Thursday, June 14, 2018

Slightly (Sort of) Underrated Scorsese: "Shutter Island"

*This is not a traditional review, so don’t expect much in the way of summary (I hate summary in any reviews, really, because it makes them seem like junior high book reports). My articles are meant for people who have seen the movie and have a decent memory of it.

**Also, I typically don’t refer to character names. So when I write “DiCaprio” I’m really referring to the character he played.

A Master Playing in the Sewer

Shutter Island was a critical (68% on Rotten Tomatoes) and commercial success (at the time, it was Scorsese’s biggest hit), so how can I refer to it as even slightly underrated? Well, because of the first note I typed when re-watching it: “It’s great when such a cast and crew decide to make a genre film.” What a bullshit, backhanded thing to write about an interesting, beautiful, and effective film. And I’m not alone.

The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes states that it “may not rank with Scorsese’s best work, but…” Is that how we judge films? I’m a firm believer in judging a movie on its own. It’s okay to make comparisons to other films, especially if there is a connection. But being made by the same director isn’t a good enough connection. I’m guilty of this, by the way. I’m sure if I go through my Paul Thomas Anderson reviews, I’ll find something along the lines of, “It’s no There Will Be Blood, but…” It’s simply an unfair way to judge movies. How can I compare Shutter Island to Goodfellas or Taxi Driver? The reason why those three films would be discussed within the same article is Scorsese. It wouldn’t have anything to do with style or themes. And if it did, it would be a bit of a stretch.

So Shutter Island is underrated, because even those who praised it typically did so with a caveat. Scorsese is taking a break from ambitious movies to have fun with a genre film, e.g. And then there’s the twist, revealing that the whole film was an exercise for DiCaprio to face what he had done or end up getting lobotomized. Critics either thought it was a good twist, or they claim it wasn’t a good enough pay off. I never thought the twist was the point. If we’re going to focus on such a master dwelling in the sewer of a genre film, then shouldn’t we revel in the filmmaking and not the twist. That’s what I did in my original review, and watching it again, the little elements are what kept me interested.

Can You Judge a Twist if You Know It’s Coming Before You Watch the Film?

I’m one of those annoying people who read the book a movie is based on then claim that the book is better. While that is still the case for the most part, there have been exceptions, Shutter Island being one of them. Liking the book more isn’t the point here, however. Since I read the book, I knew what the twist was when I first watched the movie. Therefore it’s impossible for me to really judge how good the twist is. To me, it’s painfully obvious fairly early, but I was looking for it. That said, this movie takes place at a mental institution and any show or movie that takes place in such a location usually ends up being a movie in which things are not as they seem.

For that reason, I kind of hate mental institution movies. They can be exhausting, and they seem to be the same: person visits asylum, ends up stuck there, uncovers vast conspiracy/corruption, is accused of being crazy, saves the day and/or destroys the asylum. Shutter Island doesn’t follow this exactly, but it’s close. But I still love it, and it’s because I already knew the twist.

The film ends up being different for me because I wasn’t trying to figure out who to trust or whatever the whole time. Instead, I was looking for the clues Scorsese included and his filmmaking technique in general to create a paranoid mood.

The use of music at the beginning is the most obvious clue, in my opinion. As they approach, dread-inducing music plays very loudly. Sure, it could just be setting up bad stuff ahead, but I believe it’s in DiCaprio’s subconscious because he knows he’s actually a patient there. I comment on the music quite a bit in my original review, and my thoughts remain the same: it’s a great score that is effective and noticeable without being overbearing.

Camera techniques are used to create a sense of paranoia, as well. Specifically, whip pans are employed throughout. It’s a disorienting technique, and it almost makes it seem like things appear out of nowhere, which must be a bit like DiCaprio’s state of mind. Along with the camerawork, the editing in general is similar, with quick cuts to images from DiCaprio’s mind throughout.

Finally, Scorsese’s use of continuity errors is particularly interesting. Scorsese, or his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, I should say, is no stranger to continuity errors. I’m always reminded of a shot in The Departed showing Nicholson walking, his back to the camera, obviously smoking. When the shot switches to the front, he is no longer smoking. That kind of thing is pretty normal for Scorsese’s more chaotic films. Referring specifically to The Wolf of Wall Street, but applying to any of Scorsese’s less restrained films, Schoonmaker said, “continuity in a movie like this really doesn’t matter.” It has become kind of a trademark for Scorsese films, which makes Shutter Island an interesting example.

With Shutter Island, many of the continuity errors are intentional, the most notable of which being the scene when a patient being interviewed requests a glass of water. A full glass of water is handed to her, but when she brings it up to drink her hand is clearly empty, then she sets down an empty glass. There are more, but that one sticks out to me, and it’s a great example of using, or misusing, continuity to create a sense of things being off. It’s also convenient for the filmmaker, since every error can be claimed to be intentional now.

I know all this continuity stuff can be boring, but when you watch a lot of movies, you tend to notice this stuff. And when you’re watching a Scorsese movie featuring a mentally unstable main character, noticing this stuff is the reward of a close viewing. Here’s a video going into more detail about the glass of water scene, which focuses on the use of fire and water in the film, which is something I did not pick up on nearly as much as the creator of the video, but I completely agree with.

Shutter Island is a great example of a twist ending not being the most important part of the movie. And when you look back at all the clues, it doesn’t seem like much a twist at all, because the movie is told from DiCaprio’s perspective. He may not notice these clues, but the viewer might, which makes Shutter Island an interesting, entertaining watch, regardless of whether you knew the twist or not.

PTSD, again.

Most of my articles from the last few months are about movies with characters suffering from PTSD. Aside from the William Friedkin article, this is not intentional, but here we are again with DiCaprio’s multiple flashbacks to his experiences liberating a concentration camp in WWII.

First off, I’m going to try to take a break from movies featuring this subject, since it’s almost becoming my trademark or something. But since it’s there, I can’t ignore it, especially since I think it plays a bigger factor than many give it credit for.

Since the focus of DiCaprio’s problems is on his wife and their children, his experience in the war is cast aside. I agree that his wife is the primary issue here, but his WWII experience, I believe, leads him to make the decision he makes at the end.

DiCaprio basically agrees to be lobotomized because the treatment worked, and he remembered what had happened with his wife and children. He feels responsible for all of it. So he asks Ruffalo if it’s better “to live as a monster or die a good man.” He makes this choice partially because of his WWII experience. He has seen monsters, and he cannot be one himself.

Random Thoughts

I love the aesthetic experience of the film. The imagery, camerawork, and music are all on point.

The WWII in particular stuck with me. The Nazi slowly dying from a “botched” suicide attempt, the flying papers, the music, etc. It was all very eerie. But that tracking shot of the execution of the guards always bothered me. Unless the guards only started shooting one right after the other rather than en masse, then the shot makes no sense. The way it is presented, the shooting starts with DiCaprio’s section, then as the camera makes its way down the line the other soldiers begin shooting, which means that last soldier stood there while shooting was happening and waited about a half minute to start shooting. It just doesn’t make sense. But as I wrote about the continuity stuff, something occurred to me: this isn’t necessarily how things happened. This is how DiCaprio remembers it happening. If that’s the case, then the camera moving is DiCaprio reliving the shooting, so it happens the way his brain creates it.

Ebert liked it!

Watching in the theater was great, mainly for the sound. I remember that score just blasting through the speakers as they approached the asylum.

Ted Levine! But he’s barely in it.

The movie is a conspiracy theorist’s dream. Everything keeps adding up, but it’s because DiCaprio wants it to. It’s actually an indictment of conspiracy theories. You would have to be crazy to make everything fit your own story to justify your existence.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Slightly (Sort of) Underrated Scorsese: "Bringing Out the Dead"

Yup, another Nic Cage movie, but this isn’t part of the Not Actually Crappy series I wrote because Bringing Out the Dead isn’t considered all that crappy, and it’s considered a Martin Scorsese movie more than a Cage film. Also, this is part of a duo of Scorsese films I wanted to write about that I consider to be a little bit underrated and largely forgotten, especially this one. And both films are about insane people. Scorsese has plenty of films about crazy people, I know, but I think this film and Shutter Island (which I’ll cover next week) are unique in that nearly every character is potentially crazy. The funny thing is only one of the films takes place in an insane asylum. Bringing Out the Dead is about how crazy the streets of New York are, and how the night shift emergency health care providers have gone crazy, as well.

