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Sunday
Feb142010

The Wolfman, 2010

Pissed-on Pedigree

Universal Pictures’ remake of The Wolfman has everything going for it on paper. It stars Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, and Emily Blunt; actors who have—to varying degrees at varying times—been very interesting and fun to watch. Director Joe Johnston has a history of making breezy pseudo-blockbusters like The Rocketeer and Jurassic Park 3, and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker has penned both a spooky period adventure (Sleepy Hollow) and a character-driven thriller (Se7en). Lastly, legendary effects man Rick Baker has been given the chance to take the revolutionary werewolf transformation effects he created in An American Werewolf in London to the greater heights using modern makeup and CG effects. The problem with The Wolfman is that none of these elements gel, resulting in a hairy, plodding failure.

Set in 1891 London, The Wolfman tells the story of Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro), a New York stage actor who returns home on learning that his brother, Ben, has been viciously murdered. After years overseas, he must reacquaint himself with his distant father, Sir John (Hopkins), and his brother’s fiancee, Gwen Conliffe (Blunt), as well as the superstitious townsfolk who live at the edge of his family’s estate. Lawrence visits a gypsy camp to investigate a medallion found in Ben’s personal effects; while there, a werewolf attacks the nomads and kills almost everyone in sight. Ben is bitten, and then the rest of the movie happens.

The first problem with The Wolfman is the story. I should have been able to write interestedly about juicy developments or at least teased you about not wanting to give anything away, but this movie is strictly paint-by-numbers. There is literally nothing to talk about, plot-wise, that you could not guess from having read the set-up. Will Lawrence and Gwen develop a forbidden romance? Does Sir John hold a deep, dark secret about the werewolf attacks? If you honestly don’t know the answers to these questions, then see The Wolfman.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with telling a “classic” story without changing things up, plot-wise; but if you’re not going to invest in that area, you must give the audience a reason to show up—by either showcasing amazing performances, providing crackling dialogue, or at least giving them cool things to look at (For the record, I believe that off-the-shelf scripts are the first sign of a doomed project, but for the purposes of this review, I’ll pretend it’s kind of okay).

As directed by Joe Johnston, The Wolfman is a gray, gloomy bore. The sets look like they were dusted off from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow; the wardrobe is right out of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula—along with the music, the screenplay, and Anthony Hopkins. And most of the actors shuffle zombie-like through the film, with no spark, wit, or even energy; the only actor not completely wasted is Hugo Weaving as Scotland Yard detective Abberline. He seems to know what the movie’s supposed to be in his early scenes, but by the end, he’s just another cardboard Captain Ahab who gets a comeuppance that was neither deserved nor well-conceived. To watch The Wolfman is to be transported back to 1891 London, alright, where one could watch the grass grow on the Moors for hours on end.

I’ll give Andrew Kevin Walker a sliver of credit for the one line of dialogue that woke me up during the movie; it is mentioned that Abberline was the head detective “on the Ripper case some years ago.” Of course, this fact is never mentioned again, and the story certainly does nothing with it; but in my head I began writing a story in which the central character in The Wolfman is a failed detective who must once again solve a series of unspeakable murders—coming face-to-face with two kinds of inhuman monsters. Alas, the biggest insight we get into Abberline’s psyche is a look at his handlebar moustache.

Now that we’ve established the failure of the cast, the writer and the director, we’re left only with the special effects. They’re not that special. Rick Baker’s practical makeup for Del Toro as the monster looks like a cross between the original Lon Chaney, Jr. applications and those of Jason Bateman in Teen Wolf Too. Talbot is creepier looking in mid-transformation than he is in full-on lycan mode, which is a problem. As for the CG, it looks intermittently believable and cartoon rubbery. In my opinion, the effects crew has taken a thirty-year step back from David Naughton’s wonderfully painful morph in An American Werewolf in London.

It also doesn’t help that there are no real scares in this movie. When the werewolf attacks, we get quick, computer-enhanced cuts of bodies disappearing from the frame, followed by barking and screaming sound effects and a close-up of ripped-up guts and throats. This gang has mistaken jump-scares and gore for terror in the same way they substituted gloom and cobblestones for mood.

Similarly, Johnston and Walker try and fail at padding Lawrence Talbot’s story with a silly back-story in which he was locked in an asylum for a year. I guess this is supposed to convince us that he’s possibly just crazy, or to give the townspeople an easy reason to institutionalize him again when he becomes a suspect in the killings. But we’re assaulted with too many dream sequences and half-remembered flashbacks that just pop up, go “Boo” and then vanish. Nothing in Del Toro’s performance suggests madness (except, perhaps, an obsession with Quaaludes), so all of the asylum sequences play like a distraction, an excuse to show off a cool torture chair and have the werewolf devour a roomful of book-learnin’ science types.

It’s been awhile since I sat through such an unnecessary remake. We already have movies like Silver Bullet and An American Werewolf in London available to us, films that—while not perfect—at least took the premise of the werewolf movie and took it in unexpected directions. Leaving the theatre, I felt no joy, no sense that I’d just watched something that a group of creative people were really excited to bring to the big screen. The Wolfman is the very definition of a cynical cash-grab that studio executives foist on us with the (very real) belief that brand recognition will translate into just enough money to please Universal's shareholders. It'll make you howl at the moon.

Update, 2/15/10: Do you agree with this review? Do you disagree? Do you like prizes? If so, head on over to Chateau Grrr and enter their "Wolfman Review Contest". They're offering a really cool, framed print of a werewolf woodcut that appears in the film. All you've gotta do is see the movie and write your own review to be eligible for a random drawing next month. For those not in the know, I write for the Grrr under the nom de plume "Gray Vjaardspuk". Have fun!

Thursday
Feb112010

In the Loop, 2009 (Home Video Review)

F@#&ing Brilliant!

On the opposite end of the spectrum from The Room is In the Loop, a brilliant political satire by director Armando Iannucci and an army of screenwriters. The film is based on a BBC television series called The Thick of It, which I haven’t seen, and chronicles the snowballing screw-ups in the British and American governments that lead to war in the Middle East. It’s a fictional account, and deals in generalities as far as the year and geography of the conflict, but In the Loop is a contemporary fable about good intentions and bad governance.

The film opens with the Minister of Communications, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) taking heat for an interview he’d given in which he denounced claims that war was brewing. His aides and superiors are flustered and in full damage-control mode when Simon decides to give a follow-up statement to a gaggle of reporters; his lack of a prepared statement—or even an idea as to what his real thoughts on the matter are—leads to another gaffe (“In order to walk the road of peace, sometimes we must be ready to climb the mountain of conflict”). Simon’s anti-war stance attracts the attention of U.S. Senator Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), who plans to use him as leverage in stopping a Washington war hawk named Linton Barwick (David Rasche) from starting a war committee.

From there, In the Loop explodes with sub-plots and supporting characters who all get ground up in the march to war. One of the things I love about this movie is that it’s a government drama in which we never see the President or other world leaders making big decisions; it showcases just how many earth-moving ideas are formulated and executed in the lower, unseen levels of the bureaucracy. There are back-room deals and double-crosses, love affairs and bloody mouths all over the place and, though farcical, this film depicts the pluses and minuses of modern politics.

Did I mention that it’s extremely funny? Okay, maybe you won’t laugh out loud a lot (though I did), but the rapid-fire dialogue and the manic actors who speak it create a dizzying atmosphere of parody and exhilaration that I haven’t seen since Alec Baldwin’s cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross. The dialogue is the heightened, perfect speech of brilliant movie characters; the zingers and insults are bone-breaking (or, as my wife put it, “Gilmore Girls on crack”).

I appreciate a movie that rewards intelligent audiences. While a base knowldege of world affairs would be helpful, In the Loop gives viewers everything they need to know to keep up. The key is keeping up. There are many different accents and fragments of slang flying about here, and they're often servicing story points that, if one isn't paying attention, can disappear in the course of a "Huh?" This is the anti-blockbuster. It invites you to engage your brain and appreciate solid writing and outstanding performances, rather passively accept pretty 3-D aliens and explosions as default quality entertainment.

The standout in the cast of great performers is Peter Capaldi as Malcom Tucker. He’s like the British Rahm Emmanuel, running from office-to-office, busting heads and getting things done for the higher-ups. His foul-mouthed diatribes can go on for minutes, and he might be considered a joke if it weren’t for the blackness behind his eyes. Tucker destroys every scene he’s in with confidence and cuss-words, but we do get to see...a “softer side” would be exaggerating, but he does get taken down a few pegs, and I appreciated the extra dimension.

In the Loop is the closest we’re likely to get to a remake of Dr. Strangelove (not that we need one). While it doesn’t end on nearly as dark a note as Stanley Kubrick’s seminal statement on war, this movie examines the absurdity of granting so much power to so few flawed, greedy human beings. It has a slightly less cynical view of government than Strangelove, though, in that we get to see noble (but, again, flawed) people working to make things better. I’m a sucker for smart, well-written political films, and this is the best I’ve seen in awhile.

Thursday
Feb112010

The Room (2003)

Did He Just Say "Tommy"?

Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is the most satisfying film I’ve seen in a long, long time. Not since The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man have I felt so full of love for movies that I felt like my head might literally explode.

For those of you not familiar with this cult gem, it's a low-budget drama about a guy named Johnny (Wisseau), whose fiancée, Lisa (Juliette Danielle), is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero). It’s as simple as that, with absolutely no surprises, twists or revelations that couldn’t be found on Days of Our Lives. The mastery is in the execution.

The IMDB listing for this movie says that it’s a black comedy, and I’ve gotta call bullshit on that one. Such a label gives the movie far too much credit, and there’s no way to accept that all of the terrible acting, weird dialogue, atrocious camerawork, and mind-blowing music was intentional. For that to be the case, Tommy Wiseau would have to be an autistic auteur on the level of Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg. The movie magic here, I’m convinced, is a once-in-a-century perfect storm of awful that leaves good filmmaking in its hilarious wake.

It’s easy to see why The Room has become a midnight-movie sensation all across the country. It is jam-packed with instantly quotable lines (“You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” Technically, this was ripped off from Rebel Without a Cause, but the delivery forever transfers ownership); its first two-thirds are nothing more than poorly shot soft-core porn (there’s a five-minute sex scene about every three minutes); the rooftop set is not only the weirdest use of green screen, it also hosts half the movie’s best, most riotous scenes. This was made for large, kitsch-craving audiences, and I can imagine people showing up dressed as their favorite characters, tossing footballs back and forth in the theatre (watch The Room and you’ll understand).

If you do plan to check out one of the film in a traveling show, I recommend renting (or better yet BUYING) the DVD and watching it first. Otherwise, you might miss Lisa’s awkward conversation with her mother about breast cancer; or the last-minute addition of a random character at the end, who acts as if he were in the rest of the story all along; or, best yet, Philip Haldeman’s final scene as Denny, the young boy who lives in Johnny and Lisa’s building: he calls out to Johnny and, I swear to God, calls him “Tommy”—twice. You may even miss Tommy's bizarre laugh, which would be a crime. I guarantee that if you aren’t familiar with the material beforehand, eighty percent of the best stuff will be lost in the howling laughter around you.

In the end, the question remains, is The Room a good movie? By most accounts, the answer is “no”. All of the elements that comprise a traditional drama are so mishandled that one could rightly call Tommy Wisseau an incompetent filmmaker. On the other hand, since the resulting movie is hilarious and has obviously struck a chord with fans of the absurd, credit must be given to Wisseau, even if only for accidentally birthing something that is bad in ways that the average audience member could never anticipate. On those terms, I would have to call The Room one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.

Note: Tomorrow night, Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre will be screening The Room at 8pm and 12:30am. Better yet, Tommy Wiseau will be in attendance! If I realize my dream of shaking the man’s hand and thanking him for changing my life, I’ll be sure to report back.

Additional Note: If you're still not convinced, take forty seconds to watch these two clips. You're welcome.

Wednesday
Feb102010

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

(Hopeless)ly in Love

Gene Siskel once said that a movie is not what it’s about, but how it’s about it. (500) Days of Summer is the rare film that requires two kinds of reviews: one objective, one subjective.

I wasn’t on board with the film’s premise, which tracks the span of the relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a love-starved greeting card writer, and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), an emotionally unavailable flake who Tom believes to be the love of his life. The movie flashes forward and backward, mixing up day four—on which they meet—with day 344—on which they’re broken up, but not really, finally so. I don’t doubt that there are desperate man-children who will put up with mental abuse and consistent heartbreak by a woman who gives him frequent, obvious signs (while still stringing him along, out of boredom)—I just don’t want to watch them for an hour-and-a-half when all of his problems could be solved with a simple, “I’m annoying; you’re annoying; let’s not speak anymore.”

So that’s the subjective issue, and I understand that it’s mine alone. Objectively, how does the movie play? Sadly, not very well.

The movie is undeservedly smug. It’s drenched in a sort of knowing irony that is meant to evoke laughs from hipsters (I guess), but that merely serves to stall the plot and astound the non-suckers in the audience with a clown-car’s worth of tired quirk clichés. From the wise-old-man narrator to the fantasy dance number sequence in a park (which proves that screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have seen 9 to 5 and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) to Summer’s heart-shaped birthmark, (500) Days of Summer plays like really bad teen poetry (or just teen poetry).

Brief sidebar: why is Peter Parker’s impromptu dance number in Spider-Man 3 considered the death knell of a franchise, but Tom’s dancing with an animated bluebird is supposedly a lively and inventive stroke of genius? Sorry, back to the review...

The one sequence that’s executed well is a split-screen trip to a party at Summer’s apartment, in which we see Tom’s expectations on the left and his reality on the right. Director Marc Webb makes those three minutes sing by laying off the wackiness and going casual. If the rest of the picture had been as subtle and honest as that moment, the film might have been really special.

Instead, we’re treated to speech after speech about how pointless love is and how everyone feels the need to label everything; it’s just inauthentic noise that smacks of young, coffee-shop liberals who don’t know thing one about true love (it A. exists and B. is amazing, but not easy). Now, I don’t mind watching a movie that challenges my beliefs, but I need either a compelling argument or at least sharp, insightful dialogue to hold my interest (unfortunately, the “comedy” in this film is telegraphed sitcom pabulum; no offense to people who consider spit takes to be the best that indie screenwriters can deliver).

I would love to see an honest romantic comedy/drama featuring the lead actors from this film, as shot by the same director, but in the service of a story that actually says something about modern romance. And, no, there’s nothing wrong with a traditional three-act Hollywood structure that favors meets-cute over funky time jumping—as long as the writing and performances hold up.

In fairness, the movie begins by informing us that it is not a love story. But it’s also not a story about any people I’ve ever met, nor would I like to get to know. Tom’s puppy-dog desperation wears thin by the second time Summer tells him their relationship isn’t going to evolve past the “friends-with-benefits” stage; by the fifth time, I really just wanted to turn the movie off. (500) Days of Summer is the romantic comedy equivalent of torture porn.

Saturday
Feb062010

Frozen (2010)

Gangrene with Enmity

It’s okay for some characters in horror movies to be unlikable—that’s part of the catharsis in seeing them creatively killed off; but in a straight thriller, it’s usually a good idea for the audience to care what happens to them. In 2006, writer/director Adam Green gave us the 80s horror throwback Hatchet, an uninspired Friday the 13th rip-off that—according to who you ask—is either a brilliant genre satire, or just boring, generic and sad (guess which camp I’m in). The movie is full of ditzy, young idiots who meet their doom at the hands of an axe-wielding swamp-dweller. The only thing that abated the depression of watching them speak and do really stupid things was watching them die in quick succession.

Green’s newest film, Frozen, is masked in legitimacy, but commits a fatal crime: Porting over one of the slasher genre’s best archetypes (the jock asshole), multiplying it by three, and then expecting us to care about them being stuck on a chair lift for sixty minutes. Two best friends, Joe and Dan, and Dan’s girlfriend, Parker (played by Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers, and Emma Bell, respectively) wind down a weekend at a Massachusetts ski resort that is only open from Friday through Sunday. Joe, bitter because he and Dan have had to forego real skiing in order to look after Parker the novice, convinces Dan to go on one good run before they leave. Parker, of course, tags along and—through a series of small mistakes beyond their control—the three end up on a stopped chair lift, in the dark, hovering fifty feet over hard snow. Frozen unfolds as they struggle to survive amid harsh weather and hungry wolves stalking the woods below.

This sounds like a great idea for a movie—or maybe an hour-long short—but the problems all go back to the characters (and, by extension, the script). The first twenty minutes of Frozen sees Dan and Joe convincing Parker to sex it up for the rube lift operator, hoping that her tits and a hundred bucks will get them all a discounted ride up the mountain; since they bicker about what minimum wage is, I assume they’re just being cheap. Next, we’re treated to several (yes, several) conversations about how Dan isn’t the same now that he’s dating Parker; the boys at the local bar all miss him; she’s tearing two best friends apart ‘cause she’s an icky, dumb girl. At first I thought these were supposed to be high school students; turns out they’re in college (though Shawn Ashmore is 31 years old), and have apparently learned everything they know about male/female relationships from Maxim Magazine and reruns of Home Improvement.

By the time they get stranded, I felt queasy. Not because of the heights or the sub-zero cold, but by the realization that all three characters are horrible to each other in the best of times. I could only imagine how quickly and ugly matters would get when death became a possibility. Sure enough, they continue to get on each other’s nerves and fight.

Luckily, this is the point where Frozen briefly becomes a comedy. Dan decides to jump out of the seat and try his luck on the ground. Following a hilarious POV shot of his legs hitting the snow and shattering, we’re treated to five minutes of him sitting on the ground with bones jutting out of his bloody pants, screaming. Joe and Parker throw clothing at him to help tie up the wounds, and all three performances make a ridiculous looking splatter gag play out like the Mad TV version of a Magruber skit. The capper is the awkwardly staged first appearance of the wolves, which made me laugh out loud.

The rest of the film is a series of weird vignettes in which something awful happens, the characters ignore the awful thing, and eventually, so does the plot; these include, but are not limited to frostbite on the cheek, a bare hand frozen to the safety bar, and a loose bolt in the lift support that threatens everyone’s safety—for a couple minutes; the loose bolt takes a break from being menacing and returns to full dramatic capacity later on.

Frozen is supposed to be a “drama/thriller”, but there’s no tension in a story when the people it’s about are neither interesting nor sympathetic. It doesn’t matter how many stories Joe tells Parker about crushes he had in school or meeting Dan in the first grade; he’s more often than not selfish and dumb. I’ll give Adam Green this: the things the characters do to survive are—for the most part—reasonable. But the arrogance, jealousy, and pettiness that led to their predicament are hard to overcome. I got the feeling that the main reason Dan, Joe and Parker wanted to survive was so that they could hold the incident over each others’ heads for the rest of their hateful lives.