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Gods and Monsters

James Whale, father of Frankenstein — the big-screen version — was gay. Not only that, but the director was openly gay, never pretending to be otherwise in a town that trembled at the thought of middle-American ticket buyers learning the dirty secrets of Hollywood. Whale's life was the basis for a dandy novel, "Father of Frankenstein," by Christopher Bram, which was turned into a marvelous film directed by Bill Condon. A fictionalized account of the last months of Whale's life, Gods and Monsters (1998) finds the aging director (gracefully played by Ian McKellan) in 1957, sixteen years past his last film; he dabbles at painting — Whale was a painter and illustrator before becoming a film director — and lives in prickly companionship with his humorless housekeeper (Lynn Redgrave). A new yard man, Clayton (Brendon Fraser), catches Whale's eye — he's big and brawny and beautiful, at times even bearing a slight resemblance to the monster Whale glamorized so many years before. Clayton isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer and he's slow to pick up that Whale is gay (it is the '50s, after all) but when he does figure it out he isn't, thankfully, repelled, which is both a relief and something of a cinematic revelation. One of the ways in which Gods and Monsters succeeds is in the way it refuses to play into any of the expected movie conventions, avoiding the predictable "dumb young man throws a fit of rage when confronted with gayness" cliché and instead presenting a gentle, touching tale of an old man in his twilight years, befriended by a young man who finds him genuinely interesting. Whale, knowing that his health is failing, is subject to stroke-induced flashes of memory; he's aware that death is imminent, and his passes at the hunky gardener are more out of habit than genuine lust. What Whale really wants is a friend, someone to tell the old stories to, and the film charms because of the surprising depth of their friendship. McKellan is as good as one expects, but the surprise here is Fraser — he gives a performance of great subtlety and nuance, offering a glimpse of just how good an actor he can be in the right film. Lions Gate offers Gods and Monsters as a "Collector's Edition," a re-issue of Universal's previous DVD. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is extraordinarily clean and beautiful; not only is the color rich and saturated, with deep blacks and sharp, sharp detail, but the black-and-white clips from Whale's films are equally gorgeous. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is equally good, with Carter Burwell's moody score coming through clean and complex. There's a nice commentary track by Bill Condon, very chatty with lots of information on working with the actors and background on the production and a terrific 30-minute "making-of" featurette narrated by executive producer Clive Barker. The theatrical trailer and cast-and-crew notes also are on board. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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