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The Ghost Writer : Polanski’s Political Thriller

I have always wondered how a blogger or a lyricist or a screenwriter feels, when their work is out in the public, but they get no credit for it. No, I am not talking about their work being plagiarised. I was referring tho the fact that, there are many anonymous artists who sell their work to better known artists; those works get publicised and win accoldaes. But the original artist only gets his renumeration, maybe paid by the hour, and manages to keep the kitchen fire burning. How does it feel to be a ghost-painter or a ghost-lyricist or a ghost writer, in this case!

The movie, of course, is not about that. Far from it, the movie is a fantastic political thriller. The protagonist, Ewan McGregor, agrees to ghost-write an autobiography of the ex-PM of UK. Adam Lang, the ex-PM played by Pierce Brosnan, is in the process of getting his autobiography published. But his manuscript needs some work to be done, to make it presentable and interesting.

Adam Lang did have a ghost-writer, Mike McAra, but he was found dead, one fine morning. Lang has led an interesting life and his political career has been marked by some very unusual decisions taken during office. And that’s what needs to be captured before people lose interest in him; and so the novel has to be out within 4 weeks. Its more of a financial gain that we are talking about. What gives McGreggor an edge is the fact that he is not politically active, so he can unravel a few facts about Lang whoch could interest the readers. Step-in, McGreggor, who agrees to ghost-write it in 4 weeks for an amount of 10 million dollars, not knowing that his predecessor was actually killed.

McGreggor reaches the secluded whereabouts of Langs residence, somewhere on east coast on USA, and is shown around by his beautiful secretary Amelia with whom Lang shares a special camaraderie of over 8 years. So, Ewan begins the homework by interviewing Lang and asking him about his passion and how he landed into politics. It was a well known fact that Lang was a Cambridge student and much intersted in dramatics. Then, how did politics happen to him!

These questions are too uncomfortable for Lang, as he does not want to discuss that. All he wants his ghost-writer to capture is Lang – the politician, and not Lang – the dramatist. Anyways, McGreggor’s curiosity gets the better of him. He starts snooping around the house and even tries to take the manuscript out of the tightly secured room so he can write in leisure.

But his efforts all go in vain. And as McGreggor finishes reading the manuscript, he realises that there is way too much work to be done in 4 weeks. And Lang’s mood swings and his strained relationship with his wife was not helping McGreggor. He was not sure why Lang and his wife, Ruth, could not get along with each other, but he was too scared to ask Lang.

He slowly gets to know Mrs.Lang, who makes him feel really comfortable. She is more of a reluctant speaker and less of an outgoing person. But what strikes McGreggor about her, is the insecurities that she faces. It almost seems like they are a normal couple where the wife complains about the hubby’s beautiful secretary always being by his side. And she isn’t getting much attention or the love and affection that she deserves.

Things start moving quickly as McGreggor moves into the room where his predecessor was put-up. And here he finds some very incriminating photographs and artifacts that paint a totally different picture of Lang. It becomes more important than ever, to disclose Lang’s past even as he is accused of siding with America on the handover of suspected terrorists to USA; while he was in office. The pressure from the human rights activists mount over Lang as they want him to be tried in the court for war crimes. Lang decides to fly across the Pacific to douse the fire.

This gives McGreggor the right opportunity to do some investigation/research. But he is caught in a spot of bother as he goes about his detection work and the timelines press on. Its a movie that keeps you on the edge of the seat as he takes the SUV to interview some of the people mentioned in Lang’s manuscript. He endangers his own life knowing very well that if and when the book is out, he would get no credit for it. Maybe a small footnote or a mention somewhere, but not the credit of co-writing it.

Any movie on politics is fraught with danger of getting too boring or too involved in people rather than events. But this movie is evenly balanced as it discusses people and events together. It takes us through Lang’s life without getting stuck on details or over-emphasizing on minor issues. The writers have done a wonderful job to keep the screenplay tight and the dialogues crisp. The movie does slow down a bit, in the middle portion, but soon picks up pace again.

The director of the movie, Roman Polanski, has handled the movie with very firm grip. He does not let it slip even for a moment. The emotional moments and the sobbing is not overdone, and the suspense is maintained throughout. We are always with the ghost-writer and never lose track of the purpose of the movie. Its to the director’s credit that he has extracted excellent performances from everyone.

Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGreggor are mature actors, nevertheless, they need to be told what is to be done. And that, they do very well. Brosnan’s outrage as well his romanticsim is very natural. Lang’s affection for his secretary and ignorance of his wife, comes across a fine character sketch of the man that Brosnan portrays. So, is Ewan’s fear of the unknown and his sense of urgency. We feel it for every moment, how his life is in danger.

