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The Front Runner (2018)

In 1987, former Colorado senator and governor Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the leading Democrat in primary polling and a sure bet to take on George H.W. Bush for the White House. In three weeks time, his campaign was in tatters and he folded. It all stems from a supposed affair he was conducting with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). They deny anything but Gary acts like he has something to hide, evading the media’s questions about his marriage and his past history with infidelity. Enough time has passed in the political landscape to take a deeper dive into Gary Hart’s disintegration in the spotlight, and the moment serves a tipping point for changing media coverage. Journalists talk about the “old days” where candidate infidelity and ailments were just ignored as a gentleman’s agreement of sorts between the gatekeepers, but should they have? While a candidate’s martial relations are significantly less important than policy and governance, they do reflect character and what he or she (but, let’s face it, mostly he) acts with authority. Strangely, The Front Runner wants to paint the hungry journalists digging into Hart’s past as the real enemy, going above and beyond the bounds of ethics for crass sensationalism. This is directed and co-written by Jason Reitman (Tully, Up in the Air), a shrewd storyteller with a knack for human drama, which makes the “both sides are bad” equivocation all the more curious. Jackman is strong and has several scenes of righteous speeches talking about how he didn’t sign away his privacy, except when you run for president, you kind of do, and the American public deserve to know if their leaders abuse power. The movie favors long takes with a wide supporting cast of players that speak like they stepped out of an Aaron Sorkin workshop (an exchange celebrating the “integrity” of news anchors wearing bad suits feels ripped right from Sorkin’s unguarded typewriter). The film is nicely sympathetic to the “other woman” in this scenario and treats her like a human being with dimension. The PR recovery and shady deeds of Hart’s team reminded me of the Chappaquiddick, which placed an unfavorable scrutiny on Ted Kennedy and his team of political spin masters after his deadly car accident. It all makes for an entertaining movie with solid performances and interesting character shading, but its perspective is too wobbly, trying to lay the blame on everyone it can find.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Captive State (2019)

The fraught world of Captive State is interesting, a political landscape ten years into an alien occupation. We follow a small band of human resistance fighters working to get past a security stopgap to strike back at the alien overlords who resemble human-sized pine trees. John Goodman plays a police security chief trying to unravel the insurgent conspiracy while working with the collaborative government. It has a slight cat-and-mouse feel of a good conspiracy thriller and there are asides that broaden the world, giving an interesting peak at the realities of this strange new world. The problem is that it feels like a whole mini-series stripped into a two-hour movie. The characters feel less like people and more like impressions of people, and the story is plowing through so many incidents that there isn’t much time to flesh them out except for the occasional trope. As a result, the movie feels like it has a lot of things happening but my interest level flagged because I felt little for the characters. The limitations of the budget are felt here and there as far as the sense of scale. Director/co-writer Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) takes a docu-drama approach and favors nighttime chases and sneaking, which also conceals special effects restrictions. The visual grittiness adds a visceral level of realism but can lend itself to additional logic questions. I kept waiting for the world to feel more lived-in and offer important slivers to add layers of context to this conspiracy. Captive State is frustrating with how much it leaves unspoken and unclear. It’s ten years in to this occupation and what exactly have the aliens offered the world? What has changed? Why are these freedom fighters fighting back? What are the goals of the aliens? I can handle ambiguity and nuance but with too much the world building can feel unsatisfying and incomplete. It comes together well but by the climactic end I felt the universe it established was more intriguing with potential than the story it delivered.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Commuter (2018)

Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.

The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?

Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.

Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.

Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.

