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 Even now 47 years later it doesn’t even in the remotest bit seem outdated at all.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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Weekly Roundup DVD Reviews: “Hungry Hearts” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (6/8-6-12)


This was yet another film much like the “Seven Five” documentary that piqued my interest mainly because of the comparisons in which it compared itself to as read by the poster’s tagline. “Reminiscent of Hitchcock and the earlier works of Roman Polanski”. Which is a bit of a dubious endorsement indeed, but one in which I found myself drawn to. Anyone that knows me well enough knows that I think of both Hitch’s films of the 1960’s – “Psycho” (1960) and “The Birds” (1963) and Polanski’s 1-2 punch of both “Repulsion” (1965) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) to be the “birth” of American horror (as was George A Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead”) (1968). So with that in mind I thought if this one lived up to half of the hype that it showed the potential to be, even despite its mostly less than favorable reviews, I almost considered it something just based on that alone to warrant my seeing it.

The film is a “meta-exercise” revolving around Adam Driver’s character falling in love with an actress who I was previously unfamiliar with prior to seeing this film, Alba Rohrwacher, who is really the star of the film even in spite of Driver’s great performance. It’s essentially a piece about mental illness and how the birth of a child’s couple can separate themselves from one another as each seems to have his or her own’s agenda of how it should be raised, in what starts off as a marriage that shows great promise which inevitably unfolds into two people who couldn’t be more different as told through their raising on the child, to a sort of cosmopolitan pseudo-horror film about the natures of inner fears and anxieties that drew a lot of comparisons, at least for me, to the two Polanski films mentioned above. Ti West used a similar structure beautifully in 2009’s “House of the Devil”. And while this film drew many comparisons, particularly to that and especially Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, I found it to be unique enough and singular to separate itself from those films. The story and direction by newcomer Italian director Saverio Costanzo should please film buffs and fans of earlier, more psychological horror, more than their contemporary counterparts. It’s greatest strong point (like the early Polanski films) depicting what it’s like to live in a big city (NYC) but one in which a very isolated world or bubble is created in which to protect your children (or in this case child) from. Driver, whom I was mostly unfamiliar despite his work in the past two Noah Baumbach performances puts in a rather performance here as a man on the verge of hysteria as he falls in and out of love with his wife (another great performance by newcomer Rohrwacher), in a film that probably was mostly misunderstood by critics, as it’s a nice companion piece to the psychological family horror films of old. Despite some low production value issues and choppy editing, along with a questionably predictable ending, this is one that’s definitely worth checking out even despite these relatively minor criticisms & somewhat jarring shifts in narrative tone. [soft B]

My second viewing of the week was the highly anticipated “rock-doc” about the life and work of Kurt Cobain – “Montage of Heck”. Admittedly I’ve seen just about every documentary, live concert, or stock interview footage of the late artist up to this point. However, seeing in that it was made and produced by HBO Documentaries and promoted itself as being the quitessential documentary on Cobain. An artist whose work, like legions of fans around the world, I deeply admire. As mentioned in the title of this piece, Kurt Cobain was without question Generation X’s version of John Lennon. Many people don’t realize this but Nirvana was the most successful band in the history of American music. And Cobain was their spokesperson. So to do a comprehensive documentary on an artist of his caliber must have been a daunting task to say the least. Especially considering how the media played such an integral role in how he was viewed and represented in the eyes of the public. So going into it I was a bit apprehensive and skeptical that they could possibly do justice to an artist whose like and work was and has been shrouded in such misrepresentation.