The book does get published finally, but at what cost is to be seen. And wait to see how McGreggor is rewarded for his work. He leads an existence of no consequence, and the movie shows what happens when people try to unveil what’s behind the curtains. A ghost writer lives in anonymity, forever.

This post was also published on MadAboutMoviez

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Posted by on January 9, 2012 in hollywood, movie review, movies


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Repulsion : Polanski’s Best In B/W

Moving on, lets talk about a movie which has a schizophrenic woman who irons her clothes with the power chord not plugged-in; who cuts off the telephone wires of the apartment, who cleans the blood spots on the floors while humming a song; who looks into the door’s peep-hole and refuses to open the door out of fear. Much as this sounds like RGV’s Kaun, it was a movie that came 30 years before Kaun. The movie I am talking about is Repulsion which was made in 1965 and was definitely one of the many inspirations for Kaun.

Repulsion came at a time when soft romantic movies ruled the BO and nobody would have thought of such paranoid movie theme of a woman who is a misandrist and at the same time she has fantasies of rape and sexual assault. Catherine Deneuve who played the character of Carol who tries her hardest to refuse a handsome guy for a date so she can join her sister for dinner. Carol lives in an apartment with her sister and boyfriend of her sister. She is repulsed by men and her sister’s boyfriend falls into the same category. Although she fears the company of men, she gets turned on by seeing her sister’s undone bed. Although she abhors the orgasmic noises coming from her sister’s room, she hallucinates sexual assaults.

She works in a parlour and is extremely beautiful and desirable. Men want to date her, but she is always lost in her own world of paranoia. She has weird imaginations about the cracks in the walls widening. And all hell breaks loose when her sister goes off on a trip with her boyfriend and she is left alone in the apartment.

Too many noises in her head and too much fantasy thoughts keep her occupied. So much so that she ends up cutting off her client’s skin along with the nails and gets fired from the job. She returns to her apartment and suddenly the cracks on the wall start seeming huge, hands start creeping out the sidewalls and she gets chased down in her dreams. Carol’s mental disintegration is symbolically shown by the rotting of rabbit meat which lies near the kitchen sink. Her sister was supposed to prepare the meat for a fine dinner, but that never happened. Instead, the meat decays and attracts flies just as Carol sinks into her own mental putrification.

Carol turns totally silent and stops emoting. When the landlord comes home to collect the rent, he is charmed by her beauty and tries to take advantage of her loneliness and vulnerability. She gives him the treatment he deserved and something more, a death certificate. The movie is filled with scenes which seem way ahead of times, a character which may seem tame now [in the light of Hostel, Irreversible etc] but back then in 1965 it must have evoked a lot of shock. The bleakness behind the beauty of Catherine was superbly done. The fear factor and the anxiety of the unknown, the lethal actions of an innocent looking face was incredible.

So, what actually happens of Carol? How does her sister react when she returns home? Does she be greeted home at all? Watch the movie to know it. Although its shot in b&w, blood never ever looked so red! Even with all the technology and special effects, we cannot scare the audience the way this movie does. Reason being that, the movie plays in your mind and not on the screen. It does not merely scare you, but horrifies you.

This movie was the first English movie that Polanski directed. Language was never a barrier to him, his camera did the talking. Be it KITW in Polish or Repulsion in English, his touch is evident in every frame. His attention to detail and the innovative characterisation still remains as a reference for every director. Be it the emotional strain between the 3 people in the boat or a single woman in an apartment, the camera captures it all very well. His direction was top-notch and even his black and white movies have a lot of grey. One of the best directors, ever, Polanski is extraordinary in story telling and distinctive behind the camera. A true master of the art.

This is part of a post that was first published on PFC

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Posted by on June 9, 2010 in movies, world cinema


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Death And The Maiden : Polanski’s Visual Symphony

Just imagine that you are held hostage in an eerie house atop a hill. Both your hands and legs are tied to the chair and only your mouth is open, probably to force you into a confession. In the midst of such tension, you feel like emptying your bladders more out of nervousness than for biological reasons. And you are led to the toilet with your hands still tied behind your back. Will you be able to relieve your pressure? I don’t think so. Dr.Miranda too shrugged in distress, complaining that its invasion of privacy.

