Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Mann

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

Quote of the Day

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Chris Hemsworth and Michael Mann on the set of Blackhat

I see the world from the perspective of a 5’8″ person, not someone who is 6’4″, so naturally, I’m going to choose certain lens heights over and again…Sometimes nature makes choices for you.

Michael Mann

Written by nevalalee

September 9, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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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

Argo and the textures of the past

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The most interesting moment in Ben Affleck’s Argo comes at the very end, during the closing credits, which juxtapose still photographs of the real people and events depicted in the film with their fictional equivalents. It’s a nice reminder of the story’s historical origins, but it’s also an excuse to show off, as the movie indulges in some well-deserved self-congratulation about its meticulous reconstruction of the recent past. The most likable thing about Argo is its attention to texture and cultural detail, from the vintage Warner Bros. logo that opens the movie to its abundance of bad haircuts and floppy mustaches. And although the movie has been gently criticized for its departures from the facts—its version of the final flight to safety of the six hostages in Iran is almost entirely invented—there’s no doubt that this is a movie that takes genuine pleasure in certain kinds of authenticity, even if it’s only skin deep. (A film like The Master, by contrast, is authentic all the way to the bone.)

And part of me almost wishes that Affleck and his collaborators had invented just a little more. Argo is a nice, entertaining movie based on an inherently fascinating historical event, but it rarely tries to create anything like real human drama. The six hostages in Iran never emerge as anything more than background characters, and this is a big problem: we’re concerned for their safety, but more as a matter of principle than because we’ve come to know and like them as individuals. Affleck’s character, based on the real CIA operative Tony Mendez, is a stock, somewhat colorless type, and I smiled at his introduction, which shows him collapsed in bed, still wearing his clothes from the night before, before being awakened by a phone call alerting him to a new assignment—a situation familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Bruce Willis movie. The most interesting character by far is John Chambers, the legendary makeup artist, played by John Goodman, who helps Mendez construct a fake movie production as part of an elaborate escape plan, and Argo might have been an even better movie with him as the lead—the real Chambers deserves it.

Watching Argo, I was consistently interested by what was on the screen, but I couldn’t help feeling that the real story was taking place elsewhere, with resonances that the movie teases out only occasionally. Movies like this deserve to be judged based on the best of their genre, and the real comparison here is to Michael Mann’s The Insider, a movie that I loved when it first came out and which has only grown in my estimation since. It’s forty minutes longer than Argo, but it uses that time to develop unforgettable supporting characters and evoke times and places beyond mere surface detail, and it still manages to move like a shot—it’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that seems substantially shorter than its actual runtime. It also involves us in a multitude of worlds—journalism, law, the tobacco business—with their own sets of rules, and by the end, we feel as if we know them intimately. Argo would have benefited from more of this kind of specificity: it gets the clothes, the hair, the typefaces exactly right, but we’re still left with less than we’d like to know about Iran, Hollywood, or the CIA.

And there’s another world here that I wish had been explored more deeply: the universe of the fictional Argo itself. Affleck dismisses the fake movie at the story’s heart as a bad rip-off of Star Wars, but in fact, it was an ambitious project based on a novel by Roger Zelazny, with Jack Kirby contributing some of the designs. The contrast between the promises of science fiction and the messy, complicated reality of the Iran hostage crisis is one that the movie only superficially develops, to its own loss: the idea of a little boy with Star Wars bedsheets watching footage from Tehran is an astonishing one, and it reminds us that there was a larger world beyond the line outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Argo’s closing shots, as text describing the aftermath of the crisis is set over figurines of C-3PO and Luke Skywalker, are brilliant, and hint at a vein of material that the film seems only intermittently interested in investigating. The way movies interact with the world around them is endlessly mysterious, but here, we only glimpse it at intervals, through the cracks in the story’s more conventional suspense. And perhaps it only testifies to the richness of the film’s underlying material that it leaves us wanting more.

Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2012 at 9:52 am

Touch, Luck, and the challenges of smart TV

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On Sunday, I did something that I rarely ever do: I watched the pilots of two new TV shows. Part of this was thanks to the realization that with a new series, I can watch just one episode and get a blog post out of it. (By contrast, I still have the entire fourth season to finish before I feel qualified to write anything about Breaking Bad.) I was also intrigued by these two particular shows, but for very different reasons. One is Touch, from Heroes creator Tim Kring, a writer best known for blowing up his own fanbase while running his previous show into the ground. The other is Luck, from David Milch and Michael Mann, two erratic geniuses whose best impulses are hard to distinguish from their worst, but whose involvement in any project is inherently exciting. And while I predictably liked one show far more than the other, both have interesting things to say about the pitfalls of trying to create good, reasonably intelligent television for a large popular audience.

