Top Favorite WORLD WAR I Movie and Television Productions

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July 28, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.  Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war:

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR I MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1 - Paths of Glory

1. “Paths of Glory” (1957) – Stanley Kubrick directed Kirk Douglas in this highly acclaimed anti-war film about French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack. Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready co-starred.

 

2 - Lawrence of Arabia

2. “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning film about the war experiences of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence. The movie made stars of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.

 

3 - All Quiet on the Western Front

3. “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) – Lew Ayres starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel about the experiences of a German Army soldier during World War I. Lewis Milestone directed.

 

4 - The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles

4. “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (1992-1993) – George Lucas created this television series about Indiana Jones’ childhood and experiences as a World War I soldier. Sean Patrick Flannery and Corey Carrier, George Hall
and Ronny Coutteure starred.

 

5 - Gallipoli

5. “Gallipoli” (1981) – Peter Weir directed this acclaimed historical drama about two Australian soldiers and their participation in the Gallipoli Campaign. The movie starred Mark Lee and Mel Gibson.

 

6 - The Dawn Patrol 1938

6. “The Dawn Patrol” (1938) – Errol Flynn and David Niven starred in this well made, yet depressing remake of the 1930 adaptation of John Monk Saunders’ short story, “The Flight Commander”. Directed by Edmund Goulding, the movie co-starred Basil Rathbone.

 

7 - La Grande Illusion

7. “La Grande Illusion” (1937) – Jean Renoir co-wrote and directed this highly acclaimed war drama about French prisoners-of-war who plot to escape from an impregnable German prisoner-of-war camp. Jean Gabin starred.

 

8 - Shout at the Devil

8. “Shout at the Devil” (1976) – Lee Marvin and Roger Moore starred as two adventurers in this loose adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s novel, who poach ivory in German controlled East Africa on the eve of World War I. Directed by Peter Hunt, the movie co-starred Barbara Parkins.

 

9 - Biggles - Adventures in Time

9. “Biggles: Adventures in Time” (1986) – Neil Dickson and Alex Hyde-White starred in this adventure fantasy about an American catering salesman who inadvertently travels through time to help a British Army aviator during World War I. John Hough directed.

 

10 - A Very Long Engagement

10. “A Very Long Engagement” (2004) – Jean-Pierre Jeunet wrote and directed this very long romantic war drama about a young French woman’s search for her missing fiancé who might have been killed in the Battle of the Somme, during World War I. Audrey Tautou starred.

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012) Review

 

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012) Review

After seven years, Christopher Nolan’s three-movie saga about the D.C. Comics character, Batman, finally came to an end. The saga that began with 2005’s “BATMAN BEGINS”, ended with this year’s “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”.

The new movie, set seven years after 2008’s “THE DARK KNIGHT”, began with the aerial kidnapping of a nuclear scientist by an escaped terrorist named Bane. The scene shifted to Gotham City, where a fund-raiser was being held at Wayne Manor. The only person missing was millionaire Bruce Wayne, who had given up his vigilante activities as Batman after claiming he had murdered former District Attorney Harvey Dent. During the fundraiser, Bruce caught a maid breaking into his private safe. She turned out to be a resourceful cat burglar named Selina Kyle. Aside from a necklace that once belonged to Bruce’s late mother, Selina did not steal any other object from the safe.

Curious over Selina’s actions, Bruce resumed his Batman alter ego and tracked down Selina. He discovered that she had been hired by a rival corporate CEO named John Daggett to lift and steal his fingerprints. Bruce also learned that Daggett had hired the terrorist Bane to attack Gotham’s stock exchange and bankrupt Wayne Enterprises. And along with Police Commissioner James Gordon and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox, Bruce also discovered that Bane was a former member of the League of Shadows and planned to continue Henri Ducard’s (aka Ra’s al Ghul) goal of Gotham City’s destruction. Bruce asked fellow millionaire Miranda Tate to take control of Wayne Enterprises to ensure that Daggett and Bane will not gain control of their clean energy project, a device designed to harness fusion power.

Re-reading the above made me realize that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan had created a very complicated plot. For me, the plot became even more complicated two-thirds into the movie. “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” obviously exists under the shadow of its two predecessors – “BATMAN BEGINS” and “THE DARK KNIGHT”. I would say that this especially seemed to be the case for the 2005 movie. Batman and James Gordon’s decision to lie about the circumstances behind Harvey Dent’s death in the second movie had a minor impact upon this third movie. But Bruce’s relationship and later conflict with Ra’s al Ghul seemed to be the driving force behind his conflict with Bane in this third film.

I had heard rumors that Christopher Nolan was initially reluctant to make a third BATMAN movie. Personally, I found that rumor a bit hard to believe, considering how “THE DARK KNIGHT” ended with Batman accepting the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes and death. But there were certain aspects of the script he wrote with his brother Jonathan that made me wonder if he had truly been reluctant. There were certain aspects of “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” that I found troubling.

It seemed a pity that the second movie ended with Batman and Jim Gordon’s decision to lie about the circumstances behind Dent’s death. I found their decision unnecessary back in 2008 and I still do. The impact behind their lie proved to be hollow. It merely kept Batman off Gotham City’s streets and led Mayor Anthony Garcia and the city to pass a strong anti-criminal law that proved to be hollow following Bane’s arrival in Gotham City. I also found Bane’s mid-air kidnapping of a nuclear scientist and escape from a U.S. marshal (portrayed by Aidan Gillen) rather somewhat idiotic. I understood that Bane needed that scientist to weaponize the Wayne Enterprise device.  But I never understood why that U.S. marshal failed to take the trouble to identify the hooded prisoner (Bane) before boarding the plane.  In the end, the movie’s opening sequence struck struck me as unnecessarily showy. Was this the Nolan brothers’ way of conveying Bane’s role as a badass to the audience? If so, I was too busy trying to comprehend the villain’s dialogue to care. I understood why Batman had not been seen in Gotham for so long. But what was the reason behind Bruce Wayne’s disappearance from the public eye?  His physical state was not really that severe.  Rachel Dawes’ death? Rachel’s death did not stop him from going after the Joker and Harvey Dent in the last movie’s half hour. Was it an injured leg? How did he injured it? And why did Gotham’s citizens failed to put two-and-two together, when both Bruce and Batman finally appeared in the public eye a day or two apart after many years? The only person who managed to discover Bruce’s alter ego – namely Officer John Blake – did so through a contrived reason.

For me, the movie’s real misstep proved to be Bane’s three-month control over Gotham City. As a former member of Henri Ducard’s League of Shadows, he planned to achieve his former leader’s goal of destroying Gotham City. And he planned to use Wayne Enterprise’s energy device to achieve this. One – why not simply build or snatch his own nuclear device? Why go through so much trouble to get his hands on the energy device? Why did Wayne Enterprises create a device that not only saved energy, but could be used as a bomb, as well? And why did it take three months before the device could become an effective bomb? The Nolans’ script could have frustrated Bane’s attempts to acquire the bomb during that three-month period . . . or anything to spare the audiences of that second-rate version of the French Resistance. The latter scenario seemed so riddled with bad writing that it would take another article to discuss it. And what was the point of the presence of Juno Temple’s character Jen? What was she there for, other than being Selina’s useless and cloying girlfriend? And Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox was last seen declaring his intentions to leave the corporation for good, following Batman’s misuse of cell phones in “THE DARK KNIGHT”. In this movie, he is back, working for Wayne Enterprises. What made him change his mind?

But not all was lost. I found Bruce’s introduction to Selina Kyle very entertaining and sexy. Even better, the incident served as Batman’s re-introduction to Gotham City and allowed him to discover Bane’s plans regarding Wayne Enterprises and the energy device. One of the more interesting consequences of “THE DARK KNIGHT” proved to be Rachel Dawes’ last letter to Bruce. Its revelation by Alfred Pennyworth after seven years led to an emotional quarrel between the millionaire and the manservant and their estrangement. At first, I had balked at the idea of Bane carrying out Ra’s al Ghul’s original goal to destroy Gotham. After all, why would he continue the plans of the very person who had him kicked out of the League of Shadows? But a surprising plot twist made Bane’s plan plausible . . . even when I continue to have problems with his three-month occupation of Gotham.

Many critics had lamented the lack of Heath Ledger’s Joker in the movie. As much as I had appreciated and enjoyed Ledger’s performance in the 2008 movie, I did not need or wanted him in “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”. Tom Hardy’s performance as the terrorist Bane was good enough for me. Mind you, I found it difficult to understand some of his dialogue. And when I did, he sounded like the now aging Sean Connery. But I cannot deny that Bane made one scary villain, thanks to Hardy’s performance and intimidating presence. Before I saw the movie, I never understood the need for Marion Cotillard’s presence in the film. I thought her character, Miranda Tate, would merely be a bland love interest for Bruce. Not only did Cotillard ended up providing a subtle and intelligent performance, her Miranda Tate proved to be important to the story as the co-investor in the energy device and for the plot twist in the end.

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” provided some solid performances from other members of the cast. Matthew Modine shined as the ambitious and arrogant Assistant Police Commissioner Peter Foley, who proved to be capable of character development. Another solid performance came from Brett Cullen, who portrayed a lustful congressman that had the bad luck to cross paths with Selina Kyle. Both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman continued their excellent performances as Bruce Wayne’s “heart”and “mind”, manservant Alfred Pennyworth and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox.

