In an effort to feel less guilty about all the blank spaces I have next to a good half-year’s worth of diary entries on Letterboxd, I am endeavoring to write a capsule (and probably more) for all of those spaces. In chronological order of writing (and of last watch).
The World’s End
The cut from Gary’s description of his wild youthful days to him sitting with a slightly bemused, slightly discomfited look on his face in a support group says it all. The World’s End, certainly the most mature of the Cornetto Trilogy, is as self-critical of its hero as it is celebratory. Wright continually walks a tight-rope, using a trip intended to recapture the “good old days” as a journey into both the past and the future. In the almost deliberately unbalanced, unambiguous finale, it is made clear just how much and how little he has changed, in a way that feels both immensely heartbreaking and shockingly heartening.
Especially in the first half, there’s a sort of single-minded blandness to much of High-Rise. Call it my aversion to vicious satire that brands itself specifically as vicious satire, but there’s very little to Wheatley’s sensibility that doesn’t register as on the surface, however fundamental to the text it may be. The slow slide into anarchy, seemingly precipitated in part by the disconcerting dancing of Luke Evans, is rather appreciated, and the flatness of the ending teased in the beginning flash-forward is greatly mitigated by the extraordinary montage set to a Portishead cover of ABBA’s “SOS” and the climactic murders seen through a dazzling kaleidoscope.
The Last of the Mohicans
Mann’s only period film (The Keep is many things, but it only fits the period classification in the most cursory of ways) feels cut from very much the same cloth as his more grandiose works, with perhaps even more romanticism and longing than usual. His obsession with professionals manifests itself more in a sense of honor and brutal precision, which lends itself well to perhaps the most conventionally exciting action scenes that Mann has ever shot. It is all “open” forest, but when it settles down sequences akin to the magnificent final setpiece, The Last of the Mohicans becomes truly transcendent.
A sort of transitional text for Mann, where he mixes his more classical (though always dynamic) wide shots with psychologically intense close-ups that nevertheless cohere quite strongly. This is his most clearly narrative film, but any attempts at the “great man” narrative are completely abandoned for an in-depth, committed look into the way organizations work as a whole. Crowe’s seemingly timid performance completely anchors the film, but as might be expected the film’s best scenes are two-handers between him and Pacino, save for the extraordinary fantasy sequence, where the wall seemingly becomes a theater screen.
Yes, this is the first Mann film to use digital, but the most striking scenes to me are still in shrouded digital, particularly the intensely evocative and rousing opening montage. Even more than most Mann films, to a degree only surpassed by Public Enemies, the scenes bleed into each other; Ali’s perspective is created even moreso through structure than in Smith’s cocky yet wise performance. The events are what define Ali; the other characters, solid as they are, give the sense that they are less important than the milieu and the politics just out of reach.
No Way Out
Almost too sober in its approach; Widmark leans so hard into making his character an unrepentant racist that the early parts of the film are dominated by his perspective (despite Poitier’s strikingly calm performance). The mob attacks by both races carry just as much charge and menace as they must have back then, but the scenes of negotiation in the hospital are just as exciting. If the ending is a bit of an anti-climax, the rest is so driven that it seems to matter less.
On first glance, this seems in more than a few ways like Mann’s least sui generis effort. Groundbreaking, intermittently beautiful cinematography aside, it does boil down to his most comprehensible action-styled plot, which evidently has had no small effect on its popularity among non-Mann obssessives (the lean and compact runtime doesn’t hurt either). But despite some missteps, especially from the start of the film to just after Vincent is introduced, it finds its groove, delivering some of the most loaded scenes of Mann’s career (both taking place in clubs) as well as his first great action scene in digital: a man hunting for others in a high-rise office building in LA, silhouetted with a raised pistol.
Lightning as a visual rather than a thematic connector, dancing as a celebration of the individual body rather than of a specific emotional context, a speedboat designed for dangerous and covert operations repurposed for pure pleasure. Pure Mann, his most deliriously romantic film in spite of, and in many ways because of, his complete grounding in the world of professionals.
Calling this quotidian (a label which fits so many other of the best films released in 2016) would be fundamentally false; its elisions are in some ways the key to this dreamy movie. But Sunset Song is nevertheless about the moments that seem at once extraordinarily important and inconsequential. Davies captures the everyday in a way that seems loaded with import; the most ambitious moment may come when the moment of conception is conflated with the birth which is conflated with yet another birth, but the flow of scenes is so quietly spectacular, so logical yet emotional. The film does build to a high, but the lows do very little to obfuscate the movie’s power, and by the final dissolve, everything and nothing has changed.
The first Michael Mann film to be completely shot on digital, and yet the film feels like it owns the best of both HD and 35mm. It holds all of the immediacy and expressionism of its format without sacrificing most of the lushness and beauty of celluloid. It is for this reason that Public Enemies doesn’t seem to me a blunt challenge to the ideas of the past as it does an evolutionary act, a molding of the past into something present. Mann’s sense of kineticism is pushed virtually to the limit, compressing what should seem like grand setpieces into just another part of Dillinger’s rapidly moving life. And it is Mann’s most romantic film, tied not only to music but to little shared moments that reveal a whole nation’s sense of weightlessness.
A Bigger Splash
Almost deliberately off-putting in the way that Guadagnino cuts up long scenes of langour into fragments, and I’m still not sure whether I’m over- or under-appreciating this film. It reads as too inscrutable, especially because it keeps hinting that Something will go wrong in this almost idyllic place where astonishingly attractive people are simply hanging out. When it fully embraces that sense, as in the final quarter, or when it fully rejects it, A Bigger Splash feels truly at ease, but it comes off as awkward for its majority.
Chimes at Midnight