Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill is grotesquely underrated, an absolutely fantastic movie that feels like a unique anomaly in the filmmaker's eclectic oeuvre.  Released in 1993, this was the indie master’s third film, after the breakout success of the highly influential Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, which was followed up in 1991 by the little seen, black and white oddity Kafka, which is better than its reputation suggests, but still not a 100% success.  Still finding his voice as a filmmaker at the time, King of the Hill is a painterly, 1930's set drama that looks at the harsh realities facing a family during the Great Depression.  The film would find warm critical embrace after a rocky Cannes Film Festival debut, and was one of the first releases from Universal's independent label Gramercy Pictures.  King of the Hill flopped at the box office, grossing just over $1 million in the United States; I'm not even sure if an international theatrical release was attempted.  Featuring a cast of child actors and extremely talented character players rather than big Hollywood stars, the film was always going to face a struggle to get noticed, which is a shame, because this is the warmest, most emotional movie of Soderbergh's often cold and clinical career as a filmmaker.  I've long been fascinated with his lightning quick turnaround in between projects, how he often times shoots and edits his own features, and how he's been able to swiftly move from genre to genre throughout the last 26 years, almost always with spectacular results.  He’s made experimental, form-pushing movies for himself and has also been able to play at the top ranks of the studio level, delivering big box office when needed.  Up front: I've not seen a Soderbergh movie that I haven't liked on some sort of level, and a few of them, most notably Schizopolis, Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, The Informant!, and Contagion, are films I feel to be masterpieces for the filmmaker, and his late-career run of Magic Mike, Haywire, and Side Effects were a total triple threat of genre skewering brilliance.  His recent work on the Cinemax series The Knick is bold and convention breaking, infusing a period atmosphere (a turn of the century NYC hospital) with his modern camera style and anachronistic musical choices.  But it's King of the Hill that feels so remarkably different for Soderbergh as a director, a movie that he made almost in response to his down and dirty indie cred that he had developed on his first two features, looking to expand his abilities and further confound his critics.

A young Jesse Bradford is Aaron, a 12 year old boy who is struggling to survive on his own in a shabby motel after his mother is sent to a hospital for having tuberculosis, and his father is forced to hit the road as a travelling salesman.  Set in the Midwest, King of the Hill painfully examines the disintegration of the family unit and the crushing reality of the “American dream” for so many people during that turbulent time period.  Heartbreakingly, Aaron is also forced to say good bye to his younger brother, who is sent off to live with moneyed relatives who thankfully offer to lend a helping hand.  Bradford is extraordinary in this film, conveying desperation, hope, humility, and humor, all sometimes within the same scene, as he learns to navigate the uncertain and sad situation that he's found himself in.  There's one unforgettable sequence that shows him, in an act of starvation and imagination, cutting out pictures of food items (a chicken breast, potatoes, corn, a pad of butter) from a magazine, which he then plates, mentally examines, and eats with a fork and knife, trying to approximate the taste of the food through the flavorless morsels of paper.  The way Soderbergh directed this film was perfect, really.  Scene after scene of poignant drama unfolds, with moments of honest laughter spiking the edges, and it’s a testament to Soderbergh’s involvement with the material that the film never feels overbearing or maudlin. He also avoids cheap sentimentality, so even when things might be taking a turn for the better, you’re left with the implicit understanding that things could just as easily unravel all over again.  Soderbergh got as close to these characters as he's ever possibly been as a storyteller with one of his narratives, telling a wonderfully humanist story that anyone can relate too. A teenaged Katherine Heigl makes a strong supporting turn as Bradford's potential girlfriend, while Jeroen Krabbe is perfectly cast as Bradford's German immigrant father, a man who believes in the "Tough Love" school of parenting, and while not the most trustworthy of men, he makes the case that for all his faults, he truly loves his sons, despite doing some things that in retrospect seem a tad harsh.  Karen Allen, Spalding Grey, Elizabeth McGovern, and a barely able to shave Adrien Brody all round out the excellent cast with memorable, scene-stealing moments, further underscoring Soderbergh’s inherent gift for casting.

Shot on gorgeous Super 35 film by Elliot Davis and fully utilizing the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, Soderbergh crafted what's undoubtedly his prettiest movie to date, a film that he feels is "too pretty," a comment that can be heard while watching the highly informative interview that's included on the superlative Criterion Collection Blu-ray platter.  He seems curiously disappointed with himself as a filmmaker in regards to King of the Hill, openly stating that he wished he had shot the film in a more rough and tumble, grittier fashion, which is more in line with his late era work and aesthetic. But I think one of the best things about King of the Hill is how the film is overwhelmingly beautiful at times, evoking a lost, calamitous era, with the juxtaposition of the luscious images bouncing off the hard-scrabble nature and plight of the characters.  The production design is supremely evocative of a long ago era, forever lost to pictures in books, with period appropriate cars and clothes filling the frame without ever coming off as precious or ostentatious.  Soderbergh has often been a filmmaker, much like David Fincher, who likes to look back at his work and talk about the problems that he sees and how he'd do things differently if he were to make the movie all over again.  This must be a constant source of mental nagging and anguish for storytellers, as the best of them are always challenging themselves to make their movies better and more artistic.  While I don't agree with the criticisms that he throws at himself, I can respect him for having the hunger and desire to critically look at his own work from more than two decades ago and contemplate what he’d like to have a chance to redesign or reinterpret.  But in its current form, King of the Hill stands as a serious, important work for Soderbergh as a craftsman, and easily rests as one of his finest overall efforts.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Michael Mann's Heat represents the finest distillation of the filmmaker's stylistic and narrative obsessions, and his ultimate masterpiece as a storyteller.  Mann, a writer/director who has often reached greatness throughout his career, appears to be most comfortable when telling stories about crime and its effects on the various people that surround his multilayered stories.  A reworking of Mann's earlier NBC movie of the week, L.A. Takedown, Heat turns 20 years old this year, and looking back on it, it's incredible how little it has aged, and even more remarkable to notice how many other filmmakers have been lifting Mann's striking visual aesthetic since the film's initial release.  Critics took Heat a bit for granted when they first encountered it, as response was mostly positive and respectful, though not overly effusive, and while a solid success at the box office, it didn't do massive numbers.  However, over the years, audiences have turned the film into a cultural touchstone, as it represents the type of film that rarely gets made anymore: The introspective Hollywood drama with smarts and action that features big stars and a name director working at the top of their games.  The work that Mann had done preceding Heat clearly influenced his decisions on his magnum crime opus, and the films he'd go on to make in the future have all been fairly (or unfairly) compared to this epic 1995 crime saga.

Mann has found his obvious home in the crime genre, with his name associated on TV projects (Starsky & Hutch, Police Story, Police Woman, Miami Vice, Crime Story, and the wildly underrated Robbery Homicide Division) and on various feature films (Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Blackhat), all of which hum with a distinct personality and unified vision, no matter in what capacity Mann served.  Part of what differentiates Mann from other filmmakers is his unique sense of place and dedication to realism; no matter how busy the narrative and how jargon fueled the dialogue may be, there’s always a clear sense of how every detail might fall into place, allowing the audience to follow the rigors of the plot while still having the capacity to be surprised. And in Heat, there’s a level of clarity to the story that might have been unattainable by another, less in control filmmaker, considering just how many moving pieces are involved in making Heat the success that it became. What I love so much about Heat is that, like James Mangold’s 1997 policier Cop Land, the film operates as a sly, contemporary Western, but Heat, unlike many other genre efforts, transcends the themes that it so dutifully explores, vaulting the picture into rarefied, existential territory that Mann always seems interested in exploring no matter the milieu. He also managed to craft the Ultimate Los Angeles Movie, but more on that later.

Not that a plot explanation should be necessary, but I’ll break down the basics.  Robert De Niro is a master thief.  Al Pacino is a master cop.  They both have dedicated crews that will follow them anywhere.  The city of Los Angeles is their deadly playground.  The film revolves around the notion of duality, and how the De Niro and Pacino characters are essentially the same person, just on opposite sides of the law, completely consumed by their work, with a constant sense of professionalism and integrity guiding them through their perilous daily life.  De Niro assembles his team to do a major score, the daring robbery of a bank, and it’s up to Pacino and his band of fellow officers to bring them down.  Mixed into the main story are the various relationships that De Niro, Pacino, and their men have with the women in their lives: Wives, girlfriends, and in one instance, a step-daughter.  Instead of just a nuts and bolts crime film, Mann opened up his generous narrative to include real conversations between real people that drive all of the action in a grounded, thoughtful manner.  How it all ends is the stuff of cinema legend, and if you don’t know by now I’ll allow you to discover for yourself, but I will concede that Heat operates on multiple narrative tracks all at once, with side-jobs bringing along potentially fatal consequences for De Niro and his men, and the emotionally taxing rigors of having to balance your family life and your cop life for Pacino. 

