Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973)

Starring Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller
Directed by William Friedkin

Frequently touted as "the best horror film" or "the scariest movie" of all time, "The Exorcist" brings with it some heavy baggage, not least 2 Academy Awards (for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound) and 5 further nominations, along with 4 Golden Globe wins (including Best Picture).  So looking back at it, over 40 years after its release, one has to cut through the hyperbole and try to assess it on its own terms; it shouldn't be compared to films of the genre made today, or since, or even to its source novel.  

There have been several different versions of the film released over the years.  There was the original, theatrical version, obviously, but subtle tweaks and additions were made over the years, from a toned-down tv version to a 25th Anniversary re-release, to a "Version You've Never Seen", which was released on DVD a few years back.  I think this is the version I watched lately. 

The film opens in Northern Iraq, with a sequence well and truly setting the tone for what is to come; that is, atmospheric, mysterious, and very very slow moving.  It features Catholic Priest Father Lankaster Merrin, working on an archaeological dig, where he uncovers a small carved figure, which reminds him of a pagan demon (we find out in sequels and prequels that he had done battle with this demon before).  The presence of the demon is felt throughout the sequence, even to the extent of seeing a deformed local blacksmith, enigmatically staring at the priest.  We then cut to Georgetown, Washington DC, where a prominent actress, Chris MacNeil (the ever wonderful Ellen Burstyn) is shooting a movie, living away from her home in L.A.  Her 12 year old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) lives with her, her husband is estranged, and in the early scenes Blair is brilliant - charming, funny and everything a 12 year old should be.  But Regan starts to exhibit odd behaviour.  She mentions to Chris that she has played with a Ouija board and contacted a spirit she names "Captain Howdy".  It's never explicitly stated that this is the cause of what's to come, but the implication is clear.  A rather jarring jump in the narrative shows Regan undergoing a series of medical tests, due to her apparent odd behaviour.  The doctors think she might have a lesion on her brain but the tests prove inconclusive, as the strangeness in the house mounts up.  Chris hears strange noises in the attic, and Regan complains of her bed shaking at night.

Parallel to this story, we meet another Catholic Priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), whom Chris spots a few times at a nearby church.  He is a psychological therapist, and when the medical staff despair of finding a cause for Regan's maladies, they suggest seeking help from a psychologist.  Chris seeks out Father Karras and implores him to help her.  Father Damien is losing his faith, and wants to leave the priesthood.  His ill Mother has recently died, adding to his sorrow and disillusionment.  But Regan is deteriorating, and Chris begins to believe she is possessed by something otherworldly.  Karras is against the idea of exorcism, but his examinations suggest there might be something to that theory.  The two stories are interwoven masterfully, and we come truly to care about the characters.  Karras agrees to attempt an exorcism, but his superior insists he have help from someone with more experience; re-enter Father Merrin.

Friedkin directs with a naturalistic style familiar from "The French Connection".  However, there's a certain amount which sits unwell with the fantastic atmosphere.  The glacial pace sorely tempts one's patience.  And there's the utterly pointless introduction of a homicide detective, Lt. Kinderman, (Lee J. Cobb) who is investigating the mysterious death of the director of the film on which Chris is working, Burke Dennings.  Dennings was with Regan before he fell down a long flight of steps outside the house, breaking his neck.  It's clearly suggested later on that the demon possessing Regan was responsible, but Kinderman adds nothing to the plot.  His questions add up to nothing concrete, and bar an amusing aside with Karras, they yield no evidence.  He just slows proceedings down and I can't understand what his presence adds to the film.  The character was to make a wearisome return in the second sequel in 1990 in "The Exorcist III", played by George C. Scott and based on a mangled version of original author William Peter Blatty's novel "Legion".  He still wasn't worthy of any screen time.

Where the film utterly falls down is in the exorcism scene itself.  It forms the climax of the piece, and is supposed to be the shocking moment which brings things to a head, but it singularly fails to be in any way convincing.  I've read often that folks think that the special effects in the film are amazing. But I disagree. I think that the makeup is brilliant; Blair gurgles and swears under her increasingly rotten looking garb, but in the key scenes, the SFX is just woeful.  The "spider walk" scene, restored for the later release, is simply ludicrous - and it's obvious why it was taken out in the first place.  Nothing can point the finger, though, more than the famous "head turning" scene, which is laughable.  I can't think of a film which has had its gripping sense of atmosphere and mood so utterly destroyed by a bad special effect.  One can't be scared when one is laughing.  Frank Oz, show yourself.  At that moment, one comes out of the film totally, and none of the dramatic resolution to come can be absorbed because things have descended to comedy. The film is also very serious and earnest in its promotion of the Christian religion, portraying as it does the very real notion that demonic possession, and by definition, that the Devil itself is real.  This is a reflection of Blatty's own Catholicism, but it could have been better served.

