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by Bill Gibron

20 Dec 2009

History is a fount for possible creative endeavors. Filled with myths and legends, heroes and villains, it’s the stuff of epics, the material for a million thought-provoking and heart-pounding adventures. So why then have the two high concept comedies surrounding the archiving of our past - Night at the Museum and the recently released Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian been so lame. Learning dates and facts in a community college course would be far more entertaining. 

Granted, both entries do use famous figures from both national and international folklore to sell some antiseptic physical comedy. It does offer Ben Stiller in one of his two carefully calculated career modes (paycheck cashing vs. comedic firebrand) and it does give an array of equally talented costars (Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Bill Hader) a chance to sell their own souls for the sake of some commercial cred. But the true scoundrel here is no unscrupulous businessmen or blasé bureaucrat. It’s director Shawn Levy, a hack who never saw a possible wistful family film conceit (Big Fat Liar, the pathetic Pink Panther remake) that he couldn’t mangle with his mediocre sense of cinematic skill.

There is really no faulting the premise. Like the toy shop that comes alive when the “CLOSED” sign is secured for the day, or the pet shop that plots revenge on its merciless owners, everyone has at one time or another wiled away a childhood afternoon wondering if the exhibits at their local Science and Industry get up and walk around once the final tourist has left the gift shop. The Night at the Museum movies jerryrig this idea into something about an ancient Egyptian talisman, group reanimation, a bumbling inventor turned museum nightwatchmen, and lots of jokes about biological functions and common sense vs. stupidity.

The latest installment sees Stiller’s Larry Daley trading in his profitable gig as a TV infomercial pioneer and pitchman to help out some of his old friends at the Natural Museum. Seems they are headed for storage at the famed Washington locale, and our hero just can’t let that happen. When they do arrive at their new home, a new wrinkle enters into the narrative mix. Seems Kahmunrah (Azaria), evil brother of previous film good guy Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), wants that fabled golden tablet so he can take over the world. It is up to Larry and new friends Emilia Earhart (Adams) and General Custer (Hader), along with old buddies Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), and Former President Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) to save the day.


This is what children’s distraction has come to in 2009 - and make no mistake about it, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is clearly aimed at a demographic not quite capable of making cognitive decisions of any kind for themselves. In the genre of crass, flat, by-the-book comedies, this title takes a small, stale cake. It’s dull when it should be amazing, rote when it should find way to rewrite the type’s bubble-headed tendencies. Tossing everything at the audience to see what sticks, Levy (along with returning salary scavengers, screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) overstuffs his film, making it nearly impossible to enjoy any one element. When he’s not trying for more and more F/X falderal, he’s letting his actors mug with equal abandon.

There are several low points in this preposterously dopey exercise: the himbo halfwit Jonas Brothers as marble cherubs, harmonizing all their dialogue (Yeesh!); Azaria, doing an accent that sounds like the illegitimate love child of Boris Karloff and Michael Palin’s Pontius Pilate from Life of Brian; the smart-alecky Dead End ‘20s lingo tossed around like ripe cheese by Adam’s famed flygirl; the continued and inane squabbling between miniature misfits Jedediah and Octavius. Add in the occasional attempts at topical humor, the completely wasted efforts of sure things like Ricky Gervais, Christopher Guest, and Jonah Hill, and you’ve got an aesthetic car accident that even the most mindless lookie-loo wouldn’t slow down to experience.

Of course, no one involved in this film sees things in such a manner. The new Blu-ray release offers two commentary tracks (Levy alone, Lennon and Garant together) and both are fairly backslapping and self-serving. Enthusiasm runs high, as does endless production minutia. There are also numerous behind the scenes and interview featurettes which keep the EPK levels lamentable. Some are attempts at humor (caveman answering all questions with grunts, a collection of ‘famous last words’) while others take the standard making-of material and treat it as the last word of motion picture magic. Between deleted scenes and gag reels, looks at real life museums and the daily grind of “monkey wrangling”, the Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian package is informative if uneven. At least the near reference quality 1080p image and various Master Audio mixes are theatrical quality. Very little about the film itself, however, is.

