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.
In the ever-changing west of 1882 city marshal Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are two tough dudes out to clean up lawless towns a mission that takes them to Appaloosa. This small mining town has been taken over by a ruthless power-hungry land baron Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) who along with his band of thugs has run the place into the ground. Although their initial efforts are met with some success Cole and Hitch run into personal and professional conflict when a pretty mystery lady Allison French (Renee Zellweger) blows into town. She complicates the picture walking on the gray line between good and evil and generally making the Marshal and his No. 2 overcome unwelcome obstacles in their fight to bring Bragg and his boys to justice. The film based on the novel by Robert B. Parker smartly details the unique problems inherent in bringing law and order to an unruly West. Guiding his co-star Marcia Gay Harden in 2000’s Pollock to an Oscar Harris the director once again shows he has a natural affinity for steering his fellow actors at least most of them into superlative performances which includes himself. In fact the actor doesn’t seem to be the least intimidated in playing the leading role in a movie he also co-wrote directed and produced. Harris comes off as the embodiment of a dedicated lawman who quietly goes about his business determined to clean up the wild wild West his way with the help of a loyal deputy. Mortensen is wonderfully authentic as Harris’ partner in stopping sagebrush crime looking like he’s lived in those boots his entire life. Mortensen’s demeanor and style in the role of Everett Hitch evokes a true feel for a place and time long gone. Together these two do not seem fake or awkwardly contemporary but instead come off as the real deal. Irons is slippery and fun to watch as the devious outlaw Bragg proving as he did in his Oscar-winning Reversal of Fortune there’s nobody as good at playing subtle shades of bad. Zellweger on the other hand lets her acting show at every turn. To be fair her character rarely adds up but she does nothing to give any dimension beyond the obvious to a woman courting both sides of the law. In only his second outing behind the camera in a decade Harris shows Pollock was no fluke. Clearly enamored with the era he nobly honors the great American western tradition crafting a film that fits in with some of the best examples Hollywood has turned out. Some may complain that Appaloosa is long on talk and short on action but the time director Harris devotes to letting his characters develop is far more satisfying than a lot of pointless violence that many Westerns wallow in. Like Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo this is an honest tale of the camaraderie between a pair of lawmen simply trying to do a job. This is a director whose emphasis is focused on his cast and he’s picked them very carefully right down to the smallest roles surrounding himself with a lot of terrific character actors. Just as impressive are the top notch production values including cinematographer Dean Semler’s stunning New Mexico landscapes.
Misery loves the Savages--always has. Ever since they were kids Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have been plagued by the blasé blues. Even though they went their separate ways the siblings have remained somewhat close geographically--she lives in Manhattan he in Buffalo--and in their discontentment. But what made them this way in the first place their father (Philip Bosco) is about to reunite them. After losing his mind to dementia and his longtime girlfriend (Rosemary Murphy) to well death the old man officially needs to be looked after and that’s where Jon and Wendy reluctantly come in. Despite having not seen their estranged father in ages they fly out to his Arizona senior-citizen-friendly community immediately upon word of his downfall. What they didn’t plan on however is staying more than a couple days. Ultimately they take him back to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home about which Wendy constantly feels guilty. Now forced to live together and look in the metaphorical mirror the siblings Savage learn about self-discovery mortality each other and how to revive a decades-old rivalry as though it had never gone away. Given the way Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly one-up each other in The Savages you’d think there was a real sibling rivalry at play. Of course it’s merely two of today’s very best actors giving par-for-the-course flawless performances. In so doing they create something beyond chemistry: a relationship so fractured and imperfectly perfect that it could only exist between an aging brother and sister. Whether the scene calls for fireworks or subtlety solo or together Linney and Hoffman are always up to the task. Linney is especially wide-ranging as Wendy still fights her midlife crisis. The veteran actress is often heartbreaking because Wendy is often heartbroken even when she tries to convince herself otherwise but Linney still manages to leave the window of hope cracked open--for us and her character. She truly encompasses everything in this her best performance to date. Hoffman is slightly more of a supporting player here but no less impactful. The Oscar winner is apathetic through much of the film but his terse outbursts of anger and/or sadness are stark reminders of his awe-inspiring range as an actor. Perhaps the most savage Savage is the patriarch played with grace by longtime actor Bosco. But instead of vilifying Lenny or making him worthy of all your pity Bosco makes him a rollercoaster of emotion as per Lenny's dementia. It’s been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ last--and only other--feature-length film the twisted coming-of-age tale Slums of Beverly Hills which has given her plenty of time to think grow older and think about growing older. She philosophizes aloud in The Savages a movie that addresses everything you don’t want to but with a sardonic edge to it; in fact maybe this is as much a coping mechanism for her as it is an artistic endeavor. While the movie is primarily about the title siblings it essentially explores the human condition under their guise. But Jenkins does so in a way that is never preachy never obnoxious never sappy and always astutely observed. It’s her naturalistic approach to moviemaking that will turn what is ultimately a sharp dramedy into too much of a downer to please casual moviegoers looking for lighthearted fare in wintertime--this is NOT Little Miss Sunshine--but those who go in looking for a drama will be moved occasionally to laughter. Because The Savages is that rare deep movie: heavy on symbolism and meaning light on pretense and contrivance.
Flimflam man matchstick man con man--there are all kinds of names for them but Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is a slightly different sort of con artist. He is an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe whose habits include opening and closing a door three times before walking through it; keeping a house so fastidiously clean it reeks of disinfectant; and displaying so many physical ticks it's hard for him to carry on a normal conversation. Watching him you wouldn't dream Roy is a consummate professional who along with his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) has spent years amassing a small fortune doing mostly short con jobs. But Frank is getting restless for a really big score and convinces a reluctant Roy to go in on a difficult job with huge payoff potential. The wrench in the plan however is the unexpected arrival of Angela (Alison Lohman) the 14-year-old daughter Roy suspected he had from a doomed relationship 14 years earlier but had never met. She's a precocious sweet-faced junk food-eating wild child who proves to be just the spark Roy needs to get past his hangups. This is where the film really takes off becoming more a character study than a typical who-is-swindling-whom scenario. Roy and Angela bond immediately and when the spunky Angela finds out what Daddy does for a living she is instantly smitten. In fact she talks Roy into teaching her some tricks of the trade and takes to it like "a duck to water." The web of deceit eventually gets more and more tangled as Roy's burgeoning paternal instincts cloud his fine-tuned judgment out in the field--and unfortunately the results are tragic.
It does seem a little odd Cage would decide to take another highly neurotic part after wowing audiences as quirky Charlie Kaufman in last year's Adaptation for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. One would think he'd want to try something else. The fact remains Cage is really good at playing this type of characters but with Roy he goes a little over the top as he races through a pharmacy twitching grunting and making "whoop!" sounds while trying to get a prescription filled. Sometimes its funny sometimes it's forced. When Angela shows up Roy's quirks become more subtle as he slowly sheds the neurosis and starts to care about the girl. Fresh-faced Lohman (White Oleander) rises up to the challenge of working with the seasoned likes of Cage and Rockwell and does an outstanding job as the wayward teenager who becomes the bright light at the end of Roy's dark tunnel. The two have an instant connection on screen and their scenes are what truly give the film its energy especially when Angela shows how the apple doesn't far from the tree. Accepting the fact she's a natural con artist she tells Roy "Mom was wrong. I didn't just get your elbows." Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) was born to play the wisecracking and confident Frank; you get the feeling he could actually be a successful con man if he tried.
For obvious reasons more than a few comparisons have been made between Matchstick Men and Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 Paper Moon which follows a con man and his adopted daughter as they swindle their way through the 1930s Dust Bowl. Although Matchstick Men doesn't quite live up to that classic under the steady guidance of Ridley Scott the film is still a gem in its own right. Producer/screenwriters Ted Griffin and Sean Bailey turn in a wonderful script full of vivid and interesting characters and the versatile Scott is able to elicit the exact performances needed to make the film come alive. With films ranging from sci-fi (Alien) to epic (Gladiator) to personal (Thelma & Louise) the versatile director consistently is able to create scenes in which the characters don't even have to speak for you to still understand them. And with Matchstick Men it's clear Scott is slightly in love with Roy and Angela. One of the more poignant scenes is where Roy takes Angela to lunch for the first time at a greasy diner and as a typical teenager the girl stuffs a hamburger in her mouth. The neurotic Roy watches his newfound daughter with simultaneous disgust and amazement.
Let's hear it for the old guy who in this movie comes off sexier than his buff young accomplice (Dermot Mulroney). OK the old guy happens to be the gracefully aging icon Paul Newman -- as a feisty heistmeister who dodges a long prison sentence and then teams up with his equally conniving rest-home nurse (Linda Fiorentino) on a bank job gone wrong. "Where the Money Is" is breezy suspenseful and as much a love story as anything else -- if you call mentoring a new life in crime a kind of love. The mission-improbable caper is no more or less entertaining than a "Rockford Files" rerun but the film's swerving joyride takes its real thrills from the great escape that Fiorentino's Bonnie Parker makes from a dead-end life in the married lane.
Newman still hasn't lost it and as Henry Manning he doesn't miss any nuances in the edgy balance between streetwise wariness and amiable rapport with his sultry new colleague. The steam-powered Fiorentino has forged her career by making danger look casual and this is her most alluring work since "The Last Seduction" added another zero to her salary. Her chemistry with Newman a flirty twist on the idea of honor among thieves is really what makes this movie worth seeing. Mulroney is serviceable as the dim but lovable hubby a supporting role that's more foil than fully etched character.
We can all thank director Marek Kanievska for deciding not to have the May-December duo end up in the sack and leaving them simply professional cohorts. The director's admirable sense of comic timing works all the better by not letting the laughs get in the way of his leads' exploration of their characters -- although there's no denying the limits of this frothy genre. Perhaps Kanievska's greatest feat here is allowing Newman to retain his dignity in close-up.