Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2006 - The Departed

After a whirlwind two weeks in Sydney, I'm back in New York, gearing up for the Oscars this weekend. In preparation, I've selected my predictions for who will take home each award. Let me know how they match up with your picks.

But before this year's Oscars, we continue our look at the race from 5 years ago with another 2006 Best Picture nominee...

The Departed
Martin Scorsese
William Monahan
(based on the film Infernal Affairs, written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Corrigan
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
4 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

The ultimate double cross story, The Departed follows two fresh police academy recruits who operate on separate sides of the law. Colin Sullivan (Damon) is immediately assigned to the unit investigating organised crime, but his loyalty lies with his childhood mentor Frank Costello (Nicholson), the main target of the crime unit. In contrast, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) is given a long-term undercover assignment to infiltrate Costello's crew, while faithfully reporting his findings to Captain Queenan (Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Wahlberg). The two double agents spend a great deal of time attempting to discover the identity of the other, a task made all the more precarious since they are both carrying on a relationship with the same police psychiatrist, Madolyn Madden (Farmiga).

The Departed is about as tight as crime thrillers get. The tension is deliciously high throughout, a necessary consequence of such a brilliantly structured central conceit. Several scenes position the audience precariously on the edge of their seats with their eyes glued to the screen. A particularly novel instance involves a phone call in which both parties remain entirely silent. And just when you get comfortable with the suspense, traditional thriller conventions are then thrown out the window during the Shakespearean tragedy of an ending. No warning is given before characters meet their demises, each of which I still found unexpected even though I'd seen the film before, as paradoxical as that sounds.

Not only does this picture succeed as a thriller, it also explores some poignant psychological issues, the most obvious of which is the human tendency to lie. Trust issues abound among the main characters and keeping secrets is a way of life for most of them. To varying degrees, they all struggle with their deception, perhaps none more so than Madolyn, whose unfaithfulness is of a more intimate nature.

Director Martin Scorsese is in top form here, earning his first (and to date only) Best Director Oscar. He also assembled a dream cast, including the unique personas of Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, all three delivering humour laden performances. Vera Farmiga is superb in her role, providing some much needed estrogen to an otherwise male-dominated story. And while Wahlberg's was the only Oscar-nominated performance, Matt Damon (pictured) and Leonardo DiCaprio carry the film together extremely well, despite only rarely appearing on screen at the same time.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

2006 - The Queen

I am writing to you now from cloudy Sydney, where Kat and I are visiting friends and family. Despite the lack of sunshine, it is still warm here and certainly more preferable than a New York winter.

My predictions for the Oscar nominations (in the last post) resulted in a fairly average hit rate overall. However, I managed to peg eight of the nine Best Picture nominees, and scored five for five in both the Best Director and Best Cinematography categories. On the other end of the spectrum, I had selected five tunes to be nominated for Best Song and still didn't manage to correctly guess either of the two actual nominees.

We now turn our attention to another nominee from the Best Picture race of 2006...

The Queen
Stephen Frears
Peter Morgan
Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Sylvia Syms, Tim McMullan, Mark Bazeley
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Mirren)

Tony Blair (Sheen) has just been elected Prime Minister, anxious about developing a working relationship with Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren). When the world reels from the shock of Princess Diana's death, all eyes are on the Royal Family and how they will respond. The Queen's decision to mourn privately and make no public statement is met with confusion and anger by some, leaving Blair with the responsibility of managing the British people's expectations.

The story of The Queen is relatively straightforward, the majority of the action taking place over the course of one week. Unfettered by subplots, the main focus of attention is the Royal Family's reaction to the tragic death of the woman who was once a part of that family. As such, there is a sort of self-referential irony that arises whenever the characters discuss the way in which the press makes headlines out of the Royal Family's lack of response, refusing to let up about it.

For most of the picture, there appears to be a potent anti-royalty sentiment. The Queen and her family are portrayed as out of touch and often inexcusably unfeeling. Contrast that with the charming characterisation of Tony Blair, who comes across as the voice of reason, rescuing the Royal Family from their own inability to relate to their subjects.

However, by the film's climax, that sentiment is well and truly challenged, which is perhaps the script's cleverest surprise. As Blair articulates in his defense of the Queen, she has served the British people with dignity for over 50 years in a position she never asked for and is now being demonised for not showing enough grief at the death of a woman who attempted to undermine everything she believes in. Seen from that perspective, we realise how quick we were to fall into the trap laid out for us, the same trap into which the British public fell, foisted onto us by the press.

With the possible exception of Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, the actors do not attempt impersonations of the real-life characters they portray, which creates an interesting atmosphere. It's hard to buy them as the Royal Family due to the casual nature of the performances, but in another sense, it is that casualness that makes the story more accessible. After all, the film's subjects are human, just like the rest of us, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they behave informally when in the privacy of their own homes. Helen Mirren's (pictured) Oscar-winning performance is top notch, finding a way to present a well-rounded portrayal of a somewhat stoic woman who keeps emotional displays to a minimum. She is joined on screen by a very effective Michael Sheen, who is charismatic and affable as the fledgling Prime Minister.