Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday Reviews: Shutter Island and The Last Station

Trust me that I realize that my site would profit from more reviews and more quickly written ones, especially when I manage what for me is the unusual feat of seeing a major release with an opening-night Friday crowd. If you're looking to build attendance stats for your movie site, that's how you do it, but I trust it's obvious by now that I'm not a big traffic chaser. Still, I'd have loved to have had time this weekend to write up more of what I had to say about Shutter Island, and maybe I still will, but for now, it's high time to get cracking on stealing someone else's good idea—that is, following the recent cue of a critic I idolize and at least give you short glimpses of where I am with what I've been seeing lately. So:

A farrago, sometimes in a way that's easy to indulge, but you still wind up uncertain which makes less sense: the bonkers narrative we think we're watching (though we're never exactly fooled) or the climactic explanations. As if the gangrenous photography isn't off-putting enough, the disastrous marriage of over-plotting to self-undermining "suspense" becomes awfully hard to take. About two flat or wobbly performances for every solid one; only Clarkson remains fully unscathed, but Haley, Levine, Lynch, and Meryl's former detox roommate Robin Bartlett at least acquit themselves. Sadly, a horrible case of reverse-proportion mandates that the actors with the largest parts give the weakest performances, including yet another limp outing from DiCaprio, who's starting to seem Swankish: i.e., nearly irredeemable unless every single other element is working perfectly around him, which it certainly isn't here. Soundtrack lets us know how it would sound if you used an entire sequoia as the bow for your cello, and is overmixed and appallingly literal to boot, though I did like the death-crawl version of Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth" oozing over the final credits.

Production design is both over-elaborate and annoyingly unclear. One crucial location has been selected for maximal difficulty of access in case you’re a paranoid schizophrenic fugitive attempting to sneak in, but it sure involves a lot of trouble for other folks who need to get there, if only once. The worst kinds of red herrings, like a bad case of creeping palsy in a film whose conflicts should be cognitive, set in at exactly the most dunder-headed moments, as when a character is about to perform heroic acts of impromptu rock-scaling. Logical outrages aside, emotional claims verge on zero. Film finishes with a 10-minute sequence by a lakeside that manages to be gratuitous in the two worst ways: narratively unnecessary, since we already know what's happened, and supremely untactful, since it comes across as an exercise in killing off some kids and letting some actors over-emote their reactions to obscene events, dotingly repackaged as thrill-ride climaxes. But if you think that's bad, wait till you get to Dachau. Between the garish and cheap interpolation of the camps as backstory and the dada obsession with callow or meaningless citations of other films (by Powell and Pressburger, by Hitchcock, by Antonioni, et al.), I think we can assume that Scorsese is a Basterds fan. Which, from me, is no compliment, but at least Tarantino's movie has (misplaced, inconsistent, bloodthirsty) guts. Shutter's just got ghosts, including the specter of whatever this Cadillac cast and crew must have thought they were joining forces to make. D+

Intriguing to learn that Tolstoy was so explicitly deified in his own lifetime, to the extent that woodland communes of ascetic, self-sustaining disciples accumulated around his estate. That is, if this is even true: The Last Station is one of those relentlessly artificial and tedious arthouse dandelions that you entirely stop trusting, right around the time it decides that a cafeteria-quality romance between James McAvoy and Kerry Condon is as interesting as the deeper but oddly muffled dynamics between the Tolstoys, and that embarrassing boudoir talk between Mirren and Plummer is a merry substitute for facing the complex ties of ambivalent matrimony. Not for this movie to plumb the only interesting questions it ever raises, which are about those impromptu cults and about staying committed to a partner that no one else can stand. The film pushes its august performers into purple, bowdlerized versions of the subtler characterizations they'd surely have preferred to offer, and subsists on its own thin-gruel diet of overly literal dialogue, garish lighting, literal mustache-twirling, and on-screen captions that provide such odd cues as "Moscow, Tolstoyan Headquarters." James McAvoy makes off with one very sweet scene of tearful joy at being praised by a hero, all the more endearing since the praise is hardly unequivocal. Everything else amounts to endless shots of actors looking at each other, looking out windows, looking into windows, closing their eyes expressively, and looking yearningly out of frame. About ten minutes total feel remotely "historical." Whole film plays like a Garson-Pidgeon vehicle from the mid-40s, well after the Miniver good will had expired. D

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Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I saw this on opening day, despite some interestingly bad reviews from critics I trust, and I have to say I liked it but I don't entirely disagree with your review.

