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July 12, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies

Public Enemies. Mildly Recommended. If you can't wait for DVD. But you probably can and should wait for the DVD.

Addendum: This review is more critical than is fair. The criticisms, I think, are valid, but I focused on those and gave short-shrift to the movie's strengths. There's interesting stuff here, good dialog in places, and Michael Mann continues to be a good action director. And there is a lot of action here -- this is no intimate character study. This is an action movie with some quiet character moments in between the gun battles, bank heists, and prison breaks.

It's a good movie, but not as good it as it should be, and nowhere near as great as Michael Mann wants it to be. If you see it in theaters, you'll be entertained but a bit disappointed. But, I stress, entertained. And the "wait for DVD" thing is an advisory only, because if you're highly selective about which movies you go out to and must see now, this one, while worth seeing, can wait for the convenience of in-home viewing. Partly because the limitations of DV shooting mean there's not much value-added in seeing it on the big screen.


I had half-anticipated this movie just because I dig the 30s. I only half anticipated it because I'm really haven't liked a Michael Mann movie since Manhunter, and yeah, I'm including Collateral and Heat, both of which I thought were just okay and frankly didn't get what the fuss was about. So that's my bias. Whatever Michael Mann's doing that's so great, I'm just not getting.

(And what the hell was Miami Vice?!! Are you kidding me? Seriously, what the hell was that?)

I came away from the movie partly satisfied and greatly frustrated, because, while it's not a bad movie -- not bad at all -- several key decisions were made that keeps it from being much more than merely good.

This is the longest review I've ever written, and I've written some colossal ones. I always wind up writing these monster reviews when I want to like a movie, and almost really like it a lot, but come away disappointed.

I really have to start off with Michael Mann's decision to shoot on DV.

First of all, it's shot on high-definition digital video, which may sound as if it's better than old-fashioned film, but it's not. Movie-makers are tempted to use digital video (DV) because it's cheap -- the cameras cost only around $10,000, as compared to the $50,000+ of a real film camera. And while film itself costs a lot of money, shooting on DV is as cheap as buying memory for a computer.

DV cameras are also much lighter and don't require tripods and dollies to move about. A man can just hold one in his hand and move it around as he pleases.

On the downside -- it looks bad and will continue looking bad until a major technological breakthrough occurs. There are no blue skies in DV, for example -- natural light overwhelms the cameras and daylight skies become washed-out with the glare of white light. Colors, generally, appear more washed out and less saturated.

The picture is usually quite a bit less crisp than that offered by film. Verging on being actually fuzzy at times -- I actually complained to the theater manager that the movie was being projected out-of-focus, but then, sitting there, it didn't get better... and then I remembered seeing a review that mentioned it was shot on DV. "Ah," I thought. "So it's going to continue looking fuzzier than a tv show on a non-high-def television."

The second and third Star Wars prequels were shot all on DV, and you can really notice the drop-off in sharpness of image and color saturation in those movies, even though they were obviously heavily processed and composited on special-effects computers post-production.

The fact that these cameras are light enough to be held in the hand and easily moved about is a minus, not a plus, because it encourages the camera man to just wing it and walk around with the thing, giving a bouncy shaky-cam effect.

The movie doesn't do this excessively, but it does it a fair amount, and every time they did it it distracted me and reminded me I was watching a movie. In one scene the cameraman just crawls on the floor and starts shooting upwards at characters, camera bouncing and swaying the whole time, just because he can, I guess.

It isn't just that Michael Mann went cheap. There is a whole aesthetic about the DV, a manifesto, really, whereby looking cheap becomes a positive virtue. Or so they believe. They want to walk the camera around all shaky-like because they think that creates a more documentary-like and therefore more "real" feel. They want to have a washed out and not-quite-crisp look because they think, again, that removes the artifice of big Hollywood productions and once again gets you to focus on what's really important, story, script, and performance.

This is apparently something avante-garde type filmmakers are doing a lot of in Europe, and I guess Michael Mann likes their style and seeks to emulate them.

In addition, like the Punk movement in music, the DV movement is supposedly a democratic, empowering movement, because it's D.I.Y., do it yourself. (Actually, some of this stuff is properly classified as part of the Dogme 95 rules of filmmaking, but the DV aesthetic seems shaped by these conceits).

Punk rockers stripped down their sound and production values to the basics to prove that anyone, or almost anyone, could be a rock star, no expensive studios or musical virtuosity required. (Indeed, musical competency wasn't really required; it took some punk bands a while to actually learn to play their instruments).

Other ideas in the DV movement include stuff like "don't get too fussy with lighting, use the natural light present at a location, whether it's 'good light' or not." I don't know if Michael Mann followed that idea about the lighting, but I sure wasn't impressed by the quality of lighting here, either.

I strongly disagree with this mentality. First of all, I don't want Michael Mann to prove he can make a movie without big-budget Hollywood artifice. I'm paying for that big-budget Hollywood artifice, and I expect, damnit, to see some big-budget Hollywood artifice when I plunk down my $10.

I also don't want him to prove "anyone can make a movie" any more than I want my cardiologist to prove "anyone can perform a triple bypass." I want to see all the art and craft of trained professionals, not trained professionals aping the supposed "naturalism" of amateur independent film-makers.

Lastly, many things Hollywood does are unobtrusive because we're so used to them. We accept them as part of the minor vocabulary of film, the small words of movies, like "ands" and "ors" and "buts" and "ifs." They are such basic words we don't even notice them in sentences.

So when a Hollywood film shoots a scene with a camera on a tripod, I don't notice the camera is stable and only moves in graceful arcs. It's unobtrusive. I just accept it without even being aware of it. Likewise dolly-shots and the various other camera movements we're so used to seeing we are barely even aware we're seeing them at all.

On the other hand, when a guy has a light camera in the palm of his hand and swings and shakes it about, I do notice it, which is bad, because now I'm actively noticing the camera, which should be an invisible part of the movie, instead of focusing on performances and story and sets.

The idea that this actually "removes the artifice" from movies is absurd. It highlights the artifice of movies and forces you to confront it when you'd much rather be watching the move itself. What it may do is call attention to the artifice in other movies that you're not aware of, and make you ponder the whole business of story-telling through film in general, and while I might not mind thinking along those lines in some circumstances...

Well, the whole conceit has the strong whiff of a manifesto about it, a commentary on and critique of other movies, and a meta-statement about movies generally.

None of which I was remotely looking for in a John Dillinger g-men and gangsters movie.

One last thing: One of the only reasons to see a movie on the big screen at all is for that picture quality you just can't get at home, even on a high-def TV. Well, this looks like a TV show, so there's no reason not to wait.

Anyway, let me now get to the actual movie, which Michael Mann's decisions kept me from focusing on initially, both in writing this review and in watching the film. (Remember, I had to get up twenty minutes in to complain about focus.)

It's not bad. Mann has made another bad decision, in my opinion, in deciding to give us a low-key, low-energy version of the story. You can go either way this material. You can go big, with lots of laughs and explosions and gunfights and melodrama and scenery-chewing, which guarantees you at least a minimum amount of entertainment, even if it makes it hard to make a truly great movie. A movie which panders to be relentlessly entertaining can't usually rise to the level of greatness.

On the other hand, you can go for a more intimate, subtle, "naturalistic" telling the tale. If you get lucky, you might make a great movie. Assuming you have something important to say about character or the human condition or some other such thing to elevate the film.

Public Enemies goes the latter route. Which is a mistake. Because this script, even while it's pretty good, really doesn't have anything important to say. Which I don't mind -- I didn't want it to say anything important. But if it has nothing important to say, why is it suffused with self-importance?

It doesn't even have much to say about the character of its protagonist, John Dillinger. Describing himself to Betty Freschette, a hat-check girl he likes, he says, "I like basebally, good whiskey, nice clothes, fast cars, and you. What else do yo need to know?"

Well, honestly, I guess you don't need to know anything else, and the movie doesn't pretend you need to know anything else, because it offers nothing more about the character of John Dillinger than this. Oh, and he likes robbing banks and he's "having too much fun now to worry about tomorrow" and "it doesn't matter where you come from, it's where you're headed that's important."

Honestly, I don't need to know a damn thing about John Dillinger than this. That is plenty of characterization for a fun roller-coaster popcorn summer gangster picture.

But-- if that's what your'e doing, a roller-coaster popcorn summer gangster picture -- what's this crap with all the "naturalism" and low-key performances and subtlely (read: few laughs, few big dramatic moments)? I mean, why fight against where the material naturally wants to take you?

Where does this material want to take you? Well, it wants to take you in the direction of big fun crowd-pleasers like The Untouchables. That movie was funny, thrilling, and even tear-jerking at times. (Come on -- even men get a little misty when Malone buys it.)

In tone it was melodramatic -- even operatic at moments -- and it never forgot it was a movie, a big-budget Hollywood movie, and it aimed to please.

And it did. And is counted by many as among the best films of the past 30 years.

But instead of going that route, Michael Mann invests the picture with more solemnity that it warrants and more subtlety that is ultimately good for it.

Let me give an example. John Dillinger really did stage a bank heist by posing as a Hollywood crew scouting a location at which to shoot a movie about a bank heist, and, as part of this ruse, he actually robbed the damn bank. With some onlookers thinking they were watching a performance. (A sequence parodied in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run.)

Or: He really did pose as a salesman of bank security alarms, in which guise he cased banks from the inside, the managers pointing out all of the problem areas with security. Then he robbed them days later.

Those aren't in this movie. Why? Well, partly, perhaps, that they've been part of other movies. But mostly, I think, because they're not "realistic' enough for Michael Mann's vision of realism... even though they really happened in real life.

Real life was not realistic enough for the realism of Michael Mann's realistic vision. See the trouble here?

Instead, we just see what seems to be the same bank robbery procedure, professionally executed several times. There's nothing wrong with that, I guess, but why omit the fun, crazy stuff?

Now, I don't want to slag these sequences too much, because while the robberies aren't exciting, the getaways are -- police show up for most of these heists, leading to a Michael Mann specialty, and one he can always make bank on -- the running machinegun-battle down the city street. He did it well in Heat, and he does it well here too. (Though not as well -- but that's not a major knock, as Heat really hit a high towering shot to right field.)

And I don't want to give the impression there isn't a lot of action here, or that it's poorly done. There's an ample amount of gunfire and bloody wounds and it's gripping stuff. I like the violence. I just wish the stuff around it were more fun.

I just don't understand why in a movie that seems to want to go in the direction of excess and fun he chooses to put the breaks on.

Christian Bale's Martin Purvis doesn't get as much screen time, and he's even a bit more buttoned up than Depp's Dillinger; naturally the lawman isn't as flamboyant as the criminal. But honesty, neither of these characters are terribly flamboyant. Both are quite direct in their methods and they're simple in their psychology. Dillinger robs banks because he's good at it and likes it and can't do anything else; Purvis, I guess, hunts down criminals because he believes in law and order and likes it and can't do anything else. I guess on that last one-- they really never tell us much about Purvis' inner life. We don't know if he's married, for example.

Both men are very professional about things, which doesn't make for great drama. They're not driven by melodramatic horses like vengeance or the Tom Cruise favorite, Must Prove Himself to Escape His Accomplished Father's Long Shadow. It's more realistic that they just do their jobs professionally because they're adept at them than because they have some deep psychological wound they're seeking to heal, but... again, not as fun.

The movie actually picks up a bit of interest when it features two secondary characters who are less professional about things. Billy Crudup's J. Edgar Hoover is nothing but relentless salesmanship and self-promotion and vanity and ambition -- ah, finally, a human being with some big palpable drive!

And even better is Baby Face Nelson (played by the guy who played Turkish' partner in Snatch.) He's exciting because we're warned about him in advance -- Dillinger doesn't want to work with him, because he's not a true professional. He's -- what's the word -- dangerous and maybe a little mentally unstable, which this movie could really use more of.

In fact, the movie is kind of boring except for the Baby Face Nelson sequences. He adds a Mr. Blonde sort of unpredictability to the proceedings. What's the word? Ah yes -- liveliness.

It's sort of a bad thing when a movie about John Dillinger and Marvin Purvis sent me away from the theater wondering about J. Edgar Hoover and Baby Face Nelson.

Nelson figures int the film's best sequence-- the shoot-out at the Bohemian Lodge in which the combined Dillinger/Nelson gangs (or what's left of them after a long dragnet) are cornered in a lodge in the woods by Purvis and other G-men.

This shootout is just great. One thing I want to call out here is the great sound effects work here, specifically, a sound-effects specialty I never noticed before, I guess because no one really did it right before: Bullets impacting into trees. That may sound silly, but when guys are taking cover behind trees, and bullets splinter through the wood -- wow, some real visceral sounds here that made me wince, and made me appreciate the power of the bullets and what they'd be doing to flesh and bone were that wood not in the way.

Incidentally, if you're thinking that if this movie is so naturalistic and realistic and so forth it must get the history right -- well, no, not so much. For one thing, Dillnger does something at the end so reckless and suicidal I was sure they were going to reveal it as a dream sequence, but then they didn't. It apparently was supposed to have happened. (What he does is walk into police headquarters and right into the Dillinger Squad room, look through their files, and even chat with the detectives specifically tasked with hunting him down about baseball -- for no reason.)

Look, maybe I'm ignorant and something like this happened, but until someone proves that to me, I'm calling bullshit.

I assumed that otherwise the film was historically accurate, and only later discovered that I'd sat through a movie which seemed to be eschewing fun for accuracy was not, in fact, very accurate at all.

Inaccuracy is hardly inexcusable in a movie -- I could generally forgive such things if they were subverted for the purposes of telling an entertaining story. (Elliot Ness, for example, had nothing to do with prosecuting Al Capone for tax evasion, a subversion of history in the interest of drama I excused and even applaud in The Untouchables. And Braveheart's depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge was remarkable for not, in fact, featuring a bridge at all. But so what.)

But when the story seems to be kinda draggy in places, and not as much fun as I'd hoped... well, I was kinda excusing that by telling myself "Well, buddy, you're getting the straight dope here." After I checked and found out it wasn't, I found myself liking it a less.

Overall, a movie I liked while watching, but was always waiting to like more. Entertaining, but just not the summer fun-and-guns I was looking for, and not even, as it turns out, a particularly accurate telling of Dillinger's tale. Worth seeing, especially if you like the genre or the period, but at best only a good entry in the genre.

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posted by Ace at 05:18 AM

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