Victor Frankenstein (2015)

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fourstar

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“You know their story . . .”

In the press/apology tour for Victor Frankenstein (critics have not been kind), director Paul McGuigan has been quoted as saying that Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is “dull as dishwater“, not a surprising sentiment in light of how his film approaches its source material. Victor Frankenstein has the same reverence for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has for its Brothers Grimm origins. It’s so distanced from the novel, in fact, that I didn’t spot a single mention given to Mary Shelly in the final credits. Not even a “characters by” shout-out. Oddly enough, I think it’s that exact flippant approach to the now classic horror tale that makes the film an enjoyable (and mostly intentional) camp fest. Well, that & over-the-top performances from James McAvoy as the mad scientist Frankenstein, Daniel Radcliffe as the groveling Igor, and Andrew Scott as a soft spoken police inspector on a mission from God.

At first, it seems as though Victor Frankenstein doesn’t bring any new ideas to the table for a property that’s been already adapted for the screen roughly 50,000 times (including last year’s dismal I, Frankenstein). McAvoy’s feverish, spit-flinging performance is inspired in terms of camp value, but the movie’s early declarations like, “Life is temporary, so why should death be any different?” and “The world remembers the monster, but not the man . . , But sometimes the monster is the man,” aren’t particularly fresh, but rather a stitched-together homunculus made of old leftover movie parts. Eventually, however, a clear narrative appears. As the God-fearing police investigator starts butting heads with Frankenstein, it becomes clear that the film is a campy battle between Atheism vs. Christianity, Science vs. Faith. The policeman is incensed that the mad scientist is on a mission “to create life in direct, violent action against God,” claiming that he’s “in allegiance with Satan.” Frankenstein snaps back, “There is no Satan, no God, no me.” This aspect of the film is obsessively explored to the point that is plays as 100% sincere, but ultimately feels just as ridiculous as any of its outright horror comedy gags.

Half-cooked philosophy aside, there’s plenty of goofy charms that make the film surprisingly enjoyable as a camp fest. An early origin story for Igor that features Harry Potter crouched over in heavy clown make-up works as literal bread & circuses. Moving the narrative from a remote castle to the inner city gives it a distinct Tim Burton tone, particularly the movie Sweeney Todd. The film’s costume design is gorgeous (especially in the love interest & Downton Abbey vet Jessica Brown Findlay’s dresses & McAvoy’s vests), but the rest of the imagery is absurdly nasty. Grotesque practical effects surrounding bodily horror like eyes & other organs suspended in jars, steam punk medical tools, abscess fluid, and an early Frankenstein monster prototype (a chimp-esque “meat sculpture” homunculus made of dead animal parts) are all pitch perfect in their absurdity. The actual Frankenstein monster almost feels like a last-minute afterthought, but is ultimately satisfying in its design, looking like a mutant pro wrestler or Goro, the big boss character from Mortal Kombat, except with extra internal organs instead of extra limbs. Ultimately, though, it’s the over-the-top acting of its three heads that sell the movie as an absurdist slice of mindless entertainment.

It’s difficult to say if this was an intentional element to the movie’s  Max Landis screenplay, but the film also has an interesting level of homosexual subtext in the relationship between Igor & his master, which manifests both in subtle moments of body language & romantic jealousy as well as more obvious moments like when Frankenstein shouts about sperm in the only scene where he’s shown conversing with women. Again, it’s difficult to tell if this was Landis’ screenplay or McAvoy & Radcliffe’s performances in action, but it’s just another element in play to a surprisingly enjoyable film with an already-negative reputation due to its indifference for its source material & flights of ugly frivolity. Victor Frankenstein‘s latent homosexuality (which really does stretch just beyond the bounds of bromance), laughable atheism, and grotesque body humor all play like they were written in a late-night, whiskey-fuelled stupor, the same way the film’s monster was constructed by the titular mad scientist drunk & his perpetually terrified consort.  I know I’m alone here, but my only complaint about this film is that it could’ve pushed its more  ridiculous territory even further from Mary Shelly’s original vision, with Victor planting wet kisses on Igor’s cheeks & Rocky Horror‘s “In just seven days, I can make you a man . . .” blaring on the soundtrack.

