Michael Mann, "Public Enemies" (2009).

Jul 05 2009 Published by Benito Vergara under review

Public Enemies

There’s one flat-out great sequence in Michael Mann’s new film, Public Enemies, the kind that makes you wish you were watching another movie. It’s a spectacular (and poorly thought-out) shoot-out in a lodge in the Wisconsin woods where John Dillinger and Babyface Nelson, the two most notorious gangsters of their time, are holed up. It’s the opposite of those scenes in Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986), or even on “Miami Vice”, which Mann produced — not those trademark tense scenes shot with paradoxical languor, with still bodies cut by shards of light, but with jittery handheld cameras.

Mann has been proven to be an efficient director of action (see the otherwise bloated Heat from 1995), and his sharp eye is actually aided here by using nothing but digital cameras all throughout. The cameras, practically up people’s nostrils, plunge you into the frenzy of the shootout: heat and light everywhere, the din of gunshot and breaking glass, Tommy guns literally ablaze, the sparks from their muzzles momentarily overexposed and blown out on camera. The gangsters run into the dark forest, and the DV camera makes the woods look alive, swarming with digital motes and jellyfish tendrils of fog. When the sequence ends in a forest clearing — death twitches galore and blood squibs exploding everywhere — you finally exhale. It’s unfortunate that it’s surrounded by over two hours of dullness.

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Tim Burton, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005).

Aug 20 2008 Published by Benito Vergara under review


I figure I must have read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory back in 1981, and so, while watching Tim Burton’s new film, I realized I’d completely forgotten the gleeful, childlike perversity in which Willy Wonka dispatches the children to their bloated, slimed, filthy and taffy-pulled fates. It’s nothing new: it’s an element that’s both in Burton — see Henry Selick’s The Nightmare before Christmas, or Burton’s second-best film, Edward Scissorhands — and certainly in Dahl’s work as well. (His almost cheerful introductions to the episodes of Tales of the Unexpected, mostly based on his short stories, belied the cruel twists that would happen at the end.)

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Mike Newell, “Donnie Brasco” (1997).

Aug 17 2008 Published by Benito Vergara under review

Donnie Brasco is a tragedy, and the opening credits alone tell us this: the keening violins, the somber blank-and white photography, the close-up of Al Pacino’s eyes. It’s a far cry from films like Pulp Fiction, which mined similar territory by focusing on a gang of criminal lowlifes. But one of the funnier scenes in Mike Newell’s excellent film comes just after a particularly brutal beating, Scorsese-style (people kicking someone on the ground, just like De Niro always does): we see Pacino trying to hammer a parking meter open, trying to get at the quarters. But they’re not just a bunch of amateur robbers; they’re part of the Mob, after all, which means we get to kick around meatier themes like honesty and betrayal and honor, et cetera. (I guess Newell did explore similar themes in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but I’m moving off track here.)

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