Scorsese vs. Polanski: Finally Some Real Movies, Shutter Island and Ghost Writer

Martin Scorsese one night. Roman Polanski the next. It isn't often you get to see fresh work by a couple of Oscar winning directors on back to back evenings. Scorsese's Shutter Island, then Polanski's The Ghost Writer. It's one of the pleasures of being a film critic.

(One of the downsides was seeing From Paris with Love and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief within 17 minutes of each other. Actually, that's one of the downsides of being a person.)

First, let me be perfectly clear, both Scorsese and Polanski kept me pretty well riveted for more than two hours apiece. By the way, that specific Nixonian denial of wrongdoing is defiantly spoken in The Ghost Writer by Pierce Brosnan, playing a Tony Blair clone quite effectively (which was nice to see, considering the cringing he induced while prancing around as a quarter-man, three-quarter horse in Percy Jackson, but I majorly digress). Maintaining a sustainable level of suspense is no small achievement these days, considering my first positive reaction to a film as I leave a screening is usually, "Hey, it was only 87 minutes."

The press notes for Shutter Island were meaty - 61 pages, but there was some tasty stuff inside. Scorsese held screenings at night for his cast and crew of movies "both legendary and obscure" to get them to understand where he wanted to take Shutter Island. Included was one of my favorite noirs, Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, with a script rich in biting, hard-boiled noirish dialogue. "I don't want to die," says the double-crossing girl, Jane Greer. "Neither do I, baby," says Mitchum. "But if I have to, I'm gonna die last."

Scorsese showed his actors and crew a mixture of suspense and horror (including several horror films produced by Val Lewton, whose work Scorsese reveres) designed to convey the themes and mood he planned to weave throughout his film. Whatever his plan, it worked, because Shutter Island has its own particular feel and mood. Despite trailers that make it seem like supernatural horror, the movie instead only touches on the cusp of horror - staying squarely in psychological, suspenseful modern day noir.

Shutter Island is a ferry ride from Boston and home to a hospital for the criminally insane. It's 1954 and Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo are U.S. Marshals sent to the island because one of the patients has escaped even though, like Alcatraz, getting off the island itself is next to impossible. The film opens with DiCaprio seasick, throwing up on the ferry, ironic given that 13 years ago, he made a movie about a boat.

Quickly we learn this hospital is not what it seems. The doctors who run it, Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, may be using the inmates as lab rats and von Sydow may have been a Nazi. On a side note, name a movie that Max von Sydow didn't improve by being in it. I'll wait...OK, I admit I didn't see 1957's Det sjunde inseglet (and neither did you), but we all know von Sydow nailed it.

The heart of the film becomes what's inside DiCaprio's head - what's real and what isn't. What happened to him during the war? How did his wife's death affect him? What's really happening to the inmates at the dark, foreboding hospital?

Here's the thing about Scorsese and me (because that's what's most important to you - how do I feel about Scorsese?). I know I'm not supposed to say this because I'll sound like a fool, but I don't have the same love affair with him so many other critics and movie lovers do. I like him. Just don't love him. But I know I'm almost certainly in the wrong here. It's like "The Beatles." I don't totally get them either. But when every smart person I respect tells me I'm an idiot about Scorsese and "The Beatles," I figure this is not the time to dig in and become inflexible.

But my ignorance affords me an opportunity. Because I don't revere Scorsese films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver the way others do, I don't hold Shutter Island to the impossible standard some others are doing. I say it's an adult, insightful, tense, complicated psychological thriller. Grade: B.

That also puts Shutter Island in the rare category of movies that are better than the book on which they're based. I know it's better because I didn't walk out of the movie. But I could not finish Dennis Lehane's book. And I say this as a huge Dennis Lehane fan. It's the only Lehane book I didn't like.

Conversely, Roman Polanski was adapting a less obviously cinematic book - Robert Harris' The Ghost - but one I really enjoyed.

Brosnan is the Tony Blair character, out of office and writing his memoirs, but his ghostwriter, a long time aide, dies mysteriously on the ferry to Martha's Vineyard (this is a big week for ferries in film! Don't try to call the Ferry Boat Trade Association. You'll never get through). In comes a new ghostwriter, Ewan McGregor, who thinks he may have stumbled on an Anglo-American conspiracy involving the former Prime Minister to illegally kidnap terror suspects.

It's a totally credible, briskly paced, suspenseful and particularly well-cast political thriller.

Olivia Williams is the Cherie Blair character. She's typically good. So is Tom Wilkinson as a shady professor. But in a small, scene-stealing part - get ready for it - a bald James Belushi is wonderful as a New York book publisher. He's funny. In fact, McGregor, Williams, Brosnan and Kim Cattrall (as Brosnan's assistant) are all funny, which must be a credit to the script, adapted by Harris and Polanski.

Which brings us back to Polanski, as this movie must. It's supposed to take place around Boston and in Martha's Vineyard, but we know it was shot somewhere else (Germany), because Polanski may be the only the director to edit a major motion picture from prison. Granted it's really house arrest at his Alpine ski chalet in the resort town of Gstaad. But prison sounds like a better story. Grade: B+.