Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Frankenstein (1931) - James Whale

Frankenstein (1931)
Director: James Whale
Writers: Mary Shelley (Novel), Peggy Webling (Play), John L. Balderston (Adaptation), Francis Edward Faragoh (Screenplay), Garrett Fort (Screenplay)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris

Frankenstein (1931), while not exactly what Mary Shelley had envisioned, is a wonderfully told and well made adaptation of her story. The film has in many ways become more famous than Shelley's own story of Dr. Frankenstein and the creature he created. This version created many of the story elements that we normally associate with the Frankenstein mythology including what has become the most iconic look of the creature played by Boris Karloff.

The story itself diverges greatly from that of Mary Shelley's original novel but this is not really a bad thing. The movie, for the most part, trims the fat and creates and much more lean and fast moving story. As much as I love the slow tension built by Shelley in her book I don't think it would have worked as well in this movie. The movie builds tension in its own way and has an ending that is shocking and in some ways heartbreaking.

The film manages to create a creature that we can sympathize with even though he is not as fleshed out as he is in the book. The film, in a short time, shows us that Frankenstein's creation is not the monster that we normally associate with the story. He is actually a very gentle creature and most of his crimes either come about through self defense or because he does not understand the concepts of life and death. He is in many ways a child and doesn't understand the consequences of his actions.

I really only have a couple minor problems with the way the story plays out in this film. I am not a fan of how the use of a criminal brain in the creature is used as an excuse for why he becomes evil. This is mainly because I don't see the creature as evil and I found this to be kind of a cop out explanation for why he starts killing people in the film. Also, while I do think they did a good job of making the monster a sympathetic creature I wish they had fleshed out one part of his story just a little more. I wish they had taken the time to explain how he decided to come after Dr. Frankenstein and his fiance in the film. Without a real explanation for this, the creature does just seem to come across as a monster instead of a sympathetic character.

This film version of the story created much of the iconic imagery that has become widely associated with the story of Frankenstein. For starters the look of the monster that was used in this movie has become the widely accepted version of what Frankenstein's monster should look like. So much so that almost every version of the monster that is shown in popular culture is based on Boris Karloff's version of the monster. Even though he has no lines in the film, Karloff manages to do a great job of creating a character that is both sympathetic and frightening.

The version also added the method of creating the monster that has become the accepted method in popular culture. In Shelley's original book no method is given for how the creature is created. There is no mention of using corpses to piece together a body, nor is there any mention of using electricity to reanimate the body. The only reference to the methods used in the novel are a brief mention of Dr. Frankenstein finding the secret of life through the new study of alchemy. The pieced together body and the lightning bolts have become the most iconic version of the creation of the monster though.

The film also manages to have wonderful and interesting set design through-out. Dr. Frankenstein's lab looks amazing with the combination of what appears to be more modern electrical equipment against the old stone castle walls. The corridors running through the castle also always have an interesting and almost surreal look to them. The ending sequence of the film carries through with this interesting set design with the windmill where the final confrontation takes place. The stone and timber construction of the windmill gives the wonderful creepy and stark look that really adds to the lonesome tone of the end of the film.

Overall I really do enjoy this version of the story. It takes a lot of liberties with Mary Shelley's story but it still keeps many of the themes that were present in the novel. The movie doesn't just make the creature the emotionless and mindless monster that later versions of the story would use. While he does not speak or even seem intelligent he does seem to have emotions and have a will of his own. So, while I think they could have used another 15 minutes in the middle of the story to flesh out the character of the creature a little more, I still feel that this version of the story is extremely well told and deserves its place in history for its iconic imagery and sympathetic portrayal of the creature.

