Thursday, 22 November 2012

Michael Mann - 9 films for your delectation!

So why Michael Mann and a lifetime of fandom? 

Well, first for me there was this:

Quickly followed by this:

Followed by Pacino and De Niro on the same screen

Russell Crowe acting his arse off!

Followed by this

This underrated gem:

OK, this! And finally:

Unable to track down a copy of Michael's first theatrical release (1981's Violent Streets), we start with his second film, covering all remaining cinematic releases in his cannon of truly great cinema. As with all my film blogs, I have appraised these films from a viewpoint of fandom, love and appreciation, not intending to provide endless trivia or facts and especially avoiding spoilers wherever possible. It is not my intention to spoil any of these movies in any way, more to whet your appetite to watch or re-watch these gems  and to this end I've tried to appraise them in a different way, by detailing a specific scene, character or narrative strand of the film, but keeping plot spoilers to a minimum. Moreover, this a brief catalogue of a lifetime's contribution to cinema from one of it's favourite sons. I hope you enjoy.

The Keep (1983)

"Never touch the crosses. Never"

Based on a novel by F Paul Wilson and screenplay from Director Mann, this 30 year old film is very much a film of it's time. Sadly however, time has not treated this film well and 30 years on looks dated and very much "of it's time". The special effects (before the real advent of CGI) bear this out, as does most of the acting too. The screenplay is good, tight and descriptive but the acting falls somewhat short of showcasing it. A 96 minute film with a stellar cast of past and present acting stars and a soundtrack including two Tangerine Dream tracks that are gems, but a wholly unconvincing second film from Michael Mann.

The premise is simple, the outcome less so: Sent to guard a Citadel or Keep in Romania during the Second World War, the German army stationed there are warned off from doing so by the local caretaker in a typical cryptic manner. The self proclaimed "Masters of the Universe" go against local advice, and unleash some terrible acting and visual effects on the world!

Taking the sparse acting credits are Gabriel Byrne as "Major Kaempffer", Ian McKellen as "Theodore Cuza" and Scott Glen as the mysterious "Glaeken Trismegestus"Despite this not being a favourite of mine, there are genuine highlights, with Director of Photography Alex Thomson brilliantly lighting both the internal scenes within the Keep and especially the vast and wide shots which are an early indicator of Michael Mann's trademarks for future films. The surrounding Alps are brilliantly shown, as is the elongated boat journey to a gorgeous sunset backdrop. Every scene is meticulous, drawn out and never rushed, often cutting to extreme slow motion scenes with an iconic musical score from Tangerine Dream as an accompaniment. The musical score is again "of it's time", with an 80's synthesiser "hum" those of us old enough to remember, do! It's atmospheric and tense throughout, with typical Mann unhurried scenes working the better for it. With some average acting and poor visual effects, this is not a classic though it has certainly gained a cult status over the years. But bigger and greater cinematic releases were but three years hence.

Manhunter (1986)

"I have seen, with wonder and awe, the strength of the great Red Dragon"

Based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris with a screenplay from Director Michael Mann, this is a film now familiar to millions following the far more critically acclaimed 1991 "Silence of the Lambs" (directed by Jonathan Demme) and it's direct remake in 2002 "Red Dragon" (directed by Brett Ratner). For those unfamiliar with this iconic story, a very brief premise:

Enjoying retirement and a life away from murder investigation, "Will Graham" (William Petersen) is coerced into returning to solve the "tooth fairy" investigation by long time friend and boss "Jack Crawford" (Dennis Farina). Will realises he has to deal with his past demons to solve the case and enlists the help of an imprisoned psychopathic killer "Dr Hannibal Lecktor" (Brian Cox) to get inside the mind of the "Tooth Fairy" killer.

My appreciation of this cult, some say classic film, and screen debut of Dr Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecktor (spelt correctly for this film, but revised to Lecter for all future films) will be to draw comparisons with both the 2002 re-make and the heavily influenced 1991 Silence of the Lambs. All three are stand alone films in their own right, but all are connected by narrative strands and characters familiar in all three films. This is also Michael Mann's third feature film and by far and away his most stylish, accomplished, atmospheric and technically brilliant to date.

Will Graham 
(William Petersen)
Brilliantly played by William Petersen, he needs to carry the film and does so excellently. Often talking to himself, piecing the puzzle together whilst watching videotapes of the recently attacked families, it's yet another duality portrayal, of wanting the idyllic family life by the coast, but haunted by his past and seeking redemption with his future. The iconic scenes with Hannibal Lecktor in prison are sparse in comparison with the more detailed and tense scenes in both Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, but the similarities with his character as portrayed by Edward Norton in the 2002 remake are stark and a very direct nod to this 1986 classic. Norton's mannerisms are a mirror to Petersen's portrayal in many ways and not just from the almost direct remaking of the same scenes. The talking to self, the pauses, quizzical looks and expressions are seemingly a direct nod to Petersen's earlier portrayal.

Dr Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox)
Brian Cox has a far smaller role in this 1986 original than I first remembered, and far smaller than Lecter's Anthony Hopkins reincarnation in both Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. In the latter two films, Hopkins is stunning, brooding, dangerous and brilliantly depicted as a calculating psychopath. The character has far more time to breath in the later films, more developed and nuanced. Here, Cox is excellent if a little underused and dare I say it, the only character to appear to have dated along with the film. A minor criticism based on screen time, but also perhaps an unfair criticism when compared to Hopkins majestic performances in the later films.

