Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE HURT LOCKER: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE HURT LOCKER (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)

“The rush of battle is a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” This quote from Chris Hedges’s book "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning" opens what is already being called one of the best war films ever.

I think it's too early to tell if it's worthy of the canon that includes FULL METAL JACKET, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, and GLORY (just to name a few), but it's definitely on the short list of great films about the war in Iraq. This is a very short list indeed because previously such movies either failed to connect with the masses or have been misguided messes; see REDACTED or STOP LOSS

Kathryn Bigelow's THE HURT LOCKER is too powerful to be ignored with a tense sense of self that lingers long after it's over. Set in 2006, we get to closely know the actions of a squad of army technicians sent to defuse explosives seemingly hidden in every nook and cranny in the streets of Baghdad. Jeremy Renner portrays Sergeant First Class William James, a loose canon whose order-ignoring ferocious focus frustrates his fellow team members (including Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) to no foreseeable end. 

The only star power present comes from brief appearances by Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and Lost's Evangeline Lilly as Renner's stateside wife. In each tension filled heart pounding scene, the danger that comes with every step can be felt intensely. As one of the only stylized elements of the film, the explosions that inevitably come are admirably not exploitatively presented.


However, the 3-4 amazing combat sequences that make up the bulk of the material do not add up to a masterpiece. I could've done without most of the downtime barracks bits; Christian Camargo as a Colonel attempting therapy on Renner is stiff as is a lot of the surrounding dialogue. 

These are small complaints as THE HURT LOCKER has more than enough of a gripping hold on its searing subject. Its coda, (don't worry no Spoilers!) which brings home the film's opening quote as we grasp the true nature of our protagonist, is one of the most satisfying dramatic conclusions of any movie in recent memory. Maybe not an instant modern war classic, what matters is it's a damn good movie. 

More later...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Random Babble On A Hot Sunny Summer Day

Hey folks - just a quick post to touch on some odds ‘n ends.

First off, I was a guest on Raleigh News And Observer critic Craig D. Lindsey's podcast “Uncle Crizzle’s Critical Condition" this last week. Please visit his blog and download it – I believe it’s a good listen.

Secondly, I want to announce Soundtrack September. All during the month of September there will articles, lists, and all kinds of movie soundtrack related whatnot. I’ll be inviting writers from all over the blogosphere to contribute so please feel free to send in your thoughts on favorite scores and soundtrack recordings. Should be a blast.

Third, the trailer for a new comedy due in Febuary 2010 just premiered at Comic-Con 2009 (and hit the web) last week entitled HOT TUB TIME MACHINE.

This absurdly titled movie stars John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Clarke Duke, and Rob Corddry as 4 bachelor partying guys who just happen to discover that...well you know. Watch the actually funny trailer here for what I think is going to be next year's SNAKES ON A PLANE; well title-wise you see.

That’s all for now. I’ve got a lot of fabulous Film Babble Blogging to come so please stay tuned.

More later…

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stomaching The Provocative Doc FOOD INC.

FOOD INC. (Dir. Robert Kenner, 2008) I was sad to miss this film at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival earlier this year so I'm glad to see it get distribution and play in my area. As an examination in three parts of American agricultural food production, it's an eye opening and insightful look into the disturbing conditions under which animals are bred by factories while genetically engineered produce is the grocery store norm. Much of this material is familiar; Richard Linklater's FAST FOOD NATION (2006), a comedy drama featuring Greg Kinnear and based on Eric Schlosser's best selling 2000 book, covered the dark side of the fast food industry with a number of the same bullet points made. Schlosser produces and co-narrates FOOD INC. with author and activist Michael Pollan and they give us a much fuller picture than FAST FOOD NATION with the direct concise expert breakdown this subject requires. Despite many disgusting shots with nauseating descriptions of inhuman practices, this film isn't about grossing you out. Many folks will avoid it with that fear, but FOOD INC. is overwhelmingly concerned with the politics behind our food choices. Schlosser states: "When you go through the supermarket there is a illusion of diversity. So much of our industrial food turns out to be rearrangements of corn." That's just one of many valuable lessons to be found as we see hidden camera footage that was shot by actual employees at the world's largest slaughterhouse and see cows being fed corn while standing in their own manure at the biggest cattle yards in the country. Again, a lot of folks want to be the dark about where their food comes from so an audience may be hard to come by for this fierce film. Sure ignorance may be bliss, but an education on the politics of the food we eat that should not be ignored. It's not an anti-meat movie either - the end credits are filled, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH-style, with suggestions for better healthy eating and "become a vegetarian" isn't one of the tips so rest assured carnivores! Maybe the question isn't of an audience, but the 'right' audience for this film - a special showing at the Colony Theater last weekend raised over $2,250 for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle which will bring wholesome food and essential kitchen equipment to needy families in the area. As it continues its theatrical run with other fundraisers and events planned to promote it, it's sure to build the right audience. And that audience probably won't be buying a large, buttered popcorn to go with it. More later...

