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Timothy Hutton

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A Ghost in Blair House.


Tho’ I doubt it will get much favorable play in Tony Blair’s household, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, which I caught last Saturday, is a brisk and competently-made 70’s-style paranoia thriller that also manages to be subversively amusing for most of its run. If you enjoyed the “noir exercise” aspects of Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and you have no strong moral qualms about throwing money Polanski’s way these days, I’d say it’s definitely worth checking out. (Note: I briefly discussed my thoughts on Polanski’s criminality in my nod to The Pianist (#41) on the Best of the Oughts list two months ago. That’s still about all I have to say on that ugly subject.)

Like Shutter, The Ghost Writer is a highly cinematic thriller in-the-key-of-noir that probably works better as a mood piece than it does in terms of plot. (For that matter, once again we have a cast of ne’er-do-wells at a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts, acting suspiciously under gray, portentous skies.) The film is also, not to put too fine a point on it, a resounding eff-you to Tony Blair. Based on a 2007 book by Robert Harris (Fatherland, Enigma), it clearly sets it sights on the ex-PM for getting-in-deep with Dubya and subsequently greenlighting torture in the UK.

If that makes The Ghost Writer sound heavy or preachy, it isn’t, really. The torture and “Special Relationship” stuff forms the background and connective tissue of this particular 70’s-style conspiracy, yes. But the movie cares less about the details than its does just the existence of a nefarious plot at all. In other words, just like Marathon Man or Three Days of the Condor, most all of the political content here is really just a device to get Ewan MacGregor’s low-key, amiable, and boozy-but-talented “Ghost” slowly and inexorably in over his head…and increasingly having to look over his shoulder.

Here, unlike the last time we saw him, MacGregor’s scribe isn’t looking for “the Story” at first so much as a fat paycheck. So, when the ghostwriter for former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) washes up dead off the coast for America, he — after being talked into it by his unctuous agent (Jon Bernthal) — puts his name in the hat as a well-paid replacement, even though he doesn’t give a whit about politics. And after getting looked over by a gruff Haldeman-ish aide (James Belushi) and an obviously sleazebag lawyer (Timothy Hutton), he somehow, miraculously, ends up with the job.

But, be careful what you wish for: Within an hour of landing the gig, Ewan’s Ghost gets mugged on the street for carrying what appeared to be a copy of the current manuscript. (It was a ringer — Nihilists, dude.) Soon thereafter, he finds himself whisked away to Lang’s Island, where he spends his days with a distracted and often visibly angry ex-PM, the beautiful-but-distant missus (Olivia Williams, who I love, but she’s too young for the part), a sultry top assistant (Kim Cattrall, doing her thing), and more security than you can shake a stick at. And when Lang becomes the center of a huge media maelstrom, on account of revelations that he authorized illegal detentions and torture when he was prime minister, well all of a sudden Ewan’s Ghost finds himself trapped in a very well-oiled and dangerous Machine…

Speaking of ghosts in machines, I’ll concede I was probably more tickled by The Ghost Writer than a lot of people might be, just because this is a movie about my trade. Who knows? Maybe cops, lawyers, and doctors feel like this all the time. Still, his irritating penchant for reading everything out loud notwithstanding, when Ewan was puttering around the island on his bike and/or typing away in his schoolboy sweaters, I confess I felt a twinge of happiness that here was a thriller-type movie where I could actually see myself in the predicament. (Speaking of which, yes, there are a lot of dramatic licenses taken with the job of ghostwriting here, but you’re not going to see me complaining to Newsweek about it. That’s what movies do.)

But, all that being said, I think The Ghost Writer has enough of a sneaky sense of humor to it that it would’ve worked for me even without the j-o-b connection. For example, one running gag throughout is that, as per movies of this type, all sorts of shady operators desperately want their hands on Lang’s manuscript. But, like the vast majority of political memoirs in real life, this ghostwritten Maguffin is so platitudinous and vapid (“My years at Cambridge…”) that Ewan’s character can’t figure out why the hell anybody wants to go near it.

And, while the actual conspiracy here is even more implausible than the last turn in Shutter Island (and, again, doesn’t make much sense given what’s come before in the movie), I chuckled at the sheer screw-you audacity of it — You’ll know what I mean if you see it. So, all in all and despite its occasional goofy turns, I found The Ghost Writer a pretty fun afternoon at the movies. I just wish that one of the film’s other driving conceits — that the world will rise up and demand criminal accountability for Dubya-era torture — didn’t seem quite so far-fetched to me as it does these days.

Secrets of the Hive.


Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd, the first entrant in my ongoing end-of-2006 movie marathon this week, makes no secret of its Oscar-bait aspirations. Basically the WASP version of The Godfather, as told against the creation and Cold War consolidation of the CIA, Shepherd boasts a crisp look, a grand historical sweep, high-quality production values, and a stellar cast (including Best Supporting Actor-type turns strewn all over the place, like the wreckage from a better, more interesting movie.) But it’s also a film that never lets you forget how serious and sober-minded it aims to be. As such — however well-meaning and nice to look at, with all its chiaroscuro fedoras on hand — it’s also sadly a bit of a bore. Throw in an occasionally clunky script (note the particularly egregious God/CIA line near the end, for example) and some considerable miscasting issues (Matt Damon is a good actor, but is thoroughly implausible as a middle-aged man, and Angelina Jolie is too much of a star presence to be wholly believable as the ignored wife) and you have a respectable but ultimately somewhat pedestrian night at the movies. Shepherd gets the job done, I suppose, but it takes no pleasure in it.

When we first meet intelligence analyst Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), the bespectacled Everyman and titular shepherd of the film, it’s the spring of 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion has just gone FUBAR, and America’s new president is looking for a few heads to roll over at Langley. In this middle of this spate of job anxiety, Wilson is mysteriously sent a photo and audioreel of a couple in the throes of passion, seemingly somewhere in the Third World. As he sets to work on deciphering this arcane message, Wilson’s thoughts wander all the way back to 1939, when he — a young, idealistic student of poetry at Yale — was recruited first by the infamous Order of Skull and Bones (a.k.a. preppy fratboys gone wild) and then, after war breaks out in Europe, by the OSS. Along the way, he takes on a number of varied mentors, ranging from a Nazi-sympathizing poetry professor with then-shocking proclivities (Michael Gambon) to a congenial if hobbled general and spymaster (De Niro, playing a variation on Wild Bill Donovan) to a gaggle of fellow scions of the WASP Old Boy Network (representing the Eli’s, William Hurt and Lee Pace; representing the Oxford-Cambridge crowd, Billy Crudup with a slipping accent.) He also falls in love, with a (note the symbolism!) kindly, open-hearted deaf co-ed (Tammy Blanchard), and falls, in lust, with a needy, easy, and borderline-psycho socialite (Angelina Jolie, verging on typecasting in a terribly written role, but still quite good.) As the years drag on and the world freezes into Cold War, Wilson finds himself not only engaged in high-stakes cloak-and-dagger gamesmanship against his Soviet counterpart, codenamed Ulysses (Oleg Stefan), but inexorably ceding more of his dreams, his morality, his family, and his very soul to that hungering bastion of the Eastern Establishment mafia, the Central Intelligence Agency. And every time he tries to get out, they keep pulling him back in…

Comparisons to The Godfather are probably as unfair as they are inescapable. Still, for all the striving and sweating on display here, Edward Wilson is ultimately no Michael Corleone. In fact, Damon, while trying admirably, can’t plausibly sustain the second “middle-aged” half of the film, and portrays Wilson as too much of a blank (clearly De Niro’s decision) to garner much in the way of sympathy or empathy. More resonant in The Good Shepherd are many of the supporting turns, particularly Gambon, John Turturro as Wilson’s tough-talking (non-WASP) #2, and Alec Baldwin in a minor role as a hard-living G-man. But they’re not enough to put Shepherd over the top, and for every vignette in the film that contains real emotional power — most notably the interrogation of defector “Valentin Mironov” (Mark Ivanir) — there are two that, through a combination of directorial straining and an overly intrusive score, spill over into overcooked blandness. (See for example, the plane and letter-burning sequences at the end of the film, both of which are carried for several beats too long and which suffer from paint-by-numbers swelling strings on the soundtrack.) The Good Shepherd is by no means a bad film, but, alas, it’s not particularly a good one either. Like a veteran CIA hand, it fades effortlessly into the background, and offers little that might be considered truly memorable.

2004 in Film.

Happy New Year, everyone. Inauspiciously for 2005, it looks like I’m starting the year a day late on the end-of-2004 movie roundup…but better late than never. As you probably already guessed, this year’s film list will be the first in four years without a Peter Jackson Tolkien adaptation in the #1 spot (although I’m still keeping it warm for The Hobbit in 2008.) Nevertheless, my top choice this year was an easy one, and those of y’all who come ’round here often can probably figure it out.

Top 20 Films of 2004:
[2000/2001/2002/2003]

1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The one true classic of 2004, Eternal Sunshine has only grown in my estimation since its initial release in March. (David Edelstein’s take on it as one of Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell‘s remarriage comedies is well worth reading.) A heartfelt examination of love, loss, and memory, Eternal Sunshine was also a strikingly adult take on romance and relationships, the kind you usually don’t get from Hollywood. With great performances from a caged Jim Carrey and an electric Kate Winslet, the film managed to be both an earnest, passionate love story and a wistful paean to those person-shaped holes we all carry in our hearts and memories. Along with Annie Hall and High Fidelity, it goes down as one of my all-time favorite films about the mysteries of love. (Why even bother? We need the eggs.)

