Blu-ray: Heat (1995)

For those not familiar with the story, it details the slow-burn clash between a highly sophisticated crew of L.A. thieves (led by Robert De Niro) and the detective (Al Pacino) who is obsessively chasing them.

It remains Mann’s best work: an outstanding portrait of two seemingly unstoppable forces colliding amidst the backdrop of a stunningly realised Los Angeles.

Although well received at the time, it was perhaps seen as a high-grade genre piece and nothing more. But its status has grown exponentially since, with the new transfer enhancing a film over twenty years old.

Many other things could be said about Heat: the last truly great performances of Pacino and De Niro, a raft of excellent support in the brilliant ensemble cast; superb visuals by Dante Spinotti; an immense sound design and score by Elliot Goldenthal, with memorable musical contributions by Moby and Brian Eno.

Overseen by director Michael Mann, this Blu-ray was sourced from a new 4K remaster by Stefan Sonnenfeld of Company 3 and looks far superior to the 2009 version.

Blu-ray.com have some technical details:

If you have a very large screen or a projector you will immediately notice improvements in terms of depth and fluidity. The difference is especially obvious during close-ups — as virtually all of them have a much ‘tighter’ appearance now — but during larger panoramic shots delineation is also superior.

During a lot of the indoor footage the images also appear better balanced and smoother (not artificially repolished with digital tools). To be perfectly clear, the darker/indoor footage actually makes it quite clear that the master that was used to produce the release is of exceptionally high-quality because density is quite simply outstanding.

Image stability is outstanding.”

What of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track?

“…outstanding. It has an excellent range of nuanced dynamics and during the shootouts intensity is fantastic.

I did some direct comparisons during the famous bank sequence at the end of the film and I want to specifically mention that the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track from the previous release actually does a pretty good job of reproducing many, if not all, of the same qualities that define the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track.

Where the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track appears to have an edge is the expanded depth, though I can only speculate about the type of remastering work that might have been done to improve it. There are no mastering defects to report.”

The second disc has all the extras of the previous DVD and Blu-ray releases (which were plentiful) but perhaps the most significant new additions feature: Mann discussing the film at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival (31 mins) and Christopher Nolan hosting an Academy discussion featuring Mann, De Niro, Pacino and other crew (64 mins).

Here is the full list of extras:

  • NEW 4K REMASTER of the film: Supervised by director Michael Mann.
  • Lossless Audio Track: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
  • Filmmaker Panel: Newly recorded presentation and discussion of Heat organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hosted by writer-director Christopher Nolan, it features actors Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Amy Brenneman, Diane Venora and Mykelti Williamson, writer/director Michael Mann, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, executive producer Pieter Jan Brugge, editor William Goldenberg, producer Art Linson, and re-recording mixer Andy Nelson. September 2016. (60 min).
  • Filmmaker Panel: Toronto International Film Festival presentation and discussion – celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Heat. Recorded in 2015. (35 min).
  • Audio commentary: By director Michael Mann
  • Five Featurettes:
    • True Crime: Recalling the real-life Chicago cop and criminal whose exploits inspired the film
    • Crime Stories: The screenplay’s 20-year history and how the film finally got greenlit
    • Into the Fire: Filming in L.A., cast training, shooting the climactic downtown heist and post-production
    • Pacino and De Niro: The conversation: anatomy of this historic on-screen showdown
    • Return to the Scene of the Crime: Revisiting the film’s real-life L.A. locations years later
    • 11 Additional scenes

The newly restored Blu-ray of Heat (1995) is out now from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment UK

> Buy the Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Video essay on how Heat blends realism with style (Spoilers)
> Video about the famous shoot-out sequence (Spoilers)

In Praise of Widescreen

Almost every film we see now is in widescreen, but how did this look come about?

With the proliferation of widescreen television over the last decade, it is sometimes easy to forget that until relatively recently films were cropped for home viewing.