In the end, the movie was fortunate to benefit from four outstanding performances. One came from Gary Oldman’s excellent portrayal of the now weary, yet determined police commissioner, James Gordon. His guilt over the Harvey Dent lie and discovery of Batman’s true identity provided Oldman with some of his best moments in the trilogy. Another came from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was superb as Gotham City beat cop John Blake. The actor did a wonderful job of balancing Officer Blake’s intelligence, passion for justice and disgust toward the bureaucracy.

When I learned that Anne Hathaway would end up being the fifth actress to portray Selina Kyle aka Catwoman, I must admit that I had my doubts. Then I remembered that Hathaway was an Oscar nominee, who has also done action before. Watching her sexy, yet complicated performance as the complex cat burglar removed all of my doubts. She was superb and her sizzling screen chemistry with star Christian Bale made me wish Selina had been Bruce’s love interest throughout the movie. Speaking of Bruce Wayne, Bale returned to portray the Caped Crusader for the third and final time. I must admit that I found his performance more subtle and complex than his performances in the previous two movies. Bale did an excellent job in re-creating a slightly aging Bruce Wayne/Batman, who found himself faced with a more formidable opponent.

I was a little disappointed to see that “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” lacked the Chicago exteriors of the 2008 movie. In the end, Gotham City resembled a collection of East Coast and British cities. But I cannot deny that I found Wally Pfister’s photography very eye catching. And Hans Zimmer’s entertaining score brought back memories of his earlier work in both the 2005 and 2008 movies.

I have a good deal of complaints about “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”. It is probably my least favorite entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. For me, the movie’s main problem centered around the script written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. But despite its flaws, the movie still managed to be both entertaining and intriguing. It also has an excellent cast led by the always superb Christian Bale. It was not perfect, but “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” did entertain me.

“CONTAGION” (2011) Review

“CONTAGION” (2011) Review

When I first saw the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, “CONTAGION”, it brought back some old memories. I found myself remembering Wolfgang Peterson’ 1995 film, “OUTBREAK”, which starred Dustin Hoffman; and the influenza pandemic that terrified the world’s population two years ago. With those in mind, I decided to check out Soderbergh’s new movie. 

“CONTAGION” is a medical thriller about the rapid progress of a lethal contact transmission virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving pandemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. And as the virus spreads around the world, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart. The movie began with a Minnesota woman named Beth Emhoff returning home after a business trip to Hong Kong and a side trip to Chicago to cheat on her second husband with an old flame. Two days later, she collapses from a severe seizure before dying in a hospital. Her husband, Mitch Emhoff, returns home and discovers that his stepson – Beth’s son – has died from the same disease. Other people who have had contact with Beth eventually die in China, Great Britain and Chicago, leading medical doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the disease.

While watching “CONTAGION”, I noticed that its narrative bore a strong resemblance to the one featured in Soderbergh’s 2000 Oscar winning movie, “TRAFFIC”. I noticed that “CONTAGION” had failed to generate the same level of interest that the 2000 movie managed to do. And I find this ironic, considering that I seemed to prefer this movie over the Oscar winning film. I do not mean to say that “TRAFFIC” was the inferior movie. As far as I am concerned, it was a superb film. But I simply preferred “CONTAGION” more. It could be that I found a viral pandemic to be a more interesting topic than drug trafficking, due to the events of 2009. And I found that particular subject scarier.

And I cannot deny that “CONTAGION” scared the hell out of me. The idea that a new disease could spring up and spread throughout the world’s population so fast practically blows my mind. And I have to say that both Soderbergh and the movie’s screenwriter, Scott Burns, did a great job in scaring the hell out of me. What I found even scarier were the various reactions to the disease. Soderburgh and Burns did a great job in conveying factors that drove mass panic and loss of social order, the difficulties in investigating and containing a pathogen and the problems of balancing personal motives and professional responsibilities. Another amazing aspect about “CONTAGION” is that Soderbergh and Burns avoided the usual cliché of portraying the pharmaceutical industry or the military as the villains. Instead, everyone – the government agencies, politicians at every level and even the public at large – are portrayed in an ambiguous light. Looking back on“CONTAGION”, I realized that I only had one minor complaint – Soderbergh’s direction did come off as a bit too dry at times.

