BRAZIL (1985)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Violence

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Ian Holm, Jim Broadbent

BRAZIL is George Orwell’s 1984 with a sense of humor. This is an overly comical view of a depressing industrial world where paperwork proceeds every tiny action. This is a bleak future where a totalitarian government monitors everything, keeps the public in a constant state of fear from supposed unseen terrorists, and specializes in making free-thinkers simply vanish in the blink of an eye. BRAZIL, much like 1984, strongly resembles some issues currently happening in various countries around the world. Besides maintaining some solid laughs throughout, the film also is unrelentingly dark and never loses focus of the story being told. This is the kind of science fiction satire that simultaneously made me laugh and want to cry from the dire circumstances unfolding before my eyes.

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In a metallic-tinted bureaucratic-laced future, Sam Lowry lives a perfectly suitable existence in his meager position as a low-level government worker. He has frequent dreams about flying the skies and rescuing a beautiful girl he has never met before, but is completely content with his way of life. After a minor error is made in a typewriter that sends an innocent man to a horrible fate, Sam finds himself caught in the web of dangerous repercussions following that paperwork mistake and indeed trying to save the very girl of his dreams.

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To give anything more specific away would spoil some of the fun. The plot of BRAZIL is at the same time overly complicated and extremely simple, much like the processing system of the asinine society running the show. The film also blends the dark nature of the plot with frequent laughs. One thing that should be noted about the tone is that it grows progressively more grim as things go along. The first 40 minutes are comedic genius and then things begin to get more twisted and serious. If you go into this film expecting an all-out comedic tour-de-force, then you’ll finish the experience mighty depressed from just how alike it is to 1984 (a story you really have to prep yourself for due to the sheer unrelenting bleakness of the content).

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The real complaint I have about BRAZIL is that the movie comes close to wearing out its welcome on more than one occasion. There were some scenes that could have easily been cut. The film runs at over two hours (nearly two and a half if you’re watching the director’s cut). It’s not that things drag out to the point of being insufferable, but some sequences do seem to go on a bit too long. One thing that might annoy certain viewers, but I totally dug it was that lots of different variations of the song “Brazil” were used throughout the entire film. I know there was probably some other music in the score, but that piece of music (used hauntingly as the end credits roll) will forever stick out in my mind when this film is brought up in conversation. Some of the running gags (of which there are quite a few) work better than others, but I did appreciate that there were still some chuckles as the story tauntingly played with my emotions.

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Terry Gilliam is known for being a visionary director and that’s certainly the case here. Every little detail added to the sets is well-realized. Little touches to this world only further enhance the sensation that I was looking into a vision of the future and what I saw made me wish that tomorrow would never come. The depressing roots of 1984, which Gilliam admitted to liberally borrowing from, are still very much intact in Gilliam’s vision of Orwell’s novel. In fact, I’d dare say that the final 30 minutes play out like one long extended nightmare that had me glued to the screen.

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As far as the cast goes, there are some great performances and a notably mediocre one. Jonathan Pryce is a phenomenal lead and it helps that Sam Lowry is a likable character. He signifies a good man trying to keep his moral compass in a broken society, which makes his struggles all the more difficult to watch. Katherine Helmond, covered with layers of make-up, appears as Price’s mother at varying ages and a friend of hers provides one of the best recurring jokes throughout the film. Those interested in seeing younger versions of Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, and Ian Holm need look no further as they appear as a maintenance man, a plastic surgeon, and Price’s boss, respectively. Robert De Niro has a few scenes as a wanted would-be terrorist that are entertaining. The only real let-down is Kim Greist as Price’s love interest. I don’t know which direction to point the blame in. Her character isn’t exactly given a lot of development, but Greist doesn’t raise her above a one-note rebellious damsel-in-distress whom Price to trying to save.

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BRAZIL may wind up pushing the time limit this story might have been told in (over two hours was a tad too long) and some jokes may fall flat, but it remains a wonderful classic dystopian future tale. One entirely forgettable love interest aside, the film is packed full of colorful characters and great performances. The contrast of dark material and quirky humor works wonders, though the humor really begins to disappear as the film reaches nightmarish levels in the final act. Gilliam’s unofficial adaptation of Orwell’s famous novel is weird, strange, oddly funny, and doesn’t skimp on the entirely grim subject matter within the book. I recommend bracing yourself for a tough, heady piece of art before sitting down to watch BRAZIL. This all being said, the film is phenomenal and comes highly recommended for those wanting something completely out of the ordinary.

