Film 2010 #35 – Shutter Island


Shutter Island (2010, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas

My immediate reaction after seeing the first trailer for Shutter Island was that it would be interesting to see Scorsese tackle a film with horror elements. After thinking about this for a little while longer, I realized he already had in Taxi Driver, a film I think of as an urban horror picture more than anything else. Upon further contemplation, I realized we found similarly paranoid protagonists in many Scorsese pictures: The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and of course, The Aviator. This is why Shutter Island, while stylistically a departure for the directing legend, is thematically at home in his body of work.
The premise brings U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane located on Shutter Island. Rachel Solando, a patient at the asylum has vanished so Daniels, and his new partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) have come to investigate. Daniels is introduced to the facilities by Dr. John Cawley (Kingsley) and eventually meets the head of the hospital, Dr. Naehring (Sydow), a German who brings back Daniels animosity for the Nazi atrocities he witnessed during World War II. This combined with strange nightmares about Daniels’ late wife intensify his paranoia while on the Island and he begins to formulate what he believes is the real horror going on behind the scenes on Shutter Island.
What hits you first about this film is the score. The music was designed and chosen by long-time friend of Scorsese and former member of The Band, Robbie Robertson and he proves he has an ear for some powerful modernist compositions. There are elements of Bernard Hermann yet never played to the point of absurdity. Because of the strong musical elements they create a balance with the unscored moments. An encounter in a cave among the cliffs of the island goes unscored, despite there being revelations made there that would have received a crescendo of strings in an older picture. It’s those choices of presence and absence that strike the right balance in the film.
At its core, this is simply a variation on the haunted house trope. What sets it apart from a B-movie are the very powerful artistic masterstrokes Scorsese uses. The dream/nightmare sequences Daniels experiences, whether they be in sleep or in the middle of the day, inform the audience with the clues the investigator fails to find in the conscious world. I was particularly intrigued by the cultural paranoias of the day that seeped into the fiber of the film. We have Daniels haunted by the sights of Jews frozen to death at Dachau and his unit subsequent expunging of the camp’s guards in an era where PTSD was not something remotely thought about. In addition, characters mention the fears of atomic annihilation as a result of the Cold War, the idea of Nazi scientist-torturers being granted pardons for service to the US military, and brainwashing techniques of HUAC. This constant atmosphere of not-knowing and being watched makes Shutter a perfect companion piece to The Aviator.
Shutter Island may not end on the most satisfying of notes, but there really is no other way for it to end. Such a story can’t deliver any true sense of justice and still remain true to its film noir and horror roots. From the first time we see Daniels, hunched over a toilet as the ferry rocks around him, it is apparent this character is in bad shape. An odyssey to an island of madness can never make such a condition better.
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Film 2010 #34 – The Red Shoes

Since 2005 I have kept a list of every new film I have seen. With this film I have hit the 1000 mark. Before long, I’ll probably be hitting 2000.


The Red Shoes (1948, dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Starring Anton Walbrook

This was a film long on my list of ones to see and said to have been an inspiration to directors like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. That’s not to say its plot or screenplay is similar to their work, rather the way the directors utilize the camera and art direction to create a lush and amazing world. The story comes from the Hans Christian Andersen fable of a young girl who acquires a pair of magical red slippers that cause her to dance and, unable to stop, she begs an executioner to chop of her feet. He does and gives her a pair of wooden feet, yet she is haunted by the disembodied dancing feet.
Powell and Pressburger were a directorial pair in the United Kingdom, as well respected as Hitchcock or David Lean, yet their work has faded from the larger collective memory in the following years. For The Red Shoes, they took the Andersen fable and set it in contemporary (1940s) Europe. Boris Lermontov runs a prestigious ballet company and encounters two young up and coming artists: Victoria Page, a company ballerina and Julian Craster, a budding composer. Lermontov goes on to commission an adaptation of the The Red Shoes. Around the same time, the company’s prima ballerina announces her engagement which infuriates Lermontov who immediately lets her know she is no longer a part of his works. To replace her, he promotes Victoria Page, and this is where the trouble begins.
Lermontov is dangerously obsessed with his ingenues. His original prima announcing her engagement turns him into a petty, spiteful man who takes glee in letting her go. As similar things begin to develop with Victoria, we see Lermontov’s role as a metaphorical evil wizard take hold. He is jealous of any one who might break a dancer’s devotion to his will alone.
The most spectacular piece of the film is the 17 minute long ballet sequence that comes smack dab in the middle. The first half of the film is about the three individual strands of Lermontov, Craster, and Victoria coming together and the second half is about how the lives of these three are eventually torn apart. And what ties it all up is a visually stunning abbreviation of The Red Shoes ballet that will cause the viewer to ask some questions. From the start of the sequence, it is apparent that this is simply a dress rehearsal, yet then it starts incorporating what might be seen as subconscious thoughts of Victoria (the villain of the ballet flashing into Craster and then Lermontov suddenly), as the sequence continues Victoria moves into impossible landscapes that could in no way actually be on stage. And finally, everything pulls back to reveal the actual performance on opening night. This one sequence both serves to expose subconscious ideas and transition our characters through time.

