Thursday, 30 July 2015

"Mr. Holmes" Review

Though this blog is concerned with all things cinema, the recent release of Mr. Holmes is far more suited to a Sherlock Holmes-focused blog. Therefore, if you're interested in hearing the thoughts of a Sherlock Holmes obsessive, click here to read my review of the film on my other blog The Consulting Detective.

As a side-note, Saturday will be the first in a series of posts which I am submitting as part of various blogathons being hosted throughout the month of August. Check back regularly for more.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Batman Debate

Batman is my favorite superhero. I think it’s because, in comparison to other superheroes, he’s fairly grounded. Bruce Wayne only needs incredible intellect, brute strength, and an unlimited amount of monetary resources to pull from. I’m inclined to think that a great number of other people like Batman too; just about every decade has seen its own Batman screen adaptation. And, with the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I thought I’d take a look at the two most famous Batman franchises to reach cinema screens: Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Sorry Joel Schumacher – I think it’s better if we forget your little contribution to the Batman legacy.

Today, the general consensus is that Nolan’s Batman, more specifically The Dark Knight (2008), is the best Batman movie – best Batman anything out there. IMDb currently shows The Dark Knight holding a 9.0 user rating. That makes it one of the highest-rated films on the cite – behind only The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather Parts I and II. Meanwhile, Burton’s Batman from 1989 holds a 7.6 rating and the follow-up Batman Returns a 7.0. That’s a pretty dramatic difference in user opinion. And, I’ve got to admit that I am one of the few who believe that Burton’s two Batman films are superior. That’s not to say that The Dark Knight isn’t a good movie, but by no means does it deserve to be ranked the fourth best film on IMDb.

So, what has led me to the determination that Burton’s is the better film? Well, to compare the two let us look only at Batman and The Dark Knight. They are, in some ways, similar. Batman acts as a lone crusader in crime-ridden Gotham, acting outside the purview of the police, and must match wits with The Joker who has taken on a gang of criminals and gangsters to carry out his dirty work. Both films are also dark, recasting the Caped Crusader in his original, darkened light. But, the singular difference – and I think the difference which elevates Burton’s film – is that the original is a fun movie. Neither Batman nor The Dark Knight feel like comic book movies, but while the latter is simply a run-of-the-mill action flick, Batman is more respectful towards its source material.

I am of the opinion that when a comic book is being adapted to the screen, it is a difficult proposition. Comics have their own continuity – intense, complex continuity – which is hard to translate fully to the screen. So, if a movie doesn’t adapt every tangled plot thread from a series of comics, I understand. However, Batman managed to get the elements right. It presents us with the most popular Joker origin story which, though never truly confirmed, was proposed in the fan favorite graphic novel The Killing Joke. That origin cannot be said for The Dark Knight. More is made of Heath Ledger’s Joker performance than Christian Bale’s Batman, and he is the highlight of the movie. But, in an effort to bring the character into the modern era, screenwriters Jonathon and Christopher Nolan, made their new Joker all but unrecognizable. Yes, he is a first-class psychopath, but little else makes the transition to the screen. It is understandable when changes are made to a character to keep up with the times, but it’s imperative that that character remain, at their heart, the same.

And, let’s just speak a moment about the look of the films. I think Burton’s Gotham City – partially modern and partially Gothic, set in an ambiguously timed location, is evocative and mirrors comic book artwork. It fits the atmosphere brilliantly. Again, Batman doesn’t feel like a comic book movie, but it does respect its source material while The Dark Knight seems determined to distance itself from its origin.

Now, as I said, The Dark Knight is not a bad movie. I will say that its action sequences are better. It’s a more intense movie elevated by some first class explosions and set pieces. Also, The Dark Knight doesn’t feature any Prince songs. Hey, I have nothing against Prince, but really who thought: “This Batman movie needs more Prince.”

At the end of the day, it really is all up to opinion and your tastes. The best thing about Batman is that the character has seen so many different versions that no matter what your mood you can kind a Batman to satisfy it. Want some ‘60s camp? Try the Adam West TV series. Dark, ‘80s fare brought to you by Tim Burton at his best? Try Batman and Batman Returns? Want some intense, high octane action? The Dark Knight Trilogy will satisfy that. And, if you’re looking for a good laugh, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin fit the bill pretty well. 

Thursday, 9 July 2015

"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" and Horror

“I busied myself to think of a story which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror. One to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” – Opening narration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
Last time I took a look at Hammer Film’s Frankenstein series; each one of their films steeped in moody, Gothic elements which made them all, on some level, creepy, and true horror films. Speaking of the Frankenstein story, which, more-or-less, created the horror genre as we know it today, I couldn’t help but take a look at another adaptation of Shelley’s novel – the 1994 adaptation directed by/and starring Kenneth Branagh. This is a film which is, I think, unfairly judged and put down today. Why? People were expecting it to be something which it was not.

