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The Last Exorcism (2010)

In Film Reviews on August 31, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Find a version of this review on ScreenComment.com!

As a die-hard fan of the original Exorcist (1973), I’m always mystified when yet another remake appears on the scene.  It’s like trying to remake Citizen Kane—the first iteration was monumental, and any attempts to live up to it are predestined for failure.  But don’t take my word for it—go and see The Last Exorcism, the second feature from German director Daniel Stamm (A Necessary Death). Perhaps producer Eli Roth, erstwhile auteur of the Hostel series, figured that his target audience was young enough never to have seen the original Exorcist, and thus wouldn’t know what they were missing.  For the rest of us, though, the comparison is pretty stark.

The plot of The Last Exorcism is exactly what you would expect—almost.  Instead of a downtrodden priest questioning his faith, as with Jason Miller’s character in the original Exorcist, this updated, postmodern version of the tale gives us the cynical Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian).  Father Marcus is completely jaded, and completely honest with his camera crew (yes, it’s a mockumentary) about exorcism being a lucrative sham that preys on the indigent and illiterate.  Agreeing to do one last exorcism in order to expose the practice as fraud, Marcus leaves his evangelical congregation (and wife and son) in Baton Rouge and journeys deep into the wasteland of rural Louisiana.

There we meet the Sweetzers: the heavy-drinking father (Lewis Herthum), the clearly disturbed brother (Caleb Landry Jones) and the overly angelic teenage daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell).  The mother has been dead for two years, and it’s clear that this trauma has worked its way through each family member in a different way.  This is an interesting flip from the original family structure of The Exorcist; in that case, the father was the absent parent, and there was a clear implication that the all-female household Regan was growing up in was somehow transgressive, making her vulnerable to demonic possession.  Some literal Father figures had to show up to finally drive the demon away.

In the new film, Father Marcus goes ahead with his sham exorcism and thinks that’s the end of it—then Nell displays some truly superhuman abilities, and he is forced to rethink everything he knows about God, the Devil, and reality.  At this point, things look fairly promising—you’re imagining that Marcus will be forced to confront the reality of demons and possession, and that he will save Nell and come out of the experience with his faith restored.  Instead, in the last 5 minutes of the film, the writers (who have another film coming out this summer called The Virginity Hit) apparently decided they weren’t up to the task of tying up loose ends, and stuck on a finale that feels even lamer than the psychiatrist scene at the end of Psycho.  The inadequacy of the ending really can’t be overstated—it seems that the writers and director simply got desperate, lazy or both, and decided to do a quick mash-up of Rosemary’s Baby and The Blair Witch Project and be done with it.  All the work that went into setting up the story is thrown away at the end, and the film loses whatever potency it managed to generate.

The Last Exorcism does have some redeeming features, however.  Chief among them is an interesting and surprisingly coherent implication that “possessed” Nell is actually being sexually abused, and that this accounts for her unstable personality and terrifying nocturnal hijinks (she is particularly fond of slashing the throats of her father’s farm animals).  After witnessing Nell’s distress, Father Marcus is quick to hand her over to science—he repeatedly tells the father that Nell needs psychiatric treatment, but this, of course, is unheard of.  The only salvation she needs is the Lord, and thus Marcus is drawn deeper and deeper into the situation, until its regrettably stupid conclusion.  It’s worth noting that the actual possession scenes are surprisingly restrained, for a Roth-produced picture; there aren’t buckets of blood and absurd CGI, but there’s certainly enough terror and weirdness to keep things interesting.

If the realistic part of the story—that Nell was being abused and was never in the grip of a demon—had actually been followed through to the end, The Last Exorcism could have been a culturally relevant, provocative update on the original adolescent-girl-possessed story.  Instead, by totally departing from everything it’s worked to set in motion, the film’s ending simply glosses over all its own implications and leaves no room for interpretation.  What could have been new and daring ended up being nothing but hugely disappointing.  But, for those of us loyal to the original film, it’s hardly a surprise.

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The Eclipse (2009)

In Film Reviews on August 29, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Find this review on ManhattanMovieMag.com!

