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Monday, March 1, 2010

Scorsese Gets Scary

I went to two screenings at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences this past weekend. One of the films I was ambivalent about, but the other I was anxious to see. Saturday was Brit director Martin Campbell's remake of his 1985 miniseries Edge of Darkness, telescoped into feature film length and tailored for Mel Gibson (attempting to recapture his action hero crown). Retro and Death Wish-y, it features Mel grimacing blearily between "shock" deaths and a slew of corporate villains of the "nyah-ha-ha" variety led by Danny Huston, who really should be wearing an eyepatch and petting a cat. It was nothing more or less than I expected, but it's too boring to provide bad movie fun.

Sunday was the one I was waiting for, Martin Scorsese's new psychological thriller Shutter Island, and I have to say it's a mixed bag. I don't blame the direction, cinematography, production design or acting—they're all excellent. What I do blame is the screenplay. After dangling more red herrings than you'd find at a St. Olaf fish fry, it arrives at a denouement that makes the viewer say..."Oh." Not only do you solve the mystery earlier than the filmmakers would like, it's also a letdown.

Certainly there are pleasures to be had. Scorsese is a marvelous filmmaker, and he clearly relishes taking a stab at this genre. And all the tech specs are superb. The island is an isolated, foreboding place, shrouded in fog when it's not in the teeth of a full-fledged hurricane, and the "extremely disturbed" ward of the mental hospital at which the story is set is a stone-cold, gray building left over from the Civil War that you'd easily expect to find Frankenstein's monster lumbering through. I was excited by the possibility that this was going to be his version of The Shining.

The story, in short: Leonardo DiCaprio (still rocking his Baw-ston accent from The Departed), stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal with a troubled past who journeys to a remote island off Massachusetts to investigate reports of a murderess who has escaped from the Ashecliff Hospital for the Criminally Insane, headed by Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley). Teddy and his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), uncover a series of conspiracies and plot twists that lead them to conclude that the hospital is conducting sinister human experiments for the government. There's more, but I'm not going to give away any spoilers.

DiCaprio, making his fourth film for Scorsese, spends much of the running time looking like he's ready to explode, as seen in the above photo. Michelle Williams plays Teddy's wife, Dolores, who had died in a house fire two years before and appears to him as a kind of friendly ghost, warning him to leave the island. Mark Ruffalo makes for an agreeable sidekick. The legendary Max Von Sydow seems to be having a field day as the might-be-evil Dr. Naehring whom Teddy suspects is an escaped Nazi. Silence of the Lambs' own Buffalo Bill himself, Ted Levine, plays the head warden in what amounts to a cameo, as does Jackie Earle Haley, the Comeback Kid, as one of the inmates in the "extreme" ward. There are lots of flashbacks and fantasy sequences to keep the proceedings interesting, although I have to question the filmmakers' taste in showing the frozen bodies of concentration camp victims stacked like firewood at Dachau for shock effect.

And it's all so very serious. Scene after scene is brimming with import and significance. The audience I watched it with appreciated the very few moments of bleak humor, as when Teddy is interviewing inmates about the missing patient. Here Scorsese reminds us of how great he is at populating his films with interesting characters.

Shutter Island
runs the risk of becoming risible, but it avoids that pitfall. What it does become is boring after a riveting 90-or-so-minutes and you've solved the puzzle. Evidently it's been more or less faithfully adapted from Dennis Lehane's book of the same name, so there you go.

Shutter Island
, while not a total failure, is sadly flawed. It's middling Scorsese, but middling Scorsese is still superior to some of the very best dreck other directors put out. I'm not namin' names, but what's that Chesapeake body of water in Maryland called—and what kind of window do you put in your living room to look at it? Ahem.

FLASH—The loose remake of George Romero's The Crazies opened to surprisingly strong reviews and boxoffice last weekend, so expect to see an analysis of that film on this blog soon.

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

I heartily agree re both films. Anthony Lane of "The New Yorker" said that Mel Gibson doen't look a day over 65. (He's 54)It was not so much the "Edge of Darkness" as a peak from a mile away and around the corner.

The analysis of "Shutter Island" is dead-on. I agree that the concentration camp scenes seem calculated.

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