Believe it or not, I was looking forward to Touch, and not just for the chance to hear Kiefer Sutherland say “Dammit!” again. While most of the reviews were negative or skeptical, they grudgingly granted that the show displayed a certain structural ingenuity, or, to quote Ryan McGee of the AV Club: “This is extremely well-made schlock.” Unfortunately, Touch turns out to be the kind of show that wants us to be intrigued by the Fibonacci sequence without ever explaining why. It supplies one of those narratives, familiar from movies like Babel, that present elaborate webs of coincidence as a reflection of how the world really works. The trouble with both Touch and Babel is that by the end, we aren’t looking at any version of reality, but at a system of contrivance developed by the screenplay. The show revolves around an autistic boy who can allegedly see the uncanny patterns underlying all of reality, but ultimately, he’s just privy to Kring’s script notes. The result is a slickly made show that is content to seem smart on the most superficial level possible.

To its credit, Luck takes the opposite approach: this is a genuinely intelligent show that doesn’t seem to care much about holding the audience’s hand. This doesn’t mean that it’s impenetrable. Some of the early buzz about the show’s alleged incomprehensibility made it sound like Mann and Milch were adapting Finnegans Wake, but this is simply a show that rewards close attention, and perhaps multiple viewings. (I ended up watching the first twenty minutes twice, and I’m glad I did.) Like many previous outings from Mann and Milch, it’s steeped in the arcana of a complex, mostly masculine world, in this case that of horse racing, and one of the show’s pleasures is its confidence that the viewer will pick up most of this material on the fly. It’s true that much of it seems obscure at first, but it isn’t because, as with Touch, that there’s no greater depth to be found: there’s just a lot going on here, and if we occasionally need to consult a cheat sheet, it’s a small price to pay.

As it happens, the two pilots have a plot point in common—a winning lottery ticket, or its equivalent—and it’s instructive to consider the radically different approaches they take. Touch has a lottery ticket that’s basically a callback to Lost: a string of mystical numbers that win on a particular day simply because the script requires it. Luck, by contrast, takes us through the details of a $2.6 million pick six ticket to the point where we can understand the strategy behind each choice, until the outcome, while in some ways equally contrived, feels inevitable. That’s the difference between these two shows: drill down at any point with Luck, and you uncover a whole world of texture, information, and experience, while any attempt to dig deeper with Touch just gives you Tim Kring and his laptop. And the funny thing is that both shows essentially succeed at what they’re trying to do—which should remind us that in television, as in life, you only win as much as you’re willing to risk.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2012 at 10:15 am

Drive: Real hero, no backstory

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Well, that was good timing. Only a few days after I posted my manifesto on backstory, we’ve been given a movie that makes my argument better than I ever could: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. While not a perfect film, it’s close to a great one, and it reactivates pleasure receptors in my moviegoing brain that have remained dormant for years. Starting with its wonderfully clever opening chase scene and neon-tinged, electronically pulsating main titles, this is a film that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve: Thief, American Gigolo, To Live and Die in L.A., and any number of great ’80s crime movies fueled by the sounds of Tangerine Dream. (Note to my dad: If you’re reading this post and haven’t seen this movie yet, what are you waiting for? It even has your favorite actor.)

And much of the film’s fascination comes from how little we know about the protagonist. He’s simply called Driver. A few years ago, we’re told, he wandered into a Los Angeles garage, looking for work, and proceeded to become a brilliant stunt driver, mechanic, and wheelman. His blank gaze and difficulty in connecting with others, aside from his neighbor and her young son, hints at some kind of past trauma, but we aren’t told what this was—and we certainly aren’t told how he learned how to drive and, finally, kill so effectively, although stabbing a man in the throat with a curtain rod isn’t the sort of thing that comes without practice. He has fewer lines than any other important character in the film, and the screenplay around him, by Hossein Amini, is so spare as to seem nonexistent, in a good way. (According to the director, the shooting script was only 81 pages long.)

Much of our interest in Driver, of course, comes from the fact that he’s played by Ryan Gosling, and rarely have the gods of casting been on better behavior. Alfred Hitchcock knew that by casting a star, you can throw out the first reel, because a star brings his own aura and history to the part. For a role like this, Gosling is ideal: he’s undoubtedly a star, but also something of an unknown quantity, with a selective filmography and an air of detached reserve. His affect, as my smitten wife likes to point out, is that of a man smiling quietly at a private joke. He isn’t an actor you’d think of as an action star—apparently the role was originally intended for Hugh Jackman—but he embodies the character completely, and leaves you wanting more. Which, of course, the movie is too smart to give you. Any hint of backstory would have ruined the part: the embroidered scorpion on the back of his jacket, with its nod to Mr. Arkadin, tells us all we need to know.

Drive, then, is close to a textbook example of how to make a classic thriller, and I hope future directors and screenwriters study it intently. In the end, though, it falters a bit: what it needs is a closing aria of revenge like the one Michael Mann gave us in Thief, and what Drive provides is a little too schematic and unsatisfying. (For an example of how to do it right, please, please see here.) And yet there’s so much great stuff on display here that it transcends the weakness of its last twenty minutes. My wife will tell you that for most of the first hour, I was alternately grinning and shaking, or both, at watching something like mastery on the screen. Drive will be picked apart and admired by movie lovers for years to come, and its central lesson is clear for us all: you don’t need backstory to be a real hero. Or even, as the song over the closing credits reminds us, a real human being.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2011 at 8:45 am

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