Films about drug cartels come with certain expectations, mainly about bad things. From Scarface (1982) to Traffic (2000) to Sicario (2015), drug cartels have a cinematic reputation (as well as a real world one) for brutality and viciousness. Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator continues this trend, but with the violence kept as a simmering expectation rather than foregrounded. Instead, and wisely, the film emphasises the strain upon identity and sympathies in this based-on-fact story, in which US Customs agent Robert Mazar (Bryan Cranston) goes undercover as a money launderer and forms multiple connections with senior figures in the cartel of Pablo Escobar. Playing like a combination of Donnie Brasco (1996) and Miami Vice (2006), The Infiltrator is stylishly shot, including two bravura long takes that track Mazar through complex locations, and conveys an effective sense both of the late 1980s and the intricate interconnections of drug suppliers and law enforcement. The film’s master stroke, however, is the incorporation of global finance into its narrative, with Mazar meeting with Panamanian bankers and having to negotiate with the US Federal banking system as part of his operation. This aspect links the film to other economically inflected films, such as The International (2009), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) as well as 99 Homes (2014) and The Big Short (2015). The Infiltrator‘s blending of contemporary concerns over global finance with the generic elements of an undercover thriller indicate Hollywood’s continued and fascinating engagement in this cultural discourse.
Earlier this year, I reported that it was very pleasing to see that most of the audience for Zootropolis were over twenty. I had a similar experience when viewing Kubo and the Two Strings – ostensibly a film aimed at a young audience – in an auditorium with no small children in sight. They missed out, for Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the year’s delights. A fine cast including Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and Matthew McConaughey add lively and emotional voices to director Travis Knight’s stunning visuals, as Kubo and the Two Strings blends drama, humour, heartbreak and action in a seamlessly splendid world of the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) on the run from his malevolent grandfather, the Moon King (Fiennes). Aided by a sentient monkey (Theron) and a samurai warrior trapped in the body of a giant beetle (McConaughey), Kubo embarks on a mystical quest aided by his magical shamisen that grants life to his origami creations. The visual invention of the film begins at the level of Kubo’s artistry and steadily escalates, with pratfalls that are very funny (mainly involving Beetle), thrilling action sequences involving Kubo’s aunts (Mara), and some moments that are genuinely scary. This is to the film’s credit, as while the scary moments may be strong for small children, they need not be prohibitive and ensure that the film does not lose its nerve. Perhaps the ending is a little soft, but it does provide a fitting ending to a sumptuous and enthralling tale of storytelling, magic and artistry.
In my last post, I introduced Michael Mann and why his work is important to me. While I find much to admire across his oeuvre, the Mann film that impresses me the most is The Insider, an epic rendering of subject matter that does not seem overly dramatic. Yet by focusing on intimate details and conveying a cumulative and pervasive sense of threat, bewilderment and betrayal, The Insider turns the account of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and the journalist who told his story Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) into a sweeping, enthralling and gripping thriller of corporate, legal and human skulduggery. The criticism of corporatism is handled deftly without being naive or didactic, and the film provides a sober meditation on life within Information Age late capitalism.
While The Insider is Mann’s finest work, it is not the best introduction to Mann’s oeuvre nor my personal favourite. The quintessential Mann film, the one that serves as the perfect introduction to this singular body of work, is my favourite film of all time, Heat.
Despite the iconicity of Heat‘s central pairing, the most annoying thing about responses to the film is the reductive view that it is all about Al Pacino and Robert De Niro meeting on screen for the first time. If you ever needed proof that great actors do not equal great films, look no further than Al and Bob’s (we hang out all the time) subsequent collaboration, Righteous Kill (2008). Heat‘s majesty is elevated by the central performances, but they are two in a wide ensemble that includes Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Natalie Portman, Amy Brenneman and many others. The different plot lines for these characters – many of whom never encounter each other – cause Heat to resemble Los Angeles-set network narratives such as Magnolia (1999), Boogie Nights (1997) and Crash (2004), albeit with a more generic central thrust. Mann has a long-standing association with the crime genre and Heat is a major part of that association, but the film does not sit comfortably within generic confines. Rather, the film pushes against these confines and uses the tropes of a cops and robbers thriller to create an intricate, existential and sociological portrait of life in a late twentieth century metropolis. Tensions around gender, race, class and work abound, while the frequent motion of the narrative, the characters and the camera creates a sense of transience and instability, despite the imposing concrete structures of the buildings and freeways.
Neil McCauley (De Niro) describes LA as the city of lights, but what he neglects to mention and that the film highlights is that these lights are isolated and disconnected, as are the inhabitants. Relationships fracture and fragment across the film, often due to violent action such as the opening heist, the incredible central gun battle and the final chase through LAX. But away from the bullets, personal differences also drive people apart, these differences exacerbated by this environment of disconnection and inconstancy. At least six intimate relationships are destroyed over the course of the film, largely by the actions of intractable men who neither know how nor want to do anything else. Nor does the film neglect its female characters despite their relatively brief screentime, as it is the women who recognise and lament what Justine (Diane Venora) describes as ‘the mess you leave as you pass through’. Heat is a sweeping, intricate and enveloping story, intensely detailed, stunningly visualised and thunderingly rendered, representing many concerns that run throughout Mann’s work, making it the archetypal Mann film, and one of the finest crime thrillers of the 1990s.
Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…
For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.
Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.
From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post…