movie reviews December 2015

Victor frankensteinBrooklynchi-raqThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2in the heart of the seasistersconcussionthe big shortspotlight

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Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Although it sounds like the name of a yet another movie about precocious teen performers, the title of the latest Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Cobbler) film, Spotlight, mercifully refers to the special investigative squad of The Boston Globe. Written with painstaking detail by McCarthy and Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), the script adheres to the rules of straightforward storytelling, proving that there’s still a need in the world for this type of movie, as well as the type of rigorous journalism it puts on view.

Notwithstanding a short flashback at the beginning of the movie, the action is firmly set in 2001—the height of hostile corporate takeovers of city newspapers resulting in newsroom cutbacks and layoffs. So it’s with much rightful anxiety that the staff of the venerable Boston newspaper meets its new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), of late from the Miami Herald. Not to fear, however, the veteran newsman and ultimate Boston outsider, is interested in investigating local topics regardless of the consequences to local politics or the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which is arguably the most influential institution in the city.

Not wanting to ruffle any native feathers, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), a homegrown political reporter who leads the newspaper’s Spotlight Team, resists Baron’s suggestion to follow up on a column about a local priest charged with abusing children. Nevertheless, Robinson gives the go-ahead for initial research — some of the team’s investigations have taken up to a year — to his team: Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams).

What follows is a tense, brick-by-brick corroboration of Baron’s initial hunch. At first, he seems to be the only one willing to speculate that this case might not be an isolated incident. It takes corroboration from another Boston outsider, the maverick lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who specializes in representing survivors of sexual abuse, along with the distressing personal accounts from survivors willing to go public such as Joe (Michael Cyril Creighton) and Patrick (Jimmy LeBlanc).

The magic of “Spotlight” the investigative team is the same for Spotlight the movie. In their steadfast refusal to embellish, they both build a solid case, expanding the scope until it involves almost a hundred priests and the upper echelon of Boston society and the Catholic Church. Never grandstanding, there are no speeches about the importance of a free press. In fact, McCarthy makes a point to ground the reporters: Pfeiffer has difficulty loading a dishwasher, Rezendes gets Garabedian to spill secrets about addenda to court documents over lunch eaten out of a Tupperware container on a sidewalk bench.

As interesting as the inner, sometimes-humdrum workings of the case are —there’s even an entire jittery scene where the cameras follow rulers sliding down books of spreadsheets — it’s the redemption of the outsiders, not just Baron and Garabedian, but also Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), the organizer of the New England Chapter of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and previously dismissed by the Globe and Robinson, in particular, as a crank, that seems to be merely mentioned, though it hits hardest. Perhaps there’s room for some grandstanding after all. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 01/03/15)

The Big Short
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Purveyor of comedic pap, Adam McKay (Step Brothers, Anchorman) might be the director voted least likely to deliver a sharp, dark comedy that skillfully illustrates the recent collapse of the global economy. But here it is, a wised-up chimera that combines documentary techniques with powerhouse performances and postmodern flourishes to explain, as a moral duty, the forces behind the collapse of the U.S. housing market, and the outliers who benefited from it.

With the help of Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs, The Interpreter), McKay has adapted nonfiction bestseller Michael Lewis’ book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” into this coked-up primer on bad banking practices. It’s not heartfelt like The Blind Side, or a snoozer full of statistics that runs out of steam before the championship, like in Moneyball; it’s a timeline of events in the guise of an amusement park ride.

The movie owes its success to telling its story in nontraditional ways, mostly thanks to editor Hank Corwin, who reveals an impeccable sense for comedic timing. He finds just the right pop culture references to highlight the movie’s momentum, which at times he brings to a complete standstill — the equivalent of knocking the needle off the record — when McKay desires to focus on salient points.

You don’t have to understand credit-default swaps, collateralized debt obligations or C.D.O.s to follow along: McKay enlists random cameos from the likes of Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain to break through the fourth wall to explain them to you. (But if you really want to find out about the corrupt manipulations behind the housing collapse, you could watch 2010’s informative documentary Inside Job.)

