Saturday, February 27, 2010

Shutter Island: Do You Know Who I Am?

Martin Scorsese’s new film, Shutter Island, is one of those movies that plays with the audience in ways that make some people feel cheated, while others will be taken over by the sheer ability and craft of the filmmaker. Scorsese definitely pulls all the deceptive tricks he can out of his cinematic toolbox, but it is up to the viewer to decide whether or not he has constructed something meaningful or not.

This particular kind of trope has been utilized in The Sixth Sense and Angel Heart, which are kindred spirits to this film. Scorsese is also paying homage to the detective mysteries of the past here, and Shutter Island echoes the film noir of the 40’s and 50’s with its dark visuals and tone. Add to that the heft of the music arranged by Robbie Robertson that shatters scenes like a symphonic sledgehammer, and you have a movie designed to make you feel on edge most of the time.

It is 1954 and Leonard DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo play U.S. Marshalls Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, who have come to Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the disappearance of violent criminal Rachel Solando. From the very first scene, Scorsese makes us queasy as Daniels experiences seasickness in the ferry bathroom. He looks disgustedly through the porthole at all the water, and we know we’re in for a bumpy ride.

The island facility for the criminally insane is an armed fortress, and guards at the gate inform Daniels and Aule that they must check their firearms. Daniels starts what will become a litany throughout the movie, reminding them “I am a U.S. Marshall,” a sort of “Do You Know Who I am?” routine that seems to continually backfire on an island where the rules don’t necessarily have anything to do with the law back on the mainland.

Here they encounter Dr. Cawley, (played with gusto by Ben Kingsley) the administrator who runs the place. He seems generally helpful in the beginning, but as Daniels and Aule try to dig deeper, Cawley blocks their attempts with red tape ranging from the board of directors to the protestations of a senior colleague, the decidedly creepy Dr. Jeremiah Neahring (Max von Sydow).

Through flashbacks we learn that Teddy was part of the army that liberated the Nazi Concentration Camp Dachau during World War II. Teddy has deep feelings of failure connected to the event, thinking he arrived too late to help all the people whose bodies were piled up in a final frenzy of killing before the Americans got there.

He also sees his deceased wife Delores (Michelle Williams) in his dreams and in hallucinations. Teddy reveals to Chuck that his wife was murdered, and the main reason why he has come to Shutter Island is not the Solando case, but to find Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), the man responsible for the fire that killed Delores. While most of the prisoners are kept visible in Wards A and B, the severely insane and dangerous ones are housed in Ward C, a building off limits to everyone. Teddy quickly establishes that Laeddis must be in Ward C and wants to get in there to search for him.

If all of this is not enough to get you going, a major hurricane has swamped the island, knocking out the power and cutting off the ferry service. Teddy and Chuck are forced to bunk with the orderlies, and during the fierce storm we get to see more of Teddy’s disturbing dreams, especially a particularly horrifying sequence of a Nazi Commandant who tried to commit suicide and failed as well as one featuring the sought after Laeddis, taunting Teddy with a match.

By the time we get to the second act, after the storm and Teddy’s descent into the proverbial hell of Ward C, Scorsese still has some cinematic tricks up his sleeve. Daniels and Aule discover a lighthouse on the coast where it is rumored that illegal psychological experimentation is being done by Cawley and his colleagues. The lighthouse is separated from the island by a craggy and dangerous rocky cliff, and this is the metaphorical obstacle that must be overcome in order to get to the truth.

My problem with Shutter Island is that Scorsese plays around with the truth. A master of film technique and an advocate of film preservation, we immediately accept that his work will be top-notch before we even sit down in the theater. What happens in this film is that Scorsese sets us up for what he believes is dramatic irony in the conclusion of the film, but it seems more to me like irony of situation, where we get less than expected and yet Scorcese believes we should be satisfied.

DiCaprio does an amazing job as Daniels and should be nominated for Best Actor. This is his strongest and darkest role to date, and the actor has to be credited for taking a decidedly different and unglamorous route. After his success in Titanic, DiCaprio could have easily made the mistake other actors have and taken “star” parts for the money in less than challenging films, but DiCaprio is true to his craft and is willing to take risks and difficult parts that no doubt many actors would not.

The rest of the cast (particular Kingsley and Williams) does an excellent job, and the creepy island facility is wonderfully realized. Scorsese uses everything at his disposal to shrink the real world, sinking the viewer into the morass of the island and trapping us there along with Daniels and Aule. It is this claustrophobic element that probably works best for Scorsese here, but no matter how hard he has done all the right things, there is something missing that is pronounced and makes the experience less satisfying than it should have been.

The denouement is right out of Hitchcock’s Psycho, where everything is sort of explained in order for the audience to understand all that has come before. If you’re anything like me, you get annoyed with this kind of psycho-babble that is an attempt to justify a filmmaker’s showmanship at the sake of the audience’s trust. I went in so wanting to like this film and, while there is much to admire, it leaves a conspicuous aftertaste that is hard to rinse away.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Season 8 of 24: Business as Unusual

If you are still hanging in there with season 8 of 24 like I am, you may be asking yourself if things seem to be more out of whack than usual. What I mean is in terms of the way CTU is operating and, more importantly, the way they have hamstrung President Taylor (Cherry Jones) with very odd Chief of Staff Rob Weiss (Chris Diamantopoulos), who seems like he’s got his own secret agenda. Since we can’t be sure yet, all I can say is where the heck is good old snake-in-the-grass Mike Novick when you need him?

The plot against President Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor), president of a fictional foreign country called Kamistan, has been changed to what seems to be a threat against his country. That’s why the bad guys want those nuclear rods with more high anxiety than a high school kid with acne wants to date a pretty cheerleader. Hassan’s pint-sized brother Farhad (Fart Head) obviously has a Napoleon complex and is involved with these bad guys, whom he discovers are way more bad than he is, thus he gets scared and runs off and calls CTU for help. Getting all this?

This week in episode 9 we see the Dana Walsh (Katee Sackhoff) story get even more ludicrous. She goes into full wacko-mode and looks more scary than Sarah Palin at a book signing. Carrying a gun with a silencer, she’s ready to off her ex-boyfriend and his greedy cohort in a van down by the river (no, neither one is channeling SNL’s Chris Farley) but, would-be hero and worshipper of all things Jack Bauer, Agent Cole Ortiz (Freddie Prinze Jr.) comes to her rescue.

My question is how can two CTU agents like Walsh and Ortiz be unaccounted for during a national emergency as it is taking place? Each one has not checked in with boss Bob (No-Neck) Hastings, played by good old Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) from Forrest Gump. It seems policy is not very clear for CTU employees to begin with, but No-Neck is really at the heart of this “business as unusual” situation. Presumably, he is in charge of CTU, though working for Weiss on the side. How’s that for business as unusual? We’ve had terrible heads of CTU before, most notably Erin Driscoll, but this guy would be better off working at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.

Our hero Jack has been tasered, clubbed, punched, shocked, and clocked in the nine episodes of this season, but he looks like he’s ready to take pictures for GQ. Jack has always bounced back nicely from torture, but that’s because of his training and ability to withstand pain. Perhaps he should go on The View and see if he can handle listening to those annoying hosts yak all morning. That could be Jack’s breaking point.

Jack has seemed to be on the periphery of the action this year, killing some bad guys, but not still in the heat of the chase. Of course, everything changes in this episode when No-Neck, after basically throwing Jack out of CTU, goes running after him and asks him to take the lead in the hunt for the rods and to find Fart Head. How bad off is CTU if they are asking a retired agent to come in and lead a mission? It makes sense for the show and, hopefully Jack will be back in full Jack mode next week, but it is really indicative of the problems going on in CTU, an agency that has never been the same since Jack stopped being in charge of the show.

