Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Day At The Movies: The Wolfman, Up In The Air, The Book Of Eli

The original The Wolfman is one of the first films I can remember loving. But I was excited when the remake was announced. I was eager even. Despite the spotty track records these updates have, Bram Stokers Dracula is a film I have issues with, to put it lightly, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is so bad I have literally never been able to watch anything directed by or starring Kenneth Braunaugh without feeling white hot peals of residual hate. Benicio Del Toro is one of my favorite actors, and he heads films all too rarely. I’m a big Andrew Kevin Walker Fan, and was eager to see Mark Romenack pay off on the promising One Hour Photo. Add in Rick Baker and well we’ve got a deal. And then…

Faithful readers know that I’m not one for Hollywood gossip. Leave the backbiting treacle to the Finkes and Hiltons, I’m in it for the movies bub. So perhaps you will give me the benefit of the doubt if I step back for a moment and marvel at the production of The Wolfman. A chain of events so ghastly, that I have a feeling that once a few non disclosure agreements wear off, the best book about Hollywood since The Devil’s Candy, might be in it.

No one seems to quite know how The Wolfman got just so fucked.

It all seemed like such a sure bet while the movie was gearing up for production back in 2006. A script by a keen, though lately unheard from talent who had already proved himself adapt at Gothic Horror with Sleepy Hollow, an ambitious unproven director, a cast to die for, and a special effects wizard coming back to revisit the monster that made him famous and prove that practical effects can stand up with the best CGI.

Then it all suddenly went to shit.

Next thing you know, said young ambitious director is fired replaced by Journeyman Joe Johnston, the script is being rewritten, and Baker’s handcrafted effects are being overhauled with CGI. This all happens two weeks before production is slated to start. You can’t help but wonder just what lead to all of that.

As if that wasn’t enough, the film’s slated release of 2007 gets pushed back. A lot. Remember when the cast was at Comic Con, touting what they thought was a finished movie? From what I’ve heard, the entire film basically ended up getting reshot. Twice.

So finally here comes The Wolfman, three years late, God knows how much over budget. With a Rotten Tomatoes score sagging around 30%. I don’t doubt that I’m not the only one wondering What the fuck happened.

So to say The Wolfman arrives with some baggage is an understatement. That it works at all is a miracle.

I don’t know if I can call The Wolfman a good movie, but it is a spectacularly silly one and at times a ridiculously entertaining movie. By the time the film climaxes with a duel fought in what I can only describe as Werewolf Kung Fu, I was shaking my head in dismay with a big goofy grin on my face.

The film stars Benicio Del Toro as a successful actor who returns to his estranged family after years away in the aftermath of his brother’s death. His father, Anthony Hopkins lives in a dilapidated old mansion where he spends his day carving huge gooey slice of ham so he can wrap it in the scenery to munch on. He’s joined by fellow landscape culinarists Geraldine Chaplin and Hugo Weaving, and they all sit down and have themselves a nice little banquet.

As if to prove that every action has an equal but opposite reaction, Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt underplay their roles to a perverse degree. Just as well, had they gone off the reservation too, the film might have turned into a miniature black hole. Unfortunately, their inability to strike sparks really robs the film of whatever chance it had to gain some tragic weight. The main problem with The Wolfman aside from its rampant silliness, is that for all the intestines on display it never gets in your guts. The film is kind of displayed in microcosm by the dreadful asylum scene at its center, chronicling the month of Del Toro’s imprisonment in a wildly flailing mishmash of imagery, and attempted comedy. It throws everything at the wall and nothing sticks. Likewise the film throws subplot after subplot at the viewer hoping to intrigue and never quite catching.

Still, the sequence does climax with the films best sequence in which Del Toro transforms infront of a lecture hall of flabbergasted observers, and then tears them apart. Scenes like this and the wolf’s first attack on a gypsy camp combine a kind of pulp lunacy, with a wicked sense of humor, some well staged monster shots, and gore gags worthy of early Sam Raimi (The Wolfman is a surprisingly gory film on the whole. It more then earns its R).

While I was dismissive to him before, Joe Johnston on the rare occasion where he’s engaged by the material, like say The Rocketeer can bring it he’s obviously a man who loves by pulp storytelling (which makes him in my mind the perfect man for Captain America). And the scenes where he gets to treat Victorian London, with its gargoyles and opera houses like his own personal parkour set, or drape the moors in billowy fog are obviously a delight for him.

Still these scenes are few and far between, and it all devolves into so much Werewolf Kung Fu. The Wolfman could have been a better movie, its practically there beneath the surface. But I don’t know if I would like it half so much if it was. I have the oddest affection for this film. It’s the kind of affection one has for an idiot child true. But love is love.

I finally got to see Up In The Air, after all the hype and subsequent backlash, and I was glad I did.

Reitman gets a lot of doubters, but I find him to be one of the finest filmmakers of his generation. While many are incensed by the comparisons some throw to Wilder, I think they ring true.

Like Wilder, Reitman makes films that are slyly sophisticated and adult. Like Wilder he has an expert eye for dissecting people and their appetites, but enough compassion to keep his films from flying into full blown misanthropy. Like Wilder he brings out the best of his actors coaxing multi faceted performances from people too used to coasting. Like Wilder his style is confident and singular without being off puttingly showy. In short Reitman is a classy filmmaker, who creates mature films about adults. To my mind that makes him a Goddamn endangered species and a director to be protected and treasured.

