Monday, March 29, 2010

The Ghost Writer

I love a lot of movies, for a lot of different reasons, but every once in while I’ll have a movie viewing experience that transcends love. Roger Ebert, on his excellent movie blog, has talked about a feeling of elation that sometimes passes over him while he’s watching a movie. I think what I sometimes feel is sort of like that, though if I had to give this sensation my own descriptor I’d probably dub it “ecstatic awe.” It happens when a movie tells a story so well and is so perfectly crafted that it makes me giddy. It’s seeing a piece of cinema constructed by an artist who’s firing on all cylinders, who couldn’t do a single thing to improve the work he’s presented to his audience. I felt it the first time I watched Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential and I felt it again last Friday when I saw Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.

There’s a right and a wrong way to do political thrillers. Focus too much on the relevance of the message and the end result, earnest though it may be, is often less than thrilling for the moviegoer. Polanski’s movie, with its focus on fictional former UK PM Robert Lang, who has a soft spot for American anti-terrorist tactics, certainly feels timely. When we begin to suspect that this affable (and somewhat dim-witted) politician may be fooling around on his bright, driven wife with his comely assistant it’s impossible not to think of Elizabeth Edwards and Jenny Sanford. In the hands of a less skilled director this sort of ripped from the headlines material could have produced a movie with little more to offer than the latest episode of Law & Order. In Polanski’s hands it is elevated into something sublime.

For starters, Polanski and co-writer Robert Harris (working from the novel The Ghost, by Harris) give us a stellar protagonist. Their Ghost is morally grey and unencumbered by family or close friends. His initial motivation may be the terrific sum of money he stands to gain by tweaking the PM’s memoirs but as the plot begins to thicken and curdle all motive seems to fly out the window. And why the hell wouldn’t it; after all, this a guy with nothing to lose, except maybe his life (and I often felt like I cared about that more than he did). Ewan McGregor plays the Ghost to perfection. His open, earnest face may make the character more endearing than he has a right to be but McGregor also infuses him with cunning, wit and charm. In fact all the performances are spot-on. Pierce Brosnan’s Lang may be something of a dim bulb but the strength of his convictions, coupled with his quick temper, can also make him a formidable foe. As his wife, Ruth, Olivia Williams is fierce and intelligent. I felt for this woman even though she frightened me a little bit. Kim Cattrall brings great Va-Va-Voom to the role of Lang’s assistant and (more than likely) mistress. She also has a scene near the close of the film that suggests there’s a softer, more human side to her character underneath all that aloof vamping.

Visually, the film is impressive. The greenish-grey cast of the cinematography (so reminiscent of Annie Leibovitz), coupled with the pristine homes of all the wealthy characters, heightens the oppressive, claustrophobic feeling of the narrative. The score is tense but it’s also playful. It heightens the suspense but it also helped me to remember that this is a movie, an entertainment. Movies can educate us and they can move us but sometimes it’s great just to be entertained. The Ghost Writer is an entertainment. An ecstatic, brilliant, marvelous entertainment.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The White Ribbon

I have an easier time explaining what I don’t like about a movie than what I do like, so it’s difficult for me to write about Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon because I liked almost everything about it. The movie centers around a series of tragic events that occur in a small German town just before the onset of the first World War. It’s possible that some of these events are accidents but most of the atrocities are deliberate, instigated either as acts of malice or retribution.

The White Ribbon may be about “the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature,” as Haneke told the Austrian newspaper Kurier. Perhaps, like my friend Kelly suggested, it foreshadows the apathy of the German people to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. All my husband would say after we’d seen the movie together was that he liked it and that it told an interesting story. I asked him if he agreed with the description I’d seen that said Haneke had created an allegory for the origins of socialism. He thought that might be going a bit too far.

Having mulled it over for a few days now I’ve decided that whatever message The White Ribbon is trying to convey is probably secondary, in my mind, at least, to the actual experience of watching the whole thing unfold on screen. This movie had my full attention, demanded it, almost, from start to finish. It is engaging and suspenseful. The black and white cinematography is every bit as arresting and beautiful as I had hoped it would be but there’s nothing soft or romantic about the images; they are sharp and high on contrast. The exteriors sometimes seem too bright, which adds to the stark, uneasy tone of the picture. More often than not the tragedies occur off-camera, which only heightens the near-stifling sense of dread that permeates the story.

The full title of the movie translates as The White Ribbon - A German Children’s Story and I liked that it sometimes felt like Grimm’s for grown-ups. The inclusion of a narrator, relating the sad events from a much later date, not only bolsters the fable-like tone of the tale but also helps keep the audience at a distance. I felt like this movie held me at arms length even as it drew me into it’s dark, cruel world. The events that Haneke chronicles remain steeped in ambiguity but I wonder if understanding the whos and the whys better would only spoil the viewing experience. Think I’ll take Iris Dement’s advice and just let the mystery be.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

It was with some trepidation that I approached Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland this past weekend. Burton’s signature aesthetic, tweaked and perfected but essentially unchanged throughout the course of his career, is now easily recognizable, maybe even cliché, but, to me, almost always welcome. Favorite collaborators Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (as well as long-time composer Danny Elfman) are once again along for the ride. No surprises there but, again, not a problem. I don’t demand groundbreaking cinema from filmmakers that I enjoy and if Burton and co. were, in fact, treading familiar ground with this latest offering I figured I’d probably be ok with it. I’ve yet to see a movie made by this bunch that I didn’t like at least a little bit

