Month: November 2009

The Departed

A letdown, then, that for all its stylistic fireworks, The Departed feels like Scorsese on auto-pilot. Unlike his previous forays into the lives of anti-establishment, morally conflicted men — Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas in particular — The Departed feels strangely antiseptic, an intricate music box of cinematic flair but utterly hollow as a personal statement. The movie’s plot is so overwrought, crammed with so many angles through which it seeks to tell its story, that Scorsese’s role here is really that of a fevered traffic cop. The Departed remains watchable because, in spite of itself, there’s so much talent on display. But what lingers long after sitting through it is that, in terms of a point-of-view, Scorsese’s fingerprints are nowhere near this film, apart from his customary use of rock ‘n’ roll tunes on the soundtrack (including his rather heavy-handed use of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”). The Departed is Scorsese as a brand: the crime cinema he cultivated is trotted out, its bag of tricks out on display, but the soul is absent. That is reason to mourn, because this movie, the least representative of all in his cinema, represents his best shot at Hollywood acceptance.

In Scorsese’s place are the tiresome hambone antics of Jack Nicholson as ganglord Frank Costello. If it weren’t for the gallery of standout performances by DiCaprio, Baldwin, Sheen and others, Nicholson would’ve brought The Departed down in the crash and fury of a performance that feels like a variation on his already stale Witches of Eastwick schtick. Nicholson’s meant to exude evil, but there’s nothing remotely threatening about the guy; he’s so busy hamming it up, all wide-grinned mugging and clowning around, that he forgets that true evil resides within a cool, composed, largely silent exterior. Consider, for instance, the marvelous Ray Winstone as Mr. French, one of Costello’s right-hand men, who, merely with a glance, can get a guy to tremble and piss his pants. In all his films (Sexy Beast, Cold Mountain, The Proposition are highlights), Winstone’s imposing stature quietly eclipses their lesser qualities. Unfortunately, Winstone is too marginalized a performer here, and time and again I wished that the role of Costello had gone to him. If Nicholson were ditched and Winstone cast as Costello, The Departed could easily have been one of Scorsese’s most fascinating treatments of evil (and one of this year’s best films).

Nicholson notwithstanding, there’s enough in The Departed to keep us involved. The movie’s a reworking of a sleek, sexy 2002 Hong Kong thriller, Infernal Affairs. Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan move the action from Hong Kong to the red-brick patina of Boston, but more or less keep the original’s plot concerning the criss-crossing of informers inside the city’s law enforcement and criminal organizations. On the criminal side, we have Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), Costello’s protégé, snaking himself into the higher eschelons of the Massachusetts state police. The police suspect there’s a mole in their ranks sabotaging their efforts to nab Costello. So they recruit Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ace rookie with a troubled background, to wile his way into Costello’s favor. Both Sullivan and Costigan try to keep their respective organizations one step ahead of the other’s, and, ultimately, to narrow in on each other’s identities. It’s a crackerjack setup, but all that made it so fluid and inviting in the original is thrown out in favor of the baroque operatics of Monahan’s screenplay and Scorsese’s own high-pitched directing strategy. It makes The Departed a needlessly restive and stifling experience, instead of a carefully modulated and suspenseful crime story.

Vera Farmiga’s psychiatrist, Madolyn, and the love triangule that develops between her, Sullivan and Costigan are among The Departed’s smarter variations on the original. Scorsese’s always been weak when it comes to portraying women, and The Departed would be no exception were it not for Farmiga’s sharp, honest turn as a woman torn between DiCaprio’s vulnerable Costigan, fighting for survival inside a nest of vipers, and Damon’s Sullivan, a capitol liar who’s so immersed in his own deceptive lifestyle that his involvement with Madolyn and with the police force eventually blur as one.

Monahan’s dialogue, thankfully, is barbed with hilariously profane, self-consciously “male” dialogue and actors like Baldwin and Wahlberg take full advantage, milking maximum humor from the paradox between their characters’ professional roles and their war-weary, embittered attitudes towards them. In fact, Wahlberg’s cop Dignam, more than any other character, is The Departed’s moral compass. Dignam acts according to his principles and has nothing to hide. Maybe for those reasons, Wahlberg’s is finally the most charming, the least show-offy performance of the lot. In Dignam, we find something of a conscience in a movie where conscience is compromised at every turn. His voice hardly registers above the fray here, offering the faintest signal from a director trying to say something.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: William Monahan, Siu Fai Mak, Felix Chong
Cast: Leonard DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Dalton, Anthony Anderson

Detour

This low-budget noir (the production truly looks held together by spit and string) from bargain-basement maestro Ulmer involves sad sack musician Al (Neal) caught in a web of circumstance while thumbing his way cross-country to L.A. to reunite with his girlfriend. Al’s luck goes from bad to worse when, after assuming a dead man’s identity, he gets tangled up with a femme fatale (Savage) who blackmails him into doing her bidding. Well-paced and forthright, Detour doesn’t boast a particularly sharp protagonist (Neal’s pouty-faced Al, in fact, is about as a resourceful as a kid lost in a carnival) nor a robust storyline–the events precipitate from one shouting match between conniver and victim in a connect-the-dots fashion. But, with its fatalism and conflating of sex and danger, this is quintessential noir territory. For fans of the genre, it’s a dark and lovely landscape that Detour hitchhikes through.

