Archive for the ‘Romance’ Category



You may have noticed that I’ve talked about MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED a lot.  I wrote about it only once, for my friend’s spotlight on Underrated Comedies.  As I wrote then, this isn’t only an underrated comedy in my eyes.  In my opinion, this may just be the most underrated American film of all time.  Am I exaggerating?  Read on, amigos.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED was written by Tom Mankiewicz, who worked on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, DRAGNET, and three James Bond movies.  It was directed by Peter Yates, best known for classic tough-guy movies such as BULLITT and THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.  One of the producers on MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED is Joseph Barbera — that’s right — one half of the insanely prolific Hanna-Barbera cartoon team.

All of the above credits may begin to hint at the unique atmosphere of MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED — I could call it “cartoonish realism” if I thought the term might ever take off.  The story concerns an independent ambulance company competing against rival services in addition to the proper channels. They’re barely-legal L.A. outlaws, riding into life or death situations. Most of them do it for the kicks.

The veteran driver is nicknamed “Mother” and that’s the only name he’s known by. He’s a man of simple pleasures: He likes getting massages from pretty ladies, keeping a fully-stocked cooler in the rig, and “buzzing” gaggles of nuns with his siren as they’re crossing the street.

That’s Bill Cosby.


The new guy is Tony Malatesta, a former police detective nicknamed “Speed” due to the bogus drug allegations that recently got him shitcanned from the LAPD.

That’s Harvey Keitel.

And the knockout receptionist with larger ambitions is nicknamed “Jugs” (which she hates, by the way.)

That’s Raquel Welch.

Those are three very different stars, which means that the movie is a collection of very different tones. This movie brims with raucous comedy and sober tragedy, on a scene-to-scene basis.  Somehow it all hangs together cohesively – credit to the sure hand of Peter Yates.  But even with that said, it’s probably still not what you’re expecting.  Cosby’s got a potty-mouth, for one thing!  Your Cosby Show memories will be forever changed once you hear him say “Bambi’s mom had great tits.”  But even as he’s doing that, he’s rocking some real pathos too.  His performance here is way more HICKEY & BOGGS (see that too, please) than GHOST DAD or LEONARD PART SIX.  There’s a real depth to his acting that could be frankly shocking even to longtime fans of his comedy.

Meanwhile, Keitel was best known at the time  for his work with Scorsese – he appeared in TAXI DRIVER the same year – but even though he’s cast as the straight man here, he’s totally down to play. And Raquel Welch, a sexual revolution in human form, is easily their equal and frequently their better. It’s one of her best-ever roles.



Add to that a supporting cast that includes L.Q. Jones, Bruce Davison, Dick Butkus, Larry Hagman in brilliantly gross & bastardy form, and the sorely-underappreciated character-actor great Allen Garfield (THE STUNT MAN) as the low-rent boss of the gang, and you have one of the most fun movies of the 1970s, and arguably one of the most unheralded.  Name another great movie from that year – ROCKY, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, NETWORK – and then ask me if I’d rather watch MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED.  Apologies to Stallone, Hoffman, Redford, and Duvall, but I think you already know my answer.

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And check out this fun photo-article on the film’s shooting locations.

Play Misty For Me (1971)

By 1971, Clint Eastwood was a top box-office draw, having built his name on Westerns and war films.  PLAY MISTY FOR ME was Clint’s first film as director.  The first surprise is the logline:  A FATAL ATTRACTION style thriller about a radio DJ (Clint) who is stalked by an obsessed fan (Jessica Walter, now best known as Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development, a fact which is sort of hilarious in context.)  A nightmare-romance movie.  That’s a long way from the action movies for which Clint was then, and is now still, best known.

Play Misty For Me (1971)

In PLAY MISTY FOR ME, Clint took a script written by a woman, Jo Heims — although Clint later had Dean Riesner, of DIRTY HARRY and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER fame, do some work on it — and essentially cast himself in the role of the victim.  It’s fucking fascinating.  Here is the definitive macho screen icon, choosing to play the traditionally female role.  Usually the psycho-killer is a man, and the pretty victim he’s obsessed with is a woman.  Here that paradigm is flipped.  Clint as Janet Leigh, Clint as Jamie Lee Curtis, and so on — this film exists in conversation with the thrillers of the past and the thrillers which at that point were yet to come.

Play Misty For Me (1971)

And of course it’s personal.  Clint sets the movie in his beloved Carmel and casts himself as a jazz DJ.  Those are personal touches.  The vibrant cinematography is by Eastwood & Siegel regular Bruce Surtees.  That scenery alone is worth the watch, even if you don’t agree with my championing of Clint’s work here.

Play Misty For Me (1971)

Play Misty For Me (1971)

I can see how another point of view might look at the villainization of Jessica Walter’s character as somehow less than feminist, but I don’t see it that way.  There’s way more feminism in this body of work than anyone is likely to pick up on. I think Clint is at the very least trying out some big ideas here, and whether or not you agree that he hit the target, it sure was a bold swing to make right out of the gate, accurately predicting the brilliant four-decade-long-and-counting directorial career that was to follow.

Play Misty For Me (1971)

Keep an eye out for the extended cameo by Clint’s mentor and DIRTY HARRY director Don Siegel — he’s really good in the part!


P.S. Here’s the original trailer for PLAY MISTY FOR ME — that voiceover sounds a whole fuck of a lot like Orson Welles, don’t it?  That’s voice actor Paul Frees.  Brilliant.

“They broke in on me, and found me doing an unholy thing.” — Im-Ho-Tep, THE MUMMY.

THE MUMMY arrived a year after the one-two punch of Universal’s DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, both in 1931.  It’s a fascinating case, because while it is a major departure from those two films, it also couldn’t exist without them.  THE MUMMY has both nothing and everything to do with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.

DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN were such massive successes for Universal that the studio started looking around for other intellectual properties to turn into the next great horror character.  DRACULA had come from the legendary 1897 novel by Bram Stoker, and FRANKENSTEIN had been the great creation of Mary Shelley in 1818.  Universal had seen prior success with 1923’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, which was not technically a horror movie but is still to this day a terrific entertainment with a great Lon Chaney performance, and with 1925’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which is most definitely a horror movie and also has a great Lon Chaney performance, but realistically, The Phantom is probably considered by most to be a distant second-stringer behind Frank, Drac, and Im-Ho-Tep.

The inspiration for 1932’s THE MUMMY, unlike all of Universal’s major horror hits up until that time, came not from literature but from actual human history.  Ten years earlier, in 1922, the landmark discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen was a national sensation, as big a story to Americans then as Kanye dating Kim is to Americans now.  Inspired by the King Tut finding, Universal’s story department (primarily Richard Shayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam) came up with the basic concept from which John Balderston wrote the final script.  Balderston reportedly contributed to the scripts of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN also, and THE MUMMY shares not only a writer with those films, but also a cinematographer and a supporting cast (DRACULA) and of course a star (FRANKENSTEIN).

Karl Freund is not generally considered an auteur director, the way DRACULA‘s Tod Browning and FRANKENSTEIN‘s James Whale are, but he’s earned his place at the horror round table.  Freund was the cinematographer on DRACULA, and he reportedly took over the director’s chair for scenes where Browning’s alcohol troubles disrupted filming.  Freund as a director may not have had the same creativity and affinity for the bizarre that Browning and Whale did, but his acuity with making dark horror scenes stylish as a cameraman is certainly a boon to THE MUMMY.  Still, the twin shadows of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN loom large over THE MUMMY.

THE MUMMY begins with a melancholy orchestral cue that sounds awfully familiar.  I couldn’t place it until I looked it up:  It’s from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  If that doesn’t ring a bell, try this one on for size:  It’s the main credits music used in DRACULA.  Then, after a title card gives a little pseudo-history on the ancient pharaoh Im-Ho-Tep (sic), the story begins.  An archaeological expedition unearths Im-Ho-Tep’s tomb and opens the sarcophagus, revealing this fantastic make-up design by the legendary Jack Pierce:

If Jack Pierce’s masterpiece was the make-up design for FRANKENSTEIN, his work in THE MUMMY must surely be a close second.  It’s as thoughtful as the design on the earlier film — though it’s obviously not a strictly realistic take on what a millenium-old mummified human being would look like, it’s a fitting approximation of how most people would imagine one.  It’s a figure from our imagination, come alive.  It’s a truly striking image.  But it can’t have been fun for poor Boris Karloff to slog on every day, so the movie doesn’t linger on this visage of The Mummy for long.

As the story goes, one of the more headstrong adventurers, against the warnings of Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing in DRACULA), reads aloud an incantation from the ‘Scroll Of Thoth’ that brings Im-Ho-Tep lumbering back to life.  The Mummy strolls out of the sarcophagus, then shuffles his way out the door.  The sight of the impossible drives the archaeologist mad, and he begins cackling wildly, maniacally, as The Mummy escapes.  It’s an over-the-top capstone to the scene, but one that fits in neatly with both director Karl Freund’s background in German Expressionism and the example of the madman Renfield in DRACULA.

When Im-Ho-Tep re-enters the movie, he’s amped down the Mummy look considerably (perhaps as a concession to Mr. Karloff, who after all was as big a star in 1932 as Channing Tatum is in 2012).  Im-Ho-Tep is now cutting a more dapper figure, clad in fine robes and a fez and introducing himself as “Ardeth Bey”, which does makes me think a little bit of how Mos Def is now going by the name “Yasiin Bey“.  That’s just how my mind works.  Anyhow, Ardeth Bey is much more eloquent than the initial Mummy from the first scene, and the more civilized incarnation of the character gives Karloff the chance to show what he can do with a line like “With your pardon, I dislike to be touched. An Eastern prejudice.”  He’s a far better actor, in my opinion, than he gets credit for being.  The thing is, Ardeth Bey is a man on a mission, and don’t let his fancy diction fool you, he’s not the greatest guy.  Or maybe you can tell just by looking at him.

Honestly, doesn’t he look a bit like Tommy Lee Jones on that HOPE SPRINGS poster?

Mummy Lee Jones.

Since every Tommy Lee Jones needs his Meryl Streep, Im-Ho-Tep searches the entirety of Cairo for his immortal beloved, Ankh-Es-Un-Amon.  He finds her at a party, in the person of Helen (Zita Johann), who is also being wooed by Frank (Paul Rudd look-alike David Manners, who played Harker in DRACULA).  Frank is the son of one of the archaeologists who exhumed Im-Ho-Tep, and he and Dr. Muller become rightly convinced not only that Ardeth Bey is the returned Im-Ho-Tep, but also that he is after Helen.  If this is starting to sound a little dry, that’s appropriate because that’s how it plays.  For whatever reason, THE MUMMY lags more than its predecessors (and more than its several sequels).  There is a lot of exposition, a lot of scenes of people hunched over scrolls, and not all of it compelling.

There are a few highlights, though.  There’s the delightfully over-wrought line, highlighted in the classic trailer, where Ardeth Bey lays out his intentions to Helen, “I shall awaken memories of love and crime and death.”  There’s the still-disturbing scene, a flashback to ancient Egypt, where Im-Ho-Tep is captured and wrapped in bandages and buried alive — it’s not shocking by today’s standards, but if you stop to give some thought to how that process might actually feel, you might be able to approximate how frightful such a scene might have been in 1932.

And there’s “The Nubian”, a memorable if somewhat problematic character who is a servant to one of the archaeologists but is compelled by Ardeth Bey to do his bidding.  (Like Count Dracula, Im-Ho-Tep has hypnotic abilities.)  The Nubian is played by Noble Johnson, a black actor of an unforgettable countenance who was also seen in 1932’s THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (from the team who would next make KING KONG.)  Unfortunately, this was long before Hollywood movies figured out how to showcase black actors in any remotely flattering way.  So The Nubian is a very physical character, no pushover, but a plot device, a prop, a type, not in any other way delineated.  It’s arguably refreshing to have a splash of color in an early horror movie, a genre that is otherwise very very Caucasian, but that may not be saying much.

