Gods' Glory

Dec 16, 1998 at 4:00 am

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

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.)

As Brother progresses, Danila gains in sympathy, becoming a kind of holy innocent trying to protect himself by playing rival gangs against each other. In a world of ethnic conflicts and political instability, the only safe position, the film seems to be saying, is detachment, if not outright Tarantino-like irony. Danila flirts with family ties, love and popular culture but ultimately leaves the film as alone as when he entered, a St. Petersburg "man with no name." Will he ever continued on next pagecontinued from previous pagelearn? Watch for Brother 2, to be filmed partly in Chicago ...

Plays at 7 p.m. Dec. 18-20 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells

DreamWorks' grandiose attempt at an animated feature for adults is a flimsy musical about Moses -- a Sunday-school film strip writ ultralarge and decked out with the spectacle of Hollywood Bible epics. Slender sermons nestle among flashy action sequences and diaphanous fashion statements from the more tasteful pages of the Nefertiti's Secret catalog. Although prayerful snatches of the Hebrew language can be heard in a couple of songs, the phrase "the Hebrews" first crops up in conversation approximately a half-hour into the movie. The Prince of Egypt's messages could apply to any religion, sect or victim group, and are expressed in choruses and refrains suitable for learning by rote, including "There can be miracles when you believe" and "You must look at your life through heaven's eyes." Long before the Egyptian army meets its watery demise in the Red Sea, the movie itself drowns in banalities.

The animation is as uninspired as it is gigantic. In the one genuine imaginative stroke here, hieroglyphic panels come alive to dramatize the Pharoah's slaughter of Hebrew babies. The movie tries to impress the heavenly heck out of you with sobriety as well as calculated dynamism. It aims to suck in Ned Flanders without alienating Bart Simpson.

It's as if the filmmakers are dropping pyramids on your head. The DreamWorks creative team devised cunning combinations of traditional animation and computer animation to conjure thousands of slaves and hundreds of charioteers moving through vast, towering settings. But all they achieve emotionally is an ersatz awe. As soon as you endure the introductory evocation of Hebrew slaves manufacturing bricks and dragging them by the ton under the Egyptian lash, you know what you're in for -- punishment posing as enlightenment. Even Moses' trip down the Nile in a baby basket becomes an apocalyptic voyage: The swaddled prophet barely makes it past a pair of battling hippopotami to a placid aristocratic bathing area and the arms of his royal stepmother.

Although they want the movie to appeal to grownups, the directors and writers dumb down the story in a touchy-feely sort of way. They turn their epic into a hybrid centering on an identity crisis. It's half The Ten Commandments, half Ben-Hur -- and it doesn't leave enough oxygen between kinetic blowouts and young-adult angst for any Old Testament fervor to catch fire. Once the movie cuts ahead from Moses' infancy, the major relationship isn't between Moses and his God, or between Moses and his brother Aaron, his sister Miriam or his wife Tzipporah. It's the totally invented bond between one Prince of Egypt, Moses, and another, Rameses -- Moses' playmate and brother. This way, once the adult Moses takes up the Hebrews' burden and confronts Egyptian tyranny, the animators get to restage Ben-Hur and his pal Messala hugging and tussling all over again. Moses and Rameses thrash out whether two men's boyhood affection can survive their political antagonism, not as Jew and Roman (as in Ben-Hur), but as Jew and Egyptian.

Of course, this emphasis takes the blunt edges off the vengeful and chauvinistic aspects of the story. On the brink of manhood, when Moses discovers that he's actually a Hebrew, he warbles mournfully that all he ever wanted was the royal Egyptian lifestyle. Even after he assumes his role as the Hebrews' earthly deliverer -- even after God throws his arsenal against Egypt -- this Moses just about tells Rameses, "It hurts me as much as it hurts you." But the movie is still about the Exodus. For the core saga to go over, the audience must experience a burst of revolutionary energy and faith. Instead, what The Prince of Egypt gives us is more like tea and sympathy -- Moses weeps over Egypt's ruins while Miriam and Tzipporah tunefully rally the Hebrew people.

In The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille's gloriously gaudy 1956 version of the story (DeMille first did it as a silent in 1923 with an interspersed modern morality tale), Charlton Heston's Moses was a stalwart fellow even when he was a prince of Egypt. He was a humane slave driver, whereas Yul Brynner's Rameses was an imperious, double-dealing schemer. These two were never buddies, much less brotherly. They were rivals -- for the hand of a sexpot princess and for the throne of the old Pharaoh. Everyone in every class of Egyptian life seemed to spend their spare time siding with Rameses or Moses. On this sturdy spine DeMille hung diverse flirtations and skullduggery, giving melodramatic traction to Moses' emergence as liberator of the Hebrews and spokesman for universal freedom.

In The Prince of Egypt, less is less. Supporting characters and scandals and divine retribution take a backseat to the platonic love between Moses and Rameses. The upshot is a self-consciously sensitive and woefully internal rendering of an age of miracles. It's fitting that Val Kilmer, the same actor who gives voice to Moses, also gives voice to God Himself. Proper faith comes off as an outgrowth of self-esteem. When Moses argues with the grown Rameses to let his people go, he's not just an Old Testament prophet; he's also a New Age prophet urging his old friend to change and grow. Until then Moses and Rameses are evenly weighted in emotional depth and virtue. Far from being a stand-up guy, Moses is a scamp, goading Rameses into high jinks like a chariot race that topples a temple (and, of course, recalls Ben-Hur). Rameses is a well-trained aristocrat shaking under the psychological oppression of his royal destiny. It's up to Moses to persuade Rameses' father, Pharaoh Seti, that all the kid needs is a chance to prove himself. That's not good for the Jews. Rameses ends up following the racial guidelines of dear old dad, the same Pharaoh Seti who ordered the tossing of Hebrew infants into crocodile-infested waters.

