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July 30, 2009

A Serious Man

A Serious Man trailer

The trailer is out for the Coen Brothers' next movie, A Serious Man. It looks dryly funny, claustrophobic, and a little anxiety-provoking, like their best movies are. The trailer itself doesn't follow the usual narrative-snapshot structure of most trailers -- as Empire describes it, it "loops sound and dialogue to give the impression that DJ Shadow cut it together."

I think this might be their first movie that is, in part, specifically about being Jewish and how the Jewish community as an entity interacts with the main characters. At least that's how it looks from the trailer. They've had Jewish characters in other movies: you've got Barton Fink (which some people think is an allegory for the Holocaust) and Verna and Bernie Bernbaum from Miller's Crossing, but I bet A Serious Man is the movie you could market as the Coens at their Jewiest.

The stars of the movie are largely stage actors, many connected to Minneapolis, which is where the Coens are from and where the movie was shot (as well as in a few other Minnesota towns.) There's Woody Allen regular Fred Melamed (seen in the trailer pounding the lead guy's head against a blackboard over and over again) who's been at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and on Broadway, and stage actors Michael Stuhlbarg and Sari Lennick as the husband and wife whose failing marriage is at the center of the movie.

It comes out in October and looks like it could be a return to the Coen glory days of the 90's. And, tantalizingly, it's "loosely autobiographical". Here's that trailer.

July 28, 2009

Linky links

Funny People

  • Spout's review of Funny People is up. Did you realize that movie is TWO AND A HALF HOURS long?! Karina liked it, mostly, though she says it's less funny than Apatow's other movies and gets "crazy indulgent with the montages."
  • Darren Aronofsky's next movie is about two rival ballet dancers, one of whom (Mila Kunis) might be a figment of the other's (Natalie Portman) imagination. One thing Aronofsky does not seem to like: blondes.
  • Ben Affleck is directing another movie. This one is a bank robber/FBI drama called The Town, with Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, and, maybe unfortunately, him.
  • Network attempts to get people to watch more TV: a new half-hour TV show that just plays viral internet videos called "Smash Cuts".

  • Record companies attempt to get people to buy more albums: iTunes will start selling albums packaged with artwork, videos, and ringtones in a new product code-named "Cocktail". At higher prices, right? Great.

    Later in this article, AP lists some other things labels have tried to get people to buy more music, like iTunes' tiered pricing structure and exclusive videos and stuff like that, then says, "So far the impact of such efforts on sales volumes has been minimal." Exactly.

Julie & Julia & Who'dat?™

Today's Who'dat?™ pic was taken at the premiere of Julie & Julia, the Meryl Streep/Amy Adams movie adapted from a blog about obsessive cookbook completism. This celebrity is looking glamorous and fresh-faced, though not especially recognizable.

To play, look at the photo and try to guess who it is. Then click on it to see if you're right.


July 27, 2009

Dirty politics and In the Loop

In the Loop and Burn After Reading haircuts

In the Loop is a little funnier than the other summer comedies, and dark dark dark-- it's meaner than The Hangover and more linguistically vulgar than Bruno. There's enough spectacular profanity in In the Loop that I guess the producers didn't bother to fight with the MPAA and potentially set a precedent for earning an NC-17 rating solely for swearing. It's unrated.

You can read the reviews (A.O. Scott in the Times, and the Washington Post review which unfortunately isn't by the paper's In the Loop columnist) and hear all about the witty barbs and conniving, selfish characters in the US and UK governments all trying to keep their heads above water as their leaders shove them toward war.

The movie is about Iraq and Bush and Blair and Rumsfeld, but it doesn't use any of those names. Instead it's about all the smaller government players scrambling to understand the larger machinations at work, and pointlessly trying to influence outcomes that have already been decided by people who don't care about democratic process or making the world a better place. It reminded me of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", a great play (and less great movie) about the two minor players in Hamlet, bewildered as they try to understand what's going on and what they're supposed to be doing while all the big Shakespearean guys are making things happen. Mostly they stand around and play acrobatic word games.

The word games in In the Loop are funnier. The best is lead British communications guy/Rottweiler, Malcolm Tucker, who in one scene accommodates an American official's sensitive ears by pronouncing his favorite swear word "F-star-star-cunt".