Irish actor Ciaran Hinds has been a fixture of British and Irish TV and film for decades.  I loved him in Prime Suspect 3 (1993), and since then he’s only become more popular;  this fall, he’ll be appearing as Dumbledore’s brother in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

In Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse Hinds plays Michael Farr, a man who recently lost his wife to cancer, and who is struggling to take care of his two young children while also volunteering at the local literary festival.  While helping out at the festival, Farr meets Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a novelist with a flair for the fantastic—her latest book is about seeing ghosts.  Farr himself has suddenly begun seeing apparitions of his elderly father-in-law, and feels an instant kinship with Morelle because of her seeming expertise on the subject.

As the two grow closer, Farr’s ghost sightings become more extreme, and Morelle is pursued by a one-time love interest, played with boozy verve by Aidan Quinn.  Everything eventually comes to a head—but the film doesn’t devolve into horror-film cliché, nor does it turn into a sappy supernatural romance story.  Instead, it stays quiet, thoughtful, and realistic—once the film ends, you have the distinct feeling that anyone could see a ghost, no matter how sane they are.

The Eclipse’s poignancy is anchored by Hinds’ earnest, sympathetic performance (which netted him a Best Actor award at Tribeca in 2009) and this is what keeps it from tipping over into ghost story absurdity.  McPherson’s directing is also wonderfully understated—the film has a real life to it, with fully developed characters and a setting (County Cork, Ireland) that’s just misty enough to be a little otherworldly.  This film is perfect to curl up with on a chilly fall night.

The Eclipse is now available on DVD.

Piranha 3-D (2010)

In Film Reviews on August 23, 2010 at 6:23 pm

French director Alexandre Aja, whose credits include the debatably interesting High Tension (2003) and the universally panned The Hills Have Eyes remake (2006), has finally found a niche in which his incompatible thirst for violence and dearth of critical thinking are perfectly matched: the camp horror film.  Even better—the camp creature feature horror film!

The title of this magnum opus is Piranha 3-D, a loose remake of a 1978 Corman flick called, succinctly, Piranha.  (Keep in mind that this was three years after Jaws, the film that coined the term “blockbuster,” so it’s easy to see why Corman—the king of campy gore—was eager to get in on the fun.)  The plot is exactly what you would expect, and hope for, if you love terrible horror movies like I do: a placid lakeside village gets overrun with drunken, sex-crazed college kids during Spring Break, but the party soon turns to panic when all the young, nubile bodies get chomped to bits by herds of freaky, prehistoric piranhas.

The rest of the plot, such as it is, revolves around a teenage boy (Steven R. McQueen, grandson of the Bullitt star) who is torn between taking care of his younger siblings for his sheriff mom (Elisabeth Shue) or partying with a Girls Gone Wild sleazebag (Jerry O’Connell) and his bevy of buxom babes (Kelly Brook and Riley Steele).  Naturally he chooses the latter, and gets a front row seat to the toothy mayhem that follows.

The film’s best moment by far is its opening cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, which comes complete with a rendition of “Show me the way to go home.”  A surprisingly self-aware production, Piranha 3-D repeatedly references Jaws and enjoys playing with the various conventions that the original scary-fish film put on the map.  Eli Roth (a fellow member of the so-called “splat pack” of torture-porn filmmakers) makes an appearance as the host of a wet T-shirt contest, only to be bitten limb from limb a little later in the film.  It’s all good fun, really: the gore is over the top and hard to take seriously, as is the nudity (do not take your younger brother to this one!) and when the bloodthirsty fish arrive, it’s hard not to root for them.

It is hard to understand why Aja wanted to make this film in 3-D, other than to jump on the gimmick bandwagon—the cinematography doesn’t really take advantage of the added dimension, so it ends up being tiring to watch rather than enthralling.  However, it’s hard to argue that making the film campier and sillier by putting it in 3-D is a bad thing, really—the film’s whole raison d’etre is just how silly the whole thing is to begin with.

Piranha 3-D is currently in wide release.

Eat, Pray, Love (2010)

In Film Reviews on August 18, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Find this review on ScreenComment.com!

