Frankenstein (1931)


One of the most iconic images in horror movie history.

(1931) Horror (UniversalColin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris, Francis Ford, Michael Mark, Mae Bruce, Jack Curtis, Paul Panzer, William Dyer, Cecil Reynolds, Cecilia Parker, Ellinor Vanderveer, Soledad Jiménez, Mary Gordon, Carmencita Johnson, Pauline Moore, Arletta Duncan. Directed by James Whale

Perhaps the most iconic horror film of all time is James Whale’s 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the latter of whom is listed in the credit as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” – ah, misogyny). It is in many ways the perfect storm of Gothic imagery, gruesome subtexts, pathos, terror and a truly mind-blowing performance by Boris Karloff as the monster.

Most everyone knows the story, or at least bits of it; medical student Henry Frankenstein (Clive) who was renamed from Victor in the book and most subsequent films, is obsessed with the big questions of life; why does one child turn out to be the pillar of the community, the other a criminal? Where does life begin? Can a man bring life to the lifeless?

To discover the latter, he and his faithful servant Fritz (Frye) – renamed Igor in most subsequent productions – dig up bodies for their parts to create a perfect being. Utilizing a violent thunderstorm, lightning strikes buffet his creation until, as Frankenstein notably exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

However, Frankenstein eventually has cause to regret his experiment as he loses control of the monster which goes on a murderous rampage, not always out of malice (in a particularly famous scene he inadvertently drowns a little girl while throwing flowers into a lake).

Many of the tropes that have characterized horror films in the 88 years since this movie was made originated or was refined here; the angry mob with torches and pitchforks, the sweet maiden menaced by an ugly monster, the imposing castle, the thunderstorm, the grunting of the inarticulate monster and so much more.

Karloff’s sad eyes and stiff gait made the monster so memorable that it was called thenceforth Frankenstein, even though the monster is never given a name in the film. Karloff, to that point a journeyman actor who generally played the heavy in B movies, would go on to a lucrative and acclaimed career as one of the greatest horror specialists of all time. Frankenstein is so iconic that many identify the genre with this movie; often the scowling visage as the monster is used to represent the genre.

While the scares are tame by modern standards, I think the film holds up extraordinarily well even today. This is how horror films were done before excessive gore was used as a crutch by many filmmakers in the genre; Whale knew just about how much to leave to the imagination and our imaginations are often more gruesome than reality. I think that these days, it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit but if you haven’t seen it – or haven’t seen it in a while – you owe it to yourself to watch it once again or for the first time.

REASONS TO SEE: A classic in every sense of the word. Karloff’s performance is a career maker. Still pretty scary even now. Still the best adaptation of the iconic Mary Shelley tale. The standard by which other horror movies are judged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Quite tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scary images and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster isn’t seen until 30 minutes into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bride of Frankenstein
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Saudi Women’s Driving School

Parasite (Gisaengchung)


Who is the exploited and who is the exploiter?

(2019) Dramedy (NEON) Kang-ho Song, Yeo-jeong Jo, So-dam Park, Woo-sik Choi, Sun-kyun Lee, Seo-joon Park, Jung Ziso, Jeong-eun Lee, Andreas Fronk, Hyae Jin Chang, Myeong-hoon Park, Hyun-jun Jung, Ji-hye Lee, Keun-rok Park, Joo-hyung Lee, Ik-han Jung, Jeong Esuz, Dong-yong Lee, Seong-Bong Ahn, Hyo-shin Pak, Kang Echae. Directed by Bong Joon Ho

 

As the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider worldwide, the desperation of those on the lower end of the economic spectrum also grows. As capitalism turns into a modern-day Wild West, it doesn’t stretch the imagination much to figure out that some will do whatever is necessary to survive.

The Kim family is the kind of family that often takes the brunt of those pointing the finger at the poor and blaming them for their own poverty. Patriarch Ki-woo (Choi) is chronically unemployed and a bit of an idiot. His shrill wife Chung-sook (Chang) has the family bringing in income by folding pizza boxes but they can’t even get that right. They live in a basement flat with a toilet on a ledge looking out onto the street where drunks often urinate. Ki-woo, despite the haranguing of his wife, can’t be bothered to shoo the offenders away. Their phone service has long been switched off and they steal Wi-Fi from a neighbor who has inconveniently put password protection on his router.

Clever son Ki-taek (Song) gets a tip from his buddy Min (S-j Park) who is about to depart to study abroad that a rich high school girl he is tutoring in English will need a new tutor while he is gone. Min offers to recommend Ki-taek for the job but Ki-taek, who was unable to afford college, doesn’t have the credentials for the job. Not to worry: his sister Ki-jung (S-d Park) has no problem forging the documents he needs.

When Ki-taek goes to the beautiful modernist house the family lives in for an interview, he realizes the materialistic mom Yeon-kyo Park (Jo) is somewhat simple and easily swayed. He realizes that there could be a bonanza here for his family. He finagles his sister an interview as a teacher for the ADHD younger son Da-song (H-j Jung) specializing in “art therapy.” In the meantime his own student daughter Da-hye (Ziso) has taken a shine to him.

Cold-blooded Ki-jung realizes there’s room for the whole family, but it will take some finagling to get the established servants out, including their beloved housekeeper Moon-gwang (J-e Lee). Through clever manipulation, brazen gall and a thorough lack of mercy, Dad is moved into the driver’s position and Mom into the housekeeper’s job. Now the Kim family is living the high life and can think about maybe moving on up, as George Jefferson might say. However, the Park home holds an unexpected secret that throws all of their machinations into disarray.

