Miracle Mile [1988] – An Outlandish yet Irrefutably Entertaining Thriller

Hollywood’s penchant for staging wide-scale disaster or apocalypse is well known. While the contemporary state-of-the art technologies that showcase annihilation promise pop-corn entertainment, the film-makers forget to add the vital ingredient of disaster cinema: emotional connection. The flattened, stereotypical portrayal of characters are so bad that we begin to pray violent on-screen death for them (and of course all these movies have annoyingly stupid happy ending). But disaster or apocalyptic cult films haven’t always been this worse. American cinema’s fear for The Bomb (at the height of cold war) has provided some of the best apocalyptic standoffs. Films like On the Beach (1959) [despite being an underwhelming novel adaptation], Fail-Safe (1964), Testament (1983) created a subdivision of disaster cinema, projecting Cold War tension and fear of preemptive strike. 

In the same era, Kubrick’s timeless comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964) exposed the fallacies and absurdities of nuclear war. By the early or mid 1980s the Cold War cooled off and nuclear apocalypse threat turned to an archaic subject (Cameron’s Terminator – 1984 – took the theme in different directions replacing urgency and bleak nature of the narrative with fun entertainment). So when Steve De Jarnett’s off-the-wall disaster thriller Miracle Mile released in 1988, it had a very brief theatrical run. Although Mr. Jarnett wrote the script for the film ten years before, it had taken him that much time to stop the studios from stamping on his vision (in 1983 Miracle Mile was in the first position of 10 Best Unproduced Scripts in Hollywood’ list).

Steve De Jarnett who had made two films before Miracle Mile didn’t make another feature film. He directed television episodes in the 1990s, wrote an award-winning fiction and is a visiting professor of Film. The script for Miracle Mile should be studied by aspiring screenwriters who can learn how to maintain an underlying sense of coherence despite diffusing erratic narrative turns and dream logic. Even in 1988, the narrative’s urgency was seen as memory of bygone era. Now the protagonist’s tension looks far-removed and slightly goofy yet the ambiguity and mash-up of genre provides great meaningful entertainment. If you are curious about Miracle Mile after reading its plot in IMDb or Google, it’s better to dive into it before reading detailed reviews (including this one). The fascination in watching this film lies in witnessing how the bizarre scenario unfolds as it gradually descends into a full-scale chaos.

Opening with Tangerine Dream’s ethereal soundtrack, the narrative’s ominous mood is slowly built from the start. The film’s heart is the love story between Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards), a struggling trombonist and Julie (Mare Winnigham), a waitress. The city of Los Angeles itself plays the other important character. Touring Los Angeles’ Natural History Musuem (La Brea Tar Pits), on one boring day Harry meets and captures Julie’s attention by his goofy antics. Fate brings them both to spend the afternoon in the museum. Thirty-year old Harry immediately feels she is the girl of his dreams. 

Later, Julie brings her grandfather Ivan (John Agar) to see Harry play trombone in the jazz band. Harry meets Julie’s grandfather and accidentally meets her grandmother Lucy (Lou Hancock), who hasn’t spoken with her husband for years. Julie agrees to meet Harry later that night at Johnie's Coffee Shop in the Miracle Mile district after she finishes her shift. But fate once again intervenes and this time by stopping Harry from meeting his lover at midnight. When Harry finally wakes up it’s close to 4 a.m. He arrives at Johnnie’s asking Julie’s co-worker for the phone number to apologize. After the unsuccessful phone call, Harry hears the phone ringing in the booth.

He picks it up and a frantic voice at the other end, who thinks he has called his dad, tells Harry that Los Angeles will be Ground Zero in an hour. The frantic voice belongs to a young guy who says he works in a missile silo and conveys certain significant codes. The guy never gets a chance to dial his dad as Harry hears him getting shot by the superiors. Then a burly voice picks up the phone and says, “forget everything you’ve heard and go back to sleep”. Harry is shocked since it seems too real to be a prank. Anyway, he feels the need to alert Julie. And to do that he has to get her address from the waitress inside. On this process, he tells what he just heard to the small crowd inside the shop. Some are panicked and some laugh it out. But the curious gaze of one woman named Landa (Denise Crosby), cloaked in formal business attire and carrying the brick-sized 1980s mobile phone, seems to confirm Harry’s fear. She immediately calls up some government sources and cooks up a air-borne evacuation plan. And, Harry races up through the limited time period to save Julie. But fate and chaos impedes his path.  

