Friday, February 7, 2014

I, Frankenstein ~ Potential Squandered

I, Frankenstein ~ Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
The film, "I, Frankenstein" takes Mary Shelly's classic Gothic tale and rewrites the story to allow for a modern audience.  Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, writer and director Stuart Beattie (one of the many writers on the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise) working with graphic novelist, and actor Kevin Grevioux to turn Frankenstein's monster and Aaron Eckhart ("Olympus Has Fallen," "Battle Los Angeles," "The Dark Knight") into a modern day action hero.  "I, Frankenstein" is a fantasy film with extravagant special effects, over the top action scenes, new symbols, and a mythology to ponder on.  Bill Nighy ("Underworld," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "Hot Fuzz") star along with Miranda Otto ("The Lord of the Rings" trilogy).  "I, Frankenstein" runs about an hour and a half and the MPAA rates it PG-13.

The first thing you will notice about "I Frankenstein" is the look and feel of this film.  If it invokes the spirit of the "Underworld" franchise, there is a good reason for that.  First, the screenplay is adapted from a story by Kevin Grevioux.  Grevioux and director Len Wiseman developed the "Underworld" franchise based on Kevin's original concept of genetic mutation rather than a supernatural reason for vampires and werewolves  

In 1795, the story goes...  Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who created a man from the remains of dead bodies, abhors and rebukes his creation and decides to destroy the creature by dropping it into the river.  This servers as a metaphor from the Bible referring to Noah's flood perhaps.  The creature returns and seeks vengeance upon its creator.  After the creature murders Victor's wife, the scientist hunts the creature into the Arctic where Victor succumbs to the elements.  Essentially,  Grevioux’s story diverges immediately after the creature is created.

I, Frankenstein ~ Triple Cross | A Constantly Racing Mind As the creature returns Victor Frankenstein's body to his family estate, and while he is burying his creator in the shadow of the burnt out manor when a group of demons attack him.  The demons appear human at first, however, their underlying evil "burns" through their skin off and their true form shows.  The monster starts dispatching demons until he is outnumbered.  Enter the gargoyles.  You know – the stone grotesques that sit hunched atop church cathedrals?  Yes, those are the ones.  These creatures fly in and take out all but one of the demons.  When the gargoyles land, they turn into human form.  The two gargoyle rescuers, Ophir and Keziah take the creature back to the gargoyle stronghold.  The lair of the gargoyles is, of course, a magnificent cathedral with elaborate arched buttresses in the classic French Gothic style, sort of a Notre Dame de Paris on steroids.  Summoned before the Gargoyle Queen, Lenore--played stoically be Miranda Otto (she was Eowen from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy).  A conflict arises between Lenore and the gargoyle commander, Gideon, played by Jai Courtney ("Jack Reacher," "A Good Day to Die Hard") as he believes it is better to kill the creature and destroy Frankenstein's journal on creating man.

Mary Shelly was 18 years-old when she created the characters of Frankenstein and the creature, failed to give the monster a name.  She did, however, in later interviews offer up the name of Adam.  Remember, the full title Shelly's Science Fiction, Gothic horror, romance novel was "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus."  Even the name "Lenore" brings to mind Edgar Allen Poe's Gothic Romantic poem of a man as he sadly recalls the beautiful maiden who died way too young.  "I, Frankenstein" is steeped in mysticism and lore.  The Gargoyle Queen tells us that it was the Archangel Michael who created them to fight the demon hordes.  But, for some unexplained reason, or because this is how it appears to mankind -- God has forgotten about them and doesn't refill their ranks.  Instead, the gargoyles appeal to "Adam" to join them in their fight against evil.  The face of evil is Bill Nighy's character, Charles Wessex; head of a major scientific corporation, and just below the skin, the evil Prince Naberius, the Marquis of Hell.

I, Frankenstein ~ Aaron Eckhart | A Constantly Racing Mind

I feel bad for Aaron Eckhart's character.  At this point, all he wants to do is go somewhere quiet, curl up near a warm fire, and read a good book.  In this case, it is Frankenstein's journal.  For Adam, the journal is as sacred for the Bible.  On one hand, “I, Frankenstein" presents a character whose desire to find out why he was created and for what purpose.  A lofty goal to be sure, however, Bettie's camera framing choices along with the pacing of the movement leaves little time for introspection by either Adam or the audience.  Lenore denies Adam the journal and has Gideon lock it up for safekeeping.  Reluctantly, Gideon obeys.  Before Adam departs, Lenore divulges the secret to killing demons -- they can be killed with sacred weapons.  So far, up to this time, most scenes have had subtle references to a triple cross.  This symbol is both holy and to demons, deadly.  As opposed to having a spiritual leader like a priest bless the weapons, all Adam has to do is engrave the image of the triple cross on any weapon.

