DVD Review

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.

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Shopping (1994)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Aug 2015

Paul W.S Anderson’s debut features a young Jude Law and Sadie Frost as ram-raiders in an urban wasteland – driving stolen cars through shop fronts and taking clothes from the fallen mannequins in a whole different kind of window shopping. A bit of the ol’ crash-and-carry.

Billy (Law) is a joy-riding adrenaline junkie fresh out of a prison. An adolescent rebel eager to impress Belfast punk Jo (Frost) and make a name for himself. Coming home to find his possessions boxed up and hearing that a rival gang is growing into a criminal empire, Billy is losing sight of his place in the world and his recklessness is starting to draw unwanted attention.

Shopping takes place in a dystopian near future, shot on location in London but carpet bombed with smoke making it look more like Tim Burton’s Gotham. Caught somewhere between Mad Max and Cronenberg’s Crash, the film falls short of compelling or unsettling. The acting is ropey throughout but Law brings a fresh-faced naiveté to Billy that works for his character, with occasional glimmers of his cocksure charm, and Sean Pertwee is impressive as rival gang leader Tommy. Produced on an extremely low budget, the chase scenes are impressive if not sparse. Unfortunately the film has not aged particularly well and is mired in the technology and fashion of its day.

This is the 90s and so our rebellious anti-heroes sport black leather jackets and listen to electronica on cassettes. At one point Jo routes through Billy’s tapes and mocks him when she finds Spandau Ballet – this is a nod to Frost’s life off-screen, she actually left Gary Kemp for Jude Law after meeting him on the set of this film, and so the chemistry between their characters may be very real.

Featuring a few of the Primrose Hill set, the North Londoners who rose to fame in the 90s, it is interesting to see these actors together for the first time, before classics Love, Honour and Obey and Final CutShopping is far more stark in comparison to these later more comedic films, and was actually banned from some cinemas for its glorification of crime – though it is definitely tame by todays standards. Now it is fully restored and being rereleased on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Whilst Paul W.S Anderson continues to make films based on videogames or in science fiction, this film is seen as his most serious and most impressive, though you can definitely see the through-line between this and his next film: Mortal Kombat.

Margin Call (2011)

Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) journeys into the belly of the investment banking beast in JC Chandor’s debut feature.

Having survived the culling of 80% of the workforce, Peter is handed a USB drive by his less successful boss as he is escorted out of the building along with two words of advice: Be Careful.

Margin-Call

Although Peter looks to be our guide through the story – through this world of hard-edged executives dealing intangible products and earning 7 figure bonuses – he speaks in a language that no one else understands. He is the audience surrogate but rather than have everyone explain what’s happening to him, and thereby us, he is the one with the answer who has to explain it to everyone else. With a PhD in physics this rocket scientist turned risk analyst has discovered some troubling data predictions for the company, and the sector, and, everyone really – this is the beginning of the financial crisis of 2008. The very beginning. The pin-point moment when it all fell apart seen through the eyes of those discovering it.

Completing his calculations late into the night whilst everyone else celebrates not being fired, Peter has to call his bosses back to the office (a gum-chewing straight-down-the-line Paul Bettany and an understated Kevin Spacey) to send this information up the chain – and so begins a series of dumbed down explanations attempting to communicate the scale of disaster fast approaching. Even CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), flown in via helicopter, needs it broken down for him: ‘speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever’. The point here is that no-one in charge knows how it works – and though this series of explanations brings us closer to understanding the cause of the collapse, the focus is how these people will deal with the news and how they will ultimately escape unscathed.

Taking the economic catastrophe of recent history and looking at it from the perspective of those who where at the helm leaves you with a strange feeling. We are presented some likeable characters but you can’t help but feel complete disdain for these suits who will save themselves, who will evade the crisis and knowingly pass it on to regular people. This point is made clear in passing dialogue, distinguishing themselves from the ‘real people’ who will actually be affected.

