A toast to ambition

Posted by · 11:35 am · July 5th, 2010

It’s fascinating to me, the similarities between Leonardo DiCaprio’s two 2010 endeavors, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (which I will review in short time).  The themes and considerations in both have the same blood pumping through their veins.

I’m talking about ideas of repressed trauma, avoidance of reality, the impact of children on a psychology, the kinds of things you don’t often see handled delicately, if at all, in blockbuster entertainment.  It’s a profound coincidence, really, one that further reveals an ambition in DiCaprio’s career choices that shouldn’t go without commendation.

I think his work in “Shutter Island” is more powerful, more complete, more assured.  And despite ignorant jabs accusing the actor of being “stuck in a Scorsese rut” as of late, he and the 40-year veteran have managed to make each collaboration unique and fresh.  And by the way, he’s very much up to the task under Nolan’s helm as well.

So mark this as an appreciation.  DiCaprio has always been a forward thinker, never content to rest on laurels or take an easy paycheck.  He doesn’t get enough credit for that.




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49 responses so far

  • 1 7-05-2010 at 11:37 am

    Hans said...

    Well, that was a lovely appetizer. Can’t wait for the main course later!

  • 2 7-05-2010 at 11:53 am

    MovieMan said...

    I haven’t seen “Inception” yet (I believe I see it on the 12 or 13), but I completely disagree with your take on “Shutter Island,” an over-the-top, silly thriller with a great pedigree.

    But DiCaprio has indeed done well with Scorsese. “The Departed” and “Gangs of New York” were extremely solid (but somewhat flawed) works from the filmmaker. “The Aviator” worked just fine, too, but for me, it was on the lower end of his favorable works (like “Casino” or “The King of Comedy”). I just wish Scorsese would make his next bona fide classic, like “Goodfellas,” “Raging Bull” or “Taxi Driver.”

  • 3 7-05-2010 at 11:55 am

    Zack said...

    I’ma go out on a limb and guess these are not the words of a writer who was disappointed by “Inception” ;)

  • 4 7-05-2010 at 11:58 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Any criticism of Shutter Island as “over the top,” in my opinion, misses the point of what Scorsese was doing. Again, SPOILERS, but it’s frankly a stroke of genius to play the film out with poor CGI/blue screen, a bombastic score and some overacting because, at the end of the day, what you’re seeing unfold is a charade. Scorsese knows exactly what he’s doing. I’m surprised so many people have been quick to shoot this film out of the sky due to limited critical commitment on their part.

  • 5 7-05-2010 at 11:58 am

    the other mike said...

    have 2 agree. i used to resent dicaprio, especially post titanic.

    saw him as just a hollywood pretty boy and the rest, but its now clear that he doesnt take his talent and good fortune for granted and even if u dont love the films he does, he is striving to do movies that resonate nad leave their mark.

    i feel like pound 4 pound he might be the best of his generation. in hindsight he should have got the Oscar 4 The aviator although at the time i was more for Jamie Foxx but in hindsight, Leo probably deserved it.

  • 6 7-05-2010 at 12:00 pm

    Kevin K said...

    I completely agree. DiCaprio is simultaneously one of the finest working actors and one of the most underappreciated. People still seem to think of him as a pretty face from Titanic when the truth is he left that life behind years ago and has never ceased to evolve or take steps backwards as an artist. Something he should get more credit for indeed

  • 7 7-05-2010 at 12:05 pm

    Zack said...

    I can’t help but wonder if there are any young male actors who fill the niche today that DiCaprio did circa “Titanic” that will end up similarly breaking those chains and proving themselves like he has. I’ve got no patience with the “Twilight” generation of actors, but DiCaprio’s living proof I’ve been wrong before.

  • 8 7-05-2010 at 12:10 pm

    George said...

    I agree with you Kris about the charade aspect of Shutter Island. But some of it still feels a bit preposterous in retrospect. Mainly the many opportunities that DiCaprio’s character could have killed himself or others, and why Kingley’s character would allow such danger in an attempt to break through. Some of it could be chalked up to the Teddy’s imagination (the rock climbing), but then he blows up cars and attacks guards and it’s confirmed by Kingley’s character to be real (he even tells someone to go check on the guard Teddy attacked).

