Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Frank Review of "Gods and Monsters" (1998)

The Short Version? Gay Frankenstein director trapped unwillingly in his own past.
What Is It? Docu-drama.
Who Is In It? Gandalf, George of the Jungle, Georgy Girl
Should I See It? Why, certainly, yes.

When I look at films in my DVD collection starting with the letter "G," I'm disappointed in myself that I don't own the widely acclaimed winner of the 1982 Academy Award for Best Picture Gandhi. I'm even more embarrassed to note that if I did, it would sit between Fright Night Part II and the 1977 Clint Eastwood flick The Gauntlet. A bit down the line though, I have Gods and Monsters, which makes me feel much better about my personal taste.

James Whale was a theater directer who moved on to Hollywood during its golden age, and offered it Journey's End, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Show Boat, and The Man in the Iron Mask, among others. However, his film career was pretty much over by 1942, and his return to theater was cursed by misfortune. Whale took to hedonism for a time, but after a pair of strokes in 1956, he began a swift decline in health toward an early grave.

Christopher Bram's 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein concerned itself with a partially fictionalized account of Whale's latter days, and was adapted to film by screenwriter/director Bill Condon. The result is clever, droll, and engrossing. It's quite the gay affair, as Whale teases the pursuit of firm male flesh, whilst fleeing from his degenerating mental condition, disorienting flashbacks, and general dissatisfaction with his existence.

Ian McKellen's performance in the role is scintillating, even as his portrayal of Whale forces him to fall in and out of his own mind. Brendan Fraser plays Clayton Boone, the gardener who focuses Whale's amorous attention, nostalgic recollection, and drive to address his circumstances. Not only is it the finest work Fraser has ever done, but it is enough to make even the harshest critics of his checkered filmography reconsider his worth. Boone is straight, and struggles with Whale's cavalier sexuality, but both men have needs the other can fulfill that have nothing to do with the carnal. Fraser dances the fine line between innocent and opportunist masterfully. Lynn Redgrave is genially hammy as Whale's judgmental attendant Hanna, a stock character type from the director's films brought to life. It's no surprise most everyone earned a nomination for some award or another, and Condon won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Through the conceit of fictionalization, Gods and Monsters casts off any stigma it might have had as a biopic. While stylish in its use of non-linear narrative, theatrical lighting, imaginary interludes, the absence of color and more, it is all done in service to a rich life story, never compromising its integrity. The look of the movie is surprisingly sumptuous on a modest budget, and the score by Carter Burwell is lovely. This is one of those pictures where everything works exactly as it should, making it a simple joy to watch tirelessly again and again.

Of course, Gods and Monsters sits right by Eddie Murphy's The Golden Child, so I really might ought to get around to buying Gandhi already, if only to keep up appearances.

This "Collector's Edition" DVD's has a clunky menu (accessible through your remote or after the movie autoplays) that makes it a bit of a relic. There's a bunch of laughable old school non-extras like web links, talent bios and production notes, all anchored to simplistic icons for the Luddites in the audience. Redeeming the advertising is a thoroughly considered commentary track with Condon, and the potent half-hour documentary The World of Gods and Monsters: A Journey with James Whale. Neither one is negated by the discussion of the other, and the doc is even narrated by producer Clive Barker.


mathematicscore said...

The Gauntlet! Poor man's Dirty Harry. Love it. But yeah, Gods and Monsters is phenomenal. Good call all around.

Diabolu Frank said...

Maybe poor man's Dirty Harry, but I'd stack The Gauntlet up against any of the sequels. I revisited Sudden Impact and Magnum Force relatively recently to disappointment, and didn't care for The Dead Pool in the theater. I hope The Enforcer holds up, plus I still haven't watched fellow off-brand Tightrope since I bought it cheap...

mathematicscore said...

I'm a sucker for Eastwood, and actually think the whole series has merit, at least in part. Then again, I feel the same way about the Deathwish series, so, grain of salt.


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