Summer Movie Round-Up ’09: Part 2

Talent v. Tantrum

I haven’t been able to catch too many more flicks recently thanks to a torrential downpour of stupidity in my work and social life, so I unfortunately have nothing to report on the Harry Potter front. I’m very excited for HP6 though, as I’ve heard tell that it’s the best in the series.

Public Enemies – A lot of people give Michael Mann a hard time for using shakey-cam on a period piece, but I really dug it. If you’ve never seen a Michael Mann movie before, you probably would be shocked to realize that Public Enemies is not an action movie, disappointed even. I know many of my comrades in the theater felt that way. Not me though. I loved every brilliantly calculated frame of this movie. Sure there’s no jaw-dropping performances or real moments of drama, but this is an art film in the basest sense. Mann uses his actors as puppets to convey an overall message, that John Dillinger’s celebrity benefitted the public more than his death ever could. This is not an intricate character study of a man’s life. Rather, it is a depicition of a man on his way down the mountain, a glimpse at the simplicity and humanity of a person who could have been any of us. He just robbed banks and murdered people too.

It’s not hard to root for Johnny Depp in any role, and I think that’s the point of making him an everyman murderer. As opposed to co-star Christian Bale’s intricately satiric portrayal of an American Psycho, Depp makes Dillinger’s lifestyle seem almost plausible. The villains of this movie are the agents of the American government, sworn to uphold the nation’s laws and protect its citizens. Even when he kills people, Depp’s Dillinger never appears to be shaking the sheets of society in a chaotic way. He simply gives society a thrill in an otherwise sepia-toned existence. The real chaos ensues when Bale’s FBI agent chases down and brutally murders a wanted felon in an apple orchard. The rich colors and scenery contrast the brutality nicely. The natural order is tainted by his presence.

There has to be something deeper at work here than Mann simply urging us to root for the bad guy, and I believe there is. When Bale and Depp finally collide at the film’s end, there is a deadening silence that follows. That silence is the absense of personality, as if the color has literally been drained from American living with the death of one of its most iconic citizens. Can a man make life worth living through murder? This is the question Mann asks the audience in the film’s conclusion, as further evidenced by the post-script about the fate of Bale’s real-life counterpart.

This film’s greatest mistake was its release as a summer movie. It could have done a lot better for itself in the fall or in the push toward award season. It’s a bare-bones art film, not a shoot ’em up. For that, it may be forgotten by the summer crowds in place of bigger noisier entertainment. I’ll always remember it as a beautiful and surprisingly quiet thinkpiece with shades of commercial interference, and as the movie whose set I broke onto last summer to audition for my first paid acting gig in Chicago. For that alone it deserves the Grade: A.

Bruno – I really wanted to like this one, folks. I really did. Sasha Baron Cohen is probably my favorite modern comedian (or at least was) and I’m a Borat apologist even in spite of the douchey frat guy quoting sandstorm that accompanies all popular comedies (I’m looking at you, Family Guy & Austin Powers). Thankfully (or maybe not) there’s nothing worth quoting in SBC’s latest movie, a gay-joke wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a velcro suit that barely bothers to scratch the surface of satire before diving back into the depths of MAD TV level vulgarity.

It’s not that the movie isn’t funny. It is occasionally laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The problem is that the laughs, like everything in the movie, are incredibly shallow. While SBC characters Ali G and Bruno had the ability to prolong their interactions with interviewees because of their brilliant blend of innocense and ignorance, Bruno is such an obnoxious asshole that no one is willing to defend him, whether they be gay, straight, Austrian or American. All of the “skits” in Bruno seem staged or rushed, as if the humor of the concepts was thought to outweigh the lousiness of the outcomes and there wasn’t enough time to reshoot anything. Is it really funny to see Ron Paul become slightly uncomfortable while a straight man performing a gay stereotype strips naked for him? I guess. But is it funnier than Bob Barr’s look of panic and disgust when he realizes he just ate cheese made of breast milk from Borat’s wife? The brilliance of Borat is that all of his disgusting habits and beliefs could be chocked up to cultural differences, so people would struggle to keep things diplomatic despite all reason. While Borat’s backstory was as contrived and jokey, it was quickly established that this character comes from some place where his absurdity is perceived as normalcy, that in some strange fictional universe Borat is the everyman. Bruno is just too unlikable to function as a fish out of water. His backstory is too shallow to allow for him to ever function as an everyman in any situation. It’s hard to imagine a situation where Bruno is well-liked, especially in the Austrian gay community. As a result, SBC resorts to cheap, tired and repetitive Hitler jokes in between dropping his pants and saying something gross.

I really thought that a Bruno movie could surpass Borat in terms of cultural impact. While the original Borat sketches on the Ali G Show were at times funnier and more brilliantly satiric than anything that happens in the Borat movie, the movie did a great job of exposing American xenophobia in a gung-ho patriotic post-9/11 world. Whether SBC realized it, America needed Borat to poke fun at them so they could start to laugh at themselves and relax a little. When I heard that Bruno would be getting his own movie, I was overjoyed. Surely SBC could build off the satiric momentum of his last movie, and attack homophobia on a worldwide scale, forcing the ignorant to come to terms with their outdated and illogical beliefs. Instead Bruno’s homosexuality is the biggest joke of all, reaffirming the stereotype of the outrageous flaming homosexual without providing the counter-balance of depth to make him seem like a real person.

In the original skits on Ali G, Bruno was an innocent thrust into unlikely situations. When Bruno went to a gun convention in the American south, you feared for SBC’s life not because of how ridiculously he behaved but because of his quiet yet honest pride in his lifestyle. For the movie, SBC redesigned Bruno to parody the self-indulgent American fame-seekers with nothing to offer society, the Paris Hiltons and Spencer Pratts. What SBC was too short-sighted to see is that America’s greatest pop icons are destined for their own brutal demise without his help. Britney Spears, Elvis, even the late Michael Jackson metamorphosized from edgy icons to media monsters thanks to the press and public’s goading. We as a culture are aware of how stupid Paris Hilton is, and we like to laugh at her. That’s the reason why she’s famous, and that’s the reason why The Hills is so popular. Those dumb enough to actually fantasize about being these vapid trollops will one day become them, and thus the cycle begins anew with younger, hotter sexier fools to entertain the court. In parodying American obsession with celebrity, SBC satirizes something too innately shallow to care about, and the resulting movie does more to make him appear as self-indulgent and imperceptive as the stars he’s mocking.

The real death knell of the film happens at the very end. Bruno enters a California marriage office and tries to procure a license for himself and his lover. Rather than poking fun at the absurdity of repealing Prop 8, Bruno brings his lover in drag and tries to convince the man at the counter that his lover is actually a woman. Funny? Maybe when it was topical. You know, back when Some Like it Hot was released. In some ways, Bruno is the perfect representative for the fashion industry. He’s constantly all dressed up with nothing to say. (Sorry Ms. Klum.)

Grade: D-