NICK CLEMENT ON STEVEN SODERBERGH’S KING OF THE HILL

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Nick Clement on Bob Fosse’s STAR 80

Bob Fosse’s criminally underrated final film from 1983, Star 80, was clearly a work ahead of its time. The film is a showcase for a brilliant performance by Eric Roberts — his work in this film is some of the sleaziest acting I’ve ever seen in any movie, and the idea that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar literally boggles the mind. If this film were released this year, he’d be a front runner. Mariel Hemingway was perfectly cast as the ultimate innocent dream girl, so supremely naïve and honest and pure of heart, that she never stood a chance. For the unfamiliar, Star 80 tells the gripping true story of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Hemingway), who was “discovered” at age 17 by a pimp/hustler named Paul Snider (Roberts), who breaks her out of her reserved shell, and brings her to the attention of the people at Playboy, who then made her into a brief star in the early 80’s (after posing nude she landed some bit TV and movie parts and caught the romantic eye of director Peter Bogdanovich), before she was cruelly murdered by Snider, after his descent into total and utter madness. This is an incredibly sad film, reminding me in many respects of last year’s equally chilling true life murder story Foxcatcher — both films expertly detail the inescapable reality of death, and how sometimes there are innocent people thrown into the orbit of a sociopath who will change their lives forever. Fosse delves deep into Snider’s mind, crafting the narrative more around him than Stratten, so as a result, you really get an up close and personal view of a man coming apart at the seams, and Roberts was more than up to the task with this emotionally turbulent piece of acting. Simply put, I’ve never seen a better performance from this legendary character actor, who over the years has become a go-to-guy for B-movie sliminess, but in Star 80, he was the center attraction, turning in a fascinating if disgusting portrayal of a man destroyed by his own ego, jealousy, limitations, and overwhelming desire to be loved. For her part, Hemingway conveys a natural ease which soon gives way to shards of paranoia and uncertainty; what Stratten saw in Snider will forever be a mystery, and it’s devastating to think that a woman like her would have ever crossed paths with a degenerate like Snider. And to notice the nods and influences that this film has had on other filmmakers was enlightening; there’s a scene towards the beginning where Roberts is flexing in the mirror, admiring his toned body and genitals, and it comes off exactly like the early sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Boogie Nights were Walbergh is checking himself out in his bedroom, making muscles in the mirror, talking himself up about how he’s going to be “a big star.” And the faux interview cut-ins that Fosse peppers the film with may have influenced Richard Linklater on his underrated crime film Bernie, which provided Jack Black with the best material he’s ever been given as an actor. But back to Star 80 — gorgeous and lit like a goddess by Fosse and his brilliant cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Hemingway projects an almost ethereal quality at times, which makes it all the more morbid to see what ultimately becomes of her. With expert editing by Alan Heim that ratchets up the tension and suspense, especially during the almost unbearable final sequence, Star 80 commands the viewer’s attention, never becoming anything less than riveting, and with Nykvist’s crisp, unfussy images and Fosse’s confident directorial hand telling this chilling story, the viewer is left with a lump in their throat by the conclusion. While never being exploitive, Fosse doesn’t shy away from the gruesomeness of Snider’s appalling final act on this planet, and the power that Star 80 demonstrates and culminates with is impossible to deny.

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Frank’s thoughts on STAR 80

STAR 80 – 1983. Dir. Bob Fosse.  With Eric Roberts, Mariel Hemingway, Carroll Baker, and Cliff Robertson

