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Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (6/23/12)

Movie Poster: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith

Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas

How long is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? 105 minutes.
What is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter rated? R for violence throughout and brief sexuality.

CLR Rating: 2/5 stars

Movie Still: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Benjamin Walker, as Abraham Lincoln, in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Photo: Alan Markfield/TM and ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Completely silly, thoroughly entertaining revisionist history swept under the rug by Pixar’s latest.

It’s sweltering throughout the southern US right now, and in hot weather people flock to theaters – it’s dark, cool, and often foolishly entertaining in there this time of year. On June 22nd, theaters around the country were packed with people anxiously awaiting Pixar’s latest (and from all the preliminary reviews, greatest). So when I waltzed into the theater showing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, prepared to scout out seats for myself and a few friends, I was stunned to see the trailer for Django Unchained playing to five hundred empty seats.

The great thing about an empty theater is that you can act out your own (not as awesome) version of MST3K, project your aggression onto the characters onscreen, and generally act like a fool. In other words, it’s the best environment in which to take in a movie like Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Fantastical revisionist histories are not a new thing (see: CSA: Confederate States of America, Red Dawn), but inserting supernatural beings into great literature (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies) and into the lives of America’s most beloved presidents is a fairly recent trend. In Timur Bekmambetov’s latest offering (penned by and based on the titular book by Seth Grahame-Smith), Honest Abe, that lanky gentleman with the top hat whose pleasant face graces our least valuable coin, is…well, what else? He’s a vampire hunter. Grahame-Smith weaves Lincoln’s passion for Abolition together with his other, secret obsession: ridding this great nation of vampires.

During the 16th President’s childhood in Indiana, Grahame-Smith writes, Abe got on the wrong side of a slaveowner as boy-Abe struggled to protect his black best friend, Will Johnson. Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), wearing darkly tinted sunglasses and a perpetual sneer brimming with ragged yellow teeth, is not just a simple Southern man; he attacks Abe’s mother in the dead of night, sucking the blood from her body as Abe watches.

Years later, a teenaged Abraham (Benjamin Walker, a perfect casting choice if ever there was one) seeks out Barts to wreak vengeance for his mother’s murder. So begins our nation’s forefather’s journey into the depths of hell – and one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve seen in awhile. Every vampire hunter needs a mentor (Buffy Summers has Giles, Blade had Whistler), and in Abe’s case the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) provides. Sturgess warns him, “No friends, no wife; you can have no one.” Well, as we all know, that isn’t how it worked out. Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was at the time engaged to senator Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), finds herself infatuated with Abe’s passion and sense of adventure, and before long the two are married. (As a side note, using “Firefly”’s favorite pilot and Scott Pilgrim’s favorite lady in one movie ups the nerd factor in a good way.) Lincoln’s life progresses the way the history books tell it – he becomes a successful lawyer, attains the Presidency, and has a son with Mary, all while struggling to keep the nation safe from the undead.

These undead, led by Adam (perpetually spooky Rufus Sewell), saw slavery in the US for its lucrative properties…but also as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Seeing as how people were effectively chattel, they made very easy targets for the bloodsuckers. These undead led the Confederate Army into battle – and how could the Yankees fight the immortal?

But that would be revealing too much. What you need to know about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is this: you’ll almost certainly enjoy yourself. You will laugh. The characters do unbelievable things with ordinary tools; they toss each other like rag dolls; they bounce back after mortal blows. You know that scene in every second action film where a hero and villain battle atop moving traffic, leaping improbable lengths while hurling objects at each other at the expense of public safety? Well, no one had mass-produced automobiles yet in the beginning of Abe Lincoln’s life, so instead there are mustangs (it’s brilliant). The final scene takes place atop a moving steam locomotive (Wanted‘s Bekmambetov enjoys trains).

I’m wary of 3D, as anyone who’s read my writing before knows. I blame James Cameron for this blight on cinema. It’s a scam. So few filmmakers know how to use it correctly, so few theaters truly understand how to accommodate the technology, that it often makes for a more frustrating moviegoing experience than plain old 2D.

That’s not true of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. 3D is a perfect venue for a movie like this one. Bekmambetov’s vampires have shimmering eyes whose effect is truly chilling with the extra “dimension;” their eyes glint like a cat’s in the dark. The filmmakers’ meticulous attention to detail graces the viewer with glowing cinders and floating dust motes that stir pleasantly to and fro in the depth of the frame. Further, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel evidently worked closely with visual effects crew to ensure that the movie is filmed brightly, starkly, so that the darkening effect of 3D glasses doesn’t detract from what you see onscreen.

