The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

What makes a film timeless? Is it the fact that it itself has lasted through time or the fact that its elements are unchanging through the years? For instance, Shakespeare’s plays are timeless because they touch on the human nature we still exhibit, not because their verse remains the predominant style of today.

I kept asking myself this question during my screening of The Bride of Frankenstein, heralded by many to be one of the greatest horror films of all time. Is really a timeless film? Yes, it has lasted, but few films seem so dated. There is no such thing as subtlety in this motion picture, only an overdose of gothic-flavored melodrama, and I’m convinced that this Bride would be considered disastrous if made today.

Starting as a conversation between Mary Shelley, her husband, and Lord Byron (how Frankenstein was born), the female Shelley brags about how the story of the original film isn’t over. There’s a recap of that movie’s events, and then we pick up where we left off. Henry Frankenstein is getting better, and the monster didn’t die in the fire. Eventually, it is determined by Frankenstein’s peculiar mentor, Doctor Septimus Pretorius, that the only reasonable course of action is to give the monster a wife.

That monster, now gifted with speech by Boris Karloff, has to survive in the wilderness, depending on the kindness of strangers. He begins to develop emotionally, and by the time the film has ended, he’s making conscious choices. Yes, his lines are akin to cavemen (“Friend?” and “She hate me” factor into the finale), but there’s something tragic and sympathetic about him, as I said in the original’s review.

Everything else, and I do mean pretty much everything, is borderline ridiculous. The performances are stagey and emotive, to the point of comedy. The bride acts like a malfunctioning animatronic. Doctor Pretorius is an utterly devilish caricature. With a reputation like this film maintains, I was truly expecting at least another Dracula.

But alas, this film, as a film, is not as great as I heard. It bears very little resemblance to the human condition, save for in the monster (oddly), but… I now understand how it has stood the test of time.

All those criticisms I mentioned? Well, whether or not they were intentional, this is an extremely enjoyable motion picture.

2.5 Green

The Bride of Frankenstein is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Behold, the Tim Burton film that wasn’t actually directed by Tim Burton.

Not that I care, of course. It was still his idea.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of those films that is virtually incomparable, even 23 years after its release, and that’s because there’s still nothing else like it. The atmosphere is distinct, the characters are uniquely designed, and the premise is nothing shy of brilliant.

It centers on Jack Skellington, the slender, skinless “pumpkin king” of Halloween Town. He’s tired of their routine celebrations, and as he wanders in the woods, he finds the doors to all the major (American) holidays, being sucked into Christmas Town. Amazed at the wonder of it, Jack ends up taking over the town, which then results in Santa Claus being kidnapped by the evil Oogie Boogie man. Jack soon decides he must right his wrongs and save Santa Claus for the sake of all the children of the world awaiting his presents.

In all the years I’ve been watching this film, I can’t say the plot has ever been my favorite. The premise, yes, but not the plot. I love the idea of there being a Christmas Town and all, but the villain in Oogie Boogie has always been a tad lame. He just seems tacked on to the end, but then again, this is a children’s film, and they’re more forgiving of these things. I’ve always been more interested in how developed this world is, how each detail has its own little miracle of an oddity. That is what makes this film unlike any other, the fact that few worlds can match this one’s inventiveness. When considering the marvelous stop-motion animation involved, there’s no reason to criticize any flaws this film may have.

In my mind, something as singular as this film is worthy of all the praise it could ever receive.

4 Green

The Nightmare Before Christmas will be showing on Freeform’s 13 Nights of Halloween.

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Frankenstein (1931)

This film starts with a warning about how scary it’s going to be, and I actually found that kind of amusing. In my opinion, the film wasn’t that scary at all, even in the old sense.

This Frankenstein, regardless, is viewed as the definitive one, and not only because the other adaptations have been so lackluster. Boris Karloff’s monster is the kind of excellent performance that trumps every comparison, and the line of “IT’S ALIIIIIIIVE!” is one of the most recognizable lines in film history.

