Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is a tantalizing political l thriller with one powerhouse performance from Pierce Brosnan as the UK’s shadiest former politician, a galaxy of terrific supporting talent, some truly inspired bits of brilliantly orchestrated suspense, and Ewan McGregor too. He plays the titular ghost writer, a handpicked scribe first hired to unofficially pen the memoirs of Brosnan’s fiery former Prime Minister, an endeavour that turns into much more of an… involved position than anyone ever planned on. The moment he arrives at the man’s lavish Cape Cod private island residence, a nasty scandal springs forth in the media that forces him into hiding and causes McGregor to suspiciously question his past, both personal and professional. McGregor serves as kind of an audience proxy and gives a solid if unremarkable turn, but Brosnan removes the muffler and fires on all cylinders for a charismatic, cunning barnstormer of a performance, especially in the last act where his life and reputation are thoroughly unravelled. The supporting cast is wonderful, with Olivia Williams being the standout as Brosnan’s long suffering wife who teeters on the brink between loyalty and exasperation. Jon Bernthal is McGregor’s agent, Timothy Hutton and a startlingly bald Jim Belushi are bigwig fixers for Brosnan and there’s nice work from Kim Cattrall, Robert Pugh, a fossilized Eli Wallach and a subtle Tom Wilkinson as a mysterious lynchpin character. The film has a luxurious, over two hour runtime which allows you properly sink into the serpentine narrative full of murky political espionage, dirty secrets, sins of the past, clandestine shifts in power and some truly impressive Hitchcockian twists of fate. Much of the action is set on Brosnan’s beautiful Cape Cod island home, which is actually filmed in Germany and Denmark because, as we know, Polanski can’t go stateside but it looks and feels right just the same and provides a chilly, mist shrouded coastal atmosphere that suits the mysterious nature of this story unfolding. The ending is a kick right in the balls in several different ways and each character reaches the end of their arc with a ruthless, grim yet very appropriate sense of dark, poetic and karmic justice. Excellent film.
Many war films set in a different time period like to flaunt special effects, production design, pyrotechnics and swing their big budgets around like dicks, while somewhere in the commotion, things like character and story get lost. Peter Weir is one to intuitively avoid showboating and I was pleased to see that his Master & Commander: The Far Side Of The World is a beautiful piece that integrates technical wizardry with good writing and performance for something that feels rich, balanced and realistic.
Set during the Napoleonic wars surrounding South America, Russell Crowe is Captain Jack Aubrey, a Naval Commander tasked with taking his vessel and crew in hot pursuit of the French ship Acheron on a search and destroy mission that could turn the tide of the whole war. Acheron is a much quicker and stronger warship with more guns, but Jack is a cunning, headstrong and impossibly stubborn leader who won’t back down in the face of defeat, even though his crew sometimes shows signs of doubt. The central relationship of the film is between him and the ship’s surgeon Maturin, played by Paul Bettany. He’s a significantly less hard edged man and being Jack’s best friend might as well be first mate as well, but it’s interesting to see that despite a great love for one another, their natures clash. Jack is a pragmatic, no nonsense soldier when it comes to game time, yet has the soul for music duets and great dinner table stories when the guns are put away. Maturin is a would-be naturalist with no mind for the strategies of war who would rather spend his days exploring new species on the exotic Galápagos Islands. Their dynamic is ultimately what drives the film and they’re both fantastic but also supported by the likes of Billy Boyd, Robert Pugh, James D’Arcy and many others.
The film exceeds two hours in length but doesn’t feel like it because of how engaging Weir makes everything. There’s only two ship battles, a opening banger and a climactic peak and they’re brilliantly done but for me the real magic is watching Crowe, Bettany and the others interact and live life day by day on the vessel. The food is prepared in detail, the logistics of navy protocol are studiously shown and the dialogue paints a dense, rich history for all the men aboard, each having his own special part of the story to impart. Another thing Weir specializes in is not making his tales feel overly doom laden, angsty or depressing. Many of his films deal with dark, challenging settings and themes but there’s always this matter of fact, optimistic lens he looks through that is a signature for him and a winning attribute. Not to say that this is necessarily a rollicking swashbuckler, but there’s an affinity for compassion and the lighter side of human nature, despite it being a war film by definition. Huge shoutout to Weir’s go to cinematographer Russell Boyd too, who shoots the imagery so vividly and magically it almost looks like paintings from that era itself. Loved it.
Undertaking Betty (or Plots With A View, as it’s called in the UK) is British black humour at its most brilliant, hilarious and surprisingly touching, in the tradition of stuff like Waking Ned Devine and Monty Python. It’s carefree and harmless but not without a raunchy sting that can’t help but be met with loving reception due to its charm and top drawer silliness. Brenda Blethyn plays a woman who has spent thirty years of her life in a small Welsh town, married to an absolute pig of a man (Robert Pugh). He’s a sleazeball who is shagging his slut of a secretary (Naomi Watts in full gumball sickening skank mode). Blethyn is secretly in love with the local undertaker and mortuary owner (Alfred Molina), the romance sparking up as the two try to find a way to get her away from Mr. Awful husband. Molina has the brilliant idea to fake her own death, letting her off the hook and allowing them to elope. She’s willing but reluctant, and so they proceed. Only one problem: Molina isn’t the only funeral outfit in town. Garish eccentric Frank Featherbed (Christopher Walken) and his peevy associate (Lee Evans) owns his own business and plans to steal Blethyn’s funeral for his own. Walken dials up the kook factor to the maximum and is pure genius, an entertainer at heart who believes that every funeral should have the showmanship and dazzle of a broadway show, leading to some amusingly awkward scenes. Just the fact that an american Chris Walken is working as a funeral home director way out in rural Wales is enough to bust a gut, let alone his off the wall performance. The resolution reaches comic heights that made me truly query why this film’s praises weren’t sung to high heaven upon release, but such is life, and death. The romance between Blethyn and Molina is sweet, endearing and balances out the larger than life sense of humour that the film keeps tossing around like confetti. Walken fans, dark comedy fans, film fans alike…please check this out.