In STAR 80 Bob Fosse chronicles the true story of the short rise and fall of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. She was the embodiment of a Playmate: wholesome, naive, and the perfect girl next door. Mariel Hemingway (granddaughter of Ernest) plays Stratten and Eric Roberts, in a star making performance, portrays Dorothy’s boyfriend turned husband Paul Snider who kills Dorothy (I didn’t spoil anything, it’s told to you in the opening). Snider is a self obsessed small time hustler who is always looking for the perfect opportunity to strike it big. Snider accidentally stumbles upon Stratten while she’s working at a Dairy Queen in Vancouver and it’s love at first sight for Snider. Their relationship soon blossoms as Snider spoils Stratten with attention and lavish gifts. Snider then begins taking nude pictures of Dorothy, and sends them to Playboy. Dorothy is soon after summoned to the Mansion but there’s one road block – her Mother (played to perfection by Carroll Baker). Snider pleads with Mrs. Stratten to allow her daughter to travel to the Playboy Mansion and become a Playmate. She refuses, because she can see through Snider’s phoniness. She knows that Snider’s love for her daughter is more opportunity than real love. The film has interviews with characters from the film, chronicling Dorothy and

Snider’s life (as Fosse previously did in LENNY) and the film cross cuts between Dorothy’s story and to current time where we see Snider naked in their bedroom covered in blood. The film itself is edited much like ALL THAT JAZZ with Alan Heim returning as Fosse’s editor. The film is a pleasant mixture with the way it flows between ALL THAT JAZZ and LENNY. The murder scene consists of Snider speaking a monologue of contempt, self loathing, hatred and jealously of Dorothy’s stardom. It’s very Shakespearian the way the film allows Roberts to convey his emotions to the audience, allowing him the inner dialogue with the audience while he stands alone, bloody and naked in the room he murdered Dorothy in. It reminded me much of Richard III or Iago’s sadistic monologue from OTHELLO.

Eric Roberts brings down the house in this film.

STAR 80 is a true story, some events and characters are slightly fictionalized which gave the studio a blanket to help prevent a lawsuit, which didn’t stop Hugh Hefner from suing for deformation of character. Veteran actor Cliff Robertson (Uncle Ben from Raimi’s

Spiderman franchise) plays Hugh Hefner. Robertson doesn’t necessarily look like Hefner, but his mannerisms and delivery tricks you into thinking it really is Hefner. The way Hefner is portrayed is that of a father figure, yet he’s just as much of an opportunist as Snider. Fosse explores, as he did in LENNY and ALL THAT JAZZ, the dark side of show business and humanity. He glamorizes it to a certain extent, but the pitfalls that are shown bring the film to a much darker and deeper emotional feel.

As Dorothy expands her horizons with Playboy and films, Snider begins to be left in the dust. He’s Dorothy’s self proclaimed manager and is sucking money from her to buy cars, houses and other materialistic items. He buys a vanity license plate for their new car entitled: Star 80. Snider is convinced that he and Dorothy is the new power couple and proposes marriage to Dorothy. Hefner is skeptical of Snider and sees him as a low level pimp and hustler and warns Dorothy about him and his intentions. As Dorothy’s star rises, Snider is convinced that he is rising along with her – until he realizes that he’s not ascending with Dorothy and he begins to become jaded and bitter.

Dorothy’s huge break comes from film director Aram Nicholas (who is a fictionalized version of Peter Bogdanovich director of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and PAPER MOON) who is played by Roger Rees. As Dorothy spends more time in New York with Aram and less time with Paul who’s still in LA, she begins to see things more clearly. She is sucked in by Aram’s thoughtfulness, charm and attention. She begins to drift closer to Aram and further away from Paul. Paul begins to suspect something is amiss, and hires a private investigator and buys a gun. The way Bogdanovich is displayed in the film is much like Hefner and Snider. They are sweet men at first, and then they begin to manipulate Dorothy for their benefit and personal gain. Quick note: Bogdanovich was dating Dorothy at the time of her death, and then proceeded to marry Dorothy’s younger sister (of whom was 29 years younger than Bogdanovich) after Dorothy’s death. This is the main reason that caused the fast decline of Bogdanovich’s career.

