Saturday, July 25, 2009

New Film: Public Enemies

As a star-driven biography of celebrated anti-hero John Dillinger that the Chicago-born director shot in a number of the actual locations of Dillinger's Midwestern crimes, Michael Mann's Public Enemies, from a screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman, intrinsically promises an elaboration of one of the director's most distinguishing features as a filmmaker, namely his self-reflexive emphasis on the places depicted in his films, within a genre that has found Mann at his slightest: the biopic. With Public Enemies, Mann does not manage to reverse this latter trend - though it is also worth noting that even slight Mann is better than the vast majority of new studio releases - due largely to the relative lack of stress placed on the film's real-world locales, in addition to the slow even for Mann pace and the surprising lack of verve displayed by Johnny Depp in the role of Dillinger. Michael Mann's Heat-lite (1995) could have used a little of Al Pacino's histrionics - or a bit more of Jack Sparrow.

Public Enemies opens in an Indiana state penitentiary in the fourth year of the Great Depression. In this initial location, Mann and director of photography Dante Spinotti mimetically limit their high-definition DV palette to drab blacks, whites, greys and tans, to which they will add a washed-out sky blue in a subsequent exterior of the prison. (Public Enemies's attention to color builds on Miami Vice's [2006] primary aesthetic achievement.) In this latter set-up, Mann and Spinotti opt for a strongly horizontal, static framing that the director repeats in other views of the big Midwestern sky, whereas their camera relies heavily on hand-held tight framings within the interior itself. This alteration between hand-held DV close-ups and wider angles, be it the wide horizon meeting an Indiana dirt road or the fluid steady cam that follows the bank robbers into a marble-filled Wisconsin place of business, provides Public Enemies with a visual rhythm that is further accented by a cutting pattern that remains unpredictable in its choice of future angles.

However, in visual highs like the film's first bank robbery, bathed in a warm, phosphorescent yellow, Mann's camera is not permitted to cutaway and linger on the setting, as it would so often on the Chicago skyline of Thief (1981) or that of Los Angeles in the director's masterpiece Collateral (2004). Here Dillinger and company have their "minute forty... flat" to get in and out, thereby requiring the film's spectators to get their fill of the space in the crew's short time in the bank. In this regard, though Public Enemies announces an emphasis on place that again is among the interesting features of Mann's art, it fails to add this emphasis to the film's narrative, which ultimately is the key to the Collateral's achievement in particular. Then again, Collateral's sequence of spaces, always calibrated to highlight its nocturnal views, structured the film's narrative as it moved toward daybreak, and thus according to the film's internal logic, to the picture's end. Here, there is no similar rationale, save for the non-fiction itinerary of Public Enemies's principle subject.

Nor does Mann altogether maintain his focus on procedure that is apparent throughout Thief, for example. Whereas that film opens with a lengthy safe-cracking scored with a period-defining synth soundtrack - the entire work is period-defining in the mood it establishes, and ouevre-defining for America's signature (action-oriented, Chicago- and Los Angeles-based ) 1980s director - Public Enemies rarely focuses so resolutely on the interworkings of Dillinger's profession. The primary counter-example, of course, is the extended second escape from prison, wherein Mann follows Dillinger from room-to-room as he systematically breaks free, aided initially only by a hand-carved and tinted fake handgun. The film's bank-robbery set-pieces again do not allow for the emphasis on process that many of the director's finer crime pictures depict.

Mann's focus on criminal endeavor belongs, surely, to his larger, genre-inflected treatment of American masculinity, as Lisa K. Broad notes, which itself accounts for both the drift toward myth contained in his films, and his attraction to your Muhammad Ali's and John Dillinger's, on the level of subject. Or to put it another way, Mann's films are always about American narratives, and thus about film, which is no less the case for Public Enemies as it is for any of his previous efforts. Here, the director's self-reflexivity finds some of its most direct expression in a trio of nocturnal set-pieces: his arrival on an Indiana tarmac, illuminated by exploding flares and cracking camera flashes; Dillinger's low-key, albeit spotlit escape through the Wisconsin woods; and finally, the aftermath surrounding his assassination outside the Biograph theater. In each of these passages, artificial lighting, gushing in from strong directional light sources, traces if not engulfs Depp's protagonist, recurrently in characteristically grainy - and therefore, DV-specific - images. Thus, Dillinger is transformed from bank robber into (digital-era) movie star.

Michael J. Anderson's Michael Mann feature-film taxonomy:
Career Peaks: Collateral, Heat
Exceptional Films (Just Below Peak):
Miami Vice, Thief, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Manhunter (1986)
Good (If Comparatively Lesser): The Insider (1999)*, Public Enemies
Sub-par: Ali (2001)
Haven't Seen: The Keep (1983)

* Note: I have not seen The Insider since shortly after its initial release, and as such, trust my judgment less in its case than in that of any of the others. I guess I would say that The Insider is at least "good," where I will rank it for the time being, and quite possibly even "exceptional," though my instinct tells me that it does not belong among the "career peaks." But that's all it is, instinct.

Friday, July 03, 2009

8th New York Asian Film Festival: Dream / Bi-mong (by, Lisa K. Broad)

Kim Ki-Duk’s Dream (Bi-mong, 2008), which recently screened as part of the 8th New York Asian Film Festival, is a lyrical and melancholy meditation on the theme of doomed love. The film establishes its conceptual premise – Ran (Lee Na-Yeong), a young woman is compelled to act out the dreams of a young man, Jin (Joe Odagiri), whom she has never met – in a simple, straightforward manner. No explanation is sought, and none is provided. It is tacitly accepted in the world of the film that two people can be connected by a dream. The purely stipulative nature of the film’s narrative conceit moves it away from the realm of science fiction – where some technological innovation or disruption of natural law allows for the occurrence fantastic events – and into the domain of the myth or fable – where natural laws are refashioned to suit the emotional and psychological states of the story’s characters.

Early on in the film Jin and Ran are told by a (decidedly non-Freudian) psychiatrist/mystic that they are on opposite ends of a psychic spectrum – Jin’s reoccurring erotic dreams of the ex-lover he pines for, cause Ran to sleepwalk into the arms of the ex-lover she despises – like black and white on the color wheel. She assures them that dreams have the power to change reality, and that if they are able to fall for each other and forget their romantic pasts, all will be well. In its focus on young love as a vital force for change, Dream calls to mind Japanese New Wave films like Nagisa Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968) and Yoshishige Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre (1969) – both lyrical and richly symbolic representations of lovers in peril.

The main body of the film is devoted to documenting Jin and Ran’s developing relationship – which is mirrored in the film’s mise-en-scene. From the first moments of the film Jin is associated with the color black, while Ran almost exclusively wears white. (In a striking fantasy set piece, where Jin and Ran watch their ex-lover’s fight and make love in an open field, their characteristic colors are reversed.) The film also makes strong use of diegetic framing, using the architecture of domestic spaces to unite and divide the young couple within a single composition. Both Jin and Ran are artists, who work from home, often late into the night – she is a fashion designer, who creates fanciful brightly colored confections quite at odds with her own monochrome wardrobe; he chisels blocks of stone into elaborate seals. As such they seem to be quite isolated from other people and alienated from the flow of day to day life. Once they discover the nature of their connection, they enter into a quasi-domestic situation, wherein they live together and sleep in shifts in hopes that if they avoid sleeping at the same time Ran will cease to act out Jin’s dreams. (Ran’s terror at her loss of autonomy brings the dangerous nature of romantic love into sharp relief.) During a relatively tranquil period in their relationship they visit a Buddhist shrine, where they build a tower of stones. Throughout the film, Buddhist imagery seems to be associated with the balanced and tranquil relationship that Jin and Ran seek and briefly establish.

The idyll comes to an abrupt end, when Jin and Ran fall asleep together, and Jin’s dream leads Ran to commit a violent act. Jin, feeling responsible for Ran’s action and her subsequent punishment vows never to sleep again, and begins to torture himself in hopes of staying awake and atoning for his guilt. This section of the film makes overt use of Christian iconography, which seems to stand for the passion, sacrifice, and suffering that marks the Dionysian flip-side to the Apollonian tranquility Jin and Ran find at the Buddhist Shrine. As Jin and Ran’s passion intensifies, so does their shared pain and mutual self-denial. Eventually they enter into a kind of twilight state where the return to a normal autonomous existence is as impossible as life apart – at this point Dream achieves a level of abject desperation that calls to mind David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Ultimately, Dream is a hauntingly beautiful film, and a hauntingly sad one. Relatively restrained in relationship to the rest of Kim’s corpus, it is nonetheless a powerful and unflinching exploration of the physical, spiritual, and psychological cost of all consuming devotion.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