Anyway, I saw some parallels between this movie and the Coen Brother's Burn After Reading, another DC political comedy about people who think they're "in the loop", but are really small players in over their heads inside a political machine that chews them up and spits them out. Burn After Reading has an ambitious but bumbling duo, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, who try to blackmail an ex-CIA agent with a document that they think is a lot more important than it actually is. In the Loop has ambitious but clueless British aides and Secretaries excitedly caught up in the debates leading to the Iraq war, while actually being used by the US government to fabricate evidence to legitimize a baseless war that's going to happen anyway.

The American staffers aren't really in the loop, either. Assistant Secretary Karen Clark, who has Frances McDormand's exact sandy bob haircut from Burn After Reading (above), gets shut out by another State Department big, Linton Barwick, who's an amalgam of every senior member of the Bush administration. He's played by David Rasche, who also played J.K. Simmons's CIA assistant in the funniest scenes in Burn After Reading.

It's a great little movie, but has no redeeming characters and the story spins away to nothing by the end. In the Loop is getting better reviews than Burn After Reading did, partially because it's less slapstick and more talky and the swears are a lot more creative, and because we're impressed by British comedy over here and expect the Coens to be more serious than they actually are.

You can watch episodes of the UK TV show "The Thick of It", which is the predecessor to In the Loop and has some of the same characters--they're all up on YouTube. Here's the first one. And here's an interview with the writer/director Armando Iannucci about making the Iraq war funny and the lax security they encountered at the State Department.

July 24, 2009

Friday reading

The Orphan

A few movie links:

  • I don't know why Manohla Dargis keeps putting herself through screening every single awful rom-com that comes out when they all offend her sensibilities and give her more opportunity to incinerate Hollywood studios for presenting single women as spineless imbeciles in push-up bras who live in desolate agony until they land a man. Actually, I guess that's the reason right there.

    This week's version of her perennial pissed-off review is for The Ugly Truth. Apparently she'll never lose her appetite for these movies, as long as she can call each one "a cynical, clumsy, aptly titled attempt to cross the female-oriented romantic comedy with the male-oriented gross-out comedy that is interesting on several levels, none having to do with cinema," as she does in this version.

  • Adoption advocates are worried that Orphan will make people believe that kids in foster care are evil Russian demons who will kill you and your family
  • .
  • And here's the Times review of Orphan. The little girl who plays the title character, the adorable 11 year-old Isabelle Fuhrman, sounds like the best part: Manohla calls her "very self-possessed" playing her role "with an exotic accent and predatory habits that suggest she worked for SPECTRE back in the motherland before landing in America as an undercover devil doll." AP says she more than rises to the challenge of some "gnarly stuff" she does onscreen.

And in other news: AP looked into the 911 systems improvement tax that you pay through your cellphone bill, and found out that money has been used for lots of unrelated stuff. In New York state, only 15% of the $1.20 monthly tax was used for 911 improvements--the rest was used for things like police uniforms and general state budget shortfalls.

July 23, 2009

Wheaties Fuel™: what a man eats

Wheaties Fuel

Wheaties may be the breakfast of champions, but sales are down this year, so General Mills is rebranding. Soon they'll be launching a new product extension that is even tougher and more manly than regular Wheaties -- Wheaties Fuel™.

The Times has a great article on the company's plan to make a cereal that has always been focused on fitness to specifically target men. Men who want their breakfast to make them feel like athletes. Here's the process:

  • First they got a panel of male pro athletes to test different prototypes of Wheaties Fuel™, which the website calls "performance nutrition", and rate them.
  • Next, they reduced girly ingredients like folic acid, which is a nutrient that everyone needs, but it's associated with being pregnant.
  • Then, they added a more masculine ingredient: sugar! Wheaties Fuel™ will have 50% more calories than the original, and is made of 25% sugar, compared to 15% for the original. Two of the three prototypes that the athlete panel is testing also have sugary additions, like "clusters that have a cinnamon-roll-like flavor."

The company is advertising with Men's Health, and readers of the magazine will get to pick the final formula. A nice bit of product-placement there, though the Men's Health publisher says that a new Wheaties product is news-worthy enough that they would have covered it anyway.

But what I find especially interesting is that marketing a breakfast cereal to men is apparently a new concept in the cereal market. Wheaties has always promoted a masculine image--although, wait, has it?

