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Friday, March 26, 2010

Women Behind Bars

This week on TCM I saw the 1950 Warner Brothers film Caged, starring Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead, and it put me in the mood to reflect on other Women in Prison (or WIP, as they're commonly referred to) epics. Although there were other WIPs made before it, Caged was the first to take place entirely inside such an institution, and it really established the template for those that came after. I'll break the template down for you according to character:

1. The new fish. A young, innocent girl who has inadvertently been caught up in a criminal act and is terrified to be locked up. She learns about life the hard way and is usually released to begin a career in crime of her own by the end of the film.

2. The "boss" of the cellblock. A professional, hardened criminal who is serving serious time and controls the rest of the women in her block. Variations include sapphic lusting for the new fish, corrupt financial dealings with the warden and guards and a last-minute heart of gold. She always has toadies hanging around to do her dirty work.

3. The warden. Either male or female, the warden can be either a corrupt sadist who uses the inmates for sexual and financial reward or an earnest individual struggling against the system to improve conditions. Sometimes gets killed, sometimes ends up behind bars, too.

4. The head matron. Usually corrupt and in cahoots with the cellblock boss. Enjoys psychologically traumatizing the inmates and delivering severe physical punishment when the need arises. Doesn't often get sexually involved, but is typically depicted as a mannish lesbian.

5. The older-but-wiser inmate. She's spent much of her life behind bars. With jaded eyes, she sees the high-pitched dramatics of the other characters as ridiculous, but she has valuable life experience to pass on to the new fish.

6. The delicate flower. Like the new fish, she hasn't been incarcerated for a very long time, but she is unable to handle the rigors of prison life. Trembling and in constant fear, she is easily pushed over the edge, resulting in her suicide or the killing of someone else (often the head matron).

In Caged, Eleanor Parker is the new fish, Agnes Moorehead is the kindly warden and Hope Emerson plays the head matron. Parker and Moorehead are very good, but it's the astonishing 6'2" Emerson who really steals the show whenever she roars onscreen. It's a good film, too, addressing some then-taboo topics, including corruption in the prison system and some brief but delicately-handled same-sex lusting. Parker is an unwed mother (well, technically a widowed mother), and the word "pregnant" is used and—gasp!—you can actually see that she's with child! It did well at the boxoffice, even garnering several Academy Award nominations, assuring the genre would continue.

1955 brought Women's Prison with then-husband-and-wife Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, respectively, as the kindly prison doctor and the sadistic warden who loves to psychologically torture the inmates by wearing feminine clothes and makeup denied to them. A great cast of B-movie vixens, along with Lupino's unabashed hamminess, make it a lot of fun. 1958's I Want To Live! is technically not a pure WIP, as it is based on a true case and doesn't completely take place behind bars, but it is notable for Susan Hayward's Oscar-winning performance as real-life convicted murderess Barbara Graham, sentenced to death in San Quentin's gas chamber. Later in the decade, the drive-in craze spurred by the influential teen population moved the action from prisons to reform schools so that younger, more buxom stars like Mamie Van Doren (Girls Town) could take the leading roles. Nowhere near as hard-hitting as the earlier films, these movies often featured rock 'n' roll numbers by popular acts of the day and just the right amount of teenage titillation.

By the time the more liberated '60s rolled around, sex and sadism became the two major plot points in WIP, initiated by prolific Spanish director Jesse Franco's 1969 99 Women. Pornography was still illegal in the United States at the time, so men anxious to see female flesh both bare and bloody (the "raincoat crowd") would queue up wherever these films were shown. This particularly nasty offshoot of the genre continued for decades, upping the ante as censorship slackened until they became full-on porno with scenes of cruelty and torture thrown in for good measure. An extreme example of this is the notorious Dyanne Thorne Ilsa series.

