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Weak material in Depp's 'Public Enemies' film

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Posted: Friday, July 10, 2009 10:00 pm

At this point, it's getting almost surreal: Week after week, we're seeing once-promising films that end up falling completely flat due to very fundamental and blindingly obvious problems with the screenplay, cast or direction (sometimes all three).

And for the life of me, I can't figure out how these very basic problems weren't spotted and/or solved during the filming or editing processes - especially considering that some of these disappointing films have been made by talented, prestigious filmmakers.

And here we go again, this time with Michael Mann's "Public Enemies." How could such a project go so terribly wrong? Read on…

Now in theaters

"Public Enemies"
** (out of four)
2009, Michael Mann, U.S., R

Michael Mann's John Dillinger biopic "Public Enemies" is an ambitious film, and attempts to present all aspects of the story. At times, it tries to be an intimate look at the life and death of a notorious public figure who always managed to exist in that fascinating gray area between dangerous bank robber and likable folk hero. Other times, it wants to be a bold and violent gangland epic, with realistic action and plenty of gangster chic to go around. Lastly, it fancies itself a history lesson on the early days of federal law enforcement and the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

When movies are this ambitious, they often buckle under the weight of their own vision, and the filmmaker fails to ensure that the different aspects of the story gel together to form a compelling whole. Here, the problems are more fundamental.

Mann, who also co-wrote the screenplay, actually does a decent job of juggling things (even if his film sometimes comes across as tedious and repetitively structured), and a few times the movie even stuns us with a flicker of creativity that hearkens back to his earlier, better works like "Heat" and "The Insider." A scene involving something as simple as a fleeing Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) waiting for a stoplight to turn green is among the best Hitchcockian suspense moments I've seen in quite a while.

No, the problem isn't that the components don't gel together. Rather, my issues stem from weakness of the material itself. The movie seeks suspense and catharsis through character building, but the characterizations are shallow and the performances are, for lack of a better word, sleepy. (It's almost as if Mann decided to pump Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard full of Quaaludes and then set them loose in front of a camera, just to see what would happen. Not much, as it turns out.) The film wants to thrill us with old-school gangster action, but few of the shoot-outs are actually exciting - most are obligatory and redundant. And while the film may be able to brag that its historical elements are quite factual, it's a problem when your presentation of history is so lackluster that the film feels at least twice as long as its already bloated two-and-a-half-hour running time.

I don't want to give the impression that "Public Enemies" is a bad film, per se, because it certainly has its moments. (The final scene involving Bale's federal agents gunning down Dillinger as he exits a movie theater is, predictably, one of them.) However, when a movie boasts this kind of cast, crew and budget, one simply doesn't expect or appreciate this level of mundane mediocrity.

The life analysis of Robert Strange McNamara

Robert Strange McNamara died last week at the age of 93, and it's tempting to have a kneejerk reaction to his death.

DVD pick

"The Fog of War"
****
2003, Errol Morris, U.S., R

But whether you view his passing as a sad occurrence or simply an instance of a man finally getting what he had coming decades ago, I think we can agree that this is one figure of modern history whose life and death require a more sober, realistic analysis.

And as far as I'm aware, there is no greater cinematic analysis of McNamara's role in history than Errol Morris' Oscar-winning documentary, "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara."

Using the radical filming techniques he pioneered in works like "The Thin Blue Line" and "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.," Morris enables McNamara himself to address his audience in a way that gives the sensation of a one-on-one conversation. During the course of the film, McNamara recalls his time as the U.S. Secretary of Defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He shares his memories and regrets, and details 11 lessons to be learned from his inexcusably disastrous job performance.

Historically speaking, it wouldn't be outrageous to label McNamara as a monster whose hubris and sheer incompetence led to the deaths of millions of innocent people. However, seeing the man laid bare, nearly begging for forgiveness of his past transgressions, it's difficult to make such judgments. Morris has humanized (but never excused) a subject whom most people might consider inhuman, and for documentarians, I can think of few greater accomplishments.

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