Thursday, October 31, 2013

Culture Shock 10.31.13: Corman's 'Frankenstein Unbound' gets bargain treatment

John Hurt, left, and Nick Brimble in "Frankenstein Unbound."
While he continues to churn out movies as a producer — "Dinocroc vs. Supergator," anyone? — B-movie king Roger Corman hasn't directed a film in more than two decades.

His swan song behind the camera was 1990's "Frankenstein Unbound," based on the novel by Brian Aldiss, who also wrote the short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," which became Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." And given how "A.I." falls apart at the end, it's arguable that Corman delivered the more successful Aldiss adaptation.

Now that Starz/Anchor Bay has reissued "Frankenstein Unbound" on DVD, we can revisit Corman's final (so far) directorial effort.

In the near future, scientist Joe Buchanan (John Hurt of "Alien" and "The Elephant Man") is developing a new kind of ultimate weapon, a death ray that disintegrates armies without causing the indiscriminate destruction of nuclear weapons. It's an improvement, as far as weapons of mass destruction go, but even that thin justification for Buchanan's experiments falls apart when the side effects start.

Buchanan's not-quite-doomsday device inadvertently causes "time slips" to appear and, just as suddenly, disappear. And as the time slips become more frequent, it might be doomsday after all.

That's when Buchanan falls victim to one of the time slips, and he and his computerized car (think KITT from "Knight Rider") travel back to 19th-century Switzerland, where Buchanan encounters the future Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda), Lord Byron (Jason Patric) and their fellow British expats on the shore of Lake Geneva.

More unexpectedly, Buchanan meets Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia of "The Addams Family"), who is very much flesh and blood, as is his creature (Nick Brimble).

Buchanan is lousy at traveling incognito, and Frankenstein quickly realizes Buchanan has scientific knowledge that could be useful to him. Meanwhile, Buchanan pursues Mary Shelley like a starstruck groupie, only to find she reciprocates. Byron preaches free love, she says, but she practices it.

Like all adaptations and semi-adaptations of Shelley's novel, "Frankenstein Unbound" spends a lot of time taking shots at the hubris of scientists and science, which is a shallow reading of Shelley's book. "Frankenstein" is more about the responsibility of creator to creation. If the creature is legitimately angry about his abandonment, then what about humanity and its seemingly absent creator?

These philosophical concerns never vanish entirely. When Brimble's anguished creature demands to know who made Buchanan, Buchanan replies, "I don't know. God, maybe."

"Who is ‘God Maybe?' " the creature then asks, his misunderstanding ironically getting to the heart of the theological question.

With its Gothic setting and psychedelic dream sequences, "Frankenstein Unbound" is almost a continuation of the Poe-inspired horror films Corman made with Vincent Price in the 1960s. But while Corman was able to hide some of his cost-cutting tricks back then, that is impossible here. When "futuristic" sets are decorated with plasma balls from Spencer's Gifts, it shows, and Buchanan's futuristic car is even less convincing.

Fortunately, Corman has Hurt and Julia, two great actors giving their all, and he has a creature whose appearance is both original and menacing.

The DVD isn't much to speak of. Bargain-priced at under $10, you get what you pay for. There are no extras, not even a chapter menu, which should be the bare minimum. The film itself, however, is more than presentable, with sharp, vivid colors that bring out Corman's trippy visual sensibilities.

"Frankenstein Unbound" is far from Corman's best film but even farther from his worst. It's one fans of classic B-movies shouldn't overlook.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Culture Shock 10.24.13: 'I Come In Peace' is 'Lethal Weapon' meets 'Predator'

"I Come in Peace," also known as "Dark Angel," is far more entertaining than it has a right to be.

It's a star vehicle for Dolph Lundgren, but this 1990 action flick is probably best remembered for its trailer. It features the film's bad guy, a 7-foot extraterrestrial with a raspy voice, milky-white eyes and long white hair, slashing people left and right while repeating his ironic catchphrase, "I come in peace." To which Lundgren quips, "And you go in pieces."

It's a simple idea, coming at the tail end of the 1980s action movie cycle: "Lethal Weapon" meets "Predator." Mismatched cops must come to terms with each other while tracking down the bad guy, who in this case just happens to be an unstoppable drug dealer from outer space.

