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Column Fri Feb 19 2010

Shutter Island, Ajami, Oscar Shorts, Creation

Shutter Island

As he creeps toward 70 years old, Martin Scorsese still has a few tricks up his sleeve. There was never any doubt in my mind that the guy was still in one of the most creatively vital periods of his long career, but that didn't prepare me for what he gives us with Shutter Island, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone; Mystic River) and adapted by Laeta Kalogridies (Alexander). Borrowing a bit from some of the great mental hospital-set films of old, with a dash of Hitchcock mind games, Scorsese has given us a true mind fuck of a movie that I think needs to be seen at least twice to be fully appreciated.

I say "appreciated" and not "understood" because I think the plot is clear, if not straightforward. What you'll appreciate upon repeated viewings are the lengths that Scorsese goes to to manipulate and lull you into a false sense of understanding who people are and what exactly is going on. From the film's first scenes of Leonardo DiCaprio's Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arriving on the island off the coast of New England that houses the most dangerous of the criminally insane, Scorsese is guiding us and essentially controlling our minds as only a true master can. I know this film was pushed from a release date of last November, and for the life of me, I can't figured out why, because if this had come out when it was supposed to, it would be a serious awards contender. But I digress...

Set in 1954, the plot involves the two marshals coming to the federally run facility to investigate the disappearance of a female patient/prisoner. The facility's personnel, led by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as doctors, as well as Ted Levine as the warden and John Carroll Lynch as the deputy warden, are somewhat cooperative but they are clearly unhappy about having these outsiders on hand. Scorsese casts a shadow of doubt across every character that floats in front of his lens, and everyone is dealing in half truths, so that makes the guessing game all the more fun. If you're able to figure out what exactly is going on before all is revealing you are a better filmgoers than I, because I did not see some of this stuff coming at all.

I recommend you walk into Shutter Island with as open a mind as humanly possible because some of the turns might be considered outrageous in someone else's hands. But Scorsese and DiCaprio know each other too well at this point to let things get ridiculous (they sure as hell flirt with it a few times). It becomes clear that Marshall Daniels has a dark history--including a run as a solider in WWII and the tragic death of people close to him--that has turned him into a short-tempered, occasionally violent man. And there's a prisoner on Shutter Island that he has some unfinished business with. It's a race to see what builds up faster, the tension or the number of questions.

I love that Scorsese has filled nearly every role--big and small--with actors you will know. Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, and an especially powerful performance by Michelle Williams as Daniels' wife (seen only in flashbacks), all have something great to add to this production. I'm willing to bet that even if you don't buy into everything that happens in Shutter Island, you'll still appreciate Scorsese's kind of crazy. It's so complete and visually warped that you can't help but be impressed. It's tough to go into detail about the film without ruining some of the splendor of discovering it yourself, so I'll shut up and just unwaveringly recommend that you check it out a couple times, if only to be sure you saw what you thought you saw.

Ajami

Considering how many films I see in a given year, it always stuns me when the Academy Award nominations are released, and somehow there are only one or two titles in the Best Foreign Language Film category that I've actually seen--in this year's case, The White Ribbon from Germany, which will likely win if more recent awards shows are any indication. By the time the Oscars are given out, I'll have seen three of the nominations in that category, and all three are equally worthy of being nominated. The Israeli entry, Ajami, shook me to the core and gave me one of the clearest pictures I've seen yet on film of just how incendiary and near-impossible to resolve the situation in Tel Aviv, a part of the world where three religions--Jews, Christians and Muslims--have been attempting to live as neighbors for decades. Through a series of five interconnecting stories featuring characters at every level of society, from young men and women simply working to survive to police officers to refugees, Ajami (a Jaffa neighborhood) paints a portrait of violence, desperation, and fear. This is a place where every death must be paid back with another death, and somehow this brutal cycle passes for justice.

Directors-writers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani do a remarkable job showing us certain key events from different perspective, each one more tragic and heartbreaking than the next. But they manage to do so without pointing fingers or judging even the most unforgivable actions. And while Ajami deals with some of the less-than-reputable aspects of living in Tel Aviv, most of the key characters are good people trapped in catastrophic circumstances not of their making. Much like some of the better works coming out of Brazil and Mexico in the last 10 years, there's nothing false or melodramatic about the stories being told in Ajami; the storytelling is clear and manageable despite the many timelines, characters, and plots. This is as good an example of powerful and poignant storytelling as you'll see all year. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Oscar Shorts

Clearly, this is a good week for Oscar-nominated works getting theatrical releases. As they have for a few years now, the nominees for Live Action and Animated Short Film are being packaged as separate programs and released to theaters just prior to the Oscar telecast. Sometimes actually seeing the nominees will taint your brain and make you vote for your favorite in your Oscar pool rather than who likely win for political reasons, but it's probably the only time in a given year where you'll bother to see this many shorts in one sitting, so just go. Every one of these entries is good work--maybe not the best I saw in 2009, but still highly enjoyable.

