Brain-bending “Shutter Island” a stunner despite faults

Cat, meet Mouse: DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kingsley star in the imperfect but riveting "Shutter Island."

Dry land, no matter where it’s located, offers some measure of comfort — a feeling of solidity, a foundation for the feet. Water does not. Its mysteries are limitless. Martin Scorsese means to capitalize on this elemental human fear early. Does he succeed? Please. The combination of the gray sky, choppy waves, an ashen-faced detective (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the score — which pulsates with supernatural menace — is dynamite. In these opening scenes, Scorsese yanks us around like marionettes. We’re right where he wants us.

He keeps on yanking throughout this long-delayed, atmospheric Gothic thriller/film noir send-up, perhaps having a chuckle as we labor to wrap our minds around the gnarled plot — much of Dennis Lehane’s tightly drawn novel is retained — and reason out characters who are beyond reason. “Shutter Island” is one of those films where everyone is hiding something; each line of dialogue seems designed to reveal everything and nothing. Listen, in particular, for Deputy Warden McPherson’s (John Carroll Lynch) greeting to the two federal marshals just off the boat: “Welcome to Shutter Island.” His eyes are a little teasing, but his tone says without saying: “You don’t know what you’re getting into.” Scorsese structures “Shutter Island” so that we don’t, either.

Here comes the tough part. To reveal too much of the plot would be criminal, so restraint will be the name of this game. No doubt you’ve heard lots of murmurs (some disgusted) about a twist; do not let anyone reveal it. Two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio, proving again he’s grown to deserve leading-man status) and Chuck Aule (a meh Mark Ruffalo) hop a ferry to Boston’s Shutter Island, the grim site of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (Sublime character actors like the ever-creepy Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson get cameos.) It’s their first case together, and they’re an odd pair: Teddy’s a visibly haunted man while nothing sticks to the low-key Chuck. They believe they’ve come to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), locked away after drowning her three children. Though no one at Ashecliffe can or will explain her disappearance, chief psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) has a theory. “It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls,” he says. Kingsley’s slight smirk is cause for a few lost hours of sleep.

The investigation may be a sham. Patients and hospital staff may or may not have been coached. A recovering alcoholic, Teddy, still reeling from the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), may be a reliable or an unreliable protagonist. Rachel Solando may or may not have had help escaping her tiny, barred-in room. The only certainty is there is no certainty. So “Shutter Island,” essentially, is 138 minutes of known unknowns wrapped in a damn stylish package. Little Did He Know noir throwbacks rarely looked this good. The predominantly gray, chilly colors — of the island, the hospital itself — provide a terrific backdrop for such a twisted story about twisted people. Shots of Ward C, home to the most dangerous offenders, show a Gothic castle of untold horrors, where every corner is dark and puddled. Here “Shutter Island” very nearly swerves into horror territory. It comes closer with Scorsese’s envisioning of Teddy’s dreams, so bright they shatter the grimness. Not unlike Dario Argento in “Suspiria,” Scorsese uses the camera like a paintbrush, splashing rich reds and golds and greens against Ashecliffe’s walls and the island’s rocky shores. If despair is dingy, then horror is technicolor.

Sometimes the artistry goes too far at the expense of other elements. There are enough continuity errors as to be distracting (one stopped me cold during a white-knuckle scene). The music occasionally overpowers the characters — about whom, by the way, we learn virtually nothing. They are foreboding (Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring is downright spine-chilling), and yet their emotional impact is nil. Even Teddy, whose story we come to know and whom DiCaprio imbues with repressed grief and palpable heartbreak, only registers faintly. Then again, “Shutter Island” isn’t out to warm our hearts. The film means to play brains and emotions like piano keys, and it does. And in a psychological thriller? Sometimes that’s more than enough.

Grade: B+

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Swing-o-things

Ah, it’s good to be back. How nice it is that the Internet is right where I left it!

M. Carter @ the Movies has been derailed briefly by a death in the family (Granny Emo, life’s going to be leaps and bounds less colorful without you around) and accompanying family get-togethers, but I hope to start back reviewing in the next few days. And this reviewer’s dance card is mighty full: “Shutter Island” (imperfect but I loved it anyway); “Set It Off”; “Julia”; “Onibaba”; “A Serious Man”; and more.