This meant that for a lot of movies, a large percentage of the rectangular image (in the aspect ratios of 2:35 and 1:85) was removed so it could fit the squarer aspect of television (the 1:33 or 4:3 ratio).

The roots of this are historical, as the advent of television in the 1950s forced Hollywood to come up with newer ways of enticing audiences back to cinemas.

Thus modern widescreen processes were invented to put an image on screen that couldn’t be replicated in the homes of the time.

This shifted the fundamental look of films from the traditional academy ratio of 1:33 to the more rectangular widescreen look we now take for granted.

But when it came to screening those movies on television (ironically the very medium that triggered widescreen developments) there was the obvious problem of converting that wide image on to a square TV screen.

Here Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese (and others) explain for TCM the whole business of ‘pan and scanning’ and why it was bad for certain movies (by the way, Curtis Hanson’s example of The Last Supper painting is pure genius):

Back in 1992, there was a TV programme where several directors discussed why they shot certain films in widescreen, including Michael Mann (Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans), Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm), John Boorman (Point Blank) and John Carpenter (Halloween).

They discuss how the advent of a wider screen affected their visual approach to making films, but also how it influenced such things as editing, dialogue and even running time.

What’s interesting is that Mann’s comment about widescreen televisions in Japan is now the reality.

Certain films such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) and The Artist (2011) actually used the squarer visual format (a.k.a. 1:33 or academy ratio) for effect.

Going back to the 1970s and 80s, directors like Stanley Kubrick (e.g. The Shining and Barry Lyndon) and William Friedkin (e.g. Sorcerer) were careful to frame some of their films so they couldn’t be awkwardly pan and scanned, although this created subsequent problems for DVD and Blu-ray releases.

Having grown up in the era of VHS and ‘squarer films’ on television, I instinctively prefer the look of widescreen, possibly because it reminds me of the cinema experience, where you could see the full image and got much better sound.

There’s also the crucial matter of actually seeing the film the way the director intended it to look.

It still often depends on the individual film, with Citizen Kane (1941) perhaps being the most ingenious use of the camera in the 1:33 ratio (as mentioned in the above clips both Welles, Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang were sceptical of Cinemascope).

But with widescreen now ubiquitous in our homes and cinemas is there going to be another shift in the frame through which we see movies?

> Find out more about widescreen formats at the Widescreen museum
> More on cinema of the 1950s at Wikipedia
> Review of Ben Hur on Blu-ray

Blu-ray: Manhunter

The first screen appearence of Hannibal Lecter proved an important early film for Michael Mann and still ranks amongst his finest work.

In the mid-1980s Mann was coming off an acclaimed debut with Thief (1981) and the most glaring anomaly on his directing CV, the bizarre World War II horror fiasco The Keep (1983).

The critical and commercial failure of that film probably led to him returning to his old stomping ground of network television, where he served as show runner and executive producer on Miami Vice (1984-89) and Crime Story (1986-88).

Both of those shows seemed to recharge his creative batteries and provided a template of sorts for his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon.

Focusing on talented FBI agent Will Graham (William Petersen), it explores his attempts to catch a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) and the various people he has to deal with as he tries to stop the murders.

These include his superior (Dennis Farina), an incarcerated killer Hannibal Lektor (Brian Cox), a sleazy journalist (Stephen Lang), his long suffering wife (Kim Griest) and an innocent woman caught up in the hunt (Joan Allen).

During the 1980s producer Dino De Laurentiis was not exactly known for making high art, but in 1986 he scored a spectacular double bill by financing by two important films by great American directors.

David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) was a landmark classic, whilst Mann’s Manhunter was unfairly overlooked and a box office disappointment, despite growing in acclaim in the years since then.

A wonderfully controlled thriller, it anticipates Mann’s future work – especially Heat (1995) – with its stunning widescreen compositions, moody electronic score and portrait of obsessive loners in a criminal world.

Although rightly celebrated for his visuals and meticulous research, Mann also frequently elicits powerful performances from his actors and William Petersen is outstanding as the haunted protagonist.

