Thursday, March 31, 2016

Victor Frankenstein: MEET YOUR MAKERS

This poster. There are better ones but I picked this one because it cracks me up.

Title: Victor Frankenstein
Director: Paul McGuigan
Screenplay: Max Landis
Starring: James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott (or Prof. Xavier, Harry Potter, Lady Sybil, and Moriarty)
Release Date: 25 November 2015 (but it took FOREVER to release onto DVD)

Length: 1 h 50 min
Rating: PG-13 for macabre images, violence and a sequence of destruction (that's seriously what it says)
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller

Well, after waiting a ridiculously long time for the film's release on Amazon, I finally watched the new Victor Frankenstein movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, and Jessica Brown Findlay. I expected it to be awful, and it wasn't, so that right there was enough to make me happy. But I was also impressed by a few things in the movie that I want to briefly comment on.

First, let's just get out of the way all the random BBC cameos. Was there anyone in this movie who hasn't worked for BBC? I don't think so. It was like a Muppet movie but with all BBC cameos. That was fun. 

Second, the physical appearance of Frankenstein's Monster. (It's probably not a SPOILER that the Monster gets created, but if you want the reveal of its physical appearance to be a surprise, skip this paragraph.) This is always a vital but difficult aspect of any Frankenstein adaptation: how to portray the Monster. Obviously, the most iconic is Boris Karloff's uncanny blend of life and death in the 1931 black and white Frankenstein. Other adaptations have gone out of their way to avoid making the Monster look too much like Boris Karloff's, but it's nearly impossible to replace an icon, and no other adaptations have ever succeeded in supplanting Karloff's Monster's place in pop culture. The makers of Victor Frankenstein obviously understood this, and so they didn't try to replace Karloff's Monster: they built on it. Frankenstein's Monster in this film is reminiscent enough of Karloff's to evoke that cultural touchstone in the viewer's mind, but different enough not to look like a direct copy. I found that stroke brilliant and sensitive. (Also the moment when someone mispronounced Frankenstein's name as "Fronk-in-shteen" = score.)

Thirdly, I really liked the focus on Igor as another of Victor Frankenstein's "creations." Since the focus of this movie wasn't on the Monster but rather on Igor, the makers of the film had to find another way to evoke the Frankenstein creation myth, and I thought it was very well done with the character of Igor. Victor took him from the circus and changed him from a misused, animalistic hunchback to a civilized, refined human being. At one point in the film, Victor claims that he created Igor. We can debate whether or not that's strictly true - just as we can debate whether it's true for Frankenstein's Monster.

The setting, costumes, visuals, and feel of the movie were imaginative and fun. It had that steampunk fantasy feel, but not to the point where it was overdone. I probably could have done without the demon monkey monster, but there had to be some element of horror in the film (since it was Frankenstein) so I guess maybe we needed the demon monkey for scares; the rest of the film was a little morbid but not really frightening. 

On to the acting. James McAvoy and Andrew Scott (the film's villain) are both fantastic actors, and it shows no matter what role they're in. McAvoy was perfect as the obsessive mad scientist and Scott was great as the similarly obsessive God-fearing policeman. Is there a mirroring going on there? I hadn't thought of that. That's kind of cool.

Jessica Brown Findlay (of Downton Abbey fame) is also great, though I'm not sure the role really let her show off her full acting talent, but that's OK. I can't exactly say the same thing for Daniel Radcliffe. I love him but I'm not going to lie and say he's a great actor. Harry Potter he could do, and did great, but this role naturally demanded a large spectrum of emotions and transformation, and Radcliffe just isn't really suited to that. A more seasoned and skilled actor could have played the role with about twenty times more pathos, complexity, ambiguity, and depth.

Also, the relationship between Igor and the female lead (played by Findlay) was a little hard to swallow. I can see them being friends, definitely, but it was hard for me to believe that Findlay's gorgeous and intellectually mature character would want to have a romantic relationship (and a bit more than that, too) with Radcliffe's sympathetic but rather flat character. That said, I liked the relationship that existed between Frankenstein (McAvoy) and Igor (Radcliffe). That one was a little more believable, and pretty well played overall.

Lastly, a small complaint: why does Victor Frankenstein always have to have a neglectful father and a brother who died young? Can we get some more creative plot points, please? It's becoming boringly predictable. I know not every Frankenstein adaptation has these elements, but most of the ones I've seen/read recently have. The dead brother plot point was well done in Kenneth Oppel's Frankenstein prequels, but now it's just getting to be a cliche. Frankenstein's brother doesn't have to die for him to be interested in creating life. Maybe he's just naturally curious. Or maybe there's some other reason; we can try to be a little more original than that.

Monday, March 14, 2016

WHY PARAMOUNT? (Or I have to wait a further unspecified length of time to see The Little Prince)

We continue waiting for the release of The Little Prince.

Over a year ago I posted the announcement that The Little Prince, the classic "children's story" by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery would be made into an animated movie. Since then, for what feels like an age, I have been waiting for a mere RELEASE DATE for this movie. Then, just in the last few weeks, Little Prince merchandise began to appear at the mall. I hoped desperately that this was a sign the movie would be coming out in the U.S. soon, and apparently it was. But then catastrophe struck.

On Saturday, Mark Osborne, director of The Little Prince, tweeted that the film's release would be delayed. This was followed by another tweet announcing that the film "will in fact be released by another distributor later this year."

The most maddening part of this whole affair is that the film was scheduled for release one week after Osborne made his announcement. Now, no one knows when it's coming out.

To those of us who have been waiting for ever for this thing, Osborne advises that we head to Canada, as the film opens there this weekend.

Why Paramount would drop such a highly anticipated film adaptation of a book that has been translated into 250 languages and remained a classic since its publication in 1943 eludes me, but Osborne's reluctance to explain why Paramount dropped the film and his grateful acknowledgment of everyone who has offered "love and support in these strange times" makes me suspect that there's something else going on here and maybe it's not all entirely Paramount's fault. At least I can give them the benefit of the doubt, although I'm not feeling particularly generous toward Paramount at the moment.

So I guess I and my fellow Little Prince fans will be waiting a little (or a lot) longer.

On a different but not totally unrelated topic, I learned while researching facts about The Little Prince that Orson Welles, of Citizen Kane and War of the Worlds radio broadcast fame, bought the rights to the book immediately upon reading it, and tried to team up with Walt Disney to turn the book into a film. Reportedly (though I'm not sure this is true, but who knows), Walt Disney stormed out of the meeting shouting, "There is not room on this lot for two geniuses."

Maybe there isn't room in this world for The Little Prince. Whatever else we may think we know or don't know about him, it's clear at least that he's much too delicate, innocent, and intensely alive to last long here. Wasn't the whole book concerned with his attempt to return to his own planet?

Whatever the case, I still hope to see this film adaptation sometime before I die.

Articles consulted in the research for this post:

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Birdwing by Rafe Martin

Title: Birdwing
Author: Rafe Martin
Publication Date: 2005
Number of Pages: 359 (but the font is fairly big)
Purchase: AmazonBarnes & NobleebayAbe BooksThe Book DepositoryPowell's Books

What Goodreads has to say:

A boy marked by physical difference--one arm is an enchanted wing--finds his strength and purpose in this stirring fantasy. A Washington Post Best Kids Book of 2005 and Book Sense Winter Pick.

Once upon a time, a girl rescued her seven brothers from a spell that had turned them into swans. But one boy, Ardwin, was left with the scar of the spell's last gasp: one arm remained a wing. And while Ardwin yearned to find a place in his father's kingdom, the wing whispered to him of open sky and rushing wind. Marked by difference, Ardwin sets out to discover who he is: bird or boy, crippled or sound, cursed or blessed. But followed by the cold eye of a sorceress and with war rumbling at his kingdom's borders, Ardwin's path may lead him not to enlightenment, but into unimaginable danger.

