The Rite: End of the World, Part One

The Exorcist Oneshet

Well, I started this post with a scant twenty-four hours before the end of the world, at least according to some, and that got me thinking about good and evil, so I thought it might be a good time to think about the battle between God and the devil.

The Exorcist has lost a lot of its shock-value since it first hit theaters in 1973. The special effects have a DIY feel to them, and the language and theme feel fairly tame compared to recent movies on the subject of demonic possession. Actually, you’d probably find more shocking elements in a Judd Apatow comedy than in The Exorcist. I expected all that when I settled down to watch it again. What I didn’t expect was how polished the movie is, how subtle, how quiet—at least for a while. The most interesting part of the movie turns out to be the slow build-up—Father Merrin in the mysterious desert, the small but creepy indications that something is not quite right with young Regan, and Father Karras’s persistent doubt. For a good forty minutes or more, you’d think you’d stumbled into something like John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. It has more drama than horror. Once the all-out bed-bucking, head-swiveling, and soup-spewing take place, I lose interest. The movie suddenly goes simple. You know you’ve lost an argument when you find yourself screaming. And that’s what so many mainstream movies do these days, each one trying to top the last. According to the preface to Lyrical Ballads, “the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants,” but clearly Wordsworth and Coleridge haven’t seen, for instance, Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, where the hero uses his enemy’s intestine to rappel down the side of a building.

The Rite Onesheet
The Exorcist wasn’t the first movie about demonic possession, but it may have been the first with such high production values. The Omen came along in 1976 with no less a production value than Gregory Peck in a leading role. “A” leading role but not “the” leading role, because the devil is the true star of these movies. And since those days, every now and again, Old Bendy makes an appearance, most recently in The Rite, a movie that owes so much to The Exorcist that it should pay a royalty. Anthony Hopkins plays the soft-spoken exorcist with a nod toward Max Von Sydow. Colin O’Donoghue plays the Jason Miller part, this time out as a seminarian who’s called upon to perform a ritual for a faith he no longer embraces.

True to B-movie form, the makers of The Rite claim the movie is based on true events, reminding you of this at the end with brief descriptions of the characters’ fates. And there is some truth to the claim. The book on which the movie’s based is a non-fiction account of a California priest’s training as an exorcist. The course he took in Rome wasn’t enough for him, so he apprenticed himself to a practicing exorcist, as the character in the movie does. And it’s true that some in the Catholic Church have called for a new militancy against evil. In 2007 the Vatican did call for an exorcist to be placed in every diocese. All of these elements come into play in The Rite.

Like The Exorcist, the best parts of The Rite are the quiet confrontations between the devout priest who has come to believe also in the existence of the devil and the doubting Thomas who studies the rite only as a favor to his mentor. The younger man, played as if the actor were channeling Jim Caviezel, isn’t sure he believes in God, so it goes without saying that he also doesn’t believe in the devil. But as Hopkins points out, “Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him.”

The movie plays out in predictable ways. I won’t spoil it by giving them away here, but you already know the moves this movie makes. Interestingly, the actual confrontations between good and evil aren’t as theatrical as they might have been, perhaps because the movie-makers felt they had to reflect the reality of what happened in the real events upon which the movie is based. What keeps your attention are the debates between the Hopkins and O’Donoghue characters, which are reminiscent of the debates between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

It’s surprising that the subject of exorcism would prove to be so enduring in movies. The fight between good and evil is difficult to depict on screen. It always seems to boil down to a shouting match, with the priest shouting prayers and the foul fiend blaspheming loudly until he’s forced to say his name, which somehow expels him from his victim. This kind of showdown happens so often that you wonder why the devil doesn’t change it up a little. Instead of possessing a young girl, how about an NFL linebacker, somebody who can’t be so easily strapped to a chair or bed by an aged cleric? And why so touchy about the name? Vampires have spent years figuring out ways around their limitations, and yet the same tired trick catches Old Nick every time. And, dude, what’s with all the levitation and contortion and spewing of nails, etc.? You’re the Prince of Darkness, not a sideshow freak. I mean, it’s so, well, Gaga! Just saying.

P.S. Well, it’s Saturday, May 21st, at about 4:00 p.m., around two hours until the scheduled Rapture. Glad I got this post up before the end. Well, two hours from now here in the Central Time Zone. One hour EST. Which are we to follow? Or is it west coast time? After all, that’s the home of Reverend Camping, who’s been predicting the end of days. And why assume it’s 6:00 p.m. in the U.S.? Shoot! Has the eternity train already left the station? Have I missed the Rapture? The end of the world is so confusing! Is it possible I packed all these bags for nothing? Dang! All dressed up and no place to go.

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Thor Loser

I thought the best way to see Thor was an IMAX matinée on the Saturday of its opening weekend, when all the kids were there—the twelve-year-olds for whom the movie was made. Imagine my surprise in finding an audience almost entirely made up adults over thirty. In fact, the only kids I saw had clearly been dragged there by their parents, and they trooped out about halfway through the movie.

