RIORI Redux: Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” Revisited


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The Players…

Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson and Max von Sydow, with Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and Ted Levine.


The Story…

US marshal Teddy Daniels’ latest case takes him to a forgotten corner of New York’s fog-shrounded waterways. His assignment? Investigate the disappearance of a patient from a hospital for the criminally insane. But not long after landfall, it appears to Teddy his efforts are going to by compromised by the evasive resident psychiatrist…as well as his disturbing visions.


The Rant (2013)

Ever experience déjà vu? You know, that feeling of uneasy familiarity, like you’ve done this or that once before? Of course you have. You’re having it right now. You’re reading another one of my screeds here at RIORI buttered with my signature ribald, snappy repartee. Welcome back!

Seriously though, before I delve into the déjà vu enigma some more, I think I need to clarify something. These reviews were reserved for films that “had a dubious reputation or lacked box office mojo.” Shutter Island definitely did not suffer from a lack of mojo. When all was said, done and tallied, this little film walked away with over a hefty $128 million at the box office. This little psych-thriller here had a budget of around $80 million. Not bad. Didn’t hurt that it was directed by Scorsese and starred his current protégé DiCaprio.

What did hurt Island in my view is based on this story I heard from a friend of mine. Let’s say she had an interesting experience when seeing this movie in the theatre. Seeing. Not saw. As in “during the movie proper.”

Hm. BTW, we ain’t talking about yelling at the screen as if the actors can hear, or some nabob yakking on his phone. We’re talking about a dissatisfied customer. If any movie, successful or no, could upset a viewer in frustration then the movie gets the autopsy here. That and another buddy of mine insisted I see it and blog about it. You’re welcome, Rios.

So anyway, here’s what she told me:

It was your typical Friday night out at the multiplex. The big deal release at the time was Marty’s Shutter Island, which I heard was Marty’s first psycho-thriller (Cape Fear doesn’t count. That was a remake). The turnout was big—full house. My friend found a seat at the back of the theatre; that what was left that night, the place was so packed. It inadvertently gave her the cat’s bird seat to witness what would transpire later on.

About halfway through the film, a patron, obviously displeased, got up and shouted to no one in particular, “Does anyone f*cking get what is f*cking going on in this film?!” This outburst generated a bigger audience reaction than the action of screen. He threw his popcorn to the floor, spat out a few more profanities and promptly stormed out of the theatre. I think she mentioned something about even Leo losing his motivation. One could make the argument that Scorsese’s latest film succeeded in creating psychological tension, but I don’t think that’s what he had in mind. Well, for the sake of this installment it sounded like a dubious enough rep for me.

Sigh. I wish I had gotten as torqued as that angry stranger in the darkness with his strewn popcorn.

I too, after sitting through this movie, had similar sentiments. And a feeling of déjà vu. I had seen this movie before. Or at least, this kind of movie. And despite the trademark storytelling verve Scorsese imbues into most of his movies, Island was based on very few original plot lines.

But before I get all bitchy, first here’s the good stuff.

I don’t know who the location scout was for the movie, but they did a brilliant job of finding an ideal setting for madness. The whole sanitarium compound has a great, Lovecraftian feel. Craziness dripping from every pore. Even the main characters seem a little…off, as though a reflection of the island’s inhabitants. Slow tracking shots makes whole scenes seem isolated from reality. You really can pilot Teddy about the complex with the sense of solitude. And not the kind you want. Creepy is the watchword.

There’s some brilliant editing, especially the flashback sequences to Teddy’s army days and wife’s tragedy. Things seem to flow pretty well also, albeit a bit quickly. At certain points some scenes seem rushed, especially when Teddy and his sidekick Chuck (Mark Ruffalo, who is a solid presence) are casing the joint. Speaking of acting, Kingsley’s performance is at his most sinister here, vacillating between paranoid and professional. This is a guy who you can’t f*ck around with, because he can see all and know all on the island. Shiver.

