Friday, August 14, 2009

Movie Review - Public Enemies

Criminals and Michael Mann go together like milk and cookies, so the story of the final days of 1930s "Public Enemy Number 1" John Dillinger would seem a perfect fit for this action oriented director. There are, indeed, action sequences aplenty with bank robberies, prison breaks, shootouts, even a girlfriend workover. No shortage of old style machine guns being fired from the runners of old style cars by old style hoods wearing long coats and hats. What is on very short supply here, however, is coherent story telling and character development. The period details are perfect, from clothes to sets and Johnny Depp makes a marvelous John Dillinger but there was way too much unimaginative gunplay along with a surpising lack of any spark. The cinematography is deliberately dark, a choice which made it feel washed out and grubby instead of menacing. I realize that every Mann film can't be as brilliant as "Heat", but I expected him to do more with this story than simply present a rather routine crime saga.

The centerpiece of the action is a cat-and-mouse game between the wildly successful Dillinger and his uptight FBI agent nemesis Melvin Purvis (a very stoic Christian Bale). FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup in a creepy characterization) is on a mission to clean up America, including apprehending the most notorious criminals of the day (Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson). Purvis has been charged with bringing in the popular Dillinger and his gang, a task he quickly realizes will be much more difficult than anticipated as the street smart criminals run circles around the typically doltish Feds. Of course there's a beautiful, loyal girlfriend for Dillinger (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard) plus a double crossing madam (Branka Katic) who fingers Dillinger after being threatened with deportation. Aside from Dillinger, the only character explored in any detail is Purvis, who begins having guilt and misgivings about his role in bringing Dillinger to justice as well as the methods used by the FBI. A large supporting cast, including Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd, Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson and Stephen Lang as Charles Winstead (the man who finally guns down Dillinger) pops in and out of the action so quickly we can barely keep them straight. Let's hope Mann hasn't decided to abandon his edgy, multi-layered style of action filmmaking for a video game approach.

Things to love about this movie: Depp's performance is captivating and made the movie for me; an exciting beginning with Dillinger's jail breakout of several gang members; good chemistry between Depp and Cotillard
Things to hate about this movie: Mann's usually brilliantly realized action scenes fall into a boring sameness here and I had trouble telling one shootout from another
Pleasant surprises: It was nice seeing the elusive Stephen Dorff as a member of Dillinger's crew; interesting information on the real people in the story shown at the end of the film
Unpleasant surprises: The wonderful and talented Cotillard is relegated to little more than a girlfriend role

Movie Review - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

After a rather lengthy delay the latest installment in the Harry Potter saga finally arrives and is more or less worth the wait. In fact, my review is even more delayed than the film! Once again all of our familiar friends are back at Hogwarts for another round of riveting adventures with the addition of teenage romance muddling the soup a bit this time. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) have grown up before our eyes but manage to retain believability as the wonderful students who continue to encounter one disaster after another. A great deal of the story here revolves around the investigation by Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Harry of the evil Voldemort's origins, including visits to the past where Harry encounters the young Tom Riddle (Voldemort's original name) at ages 11 (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin) and 16 (Frank Dillane). Riddle's attempts to discover the secrets of a forbidden Dark Art which may hold the key to his power remain elusive to Harry, who has a lot on his plate: He must also deal with a vanishing cabinet, an unbreakable vow and, of course, an exciting Quidditch match as well as his growing attraction to Ron's sister Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright). A busy guy indeed. Luckily Potter is up to the task and so is Radcliffe. In addition Harry has come into possession of a mysterious Potions book marked as the property of the "half-blood prince" which enables him to excel in his Potions class but begins having a disturbing effect on the lad.

There's a lot going on in this movie, some of which I haven't even mentioned yet. Harry's nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) figures prominently in the story along with the fabulous Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) who returns as the Potions teacher. Helena Bonham Carter makes a perfect Bellatrix Lestrange, Jessie Cave is a hoot as Lavender Brown (with a huge crush on Ron Weasley) and director David Yates does a good job of juggling the multiple storylines and characters. As usual, it's delicious escaping into the world of Harry Potter.

Things to love about this movie: Ron's delirious joy as he becomes a star Quidditch goalie; the riveting performances by Fiennes-Tiffin and Dillane who both reveal the seeds of evil in Voldemort in chilling fashion
Things to hate about this movie: The romance scenes didn't really work for me and were not only clunky but a bit silly
Pleasant surprises: Despite the lengthy delay in its release the movie is just fine (I had fears that the delay might have been caused by quality problems)
Unpleasant surprises: Some rather cheesy f/x with the Milennium Bridge in London being destroyed by Death Eaters

Movie Review - The Hurt Locker

In a word: Wow! Director extraordinaire Kathyn Bigelow pulls off one of the best films of the year in this zinger of a tale about a bomb squad working a lethal beat in Iraq while navigating the equally dangerous dynamics of learning to trust their fellow team members. Jeremy Renner delivers an electrifying performance as Sgt. Will James, a fearless adrenalin junkie who goes cowboy in the face of danger, putting his two fellow soldiers Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) at risk. Not to mention making their job of ensuring his safety next to impossible. A tense, effective opening scene sets the stage perfectly with the original team leader Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce in a memorable, if brief, appearance) becoming the victim of a quick series of unfortunate errors. We're immediately in the land of relentless paranoia where these soldiers live, desperately watching every doorway, rooftop and passerby for the smallest of clues. Is that man in the market making a call on his cell or signaling the detonation of a bomb? Is that kid just wandering up the street or is there a package of explosives under his shirt? This movie puts the typical action story to shame with razor sharp editing, one riveting nailbiter scene after another and, most importantly, three involving characters (James, Sanborn and Eldridge) who mysteriously work their way into our sympathies. One of the most impressive achievements of the film is the way in which these soldiers seem so typical yet become so individual in their approaches to the hell in which they find themseleves.

Although Renner is the standout in the cast, with the flashiest role and the most screentime, his supporting actors Mackie and Geraghty are equally impressive along with an almost unrecognizable Ralph Fiennes as a team leader the bomb squad encounters in the middle of the desert. Mackie in particular delivers a character of depth and substance, making Sanborn's growing frustration and conflict with James extremely dynamic. Of course the other real star of the movie is director Bieglow whose previously established ability with action sequences (in such films as "Point Break", "Strange Days" and "Near Dark") comes to full fruition here. Aided by outstanding cinematography (from Barry Ackroyd) and writing (Mark Boal), Bigelow has created a diamond of a film -- brilliant, sparkling, perfectly cut, cold, clear and a thing of brutal beauty to behold.

Things to love about this movie: The clever use of a running countdown of days left in Iraq for the soldiers; one of the most effective depictions of a soldier's return to civilian life I've ever seen; the perfect ending; some nice little touches like a shot of a gritty street cat or James' connection with a soccer playing kid
Things to hate about this movie: Can't think of a thing
Pleasant surprises: For a story about men and explosives there's a welcome subtle touch to many of the most powerful points in the film; James proves to be much more complicated than he first appears; no explicit scenes of animals or humans being blown away
Unpleasant surprises: None