Dorothy leaves Paul and moves in with Aram. She files for divorce and Aram begs Dorothy not to see Paul anymore. She agrees, but gets sucked back in and goes to see Paul one last time to propose him half of everything she’s worth so they can finalize their divorce. Dorothy returns to her old home with Paul, and the entire home is covered in pictures of Paul and Dorothy. Paul is at his weakest and most vulnerable point. He begins to beg Dorothy not to leave him, he threatens to kill himself (as I watched this scene, do we all think this when we are at our weakest?) and Dorothy begins to feel sorry for him, she touches him and he pushes her. He becomes spiteful and angry and yells at Dorothy with envious anger. The bedroom in the film that is the scene of Dorothy’s death is that actual bedroom she was murdered in.

It’s interesting how the film is structured; it’s almost as if Snider is the lead character. During my research of the film, I found an interview with Eric Roberts where he stated that Fosse told him that he decided to make Snider the main focus of the film, because if Fosse himself wouldn’t have become famous – he would have become Paul Snider. Damn Fosse – that’s honesty!

The climax of the film is much like ALL THAT JAZZ, but where as climax is a beautiful sadness; STAR 80’s is graphically violent and disturbing. This film should have been nominated across the board. Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay (Bob Fosse for basing his film on Theresa Carpenter’s “Death of a Playmate” article), Best Actor: Eric Roberts, Actress: Mariel Hemmingway, Best Supporting: Cliff Robertson and Carroll Baker, and Alan Heim for Best Achievement in Editing. This was Bob Fosse’s follow up to ALL THAT JAZZ and his final film. ALL THAT JAZZ will always remain as Fosse’s masterpiece and as a filmmaker Fosse never had one misstep, and STAR 80 is my new staple for a filmmaker’s swan song. What makes this film even more interesting is that Fosse and Hefner were friends in real life, and there was a rumored love triangle between Fosse, Hefner and Stratten. As I said earlier Hefner sued for the way he was portrayed in the film. This film banished Fosse and Hefner’s friendship.

What I love about Bob Fosse is that he just doesn’t give a fuck.

Frank’s Thoughts on Michael Mann’s HEAT

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When it comes to Michael Mann, who is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers, his most epic film is undeniably HEAT.  When it comes to overt machoism mixed with an incredibly gritty street film, it doesn’t get any better than this film.  Only Michael Mann could bring together Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a film like this.

Playing off the clout of Pacino and De Niro, Mann creates this layered film, showing two men who are essentially the same, yet took two different life paths.  Both men have a foundation of honor and respect, and live by the code of the street, yet their paths have crossed, and there will only be one that comes out on top.

The fact De Niro and Pacino share two scenes throughout this long film, further solidifies Mann as one of the world’s best living filmmakers.  Mann also used the “less is more” technique in my favorite film of his, MANHUNTER.  In that film, Mann rarely shows us Hannibal Lecter, creating a more effective character.  The fact that Pacino and De Niro share two scenes, and in the grand scheme of the film they are rather brief, works tremendously well.  It all builds to a shattering climax between the two of them.

Mann’s authorship is making a visual striking film using overt color tones to each of his films.  Mann loves color, because he knows with his audience, everything is seeing.  With HEAT, the entire film is layered in blue tones.  There are not any vibrant shades of blue, the blue tones are dark, and darker.

In this film, what do the blue tones tell us?  How do they make us feel?  The way I view the film, through different shades of blue, are two major themes.  Masculinity and authority.

Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Dennis Haysbert, Ted Levine, Henry Rollins, Tom Noonan, Wes Studi and William Fitchner are all masculine actors, and all bring gravitas to this film.  In HEAT, we’re living in an alpha male world, and there is little room for anything less.  From the start of the film, we see an incredible armored car robbery by bad men in hockey masks, adding to their size.

Cut to Pacino’s introduction, where he’s making love to his wife.  Pacino is the alpha in his relationship, and is apathetic to his marital problems, because where his fire lies is with other alphas.  Whether working with them (Levine, Wed Studi) or chasing them (De Niro and his crew).

Val Kilmer’s marital problems parallel Pacino’s.  I imagine Kilmer being the younger, more flamboyant alpha.  Of course, all of them are seen in different shades of masculine blue.