But back to the story.  In the end, Frank, Dr. Muller, and Helen confront Im-Ho-Tep, and since Frank and Dr. Muller are powerless to stop Im-Ho-Tep, it falls to Helen to remember her past life as Ankh-Es-En-Amon and invoke the god Isis to destroy Im-Ho-Tep.  (If the movie doesn’t have much for the black character to do, at least the lone female character is the one with the hero moment.)  A statue of Isis raises an arm and shoots light at Im-Ho-Tep, who starts aging rapidly — you get to see his skeleton! — before completely disintegrating (off-camera).

And that’s THE MUMMY.  Karl Freund only directed a few more movies before returning to his post as cameraman on movies like 1948’s KEY LARGO.  The only major player to return to the character was Jack Pierce.  While he did return to playing Frankenstein’s Monster (in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), Karloff never did reprise the role of The Mummy.  The character would return in several unofficial sequels, with Lon Chaney Jr. eventually taking over the role.  Beyond the Mummy pictures of the 1930s and 1940s, however, the character accumulated in popularity and became a Halloween-time standard.  THE MUMMY, taken as a film on its own, may not quite be as timeless as some of the other Universal horror pictures, but the work of Freund, Karloff, Pierce, and their collaborators ensured that The Mummy would become as iconic a figure as Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monsters and his Bride, the Wolfman, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon.  He’s a pantheon character, as eerily lovable and oddly romantic as any of them.


LAWLESS is a couple weeks old now, but it’s still way worth talking about.  It’s not to be confused with FLAWLESS, the Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-in-a-dress movie, nor is it to be confused with the upcoming DREDD movie, which as we all know is guaranteed to have a surplus of law.

Here’s what I said about LAWLESS before I saw it

WETTEST COUNTY was on my list of 50 most eagerly-awaited movies of the year.   But it’s not called that anymore, though.  Now it goes by the handle LAWLESS, a much more generic title which sounds a little cooler after knowing it was generously bestowed upon the movie by none other than Terrence Malick.  Whatever it’s called, it’s a John Hillcoat movie, which after THE PROPOSITION and The ROAD, promises good things.  I’m definitely getting a less-artsy, more-mainstream PUBLIC ENEMIES vibe from the new trailer, but that doesn’t strike me personally as a deterrent.

Check out the trailer, it made LAWLESS travel that much higher on my want-to-see-now meter:


Now, to read what I had to say about LAWLESS after seeing it (spoiler warning: it’s a lot of very nice things), you’ll have to click over to Daily Grindhouse:


And make damn sure you check out that soundtrack:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:  A vintage classic is “re-imagined” for a modern era, with mixed results.  It’s a pretty common joke nowadays, but back in 1984 it was still fairly novel.  Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds is a loose remake of Jacques Tourneur’s impeccable noir Out Of The Past (1947), with Jeff Bridges stepping in for Robert Mitchum, Rachel Ward stepping in for Jane Greer, and James Woods stepping in for Kirk Douglas.  I’m a huge fan of the original film, written by Daniel Mainwairing (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), who adapted Out Of The Past from his novel “Build My Gallows High“, which he wrote under the name Geoffrey Homes and which I’ve read and can highly, highly recommend.

So it’s fair to be skeptical of any 1980s movie that is meant to walk in those shoes, but it’s apparent that Against All Odds, however artistically successful it may or may not be, was at least very evidently a passion project, having generously made room in the cast for a pair of vintage noir icons.  It’s like the way Stan Lee keeps being dutifully included in all the Marvel movies, only the point of comparison would be if he got to play Doctor Doom.  Interestingly enough, original femme fatale Jane Greer has a role in the newer movie, playing the mother of the character she would have been playing in 1947, and in a bizarre but very welcome nod to noir history, veteran actor Richard Widmark gets to play the nefarious string-puller — it’s only bizarre because while Widmark played the heavy and the hero in so many classic films, none of them happened to be Out Of The Past.

That eagerness to pay tribute to the soon-extinct lions of noir is what endears this movie to me, even as its conflicting filmmaking approach probably disqualifies it as the real thing.  Journeyman director Taylor Hackford made the huge hit An Officer And A Gentleman right before he made Against All Odds, and that brand of sweeping romanticism somewhat clashes when grafted onto a genre of lovecrimes, coldblooded violence, and heartless betrayals.

Unlike authentic film noir, Against All Odds is a film drenched in daylight.  It begins with its hero, Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges) roaming a tropical paradise, in search of an heiress, Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward) who has gone missing and who Brogan has been hired to find by her boyfriend, skeezy bookie Jake Wise (James Woods, who else?), against a competing offer from Jessie’s mother (Jane Greer) and her consigliere (Richard Widmark).  The fact that all these people can find no headhunter any more experienced than Terry Brogan, who is an aging football star eager to reignite his fading career, is a bit of a head-scratcher which the movie doesn’t seem bothered to pry into too deeply.  Terry has betting history with Jake, which means Jake has him over a barrel, but still, if you have a mystery to be solved, do you hire a Tom Brady or do you find a Lt. Columbo?  And again, doubling back after the initial tropical opening, to go into football-field flashbacks isn’t exactly fertile noir territory.  After a brief cameo from the great Bill McKinney as the head coach of Terry’s team, the trainer Terry turns to in his hour of need, Hank Sully, is portrayed by one-time NFL star Alex Karras, best known to most of us for his henchman role in Blazing Saddles and for playing Webster’s dad.  It’s no great surprise that Sully turns out to have a role in the network of double-crosses that ensues, but with bad guys like this one, it is hard to buy into the menace that the movie kind of needs to be a true noir.   James Woods does supply some snakish creepiness, especially in a legitimately-terrific practical-stunts sportscar scene where he and Bridges race each other in actual traffic on Sunset Boulevard in West L.A., but the plot sidelines and neuters him in ways Kirk Douglas never had to worry about in the original.

