Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hometown cinema, with spoilers

Public Enemies last night (a title so ripe for misspelling it makes me blush) that's 3 movies, at the theater, within a few weeks. whoa. That hasn't happened since Sonny Boy Cate Junior arrived.
But this movie was filmed in and around my hometown at the time, so I almost had to go, right? Just to point out all the local landmarks I recognized? "Hey, that's the bank my cousin got married in!"

Plus, Johnny Depp.

And Billy Crudup, looking oddly puffy about the neck and head as good 'ol J. Edgar.
So what did I think? It played a bit like a flashier version of the History Channel's Eighteen Months of Mayhem, hitting all the notable plot points- Dillinger's '33 jail break, his association with Babyface Nelson, various bank robberies, the shootout at Little Bohemia, etc. LOTS of gun fights, LOTS of gunshot wounds, LOTS of old-timey car chases, and at least 2 really great character dynamics that never got fully developed.

One, young J. Edgar Hoover trying to get a quirky little startup law enforcement agency called the FBI off the ground in the midst of the Depression and the country's greatest crime wave to date.
Second, the gangsters harboring and supporting Dillinger, who turned on him once they realized he was drawing too much interest in the escalation of criminal offense laws, which was bound to have an effect on all their illegal interstate commerce.

Both of those points were touched on and then sidelined in favor of the far less interesting John Dillinger/Billie Frechette romance, which in reality only lasted about 6 months, and seemed to be enhanced for the film to give John Dillinger a hidden, misunderstood heart of gold. Just overlook the fact that while Billie was arrested, beaten, and then incarcerated for aiding and abetting him, Dillinger was living in a brothel and taking prostitutes out on dates. That must just be part of the abusive Dillinger Charm that was strongly sold to the audience, but which I didn't really believe.

In fact, this film implies that Dillinger was so much of a folk hero in his day that his captor, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale in a fainter version of the Eliot Ness/ Al Capone dynamic of The Untouchables) is haunted for the rest of his days by his role in Dillinger's gruesome story.

In Public Enemies, Michael Mann seems to have tried to show a compassionate side to a very dark and violent individual, even implying that if only Dillinger hadn't been double crossed by a madam at the final turn, he would have made that last big score (in a bloodbath of a robbery, certainly) and he and Frechette would have lived out a blissful retirement somewhere in South America. Even in the film Dillinger himself doesn't seem to believe this scenario will play out, but he's pretty hopeful, for a cornered man with no other options.

More honestly, Dillinger was a thief and killer who captured the attention of desperate people in a desperate time, and suffered a deserved swift and brutal end for it. (Some strongly assert that Dillinger himself never killed anyone, or at least, he was never convicted of killing anyone, or that he killed one guy, and felt pretty bad about it, although this film never commits one way or the other on the issue, and he certainly shoots directly at a lot of people. Bad aim isn't analogous to a firm moral stance that shooting people is wrong.)
Also, in this alternate reality, the Depression seems to only be happening in one dilapidated farmhouse out in the pit of the Dust Bowl. The mostly deserted towns in Illinois and Wisconsin are full of architecturally stunning banks, dance halls and restaurants packed with patrons eating steak and wearing furs, and one or two homeless guys.

Many of the performances were outstanding, including Crudup as brash, cocky J. Edgar Hoover- I could have used more of that- Stephen Graham as the manic George "Babyface" Nelson, and Branka Katic as Anna Sage.
In the end it seems like that kind of movie that could have used just one more script revision. Pick a direction and go with it, because in film biographies, as in Harry Potter adaptations, you just can't tell the entire story in 3 hours or less.
If you want a historically accurate overview of Dillinger's crime spree, heavy on bullets and gore, then, three thumbs up. If you want a more insightful examining of an era, and how a handful of outlaws became cultural icons, then just pick up a good biography, or catch Eighteen Months of Mayham when it is replayed on cable.

Monday, July 20, 2009

55 Central Park West

Adrienne's comment reminded me of the first time I experienced Ghostbusters.
And I use that term because, as a youngster, I was not allowed to watch it. To begin with, I was four when Ghostbusters was released theatrically, and although I had seen E.T. five times in the theater, by then my parents would be about where I am now- just not able to get out to the show every week of the year.
So, a few years later, when they got a hold of it on video, my dad and his siblings decided to watch it on one of the infamous "Night of a Thousand Cousins", during which my aunts and uncles gathered to hang out, and myself and my 10,000 cousins ran around terrorizing the neighborhood of whichever family member was brave enough to host us.
( I might be exaggerating. I probably only have about 8,500 cousins on Dad's side)
On that particular evening, still gun shy from the Creepshow on Cable freakout of the previous winter, my Dad wisely decided that maybe this Ghostbusters thing would be too scary for little kids, and so we were given our snacks, patted on the head, and sent upstairs to bed. (i.e., go play in your rooms and give us a break, already)
But we were already wise, you see. Someone had overheard the title "Ghostbusters" and, well, our curiosity was peeked. So, knowing that if we all herded downstairs we would be in trouble, we did what any enterprising young smart alecs would- we sent down a representative to spy for us.
He did a great job, too, coming back every few minutes with updates, which we were certain had to be embroidered, at least a little.
"The ghost flew right through the guy, and slimed him! He was all gross and gooey!"
"Eggs popped out and fried on the counter." and "the chair turned into a monster, and the fridge ate this lady!"
"The guys have these jet packs that shoot fireballs!"
But the coup de gras was, of course, the finale, at which point all of us littler cousins had huddled around the door like zoo animals at feeding time.
"There is this huge marshmallow guy walking through the city, and they blew him up with their jet packs, and marshmallow fell on everything, and everyone was covered in marshmallow!"

No. Way.
He had to be making that up. What he was describing was, quite possibly, the greatest movie since "The Chipmunks Big Adventure."
We spent the next day begging to watch it, which didn't happen, for some reason. I didn't actually get to watch the original movie for years, until well after the dippy afternoon cartoon version.
I was still impressed.
How can you not be? It's Ghostbusters, after all. It doesn't get any funnier or weirder than that.