Remember those goofy Wheaties ads from the 80's in which professional athletes sang a verse of a song that went like, "Before I swing for the bleacher seat-ies, I get the eaties for my Wheaties"? Not an especially tough image! Now that I look back on those ads, they were definitely targeted at women, who traditionally did the cereal-buying in their households and wanted to buy something appropriate for their menfolk's breakfast.

A rep from the ad firm that's doing the new Wheaties branding says that times are changing: "A lot of data out there shows that men are taking over a lot more of the shopping occasions. And as that happens, men are not just following a list but are much more focused on making decisions themselves."

Hm. Rebranding a gender-neutral product to encourage a recently empowered gender to buy a special version of that product for themselves. Sound familiar? It's the same approach marketers have used for decades, but targeting women. Need a razor? Buy a pink one with flowers on it! Need a phone? Buy a pink one with sparkles on it! Deodorant? Buy one that says it's pH-balanced for a woman! An energy bar? Buy one with dancing ladies on it!

The only other product I can think of that was historically aimed at women but is repackaged for male shoppers is hair dye--"just for men".

That quote about men making their own decisions in the store reminds me of a great scene from The Hurt Locker, in which the man's-man bomb defuser main character, home from Iraq, is out shopping with his wife. She asks him to go get some cereal. When faced with an entire aisle of hundreds of cereals, he's overwhelmed, so scans the rows, then grabs a box at random and stomps off.

Now there's a Wheaties Fuel™ man.

Stepping in for the Linky

Tony Hsieh at Zappos

Since the Robot Linky on the right has been down for a while now (system problems, hopefully resolved soon) I thought I'd put some interesting links up here through the day.

  • Amazon is acquiring Zappos. Nice move, as long as they keep everything exactly the same: Zappos is everything you could want in online shopping. The head, Tony Hsieh (above) will still be in charge.
  • Times has a good article on the young woman with a $23,148,855,308,184,500 negative balance on her Visa debit card this month. 12,000 other customers had similar crazy charges that rivaled the gross world product.
  • Manhattanites respond to news that they live in the state's thinnest county. The Times interviews representatives of the borough's "disparate subcultures of the skinny," (i.e. if you're well-off, you're probably thin) with everyone's height and weight included. Pretty fascinating, especially that 42% of the Manhattan population being overweight or obese now means that we're "skinny". All relative, I guess.
  • Maybe the Cambridge cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates, Jr. can claim that he's not racist just because he investigated a break-in call, but he cannot claim he's not racist because he once performed mouth-to-mouth on a black Celtic, in 1993.
  • It's now legal in Tennessee and Arizona (and 14 other states) to bring your concealed gun into a bar, though you're not supposed to drink if you're armed. Bar owners are complaining that they'll be responsible for refusing to serve "designated shooters." Times article includes a clip from Colbert.

July 22, 2009

The unleakable Jay-Z

Jay-Z is unleakable

Jay-Z says he's going to hand deliver The Blueprint 3 to the London office of his current label, Atlantic, as part of his efforts to stymie leaks in advance of the official release in September.

And this is going to prevent leaking how, exactly? Is he also going to hand-upload the album on iTunes, hand press the CDs, and hand deliver them to stores and distributors and reviewers and ad agencies and movie studios and the billion other people that will get promotional copies?

A guy like Jay-Z can't believe that physically shepherding his album to the label will have any impact on whether it gets leaked or not, so why would he tell everyone about this strategy? To throw down the gauntlet to would-be leakers--steal this, bitches! Or maybe this way, when and if tracks are leaked, he can lay all the blame on the label. Or most likely, announcing he's hand delivering the album makes it seem more desirable and precious and therefore worth the low low price of $14.99 at the record store Amazon.

As he said when explaining his change of labels, he's an entrepreneur. Which some might say is a word that better describes a band that self-releases their albums or makes their music more freely available online, rather than an artist who futilely attempts to keep the inevitable digital dissemination of his album from happening so that it can only be purchased from a gigantic media corporation. Incidentally, Atlantic now sells more than half of its music digitally, like through iTunes and ringtones which, along with Auto-Tune, get no love from J.

