As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the clichÃ©-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.
That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.Continue Reading
The Professional (known as Leon in its European version) is the tale of a quiet, simple man who kills for a living. Once his drug dealing neighbors are executed by a gang of crooked cops, Leon takes their surviving daughter under his wing and begins teaching her the ropes of his business.
Writer-Director Luc Besson (The 5th Element) revisits the world of professional assassins that put him on the international map with his earlier tale, Le Femme Nikita. With The Professional, he gives a new and fresh take on the genre by exploring a strange and beautiful relationship between a hired gun and a little girl seeking revenge. The script is tight and well paced, while Besson’s direction is perhaps the best in his long career. The action direction is amazingly well done, most especially in the blaze of glory final act.Continue Reading
Based on a real criminal and inspired by his own TV movie, L.A. Takedown, Michael Mann directs one of the all-time great cop and robber films with Heat. He takes a highly established genre and digs in deeper—finding the truth and parallels between those who enforce the law and those who break it. Heat explores the sacrifices both sides have to make in order to do the job—mainly causing dysfunction at home. You can see years of preproduction that goes into Mann’s vision—building from earlier works as director of Thief (1981) and producer of TV’s Miami Vice.Continue Reading
Lord of War
Andrew Niccol (Gattaga) wrote and directed this darkly comic story of an international arms dealer. His screenplay is interesting, satirical, and well-paced. The film’s direction is stylish, quick, and greatly entertaining. Niccol has a sharp eye for details and finds the humor underlying the business of death -- or at least the irony of the lifestyle.Continue Reading
True Romance is the story of a young down-on-their-luck couple who comes across a suitcase full of cocaine and makes their way across America to sell it in Hollywood. As they do so a colorful group of cops and criminals hunt them down.
Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) wrote the film with un-credited voiceover by his Pulp Fiction co-author, Roger Avery (Killing Zoe). As with all of Tarantino’s scripts, the story is filled with unique characters, explosive action, and very memorable dialogue.Continue Reading
A writer (Duchovny) and his girlfriend-photographer (Forbes) make a cross-country trip documenting famous murder sites along the way. Their ride-share companions are two hillbillies (Pitt and Lewis) who add their own crime scenes along the way.
Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds), of music video fame, made his directorial feature debut with his hard-boiled tail of American crime and the obsession of the masses for bloodshed and carnage. He is successful in making a road film that feels unlike any other as we follow the foursome westward across the plains, leaving misery in their wake.Continue Reading
After the current vogue for having famous people play eminent people has lost its cachet among Oscar voters, what roles will we remember the nominees for? From 1929 to1942, six of the thirteen Academy Awards for Best Actor were awarded to actors playing real historical personages, from Henry VIII to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” songwriter George M. Cohan. Occasionally flaring up once every decade, the trend of remunerating actors for successful impersonations had almost gone into remission until recently. In 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006 the statue was awarded for the most uncanny imitation of a deceased celebrity. In the Best Actress category the statistics are even more consistent; during the 2000s only two of the past awards have gone to actresses playing fictional characters. This year celebrated stage actor Frank Langella is nominated for portraying Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of the play Frost/Nixon. Considering Howard is the first filmmaker to perfect a “direct-by-numbers” technique, the likelihood of the red-headed former star of Happy Days walking away with a little gold man looks likely.
Before Langella was Tricky Dick, he sailed the West Indies as the ruthless pirate Dawg Brown in the 1995 action swashbuckler Cutthroat Island. Dawg’s corsair father leaves Dawg and his brothers a massive hidden treasure as their patrimony, but divides the map to the loot amongst his sons to insure the fair division of the horde. But avaricious Dawg seeks to deprive his brothers of their inheritance and he urges his brother Harry to hand over his map or walk the plank. Harry dies, but not before passing on his map (hidden in a brainy location) to his voluptuous daughter Morgan Adams (Geena Davis). Morgan takes her father’s place as captain of his galleon, although most of the crew is skeptical of her competence. To gain their trust she promises them an equal share of the treasure. Unfortunately, Morgan’s section of the map is in Latin, forcing her to go ashore in Jamaica where she is a wanted woman. On land she finds a dashing con artist (Matthew Modine) who can read the map, but might also steal her heart. Together they try to escape the forces of Dawg and the larcenous Royal Navy conspiring against them to steal their treasure.Continue Reading
Lewis John Carlino’s screenplay is sparse, but strong. Unlike newer action films, the script takes its time to give you a sense of the isolation and loneliness that comes with being a professional killer. The story provides two strong characters of vastly different backgrounds that share a similar sensibility. The result is an exciting and dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.Continue Reading
Out of Sight
Out of Sight is the story of a bank robber (Clooney) and his loyal sidekick (Rhames) who bust out of prison and abduct a U.S. Marshal (Lopez) on their way to heist millions in diamonds from an ex-con billionaire (Brooks).Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) directs a film that defies genres, making one of the most unique crime films in modern cinema. It’s both an interesting double-crossing caper and a brilliant romantic-comedy. Elliot Davis’ cinematography is fluid, mainly hand held, capturing wonderfully large and small moments alike. He makes great use of the color palette to differentiate the many locations, from the humid plains of a Florida prison to the gritty streets of steely Detroit. Scott Frank’s screenplay is smart, funny, and filled with crackling dialogue delivered by wonderfully colorful characters. There is no novelist who creates more endearing, seedy underworld characters to adapt to the big screen than Elmore Leonard. There is always a haze of gray in the morality of the characters-- whether it is the law or their criminal counterparts. It’s worth noting that some of the best scenes are additions made by Scott Frank. They fit so well within the paradigm of the world that it is impossible to discern which ones they are.
Anne V. Coates’ great use of non-linear editing throws us around in time and space, dolling out dimension to the large cast of personalities. Making great use of jump cuts and freeze frames, Out of Sight has the rhythm and style of a French New Wave film. David Holmes’ score is ultra-hip and reminiscent of crime cinema of 1970s, giving it a happy-go-lucky air.Continue Reading
A modernized take on the sort of old Hollywood ancient Roman epic that updates the sword and sandal genre with plenty of ass kicking spectacle and a powerful central performance from Russell Crowe as a Roman general who seeks vengeance after losing his family at the hands of a corrupt prince and is forced to fight as a gladiator in Rome’s coliseum. The film’s populist hero and themes went over big with audiences turning Crowe into a mega star in the process.