    That said, DiCaprio was great. And i’m hoping he gets a nomination this year between his two roles. But I think it might take a role like J. Edgar Hoover for him to finally get the buzz needed to win.

  • 9 7-05-2010 at 12:12 pm

    moviefan1 said...

    Im not as high on his acting as most people are, but he defiantely deserves major respect for making such good project choices and taking full advantage of the offers and opportunities that is given to him.

  • 10 7-05-2010 at 12:13 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    George: Honest question, but did you only see it once? Granted, I held a high opinion of it after one viewing, but the little things that pop through on a second are profound, IMO. More profound than most other films that settle in better on repeat viewings.

    The points you make here I think are minimal. They don’t cause the film to break down completely. They are small aspects that you kind of have to go along with but, they’re still asking less than your average summer blockbuster might.

  • 11 7-05-2010 at 12:20 pm

    McAllister said...

    I loved “Shutter Island” as a film (less so as a story, but it worked beautifully on film)… and while I understand DiCaprio’s work being more complete in “Shutter Island,” I’m hoping “Inception” turns out as a better film. I just love everything I know about it so far… the cast, the premise, the visuals, the credentials.

  • 12 7-05-2010 at 12:26 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    I’m baffled at the high-brow critical indifference toward Shutter Island. A.O. Scott, who I really like, laughed off Shutter as silly and pointless, which makes me wonder if he actually saw the movie. Hopefully Paramount launches a full campaign come awards season – the movie earned it.

  • 13 7-05-2010 at 12:29 pm

    MovieMan said...

    No, I know exactly what Scorsese was trying to do, Kris, but I didn’t like any of it. In many, many ways the forgotten 2001 psycho thriller “Session 9” did exactly what “Shutter Island” did to much more palpable, horrific effect. From my point of view, what was supposedly working underneath was just a bunch of cop-out “twists” that I saw coming early on. That’s what I found silly and over-the-top about it all. Scorsese could’ve made something absolutely brilliant out of the plot, but for me, it was a confused, trite, undercooked mess of a film.

    And for the record, as much as I didn’t like of the movie, one thing I DID love was the look of the picture. The cinematography, the sets, the look and feel of the picture–all were spot-on, but were serving a startlingly empty whole.

  • 14 7-05-2010 at 12:29 pm

    Maxim said...

    I like DiCaprio a lot as an actor but I think people are too busy holding up Scorsese as a great filmmaker to notice his hackish tendencies. The guy should have the reputation of, say, Michael Mann or Ridley Scott (please note that I am listing very good directors here and if you disagree understand that I’m adding this as clarification to explain what I really mean – not Tony Scott or Ron Howard).

    To summarize the point above, people like Sasha Stone do Scorsese (and Oscars as a whole) a great disservice when they suggest that works like Shutter Island should be up for Best Picture/Directing Oscars if they are willing to forigive its flaws due to it’s supposed “pedigree”. To that I say, let it go, greater works were overlooked before, nominating this only makes things worse.

    I haven’t seen “Shutter Island” yet but if it’s over the top in the same way as “Gangs of New York” was over the top than we have a problem. I’m sorry to say this but “Gangs” was every bit as bad as William Goldman said it was.

    Still, this talkback is really about DiCaprio and I agree that he is an actor of both talent and ambition. Cheers!

  • 15 7-05-2010 at 12:34 pm

    Fitz said...

    Any way DiCaprio makes an appearance on the Best Actor predictions for either film?

    I get the sinking feeling that the Academy will split votes between this and Shutter Island leaving him out in the cold on Oscar night again. Then again I haven’t seen Inception so I couldn’t speak to the acting in it, but DiCaprio was superb in Shutter Island.

  • 16 7-05-2010 at 12:36 pm

    the other mike said...

