Summer Unloving

Now on DVD, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is a diamond amid the seasonal rubbish

Peter Whittle

Summer is a-dyin’, the evenings are getting longer — and the cinema breathes a sigh of relief. Good weather is terrible for business, especially if, as this year proves, blockbusters and what are called “event” movies are thin on the ground. This season saw a particularly meagre helping of gruel all round, with the exception of the latest instalment of Shrek and the final outing for Toy Story, both animated features. By the time you read this, Toy Story 3 will have been around for some time, but if it’s still hanging on at your local cinema, go. It’s a wonderfully entertaining story, wittily told, and in its visual inventiveness and craftsmanship, it is, frankly, a work of art.

But it is, when all is said and done, still a cartoon. What was there in the way of human fare? Amid the sequels and teenage rom-coms, there have been a few interesting films that are now out on DVD. Head and shoulders above them all is Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s latest and a far cry from the grit, gangs and Mean Streets with which he made his name. Resembling most his lurid remake of Cape Fear, it is what Variety magazine would call a psychological “suspenser”, which with its theatrical air of surrealism comes across like a bloodshot Hitchcock thriller.

Set in the Fifties, it has Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a trilby-wearing, noir-ish US Marshal sent to the eponymous island, a prison facility for the criminally insane, to establish the truth about a patient who has mysteriously gone missing. DiCaprio is an interesting actor who has managed that seemingly impossible feat of progressing seamlessly from the teen worship of his pretty-boy Titanic days to the position he now holds in Hollywood as one of its most respected young pillars. Watching him here, fuller-faced, trench-coated and troubled, he reminds one of a young Orson Welles, suggesting a hinterland completely missing from the Matts, Bens and Brads who make up the rest of his acting generation.

And a hinterland is what is required here: Daniels is haunted by his wartime experience and the death of his wife and starts to suspect that, under the direction of the evasive prison governor (a predictably hammy Ben Kingsley) there is something bigger and altogether more sinister happening. This being the kind of film it is, we do too, so it’s a relief when the narrative takes a different turn. 

The overall effect, ultimately, is like watching a no-expense-spared, more nuanced episode of The Twilight Zone. And like that series at its inventive best, the film stays with you.

I Love You Phillip Morris also lingers, but in an odd way, partly because one is left trying to work out its uncertain tone, partly because it is based on a remarkable true story. Steven Jay Russell, an American con-man of quite extraordinary brio (played here by Jim Carrey), is languishing in jail. But as this biopic attests, he spent much of his life coming up with weird and wonderful ways of getting out. Russell was determined to fund a lavish lifestyle for himself and his boyfriend (Ewan McGregor), and so hoodwinked and embezzled his way to occasional riches. Nobody was actually hurt or died as a result of his scams and impersonations, so, the film assumes, it should be possible to root for him.

This proves difficult as there is little of the charm of Catch Me if You Can. Although it was originally marketed as a comedy, it’s really not one for all the family. The jokes are sparse, there is little of Carrey’s physical humour on show and as his past movies have shown when he plays seriousness it more often than not comes off as creepiness. Despite the unsympathetic central character and the uneasiness one feels at watching somebody fake their own death from Aids, it is nevertheless sometimes genuinely touching, and it certainly makes one look at one’s own life and how tentatively and unimaginatively most of us approach the world and its possibilities.

Finally, although computers might well have given us the joys of Toy Story, in the human world of epic story-telling they are all but killing the magic stone dead. Clash of the Titans is a straight remake of the 1981 story of everyday mythological folk, a film that proved the last triumph of the wire, putty and stop-motion techniques of that great special-effects master Ray Harryhausen. His puppet Medusa looked like the result of a labour of love and endless patience and was all the more astonishing to the children who saw it. Now, with everything so slick and convincing, it all looks too damned easy. It must be difficult for kids to be awed when they have their own computers at home and intricate games to play on them.

So we’re left with the story of Perseus, Zeus and the Kraken. The producers of this remake are not quite sure how we would handle it these days; best then, to brush it aside with the endless whirling and swirling of the keyboard. But you can’t keep a good god, or even a demi-god, down for long. Inferior it may be, but with state education the way it is today, films like this remain the only way most kids will learn of the inhabitants of Mount Olympus.

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