Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Film Reviews: Cul-de-Sac & What?

"Cul-de-Sac" *** (out of ****)

With the recent release of Roman Polanski's "Ghost Writer" (2010), which you should see, even though it is not a masterpiece. Still, when a filmmaker of Polanski's stature comes out with a film you should see it. I wanted to go back and review some of Polanski's work. I have reviewed one of his films on here before, "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967). I have almost seen every Polanski film now, with the exception of one. I greatly looked forward to watching both of these films but sadly, neither was quite what I expected.

"Cul-de-Sac" (1966) stars Francoise Dorleac and Donald Pleasense as a newly married couple, living on a remote island in a castle. They encounter two gunmen; Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran). They have been injured on a job. Albie was shot in the stomach and Richard has his arm in a cast. They seek shelter and a phone to get in touch with their boss.

Richard invades the couple's house, keeps them hostage while waiting for his boss to come and pick them up.

On paper "Cul-de-Sac" sounds quite suspenseful and fitting for Polanski. It could have been a sort of sadistic thriller, but, the film never settles on that tone. It is actually somewhat light and filled with dark humor. Which in my opinion never fully gelled with the plot.

Polanski did a similar story many years later, "The Death and the Maiden" (1994). That film impressed more much more because it found the right tone and quite frankly, the acting was much better. "Cul-de-Sac" feels like an exploitative film, think along the lines of a Roger Corman or Wes Craven film. Think "Last House on the Left" (1972).

Strange how the film would sadly mimic events in Polanski's life with the death of Sharon Tate. But that event wouldn't happen until two years later.

The Richard character on one hand is suppose to be a vicious killer yet at times he seems like a fumbling crook. His moments with Albie borderline on comedy as they quarrel with each other like a couple.

The film I thought at times was making a comment on masculinity. There is a sexual tension in the film. The first time the couple meets the killer, Pleasence is dressed as a women (reminding me of Polanski's "The Tenant" (1976) as he and his wife were playing a game. After they are kidnapped, Dorleac keeps egging Pleasence on telling him to "act like a man" and defend her against these men. These two incidents put together suggest Pleasence is a coward and not masculine. Especially when Richard constantly refers to him as a "fag" or "fairy".

Still, the movie is interesting if not fully successful. It has some moments which have lingered in my mind. Not a waste of time but not one of Polanski's great achievements.

"What?" *** (out of ****)

Roman Polanski's "What?" (1972, though released in the U.S. 1976) has suffered quite a bad reputation. Neither of these films is currently available in the U.S. on VHS or DVD. The only review on "What?" I have read was written by Roger Ebert, who gave the film a half a star. Yet another reason why I have become indifferent to the film critic. Ebert blast the film but I can't really tell you what specifically he disliked about it.

But this is my review not Ebert's. I think there is something at work here. Polanski is making some sort of commentary and I have a strong feeling the movie was very personal to Polanski. At the time of this film's release, Polanski reportedly felt this was his best film.

A young woman (Sydne Rome) escapes an attempted rape and finds herself in a villa where bizarre events occur. The residents in the villa each seem stranger than the next. And once again, as in "Cul-de-Sac" we have a story of a stranger in a strange land. Both are filled with sexual tension. As the young woman spends the majority of the film barely dressed.

Watching the film I thought of two previous Polanski films; "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "Macbeth" (1971). As in "Rosemary's Baby", the hero of this film is an innocent, naive woman who finds herself in situations way over her head. "Macbeth" because, each film, I suspect, was triggered by the same event, the brutal murder of Sharon Tate. "Macbeth" is a bloody adaptation of the Shakespeare play but of course deals with revenge. There are obvious connections between Polanski's real life. Here, with "What?" the villa is treated as a sort of cult and everyone takes advantage of the young woman, mostly sexually. She is trapped in this villa.

I'm not going to lie, "What?" is not a great film and I suppose if you think about it long enough, it makes little sense. It lacks a three act structure. The film feels improvised. There is no logic to what is going on. There is little character motivation. But, despite all of this, I'm recommending the film. Why? Because it feels like a silly lark for Polanski and I think he earned it after making exceptional films such as "Repulsion" (1965), "Rosemary" and "Macbeth". Plus, as I said, I do believe Polanski is channeling some inner demons here and trying to settle old scores. There is more to the film than what is on the surface. But, of course, I will be the first to admit, good intentions don't always equal a good film. True enough. "What?" is no masterpiece. It will divide an audience. This is far from a mainstream picture. It is not entirely successful.

Another perplexing thing about the film is the ending. It becomes self-referential. Why? It makes you feel the film had no purpose for being in the first place. Maybe a better title for the film was not "what" but "why".