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Ballad of Narayama

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The Mann and his movies

Michael Mann is one of those select American directors who has become a brand name -- not by marketing himself, but by making movies so distinctive and with such visual fluency that they are immediately identifiable as Michael Mann films. With the release of the darker-toned feature film version of his candy-colored 1980s television series "Miami Vice," we look back at what Roger Ebert has written about Mann and his movies over the years.

"Thief" (1981)

Michael Mann's "Thief" is a film of style, substance, and violently felt emotion, all wrapped up in one of the most intelligent thrillers I've seen. It's one of those films where you feel the authority right away: This movie knows its characters, knows its story, and knows exactly how it wants to tell us about them. At a time when thrillers have been devalued by the routine repetition of the same dumb chases, sex scenes, and gunfights, "Thief" is completely out of the ordinary.

"The Last of the Mohicans" (1992)

Mann's film is quite an improvement on Cooper's all but unreadable book, and a worthy successor to the Randolph Scott version. In Daniel Day-Lewis he has found the right actor to play Hawkeye, even though no other role ever played by Day-Lewis ("My Left Foot," "A Room with a View," "My Beautiful Laundrette") would remotely suggest that. There are just enough historical and political details; the movie touches quickly on the fine points of British-French-Indian-settler conflicts, so that they can get on to the story we're really interested in, about the hero who wins the heart of the girl.

"The Last of the Mohicans" is not as authentic and uncompromised as it claims to be - more of a matinee fantasy than it wants to admit -- but it is probably more entertaining as a result.

"The Insider" (1999)

There is, I admit, a contradiction in a film about journalism that itself manipulates the facts. My notion has always been that movies are not the first place you look for facts, anyway. You attend a movie for psychological truth, for emotion, for the heart of a story and not its footnotes. In its broad strokes, "The Insider" is perfectly accurate: Big tobacco lied, one man had damning information, skilled journalism developed the story, intrigue helped blast it free. "The Insider" had a greater impact on me than "All the President's Men," because you know what? Watergate didn't kill my parents. Cigarettes did.

"Ali" (2001)

Michael Mann's story of these 10 years is told in the style of events overheard--this isn't a documentary, but it seems to lack a fiction's privileged access to its hero. Key scenes play out in enigmatic snippets of dialogue. We work to make connections. We see Ali's wives, but don't feel we know them; they fade in and out of focus like ghosts. The screenplay by Eric Roth and Mann seems reluctant to commit to a point of view, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. During some scenes, you can almost sense it shrugging. Ali remains an enigma.

"Collateral" (2004)

"Collateral" is essentially a long conversation between a killer and a man who fears for his life. Mann punctuates the conversation with what happens at each of the five stops, where he uses detailed character roles and convincing dialogue by writer Stuart Beattie to create, essentially, more short films that could be free-standing. Look at the heartbreaking scene where Vincent takes Max along with him into a nightclub, where they have a late-night talk with Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley), the owner. Daniel remembers a night Miles Davis came into the club, recalling it with such warmth and wonder, such regret for his own missed opportunities as a musician, that we're looking into the window of his life.

Mann is working in a genre with "Collateral," as he was in "Heat" (1995), but he deepens genre through the kind of specific detail that would grace a straight drama.

"Heat" (1995)

Michael Mann's writing and direction elevate this material. It's not just an action picture. Above all, the dialogue is complex enough to allow the characters to say what they're thinking: They are eloquent, insightful, fanciful, poetic when necessary. They're not trapped with cliches. Of the many imprisonments possible in our world, one of the worst must be to be inarticulate - to be unable to tell another person what you really feel. These characters can do that. Not that it saves them.

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