The writing, while snappy and catchy, is trite and worthy of good-natured mocking. “True power lies not in hatred, but in truth!” Sturgess screams to Abe, as the not-yet-Pres sends a whole tree flying with one blow of his axe. “Men have enslaved each other since they invented gods to forgive them for doing it,” says Adam, threatening Abraham. As with Bekmambetov’s other films, the emphasis here isn’t on reality, but fantasy. The director’s signature speedy, frenetic zooms punctuate a film that’s smoothly paced and winkingly earnest. The characters perform impossible deeds in stylized slow motion so that we’re too enamored of how cool it looks to care that it’s impossible.

I won’t go so far as to recommend intoxicants to go along with Abe Lincoln. However, I can suggest that it might be even more entertaining, if that’s your thing. The empty theater on opening tells a tragic story of audience apathy, but you’ll come away satisfied. It’s not good; not by a long shot. I predict a small cult following, but only after the Brave hype dies down. Anyone who’s enamored of Bekmambetov will enjoy herself, and anyone who takes pleasure in revisionist history will love the intertwining of reality and fantasy (or is it fantasy?). It’s a fun movie for a hot summer evening – and after you’ve seen Brave (Because who are we kidding here? That’s obviously your priority), you’d probably do well to check it out. Or, you know, you can wait until DVD.

Movie Review: The Descendants (11/19/11)

Movie Poster: The Descendants

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon

George Clooney as Matt King
Shailene Woodley as Alexandra King
Amara Miller as Scottie King
Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer
Nick Krause as Sid

How long is The Descendants? 115 minutes.
What is The Descendants rated? R for language including some sexual references.

CLR Rating: 3/5 stars

Movie Still: The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s latest brings us
the best and worst of grief and humiliation.

On opening night of the 2011 Virginia Film Festival, the new George Clooney/Alexander Payne vehicle The Descendants is sold out. A palpable buzz fills the theater, as much for the beginning of the festival as for the evening’s feature. I’ll admit, I knew little about the movie prior to the screening – but Payne’s name is enough to get me in a theater seat. With 1999’s Election, Payne handed us an older, grayer, and totally deplorable Matthew Broderick, ruining the teenage dreams of Ferris Bueller fans (and he showed us that romcom queen Reese Witherspoon has serious range). In 2004, Sideways put Paul Giamatti and a naked Thomas Haden Church on the pop culture map as pathetic middle-aged wine connoisseurs. With The Descendants, Payne turns his brutal but loving hand to Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel about a cuckolded widower (played by Clooney, who is far more believable as a grieving father than as a cuckold) and his dysfunctional quest to find the man with whom his comatose wife was stepping out.

The story could take place anywhere; it bears a passing resemblance to one arc in John Irving’s New England-set The World According to Garp. Fortunately for the audience, though, Payne’s newest flick takes place in that paradise of sparkling sand and cerulean sea, Hawaii. Matt King (Clooney) is a member of one of Oahu’s wealthiest dynasties. As his family struggles to make an enormous, far-reaching real estate decision, Matt’s wife falls into a coma as the result of a speedboat accident. Matt, who until the accident was the “backup parent, the understudy,” finds himself saddled with two foulmouthed daughters. Seventeen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has a bit of a drinking problem, and apparently has kicked her drug habit following her expulsion from the last fancy private school she tried. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) has a cruel streak and an entirely understandable obsession with death and sex. When Alexandra stops acting out long enough to tell Matt his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was cheating on him, Elizabeth’s impending death takes on a decidedly more confusing hue. In one of the worst parenting decisions committed to film, Matt takes his dysfunctional family, which now includes Alex’s twerp surfer friend Sid (Nick Krause), to Kauai to hunt down the man with whom Elizabeth was sleeping.

Payne is best at depicting the niggling, cringe-worthy flaws of your average Joe. His movies are smart depictions of normal people thrust into bizarre situations – but softly strange, not so farfetched as to be impossible. Like The Squid and the Whale’s Noah Baumbach, Payne chooses topics that are grotesque, darkly comic. You laugh because you can’t figure out what else to do with yourself. The Descendants intersperses chuckles with poignant portrayals of grief. People respond in viscerally nasty ways to death – they lash out at one another, they place blame, they stubbornly deny that anything at all is wrong. In fact, all five Kübler-Ross stages of grief are present in Payne’s movie. One could argue people are at their worst after the death of a loved one – and in Payne’s deft hands even people at their worst are a morbid pleasure to watch.

