August 31, 2009

El Diablo y la Nota Roja (2008)

Seen with disdain and even repulsion by diverse sectors of the population (yet still read with great interest by practically everyone), yellow journalism has always been at the center of criticism because of its sensationalist nature, and its tendency to exaggerate, distort and exploit news. Mexican press developed a particular form of yellow press, completely devoted to death: the Nota Roja. Roughly translated as "red news" (because of its bloody content), the Nota Roja section in Mexican papers is characterized by its focus on accidents, crime, murders and suicides. While the degree of graphic content may vary (from prudish lists of accidents in more serious newspapers to the highly gory details of "¡Alarma!" magazine), Nota Roja exists in practically every Mexican newspaper. Fascinated by this direct and uncompromising approach to death, British filmmaker John Dickie decided to follow journalist Alejandro Villafañe, better known as "Diablo" ("Devil"), in his everyday search for bloody red news. "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is that chronicle.

In "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" ("The Devil and the Red News"), the eye of John Dickie's camera accompanies Diablo, Alejandro Villafañe, in diverse situations related to his job as journalist of the Nota Roja section of a local newspaper. Sorting cops, forensics and victim's relatives, Diablo takes pictures and collects notes about every case he finds, taking Dickie (and the audience) to discover the world behind the news of the Nota Roja. The film works as an interview of sorts, with Diablo explaining every detail of his trade in his very personal style. In this way, Dickie explores how the Nota Roja works, from the difficult job of photographing corpses to the writing of outrageous sensationalist headlines, as well as the complicated relation between the authorities, the press, and those involved in every case (criminals or victims). Also, between visits to crime scenes and the morgue, Diablo opens up a window to his life, and we get to know the man behind the gruesome photographs of Nota Roja tabloids. His family life, his personality, and how his work affects him. And us.

By following Diablo in his everyday journey, director John Dickie manages to make a very intimate portrait of the man and his atypical profession; while at the same time, explores the difficulties and challenges of said line of work. With a good dose of politically incorrect black humor, Dickie shows the world of Mexican crime news as it is, in all its crudeness, with Diablo as his guide through the blood and violence that fill the pages of the Nota Roja. While somewhat desensitized to that world, Diablo remains a fun man with a good sense of humor; and armed with his radio and notebook, Diablo takes his old VW Beetle and rides through the streets of his town (one of the many towns in the Mexican state of Oaxaca) looking for the next person who'll make the headlines of the newspaper. Despite the non-serious tone of the documentary, Dickie remains as objective and direct as possible, and even Diablo himself gets his fair share of criticism. Overall, the structure (divided by chapters, one for every headline Diablo writes in the film) is quite dynamic, and the movie is never boring or tiresome.

Nevertheless, "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is not without its flaws, as even when the film flows at a nice pace for the most part; sometimes it does feel rushed, as if there had not been enough material for some segments of the movie (unfortunately, some of great interest). This also gives the feeling that something is missing, as while the editing (by Manuel Méndez) is for the most part good, sometimes the jump from chapter to chapter is too abrupt, as if the segment was incomplete. This result in certain details not being fully explored, like for example the fascination of people with Nota Roja articles. Granted, this could very well be outside of the scope of Dickie's investigation and the film's focus, but still, it's a question that tends to appear continuously through the film and that sadly, no concrete opinion is given in the subject (albeit certain ideas are thrown in a couple of interviews). Perhaps this was intentional, as Dickie was more interested in the figure of Diablo as a common man with a very uncommon kind of job.

In the end, "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is a very interesting (and morbidly fun) trip to the bizarre world of crime news in Mexico.. Bold, harsh (a couple of scenes could be quite graphic for some) and very politically incorrect, John Dickie's documentary is an entertaining journey to this fascinating world in which violent deaths are part of the job, and where one has to lurk into the darker side of human beings to find the news piece of news. Maybe "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is not the most complete of documentaries, but the straightforward way it deals with its subject matter works great with the gritty mood of Nota Roja articles. Crude and violent, yet strangely human, "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is an interesting view on our own morbid tastes, as perhaps everyone who reads the Nota Roja hopes not to know those photographed, and enjoys the secret relief that someone out there had it worse the previous day.


August 23, 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

During the years of the Great Depression, a wave of criminal activity began to expand across the United States, with a rise of bank robberies, gun fights, and organized crime in general. A direct result of the difficult social and economical situations of the Depression, this period of time, from 1931 to 1935, is often called the "Public Enemy era", due to the fascination that the exploits of criminals and gangsters exerted in the American public of the time. Sensationalized by the press (and later, by cinema), the famous crimes of people such as Baby Face Nelson or Bonnie and Clyde, soon became the source of legends and popular stories. Amongst those idolized criminals, one has a special place in American popular culture due to his singular charm, successful heists, famous escapes and the great challenge he represented for the rising FBI: John Herbert Dillinger. Michael Mann's 2009 film, "Public Enemies", once again brings the legendary bank robber to the big screen, this time focusing on the attempts done by the FBI to stop public enemy number one, John Dillinger.