The thing that gave me pause was that some of the imagery I’d seen, in trailers and TV spots, looked far too much like Alice as imagined by the owner of the local head shop. I never liked those t-shirts that Stone Mountain sold, with the spidery, garishly colorful caricatures of the Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. Rather than a full-on psychedelic hallucination I wanted a Wonderland that was equal parts weirdness and Victorian finery. I wanted the juxtaposition of an absurd, nonsensical story butting up against mannered English restraint. John Tenniel’s illustrations for the first edition of Lewis Carroll’s much-beloved book are effective precisely because they capture that uneasy combination of elements so well (now seems like as good a time as any to confess that I’ve never even read all of Alice In Wonderland and that it’s mostly those exquisite little drawings that keep me so fascinated in the story).

I needn’t have worried, though. Burton may borrow here and there from the many different visual interpretations of Alice that have sprung up throughout the years but the overall style of the film is unmistakably his own. And for the most part, I think it works.

The movie is set several years after the titular heroine’s first journey down the rabbit hole. Alice is nineteen and perhaps mere moments away from an engagement to a buck-toothed, carrot-topped lord named Hamish. He has a delicate digestive system and a fussy demeanor. Alice’s mother and sister think it’s an ideal match because it offers Alice social standing and financial security. Alice is too much like her late father, a progressive nonconformist with a taste for adventure, to agree. When Hamish pops the question Alice bolts, taking a familiar tumble into a Wonderland that’s in dire straights.

The plot is nothing special, Wonderland needs a champion and Alice is the chosen one, but it’s adequate. Burton’s visual style suits a Wonderland that’s fallen into ruin and there are moments in the movie that are beautiful to behold. Yes, there’s a third act battle scene and, yes, we’ve seen similar ones many times before, on all those trips to Narnia and Middle Earth. Some critics have cited this as the point where the movie falls apart for them but it wasn’t a deal breaker for me; it doesn’t drag on for too long and Alice looks rather fetching in her shiny armour (as she does in her assortment of beautiful, outlandish dresses, which are usually created on the fly by whatever’s handy to accommodate her constant changes in size).

Alice is played by the Australian actress Mia Wasikowska. This was the first time I’d seen her in anything (though I’ve been meaning to catch That Evening Sun, in which she stars alongside Hal Holbrook) and I thought she was charming. Her Alice is clever, sensitive and wonderfully understated. Amidst all the bluster and mayhem her quiet assuredness is engaging. Depp is fun to watch and he brings an element of sweet melancholy to the Hatter. His relationship with Alice is very much like that of the Scarecrow’s with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (at times I thought the movie danced around a romantic attraction between the two, and there are certainly physical parallels between the Hatter and Hamish, but it never actually goes anywhere). Bonham Carter is a hoot and I enjoyed her Red Queen immensely. If I had to guess I’d say her ginormous, grotesquely beautiful head was created using prosthetic makeup, smoothed out with the aid of CGI, simply because it looks like it’s actually, physically, present. If I am wrong and it was all computer generated then it is even more impressive, because my one complaint about the movie, and it is a big one, is that there is some appalling computed generated animation.

The problem doesn’t really lie with the characters, who work quite well. Even the ones who initially looked so off-putting to me (Dee and Dum, the Cheshire Cat) won me over with very little effort. Burton has an excellent voice cast and they’re able to lend even the oddest looking characters ample doses of personality and charm. They don’t look real but that seems deliberate, as if Burton was going for the feel of a classic Disney film, like Pete’s Dragon or Mary Poppins, that combines hand-drawn animation with live action. It’s a nice, cozy touch.

For me it is mostly the landscapes of Wonderland that fare so poorly. There are moments where the animated settings look quaint and deliberately animated, like the characters, and, again, it works. Then there are the moments that look as if they’ve been plucked from a cheap video game and create jarring, stagnant blips in the fabric of the film. I was reminded of others movies I love that are marred by awful CGI (Gladiator is always one of the first to spring to mind), the kind of animation that, I think, is meant to look real but is always too dull, too flat, too smoothed-out to fool anyone. I don’t know if the animators thought this stuff looked good or if they just thought that audiences wouldn’t care (and maybe some moviegoers are perfectly fine with this type of thing) but it was a near-constant distraction for me. As a lover of stop-motion animation I couldn’t help but pine for Burton’s landscapes as they appeared in Henry Selick’s marvelous Nightmare Before Christmas, or the tactile beauty of the topiaries in Burton’s own Edward Scissorhands. There’s actually a bit of closing credit animation, twining vines and opening flowers around an iron gate, that looks as if it may be stop-motion; it’s a shame that it is easily more engaging and intimate than half the effects that feature in the film itself (and also a shame that it is paired with a bland Avril Lavigne song, instead of a piece from Elfman’s score).

If Burton had incorporated a tad more personal craftsmanship into the movie, rather than relying so heavily on the computer generated stuff, he might have produced something really wondrous. Instead there’s much to admire amidst the moments that fall painfully flat.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

just getting the hang of this. check back soon.