Thursday, March 25, 2010

Scorsese film fest begins....slowly

I finally was able to watch my first unseen Scorsese film, and surprisingly, it was Shutter Island. By this time I was really hoping to have seen many others, but that's why I don't have a deadline, right?

Next up will probably be Bringing out the Dead or one of the documentaries.

Scorsese Film #1 - Shutter Island

Film #1 of 14 - Shutter Island

I don't think there's a lot of doubt that Martin Scorsese is a masterful filmmaker; even those who may not like his brand of films have to admit the guy has chops. Though I fear that a few of his recent works have been well-crafted, but somewhat vanilla (The Aviator, The Departed) I have always held the hope that he was going to come out with another film that was going to make me take a few deep breaths after seeing it. I think I finally got that with Shutter Island.

Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island stars Scorsese's 21st century go-to guy, Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall who, with the help of his new partner, U.S. Marshall Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) is sent to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane on remote, craggy Shutter Island on Boston Harbor in 1954 to investigate the disappearance of one of its prisoners. Hospital director Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is quick to correct the term "prisoners" with "patients", as he believes that taking the time to cure them is more beneficial than merely housing them, and seems helpful to the investigation of the baffling disappearance. How could a woman disappear when the door is locked, the window is barred and escape from the treacherous terrain of the island is impossible? The more Teddy and Chuck dig into the mystery, the more they suspect the institution and its staff may be hiding insidious secrets and events, and the more Teddy, who has a challenging past himself, becomes unhinged.

When I first walked out of Shutter Island, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I knew that Scorsese had delivered a visually stunning film that really excited me, despite (and possibly because of) the dread and uneasiness I felt from start to finish. From the opening shot of the ferry gliding across the choppy waters in the fog with all of its shackles hanging from the ceiling to the well-lit and serene, yet disturbing closing scene, I know that I had a worried look on my face. Scorsese has never been afraid of violence, and in Shutter Island, he douses the film with disturbing imagery, from murdered children to botched suicide attempts. Like some of his other famously violent work, however, these scenes are not merely violent for violence sake; they are masterfully shot and creepy, but stunning. Check out the scene in Goodfellas when Joe Pesci is stabbing the hell out of the guy in the trunk of his car as Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro look on, and now notice how the scene is lit. Shutter Island is rife with these sorts of scenes, where you're really disturbed by what you're seeing, but you can't look away because what you are seeing is breathtaking and so well done.

Non-violent scenes were extremely striking as well, of course. One particular moment in Shutter Island that immediately comes to mind is during one of Teddy's dreams; when he turns around talk to the missing Rachel, his body turns toward her in slow motion, but the cloud of smoke from his cigarette is in even slower motion and remains around him. The film geek in me went completely nuts over that shot, despite the fact that I was completely absorbed in the story. Which brings me to the story. I have extremely mixed feelings about it, and in kind, feel that is a positive aspect of the film. Though I guessed "the twist" about 1/4 of the way into the film, the remaining portion of the story was not pedestrian. But wait - did I truly guess correctly? (And no, I'm not putting spoilers in this review, so I'm intentionally being vague.) Though I think that a lot of people feel the ending was cut and dried, I'm not so sure, and I keep working scenes and dialogue through my head to support either theory, but a lot of them can be applied to both, which is actually kind of cool. The down side of it is that either way, there were definitely some elements that were far fetched and convenient. However, I kind of like it when things aren't wrapped up in a neat little package; even with the conveniences and potential eye-rolling once in a while, when you're still analyzing the movie pretty ferociously the next day, that's an accomplishment.

