Tag Archives: Ellen Burstyn

Soul Power

The Exorcist: Believer

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There have been more Exorcist movies than you might realize and almost all of them are good. One is great. One is a masterpiece.

Is it really fair to hold any of them up against the mastery of William Friedkin’s 1973 original? Well, The Exorcist: Believer flies the titular flag, and brings back Ellen Burstyn to reprise her role as Chris MacNeil, so the film isn’t exactly staying away from it. And with two more Exorcist films on the way, director and co-writer David Gordon Green is nothing if not ambitious.

Green has been here before, recently bringing Michael Myers roaring back to life with his Halloween trilogy. That project came out of the gate with strength and promise, which only made the final two installments that much more disappointing.

This opening statement brings cause for both optimism and worry.

Green’s multiple nods to Friedkin’s original start from Believer‘s opening frame, as Victor Fleming (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his pregnant wife are traveling in Haiti. Tragedy strikes, and we move ahead thirteen years, with Victor raising Angela (Lidya Jewett from Hidden Figures and TV’s Good Girls) as a single father in Georgia.

Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill, in her debut) go missing after a walk in the woods, showing up three days later as very different people. Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) are true Bible thumpers, and their contrast with Victor’s skepticism becomes an important thread that Green will pull to the end.

The girls’ shocking and blasphemous behavior leads Victor’s neighbor (Ann Dowd) to suggest contacting MacNeil, now a best-selling author who has devoted the last 50 years to understanding what happened to her daughter, Regan.

Odom, Jr. delivers a complex but never showy performance that anchors all the fantastical that orbits him. And it’s great to see the Oscar-winning Burstyn back in this role, but her rushed introduction here reminds you of what an effectively slow burn the original employed. Maybe today that’s a harder sell. But as good as all these performances are, you are just not as deeply invested once the fight for two souls begins.

Green does show a good feel for the callbacks, never going overboard and holding your attention with a consistently creepy mood. The girls’ makeup, demonic voices and atrocities combine for a series of solidly unnerving sequences. Nothing may come close to the shocks from the original, but really, what could? You’re not going to put another child actor through what Linda Blair endured.

Still, 1990’s Exorcist III managed two original moments that bring chills to this day, and nothing about Believer feels destined for iconic status.

The storytelling scores by mercifully limiting the Catholicism, as Green embraces the idea that every culture has a ritual for expelling evil. It’s nice to point out that the Catholics don’t hold a monopoly on exorcisms and that maybe horror fans have grown weary of priests and nuns at this point. Green removes the power from an individual faith and empowers the idea of community, where “the common thread is people.”

But while Believer brings in some welcome new ideas, it lacks the confidence to let a path reveal itself without guideposts of undue exposition. Too much of what happens in the third act is telegraphed early or explained late, even saddling the always-great Dowd with a needless, bow-tying monologue. 

What made the original great? Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty tied us all up in one man’s shame, his inability to do the right thing, and his crisis of faith just to see him sacrifice himself for an innocent. Friedkin terrified us with the most unholy image one could imagine at that time, closed us in a tiny space with this foul idea, and then released us only when one good man died for us. 

The demon is again playing on shame and exploiting grief, ultimately revealing a long held secret that becomes key to the fate of both girls. And while the issue this film raises is worthy and mildly provocative, the question of where the franchise goes next is equally intriguing.

Believer spends two full hours telling the story, and it needs those 121 minutes. But Green doesn’t spend them where he should. He tells us too much, shows us too little, and doesn’t invest our time with characters so we feel for the families. There are scary moments, for sure, but this episode does not feel like a kick start to a beloved franchise or a new vision of evil. It feels like an entertaining sixth movie in a decent series.

Troubled Water

Pieces of a Woman

by George Wolf

Pieces of a Woman opens with a crew working on bridge construction. It closes with that new bridge standing strong after many months of work. And it between, the film gracefully navigates how one woman learns to rise above some deeply troubled waters.

Vanessa Kirby is devastatingly good as Martha, a pregnant Bostonian who settles in with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf, a bit too showy) for the home birthing experience they have planned since day one.

What they didn’t plan on was backup midwife Eva (a terrific Molly Parker) having to take the lead when their original choice is tied up with another, longer-than-expected delivery. And when events turn tragic, Martha and Sean are hit with waves of grief while family, friends, and lawyers search for blame and restitution.

Director Kornél Mundruczó wields a camera that meanders to great effect, utilizing slow, extended takes and Benjamin Loeb’s dazzling cinematography to completely immerse us in Martha’s emotional upheaval. Mundruczó teams again with screenwriter Kata Wéber (White God, Jupiter’s Moon) for a gentle journey toward one woman’s healing, where the clear metaphors (the bridge, Martha’s fixation on apples) and moody score (credit composer Howard Shore) ultimately land with more sincerity than force.

And what a vessel the filmmakers have in Kirby, who stakes her claim as a talent full of staggering depth. From the robotic, soul-deadening way Martha responds to condolences to her final defiance against her tone deaf mother (a blistering Ellen Burstyn), Kirby delivers every note of Martha’s arc with a humanity that is achingly real.

This is a film that delivers just what the title promises: one woman, shattered into pieces, grasping for the chance to heal in her own way, on her own terms. And even in its most uncomfortable moments, Pieces of a Woman doesn’t blink.

That, and Kirby, make it hard to look away.

Wagging the Dog


by George Wolf

So Todd Solondz’s new film is called Wiener-Dog?

Is this a sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse? Do we catch up with Dawn Wiener and see how her life has turned out?

Well, no, and…sort of.

Dawn (now played by Greta Gerwig) is just one of the perfectly odd owners of the titular dachshund. From an introverted boy, to Dawn, to a young brother and sister, to a sad sack film school professor (Danny DeVito), and finally to a sick old woman (Ellen Burstyn), the sweet pooch connects vignettes full of Solondz’s bleak, darkly comic worldview.

During the film school segment, DeVito’s Professor Schmerz speaks wistfully of wanting to write his great screenplay, one full of memories, pain, and dreams. And, he says, “I wanted it to be funny.”

That sounds an awful lot like Solondz refusing to apologize for his challenging approach, and good for him. Wiener-Dog is funny, sometimes very funny, and early on you wonder if this film might herald a more hopeful, optimistic Todd.

No, same Todd. Ruminations on death and regret permeate each segment, punctuated by painfully harsh situations and coal black, wince-inducing humor. As the incredibly sweet wiener-dog moves from owner to owner, Solondz reminds us to appreciate all the souls (pets included) that come in and out of our lives, and the effect they each have on our mutually shared journey…because, you know, we’re all headed for the same fate anyway.

Solondz is not for every appetite, but his vision is unique, and this may actually be his most accessible film to date.  With its old school intermission and two musical odes to a canine hero, Wiener-Dog feels almost light-hearted…until it brings you back to a universe full of comic despair.

So enjoy, and good luck getting “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog” out of your head.


Halloween Calendar, Day 31: The Exorcist


The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist gets a bad rap for being too Catholic, too traditional, anti-feminist. I read an account from a self-proclaimed Satanist who disliked it because the devil would never be so easily foiled. But for evocative, nerve jangling, demonic horror, you will not find better.

Director William Friedkin’s career is spotted with tepid-to-awful films, but when he cranks out a good one, look out. Hot on the heels of the verite action of his Oscar-winning The French Connection – a film that subverted expectations by casting seriously flawed heroes who don’t manage to resolve the film’s conflict – he made an abrupt left with this one.

Slow-moving, richly textured, gorgeously and thoughtfully framed, The Exorcist follows a very black and white, good versus evil conflict: Father Merrin V Satan for the soul of an innocent child.

But thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this situation. And thanks to Friedkin’s immaculate filming, we are entranced by early wide shots of a golden Middle East, then brought closer to watch people running here and there on the Georgetown campus or on the streets of NYC.

Then we pull in a bit more: interiors of Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) place on location, the hospital where Fr. Karras’s mother is surrounded by forgotten souls, the labs and conference rooms where an impotent medical community fails to cure poor Regan (Linda Blair).

Then even closer, in the bedroom, where you can see Regan’s breath in the chilly air, and examine the flesh rotting off her young face. Here, in the intimacy, there’s no escaping that voice, toying with everyone with such vulgarity.

The voice belongs to Mercedes McCambridge, and she may have been the casting director’s greatest triumph. Of course, Jason Miller as poor, wounded Fr. Damien Karras could not have been better. Indeed, he, Burstyn and young Linda Blair were all nominated for Oscars.

So was Friedkin, the director who balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre.

Remember the stories of moviegoers fleeing the theatre, or fainting in the aisles midway through this film? It seemed like hype then, but watch it today, experience the power the film still has, and you can only imagine how little the poor folks of the early 1970s were prepared.

Even after all this time, The Exorcist is a flat-out masterpiece.