2 July 2009

The Reel Deal: Public Enemas

No, I liked it! Really! The wordplay refers only to the film that Public Enemies shares a post with this time around. Yes, when my forecast for reviews of Ice Age 3 and Year One was made, I'd forgotten about the fact that I was due to see an exclusive advance screening of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest, Bruno, on Tuesday night. Also, I had kind of anticipated seeing the other two films by now already. They'll be the next post instead, I suspect. They'll also link better to make a clever little title than say... Public Enemas. Apologies, but it's time to crack on.

Reviews, as ever, shall contain minor spoilers, but not so far as to ruin your enjoyment of the films in question if you haven't seen them yet.


Who's in it?
As with Borat, this is a film in which most of those who appear aren't in on the fact that Brüno is a comic creation, so it's largely a two-hander in the acting stakes between Sacha Baron Cohen (Sweeney Todd- The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) and Gustaf Hammarsten (Lägg M för mord and various other Swedish language films)

What's it all about? When Austrian fashionista and TV presenter Brüno (Cohen) is disgraced by a faux-pas at a fashion show in Milan, he decides to travel to America to make his name in Hollywood. Along the way, he shocks and offends everyday people as well as exposing the latent homophobia that many of them have, all the while becoming ever more shallow and crass in his quest for fame.

Any good? I can say with absolute certainty that Brüno will divide audiences. You will either see the film as horribly offensive or totally hilarious. And the deciding factor in your perception will almost certainly be a moment around 15 minutes in that sent members of the audience I saw the film with running from the auditorium. That everyone else stayed is either a testament to their liberal outlook on films or a sign that nothing in the film has more potential to offend that this particular moment. Part of me wants to prepare you by telling you exactly what this moment is, but I've decided it's better you find out for yourself. I've promised not to spoil anything in this review, after all.

So Brüno is, like Cohen's other creation Borat, a character from Da Ali G Show, and this film is of the same mockumentary cut as the earlier film used. One of the best parts of Borat was how its unwilling participants were exposed for their prejudices and general stupidity. Cohen was onto a winner then with the format of performing audacious and hilarious stunts in character and then putting them together for the cinema, and the formula holds true here. And so the main value of Brüno is in the way that it holds up a mirror to the specific contingent of America that features- in this case, homophobes, as well as stage moms, fashion models and celebrities. The banality and depravity of celebrity is exposed as it never has been before as one American Idol contestant passes judgement on the ultrasound scan of another celebrity- deciding whether she'd keep or abort the baby for the sake of an appearance on television.

That's not to say that Cohen is solely wrapped up in reflecting society's wrongs- the film is first and foremost a comedy, but there's a feeling of familiarity about the story that's used to link the crazy stunts this time around. It's very similar to Borat in this respect, whereas the rest of the film would seem to have stepped things up since that film. Of course no one's going to be complaining that you can predict where that story's going to end, as the climax of this film ties both to the story and to the outrage of the film's inadvertent contributors in a stunt that leaves you marvelling at how the crew escaped unscathed from an angry mob. I think more of this film's stunts were staged, owing to Sacha Baron Cohen's more widespread popularity, but some scenes are obviously completely natural because there's no way that those involved would agree to partake in such stunts.

Brüno isn't released until next Friday, so I'm in the unusual position of having seen a film in advance of its release. I'm pleased to report that Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to Borat is as funny, if not funnier, than that film, but it's a lot more offensive than last time around, whatever your outlook on the topic at hand. This is not a film for the easily-offended, but everyone else will bloody love it.


Who's in it? Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd- The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation) and Marion Cotillard (La vie en rose)

What's it all about? Bank robber John Dillinger (Depp), has eluded capture by crossing state lines in Depression-era America, escaping the jurisdiction of the authorities who pursue him. His rising status to Public Enemy #1 brings about the founding of the Bureau of Investigation, later to become the FBI, headed by agent Melvin Purvis (Bale), who gives chase with an alarming dedication.

Any good? Michael Mann is most applauded for directing Heat, lauded by many as the greatest crime thriller since The Godfather. Fitting then, that his latest should be similar to that film, dealing again with bank robberies and the authorities, but relocated to the Depression-era 1930s. In lieu of Pacino and DeNiro, Mann unites two more modern titans of cinema- Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. And what's more, he's got a shiny new toy to bring the life of John Dillinger to the screen. It's shot in a ultra-high resolution digital format that I wasn't quite able to absorb, thanks to the fact that I arrived late at a packed-out screening and was sat in the front row. Furthermore, the cinema weren't even screening it as a digital projection, thanks to the 3D charms of Ice Age 3 and the mind-numbing CGI terror of Transformers 2. And there's the problem for you- Public Enemies is a genuinely good film that's being released at a time when films don't want us to use our brains.

Yes, I did say the screening was packed out, and that's mostly because it's a film for adults when the alternative is CGI robots or CGI animals, but I do worry that Public Enemies won't find an audience. It's an incredibly intelligent film released in the currently dizzying heat of the summer, when people want popcorn-flicks. Well I don't like popcorn, but I did like this. Mann is a skilled director and he proves it once again with this. Depp, as ever, is charismatic and watchable as Dillinger, and distances himself enough from the audience for them to recognise that his character is morally grey rather than a likable scoundrel. Dillinger is a million miles from Captain Jack Sparrow or the other more mainstream characters Depp has played in recent years. It might be a while before I forgive Christian Bale for Terminator Salvation, but he turns in the kind of great performance we know he's capable of as Agent Purvis, playing it with the kind of intensity he always puts into such roles. And of course there's a sterling support cast, led by Marion Cotillard and the always-underused Billy Crudup.

One of the problems with the film, besides its ostensible likeness to Heat, is the runtime. At a certain point in this two hour crime epic, it begins to feel just a little repetitive. Yes, the action is well-directed, but it very much begins to feel like a shootout, followed by Dillinger getting away, followed by Purvis and his men killing at least one of his accomplices, followed by Purvis having a steely Dr-Claw-like resolve to do better next time, and repeat. In the midst of this, it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that Mann and Depp are deconstructing the man at the centre of the film. As Dillinger loses those accomplices, he becomes more and more vulnerable. It becomes lonely being Public Enemy #1, and we don't see enough of this sentiment before the end of the film. It probably would've suffered from a laborious period of Dillinger feeling sad and alone before the climax, but as it stands, it feels like something of an anti-climax. This isn't helped by the occasional character being forgotten, their strands of plot left dangling in the wind as the closing credits roll.

On the whole, Public Enemies is a well-directed, well-acted film that deserves to do well. And of course you have to wonder if it has a shot at the Oscars, now that they're considering more films for Best Picture each year. Try to catch it at a cinema screening it with digital projection if you can.


Um... Year One and Ice Age 3 next, I think. I'm definitely seeing one of those two at the cinema tonight, and the other will likely follow in the next few days. And of course we're into July now, so it's all a big wait for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Less than two weeks to go...

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,

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