Genre mash-ups: The Last Exorcism, The American, Life in Wartime

Most genre movies follow very fixed patterns, sometimes even down to the order of scenes, the introduction of characters, the sort of lines they say… But sometimes you run across mainstream movies that are a little bit off beat, a little bit mashed-up. Here are three somewhat strange movie mash-ups.

The Last Exorcism

Dir: Daniel Stamm

As the name suggests, this is a horror movie, but it’s style is that of a TV documentary, or even a reality show.

Cotton is a great evangelical preacher, he’s been up on the pulpit since he was a child and has been doing exorcisms — sometimes though as simple as Out Posion!– for many years. It’s how he earns a living. He’s so good he can preach his mother’s recipe and have the flock shouting Amen! and Hallelujah! His father is a Jimmy Carter doppelganger.

But somewhere along the way he lost his faith. He still goes through the motions, but he doesn’t believe a word of it any more. In fact, he thinks the whole exorcism thing is nothing ore than a Dr Phil psychological ttool that he can use to get the mental spooks out of the patients’ heads.

So he goes out to a country home in the deep south to do his final exorcism before a  camera crew. They’re making a doc about Cotton — and the whole exorcism scam. With his full cooperation, he reveals for the camera all his secrets – the sound effects and smoke and mirrors he uses to scare the god-fearing parishioners.

But this rural outpost – complete with all the Deliverance-style references to home-schooling, incest, superstition, violence and deeply hidden family secrets – what city dwellers picture when they hear Sarah Palin talking about Real Americans – this rural outpost may be Cotton’s last exorcism.

The daughter, Nell, is possessed. The family thinks she’s getting up in the middle of the night and slaughtering animals in the barn – but she has of memory of doing it. IS she nuts from being locked up in her home away from the rest of the world? Or is the devil inside of her?

This is a good, scary movie, that also avoided what I was least interested in seeing – the extreme pornographic slashing and blood that producer Eli Roth throws at you in his Hostel movies. There’s a bit of nasty blood, but much more scariness.

It also keeps you guessing till the end whether the girl’s possession is better explained rationally by psychiatric jargon, or by mysticism, religion and the supernatural. And all the acting, (especially Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell as the exorcist and the possessed girl, and Caleb Landry Jones as her creepy brother), is much better than you’d expect in a cheese-ball horror flick. Throw in some Blair Witchery and you’ve got a much-better-than-usual scary horror movie.

The American

Dir: Anton Corbijn

This one’s an interesting concept: a drama in the guise of a mystery thriller.

Jack, aka Edward, is an American tucked into an apartment in the picturesque, hilly Abruzzo region in Italy. He’s there on business, to provide his boss’s client with a weapon, a gun you can shoot from far away, with a high grade of accuracy, and no noise that would give away where the shooter is hiding.

Is he a CIA agent? A terrorist? A spy? An assassin-for-hire? A special ops military guy on assignment? A political activist? A mafia hire? A cop under deep cover? Who knows. He ain’t talking, and the audience isn‘t finding out anytime soon. And, actually, this is all just background fluff from the story of an alienated American who enjoys the machine-tinkering aspect of his job, but is less fond of one if its fringe benefits: guilt.

So if it’s not actually a mystery thriller waiting to be solved what is this movie? Well, it’s actually about the relationships he has with the various women he in his life – an assassin, a prostitute, a Swedish women, each more beautiful than the one before – and how he can’t fully trust them – they’re all suspect. They all might be out to get him. They all might have ratted him out, other might be killers sent to throw him off his track.

His boss tells him: “Don’t make any  friends – you used to know that Jack”. But what else is there? Lying in bed fully dressed waiting for an unknown killer? Drinking americanos in a greasy café? George Clooney showing off his skill at chin-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups?

And then there’s the blond, bearded man – his cover is made the first time Jack sees him, but he doesn’t disappear – and he seems to be out to get him. But who doesn’ he work for? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Who cares?

The other plot is about guilt and forgiveness. He meets an older priest (with a small secret) who wants Jack to confess his sins. Jack would rather not tell him anything.

So, while there are a few chase scenes, a few tense shooting scenes, it’s mainly a barren, hardscrabble life in rocky Abbruzzo, Jack’s alienated and empty life broken up only with periodic passionate soft-core sex with Clara (played by the beautiful Violante Placido, what a wonderful name!).

This is one strange movie – it’s one of very few so-called thrillers that aren’t mystery thrillers. There’s no actual mystery that the movie explains or reveals. This is really a drama of a middle-aged, single guy (Divorced? Widowed? Bachelor?) taking stock of his life, his business, his relationships, and finding them lacking. It’s a male chick flick.

(And do you ever get the feeling that George Clooney doesn’t want to be in a movie with a competitor? So there’s only one leading man, but three beautiful women for him to spend time with.)

Anyway, The American is an airplane movie, maybe a late-night video store movie, but definitely not the popcorn thriller it pretends to be.

Life During Wartime

Dir: Todd Solondz

(I saw this movie a year ago at last year’s TIFF, but it stayed with me. It’s a good, dark comedy, but with absurdly sad scenes more moving than the average drama.)

Todd Solondz’s dark comedies alternate between two New Jersey families, the Weiners (Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1995; Palindromes, 2004) and the Jordans (Happiness, 1998, Life During Wartime, 2009). The characters continue their depressing lives, while the actors who play them come and go. In this movie we join the three new Jordan sisters, ten years later.

Weepy, hippy Joy (Shirley Henderson) loves helping the most needy, but this has landed her an unbearable fiance. He asks for her forgiveness for his latest transgression, so Joy seeks out her family for advice. Her mother Mona in Miami is no help, so she moves on to suburban Trish (Allison Janney) who is dating again. But Trish discovers her pedophile husband has been released from prison and is also seeking forgiveness from their kids. Sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), a Hollywood star, is bossy and self absorbed and not much help either. Poor Joy resorts to asking advice from ex-boyfriends from her past, like Andy (Paul Reubens).

The cast is as uniformly excellent as the story is relentlessly, painfully sad. Solondz is an expert at inflicting the unvarnished cruelty of family dynamics on his moviegoers. While there is nothing earth-shattering or different in this movie, it still holds its own as a funnily sympathetic (and pathetic) black comedy in his distinctive, ongoing saga.

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