Public Enemies and The Hurt Locker x 2

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I watched each in the theater again and both hold up as near-masterpieces. Mann’s brilliantly understated use of music stands out on second glance and Bigelow’s consistent examination of the POV feels even more ingenious. Any further praise from me would be redundant, but I plan on analyzing them extensively when released on DVD. If you haven’t seen Public Enemies or The Hurt Locker yet, rush to the cinema ASAP because they are on the tail-end of their releases and demand the big-screen experience.

Public Enemies (Mann, 2009)

Michael Mann’s enthralling period-piece gangster film Public Enemies simultaneously charts the exploits of famed bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who’s leading the team rigorously pursuing him. It might initially seem like a roadmap of familiar material from a virtuoso filmmaker known for his crime films, as battle weary professionals on both sides of the law attempt to outmaneuver each other, inevitably clashing in grandiose shootouts while the everyday man and woman gets caught in the middle. But these auteurist traits become so much more when they merge together forming a stark and haunting vision of sadness and guilt amidst a country slowly drowning in economic depression. Public Enemies relishes, even romanticizes its classical sweeping look at crime and punishment, creating a feeling more akin to Mann’s brilliant Last of the Mochicans than Heat or Collateral.

In the kinetic opening sequence, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) orchestrates a daring prison break from an Indiana maximum security prison. Mann frames Dillinger against the cloudy blue skies as he effortlessly wields a tommy gun against a litany of guards, as Dante Spinetti’s stunning digital photography immediately introduces a seamless yet menacing visual approach. Later, as Dillinger and his cohorts swoop through a bank, the violence becomes close-knit, vital, and incredibly rushed. Each represents a different mode of storytelling, but both show how Mann turns genre iconography into poetry. Public Enemies displays this specific motif throughout to chart a vast collection of characters and scenarios, including Dillinger’s run of successful robberies, Purvis’ work-in-progress man hunt, Dillinger’s falling out with Chicago organized crime because of his media attention, and his short but potent relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Coutard).

Mann connects this breadth of material with a brilliant sense of pacing, pushing temporal notions to the background in favor of meticulous spatial construction, specifically focusing on color and movement as they clash during moments of action. Almost every scene pops with intensity as Mann builds up to the inevitability of Dillinger’s fate. Action and reaction slowly constrict every character until they’re ready to burst, a brilliant Mann device found in everything from Manhunter to Miami Vice. These might not be dimensional characters in the classic sense, but each performance evokes a complex display of emotion, best exemplified by Coutard’s tragic turn. For the first time since Heat, Mann finds his most successful epic form, juggling history and drama through countless characters and relationships, focusing on the minute details and moments inherent to every cinematic downfall but made fresh again by the director’s impeccable visual sense. Most of all, Public Enemies offers a stirring sense of dramatic scope, as Mann’s formalist expertise enables the film to transcend genre and highlight a specific vision of America, a riveting maze of desperation, glamour, weakness, love, violence, and “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”

Cinema Repeated: Films I Return To, Over and Over Again

In the three years since Match Cuts came online, I’ve found myself returning to certain recent films time and time again, trying to endlessly wrap my mind around them. It’s as if these select few works continue to challenge my understanding about filmmaking, writing, and the world around me, even after becoming incredibly familiar.  They’re often incomplete, mysterious, and confounding pieces, seemingly evolving over the course of time, and my repeat viewings are a direct confrontation with their shifting parts. Yet others resonate so perfectly despite their many flaws that the entertainment value actually increases with each viewing. These might not be masterpieces, or even the best films of their respective years, but they might just be some of my favorites since they continue to fascinate me no matter how many viewings. A small list follows, with thoughts for discussion in anticipation of further evolutions.

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Miami Vice (Mann, 2006) –  Michael Mann’s enigmatic cop film functions as a brilliant and cynical sign of the times, where subversive law enforcement factions fail to nab the big fish in the face of grave social danger, settling for a victorious return to the status quo. The strange digital artifice feels absolutely connected to the cold, blue hues of Mann’s stylized vision of moral ambiguity.

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Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Tarantino, 2003) – The best modern action film, not simply because the fight scenes are exquisite, but because the entire narrative boils with cinematic intensity. Music, visuals, and dialogue fuse together forming a calculated, masochistic, and breathtaking postmodern mish-mash. The film is a striking first half of a twin genre juggernaut constantly at odds with itself.