Rating: 9/10

Friday, June 26, 2009

Frankenstein (1910) - J. Searle Dawley

Frankenstein (1910)
Director: J. Searle Dawley
Writers: J. Searle Dawley (Screenplay), Mary Shelley (Novel)
Starring: Mary Fuller, Charles Ogle, Augustus Phillips

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus has been one of my favorite stories since I first read the novel in the tenth grade. I can't exactly put my finger on it but there is just something about the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his creation that really pulls me into the story. These are two extremely complex and well written characters that drive an amazing story.

In spite of how much I love this story it had been years since I had either read the book or seen any of the films based on the book. When it comes down to it, the only film versions of the story I had seen were the 1931 film with Boris Karloff and the 1994 film with Robert De Niro. I had never taken the time to see Bride of Frankenstein (1935) or any other adaptation of the story.

Recently I have taken to listening to audio books during my commute back and forth to work and while looking through the library's collection I came across Frankenstein and decided it was high time to give the story another read (or listen, as the case may be). The story did progress a little slower than I remembered it but not in a bad way. Mary Shelley masterfully created a kind of slow, brooding tension that really worked for the story. I absolutely loved the characters just as much as I had remembered.

I really enjoy how at times you feel sorry for Victor Frankenstein and sympathize with the hell he is going through while at other times you completely understand the motivations of the creature that Victor has created and feel that Victor has brought all this trouble down onto himself. His creation is no more a monster than Victor himself and I think that is a lot of what makes me love the story. It isn't like Dracula where you have an evil creature that must be destroyed, there are levels of subtly about who it right and who is wrong in the story and at time both characters deserve the sympathy of the audience.

Since I enjoyed the book again this time around I decided that I should check out a few more of the film versions of the story. The best place to start, I thought, would be the very first film adaptation of the story. J. Searle Dawley's Frankenstein (1910) produced by Edison Studios. I actually can not believe I waited until this long to see this version. Considering how much I love the story and how much I enjoy seeing films from such an early era I probably should have seen this one long before now especially since it is so readily available on YouTube.

The film itself only runs 12 minutes so their really isn't a whole lot one can say about it. It is incredibly well done and extremely innovative for a film made it 1910. It doesn't follow the story from the book very closely at all but it does do one thing that no other version does. This is the only filmed version that I have seen where the creature is not assembled from body parts but is actually created through some chemical means. The book never tells how the monster is created but it never gives any mention of using body parts from dead bodies. The sequence in the film showing the creation of the monster is amazingly well done and sufficiently creepy. I probably doesn't come across as scary now but I am sure that in 1910 it would have been.

The rest of the film is also quite good for such a short film. It is of course a silent film and as such the acting is a bit over the top but that was the style at the time since most film actors were actually stage actors. Since it is so short a lot of the story is cut out and the ending it a bit strange. It seems a bit more existential than other versions of the story, I don't want to spoil it for anyone though. The ending does also seem to cut off before it is actually done though so I could be completely off base on the ending. Since the IMDB has the running time listed as 16 minutes it may be that the last four minutes of the film have been lost, since the entire film was thought lost for some time.

Overall I would say that it is an excellent short film and a fairly decent adaptation of Shelley's story. I would say that the story does lack just a bit but that is mostly because of how quickly it moves and how much it glosses over. It is very well made and shows a lot of ingenuity on the part of the film maker. I very much enjoyed being able to see this wonderful piece of history but now I am ready to move on to the true classics of Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and hopefully I should have reviews up for both of them soon.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, June 19, 2009

Movie Review says what?!?! - Part 2

Since this segment seemed to get a pretty good response the last time I posted it, I decided that it was high time to write the sequel. I had been hoping to get another Movie Review say what?!?! post written up before now but I just hadn't come across as many really awesomely bad reviews in the last couple months as I normally do. Have no fear though, those reviews are out there and I will still endeavor to find them. Mostly because they make me laugh but also because I hope they bring a chuckle to you, my dear reader, as well.

For those that missed the first installment of this segment, this is not a place for me to find and make fun of reviews that I disagree with or anything of that nature. You know those reviews that just make you lay your palm across your face and shake your head saying "What the hell is this person talking about?" Well those are the reviews that I take a look at here. To get a good idea of what I like to write about in this column you can click here to check out the first post in the Movie Review says what?!?! series.

I copy and paste these reviews from wherever I find them, whether it be Amazon, Netflix, IMDB or any other review site, completely unchanged and unedited to make sure that you get the full effect of the review. The most I may do to change a review is bold some text here and there to highlight a particular part of the review.

So here we go, the second installment of Movie Review says what?!?! Enjoy the ride.

I think we can start with something fairly simple. This is a short review of The Virgin Spring (1960) from Netflix:
Come on..... what do I think, it is ok and all..... But I did not like it. I think it could be a lot better in color, but it was made in the 60's so..... B&W ruled the day. Wait........ was color out in the early 60's??? I guess I will never know.
Now, I see reviews kind of like this occasionally. I'll never understand why some people find it so hard to watch a black and white movie. Is watching a movie without bright colors really such a daunting task? Personally I find black and white cinematography to be quite gorgeous a lot of the time and The Virgin Spring is definitely a gorgeously filmed movie.

Now this person's distaste of black and white isn't the only reason I chose to put this review here it was also his assertion that he'll never know whether or not there were color films in the '60s. I guess this black and white movies annoyed this person so much that they will never again watch a movie from the '60s or earlier to see if any of the films were in color. I know not everyone loves older movies but I really think that those who don't are really missing out on some great films.

This next review is another Netflix member review, this time for the film Open Water (2004), although be warned this one does contain a big spoiler for the end of the film:
This movie really disappointed me. First of all, the nudity near the beginning was completely gratuitous; it felt like the director included it merely to help his "R" rating along (which he could have gotten with the language alone). The low-budget filming didn't bother me a bit; it was a little choppy to be sure but on the whole very effective for what the director was trying to do. I have never been afraid of sharks (maybe I'd change my mind if I ever encountered one in the wild!) so the swimming with sharks thing didn't bother me nearly as much as it did my shark-o-phobic husband. :) The ending was awful; it was truly the worst part of the movie. Call me unrealistic or old-fashioned, but I kind of like fairytale/Hollywood endings and this one really horrified me. The best part of the whole DVD was watching the special features section where they explained how they "choreographed" the sharks swiming around the actors. Other than that, this film was a complete waste of time.
The part of this review that is in bold is the part that I take slight issue with. Open Water is supposed to be a horror/suspense type film and this reviewer takes issue with the fact that the ending horrifies them? Perhaps you may want to avoid anything that is listed under the horror genre if all you are looking for is "fairytale/Hollywood" endings. You may most especially want to avoid those horror movies if they are of the more independent variety as they tend to have much less happy endings than your average Hollywood horror movie.

Now I know that these two reviews have not been as fun and as awesome as the reviews in the first installment of this column and that is part of the reason I put it off for so long. I really just wasn't running across any reviews that were completely worthy of a write up. However, when I came across this next review it completely made my day and I felt the need to share it. It is a review of The Green Mile (1999) from the Amazon customer reviews:
The reviewer of this movie said people complain about books being better, well thats just stupid. Books suck, books dont make you laugh, cry, think, fear, or give you action. Movies will always be better then books, no matter what, because books are words, movies are fun. This movie is the best drama ever, it made me cry and im a dude, nuff said. Great performances, great story, great drama, great movie, forget books, incase you haven't noticed the academy doesn't give the books the oscar for screenplay, movies are based on books, they arent made from books, anyone who doesnt like a movie because it wasnt like the book is a MORON, movies are not books, movies are entertainment, not punishment.
Wow. Just Wow. This same reviewer had several other reviews on Amazon that had the same "reading sucks" approach to movie reviews. I absolutely love how the review compares reading to a form of punishment. How he uses the fact that books don't get Oscars as evidence of just how truly irrelevant they are just makes my day. Because, or course we all know that there are no other awards out there that are given to great books and great authors. I am not even sure what to think of the assertion that books can not generate an emotional response.