Bong Joon Ho is already one of South Korea’s most masterful directors, with films like The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja to his credit. Here, he comes into his own with the kind of movie that is going to elevate him into an elite class of directors, guys like Del Toro, Cuarón and Wong Kar-Wei. This is one of the best-written movies I’ve seen this year, with clever dialogue and a plot that while it has some zany elements to it never falls out of believability.

The cast performs solidly, particularly Ho’s go-to guy Choi who takes a character who could have easily have become a caricature and gave him depth and even a bit of gravitas. Jo is also memorable as the somewhat dense mom of the Park family.

The movie changes tone in the second half and there’s some fairly intense violence that occurs, some of it quite disturbing. It isn’t a movie for the weak of heart but neither is it a movie for the weak of mind; there is an awful lot of subtext going on about class distinctions, and exploitation. Just who is exploiting who in this movie may not be terribly clear by the end of the credits. However, I must say that the only thing that is keeping this from a perfect score is a somewhat convoluted ending involving a coded message that overstays its welcome a bit.

Frankly, this is one of the best movies of the year and it certainly should be on the radar of anyone who really likes movies. There’s a scene on how a bad thunderstorm affects the wealthy Parks and the not-so-wealthy Kims that is a gut-punch that comes almost out of nowhere but Ho is such a deft director that it doesn’t feel out of place. Do yourself a favor and catch this one because it’s sure to get some love come awards season.

REASONS TO SEE: Very cleverly written. Well-acted. Some very dark humor but funny throughout. An intriguing look at class warfare from a different angle.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some bloody violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was the winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; it is also South Korea’s official submission for the Best International Film award at the 2020 Oscars and is an early favorite to make the short list.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews: Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoplifters
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben)


Mother comforts daughter.

(2018) Drama (Focus) Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Eduard Fernandez, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Elvira Minguez, Ramón Barea, Carla Campra, Sara Sálamo, Roger Casamajor, Josė Ángel Egido, Sergio Castellanos, Iván Chavero, Tomás del Estal, Imma Sancho, Paco Pastor Gómez, Jaime Lorente, Mari Carmen Sánchez, Carla Campra. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

When a family gets together for an occasion (a wedding, a christening, a holiday etc.) it’s usually a joyful occasion. Oh sure, there may be some relatives you’re not keen on seeing like alcoholic Uncle Al, creepy cousin Wendell or Grandpa the conservative political troll but by and large you’re happy to be around those who have blood ties. Then again, they all know where the bodies are buried – sometimes literally.

Laura (Cruz) lives in Argentina now but she returns to her rural Spanish village to attend her sister Ana’s (Cuesta) wedding to Joan (Casamajor). She has brought with her teen daughter Irene (Campra) who is just getting into that rebellious age, her younger son Diego (Chavero) but not her successful husband Alejandro (Darin) who has a successful business to attend to. Also in attendance are bitter patriarch Antonio (Barea) who gambled and drank away most of the land the family once owned, son of a former servant Paco (Bardem) who bought part of that land and turned it into a thriving vineyard, and Paco’s wife Bea (Lennie) whose childlessness is a source of much village speculation.

The night of the reception is greeted with a violent thunderstorm which knocks out the power. As the evening begins to wind down, Laura goes upstairs to check on her children – and finds Irene missing with newspaper clippings of a local kidnapping that ended up tragically scattered on the bed. This is followed up with a texted ransom demand for an exorbitant amount of cash that as it turns out, Laura and Alejandro do not have – her husband being not quite as successful as the family was led to believe.

The fact that Paco and Laura were once lovers until Laura dumped him was no secret – everybody knows this, but not everybody knows…well, the real reason Irene was kidnapped and we won’t get into that here. The kidnappers are very clear that the police should not be called if Irene is to return home alive but they do consult with a retired detective (Egido) who suspects an inside job and in effect tells them to “trust no-one.”

On the surface it sounds like a standard potboiler but when you have a cast like this one and an Oscar-winning director as Farhadi is you can depend on good things happening. Cruz and Bardem are two of the best in the business and Cruz delivers a powerful emotional performance, alternately anguished over her child’s kidnapping and forlorn over what might have been with Paco. Bardem has a bit of a hangdog look but his inner decency stands out from the venality of much of the rest of the family.

Beautifully photographed in idyllic sepia tones, the movie manages to move at the same pace as the rhythms of country life which is a bit odd for a movie with so many thriller elements but works nonetheless. Some American viewers might find this maddeningly slow-paced but most avid cinephiles won’t have a problem with it. Yes, there are twists and turns and none of them are particularly remarkable but the thriller side is pretty effective. The reveal of the identity of the kidnappers though is a bit of a disappointment and never really makes much sense. Me, I liked the view of rural Spanish life more but that’s just the kind of guy I am.

Sometimes a movie can be forgiven its flaws because of the reputation of those behind the camera and the performances of those in front of it. This is such an occasion. Farhadi, who has some amazing films to his credit (including A Separation and The Salesman) didn’t deliver one of his best works here – and keep in mind this is his first Spanish-language film, a language he does not speak. This isn’t for everybody and that and it’s somewhat anti-climactic ending kept it from a perfect score but it’s still a worthwhile viewing for cinema lovers and casual movie fans alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Bardem and Cruz deliver outstanding performances. The film gives a nice glimpse at Spanish rural life. While the twists and turns don’t rewrite the book, they are nonetheless effective
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags a little bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bardem and Cruz, who play former lovers here, are actually married in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ransom
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Los Reyes