Review: Conversations with God

October 27, 2006

…or, religion as a second career

Neale Donald Walsch, a self-described “modern day spiritual messenger,” has built a religious empire around his Conversations with God books. These New Age self-help tomes have been world-wide best sellers, perhaps because Walsch positions spirituality as a no-fault path to wealth. Or, as he puts it early in this film, “Financial abundance and spirituality go hand-in-hand.”

This self-serving biopic presents a sanitized account of Walsch’s life from the moment when a car crash leaves him with a broken neck and no job. Living in a tent in a park outside Portland, Oregon, Walsch (played by Henry Czerny) struggles with feelings of anger and jealousy, searches fruitlessly for work, and faces the humiliation of eating out of dumpsters. He also embarrasses himself by pursuing two women, the ebullient Carly (Zillah Glory) and the engaged Liora (Vilma Silva), although the filmmakers are close-mouthed about what Walsch is trying to do with them and why it is wrong. Work at a radio station disappears when the owner goes bankrupt. Walsch is in a depressed fog on a sofa when he hears the voice of God encouraging him to start a conversation.

Walsch transcribes these talks onto notepads, has Liora type them up, then challenges a publisher to print them. From there it’s a small step to book tours, speaking engagements, television interviews, private limos, and the chance to offer advice to strangers who haven’t yet learned how to channel their inner voices into money-making machines.

Screenwriter Eric DelaBarre cuts back and forth between Walsch’s successful present and his destitute past, trying to chart some sort of moral growth in his character. But the lessons the author learns–it’s hard being unemployed, treat women as equals, pay the rent on time–are a bit too obvious for a daily horoscope, let alone feature film. For those unfamiliar with Walsch or his books, Conversations with God boils down to the assertion that God is that voice in your head, a fairly innocent concept until God starts telling you to do something wrong.

Wearing a soiled neck brace and what looks like a Halloween fright wig for a beard, Czerny glowers through Walsch’s down-and-out days like a Canadian Rasputin, fraught with feeling but lacking any real presence. He’s actually scarier when he hits the big time, his eyes darting wildly while his face is frozen in an expression of quiet concern. The rest of the cast is no better than grimly efficient, apart from the lovely Vilma Silva, who manages to bring some warmth and depth to her role as an admiring secretary.

Producer and director Scott Simon gives the film a professional polish it doesn’t really merit or need. Simon worked with Walsch in 2003 on Indigo, a film about a new generation of children whose third eye chakra psychic abilities are marked by their indigo life color auras. How seriously you take that synopsis will be a good indication of whether you are part of Conversations with God‘s target audience.

Credits

Cast: Henry Czerny, Vilma Silva, Bruce Page, Abdul Salaam el Razzac, Zillah Glory, Ingrid Boulting, Joe Ivy, Michael Goorjian, Carolyn Hennesy, Jerry McGill, Ruth DeSosa.

Credits: Produced and directed by Stephen Simon. Written by Eric DelaBarre. Based on the Conversations with God books by Neale Donald Walsch. Executive producer: Gay Hendricks. Director of photography: Joao Fernandes. Film editor: Sherril Schlesinger. Production designer: Renee Prince. Costume designer: Muriel Stockdale. Music by Emilio Kauderer. A Spiritual Cinema Circle and CWG Films presentation of a Spiritual Cinema Circle and CWG Films production.

Samuel Goldwyn Films/Color/1.85/109 Mins./Rated PG


Review: The Bridge

October 27, 2006

Early in The Bridge, director and producer Eric Steel offers a picture postcard view of the Golden Gate Bridge as it spans the bay from Marin County to San Francisco. It’s a sunny day with blue skies and puffy white clouds, and the waters of the San Francisco Bay glisten under the bridge’s rust-colored girders. Near the end of the shot, almost unnoticed at the bottom of the frame, something splashes into the water. One of the twenty-four people who jumped off the bridge in 2004 has just died.

Inspired by a 2003 New Yorker article about suicide notes, director and producer Eric Steel documented the Golden Gate Bridge for the entire year of 2004. (The bridge is by far the most popular place to commit suicide in the country.) Filming every day from multiple viewpoints, Steel and his crew recorded several of the over two dozen attempts that occurred in 2004. Steel then interviewed the victims’ families and friends. The resulting footage includes some of the most disturbing images you may ever see.

It is difficult to accept at first that the footage is real, that it hasn’t been doctored in some way by special effects or computer animation. Suicide is so culturally taboo that seeing people perform it evokes contradictory impulses of shame and revulsion but also empathy and fascination. This would be an uncomfortably voyeuristic experience if Steel weren’t so careful not to exploit the material. It’s an almost unbearably sad one instead.

Steel eschews a voice-over commentary that could soften the impact of the suicides. Nor does he offer the solace of a professional opinion. No psychiatrist or police officer provides explanations or excuses. The workings of the bridge–how it is maintained and patrolled, for example–are barely noted. No one mentions efforts to build a “suicide proof” barrier along the bridge’s pedestrian walkway.

Instead, much of the film consists of shots of pedestrians, filmed as they cross the bridge from cameras stationed on shore. Flattened into anonymity by telephoto lenses, the potential suicides look just like anyone else, like the tourists and joggers who pass by indifferent to what happens next to them.

Quiet, understated interviews give glimpses into the lives of the victims. “He always fell in love with the wrong person, ” one mother says. “She thought our dogs were devils,” reveals another. A friend offers an opinion that could apply to anyone: “Only love could have saved him.” Although stunned, the families seem to have adjusted to their losses. Some even show relief. Few are angry or judgmental. It is a measure of their confidence in Steel that they divulge so much to his camera.

Steel has been criticized for romanticizing suicide, even for showing people how to kill themselves. But if The Bridge has a moral, it is that the people who suffer are those who are left behind. And in one scene at least, as photographer Richard Waters helps a potential victim back over the railing to safety, the film offers a measure of hope.

Credits

Featuring: Gene Sprague, Carolyn Pressley, Dave Williams, Matt Rossi, Jen Rossi, Elizabeth “Lisa” Smith, Rachel Marker, Tara Harrell, Lyle Smith, Philip Manikow, Wally Manikow, Mary Manikow, Keith Glenn, David Paige, Shelley Albar, Gordon Smith, Daniel “Ruby” Rubenstein, James “Jim” Singer, Ginny Matthews, Kevin Hines, Pat Hines, Richard Waters.

Credits: Produced and directed by Eric Steel. Inspired by the New Yorker article “Jumpers” by Tad Friend. Executive producers: Alison Palmer Bourke, Evan Shapiro. Director of photography: Peter McCandless. Editor: Sabine Krayenbuhl. Music by Alex Heffes. Music supervisors: Christopher Covert, Jim Black. Sound design: Margaret Crimmins, Greg Smith. An Independent Film Channel presentation of an Easy There Tiger production.

IFC Films/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital/94 Mins./Rated R


Review: Shut Up & Sing

October 27, 2006

In the eight years leading up to 2003, the Dixie Chicks were the best-selling musical group in North America. That year they sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl, then embarked on a world tour sponsored in part by Lipton Tea. March, 2003, also marked the invasion of Iraq. In response, Chicks leader singer Natalie Maines announced on stage during a London concert that, “We’re ashamed that the President is from Texas.” That comment ignited a firestorm of controversy that irrevocably altered the course of the Chicks’ career.

Within days the group was blacklisted from almost all of country radio. Maines’s apology was drowned out by right-wing bloggers, columnists, and radio and television personalities complaining about the group’s lack of respect for the Presidency. Drives were organized to demolish Dixie Chicks CDs, and their sales plummeted. Protestors hounded the US leg of the tour. Maines received a death threat that police authorities considered credible.

The uproar mirrored the divisive mood of the country at the outbreak of the war, when dissent was labeled treason. By chance, directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck were already filming the Dixie Chicks for a music documentary, and found themselves in the enviable position of capturing an explosive story as it unfolded. An at-times ungainly combination of “making of” profile and current events polemic, Shut Up & Sing offers a vivid, first-hand look at the hatred and hysteria that politics can evoke.

Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, the founding members of the Chicks, are never less than supportive of Maines, but it’s clear that no one expected the level of vitriol directed at them. One telling scene shows them huddling with manager Simon Renshaw and with Lipton publicists in an attempt at corporate damage control. But Maines insists on taking the offensive. The Chicks appear defiantly nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, then endure a hostile interview with Diane Sawyer.

Kopple and Peck intercut the 2003 footage with scenes of the Chicks recording their follow-up album, Taking the Long Way, in 2005. A departure for everyone involved, the album was produced by Rick Rubin, and featured session musicians more familiar with rock than with country. The Chicks’ decision to abandon their country following is the source of some contention, as are the more aggressive lyrics in the new songs. Still, this material is best for hardcore fans, and it doesn’t always fit comfortably with the film’s political elements. Another drawback is the directors’ lack of distance. Everything in the film is filtered through the Chicks’ viewpoint; as a result, some issues aren’t explained fully. Scenes of their home life, including Emily giving birth, can seem weirdly incongruous next to the film’s more pressing matters. Equally troubling is the decision to shuttle back and forth between 2003 and 2005, an attempt to inflate suspense that makes the filmmakers seem too calculating instead.

At its most effective, Shut Up & Sing is a chilling reminder of the limits of free speech, and of how easily dissent can be crushed. History will ultimately vindicate Maines, but it will not restore the Dixie Chicks’ lost opportunities.

Credits

Featuring: The Dixie Chicks (Martie Maguire, Emily Robison, Natalie Maines), Simon Renshaw, Michael Berlind, Cindi Berger, Chad Smith, Jim Scott, Rick Rubin, Lloyd Maines, Gareth Maguire, Charlie Robison, Adrian Pasdar, Clayton Allen, Paul Beane, Toby Keith, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Chris Testa.

Credits: Directed by Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck. Produced by David Cassidy. Edited by Bob Eisenhardt, Jean Tsien, Aaron Kuhn, Emma Morris. Cinematography by Christine Burrill, Luis Lopez, Seth Gordon, Gary Griffin, Joan Churchill. Sound: Giovanni di Simone, Alan Barker, Jason Blackburn, Peter Miller. Post-production supervisor: Doug O’Conner. Co-producer: Claude Davies. A Weinstein Company presentation of a Cabin Creek Films production.

The Weinstein Company/Color/1.33/93 Mins./Rated R


Review: Flicka

October 27, 2006

Based on a 1941 best seller by Mary O’Hara, Flicka shows how a young girl matures while trying to tame a wild mustang. The film’s themes, updated a bit but still fairly true to the novel’s, may be simple, but they are still worthwhile ones. A committed cast and sensitive direction help lift Flicka above its niche market of young horse lovers.

The biggest change from the novel is the lead character, once a boy but now the rebellious, hotheaded daughter of a Wyoming rancher. Katy McLaughlin (Alison Lohman) is failing at the expensive boarding school her parents can barely afford, and capturing and training a mustang may be just another way of ignoring her responsibilities. Katy has trouble communicating with her equally headstrong father Rob (Tim McGraw), and is trying the patience of her mother Nell (Maria Bello). Her brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten) hasn’t worked up the courage to tell Rob that he wants to go away to college. The ranch, dedicated to training quarter horses for rodeos, is on its last legs, and the presence of a wild mustang could threaten the purity of the herd. By keeping Flicka, Katy will not only be disobeying her parents, but threatening their livelihood.

Director Michael Mayer doesn’t push the plot’s morals, focusing instead on location scenery and some well-staged action scenes. One stampede along the edge of a cliff is beautiful and thrilling at the same time, and Flicka’s training sequences have moments that seem genuinely risky. When they arrive, the family arguments are persuasively tight-lipped and restrained, with more left unsaid than resolved. Credit should go to the strong supporting cast, especially Dallas Roberts as a taciturn ranch hand and Kwanten as a son who feels trapped by his obligations.

This is country singer Tim McGraw’s second film role, after a significant supporting part in Friday Night Lights. His screen presence is undeniable, but he still needs to learn how to modulate the way he delivers his lines. (He does contribute an excellent tearjerker, “Where Did I Go Right,” to the soundtrack.) Lohman nails the headstrong aspect of her character, but neglects somewhat to bring out Katy’s softer side. Maria Bello, on the other hand, seems to be overcompensating. Her acting is so brisk and professional that it tends to throw the film out of balance.

The big sky, windswept plains, and drifts and folds of the Wyoming mountains captured by J. Michael Muro’s cinematography forgive a lot, if not all, of the film’s shortcomings. Flicka‘s simplicity may be its best attribute, that and the opportunity it provides viewers to imagine life on a ranch today. (For the record, Roddy McDowall starred in the original 1943 film version, My Friend Flicka, and in its 1945 sequel, Thunderhead–Son of Flicka.)

Credits

Cast: Alison Lohman, Tim McGraw, Maria Bello, Ryan Kwanten, Dallas Roberts, Nick Searcy, Danny Pino, Kaylee DeFer, Jeffrey Nordling, Dey Young.

Credits: Directed by Michael Mayer. Screenplay by Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner. Based on the novel My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara. Produced by Gil Netter. Director of photography: J. Michael Muro. Production designer: Sharon Seymour. Film editor: Andrew Marcus. Co-producer: Kevin Halloran. Music by Aaron Zigman. Music supervisor: Jason Alexander. Costume designer: Molly Maginnis. A Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Gil Netter production.

20th Century Fox/Color/2.35/Dolby, DTS/94 Mins./Rated PG


Review: Flags of Our Fathers

October 19, 2006

Clint Eastwood could have been resting on his laurels for fifteen years now, ever since Unforgiven won both Best Picture and Best Directing Oscars. But in a career that continues to defy expectations, he has completed his largest production, Flags of Our Fathers, at the age of seventy-six, and is currently finishing its companion piece, the Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima, to be released early next year. Based on a memoir by James Bradley with Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers is easily the most accomplished and sobering film of the year.

The film centers around the iconic photograph of soldiers raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, a photograph that many attribute with helping turn the tide of public opinion during a period when the outcome of the war was not at all certain. Eastwood first shows the immediate impact of the photo, then eases viewers into the period by introducing the key figures who will become associated with the incident. “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) became a medical corpsman in the Navy because of his training as a mortician. Because the other soldiers doubt his courage, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) gets an even more dangerous job as runner. A Pima Indian, Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) has to shrug off casual, everyday racism.

The invasion of Iwo Jima is shown in a bone-jarring sequence that ranks with the best battle scenes ever filmed. The relentless din, surrealistic violence, sweat, fear, and death in its many forms are captured effortlessly. This is the first time Eastwood has relied so extensively on digital effects, and at times he uses them to show the stark beauty of battle. But unlike films like Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers never tries to pretend that fighting is exciting. Instead, it is something that infects the soldiers, its nightmarish images staying with them forever.

Of the six soldiers who were identified raising the flag, only Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes are summoned back to the United States to participate in a fund-raising drive. Eastwood’s depiction of their experiences stateside places him with cinema’s most morally exacting and understanding filmmakers. One of the most impressive aspects of Flags of Our Fathers, one of the primary reasons why it is so compelling and so valuable, is Eastwood’s grasp of the moral complexities of the period. The direction almost never blames anyone in the film for what happens. Yes, a bigoted bartender, a loudmouthed war profiteer, a clownish tourist appear and leave, but Eastwood is merely marking their presence, not condemning them. The soldiers–brave or cowardly, frightened or foolhardy–aren’t evil or “wrong,” just as the officers, politicians, and families who fill the film are trying to do what they think is right. That their efforts are so often misguided is what gives Flags of Our Fathers a tragic dimension that has largely been lacking from recent Hollywood films.

Eastwood has always been a spare, even austere, filmmaker, and Flags… is no exception. Just about any scene in the movie could be used in film school as a textbook example of camera placement, editing, and production design. The cast is uniformly excellent; Phillippe and Beach especially reveal depths and abilities previously missing in their careers. Which is not to say that the film will be a massive hit. Unlike Spielberg, who ultimately gave up trying to make the film himself, Eastwood isn’t so quick to offer a happy ending, a tidy moral, an easy out. The director doesn’t even bother to resolve the battle, instead shifting in and out of the past and the future, the war and the home front. The conclusions to be drawn are bleak ones. At its most basic, Flags of Our Fathers is about our need for symbols and images, our reach for unattainable ideals, our insistence on twisting reality to suit our purposes, and ultimately our inability to communicate, either with our loved ones, our colleagues, our leaders, or our enemies. In the midst of the largest and most divisive war since Vietnam, Eastwood has made a film that is unambiguously anti-war and anti-politics, an act of bravery that further distinguishes him from almost any other director working today.

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, Melanie Lynskey, Tom McCarthy, Chris Bauer, Judith Ivey, Joseph Cross, Benjamin Walker, Alessandro Mastrobuono, Scott Reeves, Stark Sands, George Grizzard, Harve Presnell, George Hearn, Len Cariou.

Credits: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by William Broyles, Jr., and Paul Haggis. Based on the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg. Producer: Robert Lorenz. Director of photography: Tom Stern. Production design: Henry Bumstead. Edited by Joel Cox. Co-producer: Tim Moore. Visual effects supervisor: Michael Owens. Second unit director: Michael Owens. Costumes designed by Deborah Hopper. Music by Clint Eastwood. A DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Malpaso/Amblin Entertainment production.

DreamWorks/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/Rated R


Interview: George Miller on Happy Feet

October 10, 2006

A week before one of its first public screenings, director George Miller is still tweaking the soundtrack of his latest film, Happy Feet. A musical comedy set in Antarctica and featuring penguins as stars, it has already consumed over three years of the director’s time. But Miller is still upbeat and enthusiastic over a massive project whose staff at one point neared five hundred workers. Reached by phone at his office in Sydney, he admits, “Post-production is fun because you see all the hard work coming together. You still have the sense that you can smooth things and make everything a little tighter and creamier.”

This is the first fully animated feature for Miller, whose career includes two of the more memorable series in recent years: Babe and Mad Max. The Babe films, which featured animation and live action, helped pave the way for Happy Feet, but the new project put Miller and his crew at the “bleeding edge” of technology. The film required massive computing power, not just for rendering characters, but because Miller insisted on what he calls “photo-real” backgrounds. Two separate expeditions were sent to Antarctica to photograph locations, and as a result Happy Feet can boast incredibly exotic, but accurate, landscapes. And with the software used in the film, the animated characters can move in a much more lifelike manner. For example, Mumble, the starring penguin, has six million surfaces.

Despite the technological advances, Miller found that making the film brought him back to the fundamentals of cinema. “What I learned most about was where to put the camera,” he reveals. “When you’re doing live action you sort of have an instinct as to where the camera goes. In digital animation, once you’ve captured the performance you can alter it any way you like. It’s not a problem to shift the camera here or there. And just the way you place the camera or cut the material can have a tremendous influence on the atmosphere of a scene and how an audience receives it. I mean as a live-action director, you know that already, but this film taught me more than ever that just how important it is.”

Miller agrees that the process is as demanding as it is liberating. “The mantra of this film is, ‘Why are we doing this?’ Otherwise you can go on forever without deciding anything. You have to ask yourself, do we need that sound, that bit of dialogue, that camera movement? Our goal is to end up with a movie that is as close as possible to something where we actually went out and shot it live.”

The director attributes part of the long production schedule to building an animation facility from scratch, but also to the time he spent on the screenplay. “One of the reasons why we tell stories is to reach that enchantment that adults can feel when they get in touch with the sort of wonder that they had as a child. And I think with children it goes the other way, there must be some sort of nourishment out of the story. It can’t be mindless entertainment.”

The plot to Happy Feet deals with efforts by an outcast penguin named Mumble to fit in with his peers. Miller based the idea on the fact that emperor penguins have distinctive songs. “They sound like squawking to us, but somehow penguins can pick out individual songs from a colony of some 20,000 birds.” The concept enabled the director to use music by everyone from the Beach Boys to Prince, and to work out elaborate dance sequences that take on Busby Berkeley proportions.

Assembling a cast that included Robin Williams in two key roles meant that the script to Happy Feet was constantly evolving. Since Miller felt that it would be difficult to differentiate penguins visually, he needed strong, distinctive voices for his characters. (Everyone except for Elijah Wood, who plays Mumble, had to sing as well.) Nicole Kidman, who signed onto the project before seeing a script, plays a Marilyn Monroe-type named Norma Jean. Hugh Jackman’s penguin is called Memphis because of his resemblance to Elvis Presley. Also in the cast are Brittany Murphy and Hugo Weaving.

Unlike many animated films, Miller had the actors work together at the same time, a tactic he felt added spontaneity to their performances. “If you’ve got someone like Robins Williams, you say, ‘Let’s push it, let’s see where this thing goes.’ You get material better than what you wrote on the page. Little things, inflections. It happens in live action as well, but of course animation is more plastic. You’re able to get a little bit more than you normally would in live action. Usually when you’re editing live footage, you’re thinking, I wish I had done that, but we didn’t, or couldn’t. But with digital animation you’re able to actually get most of what you aspired to do.”

Although he has concentrated on children’s films recently, Miller has had an unusually eclectic career that includes directing the medical drama Lorenzo’s Oil and producing early Kidman thrillers like Dead Calm. The long production schedule for Happy Feet has enabled him to finish working on other screenplays that he put aside earlier. He considers only one of his future projects a family oriented film. Fans of the Mad Max series, which contains some of the most expertly staged and hard-hitting action ever captured on film, will be delighted to learn that Miller is anxious to return to live-action filmmaking.