Interestingly, in the 1990s, Francis Ford Coppola was involved in three literary adaptations – all of which were ostensibly horror films. The first was 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula which found Coppola directing; the second Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) and the third Sleepy Hollow (1999), the last two on which he served as a producer. Now both Dracula and Sleepy Hollow are (on a whole) horror projects, so already modern audiences are being misguided looking back. Seeing Coppola’s name attached a Frankenstein project in the ‘90s could easily make one believe that the finished product was an out-and-out horror film. It is only one of the elements which could lead modern audiences astray. Frankenstein, in today’s popular culture, has become a horror product. 1931’s Dracula may have gotten the ball rolling for horror films in Hollywood, but it was Frankenstein, released the same year, which showcased the possibilities of horror films, and sent every major Hollywood studio scrambling to follow in Universal’s wake.

Frankenstein continued to be portrayed in this light throughout most of the twentieth century. I’m think it’s probably safe to say that the horror-movie incarnations of Mary Shelley’s creation are a little better-remembered today. After all, Frankenstein’s Monster, like Dracula, has simply become part of our culture (even if we do insist on calling the Monster Frankenstein – but I digress). So, for anyone who, like me, was going into this movie today, we had several decades worth of preconceptions to put up with. However, there was one vital difference between Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film and all the others: it was called Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Now, I do not purport to be anything like a literary professor who has analyzed Shelley’s writing time and time again, but I like to think that I know a little bit more about the novel than the average layperson. And there is one little, albeit very important fact, which I would like to contest: Mary Shelley’s novel isn’t very scary. At the time of its initial publication, I do however feel that Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus sent a shiver or two up the spines of its readers. The idea was pretty taboo, especially in 1818. The idea of a man, a mere mortal, playing God and creating life was a thing of mythology, like Prometheus of the novel’s subtitle, or Pygmalion. The concept of the mad scientist was simply unheard of in fiction because it had never been done before. The other thing, which most people do not seem to realize, is that Frankenstein was not a Gothic novel. Mary Shelley’s novel was written during the Romantic era, a literary movement which dwelled on emotions, and the importance of life. Gothic novels were almost the polar opposite; preoccupied by death and decay. It’s actually an interesting reversal; the original Frankenstein was preoccupied by life while the movie adaptations which followed were constantly moored in death.

So, with a title like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the style and the tone of Branagh’s film would have to mirror the original novel. So, what we get is not exactly an out-and-out horror film, but a very convincing drama. Now, I think I ought to mention how much I like Kenneth Branagh. He has rapidly become one of my favorite actors/directors; his 1996 adaptation of Hamlet being a film of truly epic proportions, and it is criminal that the film is so overlooked today (however that’s all discussion for another time). Now, Branagh as a director, prior to 1994, was mainly known for his Shakespearean work: he debuted in 1989 with Henry V and prior to Frankenstein had worked on an uproarious adaptation of the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing. The point is I cannot imagine a director like Branagh, so skilled in classical drama, being attracted to a project like Frankenstein based solely on its horrific possibilities.

Under Branagh’s hand, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein becomes an evocative character study of Victor Frankenstein, his fiancĂ©e Elizabeth, and, of course, The Monster. In this way, the movie is quite like its literary counterpart. Branagh manages to do all this while managing to jettison the book’s philosophical discourses. It’s a very well-handled drama, which, while not exactly scary, is still engaging viewing.

That’s not to say that the film is entirely without thrills. One of the film’s most thrilling scenes comes not from Shelley’s novel but the screenwriters’ imaginations. One of the other complaints leveled at the film is that a movie entitled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the movie does change some of the plot. I should put up a SPOILER warning for the following passage so… SPOILERS. Following the death of his wife, Elizabeth (per the novel), Victor Frankenstein goes off his rocker and decides to bring her back to life. He is successful in his endeavor, only to be confronted in his lab by the Monster who believes the resurrected Elizabeth is his requested bride. Elizabeth cannot handle the pressure of the situation and lights herself on fire and in the process burns Victor’s lab to the ground. END OF SPOILERS

That bit of final act mayhem is certainly not in Mary Shelley’s original, but it serves to add a little bit of horror to this film which so many people complain is not scary. By doing what he does, Victor goes completely off his rocker; in the process of creating a human being, Victor Frankenstein completely loses his humanity. It’s not the blood-and-thunder, in-your-face type of horror which so many associate with Frankenstein, but it’s a subtler kind of horror, more in-keeping with the original novel and its tone. Retaining the tone and nuance of the novel is something which cannot always be said for Coppola’s own horror film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

So, here’s the point in all of this: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a great film. Sure it isn’t exactly scary, but neither was its source material. And despite keeping its creator’s name in the title and then going and changing plot points, those changes don’t conflict with the original story or its original tone. Today, it’s a film which is sadly overlooked because modern audiences level mediocre reviews at it. So, I say give it a try. Just make sure that you have a completely open mind going into it, and you too can see what a minor masterpiece the movie actually is.