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Until a little over a week ago I had never seen any of the Harry Potter movies. I decided that I would give them a try just in time to see the 6th one on opening weekend. I went through the stack of DVDs, in order of course, absorbing the world of academic wizardry and CGI spectacle film by film. After the Spielbergian sunniness of the first couple Chris Columbus helmed Potters, the films got darker and better crafted. The 3rd: Alfonso Cuaron's HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN may be my favorite of the lot. I watched the 4th on Friday night, then woke up early Saturday morning and watched the 5th so I was up to date and ready to go to the 6th one - that is if I wasn't getting Harry Pottered out. Was I? Let's see: HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE (Dir. David Yates, 2009) A major issue with hardcore Harry Potter fans is the differences between the books and the movies. Now, I haven't read the books so I obviously can't comment there, but I can say that this is the first time that I felt like there was something vital missing. I mean, all the basic beloved elements were present - the great ensemble cast, the flawless effects, the affable spirit, etc. - yet it felt strained and it dragged whereas the others were tightly plotted and breezed along. Was it insights from the book that I was missing? That's what I'm getting from fans who despite the large grosses and overall positive reviews, are crying that this Potter isn't up to par. In the trailer for the new Adam Sandler flick FUNNY PEOPLE Jonah Hill jokes about Harry Potter: "He's getting pretty old, is he getting a PHD in wizardry?" Yeah, I'm wondering how many years the guy has to go to Hogwarts myself. After seeing all the films in quick succession, the formula is well embedded - we catch up with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) in the world of the Muggles (non-magic folk) as some ginormous supernatural occurrence shakes the earth. A new character is introduced (this time the lively yet underwritten for Jim Broadbent as Professor Horace Slughorn - gotta love those names) and Harry is once again transported with his close friends (Rupert Grimm and Emma Watson) to Hogwarts where things are in turmoil as always - i.e. involving conflict with the battling surrounding Dumbledore's (Michael Gambon) army against long time evil entity Voldermort and the Death Eaters. That's as purposely vague as I'll get here. In the subplot dept. there are the blooming romances among the kids which unfortunately don't add up to much drama. It may have been a bad idea for me to watch 5 lengthy films in a layered series in which there's a lot more than, at first, meets the eye. "Oh, but you need to read the books" is something I've heard so often and I fully plan to (I have a stack of them next to my desk) but I can only judge them as movies separate from their literary counterparts for now. As such, #6, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE is a competent entry in the series but an underwhelming movie all the same. More later...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hey, I Finally Saw...LABYRINTH!

I would never have guessed that of all the Cool Classics @ The Colony I've attended, Jim Henson's 1986 musical fantasy LABYRINTH would have the biggest turn-out. A large crowd of moviegoers of all ages packed into the North Raleigh theater and cheered when David Bowie's name hit the screen. 

The audience also applauded Henson and Monty Python alum Terry Jones who co-wrote but booed producer George Lucas's funnily enough. I think I was one of the few that had never seen the film before. Not sure how I missed this film over the years - I was a Muppets kid and always loved Bowie but somehow this slipped through the cracks. To catch up by seeing a 35 MM print with a full audience is truly ideal as I found out Wednesday night.

Maybe it wasn't ideal to everybody in attendance though as a friend on Facebook wote this as his status shortly after the showing: "While you win points for the booing of Lucas and the cheering of Henson... those points quickly slipped away at the consistent and childish giggles each time the Glass Spider appeared in tights. I mean, you would think that if you are going out to see it at a theater the laughs would come at all the classic lines..." 

