Review of Public Enemies

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Public Enemies

I recently got sent a couple of free movies tickets so thought I’d go along and check out Public Enemies, directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. The film seemed instantly appealed to me and the prospect of seeing it in Greater Union’s giant Vmax cinema had me tingling with anticipation – Add one Johnny Depp, a touch of Christian Bale and muddle with some gangster shenanigans: a recipe for a great night out!

Unfortunately, something went horribly wrong..

I left the cinema feeling completely disappointed (but glad that I didn’t have to pay to see it) and amazed at how Public Enemies had gained such publicity! Just minutes into the film it became apparent to me that the film was shot on digital video (I later found out much of the film was shot on the Sony F23), not film. It just looked wrong to me – like some kid, who happened to live next door to two of Hollywood’s biggest actors, had wrangled together a couple of mates and shot a movie on the Mini DV he got for Christmas.

Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but seriously… this is one big-budget film. We’re talking $100 million… that’s about the same amount that Screen Australia received to finance and develop films, pay staff and other costs… wait for it… for an ENTIRE YEAR! Needless to say, I was hoping for something with slightly higher production values than what I saw.

The video look was so distracting to me that I found it impossible to connect to the characters and become engrossed in the story. The motion of the camera moves, the ability to see TOO much detail (I don’t want to see skin blemishes and makeup!), the blown out whites and all the other horrible things that come with digital video were there for all to see. Now, don’t get me wrong… digital video certainly has it’s place. I have seen movies before shot on video that have been fantastic – Wolf Creek is the first that springs to mind. I just don’t think it worked for this film. I think period movies need that filmic quality. It’s something that we have come to expect, and a genre to which hand-held shaky camera movements and high picture sharpness are not necessarily suited.

I did find myself wondering halfway through the movie, as I began to lose interest and see actors in costumes rather than the notorious bank robber John Dillinger, if other members of the audience were finding the film as difficult to watch as myself? Obviously working in the film industry as a compositor gives me an eye for details that others may not possess; is it possible that the other movie-goers were not distracted by the look at all? that they had embraced the format and were there, alongside gun-toting Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson? I glanced around the room to see people restlessly shuffling in their seats. Moments later the first couple stood up and left – maybe to go to the loo?, but I suspect not…

I’ve always said that it doesn’t matter how good a film looks, if it has a good story, people will want to watch it. This film certainly made me reconsider. Yes, I still think story is the most important element – without a decent script the film is nothing, but it is also important that the audience is allowed to concentrate entirely on the story and that nothing distracts them from that – be it the flow of the editing, the sound mix (oh, I completely forgot to mention how terrible the sound mix was!!), the colour grading, performances or any technical aspects. Filmmakers, yes, digital is attractive for a number of reasons, but please consider carefully how it might affect your audience’s viewing experience.

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