In the '70s, American producer Roger Corman decided to play catch-up, bringing films like The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House (both starring Foxy Brown's Pam Grier) to American drive-ins. They delivered the requisite nudity and violence, but not as extreme as their European counterparts. They also had a sense of humor. Cage, for example, has an amusing twist—all of the male guards are gay to prevent them from being "interested" in the nubile inmates! Most importantly, Jonathan Demme made his directorial debut with Caged Heat (1974), featuring the incredible Barbara Steele as a sexually frustrated, wheelchair-bound warden and Erika Gavin, from Russ Meyers' Vixen and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, as an inmate.

On stage, John Waters' muse Divine played the matron in the WIP parody Women Behind Bars, which was frequently revived over the next couple of decades.

The 1970s also brought WIP to the small screen. Ida Lupino returned to play another sadistic warden in 1972's Women in Chains, also starring Stella Stevens and Lois Nettleton. Most notorious was the 1974 Linda Blair telefilm Born Innocent, in which she plays a runaway teen whose uncaring parents have her locked up. A scene depicting a shower room rape with a broomstick allegedly prompted a similar real-life assault and so outraged the viewing public that the concept of "family hour" was born. The Partridge Family's own Susan Dey played the new fish in Cage Without a Key in 1975, during a period in which teen idols took on "adult" dramatic roles in TV movies to demonstrate their range. It's amusing to see Laurie Partridge facing the rigors of incarceration. And what a performance—in one scene, she's supposed to be losing control, spinning around to beat her fists against the wall, but you can clearly see she isn't even touching it.

Blair was locked up again in one of the genre's highlights, Chained Heat (1983). Once more playing the new fish, she has a rather embarrassing shower scene and veteran villain John Vernon plays the warden who videotapes his sexual exploits—ugh—with the inmates. Stella Stevens is the butch matron, and Sybil Danning is the cellblock boss. It's wall-to-wall sleaze, and it's a hoot. It's the only WIP I saw in an actual theater. Danning was promoted to warden in the 1986 WIP spoof Reform School Girls, but unfortunately it's never as funny as it thinks it is, despite the presence of The Plasmatics' Wendy O. Williams and Warhol stalwart Pat Ast. It was probably the last WIP to receive a legitimate theatrical release.



Chained Heat Trailer - MyVideo

On stage, Women Behind Bars was revived with Adrienne Barbeau as the warden.

The '90s were a dire time for WIP, with nudity-laden, low-budget sequels being churned out for the increasingy uninterested home video marketplace. A sequel-in-name-only, Caged Heat 3000, was made by Corman's Concorde Pictures in 1995, and it represents the absolute nadir in my opinion. Allegedly set on an asteroid in space, its chintzy sets barely suggest anything other than someone's basement. The silicone budget was much higher than the production costs, if you know what I mean. With endless shower scenes and sexual interludes, it's as explicit as a Hustler spread, but it's not erotic, it's not funny—it's just awful. Recently WIP spoofs have come back to the marketplace. Cult star Mary Woronov played the warden in 2003's Prison A-Go-Go, and most recently, Stuck!, with Karen Black and Mink Stole, has been making the festival rounds. Filmed in black and white, it's a throwback to the beginning of the genre.

So, in a way, the circle is complete.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wacky Werewolves

NOTE: This commentary gives away the entire plot, but it shouldn't stop you from seeking out this masterpiece for yourself.

It's been a while since I gave a celluloid turkey a slapdown, so today I'm doing just that. Our target is a 1996 direct-to-video goofathon, Tony Zarindast's Werewolf.

Who is Tony Zarindast, you may fairly ask? Well, I thought he was a one-shot auteur in the same way that Tommy Wiseau, whose thoroughly incompetent The Room has been playing midnight shows on both coasts for years and developed a loyal, Rocky Horror-style following of bad movie connoisseurs. But alas, Zarindast is a seasoned exploitation director who, although educated in California, started in Iran (he also uses his real first name, Mohammad, from time to time), and came back here in the '70s to make English-language cheese starring the likes of Peter Graves, Sybil Danning, Cameron Mitchell and buxom Los Angeles billboard legend Angelyne. He also likes to write parts for himself in most of his movies.

