For Your Consideration #10: Guardians of the Galaxy (dir by James Gunn)


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As of right now, as far as I’m concerned, Guardians of the Galaxy is the best film of 2014.

Now please understand, I live in fly-over country and that means that there’s still quite a few films that I need to see.  Next week and through the new year, I plan to see Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods, Wild, and quite a few other films.  And any one of those films could, potentially, become my new favorite of 2014.

But, as of right now, Guardians of the Galaxy is my favorite.

Of course, Guardians of the Galaxy is not the type of film that will ever get a major Oscar nomination.  It’s unfairly dismissed as being pure entertainment or just a summer blockbuster.  A few critics group have been nice enough to mention it but, for the most part, Guardians of the Galaxy is not the type of film that’s going to be given serious consideration for the big awards.

Except, of course, by me.

Below are ten reasons why I think Guardians of the Galaxy deserves serious consideration:

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1) Never underestimate the importance of escapism.

Usually, when a film is described as being “escapist entertainment,” it’s a back-handed compliment.  The implication is that the film may be entertaining but it has nothing to do with real world issues and therefore, it’s not as important as other films.  We’re allowed to enjoy it but we’re supposed to feel guilty about it.

But you know what?

Sometimes, we need to be able to escape.  That was certainly true this year.  2014 will not be remembered as a great year for humanity.  From January to December, it’s been an endless parade of cruelty and intolerance.  And no, we should never pretend that we live in a perfect world.  We need to be aware of what’s happening outside of our own little corner of the world.

But that doesn’t mean that we haven’t earned the right to escape for 122 minutes.  In fact, I would argue that 122 minutes of pure entertainment is something that we need to make time for if we are going to remain strong enough to face and perhaps change the realities of the world.

In short, when I walked out of the theater after watching Guardians of the Galaxy, I felt better than when I had first taken my seat.  I felt happy.  I felt enthusiastic.  I felt ready to face this fucked up world of ours.

There is a place for pure, unadulterated escapism in cinema.

Not every film has to be a somber, self-important mess like Man of Steel.

Thank God.

2) The unappreciated subtext of Ronan

However, Guardians of the Galaxy is not pure escapism.  Much as in this case of The Purge Anarchy and Capt. America: The Winter Soldier, there is a deeper subtext to the film.  You just have to be willing to look for it.

One of the more frequent complaints about Guardians of the Galaxy is that the villain, Ronan (Lee Pace), isn’t particularly interesting and it is true that, when compared to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki or Iron Man’s villains, Ronan does seem to be a bit bland.  His goals and his motivation are pretty simple.  He destroys stuff and he kills people.  Why?  Because he’s the bad guy.

But, let’s take a closer look at Ronan.  Ronan is a fanatic who believes that only his way is the correct way and only his beliefs are pure.  Anyone who has different beliefs must be unpure and therefore, if they don’t agree to convert to his way of believing, Ronan is justified in destroying them.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

For all the complaints that Ronan was a one-dimensional villain, the same can be said of Joseph Kony, Kim Jong-un, and Jihadi John, and Fred Phelps.  The same can be said about a lot of evil people but that does not make them any less evil or dangerous.  Ronan may be a simple villain but he’s also the type of villain that we can find all over the world.

The one thing that all Ronan-style fanatics have in common is a complete lack of imagination and humor.  When Peter Quill stood up to Ronan by dancing, it was more than just a crowd-pleasing scene in a big action movie.  It was a call-to-arms to not allow ourselves to be held hostage by the Ronans of the world.  It was a plea to not let the fanatics among us steal our imagination and our right to find joy in our own individual way.

In short, it was a lesson that the entire world needs to learn.

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3) I Am Groot

Yes, yes, I know.  At this point, we’ve all had to listen to hundreds of friends, relatives, and strangers who have gotten it into their heads that they can perfectly imitate Vin Diesel saying, “I am Groot.”  But, seriously — there’s a reason why everyone fell in love with that catch phrase and that’s because both Diesel and the film do more with those three words that most actors can do with a four-page monologue.

And if you didn’t tear up when you heard, “We are Groot,” then I’m sorry.  You may be too cynical for your own good.

