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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Rite and Nora’s Will

The Rite (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Mikael Hafstrom, 2011

Exorcism movies are intended to scare the hell out of you, and The Rite is a classy, but forgettable example. Purporting to tell us a true story, about the devilish experiences of a Chicago priestly novitiate — the not-that-sure-of-his-vocation Michael Kovack (Colin O’Donoghue), who is temporarily assigned to the Vatican for a hands-on exorcism course with experts (including Anthony Hopkins as demon-raiser Father Lucas Trevant) — the movie holds your interest, without especially rewarding it.

This arty hellish show casts off its devils with style and grace, but not that much conviction or point. Like an accordion player doing 20 variations on “Lady of Spain,” The Rite does its job fairly well, without demonstrating why the job was worth doing in the first place — without summoning up any real sense of evil, to go with its sense of sub-Exorcist shock and awe,.

I didn’t dislike The Rite. Almost everything about the movie, directed by Swedish expatriate Mikael Hafstrom (who also made the fairly good thrillers 1408 and Derailed) is fairly well-done too. The scenes are intelligently written, if outlandish and somewhat over-familiar, and the cast — including Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and Alice Braga as well as Hopkins and newcomer O’Donoghue — is much better than the horror movie norm. You can see why Hopkins is a great actor, and to a lesseer extent why Toby Jones can be as well, without being drawn into The Rite’s game.

Writer Michel Petroni’s plot, supposedly based on Matt Biglio’s book and some real life possessions, pits Kovack’s youthful skepticism about all-things-devilish against the savviness of his sadder but wiser elders: Jones as chatty, tired-looking Father Matthew of Chicago (looking like Truman Capote after taking his vows), Ciaran Hinds as smug Father Xavier, our man at the Vatican, and Hopkins as the sad-eyed, underworld-weary Father Lucas. Kovack listens and watches closely as Father Lucas labors over a very pregnant demon-ridden victim named Rosaria (Maria Castini), and later as all hell, of course, breaks loose.

But the movie didn’t really convince me that anything here could actually happen, even in a horror movie, and it isn’t witty or inventive enough to be much fun. Watching it is often like sitting down with an affable, eloquent companion (played by Anthony Hopkins) who pours some wine, lights a good cigar and says: “Look, I know you‘re going to be skeptical about this, and you’re probably going to tell me I’ve been watching too many movies. (What was the last one? The Last Exorcism?) And you’re probably right to be cautious, right to question, hell I question it myself. But I want to tell you a true story that actually happened to a real priest candidate — from right here in Chicago. A man who lives very near here today, in the suburbs. We could drive out and see him, if you like. The priest I mean.“

“Now, I want you to keep an open mind while you hear this — even when Rutger Hauer shows up as an all-American dad and when Alice Braga (Sonia’s niece, you know) arrives as a pretty Vatican reporter and the rooms boil and the walls clang and hellfire rages and poor pregnant Rosaria starts screaming and swearing and acting like Linda Blair — and when you actually see me, Tony Hopkins, grinning like a hungry bansheee and possessed by Beezlebub or Baal or Billy Bob or whomever.”

Pause. Puff. Sip some wine.

“What was it Hamlet said to that chap Horatio? ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy?’ Something like that. Damned straight. And that goes for hell as well — if there is a hell, and there probably is, and lots of Beezelebubs and Billy Bobs skittering around it as well, thank you. And a hell of a Hollywood, for that matter.

“Have some Madeira? M’Dear? The devil exists you know, he really does.” Faintest of smiles. “You don’t believe me? Really? Well, that’s your privilege. They laughed when Billy Friedkin sat down at the Organ too. They learned, they learned. How about a little Toccatta and D action?”

So this is what the movie gives us: the same old malarkey, with class. (And listen, if I was intolerant of malarkey, I wouldn’t be a movie critic.) If you’re susceptible, you’ll probably enjoy The Rite or at least you’ll enjoy the parts with Hopkins and Jones. If you’re not, you may get restless — even if your head doesn’t actually start to swivel and spit green and spew profanity.

Hafstrom’s movie certainly has atmosphere: A kind of fancy pall settles down along with Ben Davis’ arty cinematography in Chicago, and rarely leaves the screen until the Hellzapoppin payoff scenes in Rome. And there’s an interesting contrast. Michael, the somewhat skeptic, the somewhat doubter, is played by a lesser known actor, O’Donoghue who’s a bit of a blank slate, but looks and acts vulnerable, possessable, maybe even slightly crazy. (It’s a role maybe for the young Tony Perkins.) The pro-exorcism team, especially Fathers Lucas and Matthew, tend to look and act like realists: urbane, quietly sophisticated, slyly literate.

That almost sets up the plausibility the movie never achieves — not least, because, as always in exorcism films, its hard to figure why these devils fasten on these victims, and then spend so much time messing with them and doing these mad demon acts and lame ventriloquist routines. Don’t they have better, more evil things to do? How many Baals are there anyway?

Malarkey and underworld-weariness aside, the movie, for all its sub-Mephistophelean style, sometimes leaves you feeling suckered: like an apprentice exorcist who winds up with swivel-marks on his neck, pea soup stains on his vestments, and a mocking toodle-oo from the Devil.
Isn’t the rest of the world going to hell as well? How about a little Toccato and D action? By the way another Swedish filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, once wrote and directed a 1969 TV movie also called The Rite. It was Strindbergian, Kafkaesque. It was also a hell of a lot better than this movie.

Nora’s Will (Three and a Half Stars)
Mexico: Mariana Chenillo, 2008

Let me tell you about death. It’s sneaky, heart-shattering, awful, a cruel, cruel kick in the guts. Death sucks out all the air, sends the shadows down, turns the world into a pile of dirty snow and ashes. You think you’re ready for it, but you never are. You never will be, unless you just just didn’t care, unless nothing really matters to you and you think life is some Goddamned joke. But time passes, the seasons turn, people change, and what can you do sometimes to hold back pain, and to stave off emptiness, but try to laugh?

Mexican filmmaker Mariana Chenillo’s first feature film Nora’s Will — which won seven Ariels (or Mexican Academy Awards), including best picture, at the 2010 ceremonies — is a comedy-drama about death and its aftermath, about the anguish and the jokes. (The movie’s original and better title is “Five Days Without Nora.”) It’s about an old ex-couple who married, divorced, but never really left each other. Decades later Jose and Nora Kurtz still live just across the street, in high-rises and rooms that are clearly visible to the rooms opposite by binoculars.

The long-time husband/ex-husband of this broken, unbreakable pair is a sour-faced upper-middle-class atheist named Jose Kurtz (played by Fernando Lujan, who won the “best actor” Ariel). One morning, Jose goes across the street to bring some frozen meat left by a grocer, and discovers his long-time Jewish wife, and then long-time divorced “ex,” Nora (played in youth by Marina de Tavira and in old age by Silvia Mariscal), has committed suicide (with pills) and left him detailed instructions and fixings in the fridge for an elaborate Passover feast for her friends and family (and even a lover) — all to be prepared by Jose and by Nora‘s longtime faithful and fiercely loving housekeeper, Fabiana (played by Angelina Pelaez, who won the best supporting actress Ariel.)

This is not something Jose wants to do. And he wants to even less when he accidentally finds on the floor an intimate picture of Angela’s secret lover, and Jose‘s friend, the frail-looking family doctor Alberto Nurko, played by Juan Carlos Colombo. Colombo won no Ariels — no loot for the wicked in this film or funeral — but Chenillo won two, for her witty script and for her immaculate direction.

From then on, Jose conducts, for the next five days without Nora, a kind of constant quiet war and subversive rebellion against the funeral, the seder, and his more pious or propriety-conscious relatives. He finds Nora a Christian funeral home, a gaffe canceled by his aghast family — though that opens up the thorny question of a Jewish cemetery that won’t put suicides in holy ground.

