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Posts Tagged ‘Ellen Burstyn’

I’ve been saying for years that there is some irony in the fact that one of the film genres most likely to acknowledge the existence of God as a key plot point is also the one least likely to be watched or enjoyed by your actual people of faith. I speak, of course, of the horror movie (although I suppose the biblical epic is also wont to upset believers of a certain stripe). On the other hand – and join me now as I generalise egregiously – the issue may be that what for most people just seems to be good camp fun – entertainment about ghoulies and ghosties, imps and demons – may appear to those who believe in the supernatural as dangerously frivolous and in desperately poor taste. Well, it’s a working hypothesis, although I am reminded of a story Sir Christopher Lee used to tell, about a priest who revealed he had no problem with any of the films Lee made: ‘The cross always wins.’ (Clearly he never saw The Wicker Man.)

When it comes to religiously themed horror, The Omen probably takes the prize for textual fidelity (if not actual quality), loosely based as it is on the Book of Revelation, but probably coming a close second is William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist. We should not forget the huge importance of The Exorcist in showing that a well-made horror film from a major studio could be a massive hit: films like The Omen were all following in its profitable wake, in addition to aping its style to a greater or lesser degree.

This is apparent almost from the start of The Exorcist, the opening sequence of which is set in Iraq: linking a story set in the contemporary west to the ancient landscapes and civilisations of the Middle East adds immeasurably to the scope and atmosphere of the narrative. In Iraq we find Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), an elderly priest working at an archaeological dig. He uncovers some unsettling fragments and seems troubled by a towering statue he comes across; the sequence is loaded with significance but the audience is left to interpret its exact meaning for themselves; von Sydow does not appear again until the climax of the film, even though he is playing the title role.

The scene changes to Georgetown, a pleasant suburb of Washington DC; here we find actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) involved in making a movie. For the duration of the shoot she is renting a house with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Also living in the area is Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Catholic priest with special responsibilities as a psychiatrist to his colleagues. Karras is struggling to care for his elderly mother and experiencing a profound crisis of faith.

Karras’ mother eventually dies, leaving him guilt-ridden and in despair. Meanwhile, small events accumulate that lead Chris to suspect not all is well: strange noises from empty rooms, the pointer of a Ouija board flicking out of her hands after Regan confesses to having played with it, Regan complaining of her bed shaking in the night. A local church statue is obscenely desecrated. Regan’s behaviour grows more and more extreme, with medical experts unable to identify what is causing it – until one of them reluctantly suggests that, as Regan seems to believe she is the victim of possession by some kind of foreign intelligence, going through with the pro forma of an exorcism might cause her to cease her strange behaviour…

I first saw The Exorcist on the big screen, when it was given a 25th anniversary re-release. And, I must confess, I wasn’t especially impressed by it, certainly as a horror movie. ‘You probably have to be a Catholic to really find The Exorcist scary’ was a line which was in circulation around the time; it’s certainly one of those movies which makes a virtue over its lingering depiction of some aspects of the Catholic faith. Watching it again, however – well, I still wouldn’t say I was scared by it. Repulsed by some bits, yes, baffled by others, but overall my feeling was really of disquiet and unease – which I suppose in many ways is a harder effect to achieve than simple fright.

Much of this may be due to some of the curious directorial and editing techniques employed by Friedkin – sequences of long, carefully choreographed shots are interspersed with sections of staccato editing, the scenes almost seeming to end prematurely as they pile up on one another. There also almost feels like there is something incorrect, if not actually bad, about the structure of the film – the actual exorcist himself feels almost like a secondary character, despite von Sydow’s prominence and presence, while the abrupt switch to a couple of minor figures as viewpoint characters for the conclusion of the film is also rather jarring. But perhaps it is these very choices – unexpected, unusual – which give the film its unsettling atmosphere.

It’s this atmosphere which stops the end of the film, in particular, from sliding too far into the realm of camp spectacle (a possibility which is always there). For me the most genuinely creepy moments of the film come earlier, when the clearly troubled Regan is subjected to the full scrutiny of modern medical science – and the doctors are baffled. (Apparently many viewers find the scene in which Regan is given a angiography, causing blood to spurt out of a tube in her neck, more distressing than any of the stuff with the spinning heads or fake vomit.) The film’s great innovation is to place supernatural horror into a realistic modern setting, and slowly build the way in which it manifests – the climax is just a little bit too close to gothic drag to really work.

The effectiveness of the end of the film is thus limited, if you ask me, but it’s helped a lot by very strong performances from Max von Sydow (the popular image of the actor as a severe elder figure of impeccable integrity no doubt originated here – von Sydow was under heavy make-up and only in his mid forties at the time the film was made) and Jason Miller (Miller is quite a long way down the cast list but in many ways it’s his subtly intense performance that carries the film). It would be silly not to mention to remarkable combined performance of Linda Blair and Mercedes McCambridge as the possessed girl and her unwelcome guest.

The Exorcist comes from that brief period in American history between the end of the sixties and the twin traumas of the Watergate scandal and the withdrawal from Vietnam (events which coloured or influenced pretty much every major film for the rest of the decade – even George Lucas’ stellar conflict movie was arguably such a massive hit because it completely rejected the cynical mundane world in favour of idealised escapism). It takes that faint sense of implicit disquiet you find in films from this time and uses the lens of the supernatural to magnify it into something with the potential to be profoundly disturbing: the realisation that the whole world has lost its soul and is completely unequipped to deal with a sudden eruption of spiritual evil. It offers no easy answers; the ambiguity and obliqueness of the film is part of what makes it so effective. A highly intelligent and well-made film, and – whatever its eccentricities – still one of the classiest American horror movies.

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I wonder how many slightly drunk or otherwise confused people will end up going to see Lee Toland Krieger’s The Age of Adaline by mistake? The title is, after all, not entirely dissimilar to that of another prominent film of the day – the Age of part is interchangable, while the other key words share rather similar alveolar laterals, plosives, and occlusives in more or less the same order. Anyone who does wander in by mistake is probably in for a disappointing time, for while the two are both very broadly in the fantasy genre, The Age of Adaline is a rather more reserved affair which appears to be pitching for a more refined (and probably older) audience.

Or, if you prefer, it’s a chick flick. Certainly filmgoers of the distaff persuasion outnumbered the blokes five or six to one at the screening I attended. I certainly felt a bit out of my comfort zone, and – I have to say – the thorough-going awfulness of all the trailers for other chick flicks which preceded this one does not really incline me to repeat the experience.

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But on to this film, which is based on a premise that the trailer can’t help but spoil. Blake Lively plays the titular character, Adaline, a woman living in present-day San Francisco. As things get underway she is preparing to relocate to Oregon, but also involved in some rather odd situations – she’s buying a fake ID, for one thing, and also has slightly peculiar relationships with a couple of apparently older women (most  prominently Ellen Burstyn), the tenor of which does not really match her age.

One of the problems with The Age of Adaline is that it is saddled with an omniscient voiceover, which jumps in to fill in plot points with no warning at various junctures in the film. Normally I would say this was an example of telling rather than showing, and thus bad storytelling, but given some of the stuff it has to impart I’m less inclined to be severe. Basically, we are told, Adaline was born in the last hours of 1907 and lived a perfectly normal life for nearly thirty years, until she was involved in an accident, and, well, according to the film a combination of rapid cooling and high voltage electricity (wait for it) electro-compressed her RNA and locked her telomeres in a non-flexible configuration. What this means is that ever since she has been completely immune to the ravages of time and hasn’t aged a day (though, we are invited to infer, she is still potentially a martyr to car crashes, disease, beheading, and so on).

Somehow the FBI got word of Adaline’s peculiar condition in the mid 50s and she has been living under a succession of fake identities ever since, somewhat to the dismay of her now-elderly daughter (Burstyn’s character). Naturally she feels she can’t get seriously involved with anyone, or live too prominent a lifestyle, but inevitably this changes when she meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), a… oh, well, for the purposes of both the review and the film all that matters is that he is a lovely, attractive, kind, rich bloke who clearly has a thing for her. She might even find she has a thing for him too, if she just relaxes a bit and lets her guard down. But is there any future in it? Oh, what’s a 107-year-old woman to do sometimes?

Yes, this is one of those films where two gorgeous young (or in this case seemingly young) people have a cute-meet near the start and then spend most of the film contriving reasons why they can’t actually be together after all. If the film made a serious attempt to be funny it would be a rom-com, but it isn’t, so I suppose it must just be a rom. As you may have guessed, I came to see The Age of Adaline solely because of the fantasy element – stories about immortals and other very long-lived people of any stripe do interest me. (And this is clearly a fantasy, by the way – all that stuff about telomeres and electro-compression makes about as much sense as her unknowingly being an alien from the planet Zeist, and they should just have gone with her being hit by magic lightning or something.)

Lively gives one of the best performances as someone who is effectively out-of-time and much older than her appearance suggests that I can remember : she has a slight sense of detachment and aloofness, in addition to convincingly being a fearsome polymath with Sherlockian powers of ratiocination and an encyclopedic knowledge of recent history (maybe having compressed RNA boosts your brain function, too). However, as the film goes on the story requires her to increasingly show a more accessible and human side to the character, and the actress manages this without making it too obvious or abrupt. The script, meanwhile, manages to come up with a few new angles on this kind of idea, in addition to actually having a strong subtext all about history, heritage, and nostalgia.

Essentially, however, all this stuff is just window-dressing to the central conflict of the story, which – as I say – is a they-can’t-be-together romance. As you may have gathered, my expectation going into this film was that it was basically going to turn out to be Highlander for girls, and in the absence of implausible Scotsmen and broadsword-wielding heavies crashing through the scenery, all we would be left with was the ‘Who wants to live forever?‘ beat of the older film dragged out to feature length. Happily, this does not happen: schmaltz and sentiment is pretty much kept under control and this remains a fairly credible drama for most of its length.

To be honest, it’s almost exclusively Lively’s film, the only other character with any real depth being William, Ellis’ father, who is played by Harrison Ford (given the actor’s famous care when it comes to rationing his appearances, this must be the one and only film we’ll see him in this year). Ford gives his character a bit of gravitas and the whole film a bit of ballast, and, well, it’s just always nice to see him, isn’t it? Actually, the youthful version of Ford’s character (extensive flashbacks are pretty much a trope of this sort of story) is played by Anthony Ingruber, who does such an astonishingly good job that a lucrative association with the Disney Corporation must surely beckon.

In the end, however, given that the premise of the story is predicated on a fairly outrageous deus ex machina, it’s not entirely surprising that its resolution should feel fairly contrived as well. What occurs between these two points is, for the most part, fairly well written, directed, and performed – with Blake Lively being especially good, as I mentioned. Personally, I found the film’s assumption that the most important consequence of potential immortality would be the impossibility of chocolate-box romance, and that unnatural longevity was therefore at least as much a curse as a blessing, to be rather questionable, but it would take a very different and rather less commercial film to tackle such ideas. The Age of Adaline is not that film – but, for what it is, it is a very pleasant, classy, and well-made picture.

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