Saturday, December 31, 2016

My top 10 non-2016 movies of 2016

It's the last day of the year, so it's time for one of my favorite features, my look back at the best movies from previous years that I watched for the first time in 2016. (Some comments brazenly reproduced from Letterboxd.)

1. Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013) With all the praise that Damien Chazelle is getting for La La Land this year, maybe people will rediscover this early, mostly forgotten Chazelle film, which he wrote but didn't direct. In a way it's a riff on the same concept as Whiplash, with a driven but neurotic musician being pushed to the limits of his talent by a sadistic taskmaster. In this case, though, the musician's life is actually on the line, and the tormentor is portrayed as an actual villain. The silly premise, with Elijah Wood's master pianist forced to play a complicated piece perfectly or be killed by John Cusack's maniacal sniper, is a variation on the Speed formula, and seems like it would run out of steam within a few minutes. But Chazelle and director Mira find numerous entertaining variations on the theme, with dynamic camera work, near-constant suspense and enjoyable performances from the two leads. The movie knows how absurd it is, but still manages to generate nail-biting tension until the very end. Anyone who liked La La Land or (especially) Whiplash should check it out.

2. Fat City (John Huston, 1972) I almost skipped this one at the TCM Festival in favor of a different screening, but I'm glad I didn't, because it turned out to be the kind of fantastic discovery that I come to that festival to find. Starring Stacy Keach as a small-time boxer in central California and Jeff Bridges as an up-and-comer he takes under his wing, it's one of the most affecting sports movies I've ever seen. It's amazing that Huston, who's so strongly associated with classic Hollywood, directed something so completely contemporary and relevant, and Keach (whom I generally think of as a solid if one-note character actor) is equally revelatory in the lead role. This is a bleak, honest, funny and startlingly naturalistic portrayal of working-class life that just happens to include some boxing.

3. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011) I loved Stillman's take on Jane Austen in this year's Love & Friendship, but I hadn't yet seen that when I watched this somewhat underappreciated comedy, which at the time was billed as his comeback (it was his first film in 13 years). I'm actually a bit lukewarm on Stillman's early, most acclaimed films (I found The Last Days of Disco to be kind of a slog), but I love these frothier, lighter comedies. Damsels is even more lighthearted than L&F, although it's also quite insightful about the insular culture of college campuses and college students' self-indulgent search for identity. Greta Gerwig is typically fabulous as a particularly narcissistic student at a small liberal arts college, and Stillman gives her and the rest of the cast a nearly nonstop series of clever witticisms. The movie ends with a gloriously silly musical number that makes me hope Stillman gets to make a full-on musical someday.

4. Little Darlings (Ronald F. Maxwell, 1980) It's really a shame that this movie is essentially unavailable (I watched a VHS rip on YouTube, for a piece in David Magazine about summer camp movies), because it's far better than you'd expect an '80s summer camp teen sex comedy to be. Kristy McNichol is outstanding as a tough but vulnerable teen looking to lose her virginity at summer camp, and Tatum O'Neal is also good as a lonely rich girl looking to do the same. Their contest to see who can get laid first is the stuff of crass gross-out comedies, but it's handled with remarkable sensitivity by the filmmakers. There are some typical dumb teen-comedy moments, and the supporting characters are a little one-dimensional, but overall this is a warm, funny, surprisingly smart and sophisticated movie about growing up and carving out an individual identity. It's also one of the most casually feminist mainstream movies of the period (it was written by two women), and it totally deserves a proper home-video release.

5. Fort Tilden (Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, 2014) Continuing the theme of connections to 2016 releases, I loved Bliss and Rogers' TBS series Search Party, and Fort Tilden lays a lot of the groundwork for that show in its tone and character types. It's less plot-driven than Search Party, with a loose structure as its main characters, a pair of hilariously narcissistic Brooklyn hipsters played by Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty, wander around the city as they attempt to get to the titular beach. The bone-dry sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I was laughing instantly during the first scene, as the main characters text each other cruel put-downs about the so-called friends whose musical performance they're watching. Rogers and Bliss even manage to throw in a bit of smart social commentary about class privilege, but they never lose sight of their deadpan nastiness. As I said on Letterboxd at the time I watched it, I've never laughed so hard at the prospect of kittens drowning.

6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945) From one kind of Brooklyn story to a very different kind, this one set in a time when the borough was a home for working-class immigrant families. This was the final movie I saw at this year's TCM Festival, and it's the kind of well-loved classic that I often avoid at the festival in favor of something more obscure and offbeat. So I was a bit wary of it at first, but ultimately liked it quite a bit. It's a tearjerker that never relies on cheap sentiment in telling the story of the struggles of a poor Brooklyn family in the early 20th century, and it's often moving and powerful. I thought the third act dragged at times, but even then, all of the individual moments are touching and extremely well-acted, especially by young Peggy Ann Garner as the pre-teen main character, an aspiring writer who idolizes her alcoholic dreamer of a father.