Honestly this review just reminds me of that recent quote from Kanye West; "Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed... I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph." Read that full article here.

Keep in mind this is exactly how society got the way it was in the book Fahrenheit 451. It didn't start with a government crack down on books or anything like that. It all started with the public becoming apathetic towards literature and any type of critical thinking. The government just took advantage of it when they saw that no one was really doing any thinking for themselves. The attitude towards books presented in this review (and by Kanye) makes me fear that this kind of future could happen.

Now, just so I don't leave you on a depressing note, I will add one more very short review that I found for Wall-E (2008) on Netflix:
"If an animated version of The Cable Guy tickles your fancy, you might give Wall-E a try."
I have absolutely no clue what this review is trying to say. I can't think of a single thing that these two movies have in common.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Taken (2009) - Pierre Morel

Taken (2009)
Director: Pierre Morel
Writers: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen
Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Leland Orser, Radivoje Bukvic, Maggie Grace, Jon Gries

There are several different types of action movies out there. You have your Indiana Jones type action/adventure movies. You have your sci-fi action movies like Terminator and Aliens. Of course you have the completely over the top, can't help but have fun with them, Commando type movies. But then you have your Die Hard type. These movies put one man against a large group of people but try to do so in a realistic manor.

In my opinion that last type is the hardest to get right. Because an action movie by nature has to be somewhat contrived in plot it is pretty hard set one in a realistic world and make it believable. The first Die Hard pulled it off great, Die Hard II however fell into the category of completely over the top Commando type movies (only not as good). It takes a delicate balance of good writing, acting and directing to pull it off. If anyone of these things is off the movie isn't going to work; See Live Free or Die Hard for an example of how these movies can go wrong.

Now, I said all that to say this; Taken is one of those Die Hard type action movies that gets it right. I can honestly say that it is the best action movie I have seen in quite some time. It hits all the right buttons that a movie like this should. It is exciting and suspenseful and the action is well done without being overly flashy. The plot while slightly contrived isn't completely ridiculous. The characters are fleshed out just enough for me to care about them. Overall though, it works because I believe what is happening on the screen.

The action sequences in Taken are just perfect. They get your heart pounding and get you excited wondering what is going to happen next or how he is going to get himself out what ever jam he is currently in. The fight sequences also look like real fights. They don't looks like someone choreographed them in a studio; they are brutal and unforgiving and harsh like any real fight would be. The action sequences also manage to catch the viewer off guard, they are far from predictable and I found myself, on a few occasions, saying something like, "Oh shit... did he just...?"

Now if I had to make one complaint it would be the slight contrivances that set up the plot. Granted, as I said before, any action movie is going to have to be slightly contrived so this isn't really a negative mark for the movie. However, it does seem to be a pretty big coincidence that the bad guys in the movie just happen to decide to kidnap a girl who has an ex-CIA agent for a father. They also happen to kidnap her while she is on the phone with her father so that she can relay key pieces of information to him about her kidnappers. Everything else about the movie is so awesome that this small contrivance barely even makes a blip on the radar though.

The main thing that really makes this movie work is how believable the characters are. I really felt like the characters were making realistic decisions given the situations that they were in. There were none of those moments where you felt the character was making a decision just to move the plot in a certain direction. Part of what makes the characters so believable, other than the writing, is how well acted they were. Liam Neeson is a damn good actor and he really brings that to the table in this film. I really believed him as a man desperate to get his daughter back and willing to do anything for her.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, June 12, 2009

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island Trailer

Apparently I need to pay more attention to upcoming projects from Martin Scorsese because I had never even heard of Shutter Island until I saw the trailer. However, I can now say that I am pretty excited for this movie. It looks to be a pretty spectacular suspense thriller. The trailer even looks like it could cross the line into the horror genre. I'm definitely interested to see what Scorsese does with this no matter what genre it is though.