Even if Jay-Z is sleeping with the new album under his pillow every night, he's going to release a second track this Friday: "Run This Town", with a 100% Auto-Tune-free Kanye and Rihanna. Also, the album will be released on September 11, like the first Blueprint album was, even though that's a Friday. I guess 9/11 is his lucky day.

July 20, 2009

TUSH 2009, a late bloomer

I Gotta Feeling

Now that everyone's become an expert on the phenomenon of the song of the summer, there have been predictions about the Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit on every pop culture website you read. Vulture at New York Mag has owned the debate this year, with a weekly post ranking contenders that I guess will keep plugging along until everybody gets their hands on advance copies of The Blueprint 3 and loses interest in disposable pop.

I've been waiting to see if any TUSH was going to emerge from underneath the Lady Gaga juggernaut of year-old songs that are still cluttering up the charts. Then the Michael Jackson shockwave hit, which has kept the record industry afloat for at least another couple of months. The sales story of the year belongs to MJ. Check out this Billboard chart of album sales--he owns it, and probably will for months to come.

So if I was going to declare the 2009 TUSH to be the one song that I've heard more than any other for the last month, it would be "Billie Jean". Obviously. That's the ubiquitous song (Sasha Frere-Jones claims this year's summer jam is defined by Michael Jackson's death, but doesn't say which song.) But in the long term, "Billie Jean" doesn't belong to this year. You won't associate it with the places where you heard that song over and over again this summer, because it will always take you back to the 80's. So I'm going to stick to the spirit of the TUSH and pick a new song that isn't popular only because of a sad death and the resulting media hyperventilation.

It was looking like this year's TUSH would be some Lady Gaga song. She is everywhere -- still -- and it has been suggested that her persona might be a creation of Sacha Baron Cohen. But her album came out last fall, even if it didn't really take off until this spring. "LoveGame" [video] could be a TUSH contender--it's irresistibly catchy and has the best vocal hook of the year, and any song whose beat is self-described as "sick" I am automatically going to love. But by now it's too old and it's not sunny enough to capture the feel of a summer hit.

Then came the Black Eyed Peas. Their new album The E.N.D. was released in early June, and shortly after its release they had the #1 and #2 songs on the charts, something that no one's done since OutKast in 2004. Here's this week's chart.

Their first single was "Boom Boom Pow" [video]. I don't like it. Doesn't go anywhere and isn't actually that fun.

But the song that was born to be a TUSH is their most recent single, "I Gotta Feeling". This is the song that all of a sudden I hear everywhere. It's on the radio when I set the alarm at night, it's on the radio when the alarm goes off in the morning, it's in the Indian fast food place on West 48th, at the gym, everywhere. It didn't come out until the end of June, but already sounds like it's been around forever. It was produced by French electro-dancepop producer David Guetta.

Plus the admittedly ridiculous video is pretty great--the band goes to a wild house party which is like a condensed version of every 80's teen movie party montage you've ever seen. Everyone's jumping on the bed and spraying beer all over everything and making out with each other and jumping in the pool, except, hey, look! There's will.i.am waving a red cup around! There's apl.de.ap dancing on the kitchen counter! There's a girl spilling cookies onto the floor as she takes them out of the oven! Because this is the kind of party where people bake! It's fun, goofy, disposable.

Also: "I Gotta Feeling" gets the award for best use of Yiddish in a pop song: "Fill my cup! (Drank) / Mazel tov! (L'Chaim!)"

As a tribute to better BEP, here's the video for "Fallin' Up" from their first album. This song has a verse about how they'll never sell out. Ahem.

July 16, 2009

Elaine Stritch and the Emmys

Elaine Stritch on 30 Rock

The Emmy nominations came out today, and 30 Rock broke its own record for the number of nominations a comedy show got (they're up to 22 from last year's 17.) The show got nominated for everything, including acting nominations for Tracy, Kenneth, and Jenna in addition to Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, and 3 out of the 6 nominations for Best Director for a comedy. The Directing nominations were for especially great episodes: "Reunion", "Apollo, Apollo", and "Generalissimo".

[here's the full list of nominations]

One great category is for Guest Actress on a comedy: there's Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on the SNL Presidential Bash special (a little weird--that was pretty much a clip show,) Elaine Stritch as Colleen Donaghy on 30 Rock, and Betty White for My Name is Earl playing something called "Crazy Witch Lady", which I have not seen but now sort of want to.

