Thursday, January 14, 2016

Alan Rickman's Greatest Roles

Every once in a while, an actor dies and I genuinely feel like we lost someone who contributed much to our world. Alan Rickman is one such person. So rather than reviewing a film tonight, I’m going to identify my favorite Rickman roles and tell you what I think made them special.

Hans Gruber in Die Hard: This was the first time I noticed Rickman. In this film, he played the villain Hans Gruber, a German thief pretending to be a terrorist to cover up the robbery he’s planning. What Rickman did here that was ingenious was that he played the role as so over the top when dealing with the people he was duping, but he plays the role with icy determination when dealing with the much more dangerous Bruce Willis. The result was that he seemed especially dangerous and he gave us a reason to see “everyman” Bruce Willis as a step above everyone else. In effect, this sold us on Willis being the only credible hero in the film because the cops and the media and the hostages were all suckers. What’s more, for Willis to be able to play the everyman, Rickman needed to be able to command the screen for most of the film without losing credibility, and he does. The scenes with Rickman were creepy, chilling, fascinating and hilarious... all at once. That’s an amazing achievement.
Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series: What can you say? Rickman became Severus Snape to such a degree that it became impossible to see anyone else in that role. Even more importantly, Rickman did something fascinating with the role: he made Snape so unlikable that you despised him, yet teased you with the idea of an inner struggle which made you pull for him even as you hated him. It is an amazing line to walk as an actor to be so unlikable and yet be a character that people wanted to see made good. It is equally amazing to me that, in the end, Rickman injected such ambiguity within the emotions Snape projected that you never truly knew if he was in fact working for the good guys or the bad. That was all Rickman’s characterization too... it was not Rowling’s writing. Finally, his character, not anyone else’s, elevated the Harry Potter series to be something that reached adults.
Alexander Dane in Galaxy Guest: This movie really showed the amazing range Rickman had. Not only did he manage to lose himself in the role so that you almost didn’t know it was him, but he did it with a character who was essentially a stock character. Indeed, Dane was basically every whiny, jealous second-tier actor who found himself as the sidekick on a hit television show, right down to the pretentious talk of being a great thespian at heart who was typecast by the show he now hates. Rickman took this rather worn character and made it stand out as fresh and new. He also had you in stitches doing it. Indeed, this role showed that Rickman could more than handle comedy with ease, something few serious actors can do.
Lukas Hart III in Bob Roberts: Bob Roberts is a cult classic that’s well worth the time. As an attack on the supposed “manufactured/packaged nature” of conservative candidates, this film fails in several ways. For one thing, while we’re supposed to hate the main character, Tim Robbins is too likable in the role. For another, the folk music that was meant to be a parody wasn’t biting/ironic enough and Robbins ended up refusing to release it out of fear that conservatives would use it... “I’m a clean living man with a rope in my hand.” Further, it really shows the left as the intolerant petty little monsters they are. Just watch the SNL knock-off scene and you’ll see what I mean as the “good leftists” come across as totally petty, intolerant and abusive. Finally, everything in this film quickly became SOP for people like the Clintons, so criticizing these tactics didn’t sit so well on the left even one election cycle later.

Anyways, Rickman plays Hart, Roberts’ campaign manager, who is also a mysterious former military/CIA guy who is accused of creating Bob Roberts to give the military industrial complex its own Senator. Rickman plays this role so well, showing you a guy who is too high strung and who struggles with the fact that he needs to play second fiddle to Roberts, his own puppet. This is a complex and fascinating role. And while Roberts is great, the truth is that without Rickman’s mysterious and on-edge character, this film just wouldn’t be complete.

Rickman had amazing range and, like the best actors of our era, he managed to bring something special to every character he did which made them real to us and memorable. He’s not a man to ever phone it in, to do what everyone else has already done, or to play a role without trying to reach us whether he was the villain, the hero or just an extra. He will be missed.

What were some of your favorite Rickman roles?
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Monday, January 11, 2016

Guest Review: The Fugitive (1993) vs. Chain Reaction (1996) vs. U.S. Marshals (1998)

by ScottDS

Let’s ring in the new year with Commentarama’s first three-way! (Uh, yeah.) Anyway, I’ll be looking at a favorite film of mine, Andrew Davis’ 1993 classic The Fugitive and comparing and contrasting it to his 1996 follow-up, the wrong man thriller Chain Reaction, along with Stuart Baird’s 1998 Fugitive pseudo-sequel/spinoff U.S. Marshals.
Based on the TV series created by Roy Huggins, The Fugitive features Harrison Ford as Richard Kimble, a Chicago vascular surgeon who is found guilty for the murder of his wife. He claims it was a one-armed man and manages to escape after his prison bus careens off the road and is destroyed by a train. With Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard and his team on the trail, Kimble finds his way back to civilization and attempts to find out the truth. It turns out that the murder was orchestrated by Kimble’s associate, Dr. Charles Nichols. Nichols had been developing a new drug that Kimble had found caused liver damage. Nichols hired a one-armed former police officer named Sykes to get Kimble out of the way, but Sykes ended up killing Kimble’s wife. Gerard slowly reaches the same conclusion and Kimble manages to subdue Nichols in a climactic fight.

I remember watching this on HBO when I was 11 or 12 and being totally transfixed. It has a perfect first act and it was the idea of one of the editors to feature non-chronological flashbacks of Helen Kimble’s murder in slow motion with a desaturated palette. Andrew Davis directs and at the time he was best known for the films that put Steven Seagal on the map: 1988’s Above the Law and 1992’s Under Siege, along with the Chuck Norris actioner Code of Silence and the dated yet entertaining political thriller The Package. The pacing is just about perfect and it’s a miracle the filmmakers manage to stage so many close calls without anything feeling contrived or coincidental. (One possible exception would be when Kimble is hiding behind the door in the elderly hospital patient’s bathroom – it’s the only part where I’m like, “Really?”) It’s a testament to Davis and his team that the film holds together considering they were revising the script as they went along and a few set pieces (the chase through the St. Patrick’s Day parade for instance) were only developed after shooting had already started.
The acting is excellent. Ford proves why he was The Man in the 80s and 90s, playing both action and intellect with equal aplomb. Tommy Lee Jones is Gerard and he actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (beating out Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List!). He commands the screen and would pretty much go on to play Gerard-type authority figures for the next decade. His fellow marshals are played by Joe Pantoliano, Daniel Roebuck, Tom Wood, and L. Scott Caldwell. They have a natural camaraderie and you feel like they’ve all worked together for years. There’s no forced exposition or cheesy moments where we “learn” something about them. They each have at least one great line or moment, with Wood’s character nearly getting killed in a standoff. Pantoliano is entertaining as always and Roebuck gets one of my favorite lines: “If they can dye the river green today, why can't they dye it blue the other 364 days of the year?”

The film was shot on location in Chicago with the train crash and iconic dam jump shot in North Carolina. Davis came up in an age when action films were shot with coherent camerawork: no shaky-cam or rapid-fire editing here. Everything is logically laid out and we always know where everyone is. James Newton Howard’s score is one of the best action scores of the 90s and could be heard in many subsequent action movie trailers. Davis also had a great stock company: actors that he worked with on multiple films. I can’t name them all here but it seems like every other supporting actor from The Package and Code of Silence is in this movie, notably Ron Dean and the late Joe Kosala (a real former Chicago cop) as Detectives Kelly and Rosetti. We’ll see them again later.
And here they are. After the financial and critical success of The Fugitive, Davis squandered it all with 1994’s Steal Big Steal Little. After that, he returned to familiar territory with Chain Reaction, which features Keanu Reeves as Eddie Kasalivich, a student machinist on the run from the law after a scientific project he’s involved with is destroyed and the lead scientist is killed. The project is a technology that can obtain clean energy from water by separating the hydrogen molecules via a process known as sonoluminescence. The entire project is bankrolled by Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman), an enigmatic (to say the last) figure with ties to various government entities. Kasalivich and physicist Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) are framed for the accident and spend much of the film fleeing from the FBI and the goons employed by Shannon’s associate, Collier (Brian Cox), who operates a mysterious organization known as C-Systems.

Richard Kimble’s story was relatively straightforward: A hires B to kill C who is chased by D as C tries to find B who leads back to A. Eddie’s story is more like this: A and B are on the run from C and D while occasionally being assisted by E who works with F. This movie has twice the plot and characters as The Fugitive but is only half as entertaining. The actors are all fine, including Keanu – he gets a lot of crap but from everything I’ve read, he seems like a nice guy and I’m glad John Wick has developed something of a cult following. Morgan Freeman is excellent as always and manages to walk the line between ally and threat. He gets the speech at the end about how releasing the clean energy project to the world would end up making things worse, but lest you think otherwise, this is not a polemic. (One reviewer sadly pointed out that things seem to have gotten worse without the benefit of this technology!) The film ends with Eddie destroying Collier’s iteration of the project and putting all the plans for it online, along with evidence to clear him and Lily of any wrongdoing. Shannon kills Collier and… something something.
Instead of Tommy Lee Jones and Joey Pants, we have Fred Ward and Kevin Dunn as two FBI agents. Both actors are talented but their banter is often forced (and unfunny) and I’m not quite sure who’s on their team. The first act of this film introduces character after character and it’s like, “Is that a cop? Is that an FBI agent? Is that an assassin? Is that a scientist?” It’s hard to tell and, unlike The Fugitive, no one really makes much of an impression. We also get half a dozen other actors from that film, including the two aforementioned detectives (playing two different detectives, though it would’ve been cool if they played the same ones!). Tech stuff is all fine, I guess, with the main set pieces consisting of Eddie outriding a CGI shockwave, an exciting foot/drawbridge chase down Michigan Avenue, and a snowmobile chase shot on location in the winter. As with the previous film, Davis proves you can shoot an action film while maintaining visual sanity.

The film is entertaining in a “boring Sunday afternoon” kind of way. But all the mystery is much ado about nothing. We have conversation scenes in offices where we learn Freeman’s character has ties to the State Department. We have FBI agents looking through files that reveal a connection to DARPA. On one hand, these are all background details that add gravity to the situation and a sense of history. On the other hand, NONE of it matters. Someone at one point asks, “Jesus, who the hell is this guy?” By the end, we’re still not sure! This film also features plenty of characters frantically typing which is rarely exciting, but here it’s not too bad. This was back when the idea of “uploading” something to the Internet was still a novelty for many people. Oh, and this is a pet peeve of mine, but the credits list the characters using their full names, so it’s like: a.) I didn’t know the name of the actor, b.) I didn’t know the name of their character, and c.) I didn’t know they had a last name!
And finally, U.S. Marshals, a kinda sorta Fugitive sequel-slash-spinoff. Same producers, some of the same actors, different writer and director. Tommy Lee Jones returns as Gerard, who has to track down a fugitive named Mark Sheridan… or Mark Roberts… or Mark Warren. (I’m just gonna call him Mark.) Wesley Snipes plays Mark and while Kimble was more or less an everyman, Mark is a former CIA/Special Ops commando. Mark is accused of killing a DSS agent. He’s on the same prison transport plane as Gerard (who’s on board for an unrelated case). A Chinese prisoner attempts to kill Mark with a concealed zip gun. He shoots out the window, which causes the pilot to attempt an emergency landing on a too-short backwater road. Mark escapes and the Marshals are called in. There’s a mole in the State Department and Mark has to figure out who framed him before Gerard and the DSS get to him.

Stuart Baird also directed Executive Decision and I’m pretty sure he was hired to direct this movie only because he knows how to stage an exciting cabin depressurization. (He would do it a third time in Star Trek: Nemesis!) The script was written by a first-timer and it kinda shows. The banter is forced and unfunny this time and while I have no problem with Gerard and Mark on the same plane, I do have a problem with how Gerard gets involved in the case. In The Fugitive, he has government authority and the local sheriff (played by Nick Searcy, aka Bev’s nemesis!) is happy to turn over the crime scene. In this film, however, the local cop on the scene is portrayed as a buffoon. I’ve said it before but you don’t have to make your hero look good by making the other guy look stupid. And while Snipes is game, his character isn’t entirely sympathetic. Kimble saves a boy’s life while Mark threatens a trucker and his wife at knifepoint. Some of the performances come off as artificial and perfunctory, especially French actress Irene Jacob who gets saddled with the clichéd “girlfriend” role. Kate Nelligan, on the other hand, acquits herself nicely as Gerard’s boss.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention Robert Downey Jr.! He’s in this movie as the DSS agent assigned to Gerard’s team. He’s also game but he falls into what Roger Ebert once referred to as the Alan Alda Rule: “Any character in a murder mystery who is excessively helpful to the main character invariably turns out to be the killer.” I’m still not entirely sure what his role is in all this. Is he the mole? Is he one of several moles? Is he just trying to protect someone else? How far does this all go? I guess there’s a reason why The Fugitive was nominated for Best Picture while this one languishes in cable rerun world. (Where, ironically, it usually follows airings of The Fugitive!) The plane crash sequence is exciting though it’s obviously model work. By contrast, the train crash in The Fugitive was real and only the shot of Ford leaping off was a composite. Some of the other major set pieces involve a shootout in a cemetery and Mark swinging from a roof to a moving train. Jerry Goldsmith scored this film and he introduces a heroic action motif that he would use again in Star Trek: Insurrection later in the year (and yes, I noticed!).

I say it in every other review: it’s a miracle any movie gets made and released, let alone a good one. The Fugitive is Hollywood doing what it does best: cast and crew firing on all cylinders, taking a good story and telling it in an engaging way. Chain Reaction, on the other hand, is more of a potboiler, and proves how difficult it is for a director to make lightning strike twice. And U.S. Marshals shows what can happen when you take a simple story and needlessly complicate it.

“I didn’t kill my wife!”
“I don’t care!” (The original line was “That isn’t my problem!”)
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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Film Friday: SPECTRE (2015)

I have mixed feelings about this film. On the one hand, Daniel Craig’s Bond films continue by and large to be better than anything since Sean Connery’s films. On the other hand, there was a lot I disliked about this film and my first reaction is to rank it as the worst of the Craig films. In particular, this film was confused, pointlessly-complex, and committed many of the sins which the Craig years have been about undoing. It also represents a seriously wasted opportunity.

