In Berlin, the great masters of cinema still rule. Exceptional, highly entertaining new works from Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese lifted up the cheerless mood triggered by the freezing cold and so-so competition films.
Still under house arrest for rape charges, Polanski made up for his absence with “The Ghost Writer , a slick Hitchcockian thriller that ranks as his most enjoyable film in decades.
Ewan McGregor is the eponymous unnamed title character hired to pen the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, played by a terrifically wry Pierce Brosnan, after the sudden death of the former ghost writer.
Once he accepts the job, McGregor is drawn into a web of murders, lies and secrets that unfold as Lang is criminalized by the International Criminal Court for authorizing the illegal rendition of British suspects.
“Writer , Polanski’s first thriller in more than 20 years, is built on a fundamentally Hitchcockian premise of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, similar to his 1988 thriller “Frantic . The difference is that the nightmare McGregor is thrown into could change history altogether.
The uncanny similarities with the ongoing Iraq war inquiry involving former British MP Tony Blair are not coincidental. Scriptwriter Robert Harris, whose screenplay is an adaptation of his best-selling novel “The Ghost , worked closely with Blair as a journalist. And although he denied having Blair in mind when writing the character of Lang, it’s difficult to take his claims at face value.
The Blair connotations are part of what makes the film so intriguing. Polanski carefully weaves the various threads of the mystery with skillful ease, keeping the audience under his tight grip until the nerve-wracking final climax.
The pace drops off here and there, leading to a slight derail in suspense. Fans of early Polanski films might also be disappointed with lack of the type of edginess that made his name.
Nevertheless, “The Ghost Writer is enthralling from start to finish, marking a return for Polanski’s old scornful self that exemplify his palpable disdain for politics and history.
Polanski’s pessimism feels like a walk in the park compared to Scorsese’s foreboding “Shutter Island, a dazzling, mystifying throwback to 50s B-noir filmmaking that caught critics off guard here.
Set in 1954, Leonardo Di Caprio is US Marshal Teddy Daniels who, along with his partner Chuck Aule, are assigned to investigate the disappearance of a murderess named Emily Mortimer in an insane asylum in the remote Shutter Island.
Teddy is haunted by both the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), whose killer he believes is hiding in the hospital, and the atrocities he witnessed as a soldier in World War II.
A series of strange events start to occur as Teddy’s paranoia begins to take ahold of him.
Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel by the same name, both the film and the novel are jam-packed with twists and turns in every corner that keeps the audiences guessing till the very end of the devastating conclusion.
Like “The Departed , “Shutter Island – which was shown out of competition – is pure entertainment; heavily expounding on Scorsese’s ever-present theme of guilt and salvation, albeit in a new context, and radically different from both his personal films and his gangster world. The broad components of the film’s atheistic and generic design may seem to share some elements with his 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson’s “Cape Fear , but that’s where the similarities end; “Shutter Island marks yet another new territory, previously uncharted by Scorsese.
Part psychological thriller, part horror and part noir, “Shutter Island is informed by the aura of anxiety of a post World War II America. Nearly every scene of the film is imbued with fear and tension that often takes shape in a number of truly petrifying moments.
“Shutter Island is a film about memory and loss, but, above all, it’s a genre picture representing a new chapter of Scorsese’s vibrant career.
The other competition films screened so far are less convincing; they contain plenty of strengths, but nothing revelatory. Florin Serban’s “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is a lean prison drama about a young man boiling over when the mother who neglected him attempts to damage his brother’s life after she damaged his. The small picture boasts subtle performances from its young leads and several gripping moments, but you can’t escape the feeling that this is a workmanlike drama, indistinguishable from other Eastern-European dramas.
American entry “Howl from “The Times of Harvey Milk directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman is an inventive take on the obscenity trial of American poet Allen Ginsberg. The film is divided into three parts: Animation illustrative sequences of Ginsberg’s poetry, documentary-like footage of the trial, and scenes providing some insight into the enigmatic Ginsberg.
Despite its inventiveness, the film falters in many parts and loses steam near the middle. The directors’ detached stance from their subject can also be quite frustrating.
The biggest turkey of the fest so far is none other than Chinese blockbuster “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop by former Golden Bear winner Yimou Zhang who proves, yet again, that his glory days are far behind him. A pointless remake of the Coen Brothers’s noir debut feature “Blood Simple, the new film – which combines comedy, drama and crime – follows a noodle-shop owner in ancient China as he attempts to murder his wife and lover. A mismatch of genres that fails to converge, “Shop is neither funny nor intelligent.
I had just seen Noah Baumbach’s much publicized romantic comedy “Greenberg starring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rhys Ifans and mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig, who might be the best thing about the film. There are copious heartfelt moments in there with Stiller, who gives one of his most potent performances to date, and Gerwig, displaying great chemistry. But the film feels uneven in some parts, meandering in others. It contains little of the wit that made his 2005 “The Squid and the Whale such a sensation. Perhaps the biggest problem is that Stiller’s character hardly comes off as sympathetic enough. Creating sympathetic characters has never been Baumbach s forte, and in a romantic comedy, no matter how offbeat it is, you need that to make it work.