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Robert Harris

The Ghost Writer

An empty ferry dock is a great place for ghosts.

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Feb. 17, 2010]

Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer was thrilling when first seen back in February, and with the end of 2010 in sight it remains my favorite first-time movie encounter of the year. Polanski and his picture have been honored in Europe, though I doubt whether Hollywood has been paying attention. With one minor factual tweak (I just watched it again yesterday), here’s what I said back then about the film. -RTJ

There is a sequence in the Hitchcock classic Foreign Correspondent when Joel McCrea and his comrades, in a car pursuing another car bearing a man who just carried out a very public assassination in the city they’ve left behind, round a curve and see … an empty road and miles of windmills (it’s Holland). This is one of the cinema’s sublimely creepy moments. How did that car disappear in an infinity of nothingness? Where’s the assassin? And why are the vanes of one windmill turning in the opposite direction from the others?

Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer sustains something like that creepiness for most of its running time. Not so much because of its mystery-suspense plot, reportedly faithful to the Robert Harris novel (Harris and Polanski share screenplay credit). Nor because, the presence of Pierce Brosnan notwithstanding, it strews action set-pieces like a James Bond movie – it doesn’t, though a drive through drizzly New England woods is more riveting than most movie car chases. No, The Ghost Writer is tense, unsettling and deeply thrilling because of the way a master filmmaker looks at the world.

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Spartacus on Blu-ray — Just what is “good enough”?

Among the featured reviews at my MSN home video column this week is Universal’s Blu-ray edition of Spartacus: 50th Anniversary. While I didn’t watch the entire Blu-ray (my review of the film itself was based on earlier viewings of the film, including the Criterion DVD), I viewed over an hour of the disc and found that it looked quite good, an improvement over Criterion’s 2001 DVD in clarity, if not quite in color, which I found it tilting a little toward red in the skin tones, but not to any egregious level. (For the record, I have a Panasonic 50-inch plasma screen that is now about three years old.)

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus: Do I look waxy to you?

But I also found a small but fierce uprising taking Universal to task for an inferior job of mastering, led by film archivist and restoration expert Robert Harris, who produced the 1991 theatrical reconstruction and restoration. (I thought about framing this with Harris a modern-day Spartacus leading a consumer uprising against the corporate masters, with Universal standing in for Rome, but thought better of it.) In a post in the Home Theater Forum (launching a thread numbering over 200 posts as of this writing), Harris decries the loss of detail due to the overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR) technology on ten-year-old HD master, instead of returning to the original materials with the latest technology and create a new, definitive HD master. There are some excellent frame captures at the AV Science Forum that support his criticisms. The comparisons between the DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray images show greater clarity in the high-def formats, but also a “waxy,” smoothed-over quality, especially in the human faces. On DVD, we see a softness of detail, but on Blu-ray the increased film clarity is accompanied by increased digital grain.

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