The Ghost Writer

My word, isn't Director Roman Polanski ("The Pianist") a little ray of sunshine!

This international conspiracy film goes after Condoleezza Rice, Halliburton, President Bush, and numerous other actors on the world stage from the recent past. Hmmm... I thought the election was over....

Ewan McGregor ("Amelia") is hired to replace a ghostwriter who died before he completed an autobiography for the British Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan ("The Lightning Thief"). Only minutes after accepting the assignment, our ghostwriter is mugged; this sets the tone for the rest of the film. His character is smart and resourceful, but is heedless of potential danger as he seems compelled to investigate his predecessor's suspicious death.

The partially edited manuscript is considered a highly valuable but still secret document, so our hero must join his client in semi-seclusion on a remote island, which is reachable only by public ferry or private jet. He no more than arrives when the news breaks that the PM had authorized waterboarding and other heinous acts against terrorists. By the way, Brosnan's character makes an interesting comment about that.

The PM's executive aide is ably played by Kim Cattrall ("Sex and the City") who turns in a passably good British accent, while his wife is portrayed by Olivia Williams ("An Education"). We are also treated to brief appearances by Tom Wilkinson ("Michael Clayton") playing an American college professor, and Eli Wallach ("New York, I Love You") who clearly relishes his geezer roles. James (Jim) Belushi ("According to Jim") and Timothy Hutton ("Leverage") also pop in and out.

There were illogical actions and inconsistencies, but I didn't care enough about any of the characters to get too worked up about it...



This modest French film (with English captions) is absolutely unique. It is unpredictable and unsettling because we go to unusually dark places of the psyche with very little warning.

A man, his wife and their three children live in a reasonably nice house that sits right beside a new four-lane highway. The highway has been in existence for over ten years, but never opened.

The father has a job to which he commutes (his station wagon is parked directly across the four lanes), while the two younger children cross the freeway, then walk a short distance to a country lane where a school bus picks them up. The older girl seems to saunter languorously between the bathtub and a lawn chair where she smokes and sunbathes...endlessly... The mother is perpetually busy: she has a vegetable garden, cooks, freezes, cleans, does laundry, irons and otherwise cares for her happy brood with cheerful efficiency. The paved surface is used for sports, bicycle riding, skate boarding, etc., etc., etc....

One day, highway department vehicles come to resurface the road. A few days later, the first car comes zipping through. We watch traffic build until it becomes risky to cross those constantly streaming four lanes. The incessant noise in the house begins to wear on the nerves. We see what first seem to be minor personality shifts, but our story lies in the deeply felt impact this lifestyle change makes on each member of the family.

Isabelle Huppert ("I Heart Huckabees") is a well-known French actress who plays the mother; hers is the only familiar face. Mlle. Huppert, along with the four other cast members, have a ring of authenticity that makes us almost believe we are seeing a documentary, rather than a scripted movie. The performances are excellent and the movie is involving... almost too much so!

Cop Out

Such nonsense! This is a buddy movie, with our buddies played by Bruce Willis ("What Just Happened?") and Tracy Morgan ("30 Rock"). Willis is a passable straight man to Morgan's motor-mouthed loose cannon. They have been partners in the NYPD for years, so any personality clashes have long since been ironed out.

There are three major issues:
  • Divorced Willis has to pay for his only child's wedding, and on a cop's pay, it is an astronomical amount. He intends to fund it by selling a rare, museum-quality baseball card, which is stolen early in the movie by Seann William Scott ("Role Models"), who gets very tiresome very quickly.
  • Married Morgan is so nuts about his wife, played by Rashida Jones ("I Love You, Man"), that he thinks every other man must be crazy for her too, so he is constantly wrestling with the green- eyed monster.
  • While trying to reclaim the stolen card, our dynamic duo inadvertently steps on the toes of a pair of narcotics detectives, played to subtle comic perfection by Kevin Pollack ("Tropic Thunder") and Adam Brody ("Jennifer's Body"), just before a planned raid on a major drug dealer's headquarters.
Much of the violence is cartoonish, but a couple of executions in the drug ring are NOT.

For me, most of the fun was discovering how much profanity I actually knew in Spanish! Where did THAT come from! A misspent youth? One of the characters is a lovely Penelope Cruz look-alike, a hostage played by Ana de la Reguera ("Empire State"), who turns out to be a foul- mouthed spitfire. Although all of her invectives are in Spanish, the sub- titles aren't very literal. Who knew? And Morgan's attempts at Spanish are quite funny!

This will never be a classic, but the audience was entertained...and that's what it's all about, isn't it?


Shutter Island

It was a dark and stormy night...

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River"), Martin Scorsese directs this psychological thriller which takes us into the murky nether- world which lurks between delusion and reality. We journey with a U.S. Marshal and his partner as they are called to an island in the icy waters off Boston Harbor to investigate the disappearance of a mental patient who is incarcerated there: "Shutter Island" is a mental institution for the criminally insane. Our marshal is convincingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio ("Revolutionary Road"), while Mark Ruffalo ("Zodiac") serves as his partner.

Along with those two capable leads, the top-notch cast includes:
  • Michelle Williams ("Wendy and Lucy") is the marshal's deceased wife; we visit her only in flashbacks or dreams.
  • Ben Kingsley ("Transsiberian") heads the team which manages the asylum; at times he seems TOO reasonable.
  • Patricia Clarkson ("The Station Agent") seems to be a fugitive; at least she's intelligent and articulate.
  • Max von Sydow ("The Tudors") is one of the officials on Shutter Island; does he have a Nazi past?
  • Emily Mortimer ("Match Point") plays a traumatized patient; or perhaps is a stand-in for someone else...
  • Jackie Earle Haley ("Little Children") is a grotesque inhabitant of one of the dingy cells.
I usually find Scorsese off-putting because of the violence in his films, but this wasn't as violent as many of his outings, and the thought-provoking nature of the central issue stayed with us. We learned more than we wanted about post-traumatic stress, migraine headaches, trans-orbital lobotomies, shock treatments, ice baths, etc., etc., but we certainly were never bored!


The Last Station

According to my Encyclopedia Americana, that eponymous station was Astapovo, although I didn't catch it from the dialogue and I certainly can't read Cyrillic print or Russian. It is where Leo Tolstoy flees as he tries to divest himself of material things and earthly concerns.

Based on Jay Parini's novel by the same name, this is basically a tour de force between the first two highly skilled actors:
  • Helen Mirren ("The Queen") plays Countess Sofya Tolstoy, the desperate wife of Leo who is frantically battling for the rights of his oeuvre so their children will have an inheritance after he dies.
  • Christopher Plummer ("My Dog Tulip") is Count Leo Tolstoy, always seeking ways to find justice for the common man and willing to sign away his legacy to a quasi-religious group of "Tolstoyans" who claim they will insure it through an "eternal quest" funded by his royalties.
  • James McAvoy ("Atonement") is Valentin Buglakov, apparently a real person, assigned to "keep an eye on Tolstoy and write every- thing down." He is a convert to Tolstoyism, vowing celibacy, asceticism, and I don't know what else, which if course goes by the wayside as soon as the first winsome young gal creeps into his room.
  • Paul Giamatti ("Sideways") is Valdimir Chertkov, head of the Tolstoyans who is determined to have the author sign a new will in which his organization gets everything.
McAvoy is basically window dressing. The major thrust of this film is the fiery relationship between the characters played by Plummer and Mirren and the battle between Sofya and Chertkov. Tolstoy has very little use for organized religion, and states that he himself wouldn't make a very good Tolstoyan... We see him flee from the hubbub caused by his out-spoken and short-fused wife, yet he longs for her when they are apart.

Tolstoy was an acclaimed author during his lifetime and there are always photographers hovering in the background at the estate, at the train station, and at his death watch. It's clear that today's paparazzi aren't anything new.


The Lightning Thief

Based on Rick Riordan's mega-selling novel, "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is the full name of this fantasy and I find that entirely too cumbersome.

This is basically the traditional Hero's Journey. This time our hero is named Percy Jackson, played by Logan Lerman ("3:10 to Yuma" 2007), who is a misfit at school due to his ADHD and his dyslexia. He has a sidekick who is somehow disabled and must use crutches, played by Brandon T. Jackson ("Tooth Fairy"), and a long-haired wheelchair-bound teacher played by Pierce Brosnan ("Mamma Mia!").

