Heat (1995, Michael Mann)

Until the final scene, director Mann is still carefully plotting out Heat. The film’s narrative construction–when he introduces a character, when he returns to a character, how he transitions from one character to another–is magnificent. Heat is a delicate film, with Mann never letting a single element carry a scene. He’s always working in combination–sound and actor, photography and sound, editing and actors. All of these elements should cause distance between the viewer and the film; instead they bring the viewer in closer.

Much of the film deals with the relationship between the various men and their suffering women. Even if one of the male characters’ women doesn’t know she’s suffering, she’s going be soon. Mann posits his driven male characters are unable to function in relationships, then he explores the relationship between the driven male characters.

With crooks Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro, Mann sets up something near a protege and mentor relationship. With De Niro and cop Al Pacino, Mann goes with an alter ego. The scene between Pacino and De Niro, where Pacino finally gets to let down his guard–up almost entirely in the rest of the film–is startling. It’s an island in the chaos.

Great supporting performances from Amy Brenneman, Diane Venora, Dennis Haysbert, Mykelti Williamson and Kevin Gage. Brenneman’s the closest thing Heat has to a sympathetic character. Everyone else is just extant.

Nearly three hours, Heat never gets unwieldy. Mann’s deliberateness keeps it painfully, depressingly, beautifully, devastatingly subdued.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Mann; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dov Hoenig, Pasquale Buba, William Goldenberg and Tom Rolf; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by Art Linson and Mann; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Al Pacino (Lt. Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Tom Sizemore (Michael Cheritto), Diane Venora (Justine Hanna), Amy Brenneman (Eady), Dennis Haysbert (Donald Breedan), Ashley Judd (Charlene Shiherlis), Mykelti Williamson (Sergeant Drucker), Wes Studi (Detective Casals), Ted Levine (Bosko), William Fichtner (Roger Van Zant), Natalie Portman (Lauren Gustafson), Tom Noonan (Kelso), Kevin Gage (Waingro), Hank Azaria (Alan Marciano), Susan Traylor (Elaine Cheritto), Kim Staunton (Lillian) and Jon Voight (Nate).

She Makes Comics (2015, Marisa Stotter)

Almost everyone interviewed in She Makes Comics does indeed make comics. The film never says what most of these interviewees made–I know what interviewee Heidi MacDonald edited because I remember (she’s identified for her current journalism), but I don’t remember what fellow Vertigo editor Shelly Bond edits. I know she edited things I read, but I don’t remember what. As interviewee Raina Telgemeier? I had no idea what she made.

She made Smile. Smile is a big deal, cross-over success and the movie doesn’t mention it for a quite a while. And there’s a bit of a catch–22 to this observation….

The interviewees (all female save DC Comics writer and editor Paul Levitz) talk about how their experiences with male comic book readers usually involves being held to a different, higher standard of knowledge. And I’m arguing what She Makes Comics really needed to do was list the interviewees’ resumes.

But these interviewees have worked on some really big things and instead of just saying Karen Berger is responsible for Sandman and Swamp Thing, the film turns it into some kind of revelation. Using that revelation time for discussion and exploration would have been time much better spent.

She Makes Comics only runs seventy minutes. It could run four times as long without getting boring. The documentary feels artificially small, like director Stotter and co-editor Patrick Meaney were knowingly cutting out interesting material.

It’s fine as a limited, cursory introduction, but–frustratingly–it boils with potential.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Marisa Stotter; director of photography, Jordan Rennert; edited by Stotter and Patrick Meaney; music by Sean Bierbower, Alexa Raquel Casciato, Steve DeLuca, Living Fiction, Hypefactor and Wilneida Negron; produced by Stotter, Rennet and Meaney.

Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi)

Instead of establishing Evil Dead II’s tone at the start of the film, director Raimi waits a while, veering between horror and comedy–pushing each to their absurdist extremes–until they meet. And, by then, the viewer is fully comfortable in the world of Evil Dead II. Bruce Campbell can be simultaneously sympathetic, hilarious, horrifying.

Campbell spends a good portion of the first third alone. He’s either running from an unseen evil, fighting–usually in a ludicrous fashion–the evil or he’s just going crazier and crazier. Something strange about Raimi and Scott Spiegel’s script is how it frequently invites consideration from the viewer. Not so much about the back story of the unseen evil, though there’s some very genre sympathetic exposition, but in the reality of the characters’ experiences.

