Tuesday, June 28, 2011
As should've been clear from that Gangster Top Twenty list, I really love gangster movies, and I have something of an interest in real-life crime stuff...in honor of the arrest of James "Whitey" Bulger, the Boston crimelord, I decided to watch The Departed again.The Jack Nicholson character in the film, Frank Costello, is based on Bulger, and if you look at pictures of Bulger when he's grinnin', he actually looks like Nicholson.
Costello stuff aside, The Departed was a Hollywood remake of a Hong Kong flick called Infernal Affairs, and I watched that one again too, to see how it fared in a head-to-head matchup, with the remake really fresh in my mind. Well, the result was a perfect illustration of how a great big genius like Martin Scorsese just isn't the solution to every cinematic problem.
I'm a huge Scorsese fan; I think Goodfellas is the greatest mob movie ever...when The Aviator turned up on cable, me and my whole family were quoting the dialogue all the time, and during our vacation in Sedona awhile back, we used "The Way of the Future" as a password...whoever was inside the cottage would answer, "Come In With the Milk" and open the door.
That being said, Scorsese doesn't do everything well. He really isn't any good with thrillers, or stories with plots...consider his version of Cape Fear (drastically inferior to the J. Lee Thompson's original), or Shutter Island, which was utter bullshit from beginning to end, nonsensical and predictable at the same time. Nope; the guy's forte is realism.
Now you might say to yourself that a nasty cops-versus-gangster drama featuring moles dug in on both sides would play to all his strengths...but it doesn't. He might know the mean streets of NYC, but he doesn't know Boston. His scriptwriter, William Monahan, might, but Scorsese doesn't. You don't buy his Boston for one minute---or find it any different from any other Northeastern shithole city---even if you have a band howling about "I'm a Sailor's Peg, and I lost my leg!" at crucial junctures in the film.
Worse, the movie has a plot. It's really plot driven. In fact, there wouldn't be much of a reason for adapting Infernal Affairs if you weren't going to do a thoroughly plot-driven remake. But where that sort of moviemaking calls for discipline, efficiency, and proper structure with a lot of attention paid to the load-bearing members, Scorsese just seems kind a bewildered by the situation, and substitutes posturing and tough-guy mannerisms for sound storytelling.
Now in The Departed, we have two protagonists, one played played By Leonardo DiCaprio, and the other by Matt Damon. DiCaprio is a Southey kid who wants to escape his past and become a Massachusetts state cop, although the powers-that-be in the state cop establishment decide that he's only fit to go undercover...they assign him to penetrate Jack Nicholson's crew, not knowing that Nicholson has a mole of his own in the State Police, namely Matt Damon. There are various twists and turns...the two moles try to identify each other, and people on both sides get iced.
The film largely builds itself around four or five big scenes from Infernal Affairs, modified to suit the change of location...but whereas, in Infernal Affairs, we got to the first big bit of business within twenty minutes or so, in Scorsese's pic we don't get to that stuff for practically a hour. And even then, the emphasis is completely wrong. In both films, the sequence is about an evil transaction (dope-dealing in Infernal Affairs, microchip-selling in Departed) that's being monitored by the cops; the mob mole realizes that the cops have a mole in the mob, and he very nearly figures out who the cop mole is. In Infernal Affairs, the focus is almost entirely on suspense...will the good guy get caught, or what? The drug deal is almost secondary, and really, we don't care too much about that...the dope's just a macguffin. So are the microchips in The Departed, of course...although Scorsese and Monahan don't seem to realize that. The stuff about Dicaprio being exposed recedes into the background...we get a lot of stupid crap about Red Chinese functionaries bringing machine guns to the deal (it's like something from a Bond movie), and Jack Nicholson posturing and cutting up. In Infernal Affairs, Eric's Tsang's relatively low-key performance as the crime boss is properly subordinated to the rest of the story; in The Departed, Nicholson is pretty entertaining, but believable he ain't. He's constantly mugging, arching his devilish eyebrows, or sticking his teeth out pretending to be a rat...he's given way too much screentime, and he gets steadily more ridiculous as the film goes on, until he's finally bumped off...at which point the movie, sticking rather closer to its source material, gets a whole lot better.
