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2010: The Year We Make Lists

It’s that time of year again. Just when everybody else is busy decorating and throwing away 2010 calendars, film critics everywhere are releasing their best-of lists. A.O. Scott picked his; so did Roger Ebert. David Denby talked about Boston and gave a cutting description of Inception: “like a giant clock that displays its gears and wheels but forgets to tell the time.” I still don’t think Inception deserves the critical thrashing it’s received. I may have been more than a tad overzealous in my initial review – “it lived up to all the expectations,” I claimed hours after seeing it – but in a brain-draining summer crammed with sequels, prequels, and lowbrow shit, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, original heist movie was a welcome reprieve – even if it is an overexplained, ultimately pointless white elephant.

The summer’s other, more lasting treat was Toy Story 3. It was the second sequel to a computer-animated kid’s movie about toys, yet it ended up being one of the most thoughtful, powerful, and humane movies of the year. Not since the song “Worthless” in The Brave Little Toaster (1987) has a film tapped so effectively into the transience of inanimate objects, and our relationships to them; although it’s not perfect (some of the jokes fell flat), it harnesses all of the franchise’s built-up good will of the past 15 years during its gracefully cathartic ending. My favorite part remains the subplot wherein the teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty) takes on the role of a southern political boss. Animation’s not just for kids anymore. And you know what else? It never was!

Later in the summer, I was moved to tears by the realistic depiction of relationship being torn apart and pieced back together in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Topical in its nuanced representation of same-sex marriage, questionable in the way that the lesbian Jules (Julianne Moore) falls into bed with sexy sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the film abounds with strong performances, headed by Moore, Ruffalo, and most of all Annette Bening as Nic, the stern breadwinner of the family. On the wackier, more in-your-face side of the gay comedy spectrum is the recently released I Love You, Phillip Morris, which gives Jim Carrey both a juicy, dense role as a con man/pathological liar, and a cute boyfriend in the form of Ewan McGregor.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to talk about the Movie Of The Year, at least according to critical consensus and award reception: David Fincher’s The Social Network, which is cruising on its way to a likely Best Picture Oscar come February. It’s been seized on by critics as emblematic of 2010’s zeitgeist – which involves digitally connecting with other human beings, it seems – even though it’s not so much about Facebook as it is about betrayals and shady business deals, with the irony that founder Mark Zuckerberg “doesn’t have three friends to rub together” acting as a nice analytical bonus. Part of The Social Network‘s genius is that it touches tangentially on so many themes, Big and little, that you can approach it from any direction – digital revolutions, friendship, ambition, Ivy League privilege – and come out the other side with a brand new set of questions.

Set at a Harvard that’s ominously drenched in muted green, the film makes the school out to be a hotbed of amoral genius, romantic in its intensity and dangerous to those around it, with Mark as its epicenter. Through Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed script, the characters speak either in high-speed banter (a game at which Mark invariably wins) or snappy, declarative soundbites. Fincher directs with Kubrickian iciness, and in Mark he finds his HAL. Eisenberg plays him as a borderline autistic “asshole,” a programming juggernaut who reveals the occasional human emotion as he systematically edges out any potential competition: the Winklevii (Armie Hammer as twin brothers) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella); his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield); and eventually his accidental mentor Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), culminating in a sit-and-think scene right out of The Godfather Part II.

Besides Eisenberg and Garfield, my other favorite part of The Social Network was Rooney Mara as Mark’s ex-girlfriend Erica; her lisping outrage at his presumptions introduced some humanity to a movie that sorely needed it. My least favorite part was the curt dismissal of Eduardo’s clingy Asian girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song), who was written to accommodate every conceivable stereotype and then dropped when it suited the screenplay. Now, on to a few other little accolades: I quite enjoyed The Town, especially Jeremy Renner’s performance  as the latter-day Irish equivalent of Tommy DeVito from GoodFellas; Edgar Wright’s totally one-of-a-kind direction of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World outshines any other part of that movie; Emma Stone in Easy A, a relatively disappointing, poorly written movie, quipped and sashayed her way into my heart; Katie Jarvis is unforgettable and trashily human in Fish Tank; and the Australian gangster movie Animal Kingdom is engaging, suspenseful, and has a mustachioed Guy Pearce. With that, I move on to my top 5 of the year…

(For what it’s worth, I went with a top 5 instead of 10 because 1) these 5 were, to me, head-and-shoulders above the rest and 2) I haven’t seen enough of the year’s films to really put together a complete, meaningful list. By sheer coincidence, I watched #3 and #1 theatrically back-to-back in July.)

