I follow a lotta must-see movie lists, and supposedly one of my core interests is the Criterion Collection. Movies that are generally accepted as great, released in pristine quality with valuable extras – it’s a no-brainer. At the halfway point of every month I reload their site all day until the new disc announcements appear, and I agonize over which titles I need to buy during the next half-price sale and which are okay to rent from netflix (in the increasingly rare case that they’re actually carried).

And yet it’s not unusual for a month to go by where I watch no Criterion blu-rays, and I think I’ve figured out why that is. I think in the back of my mind, when the Criterion discs come out they lose their sense of urgency. This movie is now readily available in a near-ideal form, so no need to worry about that. Perhaps the wealth of extras is actually hurting as well – I know when I watch Red I’m gonna have to watch another hour’s worth of (really great!) bonus material, which takes up extra time. I’m always threatening a Criterion Month to catch up, but somehow that never happens, while Shocktober and Cannes Month and the Shorts Project and Rock Docs and TV shows and my random decision this month to watch six adaptations of Crime & Punishment go off without a hitch.

So damn it, I’m declaring that from now until Shocktober is Criterion Month.

I watched a fair number of Polanski films in the last couple years, and am starting to make sense of his style. The Apartment Trilogy is dark and weird, but at least two of the three films have bits of heightened silliness. Carnage and Fearless Vampire Killers are ridiculous, and I thought I was supposed to take Ghost Writer seriously as a drama, but perhaps not. I wouldn’t say Cul-de-sac is one of my favorites, but I get its mood: a hostage thriller with the tension constantly undercut by comic situations and performances.

After a robbery gone wrong, gorilla thug Lionel Stander and mortally wounded Jack MacGowran (the nutty Professor in the following year’s Fearless Vampire Killers) hole up at a castle on the shore, not realizing that the tide would trap them there for the next day. The castle dwellers include insecure author Donald Pleasence, introduced being dressed as a woman by young wife Francoise Dorléac (Catherine Deneuve’s sister in life and in The Young Girls of Rochefort). Lionel alternates between seeming quite menacing and seeming like a dumb guy with nowhere else to go, after he’s disowned by his crime bosses via phone and his partner dies, lumbering into scenes of marital discord like a disfigured remake of Knife in the Water. Stressed, Pleasance alienates his wife and the friends who come to visit while Lionel is still waiting for word from the bosses (pretending to be a drunk uncle or something). Pleasance does finally transform from emasculated dress-up doll to heroic man of violence, shooting a marauding Lionel, but it doesn’t last – he’s freezing up moments later, and Francoise flees, leaving him to his freakouts.

Won the golden bear in Berlin, playing with Lord Love a Duck and Masculin Feminin. First film appearance by Jacqueline Bisset (Day For Night, Under The Volcano) as one of the visitors. Donald Pleasence is campy here, but to be fair, it seems like he’s supposed to be. I only know him as the least-convincing part of such realist films as Halloween, Phenomena, Mr. Freedom and The Pumaman. If only I knew a Pleasence expert who could explain this guy’s methods. Lionel Stander is an actor with an interesting history. He worked throughout the 1930’s and 40’s (Hangmen Also Die, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, A Star is Born). His Eugene Pallette-like voice endeared him to Preston Sturges in the late 1940’s, then he was blacklisted for many years before showing up here.

David Thompson:

What Polanski created with Cul-de-sac was a cinema of the absurd, delving into situations of humiliation, role-playing, and betrayal, and evoking an unsettling atmosphere quite unlike anything else on the big screen. This is underlined by his then favorite composer Krzysztof Komeda’s haunting music, a nagging cross-mix of cool jazz and early pop electronica that continuously twists back on itself in repetitive phrases — even to the point where, when Teresa plays a gramophone record of the main theme, the needle becomes stuck … Polanski had previously approached the august Beckett about making a cinema version of his revolutionary Waiting for Godot. But the author saw no reason for something conceived for the stage to be adapted into a film and refused the rights. Nevertheless, Beckett’s exploration of universal human experience through a pair of philosophical bums had a great influence on the young Polanski, as did the disturbing plays of his contemporary Pinter, with their theme of, yes, imposition, laced with menace and black humor. Although he would downplay it, Polanski’s eventual casting of Jack MacGowran, who had acted in Waiting for Godot and Beckett’s Endgame, and Donald Pleasence, who was in both the stage and film versions of Pinter’s The Caretaker, suggests more than pure coincidence.

