The moniker of the "greatest living filmmaker" could be applied to very few people, but one of them would be Martin Scorsese.
In the span of four decades he's ascended from a new, exciting voice in cinema, crafting vibrant studies of life in New York with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, to an unmitigated master with works like Raging Bull and Goodfellas--a movie I've seen more than 10,000 times and still can't turn off when it pops up on TV.
But his past few outings have been hit and miss. As much as I like The Departed, it's Oscar win seemed like a mea culpa for Goodfellas (yes, in 1990 the Academy thought more highly of Dances with Wolves). And Gangs of New York, while a richly textured film, felt bloated and a little self-indulgent.
Now, Shutter Island finds Scorsese returning to suspense for the first time since 1991's Cape Fear, and it seems Scorsese hasn't forgotten how to turn the screws.
Set in 1954, Shutter Island opens with two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), as they sail toward the titular island off the coast of Massachusetts.
The pair has been sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient from a hospital for the criminally insane, located on the escape-proof isle.
Once they arrive, they are briefed by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the mystified administrator of the hospital who shows Daniels and Aule the inescapable cell his patient, Rachel Solando, apparently escaped from.
Despite Cawley's soothing demeanor, Daniels senses something is amiss. His requests for records and interviews are generally stonewalled and he has a nagging curiosity about Ward C--housed in a Civil War fort--the off limits location of the hospital's most dangerous patients.
After the discovery of a clue that causes him to believe there might be one more patient at the facility than he can get anyone to admit to, Daniels, frustrated at the lack of cooperation, decides to leave and call in the FBI.
Unfortunately, an oncoming hurricane kyboshes that plan, leaving Daniels and Aule to ride out the storm and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name (adapted by Laeta Kalogridis), Shutter Island, while not perfect or even a masterpiece, finds Scorsese as firmly in control of mood and tone as he's been in years. Every frame of the film is soaked in a dark ambience that's as beautiful as it is intriguing. From the cold blues and grays of the rocky, wooded landscapes to the overgrown, tangible malevolence of the 19th Century architecture, Shutter Island is a feast of moody atmospherics.
Scorsese flawlessly directs deeper into the rabbit hole of the twisting story by recalling the themes of Val Lewton's best work with a dash of Hitchcock, while tipping his hat to Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor as Daniels pushes further into a mystery that soon has him questioning where reality ends and what comes after.
The flaws of Shutter Island reside more in the source material than Scorsese's execution of it, which effortlessly elicits an aura of discomfort and dread.
While his direction keeps you locked into the narrative, the big mystery itself is fairly easy to see coming, which causes the ultimate reveal to fall a bit flat. But even on that level, his direction is so damn good it softened the sting of disappointment when the film winds up more or less where you thought it would. Like David Fincher's wonderful Zodiac, the fact you know the killer never got caught doesn't detract from the ride.
At that point, the stellar cast is just the icing on the cake. DiCaprio, as Teddy Daniels, gives a solid performance, leading the audience as he wades through the ever deepening murk of the unfolding story. He's easy to empathize with, even though he plainly harbors a few tics.
Mark Ruffalo is typically great. As Chuck Aule, he exhibits his easy grace, making every inflection and gesture seem as though he gave them no thought at all.
He could have done every scene bouncing on a pogo stick and still seemed totally natural.
Ben Kingsley is perfect as Dr. Cawley, the head of Shutter Island, exuding gentle intelligence with a subtle hint of cold consideration. His only problem is that of the rest of the cast. They're all so good you can't take your eyes off any of them.
The film is rounded out with some greatly appreciated supporting roles from a slew of personal favorites. Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs) as the Warden gives a menacing turn, and Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal) as the shadowy Dr. Naehring had me grinning from ear to ear as he gamely played his perfectly tuned sense of smugness. He looks like he knows something about your mother.
It's not often someone does their best work at the age of 67. And though Shutter Island isn't Scorsese's best movie (the source material usurps that opportunity), it represents his best directorial work in more than a decade.
A master, indeed.
On Rocky Ground
Someone doesn't want Terry Gilliam to make movies anymore.
The irreverent Monty Python vet has always had a contentious time of getting his films made, famously battling producers and studio heads for creative control of some of his more avant garde creations.
His tribulations on Brazil and Baron Munchhausen are legendary; he had to kidnap a print of his own movie to clandestinely screen for critics on the former and was hamstrung by his own studio at every turn on the latter.
Next, an attempt to adapt Don Quixote was thwarted by everything from natural disaster to the herniated disc of his aging star, Jean Rochefort, forcing production to cease after mere days of filming.
And, of course, the death of Heath Ledger a third of the way through shooting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus made it seem as though the cursed Gilliam must have pissed off an old gypsy woman somewhere along the line. When, by a seeming miracle, he managed to complete the film, his producer succumbed to cancer the following week, and Gilliam himself had his back broken after being hit by a car.
If I were a PA on one of Gilliam's movies, I'd be afraid to hand the guy a cup of coffee.
Understandably, Gilliam must think every film he makes will be his last, which is fitting. The themes of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are very much rooted in the knowledge that, as he's approaching 70, no matter what happens, regardless of success or failure, his days behind a camera are ever diminishing in number.
Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the leader of a vagabond theatrical troupe that travels through present day London in a ramshackle Middle Ages RV of sorts, entertaining dwindling audiences with the offer of visiting Parnassus' imagination should they choose to step through his magic mirror.
Parnassus made a deal with the Devil ages ago for eternal life in exchange for his first born, Valentina (an otherworldly Lily Cole) who is a part of the performing troupe along with the good hearted but doltish Anton (Andrew Garfield), and the requisite "little guy," Percy (Verne Troyer).
Valentina is on the verge of her 16th birthday and the Devil (a perfectly cast Tom Waits) intends to claim his prize, though he sympathizes with Parnassus--they are, by now, old friends--and agrees to give him one more chance to save his daughter. Be the first to convert five souls with the Imaginarium, and his debt will be repaid.
When the downtrodden troupe resuscitates a seeming suicide victim (Heath Ledger), the amnesiac stranger bonds with the unlikely family and endeavors to help them drum up some business.
And it's Gilliam, all right. Written and directed by Gilliam (with long-time co-writer Charles McKeown), Parnassus finds the Monty Python alum and former animator indulging the universal questions with his trademark whimsy, pathos and humor. Sadly, the story's plotting and writing are as rickety as the medieval, shambling edifice the film's characters use to travel the streets of London.
The theme of contemporary mores shunning the limitlessness of the imagination, making modern entertainment a place where original stories go to die, pervades the film, almost to the point of heavy-handedness. Yes, I get it. Some of Gilliam's best films are his most underappreciated.
A film like The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen was the pinnacle of Gilliam capturing that unique and stylized vision on film, and it was one of his biggest flops. A difficult film like Brazil rises to that, as well, though it seems to divide people into those who thought it was a fascinating mess or a boring one.
Here his vision is definitely present and accounted for, though Parnassus indulges it on a smaller scale. The film does its best to subvert its small budget nature, hiding the cheap FX in the Imaginarium with Gilliam's stylized production design, but he can't hide the fact he wanted money he didn't have for this--though, again, it's amazing the film was finished at all.
But the untimely death of his star hamstrung Gilliam in ways that are apparent in the finished film. Perhaps these were insurmountable, even after casting Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in Ledger's stead during his trips in the Imaginarium.
Sure, the conceit makes sense, or is at least plausible, but the act of completing the scenes doesn't mean they feel natural in the film. What begins as a fairly concise story devolves into a disjointed mess both directorially and in its narrative pace.
The performances are very good across the board, with Christopher Plummer exhibiting his usual gravitas, while Lily Cole does her best to look like she belongs in a Botticelli painting. She's so beautiful that she almost looks weird. Andrew Garfield does haplessly well, but it probably goes without saying you'll be paying attention to Heath Ledger the most.
Ledger is vibrantly charismatic in a role that is miles away from the manic intensity of The Joker in The Dark Knight. His natural charm has a playful quality of innocence that lends a melancholy tone to every scene he's in. This is especially true as soon as Depp makes his first appearance, and the finality of Ledger's passing really sinks home. Sure, everyone knows this guy had an amazing career ahead of him, but it's with Parnassus, more than The Dark Knight, that you sense the loss of what we are going to miss.
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