Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Blackhat

My alternative canon #10: Miami Vice

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Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the last two weeks, I’ve been looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

The most striking quality of the movies of Michael Mann—who is probably the strangest living director to be consistently entrusted with enormous budgets by major studios, at least until recently—is their ambivalent relationship with craft. It’s often noted that Mann likes to tell stories about meticulous professionals, almost exclusively men, and that their obsession with the hardware of their chosen trade mirrors the director’s own perfectionism. This is true enough. But it misses the point that for his protagonists, craft on its own is rarely sufficient: a painstaking attention to detail doesn’t save the heroes of Thief or The Insider or Collateral, who either fail spectacularly or succeed only after being forced to improvise, and their objectives in the end aren’t the ones that they had at the beginning. This feels like a more faithful picture of Mann himself, who over the last decade has seemed increasingly preoccupied with side issues and technical problems while allowing the largest elements of the narrative to fend for themselves. It’s often unclear whether the resulting confusion is the result of active indifference, uncompromising vision, or a simple inability to keep a complicated project under control. The outcome can be an unambiguous failure, like Public Enemies, or a film in which Mann’s best and worst tendencies can’t be easily separated, like Blackhat. And the most freakish example of all is Miami Vice, which is either a botched attempt to create a franchise from an eighties cop show or the most advanced movie of the century so far. But as Mayor Quimby says on The Simpsons: “It can be two things.”

I’ve watched Miami Vice with varying degrees of attention perhaps a dozen times, but I’m not sure if I could accurately describe the plot. The script and the dialogue seem to have arisen like an emergent property from the blocky, smudged images onscreen, which often threaten to push the story off the edges of the frame entirely, or to lose it in the massive depth of field. Frederik Pohl liked to describe certain writers as fiddler crabs, in whom a single aspect of their work became hypertrophied, like a grotesquely overdeveloped claw, and that indisputably applies to Mann. These days, he seems interested in nothing but texture: visual, aural, thematic. Digital video, which allows him to lovingly capture the rippling muscles on Jamie Foxx’s back or the rumpled cloth of Colin Farrell’s jacket so that you feel like you could reach out and touch it, was the medium that he had been awaiting for his entire career, and he makes such insane overuse of it here that it leaves room for almost nothing else. The film unfolds only on the night side of the city in which it supposedly takes place, just as it appears to have shot roughly half of a usable script. (This isn’t necessarily Mann’s fault: Foxx abruptly departed toward the end of production, which is why the last scene feels like a bridge to nowhere.) As with The Night of the Hunter and Blue Velvet, Miami Vice is one of those movies in which it can be hard to tell the difference between unintentional awkwardness and radical experimentation—which is inevitable when you’re forging a new grammar of film. It looked like a failed blockbuster, and it was. But you could also build an entire art form out of its shattered pieces.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2016 at 8:15 am

“What are you willing to do?”

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"Without another word..."

Note: This post is the twenty-third installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 24. You can read the previous installments here.

Of all the books on writing I’ve read, the one that fills me with the most mixed feelings is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Everything about it, from its title to its cover art to the fact that its late author’s only two produced scripts were Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check, seems designed to fill any thinking writer with dread. And the hate it inspires isn’t entirely unjustified. If every film released by a major studio these days seems to follow exactly the same structure, with a false crisis followed by a real crisis and so on down the line, it’s because writers are encouraged to follow Snyder’s beat sheet as closely as possible. It’s hard to see this as anything but bad for those of us who crave more interesting movies. And yet—and this is a third-act twist of its own—the book contains gems of genuinely useful advice. The number of reliable storytelling tricks in any medium can be counted on two hands, and Snyder provides a good four or five of them, even if he gives them insufferable names. The admonition to save the cat, for instance, is really a way of thinking about likability: if you show the protagonist doing something admirable early on, we’re more likely to follow him down the story’s darker paths. Snyder says, without irony: “They don’t put it into movies anymore.” Now, it’s in pretty much every movie, and the book’s most lasting impact may have been to wire this idea into the head of every aspiring screenwriter.