The main point of interest in this film, and the reason why 92Y Tribeca screened it recently, is that it is a lesser-remembered part of the filmography of Jeff Bridges, who is now finally receiving his just due on a widespread basis.  As an older character actor, he’s endlessly fascinating, but as a leading man, he had an all-American quality that led some to undervalue his acting talent.  There was never anything bland about Jeff Bridges, and taking another look at even his earliest movies confirms it.  There’s an edge and a viciousness that creeps into Bridges’ portrayal of Terry Brogan that gives the movie more weight than it would have had with any other lead actor.  I don’t believe that this is a very great noir, but he’s good at playing a noir hero.  The other thing you’re going to notice about him in this movie is, “Holy crap that guy is good-looking.”

I don’t care how straight you are, and I’m pretty damn straight so I will venture to speak for the species, but it’s pretty impossible not to notice that this is some attractive dude.  Rachel Ward is a pretty excellent-looking woman, but she’s away from the screen for large stretches of this film, whereas Jeff Bridges is on screen pretty much the entire time.  It definitely occurred to me more than once that “If I looked like that, I’d probably only have half the problems I have now.”  This movie ogles Jeff Bridges the way most movies ogle beautiful women.  Maybe that was the intent.  Maybe this was meant to be a new hybrid: chick-flick film-noir.  If that’s the case, more power to ’em.  But please, watch the original first.

Now there’s only one thing left to address about Against All Odds, and that’s the elephant in the room:  Phil Collins.

Phil Collins wrote and performed the title track, which became one of his signature songs, and in retrospect the song is probably more famous than the movie from whence it came.  You really can’t watch the movie now and not be nervously anticipating the arrival of Phil Collins.  I’m not slagging Phil Collins — I think it’s a good song and I happily admit that I like it, even though I think the dramatic kicking in of the drums is a bit of a bite off of Phil’s own song “In The Air Tonight” — but again, this is not the kind of tune that ever would have accompanied a classic studio noir and all you have to do is turn on TCM to see what I mean.  A real film noir could never provide you with your wedding song, ladies and gents.  A real film noir might make you consider swearing off the notion of romance for at least as long as you forgot you swore it off.  Not to mention the fact that there’s not a great reason for this movie to be named “Against All Odds” except for the fact that it has a song called “Against All Odds” at the end of it.  I can’t say I was completely unaffected by that ending — I’m only human, damn it! — but again, it’s not of a tone that truly fits the genre of films the movie seems to have planned to homage.  True noir achieves a poetic bleakness, not a romantic yearning.  I suppose what I’m saying is, Against All Odds succeeded in getting its title track stuck in my head, but the rest isn’t quite as inescapable.

P.S.  If you were wondering why Against All Odds reminds you so much of The Golden Child, it’s because both movies share a cinematographer (Don Thorin) and a composer (Michel Colombier.)  Also, if you look closely, you can see Victor Wong fly through one of the island scenes in the form of a tropical bird.

(Yes, this was a very strange place to make a very specific reference to The Golden Child.)


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Today is Michael Mann’s birthday.  I celebrate by re-watching (and re-posting) my initial thoughts about his most recent, and apparently most controversial, feature film.  The following is what I wrote about Public Enemies on July 3rd, 2009.  Public Enemies, I still maintain, has plenty to recommend it, but its unconventionality makes it a point of debate.  Is it among Mann’s best films?  Is it even remotely as good as I obviously think it is?  Read this and see if you agree or not — and be sure to watch Mann co-production Luck on HBO tonight.


