Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is over-dramatized, hyper-stylized, pulp triteness. Mr. Miami Vice himself is the last director in Hollywood who should be making a period gangster epic. His modern day, wide angle, handheld visuals are even less welcomed in a film that deserves to be more subtle in its effort to be powerful or memorable. But Mann doesn’t seem to ever get that. Everything in his films has to be glossy, Michael Bay-apprenticing fodder.

Normally Mann lets his actors scream, shout and overact their way through a story (e.g. Heat, Collateral), but here, the one good thing he brings to the film is the unusually nuance-less Johnny Depp and the strong female lead and Audrey Tatou-rivaling Marion Cotillard. Christian Bale is good as the increasingly conflicted, conscience-mining FBI agent working for Hoover himself, but Bale is just Bale. He doesn’t know how to be anything else.

Public Enemies
is a great story, with great actors, amazing cinematography from the Scorsese Vet Dante Spinotti and a cool title (my blog’s name; however, was inspired by the 1931 James Cagney film The Public Enemy), but Mann wants it too flashy; Spinotti’s sets (while at times gorgeous) are over lit and the Tarantino-stylized shooting of John Dillinger in the final scenes feels like Mann’s cinematically masturbating in front of his audience. I mean, really? We need to see the bullet exiting Dillinger’s cheek bone before he hits the pavement face-first? Why is this moment so critical, other than the obvious? There are many other scenes that could have benefited from a little more build-up and celebration like this. Dillinger’s death was inevitable and expected.

Depp (as John Dillinger) and Christian Bale (as Melvin Purvis) really take their roles seriously in the film, but Mann wants Dillinger to be a larger than life character and his approach at making that happen is disappointingly unbalanced; other roles get under-utilized. Public Enemies tries too hard to be a cool, retro gangster flick — all jazzy shades of black, grey, green and amber with blink-inducing flares and muzzle flashes and crescendos of surround sound rat-a-tat-tats — when it could have just been a well-acted, taut, true-crime drama. Maybe Universal should have given it to Mamet.

Who’s That Knocking At My Door?

Scorsese had been working on Who’s That Knocking At My Door? since he was in film school at NYU, and as per his “assistant,” the film had changed titles (aka I Call First) and expanded storylines at least three times. Harvey Keitel was cast in the lead from a response to an ad for actors, and though at times his dialogue feels a little unrefined, a little unsure, it also feels like the Keitel we know today. Thereby (unintentionally) providing an added sinister undercurrent that a viewer may not have otherwise picked up on in 1968.

The story is fairly straight forward as most American independent movies of this period tended to be. Keitel plays a young Italian American named J.R. The film wavers between J.R.’s interactions with his male friends and his female friends, one female in particular which he meets while waiting for a ferry he “never usually takes.” In addition to his close (nearly interpretable as homoerotic) interaction with his male friends and on top of his disgusted reaction when Zina confides in him about her “impurity,” he is your average sexually repressed 70s male. Scorsese keeps very close to his Catholic roots in this film, not only with the overt actions of J.R., but the whole ending sequence which is basically a montage of Catholic iconography set to a rather obvious soundtrack for the movie’s overall style. Well worth a watch if you’ve sat through all the student films by Scorsese first.

Boxcar Bertha

Scorsese’s 1972 feature Boxcar Bertha unfolds like an exploitation flick and looks like both foreshadowing to the director’s later works such as Last Temptation of Christ and a throwback to works like Who’s That Knocking At My Door? Barbara Hershey portrays the titular Bertha, a woman wildly in love with Bill Shelley (David Carradine), a Union man who finds himself in rapidly declining situations. Usually because of Bertha.

Regardless, their love seems to prevail, and while she ultimately seems to save Bill more often than not, she appears to be his death in the end. Literally crucified, thanks to Bertha (it seems), Bill hangs by his impaled wrists from the side of a boxcar which begins to gather speed – racing away from Bertha.

Another (in some ways more important) storyline is that of Bill’s friend, a black man named Von Morton. Though the film is set in the era of the Depression, Scorsese (whether intentionally or simply due to budgetary restrictions) infuses references to the 1970s as well. The film, while trying to be a period piece of sorts, feels increasingly more modern than it’s story’s date would indicate. Von Morton is not afraid to show how he appreciates Bill’s (and even Bertha’s) friendship throughout the film, and these moments are very tightly directed, combining an underlying tension that viewers might be expected to have, with a poignancy that surprises at times.

The loves scenes, which Carradine and Hershey have reportedly stated are “not acted,” seem fresh and honest, a tribute (or extension of) the beautiful honesty exhibited in the earlier Who’s That Knocking At My Door?. Boxcar Bertha is a wonderful film overall, a welcomed detour from the director’s other films from the 70s, drawing from the sharpness of Bonnie and Clyde and the moodiness of Badlands, proving that if Scorsese had of kept working on The Honeymoon Killers (later shot by Leonard Kastle), it may have been his first Raging Bull.

Affleck v. Scorsese: ‘Gone Baby Gone’

An enhanced – dare I say – grittier version of Mystic River, Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone is for me a cornerstone in this nouveau cinematic Boston-crime-drama wave we’re experiencing. And, if I may get on my soapbox for a moment, why this film cannot take precedence over Scorsese’s Departed (last year’s “honorary” Best Picture nod to a man who should have been honored with Best Picture many years before), is beyond me.

Affleck’s film is pitch perfect in its depiction of inner city Boston life. Forget the obvious use of local, non-professional actors and shooting on the actual Dorchester city streets, it’s because the class division of the characters in the film don’t feel forced or have to be explained (as they did in Scorsese’s attempt) that the film is able to strike such a chord in it’s audiences.

Scorsese’s film acutely unfolds in all the ways a labyrinth-like crime drama involving criminals, cops and internal affairs should, but it also patronizes its viewers playing off canned stereotypes and one too many reveals. Affleck, on the other hand, has tailored his feature into something of a Trojan horse; the audience knows to expect something, yet knows not what to expect. Gone’s characters are not so much stereotypes as humans reacting in subtly meaningful ways. Subplots are not as necessary either because Affleck truly seems to love the focus of his central characters in their intimate and unclear quest.

Younger brother Casey Affleck in the lead role is also a true delight to indulge in as he seems to have found a way to convey innocence as his doppelganger to maturity in a sublte but believable way which I’ve seen little of throughout the many films I’ve watched.

If the Affleck brothers continue down this course I see a bright future in the shape of a Coen brothers’ Oscar statue.