I think that DiCaprio and Ruffalo were both terrible; Ruffalo has a grimace on his face that lasts for about half an hour for no reason. And DiCaprio just doesn't get any further than "THIS IS WHAT I LOOK LIKE ANGRY."

However, I found Michelle Williams to be truly great in her part, if hardly revelatory. She's been better, and in projects that use her talents better; but I think she's the only one who hits the 'correct' tone in the earlier sequences. She hit a specific kind of creepy and even seduction that might just be part of her presence, but I thought it really worked. And she definitely fared better than DiCaprio in their big scene together.

And your review of The Last Station makes me more hesitant to see it than the presence of Paul "Yet to play a Human" Giamatti. Yikes.

1:07 AM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

If you're not yet a fan of Paul Giamatti, The Last Station cannot possibly turn you into one.

I'm afraid I barely "get" Michelle Williams at all; even her most acclaimed performances in Brokeback and Wendy & Lucy leave me wanting a good deal more, and though I probably appreciated her most in Synecdoche, New York, I more often find her sort of intractably uninteresting, even when I can tell she's making shrewd decisions about her character. This role was so unsalvageable, though, that I really can't lay much blame at her feet.

2:55 AM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

You are, as always, a joy. I couldn't have nailed The Last Station's peculiarly specific awfulness any more precisely than you do with your Garson/Pidgeon comparison.

Even at her dreariest, however, Garson could never have been as embarrassing as Mirren is here -- the entire performance seems to have been conceived as a discontinuous series of Oscar clips, all of them simply, but spectacularly, wrong. (Even worse, perhaps, than the bedroom talk is her hysterical "bitch of a daughter" line reading.)

Will ANYONE (besides Mirren herself, and maybe Taylor Hackford, though that's doubtful) vote for her at the Oscars? Oh, to have the figures.

As for Shutter Island, so much of what you say here is bang-on that you really make me think about why I responded to the craft (especially the not-quite score) as well as I did. But do tell why Patty Clarkson gets your nod of approval -- I kind of had to shield my eyes while watching her, and not in a good way.

6:26 AM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger Joe Reid said...

"Soundtrack lets us know how it would sound if you used an entire sequoia as the bow for your cello..."

Well, now I get to feel bad about myself all day for not being capable of a line that screamingly funny and accurate.

And while I enjoyed Shutter Island well enough in the moment, it doesn't really hold up to scrutiny, especially DiCaprio. I'm somewhat excited to find someone else who finds him overrated.

The acting is indeed a problem (I thought Clarkson was one one bright spot, too; I usually like Michelle Williams, but she severely overcalibrated the character by the end), but I also wonder if we've reached a saturation point on mystery stories like this. We've been so conditioned to look for The Twist, I can't imagine anyone being fooled by this.

8:10 AM, February 22, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm grateful once again. And although the comment are not as lengthy as your reviews, they are enough for us to understand your how you perceived the films.

I haven't seen the films but I will most likely see Shutter Island. I read the book and I want to see it adapted. I think I will skip The Last Station because I don't have enough money to waste on experiments.

offtopic: I recently watched Up In The Air and I'm amazed at the the praise. It's a mediocre comedy that tries to be more serious than that and fails. The scene where he falls in the water? Give me one, two, three breaks!

8:11 AM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I love that you consider these toss off barely reviews at all when they contain so much of note!

you are a marvel.

8:52 AM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger Bill C said...

I could not agree more about SHUTTER, but must co-sign Guy's Patty Clarkson query. She put me to sleep, quite literally.

12:41 PM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger NoNo said...

I have to admit when the credits came up on Shutter Island, the first thing I thought was "What the heck did I just see?' Unfortunately, not in the good Mulholland Dr. way.

Right now, I'm leaning towards agreeing with your review but I'm willing to take in another viewing to catch what I may have missed because of the over-plotting. I'm willing to look at this as more of a character study but Dicaprio's performance may not help with that position either.

3:22 PM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Guy: I'll have more to say about Mirren in a Certain Feature that is due before the Oscars happen in two weeks, but if the whole film had decided it was a bawdy comedy among dislikable people, I'm sure I would have liked it better. She seemed to be lighting the only way out of a hopeless script, which was more than Plummer could find to do, which is not quite the same thing as arguing that I liked the performance. And I agree that it's a perfect emblem of a wasted nomination.

@Joe: Oh, please, you make me laugh harder than this all the time. I do think the saturation with Gotcha mysteries is a problem, but I'm a huuuuuuge fan of Cape Fear and was not expecting Marty to whiff so badly in his return to lurid B-moviedom.

