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.
As the real-life 1950's pin-up girl Bettie Page actress Gretchen Mol shakes her moneymaker in this true-American-story drama. Page a Tennessee-raised religious cutie moves to New York in 1949 for a new life when college dreams don't materialize. She's a trusting soul who loves to pose for strangers' cameras and naturally falls into modeling. In no time she's wearing suggestive lingerie and trading spankings with other models. To Bettie the bondage get-ups are silly not prurient. But despite efforts to expand herself and learn acting she remains a pin-up girl. In Bettie's most famous picture she's posing nude in a Santa hat in a 1955 Playboy magazine. After testifying at Congress amid the sexual Puritanism of the '50s Bettie realizes her "notorious" reputation. She quits the biz for her religious beliefs and disappears from the public eye for good. Mol's performance is described in press materials as "incandescent." It is brave to say the least. The actress’ movie career has needed a jolt since she was labeled the next “It” girl in the late ‘90s after starring with Matt Damon in the 1998 Rounders. Her last film was Neil LaBute’s 2003 The Shape of Things. But Mol finds her niche in Notorious. She plays Bettie as she was--a simple-minded and free-spirited character which can be a dangerous combination. The actress doesn't add impresario nuances to the pliable young woman beyond the Southern accents but it is an incandescent performance nonetheless. Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol) brings her rough features to Paula Klaw Bettie's tough-minded manager transitioning from the Emmy-nominated success of HBO’s Six Feet Under. Mol and Taylor play off each other very well. Recent Oscar-nominee David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) also sneaks in there as a Southern senator calling for pornography investigations. In the hands of director/writer Mary Harron and writer Guinevere Turner Notorious snaps along like an old crime noir quick like a paperback on the beach. It is ironic and biting smoldering with sexuality but the melodramatic intentions are obvious. The dialogue lapses into clunky spots occasionally but they seem deliberate. The script's potency should not be understated. It's a statement about government's role in bedroom matters and the side effects of an American society prudish about its sexuality. Harron seems a sharp-edged journalist a chronicler of 20th century America and recruited Oscar-nominated researcher Sam Green (The Weather Undergound) to strengthen the movie's veracity such as recreating '50s-era Times Square. Bygone technical methods such as Super 8 cameras are used to match the classy black-and-white photography. Notorious is a little rough but fairly successful in its mission.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!