Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Ghost Writer

After the first half hour to hour so of "The Ghost Writer," I wrote it off. I had already figured out what the film's major twist was, and I thought the film was going to be systematic. The beginning is the weakest portion of the film, I believe. A retelling of every synopsis I've read: Ewan McGregor plays a ghostwriter who apparently is renowned in his craft (though it's pretty hard to see how that could be). His agent Rick Ricardelli (Jon Bernthal) courts him into putting in time for Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who needs his memoirs transcribed by someone new, as the "predecessor" (as McGregor likes to say so much in the film) washed up on a beach with high alcohol levels and his car left on a ferry in the film's boring yet "eventually disturbing" (as a writer in Sight and Sound noted about "Shutter Island") first shot (which is matched by a last shot that is more "powerful"). Another reason the beginning is a little poor is Timothy Hutton's line-stepping work as Sidney Kroll and the British jokes told by Jim Belushi in this scene.

And McGregor takes the job. This means having to read through the already transcribed memoirs of Lang (which he thinks are, as my friend said, "badly written"), jazzing them up a little bit (by adding questions "the people want to know," a huge cliche), sleeping in a horrible room at a nearby completely vacant motel, etc. He also gets a "window into the household" (like people I believe said of James McAvoy in "The Last Station") of a prime minister now deeply cooked on his handing over of terrorists for waterboarding. (The film makes obvious but closeted jabs at the Bush Administration, which are only made clear by the appearance of Condeleeza Rice and the mention of a "vice president," which is a direct hit on Dick Cheney. This whole "political satire" is definitely not my thing.)

As Ebert said in his review, it's engaging to see someone "get involved in something they shouldn't." Here, McGregor tries to figure out why Lang got into politics, as it would be at first simply a good opener for the book, but then because he thinks Lang is trying to keep his past burrowed away from the public. After he is forced into the ghost writer's room from before (with the obvious MacGuffin in place of all of his stuff still being there), he gets photographs and other things that further make things crazy. He also finds that it would be preposterous that the "other" ghostwriter's body went as far as it did, and that the only witness is now in a coma. That's all I'll say, but from about this point on, when McGregor goes from ghostwriter to "investigative reporter" (as he calls it), when he "gets involved in something he shouldn't," the film gets going. The ending and some of the scenes preceding are staggering.

I liked Brosnan in this film. I would think it could be called a maturation from the Bond films, as he plays more of a "complex character" (as Deborah Lipp would probably agree). I guess McGregor's work as a straight man/witty and naive ghostwriter is pretty good. Everyone likes to hate on him, but I think it connects the dots pretty well. Olivia Williams as Adam's wife Ruth is I guess decent. Her actions in this film are important to watch. And here everyone expects me to make a big comment about Roman Polanski. Well, you all liked "The Pianist" (which was made under the same conditions) too, didn't you? I think, as Ebert and others said, Polanski works the "thriller dynamics" pretty well, channeling perhaps the recent Woody Allen thrillers. With "The Ghost Writer," he doesn't reach the heights of "Match Point," as it takes him a bit long to really start the film, but he does some magic late in the game, to provoke and amaze the audience. B+

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Prophet (Un Prophéte)

"A Prophet" is a solid film by Jacques Audiard. I made the mistake of thinking, despite the comments about it being "unromantic," that it was going to be flashy (like how some viewed "The Beat That My Heart Skipped"), but that was only in a couple of scenes here. Mostly, we get the (as others have said) "barren grey prison landscape" where Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is. "The outside" is realistically brought into the film, as Malik takes his eventual "leaves." But early on, the screen is blotched with black as Malik (in sometimes first-person perspective) "is in the dark" (as people say and have said about Malik in this film, figuratively and literally).

As mentioned by my friend, information is sparse in "A Prophet," and, as said before, we hardly know what Malik did to get into prison. But apparently, "he needs protection." Like my friend said, he could have been coerced into it, but perhaps he does. He swears at a couple of guys trying to steal his shoes, and he ends up without them and beaten up. As said before, This protection I'm talking about comes from César Luciani (Neils Arestrup). My friend is under the impression that César "uses him," as he's a Muslim, to go kill some guy that seems threatening to rat him out, Reyeb (Hichem Yocoubi). He's supposed to accept his dealings of "hash" and his commands to have oral sex with him, and to just cut him down with (as Ebert mentioned) "a razorblade". As Ebert said, this is an "inexperienced bloody murder," and also as people like Ebert et al. said, "the scenes here are among the most "powerful" in the film", especially when he's "trying to fit the razor in his mouth."