I don't know how the others stand up to Werewolf, though. While it doesn't quite achieve an Ed Wood-ian level of incompetence, it has a hallucinatory quality all its own. It's very hard to describe the plot, but I'll try. A team of archaeologists, led by Noel (Richard Lynch, who usually portrays heavies) uncovers a human skeleton with a lupine skull in the Arizona desert. This provokes an inexplicable and drawn-out fistfight among the diggers, one of whom is played by Martin Sheen's sort-of-lookalike brother Joe Estevez. During the fight, one of the diggers, Tommy, is scratched by the skeleton and soon falls ill. The actor demonstrates the extent of his illness by panting heavily and looking like his mommy just told him he was a bad boy.

The skeleton is transported to a lab in Flagstaff where Noel reveals to his assistants, Yuri (Jorge Rivera) and Natalie (Adrianna Miles), that they are in possession of the skeleton of a werewolf. Miles, whose sole expression is "deadpan" and English is tenuous at best, says "Whore-wolf?" Anyhow, according to Indian legend, a witch doctor can infect a man with lycanthropy by means of special powders. The infected man will then take on animal-like characteristics, like sleeping nose-to-anus (whose anus he doesn't say), and cause all sorts of havoc. Noel suspects that Tommy may have gotten ill from some of those powders dropped into the burial mound. Meanwhile, at the hospital, Tommy is getting hairier and Yuri draws blood from him in a scheme to create a race of modern werewolves. Why? Who knows? Soon Tommy is fully transformed, attacking a security guard and running out into the night. His friends are waiting for him, armed with silver bullets, and they shoot him down.

At a party, Natalie meets a young writer, Paul (Federico Cavalli), and her libido goes into overdrive. Yuri is furious—he'd had designs on Natalie himself, and Noel boots him from the soiree. Undeterred, he goes to the lab and drugs a security guard (Zarindast himself), injecting him with Tommy's blood. The guard finds himself transforming while he's driving home—and this is the most hilarious scene in the film. You can't make a werewolf driving a car not funny. He's steering just fine, too, but suddenly he throws his hands up into the air for no reason, the car rolls over some barrels that appear out of nowhere, and it explodes.

You didn't think I'd tease you with that description and not let you see it, did you? Here it is! The guard wolf is driving along with Yuri in hot pursuit, looking pleased as punch (Yuri, not the guard). Then, when the car flips, he looks as if he's thinking, "Oh, shit. I forgot that werewolves can't drive."



Later, Natalie brings Paul to the lab to show him the skeleton (after some establishing shots of that famous Flagstaff landmark the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum—huh?) and Yuri is furious to find them together, so he picks up the werewolf skull and whomps Paul with it. Yes, you read it right. A supposedly professional archaeologist destroys a valuable, one-of-a-kind find in a fit of jealousy. Paul is scratched by the skull, of course, and over a series of nights (the moon is full every night, by the way), he realizes he's becoming beastly—and it's not just his acting.

Scenes depicting Paul's struggle with his inner wolf involve showing the shirtless actor laying face-down on his bed and grinding his crotch into the mattress. He attacks a young couple making out in their car and, of course, the girl jumps out and takes off. Her dress is muddy before she falls into a puddle, and although there are about five different screams heard on the soundtrack, none of them come from her. But boy, is the werewolf happy when he's committing mayhem. He smiles and snarls, and his hand gestures (claw gestures?) suggest that he's singing "For Once in My Life."

Yuri and Noel want to cage Paul up at the lab, but Natalie wants to rescue him. Naturally, Yuri is creeping around outside, and the werewolf, at its most rubbery (see picture below) attacks and kills him. Well, at least I think so. You don't actually see the creature ever touch him and they are never in a shot together. Yuri just keeps covering and uncovering his progressively bloody face until he pops his clogs. And the big shock ending is—surprise!—that Natalie is a whore-wolf too!