I’ve been talking up my excitement about this movie for a while now, so I would have to understand anyone who takes my opinion about Public Enemies with a grain of salt (or the entire shaker). I was looking forward to it like crazy and I was looking to love it, and if that has any effect on the fact that I did, I can’t be sure yet. This was only the first screening of what is likely to be many, if my history is any indication. Michael Mann is my favorite filmmaker working today, and he is unquestionably one of the best, and even his so-called lesser efforts are to me always worthy of consideration.
The following things about Public Enemies I doubt will be debated:
1. Johnny Depp is pitch-perfect as John Dillinger. He is so likable and watchable that he easily manages the job of making an audience root for a career criminal (while not a sadist or a murderer, Dillinger was not any kind of hero) – even though most of us know how Dillinger’s story ended going into the movie, we’re all rooting for things to go differently. Depp also conveys a stoicism and a confidence of nature that feels right for the character. Turns out he is the perfect star for Mann’s signature brand of tragic romanticism.
2. Marion Cotillard is a great match for him as Dillinger’s true love, Billie Frechette. The criticisms will center around the fact that she doesn’t get as much to do, and gets far less screen time. That’s true. However, she makes the most of the time she has – just like her character states at a memorable moment in the movie. I really believed her in this movie, believed in her love for John Dillinger, and not for what he could give her, but for his dedication to her and his confidence in what he wanted. (Her.)
3. Christian Bale’s role, as Melvin Purvis, is by far the more thankless one. As I’d anticipated, he is a good fit as the rigid counterpoint to the debonair Depp as Dillinger. He’s relatively humorless, and you pretty quickly come to root against him in his pursuit of the flashier, more charismatic character. However, keep in mind that Bale has to carry the half of the film that Depp isn’t in, to keep it grounded and compelling, and that’s a role that not just any actor can manage.
4. The filmmaking style is different than what we’re used to.
It’s this last point where the debate about Public Enemies is going to begin. For me, obviously the way the movie is made completely worked. For others, it may not, and I (and any other fan of the film) probably have to respect that. Michael Mann and his cinematographer, the great Dante Spinotti (Mann’s guy on Manhunter, Heat, and The Insider), not to mention the crew of film editors and sound designers, take a lot of stylistic risks that to me, made for an incredibly immersive experience, but to others may be less effective (at first – hopefully they’ll give the movie another chance).
For one thing, the high-def photography is startling in this venue. We’re not just un-used to this look in gangster pictures – we’re un-used to any period piece ever looking quite like this. As Depp reaches out a hand to a wounded comrade, we see the pores in his hand – such intricate detail makes the scene seem more real than usual, less romanticized and more disturbing. An older man is dying in front of our eyes; when Dillinger can’t hold him any longer, he’s let go and becomes dead weight on the road.
The way that the lighting plays across the view of these cameras is new and different. The scene where Dillinger stops in a phone booth off a country road to phone Billie had me catching my breath for the unusual look of it, as did the more overtly spectacular scene of the plane carrying the captive Dillinger towards a throng of hysterical reporters. The shootout at the hotel in the woods (you’ll know it when you see it) is destined to become a classic, as are the penultimate and ultimate scenes at the Biograph Theater, if there is any justice. We just haven’t seen a huge-budget period piece that has ever looked like this.
The sound design is equally startling. It either forces you to pay attention, as it did for me and the rest of the packed, raptly-focused audience I watched it with, or it could conceivably distract you, as it seems to have in some of the reviews and feedback from friends I’m getting. Wild sound (that additionally recorded sound that keeps the noise consistent between shots) is often left out of some scenes. Soundtrack music often drifts in and out of scenes subtly, and occasionally cuts off abruptly between them. [Honestly, that second point was a little distracting even to me.] By losing some of the artificial contrivances that films have conditioned audiences to expect, Mann has made a film that to me is all the more hypnotic. Others will not see it that way, especially in a movie season where most people are looking for artifice.
Also, the storytelling demands complete attention. Many recognizable faces pop up through the course of the movie, some very briefly, and it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who on first viewing. Bryan Burrough’s source material book had maps and character keys and indexes so that the reader can keep track of what is a dense, multi-character story. A movie can’t do that, so Public Enemies necessarily moves quickly in that regard. Many of these characters are detailed enough to warrant movies of their own (in the case of the high-profile bankrobbers like Pretty-Boy Floyd and Baby-Face Nelson, many of them have) and I can see how it would be frustrating to not spend more screen time with them.
For me, the story of Dillinger and his lady is enough, as I suspect it is for Mann. Again, I just plain believed it. I believed how much he liked her, I believed how much she liked him, I believed their desperation when they were apart, I believed their desperation when they were trying to get back to each other. The “Bye Bye Blackbird” motif just killed me. I guess I’m a tragic romantic in my own right. This kind of stuff just works at the right note on my heartstrings.
I imagine that I will have more to say on the subject of Public Enemies as time goes on. (MORE?!?) Michael Mann’s movies have a way of entering the fabric of my consciousness – they just often resemble the way I perceive the world, or maybe they influence that perception. That’s how it is with some people and some movies. In Public Enemies, Mann even suggests a similar idea, with the scene where Dillinger watches his last movie – he brilliantly suggests what Dillinger may have been thinking about as he watched that particular film; using authentic, specifically-selected clips, that early Clark Gable film, Manhattan Melodrama, takes on a mythic, yet crushingly personal, potency.
Michael Mann’s movies have often affected me the way that Manhattan Melodrama affects John Dillinger in Public Enemies. So I doubt that all of the above is my final word on the subject, as it all will continue to sink in, and then I will inevitably see it again. My goal in writing this today is to encourage anyone reading this to go out and see the movie for themselves, on the big screen, with a theatrical sound system, as it is meant to be seen, because I can’t wait to hear what the rest of you are thinking.

“I hope her bones are firm.” – Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).

Some creative endeavors tell you something about their creators just by watching them.  If a guy named Sam makes a movie like The Wild Bunch, or a guy named Russ makes a movie like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, well, we kinda know what kind of guy we’re dealing with.  At the same time, when a man named John makes a movie like Polyester or a man named James makes a movie like Bride Of Frankenstein, we can logically infer at least the one thing about them as well.  Even Homer Simpson could eventually figure it out.

American culture has advanced (somewhat) since the days of “not that there’s anything wrong with that” – I shouldn’t have to qualify how I do not at all make this observation as any kind of a slight, how gay men and women are responsible for just as much wonderful art as their straight counterparts, or how I adore the work of James Whale apart from any matters of sexual orientation.  But none of that changes the fact that Whale’s 1935 follow-up to Frankenstein, the equally renowned Bride Of Frankenstein, is as obviously gay as two guys talking showtunes on a Pinkberry date.

Bride Of Frankenstein is campy, theatrical, broadly comedic, and daringly weird, particularly when viewed next to its darker, far more ominous predecessor.  Whereas 1931’s Frankenstein had scarily murky compositions, unsettling framing, and a scene of a child getting murdered, Bride Of Frankenstein is weirder, campier, and quite frankly, livelier, which is no criticism whatsoever.  As a more recent example, it’s like the difference between Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2:  Both are terrific horror films, but the tones are drastically different.

The opening scene of Bride Of Frankenstein is rather strange – again, horror movies hadn’t quite learned to start with the scares. With a storm going on outside, the real-life poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, having just heard the story of Frankenstein’s monster from Shelley’s wife, are told a follow-up tale by Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester).

It turns out that Dr. Henry Frankenstein (the brilliantly over-wrought Colin Clive) did not perish alongside his creation in the blazing inferno at the end of the first movie.  In fact, Henry survived, and is tended back to life by his devoted fiancée (Valerie Hobson), who is horrified to learn that Henry hasn’t learned jack-shit from his experience. He hasn’t given up on his deranged experiments; all that’s lacking from a full-blown mad-scientist relapse is just a gentle nudge.

Cue Doctor Pretorius.

By far the movie’s most memorable character if you’ve seen it (and I say this about a movie that includes two Frankenstein monsters), Doctor Pretorius is twice as insane as Henry Frankenstein, with wilder hair, a nattier wardrobe, and even more nimble diction.  This guy loves to talk.  He chews on words like an elderly dachshund masticating on Kibbles ‘N Bits.  He also loves creating unholy monsters.  And he’s good at it too.

