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Entries in Shutter Island (3)

Tuesday
Dec242013

The Wolf of Wall Street

There’s no doubt that Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest directors to have ever lived. From “Taxi Driver” to “Goodfellas” to 2010’s underrated “Shutter Island,” he has given filmgoers some of the best and most memorable movies ever created. He is a force to be reckoned with. With that said, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is his most ridiculous and over-the-top movie yet, with a questionable closing message that echoes (in a decidedly lesser manner) the misguided sentiments of 2011’s “Limitless.” Scorsese has always reveled in the illegal, this time tackling the seedy underbelly of the corporate world, but never has he been so forgiving of his subjects. Though it’s not a bad movie (it is Scorsese, after all), “The Wolf of Wall Street” is surprisingly off-putting, overlong and morally skewed.

Based on the true story of a former stockbroker who would do anything to make a buck, even if that meant breaking the law, “The Wolf of Wall Street” follows Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young up-and-comer who starts his own business, Stratton Oakmont Inc., running a penny stock boiler room. With the help of his assistant, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), they soon strike it rich, but the feds, led by head investigator Denham (Kyle Chandler), are planning on taking them down.

It’s a rather simple story for a movie that takes only one tick under three hours to play out—though one could argue the bloated length compliments the thematic exploration of excess—yet in spite of this length, “The Wolf of Wall Street” never drags. The dialogue is sharp and witty and it comes furiously, almost as if the cars from the “Fast and Furious” franchise transformed into spoken words. Labeled as a “dark comedy,” the film is indeed quite funny, at first. Jonah Hill, being the usually hilarious comedian he is (“The Sitter” notwithstanding), brings the goofiness while DiCaprio, in a sharp turn from his usual approach, chews the scenery like he never has before. His over-the-top performance compliments the film’s over-the-top nature.

But it’s that very nature that eventually starts to degrade the film. As the stakes get higher and the circumstances become more dour, the humor starts to fall flat. Rather than acknowledge the trouble the characters are in, the movie makes fun of it, making light of inexcusable behavior. Belfort, though written to be charming and likable, is a scumbag. He’s a liar, manipulator, thief, heavy drug user and womanizer, one who feels the need to sexually molest woman as he passes them by fondling their breasts. The problem doesn’t necessarily lie in his actions, but rather in the way they’re portrayed: as glamorous, fun and acceptable. To put it simply, the writing does its best to gloss over the repercussions of Belfort’s actions. When you’re supposed to be laughing at the destruction he causes to not only himself, but also those around him, you realize the movie has failed to set a justifiable tone.

Perhaps the strangest part of “The Wolf of Wall Street” is its decision to not just glamorize or make humorous this lifestyle, but to downplay the true effects of it so much that it begins to resemble a cartoon, including a baffling sequence where Belfort speaks what can only be described as telepathically to a Suisse banker, played by Jean Dujardin. It comes as no surprise later in the film when it actually makes a direct comparison to “Popeye,” only with cocaine being the source of power rather than spinach. That sequence is just one of many with a questionable message. Further hurting the overall film is its strange and out-of-place alternative soundtrack consisting of bands like the Foo Fighters, who only fit the film’s tonal intentions if you make the unreasonably large leap that the rock 'n' roll lifestyle matches those portrayed on-screen. Aside from perhaps this year’s “The Great Gatsby,” there hasn’t been a soundtrack that fits this poorly to its visual counterpart in years.

Still, with all that said, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s a fairly engrossing one; its issues seem more apparent upon reflection than in the moment. It looks fantastic, its editing is smooth, the aforementioned dialogue is gripping and its supporting cast all knock if out of the park, including an all too brief cameo from Matthew McConaughey, who, even with his very limited screen time, wholly deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination. What it all boils down to is that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a clumsy movie full of questionable decisions and shady messages, but luckily, even a clumsy Scorsese movie is a good movie. Just don’t expect it to blow you away. It’s good, but it’s not Scorsese good.

The Wolf of Wall Street receives 3/5

Friday
Oct082010

It's Kind of a Funny Story

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a movie that lives up to its name. It’s kind of funny and it’s most certainly a story. The problem, however, is that the story isn’t very interesting and when the film isn’t funny, it’s downright boring. It’s about a young kid realizing his self worth in a psychiatric ward that he probably shouldn’t be in. It’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets pretty much every coming-of-age comedy ever made.

The young kid this time is named Craig (Keir Gilchrist—a Justin Long lookalike if there ever was one). He’s an unhappy 16 year old who simply can’t seem to handle anything life throws at him, so he makes a trip to the doctor and explains that he is suicidal and afraid he might try to kill himself. At his request, he is committed to the adult psychiatric ward of the hospital (the teen ward is having work done) where he meets Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), a seemingly normal guy that takes Craig under his wing and helps him to learn to appreciate himself and those around him.

Here’s a movie that fools itself into thinking it’s something more than it really is. It wants to make people laugh, but only succeeds part of the time. It wants to be dramatic, but its multiple subplots are poorly fleshed out. It wants us to care about Craig, but we don't because his problems are no worse than the standard teenager. Early in the movie, he even says that there’s no serious reason for his depression. His family loves him, he hasn’t been abused in any way and he has lots of friends who care about him. His depression stems from things like stress induced vomiting and being single. If that’s the worst his life has to offer, he should consider himself lucky.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story also thinks it is smart. It’s not. Surprising, seeing as how it’s setting is in a mental hospital. Think to movies like the aforementioned Cuckoo’s Nest or even the recent Shutter Island, both of which made some sort of commentary on the human condition, exploring the disparity between sane and insane and scrutinizing society’s definition of each. At the end of Shutter Island, for instance, DiCaprio’s character realizes that he has made a world for himself in his head to avoid the sadness and guilt he felt for the deaths of his wife and children. To him, living with such a tragic memory would be crazy, so he willingly (according to my interpretation) goes through with the planned lobotomy, preferring to “die a good man” over “living as a monster.” It’s Kind of a Funny Story is empty. It carries no similar intellectual weight and offers nothing more than the bland and easy lesson that teaches you to enjoy your time on Earth because “those who aren’t busy being born are busy dying.”