And again, the fault must fall on the filmmaker’s shallow shoulders. Imagine what a talent like Spielberg or Burton could do with a concept like this. Visualize a Night at the Museum helmed by a visionary like Terry Gilliam or someone with certified post-modern panache like Zack Snyder and you understand the problem implicitly. Shawn Levy gives Tinseltown journeymen a bad name with his crude cinematic construction and even more unfettered lack of gifts. He’s a human personification of absolute luck, parlaying a career on the small screen into the eventual leap into theaters. Too bad it wasn’t off a high cliff.

Perhaps then we wouldn’t have to suffer through another atomic bomb as wholesome amusement like Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. As yet another in a long line of electronic babysitters, parents could probably do worse. Sadly, after taking in many of the current Hollywood samplings of same, it would be almost impossible to do much better. A film such as this should at least be likable. This second Night at the Museum takes history and, instead of treating it right, trashes it.

by Bill Gibron

16 Dec 2009

It is often called the ultimate expression of the Summer of Love, a gathering of nearly half a million like minded individuals, all with the single goal of sharing three days of peace and music. It’s also quoted as the yin to the much darker and depressing yang of The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamonte, a mere four month later. Somewhere in between the myth and the memory, the legend and the legitimate issues surrounding its production, Woodstock stands as a symbol, one ripe for constant reevaluation and reconsideration.

So when it was announced that Ang Lee, one of the best interpreters of American cultural nostalgia (his Ice Storm remains a definitive ‘70s statement), was tackling Eliot Tiber and Tom Monte’s book about the backstage dramatics that came with the “happening” on Yasgur’s Farm in 1969, it seemed like a perfect fit. Often, it takes an outside perspective to shed new light on something so ingrained in our own historic consciousness. Unfortunately, Taking Woodstock is a trial, not a revelation. It attempts too many things, avoiding the much bigger picture to get much of that August’s minutia down pat.

When we first meet Eliot Tiber (a decent Demetri Martin), he is trying to hold on to his parents Catskill’s “resort”. In truth, it’s nothing more than a failing motel with a bunch of hippies/actors living in the barn. As a semi-successful New York interior designer, Eliot has sunk all his income into the business. Instead of gratitude, however, his father (Henry Goodman) ignores him and his mother (Imelda Staunton) smothers him. Hoping to bring some necessary tourism to the area, Eliot prepares for his annual classical music symposium. But when he hears that a rumored rock concert has been kicked out of its local location, he volunteers his town. Soon, the small community of White Lake is overrun with businessmen, promoters, and hippies. You see, Max Yasgur has graciously decided to donate his property to the cause, and now the on-again, off-again Woodstock music festival is back on! 

If there is a single moment that is indicative of the few things that are right, and all that is wrong, with Taking Woodstock, it arrives toward the end of the second act. Eliot, desperate to see the concert, heads over to Yasgur’s farm to check it out. Along the way, he is stopped by a dreamy young couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) who offer him a tab of acid. Within minutes, our hero is locked in a day-glo hallucination, the vibrant colors inside the hippies’ van melding and mixing into a glorious multi-tinted goo. Later, Eliot steps outside and sees the entire Woodstock nation, from small stage to massive throng, undulating like an ocean, ebbing and flowing over the image like a tide that’s about to turn.

It’s a wonderfully metaphoric moment, as strong a symbol of the event’s significance to the ‘60s as any since Hunter S. Thompson’s similarly styled “wave” monologue from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Sadly, it’s one of the rarities in a movie that would rather concentrate on quirk and ancillary individuals than anything of real impact or import. Granted, the story is set exclusively backstage, Tiber hoping to show how a little inspiration (and a great deal of communal faith) forged one of the major benchmarks of the counterculture. But without the concert itself, without some idea of what was going on a few miles away, Taking Woodstock misses out.

