Monday, May 30, 2011

Movie Monday: To The Devil...A Daughter

For this week's Movie Monday we'll be talking about Hammer's last horror film To The Devil...A Daughter!

TTDAD was released in 1976, and was the legendary Hammer Films' last gasp at a horror film, which was their bread and butter. With the massive success of The Exorcist and The Omen, devil possession movies were all the rage.

Hammer had actually been planning on making this movie for several years, but various financial and creative difficulties kept stalling production, so that by the time it was released, Hammer looked like it was following a trend, not making them, as they had done in the 50s and 60s.

The film opens in a sparsely-attended church service of some kind. Within a few moments, we see Father Michael (Christopher Lee), so we know there's probably something sinister afoot.

The center of everyone's attention is a young "nun" named Catherine (Nastassja Kinski), who is about to turn eighteen. Her father, a man named Henry Beddows (the late great Denholm Elliott), looks nervously on.

We soon learn that Father Michael has, at some point in the past, convinced Beddows to "turn over" his daughter to the church, so she will be the host for the Devil himself (or Astaroth, as he is called here) when he returns to Earth...on Catherine's eighteenth birthday!

But Henry gets cold feet just a few days before this is all to commence, so he contacts an expert in Satanism, an author named John Verney (Richard Widmark), and convinces him to look after her when Henry sends her away.

A sort of henchman of Father Michael tracks down Henry, and tries to kill him. But Henry isn't quite the pushover he seems to be!
While Father Michael and his coven (which includes a grim-faced woman named Anna, played by Honor Blackman) try and find Catherine, they oversee the birth of another baby to use in their sick rituals.

There's a fairly lengthy birth scene, and as the pregnant woman thrashes in agony, Father Michael looks on in glee:
...gee, what woman wouldn't want to see this leaning over them as they gave birth?

Catherine begins to act all wonky under Verney's care. She has weird dreams, tries to escape, and acts like she's hypnotized. We get a glimpse of Asteroth in a mirror, which almost single-handedly dispels the mood the film is trying to create. More on that in a moment.

In the middle of the film, there's a big orgy/ritual sacrifice scene that involves Christopher Lee's naked butt (actually a stand-in), Kinski getting mounted by a giant gold replica of Asteroth, fellatio, and more fun.

Later, Verney and Father Michael have a confrontation in a church, where the latter seems to have some otherworldly powers:
Father Michael finally apprehends Catherine, and prepares for the big sacrifice. Laying on a stone slab, she has some sort of weird dream(?) where Asteroth appears, in the form of a really bad puppet.

Not only is it a bad puppet, but we get to see said puppet crawl up the stone altar, climb onto Catherine, and make its way up her scantily-clad body:
Catherine seems to be in something resembling sexual glee over this, and she grabs Asteroth by both hands and...let's just say places him somewhere very private.

As Catherine waits, Verney gets the drop on Father Michael, who is in the middle of slicing open the sacrificial infant (in a throwaway scene, kind of surprising so little of it is made, considering how horrific the act is). Verney stands outside the weird little circle Father Michael has made:
Father Michael tries to tempt Verney into "taking" Catherine, who appears to him completely naked, in a bit of nudity so gratuitous it made me laugh. It also made me shudder, realizing Kinski was only fifteen when she made this movie: and yet here she is, doing full frontal--not to mention the whole devil puppet gynecologist scene. Did Nastassja Kinksi not have parents?

Anyway, after this, Father Michael gloats his power is such that Verney cannot enter the sacred circle, or whatever. In a scene so anti-climactic its startling, Verney says something about this rock he's holding has some special properties. He throws it at Father Michael, seemingly killing him! He grabs the unconscious Catherine, and departs. The End.

According to various articles on the web, To The Devil...A Daughter was a troubled production, with last-minute script rewrites, casting problems, and lack of funds. The first half of the film works fairly well, but the devil puppet is almost Ed Woodian in its cheeziness, and the ending is so abrupt it really brings the film to a crashing halt (apparently an alternate ending was even shot, but it does not survive).

I enjoyed watching TTDAD, but to me it doesn't rank anywhere near Hammer's best. Its kind of too bad such a legendary film studio went out with a bit of a whimper, not a bang.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Movie Monday: Patterns

For this week's Movie Monday we'll be talking about Rod Serling's Patterns!

Patterns was a teleplay Serling wrote for live television in 1955. A year later, it was expanded with mostly a new cast and turned into this film. Like most things Serling put his name to, its fairly offbeat.
The film opens on the streets of Manhattan, where the skyscrapers loom over their tiny inhabitants, scurrying from place to place like ants.

