July 03, 2009

Public Enemies Talkback

Walt's review makes me feel like a Michael Mann fanboy, but I gotta say, I really liked, maybe loved, Public Enemies.

I'm probably the Boy Who Cried Cognitive Dissonance, but what jarred me most about Mann's use of HD here is that the sound--sonorous and cinematic--doesn't quite go with the image. You'd think it would've been an issue in Miami Vice and Collateral as well, but for some reason it's harder to reconcile in Public Enemies, maybe because we're already too busy wrestling with the idea of a period piece shot on video. I'm actually surprised (or not) that more folks haven't pointed out that the mix itself is rather sloppy in the fashion of the Miami Vice director's cut: music will fade up and fade out with little finesse, while normal speaking voices magically carry no matter how loud the background din (thinking especially of the pivotal club scene and bank robberies) and Otis Taylor's "Ten Million Slaves" is decidedly, um, overused. Is this all part and parcel of Mann's mad science of late?

But goddamnit, the movie knocked me on my ass. The last scene is perfection; Stephen Lang has this voice that makes my movie-panties wet. I even liked Bale, whom I figure decided to infuse his whole performance with the subtext that in real-life his character later committed suicide. (Purvis' depression is palpable.) What did you guys think?

39 comments:

Jared said...

I thought this movie was a total mess and a waste of money. I think Michael Mann is so in love with his HD video that he's completely neglected story and character, this isn't quite as bad as I thought Miami Vice was but far down from the heights of Collateral. The movie is clattering and obnoxious and unbearable when Depp is off-screen. I left the theater thinking it was mediocre and reflected on it and felt it was bad. Walter's ** is generosity based on Mann's track record.

Bill C said...

Well, COLLATERAL's the only Mann movie I actively dislike (I even prefer THE KEEP), so...there ya go, I guess.

Jared said...

Is The Keep even on DVD? I liked Collateral's attempts to form a film type of jazz fusion. It's amazing to think of how far Jamie Foxx has fallen from 2004, to say nothing of Tom Cruise.

Bill C said...

I suspect if Mann has his way, we'll never see THE KEEP on DVD.

Jefferson said...

Everywhere I turn in reading about Public Enemies, I see hate for Collateral. What's the beef? I recall it being pretty actively embraced upon its release, and if Cruise is the issue, I found it kind of a fascinating continuance of the way he fucks with his public image.

Patrick said...

Collateral was alright, I thought, and far, far better than the drek that was Miami Vice – though my opinion of that one my be tainted by its reception, and I haven't gone back to it.

On a side note, the Guardian has a nice piece about "shlockbusters" that ends with:

This publicist has worked with Michael Bay, and has seen him interact with those who pay his wages. So why does she think he gets hired despite the merit or otherwise of his movies? She thinks for a moment. "Michael is a good salesman," she says. "He's great in meetings. And he has great hair."

There you have it.

Dan said...

I liked Miami Vice when it first appeared, and it has continued to grow further on me ever since: I find he puts his HD aesthetic to better use here than in the less consistent Collateral, which I also like, but its too-neat ending leaves a bad taste in this Mann-lover's mouth (tee-hee). For me, The Insider still stands above the rest - Tuesday Weld is mostly to blame for my infatuation with Thief.
I'm looking forward to Public Enemies, esp. now that Bill has spoken out on its behalf. The only Michael Mann film I didn't like at all was L.A. Takedown.

Bill C said...

My problem with COLLATERAL has nout to do with Cruise and lots to do with the fact that it turns into a conventional thriller for the last 15 minutes or so and Mann doesn't really find a way to make it his own, or even to deliver the best version of a formula. Also, every time they cut back to the cops it tests my patience--they're the ciphers in which people always accuse Mann of trafficking.

jacksommersby said...

In defense of Mann, it was widely reported that Paramount seriously screwed with him during production and post-production of "The Keep". And it's a shame because the book it was based on is one of the best horror/fantasy works ever. However, this still doesn't excuse the pathetic-looking monster and way too much attention-getting style. So I hold that film as his worst.

(By the way, how about putting Mann's multiple-Emmy-winning "The Jericho Mile" on DVD?)

Anonymous said...

I have to echo Walter's sentiments regarding the lack of energy between Bale and Depp in comparison to what Heat offered. PE is really just a remake of Heat set in the early 20th century. There are so many scenes and plot points that have their direct Heat counterparts, only not nearly as good.
I blame it on the influence Mann's screenwriting collaborators. Whenever Mann directs a script he didn't write by himself (Collateral) it doesn't turn out right.

