Thursday, August 27, 2009

Film Review: Public Enemies (2009)

On paper Public Enemies looked like a dream come true for any genre film fan. An authentically re-created gangster flick about John Dillinger, directed by Michael Mann with Mr. Charisma himself, Johnny Depp, essaying the infamous bank robber. Couldn't possibly fail, right? The tricky part however, is that when you are doing a film about a real life person or event, you have two ways you can go about it - make it as accurate as possible, or let your “artistic license” guide the story over solid facts. Sometimes the latter is better, and certainly can make for a better piece of entertainment. Enemies is undeniably in the latter group. The historical accuracy of John Dillinger’s life is dubiously muddled and lacking depth here, but without doubt, it is also presented in a way that keeps you glued to the screen.

The film’s biggest downfall is clearly the screenplay. The director has not exactly let it soar despite still fluffing the facts to his advantage, making it an off kilter hybrid of biopic and blockbuster, ala the (more accomplished) Mann produced, Martin Scorsese directed, The Aviator. Granted the dialogue is smart, snappy and significant at the right moments, it still only serves to help cover up the overall clumsiness of the writing. The relationships are not explored enough to have significant meaning or emotional impact, the jail escapes feel far too easy for Dillinger and the robberies, well, they are too short to be overly compelling. The action however is well done; an exciting forest shoot out midway through is handled perfectly by the HD video Mann favours so much these days. There is no denying Public Enemies is very accomplished on a technical level. An award worthy production design recreates the era immaculately, the editing is sharp and the score rises at all the right emotional peaks. The substance of the story just fails to match it unfortunately.
The performances are fairly good and even though Christian Bale, as the complicated Melvin Pervis, is often labelled with the “wooden” tag of late, I saw enough in his wordless nuances for it to be a convincing portrayal for me. I think it was a nicely subtle effort from him. Of course, I lapped up Depp’s (or Dillinger’s?) charm for sure. Depp seems to have become a very effortless actor - making it a fine line telling if whether he is actually being very good or just average. I thought he was good here, but again, the uber-cool dialogue he drawls probably helped to convince me of the former. The support cast was excellent. So many familiar faces; from TV actors to some older, recognisable character performers, the standouts were easily Stephen Graham and Billy Crudup, as Baby Face Nelson and J. Edgar Hoover respectively.

If you like it, the next obvious question seems to be: is it in the same class as Heat? The short answer is not even close, despite several similarities to the 1995 film (including the line “We here for the bank’s money, not yours”). To be fair, it was always a lofty height to actually reach for a director who seemed to be losing his touch with his last couple of films. What cannot be denied though, is that at its core, Public Enemies is solid entertainment and for better or worse, Mann’s best effort in a while. Worth it for the escapism, not the history lesson.

Monday, August 10, 2009

John Hughes R.I.P

John Hughes, one of my favourite film directors and a film making icon to angst ridden teens the world over, died last Thursday the 6th of August of a heart attack. He was 59.

Hughes’s films were equally impressionable and hugely entertaining to me as a pre-teen in the 80’s and a teen in the early 90’s. Films such as The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were integral in forming my initial love for movies. He taped into the mind of a teenager like no director before or after as a writer/director, melding hilarious moments and powerful drama to truly memorable effect. His later films, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck saw him moving into more family oriented comedy drama, proving his ability as a writer - something that was definitely his greatest gift, was unique and without peer. To this day, the blueprint of the man’s films still casts a heavy influence on all others who work within the genre of the "dramedy".

Even though he gave up directing in the early 90’s - though continuing to write, sometimes under pseudonyms, his death was still a shock to this fan and he will be sorely missed. His legacy of films remains a sign of an era, but also a body of work that remains timeless.

John Hughes
1950 - 2009
R. I. P

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

The idea of cult director Sam Raimi returning to his horror roots with Drag Me to Hell was an exciting prospect. Add to that enthusiasm an impressive trailer and strong word of mouth and you've got some fairly high expectations. Virtually from the get go, they're almost bettered with a prologue that deafeningly slams you into your seat. It's a powerful effects belter and provides early evidence that Raimi is in his element here and that he is definitely approaching it with a nostalgic attitude. The fact that the original treatment was drafted up not long after Army of Darkness was completed is not surprising.

The thunderous prologue gets the ball rolling informing us of the existence of a demon, the Lamia, who can be summoned via a gypsy curse to torment its victim before, after three days, literally drags them to hell. Unfortunately for farm-girl-all-grown-up Christine (Alison Lohman), rejecting an old woman’s begging to grant an extension on her mortgage at the bank where she works, proves to be a disaster. The old woman, Ms. Ganush (Lorna Raver) subsequently unleashes said curse on Christine for her revenge. As the three days play out, we see a strong willed, but morally flawed Christine dragged through a briar patch of unseen spirits, bodily fluids, hallucinations and insects as the Lamia prepares to take her soul. Seeking help in the form of fortune tellers and séances, she is taken on a roller coaster ride with Raimi pulling out all the swift camera zooms, tension building edits - with brilliant use of sound effects, putting us through the ringer as much as Christine herself. It’s a fast paced ninety minutes and never really lets up until after the startling ending.

Alison Lohman shines as Christine, being in almost every scene. Her flaws as a person revel themselves subtly as she slowly starts to lose her mind pushed to her limits during the three days. The supports are fleshed out well for such a film, with Raver’s Ganush a deliciously grotesque creation in particular. The score, handled by original Hellraiser composer, Christopher Young, is suitably gothic adding plenty of depth to the stand alone scare tactics of the sound editing. Overall, Drag Me to Hell is a tour de-force of unmistakable Raimi style and outrageous humour, packed with nods to the films his reputation was built on and a virtual instant classic itself. A totally self contained, well-crafted tale of the supernatural assembled around an idea befitting the genre - all without steeping to far into the ludicrous (we‘re in the territory where leap of faith plot devices or not so subtle twists are all a part of package after all). Darker in tone to Evil Dead 2 for example, but still with plenty of similar (intentional) belly laughs.

Besides it being that pure entertainment indulgence, the film is a revealing stake through the heart of the contemporary Hollywood horror movie genre which though it might be shunned by some of the stiffer filmgoers out there not familiar with the director‘s earlier films, it retains the spirit of what makes horror such a fun experience. At times, it felt like Raimi was rewarding the fans for their patience putting up with so much torture obsessed and remake dross over the last ten years. Its flaws are minor and resemble little more than forgivable genre traits making Drag Me to Hell a unique, memorable entry into what can sometimes be a gruelling, unfun catalogue of recent efforts.