Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Departed: Going ... going ....

(Possible spoilers ahead.)

Martin Scorsese's latest film, The Departed, features recurring images of rats: rats attacking the Massachusetts State House, rats slinking through alleyways, even one rat scuttling along the balcony of a ritzy Boston apartment. I suspect it's all too appropriate, in a way, because this remake of the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs is trash. To be sure, it's well-crafted and entertaining -- but it's trash nonetheless. Its saving grace is that Scorsese seems to view it for what it is, and uses it as an excuse to serve up the outlandish ultraviolence and postmodern movie-movie sensibility we expect from Quentin Tarantino. The result is a popcorn flick with panache, and the most flat-out fun we've had yet from the dean of American cinema.

The plot involves an improbably symmetrical pas de quatre between three cops and a hardened criminal: A mob boss (Jack Nicholson) places a protege in the ranks of the police, while an undercover unit (headed by Martin Sheen) embeds its own informant (Leonardo DiCaprio) within the mob. The mob boss and the undercover unit soon suspect that something is amiss, and before long informants on both sides are engaged in a lethal game of deception. To muddy the waters even further, the police informer and the mob informant become romantically involved with the same psychotherapist (Vera Farmiga), who slowly begins to realize who is lying to whom, and why.

In lesser hands The Departed would be an impenetrable tangle of coincidence and absurdity. But Scorsese's films move with the confident agility of panthers, and this one breezes through its gonzo scenario as if it were the simplest, most logical thing in the world. It occasionally touches deeper concerns -- the inevitability of death, the social role of Catholicism, political and spiritual corruption and the primacy of father-son bonding. But William Monahan's screenplay uses these themes as fodder for one-liners, sly jokes and inside references to better Scorsese movies, never allowing them to gain any true resonance. It's just as well, since philosophical profundity would be as out of place here as Jean-Paul Sartre in a barroom brawl.

The acting is mostly predictable. Martin Sheen could play a quietly authoritative mentor in his sleep, which is pretty much how he does it here. Matt Damon scrunches up his face and looks vaguely petulant, as is his wont when giving a "serious" performance. But there's absolutely nothing serious about Jack Nicholson. He gives the film's star turn, chewing enough scenery to develop asbestos poisoning and reviving unpleasant memories of his Joker in Tim Burton's Batman. Only Mark Wahlberg, as a disgruntled cop-cum-avenging angel, provides the shock-and-awe moments that once were Scorsese's stock in trade: Wahlberg tosses off one florid, obscenity-laden speech after another with the casual abandon and verve of the great character actors of yore. Whenever he's on screen, The Departed gets a sudden jolt of adrenaline. He's prime supporting-actor Oscar bait.

A word about Leonardo DiCaprio: I'm not sure whether he can play an actual character -- the trailer for December's Blood Diamond showcases his hilariously inept attempt at a Limey accent -- but he has the trick of soulful emoting down pat. Leo's pitiable if somewhat vapid stares are delivered with such method precision that the usual business of acting is rendered largely unnecessary, and in his case that's probably a good thing. Unfortunately, Scorsese's previous films with DiCaprio used him rather uncomfortably like a placeholder: In Gangs of New York and The Aviator one always had the feeling that he would eventually be replaced (perhaps digitally, as in George Lucas's Star Wars movies) when a more suitable, proficient actor became available for the part. But with The Departed Scorsese has found an ideal, even iconic role that only Leo could possibly inhabit. As an undercover informant, DiCaprio gets the worst of every deal in the film; both low-level mobsters and corrupt policemen have their nefarious way with him. Yet DiCaprio comes across not as a victim but as a sacrifice: For the attentive viewer, Scorsese makes it clear that poor Leo is doomed from the start, and that his doom may possess some redemptive value. He must be placed upon the altar of plot and fate so that conflict can be resolved and the world set right.

Not coincidentally, DiCaprio ascended to international stardom by essaying a similar sacrificial role in James Cameron's Titanic: The ultimate submissive masochist, DiCaprio has become the new millennium's answer to Shelley Winters, with a body and face so vulnerable they practically beg to be stripped and punished (in a filmic context, of course). Winters was notorious for onscreen deaths at the hands of various male oppressors -- though her most famous demise, like DiCaprio's, involved drowning. (We need not go into the full Freudian ramifications here; the important things are the fatalism and passivity involved in their respective death scenes.) Winters' little deaths were indictments of patriarchy, raising women's consciousness and placing ultimately responsibility for liberation in their own hands. In contrast, DiCaprio's torments seem to represent a kinky new resurgence of the patriarchy: Only through partaking the male body -- in a sexual sense, partly, but also in a more violent, predatory manner -- can women achieve liberation, and men be cleansed of their sins.

