Songs That Broke My Heart: U2’s Running to Stand Still

Moreso than most of their peers, U2 is so strongly associated with its hometown that “U2” and “Dublin” are rarely not mentioned in the same breath, often Bono’s own. He and Larry Mullen Jr. were born and raised in Dublin, Adam Clayton and The Edge grew up there, and most importantly, it’s where the four undertook the hard work of establishing the band.

Decades of fame, wealth, philanthropy, activism, and regularly circumnavigating the globe have long since transformed U2 from local success into world citizens, but they never ceased tying their self-identity to their Dublin roots. Perhaps in the rarified world of the world’s top celebrities, it’s psychologically necessary to cling to a point on the map to call home.

Their hometown pride never precluded them from addressing Dublin’s seedier side. Its persistent heroin epidemic in particular directly inspired the songs “Wire”, “Bad”, and “Running to Stand Still”. The latter originally appeared on the 1987 album The Joshua Tree, a period during which the band’s unusual combination of heart-on-sleeve earnestness, political consciousness, and overt Christian faith landed them on the cover of Time Magazine. It includes some of Bono’s most impressionistic lyrics, evoking spikes piercing bloodstreams under surging storm clouds. The lines “I see seven towers / but I only see one way out” allude directly to the desolate Ballymun residential tower blocks in Dublin, close to where Bono grew up.

Nevertheless, like Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (particularly in its heart-rending rendition by Johnny Cash), Bono’s lyrics are oblique enough to be interpreted in less literal terms than a mere drugs-will-ruin-you message. Remember, this was the “just say no” 1980s, before pop culture began to increasingly treat addiction with sympathy, complexity, and even ambivalence — a more complex picture than moralistic outright condemnation. This was years before the scandalous impact of the novel and film Trainspotting (set in neighboring Scotland), which, while unsparing in its portrayal of the cataclysmically ill effects of drug addiction, also dared to bluntly state a reason many addicts start doing drugs in the first place: because it feels good.

For a musician with such Christian, leftist, and activist leanings to have achieved mass popularity, Bono had long ago figured out how to speak to audiences on multiple levels. “Running to Stand Still” evidences his signature hat trick: come for the rock anthems, stay for the message of compassion. The lyrics are subtle enough that many relate to it for its universal expression of an individual feeling trapped, and needn’t necessarily be conscious of the poverty and societal decay Bono saw in his childhood neighborhood.

The fairly subdued studio version was arranged in live performances to punch up the scat-sung “ha la la la de day” coda into a rousing audience singalong. Here’s U2 performing the song in the 1988 concert film Rattle and Hum:

The coda further evolved on later tours into a “hallelujah” mantra, adding an element of hope to the grim scenario. This 1993 performance from the ZooTV/Zooropa tour includes especially dramatic staging and lighting:

U2 hand-picked the English band Elbow to cover it for the War Child charity compilation album Heroes in 2009. Here’s lead singer Guy Garvey on the honor:

When the band first met each other aged 17, Mark and Craig’s father Gareth would lend us his Volvo to get our gear around. It seemed that for a year and a half all that we listened to in that car was Rattle and Hum. I remember the excitement every time a U2 album was released, we just loved them. The first song we ever covered together before we had enough of our own songs to do a performance was “Running To Stand Still”. For Heroes we’ve changed the order of things but kept every musical theme in the song. We wrote it with the members of U2 in mind.
Guy Garvey, ExploreMusic

While no one would ever accuse Bono of pulling an emotional punch, Elbow’s rendition cranks the intensity knob up to 11. Anchored by a muted pulse, it suddenly explodes with an audaciously loud guitar line, as if the guitar slider on the mixing board was pushed all the way to the top. As idiosyncratic as their arrangement is, it does eschew U2’s later “hallelujah” code for the original “ha la la la de day”, and echoes the original’s guitar/harmonica interplay. Elbow pulls these various threads together into a dramatic climax, in a way that cuts right to my core.

For me, it’s one of the rare cases where a cover version has an edge over its original.


You’re reading an entry in our ongoing blog mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right into the whole pool of sorrow. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.

Apart Hate: District 9

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is an old story told many times in fiction and history: an undesirable group intrudes upon the space and resources of privileged power possessors. This story never ends well. District 9’s highly allegorical culture clash corresponds to great many groups that have suffered in throughout history, many sadly ongoing: refugees, minorities, Roma, Jews, or immigrants. But hey, this time it’s aliens!

Peter Jackson produced writer/director Blomkamp’s feature length version of his short film “Alive in Joburg”. The concept is closely related to Graham Baker’s 1988 sci-fi cop buddy picture Alien Nation (developed by Kenneth Johnson for a TV series the following year), in which a fully-packed slave ship is suddenly abandoned on Earth. The slaves may have been freed, but stranded in a hostile, crowded alien world with no room for them, even if the natives didn’t find them distasteful. Alien Nation found its drama in the friction on both sides as the freed slaves are absorbed into human society in a variety of ways.

District 9 is far more vague about its aliens’ nature and more cynical about the possibility of their integration. The ship they arrived in may not even have belonged to them, otherwise they would presumably have been more inclined to attempt to repair it or at least live aboard. Were they an exploited labor force, or what we would call slaves? If so, what happened to their captors? The trailer includes at least one scene not included in the finished film, in which an alien interrogated by human police implies that they are preventing them from repairing their ship, when all they want to do is go home. This simple sentiment is never expressed by any alien character in the movie. In fact, more of them seem content to simply live in squalor. Why can’t or won’t they simply tell us who they are or what they want?

