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Stephen Dorff

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O Lugubrious Arthouse!


The Academy Awards are now behind us. (To no one’s surprise, the well-intentioned but perfunctory Oscar bait that was The King’s Speech reeled in Best Picture. FWIW, I had it at #18.) And, it being March, the cineplexes are happily on the verge of thawing out from the usual early-year dumping-ground phase. No more Sandler-Aniston rom-coms or Single White Female knockoffs: Beginning with The Adjustment Bureau this Friday, there’s actually a movie I’m interested in seeing every weekend for the next five weeks.

So, it’s probably a good time to catch up on two reviews I’ve neglected over the past several months: I caught Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere in mid-January and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine in mid-February, and, to get right to the chase, both are really underwhelming.

EW’s usually astute Owen Gleiberman took this pair together as the “return of the American art film,” but I think that’s only true in the 21 Grams sense. As I wrote of that film, a similarly leaden and overpraised pile of drek, in 2004: “This film just ambles around in its terminally depressed jag for so long that it loses any sense of perspective, and instead becomes just a vehicle for indulging the arthouse fallacy that misery is a substitute for character.” That same fallacy is in full effect in both of these pictures.

Let’s take Somewhere first. First off, I know that arguing that Sofia Coppola makes movies about deeply privileged people being existentially depressed is like arguing that Michael Bay makes movies about exploding robots and car crashes: It’s not really an argument against the film, it’s just the way it is. If watching rich people whine is not your cup of tea, don’t even bother buying a ticket in the first place.

That being said, after quite liking Lost in Translation and sorta admiring the attempts of Marie Antoinette and The Virgin Suicides, I thought Sofia Coppola descended into self-parody with this flick. The story of a depressed movie star (Stephen Dorff) who reconnects to life by hanging with his tweenage daughter (Dakota Fanning), Somewhere is a ponderous and trite arthouse essay on the perils of oh-so-exhausting celebrity and the redemptive powers of fatherhood. Honestly, who knew being a movie star at the Chateau Marmont was so gosh-darned depressing? I hate being at an endless party and having to constantly fend off the attentions of beautiful women!

Now The King’s Speech had a similar “poor-little-rich-boy” problem to my mind — sorry, I guess I’m just a class warrior these days. But it’s more aggravating here, mainly because, unlike Colin Firth’s King-to-be, Stephen Dorff’s megastar barely registers as a personality at all. (It’s not Dorff’s fault. He does what he can with what he’s been handed.) Desultory and taciturn to the point of seeming medicated, he’s less of a character throughout than an allegory for the Tragedy of Stardom, or the Crisis of the American Male — he falls asleep during strip shows, he falls asleep during sex, he frets about his hairline. It’s like he wandered out of some earnest undergrad’s post-Pilgrim’s Progess homework assignment.

What goes for Dorff — and Fanning; she’s pixieish and that’s about it — goes for the entire movie: It purports to be this deep, thick-description type look at celebrity and family, and yet it consistently languishes in the shallows. To take only the first example, Somewhere begins with a sportscar (driven by Dorff) circling a desert race track, in and out and in and out and in and out of the frame. This goes on several beats too long, just so everyone gets the point: Look, this man is lost! He’s going around in circles! Now imagine that sort of ham-handed symbolism, held too long, over and over again, and you pretty have much the rub of Somewhere. I suppose a defender might argue that this racing scene helps acclimate people to the languid arthouse rhythms of this picture. Well, there’s languid, and there’s just plain inert.


Speaking of inert, Derek Cianfrance’s dolorous Blue Valentine showcases some decent acting from Michelle Williams — I’ll get to Ryan Gosling in a bit — and it’s always a kick to see Major Rawls (John Doman), who shows up here as Williams’ take-no-guff father. But this film suffers from a fatal flaw that undermines the entire experience: Namely, if a couple never seems to be all that great together in the first place, it’s hard to get too broken up about them falling apart.