Grade: A-

GOODFELLAS (1990)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi

(based on the book WISEGUY by Nicholas Pileggi)

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Frank Vincent, Samuel L. Jackson

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill (Liotta) reminisces in the opening of GOODFELLAS. The criminals Hill refers to are REAL gangsters as in organized crime, as in the mafia, as in pay them for protection or you get shot without a moment of regret from anybody in their inner circle. GOODFELLAS is a 2+ hour look at life inside the mafia as told by Henry Hill (who was a real person and most of this stuff really happened). It also happens to be the best piece of cinema that Scorsese has delivered in his entire career. The man makes phenomenal films, but unless something unexpected comes along, GOODFELLAS will remain his crowning achievement.

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The broad timeline of the film is 1955 to 1980. About 95% of the story is also narrated from Henry Hill. Starting off as a young worker for the higher-ups, Henry works his way into the mob from childhood and matures into adulthood surrounded by this corrupt lifestyle. He steals. He cheats. He commits some violent acts and finds love in a young woman named Karen. She acts as a secondary narrator for certain points (hence the other 5% narration of the film). This seems like it could have made for a mistake, but Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing from this decision. We see that Karen is a complex individual too and she damn well knows what her boyfriend/fiancé/husband does for a living. It’s just happens to be a turn on for her. Other memorable characters include Paul Cicero (Sorvino), the mob boss who acts as a sort of would-be father towards Henry, and the duo of Jimmy The Gent (De Niro) and Tommy (Pesci), Henry’s two best friends and partners in crime.

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Both De Niro and Pesci characters outshine Ray Liotta’s protagonist, which could be seen as a tad ironic. Their characters seem far more interesting for a variety of reasons. We never see Henry Hill kill anybody (though I have no doubt that he probably did off at least one person in real life and it wasn’t shown in this film), but De Niro and Pesci seem to flip at the drop of a hat. In fact, Pesci borders from being funny to frightening in a matter of seconds (one memorable scene is his reaction to being called “a funny guy”). Even though they’re violent criminals, Scorsese does an incredible job of bringing these people to life in an enjoyable way. They feel like old friends and Liotta’s narration makes them seem like great stand-up guys. This is especially impressive after a scene of Pesci shooting a guy for no good reason and De Niro going crazy. This is where the true genius of GOODFELLAS comes in…

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The story doesn’t glamorize life in organized crime, but the character of Henry Hill sure seems to. In fact, the viewer is seduced into his way of thinking right along with him. Even a few prison scenes seem like Henry is spending an extended vacation in a 5-star-hotel room. This all makes for a brutal wake-up call as his real downward spiral begins. People who were once his friends are now not be trusted at all, while past actions have severe consequences. The subject matter of the film is about the mafia and the camera doesn’t shy away from showing graphic violence, some of which is seen as it happens and others are after the fact (e.g. a haunting montage of many different corpses who bit the big one in horrific ways). The film never gets unpleasant to watch though, because Liotta’s narration accompanies most of it. This technique keeps the viewer at ease even if he is watching the Billy Batts scene (you’ll know it when you see it and for the record, it’s one of my favorite movie scenes ever).

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GOODFELLAS also has an amazing use of soundtrack. I can’t recall more than one piece of original music for the film, because songs set in the time period that each scene takes place in are used. This encompasses the entire film with a sort of realistic authenticity of being there. The compilation of songs is one of the all-time best soundtracks of its kind. The film never has time to drag, because there’s so much ground to cover. Some parts are more necessary than others, but every scene is enjoyable and important in its own way. As far as the running time itself is considered, I wish this film could have gone on for a GODFATHER length. I would still have been enthralled, because it’s so well-done and interesting.