The Kings finally locate Elizabeth’s lover Brian Speer. Speer turns out to be none other than Matthew Lillard (I only bring this up because, well, who in her right mind would choose Matthew Lillard over George Clooney?). Even worse, he’s a real estate agent heavily invested in Matt’s family’s land. In a final dagger straight to Matt’s heart, Speer has a family: pretty wife Julie (Judy Greer) and two young children. After a brief and intensely awkward confrontation, Matt can finally return to the grieving process, and as always in road movies (which this is, despite its oceanic setting), the characters grow closer together.

The majority of Americans, of course, live in the lower 48, and to us Hawaii is as exotic as a foreign country. In the opening monologue, Matt asks, “Do you think just because we live here, our heartaches are less painful?” Juxtaposed with shots of Hawaii’s overpopulated cities and homeless – the things that don’t come to mind when we think of that idyllic state – the question is startling. Likewise, it’s jarring to see Hawaii’s most influential businesspeople dressed in khaki shorts and (obviously) Hawaiian shirts: “Don’t be fooled,” Matt warns us. “The most powerful people often resemble bums and stuntmen.” Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael walk a fine line; although Hawaii is undeniably gorgeous, for the most part the beauteous landscape takes a backseat to the microdrama on the surface of the islands.

Clooney, who’s falling into common typecasting for older actors, is perhaps too suave for the role. Nonetheless he’s believable as a man stumbling into parenthood, meandering through grief, and tripping over pointless jealousy. Lillard and Greer, both comedic actors usually relegated to the role of funny sidekick, remain firmly on planet earth in The Descendants. Woodley, Miller, and Krause form a team of quirky, eventually likeable young things to bolster Clooney through his journey. Robert Forster puts in great screen time as Elizabeth’s bitter, grief-stricken father, spewing vitriol and placing blame. Though Payne is undoubtedly a great filmmaker and Clooney will draw audiences thanks to that charm, that coif, and that beautifully graying stubble, the movie isn’t brilliant. It’s a bit tonally uneven, a bit heavy on the profanity. It isn’t destined to go down in history with Election. But those like me, who are drawn to family-oriented melodramas infused with a bit of comedy, will find a perfectly likeable movie with a number of genuinely hilarious scenes. It’s smart, sad, and painful all at once, but the execution isn’t snappy enough to draw Oscar gossip. It’s a perfectly passable dramedy, but it isn’t among the best.

Movie Review: Fright Night (8/20/11)

Movie Poster: Fright Night

Fright Night

Directed by Craig Gillespie
Screenplay by Marti Noxon

Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster
Colin Farrell as Jerry
Toni Collette as Jane Brewster
David Tennant as Peter Vincent
Imogen Poots as Amy
Chris Sarandon as Jay Dee

How long is Fright Night? 106 minutes.
What is Fright Night rated? “R” for bloody horror violence and language including some sexual references.

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Fright Night

Toni Collette, Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin star in Fright Night.

Remake features wit and gore,
easily has more bite than the original.

Horror film comes in all shapes and sizes: you have slashers, torture porn, psychological horror, horror-comedies, deliberate B-horror, artsy scare flicks (which the foreign market largely has covered), and myriad others. Finally, there’s a little-appreciated subgenre that’s largely been put to rest since the eighties: the adventuresome, fun horror movie. These inevitably feature plucky kids battling some terrifying force of evil: think The Lost Boys, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, or “IT.” One of the lesser eighties-era adventuresome horror flicks was 1985’s Fright Night. Seeing as how The Lost Boys just had its third sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street had a remake last year, and “IT” is being remade for release in 2012, Fright Night was ripe for a redux.

The Fright Night remake doesn’t follow in the footsteps of most horror retries – it’s stylish, smart, and well done. Charlie (Anton Yelchin) and his single mother Jane (Toni Collette) live in a cookie-cutter suburb of Las Vegas, full of newly built houses set thirteen feet apart on identical lots complete with beige vinyl siding and cheap, pretty interiors. Jerry (Colin Farrell), a seductive blue-collar construction worker, moves in next door to Charlie. Suddenly, empty desks become more frequent in homeroom; kids go missing from school. Charlie’s friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) starts to suspect Jerry is none other than that creature of eternal darkness, a vampire.

The original Fright Night was great precisely because it joined the ranks of films that grant agency and preternatural knowledge to teenagers. In the aforementioned films, adolescents battle against not only an inexplicable force of evil, but against adulthood itself. In the new Fright Night, Charlie shirks his former persona as a role-playing nerd in favor of horrible friends who twitchily flick emo-kid hair out of their stoned eyes. His new girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) would like to go farther than Charlie is comfortable with, and Charlie’s too preoccupied with the new vampire neighbor to have relations with his girl. Of course, a youthful penchant for make-believe comes in handy when the pretend enemy turns out to be very real.

Because he lives just outside Sin City (although this is never explained), Charlie is inundated with the propaganda of Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a Criss Angel facsimile who looks like Russell Brand at his most dramatic. Vincent, whose stage show is called Fright Night, claims to be a vampire slayer but is full of theatrics and little else. In the original, Peter Vincent (played by Roddy McDowall) was a B-movie actor whose ilk probably included Christopher Lee and Elvira. He’d been making bank from “vampire killing” for so long that he had no idea how to actually kill vampires – because of course according to adulthood, vampires aren’t real. In the remake, Tennant plays Vincent as a frustrated egomaniac whose antics are a result of a tragic childhood vampire incident. When Charlie approaches him, Vincent is appreciably iffy, but of course the two end up battling the demon together.

The cast seems to be having a lot of fun throughout the movie. Colin Farrell, whose pale skin and dark brows make for a stark contrast even without vampire makeup, ably takes on the role that Chris Sarandon played in the original – sexy, superbly composed ladies’ man whose eyes betray not a hint of emotion. Anton Yelchin (Running With Scissors, Charlie Bartlett), who displays a self-effacing comedic style similar to Michael Cera’s, is more than adequate as the lead. Imogen Poots, playing a role that’s supposed to be rather unlikable, lends to Amy more than a pretty face. Naturally the kids-battle-evil subgenre has to feature a number of adults who refuse to believe, but in Fright Night Toni Collette’s Jane is pretty quick to jump on the vampire bandwagon after a vicious attack on her home. Christopher Mintz-Plasse probably leaped at the opportunity to don Greg Nicotero’s faux gore and let axes swing at his neck. Best of all is David Tennant, who’s known best as the tenth Doctor Who; the actor gets to swagger around in leather pants scratching his testicles and cursing at scantily clad women, and he’s good at it.

Discerning “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fans will have noticed Fright Night’s screenplay is written by Marti Noxon, who penned some of the best episodes of the WB show. Who better to take on a screenplay about a solo teenager combating vampires? Noxon’s screenplay is witty, gory, and fast-paced. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who also did memorable work on The Others, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and The Road, made Vegas, a city of lights and constant motion, seem remarkably cold and foreboding. His exacting camerawork blends with 3D technology to create an experience that’s worth it. If I’m going to pay for 3D glasses (which is a racket), I want things to fly out of the screen at me – and Fright Night features some good 3D effects.

I’ve lamented before that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, particularly when it comes to horror. We’re seeing more sequels and remakes than ever before – but this one, like the new versions of Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies, is easily equal to or better than the original. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is what it is: a fun, adventuresome horror movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It offers gore, suspense, and wit. It’s hard to believe autumn is nearly upon us and an influx of horror flicks is on the way along with jack-o-lanterns and caramel apples. Fright Night is like the butler, ushering you through the open door to a new year’s worth of horror flicks. If the fall’s scary movies are better than this one, we’re in for a good year.

Movie Review: Super 8 (6/11/11)

Movie Poster: Super 8

Super 8

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Screenplay by J.J. Abrams

Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb
Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard
Kyle Chandler as Jackson Lamb
Amanda Michalka as Jen Kaznyk

How long is Super 8? 112 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Super 8

Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), and Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb) in Super 8.
Photo credit: François Duhamel
© 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Action-adventure flick throws us back to the days of yore, gives us something to smile about.

A group of plucky, slightly foulmouthed teenagers inadvertently witness the release of an alien creature onto their small town. They must subvert the sinister military presence to discover the mystery behind its origins, and soon they discover it only wants to go home. Sound familiar? Perhaps a little “E.T. phone home?” Well, Super 8 producer Steven Spielberg knows from whence he comes, and he and director J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) fashioned a summer movie that’s both homage to and a playful jibing at 1980s action/adventure filmmaking. Since the first full-length trailer released, people have guessed that Super 8 is a cross between The Goonies, E.T., and Cloverfield, and that’s exactly true. But luckily for us, those flicks were pretty great.

