Month: October 2015

The Exorcist (1973)

Halloween DVD Review – Written for Film and TV Now Oct 2015 (Available here)

It could be easy to dismiss The Exorcist as of its day. To think of it as a boundary pushing film at the time of release back in 1973, that generated hype and hysteria, and became more of a legend off-screen. You might think that it would have lost its edge, with more convincing special effects now and with audience sensibilities more jaded and depraved since the Saw franchise ushered in the torture porn genre. How could this film still hold weight considering that its iconic status means that people know the scariest moments before they even see it?

The Exorcist is much more than the few scenes it is remembered by. It is a true horror film that deals with something much bigger than a monster in the dark, or the devil in a young girl. It wrestles with deeper ideas which make it so much harder to dismiss as trashy or cheap. It is both scary and compelling, intensely dramatic but often very real.

The story centres around Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her 12 year old daughter Reagan (Linda Blair) who falls ill and starts behaving out of character. When the doctors struggle to identify what exactly is wrong, pushed to the limits of what science will allow, they offer an alternative solution – that Reagan has been ‘invaded by an alien intelligence – a spirit’. Out of sheer desperation, atheist Chris enlists the help of two priests to perform an exorcism to try and bring her daughter back – but they will all be tested to the extreme and witness the most ungodly acts as a once angelic girl becomes a demon.

The film actually begins in Northern Iraq, where we glimpse the foreboding mythology of the demon Pazuzu. Father Merrin, the eponymous exorcist, takes part in an archaeological dig where he discovers the beastly icon in stone. This role is significantly played by Max von Sydow, a man who struggled to find faith in God and challenged Death to a game of chess in Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal.

Already The Exorcist is bigger than one film – it taps into a wider network of meaning that makes its themes more potent, it’s monster more powerful. Adapted from the novel by William Peter Blatty, who was struggling with his own faith, and directed by agnostic William Friedkin, the film is really about faith, and the struggle of one priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller) whose belief in God is waning. It is a film about good versus evil as young Reagan is possessed and tortured by demonic forces in order to test him.

The first half of the film focusses on the relationship between Reagan and her mother, and also psychiatric counsellor-turned-reverend Karras and his mother, who he visits and cares for. They each show tenderness and loving affection until they are torn apart as Reagan is possessed and Karris’ mother dies, making him doubt his belief in God and whether he should change profession.

The dedication to developing these characters has a huge effect on the viewer, you find yourself caring more, invested in their situation. Friedkin draws on his documentary experience to make the characters more real and empathetic – actually favouring real priests over actors – this is before the second half of the film crashes into chaos, before the beloved little girl becomes Pazuzu.

The Exorcist

This is where the iconic moments bloom: from head spinning and puking green slime to Reagan’s spider walk down the stairs – which has been put back into the director’s cut. Every effort is taken to turn this girl into abject horror, utilising practical effects and detailed sound design which have a unique ability to unsettle. Linda Blair is extraordinary in portraying both the little girl and the demon within. Auditioning over 1000 girls for the part, they had to be careful that this very young girl could handle such extreme material, which she does with a flourish despite stating she didn’t understand everything she was doing.

Shot on location in Georgetown the grand architecture adds a gothic, religious tone which feeds into the themes of the film and actually play an important part in the story. The use of stairways become an underlying motif that reinforces ideas of ascension. In a dream Father Karras sees his mother descend down subway steps before he can get to her, this is before possessed Reagan taunts him with notions of his mother in hell. This demon is all knowing, all powerful and aims to challenge Karras’ faith.

The Exorcist immerses you in the world of its characters before plunging you into the depth of its darkness – it is beautifully composed and definitely worthy of its status as a classic.

Maya the Bee (2015)

Written for RAF News Oct 2015

The lives of bees are full of rules and restrictions – not allowed to dream or sing or have fun. It’s a slippery slope as the shifty and stringent Buzzlina details: singing leads to playing and playing to laziness. However Maya is anything but lazy. An adventurous young bee who wants to explore the world outside of the hive and isn’t afraid to speak her mind – voiced by Coco Jack Gillies with a skittish energy.

After discovering that Buzzlina has stolen the royal jelly, the Queen’s elixir of life, Maya finds herself expelled from the hive, forced out into the world of other insects warned against in school. It is only once Maya and dorky friend Willy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are out in the poppy fields that they realise other species aren’t that scary at all.

There is a nice message here that explains the fears of the hive to be imagined or misunderstood, underlining the importance of unity and camaraderie. The true villain of the film is Buzzlina, the betraying advisor to the Queen and oppressive force from within the hive.

Most of the film is spent with Maya journeying to the poppy field, meeting a whole host of insects and animals along the way. Although some creatures add a fleeting moment of comedy, the constant meetings grow tired. Fortunately enough there is a song to liven things up before Maya and her group of newfound friends set out to confront Buzzlina.

Maya The Bee has come along way since its initial publication over a century ago – from children’s book to live action silent film with real insects(…), and now computer generated with a new tv series in tow, which is surprising considering how lifeless and bland the film can be at the best of times.

Although a little dull, the saving grace is the casting of Gillies as Maya whose energy carries the film.

