Tag Archives: roman polanski

The Tenant – Review

17 Apr

Roman Polanski. How many times have I talked about him on this blog? While he has dabbled in a lot of different genres, I’ll always remember him for his psychological horror/thriller films. Starting with Repulsion in 1965, Polanski started a trilogy of horror films that dealt with psychological torture in urban environments, especially in apartments. He continued this work with his 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby, which is the most memorable of the three and is considered a horror classic. Finally, in 1978, Polanski ended the trilogy with the most enigmatic entry, The Tenant. I didn’t really expect a whole lot from this movie, considering the other two, but this proved to be the most difficult movie for me in the entire trilogy.

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Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a timid file clerk who defines the term “pushover” who is need of an apartment. As luck would have it, he finds a cheap one that has become vacant after the previous tenant committed suicide. After winning over the miserable landlord Monsieur Zy (Melvyn Douglas), Trelkovsky moves into the apartment and begins getting constantly hassled by his neighbors from all sides for his being too loud, dirty, or having people over. The hassling becomes so persistent and obscene that Trelkovsky begins to suspect that the other tenants are trying to drive him to suicide by slowly turning him into the deceased tenant. As the paranoia begins to mount and Trelkovsky’s sanity slips further and further, he soon finds himself becoming lost in the character that he fears is being created for him, and the line between reality and fearful hallucinations become less and less noticeable.

Let’s get it out of the way from the start. The Tenant is a super weird movie that made me question what I was looking at more than once. That’s not to say that the other two entries in the trilogy aren’t weird, but this one just goes off the walls bat shit insane. There’s plenty of positives to that which I’ll get to later, but I want to get passed the not so great stuff first. For one thing, the movie has no clear way to tell what is real and what is in Trelkovsky’s head, and that’s fine. What isn’t fine is that the ending neither reaffirms or denies anything that has been seen or heard. It simply doesn’t make sense, and only seems to be in the movie to make the viewer scratch their head in utter confusion. The movie also spends a lot of time not really doing anything, making it feel a lot slower and longer than it wants to be. But that’s really where my negatives end.

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I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about the state of so called horror movies these days, and its really hard to get away from that mindset after seeing a movie like this. This movie does exactly what a horror movie should do, and that is to create genuine fear, this time by using our fear of shit neighbors, letting other people bully you, and paranoia in the purest form. Where this movie succeeds is in its ability to frighten an audience without being loud. Delirious hallucinations in a run down bathroom and finding yourself spying on yourself is so twisted and weird that it succeeds in scaring more than any jump scare or spooky ghost. It’s a mental state that no one wants to live through, but how do you know you aren’t paranoid already? Confusion is more terrifying than something you can see.

There’s a lot of things that I should probably say about this movie, but after everything I’ve already said about, I don’t know how much more I can add. All I can say is that this movie is really, really weird and there’s plenty of scenes that really stick out in my head. That may actually be the strongest part of this movie, just how many memorable scenes there are and how original they seemed. The hieroglyphics in the bathroom and the tooth in the wall are just a few, not to mention a group of sadists playing with a human head in the courtyard.

While The Tenant certainly isn’t Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, it is still a film that shows how much he should be respected as a film maker. My only real gripe with the movie is the overly complicated ending and the amount of time spent doing nothing. Still, there are so many memorable and freaky scenes that it should be enough to create at least one restless night and things possibly hiding in the shadows. If you like horror films, this is a must see.

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Knife in the Water – Review

12 Aug

When I’ve talked about debut films from major directors who have proven themselves in their field, I always say something about how greatness starts somewhere, but it isn’t always such an easy beginning for film makers. One person who hit the jackpot with his debut feature film was Roman Polanski, who amongst all of the controversy surrounding him has still managed to make movies that people want to see and that people will love. His first film, Knife in the Water, which he made right after graduating from the National Film School in Łódź in Poland. This film earned him worldwide success and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.

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Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are a married couple who are on their way to their boat for a day on the water. Along the way, they decide to pick up a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) who explains that he just walks around until someone decides to pick him up. Both the couple and the hitchhiker are completely different kinds of people and it isn’t long before Andrzej and the young man begin butting heads. As the group head out on the water, the two men begin fighting and humiliating each other, all with the intention of getting Krystyna’s attention. As the tension boils for the day throughout the night, the inevitable climax of violence bursts which may spell the end of happiness and a life of peace for everyone involved.

What’s so impressive about this movie is the tension that Polanski is able to build so well, even though this is his debut as a feature film maker. At the time, he was already pretty well known on the festival circuit for short films that he made while a student. Knife in the Water, however, marked the official beginning of his career, and what a beginning it was. It isn’t everyday that someone’s first film gets nominated for an Academy Award. Of course, Polanski didn’t win the award since he was up again Fellini’s 8 1/2, which is objectively the better film, but I have to admit that I enjoyed Knife in the Water a lot more.

