The Ghost

Inevitably, the release of the new Roman Polanski film is going to be overshadowed by the 77 year old director’s ongoing personal troubles. Not that Polanski helps matters entirely by choosing to make a film about an internationally famous figure turned pariah, who is fighting extradition to a foreign court. The director has always jumped from genre to genre; his last film was a version of Dickens’ Oliver Twist for children, before that it was the harrowing holocaust drama The Pianist. Even so, there is a temptation to point out the analogies between the director’s problems and those of his central character. But just because you can draw parallels, it doesn’t mean you should. The Ghost, adapted from Robert Harris’ novel, deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has written a memoir that his publisher doesn’t want to print. It’s not that it contains sensitive material about how Lang colluded with the Americans to lead Britain into an illegal war in Iraq. They don’t want to print it because it’s a desperately bland collection of family history, airy reminiscences and well-told anecdotes. So the publisher (played by Jim Belishi, for some reason), calls in a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) and offers him a huge fee to travel to the east coast of the United States and punch it up a bit. The deadline is set for a month.

McGregor’s character, who is only referred to as “the ghost” jumps at the chance to make some quick money, but when he arrived at Lang’s compound he discovers he is not the first writer to attempt the make-over, and his predecessor died in an apparent suicide. The mood in the compound is tense. The suave and superficial Lang (who might as well be called “Phony Flair”) is attempting to put a brave face on his exile, but is terrified at the prospect of being indicted by the International Court of Justice and being dragged to The Hague. His scheming wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) maintains a calm exterior, but she is rattled by suspicions that Lang is having an affair with his officious assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall).

Soon, the ghost has been drafted in to punch-up press releases and help with the damage control surrounding the PM, as the throng of protesters gather at the gates. The more he digs around in Lang’s past, the more he finds that things do not add up. The more the ghost goes through Lang’s memoir, the more he discovers has been omitted. But the guy that came before must have seen the same connections, and he ended up dead.

From that point on, Polanski smoothly joins the dots on a packed plot with consummate facility, anchored by a fine performance from McGregor. The Scottish actor acts as our point of view, a detective, a writer and a guide, taking the audience through the complications of the story, each twist and turn being as much of a surprise for him as it is for us.

The trouble is that puzzle may solve itself in your head long before the flatly staged chases and confrontations of the third act. Still, with Polanski, it is all about sustaining an atmosphere of paranoid tension and whether it’s an ominous rain-shower, the reaching shadows of a desolate ferry-port or a strange man staring from across a room; The Ghost proves he hasn’t lost his touch.

Kick Ass

Arriving on a tidal wave of excitable hype, owing to a canny pre-release internet campaign, director Matthew Vaughan’s adaptation of Mark Millar’s best-selling comic-book series more or less lives up to its imperative title. Kick Ass is an endearingly shambolic, eye-wateringly violent action comedy made with obvious affection for the genre.

After a funny pre-credits sequence, the story opens in classic comic-book style, with a meditative narration from Aaron Johnson’s geeky teenager Dave Lizewski. Dave has been beaten up, for the umpteenth time, by a gang of local hoodlums and is wondering, as geeky teenagers do, why nobody has ever tried to become a superhero in real life. So he goes online, buys a wetsuit and a pair of truncheons and transforms himself into Kick Ass, tireless defender of the defenceless. The first time he goes out to patrol New York, he gets his ass kicked. While recovering in hospital, Dave discovers that he has developed his own particular super-power, the inability to feel pain. The next time he goes out to fight crime, his exploits are filmed by a guy with a camera-phone, and he becomes an internet sensation.

Meanwhile, as the on-screen interstitials have it, Dave’s new fame brings him to the attention of a local Mafia boss, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). D’Amico thinks Kick Ass is responsible for recent setbacks in his drug-distribution racket. Enlisting the help of his own geeky teenager Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the gangster determines to uncover the new hero’s identity. But Kick Ass has found allies to help him in his quest, the father-and-daughter vigilante team of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl (Nicholas Cage and Chloe Moretz), who are heavily armed, well trained and absolutely ruthless.

The story, only slightly adjusted from Mark Millar’s original comic book, is hastily established and thereafter delivered in chunks of arch dialogue scattered amongst the high-kicking mayhem. As with the first installment of any potential superhero franchise, the focus is on how the hero came to be and who his mortal enemy is. The rest of it can wait for the inevitable sequel.

Kick Ass shares the same problem as one of its myriad inspirations, Watchmen, in attempting to frame a superhero fantasy in the real world. Vaughan shows us what it’s like when real people try to do what superheroes do, then allows his anti-heroes take on some of the characteristics of the supermen he is attempting to subvert. Slowly but surely, Kick Ass mutates into an ultra-violent, luridly coloured cartoon. That’s not altogether a bad thing, but it could have been so much more.

For all its constant references to other comic book, its hip dialogue, complex fight sequences and joyful sense of violent abandon, the thing you are most likely to remember from Kick Ass is the performance from 13 year old Chloe Moretz as the cute-but-deadly pre-teen assassin. The young actress is terrific in the role but if her blood-thirstiness and profanity-riddled dialogue are slightly overplayed, Vaughan makes a fatal error, late on, in subjecting the youngster to a particularly gruesome physical assault at the hands of the film’s bad-guy. It's a mistake, but that aside Kick Ass is a spirited and insistently outrageous cross between a superhero film and a high-school comedy, likely to repel as many as it charms.