4) Introducing … James Gunn!

If you’ve read my review of Super or Arleigh’s review of Slither, then you know that James Gunn has long been a favorite of ours.  One of the joys of the success of Guardians of the Galaxy has been watching him become a favorite of everyone else as well.  And he deserves every bit of that success.  Working within the confines of the summer blockbuster genre, Gunn has created a film that works as both a superior action movie and as a quirky comedy.  With Guardians, James Gunn proved that it is possible to make a mainstream film without selling out your own individual style.

5) Introducing … Chris Pratt!

Even before he played Peter Quill, Chris Pratt was one of those actors who I have always been happy to see on screen.  He just has such a naturally likable presence.  But nothing he had done previously had prepared me for the pure joi de vivre that he brought to the role of Peter Quill.  Whether he was trying to convince people to call him Star-Lord or hilariously attempting to “rally the troops” or daring Ronan to a dance-off, Chris Pratt was a joy to watch.  If nothing else, Guardians of the Galaxy is the film that proves that Chris Pratt is a star (perhaps even a Star-Lord).

6) And let’s not forget Michael Rooker and Benicio Del Toro

Michael Rooker and Benicio Del Toro are both such quirky and unpredictable actors that I’m always happy to see either one of them on screen.  Having both of them in one movie is even better.  Rooker is perhaps the only actor alive who could not only be believable as a blue-skinned alien with an Alabama accent but who could also make that character into one of the most compelling in the film.  As for Del Toro, I know that his defiantly eccentric performance was controversial but personally, I loved the strange energy he brought to all of his scenes.

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7) And …. everyone else!

One thing that I really loved about Guardians of the Galaxy is that there were no wasted roles.  Every character — from Peter to Zoe Saldana’s Gamora to John C. Reilly’s upright military guy to the people who only had a line or two — felt real.  For a lot of viewers (including me), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) was an easy favorite.

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However, if I had to pick a best performance, I’d go with Dave Bautista as Drax.  Bautista did so much with so little.  As written, Drax is a physical dynamo with a need for revenge and absolutely no sense of humor.  That’s a pretty standard character for a film like this.  However, Bautista did so much with that character that poor, literal-minded Drax ultimately became one of the most intriguing characters in the film.  My favorite Drax moment came when, in response to hearing that everything goes over his head, he explained that nothing could go over his head because he would reach up and grab it.

8) That soundtrack

I have to admit that I didn’t care as much for Interstellar as some people did.  One of my big problems with the film came down to Hans Zimmer’s score.  It was so loud and overbearing that I actually found myself covering my ears.  But what really bothered me was how unnecessary it was.  Whenever Matthew McConaughey or Anne Hathaway made a profound statement or the spaceship started to shake, the music would suddenly blast in my ear.  It was like having Hans Zimmer in my head, repeatedly shouting, “IMPORTANT!  IMPORTANT!  EXCITING!  EXCITING!”

BLEH!

And it made me appreciate how much I loved the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy.  By using songs that you would never expect to see in a science fiction epic, that soundtrack both mocked the genre’s natural tendency towards self-importance and also forced us to take another look at familiar scenes.  From the minute Peter started dancing to Come and Get Your Love, I knew that I was watching a special movie.

9) The Prison Break

From planning to execution, this was without a doubt one of the best action sequences of the year.  From Rocket laying out his overly complicated plan while Groot tries a much simpler method in the background to Peter asking for the guy’s leg to the use of The Pina Colada Song, this was a perfect scene.

10) And finally … Dancing Groot!

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And those are just a few reasons why I think Guardians of the Galaxy is the best film I’ve seen this year so far.

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(For a differing opinion, check out Ryan’s review here.)

 

For Your Consideration #9: Under the Skin (dir by Jonathan Glazer)


Under the Skin is one of the most brilliantly divisive films of the year.  To some, it’s a pretentious mess, a collection of seemingly random scenes and obscure themes.  To me, however, it is one of the most haunting films that I’ve ever seen.  It’s a film that’s full of mysteries and questions, one that often demands that we supply our own answers.  It’s one of the best films of the year and anyone who disagrees needs to rewatch it.

From the opening scene, Under the Skin is a dream of dark and disturbing things.