The Wolf of Wall Street stirred some controversy when it showed ruthless stockbrokers benefitting from regular people’s losses without ever showing the victims. Margin Call‘s top bods don’t even consider the victims to go after them maliciously, they are interested in survival – for the company, for themselves. Their rationalised indifference is somehow more obnoxious than the overt manipulation of the wolves, and it feels like this could easily be a reality.

The film’s strength is in it’s writing. It allows the performances to be sharp and fast-moving, gifting each character with a brazen attitude and silver tongue. A boardroom meeting plays as a hyper-masculine battle of egos. Kevin Spacey’s performance is subtle, showing an internal moral conflict that he knows is futile. It feels like GlenGarry Glenn Ross but the dank room is now a Manhattan high-rise and Kevin Spacey is a touch more human thanks to his dying dog. Just a touch mind, these people are ruthless automatons and they know it.

Bugsy Malone (1976)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Apr 2015

Bugsy Malone is a children’s classic that tells the story of two rival gangs in prohibition era Chicago where a new weapon has arrived on the scene.. a child friendly Tommy gun.

bugsy

Shot in 70s London and set in 20s New York, Bugsy Malone remains a unique film that at times looks like utter chaos, with children standing in for adults and cream pies taking the place of bullets. Scott Baio is Bugsy, a wisecracking charmer who comes to the aid of speakeasy proprietor Fat Sam, our adolescent Al Capone, whilst under attack from a new outfit kitted out with Splurge guns.

Jodie Foster, considered a veteran actor at 13, stands out among many first time actors – fresh off the set of Taxi Driver working with Scorsese and De Niro, to working in this miniature mafia musical with a cast all under the age of 16. At times it feels like a school play – but with unbelievable production value. Costumes and sets have been shrunk down to create a world for our half-pint hero Bugsy, peddling around in custom built cars with a bicycle beneath the frame – said to cost just as much as a regular saloon car.

Bugsy Malone has a bizarre concept that is made all the more strange by the musical numbers – sung by adults with mismatched voices and danced by kids with no previous experience – but it holds onto an otherworldly charm. It really is a parody of the gangster genre, or of film in general, by showing the nature of acting as merely playing pretend. The only difference is that the industry as well as its actors take themselves too seriously, but Bugsy Malone doesn’t hide the fact that it’s just a bit of fun. Sickly and cringe-worthy at times but high spirited and harmless.

Behind Closed Doors (2008)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Apr 2015

Set in Council Bluffs Iowa 1976, Behind Closed Doors looks at three young sisters and how together they overcome a harrowing situation and find solace in the most unlikely of places.

BCD

The opening music, paired with a glimpse inside the house where the girls live, is enough to tell us that the story being told has a dark underpinning. Written and directed by Lori Petty and based on events in her own life, the film carries a weighty seriousness that prevents the film from ever being enjoyable, but allows for some good performances.

Jennifer Lawrence is Agnes – the eldest daughter to a drug addicted prostitute, trying to take charge of the family and keep her sisters out of the ‘poker house’ where her mother’s clients and pimp freely roam.

Agnes is based on a 14 year old Petty, toughened beyond her young age, though unbelievable at times. Lawrence is commanding in her first leading role, which seems to have lead naturally to her matured, bread winning sister role in Winter’s Bone. The best moments of this film are caught in the tension between mother and daughter. Selma Blair is impressive as the girls’ mother – a twisted stumbling mess buried beneath platinum highlights and panda eyes.

Meanwhile sisters Cammie (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Bee (Sophia Bairley) both find themselves in amongst local characters in some hardly glamorous settings of their small town. Cammie exchanges recyclable bottles for sweets with the local homeless crowd, and Bee is put up in a bar for the day with an eccentric regular.

Despite the girls’ chin-up-and-smile attitude, theirs is clearly a tragic situation and all efforts to appear otherwise appear contrived or stooped in sentiment – which is understandable considering the personal nature of this film. The undeniable accomplishment of Behind Closed Doors is in showing the dark beginning from which film-maker Petty has arisen.