Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

★★★ / 👍

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) poster

The fourth Frankenstein film from Hammer is a stylish if somewhat plodding return to form after an ill-advised experiment in licensed nostalgia. Frankenstein Created Woman restores Peter Cushing’s Baron to the sociopathic mad doctor we love to hate, adds a stronger metaphysical element than usual to the series, and manages to provide a healthy dollop of erotically-tinged violence before the end credits roll.

Baron Victor von Frankenstein—doctor “of medicine, law, and physics”—has made a breakthrough in his quest to conquer death. Earlier attempts had him seeking out only the best ingredients (“the finest hands in Europe!”) and only substituting peasants and criminals faute de mieux. Here he is much less concerned with the physical shell: “Bodies are easy to come by. Souls are not.”

Due to complicated plot events that take up the majority of the running time, Frankenstein is able to use a “frame of force” (i.e., a force field) to trap a freshly-guillotined prisoner’s soul before it leaves the body. After taking a few moments to gaze at the soul through an observation window like a proud father at the maternity ward—the only unfeigned smile Frankenstein displays in the entire movie—the Baron and his assistant get to work rebuilding the body of a “twisted, deformed, and broken” woman who drowned herself.

Frankenstein Created Woman is no Bride of Frankenstein. That said, the unveiling sequence of the drowned woman, Christina, does have a pretty nifty visual joke. As the last bandage is removed, the film withholds the reveal of Christina’s face by cutting to her point of view, slowly coming into focus as Christina’s eyes adjust. Our first full glimpse of Susan Denberg’s unblemished blonde beauty is intercut with her character’s first impression of the world—a couple of old dudes looming over her. The way her eyes flick from the beaming, ruddy-cheeked Thorley Walters to the grim, distant Cushing isn’t exactly Elsa Lanchester’s hiss, but it’s delightful nonetheless.

Susan Denberg was likely hired primarily because she was Playboy‘s Miss August 1966, and not for her acting abilities. While her ultimate transformation into a monstrous femme fatale is actually pretty great, it comes very late in the film. For most of the running time Denberg is stuck playing a meek, high-strung peasant girl, saddled with terrible dialogue and disfiguring makeup that distracts more than it disgusts. (That her performance was dubbed by someone else certainly doesn’t help.)

Once revivified and given decent costuming, makeup and hair, though, Denberg can draw on her modeling skills to pose in a series of confident, erotically-charged tableaux. The change isn’t exactly subtle, but the flimsiness of the pretext begins to work in the movie’s favor: it’s difficult not to share the thinly-veiled contempt she displays for her targets.

Peter Cushing is delightfully amoral throughout. Though clever and capable of charm, his Frankenstein reflexively insults others through arrogance and impatience, even when it makes his life more difficult. Cushing’s gravitas also helps to smooth over some potentially creepy moments. The audience might be leering as he manipulates Denberg’s legs, but as far as Frankenstein is concerned, she’s just a “very healthy young girl” and that’s that.

[Hoop2fer #1. Watched with: She Killed in Ecstasy (1971).]

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

Straight Outta Compton (2015) poster

Ninety minutes of amazing filmmaking, followed by an hour of self-aggrandizing “and then I wrote” corporate propaganda from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

As someone who spent part of his teen years as a semi-libertarian freeze peach advocate with very thin skin, I winced in identification during the scene in Straight Outta Compton when Paul Giamatti’s character loses his shit the second he finds himself on the wrong end of a barbed lyric. I’m an East Coast white-boy tourist whose lived experience was that of The Tompkins Square Park Riot, not the Los Angeles riots. I never got much deeper into hip-hop than some old-school beats and half of the Def Jam catalog before The Chronic scared me away, and not even Illmatic could bring me back. The closest I’ve ever been to a rap controversy was that one time I got into an argument with a Tower Records clerk about how dumb it was that you couldn’t buy an uncensored version of the Romeo Must Die soundtrack.

With all that said, I loved this movie, until I didn’t. I walked out of the theater wanting to see it again immediately, but I really don’t know if it’ll hold up. The hagiography of Dr. Dre in particular rings very false, although it probably isn’t that much worse than the omissions and whitewashing in other musical biopics like Ray or Walk The Line.

The performances are uniformly strong. Jason Mitchell is the standout as Eazy-E, providing layers to what could have been a caricature as the self-destructive frontman who loses sight of what’s really important. Corey Hawkins shows chops while shouldering the burden of the worst of the script’s cheap sentiment. O’Shea Jackson Jr. shows talent and charisma that goes beyond his resemblance to his father. Aldis Hodge gets a well-deserved straight dramatic role as MC Ren, albeit a thankless one; he’s Johnny Exposition, feeding setup lines for the flashier characters to drive home. Paul Giamatti sells the manipulative manager stereotype, conveying his own particular brand of hunger—that of a man who had relevance and lost it—while making it ambiguous as to how much of his self-justifying spiel he’s actually come to believe.

Which, come to think of it, is basically my one problem with this movie overall. Are Dre and Cube, as producers, simply giving the audience what it wants to see, or do they genuinely think this is a fully accurate depiction of their lives? There’s a telling scene where Ice Cube deflects criticism of his lyrics by claiming the “brutal honesty” of a journalist. The power of N.W.A.’s music was rooted in “the strength of street knowledge,” but a whole lot of this movie feels like Hollywood bullshit.

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

★★½ / 👎

Diablo Cody, Meryl Streep, and Jonathan Demme collaborate to bring out their respective worst tendencies, in what feels like three separate vanity projects stitched into a single feature film. The result is a mawkish melodrama with an unconvincing layer of irony, about a deeply talented performer apparently driven entirely by ego, and directed with the precise craft of a concert film designed to be aired during every annual PBS fund-raising drive until the end of time.

The first two-thirds of the movie do a fairly decent job of establishing the characters, setting up the conflicts, and getting in a few patented Diablo Cody barbs. The third act is an ineffective and sentimental rehash of the second, complete with sitcom-level social awkwardness, a pair of awards-show—friendly monologues and an insultingly pat ending.

Streep’s vastly more convincing as a third-rate musician who’s achieved all the success she ever will than Pacino was in Danny Collins as a genius who wasted his talent on bubblegum pop. It’s a “brave” performance in that Ricki is a genuinely unlikeable character (until she isn’t) with problems that can’t be easily waved away (until they are).

There are highlights. Demme still knows how to shoot concerts, even fictional ones. Audra McDonald kills in a straight dramatic role, despite barely being in the movie. (One of the script’s best touches is how well it establishes that character long before she shows up on screen.) Kevin Kline displays just enough humor to suggest how the hell he and Streep’s character stayed together long enough to have three kids. Rick Springfield is actually pretty good as Streep’s bandmate (and potential soul-mate); the pair have chemistry, and he helps carry Streep musically. There are even some interesting feints at making Ricki more three-dimensional, such as the strong suggestion that she is more of a reactionary than her square ex-husband in his Midwest McMansion. Unfortunately, nuance is completely at odds with the plot, and the claptrap wins.

Fantastic Four (2015)

★★ / 👎

The most fun I had with Fantastic Four was when a sepia-toned, mass-murdering Thing skulking in the shadows made me realize that this film could accurately be called a Grimmdark reboot.

It’s difficult to tell which parts are bad because of the obvious reshoots—Kate Mara’s fluctuating hairstyle is the true fifth member of the team—and which parts are bad due to a fundamentally flawed approach to the material. Even if we assume the abrupt and disastrous third act is solely due to executive meddling, that only made a bad film worse.

I wonder if those canon-obsessed reactionaries who were so angry at the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm will be just as pissed by a script that gives him nothing to do, sidelines Sue Storm in a way I wouldn’t have dreamed possible, and turns Ben Grimm’s powers into a mere externalization of a cycle of abuse.

Maybe Fox really was like the military-industrial complex in this film, trying to stifle and channel impulses it couldn’t really understand to retain control and power. And maybe Josh Trank really is boy genius Reed Richards, who just needs to be given the space and resources to do his work in peace, with no obligations to his backers. But then, as comic book fans know (and this film acknowledges) Reed Richards is also kind of a dick.

Mr. Holmes (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

Mr. Holmes is a rare and precious specimen in Sherlockiana: a Holmes pastiche which engages with the concept of nostalgia, without succumbing to it.

McKellen is excellent playing effectively two different versions of the character, separated from each other by more than just the passage of decades. From a fanboy point of view, McKellen’s work here is to Holmes what Craig’s was to Bond in Casino Royale. Not enough to knock Brett or Connery off their respective perches, but good enough to shift everyone else down in the rankings.

Laura Linney is less showy but equally as moving as Holmes’s efficient housekeeper (and reluctant caregiver) Mrs. Munro. The script allows her character the interior life that Doyle never provided for Mrs. Hudson, and Linney makes the most of it.

(Oh, and just for the record: Connery, Craig, Dalton, Lazenby, Brosnan, Niven, Moore; Brett, McKellen, Rathbone, Cumberbatch, Plummer, Wilder, Downey Jr.)