“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

 

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

After the 2011 movie “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART II” hit the movie theaters, I had assumed that would be the last film set in J.K. Rowling’s “wizarding world of Harry Potter”. Her 2007 novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was her last one in a series of seven books. But . . . lo and behold, Warner Brothers Studios, who had released the films based upon her novel, found a way to continue the series. The end result was the release of the recent film, “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” is based upon a 2001 book written by Rowling. Somewhat. First of all, the book is not a novel, but a “scholarly” book about the magical creatures found in the Harry Potter universe. Second of all, the book was published under the fictional pen name of one Newt Scamander. What Rowlings, who served as the film’s screenwriter, did was used the Newt Scamander pen name and transformed him into the movie’s main character. In the film, British wizard and “magizoologist” Newt Scamander arrives by boat to New York City in the fall of 1926. Newt has arrived in the United States to release a magical creature called the Thunderbird in the Arizona desert. While listening to a sidewalk speech given by a non-magical (No-Maj) fanatic named Mary Lou Barebone, one of his charges – a creature called Nifler escapes from his magically expanded suitcase, which contains other magical creatures. Even worse, he meets No-Maj cannery worker and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski, and they accidentally swap suitcases. As Newt struggles to regain possession of his suitcase, Nifler and other magical creatures that have managed to escape; he runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), thanks to a demoted auror named Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, eager to regain her position. Between his search for his missing magical creatures, regaining his suitcase from Jacob Kowalski and the MACUSA; Newt has to deal with a creature called the Obscurus, which uses children as host bodies and is causing destruction around Manhattan and not attract the attention of Ms. Barebone and her abused adopted children – including the adolescent Credence Barebone.

When I first saw “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was surprised to discover that J.K. Rowling was the movie’s sole screenwriter. I found this especially surprising, considering that one of the movie’s producers happened to be Steve Kloves, who had served as screenwriter for seven of the eight “HARRY POTTER” movies. And I must say that I thought she did a pretty damn good job. At first, I thought Rowling had created a disjointed tale. The movie seemed to possess at least three separate plot lines:

*Newt’s search for the missing creatures in his possession

*The Obscurus’ destruction

*Mary Lou Barebone’s anti-magic campaign

But Tina Goldstein finally exposed Newt’s magical suitcase to MACUSA, Newt’s plot line became connected to the story arc regarding the Obscurus. And both story arcs became connected to Mrs. Barebone’s anti-magic campaign when audiences learned that MACUSA Director of Magical Security Percival Graves had recruited Credence to help him locate the child who might be the Obscurus. Seeing how these individual story arcs formed to become part of one main narrative reminded me of the 2008 World War II Spike Lee drama, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. Speaking of World War II, I was happily surprised to learn that a major plot twist near the end of “FANTASTIC BEASTS” promises to lead to the featured a major plot twist that will serve as part of this new series’ main narrative about the upcoming Global wizarding war that will play out during the rise of fascism and the war. How clever of Rowling.

What else did I like about the movie? Frankly, the production designs. I was very impressed by Stuart Craig and James Hambidge’s re-creation of 1926 Manhattan. For me, among their best work proved to be their creation of a 1920s magical speakeasy operated by a goblin gangster named Gnarlack. Nor am I surprised that the pair managed to earn an Oscar nomination for their work. I was also impressed by Colleen Atwood’s costume designs for the film. One, she did an excellent job in re-creating the fashion of the mid-1920s. More importantly, Atwood put an interesting fantasy twist for the costumes worn by the magical characters. For some reason, the clothes worn by the American wizarding community of the 1920s seemed to be more tasteful and elegant than those worn by the British wizarding community of the late 20th/early 21st century. And guess what? Ms. Atwood also earned an Oscar nomination for her work. The only problem I had with the movie’s technical effects was Philippe Rousselot’s photography. Mind you, I had no problems with the film’s epic sweep. But I did not particularly care for the photography’s brown tint – a color that I personally found unnecessary and rather disappointing. I realize that the story is set during the middle of autumn. But was it really necessary to photograph the movie with an unflattering brown tint to indicate the time of the year?

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Eddie Redmayne did a marvelous job in portraying the introverted wizard Newt Scamander, who seemed to have an easier job of interacting with the creatures in his care instead of his fellow humans. I also noticed that in one hilarious scene, which involved Newt’s attempt to recapture an African Erumpent at the city zoo, Redmayne displayed a talent for physical comedy by engaging with a “mating dance” with the animal. Katherine Waterston, whom I last saw in the 2015 drama “STEVE JOBS”, gave a very intense, yet engaging performance as the demoted auror, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein. I was impressed by how Waterston combined two aspects of Tina’s personality – her driving ambition, which has come close to undermining her strong penchant for decency on a few occasions. Dan Fogler gave a very entertaining and funny performance as the No-Maj cannery worker and wannabe baker, Jacob Kowalski. Not only did I find his performance very funny, he also managed to create a strong screen chemistry with both Eddie Redmayne and Alison Sudol, who portrayed Tina’s sister Quennie Goldstein. Sudol was an absolute delight as the carefree witch, who is not only proficient in Legilimens, but who also falls in love with Jacob.