A special mention needs to be made for the music as well. It was deep, and really creepy; it was instrumental in giving the feeling of dread and terror to the movie. Unlike some "legendary" directors, (I'm looking primarily in the direction of George Lucas here) Scorsese not only coaxes great performances out of his actors, but uses top-notch talent as well. DiCaprio, (god love him, he's my age but still looks like a kid in adult clothing sometimes) like him or not, is one hell of a talent. No matter how much disdain I attempted to muster up for him when he was the object of idolatry after Titanic came out, he is one of the best actors working right now, and he does it without fanfare and with incredible ease. There is a scene in this film when he's looking at a man that is lying on the ground, bleeding, and it is as powerful a scene that it is because it's all non-verbal; he plays it with only the hard, cold expression on his face. I can't think of a film where he hasn't given an excellent performance. Mark Ruffalo, who I didn't recognize at first for some reason, but was struck by how much he looked like an actor from the 1950's before I realized it was him, was good, as was Ben Kingsley. The various smaller supporting actors were a character actor dream cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine and the amazing Max Von Sydow, who I wish had been in the film more because he looked so cool and truthfully, his voice is so great that I could listen to him read the phone book.

As I stated earlier, when I walked out of the film, I didn't know what to think of Shutter Island, beyond the outstanding visuals. But as I drove the familiar 20 minutes home, alone in my car, down really dark streets with very few cars, I realized how unsettled I felt. Then I pulled up to my house and watched, with suspicion, someone walking down the street, questioning, "Why would they do that at 10pm without a dog...?" Then I crawled into bed and thought about the movie before I went to sleep, and continued on my drive to work this morning; even my daily Starbucks fix couldn't shake the feeling. The true conclusion of the film isn't what matters, not in the slightest. It's the reality that Shutter Island really, really got to me, and that's a success in my book.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Whither the Great Directors?

No, I haven't forgotten about you. I knew that I wouldn't be able to truly start the project until the second week of March, so I plan to go full gusto and maybe even watch a Scorsese film or two while I'm on vacation in the northern woods of Wisconsin starting tomorrow.

Based on Turner Classic Movies' fabulous March programming of Kurosawa films I think I have no choice to work on his films next!

But, first steps first. Martin Scorsese films, here we go.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Director #1 - Martin Scorsese

Filmography: Martin Scorsese

2010 - Shutter Island
2006 - The Departed
2005 - No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
2004 - The Aviator
2002 - Gangs of New York
1999 - Bringing Out the Dead
1999 - My Voyage to Italy
1997 - Kundun
1995 - Casino
1995 - A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
1993 - The Age of Innocence
1991 - Cape Fear
1990 - Goodfellas
1988 - The Last Temptation of Christ
1986 - The Color of Money
1985 - After Hours
1982 - The King of Comedy
1980 - Raging Bull
1977 - New York, New York
1976 - Taxi Driver
1974 - Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
1973 - Mean Streets
1972 - Boxcar Bertha
1967 - I Call First (aka Who's That Knocking at My Door?)

Bold faced films are the ones I haven't seen, or need to see again for a number of reasons. This list does not have rock concerts, short films or films not available on DVD.

The Great Directors Project - The Beginning

There have been a lot of directors whose work I follow voraciously, (Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, among the many) and those whose work I have been interested in but haven't specifically sought out (Fellini, Truffaut, etc.) and finally, those who I would love to learn more about that number too many to even mention.

When I realized that there were directors whose filmographies I hadn't completed, (most astoundingly, Kubrick's, having not seen Barry Lyndon and Spartacus) I decided that I would make it a project to complete the filmographies of the "great directors".

Though I have a list of directors in mind to start with, I think that the key to this project is going to be exploring new directors, and therefore am hoping that this project becomes an interactive one, with people providing me with suggestions of specific directors, and why they should be under the moniker of "Great Director".

I am doing this project partially in conjunction with a group I started on Facebook titled "Fumpf Film Fanatics", and the first director chosen was Martin Scorsese, from 1990 to the present. Personally, I've seen most of these movies (I'm going to include documentaries but not concert films for any of the directors) so I'm going to take it a step further and work on his pre-1990 films as well. Though with that group we'll be doing a "Director of the Month" type of format, I'm not going to limit myself within a time period for the directors that I decide to study on my own.

Depending on time, interest and resources, I also plan to read books on some of the directors I study and will be sharing that information on this blog as well.

And so it starts, today, March 1, 2010. I really hope this goes well and that I see some great films! Please e-mail me at or comment on this blog with your film director suggestions!