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By Michael Calleri

Say what you will about director Roman Polanski's private life, and much has been said about it, there's no denying that the man is a great filmmaker.

After fleeing the United States in 1978 to avoid sentencing on criminal charges related to sex with an underage female, Polanski continued to make movies, but he has never been back on U.S. soil. At the 2003 Academy Award ceremony, actor Harrison Ford accepted Polanski's Oscar for directing "The Pianist." He had previously been nominated, but didn't win, for "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" and "Tess."

The director has long been fascinated with the terrors people face as they go about their everyday lives. Most of his films, such as the masterful "Repulsion," brilliantly use suspense as a tool of storytelling. During his life, Polanski has seen much that is horrifying, including the loss of his mother (half-Jewish, but raised Roman Catholic) during the Holocaust. His pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was one of the victims of the Manson family murders in 1969.

Now we have Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," and it's as good an example of extraordinary moviemaking as you are likely to see. Based on Robert Harris' thriller "The Ghost," the film is a thinly veiled look at the leadership style and public relations superficialities of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but in both the novel and the movie, this PM has deeper and darker secrets than Blair, which, of course, is only an assumption on my part.

Now retired, the film's prime minister -- one Adam Lang played by a flawless Pierce Brosnan -- has committed to writing a memoir. Brosnan perfectly captures the wistful look of a once-powerful man now reduced to making jogging and exercising seem exciting. Unfortunately, the first draft of the manuscript is a 600-page bore. And to make matters worse, the ghostwriter, named Mike McAra, has died under mysterious circumstances.

Enter a new ghostwriter, an unnamed chap wonderfully played by Ewan McGregor. His hiring is shown in a nifty London office sequence, which features actors James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Jon Bernthal and Tim Preece. After accepting the $250,000 paycheck, he quickly finds himself on a cold and stormy Martha's Vineyard, where Lang has been holed-up with his bodyguards, office staff, a gardener and a housekeeper/cook in a spectacularly modern vacation home owned by his wealthy publisher as he tries to finish the memoir by deadline.

Key among the residents of the home are Lang's dedicated wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his right-hand woman, the equally-dedicated Amelia (Kim Cattrall). I will note that the Langs have separate bedrooms, and Amelia seems to be the keeper of not only the political secrets, but also the matrimonial ones.

And there you have it: a fabulous house with many rooms (six of them being bedrooms), a fierce storm threatening, an amazing ocean view, a mystery about a dead body, some sexual fun and games, and a new ghostwriter. It does seems a little bit like Agatha Christie, doesn't it? Perhaps, but that's just the surface layer.

Beneath the facade of hard work and the polishing of a reputation, you'll find a stiletto of betrayal. One of Lang's former government cronies has gone to the World Court and accused him of committing war crimes because of his association with the American invasion of Iraq and the alleged torture of British subjects who are possible terrorists. Everything gets turned upside down as Lang has to defend himself against charges that could send him to prison. The media and protesters gather at the gate of the deluxe home.

Meanwhile, McGregor's character, curious about McAra's drowning after boarding a ferry boat from the mainland, discovers some interesting clues as to what's really going on inside the rabbit hole in which he finds himself. Add a crusty old islander with a unique point of view, played with Hitchcockian allure and genuine sparkle by 94-year-old Eli Wallach, as well as a moody spy type, nicely acted by Tom Wilkinson, and you've got a thriller that never flags and never lets you down.

Did I mention the secret code? Well, I have now.

"The Ghost Writer" is as much about spies and rendition as it is about how politicians are capable of putting a spin on murdering their own mothers. The movie examines the publicity machines the rich and powerful have at their beck and call, as well as the line someone crosses (in this case, the ghostwriter) when he pokes his nose too far into the hornet's nest that protects a plan so clever that even a paranoid would admire it.

The 76-year-old Polanski is at the top of his game here. He co-wrote the excellent screenplay with novelist Harris. The acting is top-notch on every level from the star parts to the smallest roles. I don't have to highlight any names because they are all superb. With production values that are solid and cinematography from Pawel Edelman that manages to make the color gray enticing, "The Ghost Writer" is the best movie I've seen so far this year.

Whither Jennifer Aniston? I've written this before, but every time she pops up in a new film, I have to write it again. She is better at acting as part of an ensemble cast on television than she is being the lead in one of her myriad failed romantic comedies. Something about her just doesn't pop on the screen. She also needs to stop crunching her smallish face so that her chin rises up and pushes into her crinkling nose. And darn it, Ms. Aniston, please stop fidgeting with your hair.

The movie's called "The Bounty Hunter," and in it Aniston is Nicole, a New York Daily News reporter with a high-end wardrobe that accentuates her breasts and a pair of legs highlighted by four-inch heels in which, it seems, she can run a marathon. Her ex-husband is a former cop down on his luck. Gambling debts and drinking lead to the demise of his career. Milo has a chip on his shoulder about everything, especially the failure of his marriage to Nicole. He's poorly played by a scruffy and pudgy Gerard Butler.

But as luck would have it, he's now a bounty hunter who just happens to snare the brass ring. Nicole grazed a police horse with her car, and she has to appear in court for a minor infraction. But because she's on a hot story involving an alleged suicide that might be a murder linked to a drug ring and dirty ex-cops, she doesn't appear at the courthouse, thus jumping bail.

This brings in the overeager Milo, who can't wait to slap the cuffs on her. However, he has his own reason to be wary. He's got gambling debts to pay and his bookie isn't happy. And she's got her goons on the loose looking for him.

This contrived and convoluted mess seems to have been written by committee, but only Sarah Thorp gets credit; therefore, we can blame her for this dismal, unfunny disaster.

Andy Tennant directed as if he never heard of pacing or editing. Aniston and the vastly overrated Butler have no chemistry whatsoever. There are a number of dreary scenes in hotel rooms that are only in the film so that we can see a fully clothed Aniston handcuffed to a bed. Seriously, Jennifer, who on your team finds this funny? To whom are you trying to appeal?

Here's my advice: Fire your agent and start over. You are being poorly served. As is any audience that pays to see this stultifying and boring absurdity.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 23, 2010