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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Mann’

Everyone does things when they’re young that they look back on with a degree of regret and maybe even embarassment – I myself am still reluctant to talk about the time that I [redacted on legal advice], let alone those other occasions when I [redacted], [redacted], and then, to top it all off, [definitely redacted]. And film-makers are no exception. I’m sure that Steve McQueen didn’t appreciate being reminded of doing The Blob, just as Scarlett Johansson doesn’t do many retrospective interviews about Eight Legged Freaks. And when it comes to Michael Mann, celebrated creator of Miami Vice and director of Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral, I suspect talking about his 1983 movie The Keep is something he’d rather avoid.

keep

This is a shame as the film in question is interesting, if nothing else. It opens in the remote mountains of Romania at the height of the Second World War. The area is under German occupation with the senior officer in the area being Jurgen Prochnow – he is one of those honourable non-Nazi German soldiers whom it is acceptable to like. Prochnow seems to have accepted that the ultimate German triumph is inevitable and is resigned to his current assignment – occupying an ancient castle, which seems to be the object of superstitious dread on the part of the local peasants.

Prochnow is slightly bemused by the huge number of metal crosses embedded in the walls and the fact that the fortress seems to have been build to contain something from within, rather than keep external invaders out, but doesn’t realise he’s in a horror movie. Nor do two of his men, who proceed to try and loot the place, tearing one of the crosses from its fitting. Unfortunately, this opens a passageway to what appears to be an immense vault beneath the keep, and releases what is held within: a malevolent, initially incorporeal entity…

The spook proceeds to bloodily kill several of the occupying Germans, and Prochnow receives reinforcements in the shape of SS major Gabriel Byrne and his men (these guys are proper Nazis so it is okay to dislike them). The Germans all assume that local resistance fighters are responsible for the deaths, but the discovery of strange, arcane graffiti leads them to call in the only academic to have studied the site, Cuza (Ian McKellen). Cuza, a Jew, is quite glad to have been temporarily let out of a death camp, and assumes the graffiti is a ruse on the part of the villagers to help him escape. But it is not…

The entity rescues Cuza’s daughter from a bunch of Germans with ungallant thoughts on their mind and makes him a proposition: it needs someone to do the heavy lifting and carrying while it reacquires physical form and offers him the job. In return, it will not only use its supernatural powers to rejuvenate him but carry out a ghastly reign of terror amongst the Nazis Cura hates so much. But little does anyone realise that someone else is coming to the Keep, intent on putting an end to the creature permanently…

Well, I think you’ll agree that this is a movie which shows some promise in its premise – the prospect of a clash between a supernatural manifestation of absolute evil and a mob of Nazis – as close to ‘real’ historical evil as you’re likely to get – is inherently interesting. And some of this potential is realised, mainly through the treatment of Ian McKellen’s character, whose hatred of the Nazis is so great he is prepared to overlook the true nature of what he is allying himself with. Unfortunately most of the rest of it is good-looking, vacuous cobblers.

Michael Mann is a noted stylist as a director, and the film is stylish if nothing else, but too often this comes at the expense of coherency in the plot. This is the kind of film where two people meet for the first time and within two minutes are engaged in passionate, energetic sex – no real reason is given for this plunge towards carnal exuberance, and one suspects that it’s mainly just because Mann had some cool ideas about how to shoot such a sequence. At other points the film seems so preoccupied with striking, stylish visuals that actually explaining what’s going on gets forgotten about.

Mann doesn’t seem to have devoted much time to actually directing his actors, anyway – Scott Glenn is weirdly robotic as the putative hero of the piece, and almost impossible to empathise with, we learn so little about who and what he is. And at one point in the film, I found my jaw dropping open as Ian McKellen definitely seemed to be giving the worst performance of anyone involved, covered in ageing make-up (at this point I couldn’t figure out why – McKellen was only in his mid-40s when he made this) and giving us a dodgy and inappropriate American accent. McKellen improves considerably as the film goes on, by  the way, but I still doubt this film gets a prominent place on his showreel.

The Keep is not a terribly good film, its almost total lack of humour meaning it’s hard to enjoy even ironically. One can understand Mann’s decision not to risk inadvertantly reducing the whole thing to camp spectacle, but it does take itself very seriously and the (apparently well-regarded) soundtrack by Tangerine Dream almost comes across as pretentious.