KayKay said...

Can Bale do anything other than Homicidal Self-Absorption (American Psycho, Shaft) or Ass-Clenching Intensity (The Prestige,3.10 To Yuma, The Machinist, Terminator Salvation, Public Enemies, those little Indie flicks about a guy in a Bat Suit etc)?

Andrei said...

The House Next Door has a cool series of video essays on Mann's work that's worth checking out, here's part one: http://www.thehousenextdooronline.com/2009/07/zen-pulp-world-of-michael-mann-pt-1.html

Bill C said...

Just to apprise: you may notice a familiar name attached to today's review of ZPG. Travis isn't returning to the site per se, but he will be pitching in (pinch-hitting?) while production on the book winds down.

Mike A said...

I don't think it's fair to expect Bale/Depp to be the same as Pacino/De Niro. In Public Enemies, Bale plays a stooge working in the name of the Bureau. That's the one thing that really defines his character, and it's mirrored by the faceless bookies who work in the name of the syndicate. The various shadowy political groups are presented as the villains because they're boring. Hoover's "Junior G-Men" ad is hokey crap compared to Dillinger's schmooze, and that's why he's the bad guy.

This is the first Mann movie I've seen where the characters are aware that they're supposed to be icons. Depp plays Dillinger as someone who knows that he'll end up the subject of a biopic, so his every action is crafted towards that end. He plays an insecure actor deliberately trying to become romanticized and immortalized on film.

So Public Enemies strikes me as Mann at his most auto-critical. It's a prequel to (and commentary on) Heat, rather than a remake, and I think that it's the best of his HD video films so far.

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen Public Enemies yet (will soon), but it occurred to me while reading this thread how much I don't like Michael Mann. "Accused" of trafficing in ciphers, nothing -- that's what he does, full stop. In fact, I'd call "Collateral" (and "Manhunter," I guess) his best films simply because they have characters who have a pulse, that's why I'm willing to forgive "Collateral"'s shit ending (I have a soft spot for directors trying to spin gold out of shit, see also "In Dreams," "Inside Man" and "Another 48 Hrs.") "Miami Vice" is a running joke among my group of friends for bad movies, similar to "Transformers" albeit for different friends. "Miami Vice" features characters who are so cool that they don't have to speak, move or do anything at all except stand there and look cool. Michael Mann's style tries to make all the nothing his characters do seem significant, but fuck it, all I see is a guy who found a way to turn shootouts middlebrow.

--Kim

James Allen said...

Good to see Travis around the site again (hope everything's going well for you, Travis).

I can't remember when I saw ZPG it was so long ago- I suppose that means it didn't really register with me, and Travis' piece basically spells out why. I wonder if the "message" pictures of today will seem as dated and irrelevent 20 or 30 years hence.

Nyarlathotep said...

James: Hell, a lot of the "message" pictures of today are already exercises in eye-rolling burlesque. If they're being laughed at and dismissed now, then they'll be forgotten or derided by the next generation's equivalent of Mystery Science Theater.

To the topic at hand: I haven't seen Public Enemies and haven't formed a firm opinion of Mann's body of work. Will seek to fix this.

RoQnRollMartian said...

Long time listener, first time caller. I wrote my thoughts about Public Enemies last week after seeing it, and was a bit taken aback to find that I had given it the same rating and felt much the same about it as Walter did (Hell, I even wrote a similar pseudo-pun about Heat). Chalk it up to visiting your site almost compulsively, perhaps.

Honestly, I simply found the whole piece rather weightless. There was nothing here I wanted to rail against and nothing I could really get behind. I kept waiting for the film to click on some level, and more than anything I just kept feeling worried as to why I never felt it did. My friend who was living in Chicago at the time of filming told me that he got to see where Dillinger's death scene was filmed. They were filming on the street right outside the Biograph Theater, see, but had essentially constructed entirely new buildings around it to fit the period. That, in a way, kind of sums up the movie to me- a work made up of small pieces of historical trivia, peripheral to any cinematic or artistic concerns, never deep or fleshed out enough to stand on their own and never connected to character or theme enough to make a narrative impact. It's one of the rare films, I think, that would have benefited from, for instance, the inclusion of date or location titles before each bank robbery; as one who admits to not knowing a whole lot about Dillinger and his exploits, I admit to spending more of the movie trying to figure out the timeline of events and puzzling over the names of individuals than ever really enjoying it. It felt too wrapped up in a kind of realism to ever reach for a certain beauty or subtext (and that's not at all to say that it couldn't attain both while maintaining that grittiness) yet too romantic and caught up in The Dillinger Myth, as it were, to develop any sort of insight into why this guy apparently relished acting in such an impulsive and reckless manner.