Spoiler Alert: There Are Important Spoilers Herein


The biggest weakness of this film is the plot. The plot is needlessly complex and the writers seemed to get lost in it. What’s more, important chunks of the complexity are nonsense.
The story begins with Bond in Mexico City where he sets out to kill a man. In the process, he learns of another man who has a ring with an octopus on it. Bond returns to Britain, where we learn that he did all of this against orders and without the knowledge of MI-6. We also learn that MI-6 is being absorbed by MI-5, and MI-5’s boss wants to eliminate the 00 program.

Bond is ordered to stay in London, but he’s running his own mission this time. It turns out that he has been given instructions by Judi-Dench M in a deathbed video to kill a man, attend his funeral and then figure it out from there. So Bond escapes to Italy and attends the funeral. This is where the writing problems begin to appear. Watch for a trend: Bond somehow finds out where the private funeral will be held. Despite the funeral being a who’s who of villains, Bond somehow gets into the funeral and meets the widow. Bond somehow knows they plan to kill her. He somehow figures out when she will return home and arrives just in time to kill the killers who have come to get her. She somehow knows where her dead husband’s associates will meet to discuss how to replace him. Bond goes there and somehow gets through the door and attends a massive SPECTRE meeting. He then gets exposed and he somehow escapes because only one guy bothers to chase him.
Now, don’t get me wrong. These scenes are beautifully shot and they’re interesting and tense. The supercar chase scene is a tad long, but it’s broken up by Bond being on the phone throughout. And if you like, you can imagine all kinds of explanations for each of the somehow’s above. But the fact remains that none of this is explained and it all seems a tad flimsy. And it gets worse from there as this is just the beginning.

From here, Bond will meet a man who is a hermit but who somehow knows everything about SPECTRE but only gives Bond a one word clue, which Bond will somehow use to find a secret daughter, whom he must rescue. She will use that clue to lead him to a hotel in Africa where Bond somehow finds a hidden room which tells him how to end the movie at a volcano lair (Bond still needs to resolve a brutally obvious subplot which is so packed with somehow’s that it makes you wonder if they did more than give this a cursory thought before including it in the film).
Again, let me say that Sam Mendes is a director with an amazing eye for imagery. This film is visually beautiful if not stunning. Everything about it is perfectly handled from a visual point of view. The effects are great. Mendes mixes in some wonderful touches, like old cars and cool little homages to the Connery years, and most of the scenes are moody and interesting. The problem remains, however, that the story surges from visual to visual without ever bothering to fill in the plot points to explain how Bond got to where he got.

Equally problematic, the main villain, Blofeld, is a bore, and the plot involving Blofeld proves to be a dead-end to the plot. It’s almost like the writer figured that just introducing the character was enough for the film and didn’t think of what else to do. At the same time, the subplot has a much better villain. He’s more developed and better acted. When he’s on screen, the film just feels tense (when Blofeld is on the screen, the film feels stopped). Unfortunately, the writers all but ignore the subplot and what it could add to this film. And then when they do focus on it, what they do is horribly obvious and rushed. The subplot is where this film really should have gone.

Daniel Craig returns as Bond and there is a lot of talk that this may be his last Bond film. While I’ve felt that he’s been an amazing Bond, I am honestly ready for him to leave. This movie, even more than the last, kept projecting the idea that Bond hated his job and wanted to quit... something Craig has paralleled about the role in interviews. So while Craig was again smooth, suave and cold-blooded, and he therefore fit the role perfectly, he also came across as tired and perhaps a little indifferent to the film throughout.
The Villain (Spoilers)

This film had multiple villains. On the one hand, you had the main villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played by Christopher Waltz. With him, you had Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx, a kind of cross between Donald Grant in From Russia With Love and Oddjob in Goldfinger. And then there’s C.

Hinx is an assassin who fights Bond a couple times. The only “character” moment comes when he applies for the job of assassin at the SPECTRE meeting. Otherwise, he’s just walking muscle.
Blofeld is the head of SPECTRE. And when I heard that Waltz would play him, I was excited. Unfortunately, he’s a waste. His character is intensely boring as he drones on and on about things that sound kind of like a life philosophy but really are just words strung together. Even worse, this film commits the cardinal sin of making Blofeld a sort-of relative of Bond’s. He even claims to have sent all the villains Bond has been facing in the Craig movies after him and of ordering the deaths of everyone who has died in Bond’s life. In other words, forget everything you thought you knew about the prior films or Bond’s character because this ill-defined impossible character has manipulated every moment to punish Bond because his own father loved Bond more than him. Ug.

First of all, the idea that one person could cause all the unrelated events in the prior films, each of which involved unique motivations and plenty of luck, is ludicrous... so Blofeld somehow got M to piss off Silva before Bond was even an agent just so Silva would one day go after Bond? Yeah, right. Secondly, the idea that the world is essentially divided between one superspy and his sort-of supervillain brother is comic book thinking, and it takes it too far away from reality. Third, how can someone so obsessed form an organization like SPECTRE? It’s nonsense.
The most interesting villain is Andrew Scott as Max Denbigh or “C”. He runs MI-5 and he’s entered into a deal with SPECTRE to build a surveillance empire on behalf of the British government all in the name of stopping terrorism. What makes him interesting is that it’s easy to see him as a real creature haunting governments everywhere. He thinks he’s the good guy because he’s obsessed with bringing order to our chaotic world and he genuinely thinks that causing a few deaths and doing a dirty deal is worth the benefits the world will get. He can’t even see the danger of working with someone like Blofeld. Unfortunately, his character gets badly neglected by the film in favor of Blofeld, so we don’t see him much and we learn even less about him. What’s more, what we do see points so obviously to him being a villain that there’s no mystery to this. This is a lost opportunity. This would have been a better film if SPECTRE had been a red herring and C was the main villain, or if C was not a villain and he was being framed by SPECTRE. Instead, he’s just there to give M and Moneypenny something to do in the film.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

I don’t want to make it sound like I hated this film. I didn’t. I thought it was a decent movie and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot more than most of the Bond films after the Connery years. It was beautiful and had the travelogue film these films need. The pacing was excellent and the story offered enough to hold your interest. The ‘cool’ moments were indeed cool. The humor was funny. The action was tense. Craig did his usual great job with the role. The Bond girls were pretty, especially Monica Bellucci. Andrew Scott was creepy and believable. It was excellent escapism and could be the best “mindless action film” in the series.
Where this film disappointed me was that the film never bothered to explain so much of what happens except by saying, “Hey, he’s Bond... just accept it.” I also felt that Blofeld was a waste and his relationship with Bond was a horrible idea to inject, and was done so just to add a punch which his character was lacking in the story. It also bothered me to a degree that what made the Craig films so different was the return to basics, i.e. there were no supercars chases, no impossible stunts, no buildings blowing up, no nuclear-sized explosions, no larger-than-life villains, and no volcano lairs, but this film brought all of that back into the series. It was a retreat to fantasy.
So what I would say about this film is that it proved to be a genuinely missed opportunity. If they had kept more focus on Bond the investigator, had eliminated Blofeld and focused on the subplot, and bothered to connect a few more dots, this could have been the best film ever. But they didn’t. Ultimately, I would rank this as the worst film of the Craig era as a Bond film, even as it probably gets the highest marks in the series as a mindless action film.

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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Where Were You in ’96?

by ScottDS

I’ve decided to jump ahead 10 years, so let us look back [gulp] 20 years at 1996. I was a 13-year old socially-awkward nerd (hard to believe, I know) and this was the first year I started going to movies with school friends and not parents, so it will always hold a special place for me. As per usual, the list leans towards genre stuff.

Independence Day – The big one. Back when Roland Emmerich could direct a watchable film. Back when a teaser could play in theaters and not be dissected within minutes. I’m still a fan of this movie. It’s just fun and goofy and ridiculous and some of the effects have dated… but it’s likeable and genuinely exciting. And David Arnold’s bombastic score is a treat. One wishes all this could be said about Emmerich’s 2012. Right now, an Independence Day sequel (sans Will Smith) is in post-production and I consider it a huge mistake. Nostalgia counts but this teaser doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. “All you need is love. John Lennon. Smart man. Shot in the back, very sad.”

Fargo – Would you believe I only saw this film for the first time this year? And that was after the excellent FX TV series! This critical darling is what I call “deceptively simple” – it’s a crime drama, but there’s enough homespun weirdness to make it unique. This is the Coen Brothers firing on all cylinders. William H. Macy plays (what else?) a sad sack who hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can extort his rich father-in-law. Frances McDormand plays a police officer who investigates a related homicide. The cold Midwest landscape is bleak and oppressive and Carter Burwell’s Norwegian folk-inspired score is downright depressing. “There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that?”

Twister – I thought this movie was awesome back in 1996. I recently watched parts of it and… yikes. Cheesy and clichéd and the otherwise talented Cary Elwes plays a mustache-twirling villain (you know, because tornadoes aren’t big enough?!). The film did have one of the great teasers (featuring that cool shot that wasn’t in the film) and ILM’s effects mostly kinda sorta hold up, but damn. I swear half the dialogue consists of “Run!” and “Go!” With Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg involved, you’d expect something a little, uh, better. On the plus side, however, this film was my first exposure to the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. “‘The Suck Zone.’ It's the point basically when the twister… sucks you up. That's not the technical term for it, obviously.”
Mission: Impossible – I’ll always have fond memories of this film, even if the plot was a little too labyrinthine. Brian de Palma directed what would be his highest-grossing, most crowd-pleasing film, and plenty of his trademark visual tricks are on display. Many criticized the film for making what was an ensemble TV show into a Tom Cruise showcase and many more criticized the film for turning series lead Jim Phelps into a villain. But for someone who had never seen the series, this movie was just a lot of fun, though the novelization helped to clear up some things. The CIA vault sequence is still a great case study in direction and the helicopter/Chunnel climax is ridiculous (and awesome!). “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.”

Star Trek: First Contact – Picard and Co. travel back in time to 2063 to stop the Borg from interfering with Earth’s first warp flight. Jonathan (Riker) Frakes made his big-screen directing debut and while he’s still a regular TV director, I wish a studio would give him another shot at the big chair. Alice Krige is silky and sexy as the Borg Queen and James Cromwell plays warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane. The film is good but somewhat hampered by its low budget and I can’t disagree with fans who feel the studio-mandated Borg Queen was a mistake. The make-up effects are great, Jerry Goldsmith returned to do the music, and Deborah Everton's 21st century outfits are some of my favorite Trek costumes. (I love Cochrane’s ensemble!) “Believing oneself to be perfect is often the sign of a delusional mind.”

Jerry Maguire – Cameron Crowe’s critical and audience favorite features Tom Cruise as a super agent who one day has a moral epiphany, is subsequently fired, and is stuck with only one loyal client and one loving employee. The client is NFL star Rod Tidwell, the role for which Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Oscar – it’s a shame his subsequent career has had more downs than ups. Renée Zellweger plays Maguire’s employee/love interest and she's on the receiving end of the classic line “You complete me.” Sadly the last time she was in the news, it was because of her cosmetic surgery. Hell, even Cameron Crowe’s career has hit the skids. He did Almost Famous after this, which is considered a modern classic, and then Vanilla Sky… and nothing’s clicked since. “Twenty-four hours ago, man, I was hot! Now… I'm a cautionary tale.”
Mars Attacks! – This is one movie I wish I liked more than I did. Equal parts 50s B-movie and 70s disaster movie, Tim Burton’s all-star mess is based on a series of grotesque Topps trading cards: big-brained aliens attack Earth, Sarah Jessica Parker’s head is attached to the body of a Chihuahua, and the only way to kill the aliens is to blast Slim Whitman music. Jack Nicholson plays two roles, Rod Steiger plays a war-mongering general, and Tom Jones plays himself. How can I not like this movie!?! Because it’s honestly not that funny and I don’t really care about anyone… even Danny Elfman’s theremin-heavy score doesn’t do it for me here. After this film, Burton would go on to develop an ill-fated Superman movie which is the stuff of legend. “Ack! Ack! Ack!”

Daylight – This disaster movie from Rob Cohen is one of those movies I’ll keep on in the background. It’s not particularly good, but it’s still watchable. Sylvester Stallone is former EMT chief Kit Latura, the Only One Who Can Save the Day after an explosion seals of both ends of an unnamed New York/New Jersey tunnel. It’s clichéd and predictable and there’s some ham-handed backstory explaining why Stallone is no longer on the force. The cast includes Amy Brenneman as a playwright who’s sick of the city and Viggo Mortensen as an adrenaline junky (you can see where this is going). This was one of Stallone’s last big movies before he ended up in direct-to-video purgatory for a few years. If you’re claustrophobic, I’d avoid this one! “Okay, we're high and dry and out of danger. Now, what we don’t need is more surprises. Right?”
The English Patient – Proof that Best Picture doesn’t necessarily equate to longevity. I still haven’t seen it (one day!), but when was the last time you heard anyone talk about it? The actors are talented and it’s well-made from the bits and pieces I’ve seen, but Fargo got a TV series… where, may I ask, is The English Patient series? [smile] I would argue that this film is better known today for the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine resents everyone she knows telling her to go see it and she gets stuck seeing it… twice. And in case you were wondering, the film tells the story of a wounded pilot who, in the final days of WWII, tells the story of a fateful love affair to the nurse who’s tending to him. “Those sex scenes! I mean, please! Gimme something I can use!” (That was from the episode, not the film.)

Eraser – One of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last big headliners. He plays a Witness Protection agent who’s tasked with protecting a defense contractor employee (Vanessa Williams) after she finds out her crooked boss plans to sell the company’s new weapon on the black market… that old chestnut. There are a lot of familiar faces, including the much-missed James Coburn as Arnold’s boss, James Caan as Arnold’s mentor (and traitor), and the late Robert Pastorelli as one of Arnold’s previous witnesses who gets to help out. I haven’t seen the film in years but I remember some fun (if implausible) action sequences and some horrible CGI when Arnold comes face to face with a crocodile. “I didn't know treason was part of the corporate strategy.”
Hamlet – I first watched Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour 70mm epic in high school and enjoyed it very much. Unlike previous adaptations, this one uses the complete text. The cast ranges from excellent to “Him?” Branagh plays Hamlet, the prince who seeks to avenge his father’s murder. Derek Jacobi is Claudius, Julie Christie is Gertrude, and Kate Winslet is Ophelia. Charlton Heston is the Player King, Brian “Gordon’s alive!” Blessed is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Billy Crystal (!) is the First Gravedigger, Robin Williams (!!) is Osric, and Jack Lemon is sadly a bit out of his depth as Marcellus. Tech stuff is all top notch, as is the location work at Blenheim Palace. This film is truly an epic of the old school. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Island of Dr. Moreau – Cult director Richard Stanley was fired from his passion project three days in and was replaced by John Frankenheimer. Val Kilmer was a temperamental ass, Marlon Brando was his eccentric self, and Mother Nature was a bitch. I recommend the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – it features Stanley and others discussing what could’ve been. There were days where Kilmer wouldn’t leave his trailer until Brando left his, but Brando wouldn’t leave his trailer until Kilmer left his! Meanwhile, dozens of extras in strange animal makeup were sitting around with nothing to do. To be fair, Kilmer was dealing with his divorce and Brando was dealing with his daughter’s suicide. Stanley even managed to sneak back onto the set disguised as an animal extra. “I have seen the devil in my microscope, and I have chained him.”

The Long Kiss Goodnight – Honestly, I think this is Samuel L. Jackson’s most quotable movie. Geena Davis stars in one of her last big films as Samantha Caine, a housewife who finds out she was once a CIA assassin. Jackson is a PI who teams up with her to find the truth and Brian Cox does more in five minutes than most actors do in two hours as an eccentric doctor. Renny Harlin directs one of his last big movies and Shane Black writes one of his last big movies before bouncing back with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The plot involves a CIA false flag operation in which the agency would blow up Niagara Falls and place the blame on Islamic terrorists in order to get more funding – the stuff that truther dreams are made of. “…when you make an assumption, you make an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘umption’.”

Everyone Says I Love You – A charming Woody Allen musical. All of the actors (save for one) use their own singing voices: some are okay, like Edward Norton; some are actually pretty good, like Goldie Hawn; and others should stick to their day jobs, like [cough] Julia Roberts. The plot is immaterial – a series of vignettes featuring an upper-class liberal Manhattan family. The final 20 minutes are magic: a bunch of dancing Groucho Marxes singing “Hurray for Captain Spaulding” in French, followed by Woody and Goldie dancing along (and above) the Seine. Another example of an R-rated movie that shouldn’t be (one “mother---er” in a rap song… and nothing else!). “I should go to Paris and jump off the Eiffel Tower. I'll be dead. In fact, if I get the Concorde, I could be dead three hours earlier…”
Swingers – I need to see this again. Jon Favreau wrote the screenplay, basing it on his experiences as a newly-single struggling actor in LA. He plays Mike and Vince Vaughn plays his friend Trent. I saw this movie for the first time in high school and as someone who’s struggled with the opposite sex (and with friends who are all too eager to assist), this movie hit me on a personal level. The scene in which Favreau attempts to leave a message on a woman’s answering machine is positively cringe-inducing. The film’s budget was nearly non-existent – director Doug Liman shot party scenes at actual parties and the crew had at least one run-in with cops when they were caught without a permit. An indie classic. “I want you to remember this face, here. Okay? This is the guy behind the guy behind the guy.”

The People vs. Larry Flynt – It might be hard to believe but there was a time when porn was actually controversial! Milos Forman’s film stars Woody Harrelson as the titular Flynt, strip club owner and publisher of Hustler. Courtney Love plays his (fourth) wife, Althea. The main… uh, thrust… of the film involves Flynt’s legal battles with Jerry Falwell over a parody story detailing a sexual encounter between Falwell and his own mother – a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, eventually in Flynt’s favor. Ya know… as a 32-year old male, I can’t say I’m against any of this, but I do sometimes wonder where we’re going as a society. Sometimes. “I don't like what Larry Flynt does, but what I do like is the fact that I live in a country where you and I can make that decision for ourselves.”

Also: American Buffalo, The Arrival, Beautiful Girls, Big Night, The Birdcage, Bound, Broken Arrow, The Cable Guy, Courage Under Fire, The Craft, Dragonheart, Evita, Executive Decision, Flirting with Disaster, The Frighteners, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Ghost and the Darkness, Happy Gilmore, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, James and the Giant Peach, John Carpenter’s Escape From LA, Kingpin, Matilda, Michael Collins, Multiplicity, The Nutty Professor, 101 Dalmations, Ransom, The Rock, Scream, Shine, Sleepers, Sling Blade, Space Jam, That Thing You Do!, Trainspotting, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet
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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Film Friday: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

“This will begin to set things right.”

That was the very first line spoken in the new Star Wars film, and while it ostensibly involved a man handing over a map, there is no way that is not a slap to the face of George Lucas and an acknowledgement of the damage he had done with his last three films. And do you know what? This film backs up that line and more. After watching The Force Awakens, my faith in Star Wars has been restored.


Uh, no. This story is so full of potential spoilers that I’m not going to give you a plot. I will warn you, however, that some of the things I will talk about may... may be spoilers if you want to go into this one cold, which I recommend.

This Movie Was Fantastic!

So what am I going to talk about? I’m going to tell you what this film did right and why. And let me begin with my apologies to J.J. Abrams. After the total hack job he did to Star Trek, I expected the worst for this film. I expected him to exploit it with little care for the fans or the story. I was wrong. He did an amazing job.
With what did he do an amazing job? Well, first, the effects are fantastic. And I mean this in several ways. First, the effects are clean and utterly believable. More importantly, they fit perfectly along with the first three Star Wars films. Unlike the prequels, the ships, the sets, the costumes, the worlds all fit perfectly with the first three movies. They fit the time period. They respected the existing world. They didn’t feel like CGI at all; they feel substantive. Seriously. These felt like real ships, real worlds and real battles. The lightsaber fights feel real and tense. The explosions look real. The environment in which the characters find themselves is real. And all of this felt like the ones from the first three films.
Indeed, the very feel of the film fit with the first three Star Wars films. Unlike the prequels, the characters here are not cardboard. They come across as real people with real lives who really live on these worlds. They act in ways that are consistent with their own lives too.

Next, this film fit the storyline perfectly. In fact, it fit so perfectly that you could almost have dumped Return of the Jedi and run this instead and not only would it have felt like it fit, but it might even have improved the series.

Abrams was really smart too in terms of knowing what to keep and what to toss out of the prior films. I went in cold, so I didn’t know how much the original characters would be involved in this one. I suspected that Abrams would milk a cameo out of them and then rush off in some new direction. He didn’t. The original characters are vital to this film and the actors play them perfectly as the same people only a couple decades later. That was a smart decision because the story is so tied to several of them. It also avoids the sense that Abrams just wanted a younger cast.

At the same time, the storyline makes perfect sense for that time period. The Empire fell. Its ruins are everywhere in the film. But the universe didn’t become a happy place. Instead, a new threat stepped into the power vacuum and grabbed the failing Empire’s powerbase. All of this not only feels natural, but it gives you the sense of an exciting backstory that permeates the atmosphere of this film. It makes you want to know so much more, and that’s always a winner when your audience feels a strong desire to know more about everything they are seeing.

Abrams was smart about throwing away the deadweight too. There is no emotionally exploitive cameo to remind you of Yoda, there are no Ewoks, there are no flashbacks, there is nothing to remind you of the prequels. In fact, they even undo the stupid story of the stormtroopers being clones, which became the foundation of the prequels. Nor are there any Star Trek babies hitting on each other or any of the other asinine sins Abrams injected into Star Trek.
All of this is fantastic. In fact, up to this point in the review, I have to say that this is easily my third favorite Star Wars and the only thing missing that I felt should be in a Star Wars film but wasn’t was a bigger, more zen-like delving into the force. The force is used in this film, but isn’t the focus yet as it was in the first three films. That said, part of the film promises a deeper exploration of the force in the future. And if you stop to think about the story, you will see the force explained in great detail by two characters, there just aren’t any long talks about it.

All of that makes for a great Star Wars film. This is an excellent Star Wars film that feels indistinguishable from the original series and fits the story perfectly. Who could ask for anything more? But there is more... specifically, this is an excellent film.

I wasn’t expecting that. Even if you ignore all the Star Wars aspects, this was great science fiction. The worlds that were created were real and immersive. The characters were interesting, funny, and engaged in personal growth of a type rarely seen in science fiction. The action was fantastic. It was strong and well-choreographed with great effects. There were no 40 minute CGI fight scenes in this film -- fights were short and punchy. Even more interestingly, the story was gripping. It twisted and turned and moved along at a great pace and I never really knew where it would end up. Do you know how rare that is these days?

In short, J.J. Abrams not only created a great addition to Star Wars, he created a great film. This thing can be truly enjoyed by anyone from lifelong fans to people watching their first Star Wars. It is exciting and gripping and super enjoyable. And when it ended, it made you wish you could tell them to start the next one right. fricken. now! Finally, this film felt like it set everything right. I LOVE Star Wars again, which I hadn't for some time.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

(Please be very careful of spoilers in the comments.)
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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Film Friday: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur is not doing well with audiences, and I’m not at all surprised. There is a fundamental problem with The Good Dinosaur, and that is that the film mixes a main character who is too cutsie with a plot that is anything but cutsie. The resulting mishmash satisfies neither those looking for a mindless baby distracter nor those looking for a more compelling story.


To put it simply, The Good Dinosaur is a western that uses dinosaurs instead of humans as the main characters. In fact, this is a very, very clichéd western, right down to the use of Sam Elliot to do voice work. The story involves the weak son of a noble farmer who must prove that he can live up to his father’s expectations and ends up in a survival film as he must find his way home through a dark and evil wilderness.

The story opens with the birth of the main character, Arlo, and his sister Libby and brother Buck. Their parents, Henry and Ida, are Apatosauruses. They live in a world where the dinosaurs were never wiped out and continued to, uh, evolve I guess (this is part of the problem with the film... it’s not clear what changed except that these particular dinosaurs are farmers).
Arlo is the runt of the litter and quickly proves not only to be incapable of doing the work required on the farm, but is a coward. He is afraid of basically everything. His father is patient with him however, though he simultaneously pushes Arlo to stop being such a whiny bi— uh, to become less of a coward. One of the tasks Henry gives Arlo in this regard is to trap and kill a pest that has been eating their corn... which they need to feed their chickens, who terrorize Arlo. The pest turns out to be a cutsie baby human! Oh goodie.

Arlo, of course, can’t bring himself to kill the human, and the human escapes. Henry then takes Arlo and chases after the human cave boy. They chase him up into some evil looking mountains, which end up flooding. The flood kills Henry and leaves Arlo stranded far away from home. Arlo then finds and befriends the human, who acts like little more than a puppy (he can’t even speak). The rest of the story is Arlo’s journey to find his way back to the farm.
Why This Film Doesn’t Work

This movie has a lot of problems, quite frankly.

The first problem is the simple blown potential. The trailer to this film was intensely clever. It asked, what would happen if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the Earth? And then you see the asteroid shoot by the planet and all the dinosaurs who had looked up at its approach return to their grazing. This trailer offered limitless potential. It opened the door to anything. It promised a world where dinosaurs had evolved to something beyond just being dinosaurs. It promised a world where man and dinosaurs co-existed in some friendly or hostile way. It promised something you had never seen before. The film even skips a few million years at the opening, suggesting that we would see dinosaur society evolved into the modern world... whatever that would look like.

But none of that happened.

Instead, you get a world that is indistinguishable from dinosaur times except for the presence of one cave-boy and the existence of one dinosaur farm. That’s it. What a waste.
The next problem probably tells us why the first problem exists: the filmmakers never bothered to lay down the rules that guide their new universe before they began. Is there really a dinosaur society or not? There’s the farm. There are three T-Rexes who are herding the dinosaur version of cattle. But that’s all you see. There is no sense if there are cities or if there is an economy – does the farmer sells his crops? Do the T-Rexes sell their cattle or just eat them? The other dinosaurs they run into seem to be standard feral dinosaurs. So is there a society or not? They never say, and the result is that it’s unclear what kind of world Arlo really lives in and everything feels ambiguous and confused.
As an aside, I was also personally bothered by the sense that much of what they encounter felt vaguely stolen. The human reminded me of Mogli from Jungle Book; he even has a similar storyline – leaving for human companionship at the end. The nyctosaurus and pterodactyls reminded me of the vultures from Jungle Book. The T-Rexes reminded me of a combination of Bagheera and the elephants from Jungle Book. There's even a seemingly hypnotic horned dinosaur (a Styracosaurus), right at the end of a snake scene, which is clearly Kaa from Jungle Book. The scene chasing the human felt like the apes rounding up the humans in Planet of the Apes. The whole Arlo story felt like a number of westerns involving a weak son who must avenge his father’s death. And so on. This is the first Pixar film where I felt I could pick out things that were copied from other films.
The real problem, however, is that the film is a mishmash of concepts. For whatever reason, Pixar chose a main character who is better suited for the preschool set. He’s cute and whiny and stupid and whiny and seems made for backpacks and plush toys. Put him in a story with his imaginary friends and magic tree houses and he would feel right at home. But then they rammed him into a story that has a truly adult storyline in the sense of being dark and not at all funny, and about the subtle goal of proving one’s worth to oneself. This is a farmer western combined with a survival drama like The Grey or The Edge. It is not a plot that in any fits the childish Arlo.
The result of this is an entirely unsatisfying story. The preschool crowd will not like the dark, very unfunny plot. The people who might like the survival story will find the whiny, child that plays the lead to be too annoying and unbelievable for this kind of story. And people who come in having seen the trailer are going to wonder how this movie managed to ignore the entire magic the trailer promised.

Pixar is an amazing company that does a great job with its movies time and again, but this one is a total miss. This one is entirely unsatisfying. It’s boring, indifferent, and just out of place. And that’s too bad given the amazing potential the backstory suggested.

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Recommendation: Monster Hunters International

No film today. Instead, I’m going to recommend a book that you will enjoy a lot, and I’m going to crap on another one. Both are by conservatives and I think there is a valuable lesson in comparing the two.

The book I’m going to recommend is called Monster Hunters International and you can get it FREE ==> HERE. The book I’m going to crap on is called Freehold and you can get it FREE ==> HERE. Consider this...

MHI is written by Larry Correia, who is some sort of conservative. He’s probably libertarian more than conservative, but I’m not sure. The book starts with the premise that all the mythical monsters we know, e.g. vampires and werewolves, are real and are a genuine menace. To eliminate the menace, the Federal government has a secret agency whose job it is to hunt these creatures – it’s illegal to tell the public about the existence of these creatures and people who do tell the truth are made to disappear.

The story isn’t about the Feds, however. Instead, it’s about a group of private bounty hunters who hunter monsters for something called PUFF bounties. This is a program set up long ago in the past which continues today because powerful political allies keep the Feds from shutting it down. Monster Hunters International is one such group of bounty hunters, and the main character finds himself recruited to the group after he fights off a werewolf with his bare hands.

What works so well in this book is Correia’s style and his originality. The writing is funny and easy to read, yet Correia doesn’t sacrifice description or storytelling to dumb the book down. The monsters are interesting too. Indeed, he twists them all a bit to make them unusual, and the main monster is an original creation with a fascinating history. He even pokes Tolkien rather playfully. (You’re going to love Skippy.)

Now, the book has a few flaws, but not enough to ruin the book. For example, I find the main female character to be pure cardboard. There are a couple of “coincidences” in the ending that weakened the story too. But all in all, I enjoyed the book very much.

So let me touch upon the politics. Correia is obviously a conservative and he’s certainly overt in his conservatism, and he’s clearly a gun nut. But it never bothered me. To the contrary, it felt entirely natural that these private-sector monster hunters would be anti-authority/free market types who despise the Feds, and it never felt like he was preaching or lecturing. To the contrary, it just came across as natural whenever the issue arose in the book.

That brings me to the comparison.

After finishing this, I went looking for other conservative authors. I came upon someone named Michael Williamson, who wrote a book called Freehold. This is the classic example of being blinded by ideology. Williamson is clearly a libertarian, though he seems to be the type who confuses libertinism with libertarianism. Freehold is the story of an Earth woman who works for the UN Peace Force, which controls the world, and she flees after being wrongly accused of stealing military equipment. She flees to the only planet in the galaxy that is run on the principle of individual freedom and small (non-existent) government.

The problems with this story mount from page one. For one thing, good writers know to introduce your characters in ways that make them memorable. This book doesn’t do that. Instead, the book begins with the main character fleeing Earth, traveling to the new planet, and then getting settled all in massive administrative detail. There is no action here, just page after page of the main character walking around as the author describes how horrible the regulated world is and how great the unregulated world is. What’s more, the main character acts as little more than a straw-man character who asks question so that others can lecture her on how great their unregulated world is. This makes for a truly dull read as it feels like you are being lectured rather than being told a story.

Finally, as an ironic aside, even if I accepted the ideological arguments Williamson makes, and I definitely do not – he basically makes the mistake of arguing that a libertine/anarchical world would cure all problems and make all people good – I still found myself cringing at the idea of living in his “perfect” world. When Correia railed against the government, I accepted what he said and I saw the wisdom in it because he was pointing out how government interference prevented better people from doing what needed to be done in the right way. When Williamson does it, it sounds like a childish fantasy cure-all.

The lesson here is again that injecting politics is fine, but the story must always come first and the politics must fit naturally within the story and the characters. The purpose of the story can’t be the politics and the politics can’t be so overwhelming that the audience feels like they are being lectured. And seriously, if you’re going to inject your politics, make sure it sounds like a good thing to your readers.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus)

by Rustbelt

Publication Year: 1818

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…

“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?..

“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous a wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”

The Story Every English Schoolboy Knows…

…begins in Geneva. However, this story really begins in Indonesia. In 1815, the volcanic Mount Tambora exploded. The debris released into the sky were thick enough to blot out part of the sunlight worldwide; dropping temperatures all over Earth fell and causing 1816 to be remembered as the “Year Without a Summer.” (Freezing conditions were reported in New England and northern Europe as late as July.) It was this miserable weather that forced four 19th-centurey hippies to spend their Swiss vacation indoors.

The Contest and the Nightmare

Stranded inside the Villa Diodati along Lake Geneva, and isolated from the starvation, diseases, and other weather-induced issues most of the world’s population was enduring, Percy Shelley, his then-future wife Mary, Lord Byron, and John Polidori (Byron’s physician), tried to pass the time by complaining about the world’s lack of enlightenment and how everything could be solved if people just ‘lived for today’ (like them). Finally, the well-endowed friends got tired of whining about the weather and amused themselves by reading a book of ghost stories. Finally, Byron proposed a contest in which they would each write their own ghost story. Neither Byron nor Shelley finished theirs; Polidori wrote one from a fragment that Byron started. (The work, ‘The Vampyre,’ was later condemned by Byron.) Only 18 year-old Mary completed the contest after having a ‘waking dream’ in which she saw a “pale student of unhallowed arts” standing over a man he’d created.

He Who Tried to Play God…and Failed Miserably

Okay, I’ll try to keep this brief. While trying to sail to the North Pole, Captain Robert Walton rescues an emaciated man in the Arctic. The man, Victor Frankenstein, tells Walton his story. As a boy, Victor studied science at the family estate in Geneva. However, his true interests were studying the theories of life and chemistry created by outdated alchemists. When he goes to college at Ingolstadt, Victor spends two years creating a perfect man. However, working with larger human pieces, (which was easier), the result is a powerful, but hideous creation. Victor goes home, but the Monster follows, killing Victor’s youngest brother. The two finally meet in the mountains, where the Monster implores Victor to create a mate for him and end his loneliness. Victor leaves for Scotland and is almost finished with the mate, but destroys the project at the last minute. The Monster then follows Victor back Geneva, causing the deaths of Victor’s best friend, bride, and father. Thereafter Victor chases the Monster into the Arctic. At the end, Victor dies, and the Monster boards Walton’s boat to mourn his creator. He sails into the distance, and Walton orders his ship to head for home.
Was it just a Nightmare?

The popular story goes that Mary spent the next year turning the dream into a short story, which was then turned into a novel with Shelley’s help. However, Mary may have been inspired by more than her dream. The story heavily cites Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially the tumultuous relationship between God and Satan (with whom the Monster identifies. Mary’s family- the Wollstonecrafts- were very up-to-date on the latest advances in science. She, herself, cited galvanism, the process of causing muscles to twitch when struck with electricity, (discovered by Luigi Galvini in the late 18th century), as a key inspiration for Frankenstein’s actions. However, some historians think Giovanni Aldini, Galvini’s nephew who furthered his uncle’s work, may have been an inspiration. Johann Konrad Dipple, an early-18th-century alchemist alleged to have conducted unusual biological experiments is believed to be another. (Mary and Shelley may have visited his castle on one occasion.) Whether Victor’s family name ‘Frankenstein’ comes from another of Mary’s dreams (as she claimed), or is a reference to a known German castle or family is still debated. What isn’t debated is how the heart of the story remains the hubris of Victor Frankenstein. In his pride to do the impossible, he went blindly ahead, creating a man, but failing to appreciate the responsibilities and consequences of his actions. (Thus making it, like Jekyll and Hyde, an oddly moral story written by someone who- along with her friends- held immorality up as a virtue.)

A Note on the Title

The longer publication title, ‘Modern Prometheus,’ refers to the Greek titan, Prometheus (whose name means ‘forethought’). In Greek mythology, Prometheus took fire (reserved only for the gods), from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans. A furious Zeus had him chained to a rock where a bird would eat out Prometheus’ liver every day. (Being immortal, it would grow back every night.) Like Victor Frankenstein, he failed to think ahead. Now, for the reason you really came here: the movies.
Frankenstein (Edison Studios, 1910)

This grainy, early-silent era version of the tale produced by the man who invented motion pictures clocks in at 12 minutes. (And you thought my summary was short.) And it fares like a bad romance novel. Basically, Victor (Augustus Phillips) creates his Monster (Charles Ogle), despairs, and goes home. After re-encountering his creation, Victor professes his love for his bride (Mary Fuller), purifying himself, causing the Monster to disappear. Does this make the Monster a hallucination of Victor’s dark half? Is this pre-WWI Fight Club? I think I’ll stop while I’m ahead.