Well said, but the laughter and much singing didn't get in the way of my enjoyment. The overall vibe was fun and full of life. It's very amusing that a film that flopped big time back in the day has become such a crowd pleaser 23 years later. 

The story is simple, a 15 year old Jennifer Connelly wishes away her baby half-brother away: "I wish the goblins would come and take you away...right now" and is challenged by Jareth, the King of the Goblins (David Bowie in tights and with gigantic teased hair) to solve the enormous maze of the title in order to get the kid back.

It was easy to see why this film is so beloved - the 80's are alive in every inch of LABYRINTH. The soundtrack is catchy even if it's hardly in the realm of Bowie's finest work and each set piece is filled with invention - especially the Escher inspired sets. It might be a bit too long and yes there is a heavy cheese factor but I think most in the audience that night would agree that its flaws are just as endearing as its strengths. 

I have a feeling that had I seen it as a kid I may have been bored by it - probably prefering TIME BANDITS for my childhood fantasy needs but then, I dunno - I may have just as easily fallen for it too. The Colony Theater appears to be building a faithful following with the showing of these cult films. A "bicycle contingent" is always present as many folks ride their bicycles to the shows. 

The theater has indoor bike parking in the area in front of the screen. That's just one of many comforting sights on the nights of these screenings. Others are the marquee, the original one sheet poster of the film presented, and, of course, there are the vintage trailers. Not surprisingly the trailers (of SHOGUN ASSASSIN, THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKOROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION, and MONSTER SQUAD) that were shown before LABYRINTH were greeted with much enthusiasm. They are films coming soon in the next few months as the Colony is starting a new series to run alongside Cool Classics: "Cinema Overdrive". 

As their website states: "CINEMA OVERDRIVE (from the creator of the popular Retrofantasma) showcases the best in high-octane cult / horror / exploitation / drive-in and forgotten films that are waiting to find an audience." 

The first film in the series: DEATH RACE 2000 (starring David Carradine) is on Wednesday August 14th. Hope to see you there. 

More later...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Son Of Space Oddity

Now playing at the Colony Theater in Raleigh:

MOON (Dir. Duncan Jones, 2009)

The directorial debut of the British born Duncan Jones takes place almost entirely on the surface of the moon with the sparest of casts and the eeriest of vibes. 

It makes a certain sci-fi sense for Jones since he's the son (originally named "Zowie Bowie") of pop superstar David Bowie and grew up with heavy up close and personal exposure to his father's otherworldly output such as the classic albums "Space Oddity" and "Ziggy Stardust", along with his films THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and LABYRINTH

So, with that unique upbringing in mind, we are given Sam Rockwell as a Lunar Industries employee, alone and very lonely, on a 3 year assignment to extract Helium-3. His only companion at the lunar base Sarang is a robot named Gerty - voiced by Kevin Spacey. Except for a few blurry video messages on the monitors of his wife back home (Dominique McElligott) and a couple of corporate guys calling the shots, it's the Sam Rockwell show. He's burnt out as Hell; schlepping around the base in a daze donning shades to shield from the blinding glare around him as he counts down the days to when he can go home. He sees odd flickers of images of himself on the monitors and the fleeting vision of a woman in a yellow dress, but brushes these off as weary hallucinations until crashing his rover. When he awakes he finds there is another man on the base - another Sam Rockwell to be exact.

Because there are only so many pieces that make up MOON, it would be wrong to give any more away than that - from just that simple description I bet one could imagine story threads involving clones and delusion; dammit I'm still giving things away. It must be noted that while the Bowie background can't be ignored, this is more spiritually rooted to the seminal sci fi of the '70s and '80s - Jones cites SILENT RUNNING, ALIEN, OUTLAND, and, of course, the obvious connection: 2001 as major influences.

These were the antithesis of the commercial appeal of STAR WARS and its ilk; films that were about probing the depths of character's alienation instead of space laser fights and cute robots.

MOON can be a slow dry ride, but it's one that lingers darkly though thoughtfully. Rockwell's performance never falters especially in scenes when he's interacting with himself; he's as on as any time in his career. Rockwell's no stranger to sci fi either from his roles in GALAXY QUEST and HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY so he is at home here.

