The Insider (Mann, 1999)

In terms of civil and constitutional rights, ethics, and just about all other facets of everyday life, compromise can be a dangerous action. Michael Mann explores the consequences of multiple compromises in The Insider, a work of astounding filmmaking prowess that along with Heat, is his finest and most mature work. After being fired from the third largest tobacco company in the United States, scientist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) begins to realize how much he has already given up, and what he will have to compromise in the future if he stays silent. He trumps a confidentiality agreement with his old company and becomes the ultimate whistle-blower, telling 60 Minutes the truth about Big Tobacco and cigarette addiction. His family begins receiving death threats and in turn goes through financial hardships, and psychological intimidation. Wigand’s only ally is television producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), their mutual respect for each other shaping the core of Mann’s mosaic. The Insider warrants limitless praise when discussing each and every meticulously placed component, the best and most obvious being Dante Spinotti’s fluid cinematography to the unheralded performance by Crowe. Michael Mann, a filmmaker obsessed with groups, goes out on a limb and lifts his torch to two determined individuals, acting with different interests, but ending up in similar modes of epiphany. The Insider calls attention to the cracks in the relationship between corporations and news, how the former can compromise the other when the really dangerous stories break. This film is even more important now, post 9/11, when the press is often criticized for not asking the hard questions. Michael Mann does, and he brings his patented brilliance for pacing and sense of space to a deeply moving character study and crucial social issue. It’s personal, introverted, consumed by it’s character’s regret, guilt and compromise, and a master class in filmmaking.

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300 (Snyder, 2007)

I can see why the American public has responded so strongly to 300. It’s at times fun, often hypnotic, and completely easy to consume by anyone with ears and eyes. I can also see why the film critics of the world have crushed the film in the press. It’s often boring, brazenly arrogant and aggressive, and most of all, uninspired. Zach Snyder’s sophomore effort (his first feature was the impressive Dawn of the Dead remake) is visually stunning (but what isn’t these days in Hollywood), taking Frank Miller’s graphic novel source material and literally transporting it to high definition glory. But 300 as a story has little substance, no subtlety, and no desire to engage the audience with anything other than fake blood and sweaty torso’s (maybe that does it for some, who knows). It’s lack imagination is staggering considering all of the high gloss and fantastical elements housed within it’s narrative. Snyder zooms in and out of battle sequences as if he was a child on crack, attempting to study every drip of blood while making it look pretty in the process. Once again, I’ve got a deeply rooted problem with performers acting in front of a green screen, and Gerard Butler is the poster boy for terrible overacting to compensate for the lack of physical environment or inspiration. But really, this movie isn’t concerned with acting, or pacing, or themes, or allegories because the filmmakers and studio suits know the American public as a mass doesn’t care either. So we get video games posing as movies, and the result will always be disappointing to those searching for more depth in their entertainment. The rest of you, don’t worry, you’ll be getting your fill of violent, sexy, and flashy fare for a long time. 300 is not so much a film as it is an onslaught of pictures. Sometimes those pictures move slowly, sometimes quickly, but never without a heightened sense of manipulation. This type of hyper kinetic music video manipulation has seeped from the doldrums of MTV into our mainstream film culture. It’s a style where every five year old (yes, there was one in my screening) and other living soul can buy in for the right price, tag a long as countless are slaughtered, and check out without ever really getting emotionally involved. Par for the course these days.

Smaller Screen, Bigger (and Different) Impact: Another Long and Fluid Walk with Children of Men

My favorite film of 2006 has just hit the shelves on DVD, fresh off it’s ridiculous shutout at the Oscars. The Children of Men release has a few documentaries, including a stunning short on the constructing of two long take sequences. The rig Cuaron and his crew built for the car sequence in the woods is nothing short of breathtaking. Which brings me to a segue-way. Since Children of Men has such genius visuals, I wondered how it would translate to the small screen. Like all great films, it got better the second time around, and this small screen experience heightened other aspects once overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring big screen mise-en-scene. Here are a few notes.- The long take sequences as a whole are diminished somewhat on the small screen, mainly because Cuaron has crafted them specifically for a theater experience. But their resonance and relationship with the story still holds water, especially the opening shot explosion.- Michael Caine’s performance as Jasper became a more central part to the story this time. His moments with Theo at the beginning, his character’s choice of music (The Beetles, Radiohead), and later in the film during his parting scene, all add up to the heart and soul of the old guard. Jasper’s collection of appearances in Children of Men create a heartbreaking duality with Theo, and his final tap on the car window, holding his outstretched palm up to Kee’s, elaborates and deepens Curaron’s interest in human connection.- Overall, the humanity of Children of Men shines through even brighter on a repeat viewing, at times overshadowing the brilliant camera work. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the actor’s faces as they maneuver Cuaron’s crashing world – Julian’s face as her neck gushes with blood, Kee’s look of fear as a guard dog sniffs her pregnant belly, and Jasper’s kiss on his wife’s cheek before her last breath. Throughout many of the scenes Theo’s looks of desperation ring louder than the gunshots spraying around him. Even the gypsy lady with the dog, who saves the day toward the end of the film, is crucial to Cuaron’s vision.- Most of all, the pacing of Children of Men is astoundingly focused, a singular trajectory which plays directly into the films themes and motifs. Cuaron purposefully propels Theo into action and he never stops evolving after the first act. I’ve heard complaints about the characters and how one-note they are. I couldn’t disagree more. I didn’t feel more connected and enthralled with a film’s journey than with Children of Men, and for me, that’s what film should be about – even more so when the world is tumbling down before your eyes. This is a masterpiece.

Party Girl (Ray, 1958)

With Party Girl, as in his Jesse James western, Nicholas Ray, infuses little if any innovation in this sometimes inane musical/gangster melodrama. To a great extent, Party Girl is the worst Ray I’ve seen, by a long shot too when you consider his work as a whole. Robert Taylor injects the only sign of life in an otherwise uninspired cast, which is hilarious considering he’s a notoriously bland and wooden actor. Ray jumbles many genres here, intercutting dancing/musical numbers shamelessly showcasing star Cyd Charisse’s physical attributes, then moving back into traditional waters with the rich bitch wife, the two-bit hoods, and the chivalrous prosecutor. The crime end of the picture has even less impact, especially since the storyline involving gangsters, a conflict with their lawyer (played by Taylor) and the inevitable trouble which follows, is on permanent re-cycle, overlapping plot points with reckless abandon. Party Girl, a title so mismatched with the actual story it’s funny, I guess is supposed to show the underbelly of a supposed freewheeling lifestyle paralleled through it’s many cliched characters. But hey, when you’re dealing with such meandering and trite material, it doesn’t matter much. Every director has a stinker, and I’m sure this is Ray’s.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Naruse, 1960)

My first Mikio Naruse picture and it’s a fine introduction to a director obviously in love with character. Naruse definitely has a fondness for balanced widescreen two shots and melancholy close-ups. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs moves at a leisurely pace, following “Mama”, played with a calm but worried demeanor by Hideko Takamine, an aging geisha (at thirty she’s still a stunner) moving through the perilous social nightlife of her profession. Using a soft, minimal voice-over to express it’s female protagonist’s thoughts, the film establishes a longing for completeness, in this instance found through either a husband or a step up as a bar owner. Naruse’s filmmaking style is as smooth as star Takamine’s skin, his camera often stable, but positioned in the corner of a room to see the widest possible angle. As a drama, When a Woman… has it’s best moments at the beginning and end, getting lost sometimes in the middle through repetitive character use and overwhelming melodrama. Naruse sets up a really interesting dichotomy between reality and illusion, especially in the form of certain supporting characters. People who are supposed to be wealthy turn out to have money issues, while other’s who seem stupid end up making the shrewdest professional moves. Mama, often lost in the shuffle between this faux reality and the world of debt, lovers, and aspirations, is not entirely a lost soul. Her character arc is a little fluffy, which makes for a somewhat unsatisfying ending. All the same, Naruse is a fascinating director, and like his heroine’s relationship with her future, appears to be caught somewhere between the poetic grandness of Kurosawa and the lyrical realism of Ozu, both Japanese compatriots working during the same time. Not a bad place to reside if you ask me.

