Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
Michael Mann’s cinematic expertise drips from every second of this intense gangster saga. Both thematically and critically, it’s a return to the Heat days, now starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as mouse and cat respectively. Mann dishes up a film language that’s somewhere between classical Hollywood and postmodern minimalism – the result: an epic crime tale that just happened to be recorded on film. On ultra-HD digital film. Mann’s great achievement in the use of digital film is how he manages to present the lavish and detailed production design as simply ‘being there’, without drawing attention to itself. In that way, the audience’s experience gets beautifully intensified, as if this film is not only about the 1930s, but even made in the 1930s. Public Enemies feels like a time warp. Only Elliot Goldenthal’s music score is way too classical Hollywood, way too dramatic, and terribly inappropriate, being detrimental to the films realism. Fortunately, the film is more than just its soundtrack (although you’ll get hooked on Otis Taylor’s song Ten Million Slaves). The sum of its parts is a thrilling, intriguing, though not very revealing or insightful account of crime and punishment in the Depression Era, anchored by another megawatt performance of Depp and a strong supporting trio: the always reliable Christian Bale, a memorable Billy Crudup (“I’d like to announce America’s first war on crime“, in a most spot-on J. Edgar Hoover accent) and a beautiful turn by last year’s Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard, who serves as the film’s beating heart. Public Enemies is not at all flawless, but hugely entertaining and fascinating for both its subject matter and its cinematic qualities.
Verdict: out of 4
The Brothers Bloom (Nathan Johnson, 2008)
Rian Johnson is a genius. After his stunningly original and well-crafted début Brick in 2005, Johnson overwhelms its loyal following with The Brothers Bloom, a beautiful piece of celluloid that celebrates the love of life, of cinema, of art, of self-expression, of laughter, of originality, of being who you want to be. Johnson creates a magnificent and cleverly constructed jumble bubbling with energy, wit, cinematic influences and originality. It is a crime story meets fantasy meets romance meets indie meets offbeat comedy. It contains beautiful imagery, fantastic editing tricks, a marvelous musical score by Nathan Johnson with additions of the likes of Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan, brilliant dialogue and most of all an impeccable cast. It presents wonderfully tuned performances by Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi, not to forget Robbie Coltrane’s hilarious supporting role as Maximilian Melville (a Belgian, of course). The Brothers Bloom is unforgettable and will give you the time of your life. It’s inspiring, delightful, filled with joy and wonderment, and to sum it up: one of this year’s best pictures. You don’t want to miss this unique piece of art!
Verdict: out of 4
Poseidon (Wolfgang Petersen, 2006)
Some films simply aren’t for every taste. Therefore, I would like to recommend Wolfgang Petersen’s utterly unnecessary remake of the not more than entertaining 1972 popcorn movie The Poseidon Adventure to the following people:
- those who don’t have high standards concerning modern day’s CGI, especially in the case of water and waves;
- those who can’t get enough of sinking ships, even without Kate Winslet on it;
- those who believe a man’s alcohol flask is the key to his psychological secrets;
- those who prefer one-dimensionality in films (not referring to the things-popping-out-of-the-screen phenomenon right now);
- those who think Josh Lucas is either a) a piece of yummy, or b) an actor undeservedly and inexplicably overlooked by the Academy;
- those who like to see unbelievable, unrealistic plot points and holes accumulate to extraterrestrial proportions;
- those whose brain doesn’t start hurting when they see downright feeble-minded popcorn blockbusters;
- those who seriously believe Wolfgang Petersen’s talent (I refer to Das Boot) has survived his emigration to Hollywood;
- those who are willingly victim of the culture industry – thank you, Frankfurters!
If you recognize yourself in the aforementioned characteristics, please, do rent or buy Poseidon. If you’re finished watching this, please do the world a favor, and hide under a giant rock till the next turn of the century. Thank you.
NB. The reason I still give this flick half a point, is the incomprehensible but very welcome presence of acting legend Richard Dreyfuss, and one effective claustrophobia scene within an air shank. But that’s all.
Verdict:out of 4
Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
Naked is a terrifyingly brilliant film. It contains some of the most rotten, least likeable characters in film history, and still one’s intrigued and fascinated by the ways in which their lives evolve. At the centre of Mike Leigh’s grim universe is Johnny, played by the unparalleled David Thewlis (yes, he’s done more than Prof. Lupin in the Harry Potter film series!), a nihilistic, darkly philosophic, self-destructive and yet very intelligent young drifter, wandering around the back streets of London looking for – well, no-one knows. On his way, he encounters a young drug addict, his unexpectedly affectionate ex-wife, a neurotic young Scot, a sexual psychopath, and, in one of the film’s most memorable sequences, a tragic night guard of an empty building. The scene results in a minutes-long monologue by Thewlis’s character about our world, our universe, and the way it will all dramatically come to an end by 1999, if we must believe the ‘omens’ history has given us. One can only watch this scene breathless and speechless, and the same applies to the rest of this brilliant film. From the very first shot to the inimitable final long take, Naked proves itself a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
Verdict: out of 4
Diary of a Times Square Thief (Klaas Bense, 2008)
Dutch documentary director Klaas Bense bought a decrepit diary from a random New Yorker on eBay for the sum of 78 U.S. dollars. Intrigued by what he found in the diary, he and his crew went to NYC to follow the cues and clues of the mysterious diary writer. Their search leads them all around the city, with the notorious Times Square Hotel as their quest’s core. Along their way, they stumble upon a fascinating array of colourful New Yorkers, before they finally find the original writer of the diary. This quest results in a nice collage of tragic, funny, terrifying, but always unique stories, deriving from people who truly lived their lives – but not always in the way the wanted to live them. Diary of a Times Square Thief is an enchanting, prettily designed documentary on the side of The Big Apple that usually remains hidden, because of its rotten spots.
Available online (with Dutch subtitles)! Click here.
Verdict: out of 4
Once (John Carney, 2006)
Without any expectations, I recently watched this film Once after recommendations of a friend whose judgement I normally trust (unless it’s about Michael Bay, but that’s another story). And I have to admit: he was right. Once is a deceptively simple, but yet so effective tale about two non-professional musicians (real-life musicians ánd lovers Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) who meet on the streets, bound by their mutual love for music. The film’s strength is the way in which their unfolding relationship and love is portrayed: it is believable, for a change. Stripped of every Hollywoodian elements of romance or melodrama, Once shows how love goes without saying, and not so easily as most films make us believe. Add to this the powerful, heart-felt music of Hansard and Irglová, the nice low-budget cinematography (guerilla-style on two HD-cameras) and its beautiful, though unexpected ending, and Once suddenly becomes one of the most entrancing, heart warming indies of 2007.
Verdict:out of 4
Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe, 2002)
It is every film director’s worst nightmare: to give up the project of your dreams. Yet, their are times that such an act is inevitable. Take for example Terry Gilliam’s take on the classic tale of Don Quixote, called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Unable to find any financial aid in Hollywood (as usual, for Gilliam’s films float somewhere between Hollywood sizes and independent artistry and idiosyncracy), Gilliam moves his project to Europe, finally receiving $32 million for a project that needs at least a doubled amount of money. It’s supposed to star Jean Rochefort, Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis, but it takes ages for Ms. Paradis to arrive in Spain, where they’re filming, and eventually, Jean Rochefort becomes unable to do the part he practiced English for for seven months, due to a double hernia. Moreover, the film’s production is troubled by beastly weather, noise nuisance (F16’s!), resisting horses and the burning breath of insurance companies. Lost in La Mancha was intended as the making of for Gilliam’s film, but contrarily turned out to become the first ‘un-making of’ in film history. It is an obligatory film for every film director in the making, a lesson in how wrong things can go when they’re out of your control, and the many challenges a film crew is faced with during production. Despite its outcome, it also serves as a tragic account of Gilliam’s ever optimistic genius, for the brief rushes of the film that are shown in this documentary forecast what have could been a masterpiece. For those who are worried about the project: the recent developments are that Gilliam managed to buy the rights to the novel back, and he is now in pre-production, again with Johnny Depp, with a possible release in 2011. And that’s grand.
Verdict:out of 4
American Splendor (Shari Springer Bergman, Robert Pulcini, 2003)
We like complex narrative structures. Bergman and Pulcini, the two directors of American Splendor, also like what we like. Therefore they decided to multilayer their cinematic version of the life of comic artist Harvey Pekar: they adapted his autobiographical comic American Splendor to the screen, used images out of the original novel in the film, let Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis play Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner, ánd asked the real Harvey Pekar to serve as a narrator for his own film. This leads to comments about ‘that Giamatti guy who plays me’. The greatest achievement of Bergman and Pulcini is how they manage to interweave these stories without making it incomprehensible, dense, overloaded or presumptuous. It all feels very natural and it has to be said that this method seems to be the only way to respectfully portray the story of Harvey Pekar. Although the movie can be depressing and grumbling at times, it succeeds in overcoming these flaws by a beautiful visual strategy and two spot-on performances by the always superb Giamatti and Davis. ‘Uplifting’ is not exactly the right word for American Splendor, but the film’s final shot bears testimony of enormous respect and love for Harvey Pekar. An original and, eventually, moving picture.