Eat, Pray, Love is not your typical chick flick.  Julia Roberts, as author Elizabeth Gilbert, spends much of the film feeing depressed and lost, and the story gives us only intermittent moments of the spontaneous, over the top bliss that fills most of this genre.  In fact, Eat, Pray, Love is almost in its own genre: call it the “self-help” film.

The plot is pretty simple: after being married for eight years (to a character played by Billy Crudup, no less!) Julia’s character realizes that her wealthy Manhattan life lacks meaning and, after some soul-searching, decides to divorce her husband and strike out on her own.  She quickly falls in with another man (played, such as it is, by James Franco), but that doesn’t work out either.  As a travel writer, her natural inclination is to hit the road when things go bad—and eventually she does, big time.  First she spends a few months in Italy, then in an ashram in India, and finally in the tropical paradise of Bali.  After a whirlwind year of self-discovery, she returns to New York with a whole new life ahead of her, new man in tow.

I am no fan of the chick flick, even if this isn’t one—only the classics really do it for me (hello, Bridget Jones).  That being said, what I liked about Eat, Pray, Love was its willingness to actually show a woman being depressed; Julia spends much of the early part of the film crying and feeling frantic, and these episodes—unlike much of the rest of the film—feel satisfyingly real.  (Viola Davis, who plays Julia’s steadfast best friend during this period, is wasted in her role but nonetheless carries it off with panache.)  Unlike, say, a Nancy Meyers character, this heroine’s sadness can’t be easily cured with a grand meal or a handsome new beau or a gorgeous pair of shoes.

Or at least that’s how things start.  The travelogue portion of Eat’s 133 minutes (which feel a little overstretched) is designed to cure Julia’s every ailment by thrusting her into other cultures that are infinitely more sensuous, spiritual, and visually engaging than America’s.  Julia’s character eats her way through Italy (without actually gaining weight), prays and meditates obediently in India, and serves a holy medicine man in Bali while cozying up to Javier Bardem on the side.  By the end of this journey she seems to have cured her own inner malaise, though the film’s methods of communicating her transformation leave a little to be desired.

The idea of using “foreign” lands as a metaphor for White westerners’ inner transformation goes back centuries, and you only have to look around the multiplex to see other films currently employing the same strategy (Sex and the City 2 comes unfortunately to mind).  As Mia Mask astutely pointed out on NPR recently, Eat’s focus on putting its protagonist in the exotic Far East in order to invite this transformation smacks of Orientalism (read the full article here).  Though there are a token few “native” characters who are humanized during these parts of the film, the narrative is so wrapped up in Julia’s character’s point of view that one can easily forget the crushing poverty and suffering of urban India and rural Indonesia.  Using these places as a backdrop makes them more exotic and less real—easier to admire from afar and easier to dismiss as soon as they’re off the screen.  If Julia had actually connected with the people who live in these “foreign” places, she might have come to the conclusion that her own upper-class problems weren’t really all that bad.

That being said, there are moments in the film that make it worth seeing—chief among these is Richard Jenkins’ turn as a fellow guru-worshipper in India, who pours his heart out to Julia in a show-stopping scene.  Julia’s own performance is certainly serviceable; she carries off the character’s emotions with her usual earnest conviction, but there’s no spark in her acting, even in the parts of the film in which she’s supposed to be experiencing enlightenment.  Perhaps it’s just difficult to empathize with a character who can afford to take off for an entire year and travel the world at whim.

It all ends up being a little too pat and predictable—after a promisingly unconventional start, Eat, Pray, Love ends with the assertion that love can indeed ruin your life—but a new boyfriend is really the only thing, if you’re a woman, that can truly fulfill you.

Eat, Pray, Love is currently in wide release.

Highwater

In Film Reviews on August 14, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Dana Brown (Step Into Liquid) grew up in the world of competitive surfing.  So it seems only natural that, as a filmmaker, he returns repeatedly to this scene for inspiration.  His latest film Highwater, which opens August 27th, focuses on the Triple Crown of pro surfing—a nearly two-month competition that takes place on the gorgeous beaches of Oahu’s North Shore.  The waves that hit this beach, we are told, are the most incredible, unpredictable, and dangerous in the world—a fitting setting for men and women to do battle with nature with nothing but a surfboard to protect them.

