For Leonard DiCaprio, Scorsese's 'The Departed' was one film to kill for

Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

His career ambitions were pretty much fulfilled, says Leonardo DiCaprio, when Martin Scorsese called him to talk about playing Howard Hughes in 2004's "The Aviator."

"After we finished `Gangs of New York,' I thought, `OK, I've worked with the best there is and I came out of it OK.'" So when Scorsese called him about doing his next film, "I felt -- I don't know, validated isn't really the word maybe -- but good, you know. It was like we had something together. But was there something more I wanted to do? Yeah.

"Listen, I loved making those movies, and I think they'll stand the test of the time. But I'm like any other actor. I would have killed to make a great gangster movie with Martin Scorsese."

No blood sacrifice proved necessary. According to DiCaprio, he and the director each received the script for "The Departed," a Grand Guignol gangster drama written by William Monahan, and both were knocked out.

"It was classic Scorsese stuff, cops and criminals and the thin line that divides them, but it was also very different than any of the gangster movies he had made before," says DiCaprio, 31. "He never makes the same movie twice. He's very conscious of that. And he'd never made this movie before, and that excited him. And when he's excited, you get excited, you know what I mean?"

"The Departed" is a remake of a classic cops and robbers movie, but it just happens to be one few people have seen. "Infernal Affairs" was the most popular film released in Hong Kong in 2002, and by the time it was released in major cities in the United States in 2004, it had spawned a prequel and a sequel.

The plotline is irresistible. Two police cadets from the same class take very different routes to success: One gets kicked out of the academy and becomes right-hand man in a gang led by a ruthless killer. The other rises to the top of the police force. What neither knows is that the gang member is an informant for the cops, and the cop is in the employ of the gangster as a mole. Eventually, both sides realizes there's a rat in their midst, and the race is on to find him before their true identities can be revealed.

"I thought `Infernal Affairs' was a great movie, but what really excited me was what Marty would do with that set-up," says DiCaprio. "Because I knew he would put all his own stuff in there."

Which he most certainly did: With Catholic church bells pealing in the background, Scorsese set the story in South Boston, where seriously dangerous gang boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) has groomed -- some might say seduced -- a local kid since childhood to become a state policeman. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) eventually rises to the top of the Special Investigation Unit, where the boss (Alec Baldwin) is determined to bring down Costello.

Meanwhile, angry Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), child of a mother born to Boston society and a blue-collar father who wanted nothing to do with the mob, is secretly recruited by gang task-force leaders (Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg) and sent to insinuate himself in Costello's gang and gain his confidence.

In Scorsese's version, the only link between the two informers is a police psychiatrist played by Vera Famiga.

"These two guys are just two sides of the same coin," says DiCaprio. "They've never met each other, but they know each other."

Damon claims that he and DiCaprio flipped a coin to see who would play which character; DiCaprio won't confirm that, but graciously concedes Damon "would have been great as Billy."

"One thing that really helped was having these Boston guys, Matt and Mark, around. They both really understood that culture and helped keep it authentic. I spent a lot of time in Boston before we started shooting, getting to know people, knocking around, and it's really a place unto itself," DiCaprio says. "Not like any other city I've spent time in."

Scorsese has said he was thrilled when Nicholson accepted the role of Costello; the two giants of American film had never worked together. But in the past decade, Nicholson's acting style has become more and more exaggerated, and rumors from the set said the script had to be altered to accommodate Nicholson's conception of his character. Without giving too much away, let's just say the devil he played in "The Witches of Eastwick" has duller horns than Costello, and that Nicholson makes Al Pacino's Tony Montana in "Scarface" seem rational.

DiCaprio, who shares the most scenes with Nicholson, says that when he did his first scenes with him, his focus was on "maintaining a similar level of intensity. I mean, Jack is Jack, the Jack. He doesn't go out there much, but when he does, he brings it all. I had to be prepared, you know, because I knew what would be coming at me. No, I wasn't scared. Let's say I had to stay on my toes."

At least most of the time; on a couple of occasions, Nicholson sprang a few cameras-rolling surprises on his co stars, one of which has become legendary -- and made the final cut of the film.

Though "The Departed" has been seen only by a few critics and test audiences, there has been an outpouring of praise for the film that Scorsese hasn't enjoyed -- if you exclude last year's Bob Dylan documentary "No Direction Home" -- since 1990's "GoodFellas." There was no such consensus on the historical epics "Gangs of New York" or "The Aviator," though both were nominated for best picture awards, with Scorsese nominated for best director.

Said to have been embarrassed when neither he nor the films won Oscars despite elaborate campaigns mounted by the studios, Scorsese has apparently asked that "The Departed" not be positioned as an Oscar contender. Scorsese is undoubtedly also aware that genre films -- "The Godfather" and its sequel aside -- rarely register with Academy voters. "GoodFellas" was nominated in six categories, including director and best picture, but it won only one, for supporting actor Joe Pesci.

"I'm not campaigning, and I understand and appreciate Marty's feelings on this subject. All he wants to do is make the best movies he can make and hope people like them. But I will say this right now," says DiCaprio. "There is no living director in the United States or anywhere else who deserves an Academy Award more than Martin Scorsese. That's all there is to that."


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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