Soderbergh and his casting director managed to gather an exceptional job for the cast. Cast members such as Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Elliot Gould, Chin Han, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle John Hawkes and Enrico Colantoni gave very solid performances. But I found at least five performances truly memorable. One came from Jude Law, who portrayed an aggressive freelance journalist named Alan Krumwiede, who convinces some of his readers to use a a homeopathic cure based on Forsythia, on behalf of companies producing the treatment. I found Law’s character so annoying that I did not realize how skillful his performance was, until several hours after I saw the movie. Kate Winslet gave a very poignant performances as Dr. Erin Mears, a CDC doctor who is forced to face the consequences of the political agendas of a local government and the disease itself. Laurence Fishburne did an exceptional job in conveying the ambiguous situation of his character, CDC spokesman Dr. Ellis Cheever, who found himself torn between his duties with the agency, keeping certain aspects about a possible cure from the public, and his desire to ensure his wife’s safety. But I believe the best performance came from Matt Damon, who portrayed the widower of the doomed Beth Emhoff. Damon was superb in portraying the many aspects of Emhoff’s emotional state – whether the latter was grieving over his wife’s death, dealing with her infidelity, or ensuring that he and his daughter remain alive despite the increasing chaos and death that surrounded them.

I did not know whether I would enjoy “CONTAGION”, but I did . . . much to my surprise. Not only did I enjoyed it, the movie scared the hell out of me. And I cannot think of any other director, aside from Steven Soderburgh, who can do that with such a dry directorial style. In the end, I enjoyed it more than ever when it was finally released on DVD.

“INCEPTION” (2010) Review

“INCEPTION” (2010) Review

It still amazes me at how director/writer Christopher Nolan’s films manage to generate a great deal of emotion from filmgoers and critics. This has certainly been the case for his latest work, the science-fiction drama called ”INCEPTION”.

Inspired by the experiences of lucid dreaming and dream incubation”INCEPTION”told the story of Dom Cobb, a dream “extractor” who enters the dreams of others in order to obtain information that is otherwise inaccessible. After failing to extract corporate secrets from a Japanese businessman named Saito, Cobb is hired by the latter to perform the act of ”inception” – the secret implant of an idea into a target’s mind – on the son of Saito’s terminally ill corporate rival, one Robert Fischer. Saito’s object is to convince Fischer to break up his father’s corporate empire in order to prevent it from becoming a monopoly and threatening the businessman’s own corporation. If Cobb manages to succeed, Saito promises to use his influence to clear the younger man of murdering his wife, so that he can reunite with his children.

Cobb assembles a team to achieve Saito’s objectives. They are:

*Arthur, the Point Man – who is also Cobb’s partner, and responsible for researching the team’s target

*Ariadne, the Architect – a graduate student who is recruited to construct worlds in which dreams take place

*Eames, the Forger – has the ability to take the form of others in order to manipulate the dreamer

*Yusuf, the Chemist – who formulates the drugs needed to sustain the team members’ dream states

*Saito, the Client/Observer – who decides to become part of the team

Despite assembling a skillful crew, Cobb encounters a few difficulties. One, Arthur had failed to discover that their mark, Fischer, had been trained in lucid dreaming and creating mental defenses. His mind manages to manifest armed personnel, which attacks the team in downtown Los Angeles, after they kidnap him in Yusuf’s dream. This leads to disaster for Saito, who is wounded during a gun battle. Due to Saito’s wounds, the rest of the team discovers that Cobb had failed to inform them that they could end up in limbo if they die in a dream state, due to the drugs given to them by Yusuf. Worst of all, Cobb has to deal with the manifestation of his dead wife, Mal (the Shade), whose presence in the dreams could end up threatening the assignment.

There had been a good deal of hype surrounding ”INCEPTION” before it hit the theaters in mid July. Surprisingly, I had been unaware of it. I merely wanted to see it due to Nolan’s role as director and writer, and from what I had seen in the movie trailer. I had no idea on how I would react to the film, considering my reactions to 2006’s ”THE PRESTIGE” and 2008’s ”THE DARK KNIGHT”. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed both movies very much. But it took me a while to understand the plot to ”THE PRESTIGE”and I have never liked the last 30 minutes of ”THE DARK KNIGHT”.

In the end, I not only understood ”INCEPTION”, I enjoyed it. Hell, I more than enjoyed it. I loved it. It is one of the most original movies I have seen in years. I found it very rare to see a movie that used unusual visuals to convey a main character’s emotional story. Through the use of dreams, the team manages to allow Robert Fischer to face his demons regarding his father and to finally put them aside, so that he can learn to be his own man. But more importantly, the Fischer assignment finally allows Cobb to face his own demons and guilt over his wife’s suicide.

The concepts of lucid dreaming and dream incubation are nothing new in movies or television. Both topics have been used in movies like ”THE MATRIX” and television series like “BABYLON FIVE””BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” and ”STAR TREK VOYAGER”. With the amazing special effects supervised by Chris Corbould and Wally Pfister’s beautiful photography, Nolan managed to take these concepts to another level. And he did it without resorting to 3-D photography (thank you God!) or slow motion action (with the exception of one scene). The special effects were especially put to good use in scenes that featured a fight scene between Arthur and an unnamed man inside a high-priced hotel corridor, Cobb and Ariadne’s dream experiences on Parisian streets; and the Limbo world first created by Cobb and Mal.

