Archive for Shutter Island

Like clockwork, like magic

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2011 by dcairns

HUGO is a film about books, movies, magic and clockwork. And work — life’s work.

It’s my new favourite use of 3D. It revives the 2-strip Technicolor look that was the best thing about THE AVIATOR, and returns to the long take aesthetic which informed Scorsese’s work before the rock ‘n’ roll fast-cutting of THE DEPARTED and SHINE A LIGHT. It’s set in a giant artificial period world like GANGS OF NEW YORK, and is at times more in love with that world than with its own story, just like the earlier film, but at least in this case the foreground story intrigues for the great bulk of the film.

Ben Kingsley returns from SHUTTER ISLAND, Ray Winstone returns from THE DEPARTED, and Jude Law returns from THE AVIATOR, none of which was my favourite Scorsese by a long way, but they’re good here, and Kingsley is T-riffic. The kids, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz, are wonderful.

Old-timers! Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Frances was big on British TV in the seventies, starring alongside Leonard Rossiter (BARRY LYNDON) in a seminal sitcom called Rising Damp. Then she vanished. I presume she’s just changed her agent, because suddenly she’s in Tim Burton and Scorsese films. The business with the supporting players is lightly charming but not quite effective… they inhabit little REAR WINDOW scenarios of their own, but aren’t tied to the hero’s POV enough so they don’t seem germane. Although I like Kristin Thompson’s theory here that the sub-plots’ simplicity recalls early films of the Melies era.

Midway, Chloe M’s character sums up the plot: “It’s a terribly long story with a great many circumlocutions.” She’s right! Not everybody enjoys that, especially when the plot motor and pay-off are kind of slight. Fiona saw the film with our friends the Browns and Marvelous Mary, who really hated it. Since the Browns work in the film biz, I think their anger was focussed on huge resources being lavished on a movie with such a slight spine. Imagine little Asa Butterfield wearing a giant Transformers robot armature. They had similar doubts about GANGS OF NEW YORK, which has a really rotten plot and a similarly sumptuous environment (had Scorsese been allowed to follow the path of FELLINI SATYRICON and dispensed with narrative, what  amovie that could have been!). Fiona enjoyed the visuals, completely, but complained of the script.

She’s basically right, I have to admit. The dialogue is mostly flat — there are no memorable lines except those that actors invigorate with a lot of effort (Chloe Moretz is especially good at this and Kingsley is compelling as always) The plot is thin and the happy pay-off arrives for no entirely convincing reason. Scorsese has never been a fan of plot, preferring the loose, baggy structure of MEAN STREETS or the purely character-driven narratives of TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. But those latter films are extremely tight, with everything happening because of who the people are — there’s no chance or contrivance or hidden revelations to provide artificial twists or accelerations. The apparent messiness of MEAN STREETS is in keeping with its imitation of messy, unstructured life. This is Scorsese’s first mystery, and the questions intrigue, but not every question has a satisfactory answer — I kind of expected some news about the hero’s father and uncle, but it turns out they weren’t part of the mystery. Spectacular dream sequences add pyrotechnics but don’t advance the story, which seems to be building to something bigger… and Logan really isn’t very good at building gags or action sequence, so things like the clock-hanging sequence tend to just fizzle out rather than building to a thrilling climax with developments and reversals and all that good stuff…

But 90% of the time, the plot had a fascinating effect on the children in the audience — the narrative purpose of a scene could be very slight, but as long as it was there, they sat hypnotized. You instantly got fidgeting when the scene turned out to be just about some kind of character moment. But they sat there for two hours and the fidgeting only happened for about four instances of ten seconds apiece. I contrasted this with the kid at TINTIN who tried to climb over the seat backs in front of her. There’s a revelation here about pacing and children — children’s movies have been hyperkinetic for ages, and crammed in all the stuff they assume kids like — farting and monsters and pop music — and it turns out that an effect of intense concentration by the filmmaker can produce the same thing in a young audience. Scorsese may have saved a generation of parents from ever having to suffer through ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED. If more filmmakers learn from the rhythms of HUGO, things could be very different.

As the Self-Styled Siren says in her loving review, this is glorious 3D, and likely to win over even those who generally dislike it. What excites me is that we’re actually learning more about how to use the gimmick, something that barely happened in the 50s. In HUGO, 3D discovers the power of the close-up. Seemingly, TANGLED achieves some of this, but I’ve only seen it flat, on BluRay (it’s GOOD). Here, there’s a shot of Sacha Baron Cohen leaning slowly in, filmed from a low angle, which has a funny and ominous and freaky effect. A track-in on Ben Kingsley near the end is magisterial. Those faces hover there, giant and blimplike, eerie in the way the Kingdom of Shadows was eerie to the earliest cinema-goers. The reference to the first audience’s panicked reaction to the Lumiere’s TRAIN ARRIVING AT A STATION ties it all together neatly. 3D isn’t an add-on, here, it’s part of the story, part of the film’s essence. And the drifting snowflakes and cinders are beautiful, the aerial perspectives of the station are spectacular, and every frame seems to bristle with potential discoveries. Robert Richardson’s partnership with Scorsese as DoP is something to be grateful for for two reasons: his luminous lensing enhances Scorsese’s films, and it keeps him out of the clutches of Oliver Stone.