In an indelibly eerie scene, jarringly scored to jubilant orchestral music, Pretorius (inexplicably wearing what looks like a yarmulke), show Frankenstein his latest creations: miniature human beings who he keeps in jars.  There’s a king and a queen, a pope, a man Pretorius refers to as “a devil”, a ballerina, and a mermaid who lives in a bottle of water.


Instead of being totally weirded out like any rational human, Henry is inspired, and the two decide to collaborate.  Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s Monster, still played by Boris Karloff and still on the run from a world that fears and hates him, has also survived the events of the first movie.

In a very bizarre scene (it’s a trend!), the Monster happens upon Pretorius in his laboratory, sans Henry, and they share a smoke, some booze, and a whole mess of conversation.


The Monster, once a grunting beast, has now become a regular chatterbox.  This is the “Fire Bad!” Frankenstein Monster we all know and love.  So interestingly enough, Bride Of Frankenstein is more about the business of these three guys hanging out and creating the Bride, than it is about the Bride itself.  The Bride doesn’t even show up until the movie’s almost over – not an exaggeration – and when she finally arrives, it doesn’t go well.  It’s kind of a mismatch.  The Bride is played by Elsa Lanchester, in a shocking dual role for those who remember the movie’s opening scene, and she’s terrific (and a total babe, for the record), iconic and striking, but The Bride kind of spends her whole screen time shrieking a bunch, and just generally bumming out the Monster.


This isn’t exactly a movie that promotes healthy heterosexual relationships.  Between Henry and his constantly beleagured fiancée, and the Monster and his Bride, there ain’t no happy romance to be found, not that this is necessarily the agenda at play.  It’s just something interesting to note in a movie which, once again, seems to be one of the first not-so-subtly gay films of American cinema.  For Doctor Pretorius alone.  I mean seriously, if Helen Mirren got acting awards for playing a queen, so should Ernest Thesiger have.

But listen fellas, don’t let any of this gay subtext make you antsy.  (And if it does, get over it.  Seriously.  I shouldn’t have to be the one to say so.)  I’m as straight an arrow as anyone there is, and I will continue to gladly admit that Bride Of Frankenstein is so much fun.  I’ve never seen it with a crowd, but I’d love to.  James Whale is one of the most accomplished directors of horror films, so the movie is creepy where it’s intended, but it’s also a total riot, intentionally funny all the places where it’s meant to be.  It couldn’t be more different from the monument of classic horror which precedes it, but it’s just as much worth your valuable October viewing time.

I’ve been thinking about something lately, and seeing Drive recently turned out to be a bit of synchronicity since, in its own way, Drive is largely an illustration of the concept: Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t real.  And vice versa.  Drive isn’t something that happened.  It started as a terrific, mean little novel by James Sallis, and was adapted into a screenplay by Hossein Amini, envisioned by director Nicolas Winding Refn with star Ryan Gosling, and filmed (impeccably) by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel.  It’s an incredible movie, far and away one of the most accomplished of this year, but it’s not reportage.  It’s a daydream for nighttime.

Somehow, that makes it truer than many movies that purport to be “based on a true story.”

The story is as simple and quite frankly, as familiar as any in noir history:  The central character is a young man (Ryan Gosling) known only as Driver.  That naming comes from the book and the press: he’s never named in the film, at best only called “The Kid”.  His only friend is a man named Shannon (Breaking Bad‘s phenomenal Bryan Cranston), a crippled mechanic who keeps Driver employed by day as a stunt driver for the movies, and at night as a wheelman for low-level armed robbery jobs.  Driver lives by himself in a sparse apartment in Los Angeles.  Eventually, he forms a potentially romantic connection with a young mother (Carey Mulligan) and her son, whose father (named Standard, played by Oscar Isaac) is set to return from jail soon.  As Shannon puts Driver in contact with movie producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his underworld affiliate Nino (Ron Perlman), Driver’s personal and criminal lives are due to intersect.  Basically, the loner meets a nice lady as he’s descending deeper into darkness.  Oldest noir tale in the book; all it’s missing is the femme fatale.  What makes this movie so dramatically far apart from business as usual is its style.  This movie is so distinctly orchestrated that, even though on paper it’s similar to so many other movies, on film it resembles a precious few.

Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the most compelling visual stylists working in movies today.  Here he’s made what feels exactly like a long-lost Michael Mann movie, frozen somewhere between 1983 and 1986 and thawed out just now for a modern audience.  Guys, I don’t think I have a higher caliber of compliment in the chamber than that one.  Honestly, the movie that Drive most resembles is Mann’s 1981 breakthrough feature Thief:  It has the same seemingly languid yet impeccably deliberate pace, the roiling mood, the shocking outbursts of realistic violence, the addictively throbbing electronic score, the exacting attention to detail, the blue-collar sidekick played by a familiar TV actor (Cranston in for James Belushi), the bizarre but thunderingly effective left-field casting choices (Willie Nelson as the heart of Thief, Albert Brooks as the snake in Drive) — it’d be easy to describe Drive as the most successful Michael Mann homage in memory, except for the fact that it’s its own thing. Refn has been building up to exactly this, for a while now.  Drive is an irresistible blend of the stylized realism of Bronson (2008) and the universalized dreaminess of Valhalla Rising (2009).  It also brings a whole new color palette: While Michael Mann favors steel blues and pistol grays, Refn experiments with warmer colors like greens, browns, and even pinks.  Somehow, both interpretations of Los Angeles are apt.

Having spent a formative portion of my life in Los Angeles, I have always recognized a measure of truth in Michael Mann’s movies.  Mann shoots L.A. the way L.A. looks to me.  In his first movie set in Los Angeles, Nicolas Winding Refn manages the same feat.  It’s not just the look; it’s also the atmosphere.  In a scene where Driver takes Irene (Mulligan’s character) and her son on a joy ride through the L.A. river, it looks and feels just the way L.A. looks and feels at sunset.  One reason so many people discount the virtues of Los Angeles is because we’re pummeled with pedestrian images on TV shows such as 90210 and Entourage; uninspired, pansy shit selling emptiness.  There is actual beauty to Los Angeles if you know where to find it, along with an existential isolation and a visceral spookiness; all of which is contained within Drive.

