Review: Rosemary’s baby (1968)

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I’m not a fan of the horror genre and I have to admit that I get scared easily. There are some films though that I just couldn’t miss and Rosemary’s Baby is one of them. Watching it made me realize once again how big is the gap between our days and the 60’s. The film has nothing to do with horror movies released in the 21st century and actually it isn’t that scary. That’s not to say it isn’t good. On the contrary, it’s a great psychological thriller that keeps you wondering until the very end.

Set in New York City, the story starts with a young couple, Rosemary and Guy (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes respectively), recently married as it seems, who are looking to buy an appartment. They eventually settle in the “Bramford” dismissing their friend Hutch’s (Maurice Evans) scary stories about infamous incidents that happened there. They soon get befriended by the wealthy old couple that lives next to them, Minnie and Roman (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer respectively). When under strange circumstances Rosemary gets pregnant, Minnie and Roman offer their help. Minnie arranges for her to have one of the best obstetricians in the city and prepares a herbal drink for her every day. As the day of delivery comes closer mysterious events start to occur that cause Rosemary to be suspicious of everyone around her.

Roman Polanski proves his immerse talent in this film which is actually his first book adaptation ever. Supposedly, he was unaware that directors often adjusted book stories to make their films, resulting in Rosemary’s Baby  being the most faithful adaptation ever according to the author Ira Levin. Polanski (or maybe we should say Levin) effectively manipulates the audience from the beginning of the film. We are first presented with ominous events and rumours so to get a feeling that something terrible is going to happen. However, as we move on, despite Rosemary’s fears and suspicions, there’s hardly any proof for her outrageous allegations. She suspects her neighbours, but all they do is provide her with a herbal drink. She suspects her obstetrician, but he is one of the most renowned in the city, respected even by people that she trusts like Hutch and Dr. Hill. So, since we only follow the events from her point of view, we begin to doubt her. I mean, it’s only natural for a mother to worry too much for her unborn child. What if all these are just in her imagination and the 2-3 unfortunate events are just coincidences? Unfortunately, the film’s reputation precedes it. I knew something was going to happen from the beginning. It must have been a great experience back in 1968 when the audience was completely unaware of it. It still makes for an exhilarating picture though. The most impressive thing about the film, and the one that differentiates it so much from modern horror films, is that we never see anything visually scary. We don’t see any gory scenes or scary satanic rituals or jump scares. We don’t even get to see a single glimpse of the baby! It’s all in the mind.

Technically, Rosemary’s Baby is flawless. Roman Polanski did an excellent job. The acting is solid and it’s no surprise that Ruth Gordon’s portrayal of the sinister Minnie Castevet won an Oscar. The score is the icing on the cake and the mesmerizing lullaby sung by Mia Farrow at the beginning and end of the film is one of the most memorable and haunting elements of the feature. What else is needed to say when the film is still discussed and analyzed today almost 50 years later? Even the reclusive Stanley Kubrick was reportedly impressed by it. An amazing picture altogether.

9/10

Fun Fact: Hannibal Lecter’s eyes

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Ever wondered how did Anthon Hopkins manage to look so creepy in his portrayal of the psychopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter? Well, partly this was because of his eyes. If you pay attention to him in the movie, you’ll notice that most of the time he doesn’t blink. Anthony Hopkins said in an interview that he was inspired by a friend of his who never blinked, something that made everyone around him nervous.

Review: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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Agatha Christie, Sidney Lumet, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Albert Finney, what could possibly go wrong? Well, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as good as I expected. I haven’t read the book, but I have the feeling that the story is too complex to be translated into a 2-hour theatrical release. It’s still a great whodunnit though and one of the most well-known adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books.

The story starts by informing us about a tragic incident in 1930. A young girl was kidnapped and then found murdered even though ransom for her life was paid. Five years later, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot takes the Orient Express to London accompanied by all sorts of interesting people. While travelling through Yugoslavia, one of the passengers is found murdered and in the meantime, the train stops because of a snowstorm. Poirot takes over investigation and is determined to find who is the killer among the passengers.The story is as challenging  and intriguing as it can possibly be. Everyone is a suspect, but who had the means and the motive to commit the murder? As Poirot questions passenger after passenger, it seems that many of them had a motive and connections with the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong 5 years ago make things even more complex.

Of course, we have Agatha Christie to thank for the story, but what about the rest of the film? What about acting, directing, cinematography and music? Well, unfortunately, none of these is as expected. The cast consists of some of the greatest actors of the time, but Albert Finney seems unconvincing as Poirot. I’m struggling to understand how he got an Oscar nomination. Ingrid Bergman is good, but still not good enough for the Oscar she won. If there is one that stands out for me, this is Lauren Bacall as the intolerable Mrs. Hubbard. Anthony Perkins is very good too. Murder on the Orient Express, is far from Sidney Lumet’s best pictures (12 Angry Men, Network). I got tired of seeing the train moving on after each scene. The screenplay has its flaws too. For several suspects, Poirot seems to arrive at conclusions without sufficient evidence yet nobody argues with him. Surely, as I said above, it wasn’t an easy task to adapt such a novel. It’s still a very easy watch, that keeps you thinking until the final moments when the quite unexpected events concerning the murder are revealed.

6/10

Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film is an insightful study of how people deal with loss, grief and trauma. A very powerful movie indeed that aims to show us that love can be healing and hope is always present. The story is unfolded slowly and requires our patience, but by the time it’s over, we realize that it has taught us many a lesson.

Our main character is Lee (Casey Affleck), an ordinary working man who lives in Boston. At the beginning, he seems like a normal single man who carries his everyday job with no flaws, no complains and most notably, no smiles. Until someday, he learns that his brother is dead, which forces him to go back to his hometown, Manchester, Minnesota, and take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose mother has left the family. Meanwhile, we get to see flashbacks of Lee’s former life in Manchester. There is a striking difference between the past and the present: Lee used to be happy. He had a wife (Michelle Williams), three children, his friends, his brother. So what happened? Well, a tragic mistake has cost him everything and continues to haunt him. Combined with all the memories he has to face in his hometown now, Lee is a wreck. 

Surprisingly, what seems to be a heavy burden, becomes his salvation. Lee is reluctant to become Patrick’s guardian, but as it turns out, their relationship becomes his redemption. It seems that he has forgotten how it is to care for someone. It seems that he has finally a reason to live, something that he lacked for some time. He is not expressive, not at all. However, you can see that his life with Patrick does him good. It is obvious when in the last scene he does something he hasn’t done in quite a while: he smiles. Not just a smirk or a movement of his lips, but a true, heartfelt smile.

The film is powerful and filled with emotion and it’s impressive how Kenneth Lonergan can transmit so many feelings through a character so self-contained. Casey Affleck delivers the performance of his life with the rest of the cast doing an excellent job as well. What I loved the most was how beautiful the picture was both visually and aurally. I was surprised when I noticed that although the film was nominated for a lot of awards, it got no nominations for the score apart from a Satellite award. I hope that next month’s Oscars will not overlook it. If there is something missing from Manchester by the Sea, it is a climax. Every scene seems like another day in the life, nothing too memorable. This is the only drawback (if you can call it a drawback) I could note. I’m afraid this may result in the film being forgotten in the near future, so you’d better go watch it now.

8/10

Review: Interstellar (2014)

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Christopher Nolan’s most recent film is an epic adventure in space filled with science and philosophy as the characters go into an interstellar expedition in order to save humanity. It is I think the British director’s most mature work and it could have been his best picture if not for its disappointing ending. One can’t avoid drawing comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (one of Christopher Nolan’s favourite films). Interstellar is indeed an odyssey of its own, but it ultimately fails where 2001 succeeds.

The story is quite long and can be split into three parts. The first part (the first 40 minutes) takes place in earth at some point in the future when a kind of space dust has filled the planet eventually causing a food shortage. People are only concentrated in surviving. Most of them become farmers and as a result, technological advance is put aside. Our main character is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and engineer who is struggling to adapt to his new life as a farmer while raising his son and daughter. Murph, his daughter, is a brilliant kid with a great interest in science as her father. One day she claims that a ghost is trying to send some messages to her through the books in her room. Cooper translates one of those messages (without understanding their source), and it leads him to a secret base where what is left of NASA is trying to carry out a mission to find an inhabitable planet. They mention that they also have been conducted by seemingly supernatural forces that they believe to be 5-dimension beings. Cooper is chosen to pilot the spaceship Endurance joined by the scientists Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) as well as two robots.

