REVIEW: Venus in Fur

20 06 2014

Venus in FurCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

We’re now witnessing the late films of Roman Polanski, whether we like it or not.  The director gave us one of the all-time great horror films (“Rosemary’s Baby“), neo-noirs (“Chinatown”), and Holocaust films (“The Pianist”).  Yet now, he seems content to draw his legacy to a close with a sort of artistic retreat into filmed theater.

His latest film, “Venus in Fur,” has more than a few similarities with Polanski’s previous directorial effort, 2011’s meekly received “Carnage.”  They are both adaptations of a stage play with a small set of characters locked in a continuous scene restricted to a single space.  And Polanski, who proved to be quite the consummate visual filmmaker in decades past, seems content to just yell “action!” and have the actors do their work.

He controls the chaos a lot better in “Venus in Fur,” although that could be due in part to the cast of only two – one of which is his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, who he’s presumably on the same wavelength with to begin.  She plays Vanda, an aging actress who invites herself to audition for the director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric).  He’s adapting the novel “Venus in Furs,” which is notable for introducing the phrase sadomasochism into the world brain.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Vanda and Thomas play a game of verbal chess over sexual politics and gender identity.  They arrive at more than a few interesting conclusions as their power dynamics and roles begin to shift.  Seigner and Amalric’s acting keeps “Venus in Fur” interesting whenever the location starts to feel boring or the whole enterprise just feels a little bit stalled.

“Venus in Fur” feels like many things, none of which is a Polanski film.  Although I have to give credit to a director who, at 80, is making us reconsider what exactly his movies are.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Carnage

25 03 2012

Every medium has its distinct storytelling capabilities.  The written word can inundate us with rich details and vivid characterization.  The stage can engage our hearts and our eyes with proximity and unflinching reality.  Film can wow us through fast manipulation of image and story that words or actors alone cannot illuminate.  Some, but not many tales can bounce between the different media.  Those that make the jump require strenuous retooling to fit the expressive purposes of their newfound home.

The fatal flaw of Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is that it is merely a carbon copy of its source play, Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play “The God of Carnage.”  The two masters of their respective crafts, collaborators on the script, ultimately fail to realize what is cinematic about the story.  As a result, it just feels like a performance of the play itself (which I have read and deeply admire!) merely caught on film.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly happy that more people will be exposed to Reza’s keen insights into our primal natures.  Not everyone can afford to see it on Broadway, nor are touring or repertory companies going to be performing this in every town.  But it does the work a disservice to merely slap it onto a screen when it belongs on a stage.

Read the rest of this entry »

(Again REALLY Belated) Weekend Update – July 31, 2011

31 07 2011

“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”

– Meryl Streep

“You have to show violence the way it is. If you don’t show it realistically, then that’s immoral and harmful. If you don’t upset people, then that’s obscenity.”

– Roman Polanski

Out and About in the Community

As a sort of cop-out for not publishing this on time, I’m going to overpublicize two events I participated in recently over at the Large Association of Movie Blogs (The LAMB), a giant database of bloggers that get together and pool ideas and posts.

The first was the LAMB Acting School, a monthly series that gathers reviews and retrospectives centered around a single actor.  This month, it was the legendary Meryl Streep, the woman who may well be the greatest actress of her generation.  For those who get sick of her or claim that the Oscars are overly obsessed with her, just look at her filmography and tell me that the diversity of roles present and the dexterity with which she pulls them off isn’t flooring.  Her emphasis is obviously on the drama, but she can pull off comedy just as easily.  She is often lauded for her ability to change the accent of her voice to fit a character; however, it’s that incredible Streep pathos that she brings to every role that has made her a symbol of consistency and reliability in a volatile cinematic climate.