@Dimitris: It heartens me to think that not everyone is tracking everything I've said this season, because I really have been quite the grouch. I can't blame myself entirely, given the movies. But suffice it to say, I'm wholly on your side about Up in the Air.

@Nathaniel: Aw, you're sweet. Do I hear a little Paris Is Burning?: "You is a marvel!"

6:07 PM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@NoNo: Thinking more about the movie hasn't helped it much, even though I suspect that some of its perceived problems (the transparency of its biggest twist, for example), will probably not look like "problems" for very long, but will be accepted as major premises of the piece. I'm assuming he wasn't trying to hide the revelation all that hard, given that Leo's shiproom in the opening scene is a pretty stock asylum in and of itself... still, not only has more thinking about the movie not really helped, it's only made me wonder, doesn't Scorsese want to stay out of the business of making movies that you go back and rethink? He's always better at soliciting profound sensory and moral reaction in the moment than at constructing intricate plot-puzzles to be subsequently pored over.

@Bill and @Guy: Wow, two thumbs down for Patty. I'll give you the wig, and the awful setup for her scene (rat hole! rat hole! Cassandra of the cliffsides!), and I still don't think it necessarily belongs in her Greatest Hits clip reel. But I really appreciated her acerbic impatience with Leo/Teddy (I wish Ruffalo and Williams had been more peevish with him, rather than trying to whinge him into seeing the world as they did). I bought her dethroned-aristocrat, bamboozled-professional, railroaded-woman approach, since she didn't insist on it too much; she's not asking the audience to like her because of what's happened to her, but she's pissed about what's happened to her, which gives her a dramatic point of view (something sorely lacking, from my POV, in almost any other performance). And she's way past being freaked out or scared by the Goings-On - she's just revulsed. I hope I'm not only betraying default sympathies when I compare my reaction to her to my response to Tilda in Benjamin Button: a little island of believable human encounter amidst an unbearable sea of Storytelling Concepts and mostly self-enclosed cameos and supporting performances that barely connect with the lead.

But, that's just me. :)

6:17 PM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger Robert Hamer said...

Your reviews are so hilariously brutal sometimes, always finding the right amount of perceptiveness and snark to make your observations cut to the bone. I think we need to give you a serial killer nickname (The Bad Movie Butcher? The Sub-Par Cine-flayer?) after this double-whammy.

While I have absolutely zero desire to see The Last Station, I'm going to give Shutter Island a shot, between Guy's kinder words for it and my general affection for all things Scorsese (well, except maybe Kundun...and I guess Gangs of New York let me down), I just can't give up hope.

6:20 PM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger Nick Duval said...

Personally, I liked DiCaprio in "Shutter Island" and I thought the movie itself was well-told and I even liked the "cliff scene" just because it spiraled off into a different direction (as my friend said, bizarre), but I thought the ending was "philosophical" and the weird "law of 4" (with chart) and Andrew Laeddis epiphany scene was weird and confusing. You have to give Scorsese credit for flipping the plot around that many times. But I understand where you're coming from. Also, do you remember that execution shot (from the very overplayed Liberation of Krakow section)? Where the camera pans during an American executing? That was one of the best I think Scorsese has ever done, no lie. Powerful stuff.

And for "The Last Station," I agree with you: they should have milked out more of the Tolstoy part. It could have been some insane, near unbearable marriage trauma film, and (as I would agree with my friend) that would have been much more entertaining than what it was. Still, Helen Mirren is my pick for Best Actress this year. And Plummer was good.

6:23 PM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger Nick Duval said...

Oh, and the ending of "Shutter Island" also was somewhat of a ripoff of "Memento."

6:29 PM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger Babs Johnson said...

Ok, after reading these I am really hoping that you post a Lovely Bones review one of these days...'twould be delicious

8:17 PM, February 22, 2010  
Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

Still sorting out how I feel about Shutter Island, which I loathed and loved at the same time. But meantime, I'm happy to see a shout-out for Robin Bartlett, who I thought was best-in-show. That reading of a frazzled, terrified interior was probably the most unnerving thing about a movie already filled with some pretty unsettling, dubious imagery.

11:08 AM, February 23, 2010  
Blogger Evan said...

Enjoyed the reviews as always. I have to admit though to liking "Shutter Island" a little more than you (and seemingly almost everyone else here) even though I think pretty much all of your criticism is dead on.

