Friday, 13 February 2015

Bye, Bye, Blackbird: "Public Enemies"

Ending Spoilers Ahead

With Michael Mann's latest film Blackhat being released- and subsequently bombing with critics and audiences- I decided to take a look back at Mann's previous film, 2009's Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as Depression-era gangster John Dillinger, who was killed by the FBI in 1934, at the age of 31.

Like 2006's Miami Vice-the film Mann made before this- I think some distance is needed to truly appreciate what Mann is doing aesthetically and thematically in this film. Public Enemies exists in a weird purgatory between art film and mainstream entertainment, between crime film archetypes and characters more deeply felt, and between action and something more slow-burning.

What stood out for me on this viewing  is its vision of the time period is possibly the most un-romanticized version of the past I've ever seen in a mainstream film. Or maybe I should say the least Hollywood-ized. Usually in films like this there's a very prestige feel to the look and production/art design. In this film 1930s is a living, breathing world and way of life, free of any kind of nostalgia. I think this particular mood comes from Mann's use of digital photography. By applying a modern aesthetic to a period piece Mann removes the barrier between past and present, myth and man. We're put right in action, whether it be a gun fight or an interaction between two characters. The 1930s- while the distant past to us- was to these people the modern world. It was immediate and the future was uncertain. The Depression was in its fourth year and anew kind of criminal had emerged. and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) declares "America's first war on crime. This line not only speaks to the time period but to the wars North America would fight against drugs and terrorism in later decades.      

Public Enemies isn't so much a biopic of Dillinger- it only chronicles the last year or so of his life. During the course of the film Dillinger begins a romance with Bille Frechete (Marion Cotillard). At first Billie says she can't begin a relationship with a man she hardly knows. Dillinger then tells her: 

"I was raised on a farm in Moorsesville, Indiana. My mama died when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you...what else you need to know?"

This isn't just directed at Billie but at the audience as well. The film is telling us it's not interested in exploring Dillinger's backstory or psychoanalyzing him. It adds to the immediacy of the film that we meet Dillinger fully formed rather than seeing him as a child and then as a teenager, etc. Mann doesn't want to unlock Dillinger, maybe because he feels there's no reason to. Dillinger was just a man when all was said and done. Dillinger gained mythic stature after his death- and was a public icon even before  then but behind that myth was a ordinary man.

"Time is luck" is a phrase Mann has used in his films. While it's not spoken in Public Enemies, the sentiment runs through the film. Dillinger lives in the moment, knowing he may  not be alive tomorrow. I noted that the time period of the film was un-romanticized but Mann is still very much a romantic. The relationship between Dillinger and Billie epitomizes the doomed romance Mann explored in Heat and Miami Vice. This love affair can't last. It's "too good to last," as Colin Farrell's Sonny Crockett says to Gong Li's Isabella in Miami Vice

When Dillinger is killed the film ends with Billie. Mann is compassionate towards Billie and views her loss as the tragedy of the film. Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), one of the FBI agents who killed Dillinger- and who heard Dillinger's last words- tells Billie "He said 'Tell Billie for me: Bye, bye, Blackbird'," which was the name of the song Dillinger and Billie first danced to. Similar to the endings of Heat and Miami Vice, this conclusion sneaks up on you with how emotionally devastating it. It rises above the archetypes and tropes of the genre and achieves something transcendent.  

This is one of  Depp's most restrained performance- particularly in comparison to everything from 2003 onwards. He plays Dillinger with a folksy charm and charisma, winning the public over to his side even while pitting the FBI against him. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who led the man hunt for Dillinger. Bale doesn't get a lot to work with but he plays the part with conviction and subtle nobility, with a dash of arrogance when Dillinger is arrested earlier in the film. I do wish the film had given us more insight in regards to Purvis- especially when the coda informs us Purvis committed suicide in 1960. I would say Cotillard is the heart of the film. It's her final shot in the film which makes the ending so emotionally affecting.

Coming back to digital photography, aesthetic choices influence us in conscious and unconscious way- and Mann wants us to be conscious of the digital aesthetic and the difference between it and film. Mann challenges the way we think movies should look and feel. And I feel your opinion and reaction to this kind of aesthetic determines whether you like these latter day Mann films. Most notably Mann utilizes digital filmmaking to make his action sequences vividly realistic and hard-hitting. The opening prison escape establishes the rhythm of the action and the "in the moment" feel of the film. 
While other modern action sequences don't have much personality, Mann's set pieces feel distinctly and organically part of his overarching aesthetic.

