Monday, February 22, 2010

A Duly-Appointed Federal Blog Post: SHUTTER ISLAND - Reviewed! Plus: Smallville, The Simpsons, and More!

Back in the thick of things after a couple of days where I was decidely off the grid. The reason? A visit from the parents, who were in LA from the east coast for the last few days. It was a pretty exhausting weekend though. I spent two straight days, Friday and Saturday, driving around with my Dad, from car dealership to car dealership, looking at used cars. I am not really a car person. And I am not really a shopping person. And I am definitely not a used car dealership person (although who is?). So yeah, this was a pretty painful process for me. I didn't end up purchasing a car, but the upside is that I'm now much more familiar with the used car landscape - what I like and don't like - and the kinds of price ranges that you can expect to find in the marketplace. As with many areas though, I tend to have expensive taste. I think the car market right now is particularly frustrating in that regard, because so many of the new models of popular cars are so superior to the older models, as the car companies have tried to step up their game to fight their way out of the recession. But yeah, part of this was due to my lack of familiarity with the car market going into this process, but I kept finding myself taking a liking to a particular car, only to find that the features and look that I like were only recently introduced in newer and pricier models. I came somewhat close to picking up a used '06 Altima, for example. The exterior was nice, but the interior was somewhat uncomfortable and unappealling, especially as compared to newer and nicer Altima iterations. I get that with a used car, especially a modestly budgeted one, I am never going to get my ideal model. But, with that being the case, I'm much better educated now and better equipped to actually make a purchase. But, good lord, is there anything worse than a used car salesman?

Anyways, I am now pretty wiped from a long weekend, but ... I still have a lot to talk about in terms of movies and TV. I caught SHUTTER ISLAND on Sunday, which I'll be reviewing in this very post. But first, some TV Reviews:

- SMALLVILLE on Friday was a return to the overarching Zod storyline that's been running throughout the season. After the awesome Justice Society episode and the fun Zatanna ep, it felt like a bit of a come-down to dive back into the somewhat plodding Zod / Kandorian saga. The fact is, the storyline has had its moments, and Callium Blue has made Zod a more compelling adversary than he might have been otherwise ... but overall, this storyline has never 100% made sense, and it hasn't yet really picked up much steam. The future-looking ep in which Clark time travels to a world ruled by Zod was a highlight, but the show never quite built on that episode's key plot points in a really effective manner. Clark knew that Zod was planning to build a tower that would transform the earth's sun - granting Zod and his army superhuman powers while robbing Clark of his. And yet, Clark never really seemed to be doing much about it. Meanwhile, "Absolute Justice" set a bunch of other, more interesting storylines in motion - the JSA, Checkmate, and the reveal that Tess Mercer was, in fact, a Checkmate agent all along. So, yeah, now we're back to Zod, with little to no allusions to Tess' newly-revealed identity, and Clark back to treating Zod - aka the soon-to-to-be evil ruler of earth - with kid gloves.

On one hand, this ep did take steps to ramp up the Zod storyline. But first, it introduced YET ANOTHER storyline revolving around mind-control and characters not acting like themselves. Are you serious, Smallville? I mean, really? I like how at this point nobody even blinks when confronted with mind-control - Clark just sort of shrugs it off as "yep, here we go again." In fact, Clark even uses his meteor-rock-induced power of suggestion to get Zod to spill the beans on who killed Jor-El (funny how Clark waited until now to man up and get Zod to talk). But, the whole light-hearted, Valentine's Day Lois-as-domesticated-housewife storyline made for an odd contrast with the episode's more serious Zod plotline. I mean, why even bother with the Valentine's stuff? If the show ever does do a real Lois and Clark wedding, then episodes like this one only serve to undermine their relationship. How about a couple of episodes where we actually see why the two enjoy spending time together?

