Ewan McGregor on Surviving ‘The Impossible’

Ewan McGregor in The Impossible

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

While we endlessly applaud Naomi Watt’s emotional powerhouse of a performance in J.A. Bayona’sThe Impossible,” there’s no leaving out Ewan McGregor who is every bit as good. McGregor stars as Henry, husband to Watt’s character of Maria and the father of three young boys. After the Thailand beach resort they are staying at is laid waste by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Henry goes on a desperate search for Maria and his eldest son Lucas who are separated from him in its aftermath. McGregor convincingly portrays a man physically and emotionally battered by this horrific tsunami which destroyed thousands of lives, and he gives the movies of 2012 one of its most heartbreaking moments with a cell phone call back home.

I got to catch up with McGregor at the Los Angeles press day for “The Impossible” which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. While there, he said what made him want to do the movie was the script by Sergio G. Sánchez which he described as “an amazing read.”

“I didn’t know that it was a true story when I read it but I was grabbed by how there was something very honest and true about it,” McGregor said. “So, when I found out that it was a true story, it wasn’t a surprise. Some of the lines of dialogue were very extraordinarily accurate and powerful.”

Now whereas Watts got to meet Maria Belon, the tsunami survivor her character was based on, McGregor admitted he did not get to meet his real-life counterpart before shooting began. While this might have put the actor at a disadvantage, he was still able to use his imagination for the role and did get the opportunity to talk to other survivors as well.

McGregor in real life is the father of four girls, and we could not help but wonder if he thought about what he would do if they were caught up in the tsunami. Acting sometimes has you asking questions you may not want to know the answers to, but those questions are still hard to ignore. McGregor’s performance feels so emotionally honest to where it seems like he did ask himself that question, but when we asked him if being a father affected his work here in any way, he made it clear to us what his acting process is.

“Well I suppose you’re always acting from two things: your imagination and your experience in life. But it’s not very nice to think about those things and I tried not to make myself think about my kids because I wouldn’t do that,” McGregor said. “But I had these great little boys, these three fantastic kids that Naomi and I were lucky to work with. I was able to think about them and we created this family that I believed in, and it felt that there was a reality to what we created that I was able to use. I just thought about them really and how desperate it would be to be in that situation.”

Speaking of which, McGregor considers his role in “The Impossible” to be the first film where he explores what it is to be a parent. Now while he may have played a dad in other movies, none of them spring to mind as quickly or are anywhere as memorable as this one. McGregor talked about this in more detail with Damon Wise of The Guardian and told him the only other film he could think of where he played a dad was “Nanny McPhee Returns.”

“I’ve certainly never made a film that felt to me like an exploration of that, of what it means to be a parent and that love you have for your kids,” McGregor told Wise. “This is something I’ve been experiencing for 16 years of my life, and it’s not in my work really anywhere. I thought – albeit a really extreme version of that – it was a nice way to look at that specific and unique love you have for your kids.”

“The Impossible” has been criticized in recent months for focusing more on an English family when the real-life family which inspired this movie was Spanish, and for also leaving the Thai people on the sidelines. Those who have seen the movie, however, can verify this criticism is not true and is deeply unfair to the filmmakers who have made a movie which is actually about many families and not just one. McGregor, in his conversation with Wise, was not the least bit surprised by this criticism and went on to describe it as being “not very clever.”

“The truth is it’s a story about this family, this western family, who are on holiday there. And that story is many, many people’s story,” McGregor explained. “But to say that it doesn’t tell the Thai people’s stories … Naomi’s character is saved by a Thai man, and taken to safety in a Thai village where the Thai women dress her. It’s one of the most moving scenes in the film, really. In the hospital they’re all Thai nurses and Thai doctors – you see nothing but Thai people saving lives and helping. Most of the survivors we spoke to had nothing but amazing things to say about the Thai response to the tsunami, in that they mobilized themselves very quickly.”

Ewan McGregor’s defense of “The Impossible” speaks volume of how emotionally involved he became with the film’s story, and it resulted in one of the very best performances he has given to date. Whether or not he gets serious Oscar consideration for his work, you will never be able to forget the impact he has on you here. And once again, the scene where he’s on the cell phone will break your heart.

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview With Ewan McGregor On The Impossible,” We Got This Covered, December 19, 2012.

Damon Wise, “Ewan McGregor: ‘The Impossible is my first film about being a parent,'” The Guardian, December 27, 2012.

‘Doctor Sleep,’ Sequel to ‘The Shining,’ Gets Its First Trailer

Upon hearing that Stephen King’s 2013 novel “Doctor Sleep,” the sequel to “The Shining,” was going to be turned into a movie, many things ran through my head. Could a cinematic sequel be created out of this novel? If so, should it have the same visual style Stanley Kubrick gave to his film adaptation of it in 1980? Wouldn’t it be better to make a movie which stands on its own from its predecessor in the way “Hannibal” stood apart from “The Silence of the Lambs?” Will it be closer to King’s novel or Kubrick’s film? Would it acknowledge the 1997 miniseries which King very much preferred to Kubrick’s film to an infinite degree? Heck, would it even acknowledge the documentary “Room 237” which dealt with the many interpretations and perceived meanings people had of Kubrick’s classic horror film?