What I have to say:

The premise of this book is brilliant - it's why I wanted to read it. Doesn't every child who hears the Grimm's fairy tale of the Six Swans wonder about that one brother who is left with a wing at the end? His name is Ardwin, and this is his story. It probably should have been told a long time ago, but no matter; It's told now.

Birdwing was a well-written story, with likeable characters - Ardin (Birdwing) is especially sympathetic, and I enjoyed watching his character arc unfold. The language at times is beautiful, and the atmosphere feels otherworldly and mythic, but still human enough to be relevant. 

In fact, I find that if I stop thinking of Birdwing as simply a novel, and think of it instead as a fairy tale or myth, it's better. That's not to say the story was bad, but I do think it has a few flaws if you take it as a modern novel, and if that's what you're expecting, I think you'll find a sweet, thoughtful story, but you might be a little disappointed.  

In fact, the description of Ardwin towards the end of the book - as a young prince with one swan wing, a lion skin vest and worn traveling cloak, carrying an old heavy sword and a spear slung over his shoulder, with a lion's tooth hanging around his neck - is a good symbol for the style and setting of the story. The young man looks almost barbaric, but in a grand and mythic way. And his figure represents the weaving together of the human and faery worlds that is such a prominent part of the book and, in fact, of Ardwin himself.

I particularly enjoyed Ardwin's discussion with his sister, Rose Red, the heroine of the Six Swans story, who - quite literally - never really has a chance to share her side of the story in the fairy tale. Birdwing gives a voice to those characters in the fairy tale who have never been allowed to share why they acted the way they did and what the experience did to them. The characters in Birdwing are, in the typographical sense, heroes, heroines, and villains, but in this story they are human, and allowed to share their motivations, desires, and emotions. And it's about time.

Illustration by P. J. Lynch

Someone on Goodreads commented that the story of Birdwing feels very disjointed; and I think they're right. That may have been part of the reason I wasn't engrossed in the story. I wanted to finish it, and I wanted to find out what happened to Ardwin and how he resolved his dilemma, but it was more a general interest and desire to finish the book than a glued-to-my-seat level of engrossment. 

I think I might have enjoyed this book more if I had read it when I was younger, and C. S. Lewis would probably have something earth-shattering and brilliant to say about that, but as it is, I enjoyed Birdwing

The story is alternately sweet, funny, sad, and mythic. 

A few of my favorite moments: the description of Ardwin, mentioned above, in the second half of the tale; the moment I realized that the story was, to a certain extent, a Frankenstein adaptation, and the description of the madness of King Ulfius. And I have to say just a little about that last one. Though crazy Ulfius only appears in a couple short chapters, the way the author showed his madness was chilling and brilliant. I love a villain that makes me shiver, especially when he's totally deranged and there's no negotiating with him; it raises the stakes, and a good story should generally have high stakes, or we won't be invested. 

So maybe the ending was a little anti-climactic, from this standpoint, but then again, it was the perfect ending to a fairy tale, and, to tell the truth, an epic battle scene fighting a deranged king who's trying to cut the hero's arm off didn't really match the style of the rest of the story anyway, so it made sense that the impending climax of the book was resolved in the end in a way that was pretty clean and eucatastrophic*.

In the end, Birdwing finds its greatest success in doing what it set out to do from the moment of the story's conception: the tale is an exploration and attempt to understand, as the author puts it, "the wing we all have" - why we have it, and how we can live with it.

I leave you with one share-worthy quote from Ardwin Birdwing himself: 

Ardwin said to the children, "Do you still have the feathers I gave you?" 
"Yes," said Annie and the others.  
"Good. Keep them. One day - who can say when, but when the time is right - a wind will come and it will lift you where you need to go. For now, prepare," he continued. "Learn all you can. Study maps and books, music and stories. Grow strong. You will have wings, not like mine, but your own. Those feathers are the sign."

*See Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" or my post on the Tolkien Reader.