In 1979 in Lillian, Ohio, thirteen-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in a gruesome accident. He’s harboring a problematic crush on tall, willowy blond Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), and only just getting to know his gruff deputy father (Kyle Chandler). Meanwhile Joe and his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) are making a Romero-inspired zombie movie along with Alice and three friends. When they sneak off in the dead of night to film at a train station, the six teens witness a train crash that is certainly the coolest you’ve seen in years. While the accident miraculously only leaves them a little charred and jarred, the thing that escapes from an armored train car causes very real, very frightening troubles in Lillian.

The film’s opening features the Amblin logo writ large, the soaring bicycles silhouetted on the moon deliberately evocative of that other alien movie. Super 8 is a very purposeful throwback to early 80s filmmaking, from color scheme to tone to subject matter. Even more than that, though, Abrams and Spielberg made certain the camera itself plays an integral role in the film. Lens flares chop through characters’ faces, obscuring them in favor of reminding us we’re watching a movie. Blatant Steadicam is a continuous reminder that this is all playing out in front of a camera. The movie is sprinkled with dual focus shots, which are as jarring as they are captivating – and were heavily used by Brian de Palma in the heyday of 1976’s Carrie. Super 8’s title is derived from the most readily available home video film in that era. Charles’s room is adorned lovingly with posters for Halloween and Dawn of the Dead, and it escapes exactly no one that what’s happening in Lillian is exactly the plot of a disaster movie. The self-referential tone reminds us that we’re watching a movie that’s as much about aliens in small-town America as it is about other movies.

Abrams brought crew members from “Lost,” including composer Michael Giacchino and cinematographer Larry Fong, onto Super 8. Giacchino’s score seems to be aping those of Spielberg’s most frequent musical collaborator John Williams, but that works here. Fong’s experience occluding monsters in “Lost” and “Fringe” comes in handy; although a super 8 camera is the first thing to capture our E.T., we first see the creature in the reflection of a puddle. Just as it becomes maddening that we can’t get the bigger picture, Abrams finally hands it to us – and the creature won’t disappoint. Abrams wrote the script, which manages to balance wit, sweetness, and scares with aplomb.

Twelve-year-olds the world round will shortly be nursing a crush on Joel Courtney, whose infectious grin, floppy mop of brown hair, and button nose would’ve landed him on the cover of Tiger Beat twenty years ago. Kyle Chandler, AKA Coach Taylor on the brilliant “Friday Night Lights,” may be a one-trick pony, but damned if he isn’t great at playing a brusque but caring father. Elle Fanning, younger sister to Dakota (whose child-star trajectory seems the least disastrous of any recently, and who whipped out a great performance in The Runaways), captures the camera’s attention with her ability to change personas in a flash. Good genes and an almost eerie maturity must run in the Fanning family.

Super 8 is by no means perfect. It’s a little trite, a little sentimental, and glosses over a few plot points that should’ve been fleshed out. The military men are unreasonably evil – no Peter Coyote to play the friendly believer in uniform here. The Romeo and Juliet subplot that underscores Joe and Alice’s innocent romance could’ve used a little more development. The troupe of kids doesn’t quite have the rapport they did in The Goonies or E.T., but their reactions to catastrophe are charming all the same (the screaming, cussing, and puking are reminiscent of another period favorite, The Sandlot). Finally, this creature is no cute little humanoid that heals wounds, though our protagonists do form a psychic connection with it; Abrams smoothes over its penchant for brutality with a slightly ham-fisted attempt at humanizing it.

These small flaws aside (and they really are small), Super 8 is quality filmmaking. This is what a PG-13 summer blockbuster looks like. For those of us who grew up on 80s action flicks it’s a delightful return to form. Hopefully it will engage a whole new crop of kids and entertain their parents in the process. Smart, scary, sweet, and witty are not attributes you often get to assign to one film, but this one takes them all. We’re in the midst of a country-wide heat wave, so what better thing to do than retreat into a cool, dark theater and let Abrams and Spielberg thrill you? Go. Enjoy.

Movie Review: Shutter Island (2/20/10)

Movie Poster: Shutter Island

Shutter Island

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane

Teddy Daniels – Leonardo DiCaprio
Chuck Aule – Mark Ruffalo
Dr. Cawley – Ben Kingsley
Dr. Naehring – Max von Sydow
Dolores – Michelle Williams
Rachel 1 – Emily Mortimer
Rachel 2 – Patricia Clarkson
George Noyce – Jackie Earle Haley
Warden – Ted Levine

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Shutter Island

Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two detectives sent from the mainland to investigate a mysterious disappearance on an island prison for the criminally insane.
[Photo credit: Andrew Cooper, Copyright © 2010 by Paramount Pictures.]

A Spooky, Nuanced Thriller That Plays Like a Forties Noir

Martin Scorsese’s newest picture Shutter Island is a creepy cinematic passage into paranoia, guilt, and insanity—a classic thriller with undertones of gothic romance and the failed American dream. The trailers, which anyone who’s taken in a movie in the last year has seen, reveal little but hint at a lot. Fortunately, the movie is a great watch even if the conclusion may leave some audiences grumbling. Its tone, script, cinematography, and acting are laudable at worst and pitch-perfect at best.

Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, penned the novel on which Shutter Island is based. The book and film are set in 1954 in the Boston Harbor Islands, one of which houses the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The movie opens on a ferry carrying Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, having a slightly different reaction to the open sea than he did in his “king of the world” days) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to Ashecliffe to investigate the disappearance of a patient. As Teddy dives headfirst into the inquiry, twists, switchbacks, and surprises take him on a disturbing spiral into the human mind.

Director of photography Robert Richardson and extraordinary production designer Dante Ferretti fashioned a creepy, physical manifestation of the inner workings of the psyche—and the result is a film that makes you feel like you might be going a little nuts yourself as the layers unfold. The island is a foreboding and utterly spectacular landscape of jutting cliffs, black shale, and eerily stormy skies. The hospital itself is a set of beautiful red brick buildings that scream New England. Vivid green landscaping and lovingly pruned trees cradle them, creating an ominously safe haven in a forbidding setting. The film looks like a Lovecraftian nightmare with a touch of the haunted, gothic feel of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. It feels classically Old Hollywood; each shot, every scene, is choreographed perfectly, the subjects centered and lit beautifully. The composition of each frame is skillfully rendered (the storyboards are probably a sight to behold), and the editing is completely invisible. The script, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, is stylish and gripping. Despite its length (two hours eighteen minutes), most viewers will be rapt throughout as the narrative unravels enigma upon mystery.

America was a strange place to live in the ‘50s, and Shutter Island’s Teddy is emblematic of the paranoia, fear, and guilt that plagued the American public. Although it’s a suspense thriller, the film is also a sort of history lesson, a journey into the bizarre world of the Red Scare, H-bomb anxiety, and the aftermath of World War II. From the way the guards treat Teddy, he says, “You’d think insanity was catchin’.” In a sense, in 1950s America it was. McCarthyism and the atom bomb were at the forefront of news, and Americans never knew what was coming next. The filmmakers rely on the tension of the period to provide a clever, nuanced narrative.

The movie boasts a cast full of A-listers: DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, and Max von Sydow. Scorsese and DiCaprio, friends who have worked together four times, have a kind of symbiosis that allows each to do his best work. Michelle Williams, an Oscar nominee for Brokeback Mountain, is incredible in her role as Teddy’s wife Dolores, who appears to him mostly in nightmares and hallucinations. Williams imbues each of her scenes with a haunting vulnerability. The supremely underrated Patricia Clarkson (The Green MileVicky Cristina Barcelona) plays a soothsayer residing in a cave, lending a mythological ambiance to the film. Von Sydow and Kingsley, both complete pros, are perfect in their respective roles.

Robbie Robertson, a Scorsese confidante and veteran of The Band, was charged with compiling already existing tracks into a suitable score. The result is heavy on thrumming violins, discordant horns, minor chords, and shuddering bass. Scorsese knows his movie music, and frankly it works here. The director’s affinity for Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo) is clear, and Robertson managed to use the same principles that make Herrmann’s music incredible to meld a series of classical pieces into an effectively spooky ensemble piece that elevates the movie without distracting.

Shutter Island was originally scheduled for release in October, and when it got pushed back to February, everyone wondered why a Scorsese movie would miss prime Oscar season. It’s certainly one of the year’s most heavily advertised movies, and from the full twenty minutes of trailers that play before the movie gets underway, one imagines studios jostling in the figurative line to get their trailers in the peak spots. It’ll undoubtedly be lucrative, and may see Oscar nominations next year. The coup de grace, which may not be a surprise to canny moviegoers (and may leave some disappointed), is fraught with enormously eerie imagery. At its heart, the movie is made with the classics in mind. It’s a brilliantly made and enjoyable film that owes a lot to its predecessors, and if not for its sense of homage it might have been cloying. If you go in expecting a great story told in the compelling fashion of films noir, you won’t be disappointed.