#5: The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski

For me, the defining moment of Polanski’s latest film is when the unnamed title character (Ewan McGregor) tries to smuggle the all-important memoirs of former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) out of the office by attaching a flash drive to his laptop. As soon as he downloads the file, an alarm goes off and the ghost writer, terrified, runs from the room, assuming that it was triggered by his actions. But it turns out it was just a routine security drill, and the breach goes unnoticed. This scene is the perfect example of how Polanski’s precise direction – often assisted by Alexandre Desplat’s oddly playful score – establishes the darkly comic, paranoid atmosphere that makes The Ghost Writer one of the best films of the year.

A throwback to the classic Polanski of Chinatown (1974) and The Tenant (1976), the film casts a sharp eye on political corruption and the media as its protagonist unravels an international conspiracy involving his employer, the War on Terror, plenty of red herrings, and the CIA – as well as his mysteriously drowned predecessor. Brosnan applies all his post-James Bond charisma and sex appeal to the affable Lang, a historical stand-in for Tony Blair, while Olivia Williams steals the movie as his sharp-tongued, world-weary wife. (Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson also stand out in single-scene roles.) Although it may falter in its third act as its roman à clef storyline clashes with its secret agent theatrics, The Ghost Writer picks up just in time for a sucker punch ending, all told in Polanski’s inimitable, cosmopolitan style. Instead of being just another generic conspiracy thriller, it’s incisive, personal, and unexpectedly funny.

#4: Please Give, directed by Nicole Holofcener

Right from its opening credits montage of breasts being examined in a radiology clinic, Please Give distinguishes itself with its comic timing and courageous wit. A well-written, character-driven examination of body image, aging, privilege, and guilt, the film parallels the stories of two Manhattan families linked by the fact that Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) will own the apartment of the other family’s cranky matriarch, Andra (Ann Guilbert), once she dies. Out of the characters’ interactions and individual crises (whether it’s over needing $200 jeans or being disgusted by the large back of an ex-boyfriend’s new love), the story evolves organically, forcing each character to question their preconceptions and lifestyles.

Please Give doesn’t have much of a climax; people’s lives undergo minor changes, but there are no shocking revelations or character arcs. Yet in its own quiet, gradual way, it’s a very probing film filled with very complex characters, from the miserable, compulsively charitable Kate to Andra’s granddaughters, the bitchy, image-obsessed Mary (Amanda Peet) and the awkward, selfless Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Bound by no conventions but her own, Holofcener laces the film with moments of uncomfortable but perceptive comedy, acknowledging one harsh truth after another in subtle, intelligent ways: disadvantaged people can be mean, mean people can be right, and good intentions are meaningless. Largely ignored by critics and audiences, Please Give is one of 2010’s hidden delights.

#3: I Am Love (Io sono l’amore), directed by Luca Guadagnino

This long-gestating Italian import is both a showcase for Tilda Swinton’s considerable acting talents, and a movable feast for the eyes and ears. Its sweeping storyline is anything but original: Swinton is Emma Recchi, a Russian émigré married to a Milanese industrialist, who falls in love with her son’s best friend, a swarthy chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). They discreetly indulge their carnal passions in their spare hours, but when Emma’s devoted son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) begins to suspect the truth, harrowing emotional ramifications lurk around the corner. Interspersed throughout the film are other melodramatic subplots, detailing Emma’s daughter’s sexual self-discovery and the future of the Recchi company.

Dialogue and characterization are relatively insignificant in I Am Love, a film that foregrounds textures and sensory experiences. It’s all about the all-important taste of gourmet food, the thrill of an orgasm, and the visual juxtaposition of Swinton and Gabbriellini’s sweaty bodies with the gorgeous, fertile Italian countryside. Accompanying this sensual mélange, and complemented by the stirring strains of John Adams’ score, are explosions of emotional grandeur, culminating in a frantic, overwhelming crescendo. I Am Love may be all surface, but it’s a lavish, wonderful surface, and the sensitive, daring Swinton gives one of the best performances of the year.

