Movie Marathon Wrap-up #01: Michael Mann

BEST PICTURE:
The Insider

Mann’s most cohesive film. No weak areas. The domestic drama works. He’s able to produce thrill and suspense to great effect without the heist sequences, gunfights, car chases and the like.

Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer and the 60 Minutes team from The Insider


BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE:

Russell Crowe, The Insider

I just realized that I didn’t touch on Crowe’s performance in the review of The Insider. Russell Crowe was a surprise in his nuanced and controlled performance.. He captured the rollercoaster of emotions caused by all the internal turmoil that Wigand had to go through in the story.

Russell Crowe in The Insider


BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE:

Brian Cox, Manhunter

Simply stole every scene he was in.

Brian Cox as Hannibal in Manhunter


BEST SCENE/MOMENT:

McCauley and Hanna in the Diner, Heat

Quoting from my review: ” (Heat) can maintain tension even in its quiet moments, and has one of the most electric scenes you can ever have between two people talking in a diner.” — This is that scene.

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the diner scene from Heat


BEST STYLIZED ACTION SEQUENCE:

The Second Heist, Thief

It was either this or the downtown shootout from Heat. This heist scene just impressed me more because of how meticulously detailed and believably authentic it was.

The Second Heist from Thief


MARATHON SCORE:
66/100

The Insider (1999)

Russell Crowe in The Insider

Conflict doesn’t necessarily arise from the battle between good and evil. There are times when conflict comes from the push and pull of multiple opposing goods. Sometimes, this type of conflict is even a more tenuous struggle and a more gripping drama. The Insider is one such example of this.

The film tackles the true story of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). It follows how he discloses confidential information regarding the tobacco industry with the help of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and the multitude of troubles that befall him because of it. It’s a story that, at face value, may be far from relatable for a lot of people. Yet the basic concerns that it touches on are the types of simple issues that can unsettle most of us.

It begins with Wigand and Bergman in parallel plotlines. The former getting fired from his job at tobacco giant Brown & Williamson and the latter getting an anonymous package of documents in the mail. Their paths intersect when Bergman searches for help to interpret the documents and he ends up being pointed to the direction of Wigand.

For about half an hour into the film the viewer is kept in the dark. What are in the documents? Why was Wigand released from his job? Mann patiently builds on the suspense until it’s revealed that Wigand is in possession of information that could wreak havoc not only on Brown & Williamson, but the entire tobacco industry. Once he decides to release the information via 60 Minutes, the film switches gears and Mann pulls out the thrills.

Now, as thrilling as it is to watch pristinely crafted gunfights, heists, car chases and the like, there’s nothing that brings out a more raw emotional response than that which taps into a person’s basest fears. In this film, Mann tones down the action to almost zero, yet reaches heights in terms of thrill and suspense that he hadn’t previously achieved with his more visceral work.

Throughout the predicament, one finds it very easy to be sympathetic and relate to the troubles of the poor family man out on a quest for justice. We want Big Tobacco to pay for their irresponsible conduct. We want our family to be safe and financially stable. We want our journalists to always put integrity and the search for truth before anything else. We want to believe that money and power is not everything in this world. So when the film shows us the peril and desperation that befalls a man who is on the right side in all of this, what else can we do but rage?

The Insider sees Michael Mann at the top of his game. There are moments when you can see him struggling to maintain the subtlety and nuance required for certain portions of the film, but he pulls it off. If ever there are lapses into heavy-handedness, they are very minor. As it stands, this is his most cohesive work. It highlights his ability to squeeze every ounce of tension from situations that most people can relate to and solidifies him as a master of his craft.

Rating: B+ (great)

Heat (1995)

Val Kilmer in a shootout from Heat

I might have just seen the best action-thriller movie ever. It’s just that this 2-hour movie exists within the 170-minutes of Heat, but I’m sure that it’s there and it’s amazing. It has this riveting and intense cat-and-mouse chase between the De Niro-led gang of criminals and the Pacino-led LA police. It has some of the most raw, visceral and well-crafted shootout sequences I’ve seen, including a particularly incredible one in the middle of downtown LA. It knows how to pace itself, can maintain tension even in its quiet moments, and has one of the most electric scenes you can ever have between two people talking in a diner.