The sci-fi twist keeps this from being a generic buddy-cop movie, and with the talent behind the camera, it's more than enough to keep things interesting. "I Come in Peace" is fun and surprisingly well made, with action scenes and cinematography well served by Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray release, issued under the film's boring alternate title, "Dark Angel."

Lundgren ("Rocky IV") is Houston police Detective Jack Caine, a loose-cannon cop who goes with his gut and delivers a mean roundhouse kick. After a drug bust goes wrong, leaving his partner dead and a briefcase full of heroin missing, Caine partners with FBI Special Agent Smith, portrayed by Brian Benben ("Private Practice"). Smith is officious, irritating and strictly by-the-book. So we all know how this is going to play out: The odd couple will eventually become best buddies.

Their quarry is an alien — "not from Mexico" — played by 6-foot-5 German track-and-field athlete Matthias Hues. As the "Bad Alien" — there's also a Good Alien pursuing him — Hues attacks drug dealers and steals their heroin, which he injects into random victims, who then produce a mother load of endorphins, which the Bad Alien extracts, with fatal consequences.

Where the Bad Alien hails from, endorphins are the drug of choice.

By 1990, the drug war was just about played out as far as the movies and TV were concerned. "Miami Vice" had been canceled, "Just Say No" was a punchline, and not even James Bond could make the drug war interesting. Drug pushers from space was about the only card yet to be played.

It turns out to be an ace in the hole. Hues' Bad Alien steals the show, mercilessly killing drug dealers with what is essentially a razor-sharp compact disc, which flies around like a heat-seeking missile. Sure, it sounds silly, but it looks cool onscreen, with a camera's eye view following the spinning disc on its murderous flight.

The Bad Alien is usually one step ahead of the Good Alien (Jay Bilas) and two steps ahead of Caine and Smith. But when they do cross paths, mayhem and explosions ensue.

Director Craig R. Baxley knows a thing or two about mayhem and explosions, having served as stunt coordinator on "Predator" and TV's "The A-Team," and the showdown between the Bad Alien and the Good Alien in a parking garage is one of the film's highlights. The scene requires Hues to hurdle over one car after another as each blows up behind him — no stunt double and no CGI.

These are real stunts, with real explosions going off just a few yards away from the actors, and cinematographer Mark Irwin (David Cronenberg's "The Fly") captures it beautifully. I'm sure actors today appreciate green screens and CGI, but explosions put together in a computer are still no substitute for the real thing captured live in camera.

Shout! Factory's "Dark Angel" Blu-ray ($19.97) includes a trailer and a documentary featurette with Lundgren, Benben and Baxley. "I Come in Peace" is even more impressive when you know Baxley had a budget of less than $7 million to work with. Michael Bay can't blow up a go-cart for that little money.

Whether you call it "Dark Angel" or "I Come In Peace," it's a job well done.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Culture Shock 10.17.13: Gillian Anderson rises to the challenge of 'The Fall'

Americans may be forgiven for thinking Gillian Anderson has kept a low profile since "The X-Files." Actually, she's kept busy, living and working in the United Kingdom, and picking up, through osmosis, a British accent that at least is more convincing than Madonna's.

Her gripping new five-episode BBC television drama, however, should have audiences on both sides of the pond taking notice.

In series 1 of "The Fall" (Netflix instant, DVD), Anderson stars as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a member of the London Metropolitan Police sent to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to get a result in a murder case the locals can't close. As both an outsider and a woman of authority in a male-dominated field, Gibson arrives to a situation primed for tension.

The tension only ratchets up when she begins to suspect there is more to the unsolved murder than just one unsolved murder. There is a serial killer at large, honing his skills, developing his technique and preparing to strike again.

Unfortunately, she's right, and the audience knows who the killer is even if Gibson doesn't.

Paul Spector (an unnerving Jamie Dornan of "Once Upon a Time") is a family man and a grief counselor. He works with couples who have lost children. He also stalks and kills woman, and he's getting better at it.

Female avengers pitted against male serial killers are nothing new. The metaphor of men who literally objectify women is too easy to pass up. "The Silence of the Lambs" perfected the genre, which is feminist while also a target of criticism from feminists. It just goes to show, you can tell a feminist story yet get zero credit if you don't tell the "right kind" of feminist story.