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With GOODFELLAS, Scorsese works magic on many different layers. He lets Henry Hill seduce the viewer in loving this dangerous illegal lifestyle right along with him, but is sure to remind them that things don’t usually work out too well for these gangsters (as we see on many occasions throughout). He makes a mob boss and two hardened killers feel like a fatherly figure and two old friends, which makes them seem that much more dangerous when their “business” sides come out. The use of songs is absolutely phenomenal and there isn’t a single wasted minute. Scorsese has since gone on to tackle the mob in two of his later works (CASINO and THE DEPARTED). As amazing as those films are, I feel that GOODFELLAS is one that he left his mark with. This is the film I’ll remember Scorsese for!

Grade: A+

AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, some Sexual Content and brief Violence

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Directed by: David O. Russell

Written by: Eric Singer & David O. Russell

Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence & Louis C.K.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid the hype for upcoming movies. I tend to ignore other movie reviews and try to pay no attention to sites like Rotten Tomatoes before actually seeing a film itself. Ads were everywhere for AMERICAN HUSTLE though. It seemed like there was a TV spot every other commercial and everybody online was making a huge deal that the movie currently holds a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (which is always a good sign). In all honesty, it seemed like it was impossible not to get excited for this film. The sheer amount of talent involved and the concept that it’s a 70’s crime flick (something of which we lately have received so little of) got me beyond hyped up to see it.

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So now that I have had a few days to process the movie, what is my reaction? I still love it. AMERICAN HUSTLE is a gripping, massively entertaining, and clever movie that doesn’t focus too much on the actual events that inspired it, but instead makes its primary focus to let the cast become their characters and to tell an engaging (half fictional) story.

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Opening with a title card stating “Some Of This Actually Happened,” AMERICAN HUSTLE immediately sets the quirky tone that will be followed on through the entirety of the over-2-hour-long running time. The film follows a variety of colorful characters (all of which are played masterfully by an A-list cast). Irving Rosenfield and Sydney Prosser are two con-artists madly in love with each other. Their scams that rob desperate people of thousands of dollars and running counterfeit art dealing business on the side eventually warrant the attention of the FBI, mainly one hot-headed agent, Richie DiMasio. Richie forces Irving and Sydney to lead him to other con-artists in the area, but when an opportunity to nab bigger fish (corrupt politicians and some of the mafia) presents itself, Richie’s plan escalates into something that might wind up making him a hero or getting all of them killed.

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AMERICAN HUSTLE feels like director/co-writer David O. Russell wanted to make a crime epic in the style of Scorsese’s gangster movies. Following different characters through interlocking events and having the film being narrated by (mainly) Christian Bale and Amy Adams. It even opens in the same style that GOODFELLAS and CASINO began with a scene playing out, the plot flashing back to show how things had progressed up to this point, and then continuing on far past the scene that we initially witnessed at the start of the film. This is not a detriment to the film in the slightest. In fact, it feels like it perfectly belongs in the same time period that both Scorsese’s mafia masterpieces were created too. I also found this to be kind of ironic given the release of Scorsese’s newest movie THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (more on this in my review of that film).

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The plot is based around the real-life FBI operation known as ABSCAM (which took place in the late 70’s to the early 80’s) and the screenplay is compelling, even when we’re following the less likable characters. Keeping true to the time period, David O. Russell expertly winds up capturing the atmosphere of the 70’s from every single detail shown on the film. From the costume designs and the elaborate perm that Bradley Cooper sports to the excellent choices for the film’s soundtrack, it’s clear that Russell knew exactly what to bring into the film without it distracting from the intense (and at times, hilarious) story at hand. Hell, even the opening logos are dated to look retro.

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It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that the cast of A-listers all bring their best to this tour-de-force of acting. Christian Bale (showing a big gut and a really creative comb-over) makes the audience root for Irving, despite him being a con-artist and thief. Amy Adams is excellent as Sydney and shows that she can give a huge range of emotions, as she manipulates certain people through the film. Bradley Cooper gives what I consider his best performance so far as Richie, who can go from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds in his temper. Louis C.K. has a memorable side performance and a certain veteran actor also shows up, which made the entire theater laugh out loud. Jeremy Renner garners some real sympathy for his corrupt political figure, who despite taking bribes seems to have a keen business sense and wants the best for his city.

