Prospective filmmakers could do themselves a favor by studying the opening 12 minutes of Michael Mann’s “Heat.” A close examination of those scenes illustrates just how effectively Mann uses imagery, not dialogue, to set the scene.
Simply stated, in his better moments, Mann subscribes to the “Shoot It, Don’t Say It” school of cinema.
It should be noted that “Heat” - which is now available on video - ultimately fails to live up to those opening minutes. Before long, Mann gives in to the requisites of Hollywood filmmaking and fills his movie with obligatory violence and big-star posturing.
Worse, for those of you who have not seen the film on the big screen, the visual power that Mann strives for - with the help of cinematographer Dante Spinotti - likely won’t play as well on video.
Nevertheless, those opening scenes play brilliantly as a storytelling device. Through them we are introduced to the film’s principals (thief Robert De Niro, cop Al Pacino) and their respective cronies, and we are led through the first big event, an armored-car heist.
For Mann, it is the way characters act, not simply what they say, that clues us in to who they are and what they are likely to do. Tom Sizemore’s terse refusal to entertain another character’s attempt at small talk, for example, tells us all we need to know both about what their relationship is and what it will be.
Mann falters when he falls back on mainstream moviemaking techniques, which dictate that his film become a somewhat obvious study of two men, De Niro and Pacino, who are flip sides of the same personality.
Throughout Mann’s career, imagery has been his strong point. Consider “Manhunter.” Consider “The Last of the Mohicans.” Consider even his television series, “Miami Vice.”
“Heat” gives us a clue as to why this may be so. Mann has a tendency to write prose that is difficult even for a good actor to wrap around his or her tongue. (When was the last time you heard someone used the word “detritus” in casual conversation?)
And the acting in “Heat” isn’t always the best. Pacino, who seems to be redoing audition tapes for his Oscar-winning role in “Scent of a Woman,” is all jive and hype - except in those scenes, especially, where he tones down to play a concerned stepfather.
He’s also good opposite De Niro in the much-publicized first on-screen pairing of the two. As they face off in a cafe, the opposite natures of their acting styles - Pacino over the top, De Niro rigidly under control - blend to help create the kind of cinematic tension that could be a dictionary definition of the term movie chemistry.
The rest of the cast, from Ashley Judd as the ultimately loyal wife to Amy Brenneman as the always-to-be-frustrated love interest, adds a lot. Look especially for Val Kilmer, Dennis Haysbert and the often-overlooked Sizemore.
Overall, the worst that you can say for Mann is that, through sometimes unfortunate casting and curious use of dialogue, he tends to stretch his efforts a bit far. The best you can say is that, despite these glitches, the numerous moments of art are always worth the watch. “Heat” is Rated R ***-1/2
Mighty Aphrodite ***-1/2
Woody Allen takes a look at marriage, parenthood, genetics and Greek drama in this romantic comedy starring himself, Helena Bonham Carter and the touchingly funny Mira Sorvino. Allen stars as Lenny Weinrib, a New York sportswriter married to Carter who, in the course of researching his adopted son’s lineage, discovers that the boy’s mother, Sorvino, is a prostitute and occasional porno-movie star. He then becomes Henry Higgins in a sportcoat to her Eliza Doolittle in a Wonderbra. At the interludes, a bona-fide Greek chorus led by F. Murray Abraham comments hilariously on the actions while bemoaning Lenny’s lot. Rated R
Richard III ***-1/2
Boasting a cast led by the great British stage star Ian McKellan, this Richard Loncraine adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy offers a quickly placed and eminently accessible - especially to an American ear - production. Updated to a Nazi-like Europe of the 1930s, the Oscar-worthy production and costume design makes what we see almost as impressive as what we hear. And what we hear, save for the barely passable performances of Americans Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr., are the fluid phrasings of the Bard as voiced by the likes of McKellan, Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas. Those phrasings flow as smoothly as cream over strawberries. Rated R
“The Maddening” - Burt Reynolds stars in this straight-to-video potboiler about city folks taken hostage by rednecks with too-obvious motives. Directed by Danny Huston (“Mr. North”). Rated R.
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