Not to mention I owe Meryl Streep a very special favor myself.  If it hadn’t been for her and “Julie & Julia,” this blog probably wouldn’t exist.  She has changed my life for better and for always, and I am eternally grateful.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Click on the graphic to go see all the posts, but here are links to what I have reviewed from her illustrious career:

It’s Complicated

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Julie & Julia


Music of the Heart

Then, a week prior, I participated in the “LAMBs in the Director’s Chair” event, which celebrated the career of Roman Polanski.  I haven’t seen too many of his movies and have reviewed even fewer, but I admire his skill behind the camera and don’t wish to comment on his legal status.  I saw “Roman Polanski: Wanted & Desired,” which I found an interesting portrait of a haunted man, and it just made me even more torn.

Nonetheless, “The Pianist” may be one of my all-time favorite movies.  It is so powerful and moving, perhaps the only intensely personal non-documentarian account of the Holocaust we will ever get.  I’m really hoping “Carnage” is another big success – I always love a good play adaptation.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Again, click the link to be taken to the post with reviews and commentary. Here’s what I submitted:

The Ghost Writer

Classics Corner: Rosemary’s Baby

A Week in Review

This week, I reviewed the two non-Smurf new releases, “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Crazy Stupid Love.”  My expectations were high for the former, low for the latter; the output was low for the former, high for the latter.  Click the pictures to be transported to the reviews.

I also celebrated my two year birthday/anniversary, whichever it is – without the pomp and circumstance.  And I’m totally OK with that.

Recommended Reading

Here’s some of the great work I read this week:

The Rant

This is a thought I had upon further thought on the sex friend movies of 2011, “No Strings Attached” and “Friends with Benefits.”  (Believe it or not, it is possible to think on them.)

Isn’t in hypocritical that the MPAA has begun a crusade against cigarette smoking yet have done nothing about what I think is a much bigger issue in movies nowadays: the casual attitude towards unprotected sex.  While I’m not going to dismiss smoking in movies as something that can influence kids and teenagers, I would argue that they are much more likely to imitate the sexual behavior of screen characters.  Smoking is a social behavior, so kids see it out in public all the time.  Movies just reinforce what they see in real life.

Sex, however, is a very private matter.  Their education nowadays is abstinence or a very sanitized, conservative, condoms-on-bananas approach, like Coach Carr from “Mean Girls” (see the clip below).  What they see in the movies defines how they perceive it in the real world.

While sex on film has evolved with the constantly changing societal norms, from “Carnal Knowledge” to “Brokeback Mountain” to the 2011 duo touting casual sex, I’m surprised that public awareness (and perhaps anger) of how sex is being portrayed on screen hasn’t caught up with the times.  While the conservative definition of sex as an act between man and wife was thrown out quite a while ago, that isn’t an excuse not to care.  Attitudes may have changed, but that doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye and abandon all responsibility simply because we don’t fully agree with something.

The routine nowadays for sex is two people start passionately kissing, find a flat spot, disrobe each other, and begin thrusting.  Is it really that hard to add the simple, responsible step somewhere before the thrusting begins of adding a condom?  Would it really disrupt the scene that much to add in a shot of a Trojan wrapper on the ground?  A hand reaching in the drawer for a rubber?  We don’t actually have to see it slide on, but for kids who believe that movies reflect real life, there really needs to be some sense conveyed that these people have taken measures to be safe.  Otherwise, there should be consequences.

Only two mainstream movies (to my knowledge) have really dared to have any major results from having unprotected sex, both coming in 2007: “Knocked Up” and “Juno,” both of which featured characters who had to deal with a life-changing pregnancy either willingly not using a condom (the latter) or accidentally not using one (the former).  Both tackle the issue in a respectful manner but also serving as subtle cautionary tales.  But other than those, the only other movie I can think of that shows safe sex being practiced are, ironically, “No Strings Attached.”  (I should also credit 2005’s “Must Love Dogs,” a lame Diane Keaton rom-com that featured a scene where she and John Cusack choose not to have sex because they can’t find a condom.)

