Jay Baruchel is Hollywood’s affable geek du jour having plied his unique trade recently in the animated blockbuster How to Train Your Dragon and the considerably less successful rom-com She’s Out of My League. His gangly frame twitchy visage and nasal drone make him perfect for movies in which awkward self-effacing underdogs triumph against enormous odds to achieve great feats like saving a Viking tribe from certain destruction or getting laid by a really really hot blonde chick.
Movies like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice a live-action CGI-fest directed by Jon Turteltaub (the National Treasure films) and inspired by a famous sequence from Fantasia Walt Disney’s groundbreaking collection of animated shorts. Fantasia debuted in 1940 long before Disney subleased its animation work to Pixar and "Fantasia" became more commonly known as a popular name among exotic dancers. My how things have changed.
Baruchel plays Dave a hapless NYU physics nerd unwittingly cast into the middle of a centuries-long good-versus-evil battle between powerful sorcerers who wield an infinite array of supernatural powers. Representing the good guys is Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) a wide-eyed eccentric whose all-black goth-pimp ensemble draws nary a suspicious glance on the eclectic streets of Manhattan. Dave it turns out is no ordinary college student but the Prime Merliner which sounds like an underwater number divisible by only one and itself but in actuality is a sort of wizard messiah destined to rid the world from the likes of the sinister Horvath (Alfred Molina) and his imprisoned overlord Morgana (Alice Krige). That is if he can take time off from his bumbling courtship of a pretty co-ed (Teresa Palmer) to actually learn the tricks of the sorcerer’s trade.
“Disposable” and “formulaic” are terms commonly applied to both of Turteltaub’s National Treasure collaborations with Cage but I submit that those films are at least fun if ultimately forgettable. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is far less fun and far more forgettable its formula followed so perfunctorily that it ultimately comes off as an elaborate exercise in corporate cynicism one unlikely to inspire the string of sequels it so transparently hopes to conjure. Which is a shame because the film shows intermittent signs of promise and Cage despite his distracting perm is oddly charming as a sort of desperate weirdo.
It isn’t until later on in The Departed that you realize how important and well-crafted its beginning is: Two Bostonians Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) nearly cross paths when they’re interviewed in succession by Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen). Costigan is chosen to infiltrate the mob in order to get to Boston’s most feared boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and he’ll have to put in some time in the slammer and on the streets before gaining a shred of cred; meanwhile Sullivan clean-cut and articulate is pulling the ultimate job for Costello by infiltrating the state police department and alerting the mob boss of their every move. As the two moles become more involved in their undercover operations the groups they’re infiltrating begin to smell something fishy. And so commences the chess match between Costigan and Sullivan to reveal each other before their respective pseudo-colleagues do. For any actor who truly enjoys the art of his job more so than the sexy periphery of it all something as collaborative as The Departed must seem like the proverbial “candy store.” Maybe that explains why DiCaprio Damon Nicholson and Wahlberg all signed up instead of carrying their own separate blockbusters for likely a much bigger payday. DiCaprio and Damon do what they do in every movie: give their best performances to date. Each plays completely against type flaunting the fact that genuine movie superstardom isn’t born out of good looks alone. For Nicholson his career nearing the half-century mark it’s no longer easy to qualify and rank his performances but Costello is one of his high points in a career pretty much devoid of anything but. As likely the lone Oscar contender (amongst the cast) Nicholson is equal parts monstrous and wry--or better yet equal parts Jack Torrance and The Joker. Wahlberg steals the funniest lines especially with his inborn Boston accent but Sheen often catches them before they’re allowed too much laughter. It doesn’t end there though: Alec Baldwin (as a fellow officer) soon-to-be breakout star Vera Farmiga (as a police shrink who ends up playing a central role) Ray Winstone (as Costello’s right-hand man) and Anthony Anderson (as a young cop familiar with both Costigan and Sullivan) all shine. Unprecedented chemistry amongst an unprecedented cast is as much a theme here as revenge! It is a privilege to watch a legend who is still so relevant: Martin Scorsese. The iconic director is responsible for some of film’s all-time masterpieces (Taxi Driver Raging Bull Goodfellas) but perhaps never has he seemed so vigorous. The Departed is a return to form for him in its vulgarity and casual-as-waking-up violence--the man makes exploding brain bits look like masterful spin art but somehow never gratuitous; however the film is not a return to straight-ahead mob flicks which would be a copout. His mere aura commands actors’ best-ever performances and does he ever get them here. But it’s Scorsese’s party thanks to his trademark grit and urban storytelling for no one makes the bad look so damn good! His prowess is indubitable but it’s hard to imagine him doing it without a superb script rewrite of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs from Boston’s own William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven). His story is not flawless all the time--for one thing Farmiga’s character is the story’s thinly veiled crutch--and it could be argued that the gunshots are exploitatively deafening but this is no time to nitpick. It’s time to sit back feel tense and enjoy the show!
David Callaway (Robert De Niro) is having a tough time dealing with the apparent suicide of his wife (Amy Irving). His young daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning) also has taken her mother's death very hard retreating into her own little world. As a psychologist David decides the only way to help Emily is to move from the big city to a house in the country. Sure that kind of thing usually works like a charm. Emily does perk up a bit when she finds a new "friend " Charlie who likes to have fun and play hide and seek with her. Of course we can't actually see this new friend but that's beside the point. The imaginary Charlie is still a powerful force in Emily's life instructing her not to talk about him much and hating pretty much everyone else in her life including her dad. In short order bad things start happening--yes the family pet gets whacked--which Emily blames on Charlie. This leaves David wondering how his little girl could have turned so psychotic. But wait. Maybe Charlie isn't imaginary after all but actually a flesh-and-blood malevolent presence. Oh god do you think so?
Why you may ask would an acting icon like Robert De Niro star of such classic movies as Raging Bull and Goodfellas choose such a cheesy film as Hide and Seek? Very good question. Maybe he was drawn into the project based on the premise like the rest of us without realizing how derivative the story would get as things progressed. Of course De Niro plays the confused father--dealing with what could possibly be a demonic child--with a fair amount of finesse. But he's a pro that's what he does. Fanning (I Am Sam) too does the best she can as the sunken-eyed pasty-faced Emily. She sulks around rarely smiles and draws scary pictures of people dying horrible deaths which has now become a prerequisite for any child in a scary movie. In the supporting roles Elisabeth Shue Famke Janssen and Dylan Baker are all pretty much wasted. Shue who hasn't acted in anything major since 2000's Hollow Man makes a brief appearance as a potential paramour for David. Janssen (X-Men) playing David's colleague and Emily's confidante thinks living in isolation is a bad idea (and she's right!). Veteran character actor Baker (Kinsey) takes on the predictable role of the hapless town sheriff who never quite gets he's about to be in a world of hurt.
It is always disappointing when the promise of something potentially creepy turns out to possess the same old tired plot points and scare tactics seen countless times before. Director John Polson--best known for helming Swimfan another predictable stalker-gone-mad thriller--and novice screenwriter Ari Schlossberg don't have the necessary skills to take Hide and Seek above and beyond its conventional trappings. To its small credit the film does build a bit of tension in the beginning as David and Emily skirt around each other trying to grasp onto some kind of normalcy. Then when Emily introduces Charlie you continue to hold out hope that somehow the filmmakers will channel some of M. Night Shyamalan's aura and start really scaring the bejesus out of you. But alas it isn't meant to be. Instead you're sitting there pretty much guessing every move the film is going to make before it happens. When the twist finally comes around--you knew there was a twist right?--it doesn't really surprise you whether you've guess it or not.