De Niro’s Neil McCauley is a criminal driven to perfection.  He lives by a code: Never become attached to something that you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds if you spot the heat around the corner.  No wife, no family, a true lone wolf in a sharp grey suit (a costume obsession of Mann’s for years), McCauley is the kind of man who thinks he has everything under control.  Then, things change when he meets a woman who might be a reason to leave his dangerous life behind for.  She gives him a new reason to live, or at least he thinks she does from time to time, because the way that De Niro brilliantly plays the character, all inward quiet and small glances to suggest intent and feeling, you never truly know what he’ll do at any given moment.  We know he’s pulled off vaious high-stakes jobs with total ease and precision, but he’s not used to letting his emotional guard down, and then when coupled with the fact that he’s got a Super Cop looking for him, he understands the need to take decisive action in an effort to complete his goals.  This is one of De Niro’s least flashy and totally reserved performances, bringing a masculine grace to the role of leader and friend to his teammates, and while clearly a man capable of more than just violent action and air-tight planning, he’s still a human being, capable of making emotionally misguided mistakes which could prove to be his undoing.

In Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, Mann has created an amazing dichotomy between the MacCauley character, because while both men certainly share similar traits and attributes, the recklessness of the Hanna character is what allows him to constantly move throughout the night, always trying to one up his stealth opponent.  Pacino brings a live-wire spark to the role of this driven detective, hollering out orders at his underlings, busting down doors, always ready to mix it up with an opponent.  While listening to the Blu-ray audio commentary with Mann, it’s revealed that he had written a casually under control cocaine habit into the Hanna character, which would help explain the sudden outbursts of energy and profanity, as well as all of the jaw chomping that he exhibits all throughout the film.  I’m ot fully sure why this angle was cut out of the film (I guess it cuts down on the sympathy factor for the character), but I really do wish that Mann had kept this edgy bit of business in the final cut, as it would have further contextualized Hanna as a man of steady habits and unpredictable behavior.  Pacino, no stranger to large emoting, especially during the 90’s in films such as Scent of a Woman and The Devil’s Advocate, chews the scenery when called for, but also allows small moments of stern quiet to seep in around the edges. He’s a man who is always assessing the situation, whether on the job or at home, and it’s the way that Pacino burrows deep into Hanna as a man that we come to understand the method to his madness.  I also find it curious how Mann introduces his top-cop character at the start of the film, during a morning lovemaking session with his wife, as opposed to on the streets chasing down some bad guy. Romance is another aspect that Mann's films always deal with, and the way that Pacino balances his home life and professional life is of key consequence to his character and the story in general.

The romantic angle and the film’s concentration on the female characters also help separate Heat from lesser genre entries. Not content to tell an all-boys story with guns and explosions, Mann, as he’s been prone to do in the past, allows for the leads to have personal relationships which amp up the narrative tension and reason for being.  McCauley meets an enchanting young woman who he feels might be worth running away with (a super young Amy Brenneman), and it isn’t until the film’s final moments where you learn his ultimate decisions regarding their unique relationship.  This relationship takes the normally rigorously disciplined McCauley out of his comfort zone, which allows for shards of humanity to creep in around the edges.  Hanna, meanwhile, is a two time divorcee who is in the middle of an about to fail marriage (Diane Venora is his sharp witted wife); it’s clear that he can’t keep things on the up and up at home while still traversing the streets of Los Angeles looking for all of the city’s transgressors.  The scenes between Pacino and Venora have a palpable tension, because while they clearly loved each other once, they are so obviously drifting away from each other, and their confrontations carry a verbal weight and sting that elevates the material from mere soap opera to fully fleshed-out human dramatics.   To further complicate Hanna’s life, his mentally unstable stepdaughter (played by a then emerging star Nathalie Portman) also looms over the proceedings, creating a sense of unease that becomes essential to one aspect of the script.  In retrospect, Heat does sort of resemble a male soap opera of sorts, as the two lead characters are emotionally stunted and need to sort out their issues through a variety of ways, some involving words, and others involving action.