That said, while I admit to not having seen a whole lot of Mann's work, there's always been something about him and his style that strikes me as extremely compelling and intelligent. His use of HD here is (for the most part) striking and gorgeous, and the way those tommy guns sound- fuhgedaboudit. And I gotta say, Mike A posited here probably the most compelling defense of the film I've read. Maybe I outta see it again keeping those thoughts in mind, and it might reveal the types of thematic underpinnings I hoped for in vain on my first viewing. I guess what I'm saying is that I was really hoping I'd be sharing in your excitement, Bill. It's just that, for me, the feeling of elation (which, truth be told, I haven't felt a whole lot during any film so far this summer) just never swept over me.

As always, keep up the excellent work. I don't feel so alone and powerless in my love of cinema when I read your guys' stuff.

permazorch said...

Kim, I have to say I also find Mann's work repellent. To me, all he has to say is less than "Pretty Vacant". Maybe it's because his take on men bores me to tears. I probably won't see this movie. I will play some Ramones, some Sex Pistols and Johnny Thunders at home, on the stereophonic device handiest.
Then I'll read some Elmore Leonard.
Then I'll play Fallout 3.

jer fairall said...

Haven't seen Public Enemies yet, and haven't seen Last of the Mohicans, Heat or The Insider since they were all new releases, but my long standing impression of him is that he makes action thrillers for adults, which is to say that he makes action thrillers that aren't any fun. I think that my positive but not that enthusiastic reaction to Nolan's Batman films have a lot to do with how Mann-ian they seem to me.

Collateral was unusually tight in a way that none of the other Mann films I have seen are and though far, far from perfect (I actually found the nightclub shootout to be every bit as tonally inconsistent with everything that came before as that stupid ending was), it stands as the mild exception for me so far.

Jefferson said...

Does anyone remember Band of the Hand? The movie Mann produced with Paul Michael Glaser directing after "Miami Vice" hit TV? The one he got Dylan to do the soundtrack song for?

Or was it all a dream I had while running a high fever?

Bill C said...

@Jefferson: Oh I remember BAND OF THE HAND. (That's where Mann met Stephen Lang, whom he'd eventually cast in "Crime Story".) Always found it odd, by the by, that "'Miami Vice' chic" was more prevalent at the movies than on television, since TV loves to Xerox its hits. In '86 you had BotH, FIRE WITH FIRE, BLUE CITY, on and on, but it seemed like on the small screen the show was less often ripped off than used as a punchline in sitcoms (especially the Miami-set "The Golden Girls").

@Permazorch: I'm pretty sure you're being tongue-in-cheek with your list o' quasi-punk (you forgot "get a tattoo" and "tear off a mattress tag"), but speaking of repellent and vacant, how 'bout that Elmore Leonard?

Bill C said...

Holy cow, I just looked up Stephen Lang's IMDb page and had totally flaked that he played Freddie Lounds in MANHUNTER.

Jefferson said...

Not just Stephen Lang, but John Cameron Mitchell ... Hedwig! IMDB diving is a fun way to murder free time.

Anonymous said...

Just saw the movie we're all talking about, and yeah, I've already said I don't like Mann's work, but even I'm surprised at how much "Public Enemies" was a fucking disaster -- perhaps Michael Mann's worst movie. I'm beginning to suspect that Michael Mann's only trick is to suck the life out of everything and then turn up the volume really loud during the shootouts. The man does not have anything interesting to say, and even granted with a screenplay with many interesting scenes, he does his ungodly best to remove any sense of joy or excitement from them. Depp's Dillinger is not a hero, an anti-hero or a villain -- he's just an image on the screen. "Michael Clayton" all over again, man -- all directionless plotting and unjustified gravitas. This is my least favorite kind of film, the kind that considers itself too "good" to have momentum or be interesting.

Also, someone tell the poor guy that digital video in a period piece just makes the actors look like they're wearing costumes and the settings look like soundstages.

--Kim

Anonymous said...

Will add, though, that that shootout in the woods was fucking fantastic -- a wonderful sequence that justifies Mann's style. If only he'd cheer up though.

jacksommersby said...