What it doesn’t have is the rushed and underdeveloped subplot of how a bank robber meets a younger woman, falls for her, and how he wants to give up his life of crime so they could run off into the sunset. It neither has the story of a cop having domestic problems due to his dedication to his job, nor does it have the totally disjointed backstory of a getaway driver who just gets killed and dropped from the plot completely.

Thus is the predicament of Heat: It tries to be both a thrilling heist film and a romantic-drama at the same time. The good news is that it still succeeds at being the former. In fact, as a more taut and focused two-hour film, it can be considered the high point of the genre. The bad news is that Michael Mann really does not know how to do drama, and he’s even more inept at developing a believable romance. The one and only such scene that I felt worked in the film was at the end when Charlene (Ashley Judd) makes a sacrifice for her husband at the last second. That worked and it was powerful. The other bits of melodrama, not so much.

It’s almost as if Michael Mann thinks that his films can’t be compelling within the action and suspense only. The funny thing is that without the melodrama, his films actually are quite compelling. Watching De Niro’s Neil McCauley and Pacino’s Vincent Hanna – two passionate individuals who are similar in so many ways, yet find themselves on the opposite ends of a tense situation – is already an interesting setup that doesn’t need dramatic flourishes to support it.

I understand and appreciate how Mann was trying to make the stakes higher for both of them by including McCauley’s romance and Hannah’s domestic drama, but it just makes me wish that he was much better at writing these things. In any case, the parallels that one can draw between them is intriguing and the way in which Mann increasingly blurs the gray line between good and bad is fascinating. Ultimately seeing them understand, respect and admire each other through the conflict is what ends up being the most compelling thing about the story. Considering they both know that only one of them can come out of it alive ends up being bittersweet

Rating: B (good)

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans

It’s a peculiar experience to see a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis where he either wasn’t the most interesting actor or didn’t play the most interesting role. In most of his other films, he disappears into the character. He was Bill the Butcher. He was Daniel Plainview. He was Abraham Lincoln. In The Last of the Mohicans, he’s just a good actor making the most of a dull role. For the first time, I’ve seen him give a performance that I can easily see being done by another actor with half his talent.

More fascinating than his Hawkeye is that of the English Major, Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington). He gives off an aura like Javert from Les Miserables. Not as cold, but just as firm regarding his strict principles, patriotism and adherence to duty. In spite of this, there are scenes that subtly hint at his turn of heart and unlikely sympathy. That internal conflict is what makes him among the more interesting aspects of this movie, and it culminates in a surprising turn during the film’s climax.

Another thing peculiar about The Last of the Mohicans is it being a historical epic in Michael Mann’s filmography. As a director who typically excels in action-thrillers, it’s curious to see him weave together multiple dramatic narratives set against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War. He not only tackles the conflict between England and France, but also the struggles of the local militia, a Native American’s quest for revenge and, of course, a love story. Interestingly enough, he succeeds in telling most of these tales, which brings me to the oddest thing about the film.

For the first time in a Michael Mann movie, the action sequences are what left me bored and uninterested. A lot of it was messy, unfocused and fell flat as if the efficacy of his stylized direction gets overwhelmed by the grandiose scope of this wartime period piece. He nails the beautifully sweeping cinematography, costumes and production design needed for such an epic, but for Mann’s standards it feels safe. The most compelling scenes turn out to be the ones that have very little action going on. The best ones in particular include one where the French & English army negotiate the latter’s terms for surrender, one at the end involving talks with the chief of the a native American tribe, and one in particular with Madeline Stowe stretching her acting chops as she argues fiercely against the charges of sedition against her lover.

On a narrative level, it’s a story layered with multiple conflicts, both external and internal, all handled very deftly. That’s not to say that it’s without fault, as I personally could have done without any of the romantic angles, which is – I’ve come to learn – something that Mann doesn’t do very well. Yet even then, the narrative of The Last of the Mohicans is easily much more engaging that anything else about it, which is not something I thought I’d ever say about a Michael Mann film.

