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).]

Jurassic World (2015) image

Jurassic World (2015)

★★★ / 👎

Adequate programmer that didn’t particularly work for me, but was a real hit for the dozens of children in my screening, complete with laughter, screaming, and thunderous applause at the end.

The sexism angle has been talked to death, but I agree with at least some of it. Pratt’s self-described “alpha” character reacts to romantic rejection with boorishness. Realistic, but insufferable.

More disturbing is the film’s glee at combining PG-13 violence with caricatures to allow guilt-free consumption of brutality. Watching a matinee full of pre-teens cheer the deaths of Fat Guys and Snooty Authority Figures and Bad Soldiers felt exactly like sitting in a midnight screening of a slasher film, listening to an older crowd root for the death of The Slut and The Jock.

(Yeah, I know the counterpoints: identification, catharsis, exercise in empathy. Fine, whatever. I still felt the distinct sensation that I was the odd man out sitting in the middle of a pack that, however weak the individual members are, could tear me apart if it chose to, with zero weight on its collective conscience.)

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015) image

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

★★★ / 👎

Underwhelming.

This is very much a comic book movie, and certainly I prefer that to the grimdark nonsense coming out of Warner/DC; but this is also Whedon at his most self-indulgent, with fanservice overwhelming character.

I really disliked a significant chunk of the action sequences in this. I suspect the 3D was partly to blame for that; I’ll be watching it again flat. (I’m also definitely in the camp that feels that the house style of Marvel Studios—particularly in the large-scale action sequences—hurts the individual Marvel films.)

Between this and Guardians of the Galaxy, I suspect we’ve seen the best the current Marvel formula can provide. Time to shake things up.

Danny Collins (2015) image

Danny Collins (2015)

★★★ / 👍

In synopsis, Danny Collins sounds like it could go very wrong indeed. It’s basically a small-scale version of Crazy Heart, built around a legendarily larger-than-life actor (who can’t actually sing), playing a version of himself struggling with irrelevance and late-career regret. Despite the potential for disaster, I enjoyed this film far more than I expected to.

There’s no doubt this is Pacino’s movie—and the best performance I’ve seen him give in well over a decade—but it’s much more of an ensemble cast than the one-man show (or Pacino/Bening two-hander) I’d assumed it would be. Bobby Cannavale in particular is interesting enough to make me idly wonder what the film would have looked like if it had been built around him, with Pacino in the supporting role. Likewise, I thought Jennifer Garner did better work in her first scene here than in the entirety of Dallas Buyers Club, but that may be a matter of the aforementioned low expectations (and my general indifference to Garner).

The script isn’t nearly as sentimental as I’d feared, which is a big plus, particularly given how frequently the film’s overall approach crosses over from straightforward to on-the-nose. (The constant John Lennon tracks are more distracting than illuminating.) I never really believed the “patter” between Pacino and Bening, but I wanted to, and with a movie like this that surely has to count for something.

Run All Night (2015) image

Run All Night (2015)

★★★ / 👍

Run All Night (2015) poster

Taken meets A Walk Among The Tombstones, by way of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Often generic, sometimes absurd, and occasionally aggressively stupid, but still enjoyable. (It probably helps that I’ve avoided most of Neeson’s post-Taken output, so the formula isn’t stale for me yet.)

Unlike, say, some of Denzel Washington’s entries in the Tough Old Guy genre—and I presume most of the Neeson flicks I’ve skipped—Neeson’s character isn’t quite an unstoppable badass here, just a guy with greater-than-expected stamina who’s had lots of practice shooting people. He’s less a force of nature plowing through obstacles, and more of a survivor type who has long since pissed away most of his reasons to keep living, but whaddaya gonna do.

The number of great character actors turning in solid performances in tiny roles in this dopey little genre film—some of them single-scene cameos—puts even John Wick to shame. The action choreography emphatically does not, although it’s mostly pretty good until (as so often in these sorts of films) the final action set-piece just goes on too long to maintain tension.

The major reason I saw this movie theatrically is that it features two actors I really wish were already much bigger stars than they are: Joel Kinnaman and Common. Alas, both display the talent and charisma their earlier roles have showcased, but neither actor has much new material to work with here. At this point Kinnaman can do Working-Class Man With Ambition And A Chip On His Shoulder in his sleep. A few scenes in Run All Night made me idly wonder if Kinnaman would be a better Agent 47 than Rupert Friend—the trailer for the second Hitman movie was attached to this one—but I wouldn’t really want his career to go in that direction. Common actually does play a professional hitman in this film, and acquits himself as well as possible, considering the script requires him to engage in fisticuffs with a man decades older than himself, and to consistently display worse marksmanship than your average Star Wars Stormtrooper.

The Equalizer (2014) image

The Equalizer (2014)

★★★ / 👎

The Equalizer (2014) poster

Former “Agency” operative and widower finds peace in civilian life through a combination of bibliotherapy, community engagement, and vigilantism.

This version of Robert McCall—bearing virtually no similarities to the Edward Woodward television series—eschews firearms, instead employing a variety of improvised weapons to carry out his many kills. By the climax, the movie effectively becomes a slasher film, with Washington as the offscreen-teleporting remorseless killer, picking off doomed Russian mobsters one by one. (He contemplates a man he’s just hanged with razor wire as dispassionately as The Shape admired his handiwork in Halloween.)

The film is absurdly overlong for its thin premise, but it only really drags when Fuqua overindulges in the slow-motion power walks. All the actors, from Washington on down, give better performances than the material deserves.

Birdman (2014) image

Birdman (2014)

★★★ / 👍

Birdman (2014) poster

You know, I’m a total sucker for this sort of thing. I prefer Opening Night to A Woman Under The Influence, Brewster McCloud to Nashville, and even Friz Freleng’s “Show Biz Bugs” to Chuck Jones’ “Duck Amuck.” I liked much of Birdman, and think that it’s more self-aware than a lot of people acknowledge. But even I wouldn’t have given it four Oscars. (Or at least, not the ones it received.)