The Last Exorcism Part II begins by questioning the nature of identity and how it relates to our past. Are we defined by the events that have scarred us? How much power do we have in changing our natures and, in turn, our fate? These are the questions that our incredibly bendy friend Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) is facing after she escapes from the events of the first film.
The Last Exorcism Part II picks up where the first left off, with clips that quickly illustrate the events of The Last Exorcism for those who are just tuning in. That first film was a documentary-style flick about a preacher named (Cotton Marcus) Patrick Fabian who brings along a camera crew to film his last ever exorcism, a ritual that the preacher no longer believes in until he meets Nell, her father Louis (Louis Herthum) and her brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones, once again playing the creepy ginger card). It's not clear whether Nell is exhibiting symptoms of a mental breakdown, perhaps the result of sexual trauma, or if she's actually possessed.
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What was successful about the first, an interesting take on the tired exorcism trope, was that it was really an examination of faith. It wasn't particularly important whether or not Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) was actuallypossessed, just that it caused Cotton to rethink his faith. A similar ambiguity, this time about identity and self-actualization and even sexuality, is played with in the sequel until about two-thirds of the way through, when screenwriters Damien Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly throw any sort of mystery out the window and turn it into some freaky fake voodoo will-to-power nonsense.
After a brief stint at a New Orleans institution, where a nurse secretly snipped a chunk of Nell's hair for her gris-gris bag, Nell is hustled off to a halfway house for girls even though her grasp on reality is still a bit shaky. This house looks more like a really nice old house turned into a dorm, and the supposedly streetwise young girls are just PG-13 racy. With help from the guy who runs the halfway house — is he a therapist? A social worker? — Nell decides she's more than her past, more than a damaged girl who is controlled by the small-minded fears instilled in her by her father. She stops wearing her cross and starts hanging out with the other girls in the house; she even gets a job as a housekeeper at a hotel and begins an awkward romance. The demon inside her — call it Abalam or PTSD or a psychosexual freakout — begins to play tricks on her again. Is she crazy? Is there a cult after her? Is Abalam on the loose? What is the devil inside her? Although it lingers a little too long on the build-up, this is the most enjoyable part of the movie. Bell is interesting to watch, beyond her ability to contort her body, and it's sweet to see Nell bloom. She's equally talented at portraying someone who's losing her grip.
Chazelle and Gass-Donnelly, who also directed, try a mishmash of answers that take us through a meeting with the aforementioned nurse, Cecile (Tarra Riggs), and other followers of what Cecile calls "The Right Hand Path." What happens is a sort of grab bag of religious and occult symbols, from voodoo veves and other magical symbols that are painted on walls (and catch fire!) to mysterious talk of some sort of end-of-days stuff. They even name-check Baron Samedi. That's cool and all, but it doesn't make a lot of sense in context except as a parallel to the Christian rituals in the first film. It looks like the screenwriters did some research, but the bulk of it seems to have come from movies like The Believers and the New Age section of their local bookstore, and it only serves to exoticize these belief systems. That's a nitpicky detail compared to the bigger issue, which is that the audience is bludgeoned with daft answers to Nell's problem. They do raise some interesting questions about identity, destiny and perhaps religion itself that are impossible to discuss without giving away the ending. Still, it's unwieldy at best.
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One small bone we're thrown is that Gass-Donnelly doesn't use the same shaky-cam technique that Daniel Stamm favored in the first film. Although it worked to the movie's favor, it can be rough for those prone to motion sickness. It should also be noted that Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly weren't involved in the first movie; screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland didn't return for sequel duty. It will be interesting to see who turns up for the third Last Exorcism. The third? Sure, it hasn't been announced yet, but it would take an act of God (or perhaps Abalam) to put an end to this story.
[Photo Credit: CBS Films]
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Radio is the kind of movie some critics might call the "feel-good movie of the year " and it would be a fair assessment. When Coach Jones asks the mentally disabled Radio to help him coach the high school football team he brings him into the small community of Anderson S.C. and most--although not all--folks embrace him. That lets the audience "feel good" about how considerate kind and compassionate we all have the potential to be--and it doesn't just feel good it feels great. Until that is the jerk in the back row of the theater refuses to either answer or turn off his cell phone which has been playing "Turkey in the Straw" at high volume for five minutes and we are sorely tempted to run back there and drop-kick him through the screen. Now that would feel good. But both the audience and the cast have much to learn from the good-hearted Radio about kindness to one's enemies. Given his fixation with radios of all kinds he would probably hug the cell phone owner and take great joy in his obnoxious gadget. And as in life so goes the film. Even though some folks don't cotton to the idea of a handicapped adult black male hanging around a high school (yes his race is relevant to the film--this is South Carolina in 1976 after all) Radio's good-hearted nature eventually overcomes most of their objections.
Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. is back in form in Radio--at long last. He creates a charming likeable character and if it seems at times that he's overplaying Radio to get laughs well at least it lightens things up. In any case his timing--comic or otherwise--is impeccable and he keeps the scenes lively and the pacing up. Four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris is solid as the admirable Coach Jones; his performance grounds the movie and his levelheaded non-emotive style keeps the cast overall from sinking into melodrama--a definite risk in a movie like this. Equally good are supporting players: Alfre Woodard as the high school principal S. Epatha Merkerson as Radio's mother and Debra Winger as Coach Jones' wife.
It's rare to find a story about a mentally challenged individual that can move you without leaving you feeling emotionally manipulated but Radio is so infused with genuine feeling--both in Michael Rich's script and in the performances--that it for the most part escapes this typical "true story" trap. Sure it's a little sappy but director Mike Tollin can be credited with keeping a tight reign on the scenes and the transitions between them so the film rarely gets too heavy despite its subject matter--and when it does Tollin quickly returns to less weighty material. That's not to say the movie isn't meaningful only that it doesn't dwell on its own meaningfulness--a welcome relief after other films of this ilk that do.
Besides the elbow-rubbing and power mongering, let's not forget that the Sundance Film Festival is also about the films.
With that in mind, the annual indie film fest announced today its partial list of films for the 2001 powwow.
The lineup for three categories -- dramas, documentaries and the American Spectrum -- have thus far been announced, and other areas such as premiere, international films and short films will be announced Wednesday.
Films at the festival only compete in the dramatic and documentary categories. Top films coming out of Sundance in previous years include Ed Burns' "The Brothers McMullen" and last year's "Girlfight" from director Karyn Kusama.
The Sundance Film Festival takes place Jan. 18-28 in Park City, Utah.
In the meantime, here's the complete list of Sundance films in competition and in the American Spectrum.
"30 Years to Life," directed by Vanessa Middleton "American Astronaut," directed by Cory McAbee "The Believer," directed by Henry Bean "The Business of Strangers," directed by Patrick Stettner "The Deep End," directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel "Donnie Darko," directed by Richard Kelly "Green Dragon," directed by Timothy Linh Bui "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," directed by John Cameron Mitchell "In the Bedroom," directed by Todd Field "L.I.E.," directed by Michael Cuesta "Lift," directed by DeMane Davis & Khari Streeter "MacArthur Park," directed by Billy Wirth "Memento," directed by Christopher Nolan "Scotland, PA," directed by Billy Morrissette "The Sleepy Time Gal," directed by Christopher Munch "Some Body," directed by Henry Barrial
"Chain Camera," directed by Kirby Dick "Children Underground," directed by Edet Belzberg "Dogtown and the Z-Boys," directed by Stacy Peralta "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic," directed by George Butler "Go Tigers!" directed by Kenneth A. Carlson "Home Movie," directed by Chris Smith "Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton," directed by Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickson with "Albert Maysles Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind," directed by Stanley Nelson "The Natural History of the Chicken," directed by Mark Lewis "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey," directed by William Greaves "Scout's Honor," directed by Tom Shepard "Scratch," directed by Doug Pray "Southern Comfort," directed by Kate Davis "Startup.com," directed by Chris Hegedus & Jehane Noujaim "Trembling Before G-D," directed by Sandi Simcha Dubowski "An Unfinished Symphony," directed by Bestor Cram & Mike Majoro
"Acts of Worship," directed by Rosemary Rodriguez "After Image," directed by Robert Manganelli "Dancing in September," directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood "Diary of a City Priest," directed by Eugene Martin "The Doe Boy," directed by Randy Redroad "Haiku Tunnel," directed by Jacob Kornbluth & Josh Kornbluth "Invisible Revolution," directed by Beverly Peterson "Jump Tomorrow," directed by Joel Hopkins "Manic," directed by Jordan Melamed "Margarita Happy Hour," directed by Ilya Chaiken "Miss Wonton," directed by Meng Ong "Raw Deal: A Question of Consent," directed by Billy Corben "Roof to Roof," directed by Ara Corbett "Women in Film," directed by Bruce Wagner "Tape," directed by Richard Linklater "Wet Hot American Summer," directed by David Wain.
Robert "Benjamin" Dickerson longtime figure on Atlanta's underground music scene blended punk rock country and blues as frontman for Smoke and other bands. Filmmakers Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen chronicle the last nine years of his life from Smoke's emotionally charged performances and his work with idol Patti Smith to his 1999 death from AIDS.
Benjamin quietly commands attention in a series of intimate poignant and remarkably open interviews discussing his childhood as a country boy in drag his punk-rock beginnings life as a self-confessed speed freak and his thoughts on death and dying. Through it all a quirky ironic sense of humor shows through ("I just love cops at shows"). In candid shots he serves as a window into the underground music scene and as an observer of life in the shadow of Cabbagetown's long-shuttered cotton mills where "little kids ... go to jail really young whose parents all do inhalants."
The movie opens with a beautifully composed black and white montage set to Benjamin's distinctly Southern rasp. The rest of the 80-minute docupic delivers on the sensory expectations that the opening sets up interleaving interviews candid moments and environmental shots to develop an intimate portrait of the subject. However it is a portrait so alluring that one leaves with only the vaguest sense of the events and chronology behind the film.