Horror Film Review: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (dir by Kenneth Branagh)


Oh my God, this is an exhausting movie.

Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sticks pretty closely to the plot (if not the tone) of Mary Shelley’s original novel.  What that means is that this movie includes a lot of the good stuff that often seems to get left out of other Frankenstein adaptations.  For instance, we learn more about the life of Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) before he created his monster.  We find out about his family and his troubled romance with Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter).  Victor’s good friend Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce) is included and so is Professor Waldman (John Cleese) and Captain Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn).

It also means that we get to watch as the Monster (Robert De Niro) flees into the wilderness and later befriends a kindly blind man (Richard Briers).  The Monster, as always, is happy until mankind interferes and treats him unfairly.  The Monster learns to speak and, after it learns to read, it discovers who created it and it sets out for revenge.  We watch as everyone that Victor Frankenstein cares about dies, all as a result of his desire to play God.

And yet, while you have to respect the fact that Branagh tried to stay (more or less) true to the plot of the original novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a bit of a chore to sit through.  A huge part of the problem is that Kenneth Branagh cast himself to play Victor Frankenstein.  In the book, Victor is a rather sickly character and his desire to create life is probably as much inspired by his own poor health and the death of the people close to him.  In the film, Branagh plays Victor as being almost a Byronic figure, with the camera emphasizing his flowing hair and his muscular physique.  Even when Victor does push himself to the point of death in his research, you never really believe it because Branagh the director isn’t willing to let Branagh the actor look weak or malnourished.  However, turning Victor into an alpha male also turns him into a jerk.  Unlike say Colin Clive or Peter Cushing in The Curse of Dracula, you never find yourself sympathizing with Kenneth Branagh’s Victor.

And then you have Robert De Niro as the Monster.  Now, really, I imagine that — in 1994 — the idea of De Niro playing the Monster seemed like an obvious one.  I mean, the Monster is a great role and De Niro’s one of the greatest actors who ever lived so if anyone could find a new and interesting way to play Frankenstein’s Creation, it would have to be De Niro, right?

But no.  First off, De Niro may be a great actor but it’s hard to accept the idea that a monster created in Germany would speak with a New York accent.  Even under tons of makeup, De Niro does an okay job of projecting the Monster’s rage but, unlike Karloff or Christopher Lee, De Niro never seems to really connect with the character.  You never forget that you’re watching a heavily made-up Robert De Niro.  De Niro often seems to be rather detached from what’s happening on screen.

Branagh’s directs in a manner that can only be called operatic, which turns out to be a mistake.  The story is already dramatic enough without Branagh spinning the camera around every few moments.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the film but unfortunately, Frankenstein is a story that needs just a little bit of subtlety.  It all gets to be a bit overwhelming and, by the time the Monster is literally ripping a heart out of a body, you’re just like, “Enough already!”

It’s just a really tiring movie.

Quick Review: Paddington (dir. by Paul King)


paddington_character-poster-4Hello there, and Happy New Year!

When I was little, I owned a stuffed Paddington Bear. When I found out Heyday Films was working on a movie for the character, I immediately added it to my watch list. From the audience’s reaction, made up mostly of families and a few dates, it seemed to be well received. American audiences may not be familiar with Paddington, even though the Orange Marmalade eating bear has had tons of books, toys and cartoons in the UK over the last 50 years. He even has his own float in the Holiday parades we have here in New York City.

The movie, directed by Paul King, finds young Paddington (Ben Wishaw – Layer Cake, Skyfall) traveling to London after an Earthquake destroys his home in Darkest Peru. His Aunt and Uncle (played by Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon, respectively) have told him of how wonderful London is, but he finds it’s not exactly as kind as he was led to believe. While Wishaw wouldn’t be my first through to voice Paddington, he fits the role quite well, giving the character a sense of polite innocence that’s spot on to how I recalled him.

The Brown family discovers Paddington and takes him in, in the hopes that they can locate the individual who discovered Paddington’s Aunt and Uncle during an expedition many years ago. When an evil taxidermist (played by Nicole Kidman in a turn that feels eerily similar to what she did in The Golden Compass) discovers Paddington, she makes it her goal to have him added to her collection.

Paddington’s supporting cast seems to either have former Harry Potter or Layer Cake stars. Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville plays the overprotective Brown father. Sally Hawkins (Layer Cake, Godzilla) plays Mary, who helps Paddington along his trip. Weasley mom Julie Walters has a fun role as the house nanny, and finally, Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi is the nosy next door neighbor that doesn’t take too kindly to having furry neighbors around town. It looks like everyone enjoyed themselves on the production, and seeing Capaldi play someone so odd was a little weird.

For young viewers, Paddington is a treat, with a focus on acceptance, family and the notion that sometimes one can hold on too tight to children in an effort to keep them safe. It might a gross out in some ways, depending on some of the scenes that include earwax licking and passing gas. Some may find the notion of a taxidermist a little scary, but my audience seemed to be okay with it. There are very few elements of violence – most of it the playful type found in films like Home Alone. Nicole Kidman may appear scary to some, but at it’s heart, Paddington tries to keep everything as accessible as it can for everyone.

Musically, Sigur Ros provides some great music that flows with the scenes, and the production itself moves almost in the same fashion as Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, via the use of screen wipes and subtle season changes. The CGI for the film is done well, though I can’t say it’s very subtle. A casual view could probably spot what’s CGI and what isn’t, but since it’s for kids, they won’t really care.

Overall, it was fun to revisit Paddington. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations, but was a little amazed at how well it actually held up. I found myself smiling more often than I thought I would, honestly.

Film Review: The Monuments Men (dir by George Clooney)


Remember when The Monuments Men was everyone’s pick for the best film of 2013?

It may be hard to remember now, especially now that the film has actually been released and dismissed by most critics.  But, during the summer of 2013, all of the people at Goldderby and AwardsDaily were convinced that The Monuments Men would be a major player at the Oscars.  Sure, the thinking went — 12 Years A Slave and August: Osage County would be major contenders but the surest bet for a win was The Monuments Men.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to laugh but, at the time, the logic behind this assumption seemed sound.

After all, The Monuments Men not only tells a true story but it also takes place during the only good war, World War II.  It’s directed by George Clooney, who is the epitome of a star..  The film features supporting performances from Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and John Goodman.  The film also has a valuable message about the importance of culture and how tyrants always try to control and suppress the imagination.

So, who can really blame all the usual suspects for deciding, without having actually seen the movie, that The Monuments Men would be great?  Even when the film’s release date was moved from December of 2013 to February of 2014, it was assumed that it was only being moved because 12 Years A Slave was such a great film that no movie — not even The Monuments Men — could hope to compete with it for the title of best film of 2013.

The Monuments Men?” they all said, “It’ll be the best film of 2014…”

And then, finally, The Monuments Men was released and we all got a chance to see it and…

Well, it turns out The Monuments Men was not quite what everyone was expecting.  It’s not quite bad but, at the same time, it’s also not quite good.  Instead, it simply is.

To its credit, The Monuments Men attempts to tells a worthy story.  During the final days of World War II, Frank Stokes (played by George Clooney) leads a seven-man team of art historians who are tasked with both recovering art stolen by the Nazis and keeping allied soldiers from accidentally destroying Europe’s culture while trying to save it.  Stokes and his team find themselves forced to deal with both soldiers who resent being told what they can and can not blow up and with a competing team of Russians who are eager to take as much art as they can back to Moscow.

The film makes a very relevent point about both the importance of art and why it must be preserved and protected for future generations.  As the proud recipient of a degree in art history, I really wanted to like The Monuments Men.  Especially considering what our President recently had to say about those of us who majored in art history, this is a film that I wanted to see succeed.

Unfortunately, The Monuments Men does not succeed.  It’s an almost painfully old-fashioned film, one that features every single wartime film cliché imaginable and which never manages to be as interesting as the story its trying to tell.  We like the monuments men because they’re played by actors like Bill Murray and John Goodman but we never get to know any of them as individuals and, as a result, their story falls flat.

A lot of the blame has to rest with the director.  As I watched The Monuments Men, I found myself thinking about the other films that George Clooney has directed.  Confessions of A Dangerous Mind is memorable largely for Sam Rockwell’s lead performance but, otherwise, the film tries way too hard to be wacky.  Good Night and Good Luck is sincere but rather simplistic.  Leatherheads is a comedy that’s not that funny.  And finally, there’s The Ides of March, a film which thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is.  I think, when it comes to George Clooney, there’s a tendency to be so blinded by his charisma that we tend to assume that he can do anything, including direct.  However, if one can manage to ignore Clooney the star while considering Clooney the filmmaker, it becomes obvious that he’s actually a rather unimaginative director whose good intentions often times disguise the fact that he’s not much of a story teller.

That, ultimately, is the main problem with The Monuments Men.  The film is full of effective scenes and charismatic actors but they never quite gel to form a compelling narrative.  At one point in the film, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are sent to one part of Europe while Goodman and Dujardin are sent to another.  We get a handful scenes featuring each team.  Murray and Balaban bond with a scared German.  Dujardin and Goodman deal with a teenage sniper.  Suddenly, in the next scene, Clooney drives up to an army camp in a jeep and there’s Murray, Balaban, Goodman, and Dujardin all standing outside a tent, waiting for him.  How did they all get back together?  Where is the camp located?  Did either team accomplish what they were sent out to do?  The film never tells us.

(Meanwhile, the less said about a lengthy subplot featuring a lot of awkward interaction between Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett the better.)

As I said before, it’s not that The Monuments Men is a bad film.  It’s just such a disappointing one.

Trailer: The Monuments Men (Official)


The Monuments Men

The race for Awards Season film releases has begun to heat up with trailers for American Hustle and The Butler already showing some major front-runners for the major awards at the end of the year.

We now have another trailer release for a film that looks to join in on all the end of the year awards scramble. It’s the latest film from George Clooney (doing a trifect as writer, director and actor) which sports an impressive ensemble cast that includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban.

The Monuments Men is based on the true story of archivers, museum directors, art restorers turned soldiers tasked with saving the cultural and fine arts treasures stolen by Hitler’s Nazi forces during World War II. As the war begins to turn again the Nazi’s this group of unconventional soldiers must prevent these treasures from being destroyed as part of Hitler’s “scorched earth” policy when it comes to the cultures he has deemed unworthy.

The film itself is adapted from the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel. There’s a camp out there who doesn’t look at Clooney’s work as anything but OScar-bait whenever they come around every other year, but there’s no denying that the man can direct and act. The question now is whether The Monuments Men will finally give Clooney that final push into getting his first Best Director Oscar.

The Monuments Men is set for a December 18, 2013 release date.