District 9 is comprised of an awkwardly stitched together melange of genres, less seamlessly than how Alien Nation merged the buddy cop drama with science fiction. For most of its running time, District 9 works as a fauxmentary made of ostensibly found footage. The fauxmentary has long been a format for farce (q.v. Zelig and This is Spinal Tap), but in later years The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), and Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) all found ways to effectively employ the style for horror, drama, and science fiction. The ongoing wave of reality television and the run-and-gun handheld style in vogue since Paul Greengrass’ kinetic The Bourne Supremacy are no doubt contributing to the trend of including the “camera” as, essentially, a character in the film.

The fauxmentary pretense is upheld for quite a while, until it suddenly shifts to a privileged point of view for a scene in which three alien characters speaking in confidence, without the virtual “camera” present. This shift is jarring, as we’ve previously witnessed everything from the point of view of the absent protagonist. It signals the beginning of a more traditional narrative, albeit one still visualized with the same aesthetic. It’s as if Blomkamp stuck to a first-person point of view until it became inconvenient, so simply shifted to third-person while preserving the same visual aesthetic.

District 9
“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

If the audience didn’t already contract whiplash, District 9 then dips into the body horror genre as Wikus (Sharlto Copley) undergoes a metamorphosis a la David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even this doesn’t hold Blomkamp’s attention, and the film about-faces once again, this time into a standard-issue sci-fi action flick like Aliens (with a dash of Black Hawk Down). For its grand finale, it suddenly crashes back into fauxmentary.

The shifting genres and points of view mirror Wikus’ character arc. Initially a basically sympathetic company man, he turns villainous in our eyes when he displays vicious speciesism by destroying an alien hatchery with undisguised glee. His cosmic punishment is for his body to painfully mutate into that which he hates and fears the most (again, an archetypal Cronenebergian theme), after which he comes around to being sympathetic again. The ending is very effective in reminding us how far Wikus has transformed, body and mind, since we first met him.

District 9 is riddled with a number of irritatingly illogical elements, which are unclear if meant to be mysteries for the audience to ponder or if just outright plot holes or implausibilities. Most refugee situations in human history involve oppressed people with no political or military power. These aliens possess ferociously powerful weapons, but don’t use them to fight for better conditions or more food and resources. If they are so technologically advanced, why do they not also have some kind of functional societal order, as opposed to the self-defeating chaotic shanty town they’ve constructed for themselves? Perhaps the technology belonged to their mysterious and unseen captors, or maybe their ill-behavior is explained by the breakdown of order the occurs in any kind of refugee scenario. More questions: How can one little alien child, born on earth, have the know-how to reactivate the mothership? Why did it take 20 years for any of them to harvest the necessary materials from their own scrap? Surely more than two adult aliens could organize themselves to better harvest their own waste.

It would normally be reductive to search for a “moral of the story” from even the simplest film — the kind of assignment given to an elementary school reading comprehension essay. But since District 9 is clearly making an obvious point about racism and xenophobia, it has to be said that it shoots itself in the foot with its extremely problematic depiction of Nigerians as gangsters and cannibals. Granted, the Nigerian characters don’t come off that much better than the white South Africans we see conducting cruel genetic research on both humans and aliens.

Setting the film in South Africa was perhaps the least subtle way possible to present any kind of science fiction allegory for racism and xenophobia — at least since Star Trek: Enterprise dressed reptilian Xindi villains in Nazi uniforms in 2004 (just in case the slower members of the audience didn’t pick up on the unsubtle pun in the species’ name). It’s perhaps more comfortable to think that these types of situations have occurred in isolated places throughout history: in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, or Armenia. The alien refugee camps are of course most directly analogous to South Africa under Apartheid — the title itself alluding to the forcible eviction of District Six in Cape Town to Cape Flats in 1966. By contrast, Alien Nation made the more profound point that the same thing could happen anywhere.

Apocalypse Porn: Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation was released in a year curiously rife with apocalypse porn. The visions of world’s end in theaters that year varied wildly in tone: everything from illuminating art to alarmism to escapism. The competition to bum you out included Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which utilized the best special effects technology money could buy to depict the systematic destruction of international landmarks, and John Hillcoat’s The Road, which imagined the scattered remnants of humanity scrabbling to survive in a world they may have themselves decimated, but long past a point where blame had any meaning. Technology is both destroyer and salvation in Terminator and 2012, but largely irrelevant to the stragglers clinging to life in The Road. All of humanity’s inventions are gone, and give neither aid nor harm.

For the Terminator series to be such a long-lasting mass entertainment is odd, considering it is set in a desolate, post-nuclear-war world ruled by a self-aware artificial intelligence. It would seem that a distrust of technology and fear of world war is a perpetual motivation to go to the cinema. James Cameron’s original science fiction nightmare is vintage 1984, with old-school optical special effects and stop motion animation that, depending on your point of view, are either quaint or relics of a lost era of handmade moviemaking. But its core concept was strong enough to become archetypal of an entire genre, inspiring countless derivative works. The Wachowski Brothers stole it outright for The Matrix, where self-aware computer programs turn against the human civilization that created them, like the Terminators before them. The Terminators stage a malicious holocaust of pure extermination, but the Matrix programs instead virtually enslave the human race while they feed on giant electrical batteries comprised of farmed human bodies. While the eponymous Matrix was a weapon of fratricide, The Terminators were instead locked in a game of time-travel chess. But in each case, the offspring of humanity are afflicted with profound Freudian complexes: they are fixated on consuming their parents.

Christian Bale and Sam Worthington in Terminator Salvation
That’s so $&#%ing unprofessional, you $&#%ing cyborg infiltration unit!

The cast of Terminator Salvation was more populated with famous names than it needed to be. Christian Bale is now the fourth actor to play the role of humanity’s savior John Connor, and with apologies to Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, and Thomas Dekker, the first marquee name. One need look no further to spot the biggest gamble this film makes: nobody went to see any of the previous three Terminator films because they were fascinated by the good guy. From the very beginning, the big draw for audiences (and the plum role for any actor looking to make a splash) was the villain. The eponymous cyborg antagonist James Cameron created quickly became iconic and launched bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to Hollywood stardom and, even more implausibly, a political career.

Bale is coming from an entirely different place than a ‘roided-up Austrian amateur thespian in 1984. Bale is a capital-S Serious Actor, from the very beginning of his career as the child lead in Steven Spielberg’s still under-appreciated Empire of the Sun through to his modern resurgence in Mary Harron’s controversial American Psycho. Like Brando and Crowe before him, Bale comes across as an angry and humorless guy — possibly even unstable — in most of his roles and even his public persona. Indeed, rumors of his ill temper were seemingly confirmed by his infamous eruption on the set of Terminator Salvation in July 2008.

Terminator Salvation
This is as good a place as any to ask: why do the Terminator movies refer to these as “endoskeletons”? Isn’t that redundant?

A pessimist might even imagine Bale’s histrionics part of a publicity campaign to create awareness and positive buzz — not just for a movie that studio executives might consider an unsure prospect in need of a marketing boost, but even to cement his own sexy reputation as a loose cannon or Hollywood bad boy. In the end, a hissy fit thrown by a handsome and overpaid celebrity wasn’t enough to prevent minor box office disappointment and tepid reviews, (a modest 52% on Metacritic). At the very least, Bale’s tabloid presence helped most of the celebrity obsessed world become aware that there was a new Terminator film coming out, when previously only Comic-Con attending sci-fi geeks had been paying attention. Personally, knowing about Bale’s tantrum beforehand actually took me out of the experience of watching the film on its own merits. I was continuously distracted by wondering which particular scene stressed him out enough to blow his top.

Bale’s prickly persona might make him eminently suitable for roles like the driven resistance leader John Connor, but it makes his range seem quite limited. He employs the exact same set of mannerisms he used for Bruce Wayne in Batman and The Dark Knight: a hoarse voice, tensed posture, and lowered-head thousand-yard stare. Bale may play the top-billed role in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation, but he is arguably not the real protagonist in either and is overshadowed by Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), The Joker (Heath Ledger), and Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) — both in terms of screen time as well as actorly showiness. Perhaps it’s a deliberate choice on Bale’s part to seek out essentially supporting parts in which he allows his character to be subordinate to a cast ostensibly billed below his name. Fittingly, Bale was to earn an Oscar the next year for an actual supporting role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, so at least in one case his real-life persona completed its redemption arc, if his Terminator role John Connor didn’t.

Moon Bloodgood in Terminator Salvation
Moon Bloodgood checks behind her for her character’s motivation. It’s got to be around this wasteland someplace.

I have nothing to back this allegation up, but I’ve heard rumors that the original script for what became Terminator Salvation centered around the characters of Marcus (Worthington) and Reese (Anton Yelchin). Worthington and Yelchin would have shared the focus, while the character of John Connor was relegated to a cameo appearance, but the role was greatly expanded when Christian Bale became attached. This rumor could account for the relative richness (albeit truncated) of the Marcus character arc, as compared to the one-note Connor. It would have served both characters better had the movie focused on just one tortured male savior.

Director McG’s Terminator Salvation is by no means equal to James Cameron’s two original films, but it’s really not all that terrible, and certainly better than Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. My theory is very simple: it’s too grim. The first three movies all had some degree of humor, but Terminator Salvation’s trailers and TV commercials made no attempt to tart it up as a good time. By far the highlight for the audience I saw it with was the sudden appearance of a famous T-800 model Terminator, not entirely successfully realized by applying a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger head atop bodybuilder Roland Kickinger. If a little less than convincing, it at least provided some relief from the oppressive apocalyptic despair. Also, a newly recorded voiceover cameo by Linda Hamilton was a nice touch for nostalgic fans. The always entertainingly eccentric Helena Bonham Carter appears in an significant cameo, with Bryce Dallas Howard in a totally inconsequential part that could have gone to a newcomer. Following the established rules of action flicks (perhaps best exemplified by Cameron’s Aliens), the cast includes the requisite cute kid, but thankfully she’s mute.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Terminator Salvation
Yes, Bryce Dallas Howard is in this movie, for some reason. Still doing penance for The Lady in the Water, perhaps?

I was able to go along with the plot for the most part, but found the reduction and oversimplification frustrating. A global war against artificially aware machines is condensed down to a hand-to-hand battle with a single T-800 on a factory floor — a self-conscious retread of the climax of the original film. But perhaps this is a better dramatic choice than what Cameron did in Aliens, which excessively multiplied the single alien threat of Ridley Scott’s original, effectively diminishing the core premise that was appealing in the first place: an almost indestructible creature driven by pure biological instinct, not malice.

Another fatal flaw with Terminator Salvation is a consistent problem with many characters’ comically blasé reactions to extraordinary situations. Connor’s right-hand man Reese rescues a guy who claims never to have seen a Terminator before, or even know what year it is. But Reese simply answers his questions, and never wonders just where the hell this weirdo’s been the past few years. Also, I understand Williams (Moon Bloodgood) bonding with Marcus after he rescues her from gang rape, but she risks the safety of an entire human outpost when she decides to free him. This choice goes beyond understandable impulsiveness and into the realm of lunacy.

