SHUTTER ISLAND: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2010)

“You act like insanity is catching”, federal Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) quips to the Deputy Warden (John Carroll Lynch) while being shown the grounds of Shutter Island, the contained electronically secure mental hospital for the criminally insane. It’s a welcome one-liner as the introductory build-up to DiCaprio and his new partner Mark Ruffalo’s entry is one of the most overwrought openers in Martin Scorsese’s career. The score pounds in an over the top progression of fearful crescendos as the men enter the complex.

Once the uber-melodramatic music eases off we are led inside to meet and greet Dr. Cawley (the always ominous Ben Kingsley) and the premise: a female patient has gone missing and the facility is on lock-down. Kingsley cryptically explains: “We don’t know how she got out of her room. It’s as if she evaporated, straight through the walls.”

With a stern look that keeps his worry brow constantly a-worryin’, DiCaprio, still using his Boston accent from THE DEPARTED, has another agenda. 2 years ago his wife (Michelle Williams) died in a house fire and he believes the pyro-culprit is a patient hidden somewhere at the hospital. A World War II vet (the year is 1954), DiCaprio is also full of conspiracy theories about secret experiments and mind torture going down at the hospital – the presence of a German doctor played by Max von Sydow particularly sets him off – as hallucinatory visions of his wife and the horrors he experienced at war haunt him around the clock.

Based on Dennis Lahane’s bestselling 2003 novel, SHUTTER ISLAND has a supremely effective first half. The second half falters because I believe many folks will see the end coming from miles away – I actually had an inkling of the conclusion when seeing the trailer months ago. The reveal is wrapped in exposition and once DiCaprio and the audience figures it all out, the film lingers too long.

However this doesn’t completely ruin the movie. The dream/flashback/whatever sequences are beautifully shot recalling David Lynch’s surreal palette. DiCaprio’s visions always have something falling and floating in the air around him. File papers, snow, and ashes fill the screen along with DiCaprio’s angst.

It’s not the best film that DiCaprio and Scorsese have made together in their decade long collaboration (that would be THE DEPARTED), but it has a lot of strong searing imagery going for it, even if the narrative isn’t as layered as it would like to be.

Acting-wise, it’s Leo’s show. Despite the solid supporting cast (including Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Hayley, and Ted Levine), Dicaprio carries the movie spending considerable chunks of the film alone with his demons. By this point, his 4th film under Scorsese’s direction, he’s not just an actor going through the motions; he’s an embedded yet impassioned piece of the scenery. By comparison Ruffalo comes off like he’s playing a gumshoe in a Saturday Night Live sketch.

So it’s half a great movie – half is an absorbingly creepy character study, half a formula thriller frightening close to well trodden M. Night Shyamalan territory. But half a great Scorsese movie is still a vital movie-going experience, you understand?

When speaking of Scorsese in an interview a few years ago, Quentin Tarantino said: “I’m in my church, praying to my god and he’s in his church, praying to his. There was a time when we were in the same church – I miss that. I don’t want to do that church.” In one of SHUTTER ISLAND‘s most powerful shots, Scorsese mounts a DiCaprio Dachau death camp recollection that blows everything in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS away. Sorry Quentin, but Marty’s is the church I want to attend.

More later…

TWO LOVERS And 2 New DVD Reviews

TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray, 2008)

Joaquin Phonenix‘s Leonard Kraditor is the latest in a long line of New York lovelorn schlubs that includes Ernest Borgnine’s comical Marty Piletti and to a darker extreme – Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Phoenix brings a disturbed pathos to the character that, as reports indicate, may extend into Phoenix’s real life. We are introduced to the troubled character in an opening scene suicide attempt off a bridge in Brooklyn (not the Brooklyn Bridge, mind you). He doesn’t go through with it; he surfaces and is helped out of the water by passing pedestrians.

Soaking wet, Phoenix returns home to the disapproving looks of his parents (Moni Moshonov and Issabella Rossellini) and a small cluttered bedroom. That night his parents are having a dinner party and intend to set up their son with the daughter of Moshonov’s business partner played by Vanessa Shaw. They hit it off but Phoenix’s eyes wander to neighbor Gynneth Paltrow, an outgoing free-spirited beauty that he is instantly attracted to. Unfortunately she is involved with a married man (an asshole lawyer portrayed perfectly by Elias Koteas) so their budding relationship is unlikely to bloom.

Phoenix has palpable, if at times awkward, chemistry with both Shaw and Paltrow. An audience will surely pull for him to wind up with Shaw (who’s just as attractive) over Paltrow for more than just “good brunette” over “bad blonde” reasons, but the emotional discord within that Phoenix displays can’t be easily dismissed. We still feel for the guy even when he is being deceptive and come to care deeply whether or not he makes the right choice. Possible Spoiler!: In the end it’s not his choice to make and there is an edge to his actions that come more from fear than true love. As my girlfriend said as we were leaving the theater: “How romantic it is to be someone’s choice over death or being alone.” Good point for sure, but this little spare drama should be commended for its non-contrived storyline and unpretentious tone regardless of its uneasy aftertaste. Resembling a Woody Allen relationship movie without the one-liners, TWO LOVERS is an engaging experience that is sure to be remembered long after tales of Phoenix’s odd off-screen behavior have faded away.

And now, a few new release DVD reviews:

I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Dir. Phillippe Claudel, 2008)

Kristen Scott Thomas as a woman recently released from 15 years in prison affects a somber trance as she suffers societal scorn in this drawn out drama. That makes it sound as though this movie is a trial to endure which is not the case. It’s a carefully paced character study with very subtle appeal that lingers for days after viewing. Thomas, going through the motions of reassembling, comes off like an ashamed ghost in the presence of her sister (Elsa Zylberstein) who offers her a place to stay while she gets back on her feet. Zylberstein‘s husband (Serge Hazanavicius) is sceptical of having Thomas around the children because, after all, she went to jail for the murder of her own 6 year old son.

We follow Thomas through these day to day unpleasantries, feeling for her even when we are unsure where our sympathies should really lie. She befriends a few empathetic souls – her probation officer played with aplomb by Frédéric Pierrot and Laurent Grévill as a kindly colleague of her sister’s. I’ll definitely say no further because the film’s biggest asset is in the unwrapping of its intriquing layers. Thomas deserved greater recognition in the now concluded award season for this performance; her work is immaculately measured and nobly nuanced. The film surrounding her is much the same except for some embellished misteps like the inappropriate acoustic guitar flourishes and some abrupt editing. These are minor beefs though, for I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG is one of 2008’s finest films that just barely missed making my top ten.

ELEGY (Dir. Isabel Coixet, 2008) The track record for movie adaptations of the works of noted novelist Philip Roth is pretty poor. His 1969 bestseller PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT was made into a critically derided forgotten film in 1972 (Ebert labeled it “a true fiasco”) so it wasn’t until 30 years later that Hollywood tried again. The result: THE HUMAN STAIN (Dir. Robert Benton, 2003) which was one of the worst films of the last decade if not ever. Not to be discouraged, 5 years later, Spanish director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, yo!), dive head first into Roth’s “The Dying Animal” – the third book in his fictional professor David Kapesh series (if you can call it that).

In this ambitious adaptation, renamed ELEGY (meaning “a mournful poem”) presumably because the original title wasn’t very accessble (sic), Ben Kingsley plays Kapesh as a eloquent man of the arts. We are told how much a celebrated cultural warrior he is from the first shot of him pontificating on the The Charlie Rose Show. His voice-over narration, or commentary, sets up his falling for one of his students with such pithy asides such as: “How is it possible for me to be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy?” The student in question, a shy for once Penelope Cruz, 30 years younger than Kingsley is seemingly just as smitten. Kingsley confides in best friend Dennis Hopper as a Pulilzer Prize winning poet who offers: “Stop worrying about growing old, start worrying about growing up.”

Devised as half a mediation on growing old, half erotic obsession study, ELEGY delights in flowery exposition and artfully shadowed sex scenes. Kingley lies to his long time lover Patricia Clarkson about his affair but like everything else it hardly registers. “When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life” Kingsley detachedly remarks at one point and I was like, uh, I never thought of it like that before and you know what? I never will again. Beneath all his sophistication and culture lies a pretty despicable dude that I could never care about, I just cringed at his every labored turn.

Hopper finds a little poetry in his part particularly in a spiel about how women are invisible because men are blinded by their beauty and their soul can’t be truly seen, which is as pretentious as it sounds, especially with the ever present piano tinkling and lush presentation, but still more affecting than the bulk of material here. So disinterested was I that at one point I found myself thinking nothing more than how Kingsley and Cruz have such curiously shaped noses. As “a work of art that reminds you of who you are now” (professor Kapesh’s words) ELEGY just reminded me that I’d rather be washing the dishes.

More later…

Dog Day Matinee

It was so good to hide from the scorching Summer heat in air conditioned theaters in the last few weeks. I caught up with some of the second-tier films like ONCE and YOU KILL ME (reviewed below) that are competing with the blockbusters. I did however make it beyond my local art-house theater haunting ground that I normally dwell in to hit the multiplex to see –

RATATOUILLE (Dir. Brad Bird, 2007)

When walking out of the matinee I asked the common after-movie question to a friend who saw the movie with me – “so, what did you think?” He said “it sucked! No, just kidding – it was awesome.” Sure, an obvious joke but still apt because we knew going in that it was going to be awesome. Pixar has a high level of quality streak that they are riding on and the casting of comedian Patton Oswalt, who is also having a bit of a winning streak lately *, is pure genius. Oswalt voices Remy – a French rat who’s a “foodie” – not content to sift through trash for his meals because of his sophicated palette. After infiltrating a famous restaurant that has dropped a star off its four star rating after the passing of its owner and head chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett) Remy teams up with Linguinni (Lou Romano)- an incompetent klutz who has just been hired as janitor. With Remy’s culinary genius – inspired in part by a ghost of Gusteau – Linguinni rises above his mere kitchen help status to become the star chef. The animation is fluid and flawless, the dialogue quick and witty, the script with its honest passion for food and cooking is sharp as can be, and the supporting cast (including Janeanne Garafolo, Ian Holm, and Peter O’Toole) is spot-on. Man, I hope this Pixar winning streak lasts for a long time.

* This great Onion AV Club interview with Patton Oswalt reveals that he has done script doctoring punch-up work on 25 movies alone this year including SHREK THE THIRD. I would really like to give him props for his newest stand-up comedy disc “Werewolves and Lollipops” on SubPop. If you are not in the habit of purchasing comedy discs (most people I know aren’t) you should break the habit and buy this one – it’s hilarious all the way through and it comes with a bonus DVD of a performance at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia in which an audience member pees on another audience member because he didn’t want to leave to go to the bathroom and miss any of Oswalt’s set. Don’t worry – you don’t actually see this happening but it becomes a part of the routine in a glorious way.

And now for the arthouse also rans :

ONCE (Dir. John Carney, 2006) This highly touted Irish drama finally arrives in my area and has been charming the pants off of nearly everyone I know who sees it – me included. The story is simple – struggling songwriter Guy (Glen Hansard) meets piano playing Girl (Marketa Irglova) , Girl helps Guy * to make a demo recording and the will they-won’t they get together question is amplified through the music they create together. A very low-fi griminess adds to the realistic almost documentary feel and the music is heartfelt and catchy. ONCE has a sweet sincere melody to it and that’s a pretty good endorsement for a movie that is almost a demo itself.

* that is actually how they are credited – we never know their names.

YOU KILL ME (John Dahl, 2007) Ben Kingsley is Frank, a New Jersey hit-man whose alcoholicism has interferred with his ability to pull off his mafia contracts. Told by his boss (Phillip Baker Hall) he must attend AA meetings and sober up in San Fransisco where he gets a job in a funeral home. Yep, if the first half of this plot description made you think of The Sopranos the second half takes us to Six Feet Under. Through his new temporary line of work he meets Tea Leoni, gets sponsered by Luke Wilson, and monitored by creepy real estate agent Bill Pullman. There are a number of mild chuckles but this film isn’t the delightful dark comedy it wants to be. I didn’t really buy its ‘drinking : bad/murder : okay’ message either but the acting which is so much better than the material saves this from being forgettable. Kingsley should actually consider doing that “I’d pay to watch him read the phone book” project that people have been pitching for years.

Now for a review of a recent release DVD if you please (or even if you don’t) :

Lt. Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon) – “Why was the 911 switchboard unplugged?”
Deputy Trudy Wiegel (Kerri Kenney-Silver) “We had to plug in the popcorn maker!”

RENO 911! : MIAMI (Dir. Ben Garant, 2007) I’ve enjoyed the modern Keystone-esque antics in the satire of the reality TV standard Cops since Reno 911 premiered on Comedy Central in 2003 but then I’ve also liked Strangers With Candy and its transfer to the big screen yielded pretty patchy results. This is better than that by at least a notch and for the record funnier than another likewise stoner cop comedy SUPER TROOPERS (’01) by a long stretch. It has these things going for it – the full cast of TV regulars appears including Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant (who both co-wrote) it has a good Laughs Per Minute ratio, some clever cameos (Danny Devito, The Rock, Paul Rudd, and all the members from the sketch comedy troup/MTV show The State *), and a consistent tone throughout.

The squad journeys to a police convention on Spring Break in Miami and after a major arena quarentine they are made the only law enforcers of the city ensuring a wave of wackiness. Since this review is based on the unrated DVD version I can’t comment on the theatrical version obviously but there is a lot of scatological humor of which I’m not a fan of – I could have really done without the cheap motel masturbation sequence for instance. Still as a whole it’s funnier than it has a legal right to be. RENO 911! : MIAMI may never be considered a cult classic but it will be preferable to many of the films that air on Comedy Central for years to come.

* Also Patton Oswalt appears in the more-than-mere-cameo role of acting Miami-mayor Jeff Spoder – okay! That’s enough Patton promoting for now!

This post is dedicated to Laszlo Kovacs (1933-2007)- the recently deceased legendary cinematographer who has made his mark on 60 movies including classics like EASY RIDER, SHAMPOO, PAPER MOON, and GHOSTBUSTERS.

More later…