Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with Milwaukee Film, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects, including the comedy Web site, comicwonder.com.
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com. In this month's installment of the Screening Room, Mark looks at a new film with a lot of local interest -- "Public Enemies" -- which was filmed in Wisconsin.
PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009)
This is crime as sporting event. Both the good guys and the bad guys are professionals. The bad guys really care for their guns, they have a lot of them, they plan well, and things only go wrong when ego or personality get out of hand and in the way. Lack of professional discipline. The good guys are technologically advanced, dedicated, also are careful with their weapons, work as a team and make mistakes only when temper or emotion catches them and carries them away.
But, the good guys are a little cold and distant. The bad guys are more fun. They like to dance, drink, hang out with women and they are nice to their women, even the prostitutes. We like the bad guys better than we like the good guys. Everybody does. That's why Johnny Depp is playing the main bad guy. And besides, the top good guy, J. Edgar Hoover, is a cross-dresser. He's weird, manipulative and ruthless. Both good guys and bad guys are brutal and they both feel badly about it for moments, except for Hoover. But, they get over it pretty quickly.
Sound familiar? I think I've seen this formula a few hundred times. But sometimes it works. Let's go on ...
The story of the film comes down to the single-minded pursuit, by Melvin Purvis of the F.B.I., after John Dillinger, who gained rock-star fame as America's Public Enemy No. 1.
The G-Man (government agent to those not raised in the 1950s or ‘60s) is played by Christian Bale, who was once a promising young actor until he started experimenting with placing his voice in various parts of his throat to the point where it sounds like it belongs to someone else. It is the worst in "The Dark Knight," but here, with the added baggage of a generic accent from somewhere-in-the-west-to-Midwestern-United-States, it really strips him of all credibility or interest. Plus, he took a back seat to Heath Ledger in that other film and seems not content, but resigned to taking a back seat to Depp in this one.
Depp is Depp; beautiful and charming, fun and funny. He wears the clothes well and the accent seems to fit him. He's done his research as an actor and he also knows he's a movie star, takes responsibility for that, and for the fact that he is in a movie star-driven vehicle. I think Depp is a French clown kind of actor, always aware, and making us aware, of the fact that he is acting marvelously, and that life is, yes, full of suffering and woe, but as long as we are here together it can be grand and the wine will be excellent.
It's the Bears vs. the Packers. It has just about the intellectual depth of a football game.
Michael Mann makes testosterone-driven movies. The female presence in most of his films is decorative at best. They are beautiful, seductive, fun objects that the primary character, a man, sacrifices almost everything, in the case of "Public Enemies," literally life itself, to have.
Marion Cotillard, the French actress who was so phenomenal as Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose," plays Billie Frechette, "It's French, with an ‘e' at the end." Her accent wanders around a little too much here. Her father in the film was French, but she was raised on the reservation where her mother, a Mohawk Indian, lived. That doesn't quite explain the aimlessness of the accent. She's a wonderful actress -- not exactly pretty, but strikingly beautiful, vulnerable, smart and able to find her own strength and stand by herself. She would be worth coming back to Chicago for, even if everyone in the country was looking to hang you, but Michael Mann really doesn't deliver that moment. Your ears are still ringing with the excessive gunfire and he isn't able to bring you back to the intimacy necessary to hold the kind of love and vulnerability that Cotillard offers.
My mother would have called this film a "good shoot ‘em up." It's cowboys and Indians, gangsters and G-Men, good versus evil with no real evil except complacency.
Incentives were offered that didn't really exist, and whereas state officials saw a great influx of capital and glamour when this multi-million dollar film came to town, when they saw what they had to return to the production company, they buckled and withdrew the legislation.
As Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton has said, this law was intended to bring capital and jobs to the state, but it takes a while to develop and it takes an understanding of how the industry works to see the benefits. The film industry builds careers more than it builds jobs that exist all the time. You work picture to picture. Until there is actually an industry here, with a people infrastructure and a bricks and mortar infrastructure, so that films can be made constantly, you are not going to see the benefits, unless you are willing to look at closely at what is being said and how people are feeling who work daily to make entertainment.
There are key people in the government of this state who are unable to see beyond the next election and so first the state's film commission was sacked, inefficient legislation was passed, then that legislation was sacked, then a half-hearted attempt to replace it was made, and then, finally last week, the Governor, the Toad of Toad Hall of the fine State of Wisconsin, used his line-item veto to gut the little bit that remained.
The State of Michigan, to our east, has a bill that is fully supported by the state, which is so generous that more than nine major motion pictures have been made there in the last year. They are retrofitting defunct automobile factories to make sound stages. Education programs are being written to teach the crafts of filmmaking to autoworkers that are now out of jobs. They passed their bill to compete with ours.
The state of Iowa, to our west, has just passed an even more insane law that encourages people to come live and make movies, television, gaming video in their state. I'm told that there are 21 films slated to be shot in Iowa this year.
Here we are, stuck in the middle with a lot of talented people who got their hopes up aching to make movies here, and all we have to show for it is a big opening party for a so-so movie.
The filmmakers who live here are going to move somewhere else and the ones who thought about coming are going to go somewhere else. We like to blame people for things in this land of ours, so I am going to point my finger at the toad in the building on the other side of the river, but a lot of people are involved.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.