Lee makes the mistake of believing that everyone is well versed in both the actual three day showcase and the sensational documentary that resulted from it. He constantly riffs on both, reminding us of the post-modern mania of the time through split screen and other cinematic tricks. Yet within that assumption lays the problem. Woodstock is now 40 years old, its attendees moving beyond middle age into the twilight of their years. Several generations removed, it’s more of a talking point than a memory. You’ve got to give the fledgling 18 to 25 year old demo something to groove on, less they find your efforts a confusing trip down one person’s singular and insular memory lane. And since Tiber is not that compelling a figure, it’s up to the circumstances to carry the day. Unfortunately, they can’t.

That doesn’t mean that Taking Woodstock is a complete loss. On the contrary, there are times when you sense the subject matter trying to surpass its cinematic presentation for clarity and consideration. When Eliot is confronted by the real figures behind the show, names and faces we’ve come to recognize, we instantly click with the sequences. Similarly, when our hero takes the long walk to Yasgur’s to see the fruits of his scattered labors, there are iconic moments (the peace-sign waving nuns, cops with flowers in their guns) reminding us of our past memories of the movement. But then Lee spends way too much time on supporting situations, like Eliot’s lame home life, his latent homosexuality, and a bizarre turn by Liev Schrieber as a cross dressing ex-Marine who becomes Tiber’s bodyguard and confident. While trying to signify something, these outside issues instill nothing but nonchalance.

Even the added content on the new Blu-ray disc is underwhelming. Lee is on hand (along with prime suspect and scriptwriter James Schamus) to discuss his intentions, and it all sounds so noble and earnest. Sadly, much of that sentiment is missing from the movie. Similarly, the deleted scenes (including a few exclusive to the updated format) do little to remedy the superfluous nature of the narrative. It’s as if, by focusing exclusively on what happened miles away from the actual show, Taking Woodstock hopes to find some hidden message. Instead, it only uncovers what we’d expect from such a limited purview - minor interest and some otherwise unimportant information. Whatever his part in bringing Woodstock to White Lake (and there has been much contention about just how involved he was), Eliot Tiber’s story is a novelty, but nothing revelatory. Oddly enough, the movie made of his ‘adventures’ is even more nondescript. 

by Bill Gibron

13 Dec 2009

It’s a real quandary – how do you reinvent the war film, especially one that centers around Hitler, the Nazis, and the so-called “greatest generation”? For the most part, we all know the most intimate details of what happened. Indeed, when the History Channel and various other Discovery subsidiaries make their entire reputation out of giving you every nook, cranny, and complaint about the Allies, the Axis, and the various and sundry players in between, it’s hard not to. Hollywood spent the better part of the ‘50s and ‘60s reinterpreting the events at Normandy, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the last gasp unholy Hail Mary of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In between, the Swastika has become a shortcut for all encompassing evil, as well as a mark for easy enemy recognition and narrative villainy.

So the question comes again – how do you bring something new to World War II when everything is more or less known and knotted over? Well, if you’re Quentin Tarantino, the post-post modern mastermind of such brilliant cinematic deconstructions as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, you simply ignore history. Instead, you take the reality of the European theater in 1943, add in several conspiracies regarding the Fuhrer, film itself, and a fiery band of ass-kicking Jewish soldiers, and turn it into the ultimate expression of warcraft wish fulfillment. No one will ever argue that Inglourious Basterds is factually accurate. Heck, it’s not even reverent to the source title it’s stealing from (an entertaining Italian effort from the mid ‘70s). Instead, Tarantino is rewriting the rulebook in every regard – spiritually, situationally, and most importantly, symbolically.