Two hundred years goes by, Adam tells us.  In that time, he had stayed some place remote where neither demon nor gargoyle will find him.  Once again, we have supernatural creatures abandoned by their spiritual masters.  In (almost) all quests, the hero must be, not only be reluctant, but also must go through a training period.  Two hundred years of practicing should be enough.  Adam returns to the modern world, clean cut, appropriately dressed and ready to hunt demons.  In his first encounter in the modern world, he is stalking demons when a human cop interferes and is killed -- collateral damage.  Once again, the gargoyles intercede, haul Adam back before the Lenore for chastisement, and ultimately he is held captive to await sentencing by Lenore. 

I, Frankenstein ~ Yvonne Strahovski  | A Constantly Racing Mind Since Adam's disappearance, Naberius has been seeking the creature, created by man, now named Adam. Over the millennia, war between good and evil continues to the point that the souls of the soldiers of evil are waiting in hell for new, reanimated soulless bodies.  Victor Frankenstein's journal is the blueprint, and the Adam is the prototype.  Naberius/Wessex wants either the book or the body so that his eminent human scientist, the blonde, beautiful Terra Wade (Yvonne Strahovski -- "Chuck," "Killer Elite") can figure out how to "cure" death.  At least, that is what she thinks she is doing.  She is experimenting with both drugs and massive amounts of electricity to try to revive enormous white rats.  Working in Wessex's compound, her laboratory is all decked out in modern equipment, below in the depths of the building, one of Naberius’s minions is using Terra’s work to revive the many dead bodies that Naberius has been holding for the day that Terra will find the process to reanimate them.  Of course, Terra is fascinated with Adam, and she ends up being the damsel in distress whom needs saving.  This creates an awkward kind of relationship between the two.  Perhaps, they were going for a “Warm Bodies” kind of vibe.

The real question of this story is Adam capable of having a soul.  Does he have one now?  The concept of the soul goes back to ancient Greece.  Did Mary Shelly's creature have a soul?  He gave her creature many abilities that did not make into the 1930's film with Boris Karloff and Colin Clive.  Director James Whale's monster, was illiterate, inarticulate, and in some ways more primitive and childlike.  De Niro's version was, I think, closer in character of the novel.  Eckhart seems to be going for not only intelligence but adds a sense of philosophical wonder.  Unfortunately, Bettie doesn't have the time or the patience to explore those emotions.  Adam is us, mortal man who was reborn into a world were good and evil are a choice.  A being created from death, with no memory of an afterlife, a creator -- either human, or a supernatural god-like being willing to interact with his creations.  Humans, like Adam, make choices every day that have important existential impact that we just don't realize.  The irony of Frankenstein's creature is that he may eventually exist long enough, perhaps many centuries, allowing him/we to realize those far-reaching consequences.  In the end, like many of us, Adam is seeking to find himself.  He does, when a climactic moment in the film, he declares that he is I, Frankenstein.

I, Frankenstein ~ the Journal  | A Constantly Racing Mind

Visual effects for the fight scenes between Eckhart and the demons are impressive, but somewhat formulaic at times.  The images of the grand cathedral are breathtaking and sublime.  The gargoyle effects while flying and morphing between human and winged creature are also stunning.  I enjoyed Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek’s musical score that I found sad at times and soaringly beautiful at others.  The great battles between good and evil, give not so subtle cues about how heaven and hell work.  The demons, whose souls are a hot red descend downward when dispatched (killed), while the gargoyle are a cold blue and ascend when their body dies.  For humans, there is nothing.

I, Frankenstein ~ The Gargoyle  | A Constantly Racing Mind

While there is plenty to complain about with "I Frankenstein," like the silliness of needing soulless bodies for a demon to inhabit, or that Kevin Grevioux is typecasting himself as the heaving second in command.  He plays Dekar, a role similar to the Raze character he played in "Underworld," and "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans."  On the other hand, there are some decent reasons to check this film out.  For example, Bill Nighy is always a joy to watch whether he plays a villain, or a good guy.  Beattie’s concept has potential, but he grounds them firmly in the world of graphic novels.  The visuals in many cases are stunning, but like Zack Snyder’s epic mess “Sucker Punch,” Bettie reaches for, or at least he teases us with some metaphysical concepts, for whatever reason, he decides not to dwell much on them.  In this case, it could leave one cold and confused.  For those who enjoy films in the same vein as "Underworld" and "Van Helsing," be prepared to add another anti-hero to the list.  However, if the vampire verses werewolf trilogy (I don't count "Underworld: Awakening") then perhaps this isn't your type of popcorn flick.

