Jul 8, 2009

Review Post 32: Sunshine Cleaning / Public Enemies

DIR: Christine Jeffs
CAST: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin,
Clifton Collins Jr, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Sunshine Cleaning, with its similar title and casting of Alan Arkin as the grandfather of an eccentric family, could quite easily have been little more than Little Miss Sunshine lite, but Christine Jeffs’ film carves out an identity of its own.

Rose (Adams) was queen bee in high school – head cheerleader, girlfriend to the quarterback – but life hasn’t gone the way she wanted it to. Now in her early 30’s she’s a divorcee with a 7 year old son, a job as a maid, and having an affair with that same quarterback (Steve Zahn), now a cop who suggests that Rose could make some much needed money by going in to the business of crime scene cleanup. Drafting in her drifting younger sister Norah (Blunt) Rose starts up Sunshine Cleaning.

Character based films are always a gamble. The balance has to be so fine; the writing has to be strong, each character a true individual, and the casting has to be not simply right for each role but striking the right chemistry, making us feel that all these people inhabit the film’s world. The recent Gigantic got it wrong. Sunshine Cleaning is a film that gets it almost entirely right. Megan Holley’s screenplay may be a bit standard, hitting a few of the clich├ęs of the indie comedy a bit hard on the nose, and certainly it possesses a rather forced conflict at the start of its third act, but where it counts, in the character writing, Holley gets it absolutely right. Each character has a specific voice, which helps to create the film’s particular world, because you don’t feel (as you often do in, say, a Quentin Tarantino film) that you are listening to several characters who talk exactly the way the writer talks.

Films like this do live and die by their casting, and in this respect Christine Jeffs has lucked out, from the leads right on down to the bit parts Sunshine Cleaning is full of fine actors doing strong work. Amy Adams has been charming the pants off me since Junebug, and this is no exception. However Rose is something of a break for the actress from the succession of what she calls ‘lovely girls’ that she’s been playing since Junebug. As with that film’s Ashley there is sadness about Rose, a sense of unfulfilled promise just beneath her usually perky exterior. Without ever allowing her performance to become maudlin Adams shows us the disappointment and desperation that lurks in Rose’s opinion of herself. It’s a finely tuned performance, because Adams also turns on that nuclear powered charm in the role, and her bubbly surface (and, to be fair, her stunning beauty) allow us to buy the fact that, at times, people do appear to be falling over themselves to come to Rose’s aid.

Emily Blunt, despite the hype that has surrounded her since The Devil Wears Prada, is an actress I’ve been less sure about but, for the first time since My Summer of Love, she really impresses here. She seems to nail the accent (which she ought to, having played an American several times previously), certainly it’s always consistent, never slipping back to her native British, or taking us on a world tour the way some actors accents can (Clive Owen, I’m looking at you). But that’s just a technical thing, and a performance has to go much deeper than that. Blunt really delivers. Her line readings make the script’s words sound tossed off, like they are occurring to Norah in the moment and that, surely, is the sign of a great performance.

Perhaps the best performances in Sunshine Cleaning come from the small, unstarry, but distinguished supporting cast. The always impressive Clifton Collins, Jr gets a break from his usual heavies to play a one-armed proprietor of a cleaning products shop, who helps Rose and Norah and might be a love interest for Rose. Collins seems really to be having fun in the part, and that immediately makes him a winning presence in the film. There’s also a brilliant showcase for character actress Mary-Lynn Rajskub. Rajskub is one of those faces you’ve seen hundreds of times in small roles, but can’t quite put a name to. This role ought to put paid to that, her scenes as Norah’s new friend are some of the film’s most affecting, and Rajskub’s underplayed turn is one of the real treats this movie has to offer.

Christine Jeffs has made a couple of films in the past, both Sylvia and Rain were beautiful, but ultimately they were unengaging. Here it seems as if Jeffs is reining herself in, SSunshine Cleaning looks like any number of films; bright, colourful and evenly lit. There’s not a great deal of directorial imagination at work here, and yet this low key approach works for the film because the story and the characters are what is interesting here, not camera trickery. It would be nice to see a few more shots that feel like they belong specifically to cinema, rather than just looking like large-scale television, but Jeffs’ control of the performances does make up for a slight lack of visual identity.

The only other major problem with Sunshine Cleaning is a subplot with Alan Arkin as Rose and Norah’s Dad, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and feels rather bolted on, as if someone said ‘we have to have Alan Arkin in this movie’ Arkin is fine, but the story falls flat. Overall though, Sunshine Cleaning strikes very few bum notes, and for the most part it is charming and highly enjoyable, if a bit fluffy, if for no other reason it is well worth seeing for a set of very strong performances from a gifted cast.

DIR: Michael Mann
CAST: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale,
Marion Cottilard, Stephen Graham

Michael Mann’s greatest success was with two man cops and robbers tale Heat, that 1995 film starred Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, both giving excellent performances, and meeting on screen for the first time for one electrifying scene. Public Enemies feels like a spiritual follow up to Heat. It stars two of the most gifted character actors currently working as a criminal and a cop obsessed with one another, who meet in just one scene. The difference is that Public Enemies isn’t going to become a cinema classic.

The main figure here is John Dillinger (Depp), the famous bank robber gunned down at a movie theatre aged just 31 after a run of bank robberies that made him public enemy number one for law enforcement and a folk hero to some of the public. Tasked with his capture is Melvin Purvis (Bale), whose squad pursues Dillinger with obsessive zeal.

On purely technical terms Public Enemies looks to be an almost unqualified success, Mann’s crafting of the visuals is typically stunning, as is his control of the many action sequences. The performances are all fine, with both Bale and Depp on better form than they have been of late and a strong supporting cast including Oscar winner Marion Cottillard as Dillinger’s girlfriend, the brilliant British actor Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson and the perennially underrated Lili Taylor as a sheriff. That’s not the whole story though, because every one of these silver linings has a cloud to go with it.

The visuals are what troubled me most. Mann shot Public Enemies, as he did the abysmal and ugly Miami Vice, on digital cameras. This new technology has a strange effect on the movie. It gives everything a slightly unnatural sheen, the absence of film grain making it seem as though these events are playing out behind highly polished glass. The images are incredibly sharp and detailed, but this works against the film because it seems to place a barrier between the audience and the action. There’s another, perhaps more subtle, reason that the visuals didn’t work for me in the context of this story. They are quite unmistakably the product of the 21st century, and when Mann is trying to draw you into 1933 this highly polished look ends up, perversely, making the period considerably less convincing.

The action sequences are masterful, nobody stages gunfights like Michael Mann, and there is an extended set piece here that would be more than a match for the celebrated escape from the bank in Heat, were it not for the way it is rendered by the camera. There is an odd effect that happens when bright light and colour are shown against a dark background with this camera; it looks completely unreal, haloing the action almost as if it had been poorly superimposed. It’s really distracting, and lifted me right out of what was otherwise a great sequence.

While both Johnny Depp and Christian Bale give the best of themselves (Bale finally breaking from that growl he’s been delivering all his lines in since Batman began) their roles are incredibly thin and one note. Despite the fact that this 140 minute film focuses obsessively on Dillinger all we really know about him by the end is what he tells Billie Frechette (Cotillard) when they meet “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars... and you. What else you need to know?” Plenty, John, since you ask, but in that respect we’re out of luck here. Depp gets by on his charm and on his consummate skills as an actor. Bale has an even rougher ride. Public Enemies occasionally feigns an interest in Melvin Purvis, but it’s not fooling me, because the script gives him so little personality that he barely qualifies as a character. Bale does manage to suggest some depth with his physicality, especially in the scene in which Purvis confronts Dillinger, but he’s got very little to hold on to.

The supporting cast get even shorter shrift. Cotillard’s reasonably interesting (and extremely well acted) Billie disappears for a huge chunk of the film, to the point that when she re-appears you’ve all but forgotten her, but that’s nothing compared to the way Mann shamelessly wastes the rest of a talented cast. Stephen Graham suffers especially badly, he’s electrifying in early scenes as the psychotic Baby Face Nelson, but then is made to shrink into the background. The other characters in Dillinger’s gang are so indistinguishable that I don’t even know how many there are. The thing that upset me though was how wasted Lili Taylor was in this movie, she’s a sensational actress, and Mann has pruned her role back to just five lines, which is a terrible shame.

Public Enemies has all the ingredients to be a great gangster film, but it never comes together. There are some great sequences – the opening jailbreak, the police dropping in on Nelson, the forest gunfight, but by the end, as we watch Dillinger watching Clark Gable / William Powell movie Manhattan Melodrama, I couldn’t help wishing that I was seeing that 30’s set gangster movie instead. Public Enemies is by no means a bad film, but it is bedeviled with problems that mean that it ends up just sitting on the screen rather than engaging and thrilling the way it ought to.

1 comment:

  1. Are you blind, buddy?
    Did you get to close to the Biograph and were hit by richochets?
    This is the best Depression-era ambience ever put on the screen and quit your petty squibbling.