Nolan had gathered an impressive group of actors and actresses for his cast. Veteran actors Michael Caine, Postlethwaite and Tom Berenger portrayed father figures (literally or otherwise) for at least two of the major characters and gave solid performances – especially Berenger, who portrayed Robert Fischer’s godfather and business associate. Dileep Rao, last seen in the 2009 blockbuster ”AVATAR”, had the good fortune to be cast in a larger role as Yusef, the Chemist. His character provided sedatives for the team to use in order to easily go into dream state. And I must say that I enjoyed Rao’s sly, yet humorous performance very much.

I have been aware of Tom Hardy since his two-episode appearance in the HBO miniseries, ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. But his portrayal of Eames the Forger is probably the first role in which he truly impressed me. Like Rao, he projected a sly sense of humor, mingled with a sharp wit and a hint of arrogance. And dear God! That man has a voice to die for. Cillian Murphy’s role as the Mark, Robert Fischer, seemed like a far cry from his villainous Dr. Jonathan Crane aka the Scarecrow in Nolan’s two BATMAN movies. Yet, the actor did an excellent job in his subtle portrayal of a man disappointed by what he deemed as his father’s lack of love toward him and his own insecurities that he may be unable to live up to his father’s shadow or expectations of him. Marion Cotillard proved to be quite an enigma in her portrayal of Mal, Cobb’s late wife. In some scenes, she projected a quiet, self-assurance as her character tried to manipulate her husband into accepting his dreams of her as reality. In others, she projected the melancholy of a woman teetering on the edge of suicide. And there were moments when Cotilllard conveyed a sense of subtle menace, whenever someone threatened Cobb’s memories of her. It was a very effective performance.

Another complex performance came from Ken Watanabe, who portrayed Cobb’s client, Saito. Judging from Watanabe’s portrayal of Saito, one would have felt certain that he would end up as the movie’s villain. Yet, thanks to Nolan’s script and Watanabe’s performance, Saito proved to be a complex individual that developed an interesting relationship with Cobb. The latter formed another interesting relationship with the team’s Architect, a college graduate named Ariadne. And Ellen Page did an excellent job in portraying Ariadne’s sense of wonder at her introduction of the world of lucid dreaming. More importantly, Page was effective in portraying what I believe was the movie’s emotional center – the one person who was able to help Cobb deal with his demons regarding Mal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s role as Arthur, Cobb’s main partner, should finally set him on the road to stardom. He gave a wonderful performance as the team’s pragmatic Point Man, whose job was to provide background information on Fischer. He was cool, sardonic, dashing and surprisingly a pretty solid action man. His fight in the dream state hotel corridor might prove to be the talk of moviegoers and critics for months to come.

But the one man who held this movie together, other than Nolan, turned out to be leading man Leonardo DiCaprio. I could, in many words, praise his performance as Dom Cobb, the team’s leader and extractor/inceptor.  I could describe the emotional complexity of his portrayal of a man who remained torn by his wife’s death and his longing to reunite with his children and his efforts to keep his demons in check and prevent them from affecting his jobs. I could also praise DiCaprio for handling the movie’s action sequences like a born-again Bruce Willis. But why bother? All one has to do is watch the actor upon the movie screen. Personally, I believe that he may have given one of the better performances of his career, so far. In short, DiCaprio was phenomenal.   It seemed a crime that he did not earn an Academy Award for his work.

I tried to think of something to complain about ”INCEPTION” and only ended up with one. It seemed to me that two-thirds into the movie, its pacing began to drag. Which seemed odd, considering while the movie focused upon scenes featuring Eames’ dream – the snow fortress – I found myself squirming in my seat in an attempt to stay awake. Some of the action sequences seemed to go on a little too long by this point. Fortunately, the movie moved on to its final scenes, starting in the Limbo City dream sequence and my attention became revived.

There have been many discussions and debates over the movie’s final scene – namely Cobb’s reunion with his children and the last shot featuring the spinning top. Many claim the last shot was an indicator that the entire movie had been a dream and that Cobb remained stuck in a dream state. Others believe the spinning top – Mal’s totem – was nothing more than a red herring. As far as they were concerned, Cobb had genuinely reunited with his kids. Personally, I have no idea if the entire movie was a dream or not. A part of me feels it should not matter. What mattered to me was that Cobb finally learned to let go of Mal . . . and put his guilt over her death behind him. And by turning his back on Mal’s spinning top, I believe he had finally achieved this.

