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To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live And Die In LAI don’t know what it is about William Friedkin’s movies that I keep missing what everyone else sees in them.  I do keep meaning to watch The French Connection, but for the few films of his I have seen, they have eventually fallen short of expectations.  I’ve heard a few people call To Live and Die in L.A. a great movie.  One even called it a masterpiece.  I have to strongly, heavily disagree with that.  This is the second time I’ve seen the movie, and my opinion of it hasn’t changed.  Friedkin seemed to be trying to channel a Miami Vice vibe with this movie, but the quality of this would be a rather mediocre episode of that largely excellent series.  I will surely give credit that there is good content here and a solid lead performance by William Petersen, but the film left a lot to be desired, especially with its finale.

Federal Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) has a score to settle, and he’s through playing by the rules.  Whether that means blackmailing a beautiful parolee, disobeying direct orders, or hurtling the wrong way down a crowded freeway, he vows to take down murderous counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) by any means necessary.  Saddled with a very by-the-book partner in Agent Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance struggles to catch Masters in the act with a risky undercover operation, but as the stakes grow higher, will Chance’s obsession with vengeance ultimately destroy him?

The film’s first major scene has Chance and his longtime partner, Jim Hart, thwart a suicide bomber at a hotel where the President of the United States is giving a speech.  This scene is effective in establishing our characters, but surely comes off a little cheesy.  It’s slightly reflective of the whole movie.  It has good ideas and good talent in it, but never really hits the style and tone just right.  Something like this opening scene was done with better results in two scenes from the director’s cut of Lethal Weapon – the sniper incident at the school and the suicide jumper, both of which involving Martin Riggs in a tense, potentially fatal situation.  This suicide bomber scene lacks tension and weight to make it feel like a really solid, taut opening scene.  It’s far from a bad scene, but it lacked that certain realistic weight to make it feel like anything but a throwaway moment.  I did gain a measure of enjoyment from this movie up until the climax, but overall, I do feel that it lacked a hard hitting emotional quality to make the characters and events truly resonate.

I don’t know if this film started the cliché of the cop getting killed two days before retirement, but in retrospect, it seems extremely clichéd.  Chance’s partner, portrayed by Michael Greene, goes out to investigate a lead on Masters alone, and gets gunned down while doing so.  It does seem stupid that he’d go at it alone because it comes off like a cheap plot convenience.  The only hypothesis I could offer is that perhaps he was possibly trying to avoid more of Chance’s dangerous habits, but even still, rarely does a federal agent work a case alone, let alone go poke around the possible hideout of a known violent criminal without back-up.  This isn’t the smartest or most creative script, but for a standard action thriller, it is decent enough.  Of course, I don’t think that’s the film William Friedkin believed he was making, but I digress, for now.

William Petersen is really what makes the movie particularly good or entertaining.  He brings charisma to Richard Chance that has him command scenes, and easily gravitates an audience towards him.  He fits the role wonderfully injecting strong doses of excitement and danger into him.  You get that edgy, risk taker quality coming out in how Petersen works certain scenes.  He’s a tough federal agent both physically and personality wise.  When dealing with Ruth, he might use her for sex, but he’s not warm with her.  She’s a tool to be used, and he won’t hesitate to have her parole revoked if she doesn’t cooperate.  He’s also a man of action that takes matters firmly into his own hands, and runs with them regardless of risk or consequence.  He pushes hard for what he believes in, even if it’s a vendetta against Masters.  In Petersen’s hands, Richard Chance is a strong, fascinating character that has energy, conviction, and danger engrained into him.  It’s a solid, well-rounded performance that enhances what was on the page, and gives it further dimension.  There’s nothing I don’t like about this character or performance.  It’s excellent.

There are good performances here from the rest of the cast, but the problem is that there is no insight into who they are.  We know the surface level stuff, but there’s no perception into the depth of these characters.  Willem Dafoe puts in some good work as Rick Masters with a few scenes of solid weight and villainous charisma.  There is some attempt at delving into the psychology of the character with him being an artist, and more so, him burning his own paintings.  However, the film is too preoccupied with the procedural crime elements to take the time to expand on those ideas to where they have any relevance.  I know that Willem Dafoe is capable of such awesome, high quality performances that this one looks very mild by comparison.  John Pankow plays his part without flaw, but also without showing anything worth noting.  It’s a standard, flat character who has little to offer until the final twenty minutes of the film where he becomes a guilt ridden mess.  Everyone does do a good job with the material given, but the material doesn’t have much substance for them to sink their talent into.

I will certainly give credit to that the film is well shot.  It’s not stunning, but it is shot competently in all aspects.  The occasional use of neon or vibrant color washes is effective and shows a dash of visual style.  Aside from one five second shot of some of the worst shaky cam I’ve ever seen, the action is also committed to film solidly.  Now, To Live And Die in L.A. does feature an odd style in terms of coverage.  This becomes apparent in the latter half of the movie where dialogue scenes hold on a single character for an extended length of time.  Usually, such scenes would have a regular rhythm of alternating cuts over the shoulder of each actor, but you’ll come to notice that even when the other actor is speaking, there is no cut to his or her face.  It’s not even covered in a in-profile two shot.  It stays on that one over-the-shoulder shot of the person who is not regularly talking, and stays there for probably half the scene.  I cannot say if this is a good or bad idea without understanding the intention behind it.  Oddly, this being pointed out to me is why I gave this film another look.  As a filmmaker, I’m always open to new ways of doing things, and adopting new styles if they are compatible with my mentalities.  In the end, it’s an interesting way of shooting or at least editing a scene, but I don’t think the film is particularly better or worse for doing this.  It’s intriguing is all.

There is also some mixed reaction to offer on the action scenes.  The chase through the airport where Chance runs down an accomplice of Masters, portrayed by John Turturro, is great and nicely succinct.  It entirely works as a solid jolt of excitement, and I enjoy it thoroughly.  No issues there.  However, it is the big car chase scene that is the mixed bag.  It is surely intense, well shot, and well edited.  As the film’s major action sequence, it is quite well executed, to a degree.  The entire rest of the film is filled with pop music and an energetic score, but this, its biggest action set piece, features no score of any kind at all.  The difference a score makes in this situation is taking the sequence from being just “Oh, that’s dangerous,” to “Damn, that’s exciting!”  A score builds up the adrenalin and enhances the imminent peril of the action.  It can create that fever pitch of exhilaration that can make or break a scene.  The absence of a score here doesn’t kill this scene, but it could have added so much more.  Also, you might happen to notice that ALL of the traffic on the highway is going the opposite direction of what it should be.  Everyone is driving on the left hand side of the road.  Cars in the northbound lanes are travelling southbound and vice versa.  I honestly don’t understand why this sequence was staged this way.  Like with what I will get into with the film’s final act, it doesn’t make any sense and is ass-backwards.

Since I mentioned the score, I should elaborate on its quality.  It’s better in some scenes than others, but generally, it’s just okay.  I can’t quite wrap my head around hiring pop band Wang Chung to do the score for this entire film.  The band had never done such a thing before, and were really only a mildly popular band.  Sometimes these things work amazingly well such as with Tangerine Dream, and I think their scores for Thief and Risky Business are masterful works that capture a unique and brilliant atmosphere.  Wang Chung’s score is fairly average with no real ambition or uniqueness to be of special note.  Some of the songs in the film even fall on the low end of my quality spectrum.  There was such better music of this genre in 1985 that it’s a bit disappointing that this was the best collection of music that could be assembled for this movie.  The music just wasn’t memorable in the least to me.

Now, if you do not want spoilers about the film’s ending, skip this entire paragraph and the next.  I cannot critique it without being explicit about what happens.  I can respect throwing a swerve at the audience in killing your main character unexpectedly, but it has to be earned.  There needs to be a thematic storyline running through this that builds up to such an abrupt, anti-climactic moment.  Chance is unceremoniously shot in the face as soon as he and Vukovich move to arrest Masters, and it comes off like the most inane idea ever.  I believe I can understand part of what Friedkin was attempting to achieve with this event which was entirely improvised on set.  Chance is a guy that takes greater and greater risks, pushing things too far for his own obsessive ends.  Maybe having him die in a poetic fashion where he does push it one step too far, and pays the price for it would potentially work.  Instead, he goes out like a punk, a worthless nobody.  The film doesn’t have that dramatic build up to make this work.  Yes, he crossed a huge line with his heist from what were actual undercover FBI agents to come up with the front money for Masters, but the film lacks any form of thematic material to have all the reckless behavior culminate in anything.  If we saw the obsession eat at him, tear his senses away, and push him beyond the limits to where he invites consequence upon himself, that would potentially make this ending work.  The problem is that Chance honestly doesn’t seem much different from any other movie cop that bends the rules and crosses lines where he sees fit.  He is a charismatic character, but in the scale of anti-heroes, he’s just above mild.  A real great example of what I’m talking about would be in Point Break where the antagonist is an adrenalin junkie who pushes things so far that his friends pay the fatal price for it, and it comes down to one of my favorite endings in movie history that has poetic qualities to it.  There’s a price to be paid for what he’s done, but the film handles it in such a perfect way that was setup early on.  To Live and Die in L.A. has no setup for the abrupt, shallow murder of Richard Chance.

And it only gets worse from there.  What is done with the John Vukovich character is ridiculous, and has no build up, either.  After clearly deteriorating into this mess of a man whose conscience is haunting him over the death of the undercover FBI agent they stole from, the ending of the film throws us another swerve.  They have Vukovich essentially become Chance.  He dresses like him, acts like him, and plans to start using and abusing Ruth just like Chance did.  None of this correlates with anything this character was going through at anytime during the rest of the film.  It’s thrown in there to be “cool,” but it comes off as near laughable.  This is a character that was against everything Chance was doing every step of the way, but kept getting ensnared into it, regardless.  This isn’t someone who was going to abandon his by-the-book mentality and troubled conscience.  He was more likely to psychologically fall apart and turn in his badge out of guilt.  It makes no sense for Vukovich to willingly adopt the mentality of Chance when he was so strongly opposed to it, and after seeing where Chance’s reckless behavior lead him to.

If it wasn’t for this one-two punch of really bad ideas for an ending, I could give this movie a mild recommendation.  Something that you could gain some decent enjoyment out of, but nothing to place big expectations for.  I honestly feel that if To Live and Die in L.A. was a Michael Mann film, it would have been a thousand times better.  If for nothing else, Mann would never in a million years employ the shallow swerves of an ending we got.  Considering the following year he made Manhunter starring William Petersen, I think that statement carries a lot of weight.  There are episodes of Miami Vice that are masterful works that are better than many feature film crime thrillers, and this film is no exception.  As I said, Friedkin tries to channel that vibe and style, but it feels like a second rate imitation that doesn’t capture that emotional substance or sleek cinematic brilliance.  He wanted it to be stylish, exciting, and smart, but it’s too lacking on all those fronts to succeed.  The main issue with To Live and Die in L.A. is that it thinks it’s a smarter, sharper, edgier film than it really is when it is more or less an average action thriller.  There’s barely any depth to the characters, the visuals aren’t anything special, the music is mediocre at best, and the screenplay is more focused on the procedural aspects than the character based ideas it thinks its ending pays off.  It’s not a film I hate, aside from the ending, as I had a decent time watching it again, mainly due to Petersen’s performance, but I don’t see the masterpiece of crime cinema that others perceive in it.  I’ve seen so much better from Heat to The Usual Suspects to Drive that you really need to work a lot harder to reach such standards.


The Exorcist (1973)

This used to be the scariest movie I had ever seen.  When it was theatrically re-released in 2000, I was paralyzed with fear in my theatre seat.  When I saw it theatrically in 2010, the film barely did anything for me.  I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I have theories.  Possibly a decade of exposure to numerous hardcore horror movies have hardened me as a movie-goer, thickening my skin and threshold for terror.  By comparison, The Exorcist III has been a consistently effective film that I have gained more respect for with each viewing.  This review is surely not a negative one in the least, but it’s important to know my experience with The Exorcist over the years.

Taking up temporary residence in Georgetown, Maryland is movie actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who is having her troubles.  The script for the movie she’s filming seems inadequate, her ex, who is also the father of her adolescent daughter Regan (Linda Blair), neglects to call the girl on her birthday, and the attic has rats.  Meanwhile, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and a psychiatrist, is losing his faith while dealing with a terminally ill mother who needs medical care he hasn’t the money to provide.  Meanwhile, the sweet and innocent Regan has undergone a slow, brutal change in both the way she looks and the way she acts, with violent outbursts on everyone who comes in contact with her.  Medical professionals prove to have no cure for her condition, and thus, her worried mother meets with Father Karras with the belief that her daughter is demonically possessed.  She requests an exorcism, which Karras and the church are hesitant to grant on a whim.  Another priest, the old and ailing Father Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow), has just returned from an archeology expedition in Iraq with forebodings of evil.  He has faced this unholy evil before, and soon, will have to face it again.

I believe the main aspect of the film that made it so effective was its realistic quality.  William Friedkin shot this in a very textured way.  Lighting is very natural and subdued.  It never looks staged or stylized.  Friedkin intended to take a documentary approach to the film to give it sense of grim realism.  The scenes in Iraq are very gritty with an unsettling and harsh quality that is striking.  The scenes in Georgetown have a slightly gloomy autumn quality that boosts the foreboding and grim nature of the movie.  Yet, there is still eerie beauty at times such as the moment where “Tubular Bells” creeps into the score.  Friedkin simply instills a lot of subtle atmosphere with the lighting, camera work, and the score that gets in under your skin.  He uses the music very sparsely allowing that ambient reality to seep into your nerves.  That realistic tone in the visuals and the performances solidly grounded the film, and thus, when these horrific changes begin to surface in Regan, they are all the more unsettling and chilling.  The sound design is profoundly effective.  These disturbing auditory elements are mixed in together at a high volume to truly jump out at you in an almost unnaturally loud way.  It’s an example of using sound effects and design to establish an unnerving mood without resorting to a musical score, which supports the documentary feel Friedkin was going for, and it succeeds in spades.

Now, William Friedkin has been known to be quite the bastard of a filmmaker.  Him firing guns on set, and throwing his actors into hard stunts to get a visceral reaction out of them are just a few reasons why.  Personally, as a filmmaker myself, I don’t believe someone has to get hurt for the sake of art.  There’s always another way to achieve the results you want.  Still, regardless of how you view his methods, his results are very intense.  He always casts great actors, and does some challenging work with them.  With these actors, we are given a breadth of deep, hard hitting emotion that penetrates the characters’ souls.  The struggles of faith with Damien Karras are portrayed with deep heartache and weariness by Jason Miller.  You can empathize with his pain and fear as you see the dour aspects of his life.  It is a powerful performance that Miller poured deeply into his soul to achieve.  Ellen Burstyn put in a very warm portrayal that gradually morphs into something very raw and painfully emotional.  The grief she expresses as Chris MacNeil is heart wrenching and soul tearing.  It hits harder than anything in the film, and sells the terrible reality of the horrific situation she faces.

There is a fine, understated performance by Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William Kinderman.  He investigates the mysterious death of Burke Dennings, the drunken director of the film Chris MacNeil was involved with.  Cobb walks a fine line between earnest, probing investigator and kind-hearted soul.  He surely makes assertive inquiries about this unusual death, but treads cautiously amongst these people.  He questions as much as he observes them trying to decipher the deeper reality of what’s happening.  This made the character very intriguing and just endearing enough to connect nicely with an audience.  Cobb passed away less than three years after the film’s release, and was succeeded in the role in The Exorcist III by the acclaimed, powerhouse actor George C. Scott.  Cobb laid a solid foundation that Scott strongly built upon in that excellent film.

However, the most understated, yet immensely captivating performance comes from Max von Sydow.  While I feel the film could have benefitted from more time spent delving into Father Merrin, what von Sydow brings is substantially strong on its own.  Merrin himself is a few decades older than von Sydow was at the time, and his acting as a frail elderly man is pitch perfect.  He has a cautious grace in his movements and a sophisticated sensibility that comes with wisdom.  The calmness and power he brings forth in the final act tell much about Lancaster Merrin’s soul.  While he has his battle scars from a previous exorcism, his weathered soul still holds his faith and will solidly.

It’s also shocking and amazing what Linda Blair did in this role.  She easily endears herself to an audience with her innocence and playful nature.  She worked beautifully with Ellen Burstyn as a very natural mother-daughter relationship.  Of course, it’s easy to overlook the performance after the possession since all her lines were overdubbed by the grizzled voice of Mercedes McCambridge, but what she physically does is immensely impressive.  She was put through a lot of long hours in pain and deep cold to achieve what she needed to.  Even the make-up prosthetics were a challenge that she would not subject herself to for the sequel.  For being so young, only fourteen at the time of filming, she dedicated herself with a strong stability that should be highly admirable to any actor.  The overall performance is quite amazing, and in the darker areas of the film, rather disturbing.

