Roman Polanski's first feature, Knife in the Water, was released in the United States seven months after The Birds, arguably Alfred Hitchcock's last important film (though strong arguments for Marnie, Frenzy, and Family Plot can be and have been made). Polanski followed his debut with an impressive array of psychological and vaguely political thrillers: Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and The Tenant. Then scandal and the mess that was American film-making in the 1980s sidelined his career until 2002's Oscar-winning The Pianist. If Hitchcock was the master of suspense, Polanski is surely the master of creeping paranoia--his best films feature protagonists in a strange, new environment, surrounded by often mere suggestions of menace. I would go further and name Polanski as Hitchcock's successor as the master of suspense in film.
The Ghost Writer may be Polanski's best film since Chinatown. It is a crisp, chilled political thriller involving state secrets, torture, double-crosses, and espionage--but this is no 24 or Jason Bourne international adventure. Almost 75% of this film is contained in the (literal) glass house a former British Prime Minister (played with offhanded amorality by Pierce Brosnan) keeps on a windswept coast in the United States, where he writes his memoirs and defends himself against charges of crimes against humanity. The protagonist of the story, though, is the ghost writer, hired to revise a typescript of questionable value to its would-be publishers. Ewan McGregor plays the writer, unfamiliar with the personal and political terrain he's trespassing on. He may be gaining new insights into the subject of the memoir, he may be being played, or he may be in over his head, misinterpreting decades-old political and marital cues and signals.
The performances in this film are the best (or among the best) of the actors' careers. In key supporting roles, Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City) and Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense) are revelatory of sophisticated nuances that have not been apparent in their previous roles. Williams is especially surprising as the PM's blunt, sharp-tongued wife. Veteran actor Eli Wallach has a small cameo that is riveting--a lesson in the fact that the "method" in acting never grows stale. McGregor and Brosnan, too, are riveting as they play cat and mouse in a game where the cat has many mouselike qualities and vice versa.
It's difficult to make good movies about the writing process--or the unearthing of hidden meanings of other people's words. Even moderately successful films of this sort--such as All the President's Men and The Shining--seldom succeed on the level that The Ghost Writer does. Where other directors have to manufacture an air of impending menace, it helps that Polanski simply sees the world as inherently menacing and conniving--hardly a wonder given the man's life story. That the victim is possibly as culpable and involved as his tormentors is another point that Polanski is able to make without seeming to force it.
There's hardly any overt violence in this movie--somebody has died, or committed suicide, somebody else has fallen (by accident?) and is in a coma. Most of the traumatizing events of the story (e.g., the torture of detainees in the war on terror) occur off-screen, and yet we feel the creeping panic as the writer's discoveries draw us closer to an awareness that the causes of these horrors may be very near ... and may, in fact, be likable fellows--the sort you wouldn't mind having a drink with.
For me the true test of a suspense thriller is whether the sense of dread lingers after the film is over. It's been sixteen hours since I watched the closing credits of The Ghost Writer, and I still feel like someone is watching me through the windows and listening to me through the walls. If my phone were to ring this second, I would jump right out of my seat.
Everything you see in Clash of the Titans, the new 3-D version of the Perseus and Andromeda myth, you have seen before, in 1981's Clash of the Titans, the final heroic triumph of stop-motion animator (and my childhood hero) Ray Harryhausen. Giant scorpions, the Kraken, a coiling, hissing Medusa, Pegasus the flying horse, even (briefly, thank God) the lame R2-D2-inspired robotic owl. But Harryhausen's brand of special effects was dated (though still astonishing) even back in the 1980s, having been overtaken by George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic. The magic in this 21st-century revamping is cued to the digitized expectations of modern audiences, and it does not disappoint.
Like the original, though, there is some sluggish pacing, but on the whole the movie progresses at an entertaining clip, with stronger coherence than was typical of 20th-century fantasy adventures, where the special effects so dazzled the eyes that narrative holes and leaden dialogue were not even noticed, so never had to be forgiven. This version has a strong script and a strong cast, and almost every point of the production (photography, editing, acting, art direction) is up to the exacting code of the post-Avatar world. (The 3-D imaging, however, is a bit of a distraction, showing signs of being tacked on after being shot in 2-D--I could be wrong about this ... I'm just guessing--but the illusion of depth in this film, as opposed to Avatar, looks distorted.)