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Just Friends (Kimble, 2005) – Makes me laugh like no other recent film. Maybe it’s Ryan Reynolds’ inspired performance, or Anna Faris’ nut-job pop princess, or the vintage slap stick wackiness, but it all adds up to something unique – a modern comedy devoted to character and smarts over gross out set pieces.

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Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002) – Brash, brutal, and abrasive, but undeniably compelling. A disturbing vision of our nation beginning from spoils of blood, sweat, and revenge. Scorsese’s strange slice of historiography changes with each viewing, equal parts epic, war film, and melodrama. It’s these shifty tones that force the viewer to re-address the work with different eyes.

Future Prospects: Mann and Eastwood

Two of my favorite American filmmakers, Michael Mann and Clint Eastwood, are currently undertaking films of great potential (not surprisingly these are my number one most anticipated movies of 2008 and 2009). Both directors are working in the crime/mystery genre and in period piece settings, rare for Mann, not so much for Eastwood.  Clint’s film Changeling stars Angelina Jolie as a mother who suspects her recently returned son (he was kidnapped) is indeed an impostor, an enticing enough premise under the guidance of such a master. Mann’s gangster saga Public Enemies stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the FED chasing him, and might be the best fit between material and artist in a long while. Pictures of Eastwood’s film can be found all over the Web and aren’t very indicative of the master’s grace and style, but just yesterday the first images of Public Enemies emerged and it’s astonishing how the mere composition of the amateurish photos capture Mann’s signature professionalism. Using the recently released pictures of a supposed Dillinger bank robbery under way, here’s a few notes to peak your interest.    

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One of Depp’s thugs moves his Tommy Gun methodically across the screen.

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Depp’s Dillinger is eerily reminiscent of Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) in Heat

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Mann’s group aesthetics executing beautifully.

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A pitch perfect shot of Depp in the Mann universe.  

SOUND AND FURY: The Opening of Ali (Mann, 2000)

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Even though Michael Mann’s picture of Muhammad Ali feels a tad simplistic when dealing with such a complex figure, the film is equally fascinating for its clash of content and aesthetics. Mann’s opening sequence introduces the legend of Ali in exciting cinematic ways, immediately setting in motion a rhythm of place and experience. Ali opens with what might be the strongest, most ambitious juxtaposition of image and sound in any of Mann’s films.

As the Paramount insignia opens and the credits roll, the bustling sound of voices fill the frame. An announcer comes over the loudspeaker, introducing the “star of our show, Mr. Sam Cooke”. But after the red title card ALI haunts the middle of the black frame, Mann cuts to a medium tracking shot of a lone hooded figure, Muhammad Ali (Will Smith), running through the streets, with February 24, 1964 solemnly placed at the bottom. Cooke’s introduction continues as soundtrack for Ali, until Mann cuts to a blinding medium shot of Cooke’s back as the singer looks out into the darkened club crowd.  Mann continues this cross-cutting between Ali’s training and Cooke’s performance of “Don’t Fight It”, with a glaring difference in style coming from the use of 35MM within the smokey club and digital video for the exterior night shots of Ali (a definite precursor to similar ones in Collateral and Miami Vice). At one point, as Cooke’s kinetic energy begins to infect the club, a policeman pulls up to Ali and asks “what you running from boy?”, only pulling away when responding to a call.

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With this incredible editing, Mann has captured a sense of race, identity, culture, and excitement without uttering more than a few words. As Cooke’s song continues, the crowd in the club (mostly women) get rowdy and interactive with the performer, while Mann cuts to a static handheld shot of Ali meticulously punching a speed bag, now daytime, and in 35 MM. Ali’s hands begin to move in slow motion, Mann staying close on his face, and Cooke’s song slows to a wicked pace. Mann jarringly cuts to the inside of a ring, where the bear-like Sonny Lisen destroys an opponent, then back again close on Ali’s eyes. Liston knocks the other boxer out with a hypnotic punch to the face, then Mann travels to Ali’s focused concentration on the speed bag.

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When Liston exits the ring and talks trash to a well dressed Ali, Mann sets the stage for the first epic bout between muscle and speed. Mann continues to build Ali’s back story through visuals. He cuts to a young Ali (then Cassius Clay) watching his father paint Jesus, then to a bus where an old black man pushes the picture of the body of Emmet Louis Till in his face, both memories scarred into Ali’s brain, all the while Cooke moving from one song to the next in beautiful improvisational style. We see a grown Ali listen to Malcolm X’s musings on race, self defense, and Jesus’ teachings, creating a sense of anger and violence in Ali. As Malcolm’s sermon ends, Mann cuts back to Ali punching the speeding bag, sound fluttering in an out creating a subjective look at the tension inside the man. Ali gives it one last punch, then moves to jumping rope, Mann pulling out to reveal his trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), and entourage which includes good luck charm Bundini (Jamie Foxx) and a host of other starry-eyed onlookers.  As Ali completes his exercises, he points down in a cocky fashion while Cooke’s song crescendo’s into “Bring it on Home to Me”, the atmosphere of both the club scene and gym achieve a wonderful synergy of tone, movement, and impression.

At this transition, Mann reaches a brilliant visual and audio peak, showing how great performers of all kinds share a unique relationship with their audience. Two icons of the 1960’s never share the screen, but Mann makes sure through editing and sound they will be forever linked in terms of importance during his film, a crucial lineage between black artists of all kinds. Impression is everything in the opening ten minutes of Ali, and Mann creates one his film never quite matches for the rest of the 160 minute running time.

Thief (Mann, 1981)

An strange and intriguing debut by one of America’s finest working filmmakers, but upon closer observation Thief isn’t much to fuss about. Yes, it displays Mann’s beautiful visual sensibility, but the lone hero (James Caan’s title burglar) exists in a tepid professional world where the cops, the robbers, and the innocents merge together without much impact. What makes Mann’s later crime films so masterful, the focus of group juxtaposition and dynamic music cues, never comes into play with Thief. Instead, we get a crisp look at an individual working through predictable and sometimes inconsequential genre conventions, with some of the Mann touches slightly elevating the otherwise generic plot-line. One thing’s for sure – Thief gave someone the confidence to let Mann develop as a filmmaker, even though the next project The Keep marked a new low. Manhunter, a few years later, signifies the real birth of the Michael Mann working today.

Heat (Mann, 1995)

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Heat is the apex of the Michael Mann filmography, his masterpiece of crime, mutual respect, and sacrifice. It should be seen on the big screen if possible (all Mann films should) and I had that chance at the New Beverly in Beverly Hills last year. It was a religious experience and brought new found glory to an already revered work, opening up each frame in ways otherwise unseen. Watching so many Mann’s film’s in a row has opened up his view of the world past the surface level of fast cars, gun battles, and professionals at work. HIs films carry a weight with them, often ridden with guilt which his characters constantly attempt to purge through cryptic conversations and hard glances into the night. In Heat, Mann’s benchmark protagonist/antagonist relationship between Neil (Robert De Niro) and Vincent (Al Pacino) shows how each is at war with emotional commitment as well as each other, both battling the desire to settle down into a life of complacency. It’s the be all end all for a Mann hero to be domesticated and Heat seems to be the bible on the complexities which arise when criminals and cops are faced with this decision. Mann’s many supporting characters reveal nuances throughout, given little screen-time but used well within such small spaces of existence. Val Kilmer, Dennis Haysbert, Tom Sizemore, and Jon Voight all give memorable turns as Neil’s group, while Wes Studi, Ted Devine, and Mykelti Williamson make up Vincent’s core of professionals coppers. Spinotti’s crisp cinematography once again highlights Mann’s obsessions with character’s thought processes, specifically his framing of actor’s with their backs to the camera, lost in thought, lost within a world which seems distant and forlorn. In Heat, all of this leads up to a violent, brilliantly staged shootout of stunning efficiency, which finally shows the crippling consequences for playing in Mann’s world. There isn’t a better action sequence ever, and this may be the one instance where hyperbole doesn’t do the work justice. Heat reflects Mann’s impressions of aggression and violence as markers of desperation, men and women cornered by their own mistakes and forced to act accordingly. Survival, in essence, is the only victory imaginable and the greatest currency cops and robbers can take from each other.