January, 2010

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Entrapment

blog-entrapment-01 Entrapment (1999) – on rental. There aren’t a lot of Hollywood films that have large scenes shot in South-East Asia, with just a few I can think off my head: Anna and the King starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yuen-Fatt who struggled with English in the 1999 film, and the just awful Bangkok Dangerous starring Nicholas Cage from last year.

There was another that was widely reported in media 10 years ago: Entrapment starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and it was well-known for two things: that the film’s climatic last scenes were shot on location at Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, and Zeta-Jones has that now widely-parodied scene where she bends her voluptuous body to avoid laser beam detectors. The film was a publicity coup for our neighbors up north, since the concrete and steel superstructure had just been constructed then, and what better way to show off the then world’s tallest building then than in a Hollywood film?

Sean Connery plays Mac, an art thief who specializes in sophisticated capers stealing the world’s most famous artworks for his private collection. Opposing him is Catherine Zeta-Jones who plays Gin, an insurance investigator who hooks up with Mac pretending to also be a master thief while reporting his plans back to her superiors. The two go on several heists together before they play cat and mouse with law enforcement on the highest floors of the Petronas Towers.

It’s a pity that putting aside Entrapment‘s spectacular location, the film itself just wasn’t very good. Just three years separated The Rock and Entrapment, but while Sean Connery was all energetic in the former, in Entrapment, he’s lethargic. I was actually afraid for the poor guy as he tries to run, crawl, and tip toe to the next building on a metal wire hundreds of meters above ground. As for Zeta-Jones, she sure is deliciously yummy to look at. But despite the supposed experience and expertise of her character Gin, what we get instead is a Gin who pouts, switches to tantrum mode in one scene, and in another looks like she’s about to burst into tears. This is the sort of character you’d expect from an 18 year old – not a seasoned insurance investigator character.

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Even worst though was the character engagement between the two leads that made the both of us – actually Ling especially – cringe. Zeta-Jones was 30 years old when the film was made, while Connery was an ancient 69. When you have a 39 year gap between the two leads, the last thing you’d expect out of the script is any whiff of sexual tension – but believe it or not, you’ll find it in Entrapment! Every time the two look like they’re about to gush their feelings or smooch, the letters D O M screeched out loud in both our minds.

I’m just glad that at least this aspect of their relationship as fellow thieves is somewhat underplayed in the film. There is no make-out scene, thankfully – but there is that one scene where Mac ogles, whoops, interrogates Gin about her intentions while she has no clothes on. But things would had been so much better if the script had stuck only to a father-daughter type of relationship as befitting their relative ages.

And if the hair-raising characterization weren’t bad enough, the action-heist pieces were just dull, unless you think the titillating scenes of Zeta-Jones bending her body like Beckham in this film is sufficient to rid yourself off the awful stink off the rest of it.The one saving grace is Ving Rhames channeling the same role he did in the three Mission Impossible films with Tom Cruise, but he’s criminally underused in Entrapment showing up only in a couple of short scenes.

Avoid.

The Hangover

blog-hangover-01 The Hangover (2009) – on rental. There were a couple of things during our wedding 3.5 years ago that I didn’t want to make a big deal of. One was that whole ‘buying of the bride’ that a lot of bridesmaids have fun at at the bridegroom’s expense – and on that, my best man back then, Matt, has a story to tell about taking the bullet for me!

But there was another such wedding event that I had zero interest in, and that was the Bachelor’s Party. Maybe it’s just not that big a thing in this part of the world, but it sure is a curious phenomenon elsewhere. The Hangover is a story about one such party when four friends – the bridegroom among them – head out to Las Vegas 48 hours before the wedding for a last night out, but wake up the next morning to see their $4200 a night hotel suite ripped to shreds, a hooker sneaking out, a baby in the wardrobe, and Mike Tyson’s tiger in the bathroom.

If that wasn’t enough, the bridegroom is missing… 24 hours before the wedding LOL The rest of the film sees the three retracing their footsteps in Las Vegas trying to figure out what on earth happened before they all passed out dead drunk the night before.

There’s a lot of crass humor and (male) nudity in The Hangover, but little of it feels forced or included for showmanship, except OK maybe one scene involving an Asian mob boss who’s found naked in the three’s car trunk. It’s simply an adult comedy involving adults in the aftermath of a wild Bachelor’s Party that’s gone all wrong.

I think what worked in the film is the sincerity of both the story and that the three friends are all likable in their own way. The three have no clue what happened the day before as they can’t remember a thing, but in their journey they meet people who do remember who they are. It’s mind games abound, mixed with a lot of flesh, bodily fluids, liquor and drugs.

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While there are four leads in The Hangover, the lion’s share of time goes to three of them, and two of the three play familiar types. There’s Phil, the jock and apparent leader of the four, and who relishes the opportunity to sink his teeth into the city of sin. There’s Stu, a dentist who’s henpecked by his fiancee and to whom he has to lie and say their party is in wine country; and Alan, a socially inept soon to be brother-in-law of the bridegroom, Doug, whose presence is semi-limited to the first and last acts of the film.

The Hangover doesn’t quite descend to the low rungs of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat, but I can still imagine Ling going purple with horror at the sort of crazy depravity in the film. It’s also gratifying – at some level at least – that an adult comedy like this can make it to our shores in a otherwise normally prudish Singapore, and on home rental even too. The film was a huge financial success at the box office, and was critically praised by reviewers on aggregate sites. It gets a recommendation from me, but only if you can laugh at the sort of adult situations abound in this film.:)

Just Married

blog-justmarried-01 Just Married (2003) – on rental. There’s a whole ton of romantic-comedies about two unlikely persons meeting and falling in love, with many having the two persons at the marriage altar at the film’s end. There is precious few about making marriages work, and even less about a new marriage.

Just Married, as the title goes, is about a young couple who’s just got married – but by the end of the film’s first 2 minutes, you’ll realize that their marriage is already in trouble! The two return from their dream honeymoon in Europe but are clawing at each other’s throats. About four-fifths of the film is tracing back what happened in the last months, their first meeting, their marriage and then their honeymoon – before returning back to the present in the film’s last 20 minutes to wrap up the story.

The two leads are Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy who plays Tom and Sarah respectively. The two’s characters couldn’t be more different. Tom’s a laid-back stand-by radio personality who does the dead-of-the-night traffic updates, while Sarah is the daughter in a very wealthy family. The two fall in love and get married in spite of prejudices coming from Sarah’s family, then are off to their honeymoon where the trouble starts.

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Some of their misadventures have an air of familiarity – not from that we’ve actually experienced it ourselves mind you but rather it’s the sort of thing newly weds might do: including a scene about how they decide to try joining the mile-high club, a scene involving travel power adapters while on vacation, about the perceived quality of luxury hotels in romantic getaways, and cockroaches that make an appearance when the two try to make-out. And speaking of the latter, Ling normally freaks out when she sees cockroaches (i.e. she’ll scream “DARLING HELP!!!!!”, and I’ll come rushing into the kitchen “What what WHAT??” only to learn that there’s a roach about, er, somewhere), but she actually laughed at that this scene.

Just Married worked for me for two reasons. For starters, the series of misadventures and scenes which increasingly show how different both characters are aren’t overplayed. They do try to work out their differences early on, exhibit tolerance and understanding until their level of mutual antagonism builds up to the point where it finally explodes. Secondly, the two actors fit their roles well: you get Kutcher’s Tom who gradually realizes the level of distrust and prejudice Sarah’s very elite family has on his ordinary background, and Murphy’s Sarah who also realizes that her husband can be a bit of a cheapskate when it comes to money matters. Both are believable, and there’s evident chemistry between the two.

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Funnily, the film according to IMDB and its Wikipedia’s entries received mostly negative reviews, and from viewer comments I can see where they’re coming from. Most of the laughs in Just Married did work for me, including aforementioned roach and the mile-high club scenes, but a few also felt forced: for example a couple of short scenes involving Sarah’s mother’s name which revolves around the nickname for a certain genital, and others about the family’s Asian butler. And the several of the cast of supporting characters are pretty much fillers with little to do in the film.