As a side-note, I will be changing things up a bit next time as I have looked at horror films quite a bit lately on this blog. What can I say: I like horror movies?

Friday, 3 July 2015

Ranking Hammer's Frankenstein Films

Last time I celebrated Hammer Films’ tremendous output by ranking their Dracula films. Today, I continue ranking some of their movies as I take a look at their Frankenstein series.

Hammer released six Frankenstein films starting in 1957 and running through 1974. Unlike their Dracula series, there was something of a consistent quality to all of their films so it is a bit more difficult to rank them. Therefore, the following list will be a bit more subjective. Also, it’s worth mentioning that I have not seen 1970’s The Horror of Frankenstein so I have not included it in this list. That film was more-or-less a darkly comedic remake of The Curse of Frankenstein and did not fit into the Canon which Hammer created, so, frankly, it’s omission from the following list shouldn’t be missed. So, without further ado, let’s dive right in.

6. The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) – An oddly uninteresting Hammer entry, its dullness made all the more surprising due to the fact that it was made in the studio’s heyday. Aside from the usual sumptuous use of color which marked nearly all of Hammer’s films, there is very little which sets the movie apart. It seems to take its style and storyline from the Universal horrors of old – which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it weren’t for the cartoony execution of the story What’s more the Monster, clearly modeled off of the Boris Karloff original, is pretty childish-looking. Is there anything to recommend in the film? Peter Cushing is as usual excellent, Peter Woodthorpe chews the scenery in the most entertaining way possible, and the score by Don Banks is top notch.

5. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is a movie which tried too hard to keep up with the times. In production as The Exorcist was released worldwide, the film tried to amp up the level of violence and gore on screen, but added very little to the story. Despite its weaknesses, the movie does have a genuinely downbeat and Gothic mood which is elevated with its asylum setting. The Monster, played by David Prowse, is sufficiently scary-looking and Peter Cushing turns in a fine performance playing Baron Frankenstein for the last time. By this point Frankenstein has lost all his wits and has little respect for the life and death of others. It’s no masterpiece, but an often overlooked and worthy installment in Hammer’s series.

4. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) – This one holds the distinction of being Hammer’s first Gothic horror, and for that reason it plays out as something of a prototypical film. It is by today’s standards a little stagey and can get long in places, but it is moody and a nice-looking film. Cushing’s first outing as Baron Frankenstein is one of his best and few actors have matched Christopher Lee’s outing as Frankenstein’s creation. The Curse of Frankenstein is hardly the best of Hammer’s films, but it’s certainly one of the most important.

3. The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) – There aren’t many sequels which can surpass the film which preceded it, but Revenge of Frankenstein may hold that distinction. Peter Cushing, already comfortable in the role of Baron Frankenstein, is in even better form here, and he is supported by some equally fine talent, especially Francis Matthews as the Baron’s new assistant, and Michael Gwyn as the Creature. Revenge of Frankenstein is a dark and brooding film, much more so than the first, and there are implications of vivisection and cannibalism which make the film one of Hammer’s darkest and finest.

2. Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969) – This film finds Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein at his nastiest. Employing crude implements, blackmail, and murder the Baron is out to perform brain transplants. Cushing’s turn as Frankenstein plays up all of the Baron’s irremediable qualities, and yet we the audience cannot help but rally behind him as a character. The movie is without doubt one of Hammer’s best executed horror shows, directed by Terence Fisher with great aplomb. Cushing is supported by excellent talent from Simon Ward and Veronica Carlson as well as Freddie Jones who is without doubt the most pitiable of all the Monsters in the Frankenstein series.

1. Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) – A contender for Hammer’s saddest film, Frankenstein Created Woman is also one of their most unconventional. It’s a film which manages to combine (of all things) metaphysics and revenge into one glorious package. It’s a film which was praised by Martin Scorsese as one of his favorite movies, and it’s easy to see why he loved it so much. Peter Cushing never looked as impressive as he does in this film and has excellent screen chemistry with Thorley Walters who portrays the Baron’s assistant. Susan Denberg must also be commended for her fine performance as the subject of the Baron’s experiments. Frankenstein Created Woman is a moving and incredibly compelling watch.