Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Sunday, February 28, 2010


by Brian Holcomb

I am consistently amazed at Roman Polanski's seemingly effortless mastery of cinematic craft. I say "seemingly" because such effortlessness is rarely achieved without hard work. But onscreen, there is no wasted energy and no indulgence. Polanski is without doubt an "auteur" but he feels no need to remind us of this. He simply has a story to tell and applies the precise tools to the job at hand. His wisdom comes from the realization that great films are made by really telling the story. For most filmmakers cinematic storytelling means nothing more than getting all the beats of the plot in the proper order and recording the events on camera. For Polanski, a film story is much more than just "Following the mysterious drowning of his predecessor, a gifted author hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of a controversial former British Prime Minister becomes a hunted man when he uncovers explosive secrets about the past." That's Robert Harris' novel The Ghost in a nutshell. Any number of filmmakers could film the mechanics of this narrative in a vaguely competent manner. Vaguely competent craft did nothing to hurt the box office of a really awful film like The Da Vinci Code for example.

To "really" tell the story, Polanski does everything in his power to feed the audience's imagination. As they say, the devil is in the details and for Polanski it seems that he takes this literally. For example, The Ghost Writer is largely set at a rainswept beach house that the former Prime Minister keeps in Martha's Vineyard. Polanski knows that in telling the story everything depends on the specifics. Exactly what kind of house would a man in his position own? What would it say about his personality or his existence? He then probes the atmospherics of the environment itself. People do not exist in a vacuum. They must live within nature itself whether it's a comfortably warm spring or the coldest day of winter. This also has an effect on the story. In this film, we find ourselves trapped in a claustrophobic fortress of a beach house that sits by a raging sea during the winter. Everything is so cold and soaking wet that the characters feel the pressure within and without.

What results is not something that can be pulled apart easily but a complex totality that equals the sum of all the careful choices made throughout. Even a "throwaway" scene of the ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) sitting in his London flat has the complete authenticity of a lived in space. The details root the characters in a coherent world. The sharply motivated characters root the plot in a coherent series of actions. Even the most mundane of dialogue scenes in the film has a certain wit due to the fact that every character in the scene seems poised with his or her own clear agenda. Everyone is up to something and their actions are all in some way, manipulative. The first meeting between Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and his new ghost writer has him sweating from a morning run and sitting on the couch with his legs wide open as though he was waiting for the young man to "service" him. The dialogue is accompanied by smiles but what lies beneath is an expression of power. A brief chat late in the film between the ghost writer and a quiet, seemingly unassuming man named Paul Emmett(Tom Wilkinson)has so much tension you almost expect the room to explode.

The Ghost Writer is the kind of story that often does not work because the filmmaker fails to find the proper balance between ambiguity and outright incomprehension. It's important to keep the audience watching exactly what needs to be watched in order to follow the narrative. Many filmmakers cannot separate the wheat from the chaff and the result is a muddle. What Polanski has done here is to focus the attention on the primary mysteries in the narrative and leave much of the follow-up questions and details simply suggested onscreen. He does this in a very sly manner as always with images that create impressions in the mind that you play back later when there is more context. A statement about flashlights on the beach witnessed on the night the former ghost writer drowned is echoed by an image of the Prime Minister's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) going for a night walk followed by her bodyguard armed with a flashlight.

Polanski's eye for casting has lost none of its edge, particularly among the supporting roles. A shockingly bald James Belushi registers immediately as a no nonsense book publisher, Kim Cattrall reminds you that she once played other roles besides Samantha, Eli Wallach still seems as vibrant as he was in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Tom Wilkinson nearly takes over the movie in his 5 minutes onscreen. As for the main cast, Brosnan's slightly detached air is used very well in the role of a Prime Minister who was a former actor and Olivia Williams gives a very complex performance in what could've been a completely lame femme fatale role. But the real surprise is Ewan McGregor who finally fulfills the promise he displayed a decade ago as a bona fide leading man. McGregor carries the film very well and with great charm and humor.

Humor is one of the film's real surprises too. Though The Ghost Writer is a conspiracy thriller, it's not what Stephen King once referred to as a "thudding humorless tract". It is actually a very funny film with some wonderfully cynical dialogue delivered with deadpan skill by McGregor and cast. Polanski has plenty of time to include his characteristic absurdist touches as well. A strange running gag about sandwiches may not register with some but a great visual joke involving the beach house caretaker's futile attempts to sweep up the deck amid howling winds presents the entire film in a single image. As Mcgregor says near the end of the film, "None of this will fucking matter." Polanski says just as much in the film's witty final shot. It's cruel, tragic, shocking, clever and absolutely hilarious at the same time. Most of all, it seemed completely effortless.

