Thursday, March 8, 2007

I know you only too well...

I hear that Chengora fellow is taking a trip, meaning its about time to pull some weight and post something. second, coughing fit...let's have at it.

I went on a long trip recently, and had the opportunity to view a couple of the past year's near best films on a long, long ride between nations. One was The Queen: eminently watchable. Actors delivering fine performances that are explained in thick metaphoric detail or in pure exposition mere minutes later. The other was The Departed, the now best picture and Martin Scorsese's route to heavyweight title, contender no more. A great weight of expection has been lifted, and the man can now concetrate on his next masterpiece. But I have to that it?

Less than ideal circumstances: small screen, crowded on a plane, and I have a great deal of affection for the HK original Infernal Affairs. I think I've accounted for the surroundings and my biases, and this movie just didn't feel like the best of above average thriller with strangely awkward execution. (Awkward is better than predictable, but still...) This isn't too much of a surprise, the plot, which is what both versions keep, really just is above average, a good premise with one strong twist.

But let's cover what The Departed got right, and what it improved:
Boston is a much better setting than a fake, though stylish, HK underworld. It's very much a character here, and like the strong ensemble cast, it's a broad and colorful thing. The acting was the same; it wasn't always to my taste, but it was solid. Considering I liked Jack Nicholson, who has irritated me everywhere except About Schmidt, when he was asked to play someone small, the movie was a triumph. Everybody seems to get a scene where they act like a Boss Tweed cartoon, though that's true in Scorcese films since Gangs of New York, when that was relevant. And the rest of the casting was good, though Tony Leung and Andy Lau are probably better leads.* Lastly, they completely rewrote the women for this version. Since the female roles in the HK version were just vehicles for popstars, that couldn't help but be an improvement. Combining two flimsy roles meant only one piece of dead weight instead of two. The new Harvard hottie, object of triangular desire and Leo's reason to take off his shirt is still an underwritten cliche herself, so maybe that's not a improvement as much as a wash. Two ciphers = one cliche? Convinient plot spring in both versions.

And those things are all practically gimmes. How come this movie wasn't better? Or at least the same? It certainly started with stronger characters. Since the principals are so much younger than Lau and Leung, we don't have the disconnect of and stay with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon almost throughout. No interlude of Justin Timberlake playing one Leo (which really, is what HK loves).

And yet, is Leo doing pensive really ever going to be stronger than Tony sulking? And as Boston recedes as the movie chugs, and with the color and character, the plot juts up front and center. And the plot needs propulsion, which by style isn't what Scorsese's preference. The pacing in the second half just suffers for it. Scenes drag from having new exposition tied to them. There's one where Damon/Lau needs impersonates a lawyer, tricking a criminal to giving up info. And now, where the Asian cops said "Wow!" and leave it be the Americans say "Hey! He just impersonated a lawyer! That's illegal!" Well, duh. Foreshadowed twists now have signposts...for this one let's just say you don't have to actually explain all aspects of the sting. Out loud. This isn't confident filmmaking--and much as I'm praising their product by comparison, it's not as if the HK audience is that much brighter than anyone else, so that kind of dumbing down is disappointing.

In the end though, if you're not going to keep adding to it, it's all about execution. Predictably weak actresses aside, the HK version had two leads with more oomph (let's call the rest of the cast comparisons a wash), but simply more assured execution. It was less ambitious, but it just never got confused about what it wanted to do. Both versions have dumb endings that try to reassure the audience sense of right, instead of seeing through the setting they've built. Though the HK theatrical ending, if cut one scene short, would be strongest version.

I've said this before, each time I see another interesting misfire out of Scorsese (though the Aviator was boring more than interesting). He needs to relearn how to edit and cut the fat, so we see sinew and not bloat. Let the color scenes can inform just the actors, instead of everything. Or he needs to sign with HBO or something and make a Ken Burns length mini-series. Enough noble failures. Ahh well, this post took too long.

*I kept reading Mark Walhberg was good, and he was certainly entertaining and funny...but he was inconsequential, no?


HoBs said...

i just want to know why during the Oscars, they called Departed a remake of a Japanese film.

hcduvall said...

Really? That's pretty weak.