"Band of the Hand" and "The Running Man" a year later solidified actor-turned-director Paul Michael Glaser as a first-rate action director -- sort of like a Peter Berg in the day. Disappointing that his career behind the camera didn't take off like it should've, though "The Cutting Edge" and "The Air Up There" are still perfectly fine entertainments.

Paul Clarke said...

I'm a Mann apologist--hell, I even dug Miami Vice--but for me Public Enemies was his weakest film since Ali. My dislike of the film is almost entirely due to the way Mann shot it -- shaky camerawork, ugly HD, and an overuse of closeups rendered the whole film painful to watch. The siege on the house in the woods could have been the equal of the street shootout in Heat but the shooting style made it confusing and dull. Pity, really, because the film has some outstanding performances, and Mann uses music effectively again, especially the song "Bye Bye Blackbird."

permazorch said...

@Bill C: I was definitely being tongue in something, but when I consider what interests me about manly-man stuff, it's punk rock that doesn't need guns, videogames full of guns (but, where the lead character can be a woman), and great dialogue (and priceless small moments of character-driven action) from the better parts of Elmore Leonard, and I think the latter takes the piss out of he-manliness just fine. For repellent and vacant, I go for James Ellroy. He's definitely made for Mann.
As for tattoos and mattress tags, well, that's just not my thing.

Nate said...

Just saw it myself and it is, without a doubt, the worst-sounding and worst-looking big budget movie I have ever seen. It actually made me angry. If a studio gave me $130 million to make a movie and this is what I turned in, I would be embarrassed.

As for the movie itself, eh. I couldn't care less about the characters or the story. I liked the scenes with Marion Cotillard. But the cinematography and sound mix are astoundingly awful to the point of erasing anything good the film has to offer.

Anonymous said...

Comments for Walter re: the Potter 6 review - you declare that the film is about nothing and that you felt chills from the opening, reading it as perhaps suggesting that the film is about the crumbling of the protagonist's image and fame as "the one," yet Yates chooses to fade that scene out on Dumbledore's hand on Harry's arm, taking him away from the Paparazzi. I don't disagree that the film spends far too much time pissfarting around with its weak, unsubtle, immature romance horse shit, but also felt that the frequent dark, violent scenes and the central narrative pertains to the themes of loss of innocence (Harry and Draco alike) and loss of protectors (again) as adulthood and maturity is forced upon the young in desperate times. I think it's unfair to compare Newell's underwater scenes to Yates' - there was genuine peril and fear here, followed by the rescue that's the first and only time we see the extent of Dumbledore's power - not long before he perishes, a weathered and aged old man, the final father figure to orphaned Harry. You don't feel any of this?

Also: no FFC thoughts on Bruno?

Carl Walker said...

Walter, I was surprised to see that Yates had slipped so badly (you've convinced me to wait until home release for the first time in the series), until I read the rest of your review and realized that he just wasn't up to the, well, alchemy that would have been required to make a good film out of book 6.

I'm guessing that you haven't read the books (can't blame you), but book 6 was easily the weakest of the entire series, as the plot really does take a holiday until that final sequence. Oh, and there were a lot of flashbacks that seemed like they should have been relegated to some kind of Ender's Shadow-like vanity side project; it's not clear from your review if those made it in or not.

It's tempting to say that Cuaron, or someone of his caliber, could've salvaged book 6 somehow, but honestly, I think that if Warner Bros. had any shame (funny, I know), they would've combined 6 and 7 into one film, or maybe two. Hell, I guess it's amazing that any of the films were good when you think about it.

Walter_Chaw said...

No. I don't feel anything. How is there genuine fear and peril in the underwater zombie sequence? Felt exactly as boring as the rest of it to me and, frankly, exactly as scary and perilous as the bad mermaid bit in pt. 4. So Dumbledore is powerful? In what way is he powerful when he's a "weathered and aged old man"? True he fades away from the promise of the first five minutes - but then why does he return obsessively to the idea of the gaze? It's like he understands that this is what the story is but is afraid to disappoint by not dwelling on the love connections.

The sad missed opportunity here is that what could be more right in a story about love and objects of desire than a conversation about the dangers and forbidden delights of looking? This pic could have been Peeping Tom for the diaper set. Scratch that: should have been.

JF (nee theoldboy) said...

