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Column Fri Jul 03 2009
Although the trailers for Michael Mann's latest slice of magnificence emphasize the more action-oriented scenes from his film about the latter days of bank robber and cultural icon John Dillinger, in truth the strength of Public Enemies is not entirely in those moments. There are certainly a handful of bank robberies and moments where law enforcement corner Dillinger and his gang that feature some ferocious gunplay, but it's what happens between the scenes of bullets flying that impressed me the most and helps this become one of the greatest films about the birth of modern day crime and crime-fighting that I've ever seen.
Public Enemies also serves as a much-needed reminder that Johnny Depp gained his reputation as one of the greatest actors living today by actually acting and not simply creating real-life cartoon characters with pale skin, funny makeup and wigs. With Mann's guidance, Depp breathes life and soul into a man who has served a lengthy prison sentence and learned much while behind bars about military-style bank heists and what's important to him. Depp doesn't play Dillinger as overly tough or as some ridiculously suave ladies man. His flaws and qualities aren't nearly as easy to spot immediately, but Depp does a fantastic job of parceling out personality details about John Dillinger in a way that we grow eager to discover more as the film goes on.
Before seeing Public Enemies, I felt certain that the love story aspect of Dillinger's story would interfere with the story I really cared about. Quite to the contrary, Dillinger's whirlwind relationship with Billie Frechette (La Vie en Rose Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) was the fuel that propelled his engine. And while Dillinger didn't have a great love for planning too far into his future, it's clear that part of Billie's impact on his life was getting him to consider getting out of the bank-robbing business for good after one big score with the help of cohort Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi). Cotillard's beauty comes on like a second sun — she's such a natural vision, but beyond the ever-present smile, she gives us a Billie that loves so deeply that she pays an awful price for remaining faithful and loyal to her Johnny. In the end Cotillard might be the finest thing about this film.
But all this talk of love doesn't sound like much of an action movie, does it? Mann's fluid HD cameras glide through the heists and over the shoulders of the robbers so effortlessly that you feel like one of the gang. Sometimes Mann puts the cameras so close to people's faces, you can almost smell the sweat when a character senses that something is about to go wrong or at least not entirely right. Watching the Dillinger gang pull off a crime is like watching a great movie about a Special Forces unit begin a covert mission — they move in for the quick strike, every man with his assignment, and move out before the cops can arrive and assess the situation. There's a bit of gunfire, but only enough to cause the right amount of chaos to escape behind. If a skirmish actually does break out with the law, Mann changes gears and shoots the scene like a war movie, hiding behind any protective cover while bullets explode around the actors and the camera. The camera peeks out from behind walls and cars to find out who's shooting, then retreats as soon as fire is returned. The gunplay is a far cry from the sleek, almost-choreographed battles in Mann's Heat. Don't believe for a second this is a Depression-era version of that awesome movie. Public Enemies is a product of the times it is portraying, and Mann's vision of Chicago and the surrounding areas that Dillinger called home are not particularly glamorous (or even recognizable much of the time), but they do feel damned accurate.
On the other side of the law is J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, complete with a radio- and Movietone News-ready voice) and his newly formed FBI, which was allowed to do something no law-enforcement organization was able to do — chase criminals who crossed state lines, as well as compile and analyze evidence in ways that had never been done before. It was Hoover that both created the moniker of "Public Enemy Number One" and assigned Dillinger the title. I was truly intrigued by the birth of procedural investigative methods, and the man who used these new techniques most effectively was Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who made his career by capturing or killing the most notorious bandits in the land. As the film opens, we see Purvis personally kill Pretty Boy Floyd (an almost unrecognizable cameo by Channing Tatum). In many ways, the shift Purvis makes is as interesting as the character study treatment given to Dillinger. In order to capture Dillinger, Purvis had to call in a much rougher and more experienced set of agents from Texas (some Hoover was not in favor of) and employ methods of harassment and torture to gather evidence. It's clear that Purvis was a man who knew right from wrong, and Bale does an admirable job showing this slow chipping away at his character's conscience and beliefs. In many ways, he reminded me of Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness in The Untouchables who "became what he beheld" as he learned how to fight crime "the Chicago way."
One of Public Enemies' greatest assets is the presence of Stephen Lang, who plays one of Purvis' lead investigators, Charles Winstead, a cool-as-ice enforcer who reminds Purvis not only what the job at hand is but how best and most effectively to get it done. Lang has been one of the great character actors for decades, a man who dabbled in lead roles in his career in the stage, TV and movies, but for whatever reason is called upon to punctuate a production rather than lead it. He previously worked with Mann in Manhunter (he was the tabloid reporter set on fire by the Tooth Fairy), and has done devastating work in such films as Last Exit to Brooklyn, Tombstone, Mann's TV show "Crime Story," and he'll be featured in James Cameron's Avatar in December. Lang has a scene at the end of the film with Cotillard that will take your breath away with its simplicity and power. And the scene works because of Lang's steely delivery, tipped with just a hint of compassion. I hope to see him a great deal more as a result of this staggering performance.
