WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Based on the eponymous book by Bryan Burrough Public Enemies chronicles the exploits of legendary Chicago gangster John Dillinger a dashing figure whose daring bank robberies both captivated and alarmed a Depression-era America devastated by widespread financial ruin. Director Michael Mann (Ali The Insider) begins his narrative at Dillinger’s career high-point with the Indiana-born outlaw basking in his celebrity status as a Robin Hood figure.
But with Dillinger’s growing fame comes increased scrutiny from law enforcement agencies — particularly the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) and its ambitious chief J. Edgar Hoover. Eyeing Dillinger’s capture as an opportunity to boost his agency’s profile Hoover tasks elite agent Melvin Purvis with bringing the elusive gangster to justice.
WHO’S IN IT?
Toning down the often cartoonish mannerisms he exhibited in Sweeney Todd Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy Johnny Depp exudes low-key charm and self-assuredness as Dillinger a man clearly amused by his celebrity status but never consumed by it. Dillinger’s audacity and fearlessness extend beyond the criminal realm too as evidenced when he pursues a beguiling coat-check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Initially appalled by Dillinger’s aggressive advances Frechette ultimately surrenders becoming his loyal companion during his final days on the run.
As lawman Melvin Purvis Dillinger’s primary antagonist Christian Bale provides a nice foil for Depp though he ultimately isn’t allowed enough screen time to fully develop his character. Bale’s Purvis is straight-laced intrepid and doggedly persistent his efforts continually stymied by the sub-par talent and resources at his disposal. His complicated relationship with highly eccentric Bureau boss Hoover (played by a gleefully uptight Billy Crudup) begs for more development but director Mann opts instead to focus more on the doomed love affair between Dillinger and Frechette. Pity.
Fans of Mann’s action work in films like Miami Vice and Heat will revel in Public Enemies’ elaborately staged shoot-out sequences each of which is lent added intensity by cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s use of high-definition digital video cameras.
But when the bullets aren’t flying Public Enemies is only intermittently interesting. Stars Depp and Bale both excel in their respective roles but neither is allowed much room to venture beyond the tight constraints imposed by Mann who clings stubbornly — and disappointingly — to type. Much more intriguing would have been for Mann to reverse the casting with Bale playing the anti-hero and Depp as his straight-arrow pursuer. Alas the director who convinced squeeky-clean Tom Cruise to play a villain (in 2004’s Collateral) was not so ballsy this time around.
The same cautious predictable approach to casting extends to the film’s tone as well. Rather than deconstruct our culture’s romanticized vision of Dillinger as a handsome populist hero Mann adds to the gangster’s puffed-up Robin Hood image photographing Depp lovingly at every turn and filling the story with unsubtle nods to the character’s altruistic side. It’s a missed opportunity.
Mann has never been one for brevity regularly churning out films that extend well beyond two hours in length. Public Enemies is no exception clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours. Despite the ample running time he’s allotted to flesh out his story Mann fails to create any real attachment to his characters. For a movie with such a gifted cast appealing subject matter and riveting action sequences Public Enemies is oddly boring.
A chaotic nighttime sequence in which Purvis and his crew ambush Dillinger’s forest hideout only to become mired in a protracted and bloody gunfight ranks with the very best of Mann’s action work. If only the rest of Public Enemies were this thrilling.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Spinotii’s superb camera work demands to be seen on the big screen so slam a few Red Bulls and catch this one at the multiplex.
Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.
The young and idealistic Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is driven by two forces in his life: airplanes and Hollywood. The Aviator begins in the 1920s as Hughes obsessively works on his silent debut film Hell's Angels which he ends up scraping completely to remake as a talkie thus making it the most expensive film of its time. While embarking on doomed affairs with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) Hughes also builds a plane that makes him the fastest man in the world in 1935. The millionaire even engineers a new bra to make the most out of Jane Russell's cleavage for his next film The Outlaw while running TWA and building planes for the government during WWII. Yet the mental illness that would consume Hughes later in life begins to rear its ugly head after he breaks up with Hepburn. As does his dogfights with Pan Am's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) who sics his in-pocket politician Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) on Hughes--which coming after the flyboy crashes his experimental spy plane leaves him with only a couple of good fights left in him. Hughes eventually stands up to Brewster's senate investigation and then manages to finish and ceremonially fly the Spruce Goose. But soon he makes his final descent into undiagnosed and untreated madness.
The Aviator provides a bevy of tour de force performances. As the leading man DiCaprio gives us an Oscar-worthy turn as Hughes vacillating easily between the playboy the industrialist the aviator and finally the madman. In seducing a cigarette girl the suave DiCaprio says one of the best lines in the film: "I want to find out what gives you pleasure. Would you give me that job? " which pretty much sums up Hughes' modus operandi. The scenes between DiCaprio and Blanchett as the spirited Hughes and Hepburn are also fun and lively especially in their first meeting on a golf course in which Hepburn talks a blue streak while Hughes quietly admires her. Blanchett does an amazing job emulating the acting legend without doing a strict imitation. The worst performance in the film could be Blanchett's nose which looks nothing like Hepburn's but that's about it. The exquisite Beckinsale also does a marvelous job as Ava Gardner who had a brief and tumultuous affair with Hughes but ended up more his confidant than anything else. In supporting roles Alec Baldwin seems to be settling in nicely as one of Hollywood's favorite heavies playing Trippe's malevolence with a twinkle in his eye. As does Alan Alda who again delivers admirably as the elder statesman of "mean."
Marty Marty Marty. Why can't you make a nice two-hour film like everybody else? It's probably not fair to harp on the film's length but it isn't just long it feels long. Rather than being a cohesive whole director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan deliver a montage of expertly constructed scenes and sequences without giving us a true understanding of who Howard Hughes really was. Perhaps Howard Hughes is just too much of a character for one film. The closest we come to getting inside Hughes' mind is during the breath-taking crash of the FX-11 into a Beverly Hills residential area which is undeniably one of the best crash scenes ever filmed. Scorsese is obviously a master filmmaker but some of his old tricks aren't working here. The patchwork quality of the film is underscored by the director's varying use of different period styles--from a washed out look of a '40s home movie to a vivid contemporary look. Used to great effect in his films such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas now it seems out of place in The Aviator. It's true Scorsese will more than likely get another shot at Oscar gold for The Aviator but if he wins it will definitely be for his vastly superior previous work.