PICKS OF THE WEEK
Shutter Island (A)
U.S.; Martin Scorsese, 2010, Paramount
Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is a horror movie for aficionados who've had their fill of the current psycho-splatter norm. From its first sights and sounds -- the crashing Krzysztof Penderecki chords that cue its classical/modernist soundtrack, and the first sight of the island itself, looming out of the gray day as a ferry slowly approaches it -- this movie announces itself as something different, more classic, even Kubrickian.
The source is a very clever, very scary Dennis (Mystic River) Lehane novel, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder). To me, it seemed a howling success. It's a good genre horror movie and a terrific Scorsese picture as well: a beautifully crafted film with good literary credentials, a brilliant cast and stunning production values, that, while not skimping on blood and guts, doesn't try to shock you with gore so much as play with your head, upset your conception of reality. It's Hitchcockian in the best sense: an old-fashioned movie done with immaculate technique that tries to steep us in mood and suspense, rather than simply jolt us with escalating massacres.
The environment frays your nerves from the start: a madhouse in 1954 at the height of the Cold War. Set on a creepy, forbidding island in Boston Harbor -- an isolated realm of rocky cliffs, crashing waves, an eerie lighthouse and some sinister old military forts, that now houses the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane -- Shutter Island follows two streetwise federal marshals, Leonardo DiCaprio as hard-drinking, sullen Bostonian Teddy Daniels and Mark Ruffalo as steady Chuck Aule (a standup guy who always calls Teddy "Boss"), on their investigation into the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando, a murderer who vanished from her cell.
Something is more deeply wrong here than anyone lets on -- though, seemingly, what could be worse than being trapped on an island full of dangerously insane criminals, as a hurricane approaches? The marshals are reassured about Ashecliffe by smiling, a-bit-too-friendly Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), and his dour compatriot Dr. Naehring (played by Ingmar Bergman's great actor, Max von Sydow).
What follows is a riveting story that keeps playing with levels of reality and sociopolitical tensions, but that, like Shock Corridor, may also be pulling us into a maelstrom of madness. The key to the movie's troubling effect lies in both the stunning production (Scorsese uses Fellini's production designer, Dante Ferretti) and in DiCaprio's superb performance as Daniels, whose wire-trigger temper and rebellious disposition can be read as either paranoia, or as the tough cop's well-founded suspicions of everybody. The cast, which also includes Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas and Ted Levine, could hardly be better.
The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (A)
U.K.; Richard Lester, 1974-75, Lionsgate
The best of the many film versions of Alexandre Dumas great iconic swashbuckling novel of the adventures of dashing French musketeers Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay), and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), and their reckless young friend from the provinces, D'Artagnan (Michael York) -- as they try to outwit the wily Richelieu (Charlton Heston) and his treacherous schemes, battle his murderous cohorts (Christopher Lee), aid the beleaguered queen (Geraldine Chaplin) and foppish king (Jean-Pierre Cassell), and woo various damsels in distress (Raquel Welch) and femmes fatale (Faye Dunaway).
Richard Lester was best known as the director of the two surreally funny, gleeful Beatles movies A Hard Day's Night and Help! when he made these two films (the same continuous story, shot all of a piece, but released separately), both from Dumas' first Musketeers novel. And there's a lot of the scampish Keatonesque comedy of those movies here as well -- as well as contributions from Beatles movie vet Roy Kinnear and Goon Show genius Spike Milligan.
But there's a bit of the darker, sadder lyricism of Lester's Petulia as well, and a flair for exhilarating adventure, sizzling swordplay and gorgeous period décor and costumery that surprised many at the time. The witty screenwriter is George MacDonald Fraser, of the boys' adventure spoof novel Royal Flash (which Lester and Fraser also filmed in 1975) and the Lully-and-Marais-like semi-period music comes from New Wave mainstay Michel LeGrand. The two films are an absolute "all for one and one for all" delight. And who would have thought Racquel Welch had so much pratfalling in her?
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
From Paris With Love (C)
U.S.; Pierre Morel, 2010, Lionsgate
When we think of Paris and the movies, we think perhaps of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. We think of great art in the Louvre, great food in the restaurants, great French cinema in the Cinematheque (Grand Illusion, Children of Paradise, La Ronde), of dreamy walks in the Bois du Boulogne, of songs sung by Edith Piaf or played by Django Reinhardt, of Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly dancing blissfully to Gershwin by the Seine. And most of all perhaps, we think of the City of Love.
