public enemies

Say this for Michael Mann: boy’s got style. And a period crime drama based on the final crime spree of John Dillinger’s gang should seem awfully natural in Mann’s hands. Especially with Johnny Depp starring as Dillinger to do all the heavy lifting.

In the end though, Public Enemies just kind of leaves me cold.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to like in Public Enemies; there’s plenty. Mann is fantastic both at capturing subtle moments between his characters, and at choreographing elaborate shoot-em-ups. Public Enemies has both in spades. Mann’s visual palate is glossy and fussy about detail, and both of these traits suit the film well. There’s really no good reason why the film should feel so vacant.

Yet it does. The Dillinger story itself is incredibly sensational, to the point that the film should have written itself, just based on the oral tradition that has sprung up around Dillinger over the years. And had Mann focused his story more stridently, he would just have to capture it. Instead, he plots out a 150 minute epic from a story that should have run about 105. There comes a point where each bank robbery runs together, each getaway loses its significance.

Mann also splits his time almost equally between the casual excitement of Dillinger hiding in plain sight, and the bland procedural matters involved with FBI agent Melvin Purvis’s (Christian Bale) attempts to catch him. True, Mann is often concerned with documenting every plot move in his films, but this was overkill even for him. On one end of his film, he has danger and intrigue; on the other, he has politics.

Both Depp and love interest Marion Cotillard are dynamic on screen and have a real chemistry, in spite of Mann’s feeble attempts to explain her rationale for falling for a fugitive. Bale is serviceable, Billy Crudup provides a nice take on FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, and tons of fine name actors (Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Leelee Sobieski) turn up for small roles.

Public Enemies has a lot going for it. It’s exciting in parts, beautiful to look at, even wryly funny. Yet the best things about it are almost always the most fleeting.

I get the feeling that there’s something more complex in Mann’s film that I’m missing. Maybe in future viewings I’ll find that out. Or maybe Mann has duped us all.

Film: Public Enemies
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, moderate crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 6
Rotten Tomatoes average: 65%

Next up: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.


my sister's keeper

After seeing Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, I thought nothing would ever cheer me up. So I figured I’d conclude a fine afternoon’s Theater Hopping Double Feature© by sneaking in to see My Sister’s Keeper, which could be alternately titled “that cancer girl movie where Cameron Diaz yells a lot.”

And My Sister’s Keeper is, indeed, that. Though that betrays the fact that it does a half decent job of accomplishing one of its goals (telling a coherent story), and an excellent job accomplishing the other (making ladies cry for an hour and 45 minutes).

The film centers on a girl dying of leukemia, and the trials her illness causes for her family, particularly her sister (Abigail Breslin), who was conceived in vitro as part of some mad scientist experiment to make spare parts for her ill sister (though the film only scratches the surface of examining just how fucked up that is). When Breslin grows tired of having no say in determining what happens to her own body, she sues her parents (Jason Patric and a “this is my serious face” Cameron Diaz) for medical emancipation. The film’s big twist reveals a master plan hidden under all the litigation.

My Sister’s Keeper is dark, lightened only by a few minutes of comic relief from smarmy lawyer Alec Baldwin, but it’s dark in the kind of way where you know everything will have some kind of positive resolution. Director Nick Cassavetes (chip off the old block, that guy) mines the uplifting moment out of every scene and bloated musical montage (the film actually has a scene scored with a down tempo version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”).

Cassavetes, however, moves in line with the sensibilities of his core audience; I’m just not part of it. Despite a jumbled timeline, he manages to keep the story together, though perhaps with less emotional depth than he hoped for.

But, in some sense, that’s for the best. My Sister’s Keeper may make you cry, but it won’t make you feel. And that, I think, is just how its audience wants it.

Film: My Sister’s Keeper
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Stars: Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Jason Patric, Alec Baldwin, Sofia Vassilieva, Evan Ellingson

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 4
Rotten Tomatoes average: 44%

Next up: Public Enemies

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

the taking of pelham 1 2 3

I don’t think it gets any more baseline than this. I was all ready to give Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 a middling five-point review on my completely infallible ten-point scale. So when I checked to see the critical consensus, I was pleased to see it reviewed positively by exactly 50% of critics. Metacritic rates the film right near the middle as well, with a 55. Clearly I’m in agreement with the world that Pelham is the most average movie of ever.

You see it’s not all bad, and considering what Tony Scott is capable of (Man on Fire, Days of Thunder, blech), it’s a minor triumph in line with Crimson Tide, his most straightforward and best film to date. Pelham keeps it simple, with a pretty standard hostage situation, that develops into a nice battle of wits between Denzel Washington’s good guy MTA dispatcher and John Travolta’s business savvy domestic terrorist ringleader.

Of course Scott can’t stay completely out of his own way, and this is kind of Pelham’s Achilles heel. Not content with a story that essentially tells itself, Scott raises the volume. At times he can’t resist beating the audience into submission with bizarre visual trickery, and one of those action movie scores with the pounding beat and bassy strings that make sure you know something exciting is supposed to be happening. Scott also makes halfhearted attempts at commentaries on media sensationalism and the dangers of post 9/11 government bureaucracy, but both ideas predictably fall shallow, sacrificed before the god of blowing more shit up.

All of that’s a shame too, because Scott gets nice performances out of both Travolta and Washington, far from career bests, but exactly what you would expect out of two seasoned pros counting on a decent paycheck. Luis Guzman and James Gandolfini also provide welcome turns, Guzman as Travolta’s inside man, and Gandolfini as New York’s ineffectual mayor.

Pelham is the kind of movie that destined to be a staple on, like, USA Network in a few years. And that’s not all bad.

Film: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Director: Tony Scott
Stars: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzman, James Gandolfini

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 5
Rotten Tomatoes average: 50%

Next up: The Proposal

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here. 

angels and demons

There are people who love Dan Brown, and there are people who violently hate the little bastard and his entire semi-literate fanbase. There appears to be very little in between. Except me of course, since I don’t know enough about Brown to hate him. Though after finally watching Ron Howard’s adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, I realized that if I ever cared enough to pick up one of Brown’s middlebrow time wasters, I’d certainly fall into the latter camp.

Howard follows up Da Vinci with Angels and Demons, casting Brown’s earlier novel as a sequel, since most readers read Angels after the breakout success of The Da Vinci Code. Also because Howard knows his viewers are too stupid to understand a prequel. This is also why he explains every turn in the action like it’s a fucking Scooby Doo mystery.

That being said, Howard handles Brown’s franchise far better the second time around. The tone is far less pandering, and the plot (mostly centralized in terms of location and theme) is far less convoluted, this time focusing on a longtime Catholic Church enemy (the spooky sounding “Illuminati”) and their threat to bomb the Vatican while the College of Cardinals gathers to select a new Pope.

Angels has a beginning, middle, and end that at least make some degree of sense, which is more than can be said for its predecessor. This is really all Howard needed to worry about, and he mostly stays out of the way, letting Tom Hanks (reprising his role as symbologist Robert Langdon) and the rest of his troupe hop around Rome and do whatever it is that they do.

Howard has made a perfectly average movie, which, sadly enough, is a giant step up for the franchise.

Film: Angels and Demons
Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, medium crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 5
Rotten Tomatoes average: 37%

Next up: Terminator: Salvation

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

Advertising seems like such a modern American phenomenon, it’s easy to forget that the medium is as old as mankind. Western capitalism has refined the process to such a point that, today, products are almost indistinguishable from the messages that sell them. The medium is the message, to borrow McLuhan, and so it goes that the delivery system is just as important as that which is being delivered.

Mad Men protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) grasps the significance of that, and lives it, operating as he does in the golden age of his business. During the post-war prosperity of the 1950s, consumer products were more sought after than ever. Production was high, and consumption kept pace. Unlike in other markets throughout the world, the television industry in America sprung up with advertising as its backbone, providing an optimal venue for moving product. While advertising was ever present in American life before the TV age, it was around this time that it became integral and unavoidable. It was a great time to be selling pretty much anything.

When Matthew Weiner wrote the pilot for Mad Men in 1999, he was looking to explore the end of the prosperous 1950s, when the whole experience of being American was becoming something radically different that it was during the decade’s infancy. He chose the advertising industry as a lens to explore the culture in flux, an industry that changes slowly (in lockstep with the societal tide), in almost perfect contrast to the fast and furious messages it delivers.

It’s in this spirit that Mad Men paces itself: slowly, deliberately. This is not a criticism; for a period drama that begins in 1960, when the massive social shifts that would define the end of that decade just beginning in a slow burn, it’s hard to imagine approaching it any other way. Little happens in any given episode of the series, but the devil is buried deeply within the details. The show so richly develops the period and its characters that even the tiniest plot turn is incredibly rewarding.

Season one dealt more with a changing tide in the American lifestyle, where the traditional family structures and gender roles became steadily more liberal and diverse, while exploring the vestiges of the old ways and contemporary taboos. Season two, which premiered Sunday, seems (if the first episode is any hint) to delve more deeply in the changes to come in the ad business. Draper and company seem poised to ponder their own obsolescence, as the Sterling Cooper agency reluctantly approaches a youth movement.

As Draper interviews some potential young new hires, the fear among the rest of the old guard is palpable. Undoubtedly some will not survive, while others will adapt to stay afloat. As Weiner’s camera has increasingly gone beyond the agency walls as the run of the series has gone on, we’re likely to see how the youth movement effects life outside of business, which, of course, is the whole point.

Episode one continued at a familiar pace, but it’s noticeable that the stakes are being raised. Roles are changing: after a fourteen month lapse in the plot, Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) is (almost) fully accepted in her creative position; Betty Draper (January Jones) is escaping her home life more than her husband would previously have allowed; Don is being reluctantly faithful to his wife; and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is, well, still kind of a pain in everyone’s ass.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or just change really, really slowly.

On a show like Mad Men — or really, on any show worth a damn — the subtext is much more important than the surface message. And subtext is more valuable the deeper it’s imbedded. This might as well be an advertising credo. Draper knows that selling a product is really about selling the consumers a better version of themselves. Weiner knows that when he tells his narrative, he’s really taking a new look at history.

the wire

HBO has announced that it will release a series of short films, or
which detail the back story of some of the characters for their series The Wire, which enters its final season in January. The short films will be available for free online at both and, and through HBO On Demand for HBO subscribers.

Two points of interest here. First, it’s interesting to see a pay television service provide free content in the same way that some broadcast networks, like NBC, have turned to their own online services to control the flow of their content. While NBC’s online programming is advertiser-supported, HBO’s Wire prequels will not be, which points to HBO using the content as a publicity agent, an advertisement for its pay service, all while providing additional material for its hardcore fans. It’s hard to argue with this as a marketing strategy.

On the other hand, as this is a marketing phenomenon, I’m curious, in light of the WGA strike, as to if or how much the writers were paid to create this content. The expectation of writers to create online content like this for little or no pay has been a major sticking point in the labor dispute. Writers for NBC’s The Office complained about this in a video piece produced from the picket line in the early days of the strike:

This all points to the changing nature of the business complex of entertainment. As the WGA has been quick to point out, as adjustments have been made in the production of content in the new media age, so much changes be made to its economic infrastructure. The old business models are outdated and unusable. The audience has largely thus far been a beneficiary of the increased amount of available entertainment content, but the hidden consequences are just beginning to be felt.

>>HBO’s ‘Wire’ plugs in VOD vignettes [Hollywood Reporter]
>>The Office is Closed [YouTube]

Weeds: Season Three Recap

November 20, 2007


Let me first say that when Marshall McLuhan talked about the “global village,” he likely didn’t have any idea that his concept would be used the way I’m about to use it. McLuhan believed that technology was the dominant agent that caused social change. Moreover, technology causes a compression of time and space that manifests itself in the “global village,” the increased frequency of community and communication that stems from faster and faster technology. The world has a way of encroaching on your space, instantaneously.

What does this have to do with Weeds? This season, the real world encroached on the world of Weeds, as the Southern California wildfires burnt just as the fire was burning in the fictional community of Majestic. This little piece of deus ex machina was enough for the Showtime brass to issue a disclaimer, read by stars Mary Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins, pointing out how serious the real life fires were, to reassure the audience that the show wasn’t just making light of the real life situation. In reality, the show must have been filmed well in advance of the fires, but the portrayal of the situation was pitch-perfect, making the satire feel all the more specific. The final few episodes featured an evacuation to a recreational center that had almost all the comforts of home. Like Kevin Nealon’s Doug sings (in an inspired bit of musical narration) “It’s just like the Superdome, ‘cept everyone’s white and middle class.” Of course, Weeds is populated with characters that are far above middle class means.

The show’s portrayals of class disparity were once again ubiquitous this season, but the real excitement was going on inside lead character Nancy Botwin’s (Parker) psyche. Nancy was more and more careless, getting herself into trouble far more easily, and less able to react on her feet. Weeds has become much more drama than comedy as it has aged, and not always to its credit. The endless jaw-dropping revelations are enough to keep a viewer entranced and dedicated, but the overall viewing experience is not as pleasant as it used to be.

Nevertheless, all the pieces are set up for next year, as rebuilding and retaliations are surely on the horizon. But how many more times can they up the ante?

>>McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.