Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014); DEADLY CODE (2014); and MOBIUS (2014)

(US/Australia - 2014)

It's no surprise that I, FRANKENSTEIN looks like an UNDERWORLD sequel, as it's based on an unpublished graphic novel by UNDERWORLD co-writer and actor Kevin Grevioux and features Bill Nighy (UNDERWORLD's nefarious vampire leader Viktor) as the villain.  It seems to take place in the same Vampires-and-Lycans world, but it owes just as much to THE DARK KNIGHT, right down to that film's Harvey Dent/Two-Face, Aaron Eckhart, in the title role. Relying heavily on mimicking Christian Bale's grunting Batman voice, Eckhart is Frankenstein's monster, here dubbed "Adam," and any faithfulness to Mary Shelley is buried by the four-minute mark, along with Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Aden Young), laid to rest by Adam just as he's confronted by a horde of winged demons. He's rescued by warriors in the service of Lenore (Miranda Otto), Queen of the Gargoyles, who's been locked in an eternal struggle with the army of demon prince Naberius.  Cut to 200 years later, as Adam is now a globetrotting demonslayer still pursued by Naberius' minions.  Naberius is passing himself off as wealthy Charles Wessex (Nighy), CEO of the Wessex Institute, where his science research is a cover for his real plot:  to learn the secrets inside Dr. Frankenstein's diary in order to transfer the damned souls of descended demons into thousands of reanimated corpses stored in a secret bunker at the lab's headquarters.

Considering that Lionsgate kept this on the shelf for a year after its original planned release, only to see it gross $19 million domestically against a $65 million budget, it's not likely that I, FRANKENSTEIN will become an UNDERWORLD-like franchise (or the initially-rumored crossover film), or that there will be any future interest in actually publishing Grevioux's graphic novel.  It's got a goofy enough plot that it should be campy fun, but while the dark and dour demeanor worked for THE DARK KNIGHT, it doesn't bode as well here.  No film with a story this silly should be as somber and self-serious as this, though there are occasional hints at humor that manage to shine through, like Adam doing a "bad cop" interrogation of a demon and dunking his head in holy water, or the requisite speed-ramping where Adam punches a winged demon in the face. But overall, I, FRANKENSTEIN is just an eye-glazing blur of crummy CGI and graphic novel cliches.  Eckhart rarely seems comfortable with the character or his idiotic dialogue, such as Adam grunting "I think your boss is a demon prince!" to Wessex's leading researcher, hot electrophysiologist Terra (Yvonne Strahovski), and Nighy is past the point where he can play this character--it's basically Viktor with a different name--in his sleep. Writer/director Stuart Beattie previously helmed the acclaimed Australian film TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN (2010) and wrote Michael Mann's COLLATERAL (2004), but is best known as a screenwriting mercenary on fare like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003), 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), and G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA (2009).  Given that resume, it's easy to see COLLATERAL as an anomaly and that Beattie's seemingly opted to instead channel his inner Len Wiseman or Stephen Sommers.  Cult movie nerds will enjoy seeing Bruce Spence--THE ROAD WARRIOR's Gyro Captain--in a small role as one of Wessex's lab flunkies, but I, FRANKENSTEIN isn't a movie.  It's a bland, boring, assembly-line product. (PG-13, 92 mins)

(Italy/UK - 2013; US release 2014)

Italian filmmaker Gabriele Salvatores has worked steadily for the last 30 years but is best known for directing 1991's MEDITERRANEO, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and the overrated 2003 thriller I'M NOT SCARED.  Elsewhere, most of his output is forgotten or unseen outside of Italy--his 1997 virtual reality sci-fi snoozer NIRVANA was picked up by Harvey Weinstein, who shelved it until dumping it on DVD in 2005--and that seems the likely fate for DEADLY CODE, which has gone straight-to-DVD in the US with perhaps the least-appealing cover art of the year.  Shot in 2011 under the title SIBERIAN EDUCATION, the tedious and cliche-filled DEADLY CODE wants to be the Russian Mafia version of THE GODFATHER, but comes off as a third-rate EASTERN PROMISES knockoff.  The confusing narrative jumps around from 1985 to 1998, telling the story of two men, Kolima (Arnas Fedaravicius) and Gagarin (Vilius Tumalavicius), who--wait for it--were childhood best friends who became bitter adversaries as adults.  As if that wasn't a tired enough story foundation, it's a woman who comes between them, in this case the mentally-challenged Xenja (Eleanor Tomlinson), a sweet but simple-minded young lady referred to by the locals as everything from "a special gift from God" to "retarded."  Both men enter a life of crime and spend time in prison--Gagarin as a youth and Kolima as an adult--and once Kolima is released, he swears vengeance on Gagarin, who raped Xenja while he was gone and left her a catatonic shell of the vibrant, innocent woman she was, the quick culmination of a sudden conflict between the two men that, until Kolima finds out about the rape, seems to come out of nowhere.

DEADLY CODE tries and fails to address the culture of the Russian mob and its ties to the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, represented in the hammiest possible fashion by John Malkovich as ruthless Siberian crime boss Grandfather Kuzia, who happens to actually be Kolima's grandfather.  Malkovich gets to dust off his Teddy KGB-from-ROUNDERS accent while dispensing sage advice and hackneyed metaphors.  It's hard to believe it took six screenwriters--including THE BEST OF YOUTH scribes Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli--to put together a story this cookie-cutter rote and by-the-numbers.  The film was shot in English, so perhaps something got lost in the translation, especially with stilted dialogue like an enraged Gagarin yelling "I destroy everything I touch!" and "I don't follow your rules!  I don't believe in anything, so I can do what I want!"  Lithuanian actors Fedaravicius and Tumalavicius both debut here and aren't bad, though they're sabotaged by poor writing and a bland story. Tomlinson (JACK THE GIANT SLAYER) is stuck with an almost unplayable character about which we learn very little, so really the only entertainment value here is Malkovich, who spends a lot of time tending to his doves, showing his grandson how to properly shiv someone, and taking a steam with other underworld figures, like Ink (Peter Stormare), who's in charge of all the body art.  DEADLY CODE had an opportunity to explore a unique subject, but instead opts to fall back on trite dialogue, stale genre conventions and a scenery-slurping guest turn by its American export value.  (R, 103 mins)

(France/Belgium/Luxembourg - 2013; US release 2014)

Quite possibly the most boring financial thriller this side of 1981's ROLLOVER, the deadening MOBIUS offers little aside from the novelty of THE ARTIST Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin in a straight-faced and completely serious role.  Dujardin is Russian FSB agent Gregory Lubov, codename "Moses," caught in a complex web of lies and deception involving American financial analyst Alice Redmond (Cecile de France), who's been exiled from Wall Street after helping bring down Lehman Brothers.  She's now working as a trader at the headquarters of a Monaco firm owned by billionaire Russian banking magnate Ivan Rostovski (Tim Roth), whose firm is a front for a global money laundering scheme.  Alice is actually working for the CIA as a mole in Rostovski's employ in order to obtain information that will enable her to return to the US. Rostovski keeps trying to get Alice into bed, but she's more interested in Moses, who's posing as a writer and, judging from Alice's facial twitching, popped neck veins, and quivering body spasms in their sex scenes, may very well be the inventor of the female orgasm.  These scenes aren't particularly explicit and de France's nudity is brief, but writer/director Eric Rochant's static, lingering close-ups of her face as Alice reaches multiple orgasms just feels like an odd decision that completely fails to come off as erotic, especially considering that, taken out of context, it looks like she could just as easily be constipated. The Monaco scenery looks beautiful, but Rochant's script is weak, especially when a folksy CIA agent (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS' Brad Leland) has to explain the concept of the Mobius Strip to Moses in the most heavy-handed fashion imaginable. Dujardin is good and is obviously capable of anchoring a suspense thriller, but it would've worked out better if MOBIUS was even remotely suspenseful or thrilling. De France isn't exactly a convincing American, and the always-reliable Roth is horribly miscast, playing the ruthless, big-money power broker with a glum, slouched disinterest that borders on narcolepsy. Also with Emilie Dequenne as Moses' FSB associate and John Lynch, John Scurti (RESCUE ME, HOUSE OF CARDS), and Wendell Pierce (THE WIRE, TREME) as CIA honchos overseeing Alice's infiltration of Rostovski's empire, MOBIUS is a sleep-inducing, hopelessly convoluted dud of a thriller where the most versatile acting is done by Cecile de France's facial muscles. (R, 108 mins)

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