This review is late, but I am determined to publish it, as I am eager to share my reflections with the world.
Pixar has done it again: a masterpiece of an emotional rollercoaster (the good kind).
Their newest release, Soul, follows the story of Joe (Jamie Foxx), an ambitious musician who, through a simple accident, passes towards the great beyond. Desperate to avoid the afterlife get back to his affairs on Earth, Joe poses as an “instructor” for new souls ready to begin life, and is assigned soul 22 (Tina Fey), who is procrastinating her next step through her annoying cynicism (having already irked her previous instructors, among whom are Carl Jung, Mother Teresa, and Nicolaus Copernicus). Each soul needs to find their “spark”, which will guide and shape their lives. Seeing as 22 has no intention of reaching life, Joe seeks to exploit his assignment to get himself back on Earth through a loophole, which 22 agrees to with enthusiastic indifference.
As you watch the movie, the story appears to have a predictable formula. However, Soul manages to tackle this formula in a profound and touching manner, as Pixar has always done. Soul explores the notion of the meaning of life, our vocations, and satisfaction. They emphasize savoring the little moments that we have grown accustomed to, I lesson I have learned years ago and have zealously pursued ever since. Perhaps this is the main reason why I loved the movie: in order to share this philosophy that has guided me through good times and bad.
My other reason reason for loving this movie is the animation. It is traditional Pixar computer-generation, but it appears to be improving with each release. The detail in the lighting makes the scenery appear realistic, even with their unrealistic designs. And then there is the movie’s take on the before/afterlife, and breaking time’s confinements.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic has cancelled practically all forms of socializing, movie releases have skipped the theaters and gone directly to immediate access; in this instance Disney+. If you have your own account, I urge you to screen this flick as soon as you get a chance! If not, simply pull your debit card out of your wallet and pay a whopping $6.99 per month subscription, then get to watching. After all, what else can you do, even as the pandemic appears to be winding down?
While Jingle Jangle provides spectacular visual effects, catchy songs, and lovable characters, I fear it will go down in film history as only a cult classic that is adequate at best.
The reason for this being just another Christmas film is the plot: Journey Jangle, granddaughter of legendary toymaker/inventor Jeronicus Jangle, seeks to restore faith in her grandfather who has become disenchanted after his apprentice Gustafson had stolen his ideas decades earlier. This is a recycled plot that has been used on a myriad of productions over the years. I could see each detail coming around its respective corner.
For the most part, the casting was great, except for one character: our antagonist, Gustafson, played by legendary comedian Keegan-Michael Key. Because Key has left such a wonderful impression as a goofy comedian, it was difficult for me to accept him portraying a driven villain. While there are plenty of comedians who have triumphed in dramatic roles (think Robin Williams and Peter Sellers), I do not believe this is the role for which he will achieve that feat.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed watching this flick, and I am sure that there are many who will want to screen it again each holiday season, but I have learned there is a clear difference between enjoying a movie, which is based in reaction, and praising it, which is rooted in artistic criticism. I elaborated on this in one of my earlier reviews for Hubie Halloween. Years from now, critics will not lump it together with other Christmas classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Elf, Home Alone, or even Die Hard.
For those seeking simple entertainment, indulge! For those seeking something bigger, look elsewhere.
As somebody who looks for originality in nearly every aspect of life, I go into Christmas movies with a great deal of hesitation. Should anybody seek a Christmas-themed movie with an original take, The Christmas Chronicles 2 does not deliver, even for a sequel. With an abundance of unoriginal rehashed story-elements, there are plenty of cringe-worthy cheesy moments to go around.
I originally looked forward to this installment, thinking it would be a flick that would be enjoyable in the end. That is, until I started watching it.
The movie depicts a disenchanted former elf named Belsnickel (played by Julian Dennison) is hellbent on destroying Christmas, and once he appears to have the upper hand, our hero from the first Christmas Chronicles, Kate Pierce, must rise to the occasion again to save the holiday (one can already groan upon reading these details).
Kurt Russell reprises his role of Santa Claus in the same manner as he did with the first installment. He defies the traditional depiction of St. Nick: overweight and jolly. In these movies, the one visual detraction is his size, no longer overweight, but a slim and fit figure. He also is not happy and jolly, but rather a stud; bringing the cool vibes from Russell’s career defining action movies. However, he delivers the affectionate and caring Father Christmas traits that we would want in any actor depicting the man we put our hopes in as little children.
However, the performance of Mrs. Claus (played by Russell’s real-life partner Goldie Hawn) does not deliver, appearing to lack the enthusiasm required for such a role. Russell’s run as Santa is probably the sole redeeming quality of this picture, in my opinion.
There are several appeasing action moments, usually involving Santa’s sled, but not every moment is spared of the cheesiness (mainly seen in a sequence involving fighting off elves with a nerf gun). But I will concede there is a heartwarming moment, or two.
Perhaps I am not taking into account that I am a cinephile and am not the target audience (likely young families)? But I am writing on behalf of all who seek a good movie, and there are moments when we will get excited when a child asks to watch a certain movie with them, and there are plenty of family-oriented movies that us adults will watch on our own initiative. But for The Christmas Chronicles 2, all I can say is that it merits an “Eh, it’s the holiday season and I need to pass the time.”
What I am about to share with the world (or at least to my few followers) is a writing project that I have had on my mind since I was a teenager. It has been stewing in my mind for over a decade, and I hope that by sharing key plot summaries and a character analysis or two, I can get the feedback and inspiration to go forward in my attempt to bring this story onto a bigger platform.
In the Fall of 2006, I was anxious to see Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Departed. My motivations were rooted in a trifecta:
1. It was set in Boston.
2. It involved the Irish mob (as I felt that the mafia/organized crime was under the monopoly of the Italians)
3. They included music by the Dropkick Murphys in their soundtrack (I first discovered them a few years earlier through my love of the Red Sox, and now they were prominently featured in an A-list movie).
While I was not able to see the movie until March of the following year, I could not help but yearn for more movies like this. I simply wanted to see more movies released that fell within this genre: Irish mob movies set in Boston (little did I know that this was already a fertile market to begin with). I knew I wanted to be a writer, but at that point I wanted to be a sports journalist, so I figured I would bang out a plot in a notebook for now and eventually hand it off to a novelist or screenwriter that I would meet in the future, and they would finish it for me.
But the next summer, I decided to get to work on it. Why not elaborate on everything? Why not go forward and see what I could do with it? And the next year as I started my senior year of high school, I got a MacBook, and because I was already a miserable student who could rule out attending a reputable college, I simply wrote what had been on my mind for the last two years as my teachers went on about God-knows-what. I ended up writing a 120+ page manuscript (Times New Roman font, size 12), and the following spring, I banged out a screenplay adaptation.
But over the course of the last 11 years, I’ve done practically nothing with it. And I was discouraged after I sent a copy to a family friend who gave me a scathing review of it, which made me realize I had to start over and rework everything. I have given attention to a few scenes that I believe could add more to the plot and character development, but apart from that I have done nothing. You would think that I would have banged it all out considering that I worked jobs in the last two years that require little attention on my part and I could just get it all done in a heartbeat. But no, that’s the problem with the internet, there are way too many distractions (this is only exacerbated by having a reality TV star turn Washington, DC, into a reality TV show, and I found myself constantly paying attention to whatever drama took place that day).
Thankfully, you-know-who has been voted out of office, and if the transition goes according to plan (which I’m sure it will, as his voter fraud accusations are being tossed out by every court they are brought to), I can pay more attention to my creative work and try to make a career for myself beyond sitting at a concierge desk making just above minimum-wage.
Perhaps the proper motivation will come from sharing it with the world for the first time beyond handing copies of a draft to classmates and friends? Perhaps through grassroots social media posts, I can get people interested, which will give me the incentive to pound out the draft in order to finally share it with the world? If so, then let’s get started!
The story revolves around Seamus Mahoney. Not pronounced Mah-hoe-nee… Mah-hunny (I found out through Irish friends that we Americans had butchered the pronunciation of the name, even my own family, as it is my grandmother’s maiden name). Seamus is a psychiatric intern with Massachusetts General Hospital with a dark family history.
When his Irish parents, Bill and Molly, arrived in Boston while his mother was pregnant with him, they did not have the ability to make ends meet to support their imminent new addition to the family, on top of his toddler older brother, Darragh. After working numerous dead-end jobs, Bill was recruited by Charles Myers to do work for the infamous Black Higgins Clan, a gang run by the notorious Mike Higgins, who made Whitey Bulger look like a mere schoolyard bully.
Once Bill was able to rake in enough cash, he bought his own bar that he and Molly would run. Their dirty money filled them with shame, and they did all they could to make sure their sons never got into trouble of any kind. But the Clan would never escape them, and it lingered in their lives like a shadow, following them throughout their childhood.
As Seamus turned to a respectable medical career, he met Emily Hawke, a fellow intern from England, and they soon fell in love and were engaged to be married (and the family had a great deal of fun pointing out their engagement’s ironic overlooking of historic conflict between the English and the Irish.
But the fun would not last, as Myers informed Bill that an old-fashioned gang from England was gaining international territory in Boston with an anti-Irish approach. They learned this gang had bought out a former Clan member who provided them with information about all who worked for them, past and present, with the intention of bumping off Higgins and his associates. Also, they know about Seamus and Emily’s impending marriage, and will do whatever it takes to make sure it does not happen.
In a sudden move, Seamus and Darragh are attacked by the gang, and only Seamus survives. Already wracked with survivor’s guilt, he is pushed over the edge when the police close the case. Desperate for justice, he defies his parents’ efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow and secretly joins the Clan as a way to navigate the criminal underworld and find the gang responsible for his family’s misery.
Along the way, Higgins will push Seamus to his limits, challenging him to re-examine his life and all he holds near and dear; from his relationships with his parents, Emily, to his faith in God, himself.
Perhaps the most obvious theme that has stuck with this story from the beginning is TRUST. Seamus was raised with a strict sense of right and wrong instilled by his parents, ashamed of their mistakes. He will have to reconcile his love for his parents and Emily as he defies them and does everything to satisfy his thirst for justice.
Higgins will act as an antichrist figure, in that he is opposed to Jesus Christ. He will instruct Seamus in his worldview rooted in the Sermon on the Mount. Christ commands the world to recognize good and evil, and to not even settle for even a seed of evil; to strive to be perfect. There is no room for settling. Turning the other cheek and going the extra mile is to dare wrongdoers to either follow through in their evil or renounce it. As far as Higgins is concerned, Seamus cannot lie to himself in thinking that he is still a good man while he indulges in acts of evil. He can either obey his reason by being a saint and yearning for peaceful justice, or give in to his anger and lust-driven search for instant satisfaction.
And finally, the other major theme is HATE. I did not realize until recently that the last few years have been a perfect time for me to go through with writing this project. We are finishing the presidency of Donald Trump, who started his whole political career in a racist-driven conspiracy that Barack Obama could not have been born in the United States, along with countless other remarks rooted in bigotry. I have marveled over the years that as a youngster who had not seen a black president, yet, that by the time this historic achievement rolled around that hate and racism would be a thing of the past. But we have observed that no matter how much progress we believe we have made as a society, hate endures. This is the underlying tone of how an English gang is holding to old-fashioned anti-Irish bigotry in the 21st century.
There will also be a focus on the presence of organized crime in South Boston, even as the area is overwhelmed with gentrification and poverty seems to be disappearing. Again, no matter how much progress society has made, evil and sin remain.
So hopefully getting this out into the world with even the smallest audience can give me the incentive to hit the keyboard to finish this project after so many years. Godspeed to me!
If I were to inquire among the public what they consider to be one of the scariest films ever made, I would hear countless familiar titles: The Exorcist, Alien, Jaws, The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs… each one terrifying in its own manner. But there is one horror film that will linger in the viewer’s mind well after completing it, and it lacks a reputation akin to the films I listed above, which it truly deserves. This movie is 1980’s The Changeling. I discovered it many Octobers ago when I was seeking a list of new scares for Halloween season and came across a list of scariest horror movies compiled by Martin Scorsese, who listed it as among his top eleven terrifying movies. To my luck, I found that it was easily accessible on YouTube in its entirety. And to my surprise, it was the first movie to scare me in years. I had watched countless horror flicks as a teenager and college student, but I was always unfazed, as I was aware they were simply movies. This brought me back into the world of genuinely believing whatever I saw before me, as if it were happening to me.
George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a composer who relocates across the country for an academic career after his wife and daughter are killed in a road accident. Needing a place to live, he is hooked up with a home by the local historic society that once belonged to an influential local family. Upon moving in, Russell is harassed by the poltergeist of a young child, who seeks justice from beyond the grave.
The Changeling can be summarized in one word: creepy. The supernatural root comes from the ghost of a child who perished during the Progressive Era of our nation’s history, which, in my opinion, is the creepiest timespan in our history. Just looking at the black-and-white portraits that depict people not smiling (as early cameras took greater lengths of time to take pictures, try holding a smile for nearly a minute), in addition to the fashion that was in style back then. This goes on top of taking child-friendly themes that tend to border on creepiness to begin with. It is perfect fertility for a ghost story.
Its horror is unique compared the movies I listed in the beginning of this essay, which tap into our fight-or-flight instincts (likely flight for most of us). The fear in those films is driven by survival instincts, whereas this film involves cooperation with a being that we cannot see. Val Lewton pioneered the idea in filmmaking that it is not what we see that scares us, but what what we cannot see, and we are constantly terrified following an occurrence that we experience every day that was caused by something from the great beyond.
There is a sense of mystery, as Russell seeks to uncover the identity of the ghost and why it is haunting him, which leads him on an investigative trail that uncovers a scandal that had been buried for decades, which blends the feel of films akin to All the President’s Men, Spotlight, and Erin Brockovich.
The YouTube link will be included at the bottom of this review, and I implore every reader to watch it when they have a chance during the remaining two weeks of October. You will not be disappointed. Trust me. It even has the approval of Stephen King, and that should be the ultimate authority to persuade you to sit down and have a good scare.
Adam Sandler has done it again. No, he didn’t bring in a stunning performance to follow up Uncut Gems, he brought us another stupid movie that we can love: Hubie Halloween.
Ever since his movie career began in the 90s, Sandler has brought us countless flicks that have ridiculous premises, but lovable characters who deliver humor that can be described as none other than guilty pleasure. From Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and Big Daddy, countless laughs have been produced from first watching these films to quoting them in front of our friends. And like all of Sandler’s films since the 90s, they include tributes to the iconic characters and jokes from those name-making movies. Hubie Halloween proves no different, as we see references to the O’Doyle family, Orderly Hal played by Ben Stiller, and cameos from star after star after star that he has collaborate with in the past.
Hubie Halloween follows its title character, Hubie Dubois, a zealous idiot with a heart of gold, despite being the constant object of ridicule from people he’s known his whole life in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Although he is an idiot, Hubie happens to possess stuntman-like skills and a trusty thermos that can get assist him in any situation, and it might as well have been made by Q in the 007 franchise. When trouble breaks out on Halloween night, Hubie must win the trust of his neighbors in order to solve the mysterious disappearances of townsfolk.
Hubie appears to be along the likes of one of Sandler’s earlier characters, Bobby Boucher from The Waterboy; however, this character does not match the potential when it comes to humor and lovability.It starts off slow, but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as it progresses. But it does dabble in the sentimental, as it also presents cliched, but true, life lessons.
Sandler should not be dismissed as a one-trick pony for this ridiculous movies. We must remember he has delivered repeatedly with Punch Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and most recently Uncut Gems (one viewer was so impressed that he personally called Sandler to share his satisfaction, and that was none other than Daniel Day-Lewis). But why does he continue to produce his name-brand humor when he could be collecting award after award and potentially collaborate with greats like Scorsese? I can only speculate one reason: he likes to do it.
From a critic’s perspective, this movie fails at artistic achievements (though not as bad as Jack and Jill). It’s just another Adam Sandler movie, but that’s good enough for me. This will not be added to any special lists by the American Film Institute, nor will it be included in the Criterion Collection. No, it will remain on Netflix to be seen while scrolling through selections as you and your friends seek a good time.
Ten years ago, as a freshman at Lasell College, I frequented the campus library to check-out movies that I believed were essential watches for an aspiring film-buff like me. Among those movies were the Spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). While I was already familiar with Clint Eastwood, this was my introduction to appreciating Sergio Leone. But it was also my introduction to the man I would eventually declare to be the greatest living soundtrack artist: Ennio Morricone.
Immediately after screening these movies, I would download the soundtracks and listen to them on repeat. One that left a major impact on me was “The Ecstasy of Gold”, which played during The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly when Tuco (Eli Wallach) frantically zipped between the never-ending Sad Hill Cemetery in search for the grave belonging to Arch Stanton, which contains $200,000 worth of gold. That summer, Red Dead: Redemption was released for the Xbox 360, and you better believe that these tracks were played as my character ventured on horseback through the remnants of the old west. The next summer, I screened Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables, which Morricone also scored, and I had even more tracks to add to my playlists.
I took great delight in knowing the Maestro influenced countless other soundtrack artists, and that his tracks were used by Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. When other film-buff friends would proclaim the greatness of John Williams or Hans Zimmer as the greatest living composers, I would follow by sharing that they needed to look up Morricone’s music before they handed out such accolades.
I just received word this morning that the Maestro has died. Perhaps I can use news as an opportunity to share his genius with those who so love music but never had a chance to appreciate him. If anything, it will also open the doors to the movies he scored and they never got a chance to see. His scores covered everything from mainstream pop culture via Quentin Tarantino to the obscure art house films of Pier Paolo Pasolini (he only agreed to do the music for Pasolini’s infamous Salo because of their friendship). There is no other way to describe this news as a sad day for music and movies, even in the trying times of Coronavirus.
At some point in the fall of 1996, my mother made a suggestion that would forever impact my life: “Why don’t you try watching Star Wars?” My then-next-door neighbor and best friend, Adam, had just started watching the movies and was hooked. She brought me to our local Blockbuster and picked up a copy of A New Hope, and immediately after screening it, I had become what is commonly referred to as a “fanboy”.
I recall sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall (it’s important for me to note that I was five years old at the time) telling him that I wanted the movie for Christmas, raving on and on about Darth Vader. On top of that, my grandfather had died about two years prior, and I told my parents that when I died and went to Heaven, I planned to tell him all about the saga. Sure enough, I was given the VHS tapes and a few action figures, as well as a plastic version of Luke’s green lightsaber from Return of the Jedi. Star Wars was so embedded into our home that when my youngest brother uttered his first words, they were none other than, you guessed it, Star Wars.
Not long after that, the prequel trilogy was released between 1999-2005, and in my youth and lack of expertise on film criticism, I was delighted with each installment, even proclaiming Jar Jar to be one of my favorite characters. There were more action figures, video games, and Halloween costumes along the way.
Then as a freshman in high school, I drifted away from that galaxy of imagination and wonder. I sought to establish myself as respectable in the social scene. A passion for Star Wars, not a simple interest and appreciation but a passion, was social suicide, and it was difficult enough navigating through the world through raging hormones. I kept my eye on baseball and That ‘70s Show, as well as determining which celebrity actress was the hottest.
Things changed within one week for me during my senior year.
I panicked, knowing something bad must have happened with Dad. Eventually Mr. Ceretta called us inside his office, and we prepared to sit down, but he said there would be no need to do so, since this would be a quick talk. He shared that our mom had called the school, informing them that our dad had pneumonia and they were taking him to Yale/New Haven Hospital. Our maternal grandmother would be waiting for us when we got home, and eventually our paternal grandparents would come down from Cape Cod to watch over us for the upcoming week (which happened to be our winter break).
The following week was one that I’m sure my family will never forget. One aspect in particular was how much prepared food friends left for us, which mostly consisted of pasta. We made a few visits to Yale to see our dad, and I was on the edge because feared the elevator I would take could potentially be occupied by a doctor escorting a body to the morgue.
On our ride home from a visit, my brothers insisted on playing NPR’s program Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! whose guest that week was Carrie Fisher, and she recounted many life stories that surrounded playing Princess Leia. When we got home, I flipped through the TV channels and came across SpikeTV playing the ending to The Empire Strikes Back. There was something about that timing that sparked a renewed interest in Star Wars.
I began listening to the soundtracks again. I checked out the original trilogy from my local library and re-watched them. I even brought in the DVD for Revenge of the Sith on my computer and played the final duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan during my religion class. My teacher noticed the sounds and slowly walked over to the corner of the room where I was sitting and saw the movie playing. He simply said: “Why don’t you watch a REAL Star Wars movie?” (I do not think anybody would be surprised if I clarified that he was a big nerd).
When I graduated in mid-May, congratulatory checks came to me through the mail from friends and family. I was such a poor student that I joked the gifts were celebrating that I ACTUALLY managed to graduate (on top of the fact we were in the middle of the Great Recession and finding a job that summer would be impossible). And you can be sure that a good deal of that money went towards Star Wars-themed memorabilia. On one of the first days of my life as a high school graduate, I went out and purchased all of the movies and began to re-watch them in order, averaging out two films a day. I discovered Wookieepedia, the online encyclopedia for Star Wars, and began playing the video games from my childhood, such as Episode I- Racer, Rogue Squadron, Battlefront, and The Force Unleashed (a recently released game for the Xbox 360). And then there came…
The Force FX Lightsabers.
They were collectable lightsabers with a realistic metal hilt, connected to a three-foot-long LED lightbulb. I first discovered them years earlier while searching through a high-end electronics magazine (either Sharper Image or Hammacher Schlemmer) and I was immediately won over. My mom probably saw my request for one as ridiculous and ignored me. Now that I had enough money on my hands, I knew I was in charge of my transactions. I ordered one through my friend who had his own debit card (since I was still sure that my mom would balk at ordering me one even if I paid her back), and when it arrived, I marveled at its beauty. It was Luke’s from the original movie (technically his father, Anakin’s), and I immediately reverted to being eight-year-old, eyes filled with wonder and awe. I managed to buy another, Darth Vader’s, and filmed quick duels with friends.
Later that summer, I ventured off to college. Lasell College, my safety school. I was dreading the day I would move out and viewed it as if I were reporting for my prison sentence. After attending my orientation that summer, I realized I could do better than Lasell, and vowed to work my ass off to get into a better school. My first few weeks were miserable as I dealt with being away from home for the first time, locking myself in my dorm and longing to be in what I considered to be a respectable college.
The bigger challenge was making friends. Both of my roommates were big partiers, one of whom, Bobby, was a high school classmate, and the other, Matt, was a star on the cross-country team. But something happened that proved to be an important spark.
One night, Matt and I began to talk about our Star Wars fandom, and one of his teammates, Miguel, joined us in the room, and we decided to watch the ending to Revenge of the Sith, and before I knew it, I instinctively followed them down to the community bathroom after the movie had ended to brush my teeth with them. They remain some of my closest friends to this day.
Star Wars saved me from my loneliness and brought me out of my self-imposed imprisonment (well, somewhat, as I did not attend parties, but at least I was socializing).
Three years later, Disney purchased Lucasfilm, and announced intentions to produce a sequel trilogy. Episode VII- The Force Awakens was released in 2015, which exhilarated me, tapping into core nostalgia as a way to move forward in the Skywalker saga with excitement. But Episode VIII- The Last Jedi effectively took that adventurous feel and threw it away, attempting to redefine the saga, which came as a major blow on top of losing Carrie Fisher to a heart attack in between those movies. Episode IX- The Rise of Skywalker was released this past year, and I screened it with Matt and Miguel a full decade after we first met and bonded over our love for that galaxy far, far away that was born from the fertile imagination of George Lucas.
Within that stretch of time, I transferred to Quinnipiac University, but also endured many trials and tribulations, mainly through the diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which led to a prolonged college experience. I often think of my twenties as my own Odyssey, as the opening line of the poem invokes the Muses to tell the story about “the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course”. But in that time, Star Wars was always there for me. Mark Hamill will share with pride that strangers will approach him on the street and gush not just about how they loved the movies, but how it was an escape vessel through triumph and tragedy. In particular I will always look back on the year 2009 with sentimentality, despite the self-imposed burden I placed on myself to transfer into a better college.
2009 was my Star Wars renaissance. I returned to that source of imagination and wonder. By creating this epic space opera, George Lucas proved that childhood never had to end.
In December of 1997, James Cameron’s romantic epic Titanic took the world by storm, due to innovative accomplishments in the computer animation department, but above all through its leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. While appearing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Cameron shared that his decision to cast DiCaprio was due to the fact that EVERY woman in the building showed up to watch his audition, and it worked beyond his artistic goals, as the film became the highest grossing movie of all time.
I was seven when I learned about the movie, and I was caught up in the hysteria as much as everybody else. I even developed a crush on Kate Winslet (or maybe I consciously created it out of convenience?) and I was proud to call it my favorite movie (even though I didn’t watch it all in one sitting, all in chunks) and Leo was my favorite actor. But as time went by, I became conscious of masculine criticism of the movie as a “chick flick” and jumped on that bandwagon out of fear of being demeaned. Leo was now a “pretty boy” and I wanted nothing to do with him. In 2003 I watched Catch Me if You Can, and I greatly enjoyed it, but I made sure to make a disclaimer that I was still not a fan of Leo out of fear of being called “gay” (my, what progress has been made since then).
Then came the 2006 release of The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s American re-make of the Hong Kong thriller, Internal Affairs. I had multiple reasons to want to see it, as it was set in Boston, dealt with the Irish mafia (which I thought was an oxymoron, originally) and featured music by the Dropkick Murphys (I’ll always pride myself in knowing who they were before Scorsese placed I’m Shipping Up to Boston in his soundtrack, when the most anticipated song of the album it came from was Sunshine Highway). But Leo was in it. I scowled at the thought of watching a movie with him, wondering why anybody would pick him for a cool movie like this? But I eventually watched it and loved it, and when I reflected on what I had seen and Leo’s involvement, I thought: “Well, he was OKAYYYYY, I guess?”
But I was also starting to understand cinema. I was learning more about Martin Scorsese and the genius that he was. I familiarized myself with his previous accomplishments (some I would not watch until later, but it was good to be aware of them). I learned that he and Robert De Niro worked hand-and-hand for decades and was aware he was one of the greatest living actors. And the more I looked into Scorsese, I gained familiarity with the movies he had made in the last decade, which included Gangs of New York and The Aviator, both of which I avoided because of Leo’s involvement (to be frank, I was too young to see Gangs of New York when it was released, but I’m sure I would have avoided it with that mindset as a young adult). I took notice to what people were pointing out : Scorsese was now working hand-in-hand with Leo as if he were the equivalent of Robert De Niro today.
Maybe, dare I say it, Leo was a good actor? Maybe I should start watching his movies and take him seriously? Perhaps the only reason I hated him was a result of toxic masculinity? (Granted it would take many more years for me to embrace a more progressive view on social issues, but this was a good first start.)
Over the next few years I got around to watching his previous collaborations with Scorsese and was impressed by them, and anxiously awaited the release of Shutter Island in February of 2010 (one of my favorite stories to tell was how I questioned my own identity and consciousness after walking out of that screening). I watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and was blown away by his performance as a mentally handicapped teenager, and was even more excited to see his next project with Marty, The Wolf of Wall Street. I almost went to see that with my mother, unaware of how hardcore the drugs and sex themes were, only to be warned against it by a family friend who had just seen it. I later went to see it by myself and was grateful for the discretion, and was also anxious to return home and watch a cartoon, as I wanted some of my innocence back.
This was quite a journey I had made in my discovered favorite performer. Even now I have been able to shed my “dislike” for Titanic, acknowledging this as the result of a social construct. Even though I knew the movie through pop culture references and having watched all the pivotal scenes, I never watched it all in one sitting until the summer of 2014. With The Wolf of Wall Street fresh in my mind, I watched as Leo and Kate climbed the rising stern of the ill-fated ship, and began to laugh, as I could not shake the exchange between him and Jonah Hill as Donnie, Jordan Belfort’s business partner, urging him to grab the quaaludes as their yacht was sinking as he screamed “I. WILL. NOT. DIE. SOBER!!!!!”
I began writing this post three days ago, and just received news this morning of the passing of the iconic genius performer Max von Sydow, whose performance as Father Lankaster Merrin will rank among many of my all-time favorites. I feel it is appropriate for me to dedicate this post to his memory, and thank him for his performances ranging from his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman to his cameo as Lor san Tekka in Star Wars- Episode VII: The Force Awakens. On his first day of filming with Linda Blair (who played Regan), who was left speechless after hearing her recite her profanity-riddled lines, attesting to his moral character. This is for you, Max.
If someone were to take a poll among cinephiles by asking what is the scariest movie ever made, the most popular answer would be The Exorcist, citing how it pushed boundaries and made people afraid of something that they had been exposed to throughout their lives via religious beliefs but had never considered a potential threat. What other description can we give to a film that required ushers to carry smelling salts on the job to attend to viewers who had fainted during the original screenings in the 1970’s? Or local towns banning the distribution of the film in their local cinemas, and arranging bus trips to the nearest town to where it faced no restrictions?
I discovered this movie when I was almost thirteen-years-old by walking in my parents bedroom while the Today Show was on and they had just started a story about the date (December 26, 2003) being the thirtieth anniversary of its release. I had no idea what it was, but I was horrified by the face of possessed Regan McNeil. Who was she? Better yet, WHAT was she? Was she a creature? I saw an IV tube near her, and I pondered if she was in an accident, or somehow transformed into this horrific thing? My memory is skewed on this, because while I saw her floating above her bed, I thought she was spinning things around while making noises similar to the orcs in The Lord of the Rings (the final installment had just been released, and I was still experiencing the high off of seeing that). I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I didn’t even know the name. I just knew it began with E-X, and I finally had the courage to ask my dad about the film. WHAT WAS IT ALL ABOUT?
“She was possessed by the Devil.”
What? What was this?
“How?” I asked.
“Uh, she played a Ouija board.”
I couldn’t get it off my mind, and was researching it online every chance I got, as well as inquiring with my friends and classmates if they were familiar with it. Many years later, I would be diagnosed with OCD, and suddenly I had an explanation for why I always thinking about this (and countless other subjects throughout life). I finally saw it eight months later but was not scared by it. People I grew up with in Lyme and Old Lyme will likely nod their heads if you ask them about me referencing this movie and will likely conclude it is my favorite in the horror genre. While I do hold it in high regard, I have a shock for them: it’s actually The Shining (see my previous post). Hail Stanley Kubrick (I must also share that Kubrick actually wanted to make the adaptation, and I can only imagine how it would have turned out. Alfred Hitchcock was also considered for the adaptation).
What is it about this movie that is so iconic? One reason can be summed up in a single word: BLASPHEMY. The film captures the Devil and demons for what they are, depicts their horrifying intrusion into our lives, as well as the willingness to depict such appalling suffering in a child. But there is something even more than the jumps and the misery of a suffering child being used for entertainment, and that is the TECHNICAL ACCURACY. Should any non-Catholic person or “seasonal” Catholic inquire about how the Church handles exorcisms and if the movie was accurate, there will not be any downplaying. The rigorous investigations to determine if someone needs a medical doctor over a priest, the necessity for episcopal approval, the prayers, and perhaps even what occurs during the ritual itself. Personally, I am not too sure whether EVERY detail depicted in the movie has ever happened, but being a person of faith, I am not opposed to the possibility. But this is something I never want to encounter. I have said time after time after time: I would rather go my entire life doubting God’s existence (often referred to as the “dark night of the soul”) than to have my faith confirmed by an encounter with the devil.
Years ago I had a conversation with a priest friend (who has since passed away and is hopefully partaking in the eternal ecstasy of Paradise) and the movie came up, and he shared that I would not believe how many people came to him and his fellow priests in early 1974 out of fear that the Devil was manifesting in their lives. I can imagine the conversations ultimately concluding like this:
“… there’s this banging that keeps happening behind my bedroom…”
“I’m gonna have to cut you off here and ask you something… Did you just see The Exorcist?”
“Yeah,” they probably answered in a confused tone. “Why?”
“Go on home.”
Compare that to The Omen, released a few years later. When they make reference to eschatology (end of time theology), I took it for granted for a few years, but when I finally started reading the Book of Revelation, I discovered that these “prophecies” were re-organized into another narrative or were just made up. And an interesting side note is that while we have grown up with the assumption that this book in the Bible is about fire and brimstone and fear, it is actually a book about hope. And that actually brings me to another observation: sometimes technical accuracy does not matter in a movie. I have always thought that what would prove that the movie is good is if you are screening it with Neil deGrasse Tyson, noticing something and saying “Neil, that doesn’t seem possible, don’t you…” and he eagerly shushes you.
I think there is something beyond the supernatural horror that provides scares in this movie, and it is misery in family life. We see the misery of poor Regan McNeil and her mother, Chris, while they are seeking answers for the strange things that have been happening in their home. There are a few scenes that depict the medical tests that are performed on Regan and the pain that she is enduring, and we cannot help but grimace at the sight of it, while Chris watches from a distance and is probably enduring the equivalent form of suffering in a psychological sense, desperate to make everything right for her little girl. This only adds to the stress she already encounters as a famous actress as she deals with the numerous demands of being a public person. And we should also throw in Father Karras, a priest who has lost faith in the God who gave him his vocation (brilliantly depicted in a scene where he celebrates a mass and is barely able to utter the Words of Institution, which transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ). On top of losing his faith, he is guilt-ridden by the death of his mother that he was unable to care for due to his vow of poverty.
That is ultimately makes a good horror movie: characters. Anybody can make a movie that has jump scenes and screams (this is usually boot camp for upcoming actors and filmmakers). But they need to treat it like a regular story, and that includes creating characters whose actions and reactions are believable to the viewer.
I should also point out the personal limits that were pushed by director William Friedkin. Friedkin always wanted genuine reactions from his performers, always going to extreme lengths to get the right scare. Stories include slapping actor Father William O’Malley (who was actually my father’s teacher and grandfather’s classmate) and firing off a gun near Jason Miller (Father Karras) who proceeded to verbally tear into him and explain that actors do not need to take such approaches (save for other method performers). The set for Regan’s bedroom was built inside of a freezer, and she would only be covered in a simple nightgown, which traumatized her to aversion to cold temperatures beyond your average person. The cold climate goes on top of the numerous injuries that she and many other cast-mates endured due to shoddy safety mistakes by the stunt teams. If The Exorcist was to be made today with full knowledge of the events that would transpire, no parent would allow their daughter to be cast as Regan.
Then there are also the spooky occurrences that took place throughout production. One of the sets burned down due to an intrusive bird, including the deaths of several crew, as well as the performers who portrayed Burke Dennings and Father Karras’s mother after they completed their scenes. Evangelist Billy Graham even asserted that there was a demon in the film reel.
Its legacy endures. It seems to be always topping the endless lists of scariest movies ever made. It has been endlessly parodied, references even appear in family-friendly media. It is always a Halloween favorite, and during the weekends of October 2018 it was appeared as after-midnight-showings at the legendary Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, which I was unable to attend but so desperately hope to experience at some point in the future. While I am excited for the arrival of warm weather, I also am anxious for the arrival of fall to get in the spirit of Halloween, and having an excuse to watch a horror movie over any classic of any other genre. And it’s when I contemplate movies like The Exorcist that I am anxious for the appealing weather to pass through as quick as possible. Until then, I can just keep dreaming about being in the midst of Halloween.
Until then, when it comes to Ouija boards, remember to pray your rosary, and recall the words of Nancy Reagan: JUST SAY NO.