As the recently released Blu-ray reveals, Inglourious Basterds is, in actuality, an elaborate hoax, a farce founded on the notion that one well crafted cabal – and a glib Gestapo officer willing to sell out to secure his place in the post-war world – can lead to a fantasy finale with the leader of the Third Reich ripe for assassination. All throughout the bonus material, Tarantino suggests that he was making the movie he wanted to see as a kid, with the Allies as anti-fascist superheroes, fierce fighting marauders righting the moral compass with fists, knives, and rapid fire automatic weaponry. Sure, it may all seem like a lark, the high spirits of a creative infant with too much time, money, chutzpah, and reputation to do anything small or simple. Indeed, if you look beyond the surface and remove all the inaccuracies, you’ll see something as true to the varying policies and philosophies involved as any WWII documentary.

There are at least five separate storylines at play here, each one seemingly unrelated but actually set up to smash into each other with cataclysmic precision. One revolves around famed “Jew Hunter” Capt. Han Landa and his attempt to clean Occupied France of its ‘Juden’ problem once and for all. Another has one of the few to evade him, Shosanna Dreyfus, hiding out in a Paris movie theater. With the help of her assistant/lover, she intends to hijack a screening of a famous propaganda film, using the occasion to kill hundreds of Nazis with a well-placed bomb. Then we have American Aldo Raine and his band of Jewish soldiers. Like Landa, they scour the countryside, terrorizing their targets – in this case, German soldiers. Finally, England decides to send one of their newest spies – a former actor – into the fray, hoping to hook-up with a turncoat Berlin actress who is sympathetic to the Allies cause. With her help, they plan on getting as close to the Fuhrer as possible, and end his redolent reign of terror once and for all.

As one of 2009’s best films, Inglourious Basterds remains a singular vision of mind-bogglingly delicious design. If Tarantino’s motives were to inspire the long dormant bloodlust of a nation that didn’t get the chance to nab “the bad guys’ before Nuremburg and a Lugar’s bullet rendered its own inert justice, he’s succeeded in unexpected spades. It’s the kind of film that gets your heart rate up, that pumps your adrenalin as it stokes your already hefty genre reference points. As he did with his Hong Kong homage Kill Bill (Vol.1 & 2), the filmmaker finds a way to make the vast catalog of modern moviemaking work for him. The materials with Shosanna and the Parisian cinema is all natty ‘50s New Wave and intellectualized form deconstruction. Raine and his band of Hebrew brothers reminds one of every John Wayne workout made by an apologist studio system. The UK scenarios sizzle with a kind of celebrated ‘60s swing, while the sequences with Landa are direct reminders of the unfathomable hideousness that one human being can inflict (or imply to inflict) on each other.

By combining so many different facets, Tarantino does more than tell a tale. He manufactures myth. He creates a whole new reality, revitalizing the genre and the genre types in the process. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is so universally amazing, especially when it come to the two main male leads. Christoph Waltz, as Jew Hunter Landa, is so spellbinding, so slyly wicked and worrisome, that when he thwarts expectations in the third act, you kick yourself for not seeing his subterfuge earlier. Indeed, what Waltz does is so defining, so undeniably engaging and entertaining, that you find yourself rooting for the bad guy – in this case, a very, very bad guy. He’s not the villain you love to hate – he’s the rogue whose so malfeasant he’s magnificent!

Brad Pitt also sparkles as Raine, a remote Southern dandy (from Tennessee) who allows his gentlemanly accent to cover-up an equally vicious streak. He and the other ‘Basterds’ are not so much a force to be reckoned with as a means of addressing the Holocaust without showing mass graves or billowing smockstacks. As he reads his victims the riot act, explaining to them the rationale behind his men’s sadistic means of revenge, we feel the anger. We recognize the mean-spirited mischief, especially when Pitt stares directly at the camera and give a sinister little smirk. As the yin to Landa’s far more determinative yang, both represent the extremes of war – the inability to uncover the enemy even in the face of their colors. It’s these contrasts, and the various clockwork mechanics within the actual plotting, that make Inglourious Basterds so special.