Mann's script (credited to him, along with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, from the book by Bryan Burrough) finds a variety of ways to bring tension and suspense to a film whose ending we already know. The sequence surrounding the events at the Biograph Theatre is shot as only a master could shoot it, but Mann adds a little something to Dillinger's journey. While it is certainly exciting to watch the G-Men plot the capture of the nation's top criminal, it's also rather touching to see Dillinger wander through his final hours of life having no clue what lies ahead after a showing of Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama, a film based partly on his persona. When gangster Clark Gable tells William Powell that he'd rather be sentenced to death than rot in jail for life, we cut to a shot of Dillinger with a hint of a smile on his face. When he stares at the vision of loveliness that is Myra Loy, we find out just a little bit more about why he found Billie so appealing. That is the greatest thing about Public Enemies: it's ability to teach us about Dillinger and Purvis and Billie and many other characters without feeling the need to spell out every personality trait or emotion. We watch their behaviors and their reactions, and we are allowed to figure these people out on our own.
And then there are the bank robberies and jailbreaks, staged so flawlessly, and punctuated with explosive gunplay and unflinching violence. Mann controls the action and drama in Public Enemies like a master conductor in front of the largest, loudest orchestra ever assembled. With films like Thief, The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider, Collateral and to a lesser degree Miami Vice, you get a sense that Mann is one of the few directors who cares as much about breathing life into his characters — no matter how much screen time they get — and making even the mundane seem important, as he does about the film's money shots. It makes me a little sad that whatever this mature and masterful work makes at the box office, it probably won't be a fraction of what the new Transformers movie has had so far (I hope I'm wrong), but this is the world we live in, and I get that. I just hope that when the dust settles, people are still watching and contemplating films like Public Enemies years from now. Anything is possible. A guy can dream, can't he?
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
I have very little love for the first two Ice Age films. They seemed like dumbed-down, largely storyless endeavors aimed at making a lot of money because little kids are going to force their parents to take them to look at the pretty pictures. If you put a gun to my head and told me that I either had to tell you the plots of the first two Ice Age movies or my brains would be on the wall, you might as well call the cleaning crew right now because I haven't got a single memory of what happens in the first two installments. I know I like some of the actors who provide voices, including Denis Leary, John Leguizamo and Seann William Scott, but beyond that I've found these films dull, forgettable, and hardly worth your money. All of that said, the third Ice Age offering (this one subtitled Dawn of the Dinosaurs and presented in spectacular 3-D) has its moments and is the best of the three so far by a longshot, probably because of the change of location. Rather than simply existing on an ice-covered world (or a world of melting ice, as in the second film), our heroes spend about five minutes on familiar ground before journeying down a hole in the ice that leads to a land where dinosaurs still exist, thrive, and have apparently mutated into pretty cool, more dangerous dinosaurs (that thankfully don't speak). Even the flowers and plants in this strange land are dangerous.
And with this new adventure, we get a new group of voice actors for the ice world and the dino world (just to clarify, the dinosaurs don't talk, but there are a few wacky mammals that live among the dinos that do), including Jane Lynch, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and the splendid Simon Pegg as Buck, a eyepatch-wearing, dinosaur-hunting weasel who has been driven certifiably insane from existing in a place where he could be eaten at any moment. In a funny way, some of the main characters (Ray Romano and Queen Latifah as wooly mammoths and Leary as Diego the saber-toothed tiger) are made secondary by the presence of so many more interesting things than them. Latifah's Ellie is pregnant and about ready to drop. Diego feels squeezed out by the forthcoming baby mammoth, so he decides to strike out on his own. When Sid (Leguizamo) goes missing, the group reunites to find him down in the lost world beneath the ice.
Maybe I liked the film because the threat of danger seemed slightly more palpable than the other films, or maybe I just liked having Hader, Wiig and Pegg around to make this stale franchise seem a little fresher. I also like that the filmmakers didn't try to make the dinosaurs look entirely believable; they have the same exaggerated quality as the main characters. And the 3-D really does add to depth and much-needed dimension to the proceedings. Beyond that, there's not much so say. It certainly doesn't come close to approaching the creative genius of Up, but it appears that co-directors Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier are at least trying to do something resembling original, and I'll acknowledge the effort.
As with the previous films, Leguizamo stands out among the regulars; there's something about his possibly retarded Sid that just makes me laugh. The scene where he tries to milk a male water buffalo: priceless. I'm in no way trying to imply that Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is a perfect film — far from it. I'm just saying that if you somehow accidentally find yourself sitting in a theater that is playing it, you might actually get a few laughs out of the experience. And the kids at my screening certainly seemed to dig it about 50 times more than they did the last Eddie Murphy movie. What I'm really trying to say is go see Up again, but if you can't find a theater still playing it and you absolutely need to see a 3-D CG-animated film, you could probably choke this one down without dying.