So I recognize this movie to be true.  It fits in with my experience, particularly now, when I am thinking and writing about Los Angeles from the East Coast.  In my mind, my memories merge with cinematic imagery: In my opinion, that’s how both individual memory and the art of cinema work; it’s why movies mean so much to so many of us.  So while I’m not half the driver that Driver is (an understatement), while I’ve never carried on with the estranged wife of an imprisoned felon (as far as I know), while I’ve never taken a blunt instrument to a strip club owner (that I can remember), there is a lot contained in Drive that I can attest to resembling the world of Los Angeles.  This is one reason I loved the movie so much.

I’m also fully enamored of Refn’s style, most particularly the way he works with violence on-screen — his editing rhythms and lolling camerawork manage to lull the audience nearly into a trance, which makes the sudden eruption of savagery all the more unsettling.  It creates the effect in people that violence in movies should have: it makes violence scary.

I also love the way that, just as he did in Bronson, Refn perfectly deploys music, both the score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic) and the poppy Euro-trash electro-candy that punctuates the ongoing events.  The music is both functional, enhancing the mood of the story, and diagetic, which means that the songs that are playing on the soundtrack are often the songs that Driver is listening to in his car or in his apartment.  It’s easy to imagine (as Refn and Gosling intended), that these are the songs Driver chooses because of how they make him feel about himself, which is the way that most of us listen to our favorite music, which in fact tells as much about a person as any dialogue passage could ever do.  The one song that’s repeated throughout Drive, “A Real Hero” by College featuring Electric Youth, seems to be the most indicative of Driver’s inner thoughts, since he sure doesn’t speak them aloud.

Right there’s another thing to love, the performances.  Ryan Gosling seems like such a canny dude, he seems smart and well-adjusted enough to not crave being a  movie star, even as he’s clearly got the required talent and charisma.  If Ryan Gosling becomes a major star, it’ll be because enough people saw Drive.  His character says the bare minimum, speaking mostly through his actions and as previously noted, his iTunes shuffle.  I’m a Clint Eastwood man.  I respect the hell out of that.  I also read in an interview that one of Gosling’s main sources of inspiration for the role was Prince as “The Kid” in Purple Rain.  That, I don’t just respect.  That, I goddamn adore.  And I can see it!

I’ve also become a huge fan of Bryan Cranston, due to his tremendous work on Breaking Bad, the best drama on American television today, by a long shot.  If you listen to the subtle voice work he does in Drive, as a Valley veteran — so different from New Mexico’s Walter White — you’ll see what a great actor he is.  Cranston has a relatively small role, but a pivotal one:  His character, Shannon, is the more [necessarily] talkative partner to Driver, and the one who humanizes him to Irene in the first place.  He’s also the character, I believe, who starts off the interesting motif in this movie of characters describing how they met each other — Shannon describes how he first met Driver, Standard describes how he first met Irene, Bernie Rose describes how he first met Nino — for a movie that doesn’t overdo it on the dialogue, it sure is telling where they decide to distribute their exposition.

And let’s talk about that pair, Ron Perlman as Nino and Albert Brooks as Bernie.  They’re both playing Brooklyn Jews, and fairly stereotypical ones at that — the wannabe-Italian who runs his operation out of a pizza joint in a San Fernando Valley strip mall, and the movie producer (who sets up a pivotal confrontation at a Chinese restaurant, for Pete’s sake).  Being one of that tribe, I never love to see Jewish bad guys, but these guys are so authentic and so damn fascinating that I’ll allow it.  It helps that they’re badass as all hell.  Perlman is a veteran character actor who can do the monstrous thug thing in his sleep (though I hope he doesn’t, for Mrs. Perlman’s sake), but Brooks is something of a revelation.  He’s scary!  Look at the poster below, where he looks like John C. Reilly’s evil twin.  There’s something great about when comedians play villains in serious movies.  It almost always seems to work.  Why?  That’s a question to ponder for another time, but meanwhile, see this movie and see a truly unique bad-guy performance.

There’s plenty more to admire about Drive, but at a certain point it’s time for me to shut up and insist you see the movie.  Movies like this one demand to be seen theatrically, where you can get lost in the sound and the big picture, and besides, a movie this good deserves your hard-earned shekels.  If you don’t love it on first watch, as some people who have seen it don’t, give it a minute to percolate.  Drive is the kind of movie that is absorbing to watch, but takes on a second life once it seeps into your mind.  It grows in potency the more you think about it.  Kind of like a memory.  Like I said, Drive didn’t actually happen, except it totally happened.

Suggested Reading:





I did not rush out to see this movie on the largest possible screens when it was released nearly six years ago, and more the fool I for that.  It’s kind of incredible.

In their list of the top fifty films of the past decade, the Onion’s A.V. Club, one of my favorite daily web destinations, rated Terrence Malick’s The New World at number nine.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography.  (Malick’s movies are always visual fireworks.)  Roger Ebert gave it four stars and called Malick “a visionary.”  Despite all this, The New World isn’t as well remembered as it could be.

Why is that?  I’m not the guy to ask.  I mean, I have some answers, but they won’t sound good to everybody.  I guess I’d reluctantly agree that Terrence Malick’s movies aren’t for everyone.  I’d argue that you really have to love movies to love his movies.  Most people apparently don’t love movies that much.  Your friend with the Scarface poster probably doesn’t love movies as much as he thinks he does.  Scarface is cool and all, but the well-rounded person doesn’t watch only one movie over and over again.  Really loving movies means being open to movies that aren’t the most obvious or accessible.

To appreciate what Malick does, you also have to be open to qualities which are too rare to modern movies, such as thoughtfulness and meditation, appreciation of the natural world, even spirituality.  (And not the obvious or accessible kind of spirituality, either.)  Though Malick (The Thin Red Line) has already directed a better World War II movie than Michael Bay(Pearl Harbor) has, guess whose movies are more popular?  I don’t like to be elitist, but we really are talking about sophistication here.  You don’t like it?  Cool.  I don’t either.  Prove me wrong.  Pay to watch these wonderful movies.

