Thursday, January 31, 2008

Trailer (s) of the Week: Where Roman Has Gone Before

Firstly, you like the title there, huh? Yeah, I went there, there being puns-ville.

Now on to the matter at hand, last week in my review of Tess I commented that while I felt the film was solid overall, the direction lacked that certain Roman Polanski feel. This week I provide two examples of said Polanski feel and an interesting and entertaining dichotomy of how they were marketed to the public.

Exhibit A:

Repulsion (1965) trailer

Polanski's first film made outside of his native country Poland is also the first of a thematic series of film, sometimes referred to as "The Apartment trilogy", each dealing with sexually and/or emotionally repressed women (okay, in The Tenant it's actually a man, played by Polanski himself, who believes he's turning into a woman) who find themselves in solitude in their apartments that become their personal prisons where they slowly but surely become unhinged to the point of violence.

In the trailer for Repulsion, the distributor decided to downplay the methodical pacing of Catherine Deneuve's slow dissent into madness and advertise it more as a sexy thrill-a-minute romp complete with a jazzy drum beat you can dance to and that classic 60's drive-in era horror movie narration.

Exhibit B:

Rosemary's Baby (69) trailer

Like Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Polanski's first American film (produced by the kid himself, Robert Evans) depicts a woman in solitude slowly losing grip of her sanity in her increasingly claustrophobic apartment. Part horror/suspense but also very much part comedy, Polanski juggles issues as disperate as abandonment, the negative effects of career focus on marriage, generational distrust and of course, satanism! It's a wholly unique symbiosis and surprisingly, considering its an American studio funded horror film, so is the trailer. With the exception of the opening, the trailer contains no dialogue from the film as it intercuts between a pop-art collage of film highlights set to a psychedelic rock instrumental and a physical recreation of the famous poster image of a baby carriage on top of a hill, with a dread filled ambient score. Standing alone, it's the rare trailer that manages to achieve the level of an experimental masterpiece evoking the avant garde sensibility of the era, even if the purest in me wishes they found a way to incorporate the Krzysztof Komeda score and the "la la la" refrain.

So how do you like your Polanski "woman unraveling in her apartment" trailers? Arty or exploitative?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tess (1980, Roman Polanski)

Part of the 1980's Project

Seeing as we are in the midst of the annual Hollywood self-idolatry-fest known as Oscar season, it seemed a good time to shift gears in the 1980’s Project away from Z-grade slasher films (oh, there’ll be more of them in the future don't you worry) and take a look at the one 1980 Best Picture Oscar nominee I had not yet seen, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s book Tess of the d’Ubervilles. It’s title truncated to Tess which always caused me to confuse it with that Matt Dillon Disney horse-riding film, Tex, it’s the sort of film the movie industry likes to think it excels at: a prestigious adaptation of a classic piece of literature centered around an epic romance; and then pats itself on the back for making it and further rewards the accomplishment by giving it awards. But in this viewer’s mind, with a few exceptions, say Lawrence of Arabia, these prestige films hardly ever result in a transcendent piece of cinema. How many people today really ever discuss the merits and influence of Tess (unless they are in the middle of a project to see as many films from the year 1980 as possible, of course)? Or for that matter, a more recent example, The English Patient?

Call me cynical, but I cannot help but speculate that Roman Polanski’s involvement here is partially strategic. This was the first film he directed after fleeing America as a fugitive on statutory rape charges. Now a nearly three hour film based on a nearly hundred year old book would never be considered a strong commercial property, but it is the type of film that critics, and as mentioned above award givers, cherish, so a successful adaptation could salvage his career aspirations in a time of public crisis. He opens the film with a dedication to his slain wife, Sharon Tate, it was one of her favorite books and she recommended it’s prospects as a film to him. If you will allow me my further cynical strategic ponderousness, this could either be seen as a mea culpa to his wife for his dalliances after her murder or serve as a way of Polanski reminding deractors of his past status as a victim of horrendous circumstances.