In "The Fall," the heroine isn't a rookie like Clarice Starling of "Silence," but a veteran who has dealt with serial killers before. The power dynamic is different. Gibson, whom Anderson plays with world-weary confidence, has power, and the men around her don't, or they don't have as much.

As a pattern emerges among the killer's victims — young, attractive, up-and-coming professionals — Gibson deduces a motive. The killer is targeting women who have some measure of power and success, or at least more of it than he does. It's garden variety misogyny.

So far, little of that strays beyond the standard feminist critique of society's gender roles, but what makes "The Fall" interesting is where its sexual politics do diverge from the politically correct.

Gibson is completely comfortable with her sexuality and with using it, on occasion, to get what she wants. She has what British sociologist Catherine Hakim calls "erotic capital," and she knows how to spend it.

The day she arrives in Belfast, she picks up a fellow officer for a one night stand. Later, when the secret gets out, she confronts another officer about the double standard. No one thinks twice about a one night stand when the man is the instigator, she says. Then when told her fling is married, she responds she didn't know that and, in any case, that's his business, not hers.

For Gibson, embracing her own sexuality gives her a "male" outlook on sexual relations. Men are subject to her female gaze, and all is fair game. So, is that feminism or not?

All of this, however, is subtext for Gibson's pursuit of Spector, who at heart is an arrested adolescent who fancies himself beyond good and evil. It's a delusion that stands in stark contrast to the bleak landscape of Belfast, a working-class wasteland still not far removed from decades of sectarian religious conflict. Everyone there has seen too much, and everyone there, newcomer Gibson included, is compromised.

This is no paradise of Eden. This is the world after the Fall.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Culture Shock 10.10.13: Argento's decline continues with 'Dracula'

Dario Argento's longtime musical collaborator, Claudio Simonetti of the group Goblin, leaves little doubt what kind of movie "Dario Argento's Dracula" is.

As soon as the falsetto warble of a theremin wafts into the opening titles, "Dracula" begins to feel more like an Edward D. Wood movie than an Argento movie. Is this how far Italy's reigning maestro of the macabre has fallen?

But I exaggerate. It's not really as bad as that. Unfortunately it's not as good as that, either. An Ed Wood film can be so bad it's good. Argento's "Dracula," playing on demand and in limited 3-D theatrical release, is merely bad in the uninteresting way.

Like fellow horror auteur John Carpenter, Argento is a filmmaker who has lost his moorings. His filmography, built on early masterpieces such as "Deep Red," "Suspiria" and "Tenebre," is now more misses than hits. Nowadays when he makes a good film, it is by accident. "Mother of Tears" (2007) works only because it is so ridiculously excessive it plays like a middle finger aimed at critics who thought Argento's previous films were excessive, a kind of "you haven't seen anything yet."

Argento's "Dracula" doesn't have that going for it, and period costume dramas have never been his strength. Before "Dracula," he had directed one period piece, 1998's "The Phantom of the Opera," and even his staunchest defenders throw up their hands at that one.

As "Dracula" opens, Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli ("Suspiria") tease us with visual reminders of Argento's earlier films, but what Argento really seems to be going for is the look of Hammer's "Dracula" films starring Christopher Lee. It's more than coincidental that Argento's version of Jonathan Harker, like the one in Hammer's "Horror of Dracula," is a librarian rather than a solicitor.

Yet Hammer's Dracula isn't the only one to which Argento turns for ideas. Dracula, played by Thomas Kretschmann, looks like Jack Palance in Dan Curtis' 1972 TV movie "Dracula," and the film's final act takes a romantic turn borrowed from Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula," although without bothering to set up the twist properly.

Argento is counting on our having seen these earlier movies so that we'll accept Kretschmann's dour, unlikable Dracula as a romantic antihero and won't think twice about the sudden revelation that Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) is the reincarnation of Dracula's long lost love.

As portrayed by Kretschmann, Dracula is so stiff and uncharismatic you'd think he's still in rigor mortis. He doesn't seem capable of mesmerizing anyone. Ironically, Kretschmann is cast as Dracula's nemesis, Van Helsing, in NBC's upcoming "Dracula" TV series. Here, however, Van Helsing shows up in the tired form of Rutger Hauer ("Blade Runner"), who knows he's on a sinking ship and seems resigned to go down with it.

Argento's daughter, Asia Argento ("The Last Mistress"), is wasted in the thankless role of Lucy, and would have been better suited for the meatier (pun intended) role of Tania, the peasant girl Dracula turns during the film's opening.

The most unfortunate performance is Unax Ugalde as Jonathan Harker, who will leave you wistful for Keanu Reeves. Only Gastini, who looks eerily like a young Meg Tilly, escapes with her dignity intact.

Lazy scripting and questionable casting aside, where "Dario Argento's Dracula" really falls flat is with its cheap, cartoonish CGI effects, which include the least convincing wolf since Lon Chaney Jr. and CGI blood where practical effects would do just fine.

Still, maybe Argento's "Dracula" is worth seeing for one thing: just so you can say you saw a movie in which Dracula transforms into a giant, CGI praying mantis.

As Jack Palance used to say, "Believe it, or not."

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Culture Shock 10.03.13: Much ado about Shakespeare

Roger Allam, left, as Sir John Falstaff and Jamie Parker as Prince Hal
in William Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 1."
The future is difficult to predict. Will there be interstellar travel? Will robots learn to think?

So many unanswerable questions. But one thing no one questions is whether William Shakespeare will still be relevant. "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," set 300 years in our future, which puts it 700 years after Shakespeare, takes its title from "Hamlet" (Act 3, Scene 1) and features a wonderful scene in which a Klingon portrayed by David Warner, no stranger to playing Shakespeare on the stage, says, "You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon."

The joke is itself a callback to novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who has a character say Shakespeare is better in the "original Russian." Everyone wants to appropriate the man so synonymous with the English language that we call him "the Bard." After 400 years, he hasn't lost a step.

Indeed, he seems more with us than ever. PBS is airing "The Hollow Crown," a four-part series that adapts one of Shakespeare's most neglected histories, "Richard II," and three of his best, "Henry IV, Part 1," "Henry IV, Part 2" and "Henry V." "The Hollow Crown" stars Ben Whishaw ("Skyfall"), Jeremy Irons ("The Borgias") and Tom Hiddleston ("The Avengers").

A restored Globe Theatre in London, called Shakespeare's Globe, stages Shakespeare's plays, and those of some of his contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe, in the original style, including musical interludes. The performances are both thrilling and enlightening, and they are — educators take note — available on DVD from Kultur International Films (

Shakespeare boring? Well you just haven't seen Falstaff performed with Olivier Award-winning panache by Roger Allam ("The Thick of It") in "Henry IV, Part 1" and "Part 2."

Still, the real proof of Shakespeare's vitality isn't found in historically accurate costume dramas, but in the way his works continue to inform contemporary arts and artists.

As soon as he wrapped production on "The Avengers," Joss Whedon got together at his house with his actor friends and shot "Much Ado About Nothing," a glossy, sexy adaptation of Shakespeare's greatest comedy, transported to present day. Shakespeare not hip? The creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" begs to differ. The Bard is hip, relevant and everywhere, whether you've noticed or not.

As the literary critic Harold Bloom argues, Shakespeare invented our conception of human nature. He also invented much of our language. We quote him without even thinking about it.

So why does reading Shakespeare remain, for most of us, such a chore? Equal to his power to inspire is his power to intimidate, and intimidate not just students, but teachers, too. Speaking from experience, there are few things sadder than a classroom full of high school sophomores stumbling aloud through "Julius Caesar" and wondering how much of it will be on the test.

That's no way to experience Shakespeare.

Watching the movie version of a classic literary work is usually a cheat, but with Shakespeare it's the next best thing to seeing him performed live. Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels. He isn't meant to be read, although that has its own pleasures. He's meant to be experienced.

The recent book "Living with Shakespeare," edited by Susannah Carson, collects essays by actors, writers and directors explaining how they have approached Shakespeare and what they have learned from him. (Another note for educators: This book is an excellent secondary text for your class.)

All these trained professionals struggle with Shakespeare just as we do. Yet as actor Ben Kingsley ("Iron Man 3") writes, "A lot of Shakespeare's audience were illiterate. Now the plays have become quartered into some kind of elitist literature exercise. It's stupid."

It's a fair warning. Shakespeare is important, but we lose something by treating him as above us, rather than as one of us. The expounder of human nature was only human.