Sunday, July 12, 2009

Some Summer Movie Reviews: Public Enemies, Star Trek,

(note: hopefully I will have more reviews for The Hangover and The Taking of Pelham 123 later)

Public Enemies
"Public Enemies" has fared in a most mediocre way with both critics and The Girlfriend, so of course I had low expectations going in, but was pleasantly surprised by it. To help clear up expectations, let me reiterate what it is not: it is not "Heat" in the 1930s. It is not "The Untouchables" writ small. And it is not "The Dark Knight". It is the (supposedly) true-to-life story of John Dilinger (Johnny Depp), a bank robber who gets caught, breaks out of jail, goes back and robs banks, and then gets caught and shot at the end. It is also, though, an interesting mediation on the media's influence on crime and police work, and a glimpse at the birth of the modern FBI.
Although he follows his standard cops-and-robbers plot structure, Michael Mann steps away a little from his typical existentialism vs. determinism vs. nihilism themes, although he can't help throwing in a few lines from John Dillinger about how "We're having such a good time today we can't think about tomorrow" and the free-as-a-bird myth that these gentlemen like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson subscribe to. We see J. Edgar Hoover, played by an almost unrecognizable (and short!) Dr. Manhattan himself, trying to put together a saintly, Jesuit-educated interstate police force, which was a novelty at the time when bank robbers could cross a state line and become immune to everything. We see his right-hand man, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), becoming frustrated by the incompetence of the accountants and lawyers Hoover supplies him with, most of whom either get shot or commit acts of torture and other clear violations of suspect rights (although, to be fair, Miranda rights didn't exist until the 1960s, well after this movie was set).

And then we see Purvis requesting more experienced men, Texas Rangers, and getting his hands dirty. These two men are shown as being similar but not quite alike, and the performances of Bale and Depp reflect that. Depp, who is best known for playing slightly more flamboyant, off-kilter characters, creates a different persona here. Dillinger is portrayed as a brooding, intense, calculating individual. You can see it in his eyes during the prison break, or during the bank robbery as he checks and makes sure everything is going to plan. You can see it in his body language, his facial expressions as he plans his "takedown" of Billie Frechette, a girl he sees dancing at a club.

It is the introduction of Frechette (Marion Cotillard, in a nicely understated role) into his personal life, and Purvis into his professional life, that starts to break him down. Depp allows the briefest of smiles, of sighs, and smug half-grins to penetrate his facade of cold intensity once he is with Frechette, their duration and frequency increasing througouht the film, culminating with the moment towards the end of the film where he breaks down in the car and we watch a man struggle with long-repressed emotions in a silent, brilliantly-played moment. And the narrative reflects Dillinger's breakdown as well: his bank robberies become sloppier and more desperate; his gang is eliminated by Purvis' incompetent but relentless department; his friends, allies, and safe houses all shun him or betray him.

It's a shame we don't get any background on Dillinger other than his breathless twenty-second recounting of his life to Frechette, which only serves to highlight what an efficient criminal and human being he's become. With characters like Jack Sparrow, Depp layers various surface aspects- rougish charm, cockiness, craziness, quirkiness, selfishness- around a core of vulnerability and insecurity that makes the audience empathize; with Dillinger, we have only the suggestion of an inner persona, a well-portrayed suggestion but just a suggestion nonetheless.

Purvis, as Dillinger's foil, is similarly enigmatic. Bale doesn't show us doubt or fear, just professionalism; the professionalism to repeatedly and determinedly ask for better agents from Hoover, the professionalism to turn his back while someone is getting tortured in the background, the professionalism to stay silent and unmoved while Dillinger attempts to rattle his cage when they meet in prison. The movie's epilogue notes that Purvis left the FBI and killed himself in real life after capturing Dillinger; it's a shame the film doesn't give us any clue (other than a hint or two) as to why.

The film does, however, portray the way the media affects the chase, though all too briefly. In a wonderful scene in a movie theater, Dillinger and his associates see themselves onscreen as the MovieTone announcer tells everyone "They may be in this very room" (at which point one of them tries to leave). The way Hoover is constantly followed around by a publicist, rather than an agent or an administrator, and his constant playing to the cameras, is clearly pushed forward at the same time Dillinger is turning an arraignment and later a trial into a press conference and a lampoon, respectively. People more learned than me have suggested the influence that Clark Gable's gangster movie has on the film; I suggest you go talk to them about it. My only reflection on that aspect is that, like Reservoir Dogs, it appears that most of the thieves in the film (with the exception of Dillinger, the consummate professional) have learned their trade by watching movies of elaborate shootouts (see Baby-Face Nelson's exit) and tough-guy shop talk.

The cinematography, direction, effects, and costuming are all effective enough that you don't notice them and focus on what's going on, but are nothing particularly spectacular. This is partly because of Mann's tight-fisted direction; as opposed to opening with crane shots of the Depression-era set built for the film, we focus mostly on the people, standing out starkly even against a massively built Michigan City prison entrance set.

