The Keep

October 9, 2012

The Keep is easily the strangest film to be released this Christmas season. It’s something of an arthouse horror movie, and it’s almost sure to get lost in the shuffle of the holidays.

The Keep is an ancient castle—nobody seems to know how long it’s been standing—in the hills of Romania. It must be of some strategic value, because German soldiers occupy the fortress (the film is set in 1941), despite the cryptic warnings of the castle caretaker.

The first evening in the Keep, a couple of soldiers pry loose a stone from the wall—a wall that, as the German colonel (Jurgen Prochnow) observes, seems to have been built to keep something in rather than keep someone out—and let fly a maelstrom of special effects: smoke, wind, and bright light.

What they’re really setting free is a creature who may be absolute evil and possess ultimate power. To flex his muscles a little, he starts ripping German soldiers in half, which quickly gets the attention of the S.S., who send one of their slimiest officers (Gabriel Byrne) over to clear up the situation.

The beast can’t actually leave the grounds of the Keep until someone pure comes long to transport a talisman out of there, thus letting the creature off its chain, as it were.

That pure soul is Dr. Theodore Kuzar (Ian McKellen), a medievalist who actually makes contact with the monster. Kuzar becomes convinced that the creature will help destroy the Nazis, and he agrees to carry the talisman out.

But it’s not going to be easy; a mysterious figure (Scott Glenn) arrives in town, intent on stopping the thing in the Keep. He also takes up with Kuzar’s daughter (Alberta Watson), which complicates things when it comes time for the final showdown.

Writer-director Michael Mann had a fascinating feature-film debut with Thief, which played for a couple of weeks in 1981 and then stole away into the night. It was heavily cryptic and very high-tech, but it got under your skin in a weird way.

The Keep is also tersely written and enigmatically played, and Mann’s visual ingenuity is fun to watch. He likes to fill his frames with smoke and shadow and diffused light.

The only problem is, the story isn’t really propelled by all this stylization, it’s just decorated by it. I’m not knocking Mann for being ambitious, but there really isn’t enough meat to this tale to justify the pyrotechnics.

One aspect of Mann’s visual conception that is completely successful is the set design—the set for the castle is superb, with its huge stone front and catacomb-like hallways. Mann gets some spooky effects just by looking at the building itself.

And the monster is pretty neat. He’s about 8-feet tall, shaped like a man, with glowing red eyes and mouth. His voice sounds a bit like Kirk Douglas crossed with Debra Winger. As if that weren’t enough, sometimes he walks around without any skin on. But he can get away with it—this monster’s home is his castle.

Give Mann and his monster an A for effort, and keep your eye on this director. Someday he’s going to make a movie as solid as the fortress in The Keep—but slightly more inviting, perhaps.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Well I hope Michael Mann found this encouragement useful! He’s done just fine, to the extent that he has apparently disowned The Keep and doesn’t want people to see it. But I really want to see it again, so something’s going to have to give. I left Tangerine Dream’s score out of this review, which probably reflected my musical tastes (but I do approve of them as soundtrack generators).

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Manhunter

June 25, 2012

As I was walking out of the theater after seeing Manhunter, I overheard a young woman say, “It was like—I don’t know—it didn’t have any flash.”

No flash? I don’t know what movie she thought she saw, but if the Manhunter I saw doesn’t have flash, then no movie does. In fact, I’m sure the common criticism of the film will be that is has too much flash, much in the way “Miami Vice” is said to sacrifice substance to style.

The comparison is not accidental. Manhunter is the latest from Michael Mann, the executive producer of “Miami Vice.” Here, he serves as writer-director, as he did with his previous theatrical features, Thief and The Keep.

Mann has taken a basic cop story and, with ferocious panache, dressed it up in designer duds and high-tech visuals, just as he has on “Vice.” But Mann is a better director than his “Vice” hired hands, and so he achieves some powerful and perverse moments in the film.

In the early going, the plot itself is strictly formula stuff. A retired cop (William Petersen) is called back to assist in an unusually horrible set of murders—much to the consternation of his wife (Kim Griest). He’s retired because his working method is too intense. He caught killers by identifying with them, by learning to think like them, and the last time he caught a murderer, he went a little over the edge.

