#104 - Wombling Free

Dedicated To
Lionel Jeffries
1926 - 2010

Added 2/23/10

Welcome back, everyone. And if you’ve just started monitoring our transmissions from a distant galaxy, greetings from Earth! We’ve got a triple feature this week in the Electric Theatre, so let’s get cracking.


Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s boundless love of cinema permeates every picture he makes, from documentaries to passion projects like The Last Temptation Of Christ and Gangs Of New York. It’s one of the things that make him such a consistently interesting filmmaker. When he signs on to a project, you can sense him at work behind the scenes, saying “Yeah, I’d really like to see that picture.” With Shutter Island, you can almost here him say, “Yeah, this could be like Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor cross-bred with Kubrick’s The Shining. I’d really like to see that picture!” And for the most part, the picture Scorsese delivers is well worth seeing.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a Boston-based federal mah-shall who, along with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), heads out to the remote asylum/prison on Shutter Island. One of the patients, a woman who drowned her three kids, has escaped, seeming to vanish into thin air. Teddy and Chuck quickly run into some investigative roadblocks, thanks to the uncooperative psychiatrist in charge, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). And Chuck soon learns that Teddy had his own reasons for wanting this particular case, driven by demons from his past that continue to haunt his dreams.

If nothing else, Shutter Island is a spectacular looking movie. Production designer Dante Ferretti seems to out-do himself with every project. Here, he creates a labyrinth of opulent sitting rooms, less-than-sterile hospital corridors, and terrifying prison cells that reflects the movie’s themes precisely. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is rich, smoky and, at times, startlingly colorful. DiCaprio is solidly in control of his performance, becoming progressively more unhinged as he attempts to piece together the mystery. And Scorsese fills even small roles with brilliant actors, including Max Von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, John Carroll Lynch, Jackie Earle Haley and Michelle Williams. But while the film sustains its menacing air throughout, it often gets bogged down in big themes that the material can’t really support. Whether this is a problem with Dennis Lehane’s original novel, which I haven’t read, or with Laeta Kalogridis’s screenplay isn’t strictly relevant. All that matters is that the movie suffers because of it. The movie attempts to tackle all sorts of issues from treatment of psychological disorders to atomic age anxiety to DiCaprio’s World War II experiences at the liberation of Dachau. But none of it feels integral to the story. They’re more like footnotes scribbled onto post-it notes and stuck onto the page as an afterthought. It detracts from the movie’s urgency and comes across like a half-hearted attempt at making the film seem more important than it really is.

None of this is meant to imply that Shutter Island is a bad movie. Far from it, in fact. Shorn of about 30 minutes worth of ponderous navel-gazing, it would be a terrifically creepy, fast-paced mind game of a thriller. As it is, it’s a terrifically creepy, slowly paced mind game of a thriller, and that pace gives you a little bit too much time to predict the outcome of that game. Its best moments showcase Scorsese at his finest. But at this point, you’d think he would realize that sometimes less is more.
(* * *)

The Ghost Writer

While it would be nice to talk about Roman Polanski’s latest film without making reference to his current legal situation, the work itself makes that kind of difficult. It’s sort of like reviewing the new Johnny Cash album without mentioning the fact that he’s dead. But there is a big difference between the two situations that shouldn’t be overlooked. Cash knew his time was running out when he recorded those songs. Polanski, on the other hand, had no idea he would soon be arrested when he started work on The Ghost Writer. So while some discussion of his case is inevitable, it’s important not to read too much into the movie which, while not one of Polanski’s masterpieces, is a solid, gripping political-paranoia thriller.

Ewan McGregor plays the unnamed title character who nabs the plum assignment of ghost writing the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) when the original writer, a trusted long-time aide, is found dead. It should be a simple revising job but the gig takes on new urgency when Lang is investigated as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court at The Hague. As Lang takes refuge behind his friends in Washington, McGregor starts to uncover some of his predecessor’s research, which suggests that his death may not have been accidental, as well as a possible link between the PM and the CIA.

At first glance, The Ghost Writer appears to have much in common with Polanski’s Chinatown. Both films share a theme of murder, corruption and collusion at the highest levels of power. But The Ghost Writer is a quieter, more intimate and less ambitious film than Chinatown. The specific machinations of the conspiracy are almost incidental. Indeed for much of the film, McGregor carries on his investigation without really knowing what he’s even investigating. The movie has several tense suspense sequences, driven by Alexandre Desplat’s urgent score, that Polanski could probably direct with one arm tied behind his back at this point (and in a way, he did since he completed post-production work from afar after his arrest). But many of these set-pieces are all build-up with no payoff. Frustrating but also effective for building McGregor’s sense of paranoia and isolation. He’s increasingly cut-off from the outside world, entering a privileged bubble of power that he is ill-equipped to deal with. McGregor’s character is referred to simply as “The Ghost” in the credits but Brosnan is the real specter here. He makes a big impression with relatively little screen time and his presence hovers over every scene.

In the end, The Ghost Writer can’t quite live up to the promise of movies like Chinatown or The Tenant. But it’s a compelling blend of plot-driven mystery and character-driven mood piece. Polanski has explored these themes before and, I hope, someday will again. The Ghost Writer is a relatively minor work for him, more akin to the enjoyable but underdeveloped Frantic than masterworks like The Pianist, but still well worth seeing on its own terms. (* * *)


In The Loop

Political satires are very difficult to pull off. There’s certainly no shortage of targets in today’s political world. But to hit them with dead-on precision requires a careful balance between the absurdity of the situation and an awareness of just how serious the subject really is. Not many movies can strike that tone. But Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop manages it with grace and style. In many ways, it may well be the best political satire since Dr. Strangelove.

The movie kicks off in London where the Minister for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) remarks in an interview that he sees war in the Middle East as “unforeseeable”. It’s an ill-advised choice of words and the Prime Minister’s chief spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) immediately tries to back him out of that statement. But it’s a little too late. American diplomat Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), who is also against the war, tries to seize on Foster’s remark as evidence of British support for her side. But his next comment is taken by pro-war cabinet member Linton Barwick (David Rasche) to further the rush to war. Soon enough, the British and Americans are playing off each other fast and loose, with the clock ticking down toward a war resolution vote in the United Nations.

Iannucci doesn’t make things easy on himself with this movie. In The Loop has a large ensemble cast to keep track of and a story that snakes around and around without really trying to spell things out for its audience. There’s a rule of thumb in screenwriting that says one page of script equals approximately one minute of screen time. I’m guessing that doesn’t apply here. Characters spit out words like machine gun bullets. The dialogue is fast and frequently so hysterical that you’ll miss a few lines because you’ve been laughing so hard. But Iannucci keeps things focused and streamlined, so there’s never any confusion about what’s going on. The entire cast is marvelous, especially Capaldi as the hilariously profane communications manager. James Gandolfini is great as an anti-war general and Chris Addison is perfectly cast as Simon Foster’s awkward new aide who finds himself in over his head.

It wasn’t until after watching the film that I learned that In The Loop is a feature-length spin-off from a BBC series called The Thick Of It. It’s to Iannucci’s credit that the movie works so well that I never would have guessed its origins and am now very eager to track down the series. Whether or not the show lives up to the movie, In The Loop remains one of the smartest, funniest, most incisive satires I’ve seen in a long, long time. Consider it a late addition to my best movies of 2009. (* * * *)

Thanks to Chris Castro, David Shultz and several others who recommended this week’s TFTQ entry! If you have a recommendation, and I bet you do, drop me a line or suggest it at the JET Facebook page. The best way for a movie to go straight to the top of the list is for multiple people to recommend the same title, so keep those virtual cards and letters coming!

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