Fortunately Polanski has more kinda-horror movies so I can continue the spree of his films which I started last Shocktober. Made between Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, this one’s not quite up to their level. The lighting and composition are extremely lovely, but this aims to be a horror-comedy, and the editing’s too slow for comedy or action. It helps that when shots go on way too long Polanski will sometimes speed up the film, but he refuses to cut away for so long that sometimes I wonder if he doesn’t know what editing’s for. This approach would work well for the slow-burn dread of Rosemary’s, and I’ll bet viewers who watched this goofball movie at the time were ill-prepared for what would come next.

Polanski and Sharon Tate:

Our lead comedy duo is Professor Abronsius (the excellent Jack MacGowran of The Exorcist and Age of Consent) and his dim assistant Alfred (Polanski). They’re hunting vampires, hanging out at an inn where Alf lusts after hot innkeeper’s daughter Sharon Tate (of Eye of the Devil) and the locals downplay vampire activity, even denying there’s a castle nearby, which is of course home to dramatically well-dressed Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne of Pirates and Frightmare) and his handsome son Herbert (Iain Quarrier of Cul-de-sac), who are planning an attack on the town. The bumbling interlopers rescue the kidnapped Sharon and escape, but too late, as she has been turned and attacks Polanski in the back seat while the professor drives off. Great closing narration: “That night, fleeing from Transylvania, Professor Abronsius never guessed he was carrying away with him the very evil he had wished to destroy. Thanks to him, this evil would at last be able to spread across the world.”

Our heroes:

Count and son:

Also featuring innkeeper Alfie Bass (a ghost in The Bespoke Overcoat), his wife Jessie Robins (known to play characters named Fat Woman, Large Woman and Bertha), maid Fiona Lewis, who I just saw in Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and as the count’s hunchback, boxing champ Terry Downes.

Trying to blend in:

“Can’t talk – some peace protestors are trying to kill me.”

Kinda silly and obvious as a thriller, but well acted and assembled so you enjoy the ride at least. And man does Ewan McGregor ever blow it, when he finally gets evidence that the prime minister’s wife Rosemary Cross has been pulling the strings all along as an undercover CIA agent, what does he do? He tells her that he knows. He tells her! So she has him killed, end of movie. It’s too bad I watched Dollhouse before this, because I saw her as a schemer all along.

Mouseover to see McGregor’s reaction to the PM’s memoirs:
image

McGregor is taking over the PM’s memoirs from the previous ghost writer who died mysteriously last week on the ferry to PM Pierce Brosnan’s U.S. island hideaway. All is quiet until allegations of torture and other war crimes come out and the press mobs the island, and during the distraction McGregor starts digging up the dirt his predecessor had left clues about. Kim Cattrall is the PM’s assistant, Tom Wilkinson a friend/rival/neighbor, and Eli Wallach an old man who feeds Ewan clues.

This film’s attention to detail is impressive – they’ve noted how the news tends to misspell basic words:

NYTimes:

It would be easy to overstate the appeal of The Ghost Writer just as, I imagine, it will be easy for some to dismiss it. But the pleasures of a well-directed movie should never be underestimated. The image of Mr. Brosnan abruptly leaning toward the camera like a man possessed is worth a dozen Oscar-nominated performances. And the way, when Lang chats with the Ghost — his arms and legs open, a drink in hand, as if he were hitting on a woman — shows how an actor and his director can sum up an entire personality with a single pose.

Took a couple weeks off the blog, now back to the SHOCKtober backlog. Got a new visual theme to support larger images (and incidentally phones/tables/etc) so beginning with this post, screenshots are no longer limited to 640px wide. Party!

