Thursday, May 28, 2009

Taste the Blood of Angels & Demons; Other Weekend Viewing

A much too late recap of movie viewing over the Memorial Day weekend.

Taste the Blood of Dracula

It’s Hammer Time.

Another Dracula flick, this one the gloriously titled “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970) again with Christopher Lee baring his fangs at some of Victorian England’s loveliest ladies, including the delectable Linda Hayden.

Hayden plays Alice, whose father (Geoffrey Keen, a familiar face from several of the Roger Moore 007 movies) is symbolic of Victorian hypocrisy. Along with two friends, these three men enjoy the highest respectable standing in their communities when not visiting a brothel to taste the darker side of life. They meet Lord Courtney (a wonderfully cast Ralph Bates), the black sheep of an aristocratic family, one whom all sorts of unearthly rumors are spoken about. He promises the three pleasures of the flesh that will extend into infinity if they will only front the money to buy some supplies for a ceremony to resurrect you know who.

The movie is as much a look at hypocrisy as it is a Dracula flick. Keen also has an unhealthy interest in his daughter, staring down the front of her dress and muttering in a drunken state, “I haven’t beaten you since you were a little girl.”

For the first 45 minutes or so out of its 90-minute running time, Dracula barely makes an appearance. The first half of the movie is really quite good, and it seems a shame that Dracula needs to show up at all.

The resurrection scene is nicely staged by director Peter Sasdy, but when the three chicken out at the last minute and kill Lord Courtney in a rage during the rite, Dracula comes back to avenge the death of his disciple.

Since he has limited screen time, and hardly any dialogue, Lee drags out his dialogue into as many syllables as he can.

After the first killing, he intones, “The f…i….r….s….ttttt.”

A little later on, we get, “The s….e….c…o…n….dddddd.”

Finally, “The t….h…i…r….ddddd.”

For such short words, Lee sure does drag them out for maximum effect. It sounds like I’m knocking it and I’m not. I revel in juicy line readings like these. I wish we had more of them in today’s movies.

But as I’ve said before, I fully understand why Lee doesn’t want to be remembered as Dracula. There’s not much for him to do in these movies, except lend his considerable physical presence, stare a lot and snarl.

He’s easily dispatched too, in what is probably the lamest in the Hammer series. Dracula has been using an abandoned church as his base of operations, but when it is re-consecrated again, it’s too much for him and he makes noises and falls on an altar. The basic idea is good, but director Sasdy’s handing is pretty bad. Who does this re-consecrating of the church but Paul (Anthony Corlan), the wispy boyfriend of Alice. Paul knows nothing about vampires save for what his father wrote down in a book.

This is Dracula, the King of the Vampires, done in by a kid who barely knows anything? The nerve. Being dispatched so easily, it’s a miracle Dracula has any reputation at all.

On the plus side, we get one of James Bernard’s best scores, with the love theme being one of his loveliest melodies. There’s a scene where Alice sneaks out of the house to attend a dance with Paul (against the wishes of her father), and climbs out a second-story window and down a tree into Paul’s arms, supported by a lovely treatment of Bernard’s gorgeous theme. The music, set design and lighting put one to mind of a fairy tale. Hammer Films excelled at being fairy tales for adults, and this sequence is one of the best examples I know of in showcasing the Hammer magic.

It’s a terrific film, and I’m very fond of it. But there’s more than a nagging suspicion that it would have been better without Dracula in it.

Angels and Demons

The less said about the humorless and overlong “Angels and Demons” the better. It’s more watchable than “The DaVinci Code” (2006) but that’s not saying much. It’s as contrived as all get out, which is now the norm for thrillers like this.

I do like the fact that its central hero Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is an educated man. In a culture that celebrates stupidity and crassness, it’s refreshing to see an intelligent person not be made the butt of a joke. His exchanges of historical lore with Vittoria (Ayelet Zurer) generate some sparks between them, sparks more potent than kisses and foreplay for this highly educated duo.

As a practicing Catholic, I didn’t even object to the film’s central thesis of dark and mysterious conspiracies emanating from the Vatican. After all, I think there’s a rousing movie waiting to be made detailing the sex lives of medieval popes. But I will firmly admit to finding little entertainment in not one but two scenes of priests set on fire while still alive.

Director Ron Howard’s hand is too leisurely for this type of material. Like so many thrillers today, there’s about three climaxes too many. Each time I thought it was going to end, whoosh, off to another climax.

“The DaVinci Code” was one of the murkiest-looking big budget Hollywood movies I can remember seeing, so I was glad that returning cinematographer Salvatore Totino spent money to buy some high-quality bulbs for his lighting equipment. You can actually see what is happening this time.

