Public Enemies

Tell Billie for me. Bye, Bye Blackbird…”

So ended gangster John Dillinger‘s life. According to Special Agent Winstone, Dillinger uttered those words with his dying breaths and asked the agent who shot him (one of a several FBI agents who had a hand in gunning him down) to pass them on to Billie Frechette. The fact that this, the closing scene of the Michael Mann film, Public Enemies (2009), was totally fictional shouldn’t bother you as a viewer, After all, that was an elegant tear that fell from Billie’s eye. Billie, of course, was portrayed by Marion Cotillard.

Mann has fashioned a gangster film wrapped inside of a love story. Here, the gangster is neither demonized or glamorized. For certain, Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is not a heroic character. He may be mythic in the sense that in real life, Dillinger took on the G-Men, when the country was in dire shape. But that is different from heroic.

The Michael Mann / Johnny Depp take on Dillinger was that he was fearless. He didn’t fear confrontation with the FBI. Nor did he expect to be turned down by Cotillard’s Billie, which she did at first.

When Billie protested that she wasn’t going to run off with a man she barely knew, Dillinger laid out all his cards as well as a brief summary of his life so far …

I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?

So Dillinger and friends robbed banks, just like Bonnie and  Clyde.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Jerry Bruckheimer and the Walt Disney outfit have just opened their 4th release in their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, this time with Rob Marshall at the helm. This one is called On Stranger Tides. While I won’t suggest that Marshall, and Bruckheimer et al be made to walk the plank for unleashing a rusty bucket of a film on us, I can say that as you leave the theater you won’t be saying anything at all like – I can’t wait for the next one.

Yes, I’m sad to report they’ve gone about as far as they can with these buccaneers. Simply – the film is too big, too long, too repetitive, and worst of all – too familiar. It is also structured or built around a ticking clock with the main scene types repeated again and again. Which means that each leer by Johnny Depp’s Sparrow, or each pout by Cruz, or each menacing statement by McShane’s Blackbeard, are not only expected, they arrive with regularity as if on a schedule, and each loses some value the farther into the film we get. Just as we know Depp won’t lose in an early duel, we are certain he won’t perish as he leaps from a window, a boat deck, or even off a cliff

We’ll have Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow being devilishly charming, witty, wily, and almost lewd. Then a chase, an escape, and then a slashing sword-fight or duel. Characters are added in as needed, and the fights get bigger then smaller, then bigger, then smaller and you get the idea.

The three main stars other than Depp, are Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, Penelope Cruz as Angelica, and Ian McShane as the evil Blackbeard. They’re all quite good in their roles, and the writers have given them plenty of screen time.

The story we watch on-screen centers around the quest and search for the Fountain of Youth. Which is fine. There’s a good number of folks who want to find it – Captain Jack Sparrow and Angelica, Blackbeard and Angelica, Captain Barbossa, who this time around is working for King George of England (spectacularly played by Richard Griffins), and the heads of the Spanish Armada.

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The Secret of the Grain aka Couscous with Fish

It takes will, courage and determination to realize a dream. But most of all it takes family.”

The Secret of the Grain (2007) aka La Graine et le Mulet, is a French film directed by Abdellatif Kechiche that walked off with the Cesar, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Film, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay in 2008.

Set in a seaport city in southwest France called Sete – it begins as the story of an older man, Slimane Beiji, portrayed by  Habib Boufares, who has worked at shipyard for 35 years both on and off the books. But due to the economics of the times, business is slow, and Slimane has been given a cut-back schedule. Part-time is better than no time, they say. However, the boss says he has his orders and soon we will find that Slimane has been laid off.

But before that layoff becomes known, the story opens up into a family situation drama and we see little of Slimane for a while. We meet his family including his ex-wife, his grown sons, and daughters,  and their families. However, the way we meet them is to join the extended family, minus Slimane himself, for the Sunday afternoon meal.

Slimane is divorced (what’s that you’re asking – no, he is not French Catholic, instead he is Tunisian, and is behind with his alimony payments to his ex-wife. His children are grown with families of their own as well as their own problems. Slimane lives at a small waterfront hotel and has been having an affair with the hotel’s proprietress.

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Cairo Time

I recall that at some point in my life, a friend had visited Egypt – Cairo and the Pyramids at Giza. He brought me some pictures, and I remember being quite jealous. Despite having traveled to many places across the globe, I never did get to visit Cairo, and probably won’t ever see it in person.

But thanks to Director Ruba Nadda and her 2009 film, Cairo Time, I have at least gotten to see Cairo, and savor its exotic visual flavors, its rhythms, and it’s teeming multitudes as they go to the mosques, shop in the souks, sail on the Nile, as well as deal with traffic, the noise, and all the other anxieties and pressures that city life, in any city, can and do bring to you.

Sadly, Ruba’s film cannot bring the smell of the coffee (Cairo serves the world’s best the film tells us) to me. Instead, I watched a man and a woman dance around each for the better part of 90 minutes. It looked like a mating ritual, and it surely was what people do when they are deciding to get close or not. For sure the music helped set them on their way. I don’t hear Egyptian music everyday of the week, so the impact of the music was even greater than it might normally be in a film.

The fine actress, Patricia Clarkson, played Juliette Grant, a married woman who flew into Cairo to meet her husband who worked for the UN. The husband, Mark, was detained while working with refugees in Gaza, and does not show up in the film until the last 10 minutes. Mark’s former colleague, Tareq, played superbly by Alexander Siddig (Deep Space 9 and Miral) meets Juliette at the airport and drives her into town while explaining that Mark will be delayed.