After he does this, "he's confronted with guilt" (as people say) and as people have mentioned, "it's in the form of Reyeb." One of the (as my friend said) "interesting" facets of this film is that Malik's relationship with this "ghost" makes a statement about his guilt or, in other cases, insanity. But then, as Ebert says, "he rises to be something a little more to César" (his "eyes and ears" as porter of the prison), but not too much, not enough so that César is not above (as a friend mentioned) "stabbing him with a spoon" or commanding that Malik's leave is "his leave."

Malik does get friends (as before he had "no friends or enemies" anywhere), such as Ryad (Adel Bencherif), whose son becomes Malik's godson, and Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb, who looks like Kevin Breznahan from "Adventureland" and "Superbad") who he smokes with and talks with. He "rises," as a critic and my friend said, like Michael Corleone, becoming a "master of managing business among the mob." By the end, he'd do something that he wouldn't think of doing before.

This film is, I guess, "engaging" (as the Playlist called it), as it does keep your eye on Malik. But as my friend said, I "drifted." The use of hip-hop, "Gobbledigook" by Sigur Ros, and "Corner of My Room" by Turner Cody in select scenes create those special, ""Goodfellas"-style zeitgeist moments"/"movie music moments" (to quote the Playlist) (ones that Armond White apparently hated), but there's not a lot of that. (Well, there are these seemingly random titles that occasionally introduce characters and title some sections of the film.) I would agree with my friend and the critics that detracted it who said that it got "too complex," as Anthony Lane said, "this stalled the film." I dunno, though. This is not a very memorable film, but I remember thinking it was at least pretty good all the way through, sometimes very good.

Rahim is good, but without the guidance of other critics I wouldn't have noticed his "flourishes" (as critics say). Arestrup, as Ebert said, is very good. As others said, these are the two "co-stars", and the others are minor players. I was disappointed by the ending, I won't lie. I wish it had been something a little better, but I guess at the end of a "prison saga," you needed to top it off.

This was probably the best of the nominees for Best Foreign Film, which I sort of expected. However, if you want my opinion, it's not the best film of the Cannes Official Selection. For now, that's still "Fish Tank," a film that had an "extreme effect" on me. When I saw it, I thought about it for days. Here, I might be tired or something, but I'm having trouble recalling "A Prophet" from yesterday. I think "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" is slightly more entertaining (due to the "kinetic camera" vs. "A Prophet"'s pretty normal camera), though, and even though the resolution is a little flawed, it really gives you more of an "experience." "A Prophet" definitely deserves props, however, for being (as people say) "powerful" when it is and (as said before) "painting this picture of Malik." B+

Update (September 30, 2010): A second viewing shows this film as better than the grade I originally gave it. Maybe now it's an A or an A-.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Art of the Steal

Documentaries recently have been mostly about "fighting a power" or "bemoaning a current state of affairs." What I'm saying is the shift has been away from documentaries like "Murderball" and "Man on Wire," in which the subject is not something that "needs your help." "The Art of the Steal" I think definitely falls into step with "Food, Inc." and "The Cove," (as well as "We Live in Public") as a film that is really, really mad about something and wants you to be mad about it too. This would be the Barnes Collection's much-opposed transition from "suburban" Merion to Philadelphia. More money would be made off of it, and more people would get to see it.

But when one says "see," one doesn't necessarily mean "appreciate." This is what Albert C. Barnes was all about. He made money off of a cure for venereal disease and spent it on artworks that (I believe) at the time didn't cost anywhere near what they would now. He "amassed" "more Cezannes than the city of Paris," and large numbers of Renoir and Matisse, as well as Picasso. He was (as a friend said) "picky," and only bought a certain bunch. And that certain bunch as of late? Perhaps even billions of dollars.

He showcased it personally one time, in Philadelphia. When many were very critical of it, he decided never to allow it out of Merion again (only shown two days a week to the public and all the time only to students of the museum). But not everyone agreed with his sequestering. (This documentary itself is, as said before by maybe Owen Gleiberman, "less about the art and more about the steal.") And many have tried to get ahold of it and show it to everyone, not because they want people to enjoy it, but because they want to generate more revenue. "If Barnes wanted" (as one interviewee noted) "a quality experience" instead of "a mass experience," he was not being served well. (Also worth mentioning is how he wanted the collection to be “democratic” and how this could have been a result of, as my friend talked about, “his negative relationship” with the hypocritical Republican Philadelphia Inquirer head who wanted the collection for himself and who eventually wanted his own art collection to be treated as respectfully as Barnes had wanted his to be.)