Second, the bad stuff. The main offense? This film is unoriginal. I could not shake that feeling of déjà vu watching it. I knew that this kind of story has been told before, and not just in the typical, snobby, “there are only so many plots out there yadda yadda blah.” No. I had seen this movie before, a dozen different ways. The best and immediate example I can recall is with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I could cite quite few more films (without revealing the plots) that have used the exact same formula that Island employs. Angel Heart for one. The Machinist—which I reviewed here before—is another. The whole psychological “lost time” gimmick has been used with varying degrees of success before. But it has been done before. You would think Scorsese would have figured that out by now.

Shutter Island suffers greatly from déjà vu. This all had been done before. And it’s a real shame, because there’s a great deal of capital Q quality in this film. The acting’s good. The casting great. The atmosphere is suitably creepy. But the film lifts dozens of tropes from other films that may have done it better. It doesn’t make sense knowing of Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of film technique that he cut Island the way he did. Maybe he was just f*cking around, nodding and winking to Hitch. I hope so, rather than f*cking around at the audience’s expense, not unlike represented by the anonymous, angry filmgoer’s philosophy. As for me, the only “lost time” I got from this movie was 2 hours and 18 minutes.

So…

Ever experience déjà vu? You know, that feeling of uneasy familiarity, like you’ve done this or that once before…?


Rant Redux (2019)…

This movie was another recommendation by a co-worker who got hip to what I was doing online (no, the legal, orangutan-free stuff) and threw me this curveball: namely a film wrote and directed by an esteemed, successful director starring his latest protege, an esteemed and successful leading-man type guy who was once King of the World. Sounded promising. I like Marty’s films, and Leo has been a sturdy character actor for over a decade even before Island hit theaters. And a noir mystery to boot? What would go wrong?

Quite a bit. But not with the movie; within the blogger’s palsied mind.

You saw how I was playing up the deja vu aspect of both the film and my impression thereof? Kept bitching I’ve seen this before, this type of plot. I was right, but not in a cynical sense. Observe:

You ever see a film you just didn’t “get” upon your first viewing? Yeah, sure, the flick was all right, but you walked away wanting. Something felt amiss, unsatisfying. And some imp of the perverse kept poking your temporal lobes insinuating that you (dum dum dummm) missed something? You dolt, you should’ve never refilled your Cherry Coke at the soda fountain at the beginning of the second act, but that super-fangled thingamadoo has over five jillion soda options where could concoct tonics that have no place in nature you don’t give a sh*t, right. But still, orange-cherry Sprite with almonds!

But I digress. We’ve all seen films like that. They make us feel stupid. Not insulted like whatever sugar-coated bile Michael Bay keeps conning the general public into consuming. No. Movies that make you second guess. On the whole, I kinda like that. It’s usually a good film that makes you question it, rather than question yourself, “Lord, what have I done?!? Will the sun come up tomorrow? Will they cancel breakfast? And who is they anyway? Mommy…” When a good movie makes you feel as if you missing something, you may have well did…for now. Give it a moment, an hour, a week. It’ll come to you.

Me? Got a few examples. Might’ve mentioned the phenom before. Like with The Blair Witch Project. The final scene stumped me, until I was perched on the end of my bed, wondering what the f*ck did I watch last night? That guy REDACTED when the camera crapped out. I sat up. I remembered earlier in the film.  I solved the puzzle without rearranging the stickers. I got it. In the endgame it wasn’t a waste of a ticket and I ain’t that so dumb after all, Jenny.

Perhaps you like the cut of my jib. You get it. Ain’t it fun? Here’s another one: when me and my stepkid watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo for the first time. Vertigo is considered Hitch’s finest achievement, ‘tho it took years for the dilettantes to play catch up. The stepkid was into murder mystery films at the time, so I set up a double feature of Vertigo and Read Window. After watching Vertigo we did a double take at each other. We didn’t get it. It wasn’t bad, but there was something amiss. Oh, well. I plopped Window in the machine shortly after (saw it many times over already. Yes, I set her up) and she really dug it. But Vertigo challenged us, and we didn’t “get it” outright. Oh, fie.

Took me half a damned year to trip the tumblers. At our time of viewing, Vertigo usurped Citizen Kane as the best American movie ever. I was baffled as to why…until I got it. If you are familiar with the demented comedy stylings of the late, great Andy Kaufman, then how Vertigo delivered its package might be analog to the Man On The Moon’s pranksterism; the joke was always on you. Once you figured that bit out, and you weren’t a blockhead, you got the joke. Hitch was f*cking with your sense of reality with Vertigo, and therein lay the mystery to be solved, which was impossible. Did this all happen, or was Jimmy Stewart so delusional that he didn’t know he was delusional? Terry Gilliam’s dystopian time travel movie 12 Monkeys followed the same line. Quite well I may add.

Lastly, and since we’re deconstructing a Scorsese film, his apology Oscar awarding winning The Departed pulled a fast one. In the final scene how did Dignam know to  REDACTED  Sullivan? It might’ve has something to do with all that journaling REDACTED did and ultimatly got mixed in the mail. I caught The Departed in the theatre with a pair of my low-life buddies, us scratching our heads over how Dignam knew? We nodded assent in confusion and headed out to our respective cars to head on out to our choice watering hole to further dismantle the film.

It dawned on me a mile down the road. I caught up with them at the immediate red light. I honked and they rolled down their window, “What?!?”

I rolled down my window, sat on the sill and hollered at them: “It was his REDACTED!”

They screaming in forehead-slapping laughter, and we tore out of there. Good night spent. I needed a new seat belt thereafter. Thank God for duck tape and crossed fingers.

Now. Speaking of both Hitch and Marty, we arrive at Shutter Island. This is what I missed the first time out. I missed this: homage. It took me an eon to realize that Island was designed to be an homage to both film noir and Hitchcock. Which is why, to me, it felt so familiar. So deja-vu. Sorry, Rivers. I was unfair, and needed the edge of my bed for a little.

That being said, here’s what I learned seeing with a well-squeegeed eye: Island is a tribute, an homage, an experiment regarding “The Master Of Suspense.” To say that Scorsese is a film historian as well as acclaimed director is akin to describing oxycontin as “relaxing.” The man’s a cinematic encyclopedia; he’s done his research. Again the reason that Island gave me deja vu upon initial viewing was because, well, this kind of story had been done before (eg: Hitch’s Vertigo, as well as Nolan’s Memento, Welles’ The Third Man and a good chunk of the Jason Bourne movies): displaced hero stuck in their own imagination and everything, everything may or may not be a delusion. On a very basal, relatable tableau there was an ep of Star Trek: TNG (quit groaning) entitled “Frame Of Mind” where Cmdr Riker was trapped in a nightmare of his own making just to anchor himself to reality, which he a bit of trouble crawling out of. Our Teddy Daniels is cut from the same bolt as Riker, Scotty Ferguson, Leonard Shelby, “Harry Lime” and Matt Damon/Jeremy Renner/Joey Sack O’Donuts whatever. It’s a good device, which is why it pops up in so many suspense films. Marty understood this trope, gave it his own spin, smiled and hoped you liked it. Once I crawled out my arse and smelled my poop, I got it.

I guess it goes to say that a smart director knows his way around a tried-and-true suspense device like displaced person-or-persons unknown. And it took a dumb, rube movie critic to catch up.

Gonna smack him upside his melon when I see him next.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overrulled: Rent it. I again say sorry, Rivers. I got it now. A technical, loving tribute to Hitch well done is always a treat. That doesn’t mean I want my mind f*cked over every time. I’m still recovering from Detective Pikachu.


Next Installment…

We thumb through the Silver Linings Playbook again to find (shocker) the blogger was trying to hoodwink you. What Standard?


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 8: Sam Raimi’s “Oz, The Great And Powerful” (2013)


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The Players…

James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King and Tony Cox.


The Story…

Circus magician and professional scoundrel Oscar Diggs is magically transported to the Land of Oz. Mistaken for the prophesied wizard send to vanquish the three witches manipulating the land, Diggs reluctantly uses his illusionist skills and resourcefulness to become the savior the residents have been hoping for. Hell, beats the circus racket, as well as all those piles of elephant poop.


The Rant…

I’ve never been much for fantasy films. The Lord of the Rings trilogy never caught my attention. I’m not a Game of Thrones viewer. A good portion of Disney’s bread-and-butter animation films are lost on me. I recently went to a viewing of Maleficent (the kids dragged me to it. Oh, the burdens of dadhood) and found it meh. My brain just isn’t wired to go along for the ride amongst dragons and wizards and elves and the rampant pixie dust imagination of your average male sixth-grader (admit it, a Piers Anthony book is kicking around in your attic somewhere. Admit it!).

Of course there are always exceptions. There’s gotta be, otherwise you have nothing to measure the silly against. I’m an unabashed fan of How to Train Your Dragon and when the sequel comes out this summer, me and the stepkid are gonna be at the multiplex already frothing with popcorn. The Neverending Story of my youth was pretty cool, and still holds up to this day, even with the Kajagoogoo soundtrack. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a perfect film (don’t argue). Ah yes, and of course, there’s The Wizard of Oz.

The movie has been pleasing audiences for 75 years now. 75! Its songs alone are the earworms a thousand musicals later to contend with, no part in fact to Judy Garland’s pipes. Its ridiculous Technicolor sets are so beyond gaudy they’re mesmerizing. And the acting’s pretty good too. It’s not really a fantasy film at heart—it’s a Broadway musical gussied up with a big budget and ever bigger sets. It’s kind of laughable now to think that Oz was a flop at the box office. It was, and only through the miracle of television that the movie is now heralded as the classic it is today.

Why do I mention all this crap and what relevance does it have on this week’s movie selection (besides the prequel crap, and the setting, and the characters and the you get the idea)? Based on the above goodies from the original, you can’t get lightning to strike twice, no matter how hard you try. Yet I don’t think director Raimi was really trying to recapture the childish wonder of 75 years past. He’s an eccentric filmmaker (read: Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies), and with an odd view of the world through the camera lens lends itself to making some pretty odd movies; curious and demented movies this side of Tim Burton (and at least Burton tried to make weird relevant). Raimi’s vision of Oz was less than a wondrous fantasyland of munchkins and ruby slippers, but more of a fever dream acid trip of he demanded the world of Oz should be. This film wasn’t retconning the original Oz, but rather blazing a trail through weirdness, childhood be damned. Actually, it was more like stomping a trail down the yellow brick road…


Oscar “Oz” Diggs (Franco) is a middling circus magician circa the early 1900s. He’s less of a magician and more of a con man, a rapscallion and an self-entitled, self-important buffoon. Always scheming to get a bigger piece of the pie, grabbing the most desirous of women, demanding the spotlight and (surprise) never wanting to get his hands dirty. He’s always got his head in the clouds, just waiting for that lucky break that’ll escalate him to his notion of “the big time” and out of his penny ante outfit. His dreams may be big, but Oz’ prospects are small.

One day, after a particular nasty run-in with the suitor of one of the many naïve girls Oz tries to woo (I gotta gets me a few music boxes), he escapes his rightly deserved beating by hitching a ride in a hot air balloon. His getaway is clean, until he gets scooped up in one of those unpleasant Kansas twisters (a twister, Dorothy!) and thrown clear over the rainbow.

Oz lands in a multihued landscape of bizarre creatures, exotic flora and Mila Kunis doffed in scarlet. Where the hell is he? Why, fans of the first film knows this is the merry old land of Oz, and Oz himself is naturally confused as well as delighted. This world shares his name, as well as what the witch Theodora (Kunis) tells, also a prophecy foretold by her sisters. A wizard will arrive from lands afar to rescue the citizens of Oz from a very wicked witch (this world seems to run lousy with witches) as it is written. Guess who’s the lucky contestant?

Of course no hero should go so foolishly into battle without some trusty friends in tow. After saving his life, Finley (Braff) the flying monkey pays a life debt to Oz and will be his trusty servant, whether his wants it or not. And after demonstrating some of his “magic” to the crippled China Girl (King), he gains a rather delicate of body but strong of heart cheerleader in the best sense. Finally, Glinda (Williams) the Good Witch (continuity!), who naturally leads the trio along on their quest to the straight and narrow.

Now Oz the Great, as he’s been shunted into the title, must now not only be worthy of literally living up to his name, but also let a little humility into his ego while simultaneously using his cunning as an illusionist to stop the spell of dark magic from corrupting the land of Oz…


From the get-go Oz has Raimi’s eccentricities firmly in place. The prologue alone is a good primer for any of his works. The cartoonish nature of his lead, the rubbery dialogue and, of course the outlandish nature of the plot going joyfully off kilter. All we need now is Bruce Campbell (wait! We do! Let’s play “spot the cameo!”).

Oz sure is a pretty film. There is heavy duty CGI going on here, like all the sets were designed with Prang in mind. It’s almost a bit too much to take. But there are nice touches with the analog bits that do the original film justice (I’m a sentimental sap). The movie tries to match the explosive brightness and kaleidoscopic fever dream that was the original film. It succeeds in many places, but it’s like there’s too much green screen. Is it intentional? It makes the movie appear kind of pulled from a comic book, that or a Maurice Sendak story. Thanks to that splash there is an oddly organic plot development following along here, and since it was based on a mishmash of L Frank Baum’s books (a more accurate interpretation of the writer’s somewhat brooding series), Raimi played fast and loose with his colorful toys.

On another hand, the acting’s a lot of fun. I mean a lot of fun. It’s the best thing the film’s got going. Raimi has a knack for bringing out the best in his cast, and Oz is no different. Franco here is equal parts charming and greasy, sporting the classic “I’m not from around here,” manqué personality. He’s got a good endearing vibe around him, despite being a charlatan. After all, his trip through Oz is a kind of voyage of self-discovery, and discovering who you are and who you can truly be is the classic stuff of fairy tales. He’s a thief with a heart of gold, but it takes time to see it.

Braff and King’s characters are the yin-yang to Franco’s hero. Braff is amusing as Franco’s aide-de-camp. He’s not funny (not like John Dorian funny, but close), but amusing, adding just a touch of empathy for our dauntless Oz. Then there’s the tragic figure that is China Girl. King’s voice acting is so sweet and heartbreaking as the voice of Oz’ consciousness you gotta have a heart of ice to not be touched even a little bit.

I think the three actresses playing the witches—Kunis, Weisz and Williams—are the trifecta of cool. They’re kind of like a more benevolent trio of Weird Sisters, a la Macbeth. All three steal the show, even if it takes Kunis’ charater to play catch up in the third act of the film. Glinda was pretty badass in a gentle way (as well as respectful of Billie Burke’s iconic role), whereas Evanora chews scenery with aplomb. Some pretty cool witches I say.

One of Oz’ biggest issues is that, well, there’s no sense of wonder here. It’s just a thinly veiled action movie. The fantasy ends with the aforementioned backdrops. However there are those moments, which echo the original film that make this version seem worth our attention. Oz is a lot of contradictions rolled into one story. It might puzzle the casual filmgoer not acquainted with Raimi’s style of cinema, but it can entrance as well as repel, kind of like the smell of gasoline (how’s that for simile?).

Like with my list of fantasy films I could get behind, it’s hard to distance yourself from the spell of nostalgia in giving this film a frank assessment. Ostensibly, this is a kid friendly movie. On another hand, Raimi’s left of center humor as well as direction shove the film into the right of the PG-13 crowd and up. It’s always about what is lacking rather than what is fresh, and which may or may not be better, and the audience Raimi is aiming for here is rather schizo. I dunno. Oz left me scratching my head in places and cheering in others. But it wasn’t terrible—there were far too many redeeming factors in the acting that could excuse the plot. I guess all I can say was I wanted a modern day taste of what the classic three-quarter century years young classic did to me when I was a pup.

Right. Being terrified of flying monkeys.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It ain’t half bad. It’s definitely entertaining in a rather difficult way, but fun nonetheless. Just don’t expect any true movie magic. Or songs.


Stray Observations…

  • “I think green is my favorite color.” Directorial meta?
  • Yep. Flying monkeys are still freaky, and not that funny.
  • “Let’s go kill ourselves a witch!”…tra-la-la. A keen example of Raimi’s style of humor. Sorry kids.
  • Does Danny Elfman have to score only weird films? He does a great job, but it’s not gonna win any Oscars. He might be onto something.
  • “Remind me to show you sometime.” Smooooth.
  • “The only person you can’t fool is yourself.” And that’s one to grow on.

Next Installment…

We head off to the red planet courtesy of John Carpenter (yay!) to go bust the Ghosts of Mars.