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.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part Two

SPOILERS BELOW, if you haven’t seen the Alien films and being surprised is important to you don’t read.


Alien3 (1992, dir. David Fincher)

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton, Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite
When we last left Ripley in James Cameron’s Aliens, she had defeated the Alien Queen and was back in cryosleep with her makeshift family (Hicks, Newt, Bishop). However, a couple months later a fire breaks out on board the space marine vessel Sulaco and the sleeping travelers are emergency ejected in a small capsule. The capsule ends up on the prison planet Fiorina 161. Sadly, all but Ripley are dead and she has an emotional collapse at this realization.
Alien3 is a great film is you like Ripley, but not necessarily if you like the xenomorph creature. The picture plays fast and loose with some of the franchise’s established rules with the creatures and moves at a much slower pace then the action-oriented Aliens. But, as I said above if you are interested in the evolution of the Ripley character then the film is quite interesting. I have to say, that after going back and re-watching this one I enjoyed it more than Aliens. It has a stronger story and I’m a big fan of when horror films take pacing seriously.
Ellen Ripley develops a love interest in the film, the prison doctor Clemens and I liked how the relationship played out atypically from most relationships in films. Ripley never takes a passive, traditionally feminine role and in fact behaves in a fairly masculine way with Clemens. Clemens doesn’t become passive either so it makes for a kind of relationship not seen much on screen. Ripley also undergoes her most severe trauma. She discovers that the fire on board the Sulaco was caused by two facehugging egg aliens (one of whom is responsible for the creature running around in the film). Ripley also learns she has been implanted with a queen. The realization that the species would have died off with the destruction of their planet in Aliens, convinces Ripley that she must make the greatest sacrifice.
If we play out the sexual/pregnancy/rape subtext of the first Alien film this makes it the pain Ripley’s situation even greater. The one violation she has fought off for decades has now happened. Sigourney Weaver plays the devastation of Ripley amazingly. The film comes to a climactic finale as Ripley races to destroy herself and Weyland-Utani rushes to Fiorina to try and claim the creature inside her for R & D purposes. In the end, Ripley makes a metaphoric fall backwards into a vat of molten lead, arms extended in an explicitly Christ-like manner, saving the universe from the xenomorph species.

Alien: Resurrection (1997, dir. Jean Pierre-Jeunet)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dany Hedaya, Brad Dourif, Dominque Pinon
Probably wondering how a fourth film starring Sigourney Weaver could be possible after the last one. Joss Whedon was brought on board to pen this truly final installment in Ripley’s story and sets the picture hundreds of years into the future. Blood samples taken in the infirmary on Fiorina 161 are gathered up by Weyland-Utani. Centuries later, the company has been absorbed as part of a bizarre government/corporate ruling body that presides over Earth. Ripley has been cloned for the sole purpose of harvesting the queen from her and in turn producing eggs and more xenos. The goal? To somehow train the creatures to become weapons in the corporate military.
Weaver plays Ripley 8, the eight and successful attempt to clone Ellen . Because of the mixing of blood, Ripley 8 also contains traces of xenomorph DNA, enabling her to have heightened sense and the trademark acidic blood. Because this character does not have the memory of the original, all the experiences and trauma are discarded. Ripley 8 is kept in a special chamber and watched over by the scientists whom are also trying to condition the xenos. This Ripley is a much less interesting character than Ellen Ripley. She fits a prototypical action hero mode, with no real emotional reaction or understanding of the consequences of her actions.
In essence, it feels like Whedon simply in enamored with the kick ass chick archetype and imposes it onto Ripley. If Buffy or River Tam is your thing, no prob, but to place that template onto the Alien franchise doesn’t feel like a natural fit. My personal preference was that having a mature, more adult figure like Ripley made for such a unique character in science fiction. The original Ellen Ripley felt like a real human being, truly scarred by her trauma with the xenomorphs yet not allowing to cripple her with fear. Her reactions felt real, she lashed out without thinking through completely, but from a purely survival perspective.
This last entry, serves as a disappointing capstone, despite having such a talented cast and crew behind it. I’m of the belief that director Jeunet decided to make a parody of all the action pictures he saw coming out of Hollywood, and if that’s true he nails it on the head. The gore is over the top to the point of being absurd and the dialogue has that clunky, smarmy style you see in any C-grade action flick. I also noticed a trend of European directors having characters in American action films cursing way too much, and has led me to believe they think this is an essential trait for blockbuster action cinema in this country.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part One