The documentary itself is sort of one-note, with a lot of people getting angry and many shots of Barnes' will getting colored over with a black marker. It takes an anti-move-to-Philadelphia standpoint. Most of the interviewees have this same notion as well. There are two or three we see who have the other point of view, including one-time Barnes president Richard Glanton (who toured the art around the world) and one-time mayor Ed Rendell. Both are painted in an unattractive light by the others. Then again, Glanton did press "racial prejudice" charges against people who lived near to the Barnes (who were fed up about all of the visitors being brought in, as at one point the Barnes was made into a bigger experience when it was still in Merion) because they said in separate sentences "Glanton and his people" and "carpetbaggers."

On the one hand, the "Friends of Barnes" are right: the Barnes collection is Albert Barnes' and "he can do with it as he pleases." And his will does say that he wants it kept exactly where it is for all time. But then again, he does have a ton of amazing art that is being burrowed away and closed off from a lot of people. People could visit it on the two days given, but that's a sort of narrow window. Also, this guy assumes that no one will appreciate it for what it is, but then again, that's not necessarily true. He only gave the wide world one chance, and when they didn't like it, that was the end (not forever, however, as Glanton's tour proved).

Look at me, talking away about this subject I know nothing about. Good for director Don Argott to have done this. His documentary skills aren't perfect, though. This is a film very overstylized, with the footage shown through virtual TVs and other things. Also, we get filler footage of Philadelphia and also of the director not being granted access to certain things. "Beating on the establishment" hopefully makes the viewer not notice these things. “The Art of the Steal” has the potential to be quite good, but is too typical. I recommend one to see it on the basis of its “subject matter,” which is exactly how these documentaries are. A film like this makes one think about the art of the documentary being stolen (“activist filmmakers” being the Philadelphia of the equation) and turned into just an outlet for people mad about current affairs to sound off. Not that they can’t do that, but if this type of film is all that I have to look forward to for the rest of my filmgoing days, I’m a little depressed. B

Saturday, March 6, 2010


"Ajami" by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani starts seeming like some sort of (as critics would say) "promising," but soon becomes about so many different characters (as someone said about "A Prophet") that it doesn't help that it's in two different languages and that (as my friend said) "the switch between them is important." I have this problem sometimes where in a foreign film if too much is presented onscreen through dialogue and I'm in a theater at night and I have to read all of these subtitles to keep with the plot, I can't. Such a thing happened I believe with "Summer Hours," which I didn't really like anyways, but I think I missed "key plot information," (as they call it), and perhaps that ruined the film for me.

Someone on IMDB compared the film to "City of God" and "Gomorrah." Also has been brought up the idea of it being an "Arab-Israeli 'Crash'" (Ty Burr). It does center around a specific event, which in this case would be an exchange of crystal meth and money. Obviously, as with all such events, it must go wrong. And it does. The thing is, we don't see this event until over an hour in, and then we think there's going to be more to it. But the film's five-chapter structure introduces it at the end of chapter 2 and clutters around with a semi-related character before flashing back and showing the event again from "another perspective." I wish the third chapter had returned to the beginning, which was pretty interesting and everything seemed to stem out of.

What happens here is a neighbor is killed ("Gomorrah"-motorcycle style), mistaken for another because the real target sold the car he's working on to him. This has happened because the uncle of the target paralyzed a "beduoin wanting protection money" and now the "clan he belonged to" wants to get back by killing the whole family. There is frenzied moving around before (I believe) they settle back in the same place as before. The reason I thought this was going to be the substance of the movie was because it's told from a kid named Nasri (Fouad Habash). It does have some sort of "foreboding" cliche, but I dunno. Could be interesting?

Then (complicatedly, in ways I'm not sure I can quite explain) in Chapter 2, there is another major character, Malek (Ibrahim Frege), who's an illegal immigrant working at a restaurant. His mother's sick. (Parallel: Having to pay off the clan/having to pay for his mother's "bone marrow transplant.") He has to stay inside all the time because the police are always looking. He gets involved with a guy named Binj (which is a curious name for a guy that sells crystal meth) (director Scandar Copti), who he what he thinks is meth from him and brings with him and his friend Omar (who's Nasri's brother) (Shahir Kabaha) to the forementioned event. When he leaves Binj's house to go back to his restaurant is also another event, and a nice narrative device.

