"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

3 Posts from February 2010


Leonardo DiCaprio in director Martin Scorsese's SHUTTER ISLAND

SHUTTER ISLAND - directed by Martin Scorsese

Shutter Island is the closest thing to a horror movie that Martin Scorsese has ever made, yet it has no actual monsters, ghosts or zombies.  Shutter Island finds its horror in the breakdown of human reasoning: monsters of the mind that wreak havoc with the soul; ghosts conjured from guilt and fear that terrorize and defeat sanity; individual identity torn from the brain leaving a person without freewill and living as a zombie.  Shutter Island, adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, is primo movie material that in an average director’s hands would become pure pot-boiler.  But under Scorsese’s skillful and artistic direction, Shutter Island is an operatic psychological thriller-cum-horror film that is completely compelling until its weak ending.          

The year is 1954.  Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are U.S. federal marshals on assignment to a mental hospital for the criminally insane located in a Civil War fortress-prison on the remote and barren island of Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts.  The marshals are there to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a homicidal female patient, but Daniels has a more personal reason for taking this case; he believes that the man who caused the death of his wife and three children is imprisoned on the island.  Helping with the investigation are the hospital’s two head doctors, Crawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max von Sydow), but Daniels believes the doctors are hiding something sinister.  Meanwhile, Daniels’ nightmares and his migraine headaches induce visions of his dead wife (Michelle Williams), who prods him along his investigation, and horrific memories of when, as an army soldier, he helped to liberate a Nazi concentration camp.  What Daniels discovers is a personal and loathsome horror in the labyrinth prison of his mind.  Martin Scorsese has made a Kafkaesque film that is gripping and unsettling; the creepiness gets under your skin.  Shutter Island is not without its faults, but you cannot deny that Scorsese has put his own unique and passionate stamp on the thriller-horror genre. 

A central theme in many Scorsese’s films is of an obsessive, psychologically damaged man: Taxi Driver, New York New York, Raging Bull, Bringing Out the Dead, and The Aviator are about men driven by fears, desires, and insecurities that either incapacitate them or lead to some sort of dubious redemption.  In Shutter Island, Teddy Daniels’ obsession was hammered into him from external forces that have psychologically ripped apart his psyche.  Daniels unrelenting drive stems from his horrid experience in the Nazi concentration camp and, most significantly, from the abhorrent event concerning the death of his family.  But all is not what it seems as the story unfolds.  Daniels’ visions and nightmares cannot be separated by what he perceives to be reality.  Leonardo DiCaprio, in his best role out of the four films he has made with Scorsese, is charged with zealous electricity and shattering torment as his character attempts to uncover the secrets of Shutter Island and, ultimately, what is buried in his soul.

Di Caprio’s dynamic performance, and the film’s overall tension, is intensified by the insular, haunting milieu that Scorsese creates.  The film simmers with a mounting dread that surely evokes the psychological horror films made by producer Val Lewton at RKO in the 1940s, such as Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur, and Isle of the Dead, directed by Mark Robson.  Scorsese is also clearly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock.  Shutter Island permeates with the type of suspense and subjective cinematic technique that was Hitchcock’s signature.  And Scorsese’s brilliant, long-time film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, cuts the picture in such a way that sustains a nervous edge throughout the film; right down to something as small as Daniels lighting a series of matches to help him see through the dark hallways of the mental facility is edited to create a sense of anxiety.  Robert Richardson’s muted colour cinematography – verging on monochromatic (this film would look even more menacing if it was shot in black-and-white) - washes the film in a brooding, creepy patina, which in turn is contrasted by the hyper-saturated photography of Daniels’ nightmares.

In its narrative, the film suffers from a general sense of emotional detachment, a few scenes of lengthy exposition and a climax that is laboured and eventually predictable.  However, as a mood piece, Shutter Island reaffirms Martin Scorsese filmmaking prowess.  He continues to make sinewy, brawny movies that pulsate with powerful imagery and are touched with a reverence for film history. 


Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in INVICTUS

INVICTUS -  directed by Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood is at the top of his directorial game with Invictus, the story of how South Africa’s first democratically elected black president, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), inspired the country's national rugby team, the Springboks, to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  Mandela, only a few years into his presidency, inspired more than a sports team to win a world match, his scheme was to spiritually reunite his apartheid-torn nation.  The Springboks was much loved by the white populace of South Africa, but despised by the black citizens because the team represented the white bigotry, repression and marginalization of their race.  Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison for his leadership role in the fight against apartheid’s white supremacy.  After leaving prison, Mandela supported reconciliation and negotiation that initiated a transition of multi-racial democracy in South Africa, which lead to the democratic vote that elected Mandela to his presidency.  To overcome decades of intolerance and bigotry in the white population, Mandela knew the old ways of fighting resistance was futile; as John Carlin wrote in Playing the Enemy, the book adapted into the film Invictus, “The way to do that was to bend the white population to his will.”  And Mandela, through his humanity, his political grace and some good old-fashion charm, united a nation on the rugby field.

Invictus (Latin for “unconquered”), refers to a short poem written in 1875 by English poet William Ernest Henley.  The poem is Mandela’s spiritual mantra and inspiration for his survival and, more importantly, for the strengthening of his resolve to bring compassion, tolerance and equality to his nation.  Mandela’s idea of the Springboks winning the World Cup for the good of the country is presented directly by him to the captain of the team, François Pienaar (Matt Damon), the son of a white South African family.  The film follows Mandela as he slowly convinces his dubious inner circle of the importance of his mission and how his inspiring guidance of Pienaar propels the Springboks into a world class team that binds the black and white factions of South Africa. 