The problem is I thought this would be more about the monster, and it was mostly about its creator, here named Henry (not Victor). The mad scientist is accepted as a bit of a distant lunatic, and yet there’s still a love story packed into the 70ish minutes of this film. I wasn’t sure if there was too much packed into the brief narrative, or if the film was too short to fit everything in.

Once the monster comes to life, though, the film does too. It’s electric, no pun intended (pun intended). Boris Karloff really does embody the torture experienced by the undead creature, and he gathers more sympathy than many characters ever will. By the end, I wanted to see him put out of his misery more than anything, like a horse with a broken leg.

The finale, featuring Henry and the monster trapped in a burning mill, is a masterfully crafted piece of filmmaking, even if the rest of the story doesn’t quite live up to it. When that mill burns down, though, you can’t deny that this film is very much alive.

3 Green

Frankenstein is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

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Dracula (1931)

You really need to see this film. Consider it an essential part of your cinematic education.

Dracula is one of those films that influenced an immeasurable amount of films after it, like Star Wars with science fiction or Gone with the Wind for epic romances. It still manages to keep a little under the radar, but I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula.

The film, I read, is based on a 1924 stage play, which was loosely based on the Bram Stoker novel. I haven’t read it (sadly), so I can’t attest to its faithfulness anyway. What I do know is that, however bland the plot may seem, the film is oddly spellbinding. The meat of the plot concerns Dracula’s move to England, where he preys on several young women before being impaled by Van Helsing, and frankly, that sounds more interesting than it should. The storyline is very “old gothic novel,” linear and droll, but I truly didn’t mind.

What makes this film so great is its sense of identity. The locations, so clearly sets, are nonetheless remarkable, and the performances are classically and endearingly theatrical. Sometimes, I just wanted to play a scene over, if only to relish in the atmosphere it creates. The real star is Lugosi, though, who exudes a charm and lust so potent, I believe he might always be the definitive Dracula. Even with the technical artistry, the film would be forgotten without him.

Clocking in at around 75 minutes, you really have no excuse.

3.5 Green

Dracula is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

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Election (1999)

Let’s address the elephant in the room—or, perhaps, the ass donkey. This film is going to remind you of the 2016 presidential election, and I doubt you’ll mind. It has an anti-establishment candidate who gets cut, a celebrity running off his own popularity, and a blonde female who has been working towards this her entire life. Oh, and a third party that tries desperately to meddle with the results. Same thing, right?

Election is the second film by Alexander Payne, one of my favorite directors (he directed The Descendants with George Clooney and Nebraska with Bruce Dern). It centers around Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde), a painfully determined high schooler running for student council president, but what most people don’t know is that she had an affair with one of her teachers, and it cost him his career. So, standing in her way is Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), a friend of that man who wants this girl to be cut down to size. Mr. McAllister arranges for an injured former quarterback to run for the spot, and before long the boy’s sister is running too.

Without getting into too many details, there is some clear election tampering that goes on in this film, and nobody comes out of it in one piece. It’s really a bit of a nail-biter, if I may say so myself, kind of like watching the polls go up and down as each ballot is counted, having no idea who’s going to win. And, as it’s set in high school, everything is more cutthroat than it would ever be in real life (or is it?).

Director Payne adds a lot of quirk and character to this film, reminding me a lot of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and in the best ways. If you’re a fan of anyone involved, you’ll love Election; and with the real-life imitation coming soon, there’s never been a better time to make your opinions heard.

3 Green

Election is available on Amazon Prime Video.

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Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)

It’s hard for a modern comedy to get a good review. Perhaps this is because “we don’t make them like we used to,” or “we don’t understand what made the old ones funny.”

A great comedy, like any great film, can be understood be anyone around the planet, speaking any language and coming from any sort of background. The physicality and situational clarity, rather than the witty lines, is what makes the Minions as enjoyable as the Three Stooges.