The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

CJR2_1sht_Main_Vert_2764x4096_INTL_masterHorror is one genre where sequels rarely if ever satisfy. Usually the repetition is mind numbing and what was once scary has been eradicated. The true signs of great horror is the dread of what’s coming next, and to this end James Wan has shown tremendous skill at playing an audience and their fears. The Conjuring 2 isn’t quite the thrilling success that its predecessor was but it still upholds the best parts of what made the first movie frightening. We follow the Warrens once more, the husband and wife paranormal investigators, and this time to England where a malevolent spirit is haunting a family. One of the few miscues is delaying the meeting of the Warrens with the beleaguered family to almost an hour, pushing the running time to a needlessly overblown 133 minutes. The movie seems to be stretching out the ghost set pieces. Fortunately, Wan knows exactly how to build tension and let it simmer. The demon nun imagery is effectively unsettling, and there’s a brilliant sequence where Mrs. Warren (Vera Farmiga) has to slowly pull a light cord, all while the portrait of the demon nun hangs visibly in the dark. It’s a small scene that explains in full the clever construction of the whole. It sets up the parameters, develops them, and then lets the audience dread what it knows is coming. These are not cheap scares or lame jump scares but genuinely earned terror within a carefully constructed atmosphere. It might not be as good as the first one but The Conjuring 2 is still plenty good, which by default makes it possibly one of the greatest horror sequels of all time. Let’s hope the demon nun spinoff goes better than Anabelle.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Conjuring (2013)

the-conjuring-poster1Does it seem like it’s getting harder and harder to scare people? Perhaps audiences have grown jaded by a real world kept at a fever pitch of post-9/11 anxiety and economic uncertainty. It seems that one solution is to just up the gore/gross factor, or overdose on grisly nihilism, but there has to be a law of diminishing returns to pointless shock value. The core elements of a good scary movie will usually be the same: make us care about the people onscreen and make us dread what happens next. What The Conjuring does so well, almost effortlessly, is what all provocative horror movies should accomplish, and that’s the formation of a truly effective spooky atmosphere. There may not even be any gore whatsoever in this film and very minimal jump scares, two overused tools in modern horror filmmaking. This is old school horror played to spine-tingling satisfaction.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are the top paranormal investigators in the nation. In 1971, they’re asked to determine what is tormenting the Perron family in rural Rhode Island. Carolyn (Lily Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters cannot rest as a vengeful spirit is wrecking havoc with their lives. The spirit wants a body count and won’t go away before it has blood.

100355_galDirector James Wan (Saw) and his team take their time to build a direct sense of unease, a chilling mood that leaves you dreading what may happen next. The success of a horror film isn’t necessarily the fear of what you see but more so what you fail to see. The buildup, in essence, is more pivotal than the boo part. Credit also needs to go to twin screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (Whiteout, House of Wax) who show off their skill at setting up scares and delivering (I credit their work on Baywatch Nights because, well, someone has to remember that spin-off). The child game of Hide and Clap, where one person wanders blindfolded trying to find their compatriots, requesting three claps to locate them, is just a flat-out terrific idea to parlay into a horror movie. There’s the staple of dramatic irony, realizing what the onscreen character does not, and the increasingly suspenseful dredge into unknown danger. Another example is a wind-up toy that, when its jingle is complete, should reveal something ghostly in its mirror. This is a great device that delivers tension in budding anticipation. Then there’s one daughter’s habit of sleepwalking, which again leads to some effective unease. The Hayes find smart ways to introduce elements to their ghost story and then integrate them again and again in satisfying and spooky ways. Plus there’s all those groping in the dark moments and a super effective sound design. The film does an excellent job of developing old school scares, taking its time to get under your skin.

It also helps when you actually care about the character being tormented. The Conjuring does a good job of making its characters relatable given the outlandish circumstances. At no point does any character really violate the Law of Stupidity, where our allegiance reverses. They even present plausible reasons why the family can’t simply move out of its haunted abode (financially under water, no one to buy the estate, the ghost will just follow them). The Perron clan is a loving family that feels real. The Warrens themselves are given their own vulnerability, which is important since they are the experts. Having a know-it-all character without a weakness doesn’t make for an interesting battle against the paranormal. Lorraine can sense things, yes, but she also loses part of herself every time, thus endangering herself with every new case, making herself more susceptible to the forces she feels she’s been chosen to defend others from. When Lorraine accidentally leaves behind a family locket, with a picture of her daughter, it brings an escalated threat level that hits home for the Warrens. The acting form top to bottom is also exceptional. They don’t oversell the scares. You feel their fear in a palpable way.