Jack Crawford 
(Dennis Farina)
Dennis Farina is another stand out performer in the 1986 original, cajoling his friend to return in the hunt for the "Tooth Fairy". A far larger role than that given to Harvey Keitel in the 2002 remake and on a par with Scott Glenn's incredible performance in Silence of the Lambs. No higher praise.

Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan)
Tom Noonan's portrayal as the "Tooth Fairy" aka Francis Dollarhyde remains underrated and superior even to Ralph Fiennes portrayal in the remake. The balance kept between an insane, psychopathic killer and the sweeter natured and wanting to be helpful photographic assistant is brilliantly done in both films, but Noonan's take here is sublime. With the iconic shot of the stocking face mask as a given, it's the touches and that balance that propel this performance. Mann shoots Noonan often slightly out of shot, an arm, a body without a face, and particularly from behind, thus projecting this almost ethereal being, a slight mystery to which all is quickly and brutally revealed. As the film builds to it's climax, it's Noonan's portrayal that is to the fore, the burning jealousy as a colleague accompanies his muse "Reba McClane" (Joan Allen) home, watching home movies of the past/present families he intends to brutally murder, to lying in bed with Reba, torn with desire, and with intentions both good and evil. A brilliant, sublime performance, full of a delicate balance of menace, anxiety and sadistic pleasure.

The Michael Mann influence

From the very opening, this classic is bathed in early Michael Mann trademarks and is produced in league with regular collaborators Dante Spinotti (Director of Photography) and Colleen Atwood (Costume Designer). From the wide shot across a gently lapping beach as the film opens until a beautiful moonlit shot closes the opening monologue, this is a Michael Mann film to marvel at. With a typical meticulous eye for detail and unrushed story telling throughout, the film is also backed by a pulsing 80's style synthesiser "hum", which is vastly superior to the same dated style of his earlier film, The Keep. The original music is credited to The Reds and Michel Rubini and the musical score certainly heightens the film's tension, eeriness and drenching it in atmosphere throughout. Michel Rubini is also credited as composing the wonderful "Graham's Theme".

There are so many iconic Michael Mann/Dante Spinotti styled shots and scenes, the dream cutting into a slow motion nightmare, cutting to explicit photos on public display on an aeroplane, to the beach side shots (day and night) noted above, to a highly effective shot of Will Graham pondering deeply against a rain soaked window backdrop. The best and most effective are saved for Dollarhyde and portray his descent into psychopathy perfectly. A beautiful sunrise wide shot followed by a zoom into Dollarhyde and Reba embracing by a beach side is a supreme example (picture above), however the menace and anxiety that drips through Dollarhyde at Reba's front door, backlit by a street light and shot from below giving Dollarhyde an even taller, more imposing figure, is brilliant. Similarly, the balance between Dollarhyde's psychopathy and softer side is aptly demonstrated when, nervous, unsure and agitated at work with Reba, controlling his psychopathy just and determined to show her a more tender and loving side, we cut to a scene that pleases both Dollarhyde and Reba separately, but while Reba's pleasure is complete, Dollarhyde's "balance" is teetering, threatening to break down again into madness.

Two star supporting roles are worthy of note in addition to the stand out stars of the film, namely Kim Greist as "Molly Graham" and Joan Allen's wonderful portrayal of "Reba McClane". A brilliant film cut to the perfect running time of two hours and though a little dated when compared to it's 2002 remake, it's still far superior. Michael Mann's first classic cinematic offering is born, dripped in 1980's visuals and styles but retains a real verve 27 years since initial release.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

"1757: The American Colonies. It is the 3rd year of the war between England and France for the possession of the continent.

Three men, the last of a vanishing people, are on the frontier west of the Hudson River"

Cue "Hawkeye" (an astonishing Daniel Day-Lewis) running through a dense forest to the backdrop of the film's brilliant main and iconic musical theme "The Gael" by Dougie MacLean. The film's music is it's heartbeat with the above main theme often used throughout, as well as Clannad's "I will find you", however the overall musical score from Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman is a treat and highly recommended. Based on the original novel by James Fenimore Cooper and inspired by previous film adaptations, this screenplay was also written by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe. From a frenetic beginning to a sweet and jovial familial gathering, the back story is quickly established:

Hawkeye, together with Brother "Uncas" (Eric Schweig) and spiritual Father "Chingachgook" (Russell Means) they patrol the surrounding hills where they live in relative harmony despite being situated at the very tip of the frontier and the ongoing war. With the war growing closer to home, they rescue an English army despatch on their way to Fort William Henry. Within this despatch is "Major Duncan Heyward" (Steve Waddington) and two of the Colonel's daughters, one of which is "Cora Munro" (Madeleine Stowe).

Madeleine Stowe is simply excellent as Cora, and the shared scenes with Day-Lewis' Hawkeye are superbly played by both, culminating in the waterfall scene opposite. The Uncas character is a little under used, however the same can't be said for Russell Means' character Chingachgook. Means is superb throughout and the film's moral centre, but an acting performance of great class. Wes Studi is excellent as "Magua", the villian of the piece and small cameo's are well played by Pete Postlethwaite as "Captain Beams", Jodhi May as "Alice Munro" and Maurice Roeves as "Edward Munro". Acting credits of course belong to Daniel Day- Lewis. With the camera seemingly never off him, Day-Lewis is utterly captivating and he also brings out the very best in the actors that surround him. Yet another power house performance and another to add to his CV of film stealing brilliance.