Alas, we are still subjected to muddy sound recording, with too many actors delivering lines in a hushed excited manner that often makes it hard to understand what they are saying (especially true in the case of Ms. Zurer).

Also returning, unfortunately, is composer Hans Zimmer. I hated the way his scoring of the ending helicopter sequence at the end took away whatever tension the scene had. The scene goes on forever and Zimmer’s faux-inspirational scoring makes the scene appear twice as long as it already is. Rarely in the history of movies has a composer communicated so little using so many notes.

On the plus side, like the book, the movie did make me want to make a trip one day to see Italy and the Vatican. And Ewan McGregor’s Irish accent was good for a few laughs.

Operation Crossbow

Another thriller, but one with real thrills. This is more like it. Based on a true story, “Operation Crossbow” (1965) details Great Britain’s attempts to stop Germany’s rocket experiments during World War II. Germany actually launched V-1 rockets from Germany into London, causing considerable damage. Though Germany was losing the war, the successful rocket program could have gone badly for the Allies. Using engineers smuggled into the missile facility at Peenemunde, British intelligence learned of the imminent launch of a more powerful rocket, the V-2, that could have decimated London. The saboteurs are able to call in an air strike to destroy the underground rocket base.

The fiery conclusion puts one to mind of a World War II version of a James Bond movie. The underground rocket base is manned by many extras, and has the clean, shiny look of a SPECTRE facility. There’s some pretty impressive explosions on display here.

Before that, we get a taut story starring George Peppard as a German-speaking American Army engineer who joins a squad of soldiers with engineering experience in infiltrating the Peenemunde facility using the identities of dead German engineers. All is well and good until Sophia Loren shows up as the wife of Peppard’s character. Peppard pretends to be her husband’s friend and is only traveling with him, but how long can that ruse continue? Loren is top billed but is only featured in the central portion of the film. Top billing came about no doubt to the film’s producer, her husband Carlo Ponti.

Listening to the actors here was pure joy after suffering through the breathy whispers of “Angels and Demons.” Just a quick look at the supporting cast of old pros and one knows one will be reveling in crisp line readings: Trevor Howard, John Mills, Richard Johnson, Tom Courteney, Jeremy Kemp, Anthony Quayle (as a Nazi!), Lilli Palmer, Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine, Richard Todd, John Fraser, Maurice Denham and Patrick Wymark. Every young actor in Hollywood today should watch this movie for lessons in dictation. Please, do it right now. Please?

That’s Entertainment III

“That’s Entertainment III” (1994) was the third look back at M-G-M musicals and if it doesn’t attain the glories of the first film, it’s certainly better than the second one. The third film touches on some of the less noteworthy aspects of the studio and American Society, especially in the Lena Horne-narrated segment. She notes how many of her appearances in M-G-M musicals were specialty numbers, so could be easily snipped by theater owners in the South. A number from “Cabin in the Sky” (1943) was excised from the final print as it was considered too shocking to show Horne, a black woman, enjoying a bubble bath!

The film showcases other cut numbers, mainly due to length. A splendid movie.

Equally enjoyable was the fourth disc in the DVD box set, containing all sorts of terrific extras. One shows the famous lunch in 1949 celebrating the studio’s 25th anniversary, which gathered as many M-G-M stars as possible for the event. Footage from the lunch appears in the first “That’s Entertainment” film, but here we get extra footage. Some stars look up and smile as the camera passes by, while others could barely be bothered. There’s priceless footage of host George Murphy introducing the stars as they come into the room. Right before Kathryn Grayson is introduced, in comes Errol Flynn, on loan to M-G-M from Warner Bros. to make “That Forsythe Woman” (1949), who cuts through the line, and nods to Murphy, who seems flustered that the carefully planned event has been temporarily derailed. Did bad boy Flynn sabotage the introductions on purpose, or was it an accident? I don’t know, but I was delighted to see it.

Even better is an ABC special promoting the opening of the first “That’s Entertainment” back in 1974. This was a big, old school event celebrating the Golden Age of Hollywood. Dozens of stars attended the premiere and lined up for a picture. I’ve seen the picture reproduced before, but never the gathering for the picture. Amazing stuff. Astaire, Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Glenn Ford, Elizabeth Taylor, etc. Roddy McDowall comes out with Lassie. Jimmy Durante shows up in a wheelchair and gets a huge ovation. Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston stand next to each other. Did they come right from the set of “Earthquake?” There was no love lost between the two, but they seem to be making the best of it. My favorite moment comes when Marjorie Main is introduced. She was no spring chicken when she starred as Ma Kettle, and gets one of the biggest ovations of the night. Great, great, historic footage. I was sorry to see it over.

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