*** (out of four)
Martin Scorsese is noted as a director of gangster pictures, but beyond that niche, he's not really a "genre filmmaker," usually preferring to tackle his own passion projects rather than experiment with genre pieces on any kind of regular basis. Yet his latest, the penetrating psychological thriller "Shutter Island," is a genre exercise through and through, with Scorsese doing his best to pay proper homage to the paranoid film noirs of the 1940s and '50s while at the same time toying with the format to suit his own artistic impulses. (He reportedly held cast and crew screenings of films like "Out of the Past" and "Vertigo" prior to production, and the classical influence is clear.) The result is an old-school mystery tinged with the director's trademark themes of violence, masculinity, cultural identity and alienation, and further evidence that in the twilight of his career, Scorsese is consistently churning out his best work since the early '80s.
It's not a matter of stylistics, as director Scott Cooper keeps everything very grounded and low-key. Rather, it's the performances by stars Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal that lend the film such a unique sense of authenticity. As Bad Blake, a washed-up, alcoholic country music star who makes some semblance of a living performing four-song sets in dilapidated bowling alleys, Bridges delivers what is indisputably the performance of his already impressive career. The character is totally his own, even the little things, from the distinctive way Blake lights a cigarette (he looks like he was born with a pack in his hand) to the subtle ways he conveys a deep sense of all-encompassing shame. Gyllenhaal is impressive, too, as the single mother who (perhaps stupidly) allows Blake into her life, but in all fairness, it's Bridges who towers over the film.
James Cameron is a very dependable big-picture director. Having given us modern classics like "The Terminator" and "Aliens" and not to mention, "Titanic," it's virtually unthinkable that this man would all of a sudden lose his touch and deliver such a sluggish product as "Avata." Somehow, at some point in the past 12 years, Cameron became so enveloped in his world of gadgets and computer effects that he forgot how to be a true filmmaker — someone who brings stories to life through things like pacing, momentum, layered characterizations and true emotional involvement.