Movies

Why Michael Mann Isn’t As Good As You Think He Is

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After walking out of Blackhat a few weeks ago, I’ve been questioning whether or not Michael Mann is a great director, or if he was ever as good as I used to think he was.

I seriously used to be a huge fan of his films. His best (Heat, The Insider, Collateral) were fascinating psychological studies of cops, criminals and TV journalists. He’s been incredibly influential – without Heat, we’d have no Dark Knight, and thanks to the look he pioneered on Miami Vice and Crime Story, he set the standard for production design in network television (a look he largely stole from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.) But lately I’ve become increasingly disappointed with his cinematic output, and his latest film, Blackhat, is proof positive that he’s no longer at the top of his game.

I went into Blackhat thinking that there was no way it could be as bad as Miami Vice, which, eight years ago, gave me the first hint that maybe Mann wasn’t as great as I previously thought he was. Amazingly enough, it managed to be even worse, and since I consider Miami Vice one of the worst films of all time, this means Blackhat is now somewhere on my “all-time worst” list, somewhere above J. Edgar and beneath Disaster Movie. It’s a massively incompetent film that exemplifies all the things that drive me crazy about Mann.

How does Mann drive me crazy? Let me count the ways:

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He sucks at establishing characters.
This may be a factor of my ADHD, but whatever it is, I have noticed that, as a moviegoer, if I do not know the names of the characters, or the names of the actors playing them, I emotionally check out of the movie and spend most of it going, “Who are you?” With the exception of Collateral, Mann does this with every one of his movies. The only ways I’ve been able to follow Heat and The Insider have been by writing out the plots on my laptop or in a notebook, which I did when studying his films in my 9th grade Film Studies class. It’s such a pervasive problem for me that I’ve called it “The Michael Mann Problem” for many years now, because the first time I noticed this was while watching his films, and with almost every one of his movies he’s committed this sin. Which brings me to my next point…

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He’s too far ahead of the story for his own good.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about exposition comes from the director Charles Crichton: “Get ahead of the audience.” It will always save your ass, but if you go too many steps ahead of them, then they’ll be stuck playing catch-up and won’t listen to what you’re saying – like if they’re trying to figure out the names of the characters. Mann does this in such a way that he assumes you already know the major points of the story, so that he doesn’t have to focus on them. This is what derailed Ali for me – apart from the classic biopic problem of “Trying to cram all the major life events into a movie,” Ali’s failure stems largely from its assumption that the audience already knew everything about Muhammad Ali’s life going in. Therefore, none of the major moments in his life resonated, because they were all rushed over and couldn’t breathe as cinema.

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He can’t shoot digital. There, I said it.
For everyone’s praise towards Mann’s cinematography in his last couple movies, I’m here to burst that bubble. Michael Mann has no idea how to make digital cinematography have any majesty or grandeur to it. I’ll let him off on Collateral, because that was a combination of digital and 35mm, and for shooting night scenes, looking a little grainy can be OK. But Miami Vice felt like nothing but pixels, Public Enemies’ muted pallet was so devoid of liveliness that he might as well have just shot the whole film in black and white, and Blackhat is so jittery it might as well have been shot by someone from the Michael J. Fox School of Fine Camera Holding. Stop giving me this whole “artistry with a camera” stuff. I can shoot better, clearer pictures on my iphone. In a world where we have beautiful digital films like Life of Pi and Birdman, he should be ashamed.

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No interest in female characters.
Name one interesting woman in a Michael Mann film. I can’t, can you? If you can, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Sure, Mann can get some good performances out of women – Amy Breneman in Heat, Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies, but is there any question that he spends more time focusing on male psychology than on female? The only reason women exist in his films is to provide love interests for the men, and when the men try to save them, he’s usually off his game as a storyteller – the final act of Collateral, where Jamie Foxx tries to save Jada Pinkett Smith from Tom Cruise, keeps it from being an A+ movie and knocks it down to a B+. And the fact that he repeated the exact same male-female dynamic in both Miami Vice and Blackhat – brooding dark guy with sexy Asian lady! – without realizing the shallowness of the relationship in the first place, is just absurd.  I genuinely want to know: if more women were movie critics than men, would they consider Mann the artist that most male critics do?

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He doesn’t seem to know what the internet is.
This is a Blackhat-related complaint mostly, but Mann is the latest in a long line of filmmakers recently who seem to have no idea how the internet works or what it does. Yes, the internet and the rise in digital technology is like fire – it can cook your food or burn your house down – but isn’t presenting it as an evil, monolithic thing that anyone can hack into such a cliché at this point? Men Women and Children and Disconnect were laughed off the screen for this cliché, and Blackhat deserves to be too. And if you want a great story about how scary technology can be, watch Black Mirror.

