This week in local theaters 

CHERI
The heroine of Stephen Frears' cutting costume drama is an aging courtesan owning up to her dwindling prospects at the fin of fin de siécle Paris, but she could just as well be an actress past 50 (or 40) trying to maintain a toehold in contemporary Hollywood. As Léa, squandering the last flickers of youth on a spoiled, narcissistic boy-toy (Rupert Friend), Michelle Pfeiffer glides through airless parlors and drawing rooms with a mature woman's veiled disgust at still having to play coy and accommodating; that doubtless speaks more to her relative scarcity onscreen in recent years than her beauty. Adapted from a diptych of novels by Colette, the movie reunites Pfeiffer, director Frears (who narrates) and screenwriter Christopher Hampton from 1988's coolly savage Dangerous Liaisons—practically the model for the period piece as epigrammatic knife-fight—while never matching that film's malicious wit or emotional turbulence. (It comes close in the scenes with Kathy Bates as the boy's mother and Lea's former rival, whose every utterance of concern is intended to draw blood.) But the luxuriantly costumed Chéri has been shot (by Darius Khondji) and scored (by Alexandre Desplat) with a veneer of anxious restraint that never cracks, even when the last shot lands its final blow. If nothing else, the movie makes a welcome starring vehicle for Pfeiffer, who first attracted notice in Scarface playing a variation on the same role—an accessory with distant bruising intimations of a human life. (Opens Friday at The Belcourt) JIM RIDLEY

WHATEVER WORKS
Whatever Works is Woody Allen's first New York movie after five years abroad. It's his first in even longer to center on the Woody Allen character—an urban neurotic, here named Boris Yellnikoff and brashly played by Larry David. Toughened and (relatively) rejuvenated by David's aggressive performance, the Allen surrogate is introduced treating his friends to a lecture on the "God racket." Nothing especially new—Allen wrote this script 30 years ago and intended it for no less a force of nature than Zero Mostel. What gives the material weight is the curmudgeon's derisive half-smile. Nastier than David's character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boris is a cousin to insult comedian Don Rickles—a smug, self-absorbed, argumentative nudnik with unshakable faith in his listeners' stupidity and his own "huge worldview."

Whatever Works shifts into gear when Boris finds a teenage runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) camped out in front of his anachronistically shabby downtown digs and grudgingly takes her in. Of course, Melodie is also a type—a cheerful, optimistic, winsome Mississippi belle. They "date" (he takes her to Grant's Tomb and Yonah Schimmel's knishery), and living out the Woodman's fondest fantasy, they marry. Melodie's parents—white-bread Jesus-praising "aborigines," as their son-in-law characterizes them—arrive in New York, at which point the movie dons its jammies and goes to sleep. To drown Boris' bitterness in a vat of Manischewitz is the aesthetic equivalent of depraved indifference. Whatever Works illustrates, even as it names, Allen's artistic limitations. (Opens Friday) J. HOBERMAN

See the interview with Woody Allen online at nashvillescene.com.

SARAH JONES: A RIGHT TO CARE
Jones, the acclaimed actress and monologuist who won a special Tony Award for her 2006 Broadway show Bridge and Tunnel, will make a stop in Nashville July 7 on a three-city tour intended to raise awareness of the fight for health-care reform. On the heels of her recent performance for President Barack Obama at the White House, she'll appear 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Southside Community Church, 2080 12th Ave. S. The show is free and open to the public. For more information, call 244-9791.

"They're all about where people come from. Nobody seems to wonder where somebody's going." So says the Depression-era bank-robber-cum-folk-hero John Dillinger, surveying the clientele of a chic Chicago eatery in a key scene from Michael Mann's Public Enemies. And much like its subject, Mann's exhilarating movie exists in a state of perpetual forward motion.

Dillinger (played superbly by Johnny Depp) spends most of the movie on the run, and so does the movie itself. But even when Dillinger is at rest—in those moments when he finds himself in jail or in the arms of a woman—Public Enemies exudes a nervous tension, the sense that flight is imminent. (One of the tensest scenes takes place at a traffic light.) It's a feeling that Mann intensifies by shooting the entire movie with a battery of high-definition video cameras—most of them handheld—that record the action in violent jolts and swooshes, the way things might look if Dillinger were still robbing banks today, his exploits captured by camera phones and broadcast over YouTube. The result, like Bonnie and Clyde 40 years earlier, is a period gangster movie that scarcely feels period at all.

Visually, Public Enemies seems like the summation of something Mann has been steadily building toward ever since he first incorporated video-shot footage into the dynamic opening training montage of Ali in 2001. Where digital methods have gradually become the industry standard by simulating the dense, luxuriant textures of film, Mann embraces video precisely for the ways in which it is unlike film: for the hyper-real clarity of its images, for the way the lightweight cameras move through space, and for its ability to see sharper and more deeply into his beloved night. At every turn, Mann rejects classical notions of cinematic "beauty" and formulates new ones. The sounds and images rush at you, headlong, and before you can fully get a handle on them, something else takes their place. (I am haunted by one particular shot, of Dillinger being wakened by gunshots, the camera springing off his body as if it, too, had been startled from sleep.)

Dramatically, the movie offers a variation on a favored Mann theme—an elegant professional criminal and a dogged lawman (here, Christian Bale's implacable "G-Man," Melvin Purvis) pursuing each other into an existential void. Compelled by processes, Mann saturates Public Enemies with vivid details, never belabored, of '30s-era intelligence-gathering techniques and the minutiae of Dillinger's balletic jailbreaks. Although the credits say that the screenplay was adapted by Mann and two other writers from Vanity Fair reporter Bryan Burrough's 600-page account of the 1930s interstate crime wave and the rise of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover (played by a very amusing Billy Crudup), the movie Mann has made more often suggests a period redo of his own 1995 crime saga Heat, albeit reduced nearly to the point of abstraction. There are long stretches in Public Enemies when it feels as if Mann, like the French noir master Jean-Pierre Melville at his most elemental, would be happy to film nothing but men in tailored suits and charcoal overcoats slicing through landscapes, illuminating the night with bursts of yellow gunfire. Some storied members of Dillinger's gang are barely afforded a line of dialogue, while Dillinger himself emerges as the tersest in Mann's gallery of flinty, self-aware men of action. In lieu of crackling monologues, Depp says, simply, "I'm John Dillinger. I rob banks." Likewise, those robberies are brisk, expedient affairs rarely lasting more than two minutes each. Where Mann staged the heist sequences at the center of Thief and Heat as a kind of grand opera, Dillinger's are closer to proletariat street theater.

Dillinger talks about getting out of this racket, of making one last score and then dropping off the map with his lover, the French-American Indian coat check girl Billie Frechette (an excellent Marion Cotillard). But even as he's saying it, we (and she) don't quite believe it. Dillinger seems no more able to stop robbing banks than Mann can stop making movies. Fittingly, those two obsessions—filmmaking and law-breaking—converge in Dillinger's storied last stand at Chicago's Biograph Theater. On screen at the Biograph that fateful night was Manhattan Melodrama, a surprisingly unsentimental, proto-Mann 1934 crime drama starring Clark Gable and William Powell as childhood friends who grow up on opposite sides of the law—one a small-time hood, the other a D.A.—and compete for the affections of the same woman (Myrna Loy). What Mann and Depp do in that scene, as Dillinger watches this parallel version of his own life, ranks among the cinema's most eloquent depictions of the way the spectator identifies with the moving image. "Die the way you lived. Don't drag it out," says Gable shortly before being escorted to the electric chair—words that cut to the essence of Dillinger himself, as well as Mann's career-long interest in men who live by their own codes, outside the strictures of normal society. Seeing Dillinger's face in the reflected light of the screen, it's as if he sensed, even then, that while his own mortality lay in wait, his legend would long continue to flicker.

Email film@nashvillescene.com.

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