It's funny too because Clark barely even seemed interested in his own romantic subplot this week. Instead, he was occupied with the Kandorians and trying to peacefully win them over to the side of earth, and to turn them against Zod. When that didn't work, the show actually had a pretty damn badass moment: on the eve of Zod's unveiling of his new tower, Clark, perched on a gargoyle, Batman-style, uses his heat-vision to BURN THE TOWER DOWN. A surprisingly dark and cool ending to what was a really all-over-the-place episode. Hopefully, Clark's drastic actions at episode's end escalate this whole storyline, and we get back to big action and epic storytelling. And please, NO MORE MIND CONTROL storylines, EVER, for the love of god.

My Grade: B-


- Well, I gove THE SIMPSONS credit for at least attempting a unique (sort of) and ambitious storyline with Sunday's ep. But, what could have been a really cool episode fell flat as the jokes ran dry after the first commercial break. Basically, the premise was that Lisa researches her family's history, and comes across the diary of her Civil War-era ancestor whose family helped a slave escape to freedom via the famous Underground Railroad. It was an interesting idea, but just not a very funny one. Worse, instead of creating some interesting new characters for the episode, the flashbacks to the 1800's used the same device as the mostly-terrible "three stories" eps, in which the primary Simpsons characters are reimagined as historical dopplegangers. Nevermind the fact that, if Lisa was learning about her dad's side of the family, it makes no sense for the matriarch of the clan to be an 1800's version of Marge. Also nevermind the fact that Lisa already investigated her family history in the great ep "Lisa, The Simpson." Odd that in an episode that had numerous visual callbacks to classic episodes, the writers threw continuity out the door. On the plus side, the first several minutes of the ep were a lot of fun. Lisa's talk with Homer and Grandpa about the Simpson family history was filled with hilarity (I loved the jokes about how every Simpson was a bad apple, even Adam and Eve Simpson, aka the Rosenbergs). The heart of the episode, though, the Civil War era stuff, was just barely watchable. The jokes were only so-so, and while there was some visually appealling animation, the segments were mostly a bore. Still, a couple sequences that were packed with spot-on jokes (I also loved everything at the school's Black History Month assembly - Lisa's powerpoint presentation was great) helped save the episode from mediocrity.

My Grade: B-

- As for THE CLEVELAND SHOW, I think we've established by this point that episodes which focus on Cleveland Jr. = funny. This one was no exception, as the ep revolved around a pretty funny feud between father and son. Cleveland wanted Jr. to get a job, but the plan backfires when Jr. ends up working as a bartender at Cleveland's usual hangout spot. Jr. actually runs the place competently, unlike the usual owner (voiced by David Lynch!), and has Cleveland and his friends paying for their drinks and contending with a new, more upscale clientelle. It was sort of a cross between The Simpsons episode where Bart works at the Burlesque House and the one where Moe makes his bar more upscale. Nonetheless, it was funny, and Cleveland Jr. chopping off his dad's mustache in retaliation for Cleveland causing Jr. to lose his job was great. The Cleveland Show isn't yet a "great" comedy series, but it's still one of the more reliable fixtures of the FOX Sunday night lineup. And yeah, I know, American Dad. Well, I don't watch it, suckas.

My Grade: B+

Okay, time to take a look at Martin Scorsese's latest ...


- Shutter Island has a lot of the trappings of a truly great movie. An incredible cast. Moody, absorbing, mesmerizing direction from a master filmmaker - Martin Scorsese. A memorable, haunting score. At times, Shutter Island almost feels like a lost film noir from the 50's by way of The Twilight Zone. It's a movie that evokes the 50's not just in setting and theme but in style. It's a crime procedural that is also very much about the larger context of the era - trauma from WWII, the illusion of the suburbs and of postwar domestic tranquility - it's about H-Bombs and HUAC and the Cold War. And it's also about delivering that Twilight Zone-style headtrip - that feeling of "is everyone else crazy or is it just me?" It's a beautifully-shot movie, and it's an ambitious one. But ... I also don't think it's up there with Scorsese's best. Visually, the legendary director is at the top of his game. But this isn't necessarilly his thematic comfort zone. The script is a bit messy, a bit long and dragged-out. There are some very, very interesting twists and turns, but they aren't delivered with quite the punch that they should be. The movie has several intense, amazing scenes, but it also has some clunkers. Shutter Island is a memorable movie that's well worth seeing, but it falls short of true greatness, especially given the pedigree of talent involved.