Film 2010 #32 – Ragtime


Ragtime (1981, dir. Milos Forman)

Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, James Cagney, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer, Moses Gunn, Debbie Allen, Donald O’Conner, Howard Rollins Jr.
I first became familiar with the story of Ragtime from the 1996 Broadway musical, script written by the talented Terrence McNally and based on the novel by E.L. Doctrow. The story (in all mediums) is an attempt to create a slice of life in America right before World War I broke out. Milos Forman was an interesting choice to helm this project; he doesn’t really take on historical epics, instead when he does period pieces he chooses to focus on specific individuals and analyze them down to the grain. In Ragtime, we get broad painted strokes that only give us glimpses.
The interwoven plots contain a mix of fictional characters given vague names like Father, Mother, Younger Brother and historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Evelyn Nesbit (the focal point of what was called the Scandal of the Century at the time). The novel and musical version contain even more historical figures including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Admiral Peary, and Emma Goldman, but I assume they were cut for the sake of time.
In the core plot of the film an upper middle class family in New Rochelle, New York discovers an African-American infant crying in their garden. The police bring a young woman to their house who admits the child is hers and that the father abandoned them. Mother decides to take Sarah, the girl into their home against the wishes of Father. Eventually, piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. arrives on their doorstep revealed to be the father of the child and stating that now that he has a job he is willing to ready to provide for his family. However, tragedy occurs that sets the characters down a path where they witness a change in the entire world. Alongside this plot, Mother’s Younger Brother falls in love with former dance hall girl Evelyn Nesbit and is played for a fool. There’s also Tateh, a Jewish immigrant talented in making silhouettes who eventually makes it big as an early silent filmmaker.
The film presents the world of New York in 1917 with amazing accuracy. Clothing and vehicles and set dressing are spot on and anachronisms are non-existent. However, the broad nature of the film left me feeling indifferent about every character on screen. Every thing feels like it is played towards cliche rather than reality. Part of me feels that uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis played a part in the films broad, flat nature. It’s an interesting film, most notable for the costume design and art direction, but definitely a weaker entry into Milos Forman’s work.

Film 2010 #27 – Wise Blood


Wise Blood (1979, dir. John Huston)
Starring Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Dan Shor, Ned Beatty, William Hickey

I first became aware of the author Flannery O’Conner during my Freshman Comp II class with Dr. Greg Carpenter. We read the classic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and was shocked and happily surprised at how bizarre and quirky the piece was. I would continue expand on my knowledge of the late Southern writer in American Lit II, Southern Lit, and a short stories class all with Dr. Greg’s wife, Dr. Dana. In her Lit of the South class I read Wise Blood, the novel that serves as the basis of this film and found some deep insights and themes that are woven into the fiber of everyday life here in the South.
So, how did Academy Award winning director John Huston do when it came to adapting the novel? Good and bad. If you are one of those people who hates for a film to deviate too far from its source material then I guess you’ll be happy. In my own opinion, Huston stuck so close to O’Conner’s novel that you see how poor of a film it truly makes. The book benefited from the omniscient narration of O’Conner to talk about the psychology of our characters and provide backstory. Here we just have characters speaking the author’s words but with no idea of who they are beyond that.
The biggest problem with the film are the stylistic choices Huston chooses to make. The Southern Grotesque that O’Conner brought to all her work is all but absent here. The film is so bright and the score is horrendous. The music definitely pulled me out of the film on multiple occasions. It’s a bizarre mix of synthesized folk tunes and doofy Hee Haw-esque musical cues. While watching, I couldn’t help but think how the film would have benefited to have been filmed in black and white and to have had no musical score at all. I anticipate a lot of people who love O’Conner disapproving of the film’s contemporary (late 70s) setting. While there are elements of her work that could be argued to be set in a specific time in the South, her stories are equally without grounding in a specific era. Huston’s decision to make it contemporary though, seems to reflect budget constraints rather than artistic choices.
The one character who was used terribly was poor Enoch Emery. The young man who steals a shrunken head doll and dresses as a gorilla is played in a strange way. We aren’t quite sure if he is simply a religious simpleton or has serious mental issues. My own opinion was the latter, but his portrayal in the film feels very uneven. Amy Wright does a great job as the Sabbath Hawkes and Harry Dean Stanton does an adequate job for the small role he is given. The weight of the film rests on Brad Dourif’s shoulders as Hazel Motes and I can’t criticize him too much. The problems with the film come down to a strict adherence to the novel and a lack of strong cinematography.

