Shutter Island

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A powerful, skillfully plotted film about the dangers of self-illusion and refusing responsibility.

Review:  Let’s talk about plot.  Some movie plots are bad, being separated from logic and character, and some are good, being the same with character and organically interrelated.  A plot’s nature is its shape, a simple movement from point A to B, naturally a straight line, which can get complicated and turn in any direction at the artist’s whim.  For those films that draw their plotlines in radical shapes, often the result is a twist ending, which can shock an audience, providing the rare pleasure of surprise.  Is this preferable or superior in any way to a straight ending?  It depends primarily on the emotional content.  Catharsis is the goal, here; resolution, for better or worse.

I have heard complaints that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel ‘Shutter Island’ did not successfully pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.  The surprise factor, for some, was lost.  But what is a temporary surprise compared to releasing buckets of suspense?  ‘Shutter Island’, thematically and structurally, is not about springing a trap, but the slow, terrifying revelation that the trap has already taken hold.  Madness, the film’s preoccupation, is not a bestial thing suddenly snapping at you from the dark, but the refusal to accept the truth that you share the nature of that bestial thing.  ‘Shutter Island’ doesn’t have a proper twist ending.  It doesn’t try for the magic act of, say, ‘The Sixth Sense’.  It’s more like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, where the truth is gradually revealed, like steam wiped off a mirror.  In Scorsese’s film and Nolan’s, we sympathize with the protagonist and stubbornly believe his version of reality, until it becomes impossible to do so anymore.  Therein lies catharsis, as we let go of our fear and indignation and reorient ourselves.  Whether the protagonist comes to terms with the truth or not, we move on, hopefully having divined the narrative’s moral purpose.

‘Shutter Island’ is the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’.  Coincidentally, they share the same lead actor, but otherwise they are thematically similar, with different ideas and resolutions.  They are both concerned with tragedy, loss, guilt, dream logic and the in-movie use of stories as redemptive tools.  Pared down, ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in plot, how a story’s complexity works around the mind’s defenses and moves the primary participant — the audience, or in this case, the protagonist — according to its agenda.  ‘Inception’ focuses on the positive effects of self-revelation and abandoning illusions, while ‘Shutter Island’ does the exact opposite.  Note that both stories grow on the one tree.  They’re the same straight line from point A to B, but they take radically different directions, with ‘Shutter Island’ acting as ‘Inception’s filmic shadow.

On the surface, the film asks the question, “Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”  In the plot below, however, it asks, “Is it better to live with painful reality, or to live in an endless nightmare of your own devising?”  The death posed in the surface is not necessarily literal.  It’s a spiritual death, the loss of an honest, ugly self in favor of an attractive façade.  When facing guilt, the soul must decide whether to abandon itself to mercy — not forgiveness, per se, but judgment — or to deny any reason to be guilty at all.  There is no other choice.  In Orthodox Christian theology, Christ’s unconditional forgiveness draws the soul to honest self-appraisal, but it still must decide whether the painful, terrifying truth is preferable to defiant fantasy.  Hell, in this theology, is God’s love perceived by the deluded mind.  ‘Shutter Island’ illustrates the dangers of illusion most beautifully.  The waking nightmare of the mad man’s hell crawls with horrors, but it provides an escape from the sanest, scariest thing of all: self-knowledge.

Martin Scorsese and company have a masterful film here.  It’s packed with spiritual insight, cinematographic genius, and genuine thrills.  I think it’s obvious… I loved it.

Cult Classic: Reservoir Dogs

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A realistic, gut-punch of a movie.

Reservoir Dogs

Review: ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is filmmaking wizard Quentin Tarantino’s first (completed) film. It’s a compelling and shocking re-imagining of the typical cops & robbers heist film. It’s the kind of story where everything goes wrong. This time around, we are set up to empathize with the bad guys, a team of hired men assigned by their ring leader, Joe, to steal some diamonds.  They all go by color-coded monikers, and keep their true names to themselves.  When the robbery hits the fan, the survivors immediately suspect that they’ve been set up by the police, and it’s only a matter of time until they discover the traitor.

‘Dogs’ wields an aggressively realistic tone.  The dialog, already well-written, is enhanced by frantic, vulgar, and sometimes funny ad-libbing from the ensemble cast.  The violence, in contrast to the extended, pattering dialog, is short, brutal, and too the point, except for one scene: an infamous torture scene that’s ridiculously hard to sit through.  Tarantino faced (and faces still) great criticism of this scene, but he defends it by acknowledging that the typically horrified reaction of the viewer is exactly what he hoped for.  As good as the film is on the large part, I really can’t justify the sheer brutality of the scene (although, it must be noted, it’s mostly psychological in nature), but the upside is that it leads to a fantastic and cathartic reveal of the traitor.

