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Gods' Glory

GODS AND MONSTERS Written and directed by Bill Condon

"Making movies is the most wonderful thing in the world," director James Whale (Ian McKellen) reminisces during one of his many chats with Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), a young gardener who has become the object of the older man's final infatuation. Recovering from a stroke, Whale's mind is spinning with memories, the historic past often changing places with the cinematic one; in the burly Boone, he sees the chance to return to the themes of madness and death that illuminated his greatest work. Recalling another great Hollywood outcast of the 1950s, Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond, Whale fantasizes a comeback, but on a grander, more caustic scale. Using charm, sexual confusion and psychological banter to turn the younger man into a leading player, Whale contrives to become the auteur of his own death.

Gods and Monsters, a fanciful account of Whale's final days, is a dark, elegant tale about mortality, youth, sex, creativity and all of the many things that might have been running through the mind of the director of Frankenstein as he reflected on his past. Taking its title from a toast -- "To a new world of gods and monsters!" -- given by the mad doctor Pretorius in Whale's greatest film, Bride of Frankenstein, it's a fantasia on horror themes, a subconscious mirror of the earlier film, with Boone as the gentle, not-too-bright monster, drawn irresistibly to his creator/father. Like Whale's film, it's witty and stylish, even when dealing with the most morbid subjects.

The real Whale has remained an enigmatic figure in film history, best remembered for his string of classic horror films: Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and, of course, Bride of Frankenstein, one of the genre's most extraordinary achievements. He first came to Hollywood to duplicate his theatrical success with the World War I drama Journey's End and quickly became Universal's leading director, the success of his horror films matched by several other projects, including a 1936 production of Show Boat (starring Irene Dunne and featuring Paul Robeson). Studio politics abruptly demoted him to B pictures in the late '30s, and in 1939 he announced his retirement, giving up film to paint. (His own paintings -- copies of other artists -- are used in Gods and Monsters.) Most reference sources offer little information about the rest of his life: an unsuccessful, unreleased return to filmmaking in 1949 and rumors -- alluded to in the new film -- of a sex scandal (Whale never made any effort to disguise his homosexuality). He died in 1957 under what are inevitably described as "mysterious circumstances," his body discovered in his pool. A few years later, his former companion revealed that a suicide note had been found but concealed from the authorities to save Whale from posthumous embarrassment.

Though writer/director Bill Condon's script is faithful to Christopher Bram's Father of Frankenstein in most respects (the only major change is that Whale's housemaid, a Mexican woman in the novel, is now the German-accented Lynn Redgrave), it also expands the novel's limited perspective and creates a more vivid set of personalities, largely by virtue of some inspired casting. Ian McKellen is one of the finest living actors, and he continues to make surprising choices rather than rest on his laurels. His Whale is more mischievous than the prose version; where the novel's character is befuddled by his fragmented mental condition, McKellen appears to be savoring it. Brendan Fraser is, by comparison, an actor with a fairly limited range, but the contrast between the slightly goofy young man, a wide-eyed parody of American masculinity, and the canny old Britisher, as calculating as Fraser is innocent, provides an authentic comic tension to the sexual give-and-take. As Boone becomes more and more fascinated by the director, his link to the fame and glamour of movies, his confusion and concern become genuinely touching. Evoking the horror films of the '30s, the film becomes Whale's dirge for his own past, and for a world of glamour that Whale has rejected and Boone will never know. Though not a horror film itself, Gods and Monsters is a tribute of sorts to the kind of imagination that could produce a film like Bride of Frankenstein, a picture of the genre's subconscious as it slowly fades away from view.

Opens Dec. 18 at the Hi-Pointe.
-- Robert Hunt

BROTHER
Written and directed by Aleksei Balabanov

"To a new world of guns and mobsters" -- so might a contemporary Dr. Pretorius gloat over modern Russia as it enters the post-Cold War era by mimicking the worst excesses of Western culture without resolving its own internal problems. The new gangster film Brother suggests that the difference between the new Russia and the old depends on whose finger is on the trigger. The hero of Aleksei Balabanov's film is Danila (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), a young man who gets out of the army and falls into a life of crime in St. Petersburg, working as a contract killer for his brother. As ruthless as he is naive, Danila is an emotionless, methodical killer, and in scenes inspired by Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver the film shows him carefully preparing his weapons. His only displays of feeling are saved for his Discman, his CDs and his obsession with Nautilus, a Russian rock band. (His musical taste may have more significance for a Russian audience, because many of the younger characters in the film seem to mock his taste and favor European disco tracks.)

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