Grade: B

Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Martin Goldsmith
Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald

The Decline of the American Empire

At the beginning of The Decline of the American Empire, an author, in discussing her latest book, talks about how the decline of a civilization is marked by people becoming more individualistic and selfish. The drive for communal health and harmony sputters out as these newly “civilized” people crave greater personal satisfaction, whether it’s through materialism, sexual freedom, etc.

Well, the mark of the decline of good cinema is when the filmmaker begins to confuse intellectualism for emotionally rich storytelling. Arcand wants to dissect the shallow, sexually frivolous lives of a bunch of bourgeois, intellectually smug friends and lovers. The first half is segregated: the men gather around a kitchen, preparing a meal, and pontificate to each other about the finer points of debauchery, the sex drive and cheating on your wife. It’s essentially a bunch of ugly, narcissistic, shameless men chortling and guffawing about who they fucked and how, like it’s a bawdy church sermon. But instead of being wickedly funny, it’s repellent before becoming a total snore.

The same holds for the women who are “working out” at a nearby gym, swapping stories about what kind of men make the best lays, holding forth on their litany of affairs and cheating, and so forth. It’s fifty tedious minutes of circular conversation. Arcand thinks he’s making a profound and funny satire of sorts about the moneyed class in 1980s French Canadian society. Whatever it is, he has failed miserably. I would liken these moments, as I contained my growing contempt for these vapid, pampered snot-heads, to medieval torture.

Rapidly, while still in the first half, we come to simply hate these characters: They’re all selfish, insecure and flat-out boring (the last being the worst fate a character can suffer). When the men and women convene over wine and dinner, the movie picks up some steam and even becomes momentarily involving. A woman despairs in realizing the true extent of her husband’s pathological cheating; the gay member of the group–an inveterately promiscuous cruiser–finds himself worried about the blood in his urine; the swinging bachelor-professor contends with the love he feels for his young, emotionally more mature girlfriend; and one woman finds herself taken with the brutish charms of her thuggish new boyfriend. These are potentially compelling stories, but Arcand, the pompous social philosopher and inept storyteller, drains the lifeblood out of them.

We feel nothing for these characters because they themselves don’t seem mature enough to feel anything for themselves. They’re so wrapped up in the indulgent individualism of the age, that their very humanity has been sold in the bargain. Perhaps this is Arcand’s point. But rather than make a movie about it–a form which demands emotional engagement–he’d been better off taking a cue from his own snobbishly academic characters, writing a book instead, and sparing the rest of us.

Grade: F

Directed by: Denys Arcand
Written by: Denys Arcand
Cast: Dominique Michel, Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal, Pierre Curzi, Rémy Girard, Yves Jacques, Geneviève Rioux, Daniel Brière, Gabriel Arcand

Darwin’s Nightmare

Decades ago, Europeans introduced the predatory Nile Perch into the waters of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The perch, alien to the lake’s ecosystem, ravaged all the other species of marine life that had naturally evolved in Lake Victoria over eons. This per se is not the subject of Darwin’s Nightmare but merely a metaphor that Sauper develops in chronicling the exploitation of Lake Victoria’s human inhabitants by their European economic colonizers. The fishing and processing of the Nile Perch for the European market is at the heart of this exploitation, as, everyday, transport planes from Europe buzz into lakeside airfields where locals load them up with perch so that the planes can ferry them back to rich European nations where the fish are regarded as a haute couture delicacy. Sauper limns this metaphor immediately over his movie’s opening credits, training his camera on the shadow of a transport plane as it glides over the lake’s waters like a shark nosing in for a kill.

Indeed, both figuratively and literally, killing is the main order of business on the lake. The local fishing industry, involving in perch fishing, is geared predominantly for the European market. The locals are left to forage for scraps because the high-tech processing of these fish for consumption renders them too expensive to sell at the local markets. Meanwhile, the lakeside villages are left to fester in poverty and filth. Poverty, of course, breeds desperation, which, in turn, breeds anger and hatred. The latter are essential in fomenting regional antipathies and civil wars–both all too rife in today’s Africa–and, in Sauper’s most damning argument, something Europeans are also keen to exploit. A lengthy portion of Darwin’s Nightmare concerns the issue of guns, whole planeloads of them supplied by Europeans and ferried in by the pilots of these transport planes. These guns are distributed to regional militias like so much kindling to stoke the bonfires of local feuds. This vicious cycle keeps Tanzania’s fishing industry, along with its consumers and the transport pilots, all of them employed, paid, and well fed.

Sauper’s absolutely brave, unflinching camera, like a gutting knife, bares for view the unimaginable hardships in the locals’ lives. In their beleaguered yet resilient eyes, we sense a hope for change, but their words–their cracked voices–betray the sense of defeat that each of them feels. One moment, Sauper’s camera follows a group of children squabbling over a bowl of rice; in another, he fixes our gaze on other youngsters numbing themselves from their own lives by sniffing glue in an alleyway. An impoverished half-blind woman dries scraps of fish on racks in the sun, bracing herself from the toxic fumes emitted from fish scales; young boys dream of better lives, of not following in their father’s footsteps; prostitutes plying their trade among the Russian pilots holed up in the town in between transport runs speak of the rampancy of physical abuse. All are heart-rending to see and listen to, but Sauper’s most eloquent subject is a nighttime security guard–smiling, grizzled, handsome–who doles out the practical wisdom of doing what it takes to survive, whether it’s holding down a job or killing a man purported to be your enemy. To him, it’s all in a day’s work, swearing loyalty to whatever clothes and feeds you. Then, as world-weary as he is, his eyes light up as he contemplates a better future for his own son, far away from the lake.

At the end of the day, though, business is business. Sauper’s documentary stops short, rightfully I think, from indicting any single player in this cruel game–whether it’s the owners of the fisheries, the pilots of the planes, the EU leaders touting the lake’s resources–because each is simply jostling to survive. It’s a perversion, truly, of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but the mechanism involved is the same, and poignantly serves Sauper’s harsh allegory.

Grade: B

Directed by: Hubert Sauper
Written by: Hubert Sauper
Cast: Hubert Sauper (interviewer)

Crash

Don Cheadle, as always, is first-rate and Sandra Bullock, in a more surprising turn of events, is watchably good in this Paul Haggis flick which ties together multiple narratives, all of them commenting variously on race relations in Los Angeles. Pride, love, hate, shame, guilt–the really capitol human emotions get the spotlight here in stories interweaving anti-establishment car-jacking hoodlums, a racist cop with a dying father, a husband-and-wife whose marriage teeters on the brink after a shameful run-in with the police, a high-profile D.A. who tries to spin a cop-killing scandal into one that turns in his favor as he heads into election season. It’s all high-power stuff but Paul Haggis is no Robert Altman and Crash is actually a sub-par, sophomoric attempt at high-brow. The movie aspires to intelligence but only manages to get about halfway there. The geographic coincidences overlapping the stories aren’t the problem so much as the ease and glibness with which these dramatic events unfold. Crash is a corny Hollywood attempt at a social problem drama, well acted enough to recommend but with a caveat: Don’t look too deep here nor think too hard. Crash is just malarkey masquerading as world-class drama–the kind of movie so serious about its intentions and so naïve, that you just want to sit there and “razzberry” the whole time. The fanciful snow fluttering across the screen at the end really says it all, my friends. This is Hollywood. Not the real world to which Haggis aspires.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Paul Haggis
Written by: Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco
Cast: Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Thandie Newton, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Ludacris, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate

The Cranes Are Flying

A really dazzling, magnificently made Russian love story, set in the WWII era, about two lovers separated by the war, and the woman vigil as she awaits her man’s return. Technically, this movie had me floored from one scene to the next: check out the mind-blowing circular booms and handheld shots. It is heartfelt, sensitive, and passionate in a Chekovian way: Honest and building in power surely and subtly. Beautifully acted, every man will want to marry the sweet, earthy, sensitive woman in it. The final scene shatters the heart, puts it back together thrillingly on a note of life-affirming hope. Incidentally, Crane’s director, Kalatozishivli, went on to make the legendary I Am Cuba, another groundbreaker, renowned for its technical wizardry.

Grade: A

Directed by: Mikheil Kalatozishivli
Written by: Viktor Rizov
Cast: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov, Vaseli Merkuryev, Aleksandr Shvorin

Cool Hand Luke

It’s all true: fantastic one-liners, that excruciating but exultant egg-eating scene, the menacing brute of a chain-gang boss. This bizarre tale–an allegory about this rakish rebel’s resistance to the System and, by extension, his relationship with God–is a vintage Paul Newman vehicle. George Kennedy is a hoot too. For all its charms, Stuart Rosenberg’s depiction of chain gang life, at the end of the day, seems kind of fun, doesn’t it? All the poker playing, the fun ‘n’ games, the jokes, and the silly antics among the prisoners almost romanticize the milieu. Keep in mind that Cool Hand Luke isn’t a social-realist parable (à la I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), and, like me, you’ll roll with it and enjoy yourselves. Legend Conrad Hall provides rightfully vivid, awesome cinematography, full of frosty bunkhouse light bulbs and the lonely pallor of the Southern twilight. Overall, gorgeous looking and terrifically acted.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Stuart Rosenberg
Written by: Donn Pearce, Frank Pierson
Cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D. Cannon, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet