30 May 2008

THE INDIE CORNER, VOL. 3

The opening shot of Chronicles of an Exorcism does not bode well: a frightened man pointing a camera at his own face and breathlessly explaining how everything has gone haywire and he knows that death is soon upon him. It's been nine years since The Blair Witch Project, not nearly long enough for us to forget where that iconic image came from.

Happily, that's the very worst part of the film, and while Chronicles may not be the finest indie horror film to ever waltz down the pike, it's a pretty satisfying experience nonetheless. An example of the "found footage" genre pioneered by Blair Witch but not fully exploited until the past few months, Chronicles has at least one leg up on its stablemates, Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead: the fact that the participants keep filming during the shit that goes down is explained in a way that seems reasonable and in keeping with normal human behavior. They're getting paid for it.

The cameramen-protagonists of Chronicles are Lee (Rob G. Kahn, the one we tend to see in the movie) and Ross (David Michael Ross, the one who tends to be filming), hired by the Catholic Church to document an exorcism superintended by Father Lucas (writer-director Nick G. Miller) and the secretive Father Michael (Matthew Ashford), with support from the Baptist pastor Bill (Ray W. Keziah). To be frank: the very notion of an exorcism movie will forever dwell in the shadow of William Friedkin's The Exorcist, and it's hardly a surprise that the micro-budgeted Chronicles doesn't even come within shouting distance of that genre-defining picture. But on its own terms, the movie comes up with some fairly effective scare moments, especially a fantastic chase through a cornfield; on paper, it lasts twice as long as you'd think it should, but in practice it's a suspenseful scene, even the third or fourth time Miller pulls the same "demonic girl popping up from nowhere" card, that it positively flies past.

Towards the end, the film does bog down in some regrettable but probably unavoidable scenes of religious technobabble (sacrababble?). The balance is probably something like one-third talky scenes, two-thirds effective tension and scare scenes, but the talky scenes are all in a block, and that block is where the climax ought to be.

Beyond that, the film's chief failure is that it never takes advantage of what is easily the most interesting dynamic onscreen. Father Michael and Father Lucas are pitted, time and again, against the filmmakers (seemingly agnostics) and especially Pastor Bill. There's much to be dug out of the specific Protestant/Baptist vs. Catholic nature of this tension, but it's only hinted at, never expressed. It strikes me as a significant missed opportunity.

All in all, though, it's a mostly effective horror film in its less verbose moments. At any rate, it gets the most it can out of the cheapness and smallness of its production, rather than pushing its ambition so far that it crashes and burns. It is modest at best, but it is absolutely a modest success.


At times, The Life I Lived is a confused stab at uncovering the inner life of a low-rent mafia don, but it is not without its appeal; and that appeal lies primarily in a priceless lead performance by Richard Bennett as Bill Cacchiotti, a simple suburban business owner who drifts into loansharking and other organized crime in the early '70s, before ultimately turning himself into the boss of a tiny but profitable operation that starts to fall apart when his son Eddie (David L. Buckler) proves to be a complete fuck-up.

Most of the story is Bill's flashback, taking place three weeks after Eddie impulsively kills a cop, the son of the chief of police. As flashbacks go, it's structured in a fairly intriguing way; Bill sometimes evidences an unexpected awareness of reciting his story for an audience, not as though we are watching him in a film, but as though we are sitting with him outside, waiting for whatever is about to happen, to happen. The entire story arc is the rise and fall of a gangster's empire, and Bill is quite aware that his life and his fortune are both on the decline, and perhaps that is why he tells us his story: because he wants to remember before he doesn't get to anymore.

Bennett is a godsend in the central role. His flat and monotone delivery suggests a constant sarcastic awareness that never falls into goofy meta-jokes, and when he interacts with other people, he always seems just a tiny bit pissed off at them, but trying to hide it. His Bill is a tired old man who is more annoyed by age than anything else, annoyed by his work and his family and his ghosts. This choice removes Bill from being any kind of tragic figure, but the film could never support that; and the alternate, to make Bill a cantankerous old jerk, is surprising and effective.

For proof that Bill wouldn't work as a tragic figure, we need only look at the screenplay, which tries to make him just that thing. Writer-director Ben E. Solenberger isn't half bad behind the camera - the film moves, and there are some well-turned shots and movements - but his screenplay is burdened with all number of self-consciously profound utterances that weigh the film down in talkiness and pretension. Bill may very well have a rich inner monologue, but I tend to doubt that anyone, even a movie character, would have such thematically unsubtle thoughts about his life in such a dramatic order. The voice-overs, and to a lesser extent the dialogue, explains the film in tiny bites, making what might have been an interesting concept - a criminal's wry look at his past - into an exercise in obviousness. It shows promise, but no discipline, and that is something that no amount of small budget (the film is palpably hamstrung by its production size; one house in 1974 prominently features a 9/11-era sticker) can forgive. Even the best performance has a hard time surviving a screenplay that so clearly needed another go-round.

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