Monthly Archives: October 2012

Rosemary’s Baby: My Favorite Horror Film

Three years ago, I released a list of the five best horror films in honor of Halloween. However, three years is a long time and I am certainly not the same person I was back then. Naturally, both my opinions and taste have changed since then.

In 2009, I hailed “The Silence of the Lambs” as the best horror film ever made. I admit that I have never been the biggest fan of horror films. Zombies and slashers have never quite done it for me. So I think it would be more appropriate to say that this new post is about my favorite horror film. Seeing as I have yet to watch “Night of the Living Dead,” I don’t feel totally qualified to judge which horror film is the absolute best ever made. While I still consider “The Silence of the Lambs” a masterpiece, I have come to realize that “Rosemary’s Baby” is truly my favorite horror film of all time.

One of the biggest complaints made against of modern horror films is how the genre has substituted true suspense for blood and guts. Maybe that is why the horror films which effected me most usually have a supernatural element to them. Ironically though, I hate “The Exorcist.” Giving a character powers that they do not understand and cannot handle can say a whole lot thematically. For example, in “Carrie,” her telepathy is partly a metaphor for her ignorance of her journey into womanhood. “Carrie” does not get enough mentions in top ten lists.

“Rosemary’s Baby” isn’t even that frightening throughout its running time. Then again, there shouldn’t have to be someone hiding behind every door in order to make something scary. A scary idea can be more frightening than a few cheap screams.

“Rosemary’s Baby” is also one of the films that proves that Roman Polanski is a master filmmaker. Few directors have ever been so bold as to view humanity as so overwhelmingly dark. With the exception of “The Pianist,” the endings to most of Polanski’s films are devoid of optimism. However, they are never devoid of meaning.

The film is set mostly in one location. More horror films should use less locations, as giving characters less places to go for safety can make a story all the more chilling. The film centers around certified New York yuppies Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) Woodhouse who move into The Dakota. The Dakota would become the sight of a real tragedy 12 years later, as it was the home of John Lennon, and he was murdered just outside of it. One scene in the film showing a dead body just outside the building feels all the more eery when seen through the lens of history.

The film begins more hopefully than it ends. The young couple is ready to have a baby, yet Guy is struggling to make it as an actor. Their neighbors are the overly hospital Castevets (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon). Gordon deservingly won an Oscar for this role. It has always been difficult for me to decide which version of Ruth Gordon she should best be remembered by: the crazy, spritely old Maude of “Harold and Maude,” or the crazy old witch who acted like anyone’s grandmother in “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Guy will do anything to make his acting dreams a reality, and he may or may not have made a deal with the Castevets to transform Rosemary’s seed into the son of Satan. Besides one scene early on in the film which is presented with a nightmarish quality, “Rosemary’s Baby” is mostly grounded in reality throughout. It is also a detective story, with Rosemary investigating her own pregnancy and trying to find out whether her deepest fears are actually all too real. I am not sure how this film was advertised when it was first released in 1968, or whether people knew what the ending would be like going into it. I do not believe saying this is a spoiler, but anyone going into this film would automatically believe that Rosemary is right in her suspicions. If she wasn’t, then there wouldn’t be a film at all.

Keeping that in mind does not managet to ruin the power of “Rosemary’s Baby” in any way. “Rosemary’s Baby” possesses the greatest trait of American films from its era: building up and up and up to a devastating conclusion. Letting things sizzle for longer than they should always leads to great results. The unseen is most terrifying, and that is why we are kept in the dark for so long about this Satanic mystery.

Many horror films play on the idea of how frightening the unseen can be. What makes “Rosemary’s Baby” so unique is the way in which it plays on common fears. “Rosemary’s Baby” asks whether or not we can really trust the people who are supposed to help us unconditionally, such as our family, friends, doctors, and neighbors. In true Polanski fashion, “Rosemary’s Baby” shows that even our loved ones could be working against us because human selfishness knows no boundaries.

Polanski’s films always center around one character who are pulled into evil despite never wanting to be a part of it. The final shot of “Rosemary’s Baby” is both haunting and strangely sublime. Rosemary is that moral center, and she comes to grips with the idea that even if the world were ruled by absolute evil, evil would not be able to exist without love. In Polanski’s eyes, a world without love is more terrifying than staring Satan directly in the eyes.