Jarnett’s frenzied race against time shares some tonal similarities with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). The dreamy, unforeseen textures in the work bring to mind the efficient Joe Dante movies. But Miracle Mile is one of the very few American movies to approach impending disaster on such an intimate level. On the surface, the script has enough theatricality to make up a typical Hollywood film. Nevertheless, despite the unbelievable coincidences and turns of fate, the film works mainly due to its firm emotional core. Moreover, Jarnett never shies away from diving into the unsettling chaotic nature of the scenario. 

The slow-burning energy in the first thirty minutes or so was engaging, but it pretty much stays in the Hollywood territory. The shift happens with the terror-tinged gas station sequence. Up until the point, it looks like a harmless entertainment where the narrative ends with the lovers locking their lips in a peaceful habitat. Alas, the violence at the ‘gas station’ scene changes the equation to sends us on an unanticipated nightmarish path. The performances in key scenes aren’t up to the mark although Jarnett’s visual sucker punches makes up for those flaws.

Mr. Jarnett could have tightened up the script especially towards the end. Yet Miracle Mile would have been only a laughably silly movie if Jarnett didn’t take up the directorial duties. The tonally erratic and weird script would have been definitely chopped up by another director (Jarnett perfectly turns the script’s playfulness into the visuals) . As I mentioned earlier, there’s coherence in terms of emotions felt which instilled within me a sort of readiness to take in the bumpy narrative turns. The full-fledged unrest in the LA streets during early hours of sunrise was the film’s most astoundingly staged sequence. 

The hazy red-tinged color palette sets up the mood for upcoming catastrophe. Furthermore, in one moment at this final stretch, Jarnett showcases the chaos at different plane of actions – from top of the cars, street level and ground or sewer level – to impeccably spread the discomfort (the scene is done on a very limited budget but more effective than many modern CGI works). The resolution to Harry and Julie’s romantic getaway is something one wouldn’t expect from a Hollywood product. The unique and chilling final shot will definitely stay with us for some time.

Overall, Miracle Mile (88 minutes) is a powerful, darkly humorous and an unbelievably odd nuclear-disaster movie. 



Man Facing Southeast [1986] – An 'Unfeeling' Outcast Investigates Humanity

During the Cold War, aliens in cinema reflected deep fear over the invasion of a ideology different than capitalism. The alien ‘other’ is shown to be free from inhibitions and emotionless so as to succeed in the mission to cleanse earth of human stain. The aliens became friendlier with Spielberg’s Sci-fi adventures. The visit of cinematic aliens became less frequent and they also appeared in non-threatening forms. These gentler aliens were much more than devices for entertainment. Their on-screen study of humans addressed our species’ corruption, stupidity, and demonstrated the human dread over technology and ever-changing reality. If the alien in Robert Wise’ The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) brought a very didactic message to human race, the later era cinematic aliens in John Carpenter’s Starman (1984), Nicolas Roeg’s The Man who Fell to Earth (1976), and John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984) profoundly orchestrated the meditation on human existence in the whole-wide universe.

In the same vein, Argentinian film-maker Eliseo Subiela’s Man Facing Southeast (Hombre Mirando, al Sudeste, 1986) possesses the most ambiguous humanoid alien in cinema. The visitor from the space is named Rantes (Hugo Soto), who propagates altruism: to assuage the suffering of the poor, dispossessed, and mentally challenged. He mysteriously shows up during a bed-check in a Buenos Aires insane asylum and the narrative unfurls from the point of view of head psychiatrist Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros). Unlike the other precisely defined cinematic humanoid aliens, Rantes could simply be afflicted by delusions and has probably sought the asylum to escape from his bruised past. Nevertheless, his enigmatic nature is maintained throughout the narrative, giving enough weight to his otherworldly attributes.