Throughout this joy of a film it's clear that Mann and regular Director of Photography Dante Spinotti have again meticulously planned every scene down to the last detail. It really is a triumph for both, as with the aforementioned brilliant musical score, every scene is perfectly blended together, moving the two hour epic along at a good pace, despite Mann's trademark of wringing every last ounce out of a scene before moving on. Again, the scenes are unrushed and backed by Spinotti's lighting and beautiful wide shots, it's still a joy to watch 20 years since release. The film hasn't aged, is still as affecting as ever and has so many iconic scenes created by the Mann/Spinotti partnership. From an opening short scene of the English army advancing on the village, across a bridge and amidst simple yet effective reflections, to a brutal and violent ambush, brilliantly choreographed and with a constantly moving camera/steadicam and quick flash editing, to another ambush and similar praise throughout.

The final credits fall (pun intended) to two waterfall sequences, one short scene during a climb alongside a waterfall, to the iconic scene inside a waterfall. Mann, Spinotti, Day-Lewis and Stowe all triumph here, as does the accompanying musical score and Costume Design from Elsa Zamparelli. Yet another Michael Mann masterpiece was guaranteed.

Chingachgook (Russell Means) Also deserves great credit for his portrayal here and for his other wonderful acting credits throughout his career. I consider myself very fortunate to have listened to many interviews with Russell as he was forthright and not backward in coming forward as a Libertarian political activist and strong activist for the rights of the Native American People.

Born: 10th November 1939
Died: 22nd October 2012

Heat (1995)

"Have no attachments. Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner"

With typical Michael Mann understated and minimal opening credits, it's interesting to immediately note that both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are noted jointly as top billing, and rightly so. However, it's De Niro who enters the screen first after another typical Mann style opening, gentle, stylised and glossy, as a train passes the camera and into the station. "Neil McCauley" (Robert De Niro) is introduced via a slow motion panning camera, however this is quickly replaced as we follow his frenetic edited walk through a hospital to his ultimate goal, to steal an ambulance. We're briefly introduced to "Lieutenant Vincent Hanna" (Al Pacino) however this is brief and we're back to McCauley's "tight crew" of robbers.

Val Kilmer is excellent, if a little underused, as "Chris Shiherlis", Tom Sizemore similarly as "Michael Cheritto" and cameos from Danny Trejo as "Trejo" and Kevin Gage as "Waingro" make up McCauley's team. Donning hockey masks we follow their pursuit of their first target, a bank securities vehicle carrying valuable bearer bonds. A brutal and bloody heist later, the first of many, welcomes you to Michael Mann's "Heat".

With a tight screenplay again penned by Mann himself and his regular partnership with Director of Photography Dante Spinotti intact, this all time classic is a brilliantly layered piece of cinematic history. Far more than a genre shoot out/heist film, familial breakdowns, intrigue, suspense and friendship are all on show, and showcased by acting talents at the very peak of their careers. My favourite Michael Mann film which 17 years since release has not aged a day and is a true master class in film making. 

A male dominated film, yet the female leads and supporting roles deserve a special mention. Amy Brenneman plays "Eady" Neil McCauley's muse, with a gentle, yet heartbreaking style, with Diane Venora as Vincent Hanna's wife "Justine" the opposite, tough, hardened and seeking more from her husband. Special praise for yet another great performance from Ashley Judd as "Charlene Shiherlis", similarly for a young Natalie Portman as "Lauren" who as long ago as 1995 added another superb acting credit to her young career.

In addition to the all star cast already named there are also further supporting and cameo roles from a superb as always Jon Voight as "Nate", Mykelti Williamson as "Sergeant Drucker", Dennis Haysbert as "Donald Breedan" and William Fichtner as "Roger Van Zant". Jeremy Piven, Tone Loc and a returning Tom Noonan are also notable cast members in minor cameo roles.

The film is renowned and celebrated for two short key scenes within it's glorious length of nearly three hours. So without further ado, my amateur treatment of those key scenes:
"Face to Face" 

With the first introduction of a distinctive music track (Moby's "New Dawn Fades") as a thumping prelude, Vincent Hanna pursues Neil McCauley until, flashing him down and briefly speaking at the roadside, both the Lieutenant and his prey go for a coffee. Going down as one of recent cinema's most iconic moments, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino share screen time for the first time in a short six minute scene and as with a number of scenes throughout the film this scene in particular is based on real life events as thoroughly researched by the Director leading up to the making of the film.

Shot in a regular, busy diner with four camera angles in total. A long shot across each other's shoulders, plus a similar but tighter zoom shot. The scene is edited far longer than usual, allowing both actors to breathe and play out their, at times, jovial conversation. Despite the positions each other hold in the film, the conversation veers from their respective histories, to family, their dreams and aspirations, even their respective failings. Most of their conversation is known to the other, yet they play their "parts" straight, not wanting to give away valuable insights and yet, they are playful at times, smiling (sometimes wryly) at each other. Pacino's Hanna rarely looks away from De Niro's McCauley, however De Niro stares at Pacino the entire time, never averting his gaze. A gem of a scene.

 "I am never going back"

Hanna: "You never wanted a regular type life?"

McCauley: "What is that? Barbecues and ball games?"

