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Screen Grabs: 50 years later, we need to call ‘The Exorcist’ on this sequel

Plus: An honorable 'Caine Mutiny,' thriller 'Royal Hotel,' too-quirky 'She Came to Me,' and Almodovar's gay cowboy ad

This December will see the 50th anniversary of the release of The Exorcist, a film that was a huge cultural phenomenon at the time and has aged very, very well since. Some claim it as the best horror movie ever made, an opinion which can be argued with but not outright dismissed. It remains an unusually potent example of an oft-cheesy genre, no doubt in large part due to the fact that director William Friedkin (fresh off another game-changer, The French Connection) and screenwriter William Peter Blatty (who adapted his own novel) instructed their collaborators to treat it not as supernatural hoodoo but as a grueling naturalistic drama. Their conviction still elevates 1973’s biggest hit above all imitators—of which there have been many.

Including, now, The Exorcist: Believer, the first in a promised (threatened?) trilogy from David Gordon Green. This might have been an exciting prospect a few years ago, when Green was an uneven but interesting, sometimes inspired director of indie dramas who made occasional forays into the mainstream, for better (Pineapple Express) or worse (Your Highness). Unfortunately, since then he’s made a decades-later “direct sequel” trilogy to another ’70s horror classic, Halloween—a beloved if less revered original whose uncomplicated pleasures he managed to bungle (just as Rob Zombie had before him) three times over. Last year’s Halloween Ends was such a clusterfuck, some fans wanted his hide. Gee, what could go wrong with handing him the keys to The Exorcist?

OK, it’s not as if this is terrain that has gone unsullied before. But every prior official iteration had its own perverse charms: John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic was notoriously, even deliciously bananas; Blatty’s own Exorcist III had some excellent ideas. Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning was goofy fun, Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist an admirable if plodding attempt to take things seriously again. (There was also a fairly well-received TV series on Fox 2016-2018 that I didn’t see.) In different ways, all these movies got messed with by their studios—recut, reshot, withdrawn, reissued. There was no continuity whatsoever between them, in style or content. But each had their points.

The best thing you can say about The Exorcist: Believer is that it’s not all bad. But the ways in which it’s never very good, growing increasingly jumbled and hamfisted, are more dispiriting than anything in the erratic series to date. It does start off well enough with an expectant couple caught in a natural disaster on a Haitian vacation. Thirteen years later, widower Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and tween Angela (Lidya Jewett) are still feeling the late wife/mother’s absence in their Georgia small town.

When Angela goes off into the woods after school with classmate Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), they do not return home, panicking their parents. The girls finally surface, minus any memory of what befell them for 72 mysterious hours. They soon begin showing signs of demonic possession, which crisis requires input from Ann Dowd as a nurse who was once almost a nun, and 90-year-old Ellen Burstyn returning as Chris MacNeil, afflicted little Regan’s mother in the original film.

This culminates in a dual exorcism that’s sort of like a neighborhood interfaith potluck—everybody brings their own special spiritual thang, even if it’s just saying “Jesus” a lot. This climax is long, boring, hammy, and unscary—directions the movie has already been heading for a while, despite its frequently hyperactive, jump-cut-laden editing. (In place of Friedkin’s subliminal images, so fleeting many viewers debated whether they even existed, Green shoehorns in senseless ghouly-faces no imbecile could miss.) Some familiar elements are reprised, like levitation, unnatural head positions, bed-shaking, and “Tubular Bells.” But the characters are shrilly one-note, their faith or lack thereof likewise.

The greatness of the 1973 film lay in its carefully laying a foundation of real-world banality and relatable psychology, so when the impossible occurred, we were as shocked as the people onscreen. Green lacks the patience or restraint to make that effort—nor does he have (as we ought to know after those Halloweens) any real instinct for uncanny suspense, a few rote “boo!” moments aside.

The same inspirational greeting-card sentimentality about “healing” that induced unkind laughter in Halloween Ends surfaces here, just as awkwardly. It’s one thing that Friedkin made a movie about doubt, and this one is about faith. The problem is we don’t believe in that faith, which seems just another item in the by-committee screenplay’s shopping bag of too many narrative ingredients that never develop or meld.

One positive thing this movie does have is a real grace note of an ending that I won’t spoil here. But rather than redeeming Believer, which opens everywhere this Fri/6, it just leaves you feeling how little the preceding 100 minutes or so deserve that poignant parting note from the past. 

William Friedkin refused to make (or even see) sequels to his hits. But he did do a couple remakes of other people’s films, notably Clouzot’s 1953 The Wages of Fear as the 1977 Sorcerer, an extraordinary physical adventure that was his third great film in a row. Unfortunately, it was also an expensive flop, from which setback he never fully recovered commercially. After years in which his big-screen work (there was also television, and opera) become highly variable, he got his artistic mojo back with inventively cinematic translation of two intense stage plays, Bug and Killer Joe.

Now there’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which is both a stage adaptation and a remake (the most famous prior film version was in 1954, with Humphrey Bogart). It premieres on Showtime this Fri/6 as Friedkin’s final project—he died two months ago at age 87, just as the publicity for a re-released ’73 original Exorcist and for Greene’s reboot (which he declined to endorse or comment on) was gearing up

Derived from Herman Wouk’s novel, this is both a military and a courtroom drama, a recipe for humorless macho histrionics if ever there was one. (This is alleviated only somewhat by the more racially and gender-diverse cast that updating the story to the present day affords.) A US Navy tribunal is considering the case against Lt. Maryk (Jake Lacy), who forcibly relieved his commanding officer Captain Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) during a cyclone, claiming his irrational, panicked behavior in that emergency had endangered the entire ship’s crew. Queeg admits to no such thing, of course, saying his subordinate’s acts were inexplicable and mutinous. It is up to Maryk’s counsel (Jason Clarke) to defend his client by, hopefully, proving that the captain is indeed an unstable personality.

Friedkin’s screenplay hews closer to Wouk’s stage model than to earlier film adaptations, which means we never leave the hearing room—a disappointment, though it’s handled fluidly enough. This version also seeks to further balance what had already been an ambiguous take on “guilt,” let alone right/wrong. Indeed, Sutherland seems so reasonable (he practically seems to be channeling folksy Jimmy Stewart), and Lacy (as well as Lewis Pullman as his ally Lt. Keefer) so smug, that the smoothly engineered drama never quite achieves fireworks—couldn’t Queeg have been allowed a little more menace? Nonetheless, this Court-Martial has efficiency and authority. If not exactly a blazing finale to Friedkin’s career, it’s certainly an honorable one.

A movie considerably more unnerving in its way than either of those very different thrillers is The Royal Hotel, which is opening Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters including SF’s Metreon. It is a second narrative feature from writer-director Kitty Green, whose 2020 The Assistant was a quiet but powerful portrait of a corporate culture that enables misogyny and abuse of power. This latest, set in her native Australia, is another workplace-societal expose of sorts, complete with “assistant” Julia Garner back in a leading role. But this time things are anything but quiet.

Hannah (Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are young Canadians on a prolonged backpackers’ holiday that stalls when their money runs out in Sydney. They’ve no choice but to accept short-term employment an agency gets them as barmaids in a dusty, distant mining town.

The titular establishment’s name might not always have seemed ironic. But now it’s a dump, with a rude alcoholic owner (Hugo Weaving) and an overwhelmingly male, matey pub clientele whose behavior is less than gentlemanly even when they’re sober… which is seldom. Get a few drinks in ‘em, and they range from the pushy to the scary, as our wide-eyed heroines soon discover. Liv is willing to roll with it to an extent. But Hannah is appalled, then angry, then increasingly alarmed.