-Brandon Ledet

American Ultra (2015)

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fourstar

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It’s not exactly accurate to say that the bloody stoner action comedy American Ultra is completely without precedent. It’s at the very least possible to see echoes of the film telegraphed in properties as wide in range as Pineapple Express, Hot Fuzz, Hitman, Spy, Clerks, MacGruber, and the Borne franchise. What we have here instead of a wildly idiosyncratic picture without predecessor is the distinct sense that director Nima Nourizadeh & writer Max Landis have a deep love & appreciation for movies, especially for the violent action comedy as a genre. American Ultra currently isn’t doing so hot in terms of ticket sales or critical reception, but it has the makings of a future cult classic (like a Near Dark or a John Dies at the End) written all over it, because that love for irreverent action cinema shines through so brightly. Although Landis has been recently been making an ass of himself on Twitter complaining about the lack of immediate returns on a screenplay he’s obviously proud of, he can at least take solace in the fact that future blood-thirsty stoners will be greedily streaming his film on loop as they reach for the nearest bong & nod off in their respective piles of empty two liter bottles & Cheetos.

Plotted over just three event-filled days, American Ultra follows the panic attack stricken stoner/amateur cartoonist Mike Howell as he transforms from a pathetic loser to an inhumanly capable killing machine assassin. Played by Jesse Eisenberg with the exact neurotic fragility you’d expect from a performance from Jesse Eisenberg, Mike is a pitiable weakling who relies on the emotional strength of his partner-in-crime stoner girlfriend Phoebe Larson (played by Kristen Stewart, of whom I’m becoming a not-so-secret dedicated fan) for any & all basic life functions. What Mike doesn’t know is that his frailty is actually a safeguard invented by the government to protect his well-being (and potential danger to others) as a discarded “asset” (read: killing machine assassin). Once Mike is re-activated by a well-meaning CIA agent gone rogue he finds himself capable of killing even the most menacing of threats (including other “assets”) with items as ordinary as dust pans, cookware, extension chords, and spoons, when he was just minutes ago not capable of doing much more than rolling joints & tending a corner store cash register.

What’s so unique about American Ultra is its ability to avoid the more pedestrian lines of thought you’d expect from that kind of plot. For instance, Phoebe is much, much more than the girlfriend accessory you’d expect from a male-helmed action film. Her role is constantly active & vital to the surprisingly layered plot, making for a deeply engaging love story once the full details of her relationship with Mike is revealed. Besides Phoebe’s active role & the satisfying romance narrative, the film also surprises in its distinct style of comedy. Although there’s no shortage of glib jokes on hand, most of the successful humor is anchored in its over-the-top violence. American Ultra is shockingly violent, completely giddy in its comic blood lust. It’s likely that audiences’ mileage may vary depending on the viewer’s love of action movie gore, but I personally had a really fun time with the film’s outrageous brutality.

The movie’s standard action movie palette of G-men, satellite surveillance, and drone strikes may not scream the height of creativity, but there’s plenty to play with between the lines to make it a unique property (besides propensity for violence & an active female lead). American Ultra‘s very specific world of CGI pot smoke, black light dungeons, illegal fireworks, bruised & beaten leads (despite action films’ tendency to show their battered heroes with only the lightest of scratches), and refreshing ability to shoot extended sequences in grocery stores without succumbing to grotesque product placement all pose it as the kind of distinctive property destined to gain a cult audience likely to overshadow the narrative of its lackluster theater run. Max Landis might be squirming (or, more accurately, throwing a temper tantrum) over what’s currently perceived as a commercial (and critically middling) failure, but I believe a little patience will eventually lead to American Ultra finding its proper (drug-addled, gore-loving) audience, who are perhaps currently a little too intoxicated to make the trek to the cinema.

-Brandon Ledet