REVIEW: “I, Frankenstein”

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I suppose somewhere deep in the bowels of what is. “I, Frankenstein” lies an interesting concept with real potential. Of course that’s just an assumption because the actual film itself squanders any potential it may have. After seeing the bushels of negative reviews my expectations for the film were always as low as star Aaron Eckhart ‘s monotone, teeth-grinding line deliveries. Maybe that’s why I didn’t find it unwatchable (hows that for a compliment).

The film is based on a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux. It was adapted and directed by Australian born Stuart Beattie, a man known more for his writing in films like the first (and best) “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Michael Mann’s “Collateral”. The movie picks out pieces of the well known Frankenstein story and then adds a modernized gothic coat of paint. Mad scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a soulless monster (Eckhart) but then rejects it and dumps it in a river. In a fit of vengeance the monster returns and kills Victor’s wife. Victor eventually dies trying to seek out and destroy his creation.

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The monster finds his creators body and buries him in his family’s cemetery plot. While doing so he is attacked by demons and then rescued by gargoyles. This is heavy stuff, right? He is taken to a huge gothic cathedral, the headquarters of The Gargoyle Order. He is given the name Adam and through a number of stilted speeches is told of a war between the Gargoyles (representing Heaven) and the Demons (well, you know where they’re from). He refuses to help and goes out on his own only to return and become the centerpiece of a demon plan to end the gargoyle order and humanity.

Now is “I, Frankenstein” as absurd and hokey as I just made it sound? Well actually yes it is. There are a few decent effects and the dark setting is cool in a moody, gothic kind of way. Also at under 90 minutes it’s here and gone without stretching things out. There is also this unexpected but entertaining late night vibe to it. I can genuinely see this film being showcased on Elvira’s Movie Macabre.

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Unfortunately none of those things make this a good film. There are just too many problems. The film has no idea of how to tell its story. There are so many history lessons in the form of bland exposition. And then there is the dialogue. Often times it’s unintentionally hilarious. And I do mean unintentionally because this film doesn’t show an ounce of humor. Everything is taken deadly serious which doesn’t do the film any favors. And then there are the absurdities that I couldn’t shake. The funniest may be the locations of the gargoyle and demon headquarters. One scene seems to reveal that for the entire time the gargoyle’s cathedral and the demon’s mansion are only a few blocks away from each other. Brilliant.

Regardless of how much I might enjoy goofy, cheesy material especially in the horror genre, at some point you have to offer more. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t find it as boring and offputting as some have. But I also can’t and won’t defend its obvious flaws. Even more, it’s a movie you’ll watch once (maybe) and then never consider watching again. I know that’s the case for me.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

“Olympus Has Fallen” – 4 STARS

Olympus posterLet me preface this review by saying I grew up on the action movies of the late 1980s and early 90s. In some ways I cut my movie watching teeth on the films of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, and company – the same movies that Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen” undeniably and unashamedly pays homage to. From the bullets and body count to the plot holes and conveniences, “Olympus Has Fallen” mirrors those old-school action pictures. But there is another much more important thing that it has in common with the older films. It’s one heck of a fun and entertaining time. “Olympus Has Fallen” knows exactly what it wants to be. It sets its target, aims for it, and hits it dead center. I’ve always appreciated when a movie does that.

Throughout the reviews I’ve read, there seems to be two main criticisms hurled at this film. The first is that it’s nothing more than a “Die Hard” knockoff. Others blast the film for its blatant flag-waving American patriotism. I find it funny that people have gotten hung up on these two things the most. “Olympus Has Fallen” has its share of problems both structurally and narratively. But these two stumbling blocks for some didn’t hurt my experience in the least. As a matter of fact in some instances they actually helped it.