What keeps Werewolf from being a completely jaw-dropping riot is its pacing. It's rather slow, and repeated shots of the full moon are used to pad out the running time. There are lots of scenes of people walking around. Even a scene in a bar has a lo-o-ong sequence that does nothing more than slowly pan across a mural hanging on the wall! This is not to say it isn't worth watching, though. The goofy parts are what Archie Bunker would call "cherce." Never does the werewolf look like a proper werewolf. Sometimes he looks like a bat, sometimes like the little creep in the Leprechaun movies, and sometimes like a rubber wolf mask. The full-body suit werewolf looks like a big teddy bear. Rivera's hairstyle and color change dramatically from scene to scene, and actors disappear without explanation.

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 gave the film a well-deserved skewering during one of its last Sci-Fi seasons, and you can see it here. If you're a purist and would prefer to watch it as the director intended (ha!), it's easily available on DVD. One version is even paired up with a Corey Feldman masterpiece, Voodoo!

Either way, you must see the Mystied version of the closing credits, during which the gang sings a medley of unrelated songs. It gives you a taste of just how annoying the score is. Combining '80s-'90s style synthesizer with "authentic" Native American music that sounds like it was lifted from one of those tapes you'd buy at a truck stop in the desert, it really adds to the—ahem—horror. Check it out:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Crazy" Weekend

MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS DEPENDING ON YOUR LEVEL OF INTEREST.
Saturday night I caught a showing of L.A. Law's Corbin Bernsen's Dead Air on Showtime. It's about terrorists setting off a number of coordinated biological explosions at sporting events in key cities across America, transforming the people who inhale the deadly fumes into enraged, bloodthirsty killers. Bernsen's former costars Susan Ruttan and Larry Drake pop in for small but amusing roles.

Made on an extremely conservative budget, it has some tense moments and reunites Patricia Tallman and Bill Moseley, who played Barbara and Johnny in the 1990 remake of George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (which director Tom Savini hates but I think is great). Moseley plays a confrontational talk radio host and Tallman is his producer, struggling to stay on the air in a Los Angeles high-rise as mayhem ensues in the streets below. I thought it'd be good preparation for Sunday's viewing of The Crazies, coincidentally a remake of another Romero film from 1973.

Before the screening was a trailer for yet another remake, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, which opened with a title informing us that it was "from producer Michael Bay." Normally that proclamation would make any sane person scream in horror (and not the pleasurable kind), but the Texas Chainsaw remake he produced wasn't too bad, so who knows?

It looks like the new film gives you a bit more backstory about how Freddy Kreuger came to be, but the glimpse you get of Jackie Earle Haley post-barbecue looks like he's still wearing his Watchmen Rorschach mask. Another problem I foresee is that the original Elm Street is a relatively recent film and part of the "home video generation," by which I mean it's always been easy to see since its release in 1984 and even young horror lovers know it well as opposed to being obscure or more than 30 years old. And some movies just don't need remaking—the original is just fine. Remember last year's Friday the 13th? I'm certainly not implying that the 1980 version was a classic by any standard, but the remake was unnecessary and ridiculous.

Which brings us to The Crazies. After the epoch-making Night of the Living Dead, Romero tried to break out in other directions (There's Always Vanilla—a romantic comedy?!?) but soon returned to horror. The Crazies retained the zombie idea (of sorts—the killers weren't dead but just driven insane by biological contamination) and he enlarged the sheriff's posse from Night into a full-on military assault.

The Crazies was barely released and was hard to find for years, apart from occasional television airings and on videocassette from one of the smaller distributors back in the '80s. I don't recall being particularly taken by it, except for the memory of a scene in which a sweet little old lady gets up from her rocking chair and stabs a soldier in the neck with a knitting needle. Someone seems to have been been influenced by it—Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later is a direct descendant in that the antagonists are victims of a biological mutation rather than undead, flesh-eating zombies. Finally, The Crazies re-emerged during the DVD revolution, with Anchor Bay releasing it in 1998 and Blue Underground providing a remastered version in 2003, but it has still never reached the heights of popularity that Night or Dawn of the Dead have achieved.

The remake, directed by Michael Eisner's son, Breck, was warmly received by the filmgoing community and got a pretty good 72% (better than Shutter Island!) on Rotten Tomatoes. It boasts a good cast headed by Timothy Olyphant (Go) as David Dutton, the sheriff of a tiny Iowa town, and Radha Mitchell (Finding Neverland) as his wife, Judy, who is also the town's doctor.

The film begins promisingly enough as a high school baseball game is interrupted by a shotgun-toting local who refuses to obey David's orders to put the gun down, forcing him to shoot the man dead in front of a stadium of horrified fans. Soon, concerned townsfolk are bringing their loved ones to Judy for examination, complaining that "they just aren't acting like themselves." One patient traps and incinerates his wife and young son in their home. More acts of violence ensue and a gang of redneck hunters discover the body of a soldier in the river, prompting David and his deputy, Russell Clark (Joe Anderson) to search for more clues. They discover a large airplane submerged in the water and are puzzled that it hasn't been reported and that no authorities have appeared to recover the wreckage.

David gradually begins to realize that the water supply has been contaminated by whatever the downed plane was carrying, and before you can say "government cover-up" the military arrives to shut the town down. Testing the citizens, they shove people with high body temperatures into quarantine and send the uncontaminated to a kind of concentration camp of their own. Judy is pregnant, and therefore has a naturally higher body temperature, so she is shipped off to the crazy ward. David escapes to rescue her, joined by Russell, who has also managed to slip through the military dragnet.

The first hour of the film, while nothing new, is exciting and well-paced. But after David and Russell retrieve Judy and their young friend, Becca (Danielle Panabaker), it loses its way. Initially offering dramatic promise as the protagonists find themselves trapped between the shoot-to-kill soldiers and the nutzoid townsfolk, there's simply not enough of either and the narrative goes slack. Then the filmmakers seem to wake up and realize the deficiency, so they start throwing in scenes that are neither suspenseful or surprising, with the unfortunate effect that the film has decided to start over again and correct its mistakes. The Crazies are also inconsistent—some are verbal and coherent (except that they want to stab you) and others are standard-issue, bloody-eyed shriekers.

The film becomes unintentionally humorous, too. While David is searching the barn for intruders, he can hear Judy faintly calling his name from inside their house, but he can't hear the huge all-terrain vehicles and schoolbuses driving up at the same time. When the escapees drive into one of those gas station car washes to hide from a military helicopter passing menacingly overhead, they are attacked by ravening townsfolk—and one of them appears to be cleaning the windows! And when Becca is lynched with a hose by the fiends at the car wash and the guys quickly bring her down, Doctor Judy merely weeps over her body and doesn't even attempt CPR, even though she'd only been hanging for about a minute!

Efficiency experts may also want to note that the policemen here practice Just In Time shooting. What I mean is that it's nail-biting and and suspenseful when the killer is slo-o-o-owly approaching his victim and suddenly has his head ventilated by a well-placed bullet, but when this occurs three or four times in the same film, the effect becomes absurd. After Russell sacrifices himself for David and Judy (naturally), they continue on their desperate effort to escape...and it just goes on...and on...and on. Shots of incinerated bodies and pop-up Crazies cannot restart the thrills once they've stalled. And the ending is laughably ludicrous.