But what of the film itself? Polanski’s run of films in the 60s and 70s proved him to be a filmmaker keenly attuned to the psychological mind, master of claustrophobic panache and possessing the rare ability to skillfully mix comedy and horror to the point where the lines between the two become blurred. I can see what initially drew Polanski to this material, it involves two of his favorite personal themes: the emotional scars and betrayal of a woman perpetrated by a supposed loved one and/or family and the false pretenses, secret lives and hypocritical nature of the upperclass. Still, while beautifully shot, it never truly feels like a “Polanski” film. The methods and style he employs are pretty much indistinguishable from how a less unique director would treat the material. Hell, for such a great director of violence, it seems an odd choice that the one murder scene and ultimate fate of Tess are both handled off screen (I must admit to having not read Hardy’s book, so perhaps this is in fidelity to the source, still their absence is a waste of one of Polanski’s strengths). The one major exception to the generic tendencies is the utter lack of sentimentality throughout, most notably in a scene where the infant child of Tess dies which is handled in the same matter-of-fact “shit happens” sensibility that accompanies all of Ms. D’Ubervilles travails. There is also a nice lack of using the score as an emotional substitute (at least until the last twenty or so minutes). Polanski’s work is solid and the lack of sentimentality appreciated, still I guess I wish, since he’s a favorite director of mine, that he would have put a more personal imprint on the project, such as Stanley Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon.

Tess’s most glaring weakness lies in its lead performer, Natassja Kinski, picked seemingly for her beauty and the fact that she and Polanski were having an affair (an affair that started when she was 14, damn Roman, dating a 14 year old while you’re fleeing the U.S. on statutory rape charges, I don’t know if I should condemn you for your emotional immaturity or applaud your balls. Didn’t you know any thirty year olds at the time?) than for her minor acting skills. She lacks the gravity required for the role leaving the viewer to deduce whether she suppresses everything internally or if Kinski is just incapable of conveying a variety of emotions. Whether she’s being raped, falling in love, having her desires suppressed, Kinski’s only expression is nonplussed (look at that poster, that‘s the expression she has for the entire film) as if she was concentrating mostly on being photographed. To her credit, Kinski would evolve into a better actor, most notably in Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, but after watching Tess I feel the need to read Hardy’s book to get a complete sense of her character, not necessarily a bad thing, seeing how I should read more classic literature and all.

Kinski’s limp presence along with Polanski’s sometimes generic direction, prevents Tess from being a wholly successful venture. Speaking of the book, it must have had a major influence on the career Lars von Trier, since it’s basic plot elements: a young girl continually betrayed, forced to fight and scavenge for survival, oppressed and eventually hung once she finds true happiness; would pretty much serve as a template for the majority of his directorial output between the years 1986 to 2006.

After watching Tess, I came upon an article in the Los Angeles Times about a documentary based on the Polanski statutory rape trial that is playing at Sundance. The film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired makes the case that Polanski while not an innocent by any stretch of the imagination, may have been a victim of a judge who was more interested in his own celebrity than a fair case. You can read the article here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Year in Good DVD Covers

One of the features at my blog last year was “When Bad DVD Covers Happen to Good Movies", where I heap scorn upon the bad graphic designers of the world and the damage they impart upon quality films. You can find the three entries of that feature under the label Bad Cover Version (inspired by a Pulp song). Well, it’s a new year, so let’s start on a happy note, as the song goes: accentuate the positive. With that in mind, here are my five personal favorite DVD covers from last year, in no particular order, as well as five honorable mentions.

The Evil Dead (Ultimate Edition)

It may have taken an estimated 173 releases, but Anchor Bay finally did right by Sam Raimi’s horror classic. After covers featuring staged production photos of Bruce Campbell, comic book style artwork and the infamous Book of the Dead replication, they went back to basics and adhered to Colonel Mortimer’s Guide to Good Cover Artwork rule 1: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, utilizing the simple and effective New Line poster that’s most associated with it. Extra props for the added crease marks and rips.

Zodiac (Director's Cut)

Technically a 2008 release but the artwork made it’s way onto websites and this writer’s eye in 2007, so I am counting it. While I thought the original poster design of the Golden Gate bridge enshrouded in fog was great, at least before the first DVD release added the giant floating heads of Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo, the special edition’s reproduction of one of the Zodiac killer’s letter to the San Francisco Chronicle is everything an alternate cover should be: striking, effective and specific to the film. Too bad they had to add the stamp with the film’s title, but I guess concessions to commercial practicalities must be made.

Ace in the Hole

The Criterion Collection is so reliable that this article could be entirely devoted to their work, instead I will choose my personal favorite, the cover of Billy Wilder’s neglected masterpiece, and one of his only commercial failures, the wonderfully cynical and dark Ace in the Hole where a newspaper reporter, Jack Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas, instigates and nurtures a human interest story when he stumbles upon a man trapped in a mine shaft and milks the man’s plight for his own personal and professional gain. In this day of the 24/7 news cycle where opinion and agenda trumps objectivity and non-stories like Terry Schiavo and the War on X-Mas are given national spotlight attention over more pressing matters, the film is extremely prescient. The cover perfectly captures the tabloid nature of one of Tatum’s headline features.

Flash Gordon (Savior of the Universe Edition)

I am a huge fan of the theatrical release poster, thus this release breaks Good Cover Artwork rule 1, however, I will concede that if there has to be an alternate cover, you should be commended for hiring comic book artist Alex Ross, known for his work on the Marvel mini-series Kingdom Come, to create a cover that perfectly conveys both the iconic heroic and campy cheese tendencies inherit in director Mike Hodges and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple’s homage/parody to the classic sci-fi serial that inspired the likes of Star Wars.

Fantastic Voyage

This year 20th Century Fox went deep in their vaults to release a bevy of 50s, 60s and 70s fare that ranged from war epics to spy chic to Irwin Allen produced sci-fi spectaculars to kitchen sink dramas. Wisely they decided to release these DVDs with their original vintage poster art in tact (plus the awesome old logo with the really big 0). Since I believe this era represent the renaissance of quality poster design, I had plenty of options, but the Fantastic Voyage cover that conjures memories of those old Disneyland attraction posters won out with its simple image concept and perfect execution. The raw emotion of its beautiful chief image, people dropping like tears from an eye, was homaged by Steven Spielberg in A.I. (perhaps incidentally, but knowing what a fan of 50’s genre films he is, I doubt it) during a scene transition where a close-up of Haley Joel Osment is juxtaposed over Jude Law falling into the sea, reflected in his eye like a tear.

Honorable Mention:

Army of Shadows

Criterion strikes again with another brilliant cover of another neglected masterpiece (well, until last year’s theatrical release at least) by a great director, Jean-Pierre Melville. Speaking of Pierres and Criterion, my friend Pierre sent me a link to this website of one of Criterion’s designer, Eric Skillman, check it out.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Global Warming Edition)

My second favorite 20th Century Fox classic cover, who needs the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage when you can just stare at this all day? Points deducted for its painful attempt to tap into the zeitgeist with the Global Warming Edition label, not that I don’t believe in Global Warming, I just don’t think the destruction of our planet should be playfully exploited for the release of an old sci-fi film.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Criterion take three. I have no idea what this film is about, guessing some kind of retelling of the classic deserted island story only, uh, on Mars, but my interest is piqued based solely on this lovely painted cover. As Jerry Maguire once said “You had me at monkey in a space suit”, I am referring not to the movie character, but my zoologist buddy Jerry, whose second favorite catchphrase is “Show me the monkey!”


Warner Brothers, like 20th Century Fox, opened its vault to release a bunch of B-movies this year. I love this very era specific cover with the repeating image of the silhouetted doomed flight. This also features one of my secret poster art guilty pleasures, the boxes on the bottom with stills of the all-star cast made famous by 70’s disaster epics and Superman sequels.

The Sergio Leone Anthology

An extreme close-up illustration of the side of a gunslinger, his sweaty hand approaching his weapon, the open landscape, his opponent off in the distance. Obvious for this compilation of Leone’s MGM Spaghetti Westerns (the Clint Eastwood/Dollars trilogy and the underrated Duck, You Sucker!)? I’ll give you that. Perfect nonetheless? Hell yeah!
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