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Column Fri Jan 28 2011

The Mechanic, The Rite & Nora's Will

The Mechanic

Some people refer to the Coen Brothers' True Grit as a remake, which isn't entirely wrong, but it's far from entirely correct. If you would like to do a side-by-side comparison of a film and its exceedingly faithful remake, you need look no further than Simon (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the pilot of "The Cape") West's remake of the Michael (Death Wish I, II & III) Winner directed, Charles Bronson-starring actioner about an stoic professional killer who takes a young man (in the original, it was Jan-Michael Vincent) as his protege after killing the young man's father. Other than West's slicker directing style and some newer, cooler weapons, there is very little different in the details of this remake, starring Jason Statham and Ben Foster as the killer/killer-in-training combo.

Statham's Arthur Bishop is a man of few words and even fewer personal connections. One of his only friendships is with Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), the man who usually gives him his killing assignments and the occasional bit of advice. But when Harry's boss Dean (Tony Goldwyn, playing the villain a little too much by the book) tells Bishop to take out Harry, Bishop does so begrudgingly. Primarily out of guilt, Bishop befriends Harry's son Steve, who's aware of what his dad and Bishop did and wants to learn the tricks of the trade. Bishop tries to teach him to be stealthy and quick, but Steve has a lust for loud, messy and bloody. Foster excels in these kind of roles, where he gets to play a character who can be quiet and charming, then suddenly launch into a complete fucking maniac.

His complete counterweight, Statham, isn't trying to engage in a tough-guy contest with Foster. Bishop is meant to be emotionless, collected and professional. While Statham pretty much can't help being a supreme badass, what you see in his eyes in The Mechanic is thought and consideration, not anger. He doesn't possess bloodlust the way Steve does. Killing is his job and nothing more. Once Bishop realizes that Harry was killed for no good reason, he sets out to murder those responsible, which of course makes Bishop their next target. Thank goodness Steve is a fast learner with a mean streak.

There aren't too many surprises in The Mechanic. Even if you've never seen the original, you know that eventually Steve is going to find out that Bishop offed his father; the only question remains how long is he going to wait to try and get revenge. But before that, Statham and Foster have believable chemistry that goes beyond the usual older teacher-young sidekick banter, and gets into a surface level of still-satisfying character development. This shallow-end depth might be more a result of good acting than anything on the written page, but it still comes through. Still, the payoff is spectacular, and the movie's mix of wholly original kills, fight sequences, and fun double-crosses makes this 90 minutes Stathamazing.

The Rite

I honestly believed this one had an outside chance of getting it right. I'll admit, most of my hopes were pinned on a combination of director Mikael Hafstrom (1408) and my earnest believe that star Anthony Hopkins still has one great genre film in him. And for the first hour of the exorcism drama The Rite, I thought we were going to make it. Leading off with the groan-worthy "Inspired by true events" title card, the film actually begins promisingly, with the story of Michael Kovak (newcomer Colin O'Donoghue), the son of an funeral parlor operator (Rutger Hauer). Michael works alongside his father until he decides he needs to escape now or never get out of this oppressive environment.

He enters seminary school, and when he's just on the brink of dropping out after four years and not taking his vows, a kindly priest Father Matthew (Toby Jones) suggests that Michael's wavering faith and strength in the face of death (he is forced to give the last rights to a dying woman after a car accident) make him the perfect candidate to travel to Rome and take the Vatican's newly created exorcism training. It sounds silly, but this actually exists. And lickety split, Michael is in Rome taking classes from Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds) and alongside a doubting journalist named Angeline (Alice Braga), who is writing a story about the new school.

Michael doesn't see the value of these classes since he is convinced that the devil doesn't exist and most people who seem to be possessed are simply mentally disturbed. Father Xavier then sends Michael to a renegade exorcist named Father Lucas (Hopkins), a funny Welshman who has the best understanding of how the devil and his demons work, manipulate, lie and corrupt. But he has a kind of down-home charm that is off-putting and deceptive in its own way. Michael is understandably not impressed until a pregnant 16-year-old and her aunt arrive and Father Lucas begins to work his ways, which includes taking a cell phone call in the middle of the exorcism. To him an exorcism is a months-long, or even years-long process that must culminate with the demon revealing his name so he may be removed once and for all.

What's interesting about The Rite is that the information it gives is right in line with what we learn about exorcisms from The Last Exorcism. But this film is shown from the opposite end of the exorcism spectrum. But I found The Last Exorcism far more compelling, both as a horror film and an investigation of the human mind and spiritual fortitude. The Rite starts out that way, especially when it asks the question, "Can a non-believer still be a good exorcist?" But there's a definite moment in The Rite where the tide turns, and the movie goes from a truly gripping tale about the many ways we discover or retain faith to a derivative, third-rate scare movie.

I don't want to give away that moment, but it involves a death, the first in the film I believe. Because once that happens, Hopkins' character begins showing signs of possession, and the film gets a whole lot less interesting, if you can believe it. I did learn something new about Hopkins, however. Apparently, his Hannibal Lecter voice is, in fact, his go-to voice of menace. The Lecter voice pops up quite a bit in the last 30 minutes of the movie, but I don't think that was the intention. So, too, do special effects rear their ugly head, and, at the risk of sounding like broken record: special effects aren't scary.

At the beginning of this review, I called The Rite an exorcism drama, because at its best, that's what it is -- a story about those who practice exorcisms and the rituals that surround it. I find that material fascinating and well executed. In many ways, the attempts at horror get in the way of what is otherwise a strong narrative. I love the moment after Michael's first exposure to one of Father Lucas' exorcisms, when he give Hopkins a weird "Is that all?" look, and Lucas responds, "What were you expecting, spinning heads and pea soup?" OK, it's a cheap joke, but it drove home the point that this could have a been a strong work about boiling possession down to its essentials and showing it for what it is, which is a battle of wills as well as faith. In the end, The Rite let me down after such a promising start by resorting to the very parlor tricks that The Last Exorcism's Rev. Cotton Marcus resorts to with his marks. Here's hoping Hopkins' take on Odin in this summer's Thor redeems him somewhat.

Nora's Will

This clever little film from Mexican director Mariana Chenillo concerns a woman who exerts perhaps the most power she ever had over a man, her ex-husband, after she's dead. The film opens when the elderly Jose Kurtz (Fernando Lujan) goes into the locked apartment of Nora, who it turns out he used to be married to for 30 years. The two live in the same building, and it's immediately clear that Nora didn't die in her sleep but rather she killed herself on a very specific day, just before the Passover holiday. Although Jose has fallen out with his Jewish faith, Nora was devout and had arranged to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. She also had fully prepared a huge Passover dinner for her cleaning lady/cook to prepare for already-invited guests, even with her dead body in the bedroom.

Because of the holiday, Nora cannot be buried for five days (rather than the usual same-day burial of the faith), which gives her family and friends time to commune and force them to communicate. The plan seems flawless except for a stray photo that falls out of a box, giving Jose a reason to be frustrated and outright angry about the life he thought they had shared.

Nora's Will, done in a slightly different manner, might have come off as cutesy, as the mix of Mexican and Jewish cultures come together. But in this director's hands, it alternates between sweet, sad, and spiritually fortifying. Jose grows more and more angry as he realizes that Nora has staged this entire event, which clearly involves her hopes that her ex will get back in touch with his Jewish roots. This idea seems even more absurd when Nora's rabbi will only bury her body where the criminals are buried in the Jewish cemetery because of her suicide, and Jose becomes furious, even threatening to bury her in a Catholic plot.

The film does have its light-hearted moments, but nothing I would call comedy. As the number of visitors to the apartment increases, the age-old family quarrels kick in and tempers flare. But it's a controlled chaos, and in the end, we realize that Nora knew her family pretty well. Nora's Will is a delicate film with a strong core. I was especially taken with the performances and the telling of a story I can honestly say I've never seen before. It's a little gem of a picture, and it 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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