8th New York Asian Film Festival: Exodus & Fish Story

Pang Ho-cheung's Exodus (Cheut ai kup gei, 2007), screening as part of the 2009 event's "Hong Kong Film: New Action" sidebar, opens with a single, extended-duration, backward-moving take that director Pang pairs with Mozart's "Adagio and Fugue for Strings in C-minor." The shot begins on a tight close-up of a woman's eyes in a photograph, Queen Elizabeth II's as we soon learn (this opening scene occurs during HK's Commonwealth past), with the camera slowly pulling back to further reveal two men standing in their bathing suits and scuba gear. As the camera continues to mobilize backwards, we shortly see four more men dressed identically as they beat a fully-dressed gentleman lying on the ground. After the camera reaches the ground, Pang cuts to the title credit and then to further framings, also scored with classical music, of lead Simon Yam in highly modern urban interiors. As such, Exodus does not immediately explain the opening shot; Pang will withhold this sequence's narrative justification for a later exchange of dialogue: as in the film's primary subsequent plot line, there is a truth contained within this surreal scenario.

Exodus's principle plot subject soon crystalizes with Yam's interrogation of 'Peeping Tom' Nick Cheung, who claims, before suspiciously recanting, that he was attempting to gain evidence of a female conspiracy to murder all men. Again, Pang opts for overt stylization as he pushes in through a thin rectangular window as Yam's careerist uniformed police officer questions the suspect; Pang and cinematographer Charlie Lam's camera continues to move in and back out, reinforcing the actioner's postmodernist-typed art house aesthetic, along side the film's classical flourishes and its 21st century spaces. The image is spectacularly central to Exodus throughout: a low camera placement of Yam working on burnt chads of evidence through a glass table; another similarly low placement of looming, parallel freeways; and a mobile composition in which Pang reverses the visual field by framing one of his two nascent lovers in a wall-length mirror, all rate among the most indelible visuals of the recent HK cinema. Further compositions blend characters and decor, as for instance a bathroom-set narrative insert that combines the two in a single rouge palette, which provides a distant to echo to Pedro Almodóvar's thriller sub-corpus. Moreover, the film's seemingly less frequent and often more subtle sound manipulations equally impress: an extreme long of a worker ascending an industrial vat in a haz-mat suit includes the faint sound of the aforesaid's breath audible under his or her helmet. The capture of image and sound are indeed foregrounded in Pang's 'artful' genre picture.

Fortunately, Pang's narrative command is virtually equally to the control he maintains over his compositions. Focalized largely through Yam's protagonist - we follow him in his uncertainty, his disappearing skepticism and ultimately in his erotic desire - Exodus nonetheless exceeds the lead's knowledge base on occasion, relieving, in these spots, the audience of any uncertainty that it might still have with respect to the central premise. Without providing spoilers, suffice it to say that the film's penultimate extended, explanatory flashback, centering on one of the picture's two female protagonists, provides much of the picture's darkest humor, combining the improbable with the violent in the manner introduced at the outset. Pang's film is sure to be one of the more entertaining offerings in this year's NYAFF, and is almost certain to be its most visually striking.

It is even more imperative to say as little as possible about Yoshihiro Nakamura's highly entertaining Fish Story (Fisshu sutôrî), which seems the prohibitive front-runner for this year's "Audience Award" (following last year's well-deserved winner, Fine, Totally Fine). While I would at this point in the competition slightly favor Pang's offering, if for no other reason than for Exodus's sterling sense of composition in comparison to Fish Story's largely banal DV-imagery, there is no disputing the mainstream Asian pop appeal of Nakamura's latest. In particular this fictional tale of a 1975 Japanese punk record - which we are repeatedly reminded preceded The Sex Pistols breakthrough by one year - that saves the world in 2012, does as much with its coda as any other film this or most years: Fish Story features a Shawshank Redemption (1994)-style closer (and a similiarly easy, story detail-oriented brand of spectatorship) that shows us just how this happens, which the narrative's preceding, jumbled chronology and judicious handling of narrative details manages to keep unclear until the last. Nakamura also manages a substantial quota of humor - the film's ferry-situated Champion of Justice set-piece and its explanatory flashback rife with Karate Kid (1984) references ranks as the unmistakable highlight - that more than justifies the preceding hour and three-quarters.

Exodus screens at the IFC Center, Monday, June 29th at 12:50 PM and Fish Story at 6:15 PM, Thursday, July 2, at the Japan Society.