The Past Week in Theaters: “The Rite,” “The Company Men,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Biutiful,” and “The Mechanic”

Colin O'Donoghue and Anthony Hopkins discuss the finer points of demon possession in "The Rite"

Director Mikael Håfström makes an attempt at a more thoughtful kind of exorcism movie, the story still reduces down to the standard possession goofiness we’ve been seeing since Linda Blair threw Max von Sydow out a window. Let’s face it, a line like “We cynics are always searching for the truth, but the question is, what on earth would we do if we found it?” sounds deep, but it’s only something someone who isn’t a skeptic or an atheist could have written. Speaking as an atheist myself, I’ll tell you exactly what I would do if I found proof that God existed: I’d get my ass into confession tomorrow morning. The movie treats skepticism like the pursuit of the disaffected troublemaker and the emotionally deficient snob stunted by reading too much Freud rather than a serious grappling with what we actually know and can know which has lead to little things like, you know, science.

Anthony Hopkins has a bit of fun as a priest who specializes in exorcisms, especially in the last part when he is possessed by a demon himself, and Colin O’Donoghue is fine in his big screen debut as a young priest battling with his lack of faith. The performances and good intentions are wasted on all the same stuff we’ve seen before: creepy voices, discordant music, supernatural strength, etc. But The Rite also suffers from another problem all exorcism movies suffer: the viewer must accept Catholic sensibilities and mythologies for the story to work. Now I can accept all kinds of craziness in a fictional world: magic, ghosts, vampires, and, yes, even demons and demon possession. But none of these worlds wrap themselves in the ideology of a specific religion. I always wonder how Muslims or Jews feel watching the power of Christ compelling a demon. Does it undercut the movie’s credibility? If producers of a exorcism movie decided to turn it into a story of a rabbi or imam battling a demon I would venture to guess that many people wouldn’t be as accepting of the religious overtones. (Rating **)

Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck in "The Company Men"

Next up is the Great Recession movie The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Craig T. Nelson, and Kevin Costner. It is the story of a several employees of a major corporation as they get laid off so the CEO (Nelson) can maximize profits. Affleck is good as Bobby Walker, the young, but not young enough sales exec thrown into the unfamiliar world of unemployment, previously the exclusive domain of the chronically lazy or stupid. The movie does a good job of depicting his long search for a job and feelings of inadequacy and unmanliness. The pain and resentment caused by the impersonal vicissitudes of the economy feels real, though the story doesn’t always hold together. Tommy Lee Jones’ deteriorating marriage and his affair with Maria Bello is hollow and Chris Cooper’s sycophantic yes-man is one-dimensional. And, yes, the end is too easy. But if the movie had focused on the plight of one man, Affleck’s Bobby Walker and his family, this could have been a movie that really resonated. (Rating ***1/2)

Oscar nominated Jacki Weaver with two of her "boys" in Australia's "Animal Kingdom"

Animal Kingdom is far from new; it has been making the rounds at the Laemmle Theaters here in Los Angeles for what seems like months. It finally made it to the Sunset Laemmle which is within walking distance so I couldn’t put off seeing it because I had to drive to Encino or Beverly Hills (which may be close but can still be a pain during rush hour). It still turned out to be something of a disappointment. The story is weighted down by the “point” director David Michod wanted to make. More good movies have been ruined by directors trying too hard to deliver a message. Characters are forced to emotionally contort themselves to do things they wouldn’t do to get to the end the director wants.

Furthermore, why is it interesting to watch a bunch of idiots be stupid? Why not introduce one character with a brain and some courage? That would have changed the dynamic of the entire picture and given someone for us to relate to. James Frecheville does a good job in the lead as the quiet Joshua, thrown into his morally bankrupt extended family after his mother dies. His character, though, is so passive he may as well have been sitting in the audience. He doesn’t actually do anything until the very end, but what he does is so unbelievable we feel the hand of the writer and director making their dreaded point. Jacki Weaver also gives a very good performance as the jovially menacing matriarch of her small time crime family, but I have been hearing so much praise about it (and now she has an Oscar nomination), that I was expecting more. I don’t mean to run her down. She’s good, but she has so few scenes that I was disappointed. She only has two really good scenes, though I know Oscars have been earned with less, like Beatrice Striaght’s amazing one scene in Network. (Rating **1/2)

Javier Bardem tries to get his life together in "Biutiful"

Biutiful has been getting mixed reviews, but it is a surprisingly thoughtful and sad movie. I say surprisingly because director Alejandro González Iñárritu has in the past sacrificed story to his message, like Animal Kingdom above. This was most evident in the alternately sublime and ludicrous Babel. Because Iñárritu is dealing with some of the same issues like globalization and immigration, I think some reviewers stopped paying attention and missed how much better this movie is to some of his past work. Javier Bardem delivers a hauntingly realistic performance as Uxbal, a Barcelona small time hood who has just learned he’s dying of cancer and only has a few months to live. With the few weeks left, Uxbal scrambles to get together enough money to support his two children whose manic-depressive mother Marambra (in a fantastic performance by Maricel Álvarez) is unfit to raise them. Uxbal earns most of his money from the exploitation of immigrant workers: Chinese sweatshop workers and Senegalese vendors selling bootleg movies and counterfeit name brand handbags. Several characters and their stories intersect, but Iñárritu learned his lesson after the goofiness of Babel. The story focuses squarely on Uxbal and the others are side stories (though the gay affair between the Chinese men who run the sweatshop felt tacked on and remained undeveloped). Iñárritu manages to tell a quiet and poignant story without becoming a slave to his message. David Schleicher has a great review of the movie over at the Schleicher Spin. (Rating ****)

Jason Statham kicks ass as always in "The Mechanic"

I slipped into The Mechanic after seeing some good reviews. This remake of the Charles Bronson film of the same name stars Jason Statham as an assassin out for revenge is fine without being really good. Statham, as always, has a strong screen presence and he does a good job of whispering his lines with his signature raspiness as he goes after the men who tricked him into killing his mentor (Donald Sutherland) along with the murdered man’s son (Ben Foster), who, not incidentally, doesn’t know his partner murdered his father. Aside from some well staged action scenes there isn’t much else the movie has to offer. I suppose action movies don’t have to deliver much more, but it’s always nice to get a tightly constructed plot and three dimensional characters. We don’t find those things here, but the movie will work for a late Netflix movie night. (Rating ***)

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11 responses to “The Past Week in Theaters: “The Rite,” “The Company Men,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Biutiful,” and “The Mechanic”

  1. Loved reading these quick reviews (and what you’d do if you found proof of God). Biutiful sounds like one I might want to watch.

    • My words would be: “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned — have you got a bit? We’re gonna be here a while.”

      I’m not sure how you would react to “Biutiful.” My gut says you would appreciate it though.

  2. Jason – you are nearly as prolific as Sam Juliano in your weekly movie-going!

    I am so sick of exorcism movies; I don’t know how you made it through The Rite. They are just not scary…but like you, I’m an atheist, so maybe believers find some true fear in the stories.

    Thanks for the shout-out for my review of Biutiful – can’t get that film out of my mind!

    As for Animal Kingdom, you are one of the few who agrees with me when I say how disappointing it was. I think I was a bit kinder to it in my initial review than you…but looking back, I agree with all of your points. I did really like Jacki Weaver, though, yet you are right when you say she never really had that big “Moment” that the role naturally engendered. The film was very technically sound, though…and I enjoyed some of the directorial choices. Bottom line, these morons were no criminal masterminds and not very interesting. It should be about story and substance, not style.

    • Oh, David, I can’t claim Sam’s super-human movie-going stamina. I’m still getting over his going to nine movies in two days! This was a particularly busy week for me, doing two days of multiple movies. And since I used to write something similar every week over at Wonders in the Dark, I figured why not talk about them here. That is part of the point of this blog after all.

      As for exorcism movies — they always feel a little silly to me, even the original Freidkin movie. Oddly I think a really good version of the movie is “The Exorcist III.” It’s creepy and disturbing and has some great interaction between George C. Scott and the guy who plays the priest (I can’t think of his name). The scene in the hospital hallway gives me the chills every time I see it. It also has what most exorcism movies don’t have: a point to all the possession. There’s actually a plan, not vague plans to make people feel bad. Unfortunately it cops out at the end, but a lot of what comes before it is really good.

      “Animal Kingdom” was frustrating to sit through. You are absolutely right when you say they were “morons” and “not very interesting.” I wish we had spent more time with Jacki Weaver’s character and James Frecheville’s character had grown some brains somewhere along the way. It would have made for a much better movie going experience.

      And it’s easy to shout-out your review of “Biutiful.” It was incredibly well-written and it doesn’t hurt that I agree with everything you say.

  3. What’s this about Superman? And what’s this about a great review of BIUTIFUL over at The Schleicher Spin? I am at an internet cafe after watching YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE and YOU AND ME, just about 30 minutes before I must mosey back around the corner for FURY and BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, as the Fritz Lang in Hollywood Festival ends tonight. Well, Jason, you have been as voracious as anyone these days, and have combined current movie going with the relentless persuit of classics for your great project.

    While I must say I liked BABEL quite a bit more than you did, I do concur with the solid assessment of the downbeat BIUTIFUL, a film of visceral power and the inexorable presence of fate, the latter of which received it’s ultimate transcription in the Lang masterpiece. I will have to check out David’s review ASAP. I pretty much agree with what you say about the good but not great THE COMPANY MEN (it did chronicle the job search quite compellingly) I’ve avoided THE RITE to this point, though you haven’t said anything to alter than reticence, and as far as ANIMAL KINGDOM, you nailed it in my view.

    • No, Sam, don’t worry. I am not dethroning your Superman status. You are still the champ when it comes to movie viewings. And yes, do check out David’s review. It is very good.

      It seems we are pretty much in agreement this week, which I think tends to be the case anyway. Our disagreements are rarer than we let on. And since that is the case I can say you may as well avoid “The Rite.” I don’t think you’ll get much out of it.

      I’m still jealous about the Lang in Hollywood series. I’ve never had a chance to see “You and Me” or “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.” Of course I really like “Fury.” Spencer Tracy is great in that, but I have to say I didn’t much care for much about “You Only Live Once” with the exception of Sylvia Sidney’s great performance.

      • Jason: I am leaving the house now to see a highly-praised film called POETRY, but I will be back to MOVIES OVER MATTER in the morning to place comprehensive comments under your 1938 supporting performances. It appears you’ve done great work there!

        The Lang and Vlacil festivals are over, and now I can relax at least to pace myself rationally. Well, if we are to have that rare disagreement, it is with YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, which for me yields far more than Sydney’s performance. This is probably Lang’s greatest American film, an atmospheric and brilliant work that stands as one of the American cinema’s treasures. This is also that rare instance where Allan Fish and I are in complete accord, Allan following David Thomson and Pauline Kael, in calling it Lang’s greatest film in America and one of the greatest films of the 1930’s. I found the fatalistic mood and predestination brilliant conveyed in German expressionism and a dark and rainy landscape, orchestrated by lang and Leon Shamroy. This is Lang’s most extraordinary examination of the failure of the criminal justice system, and the director’s sympathies are rightly and movingly on the side of the couple on the lam–Fonda is as superlative as Sydney.

  4. Needless to say, I greatly respect your opinion on any film, and my coming on strong here is out of enthusiasm, not of bullying (which can easily be interpreted from my use of the names of critics).

    • Sam I never interpreted your comments as anything other than enthusiasm. It never occurred to me to think you were being overly aggressive or bullying! You don’t need to pull any punches with me. I’m a big boy with thick skin and I know that just because you and Allan and David Thompson and Pauline Kael all agree, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. It simply means you all are completely delusional. Haha! Kidding of course.

      In all seriousness, I watched “You Only Live Once” not too long ago and didn’t love it, but I’m willing to give it another go, though I should wait some time. It won’t surprise me if my opinion doesn’t change. I mean how many people have been on me (including you) about my dislike of “Top Hat” or “A Star Is Born.” As the Mythical Monkey says, there are no wrong answers, only movies you’ve never seen before.

  5. Nicholas

    Sorry, but on your review or The Rite, I know its not really that good to structure an arguement based on Science of a film review, but I mean c’mon. If you seriously look at the film as just a guy becoming an Exorcist, you kinda have it all wrong. It is mainly about self discovery. – But i’m only here to comment on a point of view on christanity that EVERYONE seems to overlook. The general arguement of an Atheist, is Science, oooh look a theory of evolution, also the big bang blahhhh… Read up on the big bang, read up on the theory of evolution. Yes they all have creditable sources which are believed to be true the simple eye. Just want to say, The Big Bang, Wouldn’t of happened if it wasn’t for the specific milimetres that the big bang happened to take place, coincedence, I think not… And how the mass of the Earth, is just enough to rotate around the sun, in a particular aura which is neither not too hot, or not too cold for life to survive… An Atheist, will continue to say all these are Scientific reasons, and there’s a scientific solution behind everything. Science, is formed up by the word “Chance”, like the discovery of Penicillin was purely done by Chance, as Flemming happened to leave the petri dish next to the open window, where the right type of bateria with the right properties just happened to land in the dish? Did it ever occur to any Aethist that it all happened to be a bit “Chancey” for it all to happen to a specific calculations?… However I do not believe in God, it just generally annoys me when people fail to accept even the most outrageous reasons behind religion, as its all belief, and People believe anything could happen… Christanity is the only popular religion to be associated with Demons as Demoins orignated from Hell which is from Chirstanity. (Or a personal belief if you wanna be stupid about it.). – Basically I just want to say its wrong to get a personal view in front of an opinion on a film, as I believed it to be a good film. 😛 That is all.

    • I’m not sure if you disagree with my assessment of the movie or my atheism. A debate about whether or not there is a god falls outside the parameters of what this site is about, but I will say that just because things happen by chance or exist because of very specific and complicated circumstances doesn’t mean a supreme being must have made it happen.

      But about the movie. I believe I was saying the weakness of this movie (and most exorcism movies) is that they all anchor their mythologies in Catholicism. Even if it’s true that Christianity is the only popular religion to be associated with demons (which I’m not sure it is), that doesn’t mean Hollywood couldn’t adapt that to their own needs. They aren’t exactly known for fidelity to little things like logic, reason, history, or facts. Another recent demon movie, Drag Me to Hell (which I also didn’t care for), didn’t fall into this same trap. It kept everything firmly in the secular world, dipping into the occult when necessary. Priests don’t save the day. In the end it’s up to that dopey girl to do it. I found that much more effective even if the mythology was just as corny.

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