I suppose you could argue that the two main characters aren’t crazy, despite living around those who are, but the movie similarly fails to explore the emotional turmoil and pain that would drive someone to consider suicide. It only alludes to it in the case of Bobby and completely forgets about it with Craig.

While it does have a few other nagging problems, like a random and unnecessary musical number to “Under Pressure,” I hesitate to keep pouring on the criticisms. I didn’t hate It’s Kind of a Funny Story. It has some great moments and Galifianakis capably transitions into a more dramatic role than he is used to (though he still has a ways to go before fitting comfortably). It was an admirable attempt, but ultimately, it left me feeling lukewarm. It’s a close call, but I wouldn’t feel right telling you to dish out your hard earned money for a story that’s only kind of funny.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story receives 2.5/5

Friday
Feb192010

Shutter Island

At the movies, actors are considered the most important to the viewing public because, hey, that's who they're seeing onscreen. Although they do offer considerable depth, films are made by dozens, sometimes hundreds of people. Most do their job off camera and receive little respect for it, even directors in most cases, but not Martin Scorsese. Perhaps the most notable of all living directors, Scorsese has crafted a body work unparalleled in the film world. From Taxi Driver to Goodfellas to The Departed, the man has routinely delivered solid work with films that are largely considered to be some of the greatest of all time. His genius still holds true with his latest effort, Shutter Island, based on the book by Dennis Lehane, a brilliant, haunting tale of morality and mentality that explores the difficulty of living through painful memories and what it means to accept them.

Leonardo DiCaprio is captivating as Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal on his way to Shutter Island, a land mass in Massachusetts where a mental institution rests. Along with his partner Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo, he has been hired to find a missing patient who escaped the previous night. The head psychiatrist of the penitentiary is Dr. Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley, who explains to them that there's no logical explanation for her escape. Her cell door was locked from the outside and the only window is covered with bars. As he puts it, "It's as if she evaporated straight through the walls." After Teddy searches her room, he finds a note that simply says, "The law of 4" and "Who is 67?" As he finds clues, he discovers that not all is as it seems on the island.

However, things don't seem right within Teddy either. He is haunted by his troubled past and the atrocities he experienced in WWII a mere 10 years ago, he is having more and more vivid hallucinations of his dead wife, played by Michelle Williams, who burned up in a fire by a man supposedly held at this very institution and he is becoming increasingly weaker as time goes on. He has even been taking pills provided by the institution workers. Is he being drugged? Are they trying to keep Teddy there? If so, for what purpose? He sets out to find the answers, but must act quickly if he ever hopes to get off the island.

Appropriately, Shutter Island is like a book that you want to flip to the last page so you can see how it ends. The questions it raises linger and never go away, begging you to find the answers and I wanted nothing more than to skip to the end if only so I could finally find out what was happening. However, if I'm being honest, the ending isn't something that we've never seen. In fact, it's pretty common of any film that takes place in an insane asylum to naturally go this route, so yes, you'll probably figure out as you watch that only one of two endings are even possible and you'll be able to narrow it down to one with your knowledge of how movies generally work, but you'll nevertheless be shocked by its intricacies. It's not a simple case of that's that. It's more like a brain teaser, working in a way that even after you know the answer you have to think back and place the pieces in the correct slot.

Much of the astonishment from the ending comes from the terrific acting leading to it, though it would be impossible to delve into why some performances worked so well without giving away vital points of the story. While Ruffalo and Kingsley were great, as was Jackie Earle Haley in a particularly inspired cameo, DiCaprio steals the show. He plays a multi-layered individual dealing with heartache, fear, confusion and a sickness begun from the opening scene where he and his partner drift up to the island on a ferry that increases as time goes on. He mesmerizes in another award worthy performance, especially during the more emotional scenes. Nobody can cry like DiCaprio.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about a Scorsese picture without talking about the man's direction. As should be an obvious remark by now, Scorsese directs this picture with a style unseen in Hollywood. If you ask me, he actually tones it down a bit with Shutter Island, never forcing camera movements when it isn't prudent, but rather keeping a steady eye on what's going on, allowing his actors to do their jobs. His stylistic touch was fantastic from the simplest of shots to the recurring motif of flickering lights that can be analyzed in so many different ways you could write a term paper on it.

This is a tall claim to be throwing out when you're discussing a body of work as impressive as Scorsese's, but I believe Shutter Island may be one of his best. It's meaningful, enlightening, beautiful and intense all at the same time. It's one of those films that you walk out of and feel like watching again immediately. It's a testament to the skill of the talent involved and it shows that ingenuity still exists in an increasing Hollywood world of sequels and remakes.

There's one line of dialogue, the last one in the entire movie in fact, that set my brain racing. It's a line that has stuck with me ever since I've seen it and sparked discussion with those around me. It's a summation of the whole film and really gets to the core of life and the disparity between what can really be considered sane and insane, so I'll leave you with it to ponder over.

"Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?"

Shutter Island receives 5/5