Heat has action peppered all throughout the runtime, but the film’s opening set-piece, involving the robbery of an armored truck, and unfortunate execution of the truck’s owners, immediately grabs the viewer by the throat, never letting you up for air.  De Niro and his team orchestrate the perfect smash and grab, stealing only what they need, and leaving hardly a trace of evidence.  But the scene that everyone loves to discuss and re-watch is arguably the greatest single sequence of action ever put on film, the robbery of a downtown Los Angeles bank in broad daylight.  This bravura sequence is nothing short of staggering, with very few (if any) other films capturing the same sense of immediacy and violent impact throughout the years, no matter how hard they try, Mann included (the gun battles in Public Enemies, Miami Vice, and Blackhat are terrific and at times extraordinary, but none match the rawness of what was captured in Heat).  While never overly bloody, the street rampage is filled with all sorts of deadly implications, from numerous police officers and innocent bystanders being killed in the crossfire, and various members of De Niro’s crew either getting hurt or killed.  Thousands of rounds of ammunition were expended during this blistering sequence of sustained fury, with the sensational sound team capturing every single bullet strike and muzzle blast.  Mann saves the bloodiest bits of violence for the moments that really count (Waingro, Van Sandt, the climatic moments between McCauley and Hanna), so that when we see someone go down hard and viciously, we feel it all the more rather than everything being a senseless blur of unending graphic violence.  As a filmmaker, Mann knows more about what to show and when to show it than few other currently working directors.

The cinematography, editing, music, and production design are all in total harmonious synch in Heat.  Dante Spinotti's naturalistic if at times slightly heightened images, in full 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, fill the edges of the frame with visual information and precise detail, with Mann's "always-looking-into-the-future-of-the-night" style mixing with Spinotti's elegant use of color and depth of field.  Shots are framed a tad off center, with the character’s heads filling the foreground or background or side of frame, almost so that the camera is entering the minds of the story’s inhabitants, creating a lyrical and thought provoking tone that suggests a cerebral nature as much as it does anything else.  The physical locations chosen for Heat showcase Los Angeles in all of its ethnically diverse and cement-sexy splendor, with the vapors of street lamps bouncing off the flat street surfaces, as industrial landscapes dot the horizon, with parking garages, empty lots and fields, side-streets, and the vast expanses of the city's various skyscrapers and office buildings suggesting endless possibilities.  And then there’s the amazing music, which ranges from ambient to grand, sweeping to soft, always in perfect tandem with the bright daytime and dark nocturnal images on screen, with some Miami Vice-inspired guitar riffs for those paying close attention. Heat is a nearly three hour picture, but because of the crispness and the judiciously timed editing, the film never sags or allows itself to slow down; once the story kicks into gear it never lets up, with a final hour that packs various dramatic conflict and incident into the narrative yet never feels rushed or forced. The swift pace created by the seamless editing patterns goes a long way in keeping this lengthy but forceful film moving along, with Mann pulling all the elements together in a way that few could ever have when it comes to material such as this. 

At the end of it, Heat is a film that is consumed with the professionalism and the costs of committing 100% to any area of life, but in this story, that area of life is the criminal vs. the cop. And during the film’s electric final moments of action at a busy LAX and in the galvanizing final scene accompanied by Moby’s epic and poetic song God Moving Over The Face of The Waters, you get the sense that Mann has crafted two characters that, while resting on opposite sides of the law, have come to mutually respect each other as men and as adversaries.  It all goes back to their fantastic meeting at the coffee shop at the film’s midsection, and how the two of them look clear into each other eyes and tell one another that the life they’re living is the only life they know how to live.  More than any other great piece of work from Mann, Heat is his definitive masterpiece of filmmaking, the A-1 end result of all of his ticks and tendencies as a storyteller, filtered through that indelible and totally dynamic visual aesthetic that has subtly morphed over the years while still retaining its core elements.  It’s a film that I remain blown away by every single time I take in a viewing, and I love how I can vividly recall the first time I experienced it on the big screen with my father back in my high school days; I had a second opportunity to see the film on the big screen with Mann doing live Q&A (he took a break from editing duties on Ali to run over to LACMA for the screening).  Heat will always be one of my favorite films of all time, for so many reasons, not the least of which, is that, simply put, it is great, enduring cinema that stirs the soul.