The film is so unbelievable in its horrors, as the characters contend with possessed and disremembered mothers and significant others, the viewer sympathizes and imagines being in the characters’ shoes. Raimi and Campbell are so committed, just watching the film commits the viewer as well.

There’s a lot of good filmmaking going on too. Raimi expertly combines various special effects–make-up, stop motion, projection screens–with he and cinematographer Peter Deming’s tilted, distorted camera angles. Even when Evil Dead II is obvious, it works; Raimi wants to show how important his execution of the film is to the experience of viewing the film.

Excellent score from Joseph LoDuca, great performance from Campbell.

It’s crazy, silly, gross and smart.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; written by Raimi and Scott Spiegel; director of photography, Peter Deming; edited by Kaye Davis; music by Joseph LoDuca; produced by Robert G. Tapert; released by Rosebud Releasing Corporation.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Ashley ‘Ash’ J. Williams), Sarah Berry (Annie Knowby), Dan Hicks (Jake), Kassie Wesley DePaiva (Bobby Joe), Denise Bixler (Linda), Richard Domeier (Ed Getley), John Peakes (Professor Raymond Knowby), Lou Hancock (Henrietta Knowby) and Ted Raimi (Possessed Henrietta).

Marie (2014, Alfredo Tanaka)

Director Tanaka starts out Marie in a hospital–after a flashy opening title card–and it’s impossible to know where the short is going. It’s a scary enough hospital and the titular protagonist (played by Kasia Koleczek) is already on the gurney. There’s no music, just the sounds of the operation getting ready.

It’s creepy. And it’s all so Tanaka can ease the viewer into what comes next. The viewer is vulnerable, identifying with Koleczek in that opening sequence–with the way Tanaka transitions scenes, he earns some trust.

Because Tanaka and his crew are more the stars of Marie. The music from Jack Northover and Jack Pescod, when it does appear, defines the rest of the film. Fantastic photography from George de Freitas and lovely editing from Sophie Black.

It’s a precisely made film, perfectly balanced between narrative flow and intense visual flow. Marie is ambitious, confident and excellent.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Alfredo Tanaka; written by Joe Aaron and Tanaka; director of photography, George de Freitas; edited by Sophie Black; music by Jack Northover and Jack Pescod.

Starring Kasia Koleczek (Marie), Damien Hughes (Dr. Robert Newman), Rachel Howells (Wife) and Liza Ivanova-Galitsyna (Daughter).

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002, George Clooney)

As the dangerous mind in the title (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Sam Rockwell should be entirely unsympathetic. The film spends its first act mocking Rockwell and inviting the viewer to participate. With the exception of his chemistry with Drew Barrymore’s saintly character, there’s nothing redeeming about Rockwell’s character. Yet he’s tragically endearing.

The film is based on Chuck Barris’s autobiography, where the game show host says he worked as an assassin for the CIA. Charlie Kaufman’s script–and Clooney’s direction of that script–never really raises a question about it. Even though there are real entertainment people giving interviews (it opens with Dick Clark’s recollections of Barris), Clooney approaches the spy stuff straightforward. It’s the story of a successful showbiz guy who was a spy.

The conflicts caused by that absurd contradiction are where Confessions devastates. The relationship between Rockwell and Barrymore, which is a third plot line, separate from both the spy stuff and the TV stuff, doesn’t actually give the film its humanity, it gives it its emotional veracity. Rockwell, who’s phenomenal throughout, has a lot more acting hurdles to jump in the spy stuff–the TV stuff is almost straight comedy. The romance with Barrymore is a period piece but is intricately tied to the reality of the film.

It’s great. Clooney and Rockwell do a great job. Rockwell’s breathtaking, Barrymore’s good, Clooney’s got a small part, Julia Roberts has a small part–they’re both really good.

Confessions is flashy and noisy and precise and singular.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Clooney; screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Chuck Barris; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Stephen Mirrione; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, James D. Bissell; produced by Andrew Lazar; released by Miramax Films

Starring Sam Rockwell (Chuck Barris), Drew Barrymore (Penny Pacino), George Clooney (Jim Byrd), Julia Roberts (Patricia Watson) and Rutger Hauer (Keeler).