    Mr Gittes, young writers make their name by going after sacred cows of previous generations. Scorsese is a sacred cow, Ao Scott is relatively young. I have seen Ao scott call Raging Bull and Goodfellas overrated. I think it was while he wrote for Slate b4 he got to the Times.

  • 17 7-05-2010 at 12:37 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    You might be a hack, Maxim. And William Goldman, as smart and talented as he is or was, can fuck off. Why don’t you pick up a camera, Bill?

  • 18 7-05-2010 at 12:37 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    MovieMan: The “twists” aren’t relevant, and that you’re hung up on them says a lot to me. I thought Scorsese DID make something brilliant out of the plot point. It boiled all the way, 100% down to character and it was accomplished with skill and ease.

    Maxim: I can’t speak to Sasha’s intent, but if I were to say the film deserves to be nominated for Best Picture (I haven’t, but we’ll see if it’s still in my top 10 come year’s end), it’s because I think it is a masterful work from, indeed, a masterful filmmaker. Not because of “pedigree.”

    Also, “over the top” is being thrown around with incredibly ignorant disregard suddenly. I’m starting to wonder what you guys are talking about, but you specifically, Maxim, since you cite a film that was in fact heavily influenced by craven studio interests (and, actually, one I think is quite good, despite the scars).

  • 19 7-05-2010 at 12:38 pm

    red_wine said...

    I find DiCaprio really over-rated, he’s consistently watchable and hard-working but I never saw the appeal. The thing is, I never find his performances natural or unaffected, his talent and performances seem labored rather than effortless. Even while watching his scenes, I can see him strive, work hard for the scene, unlike other actors who simply become their characters. I find it hard to love performances where I can see the machinery ticking. That aside there is probably only one DiCaprio performance that I really like and that is Blood Diamond.

    And yeah, I have many reservations about Shutter Island, fine film though it is.

  • 20 7-05-2010 at 12:39 pm

    moviefan1 said...

    I agree red_wine, I much prefer his performances in the 90s, like Gilbert Grape and Basketball Diaries.

  • 21 7-05-2010 at 12:50 pm

    Jim C said...

    Regardless if I think he can be a bit forced at times, few actors today can show vulnerability that is really wrenching. Whether they turn out to be good projects or not, I think the guy actively seeks out films that interest and push him, and not just to get a paycheck. I believe he truly loves cinema, what he does for a living, and respects the opportunties gives to him.

  • 22 7-05-2010 at 12:52 pm

    MovieMan said...

    Kris: For me, the twists undermined any of the character development that could have been built up and wasn’t anyway. I just didn’t care whatsoever at the end.

    It sort of reminds me of “Revolutionary Road” from a couple of years ago. DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were excellent, but the last ten minutes shed any sort of humanity that was inherent in everything before it. For me, it became an ludicrous experience. For others, it defined what the film was about.

    I’m just saying that, yes, Scorsese was speaking to characterizations that simply weren’t there from my viewpoint. If they existed for you, that’s all well and good. It just didn’t speak to me, and then it spat in my face for trying to care. (But it’s not a horrible movie. I just think Scorsese could have done better and has.)

  • 23 7-05-2010 at 12:54 pm

    MovieMan said...

    Kris: But definitely don’t think I’m knocking DiCaprio here. His ability to disappear into a character is truly thrilling to watch, even if the film is less than impressive. He really does remind me of a young Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro. He’s just absolutely, 100% talented across the board.

  • 24 7-05-2010 at 12:56 pm

    duncan houst said...

    Wait! The twists for Inception and Shutter Island aren’t the same, are they? Because I think that twist might just ruin Inception for me.

  • 25 7-05-2010 at 1:14 pm

    gopher said...

    MovieMan said

    “He’s just absolutely, 100% talented across the board.”

    Totally agree.

    I recently was told Leo ,also, gives a powerful performance as Cobb. One of the many reasons I’m looking forward to “Inception”

  • 26 7-05-2010 at 1:18 pm

    George said...

