Friday, July 24, 2009

Fused (The Hurt Locker and Waltz with Bashir)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

It's hard to make a good war movie, I think, because of certain limitations inherent in the form. War movies feature colorful ensembles of archetypes, each with a more-or-less memorable shtick. War movies are male-dominated, with women usually passive bystanders or wringing their hands dutifully at home (if they're in the film at all). War movies follow a fairly predictable narrative, where the only guesswork is in who lives and who dies. That I've been indifferent to some of the most admired war movies of the last twenty years (the heavy-handed Platoon, the De Palmafied Casualties of War, the cliche factory of Saving Private Ryan) suggests that I'm not only not cut out for war but ill-suited for the genre as well. Yet two recent examples, The Hurt Locker (new in theaters) and Waltz with Bashir (now on DVD), are to me good if imperfect war movies with radically different approaches to the subject matter.

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker arrives with so much advanced praise it seems impossible for the film to live up to it. (Even Armond White gave it a no-frills positive review.) Although the Iraq War is a topic that has sunk a spate of recent efforts, Mark Boal's screenplay for this one is very specific, focusing on several weeks with an American bomb squad charged with defusing deadly explosives in and around Baghdad. There are really only three main characters: Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). One of the best things about the movie is how James, Sanborn and Eldridge all start as archetypes -- respectively, the hot dog, the black guy, and the coward -- only to evolve into fleshed-out human beings. At first it looks like The Hurt Locker is going to reinforce the notion that recklessness helps a soldier survive while caution gets you killed, until the movie gradually lets the air out of James's bravado, showing him capable of errors of judgment that put himself and his team at risk.

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman's Oscar-nominated animated Israeli documentary about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon (now there're some words I'd never imagined strung together), is as elusive as Bigelow's movie is precise. Folman's real subject is memory: unable to recall his role as a teenage soldier in the invasion, the director interviews former comrades about what actually happened. What ends up happening are penetrating insights into the unreliability of memory, with starkly beautiful animated sequences creating a perpetually shifting dreamscape. Folman fulfills his quest, yet the digressions into his subjects' own mental states (one recounts a harrowing escape down river from enemy forces; another confesses to killing dogs while on patrol, a kind of punishment for being unable to kill another human being) are the most fascinating passages in the film.

The Hurt Locker has been heralded as Bigelow's comeback, though it's debatable if she ever arrived in the first place. Her most prolific period, the 1990s, was noteworthy for pictures like Point Break, mindbogglingly idiotic movies somewhat salvaged by two or three kinetic action sequences. Returning after a hiatus of several years, Bigelow has honed her craft tremendously in The Hurt Locker, showing resourceful ingenuity in staging variations of the same scene of boy-meets-bomb. An expertly drawn-out set-piece in the Iraqi desert is a small masterpiece of suspense; whereas Waltz with Bashir's high-point (which serves as the title for the film) comes when an Israeli soldier fires a machine gun while swirling around a Beirut street-corner, emptying rounds into a poster of the then Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel.
There are other shared qualities, namely a palpable eroticism that courses through each picture. A soldier in Folman's movie hallucinates an escape at sea while clinging to a naked woman; a pair of grunts in Bigelow's intimately spar in a scene of drunken fisticuffs. (It's a pet theme of hers, best exemplified in Point Break until now, and without the distraction of Keanu Reeves struggling to remember his lines.) So why, you may ask, do I sound vaguely unsatisfied? Perhaps because both films play to their flaws as much as their strengths. The docudrama style of The Hurt Locker underscores what seem like implausibilities, such as: Why would an insurgent wait to detonate a bomb until a soldier is running away from it, rather than toward? Is a bomb squad really as autonomous to do what they please as the trio here? In the case of Waltz with Bashir, the main narrative becomes ultimately irrelevant and anticlimactic. I see why Folman switches from animation to actual footage at the film's climax, but that doesn't make the moment any less bludgeoning or ineptly transitioned. Both films are worth seeing: The Hurt Locker for its bravura filmmaking and performances (especially Renner's sterling work in the lead), Waltz with Bashir for its provocative ideas. That neither movie is quite great shouldn't be a sticking point; yet somehow it is.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hope and Horcruxes (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)

(In the unlikely event of unfamiliarity with the subject matter, here there be spoilers....)