Still, the both of us enjoyed Just Married, and for me certainly a lot more than The Ugly Truth. The film was also made poignant by the fact that Brittany Murphy was found dead just last month at the young age of 32. R.I.P.:(

The Ugly Truth

blog-ugly-01 The Ugly Truth (2009) – on rental. If there’s any one theme in romantic comedies that’s getting ruthlessly farmed for material, it’s the theme of how men and women view relationships differently. The Ugly Truth – starring blonde bombshell Katherine ‘Izzie’ Heigl and Gerald ‘This is SPAARRRTTAA!!!’ Butler – is another recent film that’s based on that theme, but unfortunately is not only so by-the-numbers but also  that I felt the two leads just aren’t right for their respective roles.

The title of the film comes off a TV show that Mike Chadway (Butler) hosts, and it purports to tell only the truth of what men really want in relationships: and, according to this TV show, it’s just one thing: sex. Heigl plays Abby Richter, a slightly prudish and with an OCD producer of a morning TV show that’s struggling on the chart ratings. Mike’s “The Ugly Truth” morning show is brought in as a segment into Abby’s show against her wishes, which sets up the two for obligatory scenes of friction and disgust, before the two realize that they’re really “meant for each other”.

Given the film’s theme, there’s some degree of crassness of both the verbal and also physical type though it doesn’t quite go down to the toilet humor level of say My Best Friend’s Girl. Some of it doesn’t work – like one scene where Abby hangs precariously upside down from a tree branch with her head facing squarely and inches away from her naked neighbor’s crotch – but others do, as in a certain scene involving Abby and a certain, well, battery operated sex toy that falls into the hands of a curious 8 year old who has no idea what it is.

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The troubling thing is that both leads seemed uncomfortable with not only the type of scenes they are in but also the lines they have to say – almost like while their physical bodies were going through the motions, their minds were subconsciously resisting the characters’ dialog lines. Heigl just doesn’t do physical comedy very well, and the early scene which supposedly demonstrates her uptight complex and her compulsion to do complete character analyses of her dates doesn’t fly. I can imagine an actress like Reese Witherspoon with a naturally frenetic energy pulling it off, but not Heigl. It felt forced.

And Butler was equally an ill-fit for the foul-mouth Chadway. It’s not that I mind a womanizing character that has no issues with diving into a tub with bikini clad bimbos on a morning TV show to prove a point or who insists that the way to win a man doesn’t involve 10 steps: it only involves a certain oral activity. It’s that the role calls for a type of actor other than Butler. The latter’s natural demeanor strikes me of a sensible and serious-minded man with maybe a slight tinge of whacko personality – but not as this sort of Neanderthal character, his more responsible relationship with his nephew in the film not withstanding.

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Ironically, neither of the two are new to romantic-comedies or dramas. Heigl we’ve seen in a couple already: 27 Dresses (not too bad but James Marsden was awful) and before that Knocked Up which she starred opposite Seth Rogen,  a complex film that I really liked about unintended pregnancies. Gerald Butler is easily recognizable even without his bushy King Leonidas beard as the guy who kicked that other guy down the pit in 300 yelling something about ‘Sparta’, and he starred in PS I Love You.

The funniest thing is that Ling kept turning to me throughout the show asking “Dear, is that what men really think…?!!?”, and each time I replied “HARLOW, it’s just a movie lah.”

I’m reminded of another show that was based off a similar premise, but whose character-to-character engagement worked far better, and also that the two leads fitted their opposing roles. That film was Someone Like You from 2001, starring Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman, and a film that I’d coincidentally just re-watched last month. If you’re interested to see a romantic-comedy that discusses in what ways are men different from women when it comes to relationships, that also has a more believable transition from antagonism to eventual partnering, give The Ugly Truth a miss and watch that instead.

Baby Crawling

Here’s a selection from the other stack of pictures I took of our baby girl yesterday. Since the last week, she’s become about adept at propping herself up on her bed and sitting upright on her own. On a couple of occasions we’ve found her doing just that – sitting up and baby-talking to herself.:)

Ling’s been letting her get onto the marble floor at home and letting her learn to crawl a bit too. She’s comfortable with it, and seems to be trying hard to learn where her little hands and feet should go in order to move from one spot to another.

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It’s all quite exciting to watch: her eyes squinting and lips sucked in concentration. She can already manage crawling for about a feet or so too.

