19 October 2006

the departed

fair warning: there are spoilers ahead. i will not dance around the plot twists, so don't read any further if you don't want to know about the movie.

bodies bodies bodies! scorsese has been known in the past to be a filmmaker very in touch with morality. for all the violence we see in his films, there's always something to temper it -- catholic guilt, self-medication, poetic justice. this film seemed to struggle with that. sure, matt damon gets his at the end, but then there's that jokey final shot. and does damon's death really balance out the extreme nihilism that came before it, mostly in the famous elevator scene? costello's death hardly resonates, even though he is a man who has "made his environment". the only death we really feel for is the floating body of martin sheen.

and with all that death, i couldn't help but wonder, like damon said to his lady: "what about the baby?" even though she features mostly as a cipher, i found vera farmiga's character a lot more interesting than some of the main charcters.

so i'll say this much about "the departed": its a mixed-bag. first, the bad. this movie is not especially well-written. for example, the plot machinations are mostly worthless -- not a minor point for what some are saying is a major work. microchips? who gives a fuck? gangster text-messaging each other? about as unsexy as you can get. and the editing was crazy. i know marty and thelma did this on purpose, especially in the first 20 minutes or so, using it as experiment in sustaining long-form parallel narratives and keeping a tension between keeping the audience off-balance and stringing them along, but it didn't much work for me. finally, the soundtrack was fucked. gratutious use of "gimme shelter", which showed scorsese hand in his intention of riffing on old themes. the dropkick murphys was cliched and strangely mixed, and the trend that scorsese popularized of keeping rock playing at all times in the background seemed inorganic this time.

all right, the good. the casting is excellent, using many boston-area movie stars who have a feel for the setting. and scorsese isn't generally considered an actor's director, but you can tell he gives his actors extreme range to play. for instance, i've always thought alec baldwin isn't always used as well as he should be, and here he is almost exclusively used comedically, which is as it should be. martin sheen does his usual dependable job, and has a great last line that's endearing and charming, and moments later, becomes sad as we realize how much we liked him. mark wahlberg continues to grow as an actor, and his scene-chewing here is funny, intense and just right. matt damon does solid work, making smart choices on when to be vulnerable and weary and when to let loose. and leonardo dicaprio is fine again, showing that for as much of a movie star as he has become, he still acts his ass off. his worry about being pulled too far into the mob is palpable and he shows how much it tears at him. sometimes he screams about it, sometimes he shows it quietly, but each choice resonates. and then there's jack nicholson's costello. nicholson hams it up here, sure, but i believed it. his introduction, all in shadows, sets up a character who is larger than life, and who better to play that than jack? he eats his scenes alive and includes little bits of business that show a sense of playfulness that is priceless. witness how he shakes down dicaprio then tells him, more than once, "eat something." i loved it. in short, scorsese gives movie stars room to be movie stars, and that's something we don't see enough of these days.

and i loved a lot of little details, including the variety of accents, parallels between irish mobsters and the italian boys scorsese normally portrays, and the ways the men all subtly shudder at the gunshots being fired during dicaprio's funeral.

in the end, though, this film won't hold up too well. its mostly an excuse for scorsese to get back to some of his old tics and riffing on past successes while fucking around with the form some (i.e., using so much formal composition, using irises). in short, its scorsese trying his best to have fun again, and to one-up those who he has influenced (tarantino and kitano in particular, but also "the sopranos" and hong kong action films as well). that's fine and not something i can give him guff for, but it still leaves a little bit more to be desired.

16 October 2006

95. hannah and her sisters

finally we get to a woody allen picture, the first of many on this list. i've seen several of his films so far, and i can honestly say this: i don't like woody allen. i've read interviews with him, and the interesting part is that i love a lot of his ideas about film: using good music (including lots of jazz), very basic titles and credits, keeping the cost down by forgoing frills, lots of talking and snappy dialogue, long takes and few cuts that let the actors to actually act and finds rhythms inside a scene, lots of medium shots that compliment comedy.

so i like his craft, but i think the main problem i have with his movies is the woody allen character him/itself -- the nebbish persona he portrays, popping up in almost every film.

that must be it, because there's a lot of stuff to like in this movie. the writing is solid (i've even heard there was a push to award it the first pulitzer for screenwriting!), putting us immediately into a specific world with a specific conflict and a large cast of interrelated characters. the structure is fine too, giving us vingettes of 2 years, strung along and marked by thanksgivings. as such, this is a movie about cycles. the cycles that relationships take, where a man can feel so apart from his wife that he fucks her sister, and then a year later feels so unbelievably close to his wife that his past infidelity seems like a bad dream. its about the cycles of art, how building styles or music change over the years: art deco to red brick; cole porter to punk. its about the cycle of life, a thanksgiving table filled with three generations of family, and ending with the ultimate gift: a bun in the oven, borne out of love.

05 October 2006

mean streets

caught a screening of mean streets last night. it was at the gene siskel film center, a clean, white-walled place for film lovers. its the kind of place where, when you walk out of a movie, dudes with bears and scarves stand in the lobby and say, "it was remarkable to see that, even that early, scorsese had total control...there wasn't one wasted shot..." or, "there was so much violence, but it was scrappy violence...it felt real." its the kind of place where they have the movie's sound pumping through speakers in the bathroom so that you don't miss a thing.

so: the movie. it's about sin. i like the story, true or not, about cassavettes seeing scorsese's movie "boxcar bertha" and telling him it was crap. "make a personal movie," he said, and this is what scorsese came up with.


you can't get much more personal than this, folks. scorsese himself was this close to becoming a priest, and the movie is clearly an examination of his problems in reconciling the ideals of the clean catholic church life with the dirty gritty street life in little italy. its about sin, and the guilt that consumes you from living in that sin. its no mistake that scorsese himself (not harvey keitel as is often assumed) speaks the famous first words of narration: "you don't make up for your sins in church. you do it in the streets. you do it at home. the rest is bullshit and you know it." this is the filmmaker using his commercial, artistic medium to explore the tension between church life, and life as it is actually lived.

the religious symbols are everywhere. we see crucifixes all over the place, lit up over the street band, around necks, in body language. there are statues of jesus on top of buildings. tony's club is bathed in red, the color of sin, sex, blood. the last english words spoken are "god bless you". and after the climactic car crash, a hydrant is hit and sends a cleansing rain over the sinners.

and let's talk about misogyny. charlie equates women with temptation and sex with sin, so he hides both from the rest of the world, regardless of his claiming that he doesn't want johnny or his uncle to know. he doesn't want to admit to himself that he's having sex before marriage. so he ends up treating his lover poorly and without regard, a parallel to how the catholic church itself treats women on a macro level.

one of the best ways to judge a movie's success is how influential it becomes in time. in this case, "mean streets" is runaway great. almost every mob movie that gets down to the details of the day to day work of that "profession" (such as "donnie brasco") owes a debt to "mean streets". and, of course, scorsese himself started using techniques and tics that he would continue to use throughout the rest of his career and into the present: wall to wall rock and roll (especially phil spector-style doo-wop), dramatic lighting (red in clubs, for example), fluid and constantly moving cameras, and an eye for the specifics of underworld group dynamics.

in watching "mean streets", we are watching a master take shape and grow into his art, and the subsequent energy is infectious.