The Exorcist


The Exorcist

Linda Blair goes full demon.

(1973) Horror (Warner Brothers) Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Rev. William O’Malley S.J., Barton Heyman, Pete Masterson, Rudolf Schûndler, Gina Petrushka, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch, Rev. Thomas Bermingham S.J., Vasiliki Maliaros, Titos Vandis, John Mahon, Mercedes McCambridge (voice). Directed by William Friedkin

6 Days of Darkness 2015

The devil is more concept than reality for most of us. We see the devil as a representation of our darker nature, the part that is less Godly, less good. We don’t see the devil as a physical, real being. At least, we didn’t before The Exorcist came along.

Based on a best-selling novel by acclaimed author William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist shattered box office records and caused a furor; some condemned it as a glorification of Satan, others as horror pornography. Others praised it for pushing boundaries. In any case, it re-defined horror movies from the stylized costume epics of Hammer and their ilk and brought realism into the genre. The shock waves it created reverberate today.

Regan Mac Neil (Blair) is the loving, sweet daughter of famous actress Chris Mac Neil (Burstyn) who is in Washington DC to film her latest movie. After playing with a Ouija board, strange things begin to occur around Regan; odd noises, suddenly using foul language (something she had never done before) and showing abnormal strength. When the bed she’s in shakes without apparent cause, Chris starts consulting doctors to see what’s wrong with her daughter. Nobody can find anything medically amiss.

Then Regan kills Burke Demmings (MacGowran), the director on Chris’ new film and a close friend. That prompts a police detective Lt. William Kinderman (Cobb) to investigate. Kinderman, a movie buff, is a little star struck but doesn’t let that prevent him from investigating thoroughly. What he finds is disturbing.

Father Lawrence Merrin (von Sydow) is a Catholic priest who was an exorcist earlier in his career. During that time he defeated a demon named Pazuzu. The experience so unsettled him that he hasn’t performed an exorcism in years. Now summoned by the Church to help the Mac Neil family which is running out of options, he is teamed with Father Damien Karras (Miller), a psychologist who has lost his faith in God since the death of his mother.

The two will face a foe unlike any they’ve ever seen, the tired old priest and the young disillusioned one but they are all that stand between Regan and a life of possession and horror. Can they stand up to something so powerful with only their faith as a weapon – and even that is eroded?

The Exorcist as I mentioned was not just a watershed moment in horror films but in cinematic history. The frenzy around it would predate future blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars, which would lead Hollywood to the blockbuster mentality it has today, for better or for worse.

For its time, the scares were incredible. The actors reactions were often prompted by extreme measures; he fired off a gun beside Miller’s head in order to provoke a startled reaction, something Miller didn’t take too kindly to which led to an acrimonious dispute. He also put the women in harnesses and threw them around in order to show the power of the demonic entity; Burstyn sustained permanent spinal damage during one of these takes.

By modern standards, the practical effects are somewhat primitive but still effective. It’s refreshing to see images not made with computers but are still terrifying and realistic nonetheless. One of the things that made The Exorcist so frightening at the time was how realistic it was in terms of how it portrayed life in 1973. It could have happened anywhere. It could have happened in your neighborhood.

Von Sydow, who was only 44 when this was filmed, had already been a major star in Europe and was well-known in the States but this was a career maker for him. In the 70s and 80s he became a very popular actor, often as a villain. He continues to be very active today at 84. Burstyn, who was a respected actress whose performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore garnered her an Oscar nomination, never really did a part like Chris Mac Neil again but she is astonishing in it. Miller, a respected playwright, had a distinguished acting career following his work in the film

And as for Linda Blair, The Exorcist made her a household name. She will never be completely divorced from Regan; even now, a middle aged woman, she is associated with that little girl. Regan has haunted her career pretty much all her life, which is both a good thing and not. Her name was enough to get her some roles she probably would like to see forgotten; but it has also maybe made people not take her as seriously as she deserved to be as an actress.

For many, this is the ultimate horror movie, the one by which all others are measured. There are also those who would argue for other films, but a very compelling argument can be made that The Exorcist is the most important horror movie of all time, not merely of its generation and those of us who are old enough to remember when it was released (I was 13 at the time) will be affected by the frenzy that accompanied it. For any horror fan, this is a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the greatest horror movies ever. Standout performances from virtually the entire cast. Intelligent and realistic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find it too intense; others too bland.
FAMILY VALUES: Extremely foul language, scenes of terror and horror, some disturbing images and violence. There are also some graphic sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is The Exorcist the highest-grossing Warner Brothers film of all time (adjusted for inflation) but also the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time (again, adjusting for inflation).
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains both the original 1973 version and a 2000 Director’s Cut by Friedkin. There’s also a featurette on some of the locations from the movie; what they looked like back in 1973 and what they look like now as well as a featurette on knock off versions that were made after The Exorcist became so successful. There’s also a feature-length documentary on the making of the film. The 40th anniversary Blu-Ray edition includes all those as well as a featurette on author William Peter Blatty, a featurette on the original incident that inspired the novel and an interview with the man who brought it to Blatty’s attention as an undergraduate at Georgetown and a hardcover book including excerpts from Friedkin’s memoir.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $441.3M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Omen
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: A Brilliant Young Mind

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Notting Hill


A dear in the headlights.

A dear in the headlights.

(1999) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Richard McCabe, Rhys Ifans, James Dreyfus, Dylan Moran, Roger Frost, Mischa Barton, Tim McInnerny, Gina McKee, Emma Chambers, Hugh Bonneville, Emily Mortimer, Alec Baldwin, Omid Djalili, Lorelei King. Directed by Roger Michell

The world of the rich and famous can be fascinating for the rest of us, who live vicariously through the tabloids, glimpsing a lifestyle we will never lead. The romantic in all of us pines for a chance encounter with a charming prince or beautiful princess who sweeps us off our feet and into a life of wealth and privilege. Of course, this rarely happens in reality, but the tale is as old as our collective imaginations and Notting Hill tells it smartly.

Anna Scott (Roberts) is the world’s most famous and glamorous actress (now, that’s a stretch) who for reasons that are never explained, finds herself in the Notting Hill bookshop of William Thacker (Grant). The two don’t hit it off immediately; guarded and wary at first, they gradually grow warm and even affectionate as their feelings begin to manifest.

Their attempts to sort out their feelings face nearly insurmountable odds. Scott is surrounded by a phalanx of publicists and agents that make it difficult for the two to meet. Thacker is surrounded by a coterie of quirky but supportive friends and family who are warm-hearted all, which of course bends reality to the breaking point, right?

Circumstances continue to conspire against the couple. Scott’s boyfriend (Baldwin in an uncredited turn) unexpectedly shows up, ruining what could have been an intimate encounter. When they finally do get together, loose lips alert the media, which turns the whole thing into a circus and kills the relationship before it starts.

This being a Hollywood love story, we know how it’s going to end, but even though we do, we still enjoy the ride. Grant, perhaps the greatest stammering aw-shucks romantic lead since Jimmy Stewart, is completely endearing as the ordinary Joe. Roberts pokes a lot of fun at her own image, while employing her own charisma to her advantage. Is there a more likable actress in Hollywood?

Notting Hill is the real star of the movie. One of the most charming neighborhoods in London, it reminds me of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, only with a British endurance. It feels solid and eternal while showing a homey, quirky face to the world. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that real estate agents in Notting Hill got a lot of business off of Notting Hill.

Usually with these kinds of movies, Da Queen is my barometer of success. If she is tearful in the right places and ends up in a sentimentally romantic mood, it’s a winner. With Notting Hill, she wouldn’t let go of me for at least five minutes after the closing credits. Likable leads with real chemistry, a sense of charm and English accents plus a plot that is pure fairy tale … who could ask for anything more? As chick flicks go, this is pure gold and a perfect choice for a date night at home on the couch with microwave popcorn and someone to share it with.

WHY RENT THIS: Grant and Roberts make a charming couple but the real charmer is Notting Hill itself. Perfect date night movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very chicky as chick flicks go. Stretches believability a bit thin at times.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some sexual content and a bit of pretty strong language briefly.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The blue door to the house William lives in was auctioned off and the replacement door painted black so that the owners of the home didn’t have to deal with tourists; however the home and the door, at the time of filling, actually were in Notting Hill; writer Richard Curtis used to live there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a cute little comedic bit as Hugh Grant explains how actors should properly behave on set. There’s also the ability to jump directly to scenes in which particular songs are playing on the soundtrack (nine in all). There is also a travel book which points out the actual locations that filming took place at, for those wishing to visit Notting Hill themselves. The Ultimate edition adds a couple of music videos and a featurette on how the four seasons walk down Portobello Road was done.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $363.9M on a $42M production budget; the movie was another blockbuster for Roberts and Grant.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Four Weddings and a Funeral

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Impossible

Knight and Day


Knight and Day

Club Med, this ain't.

(20th Century Fox) Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maggie Grace, Marc Blucas, Jordi Molla, Falk Hentschel, Lennie Loftin, Dale Dye, Rich Manley, Celia Weston, Gal Gadot. Directed by James Mangold

Although I can’t prove it, I do believe that all women dream of a dark, handsome man who’ll whisk them away on the adventure of a lifetime. Most every woman I’ve ever asked has said that’s a fantasy of theirs. As they say, be careful what you wish for.

June Havens (Diaz) is returning home to Boston after scouring junkyards in Wichita for car parts for the GTO she’s rebuilding for her sister’s wedding gift. In the airport she literally bumps into Roy Miller (Cruise), a handsome, nice man who seems genuinely polite. June is immediately attracted to him but as usual dithers about doing anything about it. Her problem is that she’s been burned by the skeletons in the closets of the men she chooses too many times. Of course, there are skeletons and then there are SKELETONS…

Roy has a doozy. He’s a field agent for the CIA who has stolen a battery from an agency lab, along with its inventor, whiz kid Simon Feck (Dano). It’s not just any Duracell, either; it’s a perpetual energy battery that can indefinitely power, say, a small city. Obviously this is something a lot of people want to get their hands on, not the least of which is Roy’s partner Fitzgerald (Sarsgaard), his boss Agency Director George (Davis) and Spanish arms dealer Antonio (Molla).

Fitzgerald sends some agents on the plane from Wichita to Boston to try and apprehend Miller, but they fail. Unfortunately, both of the pilots get caught in the crossfire and the plane goes down in a field. Roy and June are the only survivors.

June wakes up (after Roy drugs her, a repeated theme throughout the movie) in her own bed and wonders if it was a dream. However, the post-it notes Roy left for her throughout her house advising her not to get in a vehicle with anyone claiming to be from an agency, to deny all knowledge of Roy and to get as far away from any agent as possible who tells her that she’s going somewhere safe and secure as this is code for “we’re going to execute you.” She tries to explain all this to her would-be boyfriend, fireman Rodney (Blucas) but they are interrupted by Roy who takes June hostage.

They get away and try to find Simon but Roy is late getting there and the understandably nervous Simon has fled for Austria. Right about then the Spanish gunmen arrive…

The plot here is really secondary to two things; the action and Tom Cruise. Mangold has crafted a fairly competent action movie with some nice stunts, although nothing terribly elaborate by say James Bond standards. The attraction here is Cruise. He is in full-on movie star mode.

Back in the day, there were movie stars like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen who mesmerized you just by being onscreen. They had an indefinable charisma, something you can’t really explain but certainly can feel. You’re drawn in. There are very few of them left today. Tom Hanks is one, Julia Roberts is another. Cruise is like that, too.

He is no longer the young guy in his tighty whities sliding across the floor to Bob Seger, but he still has that incandescent smile and that self-confidence that makes him so irresistible to women, even if he has developed some middle age jowls. Whenever he’s onscreen (which is nearly the entire movie), the screen sparkles.

You have to feel for Cameron Diaz. She’s a fine actress in her own right and quite pretty, but she doesn’t have the kind of screen presence that Cruise possesses. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a pretty rare commodity – but it does make her almost an afterthought when you remember the movie, even after just having seen it.

There’s a pretty fine support cast, including the urbane Sarsgaard doing his best villainy, and Davis who resembles facially and vocally a young Alfre Woodward here. Dano is nearly unrecognizable as the Hall and Oates-loving genius who is perpetually in a state of shattered nerves.

That Hall and Oates thing is what lies at the heart of the flaws that the movie possesses. I know teenaged geniuses can be quirky but loving Hall and Oates music? Doesn’t seem realistic to me; I would have thought it better if the kid was into Lady Gaga or something a little more contemporary. Also, Paul Dano didn’t look like a young teenager or even a college student; that also took me out of the film’s world a little bit.

The conceit of drugging June constantly so that Roy can rescue her got a bit wearisome and kind of smacked of lazy writing – that way we didn’t get to see Roy get them out of the sticky situations they were in. It was bang, he knocked her out, there were a few brief moments where she faded into consciousness at various stages of the operation, and then bang, she’s awake in some totally different locale. Yes, we get that Roy is very, very good at what he does – it wouldn’t have hurt to see a bit more proof of that onscreen. The writers make a half-hearted attempt to put some doubt as to Roy’s motivations, but we know he’s a good guy from the beginning; this is a non-twist and these are the kinds of things that tend to distract viewers from a movie’s better nature.

Otherwise, this is a pretty good movie, not great. Certainly it kept me entertained the entire time and I enjoyed myself while I was watching it. It’s not as bad as I heard it was, nor is it as good as I hoped it was. It’s a standard action comedy, elevated by Cruise to something better. That’s good enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Tom Cruise is at the top of his game. The movie is fun and lively.

REASONS TO STAY: Again, nothing particularly new or cutting-edge here and the CGI is a bit atrocious in places. A little too Looney Tunes for my taste at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence (action style) throughout and a little bit of bad language. Perfectly suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally titled All New Enemies and the movie was shot under the title Wichita before changing its name to the current title.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the action sequences look to need a larger screen, by and large this one is perfectly adequate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Land of the Lost

10 Items or Less


10 Items or Less

Morgan Freeman discovers that people will do all sorts of things when told to over a loudspeaker.

(First Look) Morgan Freeman, Paz Vega, Anne Dudek, Jonah Hill, Alexandra Berardi, Bobby Cannavale, Kumar Pallana, Jim Parsons, Danny de Vito, Rhea Perlman. Directed by Brad Silberling

As we move through life, our lives intersect briefly with other lives, and then we move on. Sometimes even the briefest of interactions can affect us profoundly, having an impact on the remainder of our lifetime.

An actor – nay, a movie star – known here only as Him (Freeman), is considering a new project (not a film – things aren’t to that stage yet). He hasn’t committed to it yet, which is somewhat surprising, since he (or is it He?) hasn’t done a movie for four years and is coming dangerously close to being “Say, weren’t you that guy who…”

Because the role is as a grocery store manager, the production company sets up an opportunity for Him to research the role at an actual grocery store in the godforsaken wasteland that is Carson, California. He is driven there by an overeager Kid (Hill) who is not so much starstruck as he is hyperactive. The Kid promises to be back in an hour, but we never see him again, which isn’t very surprising to anybody, not even Him.

He finds himself drawn to Scarlet (Vega), an acerbic check-out clerk in the Express Checkout Lane – the one where you can have no more than ten items or less in your cart. She foils customers who would skirt the rules, terrifies an assistant manager (Pallana) who is deaf as a post and slower than that molasses spill on aisle four, and has a running war with the only other checkout clerk (Dudek) in the market who despite the dearth of help seems content to sit on her behind while Scarlet does most of the work.

Scarlet, who emigrated to America from Spain, has found life incredibly hard in the Land of Milk and Honey. She’d gotten married to a man in what turned out to be a major mistake, has had most of her hopes and dreams crushed by the realities of Los Angeles and has been burned so often that she doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe – often they are one and the same in her experience. Despite all this, she finds a common bond with Him.

In turn, he is fascinated by her and her ethics. When he discovers she is going on a job interview later that day, he is keen to go with her, but insists on taking her shopping at Target for new clothes. As an actor, he understands that first impressions are everything during an audition, and when playing a role, one must look the part. The two couldn’t be any more worlds apart than they are, but still they develop a surprisingly intense friendship.

Silberling, director of such blockbusters as Lemony Snicket and City of Angels, picked this indie project for the challenge of completing shooting in 15 days.  It’s a quiet little movie, offering no great emotional resolution nor any particular insight that you can’t find elsewhere. Still, it is refreshing to watch a movie content to remain within its own framework.

Freeman does a bang-up job of essentially playing himself. Although there are some differences between Freeman and Him, there are enough similarities that it becomes eerie at times. For me, however, the opportunity to watch Vega (previously incendiary in Spanglish) is well worth it. Not only is she one of the most beautiful women in the world, she is a tremendous actress who truly wears her heart on her sleeve. I was riveted every time she made an appearance.

This is a shamelessly independent movie; the production values are next to nothing and at times, it seemed like the pace of the movie was hurried a bit, as if they had some sort of deadline to meet even after the movie had been shot. I liked it and found it charming at times (enough to give it a recommendation), but I can see where that charm would wear thin on people. Think of it as “Seinfeld” without the laughs.

WHY RENT THIS: Paz Vega. Charming without being overbearing. Paz Vega.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground broken here.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit too coarse for young ‘uns.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first movie to be available legally on the Internet while it was still playing in theaters.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: This has one of the most light-hearted set of features that aren’t out-and-out parodies. A Q&A session with the two main stars and director Silberling in the middle of a Target store, as well as a making-of feature that is notable in that it is longer than the actual film.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Leap Year