What I find particularly fascinating is that these scenes now pop up even in weird, unclassifiable movies that otherwise don’t seem to have much of an interest in conventional screenplay structure. Blackhat, for example, introduces Chris Hemsworth’s jailed hacker with a scene in which he’s admonished for breaking into the prison network and filling the commissary accounts of his fellow inmates with money. We’re meant to think of him as a technological badass—he carried out the hack using a stolen phone—with a good guy’s heart, and even if it doesn’t totally land, it sustains us ever so slightly throughout the rest of the movie, which turns Hemsworth into the taciturn, emotionally implosive hero that Michael Mann finds hard to resist. Similarly, in the new season of True Detective, we first see Colin Farrell’s character dropping his son off at school with a pep talk, followed by the line: “See you in two weeks.” A divorced cop with a kid he loves is one of the hoariest tropes of all, but again, it keeps us on board, even when Farrell shows some paternal love by beating a bully’s father to a pulp. Without that small moment at the beginning, we wouldn’t have much reason to feel invested in him at all. In other respects, Blackhat and True Detective don’t feel like products of the Snyder school: for all their flaws, neither is just a link from the sausage factory. But both Mann and Nick Pizzolatto know a good trick when they see one.

"What are you willing to do?"

In fact, as counterintuitive as it might seem, you could say that an unconventional narrative is in greater need of a few good, cheap tricks than a more standard story. A film that makes great demands on its audience’s attention span or tolerance of complexity benefits from a few self-contained anchor points, and the nice thing about Snyder’s tips is that they exist in isolation from the real business at hand. You could think of saving the cat as the minimum effective dose for establishing a character’s likability. Mann has better things to do than to set Hemsworth up as a nice guy, so he slots in one fairly obvious scene and moves on. Whether or not it works—and a lot of viewers would say it doesn’t—is less important than the idea that a movie that resists formula benefits from inserting standard elements whenever they won’t detract from the whole. (For proof, look no further than L.A. Confidential, which I think is one of the best scripts of all time: it’s practically an anthology of tricks that brilliantly get the job done.) Most great artists, from Shakespeare on down, do this intuitively: the distinctive thing about screenwriting, in which writers tend to romanticize themselves as guns for hire, is that it tries to turn it into an industrial process, a readymade part that can be dropped in more or less intact whenever it’s required. And if the result works, that’s all the justification it needs.

I was reminded of this when I revisited Chapter 24 of Eternal Empire. When I wrote it, I don’t think I’d read Snyder’s book, but this chapter is as good an illustration as I can imagine of one of his other tips. Here’s how he puts it:

The problem of making antiheroes likable, or heroes of a comeuppance tale likable enough to root for, can also be finessed…When you have a semi-bad guy as your hero—just make his antagonist worse!

All three of my novels return to this well repeatedly, since their central character, Ilya Severin, is far from a conventionally likable lead: he’s a former hit man who kills in cold blood more than once in the course of the series. Yet he works as an engaging character, mostly because he’s always up against someone even scarier. Sharkovsky in The Icon Thief, Karvonen in City of Exiles, and Vasylenko in Eternal Empire were all conceived as antagonists who would make Ilya look better by comparison, and it’s rarely more explicit than it is here, when Vasylenko kills not one but two people—an innocent hostage and one of his own men. It’s a little excessive, maybe, but when I look back at it, it’s clear that I needed two bodies to get my point across. Nobody is safe, whether you’re a bystander or a member of the inner circle, and the scene propels Ilya, and the reader, into the next phase of the story. Because as bad as his situation looks now, it’s going to get worse very soon…

Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2015 at 10:17 am

Blackhat and the logic of director love

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Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat

I know what I’m doing.
—Crockett in Miami Vice

Back in January, it occurred to me, almost at random, that I wanted to see Blackhat. As regular readers know, I don’t see a lot of movies these days, but the prospect of a new Michael Mann film—his first in six years—was just enticing enough to make me consider ducking out for a few hours while my in-laws were watching my daughter. At that point, Blackhat was already a notorious flop, and it had been slowly dying in theaters for a couple of weeks, but I still thought that I might be able to catch an afternoon screening. When I did a search for showtimes, though, I found that there weren’t any, and soon thereafter, I learned that Blackhat had suffered one of the greatest third-weekend theater drops in history, just behind the likes of Meet Dave and Jonah Hex. What does this mean? Before a film is released, it’s booked into a certain number of screens nationwide, and that number is contractually fixed for the first two weeks. On the third weekend, theater owners and distributors are free to yank the underperformers. A huge drop in screens simply means that nobody, anywhere, wanted to see this movie. And while I’m used to the idea that my tastes run a little weird, it struck me as significant that the first film in months that tempted me to pay for a ticket had been met with total indifference from everybody else in America.

Having finally caught up with Blackhat on video, I can see why. Basically, if you’re excited by the idea of a particular kind of Michael Mann movie, you’ll like it; if you want to see literally anything else, you won’t. For my own part, I ate it up, mostly because my expectations, for once, had been perfectly calibrated. It’s a mess, but a glorious one: a rich slice of the familiar Mann universe, soaked in neon, rendered in nearly translucent digital video, laden with jargon, punctuated by brutal and confusing violence, and populated with smart men and mostly useless women. The locations, not surprisingly, are fantastic, especially at night: Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Jakarta, Malaysia. (I was reminded of a great reader comment on The A.V. Club about the look of Miami Vice: “It was like someone built a set of Miami and then only filmed the back of it.”) There’s a lot of plot and some nifty ideas, much of it rendered so elliptically as to be all but incomprehensible. And I kind of adored it, enough to the point where I want to see it again. I can’t say it “works,” except in isolated stretches, but I admire its attempt to take the least cinematic material imaginable—with one scene after another code unspooling across computer screens—and stage it like a grungy version of Skyfall. And the fact that no other director alive could have made it, or even conceived of it, makes it more memorable than any number of conventionally tidy movies.

Chris Hemsworth and Michael Mann on the set of Blackhat

Years ago, in my review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I said: “[Michael] Bay is like one of those strange extinct animals that got caught in an evolutionary arms race until they became all horns, claws, or teeth…Bay is nothing but a massive eye.” Mann has undergone a similar refinement of purpose, but instead of huge, crystalline images, he’s obsessed by textures—visual, aural, and narrative. Digital video, with its ability to render portions of the frame in startling clarity while reducing the rest to a grainy smear, is his ideal format, and it mirrors his increasingly oblique style of storytelling. Instead of giving us a fully realized character or subplot, Mann is content to hint at it, or to lay it out in shorthand, as if he’d simply shot his notes to himself without bothering to develop them further. At the same time, he’ll devote endless amounts of energy to rendering the material at the edges: he’ll become fascinated by an extra’s face, a pattern of light on a wet surface, the arcana of specialized masculine trades. Blackhat is driven by the assumption that we’re interested in the same things that Mann is, and that we’re willing to sketch in the rest for ourselves. If the characters, for the most part, feel like placeholders, it’s mostly because he trusts us to fill in the blanks. (Hence the treatment of the veteran actor Holt McCallany, who plays a U.S. Marshal who somehow feels like an essential part of the cast despite having about five lines of dialogue.)

But there’s also a sense in which my admiration for Mann’s talents allows me to see his flaws as virtues, almost to the point of dangerous indulgence. The romance between Chris Hemsworth’s hacker and the “networking engineer” played by Tang Wei is so schematic that it plays almost as a commentary on itself: we’ve seen enough love stories in movies, it implies, that we can be satisfied by the barest outline of one. It’s as if Mann took the index cards from his corkboard and, instead of writing them, merely flung them in the general direction of the actors. The result is consistent with what I expect, and I enjoyed it on that level. Yet it doesn’t excuse how wasted Tang Wei is here, or how quickly she’s reduced to arm candy, there to be pulled by the hand as she and Hemsworth escape from bad guys on the subway. Mann has been making movies for a long time—Thief, his masterful debut, was released more than three decades ago—and he’s purified his obsessions with men at work to the point of poetry. (There are times when his surname seems as loaded with significance as Matt Damon’s in Interstellar.) But he’s never been much good with women, and this is harder to excuse. I love Mann, flaws and all, and his ability to stick to a difficult, uncompromising vision while somehow convincing studios that he’s making movies for the mainstream. But the resounding commercial failure of Blackhat might mark an end to this. So perhaps it’s time for even his biggest fans to applaud what he’s done, then pause, step back, and ask how much of it is virtue and how much is vice.

