Devil and Father Amorth, The (2017)
★ / ★★★★
Regardless of whether one believes in God, the Devil, demonic possessions and the like, there is no question that William Friedkin’s “The Devil and Father Amorth” is a documentary that lacks an excellent reason to exist. Its opening sequences are telling: the director, who helmed the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist,” revisits locations of various scenes from that film as if the viewers were interested in sightseeing. One gets the impression he is grasping for straws in order to inspire curiosity in us—which is redundant given that his subject is already interesting. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch an actual exorcism?
The woman named “Cristina” is to be exorcised for the ninth time by Father Amorth, a beloved and respected priest in Rome. The exorcism is nothing like the movies we are all familiar with—which I found to be interesting for about three minutes. For instance, the person to be exorcised manages to retain how they look like, nobody is tied up to the bed, holy water does not penetrate the skin like acid. (Holy water isn’t even used.)
Most amusing, at least from my perspective, is the fact that the room is actually filled with loved ones, observing every second of the exorcism, praying along with the main priest and his assistant. They do not seem bothered by the woman’s paroxysms, trance-like demeanor, and guttural voice. The entire showcase lasts about twenty minutes and I felt every second of it. It is repetitive, shot in a flat manner, and rather boring. Mayhap it is because I have been around an exorcism when I was a child.
The picture gets slightly intriguing after the exorcism as Friedkin turns his camera on physicians and asks what they think of Cristina’s exorcism. Friedkin’s goal is painfully obvious: to get a quote that runs along the lines of science not having all the answers. Of course it doesn’t. But it does not automatically mean that the Devil exists and it has in fact possessed Cristina. The way Friedkin manipulates the interview is quite insidious and it left me with an uneasy feeling. I had to remind myself that he is a better filmmaker than this.
It cannot be denied that “The Devil and Father Amorth” offers access into a subject that is mostly kept secret. It is beneficial to capture an actual exorcism on film, regardless of whether or not one believes in its effectiveness as treatment when it comes to spiritual diseases, because it provides us information of what it is, how it is executed, and what it entails. But the way the documentary is put together is quite amateurish at best and overreaching at its worst. There are stretches here when I felt I was watching propaganda.
Killer Joe (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes six thousand dollars to a local gangster and if he does not pay his loan within a couple of days, goons will be sent to kill him. Chris’ mother has just kicked him out of her house and, out of anger, he tells his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), that her life insurance policy is worth fifty thousand dollars. To get that money into their pockets, all they have to do is find a way to kill her. Rex, the boyfriend of Chris’ mother, tells Chris that he knows a man willing to do the job. For twenty-five thousand dollars, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a detective, will perform the service. The only problem is that he requires to be paid in advance.
Make no mistake that although its premise has elements of a crime-thriller, “Killer Joe,” based on the play and screenplay by Tracy Letts, is a comedy so grim (but deliciously lurid), each chuckle is almost always accompanied with a feeling of guilt. All of the characters we have the pleasure to observe trade their morals for the possibility of getting a couple thousand bucks richer without a moment’s thought.
The performances are grating during the first twenty minutes. Hirsch as a desperate loser sounds as though he is reading from the script as he attempts to get his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), to unlock the front door of their father’s trailer home so he can get inside. There is a lack of verve to his performance in the opening scenes and I began to question if he was fit to play the role. Hirsch and everyone else’s performances, however, is elevated once McConaughey’s cold and calculating Joe dives into the mix. When Joe speaks and tells a story from his past, the actor that has starred in a handful of flat and uninspired romantic comedies disappears completely. Since McConaughey takes a risk by not holding a level of intensity but actually playing with it, we almost feel his co-stars being challenged and wanting to feed off the unpredictability in front of them.
Although the picture does not shy away from putting the violence front and center, it excels in creating intimate scenes, most often between two people, under the guidance of director William Friedkin. It feels wrong to watch Joe and Dottie, who we can assume to be underaged, first converse about mundane topics, work up to flirtation over a meal, and eventually get intimate physically, but it is impossible not to want their scenes to continue because the script and the acting have formed a synergistic magnetism. Joe’s need to take the girl’s virginity and the girl’s unsure sexuality is such an interesting combination that it undermines the circumstances involving the possible murder.
And that, ultimately, is the main problem. The central crime in “Killer Joe” neither has the strength nor the off-kilter palate to complement the good, sometimes great, performances. If the individual scenes between Dottie and Joe; Joe and Sharla (Gina Gershon), Ansel’s new wife and Chris’ stepmother; and Chris and Dottie were taken out, what remains fit the description of a hundred bland crime pictures.
★★★★ / ★★★★
An explosion in an American oil well in Nicaragua renders businessmen desperate to stop the fire from burning off the precious and highly profitable natural resource. After the incident, crates of nitroglycerin are found in a shack. One is sufficient to stop the fire. However, it is two hundred miles between the problem and the solution. Aerial transport is simply not an option given the chemical’s unstable nature. So, four men from different countries are hired to drive two trucks containing the liquid nitro, each to be paid handsomely and provided citizenship if their mission is successful. The latter is especially attractive given that the men are fugitives in their respective homelands.
Once the central adventure, the transport of the chemical compound from one place to another, of “Sorcerer,” based on the screenplay by Walon Green, reaches an overdrive, it is a thriller so confident and so brilliantly executed, it dares us to look away from the screen due to the threat of the crates being nudged with just enough force to blow its vicinity to smithereens. While it can be criticized for taking too much time to establish the criminals’ backstories, I enjoyed it because it is challenging to pinpoint what the film is ultimately going to be about.
The cold-blooded assassination executed by the well-dressed and stoic Nilo (Francisco Rabal) in Veracruz, Mexico hints at a possible international espionage. A bombing in Jerusalem which involves “Martinez” (Amidou) suggests a trace of political thriller. Back in Paris, France, “Serrano” (Bruno Cremer) becomes increasingly desperate as he learns that his business has gone bad. A similar situation can be applied to “Dominguez” (Roy Scheider) after he has killed a priest during a robbery which happens to be a mobster’s brother. These last two has a similar template as a gangster flick. While the picture is really more about treacherous land of Nicaragua rather than the foreign men who take refuge in it, I appreciated that we are given an understanding of the men’s origins. When their lives are threatened, a part of us can identify with them because we know them somewhat outside of their tough guy reputations.
There is synergy in the utilization of sound effects and score. This is observed best in two ways: when our protagonists face seemingly insurmountable dangers in the jungles of Nicaragua and when the camera turns its attention on the faces of the locals.
The most exciting sequence involves the trucks having to cross a suspension bridge which consists of only wood and rope. When the trucks sway back and forth as it sits in the middle of the bridge during a storm, it appears as though it can be thrown off any second. The howling of the wind, the raging of the rain, the creaking of wood not designed to endure so much weight, and the exhausted engine of the transport together create a sort of poetic dirge, a misstep from either man or nature means certain death.
Meanwhile, its most moving sequence involves the delivery of incinerated corpses to a small town after the accident in the oil well. Initially, there is a lot of commotion: extremely angry and frustrated roars of the poor, a thirst for blood. But when the bodies are finally shown, wrapped in plastic, there is absolute silence, a sign of both sadness and respect for the empty shells that have been handed to them. Just as quickly, the atmosphere is taken over by outrage.
Directed by William Friedkin, “Sorcerer” is about the experience rather than the genre. So few films lead with this distinction. Notice that if the sound is taken away, the images still demand attention.