Another aspect of a haunting story is the mystery surrounding the angry spirit. If it’s a compelling investigation, you’re intrigued by every new clue or revelation and enjoy how the pieces come together. While there isn’t a complex backstory to the haunting of the Perron home, The Conjuring has enough creepy historical details to add to the overall atmosphere. I enjoyed that the evil spirit cursed anyone who lived on her property, eventually divided up into different owners. I liked that the spirit had a mother-child fixation, turning mothers against their children. And I liked that these peripheral ghosts, many of whom killed themselves in ghastly fashions, also pop up to terrorize the Perrons. It adds further depth to the world of the film while upping the spooky factor.

THE CONJURINGI need to single out one section of the plot that was eerie but also a bit confounding. The opening case doesn’t have anything to do with the Perron family but it does set a nice mood. It’s about a cracked, fraying, and altogether creepy porcelain doll that appears to be possessed and leaving notes for its roommates (“Miss me?”). We later see this creepy doll again because the Warrens have an entire garage filled with creepy artifacts from previous investigations. They argue destroying the possessed items because it would unleash all those demonic forces, so instead the garage serves as a sort of prison (a priest comes by every so often to re-bless the premises, which sounds like a nice side gig for the Vatican). I’ll accept the Warrens reasoning that locking away these dangerous items, each with its own troubling story, is safer for mankind. It’s also just a great set that begs for further analysis to pick apart every artifact. What I do not understand at all is that it looks like the Warrens have no protective lock with this door. Their young daughter stumbles in at one point. I don’t want to give anybody parenting tips, but if you have a room stocked with demonically possessed items that can escape, perhaps, I don’t know, you get a padlock for that door to safeguard against unwanted intrusions.

While entertaining to the end, the third act doesn’t have the same effect because it transitions wholly from a haunted house story into an overt exorcism film. For my tastes, it’s less interesting and exorcism films have always come across as fairly lazy for me. Once you bring a demonic possession and a set of familiar rules, it sort of goes on autopilot and rarely strays from the same template as the most famous of exorcism movies (Naturally I’m talking about Repossessed). For fans of that horror subgenre, they’ll be tickled, but I found it a lesser way to steer the movie to its conclusion. I realize that we’re dealing with the parameters of a personal account (I’m hesitant to say “true story” when it comes to paranormal events, but that’s my own bias), so I understand that this is the direction the story must conclude. I just thought it was a slight downgrade.

If you’re looking for a scary movie this summer, then The Conjuring will do the trick. It’s an old school horror movie that’s more concerned with properly established atmosphere, a mood of dread, and paying off well-developed plot elements that pack a punch. The best compliment I can give Wan, the Hayes, and everyone else involved is that I was squirming throughout much of the movie, uneasily shifting and dreading what was next. There’s a maturity to the film and Wan’s direction, as if he’s patterned his style after the films of the 1970s themselves. After Insidious, Wan definitely knows a thing or two about keeping an audience afraid. There are several moments of unsettling imagery that should find a way to creep out just about everyone. Just remember: don’t invite dolls to live with you, do investigate those strange bruises, and always lock up your demonic possessions, people. In short, The Conjuring doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to ghost stories but it doesn’t have to, because this movie is scary good.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Source Code (2011)

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakes on a train. His mind has been transplanted into the body of Sean Fentress, a doomed train passenger. Fentress, along with 200 others, were killed in an explosion on a commuter train heading in to Chicago. But this has all happened in the past. Colter has been quantum leaped into a top secret government program known as the source code. It uses people’s brain waves to simulate a recorded reality. The last thing Colter can remember is a firefight in Afghanistan, and now he’s aboard a train looking for a mad bomber. Whatever info he can retrieve will help the officials (Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright) prevent a second terrorist bombing scheduled that day. Colter only has eight minutes to interact with the train passengers and deduce who the bomber is. After eight minutes, the train explodes and the reality resets itself again. Things get even more complicated when he falls for Fentress’ fetching female friend Christina (Michelle Mongahan). Can he save her? Can he save anyone? Can he get out of the source code?

Source Code manages to be a twisty, trippy little film that doesn’t so much knock you out but definitely packs a bit of a punch. Its simplicity is its very best asset. There’s a bomb on a train (ignore the questionable movie sci-fi physics). Colter has exactly eight minutes to learn what he can before he and everybody else blows up. Then the fun starts anew. The movie is less a time-travel flick than an alternate reality sort of experiment. Personally, I love movies that present a timeline and then slowly thumb away at the edges, stretching the narrative space, showing the audience the various intricacies of this tiny world. Whether it’s Pulp Fiction, Groundhog Day, or the propulsive fun of Run Lola Run, I enjoy a story that expands outward into a greater foundational complexity. I enjoy the clockwork of a story that shows me how the different pieces work together. I enjoy that through the variations I can experience a richer world, seeing what happens to a passenger as they leave the train, seeing how a character’s actions can impact another, seeing how altering that character’s action alters other forces in the story. That kind of narrative trickery, perfected in Groundhog Day, makes the story feel like a living creature because you witness the interconnected relationships of everything and everyone. It also makes it pretty fun to watch.

Director Duncan Jones makes slick use of tight spaces like he showcased in 2009’s celestial sci-fi thriller, Moon. The quick pacing and collective rhythm of the movie helps contribute to its entertainment factor. Source Code is playful enough in design and execution. It remains consistently clever with its plotting, but what’s really surprising is that Jones is able to find a personal human story inside all the thriller trappings. Colter is trying to make sense of his situation, but he’s also trying to reconcile the idea of life, death, fate, and getting to speak with his parents who assume he was killed in Afghanistan (he’s been with the source code project for over two months). There’s a human face to all this, and while the love story feels tacked on and underdeveloped, Colter’s emotional turmoil and existential struggles to reassert his identity and find some peace from his life ring true. Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia) is an ever capable lead who takes a near Hitchcockian leading man role and plays it straight to fine effect.

At the same time, Source Code tries to have it all with an ending that I don’t truly believe it pulls off. Spoilers will lurk, so skip the next two paragraphs those who wish to remain pure and chaste. The film does a fairly nimble job of setting up an appropriate, if mostly downbeat, ending. Colter doesn’t want to be a brain in a box; he doesn’t want the government using him as their newest tool for the rest of his unnatural days. He was pulled from the brink of death and he now just wants to die in peace. In the recorded reality of the source code, he’s allowed the chance that most of us will never have – he can find closure. Whereas he would have died on a desert battlefield, now Colter has an opportunity to speak to his father one last time, to say goodbye. The entire denouement of Source Code seems to be establishing a memorial for the people who were lost on that train, because once the source code is erased so too will they be. They’re electronic recreations but in the end it reminds you that they were real people, and now they get something of a proper sendoff, a fairly touching memorial to the people who will just be seen as numbers in a news report.

And then… just as Colter makes peace with passing over, he passes over into another reality. The train doesn’t blow up. The people are able to get off. He gets to walk hand-in-hand with his new sweetheart. Jones doesn’t make it clear what really happens, which can lead to some mounting confusion. Did they really alter the past? Did they create a parallel dimension? In one dimension is everyone on the train dead whereas in another everyone lives, short of Sean Fentress? And how crappy is that? Yes, Gyllenhaal is a charming and terrific looking guy, but does no one shed a tear for the fact that he stole another man’s body? Sean Fentress may not have had the courage to ask out his pretty friend, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to have his identity hijacked and his existence more or less erased from time and space. It’s a weird blemish that the filmmakers don’t truly want to address, and why would they? The ending lacks commentary of any sort strictly because the movie wants to have it all. It wants the sad, mournful ending, it wants the happy “Everything’s gonna be okay” ending. It almost let’s you choose. But Source Code doesn’t come across so much as a film that begs to be opened for different interpretations so much as a film that didn’t want to upset anyone by picking an ending.