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Amongst other things, the main draw of this movie is the tension. I can’t stress that word enough. The whole movie, being shot primarily just on the boat, has a very claustrophobic feeling, and it provided much difficulty in shooting the film. The characters in this movie come from completely different lifestyles which leads to a lot of arguing and debating about how things should be done on the boat. The entire situation still feels very realistic though, as if this were really happening and we were just spectators to the conflict. It also helps that this is just a beautifully shot film with the black and white cinematography working wonderfully with the river and the sky. The jazz soundtrack also provides appropriate and sometimes humorous background music to the different scenes. It wouldn’t have been my first choice of music, but that’s probably why it’s so interesting.

Finally, there are a lot of things the movie is trying to say without actually being on a side. Both of the male characters all have positive and negative sides to them, with the negatives showing themselves more and more as the movie goes on. It was a clever way to show the economic situation in Poland at the time when the upper and lower classes were at odds with each other, as they normally are in any society at any time. It also gives a unique perspective into male sexuality and desires, making these supposedly strong men into fawning children competing over the attention of a pretty lady. This movie is a great example of style, story, and substance while still remaining minimalistic.

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Knife in the Water is a very interesting, albeit very slow film by Roman Polanski. There’s nothing particularly exciting that happens in the film, but that’s almost the point. Events play out as events would play out, and nothing more. While the style can surely be appreciated, it’s also easy to appreciate the simple yet smart story as long with all of the texture that goes along with that. Many critics say that this is one of Roman Polanski’s best movies. I’m not sure I would say that, but it sure is a damn good one.

Chinatown – Review

7 Apr

Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, film noir was a major genre/style in Hollywood. It was so influential that even after the height of its time, there were still film makers who were eager to implement its style and themes into their own films. Probably the most iconic neo-noir film to ever be made is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, released in 1974. With hard lighting, a twist on the femme fatale, and an anti-hero that would stand the tests of time, Chinatown wasn’t just an experiment to see if the genre could hold up thirty years after its peak, but it was also a brilliant film that is remembered today as a classic.

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J.J. Gittes (Jack Nocholson) is a private investigator hired to figure out if Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) is cheating on his wife. After the news story and Gittes’ photographs end up on the front page of the newspaper, he sets out to uncover why this has garnered such media attention, but soon learns that Hollis has been found dead in a reservoir, presumably having drowned. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) soon approaches Gittes with the intent to press charges after the story leaked into the newspaper, but soon decides to help him with his own personal investigation into the death of Hollis Mulwray. What Gittes uncovers, however, could never have been expected with a web of deceit and corruption that has links to L.A’s water supply, familial abuse, and thousands of acres of land that are worth millions.

It’s very easy to watch Chinatown and picture it as a black and white noir film from the 1940s, but the fact remains that it is from 1974 and there are elements from it that would never fly 30 years earlier from when it was made. Much like how Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch could be considered an anti-Western, Chinatown could be considered an anti-noir. That’s not just because there are things in the story that never would have been allowed with the code that was established in the early days of Hollywood, but also because there are certain plot points that would have been very unconventional for the times to the point that audiences would have been quite disturbed. Instead of calling it an “anti-noir” it would be more appropriate to call it a “revisionist noir.” Revisionist movies were actually very popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s because the film makers took genre conventions, flipped them upside down, and made their own films that would redefine Hollywood in the years to come.

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It may seem pretty obvious to say that the performances in this movie are all fantastic. Looking at the credits of talent that are in this film, it should really go without saying with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Even though the acting is all top notch, Chinatown is really a victory for the screenwriter, Robert Towne. It’s not everyday that I watch a movie and just get completely blown away by how masterful the screenplay is written. Throughout the entire run time of this movie, I was being twisted, turned, dragged, and mislead with Gittes always one step ahead of me. Even when the plot was starting to thicken, it felt like a seamless transition and I never felt like I was being jolted out of place.

After saying how excellent the screenplay is, I still need to touch on Roman Polanski’s expert direction. Recently I’ve reviewed Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, but Chinatown really takes it to a whole other level. One thing that really stuck out to me was the use of long takes while shots of dialogue were being filmed. Instead of cutting up a scene, Polanski would let the camera run, catching the actors in these long bits of dialogue that really got to show just how good they really were. Meanwhile, cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who went on to be the cinematographer on Scarface, made sure that the lighting was exactly right and hearken back to the golden age of cinema where detectives were the only thing keeping big cities safe from sadistic murderers.