Well, several of these questions were answered when Warner Brothers released the first trailer for the cinematic adaptation of “Doctor Sleep” which stars Ewan McGregor as Dan Torrance who is now grown up and still suffering from the trauma he endured from the events at the Overlook Hotel. At first, it looks like any other movie as McGregor keeps writing a word or two in chalk on the wall in his bedroom. But then one day this same wall erupts in a way which wakes him up quite violently, and he sees that it says “REDRUM.” From there, you know you are back in Stephen King territory, let alone the universe he created in “The Shining.”

At first, “Doctor Sleep” looks to have a different visual look from “The Shining” as Danny Torrance is now in a different place which is far removed from the Overlook Hotel. But then he meets a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) who has the same gift he has, and he becomes determined to save her from Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), head of the True Knot cult which feeds on the psychic powers of children.

But as things go on, we see images which appear to be strikingly accurate recreations of Kubrick’s film all the way to the carpet on the hotel floor. There’s even a moment where we see the blood rushing like a river out of those elevators, and another where the occupant of room 237 pushes away the shower curtain to see who is invading her private space. The trailer ends on McGregor looking through the same door Jack Nicholson once broke through with an axe and yelled at Shelley Duvall, “HERE’S JOHNNY!!!”

My thoughts on this “Doctor Sleep” trailer are a bit mixed as I feel it could have had more energy as it seems a little too quiet or subdued. At the same time, it shows the movie has a lot of promise as it dares to match the visual style Kubrick gave us years beforehand to where it invites us to compare it to his 1980 horror classic. It is also written and directed by Mike Flanagan who has already given us an excellent Stephen King adaptation with “Gerald’s Game,” and those who read that particular King novel were convinced it was unfilmable until he proved otherwise. Suffice to say, it feels like this movie is in very good hands.

Well, the ultimate comparisons between “Doctor Sleep” and “The Shining” will be made when “Doctor Sleep” arrives in theaters on November 8, 2019. Please check out the trailer above.

Doctor Sleep teaser poster

 

 

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace’

With the unveiling of the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” many generations were once again reminded of how thrilling it is to get our first glimpse at the latest episode which will take us to a galaxy far, far away. Seeing the fans cheer the trailer on at the recent Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, Illinois also took me back to the times when I got to witness any of the them on the silver screen with a large and incredibly enthusiastic audience as there are few cinematic experiences people are as passionate as a “Star Wars” movie.

After watching “The Rise of Skywalker” trailer, I found myself going back to the year 1998 when I was at the enormous movie theater located in the Irvine Spectrum Center to watch “Star Trek: Insurrection.” This was in the winter before “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was set to be released. I remember hearing about the development of the prequel movies when I was in junior high school when time moved by way too slowly. Those movies could not come soon enough, and it would feel like an eternity before they finally arrived on the silver screen.

Never will I forget this particular evening as I watched the lights go down in the theater and the trailers began to appear. We thought we were getting “The Phantom Menace” trailer right at the start, but it turned out to be a teaser for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” another all-time great movie trailer. But as soon as the Lucasfilm Ltd. Logo appear on the silver screen, the audience members began to applaud and cheer loudly as this was the one thing they were eager to see more than anything else.

Knowing this was particular “Star Wars” movie was the first new one since “Return of the Jedi,” which was came out almost 16 years before, and understanding how it marked George Lucas’ return to the director’s chair since “A New Hopes” (22 years to be exact), there was no way you could not be the least bit excited about this particular motion picture. We keep hearing about this movie or that one is the most anticipated movie in history, but this saying could not be truer when it came to “The Phantom Menace.”

This trailer hits all the right notes. John Williams’ famous themes never sounded as good as they did here, and the visual effects looked simply amazing. Seeing Yoda back in action earned an extra few cheers as few characters have given us such endless wisdom as he has. Plus, you had Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi master, so you now there will be at least one bad ass motherfucker in this PG-rated movie. Plus, that Sith lord Darth Maul looked especially evil even by Darth Vader standards, so there was something else to look forward to. And when the trailer climaxed with Williams’ music, the crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard anyone cheer at a trailer before. It goes without saying that everyone was all set to see this sucker on opening night and perhaps even sleep outside the local movie theater so they could be the first ones inside.

Forget about what you thought about the finished film (that’s for a separate article). There was no cinematic experience you could have been more hyped about back in the 1990’s than “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” I love this trailer because it reminded me of the many things I love about these movies, and of how important it was to see it before people spoiled it just as Homer Simpson spoiled “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line for it. Even today, 20 years later, this is still a thrilling trailer to sit through.