    Kris: Yeah I did only see it once. I knew one of the twists going into it (that Teddy was a patient, not a real detective), so I was looking at the charade of it all on that first viewing. I should mention that I did like Shutter Island despite my complaints. And now that it’s out on dvd/bluray i’ll give it another watch. I admire twists that enhance a film rather than just provide a shocking surprise. And Shutter Island’s involving the wife and children brought such a great level of tragedy to the story.

  • 27 7-05-2010 at 1:21 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    George: Well, you might have known that he was a patient, but you couldn’t have known that the whole thing was a game, no?

  • 28 7-05-2010 at 1:50 pm

    George said...

    That’s true Kris. I think I went in expecting more ambiguity as to whether or not Teddy was actually a patient (vs. what Patricia Clarkson’s character tells him), so I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. There’s an early scene where Dr. Cawley and Chuck have Teddy sit down and take some pills when his head aches. That scene that gave off the vibe that the other characters were in on something. But I didn’t know whether or not they had malicious intent.

    I just added Shutter Island to my Netflix queue. The more I talk about it, the more I feel it is deserving of another viewing soon.

  • 29 7-05-2010 at 1:50 pm

    Drew said...

    I really appreciate Leo for always choosing interesting projects. No sequels, franchises, superheroes, cheap romantic comedies, etc. His filmography over the last decade is really as close to being flawless as you can get. And now he’s got Inception and a Hoover biopic with Eastwood coming out? Can always count on him for quality, it seems.

    And I thought his performance in Shutter Island was brilliant. I highly doubt he gets a nomination, but I expect it to be one of my personal top 5 of the year.

  • 30 7-05-2010 at 1:57 pm

    JJ said...

    Kris says “it’s frankly a stroke of genius to play the film out with poor CGI/blue screen, a bombastic score and some overacting because, at the end of the day, what you’re seeing unfold is a charade. Scorsese knows exactly what he’s doing. I’m surprised so many people have been quick to shoot this film out of the sky due to limited critical commitment on their part.”

    and that’s exactly how I feel. I understand ‘not liking a movie’ – there have been many that I did not ‘like’, that are LOVED.

    But I, too, honestly believe that Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing, cinematically.

    And while I’m no cinephile/film maniac/critic … I’m shocked at some people’s dismissiveness towards “SI” (subjective liking/hating notwithstanding).

  • 31 7-05-2010 at 2:02 pm

    James D. said...

    I really don’t see how Shutter Island holds up to any sort of critical thought. The entire idea of such a charade being perpetrated by a massive mental hospital is so outside of the realm of reality that it makes it wholly destructive to any of the good aspects of the film.

  • 32 7-05-2010 at 2:08 pm

    Fitz said...

    The point of Shutter Island, to me at least, was the choice Daniels make at the end of the film. He can continue to go on as a monster, or leave the world clean.

  • 33 7-05-2010 at 2:17 pm

    JJ said...

    A charade? Yes. But I think that 1950s asylums did a lot of crazzzy experimenting.

    A lot of the insane at Ashecliffe (for example) were too far gone mentally, or there as patients too long to consider the charade. And I feel like Teddy was someone who was young enough, smart enough, new enough, & possibly salvageable enough to try it on; whether or not the staff/patients could pull it off.

    I don’t think it’s that THAT far-fetched. And to me, the ever-so-slight far-fetchedness of the charade is the only aspect of the entire movie that gives me any pause, whatsoever. To me, it’s a solid 9/10. And Leo gives a stellar performance.

  • 34 7-05-2010 at 2:18 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Yes, Fitz.

  • 35 7-05-2010 at 2:33 pm

    Bryan said...

    I almost walked out of Shutter Island, not because it was bad, but because I was so disturbed; I felt that something was terribly wrong with what was going on, and after the movie ended, I realized that I was experiencing the story from Teddy’s point of view, that what I felt was amiss was what Teddy must have felt (about the unknown charade) and rationalized as a big conspiracy theory. I think it’s the closest I’ve ever been to feeling insane. So yes, the entire movie is about character, developing Teddy, having the audience identify with Teddy so that by the end the understand exactly the gravity of the decision at the end and why Teddy made it. This is a brilliant film from a director who’s recent work has proved unsatisfying (the whiz bang mechanically perfect yet dry and unconvincing Departed and the ambitious but emotionally underweight Gangs of New York).

