Friday Editor’s Pick: “Miami Blues” (1990)

by on May 27, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing at 7:45 at 92Y Tribeca [Program & Tix]
 
The movie that Dan Sallitt ranked the second-best film of 1990 will be playing tonight at 92Y, presented by Cashiers du Cinemart Founding Editor Mike White who is currently touring the country with an anthology of that zine’s essays, Impossibly Funky.
 
Alt Screen contributor Cullen Gallagher has an interview with White in the L Magazine:

Back in the days before the Tomato Meter reduced movie reviews to mere percentages, Cashiers du Cinemart was giving new life to film criticism with its DIY spirit and edgy views. What began in 1994 as a cut-and-paste Xerox zine is now assembled into a handsome anthology: Impossibly Funky: A Cashiers du Cinemart Collection, edited by founder Mike White. Criss-crossing between cult, mainstream, indie, and arthouse cinemas, no movie was safe from CdC, no filmmaker too sacred to be spared from the critical scalpel or the sarcastic lip. The critics at had attitude, style, and incendiary opinions. They were as likely as to provoke fanboys as to gain loyal followers, evinced by White’s two video essays on Tarantino, “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?” (1994) and “You’re Still Not Fooling Anybody” (1997), two prescient examples of the mixed-media critical form that has been gaining momentum in recent years. In short, CdC’s opinions were fun as hell to read and continue to shed light on under-recognized areas of film culture.

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum on Miami Blues for The Chicago Reader:

Miami Blues has been getting a lot of favorable reviews, although many reviewers have been qualifying their praise, insisting there’s nothing “profound” about the movie (words like “lightweight,” “disposable,” and “nonserious” have been cropping up with some regularity). Although I wouldn’t entirely dispute this — commercial movies haven’t been exactly rich in profundity lately — I still think it’s worth pondering why so many reviewers are going out of their way to make this point, especially when they don’t generally bother to make the same point about more routine crime pictures…[Certainly] Armitage’s emphasis on gore in a couple of the action sequences conspire[s] to make the taste of [this] former Roger Corman employee somewhat disreputable in an upscale art-house context, but I can’t see what any of this has to do with seriousness or the lack of it.
 
Part of what makes Miami Blues so good is…the performances of the three leads; each one is perfectly measured and proportioned in relation to the film’s overall design, never sticking out or detracting from the others. [Alec] Baldwin has been getting most of the media attention, but [Fred] Ward and [Jennifer Jason] Leigh are every bit as fine. The whole movie is framed by the effective use of a pop single, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” over the opening and closing credits, and the balance of elements between these two points lives up to the bookend symmetry.
 
One should also take note of this movie’s acute sense of place — which is every bit as confident as Lumet’s feeling for New York, and which even extends to the recounting of a couple of southern Florida recipes. (I suspect that Willeford’s novel has a lot to do with this, although the fact that Demme grew up in Miami undoubtedly helps.) The choice use of locations — shot by Tak Fujimoto with a nice feeling for light and ambience — gives some of the places that are used as much flavor as the characters. I’ve never been to Miami, but I strongly suspect that Miami Blues has more to tell me about that city than Driving Miss Daisy has to say — to me or anybody else — about Atlanta.

 

Peter Rainer for the L. A. Times:

At its best, Miami Blues is a deliriously pulpy joyride. George Armitage, the 47-year-old writer-director, is a veteran of the Roger Corman Z-movie mill. He has the confidence of an action filmmaker whose aptitude for the choreography of violence is on par with a good movie musical director’s flair for the choreography of romance. They share a similar feeling for movement and flourish.
 
What makes Miami Blues unsettling, in spite of itself, is the sense that the garish ultra-violence we’re witnessing is just a species of high jinks. Armitage, adapting Charles Willeford’s smart, nasty 1984 novel, doesn’t provide the kind of moral dimension that might make Junior’s sprees cumulatively frightening. The film careens along as a blithely funky shoot-’em-up. It might have been made by a sociopathic Chuck Jones.

 

Janet Maslin for the New York Times:

Miami Blues is best appreciated for the performances of its stars and for the kinds of funny, scene-stealing peripheral touches that keep it lively even when it’s less than fully convincing. Mr. Baldwin, whose Junior sports a tiger tattoo and favors black satin shorts for the story’s at-home scenes, affects a raspy growl and does his best to seem dangerous; at times he truly succeeds. The trouble with casting an actor with this much matinee-idol potential in a role like this, though, is that the audience expects to like Junior better than it ever will. Miss Leigh, on the other hand, steals every scene with Susie’s impossible ingenuousness, and radiates a sweet hopefulness that in a story like this is certain to be dashed.
 
Mr. Ward, as Hoke, seems a lot more potentially scary than Junior does, and mixes the comical, foxy and sleazy sides to Hoke’s character in a riveting way. Equally good are Charles Napier, as the detective partner who consoles Hoke when Junior steals his badge and starts impersonating an officer (”Maybe you should wait and let him solve a couple more from your caseload, huh?”), Obba Babatunde as the bogus blind man who is Hoke’s favorite informer, and Nora Dunn as the coolly elegant policewoman who might well become the woman in Hoke’s private life, if he ever has one.
 
Though Mr. Armitage’s direction is more workmanlike than wild, it incorporates its share of inspired minor touches. Among these are the restaurant featuring water ballet entertainment, the way that Susie struggles her way through a painful moment while reciting a favorite recipe, the odd indications that Junior is an ex-con (he has never tasted yogurt), and the particularly evocative glimpses of the title city. A sunset shot of cruise ships juxtaposed with prowling dogs offers the film’s impression of Miami in a nutshell.

 
And last but by no means least, here’s Mike White himself on Charles Willeford, author of the eponymous novel on which Miami Blues is based.

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