We follow Fred Staples (Van Heflin) as he reports for his first day at the corporate headquarters of Ramsey & Co., a huge conglomerate. Staples has been running one of the company's plants out in Ohio, but has been handpicked by Walter Ramsey himself to come to the home office, having him leap several rungs on the corporate ladder.

Upon moving into his new, lush office, he is met by the amiable William Briggs (Ed Begley), who is nominally Staples' new boss. Briggs and Staples take an immediate like to one another, even if it seems that Briggs--being much older--is feeling less secure at the company than he used to.

Not everyone is as friendly as Briggs, however: Staples' secretary Marge is polite but cool. She was Briggs' secretary for seven years, and is now being transferred to work for Staples. She's extremely loyal, but realistic: when Staples offers to let her go back to working for Briggs, she declines.

At the first meeting of the board with Staples, it becomes clear that old man Ramsey (the great Everett Sloane, who played Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane) has little to no respect for Briggs. When Briggs objects to a plan that would close a plant that resides in a small village on the basis it would decimate the town, Ramsey angrily berates Briggs in front of everyone.
To make matters worse, Ramsey lavishes praise on Staples, embarrassing Briggs. The rest of the board stares at their shoes while Ramsey clearly pits his two employees against each other.

This tense situation continues for a while. Staples' star rises in the company, and Briggs continues to falter. At one point Staples asks why Briggs doesn't just quit, since he's clearly being pushed out the door. Briggs, not knowing what else he could even do, refuses to leave. Also, he believes in the principle of it: he was one the company's original men, and can't stand to see what's become of it under the son of the original Ramsey who founded it.

Staples is put in charge of a major report about the company's future, and during a party he and his wife (Beatrice Straight) throw, the report is handed to Ramsey, who goes off into a room to read it. Staples' wife is the one who orchestrated it, much to her husband's disapproval.

Ramsey is complementary in the extreme to the report, heaping more praise onto Staples. When he tries to make sure Briggs--whom he worked with on the report--gets sufficient credit, Ramsey blows him off and refuses to believe it. After leaving, Staples' wife seems to side with Ramsey, wanting continued upward mobility, frustrated at her husband's stubborn refusal to grab the proverbial Big Brass Ring for just for the sake of another man.

During the report's official unveiling in front of the board, Ramsey again praises Staples, leaving Briggs out. Staples tries to defend his friend, but it won't work. Ramsey berates Briggs as a useless old man, filled with old, useless ideas. Shortly after the meeting, Briggs drops dead in the hallway of the building.
With Briggs' now gone, Ramsey slides Staples into his job officially. Staples is sick to his stomach over this, and flatly refuses to take it. In fact, he quits, berating Ramsey to his face.
But Ramsey refuses to accept Staples' resignation, mocking his the "halo" he's trying to earn by quitting. Staples is convinced into staying, but only after he gets Ramsey to agree to certain terms, ones that allow him more say in how the company operates, and the ability to take on Ramsey directly. Surprisingly, Ramsey agrees to all of this.

Staples emerges from the meeting, where his wife is waiting for him so they can go out to dinner. She's thrilled at her husband's new position, and as they head out onto the streets of Manhattan, the film comes to a close.

Whew! While my write-up might make Patterns sound like a lot of boring talk, it is anything but. Director Fielder Cook keeps the tension ramped up throughout the film's 84 minutes, as Staples seems to fight for his very soul.

Rod Serling as a writer was hardly subtle, and he's not subtle here, but his sense of pacing and ear for dialogue helps make his stories compelling, even if The Message is being delivered via brick. That was true on The Twilight Zone, and its true here.

Ramsey, while initially seeming like the movie's villain, the cold-hearted corporate boss, is a bit more complex than that. Yes, all he cares about is profits, but in the final scene with Staples we see he has an almost messianic view of The Company--people, including himself, are just cogs for it to use up and spit out, according to its needs. He gleefully wields the power he has, but is perfectly willing to give it up if it means the company will thrive. He's trying to show that to Staples, who doesn't buy in to that philosophy...for now.

I really enjoyed Patterns, enjoyed watching its three main actors (Helfin, Begley, and Sloane) go at it for 84 minutes. The film has virtually no soundtrack, and it ends on what seems like a happy note--Staples has been promoted, on his own terms, what's not to love?--but the dead silence over which the credits roll leaves the viewer with a different feeling: quite possibly, despite all his best intentions, Staples will end up just like Ramsey.