I don’t have much to say on the film , that hasn’t been already said. Clooney continues to make the best out of his persona. Vera Farmigan exudes a persona of intelligence and sex that made me realize that I had completely underestimated her, and Reitman’s budding ensemble (Jason Bateman, JK Simmons, and most gratifyingly Sam Elliot) all step up to the plate and do excellent work.

It’s a human scale story that shocked me with its literacy and genuinely shook me with some of the turns its story took. It has the courage to leave its protaginist lost, only now he actually knows it. And as the old saying goes, How terrible is wisdom that brings no profit to the wise.

The Book Of Eli ended up surprising the hell out of me. Dumped in January to fair to middling reviews I wasn’t expecting much, but ended up being kind of blown away by it. It just snuck up on me, which doesn’t happen all too often anymore.

Eli is the kind of smart, original genre filmmaking I keep begging to see, and now that an example of it has shown up, I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t a bigger deal. I mean this is a film with Denzel Washington, battling Gary Oldman in the kind of operatic baddie performance he hasn’t given since Hannibal. It’s a fully realized world stylishly directed by the Hughes (filmmakers who’ve been silent for far too long) its got a great design with real life to it, a couple of set pieces that are just killer. And, oh yeah its got fucking Tom Waits in it. Sounds like a slice of fried gold to me. I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a classic, a minor classic to be sure, but this is the kind of film that ends up as a secret handshake between true lovers of the genre.

Now of course there is the Jesus element here that seems to be pissing people off. I have to admit, I don’t get it. I’m a practicing Catholic, and that’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it on this blog. I say that not to try and convince or convert anyone, I’m fairly against proselytizing in any form, but because I always feel its important if one is to be an honest critic to let their biases be known.

My point is only this, why is that people seem to think that Christian themes belong only in horrific amateur productions like Fireproof, or safe Pabulum like The Chronicles Of Narnia. Is it really so inexcusable for a genre movie to deal with Christianity? Much less an R rated genre film? Why? The film handles faith in what I thought was a mature and thoughtful way. It certainly doesn’t shy away from religions dark side or support an unthinking version of faith. We’re talking about one genre film that has the gal to bring up Jesus, amid about a billion secular Terminator Salvations and Transformers 2s, but from the way some of the detractors have been talking you’d think that you could hardly pass a multiplex door without hearing “Onward Christian Soldier” blasting from it. I’m not saying you have to like it, or have to believe in it. I’m just saying it was refreshing to watch a film that didn’t treat me like an idiot for having faith, nor try to exploit me by being sickeningly congraluatory about it like Kirk Cameron and his risible cronies. Instead it’s a film that asked intelligent questions about the nature of faith and the place of the divine in a place seemingly devoid of hope. Is that really something to get pissed aboutl?

Of course none of that would matter if the film itself wasn’t so damn entertaining. Post Apocalyptic films are a favorite genre of mine. They’re also one of the toughest to do right, and one of the easiest to do lazily (And you have to love the shout out the film gave to A Boy And His Dog). Eli takes the time to fully think out its world and its implications. The world its denizens and their way of life have all been fully thought out.

Washington embodies his roll with his trademark mix of effortless resolve, sly humor, and easy authority. He’s matched by Gary Oldman, one of my favorite actors excelling in pleasure of doing what he does best, aka being utterly terrifying without ever once leaving the realm of the possible. Even Mila Kunis does a credible job. Her relationship with Denzel, that of an eager apprentice and dubious mentor rather then romantic coupling creates an oddly credible bond. And not to spoil anything but should their be a Book Of Eli 2 following her kicking ass and spreading order across the ready to reform continent I would be more then down. A lot of credit goes to the script by first time writer, Gary Whitta who never settles for two dimensions even giving such throwaway roles as Ray Stevenson’s lackey and Michael Gambon’s friendly cannibal surprisingly deep.

More then anything Eli plays like a post apocalyptic Samurai film, with Washington making for one hell of a Yojimbo, set in a rich world. It’s a world made up of equal parts George Miller, Japanese Anime, and Harlan Ellison without being beholden to any of them. It is in short a kickass genre movie. And though many of us share different faiths, we all subscribe to the religion of badass cinema. And we can all say Amen to that.


Neil Fulwood said...

"Fellow landscape culinarists" - round of applause, sir!

Franco Macabro said...

I loved this new Wolfman every step of the way, nice recounting of this movies trajectory to the big screen. I agree with you, the movie does not dwell too long on any given plot point, it doesn't take its time to tell its story. It does go at a quick pace, but I kind of like that about it, it never gets boring.

About the movies silliness, I think that comes from the 1941 version of the film. Those old Universal movies did get kind of silly at times, I always found the whole gypsy angle kind of cheesy. But I guess thats part of the whole "Universal Monsters" vibe where the films are filled with horror movie cliches, which I love of course.

The clash between werewolves to me was one of the coolest moments in the film, it was kind of intense for me story wise.

A fun movie, a bit silly because of its connection with the 1941 version.

Anonymous said...

Catching the Wolfman tomorrow. But a kung fu style fighting werewolf? Egad.

Despite solid performances, at the end of The Book of Eli, I couldn't help but not care for the entire journey and sacrifice that was made. I just felt no emotional connection to any of iy. And for me, the ending was just plain flat as a result.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Neil: Thanks. I have to admit I was quite pleased with that one.

@FC: I agree with you. Oddly enough I really do have alot of affection for this film. I didn't realize how much I liked it until I started talking with people about it.

@PoT: Yeah I can see how that happen. Me I got caught up soon as the Al Green started. As for the ending, I don't think there's any actor who instantly makes a movie better then Malcolm Mc Dowell. I heard his voice and was just like, "No Way!"