The Big Short requires only that you follow its principals — narrator and douchebag extraordinaire Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling); hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and team (Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong); striving upstarts Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and their neighbor, ex-trader turned paranoid, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt); and especially Dr. Michael Burry, an economics savant with Asperger’s and a glass eye, played by Christian Bale. They’re the small band of oddballs, though they don’t know actually know each other, who bet the banks that the supposedly rock-solid housing mortgage bond assets will fail, which is the “big short” of the title.

In their single-minded pursuit of a payday, despite knowing the devastation it will cause for the average American, these men are as greedy as the despicable proto-bros of The Wolf of Wall Street. At one point, Geller and Shipley talk about the $30 million they’ve made from investments as chump change. They shouldn’t be sympathetic, yet in their dissent with the banks, their rigorous investigations, such as when Baum and entourage visit a derelict new subdivision in Florida or a sight-impaired employee of a bond rating agency (Melissa Leo), and their facility to prognosticate by looking at columns of numbers, particularly Burry, and keep their faith despite the still-rigged system, you can’t help but root for them. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/30/15)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Concussion leaves viewers feeling as if writer-director Peter Landesman (Parkland, Kill the Messenger) had personally whacked them in the head with a 2X4, relentlessly for two hours and three minutes. Landesman's pummeling is so unceasing that he almost leaves viewers indifferent about a troubling and urgent subject.

Football is such an integral part of American culture that religion and just about everything else becomes secondary. As Albert Brooks jokes in one of the film's few witty moments, the NFL is practically enshrined in the Constitution. "They own a day of the week," he laments.

Much of the appeal of football is that is violent and dangerous. What fun would it be to go Arrowhead if the Chiefs could make it to the ends without encountering some resistance?

Broken bones have been standard operating procedure, but in 2002, the Nigerian-born American doctor Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovered an additional cost for gridiron glory.

As portrayed in Concussion, Omalu is an observant, if unorthodox, neuropathologist. When former Pittsburgh Steelers greats like Mike Webster (David Morse) wind up in the city morgue where he works, these men, in their 30s and 40s, have the sort of brain impairments that might normally be found in elderly patients with advanced Alzheimer's.

Omalu documents the phenomenon in the journal Neurosurgery and dubs it Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In a just world, the NFL would immediately institute reforms and ensure that situations like Webster's were a thing of the past.

Sadly, had that been the case, there wouldn't have been a damning article called “Game Brain” by GQ journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas nor a mediocre film based on it. Landesman follows Laskas' outline but manages to shortchange the impact of her reporting.

The information that's come out since the her 2009 article is even more damning of the NFL (an NFL-funded study published immediately after hers backed up Omalu's conclusions), but Landesman's monotonous, languid pacing prevents Concussion from building any sense of momentum. Unlike the equally serious Spotlight and the darkly funny The Big Short, Concussion mopes its way to its grim conclusion.

As played by Smith, Omalu comes off as so virtuous that he might be able to resurrect the bodies he examines. Thankfully, Smith quietly projects the intelligence necessary to play a neuropathologist. In real life, the future actor turned down a scholarship to MIT, so it's not surprising he's at home reciting jargon. He also projects a sense of authority that makes some of Omalu's seemingly quixotic but justified efforts believable.

Time has validated Omalu's work, so it gets annoying when NFL flacks are universally depicted as bellowing tyrants. Because they are presented is such a cardboard manner, they seem too ridiculous to be credible villains.

In Laskas' article, she reveals that the NFL shortchanged Webster repeatedly toward the end of his life even though it was painfully obvious he had suffered irreversible damage from his 15-year career.

Speaking of cardboard, Alec Baldwin, who plays Dr. Julian Bailes, a former NFL doctor and Omalu's top ally, approaches the role as if he were only asked to look dour. In scene after scene, Baldwin slowly pouts and whispers his lines as if the script had forbidden him from doing anything but brooding.

Albert Brooks has a little more luck as Omalu's boss Dr. Cyril Wecht. Sadly, there's not much of him. Wecht has a fascinating career of his own, having examined the deaths of Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy. His story might have been more interesting than the one presented here.

Because of Landesman's heavy-handed approach, viewers become numb to Omalu's tragic discovery and the NFL's relentless denial of the harm that has been done. Movies should pull on a viewer's emotions, not their endorphins. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 12/27/15)

Haiku Review

Movies should pull on
an audience's emotions,
not their endorphins.

Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

It takes a little while before Tina Fey and Amy Poehler form their characters — the sisters Kate and Maura Ellis — enough that it seems what they’re portraying is something more than a 3-minute SNL skit.

We’re introduced to Kate, an out-of-work hairdresser and single mother about to be evicted from a friend’s couch, while she’s brutalizing a customer’s eyebrows. Phil, played by Chris Parnell, one of many recognizable faces in Sisters, doesn’t know that the easily distracted Kate is altering his appearance — for the worse. Kate, obviously, is the wild, live-by-your-wits sister.

Her sister Maura, the responsible do-gooder, always seems to think people need her help including a sidewalk-resting utility worker on his lunch break she mistakes for a homeless man or a hospitalized old man terrified at having his genital area rubbed with body cream.

Where the film is headed is revealed when parents Bucky and Deana Ellis (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) announce they are selling the childhood home. Appalled at the prospect of having their childhood memories taken over by strangers, Kate and Maura band together to try and stop the sale. While recounting pass experiences and fondling things they played with when growing up in their former bedrooms, the sisters decide to have party, reverse roles and let Maura’s “freak fly” while Kate plays the overseeing “mom.”

When shopping for the party, Kate and Maura run into high school nemesis Brinda, played by SNL alum Maya Rudolph. In a hilarious exchanges of one-up put-downs in a grocery store, Brinda feels hurt and angry that she has not been invited to the party, an event that now the entire town seems to know about. Brinda, not surprisingly, will attend with or without an invitation.

Stopping at a salon to fine-tune for the party, Maura encourages Kate to apply for a job. But even promising to text photos of her boobs to the owner doesn’t get Kate much consideration. As Maura is getting her nails done, she asks the young Korean woman her name. As both Maura and Hae-Won (Greta Lee) struggle to correctly pronounce each other’s name, the hilarity of their attempts increases amid the forced politeness of the endeavor. It is one of the funniest bits of comedy put on film.

Things really roll at the party. Maura has the hots for next-door hunk James (Ike Barinholtz) and during a near sexual encounter manages to light his crouch on fire and leaving him with a posterior problem involving a music box. Kate asks Dave (John Leguizamo) to use his street connections to bring in a little pot. Fulfilling the request is overly tattooed, heavily muscled, macho-man Pazuzu (John Cena). Kate immediately begins to want him. Meanwhile, Brinda is taking revenge by way of paint after being thrown out and Alex, played by Bobby Moynihan of SNL, finds a stash of some heavy-duty drugs making the formerly insecure Alex totally unrestrained.

Increasingly the house is destroyed, people lose whatever inhibitions they had pre-party, the cops come and go without doing anything, and some viewing the film secretly wish they had been invited to the party as an extra. The fun is contagious and in the end the sale cancelled and Kate and Maura grow up some.

Sisters is a very funny film despite the crude sexual content and language throughout, and a good holiday antidote against the troubles of the world. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/23/15)

In the Heart of the Sea
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Based on Nathaniel Philbrick's National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard's film of the same name depicts the 1820 sinking of the American whaling ship Essex by a huge sperm whale, reportedly one of the inspirations for Herman Melville's 1851 classic American novel Moby-Dick. Howard surely has only the best intentions here — to produce a traditional, family-friendly, sea-faring film with a literary pedigree — but it's these elements that ultimately sink this rickety vessel, imbuing what should be a gripping survival story with all the drama and power of a ship in a bottle.

Exploiting the Melville cachet, screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) fabricates a corny framing story in which young Melville (Ben Whishaw), desperate for inspiration, visits one of the few survivors of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who 30 years later, has never breathed a word of the experience and suffers silently from undiagnosed PTSD. Unfortunately, on screen, Nickerson's tale rarely rises above cliché.

While Howard's underrated 2013 film Rush plumbed the psychological depths of two driven Formula One drivers with very different personalities and motivations, Leavitt's script delivers little more than types: experienced commoner first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) who has been passed over for captain in favor of the inexperienced but well-born George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Hemsworth, so successful as the brash James Hunt in Rush, portrays Chase as little more than a chiseled jaw, a furrowed brow, and a laughable faux-New England accent. In fact, with so many cries of "Ahoy" and other well-worn nautical dialogue, the film frequently teeters on the brink of kitsch.

