Monday, October 09, 2006

The Departed - Movie Review

The master storyteller Martin Scorsese returns to his home turf of gangsterology, goons, good guys, violence and bloodshed with his latest offering "The Departed". There is a general grouse that violence in Scorsese films are unmitigated and graphic, which is undeniable. He has set the benchmark for cringe-inducing violence and bloodshed in film (at least until the appearance of a director named Quentin Tarantino). In Scorsese films, violence is used more as a tool to shock and involve the audience, than as an end in itself (unlike in Tarantino films where violence is the means and the end, and the screenplay is more like a pean to violence.) Scorsese is more interested in the criminals themselves- he wants to probe their twisted souls, and dig out some humanity from those deranged landscapes.

"The Departed" is one such character study of the world of organized crime in Boston. (This is a remake of a Hong Kong cop classic “Infernal Affairs”.) Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson, is the lord of organized crime in Boston. He makes his prodigy Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) infiltrate the state police force, wherein at about the same time, a recent recruit of the state police, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), infiltrates Costello’s gang. This sets up a curiously rigged high-stakes game, where the role of the hunter and the hunted is continuously reversed. The fact that both Sullivan and Costigan have a common love interest doesn’t hurt the complexity factor either.

The film could serve as a text book example of a well executed ensemble piece. Almost every single supporting character (and there are quite a few of them), is fully chalked out and realized, and manned with first rate actors. Mark Wahlberg stands out playing Dingam as a potty-mouthed muscle flexing cop, who intimidates and cows down opponents with his razor sharp wit and abrasiveness. Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen pitch in with solid performances. Amongst the lead actors, Nicholson stands out. Investing the role with a sort of glee filled rascality, he achieves the delicate balance of making the audience care for him just enough, without sympathizing with his actions.

The film, in its best parts, propels with a seething energy, ably aided by the legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It works most effectively as a crime thriller. The screenplay’s attempts to transcend into greatness are only half-successful; the complex character studies initiated are either cursory or in broad strokes. One area where the film succeeds effortlessly is in combining crime and dark humor; this is one of the funniest crime thrillers you will see.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Science of Sleep – Movie Review

To describe “The Science of Sleep” would be a loopy exercise. The film is inventive as hell, imaginative as if there is no tomorrow, and loopiest of all loopy films. It’s like you write a nice little love story on a pack of playing cards, and give each card to a sleep-deprived, hyper-creative art student to doodle on, and assemble the cards back in order.

Each individual scene in the movie makes wild detours, is punctuated with dreamy interludes that frequently puncture the fabric of reality, leading to a constant state of intoxicated delirium. You are never sure where the film lands you – are you in a dreamscape or are you in reality? Sometime this could lead to total chaos, but the movie somehow finds a way to tell the story and find coherence between all this artistic mayhem.

Stephane (played by Gael Garcia Bernal, “Motorcycle Diaries”) visits his widowed mother in Paris. He moves into one of the apartments his mother rents out. A budding graphic artist, he is tricked by his mother into accepting a dead end rote job. His co-workers are an interesting bunch of modern age dinosaurs- people who have accepted their place (as modest as it might be) in society, and go through life with a sense of resigned discontent.

Stephane deals with the disappointments in his life by taking refuge in his spectacular imagination. When reality becomes unbearable, he slips into his fictitious world, and revels in the endlessly interesting possibilities that reality doesn’t afford him. Imagination is his last defense against insanity. Stephane finds a soul mate in his new neighbor Stephanie, who is slightly odd, interesting, and is also taken to creative pursuits. Their meet-cute encounters are like brainstorming sessions between the lead animators in Pixar Studios. They feed off each others creativity and oddity, and in no time they are inescapably drawn to each other. And, as in any romantic story worth its salt, complications ensue (the question is whether are these real or are they also parts of Stephane’s figment.)

Gael Garcia Bernal wields his considerable talents with apparent ease to create a fully realized character. Even at times when the movie is a jumble, the individual moments between the characters and the inventiveness of the makers hold it together. This is a sheer achievement in the craft of making films. The director, Michel Gondry, the maker of the wonderful “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, exercises enormous control over the medium and executes this jumble of a movie with great finesse.

Monday, October 02, 2006

School for Scoundrels - Movie Review

"School of Scoundrels" has all the components for a mindless, crass, formula-based flick. Only thing missing is any reasonable entertainment value. One can sit through such exercises in borderline idiocy, if the movie has some good cheer, some laugh-out-loud moments, and some good old fashion escapist entertainment. "School of Scoundrels" has all of the above, just not enough of it to justify our time or effort.

Roger (played by John Heder of "Napoleon Dynamite"), is a New York city parking enforcement officer, a regular nice guy, who suffers from the standard issue problems of low self esteem, social ineptitude, and acute reservedness. He is a sort of guy whose book shelf is filled with rows and rows of cheesy self-help books. This is the sort of character that mainstream Hollywood loves these days; this character could have easily been transplanted (to and) from about half-a-dozen recent movies (e.g., "The 40-year-old-virgin").

Roger has a crush on his neighbor Amanda (played by the button-cute Jacinda Barret), which he has difficulty expressing. Also, adding to the complexity is the constant presence of Amanda’s girl friend (Sarah Silverman). (How the movie manages to waste the comic talents of the always funny Silverman is another story). One of his acquaintances, sympathizing with Roger's pathetic state of affairs, offers to help him by referring him to a self help coach ("I know a guy, who does this thing"). When a character in a movie says something cheesy like this, that should mean (in a good stupid movie), "buckle up your seat belts, and get ready for the ride". A good screenplay should have soared from this point, but this movie limps and grovels to take-off, but to no avail.

Roger goes to the self-help crash course conducted by Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), and further complications ensue. The movie has some of the best talents working for it. Billy Bob Thornton, the wonderful actor, who consistently creates fully rounded odd-ball characters out of almost any material given to him (e.g., "The Bandits", "Bad Santa"), fizzles out serving an insipid screenplay. John Heder, has made a career out of playing some version of the "every-man-loser" typecast, plays one more such role, reasonably effectively.

The film is directed by Todd Philips who directed the crass, cult classics like "Road Trip" and "Old School". Those movies were funny, this movie is not. Some of the supposedly funny scenes in this movie involve a paint-ball gun and John Heder's groin area, and in another occasion, a defibrillator and Thornton's groin area - this is how inventive the screenplay is. It is not that the movie is out rightly unfunny, it is just insipid, and lingers-on like the taste of a cheap gas-station-coffee. Wise souls will avoid this movie.