Set in 1933, the story of "Public Enemies" begins with John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) being taken to prison by an agent. Inside jail, it is revealed that the guard is his associate Red Hamilton (Jason Clarke), and the whole thing a plan to release the rest of Dillinger's gang. Things go wrong and a shootout ensues, but most of the gang manage to escape and hide in a country house, ready to plan the next bank robbery. In the meantime, agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is upgraded by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), because of Purvis' killing of famous criminal Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). In charge of the hunt for John Dillinger, Purvis begins to reform the strategy and modernizes the methods of the investigation. While this happens, Dillinger meets Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) at a party and falls in love with her. As Dillinger's girlfriend, Billie will discover the difficulties and dangers of being part of Dillinger's life, and will be in a dangerous position in the middle of the duel between the FBI agents and John Dillinger's gang.

Written by Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman and director Michael Mann himself, "Public Enemies" is a crime drama based on Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34". While still a dramatized and not exactly accurate view of John Dillinger's life and times, the writers remain as faithful as possible to the enormous amount of historical data found on Burrough's book and in "Public Enemies" offer a highly detailed trip to the Great Depression years. Covering the final years of John Dillinger's career, the film focuses mainly on two themes: Dillinger's relationship with Billie Frechette, and Purvis' obsession with capturing Dillinger. Exploring how the ups and downs of Dillinger's criminal career affected their life together, it is the couple who gets the most exposure, giving a powerful emotional core to the film that allows to have a very human view of the legendary criminal. More concerned with Dillinger's person than with his world, in the end the story plays with the classic themes of love, death and tragedy.

As he did before in "Collateral" and "Miami Vice", director Michael Mann once again bets on digital cinema, with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, in charge of employing high-definition digital technology to recreate the Public Enemy era. The result is a clean, pristine image that gives the movie a visual look akin to documentaries. This realistic style is pretty much in tone with the intimate portrait Mann attempts to make, as "Public Enemies" often feels like a view from inside Dillinger's gang. Having as locations several of the real places where Dillinger walked and lived, is an element that also adds to this focus on historical accuracy that Mann has on the movie. All this obsessive care for accuracy may lead one to think that Mann was aiming for an objective biography of Dillinger's last days, but the result is that "Public Enemies" is at the same time a story about both the myth and the man, and how the man began to shape and live his own myth. All in all a story where Mann's mix of stunning set pieces and powerful drama can shine beautifully.

As expected, the weight of a movie like "Public Enemies", which features a group of characters lager than life, is almost completely on those who play the main characters. Leading the cast as John Dillinger is Johnny Depp, which once again delivers a fantastic performance as the iconic gangster. An actor who likes challenge, Depp makes his Dillinger completely different from the classic idea of iconic gangster from the 30s. Moving away from previous interpretations of the character, Depp makes the legendary bank robber a very real and complex person, feared and admired in that strange celebrity status that the press (and himself in a way) developed for him. As his love interest, Marion Cotillard is very effective, with a subtle and restrained performance that becomes the emotional core of the film without falling in cheap melodrama. As Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale is very good as well, but has the difficult position of having a character that's pretty much underwritten, more a cardboard stereotype than a character as complex as Dillinger and Frechette.

This detail about the role of Purvis is one of the main flaws of the film, because it really feels as if something was lacking in the FBI's side. Having a poorly developed counterpart, the film feels slow and boring whenever it moves away from Dillinger's side, and it's like a missed opportunity to explore both sides of the same coin. Granted, this perhaps was to go beyond the limitations of the medium (maybe a miniseries would be more fitting) and the focus of the film, but in a way, the story feels incomplete. As expected, the use of digital cinema in "Public Enemies" generated mixed reactions. In my opinion, the result is interesting, because while Mann and Spinotti achieve several beautifully looking scenes and a high degree of detail, some look really bad. Certainly, those are the minority, but the contrast in quality between them is so high that they are pretty noticeable in the movie. Nevertheess, the use of digital cinema in a period piece like "Public Enemies" is a bold move by Mann, and while not entirely successful, the result is not bad.

An interesting experiment in form, "Public Enemies" is a fascinating crime thriller that, even when it has several flaws, still is a captivating story with the classic elements of tragedy. Perhaps shot in film would had worked better, perhaps the result would had been the same, but what's to admire in Mann's movie is his willingness to experiment, and that even when the result is not as good as expected, he still can tell stories in a great way. Probably there will never be an objective, historically accurate film about John Dillinger's life, but that's simply because the myth around him is so fascinating and so thrilling, that still captures the imagination of the audience more than 70 years after his death. And cinema is all about myths.