Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Music: Food for the Movie Soul

A long time ago, in a state far far away I was a high school kid still developing my obsessive nature for film. In fact, in high school my movie obsession was probably fairly normal. It didn’t go much beyond seeing “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” on opening weekend, or renting that strange “Blue Velvet” thing with Dennis Hopper that all my friends had been hearing about.

No, my obsession at that time was with music. I had always had something that consumed me as I grew up. First there were Legos, then Dungeons & Dragons, Garbage Pail Kids, and G.I. Joe—but as adulthood loomed a deeper investment into something more profound and personal became necessary. Pushed along by my best friend at the time and the opening of an independent music store, I grabbed onto music as an outcry of the soul.

Really the roots of my music obsession began in grade school, when that same friend and I would throw in a song on his boombox—“a boombox is a powerful thing”—lie down and visualize some form of story to go along with the music. I remember I had trouble separating the movie in my mind for Billy Joel’s “Pressure” from the video that was in heavy rotation on MTV at the time, but Journey’s “Lights” was something wholly original in my mind. After a song had ended the two of us would relate the stories we each envisioned to each other.

Later, after we had already developed our music obsessions into something above and beyond the average teenager’s tastes, we would get together with two other friends as equally ensconced in their music obsessions as the two of us and combine our CD collections into a giant mass of music collage. We developed an intricate system to randomly select which albums would be thrown into a multi-disc player set to shuffle and spend from dusk to dawn playing pool, philosophizing, and commencing with our early discussions on film, while listening to the tunes that inspired us.

In college, I finally started to develop my deep-rooted obsession with film as I studied to be a professional actor. Surround by other actors who recast “The Godfather” as it would’ve been with the Hofstra Drama Department—the honor of Concigliore Tom Hagen was bestowed upon me—my full passion for movies could no longer be denied. But even with the new fascination, I found my music mania flourishing due to the school’s close proximity to a Tower Records.

With a subscription to CMJ (College Music Journal), I soon discovered bands considered obscure by the average music consumer—Bark Psychosis, Codine, Red Red Meat, Julian Cope. I gained a reputation on campus as a music guru. If somebody wanted to know when a new album would be released, they came to me. If someone needed a mix tape of new and fresh music rather than the same old pop tunes, they came to me. The editor of one of the student magazines asked me to review REM’s “Automatic for the People” because he knew I would have it well listened to before anyone else.

The advent of DVD changed the way everyone consumed movies, especially the film buff. It also drastically altered my own consumption of music. My free time shifted to watching more movies. Building my movie collection became my primary fixation and music took a back seat. As I began to know more movies, I became fonder of movie scores, less reliant on popular music, and to a degree less in touch with my own emotions. I no longer sought music for my own emotional outlet, but as in a movie, music became a background element in my life.

Recently, I’ve rediscovered my passion for music. In a way, I feel I lost a decade of my life by failing to pursue my music interests. However, the hard times that a recession brings also will force us to return to comforts of the past. Throughout, what has become an extremely busy summer I’ve eased back to some degree on my movie watching and greatly increased the amount of music I listen to.

My passion for film is just as strong as ever, but it is once again matched by my enthusiasm for music. And once again I feel the connection between the two. Both embody fantasy, but the music can be much more personal than the movies, something I can make my own as well as admire.

The other day, as I sat outside the Lyceum Theater in Arrow Rock, calming myself prior to a performance. I listened to the sad and seductive voice of Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies. She told a story with her lyrics and I pictured it, once again forming a movie in my mind to go along with the song. It was sad and tragic, but it filled me with joy.

You said never to grow old,
But you forgot to tell me how.
You said never to grow old,
And then you sank your teeth into those final feet.

Cowboy Junkies, “Those Final Feet”

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince / *** (PG)

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Professor Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon
Professor Horace Slughorn: Jim Broadbent
Ginny Weasley: Bonnie Wright
Draco Malfoy: Tom Felton
Professor Severus Snape: Alan Rickman
Bellatrix Lestrange: Helena Bonham Carter
Luna Lovegood: Evanna Lynch
Lavender Brown: Jessie Cave
Cormac McLaggen: Freddie Stroma

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by David Yates. Written by Steve Kloves. Based on the book by J.K. Rowling. Running time: 153 min. Rated PG (for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality).