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I left one name out and I’m saving it for last, Jennifer Lawrence (last seen in THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE) is a great actress. It’s been seen in some of her other roles (for example, the award-winning one in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), but as Rosalyn Rosenfield (Irving’s mentally unstable wife) she made me wish something horrible would happen to her character. This is one of the most infuriating characters since Sharon Stone in CASINO and it only goes to show just how talented Lawrence is that she made me hate her that much. If you need one reason (other than the excellent screenplay or amazing production design) to see AMERICAN HUSTLE, then see it simply for an incredible cast of actors cutting loose and clearly having fun as memorable characters (which are in part, based on real-life people).

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To bring it right down to one singular point, AMERICAN HUSTLE is a movie about a bunch of different people conning each other in different ways. It’s smart, complex, and surprisingly has minimal violence for a movie involving the mafia (which was a nice change of pace). Entertaining just scratches the surface as to how much I loved this film! One of the best films of the year. No question.

Grade: A+

CASINO (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Pervasive Strong Language, Drug Use and Some Sexuality

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, Frank Vincent, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, James Woods

The problem with putting directors up on pedestals is that we automatically expect something great from them. Sometimes they will go above and beyond to deliver a film that ranks among their best work ever. If I had to pick three films by Martin Scorsese that I would call his best work ever, they would be GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, and HUGO. All three are different, but they all showcase the love this man has for filmmaking and just how brilliant he can be at it. Then something like CASINO comes along.

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This film came a mere five years after GOODFELLAS (which many hail as the number one gangster movie of all-time). CASINO came at a bad time. It was still on the heels of GOODFELLAS and some would probably consider it to be a bit of a sequel to that film. This would be a fair assumption, because a few of the actors from that film appear here and it rife with everything from the voice overs to the style. Even some of the soundtrack choices and the basic set-up of the movie are the same. It should also be mentioned that the same two writers who penned GOODFELLAS, also wrote CASINO and it shows. Does this make CASINO a bad movie? Absolutely not. It just makes it a poorly timed movie. It may be considered GOODFELLAS-Lite, but it’s still a phenomenal piece of work any way you slice it.

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Mostly based on a true story, CASINO takes place from the 70’s to the early 80’s, detailing events that took place in a mob controlled casino. Sam is a successful sports handicapper and has been somewhat awarded for his efforts by a head position at a luxurious casino. In the confines of this building, a huge scamming operation is taking place. The mob is paying off the cops to look the other way, while they skim a bit off the top of the casino’s earnings. It’s a bit of a foolproof plan, but in the world of crime, one should always know better. Things begin to get shaky when a mob enforcer (and childhood friend of Sam) named Nicky is sent to protect Sam’s casino. Nicky’s violent temper begins to earn some unwanted attention. From there on, Sam finds love, Nicky’s temper brings down a world of hurt upon both of their reputations, and the intricately executed plan begins to fall to pieces in front of their very eyes.

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If you were to watch CASINO in a double feature with GOODFELLAS, I’m willing to bet that the similarities would be uncanny. There are a few big differences in terms of the scale though. While GOODFELLAS was set over a period of decades, CASINO is placed within a space of about a single decade. Somehow, the film is packed with three full hours worth of material and GOODFELLAS was about 40 minutes less. Instead of two voice overs (much like in that other film), we are treated to not one, not two, but four different narrations that coincide with each other. Surprisingly, this technique pays off. We get both Sam and Nicky’s perspectives on the same situations, which makes for some slight laughs and steadily mounting tension as their friendship falls apart too.

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Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci have shown in the past that they could play off each other as gangsters and their roles here are pretty similar to their roles in GOODFELLAS (not to keep comparing the two). De Niro is a calm, collected guy, but can also turn violent in the right situation, while Pesci is a psycho with a bad temper. The real standout here is Sharon Stone though. She was so aggravating as a hooker turned love interest turned back into pretty much a hooker that I was actually grinding my teeth at one point. I wanted to jump into my TV screen and end her. That’s how well she played the part of her character. James Woods also shows up as a slimy ex-pimp of Stone’s character and is appropriately scummy.