Public Enemies is an excellent "gangster movie" and a well-crafted piece of art, but it falls shy of the potential of the rich, made-for-the-screen people it tries to depict.

Overall, 4/5.


Star Trek

Never bet against J.J. Abrams, I have learned. As much as I love Lost and MI:3, I thought that the prospect of Abrams- a self-described "Star Wars guy" trying to reboot the Star Trek franchise was a bit...er...well, dumb. 40 years of cinema and television history isn't to be rebooted easily, and I kept hearing all these awful rumors: it would be a buddy flick set at the Academy. It would be a war movie. It would be a Romulan movie. It would be about James T. Kirk's dad. It would be an Enterprise movie.

It's none of that. It is, in fact, a great film, and a successful reboot.

Let's get the casting out of the way: yes, everyone looks about five to ten years younger than they should, with the except of Karl Urban's McCoy. Hardcore fans have already derided the show as "the Muppet Babies version of Star Trek", so I won't go there. And yes, Sylar (a.k.a. Zachary Quinto) as Spock is not up to par. It's truly unfortunate, because Quinto takes a very difficult part and does it very well, but the problem is about halfway through the movie (*spoiler alert*!!!) we meet Leonard Nimoy's Spock, and the moment he speaks Nimoy's gravitas completely annihilates Quinto's hormonal-teenage-Spock performance, and to make things worse, Abrams & co. then have Quinto-Spock and Nimoy-Spock meet face to face, which is about the dumbest thing they could have possibly done because it makes Quinto look whiny and hollow and unable to follow up on one of sci-fi TV's greatest actors (/*end spoiler*). And yes, to quote one reviewer, Zoe Saldana as Uhura is a "stone cold fox", but, in one of the Great Decisions of Cinema History, they gave her both a character *and* an important skill to apply to the plot, which poor Nichelle Nichols never got in the original series.

In a predictable yet delectable way, the writers structure the film to bring together all the main characters of the original series. The main Schtick is about Quinto's Spock and Chris Pine's Kirk going through their Campbellian hero's journeys and eventually becoming friends, but each of the supporting cast characters from the Original Series (McCoy, Uhura, John Cho's blunt Sulu, Simon Pegg's amusing Scotty, and Anton Yelchin's nerdy Chekhov) gets their own moment to shine. The always-solid critic Alexandra Dupont, of the website Aintitcool.com, notes how the producers try to slip a little nod to the idea of destiny in their parallel-lives of their rebooted universe, but if you don't know much about the Original Series you'll just have to dismiss a bunch of highly improbable coincidences/gaps in logic, smoothed over by enjoyable action and a fair amount of wit in the dialogue.

The atmosphere is what really sells it, though (as much as atmosphere can exist in the airless void of space). As much as I hate to be the nth person to rag on a show's poor production values, Abrams' film has great F/X, costuming, set design and so on, which really helps the suspension-of-disbelief factor, while the musical score and constant use of audio cues from the Original Series (elevators, radar pulses, transporters etc.) brings back nostalgic memories without the memories of how cheesy and cardboard the old show used to be. I mean, it's almost painful to watch the series (or any of the series') after seeing the movie.

And, as is typical for Abrams productions, there are a couple of set pieces that resonate emotionally without compromising the big-budget action values, most notably the opening ten minutes, which includes setting up the plot, two different heroic sacrifices, and the birth of Kirk, all mixed together with flashes of action and chilling shots, like how the sound suddenly cuts out as someone is sucked into the silent vacuum. Of course, my more logically-oriented friend asked after a few minutes, "Why the HELL is there a married couple on a warship...in fact, why is there a PREGNANT WOMAN on a warship!?!?" but that was after the damage was done.

The whole movie follows this pattern: enormous, gaping flaws in logic that are presented in such a way that you're too busy caring about the characters and the conflicts to notice until long after the impact has already hit you. You spend too much time admiring how dead-on Karl Urban looks, acts, and sounds like DeForest Kelley, while at the same time channeling his own peculiar Southern-country-doctor-mojo, or chuckling at all the classic lines they work in (usually) organically (the first time McCoy says "Damnit Jim" is especially good), or feeling the hair on the back of your head stand up while watching Kirk and Sulu and a redshirt (!) silently skydiving with just the sound of a sensor ping in the background, or feeling the delicate simmer Quinto places around Spock's emotions being expertly prodded by Pine's overtly smug Kirk, or , or , or , and you get the idea.

Hardcore fans who pick apart the flaws of the film (and it does have many flaws; the science, the continuity, the whole Academy-cheating-Kobayashi Maru section, and again, WHAT IS A PREGNANT WOMAN DOING ON A WARSHIP!?!?) are really missing the point. The Original Star Trek Series was never about having things like original plots or internally consistent ideas; instead, it was a vision of an optimistic future that was vastly different from the grim determinism of H.P. Lovecraft or Rod Sterling or the later cynicism of cyberpunk and deconstruction. Is the future of Star Trek shiny and unrealistically iPod-like? Yes. Do we want it that way? Yes.

Overall, 5/5

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