Polanski’s ‘Ghost Writer’ a taut, deft thriller

Posted April 01, 2010, at 6:08 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:56 a.m.

In theaters

THE GHOST WRITER, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Polanski and Robert Harris, 128 minutes, rated PG-13.

The new Roman Polanski movie, “Malice in Wonderland” — or “The Ghost Writer,” whichever you prefer — is a mood piece that moves. The film clocks in at just over two hours, but it’s so enticing in its cold, rain-swept way, the sponge absorbing it is you.

Polanski wrote the film with Robert Harris from Harris’ own novel, and what they created is a movie lighted by surprises — from its cast (James Belushi and Kim Cattrall in a Polanski movie?) to its plot, which smacks of Hitchcock and which is driven not to deliver cheap thrills, but rather to achieve a sense of mystery, intelligence and tension, which it does.

Here is a movie in which no sidelong glance should go ignored — behind it might just be a clue to something deeper and more troubling. Watching the film, you don’t just think of the likes of Hitchcock, but also of such novelists as P.D. James or Robert B. Parker, each of whom would have delighted in the film’s wit, its sophistication, and the utter meanness of some of its characters, many of whom you could spit on only to hear them question to your face whether that’s the best you’ve got.

Noir is everywhere in this movie, and the secrets are high. The film stars a very good Ewan McGregor as The Ghost, a writer of no name and no history who is brought onboard to rewrite the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) when Lang’s previous ghost writer winds up dead from a mysterious drowning.

What happened to him? Suicide is the quick answer, but no one can really say why.

The manuscript the dead writer wrote is considered so top secret, The Ghost is allowed only limited access to it. What’s inside? As far as The Ghost is concerned, pure banality — if the book is going to pay back its $10 million advance, it’s going to take one hell of a rewrite, which The Ghost agrees to do, even though Belushi’s character gives him only a month to complete the job. For some reason, this quickly is truncated to just two weeks. Why? Pay attention to the undercurrents.

Working the sidelines are a host of chilly characters, all of whom seem to possess the sort of insight into Lang that they would prefer not be part of his memoir, thank you very much. Take, for instance, Lang’s seething wife (Olivia Williams), who is so certain that Lang is having an affair with his chic personal assistant (Cattrall, nicely cast here), that she looks as if she’s about to come undone. Which she does. And how.

All exist in a cell-like compound made of concrete, glass and coldness just off the coast of Massachusetts. There, rain pounds the pavement like thunder. The roiling sea is as gray as a corpse. The townspeople are talking, and what they are saying might as well send lightning bolts across the gathering clouds. Meanwhile, the time Lang spent as prime minister suddenly is surrounded by the sort of troubling allegations that lead to worldwide news. As for The Ghost, he watches it all with unease while slashing his way through the manuscript in ways that lead to dangerous revelations best left for the screen.

It’s how Polanski manipulates all of these elements that makes the film so stirring and satisfying. It’s the tone he strikes throughout that gives the movie the sort of polish you’d note on steel or, better yet, the blade of a knife. Sometimes, the movie is too evasive for its own good (not unlike this review), but stick with it. The ending, and the restraint with which it’s handled, shows us a master of the medium at work.

Grade: B+

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

UP IN THE AIR, directed by Jason Reitman, written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, 109 minutes, rated R.

Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” is about a man who would prefer to stay up in the air. His name is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and his job is to fly around the country, enter gleaming skyscrapers and fire the unsuspecting corporate masses.

Reitman wrote the script with Sheldon Turner, and what they offer is a movie that’s as much a comedy as it is a tragedy — both for Ryan, who has commitment issues, and for all those he fires due to the dire economic climate and the corporate downsizing that goes along with it.

For Ryan, the irony is that he is about to become a victim of downsizing himself when his boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), decides to take the advice of his latest employee — the young, determined and fiercely pinched Natalie (Anna Kendrick, a Portland native who is wonderful in an Academy Award-nominated performance) — and perform their layoffs via computer.

The idea is this: In order to save Craig’s company a fortune in traveling costs, his staff soon will sit in front of a monitor and a camera while the person about to be laid off will do the same somewhere else in the country.

But Natalie has it wrong. As cold as Ryan’s job is, there’s much to be said about being in the same room with the person he’s about to let go. At the very least, doing so offers the human touch necessary to soften the blow. And that’s what Ryan is so good at. He is so smooth, some people leave with the feeling that he’s done them a favor.

Beyond this, the idea of being grounded in Omaha, where he keeps a shabby apartment, is terminal to Ryan (pun intended), whose life in the air has allowed him to meet all sorts of women, one of whom recently has caused him to pause. Her name is Alex, she’s played with intelligence and a jolt of sexual heat by the fantastic Vera Farmiga, and she’s essentially Ryan’s kindred spirit — a mature career woman traveling the country who doesn’t mind a little sex on the side.

But to what end? It’s that complication, the outstanding performances that spool from it and the fact that everyone here needs to grow up a bit that makes “Up in the Air” so thought-provoking, funny and rich. The addition of Ryan’s family, who barely know him, only adds in bringing him to a crossroads of what really matters in his life. Is it time spent serving his own needs, or taking a risk and allowing others to come close? Pithy films would send a love letter to the latter, but Reitman makes a sound argument for each. It’s how he answers that makes “Up in the Air” one of 2009’s best films.

Grade: A

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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