Download Hi Def Versions of the Trailer*: HD 480P | HD 720P | HD 1080P

This definitely looks like a movie that will just have a great, haunting atmosphere that should provide some good suspense. While the trailer doesn't give away too much of the story it definitely puts just enough out there it peek my interest. It definitely looks like something different than the typical Scorsese (not that there is anything particularly "typical" about Scorsese).

Even though I am not a huge fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, I have very much enjoyed the movies he has done with Scorsese so far. Don't get me wrong I think DiCaprio is a pretty damn good actor. Sometimes I have a hard time getting past the fact that he perpetually looks 16 years old. When the movies are good enough I am able to get past that though. With Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earl Haley and Michelle Williams rounding out the cast there should definitely be plenty of solid acting in the movie. I am most definitely pretty interested in seeing this one and will most likely try to see it in the theater when it comes out.

*Author's Note: Special Thanks to Dave's Trailer Page for providing the links to the Hi Def trailers.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Up (2009) - Pete Docter & Bob Peterson

Up (2009)
Directors: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (co-director)
Writers: Bob Peterson (Screenplay and Story), Pete Docter (Screenplay and Story), Thomas McCarthy (Story)
Starring: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Delroy Lindo

The people at Pixar seem to be among the few people out there that understand the concept of visual story telling. Film is obviously a visual medium but starting about the time that sound was added film makers have slowly forgotten this. More often than not they would rather tell us something with dialog instead of just showing it to us. Because of this, I am always amazed when a film comes a long that really takes advantage of film as a visual story telling medium. It is even more amazing when it comes from a film that is supposed to be a kid's movie.

Pixar really seems to have a handle on this though; there last two films have involved a great deal of story telling with very little dialog. In WALL-E (2008) almost the entire first half of the movie is told with a minimum of spoken lines. In Pixar's most recent film, Up (2009), they manage to tell an almost entire love story from beginning to end in the same fashion. There were no words to get in the way but we knew exactly what was going on. Not only that, they were able to draw me into the characters in a way that most movies could never do.

That is another one of the things that made this movie so wonderful. I really felt for the characters throughout the entire film. I genuinely cared about what happened to them. I was sad when they were sad, I was happy when they were happy and I was excited when they were excited. I made a real emotional connection with them and that really helped to draw me into this movie. It wasn't that overly sappy and sickeningly sweet kind of emotion either. It was real emotion that you feel for realistically created characters.

Ed Asner does a great job voicing Carl, a crotchety old widower who decides to finally go on the adventure that he always promised his wife they would take. His voice along with the great animation from Pixar managed to create a very believable character that you can't help but fall for. The rest of the characters in the movie are created just as well. You can really tell that Pixar cares about creating interesting characters and isn't interested in just using stock characters that we've seen a hundred times before.

The story for Up was also quite well done. Obviously there is the adventure part of the story that is aimed at kids but that part of the story is also accessible to the adults in the audience. There are a lot of fantasy elements in the adventure part of the story but they are integrated so well into the story that they work perfectly. There are some much more adult parts to the story though. This is a movie that deals with love and loss and death and deals with them in a pretty up front manor. Nothing is glossed over when dealing with these emotional concepts in the film. However, these are also dealt with in such a way that young kids that don't understand these concepts are not going to be confused by the film.

Honestly, this is just one of those films that works for any age group. It is just an all around fun story with great characters and a lot of heart. It is probably the most fun I have had in a theater in a quite some time. I also thought the 3-D looked great. They didn't go out of there way to do a lot of gimmicky 3-D stuff that is scene in other films. There isn't a lot of stuff thrown at the screen just for the sake of the 3-D. The 3-D did add a nice depth to pictures on the screen though. The film didn't at all feel like I was just watching a flat picture projected on to a wall.

Rating: 10/10