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Sunday
Feb212010

Shutter Island, 2010

It's Exactly What You Think

Martin Scorsese should be very proud. His latest film, Shutter Island, is the best psychological thriller or 1995.

That’s not a typo, and this isn’t necessarily a negative review. The movie, while at times creepy, well acted, and fun to watch, feels like it came out fifteen years too late. In the post-Usual Suspects, post-Sixth Sense age, a great “twist” ending has to be spectacular, and not something that is all but given away in the trailer. I prayed going into this movie that I would be wrong, and that Scorsese had only pretended to telegraph Shutter Island’s big mystery in the previews; sadly, I could have guessed (in fact, did) all of the movie’s “secrets” before the title card appeared on-screen

But maybe I’m suffering from a case of “having seen too many movies”. I get that a lot. I’ve recently begun asking those who say that to me whether or not they would ever accuse someone of having read too many books. Digression aside, I’d like for you to play a game with me. Please read the synopsis below and see if you can figure out the big Shutter Island surprise.

The year is 1954. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal from Boston whos’ called out to a remote mental asylum to investigate the disappearance of a patient. A former soldier who helped liberate Dachau, Teddy has constant flashbacks to the war; he also hallucinates a great deal, seeing visions of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who burned to death in an apartment fire a few years earlier.

He also has a new partner on the assignment, named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), whose main job is to take notes and eye Teddy suspiciously. The two men interview the staff and the head of the hospital, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, who has, thankfully, taken up acting again), but no one will say anything about the missing patient or the mysterious note she left—which alludes to there being one more patient on the island than has been officially recorded.

If you’re like me, what’s going through your mind right now is similar to what I thought after having watched this premise be established in the trailer: “No way. There has to be more to it than that, right? I mean, they’ve just told me that Teddy is a patient at the hospital having delusions of being a detective!” Well, there’s a little more to it than that, but the film’s twisty-er story points are just nuances of the inevitable. So if you’re looking for a brain-bender, stay off this island.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to recommend here. As I said before, the actors are almost uniformly top-notch. Because we’re dealing with Martin Scorsese, we know the movie will be filled with great faces and better performances. DiCaprio fares better with his Boston accent than Mel Gibson in the recent Edge of Darkness; and his gradual unraveling is fun to behold, if a tad melodramatic in parts. Mark Ruffalo is great as Chuck. He injects this non-role with a quiet, everyman quality that balances DiCaprio’s manic eyes and hands. But the best roles in Shutter Island are those of the supporting cast. Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, and Robin Bartlett make this movie believable—possible, even. They play the wardens and the nutcases; in a movie like this, truly unnerving characters can keep the madhouse from simply being a funhouse.

The one exception in the cast is Michelle Williams, who plays her scenes as an off-her-meds Alice Kramden, by way of Cliff Clavin from Cheers. Seriously, she was better on Dawson’s Creek.

Shutter Island has a lot going for it visually, too, but—and this is the strange part—the movie is undermined by Scorsese’s poor choice of visual technique. Teddy’s visions and memories of the concentration camp are poetic short stories that we glimpse and piece together as the “A” story progresses. These aren’t typical movie flashbacks; they’re kaleidoscopic nightmares filtered through regret and suppressed rage. However, they’re undermined by Scorsese’s puzzling over-use of green-screen in just about every other scene. I still can’t figure out what the director was going for; even in scenes where two characters are talking against a nondescript wall, the edges around their shoulders and heads show the slight fuzziness of a mediocre composite job. While images of piled bodies and reanimating corpses are suitably chilling, I was most upset by the fact that most of Shutter Island looks like it was filmed in a parking lot.

This problem almost ruins the film’s atmosphere, but not nearly as much as the music does. The instrumentals of the opening ten minutes build and build, climaxing in a hammer-in-the-face barrage of ominous noise as Teddy and Chuck walk through the gates of the asylum. This is the most egregious instance, but there are several other moments where the music over-sells moments that would have been more effective with no accompaniment. Nearly every emotion and story beat in Shutter Island is spelled out before anything significant happens, and it’s an insulting distraction.

