Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 7:43 pm on April 24, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Status: In limited release (opened 3/19/10)
Directed By: Roman Polanski
Written By: Robert Harris and Roman Polanski
Cinematographer: Pawel Edelman
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kim Cattrall, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams

When it comes down to it, The Ghost Writer is a movie about a guy writing a book, and for the most part it’s as unexciting as that sounds. There are several scenes of the unnamed titular character (Ewan McGregor) interviewing his subject, a former British Prime Minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). These are charming and intriguing at times—mostly because it’s usually fun to watch two Brits banter with each other—but for the most part it’s about what it sounds like: two guys sitting in a room talking while one of them takes notes. The film has aspirations of being a political thriller, but it takes so long getting to the thriller part that it’s hard for an audience to feel involved by the time it comes around.

It starts off intriguing enough. The former “ghost” (a term I’m pretty sure isn’t actually used outside of this movie) turns up dead, and it’s unclear if it’s the result of a suicide or foul play. Just as McGregor’s character agrees to pick up where his predecessor left off, rumors begin to swirl of charges being brought against Lang for committing crimes against humanity during his tenure as PM. This is all a very thinly-veiled commentary on the current political climate and the war on terrorism, so thin in fact that I found it to be pretty annoying. McGregor eventually uncovers, for instance, some shady dealings involving a defense contractor called something along the lines of Hallibuckton. Brosnan’s former PM is, of course, a transparent allusion to Tony Blair, down to his all-too-friendly relationship with the U.S. The screenplay has a little too much fun with this, sacrificing credibility for winking real-world references every chance it gets.

As news of the charges circulates in the media, the Lang clan takes up in an island estate just off the coast of Massachusetts. (I didn’t catch the island’s name, but it’s probably Nantucket, or something like it.) There, the “ghost” finds himself embedded with Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), and his assistant—and implied mistress—Amelia (Kim Cattrall). There’s a very slow build of a conspiracy at play, and McGregor, after an agonizingly long period of inaction, finally sets out to uncover some additional clues of his own and get to the bottom of exactly what’s going on with Lang and his legacy. This finally allows Roman Polanski, who in his prime was a master of subtly-built tension, to show what he’s good at. There’s a scene with McGregor following a GPS’s hauntingly unemotional voice to a pre-programmed destination of which he is not aware that recalls Jack Nicholson cautiously driving through the seemingly-innocuous orange groves north of L.A., and it’s nearly as effective. In fact, Polanski throughout The Ghost Writer seems to be trying to hit several of the same notes he played so successfully in Chinatown—his masterpiece—but here he doesn’t have the same quality of backing story to supply enough gravitas to such sequences. The film’s final shot, for instance, would be a brilliantly haunting image, the kind that leaves the audience ambling out of the theater in stunned silence, but for the fact that by the time Polanski establishes it, we don’t really care.

This is due to The Ghost Writer‘s biggest storytelling flaw, which is that after spending 2 hours slowly and painstakingly establishing the what of its mystery, and building the clues surrounding it to a point where we’re able to piece them together along with the protagonist, it all of a sudden becomes The Da Vinci Code, resorting to a cheesy, contrived, and completely unnecessary device to tie things together. It’s frustrating to see a movie go to such lengths to tell an adult story, and to attempt to handle it maturely, only to eschew it so readily for a cheap and unsatisfying payoff.

That’s not to say that the annoying twist is the only shame in this endeavor. The story is way too slow, too drawn out, and not significant enough to warrant the amount of care Polanski uses in his deliberate telling of it. I could see some people enjoying this film, becoming engrossed in its minute details as it ambles along towards its less-than-shocking finale, but I think most audiences are more likely to be as I was—thoroughly bored with waiting for something to happen, to the point where I almost failed to notice it when something finally did. I can imagine the novel working, but it doesn’t seem to translate very effectively to the big screen.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 12:34 am on April 15, 2010

Date Night

Status: In theaters (opened 4/9/10)
Directed By: Shawn Levy
Written By: Josh Klausner
Cinematographer: Dean Semler
Starring: Steve Carell, Tina Fey

We all know those marriage cliches: after a while, the romance is gone, you’ve got jobs and kids and daily responsibilities to deal with, and at the end of the day you just want to relax, but of course leisure time always eludes you. I’d like to add another one: sometimes your wife gets you to see a movie you’re not really interested in, like Date Night. Hilarity ensues.

In this case, we get Phil (Steve Carell) and Claire (Tina Fey) Foster, who strangely resemble every other character previously played by Steve Carell and Tina Fey. He’s stressed and upset yet still aw-schucksy and charming, she’s sassy and world-weary and yet still funny and even kind of sexy. They’re a good match, and it makes sense to put them in a movie together. The two play off of each other well, their respective comedic sensibilities complimenting each other nicely.

As the title implies, they decide to get away from the kids for an evening and enjoy a night on the town. There’s a mix-up at the restaurant that results in the Fosters being mistaken for another couple, who maybe should’ve been named the Kaplans. Before they know it, they’re running for their lives, and hilarity is damn well ensuing.

If that plot summary sounds a bit scant, then I’ve adequately done my job of conveying to you the essence of Date Night. It’s not exactly what I’d call a dense script, but of course nobody’s coming to a movie like this looking for a complex storyline anyway. What they do come in search of are cheap laughs, and you’ll get that here. The scenario is absurd to the appropriate degree. The movie is highlighted by several cameos, most of which serve to give Fey and Carell another character to play off of, lest their dynamic become worn. This category includes J.B. Smoove, William Fichtner, and Ray Liotta (who for some reason is not credited, according to IMDB). An eclectic mix, to say the least. The highlight is Mark Wahlberg, whose perpetual shirtlessness gives Carell a never-ending target for uncomfortable, manhood-questioning jokes. The stars are nearly upstaged, though, by James Franco and Mila Kunis, who appear in but a single scene but manage to provide the comedic highlight of the film with their spot-on depiction of a white-trash couple.

The cameos don’t end there. We also get a scene featuring Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig as the couple making different choices than those made by Fey and Carell’s Fosters, a rapper (Will.I.Am) playing himself, and another one (Common) actually acting to some degree. Either a lot of favors were called in for this one, or Date Night had one of the most generous casting budgets ever.

This was, I’d say, money (or favors) well spent. The frank truth about this movie is that there really isn’t enough there to fill a feature-length film, but the parade of unexpected and/or amusing cameos helps to keep things interesting and fresh. It’s still quite thin, though. The big joke pieces are way too drawn out. You’ll find yourself laughing, but then a few minutes later, with the gag still being beaten to death, you’ll just be wondering when they’ll move on. We get it. (There are two scenes in particular that are almost excruciating in this regard: one featuring J.B. Smoove which was ruined by the trailers in the first place, and another towards the film’s climax that left me hoping for a couple of giant hooks to relieve the stars of The Office and 30 Rock of their misery.) With a running time of only 88 minutes, Date Night still just doesn’t have enough material to fill the space, so director Shawn Levy relies on Carell and Fey to stretch the humor farther than it should be trying to go. The amusing cameos fill in some of the gaps, but not quite enough. It’s a relatively enjoyable movie with laughs sprinkled throughout, and its surprisingly full supporting cast helps to carry it over the would-be dull spots. I suppose I’m required to say that it’s sufficient entertainment for a date night of your own, and really, I guess that’s all it’s trying to be.

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Posted by mike in Predictions,Sports at 10:44 am on April 5, 2010

I’ve heard it said that at the start of every baseball season, each team knows they’ll win 60 games and lose 60 games—it’s what happens with those other 42 that determines how the season will be remembered. I find this to be somewhat of a comforting thought, and one of the things that separates baseball from the other professional sports leagues. They play almost every day for nearly 6 months; there’s always a chance to turn things around, to go on a winning streak, to catch your rival in the standings.

2010, I think, will be a year defined by pitching. I don’t see a lot of really strong offensive teams, other than in the AL East, but I do see a lot of freshly-bolstered pitching staffs and teams betting that that’ll be enough to carry them to a division title. I’m inclined to agree, and my picks below reflect this.

