Posted on 01 July 2009.
As it is “Michael Mann Week” here at The Film Nest (our first official “person week”), one of the keys to making the whole week fly skyward is the Career Retrospective piece. Mann has been the perfect subject to take a closer look at, as he has a long history of success in film, he has been an innovator, he has a distinct style, and he is renowned for his directorial and writing prowess. He has brought together big name stars, and subsequently made even bigger stars of them. He is a marksman that crafts what are simply some of the most beautiful and tense environments around. He is known for directing realistic action in particular, reaching a plane that few others are on. He is the anti-Michael Bay in that regard, yet can easily go toe-to-toe with him in the action department.
Mann went to London Film School in the 1960’s and after cutting his teeth in various forms of entertainment media, he eventually directed his first feature for cinema with 1981’s Thief. We won’t look at that project here, as it was discussed at length earlier this week in a First Features piece. We wanted to take a brief look at several of the director’s other films though, both home runs and missteps, and perhaps give you some anecdotal information on them along the way. As for Public Enemies, released into theaters this week and in large part the reason for our celebration of Michael’s works at this time, you can get our full review on the film later this week.
The original prequel to the Silence of the Lambs, based on the Thomas Harris novel, this film showed hints of the Mann that we would come to know over the next two decades. An underrated film, better than its reinterpretation in 2002’s Red Dragon by Brett Ratner, Manhunter had little known Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter and William Peterson of “CSI” fame as the FBI agent tracking him. I wasn’t expecting this to be the treat it was when I saw it, but Mann racheted up the tension and scored solid acting from the leads involved.
Neon light in the dark room for "Manhunter."
The vivid color palette that Mann has become recognized for was present here, as he began to develop the artistic camera angles that I love seeing in his films. The emotional struggle that grips Peterson’s character is one of the films highlights as this is far less about Lecter than Demme’s brilliant “Silence” is, but the intensity of a man tracking that serial killer is embodied thoroughly with a director clearly growing into his craft, understanding how to helm a thriller on a ground, realistic, and intense level. Recommended for those that are interested in Mann’s works and also those who have followed Hopkins signature role of Lecter, to see what another capable actor did with the role, long before Hopkins set his face into the half leather mask.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
A decade before Tom Cruise was The Last Samurai, Daniel Day-Lewis was The Last of the Mohicans. DDL is Hawkeye, formerly Nathanial, the adopted white son of Chingachgook and honorary Mohican. The film takes place in 1757, during the French and Indian War as the British and French struggle for control of North America. Cora and Alice, daughters of British Colonel Munro, are escorted from Albany, New York to Fort William Henry, some sixty miles north. Their escort troops are betrayed by a supposed Mohican, Magua, who is actually a member of the Huron tribe, allied with the French. The bloodshed is stopped just short of 100% as Hawkeye and company save the women and their primary escort, Major Heyward from death. Cora grows infatuated with Hawkeye as he does likewise, while politics and war play out around them.
Day-Lewis on the move in "Mohicans."
Michael Mann adapted the film from a 1936 movie of the same name, itself an adaptation of a novel authored by James Fenimore Cooper. Mann flexed his attention-to-detail muscle in a true period piece. The film is renowned mainly for its lush cinematography by Dante Spinotti (their second team-up after Manhunter) and the hauntingly beautiful score by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones. It probably wasn’t too difficult to elicit a strong performance from method actor Day-Lewis, but it proved to be a worthy departure from the criminal tales Mann would become known for. Not the masterpiece its name in hindsight seems to evoke, but a strong entry nonetheless.
The film that catapulted Mann into the consciousness of most. This is a stellar cops and robbers tale featuring a multitude of performers you may not have known by name but rather recognized at the time by face, like Danny Trejo, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haysbert and Amy Brenneman; or a young Ashley Judd opposite Val Kilmer. While it is perhaps most revered as the film that brought Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino together for a film and a special scene of layered dialogue (shot at Kate Mantillini’s on Wilshire Blvd. here in LA), it is equally memorable for Mann’s filming of the intense shootout that we showed in our Classic Scenes earlier this week.
Mann working the cool blue color palette in "Heat."
His filming at dusk, which in my opinion, is one of the most identifiable shot traits he has is ubiquitous here. He will often frame actors in a soft glow that makes them appear to be floating against an atmospheric backdrop. This film defines who Mann is to most more than any other and showed that he could work with the best around, garnering him legions of fans both within and outside of the movie industry. Perhaps strangely, it really didn’t become a mega-hit until video via word of mouth.
