Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fruitful partnerships -- and those that aren't

I had a couple different possible approaches to discussing Shutter Island, first and foremost being that it seemed like an unusual movie for Martin Scorsese to be directing. So unusual, in fact, that the studio didn't hesitate to bump it out of the fall release date it was plenty ready for, a release date enjoyed by every Scorsese fiction film since The Last Temptation of Christ in August of 1988. You have to go all the way back to The King of Comedy in February of 1982 to find a Scorsese non-documentary released in any of the months between January and July.

Simple reasoning: Movies released in the fall get considered for Oscars; those released in the winter, spring and summer usually don't. Scorsese has been nominated for six Oscars as director, but Paramount was reasonably confident there wouldn't be a seventh in the offing for Shutter Island. Not that it's bad, probably -- I hope to find out for myself this weekend. Just that it's a genuine genre picture, something that might usually go to a hot young foreign and/or music video director, not someone of Scorsese's stature and career achievements. In fact, in ways, it doesn't look like a Scorsese picture at all.

Of course, in other ways, it looks exactly like a Scorsese picture, and that's what I want to talk about today. Specifically, the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio has become almost a direct tip-off that Martin Scorsese was behind the camera. Scorsese hasn't made a movie without DiCaprio since Bringing Out the Dead in 1999. More tellingly, DiCaprio -- who, as an actor, works more regularly and promiscuously -- has worked with Scorsese in four of his last eight films.

It's pattern behavior for Scorsese, who made Robert De Niro his muse in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. And it's a successful pattern. Just as we never got sick of seeing De Niro appear in Scorsese films, even people who don't generally like Leonardo DiCaprio have to admit he's been a force working alongside Scorsese. In fact, you could almost say that DiCaprio has Scorsese to thank for gaining a reputation that exceeded "Titanic pretty boy and generally decent actor." Of course, the mainstream quality of Titanic was really the exception rather than the rule for DiCaprio, but those unfamiliar with his early work knew him only from James Cameron's recently dethroned box office champ. The triumvirate of Gangs of New York (which, for the record, I did not like), The Aviator and The Departed established DiCaprio as someone who deserved to be compared to De Niro, and in fact helped refocus Scorsese into a new stretch of highly effective filmmaking, after he'd meandered off the path with Kundun and Bringing Out the Dead.

But we all like variety -- me especially -- so it would be fair to greet Shutter Island with proclamations of outrage over their apparent mutual artistic laziness. "Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio together again?" Maybe you're saying that, but I'm not. I'm looking forward to both this and the next two collaborations they've announced.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing for a different set of collaborators, who have truly come to define what it means to be artistically lazy. And they are -- you may have guessed it by now -- Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

With the release of Alice in Wonderland two weeks from now, Depp will have appeared in seven films directed by Burton, and Bonham Carter will have appeared in six. Both actors will have appeared in four straight Burton movies. As it just so happens, those are four straight terrible Burton movies. Okay, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride wasn't terrible (but it was pretty bad), and the verdict is still out on Alice in Wonderland. But I can say with absolute confidence that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd were both rotten, rancid abominations. It's those two movies in particular that make me wonder why any of the three of them keep going back to the same poisoned well. It's like Tim Burton is doing his best M. Night Shyamalan impersonation -- he keeps making bad movies (with many of the same actors), and they keep giving him more money to make more bad movies, in which those same actors participate.

But I'm going to save most of my vitriol about Alice in Wonderland for two weeks from now. That kind of thing deserves its own post, don't you think?

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