Aside from that, The Departed deploys Scorsese's usual bag of film-school pedantries: This time, his ongoing game of Name That Movie lifts imagery from Carol Reed's The Third Man and Samuel Fuller's Underworld USA, and quotes John Ford's The Informer directly. One scene in a warehouse provides a clever nod to the film's Asian roots, and even promises (though cheekily does not deliver) a wee bit of grindhouse action. Whiplash camera moves and gritty decor are everywhere apparent, and Scorsese shows he can make even the most mundane shoot-'em-up setpieces appear wild and suspenseful. The narrative never slackens; the pace never flags; the film's two-and-a-half hour running time practically flies by. On the whole, this seems to be enough for some critics to cheer The Departed as Scorsese's return to top form. Not me, though.

Scorsese's best films fall under the rubric of what Robert Ray would call "corrected genre pictures": They're films that take the most widely accepted assumptions behind a certain kind of film, and turn them inside out to expose both the falsity of film convention and a higher, more human truth. Taxi Driver is a perverse variation on the Death Wish series; Raging Bull is a boxing movie with a New Wave sensibility and a modernist commitment to psychological depth. Goodfellas is an old-school gangster film stripped of the usual glamour. Even his lesser films tweak their respective genres: The Aviator twisted the feel-good biopic into something deeply unnerving; The Last Temptation of Christ turned the pieties of the sandal epic inside-out; and even an artistic failure like New York, New York endeavored to reinvent the movie musical.

The biggest surprise of The Departed, then, is that despite the twisted plot it's a straightforward cops-and-robbers thriller that doesn't care to correct or question its conventions, or anything else for that matter. This film lacks ambition; it wants merely to please us, which is why it must be viewed as an unusually proficient example of the standard schlock flooding today's multiplexes. Still, even second-rate work from a master filmmaker is worth the price of admission, and The Departed shows that Scorsese knows how to have fun behind a camera. That's enough of a reason to see it, assuming you need one.

(Update (10/8, 11:15 p.m.): Rick Sincere writes to inform me that in the Blood Diamond trailer DiCaprio sports a "quite good" South African accent. Rick has traveled extensively in South Africa, so he should know. The trailer still looks awful: Check it out here.) (Update corrected 10/11.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Diary of a Film Buff: Funny Trailers and Thank You For Smoking

The two flat-out funniest film trailers I've seen this year are here and here, and each one kept me laughing well into the main feature. The trailer for the upcoming Borat is raunchy and politically incorrect, with one flawlessly staged sight gag after another. But the trailer for the upcoming CGI toon Happy Feet (a pretty blatant attempt to cash in on March of the Penguins) may be even better. I won't spoil the delightful absurdist humor by revealing more, except to note that this trailer contains no visible cuts.

Also, for Republicans in need of a good laugh (or anyone else for that matter), Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking arrives on DVD today. This fast-paced romp through the corridors of K Street is the year's best comedy, and can stand proudly beside the classic works of Preston Sturges. Aaron Eckhart's dynamic lead performance and Reitman's well-crafted screenplay both merit Oscar consideration, but the film's low profile, libertarian politics and mid-March release date all but guarantee a pass from the Academy. Still, Thank You grossed nearly $25 million in US theaters -- not bad for a low-budget indie -- and might have grossed much more had Fox Searchlight deigned to distribute and promote it in red-state America.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Lady in the Dark: My Fair Lady gets stripped at Signature Theatre

I hope I may be forgiven for approaching Signature Theatre's production of My Fair Lady with trepidation. Signature, a mainstay of Washington-area drama, is best known for its stripped-down, contemporary productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals. Its last show was a Brechtian revival of Assassins, Sondheim's plotless revue devoted to men and women who have killed (or tried to kill) the President of the United States. On the surface, few musicals would seem further removed from the angst and terror of presidential assassination than My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's masterpiece of musical comedy. But Signature's production is so conspicuously dark and foreboding that I half-expected John Wilkes Booth, or perhaps Sweeney Todd himself, to step out from the shadows. That it entertains as frequently as it does, is largely due to two excellent lead actors, a tight ensemble cast, and most of all, the inherent strength and charm of the material.