Look, the “Die Hard” gripe has some merit. In fact you could call this “Die Hard in the White House”. A mysterious terrorist group with North Korean ties attacks Washington DC in broad daylight. It starts with an air assault from a modified C130 followed by a violent ground attack which leaves many civilians dead and the city in chaos. But their prime target is the White House which they manage to take control of in 13 minutes. So much for our impenetrable national security, right? The terrorists seem to have the upper hand except for one small kink – U.S. Treasury desk jockey Mike Banning (Gerard Butler).

Now you know how this works, Banning is much more than a pencil pusher. He was at one time President Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) Secret Service head honcho and close friend to the First Family, but an uncontrollable tragedy cost him his job. But you can’t be a one-man army just by doing Secret Service work. Just like Arnie, Sly, and Chuck in so many of their films, Banning is also a former Special Forces Ranger. Like John McClane in Nakatomi Plaza, Banning is the lone eyes, ears, and muscle inside the enemy-occupied White House. The “Die Hard” comparisons are unavoidable but is that really a bad thing? “Olympus Has Fallen” is a much better “Die Hard” film than either of the last two “Die Hard” movies. And while this doesn’t do much in terms of originality, it nicely uses several of the key ingredients that made that franchise so great.

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Then there’s the patriotism criticism. I guess I missed the announcement. When did patriotism become a liability or a weakness in a film. I can understand it becoming a problem when a movie beats you over the head with it, but that’s not the case here. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in this movie’s pro-American spirit presentation but I don’t see why there has to be. As long as it doesn’t drown us in it. At one time there was an overload of ham-fisted patriotism in movies but that was a while ago. This was one area where the movie did feel surprisingly fresh. In other words the patriotic angle worked.

“Olympus Has Fallen” is helped by its nice supporting cast. Morgan Freeman is rock solid as always. He plays the Speaker of the House who is elevated to Commander in Chief after the President’s abduction. Melissa Leo was good as the Secretary of Defense even though she’s given a few pretty corny lines to wrestle with. I also loved seeing Robert Forster as a grumbling Army General and Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service.

But this is an action movie and the action is the film’s bread and butter. After a rather slow moving beginning which serves more as table setting, the action kicks in gear when the terrorists attack DC. Now I’ve heard a lot of criticism over the special effects but I don’t see it. With the exception of a few small hiccups, I thought the visuals were quite good. Maybe I got lucky but the DLP digital screen at my theater was ablaze with furious gunfire and massive explosions. The C130 attack, while preposterous, looked great and sucked me right in. There’s also a fantastic shootout on the front lawn of the White House that’s nothing more than old-school, bullet-riddled fun. Shootouts and hand-to-hand throwdowns continue throughout the rooms and halls of the White House with the percussion-heavy score amping up the macho intensity. Once the action starts you rarely have time to catch your breath.

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In an action movie like this one has to know it’s violent. But it should be said it’s really violent. Bodies drop at an alarming rate per minute and there’s no shortage of the red stuff. A lot of blood splatters through a huge variety of violent deaths. Be prepared for the numerous neck snaps, knife stabs, and head shots. Explosions are everywhere from jets and helicopters to buses and garbage trucks. Everything is fair game for Fuqua’s explosive experts.

As I hinted at earlier, this type of movie mandatorily requires some suspension of disbelief. You also must be prepared to deal with certain gaps in logic, tons of action movie cliches, and a few gaping plot holes. These things didn’t take away from the fun I had with “Olympus Has Fallen” but they are the kinds of things that keep it from being a truly magnificent film. There are several head-scratching moments that will pull you out of the film if you allow yourself to dwell on them. Why would the entire White House security code system remain the same even though people with access to them have been fired for a year and a half? Why do these and most other action movie villains insist on dragging out their missions instead of quickly carrying them out before the heroes have time to get in their way? I could go on. There are several in this film but if you can put it aside you’ll have a good time.