On a related note, it is quite funny that the “big twist” is literally spelled out for the audience on a whiteboard. Teddy comes unglued and bursts into Dr. Cawley’s office with a shotgun, convinced he’s uncovered a huge government conspiracy; Cawley reveals that Teddy is suffering from delusions brought on by severe mental trauma (I won’t give those specifics away), and the proof is in a pair of names that are anagrams for two other names. I won’t spoil those, either, but the surprise won’t be too startling to anyone who thought, “Hmm, that character’s got a weird name; I wonder if it’ll mean anything later on?”

Shutter Island is ultimately a noble failure. It kept me going for a good chunk of the running time (about 45 minutes could have been excised from the middle), hopeful that my initial theory would be proven wrong. I’ll never watch it again, and for me that’s not the mark of a good film. I think it’s a tremendous waste of talent, time, and money. Had Scorsese gone a step further and shown Teddy not to be crazy, to have been, in fact, the victim of the conspiracy instead of the fabricator of it, this movie may have been closer to something special. As it stands, the movie’s greatest shocking twist is that there isn’t one.

Saturday
Feb202010

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

Stinky Jinx

Having just watched The Burning, it may be impossible for me to talk about Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers objectively.

But I’ll try.

Nope. Can’t do it. This movie’s not worth the effort. It’s just a bad, dull movie that tries to be something it’s not. I normally give points for ambition, but when that ambition is not backed up by solid execution, there’s nothing left but Halloween 6.

Sure, Dimension Films tried to legitimize this one by leaving the number out of the title (probably to draw attention away from the fact that the previous entry slinked into theatres six years prior), but Curse is the horror franchise equivalent of trying to turn over your car when it’s clearly dead and starting to smell. Instead of simply resurrecting the Haddonfield bogeyman for another killing spree, writer Dan Farrands tries to inject the series with a heretofore-unacknowledged mythology. You see, Michael Myers was not simply a vessel of pure evil who killed a bunch of people in the late 70’s; no, he was chosen at birth to be the weapon of an ancient cult known as Thorn, whose mission in life is to kill every last member of his own bloodline. Or something like that.

The one thing a Halloween movie doesn’t need is a bunch of people in robes walking around performing rituals. This franchise had its chance to branch out and tackle other stories centered on the mythology of the day, but after the criminally underrated, Michael-Myers-less Part 3, Season of the Witch, Dimension cast its lot with the maniac in the William Shatner mask, and this Druid shit is just plain unbecoming.

Besides, it sucks up the valuable time usually allotted to the body count; but with kills this unimaginative, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Ooh! A guy gets his throat sliced in the bathroom! Oh, no! There goes mom, with an axe to the chest—and look at all that gore on the fresh linens! At least that gag set up a later scene in which her husband finds the bloody sheets tumbling around the washing machine—and is subsequently electrocuted so badly that his head explodes. But despite the awesome effects of his skin charring and bubbling before the big bang, I couldn’t stop wondering when Michael Myers learned to do fucking laundry.

Like The Burning, Halloween 6 contains a very special acting debut; that of Clueless and I Love You, Man star, Paul Stephen Rudd. I can only guess that he landed Clueless before this movie came out, ‘cause I’m pretty sure he would have been blacklisted if this were on his demo reel. I’ve seriously never seen Paul Rudd act this poorly. He was either totally goofing on the ridiculous mutation of the series, or he underwent a significant leap in ability from his first role to his second. Either way, his portrayal of Myers survivor Tommy Doyle is so twitchy, melodramatic and weird that I wanted to throw my remote at the screen every time he showed up.

Then again, he may have been directed to those heights, if only to balance the exhausted performance of Donald Pleasance. The venerable actor returns as Dr. Loomis, the only person in the world who fully understands Myers’s threat. What began in the original Halloween as a poignant Ahab role devolved over the years into parody. Pleasance, who died shortly after this film wrapped, delivers every line as if he’d been asked to recite them for fans at horror conventions for a decade. There’s no spark in his eyes or his words, and he just looks ready to go.

