Two master directors chose islands offÂ Massachusetts’ coast as the stormy settings for their wildly dissimilarÂ suspense films. Forsaking subtlety for shocks and surprises, Scorsese tells aÂ stylized story of the incarcerated criminally insane; storms rage crazilyÂ inside and out on this nightmarish prison island.Disgraced and controversial Roman Polanski takes a moreÂ cerebral route in this treatment of a scandal-rocked politician and the unravelingÂ of a giant secret. It’s fiction but only just. So…who gets the suspense genreÂ right in this battle of directing titans?
[singlepic id=227 w=320 h=240 float=right]
In This Corner
A retired Prime Minister struggles toÂ complete his memoirs and to rewrite recent history, thus earning hisÂ unvarnished and vaunted place. He’s a callow fool who’s waded into politicalÂ waters way beyond his depth, and his frustration is palpable and eerilyÂ familiar. The mood stays resolutely somber and bleak; it’s a stormy winter onÂ mostly deserted Nantucket Island; subtly sustained taut suspense and the threatÂ of violent and sudden death hang heavy in the salt sea air. Roman Polanski’sÂ concocted a rich brew of protest and war crimes, media manipulation andÂ accusations, high security and counter- errorism, CIA operatives and greedyÂ corporations (think Halliburton when they say Hatherton), disgraced governmentÂ officials and deep-cover secrets. The master director keeps the pot boiling andÂ the stakes mostly high without descending into pulp fiction in this cerebral thrillÂ ride for grownups.
[singlepic id=245 w=320 h=240 float=right]
In That Corner
Martin Scorsese takes on pulp fiction andÂ lays it on thick in this wildly popular outing, his lush homage to the BÂ pictures he loves so much. His male muse Leo DiCaprio arrives on yet anotherÂ storm-tossed island off the coast of Massachusetts and fights to maintain whatÂ remains of his sanity. Filled with twists and surprises I saw coming clearlyÂ through all the fog and misdirection, “Shutter Island” is probablyÂ the most expensive B movie ever made.
For those of you incapable of readingÂ between the lines, I’ll come clean. I’m a bit of a political wonk, anÂ unapologetic liberal and part-time conspiracy theorist, a devoted disciple ofÂ the twin saints of MSNBC, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. I love myÂ political drama and intrigue best when it’s slightly fictionalized, and I thinkÂ I see the big picture more clearly and possibly more cynically than most. ForÂ those reasons, I went into “The Ghost Writer” expecting to be blownÂ away. In the eyes of many Brits and other Europeans, Tony Blair played W’sÂ lapdog for years, and this film presents a plausible (if a little harebrainedÂ and oversimplified) conspiracy theory in explanation. Pierce Brosnan plays theÂ retired Prime Minister with his intellect on dimmer switch and gorgeosity andÂ charisma on overload; it’s an effective and devastating performance andÂ indictment. Echoes of a few other American actor/gladhandingÂ puppethead-turned-politician types were surely no accident either. OliviaÂ Williams plays his compelling Lady MacBeth, and Ewan MacGregor the ghost writerÂ hired to finish the PM’s memoirs; he’s instantly and unwittingly entangled inÂ political intrigue way over his level head. Eli Wallach delivers anotherÂ terrific cameo; this guy just keeps on working and getting better withÂ advancing age. Every time that now-ancient face appears onscreen, we’re sureÂ it’s the last time we’ll see it, and yet he keeps coming back for more.Â Officious PM assistant Kim Cattrall tries her best to maintain a convincing EnglishÂ accent and mostly fails, but she looks good. She comes and goes in her patentedÂ come-hither slink; it’s hard not to expect her to throw some man, any man, downÂ on a desk Samantha-style. But this isn’t “Sex And The City.”Sex in this film is hardly the point;Â in fact, the only moments of sexual congress were so incongruous that theÂ audience laughed almost derisively.
The suspense in “Ghost Writer” sustains andÂ feels immediate and true; Polanski makes terrific use of new technologies inÂ telling this contemporary-feeling drama. His characters wrestle withÂ state-of-the- rt cell phones and GPS systems, electronic security systems,Â computers and omnipresent media. A frantic Google search even reveals most ofÂ the mystery (as it does at my house every single day). Transportation and isolation are twin themes – this modern post-9-11 world is filled with everyÂ conceivable method of conveyance – elevators, airplanes, helicopters, cars,Â taxicabs, ferries. Not since Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” has travelÂ seemed so fraught with tension and imminent danger.
Scorsese references plenty of iconic movie imagery; filmÂ fans will delight in noting them all. They spared no expense in set dÃ©cor andÂ effects; the prison boasts nightmarish staircases, the cliffs teem with CGIÂ rodents in unprecedented numbers, the inner sanctum offices gleam with realÂ wood, real ceilings, working fireplaces. I’m not at all convinced that all thisÂ gorgeousness helps one whit creating suspense; on the contrary, all theÂ sequences feel a bit overblown and inflated. Scares get short- circuited by allÂ this production value and flaccid pacing. The performances are a littleÂ operatic as well; this island has a whole lotta acting going on. Even theÂ usually chilling Max von Sydow goes all Grand Guignol and comes off like aÂ reheated Boris Karloff. One dream sequence is particularly over- roduced; smallÂ gas fires burn in every conceivable onscreen location, the lighting is lurid,Â the dialogue overworked – all this style feels nothing like a dream at all. ForÂ a primer on how to shoot a dream that feels authentically dream-y, you don’tÂ even have to leave your house. No one’s topped HBO’s “The Sopranos”Â in that department, and frankly, I expected Scorsese to present more of aÂ challenge.
A million stale breadcrumbs are dropped on the way to theÂ twisty ending; maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but I was way out ahead for aÂ long while, and once you know the trick, the film’s pretty much shot its pulpyÂ wad. I would love Mr. Scorsese to return to the mean streets of New York CityÂ and to periods and subjects that deserve all the high-end treatment. Pulp andÂ suspense just aren’t his bailiwick.
Again, I’m out here on my usual lonelyÂ limb, urging likeminded souls to join me. WhileÂ I salute Scorsese for a (scandal-free) lifetime of tremendous contributions to the industry and I consider several of his films masterpieces, this time out didn’t do it for me.Â Style has its place, and had theÂ suspenseworked, perhaps I could moreÂ wholeheartedly recommend “Shutter Island.”Â “TheÂ Ghost Writer” is just plain smarter and about something important. Call meÂ crazy, but I like my movies with substance. Polanski has earned the enmity ofÂ many, but I find myself able to watch his film utterly divorced from his legalÂ entanglements and moral turpitude. It’s a fine one.