The trajectory of the six Harry Potter films to date (with two more, adapted from the final book, to go) has unwittingly mirrored the erratic essence of adolescence. Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, both directed by Chris Columbus, were cutesy-poo hackwork; the highly regarded Prisoner of Azkaban, by the auteur Alfonso Cuaron, showed a refreshing understanding of how to operate a camera and transformed its flailing child actors into markedly improved performers but also featured questionable touches like talking shrunken Jamaican heads and a cheesy closing freeze-frame and nudgy Y Tu Mama Tambien-ish puns about Harry's "wand"; Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire was a ham-fisted exercise in grim brutality; but the relatively sleek and nimble Order of the Phoenix, directed by David Yates, turned the longest of the books into the shortest of the movies, and despite its flaws was the first of the series to successfully fuse J.K. Rowling's vision with a director's personal sensibility.

Yates is back for the newest installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and this time he comes pretty damn close to greatness. The brief opening teaser, a shot of a bloodied Harry standing alongside Dumbledore before an ensemble of photographers with cracking flashbulbs, brilliantly stands outside of the story while simultaneously encapsulating it. Harry's unwanted celebrity, the price he has paid for it, and his need for a mentor's guidance to accept his destiny and find a life in spite of dire odds are the primary touchstones of Rowling's saga; and The Half-Blood Prince offers a more reflective, less anger-prone hero than last time around. Even with the death of his godfather Sirius Black, he's less isolated than before, back under Dumbledore's direct tutelage and in the company of friends Ron and Hermione. By now Daniel Radcliffe, Emily Watson and (less impressively) Rupert Grint have the intuitive understanding of each other and their roles to pull off their interactions with ease. One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes when Harry half-jokingly, half-seriously boasts that he's "the Chosen One," and Hermione playfully whacks him over the head with a book. It's a casually tossed off piece of slapstick (and Radcliffe's giddy grin upon getting smacked is contagious), yet the subtext contains deep truths: Harry has finally accepted who he is, but is fortunate enough to have friends to help manage his ego and bring him back down to earth.

Each post-Columbus Potter movie has deepened a couple of characters beyond what they were to us before. This time, it's one-note kiddie villain Draco Malfoy on whom Yates wields the best results (and the actor portraying him, Tom Felton, suddenly seems more than his generation's William Zabka). Yates frames him as sort of a blonde Anton Chigurh, with minimal dialogue, lingering alone in the shadows, only not bereft of conscience. Malfoy does some terrible things in Half-Blood Prince, and the question of his ability to carry out the worst of his objectives plays out superbly.   

Also making a more vivid impression is Bonnie Wright as the self-possessed Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister and Harry's new love interest. The pair share a gorgeous scene in a room filled with dust-collecting magical antiques -- lovingly interpreted by Stephanie Zacharek that "Romantic love, as an idea, may technically be very old, but it's the young who keep it new by continually breathing life into it." On the more ancient side of things, Michael Gambon, in his fourth go-round as Dumbledore, replacing the late Richard Harris, has always conveyed the character's eccentricities while lacking a certain stature. (Harris achieved the opposite effect.) I'm not sure Gambon carries more weight here, yet there's a tighter focus to his performance, a connection with Radcliffe's Harry that had hitherto been deficient. I've also never much cared for Jim Broadbent, the latest Mike Leigh alum to appear in the series; but he capably fills the crucial guest-starring role of Horace Slughorn, professor of Potions and former mentor of Tom Riddle/Voldemort, with a lack of fuss. (Cuaron might not have been able to resist adding sexual subtext to Slughorn's "collecting" of student proteges, but Yates blessedly abstains.)

