High, low and in between
September 1, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
Going to the movies to get scared is one thing. Going to get grossed out is another. But going to get nauseous should be the point where you say, what was I thinking?
After seeing Sunday’s early matinee of “The Last Exorcism” — destined to be this week’s winner at the box office— I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering why. And belching.
That’s what you get when you arrive late and have to sit in the front row for the hand-held camera swings of a faux documentary horror show dubbed by one reviewer “The Linda Blair Witch Project.”
It’s a great concept. Charismatic evangelical preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has a twinge of conscience and decides not to perpetrate any more fake healings on rubes in the heartland. To atone for past sins and wipe the slate clean, he invites a documentary film crew for a last exorcism where he can reveal secrets of the trade.
Unfortunately, sweet little Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell)—the daughter of a creepy farmer who is home-schooling her and her brother in rural isolation —turns out to be a case that can’t be handled with smoke, mirrors and other tricks up Cotton’s sleeve.
With no known stars and that quasi-documentary style to justify its crude production values, “The Last Exorcism” is one of those no-budget wonders, like “The Blair Witch Project” or the recent “Paranormal Activity,” that find ingenious new ways of creeping out previously sane audiences.
The studio execs must be pleased. But among the subject matter, the jerky camera moves and the workout it gives to the little hairs on the back of your neck, “The Last Exorcism” stops being fun long before it self-destructs in the last frame. As opposed to movies you watch with your head, or your heart, you watch this one with your stomach. Dramamine helps.
“The Last Exorcist” isn’t the week’s only new movie featuring rural settings and simple farm folk. At the other end of the prestige scale you’ll find “Get Low,” a hillbilly parable set in the 1930s starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray.
Based on a true story, it tells of one Felix Bush, a cantankerous backwood hermit who threw himself a funeral party while he was still alive that was attended by thousands of folks in the region.
Rather than idle curiosity (Felix had inspired plenty of tall tales, all bad), much less kindness or compassion, they were drawn by a lottery to give away his land, 400 acres of virgin timber.
With its “Bonnie and Clyde” visuals and string-band soundtrack, “Get Low” is a pleasant enough, old-fashioned diversion. Although Felix is harboring a deep, dark secret, there’s all sorts of irony around the edges that makes the movie feel more like a sly comedy — Coen brothers light — than anything heavier, at least up to Felix’s last words.
Felix Bush is the sort of charismatic crank who was born to have Robert Duvall play him, and there’s pleasure in just watching this master work with a luminous looking Spacek and comically shifty Murray, not to mention the strong supporting cast.
It’s clear that before we’re through we’re going to learn Felix’s dark secret, and get a lesson about guilt and redemption, too. That’s always a good thing to have happen on a movie screen. If, by the end, Aaron Schneider’s direction hasn’t taken you any place you’ve never been before, you still have to admit you’ve had a fine ol’ time hanging out with all these talented folks at Felix’s party.
“Get Low” is getting high numbers at the box office in the independent art-house category. New movie releases last week felt like they were targeting niche markets, which makes “Highwater” look like a home run for Maui.
This latest surfing documentary from Dana Brown focuses on the two-month “Triple Crown” that returns to Oahu’s North Shore every winter when the waves get big.
Mixing great wave-riding footage —shot by a crew of 90 weilding 15 cameras —with perfectly chosen music and disarmingly casual “talking head” interviews, “Highwater” is a reminder that surf movies are a cinematic genre unto themselves.
While audiences who can’t look out of their windows and see oceans may find them exotic, on Maui they’re just the opposite. Their “stars” are names familiar on our own north coast. The feats they capture are matched by our own resident demigods who do their thing every winter at Jaws.
Brown intensifies the sense of connection between the audience and the action on screen. Rather than putting anyone up on a pedestal, “Highwater” is just the opposite — more like home movies from the place where local and global meet.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.