Perhaps to make up for the creaky script, Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle pour a great deal of energy into visuals. However, the quick cuts and whiplash camera movements that worked so well at capturing the frenetic action of the racetrack rarely translates to a ship. Scene after scene is undermined by a barrage of low-angle shots, swooping boom-mounted pans, and abrupt zooms that fill the screen.

More successful are the painterly images that Mantle achieves, drawing inspiration from well-known contemporaneous 19th century romantic paintings such as Géricault's “The Raft of the Medusa” and the seascapes of Winslow Homer and J.M.W. Turner. The script even adds the sinking ship bursting into flame, echoing Turner's “A Disaster at Sea” and “The Shipwreck of the Minotaur.”

Howard and company occasionally get beyond romanticized notions of whaling, including gritty, uncomfortable scenes of a whaleboat crew being showered as a harpooned whale's spray turns to blood and of the young Nickerson (Tom Holland) being shoved unceremoniously down a blowhole to ladle out the greasy contents of the beast’s skull. Far too often, though, such as when cannibalism emerges among the Essex's survivors, Howard politely turns away, letting characters in the frame story summarize such cruel realities rather than risk offending his genteel (or Oscar-voting) audience.

Despite occasional on-the-nose suggestions of a parallel between the relentless pursuit of whale oil and the coming 20th century's global assault on the environment for fossil fuel, Howard's whale, unlike Melville's protean symbol, remains strictly an earth-bound creation, and as such, perhaps a suitable metaphor for the entire production. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/15/15)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

It’s likely that the fourth and final installment of the Hunger Games, directed artlessly by Frank Lawrence in his third turn at the series, will satisfy only the most fundamentalist of the novel’s fans. Devoid of color, character and dramaturgy, the movie is merely a delivery system for points of plot, as if the script, written by screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong, and overseen by the best-selling YA novelist Suzanne Collins herself, were one long checklist of incidents merely to be gotten through in the allotted running time.

By trading moments for occurrences, director Lawrence sacrifices dramatization, which he then tries to make up for with exposition. Scenes and locations flicker by; in one moment, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is playing a form of Russian roulette with a P.O.W. from District 2, the next she’s running with a small band of outlaws from elaborate booby-traps and canine zombies in the rubble of the Capitol. At full speed, the actors hit their marks and one by one are incinerated on the spot. The only way those who haven’t read the books can keep up with this hectic pace filled with anonymous carnage is by paying attention to the intense and extremely unnatural conversations inserted between each action scene, most likely when Katniss regains consciousness in the hospital.

But most of all, viewers should mourn the loss of the pageantry that filled so much of the first two episodes. Not just the outrageous, confectionary fashions of the residents of the Capitol, but the spectacle of the Culling, the presentation of the Tributes and the behind-the-scenes production of the Hunger Games. They gave form and purpose to the earlier parts of the story, supplying eye candy as well as sly irony. Who didn’t love seeing Katniss’ skirt go up in flames, and then immediately feel implicated by that pleasure?

Of course, this is war, a civil war led by a rebel alliance at that, but the media, in the form of the propaganda shots called “propos,” which had played such a large part of the third film, is all but forgotten. In a throwaway line, the frosty president of the rebels (Julianne Moore), who in monochrome pastel pantsuits belonging more to the futuristic aesthetic of the ‘70s than this dystopian future, lays out to ambivalent public relations guru Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) how they can use Katniss’ rebellion to their advantage. With that, how can you not figure out whom the movie is going to reveal as the real villain? The clothes always give it away. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/08/15)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Stories become classics, not because they’re written on stone or rotting paper, but because the problems that inspired them still haven’t gone away. That’s certainly the case with Aristophanes’ 411 BCE play Lysistrata, which lamented the futility of war. Oh, and there are lots of dirty parts in it, too.

In the play, the women of Sparta and Athens unite to force the men in their communities to stop fighting. Led by the title character, the ladies subdue the men’s urge to fight by denying them sex.

