SHUTTER ISLAND: The Film Babble Blog Review

SHUTTER ISLAND
(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…

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2007 Spills Over And Over And Over…

Yeah, I know it’s February 2008 but it always takes a few months to catch up on the previous year’s film releases so bear with me. Some are only now making it to my area theatrically and every few days NetFlix envelopes arrive with films from the tail-end of 2007 so I’m gradually catching up. Here’s what I’ve been seeing starting with a few movies recently viewed at the theatre-hole:

THE SAVAGES (Dir. Tamara Jenkins, 2007)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are two siblings (Jon and Wendy Savage – hence the not so subtle title) who have to deal with their father’s (Phillip Bosco) worsening dementia in this almost too real to life film that hurts so good. I felt like a voyeur watching this at times because the situations come from such personal places. Early on Linney and Hoffman are established as liars – to themselves and everyone around them. Both have literary aspirations – Hoffman is a Professor with a Doctorate and author of obscure books on obscure topics; Linney is an aspiring playwright so you can see where they might competitively clash. They both have to travel from New York to Pop’s place in Arizona to figure out what to do about their father’s housing. Bosco is foul mouthed and forgetful (he mistakes his new nursing home for a hotel) so our brother and sister duo have more on their plate than their already exasperated lives will allow.

In a movie full of great natural-feeling moments, Gbenga Akinnagbe as a caretaker steals some vital screen time and as Hoffman and Linney’s respective lovers Cara Seymour and Peter Friedman fill out the great but spare cast. Tamara Jenkin’s first film – the underrated late 90’s SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS, as much as I hate using the phrase, showed promise but surprisingly not as much as this film delivers. “Maybe dad didn’t abandon us. Maybe he just forgot who we were” Linney says at one point and you can feel every syllable – not a single one of them phony or feeling like they exist only in a “movie” world. Hoffman and Linney are both top notch actors and they never falter here (this could be very well adapted to a great 2 person play); both deserve nominations (this should have been what Hoffman got a Oscar nomination for – not CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR). Jenkins, who also wrote the screenplay, has a smooth assured directorial style and that’s impressive with such rocky neurotic material. If I had seen it sooner THE SAVAGES may have made my top ten of 2007 but now I don’t want to knock anything off. Still it’s in my ongoing spillover and one I urge you to seek out. This is one of those slices of life that really cuts.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Dir. Julien Schnabel, 2007)

A few weeks back at the DGA Awards actress Sean Young (BLADE RUNNER, NO WAY OUT) heckled director Julien Schnabel when he took the stage because she thought he was taking too long to get to his remarks regarding his best director nomination for this film. “Come on – get to it!” she yelled, “have another cocktail!” he replied before walking off. Nobody could rightly yell at the screen for this movie to “get to it” because it immediately gets there with its premise, with its visuals, and with its remarkable sense of purpose. The premise: Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalricis) is paralysed after a stroke and can only communicate by blinking one eyelid. In this locked-in syndrome he is surrounded by women – his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner), his therapist (Marie-Josee Croze) who devised the one-eye communication method, his mistress (Agatha de la Fontaine), and a few pretty nurses (incuding Schnabel’s wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia) so he at least is never at a loss for beauty. We are never at a loss for beauty either – even though the first 10 minutes or so are a bit disorienting (images are seen through Bauby’s blinks) once one gets accustomed to the style the film is as engaging and colorful as one could desire.


It is funny that to fully appreciate and understand the title one has to see the film (or read the book), in other words it would be a spoiler to tell you what the title means so I won’t go there. There are many flashbacks, which are seemlessly stitched into the film’s fabric, so we see Bauby in better days. We get insight into his character, or lack of character when you consider the mistress, and get a great extended cameo by the legendary Max von Sydow as his stern cranky father. I got lost in this movie in its last third in the best possible manner – swept up in the notions of splendor one can only fully visualize from a state of confinement. Reportedly Johnny Depp was originally going to portray Bauby. I’m so glad that didn’t happen (he had PIRATES commitments apparently) for Depp’s ginormous star presence would have surely distracted from the real show. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is another candidate for 2007 spillover and a gorgeous experience that one doesn’t need “another cocktail” to get to.

And now some new release DVDS:


THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
(Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2007)

Despite some good word of mouth in its theatrical release last fall this got majorly overlooked – even in the nonsensical “is the Western still alive?” debate that some critics indulged in. At the year’s end it made a number of top ten lists and recently garnered Academy Award nominations for Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor (Casey Affleck) so wider interest in it will be sure to spread. It absolutely deserves a bigger audience for it’s a great movie; it’s powerful as well as subtly moving and comes off as a true story, which it is, and a tall-tale at the same time. A gaunt Brad Pitt is the infamous outlaw Jesse James – a notorious bank robber, bloody murderer, and “legendary figure of the Wild West” (as Wikipedia puts it). As a timid awkward newbie to the James Gang, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) longs after some of that legend glory and posits himself in the line for history by…uh…just reread the title – I guess I don’t have to worry about spoilers here!

The film could as well be titled “The Last Days Of The James Gang” for over its 2 hour and 40 minute running time the other members (including Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, and Paul Schneider) get a lot of screen time and their all fates intertwine with those of the two title characters. There is a large chunk of the film that Affleck is absent from as we learn family backgrounds and the score on deadly set-ups past and future. Pitt, understated with a persona drenched clean of razzle dazzle, is the best I’ve ever seen him – not a second of actorly digression. Casey Affleck once again makes the case that he’s the Affleck brother that should be in front of the camera as his Ford progressively seethes from within – outwardly idolizing yet quietly despising the aloof but intense James.

As I said before this was nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography and it definitely deserves to win. Roger Deakins’ (also nominated for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) work here is explemporary – every single shot is beautiful whether they are of open terrains, spare wooden house sets, or the snow covered woods where a body could be dumped and not found for many seasons. Affleck also deserves his nomination but I doubt he’ll get the gold (I’ll refrain from Oscar predictions just yet) – overall the entire cast is well chosen with Sam Shepherd as James’ brother Frank James, Mary-Louise Parker (who barely has any lines but a great screaming and sobbing scene) as James’s wife, and the previously mentioned Rockwell in a manically precise part as Robert Ford’s brother Charlie – see how ‘in the family’ this all is? In my review of 3:10 TO YUMA last September about the fate of the modern western I said that “it’s a genre that will never die”. Great sprawling masterworks like Dominik’s THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD make me re-affirm that statement.

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS (Dir. Seth Gordon, 2007)

Out of the entire global classic gaming hobby, there’s one significant rivalry that’s equivalent to the big rivalries in history: Yankees/Red Sox, Maris/Mantle, Heckle and Jeckle…all the big rivalries in history you know? This is up there on that level. – Walter Day (founder of Twin Galaxies, an international organization that tracks high-score statistics for the worldwide electronic video gaming hobby – thanks again Wikipedia!).

One thing is certain if you watch this film you will come to know 2 names very well: Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe (pictured above). Billy Mitchell (pictured on the left below) who has been called the “greatest arcade-video-game player of all time” and is documented in the Guinness Book of World Records for his high score on the old school 80’s classic Donkey Kong. Wiebe is his competitor – a failed baseballer, grunge musician, laid-off from Boeing surbananite who took to his personal in the garage Donkey Kong machine as a time killer when out of work and just happened to beat Mitchell’s score. After many of Mitchell’s minions doubt the validity of Wiebe’s score self appointed records keeper turned gamer referee Walter Day invites him to prove his skills “live” – that is, at a public venue (one of the last standing arcades – Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire). This is where the tensions rise – Mitchell sends a videotape that shows a game that tops Wiebe’s score. Mitchell is a no-show for a “live” showdown but is constantly monitoring his competition from his phone while Wiebe lives up the the challenge and continues to play on the spot. More such devious developments occur as we wonder if a real confrontation is in the cards.

For somebody who isn’t a gamer and had no idea of this outdated videogame subculture I was really riveted by this production. It’s the best kind of documentary – one that invites you in to a world that you’ve never known, introduces you to folks you end up really caring about, and leaves you with the passion and pathos of every day life from an angle that feels fresh as well as very funny. Maybe this film too simplistically casts Billy Mitchell as the conniving villain and Steve Wiebe as the innocent underdog hero but then again sometimes you’ve got to call ’em like you see ’em. The DVD is essential because the bonus material is not of the disposable variety – there are many vital extras including Q & A sessions from film screenings, a lot of crucial cut footage, and most importantly – updates on where the players competition stands now. As one of the bonus features is called (in a STAR WARS scroll) “The Saga Continues” – the story is going on to this day with Mitchell and Wiebe still battling it out down to the Donkey Kong “Kill screen”. One of the few documentaries ever where a sequel follow-up wouldn’t just be justified; it would be greatly appreciated.


Post Note #1: I wrote this review before I found out that a follow-up will occur but it’s not a sequel – a scripted dramatized movie adaptation is in the works I read on the internets. Hmmm.
Post Note #2: This hilarious recent Onion AV Club interview with Billy Mitchell is a sequel/rebuttal in itself.