As always, there will be SPOILERS, as I write all my articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie I’m writing about.

Scorsese’s craziest film?

Martin Scorsese is no stranger to crazy characters, from Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Casino to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator to De Niro in The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, etc. But most of the time, the crazy is kept to one or two characters. With Bringing Out the Dead he found a story in which everyone was crazy.

What’s unique about Bringing Out the Dead is that the crazy isn’t only in the streets. The professionals are just as crazy, either from being overworked, overstressed, from PTSD, or simple eccentricity. If this wasn’t the case, then the film would be very boring. It’s not exactly a fresh idea to say that the streets of New York are crazy. But to focus on how dealing with all the insanity in turn makes the ambulance workers crazy is pretty interesting.

You would think that dealing with insanity in this setting would be depressing, especially since the film was written by Paul Schrader, but it actually ends up being very funny. I wouldn’t exactly call Bringing Out the Dead a dark comedy, though...maybe miserable comedy makes more sense.

It’s not that death and overworked medical professionals are funny, it’s the characters. Nicolas Cage is probably the most serious character, as he’s dealing with the PTSD that comes with the job in general, but mainly focused on one girl he couldn’t save. Despite that, his typical Cage-ness adds some humor, but it’s largely his reaction to his eccentric co-workers that’s funny.

Those co-workers are John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore, and they steal the show, especially Rhames and Sizemore. It’s not that Goodman isn’t as good as the others, it’s just that his character is probably the most sane one in the film, by design. As Cage gets crazier, so do his co-workers. Goodman is funny, but his character hasn’t lost it, and even has plans for the future. Rhames is just kind of goofy, not necessarily crazy. But he’s not allowed to work two nights in a row for some reason, and then there’s that whole flipping over an ambulance moment in the movie. And Sizemore is totally nuts. In the book (I read it in high school after watching this movie the first time and loving it), he’s a Vietnam vet still fighting the war, although now he’s waging it on the city’s homeless. In the film, Cage does say to him that “the war’s over,” so I think it’s still the case, though less obvious than the book. Either way, there’s obviously some PTSD stuff (among other things) going on with him. And when Cage works with him, it makes for the wackiest, funniest night in the film.

Sizemore steals the show for me because of nostalgia. This is peak Sizemore, and he was the man for a few years in the late 90s (Natural Born Killers, Saving Private Ryan, Heat). He still works (he has an astonishing 26 shorts and movies either completed or in production), but he’s been relegated to B movies since his drug issues. But there was a time when if you saw him in a film, you knew at least part of the movie would be decent. And with Bringing Out the Dead, he gets set loose. The manic look in his eyes as he goes after Marc Anthony’s character cracks me up. Apparently he actually had issues with Anthony as, according to IMDb, they nearly got into a physical fight while filming. Anyway, Sizemore is a great choice to work off of a crazy Cage. It’s an insane tag team that leads to scenes like Cage critiquing a suicide attempt.

Sizemore is my favorite character, but Ving Rhames’s character is a close second. This is one of the few times Rhames isn’t playing some imposing badass, and it’s great. The guy has true range that is not being utilized. But it is here. The way he talks, voice cracking every other word, is great, and his standout scene is still my favorite moment in the film. The I. B. Bangin’ scene. When Rhames asks for Bangin’s real name, he’s told it’s Frederick, which leads to this interaction. “Okay, Freddy.” “It’s Frederick.” “Okay, I. B. Bangin’.” It’s not very funny written out, but it works in the film. Anyway, Rhames deserved a supporting nomination for this one.