Chinatown is one of those movies straight out of film history that will exceed your expectations. It’s easy to call a movie a classic, but it’s not quite as simple to explain why it is a classic. This film is a classic because it takes from the old and makes it feel completely new, while exploring themes of big business and corruption that were way ahead of its time. Add in some excellent performances, direction, and writing and you got yourself a movie that will never be forgotten. If you haven’t gotten the chance to see Chinatown, make sure you see it, maybe even more than once.

Rosemary’s Baby – Review

24 Mar

In the 1960s, Hollywood was undergoing a major change. From the 1930s up until the late 1950s/early 1960s, movies were strictly regulated in terms of their content. A new Hollywood was now forming and the regulations were not so strong. Enter Roman Polanski’s horror masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby, a deep exploration of psychological dread mixed with dark occultist magic. It’s an excellent combination that is executed perfectly, and couldn’t have been made under the much more strict guidelines of classic Hollywood.

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Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) are a young married couple in search of a new place to live. They finally find comfort in the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with a strange, dark history. Rosemary and Guy soon become friends with the elderly couple living next door, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer), who are both eccentric and incredibly friendly. When Rosemary learns that she is pregnant, Minnie and Roman seem very excited, but Guy never really wants to think about it. As time goes on, and the due date for the baby becomes closer and closer, Rosemary begins to become paranoid about everyone around her while dealing with incredible pain from her abdomen and strange concoctions given to her by Minnie and Roman, whom Rosemary now believes are witches. All of this may be a deeply Satanic plot or just a deeply personal problem for Rosemary.

Much like Polanski’s earlier work, Repulsion, this film puts horror in the worst place you could ever have it. In the comfort of your own home. I have place set aside in my heart for films that bring the horror to you, in a sense, like the first Paranormal Activity and The Strangers. What Rosemary’s Baby does differently than these movies is add the plot point of an unborn child into the mix to create some deeply rooted chances to explore psychological dysfunction, but I’ll talk more about that later. Rosemary is never really safe in this movie, and that’s part of where the paranoia and the fear comes from, but Polanski makes sure that this never gets out of hand.

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What makes this film so successful is Polanski’s deft maneuvering of a plot that at times appears to be stuck in the mud, but is never really stopping. The pacing is slow and makes the audience wait a long time to really understand what is actually going on. That combined with the fact that even we don’t full know if Rosemary is in the right state of mind or if this is actually all a big occult plot against her. We spend a good deal of the movie questioning what’s going on around Rosemary and try to piece together all of the evidence that makes sense and the rest that doesn’t make sense. It’s a great way to construct a plot.

So the style and the plot are both really good, and the final thing that makes Rosemary’s Baby the horror classic that it is are the performances. Mia Farrow begins as an innocent housewife into a woman who is completely in shambles, both mentally and physically. John Cassavetes brings his traditional realistic, and almost improvisational, acting style which gives his performance a believability that you don’t always get from movies before this time. Finally, Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer are perfect at playing the old people next door, but bring a disquieting element of distrust that makes for exceptional antagonists.

This video is from Bravo’s countdown of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments. They perfectly summarize everything that makes Rosemary’s Baby as great as it is.

So, if you haven’t already guessed, I firmly believe Rosemary’s Baby is one of the greatest horror movies to ever grace planet earth. It’s pacing and feeling of constant dread and paranoia is very effective and really makes the viewer question what is going on. It’s almost a cliche to say “you never know what’s real and what isn’t” in terms of movies. That may be so, but it is the truth when it comes to this film. If you haven’t seen this, you’re missing out on an essential piece of film history that may even keep you up a little bit tonight when you’re doors are locked and you think you’re safe…

Repulsion – Review

6 Mar

Horror movies don’t always have to be loud to be effective. In fact, sometimes the quietist of the genre turn out to be the most effective. Just take a look at Roman Polanski’s first English language feature, Repulsion, from 1965. What Polanski has created is a rhythmic descent into madness with a ticking clock working as chisel breaking into the protagonist’s fractured mind, and a soundtrack of piano scales that end in a discordant finale. Repulsion has a lot to say, and tries to accomplish this with as little dialogue as possible, and the result is a surreal trip down the rabbit hole and into the protagonist’s tortured head.

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Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman who earns her living at a beauty salon and lives with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) is a London flat. Carol is frustrated by Colin (John Fraser), a persistent suitor who won’t leave her alone, and Helen’s married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) who is acting like a monkey wrench in Carol’s life. Already a quiet and unstable person, Carol is concerned with being left alone while Helen and Michael go on holiday to Italy, but Helen insists that Carol will be fine. Carol is anything but fine, however, and soon she quits her job, barricades herself in the apartment, and begins being tortured by demon’s of the past that are real and unreal, which ultimately draws her to violence as a last resort.

