If it's crap ... We'll tell you
Joon-Ho Bong is one of the most exciting and wonderful storytellers coming out of Asia today. With Mother, he joins with Chanwook Park as being one of THE young South Korean directors to see - by that I mean anything they put out. Bong's work is layered with the skill of comedy and drama, both often so dark and thick that you can put your hand in and not feel the bottom. His previous film The Host showed his talent at making a 'popular' entertainment, a monster blockbuster that actually gave characters to care about while action and terror ensued. But this time he returns to his second feature, Memories of Murder, in crafting a murder mystery that is ultimately, in the sense of the details of the story, hopeless, but carries so much joy and passion in its making that I left elated by the performances and cinematography.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have to admit, I wasn't terribly impressed with the first several minutes of The Ghost Writer. Not because it was bad, far from it, it was an engaging beginning and a good (not great) premise. But because I wasn't sure where the spark was connecting it to the director, Roman Polanski. Any director could make this kind of premise, right? A ghost writer, usually focusing on subjects outside of politics, is given a well-paying but very rushed assignment to profile a former Prime Minister of Britain. He finds there is a manuscript written already, but that it needs more work, and that the Prime Minister needs to give him some more input on his life - or what he's not willing to say outright, what's under the surface.
There's room for an audience's interest here, but it's really once the writer goes to Martha's Vineyard in Massachussetts, where the Prime Minister will be staying shortly while weathering a scandal involving him and alleged torture of terrorist suspects, that it really gets interesting. More than that, it starts looking like a Polanski movie. A very good and surprisingly handsomely made one (maybe not too surprising, as it's Polanski's metee to do solid, for-adults-thinking thrillers). What I mean is I started to get shivers of recognition - scenes by a beach, limited characters, and a mounting mystery around a conspiracy that gets bigger and more complex. It's like Chinatown set on the island of Cul-de-sac, doused with the fire of current events (there's even one shot that is obvious but funny, where Brosnan's PM Adam Lang stands next to a black woman at a press conference that is a knock-off of Condaleeza Rice).
While the story in The Ghost Writer, which keeps getting better and more absorbing as it goes along, as the writer (never named specifically but played by Ewan McGregor) keeps digging somewhat unintentionally through Adam's past and connections with the CIA in the 70's and shady figures, not to mention the late-memoir writer who was found washed up on the nearby beach, is intriguing, it's Polanski's direction that kept me glued. It's not just the story but how it's told, and I was reminded again of how the director, now in his 70's, hasn't lost the nerve to just tell the damn thing and put in a few twists that would keep us guessing but not enough to find it too preposterous. The shots and compositions also, again, recalled former films of his, but never at the expense of self-parody. Always when there's a tight close-up of a person's face (look at how close Brosnan and Wilkinson get when talking to McGregor in their scenes), it's done to add tension to a scene, and keep things moving along. It's discreetly artistic, if that makes sense.
Then again, sometimes Polanski just relishes in keeping his willing and attentive audience on their toes. The performances help- everyone here is terrific, including McGregor, better he's been in years, and Olivia Williams really giving it her all as a frustrated wife of the Prime Minister in her few scenes (she really will keep you guessing, and her seemingly predictable tryst with the writer has more going on than meets the eye). But there's also some sly humor going on, like in a Hitchcock film where side character seem to know more, or perhaps nothing at all, compared to the main character (watch those maids and groundskeepers looking at the Writer with strong glances or caught up in the breeze outside). I also loved the settings and locations, like the hard concrete walls of the quasi-bunker that Lang's people are set up in, giving an added level to the proceedings.
And, lastly, the reveal of what's actually hidden in the memoir. I couldn't reveal it here, for one thing as a major spoiler but just because the fun of the scene is not in what is passed along in a note but how it's passed along, how Polanski relishes in shooting the note being passed hand-to-hand among suits at a party. It's a brilliant sequence leading up to a bittersweet ending... make that more bitter. Would you expect anything less from Polanski?
