Monday, October 09, 2006

Murder and mayhem to go: "The Departed" sizzles; "Dahlia"'s both over- and underdone

THE DEPARTED

directed by Martin Scorsese
starring Leonardo di Caprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin
based on the Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs"

Sequels, remakes, and spinoffs: those are words dear to the ears of any studio executive looking to acquire rights to a successful movie. To the rest of us, perhaps precisely because we’re not studio execs, those same words connote a form of cannibalism peculiar to Hollywood. Indeed, for many moviegoers, they exemplify all that’s wrong with the industry—its dispiriting neglect of original ideas in favor of supposedly tried-and-true formulas, and its relentless march to the beat of the corporate drum.

But while this dour view is unfortunately justified for sequels and spinoffs (with some dazzling exceptions, at least for sequels), I submit that it is less so for remakes. This might have something to do with the fact that whereas almost any movie that scored at the box office is ripe for a sequel, a movie generally has to be pretty darn good to spur talk of a remake. The flip side of this, of course, is the obvious question: who needs a remake if the original got it right?

It’s a fair question, and there’s no denying that too many pointless and poorly conceived remakes are greenlit on a regular basis. Still, a remake, at its best, isn’t so much a recycling as a reinterpretation of material that resonates beyond the particular milieu in which it was created, and seeing it recreated for a new age or a new culture can be intriguing, illuminating, even original in a way that a nominally “new” movie all too often is not. I find this especially true for films that cross national and linguistic boundaries. So there is room for both Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and Clint’s “A Fistful of Dollars” (not so much for Bruce Willis’ pallid attempt at a third round), two versions of “Insomnia” (one set in Sweden, the other in Alaska), and now, most recently, for both the Hong Kong blockbuster “Infernal Affairs” and “The Departed,” Scorsese’s Bostonian-inflected take on the same story.

And what a story it is. Like “IA,” “The Departed” is a tale of two cops who both happen to be moles, working for opposite sides of a long-running war between the police and the local mafia—here, Boston’s own Irish mob, led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, in slightly—but only slightly—restrained psychopathic mode here). Young Billy Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), both Southey natives, start out at about the same time, as upwardly mobile cadets training to join the staties. From that point, however, their paths are a perfect study in contrasts. Costigan is tossed out of the academy, acquires a criminal record, and begins consorting with low-life, bottom-rung drug dealers before his family ties and capacity for bone-crunching violence lead him to Costello’s inner circle. Colin, on the other hand, graduates with flying colors, ascends quickly through the ranks, and becomes a detective assigned to help get the goods on Costello. But appearances, as always, are deceiving: Costigan and Sullivan are in fact Trojan horses, each sent by the enemy to infiltrate the other side’s operations. Things get really interesting when a planned bust of Costello falls through, tipping off each side to the fact that there’s a mole in their ranks—and each mole is instructed to find and uncover the identity of the other.

It’s a killer setup, and the narrative of “The Departed” stays remarkably faithful to its source. Apart from the addition of one new plot twist—which anyone who’s seen “IA” should be able to anticipate fairly easily (hint: it’s tied to the addition of one new character)—the changes it introduces are mostly collateral. But the sensibilities that pervade the two tellings of the story are strikingly different, and this one is definitely Marty’s. “The Departed” showcases a flashier, bloodier style than the studiously cool, taut, melancholy-tinged presentation of “IA,” and though both films are interested in the psychological effect of going undercover on an individual’s sense of identity, they go about exploring it in very distinct ways.

As in the original, the two moles never quite cross paths until very late in the game, though they come tantalizingly close several times. They’re like two shadows chasing each other, which leads to some grimly witty echo effects and several gripping, white-knuckle sequences. “The Departed” more overtly plays up the doppelganger aspect of the story, to good effect, as Leo and Damon look far more alike than their Hong Kong counterparts (Tony Leung and Andy Lau), and with their characters’ shared Boston-Irish lineage, they create the impression of two sides of the same coin. Hardly surprising that they end up gravitating towards the same romantic interest (Vera Farmiga, who—lousy Boston accent aside—manages to deliver a delicately calibrated performance in what could have been a throwaway role), a police psychologist who’s sort of a composite of the two female characters in “IA.”

But the movie really belongs to Leo, just as “IA” did to Leung, though the angry, tortured Costigan is pure Scorsese, and a very different ball of wax from Leung’s sad-eyed, deeply weary good cop. Unlike Leung’s character, whose sense of self slowly unravels under the purely externally imposed weight of his dual role, Costigan’s fractured and fracturing identity, one senses, derives from deep within him. It’s in his blood and in his background, and it shows more in di Caprio’s tightly coiled intensity than in the script’s passing, rather perfunctory references to Costigan’s family (particularly deceased papa Costigan, who apparently had all the qualities to be a Frank Costello-like heavyweight, except the criminal desire for power). And while the movie does give a nod to the poignant surrogate father-son relationship between the police mole and his superior officer (here played with soothing warmth by Martin Sheen) that gave “IA” much of its soul, it ends up taking a back seat to the more jagged dynamic between Costigan and Costello, a considerably more sinister (and colorful) father-figure, and to the internal torment of Costigan’s own mind. Sheen’s Captain Queenan is further upstaged by his own number-two guy, Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), the only other man in the force who knows Costigan’s true identity and the only one who dislikes and distrusts golden-boy Sullivan. Wahlberg taps into his own Southey roots to produce what is probably the most naturalistic performance in the movie—and I don’t just mean the accent. He practically emits sparks of rage that don’t feel acted at all.

