19 March 2010

Shut My Mouth

Hm, I might just stick to making these review posts every Friday. Brings some regularity to the blog, but then it's possible I see far too many films for one post a week to cover. The reason I've taken so long to get to this post is that I'm going up in the world, somewhat, having written for Den of Geek and I've made a titamaboob of myself on BBC Five Live, more of which later. Back where I belong, I've got reviews of Shutter Island and I Love You Phillip Morris for your enjoyment.
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Shutter Island is based on a bestselling novel, and brings Martin Scorsese back to a genre territory he hasn't roamed since his 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Since then, he's eschewed Robert deNiro as an acting "muse" and instead adopted Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1954, Teddy Daniels, played by DiCaprio, is a federal marshal dispatched to the remote mental institution of the title in order to investigate an inmate's disappearance. Mysteries build on top of mysteries as Daniels battles his own personal trauma and the unorthodox regime of Cawley and Naehring, the head doctors at the facility, to discover where the missing patient has gone. What's the law of 4? Who is 67? And most importantly at all, what is real and what is a pretence?

To offer a little context, this film's release was delayed from October last year, knocking it out of contention for the Oscars and prompting speculation about tensions between Scorsese and the studio. I don't believe that for a minute, because Scorsese is one of the best in the business and this is another masterpiece. Regardless of any changes made in the last five months, I'm really saddened that this film wasn't released early enough to have a shot with the Academy, because with genre fare getting rare recognition this year, the time was just right for a prestige horror film like Shutter Island to garner awards. This is creepy, tense and dreadful- as in full of dread- from start to finish. The second half in particular is a master-class in horror, ramping up the scares to a maximum as Daniels is thrust into a darkened Civil War fort with the most dangerous inmates on the island.

More than that, there's a terrific balancing act at work between horror and mystery. DiCaprio is rather marvellous at the forefront, but only when the film is finished will you fully appreciate how important it was for Mark Ruffalo, (SIR!) Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer and John Carroll Lynch put in the fantastic turn that they do while backgrounded by Daniels' investigation. Elsewhere, Elias Koteas and Jackie Earle Haley each give brief but electrifying and potentially film-stealing performances as two of the more deranged patients. The film's also got a knot of Nazi-phobia at its heart, which informs the most profound horror in Shutter Island- in the post-World War II setting, the Holocaust serves to remind humanity of its worst excesses. It's not a theme that has never been explored before, but the motif of Dachau is indicative of what humans are capable of doing to one another, and plays very well in the environment of the film. And here the traumatised figures it left behind find that violence has very real consequences and implications, a theme that comes to a crux in a scene where the facility's warden chastises God for loving violence so much.

There are only two real problems with Shutter Island. One- the score, assembled from a number of classical composers' works, is intrusive and jarring, and it belies the real value of the otherwise very impressive work. And two- the momentum is snatched away soon after the main twist in the tale, as everyone simply stops to explain all that has happened despite how the twist itself has been telegraphed from near the very beginning of the film. But for the most part, this is just an excellent horror film from a master craftsman of cinema. Evoking Hitchcock all the way in his adaptation, Scorsese pits an erstwhile but unhinged DiCaprio against the Machiavellian workings of Kingsley, the latter giving his best performance in a long while. Scorsese clearly appreciates that horror grounded in reality is all the more scary than supernatural horror, making for an excellently constructed horror drama. Breathtakingly brilliant.
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A story that's unhinged in a different way is the darkly hilarious I Love You Phillip Morris, which opens on a title card assuring the audience that "this really happened, it really did." It tells the apparently true story of Steven Russell, a Texan deputy cop who ups and leaves his wife and daughter behind to indulge his latent homosexuality after a near-death experience. Swiftly discovering that "being gay is really expensive" and becoming a conman in order to pay the bills, he's on a course for prison, where he meets the naive and sweet Phillip Morris. The pair fall in love, but find that Steven's compulsive criminal activities are keeping them apart as they flit in and out of prison over a number of years.

It's a Jim Carrey film, so it can go either way with in the lead role, but happily he's very good in this, pitching Steven with impeccable comic timing and occasionally allows him to be quite intense too. It's surprisingly understated, but he still manages to outshine everyone else in the cast. Ewan McGregor has finally stopped messing about with George Lucas and Dan Brown, and goes into Big Fish-mode in a role that's on the right track to jump-starting his career, and Leslie Mann is needy and memorable in her brief role, but it's definitely Carrey's film. And he carries it off well, not going too over-the-top, too po-faced or too caricatured. Indeed, the joke is never really at the expense of the gay-ness, except in one quite contrived sight gag involving Steven escaping prison disguised in a leopard-print mesh vest and red hotpants.

And what else would you expect from the writers of Bad Santa? Like that film, I Love You Phillip Morris mixes slapstick and the darkest brand of humour very well, making a highly irreverent and well-written comedy drama. Hell, it sort of counts as a romcom, so everyone go and see this at the weekend instead of The Bounty Hunter! Ewan McGregor makes a far better romantic lead than Jennifer Aniston anyway. It boasts what could be a career-best performance from Carrey- Eternal Sunshine and The Truman Show aside- and it's wickedly funny. A plot twist towards the end has to be seen to be believed, and it's an audacious film that's really worth the price of admission, whatever you may think of the tentative approach of marketing to the lowest-common denominator with the trailers.

Is any of this what I said when I foolishly volunteered a phone-in review to Kermode and Mayo's Film Reviews earlier this afternoon? Nope, because with a minute's notice before I went on air, I was more than a little flustered, and I enacted a poor impression of Steven, backed by a fleeting chorus of seagulls. Think of how I described my encounter with David Morrissey from a few weeks ago, then thrust it into the ears of a million BBC Five Live listeners. If you want to know the likely reason that I don't do video or podcast reviews, listen here for the next week, from around 56 minutes in. A video of my greatest wittertainment blunders (yes, more than one) may be forthcoming.
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If you've seen Shutter Island or I Love You Phillip Morris, why not share your views on the films and/or on my reviews (even the rubbish one) in the comments below. The weekend holds viewings of Green Zone and Old Dogs, and I might even go and endure The Bounty Hunter. Anything Gerard Butler found "laugh-out-loud" can't be all bad, right? Right?!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don'twatchanythingIwouldn'twatch (CAW CAW)

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