The same can be said for the movie itself. Gone is the atmosphere and care that John Carpenter put into the original. Even Michael’s mask looks like a Dollar Store knock-off. The biggest crime, though, is the mid-90s synth version of Carpenter’s lovely, eerie Halloween theme. I tell you, the abominations never stop.

Though there were two more sequels after this one, Halloween: Water and Halloween: Resurrection (aka Trick or Treat, Motherfucker!) before the studio laid this incarnation of the movies to rest, The Curse of Michael Myers stands out as a slasher movie that aspires to be a weighty conspiracy drama with tits and gore. Sadly, it succeeds only in wasting ninety minutes that I could have spent watching The Burning again.

Note: In fairness, there is a legitimate flaw that Curse shares with The Burning. Both films have horrendous editing in key scenes. This movie’s climax was obviously chopped to hell, as there are portions that fade to black like a commercial break and resume with the characters in different locations, talking about things that make zero sense. There’s a famously unreleased “Producer’s Cut” of the film floating around out there, but the last thing I want to see is more of Halloween 6.

 

Saturday
Feb202010

The Burning (1981)

Hot Young Talent

Forget Kevin Bacon. If you want to play a kick-ass game of movie trivia with your friends, ask them what film marked the producing debut of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the writing debut of mega-producer and former Paramount CEO Brad Grey, and the acting debuts of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Fisher Stevens. There’s no way they’ll guess that all of these powerhouses got their start in a 1981 cult slasher called The Burning.

Following the previous year’s splatter sensation, Friday the 13th, The Burning is also about teenagers at a wooded camp who are brutally picked off by a faceless killer. Both movies share a similar look, and they even have the same effects man in common: horror icon Tom Savini. What sets The Burning apart from its better-known predecessor is not just the young-star-gazing, but also the fact that the film is genuinely scary and engaging.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that The Burning gets right in one picture what Friday the 13th failed to accomplish across eleven sequels.

It’s a weird film, to be sure. The beginning and ending teeter on comedic genius; though the robust middle portion delivers just about perfect terror. We open with a group of teenage boys playing a prank on Camp Blackfoot’s groundskeeper, a cranky drunk named Cropsy. The gag goes awry, and Cropsy is set on fire. Years later, he’s released from the hospital, where he underwent several failed skin grafts and psychotherapy sessions. His first act as a free, disfigured, black-trench-coat-wearing-man is to pick up a prostitute and kill her in an unintentionally hilarious scene.

Cut to another camp that has opened in the same woods as the now-closed Camp Blackwood, where we meet a large group of carefree counselors and kids. A number of them head out on a canoeing trip to a secluded area, and Cropsy picks them off using his extra-shiny gardening shears. As the first act progresses into the second, the script takes a lot of time to develop the relationships between the characters, and The Burning plays a lot more like Meatballs than Sleepaway Camp. These kinds of movies always include some interplay between the victims before they get sliced up, but this film takes pains to set up story arcs that build momentum; this means that when the bodies start to pile up, there’s weight to the death scenes—it feels as though actual lives are being cut tragically short.

The second act is where much of the killing takes place, and the deaths are spectacular. Tom Savini out-did his work in the first Friday film—and, in my opinion, his later work in Part 4, The Final Chapter—by amping up the brutality and realism of the wounds. These don’t feel like stylistic, “cool” ways to kill people; no, these are sloppy, undignified death scenes. The actors help sell the effects, too, their faces registering genuine surprise and fear. The third, most crucial ingredient to the suspense is director Tony Maylam’s refusal to rely on cheap red-herring scares. There are no cats jumping out of closets or hands reaching into frame that belong to a lost counselor’s friend. The shocks are all earned here, and almost each death left me sad and on-edge.

Unfortunately, The Burning’s climax is unforgivably lame. It’s a goddamned injustice. There’s a showdown between Cropsy and two of the survivors that could have been really interesting to watch had it not been impossible to see. Generally, it’s not a good idea to shoot a complicated fight scene between three characters and a flamethrower if all you’re interested in are extreme close-ups of the actors’ faces. I honestly was lost for about three minutes during what was arguably the most important part of the movie. The very end of the film is great, and—in keeping with the rest of the picture—offers an unexpected surprise (for those who’ve seen The Burning and don’t know what I’m talking about, consider what the typical horror film would have done with that last shot).