I find the make-up effects work to be very effective.  As the possession gets worse, Regan’s flesh becomes cracked with open sores and discoloration.  It looks like she’s almost rotting away due this demonic evil within her.  The visuals of this can be disturbing to many viewers.  While times certainly have changed greatly since the early 1970s where this had people fainting and throwing up during screenings of this film, it can still hold chilling weight today.  It was a startling motion picture that blindsided audiences, and much of that is due to both those grotesque make-up effects and the style of editing.  Quick flashes of the demon face are what frightened me for the longest time.  It’s a face that sends chills all over me still.  It’s something that nightmares are made of, and a haunting vision that would be terrifying to see peering out of the darkness at you, which is exactly what it does.  It’s immensely effective, near subliminal trickery.

The Exorcist does give us a few sequences that establish something sinister or malevolent looming over these characters.  Father Karras has an ominous dream sequence about his ailing mother that does haunt him.  Also, Father Merrin staring down the stone statute of Pazuzu in Iraq has a fierce, raw unnerving quality which sets a foreboding tone early on.  It’s also your preference whether to watch the original theatrical or extended edition.  However, the extended cut does add in a couple of editing effects that throw that demon face into a few unsettling scenes.  Lights are flickering in the MacNeil house, hinting that a powerful force is at work, and that fearsome visage does make a small appearance.  Regardless of which cut you choose, the film truly is ripe with chilling moments that demonstrate the skillful quality of William Friedkin.

I will say straight out that I have no religious beliefs.  However, I can still perceive and appreciate how deeply this film’s subject matter penetrates into an audience with them.  In the least, it’s a film that explores a pure embodiment of evil that is able to corrupt even the most innocent among us.  If this timeless, demonic evil could possess this pure of heart young girl in the context of such a grounded, hardened reality, many audiences easily could be rattled to their core.  The Exorcist is just as much of a film that frightens with its visuals and sound as it does with its ideas.  William Peter Blatty truly constructed a deeply detailed screenplay built off a novel written with the help of a real life priest.  Everything was well researched and discussed where the church is concerned to understand exactly who these men of faith were, and the depth of knowledge with demonic possession and exorcism.  All of that detail comes through in Friedkin’s film who even cast several real life priests in key roles.  That casting was smart as they carry a certain weight and aura about themselves that is very natural.  They truly added to the realistic strength of character through the picture.

I suppose my only criticisms upon the film are that I do feel that Lancaster Merrin could’ve been fleshed out more for us to have a better context and perspective on the man himself.  He’s given a perceived poignancy in the film, but he ultimately has little poignancy to the story.  I also believe that the ending feels a little shorted.  With the grueling battle that Merrin and Karras were waging in that room during the exorcism, the conclusion did feel a little lacking in substantive pay-off.  The ending to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III would end up being very grandiose, almost seeming a bit too over-the-top, but still, it had enough direct, dramatic pay-off to feel like a satisfying conclusion.  With this film, there almost seems to be a lack of dramatic build-up to the very final moments.  It surely doesn’t end how one would expect it to, which is a good thing, but let’s just say that the Merrin character again seems to be slighted.  I can surely understand the idea that the film is more about Damian Karras, but Merrin is surely meant to be the climactic difference maker in this plot, yet he is dispatched with most unceremoniously.  He is supposed to be the title character of the movie after all.  Max von Sydow gave the character such immense depth with little to no dialogue that I felt he should’ve been a more purposeful element in the overall film, and given a proper story arc.  He’s given enough setup and build up to support that idea, but ultimately, he’s not given that weight of relevancy.  It’s just something that has regularly nagged at me with the movie.  A little more time spent with Merrin could’ve helped create a more gradual transition into the third act, and perhaps, motivated Blatty and Friedkin to actually conclude his story on-screen.  As it is, Father Merrin is more of a plot facilitator than a character with his own story to tell, and I believe that to be a negative mark against the screenplay and film.

While I supposed my skin has thickened over the years where horror films are concerned, I cannot discount the strength and quality of this film.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the horror elements here in the least.  However, it can be difficult to judge if people still call this “the scariest movie of all time” due to just blind reputation, or because they truly, personally feel that way.  Since the effectiveness of this film has lessened with me over time, and I have found new horror films that scare me more profoundly than this, I would have to question whether current audiences genuinely believe The Exorcist to be the scariest of all time.  So, I suppose this makes for an unusual review.  The Exorcist surely is an exceptionally well made film with intelligent themes and deeply frightening elements that have immense impact on a visual and auditory level.  Yet, it doesn’t affect me remotely as much as it once did.  Regardless, I cannot deny that it once did have a powerful effect on me, and likely still does on countless others.