Rating: C+ (average)

Manhunter (1986)

William Petersen and Dennis Farina in the opening shot of Manhunter

Manhunter is proof that Michael Mann is brilliant in every element that lends to creating a sense of style on the screen. He’s great at visually arresting an audience and effortlessly creates a distinct atmosphere for his films. Take the first shot after the opening credits. Not even the first scene, but just that first shot. FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) & his superior Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) sit on a log on the beach. The calm waters, clear blue sky and horizon serve as their backdrop. Graham looks to the left – facing the viewer – as he holds a drink. He’s clad in a plain shirt and shorts with his bare feet in the sand. Crawford on the other hand is in full office attire, with his suit draped on the log. He has his back towards us as he looks down at the ground. It’s an intriguing image and lingers a few seconds for the audience to take it in. It’s meticulously composed and very typical of the skill that Michael Mann has in creating a lasting image.

The problem, however, lies in his writing. Mann has a tendency to be heavy-handed, and every example of his poor writing tendencies are on display in this film. He’s the classic example of someone who you’d want to yell at and say, “Show, don’t tell!” The worst offenders of this are the scenes where Graham mutters to himself as he tries to get inside the killer’s head. Mann’s script makes him say out loud every detail, thought and move of the killer as if a play-by-play announcer at a basketball game. The end result is that almost every scene in Manhunter ends up being an exercise of style over substance.

Even then, there are actors in the film talented enough to rise above the material. Joan Allen in one of her first film roles works wonders with her naturally soft easiness to balance out the film’s grotesque look and chilling atmosphere. The highlight though is clearly Brian Cox in the role of Hannibal Lecter. The performance is magnetic in the handful of scenes that he’s in. He brings confidence, charisma and a chilling sense of danger to the role. There’s always the impression that much more is running in his brilliant mind than what’s said and shown on-screen. And a feeling that he knows more about everyone else such that one would wish that the film was about him more than anyone else.

I think I need to rewatch Collateral after I’m done with this Michael Mann marathon. As the only film directed by Mann that he didn’t write, it interests me to revisit what he’s done with another person’s screenplay. I’d imagine that if Michael Mann directed a piece similar to Malick’s The Tree of Life or Caruth’s Upstream Color based off another writer’s work it would be an interesting experience. It would be the perfect vehicle for his unbridled style combined with another writer’s substance.

Rating: C (poor)

Thief (1981)

James Caan in the opening heist scene from Thief

Two mysterious characters come out in the dead of night. The bright streetlights contrast with the dark in stark noir fashion. Rain falls. Smoke fills a lifeless alley. Two thieves work their magic as a riveting musical score pulsates in the background. This is the opening scene to Thief. It runs for ten minutes yet feels like it just blows by once the pair of robbers drive back to their hideout as the sun rises on downtown Chicago. It exhibits the type of patience, control and meticulous attention to detail that one would think it was put together by a seasoned director. But it’s not.

If there were any opening scene from a feature film debut that one could say typifies the potential of a budding filmmaker, this would be it. In Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, he exudes the visual and aural pizazz of an auteur far beyond his years. He juggles tones with expert dexterity at the same time filling the screen with a flamboyant style, which is to be his trademark in later years. He nails the gritty and sinister atmosphere of a vintage noir. He enthralls with thrilling and bloody action sequences. And amidst all of this, he compellingly tells the story of a tragic hero determined to follow his plans on his terms.

At the heart of it is James Caan infusing his innate tough-guy bravado into the character of an ex-convict we only know as Frank. He’s a businessman by day, running both a used car shop and a bar to front his criminal operations. But during the night is where the real money is, as he and his partner Barry (James Belushi) carefully map out and execute various diamond scores. The grand plan at the center of all of this being the realization of a perfect, normal life. A life with a wife, a child and a modest home in the suburbs.

It’s at this point where Mann shows a knack for playing with the viewer’s sympathies. When Frank’s fence bites the dust, all hell breaks loose. His plans get thrown off the rails, and try as he might to get them back on track his way, it becomes increasingly apparent that the only way may have to be by force. By the time the film draws to its climax, we find ourselves rooting for the criminal – this stubborn, hardened thief – hoping against hope that he comes out of it alive with his dreams intact.

Thief is precise and detailed. It’s intricately planned and slickly executed. It drills down to the details such as testing the voltage of wires for information and running an extinguisher under a thermal lance while melting away at a safe to make sure nothing catches fire. In fact it’s the perfect metaphor for the movie and that’s where the strength of the film ultimately lies. It’s such an intricately-made piece of work in that every shot, every edit, every scene and line of dialogue seems like it’s all been painstakingly plotted on a map.

Rating: B (good)