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