Anyway, in one of those articles with actors' breathless responses to the news that they got a nomination, most of the responses are not especially interesting. Even Tracy Morgan, who I thought we could depend on for something good-- his response was sweet about his manager calling him with the news, but not funny or anything: "He was crying, congratulating me, and then I started crying. It's been a long time, a long journey just to be recognized."

But Elaine Stritch came through. Her quote: "I was overjoyed with my nomination for, what was it, 30 Rock? Because if I get lucky, it will give me yet again another opportunity to express my deepest feelings about 'show business.' Feelings that have been bottled up for 365 days."

She's already won 3 Emmys (one for 30 Rock two years ago) and probably a million Tonys.

In the Guest Actor category, 30 Rock got 3 nominations, too: Alan Alda, Jon Hamm, and Steve Martin.

I don't love overuse of guest stars on TV anymore than I like it on the forthcoming Rihanna album, but last year 30 Rock did a pretty good job with it.

July 15, 2009

Pomo Sotomayor

Sotomayor hearings

I sure wish I could listen to my college Postmodern Lit professor talk about these Sotomayor hearings.

Please excuse this diversion into shoddy undergrad English-major analysis, but has anyone else noticed the weird refusal to acknowledge that a justice's gender or ethnicity could play a role on the Supreme Court, unless that justice is not male or not white? The kerfuffle over Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment has gone further than subtly racist partisan pouncing on whatever makes her nomination questionable, and has moved into a strange realm where we all pretend that subjectivity doesn't exist.

When you're a judge, your job is to interpret the law with impartiality and not let your personal viewpoints color your judgment. The law is the law and we as individuals are supposed to fade into an undifferentiated mass of equality and non-discriminatory humanoids before it.

But come on. Even if we all agree that the law should strive for perfect objectivity based on a higher, absolute justice, we all know that's not ever going to be possible. Don't members of Congress know any basic postmodern critical theory?

I'm only half kidding, here. The pomo critics taught us that all the basic tenets that our society is built on--science, religion, the nuclear family, political parties, gender roles, law--are all human constructions that we made up. They don't possess any kind of innate righteousness. The only reason we have the law is that we made it up, if by "we" you mean "white men".

(The postmodernists also say that just like there's no real objective truth, there's also no subjective truth either because the idea of "selfhood" is just another construction, but then you're getting into sophomore-level cultural studies, and I didn't take that class. Here's a pretty good summary of all this stuff.)

I don't expect that we would find much Derrida on Jeff Session's nightstand, but it would be so great if someone in these hearings spoke up and pointed out that if Sotomayor has personal beliefs based on her life experiences that could have some kind of influence on her work as an interpreter of the law, then John Roberts and Clarence Thomas and Scalia and Ginsberg all do too. As justices their job is to strive to see beyond their personal beliefs, though they are still there. Sotomayor spoke about her life experiences as being positive contributions to her legal career, but every judge's experiences somehow influence the way they do their work. How could they not?

We only seem to notice or be suspicious of this when a person other than a white man talks about it, because we have a legal system that was created by white men, and has therefore historically directed more benefits to them than to anyone else. During his congressional hearing, Justice Roberts didn't have to talk about how a wise white guy might add value to a court of law because our courts are already pretty much of, by, and for white guys. Those biases are already there.

At least Sotomayor has admitted this, though now she seems to be backpedaling, playing the objectivity game with Congress. Still, I love that she said this: "Life experiences have to influence you. We’re not robots who listen to evidence and don't have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings, and put them aside. That’s what my speech was saying."

Today, John Cornyn went back to the wise Latina thing again, "asking whether she would regret if her audience of students understood her to be saying that the quality of a judge depended on race, gender or ethnicity." "I would regret that," she said.

I would love to hear John Roberts laboriously explain over and over again how he has explored his own feelings and biases as a white man, then put them aside for the fair application of the law.

July 13, 2009

Not the business you'd expect to be booming

Redbox video

You know those video rental kiosk box things you see every so often inside a Circle K or a ShopRite? And you probably think: Huh? Now that Kim's Video is gone, your local video store has started offering two-for-one Monday through Thursday out of sheer desperation, and even your parents do Netflix, someone had the bright idea of opening a line of DVD vending machines?

