A (Halloween) Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) 10.18.15

One could say to some degree of authenticity that William Friedkin’s original “The Exorcist” (1973) is the “scariest” horror film of all time. It could also be said that Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) is the most “well made” horror film of all time. If both of these are true, which I personally believe them to be, than Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) is the most disturbing horror film of all time.

What a lot of people don’t know, or think of when they think of the great Polish director Polanski, is how significant of a contribution 3 of his films were that he made across the sixties and seventies. In fact, his 1-2-3 punch of “Repulsion” (1966), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and “The Tenant” (1976), otherwise known as Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”. Are maybe the three single greatest examples of psychological horror that were released following on the foot heels of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) — still considered by many to be the first psychological horror film of all time. But of the three, “Rosemary’s Baby” was Polanski’s most successful film (it was made on a modest (even for then) budget of 3.2 million and brought home 10 times that at the box office) as well as his being his most highly regarded. But what really became clear and true to me upon this viewing, the first time I had ever seen it on the big screen, was how timeless the film actually seems. Even now 47 years later it doesn’t even in the remotest bit seem outdated at all. And still packed just as much of a wallop now as one could only imagine it did then.

Since most people I know have either a) never seen this film or b) haven’t seen it in many years or in some cases decades Iike me (I think my first and last viewing of it before this night was as a teenager in the mid nineties) I will provide a short synopsis. The story revolves around Rosemary Woodhouse (the excellent and superb Mia Farrow) and her husband (the great director and actor John Cassevetes) who move in to their dream home apartment in an upper crust section of New York City. The two are trying to get pregnant with their first child, and seemingly want to be left alone. That is until they meet their neighbors (played by the effectively creepy Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon — the latter of whom’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination and win for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars the following year). In fact, they start to meet a circle of friends, and as their life grows increasingly complicated, particularly that of Rosemary’s, when they start to feel surrounded and everything seems to be mysteriously linked, out the door goes their idea of marital security and as the story progresses it is revealed that everything isn’t what it seems and those people around them just might have other ideas for how they want Rosemary’s pregnancy to go once she does find out for certain that she is pregnant with her first child.

Polanski here tackles a number of different themes, some of which would become his signature trademark ones, but those in which up to this point in film history, had never been explored on-screen. Betrayal, corruption, marital trust, the illusion of friends and family, the boundaries of sanity, the mysteries of women’s psyches, as well as urban hysteria, all are expertly interwoven into Polanski’s Oscar nominated adapted screenplay. Many of the film’s iconic scenes and characters from the film are etched into viewers minds forever. Farrow hunched over a kitchen sink gnawing raw animal flesh, the dreamscape rape/consummation which is far more unsettling for what is suggested than actually shown. Ruth Gordon’s evolving over the film from friendly elderly neighbor to something much more sinister, and the film’s grand finale, with Rosemary entering “the gathering” of people in her apartment building with a knife. But even despite these completely and totally unnerving scenes, it is the overall Satanic aspect of the film that really makes your skin crawl and taps into some of our own’s most visceral fears.

Polanski’s magnificent weaving together of these elements as well as his masterful manipulation of these existential fears are what gives the film’s its true raw power. As previously hinted at, time has done nothing to diminish the film’s taut and meticulously focused building sense of dread and unspeakable horror. And for those of you who like me that are previously familiar with the film it can only keep them in awe of Polanski’s fine attention to detail, his rhythm and pacing, the skill in which he films his actors and the performances he gets out of them, and the fine script he adapts for the screen. Which all make it a landmark achievement and contribution to the horror genre, and truly one of the finest examples, certainly one of the first and most daring, original psychological horror films ever put on-screen. One that will go down in history as one of my top 3 favorite horror films of all time.

[A+]

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A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Ex Machina” 4.18.15

Ex Machina - Original UK Quad

I suppose it was just a matter of time before novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut. Having been in the business for fifteen years now Garland was first introduced to the film industry when his novel, “The Beach”, was adapted in 2000 by a little known guy named Danny Boyle. Boyle would hire Garland to write the screenplay for his next film, “28 Days Later” (2002), which basically was the screenplay and film that was solely responsible for every zombie movie or TV show to come after it. The two would collaborate again in 2007 in what’s still one of my favorite Science Fiction films of the aughts – “Sunshine” (2007), a mostly under-seen, overlooked, and under-appreciated effort except for many film critics and die-hard Sci Fi fans like myself. A mere three years later, and Garland would once again pen the screenplay for another innovative music video turned feature film director, Mark Romanek, in 2010’s brilliant “Never Let Me Go”. Garland has mostly remained relatively dormant for the past five years or so, except for writing the screenplay for the mostly forgettable “Dredd” remake (2012). When this film first caught my attention it was because it was Garland’s first foray into writing and directing. And well, given his track record up to this point in his career as a screenwriter, I quickly took note of it and put it on my list of upcoming movies to see. Especially because after having seen the trailer I thought to myself it could be something that had the potential to be a new and fresh entry into the Sci Fi genre. Which in my opinion, next to maybe horror, is the single most difficult genre to create something original because like horror, often times the genre has a tendency to rehash something that we’ve already seen. That and as anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am becoming more and more of an Oscar Isaac fan, who by the looks of it, seemed to play a pretty considerable role in the film.

The movie begins by introducing to a computer programmer, one of those brainy types who writes code named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson from last year’s “Frank”, also coincidentally Brendan Gleeson’s son, who starred in “28 Days Later”). He’s shown in front of a computer at work, and the director sets up a nice establishing segment where his co-workers are muted in the background, but through a series of text messages and them circling in around him clapping, we find out that he’s won something big. That something is a week long trip out to the very exclusive home (or compound if you want to call it that) of the once 13-year old scientific prodigy who’s now somewhere in his forties. A CEO named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in an experiment shrouded in secrecy. After a long helicopter trip over a beautiful lavish mountain range (“wow these mountains are beautiful” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who responds “yes Nathan has done very well for himself”) which tips off the audience to how wealthy and powerful of a man Nathan really is (a guy with the prominence of say a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) Caleb soon after is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and once at the compound, he meets the rather eccentric and reclusive Nathan, who explains to Caleb he will be involved in a series of tests with a specially designed AI (artificial intelligence) android specimen he’s created named “Ava” to conduct a “Turing test” (interestingly enough a film was made just last year about how the Turing tests came to be in “The Imitation Game” where Benedict Caumberbatch played Alan Turing, the man ultimately responsible for their creation). These tests measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable, from that of a human (a theme clearly inspired by the granddaddy of all Science Fiction films – Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) ). Through a series of “sessions” (as the title cards display on the screen) both Caleb and Ava form a friendship that at first seems solely for experimental purposes, but one that develops into something greater as the series of sessions progress. This is the central core of the story and as it develops, the plot takes a number of twists and turns particularly as Ava’s creator Nathan gets more and more involved in how he wants things, and tries to make every effort to ensure, that his “experiment” has the desired effect he seems to set out to achieve. With both Caleb and Ava have agendas of their own.

This was a deeply thought-provoking and heady Science Fiction film, chock full of existential ideas and themes that had my “thinking cap/light switch on” from its first frame to its final one. Garland proves here that he is just a strong a director as he is a writer. Filming the movie (with the exception of the very beginning, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s compound) from the inside looking out. He does an excellent job at reeling the audience in to a very specific type of environment. The compound is filmed exquisitely using an impeccable lighting design of mostly neon lit colors along with a sterile environment, an environment that looks like something only someone like Steven Soderbergh could pull off, with both the framing and film composition looking extravagant. Much should be said for the breathtakingly believable android Ava played by Alicia Vikander. If people thought Spike Jonze did an excellent job at recreating a robot’s “voice” to sound believable in 2013’s “Her”. This movie one ups it and shows an android who in the flesh, is the most realistic looking adroid we’ve seen since films like “Blade Runner” and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s take on AI in “Artificial Intelligence” (2001). Gleeson shines here as his relationship with Ava comes across acharmingly authentic and thoroughly engaging. A relationship that was so convincing one might only imagine their own selves taking the same course if they were put in Caleb’s shoes. Ava is so human-like mentally, physically, and emotionally that the film ponders the question of whether or not a machine can be made to be more real than that of a human (drawing similarities to the computer program HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) ). Oscar Isaac puts in yet another great performance as what I referred to after the film as the “mad scientist”. He shows many colors and shades of his character as the film progresses, and through the audience’s constant second guessing of his motivations and agendas is a big compliment to the way in which his character is written. The film also contains a deeply haunting and atmospheric score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury of the famed trip-hop group Portishead that blends itself in perfectly with the picture. This being their first foray into feature film composition. The music was just as impressive as anything Atticus Ross or Trent Reznor have done with the last three David Fincher films.

This wound up being a very rewarding entry into the Science Fiction genre which in my opinion, was the most well constructed and perfectly executed Sci Fi film since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). As the film takes on many different shapes and forms throughout combining elements of everything from heady Science Fiction, to full-blown thriller, teetering at times in borderline psychological horror. Which is accessible enough to please both indie/art house and commercial audiences alike. This marks a monumental directorial debut for Alex Garland, who I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next, which also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year that should and will be talked about for years to come.

[A-]