POLITICAL THEATER: Reviews of The Green Zone and The Ghost Writer

Green Zone is the latest exercise in shaky cinematography from Paul Greengrass, one of my favorite directors today. Greengrass is one of the few filmmakers who can dramatize political issues using a pop culture style (somewhat like Charles Dickens). He starts a movie, grabs you by the throat and won’t let go, using racial unrest and government cover up (The Murder of Stephan Lawrence); the conflict in Ireland (Bloody Sunday); terrorism (United 93); and intelligence corruption (the Bourne movies) as his bailiwick. Green Zone is true to form as it is a fictionalized (to say the least) look at how the U.S. got into the war in Iraq and then got hoisted by its own petard. But in the end, though the movie is entertaining enough and I was never bored, it never really satisfied. This may be because as visual a stylist as Greengrass is, Green Zone may actually demonstrate the downside of considering movies mainly a visual art form. Having a visual style and an ability to tell a story in visual terms is fine, but it can only do so much when it comes to characterizations and creating interesting and exciting plot twists and turns. One way to demonstrate this is by comparing Green Zone to In the Loop, also a political diatribe, but with a black comedy approach. In the Loop is about the petty conflicts and furious wrangling leading up to America and Great Britain’s entry into the Iraq war. But it has the same conceit as Green Zone: in In the Loop, just as one comes to think that maybe, just maybe, a war with Iraq can be avoided, we realize that, no, it can’t, because in real life, we went to war with Iraq. In Green Zone, it’s about the search for WMD’s and the truth behind an intelligence source and the idea that if only the truth could be revealed in time, the future of Iraq could be different; and as In the Loop, the audience for Green Zone already knows the truth, they know that the there were no WMD’s and the intelligence source was fabricated and that the “good guys” lost. But while In the Loop grabs us emotionally even though we know the outcome, Green Zone leaves us a bit hungry and unsatisfied. And the reason seems to be that while Green Zone is beautifully directed, the screenplay by Brian Helgeland has characters that are bland and not that interesting and the plot is filled with twists and turns that lack surprise (with an ending that is just a bit too pat to work). In contrast, while In the Loop has the somewhat bland look of a TV show (which it is based on), the characterizations and dialog are so brilliant and the constant farce inherent in the twists and turns so surprising, we can’t help but become emotionally involved and even devastated when the truth, something we already knew, is revealed. The movie stars the square jawed Matt Dillon as the hero; Greg Kinnear as the oily bad guy; and Brendan Gleeson (struggling with an American accent) as the intelligence officer not intelligent enough to outthink Greg Kinnear (not something one would want to put on one’s resume). They’re all fine, but can’t do much with what they’re given.

The Ghost Writer is the latest film from Roman Polanski, also a political thriller, but a bit less frenetic; in fact, it’s as soothing as a Budhist retreat in comparison. In it Ewan McGregor plays a down on his luck author hired to ghost a former British Prime Minister’s (Pierce Brosnan) memoirs after the previous writer (a long time assistant and faithful friend to the PM) is found dead from drowning, an apparent suicide. The basic premise of this story, that the PM’s wife is a CIA operative who actually pulled the strings of her husband’s actions, might have worked well as a dark comedy on the level of Dr. Strangelove and The Loved One, but as a drama, it’s a bit hard to take seriously. The screenplay, by Robert Harris and Polanksi himself, never makes the whole back story believable, though they do provide some of the drollest lines in movies of late. The movie itself, though it has its pleasures, starts out a bit slow (possibly because McGregor never solves the mystery so much as stumbles onto various clues, each discovery of which takes a lot of setting up). It’s not until McGregor drives his predecessor’s car and the GPS leads him to Tom Wilkinson, a slithery professor who claims not to have known the PM and doing such a convincing job of it that one knows he’s lying, that the pace picks up. Wilkinson and especially Brosnan, showing what his career could have become if it hadn’t been sideswiped by Remington Steele and James Bond, give the best performances in the movie. Everyone else gets the job done, though Kim Cattrall doesn’t have the most convincing of English accents (Wilkinson doesn’t have the most convincing of American, but he manages to rise above it). The ending never quite made sense to me. It wasn’t clear who put the code in the book (was it the previous ghost writer or the PM, either choice of which comes equipped with their own set of holes in the plot) and it has one of these codas where the hero has a choice: call the media and the PM’s political opponents and tell them the truth, or reveal it to the one person who can have you killed. Guess which one he chooses? And then he gets killed in a way that can’t guarantee a person would be killed (hit and runs, though visually shocking, aren’t as certain in their results as this movie would have you believe). The movie looks good, with its bleak, film noir cinematography of grays, and the effective music by Alexandre Dusplat adds to the tension, but the story never really works. There’s also an odd subtext to the film. The British, at least in such films and TV programs as Love, Actually, The State Within and The Girl in the Cafe, have often held themselves up as the moral arbiter of the world, a righteous country often checking the U.S.’s rash political policies. Here, the idea is taken one step further: maybe England didn’t take the high road in the war on terrorism, but it wasn’t their fault; the PM’s office was just an extension of the America CIA. This might be a frightening idea if the British hadn’t chosen an organization to blame that couldn’t even kill Castro when it wanted to.

IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD: Reviews of Alice in Wonderland and Mother.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a much, much, much, much, much, much, much better movie than the reviews would have you think; or as the Mad Hatter might put it, it is a muchness better movie than the reviewers would have you think. This is one of Burton’s most imaginative exercises in visual stylization, an at times stunning reimagining of what Wonderland looks like, that dreamlike (or maybe not, maybe it’s really real, hey, it could happen) escape from the doldrums location that Alice visits when things get too boring in her own world. In Burton’s version of the tale, as written by Linda Woolverton (a long way from the TV show Dennis the Menace, thank God), Alice is now 19 and is being bandied about as collateral in a business deal—or as they called it in Victorian times, marriage. She is being manipulated into wedding, or merging with, the nebbish son of her late father’s business partner, who now owns the business. The proposal itself is a Dickensian equivalent of those prospective bridegrooms who buy billboards, electronic and otherwise, and ask for their girlfriend’s hand in marriage while the whole world watches. Alice, admirably, runs away from all this folderol and falls through her rabbit hole, ending up once again in Wonderland, though Alice has no memory of her first visit. It’s here that the story and Burton’s vision really takes off. Before this, the plot, made up of scenes at a party thrown by her potential in-laws, was somewhat flat and uninteresting. The only part that really worked was the appearance of a pair of twins, a scene that had the double edge of showing what these opening scenes could of and should have been, but weren’t. Other characters are also supposed to be alter egos to the inhabitants of Wonderland, but it’s not always clear who is who. For example, even after the movie was over, I still wasn’t certain who Alice’s roué of a brother in law was supposed to represent. And would it have hurt the author to do things like have Alice arrive at the party while her potential mother-in-law was playing cards just to make things a little easier, if not more fun? But once down the rabbit hole, Burton’s Wonderland is a frabjous creation (neat trick sneaking that word in, isn’t it?). The highlight, of course, is Helena Bonham-Carter’s bulbous headed Red Queen, played with all the petulant childishness of Miranda Richardson playing Elizabeth I in the Blackadder series. Even for those who are against capital punishment, every time Bonham-Carter says “off with their head”, you just want to go, “say it again, say it again”. Other standouts are Matt Lucas as the somewhat creepy, slow witted Tweedledum/Tweedledee and the brilliant Stephen Fry as the now you see him, now you don’t Cheshire Cat; there’s also more than able support from Timothy Spall as Bayard, a bloodhound (the part he usually plays in all his films) and Crispin Glover as Stayne, the Red Queen’s knight. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen is par for the course a bit bland, while Alan Rickman, excellent as the caterpillar, is somewhat let down by the screenplay here. As fascinating as the movie is, it never quite works. Perhaps it’s because the story becomes a bit too formulaic the nearer it comes to its climax, lacking the anarchic goofiness of the source material. And there’s something also a bit disappointing in the ending; Alice escapes marriage to a fool, but ends up becoming part of the colonizing British Empire. She’s off to extend her father’s business to China and one can’t help but think, “what, is she going to get China addicted to opium so they will be forced to sell Great Britain their tea?”. One can’t help but think she could have made a better choice still, like returning to Wonderland.

Mother is the latest from South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong who gave us the monster movie The Host and the movie about a different sort of monster, Memories of Murder, which revolves around the search for a serial killer. Mother is not far off from being a monster movie itself. It’s about a slow witted young man being railroaded in the murder of a young girl and the monstrous lengths his mother, played by Hye-ja Kim, will go to save him, even though it’s possible that even though her son is being railroaded, he could still be guilty. In Psycho, Anthony Perkins says “[a] boy’s best friend is his mother” and that is so true here as Hye-ja Kim will stop at nothing, even killing someone herself, to help her son get out of prison. The movie, and Bong’s others, may not be to everyone’s taste. The acting style is not what we in the West would call naturalistic. It’s somewhat stylized and at times over the top in the way people wear their emotions on their shoulders. But the performances are first rate, especially Hye-ja Kim (in one of those no matter how much she repulses me, I still can’t help but be on her side characters), as well as Ku Jin as her son’s supposed best friend and the one most likely to have killed the girl if the son didn’t. The plot is pretty much of a page turner and it has a wonderfully Hitchcockian moment in which Kim gets stuck in a closet and has to watch a young couple have sex, then sneak out while the two are asleep; as in true Sir Alfred fashion, one wants to look away, but then of course, the voyeur in all of us claims victory. There are a few constants in Bong’s movies so far, other than there are monsters living among us. Even more constant perhaps is the portrayal of the Korean police as hopelessly inept and corrupt (even if they get the right person, it’s by accident, not by solid procedural investigation). They’re a modern day equivalents of the Keystone Cops and I don’t think I’d want to be Bong if he’d ever has to make a call to 911. The darkly comic and riveting screenplay is by Eun-kyo Park, Wun-kyo Park and the director. One of the best films of the year so far.

Five Favorites: Films about plastic/reconstructive surgery

An occassional listing of five favorite or greatest films with similar subject matter. This time round, in honor of Nip/Tuck’s final season, five films about plastic or reconstructive surgery:

Eyes Without a Face

Mad Love (or The Hands
of Orlac)


A Woman’s Face (1941)

Dark Passage

THE RACE IS ON: Reviews of My Name Is Khan and The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train is the most recent film by Andre Techine, one of my favorite French film directors. However, by the time the movie was over, I really wasn’t sure what it was about the subject matter here that intrigued Techine. The centerpiece of the movie is an attack on a young woman on a train that she claims was anti-semitically motivated, but later turns out to have been fabricated. A fascinating subject, true; but at least for me, not a particularly fascinating treatment of it. In fact, very little of the movie has to do with the attack itself or the reason for it. There are also subplots concerning the woman becoming involved with an aspiring wrestler who starts dealing drugs to support her (the most interesting aspect of the movie); the woman’s mother (played by the ever luminous Catherine Deneuve) contemplating reviving a romance with a lawyer who was in love with her when her husband was in the army (the lawyer is played by French stalwart Michel Blanc—neither Deneuve or Blanc are particular strangers to Techine’s movies); the young woman finding a job, though she doesn’t seem particularly suited to do anything; the marital difficulties of the lawyer’s son and daughter-in law (including whether to give his grandson a Bah Mitsvah). The screenplay (by Odile Barski, Jean-Marie Besset and Techine himself) is what one might call all over the place. The acting seems fine, though one of the problems is that the lead, Emilie Dequenne had a certain Gwyneth Paltrow blandness to her; however, this may not have been her fault—her character does seem a bit lost at sea; if the writers’ don’t seem to understand what made her tick, it makes it that much more difficult for the actor. But in the end, what exactly this movie has to say about being Jewish in France (if the attempt was to say anything) or what prompted the young woman to lie (the character isn’t even Jewish) doesn’t come through.

I’ve only seen three Bollywood movies, but I think I’m really beginning to warm up to them. I’m not sure what it is. They’re sentimental, over the top, obvious and have no shame in how they try to manipulate you. But there’s just something about this lack of shame that is often what makes them work as well. I especially love their Dickensian approach, taking a social or political issue and putting it in a popular form. For Like Stars on Earth it was dyslexia. For 3 Idiots (my favorite so far), it was the high suicide rate at Indian colleges. But My Name is Khan (not a sequel to a Star Trek movie) takes the cake combining Asperger’s syndrome with 9/11, racial and religious intolerance and Katrina. Everything but the kitchen sink, which actually does appear quite often as well. It shouldn’t work. It’s too much. But again, there is just something about the over the top sincerity of it all that finally makes you just throw up your hands and go along with it. The lead is Shahrukh Khan, apparently the most popular Bollywood actor today and he is in top form as the lead character suffering from Asperger’s who goes on a journey to tell an American president, any American president, that he is not a terrorist after his little boy is killed by schoolyard bullies for being Middle Eastern in background. In some ways, the logic of the plot often makes little sense. The death of his son doesn’t happen for almost eight years after 9/11. Khan then crisscrosses America going from shore to shore with little ease and in almost no time. One day he’s in the South, the next he’s in California, a little while later he’s in New Mexico, then suddenly he’s back in the South having no problem getting to a remote town in spite of a raging hurricane. This ease of travel also applies to the other characters who all manage to show up in a small Southern town during a hurricane with no problem whatsoever as well. And the money issue is as vague as Khan’s travel plans. One day he can’t get money out of an ATM because his balance is so low. The next day he has enough to give five hundred dollars to a charity. On one hand, this stops the movie from really being as good as it could be. At the same time, this clunky structure does add a certain charm to the whole thing. The writers (Shibani Bathija and Niranjan Iyengar) take an awful chance killing of Khan’s child half way through. I thought this was just too much manipulation and didn’t think there was any way the plot could recover. But by the time it was over, I was crying my eyes out over the journey everyone went through. The politics is obvious here. Khan could never get to Bush to tell him he isn’t a terrorist. But once Obama is elected, Obama modifies his schedule to meet with Khan even though Khan really doesn’t even have to tell Obama that he’s not a terrorist, Obama knows. Change has come to America. At least that’s the hope.