Adams and Jefferson on Movies: The Exorcist and its true sequel, Legion (Part 2 – Extended Editions)

 

ExIII Legion

CoolPapaE:

First off, watching both stories at least twice in the space of a week, I can almost smell cigarette smoke wafting everywhere in my imagination. I know it was a different time, from 1990 and back, but seeing the different situations where cigarettes are presented became nauseating. Everyone had to just smell horrible. In part one, it’s funny seeing the priest Karras giving Chris (Burstyn) a cigarette. My priest as a kid in the 70’s, Father Donahoe, couldn’t wait to get out of service to light up. I never did see one of the other parishioners bum a cigarette off of him.

Karras Cig

Later there is a scene where Karras and Dyer swap a single cigarette back and forth as Father Dyer attempts to console him upon the loss of Karras’ mother. And that takes place in a small room over a bottle of Chivas Regal.

Exorcist III‘s Dr. Temple (Wilson) never has a cigarette out of his hand, no matter where he is in the hospital. In fact there is one scene when he leans over an ash tray and uses one cigarette to light the next. In his case, the cigarette is part of the character. It’s clear that Dr. Temples rather large ego has been damaged with his connection to the Gemini killer, and we see his obsession as a sign that he is indeed worse off than his patients when it comes to psychosis.

The cigarette usage through every version of the film make me ever so thankful they passed laws to prevent smoking in public buildings.

WeMissE:

Yes, the smoking was at times humorous, at other times repulsive.  I chuckled at the scene in the original film when Regan’s doctor comes out of the room where he has just administered one of those horrific, antediluvian tests, and has to stop and light a cigarette before he can share the results with Chris.  This poor woman is in anguish over her daughter’s condition, yet he can’t utter a single word until he gets that cancer stick crammed in his cake hole.  You are right that the constant chain-smoking was part of Dr. Temple’s character  in the sequel.  That unnatural, affected way that he always held the cigarette upright, almost level with his mouth, made me want to grab it from his hand and put it out in his eye.  Good God, that was annoying!

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As far as the differences between the original and director’s cut.  In the case of the original film, I would say that the original theatrical release was already a nearly flawless film.   But the added scenes are nice.   In some cases, scenes that existed in the earlier version are just elongated.  The Iraq prologue with Father Merrin is fleshed out a bit more.  There is also an additional sequence with Regan being administered a medical test.  I like this scene because it adds to the progression of her condition, and reinforces the idea that the doctors were just following a diagnostic playbook, moving from test A to test B, and so on.   The so-called spider-walk scene, where Regan walks down the stairs in a position that seems to defy both anatomy and gravity, is definitely unsettling.

Perhaps the most interesting addition, and possible unnecessary one, is the conversation between Fathers Merrin and Karras on the stairs, after round one with the demon.  In the original film, they are just shown sitting in silence for a couple of seconds.  The extended version has Merrin offering his explanation for why the devil chose this girl, and what his intentions are.  Friedkin believed that the entire movie speaks this message.  Blatty, however, felt that the scene was integral to the story.   I do like the fact that when Merrin says the demon will make them doubt the existence of God, the camera is in close-up on Karras, who is experiencing those very doubts at that moment. But I tend to agree with Friedkin, that the priests sitting in silence is more powerful, and the message is not lost.   What do you think?

CoolPapaE:

Spot on. We know through the film that this is Karras’ test, from the moment that we see him with his aging mother. And what else is there to test a priest with than on his faith?

It is nice to have the spider-walk scene back, sans the wires that they lacked the ability to remove back in the original release. I also enjoy the padding to the Iraq scenes with Merrin. There are more subtle additions, like the dimming of the lights of Chris’s arrival home being accompanied by demonic imagery are also welcome.

The descent into madness for Regan is kicked off in a more intriguing way with the doctor revealing her first burst of profanity at the coaxing of Chris. The scene is a clever way of introducing the beginnings of the trauma to come.

