Shutter Creation Home (Weekly Links)

Shock Corridor Part 2

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

Shutter Island. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is a movie designed to keep you as uncomfortable and as on edge as possible. It wants to drive you insane, in fact.

And why not? That’s what the film is doing to its protagonist, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), first seen vomiting with seasickness aboard a ferry in rough seas. Daniels is a federal marshal, bound for the asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. This is an isolated rock that is part Alcatraz, part Skull Island from “King Kong”—at least that how Scorsese’s gothic approach treats it. A prisoner—er, patient—has escaped from the institution, and Daniels and his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are investigating. That appears to be the plot, anyway. But the deeper we go, the greater the sense that something else might be behind Daniels’ mission.

For one thing, he’s tortured by his memories of liberating a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II (the year is 1954). Equally haunting is the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), especially as he keeps seeing her in his mind. Scorsese, no stranger to high visual style in film, has taken the asylum setting for the film and used it as a license to go over the top. Everything’s big here: the craning camera, the ponderous compositions, the typically tortured performance by DiCaprio. In fact, the acting challenge appears to be the main reason for the movie to exist. DiCaprio is joined by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, as two sinister psychiatrists, and there are small, intense scenes for Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine, and Jackie Earle Haley.

Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, jerk each conversation along by compressing time—the movie makes you anxious even when two people are simply sitting in a room talking.

At times it’s too much. When the marshals dodge falling trees in a deluge or clamber about rocky cliffs over the sea, Scorsese lets the more lurid aspects of Dennis Lehane’s novel run wild. There’s a lot of heavy breathing throughout. The nevre-jangling is effective, and the movie buff in me enjoyed guessing whether Scorsese (America’s Movie Buff Numero Uno, after all) was busy aping “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or “Shock Corridor”—to name a pair of classic stories set inside institutions.

But the Scorsese movie “Shutter Island” most recalls is his bombastic remake of “Cape Fear.” This film is better than that—its gaudy style is eventually explained—but it won’t be remembered as a stellar effort by one of America’s most talented filmmakers.

Creation. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Of all the ways to dramatize the writing of Charles Darwin’s monumental “Origin of the Species,” this movie takes a most curious tack. “Creation,” based on Randal Keynes’ book “Annie’s Box,” looks at Darwin’s effort to complete his work by placing it against his struggle to grieve his young daughter’s death. Since Keynes is Darwin’s great-grandson, he has some credibility, but the concept is a limiting one.

Darwin is played by Paul Bettany, from “Master and Commander” and “A Beautiful Mind.” Bettany has put on weight and shaved his hairline back and otherwise altered his appearance for the role. Plagued by ill health, Darwin goes through a variety of cures, but he seems to be avoiding the completion of his magnum opus. Goading him on are scientific cohorts played by Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Darwin’s wife Emma, played by Bettany’s real-life wife Jennifer Connelly, is a pious lady who disapproves of the implications of her husband’s scientific research. By proving the role of evolution in nature, will Charles Darwin be denying her faith in god?

That certainly is a large question, and “Creation” engages it at times. But each time Darwin appears to be ready to meet his friend and pastor (Jeremy Northam) in debate, one or or the other of them departs the scene. Most of the drama is taken up by Darwin’s lingering anguish (and sense of guilt) over the loss of his child, a storyline that unnecessarily conjures up a storytelling device from “A Beautiful Mind.”

At one point Darwin visits a doctor (Bill Paterson) who offers a few pre-Freudian notions about the unconscious mind and the tricks it can play, and how those tricks might be affecting his patient’s health. This psychological approach to the material is certainly, well, psychological. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shed much light on Darwin’s battle to assemble the proofs for his theory of evolution.

Bettany and Connelly work at their roles—grimly, for the most part. Whatever their offscreen marriage may have contributed to their acting process is not all that visible.

The film has a marvelous sequence involving a young Darwin and a captive orangutan, with whom he shares a moment of communion. There’s a good story to tell about this man who grasped before anybody else the fact that this creature was a kind of distant relative. But “Creation” isn’t that story.

Home. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

“Home” sticks to its title: in this movie, we never see the world beyond the acre or so surrounding the house in question. It sits at the side of a highway, unused.

Voices on the transistor radio tell us that the highway has been in bureaucratic limbo for ten years, which explains why the family can live in the house in perfect silence. The road itself is their playground; they’ve got lounge chairs, sports equipment, and other items parked there.

How did this family get there and why do they like it? We never find out in Ursula Meier’s kooky and surreal film, which presents this unit as a peculiar sort of Everyfamily, not quite real and not quite a cartoon.

They appear to be in domestic harmony at the beginning of the movie: playing and eating and, oddly, bathing nude together. The parents are played by two favorites of French cinema, Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet (he was in “Lorna’s Silence” last year), both of whom seem dizzy with the crazy concept of the film.

They have three kids: a grown daughter who likes to sunbathe, an adolescent daughter who occupies the obligatory skeptical role in relation to the rest of the family, and a rambunctious son.

This little Eden can’t last, because Edens never do. And so a highway crew tramps through one day, putting a new surface on the road and clearing out the debris.

The road is open to traffic.

When the cars begin passing by, life changes for this daft family. Huppert’s character, in particular, appears to be agoraphobic, and increasingly challenged by the intrusion of outside life into her world. Although it’s a minor role for this gifted actress, she brings all her skills to it.

What this warped fable means will be up to the individual viewer to decipher, as Meier is content to let us be spectators to this increasingly chaotic world. Is the adolescent daughter right in sensing toxic invasion from the highway? Where does the oldest daughter go when she wanders off? What is the family doing living here in the first place?

We don’t know, and the film is only marginally arresting enough to compel curiosity about the answers. But movie-goers with a taste for surrealism and the wilder side of the road might really take to it.

St. John of Las Vegas. “The guy who just can’t resist his own worst instincts.”

Oscar-nominated short films. “My congenital inability to warm up to live-action short films.”

And some Oscar nomination ponderings in the middle of this hour of KUOW’s “Weekday” with Steve Scher.