2) Garden State. Writer-director Zach Braff’s “anti-Graduate” debut was a small but touching ode to home that, along with reviving Natalie Portman as an actress and offering the best soundtrack of the year, delivered exactly what it promised. A bit hokey at times, sure, but Garden State wore its heart on its sleeve and, for the most part, got away with it. It was a witty and eloquent voyage to the Jersey burbs and a testament to the proposition that as Paul Weller put it, it’s never too late to make a brand new start.

3) The Incredibles. Pixar has been delivering well-constructed eye-popping wonders since Toy Story, and The Incredibles is the best of the lot. I figured it might be awhile before a movie topped Spiderman 2 as a sheer comic book spectacle, but, as it turned out, The Incredibles did it only a few months later. One of the best comic book films ever made, The Incredibles was two hours of unmitigated fanboy fun. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably also the best Fantastic Four film we’re ever going to see.

4) Sideways. Like a fine 1961 Cheval Blanc, Alexander Payne’s elegiac toast to California wine country and the regrets and indignities of middle-age has a tendency to linger in the senses. Paul Giamatti must tire of playing depressive, barely sociable losers, but he’s great at it here…Sideways isn’t as funny as Election, but it is a memorable trip.

5) Spiderman 2. A definite improvement on the first adventure of your friendly neighborhood wallcraller, Spiderman 2 was a perfectly made summer film that stayed true to the spirit of Peter Parker. Along with X2, this is the gold standard for comic book-to-film adaptations right now…let’s hope Batman Begins is up to snuff.

6) Shaun of the Dead. Although it lost its footing shambling to its conclusion, Shaun of the Dead was great fun for the first two-thirds of its run, and it’s now probably my favorite zombie movie (everyone should have one.) A much-needed dry British humor fix to tide us over until Hitchhiker’s Guide.

7) The Aviator. A bit on the long side, Scorsese’s life of Howard Hughes is most fun when it stays away from the airfields and lounges about Old Hollywood. Two very clean thumbs up.

8) The Assassination of Richard Nixon. A dark, unflinching 90-minute descent into violent futility. I originally had this before The Aviator, then figured the degree of difficulty on Scorsese’s flick was much, much higher. Nevertheless, this funereal biopic for non-billionaire crazies, while grim and not much fun, was well-made and well-performed, and I expect it’ll stay with me for awhile.

9) The Bourne Supremacy. Perhaps a bit too much like its predecessor, Bourne II was still a better Bond than anything we’ve seen in the past 20 years. Paul Greengrass’ shakicam work here bodes well for Rorshach in The Watchmen.

10) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban. It’d be hard to make a better film of Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts than Alfonso Cuaron did here — Azkhaban managed to capture the dry wit and subversive spirit of the books that’s so missing in the Chris Columbus movies. That being said, Azkaban also made it clear that much of the fun of Rowling’s tomes is uncapturable on film. What was great fun to read on the page ended up seeming like Back to the Future II on the screen. With that in mind, Year 6 begins on 7/16.

11) Ocean’s 12. Two swollen hours of Soderberghian glamour and inside baseball. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but I found it an agreeable improvement on Ocean’s 11. (Don Cheadle’s accent is still terrible, tho’.)

12) Touching the Void. Snap! Aigh! Crunch! Aigh! It’d be hard to forget anything as memorable as Shattered Femur Theater. Well worth seeing, if you can stand the pain.

13) Fahrenheit 9/11. Hmmm…perhaps this should be higher. I definitely left the theater in an angry froth (not that it takes much)…unfortunately, apparently so did all the freepers.

14) My Architect. An excellent documentary on Louis Kahn, brilliant architect and terrible family man. Alas, it’s also a less-excellent documentary on Kahn’s son, and his Oprah-like quest for self-acceptance.

15) Kinsey. Take that, red staters.

16) Hero. A memorable meditation on love, power, and kick-ass kung-fu, until its train-wreck derailing in the last half-hour.

17) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As I said yesterday, Aquatic was a jaunty Wes Anderson joyride that nevertheless gets a little lost in its terminal cuteness. When you care more about the leaving-behind of Cody the three-legged dog than you do the death of a major character, there’s a problem.

18) I Heart Huckabees. Huckabees had its heart in the right place, and made for a decently appealing night at the movies…but it also had a terminal-cute problem.