I think it's time to put the zombies down for a while. They're getting crabby.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Burton in Wonderland

I know I said I was going to report on The Crazies, but the siren song of 3D and a new Tim Burton movie proved too much to resist, so I saw Alice in Wonderland instead. Though it's gotten a surprisingly weak 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I'm happy to report that it's quite an enjoyable film with humor, pacing and a coherent (if fantastic) storyline. Of course, it still allows Burton to indulge his passion for bizarre visuals, unusual creatures and gothic landscapes.

Purists may object to the liberties taken with the story, which has been reconstructed as a journey of discovery and female empowerment (not as yawn-inducing as it sounds). Mia Wasikowska is a 19-year-old Alice in Victorian England whose free-spiritedness is frowned upon by her family. When she receives a marriage proposal from a doughy, priggish aristocrat, she avoids answering him by running into the woods and falling into the legendary rabbit hole (a spectacular sequence for 3D). As she encounters all the characters that are so familiar to us, they are familiar to her, too—she'd been dreaming about them since she was a child.

Depp, in his seventh collaboration with Burton, makes for a bizarre Mad Hatter, with goggly green eyes and Bozo hair, but the actor doesn't go too far over the top as he did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a film I've already admitted that I despise). Helena Bonham Carter, inflated head perched upon a tiny body, is absolutely hilarious as the Red Queen, whose moods change in the blink of an eye and is constantly screaming "Off with (his/her) head!" Anne Hathaway is also amusing as her delicate and super-feminine sister, the White Queen, who stifles the urge to vomit whenever she must face unpleasantness. Crispin Glover is the kowtowing Knave of Hearts in a mostly thankless role. Wasikowska is fine as Alice, but I couldn't understand why she looked so unwell: pale and drawn with dark circles under her eyes.

The rest of the lead characters are CGI creations voiced by some wonderful talent: Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Timothy Spall—even Michael Gough and Christopher Lee. They're a far cry from the dead-eyed, false teeth-wearing Polar Express-type. I found Fry's Cheshire Cat to be particularly amusing, and Rickman's dulcet tones bring to life the hookah-smoking caterpillar. As Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Little Britain's Matt Lucas at first brought to mind the unhappy memory of the Oompah-Loompahs in Charlie, but fortunately they didn't come off that way. And Spall's bloodhound, Bayard, is so convincing I wondered if they used a real dog and gave him some subtle digital anthropomorphism. The production cost a bundle and looks it. Burton's trademark imagery—twisted trees, dramatically clouded skies, ominous castles—look great in 3D, even though the polarized glasses tend to darken everything.

Many reviewers are complaining about the flatness of the story; others accuse Burton of selling out commercially. I found Alice to be an agreeable melding of Burton weirdness and comprehensible storyline. And what's wrong with that?

Universal has released the 1933 Paramount version on DVD to capitalize on the Burton remake, and though I've never seen it, it sounds intriguing. Paramount's contract players, including Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and W.C. Fields (in heavy makeup based on the classic illustrations) play against hallucinatory, off-kilter sets, said to be created by famed production designer William Cameron Menzies (Gone with the Wind, Invaders from Mars). And according to the New York Times, it draws heavily on German expressionism "to view a cold, grotesque and foreboding adult world through the eyes of a child." I have to check it out.

Other Alice adaptations have been less fortuitous. Disney's own 1951 animated version is one of the least-beloved "classics" in the company's canon. And 1988's Alice, by surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, made me want to scream, although it's surprisingly well-regarded and currently boasts a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes! I like surrealism as much as the next guy, but I guess he's an acquired taste. One that has indications of being so-bad-it's-good is a 1985 television adaptation produced by Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure) and featuring a jaw-dropping cast that includes Sid Caesar, Ann Jillian, Red Buttons, Sammy Davis, Jr., Robert Morley and Carol Channing.