Few adaptations are perfect, and Half-Blood Prince has a handful of passages that dawdle too long or falter in tone: one pivotal scene, where Harry nearly kills another character, is rather cavalierly dismissed. Yet Steve Kloves's screenplay follows the horcrux-oriented plot (horcruxes being items in which Voldemort hid shards of his soul and are the key to destroying him) while seeming less dot-connective, more concentrated on character and theme than his previous efforts. And through it all David Yates directs with authority and grace. Sort of a more disciplined John Boorman, Yates lacks the unabashed looniness of Boorman (or George Miller or Terry Gilliam) to truly break the mold in a way that would likely estrange legions of fans; his practicality is probably why he was invited to return for not only this film but also the the final two movies to be adapted from Rowling's epic conclusion, The Deathly Hallows. Yet Yates is an often wizardly director, with a knack for ingenious verbal echoes and recurring visual motifs: an early image of a pair of villains clenched together is mirrored later with a pair of protagonists tenderly holding hands. Half-Blood Prince is as thought-out visually as was Order of the Phoenix, only with more connective emotional tissue holding it together. At the climax, as darkness threatens to fall, comes a simple display of hope and defiance (with Nicholas Hooper's remarkably attuned score reaching new heights), an image so beautiful it choked me up. So many filmmakers come across with compromised visions -- have split their souls into multiples -- that to create a blockbuster as cohesively heartfelt as this one takes more than Liquid Luck. It takes true vision, and the company of gifted peers who are less followers than believers.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

In Responsibilities Begin Dreams (Revolutionary Road)

"Eyes Wide Shut has a lot to say about the psychological accommodations of marriage.... It depends on a sense of the shared mental reality of a couple that almost supersedes any sense of their shared physical reality...."
--Jonathan Rosenbaum, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," 1999

Revolutionary Road, the eagerly anticipated and then abruptly dismissed screen adaptation of Richard Yates's novel (which I've never read), wants to say a lot about this subject too, arguably more than any picture since Eyes Wide Shut -- though, like the Kubrick film, I think it achieves the opposite of what Rosenbaum's penetrating analysis observes. Eyes Wide Shut featured a famous acting couple in the lead roles; Revolutionary Road was directed by Sam Mendes and stars his wife, Kate Winslet, in a reunion with her Titanic co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio. Kubrick quite explicitly created a "dream film" meant to probe the psychological space that exists between a married couple. Mendes is out to docudramatize a failing union between a profoundly unhappy young married couple in 1950s American suburbia. Kubrick started from the inside and worked his way outward, whereas Mendes starts with the surface and tries to funnel his way in. Both, ironically, arrive at the same place.

Revolutionary Road follows a believable if rather predictable trajectory, enhanced by swift editing and emotional shorthand that gives the movie a sustainable momentum. We begin with the first erotically-charged meeting of the Wheelers, Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet), at a party, then cut immediately to a scabrous argument sometime after they are married. Frank, we learn, has transformed from a youthful dreamer to an ennui-filled husband and father who despises himself and his office job. April is an equally discontented housewife and failed actress who one day suggests to Frank that they turn their lives around by moving to Paris, an idea that Frank comes to eagerly embrace until an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy prompts them to abandon their plan. Mendes and his leads do a very good job at suggesting that it wouldn't take much of an excuse to coward out; and in a pair of the film's best scenes, a key supporting character, the mentally troubled yet perceptive nephew of friends, named John (Michael Shannon), provides first a chorus of approval and then later outrage toward their aborting the plan rather than the baby.

 That Revolutionary Road is unsuccessful in its effort to burrow into the shared reality of marriage is no fault of Winslet's, who gives one of her characteristic yet always astoundingly calibrated creations of a character, far superior than her Oscar-winning turn in The Reader (also a far inferior film compared to this one). Her exterior and interior selves work in perfect harmony, and she shifts gears with lightning speed, by turns emasculating Frank and supporting him. DiCaprio is more problematic. I've mentioned, in other films, that there is still something playacting about him, something that's out of depth. He's at his best portraying con-artists (Frank Abagnale in Catch Me if You Can) and other characters that move quickly and change identities. In a sedentary part like Frank Wheeler, he tries hard and yells a lot yet lacks the interior life that draws you inside.

But if DiCaprio fails to connect with his character he connects like gangbusters with Winslet, to the point where Revolutionary Road succeeds as a testament to star power. DiCaprio and Winslet had great chemistry falling in love in Titanic and they have great chemistry even while falling apart in this film. It's their physical reality that shapes the most interesting elements in the picture, and is so palpable that when crackpot John turns on them with a vengeance ("You know what I'm thankful for?" he sneers, pointing to April's belly. "I'm thankful I'm not that kid"), it feels like a violation of something that had, until that moment, still the illusion of something solid. (I thought Michael Shannon was eye-rollingly over the top as the male lead in William Friedkin's Bug, but he's a scene-stealer extraordinaire here, and gets bonus points for telling Kathy Bates to shut up.)

In terms of pure surfaces, Revolutionary Road also succeeds in the sheer perversity of attempting to negate everyone's fond memories of Titanic. Not since Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast traded in on the good will that fans of Harrison Ford had for Witness has there been such a ballsy bait-and-switch of audience expectations. (I suspect most had not read either book.) When April sleeps with a enamored neighbor (a nicely modulated David Harbour), her dalliance is staged as a deliberate echo of the sex scene in Titanic  -- in a car with a hand leaving a palm print on a fogged window. It's the kind of nasty undercut that has earned Mendes a reputation for being a cold fish. As evinced by American Beauty, which stopped aging well almost immediately following its Oscar win, this reputation is largely deserved; yet it would be unfair to claim (as many have) that he's merely trotting out an old bag of tricks this time around, or is unsympathetic to his protagonists. There's no satirical edge in his depiction of the Wheelers, and Winslet has never looked more luminous onscreen.

Like The Mosquito Coast, Revolutionary Road strikes me a great failed movie, one that doesn't quite reach its high ambitions but is still more interesting than most movies out there. (I'm grateful to Ed Copeland, whose enthusiasm for the film motivated me to give it a chance.) It probably doesn't help that a typical episode of Mad Men covers much of the same ground and digs deeper beneath it. (Vincent Kartheiser, the unsung young actor who plays Pete Campbell on the series, shows more depth and range than DiCaprio with a similar character.) In its exploration of the struggle to maintain identity within marital union, of the self within society, Mad Men hints at deeper tragedies than the climax of Revolutionary Road, for all its pathos, can muster. Maybe this is because its creators are aware, unlike Mendes or even Kubrick (whose star-couple separated not long after Eyes Wide Shut's release), that the hermetically-sealed "shared reality" between two people, however powerfully felt, is ultimately a lie. When it comes to reality, they're still sharing it with the rest of us.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


There have been few TV shows this year that I'd been looking forward to seeing more than Party Down (which I finally did via Netflix). It's the brainchild of Rob Thomas and his minions, who previously created the superb teen mystery series Veronica Mars. It's a comedy with a promising premise -- an L.A.-based group of D-list actors and writers forced to eke out a living in the catering business. It features a cast of terrific cut-ups, an astounding number of whom appeared on Veronica. It premiered this past spring on Starz, a cable network allotting more creative freedom than the mainstream networks. It got great reviews from Alan Sepinwall and strong support from a small yet enthusiastic fan base. Why then do I find it so....repulsive?

Party Down is the kind of show that pops up every now and then (Buffalo Bill a classic example) that illustrates a good lesson: don't make all your characters assholes. Or, if they're not going to be likable, then at the very least they should be interesting. Even the bar-setter for discomfort humor, the original British The Office, had, behind David Brent's squirm-inducing shenanigans, a pair of sympathetic characters in Tim and Dawn; and the American version has the best sitcom ensemble currently on the tube, with an even more fully realized love story at its heart (reimagined as Jim and Pam). Party Down attempts to follow the Office template by focusing almost entirely on what happens on the job, leaving personal lives to what we overhear or to our imaginations; and it sets up a similar work-romance between caterers Henry (Adam Scott) and Casey (Lizzy Kaplan). The difference, though, is that we give a damn about the people on The Office, whereas Party Down, after its first season, hasn't given us a reason to care.

The casting of the leads was a fatal mistake. Henry, the frustrated actor whose fifteen minutes of fame (from a beer commercial where he uttered the catchphrase, "Are we having fun yet?") may be already up, was initially to be played by Paul Rudd. It's easy to see how Rudd's charm (or even John Krasinki's) would have fit the part like a glove, but movie stardom beckoned. (Rudd has remained one of the show's executive producers.) Adam Scott, who specializes in what Sepinwall would call "douchebaggery" (he guest-starred as a predatory teacher on an episode of Veronica Mars), has a handsome, low-key quality that doesn't completely translate into a human being. He makes Henry a passive narcissist, unable to connect with anyone else onscreen (or viewers offscreen). Lizzy Kaplan's more abrasive style, well-utilized in supporting roles in films like Mean Girls and Cloverfield, is borderline unbearable here. It's a bold stroke to make your leads unlikable -- and to have them hit the sack by the third episode -- but it can turn a twenty-eight minute episode into a long slog.

The supporting players don't fare much better. Jane Lynch, who has stolen many a scene in the films of Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow, is appallingly off-key as one of the older, more experienced caterers with an irredeemable resume of Porky's-type retreads. (Lynch, who had to leave the cast early due to a commitment on Glee, was replaced by Jennifer Coolidge, who is equally unimpressive.) Ditto Martin Starr, so funny and touching on Freaks and Geeks and in Adventureland, yet tone-deaf grating as the screenwriter-wannabe who, when he isn't catering, runs "a prestigious blog." Best by a mile is Ken Marino, who popped up semi-regularly as sleazy detective Vinnie Van Lowe on Veronica Mars but successfully creates a totally different character in the needy and insecure Ron Donald, team leader of the "Party Down" catering service who dreams of one day running a Soup-R-Crackers (say it fast) restaurant. Marino manages to walk Steve Carell's tightrope act of squirmy pathos, desperately wanting to earn his underlings' friendship and respect and receiving neither.

Of course any actor is ultimately only as good as his or her script, and the ten episodes of Party Down show Thomas and his co-creators in an especially mean-spirited mood. What would possess the people behind the sensitively-rendered sexual-assault arc on Veronica Mars to write a joke about a porno star being raped by her uncle? Do they think that drug use (Ecstasy, mushrooms, etc.) is inherently funny, devoid of any context? Even the best episode to date, "Celebrating Ricky Sargulesh," where the crew caters a Russian mafia gathering honoring the acquittal on a murder rap of one of their family (an uproariously menacing Steven Weber), trafficked in denigrating stereotypes without unearthing the humor that comes from surprising us with something new. Kristen Bell (Veronica herself) achieved this in the season finale, guesting as Uda, uber-competent head of the rival "Valhalla" catering service. Clad in Teutonic black, a Bluetooth perched over one ear, Bell spat vicious barbs like sunflower seeds, only to let down her guard and amusingly ask Henry out on a date. ("I'm normally not this abrasive....I like movies....I have a kid....But he's quiet.") Renewed for a second season, Party Down still has potential; dialed just to the left or right, its farcical situations might actually be funny. But the show needs to follow Bell's lead in realizing that for comedy to work, it needs to be shaken fresh to keep from curdling. "Are we having fun yet?" Why, no, not really. 

Nina & Sita

(Note: Since this post keeps getting more comments, and because the subject could use a little more air-time, I've moved this back to the front page. I hope you see it and add to the discussion! -C.)

How in the name of Rama do I describe Sita Sings the Blues? For starters, it's a dizzyingly imaginative retelling of the classic Hindu text The Ramayana. (Pause while I pretend to have always known what that is.) It's a semi-autobiographical tale of heartbreak from writer-director Nina Paley. It's a testament to the enduring value of cultural ephemera ranging from the Jazz Age to traditional (pre-Pixar) animation. It's a provocatively subversive take on patriarchal society, women's roles, and all that is sacrosanct. It's a fascinating case study in copyright law and the possibilities for online reincarnation.

Perhaps the best method of description is the old-reliable "cross-between," as in: Sita Sings the Blues is a cross between Monty Python's Life of Brian and Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven. The film's Pythonesque vibe is my own observation (though I'm sure I'm hardly the first to have noticed it), and is most explicit in the sections narrated by three shadow puppets (voiced by Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya), who tell The Ramayana -- a tragic love story about Sita, the beautiful wife of Prince Rama, who is kidnapped by an evil demon king, rescued and then ultimately rejected by her husband, who suspects she is now "impure" as a result of her abduction (isn't that always the way?) -- not in the somber tone of John Huston's adaptation of The Bible or George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told but informally and irreverently, interrupting each other and disagreeing on the finer details. But it was N.P. Thompson, a film critic whose tedious rantings I normally have no use for, who perceptively noted the similarities in Paley's use of Annette Hanshaw's moody 1920s jazz solos to Potter's (and Herbert Ross's, in the 1981 movie version starring Steve Martin) employment of Depression Era songs in Pennies from Heaven. Periodically the movie stops for musical interludes synching Hanshaw's vocals to the animation, and it's in these sequences that Sita Sings the Blues becomes wildly original and emotionally resonant, much more so than had it gone the usual route of splashy Bollywood numbers.

Nina Paley clearly is out to challenge myths like The Ramayana that reinforce gender stereotypes and self-justify male dominance along with female servitude, and at times the movie is almost as bracing to watch as would be a musical revival of The Satanic Verses. (Hindu extremists have been angered by the film.) Yet what saves Sita from being unduly flip is the connective tissue Paley finds by paralleling the story of Sita and Rama with that of a contemporary married couple -- Nina and David -- whose relationship disintegrates when David leaves Nina in New York and embarks on an extended trip to India. (Cruelly, he breaks up with her by email.) Paley is hardly the first filmmaker to attempt to modernize a sacred text (and piss off people while doing it); but she achieves the thematic parallels between Nina's story and Sita's through a pop sensibility -- rather than avant-gardism -- that makes the ancient relevant.

As if courting religious controversy weren't enough, Sita Sings the Blues also became embroiled in a complex copyright skirmish involving the use of Hanshaw's songs, of which the long and short of it left the film without a theatrical distribution. Sita might have vanished entirely if not for critical championing by not only Thompson but Roger Ebert among others. (Anyone who still finds Ebert irrelevant these days needs to think again.) Fortunately, for us if not her pocketbook, Paley has made the film in its entirety available online. It's a joy to behold, and pure in any form.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Missing Links

In the spirit of summer housecleaning I have removed to the left a couple of no-longer-functioning links. "Newcritics," begun by Tom Watson, Lance Mannion and a all-star cast of extras, closed up shop a few weeks ago. It was an interesting experiment that attracted plenty of talented people, but by and large I enjoy their political writing a lot more than their cultural criticism. (Where, frankly, as in the case of Mad Men, they don't know what they're talking about.) Additionally, with deep regret, I removed Larry Ardylette's "Welcome to L.A." and am too exasperated to add any further incarnations. For those not in the know, Larry is a fine and engaging writer with a perverse habit of deleting his blogs without warning, starting up a new one, then abruptly nuking that one too. (Before "Welcome to L.A." he was "The Shamus," and he should have stopped there.) I suspect this may be Larry's profound postmodern social experiment that means to explicate for us the slippery tenuousness that is life, but in practice it's just fucking annoying. No mas. In their place, I added Hokahey's (friend of Jason B.'s) fine "Little Worlds." 

Assuming the video comes back up (it's vanished for some reason), Matt Zoller Seitz's latest vid-essay on Do the Right Thing is worth a looksee. I remember vividly the controversy surrounding the film when it came out, which prompted thunderous acclaim (see Roger Ebert's original review) and hysterical denouncements more or less equally across the board. (I saw it a year later at my university, sitting in the second row of a packed house with a few friends, one of whom had his view hilariously obstructed by an African-American gentleman seated directly in front of him wearing a giant cowboy hat.) My favorite howler remains Steve Vineberg's negative review in No Surprises, Please, his anthology on 80s cinema (really a blow-by-blow parroting of Pauline Kael's criticism from the same decade), where the author claims that Do the Right Thing had "coded" for the black community a secret message of violence and intolerance. (And if anyone can crack that code, it's a white upper-middle-class theater professor from Holy Cross.) I'd say Ebert nailed it better then, and MSZ nails it now. It's a movie that's looking more timeless and essential with each passing year.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Gunned Down

(Warning: Spoilers follow.)

Michael Mann's pickup techniques don't work as well for me as they do for the stars of his movies. Years ago, after seeing Heat, I acted all gruff and paranoid with a friendly woman trying to strike up a conversation about a book I was reading, and she bolted. Another time, I recalled Daniel Day-Lewis's heartfelt words in The Last of the Mohicans and promised my girlfriend, "No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!" but she ditched me in an Office Max. And there I was the other night at a jazz establishment, when I spied a luminous half-French half-Native-American coat-check gal across the room. I followed Johnny Depp's example in Public Enemies to no avail: when I tried ordering her around and demanded she come with me, she laughed derisively; when I barged in on her at work and beat up a guy who had the gall to ask for his coat, she called the cops; and when I told her that I like "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you," I should have stopped there before accidentally segueing into Kevin Costner's big speech in Bull Durham. It's easy to get the two confused.

But then Mann's movies are never about reality (except for The Insider, ironically his best film.) Like Tarantino, he's a cinema junkie fascinated by the stimuli created by artifice (especially, but not exclusively, screen violence); unlike QT, however, he's not too interested in exploring (or exploding) the border between the real world and that artifice. A Mann film plays by its own rules and is set entirely within its own universe. Viewers who can give themselves over to it find his movies overwhelmingly hypnotic and sensual. Those who don't -- like me, at least, for his latest -- might find Public Enemies a snooze.

I confess to struggling to stay awake for roughly the first two-thirds of this 140-minute movie, despite subject matter that has strong pulp appeal. Our first glimpse of John Dillinger (Depp) is of the notorious gangster breaking in to a prison in order to break his gang out. Our introduction to the unfortunately named Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) features the intrepid Fed shooting Pretty Boy Floyd in the woods. This is a potentially good set-up for the kind of parallel-track cops-and-robbers saga that Mann pulled off in Heat, only imagine Al Pacino's role reduced and Robert De Niro's enlarged and you have an idea of which character is emphasized at the expense of the other here. Even less distinctive are Dillinger's gang of thugs and Purvis's team of agents. In Heat, Mann employed an effective shorthand to add color to De Niro and Pacino's respective crews. In Public Enemies, the only two semi stand-outs are Stephen Graham's psychotic Baby Face Nelson and Stephen Lang's taciturn Agent Winstead. Lang, who has one of those great faces Mann loves to linger on, makes an impression despite possibly less than fifty words of dialogue. Nearly all the other players on both sides of the law (except for an unrecognizable Billy Crudup as a blandish J. Edgar Hoover and Bill Camp as a Frank Nitti whose semi-respectability would seem even more a departure from the ludicrous cartoon version in De Palma's The Untouchables without the unfortunate Hitler mustache) aren't individualized and come across as interchangeable with each other in their suits and fedoras and tommy-guns as the identically-attired soldiers in the first two or three episodes of Band of Brothers.

