Friday, October 06, 2006

Movies opening this week

The Departed (Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, dir. Martin Scorsese)
I have to admit, I am not one of those people who worships at the altar of Scorsese. To be fair (and I realize this is rather shameful as a film critic), I haven't seen many of his most notable films: Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino. The one Scorsese classic I have seen, Taxi Driver, I didn't much care for. However, I thought his last film, The Aviator, was outstanding, and I went into this movie based on early reviews and the fantastic cast expecting to like it. And I did, up to a point: It's an entertaining, if convoluted and overlong, crime thriller, with solid performances from DiCaprio, Damon, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin. It adheres relatively closely to the plot of the movie on which it's based, the 2002 Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs, although Scorsese is clearly more interested in being taken seriously and thus tones down the action and grounds the violence (and there's plenty of violence) in a more low-key realism.

The problem is that this is really just a ridiculous melodrama, and while the original film (which I liked about as much) understood this, Scorsese seems to think he's making a grand statement about race and class in Boston (where his version is set). The first half of the film contains plenty of tortured speeches about growing up poor and racial invectives meant to illustrate inner-city tensions. But most of that gets abandoned when the plot machinations kick into high gear, and ultimately this isn't a movie with much to say about anything. Which is fine, but its bloated running time and self-important dialogue sit at odds with the meat-and-potatoes thriller at the center. It's as if Scorsese wanted to trim the Hollywood grandeur that marked his last two movies but still not cut off his chances of scoring some Oscar nominations.

And then there's Jack, who seems to have wandered in straight from playing the Joker and just wiped off the makeup. The whole over-the-top thing works for him in the right context, but he spends the entire film off in his own little world, and undermines whatever seriousness it might at any time build up. There were all sorts of reports about how Nicholson just did whatever he felt like during filming, and that may be true, but Scorsese ought to have reined him in because he derails the movie every time he's onscreen. The rest of the actors are perfectly good, although not outstanding, given the fact that the script offers very little beyond surface character insights. This isn't a psychological thriller, though, or at least it shouldn't be, and the problems arise when it tries for that kind of depth. Farmiga's police psychologist is a terrible stereotype of a weak-willed woman, and making her the lover of both main characters (they had different girlfriends in the original) just adds that much more contrivance and melodrama to the story.

Despite all those problems, it's still suspenseful and exciting, with masterful editing and cinematography from longtime Scorsese collaborators Thelma Schoonmaker and Michael Ballhaus, and a very effective classic-rock soundtrack. I just find all the "best movie of the year" talk way overblown; at its heart, this is just another well-made but pointless remake. Wide release

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