[FYI] Thoughts on the Thin Man book now available

Thoughts on the Thin Man

I was lucky enough to get to participate in Danny Reid’s book of essays, Thoughts On The Thin Man: Essays on the Delightful Detective Work of Nick and Nora Charles. Danny runs Pre-Code.com, where he covers pre-code movies, and he put together this awesome idea for a Thin Man book with a bunch of classic movie people contributing. And, well, me.

The book is available from Amazon, both in print and for Kindle. Any proceeds will be donated to the ASPCA.

My essay is all about the locations (sets, interior and exterior, and actual location shooting). These observations had been kicking around in my head since I was a kid watching The Thin Man movies so it was interesting to discuss them. Many thanks to my editors–Danny, of course–but I also subjected wife Monique, father Steve, and friends Jessica and Jim to various drafts of the essay as I worked on it.

Now, with the book out (and winging its way to me from Amazon), I can’t wait to read what everyone else has come up with….

The Description

Undoubtedly some of the most witty and urbane films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the six movies that composed MGM’s Thin Man series showcased a pair of wealthy, inebriated detectives who solve murders in their down time. Through the series’ run from 1934 to 1947, William Powell and Myrna Loy turned Nick and Nora Charles into a cinematic institution, showcasing a marriage that was sexy, funny, and exciting, whether there was a gun pointed at them at any given moment or not.

Thoughts On The Thin Man reflects on these famous films, looking back at Dashiell Hammett’s original inspiration, the genesis of the films, and the men and women who made them possible. This collection of essays covers all six movies, including detailed plot breakdowns, quotes, trivia, discussion of motifs, looks at the many spin-offs of the series, a couple of nostalgic odes, and even drinking games, including a custom cocktail devoted to the duo. Would you expect any less?

The Other Contributors

Time Trap (2013, Michael Shanks)

Time Trap is a good combination of humor and visual effects mastery. Director Shanks–who also did the special effects–does some amazing work on the short. It’s about some space guy who crash lands on Earth after the world’s ended and he has to create time bubbles to look for parts to his spaceship.

So there’s a lot of effects, which are almost uniformly amazing, and then some humor stuff with the space guy, played by Mark Taylor. Taylor doesn’t have any lines and his face is covered so it’s hard to say what he brings to it.

Shanks figures out a good system–the localized time travel, which allows for cool effects but also comedic moments–and Time Trap is a solid short.

There are some fantastic shots in the film, combining the live action and the CG; Shanks is an impressive filmmaker. His script just lacks oomph.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed and edited by Michael Shanks; director of photography, Edward Goldner; music by Shanks; production designer, Nicholas Issell; produced by Shanks and Chris Hocking.

Starring Mark Taylor (Fripp).

Major League (1989, David S. Ward)

There’s so much strong acting in Major League and director Ward’s script has such likable characters (and such a hiss-worthy villain in team owner Margaret Whitton), the film moves on momentum alone for quite a while. It’s only in the third act, when Ward throws in an unnecessary plot twist to ratchet up tension. He shouldn’t need it–it’s a baseball movie and it’s the big championship game–but, while League has a sports emphasis… it’s a comedy first.

And character drama gets comedy.

Thanks to nice direction, excellent photography from Reynaldo Villalobos and James Newton Howard’s score (which easily toggles between dramatic and comedic), it comes through all right. Even when the film stumbles, it stumbles likably.

Since he’s the ostensible lead, top-billed Tom Berenger gets to romance Rene Russo, which leads to some good scenes. Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen get the next billings, but don’t have a lot to do (until that third act misfire). But they’re both appealing, as is Wesley Snipes. The best acting of the ball players probably comes from Dennis Haysbert and Chelcie Ross, who distinguish themselves in caricature roles.

Whitton’s villain is good, James Gammon’s good as the coach and Charles Cyphers has fun as management.

