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The Haunting of Sharon Tate review : wickedly good movie

Far from a straight biopic

Drew Turney

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Director:

Daniel Farrands

Cast:

Hilary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Lydia Hearst, Pawel Szajda, Ryan Cargill

Run time:

94 mins

Rating:

This is the second upcoming film that deals with the legacy and influence of Charles Manson and his reign of terror across LA. Anyone would think the 40th anniversary of the notorious Manson murders was coming up, or that one of Hollywood’s coolest directors had a flashy new movie releasing soon that contains that very topic…

You might feel cynical because “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” appears tailor made to cash in on Tarantino’s upcoming magnum opus about the industry and town that made him just like it destroyed Tate, but don’t dismiss it too quickly.

The entire premise is taken from an interview with the actress a year before her hideous killing in which she describes visions of psychopaths breaking into her house and butchering her and her friends, supposedly containing accurate details about the way she and the other victims were overpowered and bound.

We see snippets of the interview itself as Tate (Hilary Duff) relates her chilling nightmares, but most of the action is in the famed Beverly Hills house in the days leading up to the slayings.

The heavily-pregnant Tate has returned to Los Angeles, her director husband Roman Polanski staying behind in Europe to finish the film he’s working on. Staying in the mansion with her is friend Jay Sebring, Polanski’s friend Wojciech Frykowski and Frykowski’s girlfriend Abigail Folger.

From what appears to be a combination of feeling that her husband has abandoned her when she needs him most, her certainty that he’s cheating on her in Europe, trouble sleeping and a creeping suspicion that Frykowski and Folger are sponging off her, Tate becomes increasingly nervous and skittish. She keeps seeing scenes from the premonition she’s described in the interview, of a man standing in her bedroom in the middle of the night and her friends being hurt and killed, wondering if she’s cracking up or if the universe is trying to tell her she and her unborn child are in danger.

In getting to where the film’s going, writer/director Daniel Farrands proves himself a very effective director of horror (he’s previously directed both The Amityville Murders and a swath of ‘Making Of’ films about classic horror flicks, so he knows the genre conventions). The Cielo Drive house is full of dark shadows and ill-lit corners that are full of foreboding, the soundtrack full of throbs of low menace.

A good example of a creepy horror fixture is the huge cassette deck in the basement studio/office. A song Manson recorded for Terry Melcher, the music producer and former tenant of the house Manson hoped would sign his apocalyptic race war-inciting album, is still on the spools, and when it comes on by itself in the middle of the night it’s so scary it feels like Tate’s just realised Fred Krueger or Jason Vorhees is somewhere inside with her.

It’s also far from a straight biopic of the event. It does depict the killings in incredibly gory and shockingly effective detail, but they play out as a nightmare Tate has just days before the Manson gang actually descend. To reveal what happens on the infamous night of August 8, 1969 would be to spoil one of the central themes of the film, but Farrands’ script does something interesting with the facts and history.

There’s a wish fulfilment element that might be an in-story fever dream or might be a comment by the film itself on the way entertainment and pop culture have depicted the tragedy with such macabre glee – maybe including what we expect to see from Tarantino.

A knowledge of the backstory about Manson’s involvement with Terry Melcher and his obsession with The Beatles’ Helter Skelter helps fill in some blanks you might be curious about (including Tate’s freaking out about Manson showing up at the house – he actually did so several times, not knowing Melcher had moved out). But “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” is ostensibly not about the Manson murders, it’s about exactly what it says in the title – the story of a woman losing her grip because she’s convinced something terrible is going to happen who just happens to be a famous and beautiful actress.

Which brings us to Farrands’ other strength – casting. If you only know Duff from Lizzie Maguire a hundred years ago or her pop music more recently, you won’t be prepared for what she puts into Tate’s crumbling sense of safety and rising sense of panic.

Her accent might seem wobbly across the film but here Duff and Farrands might also be going deeper into character than we realise. Born in Dallas, Tate had as corn-fed an accent as any Texan girl, but she worked to lose it for the sake of her career, and when talking about her psychic premonitions to her interviewer in the black and white scenes that bookend the film, Duff is using the subtly fake airs and graces that were popular at the time to make famous actresses appear more European than American to the press.

Rather than the dramatic thriller you expect, “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” is a full-on horror movie. There’s plenty of blood and scares and as the title suggests, it’s as if a literal ghost is on the prowl. The motifs from the true case – ‘pig’ and ‘healter skelter’ (famously spelled incorrectly) written in blood on the walls – become like Freddy’s bladed glove or Jason’s ski mask. And because the timeline follows its own rules instead of just moving from A to B sequentially, there’s a disturbing early tracking shot that drifts through the house and yard where the victims are sprawled, blood showered everywhere just like the crime scene photos from the actual case.

It’s surprisingly scary, surprisingly well staged and designed, and the story does some unexpected things that adhere to the spirit of the title rather than just tell the story in such a straightforward fashion. Leave that to the other Manson projects sure to emerge, maybe from Tarantino himself.

DVD Reviews

Hunter Killer

K.T Simpson checks out the newly released Blu-ray

K.T Simpson

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Marquee-fave Gerard Butler’s latest cosplay involves donning the guise of an American submarine captain, navigating the rough waters of WWII, in an entertaining but lacking water-set thriller

Scripted by Jamie Moss and Arne Schmidt, “Hunter Killer” assigns Captain Glass (Butler, more serious than he needs to be here) on the lookout for an in-trouble sub, when he discovers a Russian coup in the making, threatening to turn the globe to dust. Leaving the radar for a spell, Glass is forced to lead a group of SEALs as they rescue a kidnapped Russian president and go undetected through enemy waters.