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2015 at 9:46 am

American box office

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Bradley Cooper in American Sniper

My online reading habits have shifted immeasurably over the past two decades, along with the nature of the web itself, but there are two sites that I’ve visited on a regular basis for at least fifteen years. The first is the New York Times. The other is Box Office Guru. This isn’t the slickest or most useful box office site around; Box Office Mojo is considerably more polished, with greater access to raw and adjusted numbers, and its commentary is a little more nuanced. The former site’s basic design hasn’t changed much since the days of Geocities, and its predictions are no more or less accurate than those of its peers. But I’m oddly fond of its voice, which tends to strike a balanced note between the killjoys at Box Office Mojo and the less critical coverage at other entertainment sites. Its founder, Gitesh Pandya, forecasts and analyzes returns with the air of an enthusiastic hobbyist who has absorbed just enough industry jargon—”laugher,” “kidpic,” “funnyman”—to be endearing without being grating, and I’ll sometimes go back to read his old columns just to relive memorable box office stories from the past. (“The upcoming holiday weekend activity, strong word of mouth, and award consideration should all contribute to a prolonged domestic run that could see Titanic reach $150 million.”)

You could argue, of course, that treating the weekly box office returns as a kind of horse race has had a damaging effect on the types of movies Hollywood is willing to make, which emphasize brands and franchises that generate gargantuan opening weekends rather than playing to steady audiences over time. Still, the media’s coverage of the results is more a symptom than a cause, and the structural reasons for placing so much weight on a movie’s initial performance—the studio’s cut of profits is greatest early on, with a larger percentage going to theaters as the run continues—would be there either way. What’s more amusing is how personally you can start to take numbers in which you have no stake whatsoever. Last summer, I kept checking to see if Edge of Tomorrow would creep past $100 million, and I was unreasonably cheered when it did, as well as chagrined whenever subsequent stories would casually refer to it as a flop. (When you factor in the international numbers, it did fine.) And whenever a movie exceeds or falls short of expectations to a dramatic degree, I read the ensuing think pieces as closely as if they were talking about my own finances. I probably have a better sense of the box office at any given moment than I do of my own checking account.

Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat

This past weekend brought two stories on opposite ends of the spectrum: the incredible performance of American Sniper and the resounding failure of Blackhat, both of which are movies I want to see. Blackhat’s failure to launch isn’t particularly surprising; Michael Mann is probably the weirdest director around who still qualifies, almost on a technicality, as a mainstream filmmaker, and the film’s release in the dumping ground of January was hardly a good sign. But it’s no exaggeration to say that American Sniper’s astonishing $100 million opening is the most unexpected story of its kind in more than ten years, or since The Passion of the Christ similarly blew past all predictions. Inevitably, we’ve seen a flood of analysis as to what happened: it’s because the movie had a great trailer, or got an awards bump, or saw widespread support from the heartland, or featured the right star, or came from a director whom audiences like and respect, or was brilliantly marketed, or appealed to patriotism, or was just an excellent movie with a good story. Yet one or more of these factors are true of multiple films each year, and few see this level of success. It’s a case, as Thomas Pynchon puts it, of all the delta-qs lining up just right. And the fact is that nobody really knows, at least not to the extent that it can be replicated—which isn’t to say that Hollywood can’t be expected to try.

The result is that American Sniper went from being the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee to the highest in just two days—and we’re already living in a bizarro universe when the most commercially successful film in the bunch was briefly a movie by Wes Anderson. And maybe the only real takeaway is how far such numbers can be abstracted from any real meaning. A single movie won’t make or break a studio; they can certainly destroy individual careers, but any development executive is likely to get fired sooner or later, and when you stand back, the details start to blur. Hollywood accounting is so obscure that a blockbuster may never break even on paper, while a flop might actually make money, once you factor in the fees that the studio essentially pays to itself. Box office returns are fascinating because they feel like the place in which the risks involved in artistic production are exposed in their starkest form: the outcome of years of work on the part of hundreds of creative professionals is decided in the course of a day. Or so it seems. But if the judgments passed there feel permanent, time is the great leveler, here as everywhere else. A movie of enduring interest will survive for those to whom it really matters, and nobody cares if, say, The Godfather Part II was seen as a “disappointment.” And no one remembers the numbers. Except, maybe, for me.

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2015 at 10:27 am

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