Videos to come soon.:)

So Déjà Vu

Our church friend Lisa gave birth to her baby girl Gabrielle-Alexis yesterday afternoon, so we went by Gleneagles Hospital for a visit. It was all very déjà vu for the both of us: the unshaven daddy who looks like he’s been awake all night, a tired mommy still recovering from the delivery, the general quietness of the delivery suites and corridors, and of course the newborn baby! Gabrielle-Alexis opened her eyes, squinted at her daddy, and sneezed at Lisa’s cousin. Absolutely adorable.:)

I was reminded of how tiny Hannah was herself when she was born in June last year, also on a Saturday afternoon, and how heavy she weighs now just 7 months 3 weeks later. Time sure flies, and before we know it, she’s gonna be enrolling in Primary One, then her PSLE, then her ‘O’ levels. I’m already dreading the day Hannah brings back her (first?) boy friend. Die. Must start setting up some kind of potential son-in-law filtration process, and refine it in the next 21+ years I’ve got left only!

Either way, I haven’t been carting out the D300 over the last couple of weeks to take pictures of Hannah, so took the opportunity to while waiting at the lift lobby outside the delivery suites. There’s a ton more pictures I took later in the afternoon of Hannah’s crawling lessons at home which I’ll post up later.:)

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Monsters vs Aliens

blog-mva-01 Monsters vs Aliens (2009) – on rental. The productions coming out from DreamWorks Animation has been uneven for several years now and lacking the consistent quality of its rival, Pixar Animation Studios. Its most recent production Monsters vs Aliens isn’t going to win any awards, but funnily I enjoyed this film a lot more than the last animated picture I saw, Pixar’s Up.

Monsters vs Aliens tells the story of a young woman Susan (voiced by the always fun to watch and listen to Reese Witherspoon) who on her wedding day gets smacked by a crashing meteorite. Imbued with the rock’s substance, she gains superpowers: specifically, giant size, strength and invulnerability.

Before she can recover from her shock though, she’s labeled a ‘monster’, gets captured by government agencies and is put together with other ‘monsters’ – all of whom are all unintended effects of experiments gone awry. Among them is a brilliant but mad scientist who’s been turned into a cockroach and aptly named Dr. Cockroach, an amphibious fish-ape named the Missing Link, and an indestructible gelatinous blob of jelly, named B.O.B.

Doomed to spend the remainder of her life away from the rest of the humanity, this gang of monster misfits however return to save the day when Earth is threatened with an, well, alien invasion. So thus the title comes ‘Monsters vs Aliens’ LOL.

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To say that Monsters ‘borrows’ ideas from other films wouldn’t be exactly fair – because when the numerous references to other sci-fiction and alien movies pop up every other minute in this film, you’re not certain is Monsters just merely paying tribute or just outright plagiarizing from them. There are references to The Fly in Dr. Cockroach’s genesis, the Vulcan hand greeting sign from Star Trek, clone alien manufacturing that’s straight out from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, aliens that look exactly like those in Mars Attack, uploading viruses into alien mother ships from Independence Day, and that five note motif from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Heck – even the main theme from Beverly Hills Cop shows up.

Not all the references got laughs from me though. A few were pretty flat, and others were seemingly included just to have everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. But enough worked to elicit chuckles especially if you’re familiar with Hollywood classics listed in the above. And there were also other laughs coming from the slapstick and physical comedy abound in the film.

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What did work consistently well also was the voice-acting and that the characters themselves were appealing. I’ve always liked Reese Witherspoon’s film output (Just like Heaven remains one of my favorite romantic comedies), and though she’s providing just the voice of Susan in Monsters, she lends to her animated character the same quirky and sympathetic personality that you see in her live motion pictures. There’s also House M.D.’s lead Hugh Laurie in the voice of Dr. Cockroach but he’s in the same madcap mode from his earlier and famous role in the Black Adder Brit-comedy series.

The film’s ending leaves plenty of opportunities for follow-ups, but it looks unlikely that we’ll ever see one. Apparently the film didn’t do well enough in the international audience to warrant a sequel.

Oh well. At least I can always return to this movie on rental.:)

Red Cliff – Revisited – Part 2

Continued from the last post.

