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‘The Ghost Writer,’ ‘Cop Out’ plus more movie reviews

“The Ghost Writer”

About 30 minutes into “The Ghost Writer” I began purring: Welcome back, Mr. Hitchcock. One might add, “Welcome back, Mr. Polanski,” except that director Roman Polanski, though long absent from our shores, needs no comeback. His films “The Pianist” (2002) and “Oliver Twist” (2005) were impeccably achieved. And 1999’s “The Ninth Gate” had some terrific elements before collapsing into hocus-pocus (or was that hokum-bogus?).

“The Ghost Writer,” an adult political indictment disguised as a suspense thriller, is superior overall to Hitchcock’s Cold War exercises “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz.” The story is a dart tossed at the war policies of George W. Bush and His Britannic Stooge, Tony Blair. The Blair figure is ex-PM Adam Lang, played with slightly mothballed charm and brusque temper by Pierce Brosnan. Lang is the smoothly cagey Blair plus a nasty morsel of Dick Cheney. Marginal targets include Condoleeza Rice and the vast Halliburton company, here called Hatherton (its cooing motto: “A shelter from harm”).

For Lang it is memoir time, but his chosen ghost writer washes up dead on a beach near the cold, sleek Martha’s Vineyard mansion loaned by the billionaire publisher to Lang and his entourage. The dead pencil left a long, dull manuscript peppered with obscure clues to unmentionable events. It takes some fretful time for the new ghost scribe (Ewan McGregor) to sleuth them out. A war crimes (Iraq mess) inquiry is in righteous pursuit of Lang, who feels harrassed in exile. (If you don’t see the cross-currents of this and Polanski’s everlasting legal situation, you are a stranger to irony.)

Ghost, as even he calls himself, is a fairly boyish gloss on Cary Grant’s suavely improvising, gray-suited plot pigeon in “North by Northwest.” That classic spent time at a Long Island estate. This film, largely made in Germany (script by Polanski and source novelist Robert Harris), mostly hangs around superb simulations of Martha’s Vineyard. Rain, mist and gray skies seep into the story, and nerves start to shred as pressure mounts. Alexandre Desplat’s score curtsies to the famous Hitchcock music of Bernard Herrmann. In perhaps his best film acting so far, McGregor is enjoyably subtle, with a slightly naïve, spaniel quality that invites our sympathy. His raised arm, as prelude to sex, is pure Brit wit.

The cast is a brace of aces, including Olivia Williams as Ruth, Lang’s embittered wife, who scorchingly despises his secretarial mistress (Kim Cattrall). Polanski also sharply slots Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi, Eli Wallach and, as a funny hotel receptionist, his own daughter Morgane. Tom Wilkinson, darn close to matching James Mason in “North by Northwest,” is a crusty professor, a virtual Harvard chapel of smug duplicity. Gazing at his framed photos of the elite, he intones with silken lassitude, “Oh yes, the wall of ego. We all have one, our equivalent of the dentist’s fish tank.”

Will the prime-ministerial memoir remain a mere ghost of scandal? Through creepy veils of nuanced style, and some violence, hidden forces move to keep the facts covered. McGregor finally indulges in cockiness reminiscent of Grant’s tactics at an auction, as Polanski carries neo-Hitch suspense to a gulpy, not pulpy finish. If not quite so much fun as Scorsese’s new noir pastiche, “Shutter Island,” as pure filming this is even more accomplished and satisfying. (Opens Friday at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas; rated PG-13) ★★★★

“Cop Out”

Having filmed “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” maybe Kevin Smith should have called his latest “Jimmy and Paul Flush a Movie.”

“Cop Out” is a comedy (not much) about cops (of a sort). Paul (Tracy Morgan) and Jimmy (Bruce Willis) bumble and buddy-buzz around Brooklyn, chasing generic scumballs while healing their mildly hurt, macho hearts (their women are love objects, but emotionally the film only exists in the male partnership).

Smith was recently asked to leave an airplane (no, not in flight) because of his weight. I kept wishing the same personnel would show up at “Cop Out” and demand that I exit my seat, due to bloated boredom. With its idiotic script by the brothers Cullen (Robb and Mark) and Smith’s spit-wad direction, “Cop Out” rapidly moves to its first oral sex joke and nonsensical spray of gunfire. More piously, the chief hoodlum prays, murders a man in church, then blithely resumes prayer.

Willis’ slightly crumpled cool exudes an air of this-too-shall-pass (hard to sympathize, as his next big one could be “Die Hard 5”). He often falls into reactive schtick with the more antic Morgan, the “30 Rock” star whose stand-up concert material is often blue verging on purple. Here he sticks closer to baby blue, goofing along cutely, often looking as if he hopes to parlay this joker into “The Flip Wilson Story: The Geraldine Years.” (Opens Friday; rated R) ★

“North Face”

The summer of 1936 was springtime for Hitler and German sport. Not only did the Third Reich win the most Olympic medals, but Leni Riefenstahl immortalized the Berlin games with “Olympia,” having already enshrined Hitler in “Triumph of the Will.” That summer, intrepid Germans were also supposed to “conquer” the northern, fearfully sheer wall of Switzerland’s Eiger peak (13,000 feet) although “North Face” offers no sense that the climbers had a swastika flag. In fact, their equipment and clothing seem scarily primitive.

Bronzed Übermensch Toni (Benno Furmann) is quietly anti-Nazi, while boyish partner and pal Andi (Florian Lukas) is non-political. The young reporter Luise (appealing Johanna Wokalek), so smitten by Toni, does not have “Aryan” features. Few swastikas are seen, and no views of Hitler. But Philipp Stolzl’s fact-based, partly faked movie makes clear that the Reich expected every climber to do his duty. Ready to pour on the Sieg Heils is Luise’s boss, the Berlin editor Arau (Ulrich Tukur, now as preeningly Nazi as he was Marxist playing a spymaster in “The Lives of Others”).

Riefenstahl came to fame as an actor in German Alpine adventures, and brought that eagle spirit into her grandiose documentaries. Stolzl slyly winks at the heritage. He and cinematographr Kolja Brandt, and some excellent climbers, are best at creating a raw-knuckled, machocentric adventure. What will be more hellish, going up or down? A tag-along Austrian pair (in fact they were full teammates of the Germans) complicates the climb quite painfully.

“North Face” has mountaineering as exciting as that in the fact-based “Touching the Void” (English subtitles should have skipped the phrase, “Hang in there!”). The element of glorious romance (fabricated?) makes us expect Wagner’s music to come pouring through the clouds. But when it deals with men, ropes and pieces of life-or-death metal, rather than politics and deathless love, “North Face” has real grip. (Opens Friday at Landmark Ken Cinema; unrated) ★★1/2

STARS: FOUR (ace), THREE (worthy), TWO (involving), ONE (dud), ZERO (nil)

RECOMMENDED (and current): “Avatar,” “The Ghost Writer,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Last Station,” “Shutter Island,” “The Wolf Man”

NEWS Etc.

Congratulazioni: After just three years of existence, the San Diego Italian Film Festival has, in its first bid, won recognition from the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. It received the highest rating (4) as a credible applicant for support, which means it should come into some funding when awards are granted this summer. The fest, small but rich in Italian flavor, has requested support for about a quarter of its nearly $50,000 non-profit budget. Victor Laruccia headed this effort, with key support from Cristina Chacon and Don Stadelli. Website: San Diego Italian Film Festival

Soul and Soil: The downtown library launches its March spread of free movies, delving into issues spiritual and material. Sophie Barthes’ “Cold Souls” (6:30 p.m. Monday, March 1) is a recent comedy in the vein of Gogol. Paul Giamatti whines again, this time as an American actor stuck doing Chekhov. He decides to put his frazzled soul in cold storage, which leads him to St. Petersburg, Russia, where the movie achieves fine vistas and some Slavic poignancy. Free next Wednesday (March 3), also at 6:30 p.m., is “Dirt! The Movie,” an acclaimed documentary on that most precious and widely exploited of surface resources, soil. The central library is at 820 E St., downtown.

DVD Dy-no-mite!!: Although it lacks Jimmie “J.J.” Walker, it does have former Cleveland cop Jimmy Walker Jr., as Roscoe. Spoofing a genre that parodied itself from the start, “Black Dynamite” is Michael Jai White’s salute to ‘70s blaxploitation films. White stars as a big dude with epic muscles and an often obtuse brain. He wrote and directed with love, and if you want to know why viewers often loved an often trashy run of exploitive movies, this is quite a clue (better than most of the originals).

All the funky stuff is here: pointless nudity, honky-baiting, racist thugs, stock footage, pimps, lousy editing, loud music, Afro-topped babes, clownish couture and revenge as a righteous calling. Arsenio Hall is Tasty Freeze, Tommy Davidson is gay Cream Corn, Bokeem Woodbine is Black Hand Jack, Obba Babatunde is Osiris, and there’s even a crafty parody of Dick and Pat Nixon. Finger-lickin’ fine, it’s from Sony for $25 (more for Blu-ray), with snacky extras as gravy.

A QUOTE (not a blurb!): “I like watching youth betray its promise. It lights up every number on my pinball machine.”– Robert Ryan as the editor Shrike, maybe the most despicable of film journalists, in “Lonelyhearts” (1958).

David Elliott is the SDNN movie critic.