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Column Fri Feb 26 2010

The Crazies, The Ghost Writer and North Face

The Crazies

There will always be a place in horror for the story of city folks wandering into a small town (often in the South) and getting themselves in a heap of trouble because they drive a nice car and don't wear coveralls. But The Crazies--a remake of George Romero's 1973 semi-classic that came in the period between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (as did Martin)--the big city/big government/big military threat comes to a small town in Iowa (a relocation from a small town in Pennsylvania in the original). What's interesting and works extremely well in the new film is that there are no secrets and no great mystery to solve. We learn early on that something in the water is slowly turning the townsfolk into homicidal killers who don't just walk up and kill like brainless zombies; there's an amount of deviant plotting going on behind those crazy eyes and veiny skin. And the transformation is gradual, so unaffected people aren't always sure if those around them are just scared and paranoid or actually turning into something dangerous.

Director Breck Eisner (Sahara) and writers Scott Kosar and Ray Wright (both veteran horror film adapters) have fashioned a genuinely frightening work that combines mystery, science fiction, terror, and even a few classic moments taken right out of Westerns (which is made easy since everyone in small-town Iowa apparently owns a gun). The film opens with the local sheriff ("Deadwood's" Timothy Olyphant) shooting the town drunk (who's holding a shotgun) in the head in the middle of a high school baseball game. His actions immediately divide the town, and little does anyone know at the time that the drunk wasn't actually drunk; he was infected.

One interesting style choice Eisner uses is the use of satellite imagery (simulating the military monitoring the containment situation from the skies) to let us know early on that soldiers are moving in on this town almost as soon as the situation arises. Our initial belief is that they are there to separate the sick from the healthy, but it becomes clear that the only priority is containment, and the lengths the men with guns and gas masks go to to make sure this disease doesn't get outside the town limits is almost too much to comprehend. Above all other things, The Crazies is a fucking bleak movie, and the main characters (including the great Radha Mitchell as Olyphant's doctor wife; Joe Anderson as the deputy; and Danielle Panabaker as an assistant at the local medical center) kind of know that getting caught by the authorities is just as hopeless as getting trapped by their insane, infected neighbors. The film injects you with a hopelessness that goes so far beyond just being scared that it really screwed with not only my spirit but also my opinion on the human condition.

And let me make one thing perfect clear about The Crazies: above all other things, this is one fucking scary movie. And that's coming from someone that doesn't get scared in films that often. Creeped out is usually my limit, but I jumped more times than I can remember at this movie, and that's because Eisner and company actually cast quality actors in this film, rather than just a crew of young, ridiculously good-looking barely actors from some lame CW show. Olyphant and Mitchell are so good as a couple intent on keeping each other alive and healthy, but always watching each other a little bit sideways just in case. I was particularly fond of Anderson's performance as the extremely loyal deputy whose story arc is as tragic as it is compelling.

The Crazies is a story about being abandoned by all of the things that Americans are told to hold sacred and trust: community, the government, the military, friends. The world has literally deserted these poor souls, and even running seems pointless since wherever they run to will likely become part of the element that is attempting to stop them from existing. This movie is so good, it actually depressed me when I allowed myself to think about life in the shoes of these folks. Eisner shows a remarkable talent for building tension and surprises in both how he reveals new aspects to this story and in just how soundly he worked up the fear in me. The Crazies will surprise you. I think there are a lot of improvements on the original story, and gives us a worthy modernization that doesn't bore us with unnecessary back story or added story elements that don't actually add anything. It takes the core elements of what worked best in the original, sprinkles in a few quality updated details, and simply sticks to the crucial perfect story. Was that so difficult? What don't all of these other horror remakes follow suit? We know we can't stop you, so why work so hard to bore us with unneeded details? Give us story, acting, and fear. The Crazies is a great balancing act of the three, and the result is a superior movie--remake or not.

To read my exclusive interview with The Crazies star Timothy Olyphant, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Ghost Writer

As I have so many times before, I am here to judge a film and not a man. And the particular film I'm here to judge is the eccentric and enjoyable The Ghost Writer, directed and co-adapted (from a novel by Robert Harris, who also co-wrote) by Roman Polanski. The film is loaded with political intrigue, bizarre, double-crossing characters, a loopy plot and loads of unexpected but much appreciated humor. I, for one, had a royal blast watching this story of a politician's ghost writer finding out a bit too much about his subject's past and present, to the point where his life may be in grave danger.