After enjoying The Tenant, I decided to rewatch the rest of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy:” this and Repulsion, both of which I’d seen on cable so long ago that I may as well have never seen them at all before now. Obviously these movies were the highlight of Shocktober this year, alongside Hellraiser, Scanners and Possession. After not paying him much attention until 2011, I’m a big Polanski fan. All three apartment movies have terrific peephole shots, and this and Repulsion both have a dream sequence in which a ticking clock is the only sound. I found out in the extras that Polanski threw off the lipsynch in another dream sequence on purpose – I’d been annoyed at the technical flaw but he meant it to add to the unreal atmosphere.

Omaha native Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and husband Guy (John Cassavetes, same year as Faces) shop for an NYC apartment with realtor Elisha Cook (Phantom Lady, The Killing), settle on a place with nosy neighbors whose previous tenant passed away just a few days before. Mia’s first friend (Victoria Vetri, Playmate of the Month right before this filmed) jumps to her death soon after they move in. Already this is sounding like The Tenant, but instead of the new tenants going slowly insane, aspiring actor Guy makes a deal with the intrusive Castevet couple next door to have his wife impregnated with the antichrist.

Collateral damage: the suicide woman, who it’s assumed was meant to be the demon child’s host before Rosemary came along, Hutch, the couple’s best friend before the whole demon pregnancy thing (Maurice Evans, a lead ape the same year in Planet of the Apes), Guy’s competition for a major acting role (he goes inexplicably blind). I think Rosemary’s doctor, the great Charles Grodin (as opposed to the doc the Castevets choose for her, Ralph Bellamy of The Wolf Man), is allowed to live.

Even without the demon baby, moving in next door to the Castevets seems like horror movie material – this may be what led to The Tenant. Paradoxically, the crazy Castevets also keep the mood light, injecting humor into the horror. Ruth Gordon won an oscar (beating the star of Cassavetes Faces), would star in Harold and Maude a few years later, and Sidney Blackmer played Leslie Nielsen’s dad in Tammy and the Bachelor. The ending is intense, though – Rosemary discovering the whole conspiracy, walks into a room with her demon baby, her traitor husband and a bunch of revelers yelling “hail Satan,” and instead of hurling herself out the window or burning the place to the ground, she approaches the cradle and starts to rock it gently.

Polanski’s first American film after Repulsion and two others in England. There was a sequel! It starred Pontypool‘s Stephen McHattie as the demon kid now in his twenties, with Patty Duke and Ray Milland. Mia Farrow starred in Secret Ceremony, another disappearing child/hysterical mom movie the same year as Rosemary’s.

Author Ira Levin in 2003:

Lately, I’ve had a new worry. The success of Rosemary’s Baby inspired Exorcists and Omens and lots of et ceteras. Two generations of youngsters have grown to adulthood watching depictions of Satan as a living reality. Here’s what I worry about now: if I hadn’t pursued an idea for a suspense novel almost forty years ago, would there be quite as many religious fundamentalists around today?

Catherine Deneuve is pretty and timid, a bit spacey, but nobody suspects (except possibly her older sister Helen, if she has ever paid that much attention) the extent of her psychosis until Helen goes on vacation with her awful boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry, philandering zombie in Tales from the Crypt), leaving Catherine alone in their apartment with her thoughts. It turns out her thoughts are dangerous.

Maybe this is just a 1960’s thing, but when Catherine finally starts murdering people (first her stalker who thinks she’s in a relationship, then her landlord who offers an alternate method of paying the rent), I felt they were creeps who deserved it. But it seems from the extras that the movie just wants us to believe that Catherine is mad (and has always been mad, according to the final zoom into a childhood photo where she looks distracted/possessed).

A stylistic triumph on a tiny budget. Polanski’s follow-up to Knife in the Water and his UK debut, bankrolled by porn producers who would work with him again for Cul-de-sac. This one was written as the commercial hit that would fund the next one, a more personal work for Polanski. It’s lovely that slow-moving one-woman psychological horror with unproven stars (Deneuve had done Umbrellas of Cherbourg but wasn’t yet internationally renowned) used to be considered a sure hit.

Michael: John Fraser of Tunes of Glory

and Helen: Yvonne Furneaux, of La Dolce Vita

When Catherine is alone, the walls crack and ooze, rapist ghosts appear, hands grab her through the walls (a Cocteau-meets-Cronenberg effect using latex sheets bought from a condom factory). Polanski already showed a strong visual style with Knife in the Water, and here he’s got a ringer of a cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor had just shot A Hard Day’s Night and Dr. Strangelove. The film won a silver bear in Berlin alongside Le Bonheur (Alphaville got the gold).

Happy SHOCKtober!

It’s hard to tell what I watched in SHOCKtober 2013, since I was running months behind and posting movies out of order, but I think it was six movies, from Mr. Vampire through The Black Cat, plus a Last Ten Minutes full of ridiculous horror sequels. SHOCKtober 2012 consisted of a single movie, The Hole. So 2011 was the last big SHOCKtober, and 2010 even got its own horror top-ten list. Time to bring back the shocks – got a bunch of movies lined up for this month.

Polanski himself plays Trelkovsky, who snags a Paris apartment (with an awfully steep deposit) thanks to the suicide of the former tenant Simone, and is made to feel unwelcome by almost everybody. He visits Simone during her final days in hospital agony and meets her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani of Possession, also Lucy in Herzog’s Nosferatu). Then Trelkovsky attempts to settle in at home (he works as some kind of clerk, shades of Kafka), but everyone is suspicious of him, even the local police, accusing him of rule violations, and Trelkovsky starts to suspect these hostile neighbors drove Simone to jump from her window.

One man and a wardrobe:

French neighbors scheming against Polish Jew, was starting to look like a persecution story, but then Polanski starts believing the neighbors are trying to turn him into Simone when he wakes up with women’s makeup on his face, and another day he’s lost the same tooth she had lost.

At the end, when he has found shelter at Stella’s place then trashes her apartment because he thinks she’s in on the conspiracy, it becomes clearer than Trelkovsky is just nuts. Inevitably, he jumps from the apartment window in front of an imagined audience of mocking neighbors, but the fall doesn’t kill him, and as the police arrive, he lurches back up the stairs and jumps a second time, ending up in a time-loop as he takes Simone’s place in the hospital bed and sees himself and Stella visiting.

Polanski and Adjani pause to watch Enter The Dragon:

Great cast: Melvyn Douglas (40-some years after The Old Dark House) is Mr. Z the landlord. Jo Van Fleet (Wild River) brings a petition (which Trelkovsky refuses to sign) to evict another neighbor. Jeunet regular Rufus (Amelie‘s dad) comes by looking for Simone. Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun, Night of the Hunter) plays the angry building concierge. Unfortunately some actors have been euro-dubbed, and even the cinematography by Sven Nykvist (between Black Moon and Autumn Sonata) looked just-decent on my video copy.

Jo:

Melvyn:

Ebert called it an embarrassment, also explains there was an apartment shortage in Paris at the time. I guess people were bound to be disappointed in any follow-up to Chinatown, but Canby called it “the most successful and most consistently authentic Polanski film in years,” dismissing Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby as “more or less tailored to popular tastes.” Critics mention Trelkovsky’s meek and malleable nature and the film’s pessimism, but I’m still not sure what to make of the Egyptian references. And am I misinterpreting the image, or at one point is his nightstand replaced with a two-dimensional copy?

Nominated at Cannes the same yeas as Taxi Driver, The Marquise of O, Kings of the Road and Mr. Klein. Based on the novel by Roland Topor, who cowrote Fantastic Planet and played Renfield in Herzog’s Nosferatu.

I wanted to see Ashes & Diamonds, but since Criterion released it as the third title in a loose war trilogy, I figured I’d dutifully start with the first and work my way up to the masterpiece. But damned if this one didn’t feel like a masterpiece itself. It’s an anti-nazi resistance movie, more emotionally deep than Rossellini’s Paisan, younger and less world-weary than Army of Shadows. It also sports my favorite kind of 1950’s photography: artful, almost expressionistic compositions with great depth and lighting

Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki of Blind Chance, a mild-looking Polish Tobey Maguire) and his buddies are introduced stealing coal from trains of the occupying nazi forces, one of them getting killed straight away, but Stach doesn’t join the organized underground resistance until he sees the beautiful Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska of Knights of the Teutonic Order) recruiting. He gradually gets involved with the resistance, seeing a bright future ahead for the two of them, until she is captured – a sure death sentence – in the final minutes, and Stach meets a new group of recruits alone, the struggle carrying on.

Jasio, doomed:

Stach’s loose-cannon friend Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar of Kanal) kills a German and is eventually shot down in a stairwell. Another friend is played by Roman Polanski, just about to jump into short filmmaking.

Polanski:

Background from E. Mazierska:

[This, Wajda’s first feature,] “marks the beginning of the Polish School, the paradigm of Polish cinema that arose from the political and cultural thaw of the mid-1950s.

A so-called political thaw followed the deaths of Stalin in 1953 and the leader of the Polish Communist party, Wladyslaw Bierut, in 1956, and the bloody events of June 1956, when scores of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by government troops during street riots in Poznan. These events paved the way for Wladyslaw Gomulka, who envisaged a more independent, less totalitarian Poland, to become the new party leader in October 1956.

[The Polish School] directors, including Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and Wojciech Has, were all trained after the war, mostly at the Polish National Film School, in Lodz, which opened in 1948. They rejected the simplistic world vision offered by socialist realism and wanted their films to appeal to the viewer through images, rather than the verbal tirades of elevated individuals.

I also watched Wajda’s documentary short on the disc, Ceramics from Ilza, mostly of interest for the way he photographs the ceramic figures in natural environments: against a lake or a hillside, instead of in the studio where they’d normally be displayed.

The opening and closing shots of children conspiring at a great distance from the camera remind me of the final shot of Cache – this could be its comedy sequel. Besides those shots, it’s set in a single apartment. Based on a play (duh) by Yasmina Reza, which won the Tony a couple years ago. Amusing little real-time drama where world-class actors portray friendly, enlightened parents whose behavior soon degrades until they seem worse than the kids. If that piece of minor irony wasn’t the point of the film, then I’m afraid I missed it.

Set in “New York” in the home of Jodie Foster (whom I haven’t seen since Inside Man) and John C. Reilly (haven’t seen since Walk Hard), whose son was nailed in the face by the son of Kate Winslet (last seen in Contagion) and Christoph Waltz (Water for Elephants). Waltz is a terribly important lawyer always on his cell phone, Winslet can’t hold her liquor (there’s a lot more throw-up in this movie than I expected), Foster is insufferably liberal and Reilly the opposite. Or something – there’s not much to it, and the trailer gave away too much, but watching the actors is total fun.

A. Nayman in Cinema Scope:

The only thing more pretentious and transparent than the behaviour of Reza’s straw men and women is the playwright’s own notion that she’s revealing something about human nature. The simplest way to point out what’s wrong with this material is to say that Carnage is exactly the sort of acclaimed easy-bake drama that its own characters would probably hustle to see: a hot ticket for patrons eager to be reduced to social stereotypes and howl like hyenas at the “keen-edged” observations of their own foibles and frailties. … Where a director like Sidney Lumet or, God forbid, Sam Mendes might have felt this high-end horror-show in their bones, Polanski seems triply unimpressed: with the characters’ regressive lunacy, with Reza’s pride in hoisting them on their own petards, and with his own easy grace in crafting a watchable welterweight prestige picture.”

The most brightly-lit and also most pessimistic noir shown in Emory’s series. Nicholson is very good at acting natural, which he does too seldom, and John Huston is haunting as the villain, a human monster in broad daylight. I remember Faye Dunaway as being hysterical in this, but apparently I was only recalling the “she’s my daughter AND my sister” scene. Polanski himself plays a dwarf thug who cuts Jack’s nose open near the beginning of the investigation, forcing Jack to wear facial bandages through most of the movie.

Huston plays Dunaway’s father – he and her husband Mulwray ran the water department for years before selling it to the city, and now Huston is running a water/real estate conspiracy, stealing water from farmers and dumping it into the river. Jack is a nobody detective taking pictures of cheating husbands when he’s used as a pawn in Huston’s schemes to discredit his former partner and recover his grand/daughter – though Jack is plenty smart enough to keep up with the plot. He almost gets ahead, too, but loses his evidence against Huston, and loses Dunaway when the cops shoot her through the head.

Nominated for all the oscars, but really, what chance have you got against the likes of Godfather 2, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and Art Carney?