Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Movie Review: The Omen

U.S. Release Date: 1976
Running Time: 1:51
Rated: R
Cast: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Harvey Stephens, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Troughton, and Leo McKern

Director: Richard Donner
Producers: Harvey Bernhard
Screenplay: David Seltzer
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Distributor: 20th Century Fox

With its factual Biblical basis, The Omen shares something most films in its genre today do not, psychological suspense/horror and intelligence. The Omen is intelligently and accurately based on passages from the Book of Revelations (the final book of the Old Testament); the screenplay writer, David Seltzer, took aside almost three months of research before putting pen to paper in order to ensure, that from a religious aspect, the movie was believable. Not only is this film believable, based on what has been foretold in the Book of Revelations, but it has also been proven to be a shocking and scary tale of earth-shaking importance that has influenced many to pick up its inspiring sacred text and read.

After the up-and-coming American Ambassador to Great Britain and his wife give birth to a still-born child, the soon-to-be leader, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) adopts a random child from the hospital, and then keeps these two secrets of the adoption and of the death of their biological offspring, from his wife Katherine (Lee Remick). The unbeknownst “mother” soon develops a fear of her “son”, Damien (Harvey Stephens)—for strange occurrences continuously come about in the presence of the evil tyke. The possibility of their son being the Anti-Christ soon becomes apparent. The family is firmly warned of their son being the non-human, evil incarnate, progeny of the devil himself, and it is not until the people around him begin dropping like flies that Robert Thorn realizes that his boy must be stopped, concluding in an all-out brawl between the powers of good and evil.

The film uses Chapter 13 Verse 18 from Revelations as it main theme, “Here is Wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of man; and his number is 666.” The motion-picture explains the three sixes as the diabolical trinity, with each six equaling either, the Devil, the Anti-Christ, or the False Prophet. The number six is denoted as the opposite of everything holy, while seven, the number that appears so frequently throughout the Hebrew text, is signified as the almighty, perfect and holy numeral. To take a direct quote from the movie, “For everything holy, there is something unholy; thus, is the essence of temptation.” It is said that this contradiction exists just to offer evil as a tempting lure from the followers of all that is pious and good. Therefore, the film clarifies how the good balances the evil in this world, and justifies its apocalyptic goals by instilling the idea that man can triumph over temptation.

With such a well-selected cast, made up of Gregory Peck, Lee Remmick, Harvey Stephens, David Warner, and Billie Whitelaw, this film impressively utilizes every actor’s performance abilities and their individual skills of character development to the fullest. Even though Peck and Remmick seem just a tad bit bland and aloof, they are the big names of the picture, and their names alone played a huge role in assisting this picture’s popularity and profit tremendously during its initial box office release. Other than the film’s two main stars, the combination of Whitelaw (the sly and sinister Governess), Warner (the long-haired photographer who falls victim to the sudden and shocking sheet of glass scene), and Stephens (the chubby-cheeked five-year-old whose defiant, devilish stares are just as convincing as the scowls of the spawn of Satan himself), makes for a supporting trifecta of terrific portrayals.

After directing numerous TV series, Richard Donner breaks out and lets his talents of direction shine. Because 20th Century Fox finally gave Donner and The Omen a chance, he was unleashed into mainstream productions, allowing all of his future hits (i.e. Superman, Maverick, Lethal Weapon, and one of my all-time favorite, kid-adventure classics, The Goonies) to grace the multiplexes.

It would be both unkind and unjust to write a review of this film and not mention the outstanding, Oscar-winning score from Mr. Jerry Goldsmith. The best aspects of this film are not the horror and scares alone, but rather the sinister score blended in with the movie’s suspense. Goldsmith, a veteran to composing motion-picture scores, beautifully and brilliantly blends a Latin-tongued, almost Gregorian chant-sounding chorus, with the piercing strings of a string orchestra, the thunderous thuds of a timpani, and the attacking, accented, staccato downbeat triplets of the brass section, to create a truly mesmerizing musical score, which includes the Academy Award-nominated main theme song, “Ave Satani” (Hail Satan). With The Omen, Jerry Goldsmith was at the peak of his composing career and hailed his only, but well-deserved, Oscar to date. To all of those with a musical ear possibly interested in composition, this movie’s score defines how an ingeniously composed score can tremendously impact the viewer’s impression of the overall picture.