For me “Olympus Has Fallen” was a trip back in time through both the film’s high-octane action as well as with its predictable shortcomings. This was the real key to my enjoyment. There was a genuine nostalgic satisfaction as well as an appreciation for a film that sets out to be a specific kind of movie and never deviates from that goal. Now those who find testosterone-driven action flicks with fast moving kill counters to be relics from an outdated genre will have a hard time digesting this film. I can understand that. But this movie really surprised me, certainly not for its perfection, but for its rousing fun factor. There are tons of bullets, loads of explosions, and pride in the American spirit. For me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing and at the end of the movie I left with a smile on my face. Mission accomplished Mr. Fuqua!

“BATTLE: LOS ANGELES” – 2 1/2 STARS

When reviewing a film I always try to consider what kind of movie the filmmakers intend to make. It’s especially important to employ this philosophy when reviewing a movie like “Battle: Los Angeles”. I enjoy all kinds of movies including those that are intellectually challenging, emotionally stimulating, or even the proverbial mindless popcorn picture. “Battle: Los Angeles” is very honest about it’s intent and never pretends to be something it isn’t. It could best be described as “Black Hawk Down” meets “Independence Day”. It takes realistic, gritty military combat and mixes it with the alien invasion angle. It’s a loud, simple, explosion filled action film that does succeed to a degree.

In some ways it resembles a video game, not only by it’s title but also by it’s look and feel. What’s funny is that many modern video games have more plot than “Battle: LA”. It’s a very basic story. A staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) and his new platoon are sent into the alien infested Los Angeles battle zone to help escort out a small group of stranded civilians. That’s really it. It starts with a very brief introduction to the platoon but almost immediately the first attack occurs and the action takes off, only occasionally slowing down for small doses of character developing dialogue. While they try to add some degree of depth to the characters, other than Eckhart’s, none are all that interesting.

The movie also uses ever military cliché you can think of. Whether it’s the personalities in the platoon or the contrived dialogue, you name the cliché, it’s used here. We’re also offered very little in regards to explanation. We hardly know anything about the alien invasion even though we do gather tidbits of information through brief glimpses of CNN newscasts (which I actually liked). The movie vaguely informs us that the alien’s objective is to steal our water and we get a little information about how they function. But to be honest, in this type of film is it really that important? Obviously the filmmakers think not.

“Battle: LA’s” action is it’s bread and butter and it’s largely impressive. Director Jonathan Liebesman used handheld cameras to give his film the familiar documentary feel while recreating the chaos and intensity of war. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but it works more often than not. While a few scenes are a little disorienting it’s very effective most of the time. The CGI is generally good and especially shines in the large-scaled shots of the city and in images showing the massive destruction from the battles. The look of the aliens is serviceable but I was never blown away by them or their technology. There are some fierce action sequences particularly a frantic battle on a freeway and the final battle which I won’t give away. For my money, these scenes worked pretty well.

Aaron Eckhart is well cast as the combat-seasoned staff sergeant and the only remotely interesting character. Michelle Rodriguez plays the exact same type of role she always plays. The other performances range from fairly good to pretty bad. But then again this isn’t a performance driven picture, right? The bigger problem is the actors aren’t given much to work with. They also aren’t asked to do much more than shout and shoot so judging acting performances in this type of picture is pretty pointless.

“Battle: Los Angeles” isn’t a perfect film but it’s an honest one. It’s aim was to be a pre-summer popcorn action movie and it hits it’s mark. The trouble is the plot is paper-thin, the aliens aren’t that menacing, and it’s loaded with pointless, forced, and clichéd dialogue and profanity. But the action is intense and it’s shot and edited in a way that pulls you into the combat. Even with it’s shortcomings, it manages to be a fairly entertaining getaway, but it’s not one that will stay with you very long.

5 PHENOMENAL SUPERHERO MOVIES

You may have heard that a little movie called “The Avengers” hits theaters this Friday. In honor of this highly anticipated, sure to be blockbuster I thought it would be fun to spend some time this week looking at the hugely popular superhero genre. I’m doing two Phenomenal 5 lists this week starting with 5 Phenomenal Superhero Movies. Now with the title “superhero” my intentions are to stay within the comic book arena. Since the genre has grown there are many movies to choose from. But these are five that made the cut for me. As always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no doubt that these 5 superhero movies are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “X-MEN” (2000)

Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” should be thanked for its role in relaunching superhero movies into the popular money-makers they are today. Here Singer does a great job of introducing the team and effectively laying the groundwork for what the team was all about. Another great thing is the fun casting. Patrick Stewart is absolutely perfect as Charles Xavier and Hugh Jackman stole the show with his portrayal of Wolverine. Ian McKellen, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, and Halle Berry are also well cast. While some of the dialogue is a little clunky, the story is well written and even though dealing with some heavier underlying themes it doesn’t take itself to seriously. “X-Men” spawned two sequels, neither as good as the first film. But “X-Men” is a movie I can watch anytime.

#4 – “SPIDER-MAN” 2 (2004)

I really enjoyed the first Spider-Man film but this was a case where the sequel was better than it’s predecessor. With the constraints of an origin story behind him, director Sam Raimi puts together a sharp, action-packed story pitting Peter Parker (Tobey Mcguire) against Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina). The character development and story progression is very well done, the production design is at a higher level, and the movie as a whole is much more polished. Molina is fantastic and the special effects are a blast. The train scene alone is worth the price of admission. Unfortunately the third movie flew completely off the rails instead of building on the success of this film. But “Spider-Man” 2 remains a great example of how to make a really good sequel.

#3 –BATMAN BEGINS” (2005)

When I heard Christopher Nolan had signed on to do “Batman Begins” I was immediately intrigued. Batman is my favorite comic book hero and I was still bitter at how Joel Schumacher had left the previous Batman franchise in shambles. How happy I was to see Nolan not only successfully reboot the franchise but develop an enthralling film that captured the fun elements of a comic book movie as well as a darker and more fitting tone for the Batman character. Christian Bale is great as Bruce Wayne and Gary Oldman is the perfect Jim Gordon. Throw in Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman and you have a brilliant cast that perfectly fits Nolan’s vision. “Batman Begins” is not only a really good movie, but it sets the foundation for what has been an incredible franchise so far.

#2 – “IRON MAN” (2008)

I remember when I first heard that an Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. was coming soon. I didn’t see how on earth Downy, Jr. could play the role of Tony Stark and I pretty much doomed the movie to failure. Not only was I wrong about the movie but I have no problem saying that Robert Downey, Jr. IS Tony Stark! “Iron Man” is a well crafted and incredibly well written movie that rides Downey, Jr.’s performance. It takes a second tier Marvel superhero and catapults him into the lead role of the upcoming Avengers film. There’s some fun supporting work from Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard and some jaw-dropping special effects. “Iron Man” is a brilliant franchise-launching origin story and a super fun action popcorn picture. It’s incredibly well done and Robert Downey, Jr. is a blast to watch.

#1 – “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)

“The Dark Knight” is the second movie in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and I have no problem calling it the best superhero / comic book movie of all time. But it can’t be confined to just the superhero genre. It’s an incredible film that can stand its ground against any movie from any genre. Nolan’s vision takes Bruce Wayne and Gotham City down a much darker and more violent path with the introduction of The Joker played by Heath Ledger. Ledger gives a stunning and unforgettable performance that won him the posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Nolan’s direction is near perfect and his slick style is evident throughout the film. The special effects are very well done and Hans Zimmer’s score is a perfect fit. Bale, Oldman, Freeman, and Caine all return and Aaron Eckhart makes a great Harvey Dent. “The Dark Knight” is a comic book movie but one that never strays to far from reality. It’s dark and intense but it’s also an exercise in precision filmmaking. It’s a movie that legitimizes the superhero genre and one of my favorite movies of all time.

There you have it. What do you think of my list? See a glaring omission? What are you favorite superhero movies?