With its behind the scenes significance, the bevy of material meant to contextualize Tarantino’s approach, the Inglourious Blu-ray is excellent - with one small exception…there’s no commentary. That’s right, the man more than happy to riff on Edgar Wright’s Spaced series, or Eli Roth’s Hostel films, but apparently felt his wicked war romp needed no discussion - at least, not now. And that’s a shame. When a movie is as ambitious and audacious as this, when it practically dare you to defy its brilliance, it more or less mandates a few words from the artist. The home video format may simply be a substitute for sitting in a theater full of cretins, but it’s also a medium for preservation. Perhaps after the necessary Oscar run (Waltz especially), a revamped “Ultimate Edition” will find the filmmaker talking. When faced with the daunting task of addressing antiquity head on, Quentin Tarantino found a fresh way of converting the legitimate into legend. Inglourious Basterds is a masterstroke of mischief.

by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2009

In the long standing debate between movies as merchandise and film as art, the sex comedy usually get laughed out of the room - and not for the reasons you think. Humor has literally nothing to do with it. Instead, the skin farce, the lust lampoon, the cracked coming of age where wantonness subs for wisdom, is repeatedly snubbed, stuffed in the same lame category as exploitation - smutty without being significant, craven without being creative or clever. Naturally, most of these scholarly decisions are based on a limited sampling of said pseudo-smut. After all, how could you call Porky’s anything other than wimpy white lightning in a unexpected blockbuster bottle, or American Pie as pastry porn?

That’s where the Canadian classic Screwballs comes in. That’s right - CLASSIC. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the seedy subgenre of teenage boys begging to get their rocks off, this surreal statement is its Gone with the Wind. Yes, it’s prurient and pasty. Yes, it makes even a post-millennial audience groan with raincoat crowd crudity. No, it doesn’t have the kind of redeeming social value or aesthetic merit to keep communal moral compasses from veering wildly away from true North. What it does offer, on the other hand, is nothing short of a window into the world circa the early ‘80s, a chance to see how far we’ve come in the days since flesh was considered a felony, and even more shockingly, the lack of any real progress since.

The story centers on boobs - there’s no other way to put it. Reigning homecoming queen (and all around stuck-up snob) Purity Busch is rumored to have the hottest rack in all of T&A High. Naturally, this gets a quintet of hormonally overcharged delinquents - chronic masturbator Melvin Jerkovski, dorky science geek Howie Bates, fun loving cut-up Ricky McKay, self-proclaimed BMOC Brent Van Dusen III, and recent transfer student/regular guy Tim Stevenson - all hot and bothered. While serving detention, the guys come up with a scheme. With the help of “friendly” coeds Bootsie Goodhead, Rhonda Rocket, and Sarah Bellum, the boys will each use their wit and cunning to discover a means of checking out Purity’s pom-poms - and it looks like her last public act will be the perfect place for the unveiling.

As you can see, Screwballs is nothing if not subtle. It’s about as understated as a group of drag queens at a Sarah Palin rally. Writers Linda Shayne and Jim Wynorski give director Rafal Zielinski a nice clothesline narrative from which to work, letting the filmmaker follow-up with one unhinged cockamamie concept after another. From the stupid science inspired inventions used by Howie to the fey false bravado oozed by Brent, everything here is a lark. It’s turn of the century burlesque retrofitted for a slightly more permissive time. This is a movie that believes it is progressive, that measures men in hefty ham steaks while the gals are fully flowered in feminism. Why? Well, because the cheerleaders acknowledge their love of nookie while the guys goof around and grunt like Neanderthals.

This is a catch-all comedy, the brains behind the camera coming up with anything and everything to get a laugh. There are clichés and funny business formulas (the absent minded professor, the cougar-cat spinster type). There are archetypes and anarchy (the horndog principal, the centerpiece known as “strip bowling”). There’s even a small amount of social satire and critical commentary to be found - of course, you’ll have to look past all the heavy petting and raw naked human libido to see it. Indeed, the reason Screwballs stands as the ultimate sex comedy has little to do with the bodkin we see and much more with the attitude it offers. Being unapologetic is one thing. Tossing tons of unclothed actresses at the screen for no other reason than genre requirements is quite a different dynamic.

Besides, it’s all in good clean, non-Puritanical, gratuitous Great White North fun. Though Roger Corman’s name is tossed about as someone closely involved in this project, the connection is weak, to say the least (his company, New World Pictures, had some part in the distribution). Instead, this is a pure Rush and back bacon view of friskiness, a ‘baby it’s always cold outside’ combination of adolescent longing and upfront scatology. While it may sound like a knuckleheaded, nonsensical appraisal, it’s actually perfect for something like Screwballs. We don’t want half-baked nostalgia or Airplane! like joke-a-thons. We don’t need a cautionary counterbalance, or reminder of the imbalance within these gender politics. This is a movie that just wants to celebrate the basic human need for pleasure. It’s biology. It’s instinct. It’s what we are.

Luckily, sleaze salvage yard Severin Films has taken this often maligned movie and given it the full blown craven Criterion Collection treatment it deserves. The 1080p transfer is terrific, taking what is often a full screen pan and scan nightmare and turning it into a fresh, if still slightly dated, delight. The colors are crisp and the details prevalent. In addition, they add a bunch of complementary context, including deleted scenes, director’s commentary, cast and crew interviews, and two scholarly overviews - one by Canuxsploitation expert Paul Corupe, the other from celebrity nudity expert Mr. Skin. In tandem, and with the rest of the bonus features provided, they give this amazing film a new lease on life - critically, commercially, and categorically.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Let’s be honest, shall we? Screwballs does have some minor misgivings. The gals we see sans clothing couldn’t compete with the plasticine honeys humpin’ across late night subscription cable nowadays. And in the end, when the big reveal is made, we start to wonder if all the titty-based rigmarole was worth it. Yet the answer is obvious to anyone who has seen the film - Hell-friggin-yeah! Even without this wonderful format update, the blissfully sweet results speak for themselves. Screwballs is indeed a classic - just not for the standard cinematic reasons. As a movie, it’s genuine junk. As a faux-funny erotic epiphany, it’s nothing short of epic.

by Bill Gibron

4 Dec 2009

It’s all about immersion. It’s all about historical context and accuracy. It’s all about character and the defiant need to stay true to same. And in the end, it’s about the past, about the United States struggling through the grips of the Great Depression and the rogue bank robber who captured a nation’s sullied imagination - as well as attention from the number one crime buster on the block. To hear director Michael Mann discuss it, his 2009 Summer spectacle Public Enemies stands as nothing short of the last word on John Dillinger and the post-incarceration crime spree that led to his legend. It’s not about myth (though some of that is mixed in here). It’s not about star power (though he does corral Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as his two main leads). And it’s definitely not about big bang production value action or thrills.

No, for the filmmaker responsible for bringing a music video stylization to the big screen, Public Enemies is about virtual cinematic time travel. It’s about controverting the audience’s expectation when it comes to period pieces and actually making a movie seemingly set within that particular era. From the clothes and the locations to the jargon and jive (as well as the undeniable influence of information depravation), Mann wanted to take his digital cameras, set them up in the same places John Dillinger and his gang haunted, the bring those ghosts back to life. Though the results often don’t match the ambitions expressed by the director (who is revelatory in his accompanying audio commentary offered on the new Blu-ray release) he does have one obvious point. Public Enemies is unlike any gangster film you’ve ever seen - for good, for uneven, and sometimes, for reasons only the auteur and his actors can fully understand.

The story takes place in 1933, during the heart of the worst economic times in America’s history. With banks acting as the main villain in the citizenry’s financial downfall, an outlaw like Dillinger (Depp) is romanticized and revered. After spending nine years in jail for a petty crime, he returns to the real world ready to live it up while tearing it down. Along with cohorts Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff), “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke), Harry Pierpont (David Wenham) and Charles Makley (Christian Stolte), he scours the Midwest, stealing money and securing his contacts. One night, he meets the lovely Billie Frenchette (Marion Coitllard) and soon the two are inseparable. Never thinking about his future, Dillinger continues his criminal ways, much to the chagrin of the local Chicago mob, and most importantly, the FBI.

