Watching “The Ghost Writer”
January, February and March are traditionally the time of year when studios dump their worst films on unsuspecting audiences.
It’s when prestige pictures that for whatever reason weren’t considered Oscar contenders slip quietly into theaters, and mainstream comedy and action movies that aren’t viewed as potential summer blockbusters are released. For most moviegoers, this is a good time to catch up on all of the Oscar films that were released in fall and early winter. But there’s at least one new film that’s as good, if not better, than most of the films that garnered awards season attention: Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer.”
I know, I know. Roman Polanski — what a slimeball. And I presume Polanski’s slimeball status explains why his masterfully crafted political thriller wasn’t given an Oscar push. I’m not saying “The Ghost Writer” deserved to win best picture, but I liked it a lot more than most of the 10 nominees. From the film’s opening moments, Polanski displays superb command over his material. His pacing, the way he builds suspense, his use of actors (the cast is uniformly excellent), the dark and witty script (which Polanski co-wrote with novelist Robert Harris) — almost every scene is a reminder that when Polanski brings his A-game to a project, he ranks with the best directors in the world.
In “The Ghost Writer,” a naive writer (Ewan McGregor) agrees to ghost write the memoirs of former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who has recently been accused of war crimes and could face prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Lang is living on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, in a beautiful house (the house alone is worth the price of admission — I’m now fantasizing about living there); his former ghost writer recently died, in a mysterious drowning off the coast. The new ghost writer (who isn’t even given a name — the credits simply refer to him as “The Ghost”) isn’t much interested in the circumstances surrounding his predecessor’s death, or in politics, or in exploring into the more controversial elements of Lang’s time in office. He simply wants to polish up Lang’s book and make some money. But he soon finds himself unable to ignore discrepancies between what Lang tells him and what he learns through archived documents, and one rainy afternoon finds himself following the G.P.S. directions his predecessor programmed into his vehicle right before he died.
I always find McGregor an interesting presence, and here he does a pretty good job of portraying an innocent and fairly guileless young man who unwittingly finds himself surrounded by a bunch of scheming vipers. The real pleasure, of course, comes in observing the dynamics and mannerisms of the scheming vipers, terrifically played by Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson and Kim Cattrall (yes, that Kim Cattrall). The dialogue, which is distinguished by a nasty wit, is a joy to listen to, and the story itself is ingenious and clever. I also enjoyed the film’s relevance —Brosnan’s resemblance to Tony Blair is completely intentional — and strong moral compass, even as I marveled at the fact that Roman Polanski had made a film with a ... strong moral compass. (And not for the first time — see his excellent 2002 Holocaust drama “The Pianist”)
With thrillers, there’s always the risk that the build-up will be more interesting than the denouement, and I’m happy to report that “The Ghost Writer’s” final scenes pack a pretty strong punch. That said, if you’re like me, you’ll begin noticing plot holes and wild implausibilities almost as soon as the final credits have rolled, and will start asking questions like: But wait — if The Ghost is so naive and clueless, how was he able to figure all this stuff out? or But wait — was the guy who SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! shot Lang really just a crazy lone wolf, or was he working for someone? or But wait — do you really expect me to believe that The Ghost would let Lang’s wife know that he knows that she’s really a CIA agent? (Because that just seems like asking for trouble.) I guess what I’m saying is that, as conspiracy thrillers go, “The Ghost Writer” fails to match the high standards set by the really great conspiracy thrillers, such as Polanski’s own “Chinatown.” But few films are that good and, faults and all, “The Ghost Writer” is a really fine movie.
I feel a little guilty, liking a Roman Polanski film so much, and I can relate to the feelings of Slate movie critic Dana Stevens, whose positive review of “The Ghost Writer” was titled: “Roman Polanski has made a great thriller — damn it.” Anyway, click here to read my thoughts on Polanski’s arrest last fall on the decades-old charge of having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.
Director Kathryn Bigelow recently became the first woman to win an Oscar for best director, and the film for which she won the award, the Iraq-war film “The Hurt Locker,” is a very good, unusually thoughtful action film. But I just watched Bigelow’s 1987 vampire western, the cult film “Near Dark,” and I think I like it evem better. The film is slickly-made (there’s an unmistakable ‘80s vibe, and not just because the soundtrack includes music by Tangerine Dream), yet gritty and hard-edged. It stars Adrian Pasdar as a young cowboy who is bit by a pretty woman he meets downtown and turns into vampire. The pretty woman is nice, as vampires go, but she hangs out with a ruthless band of vampire outlaws, and the movie builds to the inevitable and bloody confrontation between the young cowboy’s family and his new vampire family. “Near Dark” definitely deserves its cult status, and succeeds because it treats the vampire myth with reverence, but isn’t afraid to reinvent it and adapt it for a dusty Southwestern setting.
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