But boy, do we have to wade through a lot of boring structurally useless stuff before we get to that point. There's a bunch of extraneous violence that serves no narrative purpose...you know me, I like violence, but in The Departed, you get the impression that Scorsese threw it in because he just didn't know how to propel the movie otherwise. Then there's the godawful love interest, Vera Farmiga, a police psychiatrist who just happens to get involved with both Damon and DiCaprio. Every time the film threatens to build up a real head of steam, it's almost as if Scorsese or Monahan said to themselves, "Can't have that! Let's bring that woman back in!" She's ill-defined and hopelessly annoying, and whenever she's onscreen, we get endless longeuers with Damon or DiCaprio and her exchanging lousy diaologue about vulnerabilities being revealed and whatnot. Pure root-canal stuff. In Infernal Affairs, the good guy and the bad guy had their own respective girlfriends, but we didn't spend eternities with them.
But there's all sorts of other irrelevant crapola, characters who are introduced and go nowhere, meditations on clerical child abuse, daddy issues, the aftermath of a night of Matt Damon impotence, banter about homos, wandering monologues by Jack Nicholson where you really can't follow the thread...the dialogue is plainly supposed to be nifty gangster-and-cop tough-talk, but it's frequently stilted and downright tortured. There are numerous soulful Oscar clips...the adaptation is absolutely chunky with bits of business retained from the original, bur serving no purpose at all in their new context. One has plenty of chances to wonder if Dicaprio is ever going to look like a grownup, or at least a teen-ager.
That being said, he's pretty good in the movie...so's Matt Damon, and Martin Sheen, and Ray Winstone. Marky Mark Wahlberg, in a role that wasn't in IA, should be singled out for particular commendation. But they all have to play second fiddle to Jack Nicholson, and he lays waste to much of the film...it's rather like one of Marlon Brando's more out-of-control perforances. I was reminded of The Missouri Breaks, and hey, Nicholson was in that one too...maybe it's not a coincidence.
Then, of course, there's Ms. Farmiga, and she's right out.
Now, I guess you must've twigged it that I think Infernal Affairs is vastly superior to the remake, and I won't apologize. When The Departed came out, the critics were most patronizing about IA, but most critics are silly herd animals who should be butchered and eaten by artists. Just consider the runtimes of the respective films. Infernal Affairs is a tight, trim, ninety-seven minutes long, while The Departed is two and a half hours, and almost all the additional material is gas, flab, or both. IA sticks relentlessly to the point. It's hard for me to judge the dialogue from the subtitles, but the story and characterizations stand right the hell out. The direction, by former cinematographer Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, might not be brilliant, but it's all business. Just about everything is effective, but properly subordinated. The focus is primarily on our two moles, just where it should be. And the mob mole, played by Andy Lau (not to be confused with Andrew), is a much more interesting character than Matt Damon's guy, who's a fairly black-and-white vile person, and a limpdick to boot...Lau's character has come to detest working for the bad guys...his motivations in a bunch of the scenes are a whole lot more complex...the climactic action has a whole different vibe to it, and is much more suspenseful. The only way in which The Departed streamlines the story is quite undesirable, and really dumbs the whole movie down. Upon seeing the remake, Andy Lau had quite a bit to say about the way in which his character was mangled, and he was right to be pissed off.
His opposite number, by the way, Tony Leung Chiu Wai in the Dicaprio role, is also very good, as is Anthony Wong in the Martin Sheen part. Of course, Anthony Wong is always good. When you see Tai Seng video coming attractions, he's invariably referred to as "the great Anthony Wong"...I call him that too, every chance I get. I hope we don't have a war with China, because then I wouldn't get to see any more Anthony Wong films...unless we're under military occupation, maybe, and I don't think I'd be able to enjoy them then.
The guys who made Infernal Affairs, Media Asia, had a biggish piece of The Departed, and I bet they were pretty happy with the box office for the most part. As for Scorsese, I think it was his biggest hit, although I might be mistaken about that. It did win all those Oscars, which was just ludicrous. I mean, basically, Scorsese was getting them for his much better movies...which is to say, The Departed won because Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas for Best Picture...
