I've been into a theater twice in the last week. Which is way more than usual. Saw two interesting movies and had two very different experiences:
Frost/Nixon - (2008) -Based on Peter Morgan's play of the same name the movie looks at the historic interviews done by talk show host David Frost and disgraced former president Richard Nixon. I was fascinated by the performances of the two leads - Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. Both historic figures are displayed warts and all. Frost's dilettante approach to his work, Nixon's tightly wound personality and perpetual inferiority complex. What bothers many people about this movie is that it brings up feelings of sympathy for Nixon and many of us just don't ever want to go there. In the end history will probably show Nixon as a man who honestly believed that what he was doing was necessary at the moment he did it even if it was wrong. He certainly was much more complex than the paper cut out boogie man so many of us still hold in our minds. I thought it was interesting that the Nixon entourage came off much worse than the Frost one while Frost comes off worse than Nixon does. In the author's view it would appear that it is Nixon who finally draws the best out of Frost. Something that Frost might have never done on his own.
If you're going to watch this movie you're going to have to accept that it is an all talking heads film. There is NO action, virtually no love story and the section around Frost trying to find funding for the airing of the interviews is pretty slow. But the interplay between Langella and Sheen is astounding. Watching either one of them alone is pretty marvelous too. This is truly a character driven movie. I enjoyed it much more than I expected.
Public Enemies - (2009) - Big star actor, great supporting cast, wonderful look to the film and an iconic subject matter. So why was this such a disappointing movie? Well, mainly because the script wanders and has no idea where it's going. Because you aren't told WHO some of the characters are, there are dozens of them that seem to wander in and out constantly and are basically freely interchangeable. My bet is that if there is ever a "Director's Cut" of this movie it'll be 60-90 minutes longer than the theater release. Both I and the kid walked out deeply disappointed.
Johnny Depp did a fine job with another quirky choice for a role. Visually the movie was impressive. It has a great look. It's got the visual style of the modern graphic novel or a classic comic book. Moody, stylish and very "graphic". Sadly, it's like a reverse Emperor's clothing story. The clothing looks great but there's nothing inside them.
I have a problem going in because I don't like movies that glamorize thugs like Dillinger. He was a violent criminal with a long history. This was not a nice man in any sense of the concept and I really dislike when we play them up as heroes. To give the movie it's due it shows Dillinger as being less than a pillar of the community. And I never quite came to the point of rooting for him. You see this movie is interesting in that it has no "hero" to root for. Dillinger is a thug and a criminal who only looks good because some of the cops are as bad or worse. J. Edgar Hoover is shown as the egotistical monster that history has discovered him to have been.
In the end the script lets everyone down. There are too many people, half the time you don't know who they are (and I have more than a passing familiarity with this period and it's criminals. The movie was 90% over before I realized one character was in fact Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti. Other historic figures include "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Baby Face" Nelson,and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis). Consequently you don't much care about them since you never get to "know" them. They fly in, talk briefly, fire their weapons a lot and disappear again for a while. The pace of the story telling is incredibly slow while all this car chase and shooting is going on. Melvin Purvis (played with no hint of human emotion or personality by Christian Bale) isn't any better. The movie perpetuates his probably undeserved reputation for killing Floyd. And I can't imagine this will ever be a favorite at the F.B.I. It shows them in all their worst moments early in their history. Hoover did take a second rate law enforcement agency and turn into something much, much better. Sadly he also ingrained some of his worst personal characteristics into it's cultural DNA that linger still to this day.
As I said, truly, deeply disappointing.