Shutter Island starts off with a crackling setup. Through thick fog and cold water, two federal marshalls ride a ferry to an island off the coast of Boston. On the island is an asylum for the criminally insane, and somehow, one of the asylum's patients has escaped, and is currently missing. From the get-go, we get a feel for what Scorsese is going for in this one: thick atmosphere, an ominous, creepy vibe that's like a 50's film noir meets Kubrick's The Shining, and an air of otherworldly, hallucinagenic mystery. This isn't a gritty, realistic film - it's melodramatic, exaggerated, stylized, and oftentimes surreal.

Scorsese does everything he can to make the film pop. There are great, sweeping shots of the island - dangerous and foreboding - surrounded by jagged grey rocks and a stormy, violent ocean. Like the characters, we feel trapped, cut off from the outside world. As the mysteries deepen and the sense of paranoia increases, Scorsese ups the tension and quickens the pace. He also reminds us that our protagonist is an unreliable guide through this world. He suffers flashbacks to his WWII days, when he was a participant in the liberation of Dachau. He has nightmarish visions of his dead wife. His cool exterior belies a lot of inner turmoil. And Scorcese masterfully puts us in his headspace.

The cast is also very much up to the task of absorbing us in this noirish, nightmarish world. Leonardo DiCaprio has proved a reliable collaborater for Scorsese, and he's really good here as (duly-appointed!) federal marshall Teddy Daniels. He still looks young to me - it's hard to buy him as the sort of hard-boiled, grizzled army vet that he plays here. But, DiCaprio mostly sells it anyways. Meanwhile, there are a number of really amazing supporting turns in this one. Ben Kingsley is a scene stealer as the sinister-seeming doctor who oversees the asylum on Shutter Island. As Dr. Cawley, Kingsley is appropriately creepy and mysterious. Same goes for Max Von Sydow as a German colleague of Cawley's. It's interesting in that we've seen a lot of creepy asylum's in pop culture lately. Batman's Arkham Asylum (which, if you're a Batman nerd like me, you can't help but think of when you see this movie), for one, and the Victorian asylum of The Wolfman, for another (and some of those macabre methods of psychotherapy from Victorian times are alluded to in Shutter Island).

I also thought Mark Ruffallo was excellent as DiCaprio's partner-in-crime-fighting. Rufallo looks like he stepped right out of a 50's-era film noir, and he has some great moments in the film. Similarly great is Michelle Williams, who appears in flashback as Teddy's deceased wife. While some of William's scenes tend to drag (more the fault of the script), her impressive performance helps lift them up and make them watchable. Suffice it to say, I've seen Williams play eccentric, but after this movie, there's no doubt that she can also play crazy. Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earl Haley also have memorable cameo roles, as does Ted Levine as the asylum's devilish Warden.

The direction, the cast - both are stellar. The movie's main fault then, I think, lies in the script. As I alluded to, the script - an adaptation of the book by Dennis Lehane - is not as tight as it should be. And some of this is in the editing, too. Some scenes really drag. Some of the big reveals are very overexpository. And the movie beats you over the head with some of its big twists, essentially to prove that they hold up under the movie's internal logic. But still, you leave the movie wondering whether it all really fits together in the end. In the wake of movies like Memento that elegantly and dynamically fit together like a well-crafted puzzle, the various drawn-out reveals of Shutter Island feel clunky in comparison.

Still, this is a movie that is sure to provoke a lot of debate and discussion, and that's great. It's certainly well worth checking out, and there are any number of great scenes and memorable performances that make the movie enjoyable and absorbing. But it's a movie with A LOT going on, and it's a movie that ultimately leaves you scratching your head. With a narrative this complex and multilayered, the film desperately needed to come together like clockwork and to end with a bang in order to really resonate. And I'm not sure if Shutter Island really pulls that off. Still, it definitely has its moments.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, just about made it through another Monday. Stay tuned for thoughts on 24, and much more.

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