Collateral (Mann, 2004)

collateral

I get hypnotized by the films of Michael Mann. Maybe it’s his meticulous tracking of groups, professionals (on both sides of the law and in between) living within an oblivious outside world, always committed to a hidden code of ethics and respect no matter the situation. Like Melville, and some of John Woo, Michael Mann’s films immerse themselves completely within this collective of insiders, varying sections of men with guns converging on each other with deadly results, but never without rhyme or reason. Mann’s oeuvre is of course glossy, but it’s anchored by a sense of place (often Los Angeles), an intimate knowledge of one’s surroundings (Last of the Mohicans, Manhunter), and the need to battle with others of similar ilk. These confrontations are masterfully shot, showing the process of executing a job, or person, in order to survive. Besides the epic street shootout in Heat, Collateral provides the best example of the modern battlefields of Michael Mann. Collateral, like many other Mann films, feels personal on a grand scale, this time a journey of two men (Max, innocent and Vincent, evil) gliding toward rebirth through the dark and bullet riddled infrastructure of Los Angeles. The many orders of men working within the world of Collateral include the LAPD (best represented by Mark Ruffalo), The FBI, and the Mexican Mafia. As Mann’s gripping Neo-noir character study converges on Club Fever in the latter third of the film, both Vincent and Max induce Collateral‘s ordeal, a staggeringly mature action sequence with multiple layers of meaning. On the surface, Vincent’s massacre of countless security guards and mafia members results in saving Max’s life, a strange shift since we already know he intends to kill Max later. Looking beyond plot, the shootout in Fever represents a hypnotic collision between the common citizens of the outside world, i.e. the hordes of dancers, bar tenders, etc, and the deadly professionals of Mann’s world. Immediately before the shootout begins, Mann pans up the legs of two attractive women dancing erotically together, only to have Vincent storm right through their tango, disrupting a classic “male gaze” moment, and continuing on to carry out his killing spree. It’s clear Mann is not interested in what’s usually used to market and sell Hollywood films. Any other director would hold on the image of the women, maybe even have Vincent look at them, then pass. But not Michael Mann, and this is why his films resonate so beautifully within the classic crime picture genre. His battles have no time or place for distractions, namely because the men taking part use timing and experience to attain victory. They are, in essence, professionals of focus, no matter the moral conundrum raised in the process. Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna in Heat, Crocket and Tubbs in Miami Vice, Nathaniel in Last of the Mohicans, and Will Graham in Manhunter, exist to compete within the world of men like themselves, rising to a challenge often confounded and complicated by loyalties and duties toward those they care for and respect. Collateral, a masterful example of this, shows Vincent and Max as polar opposites, but surprisingly they partake in the same sort of professional experience. The battlefields of Michael Mann often reveal these sort of complex relationships, and while the chrome and glass shatter relentlessly all around, he never lets you forget it’s a fascinating world to lose yourself in.

A Song is Born (Hawks, 1948)

Howard Hawks doing jazz? Sounds strange, but the first half of A Song is Born, which involves a group of sequestered music professors getting introduced to the wonders of Jazz, contains many musical moments which border on bliss. Hawks gathers Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, a many others to perform as themselves within the story, the resulting “jam sessions” a gleeful, eye opening experience for both the older academics and the viewer. Too bad Hawks gets bogged down in the traditional, dame on the run story, which inevitably overwhelms the initial glimmer of musical light. Virginia Mayo plays the femme, and her mole to the academic’s straight men doesn’t ever gel as it should, partly because she and lead prof. Danny Kaye have little chemistry. Why Hawks didn’t try a more improvisational narrative to compliment the great music beats me, but the classical Hollywood studio system might have had something to do with it. A Song is Born turns ugly in the third act, mixing some strangely brutal moments of violence with more story contrivances. The final collective musical rendition reminds why the film seemed to be heading in the right direction, but by this time, A Song is Born has already flushed any of it’s originality down the toilet, replacing it with stale, cliched plot fodder and dumbed down characters.