Martin Scorsese returns to his roots of intense ethnic urban violence (Mean Streets, Goodfellas) with a vivid and dynamic The Departed. This two-and-a-half hour story of mob informants within the Boston police, undercover cops wrestling with personal demons, and an assortment of other deceptions and canards, is riveting from the opening credits (set to vintage Rolling Stones, of course) to the surprise ending. A terrific cast - Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Jack Nicholson - is splendid and appropriately foul-mouthed throughout. Even when the twisting plot strains credulity a bit, the strength of the dialogue and acting bulldoze through. The Departed is Scorsese's finest work in decades.
[Editor's note: After reading this review, I rushed out to see it the same night (it had been lower on my list, which is stupid considering it was Scorsese and even bad Scorsese is pretty good). I teetered on the brink of 5 stars (such an epic!) but decided it lacked complexity, and that 4.5 stars is about right. Good film, won't stand up to multiple viewings, I don't think. Anyway, his review says it all and gives nothing away]
Neil Burger's second film is a beautifully-photographed, well-written, and nicely-acted bit of historical fiction, set in the streets and royal courts of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Edward Norton (Fight Club) is a magician whose love of a beautiful duchess (Jessica Biel, from TV's "7th Heaven," and Elizabethtown) puts him at odds with evil Crown Prince Leopold (the stiff Rufus Sewell, who finally finds a role appropriate to his abilities) and his minions, led by the politically-ambitious police inspector (Paul Giamatti). While one could argue that the "surprise" ending is telegraphed throughout the film, The Illusionist is far better than much of this year's cinema, and a most engaging 110 minutes.
[Editor's Note: Check out my review of The Illusionist and you'll see Neal and I agree, right down to the number of stars.]
Man of the Year
This flaccid, preachy film is an utter waste of time. Ostensibly the story of the election of a TV talk show host/comedian (Robin Williams) as President due to a secret voting system glitch, Man of the Year is really just a series of constrained bits of Williams stand-up connected by moralistic speeches and silly potboiler shenanigans. All of the esteemed talent associated with this effort - Williams, Laura Linney, Christopher Walken, "The Daily Show"'s Lewis Black, Jeff Goldblum, and especially writer/director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, Diner) - should be embarrassed.