It was nice to see models and matte paintings instead of CGI, though I bet that choice was budgetary rather than artistic. There's a low key yet absorbingly spooky mood to MOON that is still with me the next day, while the parts that didn't quite add up (like the unsatisfying ending) are fading. As it still processes, right now I can only concede that it's a fine film debut as well as a promising chip off the Bowie block. 

More later...

Friday, July 10, 2009

BRÜNO: The Film Babble Blog Review

BRÜNO (Dir. Larry Charles, 2009)

Approaching the theater (Mission Valley in Raleigh) minutes before midnight, my wife and I heard many complaints coming from the crowds of college aged kids (many younger than that) mulling about in and around the line for BRÜNO. Apparently no beer was to be sold at the concession stand for the showing.

There was a sign in the window of the box office booth confirming this. My wife said "it must be because of nudity" and she was, of course, right - NC Statue 18B-1005.1 forbids the sale of alcohol on premises providing "entertainment by any person whose genitals are exposed". When a particularly jolting close-up of full-frontal (and full screen) male nudity hit the screen (accompanied by pounding rave music of course), she leaned towards me and remarked "that's why we're not able to drink."

BRÜNO is Sacha Baron Cohen's new feature length vehicle for a character from his infamous albeit brief running D Ali G Show (2000) now presented because, as the ads state, "BORAT is so 2006."

The character Brüno (there is even an umlaut over the "U" in the Universal logo at the beginning) is a flaming homosexual Austrian TV fashion reporter whose sole purpose is to get up in the face of uptight straight people and make a scene. A series of these scenes, in mockumentary format, makes up a movie as it did with BORAT. It seems that here, Cohen and director Charles intend to offend everybody that BORAT didn't get to.

While Borat came to America in order to document "cultural learnings"; Brüno comes here to become famous. He goes through every conceivable celebrity trend to achieve this goal including adopting an African baby (actually trading for him with an iPod) deciding upon a charity to lend his name to. Darfur, he accesses is taken, so he wants to know what's going to be "Dar-five."

There are many laughs throughout BRÜNO, even if you can see them coming a mile away. Baron Cohen's intense commitment to the character and quick comic timing make just about every obvious set-up tick, and there's such a strongly silly drive behind it all that's impossible to deny. But if you thought BORAT was a bit much in the crude provocative department, this is likely to be way in the red zone for your sensibilities.

The rest of us may feel guilty about laughing at such base (I may be inclined to say "brilliantly base") material but we'll still laugh. As for the intended audience, the 18-24 year old crowd which mostly made up the packed theater I attended for example, laughed in loud rawdy rapture. Imagine if there had been alcohol involved.

More later...

Monday, July 06, 2009

10 Sequels To Classic Movies That Really Should Not Happen

Okay, I know it's the nature of the film business beast to repeat successful formulas ad nauseum with remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings galore; and I don't want to be another one of those movie bloggers that complain that 'Hollywood has officially run out of ideas', but dammit these sequels are really bad ideas. A few are just talk, a few are in production, and the rest have nothing happening but an announcement with a corresponding IMDb page but they are all scary sobering possibilities on the horizon. So just to put my 2 cents in here's 10 projected sequels of classic movies that I truly hope are axed:

1. BLADE RUNNER 2 (Dir. Ridley Scott? 20??)

Scott has batted around the idea of a sequel to the seminal 1982 cult sci fi movie for the last decade. The most recent news, in 2008, was that EAGLE EYE writers Travis Wright and John Glenn were tackling a screenplay for a sequel. More recently Scott and his brother Tony Scott announced that they were going to produce a prequel in the form of 5-10 short "webisodes" called PUREFOLD. Webisodes are fine, but the idea of a full length sequel is an awful one; BLADE RUNNER was a flawed yet contained story that created a convincing world pre CGI 'n all. A sequel would be indistinguishable from the over 25 years of bleak neon-lit dystopian future imitators. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the Scotts just leave it with the webisodes.