I don't watch the Oscars any more.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
As you could probably tell from my ten worst movies list, I have an abiding interest in crappy movies, and I'm always willing to put my hip-boots on and wade into new crap, or revisit some old crap that I might've forgotten about, stuff I saw when it first came out, say, in the 1950's, when I was too tiny to realize that it was crap at all. Well, I think I was about three years old when King Dinosaur was released, and I believe I saw it in a Garden State drive-in with my folks. That recollection is pretty fuzzy, but I have rather clearer memories of King D from TV in the early 1960's, and by then I was old enough to realize what a shitty job they were doing with the ostensible dinosaurs, trying to pass of iguanas as tyrannosaurs, etc. But I don't think I ever realized exactly how big a stinkbomb the movie was.
It was directed by schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon (BIG for short), and the time would come when I would start paying attention to credits, and associate his name with cinematic yellow shitstorms like The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, and Food of the Gods,. But I hadn't gotten to that stage the last time I clapped my poor little eyes on King D. I think I thought it was just kind of a rip-off of One Million BC, and it does crib a few moments of footage from D.W. Griffith's caveman epic...but it's way way worse than a mere knockoff, indeed, deserves to be ranked with movies like Robot Monster, which also used One Million B.C. stock footage, and featured location work in Bronson Canyon.
Anyway, the other day, I saw King D listed on the Pay Per View and watched it immediately, the upshot being that I laughed my ass just about off, and made my wife watch it with me the following night...I have a couple of friends, namely Nick Prata and Sam Tomaino, who love bad movies, and I'll show it to them shortly if I get the chance. Hopefully, they'll evangelize on its behalf. It should be a whole lot more famous than it is.
The film manages to pack a huge amount of nothing much into its meager 63 minute running time. The first ten-twelve minutes are nonstop stock footage and voiceovers...one is reminded of that stuff in Ed Wood where Ed waxes ecstatic over the studio's stock-footage library. But I don't think even Saint Ed ever subjected an audience to quite such a deluge of second-hand stuff.
The story, such as it is, involves a new planet (the scientists name it Nova) that somehow sneaks into our solar system and pops up very close to the Earth...the government (represented by a shot of the Capitol Dome) decides to mount an expedition, and the depiction of the ensuing space program is a mindnumbing succession of clips of V-2 rockets, observatories, dials, gauges, oscilloscopes, ampmeters, radar dishes, guys rotating radar dishes, checkpoints, swivel chairs, loudspeakers, big ceiling fans, pipes, ladders, engines cracking off bombers that have just been dropped onto concrete floors,the Blue Angels, an air show, graphs, jet engine test #97, Rocket Test # 2, white mice floating in zero G, and all sorts of other things. Complementing this barrage of senseless visuals quite perfectly, veteran narrator Marvin Miller intones a shitload of stupid exposition with awesome, almost Jack Webbian, earnestness, either because he's a complete idiot and doesn't know any better, or because he's the goddamnedest pro who ever lived.
Just before the expedition gets off the ground, he introduces our voyageurs, two stalwart science studs,and two curvy science bimbettes.We get brief glimpses of them doing scientistic things in their respective fields, such as looking at test tubes and into microscopes. Then, after a very quick count down, a V2 rocket is finally launched, ostensibly with them on board.
The space-travel effects consist of V2 footage simply printed over starry backgrounds, with no attempt at motion-control at all, the rocket dipsy-doodling just about everywhere, because the original material was shot by some cameraman on the ground who was having a hard time keeping his lens fixed on the missile. The same crap continues once the ship arrives in Nova's atmosphere, except that the image of the rocket gets very faint and out-of-focus...we see it creeping and skulking behind some trees, going up and down and even back and forth with pines showing through, because, well...it's just printed right over them.
Ultimately, it flips its butt-end down, and lands in some woods that appear to be in the Angeles Mountains or the Sierras or whatever. Our scientists climb out wearing spacesuits from another movie....the spaceship is just barely represented by a model that's closer to the camera than the scientists are. It's kind of a hanging-miniature effect, and that's okay, but...the spaceship is way too small to have had the passengers inside, and worse, it isn't being photographed at a dead right angle, smack down on the deck, to make it look big and the people tiny. Nope, it's being photographed from above, leaving you with the impression that it's hanging some distance above the ground.