Boys in the Band, The (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Kenneth Nelson) was the host for Harold’s (Leonard Frey) birthday party and all of their friends were invited. Donald (Frederick Combs) arrived early and we learned that despite Michael’s lavish way of living, he was essentially a kid with little regards to money. He got tired of things easily which could be seen by the many times he changed his clothes before and during the party. All of them considered themselves as homosexual but they ranged from the masculine, like Hank (Laurence Luckinbill), to the feminine, personified with great energy by Cliff Gorman as Emory. Some of the invited friends attended with their lovers (Reuben Greene, Keith Prentice). Another was a birthday present (Robert La Tourneaux), a “midnight cowboy” for the birthday boy. “The Boys in the Band,” based on Mart Crowley’s play, is known as the first movie that tackled homosexuality directly. I was mesmerized by the script and the performances. There were many stereotypes but even I can admit that some of them were true. I found qualities of myself and my gay friends in most of the characters; its goal was not to reinforce the stereotype but use it as a template that beneath it all, every type of gay man is different from one another despite society forcing the ridiculous idea that we belong to one category. Instead of putting homosexuals under only a positive light, I admired the film’s audacity to tackle many negative thoughts and emotions. I may not agree with some of the decisions that certain characters made, particularly Michael’s cruel game, but I was able to relate to the isolation they felt despite being surrounded by others, the anger and sadness they experienced when love wasn’t reciprocal, and the fear of wanting to belong with anyone, homosexual group of not, for a stamp of approval. The person I found most fascinating, and the one who I believe as the heart of the picture, was Hank. He was married to a woman for years, had kids, and had the painful experience of coming out to them. The addition of Michael’s former roommate in the university, a self-proclaimed heterosexual, named Alan (Peter White) made the party’s dynamic more complex. Was there an attraction between Hank and Alan or were the two just friendly? After all, Alan was very uncomfortable being surrounded by gay men. Despite Hank being gay, Alan took comfort in the fact that Hank acted straight. I thought that was very honest because I’ve met straight guys (and some of them I consider friends) who would make remarks about someone from afar being a “queer” or a “fag” while in front of me yet they fully know where my attractions lie. The heavy subject matter in the second half was balanced by funny and witty tête-à-têtes and one-liners when the party was just beginning. “The Boys in the Band,” directed by William Friedkin, was released over forty years ago but it still has relevance in today’s more accepting time because the LGBT community still faces similar issues today.
Rite, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), son of a mortician, decided to go to seminary school because his family could not afford a four-year college education. His plan was to send his resignation after four years because he had serious doubts about his faith. When he did, a concerned priest (Toby Jones) sent him to Rome to attend an exorcism class led by Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds). But this only increased Michael’s doubt as he brought up the questionable methods done by the Catholic church in terms of dealing with people who claimed to have been possessed. Avid in psychology, he claimed that demon possession had classic signs of known psychiatric disorders. Since seeing is supposedly believing, Father Xavier sent Michael to Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a practicing exorcist in Rome. Inspired by a true story and based on a book by Matt Baglio, “The Rite” took a more realistic path in tackling the issue of exorcism, a practice undoubtedly still happening today. It was great to watch because it wasn’t afraid to acknowledge how exorcism was portrayed in movies. As Father Lucas puts it, when it came to exorcism, people tend to expect “spinning heads and pea soup,” referencing William Friedkin’s horror classic “The Exorcist,” but that wasn’t reality. The reality was people would come in for multiple sessions and a priest would try to exorcise the demon by attempting to find its name and getting control of it. A certain level of the unexplained was there, such as the supposed possessed person knowing certain things about another, but an uncanny level of insight could potentially be explained via an observation of behavioral responses and first impressions. I liked its approach and I was fascinated. Even though I don’t necessarily believe in the devil, I wish the film had spent more time in the classroom because it elucidated and dispelled common myths about the practice. But the picture also had elements of the supernatural. As Michael got deeper into his experiences with Father Lucas, he began to experience horrifying possible hallucinations like a demon taking on a form of a mule and hearing his dead father’s voice on the phone. He also had dreams about the time he saw his father cleaning up after his mother’s corpse. Was Michael experiencing symptoms of a mental illness? Or were the hallucinations and nightmares triggered by guilt? Guilt of leaving his father, guilt of using the seminary school, and guilt of continuing to deny that what he had seen could be real. Directed by Mikael Håfström, “The Rite” wasn’t a typical film about exorcisms because it was willing to laugh at itself and its characters. Since it was more grounded in reality, when the supernatural was thrown at us, the scares and creepiness were all the more effective.
French Connection, The (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, “The French Connection” stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy Russo, a bad cop and a good cop, respectively. The two try to capture a French drug lord named Alain Charnier played by Fernando Rey. Hackman and Scheider consistently collide against each other because they have different ways of dealing with situations. I found this film to be really focused because right off the bat the audiences get to see how Hackman’s character is like: racist, having violent tendencies and not caring about anything else as long as a result is produced at the end of the day. Scheider is pretty much the complete opposite so it was interesting to see the partners’ dynamics in disparate situations of varying level of danger. This film won several Oscars including one for Best Picture so my expectations were really high prior to watching it. Although most people’s arguments when asked to explain why they didn’t enjoy the film was that the plot and the look of the film was dated, my problem with it was its abrupt ending. Just when things were getting really good, the credits started rolling and I was left in the dust. I was simply hungry for more. I had no problem that the movie looked dated because I’m used to seeing older films so that line of argument is a matter of acquired taste. I believe this film must be appreciated because a lot of movies that came after it used “The French Connection” as their template. The most infamous scene in this picture was when Hackman’s character tried to chase after a train. It was really exciting even though it didn’t use a lot of visual and special effects because the concept was rooted in the whole good-guy-must-capture-bad-guy schema. I also enjoyed the fact that there were many silent moments in the film where the images did most of the talking. William Friedkin, the director, was always aware that he was making an astute film for intelligent people so he didn’t result to spelling everything out in order to get a point across. Perhaps with repeated viewings I’ll love this film more and more but I don’t consider it as a great film after watching it for the first time (although it came close).
Exorcist, The (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I was younger, whenever I’d pretend to be an archeologist in the backyard, my mom would warn me about potentially digging up evil spirits. Knowing that dead people are buried in the Earth, of course I’d get scared and immediately stop digging holes in the ground and watch television or read a book instead. It recently occured to me that she referenced this film to invoke that fear of “evil spirits” (most Filipinos are superstitious). In any case, even though I don’t believe in God or the Devil (though I don’t reject the possibility of their existence; if I were to believe in a sort of “God” it wouldn’t be Jesus/Christ, it’ll be a general “higher power” in the universe), this film really got to me because it is so well-told and it is difficult for me to dispel the horrific images from my head after watching it. I’ve seen this movie about four times and it never fails to give me the creeps. I always find something new in it: whether it’s a demonic face popping up during the most intense scenes when a character would enter a dark room or something in the script that would hint that what we are watching is not a supernatural story but a hyperbole of a psychological disorder told through a medium who believes in demonic possessions.
This film has stood the test of time because science and faith (generally two opposing ideas) are fused so well, that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference because we’re so invested in the characters and our own questions of what’s really going on or what’s going to happen next. Ellen Burstyn is heartbreaking as the mother/actress who really loves her daughter (Linda Blair) but doesn’t know what to do when her daughter starts behaving strangely. One minute she’s strong and the next she’s vulnerable; some of her best scenes are her interactions with the priest/psychiatrist (Jason Miller) because she’s able to express what she’s really thinking and feeling. Linda Blair did a tremendous job as the possessed daughter. I still don’t know how she found it in herself to act like a demon. Most people say that the make-up did most of the work but if one were to look closely, it has nothing to do with the make-up. If one were to compare her early scenes where she was sweet and friendly to her later scenes where she was cussing and grimacing at other people’s misery, one should be able to conclude that she’s bringing something from within.
William Friedkin, the director, neatly (and organically) converged three stories: Burstyn’s plight to find a cure for her daughter’s illness, Miller’s relationship with his terminally ill mother, and Max von Sydow who is both a priest and an archeologist (who happens to dig up an ancient relic with the help of some locals in the first scene). The director is smart enough to highlight the duality of these characters: mother/actress, priest/psychiatrist, priest/archeologist, daughter/demon. And not just the duality in the characters but also the duality of “the” explanation: science/religion. Moreover, I have to say that this picture has the best use of lighting and use of color in any horror movie I have ever seen. I noticed that in the first third of the film, warm colors are often used like red, orange, and yellow. As the film’s subject matter got darker and more manacing (granted, the movie started off pretty dark), we get to see colder colors more often like blue and purple. As for the lighting, I love the scenes in the house when a character would be in self-denial (or lying to someone else) and how their faces, or parts of their faces, would be covered in darkness. Also, in the most intense scenes, it feels like something is always looming in the corner because of the way a certain object would project its shadows on the wall. Small things like that makes this film so special, worth discussing, and rewatching.
When people put “The Exorcist” at the top of their scariest horror films list, for me, it’s not a case of jumping on the bandwagon. It really is that scary due to its subject matter and its craft. There are a plethora of memorable scenes such as the spider walk sequence down the stairs, when the demon/Captain Howdy would try to find and take advantage of the priests’ weaknesses, Blair’s 360-degree head turns, Burstyn’s intense experiences when she enters dark rooms–all of it are effective because of both its shock value and (arguably) sense of realism. Despite one’s theology (or lack thereof), it’s difficult to dismiss this film because faith is not the only factor that drives it forward. If people are to stand back and look at the overall product, it’s really about our fears of the unknown–things of which that both religion and science combined are not enough to answer.