Band of the Hand

July 26, 2011

For a few years, Michael Mann was one of the more interesting directors, with his TV film The Jericho Mile, the high-tech James Caan movie Thief, and the exceedingly weird sci-fi World War II picture, The Keep. Mann looked like one of those original talents who have to scratch and claw for every idiosyncratic project.

Then he stumbled onto a television show about some “MTV cops,” titled “Miami Vice.” As executive producer, he’s the chief creative force on that very successful show. Now, having garnered some clout, he’s flexing his muscles.

The movie that puts him back in the director’s chair, Red Dragon, will be released later this year. First out is another Miami production on which Mann serves as executive producer, Band of the Hand; the directing chores are handled by a “Vice” collaborator, Paul Michael Glaser.

Glaser’s visual style follows the “Vice” look pretty closely (aided by the increasingly active Risky Business cinematographer, Reynaldo Villalobos); the streets and alleys of Miami are dotted with pink and turquoise, the nights shine with neon, the bad guys glisten with evil.

But the most effective scenes in the film take place in the Everglades, where, in the opening minutes, a racially balanced quintet of violent and seemingly incorrigible juvenile convicts is unloaded. They haven’t been told why, they don’t know where they are, and they don’t want to be there.

A mysterious figure appears: a tough commander (Stephen Lang) who barks orders to them but doesn’t spell out why they’re in the Everglades. He does tell them that they’ll have to learn to survive with the elements—and with each other—or he’ll let them die out there.

Lang takes them through a rough regimen of survival skills, in sometimes compelling sequences. It turns out he’s training them as part of a rehabilitation service. When they return to Miami, he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city.

Unfortunately, once they get back to town, the film becomes as interesting as a subpar episode of “Miami Vice,” but without the black Ferraris. Glaser has trouble with the film’s structure; it goes on for about a half hour after you expect it to end.

And for all of Glaser’s experience on the “Vice” squad, he makes a basic mistake: Too much of Band of the Hand takes place in dull daylight, when the flashy nighttime scenes are what make the TV vision of Miami tick.

The five hooligans are not bad, and Lang, who was superb as Happy in the Dustin Hoffman Death of a Salesman, is effective as the strong-but-silent leader. And, as usual, James Remar is adept at playing the kind of big-time psychopath he essayed so well in The Cotton Club and 48 HRS.

But the film is never again as engaging as the early Everglades scenes. Its attempt to provide a showy conclusion by blowing everything up at the end feels desperate. And the Bob Dylan title tune, heard a couple of times, actually creates a more vivid picture of the urban inferno than anything in this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1986

Michael Mann would come roaring back in movies, as you know, and “Miami Vice” did a quick quality-swoon after its first season. Larry Fishburne and John Cameron Mitchell are also in Band of the Hand, plus a scad of 80s hits; I take it the movie’s a camp classic now, and clearly I was a little too respectful in this review; ordinarily when I write a sentence like, “he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city,” I can provide some kind of smirky paranthetical.


School Daze

July 25, 2011

For a guy who scored a major independent success with his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee had a devil of a time getting his follow-up feature made. School Daze was canceled during preproduction by Island Pictures, the company that distributed She’s Gotta Have It. Happily, Columbia Pictures immediately picked up the project.

But Lee’s problems were not over. Halfway through filming, he was barred from shooting at the black campuses (including his alma mater, Morehouse) where the film is set. Evidently the school administrators felt that Lee’s comic-dramatic-musical remembrance of his days at a Southern black college was giving a negative image to black education in general. Lee had to scramble to find alternate locations.

Even with the film successfully completed, Lee must now fight the sophomore jinx. There are inevitable expectations when a moviemaker hits it big the first time out; as though to head off those kinds of expectations, Lee has made a very different (and much more ambitious) sort of film.

School Daze touches on a number of complicated issues in tracking the activities of a passel of students over a weekend at mythical Mission College. At the heart of the matter is the split between two classes of students. The light-skinned black students join fraternities and sororities and wear blue contact lenses. The dark-skinned blacks are contemptuous of them, and more defiant in their attitudes.

Out of this ensemble piece come a handful of different stories: the efforts of a pledge, Half-Pint (played by Spike Lee himself) to join the elite Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity, and survive a variety of hazing humiliations; the protests led by Dap (Larry Fishburne) to make the school divest its holding in South Africa; Dap’s touchy relationship with his girlfriend (Kyme), who wants to pledge a sorority.

There are also breaks in the conventional storytelling for songs and dances (much of the music is by Spike’s father, jazzman Bill Lee). Included is a musical set-piece about women’s hairstyles called “Straight and Nappy,” in which the light-skinned students are taunted in song, “Your eyes are blue, but you ain’t white, your hair is straight ’cause you pressed it last night.”

There’s a lot going on in this film, including moments of surrealism such  as the ending, addressed directly to the audience. Enough going on to invite justifiable charges of unevenness; this is recognizably the film of a young sensibility, of an impertinent, free-swinging instigator.

But for a young film, School Daze shows considerable complexity. The characters, despite their physical differences, are not easily divided into the goods and the bads.

Spike Lee has a way to go before he becomes “the black Woody Allen,” as some critics have irrelevantly dubbed him. But School Daze is a gutsy step in the right direction.

First published in the Herald, March 24, 1988

For my money Lee took quite a few steps in wrong directions as the years went by, but there was still a certain fizzy youthfulness to this movie that excused the director’s clumsier tendencies. The suggestion that Spike Lee does not divide his characters “into the goods and bads” comes as some surprise to the present-day me, especially given the films that have come since 1988, and it’s pretty clear which side he favors in this movie, but he does make some effort to cloud the waters. Finally, the sheer brio of the movie’s approach takes the day, to say nothing of the satisfaction of seeing a film about an African-American institutional system made from the inside out, rather than the other way around.