I think I'm aligned with Bill in really liking/possibly loving Public Enemies. The technical qualities (the HD, the unusually mixed sound) purists are griping about are part of why it's such an interesting object to me; that a mainstream studio spent 130 million on something this aesthetically challenging is a wonder. And the last 20 minutes or so are really moving, smart filmmaking. Kim's "a guy who found a way to turn shootouts middlebrow," has a nice ring to it, but it's bullshit. The middlebrow has no idea what to do with Mann, especially these days. It's the highbrow that seems to dig him, and they seem to have the better argument.

Nate said...

I don't think that having qualitatively bad cinematography and sound design make a movie "interesting;" I think they make it incompetent. It's entirely possible that I would have loved the very same story had Mann employed a more standard, or less jarring, approach to the audio and visuals. But the incomprehensible choices work against the content of the film. Were they even choices? I kind of doubt it.

What could be less engrossing than a period film that looks like a home movie circa 1994? That's exactly what the day exteriors look like to me. Distracting, to put it kindly. I'm certainly no "purist" - I just don't like it when expensive movies look and sound like shit for no reason.

jer fairall said...

Sa-weet!

JF (nee theoldboy) said...

Considering Mann is supposedly a perfectionist, yeah, they're choices. And there's nothing "qualitatively" bad about the cinematography and sound design. There are gorgeous shots throughout, and some of the sound design is really effective, especially during the shootouts. Is the occasional line hard to hear? Yeah, but you get the gist, and since this and Miami Vice (which I think I like/love more, but haven't seen since it came out) are less about the story than mood and subtext and the immediacy of the images, the gist is really all you need.

There's this really great new piece at The Auteurs that's all about sound design, and dialogue in particular:
http://www.theauteurs.com/notebook/posts/824

Dave Gibson said...

I realize that hyperbolic overstatement is the lifeblood of blogging but Public Enemies is certainly not the worst looking big studio film in the history of cinema (I mean, its Mann—not Tom Shadyac) Dillinger’s arrival in Indiana; Baby-face’s giggling, idiot-death mask lit up by glowing gun bursts and the numerous gorgeous CU of Cotillard’s expressive eyes (She could have fit right into Manhattan Melodrama) are plenty to haunt my dreams. An early scene at the scrubby farmhouse and the haunted woman who implores Dillinger for help was a near-perfect Mann-in miniature moment similar to Colin’ Farrell’s quick sidelong glance at the gleaming hubcaps in the criminally underrated Miami Vice. Critically speaking, Mann seems to have become the latter-day De Palma; the intellectual petulantly posturing as the vulgarian while bemused genre fans sit on their hands. It’s simply impossible to dismiss him as merely an empty stylist or an accomplished self-plagiarist. I’ll decline to weigh in on the quantification of filmic beauty—cause that’s an inevitable tail-swallower, and I’ll agree that the macho-hokum in most of his films occasionally tries my patience but the best thrill I got from Public Enemies was that unsettled, churning thrill of being caught in the hands of someone who might just not know what he’s doing. (As it turns out? ‘Course he does; he’s just good at pretending) The head-first opening to “Vice” in the original theatrical cut (lamentably excised on DVD) was an early taste of the discombobulating smash and grab approach he takes to Public Enemies, which I think has been misread as disorganization or worse, disinterest. Who are they shooting? Why are they shooting? Doesn’t matter. It’s not a movie about a gangster; it’s a movie about a man who dies at a movie theatre. Bye-Bye Blackbird. No Hay Banda, indeed.

Nate said...

I sympathize with the need to defend a beloved auteur who has admittedly made some pretty good movies (none that I love, but a few that I admire). But I assure you that Public Enemies is indeed the worst looking and sounding studio film I have ever seen. Sure there are a few good shots - there are a few good shots in Patch Adams, too - but for the most part it is ugly on top of ugly, and to no discernible point. Pile that on top of an inscrutable sound mix and you have an aesthetically unapproachable film where something that looks and sounds more like the unbelievably shitty Cinderella Man would've actually been more acceptable. I'm sorry to be harping on this fact when everyone wants to talk about what the movie means, but I can't care about what a movie means when the filmmaker himself seems so uninterested in what it means.

As for Mann the Perfectionist, a lot of people who aren't actually perfectionists get that title just by being overbearing micro-managers. I'm not saying that's what Mann is, I'm just saying that Public Enemies does not look to me like the work of a perfectionist. It honestly looks like a film made by someone who is really far beyond having to justify any of his aesthetic decisions.