I think I am most disturbed by what they have done to our gal Chloe (the ever funny and on target Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Agent Renee Walker (the beautiful Annie Wersching). Chloe is subjected to constant disdain from No-Neck, who better turn around (if he could move his head) and realize that she’s the best thing he’s got on this team that includes a new weirdo named Arlo (John Boyd), who makes the deceased Milo and Edgar seem like rocket scientists. Chloe is, at this point, the main reason I watch 24 after Jack Bauer, and I (and I imagine many other loyal fans) would like to see her finally get the respect she deserves.

As for Renee, she has turned psycho ex-FBI agent, cutting off an informant’s thumb and eventually giving another guy eye surgery with a knife. Either the writers have forgotten Renee’s character from last season, or she has just allowed another personality to take over her body. Either way, Renee is acting like she is a female Jack, which may be the whole point to this otherwise ludicrous change in behavior. Still, despite having to follow this weird story line, Wersching pulls it off and does some incredible acting that is worth watching.

As the story ends, we have Cole and Dana figuring out what to do about the two now dead guys (one kills the other and Cole shoots him) instead of checking into CTU. How this storyline is ever going to figure into the bigger picture is beyond me, but if there is no way to redeem Dana then she may go the way of many who came before her, and either die or disappear into the void of the 24 vortex where Wayne Palmer, Rick, Behrooz, Chase, the cougar, and many others wait in character limbo.

I am hoping we get to a point in the next episode when things start to make sense, but I am not counting on it. For now, season 8 is something like a season with no rhyme or reason, but I am hanging in there because I want to see Jack Bauer do all those wonderful things he does with guns, knives and his bare hands. Oh, and I do hang on his every word hoping to hear the occasional “Damn it,” which is music to every 24 fan’s ears.

Come on, Jack, we know it’s business as unusual this year, but we need you to kick some terrorist butt as soon as possible. And maybe, when you get the chance, thank Chloe for all she’s done and give Renee a kiss like you mean it.

I will keep watching and hoping that this season, especially if it is the last one, will bring Jack to a better place. Perhaps he has found in Renee Walker another soul as damaged as his. Together, they may be able to find a way to be happy, and I think most fans of the show want to see Jack live and find some peace when it’s all over. At least I know I do.

Until next time, Klaatu Barada Nikto!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Avatar Should Once Again Make Cameron "King of the World"

After wanting to see James Cameron’s new film Avatar since its premiere in December, I finally did get to the theater this weekend, and I now understand why there is so much talk about the film (as well as why it is nominated for nine Academy Awards). Simply stated, going to see Avatar is not so much seeing a movie as it is an overwhelming visual and sensory experience. The film scores on so many levels, and the visceral and kinesthetic connections literally and figuratively transport the viewer into another world.

Some people might be tempted to identify Avatar as something else, or maybe even call it Titanic in space, but then they would be missing the whole point. Yes, we have the haunting music of the remarkable James Horner to remind us of that film, and there is a strong love story at the core of Avatar, as in Titanic; and yes, the lovers are from different worlds and have the odds stacked against them, but Cameron has taken Avatar to a deeply complex level, and the 3D experience drops the viewer into a different time and place where he or she can almost reach out and touch the detritus of an explosion, feel the pulse of an alien world, and understand the universal components involving the sacred nature of the individual spirit.

The story centers on wounded Marine Jake Sully, in a solid performance by Sam Worthington who left a powerful impression in Terminator Salvation as a machine with a soul. We see paraplegic Jake transported to the moon Pandora where he will be part of an exciting experiment originally intended for his twin brother Tom, a scientist who recently passed away. Since the twins are a genetic match, Jake is an ideal replacement in the body of an avatar, a living creation of one of the indigenous Na’vi people of Pandora.

The conflict is quickly established as Jake understands he has two jobs to accomplish. One is explained by hard as nails Colonel Miles Quaritch, played with fierce intensity by Stephen Lang. Quaritch wants Jake to infiltrate these people as a covert operative with the express purpose of bringing them down. The other job is explained by Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver as a chain smoking scientist with a heart. She wants Jake to bond with the Na’vi, become one of them, in order to better understand them and establish a cordial relationship between them and the humans who have invaded their world.

As Jake lies in what looks like a high-tech tanning bed, his consciousness enters the avatar. The creature is twice the size of humans, with blue skin, yellow eyes, and a long mane of hair that has tendrils which can make a neural connection with all living things on Pandora. Jake is obviously ecstatic about now inhabiting a body that can walk, and his function seems to be at first providing protection to Grace and her colleagues as they explore the jungles of Pandora in their own avatar forms.

The action unfolds quickly in the dangerous world where Jake suddenly finds himself besieged by creatures big and small. He runs for his life, separating from Grace and the party and winding up alone for the night in the jungle. His would seem to be a certain death, but Jake is saved by the Na’vi princess Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana who was memorable as Uhura in last year’s new Star Trek movie. Neytiri saves him against her own better judgment because Jake appears to be blessed by the goddess Eywa, when Jake is surrounded by the Seeds of Ewya, floating creatures filled with light, indicating his inherent goodness and worthiness to the princess.

What follows is reminiscent of many fish out of water stories, especially something like Pochahantas and Captain John Smith, where the invader must win over the tribe in order to become one of them. While his mission seems duplicitous at first, we can see Jake slowly moving toward the light, finding in the Na’vi a level of tranquility and meaning that he has never known in his human life. Neytiri’s assigned by her father, the chief of the tribe, to school Jake in the ways of the people, and she becomes guide, teacher, and eventually, as one would expect, they begin to fall in love.

Viewers may be tempted to think of Cameron’s earlier work, especially the slam-bang action of Terminator and Aliens, but Cameron has transcended the action movie and elevated the sci-fi component of the genre to a new level here. Every frame of the film has gorgeous texture, a sense of meticulous arrangement, and yet it causes a displacement, jarring the viewer as Jake becomes one with his new body and in touch with his new world.

While the Na’vi are a different species, Cameron has made certain that they have recognizable traits, and these indigenous people of Pandora have a distinct culture and history that reflects aspects of some of the people living on this planet. Most of all, the essential thing is that Neytiri is beautiful enough physically and spiritually to win Jake’s (and our) heart. He connects with her, and ultimately the essence of Pandora, in unimaginable ways that uncover the deepest essence of individual integrity and spirit.

At the heart of the jungle is the Tree of Souls, a luminous giant tree that is a repository of all the Na’vi who ever lived, their evanescent voices echoing across time for those ready to accept their message. When Jake and Neytiri finally “mate” it is after they connect their tendrils to the tree. She and Jake hear the centuries unfolding, the call of the Na’vi invigorating their spirits and igniting their passion.

Their happiness will be short lived, as Quaritch eventually unleashes an assault on the jungle in an effort to secure the richest deposit of Unobtanium, an energy source that will solve all of humanity’s energy problems back on Earth, but which happens to be lodged under the site of the Na’vi village and their tree.

Those seeking the action from Cameron’s previous films will not be disappointed with the final battle, and eventually Jake in avatar form and Quaritch have the inevitable hand-to-hand combat that could be expected, with the end result not disappointing the viewers in any way. What is amazing is that these sequences are accomplished so seamlessly, the effects not getting in the way of the bloody fight to the finish between good and evil.

Despite all the elements of an epic tale being present, as in Titanic, Cameron reveals himself as a romantic at heart, with the love story being the most crucial element in Avatar, and that love is shown as transcending race, species, and all obstacles. Neytiri and Jake share a pure love that rises above all the trappings of cultural and physical limitations, thus taking the Biblical message of “God is Love” and connecting Jake to the essence of Eywa, the Mother Goddess who envelopes Neytiri and him in what is an eternal union of energy and thus spirit.

Despite the wonderfully rich 3D experience, and the surreal dreamlike flow of the film, the message Cameron sends is that love will triumph over all, even when the body dies. We are all connected, if not through tendrils in our long ponytails to the Tree of Voices, by the energy of our individual spirit and inherent goodness. For guys like Quaritch, something less pleasant is obviously waiting.

Whether or not the film succeeds in making Mr., Cameron once again "King of the World," securing him more Oscar gold, it stands as the defining work in a rather impressive career. Avatar has been so successful because it has told a timeless tale of love, of perseverance, and of good rising above evil.

The fact that all the mesmerizing 3D elements and special effects are present does not relegate the core theme to secondary status. Cameron’s Avatar is an affirmation of a spirituality connecting all of us, no matter what race or species, to one another in a profound and enduring way. That is why people are going back to see the film again and again, because in this film the message is more than the medium and has resonance that will last long after the credits roll.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Valediction to Forbidding Valentine’s Day

Okay, in essence, this is a retraction of all the negativity that I put forth in an old article ( about Valentine’s Day that appeared here a few years back. I did really believe all that stuff back then about how V-Day was really just an excuse to pick a guy’s pocket. I said all those things and stood behind them until, well, I faced the wrath of a female who changed my mind. Now, I am saying good-bye to that philosophy because I am a changed man.

You could be wondering who the female is who has changed my mind about Valentine’s Day, and she happens to be an eight-year old girl who loves the notion of a holiday set aside for love. My daughter is a very loving child, and she is thrilled that people care enough to send Valentines. No matter how set I am in my thinking, it is difficult to go up against this little person I have loved since infancy.

It all started this way: I walked in and saw my daughter sitting at the dining room table writing out Valentine’s Day cards to all her little friends in school. Still locked in the comfort of my V-Day cynicism, I said, “What a waste of time, ink, and paper.”

I have seen my daughter’s wrath before, mostly confined to defending the singing talents of someone like Demi Lovato or the acting ability of Miranda Cosgrove, but this is nothing compared to her feelings about Valentine’s Day. I got a stern expression and scolded vehemently along the lines of how insensitive I was for not recognizing the importance of love and a day celebrating it.

Of course, I was ready for battle. I sat down and held her arms and was ready to explain all the reasons why Valentine’s Day is for chumps and chumpettes, but that was when she looked up at me with a solemn little face and tears started welling in her eyes. This is when she said, “And I made a special Valentine’s card for you, Daddy.”

Okay, hit the violin strings and be done with it. I had an epiphany, albeit one that I had no choice about having, and I dispensed with the lecture I was about to give and instead hugged my daughter and thanked her for thinking of me.

She showed me the cards written to her little friends, her teachers, and even the crossing guard. They were simple little cards that would be stuck in small red envelopes and handed out by her personally to people she cared about in her life. How could I be against an expression of love and thanks to others from my child? Especially when I had Beatles posters hung in my office, with one bearing the title of their famous song “All You Need Is Love.”

Since that happened last Sunday, I have had to rush out and prepare myself for February 14th. Now that I am reformed and ready to celebrate the holiday, I must admit I was a bit taken back by the price of cards alone. Getting one for each special person in my life, I plunked down more than twenty bucks and had yet to purchase any gifts. Still, I remembered how Scrooge reacted after he saw the light, so I handed over the cash with a grimace and thought, “You go out and buy those gifts before you dot another i” kind of thing. Dickens never tells us, but this reformation business is not as easy as Scrooge makes it look.

I am happy to say that I have bought the necessary gifts for my loved ones, and I will also get fresh flowers that day for my wife. I think I am okay now with the whole thing. I do know that when my daughter hands me her special card made from construction paper, crayons, glitter, and glue, I will be thrilled to get this expression of love from her. I will also be delighted to hand her something special in return.

When I come to think of it, a day reserved for love isn’t such a bad thing. We can still love all the people in our lives three hundred and sixty four days a year even if we make a big deal out of V-Day. I understand that now and I have an eight year old girl to thank for it. This isn’t the first lesson my daughter has taught me, and I am certain it won’t be the last. That’s a gift that keeps on giving to be sure, and perhaps that is the best Valentine’s Day gift of all.