All in all, I think Alice in Wonderland is one of those stories that everyone carries around in their head from childhood and has their own "adaptation," making them prejudiced against any attempt at making their visions concrete in film. But as far as adaptations go—and in 3D!—you could do a lot worse than Burton's reboot.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Scorsese Gets Scary

I went to two screenings at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences this past weekend. One of the films I was ambivalent about, but the other I was anxious to see. Saturday was Brit director Martin Campbell's remake of his 1985 miniseries Edge of Darkness, telescoped into feature film length and tailored for Mel Gibson (attempting to recapture his action hero crown). Retro and Death Wish-y, it features Mel grimacing blearily between "shock" deaths and a slew of corporate villains of the "nyah-ha-ha" variety led by Danny Huston, who really should be wearing an eyepatch and petting a cat. It was nothing more or less than I expected, but it's too boring to provide bad movie fun.

Sunday was the one I was waiting for, Martin Scorsese's new psychological thriller Shutter Island, and I have to say it's a mixed bag. I don't blame the direction, cinematography, production design or acting—they're all excellent. What I do blame is the screenplay. After dangling more red herrings than you'd find at a St. Olaf fish fry, it arrives at a denouement that makes the viewer say..."Oh." Not only do you solve the mystery earlier than the filmmakers would like, it's also a letdown.

Certainly there are pleasures to be had. Scorsese is a marvelous filmmaker, and he clearly relishes taking a stab at this genre. And all the tech specs are superb. The island is an isolated, foreboding place, shrouded in fog when it's not in the teeth of a full-fledged hurricane, and the "extremely disturbed" ward of the mental hospital at which the story is set is a stone-cold, gray building left over from the Civil War that you'd easily expect to find Frankenstein's monster lumbering through. I was excited by the possibility that this was going to be his version of The Shining.

The story, in short: Leonardo DiCaprio (still rocking his Baw-ston accent from The Departed), stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal with a troubled past who journeys to a remote island off Massachusetts to investigate reports of a murderess who has escaped from the Ashecliff Hospital for the Criminally Insane, headed by Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley). Teddy and his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), uncover a series of conspiracies and plot twists that lead them to conclude that the hospital is conducting sinister human experiments for the government. There's more, but I'm not going to give away any spoilers.

DiCaprio, making his fourth film for Scorsese, spends much of the running time looking like he's ready to explode, as seen in the above photo. Michelle Williams plays Teddy's wife, Dolores, who had died in a house fire two years before and appears to him as a kind of friendly ghost, warning him to leave the island. Mark Ruffalo makes for an agreeable sidekick. The legendary Max Von Sydow seems to be having a field day as the might-be-evil Dr. Naehring whom Teddy suspects is an escaped Nazi. Silence of the Lambs' own Buffalo Bill himself, Ted Levine, plays the head warden in what amounts to a cameo, as does Jackie Earle Haley, the Comeback Kid, as one of the inmates in the "extreme" ward. There are lots of flashbacks and fantasy sequences to keep the proceedings interesting, although I have to question the filmmakers' taste in showing the frozen bodies of concentration camp victims stacked like firewood at Dachau for shock effect.

And it's all so very serious. Scene after scene is brimming with import and significance. The audience I watched it with appreciated the very few moments of bleak humor, as when Teddy is interviewing inmates about the missing patient. Here Scorsese reminds us of how great he is at populating his films with interesting characters.

Shutter Island
runs the risk of becoming risible, but it avoids that pitfall. What it does become is boring after a riveting 90-or-so-minutes and you've solved the puzzle. Evidently it's been more or less faithfully adapted from Dennis Lehane's book of the same name, so there you go.

Shutter Island
, while not a total failure, is sadly flawed. It's middling Scorsese, but middling Scorsese is still superior to some of the very best dreck other directors put out. I'm not namin' names, but what's that Chesapeake body of water in Maryland called—and what kind of window do you put in your living room to look at it? Ahem.

FLASH—The loose remake of George Romero's The Crazies opened to surprisingly strong reviews and boxoffice last weekend, so expect to see an analysis of that film on this blog soon.

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