Film 2010 #8 – The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones (2009, dir. Peter Jackson)
Starring Saorise Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon

Before he was known as the director who brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, Peter Jackson was a small budget New Zealand filmmaker. Among his work was the wacked out zombie flick Dead Alive, the Muppet show on crack Meet the Feebles, and the amazing Heavenly Creatures. And it is Heavenly Creatures, that seems to bear the strongest kinship to Jackson’s latest film. Both films focus on female protagonists and involve their subconscious being brought to the surface in surreal landscapes. However, where The Lovely Bones is an improvement in technical achievement, it lacks the narrative strength of Heavenly Creatures.

Based on the 2003 novel by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones is a first person narrative where the newly deceased Susie Salmon chronicles her afterlife and her family’s reactions to her death. Susie is unable to be at rest in the afterlife, due to her murderer still wandering free. She begins to influence the actions of her family and direct them towards the murderer’s house so that the case can be solved and she can move on. This is juxtaposed to her living out fantasies in a strange surreal afterlife landscape.

This film felt as much like fantasy as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While there are no orcs or wizards, characters are so unrealistic they might as well be wielding magic wands and riding dragons. Susie is so perfect in her actions and attitudes that I could not connect or empathize with her at all. Susie’s biggest rebellion as a teenager comes in being embarrassed about her new knit cap. Everything Susie does is framed by the film in a sort of gauzy light. In contrast, Mr. Harvey, her murderer is filmed in an equally absurd but menacing way. He constant sweatiness and heavy breathing is over-emphasized, and Jackson employs low camera angles to create a sense of looming danger.

This over simplification causes the film to come across as shallow as a silent film. I half expected, Mr. Harvey to start twirling his mustache and tie Susie to a railroad track. I assume the audience is meant to be wowed by the CG effects employed in the afterlife sequences, but because of the initial depthless nature of the characters it was simply some pretty pictures. At the end, the characters are so poorly developed it doesn’t seem possible to have the strong emotional response I’m sure Jackson and co-scripter Fran Walsh intended. It seems that since, and in despite of the success of, the Lord of the Rings series, Jackson has been returning a diminishing product (see King Kong as well). One hopes that he can make his next project a bit more meaningful and more character-driven.

Film 2010 #4 – The Road

The Road (2009, dir. John Hilcoat)
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smitt-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce

The post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road does not feel all that distant. Set mainly in rural areas and rundown smalltowns, these are settings familiar to my own youth growing up in Springfield. There is an extreme nature to these places though, all animals and crops have died and now roving bands of modern barbarians troll for fellow humans to slaughter. Into this setting is dropped The Man (Mortensen) and The Boy (McPhee). The characters are never named, purposefully, and the story contains traces of allegory moreso than speculative fiction.

Though I have not read the novel this film was based on, I was familiar with McCarthy’s work through Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men. I was elated when I heard John Hilcoat was signed to direct this picture. Hilcoat directed the 2005 independent Australian western, The Proposition and in that film I could see the themes and spirit of much of McCarthy’s work. Both men are contemplative and almost mystical in their narratives, while juxtaposing that with sudden and brutal moments of violence. Hilcoat seemed one of the few directors best suited for speaking for McCarthy on the big screen.

The Road is by no means a perfect film, and in moments feels like a filmic self-flagellation, watching humanity suffer in such hopeless squalor. There are few moments of happiness, which is understandable when the world around our characters is literally crumbling and dimming out. The structure of the plot is episodic, with the Man and the Boy mostly encountering hostiles and the occasional old man (Duvall). Flashbacks are provided wherein we see how The Man and The Boy came to be on this odyssey to the East Coast and what happened to the Man’s wife in the early days of the Apocalypse.

The most obvious parallels to be drawn between the two main characters are that of the Old Testament Jehovah and the New Testament Jesus. The Man is thoroughly convinced that all people they encounter possess base, survivalist instincts. Within the Boy though, he talks about a fire that burns inside him and is his responsibility to carry on. The Boy is the half of the duo willing to trust those they meet, and chance that they will find some sort of company in the wilds. And despite all of the film’s bleakness and atmosphere of a shattered world, it does offer hope in the final moments, specifically in The Boy. You see that, unlike The Man, the Boy is able to trust and understands that without that capacity to risk in others life would truly be over.

Hypothetical Film Festival #3 – No Capes Comic Book Films

The super hero movie is valuable stock in Hollywood these days. From Batman to Iron Man to Spider-Man and the X-Men, every superpowered being in print is fodder for the next big budget blockbuster. On the flipside, existing parallel to the Big Two (DC and Marvel), has been an independent and creator driven comics industry. Out of this alternative has come unique and quirky stories that use the sequential art medium to tell stories off the beaten path. Here’s a few that would make for a dynamic and engaging film festival.


From Hell (2001, dir. The Hughes Brothers)

While I am no big fan of this adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, it is still decent film even though it loses the essence of the original work. The story follows British Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) who has been brought onto the Jack the Ripper case. He befriends East End prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), whose friends are being picked off one by one. The mystery unfolds as part of a dark Illuminati conspiracy and the Ripper’s motives are attached to satanic machinations. The Hughes Brothers, best known for their contributions to African-American cinema with Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, and the wonderful documentary American Pimp, devise a few clever visual tricks but nothing that can raise the film too far beyond a mediocre level. The best part of the film are those metaphysical and occult concepts of Moore’s that made their way from the page to the screen.


American Splendor (2003, dir. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)

From my earlier review: “American Splendor is one of the most unusual comic book adaptations of the 2000s. While this is an origin story, there are no capes or tights. Instead its vintage records and perpetual scowls. Cleveland native, Harvey Pekar began chronicling his life in underground comic books in the 1970s after befriending cult comix artist Robert Crumb. The film works as a docudrama, that features the real Pekar commenting on his life mixed with Giamatti acting out the anecdotes. Even the illustrations from the comic books are animated and spliced amongst the live action sequences. The entire form and style of this film is unlike any other I have seen and have not seen it attempted since. Giamatti does an excellent job mimicking Pekar, but if you have seen the film you can agree nothing surpasses the natural curmudgeon of the original.”


Ghost World (2001, dir. Terry Zwigoff)

Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World follows the post-high school graduation summer of surly teen, Enid (Thora Birch) and her best friend, Rebecca. The two girls move from episodic moment to episodic moment, slowly growing apart. Enid is the voice for many of the mid- to late 90s proto-hipsters. She has a love of old blues vinyl and kitschy ironic pop culture, and it comes across in a less forced away than many contemporary hipsters do. The summer is a growing time for Enid as her poor temper is forced to dissipate as the responsibilities of adulthood set it. A very sharp, clever film that appeals to the introverted English major type (as I can speak from experience).


A History of Violence (2005, dir. David Cronenberg)

Based on the overlooked graphic novel by crime writer John Wagner, Cronenberg reinterpreted it and took the main character, Tom McKenna (Viggo Mortensen) in a different direction. The inciting incident, a pair of murderous thieves hold up Tom’s small town diner, is the same but the choices the character makes and how figures from his past choose to interact with him is where the changes occur. This is a wonderful film that displays Cronenberg’s gifts as a filmmaker. He is totally comfortable in quiet moments and knows how to jolt the audience without playing to cheap shocks. This is also a film that gives an ending that doesn’t need a twist to create a powerful impact.


Persepolis (2008, dir. Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud)

Unlike the other films of this list, the author of the graphic novel had a direct hand in the adaptation and direction of their work. Persepolis chronicles Marjane Satrapi’s adolescence in Ayatollah-ruled Iran and her eventual relocation to Europe when her parents become afraid of the oppression in their country. Both the film and graphic novel give a wonderful history lesson on Iran and showcase how great America’s ignorance is about Iran’s relations with Iran and the rest of the Arab world. On a microcosmic level, it is also the story of a young girl who tests the borders of rebellion and transitions through the awkward moments of childhood into a confident and brilliant young woman.