Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Who Honors Those We Love for the Very Life We Live? - A VOD Double Feature

Watched a couple movies. Didn't like them. See below.

The Rite (d. Hafstrom) – I have a very strong bias in favor of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I’ve probably said before that, in my view, it is a perfect film, horror or otherwise, but specifically as a horror film it casts an enormous shadow over one subgenre of horror. That subgenre is, of course, films about exorcists, of which there have never been terribly many. Most if not all of those were made after The Exorcist, and the subgenre is so specific, filmmakers find that not only must they use essentially the same plot points, and some version of the same shock effects as Friedkin did, but some are even driven by desperation to comment on The Exorcist, so that this exorcist film you’re now watching is taking place in a world where The Exorcist exists. And you shouldn’t expect real life to be like a movie!

Take Mikal Halfstrom’s recent The Rite. In this one, the Max von Sydow role is played by Anthony Hopkins, who, after meeting with a possessed young woman, asks our skeptical, and possibly atheist, seminary student hero (Colin O’Donoghue) “Were you expecting spinning heads and pea soup?” Oh ho, well played, sir. In answer to your question, though, no, I wasn’t expecting spinning heads and pea soup. But something would have been nice. The film has the crisis of faith angle and demonic possession and also takes an element from the end of The Exorcist and expands it, to no discernible effect. To this, it adds precisely nothing. The film just plods through the expected story points until the credits roll.

I sort of like Hopkins, because one of his default modes these days is to play guys who are very smart and focused, and not happy to be distracted by outside information. That’s how he plays the elderly exorcist role here, and it is occasionally amusing (such as when he absent-mindedly absolves O’Donoghue of his, O’Donoghue’s, sins before meeting the possessed girl). Other than that, there’s nothing to see. There’s nothing to see in pretty much any other exorcist movie, as I’ve said. Even when a film tries something different, as when The Exorcism of Emily Rose tried to merge the exorcist movie with a courtroom drama, the filmmakers seem to have no clue about how to integrate anything new to the formula established by The Exorcist, a formula which is inherent to the genre. Why would you make a movie like this now? If I made horror films, exorcism is the last subgenre I’d ever want to work in. I’d do vampires before exorcism. There’s no upside.

[I pretty much spoil the ending to Sucker Punch here, so fair warning]

Sucker Punch (d. Snyder) Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is sort of like what you’d get if Joe Francis was somehow inspired to rewrite The SCUM Manifesto by playing Duke Nukem. A bad and confusing analogy, no doubt, not least because there are dragons in the movie, and simply thinking about dragons would require the kind of imagination that would enable you to see past your own dick, which Francis (and Solanas, come to that) is incapable of doing.

So kudos to Zach Snyder, I guess! Sucker Punch is still a terrible mess, though. What it’s about is, this lovely young blonde lady’s (Emily Browning) mom dies, her evil stepdad tries to use his power to force a change in his wife’s will, which favored her two daughters, and then the young blonde lady snaps under the pressure and gets a gun and tries to shoot her stepdad but accidentally shoots her sister, and is then merrily (by the stepdad) whisked away to a mental institution. It is here that Sucker Punch hauls out all of its, I guess, ideas about reality and women and robot samurai. This mental institution is full of hot ladies, see, and it's less a mental institution than it is a sort of strip club, but the nice kind, classy, except that all the girls are forced to dance (they never strip, but the goal is the same) by the asshole who runs the joint (Oscar Isaac) because he likes money so much. And if they don't dance, then he'll hurt them, so the girls are taught to dance, and protected, by a Russian-or-something lady (Carla Gugino). The main thing, though, is that when that one blonde lady finally starts dancing, she, or her mind, is whisked into a majestic fantasy land -- to avoid the Male Gaze, I'm assuming -- where she's taught how to escape from her real-world prison by that one guy (Scott Glenn).

Up to this point, Sucker Punch hasn't really been very good, but it hadn't developed enough plot yet to be all that stupid. Pretty stupid, yes, but it's when Glenn is forced to explain how the film's story shall henceforth play out (and during these scenes, I imagine Scott Glenn's own mind whisking away to some fantasy land where he's still making The Right Stuff or Nashville) that Snyder doesn't just step in it, but rolls around in it. A good fantasy film, of the type that's following a well-worn formula, will not make too big a deal out of the formula itself, and will hide it as natural plot progression. But Snyder has Glenn just tell you what the formula is. He tells Browning "I can help you escape, but you'll need five things: a boot, some scrap paper, a jar of honey, and scissors" (whatever, I can't remember what they were) and Browning says "But you said five things" and Glenn says "The fifth thing is a mystery. So when you figure out what that thing is, that'll be, like, the end of the movie."

And so each quest to find one of the five things, during which she's accompanied by a group of other dancer/mental patients (even though I guess they're not consciously in the same fantasy land as Browning is, I don't think) brings the characters into a new world of battle, which feature, individually, zeppelins and zombie Nazis, dragons, robots, and so on. These are all filmed in Snyder's by now exhausting mix of digital massiveness and ramped up, or down, action. But while some of this can be partially excused as being what you pay for with Snyder, he adds new levels of obnoxiousness by making every single thing one of these girls does feel, in theory, extra cool. It can have almost no impact, or at least no substantive impact, on their quest, but he's going to add a little something to make anyone in the audience jump up and cheer, should they be so inclined. For instance, during the battle with the zombie Nazis, Jena Malone sees a potato masher grenade on the ground. Snyder shoots her in close-up, with a devious twinkle in her eye and badass smirk on her mouth, as if she's thinking "I'm going to throw that grenade at some guys." Then she picks up the grenade and throws that grenade at some guys. So she succeeded, which is good, not to mention empowering for young women everywhere, but couldn't she have just thrown it? Why'd she have to be such an arrogant dick about it? Throwing a grenade is one of the easier things you can do.