Like most of Tarantino’s filmography, there appears to be a philosophical bent to the film’s action and conclusions.  This is a window into the world of the cinematic villains that we usually want dead or jailed.  It’s an exercise in empathy.  It’s an acknowledgment of universal humanity and, as Ronnie James Dio would suggest, that we all have “Heaven and Hell” in us.  There’s some major, usually unspoken debate in Christianity as to the moral value of humanity: Are we basically evil, or basically good?  The answer, of course, is both.

‘Reservoir Dogs’ is smart, shocking, uncomfortable, funny, and sobering art.  It has my recommendation to guys and dolls with a strong stomach.

Classic Review: Forbidden Planet

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  A masterpiece of tension and atmosphere!  With slick special effects, too!  You won’t believe your eyes and ears as MGM transports you to another world, 1950s style!

That says it all. Even if that scene doesn't happen in the movie.

That says it all. Even if that scene doesn't happen in the movie.

Review:  The 1956 science fiction classic, ‘Forbidden Planet’, is a good movie.  I’m not sure I should say anymore, except that’s it’s really, really awesome.  No, I think what I should say is, it succeeds in being better than it has any rights to be.

Okay, seriously, I’m going to review this movie.  Here’s what makes it great.

This film is the perfect midnight fare.  I highly suggest a viewing experience with a large television, surround sound, and absolutely no lights, in the dead of night.  Try not to talk during the film, either.  ‘Forbidden Planet’ is so atmospheric that it’d be a shame to not dive in.  It’s like MGM Studios was kind enough to fill a hot tub with fresh, hot water and some sort of weird but healthful Italian herbs, spices, and soaps.  Sure, you’ll have to adjust to the weirdness, but that’s what makes it a singular and unforgettable experience.  Just soak it in.  One of the coolest features of this particular experience is the music, which is credited as ‘electronic tonalities’, because apparently the musician’s union at the time didn’t think it qualified as music (or so I heard) — I mean, this was the first film ever to have a completely electronic score.  In any case, these strange, otherworldly sounds definitely fulfill the old maxim that “sound is half the picture”.  Without this score, the film wouldn’t have near the sense of mystery that it needs to succeed.

The technology, though stylized and sometimes already a bit run over by the actual science of our day, looks beautiful and functional.  The set-design is superb, with gorgeous matte paintings substituting for an alien sky.  All in all, the special effects are ahead of their time, surpassing similar concept films of the same era with ease.  Particularly impressive is the landing sequence of a flying saucer and the combat scene between the ship’s crew and a giant, invisible monster, which stops in a force field and is unveiled in its grotesque glory.  I would be amiss to not mention the incredible artwork put into rendering the ancient Krell city, however, which gives us a fantastic sense of scale and complexity.

The story, well, I’m sure you’ve heard.  An earth ship lands on an alien world, to investigate the status of a science vessel that arrived there 20 years ago.  Only one survivor and his young daughter remain, however, and things get sinister quickly as it is revealed that the stranded scientist is not telling everything he knows about the horrible disaster which overcame his colleagues.  It is slow in pace, which is great for creating real tension and fleshing out the characters.

Philosophically, the issue is the inherent badness of human beings.  Buried deep in our “id”, our subconscious self, is what the film calls “the mindless primitive”, and what St. Paul calls “the flesh”.  Whatever you call it, the message of the movie is that humanity can never afford to be without caution in however much power it attains.  Without something keeping the dangerous, bestial side in check, humanity’s advances in technology will only lead to the most destructive outlet for the “monsters from the id”.  We may well destroy ourselves, as the ancient Krell did in ‘Forbidden Planet’.  The way I look at it, with this in mind, the classic warning that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is something of a misnomer.  It is not absolute power which corrupts; it only amplifies that which already exists within a person, for good or ill, and universally, humanity has a lot of ill will.  As the film concluded, “We are, after all, not God.”  And even then, orthodox Christianity teaches that God willingly humbles Himself and refuses to abuse His power, and sometimes even to use it without being asked directly.

Well, anyway, the film is great.  Don’t rent it.  Buy it.  Or better yet, find a way to see it on the silver screen.  I’m sure somebody out there has a print of it.  It’d be worth the sacrifice just to go for a walk on the ‘Forbidden Planet’.

