Joe's Movie Reviews

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Study In Contrasts

1. "Public Enemies".

Michael Mann certainly knows modern crime stories. This is, after all, the man who gave us "Miami Vice" (both TV and movie versions), "Manhunter", "Collateral" and many others. So I was definitely intrigued with the notion of his going back to 1933 and telling us the story of John Dillinger, particularly with Johnny Depp in the role. Could it be as potent as his best modern stuff? Well, almost. With one little exception, this is as strong a film as fans could hope for, and that exception isn't enough to ruin things.

There's been some controversy on message boards such as IMDB's about Mann's decision to film the movie on hand-held video equipment and transfer it to film, but without a doubt, the method works. Video gives the story a startling degree of immediacy that period films rarely if ever have... you're not just watching something that happened 75 years ago, you're right there in the middle of the action. Mann's mastery of the world of both criminals and those who pursue them hasn't deserted him, and it all feels about as authentic as you could want it to be. And Mann ties in the contemporary skepticism (to say the least) about both government and bankers quite neatly with the situation during the depression to show us how Dillinger became a kind of hero to a large (if misguided) segment of the public. The film being constantly rushing in frantic motion is probably the best approach to take, too, to a film in which the lead character's life was in a constant whirl. And when things begin to go against him, and former allies no longer want any part of protecting him, the pace of the film appropriately slows and the atmosphere darkens... so to the critics who claim Mann is only making the film so frantic because of modern audiences' short attention spans... HAH!! (You probably have to shout that one to get the full effect.)

And the acting is as strong as the other elements: Depp gives us a very effective portrait of a man who relished the fame his exploits brought him (and who doesn't hesitate to casually stroll right into the Chicago police headquarters' Dillinger Investigation Unit for the fun of it). Christian Bale is the very embodiment of obsession as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent assigned to bring Dillinger down (his performance, it must be admitted, bears more than a little resemblance to Batman without the costume), and in a small but important role, Billy Crudup helps to make up for the debacle that was "Watchmen" with his snarling, angry portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover. Marion Cotillard as Billy Frechette, Dillinger's girlfriend, does what she can with a somewhat underwritten role, but the part doesn't really give her enough screen time (or enough to do) to really give you an idea of what this Oscar-winner is capable of.

So, what's that one small problem, you might ask? (What do you mean, you don't remember my mentioning one small problem? Maybe those critics were right about modern attention spans!) It's actually more of a moral problem than anything else, which I suppose some would maintain has no place in a movie review. But since I'm not being paid to write this, another HAH! (maybe I should come up with some other word for that) to you... I'll write what I want. It is possible to portray a criminal and a killer in a way that never makes you sympathetic to what he does even as it makes you understand him as a person... just look at "Dead Man Walking", for example. This is not one of those movies: you see Dillinger as a guy whose loyalty to friends and colleagues constantly puts his life in danger when he could just walk away; a person with a real code of honor that his enemies don't have. The fact that he killed people and never lost any sleep over it doesn't seem to matter. It's a little surprising to see this in a Michael Mann movie, as Mann has always seemed to understand that the fascination with the criminal lifestyle doesn't have to mean the same thing as an admiration of it. So "Public Enemies" is still a very well-made, effective film. But a little more of Mann's previous (and, one would hope, future) attitude toward the good AND bad sides of the criminal personality) might have made "Public Enemies" a bit easier film to enjoy.

2. "Away We Go".

In the immortal words of Monty Python, and now for something completely different. I saw this film almost immediately after "Public Enemies", and a bigger contrast would be hard to imagine.

Husband-and-wife writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida don't have children (at least yet), but have discussed issues such as where the best place to raise a child would be, and what approaches to parenting they might take. These discussions resulted in the first screenplay for these experienced novelists. It's interesting to note that neither of them is exactly noted for novels that could be called laugh riots, and obviously Sam Mendes, who has directed some of the most somber popular movies of the past decade (most recently the severely depressing "Revolutionary Road"), is hardly the go-to man for comedy either. So naturally this film is a comedy. And a very good one at that. Go figure.

This is the story of a young couple (played by John Krasinski of "The Office" and Maya Rudolph of "Saturday Night Live") who are expecting their first child in a few months. Krasinski's parents suddenly announce they're moving thousands of miles away just a month before the baby is due, removing the couple's only reason for living where they do, and they decide to take a road trip to visit a group of old friends and relatives (all of them parents) to scout out both potential new family homes and potential approaches to being parents.

Krasinski and Rudolph both take a very low-key, realistic approach to their roles, which makes for the perfect contrast to the supporting cast of wackos they encounter on their journey. In fact, with occasional exceptions, they don't really do or say funny things, they mainly react to the lunacy going on around them (and their reaction is often funny, but they don't originate the comedy). They are, after all, the people the audience is supposed to identify with, and I would hope not too many people would identify with the supporting cast, wonderful as they are. Krasinski and Rudolph make a very nice, likable pair, which is exactly what they should be.

The rest of the cast, though, as I said, are another story. Catherine O'Hara (of virtually all of Chrisopher Guest's films) and Jeff Daniels only have a few scenes at the beginning as Krasinski's parents, but they make them count in a big way.
Allison Janney ("The West Wing") and Maggie Gyllenhaal in particular steal the show every moment they're on screen as, respectively, a near lunatic in Phoenix who is pretty much the last person who should ever be a mother; and a college professor in Madison, Wisconsin with some very extreme new-agey ideas of child rearing. The two of them provide some of the funniest moments in a comedy movie this year.

The movie does ditch much of the humor as it goes on and Krasinski and Rudolph encounter a relative of Krasinski's with a severely troubled marriage who makes them seriously think about what they want their relationship to be, but it's done very carefully so as not to seem suddenly jarring or out of place, and as a result comes across as quite natural.

Ultimately, "Away We Go" is very likable story about a likable couple (and their lunatic friends and family) that anyone who is in their situation might be able to take some ideas and inspiration from. And regardless of whether they can identify with the protagonists' situation, all audiences will get more than a few good solid laughs and actually care about what happens to our "heroes". And in an age of wacky gross-out comedies like "The Hangover", we definitely can't have too many of those.


  • Hi Joe, Say, I noticed the comment about "The Hangover". Did you see it---if so, are you going to write a review, I would be interested in your view. I do not think I will go and see it but I wanted to know what you thought.

    By Blogger Linnie, at 3:28 PM  

  • Actually, no I haven't. I do make it a policy to always review any movie I've seen first-run new, since there are so few of them, so there would have been a review. I suppose since I haven't seen it I probably don't really have any right to comment on it the way I did, but hey... when you're not bound by the ethics of a professional critic, that does give you a lot of freedom. It's just that everything I've read and seen about that movie (including the trailers and several online clips) make it look like a prime example of a kind of comedy that I'm generally not too fond of, and while I probably could have named some other movie of that type, I just thought of "The Hangover" first because it's current. All that being said, I probably will see it eventually when it gets to the second run houses, and will be glad to let you know what I thought then... whether or not you've seen it yourself by that time.

    By Blogger Joe Bunce, at 8:28 AM  

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