The most incredible aspect to the updated release is the remastering of the sound and the film. There is a clarity I have never before experienced with the film, given that I never watched it in the theater. It adds a whole new dimension to the fear and agony.

Contrast this with the The Legion cut of Exorcist III which is a rough cut, to say the least. Most of the film’s additions are in the form of off-center, VHS dailies that are intriguing as much for what is missing as they are for what is there. First of all, where is Jason Miller? The haunted face of Father Karras is one of the key components that ties together this film to its predecessor. It’s Karras’ body and wounded soul that is paraded in front of us, with Dourif’s Gemini killer taking the reigns from within. In all the combination was off-putting in the best way.

The original cut seems to replace Miller completely with Dourif, making him the corpse of Karras as well putting him in the pictures of the young priest on the wall in the restaurant with Kinderman and Dyer. This would have damaged my experience of the film, to be sure. As good as Dourif’s performance is, I am glad that change was made, for whatever the reason.

Other scenes as added make the story more complete, like the explanation about the discovery of Brother Fain in Karras’ original coffin. It’s kind of strange to consider that no one bothered looking in the coffin before placing it in the ground, but I digress.

The ending is a strange compromise, too. I very much appreciate the complete removal of Nicol Williamson’s strange Merrin facsimile Father Morning. It was a strange, tacked on scene that served the purpose of satisfying the movie studio. It is replaced with the straight up murder of Dourif’s Karras by Kinderman. A little melodramatic, to be sure.

I do wish that they could have wedged in the “I Believe” scene, and maybe it was there in Karras’ original vision somewhere.

WeMissE:

Watching the so-called director’s cut of the sequel raised just as many questions as it answered.  In between the two versions, one could cull together the pieces of a pretty good film. But there is still something lacking.  You already touched on the absence of Jason Miller from the director’s cut.  If the film had been released that way, I would have been so confused.

I couldn’t agree more that the movie loses nothing with the elimination of Father Morning.  That character was so clearly created to remind viewers of Merrin in the first film.  And really, an exorcism is out-of-place here.  That is not the kind of confrontation that is going on here.   This is much more about Kinderman.   I suppose it would have been nice if Scott’s final speech could have been included in the director’s cut, but overall I prefer the more quiet, and sudden ending of the director’s cut to the bombastic original version, which again seemed an attempt in some ways to echo the original film.

So in the case of the original movie, we get an extended cut that doesn’t need to exist at all, but still doesn’t detract from the power of the movie.  In the case of the sequel, we get a director’s cut that absolutely needs to exist, and yet still leaves the viewer somewhat unfulfilled.

 

 

 

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Golden Sombrero: To Live And Die In L.A. (*) is just awful

livediela

To Live and Die in L.A. – 1985

Director William Friedkin
Screenplay Friedkin & Gerald Petievich based on the novel by Petievich
Starring Willem Dafoe, William L. Peterson, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fluegel, Dean Stockwell, Jane Leeves, Jimmy Hart

“You ain’t my partner.  You ain’t even my fuckin’ friend!”

If they took every horrible thing about 80’s action movies and wrapped them into one package, you’d have To Live and Die in L.A.. Well, the soundtrack is good, at least. The cast is pretty good, too. They’re just not good at all in this film. Roger Ebert’s 4 star review helped to give the film a lift over the years, to the point that it has a 94% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Anyone who watches the film from the perspective of a rational human being  would barely be able to justify not laughing hysterically, much less giving the film half of that respect.

What’s wrong with the film?

Let’s start with the script. The film centers around Secret Service Agents. At first you’d think their job is protecting President Reagan, since you hear him giving a speech as one of the agents, Richard Chance (Peterson) interrupts suicide bombing jihadist. The terrorist’s plot is further foiled by his partner, Greene (Hart) in a ridiculous display that should have ended up getting him killed. Instead, we have Greene telling Chance he’s getting too old for this shit as he rubs his shoulder afterward.