Considering the fact that more Americans have died in the streets of Chicago than the number of American Special Forces troops in both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s no wonder that Spike Lee has looked backward for a solution.

Lee and KU professor Kevin Willmott (who has directed Destination: Planet Negro and CSA) move Lysistrata (played here by Teyonah Parris) to the Windy City with all of the raunch, outrage and humor intact with Chi-Raq. Lee and Willmott do nothing to hide the origins of the tale. To drive the point home, Lee even has Samuel L. Jackson speaking as a sort of Greek chorus explaining why the film features rhymed speech and exaggerated characters.

Considering the urgency of the situation in the film’s setting, subtlety would be a vice instead of a virtue.

While Lysistrata may enjoy intimacy with her wannabe rapper of a boyfriend Demetrius, who goes by Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), she’s getting tired of people in his gang the Spartans and their rivals the Trojans killing each other, and any bystanders unlucky enough to be nearby. When a young mother (Jennifer Hudson) wonders why no one has turned in the killer of her daughter, Lysistrata begins to wonder if her man is much of a prize despite his tattoos and musculature.

A wise neighbor (Angela Bassett) informs Lysistrata that women in Liberia, led by Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, helped bring an end to that country’s horrific 14-year civil war in 2003 by using a sex strike. Deciding that America has tolerated this sort of violence for too long, she decides to imitate the campaign, which quickly goes viral.

Soon the women who have previously been romancing the Spartans are following the Trojan ladies’ abstinence. Demand for the prophylactics of the same name instantly plummets. Soon Chi-Raq and the Spartans’ leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, with an appropriate eye-patch) go from being feared gangsters to impotent figureheads as every male, gay or straight, is forced into celibacy.

Despite the banter and the allusions to ancient culture, the message is still simple: Nobody benefits from all of this bloodshed. Lee and Willmott have characters, like an eccentric Catholic priest played by John Cusack, yelling till their voices are hoarse trying to drive the point home. Thankfully, all the pontificating comes with some genuinely witty wordplay that keeps the sermon from getting pompous. It’s worth a chuckle to find out that one disgruntled male with a mother fixation is named Oedipus.

It certainly helps that Lee has assembled a deep cast who can handle the stylized dialogue fluently. Parris, in particular, spouts her lines with an authority that makes Lysistrata’s demands seem like scripture. She can walk in heels in a manner that makes her seem like she was born to lead.

It’s also refreshing to see Cannon demonstrate that he can play characters who are more than brash and callow. There’s a hidden vulnerability buried under all of Chi-Raq’s muscles, and it takes someone as wise and desirable as Lysistrata to make him realize it.

Lee sometimes bellows his assertions long after viewers have already gotten the idea. Some of the speeches go on so long that the film comes to a standstill. That said, Lee and Aristophanes before him recognize that the issues have vexed our ancestors are systemic. Thankfully, as Gbowee and the women of Ancient Greece have shown, the solutions can be more than ancient history (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/02/15)


Spike Lee returns to
ancient Greece to fix today’s
needless waste of life.

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

In this moving adaptation of Colm Toibín's 2009 novel Brooklyn, director John Crowley follows the long-held writer's axiom "show, don't tell," largely through the masterful, nuanced performance of Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey, a twenty-something Irish immigrant in 1950’s New York, struggling to find her place in the world.

Eilis’ new life in America has been arranged by older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and facilitated stateside by a sympathetic Irish priest (Jim Broadbent), who lines up lodging at a boarding house and employment at a department store cosmetic counter. Like most of the developments in Brooklyn, the move is bittersweet, freeing Eilis from the dead-end part-time job and numbingly routine social life of tiny Enniscorthy, but burdening her with an almost debilitating homesickness for her sister and mother that seems to undermine all attempts to get along in this new world.

Eilis receives plenty of advice and counseling, from the sharp-tongued landlady (Julie Walters) and boy-obsessed fellow boarding house residents to self-possessed department manager Miss Fortini (Mad Men's Jessica Paré). Two developments, however, hint to Eilis that she might actually find a place in this new life: a bookkeeping night class at the local college and a charming young Italian plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen), with whom she falls in love.

The changes in Eilis are gradual, registering subtly on screen: a slightly bluer patch of sky among the trees, a brighter tone in Eilis’ wardrobe, and a more colorful palate in the exterior backgrounds. They are also revealed in Ronan‘s performance as her face, her gait, even her posture is incrementally transformed. Some of Brooklyn’s finest moments occur when nothing much is happening.

When tragedy calls her back home, Eilis realizes how much her circumstances have changed. No longer the wallflower who left Enniscorthy behind, Eilis now finds herself the stylish, confident center of attention, rediscovering the town’s modest pleasures while garnering the affections of a local boy (Domhnall Gleeson) who has grown into a sensitive and eligible suitor.

The lure of the familiar is strong, and Eilis is faced with a heart-rending decision, a decision that gets at the inescapable choices about home and identity all of us face — and the doubts that inevitably linger in their wake. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/02/15)

Victor Frankenstein
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Victor Frankenstein feels less like a labor of love than like a film school exercise: take a hoary old cinema convention and reinvent it. In the quest to bring new life to their subject, director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Max Landis have lopped, chopped, added and rearranged so many elements to the Frankenstein story that it emerges on screen a lumbering, albeit occasionally interesting, mess of loosely stitched together parts.

This time around, Frankenstein and his creation aren’t even the main characters. Despite the film's title, this story is told from the perspective of hunchbacked lab assistant Igor, the now-archetypal horror figure absent from Mary Shelley's 1818 novel that emerged through the Universal Studios Frankenstein films of the thirties and forties. And he’s given a backstory right out of a Lon Chaney movie: deformed circus clown humiliated on stage for laughs carries torch for beautiful aerialist.

Unwilling to leave well enough alone, however, Landis makes the hunchback an autodidact as well, studying medical books and making detailed anatomical sketches by candlelight during breaks under the big top. How an itinerant cripple in 19th century London would have come by literacy, let alone medical texts, is glossed over, as is an explanation of why, despite the troupe's contempt and cruelty toward him, Igor is trusted as circus medic.

On a visit to scout animal parts for his experiments, med student Frankenstein (James McAvoy) immediately recognizes a fellow medical genius and rescues Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) from his servitude in a scene that, with its speed-ramping action beats and Victorian locale, resembles Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films. As the remainder of Victor Frankenstein unfolds, it becomes clear that Victor and Igor are being developed, like Ritchie's Holmes and Watson, as a sort of action duo.

As director of several of BBC's Sherlock episodes, perhaps McGuigan comes by this honestly. Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra), however, seems to be grasping for anything that might bring life to the proceedings. In a film where simply teaming up to reanimate a corpse would be plot enough, Landis tosses in a romance between Igor and trapeze artist Lorelei (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay); a childhood secret and a disapproving father for Frankenstein; a fey, wealthy fellow med student (Freddie Fox) with designs on super-villainy; and a hyper-religious Scotland Yard detective played by Andrew Scott (Moriarty on BBC’s Sherlock), all briefly introduced then left undeveloped.

Perhaps the most interesting update Landis contributes is a homoerotic subtext for the relationship between these two experimental “partners.” On first arriving home from the circus rescue, Frankenstein rips off Igor’s shirt, grabs him by his misshapen shoulders, and pressing from behind, shoves the hunchback's finally erect body against the wall, savagely piercing his exposed hump with a huge hypodermic and sucking the attached tubing to begin siphoning the pus (turns out Igor has woefully misdiagnosed his own condition). Later, in a nod to Bride of Frankenstein’s Dr. Pretorious, Frankenstein harangues a table of mortified society ladies about a new world where the female is irrelevant to the reproductive process.

Unfortunately any chemistry between the two leads is undermined by their inexplicably incompatible acting styles. Early on, behind Pagliacci makeup, Radcliffe's hunchback evokes a gentle sympathy; straightened out and dressed up, however, he tends to fade into the background. Frankenstein, on the other hand, McAvoy (Filth, X-Men: First Class) has the volume turned to '11,' all spraying spittle and lunatic grins.

Having wasted so many story elements, the film’s momentum ultimately relies on our anticipation of the creature’s appearance, which offers far too little far too late and feels like an obligatory cameo by a character that used to be at the center of this story. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/02/15)


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Mike Ireland can be contacted at


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