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Dangerous games: (l-r) Cattrall and McGregor in The Ghost Writer.

Masters of the Game

By Laura Leon

The Ghost Writer

Directed by Roman Polanski

 

Maybe it’s because I see so many movies, or because I read so many mysteries, but I unraveled the central mystery of The Ghost Writer in about 10 minutes. Nevertheless, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a movie more, or found the denouement of that aforementioned mystery so intensely fulfilling. Perhaps that’s because this movie was directed and edited by the great Roman Polanski, one of the few remaining directors who don’t feel compelled to push the drama envelope at every turn. Polanski prefers his audience to understand his characters, to implicitly recognize that their actions are plausible. And human.

The title character (Ewan McGregor), who is never referenced by his Christian name, has been hired to overhaul the plodding autobiographical manuscript of former Brit Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan as we’ve never seen him). It’s a highly lucrative gig, and one that just might pull “the ghost” out of the depths of anonymity and into something approaching respect. Even so, he senses something amiss. His predecessor has been found dead on a Martha’s Vineyard beach, an apparent suicide. His new subject is just being accused with war crimes related to turning over terror suspects to the CIA for, er, questioning. His new subject’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) is edgy and bitter, even as she climbs into bed with him. Lang’s confidante Amelia (Kim Cattrall) refuses to let the ghost writer remove the manuscript to locations more comfortable than the sprawling, isolated beach house in which the entire entourage camps (while under siege from the media and protestors). And before any of this happens, he gets mugged.

With all these elements, one would think that The Ghost Writer would get bogged down in red herrings and inconsequential details, but again, that’s just not Polanski’s style. Everything fits together and, as the movie progresses, begins to knit together, only we can’t quite see the final shape until the end. At first flummoxed by the sheer dead weight of the Lang manuscript, then by Lang’s obviously canned memories of his past, the ghost writer begins to note discrepancies that at first seem trite, but whose potential meaning soon takes on sinister connotations. As he digs deeper into his predecessor’s work, and demise, he realizes he’s closing in on something major, and the paranoia increases.

At times, one wonders if the ghost is making this up: seeing things that aren’t there, experiencing some sort of meltdown. Despite his hammy qualities, Lang seems, at first, eminently likeable, and telegenic; it’s clear that he’s based on Tony Blair. (And this is a thinly disguised take on how the United States and Great Britain led the charge into Iraq and Afghanistan.) But when questioned, he becomes ruthless, most notably in a highly charged confrontation with the ghost late in the game. Williams imbues the tricky part of Ruth with subtlety, tension, and great intelligence. We sense her anger as her husband nonchalantly chats with Amelia on some travel arrangements: “Why don’t you share a suitcase!” spits Ruth. “It’d be more convenient.”

Tom Wilkinson shows up as a former associate of Lang’s, and the resulting duel of wits between him and the ghost is delicious and scary. As for McGregor, it’s a treat to see him return to a role in which his biting tongue and air of moral exhaustion are perfectly suited. The movie never lets you down, never leaves you hanging, even when you think you know what’s next. Indeed, the seemingly simple act of passing a note has never been presented with so much palpable malice. Welcome back, Polanski.


A Bloody Mess

Repo Men

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

Credit-card interest payments and exorbitant health-care costs are the conjoined evils in Repo Men, a knife-wielding thriller about a nightmarish near future where artificial body parts can be bought on credit—and surgically repossessed from patients who fall behind on payments. Since a kidney starts at $600,000, multitudes of people are marked for slaughter by the sinister corporation that manufactures their organs. There might’ve been some terrifying ideas in the story of the logical extension of a debt-plagued society, but none of them make it to the screen: In Miguel Sapochnik’s gruesome actioner, repossession is almost exclusively an excuse to film viciously effective repo men Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) as they hunt down desperate patients, carve them open with a variety of knives, and use their bare hands to rip out whatever organs the company wants reclaimed.

Because his wife is disgusted with his profession, Remy makes a feeble attempt to transfer to sales, but he is pressured by the company’s slick salesman, Frank (a gleefully slumming Liev Schrieber) to continue. The story centers on Remy’s change of heart—literally—after a cardiac job involving a bankrupted musician backfires by way of a faulty defibrillator. Mostly though, Remy’s attempts to escape from his murderous employment dead-end in gory scenarios that treat human bodies like automobiles (a simile the film beats into pulp).

Flashbacks to Remy’s military training that revel in his near-fatal concussions (which the narration tries to use as a comic countdown, Guy Ritchie style), and his romance with a diabetic and reconstructed lounge singer (Alice Braga), pile on the fleshy violence instead of building suspense (about the only body part not on display is the filmmaker’s brain). Eventually, the carnage becomes tediously repulsive, despite several climaxes using music, stylized choreography, and plot twists to revivify Remy’s dilemma. And, perhaps, to out-gross the recent deluge of cadaver-centered TV programs.

Law recycles his other robotic characters as though on autopilot; Whitaker tries, and fails, to make Jake a tragic figure; and Braga smiles beatifically as her artificial knee is ripped open and sewed up repeatedly. Repo Men is stupid where it should be satirical, and disgusting where it could’ve been disturbing.

—Ann Morrow


Lost in Translation

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Directed by Thor Freudenthal

Having kids is a neat way to discover amazing books that you otherwise wouldn’t go near. Really, the selection of titles and subject matter that exist go so far beyond the vampire lit that you (or your offspring) may think is the be-all-end-all of must-reads at this age is astonishing and wonderful. One of the best authors that I’ve discovered through my sons’ intermittent interest in literary pursuits is Jeff Kinney, whose four books (and counting) series, beginning with Diary of a Wimpy Kid, is a masterful evocation of what it’s like to be a nobody in middle school. Written in scratchy freehand, as one might doodle in a diary, and embellished with delightful, minimal cartoons, the Wimpy Kid stories are funny, truthful, and decidedly anarchic.

So it’s not a big surprise that Hollywood has come knocking, giving us a film adaptation of the first book. While the movie sometimes incorporates the cartoon illustrations at which Kinney is so adept, it “humanizes” the original into four-color, two-dimensional storytelling. Sadly, the narrative only musters a one-dimensional rating.

Main character Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is so desperate not just to fit in, but to excel at something, anything, in middle school that it’s a no-brainer that all his attempts will fall flat. Initially, his ideas are somewhat amusing, especially as just after he’s figured out how to act cool, his best friend, the perpetually good-natured (and tubby) Rawley (Robert Capron), will say something to quash the Fonzie vibe. “Do you want to get together to play?” Rawley enthusiastically asks a bunch of cool kids, much to the horror of Greg, who has just schooled him on saying “hang out” in such instances. Still, as the movie progresses, Greg’s pursuit of acceptance becomes increasingly repellent and hurtful, especially to poor loyal Rawley. I think most people have at some point in their lives craved acceptance and perhaps even some level of respect and admiration from their peers, and Kinney’s source material cleverly mines this while never losing sight of Greg’s basic humanity. In the movie, however, Greg comes off as not much better than his sadistic wannabe punk-rocker brother Roderick (Devon Bostic).

The movie does have some moments that are probably humorous only to those in the active process of raising kids, notably involving embarrassing family situations and little brothers. A mother-son middle-school dance (something I don’t remember from the books, which I admit I read when my kids were at school) rings false and straight out of a lost Leave It to Beaver episode. But scenes in which the younger kids are terrorized by seemingly omnipotent teens carry with them the fright that many of us probably shared at some point in our young lives. When Greg finally turns the tables on Roderick, it’s easy to pull a mental high-five of congrats, because he so had it coming. Unfortunately, for all its meager attempts to teach a valuable lesson, this Diary is more vapid than wimpy.

—Laura Leon


Iraq For Dummies

Green Zone

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Green Zone is based on a dubious concept that’s realized beautifully: Director Paul Greengrass and writer Brian Helgeland toss out most of the film’s advertised source material (Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s amusing and depressing memoir Imperial Life in the Emerald City), to instead tell the fictionalized (yet essentially true) story of the Iraq War in one action film.

The film clocks in at under two hours, covering a period of less than two days, but still manages to include the return of (unwanted) Iraqi exile leaders, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the elimination of Baathists from public life and—of course—“mission accomplished.” Slick work, indeed.

When we meet Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon), he’s leading his men into yet another bogus Baghdad site that’s supposed to have been a storehouse for weapons of mass destruction. This particular site turns out to be a toilet factory, and the equipment is coated in 10 years’ worth of pigeon shit. Of course the brass don’t want to hear about this; Miller and his men are immediately sent out on another bullshit mission to “find” nonexistent WMDs. Instead, Miller follows a hot tip from an Iraqi national, and, like Alice, enters a Wonderland in which everything he thought he knew about Iraq is twisted beyond recognition.

Greengrass makes his political points nicely, as the fact-based army grunts and old Middle East hands from the CIA (in the person of world-weary agent Martin Brown, slyly played by Brendan Gleeson) are steamrolled by the gung-ho neocon minions of the Defense Department. A number of the latter real-life villains are combined into the fictional Clark Poundstone, played with characteristic smugness by Greg Kinnear. Judith Miller, author of numerous breathless prewar news stories about imaginary WMDs, gets hers in the character of Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan, who is too kind to her real-life counterpart).

Some wags have dubbed this “Bourne in Baghdad,” a reference to the two previous action-thriller collaborations between Damon and Greengrass. While Green Zone is full of only-in- Hollywood action, Damon’s Miller is no superhuman ass-kicker like Jason Bourne; when he picks a fight with a special-ops hardass (Jason Isaacs, wearing goggles that make him look like the Red Baron), he gets his ass handed to him. And unlike Jason Bourne, we know that Miller can’t win—he can only get the last word.

—Shawn Stone


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