erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2010 posts

Saturday April 24, 2010

Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009)

WARNING: SPÖILERS

Despite its calm, sympathetic main character, an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist), it’s hard, as a man, to walk out of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and not be disgusted with your gender.

Of course I’m one of the few people who walked into the movie not knowing the story. “Dragon Tattoo” is based upon the first of three books, the Millennium trilogy, that journalist Stieg Larsson wrote before he died in 2004. Worldwide sales of these books have now topped 20 million, while the second in the series, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” became the first translated work since Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” to top The New York Times bestseller list. The film, with little help from the U.S., has grossed nearly $100 million worldwide, and it’s particularly big in Denmark, where, from a population of 5.4 million, US$17 million has been made (a ratio that if applied to the U.S. would mean a domestic box office take of $957 million), and while I was aware of the phenomenon, I wasn’t aware of the story. I certainly didn’t know the original, Swedish title contains no reference to either girls or dragon tattoos. It’s “Män som hatar kvinnor”: “Men Who Hate Women.”

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" poster. With Noomi RapaceThe movie, indeed, opens with a man with a knife. But he’s a benevolent man, an old Swedish industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), who is using the knife to cut open a package. It contains a flowery white plant under glass. He looks at it, sits down at his desk, and weeps.

These early scenes can be confusing for neophytes because they contain three separate storylines: there’s Vanger and that flowery white plant; there’s Blomqvist, a crusading journalist for a progressive magazine, “Millennium,” who is convicted of libel against another industrialist; and there’s the titular character, the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), whom we first see, hunched and hooded and seemingly hunted, walking through Swedish subways. How do these characters connect?

Turns out Vanger has hired a research company that employs Salander, a computer hacker, to look into Blomqvist’s life. She does, during his trial and conviction, and comes away with her own conviction that Blomqvist is “totally clean.” She’s also intrigued by him—in the way that she’s intrigued: from a distance—and continues to spy on him after the job is done.

Vanger then hires Blomqvist, who has six months before his prison sentence starts, to look into a case that has haunted the old man for 40 years. In September 1966, his beloved niece, Harriet Vanger, whom we see in a beautiful black-and-white portrait, and who was Blomqvist’s babysitter back in the day, disappeared from Hedeby Island, the site of the Vanger estate. Everyone assumes she’s dead. Henrik assumes someone in his family killed her, and, on his birthday, sends him a framed flower, as Harriet used to do, to taunt him.

The Vanger family is certainly a piece of work. Two of Henrik’s brothers were Nazis: Gofffried, Harriet’s father, who, in 1965, fell into a nearby lake and died, and Harald, mean and rotten, who still lives on the estate.

Two other Vangers live on Hedeby as well: Gottfried’s son (and Harriet’s brother), Martin, who had once been a member of Hitler Youth, but is now older, jollier, and offers Blomqvist 21-year-old malt whiskey; and Harald’s daughter, Cecilia, who offers Blomqvist her bed.

In Stockholm, meanwhile, Lisbeth, still hacking Blomqvist’s computer, is forced to undergo a change in guardians. Since she’s 24, of legal age, I assume guardians in Sweden are similar to parole officers in the U.S. but with legal degrees and more power. Her new guardian, Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), turns out to be no guardian at all. Initially he just seems like a dick: He takes greater control of Lisbeth’s bank account and her comings and goings. Then he asks her questions about sex. Then he forces oral sex on her. When she shows up at his place one evening because she needs emergency money, he punches her, handcuffs her to his bed and rapes her. At this point we already know Lisbeth is smart and tough so we’re a little disappointed she gets to this point—realizing she’s trapped, there’s something almost feral in her reaction—but we’ve also seen the small red light in her purse and assume she’s taping the whole, horrible event, which she is. The next time they meet, also at his place, she turns the tables. She tasers him. When he awakes, naked and handcuffed on the floor, she shows him the tape, lists her demands (basically: stay out of my fucking life), then sodomizes him with a dildo and tattoos the following words on his chest and stomach: “I’m a sadist pig and a rapist.”

These are tough scenes to watch, particularly the rape, and at some point I wondered how much of the subplot was necessary. What does it have to do with Harriet Vanger? Couldn’t the filmmakers have excised it cleanly? Answers: “Not much” and “Yes.” Yet I’d still keep it. The subplot complements Larsson’s overall theme—men who hate women—and gives us a clearer view of the title character. This is someone you do not fuck with.

Back on Hedeby Island, Blomqvist rummages through 40-year-old evidence. There’s film footage of a tanker accident on the day she disappeared. (Is that her in the window of a building? Talking to someone? Already looking ghostly?) There’s a newspaper photo, that same day, of Harriet in the crowd at the annual Children’s Day parade, looked to her left, seemingly stunned, while everyone else is looking to their right. (“What are you looking at?” Blomqvist asks the photo.)

Then there’s Harriet’s diary. On the back page, Harriet has listed five sets of names/initials and numbers, such as “Magda 32016” and “BJ 32027.” But they don’t correspond to names anyone knows or numbers that have ever been listed. What are they?

It’s up to Lisbeth, still hacking Blomqvist’s computer, to decipher them, and it’s a deciphering reminiscent of “The DaVinci Code.” (Just as the ghostly portrait and diary recall “Twin Peaks.”) The numbers are Bible verses, all from Leviticus, the third book of the Pentateuch. “32016,” for example, stands for Leviticus 20:16:

“If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.”

The other verses are similarly cheery: burned with fire, cut to pieces, stoned to death. Lisbeth anonymously emails Blomqvist these answers, but he tracks her down, and the two wind up working together on Hedeby. The names and initials, they realize (too quickly), correspond to women who were killed, in the manner articulated in the Bible verses, at different periods: 1949, 1954, etc. But who did the killings? A big hint: All the murdered women were Jewish.

Up to this point we’ve mostly seen Lisbeth by herself, high-strung and tight-mouthed, but it turns out she’s much the same working with Blomqvist. Instigating a sexual relationship doesn’t open her up, either; it reveals how closed-off she is. She’s intimate without intimacy. Something about her suggests a wounded animal, or an animal that was once abused and is now forever skittish and ready to strike back. She also has a kind of super power, a photographic memory (an unnecessary addition: she’s fascinating without it), but when Blomqvist casually mentions this to her, she flinches, startled, and he has to calm her down. He says he didn’t mean anything by it. He says he wishes he had a photographic memory. In her silence is a kind of response: No, you don’t. Or: There are some things better forgotten.

“Dragon Tattoo” is directed by Niels Arden Oplev, a Danish TV director, and it’s pretty straightforward storytelling: this, then this, then this. He juggles (well enough, if unremarkably) three separate storylines, and he presents (well enough, if unremarkably) all that dusty backstory inevitable in a 40-year-old mystery.

It’s the characters, Blomqvist and Lisbeth, that recommend the movie, because they turn certain thriller conventions on their heads. One knows that a man and a woman solving a crime together, particularly a serial crime, particularly a serial crime against women, should never split up as they get closer to a resolution. It’s just asking for trouble. And it happens here. Except the serial killer (Martin, by the way, the former Hitler Youth with the malt whiskey) doesn’t catch the defenseless Lisbeth; he catches the defenseless Blomqvist, whom he ties up, tortures, and is about to kill. It’s up to Lisbeth to arrive in the nick of time and take a golf club to Martin’s back.

But Martin is allowed to escape, and one expects, anxiously expects, as Lisbeth leans down to free Blomqvist, that Martin will return, because the serial killer always returns. Martin’s been at it for 40 years. Inculcated by his father, Gottfried, who sexually abused women, including his own daughter, Harriet, Martin has kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed dozens of women since 1966. He shows Blomqvist a small cage. “I had one in here while we were upstairs sharing malt whiskey,” he says matter-of-factly. He brags about showing these women some small act of kindness, giving them, say, a drink of water, and seeing in their eyes some small hope that they’ll survive; but he does it only for the thrill of extinguishing that hope.

This is the kind of movie villain that never dies, or takes a long time dying, so one anxiously expects him to come roaring back into the room when Lisbeth’s back is turned. Doesn’t happen. Instead she goes after him. She hops on her motorcycle and chases him down. He’s no longer the hunter; she is. It’s a truly thrilling cinematic moment.

Interestingly, the revelation of Martin and his subsequent death doesn’t solve the case. Martin may have been a serial killer, responsible for the deaths of dozens of women, and he and his father may have raped Harriet back in 1965—causing Harriet to kill her father while fleeing her father (remember: there are no accidental deaths in crime fiction)—but Martin didn't have anything to do with Harriet's disappearance. So what happened to her?