But Redbox, the company that runs those machines, is doing pretty well and is actually growing--15,000 locations, and 7.5 million rentals every week. Not too bad compared to Netflix's 10 million per week.

The Times did a feature on Redbox that suggests some advantages the company has going for it, which also tell you a thing or two about the kind of customer they likely have. Rentals go for only $1 a day, you don't have to use a computer or create an account to rent, and when you're already at a McDonald's and see Taken or Meatballs through the kiosk window (they've got 'em) that's an impulse rental that a lot of people are very ready to make.

The main reason that I still use my local video store (other than the fact that its collection is exceptionally good) is that when I want to watch The Bourne Identity or Rock 'n' Roll High School, I usually want to watch them right now. Sure, if I decide I need to catch up on all the French new wave stuff I didn't see in college or make my way through everything Barbara Stanwyck ever did, I'm happy to wait for a Netflix delivery. But on those rare occasions when you need to watch Almost Famous and it's not airing on VH1 or streaming on Netflix, you need a fail-safe option for immediate viewing.

The Redbox selection is, of course, not remotely comparable to the Netflix selection, with each kiosk only stocking about 200 titles, but even this could be pitched as a selling point. The president of the company, who worked at Netflix for 6 years before defecting, says the typical Redbox customer "doesn't want to wade through titles they won't be interested in." Their top rental title ever is Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Netflix's top title is Crash.

In other words, for the Redbox customer, you can keep your precious non-linear social commentary on race and class that you add to your schmancy online queue. I'll pick up Step Brothers and Starship Troopers along with some Crunch 'n Munch at Walgreens.

There are more and more ways to get access to movies, and increasingly they don't involve leaving your home. So it's interesting that people are still willing to go out into the world to pick up a physical disc, as long as it's easy, really cheap, and they can do it while they're somewhere they have to go anyway.

So good for you, Redbox and your $1 rentals. I looked up my closest kiosk location on the website (on the "Find a Redbox" page that uses, of course!, Mapquest) so I'm heading there tomorrow to get a hyper-affordable mainstream DVD and wage some movie rental class warfare.

UPDATE: So I went to my local Redbox machine in a Walgreen's, scrolled around the movies they had, and ended up abandoning my mainstream vision by renting I've Loved You So Long, that French movie from last year with Kristen Scott Thomas. This movie might not be in the highest demand for Redbox customers, but it was great. And $1.08, including tax!

I may not go out of my way to rent from Redbox, but the interface is super easy and intuitive and the whole rental process took less than 3 minutes (in part because they don't have all that many movies to scroll through.) For times when you want to see a particular movie and want to be watching the opening credits in less than 15 minutes, it's a good option.

July 9, 2009

Whip It!

Whip It photo

Whip It! is a new movie coming out in October. On the upside: it's about women's roller derby (some photos were just released), it stars Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, Marcia Gay Harden, Eve, and my girlfriend Alia Shawkut, aka Maeby from "Arrested Development".

On the downside: it's directed by Drew Barrymore, and it also stars her. And Juliette Lewis, who I sort of like, but sometimes plays slack-jawed and unstable a little too consistently.

But Juliette Lewis in a helmet and kneepads playing a character called Dinah Might I think I can handle. Plus, Kristen Wiig as Malice in Wonderland has the potential to make up for a million Drew Barrymores, and also decreases the likelihood that Whip It! will be a weak sub-Charlie's Angels ripoff.

Ellen Page stars as a Texas indie-rock loving misfit beauty queen who, according to publicity, "throws in her small-town beauty pageant crown for the rowdy world of roller derby" in nearby Austin. Sounds suspiciously similar to Ellen Page's small-town indie-rock-loving misfit girl named Juno who throws in her carefree wisecracking virginity for the emotionally murky and complicated world of pregnancy and adoption.

But there is no room for hyper-stylized sarcasm in roller derby! Young adult novelist Shauna Cross wrote the screenplay based on her own novel Derby Girl, so hopefully the dialogue in Whip It! will be a little easier to take.

Plus, just look at Kristen Wiig's eye makeup in that shot. Awesome.

Here are some more photos.

July 8, 2009

Public Enemies: maybe I expected too much?

Johnny Depp in Public Enemies

The movie I've been most looking forward to all summer is Michael Mann's Public Enemies. I love some of Mann's movies (especially The Insider, Manhunter and most of Collateral), I love Johnny Depp, and I'm a sucker for period gangster movies that involve slick suits, big guns, and smoky nightclubs.

Maybe my expectations were too high. I was completely prepared to love Public Enemies, but I didn't.

The good things about it:

  • If the movie had any overarching theme, it's how our society constructs crime. John Dillinger knew how to turn on the charm and use the media to make the public love him, even though he was a thief and a murderer. J. Edgar Hoover also uses pop culture to launch his War on Crime, showing "America's Most Wanted"-style reels at movie theaters about "public enemy number one" like a sort of 1930's reality show. Hoover's methods may have backfired, since spotlighting Dillinger made him even more of a celebrity and a folk hero, but it's interesting to see the moment when law enforcement turned real-life crime into entertainment.

  • The contrast between Dillinger the man and Dillinger the pop icon. I love the scene of John Dillinger in a movie theater, watching the reel about himself. He watches, sort of detached and bemused, with only a moment of anxiety as the audience is instructed to "look to your right; look to your left", but of course, nobody notices him. John Dillinger is just an unsophisticated farm boy who's good with a machine gun; Dillinger the public enemy is practically a movie star.

  • The overlap between Johnny Depp and John Dillinger. In one of the only moments of exposition in the whole movie, Dillinger declares that he likes "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you", speaking to a pretty girl he just met. He's a man of action who isn't interested in image, even though his image is what makes him who he is. You could say the same things about Johnny Depp, judging from the recent Vanity Fair feature where he carouses around with his buds, drinking and enjoying being Johnny Depp, yet has no interest in watching his own movies.

  • The scene where a mob middle-manager (played by John Ortiz, who was in "The Job") tells Dillinger that they will no longer associate with him, launder his money, give him guns, or let him use their safe houses, because he's "bad for business." The mob was pulling down a lot more cash through their gambling ring than Dillinger was stealing from banks, but the feds were only interested in Dillinger, because he made a better celebrity-criminal. This one scene says more about perceptions about what kind of crime matters in this country than anything else in the movie, and I wish they did more with it.

  • Marion Cotillard telling an abusive cop, "When my Johnny finds out how you slapped around his girl, you know what's going to happen to you, fat boy?"

But overall, the movie felt surfacy and meaningless. It's fine to drop in on the action with no exposition: we can figure out who these characters are as we go along. But it's like there was nothing to figure out. I never felt like I understood what John Dillinger was all about, except that he was good at robbing banks, and I have no clue what the members of his gang were like. Wouldn't it have been interesting to see some stuff about the relationships between Dillinger and his gang, the people at the safe houses, and the madam he was friends with? It would have been, but we hardly got any of it.

The gritty look of the HD video was fine and made sense, but using hammy dialogue straight out of a 40's gangster movie totally didn't fit with the look. The acting was cold and flat, which is fine for a movie that doesn't glamorize its characters, but then it's almost impossible to care when those characters get arrested or killed. There are no cheesy biopic cliches, but there also isn't any character development, emotion, or suspense. As Roger Ebert says in his (positive) review: "His name was John Dillinger, and he robbed banks. But there had to be more to it than that, right? No, apparently not."

I'm surprised that I these characters were so uninteresting, because Michael Mann knows how to get you to care about his characters. Think about The Insider: Russell Crowe is brave, but he's thorny and unfriendly, not especially likable. But we really care about what happens to him and want to see where the movie goes. We already know what happens to Dillinger, so we need something else besides the plot to feel invested in him, and I don't think we got it.

My favorite review is David Edelstein's in NY Magazine. He suggests that the best rejoinder for Public Enemies is the Michael Jackson video for "Smooth Criminal":

It's a tommy-gun gangster fantasia with a touch of Guys and Dolls, and it's everything Public Enemies isn't: madly inventive, genre-bending, a passionate tribute to the artist as outlaw-loner. The video reminds you why the gangster has become an existential hero in pop culture: It’s how he seizes the space. On some level Michael Mann knows that, but he's paralyzed by his pretentions and specious morality. And he can't dance.

Here's the long version and the short version of the MJ video. Not really a fair comparison, but the video is a lot more fun than the movie.

About July 2009

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in July 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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