The second part takes place in space. The goal is to pass through a wormhole near Saturn that will lead them to another galaxy where three previous missions, each for a different planet, have reached planets that can possibly be inhabitable. The plan is to find the best of these three planets and if possible go back to earth to bring all remaining people to this new planet (Plan A). If resources do not allow for a journey back to earth, the plan is to use fertilized eggs they carry with them to create a colony and preserve the human kind (Plan B). Note that these planets are very close to a giant black hole which decelerates time which results in Cooper’s children becoming older than him. I don’t want to go into any more details. Let’s just say that the first two planets didn’t work and the resources left were very limited so Cooper manages to send what is left of Endurance into the third planet sacrificing himself in the process by falling into the black hole. Brand, the only remaining member of the crew, is supposed to follow plan B in this planet.

Before I talk about the third and last part, which is actually only the last 30 minutes, I want to comment on how good this second part was. It was amazing! Everything about it was a masterpiece: the visual effects, the score, the imagery, the story, everything. Most of all though, the dialogues. As I mentioned above the film also gets philosophical at times amidst the so well-researched scientific script. You listen to the astronauts talking about supermassive black holes and the next moment they discuss about love being a total mystery that overcomes the barriers of space and time. It was much more though-provoking than I expected. The idea alone that a time may come when earth won’t have the necessary ingredients to sustain human life is terribly frightening. The main theme of the film I think is survival and how far people are determined to go in order to survive. What would you do if you have to choose between the people you love and the preservation of the human kind? I hope we never come to face this dilemma.

And then comes the last part, the ending. This is where everything goes wrong. We discover that the ghost and these 5-dimension beings are actually future humans who have evolved into much more powerful beings and allow for Cooper to send messages in the past to help the people of his age. Then, we learn that Murph and her team managed to create a station that can travel in space and save a lot of people, Cooper somehow is transferred there from the black hole and Brand starts a new human colony in the third planet. All this carefully taken care of scientific background becomes something closer to fantasy. First of all there’s the predestination paradox we so often come across in sci-fi movies. How did future humans survive if they needed Cooper to send these messages to NASA? And even if there is an explanation for that as some people claim, why didn’t future humans make things a bit easier? They could travel through time and they supposedly created the wormhole that made the whole plan possible. Couldn’t they create a wormhole next to the earth so that everyone could be saved? Couldn’t they inform people about the best possible planet? And if NASA created a station in space that could sustain life for thousands of people, couldn’t it do the same in the Earth saving many more? Maybe Christopher Nolan just wanted a happy ending. Maybe he wanted to satisfy people who didn’t care much about science. For me, the last minutes only managed to ruin my impression of the previous 2 hours.

In any case Interstellar is a great and very engaging film and its technical aspects are amazing. The ending made the plot seem a bit faulty, but this doesn’t make it a bad film. In fact I would recommend it to everyone. You never know, maybe there is a pretty good and scientific explanation for everything and I’m completely wrong. Maybe this is why 2001 is better. Kubrick knew which answers he could answer and which he could not. So instead of coming up with some out-of-place explanations about the monolith and evolution, he just leaves everything open for interpretation letting the movie speak for itself. I wish Interstellar did the same.

8/10

 

Fun Fact: The Shining Bat Swinging Scene

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According to the Guinness Books of Records, the scene where Shelley Duvall swings a bat at Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, has the record for number of retakes with 127 shots. The filming was indeed a real struggle for the actors as perfectionism was at a whole different level. The scene where Scatman Crothers explains the Shining was shot so many times that reportedly the actor broke down crying “What do you want mr Kubrick?”. It’s perhaps no surprise that Jack Nicholson swore never to work with Stanley Kubrick again.

Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

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Hell or High Water is easily one of the best movies of the year. Set in Texas, this suspenseful crime thriller reminded me of older classics where the bad guys suddenly become your heroes. It was one of the most pleasant surprises back in the summer of 2016 which was mostly filled with flop blockbusters. Somehow, I only got to see it in January.

