Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Depressingly Mediocre...

Just got back from a a screening of the depressingly mediocre PUBLIC ENEMIES, with a ball of tension in my stomach that I can't figure out.

Maybe it's the film, maybe it was the last customer on the phone at work, who sounded entirely weird and like they thought I was stupid for not telepathically knowing what they wanted.

Mostly, though, I think it was the film.

For the record, I LOVE Michael Mann's HEAT. I rather like LAST OF THE MOHICANS (though think it should be longer), and enjoyed COLLATERAL quite a bit - a very good modern day Hitchcock plot, that was a bit too pat towards the end. If I didn't quite believe the Cruiser's grey wig, I'll forgive him, because it was still one of his better performances, and on the whole, the film whipped along like nobody's business. Superior thriller stuff, say I. Mind you I laughed out loud at MIAMI VICE.

But PUBLIC ENEMIES... was just sort of, rubbish. For a long film from a director like Mann, it was very thin. I mean really superficial. There wasn't much story and there wasn't much character (Depp didn't have that much to do except be a likeable thief, and he's Johnny Depp, so of course we like him).

The way Christian Bale talks with his tongue stuck to the bottom of his mouth/back of his lower front teeth is beginning to really distract me (I realise it's not his fault, it's an impediment, but it makes him do funny things with his mouth that make his characters really annoying - go figure).

The digital photography in the film is awful. It looks like it was shot on a handycam, and not very well. Too much jittery handheld - not in a good way either. Constant tiny little zoomed reframes that distract the hell out of me, and really blurry images when it swoops and whips and moves in general.

In the 70's when people went hand held, the images didn't look this clumsy and amateur, in part because although they felt a little freer - by nature of their being taken off sticks - the equipment was of such a weight that you couldn't make bouncing little shuddery movements. The weight of the camera took out the worst of the wobble. Here, it's everywhere, and it's doing nobody any favours. The cameras are light weight. The movements are lightweight. And the images feel lightweight. Which in the end, is what the film is. Lightweight fluff.

Without reading the script that was written, it's hard to blame the writer, but if the film as screened is a reasonable representation, then it was underwritten. I'm just shocked by the lack of ambition in the film. Michael Mann has a reputation as an intelligent film maker. HEAT like I say, THE INSIDER, which I almost forgot about and which is another very good film. But this does nothing. It's not a patch on John Milius's film DILINGER, nor on BONNIE & CLYDE, nor for that matter Howard Hawks original SCARFACE or Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (much as I have problems with that film, it's still beautiful, and striving for something, even if it arguably falls short).

What's missing is the sense - and I got it from one of the older G-Men characters - of how characters who would have thrived, and perhaps were born (literally and figuratively) in the days of the classic Old West, have shifted and changed and shaded into the modern era. Dilinger is one of the last of the old style of Outlaw - hinted at/touched on in the way that organized crime rears it's head, in images suffused with wires and telephony, the coming of the modern/machine age, the shifting of crime with technology, the shift from robbing and feeding off the rich, to criminals who steal from the poor/us all.

There's a whole interesting side unexplored in this film. The character (who's name I've now forgotten) who finally kills Dilinger and informs his girlfriend of his dying words, is a man in his fifties. A lawman who must have started in the last days of the Old West. Brought in as a man of experience... I wanted to know HIS story. That shift from the man on horseback riding the plains to tracking his man in the modern metropolis, could have been fascinating. There was the hint of an Elmore Leonard character there... but they didn't explore it.

Just like they didn't explore much else in the film.

If it had been a forensically detailed account of Dilinger and his lifestyle (in some ways analagous to that of De Niro's character in HEAT) that would have been something... but I guess I'm looking for a movie that isn't there. Reviewing a movie that I wanted to see.

Unfortunately the movie that I did see, did very little for me. Not even the Michael Mann trademark set pieces were all that great. It was all just... not very interesting.

And I find myself increasingly angry when films are like this for me.

I'd almost rather a film were out and out crap than be mediocre. But in the end that's what this one is. Mediocre. And with the talent on board, the minds involved, who have proved themselves more than once elsewhere (though they've also proven themselves more than fallible) I expect more. And am shocked and depressed by the outcome. Did they really not think to reshoot or rewrite this? Did the script they went ahead with really resemble this film, was it really this thin on the page? Did they really not do more testing with the cameras? Are they really happy with the results? Do they like this particular aesthetic?

I guess I just want them to aim higher. Exected they WOULD. I expected too much I suppose. Sorry.

On a much more upbeat note, if - like me - you want someone who aims high, and wants you drag you up with them... I must urge you to check out DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH, a wonderful, fascinating and highly entertaining portrait of Harlan Ellison.

This is a man who inspires you to be more. To aim high. Who expects nothing less than the best of you as an audience, and himself as creator.

I wish there were more like him.


Joshua Gaunt said...

So it's no Assassination of Jesse James then....pity. I was also looking forward to the RED cam stuff but I guess they didn't pull it off as well as they could. Have yet to see Che 1&2 how did the Digital hold up there?

Neil Snowdon said...

The digital in Che held up great. None of the strangely plastic look, nor the blurring. Great colours in part 2 with greens and browns that reflect a state of mind in the failed campaign in Bolivia. Loved both those films, though best seen back to back, if you've got the time.