All of this is to say that Mann is proof of the major weakness of the auteur theory: that auteurist critics will try to justify anything a director they like does, while losing the ability to tell a good film from a bad film. Much of this has to do with the fact that, while directors are still alive, it’s hard to do this. Picasso was the greatest painter of the 20th century, but we’re far enough from his moment in history to be able to say where he was good and where he failed. We don’t know how to do that with movie directors – Godard, Hitchcock and Mann being prime victims of the auteur theory. Because Mann has a unique style, and similar themes in all his films, auteurists give him books and long articles praising everything he does. But having a style doesn’t necessarily make you a good director – it just means you have a style. Sidney Lumet never had a “style” that pervaded all his films, because he knew that the style had to change from film to film, and be attached to the content, not independent of it. Mann never detaches his singular “style” from anything he does, and as a result his movies all dissolve into a blur of hyper-masculine B.S. I’ll still like his good work. But as of now, I’m turning in my fan club badge.

The 86th Academy Awards, or, Tasteful to a Fault

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Seth MacFarlane will go down as one of the most inappropriate Oscar hosts of all time.  His tone-deaf schtick turned the ceremony into a three-and-a-half-hour episode of Family Guy, and I say this as someone who was a fan of his before he became associated with “We Saw Your Boobs,” the most notorious Oscar opening number since Rob Lowe danced with Snow White.

But admit that during last night’s ceremony, as Ellen trudged up the aisles to order pizza for the nominees, you wanted Seth MacFarlane to come back.  At last, you’d have something to actually bitch about on Twitter instead of the thousandth gay joke about John Travolta after he mangled Idina Menzel’s name.  180 degrees from sick is still sick, and that was the problem with the 86th Academy Awards last night: in an effort to purge themselves of last year’s debacle, they played it safe, tried and true.  As a result, I spent the show pretty bored by the majority of it.  The Academy may be honoring films made in the 21st century, but their attitude towards producing an awards show feels out of sync with the best ones today: the Emmys, Tonys, and Golden Globes.  Those three, for whatever their faults, have managed to be very entertaining these past few years, but the Academy cannot capture their tone.

I’m not going to blame Ellen for the tired, lackluster feel of last night’s show.  Blaming the host for the show’s problems is like killing the messenger.  The real problem that always hung over this year’s Oscars from the start was that Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were the producers.  I always associate the mess of last year’s ceremony with them, because their inability to recognize problems when they saw them (“We Saw Your Boobs”) and egocentric need to turn the show into a tribute to themselves (they produced Chicago, which was endlessly lionized by presenters)[1] sank the evening.  I don’t envy anyone who has to make a show about the big screen excited for sixty-inch TV sets; it’s much easier to produce the Emmys in that regard.  But Z/M tried so hard not to offend anybody that we got stuck with the usual, “noble” ideas that come off badly in execution, like “the year of the hero,” represented by – wait for it – clip packages!  Christ, I am so done with these things invading the Oscar ceremonies.  Even when you show clips that I don’t associate with clip packages (thank you for not showing Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contendah” speech for the zillionth time) they’re still the devil’s work.

As for the musical numbers, well, the Academy has a really spotty history with these (ROB LOWE!  SNOW WHITE!  “PROUD MARY!”  UNFORGIVABLE!) but there are ways to make them entertaining.  I thought Pharrell Williams brought exactly the right tone that the show needed, and lacked at the very beginning due to there not being an actual opening number.  He was young, the dancers were great, and he got the audience involved.  The best award show numbers do this: think of how great Jimmy Fallon was covering “Born to Run” on the Emmys four years ago, or Neil Patrick Harris’s Tony opening number a few years ago.  But Zadan/Meron don’t even appear to watch award shows, because their dated approach to the show’s songs only furthered the impression that the Academy is stuck in the past.  What is my generation supposed to get out of watching Bette Midler perform “Wind Beneath My Wings?”  We’ve never even seen Beaches, much less heard of it, and when it comes to in memoriam packages, I just want to see the names of the people and move on with it.  The last couple years in a row they’ve blown it by having pop stars come out and sing through it – so at least having Bette sing after the reel was the one positive thing I can say about that moment.