The film was directed by David MacKenzie and follows the story of two brothers that try to raise money to save their deep in debt family ranch. Toby, the younger brother (Chris Pine), realizes that he has no other option than to steal money and chooses a local bank as his target. Tanner (Ben Foster), his unpredictable and dangerous ex-con older brother agrees to help him. They follow a methodical plan targeting small branches of Texas Midlands, the bank that is about to foreclose their ranch. Naturally, they get the attention of the police and the soon-to-be retired ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). Hell or high water eventually does come as the plot reaches its climax leaving the viewer with a bittersweet feeling.

The impressive thing about this film is the way it makes you feel about its characters. You see a homicidal Ben Foster saying “I love you little brother” and hope that he gets away with the money. The next moment you see Jeff Bridges crying over his dead partner and wish he gets Ben Foster in the head. By the time the ending credits roll, you can’t tell for certain what is wrong or right, good or evil.

The acting is solid throughout the movie. Jeff Bridges, one of my favourite actors, deservedly got a golden globe nomination. Ben Foster was awesome too and he should get more attention after this. The other very strong aspect of the film was the soundtracks. A mix of country, blues and classic rock, the songs seem to be the perfect choice for each scene. Gillian Welch’s I’m not afraid to die playing as the brothers share their nostalgic moments during what might be their last day in the ranch where they grew up, is one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while. After three Golden Globe nominations (with no wins unfortunately), I really hope it gets rewarded in next month’s Academy Awards.

8/10

Fun Fact: The Jazz Singer dialogue

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In 1927, the first feature film with audible dialogue was released. The Jazz Singer made a huge impression at the time and prompted studios worldwide to experiment with the inclusion of sound in their films eventually leading to the decline of the silent film era. Ironically, the dialogue wasn’t intended at all. Originally, the film was only supposed to have synchronized music, but after the song “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face”, Al Johnson ad-libbed the line “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet”. It was decided that the line should be in the movie (after Sam Warner’s insistence some sources claim), a few more lines were recorded and the rest is history.

Fun Fact: Psycho Shower Scene

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Janet Leigh, the leading actress in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, developed a phobia of showers after watching the film. Leigh portrayed Marion, the girl who gets murdered in the iconic shower scene. Reportedly, she had trouble taking showers for decades and she only did when absolutely necessary locking all the doors and having the curtain open. The actress herself has said in an interview: “I never realized before how completely vulnerable we are. Seeing the movie and seeing how defenseless one is — you can’t see, the curtain’s shut; you can’t hear, the water’s running. You’re a sitting duck it did a number on my head.”

Review: Pi (1998)

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Pi was the debut feature of the now acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky. It revolves around the obsession of a charismatic, but troubled man named Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), who is determined to find a pattern that will decipher the stock market. His former professor (Mark Margolis), who had been chasing a similar obsession for years, tries to convince him against it. Max is obsessed beyond return though and soon he finds himself going after a 216-digit number that could explain universe and help him discover God.

The film has some very interesting themes. It deals with the same idea that Black Swan did (the only other Arronofsky’s film I watched), that while the relentless pursuing of an obsession can lead to success, it can also lead to self-destruction. Then there is the search of God as we have seen in many other movies before, most notably in Ingmar Bergman’s filmography. Max is so infatuated with the idea of the secret key number, that before he knows it he loses control. He becomes a slave of his obsession as so many other people in our days.

Arronofsky did a great job in Pi. I don’t know for certain, but it seems like a low budget film with its relatively unknown cast and its black and white filming. The surrealistic, thought-provoking way the plot is unveiled though, is more than enough to redeem the viewer. The acting is not what we would call top-notch, but they’re all doing a respectable job. Mark Margolis in particular gives a very good performance.

I’ll end this review with the optimistic message that I believe the ending scene attempts to deliver: there is beauty in simplicity. We don’t need to understand everything, it won’t make us happier. It would only serve to bury us even deeper in the universe’s chaotic nature. Let your goals and ideas serve your life rather than making your life a servant of them.

7/10