He offers a forbidden snack, a slice of sausage pizza, to the local rabbi, Rabbi Jacowitz (Max Kerlow), horrifying him and driving the good man away. He scrambles up the labels and instructions on Nora’s Passover feast refrigerator boxes. (No matter; Fabiana knows what to do.) He has a frown and a contrary word for almost everyone in the family and ensemble — his and Nora’s highly responsible son Ruben (Ari Brickman), and Ruben’s chic wife Barbara (Cecilia Suarez), their little children, nearly-blind Cousin Leah (Veronics Langer), and that damned little doctor.

Meanwhile, Nora lies on the apartment floor, wrapped up in blankets, watched over by Moises (Enrique Arreola), the watcher left by nosey Rabbi Jacowitz , and spied on by the kids. There is another rabbi, Kolatch, and you may recognize the very old actor who plays him. Years ago, when that actor, named Martin LaSalle, was young, he played, for the great French Catholic director Robert Bresson, the melancholy young thief Michel in Bresson’s great 1959 Dostoyevskian film noir Pickpocket.

No matter what, come hell, Jose or high water (or high shivah), Nora will be buried in five days. For Jose and the others, life without Nora has commenced, and no matter what mischief the ex-husband may now wreak, childishly (but humorously), his new, emptier existence has irrevocably begun. Nora’s fourteenth suicide attempt, all of them unforgettable to Jose, is successfully over. Gone is the subject of the lifelong love this man tried to disguise as distaste, duty or indifference.
It’s sad. But of course, it can be funny too. Chekhov, remember, thought his last plays were comedies.

Recently, movies about death and funerals have been fairly regularly played as comedies — the obvious examples are the two versions of Death at a Funeral — reversing and sometimes travestying that old John Fordian sentiment-laden Shall We Gather at the River reverence for gravesites and the beloved movie dead. I’m not happy with most of those pictures, which are at least partly aimed as satire at innumerable examples of falsely sentimental movie funerals and their automatic rains, bowed heads and mechanical prayers — and, in many ways, I don‘t find the new dark funeral farces or comedy scenes amusing.

But Nora’s Will is both more comic and more realistic than its phonier Hollywood counterparts. It’s not a travesty. Jose is a great, thoroughly convincing and thoroughly engaging comic character. He’s also — as wonderfully played by the famous Mexican TV actor Lujan — a half-pathetic figure, a man once madly in love who never got over it. With every glower, every pursed lip, every scornful glance, Lujan shows us the beating heart of the husband who could never leave.

Why did all those Ariels come to “Five Days Without Nora?” (For me, that’s the right title, and screw everything else.) Why should you see it? (And you should.) Well, Lujan and Paleaz and the other actors, of course. But also the gorgeous, perceptive variousness of this movie’s take on life and people. “Five Days Without Nora” has been so finely, humorously and perceptively written by Chenillo, and so beautifully shot in such perfect, crystal-clear images by cinematographer Alberto Anaya, that it can always nimbly balance us between the tragedy/pathos of Nora‘s passing, and the comic rebellion of Jose’s war — a war which may be his perverse denial of death‘s finality.

The film never slips, even if the photo of Dr. Nurko does. “Five Days without Nora” is an exquisite movie comedy-drama, and a moving and hilarious one, melancholy and joyous, impeccable and raffish, sad and witty. It’s a portrait of love and death, and love beyond death, that’s both subversive and, in the end — honestly, believably — a source of great solace. Rest in peace, Nora. Have some pizza, Jose. (In Spanish, with subtitles.) (Chicago, at the Music Box.)


Strongman (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Zachary Levy, 2009

Stanley Pleskun, a.k.a. “Stanless Steel,” is a Strongman. A gentle, affable, intense guy with a piercing gaze, who wears his black, graying hair in braids, he performs feats of incredible strength at shows and schools and in parking lots, mostly around his native New Jersey. Strongman, made over the past ten years by director-cinematographer Zachary Levy, is his story — and that of his girlfriend Barbara, a gray-haired, saftig, voluptuous gal who acts as his announcer/pitchwoman.