The Girl from Monaco
One of the lighter offerings from the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival earlier this year is now being released on a limited basis around the country. Although The Girl from Monaco may come across as silly fluff, there's a slightly darker lining around the edges that eventually takes over the film about a highly successful French attorney (Fabrice Luchini) who is called upon travel to Monaco to defend a high-profile client (the legendary Stéphane Audran) in a murder case. The case seems difficult to win, but Luchini specializes in tough cases. Still, the nature of the case and the players involved necessitate that the attorney have a bodyguard (the fantastic Roschdy Zem from Days of Glory) with him at all times. The attorney marvels at the way the bodyguard can get women to sleep with him with very little effort of conversation. Sure, the bodyguard is more handsome and younger, but he tries to advise the middle-aged attorney as best he can.
When Luchini meets a stunning TV weathergirl (newcomer Louise Bourgoin) and she seems to take an interest in him, the bodyguard steps in since he too had a relationship with her two years ago. The lawyer is so smitten with this gorgeous woman that he neglects his duties on the case and slowly begins to lose his dignity along the way as well. There's no getting around the fact that any man in his right mind would be unable to resist Bourgoin's beauty or charms (she's about 90 percent leg), so Luchini in his delicate state of feeling underwhelming as a lover or a companion is an easy target. The bodyguard sees that the woman is simply using Luchini's fame to further her own career, and he does what he can to step between them.
The Girl from Monaco sounds like a bad episode of "Three's Company," I realize, but there's a little more going on than hijinks. The more we learn about the bodyguard's past, the more we realize just how serious he takes his job and how far he's willing to go to protect his client. The lawyer falls further and further into a pathetic hole, knowing full well this woman is bad news but still allowing her to lead him by the scruff of his neck wherever she wants. Bourgoin is a force of nature (like a tsunami for men), and it's remarkable how her smiling, sweet face turns particularly nasty when she addresses the bodyguard when Luchini isn't around. The one thing she can't stand in the world is someone who sees her for what she is, and the bodyguard represents a threat to her future happiness.
Writer-director Anne Fontaine (Dry Cleaning, Nathalie..., How I Killed My Father) puts forth a strong effort in showing us the gradual transition each character makes from light to dark as the film progresses. I'm not sure I particularly liked or bought the ending of the film, but there's a certain poetic justice to the whole conclusion that most people will probably get on board with. And while the film doesn't enlighten us much on unhealthy relationships or overly exuberant employees, that's not really its intent. These are three mildly interesting characters (four if you include Audran) put in somewhat crazed circumstances and each asked to react without time for thought. The results are chaotic, somewhat shocking and unpredictable. This is still a minor effort from a consistent director, but if you find yourself in the mood for something a little French, this ought to quench your thirst. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Herb & Dorothy
If you were making art or owned an art gallery or were collecting art in New York City any time in the last 30-plus years, then odds were that you knew who Herb and Dorothy Vogel; you may have even known them personally. The Vogels were not ritzy, high-class, stuck-up art dealers looking for the next hot artist to buy low and sell high. They were art lovers who spent a portion of every paycheck on art that caught their eye. They only bought what they could afford, which often meant they were buying works from new artists, a great number of whom went on to become celebrated pop, minimalist, expressionist, and/or conceptual artists. They were by no means rich — Herb worked for the Post Office, while Dorothy worked as a librarian — and they had rules about works they purchased: they would only buy what they could afford, they would never sell a piece (they believed their collection needed to stay together), and the piece had to fit in their modest one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment that somehow managed to hold literally thousands of pieces that would rotate from boxes to the walls and ceiling of the flat.
The Vogels' (both of whom are still very much alive) passion and eye for art is the true focus of this documentary from director Megumi Sasaki. Through interviews with many of the grateful artists (including Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Lynda Benglis and Lawrence Weiner), gallery owners and museum curators, we learn that Herb and Dorothy had essentially pieced together one of the finest collections of modern art in the world in their tiny apartment crawling with cats and made all the more crowded with fish tanks filled with turtles. The film more than fulfills your curiosity just who these people are and how they had such an eye for these pieces. In many cases Herb would purchase an artist's rough draft or discarded work sketch because it was all he could afford. The couple also formed lasting friendships with many of these artists that last until this day.
Herb & Dorothy's highly satisfying final act sees the Vogels donating their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. After turning down many lucrative offers from other museums to house their pieces, the Vogel's very strict criteria about where the collection should land is explored in fascinating detail. The story of the moving of the art could have been its own film, it's so amusing and laborious. After watching the film, I was desperate to meet this warm and caring couple who have almost never spent a day apart in nearly 50 years. They go from gallery opening to artist's studio to their jammed apartment (which they immediately began filling again with more art after the National Gallery relieved them of their collection) with a vigor that is enviable. I enjoyed every second I got to spend with these lovely people, and I loved watching how they educated themselves on art history and movements and turned into the toast of the art world. You don't have to know much about art to appreciate this terrific work; and if you feel that movies today are void of interesting characters, look no further. The plays opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, July 3 at 6pm, Sunday, July 5 at 5:30pm, and Tuesday, July 7 at 6pm.