Of all directors currently working in the Hollywood mainstream Michael Mann is arguably the greatest stylist. No one at the multiplex has more control of the pure aesthetics of filmmaking, from colour balance and composition through editing and sound, Mann’s films (from Thief in 1981 to the misguided reworking of Miami Vice in 2006) have had a European visual sensibility while remaining heavily embedded in the seamy world of crime and punishment.
Now Mann has turned back the clock and made a period crime film, set during the last great depression. Based on the true story of the legendary bank robber John Dillinger, whose gang cut a swathe across the Midwest in 1933 and 1934, Mann’s Public Enemies is a stylish and superbly crafted tale of a doomed hero pursued by a dogged lawman. Dillinger is portrayed by Johnny Depp with his usual swagger and his nemesis is the now sadly ubiquitous Christian Bale.
It’s the weirdest coincidence. In two out of the three films I saw this week someone was shot in the ear. Seriously, go figure. Since I started this gig I’ve seen more than 400 films and no one has ever been shot in the ear and then, just like that, two come along at once.
That’s the only thing that connects two very different but very good films: Courtney Hunt’s debut thriller Frozen River and David Gordon Green’s very funny Pineapple Express. Frozen River is being sold as a thriller, and it does have some very tense edge-of-your-seat moments, but it’s actually a gritty drama about America’s rural poor with plenty of understanding and forgiveness running through its heart.
We open on a hard-faced woman’s tears. Melissa Leo plays Ray, whose husband Troy has given in to his gambling addiction and scarpered with the balloon-payment on their new trailer and it’s two days before Christmas. She’s bringing up her two children in a tiny trailer down a muddy driveway in a small town on the snowy border between New York state and Quebec, working part time in the Yankee Dollar store and trying to make ends meet.
Searching for the deadbeat husband at the local, Mohawk-run, bingo hall she meets Lila Littlewolf who is driving Troy’s abandoned car. Lila (Misty Upham) is a depressed young woman, living in her own lonely trailer, who intends to use the car to bring a few illegal immigrants in to the country, crossing the frozen river at the Indian reservation where the State Troopers can’t go. Needing money (and having rights to the car), Ray agrees to help, gambling everything she has on making a couple of trips so she can get her family through Christmas.
Gambling is the thread running through the film – the First Nation Mohawk people fund their programmes and maintain their independence through gambling and the working poor like Ray gamble every day that the few choices they have won’t see them falling through the cracks in the ice – metaphorically or in reality.
A brilliant debut, though not tightly-plotted enough to really qualify as a thriller, Frozen River is up there with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as an earnest representation of people who would otherwise be invisible to us.
Rogen also stars as pot-head process server Dale Denton, who witnesses a murder and, in his panic, hides out with his dealer Saul (James Franco). Unfortunately for both of them, this brings the wrath of the pot-mob down on both of them and they are chased across suburban Glendale by a motley crew of ruffians and hoodlums, all the while making good use of the herb that gives the film its title.
Rogen and Franco both came to producer Judd Apatow’s attention during the short-lived but well-loved tv show “Freaks & Geeks” (which also starred Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segal) and their easy rapport is a strength that gets the film through some of its shakier moments.
Stocktaking the new digital 3D realm, we have now had an animated original (Beowulf), a couple of concert movies (including the brilliant U2), a live-action dud (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and now we see the results when Hollywood goes back to the vault and re-masters an older film for the new technology. The Nightmare Before Christmas from 1993 is an excellent introduction to the process (if you haven’t been tempted before). It was always a vivid and original production (watched over by Tim Burton) and the 3D really makes it pop.
Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween but is jaded and bored. Discovering Christmas-town, he decides that he wants Christmas all to himself and hi-jacks it (kidnapping Santa Claus in the process). Animated (using similar stop-motion techniques to the Aardman films) by Henry Selick, Nightmare is wonderful to look at and not too long for kids, although if you have little tolerance for musical thee-ater no amount of glorious 3D will counteract Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. Me, I loved it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 29 October, 2008.
Due to exams I skipped a week writing for the CT so there was no scheduled entry for 5 November. You haven’t missed anything. Now, I have to start catching up on movies before I’m swamped by the Christmas rush. This year has gone by so fast.