Polanski delivers in 'The Ghost Writer'

I'm reluctant to say that "The Ghost Writer" is the antidote to those fast-paced, intense thrillers that are ever ubiquitous. Recent examples would be "The Hurt Locker," "The Green Zone," as well as the "Bourne" trilogy, all shot with the revolutionary handheld steadicam and the digital Red, creating a grainy, documentary style, jerky and intense, a gestalt of visual experience.

Antidote is too strong a word, even a bit disparaging of a genre that is superbly entertaining. "The Ghost Writer," directed by Roman Polanski, does possess all of the intensity of a thriller; however, the narrative is conveyed not by action and physical confrontation, but through dialogue. This is a film of language, well written, with engaging set pieces wherein the characters reveal themselves and the plot — which is at first intriguing and then ever more complex.

It's told from the point of view of a thirty-something writer (Ewan McGregor) for hire (his name is never given; he's referred to only as "Ghost" or "man") who reluctantly agrees to edit the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), England's recently resigned prime minister. Lang is now living in a stark, contemporary house on Martha's Vineyard — the month is January, it's cold, the sky and ocean a mix of wintry slate and teal, rain falling constantly. Everything feels ominous and unsettling; exactly why is, at first, unclear.

Sitting in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, looking out at the sand dunes, the wind blowing unrelentingly, the Ghost watches a gardener sweeping leaves on a long wooden walkway, the wind blowing away his best efforts, a metaphor for what he is about to experience as he looks at 600 some pages of banal manuscript (the first draft has already been written; however, the first Ghost, drunk, fell of a ferry and drowned).

This may be Polanski's best film since "Chinatown," and, as some critics have opined, it may be the last of a type, meaning films that are deliberate, wonderfully constructed, where the movement is essentially conveyed through elliptical conversations that take place in different rooms or during long walks on cold-wind beaches.

Eventually, the writer begins to sense that the initially charming PM is more than he seems, and the anecdotes from his childhood and youth in the first chapters of the book are fictionalized. There is much to question here and he begins peeling the onion, and so the film builds with a quiet, dark intensity.

Just a word about the cast: it's remarkable. Brosnan delivers a top-drawer performance, as does Olivia Williams as his wife. Tom Wilkinson, always superb, portrays an Ivy League professor with a hidden past. And there is the inestimable Eli Wallach in a cameo role as a hermit living on the Vineyard.

Roman Polanski, 76, now resides in Switzerland under house arrest while a request by the U.S. for his extradition works its way through the courts. He is accused of statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles some 30 years ago and has been living as a fugitive in Europe ever since.

There is something of his ordeal in the character of the PM: besieged, accused and deserted by old friends. Perhaps for Polanski, "The Ghost Writer" is more personal than any before, with the exception, perhaps, of "The Pianist." It was extraordinary.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

You're 12-years-old, on the cusp of that long, tortuous road known as adolescence, and it's the first day of middle school.

Middle school is like Triple-A ball before you get called up to the big show, also known as high school. Meanwhile, there's a lot to learn because, well, look around, everyone's changing. No one's, like, a kid any longer. But then, no one's a serious teenager either.

Middle school is purgatory. Weird and awkward, and it can be brutal. Which is the point of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," based on the popular illustrated books by Jeff Kinney.

The movie should have been rich with material about kids trying to figure out not only who they are but how this very new milieu works. This is not elementary school. There are no white lines on the tarmac, no recess, no tetherball or games of four-square or tag or "you're it." Adios those comfy classrooms with Nancy the hamster in that strange-smelling cage filled with sawdust and shredded newspapers and the walls covered with colored paper, the alphabet strung in an arc above the large-face clock and a few friendly admonitions on the bulletin board next to exemplary homework assignments.

So "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" easily could have been comedic, insightful and, well, fun. It isn't. For reasons that are difficult to understand. Perhaps it's not possible to take Kinney's book to the screen. But how to understand that the central character, Greg Heffley (Zach Gordon), is neither wimpy nor sympathetic; rather, he's a self-absorbed, dishonest, jealous, vindictive kid whose mission is to become instantly popular his first few weeks out and is willing to do whatever it takes. Of course, his older brother, who is just an older version of Greg, tries to explain the middle school rules: Something along the lines of, Don't get noticed. Don't go to the bathroom. Try and be cool.

Now being cool is a state of being that some kids have and others don't. It's hard to explain, but Greg knows it when he sees it and he wants to be cool.

And speaking of cool, Greg is constantly on the verge of ditching his best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron), who is so endearingly dorky that he's impossible not to like. But since Greg is in the hunt for cool, he cringes at Rowley's un-cool, one example being when, as the two are leaving school, Rowley yells from the top of the steps, with older kids everywhere, "Hey Greg, wanna come over and play?" Greg wants to hide because he knows that in middle school no one plays. Cool kids hang out. And later, when Greg is confronted with a moment of truth, he sells Rowley out, pushes him over the cliff, and never looks back. He's not a good friend.

By the time the film draws to a conclusion, Greg is a well-established creep. And even with a final 10 minutes for an epiphany, with redemption for Greg at the edge of the school grounds, it all seems a bit contrived and too late. He's not a kid you want to hang out with.

Sadly what the writers do with these middle school types — the bullies and the jocks and the nerds and the still-to-be-identified — is create caricatures not characters. Everything is exaggerated, as if truth and comedy can be found in simply going over the top. One example is a kid named Fregley (Grayson Russell), a gnarly, red-haired, braces-on-his-teeth, over-size glasses, nose-full-of-boogers kid. Fregley is so far beyond cool that he may never recover, and will likely wear a plastic pocket protector loaded with pens well into his retirement.

All of these kids have an interior life, one filled with questions and confusion and insecurities; however, nothing in depth is ever really explored. "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" shoulda coulda been a serious/funny/ touching movie, helped perhaps by a nice voice-over. And not to forget honest. It's not; it's another missed opportunity.

Share This Story