After watching A Touch of Zen, I decided to check out a few more classic martial arts movies. I decided to check in on a DVD series called Dragon Dynasty, having been impressed by the work they did on the copy of John Woo's Hard Boiled I picked up a while back. Looking through their catalog I noticed they had a movie from King Hu, director of Touch of Zen. The movie's inelegant title didn't excite me, but I decided to check it out anyway. I was quite surprised to find myself almost enjoying them movie more than Touch of Zen, even if Zen is ultimately a better work. I thought the choreography here was probably better, and the funky editing was used a lot more sparingly. The story lacks Touch of Zen's epic scope and depth, but in its simplicity it was probably easier to follow. It was also very interesting to see Cheng Pei-Pei forty years before she played the villain in Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon. I was baffled by a few things, namely a point late in the film where they start shooting some kind of arousal spray out their hands, I have no idea what the hell that was supposed to be. Also there's a strange reversal in the last five minutes where a male character suddenly turns into a hero instead of Pei-Pei. This wasn't the achievement Zen was, but as a lean little action movie it was probably more enjoyable. Also, I was right Dragon Dynasty, the visual quality of this DVD was a million times better than the Touch of Zen DVD.
Agnes Varda is a filmmaker I?ve been meaning to catch up with, and the logical way to program this personal marathon is to watch the films in Criterion?s ?4 by Agnes? box set (minus Vagabond, which I?ve already seen). This was Varda?s first film, and like many debut efforts by great filmmakers it shows a lot of creativity and promise, but it has a lot of rookie mistakes. The film is generally not very ambitious, it seems that Varda was more interested in setting the film in the titular Mediterranean fishing village than she was in telling a satisfying story. She clearly displays a good eye for imagery, but this is essentially a glorified student film and there just isn?t a enough meat on the bone to take a good bite off. Fun fact: Alain Resnais was the editor.
In the December of 2002, Martin Scorsese released his decades in the making passion project Gangs of New York to an outstanding round of indifference. The film was generally seen as a disappointment by critics, and while it was nominated for ten Oscars it didn?t manage to win any of them. Since then, Scorsese has lightened up and basically used his skills as a master craftsman to be the most prominent director for hire among commercial projects made for adults. This pattern was established with his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator and his cops and crooks crime thriller The Departed. Neither of these projects was particularly personal or wildly ambitious, but they were impeccably crafted and Scorsese was able to add a degree of depth to both seemingly breezy projects that other directors might not have bothered with. After The Departed became an Oscar winning triumph, Scorsese realized he was on to a good thing and now he?s followed it up with another glossy genre exercise in Shutter Island, a Hollywood thriller starring his new favorite actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
Set in 1954, the film begins on a slow boat ferrying passengers out to the titular Massachusetts island which is home to a federal mental institution whose patients are all violent offenders. The one of the passengers U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a splitting headache. He and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are on their way to the island to help track down an escaped patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer). The institution is being run by Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who?s professional philosophy differs from his lobotomy/electroshock fixated peers and his mental hospital is meant as a testing ground for his more humane methods. But as his investigation continues, the doctors at the institution begin to seem increasingly uncooperative, as if they don?t want Solando to be found, as if they?re hiding something.
With this film Scorsese is unapologetically indulging his interest in noir and pulp trappings. DiCaprio is clad in a full Sam Spade outfit and wears it well while Ruffalo?s every line delivery is straight out of the noir sidekick handbook. The island itself fits perfectly into the sort of New England Gothic aesthetic (complete with a lighthouse), and the whole scenario feels like something out of The Most Dangerous Game and there?s something almost Lovecraftian about the way he combines setting, psychology and dread. This somber tone is of the utmost importance to the film and I suspect that generating this atmosphere was the primary thing that drew Scorsese to this material. As the movie moves on, this sort of oppressive tone will be the chief weapon that Scorsese uses to keep the audience on edge. Also adding to the atmosphere are a series of haunting and very well crafted flashbacks and dream sequences which use great special effects in order to make surreal dreamlike images.
DiCaprio, whose proving to be an actor who rarely disappoints, is always at his best when working with Scorsese and this film is no exception. I was a bit uneasy about his work in the first few scenes, but as the film goes on DiCaprio seems to ease into the role. He is again sporting a Boston accent as he did in The Departed and he seems to really be in his element when he?s playing a violent sort of streetwise type. Mark Ruffalo meanwhile has this sort of thankless task of playing a sidekick who is almost entirely reactionary, his lines rarely amount to more than ?are you sure boss? and ?if you say so.? It?s a character I would have liked to see written better.
Among the other characters in this all-star cast are Michelle Williams, who plays DiCaprio?s deceased wife in a variety of flashbacks and dream sequences, provides a pretty interesting presence and Emily Mortimer is also quite effective in her scenes. Jackie Earle Haley is playing to his strengths in a small but memorable part as an inmate and acting veteran Max von Sydow is simply overqualified for his small role as a creepy German psychologist. The one performance I would really take issue with is that of Ben Kingsley, an actor who seems to be really hit or miss lately and who seems to be on autopilot throughout this film. I felt no conviction from him throughout the film and he really brought nothing to his role.
The film inhabits a world in which no one including yourself is to be trusted, it?s almost Polanski-esque in its portrayal of Paranoia, the film?s central theme. As DiCaprio?s character progresses through the film he begins to break down, to question his surroundings and what?s real. The film walks this tightrope of paranoia and confusion really well for the better part of its running time, but is ultimately undercut by its final ten minutes. In the film?s penultimate sequence we?re given a pretty silly twist ending that?s explained with all the subtlety of the Fred Richmond speech at the end of Psycho. This ending doesn?t really add a lot to the film and it kills the ambiguity that it had inhabited so comfortably up to that point. Were I writing the film I would have avoided a simple explanation for the events and left the audience at a point where they are unsure whether or not DiCaprio?s paranoia is justified.
To many critics this ending will be the ultimate deal breaker but it certainly isn?t for me, because, frankly, I?m willing to forgive ten problematic minutes when the preceding two hours were as successful as they were here. The film?s story is mostly hokum, but this isn?t really a plot driven movie in the strictest sense, the goal is more to bring the audience along for the psychological journey of its protagonist. In this sense it is a psychological thriller in the purest sense; it keeps you on edge by, essentially, sending the character you empathize with further and further into the deep end. If you?re willing to go on this journey, the film will reward you, but don?t go in expecting this to be some sort of puzzle that you?re supposed to figure out before you?re supposed to because that will only end in disappointment. If nothing else, Scorsese displays a masterful grasp of tone, atmosphere, and visual design over the course of the film?s running time, and even though this is middling within Scorsese?s body of work, I?m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The Ghost Writer is a low key thriller of the type one wouldn?t expect to be made by a director as distinguished as Roman Polanski, and the film?s release has been similarly low key. Perhaps this is only being seen in a few theaters because this is a film targeted at adults, an audience that has become increasingly hard to market to, perhaps it?s because the film has been pretty hard to cut a trailer to without giving away a number of key plot points, or perhaps it?s because of the negative publicity its director has been getting because of his legal battles. I hesitated to even bring that last point up, firstly because the film?s advertising hasn?t really been hiding the fact that the Chinatown auteur is behind the film and secondly because I think Polanski?s work deserves to be appreciated outside of the shadow of his personal shortcomings. On the other hand, one of the most interesting things about this newest film is how aspects of the story mirror that turbulent personal story.
The film is about an author played by Ewan McGregor who?s so anonymous that his name is never revealed over the course of the movie. The character is smart but seems to have minimal ambition and no political beliefs. This anonymity makes the character the perfect ghost writer and within his field he hits the jackpot when he?s asked to help write the autobiography of a controversial former British Prime Minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It doesn?t take a whole lot of imagination to see that Lang was loosely based on Tony Blair, he was a popular leader, but one who seemed to be married to the United States in relation to foreign policy during the war on terror and he?d come under especially tough scrutiny for handing over four alleged terrorists to be tortured for information. Since the movie seems to take place in a world where such behavior is actually punished, he may be tried by the Haig for his actions. In order to escape the protests (and possible extradition), he?s escaped to a house in Martha?s Vineyard. The ghost writer says that he isn?t an investigative reporter and that he only wants to tell Lang?s story as Lang wants to tell it, but as he digs deeper he finds that there?s a secret out there which could shine a light on this world leader?s motives.