There is some doing of science in a field. The scientists have a microscope in one of those little wooden boxes that microscopes used to come in, and they look at bacteria. One of the guys says, "What era would you say this planet is?" and a bimbette replies, "prehistoric." Owls,elk, boa constrictors and tree-sloths double as extraterrestrial prehistoric critters. After being wounded in a wrestling-match with a smallish alligator, one stud has to put a bullet into a weirdly-superimposed giant mole-cricketish thing which is completely transparent wherever it has a highlight on its body. Our protagonists drift aimlessly around. They go back and forth to the ship. Spotting a lake, one of the girls says, "what I see is a whole lot of water, and that means a bath, and let's get some clean clothes and have one!"
There's an island in the lake...the other girl wants to visit it. It turns out that this is where the dinosaurs live, although we don't know that yet. I love the fact that you land on another planet and you still have to go to an island to get to the dinosaurs.
Eventually that girl and a stud row over, and find themselves in dry rocky Bronson Canyon, even though we've been told the island is all jungly. It takes us forty minutes to get to this point. You'd think that if you only had sixty-three minutes to tell your story, you'd be in rather a rush to cram it with incidents...for God's sake, try to give people their money's worth...throw in another mole cricket, or a guy in a lobster suit. Actually have the bimbettes take that bath in the lake. Or maybe even have a dinosaur somewhere in the first two thirds of the film.
I guess I'm just a starry-eyed idealist.
But just when we despair of there ever being dinosaurs in King Dinosaur, we get to the dinosaurs! Or rather, two unhappy lizards and a little caiman that we're informed are dinosaurs. The guy and the bimbette get trapped in a Bronson Canyon cave by a tyrannosaur, which is to say, a big iguana.It has an extremely tyrannosaur-like horn glued on its nose, and is held up tyrannosaurusly on its hindlegs once or twice by a wire under its armpits. It wants to eat the scientists, but it can't get in, and the guy scientist takes a polaroid of it looking in the cave, the photo (with the iguana sticking its tongue out) resembling a postcard, kinda "Dinosaur World, Wish you were here." The female scientist screams, and in a frenzied display of sheer femininity, rips the picture up. People offscreen (you can see their shadows on a supposed "cliff") hurl the iguana and the aforementioned caiman together. The poor reptiles don't look like they want to fight, but they roll around for a while, and then the caiman is dead, and some one's thrown chocolate sauce on it.
Meanwhile, a monitor lizard or some sort of big skink has been hanging about. The people offscreen throw him at the iguana, and the lizards flip around for a while, and the monitor lizard dies and gets chocolate sauce poured on him. By virtue of his two savage victories, the iguana has become...
However, all this allows our scientists to escape from the cave. The iguana follows, but little does he know that the other two scientists have brought a nuclear weapon from the V2, one of them announcing, "I've got an atomic bomb, and this would be a good time to use it!" The earth people get on their rafts and row back across the lake...the bomb explodes...one of the scientists laments poignantly that "We've brought civilizations to Nova all right."
God, It's like being stabbed in the heart.
Bert I. Gordon went on to make a slew of other giant monster movies, and all of them were fabulously awful. One of my favorites, Food of the Gods, featured giant wasps that were simply dead curled up wasps (such as you might find on your windowsill) superimposed with astounding crudity on poor innocent backdrops that had done nothing to deserve it. At the climax, giant rats are exterminated by a dam being dynamited; the miniature effect has them swimming around in a fish-tank, with water slopping over the sides in full view of the camera. A little bit later in his career, BIG made some sort of witchcraft movie with Orson Welles, who shouldn't have lived so long...I've never seen that one though.
On a happier note, the screenplay for King Dinosaur was written by Tom Gries, who actually got his head out of his ass, and started directing good westerns, most notably Will Penny and Breakheart Pass. I cannot account for it.
God moves in mysterious ways.