Hanna: "I don't know how to do anything else".

McCauley: "Neither do I"   

"The Bank Heist" 

Walking out of a seemingly successful bank robbery, we are about to see seven minutes of pure Michael Mann genius. Unaware of the Police moving in, smiles abound in the getaway car from McCauley, Michael Cheritto and the newly acquired driver however Van Kilmer's Chris Shiherlis smile is replaced with concern and repeated gun fire as the gang come under attack. A ferocious gun fight ensues, the most bloody and violent of the film, with Mann quickly moving the camera(s) in all directions and with quick editing disorientating the audience. Trying to make their escape leads to two further iconic Mann shots, of the getaway car and it's occupants firing in all directions, and McCauley, seeing danger ahead firing ferociously through the wind shield in slow motion.

With the getaway driver killed, the gang try to make their escape on foot against a backdrop of a wall of police cars in one direction and Pacino's Hanna running at them from the other. With frenetic editing between all main characters and close ups of their running battles, the scene continues at a pace, with a constant fire fight, and the camera(s) again seemingly right in the middle of the action. Chris is downed with a shot to the shoulder and McCauley comes to his aid, and firing their way through the remaining police lines, there is a brief lull in the fire fight.

During this very brief lull in the firefight the camera pans around at a scene of utter carnage and destruction, dead and injured police officers litter the street and police cars riddled with bullets are scattered everywhere. McCauley and Chris try to make their escape, now with Hanna in pursuit. Making their way through a busy car park and McCauley holding off the police, they make their escape and we quickly cut to Tom Sizemore's Michael doing likewise. Using a child as a human shield he attempts to make his escape, still on foot but in the other direction, however he is quickly tracked down by Hanna and shot through the head, bringing the seven minute, breathtaking scene to a close.

This masterpiece is far more than a brutal shoot out. 17 years on it still looks as fresh and as engaging as ever, and a genuine piece of cinematic art. Director of Photography Dante Spinotti deserves enormous credit alongside his Director Michael Mann for so many iconic scenes not already noted in this brief appraisal. In addition to the two brief scenes and brief opening noted there is a further two and a half hour film scattered in between of true genius. As well as bringing life to so many iconic scenes there are numerous more subtle touches brought to the film by Mann and Spinotti. The blue scenes of McCauley's apartment are superb and blend together with other colour themes throughout all of Mann's films. There are many night time scenes throughout, of wide panning shots of the city from helicopters and always a constantly moving camera and sharp edited camera angles from multi cameras.

As with all classic films, Heat is accompanied throughout by a pulsing, throbbing musical score from Elliott Goldenthal and a brilliantly eclectic choice of music tracks from Moby, Brian Eno, Passengers, Lisa Gerrard and William Orbit to name but a few. The soundtrack to the film is highly recommended. A film that endures over time and still looks pinpoint and vivid today as it did when I first watched it in 1995.

The Insider (1999)

"This guy. He's the ultimate insider"

This, my second all time favourite Michael Mann film is an absolute joy, a film I never tire of re-watching and a film with Al Pacino on top notch form, and where Russell Crowe act's his damn arse off! But more of that later.

Based on the Vanity Fair article "The Man who knew too much" by Marie Brenner and exquisitely shot by returning Director of Photography Dante Spinotti, this is a Michael Mann film and a director at his sublime best. With a tight screenplay also written by Mann and Eric Roth, it is Mann to the fore as a Director supreme, with literally every scene crafted to the nth degree. Unrushed at nearly three hours long, it's a stylish, engaging, insightful and shocking piece of cinema, brilliantly acted by a stellar cast of Christopher Plummer, Philip Baker Hall, Stephen Tobolowsky and Michael Gambon to name but a few, who bring real life characters to the big screen expertly, together with two leading men in thunderous, captivating form. Together with a superb original musical score from Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard, you have a bona fide (if criminally overlooked) Michael Mann masterpiece.

From a frantically edited beginning through heavily guarded Hezbollah dominated streets we're introduced to "Lowell Bergman" (Al Pacino) for the first time, blindfolded and awaiting his audience with a local Sheik. Cutting quickly to a vastly different scene whereby we meet "Jeffrey Wigand" (Russell Crowe) for the first time and follow his exit from work and from a boisterous party he clearly wasn't invited to. Interwoven throughout are family backgrounds to both, death threats and intense intimidation towards Jeffrey Wigand and the seemingly more serene, if pressured, working environment for Lowell Bergman. Bergman is a Producer for CBS News and their flagship "60 Minutes" investigative program, whereas Wigand is/was Head of Research and Development at Brown & Williamson, a tobacco company. Bergman's and Wigand's lives collide when, seeking an informed opinion on fire rates/fire safety for his 60 Minutes segment, Bergman approaches Wigand to become a consultant on the segment. As below there are numerous references to the news of the day woven into the narrative such as two newspaper references to the recently acquitted OJ Simpson, all of which is brilliantly and vividly brought to life by Spinotti's eye for detail and brilliantly captured cinematography.

Within the interwoven 60 Minutes and CBS back story we are introduced to some stunning supporting roles, from Philip Baker Hall as "Don Hewitt", Michael Gambon as "Thomas Sandefur" and particularly Christopher Plummer's brilliant portrayal of "Mike Wallace", Bergman's CBS Partner. There are also wonderful supporting performances Diane Venora as "Liane Wigand", Jeffrey's put upon and struggling to cope wife, Stephen Tobolowsky as "Eric Kluster" and Hallie Kate Eisenberg as "Barbara Wigand".