And fall apart they do: If the ghost of Godfather III haunts Somewhere (i.e. Sofia Coppola working out her issues with her famous dad), then Blue Valentine‘s conceit is that it’s basically the relationship version of The Godfather II: We watch, simultaneously, both the first pangs of love and the last throes of collapse for star-crossed couple Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams). This is a clever idea to be sure, but the execution is lacking. Mostly, we’re just left with a lot of arty strutting and fretting, sound and fury, but no real entertainment or wisdom to be had.

Judging from the small child who’s a plot point on both ends of this story, the span of distance between Dean and Cindy’s meet-cute and marriage here is about six years or so. (Apparently, enough time for Dean to go from looking like Ryan Gosling to going bald, half-blind, paunchy, and full-trucker. Tough six years, I guess.) Their early meetings are tentative and occasionally promising, their later marriage frigid and always jagged: Even a conjugal trip to the Moon Room at the local sleazy motel turns out to be a disaster. (I have to admit, I kinda dug the Moon Room, and irrationally thought less of these characters for having such a hellish time there.)

In their young’un phase, we see Cindy tap-dance along while a ukulele-playing Dean croons “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” (Symbolism alert!) Like me, you may have seen this in the trailer and thought, ah, this looks honest and sweet — might be good. But that’s it as far as the happy-go-lucky wooing goes — That’s basically the extent of their romantic connection. Pretty soon thereafter, Cindy [Spoiler] is knocked up with what might be Dean’s kid, and the angst flows anew. Gee, who could’ve figured this wouldn’t work out? And how much relationship mileage can one really expect to get out of a single ukulele cover?

Speaking of the uke, Ryan Gosling’s Dean — much like Stephen Dorff in Somewhere — seems more like a collection of tics than a character, although this time I think it’s the actor’s fault. In the past, I’ve been neither here nor there on Gosling: Word is he’s great, but I haven’t really seen him in anything before. Here, though, he’s just over the top in his Method mannerisms. (Williams is considerably better, mainly because she’s much more understated, but she isn’t really given the benefit of a character either. Sadly, she’s more just a reaction sponge to whatever Gosling is doing.)

When first we meet Dean (in the past, that is), he’s a high-school dropout working as a mover, so not what you’d call a book-learned fellow. Ok, that’s fine. But that alone doesn’t explain why Gosling basically tries to play him as Simple Jack. Often — say, when he eats breakfast with his daughter Frankie or first meets Daddy Rawls — he acts like Unfrozen Caveman Boyfriend. Ah don’t know much but ah sure do love mah [Frankie/dog/Cindy]! And the rest of the time, particularly when he’s wheedling (which is often), he just keeps repeating himself, more and more plaintively, like he can only keep one thought in his head. It’s like listening to Berkeley whine when he has to go out.

And so two hours are spent watching this brittle pair cringe and insinuate and generally just be awful to and around each other — There’s just not much there, frankly, particularly if you’re not invested in the couple. Blue Valentine is being billed by its proponents as “raw,” but to me it just felt half-formed, like somebody filmed an actor’s workshop. (Apparently much of the film was ad-libbed — It shows.) Without a connection forged between these characters, they’re just miserable all the time. And I said at the top, misery alone is no substitute for character.

Different Shades of Blue.

Also in the trailer bin with Never Let Me Go this week:

2009 in Film.

Merry Christmas, everyone. As we’re at the halfway point of the big decade list — Pt. 1, Pt. 2 — now seems like a good time to uncork the usual end-of-year movie list. Think of it as a new-stuff sorbet before we move to the final fifty.

I should say before we start that there are a few movies I’ll very likely see from 2009 — most notably The Lovely Bones, A Single Man, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus — that aren’t included due to their limited release schedule — most don’t arrive around these parts until 2010. The better-than-expected Sherlock Holmes, which I saw yesterday and have not yet reviewed in full, is also not here, although I did think of slotting it in at #20 before the Victorian-era tazer and remote-controlled cyanide bomb showed up. And there are still a few other stragglers I wouldn’t mind catching at some point, most notably Invictus and The Messenger. But if any of these are really, really great, they’ll either get backdated in or show up in next year’s list, as per usual. So don’t worry — credit will get paid where due.