3) SHUTTER ISLAND (Martin Scorsese)
Everybody waited for years for Martin Scorsese to win his Oscar that when it was finally over and done with for The Departed, many were elated, but a question no one really asked was “what’s next?” The Rolling Stones documentary Shine a Light notwithstanding, Shutter Island is the follow-up from Scorsese’s biggest box-office success, and I’m slightly sorry to report that it is no masterpiece of filmmaking. I’m not sure if film students will study and foam at the mouth in joy over this as they do Raging Bull and GoodFellas.
What the film is, however, great genre moviemaking, or a take-off on it. Using Dennis Lehane’s novel for the story points and characters, Scorsese fashions his own horror show of giddy psychological madness with a healthy dose of film noir. It’s set in 1954 when two federal marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are sent to the fog-covered Shutter Island off the coast of Boston to investigate a woman’s mysterious disappearance. The doctors (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow) give their support to the investigation, at least on the surface. But there’s something fishy about the place, something sinister, and the patients get coached for interrogations while the nurses and guards shuffle about with something to hide. And there is something to conceal, something quite huge, and it’s in large part the real reason why Teddy is on the island.
Again, I don’t think this is Scorsese in his top-top finest hour. He spends chunks of the film on exposition, some of which could have been cut out. But I would be hard-pressed to suggest where. It’s the director’s knack for creating atmosphere out of seemingly nothing, of creating tension and intrigue in just a handful of edits and shots that makes the film stand out as a whole. The story builds like a solid potboiler, but a smart one, fashioned out of Lehane’s clever text into a madhouse of dark corridors and staircases, rainy prison cells, and nightmares of the Dachau concentration camp.
As a horror movie, Shutter Island strikes rich and fertile ground. The cast is all on their A-game, especially DiCaprio, who has gone through Scorsese’s version of film school since Gangs of New York and become a phenomenal actor. Here he’s a weathered detective out of ’40’s noir (an inspiration for the film was Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past), and in every scene he is given a little more to do emotionally. By the end, it becomes heartbreaking and haunting to see what his character goes through. Other actors like Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley and Elias Koteas have fantastic one-off scenes, unforgettable even.
Contrary to what (some) critics are already declaring, this is not Scorsese slumming it, or even going “too far” in some kind of Hollywood excess of style. It’s him doing something else, almost unexpected (rarely, not since Cape Fear, has he gone this dark). Shutter Island is a movie to get the blood boiling, a snappy, hard-edged entertainment with a twist that reminds jaded audience members what it’s like to get knocked down with something incredible, yet believable.
The inclusion of this film may not be entirely fair as pretty much nobody has seen it - except, of course, for those in attendance with me at the free test screening from a month ago, where we got a look at Edgar Wright's third feature film, practically complete (some of the music was taken from Planet Terror, which will probably be replaced, and some wire-work wasn't edited out) and, AWE and SOME and maybe a FUCK YEAH! somewhere in there, too. I'm hoping my inclusion here (not to mention the trailer) will get all you people just a little more excited.
The story of Scott Pilgrim, played by Michael Cera, and his dogged attempt to be the new boyfriend of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizbaeth Winstead) by having to face off against her seven ex-boyfriends (or, sorry, SPOILER, one of them a girlfriend), could have been cheesy, like a silly teenage movie. Turns out Wright is far too smart and clever and has too wonderful a sense of humor to let anything sit still or be tied down by conventions.
The film boasts Cera's best performance (which maybe isn't saying much, but he gets to show a lot more range here than anywhere else), and Winstead, a cutie one may have spotted in Death Proof, shines in a performance that asks her to be Zooey Deschanel, only prettier and a better actress. And several other actors like Chris Evans and Jason Schwartzman hit it out of the park with supporting performances as the ex-boyfriends (Evans especially has rarely been funnier playing as a stuck-up movie star).
It's Wright's creative energy that keeps the movie going so far as it does, and it's outrageously funny - as far as a PG-13 comedy can get - and has the spirit of a comic book down pat (whether it's like the original comic I can't say as I've yet to read it). The best way I can describe this surprise smash, which will be hitting theaters in August, is that it's like Wright's 90's show Spaced about slacker guys with a sarcastic wit going through relationships mixed with the speed of the Crank movies and the quirky romantic entanglements of (500) Days of Summer. Only, it's better than ALL of those.