GHOST TOWN (A-3, PG-13): Uptight
and selfish Dr. Bertram
Pincus (Ricky Gervais) dies
during a medical procedure, comes back
to life and is able to see dead people, including
Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear).
These good but somewhat flawed souls
want Pincus to help them make things
right with their loved ones.
Frank badgers the unwilling Pincus
to make friends with Frank’s wife,
Gwen (Téa Leoni), and prevent
her from marrying again. But
Pincus and Gwen fall in love.
Ghost Town is deliciously funny
and, for the most part, avoids the
extremes of contemporary lowbrow
comedies that can offend
cultural sensibilities. It doesn’t
retread old material, although
aspects reminded me of M. Night
Shyamalan’s film The Sixth Sense and CBS’s series The Ghost Whisperer.
Ghost Town retains its originality
because it is so funny and
because Pincus needs to be transformed
as a human being, before he
really dies. He has no significant relationships,
and his antisocial self-centered
behavior is killing him spiritually.
He is challenged by his partner
in the dental practice to start helping
others because that is the only way to
live a meaningful life.
While the film does not speak explicitly
of heaven, hell or purgatory, it can
be interpreted as an allegory of the afterlife,
similar to the “Purgatorio” section
of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine
Comedy. Ghost Town, however, has a
heart of humor that will make you smile,
thanks to clever writing, directing and
Gervais’s consummate comedic talent.
Some problem language and sexual humor.
BURN AFTER READING
BURN AFTER READING (L, R): Joel and
Ethan Coen’s convoluted sketch opened
the Venice International Film Festival
in August to great acclaim by the Italian
press. The plot involves Osbourne
Cox (John Malkovich), an unhappily
married C.I.A. agent, who gets fired
and begins to write his memoirs. The
CD of the unfinished manuscript falls
into the hands of two gym trainers,
Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad
(Brad Pitt). Pitt is hilarious.
Cox’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is
having an affair with Harry (George
Clooney), a paranoid, hypochondriac
ex-Secret Service agent. Via an online
dating service, Harry meets Linda, who
needs money for plastic surgery.
The story increases in complexity
and hilarity when Linda and Chad think
Cox’s CD contains state secrets: They
decide to sell it to the Russians. But neither
the head of the C.I.A. (played by
J.K. Simmons), nor the Russians, take
these two numbskulls seriously.
The cast also includes Richard Jenkins
as Ted, the gym owner who loves Linda.
His performance in The Visitor earlier
this year may gain him an Oscar nod.
The political “ideology” (if it can be
called that) of Burn After Reading is that
government, spies and the public in
general are mostly idiots—though
highly entertaining ones at that.
George Clooney’s performance
alone proves this.
If there is a subtext, perhaps it
is saying that random chaos may
help us see political reality more
clearly but, then again, maybe
not. Everyone breaks all the rules,
and there is a reckoning of sorts.
True to the filmmaking legacy
of the Coen brothers (Fargo, O
Brother, Where Art Thou?), Burn
After Reading is very funny, irreverent
and smart. The Coens are
laughing all the way to the bank
with their low-effort, low-budget
cash cow, and no one is burning
anything. Some gross sexual references,
served with a bit of brief, intense and
unexpected violence (with very little, if
any, socially redeeming value).
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (not yet rated,
R): Kym (Anne Hathaway), who has
been in and out of rehab since she
was 16, comes home for her sister
Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding.
Their divorced parents, Paul (Bill Irwin)
and Abby (Debra Winger), have new
Although Paul is thrilled to see his
beautiful, mouthy, chain-smoking
daughter, Rachel is hesitant to have
the toxic Kym around. Paul does everything
he can to keep peace in the house.
The high point comes when Kym confronts
her mother over the past.
Director Jonathan Demme (The Silence
of the Lambs) has taken a snappy script
about a dysfunctional family by Jenny
Lumet (daughter of director Sidney Lumet) and made what he hopes will be
the “best home-wedding video” ever.
He uses a handheld technique that does
provide a cinema verité feel, but it is
not restful viewing.
Hathaway proves that she can really
act and her efforts here may rightly
garner Oscar attention. The multicultural
texture of the film felt a little
forced to me, but the family at the
heart of the story seemed real enough.
This is one movie about someone in a
12-step program that avoids clichés,
provides insight and has the potential
to spark authentic conversations. Some
problem language and sex.
THE DUCHESS (A-3, PG-13): Based on real
events, Keira Knightley is brilliant as
young Georgiana Spencer-Cavendish,
who marries the much-older Duke of
Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes).
The film follows Georgiana (pronounced George-ayna) from innocent
naiveté to her husband’s affair with
her best friend. There is no morality in
this social universe but cultural standards
that pass as such. A woman cannot
transgress these except at her peril.
Georgiana lived during the same
period of which Jane Austen wrote.
There was much similarity in the lives
of these aristocratic English women.
Knightley’s nuanced performance deserves
Oscar attention. Strong sexual
content and non-graphic rape scene.
RELIGULOUS (O, R): Late-night HBO
comedian Bill Maher (Real Time With
Bill Maher) has made a true “mockumentary,”
a film that takes issue with
organized religion: Protestantism, Catholicism,
Judaism and Islam.
Maher, sounding skeptical rather than
angry, is convinced that faith in religion
is a neurological disorder. With the
exception of two Catholic priests and
one or two others, Maher has found
the most uninformed members of each
religion; many are, indeed, ridiculous.
Though well-intentioned, these folks
are either unable to articulate the reasons
for their faith or offer absurd explanations.
Thus, Maher’s conviction that
religion is poison is confirmed.
The way the filmmakers juxtapose
some images with the interviews makes
most of the people look pretty stupid.
Some of the images are obscene and
offensive. Maher sees only the negative
side of religion; he never acknowledges
the great good that is done in
the world in the name of God.
Maher, raised a Catholic, has dumped
everything he knows about these religions
into a frustrating stew. He makes
solid points about the need for believers
to ask questions. Some good laughs
but, above all, a challenge to believers to
explain the faith within.
THE MENTALIST (CBS, Tuesdays):
Simon Baker (The
Guardian) is back on prime-time
TV as Patrick Jane, a former TV
psychic turned independent investigator
who incites people to tell the
truth. The show is billed as an “antiprocedural
[police] procedural” in the
continually burgeoning police state of
Why are we so fascinated with this
genre that studios keep rehashing? Is it
solving mysteries, fighting for truth
and justice and winning that attract
viewers, or is it a fascination with the
role of cops and criminals in our culture?
It’s something to think about during
IN PLAIN SIGHT (USA) was launched this
past summer and is scheduled to return
in 2009 (check listings for repeats). The
series is a twist on the police/criminal/
Mary McCormack stars as a lapsed
Catholic agent. Cristián de la Fuente
plays her erstwhile boyfriend. It follows
the struggle to keep people in the
Witness Protection Program. Although
the series is probably not award-worthy,
it’s watchable enough.