South Florida in Film: High school homicide, yayo, De Niro and Sarah Jessica Parker

If you have a computer, newspaper subscription, television, ears or any other means of receiving news, you’ve probably heard about the recent filming of Bad Boys 2 and The Fast and the Furious 2 in South Florida. The former’s production was especially newsworthy, since it required sections of Miami’s main roads to be closed for days, leaving fellow Miamians even redder faced in heavy traffic.

Throughout the history of film, South Florida has been a shooting location for a variety of reasons. Obviously, the colorful scenery is a major draw, since there are few other areas in the United States that wear the tropical paradise-look. Then there’s the glitzy atmosphere of South Beach, where celebrities flock like sheep and wannabe celebrities flock like smaller, less important sheep. There are the hoards of awful drivers, allowing for the convenient and cheap filming of car crashes.

Regardless of the reasons, Miami is and always has been an appreciated, low-key area for films of all kinds, from independents to Hollywood blockbusters. The following are informative vignettes of four different movies set (totally or partially) in South Florida – from Trick Daddy’s favorite gangster epic of the ’80s, to a whimsy romantic comedy, to one of the most brutally and sexually raw films of our present decade.

Director Larry Clark taught shock to audiences with Kids in 1995, an NC-17, documentary-style look at the sweaty, drug-induced adolescent bastion of New York. Filled with images of teen sex (some of which bordered the real thing), Kids disturbed many of its viewers, but earned powerful critical acclaim and blew AIDS into high school lunch discussions everywhere.
Clark later made the similarly themed Bully, the true story of a South Florida murder in the early ’90s. Nick Stahl (Terminator 3) plays Bobby Kent, a tough high school student whose mistreatment of his friends, both male and female, causes them to band together and slay him. If you’re an out-of-state UM student, this film gives you a humorously biased pinch of the local high schoolers’ white trash shenanigans.
Bully is set in eerily familiar strips of South Florida, but the Everglades are where the blood hits the sand. The film found a limited release in 2001, as Clark’s avant-garde, arguably exploitative material involving young people would have assuredly resulted in an NC-17 rating. Instead, it was released as unrated, which allows it to be stocked in some Blockbuster stores.
With Bully, Clark cements his position as the best director of movies about kids doing bad stuff. Bully is daring, gripping, and strewn with nonfiction sinew – three elements that make it a great film.

Scarface is a film that wants to be as raw and real as Bully, if on a larger scale, but fails in its attempt. Al Pacino plays a Cuban immigrant who laboriously builds a drug empire in Miami. Since its original theatrical run, Scarface has gained cult, college poster staple status, and many viewers place it among the classics of American gangster cinema, with the likes of The Godfather and Goodfellas. Though Scarface has flashes of brilliance – Brian De Palma is certainly a talented director – the movie dons flaws like Hawaiian shirts from Target.
Pacino plays Tony Montana in an intensely charismatic role, but not necessarily a great one. The main problem with Scarface is that it doesn’t fall into one of the two categories of successful gangster movies – stylish or gritty. It tries to be a little bit of both, but since it can’t commit to either, the movie ends up falling on its face and becoming a long, self absorbed mess that only succeeds in its coke-fueled action sequences (ironically, just like ’80s).
Scarface is a movie that’s supposed to comment on the Hispanic cultural struggle of Miami, but the casting sure doesn’t show it. Pacino plays a Cuban character, and his excessive use of the word “man” (pronounced “meyn”) is just one of many stereotypes. Possibly the most ridiculous of the supporting characters is F. Murray Abraham as a Hispanic drug dealer. You might remember Abraham from one his many American roles, including the bad guy teacher in Finding Forrester or the envious composer in Amadeus.

Once Upon a Time in America
Once Upon a Time in America is one of those great movies that falls through the cracks and gets stuck behind endless copies of The Country Bears at local video stores. Director Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) is not as much a household name as De Palma, but Leone’s ’80s gangster saga is way better than De Palma’s.
Once Upon a Time tells three stories at once, and in a way, it’s like watching three different movies. The film, which lasts almost four hours, spends a great deal of time on one central character, Noodles, played by Robert DeNiro. Leone tenderly develops the character from his childhood in New York, the middle period of his life where he’s reunited with childhood friends in illegal business, and the later part of his life when he’s crossing paths with back stabbing gangsters. Although most of the movie takes place in New York, parts also occur in South Beach.
As the viewer becomes wrapped in the three different stories, the endings of each soon unfold, giving us clues to loose details in the others. It’s sort of a predecessor to recent time-jumping movies like Memento and The Hours, and a meaty textbook on a life in crime.

Miami Rhapsody
Surprisingly, this offbeat, blithe romantic comedy does not highlight homicide, drugs or crime like most Miami films. Rhapsody stars Sarah Jessica Parker (“Sex and the City”) in a likeable role as a woman with many different versions of infidelity happening all around her. Like most films limited to this genre, it’s not great, cursed by the same annoying nuances that run throughout your girlfriend’s VHS collection, but the characters are real enough and the setting airy enough to make it tolerable.
The cast boasts a large group of semi-popular actors, including Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects), Jeremy Piven (Old School) and Antonio Banderas (Desperado).
Rhapsody doesn’t dive deep into the Miami setting, letting it linger like a daydream or a Cranberries song, although we do see Parker’s character shopping at local malls, and one of the characters plays for the Dolphins. It’s a nice alternative to violence and drugs, but the Miami moviegoers continue to relish for is the one in muscle excessive fluff like Bad Boys or in rough, shady dramas like Bully.

Shawn Wines can be reached at