Kenneth Branagh, trying to add some interest to the comic book story, echoes King Lear. Instead of giving his kingdom to his daughters, Odin’s about to give it to one of his sons, only to change his mind and banish Thor to Earth, giving preference to his brother. The movie jumps back and forth between New Mexico and Asgard as one son learns humility and the other plots to take over kingdom of the gods.

What a waste of fine actors. Let me quickly add that it’s too soon to say whether Chris Hemsworth has enough talent to waste. Not his fault. You can’t recite these bombastic I-am-the-god-of-thunder lines in any way that would show subtlety or nuance. Except for a few funny lines that send up the superhero genre, the lines in Thor were written to be shouted or declaimed, not acted.

Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Odin complete with a nifty eye-patch. I remember years ago thinking how the mighty had fallen when Sir Laurence Olivier went slumming as Zeus in Clash of the Titans (the original). And now here comes Hopkins in his footsteps. He’s always alternated between challenging roles in serious films and villains in popcorn movies. Look at his eyes—er, eye—in this movie, and you’ll be reminded of that moment in Remains of the Day when his character, made uncomfortable by Emma Thompson’s prying, says, “Do you know what I’m doing now? I’m placing my thoughts elsewhere while you chatter away.” I swear that’s what he’s doing in much of this movie.

The women in the cast are not well-served. I like Natalie Portman as much as the next fellow, even though she wore me out with all the hang-wringing and crying in Black Swan, a big dumb movie masquerading as high art. Here, though, she can bring nothing to the inert script except a certain level of believability. But an even greater crime has been committed against the talented Rene Russo, who plays Thor’s mother. She’s given the barest handful of lines and probably all of three minutes of screen time. You might say it’s not a movie about mothers and girlfriends but about fathers and sons and, more significantly, brothers. OK, but it still seems a waste of talent. Don’t we have enough movies where men are the only people who really matter and women are little more than decoration?

The one actor who fares well is Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki, Thor’s adopted brother. [Sidenote: one advantage of studying world literature is knowing that, if your brother’s name is “Loki,” you’re probably in for a bad time.] Hiddleston brings a level of intensity and complexity to the role that makes you feel for him when he complains to his father about being passed over, though he’s no John Cazale. Remember that incredible scene in Godfather II where he complains, “I was stepped over”? You know you’re watching a talented actor when you’re not sure what he or she will do or say next. Hiddleston is like that. It helps that Loki is the best written part in the screenplay. He’s Edmund, Gloucester’s “most savage and unnatural” son in King Lear.

The real star of the movie is the art director. Asgard looks like a cross between the Chrysler Building, the Disneyland castle, and a church organ. As for the CGI effects, they’re recycled, as usual in these movies. The big galloping monster is move-for-move straight out of Men in Black. The Frost Giants feel like the bad guys from The Mummy with a few cosmetic changes. And the giant robot, his body covered with shiny metal louvers, seems like a Transformer as designed by Levelor. By the way, if the Frost Giants can immobilize even the gods by encasing them in ice, why do they choose to punch and slash instead of just freezing them? And Thor is yet another movie in which our hero leaps from a great height and lands on one knee, making the earth shudder with the impact. This time, though,we see the leap from behind, sparing us the hero’s agonized scream as he shatters his patella.

Alas, even the 3D is a disappointment. Yes, characters point swords that seem to come straight out of the screen. But most of the shots merely bring a foreground character closer to the audience, leaving the background undifferentiated and sometimes out of focus. Avatar was another big, dumb movie, but I have to admit it’s 3D effects often took my breath away, especially the scenes in the lab, where the room felt like real space you could step into.

One of the features that made the first Iron Man movie so much fun was the humor. So many superhero movies seem to think they’re a play by Ibsen—all that solemnity and endless exposition, the “my lord” this and “my lord” that. Combine a smart, funny script with a director and star with a sense of humor, and the result was a movie that was both an embodiment and send-up of the superhero genre. Thor tries for that with a few off-hand visual jokes that show the earth-bound Thor as something less than the god of thunder. And Kat Dennings has some witty remarks as the smart-alecky younger sister to Natalie Portman’s character. And when Odin flings Thor’s hammer to Earth, it’s great fun to see the way the locals create a tourist attraction around it. But these moments aren’t enough to redeem the movie.

But in the end, Thor’s thunder amounts to little more than a rumbling stomach. As the credits rolled, the kids in the audience long gone, the adults shambled out of the auditorium, looking forward to the bright spring afternoon. The memory of Thor would fade before they hit the door.

P.S. My wife’s out of town, so I didn’t get to note at what point she fell asleep during the movie, but she did slip into the Odin-sleep while I told her about the movie over the phone.