There is no surprise as to the outcome of the movie because it is historical fact.  What energizes Invictus is the unfolding realization that Mandela’s beliefs and courage to conquer the unconquerable –that segregated South Africa is a plague only cured by mutual forgiveness, compassion and intelligence – is manifested not by political machinations, but my the passing and kicking of a rugby ball.  A sport’s team working as a singular unit to win a common goal as metaphor for human unification is certainly a cliché, but its power is not diminished in Clint Eastwood’s film version of this remarkable world event.

With over 30 feature films to his credit, Clint Eastwood has carved out an extraordinary and enviable career as a film director.  His visual approach is clean and straight forward, eschewing stylistic flourishes.  It is very much in the league of the great American director Howard Hawks (To Have and Have Not, Red River) who had a lean, crisp directorial style. Invictus is a film solidly told; it is confident filmmaking by a director who is on purpose to tell the story of a man who had a clear, singular and grand purpose.  And Eastwood could not have cast the role of Nelson Mandela any better than with Morgan Freeman.  Freeman always brings a relaxed confidence and intelligence to his film roles and these qualities are at the heart of his portrayal, along with a quiet vulnerability balanced with elegant strength that is the enlightened embodiment of Nelson Mandela.   Matt Damon as the captain of the Springboks is convincingly sympathetic.  He gently conveys initial befuddlement, followed by insecurity and finally towering resolve in his character’s sanctioned role to inspire a rugby team and therefore a nation.  Damon nicely underplays a role that could have been treated with too much swagger. 

My only complaint about Invictus is that it may not adequately convey to young viewers - born after this dark period in South Africa’s history - the meaning of apartheid and how it motivated the urgency and intensity of Mandela’s actions and his bold idea that Eastwood’s film is based on.  Apartheid is clearly in the forefront of Invictus, but its heinous significance is painted  a bit thinly in the film.  Anthony Peckham’s screenplay seems to need a creative clarification of apartheid's intent and result leading up to the story proper.  Aside from this minor quibble about the screenplay, Invictus is a completely engaging, moving and, ultimately, a winning film that champions and challenges human beings to collectively aspire to the best of our humanity.


Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A SINGLE MAN

A SINGLE MAN - directed by Tom Ford

Losing a loved one is painful enough, but compounding that pain with being homosexual in early 1960s America would be too much of an emotional burden for any single man to carry, let alone George Falconer in the hauntingly poetic film A SINGLE MAN.  The film takes place in late 1962, during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and follows one day in the life of a 52-year-old  Englishman (Colin Firth) who teaches at a Los Angeles university and who recently lost his life partner (a touching Matthew Goode) in a car accident.  George's sorrow over the death of his love and the prospect of living alone is so overwhelming that he decides to kill himself.  A SINGLE MAN eschews melodrama for a meditative examination on loneliness in a time when finding a same-sex partner as a life-mate was grounds for vilification. But the themes in A SINGLE MAN transcend sexual orientation.  This is a deeply humanistic film about the need for all people to create intimate, loving bonds without prejudice of any kind.

A SINGLE MAN follows George through his self-imposed last day of life.  He teaches his final class, clears his office, withdraws all his cash from the bank, sorts his insurance papers, buys bullets for his old army gun and liquor to ease his nerves, and neatly arranges letters and money on his home desk for specific people before he shoots himself.  Yet along the course of his meticulous preparations, George experiences powerful pauses in his day consisting of images that represent a fragment of meaning or his desires: the taut muscles of a young man playing tennis; the eyes of a young woman; the perky presence of a little girl wearing a powder blue dress; taking a draw on a cigarette; the attention of an admiring male student (Nicholas Hoult) who slyly expresses his attraction to George.  Life is nudging George to leave the past and stay in the game.  But will he listen? 

A SINGLE MAN is the directorial debut of Tom Ford (coming to film from a career as a prominent fashion designer!) who adapted the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood with writer David Scearce.  The film is not a conventionally plotted narrative, but more like a torch song; a lyrical expression of tragic loss, guarded passion and, ultimately, personal forgiveness.

Colin Firth is heartbreakingly poignant and quietly mesmerizing as the grief stricken gay professor who sees death as his only relief.  However, George's death wish is challenged by the little sights that evoke pleasure or meaning.  One of the best scenes in the film is when George literally runs into Carlos, (Jon Kortagarena) a young, beautiful Spanish man, as he is walking out of a liquor store.  Apologies lead instantly to sexual attraction, so they hangout in the liquor store's parking lot smoking cigarettes and chatting.  Carlos figures this will lead to a sexual encounter, but George, although grateful for the momentary companionship, rebuffs Carlos.  The beautiful sadness in this scene eloquently speaks volumes about George's attachment to the memory of his dead lover.  Firth plays it with a tenderness that is unfathomable.

Juilanne Moore as Charley - George's neighbour, long-time friend and boozy confidante - gives the film a vibrant edginess that nicely juxtaposes Firth restrained characterization.  In an intimate dinner at her home, Charley drunkenly expresses her fear of loneliness and aging and her desire to be with George, but he cannot compromise who he is and he sees her as a sad reflection of himself.  Firth and Moore play this scene with an exquisite vulnerability and it resonates with an uncanny verisimilitude.

To convey George's fluctuating states of mind, director Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau weave flashbacks, dreams and the present-time story with the evocative application of grainy black-and-white and monochromatic photography, contrasted with scenes of smooth, saturated colours.  George's day is as much expressed by Firth's extraordinary acting as it is by the filmmakers' artistic and thoughtful visual scheme and colour palette. 

The one unsatisfying note about A SINGLE MAN is the film's coda; it is predictable and pat and pretentious in its irony.  But this is only a slight bruise on a compassionate film about peace, love and understanding no matter a person's sexuality or age.