This fiction was inspired by Pete Gleeson’s Hotel Coolgardie, a documentary feature that played SF Docfest in 2017. That queasy culture-clash snapshot (in which two real-life Scandinavian tourists found themselves similarly laboring in “Australia’s most isolated city”) was like a chilling if also blackly comedic update of the classic 1970s Aussie hick-horror movie Outback aka Wake in Fright. 

Ditto Royal Hotel, albeit with the city slickers this time being young women rather than Outback’s naive male schoolteacher on vacation—so the implied threat of sexual assault is piled on top of not-so-goodhearted “joking” and outright bullying. The film eventually approaches thriller terrain without turning contrived or formulaic. It’s not a pleasant watch, but like The Assistant, it has integrity and a ring of truth.

Which cannot at all be said for She Came To Me, the first feature in a while from writer-director Rebecca Miller, whose first three (Angela, Personal Velocity, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) were uneven but distinctive and compelling. Since then, however, she’s edged closer to indie romcom territory, aiming somewhere between Nicole Holofcener and Woody Allen—without their assurance, to results that seem increasingly contrived and charmless.

This particularly inorganic construct has Peter Dinklage as a neurotic NYC opera composer, Anne Hathaway his therapist wife, and Marisa Tomei a tugboat captain he has the good/bad fortune to meet while at a creative standstill. There are also teenagers in interracial love, and Brian d’Arcy James as a reactionary (Archie Bunker without, alas, the laugh lines) who objects.

The storytelling is busy enough to hold attention, but it’s the kind of horribly inauthentic jumble of glib ideas played cute that has made a slur of the word “quirky.” The humor is strained, the characters all ring false, and god help me if it doesn’t want us to feel embarrassingly warm ’n’ fuzzy about humanity at the end. (If there were any identifiable humanity on screen, I might’ve bit.) She Came to Me opens Fri/6 at area theaters including SF’s Metreon and Kabuki.

OK, so Miller strikes out this time, but you can’t say she isn’t trying—in fact part of the problem is that she’s trying so hard, deflating her own intended souffle. But what can you say in defense of something like Strange Way of Life? It is being advertised with quote “Leaves you wanting more!,” which is kinda accurate… only not in a good way. This is a half-hour movie written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, being paired with another such (Tilda Swinton in 2020’s Cocteau-based The Human Voice, which was not available for preview), offering a grand total of 61 minutes’ entertainment for your ticket money.

Of course, I’ve seen much shorter films that offered very expansive experiences. Strange Way, however, won’t be counted among them. It’s basically a commercial for Yves Saint Laurent, the fashion giant which duly produced it. Ethan Hawke plays a sheriff of the Old West near the Mexican border who is reunited after 25 years with erstwhile more-than-friend Pedro Pascal. Their business together soon turns (discreetly) carnal, but is also conflictual, because Hawke is about to hang Pascal’s ne’er-do-well son (George Steane) for murder, which naturally his pa wants to stop.

This is a load of hokey codswallop that inadvertently reminds you how very real Brokeback Mountain managed to be about love and repression between another era’s cowpokes. Is Almodovar spoofing old westerns? Paying homage? Is he actually trying for emotional sincerity, as his lead actors (to their credit, if unsuccessfully) attempt? Or is this just a well-paid, not particularly well-made advertisement for fashions that actually look pretty silly in their sagebrush context? (The bright forest-green jacket Pascal must gallop through the desert wearing never stops being ludicrous.)

I’ll admit I tend to find much of the fashion industry silly regardless. But throwing a world-famous director and two esteemed actors at a glorified collection launch and calling it Art—or even something worth $15 on a Friday night—only makes everybody concerned seem a little whore-y. When this cornball, dressup shoot-em-up jerks to a halt after just a sitcom episode’s length, most likely you won’t be “wanting more,” but exclaiming “Wait… that’s it?!?” It opens Fri/6 at area theaters including SF’s Kabuki and Berkeley’s Elmwood.

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