As far as movies go, the summer of 2010 had not been a memorable one for me. But it was not been a complete bust. I have seen a good number of entertaining movies. Yet, only a handful has truly impressed me. As far as I am concerned, the one movie that seemed to rise ahead of the others is Christopher Nolan’s latest opus – ”INCEPTION”.  Which was the best movie of 2010, as far as I am concerned.

“PUBLIC ENEMIES” (2009) Review

Below is my review of “PUBLIC ENEMIES”, a recent movie on the last year of Dillinger’s life: 

”PUBLIC ENEMIES” (2009) Review

I must admit that when I first heard about Michael Mann’s plans to film a movie about Depression-era bank robber, John Dillinger, I became excited. It was not the subject that roused my interest. But I found the idea of Mann shooting a movie set during the height of the Great Depression – 1933 to 1934 – rather interesting. It has become a period in U.S. history that has caught my interest in the past five years. And the fact that Johnny Depp and Christian Bale had been cast in the leads as Dillinger and his nemesis, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, merely increased my interest.

At first, I had assumed that I would love ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”. I assumed that Mann could do no wrong. Then to my surprise, I discovered that the film had received mixed reviews from film critics. From that moment on, I began to harbor doubts about the film’s quality. I never learn. Never. I had forgotten my most important rule about approaching a movie – the only opinion that should count for me is my own. And when I finally saw ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I realized that I had to learn that particular lesson all over again.

I want to point out that ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” is not perfect. This does not bother me one bit. Perfect movies are extremely rare. And I suspect . . . not know, but suspect I may have seen one or two in my lifetime. However, ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”is not one of those rare examples of cinematic perfection. First of all, the movie – especially its first hour – seemed to be marred by an uncomfortable number of close-ups by cinematographer Dante Spinotti. This discomfort was especially apparent in action scenes like the prison escape from the Indiana State Prison featured in the film’s opening scene , “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s death at the hands of FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, and John Dillinger’s first bank robbery featured in the film. These close-ups brought back memories of the ones featured in Disney’s ”PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”.

But at the least the close-ups in the 2003 film were not further marred by quick editing done by Paul Rubell and Jeffrey Ford for this film. Watching their zip fast editing reminded me of those featured in movies like the last two ”BOURNE”films, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, both ”TRANSFORMERS” movies, ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” and ”STAR TREK”. I suspect that this new editing style is fast becoming the new thing in the film industry. Personally, I hate it. I find it cheap and confusing.

I have one last complaint about the film and it has to do with David Wenham’s appearance in the film. The Australian actor portrayed Harry Pierpont, one of Dillinger’s closest friends and a mentor. Yet, he barely spoke a few words in the movie. In fact, he seemed more like a background character than a supporting one. Giovanni Ribisi had more lines in the film and his character, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, had no real close ties with Dillinger. Why did Mann and the two other screenwriters, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, bothered to include the Pierpont character in the first place? Instead of at least a minor exploration of the Dillinger-Pierpont relationship, the screenwriters reduced Pierpont – Dillinger’s mentor – to a minor character with a few lines.

Now that I have put all of that negativity behind me, it is time to discuss why I had enjoyed ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” so much. Perhaps I am being a bit too subtle. I did not merely enjoy ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I loved it. It has easily become my favorite movie this summer. So far. Fast editing and close-ups aside, I must admit that I admire how director Michael Mann handled the movie’s pacing. I was surprised to learn about the criticisms leveled at the movie’s running time (two hours and nineteen minutes) and especially its alleged running time. Personally, I was impressed by Mann’s steady pace. Expecting the movie to be over two hours long, I was surprised to discover that amount of time had passed when the end credits finally began to roll. Perhaps I had been so caught up in the story that I failed to notice the time. Which is a compliment to Mann’s direction . . . at least from me.

Many scenes directed by Man left me spellbound. They include Baby Face Nelson’s murder of a FBI Agent at a hotel ambush set up by Purvis; Dillinger’s press conference inside the warden’s office at the Crown Point Prison in Indiana; his escape from said prison; the FBI ‘s capture of Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frichette; Frichette’s interrogation and beating at the hands of a FBI agent; and Purvis’ conversation with prostitute and brothel madam, Anna Sage.

But there were four scenes . . . actually, two scenes and two sequences that truly impressed me. The first one featured Purvis’ telephone conversation with his boss, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In it, Purvis tries to convince the irate Hoover that many of their agents are not experienced enough to hunt down the likes of Dillinger and Nelson and that they need to recruit more experienced men . . . like Texas Rangers. Despite the fact that the two actors portraying Purvis and Hoover do not share the screen, the emotion between their characters crackled like flames, thanks to their performances and Mann’s direction. The other scene featured Dillinger’s arrival in Indiana by plane, after being arrested by Federal agents in Tucson, Arizona. Although brief, it struck a surreal note within me, thanks to Spinott’s photography. The cinematographer shot the entire scene with colors that projected a soft iron, mingled with a reddish-orange tint from the sun. Very beautiful.