19) Collateral. If the movie had maintained the promise of its first hour throughout, Michael Mann’s Collateral would have been a top ten contender. Alas, it all falls apart once Tom Cruise goes bugnut psycho in da club.

20) Kill Bill, Vol. 2. There was probably one really good movie somewhere in the two Kill Bills. The second half was closer to it than the first.

Not Seen: Bad Education, Before Sunset, Finding Neverland, Friday Night Lights, Harold and Kumar, Hotel Rwanda, Maria Full of Grace, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Spanglish

Worst Movies of the Year: Van Helsing, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Village, Code 46, Closer, Alexander, 21 Grams (2003)

Biggest Disappointment: The Ladykillers

Ho-Hum: Team America: World Police, The Alamo, House of Flying Daggers, Troy, King Arthur, Anchorman, Blade: Trinity, Shrek 2

Worth a Rental: Mean Girls, The Manchurian Candidate,
Hellboy, The Machinist, City of God (2003)

Best Actor: Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine; Paul Giamatti, Sideways; Sean Penn, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
Best Actress: Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine.

Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator; Virginia Madsen, Sideways.

2005: On paper, it’s looking like a better year for film, fanboy and otherwise, than 2004. The slate includes Star Wars Episode III, Batman Begins, The Chronicles of Narnia, All the King’s Men, PJ’s King Kong, Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, Polanski’s Oliver Twist, Malick’s The New World, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Constantine, Sin City, Fantastic Four, and my own most-anticipated project, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So here’s to the new year!

Sex Education.

Hoo boy, the Red Staters obsessed with “moral values” out there are just gonna love Kinsey. With its unflinching recognition of myriad forms of human sexual behavior, its intimations of bisexuality and wife-swapping among team Kinsey, and its occasionally graphic (albeit antiseptic and not at all titillating) depictions of the act of coitus (to channel Maude Lebowski), Bill Condon’s biopic of Indiana’s famous sex statistician is the closest movie we have this year to a Passion of the Christ for science-minded free-thinkers. In fact, the film seems almost genetically designed to get under the skins of the abstinence-firsters and moralist types who’ve decried Kinsey’s studies for fifty years.

That being said, the strength of Kinsey, and what elevates it to being a better-then-average biopic, is the way it ultimately gets under everybody’s skin. Alfred Kinsey is not simply white-washed as a martyr to science and a hero of sexual enlightenment (although, in its most conventional moments, such as the last ten minutes, the movie hammers those particular points pretty hard.) Rather, Kinsey is portrayed as a man whose relentless pursuit of sexual knowledge often leads him down some troubling and morally ambiguous roads. Even the most open-minded libertines in the audience may find themselves feeling that things seem to have gotten a little out-of-control around the home office in Indiana by the end, and get extremely discomfited when Liam Neeson’s Kinsey sits down with an even creepier than usual Bill Sadler, a pedophile and sexual predator who’s taken some notes of his own.

Kinsey is at its best when it rides this razor’s edge, honoring the professor’s undeniable contributions to science and society while recognizing that his dispassionately treating sexual behavior as he earlier treated gall wasps ultimately opened the door to immense personal pitfalls, particularly for the men and women around him who had trouble maintaining such a scientific distance. Speaking of which, while Neeson is solid and Laura Linney is Laura Linney as usual, the supporting character work in Kinsey is particularly good. Special marks go to a fearless Peter Saarsgard as Kinsey’s #2 (Watch out, Ewan – you’ve got a competitor now for the full-frontal roles), John Lithgow for his bleary final scene as Kinsey’s father (which redeemed an otherwise one-note character), and Dylan Baker as the long-suffering Rockefeller Foundation point person (who must partly have been picked here for his memorable role in Happiness.)

In sum, although it ends with a rather bland huzzah for the march of science, Bill Condon’s Kinsey is for the most part an intelligent, nuanced, and multifaceted appreciation of one man’s probing (and occasionally perilous) quest to illuminate humankind’s most intimate frontier. (And as such, it’ll probably go over like a lead balloon in American Pie country.)

Let’s Talk About Sex.

The full trailer for Bill Condon’s Kinsey biopic is now up, and while Laura Linney still has a huge debt to pay for her last film on academia and sex (The Life of David Gale), it looks like Liam Neeson will nevertheless be backed up by solid character work from Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker…and Chris O’Donnell?

Captain Kinsey and the Phantom’s Treasure.

Several new trailers have emerged since the last update around here: Along with a new look at Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (looks bluescreen-ish, to be sure), Liam Neeson channels Alfred Kinsey, Joel “I tanked the Batman franchise” Schumacher goes after Phantom of the Opera, and Nicolas Cage, Sean Bean, and Helen of Troy undertake a search for political booty in National Treasure. Of these new three, I might pay money to see Kinsey.

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