Movie Data

Genre: Action, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Year:  2014
Staring: Aaron Eckhart, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto, Bill Nighy, Jai Courtney, Kevin Grevioux
Director: Stuart Beattie
Producer(s): Gary Lucchesi, Andrew Mason, Tom Rosenberg, Richard S. Wright
Writer: Stuart Beattie, Kevin Grevioux, Mary Shelley
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date:  1/24/2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Wolverine: Existentialism the Marvel Way

The Wolverine - Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
"Eternity can be a curse.  It hasn't been easy for you, living without time.  The losses you have had to suffer, a man can run out of things to live for.  Lose his purpose, become a Ronin, a samurai without a master." ~ Yashida (on his death bed) to Logan.

The year 2013 was the Summer of Superheroes.  First, there was "Ironman 3," then there was Superman in "The Man of Steel," now there is "The Wolverine.”  "The Wolverine" is an action-packed, existential look at life, death, and immortality in the world of Marvel Superheroes.  The film stars Hugh Jackman in his fourth go as the character of the Wolverine. Joining the cast are Hiroyuki Sanada ("Sunshine," "The Last Samurai"), Haruhiko Yamanouch ("Push," "The Way Back") and relative newcomer from Russia, Svetlana Khodchenkova ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), and two  total newcomers in their first motion pictures, fashion models Tao Okamoto, and Rila Fukushima.

In this latest edition of the “X-Men” franchise, and within the sub franchise that devotes its story entirely to the Wolverine, director James Mangold (Knight and Day," "3:10 to Yuma," "Walk the Line, and "Identity") and Hugh Jackman  ("Les MisĂ©rables," "Real Steel," "The Prestige," and  "The Fountain") work to imbue the Wolverine mythos with some philosophical depth.  The film starts with a prologue of sorts.  It is near the end of World War II, just outside of Nagasaki Japan in a P.O.W. camp.  The date is August 9, 1945; the time is 11:00 am to be exact.  Trapped in a well in the ground, apparently in solitary confinement, Logan looks out of a slit in the side of the top of his prison as an air raid sirens scream from above.  Two B-29 bombers fly over the city while the Japanese scramble for cover.  One soldier, a guard, decides to free prisoners, giving every man the same chance.  As the soldier and the other guards are about to commit ritual seppuku (ritual suicide) Logan stays his hand and urges him down the hole where they will be somewhat safe.  Right from the beginning, the special effects for this film are top notch, from the atomic blast opening the film, to the insane battle on top of the Bullet train, to the chaotic climatic battle that is obligatory in a film of this magnitude.  The audience demands it.

Mangold paces this film very fast, while Jackman plays the Wolverine as both morose and introspective; Logan (Jackman) is a man at one with nature but not at one with himself.  Today, haunted by the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) by his own hands, in "X-Men: The Last Stand," he lives alone in the hills of the Yukon woods.  Jean appears to him in his dreams (or nightmares – you decide), like a dark spirit to taunt him and remind him of the dangerous person that he is.  Of course, he doesn't stay a recluse for long; otherwise, there would be not much of a movie.

The Wolverine - Yukio | A Constantly Racing Mind
Logan has given up his killing ways.  His hair is long and he looks more like a vagrant than a hero.  Finding a campsite torn apart by a bear, he tracks the animal, only to find the wounded animal suffering with a poison arrow in its side.  In an act of kindness, Logan ends the creatures suffering.  He comes into town, finds the saloon, and confronts the hunter who is in the midst of telling his tall hunting tails.  This is an important aspect of Logan’s character not only as the Wolverine but as a mutant being.  His sympathy for the bear instills his character with empathy and honor. While confronting the hunter with is inhumanity, he is intercepted by Yukio (Fukushima), a Japanese, magenta haired woman with a bang cut.  As a mutant, Yukio is also prophetic like Casandra of Homeric tales, as she can see people's deaths before they happen.  She wields a katana, and stares at you with big Anime eyes.  You just know she is deadly in one way or another. Throughout the film, Rila Fukushima not only shows her mastery in the action sequences, but also her comedic timing.  She comes from Japan to collect Logan from his despair.  Yukio's boss is the owner of the largest Japanese technology firm, Yashida Industries.  Her boss is none other than Yashida himself, the same man Logan saved in 1945.

J ames Mangold moves the film along very quickly.  Within the first ten minutes, we move to Japan and have a meeting with the dying Yashida.  The journey that Logan begins is an attempt to show a depth to his character as he searches for a meaning to his immortal life.  Meaning is a shallow concept when there is no end to the madness that we call life.  Hugh Jackman, who also serves as a producer on this film, plays Logan as a tortured and haunted sole.  Not so much the loner he was before, but a man in need of some deep spiritual healing.  Mangold and writer Mark Bomback ("Live Free or Die Hard," "Total Recall," "Unstoppable") tell Logan's tale from Logan's point of view, interjecting flashbacks to 1945 Nagasaki and his time protecting the young guard who will eventually become rich and powerful.