The Omen chronicles the Birth, the Child, and the Mark (666), of the demonic youngster named Damien, whose name happens to be ironically close to the classical spelling of the term demon, daemon. And while I would not recommend this film’s three supposedly-inferior, Damien-inspired sequels, the original is one that I would definitely recommend. With its accurate basis, thrilling death sequences, and creepy, but captivating shots of just the character’s eyes, The Omen establishes itself as a legacy in its genre. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Movie Review: Inherit the Wind

United States, 1960
U.S. Release Date: November 1, 1960
Running Time: 2:07
Rated: PG (adult themes)
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Harry Morgan

Director: Stanley Kramer
Producer: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith (based on the 1950 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee)
Music: Ernest Gold
Studio: MGM/United Artist Studios

The 1960 black-and-white drama entitled Inherit the Wind - based on the historic Scopes Monkey Trial - covers both the aspects of fundamentalism and atheistic evolution--the two religious extremes of the strict and the cynical. However, by observing these polar opposites in this well-paced picture, the doors are opened to what can be found in-between.

Inherit the Wind is a vivid dramatic production full of wisdom and exceptional acting, but in the grander look of things, it is an informative reenactment of a famous historical event that is plainly inaccurate and exaggerated—resulting in only a mildly above par overall picture. However, to defend the film, it is basically just a work of fiction, loosely based on a real-life ordeal, that skillfully allows literary license.

Inherit the Wind (a title taken from a line found in the Book of Proverbs) addresses the controversial topic of evolution being taught in public schools and how Charles Darwin’s theory challenges the fundamental teachings of the Book of Genesis. It recounts and recaps the 1925 trial of teacher John Scopes in his defensive attempt to free the school systems of the close-minded fundamentalists’ views of evolution and allow young individuals to freely learn the scientific subject matter.

Conversely, there are several differing elements to take into account that make this more of a theatrical-enhanced rendition rather than a historically honest account of actual events; Inherit the Wind’s factual basis is tweaked a little too much in order to meet Hollywood’s “picture-worthy” standards.

For starters, the movie’s characters’ names are all symbolic for the real Monkey Trial players’ (Bert Cates = John Scopes, Matthew Harrison Brady = William Jennings Bryant, Henry Drummond = Clarence Darrow, E. K. Hornbeck = H. L. Mencken, etc.). Also, the movie never speaks of the actual act and its details that Cates (Scopes) violated (the Butler Act). Furthermore, throughout the film, Cates (Scopes) is depicted as if he was shaking in his booties in fear of the serious threat of being locked up for quite some time. This is only shown to increase the tension and drama of the fate of the film’s protagonist; John Scopes was never in danger of facing serious jail time. In fact, Scopes was never even arrested; he actually volunteered to test the law in order to call attention to his hometown of Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes was also, in truth, a Math professor who only briefly substituted as a teacher of Biology and actually never even taught or spoke of evolution in any public school. There are countless other dissimilarities between the actuality and the production to spout off about, but none that you could not locate on your own with a little undemanding research.

Aside from all of the film’s nominal adaptations of the real life events, this film is a respectable representation of a 1960’s motion picture that contains two highly honorable portrayals of the duo of bickering attorneys, played by Spencer Tracy and Fredric Marsh. Both Tracy and Marsh feed off of each other so well while feuding, delivering absolutely brilliant and award-winning performances.

Inherit the Wind is certainly a film to see because of its strong dialogue and interesting content. However, I don’t mean to discourage any potential viewers by saying: once you see this movie, I certainly hope you will be in agreement with me, that this film has one of the most old-fashioned and almost unbearable soundtracks of all-time. The repetitious maddening mantra, “Gimme That Ole’ Time Religion” (sang by Leslie Uggams), contains such an annoying vibrato chorus and is so utterly bothersome from start to finish, that I would hate to hear Simon Cowell’s comments on this classic. Otherwise, Inherit the Wind is still a recommendable picture. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Movie Review: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

U.S. Release Date: 11/4/94
Running Time: 2:04
Rated: R (Violence, gore)
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, Aidan Quinn, Richard Briers, Robert Hardy, John Cleese

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Producers: Francis Ford Coppola, James V. Hart, and John Veitch
Screenplay: Steph Lady and Frank Darabont based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Music: Patrick Doyle
Studio: Columbia/TriStar Studios

In 1817, Mary Shelley completed her tale about an overly-curious man of science named Victor Frankenstein, who, while in his quest for the answer to the unending question of eternal life, happens to disregard the presence of the higher powers at work. Dr. Frankenstein’s unethical research leads to the creation of his very-own, resurrected, revenge-seeking monster.

Over the years, Shelley’s storyline has not only inspired this monster (the resurrected creature was never actually given a name; it somehow just acquired the same, recognizable, German last name from its creator) to become a horror film icon and one the most memorable movie monsters of all-time (alongside the Werewolf and Dracula). However, it has also inspired the zombie-esque, bolted-neck beast to become a poster-boy for the Halloween holiday and, surprisingly enough, a children’s berry-flavored breakfast cereal.

Without a doubt, for different reasons, the acquired name of this fictional character, taken from the 1800’s text, has become a household name; everyone and their mother knows the name and the story of Frankenstein. Although, most recognize Frankenstein for its elements of horror and not for its strong elements of science, the well-known story combines such scientific and experimental aspects throughout (even though the main piecing-together of the body’s veins, muscles, bones, and arteries, and the eel-induced resurrection are both hard to conceive as being credible). For example the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation) is quoted in this picture as, “Energy: it never disappears; it merely changes form.” Also in the movie, the studied subjects of Chemistry, Biology, and Physics are determined to be the sciences that save lives. Furthermore, the topics of energy conductors, polarity, and the phenomenon of hair and fingernails growing after death, are all discussed.

Shelley could have never imagined that her novella would become one the most influential and prized pieces of literature of its time, and would lead to over thirty different, entertaining adaptations over the broad time span of nearly two centuries. The early nineteenth century text of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, mainly focuses on the possibility of resurrecting the dead, which would lead to the immortality of all of human kind. It then attempts to distinguish between when science is mad and unethical, and when it is merely a natural striving for a humanly-valuable discovery. All the while, it balances the intertwining and underlying aspects of incest, father-son relationships, and the power of playing God—making it both a popular and thought-provoking story studied by students and scholars alike, and a plot that could easily be manipulated over and over again in the realm of Hollywood.

Over the past century, the story of Frankenstein has been reinterpreted and adapted on the big screen more than thirty times through several sequels, spin-offs, and silly spoofs. Despite all of these motion-picture sequels (i.e. Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Son of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and The House of Frankenstein), spin-offs (i.e. Dracula vs. Frankenstein, The Teenage Frankenstein Meets the Teenage Werewolf, and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster), and spoofs (i.e. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein), no feature film has earnestly attempted to honestly relate to the style, depth, and context of Shelly’s original written text, until the 1994 theatrical release entitled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s novella emits a much more melodramatic tone which all of the horrific-based cinematic interpretations produced to date, excluding the ’94 production, fail to honor. The book-based version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein credits the almost Shakespearean-like, embellished aura which Shelley herself staged and strived for in her writing.

In summary, to all of the horror film aficionados out there: this one may not appeal to you as much as the other October 31st-oriented adaptations have; it is a completely-different, more-dramatized, Gothic-styled twist on all of the other film adaptations including the 1931 timeless classic of terror. There are no nuts and bolts protruding from the neck of the man-made being (played by Robert De Niro) in the more recent Shelley version, no huge heavy eyelids that give the stiff stumbling monster its scary stare, and no cheaply-made ragged clothing covering the creation’s massive muscles, but rather, a dark, black, sleek cloak. The individual, created in the own image of his “father” (Dr. Frankenstein, played by Kenneth Branagh), has a heavily-stitched and scarred face and practically no hair on his large, non-rectangular, shaped head. He possesses super-strength, the abilities to learn and read fluently and to speak eloquently, and the yearning and desires for love and sexual contact—all aspects of the original text. This interpretation is applauded for its accurate representations of the monster’s seclusion and rejection from society, and its awareness of its ugly, outward appearance. All of these factors display the obvious contrasts between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its previous more passive predecessors.

A brilliantly compiled cast including: the always entertaining Robert De Niro, the fiery brunette, Helena Bonham Carter, and arguably two of the best British actors of their time, John Cleese and Ian Holm, combines to make a refreshing list of familiar faces and talent. You may notice that I excluded Kenneth Branagh, who played Dr. Frankenstein, from this refreshing list of accomplished actors. Branagh should have stayed behind the camera and limited himself to directing this picture; his performance is agitated and distraught and gives the whole picture a fast-paced, frantic feel. The casting director surely could have found someone else other than the director to play the lead role, therefore presenting the possibility of adding one more dash of flavor to the otherwise cathartic cast.

Honestly, I would recommend the 1931 black-and-white, Boris Karloff version slightly more than this entertaining, but intermittently muddled, motion-picture. Occasionally, while watching Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I felt like saying, in a mockery of the “It’s alive!” quote, “It’s dying!” - as the film tends to slack out a bit during the second half. Yet, at the same time, it is easy to respect the picture for sticking to its much-admired literary basis. Regardless of the film’s over-dramatizing and its pacing flaws, this film is not only a monster story you may enjoy, but an epic Gothic tragedy of monstrous proportions. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004