My Fair Lady is closely based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, in which professor Henry Higgins takes Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, and transforms her into a respectable English lady. But Eliza proves to have a mind and a will of her own, and Higgins discovers that some things and people) are utterly beyond his control. Director Eric Schaeffer has a mind of his own, too: With a reduced cast of nineteen actors (instead of the usual forty-four) and an adequate-but-no-better two-piano accompaniment, he makes it abundantly clear that this will not be your grandmother's My Fair Lady. Theatergoers who expect to see a lavish retread of George Cukor's 1965 film will be sorely disappointed, and theatergoers who don't may feel disappointed, too.

Schaeffer's direction is consistently innovative, frequently provocative, and alas, not always appropriate to the material. He drives the show's class-and-feminism subtext home with a sledgehammer, shortchanging much of the low comedy and leaving the audience with a near-constant feeling of dread. Mark Lanks's lighting is guaranteed to cause eyestrain; James Kronzer's stark black set creates a mood more appropriate for Edgar Allan Poe than Shaw. Some elements of this production are simply bizarre: The Embassy Ball scene features a runway of blue neon lights that resembles a German discotheque, and Jenn Miller's costume designs include an array of men's tuxedos with inexplicably missing sleeves. (In Schaeffer's England, at least, the people still have the right to bare arms.) Taken together, they suggest that the supporting cast just might forgo the Embassy Ball and stage a Chippendales revue instead.

Yet as soon as Sally Murphy begins to sing, all is forgiven ... almost. As Eliza Doolittle, Murphy proves a winsome, lovable stage heroine, and if there are traces of Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn (and perhaps Marni Nixon, too) in her performance, it's no less delightful for that. Her golden soprano voice nicely complements such Broadway standards as "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "I Could Have Danced All Night," and she handles her character's dramatic second-act change of heart with aplomb. In short, not only does she embody everything one could possibly desire in an Eliza Doolittle, she also provides a much-needed emotional anchor for the show.

That said, Andrew Long may be even better. As Henry Higgins, he quickly dispatches any lingering memories of Rex Harrison (for whom Lerner and Loewe custom-tailored the role) by bringing an entirely new look and a much darker edge to the part. Instead of portraying a prim-and-proper elderly fussbudget, the barely middle-aged Long takes his character to the brink of obsession with bursts of only half-joking histrionic fury. Long's good looks add palpable sexual tension to his scenes with Eliza, and his carefully modulated, half-spoken renditions of "I'm an Ordinary Man" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" are high points of the evening.

The supporting cast includes Washington theater veteran Terrence P. Currier as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's drunkard father, who seems motivated less by irrepressible high spirits than by a stoic resolve to drink as much cheap ale as he can before the Grim Reaper carries him off. Currier's low-key approach to the role works well for the dialogue scenes, where he comes across as a ruthless negotiator, but in comic numbers like "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time" the effect is more alienating. Signature theater regular Will Gartshore seems miscast as Freddy Eynesworth-Hill, a upper-class twit who provides a temporary love interest for Eliza. His natural charisma and confident vocal delivery seems to work against the character as written; nonetheless it's a joy to hear him tackle "On the Street Where You Live," possibly the most beautiful song ever written to cover a scene change. Harry Winter brings considerable warmth to the underwritten character of Colonel Pickering, making him seem less like Higgins' sidekick or toady and more like a true, bosom companion; Dana Kreuger brings compassion and common decency (and even steals a scene or two), in the small but pivotal role of Henry Higgins's dowager mother.

My Fair Lady will be Signature's final show in the old garage on Four Mile Run Drive: Soon the company will move to newer, classier digs in nearby Shirlington. I wish it could have left the space on a high note, instead of the decidedly mixed one we have here. Luckily, Schaeffer's ham-fisted direction cannot completely quash the wit and verve Lerner and Loewe packed into the show itself. The cast is culled from the best talent in the DC area, which also helps considerably, so even though Signature's retooling of My Fair Lady isn't half as "loverly" as a more straightforward production would have been, it's enjoyable more often than not.

Signature's Lady will probably appeal to hardcore theater snobs, who have been longing for decades to see this show get a more avant-garde treatment. Neophytes, on the other hand, may find the whole affair too chilly and gothic for their taste -- as, I'm afraid, did I.

My Fair Lady runs two hours and forty minutes, with a fifteen-minute intermission. At Signature Theatre through November 19. For more information or tickets, visit Signature's website or call 800-955-5566.

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