In the meantime, as has been the standard — and although the decade list has been working differently — we start at #1 and proceed from there. And without further ado, the…

Top 20 Films of 2009
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008]

1. In the Loop: “Tobes, I don’t want to have to read you the Riot Act, but I am going to have to read you some extracts from the Riot Act, like: Section 1, Paragraph 1: Don’t leave your boss twisting in the wind and then burst in late, smelling like a pissed seaside donkey.” Even if I hadn’t moved back to DC this year for a ringside seat to the clusterfrak, Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop would’ve been at the top of my list. I’m not normally a huge laugher at movies, but this flick had me rolling.

Basically, In the Loop is Office Space for people in politics, and it’s a smart, wickedly funny entertainment. And like Judge’s film and The Big Lebowski, I expect it will enjoy a long, happy, and very quotable renaissance on DVD. If you find The Daily Show or Colbert Report at all enjoyable, this is a must-see. And, even if you don’t, well the choice Scottish swearing should get you through.

2. Moon: While Michael Bay, McG and their ilk tried to top each other with gimongous explosions this summer, Duncan Jones’ moody, low-key Moon just aimed to blow our minds. A throwback to the seventies big-think sci-fi that has fallen out of favor in the post-Star Wars-era, Moon‘s big special effect, other than Sam Rockwell, of course, was its clever ideas. And in a year of hit-or-miss (mostly miss) blockbusters, Rockwell’s quiet two-man show turned out to be the sci-fi extravaganza of 2009.

3. A Serious Man: Oy vey. This existential disquisition into wandering dybbuks, sixties Judaica, quantum mechanics, and Old Testament justice was yet another triumph for those devilishly talented brothers from Minnesota. The Job-like travails of Larry Gopnik introduced us to several colorful, Coenesque personages (Sy Ableman, Rabbi Nachtner) and offered vignettes (the Goy’s Teeth) and quotable philosophy (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you“) that cinephiles will ponder for awhile to come. The Coens abide.

4. The Hurt Locker: Bombs away, and we’re not ok. Other than Modern Warfare 2 and Generation Kill, this immersive, nail-biting account of an IED team’s travails in the midst of the suck was the best pop culture simulator out there for feeling embedded in Iraq…and stuck at the wrong Baghdad street corner at just the wrong time. And with the tension ratcheting to uncomfortable levels in each of the ordnance disposal scenes, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Lockersorry, King of the World — was the action movie of the year.

5. Coraline: In an auspicious year for both regular (see #10) and stop-motion (see #13) animation, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was the pick of the litter. It sorta got lost in the early-year shuffle, but Selick & Gaiman’s dark, twisted fairy tale delivered the goods, and hopefully it’ll find more life on DVD.

6. District 9: For those who find Moon a little too talky and slow, I direct you to Neil Blomkamp’s little (ok, $30 million) South African indie that could. Alien Nation meets Cry Freedom with healthy dollops of Cronenberg body horror and old-school Peter Jackson viscera-splatter, District 9 came out as more than the sum of its parts, and (with #8) was one of the most purely enjoyable films of the summer.

7. (500) Days of Summer: “This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met The One. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.” Speaking of said music, here’s a movie the early Elvis Costello would love. Sure, (500) Days is unabashedly for folks who’ve been on the wrong end of a break-up. But, even if it is ultimately Annie Hall-lite in a lot of ways, it had more truths to tell than most of the rom-coms out in any given year…combined.

8. Drag Me to Hell: Shaking off the Spidey 3 doldrums, Sam Raimi went back to his gross-out Evil Dead roots for this carnival concoction. Besides being easily the most explicitly anti-gypsy film since Borat, Drag Me to Hell was also, in its own way, as much of a Great Recession cautionary tale as Up in the Air. One hopes that when the Senate takes up financial services reform next year, our erstwhile reformers in that esteemed body will note what happened to Alison Lohman when she, against all better judgment, decided to do the bidding of the Banks.

9. Star Trek: There was admittedly a whole lotta stupid in J.J. Abrams’ Star Warsy revamp of the Star Trek franchise — Once exposed to the light, the movie’s basic premises completely fall apart. But, like the stomachache that accompanies eating too much candy, those regrets come later. In the moment, Star Trek was more fun than you can shake a stick at, and as solid and entertaining a franchise reboot as 2006’s Casino Royale. Let’s hope The Revenge of Khan or whatever it’s called turns out better than Quantum of Solace.

10. Up: If the movie were just the first ten-fifteen minutes, this might’ve been in the top five. But even more than WALL-E, the good stuff in Up is front-loaded. And, after the story of a lifetime ended a quarter hour in, I wasn’t much in the mood for talking dogs and big, funny birds (even birds named Kevin) anymore. Still, Pixar is Pixar, and Up carried their usual mark of quality.

11. The Damned United: Frost/Nixon for the futbol set, Tom Hooper’s ballad of Clough and Revie was a low-key character study that made up for an awkwardly-frontloaded bromance with another great performance by Michael Sheen and plenty of “Life in a Northern Town” local color to spare. You can practically smell the mud off the cleats in this one.

12. Duplicity: Perhaps I’m giving too many props to well-made breezy entertainments this year (see also Nos. 8 & 9). Nonetheless, Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity was a sleek espionage caper and a decently sexy love story that was all the more amusing because the stakes were so small. As it turns out, Clive Owen had just taken on evil corporations with a global reach a few weeks earlier in The International (a movie I caught on DVD, and which was most memorable for its Gunfight in the Guggenheim) — He’s more fun when he’s on the payroll.

13. The Fantastic Mr. Fox: If you see one clever stop-motion adaptation of a sardonic children’s novel this year…well, see Coraline. Nonetheless, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was also one of the better entrants in the 2009 line-up. It was ultimately a little too Wes Anderson saccharine for my tastes, but, of course, your mileage may vary. And at least Fox didn’t wallow in the emo like, you know.

14. Inglourious Basterds: After a decade of languishing in the shallows, Quentin Tarantino found a bit of his old magic in this sprawling alternate history of WWII. Yes, it needed a good and ruthless editor, and some rather longish scenes don’t really work at all (I’m thinking mainly of Shoshanna’s lunch with Goebbels and Linda.) But at certain times — the basement cafe snafu, for example, or the memorable finale — Basterds is the best thing QT has done since Jackie Brown. Let’s hope he stays in form.

15. Public Enemies: Michael Mann’s high-def retelling of The Last Days of Dillinger was a strange one, alright. Like Basterds, it was long and languid and sometimes seemed to move without purpose. But, like Mann’s last grainy-digital foray into tales of manly men and the women they love, Miami Vice, Public Enemies has stuck with me ever since. Say what you will about the hi-def video aesthetic, it somehow seems to match Mann’s haunted, Hemingwayesque sense of poetry.

16. The Informant!: The tragedy of The Insider retold as farce, The Informant!, like many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, was experimental in a lot of ways. Some things worked (the ADM-buttery sheen); Others didn’t (the distractingly peppy Hamlisch score); Others still were hit-or-miss (the in-head bipolar voiceover). Nonetheless, The Informant! is mostly a success, and it’s good to see Soderbergh out there trying new things — I wish I’d gotten around to catching The Girlfriend Experience. (Ahem, the movie, that is. Sheesh, some people.)

17. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: I had definite doubts going in, but Werner Herzog’s Grand Theft Auto: New Orleans turned out to be a surprisingly fun gonzo trip. After years of hanging with the Kinski, good ole Werner sure knows his way around the crazy, and by pairing Nicholas Cage on a savage burn with hyperreal iguanas, voodoo breakdancers, and the like, he’s done Abel Ferrara’s Gloomy Gus version of this tale one better. There’s no Catholic angst for this Lieutenant — just reveling in sordidness…but then again, isn’t that the whole point of Carnival?

18. Watchmen: “At midnight, all the agents and the superhuman crews go and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” True, Zack Snyder’s attempt to recreate the Alan Moore graphic novel on film is flawed in a lot of ways. (The longer DVD version smooths out some of these issues while introducing others.) And I still wish the project had stayed in Paul Greengrass’ hands. But, give credit where it’s due — For all its many problems (most notably the fratboy-indulgences into “cool” violence), Snyder’s Watchmen got a lot of things right, from Dr. Manhattan sulking on Mars to Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as Rorschach. Snyder couldn’t match the degree of difficulty involved in the end, but Watchmen was still a worthy attempt.

19. The Road: In the Future, There Will Be Cannibals: John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s dabbling in the apocalyptic form definitely captured the resonances of the book. And this is a quality production through and through, with solid performances by Viggo, the kid, Charlize Theron, and all of the HBO All-Stars (with particularly big ups to Robert Duvall.) Unfortunately, I didn’t think much of the book either, and in its monochromatic grimness, The Road never seems as memorable as Hillcoat’s earlier film, The Proposition. All work and no play makes Hobo Viggo somethin’ somethin’.

20. The Men Who Stare at Goats: I’m sure a lot of lists would’ve found room for Avatar or Up in the Air in their top twenty, and both have their merits (even if Avatar‘s are almost completely technical.) But if Avatar was too flat and Air too glib, The Men Who Stare at Goats was a frothy excursion that delivered on basically the terms it promised at the onset. Ok, there’s not much there there, but sometimes a couple of likable actors having an extended goof will go farther than Big, Oscar-Worthy Messages and World-Beating Tech. Hmmm, if you think about it, the “sparkly eye” technique probably would’ve gone over better with the Na’vi than all those Aliens-loaned cargo-loaders anyway. Score one for the First Earth Battalion.

Most Disappointing: Where the Wild Things Are, Terminator: Salvation

Worth a Rental: An Education, Avatar, Cold Souls, Eden (2006), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The International, Paranormal Activity, Sherlock Holmes, A Single Man, Taken, Up in the Air, Zombieland

Don’t Bother: 2012, The Box, The Brothers Bloom, Extract, A Girl Cut in Two (2006), The Hangover, Invictus, Jennifer’s Body, State of Play, The Tiger’s Tail (2006), Whip It, World’s Greatest Dad

Best Actor: Sam Rockwell, Moon; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds; Robert Duvall, The Road
Best Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies; Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds

Unseen: 9, Nine, Adventureland, Angels & Demons, Amelia, Antichrist, Armored, Astro Boy, Black Dynamite, Blood: The Last Vampire, Bright Star, Brothers, Bruno, Capitalism: A Love Story, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Crank: High Voltage, Crossing Over, Everybody’s Fine, Funny People, Gentlemen Broncos, GI Joe, The Girlfriend Experience, Good Hair, The Education of Charlie Banks, The Great Buck Howard, Hunger, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Invention of Lying, It’s Complicated, Julie & Julia, Land of the Lost, The Limits of Control, , The Lovely Bones, I Love You Man, Me and Orson Welles, The Messenger, New York I Love You, Notorious, Observe & Report, Orphan, Pandorum, Pirate Radio, Ponyo, Precious, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Proposal, Push, The Soloist, Surrogates, The Taking of Pelham1-2-3, Taking Woodstock, Thirst, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Two Lovers, The Ugly Truth, Whatever Works, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Year One

    A Good Year For:

  • The Apocalypse (2012, Zombieland, The Road)
  • Demons (A Serious Man, Drag Me to Hell, Jennifer’s Body, Paranormal Activity)
  • George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air)
  • Going Undercover to Play Both Sides (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Duplicity, The Informant!)
  • Guy Pearce Cameos (The Road, The Hurt Locker)
  • Hipsters with Unresolved Childhood Issues (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Where the Wild Things Are)
  • “The Jews” (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man)
  • Matthew Goode (Watchmen, A Single Man)
  • Melanie Lynskey (Up in the Air, The Informant!)
  • Stop-Motion (Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox)

    A Bad Year For:

  • Goats (Drag Me to Hell, The Men Who Stare at Goats)
  • Robots from the Future (Transformers 2, Terminator: Salvation)
  • Pithy Movie Titles: (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
  • Summer blockbusters: (GI Joe, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers 2, Wolverine)