Not in the From Paris With Love, though -- however the title may fool us.
Director Pierre Morel's and producer-writer Luc Besson's hyperactive new thriller, with John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as two American CIA guys on a bloody rampage, gives us something entirely different: the City of Carnage and nonstop ultra-violence, of Chinese coke dealers and Pakistani terrorists, of gunfights in the bistros and rocket launcher battles on the freeways.
Morel's and Besson's last movie, the world-wide surprise smash hit Taken -- which I thought was exciting but ridiculous -- also presented Paris as if it were some mix of Dodge City, Beirut and Chicago in the Capone era, with hero Liam Neeson killing bad guys by the dozens. From Paris With Love piles up almost as big a body count. And it's a comedy! (At least partly.)
Morel's Paris becomes a testing ground and training day for would-be CIA agent James Reece, an ambitious, chess-playing aide to the U.S. Ambassador Bennington (Richard Durden, who looks like the dried husk of Lee Marvin), and Travolta's emergency driver/partner/butt-of-all-jokes. It's also a murderous arena for Travolta's character, Charlie Wax -- and it's Charlie who gives this movie most of its entertainment value, and that once more displays, to the max, Travolta's gift for playing psychopaths.
Charlie is a muscular, if somewhat overweight CIA troubleshooter in commando garb, with a black goatee, a chrome-dome bald pate, the acid gab of a very mean radio talk show host, a flair for firing off uzis with both hands, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for drugs, hookers and bloodshed.
Happy Together (A-)
Hong Kong; Wong Kar-Wai, 1997, Kino
Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love) and Leslie Cheung (Farewell My Concubine) were two of Hong Kong's biggest male movie stars when Wong Kar-Wai cast them as bickering lovers, adrift in Buenos Aires, in this intense examination of desire, alienation, self-destruction and betrayal -- winner of the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Wong, and now something of modern classic. It's sad and romantic and scary, and Wong shoots it like a film noir, with many scenes in black-and-white. Cheung, who later came out and committed suicide, plays the older, more vulnerable, lover. Leung is his younger, more reckless and callous boyfriend. The movie is brilliant at catching the evanescent twists and turns of their relationship, as it plummets from dreams of the Iguazu Falls to bloody street encounters.
Wong is a movie romantic, and he isn't any less so when dealing with this volatile pair. The movie surrounds the hell-bent lovers with a world of tango bars and highway quarrels. Wong is always terrific with pop backgrounds, and here, of course the reference is to the Turtles' great ecstatic anthem "So Happy Together," with its chorus "I can't see me lovin' nobody but you, for all my life...." Here the memory of words and music really sting. (In Cantonese, with English subtitles.) (Extras: documentary Buenos Aires Zero Degrees; interview with Wong, introduced by Ang Lee; trailer.)
War of the Worlds (A-)
U.S.; Steven Spielberg, 2005, Dreamworks
Spielberg gives us the ultimate reversal of his blissed out "space aliens on earth" gems E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with this ultimate paranoid space invasion chiller, adapted from H.G. Wells' classic science fiction novel, and with a nod to both Orson Welles' famed radio adaptation and the 1953 George Pal-Byron Haskin movie (whose star Gene Barry, does a cameo here). Tom Cruise is the dad on the run, Dakota Fanning his daughter, Tim Robbins an eccentric on the way. The special effects, of course, are tremendous, and so is the tech support from the usual Spielberg team of Janusz Kaminski (cinematography), Michael Kahn (editing) and John Williams (music).
Heartbreak Ridge (C)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 1986, Warners
Clint aces as raspy-voiced, hard-ass U.S. Marine top kick, in sometimes so-so gung-ho Grenada story. With CE, Marsha Mason and Mario Van Peebles.
Pale Rider (B)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 1985, Warners
One of Clint's Cannes films. A supernatural twist on Shane, with echoes of Leone. With CE, Carrie Snodgress, Michael Moriarity and Chris Penn.
The Gauntlet (A-)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 1977, Warners
A hard-drinking cop and a hooker witness hit a frameup and a mob/corrupt-cops gauntlet of gunfire. Brash, exciting, amusingly over the top, semi-neo-noir stuff, with a (literally) bang-up climax. With CE, Sondra Locke. Pat Hingle.