My few quibbles aside, I can honestly say that The Burning is now my favorite slasher movie. The infamous “raft scene” alone is more intense, shocking, and unforgettable than anything in any movie of this kind that I’ve ever watched. Frankly, I find it appalling that it’s been nearly thirty years since this movie came out, and of the hundreds of genre films—including all of the lame sequels and remakes—none have come close to delivering this level of scares, laughs and surprises. The Burning is a serious but flawed masterpiece; it doesn’t feel like a cash-in, but like a movie that other movies ripped off—including Friday the 13th (which, incidentally, starred Kevin Bacon).

Wednesday
Feb172010

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, 1984

Zen and the Art of Interdimensional Exploration

My good friend Bill recommended that I check out The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. It was cautious advice, as he wasn’t sure if I’d love it or find it unwatchable. After seeing the movie, I understand his concern: I’m recommending it to you, now—cautiously.

In 1984, director W.D. Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch brought to the big screen a truly weird comedy-sci-fi-adventure-comedy, starring actors who would go on to become huge names. It was full of ideas and long, funny conversations about alternate realities, alien invasions, and the brainwashing of Orson Welles; it also featured a watermelon lodged in a vise on a lab table—but that’s a story for another time. The movie plays like the beginning of a new Star Wars franchise for smart people, and that may be one of the reasons it flopped.

The movie stars Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai, a famous neurosurgeon who moonlights as a rock star and physicist, and spends a good deal of time saving the planet with his band/league of misfit scientists, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. When a rogue scientist, Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), escapes from a mental institution in order to lead an uprising of the secret alien race whose leader possessed him in the late 30s, Banzai and his gang leap into action to prevent a rival alien faction from blowing up the planet. If that last sentence made your head spin, just try watching the movie. I haven’t mentioned Banzai’s love interest, Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), the long-lost twin sister of his former bride; their introduction sees Penny attempting suicide during a Cavaliers concert, and Banzai talks her down by crooning from behind a keyboard.

Buckaroo Banzai is kind of like the alternate-dimension sequel to Real Genius, another science-oriented comedy that came out the next year. The films share a very smart sense of humor that engage the mind and the gut; it’s not too dry, but there’s not an over-reliance on easy gags or variations on jokes you’ve heard a hundred times (the exception in Banzai is a running gag about the last name of Christopher Lloyd’s character, John Bigboote). The movies also have great casts in common; Val Kilmer in Genius and Peter Weller in Banzai share a Zen wackiness that grounds their supporting characters while at the same time acting as a catalyst for bizarre plot turns.

If I have one complaint about this movie, it’s that the last act is a dud. It makes sense in terms of the story, but dramatically, it just lets the air out of all that’s come before. In brief, Buckaroo and the Cavaliers converge on a hangar to stop Dr. Lizardo from launching a space ship into the eighth dimension—where he will assume great power. Had this been a ten minute distraction, I might have been okay with it; but the last half-hour of this picture is a raid-on-the-compound sequence that is executed without any suspense or attempt at twisting the convention. It’s as if the creative team were very skilled at fashioning clever molecule gags, but didn’t quite get how to stage swashbuckling adventure (hint: it doesn’t involve scene after scene after scene of different people running down similar-looking corridors).

It’s rare that I suggest a film be remade or sequelized, but in the case of Buckaroo Banzai, that could be a great idea. This is the kind of movie that Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams are making today; it wasn’t right for 1984, but today’s audiences are much more open to unconventional storytelling and self-aware humor. I appreciated the fact that the film demanded my full attention—up to a point—and rewarded me with big ideas and some good laughs. Yeah, we definitely need more of that.

Tuesday
Feb162010

The House of the Devil (2009)

Who Watches the Walkman?

Writer/director Ti West’s latest film, The House of the Devil, is a wonderfully creepy and effective thriller that is very difficult to recommend. It is so sparse and uneventful, that I can easily understand why some might turn it off halfway through. Though, to do so would be to miss out on a movie that is as much about its production design and atmosphere as it is about scaring the audience—probably more so.

The House of the Devil stars Jocelin Donahue as Samantha, a college student in need of money for the down payment on a new rental home. She takes a babysitting job in a big, scary house out in the middle of nowhere; the house is owned by the Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) an older couple who come off as rich and aloof , but nice in the way that uses sympathy to mask duplicity and manipulation. The only minor spoiler I’ll mention is that Sam’s job doesn’t involve watching a child, but rather Mrs. Ulman’s mother who, she is told, she probably won’t even see.

I’ve left a number of key elements out here. It would be wrong to go into further detail, and it’s best to approach this movie fresh. I will say that, with the exception of one scene—and you’ll know right away what it is—the first hour-and-ten-minutes of The House of the Devil is very leisurely. There are a lot of conversations, characters waiting around, and scenes of Sam exploring the Ulman’s house. What West does with his screenplay and direction is to infuse the languid pace with the small emotions of dread and uncertainty, which are more compelling and relatable than the kinds of scares one might expect from movie with this title.

As I mentioned earlier, the real story of The House of the Devil is the authenticity Ti West brings to the production. It is set in the 80s and is the purest homage to 80s horror films I’ve seen. When directors nowadays claim that they want to capture the “classic” vibe of that decade’s horror movies, that usually means ripping off the worst elements of the worst movies (namely flooding the screen with gore and breasts). West has taken a novel approach: he’s made a movie that not only looks and feels like it came out in 1983, he’s made one that refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator.

The obvious first clue is the wardrobe. Costume Designer Robin Fitzgerald and Hair Stylist Brenda Bush capture that era in fashion perfectly. Again, they don’t parody the look of the times; they re-create it with love and obsessive detail. It helps that Jocelin Donahue bears an uncanny resemblance—in some scenes—to a young Margot Kidder, whose heyday was right around the time the film is set.

Coupled with West’s choice of camera, lighting, and even the title sequences, this movie feels like it was released almost thirty years ago, rather than last Fall. It is a bit jarring to see Sam bouncing around the Ulman’s house wearing a clunky Walkman looped to her belt, but that’s a simply a matter of disbelief that, today, she could have lost a similar device at the bottom of a small purse.

Technology—or the lack of it—plays a minor but interesting role in The House of the Devil. I don’t know that West had a message for the audience, but he certainly wanted to point out how different communication is today than it was in the 80s. When Sam raves to her girlfriend about the new apartment, her friend whines that she wishes she could’ve seen it; in a 2010 movie, Sam would’ve began the conversation by scrolling through a gallery on her iPhone, and the girls likely would’ve never even looked at each other during the whole discussion. There are a number of scenes, too, where a cell phone might’ve come in handy—and it’s nice to see a film in which there isn’t some lame exposition about bad reception or someone leaving their phone behind.

I also loved that the characters in West’s screenplay talk and act like real people. Modern movies about and aimed at teenagers are crammed with bad, hip dialogue spoken by idiots; it used to be that the “smart” one survived while the horny, moronic friends perished, but it’s now harder to tell the difference. In this movie, Sam and her best friend act like young adults; they’re sassy, sure, but they talk in complete sentences and don’t call each other “bitch” all the time. Call me old-fashioned, but I like that.

The House of the Devil is not a perfect movie. The last twenty minutes are okay, but not nearly as effective as the rest of the film. Tom Noonan, who earlier on made a delicious villain, is reduced to Menacing Chasing Guy. And I think the big reveal that leads to that chase could have been handled more smoothly. However, the final shot and the last line of dialogue are great, and reminded me of the end of the novel, Fight Club.

While I am a big fan of this film, I really hope it is a one-off. The last thing I want to see is a rush of “vintage” horror movies. This was a noble experiment that succeeded, for the most part, and I think other filmmakers could take a cue from Ti West; not that they should latch onto a gimmick and see it through, but that there is still a market for intelligent, suspenseful movies that don’t insult the audience with cheap characters and cheaper scares. I would like to think that West has given us a look into the future of gripping horror movies by forcing us to re-examine the past.