The Ghost Writer

On DVD.

Does The Ghost Writer qualify as a roman à clef? The premise—a former British prime minister has become a loathed public figure for his support of controversial American efforts in the Middle East and the "War Against Terror"—is obviously meant to evoke Tony Blair, and the movie features obvious stand-ins for Cherie Blair, Condoleezza Rice, and Halliburton, among others. But it progresses in such a loopy, paranoid way that even I—not exactly a huge fan of the CIA or Cheney-linked defense contractors—could only shake my head in a daze.

In lesser hands, the whole thing might not have ranked much higher than a dopey "ripped from the headlines" episode of Law & Order. But it's not in lesser hands; it's in the hands of Roman Polanski, who, despite being a repugnant human being, is a brilliant director. Consequently, The Ghost Writer is a far better movie than it has any right to be: tense and pointed, with finely layered performances and a haunting air of exile. (I try not to think too hard about that last bit.)

Drive

In theaters.

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a meticulously composed, sleekly stylized film. The problem for me is that its style isn't really to my taste. Knocking a movie is easy when it sports obvious flaws, when it feels awkward or haphazard or just plain stupid, but Drive is none of those things. Every line, every shot, every sound cue and beat feels extraordinarily purposeful. I understand the thinking behind some of the aesthetic choices even when that aesthetic doesn't appeal to me, which makes assessing it remarkably difficult. Do I respect Drive? Yes, absolutely. Did I enjoy Drive? Well, sometimes. It's a fascinating, frustrating, bewitching, disquieting work. I'm glad I saw it, and I never want to see it again.

To a Great City

Second edition of the Guggenheim Museum's stillspotting nyc project.

Despite what many non–New York residents think, there actually are quiet, serene places in New York City (I'm partial to the North Woods in Central Park), but frankly, I don't think the financial district is the best place to look for them. Arriving in Battery Park to visit the first "stillspot" selected by the architectural firm Snøhetta to provide a space that "transports visitors from the hustle and bustle of the streetscape to an elevated urban experience that makes them newly aware of their sense of hearing," I was skeptical. And that skepticism never quite dissipated. The five To a Great City stillspots vary dramatically in their transportive ability, and the journeys from one to the next are somewhat exhausting.

But then the work concludes with a final stillspot so spectacular that the inadequacies of the previous ones seem irrelevant. In retrospect, I have a niggling suspicion that the show's creators knew that would be the case and didn't bother overmuch with the first four, and that makes me feel a little bit cheap. I can't work up too much indignation, though—not when the memory of that fifth stillspot is so glorious.

Links of the week, 9/16/2011

For the first time this year, it feels like autumn in New York, which is lovely because autumn is the most beautiful season here. To celebrate, here are my links for the week.

Contagion

In theaters.

Imagining how another director might have handled Contagion is a fun thought experiment. The subject matter—a highly communicable and deadly flu virus sweeping the globe—is the stuff of shrieking headlines and showy thrillers. Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) might have given the movie a gritty, grimy look with a panicky moving camera and a grim air. J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) might have created a glossy sheen with a few bravura action sequences and an underlying streak of sentimentality. Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) might have made it unbearably tense and hyper-realistic and fast-moving. Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) might have, I don't know, lustily panned up the legs of a Victoria's Secret model and blown a lot of shit up.

But Steven Soderbergh directs Contagion, and he brings his typical coolly imperturbable style to a story from which one expects perturbance, so to speak. The tone of the movie often feels oddly detached from the terror and death onscreen, as if we're looking over the shoulder of a disinterested (but not uninterested) alien. That keeps Contagion from being thrilling, but it also keeps the movie from being sensationalistic, and without a frantic buzz, the movie is able to explore quieter moments behind the scenes and offstage entirely. Paradoxically, its very detachment makes it humane.