let up – he is always threatening, then spouting out a discourse on how no one cares about these people, who will even notice?  And all the while, the streaming traffic goes on in the background, the highway full of people driving by, not noticing, the teeming masses ever-flowing.

          This is the battle – it is against the tide of the masses, against the bleakness of life, against the alienation of modern cities and modern lives, against the desolate downtown buildings, the tides that can plow you over – it is against the void, the philosophy and indifference of nothing.  Max almost goes under.  He drives, listens, drives on.  He is forced to become involved in it, to gain the courage to lie and show power in the face of power.  He sees the coyotes running across the empty road – scavengers, the wild animal nature of man – the song that starts playing is singing about how he is reading his thoughts, that, in essence, Vincent is seeing the gapping void opening up in Max.  And he starts to see the futility of his own life; its lack of direction and aimlessness.  But when he is letting himself be taken in by the police officer, at the point of giving in, he sees that the lawyer woman that he met in the beginning of the film is Vincent’s next victim and he is awoken because now it is suddenly made personal.  And he fights for it, becoming Mann’s hero against that which is so much larger than himself by seeing the personal, the care and will to life that is missing in Vincent’s ideology – that thing that can separate us from the animal.  And the film ends with Max and the girl exiting to the street as dawn is coming up – the road rushing by, the masses of people unnoticing – but they are on street level.

          This fits in well with the western theme.  Men fighting it out in a lawless land (the law is always pushed away with ease here – the cops are easily beaten, ignored; the lawyer tries calling 911 but the phone lines are cut, Vincent guns down the good cop with ease, Max beats down and handcuffs the arresting cop after his crash – this has to be solved alone).  The west; the desolate plains, man struggling for purpose and reason in a lawless land, the vast plains and animal world, the struggle. . . .  The wild west can be felt just beneath the city, as he rides his cab around.


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soloist poster

Director: Joe Wright         (2009)

Steve Lopez – LA columnist; Nathaniel Ayers – cellist

            The film opens on the pedaling of a bicycle, the camera held steady with the axel so only the feet and the pedals go round and round – and although the rider and the bike move forward, we just see this cycle, this closed loop, a revolving in circles. This story is not going places – or, at least, parts are not – and immediately you get the sense that the film will not resolve itself in some foolish ‘all is wonderful’ ending and solution. We see Steve Lopez, columnist for the LA Times, riding the hard way, up a hill and through a group of cyclists going the other way. This is a man going his own way, against the tide, and it’s clear that the cellist yet to come is not the only soloist here. In minutes, we see Lopez fall from his bike and smash his face. Over the next 2 hours, there is a wonderful parallel metaphor set up as we watch Lopez’s wounds, so hideous at first, heal in every scene, while cellist Nathaniel Ayers, with no exterior damage, remains unhealed, and unchanged. It is a nice image that gets the point across – not all problems have solutions. And as the screen litters itself with images of disasters and struggle, with wars and bleak news coverage, this contrast of the healable and unhealable problems of the world solidifies.           

            Lopez (and this film is as much his story as it is the story he is writing) is shown, throughout the film, alone, out of place and set apart. There are scenes of him in his house, at night looking at the city skyline, in his car, always alone – late in the film, he is at a bar, the only patron there, and when another customer comes in, it is only to make him even more apart, his distant connection to the bartender now gone too. He is as much as Ayers a soloist – distant in social situations, preferring to be working, to be off trying to solve this ‘case’. In the process, of course, he develops a friendship, but in many ways, it is the little things around this that make the film interesting.

            Another theme weaves itself in nicely as the film moves on. There are a number of overhead aerial shots, these bird-eye’s views of highway overpasses and houses that carry a strong sense of loss. They contrast well with Ayers set in his tunnel, out on his own and separate, with Lopez looming, building his story, trying to make connections to how someone ‘smart, kind and talented’ could end up here, so cast out of the system. The aerial scenes become this sense of all the individuals among the houses and the cars, along the streets, and all the stories each have. It also has a built-in ‘God’s-eye’ view. Ayers plays and the music transports – the camera takes flight above the street, out of the everyday and soars above. For part of the film, it seems to be linking this a bit with the spiritual, the transcendent, even the heavenly. But thankfully, the film turns away from the Godly and builds a much stronger idea. There is no God on the streets, not these streets, not anymore, if ever there was. These streets, a city, a world even, of wanderers, of those unconnected and alone, of soloists. The aerial shots, the more they are shown, feel more and more disconnected. The atheist cleaning his median of highway has little to say, his group unable to meet because they have nothing to discuss – the people are spread about, not united under one idea but left scattered to search for one. The professional cello teacher, the only religious figure in the film, is absurd; rich and set off from the city as if belief can only be had by those wealthy enough to afford it; and it makes him look clueless and antiquated, out of touch as if a different species. 

            The purity and power of music is referred to in the film as ‘grace’, but it is not in a religious sense. Ayers bristles with anger and violence when the mention and absurdity of God or praying is brought up – to him, music is prayer and Lopez his god – and the director, Wright, takes this and makes his point with it: we are alone, there is no one and nothing looming above to save us; we can create a beauty that transcends the poverty and suffering of life and we can save and deliver each other, and ourselves, through this, as well as through kindness, friendship and time. That Lopez’ writing is the prime mover of the events and progress of the story is further support to the idea – creativity is what we have that makes us more than just raccoons digging in the dirt. The camera works to reinforce this; there is a shot of the cello case in the mail cart pushed through the rows of the office and it is this delivery, this kindness and gift that moves the story forward. The scene is filmed as if it were us pushing the gift, us giving the gift. In the end, the reality of life is not cheapened or ridiculed but honored by the magnitude and depth of the issues. Ayers has problems too deep to solve, wounds too permanent to heal, too inexplicable to resolve; but, like Lopez, like all of us, he perseveres, he pushes forward, unresolved but inching forward, the circle just going round and round.


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