Does Hollywood really expect us to believe that 95% of the time, there are no consequences of having unprotected sex?  Wouldn’t it be so refreshing to see Katherine Heigl get chlamydia in her next romantic comedy?  Or after a drunken one-night stand, have Jessica Alba get pregnant?  These are things that happen to real people when they don’t act responsibly, and by dwelling on the small percentage of times that unprotected sex has no ramifications, they are promoting an illusion that could damage lives.

In our immediate gratification culture which demands movies on DVD sooner, data quicker, and social information faster, I find it almost unfathomable that people have chosen to fixate on eradicating smoking from cinema with all of its LONG-TERM effects.  Lung cancer takes a while to develop; you start to feel pregnancy within a month or so, a sexually transmitted disease sets in even sooner, and emotional scarring may be present the next morning.  While the wages of sex are usually not life-threatening, that doesn’t mean we should just turn a blind eye to Hollywood’s dangerous condoning of an irresponsible practice.

Check back for more “Weekend Update” on August 7 … hopefully it will be published on time!

Classics Corner: “Rosemary’s Baby”

30 01 2011

I find that when it comes to watching horror classics, I’m generally not as scared as I’m told I should be.  Perhaps it’s just expectations being set sky-high, or maybe I’m just really not freaked out by horror movies at all.  Roman Polanski’s most famous entry into the genre, 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” is no exception.  Thanks to some eerie Satanic twists and some very well-directed realism, it did manage to creep me out on levels I didn’t think it would.

I think the hardest thing about looking retrospectively at horror movies is changing the mindset of what to expect.  Several decades ago, filmmakers styled horror in a much more ambient and cerebral manner.  These made for some very traumatizing experiences for moviegoers in those times because that was all they could expect.  Thanks to advances in technology, horror has now been taken to different levels, usually preying more on suspense and cheap thrills to get an audience reaction.

I’m not quite sure when the turning point came (“Final Destination,” perhaps?), but sometime between 1968 and 2011, genre movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” became considered more artistic films than horror flicks.  That’s why “Black Swan,” a movie with a few similarities, is such a hard sell as a horror movie to many people nowadays.   Horror has been redefined, and anything that doesn’t fit into the narrow box of predictability and jump-out surprises is dismissed.

But this sort of “old horror,” as I’ll call it, is so much more affecting.  It’s truly a shame that the Hollywood system has turned away from making them in favor of five entries into the “Final Destination” series while visionary cinema like “Black Swan” has to be produced on scraps outside the established order.  Roman Polanski’s movie kicks the butt of any sort of horror movie you’ll see at the multiplex nowadays.

What I found to be particularly remarkable about the movie was the sense of tension that he builds.  Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is just an ordinary woman with a workaholic husband and two neighbors (including Ruth Gordon in an Academy Award-winning role) who redefine overbearing.  She gets pregnant just like she wants, but there’s an sense of foreboding doom accompanying her pregnancy.  We are never quite sure of what it is, and we don’t have to know for it to be chilling.  It could be the apartment, where most of the movie takes place, and the sense of claustrophobia it provides.  It could just be nerves.  But whatever is going on, it drives Rosemary over the edge.

It’s the psychological collapse of Rosemary that makes the movie a fascinating and interesting watch.  It all leads up to a climax that’s good for a jaw-drop but ultimately kind of underwhelms in terms of aesthetics.  The plot, based on a novel by Ira Levin, is good enough to be regurgitated by filmmakers consistently for over four decades.  Yet the movie isn’t a classic because of the story; it’s a classic because of Polanski’s knack for bringing the terror of the mind out onto the screen.

Oscar Moment: “The Ghost Writer”

28 11 2010

Back in June, I wrote a polarizing piece suggesting that “Shutter Island” could be a legitimate player in the Best Picture race.  In the poll, most people thought that was a big pot of croc.  But what if the February release that we should be looking out for is Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer?”

For many of the same reasons “Shutter Island” is being considered, we should consider this movie.  It has the name of high-prestige director on its masthead who has been rewarded by the Academy in the past decade (2002 for “The Pianist”).  It has critical support; both movies received identical BFCA scores of 81.  It is an audience-pleasing thriller that keeps you closely tied into the action until the conclusion.

But unlike “Shutter Island,” there is an aura of controversy surrounding “The Ghost Writer.”  Timed almost simultaneously with the movie’s stateside release was Roman Polanski’s arrest overseas for the statutory rape he fled the United States for decades ago.  The director instantly became a topic of heated conversation.  Should he face justice, or be pardoned after all these years?  No matter what you think, the debate put Polanski into a very present mainstream consciousness.  As Sasha Stone put it in her excellent piece Cinema Paranoia, “there was no room, nor any invitation, to look at ‘The Ghost Writer’ [after the hysteria].”

The Hollywood community flocked to Polanski’s side, and it will be interesting to see where this support goes in Oscar season.  The movie took an unexpected resonance in the face of the controversy, and I think it added a different dimension to the experience.  It certainly brought out a great deal of passion in certain people, and as Guy Lodge of In Contention pondered, “progressive media loyalty to Polanski may have gone into overdrive … [I] wonder whether the director’s band of supporters in the Academy might show up for the film come nomination time — despite its low profile and early release date.”

“The Ghost Writer” has already racked up several impressive feats this year that could bode well for it during the long season ahead.  Back in February, Polanski won Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival.  Over the summer, FIPRESCI, the international critics’ association, named it their best movie of 2010; their previous choices have included art-house favorites “Magnolia” and Best Picture nominee “There Will Be Blood.”  At the beginning of November, it received seven nominations for the European Film Awards, more than any other movie.

It remains to be seen whether these accomplishments or the controversy will amount to anything substantial in terms of Oscars.  What happens in Europe doesn’t necessarily reflect American tastes.  I think if the movie can get some support from critics groups, which isn’t too far-fetched given its 83% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 77 on Metacritic, “The Ghost Writer” could gain some significant traction for one of the bottom 5 Best Picture nominations and perhaps even an out-of-nowhere Best Director nomination.  Some have even speculated that Olivia Williams, who plays the wife of the former Prime Minister, could play into the Best Supporting Actress race.  Given the volatile field there, I wouldn’t discount her if the film starts to catch on.

Worth nothing as well: a below-the-line nomination could also be in store for composer Alexandre Desplat, who was recently awarded Composer of the Year at the World Soundtrack Awards.  However, he also has scores in play for “The King’s Speech” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the former of which is probably much more Academy friendly than “The Ghost Writer.”  I haven’t listened to the score from the ultra-baity English flick, but I will say that Desplat’s score was one of my favorite parts of the movie and is very deserving of a nomination.

The general consensus is that this isn’t one of Polanski’s best, but is “not his best” better than “really good” from lesser filmmakers?  We’ll find out.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actress (Williams), Best Original Score

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay

Random Factoid #436

7 10 2010

Hooray for memes!  It’s been a while since I’ve been tagged in one of these … good to be back on the circuit!  Thanks to Sebastian for tagging me.  Here’s the pitch:

The idea is that you list off the first 15 directors that come to your head that have shaped the way you look at movies. You know, the ones that will always stick with you. Don’t take too long to think about it. Just churn em’ out.

Here are my 15:

  • Woody Allen
  • Judd Apatow
  • Darren Aronofsky
  • Alfonso Cuarón
  • Clint Eastwood
  • David Fincher
  • Sam Mendes
  • Fernando Meirelles
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Sean Penn
  • Roman Polanski
  • Jason Reitman
  • Martin Scorsese
  • Steven Spielberg (no, it isn’t cliched)
  • Quentin Tarantino

In case anyone was wondering, I got to about 10 and then had a major pause.

REVIEW: The Ghost Writer

7 09 2010

There are plenty of political thrillers thrown at us each year, and despite being directed by Oscar winner Roman Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” has little to distinguish itself from the countless other entries in the genre.  Thanks to solid direction and capable acting, it definitely ranks among the upper echelon of similar movies.  Yet at the same time, there’s nothing that jumps out and makes you think “now THAT is the work of an Academy Award winning director.”  (It’s almost impossible to top “The Pianist,” and I don’t expect Polanski to do so.)

It’s your prototypical tale of intrigue involving the usual chain of events: suspicion, investigation, and ultimately startling discovery. Ewan McGregor’s Ghost takes on the lofty task of adapting the verbose memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after the first ghost writer drowns.  The Ghost senses that there might be foul play afoot in the unforeseen disappearance, and sure enough, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.  He stumbles upon a web of deceit and betrayal where allegiance and alliance are never certain.

There are some nice twists in the end, but the build-up can get a little tedious at times.  Nothing is ever boring because it is a Polanski movie, after all.  There is often an occasion where the movie thinks it’s a lot better than it is.  Maybe it’s this Polanski-instilled confidence that elevates the movie a few rungs above mediocre.  He does a good job of escalating the tension slowly over the movie until the end when it could be cut with a knife.  The tautness is also due in large part to Alexandre Desplat’s brassy score, sometimes quirky but always blaring.

In short, “The Ghost Writer” doesn’t quite measure up to the Roman Polanski standard.  But not quite measuring up to his standard is exceeding a whole lot of other ones.  B+ /

Random Factoid #394

26 08 2010

Can you enjoy a film if you “hate” the filmmaker? That’s the question posed over at Cinematical, who examined the work of three controversial directors.  Here’s what was said on Roman Polanski, whose rearresting this past year has caused quite a stir:

Crimes: Giving drugs and sex to an underage girl; fleeing from indictment and avoiding America forever.

This is the big one among movie geeks. Polanski’s crimes were committed in 1977, and since then he’s produced films both good and not so good … every time one of his new films hits cinemas, the movie world is abuzz with opinions on Polanski’s legal problems. Given that Polanski’s latest was actually produced while he was under house arrest, well, that just gave Polanski’s detractors another reason to hate the guy.

Frankly I’m not qualified to judge a man like Roman Polanski. This guy escaped the Warsaw ghetto and lived to see his pregnant wife murdered by the Manson family … so clearly he has some emotional issues. Obviously that does not excuse a man from committing statutory rape and then fleeing from justice, but I just see Polanski as a tragic figure altogether. A truly gifted filmmaker who’s survived some horrible things (and committed some unpleasant acts)…

I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with people who are more interested in the value of the art than the values of the people creating it.  I separate life on and off the screen because they are two entirely different forms of reality.  I’m in no position to judge these people’s lives, only the art that they create.  This even goes for Roman Polanski.  I’m not going to condone the actions he allegedly committed, but it’s not my call to decide how he should face judgement.  From my experience, I have found that there is passing judgement on others, particularly based on incomplete information, only produces anger and resentment.

I once had a teacher who wouldn’t see “Mission: Impossible 3” because she didn’t like that Tom Cruise was open about his belief in Scientology.  I think it’s a little silly to boycott a movie when an actor takes on a role that doesn’t espouse his beliefs.  When the actor or actress does, however, it’s an entirely different ballgame.  If someone told me they didn’t want to see “Capitalism: A Love Story” because they don’t appreciate Michael Moore’s outspokenness, then I’d be more comfortable with that decision.

To close, I’ll leave you with the article’s final stance, which pretty much sums up my feelings.  Sometimes it’s best not to reproduce something that already hits the nail on the head.

But ultimately … I don’t have to like a person to admire their films. And I guess that’s where I stand in general: my job is to evaluate and appreciate a film. Anything beyond that is simply not all that interesting to me.