And The New World, in my opinion, is pretty wonderful.  It’s where cinematic art and American history meet.  It’s the story of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), the Native American girl whose life was altered by the arrival of the Jamestown expedition, which introduced her to Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), her first love.  That relationship is battered by the collision of the Native people and the English settlers, and it ultimately doesn’t survive the trip, though consolation arrives in the form of John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a good man who became the father of her son.

A lot of us have heard this story before, in one form or another.  Hell, it was a Disney cartoon.   It’s popular history, but not that currently popular.  Malick’s method is to bring the past lumbering back to life, like a dinosaur rediscovering its bite.  The first time you see those colonial ships, matched with the unusually good score by James Horner (normally cornier), there’s a vivid majesty to the movie that makes it more interesting than Social Studies ever was back in grade school.

In The New World, Malick is specifically addressing the very moment of conception of the United States, beginning, as he posits, with Pocahontas, portrayed here as the first true American, a knowing and canny survivor.   This movie makes you love America all over again, the way you love Pocahontas as she’s conjured here, luminous, sweet, and full of promise.  (She’s a teenager so it’s a very innocent kind of love.)  Colin Farrell is really good at playing the mutinous rogue, a basically violent man, but he’s very tender in his scenes with her.  It doesn’t feel wrong.  Even more is the case with Christian Bale, dropping his usual intensity and playing a genuinely decent man for once.  Internet creeps who talk trash about these two stars probably haven’t seen how good they are in this movie.  Oh, and Christopher Plummer is in it too, as the leader of the expedition, Captain Newport, typically dignified and magnetic and a little bit sinister.  I don’t think we have to debate his greatness at this point in time.

I’m not sure yet how deep into history The New World actually goes (John Smith and John Rolfe were real people, but was Captain Newport? and does it matter?), but to me it’s thoroughly convincing no matter how much of it is actually true.  Does that make sense?  There’s a truly epic sweep to this movie — normally when I describe a movie as “epic”, I’m talking about scope or distance, but in this case the epicness actually feels like it spans a gap of centuries.  Malick, as ever, is able to evoke all the most ancient platitudes of storytelling and moviemaking, and to make them true through his poetic vision.

Yeah, I’d say it’s worth watching.






Suggested reading:


Days Of Heaven.

In Bruges.



#10.  Miami Vice (2006)

I’m sure that there are people who will roll their eyes or sneer at my inclusion of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice feature in my top ten of the entire decade, but that’s fine.  I never started compiling this list with the intention of sounding smarter or cooler than anyone else.

These are the movies that I responded to the most, the ones that I am happiest to revisit.  Miami Vice is probably the least beloved by other people of any other movie on my list, and I think there are two reasons for that.

One is expectations.  If what we saw in the Miami Vice movie was presented instead as a pilot for a re-launched HBO Miami Vice TV series, I bet people would have loved it a lot more.  While the movie is very detail-oriented when it comes to the world and the work it depicts, the characters are done in broader strokes than we expect from our greatest movies.  Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are better than adequate as Crockett and Tubbs, but we don’t ultimately feel like we ever know them as well as we know the lead characters in, for example, other Michael Mann films.  Great character actors such as John Ortiz, John Hawkes, Barry Shabaka Henley, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Ciarán Hinds, Eddie Marsan, Isaach De Bankolé, and Tom Towles all get brief moments to shine (some briefer than others), but ultimately they are as hard to know as the lead pair.

For me, that works (this time, at least), but I think most people would have been reassured to have been promised that we’d be revisiting these characters in future adventures.  Since there weren’t any more episodes, and since people knew that ahead of time, most people were unsatisfied with the enigmatic, underexplored leads.

The other reason for Miami Vice’s lack of popularity, is that there is a very unusual and specific aesthetic at work here, an aesthetic that Mann pushed even further in 2009’s Public Enemies and lost a lot more audience members and critical defenders as a result of it.  Miami Vice, honestly, is more like a Michael Mann remix of a Michael Mann movie — some Manhunter here, some Heat there, a tiny sprinkle of The Insider, plenty of Collateral, some younger stars and hotter chicks and hotter guns and vehicles and new sounds mixed in — but again, Michael Mann is my favorite director, so I can do better than live with it.  I absolutely love the look, the sound, and the vibe of Miami Vice, but I understand that it’s an uncommon look, sound, and vibe.  For me, there are few movies I’d rather watch, because for some reason I key into its specific rhythms and can sway with ‘em.

And I don’t need much in-depth character work to intuitively understand what Crockett and Tubbs see in their respective ladies – the female leads here are just more interesting to me than you usually see in a modern crime movie.  Gong Li, despite struggling with the subject of mojitos, is an exotic, forbidding, ultimately human love interest, and Naomie Harris, who made such a strong first impression on film in 28 Days Later, is a tough, lovely equal partner to the guys in the film, although her Bronx accent is admittedly unfortunate.  The fact that I warm to these ladies, and that the two main guys are comparatively blank slates, leads me to relate to that ending a lot more strongly than I might have if the movie played any other way. Since it’s painted in broader strokes, character-wise, it’s easier to bring myself to the movie, if that makes sense.

That final sequence, perfectly matched to Mogwai’s “Auto Rock,” is like the greatest music video ever to totally encapsulate my inner romantic world.  The last dialogue we hear in the film resonates with the sentiments “Time is luck” (a frequent motif in Mann’s work)  and “This was too good to last,” and these are sentiments I understand and have felt before.  I know what it’s like to walk away from someone good, for solid reasons, for the wrong reasons, and for no good reason at all – it’s a frequent motif of my own personal story.

This movie, in its final moments, captures that feeling as well as anything I’ve personally seen, heard, or read in all my experiences with popular culture.  It’s a feeling that still hasn’t entirely left me, here now in 2011.  Therefore, neither has this movie.  And I don’t care who knows or judges it.