On the other hand, it does seem to me to be pointing the way to a slew of other 80s fantasy and horror movies it sort of vaguely resembles. The over-stylishly-directed tale of a lone, mysterious hero on a barely-coherent mystical quest really anticipates Highlander (which, crucially, has a rather more crowd-pleasing set of tunes), while the story of a disembodied evil seeking an accomplice to assist in its resurrection surely prefigures Hellraiser. It’s certainly an example of a Hollywood horror film attempting to move beyond what I suppose we must call the Judeo-Christian settlement in terms of its mythology. This was made in the same year as the resolutely biblical Omen: The Final Conflict, after all (though I suppose The Keep does still have all those crosses in it).

This is another one of those 80s genre movies which my uncle really likes but I find it very difficult to get excited about (he also likes Highlander, Streets of Fire, and The Coca-Cola Kid, none of which I especially rate, but then again he’s the only other person I know who likes Trancers). It is, I suppose, just about interesting enough to be worth watching on its own merits – but I would only really recommend it to McKellen completists and lovers of early 80s synth music. The Keep? Thanks, but you can keep it.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 14th 2004:

Faint echoes of both The Terminator and Speed reverberate through Michael Mann’s Collateral, which features an always-welcome appearance by one of this column’s favourite leading men. Unfortunately, Jason Statham is only in the movie for about a minute, as the director has (for reasons best known only to himself and the massed moviegoing public) decided to give the lead role in his latest thriller to some schmuck called Tom Cruise.

Collateral is a return to territory, both physical and narrative, that Mann has visited before. It’s a Los Angeles-set crime drama revolving around a masculine battle of wits. On this occasion the combatants are Max (Jamie Foxx), a cab driver who’s been on the verge of doing something with his life for the last twelve years, and Vincent (Cruise), a contract killer he is unlucky enough to pick up as a passenger. Vincent has five stops to make in the course of the night and decides to get Max to chauffeur him around between them. Originally this is done purely through financial incentives, but once Max rumbles what Vincent is up to (his first target is unhelpful enough as to fall out of an apartment block onto the roof of Max’s cab) sterner measures are in order. Will Max get through the night in one piece? Will Vincent complete his hit list? Will the LAPD (unstandably alarmed by the trail of corpses the pair leave in their wake) figure out what’s going on and get involved? One thing’s for sure: it was never like this in Carry On Cabbie.

As one would expect from the director of Manhunter and Heat, this is a tautly-directed movie with barely an inch of fat on it. It’s built around a neat central idea but for all that I suspect screenwriter Stuart Beattie had to work horribly hard to flesh it out into the credible and complex story this film tells. Only in a few places does it seem contrived or improbable (for instance, at one point Vincent decides he and Max will visit Max’s elderly mother in hospital). It’s expertly paced, mixing hard-edged action with much longer, almost laid-back sequences of the cab just cruising nocturnal LA. The city has seldom looked so beautiful on the big screen, for all the darkness of the story… The cinematography is gorgeous, digital cameras and conventional film meshing nearly flawlessly.

But while the movie looks great your attention never wanders too far from the lead characters and their slightly peculiar relationship. I must confess to being unfamiliar with Jamie Foxx before this film but he does a very fine job here as a regular person who gradually realises exactly how far over his head he’s ended up. He is, however, inevitably overshadowed by Tom Cruise, who gives his best performance in quite some time. It would, of course, make perfect sense for Vincent to put a bullet in Max’s ear the moment he realises what’s going on, and so in order for the movie not to be half an hour long and quite depressing the assassin is written as a man with a deeply skewed but still binding moral code. Not only does he keep his reluctant companion alive, he even attempts to give him personal and career advice, and seems rather offended when his help is rejected. This injects some welcome humour into what’s quite a taut and grim story, and allows Cruise a chance to shine. For once all the smarm and narcissism doesn’t get in the way of the performance, and he’s very effective indeed in portraying a man who, on the face of it, seems almost non-descript, but is underneath is deeply psychologically flawed.

To be honest, when the two leads aren’t in the taxi, and especially when they’re apart, the film has a slight tendency to drift, but not enough to spoil it. The climax is a tiny bit identikit-action-movie fodder and the final showdown inevitably seems a bit implausible. But on the whole this is a hugely impressive movie, a strong candidate for thriller of the year.

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