Also curious is an apparent lack of imagination in realizing futuristic technology. We’re told the Terminators communicate over old-school shortwave, so evidently SkyNet hasn’t taken over the satellite network and blanketed the planet in Wi-Fi or 3G. Maybe the robots found their reception was as bad as Manhattan AT&T subscribers. I won’t go into how the gleamingly sleek SkyNet HQ includes fancy touchscreen graphical user interfaces designed for humans, or how Connor miraculously witnesses a nearby nuclear explosion without being atomized by the shockwave, or at least going blind or contracting radiation sickness. Such a thin line between suspension of disbelief (for the purposes of thrills & spills) and sheer stupidity would bother any viewer with half a brain, whether the other half is cybernetic or not.

Relentless Withholding: Michael Mann’s Public Enemies

Khoi Vinh rightly observes in Minimalism, Michael Mann and Miami Vice that “Mann has produced a taut, stylistic and often brutally impersonal filmography that seems most interested in the concept of work” (via Daring Fireball). I wholly understand and laud the aim of a minimalist, “relentlessly withholding” narrative, but I don’t believe it’s ignorant or populist to demand more. Mann has proved again and again to be a master at managing both character development and cold hard plot, particularly in his masterpiece Heat. So to my eyes, Public Enemies marks a regression. The danger in perpetuating multi-million dollar movies without an interest in human beings is entire multiplexes full of soulless special effects showcases like Transformers. Vinh goes on to appreciate Mann’s construction of the film as a form of design, not least because Mann commissioned Neville Brody to design a typeface New Deal, and the whole article is a must read.

The curse of avidly following any particular artist is that one is set up for disproportionate disappointment whenever their latest work doesn’t measure up to their very best. Mann is one of my own personal favorite filmmakers, and for the record, I would cite Thief, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral as his best and some of my favorite movies overall. As for the rest: Manhunter suffers from the usual criticisms levied against Mann (dated, stylized, and overserious). The Last of the Mohicans is overrated (famous mostly for its catchy score and capturing Daniel Day Lewis on film at his most hunky). Ali was a relatively conventional biopic. And finally, I was downright shocked by how garish, empty, and, well, just how bad Miami Vice was (on first viewing, at least).

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger: “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.”

Atypically for the genre, all three of Mann’s biopics are focused on a limited timeframe. The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies all examine famous figures as adults, during the most active and famous portions of their lives. Public Enemies can’t help but be hamstrung by the rules of nonfiction, which is by definition less dramatically interesting than fiction. Fiction is carefully crafted by an author, and nonfiction is messy serious of events that won’t slot into Aristotle’s Poetics, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or Robert McKee’s screenwriting formulae that we as a culture find cathartic in art almost by detault. Ali is also a casualty of this equation; it’s a biography, not a narrative. That doesn’t explain the brilliance of The Insider, which I consider a triumph. Perhaps it’s because its subject Jeffrey Wigand is not in the same league of fame as Muhammad Ali or John Dillinger, allowing the audience to discover more than they may already know. I would argue that The Insider is actually about something bigger than the life story of one man; it questions whether integrity, purity, and honesty have a place in a modern world run by corporations.

Before I enumerate my complaints about Public Enemies, it must be said that it’s wholly engrossing. Mann’s customarily deep research results in a characteristically high level of verisimilitude throughout. Many sequences were shot in the actual historic locations, including a raid on a safe house at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, a jailbreak from Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana, and Dillinger’s death at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. The action is visceral and the suspense is nail-biting, especially a sequence in which John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) brazenly strolls through the Special Crimes Unit offices the day before he is to die. One might assume this astonishing event to be a fabrication for dramatic purposes, but Roger Ebert says it’s “based on fact”).

Any follower of Mann’s work will be unsurprised to see that Public Enemies is visually beautiful. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti previously shot Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider on film — how quaint! — but here turns to digital video, with which Mann and Dion Beebe experimented on Collateral and Miami Vice. The scenes set in a dimly-lit F.B.I. telephone surveillance office look particularly striking on digital video. Stanley Kubrick sought natural light so dearly that he famously helped develop special lenses capable of shooting by candlelight for Barry Lyndon, so one suspects he would have loved the technology now available.

Terrifying, petrifying gunfights have been a trademark of Mann’s since his earliest feature The Keep. He has perfected it by Public Enemies, in which the tight choreography and extreme violence is matched only by the concussive sound design. These sequences hark back to the innovative urban firefight in Heat, when to the filmmakers’ happy surprise, the actual production sound proved more earsplitting than was possible with post-production foley effects. When I saw Public Enemies in the theater, the first reel was marred by terrible sound (an improvement over my first viewing of Miami Vice, which was almost inaudible throughout). Once resolved, the volume was loud enough to almost physically feel the force of bullets splintering walls, tree trunks, and background performers. Mann used to reserve his epic gun battles for climaxes, such as when Frank (James Caan) raids the mobster’s house in Thief, and Graham (William Peterson) single-handedly attacks The Tooth Fairy’s (Tom Noonan) lair in Manhunter. The shootouts grew to massive scale and epic lengths in the later films, like the unnerving nightclub raid in Collateral, and especially the cataclysmic downtown LA shootout that occurs roughly in the middle of Heat, which the film remorselessly builds towards and then thoroughly explores the ramifications.

Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies
Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies: “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?”