Although I found the scenes mentioned above very memorable, I was rendered speechless by the following sequences. The first centered around the violent shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin in April 1934. I am certain that many critics and moviegoers had ended up comparing this sequence with the famous Downtown Los Angeles shootout in Mann’s 1995 movie, ”HEAT”. Granted, the latter turned out longer and was filmed in the daytime, but this Little Bohemia shootout turned out to be just as effective and exciting, despite being filmed at night. But if there is one sequence that filled me with great satisfaction, it was the one that featured the last night of Dillinger’s life. Mann, along with Spinotti, production designer Nathan Crowley, Rosemary Brandenburg’s set designs, Patrick Lumb, William Ladd Skinner’s art direction, the screenwriters and the cast did a superb job in conveying the director’s own detailed account of that hot, July night in 1934. I, for one, was glad that Mann took his time in leading to that moment when Texas Ranger Charles Winstead shot Dillinger dead. The director gave movie audiences a glimpse of street life in Depression-era Chicago during the summertime. He also allowed the audience to experience Dillinger’s pleasure in viewing Clark Gable’s spunk and Myrna Loy’s beauty in the 1934 MGM movie, ”MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. With the camera, the audience waited nervously along with Purvis, Winstead and the other lawmen who waited outside the Biograph Theater for Dillinger. This is one of the most detailed and marvelously shot sequences I have ever seen on film in the past decade or two.

Another aspect of ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” that struck me as unique was its style. Past movies about Depression-era criminals from the Midwest and the South like (1967) “BONNIE AND CLYDE”(1974) “MELVIN PURVIS, G-MAN”, and (1975) “THE KANSAS CITY MASSACRE” tend to have this rural or “good ‘ole boy” style, similar to movies and television shows like (1977) “SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT” and (1979-85) “THE DUKES OF HAZZARD”. These films were usually filled with a great deal of wild car chases, over-the-top acting and a Country-Western tune emphasizing the action. ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” seemed to go against this rural style. Instead, most of Mann’s Midwestern criminals are not some wild, country boys that went on a crime spree as some reaction against the Depression’s economic woes. His criminals – especially Dillinger – are professional criminals, whose experiences go back long before the first impact of the Depression. Nor is Mann’s Melvin Purvis is some long experienced “good ‘ole boy” lawman with a Mississippi Valley or Southwestern accent like Ben Johnson in (1973) “DILLINGER” or Dale Robertson in his two TV movies about the FBI agent. His Purvis is a lot closer to the real one, a South Carolinian gentleman in his early thirties, who happened to be a trained lawyer and an excellent shot. Both Dillinger and Purvis come off as more sophisticated than their portrayals featured in earlier movies. And the characters’ sophistication certainly reflected the movie’s more serious tone. Something I certainly had no problems with.

John Dillinger may turn out to be one of my favorite characters portrayed by Johnny Depp. Much has been made of Dillinger’s charm and joie de vivre . . . and Depp certainly did not hesitate to replicate it in front of the camera. One prime example of this charm was featured in Dillinger’s press conference inside the warden’s office at the Crown Point Prison in Indiana. I have seen the original 1934 newsreel featuring the famous press conference and I must say that Depp did a beautiful job of recapturing Dillinger’s actions – from the bank robber’s attitude, right down to his body language.

But there were other aspects of Dillinger’s personality that Depp did not hesitate to portray – his romantic charm that won Billie Frichette’s heart and cynical sense of humor. Most importantly, Depp’s performance reminded the audience that Dillinger had been capable of being a cold-blooded criminal. After all, he had drifted into crime long before the economic upheaval of the Depression. And Depp’s performance made that clear, whether his Dillinger was expressing fury at one colleague, whose beating of a prison guard led to the death of an old friend in the film’s opening prison break; his lack of remorse toward his many crimes, his connection to the Chicago mob; and his willingness to murder anyone who got in his way. Depp not only perfectly portrayed Dillinger as a charming and extroverted rogue, but also as a tender lover, a hardened criminal unwilling to give up his profession and if need be, a killer.