I never thought I would see Colin Farrell in a “HARRY POTTER” film. To be honest, he never struck me as the type. But he seemed to fit quite well in his excellent portrayal of the ruthless and intense Auror and Director of Magical Security for MACUSA, Percival Graves. I was especially impressed with his performance in scenes that featured Graves’ interactions with Credence Barebone – scenes that seemed to hint some mild form of erotic manipulation. Speaking of Mr. Barebone, Ezra Miller was in fine form as the emotionally repressed Credence. The ironic thing about Miller’s performance is that at first, his character seemed slightly creepy. In fact, one could label his Credence a “young American Severus Snape with a bad haircut and no wit”. Thanks to Rowling’s screenplay and Miller’s performance, I came away with a portrait of a sad and abused young man, who hand channeled his anger at those who exploit him via magic.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” marked the first time in which I can recall a magical person of color as a major supporting role – namely the MACUSA’s elegant president Seraphina Picquery, portrayed by Carmen Ejogo. Unlike characters such as Dean Thomas or Kingsley Shacklebolt, President Picquery was not simply allowed to speak a few lines before being swept to the sidelines or off screen. Audiences received more than a glimpse of the glamorous Seraphina. I was also happy to discover that President Picquery was not portrayed as some one-dimensional character without any depth. Thanks to Ejogo’s skillful performance, she portrayed the MACUSA as a pragmatic and ruthless woman who could be quite ambiguous in her efforts to maintain order within the American wizarding community. I found myself equally impressed by Samantha Morton’s portrayal of the religious fanatic, Mary Lou Barebone. What really impressed me about Morton’s performance is that she did not resort to excessive dramatics to convey Mrs. Barebone’s fanatical . . . and abusive personality. Morton gave a subtle and intense performance that conveyed a portrait of a rather frightening woman – especially one who was not magical. The movie also featured solid performances from Jon Voight, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Faith Wood-Blagrove and Ron Perlman’s voice. The movie also featured a surprise cameo appearance from Johnny Depp, whose character will play an important role in the sequel films that will follow this one.

I find it ironic that when I had first learned about the plans for “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was against it. I thought J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers Studio had taken the Harry Potter franchise as far as it could go after seven novels and eight films. And yet . . . after seeing this film, I immediately fell in love with it. The movie had a few flaws. But I ended up enjoying it, thanks to the complex plot written by Rowling, David Yates’ solid direction, the visual effects and the first-rate cast led by Eddie Redmayne. And now . . . I look forward to seeing more films about the different wizarding communities during the early 20th century.

 

“THE LONE RANGER” (2013) Review

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“THE LONE RANGER” (2013) Review

My memories of the 1950s television series, “THE LONE RANGER”, is a bit sketchy. Actually, it is downright vague. I can recall Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels in their costumes – the latter wearing a mask. I can recall Moore bellowing “Hi ho Silver!” every once in a while. And I do recall that the series was shot in black-and-white. I have no memories of a particular episode or storyline. I never invested any genuine interest in the series during my childhood. 

When I learned that the Disney Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer planned to produce a movie about the Lone Ranger, I regarded the announcement with very little interest. Not even the news that Johnny Depp would portray Tonto could generate any excitement within me. Usually, I would have been excited by the news of another collaboration between Bruckheimer and Depp – especially since this collaboration marked the return of Gore Verbinski as director. But my lukewarm regard toward the old “THE LONE RANGER” made it impossible for me get excited. Instead, I merely adopted an attitude of “wait and see” and dismissed the news from my mind . . . until the release date for the movie finally approached.

Directed by Gore Verbinski, “THE LONE RANGER” was not only based upon the 1950s television show, but also the 1933 radio program. The movie is basically an origin tale of how a Commanche named Tonto met the man who became the Lone Ranger. It begins in San Francisco 1933, in which Will, a young boy and fan of the Lone Ranger myth, meets the elderly Tonto at a Wild West exhibition at a local fair. The story jumps back 64 years to 1869 in Colby, Texas; where a young attorney named John Reid is returning home by train to become an assistant district attorney. Also traveling on the train as prisoners is the notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish and Tonto. Cavendish is heading back to Colby to be hanged, following his capture by John’s older brother Dan and the other Texas Rangers in the area. However, Cavendish’s gang manages to rescue their leader and escape, leaving John, Tonto and other passengers aboard a runaway train. The latter eventually derails at a rail construction site for the unfinished Transcontinental Railroad and Tonto is arrested by the Reid brothers. Dan, who is married to John’s childhood love Rebecca Reid, deputizes his younger brother as a Texas Ranger before the whole group sets out to recapture Cavendish and his gang. Unfortunately for the Reid brothers and their fellow Rangers, there is a traitor amongst them who sets them up to be ambushed and killed by the Cavendish gang. Only John survives, due to the assistance of Tonto, who managed to escape jail. Seeking revenge, John sets out to find and capture Cavendish with Tonto’s help; unaware that the Commanche has his own vengeful agenda regarding Cavendish.

The question remains . . . did I enjoy “THE LONE RANGER”? I can honestly say that I did not like it as much as I had liked the three “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” movies that Gore Verbinski had directed – “THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”“DEAD MAN’S CHEST” and “AT WORLD’S END”. I take some of that back. Perhaps I liked it as much as I did “AT WORLD’S END”. I certainly liked it more than the fourth “PIRATES” movie, “ON STRANGER TIDES”. However, “THE LONE RANGER” had its flaws. One, I found the 149 minutes running time a bit too long about the movie adaptation of an old radio/television character. This movie could have undergone a bit more trimming, leaving the movie slightly longer than 120 minutes. What could Verbinski, Bruckheimer and the three screenwriters have cut? I have no idea. Well . . . I would have cut the 1933 sequences. I really did not see the need of an aging Tonto recalling his first meeting with the Lone Ranger with some kid. Two, there were some minor aspects of the plot that could have been a bit more clear. For instance, who saved Rebecca and her son Danny Reid from Collins, the Texas Ranger who had betrayed her husband? The movie never explained. The movie also failed to explain how Tonto had escaped from the Colby jail in time to find a wounded John Reid and nurse him back to health. Three, I was not impressed by Hans Zimmer’s score. To be honest, I have no memories of it. And if there is one thing that can contribute to the quality of a movie, is a first-rate score. “THE LONE RANGER” simply did not have one. And finally, I could have done without the train wreck that Tonto and John survived near the movie’s beginning. I wish screenwriters Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe could have found a less over-the-top way for Cavendish to escape the hangman’s noose.

Despite these flaws, I still managed to enjoy “THE LONG RANGER” very much. The screenwriters still managed to construct an interesting and entertaining tale about frontier politics, justice and revenge. In fact, the movie not only featured its usual staple of humor and action found in an Depp/Verbinski/Bruckheimer film, it also featured some pretty dark moments in its plot. Aware of moviegoers’ current dislike of summer films with a dark undertone – unless its a movie about some comic book hero or simply a drama – I was rather glad that the screenwriters and Verbinski managed to inject some darkness into the plot. The tragic circumstances surrounding the deaths of Dan Reid and his fellow Texas Rangers, along with the reasons behind Tonto’s desire for revenge against Cavendish, the deadly attack upon the Reids’ ranch, and the threat of railroad construction and the U.S. Army against Commanche lands made this story very interesting. Another fascinating aspect of the movie’s plot proved to be the relationship between Tonto and John aka the Lone Ranger. First of all, I liked how the screenwriters made Tonto responsible for the creation of the Lone Ranger myth. Two, the development of Tonto and John’s relationship proved to be an uphill and hard-won battle. The screenwriters did not make it easy for the pair. A fellow co-worker had complained of John’s reluctance to trust Tonto by following the latter’s advice. A part of me agreed with him. Another part of me understood John’s reluctance, considering that Tonto had failed to be completely honest with him. Although I was not impressed by Zimmer’s score, I must admit that I truly enjoyed how the composer used the old Lone Ranger theme – Gioachino Rossini’s“William Tell Overture” – to accompany the movie’s final action sequence. I found it so inspiring.

“THE LONE RANGER” also featured little moments that I found very interesting . . . and entertaining. One of those moments was a hilarious flash-forward that depicted the Lone Ranger and Tonto’s robbery of a local bank that contained an item used by the pair to defeat the villains. Another scene that I enjoyed centered on the pair’s efforts to escape from being trampled upon after being buried in the ground by Commanches. I also enjoyed Tonto’s rescue of John, who was nearly hanged by Cavendish and the U.S. Army. And I especially enjoyed the last action sequence in which the pair tried to prevent the transportation of silver stolen from the Commanche lands by Cavendish and his partner. But my favorite moment – and it is a small one – centered around the love triangle between the Reid brothers, the woman they both loved, Rebecca; and a blue silk handkerchief used in the most subtle and erotic manner.

As for the movie’s technical aspects, I must admit that I left the movie theater feeling very impressed by it. I found Bojan Bazelli’s photography of the locations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Colorado very beautiful. There was another aspect of Bazelli’s photography that I found interesting. The movie’s color scheme started out as chrome gray as soon as the plot shifted to 1869 Texas. Yet, even the 19th century “flashbacks” eventually grew in color as the story unfolded and the relationship between Tonto and John strengthen. I also have to commend the film’s editing done by James Haygood and Craig Wood, especially in many of the film’s action sequences. And Jess Gonchor did a beautiful job in re-creating mid-19th century Texas through his production designs – especially in the Colby and railroad construction sequences. Three time BAFTA nominee Penny Rose, who had designed the costumes for the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN”movies, collaborated with Bruckheimer and Verbinski again as costume designer for “THE LONE RANGER”. I could rave about Rose’s work and how she perfectly captured the style of frontier fashions at the end of the 1860s. By why bother, when all I have to do is point out her work in the image below:

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I found the performances featured in “THE LONE RANGER” outstanding . . . aside from two. One of those exceptions proved to be Helena Bonham-Carter’s portrayal of Red Harrington, an ivory-legged brothel madam who assists Tonto and John. Actually, Bonham-Carter gave a colorful and earthy performance as the one-legged madam who also sought revenge against Cavendish. Unfortunately, the movie’s screenplay failed to do anything with her character, other than allow her to provide some information to the pair in the movie’s first half and assist them for a brief moment in the final action sequence. Elliot, Rossio and Haythe pretty much wasted her character and Bonham-Carter’s time. Barry Pepper gave a colorful performance as the xenophobic U.S. Army Captain Jay Fuller, who allowed himself to be corrupted by Cavendish and his partner. But as much as I enjoyed Pepper’s performance, I found myself a bit unsatisfied with how the screenwriters handled his character. Captain Fuller’s transformation from a determined Army officer to a corrupt one struck me as a bit rushed and clumsy. James Badge Dale fared a lot better as John Reid’s older brother, Texas Ranger Dan Reid. He gave an excellent performance as the professional lawman torn between his love for his younger brother and jealousy toward his wife’s continuing feelings for the latter. Remember my recall of the scene featuring the blue silk handkerchief? Badge Dale’s performance in that scene really made it particularly memorable for me. It has been a while since I last saw William Fitchner in a movie – over three years, as a matter of fact. The man has portrayed a vast array of interesting characters over the years. And I would definitely count the outlaw Butch Cavendish as one of those characters. Fitchner skillfully portrayed the outlaw as a walking horror story with an impish sense of humor.

Tom Wilkinson, whom one could always count on portraying interesting and complex characters, skillfully portrayed another one in the form of railroad tycoon, Latham Cole. Wilkinson did an excellent job in portraying Cole as a subtle and wily man whose desire for Rebecca Reid, power and wealth; along with the construction of the railroad makes him a potential enemy of both Tonto and the Lone Ranger. I was surprised to discover that British actress Ruth Wilson had been cast as Rebecca Reid, John’s sister-in-law and the love of his life. I have always felt that she was a top-notch actress and her portrayal of the spirited Rebecca did not prove me wrong. But I was very surprised by how she easily handled a Texas accent during her performance. If someone ever decides to do a remake of the 1965 movie, “THE GREAT RACE”, I would cast Armie Hammer in the role of Leslie Gallant aka the Great Leslie. Hammer did a beautiful job in conveying a similar uptight and annoyingly noble personality in his portrayal of John Reid aka the Lone Ranger. In a way, I could see why a good number of fans found John’s stubborn refusal to improvise in dealing with Cavendish rather annoying. And if they did, Hammer succeeded in his performance on many levels . . . and still managed to be likeable. At least to me. Some critics had complained that Depp’s portrayal of Tonto failed to become another Jack Sparrow. Others complained that his Tonto seemed too much like Tonto. I will admit that Depp, the screenwriters and Verbinski utilized a similar sense of humor in the portrayal of Tonto. But thanks to Depp’s performance, the latter proved to be a different kettle of fish. Not only did I find Depp’s portrayal of the wily and vengeful Commanche rather funny, but also sad, considering the character’s back story. This allowed the actor to inject a tragicomedic layer in his portrayal of Tonto that reminded me why he is considered one of the best actors in the film industry.

As I had stated earlier, “THE LONE RANGER” did not strike me as perfect. I certainly do not regard it as one of the best movies from the summer of 2013; due to a running time I found too long, a few problems with the script and the presence of two characters I believe were mishandled. On the other hand, it turned out to be a first-rate action Western with a plot that featured some surprising plot twists and a dark streak that I believe made the story even more interesting. It did help that I not only enjoyed the post-Civil War setting, but also the performances of an excellent cast led by Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and a very entertaining direction by Gore Verbinski.

“DARK SHADOWS” (2012) Review

 

“DARK SHADOWS” (2012) Review

I have never been a diehard fan of director Tim Burton. Honestly. In fact, I can only think of one or two of his movies that really impressed me. Okay, I can think of two . . . before I saw his latest opus, “DARK SHADOWS”

The last Burton film that really impressed me was his 2007 Oscar-nominated film, “SWEENEY TODD”. I did not love it. And I have no desire to see it again. But it did impress me. So, when I discovered that he did a big screen adaptation of the 1966-71 ABC television series, I reacted with mild interest. I have never seen the old television series. And to be honest, I have no real desire to watch it. It was the humor featured in the trailer for Burton’s new film that led me to see it.

“DARK SHADOWS” told the story of Barnabas Collins, the 18th century scion of a wealthy Colonial family, who is transformed into a vampire by a scorned lover named Angelique Bouchard, who also happened to be a Collins family servant and a witch. After transforming him into a vampire, Angelique led a lynch mob that captures Barnabas and buries him alive in a chained coffin in the woods. Two hundred years later in 1972, a group of construction workers accidentally free Barnabas, before he feeds on them. He later makes his way back to the Collins manor and finds it inhabited by his mid 20th century descendants; family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, her 15 year-old daughter Carolyn Stoddard, Elizabeth’s brother Roger Collins, his 10 year-old son David; and their servants who are caretaker Willie Loomis and David’s governess, Victoria Winters, who is a reincarnation of Barnabas’ lost love, Josette du Pres. One last occupant is David’s live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman.

Barnabas convinces Elizabeth of his identity when he reveals a secret room behind the fireplace. The room contains a vast treasure that can help the Collins family restore the family business. However, Elizabeth makes him promise to never reveal his identity as a vampire to the rest of the family. All seemed to be well for the Collins family, until Angelique, who has used magic to extend her life, discovers that Barnabas has been released from his coffin. Angelique has also used her own fishery business to bankrupt the family. Upset that Barnabas has returned, Angelique tries to win back his affections through sex. However, Barnabas makes it clear that he does not love her. And Angelique goes out of her way to ensure the destruction of Barnabas and his immediate family.

“DARK SHADOWS” is not perfect. I am quite aware that it is not ensemble piece, despite the likes of Michelle Pfieffer and Helena Bonham-Carter in the cast. I also realize that is basically about Barnabas Collins. But I do believe that two or three supporting characters were barely used in the story. And those characters proved to be young David Collins, Dr. Julia Hoffman (portrayed by the marvelous Helena Bonham-Carter) and Roger Collins, portrayed by the woefully underused Jonny Lee Miller. And I wish the movie had explained how Angelique managed to survive and not age for two centuries. From what I had read, this was never explained in the television version either. I also found the revelation of Carolyn Stoddard as a werewolf near the end of the movie, very contrived. Either screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had failed to hint this revelation or I simply failed to notice any his hint(s). And I also found the movie’s pacing slightly uneven three-quarters into the story. I suspect that Burton and his screenwriter, Seth Grahame-Smith, were in such a hurry to get rid of Roger Collins and Dr. Hoffman that the pacing somewhat became off-kilter.

But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy “DARK SHADOWS” very much. First of all, I was dazzled by Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography. He gave it a rich, blue-tinted look that really contributed to the film’s setting and tale. This was especially apparent in the prologue that introduced the Collins family’s American origins and Barnabas Collins. Delbonnel’s photography also enhanced Rick Heinrichs’ production designs. Heinrichs did a beautiful job in re-creating both the mid and late-18th century Maine, along with the same location in 1972. And I feel he was ably supported by Chris Lowe’s art direction team, John Bush’s set decorations and Colleen Atwood’s beautiful costume designs.

Although I was somewhat critical of Grahame-Seth’s screenplay, I do not believe it was not a complete waste. In fact, I thought it was wise of him to center the main narrative around Barnabas Collins. The latter’s attempts to assimilate into the early 1970s had me shaking with laughter. And Grahame-Seth was wise to not only enrich Barnabas’ love for Josette du Pres and later, Victoria Winters; but also his concerns for his family. Family seemed to be very important to Barnabas, which allowed Grahame-Seth to focus more on Victoria and the Collins family . . . even Roger. Barnabas’ concerns for his family also made his conflict with Angelique Bouchard even more pressing. I am also glad that both Burton and Grahame-Seth’s portrayal of Barnabas was complex. They allowed him to feed on other human beings without labeling him as evil. Barnabas feeds on the blood of others to survive, just as we humans feed on other living beings – both animals and plants. He does not like feeding on others anymore than he likes being a vampire. There is no taint of one-dimensional morality that has marred television series like “BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”“ANGEL” and “CHARMED”. Several critics and many of the old television series also criticized Burton’s film for not being a close adaptation of the show. I find their criticisms a little irrelevant, due to the fact that I have yet to see a film adaptation of a television series to be that particularly close to its original source.

The cast for “DARK SHADOWS” is first-rate. Even those performers forced into roles that were not fully explored did a great job. It was nice to see Burton’s willingness to use again, actor Christopher Lee, who had a brief appearance as the top fisherman of Collinsport, Maine. I have never seen Jonny Lee Miller portrayed such a negative role like Roger Collins. And despite the minimal exposure, he did a great job of expressing Roger’s shallowness and lack of concern for his son and other members of the family. Helena Bonham-Carter was hilariously entertaining as young David Collins’ live-in psychiatrist, who developed a crush on Barnabas. It wsa nice to see Jackie Earle Haley again, who was also rather funny as the Collins family’s caretaker, Willie Loomis. I wish I could say something nice about Bella Heathcote. But her performance as Victoria Winters struck me as a little too ethereal and . . . wooden. Gulliver McGrath gave a sweet performance as young David Collins, but he did not strike me as particularly memorable.

For me, the best performances came from lead actor Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer, Eva Green and Chloë Grace Moretz. The latter has certainly grown a lot since I first saw her in “KICK ASS”, two years ago. I find her take on the fifteen year-old Carolyn Stoddard to be very eccentric (in a positive way). She also seemed to be a younger version of Michelle Pfieffer, who portrayed her imperious mother, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. I thought that Pfieffer was spot on as the indomitable matriarch of the Collins family, who hid her ruthlessly passionate and maternal nature behind a reserved facade. Eva Green nearly scared me out of my wits with her frightening portrayal of Angelique Bouchard, the witch who developed an obsessive love for Barnabas. Apparently, Angelique’s love and hatred proved to be so strong that she continued to slowly destroy the Collins family, long after Barnabas was locked in a coffin. Johnny Depp has portrayed some memorable characters over the years. But I must admit that his take on the Barnabas Collins character has proven to be one of my favorites. The man was superb. I could describe his performance with as many adjectives as possible. But it would take a great deal of my time. All I can say is that I believe he was perfect.

I realize that “DARK SHADOWS” has disappointed many fans of the old 1966-71 television series. And I must admit that I found a few aspects of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay rather questionable. But “DARK SHADOWS” proved to be an entertaining movie thanks to Tim Burton’s direction, the story’s concentration on the Barnabas Collins, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and the excellent cast led by the always talented Johnny Depp.

Favorite Movies and Television Set During the EARLY AMERICA Period

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Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions set during the Early America Period (1783-1828):

 

FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION SET DURING THE EARLY AMERICA PERIOD

1

“John Adams” (2008) – Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney deservedly won both Emmys and Golden Globes for their excellent portrayals of John and Abagail Adams in this excellent seven-part miniseries about the 2nd U.S. president.

2

“The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer on his way home from market, who helps a runaway slave evade her master.

3

“Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – This adventure conveyed the experiences of Davy Crockett and George Russel with keelboat riverman Mike Fink and river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Picturesque and a lot of fun. Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeff York starred.

4

“Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne DeCarlo starred in this entertaining costume romp about a Boston-born entertainer who falls for a pirate with a secret identity as a respectable New Orleans aristocrat. Directed by Fredrick De Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend, Robert Douglas, Andrea King and Elsa Lancaster.

5

“Interview With a Vampire” (1994) – Neil Jordan directed this fascinating adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel about a pair of vampires during a period of 200 years. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst, Antonio Banderas and Christian Slater co-starred.

6

“Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in the PBS movie about a Detroit teen who is transported back in time to 1822 South Carolina, where he finds himself about to participate in a slave revolt instigated by one Denmark Vessey.

7

“Sleepy Hollow” (1999) – Tim Burton directed Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in this adaptation of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

8

“The Seekers” (1979) – This adaptation of John Jakes’ 1975 novel about the Kent family’s experiences from 1794 to 1814. Randolph Mantooth, Timothy Patrick Murphy and George Hamilton starred.

9

“Many Rivers to Cross” (1955) – Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker starred in this western-comedy about a footloose frontiersman in early Kentucky, who is targeted by a spirited spinster for marriage. Directed by Roy Rowland.

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: On Stranger Tides” (2011) Review

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES” (2011) Review

When the Disney Studios and producer Jerry Bruckheimer had first released news of their intention to make sequels to their 2003 hit movie, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: Curse of the Black Pearl”, I reacted to the news with a great dealof wariness. In fact, I was against the idea. But after seeing 2006’s “Dead Man’s Chest” and 2007’s “At World’s End”, my opinion had changed. I ended up enjoying the two movies just as much as I had enjoyed “Curse of the Black Pearl”. . . especially the second film. 

About two years after “At World’s End” hit the theaters, the Disney people and Bruckheimer had released news of their intention to make a fourth film. Again, I expressed wariness at the idea. I thought the three movies released between 2003 and 2007 made a neat little trilogy. There was no need for a fourth movie. But Disney and Bruckheimer went ahead with their plans and a fourth movie was recently released. But unlike “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”, I found it difficult to enjoy PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: On Stranger Tides”.

I cannot say that I disliked the film. There were aspects of it that I genuinely enjoyed. Both Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were in top form as Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Hector Barbossa. But I noticed something odd about their characters in this movie. For once, Jack did not have a particular goal to attain in this film. In “Curse of the Black Pearl”, he was after the Black Pearl. He was after the chest that contained Davy Jones’ heart in “Dead Man’s Chest” to be used to avoid a debt that he owned. And in “At World’s End”, he was still after Jones’ heart in order to gain the opportunity to become master of the Flying Dutchman and immortality. In this fourth movie, Jack seemed to have become swept up in Blackbeard and the British Crown’s agendas. And Barbossa seemed out of place as a privateer for His Majesty King George II and the Royal Navy. There was a scene that featured him eating slices of fruit arranged on a plate. He seemed to be doing his best to project the image of an officer and a gentleman . . . only he looked rather odd. However, both actors gave top notch performances and I could find nothing to complain about.

I could also say the same about the performances of Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane and Stephen Graham as Angelica, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and a sailor named Scrum, respectively. All three were perfectly cast in their respective roles. Cruz did an excellent job in portraying the complex Angelica, who happened to be the daughter of Blackbeard. Although it is obvious that she is attracted to Jack – a former lover, she seemed to have this . . . need for her father’s love that made her into some kind of twisted Daddy’s girl wannabe. Unfortunately, McShane’s Blackbeard seemed like poor father material. There were times when he conveyed the image of a concerned and loving father. And yet, he proved to be nothing more than an emotional vampire who would easily kill his daughter if she got in the way of his goal – the Fountain of Youth. And I must admit that not only did McShane made a witty and terrifying Blackbeard, he handled his character’s twisted relationship with Angelica beautifully. Graham’s Scrum almost struck me as a younger version of Jack’s old friend, Joshamee Gibbs. And considering that the latter’s appearance in this film seemed somewhat limited, it seemed just as well that Graham received more screen time.

There were other aspects of “On Stranger Tides” that I enjoyed. Or should I say, scenes? The mermaids’ attacks upon Blackbeard’s men and upon the H.M.S. Providence were among the most terrifying scenes I have seen in the franchise since the Kracken’s attacks in “Dead Man’s Chest”. I also enjoyed the scene that featured Jack’s mutinous meeting with members of Blackbeard’s crew. Personally, I found it very funny and it brought back memories of former characters such as Pintel, Ragetti, Marty and Cotton. Jack’s meeting with King George II proved to be somewhat entertaining. And it led to an equally entertaining chase sequence through the streets of mid-18th century London. But my favorite scene featured Jack marooning Angelica on a deserted island, following the death of Blackbeard. The humor not only permeated strongly in their verbal exchange, but also in director Rob Marshall’s visual style. And I must admit that I also enjoyed the photography featured in the London scenes and the “island” where the Fountain of Youth was located. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski did justice to the lush Hawaii jungle that served as one of the movie’s settings.

So, if I had so much to enjoy about “On Stranger Tides”, why did it fail to resonate within me in the end? What went wrong? At least for me? My main problem with the movie is that I felt it tried to repeat many aspects of the first film,“Curse of the Black Pearl”. This is odd, considering that “On Stranger Tides” was allegedly inspired by Tim Powers’ 1987 novel, “On Stranger Tides”. The fourth film did not come off as a remake or anything of such. But there were too many aspects of the first film that seemed to be repeated in “On Stranger Tides”. One, Jack’s reunion with Angelica in a London tavern almost seemed like a remake of his first meeting with Will Turner in “Curse of the Black Pearl”. Scrum almost seemed like a remake of Joshamee Gibbs. This is not surprising, since he had more scenes with Jack that Gibbs and the latter (along with actor Kevin McNally) seemed wasted in the movie. Two of Blackbeard’s crew turned out to be zombies (if you can call them that). And they seemed like remakes (physical and otherwise) of Barbossa’s first mate from the first film, Bo’sun. More importantly, the romance between missionary Philip Swift and the mermaid Syrena almost seemed like a remake of the Will Turner/Elizabeth Swann romance . . . but without the character developments. If I must be honest, Philip and Syrena’s romance nearly put me to sleep on several occasions. I feel sorry for actors Sam Claflin and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey. They seemed like two decent actors forced to work with a pair of boring and undeveloped characters.

There were other problems I had with “On Stranger Tides”. The movie saw the return of Royal Navy officers Theodore Groves (from the first and third film) and Gillette (from the first film). What on earth did Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot did to their roles? Both characters almost seemed lobotomized. Well, Gillette did. Groves seemed to have lost his sense of humor. I recalled that he was a big fan boy of Jack in the first and third films. Yet, when he finally met Jack . . . nothing happened. He was too busy being a rather boring and stiff character. What happened to Jack and Barbossa’s own quests for the Fountain of Youth, which was first introduced in “At World’s End”? After a few years of failure, the audience is led to believe that Jack simply lost interest. And Barbossa’s earlier encounter with Blackbeard and the latter’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, led to the loss of one leg and the Black Pearl. And how did Barbossa managed to survive the loss of his leg. Apparently, Barbossa had to cut off his leg to free from Blackbeard’s enchanted ship lines. So, how did he manage to keep himself from bleeding to death in the ocean? How did he manage to swim to safety with one leg?

And then we come to the mermaids. How did the mermaids manage to destroy Barbossa’s ship, the H.M.S. Providence? It was one thing to lure men from small boats or smash said boats. It was another to do the same to a large frigate. I have never heard of such a thing in the mermaid mythology. One last major problem I had with the movie dealt with the presence of the Spanish. Like the British, they were after the Fountain of Youth. Only their leader, known as the Spaniard (portrayed by Óscar Jaenada), called himself destroying the Fountain in the name of his king and the Catholic Church, as some kind of stance against paganism. Worse, he possessed the very chalices that needed to be used to drink the Fountain’s water. Yet, he did not bother to smash them, until he was at the Fountain’s location. Why? And what in the hell were Elliot and Rossio thinking? Why include such a storyline that proved to be irrelevant, epsecially since Jack was able to use the Fountain’s water after its so-called destruction?

I hear that Disney Studios and Bruckheimer are planning a fifth movie. I can understand this decision, considering that“On Stranger Tides” raked up a great deal of profit at the box office. Frankly, I wish they would change their minds. I honestly do not care how much money the movie had made. After watching it, I realized that a fourth movie should not have been made . . . at least from an artistic point of view. It featured too much sloppy writing and characterizations for me to truly enjoy. “On Stranger Tides” might prove to be the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie that I cannot consider as a favorite.

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

I never understood director Tim Burton’s decision to name his latest film, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. I mean . . . why did he do it? His new movie was not another adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. It was a sequel set thirteen years after the original story. So why use the shortened version of the title from Carroll’s original title? 

Many of you might be wondering why I had just made a big deal about this new movie’s title. For me, it represented an example of what I consider to be the numerous missteps that prevented me from embracing Burton’s new movie. Before I continue, I should confess that I have never been a Tim Burton fan. Never. I can only recall two of his movie that knocked my socks off – 1994’s ”ED WOOD” and the 2007 Golden Globe nominee, ”SWEENY TODD”. I wish I could include”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” in that category, but I cannot. The movie simply failed to impress me.

As I had stated earlier, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” was a sequel to Carroll’s original story. Thirteen years after her original adventures in Wonderland, Alice Kingsleigh has become a nineteen year-old young woman on the verge of accepting a wedding proposal from one Hamish Ascot, the son of her late father’s partner, Lord Ascot. Unfortunately, Hamish is a shallow and self-absorbed young man with very little character. Salvation arrived during Hamish’s very public marriage proposal, when Alice spotted a familiar figure – the same White Rabbit who had previously lured her to Wonderland – scampering across Lord Ascot’s estate.

History repeated itself when Alice fell down into the rabbit hole. However, she soon discovered that Wonderland (orUnderland) had changed during her thirteen years absence. The Red Queen had managed to wreck havoc and assume control over most of Underland, thanks to her new ”champion” – a dragon known as the Jabberwocky. Only the realm of the Red Queen’s sister, the White Queen, has remained beyond the red-haired monarch’s reach. However, that situation threatened to change if the White Queen fails to acquire her own champion. A scroll called “the Oraculum” predicted that Alice will not only be the White Queen’s champion, but she will also defeat the Jabberwocky and end the Red Queen’s reign of terror. But due to her stubborn belief that Underland was and still is nothing but a dream, Alice was reluctant to take up the mantle of the White Queen’s champion.

Judging by the plot I had just described, ”ALICE OF WONDERLAND” should have been an enjoyable movie for me. Granted, Linda Woolverton’s script seemed like a typical ”slay the dragon” storyline that has been used in numerous fantasies. But it still had enough adventure, intrigue and personal angst for me to find it appealing. So, why did it fail to light my fire? Production designer Robert Stromberg created an interesting mixture of Gothic and animated styles for the film’s visuals in both the England and Wonderland sequences. Anthony Almaraz and his team of costume designers created lush and colorful costumes for the cast. And Dariusz Wolski’s photography brought out the best in the movie’s visual styles.

”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” could also boast some first-rate performances from the cast. Johnny Depp gave a wonderfully complicated performance as the Mad Hatter. His Mad Hatter was an interesting mixture of an extroverted personality and pathos, punctuated by bouts of borderline insanity. The Red Queen might possibly be one of Helena Bonham-Carter’s best roles. She struck me as the epitome of childishness, selfishness and cruelty. Crispin was slick, menacing and subtly funny as the Red Queen’s personal henchman, the Knave of Hearts. Anne Hathaway’s delicious portrayal of the White Queen reminded me of a Disney princess on crack. I really enjoyed it. Both Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James (who were both in the 1985 miniseries, ”JEWEL IN THE CROWN”) gave solid performances as Alice’s potential in-laws – the kindly Lord Ascot and his shrewish and bullying wife, Lady Ascot. And Alan Rickman gave voice to the Blue Caterpillar in a deliciously sardonic performance. Despite my positive opinion of most of the film’s technical aspects and performances, it still failed to impress me. Why?

First of all, the movie rested upon the shoulders of Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska as the lead character, Alice Kingsleigh. I understand that Ms. Wasikowska has recently received critical acclaim for her portrayal of a suicidal teen in HBO’s ”IN TREATMENT”. It seemed a pity that she failed to be just as impressive as Alice in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Some people have labeled her performance as ”subtle”. I would call it ”insipid”. Or perhaps just plain boring. I swear I have never come across such a bland and boring performance in my life. No only did Wasikowska managed to make Alice’s battle against the Jabberwocky seem dull, she still came close to putting me to sleep in her character’s moments of triumph in the movie’s finale.

Tim Burton’s direction of ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” proved to be just as uninspiring to me, as Wasikowska’s performance. Actually, I found myself thinking of the 1992 movie, ”DEATH BECOMES HER”. I was not comparing the visual effects between the two movies. Meryl Streep had uttered a word in the 1992 movie that perfectly described my opinion of Burton’s direction. Flaccid. ”FLA-A-A-A-CI-I-ID!” How did a director with Burton’s reputation managed to take a solid fantasy adventure and make it one of the most boring films in recent Hollywood history is beyond me. His direction lacked any pep. Or spark. I had felt as if I was watching a piece of limp lettuce in action. I even began to wonder if Burton’s dull direction had affected Wasikowska’s performance. Then I remembered that actors like Depp and Bonham-Carter managed to rise above his direction. I might as well dump the blame of Wasikowska’s performance on her shoulders. As for Tim Burton . . . what is there to say? His direction simply disappointed me.

I might as well say something about the movie’s 3-D effects. They were not only disappointing to me, but also a waste of time and the extra cash I had to pay for the movie tickets. I did not care for the 3-D effects in ”AVATARS”, but it was an example of technical wizardry in compare to the 3-D photography shown in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Speaking of”AVATAR”, I have one last thing to say in regard to 3-D . . . ’Damn you, James Cameron!”. Seriously. I would like to take the man’s head and bash it through a wall for introducing 3-D to the movie going experience. In the two movies I have seen it in, I found it unimpressive. Worse, I had to pay extra movie because movie theaters are more willing to show the 3-D versions of movies like ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”, instead of the 2-D versions.

In short, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” had all of the hallmarks of a solid and entertaining movie experience for me. It was the continuation of a classic fantasy adventure. Talented actors like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Crispin Glover and Anne Hathaway gave first-rate performances. And I must admit that the movie’s production designs and photography gave it a unique visual style. But all of that could not save a movie hindered by pedestrian 3-D effects, a dull and insipid performance by Mia Wasikowska and an even more insipid direction by Tim Burton. Frankly, I think it is a miracle that this movie managed to become a box-office hit.

“PUBLIC ENEMIES” (2009) Review

This month marks the 77th anniversary of when Depression-era bank robber, John Dillinger, was killed by the FBI in Chicago, Illinois. Below is my review of “PUBLIC ENEMIES”, the 2009 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 factomentor 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.