September 2010

The Ghost Writer  •  Red Riding Trilogy  •  Date Night  •  The Square

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


The Ghost Writer

dvd cover of The ghost writerOver the past 30 years, it's become popular for film buffs to second-guess their appreciation of Roman Polanski. This is a man who fled the U.S. in the 1970s because he feared going to jail for drugging and raping a teenaged girl. Not exactly a sparkling example of humanity.

He is one of the world's great filmmakers, though, and even his biggest haters have to admit that. So, is it possible to enjoy his movies, despite what we all know about him? When they're as good as The Ghost Writer, it's downright easy.

Adapting Robert Harris' novel, Ghost Writer is a slow-build political thriller about an unnamed writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to help a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) complete his memoirs. It doesn't seem like a tough assignment, until the writer discovers the real reasons for the security and secrecy that everyone around him imposes.

Polanski builds tension with a skill that few other directors possess, and the dark, foreboding mood envelops viewers slowly, perfectly in sync with McGregor's unraveling of the mystery.  The unusual cast, which includes Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Eli Wallach, Tom Wilkinson and even James Belushi, clicks surprisingly well, with everyone getting at least one juicy scene.  Brosnan stands out the most, in what may be his best role. It's certainly his best performance.

Polanski never fully overcomes the potboiler limitations of the genre, and there are some awful post-production mistakes (did they really need to dub over cuss words so obviously?). The Ghost Writer is still a terrific example of how a brilliant artist can elevate otherwise average material.

Extras: Two production features; an interview with Polanski. (PG-13) Rating: 4 —LL

Red Riding Trilogy

dvd cover of Red Riding TrilogyAlthough it is set around the time of the gruesome and senseless Yorkshire Ripper murders, the real villains in this gripping three-part drama (based on novels by David Peace) are the cops who are investigating the crimes. In each episode of this series that was originally broadcast on British TV and which later played in theaters here in the U.S., the cops rule the northwest of England by controlling the vice market they’ve sworn to suppress. They also destroy anyone who stands in their way. When a Yorkshire cop declares, “We do what we want,” the tone is understandably frightening.

The first segment, 1974 (directed by Julian Jarrold, Becoming Jane) follows a young, ambitious crime reporter (Andrew Garfied, who’s slated to play the next Spider-Man) as he covers the death of a missing girl. Thanks to Garfield’s engaging performance, it’s easy to forgive his character’s abrasively brash attitude. It also doesn’t hurt that the lad has discovered that the cops and the region’s elites have no desire for the girl to be found. The poor fellow quickly discovers that the police would rather bully him than solve a rash of child abductions.

In 1980 (helmed by James Marsh, Man on Wire), a Manchester investigator named Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine from In America) is brought in by the authorities in London to find out why the local police have been unable to bring in the Ripper. Peter may be a thorough and honest cop, but a past fling with another officer (Maxine Peake) who still works with him endangers his job, his shaky marriage and his life.

The final segment, (from Anand Tucker, Shopgirl) 1983, follows Yorkshire policeman Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a minor character in the first two stories, and a tormented attorney named Piggot (Mark Addy, The Full Monty). The latter’s father was a dirty cop, and the poor man has also recently lost his beloved mother. To say, he’s a mess is an understatement. Nonetheless, he discovers that an innocent man has been punished for the crimes in the first segment. As pathetic as he is, he’s a better investigator than the entire West Yorkshire Constabulary, and he gets some unexpected help from Jobson, who may be the only cop on the force with a conscience.

Thanks to a terrific cast (which includes Rebecca Hall, Please Give, and Sean Bean) and an expert adaptation by screenwriter Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Red Riding manages to be more than a wallow through the worst sides of human nature. The characters are a good deal more complicated than they first appear, and the stories are often presented out of order revealing layers that a casual viewer is guaranteed to miss. You’ll have to work to get the most out of Red Riding, but if you are as diligent as Piggot, the mystery is worth it.

Extras: Behind the scenes footage, an interview with Jarrold, making of featurettes and deleted scenes. (N/R, but it should probably be an “R”). Rating: 5 —DL

Date Night

dvd cover of date nightDate Night is yet another movie about clueless yokels getting in over their heads in the big city. But it has Steve Carell and Tina Fey in it.

It is directed by Shawn Levy, who foisted the remakes of Cheaper by the Dozen AND The Pink Panther on unsuspecting audiences.

But it has Steve Carell and Tina Fey in it.

Just keep repeating that mantra, and you'll enjoy this showcase for two of television's funniest actors. As bored suburban couple Claire and Phil, Fey and Carell bring their impeccable timing to a film that hardly deserves it. Mistaken for criminals while on an innocent date in New York, the pair is chased all over town by corrupt cops. Since this is the insane hell-hole movie version of the city, their adventure leads them to low-rent apartments and strip clubs, where they interact with other funny actors before moving on to the next overblown set piece.

When Levy stops the shootouts and car chases for a minute, his stars get to shine as they should. Fey and Carell are an ideal team, with a natural chemistry and the shared ability to be outrageous and authentic at the same time. No one else could sell that stupid pole-dancing scene the way they do.

In fact, it would be great to see these actors play these characters again, even if “Date Night 2” had an even lamer script. Better yet, why not build a TV series around them? Carell is leaving The Office and 30 Rock won't be on forever. Let them write and improvise their own material (as Levy clearly does through much of this), and I'd happily set the DVR for more fun with Phil and Claire.

Extras: An extended version with about 20 added minutes; commentary by Levy; bloopers and improvs; fake PSAs; two features on the directing process. (PG-13) Rating: 3 —LL

The Square

dvd cover of the squareIf you listen closely throughout this Australian thriller, you might hear the devil chuckling in the background as the characters continually dig themselves into more hopeless predicaments. A land developer named Raymond Yale (David Roberts) is eager to get out of his dull marriage and wants to run away with his lover Carla (Claire van der Boom). When she discovers that her husband has hidden a briefcase full of cash in their attic, the two think their chance has come. After all, what’s the harm of swiping money from someone who‚s obviously already stolen it?

The seemingly simple getaway gets more complicated as the film proceeds as a series of double crosses and chilling fatalities. All of these characters would probably happily betray their mothers for the loot. That said, the folks who populate this film are at least creatively skuzzy. You’ll hope you never meet any of these people, but it’s fascinating to see how they’ll screw each other over or even accidentally play themselves. Roberts‚ sad sack Yale is the closest thing to a decent human being you’ll encounter in the film, and his able performance almost makes viewers forgive the nebbish.

Screenwriters Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner come up with a serpentine plot line that’s unresolved until the last frame. Bad things happen, but they happen in such unexpected ways that The Square becomes captivating, the way a five-alarm fire holds your attention. Edgerton’s brother Noah directs The Square with a brisk pace that never allows viewers‚ attention to wane. His grim humor makes the pitch-black story palatable. Like a Vegemite sandwich, The Square is an acquired taste, but its unique sensibility brings a new vitality to crime thrillers.

Extras: A making-of featurette, deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage, a music video and Spider, a grimly hilarious short film that Noel Edgerton directed. It’s worth the rental price on its own. (R) Rating: 4 —DL

Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.