Ward understands the baseball picture as an American film standard and engages with that standard. Not with much ambition, but he’s got a strong enough cast and script he doesn’t need to do much. It’s a solid and affecting enough with some good moments.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by David S. Ward; director of photography, Reynaldo Villalobos; edited by Dennis M. Hill; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Jeffrey Howard; produced by Irby Smith and Chris Chesser; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tom Berenger (Jake Taylor), Charlie Sheen (Ricky Vaughn), Corbin Bernsen (Roger Dorn), Margaret Whitton (Rachel Phelps), James Gammon (Lou Brown), Rene Russo (Lynn Wells), Wesley Snipes (Willie Mays Hayes), Charles Cyphers (Charlie Donovan), Chelcie Ross (Eddie Harris), Dennis Haysbert (Pedro Cerrano), Andy Romano (Pepper Leach) and Bob Uecker (Harry Doyle).

Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols)

Towards the end of Working Girl, the film seems to jump around a bit with the timeline. It seems to jump ahead, but then it turns out it doesn’t. And it only seems to jump ahead because of how director Nichols and editor Sam O’Steen structure a couple transitions. It’s not a big thing, but it does cause the viewer to reseat him or herself; it’s sort of a false ending but not. It’s a tension reliever.

Kevin Wade’s script has a lot of obvious material, but it saves the most important revelation–one the film shockingly gets away with not revealing in the first act–until the last few moments. And it’s all paced out perfectly.

But Working Girl couldn’t possibly function without its principal cast members. In the lead, Melanie Griffith is phenomenal. She needs to be sympathetic, but Nichols and Griffith subtly tone down the sympathy she gets for being unappreciated. There’s an initial shock value to her situation and then, over the course of the film, they show that shock was just to get the viewer paying attention.

As her romantic interest, Harrison Ford is fantastic. His character is one of the film’s more complicated–as the evil harpy boss, Sigourney Weaver is similarly fantastic. Weaver’s able to appear likable even when she shouldn’t. Ford is able to be assured even when he shouldn’t.

Nichols, O’Steen and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus put together some truly great scenes here.

It’s rather great; Griffith and Ford are wonderful together.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; written by Kevin Wade; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Rob Mounsey; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; produced by Douglas Wick; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Melanie Griffith (Tess McGill), Harrison Ford (Jack Trainer), Sigourney Weaver (Katharine Parker), Alec Baldwin (Mick Dugan), Joan Cusack (Cyn), Philip Bosco (Oren Trask), Nora Dunn (Ginny), Oliver Platt (Lutz), James Lally (Turkel), Kevin Spacey (Bob Speck), Robert Easton (Armbrister) and Amy Aquino (Alice Baxter).

Random Harvest (1942, Mervyn LeRoy)

It’s hard to imagine a more supreme melodrama than Random Harvest. Almost the entire first hour (of two and a nickel), the film chronicles the blissful romance of Greer Garson and Ronald Colman. He’s an amnesiac World War I veteran, she’s on the stage–a combination of song and comedy–and she’s his savior. They live in a little cottage. It’s all very wonderful.

And very boring. Colman’s good as the amnesiac and Garson’s rather likable in her role–her dedication is convenient (none of the three screenwriters–Claudine West, George Froeschel, Arthur Wimperis–manage any subtlety), but Garson manages to sell it as much as possible.

But then Colman’s memory comes back and it turns out he’s the utter bore, not the film. Random Harvest moves through phases, some small as the focus switches between Colman and Garson, but also bigger ones, like when Colman’s memory returns and seven years pass in less minutes and he’s all of a sudden romancing Susan Peters.

Peters is actually rather good, but her role doesn’t really affect the narrative. She causes Garson–who comes back in a contrived, but inventive plot twist (and Garson excels in the second half of the film)–some consternation. Some, not a lot… and not for long. Peters inexplicably disappears from the film too, along with the entire supporting cast.

With his memory back, Colman loses a character and gets a backstory. He did better with a character.

He’s still likable and Garson’s great so Harvest works.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy; screenplay by Claudine West, George Froeschel and Arthur Wimperis, based on the novel by James Hilton; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; edited by Harold F. Kress; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Sidney Franklin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Ronald Colman (Charles Rainier), Greer Garson (Paula), Philip Dorn (Dr. Jonathan Benet), Susan Peters (Kitty), Henry Travers (Dr. Sims), Reginald Owen (‘Biffer’), Bramwell Fletcher (Harrison), Rhys Williams (Sam), Una O’Connor (Tobacconist) and Aubrey Mather (Sheldon).

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