2010: Alice in Wonderland, All Good Things, The American, The A-Team, The Book of Eli, Brooklyn’s Finest, Clash of the Titans, A Couple of Dicks, Daybreakers, The Expendables, Greenberg, The Green Hornet, Green Zone, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1, I Love You Phillip Morris, Inception, Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Kick-Ass, Knight & Day, The Last Airbender, Legion, The Losers, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Morning Glory, Predators, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Red, Robin Hood, Salt, Season of the Witch, Shanghai, Shutter Island, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Toy Story 3, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, The Wolf Man, Youth in Revolt, more needless ’80s remakes than you can shake a stick at. (Footloose, The Karate Kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Red Dawn), and…

TRON 2. 2010, y’all. It’s the future, and no mistake.

Enemy of the State.


In Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s strange and striking naturalistic recounting of the last year in the life of John Dillinger, you can catch glimpses of several other movies Mann has made over the years. Most obviously, the film’s basic plot is much like that of Heat with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale taking the bank-robber (DeNiro) and crusading-cop (Pacino) roles respectively — Here Depp is Dillinger, the charismatic Depression-era outlaw whose string of notorious bank jobs unwittingly help to forge modern techniques of law enforcement, and Bale is Melvin Purvis, the stalwart, if somewhat plodding, lawman who leads the effort to bring him to justice. And Enemies also shares the hyperreal hi-def aesthetic and in media res “just another day in the life” presentation of Collateral and Miami Vice, which is particularly impressive given that this one takes place in 1933.

But what I found most interesting in Public Enemies were the parallels to probably my favorite Mann film, Last of the Mohicans. Both are tales of American history, of course, and both involve unbounded loners — Mann-ly men beholden to no one but themselves — who find their priorities and “no-strings” life philosophy challenged once they meet that certain special woman, be it Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) or Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). (Now that I think about it, that same dynamic holds for the DeNiro (Amy Brenneman) and Colin Farrell (Gong Li) characters, and to a lesser extent even those of Val Kilmer (Ashley Judd) and Jamie Foxx (Naomi Harris), in Heat and Miami Vice respectively.)

But, even beyond that, Public Enemies is, like Last of the Mohicans, mainly about the demise of a certain type of freewheeling individual, a man who cannot continue to exist under the tenets of the New World Order being born at that very moment. In this case, it’s not the armies of Europe, and the mores and treaties of “civilization” that they carry with them, that are ratcheting up the pressure. Rather, it’s the swiftly emerging enforcement arm of Big Guvmint, and the corresponding reaction by Organized Crime, as personified here by Capone underboss Frank Nitti, that are hemming our (anti-)hero in. (While I don’t think he ended up being that successful at it, Martin Scorsese seemed to be going for much the same idea at the close of Gangs of New York, when the arrival of the Union army from Gettysburg basically makes the gang war brewing all movie irrelevant. There’s a new boss in town, and it’s called the U.S.A.)

As such, when you think about it, Mann and Depp’s John Dillinger is not unlike Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) from Mohicans. In fact, he’s what you might call the Last of the Honest Bank Robbers. It used to be a fella in trouble with the law could just jump the state line and find respite over in, say, Ken-tuck-ee. But that’s not how it’s plays anymore, not after J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) gets through fashioning a brutally effective and fully federal law enforcement system to hunt down Dillinger and his cohort of “Public Enemies.” (Yep, in his own way Crudup is as much of a paradigm-changer here as he was in Watchmen. Instead of heralding the Atom, he’s now the harbinger of Federal Power. Either way, the new age he represents makes the old ways of doing business irrelevant.)

Just to help get this point across, Mann has Bale’s Melvin Purvis shoot gangster Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum, blink-and-you-miss-him) dead early in the first reel. Best remembered from the Woody Guthrie social protest ballad (“Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen“), “Pretty Boy” Floyd is another member of the same dying breed, so of course he’s brought low by Hoover’s G-men right away in this telling. The new Federal state has no use for charismatic outlaws, even if they are rumored occasionally to dole out “a whole car load of groceries” to “the families on relief.” (Why is this telling of Mann’s purpose? Well, mainly because it’s blatantly wrong. Floyd, like fellow outlaws “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) actually all outlived Dillinger, which, frankly, are some rather large liberties to play with a supposedly true story.)

Anyway, if the last few paragraphs have seemed more unmoored and stream-of-consciousness than a lot of the reviews around here, well, so is the movie. Public Enemies is a strange bird, an alternately compelling and occasionally lumbering biopic that moves to a beat of its own. In the end, I’d definitely recommend the film, if nothing else than for its hi-def visual flair, occasional moments of real grace, and documentary recreation of the thirties. But particularly in the film’s first hour, it’s sometimes hard to get a grasp on what exactly is going on. (Our couple runs into some trouble at the track, for example, which seemingly comes out of the blue if you weren’t already familiar with the contours of Dillinger’s story.) And eminently recognizable faces — Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor, David Wenham, Emilie de Ravin, Leelee Sobieski, Herc and Judge Phelan of The Wire — often flit in and out without introduction, such that it sometimes becomes hard to keep track of who’s important and who’s not.

Still, I’d almost always be challenged by a movie by being given too little information rather than have it overexplain everything. I expect some people will find Public Enemies maddening (and others maddeningly dull), but it’s undoubtedly pure, undiluted Michael Mann. And — like Billie — I’m glad I took this ride.

Some Jobs are Better than Others.

“All he wanted to do was go to the movies.” In the most recent trailer bin, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) has a little too much fun as Public Enemy #1 in the second trailer for Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, also with Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, and Billy Crudup. Siblings Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo ill-advisedly go for one last — complicated –heist in the trailer for Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, also with Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi, and Robbie Coltane. There’s more trouble at work (this time of the factory variety) for Michael Bluth and Office Space/King of the Hill creator Mike Judge in this first look at Extract, starring Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Ben Affleck, Kristen Wiig, Beth Grant, and Clifton Collins, Jr. And writer-director Robert Rodriguez continues in the Spy Kids vein in the cloying new preview for Shorts, with a gaggle of kids, Jon Cryer, James Spader, and William H. Macy.

Last but not least, seemingly content they’ve got a winner on their hands, J.J. Abrams and Paramount begin an early publicity rollout for their big summer tentpole with this collection of new clips from Star Trek. Still unsure about both SylarSpock and the general tone of this thing, but Chris Pine’s Kirk and especially Karl Urban’s Bones look like they’ll be good fun here.

Chicago Vice.

A late addition to today’s trailer bin: Lawman Christian Bale tracks down the nefarious and freewheelin’ John Dillinger, nee Johnny Depp, in the new trailer for Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, also with Marion Cotillard and Billy Crudup. Looks like Mann is continuing in the hi-def verite style of Collateral and Miami Vice. (By the way, if you watch High Fidelity between now and July, be careful: Cusack spoils the ending.)

Towers of Stone.

If you’re going to see only one movie about 9/11, see Paul Greengrass’ United 93, far and away the best movie of the year. If you’re going to see two movies about 9/11, see United 93 and Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, still the best film I’ve seen about the day’s aftermath here in Gotham. And, if you’re going to see three movies about 9/11…hmm, now that’s a tough one. Maybe add the first hour of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and the first half-hour of Oliver Stone’s surprisingly rote World Trade Center? While much better than the godawful Alexander or the misfiring Any Given Sunday, World Trade Center nevertheless suggests that Stone is still somewhat off his game. The movie has some moments of genuine power, particularly in its first act (as it would have to given the potency of its source material), but it’s hard to believe the director of JFK, Platoon, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon would make such a staid and conventional Lifetime movie-of-the-week from the defining tragedy of our decade. (Even more unStonelike, aside from an indirect dig at the blathering television newsmedia, who continuously recycle the morning’s events well past everyone’s endurance, WTC is also resolutely apolitical and uncontroversial.) In sum, World Trade Center is crisply-made and at times affecting, but nowhere near as interesting or eventful a movie as you might expect. As EW’s Owen Gleiberman aptly summed it up, “World Trade Center isn’t a great Stone film; it’s more like a decent Ron Howard film.

Much like United 93, World Trade Center begins in the wee morning hours of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (3:29 am, to be exact), as some of New York City’s earliest risers — and, indeed, the City itself — wake up to face another day. Among the bleary-eyed morning commuters are two of the Port Authority’s finest, family men Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and rookie officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena). We follow McLoughlin and Jimeno through the beginnings of their usual routine — walking the beat at the Port Authority bus terminal — until the shadow of a jet zooms overhead, and the horrors of the day start to unfold. An expert on the World Trade Center since before the 1993 bombing, McLoughlin quickly leads a busload of anxious Port Authority cops down to what will soon become known as Ground Zero, where he and a small team (including Jimeno), after choking back their awe and fear, enter the mall concourse between the towers. As metal coughs, creaks, and grinds onimously in the background, these first responders gather up their gear and prepare for their trek up Tower 1. But, just when McLoughlin gets wind that there may be something wrong in Tower 2 (news which Jimeno heard on the way down), a terrible Wrath-of-God rumbling begins, and the World caves in. Having barely made a desperate sprint to the elevator shaft, which McLoughlin — thankfully — had known was the strongest part of the building, the surviving members of his team find themselves entombed (and partially crushed) amid a hellish morass of concrete and twisted steel. Then — although they have no clue what’s going on — the other Tower falls, and McLoughlin and Jimeno are left alone in the dark, hopelessly pinned underneath the smoldering wreckage of the two towers.

Up to this point, Stone’s movie is almost completely riveting, and the scenes in the doomed (and painstakingly recreated) WTC concourse in particular have a horrifying “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” feel to them…Unfortunately, we’re only about thirty minutes into the film. For the next ninety minutes, WTC switches back and forth between these two dying peace officers and the anxious pacing of their confused and griefsick wives, Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello, wearing really distracting blue contacts that make her look Fremen) and a pregnant Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Alas, horror yields to hokum, and the film pretty much wallows in melodramatic platitudes for the remainder of its run. This is not to say that the rest of World Trade Center is terrible — It’s competently made and, given the human drama at stake here, even moving at times. But it’s also breathtakingly conventional, with Stone (and WTC‘s writer Andrea Berloff) pulling every single disaster-movie-tearjerker cliche out of the book by the end: flashbacks to happier times, ghostly visions of loved ones (as well as a faceless Jesus, which is the closest Stone gets to his usual obligatory shaman cameo), the kid who won’t accept the situation at face value, the musing over last words spoken, etc. (The bromides also extend to the brief and not very realistic characterizations of some of the post-collapse rescuers, which include Stephen Dorff, Frank Whaley, and Michael Shannon.)

Along those lines, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m criticizing the true story of McLoughlin and Jimeno — their story is a miracle, and one of the few small beacons of cheer from that terrible morning. But, when a movie called World Trade Center ends up focusing so narrowly on these two survivors and — big spoiler, but it’s in the poster — ends with happy reunions and two families getting unexpectedly wonderful news, something seems off. Unlike United 93 which managed to recapture both the primal nightmare and unexpected heroism of that day and did so unblinkingly, without sugar-coating the fate of the fallen, WTC instead transmutes the stark emotions of 9/11 into saccharine, easy-to-swallow caplets of Hollywood sentiment. Some people may like this alchemy better, I suppose, but, in all honesty, to me it felt like an overly-sanitized cop-out (or two cops-out, in this case.) World Trade Center means well and is a decent film in every sense of the word. But the first half-hour notwithstanding, it also feels superfluous — which, given the confluence of director and material here, is somewhat surprising.

Blood from a Stone.

I’m way behind on my movies (although I made some headway today — more soon) and still haven’t caught United 93 yet…Nevertheless, the trailer for Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is now online. Hm. This looks exploitative as all-git-out, and, while Conan and Nixon will always get him points, Stone has lost major cred with me after Any Given Sunday and the atrocious Alexander. I’ll probably miss it.

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