Of the Live Action nominees, my favorite by far is Miracle Fish from Australia. The less said about its shocking plot the better, but it begins with an outcast little boy who comes to school on his birthday, is relentlessly teased by fellow students, hides out and falls asleep in the nurses office, and wakes up to an empty school giving him what he thinks is free reign to roam the halls and eat all the vending machine candy he can steal. Sounds harmless enough, but the payoff is like a kick straight to the gut. The entire program is worth seeing just to get to this one. Coming in a close second is the Irish-Russian co-production The Door, which shows the aftermath of what is clearly meant to be a Chernobyl-like disaster from the point of view of a family being evacuated from their home. The family has no idea what is happening or where they are supposed to go, but when the young couple's little girl begins showing signs of radiation sickness, the reasons don't really matter. The title refers to the girl's father attempting to give her death some dignity by giving her something resembling an honorable funeral. It's almost too terrible and hopeless to watch.

I also liked Instead of Abracadabra from Sweden, about a man still living at home with his parents who dreams of becoming a famous magician and falls in love with the new neighbor lady in the process of achieving his dream. The Indian/U.S. co-production Kavi is well acted, but it feels like it was sponsored by some human's rights organization. And while its message about entire families being held essentially as slaves in Indian work camps (in this case a brick-making factory) is one that needs to be broadcast from the rooftops, the film's obvious agenda undercuts the inherent drama of the story. The most bizarre of the group is the U.S-Denmark effort, The New Tenants, which features several familiar faces (including Vincent D'Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan) is this silly story about a couple of guys that move into the apartment of a recently deceased man and are visited by a succession of increasingly weird and aggressive neighbors each looking for something left behind by the late tenant. The script by famed Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen certainly has a few laughs in it, but I have to believe there were better shorts out there than his enjoyable but disposable work.

Laughs also seem to be the driving force behind many of this year's animated shorts, which features the long-awaited return to Aardman Animation's Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death, directed by Nick Park, who has already won a whopping four Oscars in this category over the years. This adventure features Wallace falling in love with a psychotic bread company heiress. Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty is an amusing CGI story of a grandmother telling a warped version of the classic story to her granddaughter, injecting message of ageism. The Lady and the Reaper from Spain features a struggle between Death and a persistent doctor for the life of an elderly woman. And French Roast is about a man in a cafe who can't pay his bill and comes up with creative ways to delay his leaving the establishment. The last three are certain all quality works with a few laughs, but they don't really carry the weight or originality that I'd expect to see in this category. Not that a Wallace and Gromit film is original either, but at least there's a fully realized plot to contend with, and certainly the inventions those two come up with are unique and blazingly funny.

My favorite in this category is Logorama (I believe from France), which has to be seen to be believed. Set in a world in which every building, vehicle, person, object is some type of logo, the film is a classic cops and criminals scenario, but the cops look an awful lot like the Michelin Man and the gun-wielding baddies bares a striking resemblance to foul-mouthed Ronald McDonald. By the end of the film, the world has become a Roland Emmerich-style disaster movie with logo-constructed skyline and landscapes crumbling down. The subtext is brilliant, and the film is fantastic. You must seek this film out by any means. The creativity at work here is mind boggling.

Now as soon as someone packages the Documentary Shorts nominees, I'll feel like the shorts categories are sufficiently covered. In the meantime, do your duty as a responsible and well-informed movie lover and seek out these two shorts programs, which open here in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Creation

Somewhere in this movie about Charles Darwin and his wife Emma is a great story, but you're going to have to search through miles of extraneous material to get to it in the unnecessarily bloated Creation, from director John Amiel (Sommersby; Copycat). Paul Bettany is quite good as the oft-sickly Darwin who is all-too aware that if he actually pulls together his thoughts and theories on evolution that he would be effectively killing God using science as a weapon. For most scientists, this isn't a problem, but Darwin was not only raised in a religious household, but his wife (Bettany's real wife Jennifer Connelly) is also among the faithful and is caught squarely in the middle of these torn allegiances as much as her husband. But when their eldest daughter becomes terminally ill, Darwin withdraws from his religious roots and turns his attentions to "On the Origin of Species."

The greatest shortcoming of the film is that it devotes too much time to subplots, in particular an excessive number of scenes showing Darwin getting treatments for his various ailments. While the scenes are at times horrific, they don't really add anything to the main stories about the scientist's research or his family relationships. Creation is far from a total failure. Darwin's meetings with other scientists and admirers, including those played by Toby Jones and Jeremy Northam, are really exciting and amusing as they pick apart Darwin's findings and push him to publish and shake the foundation of religion to its core. Martha West plays young Annie Darwin, and the scenes of her being tutored on evolution by her father are exceptional. The two have a wonderfully believable father-daughter chemistry that could have saved this movie were it not for one too many fever-dream sequences.

Once the book is published, much of the story's inherent drama simply evaporates, and what we're left with is a couple simply agreeing to disagree. Fascinating! Maybe that's exactly what happened, but that doesn't make it any more exciting to watch. I'll give Creation credit where it's due. It's a gorgeous movie to look upon and the performances are all great, but somewhere along the line, Amiel gets lost in his own visual style and he sinks the movie's best dramatic moments. It's a close call, but Creation doesn't quite evolve into anything worth traveling to go see, which is what you'll have to do in Chicago if you want to see it. The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park and inexplicably nowhere else in Chicago.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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