Ewan McGregor is the titular character (if he's ever given a name except "The Ghost," I don't remember it), a professional ghost writer with a reputation for taking hack first drafts, polishing them, adding new material, and turning them into highly readable memoirs. He's hired to do exactly that by former British Prime Minster Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), whose recently dead assistant took a first crack at pulling together his boss's life story. The assistant died under mysterious circumstances, and now The Ghost is called in to pick up the pieces of his research and turn them around in one month. It just so happens that just as McGregor and Brosnan are getting to know each other, the Prime Minister is being accused by the World Court of sanctioning torture of Middle Eastern prisoners while in office. Now the book has taken on a whole new perspective, and the publishers push up the deadline.

The Prime Minister is surrounded by a small team devoted to keeping him out of prison and doing damage control. Kim Cattrall plays his secretary (who is also clearly his mistress--or at least a mistress), the astonishingly good Olivia Williams plays the bitter wife, and Timothy Hutton is on hand as the Prime Minister's lawyer. In amongst the research files, McGregor finds clues to a bigger, darker truth about his subject. At first he just thinks they are small lies about Lang's early years in politics and at college--the kind of glorified white lie that politicians use to make themselves seem more like an everyman. But as he digs deeper, things get potentially dangerous.

What Pierce Brosnan pulls off here is incredible. He's got Bill Clinton's ladies' man charm, Tony Blair's goofy smile, and George W. Bush's tact when it comes to shitting on human rights in the name of security. And he wraps all of these traits into one unique individual that I actually did want to know, even if what I found out was worse than what I expected. A lot of people told me they figured out some of Shutter Island's twists right near the beginning; I did not. For The Ghost Writer, however, there's a crucial scene in the middle of the movie that I not only didn't buy would ever happen with these characters in this story, but it made me question why these events needed to take place. My conclusion was the a particular character was being deceitful, and that pretty much tumbled the rest of the dominoes in this fairly easy to predict story. Knowing didn't stop me from enjoying the heck out of the movie, but predictable is predictable.

The one thing I was not expecting to do as I watched this movie was laugh as much as I did. I'm not sure why I was so surprised, since Polanski has a history of injecting absurdity and even the occasional joke into his screenplays. But I have to give McGregor credit for his understated delivery of the humor. His seemingly throwaway, under-the-breath cracks are some of the best dialogue in the film. And the scenes between him and Brosnan absolutely crackle with wit, tension and energy. Later in the film we meet supporting characters played by Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson, just in case The Ghost Writer wasn't unpredictable enough. And all the while, The Ghost somehow manages to keep his cool while he digs deeper into the past. I should mention that what he uncovers is pretty fascinating stuff, but it's all kind of a ruse for us to spend time with the weird and wonderful characters that populate this movie. So feel free to debate Polanski's moral integrity all you want. As long as they keep releasing his movies, I'm going to keep checking them out because the man still knows how to fashion a thriller the way they used to, where not every clue means something and the ones that do may not mean what you think. I found The Ghost Writer to be fascinating stuff.

North Face

Wow, just wow! I have no clue how director Philipp Stolzl made this utterly authentic and death-defying story about a group of men who, in 1936, attempted to scale the Eiger--the treacherous north face of the Swiss Alps, at the behest of the Nazi Party, which was still looking for some German heroes to push forward as the new face of the German people. Based on a true story, North Face focuses on three childhood friends--two men and a woman--who wind up at the base of the mountain together by chance. The men are there to climb and the woman is there to cover the story for a Berlin newspaper. Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser (played by Benno Furmann and Florian Lukas) were best friends in the military but drop out to make this dangerous journey. Johanna Wokalek plays Luise, who Kurz clearly has a lingering crush on.

Once the premise is established, the bulk of the two-hour film is all about the climb, undertaken by our two Nazi heroes and a small group of other men from other European nations, none of whom have quite the experience that Toni and Andi have. One of my favorite characters is that of Luise's mildly lecherous boss (Ulrich Tukur, who can also be seen in The White Ribbon) who also has a gift for knowing exactly what will sell papers and sell the National Socialist Party on these men as heroes. He believes that nothing short of either an outright victory or a complete tragedy will make the government consider this operation a success.

But the film's real success comes with the climbing sequences, which made me dizzy from the height, and wince from the pain of twisted limbs, scraped skin, frostbite and a dozen other maladies these climbed suffered through on their trek. The unpredictable weather, unstable snow banks (avalanches were a given), and the overall fatigue of the climbers was a recipe for disaster, and North Face captures every harrowing, bone-chilling moment, sparing us no graphic detail. This is not an easy film to shake, especially if you have a fear of the cold or the completely reasonable fear of dying on a rocky Alpine mountain. This movie feels dangerous just to watch, and I never stopped being awe-struck by the complete and utter reality of every scene, complete with ancient equipment, ill-suited clothing, and no clear means of rescue should something go wrong on the climb. A film that combines a critical commentary about the price of the Nazi propaganda machine with jaw-dropping scenery and stunts, North Face is well worth seeking out. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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