instinct: Depp in Public Enemies.
by Michael Mann
real life, as in the new movie Public Enemies, the
Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger met his end following
a summer night’s showing of Manhattan Melodrama. In
that movie, Clark Gable played a hardened criminal who can’t
be saved by the love of Myrna Loy or by the decency of friend
William Powell—but being Gable, he exudes class, cunning and
cool. It can’t be too much of a coincidence that the director
of Public Enemies, Michael Mann, pegged Johnny Depp
to play Dillinger, since who else now possesses those Gable-esque
qualities to such degree? When Depp, playing Dillinger, watches
Gable onscreen, we get a glimpse into the soul of a man who
believed in his own star power.
For a while, at least, that star power, that overt confidence,
trumped the machinations of both the nascent FBI, lead by
corrupt J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), and the burgeoning
stranglehold of organized crime. While playing fast and loose
with many of the facts, Public Enemies presents the
rise and fall of John Dillinger as the story of a plucky independent
retailer fighting Wal-Mart. There’s a rugged individualism
to Dillinger’s methods; he refuses to play it safe. He tells
frightened customers, mid-robbery, that he’s not after their
money, just the bank’s.
I’m not one to split hairs, but what is the difference, really?
Filmed digitally by the cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Public
Enemies has a lush feel that fits in perfectly with a
soundtrack pulsating with the tremulous sounds of Billie Holiday
and Diana Krall. Each set and costume is lovingly re-created
with the kind of authenticity that the script itself often
lacks, and great care was given to casting actors who look
of the era. For all its cat-and-mouse business with FBI Agent
Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) leading the charge against
Dillinger, the movie lacks a sense of urgency. This is its
fatal flaw, and, given the fact that it’s Michael Mann at
the helm, I’m somewhat surprised.
Nevertheless, there are moments of great cinematic poetry,
notably the bank robberies themselves, in which Dillinger
and gang flaunt their long coats almost like Armani models
on the runways. A scene in which Dillinger woos a stunned
Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) is soft and sexy, seductive
in both its actual chemistry between the two leads as well
as in the way it reminds us just how Dillinger and his legendary
antics, trumpeted on the radio, intrigued a segment of the
Depression audience. My own mother remembers vividly the delight
her family and neighbors took in hearing of his, and other
criminals like Bonnie and Clyde’s exploits, because in their
mind “the banks” were the reason for their poverty.
It’s Johnny Depp’s show, from beginning to end. No one else
can evoke so much simply by staring, silent, from the screen,
and nobody can evoke utter coolness with such subtle body
language. Though Depp’s Dillinger is more Belmondo than Cagney,
somehow it works. There’s a chilling, yet humorous, moment
when Dillinger saunters into Purvis’ offices and gazes at
all the photographic evidence against him, while a handful
of oblivious agents listen to a ballgame on the radio.
And yet, I found the most believably “American legend” prototype,
in both performance and persona, to be Purvis’ second in command,
the Texas Ranger Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), who laconically
corrects his superior’s mistakes and potential blunders. (He’s
the one who casually figures out that of two possible movies
showing that fateful night, Dillinger certainly wouldn’t be
attending the Shirley Temple picture.) Whereas Purvis is one-dimensionally
righteous, Winstead has us wondering about his motivations.
I can’t help but wonder what the movie would have been like
had it been a cat-and-mouse between him and Dillinger. And
why not, since the script already played so fast and loose
with the historical facts?
Ya Hardly Even Know Me!
by Woody Allen
Deeply despairing, pessimistic, outright misanthropic films
have their appeal for a certain type of filmgoer. Let’s, for
the moment, call such a filmgoer “me.”
I’m not referring to those films that use the great crises
of human history—the Holocaust, say—as bleak settings to highlight
the stubborn perseverance of human hope and dignity. Rather,
those that do something like the opposite: portray the mundane
routine of human activity as filthy, clumsy and unrewarding—even
crushing. (An example, par excellence, would be Mike Leigh’s
Why then, did I find the negative nattering of Woody Allen’s
Whatever Works so intolerably annoying?