Victor Frankenstein: Not a lot to say here. Phillips plays him as a happy-go-lucky guy dressed like a 17th-century fop who screws with nature, but fixes everything with the power of love.

The Monster: I have not been able to find out where Ogle’s shaggy monster appearance came from. But it sure is memorable-looking. The Monster isn’t complex here. It acts like a jealous pet that tries to Victor’s bride when she comes between it and its creator.

Full Movie HERE
Frankenstein (Universal, 1931)

Now, we’re getting somewhere. This is the movie that defined Universal Studios horror for the ages. Director James Whale may have simplified the complexities of the story, but he makes up for it with some of the most memorable images and performances captured on film. This is the movie that established the driven mad scientist, the hunchbacked assistant (Dwight Frye as Fritz- NOT Ygor), the friends who appeal to the mad scientist’s sense of reason to stop, the isolated laboratory (it was originally supposed to be art deco, but was changed to a Gothic castle), highly electrified lab equipment (created by Ken Strickfaden and reused in Young Frankenstein), and the crowd of torch-and-pitchfork-bearing angry villagers, among others. Controversial for its time, the scenes of Victor screaming about how it was like to be God and the Monster accidentally drowning a village girl were censored not long after release.
Henry Frankenstein: The eccentric Colin Clive plays the Frankenstein we’ve come to know quite well. Clive’s Henry is a proud, obsessed fanatic, showing off the creation of his creation to his friends just to prove how advanced he is. After the Monster kills Fritz, Waldman (Edward van Sloan), and the village girl, he becomes equally consumed with a desire to destroy the Monster, and is nearly killed himself.
The Creature: Ladies and gentlemen, the star of the show: Boris Karloff. Possibly Hollywood’s all-time late-bloomer (he was in his early 40’s when he got this breakout role), Karloff was hired as a replacement when Bela Lugosi turned down the role (allegedly for the lack of lines). While the movie is mainly remembered for the makeup, Karloff’s physical acting, showing the Creature with a childlike wonder for the world and the equally childlike emotions of sadness, loneliness, and fear, endowed the performance with a humanity lacking in most- say, 99%- of all movie monsters.
The Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, 1935)

Coaxed back into the director’s chair, James Whale made this second entry into the series on the condition he could do whatever he wanted. After re-reading the novel, Whale took a few ideas- mainly the Monster’s encounter with a blind man and desire for a mate- and ran from there. The story really focuses on the actions of Dr. Pretorius (an original character played by Ernest Theisiger), who wants to create a race of creatures based on Frankenstein’s work. He blackmails and, later, threatens Victor into working with him. Pretorius also seeks out and befriends the Monster in order to make the creature a willing participant in the experiment. However, when the Bride (Elsa Lancaster) comes to life, she- like everyone else- rejects the Monster. In a rage, the Monster destroys the lab, apparently killing himself, Pretorius, and the bride (Victor and his wife escape).
This is the rare movie considered better than the original. Whale’s trademark attention to details and minor characters in order to make every scene memorable is also on full display, causing many to consider Bride his finest work. (Your author, however, would say that honor goes to The Invisible Man.)
Henry Frankenstein: This time around, Colin Clive’s signature character is broken and morose, (possibly mirroring Clive’s own alcoholism at the time.) Now devoted to his wife, he only comes out of retirement when her life is threatened. It is worth noting, however, that he seemingly enjoys the creation of the Bride.
The Creature: He speaks! Director Whale decided that allowing the Creature to learn to speak (like he does in the novel), though in a childlike way, would enhance the character. For the record, Karloff hated the idea. Still, Karloff once again played the desperately lonely role to perfection. His scenes with the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), the only person who treats the Creature as a friend, are remarkably effective and touching.
The Curse of Frankenstein (Hammer, 1957)

Call this one the kingmaker. This is THE movie that launched the careers of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, (who started their famous friendship while making this film), as well as director Terence Fisher. In a nod to the novel, Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) tells his story to a priest while in prison. The film focuses mainly on Frankenstein and his relationship with his tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). At first, they’re both dedicated to their work. However, a split occurs when Paul wants to announce their early findings on animals to the world and Frankenstein insists on secret human experiments first. Though the two never give up on each other, they grow apart as Paul increasingly opposes Frankenstein and his former pupil descends from obsession into amorality, madness, and evil. Another fine example of Hammer taking liberties with a story and making it work with deeply satisfying results. Of course, it ends back in prison with Victor being lead to the guillotine.


Baron Victor Von Frankenstein: Cushing plays a remarkably effective Frankenstein. He’s neither a foolish college student, nor a run-of-the-mill mad scientist. In fact, he’s both. In an arc worthy of Walter White, he goes from mere curiosity and a desire to better humanity, to an obsessive mania to finish his experiments and prove his theories right. (He also cheats on his fiancée and murders for a brain.) Fans consider this and his role as a demonic fortune teller in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (Amicus, 1965) as the performances that made hi ma horror icon.
The Monster: Christopher Lee is hard to recognize- and I’m not talking about the makeup. This Monster is a pathetic creature easily beaten, tortured and used by its creator. A real bit player. In fact, Lee only got the role when he agreed to work for eight pounds a day, as opposed to the first choice, Bernard Bresslaw, who demanded ten pounds a day. According to producer Peter Rogers, “And so, for the sake of two pounds, Christopher Lee became an international star.”

Original trailer HERE
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (American Zoetrope/Tristar Pictures, 1992)

Amazingly, this one is actually the most book-accurate. I say amazingly because it can be so hard to follow at times. Director Kenneth Branaugh did an admirable job of not relying on or paying homage to previous ‘Frankenstein’ movies. He places it firmly in the late 18th/early 19th century time period and carefully follows the book’s character arc. Where it falls short is the manic direction. The camera and editing move like an Olympic sprinter with ADD. At least one third of the dialogue consists of actors yelling like the Novocain wore off halfway through the dental work. And the twist at the end of using Elizabeth’s (Helena Bonham Carter’s) body for the Bride just struck me as tacky. Oh, and BTW, the less said about the overt sexual imagery in the Monster’s creation scene, the better.
Victor Frankenstein: A while back, I saw post on IMDB that described this film as Kenneth Branaugh’s love letter to himself. I don’t know who that guy was, but he deserves a thumbs up. The camera is constantly zooming in on Branaugh in the role (when the editor doesn’t just start with a close-up of him, that is). Branaugh also suffers from Matthew McConaughey-level shirtlessness throughout the flick. (He’s also too old to be playing a college student.) Since when did being the director mean you could focus so much on yourself in your own movie?
The Monster: Is this when Robert DeNiro really began phoning it in? Honestly, there’s nothing memorable about this. DeNiro uses a losing-at-poker face throughout the movie. Unlike Karloff, he never bothers to endow himself to the audience. And…ah, nothing else to say. Just a classic case of going through the motions and picking up the check.

Original trailer HERE

So, who’s your favorite Victor? Monster? Movie?

Full text of Frankenstein HERE
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