For his first film since the break-out success of the low-fidelity musical Once, writer and director John Carney teams up with his brother Kieran for a crude and charmless one-note comedy about a small-time con-man who fools the people of a small Irish town into believing he is an alien from outer space.

Simon Delaney plays the title character Zonad, who has recently escaped from an alcohol rehabilitation centre and is looking for somewhere to lie low. He stumbles into the town of Ballymoran as the locals are out looking at a rare comet streak across the sky. When the Cassidy family return home to find a drunken man sprawled on their living room carpet, Liam (who has by now squeezed into a red spandex jumpsuit) invents the character Zonad and pretends to be E.T. arrived from a distant world to study humanity. Mum (Donna Dent) and Dad (Geoff Minogue) make their visitor feel at home, but Zonad is already making eyes for their nubile schoolgirl daughter Jenny (Janice Byrne), their whiskey and their DVD player.

Realising the extent of the native’s stupidity, and the fact that Ballymoran (Baile An Amad├ín, in case you don’t get it) seems to exist in a strange combination of 1950s Americana and a Britney Spears video, Zonad knows he is on to a good thing. He is the talk of the town. People gather in the pub to buy him pints, he is fed steak and chips and women throw themselves at his feet. The only one to see through Zonad’s story is American import Guy (Rory Keenan), a high-school jock with a varsity jacket, a duck’s arse haircut and a butler. The “gentleman’s gentleman” is agonizingly modelled after Wodehouse’s Jeeves (way after) and played by David Murray’s eyebrows.

A little background: Zonad was first attempted as a short film, starring a then unknown Cillian Murphy, that was shot in the late 1990s, edited over a couple of years but never finished and never publicly screened. Murphy has wisely avoided a reprise and the Carneys might have done the same. Short films that are essentially genre pastiches are short for a reason, typically comprising of one good idea, if you’re lucky, and two solid jokes. The riff does not extend over 80 minutes.

If there is a joke here, I didn’t get it, no matter how many times it was repeated. The story, presented as a series of skittish encounters, is bolstered by a series of running jokes that exhaust themselves in trying to be vulgar. Crudity aside, every scene is played with an air of compromise and panic in as broad a manner as possible. The few weak gags, up to and including an excruciating Raging Bull homage, are lost in the wildly uneven tone and clumsy, anxious direction. When everything is spontaneous, nothing is.

Much of Zonad plays on the same tired old notions about the Irish as gullible country yokels and unsophisticated stooges. Carney’s approach to character is to present these stereotypes and caricatures and then invert them – in the most obvious and puerile manner – by giving them racy sex lives or dirty mouths. There’s nothing wrong with poking fun at ourselves, if the jabs are accurate. Graham Linehan’s Father Ted, for instance, used the mechanics of the sit-com farce to say something about who we are, who we were and who we might become if we’re not careful. There is nothing like that in Zonad because there is nothing at all in Zonad.

Shutter Island

In his first dramatic feature since he won Oscars and box-office esteem with The Departed, Martin Scorsese turns Denis Lehane’s creepy novel Shutter Island into a dark, intense thriller about madness, trauma and violence arranged as an elaborate homage to Hollywood’s less respectable genres.

The prow of a boat emerges from a billow of fog, revealing a pair of grizzled detectives in fedoras, nervously smoking cigarettes. It’s 1954 and US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are making their way to an asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island, a remote spot of land in Boston harbour.

They have come to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a patient who vanished without trace from a secure cell. Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head psychiatrist, explains that Rachel, who was incarcerated for killing her three children, is semi-catatonic and unable to look after herself. Not long after their arrival, a hurricane gathers in the harbour, providing Teddy and Chuck with enough of a diversion to sneak around the hospital. Scattered clues seem to point at a massive conspiracy, involving Nazi doctors, human experimentation and government cover-up. Soon, the mysteries are piled up in a heap, with Teddy crumbling under the pressure to put events in order.

This is Scorsese’s fourth collaboration in a row with DiCaprio, a partnership that has come to define his recent films. The actor does extraordinarily well with what is a difficult, slippery character, driven and distracted at the same time and, in each one of the various layers of the story, spot on his mark. Around him, the rest of the formidable cast take their turn in devouring rich, meaty characters, but more than that, Scorsese pays individual tribute to these character’s long history in B-movie cinema. The camera creeps up behind a chair to reveal Von Sydow’s scowling face in a crash of lightning, a malformed prisoner steps forward from the shadows in the corner of his cell, Kingsley’s evasive doctor fiddles with his bow tie as his eyes dart across the frame.

Scorsese’s ambition with Shutter Island is to distil the essence of all the old RKO chillers, inky noirs and cop thrillers of his youth into one dizzying concoction. There’s no better man for the task. Scorsese is the master of American cinema genres and has attempted all of them bar the Western; Musicals, Bible films, road movies, gangster epics and remakes. The director has an encyclopaedic knowledge, not just of titles and genres, but individual shots, moods, tones and compositions. Shutter Island is his chance to reveal the depth of that appreciation.

There are flaws, particularly in the over-explained final section, but none of them are damaging enough to detract from what is a devious, beautifully crafted folly. Shutter Island is not the neo-noir classic it might have been, it’s a touch too flashy and unhinged for that, but it is an energetic and entertaining B-Movie, as intended. A B+ Movie, in fact.