Star Wars Phantom Menace teaser poster

Star Wars Phantom Menace movie poster

‘Christopher Robin’ Has Enough Childlike Wonder to Make it Worthwhile

Christopher Robin movie poster

Christopher Robin” has been compared by many to Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” even before its release. Truth be told, this comparison holds a lot of weight as both films deal with characters we were introduced to as children who have since grown up and left behind the imaginary worlds they reveled in. Both get married and become parents, and we catch up with them as they have long since become consumed by their jobs at the expense of everything else. The question is, can they rediscover the innocence and wonder they once had? We go into these movies knowing the answer will be yes, but we how long will it take? In the case of “Christopher Robin,” this man is quicker than Peter Pan to do so, and this makes the film fare better than “Hook.”

The movie starts off with young Christopher (played by Orton O’Brien) being given a going away party by his furry friends in the 100 Acre Wood as he is about to head off to boarding school. Among his friends is, of course, Winnie-the-Pooh whom he promises never to forget about once he goes away. But as the opening credits unfold, we see Christopher being molded into what society expects of him. Seeing a teacher slam her ruler on his desk quickly brought to mind the lyrics of a certain Pink Floyd song (“we don’t need no education…”). Even worse, he loses his dad much sooner than anyone should, and this forces him to grow up much quicker as he is now considered to be the man of the house. And there is the sequence of him as a soldier on the battlefield, and while it does not include any exploding limbs a la “Hacksaw Ridge” (it’s a Disney film after all), we are shown enough to be convinced Christopher has seen his share of brutal combat.

When we catch up with Christopher as an adult (played by Ewan McGregor), he is married to the lovely Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), father to Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), and an employee at Winslow Luggages. It is no surprise to see he has long since become consumed by work as he makes the mistake of telling his boss, “I’ll do anything for this company.” Now this is something I have long since learned never to tell any employer as they will be quick to blackmail you emotionally, and this is compounded by Christopher’s co-workers constantly living in fear of unemployment. As a result, Christopher is forced to cancel his trip into the country with his family, and they do not even try to hide their disappointment to where Evelyn flat out tells him, “I haven’t seen you laugh in years.” Christopher ends up all alone, that is, until Pooh arrives in London seeking his helps. Pooh has lost all his friends in the 100 Acre Wood, and the two go on a journey which serves to save both of them from a world without love and imagination.

“Christopher Robin” is at its best whenever McGregor and Pooh bear share the screen together. Unforgettably voiced by Jim Cummings, the “silly old bear” remains one of the most lovable creations in literature as he keeps saying he doesn’t have much of a brain, but he proves to be full of Yoda-like wisdom throughout. Instead of being animated this time out, Pooh and his friends are brought to life through CGI effects to more closely resemble the actual toys A.A. Milne owned all those years ago. But as amazing as the effects are, it is Cummings who gives Pooh his heart and soul as he professes to Christopher how “doing nothing often leads to the very best kind of something.”

When it comes to the other furry friends from the 100 Acre Wood, some get more screen time than others like Tigger and Eeyore. Those who know me best know I am a die-hard Eeyore fan, and just as with the animated “Winnie-the-Pooh,” the infinitely depressed donkey steals the show thanks in large part to the vocal talents of Brad Garrett who gives Sam Elliott a run for his money in the baritone department. Eeyore has always been a wonderful supporting character in Milne’s stories as he marches on despite his gloomy state of mind, and Garrett makes him a source of incredibly dry humor throughout. Now if only Eeyore could get his own movie…

Directing “Christopher Robin” is Marc Foster, who at first seemed like an odd choice for this material. Foster previously gave us the devastating “Monster’s Ball,” the James Bond adventure “Quantum of Solace,” the Brad Pitt zombie movie “World War Z,” and “Machine Gun Preacher” (the title says it all). Perhaps it was his film “Finding Neverland” which snagged him the job as that one was about J. M. Barrie and his relationship with a family who inspired him to create “Peter Pan.” Like J.M. Barrie, Christopher is shown here to be a lost soul who needs to regain his sense of wonder before he becomes just another corporate drone. Foster navigates Christopher’s journeys through worlds real and imagined to where we are eager to see regain his sense of wonder, and he looks to remind us of the child within ourselves who hopefully has not been obliterated by society.

Along with cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser, Foster gives “Christopher Robin” a rather bleak look which recalls the dirty visuals Spielberg gave “Hook” as the imagined world of 100 Acre Wood proves to be vert foggy and not as inviting as it once was. It’s like “Return to Oz” in which Dorothy travels back to the magical world she left behind, only to find the yellow brick road has been ravaged to where you wonder if it will ever be put back together again. Part of me wishes the filmmakers had worked a little harder to balance out the different worlds Christopher and his friends travel in an out of as this movie looks a little bleaker than it needs to. In the process of delving into Christopher’s life in the city as an adult, it threatens to provide more muted colors than luminous ones.