#2: Dogtooth (Kynodontas), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

A brazen cinematic experiment executed with disturbing effectiveness, Dogtooth is both one-of-a-kind and insidiously compelling. Set at a sunny, idyllic estate in rural Greece, its premise sounds potentially gimmicky: a psychotic father and complicit mother have raised their three teenage children with false knowledge of the outside world, teaching them that “cunt” refers to a large lamp and that children can only leave the house when one of their dogteeth falls out, among other absurd lies. Lanthimos plays the story as both dryly funny and casually violent, brimming with open-ended satirical metaphors and provocative suggestions about family, free will, and private languages.

Deliberately paced but never pretentious, Dogtooth virtually dares viewers to keep up and follow it to its shocking conclusion. The characters regard their horrifying lifestyle with calm sobriety, treating their daily rituals – which range from merely useless to dangerous and even incestuous – with the same attitude we give toward brushing our teeth or washing our hands. With their sick games and perverse logic, the children prove that innocence and good behavior do not always go hand in hand. Dogtooth has its share of graphic, painful, and even unbearable moments (viewer be warned), but it’s also a film of rare insight and audacity, pulling off its transgressive stunts with understated flair. I feel like we’ll be discussing the cryptic, brilliant Dogtooth a long time from now.

#1: Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik

This year contained so many powerful cinematic experiences: the lunatic bravado of Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop; Greta Gerwig’s lonely compliance in Greenberg; and Michael Fassbender’s seething sleaziness in Fish Tank, just to name three more. But above and beyond everything, I was enthralled by the bitter duo of Jennifer Lawrence as self-reliant teenager Ree Dolly and John Hawkes as her hair-trigger uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. It’s a tense, sometimes terrifying film that still has room to breathe; it’s a drama of shared blood and backwoods codes of honor. Ree, who cares for her two younger siblings and mentally ill mother, has to track down her absentee father, an inveterate meth dealer, or lose her house – but in order to do so, she has to ask questions of people who just don’t want to be asked.

Even though Winter’s Bone takes place in Missouri mountain country as brutal and unforgiving as its title, even though its protagonist dwells amidst destitution and drug addiction, the film has an underlying humanity and a sense of Ozark heritage. It’s strange to say that I love a movie this superficially cold and forbidding, but I’m so drawn to Ree, the unbreakable survivor, to the disturbing, lived-in realism of her junk-filled surroundings, and to the inscrutable, intimidating secrets of her kinfolk. Winter’s Bone has scenes that are now blazed into my brain: the teeth-clenching “Is this gonna be our time?” showdown, and the grotesque, late-night climax that puts Ree’s mettle to the test. But it also has moments of laconic warmth, as when the injured Ree cuddles with her little sister. All year long, no movie touched me quite like Winter’s Bone. For that, I thank Debra Granik.

[By way of disclaimer, here’s some important 2010 movies I have yet to see: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Carlos, Another Year, Black Swan, 127 Hours, True Grit, Blue Valentine, The King’s Speech, and Rabbit Hole.]

So, dear reader, what were your favorites this year? What gave you the kind of revelatory thrills that Winter’s Bone gave me? Comment below!

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Horror and Roman Polanski’s Holocaust

Just before I left the Philadelphia area, Ashley and I sat down to a romantic evening watching a Holocaust drama – namely, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). Adrien Brody, who deservingly won an Oscar for his performance, is Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (duh) living in Warsaw during World War II. Brody is the film’s core, yet he’s never histrionic or larger than life; as a matter of fact, he’s smaller than life, as he grows more and more emaciated and is forced into tiny, claustrophobic spaces. It’s a very understated film that replaces the expected emotional outpours (see Schindler’s List) with muted reactions and muffled sobs.

Whereas Spielberg’s List almost becomes giddy with the process of duping the Nazis (sort of like a prestige version of Indiana Jones), Szpilman is always receding and taking anything he can get. There’s no room for huge gestures when a sip of water is a miracle. For long portions of the film, Brody barely says anything while his friends and family argue about possible courses of action. After he escapes the ghetto and is smuggled into a series of apartments, he becomes purely a survivalist, ultimately risking his life for a can of pickles. Szpilman’s story combines luck with animalistic perseverance because, as the film suggests, those two traits are necessary to survive.

If you’re like me, your ears pricked up when I said the word “apartment” back there, for it’s no coincidence that Polanski also directed the “Apartment Trilogy” of horror films (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant). The Pianist is, perhaps surprisingly, very much of a piece with this earlier work – only this time around, Polanski’s paranoid, fidgety style is applied to real-life horrors experienced by the director himself, albeit in Krakow.

It’s useful, I think, to look at The Pianist as an autobiographical/historical companion to Polanki’s fiction-based films. It shares its basic characteristics with much of his filmography: a frightened individual must escape from an overarching conspiracy that s/he is powerless to stop and incapable of fully understanding. Rosemary crumbles physically and emotionally in the satanists’ hands; Jake is rendered speechless by Noah Cross’s unfathomable, wide-reaching evil; Trelkovsky is warped by the posthumous pull of Simone Choule’s habits; and Szpilman is reduced to a shadow of a man by the unyielding grip of the SS.

All of these fights are intrinsically unfair because the characters’ opponents are conspiratorial and nebulous. Szpilman and the others are just human beings, ordinary and alone, being oppressed by indestructible systems. This comparison clarifies Polanski’s view of the Nazis: they’re agents of horror with the scales tilted violently in their favor, able to gaze down with ease on Szpilman even as he tries to escape their field of vision. Imbalances in vision, and therefore knowledge, are vital to the conflict in Polanski’s films. Just think of Jake Gittes’s investigation in the first act of Chinatown as he peeks through spyglasses and cameras, not realizing that he’s being set up.

Szpilman is similarly myopic, but unlike Jake, it’s not because he’s too headstrong to see; instead, it’s because he’s an individual and hence unable to perceive the historic arc of the war surrounding him. All he can do is listen for immediate developments; the Nazis have too tight a lid on their future plans. (In one horrifying scene, a woman asks a Nazi officer, “Where are you taking us?” and he promptly shoots her.) The visual equivalent to this myopia is the keyhole shot.

The keyhole shot, in which an object is viewed through a narrowed scope akin to a silent film iris, is one of Polanski’s stylistic trademarks. It was the entire substance of his early film Toothy Smile and was most famously used to look at Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. In the shot pictured above – and, later on, through a crack in a hospital window – Szpilman struggles for a glimpse of the hostile outside world. Like Polanski’s other apartment-bound protagonists, he wants to keep up a protective barrier while still sizing up external threats. For Carole in Repulsion, that threat was a single young man; for Szpilman, it’s the carnage that engulfs Warsaw in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising.

It’s not just Szpilman’s relationship with his volatile wartime world that reminded me of the Apartment Trilogy. It’s also the way the denizens of that world are represented. The Nazis and their Polish allies take their position of authority over the Jews seriously to an absurd and irrational degree. One Nazi insists that Szpilman’s father walk in the gutter, a ridiculous request that suggests the ridiculousness of its historical context, and a landlady who demands Szpilman’s papers greatly resembles Shelley Winters’ bitchy concierge in The Tenant. The Jews in the ghetto, meanwhile, adapt to their grotesque situation in different ways – some by lashing out, some by grifting their neighbors, and some by turning inward like Szpilman.

Polanski’s presentation of the ghetto, in scenes like the one pictured above, is sometimes tinged with the very blackest of humor. These little ironies aren’t “ha ha” funny; they emphasize the utter, incomprehensible injustice of it all. Another example is when Szpilman is discovered by the Russians as they march into Poland, but is shot at because he’s wearing a Nazi officer’s coat. The Russians corner him, conclude that he’s Polish, and ask, “Then why the fucking coat?” Szpilman’s response almost sounds like a bleak punchline: “I’m cold.” His suffering is so obvious that pointing it out verges on comedy.

The Pianist is a film about the kafkaesque side of the Holocaust: about how it slowly descended on an unsuspecting family who didn’t realize its enormity until it was too late. Structurally, it’s very much like one of Polanski’s psychological horror movies or conspiracy thrillers, but greatly magnified, as the villains here have created an efficient killing machine that encompasses an entire continent. Szpilman could never stop the Nazi onslaught, but the film does hold out one saving grace. Despite the loss of his family and community, he does live to play the piano again. In Polanski’s world, which was partially shaped by firsthand experiences with the Holocaust, that’s the best you can hope for.

As a final treat, I noticed a few images that very clearly echoed Polanski’s other films. It can’t be coincidence that Szpilman is given a potato that has begun to sprout, identical to the symbolic tuber from Repulsion:

And it’s not surprising that the order-into-chaos image of papers scattering in the air would appeal to Polanski. Here’s a shot that appears to anticipate the ending of The Ghost Writer by nearly a decade:

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