“The biggest thing I miss is working up close and personal with actors,” he says. “When you’re working with animators, it’s like you’re directing extremely slow-motion acting. But when you’re working with actors, they’re right there, it’s like being in a body contact sport. When you’re engaged in the scene, wonderful things can happen. It’s like being the coach of great athletes, and I miss that a lot.”

Miller cites Disney’s Pinocchio, with its indelible characters and strict morals, as an important influence on his work, and singles out Pixar today for its attention to writing. He once gave a lecture on storytelling that was based on the premise that the best stories should include labels warning of hazardous material. Religions, for example, have stories so powerful they can lead to war. Miller was deeply impressed by storytelling in aboriginal cultures. Because they could not be written down, their stories contained enormous amounts of information, most of which had to do with survival. Not only moral lessons, but how to find food and water. Getting the opportunity to hear these stories first hand showed Miller the responsibility that went with them.

Pointing to films like Pirates of the Caribbean, Miller believes that mastering animation and digital effects now has to be a part of every filmmaker’s repertoire. But equally important is treating the filmgoing audience with respect. As he puts it, “You’re not slumming when you’re working with children’s films, or family films. You’re trying to push storytelling to the best level you can.”


Review: The Departed

October 10, 2006

Guilt and redemption, or the lack of it, have been linchpins of Martin Scorsese’s work since his earliest films. They form the core of The Departed, an adaptation of the 2002 Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs. Transported to Boston, the story still concerns a battle between a gangster and the police who are trying to put him away. It’s a meatier film than Scorsese’s last few efforts, but what was a crisply plotted cop thriller has turned into a sprawling melodrama dominated by an unrestrained performance from Jack Nicholson.

Nicholson plays Frank Costello, a gang leader who trains Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) to be his own personal mole in the police department. At the same time, two police officers (Martin Sheen and an amusingly foulmouthed Mark Wahlberg) place Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), their own undercover cop, in Costello’s gang. As the cops and the FBI (represented by Alec Baldwin in a quick-witted and dead-on turn) close in on Costello, he relies on Sullivan to tip him off about their plans. Having gained Costello’s trust, Costigan realizes that the gangster is using a police mole. At the same time, Sullivan discovers that there in an informer on Costello’s crew. Both men have to ferret out their counterparts while protecting their own identities.

You would expect Scorsese and his longtime cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to capture Costello’s gangster milieu accurately, and the opening hour of The Departed presents a world as convincingly fetid and claustrophobic as in any of the director’s films. Working again with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese has developed a sort of free association editing scheme in which the focus of the film shifts seamlessly among any of a half-dozen characters. It gives a seductive power to The Departed‘s visuals, a power that is occasionally undercut by an over-insistent score.

DiCaprio and Damon are both persuasive in their roles, but Vera Farmiga as a concerned police psychiatrist and Ray Winstone as Costello’s hatchet man turn in the most grounded and affecting performances. Nicholson, on the other hand, can’t resist overacting. Making rat faces, crooning Irish folk ballads, brandishing a prosthetic penis, he mocks the material, reducing it to an inside joke. Played straight, his role would have been far more chilling; instead, he derails a plot that depends on a clockwork precision.

If you haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, you may find the complex story line of mirrored actions and twinned destinies in The Departed satisfying. But there’s no good reason why so much of the film generates so little suspense. Scorsese may not have trusted the material, pumping up the smallest transition scenes with jump cuts and other devices. But even his fans will have to admit that the film’s big set pieces–a compromised stake-out during a drug deal, or a chase from a porn theater through Chinatown–fall flat. The Departed is as much a series of missed opportunities as it is a return to form for the director. Plushly mounted but marred by fussy choices and overacting, it strands Scorsese once again at a crossroads between art and commerce.

Credits

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson, Kevin Corrigan, James Badge Dale, David Patrick O’Hara, Mark Rolston, Robert Wahlberg, Kristen Dalton.

Crew: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by William Monahan. Based on the film Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau Wai Keung and Alan Mak, written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong. Produced by: Brad Pitt, Brad Grey, Graham King. Executive producers: Roy Lee, Doug Davison, G. Mac Brown, Kristin Hahn, Gianni Nunnari. Director of photography: Michael Ballhaus. Production designer: Kristi Zea. Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. Costume designer: Sandy Powell. Music by Howard Shore. Visual effects supervisor: Rob Legato. Co-producers: Joseph Reidy, Michael Aguilar, Rick Schwartz. A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Plan B, Initial Entertainment Group, and Vertigo Entertainment production, in association with Media Asia Films.

Warner Bros./Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/148 Mins./Rated R