J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), desperate to catapult his tiny agency into the big leagues, puts top G-Man Melvin Purvis (Bale) on the case. Having apprehended Pretty Boy Floyd, the director feels this is his best bet to catch Dillinger. Naturally, things don’t go well at first, the modern day bandit slipping through the FBI’s fingers at every turn. But soon, many of his men start dying, and it’s not long before Dillinger and Frenchette are cornered in a Phoenix hotel. She is let go. He is imprisoned, but manages to escape. With few left to rely on, Dillinger hooks up with the volatile Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), and soon, the new gang is in a horrific firefight at a secluded wilderness lodge. Eventually, Purvis makes a deal with a local madam. She will lure Dillinger out in the open to prevent her deportation. They will then take him down.

The FBI’s chance comes on 22 July, 1934, at a downtown movie theater.

At first glance, Public Enemies is a lot like that lame 1991 movie Mobsters starring Christian Slater, Costas Mandylor, Richard Greico, and Patrick Dempsey. It has all the trappings of a Tiger Beat version of Untouchables folklore, glamorous names and A-list faces filling in for individuals for whom reality has a more honest, and homelier, truth. But once you get past the superstar status of many in the cast and concentrate on what Michael Mann is doing here, the superficiality slowly fades away. In its place are artistry, authenticity, and an attention to detail which helps to override the occasional lapses in the narrative. Listening to the filmmaker during his discussion fills in many of the blanks the basic storyline skips over. In fact, Mann even mentions a quick introductory read of the book upon which the movie is based in order to provide the necessary context his two hour plus drama could not begin to touch.

You can see it several times throughout the course of this otherwise fine film. When Channing Tatum turns up as Pretty Boy Floyd, you wonder why this particular criminal is treated like a cameo. Later on, when Dillinger is making his date with destiny, Leelee Sobieski turns up as the hoodlum’s escort for the night. This happens frequently in Public Enemies - just as we are settling in and getting background on the individuals up on the screen, another interesting but explained person (Lili Taylor as Sheriff Lillian Holley) shows up to snatch the movie away. We are desperate for more - more insight, more bank robberies, more Tommy Gun sputtering battles. Instead, Mann focuses on his forward narrative momentum, driving Depp and Bale to their mostly indirect clash. Whether it was an issue of trying to deal with too much or some manner of editorial confusion, Public Enemies needed to me more in-depth - or just less busy.

Still the performances are top notch, and on the small screen Blu-ray experience, you can really invest in what Depp and Bale are doing. This is not some manner of scene hogging grandstanding. We don’t see the men falling into their characters like mannered Method wannabes. Instead, all easily play into Mann’s desire to be immersive, to actually live in the moment, preferably in the actual places these people existed in as well. All throughout the commentary track we hear how the production repurposed old jails, found identical residences, and used the preservationist element within the many Midwestern locales to create a sense of sameness. Heck, they even film in the original Little Bohemia lodge, in the actual room Dillinger stayed in. From prison cells to city streets, Public Enemies is nothing if not respectful of the past.

Still, there is something slightly amiss about the movie overall. It never builds into the kind of epic you imagine Mann believes it to be. Even with all the ornate backdrops and “you are there” intimacy of the digital camera approach (which looks startling on the 1080p image transfer), there is a beat or two that’s off. Whenever Crudup’s Hoover steps up to sermonize, we keep waiting for something more impactful. When Purvis leads an unsuccessful stake out of Dillinger and his crew, we expect something more than a shoulder shrug sense of defeat. Of course, according to Mann, this is how it was. This is the way it happened (even with a few factual flubs to streamline the narrative), and therefore, this is the way is will be. Interestingly enough, Martin Scorsese can take a similar sensationalized true story of organized crime and turn it into masterworks like Goodfellas and Casino. Public Enemies should be as grand. Instead, it’s merely good. 

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