If this was all the plot did and aspired to do, I would be fine, and this would be a solid movie. But it goes off into the story of the cop Dando (Eran Naim), which doesn't interest me that much. It seemed like padding to get the film from like 95-100 minutes (where the film would be without Chapter 3) to 120. I think it would be fine to get rid of this "plot strand" (common language when speaking of the "Crash"/"Crossing Over"/"Amores Perros" ilk) but Copti doesn't. Also, I missed a lot of the "religious undertones" that Ebert et al. pointed out. Sure, I noticed when the language changed from Arabic to Hebrew and back again, but I missed probably a "dimension" that pushed the film to an Oscar nomination. If it hadn't had that, wouldn't we be where we (especially "The Carpetbagger") were with "Gomorrah" (a much better film, due to perhaps it's oft-mentioned"immediacy")?

Well, the film also has a lot that seems just thrown in there, such as a relationship between Omar and "the daughter of a restaurant owner who's also a criminal helper" that Nick Davis may call "cafeteria-style" and an ending that resembles "Oldboy" or "Europa" in its structure and seems like some idiotic way to finish up. This is definitely a first film, not quite deserving of the Camera d'Or special mention it got, though not being an abomination. It just needs something more interesting or engaging about it. Ebert said that "the plot specifics don't matter," but at least they should be more interesting. This is not a bad film, just too "cluttered" (as critics say) for my understanding. C+

Friday, March 5, 2010

We Live in Public

"We Live in Public" fits into the "subject matter transcending the style of the director, etc." category that's been the case with the documentaries I've seen this year. This film always has a music track going, displays information fast and furiously, and, as the phrase goes, "feels a little slight." Yet, as with "The Cove" and "Food, Inc," we have (as many have said) "a shocking subject." Josh Harris, touted as "the greatest internet pioneer you've never heard of," is (as my friend as I as well as Harris himself agree) "emotionally disturbed," having grown up watching "Gilligan's Island," and having a shaky relationship with his family. He grows up to be (as IMDB as well as the film state) "a dot com kid," and the head of Pseudo, which apparently invented the whole idea of chatting and watching a video at the same time. He also got into the whole idea of creating sexual chat-rooms. But this was the least of him.

After he totally destroyed his relations with the company (perhaps intentionally) by dressing up as a clown named Luvvy and "conducting business that way," he went off on an offshoot and decided to do something ridiculous and ultimately (as my friend said) "cruel." He made "a society in an underground bunker in New York City" called Quiet, where people had to commit and stay for a period of 30 days (or at least that's how long it lasted). He is quoted in the film as saying he will record "Stasi-type intelligence" and this is furthered by the fact that he has all of his "participants" questioned by an "interrogation artist." (There's an unbelievably "disturbing" (as has been much said about this film) image of a naked interrogativatee squirming on the ground.) No privacy aloud, whatsoever. The people seem to be so happy about this at first. They can shoot guns on camera, eat on camera, do crazy stuff on camera, even as many have said "have sex on camera." They claim it's "freeing." But, as they realize (and I think people such as Ebert have pointed out), it's most definitely not.

For Harris, this seems fun, as he's called "Oz," and indeed he gets to have godly powers over everyone. (No one knows who he is.) Yes, until he does the same thing to himself and realizes how bad it can be. He has a girlfriend who apparently willingly goes along with it, at least for the beginning. Then, it becomes somewhat like "The Allen and Craig Show," and both tire of it quickly. Their fights are documented on video. There is also the problem of having no relaxation whatsoever, but there we go. As my friend said, "Didn't he submit to this himself?"

This is a subject that only a member of Quiet would be able to direct, and thus Ondi Timoner fits the bill. That's probably the way she gets all of the footage that she does from the security cameras. She also gets in depth access to Harris, who, as Ebert remarked, surprised, "goes on to work on an apple farm," and thus to Ethiopia. But she's impersonal, as the film is. But as I said, the style I doubt, but the subject matter I don't. B

I have always loved "The Truman Show." But there's new perspective if Andrew Niccol (the screenwriter) derived the idea from Quiet. That movie is definitely very sanitized if that's the case. Thinking back, is "The Truman Show" better? Maybe. I dunno now. My thoughts are messy.