In Scotland, a silent motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams) finds a young woman’s dead body lying on the side of the road.  He picks up the body and puts it in the back of a van.  Inside the van, a naked woman (played by Scarlett Johansson) takes the dead woman’s clothes.  As soon becomes apparent, both the motorcyclist and the woman are not human.  They’re aliens and they’ve come to Earth on a mission that is deliberately left obscure.  Though they never speak to each other, the motorcyclist always seems to be nearby.

The woman drives the van across Scotland.  She stops men in the street and, after asking for directions, then attempts to coerce them into her van.  (What makes these scenes especially effective is that the majority of them actually feature Johansson talking to nonactors who just happened to be nearby when she drove up.)  The woman smiles and flirts and has little trouble convincing the majority of the men she meets to get into the van with her.

She drives them to an isolated building where the men follow her inside.  As they step into a pitch black room, both the woman and her latest man start to undress.  The naked man starts to walk towards the woman and is so hypnotized by the sight of her that he doesn’t even realize that the floor has become liquified and he’s sinking.  As Johansson watches coldly, each man eventually vanishes, leaving behind only his empty skin.

(Warning: The two scenes below are definitely NSFW.  Watch with caution.)

Detached from her surroundings, the woman can only watch as real human beings go about their lives.  When she sees a man unsuccessfully try to save a drowning couple on the beach, she reacts by striking the man on the head with a rock.  She drags the man away, leaving the couple’s terrified toddler on the beach.  When the motorcyclist later visits the beach, he too ignores the child.  (Perhaps no scene left me more disturbed and inspired more nightmares than this one.)

It’s only when the woman picks up a man with a severe facial disfigurement (a poignant performance from a nonactor named Adam Pearson) that she finally starts to show some emotion.  The man is as much of an outsider as she is, with the main difference being that he can’t hide who he really is under a disguise.  The woman feels sorry for him and this sudden shock of empathy causes her to reconsider her mission.

However, even as the woman attempts to flee to the Scottish highlands, the motorcyclist is never far behind.  And, unfortunately, neither are real humans…

Under the Skin is pure cinema, a collection of scenes that alternate between being naturalistic and surreal, disturbingly serious and darkly humorous.  Perhaps appropriately for a film about appearances, Under the Skin is a movie that is full of haunting images, the type that, 8 months after first being seen, remain vivid in your mind.  It’s up to the viewers to decide what those images mean.

(For all of the discussion that I’ve seen online about what Under the Skin is truly about, it seems pretty obvious to me that the main message of the film is that guys are so led by their penis that they’ll even allow themselves to sink into a liquid void if there’s a chance they might get laid beforehand.)

Under the Skin has been a player (albeit a minor one) in the precursors leading up the Oscars.  A few of the braver critical groups have nominated it for best picture and have also honored Scarlett Johansson for her wonderful work as an outsider who is both slowly discovering what it means to be human while also dealing with the reality that, try as she might, she will never truly belong in this world.  However, with all that in mind, Under the Skin is probably too divisive and unique a film to ever truly appeal to the Academy.

But that’s okay.

Under the Skin is also a film that we’ll still be discussing years from now.

Film Review Under the Skin

 

For Your Consideration #8: Captain America: The Winter Solider (dir by Joe and Anthony Russo)


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I would estimate that, when it comes to the movies, Ryan the Trash Film Guru and I agree with each other perhaps 95% of the time.  What’s interesting is that the 5% of the time that we have disagreed, it’s always been the result of an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  As Ryan has documented many times on this site, he’s not a fan of the MCU.  (The title of his review of the second Thor film is probably one of the best that’s ever appeared on this site.)  As for me, I’m the exact opposite.  In fact, I am such a fan of the MCU that I am about to suggest that Captain America: The Winter Soldier — along with being one of the best action films of the year — deserves serious Oscar consideration.

(Ryan’s opposite take on the film can be read here.)

Now, unlike some of the films that I’ve suggested deserve your consideration, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, along with receiving critical acclaim, was also a major commercial success.  What made The Winter Soldier unique was that it deserved both the acclaim and the money.  There was a lot that I liked about The Winter Soldier.  In the role of Captain America, Chris Evans was both likable and, most importantly, believable as a hero out of time.  And while I would have never guessed that her character was supposed to be Russian, Scarlett Johansson continued her streak of kicking serious ass in the role of the Black Widow.  Samuel L. Jackson brought his customary style to the role of Nick Fury and Sebastian Stan was properly intimidating as the Winter Soldier.  The action scenes were exciting, the dialogue was sharp and witty, and the film worked both as a stand alone film and as a part of the overall Marvel universe.

But, for me, what truly elevated Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the film’s subtext.  (In that way, I would compare it to another surprisingly intelligent genre film, The Purge: Anarchy.)  For those who may have forgotten, the villains of the Winter Soldier are all members and pawns of Hydra, a secret organization that has so infiltrated the American establishment that it has literally become something of a shadow government.  Hydra has also infiltrated SHIELD and plans to use their intelligence capabilities to not only preemptively identify possible threats but to eliminate them as well.  In fact, by taking control of the SHIELD helicarriers, Hydra can anonymously deliver death and destruction from above.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

What truly makes this subtext come alive is that fact that the main villain — Hydra’s double agent in SHIELD — is played by none other than Robert Redford.  Any student of American film knows what Robert Redford represents.  Early in his career, Redford was the idealistic, ambitious, and frequently laconic protagonist, the perfect symbol of American exceptionalism.  In the 1970s, Redford was the audience surrogate in classic paranoia films like Three Days of the Condor and All The President’s Men.  Lately, as the man behind the Sundance Film Festival and a frequent director, Robert Redford has been the epitome of bourgeois, establishment liberalism.

Hence, when we hear Redford say, “Hail Hydra,” it’s more than just a catch phrase.  It’s also the film’s way of saying that we’re all fucked.  If even Robert Redford can be a villain, the film seems to be saying, then how foolish do we have to be to fully trust anyone or anything?  If Robert Redford can order people killed and then justify it by claiming that he was acting for a greater good then why are we so shocked when governments do the exact same thing?

We live in paranoid times.  In the future, historians will recognize that few films captured that paranoia as perfectly as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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For Your Consideration #7: Snowpiercer (dir by Bong Joon-ho)


It is perhaps a sign of the times that 2014 saw the release of several dystopian films.  Whether it was the Purge: Anarchy, Mockingjay, The Maze RunnerEdge of TomorrowDawn of the Planet of the Apes, or even Interstellar, all of these films shared a similarly bleak view of the future.  Filmmakers everywhere seemed to agree that humanity is basically doomed.

Unfortunately, with so many different and competing views of our sucky future, I fear that a lot of people may have missed one of the best of them.  When taken along with all of the usual Academy biases, I fear that means that Snowpiercer is pretty much out of the running for a best picture nomination.  It’s true that Snowpiercer did win best picture from the Boston Online Critics and there’s always an outside chance that Tilda Swinton could pick up a best supporting actress nomination.  But, for the most part, Snowpiercer has been overlooked.

And that’s a shame because Snowpiercer is one of the best of the year.

The premise of Snowpiercer is, in its way, brilliant.  After environmental scientists go a bit too far in their effort to battle global warming, the world suffers a second ice age.  (I have to admit that I enjoyed this development, just because heroic environmentalists are such a cliché.)  With the entire world frozen, what is left of humanity ends up on a massive train known as the Snowpiercer.  For the next twenty years, the Snowpiercer rushes up and down a track that spans the entire planet.

A new society forms on the Snowpiercer and, not surprisingly, it’s a lot like the old society.  The rich live up at the front of the train.  The poor live in the tail section.  All laws are set by the rarely seen Wilford (Ed Harris).  Wilford’s will is enforced by faceless soldiers and his blandly monstrous second-in-command, Mason (Tilda Swinton).

Twenty years later, the people in the tail section attempt their latest revolt.  This time, they’re being led by the charismatic Curtis (Chris Evans, proving that he’s capable of playing a lot more than just Capt. America).  Taking Mason hostage, Curtis leads his people through each car, slowly making their way to the front.  Along the way, they meet a lot a violent resistance and Curtis discovers that his rebellion was not quite as virtuous as he originally assumed…

Snowpiercer was one of the most imaginative science fiction films that I saw in 2014, a triumph of acting, direction, and design.  Each car has its own unique personality and look.  Perhaps the film’s best scene is when Curtis finds himself in the car that serves as the train’s school.  He and his grimy rebels listen as a perky and friendly teacher (Alison Pill) indoctrinates her students about the benevolence of Wilford.  It’s a surrealistic and tense scene, one that ends with burst of sudden and unexpected violence.

Perhaps what I most appreciated about Snowpiercer was that, despite all appearance to the contrary, it was ultimately a humanistic and optimistic film.  This is the rare action film where violence is not designed to look fun.  Though many character may not survive, the film never celebrates or cheapens their death.  Even the film’s most unsympathetic characters are still allowed moments of humanity.  This is a film that not only ends on a hint of hope but which earns that hope as well.

Snowpiercer is one of the best films of the year and it’s one that definitely deserves more consideration than it’s been given.

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For Your Consideration #6: Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One


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Of the three The Hunger Games films released so far, Mockingjay Part One is definitely the weakest.  That does not, however, mean that it’s a bad film.  It’s just that it doesn’t quite reach the grandeur of the first film, nor does it have the same political immediacy as the second one.  However, there’s a lot of good things to be said about Mockingjay.  Julianne Moore is perfectly cast as the charismatic but faintly sinister Alma Coin.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance reminds us of what a towering talent we lost earlier this year.  Donald Sutherland continues to transform President Snow into a villain for the ages.  Even though he’s only in the film for a few minutes, Stanley Tucci is perfectly vapid as Caesar Flickerman.

In fact, the only real problem with Mockingjay is that it’s so obviously a prologue to something bigger.  Much as with The Maze Runner, we watch Mockingjay with the knowledge that it’s only part one and that the majority of the issues raised by the film will not be settled until next year.  The film itself knows this as well and, as such, it lacks the immediacy and much of the excitement of the first two Hunger Games films.

But yet, with all those flaws in mind, Mockingjay still works and it’s largely because of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss Everdeen.  Whereas the first two Hunger Games films featured a Katniss who was always at the center of the action and always taking charge of any situation that she found herself in, Mockingjay features a Katniss who has far less control over her fate.  (One of the neater ironies of the series is that Katniss was actually more independent as a prisoner of President Snow than as a “guest” of Alma Coin.)  In Mockingjay, Katniss finds herself forced — with more than a little reluctance — to become the figurehead for the entire revolution and the film’s best moments are the ones in which others debate how to best “market” her.  These scenes are all about how Katniss — who is now not only a celebrity but a political icon as well — deals with losing control over her own public image.  Considering that Jennifer Lawrence’s rise to fame and acclaim occurred just as abruptly as Katniss’s, it’s probable that — even more so than in the previous films — the actress brought a lot of herself to the character.

So, yes, I would argue that Jennifer Lawrence does perhaps deserve some awards consideration for her performance in Mockingjay.  However, she truly deserves it for the consistent quality of her performance throughout the entire Hunger Games franchise.  From the very first film, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance has been iconic.  Fiercely independent without giving into the usual cinematic clichés that come with that, Katniss Everdeen has provided an alternative role model for a generation of girls who, otherwise, might have only had the likes of Bella Swan to look up to.

If that’s not worthy of being honored, then I don’t know what is.

For Your Consideration #5: Begin Again (dir by John Carney)


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Continuing my look at ten films that deserve just as much awards consideration as Birdman, Selma, and The Theory of Everything, we now turn our attention to Begin Again.  Begin Again came out this summer and did pretty well both with audiences and critics.  While everyone seems to agree that Begin Again will probably get at least a nomination for Best Original Song, I think that it’s actually worthy of even more consideration.

Begin Again is the latest film from John Carney, who previously directed one of my favorite films of all time, Once.  Admittedly, Begin Again is nowhere near as good as Once but it’s still a charming film when taken on its own terms.

Mark Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, a record label executive who, at the start of the film, has definitely seen better days.  His marriage is collapsing, he’s struggling to connect with his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld),  and he’s just recently been fired from the company that he helped to found.  After a day of binge drinking, Dan finds himself in a bar where he hears Gretta James (Keira Knightley) sing a song.