Once he’s on the case, the film crackles along as a good, basic police thriller. Then, two-thirds of the way through, there’s a startling shift in point-of-view, as we focus on the killer (Tom Noonan), a real creep who suddenly, unexpectedly, finds a sympathetic friend. This shift is weird, and perhaps not structurally sound, but fascinating.

Mann tries to layer in a lot of variations on the theme of sight and vision. Movies themselves play an important role in the murders. Not all of this is coherently expressed, and the business about Petersen’s disturbing identification with the killers is somehow not quite resolved. But Mann does work hard to make Manhunter more than just a cop movie.

He often succeeds. Some of the detection sequences—the decoding of a crucial note sent by the murderer, the kidnapping of an obnoxious reporter (Stephen Lang) and his shocking demise—are potent indeed.

Mann’s visual and narrative intensity is matched by the solid group of performers. Petersen, recently named by Rolling Stone magazine as the year’s hot actor, is burning on a low flame throughout. He inhabits this world well, as evidenced by his previous role in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.

Petersen’s screen roles have not had enough variety to suggest that he can do more than be one intense dude. But he can certainly spark the kind of flash that Manhunter requires.

First published in the Herald, August 14, 1986

Who knew about the whole Hannibal Lecter phenomenon to come? Not me, apparently. I’d like to be able to say that a paragraph extolling Brian Cox’s performance as Lecter got cut from this review at some point, but I have no recollection of that. A strong movie, anyway.


Band of the Hand

July 26, 2011

For a few years, Michael Mann was one of the more interesting directors, with his TV film The Jericho Mile, the high-tech James Caan movie Thief, and the exceedingly weird sci-fi World War II picture, The Keep. Mann looked like one of those original talents who have to scratch and claw for every idiosyncratic project.

Then he stumbled onto a television show about some “MTV cops,” titled “Miami Vice.” As executive producer, he’s the chief creative force on that very successful show. Now, having garnered some clout, he’s flexing his muscles.

The movie that puts him back in the director’s chair, Red Dragon, will be released later this year. First out is another Miami production on which Mann serves as executive producer, Band of the Hand; the directing chores are handled by a “Vice” collaborator, Paul Michael Glaser.

Glaser’s visual style follows the “Vice” look pretty closely (aided by the increasingly active Risky Business cinematographer, Reynaldo Villalobos); the streets and alleys of Miami are dotted with pink and turquoise, the nights shine with neon, the bad guys glisten with evil.

But the most effective scenes in the film take place in the Everglades, where, in the opening minutes, a racially balanced quintet of violent and seemingly incorrigible juvenile convicts is unloaded. They haven’t been told why, they don’t know where they are, and they don’t want to be there.

A mysterious figure appears: a tough commander (Stephen Lang) who barks orders to them but doesn’t spell out why they’re in the Everglades. He does tell them that they’ll have to learn to survive with the elements—and with each other—or he’ll let them die out there.

Lang takes them through a rough regimen of survival skills, in sometimes compelling sequences. It turns out he’s training them as part of a rehabilitation service. When they return to Miami, he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city.

Unfortunately, once they get back to town, the film becomes as interesting as a subpar episode of “Miami Vice,” but without the black Ferraris. Glaser has trouble with the film’s structure; it goes on for about a half hour after you expect it to end.

And for all of Glaser’s experience on the “Vice” squad, he makes a basic mistake: Too much of Band of the Hand takes place in dull daylight, when the flashy nighttime scenes are what make the TV vision of Miami tick.

The five hooligans are not bad, and Lang, who was superb as Happy in the Dustin Hoffman Death of a Salesman, is effective as the strong-but-silent leader. And, as usual, James Remar is adept at playing the kind of big-time psychopath he essayed so well in The Cotton Club and 48 HRS.

But the film is never again as engaging as the early Everglades scenes. Its attempt to provide a showy conclusion by blowing everything up at the end feels desperate. And the Bob Dylan title tune, heard a couple of times, actually creates a more vivid picture of the urban inferno than anything in this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1986

Michael Mann would come roaring back in movies, as you know, and “Miami Vice” did a quick quality-swoon after its first season. Larry Fishburne and John Cameron Mitchell are also in Band of the Hand, plus a scad of 80s hits; I take it the movie’s a camp classic now, and clearly I was a little too respectful in this review; ordinarily when I write a sentence like, “he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city,” I can provide some kind of smirky paranthetical.