However, the problems I experienced with the films remained solidly at the forefront in my revisit. Right at the top was the atrocious acting from every one in the main cast, with just two exceptions: Zhang Fengyi’s Cao Cao and You Yong’s Liu Bei. Perhaps because the latter two actors’ older age, their portrayals of the two leaders are more subtle, nuanced and restrained – and believable. Everyone else’s portray of the leading characters ranged from disinterest (Lin Chi-ling’s Xiao Qiao), wooden (Tony Leung’s Zhou Yu), and to just plain overacting (especially Nakamura Shidō II’s Gan Xing). As for Takeshi Kaneshiro, his Zhuge Liang smirks so much in self-satisfaction you’d wish history had been different and Cao Cao had indeed torn apart Sun Quan/Liu Bei’s armies.

Ironically, I’m not sure even if acting was up to expectations given the talented leads would things had been better when the characters were this badly scripted to begin with. As remarked in my earlier review, the characters on Sun Quan/Liu Bei’s side in the films weren’t just heroes. They were written as Demi-Gods with no failings, omnipotent and easily capable of outguessing Cao Cao at every turn.

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Perhaps that’s indeed the actual historical record – I doubt it but who really knows – but it also resulted in a tag team of superheroes that were infallible and thus unbelievable. It’s telling that the two films were nominated for a gazillion acting awards at the Asian and Hong Kong Film award ceremonies, but won none of them.

Nor did I think the battle scenes were that exciting, despite all the rave reviews and technical accomplishment awards that’s already heaped on these two films. It doesn’t take much to spot the background soldiers whacking toy sticks at each other or just standing around pretending to be pitted in mortal combat. Woo needs to take lessons from the true master of army melee combat, i.e. from Wolfgang Petersen who directed those battle scenes for Troy. And that scene of Cao Cao’s vanguard cavalry charging against entrenched infantry was lifted straight out of Braveheart, but the latter did it far better.

The much-talked about army maneuvers, including an interesting one involving Taoist cosmology, were all present in the film and were easy enough to follow: but spoiled for me by their in-your-face presentation. You get to watch Woo repeatedly showing you those maneuvers as though he’s nervous about your level of intelligence. “See? This is how Sun Quan and Liu Bei moved their army. Not sure? Let me show it to you again. Still not clear? Here’s a third scene!” That’s how you’d feel watching those grand strategy moments.

The worst offender was the sequence of reflective screen scene where Sun Quan/Liu Bei’s infantry uses against the enemy cavalry. It’s used over and over and over and over again. Enough already!

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And the music. Just holy cow. The theme itself is admittedly attractive, but it’s repeated ad nauseum in various forms throughout the two films. It’s like a CD player running on Energizer Bunny batteries that has a broken ‘SKIP TO NEXT TRACK’ button. You’d be cringing real quick when you hear it yet again for the umpteenth time by the second hour.

Maybe it’s only the Asian audiences that soak up this sort of Chinese production that’s unfortunately replete with unrealistic action and over-acting. Woo’s other big budget war production, Windtalkers, was a major and critical flop, despite the richness of the source and that the story of Navajo codetalkers in World War II is a genuinely interesting one. Red Cliff fares better, but just not by very much.

I just keep thinking what would had happen if a Western director who’s capable of melding solid production work, great story telling, and respectful of Asian sensitivities without making it dumb had directed this production instead of John Woo.

And I’m thinking of Clint Eastwood and Letters from Iwo Jima. Now that would had been a winner!

Red Cliff – Revisited – Part 1

blog-redcliff-01 Red Cliff (2008) – on HD. I didn’t enjoy John Woo’s mega-budget production of the famous Chinese novel, and blogged about it then in a post here last year in April.

But when the Blu-ray edition of the two films became available a couple of months ago, I picked up the set. The DVDs I saw the film on last year were packaged and distributed by a local publisher and were horrendous in picture quality, so figured I should give Woo’s two films a second chance and and on HD. Unfortunately, after sitting through five hours of the two films, I’m still unimpressed.

The good parts first though. The two films back to back run for just over four and a half hours, and that’s a lot of screen time for you to sink your teeth into. The production has a mix of both drama and big battle scenes, with the first film about on parity between the two and the second film leaning more heavily on action.