In great part, it’s Allen’s stand-in star, Larry David. I’ve
enjoyed David’s work before; and he’s a far sight better than
previous Allen substitutes, such as Kenneth Branagh. But in
Whatever Works, David is robbed of irascible charm
by the meta-filmic quirk of having David’s character—the cranky
and failed-genius physicist Boris Yelnikov—address the audience
directly. It fails miserably. In part, because in the dialogue
of the asides he suggests a depth and a heart David cannot
remotely imbue in the role. Allen, the actor, could have carried
this off. David cannot. And Allen, the director, doesn’t realize
That’s what’s sadder than the poor casting, which is thoroughly
bad: the evidence that Allen can’t get a handle on his own
material anymore. Too many scenes in Whatever Works
exist only in service of weak punch lines and end without
any consequence or development, at all.
If every scene in which David’s character speaks to the audience
had been cut (along with every scene in which the ingenue,
played by Evan Rachel Wood, acts by flipping her pigtails—but
that’s another matter), this would have been a vastly more
And vastly superior. Though, probably still not that good.
Those aforementioned, punishingly bleak movies work because
the connection with the audience is implicit. In Naked,
or Midnight Cowboy, or Requiem for a Dream,
or Dancer in the Dark, or anything made by Werner
Herzog, the despair is offset by the very fact of the movie’s
existence. Someone loved enough to make the film—a film, any
film—as a rebuke to despair.
By comparison, Whatever Works is like being asked by
an untalented comedian to participate in a marathon “I know
a man who’s soo cranky . . .” session.
This Is Paris?
by Stephen Frears
This is complicated, so bear with me. Stephen Frears is an
Englishman. Here, he has directed an adaptation of two stories
by French writer Colette set in 1890s France. The film stars
two American actresses, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates,
and an English actor, Rupert Friend. For some reason, this
quintessentially French story and setting is brought to life
with English accents—including those affected by the aforementioned
Americans. And the rest of the cast list is, in fact, lousy
Why? Why make Americans adopt questionable accents if the
accents are wrong? Are they afraid that every faux French
accent will sound comical, like Peter Sellers doing Inspector
This isn’t the biggest problem with Chéri, but it’s
the most continually annoying. The real problem is
that Frears never finds the right tragicomic tone, nor does
the script (by Christopher Hampton) find a satisfying way
to tell in a deceptively light, Colette-esque manner, a love
story that ends tragically.
Lea (Pfeiffer) and Charlotte (Kathy Bates) are wealthy, retired
whores enjoying the art-moderne glories of belle époque France.
(Glorious, indeed, are the film’s luminous sets, costumes
and outdoor settings.) Charlotte is unhappy with her mopey,
foppish son Fred (Friend), better known as Chéri, and so fobs
him off on Lea. Despite a 25-year age difference, Lea and
Chéri fall in love, and into a six-year domestic bliss that
is shattered by an abruptly arranged marriage that separates
Both are made miserable by Charlotte’s meddling: Lea, with
a new young lover at a coastal resort, and Chéri, honeymooning
with his bride in the Italian lake country. Suffering never
looked so sumptuous.
Pfeiffer can be a wonderfully expressive actress, and she
is a perfect Lea—except for that damn English accent. Bates
has an easier time of it in an essentially comic part, but
she’s not going to win any Olivier prize for sounding British,
The era depicted in the film was a time of industrial rapaciousness
and decadent excess, poised between France’s twin geopolitical
catastrophes, the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. (Oh,
right: This is about France, isn’t it?) One couldn’t
help waiting for the film, between the catty conversations
and bed-hopping antics, to introduce this feeling; when Frears
finally does tie the larger societal doom to the personal
tragedy of Lea and Chéri, it’s too late, and too abrupt.