The Insider (1999)
I mentioned Mann’s ability to take an actor and catapult their careers forward, well, his partnership with Russell Crowe as a notorious whistle-blower whose life is vastly altered over the course of several years, is almost the thing of legend. Al Pacino plays real-life journalist Lowell Bergman in the semi-biographical piece (that played as a thriller), a film type that Mann would explore more deeply in his next film as well. This is Mann’s finest work to date in my eyes, although that is like splitting hairs when a man has the filmography that Mann has.
A hotel room background comes to life in "The Insider."
Mann ultimately knows that actors are his greatest weapons and he unleashes Crowe, letting him transform from a stable man to one on the brink of collapse. A masterpiece of understated acting bravado, Crowe was recognized with an Oscar nomination (the year he should have won), and Mann a directing nomination, just two of 7, including one for Best Picture that the film would earn. It is not the crowd-pleasing work that fans might have wanted after Heat, but Mann shows a dedication to taking on new challenges and risks, reverting back to simply creating an intensity that few films can rival. Must see cinema.
Mann again shows his skill as a director getting an action hero and former rapper, named Will Smith to morph himself into an acting powerhouse, as he became boxing great Muhammed Ali for this film, both physically and emotionally. Both Smith and Jon Voight, as the charismatic announcer Howard Cosell, would earn Oscar nominations for the film, and a former comedian named Jamie Foxx gave a noteworthy performance as the troubled Bundini Brown, proving he could do drama, something he capitalized on in another biography Ray.
Taking an angle on a 'roided up Smith in "Ali."
This is a film where Mann’s notorious attention to detail actually worked against his audiences wishes. It is very flowing and poetic, as well as a bit long, something that most audiences weren’t looking for, and it was a letdown in that regard marking it as a significant box office misfire, given the star and subject. People usually prefer a more literal biographical translation on screen, and for one with a person as iconic as Ali, the film achieved mixed results. It probably deserves a second chance but is not likely to ever reach the status of some of his earlier works.
This is the film that reset Mann in his “comfort” zone, with superstar Tom Cruise acting opposite Foxx in a pulsating film about the transformation of one man’s life when juxtaposed against the near certainty of death. Cruise locks into his character as Vincent, a hitman out to ice five important members in a trial in a single night. He gives just enough humanity to a hired assassin to make you long to see more of him in these types of roles. Foxx slowly transforms from a wayward, shy cab driver into a confident man with nothing to lose. This is another film featuring lush photography and great music, with Mann balancing the pace of the film with thrilling moments and softer, quieter ones.
Cruise and Foxx playing hide and seek in "Collateral."
Following Mann’s shots, you can tell the seasoning he has had at the helm, not merely shooting a cab driving, where a large portion of the film takes place, but shooting shots of its reflection on buildings, or overhead shots that break up the monotony of the claustrophobic cab space. Upon its theatrical run, this was seen as a slight misfire at the box office, never really taking off (although it trickled to $100 million domestic) as audiences adjusted to seeing a hero turned bad guy in Cruise. Still it warrants repeat viewings to continue to gain appreciation for the work put in by all involved.
Miami Vice (2006)
His most recent effort, save for Public Enemies, was the one that was supposed to rocket the new Crockett and Tubbs to new heights with (a surprisingly portly) Colin Farrell (Tigerland) and Foxx as the iconic duo who were once TV staples. Mann had a role in creating the show for TV in the 80’s; a show that some claimed finally got the full use of color out of television, with the searing heat of Miami etched on celluloid displaying the pastels and neons of the era ever so vibrantly. The film unfortunately, missed for the most part, as it wasn’t as fun as say, Bad Boys, which I think is what people were looking for. It lacked the cool, quirky dialogue from the series and took a rather serious tone, with a plot that was a bit too predictable as it played out on screen.
Mann still had beautiful shots like this in "Vice."
This had a troubled production and the leads never really displayed the sort of chemistry you would expect. Surprisingly, it wasn’t cast as well as most of his other films were without the recognizable faces you saw in nearly all of the aforementioned films. “Vice” was lacking in character development and plot, even though it is by no means a throwaway film. Mann still displays a flair for action, with some exciting boat/water sequences and his signature dusk shots are still present with a notable one of Farrell on a boat in the water near the Miami harbor. Not as bad as it seemed overall, but it crashed hard at the box office and I believe the studio pressured him to finish the film before he was ready, resulting in a misfire nevertheless.
Overall, Mann has had a stellar career; a very nice run. He is not perfect, but taking a closer look at his works has only further heightened the anticipation to see what he does with John Dillinger’s tale, featuring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, in this week’s Public Enemies. Want to know more? Check back this week as we review the film.