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Column Fri Aug 27 2010

The Last Exorcism, Takers, Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, Flipped, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, & Lebanon

The Last Exorcism

The Last Exorcism it as a story of a preacher who has gotten into the exorcism game to bilk the faithful out of their hard-earned cash. He has taken advantage of the uncertainty of the times and the stress that society is under, and has turned that into a business for his unique brand of knowledge and skills as an orator. There's a moment in the beginning of the film where the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) tells the film crew following him that he can insert anything into a sermon, and his followers will eat it up. He proves his point by literally working in the recipe for banana bread into his fire-and-brimstone speech. He's also considered one of the South's greatest performers of exorcisms. But we soon realize that Marcus hasn't invited a camera crew to document want a fine preacher he is; he's brought them in so he can show them that he's a fraud. This is his version of confession, and his plan is to pick a letter at random from the hundreds he gets requesting his exorcism services and walking us through his tricks of the trade on what is meant to be his final performance as an extractor of Satan.

Marcus is disturbed by such developments as the Vatican opening up an exorcism academy (this is true) and the recent death of a young boy believed to have been possessed by those who were trying to remove a demon from his soul. As much as it may seem like writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland (who also wrote the upcoming mockumentary The Virginity Hit) and director Daniel Stamm have put together a work that simply plays on the methods and fears drummed up by William Friedkin's 1973 classic The Exorcist or even the quite-good The Exorcism of Emily Rose from five years ago, this is more the story of Marcus' loss of faith than anything else. It's also not 100 percent clear whether the young girl at the center of these activities is possessed or simply insane; but of course the king of lies would make us wonder. If Marcus denies his belief in God, the girl may not be saved; if he re-embraces his faith, then suddenly an exorcism academy doesn't look so ridiculous.

The letter than Rev. Marcus selects is from a Louisiana farmer named Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), whose teen daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) has been apparently killing livestock and wandering the property at night with no memory of doing so. The Sweetzers (including son Caleb, played as a defiant non-believer by Caleb Landry Jones) seem like the perfect targets. The kids are home schooled because dad thinks the outside world has too many corrupting influences; he's even taking them out of Sunday school because it was too permissive. It doesn't take long for Marcus to convince Louis that his daughter has a demon in her that will only leave her upon her death...or with a little faith-based assistance from the good reverend.

At this point, Ashley Bell's remarkable performance steels the show for a spell. With no help from special effects or makeup of any kind, Bell contorts, creates voices, and just generally looks demonic. And although I'd seen her fleetingly on Showtime's "United States of Tara," I didn't recognize her. And hers is a slow-burn performance that builds up to her lunging for the camera and shredding her vocal chords from screaming. But then to watch her snap back to sweet, innocent Nell is just as much a shocker as her "possessed" self.

Without giving away too much about the back half of The Last Exorcism, things begin taking turns and further evidence comes forward that suggests strongly that Nell's behavior is the result of deep inner turmoil and anxiety over factors in her life that she's either repressed or simply refuses to speak about. And then there' are those final few minutes of the film that have been so divisive. I know one foolish critic (and there are probably more) who simply dismissed the final sequence as "falling apart." If you think the ending of this movie falls apart, you truly have missed the point. I'm not saying you have to like the ending or agree that it was the best place for this story to go, but nothing about it falls apart. The filmmakers have simply decided to throw us the ultimate curve ball and completely switch the tone and style of the movie, and the resulting scenes are among the film's most terrifying.

The Last Exorcism is a smart film that sneaks up and scares the hell out of you. It does a tremendous job of misdirection, while still very much telling the story it promises to deliver. I'm not sure what else you could ask for out of a horror film. And if I read one more person bent out of shape about it being PG-13, I'll kill. If ever there was a horror film that understandably needed this rating, it's this one. These are religious people, so it would stand to reason that bad language, nudity, and sex wouldn't be a part of their story. That in no way takes away from the fear factor, which is quite prevalent. Trust me, this movie will scare your brain.

To read my exclusive interview with The Last Exorcism director Daniel Stamm or producer Eli Roth, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Takers

I wasn't sure if I was watching a heist actioner or a GQ photo shoot while taking in Takers, a derivative-as-hell story in which neither the good guys or bad guys are particularly well defined or worthy of our love or hate. Although I think its pretty clear who most audiences are going to be rooting for as the plot plays out--the dudes in the nicer clothes. The film opens will a high-profile but carefully choreographed money grab from a high rise in downtown L.A. The handsome thieves include the leader, Idris Elba; Michael Ealy; Hayden Christensen; Paul Walker; and less-handsome Chris Brown. Shortly after the boost, the group's former partner Ghost (played by rapper T.I.) is released from prison and already has their next job ready to go. The problem is, the group has less than a week to plan and prepare. And although they pride themselves on careful planning and patience, the team decides to go with Ghost's plan, even though it's a rush job and he's unreliable as a partner. Sensible behavior is not a big component in Takers.

On the other side of this equation are the police, represented by Matt Dillon as a stressed-out cop whose wife has just left him, and Jay Hernandez as his partner. Even in the worst of films, I rarely get tired of watching Dillon; there's always something interesting about him, and he conveys an intelligence in his eyes. Thrown into this mess is Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Elba's drug-addict sister who has a knack for showing up at exactly the wrong time, Steve Harris as an Internal Affairs officer who spends most of the film trying to have a conversation with Dillon; and Zoe Saldana, utterly wasted as arm candy. I'm not even sure she has any dialogue in this movie.

The new heist (and, no, it never really is satisfactorily explained why it has to happen in such a hurry) involves an armored car robbery, so most of the film is simply watching the gang map out their plan and prep for it. They buy explosives, buy disguises, map and time the route of the armored cars, and put on one expensive suit after another, just like real thieves. I'm actually a big fan of movies where criminals work out the details of a job or con--the Ocean films are recent examples of how much fun such endeavors can be. But Takers is deadly boring, despite all of the tough-guy posturing, gunplay, explosions, and ridiculous out-of-place symphonic scoring. There is truly nothing about the film that distinguishes it as a worthy, unique action film or a clever film about smart criminals.

But what's more annoying is that one of the few action sequences involves a foot chase involving Dillon and Hernandez running after Chris Brown. Clearly using a stunt double clearly fluent in parquor, Brown's character does some incredible jumping, falling, climbing, and general avoidance. (He also knocks down quite a few women in the process, which garnered more than a few colorful comments from the crowd I saw Takers with.) It's actually a pretty cool sequence that feels totally out of place in this movie, because it clearly was directed (by John Luessenhop, Lockdown) with a lot more care and interest than the rest of the film. In addition, by the end of the film, T.I.'s character comes out looking like a great deal more of a smart badass than he has a right to. Now guess who two of the executive producers of Takers are? Wow, you're smarter than the guys in this movie. Both Brown and T.I. are credited, and I wasn't aware of that until the end credit of the film...except I was because their characters seem wildly over aggrandized at certain points in the story. I particularly liked the moment when Brown shoots and kills a cop and the crowd around me cheered. Nice. If you're in that kind of mood, knock yourself out.

Takers borrows from so many other films, it's impossible to list them all. But it does so in a grabby, ham-fisted manner that feels like stealing, and after a while it got tiresome counting the film's missteps and plot holes. In a lot of ways, the film feels like a b-movie throwback that prides itself on its sloppy ways. But this film looks far too polished for me to believe that anything about its shortcomings is deliberate. Nope, Takers is that all-too-frequent example of a film being accidentally crappy. Feel free to miss this one.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Part 1) & Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (Part 2)

Okay, I know I'm cheating a little bit since technically these two films are playing separately and have different release dates, but in Chicago they are opening a week apart, so I'm reviewing them as a single experience, since I truly doubt that seeing just one half of this remarkable cinematic experience is going to be enough for anyone. Tracing the adult life of real-life French criminal mastermind, brazen escape artist, and transformative thief Jacques Mesrine, this movie has a death-defying quality (except, you know, at then end when Mesrine dies) that few American films outside of Scarface have ever displayed.

One of my absolute favorite actors, Vincent Cassel (the Frenchman best known by most Americans for his English-speaking roles in Oceans 12 & 13 and playing opposite Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises) plays Mesrine as something more of a celebrity, which is exactly what he was to many. Mesrine was the first to use the power of the media to become a folk hero to a nation that was eager to know about his next outrageous exploits. The French police and government couldn't stand for this, and essentially had him executed in the streets in a very public manner.

The first part of Mesrine covers his rise through the criminal ranks, working for others but still very much his own man. For the first time, Cassel co-stars with Gerard Depardieu, who plays a mob boss known as Guido who Mesrine must win over to move up in the underworld. The film also spotlights Mesrine's relationship with Jeanne Schneider (Cecile de France), who was often with him during his heists. Neither relationship ends well, and the film ends with Mesrine committing what might be considered his first of many cold-blooded acts, in a sequence that sets up the far darker and more aggressive second part.

Director Jean-Francois Richet (Assault on Precinct 13) paints a bloody picture later in Mesrine's life as he adds kidnapping and cold-blooded murder to the repertoire. Still, it's acts like elaborately staged jail breaks (and then boldly returning to the jail to free other prisoners) or robbing a bank and then robbing the one right across the street because its there, that displays the man's arrogance. He simply does not believe the world's rules apply to him. He commits crimes in Canada, Britain, and other nations; he fancies himself a sort of revolutionary; but he also, rightfully so, prided himself a ladies' man. The primary lady in part 2 is party girl Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier), who was with him when he died.

The second film also features yet another great performance by Mathieu Amalric as Fran├žois Besse, another one of France's great jailbreak experts, who teams up with Mesrine for a series of explosive jobs. Besse's cool-headed manner is a perfect counterpoint to Mesrine's flamboyant ways. But nothing else in this film matters, in the end, but Cassel who packs on the pounds and wears countless wigs and disguises to carry out Mesrine's infamous crimes and acts of naked aggression. One of the Mesrine's most patently shocking moments is when he kidnaps a journalist who has been bad mouthing him in the press (saying such terrible things as "Mesrine is not a man of his word"), tortures him, and ultimately executes him in the coldest, most cruel manner possible. But that sequence also speaks volumes as to the man's character and motivations, and that's what I love about this film. It gets to the heart of its central character; it tells us what makes him tick, and I bought it thanks to Cassel's extraordinary, award-winning performance. Crime dramas are a dime a dozen in film history, but few get it as defiantly right as the two-part Mesrine. See it at your earliest convenience. Mesrine: Killer Instinct opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 opens on September 3 at the same theater.

To read my exclusive interview with Mesrine star Vincent Cassel, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Flipped

I'm going to admit this: Rob Reiner's examination on childhood first love almost had me. I was in the mood to actually let its overly sentimental bit of innocence wash over me, and make me remember what it was like to crush on a girl at a point where neither of us was mature enough to understand the feelings or know what to do with them. Flipped has a lot going for it on the surface, starting with a pair of winning young actors in the roles of Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) and Juli (Madeline Carroll), whose families live across the street from each other but rarely communicate because they come from such different backgrounds.

Juli falls in love the first time she lays eyes on Bryce, and he wants her as far away from him as humanly possible. What Reiner does (and I'm sure the book it's based on by Wendelin Van Draanen does as well) is tell key moments in the kids' interactions together from both points of view. Many of the scenes play out twice from slightly varying POVs. I wouldn't have any problem with this device if so many of the scenes weren't so grippingly dull. And as the title implies, as Juli's interest in Bryce dissipates, his admiration for her is on the rise. I wonder how this will end...

If Flipped had just been about the kids, I might have enjoyed it a bit more, but instead, the film is cluttered with family members who are meant to represent the "changing times" or the "square" types who refuse to change with the times. Bryce's parents (Anthony Edwards and Rebecca De Mornay) are old school to the point where they equate rock music with crime. At the point in the story where Bryce finally realizes that his dad's pompous, judgmental behavior is the result of being scared of the world, I was ready to choke on symbolism. Juli's parents (Aidan Quinn and Penelope Ann Miller) are a bit more of the world, with dad painting in his spare time.

The only adult character in the film that is three-dimensional is Bryce's grandfather (John Mahoney), who is embarrassed of his son-in-law's behavior and attitudes. He rebels by spending time with Juli and helping her replant her family's run-down front lawn. I know I wasn't supposed to get a creepy-old-man vibe from Mahoney, but the fact that nobody brings the idea that he likes hanging out with a pretty young girl who "reminds him of his wife" just kind of sat there like an elephant in the middle of the room.

As I mentioned, the kids are the only thing about this movie I'll remember by the end of the week. McAuliffe and Carroll, thankfully, did not graduate from the child-acting school of overplaying every line and scene. They come across as good kids in a film that, for the most part, spares us the contrivance of antagonists, but instead buries us to our necks in schmaltz. At the end of the film, I wondered what Reiner had really done to make this delayed love story any different than a dozen other romantic comedies that have been borne into this world since his When Harry Met Sally. There are still a handful of lame site gags, mishaps we see coming a mile away, confrontations between generations that seem like they're right out of a parenting handbook. And aside from a nifty late-'50s/early-'60s soundtrack, nothing about this film felt authentic. I liked it better than Reiner's last flaccid attempt at age-specific nobility, The Bucket List; but that's all I got. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

The focal point and real discovery of this exceptionally thorough documentary about the late Jean-Michel Basquiat is a lengthy and intimate interview conducted informally with the artist by the film's director Tamra Davis (a legendary music video director whose feature work includes CB4, Billy Madison, Half Baked, and the Britney Spears film, Crossroads). The two were friends in the 1980s, and the footage stands out in a sea of other interviews shot in the years leading up to his death in 1988, in which Basquiat is clearly annoyed, uncomfortable, bored, or fried from drugs.

I've seen dozens of documentaries about individual artists and art movements over the centuries, and I find them frustrating at times because many can cover the dates and key players, but few can really get inside the head of the artist and show us a bit of what he or she is borrowing from, inventing, or being inspired by. But The Radiant Child does all of these things without getting lost in hyperbole or post-death glorification of Basquiat, who was clearly an artist who wanted to be famous before his death, much like his hero (and later mentor) Andy Warhol.

Although Davis has assembled a fantastic array of experts and friends (Julian Schnabel, Fab Five Freddy, and Suzanne Mallouk among them) to talk about Basquiat's work and influence, it's the footage of Jean-Michel--not just hers, but other bits of archival film--that tells the most complete story. He was treated poorly by other artists at first because of his race, his age, his style, and his refusal to play the art-world game the way he was being prompted to. It's remarkable to watch this shy, quiet young man burst into emotional upheaval at times and respond with dramatic and powerful work. Davis also does a great job of capturing the downtown art/music/party scene of the time and Basquiat's embracing and rejection of it.

Despite Davis' own great visual artistry, she keeps Basquiat's story simple, mostly linear, and does a great job of giving us examples of his various moods--from funny and joking to deep in work, where he seemed to like company and observers. The Radiant Child reveals a part of Basquiat's creative path, incorporating the minimalist visual arts along with music and black culture. Rightfully so, he's a figure whose impact continues to this day, and this film makes a clear case why. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Lebanon

The plot of the Israeli film Lebanon is so simple it almost doesn't exist. Writer-director Samuel Maoz wanted to recreate his experiences during the First Lebanon War (which began in June 1982). What it appears he has done is dropped a camera into a cramped, junky tank with four soldiers and refused to let any of them come out. The experience is jarring, loud, dangerous, and would tear apart the mind of even the strongest-willed individual. The only views we get of the world outside are from the gun sight with crosshairs, so everything and everybody we see seems like a potential target.

This single tank, which we only see once from the outside, is given a series of seemingly simple and reasonable safe missions, including one to accompany a handful of ground troops into a bombed-out hostile town. Naturally, things aren't as safe as they are supposed to be, and the team is asked to endure more than most young men will ever be asked to. The stress leads to bickering, meltdowns, and more pee breaks than you will ever see in one movie. At various points during the film, the crew gets visitors, including commanders, allies who may be villains, corpses, and a Lebanese prisoner of war. Maoz portrays the conditions inside the tank so authentically that it's easy to feel the heat, smell the stench, and imagine the pressure and anxiety floating in the air.

The film's final scene when the tank must essentially make a break for it with almost no visual guidance is intense, almost overwhelming the senses. At one point, the tank comes under fire and takes a direct hit, only to have its food supply (bite-size soup croutons) and oil splattered throughout the interior, caking every square inch of the confines with a gooey, lumpy layer. It's a magnificent visual, and somehow the team goes on. Lebanon ranks right up there with great claustrophobic war films like Das Boot (the most obvious comparison), but it also reminded me a bit of more recent spacially challenged works like The Vanishing, The Descent, Panic Room, and the upcoming Buried. There is something about tight spaces that makes us all breathe a little faster and sweat a little harder. And when the hatch is opened and someone finally does emerge at the end, you'll take a deep gasp of air. Trust me. This is a tremendous film that has nothing to do with sides (although the portrayal of the Israeli Army is fairly damning at times) or politics; it's about the hell on earth known as war. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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