Monday Reviews: Shutter Island and The Last Station
SHUTTER ISLAND (IMDB)
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+
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THE LAST STATION (IMDB)
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