Watching the Watchmen?: Analyzing Alan Moore’s Dystopia

This is a special feature.  I don’t intend to do this often, but I have an abundance of thoughts, and they are very relevant to cinema.

So what is ‘Watchmen’?

It’s primarily a graphic novel, by British author Alan Moore.  He is considered a legend in the comic book world.  ‘Watchmen’, winner of the prestigious Hugo Award, is considered his best work.  It was released in 1986, and along with Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, dramatically changed the face of comics forever.  In the truest sense a superhero epic, it chronicles the lives of truly dysfunctional costumed vigilantes in a dystopian, alternate 1985.  A complex and innovative narrative bobs and weaves through eras and viewpoints, as the world approaches nuclear war.  The basic action-idea (central driving plot) is that someone is killing off these vigilantes, possibly to prevent them from interfering in… something.  By the time it is all over, everyone is morally challenged and forced to embrace a horrific reality, as the whole world changes.  But is it for the better?

If you happen to care, there are many plot spoilers throughout this review.

I read ‘Watchmen’, you see, out of curiosity that was piqued by the coming of Zack Snyder’s adaption to the screen.  I heard many say it was visionary, challenging, and the best graphic novel ever made.  I figured I should read it before I saw the film.

After reading it, I can guarantee that I have no desire to see the film.  Not because the film will not be enough.  It will be too much.  ‘Watchmen’ is not just a challenge of comic book clichés, but also of classic morals.  Brutality, murder, misogyny and explicit sexuality are laced throughout the work.  This only serves to undermine the wealth of philosophical and psychological depth in the story.  It comes off as cheap, gratuitous, and unnecessary.  As I stated in my review of the film ‘Jaws’, an implication is enough.  The audience does not need to experience everything the characters experience in order to sympathize with them.

‘Watchmen’ is a structural masterpiece.  If you haven’t read it, I don’t know how to describe it to you.  It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.  An excellent sense of art, symbolism, pacing, dialog… nearly everything.  It is the story, not the structure, that makes ‘Watchmen’ a failure.

Alan Moore is something of an extreme left-winger.  As such, he tends to engineer his stories (most notably “V for Vendetta”, another graphic novel-turned-film) as, well, thinly veiled propaganda.  I don’t wish to be unreasonable in suggesting this is the case.  After all, C.S. Lewis once said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) that his own views “bubbled up” into his stories.  It’s natural.  You wouldn’t be human if that didn’t happen.  Regardless of this, there is a point that you cross that makes a work more about your specific messages than the strength of the narrative.  It is a hard line to walk.  ‘Watchmen’ is strange (for Moore), in that it contains, not so much propaganda, as much as a clear agenda.  Moore’s agenda, reasonably, is to make us question the superhero genre, through an intricate set of moral dilemmas.  The problem with Moore is that he’s great at asking questions but terrible about answering them.  One could argue that this is point:  asking questions, for the sake of asking them.  In a strictly dramatic presentation, though, I find this deeply unsatisfying.  The reason we ask questions is for answers.  As it is absolutely vital that a dramatic work bring its audience to catharsis (emotional satisfaction and release), unanswered questions seem to fly directly in the face of classical dramatic structure.  I’m sure that some absolutely love ‘Watchmen’, and honestly, I can understand why.  It is very well made.

The reason I hate ‘Watchmen’ is that, well, I’m an idealist.  Essentially.  I believe that people are created in the image of a noble, wise God, with a great capacity for good.  I don’t think we are the results of a dramatic cosmic accident.  We are icons of God on Earth.  Yes, we’ve fallen far, but there is redemption through Christ.  I don’t say this to preach.  I say this to illustrate how different my philosophy is from that of Alan Moore.  I get the impression Moore doesn’t know what he believes, hence the unanswered questions.  ‘Watchmen’ reflects a distinctly fatalistic worldview.  In ‘Watchmen’, the universe is a clock without a clockmaker.  There is no greater meaning.  Morality is relative to the end that is achieved… sometimes.  Or maybe, all the time.  We are never presented with a character that grasps the end of humanity, who understands a grander meaning.  Nobody is at peace with himself.  The ending is very open to multiple possibilities, to a fault.  We’re left unsure.  Certainly, this is by design.  Depending on the story that precedes such an ending, I may not mind.  In this case I do.

The off-kilter philosophy, the brutalizing of the audience through gratuitous content, the failure of the ending to tie up loose ends, make this graphic novel, supposedly the greatest of all time, a work I regret reading.  Needless to say, I won’t be watching the ‘Watchmen’ film.  I don’t need more of Moore.