Friday, 28 May 2010

48. THE DEPARTED - 2006

Set in Boston, ‘The Departed’ is based on the criminal underworld and the battle between the state police and the Irish mob. The police send Billy Costigan (Leonardo Di Caprio) to work undercover for Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in his criminal gang. Costello begins to trust the newcomer and the police find out more and more about how they are working. What the police do not know is that Costello has sent his own mole into the police force in the form of Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon).

‘The Departed’, directed by Martin Scorsese, is one of the more unusual choices for Oscar winner. The typical Oscar winner is a character study which traces a character during a particular event, whereas ‘The Departed’ does not have a main character, but instead shows a series of events revealing some information to the audience, but holding back other information.

It is easily one of the best films of its genre to be made in recent years, and that is largely to do with the clever, twisting, turning plot that really does keep the viewer watching until the very end, and each turn leaves the viewer wanting more.
There is some fine acting to witness in this film as well. Di Caprio who is now really cementing himself as a serious actor is totally convincing in this role, and Matt Damon as his opposite is equally good. I have mentioned Nicholson before. I find he has a tendency to overact in many of his films, and I think that it is in ‘The Departed’ that he is most guilty of doing this. This is a serious film about organised crime, and yet there is something almost comedic about Nicholson’s performance: at times there is very little difference between his character here and as Jack Torrence in ‘The Shining’. There are a few scenes that I feel he almost ruins through this approach.

On a positive note, Mark Wahlberg is surprisingly good in his supporting role as a ruthless and aggressive Sergeant and I feel does manage to control the screen without dominating and really does make good use of any screen time that he is given.

What I like about this film is that despite its length, or maybe because of it, the various plots and sub-plots all get developed fully: nothing is rushed and this means that there are none of the gaping plot holes or incredulous moments that can certainly be found in other films of this genre.

In short, ‘The Departed’ is an exciting violent thriller with some good acting, but it is really the twisting plot with fully developed storylines that makes this film rank firmly towards the middle of the best picture winners.


The Academy Awards during the 1980s were full of films full of emotion and crying and families suffering together, and no film full of more trauma and emotional relationships than ‘Ordinary People’. Luckily it’s good.

Buck and Conrad (Timothy Hutton) are brothers. When Buck dies in a boating accident, Conrad feels responsible for his death and suicidal and starts undergoing extensive therapy. Their mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) does not show her feelings and puts on the performance that they are coping. She is cold towards her surviving son, leading him to feel unloved. The father (Donald Sutherland) tries to hold the family together but the audience have to watch this desperate and devastating story unfold.

What elevates this film over other tearjerkers of the era is that the film and characters do not behave in the way that one would expect. The actions of the mother especially feel wrong and this is what makes the film so utterly compelling. Her actions are such that the audience wants to know why she is acting in this way, and rather than presenting a shallow character of a grieving mother, we are actually presented with a much more complex and intriguing character. Mary Tyler Moore handles this part well, and although there are actresses who would have been more obvious choices, she does enough to make the part her own.

Sutherland is also highly watchable as the father who blames his bad parenting for the state of his surviving son. He is plays the helpless father well: torn between his distant wife and distressed son, he wants to appease everyone whilst he is grieving himself.

The person who really does make the film his own is Hutton. He scooped the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance, but really this is a Leading Actor role, and especially considering his young age he does a fantastic job. He manages to play the role of a young boy who is confused, devastated and lonely without ever over-acting for one minute. You can believe that he is in that situation and I cannot think of many child performances that I have seen that have been of such a high quality.

Despite the serious subject matter, the script never allows the film to become mawkish (a trait of lesser dramas) and the film takes a realist approach rather than going over the top, which would not have worked with this dark and tragic subject matter.

The film also tries to grasp the feeling of the snobbery and waspish attitudes of Illinois, the way that ‘American Beauty’ did 20 years later, and although I do not feel that ‘Ordinary People’ is quite the artistic triumph of ‘American Beauty’, it is a moving and memorable film that should be watched for some outstanding acting performances and for being a successful directorial debut for Robert Redford.

50. GLADIATOR - 2000

Apologies that it has been so long since my previous post.

In the 2000s the sword and sandal epic became popular again, and these varied in quality from the awful ‘Alexander’, to the highly watchable ‘Troy’ and reached a peak with ‘Gladiator’, a tale of revenge in Ancient Rome.

The film tells the tale of Maximus (Russell Crowe), a Roman general, who is betrayed by Prince Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) after the death of the Emperor. Commodus orders the death of Maximus, and although he escapes, he finds his family murdered. After losing the will to carry on the general is captured by slave traders and sold to the owner of a Gladiator School, Proximo (Oliver Reed). Although he initially refuses to fight, he is clearly a brilliant fighter, and once his spirit is rebuilt, he vows to avenge the death of his family.

With big fight scenes, sweeping vistas and a proper hero to support, ‘Gladiator’ really is a great piece of entertainment. I am not usually one to really enjoy big modern blockbusters, favouring largely more serious dramas, but there is something about ‘Gladiator’ that I really enjoyed. It could have been a very dull film, with overly-long fight scenes, or unnecessarily sentimental with lengthy shots of Crowe finding himself, but it isn’t. Essentially it’s a very simple film in terms of the issues, and this is the film’s greatest strength: it doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t. My issue with films such as ‘Avatar’ (not the worst culprit, but a recent one) is that they can feel a bit preachy and manipulative, but ‘Gladiator’ never goes off track. It entertains from start to finish.

Technically this is a beautifully made film. The cinematography is at once impressive and subtle. The visuals add to the film without dominating, and the film is always about the characters and never about the special effects. The same can be said about the music.

The acting is consistent throughout. Although there are better actors than Crowe, this part was made for him to play, and I enjoyed his performance.
Joaquin Phoenix is my favourite in this film. He is powerful, nasty and yet still manages to have a slight charisma, which is what I always want from a screen villain. Oliver Reed delivered his final film performance in this film and his career definitely ended on a high note. There are several other big names in this film, and I cannot criticise any of the performances, it is a very well balanced film.

Admittedly this film is not the most intellectual film ever made. The script, whilst it contains some good one-liners, is there to give the actors something to say, rather than to be admired for its own merit. Having said that, this film was not meant to be anything more than great entertainment, and it is therefore in my eyes a success. Ridley Scott is also responsible for ‘Alien’, one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made and whereas ‘Gladiator’ doesn’t quite do enough to challenge ‘Alien’ as his greatest film, it’s a film that anyone should enjoy.