Rather than a continued back story I've chosen to concentrate on the real heart of the film and the shared scenes between two actors at the very top of their games. With no other real actor/character involvement I wanted to give a flavour for this tense classic from their joint scenes, their incredible performances, and from Mann's brilliant direction.

Their tense first meeting (apologies for the poor picture quality) is in an anonymous hotel room with awkward pleasantries over it becomes a two camera shoot, over each other's shoulder looking at the other. Their first meeting quickly establishes their vastly different characters with Pacino's Bergman tenacity and verve for a story to the fore, whereas Crowe's Wigand is stiff, still, meticulous and efficient.

Following a heated stand off in the rain outside of the car, Bergman agrees to join Wigand and they share two similar car scenes (one raining, one not). Two cameras used in both scenes whereby Wigand tries to gain dominance in both of their conversations before Bergman cleverly lightens the first discussion with a passing joke and ends the second with a crushing clarity on Wigand's insider position, it's positives and it's consequences for his life and family. Shortly thereafter follows another key dual scene which again commences light hearted and jovial and simply two men enjoying a Japanese meal together. Bergman however grows visibly tired of the games extremely quickly:

"You go public, and 30 million people hear what you gotta say, nothing, I mean nothing.......I mean nothing, will ever be the same again"

Bergman and Wigand share two very brief scenes (day and night) standing outside a Court House. These are the quietest, most reflective of the film, with the night time cinematography from Spinotti is a real joy.
Their final "joint" screen time is their last telephone conversation. Wigand, unravelling and frantic with Bergman pacing up and down a beautifully lit beach. There have been several small similar telephone conversations, each of which is key to the narrative and displays the deterioration of both men, but this scene in particular showcases two of our greatest acting talents.

A film about an insider within the big tobacco industry whose life is torn apart for daring to tell the truth, but it's so much more than that. I love this film to ridiculously high levels despite it's elongated telephone calls, exposition and court room scenes which prolong the film a little longer than necessary. Nominated for seven Oscars in 2000 but no successes in either of the categories Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing or Best Sound. All cruelly overlooked for a marvellous film which shines a light on corruption within our vaunted and supposedly neutral media and their collusion with "big" industry. Three nominations for Michael Mann and one for Dante Spinotti were just reward for this astonishing film, as was the nomination for Russell Crowe and his career best and career defining performance. I've deliberately left the picture below until last, as it comes mid-way through a singular Russell Crowe scene, with the background painting slowly morphing into something altogether different. It's an incredible touch from the Director, perfectly encapsulating where his character is, his frame of mind and a brilliant metaphor for a masterpiece of a movie. 

Ali (2001)

"But I ain't going no ten thousand miles to help murder and kill other poor people"

Opening Scene - February 24th 1964

Over basic opening credits and to the strains of a brilliant version of Sam Cooke's "Bring it on home to me", we're introduced to "Cassius Clay" aka "Muhammad Ali" (Will Smith) for the first time on an early morning training run. Anonymous in grey white sweatpants and top, with a passing police car and policeman asking "what are you running from, son?" the angles are all acute, both on Sam Cooke and Cassius Clay, shot from behind, underneath, with Cooke particularly obscured and purposely so, as he sings live on a stage to an enthralled and baying crowd. The opening two minutes are a juxtaposition between the two, a singing and soulful Cooke in front of his adoring crowd, Clay anonymous on yet another early morning training run.

Training run over, the action cuts to a montage of Clay training on his speed ball in the gym, inter cut with images of his next opponent "Sonny Liston" (real life ex boxer Michael Bentt) and Clay's early life of "Coloureds Only" bus trips and of being with his Father "Cassius Clay Senior" (Giancarlo Esposito) as a young child, watching the painting of an image of Jesus Christ in a church and quickly edited to a teenage Cassius Clay, standing at the back of a church whilst "Malcolm X" (Mario van Peebles) preaches to his community, with a young Cassius Clay enthralled and transfixed. The camera here never moves from Smith and is one of the quietest and perfectly placed scenes of the entire film. Throughout all of this early exposition, the segments themselves have been brief but effective, and always backed by an inter cut back to Sam Cooke and his adoring crowd. During the speed ball training particularly and the inter cut imagery, Clay is wide eyed and staring straight ahead, one camera directly on Smith, only cut away for either the back story imagery or his reflection in a nearby mirror as he trains, before a close up zoom brings his speed ball training to an end.

With Sam Cooke's rendition (still inter cut as we go) coming to a rousing finale' we join Clay again in the gym, and very brief introductions to his long time trainer "Angelo Dundee" (Ron Silver), "Howard Bingham" (Jeffrey Wright) and "Bundini" (Jamie Foxx) with his immortal early line "Can I be in your corner, young man?". But it's Smith as the young Cassius Clay who really excels now, with pitch perfect replicas of Clay's punching style, sounds and mannerisms, all with trademark wide eyed stare all with the nodding approval of his back up team. 