So, they’re protecting the president, right?

No, they’re tracking down Eric “Rick” Masters (Dafoe), a counterfeiter who is arrogantly displaying his prowess throughout the L.A. underworld…or maybe at the gym. Greene does one last stupid thing before he’s supposed to retire, and now Chance arrives just a few hours later with all the agents Greene should have had with him. Too late, his partner was shot in the face, with as cheesy a special effect as you could imagine in 1985. Really, though, there’s something wrong when a shotgun blast looks the same as a revolver blast did in 1971’s The French Connection.

We then find the agents breaking more laws and causing more damage than anyone they are trying to arrest. Part way through the film, one of the agents asks another why he doesn’t just go over to Masters’ house and shoot him. It would have caused a whole lot less grief for the characters, and the viewers.

Let’s talk about characters.

Chance takes the opportunity for revenge as a license to act like a complete asshole to just about everyone. His passion plays more like someone who’s beyond a coke binge. Peterson has charisma, but Friedkin pushes it to the side as often as he lets it shine. Several of his character’s decisions are downright stupid.

First, he lets his partner go off on his own for no justifiable reason. Next we see him busting a mule, Carl Cody (Turturro) in one of the most hilarious action scenes imaginable. First, he fires a shot past his target, then he inexplicably lets his guard down (not for the last time) as the guy knocks his gun away with a briefcase. As he’s cuffing him, a cop comes behind  and he completely turns his back on Cody while showing his credentials. Lucky for him Friedkin’s edit job made it to where Chance had already cuffed him before hand.

In Chance and his new partner Vukovich (Pankow), I think the French Connection director was going for an updated version of Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo. The result is painful to watch. Pankow, is clearly not a physical threat in any manner as Scheider’s Russo. In fact, he seems more like the kid brother who keeps asking you to wait as he tries to keep up. I spent more of the film thinking about his incredibly large forehead than I did enjoying his constant complaints to Chance about the laws they were breaking in pursuit of Masters.

As a duo, Chance and Vukovich could not be any less competent. They constantly take their eyes off the ball in crucial moments. Why? Mostly to provide a way to advance a chase, so they have something else to do. As officers of the law, I wouldn’t have these two watch a warehouse.

The plot is so obviously pointed towards having the two involved in a giant mess of a car chase, it’s incredibly funny to hear that they only netted $50k afterwords. The chase itself undoubtedly caused 20x that amount in damage. The car chase is the best thing in the film, until you realize it’s only so / so. Most of the time, Vukovich is moaning in the back seat. Did he get shot? No. He’s sad because someone they kidnapped got shot. It’s even dumber than that when you realize that the guy was a fellow agent.

Chance’s character feels like a complete mess. One can see moments where Peterson, in his second film after Michael Man’s Thief 4 years earlier, seems completely cognizant of his place in the scheme of things. The next thing you know, he’s forcing his informant / love interest to succumb to his “charms,” while eloquating about how good Quintin Dailey and Orlando Woolridge are compared to Michael Jordan. These days, we call that rape and bad basketball analysis.

Other highlights include figuring out the bellhop is a terrorist, confronting him and then offering to put his gun away so they can “talk.” Then there’s the time he ponders the thrill of cliff diving while driving against traffic.

Defoe is good and slimy here. He’s exactly what he should be, right up until he makes the fatal mistake of prolonging the final battle. Even at the time when I watched this as a teenager, he was the character I remembered most vividly. His character gets the benefit of being able to string two thoughts together without being sidetracked with guilt, a sudden realization or the desire to take his gun off the target. How he didn’t come out on top in this story is completely puzzling. Well, not really. The bad guy can’t really win, can he?

