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Apparently, Polanski's Problems Aren't Just Off Screen: The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer limps along when it should really crackle, stumbling over aspects of its story that a bit of better plotting would probably remedy.


The Ghost Writer

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-08-03 (Limited release)
UK date: 2010-08-03 (General release)
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Trailer

Abandon hope all ye who enter here for you will not be seeing an unheralded masterpiece by one of film's final auteurs. While his name has been bandied about more for his recent return run-in with the law, Roman Polanski remains a brilliant filmmaker with a considered oeuvre. Sure, he sullied it along the way, be it with admissions of statutory rape, or movies like Pirates, but when you carry a canon that contains the likes of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and The Tenant, we can forgive a few Bitter Moons along the way. His latest, an adaptation of Robert Harris' political thriller The Ghost, may seem like a natural for the aging artist. But in a world where the genre has been overdone to death, nothing Polanski brings to the mix is new, novel…or entertaining.

After the mysterious death of a previous scribe, a professional ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is brought in to oversee the quick turnaround of a disgraced ex-British Prime Minster's (Pierce Brosnan) memoirs. Within minutes of taking the job, the politico is up on charges of war crimes. Soon, stories and historic facts aren't adding up and our hero believes that there is something suspicious between his subject, his spurned wife (Olivia Williams) and a Harvard Professor (Tom Wilkinson) who knew them both when they were in college. With the help of a highly placed aide (Kim Cattrall) and his own natural curiosity, our guide will unravel the various mysteries and links between the parties, as well as connect them all to the initial "accident" which brought him to the sinister situation in the first place.

It's a shame when someone you respect goes all predicable on you, when every edge-of-your-seat turn is telegraphed by familiarity with the artform and knowledge of the narrative type. Simply peel off the particulars of Roman Polanski's latest (now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Summit Entertainment) and you'll understand the sad sense of familiarity. Naïve young writer willing to sell his soul for a substantial payday? He'll find himself head over heels in a deadly cabal before long. Pompous former UK executive who pleads innocence while the world argues over his guilt? You just know there's some truth wedged in between all the twisted plot points. The disgruntled wife, wary of the closeness between her husband, his assistant/mistress, and the new young stud in the house? Oh, she'll soon be turning up in the writer's bed. And what about the ominous threats and suggestions of secrets lying "at the beginning"? They will surely pay off in a last act denouement that will be as underwhelming as it is unnecessary.

Indeed, if The Ghost Writer wanted to be daring and different, Polanski should have trashed Robert Harris' by-the-numbers novel and stuck with updating the storyline, staying specifically in the realm of the recent War on Terror. Then he could tweak the telling, offer ambiguous answers and unclear solutions, playing with our perception of such material and our anticipation of how it should pay off. Going all homage and Hitchcockian on us doesn't really cut it. Polanski has always been about edge, not the easy. A great parallel is the recent work by Martin Scorsese in the sensational Shutter Island. Both men clearly understand the language of film and the demands of the artform. Their vision is keen and clear. But while one plays around with it, manipulating and perverting both aspects to breathe new life into an old genre, the other just pretties things up, stands on his reputation, and calls it a day.

Polanski has been playing too nice as of late, lingering over his post-exile choices with more misses (The Ninth Gate, Oliver Twist) than hits (an Oscar for The Pianist). While his celebrity continues to generate more buzz than his obvious talents, it's clear that the crafty creativity he showed in the '70s has since dissipated. The Ghost Writer is a good looking film, filled with high tech settings and gloomy New England glitz. Brosnan's temporary home is the kind expensive space that generates more stares than comforts, and the rainy, windblown backdrop supposedly symbolizes the constant narrative storm on the horizon. But none of it generates much suspense…or surprise. We know that McGregor will at least get to the end of the mystery - there are just too many ambiguous conversations to leave his detective work so incomplete.

Even the actors appear in on the redundancy, playing each scene like they know something the audience currently doesn't (but will discover shortly). Brosnan's smirk is so omnipresent it's apparent even when he's not in the scene. Similarly, Kim Cattrall is trying for something akin to misunderstood home wrecker. She's all arched back and equally quizzical eyebrows. Every one of Olivia Williams' reactions illustrate her clearly guilty conscious, while a late in the second act appearance by Tom Wilkinson offers a similar amount of "I did it" demeanor. Again, if Polanski were asking his actors to purposefully give away their position in the plot, we might appreciate the game. But McGregor is so wide-eyed and blank as our hero that we can't help but think he's in on the joke as well.

Pushing ever onward, the two hour plus pacing runs out of ideas around the same time that the audience runs out of patience. There are just too many scenes of frigid walks against gray skied, wave-swept beaches, pointless conversations with aging icons from eons past (Eli Wallach is almost unrecognizable) offering little in the way of valuable clues. In fact, what The Ghost Writer is missing mostly is potential red herrings. We don't get much information at first, and then are suddenly swept up in a CIA/war crimes contingency that appears to come out of the radical side of left field. Connections are coincidental and so readily apparent that even an amateur sleuth could easily pick them out…and then the 'word find' puzzle finale foils even the most mannered attempt at logic (surely an editor worth their salt would pick this out).

All of these elements would work in book form, where a heroic image of the valiant investigative ghost writer picking apart a well crafted conspiracy resonates with pure prosaic nuance. We follow it faithfully because no one is trying to illustrate our own internal Sherlock Holmes. But Polanski, even in this minor key, fails to manufacture the same kind of interest level. As a result, The Ghost Writer limps along when it should really crackle, stumbling over aspects of its story that a bit of better plotting would probably remedy. Harris' novel, for what it's worth, is probably guilty of the same self-evident failures. But we expect more from one of the best filmmakers of the post-modern era, someone whose present infamy easily matches his cinematic skills. Roman Polanski is capable of more. The Ghost Writer, sadly, is an example of less - a lot less.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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