THE BRAVE ONE (Dir. Neil Jordan, 2007)

The first ten minutes almost resemble a Meg Ryan rom-com set-up – a perky Jodie Foster with bedhead bangs is a New Yorker NPR-type radio personality madly in love with her fiance (Naveen Andrews) who looks like he stepped off the cover of a romance novel. But since this is a Jodie Foster movie we know the track record set by PANIC ROOM and FLIGHTPLAN – the happiness will be short lived and we’ll soon see our heroine stressed and ferociously working her eyes’ worry lines in a mode one character calls “in lock down” (not quite like Bauby in THE DIVING BELL above mind you). She and her beau Andrews are assaulted in Central Park and he is beaten to death by three thugs – the type who only exist in the movies; they videotape the attack yelling lines like “are you ready for your close-up?!” Foster is in a coma for 3 weeks and wakes up to find her lover has been buried and her view of what she calls incredulously “the safest city on earth” is forever altered. She buys a gun illegally and becomes a Bernard Goetz (who of course is referenced) style vigilante killing a convenience store robber, a couple of thugs on the subway, and an evil murdering businessman. A sympathetic heart of gold cop played by Terrence Howard investigates the killings and obliviously becomes friends with Foster. Their conversations are the heart of the film with Foster and Howard playing at the top of their acting game – it’s just unfortunate that the film doesn’t have more soul.

It’s hard for me not to think of TAXI DRIVER – the Scorsese/De Niro 70’s classic that happened to have a 13 year old Foster as a prostitute (a role that got her a Best Supporting Actress Nomination – she didn’t win but won later for Best Actress for THE ACCUSED). In THE BRAVE ONE Foster stalks the same mean streets that Travis Bickle did and she obviously would relate to the sentiment when he lamented: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Neil Jordan’s (MONA LISA, THE CRYING GAME, THE BUTCHER BOY) direction is fluidly fine and it is a gutsy move for Foster to take on this female variation on DEATHWISH. Her fierce frightened performance provides plenty of grip but the play-out here is predictable and so is the ending. The combination of Fosters and Jordan’s panache does help this rise above standard thriller status – it just doesn’t rise far enough up to ring that cinematic circus bell.

By the way:

This picture of Jodie Foster doing her take on Tippi Hedren in THE BIRDS from the recent Vanity Fair photo spread “Top Stars Recreate Hitchcock Moments” is better than anything in THE BRAVE ONE.

More later…

Ingmar Bergman – The Woody Allen Angle

Isaac (Woody Allen) : “Bergman? Bergman’s the only genius in cinema today, I think.”
Yale (Michael Murphy) : (To Mary) “He’s a big Bergman fan.”
Mary (Diane Keaton) : (To Isaac) “God, you’re so the opposite. You write that fabulous television show. It’s so funny and his view is so Scandinavian.”
MANHATTAN (Dir. Woody Allen, 1979)

Nearly every tribute to the late great Ingmar Bergman (July 14, 1918-July 30, 2007) notes his huge influence on Woody Allen. Allen’s 1988 quote that Bergman was “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera” is being heavily circulated right now. Roger Ebert quoted the line in his fine In Memory article and said that Allen has “made some films in deliberate imitation of Bergman.” So lets take a look at some of those films and see just what elements whether they be thematic, technical, personal, or personnel that Woody Allen has “borrowed” from the movie master:

LOVE AND DEATH (1975): The first Allen film to overtly reference Bergman mainly in its use of the Grim Reaper, who oddly appears draped in white not the deathly black that Bengt Ekerot wore in THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957). Set in the Napoleanic era and despite being a satire of Russian literature (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and the films of Eisenstein) the Bergman steals are what makes the thing tick. The intense overlapping close-ups are taken from PERSONA (1966) and this strained but extremely funny Diane Keaton monologue reeks of Ingmar existentialism given a tongue-in-cheek approach:

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.”

ANNIE HALL (1977): Allen’
s most popular film commercially and winner of the Academy Award for best picture has relatively few touches taken from the Swedish director – a few WILD STRAWBERRIES-like returns to childhood memories and some leftover PERSONA-like shots but it is amusing that the film that Alvy (Allen) refuses to miss the beginning of because of Annie’s (Diane Keaton) tardiness was Bergman’s FACE TO FACE (1976).

INTERIORS (1978): The Woodman’s first drama (also his first film as director that he does not appear as an actor in) owes a lot and I mean A LOT to Bergman. The term “Bergmanesque” was coined by Richard Schickel (TIME Magazine) for this film and Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote:

“It’s almost as if Mr. Allen had set out to make someone else’s movie, say a film in the manner of Mr. Bergman, without having any grasp of the material, or first-hand, gut feelings about the characters. They seem like other people’s characters, known only through other people’s art.”

The story is about three sisters (Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt, Kristin Griffith) their suicidal mother (Geradine Page) their father (E.G. Marshall) who has a blustery new spouse (Maureen Stapleton) and all of their misery. Again the close-ups – like that shot above (also used as the poster picture) with the contemplative looks out the beach house window – definitively pay homage to the Bergman aesthetic : “For me, the human face is the most important subject of the cinema.”

MANHATTAN (1979): For the lines at the top of this post alone this film should be noted but also because Allen met Bergman during the shooting. According to John Baxter’s Woody Allen : A Biography (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1998) Bergman reporatory member Liv Ullmann (and longtime companion – while she was not one of Bergman’s 5 wives she did produce one of his children) hooked up the meeting and Allen was surprised at how knowledgeable the Swedish director was of the Jewish comedian’s one-liners and film work. Shortly Before MANHATTAN opened to rapturous acclaim Allen screened Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL and CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972) one afternoon and confided to friend Eric Lax “I see his films and I wonder what I’m doing.” He needn’t have worried – he was doing just fine.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY (1982) : Obviously Shakespeare inspired but Wikipedia says “The plot revolves around a weekend party bringing together six people, loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955)“. The working title of the film was even “Summer Nights” but Allen has denied this connection repeatedly saying that SMILES was one of his least favorite Bergman films. Well A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY is one of my least favorite Allen films so let’s move on…

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986): Truly the one notable Bergman connection here is the appearance of Bergman reparatory company member Max von Sydow who plays Frederick – a reclusive pretentious artist who has this incredible speech after channel flipping one night:

“You see the whole culture. Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, a talk show. Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling? But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers. Third grade con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send in money. Money, money, money! If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

SEPTEMBER (1987): Allen’s first all and out drama since INTERIORS and again one which he does not appear (again I quote Wikipedia) is “a remake of AUTUMN SONATA” but then we get that [citation needed] red-flag and know not to trust everything we read. It has been a while since I’ve seen it so I can’t really comment – I just remember extended sequences of Mia Farrow weeping among family and an ex and a potential lover in another beach house like INTERIORS in yet another off season.

ANOTHER WOMAN (1988): Longtime Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist (1922-2006) works on Allen’s third straight drama. It concerns Gena Rowlands as a professor working on a philosophy book who becomes obsessed with eavesdropping on the sessions of therapy patients which she can hear through a vent in her office. This allows for lots of opportunities for introspection about depression aided by Nykvist’s visual mastery in one of Allen’s most under-rated and worthwhile films. Nykvist would work as Director of Photography for three more Allen movies. While filming ANOTHER WOMAN Allen told an interviewer:

“Bergman likes to rehearse. But the reverse is better for me. It’s part of our temperaments. He’s a great artist and (laughs) I’m not.”

CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989): With its title, the eye of Nykvist, and through its exploration of a “Godless universe” we are almost completely submerged in Bergman at his bleak darkest territory here. Almost completely that is – because Allen’s failed film maker subplot is the exception (the Misdemeanors of the title) but thematically and aesthetically we are witnessing a work made from a Bergman blueprint. Wealthy Ophthalmologist Judah (Martin Landau) suffers from existential guilt of universal proportions after having his unstable mistress (Anjelica Huston) murdered by his Mafioso brother (Jerry Orbach). He visits his childhood home and mentally interjects himself into a memory of a family dinner – yep, WILD STRAWBERRIES again. The best combination of comedy and drama Allen has ever created – it’s my personal favorite of his films.

HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992): Right off the bat this film owes a conceptual copyright to Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. It takes the mock documentary style and introduces us to 2 married couples on the brink of divorce. The first couple – Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Farrow) seem content at first but tensions are mounting especially when told that their friends – the second couple Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) are having a supposedly amicable split-up. We follow each character through flirtations, infidelities, and temper tantrums that recall the canvass of SCENES but Allen has his own stylistic touches on display in the handheld shakiness and the odd edits. The night that Allen and Farrow (who were breaking up in real life) separate they reminisce about watching an old classic movie on TV late one night – what movie you ask? WILD STRAWBERRIES! Which also has more than a little to do with:

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997): The fractured yet still sturdy structure here is definitely stolen from STRAWBERRIES – a noted academic setting out to receive an honorary award from his old university revisits major life situations and memories of lovers past. Also throw in the premise that Allen’s author character disguises his private life and lovers as the lives of the fictitious characters he writes. It has been said that that element comes from author Philip Roth – evidenced in the name Harry Block (made me think of writer’s block) but it also should be pointed out that the name of Max von Sydow’s character in THE SEVENTH SEAL was Antonius Block. It’s also been written that an artist manipulating real life for his art angle is in Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961) but I honestly can’t vouch for that.

Okay, that’s enough Bergman-Allen for now. I’ll conclude by saying that Allen’s next film after HARRY was CELEBRITY which again utilized Nykvist but Allen’s films to the current day (labeled by critic Richard Schickel as “the later funny ones”) have been fairly bereft of Bergman influence. They’ve also been guilty of an absence of quality but that’s another blog entry.

This post is of course dedicated to Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) R.I.P.

More later…