Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Gods and Monsters: Special Edition (1998)
Studio Line: Universal Studios

Ian McKellen delivers a riveting, award-winning performance as Hollywood horror director, James Whale. It's 1957, and Whale's heyday as the director of Frankenstein, Bride Of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man is long behind him. Retired and a semi-recluse, he lives his days accompanied only by images from his past. When his dour housekeeper, Hannah (Lynn Redgrave), hires a handsome young gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), the flamboyant director and simple yard man develop an unlikely friendship. This powerful and poignant relationship will change their lives forever.

Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes, Kevin J. O'Connor
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Actor-Ian McKellan; Best Supporting Actress-Lynn Redgrave; Best Screenplay Based on Another Medium, 1999.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; no chapters; rated R; 106 min.; $34.98; street date 6/8/99.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by director/screenwriter Bill Condon; "The World of Gods and Monsters: A Journey with James Whale" 30-minute Documentary; Production notes; Cast & Crew biographies; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters - James Curtis | Score soundtrack - Carter Burwell

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/B-/B+

Although Gods and Monsters technically fits the bill as an "art house" movie, I don't really agree with that label. Yes, it was made for very little money and its subject - a fictionalized account of the final days of a director most people have never heard of - doesn't exactly scream "boffo box office!"

Despite that, this still seems like a mildly mainstream movie to me. Maybe I'm just stereotyping too much, but when I think "art house," I think of movies that were made in some guy's basement for 80 cents and that discuss strange esoteric themes such as man's relationship with his inner squid, or something like that. When I heard the premise for Gods and Monsters I found it to be quite intriguing, and I'm most definitely not an "art house" kind of guy.

Unfortunately, G&M DID match many "art house" films in regard to its rather limited distribution. By the time I had heard enough about it that I wanted to see it, it was essentially gone from the local screens, so I wasn't able to view it. No matter - good old DVD would eventually come to the rescue!

And so it did. I gave G&M a rent and finally got to see what I'd think. UItimately, I found it to be an interesting but unspectacular picture. It does a nice job of offering enough biographical information to allow the viewer who knows little about James Whale - ie, most of us - to "enter in" to his world; the film never tries to be a biography, so the fairly subtle way in which his past gets revealed is appreciated.

Overall, however, there's nothing about the way the film itself was made that really makes it excel. I think director Bill Condon does a fully competent job of telling the story; as mentioned above, he manages to use a fairly deft touch during many parts that might otherwise have bogged down the film. He moves the picture along at a reasonably nice clip and does an efficient and effective job of it.

All of this is well and good, but it doesn't make the movie stand out in a crowd. I saw nothing particularly special in regard to the technical art of filmmaking here. Where G&M DOES excel, however, is in the acting. Obviously, the movie is mainly about Whale, so the actor playing that role bore most of the responsibility to make it work. To say the least, Ian McKellen makes it work and then some! He's absolutely spectacular as Whale. McKellen offers an amazingly full-blooded and real portrait of the man. He has to show Whale in a wide variety of moods, attitudes and emotions, and he does so convincingly. Since Whale was obviously depressed and had a number of medical issues at the time, McKellen frequently needed to display these different behaviors in rapid succession, which he does fluidly and without apparent force; I never felt that he was "acting." It's yet another Academy embarrassment that they gave this year's Best Actor award to hammy goofball Roberto Begnini instead of McKellen.

The main supporting cast features Brendan Fraser as Clay Boone, the handyman who becomes Whale's final confidante, and Lynn Redgrave as Hanna, Whale's longtime housekeeper. Fraser's role really falls somewhere between "lead" and "supporting;" if I had to choose, I'd say that he's a supporting character just because Whale is the only real focus here, but that phrase diminishes his importance in the film to some degree. Nonetheless, I found Fraser to also be quite good. I think he's a very underrated actor; most people see his face and assume he can't be any good. Add to the fact he's not been ashamed to appear in less-than-"A"-list movies (Encino Man, George of the Jungle, etc.) and it's probably not a surprise that few people give him much credit.