Damon, meanwhile, holds his own as the clean-cut, upstanding young officer who sold his soul to the devil long ago. His Sullivan compares nicely with Andy Lau’s perfectly respectable turn as the clean-cut, upstanding young officer in “IA,” being at once more inviting and more inscrutable. But as with “IA,” I couldn’t escape the sense that the scales of sympathy were too heavily tilted in one direction. We never really see into the heart of Costello’s mole the way we do into Queenan’s, and as a result even an actor as talented as Damon can’t quite give his character the fully realized presence he deserves. No doubt this opacity is by design; yet I couldn’t help thinking an already terrific story could be made even better if we got a little more insight into the inner workings of the “bad mole”’s mind. What we get instead is more Nicholson, hamming it up for the camera but fortunately not taking over the entire movie (as I feared he would).

Looking up at what I’ve written, I see that this has become less a review of “The Departed” than a compare-and-contrast with “Infernal Affairs.” That wasn’t my conscious intent, and yet on reflection it seems only appropriate. Much as I admired “The Departed,” I’m troubled by the fact that the film to which it owes so much was largely kept out of theaters in this country—even as the Hollywood big guns were ponying up for the all-American remake. For this reason alone, I strongly encourage anyone who’s seen or is interested in “The Departed” to track down a copy of “Infernal Affairs.” (It’s available on Netflix.) But it’s not the only reason. The fact is that both movies are worth seeing, and both movies only benefit from the comparison. That’s a rarity that shouldn’t be missed.

GRADE: A-


THE BLACK DAHLIA

directed by Brian De Palma
starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, others
based on the novel by James Ellroy

Earlier this fall, before “The Black Dahlia” opened in theaters, I predicted that it would mark a “return to form” for director Brian De Palma. Judging from the film’s reception, it’s clear that many, if not most, critics had that same expectation, and equally clear that, for most of them, it was sadly dashed. The negative reviews, even (or perhaps especially) at their most scathing, had an aggrieved tone that reflected the particularly sharp letdown of movie buffs who’d hoped for some 21st century masterpiece of noir—or at least some classic De Palma pyrotechnics—and who found “Dahlia” to be neither the one nor enough of the other.

Their disappointment was infectious, and pretty much squelched my initial desire to see the movie. Still, I did come across enough defenses of it and some intriguing references to a staircase sequence to revive my interest somewhat. So I finally got around to seeing it a few weeks after its underwhelming debut, and as always, there’s something to be said for diminished expectations: I actually rather enjoyed “The Black Dahlia.”

Which doesn’t mean I thought it was a good movie. It’s not. The noir style is laid on thick, veering close to camp, but the substance is too thin. The script seems to have been compressed (or so I understand) from the James Ellroy novel with a rather desultory hand: the snaky convolutions of the plot and subplots aren’t particularly well foreshadowed or developed, and as a result each twist feels at once arbitrary and anticlimactic. In that respect, as in others, “Dahlia” suffers by comparison with “L.A. Confidential,” which managed to streamline an equally complicated Ellroy narrative into a tight, crisply paced mystery—a mystery that ultimately turned less on the whodunit than on the gradual revelation of the psychological core of its flawed, yet fleetingly heroic, protagonists. Riveting performances from Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and the then-obscure Russell Crowe of course helped: “L.A. Confidential” remains one of the best pieces of ensemble acting I’ve ever seen. By contrast, the characters in “Dahlia” remain stiff, opaque, and oddly disengaged from one another.

The story’s supposed to be about two cops (Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) who become obsessed with the gruesome, tabloid-ready murder, mutilation, and dismemberment of a young would-be Hollywood starlet (Mia Kirshner) in the mid-1940s. Yet we get no insight into why this obsession should grip these two particular men, especially since the film gives only a muted sense of the fever that the crime (based on a true story) stirred in the press and public. The cops’ personal obsession doesn’t feel real—it doesn’t pulse,—partly because Hartnett’s performance, though not bad, is too reticent, while Eckhart’s is bad: his descent into a wild-eyed daze rings totally false. Doesn’t help that no one around these two feels real, either—certainly neither of the two femmes fatales, the dark lady (Hilary Swank) or the fair (Scarlett Johansson). Johansson, a vision of dewy overripeness, at least looks the part, but that’s about all she does with it, something that might be fairly said about the film as a whole. Swank, sporting a ludicrously unrecognizable accent and looking awkward and faintly freakish rather than alluring in her Black Dahlia copycat getup, frankly misfires. She’s not half as freaky, however, as the Usher-esque house of horrors embodied by her family, with Fiona Shaw the standout as her mentally unhinged mother.