Clarkson is the visitor to Cairo, and, while she isn’t quite overwhelmed by the city, she clearly fits into the fish-out-of-water role. She doesn’t know her way around. She doesn’t speak the language, and she’s totally unfamiliar with Cairo’s beat, or it’s customs, and she’s ill prepared to deal with the men who cross her path on the streets.

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The King’s Speech

In late January,  I ran my review  of  The King’ Speech,  but I recently received an interesting piece about this movie from a screen writer. His name is Frank Davis and he’s working on a script at the moment. His piece is quite worthwhile so I’ve decided to run it as sort of second article or a companion column on this Oscar winning film.

In a conversation with me, Frank said,

In my opinion, the screenwriter is like the musical composer, the director is like the conductor, and the actors are like the musicians. Now, everyone respects the conductor and the musicians, but Beethoven and Mozart get the most attention/credit.

In movie reviews, it would be nice to occasionally give the screenwriter the credit he/she deserves.”

Giving credit where it is  due …  and without further delay …

Being a screenwriter is a bruising business. Generally, you lose control of the story the minute someone offers to buy it. According to industry legend, Sylvester Stallone turned down a king‘s ransom for his Rocky script, because he wanted the leading role. Not only was it his first screenplay, he had no notable acting experience. All he had was a good story. And although it didn’t win a screenplay award, Rocky was the highest grossing film of the year and won for Best Picture in 1976.

As the oldest writer to win the Best Original Screenplay Award (at age 73), David Seidler reportedly worked on The King’s Speech for more than half a century. Born in England and raised on Long Island, Seidler’s screenplay is, at least in part, an autobiographical account of his own struggle to overcome a stammer that began when he first arrived in America at the age of 3.

Inspired by his childhood memories of wartime radio broadcasts, Seidler, transformed his personal battle into a universal story about overcoming challenge. On one level, The King’s Speech is a witty behind-the-scenes story of the tongue-tied British monarch who finally finds his voice with the aid of an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. But, on a more personal level, this script is the story David Seidler struggled to give voice to all his life. It took Seidler seven decades to say what had been on his mind since his childhood.

Telling the story of two men talking in a room with no action, sex, or special effects is certainly not a surefire strategy to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. But something special happened in the writer’s mind. Following his wife’s suggestion to rewrite the movie as a stage play focused on the relationship between the two main characters, Seidler ultimately delivers three inspiring stories in a compact 96 page script; a king who must rely on the help of a commoner, a credential-lacking practitioner who won’t bow, and the film industry’s continued overvaluation of youth and techno gimmickry and underestimation of movie audiences’ intelligence.

Although film is known as a Director’s medium, in reality everything begins with the words the writer puts on the page. Beautifully supported by the masterful direction of Tom Hooper and the majestic performances of Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, there would be no play to direct and no words to stammer without the screenwriter’s alchemical ability to create life with just computer keystrokes. Reading the screenplay, it’s evident that this is a film that truly came to life in manuscript, long before the director came aboard or the first actors were cast.

Two Film Critics Walk Into a Bar … (A Discussion About Miral)

Today readers, we are proud to present a conversation about the new Julian Schnabel film called Miral. Both of us live in the USA – one in college town in a southwestern state, and the other in a coastal town in southwest Florida. Schnabel  filmed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, not all that far from the West Bank.

So this discussion will have a distinctly ‘western’ flavor to it. That’s in the geographical sense only – in case you were wondering. Political inclinations hopefully won’t enter into this talk about the film.

While the actual location of the meeting shall remain a closely held secret, what was said will have no such protections. Without further preamble, I’ll ask our friend Didion to introduce herself and tell us a bit about Miral’s director Julian Schnabel.

Didion: I’m a college professor and film fan, and on my blog [] I usually discuss issues related to feminism, cinema, and pop culture — so Miral seemed a perfect film for conversation, for it tells the tale that focuses on three generations of Palestinian women.

Putting women at the center of a film is a shift for Schnabel, whose (brilliant) earlier films drew on artistic men’s biographies and autobiographies to create extraordinary films: Basquiat (the story of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat), Before Night Falls (the autobiography of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (based on the memoir of fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, written during the time he suffered from locked-in syndrome after a massive stroke).

An initial response: I admit, I’d read just enough of a couple of mixed reviews about Miral to go in with low expectations (there was a grand total of 5 people in the theater). Sometimes that stance can allow me to appreciate a film all the more because I don’t expect it to be a masterpiece. But I walked out of this one annoyed. Its politics were naive, the story was split awkwardly between four different women’s lives and political inclinations, and I never felt for any of them the way I did with Schnabel’s previous protagonists. Was it just me, or was Miral a bit of a dog’s breakfast, as the English say?

JustMeMike: WowI’d not heard that one before – a dog’s breakfast – nor have I consumed a dog’s breakfast. I’m a transplanted New Yorker living near the golden shores of the Gulf of Mexico. My blog (The Arts) discusses film, art, travel, and I even dabble in foreign television.

My experiences with Schnabel, prior to Miral, consist of knowing that he was director of Basquiat, an artist  whose name was often overheard in bars and restaurants on West Broadway in lower Manhattan years back. But I never saw the film, so Schnabel was an unknown for me.

I too had low expectations for Miral from reading a few reviews. I knew of Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire, and I knew of Alexander Siddig from Deep Space Nine, the TV Series, who portrayed Miral’s father in this film. As I exited the theater with the sole other person who caught the matinee, she asked me if I liked it. I answered that yes, I did like it, but that it disappointed me, and that it was flawed. My first disappointment came from the fact that Vanessa Redgrave and William Dafoe, were each named on the film’s poster, but combined for no more than five minutes or so in the film. Do you think that was a bit of gimmick to create interest for American viewers?

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