The Sky Premiere movie channel now only shows five new films a week, which is not really too exciting from my point of view, since normally at least one is a kiddies flick or a dreary TV movie, and since chances are that I have previously viewed one or more, either on release or on DVD. So it's a would-be treat for them to schedule two mainstream features that I haven't seen, like this week's selection from 2009 of "Public Enemies" and "Cheri". At least it might have been a treat if either of them had been particularly good films, which I regret was not the case.
It is interesting to discuss this failure, especially since both were made by A-List directors, Michael Mann and Stephen Frears. To deal with Mann's film first, "Public Enemies" should have been a sure-fire wow with leading players Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard retelling (for the umpteenth time) the John Dillinger story. Mann may be a well-respected director, but I'll be damned if I know exactly why he is so highly thought of. He has made a scant dozen films in the last 30 years, but, with the possible exception of "Heat" (1995) they are fairly plodding, pedestrian affairs. In general they are good films, but not great ones. While his filmography appears solid, the films themselves are largely stolid. Mann is so painstaking in his approach that his movies just seem to limp along. Passion seems to be an alien concept to him. Dillinger may well have been 'loved' by the depression era public who hated the banks that he robbed, but it is hard to love Depp's portrayal. Unusually for him, his acting is shallow here and one gains very little insight into what makes his character tick; the same is unfortunately also true of Bale's portrait of G-man Melvin Purvis. They are both largely ciphers. Only Cotillard as the lady in red brings some emotion to the proceedings. In addition the movie is uninspiringly filmed and the action has little pace or purpose to justify remaking a tale that has been told so many times.
Frears has had a far more varied and prolific career dating back to 1971's "Gumshoe". In his day he has made a number of gems, including "The Queen", "Dirty Pretty Things", "High Fidelity", and "The Grifters", along with the occasional dud like "Mary Reilly", but his is on balance the more interesting filmography. This film reunites him with one of the stars from one of his biggest hits, 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons". The still very attractive Michelle Pfeiffer plays an aging courtesan during the Belle Epoque (she was a hard-to-believe 51 when the film was shot) who falls into the arms of 19-year old Cheri (Rupert Friend), the son of another lady of the night, Kathy Bates. Their somewhat inexplicable passion lasts for seven years until his Mummy, yearning for grandchildren, arranges a marriage to a young filly. Friend is a fine actor (I was particularly taken with him in 2005's "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont"), but I couldn't fathom the depth of feelings between him and Pfeiffer's Lea. The film was scripted by super-scribe Christopher Hampton from two novels by Collette, but again the basis for their attraction and obsession remains elusive. I know that love is seldom rational, but one always hopes for some insight into the characters' behaviour. I somehow couldn't help thinking that the story might have worked better filmed with a French cast rather than as a vehicle for Pfeiffer's mysteriously uninspired interpretation.
In short, they were both time-fillers, reasonably watchable movies, that will soon disappear into the recesses of vague memory without having made their hoped-for impact.