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 **)
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)
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)
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 ****)
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 ***)