Verdict: out of 4
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009)
The level of expectations surrounding the Harry Potter films is almost inhumane. Nonetheless, the series has become one of the most successful film series in film history, and, above all, one of the most qualitative series. The first two films, directed by Chris Columbus, were rich in detail and cast but too faithful to the books. Alfonso Cuarón’s third installment, The Prisoner of Azkaban, is in my opinion the best Harry Potter adaptation: it fully captures the book’s magic, essence and detail, and still manages to present a whole cinematic vision of its own, anchored by beautifully realized scenes, an impeccable cast and an amazing musical score by John Williams. Quite on the contrary, Mike Newell’s adaption of the fourth novel is hurried, blunt and standardized, and, apart from two fine-tuned appearances by Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, not worth remembering. Television director David Yates (State of Play) surprised me and my lowered expectations with his adaptation of the dullest book Rowling’s written, the fifth one, The Order of the Phoenix, by creating a nice atmosphere of silence, danger and intertwining worlds. His visual style wasn’t lavish, but still sufficient, and Nicholas Hooper’s musical score not wrong at all. Yates’s adaptation of the sixth book, my favorite one, proves to be less satisfying. Steve Kloves (who did all films except part five) has omitted loads of essential and noteworthy scenes and replaced them by too many uninteresting, slowing sequences, that are too large in number to be recalled here. What’s even worse is that all have forgotten to create a proper arc of tension, almost fully neglecting the central mystery of the film (the question who’s the ‘Half-Blood Prince’ from the film’s title). Also Nicholas Hooper’s score is lazy and dull, even containing many revivals of songs from the previous film! Nevertheless, this film has a few trumps: more scenes with Alan Rickman’s brilliant take on Prof. Snape, a great Jim Broadbent as the new Prof. Slughorn, an inimitable Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, and some inspired scenes, such as the beautifully dramatic opening, the visually stunning remembrances, and the journey to a seaside cave, which resembles the grandeur of The Lord of the Rings. Not to forget a wonderful cinematography by Bruno Amélie Delbonnel! As a film on itself, The Half-Blood Prince is entertaining enough and visually enchanting, but as a book adaptation, it is undoubtedly the worst one of the series. Still, I look forward to the two-part adaption of the seventh and final book, which will be a great opportunity to spend more time in Rowling’s masterly crafted universe and to leave more of its great details in.
Verdict: out of 4
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (in 3-D) (Carlos Saldanha, 2009)
The first two Ice Age films were surprises, for they had to compete with the dominance of the Pixar Studios and still succeeded to attract an audience with its dry humour, good-hearted characters and original visual style. This third installment, however, shows signs of fatigue. As the title suggests, our prehistorical characters are faced with the sudden presence of a whole world of dinosaurs, who everyone (even our Cretaceous mammals) believed to be extinct. That is a funny conflict, but the film’s main problem is the appearance of too many characters and their individual problems. As a direct consequence, popular figures like Sid the Sloth spent too much time on the outside of the screen. Fortunately, the funny Mesozoic squirrel Scrat gets more screen time, as he has to choose between his beloved nut and an attractive female squirrel. These scenes are pretty hilarious (take the scene where Scrat has to move around the couch constantly when his female equivalent tries to decide how she wants to decorate their new tree house), as are some verbal jokes, but the film seldom receives more than a faint smile. The 3-D glasses don’t add that much, only a not unwelcome enrichment of the imagery, but mostly they gave me a headache. This third Ice Age film is not miserable, on the contrary, but simply not as fresh or as original as its predecessors.
Verdict: out of 4
The Gates (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, et al., 2005)
This documentary depicts the struggle of visionary artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to set up a huge project in Central Park, New York. Since the 1970s, they have been tugging with a lot of NYC residents and committees to get their project realized. Finally, in 2005, they receive the reluctantly given permission to develop their work of art, with full support of the new mayor Bloomberg of New York. After months of work, there are over 7500 bright orange gates in Central Park, containing curtains of strong fiber that are floating in the wind. This documentary’s last half hour or so contains images of the people experiencing this amazing artefact, and this is where the documentary of the Maysles Brothers abandons its straightforward approach to the production of this masterwork and transforms into an almost magical, poetic account of the intertwining of New York and modern art. It’s like seeing the city’s blood veins running through the immense park, and seeing the city’s residents wandering through its wonderful energy and lust for life. It is relaxing, enchanting, beautiful, and it certainly enhances the vision of New York City as the city of limitless possibilities. Christo and Jeanne-Claudes’s Gates rise above themselves and become a metaphor for life in general, and especially life in The Big Apple.