If director Marsh had balanced the silly to serious ratio a little better, offering up as many light moments as there are dark, the sub-thriller could easily have matched entertainment value with the likes of similar-themed ’90s popcorn fare like “U-571” and “Crimson Tide”.  Sadly,  the sombre, nostalgic actioner forgets to have some fun while dishing up its tale of watery heroics and as such will likely lose a few spectators throughout its voyage.

A polished movie, delicately photographed and with a terrific supporting cast – including Gary Oldman, Linda Cardellini, Common, and Michael Nyqvist – “Hunter Killer” looks better than it plays.

Blu-ray : With a reference-quality 2.40:1 transfer and an ear-hurting Dolby Atmos HD 7.1 soundtrack, this is a disc to show off to friends when they visit to check out the hot new home entertainment system you’ve purchased. Yep, it’s that good.

A commentary and all-encompassing featurette included.

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DVD Reviews

The Mule

The intimate, slow-burn drama arrives on Blu-ray from Roadshow Home Entertainment

K.T Simpson

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Inspired by a true story, hat-juggling Clint Eastwood’s ostensible swan-song focuses on a man in his 80s, broke as a bent nail, who is forced to accept a job as a drug-runner to pay the bills.

Earl Stone (Eastwood) is facing foreclosure of his horticultural business when he’s offered a seemingly straight-forward job – all he would have to do is drive product from point A to stop B. What Stone soon realizes is that he’s transporting drugs for the Mexican cartel. Doing so well at it, Stone’s cargo increases, and he’s assigned a handler. But while the handler is keeping tabs on the old guy’s movements, so is the DEA – in particular, uber thorough agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper).

Money might be aligning Stone’s pants again but the mistakes he’s making – and some he’s also made in the past, particularly in regards to his ex-wife (Wiest) – slowly come back to haunt, ultimately leaving ‘The Mule’  with less and less times to correct his path.

An intimate, sombre slow-burn drama that showcases the ever-present directorial and performance skills of the seemingly unstoppable Eastwood, 89, “The Mule” relies heavily on the charm of it’s key character, and his engrossing, panicky plight, to capture the audience. It does that effortlessly, and with such a strong ensemble backing the big guy up – Cooper, Wiest, and even Andy Garcia, playing chief crook – remains consistently entertaining for its 2-hour runtime.

Blu-ray : The video (presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio) and audio (5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track) is seamless and effective, trumpeting the film’s combined use of the Arri Alexa XT and Arri Alexa Mini cameras and chat-heavy soundtrack. The extras component, consisting of a short featurette and a song, is pretty disappointing though.

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DVD Reviews

Ben is Back

A Blu-ray review of the Roadshow release, starring Julia Roberts

Jeremy Werner

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“Ben is Back” starts out well-intentioned enough, but by the end it comes off as a hyper-exploitive freak out. The movie, a day in the life of the Burns’ family, tackles the dire issue of opioids from several different angles. Sometimes it tackles it in very realistic terms, specifically the pain and awkwardness it can create for families in its wake. However, it predominantly tackles it like a daytime soap opera, with the gauche touch of those 80’s drug PSAs.

Ben (Hedges) has unexpectedly returned home on Christmas Eve. His younger siblings, who have no memory of the terrifying nights he put his family through, are happy to see him; His sister and mother not so much. Holly (Roberts), Ben’s mom, immediately goes to work hiding drugs that could trigger her son’s addiction, as well as jewelry and other sellable knick knacks, just in case he’s already relapsed. It’s in these opening moments that the film is emotionally riveting by not holding back on any of its emotional gut punches. Then it starts going off the rails when Holly confronts Ben’s old doctor at the mall and tells him that she hopes he rots in Hell. Merry Christmas from the Burns family!

To dive into the specifics of why “Ben is Back” continues to fall off the wagon, and hard, would be to ruin the film’s second act, which feels more like another movie with the same actors was flipped on in the projector booth. What should have been a harrowing story about addiction, becomes an even more over-the-top “August: Osage County,” involving drugs and crime. There are also several moments where I can just hear Nancy Reagan bemoaning the horrors of addiction and paralyzing viewers with fear that we too can suffer every feasible scenario from just one night of drug use.

It’s not that the things that happen to and around Ben, haven’t happened before or could happen to an addict and their families, but it’s the frequency, severity, and occurrence of which it happens in “Ben is Back” that’s laughable. I half expected Walter White of “Breaking Bad” to pop-up and tell Ben to stay out of his territory. That’s how comically bad it gets. Because of the dire subject matter though, it takes a veteran actor or two to wring out any semblance of seriousness in the script.

No matter how bad the dialogue gets, Roberts and Hedges tow a fine line to keep their characters within the realm of “maybe this could happen.” It’s actually quite impressive seeing Hedges go toe-to-toe with Roberts when they argue or clash. I couldn’t imagine anyone else, in either role, pulling off the same acting acrobatics and making it remotely watchable. In that regard, “Ben is Back” is admirable in its dramatic attempts. Like I said, it’s well intentioned and the first 30 to 40 minutes are good, but sometimes the best of intentions can hurt the cause you’re reportedly fighting for.

Blu-ray : A crisp, clear transfer is accompanied by Commentary by Director Peter Hedges, an Image Gallery and Trailers.

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