Stanless’ act is truly amazing. In one of the first stunts we see him perform, he lies under the front of a ten ton truck and lifts it off the ground (for a few seconds) with his legs. He lifts three people in the air, with a device strapped to one finger. He bends pennies with his fingers, a feat none of his fellow strongmen today can match. He has a repertoire of 50 or so feats of strength, and every one we see here is a jaw-dropper.

But the fame and marketing muscle of Stanless doesn’t match his strength on stage — though he‘s made a number of TV appearances, is a regular at events around New Jersey and, at one point here, travels overseas to a London Strongman TV show to gape at Big Ben and, before the TV cameras, to lift that threesome with his finger.

Yet despite decades of work, other, less talented, more gimmicky strongmen — and some gifted ones as well — make far more than he does.

Why? It’s no image problem. As the movie Strongman proves, Stanless holds the screen like gangbusters. He‘s an intriguing, likable guy, an eloquent, even poetic speaker, and a colorful character: a vegetarian who reads books, talks about spirituality and gobbles down cobs of corn as if they were fistfuls of popcorn.

But Stanless is pushing (or past) 50, and his window of opportunity for real fame and money is closing. He likes beer, has a temper. He has a drug addict brother and an elderly mother, confined to a wheelchair. He has a contentious relationship with Barbara’s sister, who would like him out of the house they all share. This last schism eventually reaches a crisis point, which is caught — like everything else — by Levy‘s eavesdropping mike and seemingly omnipresent camera.

Why isn’t Stanless more famous? Well, it’s not his act, not Stanless Steel himself. He’s one of the more engaging subjects in recent cinema verite documentary history. The system hasn’t worked for him, has not justly rewarded or even well-exploited him — and he hasn’t figured out how to make it all work to his advantage. One observer tells him he should get rid of his pigtails; another tells him he needs to self-market better. Stanless is a blue collar guy (a scrap metal carrier by day) who hasn’t found a whiter collar champion — except, in a way for director Levy.

Strongman is a brilliant non-fiction film about the ironies and kinks in the American Dream — and a moving chronicle of the perseverance of dreams and dreamers. While most of the reality shows on TV are exploitative garbage about phonies, this cinema verite fly-on-the-wall documentary, is the real stuff, a real document: entertaining , moving and engaging. Most of you will love it.

And let’s hope the movie — the Grand Jury Prize winner at Slamdance — gets Stanless Steel the gigs, and part of the life, he deserves. (In Chicago, Facets)


Dhobi Ghat (Three Stars)

India: Kiran Rao, 2010

This polished and very good-looking romantic drama (also called Mumbai Diaries) follows four people around modern Mumbai (or Bombay): semi-abstract painter Arun (the big Indian movie star Amir Khan), pretty investment banker Shai (Monica Dogri), handsome young washer man (or “dhobi”) Munna (Prateik), and Mumbai newcomer and amateur video camera bug Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a young woman from the provinces.

It’s a roundelay of sorts. Bubbly Shai and shy Arun meet at a gallery showing of his works. They sleep together, split, and then Munna (who does the wash for both), falls in love with Shai. There’s also some drugs and crime erupting out of Munna’s lower class world, and a touching ending.

Dhobi Ghat is the feature debut of writer-director Kiran Rao, who is married to the producer, Aamir Khan. It’s a sympathetic attempt to tell a realistic story which crosses class boundaries, but I’d have to say, speaking as a guy with lower class origins, I found it somewhat condescending, despite itself, toward the dhobi, whose hold on our sympathies seems to stem mostly from his shy puppy dog manner and movie star handsomeness.

But it’s a well-done, pretty, good-hearted film. The fine, wistful score is by Gustavo Santaololla (Inarritu’s composer), and Arun’s paintings were done by Ravi Mandlik and Sukanya Ghosh. They’re not bad.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon