Sunday, March 28, 2010

Writing Politics: The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski's new thriller The Ghost Writer is about the way political images are manufactured. The film is a multi-faceted take on the political thriller, a picture full of pointed insights into the political process. While functioning as a tightly crafted genre effort, what intrigues me most about The Ghost Writer is the way it engages with a time when the media sets the tone for political discourse, and how the narrative that the mainstream media forges is as carefully honed and crafted as fiction, perhaps even more so. In an era where the media is omnipresent, The Ghost Writer tackles the power - and danger - of political myth making.

Ewan McGregor stars as an unnamed ghost writer (credited only as "The Ghost" in the credits) assigned to edit the incoherent memoirs of an ex British Prime Minister ("All the words are there, they're just not in the right order", he remarks after reading the manuscript) after the original ghost writer dies. The Ghost quickly finds himself in the midst of a political firestorm as the International Criminal Court announces that the Prime Minister is going to be arraigned on charges of war crimes, specifically sanctioning torture against terrorists. So pronounced are the parallels between the film's fictional Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and Tony Blair that the character may as well be named after him: he left office by resigning, and is accused of being in the tank for America (specifically for helping to sanction the Iraqi Occupation and global War on Terror). Olivia Williams plays Lang's wife, and the film makes it very clear from the get-go that she was, and remains, the power behind the throne (an accusation leveled at many famous political wives).

As the scandal surrounding Lang gets more and more intense, the Prime Minister's office forces The Ghost to move in with them, so as to avoid the press finding out who he is. He is hesitant to do this, as he thinks moving in with clients makes it difficult to maintain a strictly professional decorum, and he is quickly proven correct, as almost immediately he gets intimately involved in the personal and political dealings of the Prime Minister's office. And when The Ghost helps draft a political speech, one designed to save face in the midst of this scandal, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Harris make one of the most sophisticated political barbs in modern movies, brilliantly equating political speech writing with fiction. Especially considering that many of our current leaders would more than likely be unable to speak without their teleprompters spewing words at them that are more heavily scripted than most television, this sequence has a particular bite to it.

Roman Polanski's direction expertly toes the line between restraint and expressionistic, allowing the tension to build slowly and deliberately before it explodes. Even sequences of dialogue have an underpinning of unease to them, and that's because Polanski instills many moments with a dark sense of foreboding, as though you don't know what's around the next corner. His direction is tight and economical, and Alexandre Desplat's score perfectly underlines the drama and tension.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the parallels between the exiled Prime Minister and Polanski himself, who edited this movie from a Swiss jail cell. I'm sure many things intrigued him about Robert Harris' novel, but I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that this element of the story was probably the hook for Polanski. He poignantly dramatizes what exile does to the human psyche, while never telling us exactly how to feel about the Prime Minister's predicament - rather, he just wants us to understand it. Polanski paints the portrait of the Prime Minister as a man with very serious flaws - that he was in over his head, too ideologically compromised, subservient to the agenda of others, and more about image than substance - but a man, nevertheless, mercifully avoiding mean spirited vilification or idol worship.

The Ghost Writer also stands as an extremely perceptive deconstruction of the political machine; as The Ghost sinks further and further into the mystery of his deceased predecessor, it becomes more and more apparent that Lang is a puppet, serving the interests of a global military industrial complex as opposed to the people of his country. The Ghost happens upon a file left by his predecessor that leads him to Professor Paul Emmet, a shady character who clearly has some sort of connection to Lang's past, though he emphatically denies this until confronted with photographic evidence. As The Ghost digs deeper, he realizes that this man is a C.I.A. agent and was Lang's American handler - and this, obviously, is the reason for all the pro-American decisions he made while in office. It's revealed that Lang was an actor while in college, and this is undoubtedly why he was chosen: he could play the role of Prime Minister and allow others to make the decisions for him. Like many of the world's current leaders, Lang was just playing the role of a leader and making appearances, while others behind closed doors pulled the strings.

Like Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, this is the sort of story that Hollywood used to tell well; an ingeniously scripted, tightly directed genre effort. The story isn't merely told, but rather it unfolds, and we feel like we're uncovering the clues - and therefore the truth about modern politics - right along with The Ghost. It culminates in an ending that is both surprising and foregone, and a final shot (reminiscent of the famous final shot from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing) that is both comic and tragic, a brilliant evocation of the hopelessness of trying to tell the truth in a world that knows only lies. It's hard to tell whether Polanski wants us to laugh or cry.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Now I Want One More Than Ever!

It's that time of year, people. No matter how hard one tries, it's virtually impossible to avoid discussion of the Oscars - love 'em or hate 'em, they're the movies' equivalent of the Olympics, World Series, or Super Bowl, a cinematic decathlon. Some love them, some hate them, some are indifferent, but I think just about every movie lover goes through the five stages of Oscar, and it ends with acceptance - for better or worse (mostly worse), the inclusive, pretentious, self congratulatory circle jerk is what it is. Truthfully, depending on the host, I enjoy the show more often than not. I accepted long ago that it's not about art and it never will be, so I try to focus on the positive in that, if a good movie is at least nominated, then I'm a happy person.

And the Academy has implemented a major face lift this year that I think makes the awards more interesting than usual (not saying much): in something of an homage to the Oscar's past, they opened up the Best Picture nominees to ten films. Some have objected to this, saying that this and the new weighted voting process (where the films are ranked 1-10 and every movie gets something from every ballot) will open the door to film's not worthy, to which I can only reply: "So the eff what?" Undeserving films winning the biggest prize in Hollywood isn't exactly a new development. The major plus side of the 10 nominees is that it opens the door to more populist films being nominated, and to dark horse candidates winning; especially after the stiflingly self important garbage that was nominated last year, this is especially refreshing. If the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences is going to validate crap, they should at least validate popular taste as well.

Anyway, not to make too much of a production out of this post, I just want to share my thoughts on the 10 nominees, toss down some (probably way off) predictions, and call it a day.

James Cameron's long awaited and highly-touted Avatar has almost everything the Oscars could want: large-scale spectacle, melodramatic romance, and heavy handed social import (bonus points for anti-American social import), plus everyone out in Hollywood seems to like James Cameron and his wavy, silver hair. Reviewed here.

Though it occupies a Hallmark card universe, there is an earnestness and depth of feeling in The Blind Side that I find it a difficult film to dismiss. Sandra Bullock does just fine with her role, but almost anyone would be nominated for this performance, full of snappy one-liners and sassy attitude. Most remarkable, to my eyes, is the performance Quinton Aaron as first round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens (23rd overall) Michael Oher; he does not have too much to work with in the dialogue sense, and has to be expressive with his eyes and face. Because of this, he naturally was not nominated.

Still, it is not a bad film at all, certainly not a racist one as some have suggested. The Blind Side strikes me as more accentuating the class differences between Oher and the Tuohy family than the racial ones.

Though it feigns a socially driven subtext, District 9 is a big screen video game that doesn't have much to say about anything. Unlike The Hurt Locker, which used fast editing and hand held camera work to make a statement on the existential nature of the rush of combat, District 9 wants you to feel that rush instead of ponder it.

An Education mercifully avoids typical coming-of-age cliches for the most part, with the exception of a few speeches designed to sum up any point that you were supposed to take away from it. But Nick Hornsby's screenplay is well written and the leading performances by Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard are excellent, and Alfred Molina is memorable in a supporting role as Mulligan's father.

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a visceral, gripping war film - one that grabs a hold from the opening frames and doesn't let go for its entire 2 hour duration. Using handheld 16mm cameras, The Hurt Locker brings us directly into the action unfolding onscreen, without trying to approximate a documentary style (the film is above such gimmicks). Rather, the movie's quick cutting and hand-held camera work allows us to enter the subjective mind frame of the characters, who work as part of an E.O.D. (explosive ordinance disposal) squad and could easily be killed at any moment. However, this technique is never used gratuitously; The Hurt Locker is exciting without being exploitative and political without being partisan. While this is among the most exciting films to come out in 2009, it's also among the most contemplative, and this is because the film is more interested in portraying the way men relate to one another than it is in polemics. The result is among the first movies to approach the Iraqi Occupation in the manner it needs to be approached, which would be on the same level it's waged: with the men who fight it. The Hurt Locker shows that Kathryn Bigelow has unique insight and understanding into the kind of mentality that would travel half-way across the globe to fight in this conflict, which actually makes it more politically relevant than the cheap partisan movies on the subject.

Tarantino's gleeful, anarchic take on World War II and its cinematic representations has just enough pristine polish to be accepted by the Academy. I'm thrilled it was even nominated. Review here.

A grotesque freak show that masquerades itself as a valuable social commentary, Precious is an exercise in sheer cinematic torture. The critics throwing claims of racism are only doing themselves a major disservice; the film does not trivialize racial relations, but rather it misrepresents the plight of the lower class in the most cliched, obvious of ways, confusing dark subject matter and gritty filming from depth and meaning. Surely if Precious were about white people (which it could have been), no critic would claim that it was racist or supposed to be representative of all white people everywhere. It's a fairly typical white liberal trap to fall into: any artistic representation of a black person must represent an entire race. And what makes it especially dubious in the case of Precious is that there are many black characters from various backgrounds depicted.

Oh boy. This movie. This fucking movie. I remember the day that I saw A Serious Man at Manhattan's Sunshine quite vividly, though the film hangs over that day like a storm cloud. Not to say that I think it's a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but the worldview that it seems to be endorsing is not one that I empathize with, let alone understand. What bothers me most about A Serious Man is that the Coens not only suggest that existence is meaningless, but that they mock the very idea of the search for meaning (a Rabbi's condescending and patronizing speech about the beauty and wonder of a parking lot being the most offensive). I don't wish to take anything away from the Coens, film makers I have felt a strong personal connection with in the past, but A Serious Man helped kick start a season's long depression that I am only recently starting to pull myself out of.

Pixar, under the watchful eye of The Walt Disney Company, continues with the same old formula instead of expanding perceptions of our world. Reviewed here.

What I find most repulsive about Up in the Air is the way it capitalizes on the economic hardships our country currently faces yet doesn't say anything meaningful about them. It simply patronizes the people who are currently suffering and calls it a day. Did the film makers honestly think this would make anyone feel better?

And, as promised, my annual way off predictions:

Best Picture: Avatar (potential Hurt Locker upset, probably not)
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Best Adapted Screenplay: Nick Hornsby, An Education
Best Animated Feature: Up
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds
Best Documentary: Food, Inc.
Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Original Score: James Horner, Avatar
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Sound Editing: Avatar
Best Sound Mixing: Avatar

Damn, writing Avatar over and over got really boring. It's just one of those years.

Oh, and some live blogging to follow during the ceremony from great writers will make the proceeds that much more enjoyable, be sure to check out Roger Ebert, Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running, and Ali Arikan at Cerebral Mastication. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.