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As for the winners themselves, there’s a lot to be happy about, unless you’re David O. Russell.  I felt badly for the whole American Hustle team, who deserved better than they got, but in a strong year like this one, somebody was going to go home feeling that way.  I got 19/24 on my ballot, and had I predicted two more correctly, I would’ve had my best year ever, but I was more than happy to mismark it when Steve McQueen jumped up and down with the cast and producers of 12 Years a Slave, my favorite movie of 2013.  I had thought the Academy would finally overcome their aversion to sci-fi and all things digital by giving Best Picture to Gravity, but they still seem averse to the technology.  The tally between the two big winners of the night was the most lopsided since 1972, when Cabaret won 8 Oscars, including Best Director, and lost Best Picture to The Godfather, and like those two movies, I believe that Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are both going to be revered for years to come.

What’s more, the four acting winners redeemed many of the show’s faults with their gracious, and in one case, characteristically crazy, acceptance speeches.  Jared Leto got some flack at the Golden Globes for being tasteless, but last night, I felt he was eloquent and real: his shoutout to his mother was heartfelt in all the best ways.  Matthew McConaughey was…Matthew McConaughey. I mean, seriously, what did you expect?  For me, as goofy as the speech was, it reminded me that I watch the Oscar ceremony for those bizarre moments of spontaneity (and also the beautiful ones, like 20 Feet From Stardom’s Darlene Love taking the microphone.)  Cate Blanchett’s call to arms for the industry to make more films about women was extraordinary, and Lupita Nyong’o, the most openly emotional winner last night, didn’t let her tears give way to her ego, and gave the most moving speech of the night.  I saw her in a Q&A a couple of months ago, and was impressed by her poise and candor on that stage: the audience asked her questions as inane as, “why do you refer it to the soap scene and not the lashing scene?” (referring to the scene in the film where she is whipped by Michael Fassbender) and she said, simply, “I call it the soap scene because if I called it the lashing scene, I would cry.”

Final thoughts: in a close year like this one, I’m going to take up William Goldman’s frequent complaint about the Academy and ask that, at some point, maybe a year from now, maybe ten years, we need to know the votes.  I know, you like to operate with the guise that these things should remain confidential, but they really shouldn’t.  I think you owe it to us to know how members voted, so we can at least begin breaking down the demographics of how people vote, and bring about real institutional change within a group that is largely old, white men.

Enough.  The Oscars are done.  At last, we can get back to talking about movies.

PS Once the Oscars channel posts clips on YouTube, then I’ll include them here.


[1] Interesting tidbit about that: though Zadan/Meron are widely acknowledged to have been the on-set producers of Chicago, Martin Richards, who owned the property, was the only credited “producer” and the sole acceptee of the movie’s Best Picture Oscar.  For his decades-long effort to bring the project he nurtured in its Broadway run to the silver screen, he was not included in that year’s in memoriam package.  Coincidence?

Best Picture Winners: The Best of the Best

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I have spent much of my life in a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards, as I think anyone who loves film has.  For me, growing up in Los Angeles, and with parents who are members of SAG and the WGA, winter doesn’t mean snow and tinsel, it means advance movie screenings, Q&As and DVDs (Last year, when my Mom was on the SAG nominating committee, we got literally everything).  What’s more, my interest in film was piqued largely through the Oscars—starting when I was in sixth grade, the Academy, for their 75th anniversary, did a retrospective of every Best Picture winner.  It took a year and a half to screen all seventy-five movies, but I was there almost every week.  I literally watched the medium evolve from The Broadway Melody (the first screening, as they were busy restoring the first winner, Wings), to the most recent winner at the time, Chicago.[1] 

Now that the 86th Oscars are upon us, I think it’s only appropriate to go through what I think the best winners are—and a couple of my least favorites.  Mind you, I’ve seen every winner except for two that I haven’t finished, Cimarron and The Greatest Show on Earth, so I’m not going to analyze those.  And I’m not going to waste space in this column bashing movies just because they beat movies we like more, with one exception.  Yes, I know you’re still mad that Dances With Wolves beat Goodfellas.  It was twenty years ago.  Get over yourselves.

Without further ado, my ten favorite winners:

10. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Some people think this movie has dated, but it’s been one of my favorite films since I saw it in middle school.  A lot of reasons I love this film are personal: this was the movie that opened the floodgates for me to see whatever else I wanted, since my parents figured that after seeing the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture, nothing could be off-limits.  Another was that Jon Voight came to introduce the screening, and as he left, I ran out of the theatre and got to meet him and have a really sweet conversation with him.  He signed my program “Jeremy, what a pleasure to hear you speak of our work, may you achieve all your dreams.”  Another is that I have gone as Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman’s character, for Halloween, with my friend JJ as Jon Voight’s Joe Buck.  But apart from the personal reasons, I love the imagery of New York in the 60s, before Disney came in and prettified the city.  I love the handheld camera and the improvisatory feel of the film, especially Dustin Hoffman’s classic “I’m walkin’ here!” moment, which never fails to get applause from the audience.  And what’s more, it has so many simple moments which never fail to touch me.  My favorite is when Joe meets the woman at the diner who says, “Welcome to Miami.”  It’s a simple act of kindness and in the context of everything Joe’s been through, it’s one of the few times someone’s just been nice to him.  I wish it wasn’t the only gay cowboy love story to win Best Picture, but we’ll get to that later.

09. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

My parent’s favorite movie, this three-hour film about veterans returning home from WWII is almost unthinkable today.  If it was made, it would be on television, since no one would think a story like this could hold an audience’s attention for so long.  But this intimate epic captures America at its most vulnerable, when we were getting out of troubled times and had to readjust to normalcy.  Like Midnight Cowboy, its emotions are never thrown in your face: director William Wyler’s subtle touch makes every moment real, from Dana Andrews revealing to his wife that he’s unemployed, to my favorite, when Fredric March comes home for the first time and keeps the kids quiet so that his wife won’t know he’s there.  The sequence, done in one shot, is a master class in how to evoke emotion from simplicity.

08. Annie Hall (1977)

This is the movie that most people think of when they hear the name Woody Allen, and there’s good reason for it.  It’s brief (ninety minutes), filled with one great line after another, and probably did more for women’s fashion than any movie since Bonnie and Clyde.  What’s more, Allen gets relationships dead on in this film.  Breaking up is one of the hardest things in life, especially when it’s with someone who we know is great, but we’ve reached a dead end with.  Believe me when I say I have broken up with a girlfriend using the words “what we have on our hands is a dead shark”—and the fact that she didn’t get the reference probably made my decision to break up easier.[2]

07. Unforgiven (1992)

It’s not perfect—there are a couple of performances that just don’t cut it (the problems that come with shooting in Canada), but Clint Eastwood’s summation of the west is more than just a great western, it’s one of the best American films of the last twenty years.  It seems at first like just another, “Oh, the former outlaw has to go back in the game” kind of films, but it goes deeper than that, into being a meditation on good and evil.  The performances from Eastwood, Gene Hackman (who won an Oscar for his role as the corrupt sheriff Bill Daggett) and Morgan Freeman are superb, as is the now-famous finale where Eastwood rides into town to confront Hackman.  It must be seen in a movie theatre to be believed, since its cinematography is so beautiful.

06. No Country For Old Men (2007)

A companion to Unforgiven in many ways, since it’s also a statement on good and evil, and what it means to be a man in modern-America.  The Coens’ neo-western is also a statement on why the west itself is dead: Josh Brolin’s loser husband-turned-outlaw fancies himself John Wayne.  Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s unforgettable killer, is the black hat who makes Liberty Valance look as intimidating as Dumbo.  And in the end, it turns out that neither of them win—sheer dumb luck gets in the way.  Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff stands for us, as he can’t make sense of the level of violence the characters commit, nor the complex machinations of the plot.  Apart from all that, it’s also a hysterically funny movie at times: the Coens know how to do black comedy better than anybody.  The first time I saw this film I was perplexed by it, and upset by its lack of a conclusive ending.  Upon seeing it again, I realized what a masterpiece it was.  More than any other film on this list, this is the one that needs to be seen twice to really understand.

05. The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy, which no doubt had an influence on Mad Men fifty years later, plays beautifully today: I can watch it over and over and never tire of it.  Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are perfectly matched together, and their chemistry is always entertaining to watch.  Fred McMurray is also great as the piece’s villain: along with Double Indemnity, it is his finest work as an actor.  There isn’t much I can write about this movie that hasn’t been said elsewhere, since it’s such a favorite film of many who work in the industry today.  I’ll just give the last word to Wilder, who said, “We had the right actors.  It worked.”

04. Amadeus (1984)

I’m going to keep this brief, because I’m writing about this film in a column that’ll go up later this week.  Needless to say, this is my favorite adaptation of a great play for the screen, since it truly re-invents its source material for the screen rather than just trying to film the play.