2. MONEY NEVER SLEEPS AKA WALL STREET 2 (Dir. Oliver Stone, 2010) The plot description on IMDb is: "As the global economy teeters on the brink of disaster, a young Wall Street trader partners with disgraced former Wall Street corporate raider Gordon Gekko on a two-tiered mission: To alert the financial community to the coming doom, and to find out who was responsible for the death of the young trader's mentor." Oh so it's supposed to be all timely! What's worse is that the young trader is set to be played by Shia LeBeouf (God, I hope it doesn't turn out he's Gekko's son - see #3 below), which I guess makes him this generation's Charlie Sheen. Michael Douglas is in place to reprise his Oscar winning role as Gordon Gekko who had the famous line: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." Well, there is no better word and this time, greed is very bad.

3. INDIANA JONES 5 (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2012) Now I was one of the few in the film geek blogosphere that actually liked INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM... (I didn't like the title however) yet I strongly feel this would be one trip too many back to the well. The 4th film had the ring of one final trip through cliffhanger clichés for old times' sake, but a 5th one would be really pushing it. All Harrison Ford franchises have to end sometime, how about now? Now sure works for me.

4. REPO CHICK (Dir. Alex Cox, 2010)

Cox has not been able to leave his beloved 1984 punk oddity alone - in the 90's he wrote a "semi sequel" entitled "Waldo's Hawaiian Holiday" which was later adapted into a graphic novel and just recently he announced REPO CHICK, an actual proper sequel produced by David Lynch. Emilio Estevez opted out, telling the Austin Decider: "I remain proud of "Repo Man", but my focus is on what's ahead of me, not what's in my rearview mirror." This film is in the can so it can't be axed but still some sensible soul could see fit to shelve it and save the reputation of a genuine cult classic. Here's hoping.

5. FLETCH WON - This has also been in development hell for ages. Over a decade ago, Kevin Smith was tapped to write and direct what would be a prequel based faithfully on the Gregory McDonald novel, with either Jason Lee or Ben Affleck as the iconic character, but major disagreements (particularly about the level of Chevy Chase's involvement) squashed the project. After that, in 2005, Scrubs writer/director/producer Bill Lawrence was on board with his Scrubs star Zach Braff, but neither is attached or listed (nor is anyone else) any more on the film's IMDb page. Looks like the project has been certified dead...or extremely sleepy. Let's hope it never wakes up.

6. NOBODY #*$%'S WITH THE JESUS (A THE BIG LEBOWSKI spin-off) Now, I just made up the title but, hey, it's a much quoted line and it falls right in line with Adam Sandler's YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN so I think it works. This is just talk, mainly John Turturo's, about a spin-off film written by the Coen Brothers and directed by and starring Turturo. In a 10th anniversary article in Rolling Stone last year ("The Decade Of The Dude" Sept. 4th, 2008) Turturo relays that the story will deal with Jesus landing a job as a bus driver for a girls' high school volleyball team. "It will be like a combination of ROCKY and the BAD NEWS BEARS. At the very least we'd have to have a Dude cameo." Uh, no thanks - methinks this idea reeks as bad as Walter Sobchak's "ringer" suitcase filled with his dirty underwear.

7. PORNO (The sequel to TRAINSPOTTING) This is another project that's probably dead or just resting quietly at the moment. Director Danny Boyle has said he'd like to do this follow-up in the future when the original actors have aged appropriately because the book sequel takes place much later but it's been a while since he said that now. Ewan Macgregor though has nixed the idea that he'd reprise Renton with these remarks about Irvine Welsh's follow-up novel "Porno": "I didn't think the book was very good. The novel of 'Trainspotting' was quite fantastic ... and then I find that the sequel ... it didn't move me as much." Like when Rodney Dangerfield bowed out of doing CADDYSHACK II because he hated the script, Macgregor just earned some major integrity points there.

8. BEVERLY HILLS COP IV (2012) This one is pretty likely to happen. Whatever your feelings on Murphy he is still huge bankable star (albeit in crappy family films these days) and it has been a lucrative franchise so I bet this one is in the cards. Maybe reprising Axel Foley will bring back some much needed edge to Murphy, but I doubt it. No matter how you slice it this is an unnecessary and uninspired attempt to cash in where there most likely will be insufficient funds. I mean, it's not exactly BOURNE or even the DIE HARD series we're talking about here, is it?

9. TRON 2.0 Working title: TR2N (Dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2011)

This is a sure thing too, but that doesn't stop me from wishing it away. TRON wasn't exactly a treasured part of my childhood, in fact I found it more than a little dull, but it had its charms as a dated ode to the world of video gaming before the rise of the internet. Now 29 years later with Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner returning, a sequel is poised to come win over the fan boys. That's just the problem - who else but fan boys will be lining up for this? Unless I hear it's a major re-imagining that smoothes over the shortcomings of the original, I surely won't be in line.

10. GHOSTBUSTERS 3 (Dir. Ivan Reitman?, 2012) This has been a buzzing on the internets for a while now with all of the principals set to return (even Rick Moranis who, except for some cartoon voice work, hasn't been onscreen since 1997) joined by fresh meat: Seth Rogen, Steve Carrell, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, and every other Apatow player and crude comedy regular working today as Ghost Buster trainees. Actually that last bit is just rumored (as is Moranis being present) but it is true that Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (writers on the US The Office) are writing a 3rd film and most of the original cast is set to come back except Sigourney Weaver who recently said: "I don't expect to have anything to do with it, although I wish them well." Well, I wish them well too, but I have a sad feeling that G3 will be a sticky pile of ghost goo.

Okay! Ten sequels I'd rather not see come to fruition. Any others out there you're dreading? HEATHERS 2? JURASSIC PARK 4, the UNTOUCHABLES prequel?!!?

More later...

Saturday, July 04, 2009

WHATEVER WORKS: The Film Babble Blog Review

WHATEVER WORKS (Dir. Woody Allen, 2009) Allen's follow-up to last year's return to form, the luscious VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, is being dismissed by a number of critics as a flimsy throwaway but I found it to be a funny, touching and overall winning, uh, throwaway. The pairing of loud ornery curmudgeon Larry David with the quiet whimpering wit of Woody Allen works here as well as it does on paper; David's persona perfectly fits into Allen's familiar fastidious world. Sure, many well worn clichés abound - many used by Allen before like the old cranky genius mentoring a young beautiful woman (see Max Von Sydow and Barbara Hershey in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) and the round table of wise cracking chums that the story is relayed to (see BROADWAY DANNY ROSE and MELINDA AND MELINDA) - but as David says at one point: "Sometimes a cliché is the best way to make your point." In Allen's first New York set film in 5 years, David plays a divorced suicidal almost Nobel Prize nominee named Boris Yellnikoff who spends his days teaching chess to children that he calls "inch worms". Despite confusion from his friends (Michael McKean, Adam Brooks, and Lyle Kanouse) and other passerbys he addresses the camera much like Allen did in ANNIE HALL to tell us things like "this is not the feel good movie of the year" and "I’m not a likable guy - charm is not a priority with me." In the alley near his apartment (an impossibly spacious loft space like most NYC dwellings in the movies) he meets a runaway Southern girl (Evan Rachel Wood) who before long becomes his room mate and then, it's no spolier to say, his wife. The May/December romance is, of course, another patented Allen narrative but, hey - you write what you know! The premise of back woods folks having their horizons broadened by the mixing pot culture of New York is furthered with the appearance of Wood's parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) who come separately searching for their daughter. Clarkson, who does the Southern belle bit much better than Wood, is particularly repulsed by David so she schemes to break up the monumentally mis-matched couple. The folks from the sticks have their Christianity threatened by the spoils of the big city, giving Allen another comic atheist platform for lines like: "Why do all the religous psychotics wind up praying at my doorstep?" WHATEVER WORKS is likely to wind up on the sidelines of classic Woody Allen with the passable likes of MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY and SMALL TIME CROOKS; fine fluffy films that have just enough laughs and memorable moments to get by. It's telling that it began life as a screenplay in the 70's written for Zero Mostel. The film if produced then would've probably come in the pivotal period between his early funny movies and the more thoughtful relationship films that redefined his style. David, who has actually appeared in a Woody Allen film before (a bit part in Allen's short film "Oedipus Wrecks" in NEW YORK STORIES), is a wonderfully inspired choice here despite that he is clearly not an actor. His panic attacks are incredibly unconvincing and some of his line readings are stiff, yet he still works as this sneering character who declares ours to be a "failed species". There are no new lessons to be learned or insights to be gleaned from this film - its sensibility is simply that we are all doomed, life is short, and you've got to get and give happiness wherever you can. Over almost 40 films as director, Allen has relayed these messages many times and maybe here they just form a clothesline on which to hang a bunch of jokes, but for this long-time fan * WHATEVER works, as implausible and predictable as it is. But be warned, if you are not a fan, I highly suspect "Whatever" won't work. * I must stress that I haven't been very fond of much of Allen's work in this last decade. See "What's Up With Woody? Case In Point: CASSANDRA'S DREAM" (June 1st, 2008) for example. More later...

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES: The Film Babble Blog Review

“John Dillinger was shot dead behind that theater (points at the Biograph Theater) in a hail of FBI gunfire. You know who tipped him off? His fuckin’ girlfriend! (shrugs) He just wanted to go to the movies.” - Rob Gordon (John Cusack) from HIGH FIDELTY (Dir. Stephen Frears, 2000)

PUBLIC ENEMIES (Dir. Michael Mann, 2009)

At a recent revival showing of THE UNTOUCHABLES (part of a Robert De Niro double feature) the first shots showing the legs of Armani suited men storming up marble stairs made me think they accidentally started THE UNTOUCHABLES a few reels too soon. 

Of course, what I was actually seeing was the trailer for a new fangled ‘30s gangster movie with Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as his FBI chief pursuer. On first glance it looked remarkably like Brian De Palma’s Capone era classic. Upon closer inspection, well, the looks linger but this time the tale is told from the bad guys point of view

“I'm John Dillinger. I rob banks.” Depp smoothly parlays his M.O. to a new romantic prospect - a coat check girl played by Marion Cotillard (fresh from her Oscar winning turn as Edith Piaf in LA VIE EN ROSE). “Why did you tell me that?” She asks, intrigued, but she’ll soon learn that Depp’s Dillinger is forthright about everything. Despite being a bank robber on the run from the feds with his picture in the papers and 30 feet high in the newsreels, he comes off as a ‘man about town,’ always on the make with the movie star glow that Depp couldn’t shake off if he tried. 

So why is he so hard to catch? The only argument the film seems to offer is that it's because he is just as elusively slippery as a Warner Brothers cartoon character from the same period. When he is caught it is not for long as we are witness to more than one prison breakout sequence.

Over a decade ago, Mann made one of the definitive epic crime dramas - HEAT, but this sadly can't hold a candle to that masterpiece. While HEAT bristled with tension, PUBLIC ENEMIES goes through the motions with gunfights lacking in electricity and multiple dialogue driven scenes that just sit there. Depp is confident and slick, Bale is determined and humorless; yet beyond that there’s not much to their personas.

Bale is one of the most engaging actors working today but since BATMAN BEGINS it seems like he’s being inserted right and left into potential blockbusters like some kind of celebrity product placement; he’s a cowboy, a Vietnam soldier, he’s Dylan, he’s the new John Connor, he was even almost President George W. Bush in W.! Bale's character is solid, as is Depp's, but there are no surprises present in their sparring standoffs.

Still, PUBLIC ENEMIES is a sturdy well made movie with a number of striking set-pieces, so this isn’t a complete pan. A major saving grace is its great supporting cast including Billy Crudup (almost unrecognizable as J. Edgar Hoover), Stephen Dorff, James Russo, Lili Taylor, and Channing Tatum as Baby Face Nelson. That there’s no fault from any member of the supporting players shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. Also there are a few definite sparks between Coittard and Depp which helps since it's a fairly unfleshed out romance. 

Like Capone’s fate in THE UNTOUCHABLES, and for that matter many other movies based on true crime, we know how this will end for Dillinger but at 2 hours and 20 minutes this takes its sweet time getting there. However, once you get to the climax it’s the most stirring part of the film. As Cusack noted in the quote at the top of this review, Dillinger was killed after taking in a movie at the historic Biograph Theater.

Mann deftly illustrates, in the only section in which the glacial pace works, the odd peace Dillinger carried himself with. We see shots from the last film he saw, MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, with images of Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy pouring off the screen.

In the shadows deals are being made and fates are being sealed, but as Depp and the audience, both on screen and off, are being bathed in the white light coming from the projector, art and life are sitting comfortably side by side taking a break from mocking one another. It won't last long though... 

More later...