The documentary starts off strong presenting us with Cobain’s childhood in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington. Through a series of interviews we find out quite a bit about his biological mother and father, both of whom I hadn’t really seen speak much of if anything at all about their son Kurt until this film. It does a nice job explaining how his mostly nice upbringing was shattered by his parents’ divorce, and how he never really recuperated from that part of his life. It then quickly skims (one of my critiques of the piece – they show his despair of being a teenager – an outcast if you will, most likely because of family problems, to his jump 5 years later being a guitarist for Nirvana when they were first starting out. I would have liked to have seen more footage from family and close ones who were around for that period about how he even became a musician. Instead of just focusing on the unhappy, rebellious child that the film makes him out to be. It then leaps ahead in its second quarter to show us Nirvana’s giant leap from club act to Geffen signed artists, and the enormous popularity that they earned by their debut album – “Nevermind”. Once we as a viewer understand the international impact that Nirvana had on the scene at the time, which I thought was nicely told, it delves straight into the relationship with Cobain and Courtney Love, lead singer of the rock band Hole. This halfway point basically sums up the rest of the documentary, as the filmmakers place (and understandably so), the impact that Courtney had on Kurt’s life. They were a match made in heaven. Both pissed off artists manifested from the troubles of their youth. Whose goal seemed to be some sort of side show freak show circus act to let the public know how really little of a fuck they thought about them. Becoming slaves to heroin and garnering a lot of negative attention from the press.

It’s about as comprehensive of a documentary as I’ve ever seen into the trails and tribulations of the late Cobain, with a major emphasis on his marriage and child who was born (sadly) addicted to drugs. It also does a great job in depicting Nirvana and Cobain’s rapid rise to fame. While also painting a rather sad, depressing portrait of a man who succumbed to his own personal demons in the end. Which the film takes an unflinching look at while not being afraid to show the dark side of both Kurt and Courtney’s relationship, but also that of Cobain’s tortured soul. Anybody that knows anybody that has an appreciation of music knows how significant Cobain’s contribution was to music. But in the end, despite his undeniable talent, fame, and popularity, really all he was was just another junkie. [B]

Two Trips To The Movies – Review: ‘Gone Girl’ 10.3 and 10.5

There is something special about seeing a new film on opening night by one of the most celebrated directors of the past 20 years. There’s a certain feeling or excitement that goes along with it that is difficult to put into words. Take for example when Martin Scorcese released “The Departed” in 2006. I was living in Portland, Maine at the time and had been following the news on it through pre production, filming, and post production; and knew that it was filmed in/around the Boston area. Being in that Boston was 2 hours (only 2 hours) away, I knew right then and there that I would be making every effort to see it opening night in the city it was filmed in as I thought it would only add to the authenticity of the whole experience. Seeing a new Scorsese movie, one that was being hailed as a return to his “Goodfellas” and “Casino” roots, with a sold out crowd on opening night in the city it was filmed in? There really isn’t anything like it. At least for me anyway. Even if I did wind up ultimately being let down by it. It’s the waiting in line for over an hour with people who are equally as excited, to finally being let in by the usher who unhooks the rope, and then finding yourself a good seat. Only to sit back among the buzz of the audience and prepare yourself for something that you’ve waited so long to see. That exact feeling and experience is one that I’ve only felt and had maybe a half a dozen to a dozen times in my life. It’s like the rush of a drug, and one that I’m constantly trying to chase again. When I first heard about “Gone Girl” all I needed to know was that it was directed by David Fincher, and from that point forward I made a cognizant choice to close myself off from everything about it. I did however catch the initial trailer while seeing another film several months ago and remember thinking “huh, that trailer didn’t tell me anything. And I’m glad it didn’t. Because from that point forward I wanted to know absolutely nothing about it. Even going into the opening night showing I knew 4 things – that it was based on a New York Times Bestseller, that it starred Ben Affleck (who I had my doubts about) and involved a kidnapping (the only 2 things I could make out from the trailer). And, finally, that it was directed by David Fincher. Fincher is one of maybe 10 directors (Roman Polanski being another one that I mentioned in my last review) where I’ve seen just about every film he’s made. Going all the way back to his debut with the horrible 1992 “Alien 3” (I gave him a pass with that one – he was young and probably thought it would kick start his career ) to his groundbreaking “Se7en” (1995), to 1997’s smart and clever “The Game”, to 1999’s admirable but slightly overrated “Fight Club”, to 2002’s mostly forgetabble “Panic Room”, to what I still consider to be my favorite Fincher film – 2007’s “Zodiac”, to 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (a film where I’m in the minority but that I find comparable to “Forrest Gump”), to 2010’s remarkable “The Social Network”, and finally 2012’s solid and equally dark adaptation of the remake of the Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. David Fincher is one of those directors that my anticipation of seeing a new film of his is so great that I don’t even have to contemplate for a second whether or not I’ll be seeing it on opening night. That and I went to see it twice. Mostly because I owe it to Fincher in that I sometimes feel, like with other directors of his caliber, that his films often require a second viewing.

A loose synopsis of the film is that it revolves around Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who at first appears unhappy with his life and the way in which it’s heading. He owns a bar in which his sister whom he’s close with works at. He has a father in an assisted living home who he’s not so close with. Through a series of both flashbacks and flash-forwards we are shown how him and his wife Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) came to meet. Amy writes for a magazine in a column where she goes by “Amazing Amy”, and through a series of journal entries we are told the story of how they came to meet and fall both in and out of love. But then it flash-forwards to Nick coming home to find his wife missing and it appears as if a murder may have taken place. Did he commit it? The detectives assigned to the case certainly think he did. He’s completely solemn and well composed about the whole thing. This augmented by an interrogation where we learn that he really doesn’t know much about his wife other than that she “was really complicated”. Which might have to do with the fact that despite their having fallen madly in love with one another, they also show how their love unravels to where they wind up loathing and having nothing but the utmost disdain for one other. So much so to the point where she feels so threatened by her husband that she purchases a gun in order to protect herself. Flashing forward again all eyes are on Affleck’s character, as everyone from the police, local townspeople, to the eventual press and national media, wind up being convinced that it could have possibly only been him who did it.

The film winds up being a mixed bag. There were elements about it that I loved greatly and other elements I had some serious problems with. I really liked Fincher’s vision and take on the story (though admittedly I haven’t read the novel in which it’s based on). It’s unbelievably dark and psychological in all the best ways. He has a knack for creating a mood and tone that’s uncanny to almost any other film maker around. The way in which he shoots the film with blueish and cold color filters gives it an almost dream-like quality at times and a nightmarish one at others. That and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score really accentuates the material nicely. Similar to their work on “The Social Network” and like the electronic scores of recent years by Cliff Martinez. All three composers whose music is almost like a second character in the films they write for. I also liked the second guessing element to the whole proceeding. It’s a constant game of asking yourself questions and following the trail of bread crumbs that are effectively laid out for you. And Rosamund Pike gives a mighty fine performance here. One that I can potentially see her getting an Academy Award nomination for for Best Actress come Oscar time. Where its greatest weakness lies is in its inability to feel even remotely authentic. To me it felt incredibly sterile, transparent, stagey, and at times similar to that of a TNT movie of the week. All of the performances besides Pike’s felt awkwardly wooden. Even though I’m told it’s fitting that Affleck’s character comes across that way as it’s more faithful to the novel. But casting Tyler Perry as the lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as one of Amy’s ex’s, and Patrick Fugit as one of the detectives was a total misfire and all three of them seemed totally out of place. I thought none of these or any of the other performances stood out even in the slightest other than Pike’s. I also felt that the pacing felt a bit uneven and jarring at times. One scene would grab a hold of my attention and then the flashback or flash-forward following it would lose my interest. Lastly, there were quite a few plot holes throughout the story that the writer and director ask the viewer to take a pretty considerable leap of faith with. Still, it had a fair amount going for it. So for some of the more positive reasons I mentioned above I would definitely recommend seeing it. That and I can also see it being a really divisive film. But for people like me, it is and always will be looked at as a minor Fincher effort in his ever expanding body of work.