In contrast, much of Public Enemies is a long, sustained chase — a structural conceit Mann seems to have been embracing ever since Collateral. As Fernando F. Croce observed on The Auteurs, “Mann has gradually shifted from an image-based artist to a movement-based artist. Make that a sensation-based artist” … “Mann’s characters are dreamers posing as tough guys.” Mann punctuates the constant forward motion of the plot with action set pieces including at least two jail breaks, several bank robberies, and a chaotic raid on a safe house. Both jail breaks are clever, in which the audacious Dillinger largely exercises brains over brawn, and designs each at least partly to humiliate the lawmen. In the first, Dillinger gets himself deliberately locked up in order to bust his associates out. In the second, they make their getaway in the sheriff’s own car.

Dillinger died in 1934, marking the twilight of the classic gangster era in more ways than one. His activities instigated the creation of the F.B.I. and the passing of laws that inhibited criminal enterprise, making him very unpopular with the organized crime families that were happily operating with relative freedom before he started showboating and stirring things up. His criminal career coincided squarely with the Great Depression era. Mann refrains from showing the stereotypical Hoovertowns or desiccated farmsteads directly, but the largely unspoken economic strife hangs over everyone nevertheless. One of the reasons Dillinger became such a folk hero is that he carefully cultivated a Robin Hood persona by very deliberately taking care not to rob individuals, but to steal from banks and, by proxy, the vilified federal government.

Contemporary media hype made Dillinger a celebrity, and ultimately one of the last romanticized criminals to be able to hide out in public. Mann depicts this idolization subtly. For instance, when the gang refreshes themselves at a farmhouse after breaking out of jail, the woman of the house quietly begs Dillinger to “take me with you.” Note she specifies “me,” despite having children in tow. Most people still know his name today, despite him lacking a memorable nickname like his peers Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. Incidentally, Baby Face portrayed in Public Enemies by actor Stephen Graham as dangerously unhinged and murderous. He has the criminal mind, but unlike Dillinger lacks the discipline to make it work for him. The dynamic is similar that that of Neil vs. his wayward henchman Waingrow in Heat. Dillinger can’t do what he does alone, but any association with a man like Baby Face courts disaster.

In Knives Out for Michael Mann, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann (via In Contention). Anonymous gossip has him as one of the most difficult and even irresponsible directors working today, and studios may no longer wish to front his high price tag for movies that aren’t profitable. I usually protest when I hear studio executives complaining about “difficult” filmmakers — of course filmmakers are difficult — they’re the artists and studio executives are businesspeople. Without difficult artists, the accountants and MBAs that run the movie industry would have no “product” to sell. I usually dismiss the comments of executives that get paid more than the artists they supposedly enable to express themselves. But if the rumors about Mann are true, he’s more than just difficult. In the case of Miami Vice, he reportedly disregarded the safety of his crews by filming in the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Katrina bore down — followed by an actual gun fight on the set. Conditions were so bad on the set of Public Enemies that Depp reportedly stopped speaking with Mann.

Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies
Marion Cotillard as Billie: “They’re looking at me because they’re not used to having a girl in their restaurant in a $3 dress.”

According to Scott Shoger’s Hollywood Goes Gangster, Dillinger was a movie buff, and was even semi-seriously planning a movie about himself not long before his death (an intriguing fact we don’t see in Public Enemies). The last movie he saw was Manhattan Melodrama, for which Clark Gable he won an Oscar. Being Dillinger’s last movie ticket gave the film an undeniable marketing boost. Mann shows Dillinger in a state of reverie as he watches key excerpts that had some personal relevance to how he saw himself. Shoger also states post-Hays Code Hollywood had an unwritten agreement to not produce explicit biopics of actual gangsters, lest they contribute to their celebrity and glorify the criminal lifestyle. This self-censorship more or less held until Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967). As such, only a few movies have told John Dillinger’s story, including The FBI Story (1959, with Jimmy Stewart), The Lady in Red (1979), and at least two simply called Dillinger (1973 and 1991).

In thinking about Public Enemies, I can’t help but keep going back to Thief and Heat, and it doesn’t survive the comparison. Maybe the real John Dillinger just isn’t as interesting as two of Mann’s previous fictional thieves (or in Mann’s parlance, “guys that pull down scores”): Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat and Frank (James Caan) in Thief. Public Enemies is all surface, without the rich characterization of Thief and Heat. Public Enemies left me grasping at the tiniest of fragments in search of depth or subtext: a little look by an actor, a telling line of dialogue, anything. But there isn’t much there. Roger Ebert appreciates the refreshing lack of backstory conventional in both the biopic and gangster genres. I agree with him in principle, but would like to point out that neither Thief nor Heat features backstory — both flesh out its characters with what you might call “now-story.”

While Public Enemies often feels tragically lacking in dramatic interest, virtually every single character in Heat has a backstory, even the getaway driver Donald (Dennis Haysbert) that dies before the car goes one block. Here, we don’t learn anything about anybody. Aside from Dillinger himself, the one character we probably needed to learn the most about is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Purvis is a cold fish outwardly, such as when we dispassionately guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) after giving him one last chance to surrender. We can infer that he’s a cold, steely G-Man with a particular expertise in sharpshooting. Bale’s performance conveys sadness and guilt over what he’s doing — the questionable morality of defeating gangsters with torture and often even outright summary execution. Heat’s cops and robbers are both fascinating, but who cares about Purvis’ safety, or if he achieves his aims? The only scene in which Bale and Depp share the screen marks one of the few sparks of life in the entire movie, but it’s frustratingly brief and unfortunately visualized through the old cliché of characters speaking through bars. The old Mann would have turned it into a several minute long conversation, a centerpiece of the film.

