Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Blu-ray Roundup: Unreliable Protagonists

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blu-ray Roundup: Unreliable Protagonists

by Tony Dayoub

Three very recent releases on Blu-ray span the range of genres—from post-apocalyptic action to creepy psychothriller to historical "how"-dunnit. However, they do have one thing in common. Though they might have their flaws, each is still able to draw its viewers in by delivering a skillful shell game at the hands of a distrustful and unreliable protagonist.

By far, the most ambitious of the three movies is Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. This fifties-set haunted house picture, Scorsese's fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed), is set in a mental institution just off of the shores of New England. DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels is a twitchy U.S. Marshall investigating an inmate's disappearance from the asylum, where something about the locale starts taking a toll on his own mental health. Like its main character, I'm of two minds on this film. I admire the skill Scorsese (The Aviator) displays throughout the movie in his threading of clues that Daniels is not being completely forthcoming to neither the viewer nor himself. But it is this same care and fastidiousness with Shutter Island's formal elements (overtones and homages to fifties suspense films and Kubrick's The Shining) which distract and distance one from true emotional involvement, undermining the impact of what could otherwise be some powerful revelations at the end of the film. Still, DiCaprio's final line packs a considerable punch, yet again inverting everything about the film you've already thought you figured out.

A very different film by Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace II Society), The Book of Eli (2010) is a science fiction/action parable which for the most part succeeds in finding something new to say in the limited post-atomic war genre by focusing much of the story on faith. Denzel Washington's titular prophet spends much of the film trying not to draw comparisons to Leone's "Man with No Name," a near impossibility given the way the Hughes Brothers have cryptically framed every panoramic shot of the washed out terrain he walks. But quirky takes on the typical tropes (I Am Legend's hero may have favored preserving Bob Marley for posterity, but Eli's enjoyment of Al Green rings far truer); some ambitious setpieces like a 3-minute one take (okay, they trick it a bit) depiction of a farmhouse siege; and a strong supporting cast which includes Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, and Gary Oldman, raise this movie above the average dick flick. And the final twist regarding Eli's deceptive protection of a holy artifact is an inspired one.

Neil Burger's The Illusionist (2006) almost lost me with the inappropriate casting of the wooden Jessica Biel as a countess for which a couple of men risk taking down the Viennese monarchy. Focusing on magician Edward Norton and crown prince Rufus Sewell's battle of wills—mediated by police inspector Paul Giamatti—I was impressed with the way Burger elicits such understated performances from three of the hammiest actors this side of William Shatner (and believe me, my taste for a delicious hambone proves this is a high compliment to them all). In fact, the seething passion and torment roiling underneath the well-plotted surface only finds voice in one of the best orchestral film scores in recent memory composed by the usually cerebral Philip Glass (The Truman Show). Like Mamet's films (Mamet repertory player Ricky Jay consults on this film), The Illusionist amounts to one long tricky con game which can only be savored on a second viewing.

All three films look and sound perfect on Blu; there's not much to speak of in that sense. So it all comes down to the extras. The Book of Eli includes both DVD and digital download versions and has the most technically oriented shorts, with behind-the-scenes on the stunts, production design, and so forth. Shutter Island features only two extras, but these are the most informative explanations on the making of a film I've seen included on a recent release in quite a long time (note to studios: don't be afraid to include featurettes which lean more towards informative than promotional; Shutter Island is unafraid to discuss its narrative after throwing up a simple "spoiler" warning on their shorts). The Illusionist gets points for giving us a Blu-ray solely devoted to the film, extra encoding space utilized to give the film a beautiful look and sound. It solves the issues of special features by rereleasing the original extra-laden DVD copy along with the Blu in a combo pack. Where it gets one strike against it is in failing to include any subtitles whether it be in a foreign language or for the hearing impaired.


Sam Juliano said...

I am no fan of THE ILLUSIONIST either, but I do think THE BOOK OF ELI is a kind of guilty pleasure, and I can only imagine what an excellent blu-ray is it. SHUTTER ISLAND of course is the kind of film for which the format was created, and I am a proud of owner!

Tony Dayoub said...

Hey Sam,

Nice to see you around these parts again.

So I think we're in agreement on THE BOOK OF ELI; good popcorn flick. It sounds like I find SHUTTER ISLAND more flawed than you do, but it is growing on me (not an unusual response when it comes to Scorsese's films since around, oh, GOODFELLAS... they usually have to marinate in my psyche for a while).

As for THE ILLUSIONIST, I found it to be a bit of self-important cheese. But... Glass' score is transcendent. And I'm amazed Burger pulled off the plot so cleanly (I'm not aware of any holes). Most of all, he directed these three notoriously scenery-chewing actors to underplay quite well. In hindsight, THE ILLUSIONIST suffered from comparisons to another 2006 magician movie which came out after it, THE PRESTIGE. Nolan's film is far better, But Burger does an outstanding job in only his sophomore film effort.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks for the comprehensive response Tony! I am happy to be back at this always-enriching place.