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As far as the violence itself goes, the MPAA originally gave CASINO the dreaded NC-17 rating and some cuts were made to the gore. After watching this, I can safely say it’s very graphic and pretty disturbing throughout. I wasn’t expecting it to be as dark and gory as it wound up being, but this was a brutal movie (e.g. the final scenes with Pesci). The mark of a truly great film is that the viewer wants it to continue on, even after it’s done. This has happened to me on some occasions (namely THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) and it also happened with CASINO. I wanted the film to keep going, even as it neared the three-hour mark.

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One might say that Scorsese was ripping off himself with this film, but to hammer the point that the movies are similar and different entities is that both films are based on real events regarding the mafia in two different locations. It’s crazy how the fall from grace can be so alike, even though the time period and mobsters themselves are different. Scorsese may have also single-handedly turned me off of visiting Las Vegas ever again (for fear of running into the mafia, which realistically could still have a hold in certain operations there). CASINO isn’t up there on the same level as GOODFELLAS, but it comes very close.

Grade: A

FRANKENSTEIN (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Horrific Images

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Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Steph Lady, Frank Darabont

(based on the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley)

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Aidan Quinn, Richard Briers

Without a doubt one of the greatest and most influential horror stories of all-time, FRANKENSTEIN has been adapted in countless ways. Produced on 45 million by Francis Ford Coppola (who had directed DRACULA a mere two years before), this version of FRANKENSTEIN was considered by many to be overblown. It wasn’t nearly as financially or critically successful as DRACULA. However, as time has gone on, the film has been noted as one of the most faithful-to-the-novel versions of the story (the widely acclaimed 2004 miniseries went on to hold the number one title in that department). While some have said that it’s style over substance and is lacking in certain respects, I completely disagree. I have yet to see the 2004 miniseries, but this 1994 film is my favorite FRANKENSTEIN story thus far.

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For those who are completely out of the loop, Victor Frankenstein is a wealthy young aristocratic genius. His mother tragically dies in childbirth and it’s an experience that deeply affects Victor. So he vows that nobody will ever have to die again (overpopulation be damned) and so it’s off to a prestigious college in Germany. Victor finds himself constantly bickering with his hoity-toity professors and their so-called scientific ways. He wants to create life, which as they say “is not only impossible, but immoral.” With the help of fellow scientist, Victor slowly learns the possibilities of life and gives this gift to a creation of his own…with disastrous results.

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That’s about all you need to know about the plot, especially if you haven’t read the novel and don’t know how things play out. Rest assured, this is far different than the 1931 Boris Karloff classic. As great as that monster movie is, it’s essentially the dumbed down concept of the novel (much like the 1933 version of THE INVISIBLE MAN). FRANKENSTEIN is a far more complex story than just a creature feature. There’s philosophical questions that are raised. How far does science need to go before it’s considered morally wrong? What makes us human? These kind of concepts are covered in an intelligent way through a story of a scientist and his monstrous creation.

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This is classical horror and the production designs make it seem epic in scale. Every shot is carefully chosen. The set design is fantastic. As for the actors themselves, Kenneth Branagh doubles as both director and Victor Frankenstein. He knows exactly how the character should be portrayed. While he begins as a heartless man doing despicable things for the sake of the science, he regains his humanity later on, but it’s far too late when the creature seeks a calculated revenge.

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There have been many performers given the role of Frankenstein’s Monster. These range from Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee to Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. Robert De Niro isn’t the first name one thinks of when Frankenstein’s monster is brought up. It cannot be denied that De Niro gives the creature a certain amount of pure emotion that was needed for the role. One moment is downright heartbreaking to watch and in others, his anger is fierce beyond compare.

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Like all the film adaptations, certain liberties were taken with the material. This isn’t detrimental to the film at all though. Beautifully shot and well-told, FRANKENSTEIN deserves to be right up there with Bram Stoker’s DRACULA. It’s a pity that the trend of reviving classic horror tales ended here. Sure we have Universal’s silly new WOLFMAN (which stripped all the elements of character that the original had) and a rumored upcoming CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake, but I want to see H.G. Well’s THE INVISIBLE MAN and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE. Horror has roots in the classical period of storytelling and when a film like FRANKENSTEIN comes out, it must be celebrated. This is a mature and adult telling of a story that was serious to begin with. I consider this version of FRANKENSTEIN to be essential viewing for horror fans!

Grade: A+

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