Friday, February 19, 2010

One Flew Out of the Cuckoo’s Nest: Leonardo DiCaprio Just Might Lose His Sanity on “Shutter Island”

“Shutter Island” is not “Taxi Driver.” It is not “Raging Bull.” It’s not “Goodfellas.” And thank God for that. Shutter Island is Martin Scoreses like you’ve never really seen him. It’s a film that definitely fits more closely with his most recent works than it does with his gritty flicks from the 1970s. If you hate his later films and think movies like The Departed are a half-asses attempt at Scorsese trying to reclaim his former glory than you’ll probably despise “Shutter Island.” This is a genre-bending film (There’s mystery! There’s horror! There’s suspense!) that fits more along the lines of “Cape Fear.” Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this movie, mostly because if he were alive today, this is exactly the type of movie he’d be making. This movie also reminded me a lot of Kubrick’s “The Shining” with a little bit of the cult flick “Session 9” thrown in for good measure.

Like I said “Shutter Island” is a hodgepodge of what Martin Scorsese loves about the movies. You can tell that there’s an artist at work here and while this isn’t Oscar-caliber filmmaking, it’s proof that every person behind the camera is an expert in their field and have collaborated on making a truly rewarding, and creepy, film-going experience. Again Scorsese uses his new favorite muse Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels. He’s a US Marshal sent to an island to investigate the disappearance of a mental patient. Shutter Island is the home to Ashecliffe Hospital, a psychiatric hospital. The time is 1954 and you know instantly that this place might have treatment methods that are crazier than the patients there. Dr. Cawley (Gandhi himself Ben Kingsley) runs the hospital and has sent for Daniels to help find a patient named Rachel. None of the orderlies seem to know how she got out of her room which was locked from the inside. Like Crawley says, “It’s as if she evaporated through the walls.” Maybe she did and maybe she didn’t. Daniels is joined by his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and the two begin their investigation and the soon realize the island has more secrets than the one from “Lost.”

I simply cannot tell you anymore about the film’s plot. It’s pretty dense but patient viewers will be handsomely rewarded once the third act rolls around. I refuse to tell any more about DiCaprio’s character who has harsh memories of his late wife (played by Michelle Williams). He also fought in World War II and has terrible flashbacks of murdering Nazi soldiers once the Americans were able to raid the Nazi death camps. Are these memories the only thing bothering our hero? Wait and find out. I really found it fascinating as Laeta Kalogridis’ script slowly revealed more and more of the puzzle. And luckily it’s never in a confusing way. And like I said you will ultimately feel rewarded.

Remember I said there were lots of talented people behind the camera all working together? It’s certainly true. Scorsese’s true and talented editor Thelma Schoonmaker is in full swing here with a great cutting techniques that add to the film’s suspenseful sequences. Some of the surreal images are just so beautifully put together and that’s certainly with the help of Robert Richardson’s handsome photography. DiCaprio’s flashbacks are imbued with deep, richly oversaturated colors that literally leap off the screen. I’m reminded of his astounding Oscar-winning work on “The Aviator.” Some shots are so delicious you want to eat them up.

“Shutter Island” is a great piece of genre-filmmaking from one of America’s greatest filmmakers. It’s not surprising that it holds up so well among his recent successes. Don’t let the odd-ball February release date fool you, this is a great and creepy movie that movie fans will just eat up. Sure it’s not “The Departed” but a lot of people thought that “The Departed” was no “Goodfellas.” “Shutter Island” displays an evolving director who is as consistent as he is talented. GRADE: A-

Friday, February 12, 2010

Shock & Claw: The New “Wolfman” is a Howl

Odds are if you liked Tim Burton’s gothic horror tale “Sleepy Hollow” you’re going to enjoy the equally gory “The Wolfman.” It’s been awhile since Universal has released one of their famous “monsters” from the cinematic vaults, unless you count the third “Mummy” film which I can’t say I ever had any interest in seeing. Although I’m a fan of the first one, so sue me. I can’t really even say why nearly every American critic has found this “Wolman” redo such a chore to sit though, what with it’s horrible CGI effects and odd tone, but those are thing that seem to have been embraced by the filmmakers so at least you can’t say they didn’t warn you.

“The Wolfman” takes place in 19th century England, and what a gloriously dark period piece this is. Had this been released in October I’m sure we’d be talking Oscars for it’s production design and costumes, but I’m sure the Academy will forget come next January. Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro in a fine performance) strolls into town when his brother goes missing and his future sister-in-law Gwen (Emily Blunt, love her) is worried sick. It turns out Lawrence has some skeletons in his closet which consists of a estranged relationship with his father John (a wily Anthony Hopkins). It seems Lawrence’s brother may have been the victim of a werewolf attack and soon enough it is Lawrence who will be bitten by the mysterious and scary beast prowling the foggy English moors.

As we’ve seen countless times in werewolf movies (still the best is “An American Werewolf in London”) the hero will realize that after being attacked by a werewolf, he himself will transform upon the next full moon. And like any good werewolf movie, it is the transformation scene which is key. And it mostly turns out right here. Pioneer/genius Rick Baker who won the very first Make-up Oscar back in ‘81 for “American Werewolf,” returns to the genre which made him famous. His make-up effects are good, although there are plenty of CGI touches which I can’t help but think diminish his fine work. I mean he didn’t use any computer effects in 1981 and just think how well this could be done with out computers nearly thirty years later? The contorting and shape-shifting here is well done and the final make-up job is certainly great. That is until Lawrence begins leaping and jumping from rooftops that looks like some leftover footage from “Spider-Man.” I can't believe that even if the filmmakers saw the camp value in the film, they would want silly computer effects. It’s a small complaint in a movie that isn’t really worth making too many complaints about. And I’m worried that the CGI in the transformation scenes will disqualify Baker from the Oscar running next year?

I firmly believe that this film is made as an homage to the classic Wolfman character and yet remains a campy tone with obviously over-the-top gory effects and a classically gothic period look. And it’s no wonder this film reminds me of “Sleepy Hollow” since Andrew Kevin Walker wrote both of them (And although Danny Elfman provides a competent score, it certainly was not one of my favorites). And while there are moments of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout, there are plenty of scares for the weaklings. The movie does however, rely too heavily on loud noises to scare its audience which was thrilling at first, but annoying after the tenth loud noise. The young men sitting behind me seemed nearly out of breath by the time the film ended, perhaps their first R-rated “sneak in?”

“The Wolfman” offers something for everyone in that if you like gore you’re gonna love it. I mean he rips out someone’s liver with his mouth for Pete’s sake. Those attracted to the more traditional horror period pieces like “Interview with the Vampire” will reveal in the lush set decoration and those who are into a fun mystery will enjoy the film’s twisty plot points. This was a movie made to be on a B level and in that regard it is a success. A bloody good time indeed. GRADE: B

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Frost/Bitten: “Frozen” is a Disturbing and Intense Ski Lift Thriller

Having never gone skiing, I’ve never been on a ski lift. I can honestly say that the whole idea of a ski lift is sort of scary. I mean some cheap metal bar is the only thing keeping you “in” as your ascent a huge snowy mountain, aka a cold crag of death. So I can’t much imagine what it would be like to be stranded on a ski lift, at night in freezing temperatures during a snow storm with ravenous wolves circling below me. Of course if you were to see “Frozen” an “Open Water” type situational thriller then you would know exactly what it would be like.

I am a big fan of horror films that take place in one setting, usually in real time where the characters are stuck in a situation and must try to figure out how to survive. Something like “The Blair Witch Project” comes to mind which obviously was a big hit in its day and has seemed to be ignored by modern movie-goers as if it’s uncool to like it. Then came last year’s successful and scary “Paranormal Activity” which was “Blair Witch” for the Twitter generation. “Open Water,” which was a film festival hit and a modest mainstream crossover success, dealt with characters trapped in a situation much like those in the new film “Frozen.” Open Water dealt with two SCUBA divers left behind in the middle of the ocean with hungry sharks circling them. It’s gritty video photography and actual use of real sharks upped the fear factor and was simply gut wrenchingly awful (in a good way) to watch. “Frozen” is similar except for it’s more polished look, and whether you buy into its premise or not, your bound to find it disturbing in some capacity.

We’re introduced to Joe (Shawn Ashmore) and his best friend Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Dan’s girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell). Dan and Joe have been good friends since 1st grade and have always gone skiing together. Their friendship has been sort of waning as of late because Dan has been preoccupied with his girlfriend. Now Joe sort of feels like the third wheel and who hasn’t felt that before? So they decide to go skiing together with Emma of course who is a novice. Since they’re poor college students and or not so smart college students they bribe the ski lift operator to let all three of them on the lift since they don’t have money to buy three tickets. They seem to be having a fun day until they have to bribe the guy again to let them on one last time before the resort closes. Do to bad human judgment and a misunderstanding the chair lift is stopped and our three leads are trapped halfway up the mountain.

This is one of those “they’re just stuck in one spot” movies so if you didn’t like “Open Water” they you may not like this. But this film works because writer/director Adam Green makes the situation as realistic as he possible can. They don’t have their cell phones on them for instance. Why? Because who really skis with their cell phone? And since it’s Sunday night the resort won’t be open until the follow Friday, so that makes things significantly worse. So the three begin to think oh hey the chair lift is stuck, we’ll be going soon. And then the lights are turned off. They try having regular conversations about pop culture to lighten the mood, but soon things begin to get stressful. And then reality sets in. What is soon, “I have to go pee” becomes “I have frost bite on my face and my hand is frozen to the metal safety bar.” Oh and what about those hungry wolves circling below?

I’m not going to lie. There are some disturbing images in “Frozen” and there are things that happen that I would have never predicted. Green does a good job at making a movie about 3 people sitting in a chair suspenseful and intense. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little choked up when two characters must grief along with the stresses of the possibility of freezing to death. Sometimes it’s all hard to watch, and yet you really can’t look away. My eyes were fixed on the screen and whether you think the characters are annoying (I didn’t) you’ll probably gasp or close your eyes at least once. Either that or get a chill down your spine. This is a cool little thriller, in more ways than one. GRADE: B+

Friday, February 05, 2010

Mystery Men: Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are BFFs in the Updated “Sherlock Holmes”

Watching “Sherlock Holmes” made me want to watch Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige.” Maybe it was similarly elaborate production design or maybe it’s because I haven’t watched it in a while. Maybe I’ll make you want to go back and read Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories the film is based on. Either way you’re likely to get something out of this hip and cool retooling of the Sherlock Holmes stories. This film is filled with the typical masculinity pumped into every Guy Richie film. Heck it even has features a shirtless, bare-knuckle boxing scene. The film is carried mostly by the performance of one Robert Downey Jr., who is still riding high off the success of last year’s double whammy of “Iron Man” and “Tropic Thunder.”

I think one of “Sherlock Holmes’” main strengths is the chemistry between Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as his trusted friend/assistant/sometimes roommate Watson. Sure the film teases at the homoeroticism found within their friendship (when Holmes needs Watson’s belt in an emergency he says “don’t get too excited” when he quickly removes it) and it does work. Although Watson is with Mary Morstan but he can’t quite bring himself to ask her to marry him. Holmes meanwhile is sort of a loner, although you wouldn’t quite get that from the film’s marketing materials. You’d otherwise assume he’s some sort of 19th century “player.” He’s not. He’s mostly alone and depressed-looking. Even flirtations with the dangerous Irene Adler (the always lovable Racheal McAdams) are brief.

So what is the big mystery that Holmes and his BFF need to solve? Well it seems that the evil Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) who was hanged for the murder of five women and for practicing black magic isn’t actually dead! He comes back and is killing other people in increasingly supernatural and mysterious ways. Of course there is probably a simple explanation and it’s up to our heroes to figure it out. Blackwood is a pretty good villain and while the film has some moments of humor (I’m not sure I get Downey Jr’s Best Actor Golden Globe being in the musical or comedy category, but he’s obviously good) I’m glad they made villain serious and not some silly caricature. I was genuinely intrigued in what his plan was and how Holmes was attempting to figure things out.