“Rosemary’s Baby” may be so unforgivingly dark, but there is a reason that I want to keep revisiting it. It is a continuously engaging story that is never ruined by knowing the twists. The script, based on the novel by Ira Levin and adapted for the screen by Polanski himself, shows Polanski’s overlooked gift for humor. “Rosemary’s Baby” is populated by an array of colorful New York high society stereotypes that nearly border on satire. I have not read the original source material, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Polanski crafted many of these exaggerated characters himself, as he always enjoyed spinning our views on the wealthy. Polanski had a reputation for being difficult to work with, but it seems as if his boldest decisions usually end up being for the better. If it wasn’t for Polanski’s change to the ending of Robert Towne’s “Chinatown” script, that film might have been just another detective story.

Believing in the existence of a demon child might seem ridiculous, but the world created by this film is so well crafted that I actually felt stupid believing that the opposite could be true. People seem to only want to talk about horror films around Halloween. “Rosemary’s Baby” is perfect for any time of the year. Because it is as frightening and daring today as it was 44 years ago, it remains timeless in every sense of the word.

People please tell me, which horror classics are your favorites? Which ones do I still need to watch?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Usually, romances based on Smiths mixtapes and friendships based on vinyl collections* are on the list of things that annoy me most in movies. However, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” makes all these little obsessions feel authentic.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is based on a novel that I now feel the need to read. This is a rare adaptation that was actually written for the screen by its original author. This is also the directorial debut for author Stephen Chbosky, who should spend more time directing movies in his future.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” deserves to be mentioned alongside many great classics about misfits in high school, from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “The Breakfast Club.” Based on the music, a very prominent feature here, “Perks” takes place in Pittsburgh during the early 1990s. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a Holden Caufield-type with real problems. After some emotional issues and time spent in a hospital, Charlie returns to the real world in preparation for his freshman year of high school. Before I saw this film, I forgot how much high school tended to suck: the immaturity, the propensity for hurtful nicknames, and the culture of cliques. On his first day, Charlie can’t even eat lunch with his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev). So, he becomes a wallflower.

While the complicated love story might seem like the central motivation for most of Charlie’s actions, it is the friendship formed with Patrick (Ezra Miller) that opens Charlie’s eyes for the first time. Patrick, who is called “Nothing” by his classmates, spends most of his spare time messing with his shop teacher as well as anyone else he can find. He is also the only openly gay kid in the entire school, at a time when being open was not accepted by all. Patrick is played with a manic energy by Miller, who always moves his body around and yells with excitement when there’s nothing to be excited about. It surprises me that everyone wouldn’t want to follow in his footsteps.

When Charlie has no one to sit with at the football game, Patrick has no problem keeping him company. Patrick then takes Charlie under his wing and brings him to his first party. There, he accidentally eats a brownie filled with weed that finally gets him out of his head, and his witty thoughts amuse the exiles of the school, who are appropriately labeled “the island of the misfit toys.” Most importantly, it is here where Charlie meets Patrick’s step sister Sam (Emma Watson) and is on the path to first love. Not before he finishes that milk shake, though.

“Perks” is much more about how kids affect each other, as opposed to just how adults affect kids. The adult characters are just there in Charlie’s life, and they are almost an alien species that he can’t properly communicate with. We will find out why this is so later on. His parents are never given names. Charlie’s one true adult friendship is with his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). I have a feeling that the book delves much deeper into their relationship, as the film shows no conflict in it, except for the fact that Mr. Anderson is always giving Charlie books, which Charlie reads in no time. Despite that, I still really liked this element in the film. It is not just because Paul Rudd is an incredibly likable dude, but because it felt meaningful and never trite.

It is really the young actors that shine brightest here. Watson can now be known as more than just Hermione Granger. Her American accent seems shaky at first, but she ends up sliding into it comfortably and then embodying a character who is both proud of who she is and uncomfortable with who she once was. As Charlie, Lerman is memorable yet understated. Charlie is a complicated character to get down, but Lerman nails it. While the story is told from Charlie’s perspective, there is the feeling that there is information that Charlie is withholding both from the audience and himself. This might be the first film I’ve ever seen in which the narrator is unreliable because he is lying to himself. I think that’s a little more radical than people have made it out to be.

“Perks” feels like a scattered collection of someone’s journal entries and memories that sprung to life with vivid sound and color. The film brings an entire time period to life, and it makes feel as alive as the present day. Its sense of place is evident in a scene where Sam stands in the back of Patrick’s truck as they pass through a tunnel and onto a bridge. Shockingly, it makes Pittsburgh seem more magical than industrial.

The film finds its sense of time in its soundtrack. The music selected is so good that after seeing the film, I immediately listened to the soundtrack, and then listened to it many more times. In terms of creating nostalgia, the soundtrack is on the same level as “Dazed and Confused” and “Almost Famous.” In the same way that I will always associate Foghat’s “Slow Ride” with the ride to get Aerosmith tickets and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” with a bus ride sing along, I will forever associate The Smiths’ “Asleep” and Dexy Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” with mix tapes and such. The best part about a great soundtrack is when it can open your mind to new music. All I can say is that after first finding out the track listing, I had a lot more new artists to find on Spotify.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Emma Watson
The exact moment that everyone who wasn’t already in love fell in love with Emma Watson.

Now, there might be some people who find the idea of friendships and romances based on a love of movies and music to be a little impractical. This idea was parodied quite well in “500 Days of Summer.” Yet, it does not feel pretentious in “Perks” in the slightest bit. “Perks” is not about a group of people showing how cool they are because of their taste. It is about the ability to bond with others over shared cultural experiences. Sometimes, the words we speak can only do so much. Liking the same piece of art as someone else can bring out so much about one’s personality that they could never even speak. And yes, if you don’t like certain things, I may be judging you.

But I digress. It is hard for me to speak to those who have read the novel, because they have a much greater wealth of knowledge of these characters and this world than I do. But I can speak to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” as a film. Every emotional punch hits as hard as it was fully intended to. It pulls out a late in the story twist that I did not see coming. I believe this was a story that was made to be told on film.

Oftentimes, the purpose of great art can be to create characters who are suffering and who are lonely. I believe this provides catharsis to those who went through these emotions at one point or are currently experiencing them. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” will connect to everyone because no matter who you are, at some point in your life, you were once an awkward high school kid who didn’t quite know where you belonged.

*For the record (pun possibly intended): I like The Smiths and own a vinyl collection. I don’t know what that makes me.


Movie Review: Looper

Director Rian Johnson is exactly what movies need. Perhaps the best way to break Hollywood out of cliche land is to play into the most typical of genre conventions and then turn them completely on their heads.

“Looper” must be the work of someone who doesn’t finish until every little detail is drawn out, and every possible subplot comes full circle. There’s a lot to get through and a lot to sort out, but the fact that the ending pulls it off in an unpredictable way makes it work all the better.

“Looper” might be the first rurban (rural and urban) futuristic dystopia I’ve seen on film. It is not set in New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, but rather an unnamed metropolis and its outskirts in Kansas. It also occupies many different times in the future. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper. In the future, time travel is discovered and very illegal. The mob sends people from the future into the past and it is the job of the Looper to kill them and dispose of the body. Basically, the Looper stands in the field and waits for the body to be zapped to them.

However, there’s a twist to being a Looper: your job doesn’t last long. Because of how illegal time travel is in the future, a Looper must kill their own future self at some point. After doing this, they get a big payday and get to live happily off of it for 30 years until they are kidnapped and brought back into the past. This process is called “closing the loop.” I’m always a sucker for creative wordplay.

I like films which hinge their character’s personalities on their careers, and only a certain kind of person is fit to be a Looper. A Looper must act on the fly, never hesitate, and be prepared to die. You can see this in how Joe shoots every person that is zapped to him without even thinking. However, when his future self (Bruce Willis) is zapped to him, he hesitates. It doesn’t feel like one of those inexplicable movie moments when you wonder “why would he hesitate now?”. On the contrary, it feels very human, as if no one can know what death is like until they actually face it.

Yet, despite an expiration date, Loopers never lose their free will. One Looper (Paul Dano) lets his older self go. Meanwhile, young Joe has no control over the reckless and unruly older Joe; his future self escapes into Young Joe’s present.

While hunting down future Joe and attempting to close his own loop, many other loops are opened, and historical events are altered. “Looper” establishes from the very beginning that time travel is possible and because of that, it never tries to explain it. A story that tries to explain time travel can have difficulty working. Time travel involves many disciplines (philosophy, physics, etc.) that I have only limited knowledge of. Watching a film explain it is like being in a complicated lecture with a professor who won’t explain his notes. “Looper” is not about how time travel came about, but rather what potential consequences it can have.

Keep that in mind when you see “Looper.” Some of the time-altering sequences threw me off guard at first, but just keep in mind that the most accomplished part of the film is that it assumes that the audience is smart enough to at least try and figure it out on its own.

Now that you know that there’s more to “Looper” than untangling mysteries, you can appreciate the immense detail put into this world. I believe this is in part what will make it so memorable. Even the guns that the Loopers use (blunderbusses) are instrumental to the story. In this future, China is the new world leader. This splicing in of timeliness made some people in the audience chuckle, but it made me think of “Blade Runner” creating a future that was heavily influenced by Japan, which was world leader at the time. Like “Blade Runner,” “Looper” can be seen as a reflection not just of how we feel the future will be, but how we feel the present is.

Of course, much has been said about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s physical transformation into a younger Bruce Willis. This is a great feat for the makeup department. However, Gordon-Levitt pulls it off by actually morphing himself into Willis. Apparently, he only watched recent movies that Willis starred in to prepare for the role. That way, he could understand what Willis would become, as opposed to only who he used to be.

It is kind of an amazing to see two actors play the exact same person sitting in a room together. Watching old and young Joe trying to piece memories together past and present over steak and eggs in a diner is hands-down one of my favorite scenes of any film this year. It is so well directed and written that it ends up being intriguing and even funny all at once.

Then, Johnson makes an unusual choice for a film like this. Instead of speeding it up and constantly raising the stakes and the action, he slows it down. Joe still needs to clear his name. He seeks the notorious gangster and boss of all Loopers, who is named The Rainmaker, as a young boy, and attempts to kill him. Joe leaves the city and heads out to the country, where he finds the young boy living on a farm with his very protective mother (a nearly unrecognizable Emily Blunt). This section of the film might not be the most breathlessly exciting, but it is where it gains its emotional weight. At its heart, “Looper” is the story of what kind of person it takes to make the world a better place.

Rian Johnson seems like one of those filmmakers who is so well versed in cinema. At times, the characters of “Looper” communicate as if they are in a film noir, a convention Johnson also used in “Brick.” Then, it even becomes supernatural (in a way that I will not spoil). The violence in it is not glorified, but it is certainly stylized. Part of the sick, twisted fun of being a filmmaker is discovering all of the different angles you can use to show someone getting shot in the chest.

The most gloriously cinematic part of “Looper” is that pretty much everything that is brought into play at one part of the story is brought back again later on. “Looper” is a meta story because just as Joe must close his own loop, the film must payoff all of its plants and in effect, close its own loops. “Looper” takes place in the year 2044 and shows a world of hovering cars, nearly microscopic cell phones, and drugs in the form of eye drops. “Looper” is not suggesting that time travel will necessarily be discovered by the year 2044, but what it does suggest is that greed and selfishness can lead to an endless cycle of misery. And eyedrops aren’t enough to cure it.

Time Travel Confusion Scale: More than “Back to the Future,” but less than “Lost”

Also, forgot to mention this in my review: Jeff Daniels gives a fantastic performance as the surprisingly zen crime boss. He is currently having the career comeback that I never knew he deserved. 

Seth MacFarlane to Host the Oscars

This morning, it was announced that Seth MacFarlane will be hosting this year’s Oscars. While my thoughts on MacFarlane are always a little mixed*, for once I can say that the Academy made a smart choice.

I like MacFarlane as a person, and have a lot of respect for him. I cannot even fathom how he has three shows on television and still has time to write and direct a feature film. Also, he did a fine job hosting “SNL” this season, because the guy just looked like he had a blast being there.

In recent years, the Academy has seemed to have trouble figuring out what kind of host they want. With MacFarlane, they get it all: he can sing show tunes, dance around, do impressions, and tell jokes. While he connects primarily with a younger audience, he will also keep the older voters and guests entertained with his Sinatra-like singing.

I can now anticipate that the show will be less of a drag to watch this year. MacFarlane will certainly be more lively than James Franco, and fresher than Billy Crystal. Maybe this will open some doors and in the future we will get other multi-talented hosts such as Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon (who had to back out from hosting duties). Still, I am going to take this time to complain, because this is the Oscars, and the Oscars always come with something to complain about. Can the Academy ever get a host who will be sharp, funny, and a little provocative in the same way that Jon Stewart was? Could someone like Louis C.K. or Patton Oswalt ever host? Only in my wildest dreams.

People Who Could Make Great Hosts in the Future: John Mulaney, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Donald Glover, Tina Fey, Jon Hamm, Neil Patrick Harris

*On the one hand, Seth MacFarlane created “Family Guy,” which had three of the best seasons of any animated show ever. On the other hand, Seth MacFarlane also ruined “Family Guy.” And again, on the other hand, he created “American Dad,” a show which is consistently underrated.

Here’s MacFarlane’s Spot-On Ryan Lochte Impression:

One of my favorite “Family Guy” moments ever. I can only imagine this is how MacFarlane felt upon hearing the good news: