erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2010 posts

Friday March 05, 2010

Review: “The Ghost Writer” (2010)

WARNING: THROWBACK SPOILERS

Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is an expert piece of filmmaking that doesn't matter. It’s fun, smart, adult, and certain shots are stunning, but it’s also a throwback, and the elements of its throwback don’t completely mesh. In tone it’s a throwback to the moody Hitchcockian thriller of the 1950s, in content it’s a throwback to the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s, but in setting it’s a throwback to just a few years ago, to the suffocating stupidity of the George W. Bush years, and this is the part that doesn’t mesh. Or maybe nothing feels as old as that which has just left us—like Condoleezza Rice. Or maybe I was merely disappointed with the ending.

The film begins in the rain and never loses its chill. A ferry docks in a downpour and cars file out. Except one. It remains ominously unclaimed. Eventually, car alarm ringing in protest, it’s towed away. Great cinematic shorthand. Something’s amiss. Someone’s missing.

Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" (2010)Turns out a writer has died and needs to be replaced. He’s been ghosting the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the Tony Blairish, former British prime minister who sided with the U.S. in all of its ill-conceived foreign adventures, and is now living out his days in disgrace in a Martha’s Vineyard-type island off the coast of Massachusetts. But he’s been paid $10 million for his memoirs, and the publishing house needs to get something out, and so another ghost, known in the credits simply as the Ghost (Ewan McGregor), is hired.

He takes the job reluctantly—because a slick publishing-house friend, Rick Ricardelli (John Bernthal), wants him to, and because an editor who rejected one of the Ghost’s previous books, doesn’t. But he gets the job, truly, because he’s an honest man in the dishonest world of business and politics. There’s a great, early scene where he tells the publishing house president, John Maddox (a shockingly good, shaved-bald Jim Belushi), that not only doesn’t he read political memoirs but no one reads political memoirs. Which is exactly why they need him: to appeal to all of those readers who don’t read political memoirs. Which is everyone.

Things go downhill quickly. Ten minutes after the meeting, he’s mugged. At Heathrow, still smarting, he watches news reports about how Lang, as prime minister, authorized the rendition of four British nationals, Muslims, who were subsequently tortured, and one of whom died, in U.S. custody. He phones Ricardelli: “What have you gotten me into?”

The Lang complex on the island, run by Lang’s assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall), is gated and guarded. There are disapproving Asian housekeepers and an air of officiousness and unreality. The Writer is allowed this space. He must sign these NDAs. Then he’s placed into a room that includes, on the right half of its outer wall, a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over bleak, grassy dunes. It’s as if the room is half inside and half out. It’s like something out of a dream.

Ewan McGregor in a scene from Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" (2010)

The Writer, poor bastard, groans over the 600-page manuscript his predecessor left him: its long, dull beginning on the history of the Langs in Scotland; its facile observations on recent, tragic events (“The American president was much taller than I expected.”). When Lang finally arrives, via private Hatherton (read: Halliburton) jet, the Writer tries to cut through the bullshit and make him understandable. At Cambridge, in the 1970s, Lang wanted to be an actor. Why suddenly politics? Because, Lang says, his future wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), appeared at his door one day, politicking, and he fell in love. Ah ha! The Writer has his lead. But Lang keeps shooing him away from more interesting areas of the story and back toward the bullshit. He wants the book to be noble and empty. Brosnan gives Lang the air of someone who was once important and respected, and is now unimportant and disgraced, and he doesn’t quite know why. He gives him the air of someone who has to pretend too much in public and too little in private.

Even as the Writer is trying to decide what Lang’s story is, the story keeps changing. A former British secretary, Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh), whom Lang once fired, is bringing charges against him before the Hague on the rendition matter, and the Writer is corralled into drafting a response, which, with a mixture of vanity and horror, he hears Lang repeat that night on TV. Protesters and picketers arrive outside the gates. The press descends and takes over the local Inn, where the Writer has been staying, and he is forced to take his predecessor’s room at the Lang estate.

All this time, in a nice touch, he’s been treating anything belonging to his predecessor with the held-in-breath of the hypochondriac. He doesn’t want to catch what his predecessor caught. But he does. He discovers photos indicating that Lang lied about when he entered politics. He discovers a phone number among his predecessor’s effects: Robert Rycart’s. An old timer on the island (a nearly 100-yearold Eli Wallach!) tells him that, given island currents, the original ghost writer’s body could never have washed up where it did. And, in one of the greatest uses of modern technology in a traditional genre, the Writer tracks his predecessor’s last visit via his car’s GPS. It takes him to the mainland and the home of a Harvard professor, Paul Emmett (a gloriously insufferable Tom Wilkinson), who knew Lang at Cambridge in the 1970s but denies he knew Lang at Cambridge. Online, he reads rumors that Emmett has ties to the CIA, and, coupled with Lang’s acquiescence to U.S. policy, he puts two and two together. The former British PM is a CIA mole! But where’s the evidence? In a clandestine meeting, Rycart tells him that the original ghost put the answer in the beginning of the memoir; the Writer can’t find it. Meanwhile, the closer he gets to an answer, the closer an answer gets to him.

This is a movie about as well-made as movies can be made. The script, by novelist Robert Harris and Polanski, is wonderful. At one point Amelia asks the Writer how the Inn is and he responds, “Monastic.” “That’s alright,” she says. “No distractions.” Then he follows her ass upstairs to his workroom. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment but this is an altogether unsexy film. Lang is obviously having an affair with Amelia, and everyone, particularly his long-suffering wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), who compares her husband’s banishment to Napoleon’s on Elba, knows it. One evening Ruth winds up in the Writer’s bed. It’s positively icky. It may be the least sexy affair between two good-looking actors in cinematic history.

Polanski, master of the off-kilter and unnerving, who partly edited the film from his prison in Switzerland, gets all of the details right. I’m still thinking about the sense of vulnerability McGregor displays as he’s being frisked by a government agent, ultimately benign, in a tiny hotel room. But the ending does disservice to the rest. The big reveal after Lang is assassinated by a protester? Prof. Emmett did recruit a mole at Cambridge in the 1970s: Lang’s wife, Ruth. The clues are in the first word of every chapter of the original manuscript, which the Writer figures out at the book party for his scaled-down version. And what does he do with this information? He tells Ruth, of course. Who, of course, tells Emmett. The Writer then walks outside, clutching the original manuscript, and can’t hail a cab. He walks out of frame and a car barrels by. Polanski holds the camera as we hear a crash, and, after a moment, papers, the last evidence of Ruth’s duplicity, and the real reason for Great Britain's poodleish behavior, flutter by like snowflakes and are scattered to the four winds.

That’s a great final shot. But how stupid can the Writer be? He tells Ruth? And no one else? And isn’t that reveal, via the first word in each chapter, rather facile?

In the 1970s, and in the political thrillers of the 1970s, such as “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the left for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in everything. In the 2000s, the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the right for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in nothing. Bushies outed CIA agents. That’s how crazy things got.

Here, the CIA, FBI and the faux-Bush administration all work together in super-smart, super-efficient fashion. Thought becomes action. As soon as perceived enemies appear they are struck down. One ponders the sad history of this past decade, particularly before and after 9/11, and thinks: Right.

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Posted at 07:53 AM on Mar 05, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Friday January 15, 2010

Review: “The Spy Next Door” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILED-ROTTEN SPOILERS

I went into “The Spy Next Door” thinking that Jackie Chan, at 55, wouldn’t be able to perform the stunning moves he’s given us for over 30 years but hoped the story around him would make up for the deficit. It’s the opposite. He still moves with more grace than any action star in Hollywood. But the story around him?

"The Spy Next Door" with Jackie Chan

Jackie plays Bob Ho—a take-off on “Bob Hope” as his Chon Wang in “Shanghai Noon” was a take-off on John Wayne. He's a Chinese spy on loan to the CIA who pretends to be a pen salesman in southern California, and he’s living next door to, and romancing, a woman named Gillian, the mother of three, played by fashion model Amber Valletta. One wonders which is the bigger fantasy: the international spy next door or the international supermodel (with three kids) next door. I’ve got my pick.