If nothing else, it's a relief to see Depp as Dillinger, and not just because he wears a fedora well. While not a great performance, it's still light-years from the fey bullshit the actor shovels as Jack Sparrow (enough, please) or in encores as Tim Burton's tortured-martyred-misunderstood-artist stand-in. (We know, Tim: you have scissors for hands. Get over it.) The last time Depp portrayed a gangster -- actually an undercover cop pretending to be one -- was in the terrific Donnie Brasco (which also incidentally featured Pacino's last truly committed performance). Unfortunately here, Depp doesn't get the chance to wade in waters nearly as deep. Even when wooing his favorite coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, faring better than Gong Li in Miami Vice but worse than Madeleine Stowe in Last of the Mohicans or Amy Brenneman in Heat), he's no more than glittering surface; and Purvis is even less, though no fault of the acting playing him. At the risk of dimestore psychology, I interpreted Bale's meltdown on the Terminator: Salvation set as a cry for help from a Method actor committing himself to yet another role unworthy of his talents. (My first reaction was, You already have Batman to guarantee your marketability; why waste your time with this piece of crap?) Possibly Bale saw Public Enemies as a chance to work with a major filmmaker without the pressure of a true leading role weighing on his shoulders. He seems content to surrender the spotlight this time around (not only to Depp but also Lang, who figures more prominently at the climax); what Bale needs now is a role that loosens him up into enjoying acting again (and I'm not sure working with the thuggish David O. Russell on the director's next project, the aptly-named The Fighter, is the way to go). 

Public Enemies comes to life in the final act, beginning with a crisply staged nighttime ambush and culminating in the gunning down of Dillinger outside a movie theater playing a Clark Gable mob picture. It's in the latter sequence that Mann finally focuses on what should have been his subject all along -- how Dillinger saw himself as more of a movie-star than a criminal. (There's a hint of this in an amusing earlier scene, also set in a movie theater, when a warning to be on the lookout for Dillinger airs before the start of a movie, and then audience looks left and right like attendees at a tennis match.) Yet because Mann never distinguishes between the real world and the world of cinema, there are no layers of meaning, no tension, no sense of urgency that develops.

The most recent of Michael Mann's movies that I enjoyed was the witty and entertaining Collateral, featuring an undervalued performance from Tom Cruise -- who, as a graying hitman, contorted his gleaming smile into shark's teeth -- that was a far more incisive deconstruction of celebrity stardom. (It's no accident that Mann had Cruise's villain killed on a subway train, a mode of transport that played a key role in the film that made him famous, Risky Business.) Miami Vice, though, was a visually arresting yet narratively tedious adaptation of the 80s television series; and I found Public Enemies a hollow echo of Heat, which was in itself a remake of Mann's original made-for-TV movie L.A. Takedown. Hitchcock and other auteurs have proven that the results can be fascinating when an obsessive filmmaker repeats himself; but with Public Enemies Mann is repeating himself in a genre that's already been done to death. He isn't offering a fresh spin on his subject, beyond using fancy digital cameras with mixed results (great for evening shots; less striking in the harsh light of day). Public Enemies is just more of the same macho posturing in a man's world, with women who, unlike the cunning and resourceful female protagonists in Tarantino's Death Proof and Jackie Brown, are confined to the sidelines rather than used by the director to challenge his own (and the audience's) assumptions, to upset the status quo. I admire Mann, as I do almost any filmmaker, for having grand obsessions; I just wish I shared them.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Valentine's in July

In the immortal words of Dr. Frasier Crane, I would rather a tarantula lay eggs in my ear than be within a hundred yards of a theater showing Nia Vardalos's I Hate Valentine's Day. (And exactly why is this being released mid-summer? Counter-programming? Or, with that regrettable word "Hate" in the title, just, um, programming?) Stephanie Zacharek's amusing pan is the closest I am willing to get, as it contains this laugh-out-loud turn of phrase: "Vardalos works so hard at being flirty, fun and charming, that at times you almost feel cajoled into buying her shtick: She's like a department-store cosmetics saleswoman who insists on spritzing you with perfume even as you try desperately to scurry past her." John Corbett always acts like a good sport, and evidently he's a far better one than I.

Besides, with the concurrent release of Public Enemies, an esteemed filmmaker's latest mash note to What It Means To Be A Man, there's no shortage on romance at your local cineplex. A testosterone-fueled report coming soon.