Source Code is nicely paced, nicely plotted, and it produces just as many intriguing questions as it does substantial thrills. Jones finds interesting ways to make the same material different. The various characters, converging storylines, and science-fiction mumbo jumbo are all nicely woven into a satisfying bite-sized sci-fi thriller. It fumbles with the landing, in my view; it seems like a pandering appeal to please every faction of the audience, or at least to confuse them with the illusion that they have gotten what they wanted. This is an intellectual sci-fi potboiler in disguise as a thriller. Roll with it, play along, don’t think too hard about the moral implications of its murky ending, and enjoy the ride.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Up in the Air (2009)

Up in the Air is the kind of movie that slyly sneaks up on you. This charming comedy is much like George Clooney’s character, a man paid by cowardly bosses to fire their employees. He’s so good at his job that his skills appear effortless, but at the same time he can take heavy subject matter and make you feel better and thankful afterwards. The topical backdrop of corporate downsizing and layoffs could produce plenty of easy pathos, but Up in the Air works expertly on several layers; it’s a brisk, clever comedy with revealing repartee; it’s an adult romance that blissfully lets them behave like mature adults; and it’s a moving character piece about people realizing what they have gained and lost due to their lifestyle choices. When Clooney is fighting back tears from a crushing disappointment over being overlooked to walk his sister down the aisle, it may be the most compactly perfect moment of acting in his career. Throughout director Jason Reitman’s script (he co-wrote the adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel), the human element is debated in our technological age. Clooney’s young cohort (Anna Kendrick) wants to simplify by firing people over the Internet. What is the cost of losing our human connection? Reitman doesn’t resort to a stolid happy ending, which is somewhat of a relief. The movie doesn’t present easy answers or pretend that life can be tied up with a bow. Up in the Air is a bristling comedy with an understated emotional current running alongside. It’s racking up tons of awards and deserves many of them, though I won’t get t the point of calling this the best film of 2009. However, Reitman has delivered another deeply entertaining, charismatic, and involving comedy that sprinkles in potent human drama.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Departed (2006)

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment,” growls Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in the opening seconds of The Departed. “I want my environment to be a product of me.” Without question, the filmmaker that has shaped the environment of movies more than any other in the last 30 years is Martin Scorsese. No one does the cops-and-robbers territory better than Scorsese, and it’s great to have him back on familiar turf. It’s not that Gangs of New York and The Aviator were lacking in directorial skill, it’s just that they felt so labored and reeking of classy awards envy. With The Departed, it all feels so artistically effortless, like Scorsese settled in a zone of brilliant filmmaking. I just hope Marty bangs out more of these excellent gangster flicks before trying again to woo Oscar. In fact, his return to his violent stomping grounds might finally be his long-overdue ticket to the winner’s circle.

The premise is appealingly simple. The Boston State Police Department is desperate to nail local crime lord Costello. They pluck a young recruit, William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has a shady family history of small-time crooks. He agrees to infiltrate Costello’s mob and report back to the Boston PD. To make is situation credible, Costigan is expelled from the force and sent to prison to earn a rep. Only two other people know Cosigan’s real identity, the police chief (Martin Sheen) and the head of undercover work (Mark Wahlberg). On the other side of the law, Costello has a mole all his own working inside the Boston State police force. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has quickly risen through the ranks and has a prime position working with the state?s FBI crack force. He’s also an acolyte of Costello’s ever since he was a young Southie kid seeing the draw of power. Now full grown, Sullivan tips Costello and tries to redirect the ongoing investigation to bring the man to justice.

The real sparks come when both moles try to discover the identity of the other, without compromising their own precarious identities.

The Departed is a bruising, bristling return to form for Martin Scorsese and his most entertaining film since his last Great Movie, 1990’s gangster-rific Goodfellas. This is a movie that crams multiple characters, storylines, and histories into one tight, focused setting, but then the flick glides smoothly on electric storytelling and intense performances. The movie’s twists and turns are, at times, of a knockout variety, and there’s a stretch of late surprises that each feels like a shot to the gut. I was possibly winded from gasping so hard. This is a film so fantastically alive with feeling and vigor that you cannot help but get ensnared. It sets up all the players and back-story before we even get the opening titles set to the blaring wails of the Dropkick Murphies. The thrills are real because we feel the danger, and the onslaught of brutal violence is another rhythmic piece in Scorsese’s masterful conduction. Adding to the feeling is the sure-handed, quick-fire editing of longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker and the ominous cinematography of Michael Ballhaus. Even though this film is based on a 2002 Hong Kong film, Scorsese has firmly made The Departed a movie all its own in spirit and personality. No one so easily brings us into the sordid lives of criminals better than this man, who, when in that creative zone of his, brings such palpable energy to his melding of image, song, and consequence, that the results are simply intoxicating. The Departed reminds you why Scorsese is still our greatest living director, no matter what Oscar thinks.