I have noticed that in the past two or three years, Christian Bale has found himself in the thankless task of portraying characters less flamboyant than his co-stars. This certainly seemed to be the case in the 2006 Victorian melodrama ”THE PRESTIGE” with the more outgoing Hugh Jackman; in the 2008 Batman sequel, ”THE DARK KNIGHT”, in which his performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman contrasted sharply with Heath Ledger’s wildly chaotic Joker; and in the recent”TERMINATOR SALVATION”, in which he seemed to be overshadowed in the eyes of many by the more overtly masculine Sam Worthington. Mind you, Bale gave superb performances in all of these films. Yet, his co-stars seemed to be grabbing most of the glory. This also seemed to be the case in ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, in which he portrays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent assigned to capture Dillinger, one way or the other. Whereas Depp’s Dillinger is all charm and flash, Bale’s Purvis is a resolute and educated South Carolina gentleman, who also happened to be a somewhat competent lawman determined to hunt down the bank robber by any means possible. And that included following Director Hoover’s insistence on ”taking the white gloves off” or insisting that the FBI recruit experienced Texas Rangers for the manhunt. Bale not only did an excellent job in conveying Purvis’ quiet determination in hunting down Dillinger, but the agent’s anxious fear that he may never capture the bank robber on a permanent basis. Bale also effectively portrayed Purvis’ ruthlessness in dealing with those who stood between him and Dillinger. Melvin Purvis is not a splashy role for Bale, but the latter certainly did an excellent job of portraying the lawman’s many personality facets.

Before I saw ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I had feared that the addition of Billie Frichette (Dillinger’s girlfriend) into the story would make her presence irrelevant and threaten to drag the film. Fortunately, Mann and the other two screenwriters – Bennett and Biderman – along with Oscar winner Marion Cotillard did justice to the Frichette character. Cotillard gave an excellent performance as a hatcheck woman who captured Dillinger’s heart. She portrayed Frichette as a slightly melancholy woman who not only resented society’s bigotry against her ancestry (her mother was half French, half –Menominee), but also feared that her relationship with Dillinger may not last very long. One of Cotillard’s best moments featured the hatcheck woman being interrogated and beaten by one of Purvis’ agents, who is determined to learn Dillinger’s whereabouts. And despite being French-born and raised, Cotillard proved that she could use a Midwestern accent circa 1933, just as well as an American actress.

”PUBLIC ENEMIES” seemed to be filled with some memorable supporting roles. And a handful of performances stood out for me. I enjoyed Jason Clarke’s quiet and subtle performance as Dillinger’s close friend and colleague, the dependable John “Red” Hamilton, who seemed convinced that he and the bank robber were doomed to live short lives. Clarke especially shone in an emotional scene in which a badly wounded Hamilton tried to convince Dillinger to stop clinging fervently to all people and things that mattered too much to him. And there was Billy Crudup (a face I have been seeing with great frequency over the past few years), who gave an entertaining and sharp performance as FBI Director and publicity hound, J. Edgar Hoover. Crudup managed to capture a great deal of the legendary director’s personality as much as possible – especially Hoover’s staccato-style speech pattern. And his scenes with Bale brimmed with a layer of emotion that made their on-screen relationship one of the more interesting ones in the movie.

Another performance that caught my attention belonged to Stephen Graham as the trigger-happy Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis. I have to give Graham kudos for effectively projecting a certain facet of Nelson’s persona from both Dillinger and Purvis’ points-of-view. In Dillinger’s eyes, Graham portrayed Nelson as a trigger happy clown and bad Cagney impersonator, whose criminal skills seemed to belong to an amateur. In his major scene with Purvis, Graham portrayed Nelson as a dangerous criminal, quite capable of efficiently killing Federal agents in cold blood. And it was a pleasant surprise to see the always competent Stephen Lang as Charles Winstead, one of the Texas Rangers recruited by Purvis to assist in the FBI manhunt for Dillinger. Lang first worked for Mann in 1986’s ”MANHUNTER” and the television series, ”CRIME STORY”. Since then, he has portrayed a vast array of memorable characters over the years. In”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, he gave another excellent performance as the stoic and intimidating Winstead, whose vast experience with criminal manhunts allowed him to act as a de facto mentor for the less experienced Purvis. One last performance that caught my attention belonged to Branka Katić’s portrayal of Anna Sage, the so-called ”Woman in Red”who had betrayed Dillinger to the FBI in Chicago. Actually, Sage never wore red on the night she led the FBI to the Biograph Theater and Dillinger. But that is beside the point. Katić gave an intelligent performance as the world-weary, Romanian-born madam that found herself forced to help the FBI ambush the bank robber.

Every now and then, I eventually come across some comparisons between ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” and ”HEAT” in some of the articles I have read about the former. And the comparison usually ends in the 1995 movie’s favor. Do I agree with this assessment? Honestly, I have no answer. Both movies are superb crime dramas with a few flaws. Whereas ”HEAT”managed to capture the miasma of late 20th century Los Angeles, ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” reeked with the slightly gray aura of the Depression-era Midwest . . . especially Chicago. And whereas the pacing for ”HEAT” threatened to drag in its last hour, the quick editing and constant close-ups nearly marred the first hour of ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”. But you know what? I love both movies. And ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” proved to be another example of why Michael Mann continues to be one of my favorite movie directors.