And one can’t help but praise all of the film’s technical merits. The movie was just nominated for an Academy Award for Art Direction and its deserving. The period details seems to be spot on although I wasn’t alive in 1891 so I’m not so sure. But everything looks right. The costumes and sets and camera work are all pretty dazzling. And I really enjoyed Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-nominated score. It’s weird and catchy and perfectly suits the film. I was sort of impressed at how “audience friendly” Richie has made the film as it is about to cross $200 million dollars domestically. He uses a lot of his standard slow-motion action shots (you know like the ones they overused in “300”) but they sort of work and I appreciate all the modern filmmaking techniques to tell a story still set in the 1800s.

Overall “Sherlock Holmes” is a pretty entertaining time to be had. Whether you’ve read the original stories or not you’re bound to enjoy something. Fans of Downey Jr. will certainly be pleased as it’s one of his most appealing performances yet. And it’s good remember why Jude Law became such a famous guy in the first place. So see it if you haven’t, it’s anything but elementary. GRADE: B

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

5th Annual Golden Gallo Awards

Wow how time flies! I can't believe it's already time for the 5th annual Golden Gallo Awards. It seems like only yesterday I was awarding Tom Cruise the Best Performance by a Scientologist Award for "War of the Worlds." What about them Oscar noms huh? And what about those Razzies? I'm thinking Sandra Bullock can pull off 2 for 2. But while we ponder that take a look at this years list of Golden Gallo winners. Congrats to all!

Best Revamping of a Dying Franchise: STAR TREK

Worst Revamping of a Dying Franchise: TERMINATOR: SALVATION

Worst Performance by a Scientologist: John Travolta, OLD DOGS

Most Disturbing Domestic Quarrel: ANTICHRIST

The “What the Heck Were They Thinking” Award: HALLOWEEN II

Best Opening Title Sequence: WATCHMEN

Best Closing Credit Sequence: THE HANGOVER

Film Least Deserving of an Award, Even a Golden Gallo: GI JOE THE RISE OF COBRA

Scene Stealer Award: Christoph Waltz, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Movie Most Likely to Cause Nightmares (in a good way): PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

Movie Most Likely to Cause Nightmares (in a bad way): TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN

The Trailer is Better than the Movie Award: THE LOVELY BONES

Least Obnoxious Child Performance: Max Records, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Most Obnoxious Child Performance: Jae Head, THE BLIND SIDE

Most Gratuitous Use of Bathing Suits: A PERFECT GETAWAY

Best Film Most Likely to be Forgotten by the Academy: (500) DAYS OF SUMMER

The “Or How I Learned to Love a Bomb” Guilty Pleasure Award: THE BOX

The Grease 2 Unnecessary Sequel Award: HALLOWEEN II

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It Award: FRIDAY THE 13TH

The Jaws 3D “I Only Wanted to See It Cause it Was in 3-D” Award: MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D

Coolest Movie Poster Award: TERMINATOR: SALVATION

Best Gunshot to the Head in a Musical or Comedy: A SERIOUS MAN

Best Apartheid Metaphor in a Science-Fiction Film: DISTRICT 9
The Don’t You Forget About Me “This Came Out This Year??” Award: I LOVE YOU MAN

The Ishtar Big-Budget Stinker Award: NINE

Film Most Likely to Cause Insomnia: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

Film Most Likely to Cause Narcolepsy: THE ROAD

Best Film with a Cast Member of TV’s ‘Lost:’ AVATAR

Worst Film with a Cast Member of TV’s ‘Lost:’ GI JOE THE RISE OF COBRA

Best Prop: The rusty scissors in ANTICHRIST

Worst Hairdo: Jonathan Groff, TAKING WOODSTOCK

Best Use of the McGuffin in a Hollywood Blockbuster – The anti-matter in ANGELS & DEMONS
Best Comeback from a Previously Horrid Attempt at Filmmaking – Zack Snyder, WATCHMEN

The “I Did Everything for this Movie” Award: James Cameron, AVATAR

The Michael Bay Total Destruction Honorary Special Achievement Award: 2012

The Golden Gallo Best Film of the Decade Award: ERIN BROCKOVICH

The Golden Gallo Worst Film of the Decade Award: LADY IN THE WATER