Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Public Enemies

Michael Mann has had an overall impressive career. There have been the missteps along the way, like the over-inflated Ali and the nigh irrelevant revisiting of his 80's TV property Miami Vice, but movies like Heat, The Insider and Collateral maintain the balance. Now as the pioneer of the Digital Cinema age, Mann's Public Enemies ushers in the new era of filmic storytelling.

Enemies takes an interesting look at the life of John Dillinger. Instead of focusing on his rise to gangster infamy as the most renown bank robber this side of the Great Depression, we see the quieter portion of his downfall leading up to his assassination outside the Biograph Theater. Also interspersed through the tale is the birth of J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation through the machinations of G-Man Melvin Purvis.

The way Mann has utilized the digital video technology is definitely unconventional. There are a number of scenes with sparse lighting that gives the image a grainy appearance, which at first appears to be amateur but slips into an almost documentary feel at times. And yet, Mann still proves that no one can film a gun fight quite like he can. He displays some of the most sleek and dynamic camera moves of his career during the bank heist and prison break scenes.

Depp's portrayal of Dillinger is one of his most understated performances in quite some time. While his physical likeness isn't necessarily uncanny, his mannerisms and overall persona convey such a staggering amount of charisma he sells himself to the role in spades. Christian Bale finally edges his way out of his gruff, gravelly voiced typecast as Melvin Purvis, which couldn't be further from his roles as either Batman or John Connor. He constructs an interesting anti-villain, while we're set to rooting for Dillinger for the most part, Purvis' transcends the typical "lawman" archetype, making himself sympathetic and noble at the same time. Those performances aside, the show is all but stolen by recent Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. Playing Dillinger's girl, Billie Frechette, Cotillard refuses to fall victim to the award winner's follow up film curse (see: Halle Barry.) The strength her character exudes, despite the gender role trappings of the era, is undeniably powerful.

Michael Mann only graces the big screen every 3 years or so. Public Enemies proves yet again that it's worth the trip to the theater when it happens.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

And so, 2009 brings us the penultimate installment of the Harry Potter franchise. While the Half-Blood Prince may be one of the most loosely adapted of the novels thus far, it stands as one of the most emotionally resonant and significant films in the series.

If you stepped into the theater expecting a beat for beat interpretation of the 600+ page novel, I'm sorry to say, you are sorely mistaken. The laborious exposition and episodic structure of the book has been simplified to the core theme of the 6th installment's story, which is the blooming emotional maturity of the main characters. This comes out in the form of fleeting and slowly growing romances among the students, apt considering at this point they are 16 years old and at the peak of their volatile hormones. Apparently, wizard or not, the birds and the bees still apply in full force.

Mostly grown by now, the Potter kids finally put on their acting pants an do a markedly admirable job. The chemistry between Rupert Grint and Emma Watson is as genuine as it is heart-breaking. Daniel Radcliffe steps up his game and transcends the huffy-puffy adolescent of previous incarnations to achieve a true emotional depth(perhaps his stage presence in Equus helped nurture this game-changing feat.) Most impressive of the young cast this time around is Tom Felton as Harry's would-be advesary Draco Malfoy. As the beleaguered almost-villain the weight of his moral dilemma is etched into his face with true professionalism. Downplayed, but still omnipresent are the cadre of seasoned actors as the Hogwarts teachers. Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman hold steady for newcomer to the series Jim Broadbent as the new Potions teacher. His portrayal of Professor Slughorn carries a whimsically drunk, though inherently melancholy tone and is likely one of the most memorable one-off characters of the series.

Second time Potter director and series finisher David Yates also proves that, while this is essentially a childrens franchise, it's also an actual film as well. The visual effects, while frequent, take a back seat to the cinematography and shot composure creating a more immersive atmosphere than in previous installments. Unfortunately, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (who penned the impressive 5th film, The Order of the Phoenix) will remain a single chapter writer as series alum Steve Kloves re-assumes his post behind the keyboard. The adaptation is fair, but to his credit the relevance of the piece falls on the shoulders of Yates, who accomplishes it easily enough.

As the veritable "Empire Strikes Back" of the Potter catalog, The Half-Blood Prince is the opportune film to lead in the two part finale The Deathly Hallows, though we'll have to wait until winter 2010 and summer 2011, respectively.


After receiving a vast amount of critical acclaim at the Sundance and Cannes festivals, the Sam Rockwell powered one-man psychological sci-fi thriller show begins to worm its way into more theaters on its steadily expanding limited theatrical run. Directed by Duncan Jones, the real life son of Ziggy Stardust himself (David Bowie) Moon takes many of its cues from classic fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Solaris and Silent Running.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut finishing the last two weeks of his three year contract in an energy harvesting base on the far side of the moon. Kevin Spacey lends his voice to the robotic service assistant, GERTY, that mills about the station on a ceiling rail. His dulcet tones haunting the hollow compartments that Sam inhabits. As his contract end date approaches, his mental state begins to wane and he is involved in a moon rover accident following a hallucination. Sam awakens back in the station to find that there is another Sam Bell on the station who claims to be there on the same three-year contract.

Jones exploration into the nature of the human condition when faced with bleak and undeniable solitude is nothing short of mind blowing at times. The atmosphere is set perfectly in the cramped confines of the Sarang station's set design. The dim neon lights reassert the artificiality of Sam's surroundings. The choice to use miniatures instead of straight up CG adds a veritable amount of believability to the isolated locale of the moon's surface. The haunting score by Clint Mansell (best known for his work with Darren Aronofsky, namely Requiem for a Dream) seems to reverberates off the station walls, becoming a living attribute to Sam's plight.

Of course, it's impossible to leave the theater and not commend Rockwell for the daunting task of being the sole human character(s,) especially after the performance he's thrown together. While known for more eccentric characters like Billy the Kid from The Green Mile, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's two headed, partially retarded ambassador Zaphod Beeblebrox and most recently the sex-addicted con-artist, Victor Mancini the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's Choke, Rockwell employs a staggering range of emotion, especially when acting against only himself. It's almost convincing enough to assume that Rockwell has a true life twin to act off of, though it's all camera tricks and simplistic duplication effects.

Though a great deal of Moon's moral and ethical themes are unpleasant to ponder, what comes off the screen sticks with you. As a freshman effort from Duncan Jones, the end product is astounding to say the least. This is a director to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Rest in Peace, John Hughes

It's not surprising how affected I feel as I write that John Hughes has passed away. This is the man who essentially introduced me to comedy, let alone cinema.

If it weren't for Hughes, I may not be writing the way I am today (prose, comic, screenplay or critical essays) and he will always stand as an inspiration to myself and anyone else with a pen (or word processor) in hand.

Speaking for the past, present and future scribes of the world... We'll miss you, John.