massachusetts, then and now

I recently watched a couple of movies which were set in Massachusetts. Other than that, though, they were very different.

One was The Ghost Writer. It was really enjoyable, and it reminded me in a couple of ways of The Ninth Gate, which I still intend to review at some point [later: I did]. Nobody mentions the connections, though, because The Ninth Gate was made during the time when nobody was paying any serious attention to what Roman Polanski was doing (i.e., before The Pianist).

In both The Ghost Writer and The Ninth Gate a not-so-innocent man is hired for a project (in both cases involving a book) that turns out to be a lot more complex and dangerous than it appears at first. The mystery requires him to travel and interview various creepy people who are pretty obviously concealing secrets. The ending is even similar in some ways (spoiler follows).

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The main similarity, though, is that each is about something big (in one case: politics, war, duplicity, and torture; in the other case: god and the devil) but in both movies the Big Subject is pretty much a MacGuffin. Adam Lang in The Ghost Writer is obviously Tony Blair, but it is not primarily a political thriller. It takes the political situation as a starting point and uses it, as Hitchcock did so many times, as the foundation for an entertainment. This is another similarity to The Ninth Gate, which was a movie about Satan and Satanists made by someone who is not religious.

The Ghost Writer is not on the level of the best Hitchcock, but it's really good, including some great performances (especially Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams as the ex-Prime Minister and his wife, plus Eli Wallach as a wise old Cape Codder and Tom Wilkinson as a mysterious professor). The movie consistently uses suspense and humor, rather than "gotcha" surprises. Even the house where the ex-Prime Minister is holed up with his staff is spooky in a modern way, exactly the type of house that non-Cape people with too much money build on the Cape.

The other Massachusetts movie I watched, at least briefly, was The Bostonians (Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala, starring Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave). As I said before, I'm re-reading the book, and I remembered watching the movie and not liking it, but I didn't remember why. So, I rented it and watched about fifteen minutes of it, enough to remind me.

The main problem, of course, is that adapting Henry James for the screen is a sucker's game. There is no substitute for that authorial voice, and showing the plain events of the story without it is pointless. And for this novel, most importantly, you lose the entire effect of the ending (one of my favorite endings ever).

But the other problem, which I realized almost immediately, was that Vanessa Redgrave was far too old to play Olive Chancellor. In the novel, Olive and Verena are fairly close in age. Verena is a few years younger, but Olive is definitely in her twenties. In the movie, she is clearly old enough to be Verena's mother. Which, to put it mildly, changes the dynamics of their relationship.

For a lot of characters, age really matters. As I've said before, as much as I like Robert Downey Jr., I don't want him to play Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice. Imagine Vicki Cristina Barcelona with Vicki and Cristina being in their forties and you see the point.


I'm watching Let Me In right now, and it would be a pretty good movie if it wasn't a very close remake of a much better movie (even a lot of the dialog comes right from the "good" subtitles of the original). Plus, it has annoying music, the kind that tells you how you should be responding to everything that happens on screen, in case you're not paying close enough attention.

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