Answer: She’s alive. She escaped her family and its crimes and has been living in Australia all of these years. Blomqvist tracks her down, brings her back, and presents her to Henrik Vanger. And the music wells up as these two sweet people have a sweet, tearful reunion.

Me in the audience: Wait a minute. She just left? Allowing her brother to rape and torture and kill dozens of women? How awful. How awful, too, that the movie doesn’t even acknowledge it.

The book does. Or Lisbeth does:

   During the drive [Blomqvist] told her about Harriet Vanger’s story. [Lisbeth] Salander sat in silence for half an hour before she opened her mouth.
   “Bitch,” she said.
   “Who?”
   “Harriet Fucking Vanger. If she had done something in 1966, Martin Vanger couldn’t have kept killing and raping for thirty-seven years.”

In the end “Dragon Tattoo” is a fairly conventional movie that saves itself with its unconventionality. We start out caring about the conventional girl, Harriet, with her long blonde hair and secret smile, who plays the victim, and finish caring about the unconventional girl, Lisbeth, with her chopped black hair, tattoos and nose rings, who refuses to play the victim. We want to protect her—this girl who doesn’t need our protection.

Posted at 09:54 AM on Apr 24, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Saturday April 17, 2010

Review: “Kick Ass” (2010)

WARNING: NOT-SO-SUPER SPOILERS

There always seems to be an audience for this kind of thing: people who buy into the very thing they’re viewing ironically. We’re never as hip as we want to be.

“Kick Ass” is a step removed from superhero movies, since it’s set in a world without super powers, a world more or less like ours, where geeks hang out at comic book stores and talk about superheroes. At the same time it gives us a superhero storyline: the story of an ordinary kid, Dave Lezewski (Aaron Johnson), who one days asks his geek friends: Hey, how comes nobody tries to be a superhero? Then he can’t dismiss the idea. He fantasizes about it, and, as with serial killers (he says in a voiceover—nice comparison), it’s no longer enough to fantasize. He has to act out his fantasies. So he dons a green-and-yellow wet suit, reminiscent of Scorpion’s without the tail, and calls himself Kick Ass. But the first time he tries to stop a crime, involving the same two New York City street toughs who took his money and comic books a few weeks earlier, he gets stabbed in the stomach. The second time, while trying to rescue a missing cat, he stumbles upon a guy getting beat up, and, in the process of holding back his tormenters while getting his ass kicked again, he’s filmed by an Asian dude with a cellphone, who says of the whole affair, “This is fucking awesome!”

Poster for "Kick Ass" (2010)That Asian dude is us, by the way. Viewing the world at a remove, through a filter.

Of course the video winds up on YouTube, then in the mainstream media since it’s an “Internet sensation” with more than 20 million hits—or 160 million hits less than Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” One anticipates a storyline of copycats, of people getting involved, since Dave/Kick Ass is someone who, despite having no superpowers, is getting involved. But the movie thankfully doesn’t go in this direction.

It goes in a worse direction. Turns out there’s already a superhero in this world: a secret Batman wanna-be called Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), whose sidekick is his explosive, 11-year-old daughter, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz of “(500) Days of Summer”). These two actually have superpowers—in the way that Batman has superpowers. They’re so expert in martial arts, etc., they can take on mobs of bad guys single-handedly. Unlike Batman, though, they use guns and knives and kill people. Even when the bad guys are running away, they chase them down and kill them. They leave a wide trail of blood.

And that’s the problem I have with the movie. No, not the trail of blood. When Hit Girl first appears, just in time to rescue Kick Ass from, well, dying, from getting cut head to sternum by drug dealers, and then uses her many blades to chop up the bad guys as expertly as a Japanese chef chops up sushi, I wondered, “Wait a minute. Isn’t this supposed to be an ironic superhero movie? The non-super-powered superhero movie?” But it’s not. Hit Girl is basically Robin, except female, foul-mouthed and sushilicious. She’s basically Batman. We still want the wish fulfillment, in other words, the easy cutting down of bullies and bad guys, we just want it in an ironic, hip form so we can pretend we don’t want it. There’s great dishonesty here.

Hit Girl and Big Daddy are gunning for mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), who, 11 years ago, framed Big Daddy, then a cop named Damon Macready, and put him in the slammer. While incarcerated, his wife became a drug addict and died during childbirth. Macready blames Frank, and, when he gets out, he trains both himself and his daughter to combat the mob. They begin to do this about a month before Kick Ass appears. Nice coincidence.

Cage is good, in his good off-kilter way. He plays Macready as a gun-totin’, spooky, psychopath of a loving father, while his Big Daddy borrows the cowl of The Owl, the armor of the Dark Knight, the yellow utility belt of 1970s-era Batman, and the puffed-up cadences of Adam West’s (satirical) Batman. Moretz is good, too, but... I remember when the red-band trailer appeared a few months ago, there was a minor uproar over some of her language. “How will I get a hold of you?” Kick Ass asks. She tells him to contact the mayor’s office. “He has a special signal in the sky?” she says. “It’s in the shape of a giant cock.” See? It mocks the very thing (Batman; superheroes; wish fulfillment) that it’s selling, while pushing the envelope of good taste. Some of us laugh. Me, I just sit in the audience wondering, “Would Macready/Big Daddy be the type of guy to teach his daughter this kind of language? Knives, yes. Guns, yes. But cock jokes? That doesn’t fit with the Adam West voice of propriety.” But I know I’m in the minority.

So Frank the mobster blames all the hits on his men on Kick Ass, and enlists his son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, McLovin from “Superbad”), to become yet another superhero, or supervillain, Red Mist, to lure Kick Ass out where he can kill him. It almost works. But Big Daddy gets Frank’s men first. A deeper betrayal is necessary, with more violence and bigger guns.

There’s nothing super here. “Kick Ass” feels like it was made by the stupid stepchildren of Quentin Tarantino. It’s not just substituting crudity for humor, and hipness and self-referentiality for plot and character development; it’s a soulless film. At one point, in a back alley, Frank kills Kick Ass, plus a witness, but it’s actually a kid going to a Kick Ass party. No one gives this kid (or the witness) a second thought—not even Dave/Kick Ass. And why should he? Dave’s own mother (Elizabeth McGovern, believe it or not) died of an aneurysm at breakfast two years earlier, and it’s treated as a sight gag. We see her head flop into a bowl of Honey Puffs cereal. In voiceover Dave tells us, more or less, that life goes on, but it’s less “Life goes on despite the pain we feel from irretrievable loss” than “Life goes on because we feel nothing.”

This is a movie for people who feel nothing but the world at a remove.

Posted at 08:56 AM on Apr 17, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Monday March 15, 2010

Review: “Green Zone” (2010)

WARNING: SMD (SPOILERS OF MASS DESTRUCTION)

Because “Green Zone” is set in Baghdad in March, April and probably May of 2003, and that’s gonna be a sore subject for a while, we have to ask the question we don’t normally ask of an action-adventure movie: What does it get right?

Well, the U.S. Army can’t find WMD. That's a start. Various American agencies are working against each other rather than with each other. The press is duped by an unmentioned high-ranking official (Cheney!), while an unseen Paul Bremer disastrously disbands the Iraqi Army and more-or-less starts the Iraqi insurgency. Finally, it’s suggested that officials in D.C. believed the false intelligence about WMD because they wanted to believe the false intelligence about WMD; because they wanted war.

That’s not bad.

"The Green Zone" starring Matt DamonWhat does it get wrong? It doesn’t suggest this last item forcefully enough. It also implies a lowly Pentagon official was the source of the false intelligence. Basically it implies that a few bad apples spoiled the whole bunch, girl. I tend to agree. But my bad apples were cabinet officers and vice-presidents and presidents. “Green Zone” tries to avoid being overtly political, but you can’t do this shit without being overtly political.

Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, an Army captain whose team is sniffing for WMD a month after shock-and-awe, and at the start he’s perplexed, genuinely perplexed, that the intel he’s getting is leading to pigeon shit and toilet parts. He brings it up at a meeting, but is assured by Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a Pentagon special intelligence officer, that the new intel is solid and current. Afterwards, a CIA officer, Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson, doing a sometime-Chicago accent), buttonholes Miller. “Something’s wrong here and we’ve got to find out what it is,” Brown says.

At the next WMD site, Miller’s team is digging purposeless holes in the ground when a limping Iraqi named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla of “The Kite Runner”) tries to get through with real intel and has a knee put to his neck. But Miller reluctantly listens, then forcefully acts, and in the process gets a glimpse of a fleeing Iraqi general, Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, Saddam Hussein in “House of Saddam”), who, in those playing cards developed by the U.S. military, is the Jack of Clubs. He gets away, but Miller and company capture his assistant, Seyyed Hamza (Said Faraj), along with a small black book filled with safe-house locations. They’re just about to turn Hamza when special forces, led by the mustachioed Briggs (Jason Isaacs, Lucius Malfoy himself), swoop in, black-hood Hamza and take him away. They would’ve taken the notebook, too, if Miller, in the middle of getting his nose bloodied by Briggs, hadn’t planted it on Freddy, who flees. “Why are you running!” Miller demands when he catches up to him. “Why are you chasing me!” Freddy demands back. Freddy’s limp turns out to be the result of a prosthetic limb. “My leg is in Iran,” he says. “Since 1987.” He insists that Miller trust him. “Whatever you want here,” he says, “I want it more.” All good lines.

Because of its time and place, parts of “Green Zone” are inevitably roman a clef—or, I suppose, film a clef. Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a reporter who adds little besides hand-wringing over her pre-war WMD coverage, is obviously Judith Miller. An Iraqi politican returning to Baghdad to mostly U.S. fanfare is obviously Ahmed Chalabi. Since much of Dayne’s bad intel came from someone code-named “Magellan,” I immediately assumed Magellan was this Chalabi-type pol, since Chalabi himself, once dubbed the “George Washington of Iraq” by the neocons, was the source of so much of our bad pre-war intel.

Nope. Magellan is Gen. Al Rawi, who met with Poundstone in February 2003 in Jordan, and told him Iraq had no WMD, no programs. They’d dismantled everything in 1991.

And Poundstone went back to D.C. and lied about it.

Now Poundstone, via Briggs, wants to kill Al Rawi to cover this up. And so it’s a race between the two men, Briggs and Miller, to see who can get to Al Rawi first. Miller wins, but from a disadvantaged position. “Why are you here?” Al Rawi asks Miller, who’s tied to a chair. “I came to bring you in,” Miller says straight-faced. After Miller informs him that Poundstone lied to everyone about the meeting in Jordan, Al Rawi dismisses the excuse. “You’ve got to want to believe the lie, Mr. Miller,” he says.

This is a great line, a necessary line, but the film still lays too much blame at the feet of Poundstone. He lies, so we go to war. He covers up, so we get an insurgency. If it weren’t for little Greg Kinnear, the movie implies, the Bush years might not have been so bad.

And what’s with the leap in logic? So in February 2003 Al Rawi tells Poundstone there aren’t any WMD. Why, from that, assume Poundstone lied to officials in D.C.? Why not assume that Poundstone reported these very facts to his superiors, who decided not to believe in them or act on them? And why would they believe in them? Al Rawi tells them, just as they’re about to invade his country, that the reason they’re about to invade his country doesn’t exist. I’d have trouble believing him, too.

“Green Zone” makes it all about the conspiracy, all about the lie, but the problem isn’t the lie; it’s believing the facts you want to believe until they become the lie. The problem isn’t a cover-up; it’s the self-delusion and gross incompetence that make a cover-up necessary. Conspiracies generally aren’t born fully-formed and armed like Athena from the head of Zeus. They need time to mature.

Some critics have called the film “The Bourne Zone,” because it shares star and director and shaky camera movements with that series, but this is a misreading. Jason Bourne is three steps ahead of everyone. Roy Miller is three steps behind even us. He spends half the movie realizing what we know going in. Plus he gets his ass kicked in his one fight. This is not wish-fulfillment, kids. This is Iraq.

More verisimiltude. Director Paul Greengrass has real U.S. soldiers play U.S. soldiers, he gives us chilling hints of Abu Ghraib, and he doesn’t use the Iraqis merely for background music. Several Iraqis come to the forefront as main characters. In the end, Freddy gives Miller, and by extension us, the lesson every American generation apparently needs to re-learn. “It isn’t for you to decide what happens here,” he says. Not bad for an action-adventure movie.

Final thought: Since most of the movie takes place outside the green zone, why call it “Green Zone”? A possible answer, possibly in the source material—Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone”—is the idea that the green zone isn't just a location but a state of mind. It’s the safe place you go when unpleasant facts and realities become overwhelming; where you believe what you want to believe. Many Americans spent the eight years of the Bush administration there. Many haven’t left.

Posted at 08:07 AM on Mar 15, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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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.

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.

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