Leaving aside the exorcism, the direction is solid (even if things do move rather very slowly).  The growing atmosphere of dread is wonderful.  The actors and actresses without exception all turn in fantastic performances.  Burstyn and Miller are great in the central roles, and Max von Sydow performs brilliantly in the small but pivotal role of Merrin.  Linda Blair deserves special mention for playing Regan, she brings a real humanity to a character whom essentially spends three quarters of the film in bed being antisocial, and it's a shame that she was forced into making that sequel.  There are some neat cues throughout in which subliminally suggest the presence of the demon in the house, flashes of a ghostly face here and there. It feels creepy.

As a side note, it seems to me that there is a sly dig at the religion of Islam which is slightly distasteful.  The film finishes and (almost) opens with adhan, the call to prayer.  It seems to suggest that the devilish possession, which arises in a Muslim country, is somehow Islamic in origin.  It's  unfounded and un-necessary.

Friday, 17 April 2015


Whiplash (2014)

Starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons
Directed by Damien Chazelle

Amongst the crop of films considered "award worthy" within the last year, "Whiplash" seemed to be somewhat unfairly over-looked in the wake of the quirky but over-rated "Birdman", the essential but maybe-a-bit-too-Downton "The Imitation Game", and the indelibly great years-long achievement of "Boyhood".  For sure, it did win numerous awards, including editing and sound editing at the Academy Awards, and J.K Simmons took home a statue or two for his already iconic performance, but one can't help but feel that this is a timeless movie, to which people will be coming back for years to come.  The film is certainly not as towering as some of the aforementioned in the acts it depicts, but what it does depict is done with gripping power.  Conversely, it's a deep, intense, close-quarter character study of two men's battle of will.  It tells the story of Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller, soon to be seen as Reed Richards aka Mr Fantastic in Fox's "Fantastic Four" reboot), a talented and ambitious young jazz drummer, student at a fictional New York Conservatory of music by day, and listening to Buddy Rich on repeat by night.  One evening, staying late to work on his routine, he catches the ear of famed - infamous - conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), stalking the hallways, who invites him to join his prestigious band.  Their exchange marks the opening salvo of a contest which will run and run.  Andrew joins the rehearsals, and finds that Fletcher lives up every bit to his fearsome reputation.  Clutching imagined musical notes from the air with his fist if his robot-like antennae detect that a student has missed a beat, or played a bum note, his sole aim seems to be to subdue his charges to the extent that they either better their work, or give up in subjugation.  "Not my tempo", he barks, whenever a mistake is felt.  Fletcher delights in recounting - and exaggerating - a story of how Charlie Parker was once humiliated by a bandmate, throwing a cymbal at his head when he wasn't up to scratch; Parker went away, and came back as the immortal Bird, arguably the greatest saxophonist there ever was.  In a quiet moment Fletcher elicits some personal information from Andrew, which he later uses to humiliate him in front of the whole band.  Andrew's determination to succeed grows stronger, to potentially damaging lengths, but the question the film raises is whether perfection would be his reward, or Fletcher's triumph.

"Fame" this isn't.

The idea that a film about jazz drumming could be so electrifying, mesmeric, and thrilling, seems faintly ludicrous, and just wouldn't have been my tempo a few months ago.  But "Whiplash" is all of those things.  But then, "Whiplash" isn't a film about jazz.  It's a war film.  With drums and saxophones.  Curiously - or perhaps by design - it's reminiscent of Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket", with Andrew taking the place of a beleaguered Boot Camp Marine, and Fletcher in the R. Lee Ermey Sgt Hartman role.  Andrew's climactic solo is like a gun battle.  The sense of conflict, in this case mainly psychological, but with physical consequences, is palpable.  The film takes its title from a composition by saxophonist Hank Levy, which gets several partial airings itself.  Music drives the drama, and when the full band is allowed to play more than a few bars, the tracks are fantastic.  But this music isn't joyful.  There's no casual riffing or jamming here, playing for the sheer fun of it.  This is serious business, and the tension can be seen etched on the faces of the students filing in for rehearsal, and silently enduring another of Fletcher's abusive outbursts.  The payoff for this lack of, for want of a better word, fun is that when things go right, the release of that tension is explosive (and there's another war-word,)

The movie is arguably - but not particularly - heavy handed in carrying home the message that one must suffer for art, and for perfection, that the emotional collateral damage affecting performer, friends, and family, is unbearable for all but the most dedicated.  But Chazelle nimbly makes the isolation of these characters visual.  The rehearsal room, the stages on which the band performs, and the very corridors of the Conservatory are dark spaces; characters are bathed in gold or bright white pools of spotlight, often cut off from one another.  Fletcher's "uniform" consists of black trousers and a tight black t-shirt, offset by Andy's slightly brighter wardrobe.  Every scene seems to  take place at night, or in the darkened rehearsal room.  Virtually the only scene which does take place in daylight occurs in a diner, and contains a moment of emotional upset for one character.  This is about light and dark, silence, such as when Fletcher suddenly halts proceedings, as much as music.  Good and evil - or at least nice and not-so-nice. .

Simmons has surely laid to rest the ghost of J. Jonah Jameson with his lauded and awarded turn.  But Teller matches him every step of the way, in a much more understated and less obviously scenery-chewing manner.  I believe he appears in every single scene; it certainly feels like it.  Fletcher gets all the best lines as the villains always do, but Neimann is the quiet, driven heart of the film, a personification of ambition and frustration.  Essentially this is a two-header, but (beyond the other bandmembers) the small ensemble supporting cast are excellent too.  Paul Reiser is warm, touching and concerned as Andy's father; their movie watching sessions together serve as a gentle counterpoint to the fraught atmosphere of the conservatory.  A scene at a family dinner, featuring Suanne Spoke and Chris ("Twin Peaks") Mulkey as Andy's Aunt and Uncle, goes a long way to showing how Andy feels misunderstood and distant from even  his closest relatives.  Despite only appearing in three scenes, Melissa Benoist ("Glee", and forthcoming as "Supergirl") as girlfriend Nicole is particularly impressive, charming and likeable, but ultimately insecure and heartbreaking.

As with any film about any "specialist subject", there are some disgruntled jazz-heads around who seem to miss the point that this is a work of dramatic fiction, and as such an endeavour it is successful.  Moreover, it leaves the viewer with something to take away and ponder.  It ends on an ambiguous note; Fletcher tries once more to humiliate - crush - his pupil, on stage in front of a large, influential audience, but Andy defies him, producing the performance he's been seeking all along.  Having failed to destroy him, Fletcher conducts him up close, nodding and encouraging, reveling in his charge's achievement.  So there is dramatic resolution, catharsis for both characters, after a lengthy, vitriolic journey.  Is Fletcher's approval because he has found what he was looking for all along?  It's a satisfying "feelgood" moment, and without the hugely predictable riotous applause and standing ovation.

It's perfection.

(this is the price of perfection)

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Babadook

The Babadook (2014) 

Starring Essie Davies and Noah Wiseman
Directed by Jennifer Kent 


This low budget Australian-made horror doesn't so much take swipes at the established genre, as knowingly eat up chunks of it only to spit out a captivating new take on things.  The unusual, memorable, title is immediately vaguely unsettling, because it doesn't mean anything or give away anything of the content of the film.  The poster drops a few hints of what's in store.  

The film opens with a brief fragment of a dream, of a woman falling; as she lands in her bed she hears a little boy repeatedly calling out "Mum! Mum!" She comes to, to find her son shaking her and trying to wake her.  He's been having bad dreams - again.  It's a disorientating introduction to what will turn out to be an unsettling tale.  The boy, Sam, is a troubled and fearful child; his father was killed in a road accident whilst taking Sam's mother, Amelia, to the hospital to give birth to him.  So their household is one which bears Amelia's stress of having to raise a child on her own, and Sam's fragility and guilt at being fatherless.  Sam is clingy, often waking in the night, sleeping in Amelia's bed, and needing to be read bedtime stories almost constantly.  He's keen on, and an accomplished performer of, magic tricks; but he has a habit of rigging up home-made weapons.  He is disruptive in class at school, which adds greatly to Amelia's stress.

One evening Amelia tells Sam he can choose any book from his shelf as his bedtime story.  He picks one called "Mr. Babadook", which puzzles Amelia as she hasn't seen it before.  It begins:  

"If it's in a word, or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook.  
If you're a really clever one and you know what it is to see, 
then you can make friends with a special one, a friend of you and me.  
His name is Mr. Babadook, and this is his book.  
A rumbling sound, the three sharp knocks.  
Ba ba-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!  
That's when you'll know that he's around.  
You'll see him if you look."  

The cartoon imagery accompanying these pages shows a menacing black figure, top-hatted, with pointed fingers, emerging from a wardrobe towards a small child.  At this point Amelia decides against Mr. Babadook, and stops reading.  But it doesn't end there, because once the Bababook  knocks, knocks, knocks, you have to let him in, in, in... The image of Mr. Babadook, with his enlarged fingernails, evokes every demon from "A Nightmare on Elm Street" to Struppelpeter. It's clear that this creature - whatever it is - has a hold on this two-person family.  Sam insists they read on.

"This is what he wears on top, he's funny don't you think.
See him in your room at night, and you won't sleep a wink."

Amelia stops reading out loud, to Sam's increasing panic, but she reads the following, disturbing,  pages to herself.

"I'll soon take off my funny disguise,
(take head of what you've read...)
And once you see what's underneath...

Amelia places the book out of reach, on top of a wardrobe; but Sam obsesses about the Babadook, freaking out his school-mates to the extent where he is expelled, and hurting his peers at a birthday party.  Amelia's wits begin to fray; it seems she can't even pleasure herself at night without an interruption from her son, climbing into her bed.  Sam's violent streak grows more prominent, and he is caught breaking into his late father's study.  But, touchingly, he promises to protect his Mother.  The book impossibly reappears in Sam's room.  Amelia tears it up and burns it.  But it reappears on her doorstep, taped back together.  Despite her increasingly frustrated and angry assertions that there is no Babadook, Amelia begins to wonder, to doubt, and her uncertainty spins out into a wonderful second-half of the film, as it becomes apparent that maybe the problem doesn't lie with Samuel, but maybe she herself is having serious grief issues about her husband, the grisly nature of whose death is hinted at in a vision she has...  Therein lies the sheerly beautiful skill of the storytelling in the film; the focus changes so gradually and subtly between the main characters.  Amelia's friends distance themselves from her.  Lights start to flicker for no reason, and things start to go bump in the night...  Peppered throughout are seemingly insignificant touches - look out for a television news report, for example - which turn out to be relevant to Amelia and Sam's predicament.  As with the best Monster films, the Babadook is seen outside of the pages of the book only fleetingly; the terror is implied by mood, lighting and some amazing sound design..

The film is tremendously assured not just in its unfolding narrative, but in its all-round production.  The majority of scenes take place within Amelia and Sam's home, itself a strangely timeless, cavernous, Victorian-terrace style house.  Polish-born Radek Ladcuk's cinematography plays with light and shadow tantalisingly, and has the disorientating effect of making the house feel simultaneously vast and claustrophobic.  The home is supposed to be a place of sanctuary, so its violation adds to the distinct sense of unease.  As the actors spend a large part of the film in their night clothes, in the house, at night, there's also a strong feeling of vulnerability absent when they're out and about in town, in the daylight.  Ultimately the film succeeds or fails on the strength of its central performances.  Essentially it's a two-hander; besides a few subsidiary characters - a kindly old neighbour, a concerned and romantically tentative co-worker - the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Essie Davies as Amelia, and Noah Wiseman as Sam.  Both give remarkable performances.  Davies chillingly captures the aggression, mental, emotional, and physical deterioration of a woman haunted in the extreme - in the latter case, at one point she starts losing her teeth, as Sam has, creating an unquantifiable bond between Mother and Son.  Wiseman, too, is impressively mature; amusingly / glibly (* delete as applicable) described by one reviewer as a cross between Danny from "The Shining" and Kevin in "We Need to Talk About...", he is so much more than that.  Reflecting his mother's maelstrom of anxiety and emotion, he effects by turns playfulness, anger, aggression, violence, grief (for the unknown), mania, terror, and ultimately tender concern care and love.  Child performers are notoriously hit-and-miss and can easily let a piece down, but Noah Wiseman proves well up to the task.  I know that what ends up on screen is very different from what goes on on a film set, but some of the climactic confrontation scenes are so raw and intense to watch, one wonders how he could not be affected in some way.

It's commonly held that horror films "aren't for women" but if ever there was an exception to prove that rule, "The Babadook" is it.  Not only is it written and directed by a woman (Jennifer Kent), and its protagonist is a woman, but there's good cause to say that its central concerns - birth, motherhood (the first word spoken is "Mum"), protection, abandonment, wifehood, bereavement, strength, love (the last word spoken is "Sweetheart") - would speak strongly to women.  For a film so permeated with dread, the coda is disarmingly bright, and upbeat - albeit with a little twist.  This is the final trick the film has up its sleeve, to wrongfoot the viewer with something of a tonal shift when they've barely caught their breath from what's just unfolded on screen.

A deserved winner of Best Film at the Australian Film Institute awards this year - a co-recipient alongside Russell Crowe's stirring directorial debut "The Water Diviner" - the film has also been nominated for and won a host of other critics awards, not least walking away with the Best Horror gong at the UK's prestigious Empire Awards!  It's unique, disturbing as well as being scary - note the difference - and ultimately deeply moving.  It is a brilliant metaphor for a character's mental state, along similar lines, arguably, to Jeff Nichols' superb 2011 film "Take Shelter".  It is without a doubt one of the most memorable films of any genre, let alone horror, of recent years, and just the thought of hearing three slow knocks in the middle of the night is enough to send shivers down the spine...

You may even want to check out the lovingly-created book at 

This is the mild spoiler, by the way:

How can you not simply love a film in which the cute dog gets it?