Sunday, October 08, 2006

Best use of Dropkick Murphys songs in a police thriller?

(Above: "Woah, so did Faye Dunaway really throw a cup
of piss in Polanski's face?")

With his new, really-good-but-not-quite-great movie The Departed, Martin Scorsese – you may remember him as the director of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video - is “back”… sort of. While I liked The Aviator (although not so much that I’ve felt the need to sit through it again), it was an oddball epic about OCD that struggled to fashion a clear cinematic narrative out of Howard Hughes’ life. Gangs of New York was a mess that seemed to have escaped from Scorsese’s grasp at some point, or perhaps it was simply afflicted with Harvey Weinstein’s bad mojo. As for Bringing Out the Dead, the less said the better (ok, one positive – the title always reminds me of one of the early scenes in Monty Python & The Holy Grail). None of these films lacked Scorsese’s typical kinetic energy – at 64 his grittiest films are still vividly hyperactive, although he’s proven he can adapt to other styles as well (to quote Christopher Moltisanti: “Kundun – I liked it!”). Now however, comes a leaner, stripped-down, more impersonal tale that benefits from finding Marty (I call him Marty. We hang out on weekends watching old Howard Hawks movies) fully in his comfort zone – even if the film is knowingly a tad on the illogical side.

First, if you’re like me and thought the trailer made this film look like a disappointingly rote police thriller, you may also agree with me and find that Marty (“Hey buddy, it’s Chris. Have they flown in that rare Ball of Fire print from France yet?”) and screenwriter William Monahan utilize a full bag of tricks – including clever use of cell phones as a plot device – to revitalize the genre, although bear in mind I haven’t seen Infernal Affairs (a stupid title for a movie, but then again so is My Bloody Valentine for a band), the Asian film on which this one is based. The plot, in brief: undercover cop (Leo) infiltrates mob, while mob boss (Jack) grooms a rat (Matt) in the police dept. Both rats spend much of the film trying to find out each other’s identity, and by fantastic (to put it mildly) coincidence they both become involved with the same police shrink, who has the same role most women have in cop movies: a shitty one (unless they’re made to be improbably ass-kicking). I don’t quite know what it is Scorsese sees in Leonard(o) DiCaprio that he keeps casting him in such unlikely lead roles, but get ready for their next apparent collab, with Leo playing – I shit you not – Teddy Roosevelt (I'd sooner believe him as Teddy Pendergrass)! I give Leonard credit though for challenging himself with each film and possibly causing permanent damage to his brow with all that furrowing. He’s working hard again here; playing a character with lots of unconvincing and underdeveloped emotional baggage that doesn’t quite come across. I thought a scene where he unloads during his first visit to the shrink fell particularly flat. We’re never quite as invested in young Leonard coming out alright so much as we are in seeing Matt Damon’s slimy character get his. Damon is put to his most effective use I’ve seen to date (other than having him wander around the desert for 90 minutes, of course), and he should consider playing more weasely roles, as he's talented but too capable of being terminally vanilla elsewhere.

As for Jack, he gives a restrained, almost dour performance as an introverted nebbish… in The King of Marvin Gardens, 34 years ago. Here, he’s practically in full-on Joker mode. Initially, he balances the charisma level just about right, as he has to project a suitable aura of power in his role as boss/father figure to Damon. Plus, it'll always be entertaining watching him make lewd remarks to waitresses. By the film’s later stages, however, his performance is practically in another universe. We see him MAKING RAT FACES while ruminating over the rat in his gang and licking his hand after squashing a bug. Another scene finds him cavorting with two hot bimbos while wearing a leopard-print robe (guess whose idea that was) and throwing coke around like a ninja tossing a smoke bomb, which would be okay if the film took place in Newbridge, but it just seems silly here. No, the real scene-stealing actor in The Departed is Alec Baldwin, who, along with Mark Wahlberg as a belligerent fellow cop, dishes out all of the film’s best, shamelessly entertaining insult humor. In fact, Baldwin is such a great presence now as a doughy supporting actor that if William Hurt can be nominated for an Oscar for his slim but entertaining turn in A History of Violence then a similar nod for Baldwin wouldn't be undeserved.

Which brings us to the Oscar speculation that inevitably accompanies any Scorsese release. While his last two films overtly felt like Miramax-driven campaigns for a gold statue, this smaller, less ambitious but more entertaining and effective film might ironically represent Scorsese’s best shot at the award yet, particularly since competition this year is so paltry. After all, they can’t give it to Eastwood again… can they? Then again, maybe Brett Ratner is the new Golden Child. Whatever the case, every filmmaker knows that one’s career is not complete without a Best Director Oscar… which is why the films of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick are now hopelessly lost to obscurity while this year’s trophy is being replaced with a bust of Ron Howard that shoots fireworks. Now... tell me who’s Bad.


BayonneMike said...

I thought it was just OK (Casino-lite or Goodfellas extra-lite). All that cell phone business came across as lazy writing to me (Hollywood writers must be thrilled that a computer or cell phone can solve all their problems for them these days). Also, as you noted, a lot of it didn't make sense. What was the deal with Mark Wahlberg's character? I was glad he was there to take his revenge, but did it make any sense considering how he behaved in the rest of the movie? Also, if he was wearing the protective booties, did that mean he was walking around in a Hazmat suit when he came in?

Here's the weirdest thing: I went to the earliest showing on Sat. afternoon and the theater was crawling with old ladies. I had to fight my way past what looked like a busload of old ladies waiting for the next showing. I guess the old ladies of Bayonne, NJ have a real taste for murder and mayhem. Either that or Jack still gets 'em hot (the "The this ain't reality TV" line and his rat impression got the biggest laughs).

Chris said...

I don't think I'd stack it against Casino, although I'd take the actors in the Departed over Joe Pesci (one trick pony) and Sharon Stone (just bleh). I'd place it maybe in the lower half of Scorsese's top 10 (I think Age of Innocence and Who's That Knocking on My Door are the only ones I haven't seen). As for the cell phones, I'd think they probably would factor into a situation like this and would have an impact on police surveillance so it makes sense to incorporate them, and I thought they did so in a way that created tension.


I wouldn't say Wahlberg's actions at the end didn't make sense, as I didn't get the impression he was so straight-laced that he wouldn't take the law into his own hands, but I didn't care for the way the last few scenes felt like "OK let's shoot everyone in the head now." Kind of anticlimactic.

litelysalted said...

I don't go to the movies for a plethora of reasons. I'm cheap, I don't like people, I'm a germaphobe, and also I don't like 95% of the steaming flop Hollywood churns out today.

Having said that, I think I would like to Netflix this movie. Which is a compliment, because if you've seen my Netflix queue (and some of you have) it's not exactly bursting with "popular movies of today." Although I do hate that faggy little prick DiCaprio and I don't understand why Scorsese has such a hard-on for him either. I don't even think I've ever seen a movie with Matt Damon in it. No joke; that's how far removed I am.

Chris said...

Pretty much everything by Scorsese is at least worth a look, as he's a bonafide master and even his "disasters" are usually at least interesting. I've got no use for most new Hollywood and indie movies either, and I've got nearly 300 titles in my Netflix queue so it's not like I hate everything and am hurting for stuff to watch. I borrowed my roommate's copy of V For Vendetta a while back and turned it off after 10 minutes, as I instantly hated it (especially that damsel-in-distress opening scene that's been in every fucking superhero movie since the dawn of time).

More and more television is where it's at. With maybe a couple of exceptions I'd take the Wire, Deadwood and Arrested Development over just about any non-documentary film that's been released in about a decade.