The story hits all the beats you would expect it to as, like “Hook,” we have a good idea of how things will end up. We know Christopher will eventually come to see how his family is a far more precious commodity than anything else, and things are resolved in ways which are not completely satisfying. Granted, Disney would never be quick to allow Foster or anyone else to make “Christopher Robin” a tragic tale of a man who discovers too late what he had after losing everything to where he becomes a real-life Eeyore. Plus, there’s all the merchandising to think about. But for what it’s worth, the performances by McGregor, Atwell and Carmichael succeed in keeping this motion picture from becoming an exercise in shameless manipulation. The cast, whether they are acting or voicing their characters, more than rise to the occasion to where the human element of this movie is never lost.

“Christopher Robin” pales in comparison to “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” one of the more underrated films from 2017. Granted, the latter is more of a biographical film as it deals with the real life A.A. Milne and of how he inadvertently robbed his son of his childhood, but the balance between the real world and imagination felt much stronger in that one. Still, I enjoyed “Christopher Robin” for what it was, and seeing Pooh, Eeyore and Tigger brought to life through CGI made this all the worthwhile for me. When it comes down to it, the moments Christopher shares with his cuddly friends really warmed my heart. While some let the child within them die, you have to admire those who succeed in keeping that part of themselves alive as it is never easy.

While watching “Christopher Robin,” I was reminded of what Stephen Rea said in Neil Jordon’s “The Crying Game:”

“When I was a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Here’s hoping we never put away those childish things away permanently, Oh, and by the way, adults carrying stuffed animals is not a sign of mental illness. Trust me, I have been proving this wrong for years.

* * * out of * * * *

Christopher Robin Eeyore poster

‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ Director J.A. Bayona Talks About Making ‘The Impossible’

The Impossible JA Bayona photo

Spanish film director Juan Antonio Bayona, or J.A. Bayona for short, made a name for himself in 2007 with the horror movie “The Orphanage.” It earned him the respect of his fellow Spaniard Guillermo Del Toro who helped produce the film, and it became a big box office hit worldwide. These days he is known for directing “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” which is expected to be one of the biggest hits of the 2018 summer movie season.

Following “The Orphanage,” Bayona was offered a number of movies to direct including “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but he was really interested in doing something far more challenging to take on. Bayona found the challenge he was looking for with “The Impossible,” a movie based on the true story of a family that survived the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. What Bayona accomplished showed him to have great skill in getting strong performances out of an incredibly gifted cast, and he staged a tsunami scene so horrific, it puts the one in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” to utter shame. The movie proves to be a cinematic experience as brilliant as it is gut wrenching to watch, and you won’t be able to ignore Bayona’s talent after you have seen it.

Bayona was at the Los Angeles press conference for “The Impossible” which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California back in 2012, and I was fortunate enough to attend his roundtable interview. We all thanked him for making this film which we agreed was one of the very best of the year.

The Impossible movie poster

Question: This is a great movie. Did you realize the scope of it when you got involved? Did you realize how inspiring it would be to moviegoers in general?

J.A. Bayona: Well it was getting bigger and bigger as much as we were getting into it. The first impact we had when we heard Maria (Belon’s) story was very emotional, and we wanted to figure out where that emotion was coming from. Even though it is a tough story and we’re talking about a tragedy, the emotion was coming not from a dark place. It was something that was coming from the way these people gave to the other ones in the worst moment. So, I thought that was very powerful and it was a very beautiful idea of approaching that. But then you talk to Maria and you realize how much suffering there is still nowadays. They call it “survivor’s guilt” even though she doesn’t like to call it that. She will talk about survival suffering because she doesn’t feel guilty for anything she did, but it’s really that there is a lot of suffering. I thought that would be interesting to tell the story of this family going there and then going back home and not talking about a disaster in a compassionate way and where you only talk about whether you live or you die. There’s a lot of gray space in the middle. From the very first meeting that we had we agreed that this was not just the family story. It was the story of many people, but the whole ending talks about that; how do you go home to the real world when your real world disappears? I like to see the film tell the story about the end of innocence. They don’t feel the same anymore, they lose the sense of security and their life is not the same anymore.

Q: How big of a challenge was this movie for you?

JAB: Well of course there was a huge challenge in the technical aspects of the film, but for me that was exciting and I was not worried about that. The real challenge was how to portray the story of the people who were there and how to give the big picture of what went on there and being respectful of the time.

Q: How much the movie was real and how much what was done with CGI? The movie looks very real even though some of those effects were probably done digitally.

