March 1, 2010
Scorsese: Style, yes! Substance, who cares?
Sometimes, Martin Scorsese makes cinematic masterpieces that will be watched and remembered forever. And sometimes he makes overly long meandering movies that have their good points and look great, but run out of steam by the end. In the first category you've got Goodfellas and Raging Bull and, probably, The Departed. In the second category you've got movies like Casino, where the best thing about the movie might be Robert DeNiro's suits.
I forget sometimes that not every Scorsese movie is a winner, but watching Shutter Island last night served as a great reminder. "Oh, right," I thought. "I'd almost forgotten about the 15 years I spent watching Gangs of New York."
If you think about Shutter Island as a pulpy, melodramatic B-movie, it actually comes out OK. The first third of the movie is tense and atmospheric, and the dark mysteries about the mental institution "foh the criminally in-SANE," as we've all heard Leo stress over and over in the trailer, are creepy and interesting. The movie loses steam in the last 45 minutes, and the payoff at the end is really unsatisfying, but there sure are some beautiful shots and gorgeous, color-drenched sets, and all kinds of lurid images of horror-movie carnage. When the blood flows it's a rich cherry red, and Ben Kingsley's sitting room is all velvet upholstery you could do the breaststroke in and sparkling crystal whisky decanters. And I'm gonna be honest: there are worse ways you could spend your time than watching Mark Ruffalo in a 50's suit and fedora, raising those eyebrows and looking gorgeously Ruffalicious.
Actually, considering his competition, you could argue that Shutter Island is the best of the movies adapted from Dennis Lehane novels. The other ones are Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, which was drab and flat except when it was shrill and hysterical, and Gone Baby Gone by Ben Affleck (I know!), which was pretty good but dragged in the third act. Actually, all of his adapted movies seem to start strong and then sputter to a ending that I stopped caring about half an hour ago.
At least Scorsese knows how to do style when the substance is lacking. For an excellent example of this that's a lot more fun than Shutter Island, there's the long-form commercial he did for Freixenet a couple of years ago. It's set up like a documentary about Scorsese filming some newly discovered pages from a Hitchcock script, and he's really hilarious in it.
Yeah, he sure does lots of ads, but at least they're funny. The AmEx ads (especially the one hour photo one) and the AT&T ad that runs in movie theaters about shutting off your cellphone ("You don't even call him daddy. To you, he's Frank. That's how detached you are") are my favorites. Scorsese sells out better than anyone.
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