Y ukio tells Logan that Yashida (Yamanouchi) is dying and wants Logan to go to Japan so he can say goodbye to him.  Reluctantly, Logan acquiesces and returns with her to see Yashida.  After the obligatory bath before visiting with Yashida in his own private intensive care unit, Yashida it turns out is not quite ready to say good-bye.  Instead, he offers Logan the ability to end his suffering, his pain, his immortality.  With the help of his "oncologist” Dr. Green (Khodchenkova), Yashida can transfer Logan's regenerative powers to him.  Yashida reasons that if Logan doesn't seem to want to live, Yashida will gladly take the curse of immortality.  We also meet Mariko (Okamoto), Yashida's granddaughter.  She is a fragile and elegant, educated woman, a princess.  We also meet Yashida's loyal and faithful son, Shingen (Sanada). 

The Wolverine - Mariko | A Constantly Racing Mind

A t this point, several tropes begin to form.  First, the rich, powerful, and old refuse to die and grasp at the fountain of youth, with little regard to their children.  The story is as old as the story of Ponce de Leon and his search for the fountain of Youth.  In Wolverine, Yashida's lust for life and Logan's desire for release. As Yukio explains to Logan, that as a warrior, "all he wants is an honorable death."  Characters are not what they seem, or perhaps they are.  Dr. Green turns out to be the serpentine Viper and like a demonic succubus comes to Logan as if in a dream. What steals is Logan's ability to self-heal.  How's that for evening the score. The other trope is the faithful but overlooked servant, or in this case Yashida’s son Shingen.  What level of treachery will he go to get what he desires?

While dealing with Logan's existential problems as displayed in his nightmares involving Jean, writers Mark Bomback and  Scott Frank ("Flight of the Phoenix," "Minority Report") infuse the story with almost non-stop action. While attending Yashida's funeral, the organized crime Yakuza syndicate kidnap Mariko.  Logan and Yukio snap into action in an effort to save the princess.  The Yakuza shoot Logan with a gun and it turns out that he isn't healing as fast as he usually does. One the rooftops, one of  Yashida's kinsmen from the Black Clan, by the name of Harada, is seemingly helping Logan as he chases down Mariko and her captors. His name is Hanada and he we find that he works for Yashida and has vowed to protect the house of Yashida with his life.  Entering  Japan's Bullet Mariko attempts to leave on her own. A battle on the top of train ensues, Yakuza die, and Logan and Mariko make it to temporary safety. Taking refuge in a hotel for lovers, Mariko enlists the help of a veterinary student to dig out the bullets inside Logan and bandage him up. Upon reaching her home in Nagasaki, Logan and Mariko settle down and now we get some real answers.

The Wolverine - Ichiro Yashida | A Constantly Racing Mind

The tension between Yashida,  his son Shingen, and his daughter Mariko becomes more understandable. It seems Yashida gave the company over to Mariko, bypassing his son.  As we can see, Logan is falling for Mariko, and she for him. Logan begins to wonder what the meaning of his life is.  If all is death and destruction.  Remember we are still in the battle between mutants and humans.  Logan is a man of both the past and the present. Stuck in the middle of trying to protect Mariko and the hauntings of Jean Gray, Logan must decide why he must live. As it turns out Mariko, is just as good reason as any – for at least the present.  The Yakuza once again kidnap Mariko is, and Logan and Yukio team up again to save her.  Mariko is once again the princess trapped in a tower with the evil villains using her as bait.

As much as "The Wolverine" intends to be deep and somewhat philosophical, it doesn't pretend to answer any deep questions, nor are any of the scenes pondering on the question.  Mangold's direction is tight; the costumes are beautiful and spot on.  Production designs all around are top notch including the special effects.  One might want to call this a mindless action film; however, I think they would be wrong.  The story is tight, serious, and funny at times, and with a bit of romance.  Marco Beltrami's musical score is poignant at times and gives the film and the characters a certain sense of depth and sadness to the film.  The Yashida family politics are complicated and strained.  It turns out that Yashida willed all of his wealth and power to his granddaughter Mariko – but to what end.  Hugh Jackman plays Logan straight and tight-lipped, a stoic with a passion for doing the right thing as he navigates the complexity between Shingen and his daughter Mariko, Mariko and her fiancĂ©e the corrupt Minister of Justice, Noburo (Brian Tee), and Mariko and her grandfather.  As each one of search for meaning in our lives, it seems that the Wolverine has found his – doing the right thing for the right people, and for the right reasons.

A fun film to watch, not only for the action but for the story as well  “The Wolverine" is rated PG-13 and runs just over two hours.

Movie Data

Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Year:  2013
Staring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hal Yamanouchi
Director: James Mangold
Producer(s): Hutch Parker. Lauren Shuler Donner
Writer: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Date:  7/26/2013