What, then, is the redeeming value of “The Black Dahlia”? Despite everything I’ve just said, it remains strangely watchable, without quite falling into the “so bad it’s good” category. Let’s face it, noir is a tricky genre to resurrect. It can all too easily degenerate into self-parody, as hardboiled becomes merely overcooked, and overcooked loses the flavor that comprised its original draw. So it is here—and yet it’s not altogether lost. Meticulously stylized and enveloped in a dreamy soft-focus sheen, the film has an otherworldly beauty that almost manages to create a universe complete unto itself, like noir at its best. Almost, until you scratch the glossy surface and realize there’s very little underneath.

And yet there’s a hint, if only a hint, of the disillusionment that underlies all true noir. We see it in the one presence who isn’t really there: the Dahlia herself, Betty Short, as captured in black-and-white clips of her unsuccessful auditions. Kirshner makes the most of what screen time she has, her put-on kittenish coyness never quite masking the haunting pathos in her eyes. There’s something slightly voyeuristic about these passing yet painfully intimate glimpses into a dead girl’s soul, which in some sense was mutilated by Hollywood long before the killer ever got to her. The spirit is Ellroy’s; the style is De Palma’s. The result is pure noir.

Oh, and the staircase sequence? It’s pure De Palma, and it’s a beaut. And that’s all you need to know.

GRADE: B-


Also saw:

THE LAST KISS

directed by Zach Braff
starring Braff, Jacinda Barrett, Rachel Bilson, Tom Wilkinson, Blythe Danner, Casey Affleck
based on the Italian film “L’ultimo bacio”

Here we have another remake of a foreign movie, but this one just may disprove everything I said earlier about remakes. The premise—or rather the theme—has plenty of potential, so without seeing “L’ultimo bacio” it’s difficult to say whether the uneven, mostly flat-footed execution is a fault in the source or the translation. The theme is one that should strike a chord with anyone who’s verging on thirty and/or marriage and/or parenthood and has no tangible reason for discontentment: I have everything I could reasonably want, including someone I love; is this all there is? But as it’s presented here, its resonance is, at best, limited. In a nutshell, Braff plays an architect named Michael who finds out his live-in girlfriend, Jenna (Barrett), is pregnant. While telling her everything’s great and he’s thrilled and in no way freaking out, he secretly freaks out. Or more precisely, he slinks off and broods, “Garden State” style, hangs with his buddies, observes the marital misery of one of them (Affleck), and finds himself drawn to a pretty college student (Bilson) he meets at a wedding. Without telling you exactly what happens, suffice to say that Michael lies and causes much pain to everyone around him. Ok: that does happen in real life. But so many other things in “The Last Kiss”—Bilson’s character, for instance, and every word that comes out of her mouth, including her increasingly fevered come-ons to a man devoid of any noticeable charm or glamour—bear so little resemblance to any real life I know that it’s hard to take the movie seriously. It’s also hard, at a certain point, to empathize with someone who seems as resolutely selfish and self-deluded as Michael.

There are moments in “The Last Kiss” that do resonate, and they feel like a good movie that’s struggling to get out of a bad one. Barrett’s reaction when she discovers Michael’s deception, painful as it is to watch, feels as true and wrenching as its cause feels labored and improbable. Tom Wilkerson, wonderful as always, has some of the best lines in any movie all year when he advises Michael on his self-created crisis, and delivers them with a force that *almost* convinces you the movie has something insightful to say about life, relationships, and the choices one makes in both. Almost. But not quite.

GRADE: B-

2 Comments:

Blogger echan said...

Hm, I think that there was a much greater class conciousness to the Departed than to Infernal Affairs (and is much more appropriate to the Boston setting). Costigan is an odd character in that he has both the Southey background on his dad's side, and a certain genteel waspiness on his mother's. When Dingham and Queenan first approach him for the assignment, they point out that he got kicked out of Deerfield and had 1400 on his SATs. For him, becoming a cop was an act of rebellion against his mother's Waspy family. He's not a social striver in the same way that Sullivan is.

But the film certainly emphasizes that Sullivan is more like the hungry young lawyer who goes out and buys every status concious symbol the moment he gets his first paycheck. The condo view with the view (and genteel old ladies with yappy dogs in the hallway), the Harvard-educated girlfriend, and "French donuts," (aka croissants) that he learns how to buy and enjoy show that he's really trying to wipe the stench of South Boston off himself.

7:23 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Great observations - you parse the class distinctions between Costigan and Sullivan very perceptively, and I think you're absolutely right that they're emphasized much more here than in "Infernal Affairs." Maybe, in a way, that explains the difference in the endings.

(spoiler alert)

There's at least a hint in "Infernal Affairs" that Andy Lau's character might genuinely want to go "straight" at the end. Sullivan, on the other hand, seems more interested in keeping the yuppie trappings of his assumed identity than anything else. His ambivalence is, shall we say, socioeconomic rather than moral. All the more reason he, unlike Lau, isn't allowed to get away with it at the end.

7:06 PM  

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