NL West NL Central NL East
Giants Cardinals Phillies
Dodgers Reds Braves
Rockies Cubs Nationals
Diamondbacks Brewers Mets
Padres Astros Marlins
AL West AL Central AL East
Mariners Tigers Yankees
Angels White Sox Red Sox
Rangers Twins Rays
A’s Indians Orioles
  Royals Blue Jays

Of course, if it’s a season defined by pitching, that also means it’s one that’ll likely be defined by injuries, so I’m not all that confident that my predictions here will be any better than they were last year. As always, though, I’m excited to find out.

I think this’ll be a season with quite a few surprises, so while I’m inclined to say that the front-runners for the World Series would be the Phillies and the Yankees (a rematch of last year’s Series), I don’t actually think that’ll be the case. Looking at my playoff teams above, though, those are the only choices that I don’t think would be a stretch at this point. I think a Giants-Tigers Series would be much more fun to watch, personally. It’ll be interesting to see if things can shake out that way.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 12:01 am on April 2, 2010


Status: In limited release (opened 3/26/10)
Directed By: Atom Egoyan
Written By: Erin Cressida Wilson
Cinematographer: Paul Sarossy
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, Max Thieriot

Catherine (Julianne Moore) is in a tough spot in life. Although her professional life is going well—she’s a successful, well-to-do doctor—her family seems to be falling apart. She’s fed up with seeing her husband David (Liam Neeson) flirt with every female he encounters on a daily basis, and she’s convinced he must be cheating on her. She finds a somewhat ambiguous message from one of his students, which she takes as evidence that he must be having an affair. On top of this, her son (Max Thieriot) isn’t speaking to her; he has a girlfriend (Nina Dobrev) who Catherine wasn’t even aware of, much less the fact that she regularly spends the night in their house.

Desperate to gain some insight into what’s happening with her family, Catherine concocts a plan to catch her husband in the act. She bumps into a neighborhood prostitute (Amanda Seyfried) in the restroom one day, and arranges to meet her. The deal goes like this: Chloe (the hooker) will put herself within David’s proximity to see if he approaches her, and will report back to Catherine on what transpires.

And that’s about all I feel I should say about what happens in Chloe. Things get complicated, and don’t go as Catherine had planned, to say the least. The screenplay is by Erin Cressida Wilson, who also wrote Secretary, another film that dealt with similar issues of ambiguous boundaries. Does Catherine really want Chloe to sleep with her husband? Is it so that she can catch him in the act, or so that she can understand what he’s into, in order to reinvigorate her own sex life? What’s Chloe’s agenda in this? And is David, the husband, about to be caught in his lies, or is he just an innocent pawn in his wife’s jealousy game?

A lot of drama comes from this, and it’s built slowly and carefully by the director, Atom Egoyan. He takes his time establishing the competing perspectives in the story, and derives a lot of subtle drama along the way. Egoyan shoots the film with a dreamlike quality to it, his camera floating around the city of Toronto and into the bedrooms of his characters. The feel of Chloe reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, both in terms of its subject matter—jealousy, marital deceit—and its tone—enigmatic and open-ended in the numerous questions it poses. There aren’t questions of what is real and what isn’t, though, but rather of how to perceive the reality being presented. We’re unsure of Catherine’s motivations, unclear about what her husband is up to, and above all unaware of exactly where Chloe’s motivation comes from, or what her objectives are, beyond getting paid to do Catherine’s bidding.

These questions are all eventually answered, of course, to one extent or another, and most of those answers are surprising. The process of arriving at them is the central story of Chloe, and it’s an intriguing journey to go on. The movie is based on/inspired by/a remake of the 2004 French film Nathalie…, which I haven’t seen, but it’s hard to imagine that it could be as downright sexy as Chloe. Egoyan has a knack for titillating his audience, piquing our curiosity before finally satiating it, both story-wise and visually. There’s a lot of Amanda Seyfried side-boob on display, not to mention multiple sex scenes that are downright erotic. The film has a voyeuristic quality to it that appropriately plays on its themes and moods. It’s a very slow build, but when things finally come to a head they do so rapidly. It’s helped along by an exceptionally strong cast, particularly the three leads, who keep you guessing throughout. There’s perhaps one surprise too many, and as is often the case the final one is the hardest to swallow, but by that point in the film we’re happy to get some concrete answers no matter how they come.

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