He deserves some credit, though, for he's much more versatile and natural than one would think. While Boone doesn't have to go through as many moods as Whale - in fact, considering that Boone's not exactly an intellectual, so much emotional range would be incredibly unrealistic - Fraser has to show the growth in the character, and he has to do so with even greater subtlety because of the character's restrictions. I didn't much care for the cheesy wig they put on Fraser - it makes his head look angular so he resembles Frankenstein's monster - but the rest of his performance offers a great deal of nuance and realism. I hope that Fraser gets more dramatically challenging roles in the future, because I think he can handle them with aplomb.

Of the main characters, easily the least realistic of the bunch is Redgrave's Hanna. Apparently in the style of a Whale film, she's there essentially for some fun comic relief, and Redgrave acts the role with convincing gusto but usually without too much hamminess. At times Hanna seems a little forced, but in a lot of ways, that seems to have been the point; she's something of a two-dimensional character who's there to lighten the film from time to time. When she needs to, however, Redgrave invests the role with real emotion and conviction, so that Hanna does not simply remain a cartoon. She probably should have won the Oscar as well; I like Judi Dench, but she only earned the award for "Best Cameo," not for "Best Supporting Actress."

The DVD:

Happily, Universal have seen fit to release Gods and Monsters in a very nice "Collector's Edition" DVD. The film itself is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 across this dual-layered DVD. Overall, the image looks quite terrific. It's consistently exceedingly sharp with very strong contrast and black levels and nicely vivid colors. Anyone expecting a less-than-stellar appearance because of the low cost of the movie won't find it here; it appears just as good as most big budget blockbusters. At times some interior shots seemed slightly hazy, mostly due to the low light conditions, but that was really the only fault I found; as a whole, I thought it looked great.

The film's Dolby Pro Logic 2.0 mix is less exciting. Considering that G&M is essentially a character study, I didn't expect a very active mix, and such a presentation really would have been out of place. In general, the audio sounds pretty good, though I did notice occasional slight distortion in the dialogue. The surround channels are reserved for the music score and for occasional effects such as crowd noises at a party or rain; these help add to the atmosphere, but I missed the lack of Dolby Digital encoding simply because the surround audio is not full range. Even though directional effects seem unimportant here, the highest QUALITY sound is, so this mix lost a few points because of that. Still, it definitely gets the job done and is not a hindrance toward one's enjoyment of the film.

This DVD presents a pretty nice little array of supplemental materials. Most interesting was the running audio commentary from director Condon. As he acknowledges at the start, he can be a little disjointed at times - he seems so eager to tell the listener SO many different things that he periodically gets a little lost along the way - but he manages to keep the listener involved and interested in his stories. Condon splits his time pretty effectively between an ongoing discussion of the film's background and how it ultimately got made and distributed and more scene-specific comments. It's a nice balance and it provides the listener with a lot of the little details that help us appreciate and enjoy the movie.

More of that sort of information appears in the 29 minute documentary, The World of Gods and Monsters: A Journey with James Whale. This piece focusses quite a bit on the facts of Whale's life, which is helpful for those of us who know nothing about him. The program also includes a fair amount of information about the making of the movie itself, but we gain so much knowledge from Condon's commentary that it's not as useful as it would otherwise be. Oh, it's interesting, but it's the factual material about Whale that really elevates this feature into something more compelling.

Finally, the DVD includes some of the old standbys. We get the theatrical trailer and biographies for the three principal actors and for Condon. Also, the standard Universal "web links" section appears. Since this material is accessible through a DVD-ROM drive, which I do not own, I can't comment on it, but it's there! All in all, it's a nice assortment of extras.

Ultimately, Gods and Monsters is a nicely put-together movie that excels mainly because of some extremely strong acting. Universal's DVD release also does very well for itself, especially through its strong pictures quality and a few very good supplements. This DVD is a little pricey with an MSRP of $34.99, so if you're not sure about it, you might want to rent it first. If you know that the film interests you, however, definitely add this one to your collection.

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