Bob would like to quit the biz and marry her. Smart man! Four things are getting in the way: 1) She likes how ordinary and honest he is, when he’s been dishonest about how ordinary he isn’t; and 2)-4), her three kids hate him. He’s boring, they complain. So when Gillian’s father winds up in the hospital because of a senior softball accident, Bob volunteers to babysit while she flies to his side. He’s going to win them over.

The kids are the usual mix of Hollywood stereotypes and impossibilities. Farren (Madeline Carroll), verging on adolescence, wants to dress in short skirts and bare mid-riffs, and takes forever in the bathroom. Ian (Will Shadley), the middle child, has the vocabulary of a Harvard freshman but wants to be “cool,” even as he feeds girls twice his age lines like, “If I said you had a nice body, would you hold it against me?” Finally, there’s Nora (Alina Foley), who’s cute and runs away a lot. Together they conspire, as Farren says, “to deep-six Bob.” While searching for evidence against him, Ian downloads sensitive material that gets the bad guys, Russian terrorists, on their trail.

But first Bob has to screw up making breakfast while the kids sit at the table and roll their eyes. Then he drives them to school while they roll their eyes and argue about who gets the front seat. Then he loses Nora at the mall and has to perform a Jackie Chanesque stunt to get her back. Eventually he uses the tools of his trade to keep them in line, and he has heart-to-hearts with Farren and Ian, but they always get back to rolling their eyes.

“The Spy Next Door” is billed as a family comedy but one wonders how good it is for families. Not because Gillian is a single mom and Farren isn’t her child—it’s her ex-husband’s child from his first marriage—but because it takes a “kids being kids” attitude toward the brattiest behavior. It smiles and shakes its head lovingly at impossibly smart boys booby-trapping their sisters’ hair-dryers and 11-year-old girls dressing like sluts. When Ian complains that he wants to be cool, Bob tells him “You are cool,” rather than, “Why do you want to be cool?” or “Isn’t cool boring?” or “Isn’t the whole point of being cool to be disinterested? And aren’t you interesting because you’re interested?” I’m not saying the conversation would’ve worked, or should’ve worked, since it doesn’t really work in real life (I’ve tried), but at least it would’ve been said. Better that than to tell Ian to brush back his hair and flip up his collar so he looks like a kid’s version of the worst preppy asshole from 1985. Which, of course, gets him noticed by the older girls at school. Because girls like preppy assholes from 1985.

Jackie isn’t completely innocent in this, either. Like Paul McCartney, he’s always had a cutsie thing that needs controlling, and director Brian Levant, who's made a career out of ending the careers of tough guys by directing them with kids (“Jingle All the Way”; “Are We There Yet?”), doesn’t control him, or the movie, enough.

English, too, will always be a problem for Jackie—particularly in comedies. He’s much funnier in Cantonese or Mandarin. At one point Bob is supposed to say, “Maybe you write her a poem”; but Mandarin, and I assume Cantonese, has no closing “m” sounds, only opening “m” sounds (example: “Mei-guo” for “America”), and he can’t quite get his mouth around “poem.” During the closing-credit “blooper” reel, he says the line over and over before shaking his head and declaring, “I hate English.” That ad-lib made me laugh harder than any scripted line in the movie. Maybe because there was honesty behind it.

There are some sweet moments. When Nora has trouble sleeping Bob sings her a Mandarin lullaby. And when Farren complains about not really being part of the family, Bob talks about growing up an orphan—which is what happened to Jackie (his parents abandoned him to a Peking Opera school)—and adds that family isn’t your blood but who loves you and whom you love.

Then the Rooskies come, Bob’s cover is blown, and, despite the heart-to-heart about family, Farren deep-sixes him—not because he’s boring, her original objection, but because he’s exciting. Gillian is unable to forgive him—twice—for lying to her and putting her kids in danger. Even though her kids are brats and put themselves in danger. And even though the lie was in the interest of international security. And even though his lie is nothing next to the lies the film propagates.

Ni tzi na-lie, Wong Fei-hung?

Amber Valletta

The Mom next door.

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Posted at 08:36 AM on Jan 15, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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