Dir. Roman Polanski. 2010. PG-13. 128mins. Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach


Saturday, February 20, 2010


by Brian Holcomb


NOTE: While I have done my best to avoid "Spoilers" in this review it is very difficult to discuss Shutter Island without making allusions which MAY spoil the story for you. If this is a problem for you, then read this review AFTER you see the movie.

Dennis Lehane's novel is one of those tricky narratives that can be a booby trap for unseasoned filmmakers. At first glance it seems like prime B movie material: a puzzling mystery set in an old, dark island asylum during a terrible storm. With violent waves crashing the rocks and an old lighthouse, you can imagine it in flickering black and white on the late show. Had it been written in his lifetime, Alfred Hitchcock himself may have been inspired to adapt it. It's clear Scorsese saw it that way. He's crafted a movie that could act as a film school essay on Hitch's methods of subjective POV, geography shots, and shell game deception. Or as the director said himself in the elaborate ad he created for Freixenet wine The Key to Reserva, "It has to be the way he (Hitchcock) would've made the picture then only making it now. If he were alive making it now, he would make it now as if he made it back then." Seen this way, it appears to be nothing more than an exercise in style. But Scorsese has more up his sleeve than a dead director's trademarked bag of tricks and with the unique challenges presented by the material he needed them.

Leonardo DiCaprio makes his fourth film with Scorsese in the role of U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, a man who appears to be very much on edge as he meets his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) on a ferry riding rough seas towards the sinister looking Shutter Island. The island is located in Boston harbor and is the location of the high security Ashcliffe Asylum "for the criminally insane". The year is 1954 and they have been called in to investigate the case of Rachel Solondo, a dangerous patient who drowned her own children and has somehow, inexplicably disappeared from her cell.

Strangely, Daniels seems less interested in the specific case of Solondo so much as confirming certain suspicions he has of those running the loony bin. These would be the pipe smoking Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and the particularly sinister Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow). Both seem shifty to him. Daniels seems shifty to us.

The story is set in a nervous 1954 with one foot in nuclear and communist paranoia and the other in the horrors of Nazi atrocities in WW2. Teddy Daniels knows those firsthand having been part of the liberation forces at Dachau. These memories haunt him almost as much as those of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and children. He tells Aule that they died in a fire started by a man named Andrew Laeddis. He believes Laeddis is now a patient at the asylum. When Aule asks him if this is his personal reason for coming to the island, Daniels claims he's after something bigger.

So is Scorsese. Shutter Island is the kind of material that Hollywood loves. A twisty thriller with what M. Night Shyamalan would promote as a mind blowing ending. Of course, this is the very booby trap I mentioned earlier. Making a film that is dependent on some last minute "switcheroo" is a recipe for disaster. Particularly if it involves invalidating what we've been watching for nearly the entire running time. This is about as close to an "it's all just a dream" ending as they come. The challenge is in how to handle this twist so that it does not come completely out of left field and yet still remains surprising in its specifics. As David Mamet once said about endings, a good one should be both surprising and inevitable.

Hitchcock "back then" may have toyed with the material to see if it could be redesigned for better cinematic suspense. He had done this with the Pierre Boulle-Thomas Narcejac novel that was the basis for Vertigo. By shifting the structure slightly, he let the audience know important information about the surprise ending BEFORE James Stewart, the protagonist, did in order to trade shock for tension. But even he may have been dumbfounded by this novel. Most likely it would've been sent straight to his TV unit at Revue Studios instead.The material is really best suited for a half hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents because at that length audiences would not feel cheated by the duplicitous plotting and narrative illogic. Not to mention that the story comes ready made with one of the show's trademark ironic fade outs designed to haunt the audience afterwards. Only here we get some extra emotional wallop due to DiCaprio's fine performance (quite possibly the best work he's ever done) and from the film's references to the real life horrors carried out by mental health institution in the 1950s.

Scorsese seems to have been keenly aware of these challenges himself. But his solution is remarkable in its simplicity. He directs a single movie that tells the story of Teddy Daniels instead of one that pretends to be about a mysterious disappearance on Shutter Island that suddenly becomes about Teddy Daniels. He lays the trick virtually bare and lets the audience suspect that things aren't what they appear to be from the start.