    And yes, DiCaprio is the man.

  • 36 7-05-2010 at 2:34 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    Where are all the Inception reviews anyway? I thought they were supposed to pour out today but still not a one.

  • 37 7-05-2010 at 2:36 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    3pm PST.

  • 38 7-05-2010 at 2:38 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    So in 22 minutes? Ha. Thanks.

  • 39 7-05-2010 at 2:44 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    Oh, and as for DiCaprio, he has definitely won me over in the past decade. Some of the first post-Titanic roles weren’t up to snuff, but probably because they’d already been filmed or signed onto before Titanic hit. He wised up very quickly after he became the Titanic hearthrob though. Every movie since may not have been a masterpiece, but he’s been consistently great across the board. Kind of bizarre he only got two nominations for all the performances he gave in the past ten years.

  • 40 7-05-2010 at 2:44 pm

    Room 237 said...

    Here’s the thing about charade-type movies — is the charade unfolding in a subjective or objective manner?

    Shutter Island failed because it was primarily subjective. It’s not just a matter of the hero thinking one thing while something else is going on — it’s that quite a lot of it simply doesn’t exist in reality (hallucinations, etc.). So when the reveal occurs, a lot of people feel cheated.

    At the other end, is a movie like Eyes Wide Shut, which is similarly paranoid and often used obviously fake backdrops. The difference here is that the camera takes a more distant, objective place. Everything we see is what Bill experiences, however, what we see is colored both by Bill’s perception of what’s happening as well as our own subconscious.

  • 41 7-05-2010 at 2:59 pm

    James D. said...

    How does he go out clean? How was he a monster in the first place? I would say his murder of his wife was completely justified, and they aren’t snuffing him out, just making him a mental vegetable.

  • 42 7-05-2010 at 3:00 pm

    Jane said...

    Love DiCaprio. I can’t think of many “movie stars” who can disappear into a role like he does. When I watch Brad Pitt, for instance, I think, that’s Brad Pitt playing a role, which is okay. Film requires the audience to use a little imagination too. But with DiCaprio, I think that I’m watching Teddy Daniels or Billy Costigan or Arnie Grape. I also think is is underrated. Given the his performances of the last nearly 20 years, he’s only won 1 major film award, a Golden Globe for “The Aviator.” I find that incredible, considering that other actors and actresses of far less talent, “ambition” and dedication who have won multiple major awards.

  • 43 7-05-2010 at 6:33 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Room: I don’t think Shutter Island fails merely because it doesn’t reach the level of a near masterpiece like Eyes Wide Shut.

    James: How was he a monster? Because he was an absentee father and husband who drank too much and drove his wife to a horrible act.

  • 44 7-06-2010 at 6:52 am

    JJ said...

    Kris, can we have a ‘what’s Leo’s best performance to date’ poll?

  • 45 7-06-2010 at 1:28 pm

    austin111 said...

    How was he a monster? all of the above plus the fact that he failed to get his wife help after her first attempt to kill herself and their children by burning down their apartment. The woman had mental issues that went unanswered.

  • 46 7-06-2010 at 1:40 pm

    Fitz said...

    Catholic guilt is a big theme in Scorsese’s filmography and the best way to explain Daniels being a monster is that he cannot go on living with what he’s done.

  • 47 7-06-2010 at 1:52 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    JJ: Good call. Maybe after Inception hits.

  • 48 7-06-2010 at 2:27 pm

    JJ said...

    Sounds great. I just figured it could make for some interesting results, you know. Look forward to it in a few weeks. :-)

  • 49 7-06-2010 at 3:04 pm

    James D. said...

    He drove his wife to the horrible act? Seriously? That is only a step above blaming the victim.