CRIMINAL MINDS: Reviews of Shutter Island and the Red Riding Trilogy

Well, I guess I just have to say it and shame the devil. As much as I admire Martin Scorsese and consider him to be one of the greatest American filmmakers today, Shutter Island did not remotely work for me. To explain why, though, it will be necessary for me to reveal the much of the plot, so be forewarned. The story actually fell apart for me in the opening scene in which Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a federal marshal, is on a ferry being taken to Shutter Island, a prison for mentally ill criminals, the worst of the worst. Just before the ferry docks, he meets Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), his new partner. Just before the ferry docks. Not on dry land in an office to review the case before leaving for the island. Not even as they get on board the ferry. But as the ferry is about to dock. This is such a poor set up, so badly written, that I could come up with only one explanation for the clunkiness—Teddy is not a federal marshal, but actually an inmate of the island. Once I realized that, it was just a matter of waiting around, and waiting around, and waiting around…and waiting around until the full reason for the deception was revealed. When it was revealed, and again I must be honest and shame the devil, I found the reason so preposterous (it was an elaborate ruse to try to cure Teddy of his delusions) that it was impossible for me to take any of it seriously. To paraphrase a friend of mine (who did like the movie), either the doctors on the island had way too much time on their hands, or they are the worst psychiatrists in the history of the world. The story also didn’t make sense on another level. Teddy is called the most dangerous inmate on the island. In the end, when the cure doesn’t take (big surprise there), he is to be lobotomized. But if Teddy is the most dangerous inmate on the island, there is no way you will ever make me believe the doctors there would give him free reign (they might be able to cover up Teddy killing another inmate, but if he kills anyone else—a doctor, nurse, staff member—there goes the whole shebang). If he’s not the most dangerous man on the island, then he doesn’t need to be lobotomized. Scorsese does what he can to make the holes in the story irrelevant (script by Laeta Kalogridis). But I think he overplays his hand here. I strongly suspect it would have worked better with a lower key approach ala a Val Lewton movie. Then again, with a story line as preposterous as the one here, maybe Scorsese made the right decision. But the real question perhaps is why does Scorsese feels he needs to make movies like this anymore? Is this really the sort of film that interests him? He’s won his Oscar. Let him get back to the kind of personal films he used to make.
The Red Riding Trilogy is three movies, Red Riding 1974, Red Riding 1980 and Red Riding 1983. They are inspired by true events, but not the events that the previews suggest are the source. For a number of years leading up to 1980, prostitutes were being murdered by a serial killer called the Yorkshire Ripper. But only Red Riding 1980 deals in any way with the Ripper and only then in a tangential way. The real basis of the Red Riding series is the disappearance of three little girls leading up to 1974. It ended when one of the girls was found raped and left for dead; a mentally slow man was set up for the murder; and there was a shoot out at a local club that killed a local businessman who was planning to build a shopping mall in the area. Thus the abduction of the little girls ended. 1974 deals with a reporter who discovers that the real child abductor is the businessman; but the reporter is manipulated by the incredibly corrupt local police (who for some reason the businessman has brought in on the building of the mall) to kill the businessman at the club (not entirely believable; it’s one of those things that looks great on screen, but when one starts going over it afterwards it doesn’t quite gel; all I could think is how much of a chance the police were taking; what if the reporter had done the more realistic and believable action of going to the London newspapers or getting a lawyer and filing suit). 1980 does deal with the Yorkshire Ripper, but only to the extent that one of his victims doesn’t fit with the others (like that Sesame Street ditty). An out of town detective is hired to look into it and into police corruption, but only ends up getting murdered by the police in a cover up of the earlier crimes. 1983 begins with the disappearance of a little girl and the public wondering if the original abductor has returned. One of those lame lawyers who rises to the occasion is the lead here and he discovers the real truth—I suppose; I was never quite sure how it all played out and some of the details seem a bit fuzzy. Though all three movies were written by the same person (Tony Grisoni), each was directed by someone different. There is something about the grimy, depressing film noir atmosphere of the whole thing that sticks with one and makes one want to watch the whole thing. You do get caught up in it just enough to want to see that pay off, hoping that even though the story’s not making a whit of sense, it will when the third film is over. But that pay off never arrived for me. I talked about the film for about thirty minutes with a fellow theater patron who also saw all three films. We could reconstruct the plot more or less, but not in a way that we could make hide or hair of it; we spent most of our time just listing the plot twist and turns that could not be explained or weren’t believable. It’s one of those films in which the corruption is so widespread the courts and newspapers are in on it just as much as the police are. And not just the local police. The central character in the second film, a police detective, has his house arsoned in another district and no one seems to look into it. The acting is fine, filled with the top tier of the British B level thespians (the A levels are all off doing the Harry Potter films). It’s a frustrating set of movies, mainly because one so wants it to be better than they are.

AND THEY’RE HEADING FOR THE FINISH LINE: The BAFTAs and the WGA announce their winners

The BAFTAs and WGA Awards have come and gone so now it’s pretty much over but the waiting. It’s not unusual for the BAFTAs to match up with the Oscars (they gave the best actress award to Marion Cotillard, for example, when many, including moi, expected it to be Julie Christie), even though the voting bloc only partially overlaps. I think this year, their awarding Best Picture, Director and Screenplay to The Hurt Locker pretty much seals the deal for Bigelow and company. However, I think Best Actor will not go to Colin Firth (as it did at the BAFTAs, though common wisdom had it that Firth was going to win the Oscar until Crazy Heart was rushed to an earlier release), but to Jeff Bridges. And Carey Mulligan will also not win Best Actress (as she did at the BAFTAs). That should still go to Sandra Bullock (who wasn’t nominated for a BAFTA; The Blind Side hasn’t opened in England); even if it didn’t go to Bullock, the Oscar would probably go to Meryl Streep.

The WGA awards went to the expected winners of the Oscars: The Hurt Locker for original screenplay and Up in the Air for adapted. It is true that some screenplays nominated for Oscars, like Inglorious Basterds and In the Loop, weren’t eligible for WGA awards. But The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air were the expected winners long before the WGA nominations were even announced. The Hurt Locker should now win Best Picture and Director, which means it should win the screenplay award as well. Up in the Air, which for some time was expected to win Best Picture until it peaked too early, should get the adapted screenplay as the consolation prize.

DANGER IS MY MIDDLE NAME: Reviews of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and Terribly Happy

The Most Dangerous Man in America is one of the five documentaries nominated for a 2009 Oscar. I grew up during the period covered in the film and though, as a teenager in Corpus Christi, Texas, politics didn’t really interest me that much (I escaped the draft by one year), I do have memories of some of the events related in this movie. As I got older, I did come to realize that the American people were often lied to by their government in regards to Viet Nam (the attacks on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin were pure fabrication, for example). At the same time, it still never ceases to amaze me the extent to which the deception went. I don’t know why it should. One of the rather scary aspects of the film is just how much it reminds me of our involvement in Iraq and the government’s lying about weapons of mass destruction. But why should the government of the past be any different than the government of the present? Even more nightmarish, perhaps, is to realize that Henry Kissinger was actually the voice of reason in a White House that, under Richard Nixon, wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on North Viet Nam. It’s narrated by many of the people who actually took part in the events, as well as by the title hero himself, Daniel Ellsberg, still alive and still protesting. He started out as a hawk and conservative, but came to realize that the war had to be stopped and hoped that releasing the top secret Pentagon Papers, which revealed the history of the U.S. involvement in the Southeast Asia from as far back as Truman, would do just that. It didn’t, at least not directly, much to Ellsberg’s disappointment. Nixon was reelected in spite of the Papers publication. But it did put such pressure on the paranoid White House that Nixon started doing things like having people break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist office and try to break into the Democratic headquarters at Watergate. The shame of the crimes forced Nixon to resign and end the war. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the Papers’ publication was the Supreme Court ruling allowing them to be published, which meant that just because the government says something is top secret, that doesn’t mean it should be. For those of you who like a love story, this also has that as well; there is a sweet through line of Daniel’s wooing of his second wife Patricia, an anti-war activist. You can still see the love in their eyes. This is a strong, fascinating documentary, clearly told by the writers Michael Chandler, Judith Ehrlich (who also directed), Rick Goldsmith (who also directed) and Lawrence Lerew. See it on a double bill with The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s filming of one long monologue by the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara who turned against the war after supporting it and lying about it. He also makes an appearance in the movie in old news footage where he gets off a plane after being briefed by Ellsberg about the hopelessness of the war. McNamara fully agreed with Ellsberg, but there he is, telling reporters that victory is right around the corner.

Terribly Happy has an Oscar connection as well. It was Denmark’s official entry in the foreign film category. It wasn’t chosen, however. To be honest, I can’t say I’m that disappointed. It’s about a police officer in Copenhagen who pulls a gun on his wife when he catches her with another man. For recovery (and punishment), he’s sent to a very, very, very small town that has its own ways of doing things, like killing and dumping people they don’t like in a bog (it almost reads like a very, very, very serious version of Hot Fuzz). The officer is pursued sexually by the wife of the town alpha male and bully, who often beats her for flirting with other men. This leads to tragedy for the wife and bully who end up getting killed by the officer, crimes covered up by the town. From that summary, it sounds like my cup of tea. But Terribly Happy never grabbed me. I wasn’t always sure why. I know that at the beginning the officer comes across as so incompetent I had little interest or sympathy for him. He seemed over his head, but not because the town had its own set of rules, but because he didn’t know what he was doing. The killing of the wife seemed a bit forced and unintentionally funny. And the ending where the town joins forces to stop the officer from returning to Copenhagen by threatening to tell the authorities what really happened didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know why they wanted to keep this guy around. He’s not the most popular addition to a party. And why you would want to have someone around who got away with killing two people is beyond me; after all, the more someone kills and gets away with it, the more likely he is to kill again. And the same people who didn’t want him to call the police after the wife died because secrets of the town would come out, not seem to suddenly have no problem going to the police themselves. What would they do if the officer called their bluff? They’d be in almost as much trouble as he would. The screenplay is by Dunja Gry Jensen and the director Henrik Ruben Genz. There’s something about the unusual setting and the dark, Scandanavian mood about the whole thing that is somewhat interesting in itself. It tries to be different, character and atmosphere rather than formula directed and I wanted to be involved. I’m also willing to concede that it was me and not the film. But I just couldn’t get that terribly happy about it.

THE FRENCH THEY ARE A FUNNY RACE: Reviews of A Town Called Panic and District 13 Ultimatum

A Town Called Panic is an animated film from France that uses plastic figures that stand on tiny plastic surfaces, like the ones your parents use to play with when they were kids, but one doesn’t see as often anymore. The main figures are a horse and the cowboy and Indian who live in his house. The inciting incident happens when the cowboy and Indian order bricks to build a barbeque for the horse’s birthday and instead of ordering 50, accidentally order 50 million (hey, it happens). After that, it’s one non-sequitorial sequence after another. I have to be honest. At first this feature went right over my head. I had no idea why it was suppose to be funny or what the jokes were. Part of this may be because I didn’t understand what a cowboy and Indian were doing living in a small French village or why the French would find that tres amusement. There were times I was wondering if the humor was a result of one of those great cultural divides. But about half way through when the three characters are trapped in a gigantic metal penguin by mad scientists who are creating humongous snowballs to throw at random targets, I started getting into it, realizing there really wasn’t anything to get into. It was just suppose to be funny because it was funny. It didn’t have to make sense in the same way Monty Python or The Family Guy don’t have to make sense. At the same time, I did feel the whole thing was stretched out a bit too long and so thought it would work better as a series of shorts in which the cowboy and Indian were always causing problems the horse had to solve. I wasn’t surprised then to discover it was based on a TV series (the writers and directors of that, Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, also did the movie) and each episode was very short (four minutes or so). When I found that out, then it all really started to make sense.

District 13 Ultimatum is the sequel to District B13, a French action film about life in the future in a walled off section of Paris where all the poor and criminal elements are segregated. District B13 was exciting and fresh (in spite of being produced and co-written by Luc Besson) with non-stop Parkour action sequences (for those unfamiliar with Parkour, it’s a type of fighting and chase and pursuit scenes in which the participants are extremely acrobatic and use actual locations as part of the sequence—sort of the same thing that Jackie Chan does, but exaggerated and with more attitude, if that’s possible). The sequel is also exciting and still somewhat fresh (in spite of being written by Luc Besson) with non-stop Parkour action sequences. The plot in many ways is the same. Someone wants to blow up District 13 (is the area destined to become the new Tokyo which still gets destroyed periodically by various gigantic monsters). The motives have been updated; in this one the head of national security and head of the secret police are manipulating the President of France (who is totally innocent here; it’s one thing to go to the brink, it’s another to jump into it) to blow up the area so a business called Harriburton (not too subtle, but neither is the movie) can build skyscrapers (or as much of skyscraper can be built in France since no building can be taller than the Eiffel Tower). All the various gangs have to join forces to put a stop to what is going on; France’s honor is saved by those who have been most dishonored by their country (how French). The same heroes are back: Cyril Raffaelli is the honest cop and David Belle is the honest crook. There’s a great opening sequence where Raffaelli dressed as a stripper with chains in his butt crack (you had to be there) has to save a Van Gogh while taking out a drug lord; the plot doesn’t let up after that. If you liked District B13, I can’t imagine you not liking this. If you didn’t like District B13, well, that’s your problem.

AND THEIR ENTERING THE HOME STRETCH: Invictus gets Blind Sided as the Oscar noms are announced

The Oscar nominations were announced today and I didn’t do too badly on my predictions. I missed one best picture, choosing Invictus over The Blind Side (which, I have to say, really surprised me). I got all the directors right.

I got all the Best Actor and Actresses right. I missed one Best Supporting Actor, choosing Alfred Molina over Stanley Tucci (not a surprise, but a disappointment for me). For Best Supporting Actress I got two wrong. I got the right picture, but wrong choice for Nine. I chose Marion Cottilard over Penelope Cruz, but I was stupid to have chosen Cottilard in the first place. The real surprise here is Maggie Gyllenhaal over Julianne Moore (a real disappointment).

As for animation, who would have chosen The Secret of the Kells even if they didn’t chose Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but I got the others right.

I did better than usual on the screenplays. This is usually my weakest guess. I got everything right, except I missed one in Best Original Screenplay. (500) Days of Summer lost out to Up, which for me is a real disappointment.

My biggest error though was in best foreign language film. Though I didn’t predict foreign language noms, I thought the Netherland film Winter in Wartime was going to win. It wasn’t even nominated.

So far my biggest shock is The Beaches of Agnes not getting a documentary nod.

THE RETURN OF MEL: A review of Edge of Darkness

Edge of Darkness, the new Mel Gibson movie, is a rather typical conspiracy film, most notably in the way that there is an evil organization that seems to have omnipotent power to get away with anything and everything; the only thing they can never seem to do is kill off various characters before they manage to give the hero just enough information to keep the plot going. The movie is entertaining enough and there are some good performances in it, especially by Danny Huston as the head of the evil corporation who, to paraphrase Pauline Kael, shows his penchant for playing rotting people. Mel Gibson is, well, Mel Gibson, but with a Boston accent that is never quite convincing. In fact, the only actors in the movie who have a convincing accent are Ray Winstone and Daniel Huston because both stick to their own. The movie is written by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell. Monahan also adapted Infernal Affairs into the Departed and as in that movie, Edge of Darkness (adapted from a British miniseries) takes place in the city of baked beans, the town de jour for police corruption. The script, as well as the direction by Martin (Casino Royale) Campbell, is manipulative and at times not that believable. There’s one fantastic scene where Gibson confronts Huston in his limo. But another scene has a friend of Gibson’s daughter get killed (after giving Gibson that next bit of important info, of course) in a shocking and brutal manner; it’s emotionally effective until you realize it was impossible for it to have happened the way it did. The motivations for the evil doers are a bit unclear, though some of what they are trying to do is very clever. All in all, it’s a serviceable enough time waster.

AND WE’RE HITTING THE HOME STRETCH: My predictions as to who will be nominated for Academy Awards tomorrow morning

I posted previously who I thought would make the cut tomorrow when the Academy Award nominations are released. Today, with only one day to go, I am updating my predictions for the top categories.

Best Motion Picture


District 9

An Education

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds



A Serious Man


Up in the Air

I dropped Nine and Julia and Julie and replaced them with An Education and Invictus. Nine crashed and burned upon opening and Julia and Julie, which was once a sure thing got lost in the shuffle, I think. I predict now that The Hurt Locker will win picture because Up in the Air peaked too soon and The Hurt Locker hasn’t even peaked.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

Helen Mirren, The Last Station

Carey Mulligan, An Education

Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia

I dropped Emily Blunt who was always questionable. After Bullocks win at the SAG and Golden Globes, her nom seems certain and will probably win now over Meryl Streep.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart

George Clooney, Up in the Air

Colin Firth, A Single Man

Morgan Freeman, Invictus

Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

I added Renner as the fifth. Bridges is expected to win.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Marion Cotillard, Nine

Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air

Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air

Mo’Nique, Precious

Julianne Moore, A Single Man

I have no changes here, but I’m uncertain about Marion Cotillard, but not sure who would get in if she doesn’t make it.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Pictur

Matt Damon, Invictus

Woody Harrelson, The Messenger

Alfred Molina, An Education

Christopher Plummer, The Last Station

Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

I have sorrowfully removed Christian McKay for Me and Orson Welles and put in Matt Damon for Invictus. Christoph Waltz is suppose to walk away with it.

Best Animated Feature Film


Fantastic Mr. Fox

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

The Princess and the Frog


No changes here.

Best Director – Motion Picture

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker

James Cameron, Avatar

Lee Daniels, Precious

Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

No changes here, but I think Cameron may win director.

Best Screenplay – Motion Picture – Original

Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, 500 days of summer

Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker

Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Pete Docter, Bob Petersen, Thomas McCarthy, Up; Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman, The Messenger

Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man

I had In the Loop in the wrong category. So now I have to add another and am not sure what to add, but decided to go for the Messenger.

Best Screenplay – Motion Picture – Adapted

Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9

Nick Hornby, An Education

Harold P. Manning, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Ian Martin, Tony

Roche, In the Loop

Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious

Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

I’ve added In the Loop to this list.