Paulina was by his side, but not with him. She was holding a gun to his head and was doubly guarded by her husband who stood at the door of the restroom. Miranda was unable to answer nature’s call under fear psychosis. That’s when Paulina helps him out, its not shown visually though, and starts whistling a slow tune that fills the silence of the rest-room and acts at the neuro level of Miranda. And out of classical conditioning, hope you recall Pavlov’s experiment with his dog, a stream of urine jetts into the pot. This was just one of the many disturbing sequences in the movie. Disturbing, yet necessary and closer to reality than many other movies made on hostage drama.

But why was Miranda held hostage and what brought him to Paulina? Well, the movie begins with Paulina’s husband, Gerardo, escorting Miranda into his house and thanking him for the great help he had been on the night. Gerardo explains to Paulina that his car had broken down and Miranda was kind enough to drop him home. And so, Gerardo invited Miranda to share a drink. While Miranda is still getting familiarized with the house and the surroundings, a deep sense of shock, agony and angst is seen on Paulina’s face. It takes her back in time, when she was an activist and fought against a fascist regime; she was held captive and her body was desecrated by the captivators. All those horror moments and the painful torture that she had endured, comes back to haunt her again. The voice, it was the voice of Miranda or so she feels, who was one amongst the many fascist members who had desensitized her and played with her moral conscience and outraged her modesty.

Paulina’s claims are rubbished by Gerardo, as he is unsure of the identity of the men who tortured his wife while she was held captive. There is no proof or any method of knowing who the real memebers were, and Gerardo wished to give Miranda the benefit of the doubt. But Paulina is pretty adamant that she recognises the voice, she can’t forget the voice; and she is absolutely certain that Miranda was the man in question. Miranda too denies being involved in any such activity meant to crush the movement of the activists or sexually humiliate them.

Gerardo is unable to convince his wife but goes ahead with her instructions of holding Miranda as hostage and force Miranda into a confession. But does Miranda give-up and accept all accusations to save his life? Even if he does, is this what Paulina wants? Wouldn’t this be a pyrrhic victory where she has lost inspite of winning, even if Miranda confesses! What values does truth hold if its not spoken when its needed most! Why is morality used as an instrument of coercion? These are some of the questions that popped in my head.

Women are always held in great respect by most societies, not just because they are genetically capable of reproduction and furthering a clan, but also because they uphold the traditions and carry forward culture/legacy. That could be one of the reasons why in any conflict women are attacked, probably to cause harm to the symbol of civilization. They end-up becoming a soft target and we have seen all through history that apart from swords and bombs, anarchists have used sexual assault to make a violent point. Its the worst kind of revenge possible, most reprehensible. And yet, this deep malice still exists.

And this trauma has been captured very well by Polanski. You feel for Paulina and the pain she has been through stings our heart. Sigourney was believable as Paulina, the rage in her teary-eyes and the stress on her muscles was evident. On the other hand, Kingsley’s restrained perfromance as the doctor who did or did-not wrong Paulina was very well played. He stayed calm and collected all through, almost cold-blooded that you feel he could’ve been amongst the men who wronged Paulina. But at the same time, he also showed timidity and meekness which convinced Gerardo beyond a doubt, that Miranda is being framed. Although the movie involves just 3 characters, much like Piolanski’s earlier work Knife In The Water, they fill the screen with tension, emotion and high drama. Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver are brilliant as Miranda and Paulina. Paulina’s vulnerability, inner fears and scars of the past were beautifully expressed by Sigourney. Felt a bit sorry for Wilson as he did not have the author-backed role, he played second fiddle to Paulina; but was nice as the understanding, sympathetic and loving husband.

Of course, a special mention of the background score must be made. The movie is titled on the music-piece which is fabulous; dark, tense, sometimes hollow, sometimes violent just as Paulina’s forgotten past which comes alive with Dr.Miranda’s visit.

The movie ends in a stark note where there is no revenge taken for past deeds, no retribution and the characters learn to move on in life, where forgiveness does not matter and forgetting seems to be the best way to deal with it.

Indian film-makers have attempted remaking this movie not once but twice, and have failed both times. Surprisingly, both movies released in the same year, 2005; some 11 years after DATM. One of the remakes named Dansh starred Kaykay, Sonali Kulkarni and Aditya Srivastav while the other remake Siskiyaan had Neha Dhupia, Sachin Khedkar and Sonu Sood. Both movies followed the same storyline, but they lost the soul somewhere. The setup was fine, but the treatment lacked the punch.

While Dansh used the social milieu of North-east and the political situation there, Siskiyaan was modelled on the ethnic rioting between Hindu-Muslim. Sonali Kulkarni played the victim in Dansh and Neha Dhupia played that role in Siskiyaan. Both movies got the body right, but lacked the spirit. Somehow, that pain, anguish and aggression was not seen in these movies. That’s where Polanski’s art comes into picture. The earnestness with which Polanski has gone about, the detailing in the script, the lighting and most importantly, the acting. He has extracted superb performances from everyone. Polanski, a genius behind the camera.

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Posted by on March 3, 2010 in hollywood, movie review, movies


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Knife In The Water : Polanski’s Best In B/W

I rarely ever hitch-hike, rarely give or take a lift. I always plan my trip/journey and give myself enough buffer time, be it public transport or my own vehicle. The only time I have given a ride was to a hawaldar who wanted to get home after his duty hours. And the only time I have asked for a lift was at the behest of my friend, while in Houston standing outside Randalls with 4 polybags filled with groceries. We actually lived very close to Randalls and always walked home, but on that day my roomie was feeling really lazy and a fellow countryman pitied our state and obliged.

Anyways, this youngman in Knife In The Water, never believed in planning a trip and he never ever saw either a weather report or a compass for directions and ofcourse he never shied from asking for a ride. He came right in front of a speeding car, totally overconfident that he would not be run-over, and he actually got a ride to a destination nowhere. His arrival onto the screen was so abrupt that even Polanski did not find time enough to give him a name. Andrzej, a much older man with all wisdom and a beautiful wife Krystyna, not-so-gladly offered the youngman a ride. The couple were on their way to their boat, to enjoy a relaxed time by the lake. But this young intruder probably spoiled their plans. I use the word probably because Andrzej was not a bit hesitant when he invited the youngman to sail with them. He did not even take consent or discuss this with his wife before asking the youngman to join them and make him a party to their private moments.

Now, what is it with men that they do anything to seek a woman’s attention and/or to display their oneupmanship over the other! Yes, the same old pseudo-machismo came into play where Andrzej showed off his sailing experience and know-how and commanded the youngman to do all kinds of jobs with the sail, mast and tying-untying knots. But the youngman was not a bit embarassed about these trivialities, instead he showed his skills with his small penknife when he ran it between the fingers of his outstretched palms. Yes, that requires some talent and lot of guts too. So, while both men were occupied in their ego clash, Krystyna was busy cavorting in a two piece bikini, preparing soup and sunbathing in the boat. All this right infront of the youngman, without even doubting his nature or intention.

By the time the movie reached the half-way mark, I was still as confused then as I was when the movie began; never really understanding what the movie was about. There had to be a twist to the tale or some unforseen incident which would make the movie a little more interesting. But nothing was happening, the 3 of them had supper and drinks, played a few silly games and then hit the sack after setting an alarm for 5am as Andrzej had a meeting to attend at 9am, the next day.

Krystyna woke up much before the alarm went off, and to her surprise the youngman was already up. They were chatting when Andrzej opened his eyes and found his wife and the youngman to be out of his sight. He pocketed the youngman’s knife and then climbed to the deck. He was quite relieved to find the youngman on top of the mast and his wife sitting by the deck. There was a minor altercation between the two in which, first his knife went down the lake and then he did. But alas! he knew no swimming, or so he had confided earlier. The couple took chances to dive into the lake to find the youngman, but they couldn’t. They got back to the deck. Krystyna accused Andrzej of provoking the youngman and she even belittled his cheap antics which were just meant to scare the guy and boost his own ego. Being unable to take this insult, Andrzej made another attempt in a bid to find the youngman.

Does the youngman drown? If he does, would Andrzej forgive himself? Will Krystyna forgive him for the silly duel and will Andrzej forgive her if he gets to know that she cheated on him. How the movie ends is for you to find out, all I can say is that the couple return much wiser and with better understanding of each oher. While Andrzej is guilt-ridden with the thought of having killed the youngman, Krystyna is guilt-ridden with the thought of having having shared passionate moments with the youngman. How they face each other and handle life from here onwards, is the last and defining moment of the movie.

KITW was the first full length movie of Polanski. Shot in black and white, the movie captures the minute details of sailing and boats very well. Although the setup is a lake, we never really feel the absence of the blue waters mainly because the screenplay is so engaging. The tension between the 3 people on board is pretty palpable, and the ego clash is well handled. The movie was brilliantly shot and the jazz music makes for fantastic background score. This movie, made in 1962, was the first Polish movie to receive Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language movie. A special mention should be made of the performances of the 3 main leads, who showed a lot of restraint.

This is part of a post that was first published on PFC


Posted by on February 24, 2010 in movies, world cinema


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