Monday, July 06, 2009

Public Enemies, Easy Virtue, Transformers II

As the Halifax summer has to date been typified by angry, black-gray, rain-swollen skies of a decidedly apocalyptic tone, I have seen a fair number of films of late, but have not, you may remark, blogged on many. To begin addressing this backlog, I will dispense of those films viewed at home and instead concentrate on my visits to the theater, which, I lament to relate, have not been rewarded by silver screen magic for the most part.

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009) (Park Lane) I have tried several times in the past few days to write about Public Enemies, and I just don't seem to be able to get my thoughts on "paper". The problem, you see, is that I was greatly anticipating the film, and even after watching it I still want to love it so much - I mean, what's not to like? Depression-era Chicago echoing with the bass thunk-a thunk-a thunk-a of tommy gun fire, gangsters playing cat and mouse with earnest G-men prosecuting J. Edgar Hoover's "war on crime" with the "latest scientific methods," gleaming straight-8 Ford sedans powering away from the heist. There's also Johnny Depp, portraying John Dillinger, recently paroled and out to reclaim his crown as the king of the waning golden age of bank robberies, and Christian Bale playing Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent charged with tracking down public enemy number one. The movie poster alone still gives me a thrill...

That's a lot to love, and we can add to that the fact that the film nods to some of the serious issues arising from the prosecution of the war on crime: the birth of the FBI and Hoover's Congressional battle to be granted interstate jurisdiction, the advent of modern scientific techniques in police work, and the mob making its shift from gun-blazing larceny to the more "respectable" pursuit of corporate crime such as sports gambling (and one can assume prostitution and drugs).

So why didn't I love this movie? Well, the easy answer is that despite lavish sets replete with highly polished hardwoods, gleaming chrome, and snazzy pin-striped suits, the film did not manage to create a convincing world. Throughout the 140-minute run time I was keenly aware that I was sitting in a theatre watching a film - a beautifully crafted film, but still one that did not invoke my sympathies or raise my ire.

I think that there are two main reasons for this. The first has to do with the filming itself, and is a little hard to describe. Whereas most big budget movies you go to see have a soft, post-processed patina over them that renders them "dream like" and allows for easy entry by the viewer, Public Enemies shifted between this soft-tone picture and a higher-contrast "real life" visual mode in which lighting popped and edges were sharp and defined. Essentially, I found myself always aware that I was watching actors on a set playing roles - think about the difference between watching your favorite drama (Say Sopranos) and then watching the "behind the scenes" special features where raw footage is shown. (Addendum: I have recently learned that Mann shot Public Enemies with digital HD cameras, which could go a long way to explaining its sterile feel. Oh for the days of cracking and popping celluloid!)

Which brings me to the second problem, which I am well aware borders on sacrilege. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale never became believable characters for me: I never felt like I identified with or was emotionally invested in the plights of either main character. The movie didn't touch me. Now this is partially a deep-rooted flaw in the film as a whole, which focuses very strongly on the characters of Dillinger and Purvis but is so concerned with looking slick and polished at every moment that it never lets us into the messier recesses of their hearts or minds. But it is also partially - here it comes - a problem with Depp and Bale, who play their roles with a cool reserve that seems almost arrogant.

I enjoyed Public Enemies, but, as I mentioned earlier, I didn't love it and can't recommend it out of hand. As I overheard one audience member tell a friend he met in the lobby after the show, "It was great at the beginning when they were robbing shit and shooting everything up, but then it got kinda slow." Well, the slower part - the adagio, so to speak - should have been the best part, uncovering the persona under the swaggering gunman...but never did.

As an addendum, I believe that Slate Magazine may have said it best: "It's like spending an a beautifully lit wax-museum display inspired by earlier gangster movies."

Easy Virtue (Stephan Elliott, 2008) (Bayers Lake) I was out last night with a friend who is a working actor in Halifax's performing arts community, and she was aghast to learn that I had not been swept away by this screen adaptation of a Noel Coward play - perhaps some stories are not meant to escape the stage to the silver screen. I went to see Easy Virtue on a Sunday night in every expectation that I would be treated to an hour or two of delightful whimsy - an incisive, Wildean stab at the heart of upper-class Victorian manners.

John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) is returning to the sprawling family estate to present his scandalous race car driving, pant wearing, cigarette smoking, American wife, Larita (Jessica Biel), to his stiff-upper-lip, no-sex-please-we're-British family. The family estate, ruled with staunch propriety by Mrs. Whitaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), is fading into financial ruin but still keeping up appearances, a fact little known by John's sisters and met with indifference by her husband (Colin Firth), who long ago stopped caring about appearances and tradition.

A delicious scenario for a comedy of "old-country manners meets new world vigour" to be sure, but is ultimately squandered and ends up largely bland and lifeless - which is a shame as it starts out with some degree of promise. The odd gag elicits laughs, such as when Larita accidentally sits on and kills Mrs. Whitaker's dog, but the dialogue - which is reputed to sparkle on stage - falls largely flat in the incapable hands of the cast. This should perhaps be laid largely at the feet of Ms. Biel, extends to Mr. Firth, who has never been known for dramatic range, but certainly not to Ms. Scott Thomas, who, despite her impressive credentials and arguable strong performance even in this film, just is not strong enough to pull the whole film up by its bootstraps.

Catch Easy Virtue the next time it plays on a stage near you, I am sure your local theater group will breathe more life into it than this crew has.

Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay shudder, 2009) (Bayers Lake) Let's be brief: pure, utter, unadulterate, SHIT. Painful dialogue that makes you cringe delivered by hacks that insult the words actor/actress (Shia LaBeouf should be taken out and shot), sophomoric jokes that range from dogs humping legs to Mom getting high by mistake and chasing all the university hotties. The intelligence that conceived this travesty of a film is akin to the brilliance of the political and military minds that ended its mildly more interesting precursor, Transformers, by deciding to stash the recently defeated carcass of the most dangerous alien robot in the world at the bottom of the ocean - where no one would ever find it. Evil laugh. LAME.

But you don't go to this kind of film for brilliant acting or sublime scripts, right? You go for special effects and action, right? And state-of-the-art special effects films are a legitimate creation, after all, often pioneering new techniques that allow other artists in the industry to add to their collective palette. Except that this rationale is wearing thin these days, with CGI having reached a point where it, in itself, seldom manages to blow the tech-jaded audience away.

In addition, Transformers II did not even manage to leverage the technology that it had at its disposal to good effect - I would have loved to have seen the Autobots and Decepticons transform from cars, airplanes, and motorcycles into awesomely powerful super robots, but was even cheated of this. Every transformation starts with the disguise incarnation starting to convulse a little, upon which the camera zooms in and shows a bunch of randomly shifting pieces of colored metal before pulling back and showing the massive resulting robot, which has a mass at least an order of magnitude large than the original, and massive weaponry to boot (hmm, I guess that that five-foot-long, barrel-girth cannon was hidden in the muffler...).

Why oh why did I not walk out of this 2 hour and 30 fricken minute travesty? Why oh why was the surely 100s of millions spent to make this lemon not spent to completely eradicate hunger in any of numerous countries around the world where suffering is so rife?

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