What elevates The Departed from the clutter of other macho men-with-guns crime capers is its studious attention to character. This is a film that works beyond a concept. The movie’s central moral theme is the price of identity. Frank opens the film asking what does it matter who’s holding the gun to your head, cop or crook. Costigan is tormented from wearing too many faces. He’s having trouble justifying his deeds and actions and is scared he may lose his own soul at the price of his lost identity. Sullivan, on the other hand, has gladly sold his own soul for a pittance. He’s a class conscience yuppie that craves power and will cut any throat if it gets him ahead. The movie steamrolls ahead with intrigue but it’s our connections to these characters that elevate the life-and-death stakes. You have a real emotional investment in this story, therefore when things get murky you really feel the danger. My heart was racing with excitement and dread. There may still be impressions from where I was squeezing the movie chair.

Complimenting these complex characters are brilliant performances. DiCaprio may have been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his second Scorsese collaboration, The Aviator, but he turns in his strongest work here. DiCaprio expertly bares a gnawing moral conflict with equal parts desperation and the hunger to do good. He’s trying to finally do right and step out of his family’s criminal past, and DiCaprio brings sharp intensity to this plight. You really feel every stomach churn this guy goes through to do what he does and stay alive. I knocked the boy for being too boyish a gangster in Gangs of New York, and let me say I take back my words. On the flip side, Damon utilizes his angelic, choirboy good looks and masterfully downplays his character’s pragmatic villainy. The character has to hide so much from the outside world, be it the police, his true bosses, his girlfriend, and even himself. Damon goes about his deceitful business with slickly sick ease, tapping a killer’s instinct for self-preservation. You may shudder from how methodically cold and manipulative he comes across. He’s a mesmerizing rat bastard of a human being and yet Damon presents an almost seductive portrait of evil.

Nicholson is equally good though at times can be a distraction to the storytelling. There are a handful of moments where Nicholson seems to go too far off the page, indulging his crazier tendencies. Costello is supposed to be a scary, unpredictable, potentially unhinged man, and Scorsese has plenty of moments that bring home this point. It just feels inappropriate then for Nicholson to, in a few small moments, transform into a goofy cartoon. With that said, it’s great to see Nicholson cracking some heads for Scorsese. He has devilish fun and is insanely watchable while definitely going for broke. After some nice guy roles it’s nice to have back an unrestrained Nicholson to play the film’s abyss of evil.

The collected supporting players all leave some mark. Baldwin and Wahlerg are perfectly profane hardass characters that you warm up to. Sheen, free from the Oval Office, displays nice touches of weariness and, in one moment, practically breaks my heart with his brave resignation. Breaking up this boy’s club is Vera Farmiga (Running Scared) as a somewhat contrived plot point to connect Costigan and Sullivan as the police shrink to one and the girlfriend to the other. There’s a perceived sadness to her willowy eyes and slender face that she plays to great effect. She?s a captivating new face and gives an extra ladling of emotion to the tale.

It’s been over a week since I’ve seen the movie and I still can’t get it out of my head. There are only a handful of flaws that separates The Departed from Scorsese’s rich pantheon of mythically Great Movies. This is a complex, gritty, amazing crime thriller stuffed to the gills with entertainment. Making the bloody body count resonate are the incredibly intense performances, particularly Damon and DiCaprio. This is a gripping gangster thriller pumping with the blood of a sterling character piece. The unexpected twists and turns will shake you, and the movie goes well beyond a snappy premise. The Departed is a moviegoing experience that will thrill you, stir you, sadden you, exhilarate you, and firmly plant itself in your memory banks. Welcome back Marty.

Nate’s Grade: A

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