Dan is immediately taken with Gretta’s music but she has issues of her own.  She had just broken up with her boyfriend and songwriting partner, Dave (Adam Levine, in his film acting debut). Though initially reluctant, Gretta eventually allows Dan to attempt to sign her to his former label.  However, Dan’s former partner (played by Mos Def) refuses to sign her which leads to Dan and Gretta independently producing an album together, with the gimmick that the album will be recorded at various public locations across New York.

There’s really not that much plot to Begin Again but that’s actually a huge part of the film’s appeal.  The film rejects melodrama and easy sentimentality and instead, it focuses on the characters.  (That said, Begin Again is definitely a sentimental movie but it’s sentimental in the best possible way.)  The movie is about how two different people come together and, for their own individual reasons, create something special.  Ruffalo and Knightley have a lot of chemistry, Levine is hilariously dorky, and Mos Def is entertaining as the epitome of everything that’s wrong with the music industry.  Best of all, Begin Again — much like Once before it — perfectly captures the thrill of artistic collaboration.  The scenes of Knightley and Ruffalo recording their album are exuberant celebrations of everything that’s wonderful about performance and expression.

And, of course, the music is great!

 

For Your Consideration #4: I, Frankenstein (dir by Stuart Beattie)


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For the tonight’s final entry in For Your Consideration, I’m going to suggest that everyone take the time to consider a film that came out way back in January — I, Frankenstein.

“WHAT!?” someone out there is saying.  “It was bad enough when you tried to convince us that The Purge: Anarchy deserved an Oscar nomination…”

Okay, okay — hold on a minute.  You get upset so easily, it can’t be good for your blood pressure.  Anyway, have you calmed down now?  Good.

Here’s the thing — I said that I was going to suggest some films that I thought were worthy of award consideration.  The Oscars aren’t the only awards around.  There’s also the Razzie Awards.  The Razzies claim that their mission is to honor the worst movies and performers of each year.  To be honest, looking over some of their past nominations, it looks like they’re more interested in picking on easy targets like Lindsay Lohan and … well, I was going to say Adam Sandler but there’s a reason why most of his films are such easy targets.

Now, as far as this year is concerned, I’m sure that the people behind the Razzie awards are already busy coming up with snarky things to say about that Kirk Cameron Christmas movie.  And good for them!  However, I’m simply suggesting that instead of just settling for nominated Kirk Cameron a gazillion times, the Razzies might want to give some consideration to another potentially deserving film that came out this year.

Personally, I really wanted to like I, Frankenstein.  It was produced by the people behind the Underworld films, all of which are definitely guilty pleasures of mine.  And it starred Aaron Eckhart, who is such a good actor even if he rarely seems to get the lead roles that he deserves.  That said, even before I saw the film, I had my doubts about whether an actor with the almost satirically all-American facial features of Aaron Eckhart would be believable as a reanimated corpse and sad to say, he was not.  You could definitely imagine Eckhart playing a legendary big game hunter who has decided that he’s going to add Frankenstein’s monster to his wall of trophies.  But as the monster — well, not so much.

In I, Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s Monster survives through the centuries and eventually ends up fighting a bunch of demons for some reason.  Or something like that.  I have to admit that I was never quite sure what was going on in I, Frankenstein.  Some of that was because I was bored with the movie and a lot of it was because the movie felt less like an actual film and more like a collection of highlights.  This is one of those films where off-screen narration was necessary to describe a huge chunk of the movie’s plot.

And, finally, I just couldn’t buy Aaron Eckhart as a monster.  He’s too handsome in his own clean-cut, middle American way.  There’s a reason why Aaron Eckhart was convincing as the symbol of good government decency in The Dark Knight and that’s the same reason why he’s not very convincing playing a creature who has been built out of random body parts.

So, to the people behind the Razzies, I would encourage them to continue to try to come up with the perfect Kirk Cameron joke.  But don’t forget about I, Frankenstein.

It’s worthy of your consideration.

And speaking of consideration, For Your Consideration will continue tomorrow with 6 more films that are worthy of your awards consideration!