7. Frankenstein: The True Story (Jack Smight, 1973) Of all the movies that I watched for my month of Frankenstein films, this was the most welcome surprise, a three-hour NBC TV movie (released theatrically overseas in shorter cuts) with more sophistication and cleverness than most of the more well-known adaptations. Its length makes it a bit unwieldy at times, and despite its title it's neither a faithful retelling of Mary Shelley's novel nor an attempt to depict the true events surrounding the book's creation, but the movie still works very well on its own. The layered writing and character relationships (between Victor Frankenstein and Henri Clerval, Frankenstein and his monster, the sinister Polidori and the female monster, Polidori and Frankenstein) are impressive, even if the somewhat episodic structure can be a bit jarring. Thanks to strong acting and surprisingly high production values for a 1970s TV movie, True Story goes deeper than most would expect. More in my original post.

8. Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936) The convoluted plot of this screwball comedy is hilariously outdated, as William Powell's newspaper reporter attempts to lure Myrna Loy's socialite heiress into a compromising position so that she can't sue his employer for libel (since her scandalous reputation will be justified). All of the indiscretions, both real and manufactured, in this movie are the kind of things that are brushed off as insignificant nowadays, but the movie itself views them that way, too, and mostly mocks how seriously people take the appearance of propriety. Powell, Loy, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy are all very funny as the players in this constantly revolving romantic rectangle, and while the movie sticks to some of the period's rigid ideas about gender, it also subverts them in clever and satisfying ways.

9. Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944) I'm still working my way through a handful of notable Hitchcock movies that I haven't seen, and this was one I'd been meaning to see for a long time. Despite being produced explicitly as a pro-Allied propaganda piece, it still manages to create nuanced drama from a group of British and American citizens trapped in a lifeboat with a German seaman who was involved in torpedoing their cruise ship. Hitchcock builds suspense in the claustrophobic single location and also develops some well-realized characters, including the German himself. Eventually the movie draws clear lines between bad guys and good guys, but it never comes off as simplistic or dishonest. Hitchcock uses his filmmaking and storytelling skills to give life to what could have been a heavy-handed recruiting tool.

10. Experimenter (Michael Almereyda, 2015) It's pretty common to end up with biopic fatigue by the end of awards season, and so I put off watching this biopic about famous psychologist Stanley Milgram (creator of the renowned experiment in which subjects were told to administer electric shocks to a fellow volunteer) at the end of 2015. But some strong reviews eventually brought me back to it, and I'm glad they did, because it's an example of a biopic done right, using cinematic technique and formal innovation to tell the story of a real person's life. The movie is best when it focuses on Milgram's controversial and groundbreaking experiments, but Almereyda makes even the more mundane passages intriguing with metatextual devices, including characters addressing the audience and sets that look deliberately fake. It highlights the artificiality of shaping someone's life story into a movie, and it ties into the manufactured environment that Milgram (played well by Peter Sarsgaard) created in his experiments.

Previous lists:

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Tale' (2013)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Based on the 2006 novel by Diane Setterfield, BBC movie The Thirteenth Tale promises Gothic chills but delivers something much tamer, getting less and less intriguing as it goes along. Part of that may be a peril of adaptation, not only condensing the story into 90 minutes from Setterfield's novel but also losing the Gothic style she apparently wrote in (I haven't read the book). While the novel was compared to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the movie doesn't capture any of that atmosphere, with the look of a genteel British TV drama rather than a creepy and foreboding ghost story. It's anchored by two great actors, but a lot of their work is sidelined in favor of extensive flashbacks that lose steam by the time they get to the story's big reveal.

Ubiquitous British TV/movie presence Olivia Colman is especially wasted in a role as what initially appears to be the main character, journalist Margaret Lea, who's summoned to the home of ailing, reclusive author Vida Winter (Vanessa Redgrave) to document her life story before she dies of cancer. Margaret holds her own secret from her past, but it's much less interesting than Vida's, and learning about it doesn't illuminate anything about her character. Mostly her function is to sit and look concerned while Vida tells her story, and to spend a bit of time poking around the ruins of Vida's childhood home, the sprawling estate known as Angelfield.

The bulk of the movie is devoted to Vida's story about growing up at Angelfield, where she was known as Adeline March and lived with her twin sister Emmeline (or so it appears). Madeleine Power plays the twins as children, and she makes them each disturbing and unpredictable in their own ways, as they grow up essentially without parents (their father is dead, and their heiress mother is confined to an insane asylum), raised by servants in the lavish but decaying family home. Power upstages the more well-known stars, making her segments the best parts of the movie. Vida, who refuses to allow Margaret to question her story, is set up as an unreliable narrator, but onscreen her account doesn't have the uncertainty that it would on the page. This is especially obvious when the story jumps ahead to Adeline and Emmeline as teenagers, and the truth of Vida's identity is blatantly telegraphed merely by the actresses playing the parts.

That's only part of the reason that the eventual twist falls flat; instead of adding a level of creepiness to the mystery of a potential haunting at Angelfield, the plot slowly lets the air out of it, revealing mundane explanations behind every spooky moment. Those explanations come from some dark places, but their presentation is straightforward and anticlimactic. Margaret gets the answers she came for, but despite the connection to her own past trauma, there's no emotional resonance for her or for the audience. Redgrave does more to sell Vida's need to unburden herself, but even her final throes are a bit underwhelming. In the end, Margaret just shrugs off the whole thing and goes off to write her biography, and the audience ends up similarly unaffected.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

VODepths: 'The Anatomy of Monsters,' 'Free of Thought,' 'Mercy'

The Anatomy of Monsters (Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, dir. Byron C. Miller) This ultra-low-budget thriller starts out following Keeter's creepy loner Drew as he appears to select a murder victim at a bar, only to turn the tables on him when his pretty female target Sarah (Bastien) turns out to be even more dangerous. The two bond over their shared homicidal impulses in a sort of Before Sunrise for serial killers, although the bulk of the movie is devoted to flashbacks chronicling Sarah's development as a murderer. Bastien is strong as Sarah, making a cold-blooded killer into a likable and even occasionally sympathetic character, and her journey to becoming a confident, methodical killer is well-paced and convincing. Slightly less convincing is her gooey romance with her hipster boyfriend, meant to represent her inner conflict about her desire to kill. She's clearly a monster (as the title indicates), so it's only a matter of time before she gives in to her dark side. Keeter ends up with a much smaller role, and his character's murderous compulsions are less fully realized. I was eager to see the two of them team up, but the story eventually goes in a more downbeat direction, and the ending is a bit anticlimactic. The production values are low, and while director and co-writer Miller makes decent use of limited resources, the visual style is crude and some of the effects are shaky. Still, this is a promising second feature from a filmmaker who could certainly do more with a bigger budget. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Free of Thought (John Russell, Mella Gardner, dir. Nathan Barillaro) This Australian indie drama stars Russell and Gardner as a couple experiencing tension in their relationship while they collaborate on their own indie film, and it works best when it focuses on the couple's increasingly strained dynamic. Writer-director (and editor and producer) Barillaro starts things off slowly, establishing the couple's casual chemistry and genuine rapport, before picking at little threads that blow up into big conflicts. A lot of the scenes feel sort of inconsequential, but they add up to a portrait of a relationship, in which the meaningless moments are actually just as meaningful as the more clearly important ones. Although the movie fits with the mumblecore aesthetic in a lot of ways (the characters are often inarticulate mumblers, living aimless lives, and the movie fixates on the mundane), Barillaro's visual style is more polished, and there are a number of very well-composed shots that say as much about the central relationship as the dialogue does. Disappointingly, the entire last half hour switches gears, ditching Gardner's Mel (and the saga of the movie the couple is making) entirely, as Russell's John moves to Montreal and doesn't do much of anything. The lack of closure is probably intentional, but John on his own isn't particularly interesting, and nothing he does in Montreal connects back to the first two-thirds of the movie in any illuminating way. It ends up doing a disservice to the more interesting, ambitious female character in favor of the entitled male stoner, and ends the movie on a sour note. Available on No Budge.

Mercy (James Wolk, Tom Lipinski, Caitlin FitzGerald, dir. Chris Sparling) Two sets of half brothers fight over the legacy of their dying mother in this odd, disjointed thriller. The movie starts out as a family drama about the four brothers coming together to pay final respects to their mother at the house she shares with her second husband (father of two of the brothers). But the family conflict soon becomes secondary to a nighttime home invasion by masked criminals, who may or may not be the more aggressive set of brothers. Writer-director Sparling keeps things deliberately vague for much of the movie (characters say things like "We gotta do what we gotta do"), and around the halfway point he circles back in time to show the same events from a slightly different perspective, which is not particularly illuminating and mainly leads to a lot of repetition and filler (now we get even more specific detail about how that guy got to that door!). The action is often murky, making it hard to tell who's attacking whom, and the characters' motivations are just as murky, so it's also hard to care about what happens to any of them. The twist ending throws the movie into supernatural/sci-fi territory without following through on it, making the entire preceding 90 minutes feel like a crude waste of time. Available on Netflix.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

VODepths: 'The Academy of Muses,' 'A Beautiful Now,' 'Hank Boyd Is Dead'

The Academy of Muses (Raffaele Pinto, Emanuela Forgetta, Rosa Delor Muns, dir. Jose Luis Guerin) Built around footage of real-life philology professor Pinto teaching a class about the classical concept of the muse, this awkward hybrid of documentary and fiction is tedious and off-putting, with an ugly, amateurish visual style that I can only assume is intentional but makes the movie look like it was shot by someone who doesn't know how to use a camera. The movie starts off like a document of Pinto's lectures, which are a bit dry and convoluted, before expanding to include a few of his female students, all of whom are romantically, intellectually and sexually drawn to their professor. In the middle there's a detour to Sardinia for one of the students to interview shepherds about traditional folk music, which seems like it belongs in an entirely separate film. Nothing about Pinto suggests that he has the kind of allure to draw in so many young, beautiful women, and the segments that are more clearly "acting" by the stars are pretty awkward. Guerin shoots many, many scenes through highly reflective windows in bright lighting that makes it hard to see the characters, and the scenes are full of random blackouts, like Guerin didn't shoot enough coverage. The result is obtuse and arty while also clumsy and technically inept, a combination that can't effectively serve the philosophical ideas or the psychosexual drama. Available on Fandor.

A Beautiful Now (Abigail Spencer, Cheyenne Jackson, Collette Wolfe, dir. Daniela Amavia) Spencer plays a ballerina contemplating suicide in this insufferable drama, full of entitled, self-involved assholes who sit around contemplating the meaning of their empty existences. When Spencer's Romy locks herself in her bathroom with a gun on her birthday, her five best friends show up to offer emotional support, although they don't make much effort to call for help or even try to get her to come out of the bathroom. The eventual idiotic twist (one of the most cliched twist endings possible) at least explains the reasoning behind this, but before we get to that twist we have to sit through 90 minutes of ponderous narcissism, with every character speaking in pseudo-profound platitudes. As Romy's friends hang out in her apartment and bicker, the movie flashes back to their intertwined romantic and sexual connections, but it's often unclear when the flashbacks take place, and the lack of context makes it even harder to care about the already tiresome relationships. Occasional fantasy sequences featuring Romy dancing onstage provide some visually striking respites, and honestly I would have been happy if the movie focused more on her dance career and why it never quite took off (as with all of the characters' occupations, Romy's work is maddeningly vague, like a placeholder for a more detailed story). Romy's depression is what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend might call a "sexy French depression," all artful pouts and meaningful stares, and none of her friends' problems feel authentic, either. Spencer, Jackson and Wolfe are all reliable TV actors, but they all seem a bit lost here, never able to craft fully realized characters from the wispy material. By the time that infuriating twist arrives, both the characters and the audience are ready to be put out of their misery. Available on Amazon.

Hank Boyd Is Dead (Stefanie Frame, David Christopher Wells, Liv Rooth, dir. Sean Melia) As with New Cops, which I wrote about in the first installment of this feature, the filmmaker himself sent me this movie unsolicited, and I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it. That's not to say this is a bad movie, though -- it's a very promising if uneven first effort from writer-director Melia, who obviously worked with a small budget and limited resources to create a horror movie that is decently suspenseful and sometimes darkly funny. The cast of mostly New York theater actors is very strong and easily the movie's most valuable resource, and they help smooth over some of the rougher aspects of the production. Frame plays a caterer who finds herself trapped in the home of a demented family, with murder, incest, insanity and long-buried secrets coming quickly to the surface. Melia turns the escalating tension almost into a farce with some comical setbacks for the main character, but there's real menace in the situation, especially thanks to the creepy performance by Wells as the family's main psychopath. Some of the stunt work is questionable, and the background plot details are occasionally unclear, but the moment-to-moment storytelling is strong. Melia also periodically splices in what looks like stock home-movie footage, seemingly to offer a contrast to the present-day depravity, but it's mostly just distracting. The movie ends abruptly without a decent resolution, but it has plenty of disturbing moments before it gets there. Available on Amazon.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Chair' (1929)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

When I wrote about the 1937 version of The Thirteenth Chair a couple of years ago, I speculated that director Tod Browning's 1929 version of the same material was probably better, since Browning is a renowned director known for suspense classics like Dracula and Freaks. But it turns out that the source material itself (a 1916 play by Bayard Veiller) is likely the real problem, since Browning's version is if anything less engaging and more awkward than the later version by George B. Seitz. It also doesn't help that Browning's film is his first sound effort, and it still struggles with a lot of the difficulties of early sound films (it was actually released in both silent and sound versions, although only the sound version has survived).

The plot is the same in both films: In British-occupied Calcutta, an unpleasant man is murdered, and his friend decides to convene a seance in order to find out who was responsible. Here, Edward Wales (John Davidson) gathers a bunch of high-society types to convene with medium Madame La Grange (Margaret Wycherly, ex-wife of playwright Veiller and star of the previous stage version) in hopes of reaching the spirit of the late Spencer Lee. When the lights go out during Madame La Grange's seance, Wales himself is murdered, and everyone else in the room is a suspect. The local cops send Inspector Delzante (Bela Lugosi), who goes to some unconventional extremes to root out the culprit.

The combination of the stagebound source material and the constraints of early sound filmmaking give the movie a belabored, sluggish feel, and the mystery isn't very compelling. Most of the characters just kind of stand around while Delzante makes proclamations, and his investigative style involves making loud, unfounded accusations and then seeing how people react. The majority of the movie takes place in just a couple of rooms in a spacious mansion, and the camera setups are all rudimentary and static, to better capture the sound. The acting is mostly broad (especially Wycherly's gratingly overdone Oirish accent, which might have worked onstage but comes across as irritatingly fake here), although Lugosi is occasionally amusing as the contemptuous investigator, who seems like he'd be content to just arrest all of these self-involved idiots and call it a day.

It's hard to care about who murdered two characters we know essentially nothing about, and the movie instead focuses mostly on the relationship between rich heir Richard Crosby (Conrad Nagel) and his fiancee Nellie (Leila Hyams), who turns out to be the secret daughter of Madame La Grange. But the threats to their insipid love aren't particularly exciting or suspenseful, and when the case is finally resolved, clearing any obstacles to their marriage, there's no sense of justice or satisfaction, other than the relief that this plodding movie has finally come to an end.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

VODepths: 'Dartmoor Killing,' 'The Thinning,' 'Vampyres'

Dartmoor Killing (Gemma-Leah Devereux, Rebecca Night, Callum Blue, dir. Peter Nicholson) There's some promisingly eerie atmosphere at the beginning of this slow British thriller, but it never really pays off, and the plot proceeds extremely slowly to some highly dubious reveals. Devereux and Night play two friends hiking in the Dartmoor hills, where they meet a mysterious (but really, really obviously sinister) local who takes them in. Despite his extreme creepiness, both women are immediately hot for him, which means it takes them a while to figure out that he's a homicidal maniac hiding a dark secret from the past involving one of the women. Director and co-writer Nicholson seems to be going for a vibe of slow, creeping dread, along the lines of The Wicker Man or Picnic at Hanging Rock, but he only gets the slow part right, and once the plot twists start coming, they don't make much sense. Add in the somewhat lethargic performances (even in the moments of supposed heightened intensity), and you end up with a thriller that slowly loses steam even as it heads toward its violent finale. Available on Netflix.

The Thinning (Peyton List, Logan Paul, Calum Worthy, dir. Michael Gallagher) Most of the original content on YouTube's paid-subscription service YouTube Red is slightly higher-caliber versions of typical YouTube programming, featuring some of the biggest YouTube stars doing what they've already done to become popular, just on a larger scale. Even the handful of YTR feature films are often documentaries that expand on the idea of YouTube stardom. But The Thinning is a full-on sci-fi drama, combining elements of Divergent, The Hunger Games and The Purge in a blatant attempt to capitalize on the YA teen-dystopia trend (although it's not based on any existing material). It features social media star Logan Paul in one of the lead roles, alongside Peyton List as a pair of teens who challenge the future system in which five percent of the population is culled every year via a standardized test for grades 1-12. It's a ridiculous concept that doesn't stand up to even the most basic scrutiny, and the movie's low-budget suspense comes primarily from characters crawling through absurdly spacious air ducts. The acting is poor, the writing is sloppy, and the haphazard world-building is incredibly weak. I was sort of impressed by what seemed to be a remarkably bleak ending, only to be disappointed by the cop-out twist that sets up a sequel I hope will never arrive. Available on YouTube Red.

Vampyres (Veronica Polo, Christian Stamm, Marta Flich, dir. Victor Matellano) Apparently this is a remake of a 1974 cult exploitation classic, but I've never seen (or, honestly, even heard of) the original, so I can't comment on how this new version compares. Hopefully the original is better than this mess, though, or at least has higher camp value. Shot in Spain and set, apparently, in the English countryside, it's the inscrutable story of a group of campers who encounter a couple of lesbian vampires in an old house in the woods. That's the most I could get out of the elliptical, impressionistic plot, which involves a lot of characters wandering aimlessly through the woods. The dialogue sounds like it was run back and forth through Google Translate, and the actors offer up a mishmash of accents and often sound like they learned their lines phonetically. There are a handful of evocative images, along with plenty of nudity, and for a certain cult audience, that's probably enough (there are also cameos from some exploitation stars I'm not familiar with). But overall, director Matellano seems to be trying too hard to evoke the low-budget weirdness of genuine cult cinema, and self-designated cult classics almost never actually become what they aspire to. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Frankenstein Month: Wrap-up

After spending last month writing about 32 different takes on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I'm still impressed with how much potential there is in Shelley's timeless, brilliant novel and the various ways it can be interpreted. Even if many of the movies I wrote about are less than great (or downright terrible), they all capture something inherently creepy and unsettling about the story, and the best of them also tackle its still-complicated moral and philosophical quandaries. Here are my picks for some of the highlights of the movies I watched.

Best Frankenstein: Peter Cushing in the Hammer series. The quality of the six Hammer Frankenstein movies starring Cushing varies, but his performance as Baron Frankenstein is always a highlight, bringing a mix of arrogance, menace and erudition to the character. Cushing's Frankenstein drifts pretty far from the original conception of the character, aging and taking on new scientific projects, but he always embodies the zeal and ambition that define Frankenstein. Honorable mentions: Colin Clive in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein; Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970; Gene Wilder in Young Frankensein; Raul Julia in Frankenstein Unbound.

Best monster: Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. This is an obvious choice, but the truth is that there just aren't many great performances as the monster; most movies present the creature as an inarticulate brute, which doesn't offer actors much to work with. Karloff did a lot to establish that precedent, but even his grunting, lumbering creation has some soul, especially compared to the actors who took over for him in the later Universal movies. For better or worse, this is the version of Frankenstein's monster that will forever be remembered. Honorable mentions: Michael Gwynn in The Revenge of Frankenstein; Michael Sarrazin in Frankenstein: The True Story; Clancy Brown in The Bride.

Best bride: Jane Seymour in Frankenstein: The True Story. There aren't nearly as many examples of this character to choose from, partially because she's not actually in the original novel (Victor Frankenstein ultimately refuses to create a mate for the monster). But ever since James Whale made Bride of Frankenstein, the character has become an important part of the series mythology, albeit often as an end to the story. But Seymour shows up for a decent stretch of the three-hour Frankenstein: The True Story, and she makes for a unique kind of monster, completely articulate and intelligent and with a cold sort of sociopathic motivation. It's not the kind of performance usually associated with Seymour or with the bride character, and it invigorates the movie at just the right moment. Honorable mentions: Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein; Patty Mullen in Frankenhooker; Helena Bonham Carter in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Best assistant: Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein. It may be a stretch to call Lugosi's Ygor an assistant, since he spends much of his time bullying the descendants of Baron Frankenstein in his two appearances in the Universal movies. But in many ways he established the template for the simpering assistant to Frankenstein, another character not in the original novel but now an integral part of the mythology. In movies that are inconsistent at best, Lugosi's performance is the best thing about them, embodying the completely unhinged, gleefully homicidal maniac that Frankenstein himself is often not allowed to be (or at least must hide away). Honorable mentions: Paul Muller in Lady Frankenstein; Arno Juerging in Flesh for Frankenstein; Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein; Shane Briant in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell.

Best blind man: Gene Hackman in Young Frankenstein. The blind man, for some reason, is one of the smaller elements of Shelley's novel that filmmakers frequently take on even when they deviate significantly from the story in other ways. It's a simple, direct way to demonstrate the extreme reactions to the monster's mix of grotesque appearance and open, childlike nature, and it provides for an easy moment of drama when the family sees the creature that their father/grandfather has befriended. Most of the blind-man characters in the Frankenstein movies are fairly anonymous, but Hackman makes his version into one of the funniest and most memorable parts of Young Frankenstein by playing it mostly straight, even as he comically batters and bruises the poor unsuspecting monster.

Best line: You would think that "It's alive!" would win this hands down, but I have to go with Flesh for Frankenstein's immortal "To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life ... in the gall bladder!"

Monday, October 31, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Victor Frankenstein' (2015)

Although a sniveling, hunchbacked assistant named Igor never appears in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein or in James Whale's iconic 1931 film, he's somehow become an integral part of Frankenstein mythology. It comes from a combination of Dwight Frye's performance as the hunchbacked assistant (named Fritz) in Whale's Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi's sinister Ygor in the later Universal movies and Marty Feldman's character in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, which has probably done more to cement the pop-culture image of Frankenstein than all but the most popular of the serious adaptations. Whatever the reason, Victor Frankenstein's assistant Igor is one of the main characters people associate with the Frankenstein mythology, and his perspective is one of the few that hasn't already been exhaustively explored.

Despite its title, Victor Frankenstein is actually mainly about Igor, although screenwriter Max Landis and director Paul McGuigan fail to find any reason why his perspective is unique or worth depicting. In the tedious manner of modern blockbusters, they concoct an origin story for a familiar character, giving Igor a history as a circus freak, a hunchbacked clown who is treated like a slave by everyone else in the traveling circus except for beatific acrobat Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay). But since Igor is played by movie star Daniel Radcliffe, he can't remain a deformed freak, so when he's rescued by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), he soon discovers that his hunchback is the result of an easily curable condition, and his freakish appearance can be changed via a convenient shower and haircut. Although Landis and McGuigan make a lot of noise over Igor's circus overlords wanting to hunt him down, the circus angle becomes entirely irrelevant after the opening sequence.

Instead, the main villain is a dour investigator (Andrew Scott) who becomes fixated on stopping Frankenstein's experiments because he believes they are an affront to God. The filmmakers turn Victor into a sputtering, raving antihero with daddy issues, and McAvoy plays him with over-the-top gusto, like he's constantly on speed. That contrasts with Radcliffe's somewhat glum straight-man performance, as Igor is forced to be the constant voice of reason to counter Victor's latest half-mad ideas. It takes until nearly the end of the movie for Victor to actually animate his most famous creation, and the monster appears only very briefly before being dispatched.

The drawn-out setup to the familiar story ends up making it feel anticlimactic, and it closes with the possibility of a sequel that will never come (since the movie was a massive box-office bomb). Landis, who's known for being a sort of geek-culture gadfly (I saw him on a panel at MorrisonCon, and he was the single most grating presence at any comic-con panel I've ever been to), throws in a bunch of references to other versions of the Frankenstein story (including Victor correcting the pronunciation of his name, in a nod to Young Frankenstein), but he doesn't seem to have anything to contribute to the evolution of the story. The little jokes aren't consistent enough to make the movie into a campy romp, but it's far too ridiculous to take seriously. Like the early animal hybrid that Victor creates in his lab, it's a lumbering, stitched-together failure.

Frankenstein Month: 'Frankenstein' (2015)

Writer-director Bernard Rose (Candyman, Immortal Beloved) uses verbatim passages from Mary Shelley's novel as voiceover narration in his low-budget version of Frankenstein, but this is not what you'd call a faithful adaptation. Set in the present day (possibly because period details were out of the movie's budget range), Rose's film focuses almost solely on the monster, with some reimagined characters and scenarios from the novel. It opens with the monster's birth, as the product of some sort of experiment in genetic engineering (it's never quite clear), which takes place in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse or office building. Rose managed to get Danny Huston as Victor Frankenstein and Carrie-Anne Moss as Elizabeth Frankenstein (in this version, they're married and are both scientists), but they're in less than half of the movie.

Instead the real star is Xavier Samuel as the monster, who escapes from the facility (actually some sort of bunker underneath the Frankensteins' Southern California mansion) after his creators decide to put him out of his misery (he starts out looking like a boy band member before developing gruesome deformities). With his inhuman strength and invulnerability, the monster apparently can't be killed (over the course of the movie, he's given lethal injection, choked, shot point blank multiple times and had his throat slit), so he wanders off to discover humanity, only to be rejected and mistreated, much like Shelley's monster. But he's also more violent and less intelligent; although he continues to speak eloquently in voiceover, his dialogue is limited to grunts and a handful of poorly articulated words, and Rose and Samuel present him as essentially a child, not the erudite thinker of the novel.

As such, he ends up being incredibly annoying, and it doesn't help that Samuel's performance is poor, failing to convey the anguish and isolation that should engender audience sympathy. The plot is aimless, as the monster stumbles across various people who want to help or harm him (mostly harm, even if they start out helping). Rose reconfigures the blind peasant of the novel as a blind, homeless African-American blues musician (played by Candyman's Tony Todd), and the character is such a silly stereotype that I kept thinking of David Alan Grier's Calhoun Tubbs from In Living Color. The cops who have a curiously strong vendetta against the monster are equally cartoonish (and played by some very bad actors), and the final confrontation with the Frankensteins just emphasizes how much the rest of the movie suffers from Huston and Moss' absence.

Rose never explains much about the scientists, what they're attempting to accomplish with their experiment, why they work in their own private bunker, what their relationship is like, whether they're concerned that their dangerous creation escaped into the night. The entire movie is told from the monster's perspective, but his perspective is limited and limiting compared to how Shelley imagined it, and the people he encounters are crude, one-dimensional ciphers. Each awkward interaction highlights the bargain-level filmmaking; the fight scenes are especially clumsy and unconvincingly staged. The movie runs less than 90 minutes, truncating large portions of the story and closing on what's meant to be a tragic sacrifice, but only comes across as one more inauthentic stumble in a movie full of them.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'I, Frankenstein' (2014)

Within less than three minutes, I, Frankenstein dispenses with the entire original Frankenstein story, leaving Victor Frankenstein dead of exposure and his monster (Aaron Eckhart) still alive, thanks to his apparently indestructible constitution. The monster returns to bury Frankenstein on his family's estate, and that's where the story really begins: Despite its title, this isn't really a movie about Frankenstein and the creation of his monster, but about an ancient war between demons and gargoyles, in which the monster (who takes the name Adam) ends up caught in the middle. See, the gargoyles (who pose as the stone figures on the sides of buildings, but are also immortal human-looking creatures descended from angels) protect the world from the demons, who are disguised as humans. Because Adam was brought to life by science, he is a person without a soul, and thus somehow vitally important to both sides. So the demons attack him, the gargoyles rescue him and arm him with mystical weapons, and then he rejects both of them to live alone in the wilderness.

It somehow takes 200-plus years for them to track him down again, at which point it is now the present day and Adam has a stylish short haircut and a hoodie to wear under his trenchcoat. He heads to the city where all the main gargoyles and demons conveniently live, where he faces off against the demon prince Naberius (Bill Nighy, the only person in this movie having a good time), who is trying to use the journals of Victor Frankenstein to resurrect thousands of corpses that can be inhabited by the spirits of slain demons to become an army and take over the world. Believe me, none of it is any more coherent than my explanation of it. Not surprisingly, this mashup mythology comes from actor/writer Kevin Grevioux, co-creator of the Underworld series, to which this movie bears a strong and unfortunate resemblance. The hulking, deep-voiced Grevioux plays a supporting role as one of Naberius' demon henchmen, which is a far more enjoyable contribution to the movie than his story.

Theoretically, Grevioux's basic idea (based on a "graphic novel" that as far as I can tell was never published) has been polished by professional screenwriter Stuart Beattie, who has the sole credit for the screenplay and also directed. Beattie's written at least one great movie (Collateral) and also contributed to the Pirates of the Caribbean, G.I. Joe and Punisher franchises, but he can't make sense of this ridiculous mess, and his chaotic direction doesn't help, either. The entire movie takes place in dank, dark spaces, making it look like it was coated in a layer of grime. Beattie's approach to shooting action sequences involves lots of slow motion, and Eckhart doesn't exactly make for an imposing action hero.

The idea of making Frankenstein's monster into an action hero at all is pretty ridiculous, and nothing in the movie makes a convincing case for it. With some artfully placed scars over his buff body, Adam doesn't look particularly monstrous, nor is his angst particularly deep or affecting. Eckhart is severely miscast, and aside from Nighy (who manages to nearly pull off some atrocious lines), no one else in the movie seems to have any clue what they're doing. Yvonne Strahovski plays a sympathetic scientist who helps Adam, and Miranda Otto plays the queen of the gargoyles (!!), but their talents are no match for the incoherent script and the sometimes hilariously florid dialogue. They aren't helped by the special effects, which are ugly and plastic-looking (especially the gargoyle forms of the gargoyle characters, which should at least sort of resemble the actors who play them).

Perhaps the saddest thing about this movie is that it was clearly meant to be the start of a franchise, with Adam giving a closing voiceover about how he will be out there from now on, ready to take on new threats to humanity. Grevioux even planned to have it cross over with the successful Underworld movies (he initially planned for Underworld references throughout the movie, and a post-credits cameo from Kate Beckinsale as her Underworld character), which really aren't much better. They are, however, box office hits, and thanks to the meager returns for this movie, Adam will probably never meet up with the vampires and the lycans. All things considered, that's probably best for everyone.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'The Frankenstein Theory' (2013)

[Fictional horror story] is actually real is a pretty common device for horror movies looking to rejuvenate tired formulas or characters, but that doesn't mean it can't be effective. Low-budget mockumentary The Frankenstein Theory takes that approach to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein novel, positing that the author based it on real letters from an actual Arctic explorer that somehow came into her possession (this doesn't fit at all with how the novel was written, but it's a necessary suspension of disbelief for the movie's basic setup). The main character here is Jonathan Venkenheim (Kris Lemche), descendant of the "real" scientist upon whom Shelley based her Victor Frankenstein character. An academic who's become obsessed with his ancestor's work, Jonathan is determined to track down the real creature, supposedly still living in the frozen north (in Canada, not the Arctic, since presumably that was easier and cheaper to shoot).

Jonathan recruits a documentary crew for this expedition, and the movie mostly follows the found-footage formula, albeit with a more polished style since it's apparently meant to have been edited and and shaped after the fact (although this is a problematic assumption given how the movie ends). So there is some non-diegetic music, time-lapse scene transitions, overlapping dialogue between scenes, etc. But there are also plenty of found-footage cliches, including characters filming everything even while in danger, clumsy exposition delivered directly to the camera, terrors depicted in night vision, and most of all the interminable tedium of people bumbling around filming their mundane tasks when all the audience wants to see is some people getting killed.

Theory is almost entirely a waiting game, and the characters just aren't interesting enough to justify spending that much time watching them bicker and theorize. The only semi-interesting relationship is between Jonathan and his girlfriend, who appears in a couple of scenes early in the movie and then breaks up with him over the phone, after refusing to come on the expedition. The three documentary crew members are basically interchangeable schlubby white dudes, and the documentary director's only interesting trait is that she's a woman in a crew of all men (which is never really explored). The briefly referenced past friendship between director Vicky (Heather Stephens) and Jonathan is also never really explored, and in the end she's used for a cheap gag to close the movie.

The monster doesn't make even a brief appearance until an hour into the 86-minute movie, and he's never onscreen for more than a few seconds. Almost all of the violence takes place offscreen, but instead of coming off as creepy and unsettling, it just feels like a cheat. Director and co-writer Andrew Weiner never really engages with Shelley's story, despite using it as the entire foundation of his movie. Jonathan does present a theory of sorts about what's happened to Frankenstein's monster, but it ends up as meaningless and superficial as the trappings of any other mediocre found-footage movie. The unseen monster stalking the characters could have been Bigfoot or a yeti or a werewolf or something else entirely, and it wouldn't have made much difference.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' (1994)

Despite putting the author's name in the title, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein still takes plenty of liberties with the original novel, and even when it's faithful to the letter of the story, it gets the tone all wrong, going for grotesque and overwrought when it should be restrained or romantic. Part of what could have been a series of "classier" and more faithful adaptations of literary horror classics (after 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein instead ended up as a box-office failure, and Coppola (who is a producer here) moved on to other things. The idea of making a faithful adaptation of Shelley's story is still viable, especially since people's perceptions of Frankenstein remain tied up in various pop-culture representations far more than in the book. But even the filmmakers who have Shelley's name zooming toward the viewer at the beginning of their movie can't resist a cry of "It's alive!" or the creation of a bride of Frankenstein.

Much of the screenplay by Frank Darabont and Steph Lady does stick to Shelley's novel, at least at first, and the movie includes the Arctic framing sequence (which is usually the first thing to go) and plenty of time with the extended Frankenstein family. But director Kenneth Branagh (who also plays Victor Frankenstein) turns that family dynamic into something lurid, frequently emphasizing the pseudo-incestuous nature of the relationship between Victor and his foster sister (and eventual fiancee) Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Branagh overdoes just about everything in the movie, both as a director and as an actor, and while his version of Frankenstein is a bit more soulful and sympathetic than many onscreen portrayals, he still becomes unhinged and aggressive when he's focused on bringing his creation to life, and he doesn't have much consideration for the feelings of people around him.

The creation sequence is a great example of this movie's absurdity, as Branagh does his best to differentiate it from other movie versions, but only makes it more ridiculous in the process. Instead of getting his electric jolt from lightning, this movie's Frankenstein uses ... electric eels! He collects amniotic fluid to immerse his creature in, and then ends up covered in it himself when the creature breaks out of its containment module. There's a certain campy charm to the over-the-top set design of this movie, both in Frankenstein's laboratory and in the improbably cavernous interior of the Frankenstein family estate, which has a giant staircase with no railing that appears to lead to nowhere.

Mostly, though, the histrionic tone is exhausting, and it fails to honor the source material, which seems to have been the main goal of this version. Branagh at this point was known mainly for his acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations, but he takes this as an opportunity to cut loose, and in a way it's a precursor to his more recent work on big Hollywood productions like Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Cinderella. Those movies are more measured and restrained, though, and Frankenstein kind of gets away from Branagh, especially in the third act, which diverges significantly from the source material to add in a second, even more hyperactive creation sequence and to allow Carter to turn Elizabeth into a horrific bride of Frankenstein monster.

Somehow I've gotten this far without even mentioning Robert De Niro's performance as the monster, and that's partially because he underplays his part while everyone around him is chewing scenery. But it's also partially because his performance is mostly forgettable, even as it sticks more closely to Shelley's vision of the monster and allows him to speak and emote. This isn't De Niro just sleepwalking through the role as he's done so often in his later career, but he doesn't make much of an impression, and his working-class demeanor is not really a good fit for the philosophical version of the monster. Like so much about this movie, his casting is well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, one of many efforts to honor Shelley's original story that only ends up missing the point.