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Public Enemies (2009) Print E-mail
Friday, 04 December 2009
ImageLet me start off by saying that, “Public Enemies” is highly overrated.  It seems that critics got sucked up in the billed cast and their concepts of how the film was going to turn out.  The film is none of those things.  The writing is sub par.  None of the characters are developed.  All are flat and uninteresting.  John Dillinger was a very personable man, and this movie makes him into nothing.  Also, while the filmmakers seem to pat themselves on their backs for all the research and historical references in the film, they also dramatized the real life events for Hollywood, changing facts and emotions.

That was problem number one.  Problem number two is the visual presentation.  This is a disc that I am going to have to rate based both on the stylistic choices and the transfer.  Director Michael Mann shot this film with Sony’s Digital Cameras as well as 35mm cameras.  I must say, it looks horrible.  The two formats are cut together, and it is more jarring of a change each time it switches than when a film jumps between 35mm and 70mm.  The hand held digital camera work looks disgusting.  It is like you are watching a cop chase show or the “Blair Witch Project.”  Simple shots, such as dolly out shots are jumpy and unfocused.  On the flip side, the 35mm shots are beautiful.  Note the last scene of the film, which was 35mm footage.  While all this is the intent of Michael Mann, it is simply horrible.  Visual style aside, the video transfer has problems of its own.

There are several instances of picture breakup.  These typically happen in dark sequences.  There are times when you feel like you are watching the horribly compressed Comcast Cable HD signal.  The reason?  Well, it’s that damn digital camera footage.  The digitally shot footage has a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080, the same resolution as Blu-ray.  That doesn’t leave any room for improvement.  35mm footage captures more details than digital several times over.  It is optics versus pixels.  Edge enhancement has also been applied to at least a third of the film.  Colors and hues all follow a Sepia tone model, very yellow.  This is a stylistic choice to make the footage seem to resemble the 1930s.  Black levels are representative of digital camera work. However, there is an instance or two of crushing.  Shadow delineation is limited by the filmmakers’ choices.  The transfer is certainly better than the choices made by Mann, but it still doesn’t excuse the sorry independent budget look of the visual style.

If there is something worse than the visual style and the writing, it is without a doubt the sound quality.  Once again this is based on what I can only conclude is Mann’s intent and what the transfer gives us.  I actually had to put in another Blu-ray disc to make sure that my new PS3 Slim wasn’t defective.  Nope.  The PS3 is perfectly fine.  From the moment that the Universal logo begins to play (the second one, not the first one) it is obvious that the audio track was mastered about 15 dB too low.  My speakers were delivering what seemed like half the power they normally exhibit.  On top of that, the dynamic range is extensive and wildly unpredictable.  This is where Mann’s intent must have come into play because Universal most certainly could not have let a transfer blunder like this go by.  So here it is.  The dialogue is atrocious.  It has more dynamic range than the sound effects.  The most irritating aspect of the dialogue track is what seems like the lack of editing.  I have never heard something so horrible.  And I am a dialogue editor for television by trade.  It sounds as if the dialogue was chopped and stuck into place.  Ambience mismatches are plentiful and distracting to say the least.  Most annoying is the perspective changes.  The dialogue track drops out at random moments.  They do not correspond to any perspective changes onscreen.  The presence and EQ changes drastically for the same actor within the same scene.  I thought my center channel was malfunctioning, that the power was cutting out at random.  To supplement this, the dialogue would then randomly pop back in, so to speak.  A jumbled quiet line would be follow by an outburst.  The outburst was not the result of an argument, simply what seems like the engineer slipped on the volume fader.  Again, let me emphasize that this must be the intent of Mann, though I cannot for the life of me understand why.  It removes the audience from the movie.  Not that the movie was too terribly interesting.  Nevertheless, the object of filmmaker is to immerse the audience in the story, not remove them due to absolutely horrible visual and auditory choices.
On the plus side, the gunfire is extraordinary.  It is detailed beyond belief and puts you right in the middle of the gunfire.  This is the only reason why I can rationalize why the rest of the audio is so horrible; so that when the gun battles take place it startles the audience.  I don’t agree, but perhaps that is what Mann was thinking.  When all is said in done, this rating is not so much for the transfer, but for the audio choices made by Mann.  It is unacceptable, even if he is trying to be artistic.

Universal provides a fully high-definition supplemental package that will be sure to enthrall fans of the film.  I for one didn’t find them terribly interesting.  But then again, I am not a fan of the film.  First there is a picture-in-picture track that offers interviews and footage.  Also in the U-Control section is a historical timeline.  Next, there is an audio commentary with director Michael Mann.  This track provides a look into Mann’s choices, but the answers are still unsatisfactory.  Next, there are a handful of featurettes.  “Last of the Legendary Outlaws” gathers the cast to discuss the persona of John Dillinger.  “Making of ‘Public Enemies’” is a decent making-of featurette that offers more insight that most.  “On Dillinger’s Trail: the Real Locations” visits some of Dillinger’s landmarks.  “Criminal Technology” focuses on Dillinger’s tools of the trade.  “Gangsters Movie Challenge” asks a series of questions relating to a handful of gangster films, including “Public Enemies,” “Scarface” and “American Gangster.”  This should be fun for gangster film fans.  “Larger Than Life: Adversaries” examines the real inspirations for the film.  Finally the package includes a Pocket Blu app, which allows an iPhone to function as a remote control.  Also included is BD-Live functionality, D-Box Motion Control and a separate Digital Copy of the film.

“Public Enemies” is a disaster.  Plain and simple.  Good luck for all those that need to have this disc.  Expectations fall off a cliff.  To understand my ratings you are going to have to see the film.

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