It's an approach that is risky and one that won't work for everyone. There is always the danger that the audience will get too "into" the Rachel Solondo disappearance plot. Those audiences will most likely hate this movie with a passion. But most viewers should find much to enjoy in Shutter Island. A good deal of it is an exercise in style and few filmmakers are as accomplished in this department as Scorsese. The film drowns you immediately into a paranoid and physically threatening atmosphere that never lets up for most of its 138 minutes. The island itself is a triumph of production design and digital fx work. It's exactly the frightening place you would imagine a gothic madhouse to be located. The feeling of the cold and wet is all over the film due to a setting surrounded by water below and from the tumultuous skies above. All of it is expressed as being seen from Teddy's POV and Scorsese encourages cinematographer Robert Richardson to let the lens go wide, the shots to shift speeds, and to play in subtle reverse motion. The film is in color but that color is grey. You have to go back to Kubrick's The Shining to find a film as extreme in its attempt to envelope the viewer in a singular isolated mood. Scorsese was clearly thinking about the Kubrick film as several shots reference it directly and he has his old buddy and music supervisor Robbie Robertson select intense atonal music from Kubrick favorites like Ligeti. So we get a movie that looks very much like Hitchcock but sounds like Kubrick.

The casting is impeccable. Every second of the film features some of the finest actors working today. Some are only in one scene but they make so much out of their small moments that the characters linger long after. Besides the fine work by Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams and Max Von Sydow in larger roles, you get amazing turns by Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, Emily Mortimer, Elias Koteas and Patricia Clarkson. But even with that amazing cast, this is really DiCaprio's show and the actor creates a sense of desperation and human frailty that overpowers the film's narrative chicanery. Because of his fine work, the movie ends up being a whole lot more emotionally moving than you'd imagine it would be.

Besides, it's a Scorsese movie and this is a filmmaker who is still possessed by passion-he seems very, very excited by the Hitchcockian images, the chance to do some Red Shoes type expressionism and to dig into a mood filled with massive guilt. Beyond plot and character, Shutter Island is a visual poem about the loss of self, the loss of humanity and the overwhelming tidal wave of grief that is sometimes locked within.

Shutter Island
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Laeta Kalogridis from the novel by Dennis Lehane
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max Von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, Ted Levine
Running Time: 138 minutes

Monday, February 01, 2010


by Brian Holcomb

This is an early entry in a genre often called "Speculation". Though some of it is narrated by the inimitable Rod Serling, it has its roots not in his Twilight Zone but rather in John Newland's series One Step Beyond. As opposed to the openly fictional format of Zone,Beyond dramatized supposedly true stories of the paranormal. This film states that its trio of weird tales are based on the paranormal case studies of a "Dr. Jonathan Rankin" -

"Dr. Rankin had researched, between 1949 and 1970, hundreds of cases of psychic phenomena, and discovered that 453 cases of strange phenomena had occurred to people who were buried in only 23 cemeteries in the US."

My advice is: Don't believe the hype. These are three not-very-scary stories, one of which, "The Girl on the Bridge" is a well known urban legend more commonly known as "The Vanishing Hitchhiker". The stories are very predictable and thin but I must admit to being quite spooked out by the movie's form when I first saw it as a kid. It's shot on 16mm film so badly processed that it appears to be Super-8mm and the soundtrack is dubbed worse than a Kung-Fu movie. The sound recording appears to have been done with one of those cheap cassette recorders with the warbling speakers. A mono track that is completely hollow sounding and stranger yet, many of the voices do not seem to be those of the actors onscreen. But there is something in the slipshod style that begins to get under the skin. The blurry images and stiff line readings create a sense of dislocation and mystery, a separate reality. The film also keeps recycling images and dialogue over and over to pad out the running time and this too has an unnerving effect. In the first story, the grieving mother of a teenage boy killed during a prank gone wrong casts a spell on the three kids who were responsible.

“Listen you well to my word. One by land, two by sky...look to the heptagon for it is there, seven times around go the three of you, and may your reward by just and true.”

The film is too amateurishly made to give any real credit too but if this were the work of someone like Kubrick or Polanski, one would argue that the repetition of her warning throughout the segment was done to evoke a feeling of the cyclical nature of the curse-that "seven times around go the three of you". The thing about this creepy form is that if someone were to study this film and use it's strengths with a purpose we may really have something.

In any case, the film is entirely unique and once seen can never be forgotten. This is more than I can say about many films I have seen with much better production values and craft.