I’ve focused on the crazy characters in the film, but there is one place that seems sane: a drug dealer’s apartment called The Oasis. I’m sure there’s something to be said socially here that a drug den is the only sane location in the film. What I took away from it is that you either learn to embrace the insanity of the world, or you medicate accordingly to deal with it. It’s not the point of the film, especially since The Oasis ends up getting shot up in the end, but I think it’s a valid takeaway from the movie. Overall, I took the message to be accepting and forgiving yourself to deal with no only your own insanity, but that of the world too.

Are any of Scorsese’s films truly underrated? Maybe just unsuccessful.

At first, I wanted to call this duo of films underrated, but that simply is not the case. Sure, at 71% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s one of the Scorsese’s lowest rated films, but 71% is still pretty good. And it’s certainly not low enough to call this underrated. For Bringing Out the Dead, I would say this one is dismissed and forgotten, and it was definitely unsuccessful, bringing in $16.8 million on a $55 million budget.

Those who dismiss this movie should give it another chance, because it is very much your standard Scorsese movie. It’s chaotic, features a wide-ranging, awesome soundtrack, is very New York, and is darkly comedic. That could describe any number of his highly successful films, so what’s wrong with this one? I truly don’t know, because I’ve loved this film from the get-go, as evidenced by my copy of the DVD, which is so old is features a catalogue showing other Paramount movies on DVD, and there’s sticker residue because the companies hadn’t figured out the right adhesive to use in their packaging (a small issue I know, but I don’t trust people who don’t remove all the stickers and the security device from their DVDs).

That said, the original poster and cover for this film is great. It’s one of my favorites, actually. The cross with Cage’s bloodshot eyes inset. It symbolizes the movie perfectly.

Also, this was written by Paul Schrader! That’s classic Scorsese! The IMDb trivia incorrectly claims that this is considered a remake of Taxi Driver. Maybe someone said something along those lines in an interview or something, but this is based on a book of the same name. I get the similarities, but the tone is very different. This is pretty much a comedy. While Taxi Driver has some comedic moments (taking a first date to a porno theater?!), overall it personifies the dark, gritty element of late 70s cinema. Who wants a remake of Taxi Driver, anyway? I just liked seeing a New York movie from Scorsese and Schrader.

Finally, Bringing Out the Dead does not deserve to be one of Scorsese’s forgotten films. I don’t consider it among his best, but that doesn’t make it bad. He set out to make a funny, chaotic film, and he certainly accomplished that.

Favorite Cage Moments

I mentioned him critiquing the suicide attempt already, but I love him yelling at the guy until he runs away.

Cage trying to “drive out of himself.”

The general look of Cage in this movie. He’s an insomniac, so his eyes have never looked more dead. Also, there’s a ten minute span where he has blood splattered on his face, and he just leaves it there.

“I eat. Larry. I eat.”

Don't know why, but I love the scene of Cage and Arquette sitting together in the back of the ambulance as “These Are Days” by 10,000 Maniacs plays.

“I didn't kill you.”  “No, you didn’t, Frank, and I thank you, but we still got a couple hours left on our shift.”

“She asked me to pick her up go out for a movie and a malt and bring her right home.”

“If you have any doubts about this, it's my fault.”

Approaching a group of hobos: “You guys got any coffee?”

“Why is everything a cardiac arrest?!”

Cage’s hysterical laugh in response to “You need the Holy Ghost, Frank!”

And oh yeah, a comatose patient telepathically asks Cage to kill him.

Random Thoughts

Scorsese as dispatch. Most active acting he has done in a film.

Ebert loved it! So we’re back on the same page.

“You do mouth to mouth you'll end up with a mouthful of puke. Junkie puke.”

Omar coming! Oh, never mind.

Sister Fetus. There’s a character name Sister Fetus. She’s never elaborated upon.

Arquette’s mom offers Cage applesauce cake. What in God's name is applesauce cake?

This film introduced me to The Clash with “Janie Jones” (I was in high school, give me a break).

There's a virgin birth…maybe.

That ambulance crash was pretty cool. I guess that and the music rights is why the budget was so high.

The almost constant nighttime setting adds to the despair.

Watch this and Fear and Loathing back to back, and you'll be high.

Sizemore saying, “Just say no.”