I’ve seen this movie be called “slow” and “boring” but I don’t think those are appropriate. Sure, this isn’t a movie where there is a lot of exciting things happening, and I will say that it is slow but it’s for building suspense and character. There seems to be a whole lot of nothing going on for a good portion of the movie, but everything is important for building the character of Carol. This entire movie is one giant character study for her and her psyche, so if it wasn’t built on enough or didn’t have enough time dedicated to it, Repulsion would be a pretty pointless movie.

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While Repulsion does feel very surreal, it has a firm grounding in reality. Carol and Helen’s flat looks exactly how you would expect it to if it was inhabited by two younger women in the 1960s. There are even nice tracking shots following Carol around the city where we get a very distinct idea of where we are in relation to the real world. That just makes the hallucinations and experiences we have with Carol seem all the more weird, knowing that life goes on around her just outside her apartment. What really makes this work is the way Polanski and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor handle the visuals. Polanski creates strange, distorted visions while Taylor lights the apartment very harshly when Carol is experiencing her mind play devilish tricks.

As much time as I can praising Roman Polanski and Gilbert Taylor on their work with this film, I got to give a special nod to Catherine Deneuve, who accomplished acting in such a strange and difficult role at just the age of 22. She doesn’t have too much dialogue to say, and when she does have dialogue, the lines are very short. Sometimes just one word. What really is great about her performance is her facial expressions and reactions. There are different scenes, including the very opening shot, where Polanski focuses on her eyes, which are usually wide and full of paranoia. It’s and excellent performance and still amazing that she accomplished it at such a young age.

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Repulsion is an interesting exercise in psychological horror. The way Polanski frames certain scenes and deals with the sound design makes the internal struggle of the protagonist feel so concrete and perceptible. Catherine Deneuve gives a memorable performance, and she really is the only one onscreen for a good portion of the time. The pace may be slow and it may seem tame by today’s standards, but Repulsion is a must see for any fan of the horror genre.

The Ninth Gate – Review

11 Dec

There’s enough movies about Satan coming to Earth that it can be classified as a sub genre of thriller, but I guess you can just call them supernatural thrillers. This is more of an observation. With the panic of the world ending in 2000, Hollywood of course capitalized on the fear of the people and churned out movies with apocalyptic stories with normal people caught in the middle. Even though director Roman Polanski is the opposite of what people may call “Hollywood”, he was still part of this with his film The Ninth Gate.

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Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a rare book collector and dealer who has been tasked by the mysterious Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to acquire two copies of the aged book The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows. Only three are left in existence with Balkan already owning one, but afraid that his and another might be a forgery leaving only one to be authentic. As Corse travels Europe investigating the books, he finds a demonic conspiracy involving murder and arson, all to summon Lucifer to Earth.

The premise of The Ninth Gate provided so much material to craft an intriguing tale of paranoia, religion, and a possible supernatural truth. For a good portion of the film, that’s what I thought it was all about, but then some weird things started to happen that really didn’t need to. One of these things is actually showing someone glide down a set of stairs, and this really came out of nowhere. By showing something as surreal as this, no matter how cool it looked, I felt like Polanski was taking away the mystery of the entire movie. If it was supposed to be a thriller about the paranoia Corso feels due to this particular assignment, I would have been so much more interested. Instead, I felt like I was being spoon fed what to believe.

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Then, after all the unnecessary exposition, we get an ending whose only cause is to baffle the audience. I feel like I was stuck in this weird limbo of not being too sure of what was going on. If a film maker decides to reveal the mysteries of the plot, that’s fine, even though I don’t always feel like that’s a good idea. What happens here is we get a lot of exposition, but not enough to really grasp what’s happening. Did Polanski and the other writers not know whether to make this a puzzle movie or straightforward thriller and just decide to meet each other half way? That’s sure what it feels like.

But, even though the way the story is presented has brutal flaws, I will concede that it had some excellent scenes. One in particular is the aftermath of a murder that is revealed so well and creatively. Another scene that sticks out happens when two characters do the dirty in front of a burning castle with some epic demonic music playing in the background. These are just honorable mentions and saved the movie from being totally unmemorable.

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Roman Polanski is no stranger to films about Satan or the insanity of religion. Just look at Rosemary’s Baby. That is a fine example of how a thriller of this type should be done. Mysteriously and with subtlety. The Ninth Gate started with these recipes, then just disintegrated into unremarkable attempts at creating something memorable. Polanski said that he only wants to make movies “that he would want to see.” I can’t really imagine getting too worked up over this movie. It has a few scenes that stick out, but not enough to support the entire movie.