Grade: First time: strong B / Second time: C+ / Overall: B-

Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ 10.1.14

It’s great to start off a new month with a much anticipated new film by one of your favorite directors. Polish director Roman Polanski is one of maybe 10 directors that have been around for decades that I can think of where I can honestly say that I’ve probably seen about 75 – 90% of their entire body of work.  That’s saying a lot considering the guy has been around making and producing feature films since the early 1960’s. If Alfred Hitchcock became the real first “psychological horror” director with his 1960 release “Psycho”. Then one could argue that Polanski was his successor. Polanski’s 1-2-3 punch of “Repulsion” (1965), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and still my favorite – “The Tenant” (1976) took art house audiences by storm. Polanski broke new ground in psychological horror and became one of if not the most influential directors in the genre during that time. Period. These days almost every time I hear about a newly original and inventive psychological horror film people will use the tagline “it’s reminiscent of early Polanski”. And with a couple of rare exceptions (Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” (2009), Rob Zombie’s “The Lords of Salem (2013)) it doesn’t turn out to do be true. He is the master of the slow burn, wait for it, pound you over the head structure But rather then being pigeonholed to one specific genre Polanski went on to make such great films as his 1974 masterpiece “Chinatown”, 1979’s “Tess”, and the 2003 film where he won his first Oscar for Best Director – “The Pianist” (though was not present to receive because he is exiled from America). Along with the aforementioned films I also thoroughly enjoyed Polanski’s 1988’s “Frantic”, his 1994’s psycho-sexual thriller “Death and the Maiden”, as well as his more recent efforts like 2010’s “The Ghost Writer” and 2012’s “Carnage”, the latter of which was adapted from the famous stage play of the same name. It was in this film that we first got to see Polanski start to get in touch with his more theatrical side.

“Venus in Fur” is yet another stage-to-screen adaptation based on David Ives’ Tony Award winning play which derives from the source novel by Leopold von-Sacher Masoch. The story revolves around a theatre director (played here by the instantly recognizable character actor Mathieu Almeric) who’s holding auditions for his new play. It’s getting to be after hours and auditions seem to be over. That is until a young, rather attractive woman (played remarkably by Emmanuelle Seigner) stumbles in though looking rather disheveled. The director at first seems put off by her neediness. His first impression is that she’s just an amateur just looking to land a role so she can get a paycheck. And because of this he practically shuns her off. However, she continues to be persistent and doesn’t seem to want to take no for an answer. So eventually he winds up throwing his hands up in the air, lets his wife know that he’s going to be late, and gives her the audition she so desperately wants. That’s when things really start to get interesting and the line between being able to tell their stage selves apart from their real selves becomes blurred.

I’ll first start off by saying this film really took me by surprise. Even given that it was Polanski I didn’t necessarily have high expectations for it. But even at the ripe old age of 81, Polanski once again proves to us here that he can really deliver the goods and shows us why he has been able to prevail as a film maker and still remain relevant throughout all these years. It’s simply a master class in the art of theatre. He does an incredible job grabbing the audience’s attention with the play’s razor sharp dialogue which would be nothing without the two exceptional leads. Both of which whom give very fine performances. The fact that it takes place on one single set with only two actors involved for the entire duration of the film yet still somehow manages to be so effective is astonishing. Polanski practically demands interest on behalf of the viewer, grabs a hold, and doesn’t let go. If anything the grip keeps on tightening. The chemistry between the two leads is nothing short of spellbinding. As if they couldn’t have possibly paired up a better set of actors with one another. It’s a total actor’s showcase. Anybody interested in what lies at the core in the art of acting is absolutely going to love this movie. It also boasts an incredible score by Alexandre Desplat who has achieved the remarkable feat of having been nominated for 7 Oscars in 7 years for his wonderful original scores. This highly effective one utilizes both strings and piano in equal measure perfectly to help drive the suspense on stage. The only reason why I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone is you really have to have a love for the craft of theatre to get into a movie like this. It relies solely on its two lead actors and very little action happens outside of the interplay between them. So in that respect I can see some people maybe being a little put off by its concept. However, for everybody else, it will be one of the more exciting, devilishly fun, suspenseful and thrilling stage-to-screen adaptations you’ve seen in awhile. It earned Polanski a Palm d’Or nomination (the equivalent of Best Picture) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and took home the Cesar (France’s Academy) Award for Best Director. This is the best Polanski picture I’ve seen since “The Pianist”. And, next to “The Selfish Giant”, is the second film I’ve seen this week that has already earned a spot on my top 20 films I’ve seen so far this year.

Grade: B/B+

Review: ‘The Sacrament’ 8.31.14

Poor Ti West. For a Writer/Director who’s career showed such early promise with his groundbreaking theatrical debut (he had only made a couple of really small indies prior) – 2009’s ‘The House of the Devil’, one of my top 10-20 films of the past 5 years. Also one in which I showered its praises. I told everybody you had to see this movie because it drew comparisons to some of the great masters of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. This was one of those filmmaking “wunderkinds”, similar to someone like M. Night Shyamalan and ‘The Sixth Sense’, who’s career also started off young and with a bang. And like Shyamalan, every subsequent film he’s put out since then has been considerably worse than its predessesor. West’s 2011’s – ‘The Innkeepers’ was more or less just a rehashing of ideas from ‘The House of the Devil’ both in style and in content. However, whereas ‘The House of the Devil’ was a master class in both wracking suspense and creating a sense of foreboding dread. ‘The Inkeepers’ fell kind of flat with me. I thought the premise of a seemingly haunted hotel with 2 leftover clerks during its final days of closing was shmaltzy and just another excuse for West to cook up another one of his trademark “slo-burners” by roaming his camera around the hotel’s empty rooms and corridors, similar to ‘The House of the Devil’, but in an exercise that I found to be much less effective. Even still, the chills did surmount and their was a fair amount of suspense built up throughout. Just not enough and the ending felt slightly anticlimactic.

Here West is essentially recreating the events of the Reverend Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. A religious group who Jones, because of his opposing viewpoints with America’s opressive ways of living, moved his followers down to South America to create their own Utopia, or what they referred to as “Eden”, in the late seventies. West basically takes this story and spins his own take on it. Presenting it as a fictionalized story when it actuality it couldn’t be more non-fiction. He also shamelessly uses what is becoming overdone specifically with films in this genre, and films it in a POV, hand held, found footage style. Which doesn’t necessarily add anything. If anything it detracts from the story. Why? Because where movies like the ‘Blair Witch Project’ and more recently the ‘VHS’ series actually look like found footage. Nothing here even remotely looks like found footage. In fact, the camera stock comes out looking like there was quite a bit of money put into it. So, sorry Ti but your picture doesn’t resemble anything like that of other films of this type. Furthermore, West also employs his trademark “slo-burning” style once again here. But while it was highly effective in ‘The House of the Devil’ and remotely effective in ‘The Innkeepers’, here it is completely ineffective because we already know how things are going to end (unless of course you are 1% of the population and know nothing about Reverend Jones and Jonestown). That, and when we do finally come to the inevitable ending, West uses shock tactics to show us up close and personal how these people came to their end. Again, nothing effective about this at all whatsoever. For me, when I saw the documentary ‘Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple’ (2006) all I needed to see was the helicopter POV shot of the hundreds of people lying in the field after their demise to really understand how undeniably devastasting this tragic event was. Thank you West, but I don’t need to see people foaming at the mouth or lighting themselves on fire to nail the point home. This was done solely to elicit gasps from the audience which was pointless and unecessary. Why this film was ever even made is beyond me. It’s about as useless as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot for shot remake of Hitchcock’s beloved ‘Psycho’. Done purely for selfish reasons without even a semblance of having the audience in mind. My best advice for you would be to stay as far from this one as possible.

Grade: D