As a consequence of the tortured buddyhood at the movie's heart, the morals in The Prince of Egypt are more psychological than, well, moral. Rameses turns out to be an arrested adolescent, still trying to please daddy. Moses matures: Not just because he finds out that he's a Hebrew, not just because he comes face to burning bush with God, but because, yes, he looks at himself through heaven's eyes. Moses and Rameses wailing about how sad it is that they once called each other brother -- that's the emotional undercurrent the film provides for the devastation of the plagues and for the parting and terrible reunification of the Red Sea. Rather than humanize the drama, this focus softens and diminishes it. The plagues and bloodletting are perfunctory -- a testament to the film's family-hour sensibility. It's understandable that the moviemakers wanted to avoid turning their picture into a scare show, but this film's quick trot through pestilence and affliction lacks the requisite nightmare intensity and leaves a big dramatic hole. As religious scholar Alan F. Segal observed in an essay on The Ten Commandments, "The biblical story is written as a contest between the true God of Israel and the pharaoh, or false god, of Egypt. That is why the usually terse biblical text goes on at length about the plagues and how the pharaoh is only very slowly convinced to allow the Israelites to leave." Nothing in The Prince of Egypt compares to the Angel of Death in The Ten Commandments descending on Egypt like the splayed fingers of a green skeletal hand. And few will talk about DreamWorks' atmospherics the way they still do about DeMille's billowing clouds. This movie has no personality -- visual or otherwise.

The DreamWorks code of political correctness blands everything out: The movie cuts right from the Exodus to Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, tablets in hand -- without any mention of the golden calf. About the only group not protected under the code are pagan ministers. Steve Martin and Martin Short share the thankless job of injecting a little comedy into the proceedings as Mutt and Jeff priests of Ra. You can gauge how fundamentally humorless the movie is by how few laughs Martin and Short generate. (What a great comedy team they should be -- even the coupling of their names is witty.)

The energy level rises only when Moses' father-in-law, Jethro (the ebullient Danny Glover), leads his tribe in a cheerful hora. The animators elongated the middle third of the characters' faces, theoretically providing a broader canvas for emotional expression. They would have been better off expanding on the talents of their performers. Kilmer as Moses (and God), Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, Patrick Stewart as Pharaoh Seti and most of the others disappear into the vortex of the imagery. The producers of this glorified latter-day frieze have gone nuts for computer-generated extras without clinching the essentials of character and catharsis. The sad result is that The Prince of Egypt is less man than mouse.

Opens Dec. 18.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Because the laws of physics are occasionally suspended in the Star Trek universe, it only makes sense that the Law of Diminishing Returns would not apply there, either. Or call it the Law of Diminishing Sequels: Unless you're Steven Spielberg, the more sequels you make, the less money you make with them (see exhibit one, Batman and Robin). But evidently it doesn't always work that way: Since 1979 a Star Trek film has appeared about every two-and-a-half years at an average cost of $40 million and generated twice that much in domestic grosses. That's not a bad rate of return, especially when you consider that each one of these films had to satisfy a dual audience, both hard-core Trekkers and their dates (or their parents).

The latest entry, Star Trek: Insurrection, is no exception to that rule; for the in-crowd, it's got scads of digital effects and rapid-fire technobabble (though if all it takes to transport through a raised shield is a few tachyon bursts to scramble the shield harmonics, I don't know why they weren't doing that years ago), and there is a little romance and some dramatic scenery for the rest of you ... er, rest of us. This time Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the crew of the Next Generation's Enterprise must decide whether to intervene on behalf of the peaceful Ba'ku, whose bucolic planet's unusual resources are about to be exploited by the suspicious Son'a. (These bad guys are led by F. Murray Abraham, who has obviously modeled his performance on the over-the-top work of mad Klingon Christopher Plummer in sequel No. 5.) But the Son'a plan has the blessing of Starfleet Command; this places our hero Picard in a dilemma, though after he's used the phrase "forced relocation" a couple of times it's pretty clear what he and his ensemble cast are going to decide. Though this sounds a bit like a sci-fi revision of Dances with Wolves, viewers should remember one of the lessons of the Next Generation television series -- that the antagonism between alien races is never as simple as it first appears.

Indeed, Insurrection is the sequel that most insistently recalls its television avatar, perhaps because the producer of the series, Rick Berman, once again has story credit here. Regular viewers will find much that is familiar, from Picard's almost ritual resistance to direct orders, to the sentimentalization of the android Commander Data (Brent Spiner), to the tricky use of the holodeck, to the simple agrarian lifestyle of the Ba'ku, a hyperintelligent race who were technologically sophisticated until they decided en masse to return to the simpler life of the soil. (One of the persistent fantasies of Star Trek: The Next Generation was the notion that in the 24th century people are only ever peasants because they want to be.) Much of the unforced humor of the series' later seasons is present here, too. One concession to the big screen, though -- characteristic of almost all the sequels -- is the way in which the film beats up on the Starship Enterprise itself. Again, Insurrection doesn't stint on special effects.

Whatever its fate nationwide (and some of the numerological predictions on fan Internet sites have to be seen to be believed), Insurrection has the potential to live long and prosper in St. Louis; because we have been without a Paramount affiliate for almost two years, Star Trek: Voyager, the latest television series, has been unavailable locally. (I get taped episodes from a fellow traveler in Las Cruces, N.M. That's right -- Las Cruces, N.M., gets this show, and we don't. What's St. Louis 2004 doing about that?) If you've been affected by this drought, this film is for you. And you can bring a date.

-- Frank Grady