Anyway, the whole thing turns out to be more like Brazil than anything else, but shitty, except wait a minute, how can Scott Glenn be there...and also here...! So that kind of thing happens and then the voice over, which sounded to me like Carla Gugino no longer doing an accent, says something about each of us (although maybe she just means girls) having all the weapons we need. "Now fight!" she says. Fight what, you big dummy?

Oh well. Sorry, Scott Glenn. I still like you.


BLH said...

Have you seen the German movie Requiem? I suppose it's not a horror movie, per se, but it manages to be a very successful exorcist movie while demonstrating little-to-no structural or thematic overlap with The Exorcist.

Other than that, though, yeah, they keep making these useless exorcist movies. I guess they do well on video?

Erich Kuersten said...

"Sucker Punch is sort of like what you’d get if Joe Francis was somehow inspired to rewrite The SCUM Manifesto by playing Duke Nukem." - that's a brilliant line, and I don't even know who Joe Francis IS!

I did wade all the way through The Rite and I agree, it seems like they were going for a kind of Twilight generation Silence of the Catholics, with Hopkins regularly falling back on Lecter-style speech patterns, I kept waiting for him to talk about the young hunk was well-scrubbed maybe but still a rube. The idea that the whole Catholic church bends over backwards to appease this clueless kid is hilarious - what he deserved was some pea soup in the face. Good lord what a hunka crappe and the final 'battle' is just sad, an old man alone in his tower, having a nervous breakdown reaching out to this boy toy brooder... it was like some hustler scene out of Midnight Cowboy..

bill r. said...

BLH - No, I've never seen REQUIEM, but isn't that the movie that was sort of based on the same "true story" (I have my doubts) as EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE? If so, I have been meaning to check it out.

Erich - Joe Francis is the GIRLS GONE WILD guy, which may ruin the line for you, I don't know.

And yes, the last battle is about as dull as such things get. I particularly liked the bit where Satan via Hopkins is choking the young priest and asks "Do you believe in me now?" and the priest says "Yes, and I also believe in God!" Which makes Satan all "Wuh??? I've been hoisted by my own petard!"

BLH said...

Apparently it is based on the same incident. I haven't seen the Emily Rose movie to compare, but I can say that Requiem doesn't have any courtroom scenes in it (which is probably for the best, as the director's next film, Storm, was nearly all courtroom scenes and was dull as hell).

Greg said...

I will most likely never watch Sucker Punch but I certainly enjoyed that breakdown of it.

Now, to the matter at hand: I really, truly, madly and deeply hate it when a bad movie disses a good movie. That seriously pisses me off. I speak here of your reporting on the line, "Did you expect spinning heads and pea soup?"

I hate it when a movie tries to score "realism" points by dissing on an older, greater film as if that single fucking line is going to diffuse the power of The Exorcist for the audience: "Oh, at first I was thinking this movie sucked but now, I can see how silly The Exorcist is in comparison."

If your movie's good you won't need to mention any other movie much less dismiss it to make your movie appear better. Anyway, my rule of thumb (which I wrote about years ago at Cinema Styles) holds up: Never mention a better movie in the lesser movie you're in. All that does is make me think of the better movie and makes me resent you for sitting through yours.

bill r. said...

BLH - I would have loved it if more care had been taken with the EMILY ROSE courtroom scenes. That movie's not terrible, but it was a potentially really interesting genre mashup, squandered.

Greg - Yes, I hate it, too. I find it very unlikely, however, that the makers of THE RITE actually disdain THE EXORCIST. How could they? With that obnoxious line, they're essentially admitting that they're making a knockoff. It's a case, as you say, of trying to score realism points (incidentally, THE EXORCIST is MUCH more "realistic", whatever that means in this context, than THE RITE).

It's basically a more specific version of lines like "This isn't the movies, this is real life!", versions of which line never fail to make me mentally groan "Oh, brother" any time I hear them in a fictional film.

Greg said...

I'm going to start writing "This isn't a blog post, this is real life" in my blog posts. Maybe I'll work in lines like, "What did you expect, a SLIFR quiz and a 31 Screams post? This shit is real!"

Then, finally, people will take me seriously.

John said...

I have a very strong bias in favor of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I’ve probably said before that, in my view, it is a perfect film, horror or otherwise

Yeah. I watched it again a couple of times recently, and was knocked down anew by just how good it is. Forget about "exorcist" movies, really (and I've seen pretty much all of them, "Requiem" included); I think it makes all horror movies in general--with few notable exceptions--look pretty redundant.

I have to admit, though, I've never read the book, despite all the good things I've heard about it, and Blatty has occasionally struck me as a little flaky on the subject of possession when I've seen him interviewed about it. I mean, I don't have to believe any of this stuff is actually possible or credible to enjoy and be moved by a powerful movie portrayal of it. That's the beauty of fiction, ain't it?