Despite (or maybe because of) the bizarre goofiness of the whole thing I was mostly enjoying the ride for the first 2/3rds until it started becoming more and more apparent there was no way to tie up all the loose ends (of a twist we all had seen coming) without a long, painful explanation scene. I did not guess, however, that Kingsley would actually need the aid of a flip chart for the explanation.

It seems that in this post-M. Night Shyamalan world Hollywood thinks that simply supplying us with a twist is enough. Nevermind if it's well constructed into the screenplay and rewards on future viewings (which I agree this almost certainly will not).

Somehow this defense of sorts of a movie I often enjoyed watching has turned into a condemnation, but I think that just backs up your thoughts that maybe Scorsese should stay away from movies that ask to be "subsequently pored over" as this one is obviously not holding up to the scrutiny.

It seems that every new review of "The Last Station" is further urging me not to see it. I think sometimes those oddly become the movies we're most curious to see (ahem "Lovely Bones") because we want to know if they can really be as bad as we've heard- or maybe more interestingly- what exactly makes them so bad. I may still take the leap and see this one, I'll see how masochistic I'm feeling this week.

4:31 PM, February 23, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Robert and @Babs: It's true that I'm not great at holding back when I'm rankled by a movie, but I actually don't enjoy writing them all the time. I am dying to reverse this recent trend where I'm just not impressed by most of what I'm saying and am determined to cast a light on some better, more inspiring stuff with my next few reviews. Thanks for enjoying these, though!

@Nick: I'm not really a "give credit for flipping the plot around that many times" kind of guy. I mean, what's the point, unless there is a point? And in the case of Shutter Island, the point utterly eludes me. That tracking shot during the Dachau scene certainly called attention to itself, and it's at least in keeping with the kind of stroke that Scorsese can usually pull out of his pocket to inject some energy into a pedestrian scene, but here too, I have to ask, why? And why does one of the frozen bodies look so conspicuously like Kate Winslet?

@Yaseen Ali: I'm glad to hear that Bartlett found another fan in this film. She's doing well under adverse circumstances, even within a short scene where the discontinuous editing calls such unhelpful attention to itself (drinking glass / no drinking glass, etc.).

@Evan: Well, you know I'm a believer in testing out plenty of movies that I suspect won't quite "click," so I can't really stop you. And if you wind up liking The Last Station, I'd love to hear why!

The flip chart / anagram moment near the finale of Shutter Island truly was a soul-draining instant.

12:22 AM, February 26, 2010  
Blogger Catherine said...

I saw Shutter Island last night and I was horrified to overhear umpteen politely-hushed middle-age couples mumuring about how good it was and how layered, and how well it would hold up to repeat viewings, as we all shuffled out of the theatre. I was on my own, so I had nobody to complain to and I was sorely tempted to strike up a conversation with the couple behind me to see just why they thought it was a decent film. I'll admit to being slightly won over by the overly-schlocky B-movie elements - that hilariously relentless score and the rapid editing, DiCaprio's over-egged "Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd" accent, the torrential weather, Ben motherf'n Kingsley - and I was all set to sit back and enjoy a ridiculous slice of rubbish. But then we saw Dachau. Oh, man. I was actually repulsed, and embarrassed, by Scorsese's blatant misreading of what may or may not be appropriate for this type of popcorn flick. For the record though, I'm firmly on Clarkson's side - for one horrible second when we first see her, cowering and hiding the knife behind her back, I thought she was playing her character pitched at some terrible "amplified-lunatic" level, but then she calmed down and I saw what she was doing. I appreciated how dangerous she felt, without having to rely on any of the superficial tricks or props that some of the other actors were granted.

2:03 PM, February 26, 2010  
Blogger notanotherblog said...

Chiming in late here, but yes. Patty is the best thing in that movie for letting herself go to the extreme of crazy instead of trying to oscillate from sane to insane like everyone else.

1:13 PM, May 18, 2010  
Anonymous RespectfullyDisagree said...

Certainly this is after the fact, but I stumbled across your review and I felt that I needed to say that I couldn't agree less. Shutter Island was a terrific movie, a real contender for film of the year in my humble opinion. DiCaprio's performance was once again excellent, and he continues to prove that he is one of the most impressive and talented actors in modern film.

You and most of your readers appear to have missed the fact that the movie was an exploration of a deteriorating mind. Or was it? There are a number of ways to interpret the film, and it is so expertly constructed that even on re-viewing you see that each interpretation is confoundingly plausible. You have chosen the derisive, cynical response, but I just think that's such an easy path to rush down.

This is cinema at its finest, and the rewards for those who are willing to embrace it are immense.

10:14 AM, August 08, 2010  

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