Over the holidays, while I was in Puerto Rico, I decided to download the four films in the Alien franchise after finding out Ariana had never seen them. While not all of them are quite masterpieces they do present a unique form of franchise. Typically in franchises, studios pick journeyman filmmakers to direct, guys who know how to simply shoot a film. They aren’t bad directors but they will probably never be considered visionaries. With the Alien franchise, you have Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), David Fincher (Fight Club), and Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). These are definitely directors who have signature flourishes they bring to their work. This makes each of the Alien films drastically different in their tone and look. And central to all the films is Sigourney Weaver as the first lady of action films, Ellen Ripley. In this two part essay I want to look at how Ripley was developed into one of the more believable action heroes in cinema.


Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright

In the first entry into the Alien franchise, Ellen Ripley is not necessarily identified as the main character until the last 45-30 mins of the film. Instead, the film cleverly fakes out the audience by focusing on Tom Skerritt’s captain of the mining ship the Nostromo as the hero. If you haven’t seen Alien, you are missing one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. In the wake of Star Wars, but still firmly entrenched in classic psychological sci-fi cinema, Alien takes its time to introduce its title baddie.
Character development isn’t a core component of this first film. Director Scott appears to take a more aloof, documentary style on the material, using lots of handheld camera work and realistic conversations between characters. Ellen Ripley is a warrant officer for the Weyland-Yutani corporation, whose specialty is as a pilot. She’s also second in command to Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. Because of her rank in the military like structure of the corporation, we don’t see her take command until some bad things befall poor Dallas. Once she does assume command, she faces dissension from the ship’s science officer (Holm) and the contracted mining crew who is already disgruntled about their small percentage from the mission they are returning from. It’s very interesting that at such an early time in the history of the blockbuster movie, there was already a female action hero whose gender never played a role in her interactions with fellow crew members.
There is also a subtext that is commonly read into Alien that makes it fitting that a female character would take center stage. The entire process in which a person is implanted with a xenomorph (the name of the Alien species) embryo is akin to rape. A spider-like creature bursts from an egg, affixing itself to a host species’ face, then inserts a tube down into the stomach of the host where the egg is planted. The emergence of the xeno is also a dark commentary on childbirth. The larval creature bursts from the host’s chest, screaming and crying in a twisted variation on the birth-cries of an infant, and skitters away leaving the host for dead. While I’m sure the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, and Ridley Scott don’t believe childbirth is evil, they are making an interesting comment on what a violent and brutal process it is. If you were to step back and observe, it is quite odd that mothers are expected to immediately love and bond with something that has literally torn them apart.
By the end of the film, Ripley has managed to escape the ship and fights of the xenomorph once more, defeating it and placing herself in cryosleep, expecting to wake up in a few weeks back at the space port.

Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton
Well, Ripley’s escape ship drifted much longer than she planned, in fact she was out in the emptiness of space for 57 years. She’s found by scavengers and delivered to Weyland-Utani where she learns that her daughter (in a deleted scene from the director’s cut), who was 9 when Ripley left for the mining mission, has died at the age of 66 two years ago. This devastates Ripley, and it is apparent that she is also suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from the massacre that took place on board the Nostromo. Ripley attempts to assimilate back into life on Earth, but is called back into duty when the planetoid the xenos where originally found on has been colonized and the colonists appear to have been wiped out.
Where in the first film, Ripley is goes into action only when she is pushed, this Ripley appears to have developed a much tougher skin as a result of her experiences. Her job on Earth is working a loader mechsuit (see the big robo suits from Avatar) and moving cargo around for shipment. Once she amongst the space marine platoon headed to kill the alien hordes, she is intent on proving herself just as tough as them, but with a clear head and much more intelligence than many of the grunts around her. When the unit lands and everything falls apart fairly quickly, with xenos mauling the troops, it is Ripley, not the unit commander that takes action and pulls the still living soldiers out. For the rest of the film, Ripley is the one calling the shots. She orchestrates a way of remotely calling a rescue ship from the marine vessel in the planetoid’s orbit and successfully defeats the xenos pretty much single handedly.
This film expands on Ripley’s maternal nature but introducing Newt, the child of colonists who has been severely traumatized by seeing her family devoured and used as living incubators. Ripley takes up the care of Newt without missing a beat, she knows how to speak to the child and comfort her so that she believes she is safe with Ripley no matter what. Ripley has a foil in the form of the Alien Queen, the one responsible for the those creepy, mucousy eggs that cause so much trouble. The finale of the film is two mothers fighting to death to protect their children. Something that is so visceral and ultimately feels like more organic action that most male-centric action films. There is an instinctual protective nature in mothers of all species, so much of the over the top action that occurs feels honest.
Aliens ends the same as the first: Ripley going in cryosleep, hoping that the next time she wakes this nightmare will be a memory. Too bad she has two more films to go.

Film 2010 #17 – Legion


Legion (2010, dir. Scott Stewart)
Starring Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Adrienne Palicki, Charles Dutton, Lucas Black

Interesting concepts, poor execution. Par for the course with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy on film these days, and Legion is no exception. The film has a few little twists but at the end of the day fails on pretty much all fronts.
Michael the Archangel (Bettany) learns of God’s plan to finally wipe out humanity and cannot go along with this plan. He rejects his angelic nature, falls to Earth, and gets a bunch of machine guns to fight with. Michael makes his way to a diner in the middle of New Mexico where a young woman lives who is pregnant with a child that is somehow the last hope for mankind, though what exactly this kid can do is never explained in the film. Michael even goes so far as to say if the child lives or dies it doesn’t matter near the end of the film. Okay…then why all the hubbub?
There is a lot in this film that is never explained and that is incredibly frustrating. In an arthouse film like Eternal Sunshine, the tone of the film never takes itself too seriously, hence we never wonder how the memory removal process works. In a film like Legion, which can’t laugh at itself once, the tone dictates that when action is taken there is a concise rhyme and reason. The biggest example is of how exactly does a machine gun hurt a being like an angel. Not a single effort to justify that one.
The biggest concept I like from the film was the idea of angelic possession. The movie is basically a zombie film with angel-possessed human hordes attacking the diner and trying to kill the pregnant woman. While the execution of the idea is downright yawn-inducing, the concept itself is incredibly originally. I’ve read a hell of a lot of comics and seen a lot of films but have never encountered the idea of angelic possession. Pretty cool idea, would like to see it implemented in a different film.

Film 2009 #188 – Sauna

Sauna (2008, dir. Antti-Jussi Annila)

During the late 16th century, the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire went to war. During this period, Sweden wished to expand its borders and found an enemy with the Russians, whose religious hierarchy clashed with Sweden’s. Eventually King Gustav of Sweden and Russian Emporer Ivan the IVth came to a tenuous peace that hinged on a rewriting of the borders of the two lands. A joint cartography mission was established with one group heading south, the other north, with plans to meet in the middle. The group heading north never made it to the rendezvous and this film speculates as to why.

Knut and Erik Spore are the Swedish half to the Northern bound cartography team, mapping the new boundaries of the two lands through desolate plains and rotting forests. Erik is haunted by his years fighting in the war against Russia and would like to have nothing to do with their partners on this mission. On their journey, a disturbing incident occurs where Erik discovers a family housing them are Russian sympathizers. With the Russian half of the mission camped out of sight, Erik brutally stabs the peasant father to death and Knut, after lusting over the daughter, locks her in a cellar to be abandoned. A few miles down river they come to the swamp, an area no one is anxious to explore. In they go, only to find a village not recorded on any of the previous maps, full of elderly peasants who seem unable to die. Sitting in the midst of the bog, is a plan white sauna house, which seems to beckon young Knut and troubles Erik. It is inevitable that sins will paid out in this barren place.

Sauna is a masterpiece. I am repeatedly amazed at the skill with which small budget, foreign language pictures shame the tripe being cranked out of the Hollywood machine. It is apparent that there is a strong historical spine to this film that I am frustrated to not be fully aware of. It makes sense that our social studies textbooks focus on the key regions and more profound empires, but when seeing films like this it makes me wish I knew more specifics about many of the overlooked societies.

There is a strong division between the religious beliefs of the Russian and Swedes, with Erik discovering Russian Orthodox imagery of the Virgin Mary in a peasant’s house being enough for him to stab the man over seventy time in the face. The Russian military dress is much more regal, in contrast to the plain leather and straps of the Swedish soldiers. It is apparent that these cultural groups find little to agree on. That is until the discovery of this mysterious village in the swamp. What is brought out of all the men is the deeper, ingrained pagan superstitions of the region. Christianity becomes a veneer lain over their peoples, but what they truly fear are the primal evils that have been in the earth for millenia.

Sauna is the story of soldiers burdened by sins, committed without thought. Once removed from their sins, they begin to contemplate them and the guilt devours them in the end. All of this is dressed a pared down supernatural motif that refrains from playing its cards until the final thirty minutes of the film. The horror revealed in the end is magnificent in its bleakness and underscored by a comment made by a young Russian soldier earlier in the film. He posits that fire is a cleansing force, so would it not be more appropriate for Hell to be a place covered in filth.

Film 2009 #141 – Antichrist

Antichrist (2009)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe

Director von Trier wants you to not simply be unsettled, but he wants you to be in a place where you are completely uncomfortable. Once he has you in that place he can begin to burrow under your skin and really get to work. The opening sequence of his latest opus, Antichrist is designed to do just that. The soundtrack is blaring, the images are stark and…um, yes that is actual penetration you’re seeing. And that heavily jarring scene is key to understanding what von Trier is trying to do in this film.

The plot concerns an unnamed couple (Gainsbourg and Dafoe) who are in the midst of orgasm when their toddler son falls out the window of their apartment to his death. Off screen, the wife spends time in a mental hospital and her husband wants to help her work through her grief. His motives are a bit suspect; does he truly want to help her or does he simply not want to be reminded of his own guilt? His desperate need to heal her leads them to their secluded cabin in the woods, nicknamed Eden.

Von Trier is playing his traditional game of taking a genre and twisting it around into something that suits his own aesthetics. The horror in the film is slow burning and abstract and, when the gore does occur, it is much harsher than American audiences are used to. I was reminded of Michael Haenke’s Funny Games (especially the American remake)in how it was intentional designed to play out slowly and then completely exceed the expectations of violence in the audience. Von Trier is setting out not only to antagonize an audience wanting to be spoon fed horror tropes but also to offend the film “elite” he see saws back and forth with as “darling” and “dismissed”.

The core of the film is less supernatural and more metaphorical. It’s intentional that the couple are never named and end up in a Grimm-like forest complete with talking animals. While superficially it is about one husband’s total lack of respect for his wife as an adult individual. On a larger stage it saying a lot about sexuality, guilt we associate with our children, and humanity’s relation to the world around it. Definitely not a film for the faint of heart but containing much more beyond the fervor surrounding it.

Film 2009 #177 – The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)
Directed by Ti West
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig

Horror has become ironic, much to its detriment. The slasher films of the 1980s began to peel away at the true horrific atmosphere of horror, with characters such as Jason and Freddy becoming cartoon characters. Wes Craven’s Scream franchise pushed horror further away from the realm of providing actual scares and the torture porn borne out of the Saw series put the nail in the coffin. Young director Ti West makes a push to return to the slow burning tension of pre-ironic horror by composing this retro scare flick.

The film focuses on Samantha (Donahue), a college sophomore just signing a lease for an apartment she can’t afford. The landlady is played by veteran actress Dee Wallace, best known for her roles in ET and the classic horror flicks The Howling and Cujo. Samantha, desperate for money, answers a flier on campus asking for a babysitter. She’s driven to house in the woods on the outskirts of town by her friend (Gerwig) who becomes suspicious when the owner (Noonan) reveals that the babysitting gig was not what it seems. Samantha will be in charge of watching the family’s elderly grandmother while they are out. Samantha agrees to the change in terms and so begins the slow boil of the picture, ending in a macabre satanic denouement.

The most jarring feature of the film is its aesthetics. West purposefully shot the film on 16mm to make it resemble the low budget horror films of his childhood. In addition, the plot capitalizes on the “satanic panic” that many of us 80s babies remember parents developing a paranoiac fear of. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is kept subtle, never going over the top until the final 10 minutes. West is definitely a student of this genre showing his expertise all the way down to the design of the opening and ending credits. A great film that shows its love for the old school horror film without having to drench itself in irony.