The opening sequence of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” gave me the distinct impression that second time Potter director David Yates (“The Girl in the Cafe”) is a fan of anther Warner Bros. franchise, the “Superman” series. During the thrilling opening, three black clouds of smoke race through London—first the London of the real world, known as the Muggle world in the Potter universe, then into the magic world. The three clouds cause mayhem and terror everywhere they go, materializing in an explosion at a magic shop into three imposing dark figures reminiscent of General Zod and his followers from “Superman II”. Later in the film, the adolescent wizard hero Harry Potter and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry superintendant Professor Albus Dumbledore visit a lair of the series’ villain, Lord Voldemort, which looks remarkably similar to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

What impact do the image parallels with the “Superman” films have on the Harry Potter universe? Not much beyond the fact that they indicate that like “Superman” the Harry Potter series is an incredible showcase of movie magic that exemplifies the best special effects-laden entertainment placed on the foundation of great ideas and characters. Many complained that the fifth Potter film skimped on its developmental elements in favor of the special effects and action. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is a return to form for the series—probably due to the return of screenwriter Steve Kloves (“Wonder Boys”)—with the characters back in the foreground and a plot that embraces the same mystery elements featured in each Harry Potter episode without pushing the characters beyond their motivations.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, “December Boys”) has found his celebrity status elevated even above his fame from previous films as Voldemort’s return was confirmed at the end of the previous adventure, legitimizing Harry’s claims. “The Half-Blood Prince” continues to bring our hero down a very dark path, but much of the wonder and charm of the series has found its way back into the mix as Harry’s two best friends Ron (Rupert Grint, “Driving Lessons”) and Hermione (Emma Watson, ”The Tale of Despereaux”) explore teen infatuation and their own hidden feelings for each other. Harry also feels the pangs of love with some fairly touching romantic developments between him and Ron’s younger sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Honestly, their flirtings were so gently handled, I would have liked to see more of Ginny just to witness their sweet relationship.

More so than anything else, this Potter focuses on Harry’s relationship and partnership with his mentor and protector, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, “Layer Cake”). Dumbledore hasn’t had this much of a presence in any of the previous films. His authority has always been an anchoring spirit in the series, and its good to see him take a more active role in events. He insists upon his own insignificance compared to Harry’s, but it’s hard to imagine Harry’s magic containing the power and confidence of Dumbledore’s.

As for the titular Half-Blood Prince, his identity is the great mystery of the story. Harry’s personal nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, “The Disappeared”) is recruited by the evil Death Eaters—who work in the service of Voldemort—for a special assignment. Harry is suspicious of Malfoy’s behavior, but has his own assignment from Dumbledore to learn a secret about Voldemort known only to the eccentric Professor Horace Slughorn. In order to get in Slughorn’s graces, Harry utilizes the notes of the mysterious Half-Blood Prince to ace Slughorn’s potions class. I would not think to reveal the identity of the half-blood, but it tears at the fabric of all we may think we know of Harry’s world.

It helps that the only new major character this time around is Slughorn. Once again the casting of Jim Broadbent (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) in the role proves that casting director Fiona Weir has the magic touch for finding just the right actors to enhance this fantastical world. There are a few new minor characters that are barely introduced, which may leave some fans of the books disgruntled. In terms of the movies however, this one is more connected with its subjects than any of the other movies. It makes for a somewhat slower adventure, but satisfying in that the characters come first.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” plays like a set up to the finale in the next two films based on the final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows”. This makes it a little less urgent than previous films that each had a self-contained story to tell. But it also leaves the audience with a cliffhanger that makes it easy to understand why Warner Bros. felt it was necessary to delay this movie by six months in order to have a shorter wait until the release of the final two films.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Public Enemies / *** (R)

John Dillinger: Johnny Depp
Melvin Purvis: Christian Bale
Billie Frechette: Marion Cotillard
John ‘Red’ Hamilton: Jason Clarke
Harry ‘Pete’ Pierpont: David Wenham
Charles Makley: Christian Stolte
Homer Van Meter: Stephen Dorff
Baby Face Nelson: Stephen Graham
Alvin Karpis: Giovanni Ribisi
Charles Winsted: Stephen Lang
Phil D’Andrea: John Ortiz
Frank Nitti: Bill Camp
J. Edgar Hoover: Billy Crudup

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Mann. Written by Ronan Bennett and Mann & Ann Biderman. Based on the book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34” by Bryan Burrough. Running time: 140 min. Rated R (for gangster violence and some language).

Who will get Michael Jackson’s children? Who is Lindsey Lohan’s lesbian lover? And, are Brad and Angelina breaking up? The gossip of celebrity has always captured the imaginations of Americans. There was a time when the criminal was celebrity. Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” is a movie that remembers this and in it he tries to dig under the skin of one of the greatest criminal celebrities in American history.

John Dillinger was arguably the poster boy of the American criminal at a time when the breed was entering its final spotlight. J. Edgar Hoover’s creation of the FBI would put the nails in the coffin of the criminal celebrity by nationalizing the laws against major criminal acts and demystifying the men the public mythologized by exposing their cold-hearted ways with a cold-hearted approach to law enforcement. In its portrayals of Dillinger and the man who would bring the playboy bank robber down, Melvin Purvis, Mann and his co-writers, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, depict two men driven obsessively toward their fates in American history.

Opening with the famous jailbreak lead by Dillinger at Indiana State Prison, Mann quickly establishes his cold approach to this period picture with handheld camera work and stark landscapes. The jailbreak depicts the brutality these criminals are willing to inflict upon their relatively innocent jailers when one of the escapees feels a guard isn’t moving fast enough. He then shows Dillinger’s own sense of justice as he deals with the hasty cohort with the same violence dispatched against the guard.

Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) portrays Dillinger as an intensely loyal leader who will go to great lengths to help a friend, but won’t suffer fools kindly. Although he is a master of his domain and has imposed himself as a living monument in his stopping grounds in Chicago, there is a slight detachment in his demeanor about what he represents. During one robbery he tells a civilian to put his money back in his pocket. “I’m here for the bank’s money, not yours.” It’s as if he doesn’t notice the effect his actions have on the innocents around him. A colleague of Dillinger’s observes this practice as some sort of joke.

This effect doesn’t escape the attention of Mann, however. During the gunfights—and there are many—in the streets of Chicago, crowds gather as if observing the staging of a play. The gunfire is loud and echoes, as if inside a tin can, through the streets even louder. The sound is unsettling, punctuating the onlookers’ vulnerability. When the gunfire finds its way to the policemen and into the crowd of innocents, there is shock and awe.

Despite his detachment, it’s Dillinger’s inner workings the filmmakers seem to be digging for. His loyalty is fierce, but as his fame rises he moves further into circles where no loyalties lie. Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi, “Flight of the Phoenix”) tries to recruit him for a train job, and he gets mixed up with a job gone wrong involving Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Grant, “Inkheart”). But it is his love affair with French-American Indian coat check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, “La Vie en Rose”) that provides the opportunity for the FBI to eventually bring him down. Dillinger offers Billie an escape from the everyday grind of the fading depression that drew all Americans to criminal celebrity. As the economy recovered the everyday American needed that fascination less, and so the criminal’s days are numbered and Frechette is pulled down in the undertow.

Mann also shows the criminal spotlight doesn’t extend as glowingly onto the law enforcement community, despite Hoover’s attempts to pull the FBI out of the political arena and into a public relations venue. Although Billy Crudup (“Watchmen”) as Hoover adopts the vocal styling of 1930s crime movies, his performance avoids the temptation of ridicule that Hoover is generally treated to in film. His Hoover is still the power-mongering character usually depicted, but he seems more interested in securing the safety of the country than the Washington bureaucrats.

Hoover’s big publicity launch is based around his decision to place Purvis in charge of the Chicago branch and specifically charged with the apprehension of Dillinger. Christian Bale (“Terminator Salvation”) gives Purvis a discontented yet noble attitude. He is uncompromising, but in a scene where one of his officers is overly abusive to a female detainee, he shows his sense of justice includes compassion. As his suicide years later might suggest, Purvis never quite seems satisfied with his successful results.

As I walked out of the theater, I heard an older gentleman express his dissatisfaction with the film saying, “I thought it’d be more like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.” It struck me that it’s really very similar to that film. It lacks the humor that can be found in that classic, but the basic story is very much the same. Criminals live the highlife until their own habits make them vulnerable. “Public Enemies” begins at the start of that decrescendo.

I think the real reason a fan of “Bonnie and Clyde” might be disappointed with this movie is that this story is no longer fresh. Every criminals-on-the-run picture that has been released over the past forty years has modeled itself after the lives that these real life criminals lived. We’ve seen Dillinger’s story in every fictional criminal of the past forty years and even in the years between when these people lived and “Bonnie and Clyde” broke the mold.

The reality is Michael Mann has made a solid movie here, where the emotions are cold, the guns are loud and the end is etched in history. This is a good period crime picture. Mann has made better movies. His “Heat” really peers into the private lives of both thief and pursuer. “Public Enemies” may not dig as deep, but it’s worth watching.