Speaking of the bad guy…William Friedkin might be the poster boy for how ego – among other things – can destroy a promising career. By the time he made this film, he had a steady stream of disasters in his wake. This was his 4th attempt at a comeback, after Sorcerer, The Brink’s Job, Cruising and Deal of the Century failed to resonate. It’s hard to figure out who else to blame for the failings of this movie than the guy sitting in the driver’s seat.

It’s clear when watching this film compared to The French Connection, there was a precipitous fall in execution, skill, just plain attention span with the man behind the camera. There are so many lapses in the story, the most consistent thing about it is the inconsistency. There is no one in this movie that I would purposely follow for more than 5 seconds, much less the 2 hour running time.

Which leads me to the question of why did I give it one star? The star is exclusively owed to the soundtrack, which is incredible, given the circumstances. The group Wang Chung, hired by Friedkin after he heard their previous album, wrote the majority of the music after watching a rough cut of the film. This serves it well, especially in the elongated opening sequence(s) and the chase scene.

The title song is the best song they ever produced in their long, and somewhat mediocre career. It adds more resonance and character than any of the characters deserve. I still don’t understand what the songwriters were seeing when they wrote such tender lines as:

I wonder why we waste our lives here
When we could run away to paradise

There is no sense that any of the people in this story would know the difference between wasting their lives and spending time in paradise. They seem to bring their own hell with them.

It’s pretty clear to me that Ebert was judging this film on its chase scene, his ignorance of counterfeiting and his seeming affinity for Friedkin, despite his flaws. His instinct for Peterson was a little bit higher in praise than I would give, but the guy has exhibited staying power. What everyone else was thinking when they praise this film, I have no clue. And I don’t want to waste any more of my life finding out.

(* out of *****)

 

Adams and Jefferson on Movies: The Exorcist and its true sequel, Legion (Part 1 – Theatrical Versions)

The Exorcist

CoolPapaE: 

In all honesty, I have had a lopsided feeling about the theatrical releases of these films for a long time. Watching them with you today helped right the ship a little bit. For the longest time, the movie in my wheelhouse had been the awkward but well acted Exorcist III. The reasons included the fact that the film came out right around the time we graduated and, frankly, I just grew warm to Scott’s and Flanders performances. There also was the feeling that it must be a pretty good film, given the person who wrote and directed it intended it to be the one true sequel to the original, Oscar nominated film. And really, even then I kind of felt like Friedkin was a little full of himself.

Time has made clear which is the superior film overall, when at many of its best points, the sequel mimics the ambiance of the original, right down to the sparse, almost non-existent score. So many films that have followed the original Exorcist have amped up the same themes, only more obvious and lacking much of the nuance.

Really, though, it’s amazing to consider this film as subtle. At the time, many thought it should have been given an X-Rating. The shock is there, to be sure. Many of the things that happened to and came out of the 12-year-old Linda Blair have not been seen on-screen since. That’s not what I am talking about, though.

One scene that differentiates it for me is when Fathers Merritt and Karras (von Sydow and Miller) take a break after their first, particularly brutal session together with Regan (Blair) and the Demon (McCambridge). Merrick decides to leave the room and Miller is set to leave with him. Instead, the camera stays with him as he tries to collect himself. A lesser film would have turned on the music to a creepy tone and seen the possessed turn to him and say something. Instead, we get his facial expression and her back. The result is more disconcerting than anything we’ve seen. It’s a man in complete turmoil over a crisis of faith.

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Similarly, the Blatty directed sequel has effective moments of solitude. In particular, Father Dyer and Kinderman (Sanders and Scott) have a lunch in a Washington restaurant including such luminaries as Larry King and C. Everett Koop. When discussing the murder of Thomas Kintry, we see the camera move back and forth between the two men. We don’t need music to understand the wincing (starting at 1:10). These are hardened old men who still feel pain in the suffering of others. This is acting one doesn’t ever see in a  horror film, and it’s one reason why this film which is at least 50% works as well as it does.

WeMissE:   

I have always been a fan of the original movie, but every time I see it I notice more of its nuance.    This hardly qualifies as a horror movie as they are considered by today’s standards.  It has more subtlety and sentiment than any other movie of the genre that comes to mind.  I just wanted to mention a couple of the things that I noticed for the first time, watching it this time.

First of all, there are several scenes involving doctors, specialists, and psychologists.   They administer some tests that look medieval by today’s medical standards, and they attempt to rationalize and explain everything.  Every specialist is quick to offer a theory.  When Father Merrin arrives, he does not theorize, he does not ask questions.   He just begins putting on his garb, like a soldier of God girding up for battle.  The way Father Merrin is used in the movie is quite brilliant.  First of all we get the prologue in Iraq. Here we are shown, through a series of images with very little dialogue, that Father Merrin is uneasy.  He senses some disturbing presence, and it is one he recognizes.  Any other film would have had five minutes of exposition in which Merrin explained how he had performed an exorcism in the past, and so on.  We get the pleasure of reading of his past experiences in his eyes, as he watches two dogs fighting, as he stares at a strange horned statue.

Then Merrin disappears for over an hour.  We almost forget his existence, the rest of the story is so compelling.  When the church consents to the exorcism, they do so with the caveat that Merrin attend, because he is the only priest with known experience.  We then get a wonderfully filmed scene which shows a young priest run to Father Merrin and hand him a letter.  Obviously this is the letter summoning him to the exorcism.  He holds it in his hands for several seconds, turns it around, his body slumps a little in resignation, and he puts it in his pocket, unopened.  This is done in one uninterrupted long shot.  He doesn’t need to open it, he’s been preparing for this moment since he left Iraq.  His arrival at the house is made all the more iconic by the fact that he has been unseen for over an hour.

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In Exorcist III, we also get moments of great subtlety.   The best scene in the movie plays out in a long shot, over several minutes, with almost no dialogue.  Blatty was taking a page out of Friedkin’s directorial book.  However, in several other scenes Blatty uses extremely conventional camera-set ups and cutting, and I think they diminish the film’s potential in a few cases.  Perhaps it is because he was a novice director, maybe he didn’t trust his ability to let scenes play out in long shots, over several minutes.  Maybe the studio’s re-cutting of the movie had some effect.  But the elements of a very good movie are all here, and the spirit of the original movie can be felt in moments.

CoolPapaE:

Yes, the elements are there. And it’s very frustrating. I enjoyed this film a lot more before re-watching Friedkin’s masterpiece. This time, it a little embarrassing. Especially the scenes surrounding the confessional. The priest’s cheesy reaction at hearing the confession is one thing, but the hysterical screaming of the lady being consoled almost comically by the man while the two kids looked on is laughable. It’s like something out of the files of Police Squad! and completely takes you out of the mood of the film.

Counter this with the long shot scene at the hospital with Nurse Keating, when we get to see the tension unfold almost helpless to do anything at all so far away. It’s like a different director entirely.

The one thing Blatty was most successful in carrying over is the sparse soundtrack. Both films do an excellent job of setting the mood just by allowing the shock of characters to settle soundlessly. If there is one thing that makes these films so directly connected to one another, it is this. The Keating scene is a wonderful example of this, all the way to the end, when you get one blaring tone which really brings home the shock.

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Jason Miller is one actor who is in both films and he is excellent in both. He gets more to do in the first one. Really the film is as much about his journey as anything. The movement from assured member of the clergy to someone who doubts everything to one who makes the most Christ-like decision of self-sacrifice. The path is harrowing and it shows on his face.

We see an older, haunted face in the second film and it completely resonates. His spirit is drained, for the most part. Once more there is a journey, but this time it’s Kinderman who is pushing forward.

Which brings me to one awkward point between the two stories. There is an insistence that Kinderman and Karras were good friends, even going so far as to show them in one of those awkward mash-up pictures one only sees in movies. Since Kinderman only met Karras in his investigation of Burke Dennings, and Karras dies maybe a week later, it would stand to reason that they were never close.  This friendship doesn’t serve the story at all, since Father Dyer could have been the “close friend.” It really is only there to ratchet the tension once we meet “patient X.” I would think a passing resemblance to someone he knew but was not close to might have been as effective, if not more so. It’s an artificial bridge that I don’t think was necessary.

WeMissE:

Yes, I hadn’t noticed that strange implication that Kinderman and Karras were close friends when I watched the movie before, and it really makes no sense.  The truth is that Father Dyer and Kinderman became friends through Karras’ death.   A minor detail, but a strange decision nonetheless.   You talked about the haunted of face of Jason Miller and I think that is a great way of putting it.  One of the things that struck me in both films is that all of the priests have a world-weariness about them.  These are not the movie priests one is used to seeing, with kind, benevolent smiles.   They have grim, tired looks of resignation.  Somehow this helps with the overall tone of the movies.  This certainly doesn’t mean that the priests are bad, but rather that the world is bad.  These are priests who have seen evil, in forms both large and small, but find ways to carry on.

I have always been a big fan of Ed Flanders as an actor, and he had that quality of resignation and resolve in every role he played.  His Emmy-winning portrayal of Dr. Donald Westphal on TV’s St. Elsewhere is for my money the best performance ever in a dramatic show.   And his Father Dyer here has the same qualities.  This is a man who thinks the world is a pretty dark, foul place.  But he’s going to try to do a little bit of good, in his short time here, because it’s all he knows to do.   One wonders how much of that world-weariness was acting in the case of Ed Flanders, because he took his own life in 1995, shortly after his 60th birthday.

The absence of musical score is something that today’s filmmakers could learn from. Audiences have become so conditioned to an aural assault, that moments of quiet are actually more intense by contrast.  I also noticed this time how little we hear the famous “Tubular Bells” music in the first film.  It is so closely associated with the movie, and yet it is only heard three times through the entire course of the film, primarily over the closing credits.  And it is never used in a moment of terror, or fright.   The first time we hear it, Ellen Burstyn is just walking down the street on a sunny winter day.   Just that few seconds of music goes a long way in setting the tone of what is to come.   William Friedkin actually hired Lalo Schifrin to score original music for the movie, but when he heard it he fired Schifrin.  Snatches of this rejected score can be found online.  Friedkin made the right choice;  Schifrin’s score lacks subtlety, and to me is a blatant rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho score.

CoolPapaE:

Ultimately watching both films in succession shows for me the difference between an experienced filmmaker and one that is creative, while maybe not as seasoned. Blatty only directed two films in his life. This was to be his last, and understandably so, if we take into consideration the amount the film was messed with during and after production. There is a clear set of scenes that seem tacked into the film and have no sense of space. I know a few of the scenes, like the exorcism with Father Morning, was not intended originally. I am thinking this  is just a result of input given from a studio to a person who lacked the gravitas to push back.

Friedkin, on the heels of his Academy Award win for The French Connection and directing his 6th movie, was never going to wield his power as effectively again. This film is as pure a vision as one could imagine. The film feels lean compared to today’s standards. The only places that seem out-of-place now are a matter of taste, perhaps. It’s not even the standards of decency which caused such a stir back when the film was released.

If perhaps they’d only swapped Regan out with the doll more fleetingly, or perhaps given us a glance at the actual death of the detestable Burke Jennings. It works exceptionally as it is, though.

WeMissE:

I understand your desire to see Burke die, he is such a pompous ass.  But I kind of like the way that Burke’s and Father Merrin’s deaths happen off-screen.  I think it gives more weight to Karras’ sacrifice, which we do get to witness.

So we are left with a film that is a classic, by pretty much any standard, and a film (with Exorcist III) that is full of moments that don’t quite add up to a cohesive whole.  Maybe the director’s cut will help to fill in some of the missing pieces.