I missed last week's Movie Monday, thanks my trusty old computer dying on me unexpectedly. But now that I've got a new set-up, and things are easier and faster than they've ever been, I hope to keep Movie Mondays going for a long time. Thanks to everyone who stops by!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Movie Monday: Thor

For this week's Movie Monday we'll be talking about the brand-new film Thor!

I didn't plan on doing a review of a new film, but my ancient, diesel-powered computer finally up and died on me earlier in the week, leaving me unable to pull stills from the film I had planned to watch instead.

Then it dawned me that I was seeing Thor twice in three days (taking two different nephews), so I thought it'd be fun to write a real time, two-part review: my impressions upon seeing the film for the first time, then coming back to finish off the post having seen it again.
I'm not going to get into the specifics of the film's plot, not wanting to spoil it for anyone who might be reading this and wants to see it. So I'll just hit the high points:

Odin (Anthony Hopkins), having achieved a fragile peace with the Frost Giants (a race of warriors who, if allowed, would swallow up the universe, including Earth), is now prepared to name is heir: his oldest son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

But when Thor, along with his brother Loki and fellow warriors Sif, Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun, go to the Frost Giants world to extract some revenge, Odin casts his son to Earth to teach him some humility. Unfortunately, it is right at this moment that the Frost Giants (along with an Asgardian secretly on their side) are preparing to attack Asgard once again!

Thor lands on Earth, sans powers, and is met by the comely and indefatigable scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is taken by this stranger. Also arrived on Earth is Thor's hammer Mjolnir, which can only be moved by one who is worthy.

The U.S. Government is also interested in Thor's hammer, and try to find a way to move this source of immense power. They haven't seen anything yet, though: the Frost Giants send a being known as The Destroyer to Earth, and only Thor can stop him!

I found Thor a lot of fun--director Kenneth Branagh (an inspired choice to direct a movie such as this) keeps the film moving at a crisp pace, but also knows when to slow down and let the characters breathe. He eschews the machine gun pace of a lot of big budget CGI spectacles, that just throw things at the viewer so fast they hope you won't notice you don't really care about anyone on screen.

Chris Hemsworth does a good job as Thor, though unfortunately there's only a few moments where he gets to kick butt, Thunder God-style. He doesn't project a whole lot of depth, but neither did Thor in the comics, either.

Natalie Portman is lively as Jane Foster, having to lay a lot of pipe but managing to keep it from getting too dull. There's one or two scene where she lasciviously looks at Thor, which just a touch of sexual heat that you don't see much in big comic book movies: sure, there's attraction, but Portman gives Hemsworth an occasional "I wanna do this guy" look that was gave their scenes just a little extra edge.

The effects, as to be expected, are top-notch, but as I said Branagh keeps things from getting out of hand. I still find most CGI worlds to be grey and muddy, and not at all realistic, but they looked pretty good here. The battle with the Frost Giants is well staged and a pleasure to watch. There's also a couple of in-geek gags that only die-hard comic fans will get (like the billboard seen on the side of a building in a couple of shots), but they don't self-consciously call attention to themselves.

The ending is surprisingly quiet and low-key, instead of the usual bom-bom-bom-BOM! final moments you would expect--even Thor and Jane's first kiss is not what you think, making for a nice wrap up to the film.

Overall, I thought Thor was one of Marvel's best adaptations--maybe even as good as IronMan. This film doesn't have the flinty anchor that was Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Tony Stark, but I think the film itself might be just as good!
Okay--it's twenty-four hours later, and I have just seen Thor for the second time. I was entertained all over again, not really bored in the least; always a good sign for a film's longevity.

One thing I noticed this time around is how similar these Marvel films are to one another; no matter who the filmmakers are. As directors, Jon Favreau (IronMan), Louis Letterier (Hulk), and Kenneth Branagh are very, very different, yet the resulting films have a similar feel. Of course, that's on purpose, since Marvel is so determined to have all these movies inhabit the same universe.

Any comics fan from the 60s-90s would tell you that, as comic book companies, DC and Marvel were very different: Marvel had a distinctive house style, while DC did not. So its interesting to see that reflected in the movies that spring from those two companies: all of Marvel's films (even the Spider-Man ones, which aren't officially part of the eventual Avengers crossover) are of a piece, while DC's output--Superman Returns, The Dark Knight, Jonah Hex, Catwoman (*shudder*)--could not be more different. Like the comics themselves, the DC films have no "house style."

That's not meant as a criticism, in either direction, just an observation. Though I will say I wish Thor had a little more of Branagh's personal touch--something I guess is nearly impossible when you're part of a multi-multi-million-dollar enterprise.

