Back in theaters… not for the happiest of reasons, but I’ll take it. Electrifying for the first half hour, then gradually settles into a biopic-groove despite all of Mann’s trademark flair. But with energy and performances this good, I wasn’t worried at the time, just floating on the great history and character and love in this movie.

V. Morton:

Best appreciated in a theater, with a real sound system. The sound mix is key to the legendary opening montage, the way Mann brings Sam Cooke forward and backward, providing structure to otherwise-random memory footage that serves as exposition and context, without feeling like it. The sound is also the key to the fight scenes, in which Mann puts on the screen the subjective feel of being in a boxing match in a way rarely-matched.

Unfortunately, sound at the Grand was turned way down, I guess so the retro boxing movie wouldn’t audibly compete with whatever Care Bears nonsense was playing next door. I get better sound from my barely-in-stereo TV at home.

MZ Seitz:

Even when its momentum falters, its visuals never do. Lubezki, the wizard who went storybook-painterly for Tim Burton’s gruesomely entertaining Sleepy Hollow, shoots nearly the entire film with handheld cameras and gyroscopically stabilized Steadicams, shifting focus spontaneously in each shot as if he’s recording history as it happens. It’s arresting, alive and provocative – a documentary affectation reimagined for Hollywood, and it goes a long way toward making Ali exciting even when it’s not making much sense.

You can tell that one was written in 2001/2002, because not since The New World and Children of Men has anyone equated Lubezki with Sleepy Hollow. This points to another reason that the Ali re-release is less revelatory than I hoped – handheld spontaneity has become de rigueur in Hollywood since its first release (not nearly as purposefully as it’s done here)

B. Ebiri:

So there’s another element to Ali — a ghost in the machine that courses throughout the film. Ali the man desires to be free. But the meaning of that word slowly changes. (“Free ain’t easy,” Bundini says. “Free is real. And real’s a motherfucker.”) Ali seeks freedom not just from the reality of America, but also from everything else with dominion over him. He finds this freedom in the construction of his ever-changing, ever-moving identity. (“Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”) In essence, he liberates himself by becoming larger than anything that ever tried to control him — larger than the Nation of Islam, larger than the media, or boxing, or even, ultimately, America itself.

Taking Cannes Month way back to 1981, this played in competition alongside Possession, Excalibur, Heaven’s Gate and winner Man of Iron. Mann’s first theatrical feature, though he’d already made TV prison/sports movie The Jericho Mile and written/created the series Vega$. Frank (James Caan, best known as Mr. Henry in Bottle Rocket) gets out of prison and has a clear plan for the rest of his life and the safecracking skills to fund this plan. All he needs is a girl (Tuesday Weld of Lord Love a Duck) and to reunite with his friend (Willie Nelson)

Tuesday is along for the ride but other things start going wrong. Willie dies his first day out of prison, and gangster Leo (Robert Prosky of Broadcast News, a priest in The Keep) offers to help Frank line up a big job and get him and Tuesday a fast-track adoption, and somehow professional criminal Frank isn’t savvy enough to realize that Leo’s not gonna let him do a couple jobs then walk away.

I’m fortunate to be watching this for the first time in the mid-2010’s. The movie’s keyboardy Tangerine Dream soundtrack went from a cool experiment to a long-lasting embarrassment, staying that way for decades until post-Drive it became cool again. Drive seems indebted to this movie’s ending as well, when the hero leaves the girl behind to go on a potentially suicidal rampage against the guys who wronged him – or maybe that’s just how all crime movies end.

I love the bizarre, against-type casting of Willie Nelson and Jim Belushi (pre-SNL, his first movie) as Frank’s partners – wish Mann had kept doing that. Of course it’s Mann-stylish, all slick streets and street lights, but what seemed stylish in the early 1980’s looks pretty subdued today.

The two Jims:

The movie’s one De Palma shot:

I’m not one of those hardcore action auteurists who claims Paul W.S. Anderson is the best Anderson, Tony Scott is the best Scott, or the latest Universal Soldier sequels are masterpieces. But when it comes to Michael Mann, jeez… he can make a farfetched movie full of generic action elements where Thor plays a computer hacker and it still comes out great. This movie’s trailer make it look ridiculous. There’s no way to convince any right-thinking person that Blackhat (or Miami Vice) is a good movie based on plot description. But to see it in motion is a whole different thing. It’s one thing to talk tech about framing and light and editing, it’s another to experience it in a work of art – from Jauja on one side to Blackhat on the other. I’m not saying it’s my favorite movie (made the bottom rung of my top 30 of the year), just want to emphasize that it’s a very good, an impressive work, not to be confused with your standard fun action flick like Mission: Impossible 5.

Sloppy code:

Thor is assisted by old friend Dawai (Leehom Wang), and falls for the friend’s network-engineer sister Lien (Wei Tang: Leehom’s Lust, Caution costar, also in this year’s Office). Viola Davis is another ally, and the under-armed Thor will need all of those he can get against a militarized terrorist hacker whose goal turns out to be personal enrichment, not state or religious warfare. The movie got me rooting for the U.S. government agencies with unlimited resources, but of course cyber-criminal Thor is no gov’t puppet and escapes them at the end. Meanwhile, Mann out-Finchers Fincher, the camera zooming inside a computer from ethernet to transistors.

Keyboard from underneath:

J. Cataldo for Slant:

Hemsworth is never entirely convincing as imprisoned genius hacker Nicholas Hathaway, but he does work fabulously as a chunk of human marble, hurtled through a series of inventively shot, fluidly frenetic set pieces … Mann expands on the woozy handheld work that made Collateral and Miami Vice so tactile and entrancing, his camera collapsing the spaces between bodies and objects without sacrificing spatial coherence, creating an artfully abstract collective muddle as neatly structured systems collapse into one another.

Adam Cook for Mubi:

The results are far from what one would call traditional realism. Instead, what we have is a sensory realism that wants you to know how guns fire bullets, and what it feels like when they do, and the means to do so are impressionistic, unusual, and embrace both the advantages of digital technology and its “flawed” properties that can render individual images strange, pixelated, and alien … Locating the evolution of this digital language as solely something within the art/artist is reductive: the world has changed, is changing, and Mann isn’t just using the latest tools for kicks, but is implicitly keeping up with our relationship to the world, which retains the same dramas, tragedies, and dilemmas, yet shifts in its forms and manifestations.

As usual, Cinema Scope’s take is the best, but unusually it’s because Adam Nayman doesn’t take sides. From an I.T. point of view, the only time I called total bullshit was when the whitehat hax0rz showed up in person to a bank and stole all the money by gaining access to the front-desk receptionist’s computer.

A movie about nazis being killed off by aliens should’ve been more entertaining – besides a really fantastic smoke-monster effect, this was only pretty good. It tries to be very serious and sets up many conflicts (good alien/bad alien, good nazi/bad nazi, nazis/jews, etc.) then doesn’t do anything wonderful with any of these things.

Trevor: “it fell apart for me when none of the story mattered… mystery invincible guy with glowing eyes walks in and defeats the beast, the worst execution of deus ex machina.”

Smoke Monster, de-smoked:

Okay, Nazis led by Jurgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane in In the Mouth of Madness, and I think Kyle’s dad in Dune) occupy a Romanian town and camp in an empty fortress watched over by a priest (Robert Prosky of Christine and Gremlins 2), who calls in his professor friend Ian McKellen with daughter Alberta Watson (Hedwig/Hansel‘s mom) to translate ancient writings after soldiers keep showing up dead. Prochnow isn’t murdering enough villagers, so the more ruthless Gabriel Byrne (three years before Gothic) is sent to take charge, later shoots Prochnow dead. Smoke Monster heals the formerly-crippled Ian McKellen, says he’s a golem-like Jewish avenger who will crush all nazis if Ian frees him. The priest gets all shitty and tells Ian he can burn in hell (admittedly all the nazis might be stressing him out), meanwhile Mystery Invincible Guy (top-billed Scott Glenn, Jodie Foster’s boss in Silence of the Lambs) has sex with Ian’s daughter until she notices he has no reflection. I think Invincible Guy and the nazis and Smoke Monster all kill each other at the end?

Alberta with sex alien:

Ian under Smoke Monster’s spell:

Second movie I’ve watched this Shocktober where the first death is by exploding head. TV veteran Mann’s second feature, which he has since disowned, based on a story by the guy who wrote Pelts. The actors act as big as possible (apparently Ian McKellen has mellowed with age) and the then-trendy Tangerine Dream soundtrack does the nazi-horror atmosphere no favors. But it’s a startlingly different movie, anyway.

Michael Mann switches between scenes of a master criminal and the cop assigned to catch him, until the criminal is caught because he came back for his girl… but enough about HEAT, here’s Public Enemies.

Johnny Depp is bank robber John Dillinger – previously played by Martin Sheen, Robert Conrad and Warren Oates – and Christian Bale is devoted cop Melvin Purvis – previously played by Will Patton and Dan Cortese. I also recognized appearances by Leelee Sobieski (girl Johnny takes to the movies when he’s killed at the end) and Giovanni Ribisi (wannabe train robber), but failed to recognize Stephen Dorff (my The Gate fan club membership is in peril) and Billy Crudup (as an amusing J. Edgar Hoover). Also apparently the paranoid guy from A Scanner Darkly played an FBI agent and Duke in the G.I. Joe movie played Pretty Boy Floyd.

Sometimes the digital camerawork yielded interesting perspective and depth of field effects, but sometimes in the indoor scenes it just looked like a made-for-TV movie. It’s weird that a low-light movie like Collateral looked less video-like than this one.

K. Phipps:

Mann fills the background with a lot of fascinating detail but often has a hard time keeping the foreground in focus. Sometimes literally: Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti opt for hard, handheld digital-video images. These lend a sense of excitement to some of the action scenes—particularly a thrilling nighttime chase through the Wisconsin woods—but often give the film an unpleasantly unfinished look. That unfortunately matches an unfinished feel. Neither Depp nor Bale get a chance to get beneath the surface of their characters, supporting characters bleed together, and a love story between Depp and his moll (Marion Cotillard) never finds a heartbeat.

Mann, as ever, remains a master of methodical pursuit, but as the film inches toward Dillinger’s fateful night at Chicago’s Biograph Theater, he doesn’t offer much beyond methodical pursuit. Depp goes about the business of not getting caught; Bale goes about the business of catching him. In the end it doesn’t really come to mean all that much.

I wasn’t sure what to think about this – it felt flat and over-long, a procedural thriller without the procedure or the thrills, a character bio-drama without much character, and a digital look that called too much attention to itself for reasons unknown. I’d been looking forward to it so much, then it wasn’t even that I didn’t like it; I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to like.

But that was before reading a convincing article by M.Z. Seitz for IFC, which makes the movie seem like a good case to study, if not a killer fun time at the theater. Maybe I’ll appreciate it more next time, focusing on the digital video’s sense of immediacy and reality, and the “moment-to-moment shifts in emotion,” instead of trying to enjoy the story and the acting. God, I’m such a failure as an auteurist… speaking of which, a whole bunch of articles in The Auteurs this month should help me feel worse about not understanding Michael Mann (and there’s an epic article/video series at Moving Image Source).

An amazingly good movie. Can’t recommend to anyone or they’ll laugh at me (tried a few times already).

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Plot is too convoluted to go through. Crockett is sad-faced Colin Farrell and Tubbs is determined Jamie Foxx. Gong Li is on the drug lords’ team, falls in love with Crockett. Tubbs has a lovely wife who is inevitably kidnapped by neo-nazis. Supposedly our heroes are rooting out a mole in the FBI / DEA / System but get sidetracked by so many other things. Shot on crazy-looking HD by Dion Beebe, guy who did Collateral and Holy Smoke.

Didn’t really know what to say about this one until I read an article about it in Senses of Cinema (see below). I loved the movie, loved the unique beauty of the images and the out-of-control propulsion of the plot, but hadn’t thought about what, if anything, Mann was trying to express, what deeper meaning lay behind all the gunfights and high-tech drug deals. The article (written by a french M. Mann biographer and translated by Sally Shafto) brings a lot to light. Reading it feels like I’ve been given permission by a film scholar to love a big-bang action flick that even the general public didn’t like (or just didn’t see).

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From Jean-Baptiste Thoret’s analysis in Senses of Cinema:
Miami Vice is above all a great film on the human condition in a time of flux. Everything progresses at top speed (the meetings, the love affairs, the reversals, the cars) but essentially nothing really moves forward. … In the blurred passage from the cop’s face to the re-framing of the camera on the flow of the traffic, the man has thrown himself under a truck, leaving only a scarlet stain on the pavement. To become integrated in the flux is also to lose oneself therein. … The film closes as abruptly as it opened: Isabella escapes from the flux by the sea (the eternal utopia of Mann’s characters), Sonny turns his back on the sea and returns to the flux. And loses himself therein. Life suspended on one side, perpetual flux on the other. No dead time or respite: the system runs at full speed but on empty, and possesses no other end than that of its own stability. … In the world in flux that Miami Vice follows, the human is only an event, a lost atom in the multitude, similar to the one described by the hired killer in Collateral. It is either arrogance and/or naïveté of the couple, Sonny-Isabella, to have believed that the human could be stronger than the flux. … The men of Miami Dade only conform to the programs that pre-exist them, to respond to the electronic stimuli (a telephone call, a reaction). They turn out to be incapable of taking control of a disarticulated narrative. … The disappearance of the human, its dematerialization in the heart of an urban universe governed by technology, and thus its capacity for resistance, constitutes one of the central themes of Mann’s cinema and finds in Miami Vice its most accomplished extension.”

He also talks convincingly about women being “the only ones to possess the power to divert the narrative”, about flux being technology “and technology is death”, and sums up the ending with Isabella (Gong Li) driving away from Sonny in the speedboat, Sonny’s returning to the flux: “The world rediscovers its balance but loses a little more of its humanity.”