Authority is the other major theme, not necessarily the authority of law enforcement, but authority of a code of the streets.  Honor, respect, loyalty.  While these two groups of hard men are on opposite sides of the law, they both live by the same code, and have nothing but admiration and respect for one another.

Pacino and De Niro are the same man, but on flip sides of the same code.  They both know who they are, and what they want, and they’re secure in it and admire one another for it.

I have much more to say about this film, and if you’re reading, you’ll just have to wait for our next podcast this Sunday.

Nick Clement on Michael Mann’s masterpiece HEAT

Heat Title

Michael Mann’s Heat represents the finest distillation of the filmmaker’s stylistic and narrative obsessions, the ultimate synthesis of plot, character, and action, all fused together in a nouveau package that still feels fresh and contemporary 20 years after its initial release. 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 his earlier NBC movie of the week, L.A. Takedown, Heat still holds up now even in the face of stiff genre competition, 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 after all of these years. 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 all working at the top of their games. The films that Mann had done preceding Heat (Thief and Manhunter most especially) clearly influenced numerous decisions on his magnum crime opus, and the works he’d go on to make in the future have all been fairly (or unfairly) compared to this epic 1995 crime saga.

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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 habitation and dedication to realism; no matter how busy the narrative or 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 demands of the plot while still having the capacity to be surprised and draw conclusions on their own. And in Heat, there’s a level of streamlined perfection 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 at this point, 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 (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, and Dennis Haysbert on Team De Niro; Wes Studi, Mykelti Williamson, and Ted Levine on Team Pacino), 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 by and to perfection. He lives by a serious, permanent moral code: Never become attached to something that you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner. No wife, no family, a true lone wolf in a sharp gray suit (a costume obsession of Mann’s for years), McCauley is the kind of man who thinks he has everything under control, and is used to getting his way in almost every situation. 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 of 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 various 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 with McCauley, 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, never resting for a moment, constantly thinking and plotting, 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 casual but possibly slightly out of control cocaine habit into the Hanna character, which would help explain the sudden outbursts of physical energy and verbal profanity, as well as all of the jaw chomping and twitching that he exhibits all throughout the film. I’m not 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 random 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 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 step-daughter (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 guns and violent conflict.

Heat has action peppered all throughout the runtime, but the film’s opening set-piece, involving the robbery of an armored truck, and the unfortunate execution of the truck’s drivers, 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. It’s a brilliant way to establish the effectiveness of De Niro and his outfit, and it allows Mann the chance to show his methodical directorial style, almost journalistic in its small details, while you watch De Niro plan and then execute what should be the perfect heist. But you can only prepare so much, and because you never truly know who you’re working with, there’s a wild card in the equation that De Niro could never have prepared for. He goes by the name Waingro (the scary Kevin Gage), and he hovers over the narrative like the Devil himself, always appearing at the proper moment to set something in motion. But the scene that everyone loves to discuss and re-watch is arguably the greatest single sequence of action fireworks ever put on film, the robbery of a downtown Los Angeles bank in broad daylight, with all manner of civilians running for their lives, and an armada of cops battling De Niro and his crew. This bravura sequence is nothing short of staggering, with very few (if any) other films from over the years capturing the same sense of immediacy and violent impact that this monumental sequence contains, 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 Zant, the climatic moments between McCauley and Hanna), so that when we see someone go down hard and viciously, the consequence can be felt on a stark and visceral level, rather than everything becoming a senseless blur of unending and gratuitous 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 and reflections of street lamps bouncing off the flat concrete 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 musical score, 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 thrown in 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.

By its powerful and well-earned conclusion, Heat is a film that is consumed with the ideas of studied professionalism, and the costs of committing 100% to any area of life. It’s just that 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 sublime 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. Years late, I had a second opportunity to see the film in theaters, this time 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 stated, it is great, enduring cinema that stirs the soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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