I recalled a line from Our Town: “Oh, I can’t look at everything hard enough!”

Creating Ghosts

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2010 by dcairns

“It’s not hard to start a lunatic asylum, all you need is an empty room and the right kind of people.”

So says Eugene Pallette in MY MAN GODFREY, but creating lunatic asylums on film has often been a complicated and highly artistic task, from THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI on (is CALIGARI the first?). (What follows is hopefully spoiler-free, even though I must be one of the last to see and write about this film.)

Dante Ferretti’s designs for the new Scorsese, SHUTTER ISLAND, are often stunning — the marriage of sets with Robert Richardson’s lambent cinematography is a thing of beauty (I particularly loved, and wanted more of, the highly reflective ceilings in the night scenes). Although one wonders about the therapeutic value of that Civil Ward fort, a nightmare of iron lattices more calculated to derange the mind than soothe it. But this is a Gothic fantasy as well as a realistic psychodrama, and mismatches like that are practically inevitable.

Opening titles seem to evoke KING KONG, especially as we open on a steamer chugging through fog. 40s horror producer Val Lewton is Scorsese’s big stated reference on this one, so the opening seems apt, as the ship footage from KONG was repurposed for Lewton and Robson’s THE GHOST SHIP. And the opening dialogue between DiCaprio and Ruffalo is as awkward as the shipboard meet cute in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, though in a different way. Here it’s the feeling of green screened background (well-done but still somehow perceptible), the odd mismatches in the editing (Scorsese and Schoonmaker frequently ignore continuity problems but here it’s tricky to see what’s to be gained by some of the rough edges) and the blatant non sequiturs — “Got a girl?” asks Ruffalo, apropos of nothing, although this is one point which does make sense in light of the final revelations.

How fooled were you? It seems to me that anybody with a grounding in storytelling — i.e. anybody who’s heard the term “foreshadowing” — would be asking questions in Scene 1, especially if they’ve heard the hints that an M Night Smymalan humdinger of a final twist is in the offing. And those questions would lead you directly to the right solution, or a big part of it. To their credits, Scorsese, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis and original author Dennis Lehane throw enough red herrings into the soup to keep us off-balance. Unfortunately, some of the sidetracks we’re invited down seem more promising than the film’s final revelation turns out to be.

Ben Kingsley is Basil Exposition in this one, wheeled on to set up the story at length, and again to explain what happened at the end. We also get a lengthy flashback to help him, although it strikes me that in the name of efficiency alone, it could usefully had substituted for some of his unwieldy spiel. Max Von Sydow is a welcome presence but little more, in plot terms, although maybe it was his being there that made me think that whenever anybody gets around to making FLASH GORDON again, they must and should get Ben Kingsley to don Max’s mantle as Emperor Ming.

Small roles are filled by names like Elias Koteas, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley, who are very pleasing, but even more satisfying are the less famous players, because they’re more surprising — Ted Levine, who gets a brilliantly strange dialogue in a jeep, my favourite creeping freakout scene in the movie, and Robin Bartlett as the axe-murderess, are great value.

The whole thing is, as Fiona says, a shaggy dog story, which is part of my big problem with it. The movie touches on some of the twentieth century’s most compelling nightmares — Dachau, HUAC, psychiatric abuses — and most of this material is a shoal of red herrings (I won’t say which bits aren’t), raising questions of taste. The film’s true subject is, I guess, madness, a universal fear which doesn’t need this sociopolitical smokescreen for resonance: the holocaust reduced to the status of colourful pageant. Finally, a spoiler — you’ll have to highlight the next bit to read it:

As in THE AVIATOR, it seems to me the story would actually be stronger with a more flawed protagonist. When we learn what Leo’s crime is, it’s pretty understandable, and his estimation of himself as a “monster” seems questionable. If he really did find he’d done something truly terrible, it would be more shocking, but we’d still be on his side because the crime was committed in the past by a version of himself he doesn’t even remember.

In plausibility terms, the idea of Leo becoming completely delusional after committing the crime is highly unlikely, and we have the strange situation of two potential insane murderers in the same household, unknown to each other. A trivial but still niggling issue is that we have only Leo’s word that he didn’t kill his kids. When the authorities showed up and found the whole family dead, and Leo insane, wouldn’t the natural assumption be that Leo killed everybody?

To end: Scorsese has now made three features that seem very much like work-for-hire, although one can’t fault the effort and imagination he puts into them. He hasn’t worked with any of his regular screenwriting cronies since GANGS OF NEW YORK, and he’s not getting any younger. I’ll certainly continue to see his films, but it feels more like his directing is a secondary career compared to his invaluable work in film restoration. On the other hand, I hear Ben Kingsley is playing Georges Melies in the next one…

The comments section, BTW, will be full of spoilers… best avoid if you haven’t seen the movie.

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