Tag Archives: Ellen Burstyn

The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)

Despite the title, The Exorcist is about pretty much everything except the actual exorcist. When he does appear, kicking off the third act, it’s kind of a stunt. There’s a lot of implied mythology in the film, without much connective tissue–but nothing ruling out connective tissue. Director Friedkin does a balancing act. The reveal moment of the exorcist, complete with foggy streets, is where Friedkin just gives in to the sensationalism.

It’s 1973, there’s a possession so real skeptical priest Jason Miller fights for it to be exorcized, things are about to get intense. There’s fog, isn’t there? And music. Friedkin’s sparing with music. He uses it to great effective earlier, less on the exorcist’s introduction.

The actual exorcism has excellent special effects and good acting. Friedkin’s direction is far more pragmatic than usual; unlike the rest of the film, he and editors Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman don’t make any imaginative, affecting cuts. Cinematographer Owen Roizman is given the mundane task of insuring the frosty breath comes out. Previously, he’d been creating this warm, welcoming, terrifying Georgetown. It’s a step down.

Despite being entirely well-acted, none of The Exorcist’s actors particularly standout. Max von Sydow’s archeologist priest starts the film, digging up demonic relics. von Sydow just has to look scared or sick. It’s not much of a part. But Friedkin and the editors work their magic and make it through.

Then the film moves to Georgetown, where movie star Ellen Burstyn is filming an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel, The Exorcist–just kidding, she’s in some mainstream hippie movie. She and daughter Linda Blair are living in a rental house, complete with servants and a full-time assistant (Kitty Winn). Everything’s going fine until something starts happening to Blair… and the doctors can’t figure out what.

At the same time, priest Jason Miller is confronting a crisis of faith while trying to care for his aging mother. Miller’s crisis doesn’t get much time, it’s just part of his ground situation.

The film cuts between Burstyn and Miller. They’re in the same neighborhood, their orbits moving closer and closer. Though not in any inevitable way, rather coincidental. Burstyn and Blair’s story, despite a deadbeat dad subplot, is a lot less intense than Miller’s. They have all the fun supporting cast members, including drunk movie director Jack MacGowran.

Friedkin and the editors seem to cut a little faster each time. Actors’ lines don’t finish in their scenes, but carried over to the next shot, the next scene. Simultaneously, Roizman’s photography is completely laid back. It’d be calming if the movie weren’t called The Exorcist and there weren’t occasional scary music and what are those weird noises in the attic?

After getting done with von Sydow and moving on to Blair, Burstyn, and Miller, the film keeps its character focus pretty well balanced. Until Blair gets less and less to do. She has to go to the doctor and we don’t find out until after it’s happened. That absence succeeds in hurrying things along, but not making Burstyn or Blair much more sympathetic. They’re sympathetic because they’re mother and daughter and Blair’s a cute kid, not because they’re particularly likable. Blatty’s script doesn’t do them any favors. He writes scenes for maximum effect, not character development.

Then Burstyn ends up losing time to Lee J. Cobb–as a police inspector–and Miller. Miller’s got a new church subplot, which eventually meets up with Cobb’s murder investigation one. It leads to an excellent scene, beautifully shot, edited, acted, but nothing for the story. During the second act, the film loses its sense of momentum. Cobb and Miller are too stone-faced; the film needs Burstyn’s growing dread, which it mostly skips, even going so far as to switch over to Miller to avoid showing Burstyn and Blair’s side.

Blair’s fine. She handles the part, which is considerable. She’s the film’s de facto subject. Everything revolves around her and she knows it. Mercedes McCambridge does even better, doing some of Blair’s character’s voice work.

Great acting from Cobb, Miller, and Burstyn when she’s got the material. Nice support from everyone else.

The Exorcist is often expertly and sublimely executed. But that strong execution mostly pauses for the third act. The epilogue is better though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman; production designer, Bill Malley; produced by Blatty; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Jason Miller (Father Karras), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant Kinderman), Jack MacGowran (Dennings), William O’Malley (Father Dyer), Peter Masterson (Dr. Barringer), Robert Symonds (Dr. Taney), and Mercedes McCambridge (The Demon).


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The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)

The King of Marvin Gardens is an extremely quiet film. Jack Nicholson’s protagonist is a radio monologist, which suggests the viewer should listen to the content of his dialogue, but the secret of Marvin Gardens is that content’s unimportance. After a brief introduction to Nicholson’s job and life, the film immediately moves him into an unknown circumstance. He goes to Atlantic City to meet up with his older brother, played by Bruce Dern.

Dern and Nicholson’s characters are completely dissimilar–Nicholson’s a monk, Dern travels with two ladies (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson), Nicholson’s an introvert, Dern’s an obnoxious talker–and director Rafelson, Nicholson and Dern are very careful to show their relationship. Rafelson and photographer László Kovács shoot a lot of Marvin Gardens in long shot (or at least medium long shot). It seemingly exaggerates the viewer’s distance from the characters, but it’s actually just how far away from one another everyone is situated, viewers and characters alike. Marvin Gardens presents this intriguing situation–Dern’s shady, but big money, business dealings, his relationship with the two women, the oddness of Atlantic City in off-season–and positions the viewer to ascribe certain reactions to Nicholson. After all, Nicholson is the audience’s entry into this weird setting, isn’t he?

Not really is the answer. And, as the film moves on, Nicholson, Rafelson and screenwriter Jacob Brackman have these occasional callbacks to remind the audience maybe they should have been paying more attention. Dern’s got a showy role, Burstyn has the film’s showiest, even Robinson is more shocking than Nicholson–but it’s all about Nicholson. It’s all about what his performance does and how Rafelson uses it in the film.

There aren’t really any set pieces–the most excitement comes at the beginning, with Nicholson arriving in Atlantic City; Rafelson’s vision of Atlantic City is empty, hollow, cold. There’s no music in Marvin Gardens, no score, I don’t even think any soundtrack music, just the wind. The cold wind battering these palatial, empty hotels.

Nicholson’s performance is the film’s initial hook–Rafelson opens on Nicholson performing a monologue in extreme close-up, no cuts, just this insight into the character. Only, Nicholson’s not the most reliable monologist (something the film goes out of its way to warn the audience not to expect). But in such weirdness, such grey quirkiness, such utter sadness, he’s a reference point.

It’s a breathtakingly constructed film. It’s not a character study. Rafelson and Brackman aren’t exactly deceptive about the film–there are the warnings, there are their attempts to remind the audience of important reveals–but they don’t want to fully engage how devastating it can get. Even when there’s danger, it always appears controllable, manageable.

One of the most awkward–and wonderful–things in the film is how little chemistry Nicholson and Robinson have with one another. Their scenes, even though the characters aren’t hostile, have this dreadful discomfort about them. Rafelson’s got a lot of trust in Nicholson, Nicholson’s got a lot of trust in Rafelson. It works out.

The King of Marvin Gardens is an exceptional film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Jacob Brackman, based on a story by Rafelson and Brackman; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by John F. Link; production designer, Toby Carr Rafelson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), Scatman Crothers (Lewis) and Charles LaVine (Grandfather).


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The Fountain (2006, Darren Aronofsky)

If you were to tell me I was going to react the way I did to The Fountain, Aronofsky’s dream project, I wouldn’t have believed you. While The Wrestler succeeded, Aronofsky didn’t write it. All my experience with his screenplays is negative.

In terms of how the film works, The Fountain is somewhat singular. It’s a rather straightforward narrative masquerading as a sci-fi event picture. It’s insane to think anyone would have given Aronofsky seventy-five million dollars to make this picture (with Brad Pitt, no less, who couldn’t have handled the acting). Hugh Jackman has to be three different people who are occasionally the same person, but don’t know about the other people, but are aware of the other people. It’s probably Jackman’s best performance.

I sat and waited for The Fountain‘s ending to fail, since the whole thing is about the ending. It never does.

Aronofsky’s direction is fantastic, as he incorporates special effects into his shots and to the way Jackman’s character experiences those special effects. Simply because what happens to Dave Bowman doesn’t matter to anyone but Dave Bowman and the viewer, The Fountain and its treatment of Jackman’s experiences is the first film to do it in this manner since 2001.

It seems like a great waste of budget to have these big space scenes with only one character experiencing them.

The Fountain is an experience for the character and the individual viewer. It’s hostile to the idea of an audience or communal reaction.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; screenplay by Aronofsky, based on a story by Aronofsky and Ari Handel; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, James Chinlund; produced by Arnon Milchan, Iain Smith and Eric Watson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Tommy), Rachel Weisz (Izzi), Ellen Burstyn (Dr. Lillian Guzetti), Mark Margolis (Father Avila), Stephen McHattie (Grand Inquisitor Silecio), Fernando Hernandez (Lord of Xibalba), Cliff Curtis (Captain Ariel), Sean Patrick Thomas (Antonio), Donna Murphy (Betty), Ethan Suplee (Manny), Richard McMillan (Henry) and Lorne Brass (Dr. Alan Lipper).


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