Another frustrating cypher is the man Purvis drafts as as controversial expert on Dillinger. Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), was an actual historic Texas Ranger, but unless I missed something, the movie doesn’t identify him at all, and in fact suggests that he’s from the wrong side of the law, being that he’s so familiar with organized crime and the archetypal gangster mindset. We learn nothing of him aside from the fact that he’s clever and suspiciously insightful at predicting Dillinger’s behavior. He’s a bit sinister, and rough and streetwise in manner and dress, so perhaps the point is just that he’s not the type that J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) would consider good G-Man material: young, clean cut, college educated sorts like Hoover’s man-crush Purvis.

Billy Crudup and Christian Bale in Public Enemies
J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) recruits Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) for “A modern force of professional young men of the best sort.”

What do we learn of the main man himself? Dillinger was a self-created celebrity ahead of his time: media-savvy and always ready to produce a good, concise catchphrase at the drop of a hat. The most telling revelation about his character comes from a dying colleague John “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke), who, in his dying moments, chooses to armchair psychoanalyze his partner in crime, saying he’s unable to let anyone down. Really? When did the film illustrate this aspect of his character? All we can infer from his onscreen behavior is that he’s loyal to the woman he loves (although not so loyal that he doesn’t later go out on a date with a hooker while his girlfriend is in prison — although to psychoanalyze him ourselves, this action is probably a not-very-subconscious decision to allow himself to get caught, AKA “suicide by cop”). Just as he was able to casually stroll through his to-be captors’ offices without being caught, Dillinger is a ghost that goes through life without making any kind of impact. Neil in Heat may have had no friends, family, or even furniture, but he had a code: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Like Neil in Heat and Frank in Thief, Dillinger doesn’t have an exit strategy from his lifestyle until he meets a woman. Neil found love and wanted to pull a final score and then disappear forever. Dillinger wants the girl and an ongoing crime spree. Only when she is taken from him does he consider a final score to retire on.

A surprising number of name actors appear in tiny roles, including David Wenham, Lily Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff, Emilie de Ravin (from the TV series Lost) and even singer Diana Krall in a cameo. One possible explanation is that they simply wanted to work for Mann in any capacity. Or maybe their roles were larger before the editing process. One in particular that stands out is Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, a high level fixer and organizer, sort of like the skeezy but coldly professional Nate (John Voight) in Heat.

Mann often catches a lot of flak for his typical paucity of female characters, but also for the few he does feature being rather problematic. It’s obvious that Mann is interested in stories about men (gangsters, cops, thieves, etc.). In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily make him a misogynist if his stories don’t always feature full, richly drawn female characters. But curiously, Billie in Public Enemies may not be one of Mann’s most interesting female characters across his body of work, but she is more complexly drawn than any of the male characters in Public Enemies. We learn a little about her, certainly more than we do about anyone else, but I still don’t get why she would drop everything and run off with a gangster. Billie remains in love with Dillinger and faithful to him even when tortured and sentenced to a two-year jail term. True, she’s a young woman trapped in a dead-end job and the subject of racism (she’s part Native American). A good contrast is the character of Eady (Amy Brenneman) in Heat, whose complex relationship with the criminal Neil I found not only plausible but sadly moving. Cotillard is fine, but I think Brenneman’s touching performance as a crushingly lonely woman vulnerable to a charismatic but controlling older man really helped me understand her desire to run away. Both Eady and Billie are willing to abandon their lives, such as they are, or even implicate themselves for a man that could be arrested or killed at any moment.


Must read: Neville Brody’s fave film fonts and opening sequences, from The Guardian

Adapting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: After the End of the World

Genre fiction has long resided on the less reputable side of the divide between escapism and literature. But as The Atlantic notes, cult writers like Neil Gaiman are increasingly crossing over into the mainstream while established novelists like Michael Chabon are exploring sci-fi/horror/fantasy territory blazed by the likes of Margaret Atwood. Few have blurred these barriers as well as Cormac McCarthy, a writer with firm bona fides in the literary world whose devastating 2006 novel The Road incorporated elements of speculative fiction. It became a crossover hit and landed a spot in the world’s biggest book club: The Oprah Winfrey Show. Its vision of a burned world populated by dehumanized scavengers is sometimes even described as a zombie story, sparking an argument over whether or not it qualifies as horror or science fiction. My own two-fold answer: yes, of course, to both. But the question is also irrelevant. Speculative futures and fanciful technologies are not the true subjects of science fiction, but rather means to an end: illuminating the world of here and now.

The Road was in theaters roughly contemporaneously with its dimwitted cousin Terminator Salvation, the fourth entry in an escapist action franchise detailing a formulaic battle for the fate of humanity. But The Road was set at a time long after such heroic struggles were lost, if they were even attempted. The world itself is terrifyingly realized onscreen, using actual desolate locations: particularly an eerily abandoned stretch of turnpike in Pittsburgh, and the still largely lifeless blast zone around Mount St. Helens in Washington. The only technical problem I noticed was the somewhat distracting tooth continuity throughout. Decay: now you see it, now you don’t.

A scene from The Road
“If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different.”

I re-read the novel a few days before first seeing the film, which turned out to be a mistake. The book remained the emotional, visceral experience it was on my first read, but its freshness in my mind kept me somewhat detached throughout the movie. I could not help but dispassionately analyze the particulars of the adaptation. I’m among those who loved the book, but didn’t necessarily desire the movie to be faithful. The mechanics of how it could be done fascinated me. How do you adapt a book that lives and dies on the Steinbeckian terse, harsh, understated poetry of its language? Joe Penhall’s screenplay is remarkably faithful in terms of plot and sequence of events, and the few changes are effective. In particular, a neat narrative trick near the end seamlessly combines three separate incidents into a single sequence: The Boy falls ill, The Man loots an abandoned boat, and they are robbed.

It’s hard to imagine a better director for The Road than John Hillcoat, whose previous film The Proposition, from a screenplay by Nick Cave, could have been the movie that McCarthy never made himself. But The Road as a film somehow fails to recreate the emotionally devastating effect of its source material. Another candidate for director might have been Alfonso Cuarón, who managed to transform P.D. James’ novel Children of Men into a gut-wrenching vision of a near-future society disintegrating before our eyes. McCarthy had presented Hillcoat with a significant challenge; the novel is a long denouement to a story we didn’t see. Perhaps the strongest argument against genre fans claiming The Road as their own is that most zombie stories concern the fall of civilization. The Road is set long after this cataclysm, where everything has been taken away, even the very names of the people and places that remain. All that remains is the drudgery of mere survival.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
“If there is a God up there, he would have turned his back on us by now. And whoever made humanity will find no humanity here.”

That said, McCarthy does glancingly allude to a cataclysmic event (possibly a natural disaster) followed by human violence on a massive scale, waged by tribes described as Bloodcults. There are many aspects of the back story that Hillcoat and Penhall opt to clarify (particularly the Man and Boy’s family life), but the massive wars that swept the world in the preceding years is not one of them. This largely unspoken past in crucial to the book, as the reader contemplates how the Man, the Boy, and everyone they encountered somehow lived through it all, be it through fighting, hiding, or collaborating. The Man’s strategy for survival is to lay low and instill in his son the need to preserve a metaphorical “light” of basic humanity. We see numerous alternative strategies that also worked, but which result in the destruction of the soul. One such walking dead man we meet is Old Man (Robert Duvall), who apparently collaborated with the Bloodcults until the toxic landscape claimed his health.

Some of McCarthy’s poetically spare language is preserved in the limited voiceover narration delivered by the Man (Viggo Mortensen). But some evidence exists onscreen that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to put two and two together. While being scarcely mentioned by name in the book, “cannibalism” is one of the first words spoken in the film. It presents this savagery as the specific omnipresent threat that forces the Man and Boy to remain totally alone and self-reliant. Another clue the movie is more obsessed with cannibalism than the book: in the closing credits, a character is chillingly named only as “well-fed woman”. That’s certainly more humor than can be found in the text.

Viggo Mortensen in The Road
“I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive. It’s when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry.”

Another key element I missed from the book is the realization that the Boy has literally never seen another child, ever, which goes a long way towards explaining his careless reaction to glimpsing another boy. Long accustomed to hiding from all contact, he explodes with the dangerous need to connect. Although The Boy has evidently known little else, he seems to have the inborn need to cling to signs of life. The boy also marvels at a glimpse of a beetle whose metallic-like wings refract the grayish light and provide one of the film’s only flashes of color.

The ending of the novel is something that can only work in prose. A simple change in verb tense hints at a possible future, a radical change in thinking for characters previously forced to organize their lives around immediate survival. Beyond an overarching quest to reach the ocean, they indulged in little talk of the future, or of any kind of continuance at all. Life on the literal and metaphorical road is a sick combination of drudgery and terror. Every event in their lives is sudden, unexpected, and never likely to recur in quite the same way. The final words in the novel are perhaps the first thing the boy hears that hints of a comforting routine he might expect in his future. Translated to film, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall do perhaps the only thing they could do: plug a bunch of words into a character’s mouth that was silent in the book.

Charlize Theron in The Road
“My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born.”

The casting is pretty much perfect, particularly Kodi Smit-McPhee, who so resembles Charlize Theron that it’s eerie. Even the supporting cast is superlative, including Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, Molly Parker, and Garret Dillahunt. The latter is an interesting, versatile actor, having previously played an upper-crust psychopath in Deadwood, a criminal idiot in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a murderous cyborg in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and here a vile cannibal.

Rewind & Reboot: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Much of what’s wrong with X-Men Origins: Wolverine can be traced right back to its confused conception, indeed beginning with its clumsy title. The ungainly prefix is clumsily bolted on solely for it to alphabetize adjacent to the three previous X-Men films on Walmart shelves, iTunes, Pay-Per-View, and torrent trackers. The two halves split by a colon try to have it both ways: “X-Men Origins” brands it as part of a proposed series of prequels to the lucrative original trilogy (none else of which have yet to materialize, apparently discarded in favor of the complete reboot X-Men: First Class), while “Wolverine” promises a fresh new franchise in and of itself.

With the original trilogy still warm in its grave, barely a decade after it began, why rewind and start over again so soon? There’s no reason why a prequel featuring honest-to-goodness movie star Hugh Jackman as the fan-favorite icon couldn’t have stood on its own. One gets the feeling X-Men and X2: X-Men United were prematurely discarded. All of this is quite the pity, as director Bryan Singer’s interpretation was far superior than this and Brett Ratner’s weak X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

I can understand the desire to create a jumping-on point for new viewers, one that does not require a detailed memory of the events of the previous installments. But if what 20th Century Fox and Marvel Comics sought was a fresh start, this isn’t exactly it. The narrative contorts itself to slot into some of the established chronology, while simultaneously ignoring or contradicting many other significant elements of the canon.

Liev Schreiber and Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Sabretooth and Wolverine demonstrate the proper protocol in executing a man hug

Danny Houston portrays a younger version of William Stryker, a role originated by Brian Cox in X2: X-Men United. We learn a little more of his villainous motivations and ties to Wolverine’s secret origin, none of which really surprise or illuminate. Fans might be pleased by superfluous cameos by a younger Cyclops (Tim Pocock) and Professor X (a digitally rejuvenated Patrick Stewart). Then there’s the matter of Sabretooth, whom we already met as Magneto’s henchman (Tyler Mane) in the original X-Men (2000), but now entirely recast and reconceived as Logan’s brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber).

A prologue set in Canada’s Northwest Territories in the mid 1800s reveals Logan’s damaged psychology to be the product of fratricide. He and brother Victor were doted upon by a wealthy adoptive father, but their superstitious biological father wanted to kill them. The best sequence immediately follows: an impressive montage of the brothers fighting side-by-side through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. The wordless sequence succinctly illustrates the immortal warriors growing apart, as Victor becomes increasingly unstable while Logan slowly develops a moral code and distaste for killing.

A Wolverine film seemed like a promising idea when I first heard of it; it could have provided a neat way to shake off the detritus that had accumulated by the end of the original trilogy. Each subsequent installment added too many additional characters drawn from decades of Marvel Comics history, and quickly snowballed to the point where the ensemble cast became comically unwieldy (pun intended). So, the notion of a fresh story focused around just one character sounded like a wise choice. But expecting a smart creative choice from 20th Century Fox was obviously too much. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is overstuffed with a tremendous number of X-Men b-listers, including The Blob (Kevin Durand), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), The White Queen (Tahyna Tozzi), and Bolt (Dominic Monaghan). The latter, incidentally, features in one of the best scenes in the film, in a low-key confrontation with Victor that approaches real drama.

Taylor Kitsch, will.i.am, Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman, Tim Pocock, Ryan Reynolds, and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
The Amazing Adventures of the Uncanny C-List Characters, coming soon from Marvel Comics

Worse than the proliferation of supporting characters is its menagerie of villains. Like Spider-Man 3, the film features a muddled array of enemies when just one well-developed villain would have suited the story better. At least three mortal nemeses align themselves against our hero here: Stryker, Sabretooth, and Weapon XI. The best, most iconic comic book villains are flamboyant characters intricately tied in with the origins of the hero: Batman vs. The Joker (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger), Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and Superman vs. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey). But Wolverine’s most serious foe here is the literally mute and expressionless Weapon XI, devoid of character or charisma. Worse, his moniker looks much better in print than spoken aloud; “Weapon Eleven” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is directed by Gavin Hood, of the critically respected film Tsotsi, making it unusually finely pedigreed for an escapist piece of entertainment based on kids’ comic books. Marvel Comics seems not to have learned its lesson from handing Hulk to Ang Lee and Thor to Kenneth Branagh. A good case study for Fox and Marvel would have been Warner Bros.’ disastrous Invasion, from Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of Downfall. Both Invasion and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are somehow fatally broken, to the point where they fail to make rudimentary sense (which ought to be a base requirement for popcorn special-effects-driven blockbusters). Is it too much to ask that films like this at least be internally logical?

Stryker’s scheme simply doesn’t add up. What exactly does he intend to do? Stryker is evidently dissatisfied with his creation Weapon X (who escaped and became Wolverine). After what he perceives as a failed beta test, Stryker moves on to Weapon XI, an ostensibly perfect soldier with superpowers extracted from other mutants. So why does he go to extreme lengths to keep Wolverine under observation by a fake girlfriend (Lynn Collins) for several years, when all he has to do is kill him and extract his powers with his super-syringe? Even more puzzling, if Stryker wants Logan dead, why does he trick him into signing up to become Weapon X? Stryker succeeds only in making an already near-indestructible man even more so.

Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
The White Queen and Silverfox look worried as they dash through some corridor or something, whatever, who am I kidding — Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins are just in this movie to titillate the fanboys

The problem with comic book superhero stories is that there’s a point at which your powerful protagonist becomes literally inhuman, and thus difficult to find sympathetic or relatable. The best example is Superman, literally an alien who can do almost anything. What kinds of problems would such a creature have, and how can any viewer relate to him? Here, Logan and his nemesis Victor are both effectively immortal, so there is little at stake in their conflict. The most interesting comic book superheroes must reconcile superhuman powers with their deep flaws and anxieties, like Spider-Man’s insecurities and Daredevil’s disability, or are normal human beings with extraordinary drive, like Batman and Iron Man.

A pirated version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine infamously leaked online before its official theatrical release. It was roundly panned, and Fox attempted damage control by claiming it was an unfinished workprint with placeholder CGI, sound effects, and titles. According to the Los Angeles Times, the version finally released in theaters was reportedly almost identical, an embarrassment to say the least.

The special effects are rather shoddy, especially compared to the state of the art as seen in its contemporaries Star Trek and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Wolverine’s claws and Sabretooth’s bounding and pouncing suffer especially from unconvincing cheapness. The only two genuinely impressive exceptions were wasted, to showcase supporting character Cyclops’ laser eye-beams slicing large structures into geometric chunks.

Stray Observations:

  • Two easter egg codas follow the credits. One is totally unnecessary (Stryker’s fate is better left to the imagination), but the other is enjoyably campy, with a kind of sick humor that could have enlivened the rest of the film.
  • The DVD features an anti-smoking Public Service Announcement, no doubt penance for Logan’s signature cigar-chomping. But where are the warnings against drinking alcohol, riding motorcycles without helmets, killing people with blades, and performing unethical medical atrocities?
  • The script is a nonstop barrage of clichés: if I had subtracted one star for every time somebody utters “Let’s do this” or “Look what the cat dragged in,” my rating would be, well, a lot of negative stars.