Just think of what it could have been – one bee stranded in a world of other possible threats, not unlike The Warriors, returning home whilst being chased for the big confrontation, just like Mad Max: Fury Road… so much potential, such a shame.

He Named Me Malala (2015)

Written for RAF News Oct 2015

Malala Yousafzai has lead an extraordinary life and she is only 18 years old. As this documentary makes adamantly clear – her story is the stuff of legend.

Already an activist and covert contributor to the BBC at 12, Malala was targeted by the Taliban on her school bus years later and shot in the head. Surviving this ordeal she had the world’s attention, which she used to advocate human rights around the world and become the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner.

There is definitely a mythical quality to Malala’s life. An idea seized upon by director Davis Guggenheim – animating anecdotes of her childhood in the same pastel-coloured haze as the Afghani folktale that opens the film, drawing a parallel between Malala and Malalai of Maiwind after whom she was named.

A large part of the film is devoted to this origin story of a hero, turning her into an icon, a legend. The other side attempts to show the young girl behind it all, blushing over pictures of Roger Federa and Brad Pitt, and fighting with her brothers. This human side to the documentary is far more revealing in the way that it grounds Malala.

The whole family have a great sense of humour and an openness that invites you into their lives and Malala’s father Ziauddin epitomises this. His fierce belief in education and predilection to deliver passionate political speeches have clearly carried through to his daughter, neither of them deterred by physical impairment – Ziauddin suffering from a stutter and Malala having partial face paralysis resulting from the shooting.

The sceptics see Malala as a character of her father’s creation that the media, and no doubt this documentary, have latched onto, but she is adamant that her father simply gave her the name. Forever cheerful, it is hard to think of the dark reality from which she has emerged, or the continued death threats that she receives, but this is skimmed over throughout the film – perhaps in an effort to keep it light.

Regardless, Malala is a remarkable figure with an amazing story that is told here with passionate conviction but never without humour.

Suffragettes, Cigarettes and Women Laughing Alone with Salad

Suffragette comes out in cinemas tomorrow so be sure to grab yourself something from the little feminist goodie bag: a ribbon or badge to support women’s rights in the late 19th Century…

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I’m starting to question whether those marketing the film really want to stir up any kind of political activism at all. Perhaps they just want people to see the film and appreciate the history so that they too may find their own cause, find their own voice, in their own time – and not at the Leicester Square premiere as happened a few nights ago.

But one little look in the time travelling campaigner’s box o’ treats shows some stickers, one with the film’s tagline: ‘The Time is NOW’.

I’m sure what they mean is the Now back then, not Now Now.

Interesting still to see that all the merchandise reads ‘Suffragette 2015’ as not to be confused with the actual movement.

The cynic in me is starting to think that this ‘Vote Meryl Streep’ sash that I’ve been wearing has nothing to do with equality but is some PR trap that I’ve fallen into. But would a multi-million dollar industry piggy-back on an activist movement for the disenfranchised to boost profits?

I’m reminded of Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew and the founder of public relations. Bernays realised the potential for advertising by linking products to unconscious desires. He implemented this theory when hired by the American Tobacco Company after World War One to try and expand the market to include women. This was a problem in the 1920s as smoking was seen as improper and even immoral for women, and as such they were only permitted to smoke in the privacy of their own homes, over the stove presumably.

Bernays recognised this imbalance and so transformed cigarettes into a symbol of empowerment. He paid some beautiful women – ‘not too model-y’ – to start smoking as they walked in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York, rebranding cigarettes as Torches of Freedom. This event was reported nationwide thanks to Bernays providing his own photographers and stirring up the controversy himself. As a result, women began to smoke more freely and openly. A slow shift towards equality motivated by corporate greed and one of the first ever publicity stunts.

From the 20s to the second wave of feminism in the 60s

We like to think we have come a long way but advertising and publicity remain quite the same, still based on this model proposed by Bernays that appeals to innate and unconscious desires. And by way of feminism we have guilt chipswomen laughing alone with salad and ribbons supporting the right for women to see the film about the fight for women’s rights.

Man O To

In an interview with the Guardian about a decade ago, Brian Eno suggested that Arabic music had the potential to feed into the mainstream and resonate globally just as Blues had in the early 60s. This hasn’t happened yet.

I have recently found myself listening to a few songs of Middle Eastern origin and thought I’d group them together here, from poetic harmonies to the reworked and dub-inflected.

Translated from Farsi: The pleasant moment of sitting in front of the door, me and you. With two figures and two faces, with one life, me and you. Joyful and careless, free from distracting myths, me and you. Me and you, without us (ego), gather because of virtu (love)

This next song comes from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, though I’m not sure where the artist is from considering that the film and its parts are a complete mesh of North America and the Middle East, but I really enjoyed the simplicity of this track and how it was used in the film.

The film favoured style over substance but some elements of its style have stayed with me. Below is a playlist of the complete soundtrack which I have listened through a couple of times now, comprised of many songs that I would have never heard otherwise, in a style unknown to me.

Just as the song from Bollywood film Gangs of Wasseypur 2 had a lasting effect on me for being different to anything I had heard before, I’m sure I’ll listen to these tracks over and force them on my friends when given the opportunity.