If I hadn't just finished "The War That Killed Achilles" by Caroline Alexander, I might not have felt so at home, but I don't think the target audience (12- to 19-year-old teens) will worry about the particulars of the Greek gods, their ferocious infighting, and their incessant consorting with humans or the confused and angry children that result. These demigods and their feelings of abandonment are the subject of our movie. For some reason, "The Suits" in Hollywood have tweaked Greek mythology. In this version, Perseus (Percy) is the half-human son of Poseidon; in the mythology I've read, he's the son of Zeus. Hmmm....

Our hero is wrongly accused by Zeus (Sean Bean) of stealing his lightning bolt, but Percy's mother (Catherine Keener) has been taken hostage and he must somehow free her. He cuts a deal to find the bolt and swap her for it in twelve days. In his eventful cross-country journey (Nashville, Vegas and Hollywood) with two friends, he encounters Mercury's winged shoes, snake-haired Medusa (Uma Thurman), Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), Hades (Steve Coogan), Persephone (Rosario Dawson), Charon the boatman at the River Styx, plus Cerberus and various other monsters.

These three chums are basically good kids, I found myself pulling for them despite endless sword fights, LOTS of blowie uppie stuff and CGI, CGI, CGI! Computer Generated Imaging has freed the imaginations of movie makers so there are no limits to what they can put on screen. I just wish they would trim off a little bit, because it really does get wearisome...

The Wolfman


This is one I saw against my better judgment and the person who dragged me to the screening apologized profusely. It has all the gruesome elements of a horror film (NOT something I want to see) but unfortunately done realistically, due to new, improved special effects in film. There will be:
  • Soft lighting, mostly candles, which is to say, everything is dim and vague.
  • A gray/black/tan monochromatic production design.
  • NOTHING in color but the blood!
  • "Don't go in the basement! ...or the woods! ...or the crypt!"
  • Lots of dimly lit scenes of horrific bloodletting: Beheadings, dismemberments, disembowelments, ...you know... a horror film!
  • Startling sound effects: Each swipe of the werewolf's paw is accompanied by a blast that sounds like a shotgun.
  • Windswept moors, sooty rooftops, mossy forests and musty old mansions.
  • A really brutal mental asylum.
The five lead actors are:
  • Benicio Del Toro ("Che") is our anti-hero
  • Emily Blunt ("Young Victoria") is his sister-in-law
  • Anthony Hopkins ("Fracture") is his father
  • Hugo Weaving (the "Matrix" franchise) represents Scotland Yard
  • Geraldine Chaplin ("Cousin Bette") is a gypsy healer.
Were they any good? Beats me... I rarely looked at the screen; my eyes were covered!


Valentine's Day

This multifaceted little gem is the perfect entertainment for Valentine's Day. It explores numerous relationships which range from seasoned old vets to bright-eyed youngsters. Years ago, when Director Garry Marshall ("The Princess Diaries") was asked why he first did a Disney film, he said that he had reached the age where he wanted to make some movies his grandchildren could watch.

We are in L.A. and we seem to be restricted to one neighborhood, because the local florist lives nearby, his best friends seem to work in the vicinity and the elementary school isn't far away.

The cast features (but certainly isn't restricted to):
  • Jessica Alba ("Fantastic Four") the first person to receive a proposal
  • Kathy Bates ("The Blind Side") a TV news producer
  • Jessica Biel ("Next") celebrates UN-Valentine's day each year
  • Bradley Cooper ("The Hangover") a considerate seatmate
  • Eric Dane ("Marley and Me") a pro-football player at a crossroads
  • Patrick Dempsey ("Enchanted") a suave lady's man
  • Hector Elizondo ("Monk") a wise grandfather whose wisdom is challenged
  • Jamie Foxx ("The Soloist") an ambitious sportscaster
  • Jennifer Garner ("The Invention of Lying") a naïve elementary school teacher
  • Topher Grace ("Spider-man 3") works in the mail room
  • Anne Hathaway ("Get Smart") has the most hilarious part-time job
  • Ashton Kutcher ("What Happens in Vegas...") Do florists take a confidentiality oath?
  • Queen Latifah ("Mad Money") has the funniest line!
  • George Lopez ("Tooth Fairy") drives a floral delivery van
  • Shirley MacLaine ("Rumor Has It...") a grandma with a secret
  • Emma Roberts ("Hotel for Dogs") proves that sensible is sexy, too!
  • Julia Roberts ("Duplicity") has an important person to see....
There are plenty more "Name Brands" but some fall into the Blink-and-you'll-miss-em category. This movie is charming and sweet. In my opinion, a tween can see it with no risk...even Garry Marshall's grand- children.


Red Cliff I and II

The Battle of Red Cliffs, which took place in the winter of 208/9 A.D., is as important to Chinese history as the Civil War is to American history.

John Woo ("Windtalkers" and "Face/Off") launched this massive under- taking in an attempt to commit to celluloid the momentous events just prior to the period of the Three Kingdoms that culminated in a battle which destroyed 2,000 ships and forever changed Chinese history. These two movies, "Chi bi" and "Chi bi xia" are the equivalent of America's "Gone With the Wind."

These movies are terrific because they show the huge impact made by both disease (typhoid) and weather (wind direction when trying to burn out your enemies) in the final outcome of a war. We watch the many cunning strategies and admire the military techniques that have been well documented in this famous conflict. It incorporates a love story, mysticism and LOTS of bloody battles.

Because it is too involved to condense into a single two-hour movie, please be aware that you must obtain parts 1 AND 2, to see the whole saga. Both were available through the local library here.

The movies are in Chinese with English subtitles. The many extra features have no English captions...Aarghhh!


Dear John

We have a new entry in the Soggy-Hanky School of Cinema. Based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks ("The Notebook"), this chick flick should give you a good emotional workout.

Lasse Hallström ("Hachiko: A Dog's Story") brings us a lovely romance between a former angry adolescent now reformed by the U.S. Army, played by Channing Tatum ("G.I. Joe") and dewy-eyed coed Amanda Seyfried ("Momma Mia!"). Even though Mr. Tatum's segue into more dramatic roles is to be applauded, most of us gals simply admired what a strapping young fellow he has become! My, my!

In my opinion however, the guy who walks off with the acting honors is dependable supporting actor, Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor"). In this film he plays the high-functioning autistic father of our hero; he makes no wrong moves, is consistently believable and has a wrenching scene that consists of one hand moving toward his son. (Yes... This is a spoiler and it won't detract one bit from the effectiveness of the scene!)

In brief, our romantic leads meet on the beach, enjoy a summer romance and agree to keep in touch via U.S. mail while he completes his tour of duty in the mid-East. Suddenly it's 9/11 and he is expected to re-up with his Special Services unit in a show of solidarity. What he decides and what happens next is the crux of the story.

It is nice to see special effort made to honor our military, both in the way the characters are depicted and by having ordinary citizens express their gratitude. This is a satisfying and involving film, better than I expected. But then again, it IS directed by Lasse Hallström.

From Paris With Love


French writer/director Luc Besson ("Transporter" and "Taken") has written another slam-bang actioner that hits all its marks:
  • It has plenty of gunfire, profanity, vehicular mayhem and blowie uppie stuff (no Computer Generated Imaging).
  • It has John Travolta ("The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") as an ultra-violent CIA operative who comes to Paris to clean up a terrorist cell; he is fast, funny and foul mouthed.
  • It has Jonathan Rhys Meyers ("The Tudors") playing an administrative aide at the American embassy, sort of a Casper Milquetoast who schleps a valuable Oriental vase (full of cocaine!) through half of the movie, as he jumps in and out of vehicles, runs up and down stairs while dodging corpses and bullets. (For an Irishman, he speaks "American" quite well.)
  • It gives us a CIA to be proud of, staffed with competent agents, clever administrative aides and skillful drivers.
  • It has a shoot-em-up plot that doesn't insult us, boasts easily discernable dialogue and is entertaining from beginning to end.
We hit a plot hole or two but it didn't matter because we were having so much fun. You will too.