Review: The Exorcist III

Review: The Exorcist III (1990)

Director: William Peter Blatty

Writer: William Peter Blatty

Stars: George C. Scott, Brad Dourif, Ed Flanders

currently available on Amazon Proime (as of 10/30/19)

William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III is supernaturally exhilarating, spellbinding its viewers in fascinated horror as it entrances them with incomparable dialog and some of the most intense performances ever captured on film.  The original novel The Exorcist, which was also written by Blatty, was transformed into a bona fide horror masterpiece by the sure hand of master director William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A., Bug).  When Blatty took over the director’s chair to adapt its first true sequel (I am discountingThe Exorcist 2 which was a shameless cash grab disowned by Blatty), he touched the film with a passionate knowledge of self, missing from the coldly scientific perspective of Friedkin’s masterpiece.  This means that pain and evil each drip from the screen during The Exorcist III, making it no less horrifying and nearly as fascinating as 1972’s The Exorcist..

Whereas Friedkin filmed his experiment in horror like a police procedural, The Exorcist III(which is actually a police procedural) is filmed with an emotional lens, making its shadows deeper and its reality more pliable.  Characters transform their faces and voices, figures crawl quickly on the ceiling, and a crucified adolescent innocent floats up from a hole in the floor.  While all the horrific descriptions and depictions of violence might risk guiding viewers to look away, the film’s performances are absolutely riveting, especially the starring turn by George C. Scott.

The pain and the terror in Scott’s face is deeply meaningful, and the rage in his arms is captivating.  It is almost as if, in times of great emotional strife, Scott’s character Lt. William Kinderman loses control of his muscles as they spasm in pain.  But it is not only Scott’s performance that elevates the film, but also Ed Flanders’ portrayal of horror-hardened Priest Father Dyer that grounds the emotion of the film in wise empathy.  But it is Brad Dourif’s spellbinding showing as the malevolent Gemini Killer that makes the film intoxicating.

Unlike his magnificent showing in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the suicidally bashful Billy Bibbit, Dourif’s turn in The Exorcist III shows us the self-assured face of evil.  Imprisoned, tormented, and unstoppable.  This film shows the monstrous nature of evil, forbidding its audience from looking away even for a second.  Though to my perspective this is not the staggering achievement the original The Exorcist was, this film is more emotionally tangible than its predecessor, and definitely as worthy of a watch this Halloween.

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Review: The Exorcist III

Review: Brawl on Cell Block 99

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Director: S. Craig Zahler

Writer: S. Craig Zahler

Actor: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson

Streaming on Amazon Prime (as of 10/10/19)

Brawl in Cell Block 99, the startling second feature from burgeoning cinematic master S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Dragged Across Concrete), depicts characters and events that are at once enthrallingly captivating and darkly depressive.  His first, Bone Tomahawk, was an exemplary update of traditional western tropes, but with his second feature, he seems to have found a muse.  The film opens with the camera focused on Vince Vaughn, unrecognizable from the wiseass party animal of Wedding Crashers and Old School.  He is completely bald, muscled and imposing, with a large gothic cross tattooed on the back of his head.  These fearsome aspects of his outward appearance are nothing as compared with the thoughtful, emotional, terrifying figure he portrays throughout the film.

While most characters Vaughn has played in the past speak with a sort of incessantly speedy pitter patter, his character in Brawl, Bradley Thomas speaks in measured clauses and considered sentences.  Early in the film, after his drug dealer boss Gil (Marc Lucas) asks him about the proper use of the “N” word, Vaughn responds “I don’t think someone like you could use that word in any way polite.”  The film, though full of cleverly plain witticisms like that, never risks becoming what anyone would call comedic.  In fact, the film’s director S. Craig Zahler has created the cinematic equivalent of a slow walk into hell, and the tortures heaped on Vaughn’s character expand at an exponential rate.

After a drug deal gone bad results in a shootout with police, Bradley (Vaughn) makes the decision to turn on the drug dealers, shooting one of them in the back and disabling the other with his bare hands.  After this selfless act of heroism, our protagonist’s descent into hell begins in earnest.  While the opening scenes of the movie are filmed in sharp sunlight, as the film goes into the darker parts of its story, each set piece is given less and less light.  When Bradley (Vaughn) first arrives at Redleaf, a high-security prison built in the days before prison reform, the warden (Don Johnson) delivers a speech about the horrors held therein.  In this and his every scene, Johnson (Miami Vice, A Boy and His Dog) brings a smirking dignity to these trashy proceedings, and keeps the viewer invested through the film’s trying final third.

When the movie finally comes to a close, it is with a horrifyingly graphic final shot, but this fits the savagery that came before.  While Zahler’s debut film, Bone Tomohawk ends with an act of violence so horrible that I am loathe to re-watch it, I’ve viewed the entirety of Brawl on Cell Block 99 no less than five times.  I think this is thanks to Vince Vaughn, who shows through his collaboration with Zahler that he understands serious characters, and that his eyes are as still and threatening as any action star.  For a pulpy, grimly realistic, and unflinching view into an ordinary man becoming an animal, this film is beyond compare.

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Review: Brawl on Cell Block 99

Movie Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Writer: Daniel Mainwaring

Stars: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas

Streaming for free at https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x72utly

Out of the Past (1947) is the height of film noir, and it is endlessly fascinating.  The movie is stuffed with quotable lines, so much so that the opening scene has dialogue from wise-cracking small town short-order cook that is notably aggravating to me (“Two things I can smell inside a hundred feet: a burnt hamburger and a romance”).  This scene might even discourage people from moving farther into the film, but I assure you, I swear this is only a speed bump.  Once you’re past this initial annoyance, the story becomes an endless facade of witty lines, delivered with a sinister bent.  The story centers around private eye Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), who later on in the story changes his name to Jeff Bailey, and is the quintessential film noir protagonist.

Robert Mitchum, who would go on to star in multiple horror classics Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962), shows hints of the gravitas he would later bring to these classics.  He plays a man on the run, one who cannot help but for the darkness of previous events to etch shadows on to his face, as captured in stark contrast by Tourneur’s confident camerawork.  Early in the movie Bailey (Mitchum) confesses to his lovestruck best girl Ann (Virginia Huston) that his real name is Jeff Markham (Mitchum), but his confession does not end there.  The story, though it goes from bad to worse three or four times in the film, finds no change at all in our Markham/Bailey’s perspective.  He sees the world as a cruel place, where the only thing you can do is take your lumps without blanching.  In fact, early in Makham’s confession, he describes going to a bar staking out femme fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer):  “I even knew she wouldn’t come the first night, but I sat there, with the beer and the darkness; grinding it out.”  I believe that this quote encapsulates its speaker’s belief that suffering is inevitable, and there’s no point in hiding from it.

This perspective stands in direct opposition to the central villain’s perspective.  Local crime boss Whit (Kirk Douglas) is endlessly entertaining to watch, and his deadly threats are delivered by a soft, permanent toothy grin.  His character’s presence hangs a lethal veil over his every scene, and the movie is never clear of tension.  However, though the ever-expanding prevalence of whip-smart dialog and extreme danger might seem anathema to romance, the relationship between Markham (Mitchum) and Moffat (Greer) is captivating.  Their conversations are filled with a competitive sense of wit, but passion is never far from the surface.  When Kathy asks  “Would you like me to take you somewhere else?” Jeff responds “You’re gonna find it very easy to take me anywhere.”  Crackling exchanges of dialog like this are everywhere in Out of the Past, and they are used to disguise the movie’s soul, which is black.

The movie’s director Jacque Tourneur first became famous for atmospheric Hayes Code era (oppressive film censorship of the 1930’s-60’s) horror movies Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), both of which needed to rely on deep shadows and harsh lighting to convey terror.  Here he uses shadow to capture emotion, which this film regards as more dangerous than anything else, especially for people like Bailey/Markham (Mitchum).  All this leads up to an ending that is not satisfactory in its realism as far as physical reality is concerned, yet holds up to the view that there are no happy endings for characters like these, and the most anyone can hope for is to settle for something safe.

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Movie Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Essay: A New Golden Age

In recent years, television’s experienced a glut of truly exceptional programming (no, not everywhere, but bear with me).  This recent onslaught of complex characters, engrossing and unexpected plot lines, as well as genuine emotional connection have shown that television is one of this country’s greatest platforms for modern artistic expression.  In this article, I will focus on three programs, the latter two of which are deadly serious and violent hourlong dramas.  So to start with, I would like to begin with an extremely progressive and transgressive step in the evolution of the half hour sitcom; the final season of 30 Rock.

Over 7 seasons, during which 30 Rock (2006-13) was consistently near to topping the list of the best comedy’s on TV, and in its final season it achieved greater freedom and silly hilarity than any other sitcom before or since.  In the last episode of the season, “Hogcock!” (a combination of hogwash and poppycock) the show subverts traditional series finale tropes at every turn, creating what may be the funniest episode of the decade’s best comedy.  Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), ever smiling and eternally helpful whipping boy of the entire series becomes the new head of NBC, Jack (Alec Baldwin) who for the entire series was the man in charge undergoes a crisis of direction, and Liz (Tina Fey) prepares to stop working and struggles to raise her two adopted children.  The show uses fantastic references to references, creating completely off-the-wall jokes throughout the episode, which stands as one of the long-running series’ best.

Though 30 Rock was an example of the great steps taken in situation comedy of late, the first season of HBO’s True Detective (2014-15) went even farther than The Sopranos or The Wire in making it’s hourlong runtime a truly cinematic experience.  While the stars (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey) create compelling focal points to a story about true horror, evil, and violence.  One episode, “Who Goes There?” opens with a breathless six minute single shot of a botched drug bust/robbery that left me shocked and stunned.  This sequence, taken as exemplum for the outstanding series as a whole, illustrates that True Detective sought and achieved true dramatic greatness.

While True Detective demonstrated that wonderful TV is still on premium networks like HBO, Netflix has now burst on the scene as a great exhibitor of original programming, and no where was that more apparent than in Netflix’s airing of Happy Valley (2014)Happy Valley, which first aired on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), tells the story of Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a no-nonsense police detective investigating a mysterious disappearance.   As might be expected, she becomes embroiled in events beyond her pay grade.  In the face of these new intense developments in her personal and professional life, she shows an almost magical backbone, like Sergeant Marge Gunderson (France McDormand) in Fargo, she is a picture of effectiveness.   Sarah Lancashire’s performance as this protagonist is complex and intense, and makes Happy Valley the greatest television show I’ve seen in what feels like decades.

These three shows, one representing the persevering effectiveness of network television (30 Rock), one showing the great depths to which premium cable can plunge (True Detective), and one showing television’s exciting future (Happy Valley), have left me more excited about the future of television than ever before.  It remains to be seen just how much entertainment will change in the coming decades, but I, for one, am thirsty to behold what the future will offer.

Essay: A New Golden Age