Keeping Up with the Joneses is by no means a great film, but it knows precisely how to make great comedy. It deals with Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher), a suburban couple with a perfectly standard life. When the new neighbors move in, however, everything they hold dear is upended. The Joneses, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Gal Godot (Wonder Woman), are flawless—and they’re spies, too, sent to uncover the source of top secret information leaks.

Part of what makes it work, like any comedy, is contrast. The straight man with the lunatic. The uptight with the scoundrel. The Joneses seem to have everything figured out, but the Gaffneys can barely keep themselves together, and it works every time. These are physical actors who use their actions rather than their words to make jokes. And if they use words, they use their bodies to complement what’s being said.

I don’t think the plot is of any real consequence here, hence the star count.  But you don’t come to comedies for the plot. You see dramas for plots and comedies for moments. And it doesn’t really have to make you laugh, so long as it makes you smile. So long as it’s pleasant, and makes you forget about life for a little while.

It’s really hard these days to make a great comedy film. Maybe it’s always been hard. But Keeping Up with the Joneses taught me that just because it’s not a great film, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good time. I had a really good time watching this film.

2.5 Green

Keeping Up with the Joneses is in theaters now.

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Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

This movie ruined my day.

I remember liking the first Jack Reacher, which also starred Tom Cruise, but I can see no reason that a sequel was necessary. The first, adapted and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), had a recognizable cast and a decent enough premise. This one, the sequel, keeps only Cruise, recycling the other elements in a lame attempt at a franchise.

Based on the 18th entry in a never-ending thriller series by Lee Child, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is about Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother) being accused of espionage. Reacher, convinced of her innocence, is drawn into the quest to prove it, all while protecting a young girl he believes may be his daughter. I have every reason to believe this adaptation is faithful to the novel, and I can only imagine it works better on the page.

The problem is I haven’t been this bored in a film all year. All the pieces add up, all the twists make a fair amount of sense, but I simply didn’t care. Each actor gives a committed and fine performance, and the production value is mostly impressive, but this is an adaptation of an airport procedural: there’s nothing under the surface except a promise for Jack Reacher to live another day. The villain is never really a threat, and people make some really convenient mistakes.

In fact, I’m not even inclined to discuss the brighter parts of this film, as buying a ticket might convince the studio to make another one. I don’t want you to see this movie.

The important people never get killed, or even hurt beyond repair. So, what’s the point? On a long flight, this might be worth it, but I feel like I wasted my afternoon. The shots fired do not raise the stakes—they just make enough noise for you to forget there were never any stakes at all.

2 Red

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is in theaters now.

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The Accountant (2016)

I can honestly say there aren’t many films like this. The problem is I’m not sure about asking for more.

The Accountant is about as steeled and calculated as its protagonist, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck, Argo). The man is an accountant, as the title suggests, but he does more than cook the average American’s books. He also manages the accounts of several criminal organizations around the globe, and he has a lifetime of combat training. When Wolff takes on a robotics company as a client, he starts to uncover a secret, and that’s when things get dangerous.

The thing that struck me about this film, even more than its precise and appealing cinematography, was the humor. In my packed screening, several people laughed out loud at all the right moments, which was something I did not expect. Christian Wolff, a matured savant, has the driest wit imaginable, paired with a perfect comic timing. And every performance, for the most part, plays off it, creating some memorable characters (Jon Bernthal, especially at the beginning, is phenomenal, and Anna Kendrick is endearing).

It’s just too bad that the good aspects of this film could not overcome its flaws. This film, despite everything, is immeasurably complicated, far more than any film needs to be. I did remain curious about certain clues in the plot, but by the end I was wondering why there were so many secrets. The third act, however competently it plays out, is a series of reveals that begins to wear you out.

The way this film was released, right in the middle of October, signifies the studio’s confidence in its chances for award season. On some levels, I could see that. This film has a lot of things going for it—Ben Affleck, a distinct tone, and a superb production design. It’s just that the plot is nearly as dense and convoluted as the taxes done by Christian Wolff.

2.5 Green

The Accountant is in theaters now.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

If the only music in the world were variations of “Moon River,” it wouldn’t be so bad.

I can’t tell you why it’s taken me so long to see this film, but when I heard that song, I knew a screening was of high priority.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the story of Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), a young, elegant woman of New York City who may or may not be a call girl. She draws the attention of the man upstairs, Paul (George Peppard, The A-Team series), who reminds her of her military brother, Fred. Holly is soft, a naïve girl who lives her life through the financial support of wealthy men, and she is drawn to their pockets almost innocently.

Paul begins to fall in love with Holly, even after learning that she may have an old husband, or that she might be running off with an affluent Brazilian. She’s just aimless, he decides, a free spirit who has in fact enslaved herself in the pursuit of absolute freedom. When she too reaches this conclusion, she makes a decision that is one of the most romantic in film history. I swear that I watched the ending again so that I might continue to feel its warmth.

Director Blake Edwards, certainly assisted by composer Henry Mancini, brought the Truman Capote novella to life in a way I could not have imagined by reading it. Yes, the film does run through a few clichés on the way to the end, mainly in stagy, melodramatic moments, but this is Old Hollywood. Movies were made like that, they just were. Racial stereotypes are also abused, as seen here with Mickey Rooney’s slapstick misfortune, Mr. Yunioshi. But maybe we should just resolve to never do that again, and move on.

In the 55 years since this film was released, Breakfast at Tiffany’s has become justifiably iconic. It’s become such a part of our culture that girls hang up posters on their wall without having seen the film. Hepburn’s Golightly was a girl ahead of her time, and perhaps her time is now. But then again, it might always be now, because that girl will never die.

4 Green

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is available on Netflix.

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The Birth of a Nation (2016)

This film has been overshadowed not by its subject, but by its star, and that is a shame.

People have always had a problem separating the art from the artist. Even if you’re a genius, as in the cases of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, there will still be detractors who see more of what is behind the camera than in front of it. Writer, director, and star of The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker, was charged with sexual assault in college, only to be cleared of it and resolve to be a better man, and yet that case is all people can think of when they discuss this film. I have opened my review this way, and that only serves my point.

When you strip away all the news, though, watching only the film, it’s worth more than people are willing to give it. Assuming Nate Parker continues to make films, I have no question that he will one day craft a masterpiece. Give him a chance.

This Birth of a Nation, chronicling the rise and fall of enslaved preacher Nat Turner, is about the trials of the oppressed. Beginning with his childhood and continuing chronologically, the film is more about the “pregnancy” than the “birth.” As a boy, Nat Turner was able to read and was thus taught the Bible, and “gifted” as he may have been, he was still chosen to be a farm hand when he matured.

As an adult, Turner was tasked with going from plantation to plantation—accompanied by his master—to preach the gospel to slaves and raise their morale. It was on these journeys that Turner witnessed the impossible cruelty exhibited toward his fellow man, and one day enough was enough. He was taught the word of the Lord, after all, and it was full of hypocrisies. Nat Turner, following the charge set forth by God, slaughtered 60 slaveowners in the span of 48 hours before being captured, hanged, and dismembered.

I cannot condone the actions depicted in this film, but I surely cannot argue their justification. As this film shows, Nat Turner was no monster. He was a man who was bent and bent until he finally broke, a man. He felt as if he had no choice.

The film itself is well made. It aims to be 12 Years a Slave, but does not have the majestic precision that comes with years of experience. It paints the characters with both sides of the brush, but still resorts to type every now and then. It’s gruesomely unsettling, but it has to be. Nate Parker, for what it’s worth, gives a magnificent performance as Turner, and Armie Hammer makes your empathy complicated.

Before the news of Nate Parker’s assault case, he was being heralded as a genius. The Birth of a Nation set the record at Sundance for the highest bid there for a motion picture, and I can see why. I don’t think anyone starts out a genius, but I do think that, with time, Nate Parker will live up to that word. This film is merely the birth of his genius.

3 Green

The Birth of a Nation is in theaters now.

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