All in all, I enjoyed Thor very much: it treats the characters with respect and delivers laughs and action with a relatively light touch. I would definitely be up for another solo Thor film if this one (and The Avengers) is a big hit. Aye, verily!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Movie Monday: Jonah Hex

For this week's Movie Monday I thought I'd take a giant risk by watching notorious bomb Jonah Hex!

As a long time comics fan (30 years +, yo), I was happy to hear they were making a Jonah Hex movie. I was less than happy when I started hearing details about it, which made it sound...well, wrongheaded at best, let's say. No longer just a scarred gunslinger, the movie Jonah Hex would have some sort of supernatural ability. Wait, what?

By the time the movie came out, word-of-mouth was awful, and the fact that it was cut down to a mere 82 minutes seemed to confirm the studio was trying to take the money and run. And since movies made from comic books are no longer unique (like they were when I was a kid, which meant you watched everything with a superhero in it, no matter how bad it was), I decided I wouldn't even bother seeing Jonah Hex at all.

But I have to admit, I was still really curious about the movie, so I decided to sit down and give it a chance. Is Jonah Hex as bad as everyone says? Or maybe, just maybe, is it secretly awesome? Let's find out:
Jonah Hex opens with what is essentially Hex's (Josh Brolin) "secret origin": he's a Confederate solider, under the command of Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). He turns on Turnbull when Turnbull orders a Union hospital burned to the ground. In the melee, Hex is forced to kill his best friend, Turnbull's son Jed.

Years later, we find Hex tied to a post by Turnbull and his crazy right-hand man Burke (Michael Fassbender). Turnbull is getting his revenge on Hex by "taking everything away" from him: namely, Hex's family, whom Turnbull has burned alive, as Hex screams in agony, forced to watch.

As if that's not enough, Turnbull brands Hex, turning his face into a scarred, pulpy mess. As Hex screams in agony, the film cuts to an animated sequence:
While the sequence looked kinda cool, I thought right off the bat we were on shaky ground: just a few minutes in, Jonah Hex felt more like a supernatural horror movie than a western.

We flash forward a few years, and learn that Hex is now a bounty hunter who shoots first, then doesn't ask questions later. After being stiffed by his employers, Hex kills them and takes his reward from the pockets of the dead men. He later spend some of it on a local prostitute named Lilah (Megan Fox), whom he clearly has something of an ongoing relationship with.

We soon learn that Turnbull, whom Hex believed was dead, is planning on stealing a massive gun, one that destroy entire cities with just a few hits. President Grant (Aidan Quinn) decides to hire Hex to stop him!

As the plot lurches forward, we're treated to more scenes that feel like they're from a horror movie than a western. Hex visits a sort of ad hoc fighting ring where people watch some poor bastard fight what looks like a mutant from another movie entirely:
In this movie, Hex also has superpowers: he can communicate with the dead. This comes in handy, and there's one scene that's so loaded down with exposition, with poor Brolin explaining just how his power work, that I chuckled during it. Any resemblance to the comic book Jonah Hex is purely coincidental at this point.

Turnbull has Lilah kidnapped, and trusses both she and Hex up as he plans to launch the weapon on July 4th:
Thanks to a hidden pick, Lilah frees herself, then Hex. They shoot and strangle their way to Turnbull, whom Hex fights and eventually kills when he jams the gun, causing it to explode.

Later, in Washington D.C., President Grant thanks Hex for this work and offers to make him a sheriff. Hex turns him down, but offers his services if he's needed again:
...Hex then meets up with Lilah, and they walk off together. Via voiceover, Hex explains that maybe he's not quite ready to cash in just yet. Let the sequels commence!

Of course, there will never(?) be a sequel to Jonah Hex, because the movie was a giant flop. Cut down to a lean 82 minutes, the film still feels too long, mired as it is in action scenes, dimly lit scenery, and a wall-to-wall pounding rock score.

I tend to think of comic book movies needing two elements to work for them to be successful: conception and execution. There's nothing inherently wrong with the execution of Jonah Hex: the effects are fine, the acting is okay (except for Megan Fox, whose line delivery throughout the film is so flat its sort of startling), but the movie simply went wrong from the start: the filmmakers clearly had no interest in making a western, of any kind, so they stuck their western hero in a supernatural action thriller. Jonah Hex seems so out of place in his own movie that the results are jarring.

Too bad; I always liked the Jonah Hex comic, and there was a good movie to made from this character; unfortunately this wasn't it.

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