After setting the scene with some incredible helicopter shots of the rest of Hawaii, the film introduces us to the heavy hitters of pro surfing: there are gritty underdogs, retiring old pros, a couple of preteen wunderkinds, and many eager young surfers trying to break into the pro circuit for the first time.  Everyone’s dream seems to be achieving a sort of surfing nirvana, which ideally includes an endorsement deal.  Surprisingly, though, the collision of the “pure” sport and the moneyed “pro” sport is not cynical and soulless; even the longtime pros have a healthy admiration for the waves and respect for their competition.

Overall, Highwater is a classic sports film; it has edge-of-your-seat action, tragedy, triumph, and an insider’s view of the mechanics of the sport.  The voiceover narration (by Brown himself) can be grating at times, and the Final Cut editing is sometimes more distracting than beautiful—the screen splits into multiple windows that zoom back and forth, which feels more chaotic than carefully orchestrated.  However, these complaints pale in comparison to the film’s real strength: the jaw-dropping up-close footage of surfers skidding across those giant waves.

Brown uses some truly incredible cameras which—when wielded by intrepid photographers bobbing in the ocean—capture the surfers and the waves up close in phenomenal resolution.  Even though most of the film is footage played in slow motion (because the surfers move so fast that it’s hard for the layperson to even see them) every frame is crisp and perfectly lit.  I’m generally not a fan of IMAX, but this is one film that I’d pay to see on the biggest screen possible.

NEW TALENT SPOTLIGHT: SARA ZANDIEH, DIRECTOR

In Film Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 8:39 am

Sara Zandieh’s short The Pool Party lasts only 14 minutes, but feels fleshed-out enough to be an entire feature film.  It follows Khani (Sayeed Ali Hassani), servant to a wealthy family, as he struggles to keep up with his mistress’ capricious demands and to endure the constant humiliation of being lower-class in upper-class Iran.

Khani hurries to work in the morning, only to be confronted with Ziba (Mojgan Taraneh) angrily yelling at her husband (Frazad Shojai) on the phone.  He is away on business, and will miss his daughter Lilli’s (Armita Moradi) birthday.  Ziba takes out her anger on Khani, ordering him crossly from one task to another.  Suddenly, Ziba is struck by an idea: her daughter’s birthday party will be a pool party, a blowout for all the other upper-class kids, and the family’s ancient pool must be refinished, filled and ready in less than 24 hours.  Khani has his work cut out for him.  Eventually, after much hard labor, the pool is finished, Lilli’s father shows up after all, and everyone except Khani is happy.  Feeling more and more taken advantage of, Khani finally rebels.  Only then does he finally feel at peace.

The Pool Party is wonderfully shot; the colors of the Iranian city streets and homestead where the action takes place are beautifully rendered.  The film’s music is also highly atmospheric, and judiciously deployed.  Khani’s creased, weary face is expressive of so much more than his individual struggle; the audience knows instinctively that he stands for a whole class of other servants, relied upon but seldom acknowledged.  But even in this contentious situation, Khani has a lovely relationship with Lilli—he coaxes her out of a tree where she goes to sulk after learning her father is away.  Khani even has something of a relationship with Ziba, the lady of the house.  When she’s not busy ordering him around, they are almost kind to each other.  It’s this depth of feeling and nuance that gives the film an expansive quality; it seems more like the abstract of a feature film than a student short.  Accordingly, The Pool Party received a Special Jury Mention in the “Student Visionary” category at Tribeca this year.

Zandieh is herself a native of Tehran, having emigrated with her family to the U.S. during the Iran/Iraq war.  She is currently finishing a Master’s in Film at Columbia, and was recently awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to make her next film in Istabul.  She also recently served as Associate Producer on Bette Gordon’s acclaimed feature drama Handsome Harry (2009), which premiered at Tribeca last year.  For her account of filming The Pool Party just before the election uprising in Iran in 2009 (published in the Huffington Post) click here.

Zandieh’s feel for subtlety and the humanity of her characters is already evident; mark her down as one to watch.