Monday, February 22, 2010

Call me crazy...

That Martin Scorsese is among the handful of the world's best - if not the best - working filmmakers is a fact rarely disputed. But, much to my bewilderment, critics seem to only want him to make movies about gangsters. Obviously, Scorsese has done more to define that genre than any recent director this side of Coppola, so the enthusiasm is understandable, but I'm of the unpopular opinion that the work he's done in the last decade has been among his strongest (much like Spielberg - but that's another story). I enjoyed The Departed, but found it insluting when that film was hailed as a "return to form," after pictures like Gangs of New York and The Aviator had allowed the legend to stretch his wings and expand his filmic capacity.

Unsurprisingly for Scorsese, he decided to follow the critical, box office, and awards (including his first Best Director Oscar) acclaim of The Departed with something seemingly out of left field: a horror movie about an insane asylum. And again, unsurprisingly, the critical response has largely been a collective shrug. "Shutter Island is 'minor Scorsese,'" many have patronizingly said. The film may not be what people expect of the director, but that's half the fun; it's two hours of an auetur reveling in his love of cinema to tell a story that envelops the senses.

From its opening moments, as U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are ferried across foggy Boston Harbor, the movie strikes a tone of creepiness and dread. The Marshals are headed to Shutter Island, which houses Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to investigate the disappearance of a patient. The soundtrack - a key component to any Scorsese entry - includes no score, but instead, a collection of discordant, modern classical pieces, just as defiant as the rock & roll that typically lines the director's films. When Krzysztof Penderecki's tense symphonies, also featured in The Shining and The Exorcist, immediately fill the theater, you know you're in for a scary good time. (If you're going to make a horror movie, look to
the best.)

Alternately expansive and claustrophobic, the film's Shining inspiration is felt throughout, its framing and camera movement a reminder of Kubrick's hefty influence on Scorsese. It's also beautifully shot by frequent collaborator (and Oliver Stone/Tarantino mainstay), director of photography Robert Richardson, especially in vividly rendered dream and flashback sequences. As he did with Scorsese in Aviator, Richardson makes great use of color to propel the story's emotional beats, be they elegant or grotesque.

Its 1950s setting and Hitchcockian mystery structure naturally serve as an homage to noir films and B movies, but indeed, Shutter Island is able to overcome genre conventions by ultimately revealing itself as an emotionally driven tragedy. The fine cast, anchored by a strong, moving performance from DiCaprio (in his fourth outing with Scorsese), effectively pulls the audience into their characters' lives, enabling the story's sucker punch of an ending to truly sting. Ruffalo is perfectly cast as DiCaprio's affable, empathetic partner, and Ben Kingsley, genteel as always, has fun as Ashecliffe's chief psychiatrist, Dr. John Cawley, whose intentions seem compassionate one scene, and sinister the next.

Closely adapted from Dennis Lehane's (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) pulpy novel by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridiso - whose previous credits are mostly in TV - the film explores intense themes of violence and its relationship to American society, while maintaining a level of ambiguity that allows viewers to experience the characters' sometimes tenuous hold on reality. Shutter Island thrills because we're watching a master filmmaker at work; if this is "minor Scorsese," I'll gladly take it.

Grade: A-

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thumbs up

Chris Jones has a terrific piece on Roger Ebert in next month's Esquire, which serves as an effective reminder of just what a gift Ebert's work has been—and continues to be—to the critical community.

Ebert, who lost most of his lower jaw to complications from salivary cancer surgery in 2006, is no longer able to speak, but is perhaps a more prolific writer than ever before, maintaining his Sun-Times column and a widely-read personal blog. Jones's article sheds light on the ways in which the iconic film critic's life has changed, negatively and positively, in the last few years.

I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert, and devouring the latter's collected essays, unusually thoughtful for "mainstream" film reviews (there's a reason that he was the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer). I've always loved writing, reading, and cinema—as well as writing and reading about cinema—and it's nearly impossible to not be inspired by Ebert's passion for the same.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Day the Music (Television) Died

...Actually, everyone knows MTV was laid to rest a long time ago, its death rattles audible well before The Hills was a twinkle in its glassy eye. Still, the network has gone ahead and confirmed what we already knew by officially removing "Music Television" from its name and logo, thereby allowing the channel to air round-the-clock reality show spinoffs to its heart's content, free of guilt from, y'know, not playing music.

I could opine on the loss of a pop culture monument, but why rehash what Current TV's hilarious SuperNews! has already summed up perfectly (in all its Watership Down-referencing glory)?

Did Jersey Shore Kill the Video Star?

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Happy Super Bowl XLIV

In celebration, Slate has a pretty hilarious video on what it would like if famous filmmakers directed the big game:

Since any of my hopes for today went out with Brett Favre's ankle a couple weeks back, I'll probably be more invested in the Puppy Bowl...

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Take the Eff! Train

Speaking of Spider-Man...while the climactic battle atop an elevated subway train in Spider-Man 2 was an exciting one, as a Chicagoan, it's always bothered me a bit that the scene was clearly shot in downtown Chicago, but meant to be New York. (And any New Yorker could tell the same thing, since there aren't any elevated trains in midtown Manhattan.)

With that employment of artistic license in mind, check out Red Eye's list of CTA movie goofs. The city may have already fallen from the dizzying highs of serving as backdrop for The Dark Knight to the mediocre lows of reportedly doing the same for Transformers 3, but it's seen its share of iconic movie set pieces over the years, with the El often playing a starring role. So, what other glaring, public transportation-based filmic mistakes have gotten your goat, friends?
UPDATE: Batman on Film reports that the new Dark Knight installment is rumored to already be scouting locations in Chicago...

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I trust T. William Walsh

David Bazan's doing something pretty cool tonight: TW Walsh (who mixed and mastered Bazan's exceptional Curse Your Branches and formerly served as a Pedro the Lion member) will be mixing a new Bazan recording live online at Stream begins at 7:00 (CT).

Meanwhile, Bazan is currently on solo tour in Europe and will be stateside with his impressive backing band, along with openers Headlights, this spring.