The only good thing about being away from movie films for any length of time? Separation just made my heart grow fonder for them.

An Interweb walkabout

Hello all! I’m interrupting this weekend of sadness — whoever put the “fun” in “funeral” didn’t have all his marbles rolling around — to give a shoutout to Kai B. Parker, new blogger extraordinaire at The List, who was so kind as to ask M. Carter to join a group post about hidden gems. You can read the post here, or click on the photo.

Here’s to hoping I can squeeze in a quick viewing of “Shutter Island” tomorrow…

Review: “Bright Star” (2009)

In this age of limitless Internet, online dating and instant gratification, “courtly love” has become a foreign concept … if anyone remembers it at all. (There’s a chance the English majors will keep it alive.) But Romantic poet John Keats, whom tragedy seemed to shadow, couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Neither, it seems, can Jane Campion. The New Zealand director’s “Bright Star,” a gorgeously lensed film about star-crossed lovers Keats and Fanny Brawne, is a love letter to a bygone era. Fret not that “Bright Star” is so out-of-touch as to be boring; it crackles with wit, energy and sexual tension. Some qualities never go out of fashion.

Understand upfront that “sexual tension” does not translate to “lots of sex scenes” and you’ll go far in understanding what makes “Bright Star” smolder. Sex is nowhere to be found. But forbidden passion, or passion tucked into the day’s hushed corners, is far more potent than even the steamiest beast-with-two-backs encounter. Of course, it helps if the undersexed lovers in question can generate real heat. Abbie Cornish (Fanny) and Ben Whishaw (Keats) can and do, right from the start. A plucky student of fashion, she has no need of poetry but feels a spark of affection for Keats, her next-door neighbor and a struggling poet. (This part is historically accurate — critics crushed “Endymion” upon its release.) She dispatches her younger sister Toots (Edie Martin) to fetch Keats’ book with this message: “My sister has met the author and she wants to read it for herself to see if he’s an idiot or not.” Who can resist a girl with gumption like that? Keats is a goner; the fun part is waiting to see how long until he realizes his heart’s lost to the cause.

At first, Keats isn’t sure how to take Fanny. She makes no bones about her distaste for poetry, yet there’s a softness in her that takes him by surprise: she embroiders a pillow slip for Keats’ brother, dying of consumption. Cornish and Whishaw are marvelous in this scene, sadness and tentative hope playing on their faces. Fanny says she’s entranced by the beginning of “A thing of beauty.” Her insistence that he teach her to understand poetry works and he warms to her — so slowly he realizes his affection only after his roommate/reader Charles Brown (a scrumptiously rakish Paul Schneider) jokingly sends Fanny a valentine. Reality quickly bursts their love bubble; Keats is sick and penniless and knows he can’t provide for Fanny. “I have a conscience,” he tells her, and Whishaw lets his anguish boil over. Fanny and Keats suspect their story’s finale will not be a happy one, but even in the 19th century love didn’t listen to reason.

Given the true ending to Keat and Fanny’s affair, “Bright Star” could have ended up a wailing melodrama that wallows in its own misery. While Campion does touch on the tragedy, she’s not interested in recreating “Romeo and Juliet.” She focuses instead on creating a vivid tale of first love and its transformative powers. In the process, Campion also creates an artful portrait of 19th-century Hampstead. Her attention to detail leads to some breath-snatching shots: Fanny, in a violet dress, reading poetry in a field of irises; Fanny and Keats kissing on a blanket with the rippling reeds behind them. Then there’s the best shot of all (one you’ll miss if you blink) of Fanny lying on a white bed with the white curtain swirling in the breeze of the open window. Visual poetry exists in this that struck me senseless. It’s a scene that somehow illuminates Fanny’s confusion over her growing passion for Keats and her rapture.

What a treat it is that Cornish, Whishaw and Schneider don’t get lost in such shots. A superb character actor who deserves more parts like this, Schneider’s boorish charm nearly excuses his spotty accent. Whishaw handles himself well in a demanding role, embodying Keats’ hopeless fight to reconcile what his heart wants with what his head knows. Cornish, however, is the clear standout. She is fierce and vulnerable and enchanting; she turns one of poetry’s best-known muses into flesh and blood. “Bright Star” indeed.

Grade: A

A bang or a whimper?

“SHUTTER ISLAND”!

 

The showdown between expectation and reality begins tonight…

Jeff Bridges radiates in lackluster “Crazy Heart”

Jeff Bridges embodies the ache of a drink-drowned life in "Crazy Heart."

Country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) would smoke three cigarettes at once if he could, and after a few hours of daylight boozing he almost does. Mostly Bad just uses the smoldering butts to light new ones, a constant effort to busy his mind with nicotine. A man like that has a lot of hard stories in him, and any one he lets out is one you want to hear. Bad’s got a way of making everything sound like pearls of wisdom even when he was too drunk to learn his lesson.

A part like this requires a certain kind of actor, and that happens to be the kind of actor Jeff Bridges has been throughout his whole career: mumbly voice, weathered, closed-off face, tired eyes that look distant but take in everything. From Barney Cousins to Michael Faraday, The Dude and beyond, he has been finding the minute details that make his characters as long as he’s been playing them. Bad Blake may shame all the rest, and the role will be the one that wins the actor the accolades that have eluded him. Should Bridges nab that Best Actor Oscar, forget all the chatter about it being some placating “Lifetime Achievement Award.” He’ll deserve that statuette based on Bad Blake and Bad Blake alone.

Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart,” adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel, is a showcase for Bridges, and don’t let anyone tell you different. He’s the center of most shots, the man everyone else orbits around (though Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farell don’t waste their parts). And because he has such presence, that almost excuses some of the film’s more obvious flaws, like the underwritten secondary characters, the overreliance on twangy background music (not to be confused with Bad’s excellent concerts) and the recycled story, which sometimes feels like “Walk the Line.” (In fairness, the Bad Man Uplifted by Good Woman’s Love tale is older than time.) Unlike “Walk the Line,” “Crazy Heart” opens at a low point: Suffering that perpetual day-after-yesterday syndrome late-stage alcoholism brings, Bad’s broke and reduced to playing bowling alleys, the only places people still recognize him. His fans don’t get their money’s worth, since he plays so loaded on McClure’s he mumbles through every song. His refusal to bend to Nashville trends makes him a dinosaur; however, his more successful protégé Tommy Sweet (Farell) hasn’t given up. Tommy wants Bad to write new material, but with five marriages over and no life to speak of, Bad figures he’s got nothing left to write about.

Into this spiral appears Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe single mother and freelance writer who wants to interview the musician. He latches onto her as his beacon of goodness, and her 4-year-old son Buddy (Jack Nation) gives him the shot at fatherhood he gave up 24 years ago, when abandoned his own son. Down is the only place this affair can go, naturally, yet Gyllenhaal generates so much spirit and warmth that she doesn’t seem like the crutch/muse/stray-collector Jean’s written to be. Through her eyes we see a flicker of life in Bad’s eyes. When he drawls “I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look,” her attraction to him feels … warranted. Farell, too, takes his flat character to higher levels, playing Tommy not as a showboating poser but a genuine talent with respect for his mentor. Only Robert Duvall, as Bad’s longtime confidante Wayne, seems wholly wasted. 

Acting aside, there are other things “Crazy Heart” gets right, like the cinematography (the stunning, arid landscapes of Texas, Santa Fe and Arizona give Barry Markowitz plenty to work with) and the music. Nobody bests T-Bone Burnett at churning out to-the-marrow gems like “Fallin’ & Flyin'” and the achingly exquisite “The Weary Kind.” Songs like these have a slow, whiskey burn doing down, and they cannot exist separately from the film. They are the film, and so is Bridges’ performance of them. Whether he’s singing “I used to be somebody / Now I’m somebody else” or “this ain’t no place for the weary kind,” he’ll crack your heart right open. You couldn’t stop him if you tried.

Grade: B-

My name is Carter, and these dudes wanna fight me*

Everyone’s favorite warring fellows, the Boys Ross, have invited M. Carter @ the Movies and The Mad Hatter to celebrate Oscar season with — what else? — some feelings-hurtin’, in-your-face, no-holds-barred fisticuffs over at the Metro Film Fight Club. Click on the photo or this link to jump into the fray, and do kindly leave a comment or two (warning: it takes awhile on Metro’s site) to salve our wounds. Let the verbal beatdowns commence! 

*Oh, a “Get Carter” reference! How delightfully clever and original. I’ve NEVER heard that one before.