Public Enemies has grown in stature in my mind after re-watching it. Mann understands the romanticism and the inherent tragedy beneath the conventions of the genres of which he explores. And Public Enemies is a tragedy about the people that are left behind, the survivors of the world Dillinger and others after him have inhabited.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Thoughts on Spider-Man Joining The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Well, it finally happened. Late Monday night it was announced that Spider-Man will now be part of Marvel Studios' shared universe. Marvel and Sony (who have produced the previous five Spider-Man films and retained the film rights to the character for over a decade) reached a deal in which Spider-Man will first appear in a Marvel film in 2016 and then get his own solo film in 2017. And as part of this deal Sony will still finance and have creative control over the films.

First off, I feel Spider-Man being in the MCU would've been better a situation if  it had been a clean break. With Sony still having a major role in making these films there's a huge chance Marvel's plans could get muddled. Still, this is a game-changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I've long believed it was odd that a shared universe based around Marvel characters didn't include Spider-Man- being Marvel's most iconic character. It's almost equivalent to not having Batman in a shared DC cinematic universe. I understand why Spider-Man couldn't appear in a Marvel movie- rights issues and all- but it still felt like something was missing. So I'm glad that the MCU- while already fleshed out- now feels a little more complete. That, and the prospect of Spider-Man interacting with the other established characters is pretty exciting. Sharing zingers with Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, sharing his experiences with Chris Evans' Steve Rogers- it'll be fun to see.   

I had mixed feelings on the Amazing Spider-Man films- directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield. I wanted to love those films but I think the backlash against the original Sam Raimi films starring Tobey Maguire soured me on that franchise even before the first film came out. Ideally we can finally get pass the bile spewing towards Raimi's films now that we're one more step removed from his trilogy. 

I initially liked elements of the first Amazing Spider-Man but in retrospect I don't feel the film really works. It has major  structure and thematic issues as well as too much studio manhandling. These same problems plagued its sequel as well. While I think Marc Webb is a competent director I don't believe he ever had much creative control over these films- contrary to the claims made by some fans that Webb has a distinct vision for this franchise. At the same time it's unfortunate that plot threads left hanging at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will likely never be resolved.  Also, is it possible to get Felicity Jones in the MCU as well? If you remember she played Felicia (Hardy) in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It was only a small role but the film was clearly setting her up to be Black Cat in a later film. She's a lovely actress and I was looking forward to seeing her take on that role.

It's believed that Spider-Man may show up in Captain America: Civil War, since Spider-Man was a major character in that storyline. Though I don't think Peter Parker can reveal his identity to the world in the character's first MCU appearance. Peter revealing he was Spider-Man was impactful because the character had so much history in the comics leading up to the reveal.  However, it's not a bad place to bring Spider-Man. I assume this Peter Parker will have only been Spider-Man for a short period. He's still learning the ropes- or the webs- and he'll be caught between two giant figures- Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America. He'll have to decide who he wants to side with- or maybe he'll choose further independence rather than any political ideology. Then again, his role in the film may only be a cameo of sorts.

I know many people want Miles Morales to be Spider-Man in the MCU. Miles became Spider-Man after Peter Parker's death in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. I haven't read any of the comics in which Miles appears but many fans love him. Personally- whether they bring in Miles Morales or someone else- I feel Peter should be always be the first Spider-Man.  I understand the need for diversity in these kind of films- something Miles would bring, being Black Hispanic. Still, there's no reason Peter couldn't be African American. That way we can have the original Spider-Man while also having a major hero be non-Caucasian.

As major a deal as this is, it's still hard for me not to feel a tad cynical. This will be the second time Spider-Man has been rebooted and the third cinematic incarnation of the character in only 15. While it's good to keep things fresh- can you imagine going on Spider-Man 6 with Maguire still in the role?- we need a Spider-Man series that can continue beyond 2 installments.  Ideally this deal between Marvel and Sony will help Spider-Man thrive on screen again.