An unusual character for the cop genre, he is both vulnerable (recovering from a mental breakdown as the story opens) and brilliant – note how much of the film involves Graham sitting around and empathising with a killer, in order to catch him.

Petersen has never been better here and the supporting cast is filled with strong actors: Farina, Noonan, Lang and Allen are all excellent and it was important early exposure for many of them.

It was overshadowed five years later when Jonathan Demme adapted Thomas Harris’ follow up novel, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which was a major box office and Oscar triumph which saw Anthony Hopkins make Lecter into an iconic screen villain.

There are many intriguing comparisons between the two films: Mann went for a more stylised approach than Demme, with cinematographer Dante Spinotti crafting some beautifully precise compositions that utilise the full frame; Tak Fujimoto opted for a more restrained style, which often favours close-ups and point of view shots.

Compare how differently the directors interpret Lecter being questioned in jail: Mann opts for a white, antiseptic environment, whereas Demme goes for a dirtier, almost Gothic sensibility.

The differing approaches are also reflected in how Cox and Hopkins played Lecter: the Scottish actor exudes a certain blank charm, whereas Hopkins opts for a more mannered approach – like their directors, both are equally effective in different ways.

Another odd legacy of the film is how years later Petersen eventually became the star of the TV blockbuster show CSI (2000- ), which in some ways is a more commercial reprise of his work on Manhunter.

Mann’s emphasis on the procedural aspects of police investigation has also arguably influenced shows such as The X-Files (1993-2002) and films like Seven (1995).

It says a lot about the quality of his 1986 film that it still holds up extremely well: this Blu-ray is taken from the restored version and offers the choice of the original Theatrical Version or Director’s Cut.

The extra footage on the director’s cut was obviously taken from an inferior source – so those extra scenes are a little degraded – so it’s only of interest to those wanting to see some of the scenes filled out a little more.

However, the image quality on the main version is excellent and the special features are also solid.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Trailer: The original theatrical trailer for Manhunter. In English, not subtitled. (3 mins)
  • Inside Manhunter: Solid featurette from the DVD version in which various cast members recall their contribution to the film. (18 mins)
  • The Manhunter’s Look: Cinematographer Dante Spinotti discusses the framing, lighting and use of colour seen in the film. (11 mins).
  • Director’s Cut: Option to view the director’s cut of of the film. In English, not subtitled. (120 min).
  • Director’s Cut With Audio Commentary: Director’s cut of Manhunter with an audio commentary by director Michael Mann.

> Buy Manhunter on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> More on the film at the IMDb
> Michael Mann at Wikipedia and MUBi

Luck on HBO

The new HBO series Luck sees director Michael Mann and writer David Milch combine forces with Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.

Based around a group of characters at a horse-racing track, Milch spoke about the premise to Variety last year:

“The pilot is about a bunch of intersecting lives in the world of horse racing,” Milch told Daily Variety. “It’s a subject which has engaged and some might say has compelled me for 50 years. I’ve joked that if I just can make $25 million on this show, I’ll be even on research expenses. I find it as complicated and engaging a special world as any I’ve ever encountered, not only in what happens in the clubhouse and the grandstand, but also on the backside of the track, where the training is done and where they house the horses.”

Although it looks like an ensemble piece, it appears Dustin Hoffman will have the biggest role as a man ‘deeply involved in gambling’.

Both Mann and Milch have a considerable pedigree when it comes to TV shows: the former was showrunner for Miami Vice in the 1980s when Milch was doing the same job with Hill Street Blues.

With Martin Scorsese directing the pilot of Boardwalk Empire for HBO, it seems like the venerable cable network is fast becoming a refuge for directors who want to flex their creative muscles outside the studio system.

Luck is scheduled to air sometime in 2012.

> HBO page for Luck
> Find out more about Michael Mann and David Milch at Wikipedia
> New Yorker profile of David Milch from 2005