The general gist of the story is also easy to follow, the more so since the major plot events are told in big scenes with characterizations in broad strokes: starting from Cao Cao’s petitioning of war with the weakling Han Emperor, Zhuge Liang’s diplomatic mission to Sun Quan seeking alliance, and the combined force of Sun Quan and Liu Bei’s first victory against Cao Cao’s armies.

There’s also that large cast of characters, and each of the major leads and most of the supporting (with the exception of Cao Cao’s henchmen) are distinct enough by way of characterization and physical appearance that you can still tell them apart even if you haven’t read the Romance of the Three Kingdom novels before, or follow the troupe of big name Asian actors in the production.

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Visually; the films were also shot on location in China and Taiwan, and there’s a couple of sky cam shots of the vistas – e.g. in the opening title scene – that’s just stunning. There’s use of CG, some effective when it comes to rendering the large masses of armies on the move or in battle, but less effective in man-made structures – especially in that climatic scene of Cao Cao’s navy in flames towards the end of the second film.

And finally, the Blu-ray edition of Red Cliff is given an absolutely stunning HD transfer. Ladies who need to soak up Takeshi Kaneshiro perfectly chiseled chin and deep-set eyes, buy these two Blu-ray discs and do full resolution screen captures for yer desktop.

Continued in the next post.

Public Enemies

blog-pe Public Enemies (2009) – on rental. Now this was another big budget super-hyped film on last year’s movie screenings, but also a production I skipped at the cinema. I liked the subject material, but was less sure about the associated director – Michael Mann – involvement in it.

There were two big names in the cast list – Johnny Depp who plays the legendary American bank-robber John Dillinger, and Christian ‘Bats’ Bale who plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who heads the task force to take him down.

The other three recognizable faces but in smaller roles were Billy Crudup who does an mesmerizing number as Purvis’ Boss J. Edgar Hoover, Stephen Lang who was most recently seen in his meaty role of Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar, and Leelee Sobieski, rarely seen in many films today, but shows up in an almost cameo role of one of Dillinger’s, er, ‘companions’.

Depp though is getting really recognizable these days, and it’s hard to watch a film he’s in with that slightly gravely but yet tenorish voice and not be reminded of Captain Jack Sparrow (the fourth Pirates film coincidentally will start filming this year). His John Dillinger is a bit of  a 1930s’ Robin Hood, sans distributing his ill gotten gains to the poor. Here, he’s a gentlemanly sort of bank thief, respectful of women and the innocent and apparently loathe to take lives in his heists. If you can put aside that face of his and not think of dreadlocks and the word ‘savvy?”, he’s actually fun to watch in this show.

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The one problem in the cast though lies in his opposite number: Christian Bale. I’m not sure what to think: Bale did amazingly good in the two Batman films alongside director Chris Nolan. But like Terminator: Salvation, he’s repeated his shockingly bored and lethargic performance of the agent on the chase in Public Enemies. His role as written for the film is exactly workmanlike, with no real examination of his background, person or motivations. In fact, his wooden performance as Agent Purvis strikes me as exactly the sort of thing I’d expect from Keanu Reeves.

The other problem I had was Michael Mann’s direction. The man’s got a unique cinematography style that for me at least, works only sometimes. It’s not at least the steroid-driven drunk monkey camera operation I found in Michael Bay’s two Transformers films. Rather, it’s the almost hand-held-like camera use with a home video-like sheen in the prints and sets. A lot of times, the film bounced between the typical film-like visuals you see in any other theatrical release, and a home-video sort of look. It was really jarring. The use of the home-video look worked well enough for his other set-in contemporary times films like his reimagination of Miami Vice recently, and also Collateral (really liked that film) – but it didn’t for me in a period film like Public Enemies.

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At least the scenes are still well-staged, especially the numerous incidents when Dillinger’s gang of robbers repeatedly outsmart the local authorities, and also when the latter finally catches up with them in huge gun battle fights. Mann’s familiar with this sort of scenes, though the ones here still doesn’t outperform that amazing bank robbery scene he did for a similar film 14 years ago, Heat, which still remains for me today his best work. The historical aspects of the John Dillinger robberies is also interesting, and from analysis of the film elsewhere seems relatively accurate to the actual record.

So, in all, watchable for me, and informative at least. Just not great.