CONTAINS OBVIOUS AND MINOR SPOILERS
Bah. My sleep patterns are all disrupted by my staying up all Friday night in Leicester Square, in the "sleepy queue" for FrightFest tickets (more on that later, as that Scots woman off Newsnight is wont to say) so I'm writing on here at a ridiculous time on a Sunday morning.
It's a depressing time for the movies right now: all the major studios are putting out the big summer blockbusters and there's basically one dumn effects-driven behemoth after another until the kiddies go back to school. We've already had Ice Age 3, Transformers 2 and Terminator 4 (which so far is the only one I've liked - overblown and senseless, but that's probably what I was in the mood for); coming up are G-Force (guinea pig secret agents in 3D which I refuse to see), Land of the Lost (Will Ferrell vs dinosaurs, might be tolerable), GI Joe (elite spy team action movie, almost certainly very noisy) and Harry Potter 6 (whatever).
So it's theoretically encouraging that Universal take this opportunity to release Public Enemies, an $80-million period gangster drama with two A-list stars and helmed by an A-plus-list director. However, when even the combination of Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Michael Mann, composer Elliot Goldenthal, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti leads to thoughts of "how much longer is this going to take?", something is wrong.
There's a sense that this really wants to be another Heat: an epic battle of wills between two men from opposite sides of the law. I loved Heat, and frankly this movie is not another Heat. In that film, nobody was under any illusions that the Robert de Niro character was anything but a thief, a ruthless killer, The Bad Guy, and despite his faults, the Al Pacino character was The Good Guy who would bring him down. However, the Bad Guy in Public Enemies is John Dillinger, who in addition to being a thief and a ruthless killer, is also some kind of celebrated folk hero for whom there's a level of public admiration. This kind of thing muddies the film's waters. I've no time for thieves and killers and it puzzles me why some people look up to them. They can be colourful, witty and charismatic in James Bond movies, Dr Who, Batman and so forth; meanwhile on Planet Reality they're the obnoxious little brats who nicked my car. (It's interesting that Public Enemies has come out in the week our beloved Justice Minister has put the kibosh on cult folk hero thieving bastard Ronald Biggs' parole requests. Ronnie, if you'd stayed in prison you'd have been let out a decade ago, you dumbass.)
So I don't get the mythic appeal for the Johnny Depp character, since it's a true story and he was a real thief and killer, and thus I don't care when the Feds finally shoot him (does that count as a plot spoiler or fact of history?). But I don't get the appeal for the Christian Bale character either (incidentally he's one of the few recent cinematic heroes named Melvin; the only other one I can think of is The Toxic Avenger). We have absolutely no information about him at all and he is ultimately just a bloke in a suit barking orders at other blokes in suits. In Heat, we had loads of information about the Al Pacino character: his obsessive nature, his shaky marriage, his relationship with his stepdaughter. We have nothing to work with at all. We can't really blame Bale: he hasn't got anything to work with either.
But the biggest problem with Public Enemies is, surprisingly, the look of the film. Heat was beautifully shot on 35mm film by Dante Spinotti. Collateral was shot digitally, but the digital camera gave a completely different look to night-time Los Angeles. Miami Vice was also shot digitally (I only saw it on DVD so I'm not sure what it looked like on the cinema screen). Public Enemies, however, is a period piece, a costume piece, and the decision to shoot on digital really does detract from the setting. It looks like television. It looks like video. And video looks cheap. Video gives a sense of immediacy, but immediacy is no use when you're working with a historical setting; it's like filming Jane Eyre on a Sony Handycam. It's like performing Beethoven's 5th symphony on a Casio keyboard. Lesbian Vampire Killers, a British Hammer pastiche with sitcom stars, was also shot digitally, on a Red camera, but crucially it looked like it was shot on 35mm film: you wouldn't know it was digital. There is something badly wrong when a piece of fluff like Lesbian Vampire Killers is more cinematic than the new Michael Mann film. Just as you really need a symphony orchestra to get a satisfactory performance of Beethoven's' 5th, this really needed 35mm film stock rather than a hard drive. This doesn't look like it was shot by the same man as Heat and Manhunter; it looks like it was shot by the bloke who does the DFS commercials. It's more disappointing than anything else.
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