If the buzz on Twitter is any indication, Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” one of the top trending tweeted topics right now, should be quite popular this weekend. In theaters today, “Enemies” is one of two new movies from veteran directors joining Agnès Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnès”. At the risk of being too NYC-centric right out of the gate, not to be missed this holiday weekend are “Carte Blanche: Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans” at MoMA and Zack Godshall’s “Low and Behold.”
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“Michael Mann’s ‘Public Enemies’ is a ravishing dream of violent gangster life in the thirties—not a tough, funny, and, finally, tragic dream like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ but a flowing, velvety fantasia of the crime wave that mesmerized the nation early in the decade,” writes the New Yorker’s David Denby, who revels in the film’s slick visual style. “Throughout the movie, blazing tommy guns emit little spearheads of flame, just as in a comic book. Men get their skulls bashed with gun butts, and get thrown out of cars, but, despite all the violence, the movie is aesthetically shaped and slightly distanced by the pictorial verve of gangland effrontery—the public aggression that Mann makes inseparable from high style… There’s almost an unspoken compact between director and audience in a movie like this, a compact of pleasure in everything looking so good. Twenty-five years ago, in ‘Miami Vice,’ Michael Mann brought visual glamour to television; he’s still an incomparable maker of svelte, flawlessly integrated images.
“Yet, for all its skill,” concludes Denby “‘Public Enemies’ is not quite a great movie. There’s something missing—a sense of urgency and discovery, a more complicated narrative path, a shrewder, tougher sense of who John Dillinger is… There’s a faint tone of mockery in Depp’s mildness, in his secret half smile, though his face can darken with rage. Mann and Depp’s idea of Dillinger as an unruffled prince of crime is extremely enjoyable. Yet, as the movie goes on, you begin to question whether it makes much sense.”
From Manohla Dargis’ rapturous review in the New York Times: “Michael Mann’s ‘Public Enemies’ is a grave and beautiful work of art. Shot in high-definition digital by a filmmaker who’s helping change the way movies look, it revisits with meticulous detail and convulsions of violence a short, frantic period in the life and bank-robbing times of John Dillinger, an Indiana farm boy turned Depression outlaw, played by a low-voltage Johnny Depp. Much of what makes the movie pleasurable is the vigor with which it restages our familiar romance with period criminals, a perennial affair. But what also makes it more than the sum of its spectacular shootouts is the ambivalence about this romance that seeps into the filmmaking, steadily darkening the skies and draining the story of easy thrills.”
Dargis goes on to note: “Mr. Depp looks good as Dillinger — few contemporary actors can wear a fedora as persuasively — but the performance sneaks up on you, inching into your system scene by scene. The same holds true of ‘Public Enemies,’ which looks and plays like no other American gangster film I can think of and very much like a Michael Mann movie, with its emphasis on men at work, its darkly moody passages, eruptions of violence and pictorial beauty. Mr. Mann’s digital manipulations, in particular, which encompass almost pure abstraction and interludes of hyper-realism, is worthy of longer exegesis, one that explores how this still-unfamiliar format is changing the movies: it allows, among other things, filmmakers to capture the eerie brightness of nighttime as never before.”
In direct contrast to Dargis, Karina Longworth at Spout writes: “Lensed by ‘The Insider’ cinematographer Dante Spinotti, ‘Public Enemies’ is a drab looking film, its shaky-cam aesthetic coming off as less considered — and far less explicable — than that of any number of indie dramas employing similar run-and-gun techniques on a millionth of this film’s budget. Add in a wildly uneven performance style, an unnecessarily attenuated running time and a sound mix that’s problematically muddy even after evidently excessive after-the-fact dubbing, and the result is a severely miscalculated marriage of style to subject. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: ‘Public Enemies’ is essentially a really expensive mumblecore film.”
Long before there was Mann, there was Agnes Varda. “Now, as an octogenarian, she’s taken her project of introspection even further, making a feature-length video about her own life, her own art, her outlook on the world as she’s grown older, her relationships, childhood, memories,” according to Michael Koresky’s review of Varda’s latest, “The Beaches of Agnes,” for indieWIRE. The film opens today at New York’s Film Forum. “It’s the kind of film a less charitable critic might call indulgent; yet why shouldn’t a filmmaker write her own life story on the screen rather than the page? As with any autobiography, the author’s passions and blind spots are all there for us to see, and despite the expected amount of immodesty coursing through it, ‘The Beaches of Agnès’ is a mostly enchanting troll down memory lane.”
Manohla Dargis’ assessment: “In her latest, the similarly glorious and generous ‘The Beaches of Agnes,’ Ms. Varda has created something of a sequel to ‘The Gleaners and I.’ Much like that earlier work, it is at once an illustration of the fine art of foraging and an autobiographical portrait, narrated by its self-described ‘little old lady, pleasantly plump.’ (She’s now 81.) As before, Ms. Varda is picking through the world, close to home and far afield, finding images that please her and give her pause, like her wrinkled hand, the one not holding the camera, that she scrutinizes with rue if no obvious regret. But here the emphasis is on her own life and the images and memories that, with time, have blurred together.”
Dargis’ colleague, A.O. Scott, has an interview with Varda, as does Melissa Anderson at the Village Voice, Time Out New York’s Keith Uhlich, and Brian Brooks here at indieWIRE. From Uhlich’s interview with Varda: “The film is not about me… It’s about people who have made me. People who have nourished me, enjoyed me, made me feel bad. Everybody is always there. I try to have them invade the film.”
Also beginning today is “Carte Blanche: Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans,” MoMA’s tribute to the brains behind Strand Releasing. MoMA’s description of the series: “Propelled by a confluence of art-house and sexual-identity films (particularly the New Queer Cinema), the American independent film movement took root in the late 1980s, and its profound influence upon the industry continues to this day. Chief among the movement’s visionary figures are Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans, who together founded the independent distribution company Strand Releasing in 1989. Since that time, their feisty dedication to risk-taking directors who privilege innovation and authenticity over commercial prospects has consistently made the company a pillar in the field.” Among the films in the series are Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman,” Fatih Akin’s “The Edge of Heaven,” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Tropical Malady.”
The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson has an interview with Hu and Gerrans. Marcus Hu on the question “What constitutes a good queer film?”: “We certainly get those movies where people say, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta see this great gay movie—the guys in it are so hot.’ So we look at it and go, ‘Ugh.’ First and foremost, it’s gotta be a great movie.”
Finally, Spout’s Karina Longworth encourages New Yorkers to check out Zack Godshall’s “Low and Behold,” which premiered at Sundance in 2007 and is screening tonight as part of Anthology Film Archives’ New Filmmakers series. According to Longworth “it’s a drama/documentary hybrid feature set in just-post-Katrina New Orleans that doesn’t always hold up in terms of narrative, but is always interesting in the frission between fact and embellishment.”
Hammer to Nail’s Michael Tully says of the film: “Though it wowed me after watching it in conjunction with its world premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, I sense that ‘Low and Behold’ will only get better with age. Not only is it a striking time capsule of post-Katrina New Orleans; on a filmmaking level, it’s one of the more unique hybrid films to emerge in early 21st century American indie cinema. On the one hand, it unfolds like a traditional work of fiction, in which a timid insurance claims adjuster, Turner Stull (co-writer Barlow Jacobs), arrives in New Orleans and forms an unlikely bond with a local man, Nixon (Eddie Rouse), who is searching for his lost dog. On the other hand, it plays like a straight-up documentary, as Godshall, Jacobs, and cinematographer Daryn Deluco take the time to stop and interview actual residents who share their own personal tales of survival and recovery.”
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