The central theme of Polanski?s work is undeniably paranoia, justifiable paranoia. Perhaps the film of his with the most emblematic and accessible expression of this theme is Rosemary?s Baby, a film in which a woman thinks her neighbors are conspiring to do her harm? and it turns out they were. This paranoid sensibility is perfect for the political thriller genre, a genre that?s almost defined by paranoia of this kind. That said, the Polanski film that this most reminds me of is not a political thriller but rather a supernatural thriller: The Ninth Gate. That late nineties Johnny Depp vehicle is not particularly well remembered but, it was a pretty good but it was a pretty good bit of genre filmmaking and Polanski?s sensibilities made it a lot more interesting than it otherwise would have been. That was another film about an unassuming man who stumbled onto a deep secret and kept hunting it down while besieged by people more knowledgeable about it than he does, and both of the films end on almost identical notes.
Oh, and this theme of paranoia was established long before Polanski became an international fugitive, which is something that isn?t known for quashing paranoia. His personal woes (which I won?t bother to recount here, Google it if you don?t know) seem to really parallel the life of the Prime Minister character. This is a character that?s been forced to stay in the United States or face charges; it?s an almost perfect parallel to Polanski?s situation in which leaving France would lead to extradition. Polanski?s extradition, also meant that the film couldn?t be filmed in the story?s Massachusetts location, and yet the film also has a really good sense of location. Even though the movie was filmed in Germany, they did a pretty good job of making it look like America, which is important because this foggy New England atmosphere adds a lot to the movie.
The acting from McGregor was solid, but like his character, not particularly noteworthy. I also liked Olivia Williams in the role of the Prime Minister?s wife, but it?s Pierce Brosnan?s work that I found particularly memorable. I wouldn?t say that Brosnan?s actual acting was anything to really write home about, but I think his choice to play this role was a particularly nice piece of casting. Brosnan looks like he could be a election phenomenon and he brings a certain unapologetic cockiness that seems to characterize post-Gitmo politics.
It?s interesting that this film has come out only a few weeks after the release of Shutter Island, another film that explores paranoia in a New England setting. That Scorsese film is certainly more ambitious, but in its own low key way The Ghost Writer explores the theme just as effectively. That said, the Robert Harris novel upon which this is based does not strike me as a work of genius, it strikes me as a pretty typical beach read. This is a case of a director elevating material, not a case of a director rising to the occasion. This is certainly not Polanski?s best work, but it is a good work, one worth seeing.
For the last half decade I?ve felt like I?ve been on the defensive end of a number of arguments when it comes to political movies which deal with the war in Iraq. The wide consensus is that these movies all too often sacrifice storytelling in favor of preachy messages and that the films suffer as a result. Then last year, in something of an ironic twist, the critics I?d been opposing all suddenly got behind an Iraq movie (The Hurt Locker) which I wasn?t necessarily as enthusiastic about. Make no mistake, I liked Kathryn Bieglow?s film a lot, but to me it wasn?t the transcendent war film that many held it up as. The praise for that movie was characterized by two claims: 1. that the movie was refreshingly apolitical (as if that?s an inherently good thing), and 2. that the movie avoided the peachiness by focusing on its role as an action movie. This second point was probably the most baffling part of the consensus that built around The Hurt Locker, because I frankly don?t think that movie is an action film, at least not any more of an action film than say, Platoon. Perhaps the most notable thing about Paul Greengrasses new film Green Zone is that it most definitely is an action film and a significantly more exciting one that The Hurt Locker ever claimed to be.
The film is set in the very immediate aftermath of the March 2003 Invasion of Iraq, when the war certainly felt like an injustice, but at least like an injustice that would be successful in its dubious goals. At the center of the movie is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), the Chief Warrant Officer in charge of a squad that?s looking for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. After many of the leads he was tracking down turned out not to have the weapons in question, Miller began to question the intelligence he?d been given. So, instead he begins tracking down a General Al-Raw (Yigal Naor), a former Ba?athist that Miller thinks is aware of the location of the WMDs. When a CIA agent named Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) learns about this, he encourages Miller, believing that Al-Raw may help him convince a stubborn Pentagon official named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) that he should keep the Iraqi military intact. Unfortunately, Poundstone has other ideas and both Miller and Brown will need to increasingly bend the rule in order to find the truth.
The central goal of the film is to prevent the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. It has been argued by many (perhaps most accessibly in the documentary No End in Sight) that this disbanding, more than any post-invasion decision, was responsible for turning Iraq into the quagmire that it became. So, the stakes of the action on screen couldn?t be any higher. That?s not where the parallels to the real world end either. Many of the characters here are meant to be loosely fictionalized versions of real figures from the war. Kinnear?s Clark Poundstone character is pretty clearly based on Paul Bremer, the man who disbanded the Iraqi army (and was subsequently given a medal by President Bush), a journalist played by Amy Ryan in the film is clearly based on the NYT correspondent Judith Miller, and there?s also a dubious intelligence source in the film codenamed ?Magellan? which is based on a real figure which was codenamed ?Curveball.?
This insertion of figures from our recent history will be jarring to some audiences, but I disagree. I think what Greengrass has done is to use the cover of a fictional narrative in order to make a pretty interesting work of speculative non-fiction. This is not too far removed from what Oliver Stone did in a number of his movies about 60s politics and which I wish he had done more of in his film W. Much the way Stone would use his films to speculate about what people like Richard Nixon was saying behind closed doors, Greengrass is speculating about the machinations involved in a post-invasion Iraq. Of course, the speculative aspects of Green Zone don?t need to stray all that far from what is already known. The truth is, very few of the claims being made in the film are all that controversial. Are there really still Bush loyalists trying to pretend that there were WMDs in Iraq? Or that disbanding the Iraqi army was a good idea? I don?t think there are many, nor do I think there are very many people who will be overly shocked by the revelations here, but the way they are presented here make them far more accessible and exciting than they ever have been before.
Paul Greengrass made his name among critics with kinetic films about real world crises like Bloody Sunday and United 93, and he made his name as a commercial filmmaker by bringing a similarly immediacy to mainstream action films like The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Green Zone marks something of a combination of these two sides of Greengrass? career, it has real world significance but it?s also unafraid to add visceral action to the proceedings, especially towards the end where we?re treated to an extended foot chase through Bagdad as witnessed both on the ground and above head by pursuing helicopters. This action does not delve into the realms of the ridiculous, there are no signature stunts ala Bourne and the hero is decidedly more mortal than the title character of that franchise. The action here is significantly more active than the suspenseful, but static, bomb defusing scenes from The Hurt Locker and to me, are much closer to the tradition of the action film.
I was also really impressed by the depiction of Iraq itself, which seemed really authentic, though admittedly I?ve never been to the place and obviously don?t have any real experience to base this judgment on. The titular Green Zone itself was particularly interesting; this was a secure area of Bagdad in which the majority of the high ranking officers, intelligence agents, and media figures were stationed. This area at times looks like a resort, complete with people sitting by a pool. The whole scene is reminiscent of the English base at Cairo depicted in Lawrence of Arabia and is meant to contrast the war zone that surrounds it. This oasis amidst chaos was the main setting of Rajiv Chandrasekaran?s non-fiction book ?Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq?s Green Zone,? upon which Greengrass? film is based, and it?s one of the film?s most interesting aspects.
I enjoyed Green Zone quite a bit both on as a fan of action films and as someone who?s interested in recent history. That said, there are a few sort of clunky lines in the film that fit into some of the complaints people have been having about ?preachy Iraq movies,? there?s a line towards the end spoken by an Iraqi that is particularly egregious. I can?t say that this has the same resonance of something like United 93 (though very few movies do) and it isn?t quite the action onslaught that the Bourne films were, but this is still the work of an important filmmaker and not one to be taken for granted.