03. The Godfather I and II (1972/74)

These two movies have to be paired together, since they’re so of a piece that I can’t split them apart.  It’s one of the greatest cinematic tragedies, on a level with the best of the Greeks and Shakespeare.  I guess the big question is, which one do I love more?  It depends which one I’ve seen most recently.  When I’ve seen Part I, it’s my favorite, when I’ve seen Part II, that becomes my favorite.  I love them both for different reasons: Part I for its action sequences, Brando’s work, and the tragic arc of Michael’s character.  Part II stands out for me because of its flashbacks, and not just De Niro’s scenes.  Maybe my favorite scene in either movie is the climax of Part II, when we see the family get together to surprise Vito Corleone on his birthday.  The moment when they run offscreen and yell “Surprise!” to an unseen father, leaving Michael alone, is the essence of the two films: the son whose father is always going to haunt him, and through his own machinations, will always be alone.

02. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I’ve seen this movie six times and have never been bored by it.  Even as a kid, when I didn’t know what was going on towards the end, I was captivated.  You can only see this movie on a big screen—not even the best blu-ray player can capture it in its full splendor.  Peter O’Toole’s performance—legendary.  Some might say it’s the greatest ever put on film, and I’m not going to argue with them.  The more I watch it, the more I learn from it.  There’s no other movie like it, and it could never be made today, so I am grateful that it was ever made at all.  Once is better than never.

The best: Casablanca (1943)

This is a pretty easy pick, all in all, as I consider Casablanca the greatest Hollywood movie ever made, even above Citizen Kane.  The reason is simple: Hollywood used to make a movie a week, fifty-two movies a year.  The people who made this film took it as an assignment, but approached it with professionalism.  None of them thought their story was going to resonate after seventy years, much less be the movie that summed up an entire era of movies.  When the old studio system worked, it gave us movies like this, which were not only supremely entertaining, but also had deep things to say about life and death.  It’s fair to say that Casablanca is probably the most beloved American movie of all time.  Hyperbole?  Not at this point in time.

And just a few of the least distinguished movies to take the top prize:

Cavalcade (1932/33)

It’s hard to believe Noel Coward wrote this wooden drama about an English family’s life from 1900 to 1933.  It’s so hackneyed as to include scenes where the young lovers go, “Nothing will stop us now!” and then the camera reveals they’re on the deck of the Titanic!  However, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you should watch it so you can see the way it has influenced decades of British drama.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

I don’t get pissed when I think about Rocky beating Network, Ordinary People beating Raging Bull, or How Green Was My Valley beating Citizen Kane.  But The Great Ziegfeld, a three-hour biopic of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, beat one of my favorite movies, William Wyler’s subtle masterpiece, Dodsworth.  And for that, I can’t forgive it.  Also, IT’S THREE HOURS!

Going My Way (1944)

I’ve written about my issues with this movie elsewhere, but it’s just a film that really fails to speak to a modern audience.  I think it also bugs me because I associate its director, Leo McCarey, with the most unsparing and unsentimental of classic films, Make Way For Tomorrow, which inspired Ozu’s Tokyo Story, so any time I see him direct something sentimental, it doesn’t feel right to me.

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

This bloated travelogue is symptomatic of what was wrong with Hollywood during the 50s: they relied too much on spectacle to keep audiences in the theatres and away from their TV sets.  It also doesn’t help matters that it’s based on an equally boring book, which I seem to be the only idiot to ever have read.  However, it’s not a total loss: Victor Young’s score is beautiful, and Saul Bass created an ingenious end titles sequence which recaps the entire movie.  Watch that instead and call it a day.

Crash (2005)

I know, I know, it’s too easy to pick on this film.  And the acting is very good in it, I’ll admit.  But its simple, sentimental answers to complex problems is irksome and its repetition of the same note over and over tiresome.  However, I think the reason Crash is the worst movie to win isn’t because it’s actually “the worst”—again, the acting keeps it from being a total burnout—but because it won out of anti-gay prejudice, and that’s forever going to taint it.  It’s also not just because it beat Brokeback, the most obviously gay-themed of the five nominees, but the fact that the three other nominees had them too.  After all, Capote was about a gay writer, Munich was by a gay writer, Tony Kushner, and as for Good Night and Good Luck, we all know what George Clooney’s hiding…


[1] While I may not have voted for it, the symmetry of this series starting with a musical and ending with a musical has made me ever grateful for Chicago winning the Oscar that year.

[2] Also, continuing in my tradition of dressing for Halloween as characters from film, my high school girlfriend and I went my senior year as Annie and Alvy.  It was definitely better than my Ratso Rizzo costume, which nobody got.