Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" Get all the good you can outta 17 ‘cuz it sure wears out in one helluva hurry. "
— Paul Newman, Hud

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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Avid Movie Habit readers will remember a recommendation from a year ago for Infernal Affairs. It’s a Hong Kong cops-and-robbers movie with a simple but effective gimmick. The film has two heroes: an undercover cop working for a gangster, and an undercover gangster working as a cop.

Infernal Affairs is a very good movie, but it apparently didn’t make a big splash in America, because Hollywood saw fit to quickly remake it with no less than Martin Scorsese at the helm, directing Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin.

Cat and Mouse

Jack and Marty might as well keep on doing what they do so well
Jack and Marty might as well keep on doing what they do so well

Like its Chinese predecessor, The Departed is a very good cops-and-robbers movie. The premise is simplicity itself: two double agents work against each other, neither knowing the identity of his counterpart. The movie has several very good set pieces, such as the big sale of stolen microchips. The last-minute deal is hastily surveilled by the cops, with both sides having just learned that the other side has a traitor watching. The gangsters want the deal to go through before the cops move, while the cops have to wait until they have enough evidence to nab them. All the while, two nervous moles surreptitiously try to get information to the other team.

The Chinese film may have been tighter; it has the edge when it comes to pure adrenaline-pumping tension. But what Scorsese adds is a greater emphasis on characters. After all, if you’ve got the star power assembled here, you probably want to make sure that everyone gets his scene, rather than hurry from plot point to plot point.

Cops and Robbers

Jack Nicholson kicks things off as Frank Costello, a small Godfather from the mean streets of Boston. After shaking down a shopkeeper, he gives some change and some groceries to a promising Irish kid, Colin, who grows up to be one of his prodigies.

On the day he graduates from the academy, Colin (Damon) skips the graduation party and goes to celebrate with Frank’s, who welcomes him into the big time. Colin takes his policing as seriously as the rest of the cops, which is to say he’s happy to swagger, collect his paycheck, and not to ask too many questions. His real job — to keep an eye out for Frank’s interests — is no harder than making the occasional coded phone call to his “father.”

Bill (DiCaprio) takes policing much more seriously. Where Colin is loose and easygoing, Bill is tightly wound and single-minded. When the undercover division tries to shake his faith in the law, Bill sweats but he does not break, demonstrating just the sort of pathological dedication the division was looking for. He’ll need it, because his first assignment is deep, deep cover in Costello’s gang. Only two cops will even know that he’s under cover.

Adding just a hint of estrogen to the proceedings is Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist who works for the state, seeing cops who have been assigned professional counseling and parolees who come as part of their sentence. Naturally, in a movie like this, she sees both Colin and Bill. Her torn loyalties complicate matters, but they also ground the sometimes-confusing threads in a fathomable context.

Faithful Adaptation

Most Americans won’t have seen Infernal Affairs, so for many The Departed will simply be another very good gangster movie from Martin Scorsese.

But having seen the original, I’m a little puzzled at seeing such a faithful adaptation from Scorsese. As little as he changed the movie, I wonder why he bothered. Why not leave well enough alone and find some other project to spend two years on? (Probably because the story fits his style like a glove.)

Longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker does an excellent job of pacing the movie, and there are just a few flourishes at the big showdown that reveal a creative mind at work in the editing room. One of my favorite composers, Howard Shore, provides a score that I didn’t even hear. As is often the case, Scorsese lays a lot of pop music over the movie, and that’s what I noticed instead.

A Martin Scorsese Picture

It’s hard to see a Scorsese film and not remember John Stewart’s quip at the Oscars (“for those keeping score: Three 6 Mafia: 1, Martin Scorsese: zero”). Will The Departed finally win Marty an Oscar? The man is certainly deserving, and The Departed is a good movie. But I’m not sure the film is best-of-the-year good. What seems more likely is that Jack Nicholson will get nominated for Best Supporting Actor. There is a scene in his bar that feels like a pre-packaged showcase for Nicholson’s talents: he gets a little philosophical, he gets a little crazy, and he gets a lot of close-up screen time.

Not to be morbid, but I wonder, maybe a bit wistfully, whether we’ll see many more films from either Scorsese or Nicholson. In Jack’s big scene, his character is confronted with his age. He says that he hasn’t had to steal for financial reasons since he was a kid. And since reaching a certain age he doesn’t even need the sex all that much, either. He still wants those things, he quips, but we also see in his eyes that it’s simply what he does, and he doesn’t know how to stop.

...not unlike Marty and Jack, who might as well keep doing what they do, especially since they do it so well.