The basic story line of Man Facing Southeast was replicated in the American sci-fi drama K-Pax (2001) starring Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. The Hollywood movie was based on Gene Brewer’s 1995 novel and the stacks of similarities between the novel and Subiela’s script led to the suing of Universal Studios. Mr. Gene Brewer maintains that he knew about the Argentinian film only after writing the novel and that the similarities are purely coincidental. But beyond the basic plot structure, even the philosophical crux of Man Facing Southeast remains the same in K-Pax. So, Brewer’s claim isn’t very believable. Those who are confused about which is the better version can without hesitation go for the Argentinian film. It’s more thought-provoking, less melodramatic, and a visually superior feature than K-Pax.

Dr. Julio Denis is already living in his personal hell when the film starts. A traumatized, mentally-challenged patient pours over his emotional malaise, although Denis drifts apart, submerged in the swamp of his depressed existence. Dr. Denis has lost interest for his profession. He has come to a conclusion that there’s no possibility of cure for the asylum patients. From the asylum, he goes back to the empty apartment, passionately playing the saxophone and passively listening to the voice messages of his longing kids. It seems Denis is recently divorced and mostly ignores answering his children’s calls. He takes them out in the weekend, but he prefers watching the old film stock footage of his happy family than really spending time with them. To put it simply, Denis is a man living in the past consumed by existential boredom. Dr. Denis is awakened from the figurative slumber by the arrival of a mysterious inmate who calls himself Rantes. He claims that he is coming from a different planet and that he doesn’t have any human feelings. Rantes further adds that he is only a hologram projection sent from another planet to study humanity and alleviate their torment.

Denis couldn’t trace Rantes’ alleged past. His finger-prints don’t yield any records. And, to everyone’s surprise, Rantes possess genius abilities. He is a brilliant organist whose divine music soothes the volatile patients. He shows interest in studying pathology, to investigate the stupidity & complexity of human race and exudes greater self-confidence which is absent even among the doctors. Although Rantes rarely betrays his emotions, at one circumstance he touches the forehead of a catatonic patient and the patient responds when Rantes places a jacket around his shoulders. Denis confronts Rantes why he emotionally responded to the guy despite his claims to have no feelings. Rantes responds, “I am merely programmed to respond to stimuli. I’m more rational than you. I respond rationally to stimulus. If someone suffers I console him. If someone needs my help I give it”. While none of the patients are miraculously cured, Rantes’ compassion brings about a change in the blank faces of the inmates. Everyday he stands in a trance for hours in the yard, facing Southeast direction. Rantes says that’s the efficient method to transmit and receive messages from his planet.

Day by day, Denis becomes more fascinated by Rantes (his interest in life is kindled). He declares him insane, but doesn’t conduct painful treatment methods to break the alleged delusion. Gradually, the other professionals in the asylum lose interest in Rantes which allows him to wade outside the campus to meet other people. On one such occasion, Rantes displays his telekinesis powers to feed an impoverished mother and three daughters, forlornly sitting in a diner. Later, a beautiful and equally mysterious woman named Beatriz (Ines Vernengo) who identifies herself as Evangelist visits Rantes, asserting to Dr. Denis that he has helped the slum kids and even delivered babies like a doctor. At an earlier point, Denis teasingly compares Rantes to Christ figure after considering the charisma he displays among the patients. Moreover, Denis compares himself to Pontius Pilate. The ever-deepening friendship between Denis and Rantes, however, doesn’t prevail over this earlier, prophetic comparison.

Eliseo Subiela’s script is different from the usual politically-charged Argentinian films of the era. Yet, fitting political parallels could be found in the narrative. For example, despite Rantes’ claim that he can’t feel, his level of awareness is much higher than the cognizing abilities of experienced psychiatrists. It’s considered as a metaphor for the stupidity and cruelty during Argentina’s brutal military junta (between 1976 and 1983). Rantes’ comment on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (“There are torturers who love Beethoven, who love their children….”) also traces the relationship between the seminal music and Latin American dictatorships. Apart from these little political touches, Man Facing Southeast is largely a universal tale of mankind’s alienation and imbecilic attitude. 

Writer/director Subiela raises deep philosophical questions about the confines of our reality, the boundaries separating rational and irrational behavior (inquires whether mankind’s greatest virtues like compassion originates from rational or irrational thoughts). Most importantly, the film reflects on our rigid societal values, which harshly judges and labels those who are different (as Rantes asks to Denis that if they have the same kind of brain, then why one is called ‘doctor’ and the other ‘insane’). The definition of insanity is particularly confusing in a world that’s led by bunch of power-hungry lunatics, who are elected to office by indifferent herds of population. “If God is in you, you murder God every day” tells Rantes to Denis, the truest expression from the person labelled ‘insane’.

Director Subiela adds fine complex layers to the characters of Denis and Rantes. Initially, Denis aims to break Rantes’ alleged delusion. But the dynamics between them changes once the doctor understands that his patient is much more superior to him. Rantes connects with Denis’ children in a way the father never could. After Beatriz’s arrival and comprehending the unbreakable wise nature of Rantes, Denis feels little envious and becomes complicit in the system’s aim to destroy Rantes. Though Denis can feel emotions unlike Rantes, he is always at a loss to understand other people’s feelings. He is totally baffled by Beatriz’s confession at the end. Like Pontius Pilate (or anyone with authority), he inevitably chooses to dwell in personal hell than search for salvation. Director Subiela cloaks each frames with somber lighting. He opens the film with the shots of empty corridors of mental asylum, focusing on the alienation that’s rampant in the atmosphere. Rantes is introduced with a brilliant close-up shot, indicating his inner radiance. Towards the end, when Denis asks Rantes about an old photography, they both are placed at one corner of the frame, signaling that Rantes’ has become yet another negligible living being of the estranged world.  

Like every other gentler cinematic extra-terrestrials with human features, there’s lot of parallels between Rantes and Jesus Christ. Rantes, like a messianic figure perfectly belonged on earth, yet his home is a different, faraway place. The displays of telekinesis powers and the shots of patients touching his shoulders as Rantes passes by have clear parallels to Christ. When Rantes’ conducts Ode to Joy in the huge arena the patients back in the asylum are also strangely overwhelmed by feelings of euphoria. When he lies flat in the bed after being subjected to painful treatment, the shot resemble Jesus crucifixion (Rantes’ cries out ‘Doctor doctor, why have you forsaken me?’). At the very end, the circular gathering of inmates in the open yard resembles the disciples’ waiting for the resurrection. Furthermore, director Subiela lends weight to the popular notion about second coming of Jesus Christ: that the humanity would once again forsake the messiah as before. In the misguided attempts to pursue wealth and desires, human race will keep on crucifying the odd ones, who speak of equality and compassion.

Man Facing Southeast (105 minutes) is one of the important and deeply thoughtful movies in the benign alien sub-genre. The predictable beats of its narrative are easily overcome by robust performances and the meditative imagery. 

Jar City [2006] – A Restless Land Blighted by Haunted Past

Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason’s crime fiction provides rich insight into the small island nation’s culture and the conflicts plaguing them – from racism, immigration to stark isolation & corporate malfeasance -- in their march towards modernity. Mr. Indridason’s Erlendur detective series have captivated readers all around the world. 9 out of his 11 novels were translated into English (I have read five so far). Detective Erlendur, like other Nordic detective protagonists, is an enigmatic personality with a bruised past and constantly engaged in a battle to conquer his inner demons. He is a solitary, straight-faced, and well-determined individual who pretty much seems to be the embodiment of Iceland itself.

Arnaldur Indridason’s novels always exhibit a lament for the loss of heritage and frets over inhumane, indifferent economic progress. Yet, the crime fictions don’t try to mythologize the past. In fact, the novelist’s tales emphasize that there’s much more to their country than its idyllic or beatific looks the tourist department advertises. In 2006, Arnaldur Indridason’s best-seller Jar City (aka Myrin) was adapted into feature-film by Iceland’s prolific and prominent film-maker Baltasar Kormakur (101 Reykjavik, Everest).

Written in 2000, and translated to English in 2004, the novel Jar City won Glass Key Award for Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Indridason later won Gold Dagger, Britain’s top crime fiction award, for Silence of the Grave. Director Kormakur’s irredeemably stark visual style is often compared with Norwegian film-maker Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s top-class procedural Insomnia (1997). He was internationally renowned for the Icelandic slacker film 101 Reykjavik (his directorial debut). After the wonderful dramedy The Sea (2002), he went on to direct strictly mediocre American thriller A Little Trip to Heaven. His directorial sensibilities strengthened once again in Jar City which had a great mood and perfect style to enrich the distressing substance.

The film opens in the dark office of a hospital’s genetic research wing as a fatigued man named Orn (Atli Rafn Sigurdsson) is looking over some papers. Orn’s six year old daughter is dying of incurable genetic disorder disease. Orn has dedicated his life to track down the origin of rare diseases within his country and now he is left with no option to treat the disorder. He sings a lullaby to his little daughter and it is cut to the shots of funeral procession. In the other corner of the city, an elderly man named Holberg is found murdered, his head split by ashtray. ‘It’s typical Icelandic murder: messy and pointless’ says detective Sigurdur Oli (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) to chief detecive Erlendur (Ingvar E Sigurdsson). Erlendur is not a man of style. He just wears a heavy cardigan and sports a dogged look, dutifully following the crumbs of evidence to get at the truth. 

Similar to Jar City: Trapped (TV series) -- Season 1 & Season 2

As Erlendur and his detective team piece together Holberg’s past to understand the motive behind the murder, Erlendur’s wayward, drug-addicted daughter Eva (Agusta Eva Erlendsdottir) crosses the path. She desperately asks the father for some money. Later, when Erlendur invesigates Holberg’s old friend Ellidi (Theodor Juliusson) – Iceland’s notorious maniac – in prison, the man pierces Erlendur’s steely resolve by saying nasty things about Eva (some of which he knows to be true). A corrupt policeman, a incident of little girl who died too young, an alleged case of rape, and the missing case of Holberg’s yet another notorious friend Gretar gets mixed up in the murder investigation. Gradually, Erlendur learns how the indelible past has left its traces on the present, choking the life out of peaceful individuals. The mystery here is so thin and easily predictable, but what’s more intriguing is the thematic exploration of loneliness and loss which is sufficiently idiosyncratic to the particular community.  

 The chief flaw of Kormakur’s adaptation is its minimized focus on the hazardous aspects of genetic research and the turmoil over limited gene pools. Director Kormakur rushes past in the later half without profoundly exploring these vital thematic issues. While the plot-driven approach towards the end brings it a few notches down from being great crime feature, Kormakur’s breath-taking visuals keeps us intrigued throughout. In the opening sequence, there’s an elegiac shot of a dying girl bathed in blue light and then later we see shot of the child’s body on cold slab, cut to overhead shot of the same girl dressed in angelic white dress and laid inside a coffin. The harsh and unforgiving nature of the landscape is brilliantly established in the prologue. It’s the tale where only the strongest survive and the meek indviduals and children who are buried underneath haunt the strongest. And, the tale’s strongest character have lost their children (Erlendur’s loss of his child is slightly different to that of Orn’s loss). This irreparable loss serves as central force that drives the actions of protagonists and antagonists. 

Director Kormakur makes perfect use of Iceland’s damned, intimidating landscapes which reflects the inner lives of the characters. Ellidi defiles like the punishing weather, Orn mourns the loss similar to the isolated population, and Erlendur stands tall, succumbing to his daughter’s love as well as denying to be browbeaten by the other bullying factors. The moral implications of the crime are more complex than the procedure to find the perpetrator. It’s understandable especially after considering the fact that this is a small country where everyone is connected to another, in more than one ways, and a place where murder is rare. The motives behind such crimes won’t be definitely as twisted as in the large-scale man-hunts in American procedurals.

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Thankfully the best parts of Jar City are not the moments leading to unveiling of central mystery. The juicy part lies in studying the contrasts of the place and in scrutinizing little gestures to vividly draw the character’s inner lives. For example, Erlendur’s brief longing to look at the girl serving at drive-in counter tells us something about his emotional pains. Moreover, the film shines in the moments depicting deadpan humor. In one scene, detectives Sigurdur and Elinborg to further the investigation are compelled to go door-to-door asking old women if they had been raped thirty years ago (‘No thank you’ says a old woman when Sigurdur asks ‘Have you been raped?’). Ingvar Sigurdsson leads the brilliant cast, flawlessly playing the disheleved detective who showcases fondness for his daughter and boiled sheep’s head.  

Jar City (95 minutes) is a startlingly shot Icelandic murder mystery that’s thin on twists, but thick on brooding atmosphere and moral ambiguities. It’s constantly engaging, although it doesn’t entirely transcend the archetypal elements of detective stories.