The opening scene closes with three brilliant merging segments, a slow motion captured car ride to his pre fight weigh in with his team of Angelo Dundee, Bundini and Howard Bingham, to Clay (anonymous white robe) and team marching along an arena corridor toward the weigh in, and as Sam Cooke's rendition closes in dramatic fashion, so Clay bursts through the door to the weigh in with Smith on imperious form as he rattles off some of Clay's early immortal lines "You ain't no Champ, You're a Chump!" "Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee" "Rumble young man Rumble" "You want to lose all your money - Bet on Sonny" "He knows I'm great, he'll fall in eight" and forever taunting Sonny Liston with "Come on you big ugly bear, I'll whup you right now". This breathless opening scene closes with the first of many gentle, teasing inter plays with legendary boxing commentary and journalist "Howard Cosell" (John Voight). 

This opening scene lasts a breathless 11 minutes, 30 seconds.

I love this opening so much, despite it being a little over the top and the throwing together of too many main characters early in the film. But it's a joy nonetheless, and backed by a sublime cameo from David Elliott as "Sam Cooke" it's utterly brilliant and sets the stage for a staggering film.

Closing Scene - October 30th 1974

With a slowly moving camera behind, we follow a white robed Muhammad Ali all the way as he marches through the stadium's last corridor and out into the cacophony of noise that is the Mai 20 Stadium, Kinshasha, Zaire for his "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight showdown with George Foreman. Brilliantly depicted by Mann and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the camera finally spins full circle around Ali as he takes in the sight that greets his arrival. With the frenzied crowd shouting his name, Ali enters the ring and shadow boxes as he awaits the arrival of the Champion, George Foreman. With quick editing and obscure shots of Ali's boots and shots from between the ring ropes and from above we quickly cut to the arrival of the red robed Foreman.   

It has to be said and noted that the fight itself is impeccably brought to life and recreated in every respect and has clearly been choreographed, planned and meticulously shot to the nth degree by Mann. Both boxers mannerisms are again perfect, Foreman's heavy set style and punching power is expertly portrayed, as is Smith's Ali, ducking and weaving, his stout upright hands in defence, the pushing away of Foreman's advances and especially Ali's trademark wide eyed stare. All brilliantly portrayed and I'd recommend watching the actual fight again on Youtube should you get the opportunity to contrast and compare, and to appreciate the human feats these champions aspired to.

Beginning with the stand off/stare down before the opening bell and Ali's parting shot of "You should never have come to Africa" to the thorough albeit brief, round by round depiction is supreme film making. The fight itself is brutal, filmed up close with numerous zooms and edits as Foreman gives Ali a fearful pounding, round after round. Ali, adopting his "rope a dope" style of taking Foreman's best punches on his arms and body to tire his opponent are brilliantly shown and Smith rightly takes centre stage as the film draws to it's conclusion. Occasionally cutting away to his corner men, wife in the baying crowd or to Howard Cosell commentating at ring side, the film always cuts back to Smith as Ali, his mid round stares at his opponent, or his mid round orchestrating of the crowd as they sing repeatedly "Ali - Bumaye!" ("Ali - Kill Him!"). 

Despite the fearful pounding, Ali taunts Foreman with "Is that all you got?" "Punching like a sissy, George" and "Running out of gas, big fella?" before his iconic (and brilliantly recreated) beating of Foreman to end the fight. The re-creation of the fight doesn't stop there as (being the geeky fan I am) Ali's antipathy towards Don King is brilliantly shown, as is Ali's exhaustion as he sits on the canvas of the ring, to Angelo Dundee punching the air in delight, which always raises a smile in me!

This closing scene lasts a brilliant 16 minutes.

For a biased Muhammad Ali fan like me, the film depicts ten years of an incredible life, his religion, his refusal to join the USA Army, his marriages, his faults and his absolute majesty. Michael Mann clearly made this film out of love for Ali as it drips through the film and rightly so. The accompanying musical score throughout from Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard is a joy too, leaning heavily on Sam Cooke tracks such as "Twisting the Night Away" and "It's All Right" amongst many, many others. The soundtrack is highly recommended as a stand alone CD in it's own right with numerous further tracks including Moby, Bob Dylan, Alicia Keys and wonderful original music from Bourke and Gerrard.

The principal players:

Will Smith - "Cassius Clay" aka "Muhammad Ali" - Supreme, majestic performance.
Jamie Foxx - "Bundini" - Sublime performance, cruelly overlooked for Oscar nomination.
Jon Voight - "Howard Cosell" - Oscar nominated performance & best of a great career.
Mario Van Peebles - "Malcolm X" - A supporting role of nuanced brilliance.
Ron Silver - "Angelo Dundee" - Criminally small supporting role.
Jeffrey Wright - "Howard Bingham" - Another great performance in a glittering career.
Jada Pinkett Smith - "Sonji Roi" - Important cameo & chemistry with real life husband.
Nona Gaye - "Belinda Ali" - Stand out supporting role.
Barry Shabaka Henley - "Herbert" - As above, another stand out role in support.
Giancarlo Esposito - "Cassius Clay Senior" - Underused supporting role, but important.

Collateral (2004)

"Max. I'm Vincent"

With a slightly different take on this overlooked classic in the cannon of Michael Mann, I'm going to appraise the first twenty minutes of this breathtaking and sublime movie:

With no opening credits we are straight into the film and a casual collision between "Vincent" (Tom Cruise) and "Airport Man" (Jason Statham) whereby briefcases are exchanged. Quickly cut to our second main character "Max" (Jamie Foxx) awaiting repairs on his taxi. More quick cutting between Vincent and Max sets the scene for the film, of differing people, differing lives and differing motivations. Vincent is seemingly cool and in control, well dressed and appearing to be travelling to a business meeting, whereby Max is casually dressed and more pressed, pressured and wanting to go about his day and earn a living. It's abundantly clear just minutes into the film that this is a Michael Mann production, with trademark quick editing, constant mixes of long and close up zooms and particularly long and well used overhead crane shots. It's stylised, glossy and typical Mann, using the bright lights of the city as a backdrop wherever possible and continually focusing on these via reflections in the taxi windows. Two Directors of Photography were used on this film and both deserve credit for their achievements, as when within the confines of Max's taxi, their work is expertly shown. Take a bow Messrs Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron! Adding to the stylised feel is a fantastic musical score from James Newton Howard.


Foxx as Max dominates the opening fifteen minutes, often staring at his postcard of a Maldives beach and taking a few seconds before driving to his next pick up. With two dashboard cameras, one directly on the face of Max and one on Max and the back seat customer, you are immediately immersed in his world and of his reactions to his customers telephone conversations and observations. Picking up "Annie" (Jada Pinkett Smith), Max visibly softens and their interplay builds to a gentle teasing and flirting, backed by the brilliant "Hands of Time" by Groove Armada, and as Annie departs, Max hands her the postcard of the beach and receives her telephone number in exchange.

The gorgeous beginning of the film continues to the strains of Bach's "Air on a G String" as Vincent now enters the taxi and through their awkward inter play it becomes apparent their world's could not be any further apart. Vincent, prone to speaking in bursts of statements and so called truths, whilst a now more melancholic Max is quieter and more reflective. This perfectly crafted opening twenty minutes comes to a conclusion with a simple, if pressured, offering from Vincent. Several hundred dollars if Max will be his unofficial chauffeur for the evening whilst he visits five friends in the city, with an extra bonus if he makes his early return flight. Reluctantly accepted, the beautiful and gentle beginning is shattered as Vincent's first victim of the evening crashes on top of the taxi. A stunning and sublime Michael Mann masterpiece has begun.

With cameo and supporting performances from Mark Ruffalo as "Fanning", Barry Shabaka Henley as "Daniel" and Javier Bardem as "Felix" set against a backdrop of superb set pieces in a nightclub, a jazz club and a riveting train sequence, this film moves along at a good pace and always retains that Michael Mann ingredient of stylistic violence, intrigue and tension. The jazz club scene in particular encapsulates all of this (and more) as we see three friends seemingly enjoying each other's company, sharing stories and laughs and a shared love of jazz. Cut and edited quickly between the three, mainly head shots throughout with the editing gaining speed, the tension increases as the laughs and smiles fade. 

Another telling yet short scene leads to the main theme of the film, that of human nature and our roles within it and of Vincent's detachment from everything to achieve his goals. Sitting at a red light, the first of the film as Max is fond of saying "I got lucky with the lights" first one, then another wolf crosses a busy suburban road, oblivious to life surrounding them. A small and important metaphor for the film.

With a brilliantly written screenplay from Stuart Beattie, it's the two leading roles that unsurprisingly dominate the film, their differing lives, attitudes and beliefs a central core. Vincent is a methodical, technical and detached cold blooded killer. He lives his life seemingly as though every day or every hour could be his last and mocks Max for not doing the same, for living in a future that isn't attainable and chasing dreams that can't be caught. Vincent goads and pushes Max to the point where Max begins to regurgitate his phrases and sayings. Their scenes together in the taxi are key, as we begin to understand each character, and see their constant psychoanalysing of each other seeing their merits and faults, frailties and redeeming features. A gem of a film that thoroughly deserved it's sparse two Oscar Nominations and deserved many more. However Jim Miller and Paul Rubell were deservedly nominated for Best Editing and Jamie Foxx rightly acclaimed and nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Miami Vice (2006)

"Let's take it to the limit one more time"

With no opening credits we're straight into this 2006 adaptation of the popular TV series of the same name. Rather than a back story and/or short premise, here's the opening twenty minutes to whet your appetite:

Opening with a nightclub scene and assorted great music tracks "Numb/Encore" from Jay Z/Linkin Park and Nina Simone's "Sinnerman" particular stand outs, I'll start this appraisal by saying the music and musical score from John Murphy is the film's great redeeming feature!!! Back to the film itself, and we're introduced to "Sonny Crockett" (Colin Farrell) and "Ricardo Tubbs" (Jamie Foxx) via an obscured, over the shoulder steadicam shot as the camera follows their eyes around a crowded nightclub. Assisted by "Trudy Joplin" (Naomie Harris) and a small team, they continually seek their targets amidst the great soundtrack, frenetic editing and the first of numerous product placements!

Michael Mann's directorial skill is immediately apparent, from the frenetic editing to the close in and close up camerawork, weaving through a packed nightclub. It's stylised and stylish, and none more so than when Crockett and Tubbs exit onto a rooftop area and the brightly lit, glossy and stylised Miami skyline shines in the background. Very typical Michael Mann. As is the next short scene, a fast paced drive to intercept "Alonzo Stevens" (a cameo from criminally underrated actor John Hawkes) an informant who, racked with guilt  is about to meet a bloody end. Armed with Alonzo's information, another fast paced, quickly edited drive is curtailed by FBI bosses who request Crockett and Tubbs stay away and we cut away from the two protagonists for the first time.

Flash forward to a drug deal that goes awry (with typical Michael Mann slow motion shots of two dealers meeting their end inside a car) and a violent and bloody shoot out. Cut to Crockett and Tubbs arriving at another rooftop (again beautifully lit, not by regular Director of Photography Dante Spinotti, this time by Dion Beebe) and a meeting with "Agent Fujima" (the always brilliant Ciaran Hinds) and "Castillo" (Barry Shabaka Henley) who are running a FBI sting to apprehend the gangs responsible for the carnage so far. Crockett and Tubbs are given an assignment: infiltrate the gangs.

The two closing segments of the opening twenty minutes include a Michael Mann heavy stylised robbery and explosions and introduction to another wonderful, if too short cameo from the brilliant Eddie Marsan as "Nicholas". The opening twenty minutes are breathless at times, brilliantly shot and edited, so what went wrong? First off, I'm no actor and I rarely criticise actor's performances as I'm prone rather to criticise the Director for not involving them more or providing the screenplay for their undoubted talents. Secondly, I'm not a very good amateur critic! It's just a passion of mine. And thirdly I'm a huge fan of Colin Farrell, however he's not very good here. He's also not helped by some continuity shots whereby he seems at a loss and completely different (facially, using his facial communications completely at odds to previous cut) which is jarring at best, disconcerting at worst. Li Gong as "Isabella" struggles too. Together with the above named cameos and supporting roles, Jamie Foxx is excellent and almost redeems the film. Almost!

The pictures above and opposite are Michael Mann at his supreme best and there are other redeeming features in this film, the already noted steadicam shots, fast editing and stylish settings brilliantly shot. This felt, both at the time and on re-watching to be Mann's "quickest" paced film, with scenes often almost colliding together rather than playing out unhurriedly and at their own pace. A minor criticism on an otherwise forgettable film. Although not a fan of the TV series (although I watched I was never an every week without fail fan), I looked forward to this very much in 2006, and was disappointed. I still am now.

Public Enemies (2009)

"It is the fourth year of the Great Depression. For John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis and Baby Face Nelson it is the golden age of bank robbery"

Based on the book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34" by Bryan Burrough, with a screenplay from Mann himself plus Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, the film is set in 1933 and the final year of John Dillinger's life. Typically with no opening credits we are immediately into the film and a bloody and violent escape from prison sets the tone, introducing us to "John Dillinger" (Johnny Depp), a charismatic bank robber and soon to be Public Enemy Number One. The film has three distinct narrative strands:

John Dillinger and his team of bank robbers: Johnny Depp takes centre stage as almost a people's champion and at a stretch, a modern day Robin Hood, ably assisted by great performances from Jason Clarke who is stunning as "Red Hamilton", another stand out cameo from Giovanni Ribisi as "Alvin Karpis" and Stephen Graham criminally (pun intended) underused as "Baby Face Nelson". Though his violent and bloody bank robberies are for his and team's aggrandisement only there is a larger story to be told and a rebellion against the inequality of an organised society. Shot in shadow for most of the film, a metaphor for both Dillinger and the film as a whole, we follow Depp's Dillinger to lavish restaurants and horse racing meetings with Dillinger flamboyant and enjoying his almost anonymous notoriety. The press conferences where Dillinger virtually holds court are particular stand outs, and of Depp's prowess.

John Dillinger and Billie Frechette: Marion Cottilard is superb, again, as "Billie Frechette". The shared scenes with Dillinger are the film's heartbeat as you'd expect, but are also tender and affecting as their interplay is so well done by Depp and Cotillard. Two small scenes with "Bye Bye Blackbird" as the musical backdrop are a joy and a highlight of numerous period styled musical choices.

Melvin Purvis and his law enforcement team: Ambitious, and appointed Chief Investigator by a brilliant Billy Cudrup as "J Edgar Hoover", Christian Bale stars as "Melvin Purvis". Not a powerhouse performance from Bale, and nor is that a criticism. More nuanced and purposeful, he comes into his own during his first meeting with Dillinger and during numerous chase scenes and violent shoot outs. Mann always leaves a camera lingering on Bale after a shoot out death, yet the stoicism in relation to the act itself never changes. Again not a criticism as Bale is excellent and the most engaging of all the characters portrayed.

This is without doubt a Michael Mann film, but for me the least engaging of his recent releases. A minor criticism but due in part to the first hour or majority of Acts 1 and 2 being slow and ponderous at times, with little or no engagement. However a violent and elongated shoot out at a safe house towards the end of Act 2, which morphs into a gun battle through a dark forest and a further firefight and car chase scene, soon propels the story forward and is pure Michael Mann at his very best. The final hour of the film definitely compensates for the sluggish opening. Director of Photography Dante' Spinotti deserves special praise for lighting and enhancing the shadow effects throughout and producing at times, a noir like feel. Regular collaborator and Costume Designer Colleen Atwood again deserves praise for the period dress and styles used. Stylised and stylish, with a minimal soundtrack but a thumping bluegrass style to the film's major track, this is a real joy. The last word goes to director Mann and an iconic scene, short and poignant and perfectly encapsulating Mann's brilliance. Dillinger sitting in a cinema watching "Manhatten Melodrama" starring Clark Gable, with Dillinger the absolute mirror image of screen star Gable. A joy of a scene and a great touch from a Director supreme.

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