JAB: Well it had to be like that because the story was very simple in reality so it could look like a visual effects movie. It had to feel real all the time. We did a lot of things for real like practical shooting and practical effects, and we also used a lot of CGI for greeneries and digital composition. But the great thing is to always mix several techniques so there’s a moment where everything gets lost so the audience doesn’t know what they are watching.

Q: Was anything done to reduce the carbon footprint of the movie or in trying to conserve resources?

JAB: Everything these days is now very regulated, so you have to be very respectful. For example, in shooting the water sequences in Spain the waters had to be darkened with a coloring used for food because that water had to be sent back again to the sea. Everything had to be natural. The water had to be decidedly desalinated before it got sent back to the sea.

Q: Did you think about shooting the movie in another country other than Spain, or was it always your intention to shoot there?

JAB: We did it in Spain because we found this huge water tank which is the second biggest in the world I think. So it was the perfect place to shoot all of the water sequences and once we finished with that we went to Thailand and we shot in the same places the tsunami took place in.

Q: The sound design in this movie is incredible, especially in the opening sequence. The screen is black but you already feel like you’re underwater. Can you tell us more about the sound design for this movie?

JAB: One of the things that I soon realized is that the characters didn’t have time to stop and think about what was happening. Everything was so fast that we had to deal more with emotions and sensory details. I was intellectualizing the sequence a lot with the actors, but in the end in front of the camera everything had to be sensorial and about the emotions. Sound has a great role in the film, and I talked a lot with Maria about the sounds and she was telling me for example that the sounds of the wave reminded her of the engine of the plane. This is the moment where I had the idea of starting with the sound of the engine because the movie was already starting and finishing on a plane. The way the plane sounds at the beginning and at the end is completely different, and that sets the behavior of the characters of how they go to Thailand and how they came back from Thailand. The sound of the way was very interesting. It sounds wilder underwater than on the surface because that’s where the danger was with all the debris and all the things which were dangerous for the people who were in the water were underwater. Maria was telling the also about the bloody birds, and I said, “What do you mean by the bloody birds?” She told me, “Once the water receded and we were completely alone in the debris and the devastation I started listening to the birds singing like nothing had happened, and I hated them at that moment because nothing happened to them.” This gave me the idea of how nature goes back to normal and that puts the characters very close to reality at the time, so of course we played a lot with this sound and with the music. It’s very interesting to see how music plays a lot with things that the characters can find the words to explain. I remember the moment when Maria was being dragged by this old man, and she sent me a message that was four pages of all these things that she felt in that moment. And in that sequence you only have a man dragging a woman so I focused only on Naomi’s eyes and I put some small music in their going up slowly, and only with that Naomi’s performance and only with their eyes and seeing the connection between this woman and this man. Using some notes of music, I was able to try to create a thought provoking experience in the audience, and that deals a lot with the four pages that Maria sent me.

Q: When this project began it was intended to be a Spanish production with Spanish actors, but then it became this huge thing. When did you decide to make this change?

JAB: Well we wrote the script in Spanish and we soon realized that 80% of the dialogue was already in English because people had to talk in English to be understandable to each other. Also I didn’t want to put the accent on nationalities because I wanted to portray all the people on the same level. I wanted to portray all the people like people, no nationalities. So it felt natural to go to English-speaking actors because first of all to finance a movie like this you need important names, but most of all I never wanted to put an accent on nationalities. If you see the film, they never say where they are from. All the time they talk about going back home. I wanted them to be very universal like a wide canvas so you can project yourself in there.

“The Impossible” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital, and “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” arrives in theaters on June 22, 2018.

 

‘The Ghost Writer’ Shows Roman Polanski Has Not Lost His Touch as a Filmmaker

The Ghost Writer movie poster

The act of ghost writing a book for a celebrity, be it a memoir or perhaps a children’s book, seems like a cheat. Granted, there are a lot of celebrities out there who do in fact write their own books, sometimes with the help of another, and good for them. But you can’t convince me O.J. Simpson wrote that book which contained his supposed confession of the double murder he committed back in 1994 that claimed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. By now, we should know Simpson is going to be the last one to admit to any wrongdoing, and the idea behind it was pathetic to say the least. Still, there was a nice sum of money involved in this particular ghost-written book, and Simpson was struggling financially.

What really has me wondering about this whole process itself is who the ghost writer is, and of how they about seeing their work being credited to another who didn’t write it. On one hand, you avoid a lot of the hoopla and screaming fans who worship the work to an unhealthy extent, but the benefits you get out of it are depressingly minimal it seems. You are basically an anonymous person in a sea of people who get far more attention than they deserve, and this makes you easily expendable as a result.

Now I’m not mistaking “The Ghost Writer” as the definitive example of what a writer like this goes through, but the feeling of replacing someone or fearing you will be easily replaced cannot leave one in a state of supreme confidence. But what the movie version of Robert Harris’ book shows is how it can make for a really good mystery thriller.

“The Ghost Writer” is the film Roman Polanski made while he was “wanted and desired,” and it’s the same one he managed to finish post-production on while under house arrest. The writer of the movie’s title is played by Ewan McGregor, and to add to some vivid illustration to the title, we never learn his character’s real name throughout the entire running time.  Anyway, he gets a very lucrative job offer from a publishing firm CEO, played by James Belushi of all people, to ghost write the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It turns out that McGregor’s predecessor on this project died in an apparent suicide, and his body was found washed up on the beach.

Once hired, McGregor is taking to Lang’s oceanfront house on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England. Of course, this was actually filmed in Germany as Polanski could not step on American soil without getting arrested. Upon looking over the manuscript from the deceased writer, and in his talks with Lang, McGregor comes to discover this ex-Prime Minister may have been involved in handing over suspected terrorists in Britain to the CIA for torture. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he fears he will end up like his predecessor.

After all these years, Polanski still knows how to make an excellent thriller, and he manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and intensity over the movie’s two hour plus running time. Throughout “The Ghost Writer” he is extra careful not to reveal too much of what’s going on, and it leaves us guessing as to what the truth really is. Like McGregor, we are left to sift through the clues left behind and figure out how they all add up.

McGregor doesn’t play any writer here, but instead one eager to get at the truth which is just within their grasp, and that’s even if they know they will not like what they see. McGregor gives a really strong performance here as the ghost writer, and Polanski succeeds in putting us in his shoes to where we feel as lost as him as he gets deeper into uncovering long kept secrets. During a chase scene, we are in the actor’s mindset, and even we can’t figure where to go or who to trust.

Also great in “The Ghost Writer” is Brosnan who plays an ex-Prime Minister who bares a not so subtle resemblance to Tony Blair. This gives the former James Bond actor the continued opportunity to shed his 007 image as Adam Lang in a way he must have been eager to do. Behind this image, we see on the television screen a man stuck in a moral contradiction he will never be able to escape. Flanked by his wife, a team of advisors, and besieged by a plethora of angry protestors out for his blood, Brosnan gives us a character you almost have to admire in how he manages to keep many things to himself despite an unrelenting pressure to reveal stuff he’d rather not reveal.

Olivia Williams is also terrific as Lang’s wife, Ruth, and she herself is a complex study in emotions. In the face of her advisors, Ruth has a tough façade which screams out “don’t bullshit me” whenever possible. But when Ruth is alone with the ghost writer, she lets this mask down to reveal someone who feels hopelessly trapped in a situation she has no real control over. She was probably promised something much different in life, something more positive, but she now looks back on it all as one big lie. Taking her character through different levels of emotion is fascinating to watch, and Williams holds our attention completely whenever she is onscreen.

I also loved seeing Kim Cattrall here as well, and her British accent was absolutely flawless. As Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant and mistress, she manages to keep the coolest face despite escalating controversies which threaten to define this ex-Prime Minister as a deceptive war criminal. Her strictness of directions can be seen through her sexy smile, and she holds her own against Lang’s wife with aplomb. There is an innate sexiness to Cattrall’s performance in how she goes about her days not losing a beat, and it is enthralling to see what she pulls off here.

There are also a number of familiar faces to be found in “The Ghost Writer.” You also have Timothy Hutton who plays Lang’s American lawyer Sidney Kroll, Tom Wilkinson who portrays Harvard law professor Paul Emmett, and even Eli Wallach shows up in a memorable cameo. In some cases, their appearances could have really taken us out of the movie, but none of them are able to hide the fact the real star of “The Ghost Writer” is Polanski.

Ironically, Polanski is in a good position with “The Ghost Writer” as the shadow of his most famous movies like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are not hanging over this one. Throughout the years, he was trapped by his earlier work which he received so much critical acclaim for, and it affected his later movies like “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate” to name a few. But every so often he gives us a motion picture to remind us of how he has never lost his unique talent for filmmaking.

We see so many directors drop the ball in terms of maintaining suspense, but Polanski has not lost a beat, and this film sees him hitting his stride again. Many will say “The Ghost Writer” is the kind of movie which doesn’t get made anymore, but Polanski calls Hollywood’s bluff on that to where this is one which cannot be missed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Beginners’ is a Warm-Hearted Look at the Evolution of Relationships

Beginners movie poster

Mike Mills’ “Beginners” looked like the kind of movie I live to avoid. The son caring for his father who has a terminal disease, them making amends with each other before time runs out the relationship his son is currently involved in, etc. This has been the formula for an endless number of manipulative movies which bring out the cynical bastard in all of us. But there was something about this movie’s trailer that made it look like something more unique and heartfelt, and I’m not just talking about that Jack Russell terrier speaking in subtitles (thank god this is not another “Look Who’s Talking” sequel!).

Listening to Mike Mills’ interview on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross informed me that “Beginners” is largely autobiographical; although I’m sure the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The story centers on Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist with many failed relationships behind him. Upon the passing of his mother, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) announces to him that he’s gay, and soon discovers that he is suffering from terminal cancer. In the meantime, Oliver gets involved with the very free-spirited Anna (Melanie Laurent) and finds himself exhilarated by her, but frightened at the things that could easily tear their relationship apart.

“Beginners” is told in a non-linear format with the story jumping back and forth between Oliver’s time with his dad, and the time he spends with Anna. Many people find this filmmaking technique annoying and too artsy-fartsy, but it serves this movie well and was never jarring. It moves from one part of the story to another effortlessly, and Mills never condescends to his audience in filming this way. Besides, when it comes to memories like these, we don’t remember everything that happened in the order it took place.

I was actually surprised at how emotional “Beginners” was. From the trailer, it kind of looks like a light comedy bordering on becoming a dramedy. But there is a deep sadness at its core as the revelations brought about mean different things for each character. For Oliver, it makes him look back at the time he spent with mom and wonder if she was always the unhappy wife to his father. For Hal, it is a bittersweet journey embracing his true sexuality while wishing he had more time on earth to enjoy it.

The reasons for Hal coming out now never feel contrived when he explains it to his son. He makes it clear he always loved his wife even when they both knew he was homosexual. Plus, he wanted the married life and the things which came with it: the house, the family, everything he couldn’t have had if people knew he was gay. Christopher Plummer delivers this speech simply and in a matter of fact way, never having to act it out for the benefit of the audience.

There’s no doubt this is a very personal film for Mills who previously made a movie I still need to see, “Thumbsucker.” While the end credits indicate the places and characters used are fictitious and any similarity to those living or dead is coincidental, it doesn’t change the fact Mills went through the same thing with his own dad. This is what makes “Beginners” such a good movie; it comes from an honest place and not one of simple manipulation. Its themes of love are universal and profound as relationships of all kinds need constant work to keep them strong.

This is one of the best roles Ewan McGregor has had in some time. As Oliver, he inhabits the character with a knowingness of what life has put him through, and the things he wants scare him the most. His eyes speak of a strong sadness he has trouble reconciling within himself, and you want to see him be a happier person. McGregor becomes the character right in front of us and gives a perfectly unforced performance which reminds us he’s still a terrific actor.

I really enjoyed watching Melanie Laurent here as Oliver’s girlfriend, Anna, and this is the first movie I’ve seen her in since “Inglourious Basterds.” She portrays the kind of free spirit us guys would all love to fall in love with. The chemistry she shares with McGregor is very strong, and their interactions make for some of the film’s most gleeful moments. Her demeanor, though, hides a dark spot in her life which is hinted at but never fully explained.

As for Plummer, he is simply magnificent as Hal. Seeing him embrace his sexuality is great fun as he makes new discoveries about life and “house music” among other things. Plummer is also heartbreaking as we find him experiencing joy just as his life is on the verge of expiring. For the last decade or so, he has been playing detestable villains in movies, and it’s a favorite role of his. But seeing him portray Hal reminds us of what we already should know, he’s one of the best actors working today.

But to be honest, all these great actors get completely upstaged by Cosmo who plays the Jack Russell terrier Arthur. Whether he’s with Plummer or McGregor, he’s such an adorable presence and even his eyes seem to speak words no other dog can easily speak. This may be the best performance I’ve seen by a dog since Mike the dog tossed away his dog food in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Watching him makes you want to rush out to the nearest pet store and get your own Jack Russell terrier. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my apartment building doesn’t allow pets. Well, I’m better off with stuffed animals anyway.

“Beginners” shows us no matter how much experience we’ve had with relationships, we are always starting over again when it comes to a new one. It doesn’t matter what our age or sexual orientation is, relationships are an ongoing process we need to work at. We need to be open to risks and letting ourselves be vulnerable to the people we care the most about. And when all is said and done, we need to live through pain in order to experience pleasure.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Trainspotting 2

Trainspotting 2 poster

I actually found myself getting choked up while watching “Trainspotting 2,” a sequel I long believed would never become a reality. The original 1996 film featured youthful characters bursting with life as they inject heroin into their veins and create chaos for everyone and each other. Now it’s 20 years later, and these same characters are now middle-aged and struggling with a future which looks to leave them behind. They are dealing with regrets which eat at them, and are still stuck in a past which constantly gnaws at their conscience. While I can’t say I relate to all the adventures Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie have gone through, I can certainly relate to their current state of mind as their lives are at an impasse to where they have to ask themselves the question David Byrne brought up in a Talking Heads song, “Well, how did I get here?”

When we last saw the “Trainspotting” gang, Renton (Ewan McGregor) had absconded with the money they scored through a heroin deal, and he was determined to go straight and engage in a much more stable lifestyle. “Trainspotting 2” starts with him running on a treadmill only to trip and fall, and it’s enough to show he is not the same man he was before. He has lived in Amsterdam all this time with his wife, but now he is getting divorced and finds his job security to be very shaky, to say the least. Feeling lost in modern society, he decides to return home to Edinburgh, Scotland in an effort to make amends with family and friends.

Everyone is still back in Edinburgh doing their thing. Sick Boy runs a bar which is lucky to have many, if any, patrons walking through the door. In his spare time, he engages in blackmail schemes with his partner and girlfriend, Veronika Kovach (Anjela Nedyalkova). Daniel Murphy/Spud is still in the throes of his heroin addiction which has long since estranged him from his partner Gail and their son Fergus. As for Francis “Franco” Begbie, he has been in prison all this time and just received news that his parole did not go through. So, like any pissed off inmate, he escapes and heads back to Edinburgh to get revenge on those who betrayed him long ago.

When “Trainspotting” came out 20 years ago, it represented a fresh burst of filmmaking energy and felt so different from anything else playing at your local cinema. Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge once again take the works of author Irvine Welsh, in this case his novels “Trainspotting” and “Porno,” to create a motion picture pulsating with an energy lacking in so many others out right now. The fact they can’t quite equal the energy of the original is not a surprise as many imitators came in its wake, and what was once subversive now feels much less so. But I think Boyle intended for this sequel to have a different energy for those reasons as things are different now for the characters and ourselves.

“Trainspotting 2” does traffic in nostalgia as several references to the original are made throughout, but it doesn’t get stuck there to where it comes across as a mere copy of what came before. Moreover, Boyle and Hodge show how these characters are stuck in a past they never fully escaped from. I also have to say it is daring of them to show these characters at this stage in their life as Hollywood is typically afraid of ageism more than they would ever legally admit. Just like in “Logan” and “Creed,” we are forced to see what the winds of change have done to those we grew up watching, and it isn’t always pleasant.

It’s great to see Ewan McGregor back working with Boyle, Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald. McGregor and had a huge falling out with Boyle when the director handed the lead role in “The Beach” over to Leonardo DiCaprio instead of him, and the two ended up not talking for years. Well, whatever happened is now water under the bridge, and it would certainly be unthinkable for Boyle to replace McGregor with another actor. While Renton has suffered through years of regret and decreased vitality, McGregor still brings much of the same boundless energy to the character as he did before. It’s also a thrill to see him engage in one of Renton’s “Choose Life” speeches, especially since it takes on a much more emotional dimension than ever before.

Jonny Lee Miller continues to bring a wonderfully perverted energy to his portrayal of Sick Boy as his criminal exploits are fueled by bitterness and large doses of cocaine. I was especially taken in by Ewan Bremmer’s portrayal of Spud which is funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. We are constantly reminded of how Spud is harmless to anyone but himself, and Bremmer makes the character’s ever so wounded pride all the more palpable throughout.

My hat is really off, however, to Robert Carlyle as he makes Begbie every bit as explosive and lethal as he did 20 years ago. Some actors lose their edge as they get older, but not Carlyle as Begbie is still a volcanic force of nature you best not be around if you value your physical well-being. At the same time, the actor brings an honest vulnerability to the character which is both unexpected and wrenching. It serves as a reminder of how much acting range Carlyle has. Remember, he went from playing Begbie to playing a loving father in “The Full Monty,” and I had to keep pinching myself to realize it was the same actor playing both roles.

In addition, I enjoyed Anjela Nedyalkova’s performance as Veronika, a working girl who sees right through all the men around her and gets to the truth they have yet to realize for themselves. She brings a confident and sassy energy to this sequel, and she is a strong addition to this strong quartet of actors. It was also nice to see Kelly Macdonald reprise her role as Diane who has since become a lawyer. She kept stealing the show from her male co-stars in the original, and she does it again here.

They say you can never go back, but “Trainspotting 2” shows you can, but never all the way. There is a mournful feel to this sequel, but it’s there for good reason. In watching these characters wonder how they ended up at this point in their lives, we are forced to examine our own lives and wonder how we got here. It’s an unnerving prospect for a movie to offer its viewers, but I’m glad this one did even though it almost left me on the verge of tears. There needs to be time for a re-examination of our lives and desires, and we have to find a way to make peace with our past. Boyle and company understand this, and they never back down from exploring these emotionally complicated themes.

The cast and crew of “Trainspotting” have given us a very worthy follow up to their original masterpiece, and it is backed up by strong acting, a kick ass soundtrack, and the invigorating visuals we can always count on Boyle putting up on the silver screen. Yes, “Trainspotting 2” was well worth the wait, but be prepared for it to take a piece out of you. And remember what Renton says: Choose life and be addicted to something good.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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