The casting of Sam Worthington as Perseus is unfortunate, not because he is anything less than perfect as the reluctant demigod, he is wonderful in this role, but because his presence here reminds me of Avatar, in which he played the protagonist, Jake Sully. It's hard not to compare the two films, and this one is to Avatar as The Legend of Hell House is to The Exorcist--competent, entertaining, admirable, but nowhere near the equal as a work of cinematic art. Perseus's ride on the flying horse is not as thrilling as the winding, gliding aerials of the scenes of Na'vi riding the mountain banshees off floating cliffs. The battle against the giant scorpions is not at all in a league with any of the epic battle scenes in Avatar.
Still, I found this movie wonderful ... in the literal sense of "full of wonders," and I would recommend that you see it ... it stands up well against its 1981 predecessor, but falls short of Avatar.
Back in 2008 I pondered on the implicit "atheism" of Jason and the Argonauts, Ray Harryhausen's 1963 classic and career zenith. That film, at least in recent viewings, seems to lay a groundwork for my later agnosticism and more recent atheism; so I thought then and still do think. Of course, this effect springs less from the film than from its sources--the Greeks, who even at the height of their superstitious irrationality (nowhere close to the peaks reached by American bible-thumpers, by the way), respected fact, logic, and skepticism--and the best of them (Diagoras, Critias, Democritus, Socrates, Euripides, Epicurus) dabbled in impiety and sacrilege, and sometimes outright atheism. Besides, the Greek gods were not moral gods, but rather personifications of natural laws and forces, which know nothing about good and evil (Greek morality was, rightly, based instead on sociopolitical concepts of justice and excellence).
That impiety is even more apparent in the new Clash of the Titans. In the guise of critiquing gods nobody believes in anymore, the screenplay slyly undermines theism of other types as well. For instance, a Greek "trinity" is introduced (Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon), even though trinitarianism's not exactly the Greek concept of divinity. The film criticizes the gods' abject longing for humans to love and fear them. Heroically, Perseus, son of Zeus and a mortal mother, thus half man and half god, repudiates his divine half when the Olympians cavalierly destroy his foster parents and half sister, simple fishermen, in overplayed retribution for certain sacrileges by the Argive royalty.
Much is made, too, of the fact that religion is inherently divisive--even the Greek gods can't get along with each other, so "god help" their followers. Unlike the Perseus of Greek myth or the 1981 Perseus of Harry Hamlin, this Perseus is a community organizer, rallying human (and quasi-human) resistance to religious terror that enslaves the human spirit. Unlike most classical heroes, he is not solitary in his heroism--his friends back him up, even save his ass--and he rather pointedly rejects any gifts the gods offer him (well, almost any) along the way.
There's some implied politics in this film too. The gods have their own agenda, and power is the name of the game. The 1981 Clash (in the Thatcher/Reagan years) depicts the gods as more traditional and trustworthy authority figures--as embodied by the stately likes of classic British thespians like Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, and Maggie Smith (Olivier and Bloom having, with equal marital imperiousness, played husband and wife the same year on the miniseries Brideshead Revisited). The Zeus/Hades dichotomy, as played in 2010 by Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, is less a division of god versus devil or Old Testament versus New Testament concepts of divine justice than a rematch between Oskar Schindler and Arnon Goeth, whom the actors impersonated in Schindler's List 17 years ago. It's a conflict between a neurotically needy "all-powerful" Zeus (think decadent Western liberalism and capitalism) and a hungrily power-grabbing Hades (think fascism and fundamentalism)--grasp that idea, along with the idea that Zeus and Hades are on the same page for 90% of the movie, and Michael Moore need never make another movie!
I liked this movie quite a lot. Aside from my theological and political extrapolations, an occupational hazard with me, the movie mostly works as Hollywood entertainment. It has the wit to take itself lightly at times (the owl robot's cameo, for instance, or Perseus' fleeting smirk in his final closeup), and it offers stupefyingly beautiful special effects--the city of Argos is fairyland gorgeous and not even Tony Randell produced a better Medusa! The movie sadly lacks bare-chested peplum-wearers (my heart literally sank as this point gradually sunk in with me), but it still has some beautiful faces, notably Worthington and A Single Man's winsome ephebe Nicholas Hoult as Eusebios.
Even more exciting to me than Ricky Martin coming out as a "fortunate homosexual" is news that True Blood's Anna Paquin is coming out as a hot-blooded bisexual. Paquin is engaged to marry her True Blood costar Stephen Moyer, making her statement somewhat less needful than Martin's--and also more of a surprise, since Martin's sexuality has been an open secret for years.