The Wolfman | Valentine’s Day | Edge of Darkness

Cinema reviews for Feb. 18
The Wolfman
Rating: The Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of DarknessThe Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of DarknessThe Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of DarknessThe Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of Darkness

Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, Geraldine Chaplin, Art Malik, Nicholas Day, Michael Cronin, David Sterne, David Schofield, Roger Frost, Rob Dixon, Clive Russell, Antony Sher, Rick Baker. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, from the 1941 film written by Curt Siodmak.

Joe Johnston´s The Wolfman, a more or less straight-faced remake of the 1941 Universal horror film, is not a particularly good movie; it´s slow and creaky and not remotely scary, and the tone varies wildly throughout. But there´s 15 minutes of wonderfully campy (and bloody) werewolf rampage in the movie that just about saves the rest of it. In fits and spurts, I had some fun here.

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Benicio Del Toro stars as Lawrence Talbot, a role filled by Lon Chaney in the original film. Talbot is touring England with a theater company when a letter from Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) informs him of the death of his brother Ben (Gwen´s fiancée). This brings him back to the sleepy village of Blackmoor and his father´s expansive estate, where he hasn´t been since he was a child.

Through disjointed flashbacks, I was able to piece together the following, which may not be completely accurate: Lawrence witnessed the death of his mother, was sent to an insane asylum, and then to live with his aunt in America. This partially explains Del Toro´s American accent, though it still leaves the question of why he looks nothing like Anthony Hopkins, who plays his character´s father; the mother was suitably “ethnic” looking, but still…

Anyway, Lawrence promises Gwen that he´ll find out what happened to his brother. Ben Talbot was torn to pieces in gruesome fashion, as were two other men. On a full moon. No surprises: it´s a werewolf, you may have guessed from the title of the film. And refreshingly, most of the characters in the film know it´s a werewolf too, silver bullets at the ready. Also refreshing: instead of the re-imagining of the myth that has become so popular in recent years, in the Twilight and Underworld films, among others, these werewolves play it by the book.

As do most of the special effects in the film, by Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, who wore an ape suit for the 1976 remake of King Kong. In The Wolfman, he dresses his actors in wolf suits, more man than wolf, an appropriate nod to the original movie. While these retro, campy effects may be dismissed by some, I had a lot of fun being brought back to the days of Universal horror and 50s monster movies.

Out of the spate of remakes of the Universal icons in the last 20 years – Branagh´s Mary Shelley´s Frankenstein, Coppola´s Bram Stoker´s Dracula, Mike Nichols´ Wolf (?), and Stephen Sommer´s The MummyThe Wolfman comes closest to re-capturing the feel of the original. That, I can really appreciate.

But that doesn´t necessarily make for a good movie. Notorious reshoots pushed the film back from a fall 2009 release, and the resulting film is a mess, its biggest fault the complete lack of a driving narrative. Lawrence finds out what happened to his brother, and from that point on there´s just no drive – the characters have no goals (or if they do, they are unknown to us) – and the film tends to slog through one set piece to another with little plot to tie the two together. Pacing is all over the place – some scenes are cut too tight, others drag on with little of interest taking place – and while the movie is only 100 minutes long, it feels considerably longer.

Acting is of a higher caliber than we expect from these films, with Blunt and Del Toro filling in a depth to their characters that the script lacks. Best of all are Anthony Hopkins, as hammy as he´s ever been, and Hugo Weaving, as Inspector Abberline, the wry policeman on the case. “Pint of bitter, please.”

Big complaint: there´s a heavy reliance on jump scares here. Characters enter a dark room, glance around and take baby steps as a POV shot slowly pans and zooms. Then…boo! Oh, it was just some birds, or a dog, or the dog again, or a stuffed lion´s head mounted on the wall, which emits a low roar on the soundtrack for some reason. One hopes that a major 2010 picture would avoid this overused cliché, but no, they´re here and as overused as ever.

Also odd: the CGI mixed in with traditional (even dated) prosthetic effects. Here we have a man in a wolf costume running around next to a fully animated bear and a deer.  The CGI is shrouded in darkness and never really distracting, but one wonders why they just couldn´t get the real animals; this has become increasingly commonplace in recent years.

But for the all-too-brief werewolf scenes – the best of their kind since 1981´s The Howling and An American Werewolf in London – I can almost forgive The Wolfman. Almost.


The Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of Darkness


Valentine’s Day
Rating: The Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of DarknessThe Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of DarknessThe Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of DarknessThe Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of Darkness

Directed by Garry Marshall. Starring Jessica Alba, Kathy Bates, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper, Eric Dane, Patrick Dempsey, Hector Elizondo, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Carter Jenkins, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah, Taylor Lautner, George Lopez, Shirley MacLaine, Emma Roberts, Julia Roberts, Bryce Robinson, Taylor Swift, Matthew Walker. Written by Katherine Fugate and Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein.

Garry Marshall´s Valentine’s Day is an adequate, pleasant-enough date movie, but it’s utterly unmemorable in almost every detail. I give it a lot of credit for being almost completely inoffensive – an increasingly rare aspect in recent mass market romantic comedy – but it´s so glossy and lightweight it barely even registers in the mind.

Most of it revolves around Reed Bennett (Ashton Kutcher), proprietor of an L.A. flower shop. The first thing he does when he wakes up on Valentine´s Day is propose to girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba), who says yes – but something doesn´t quite seem right. Meanwhile, Reed´s friend Julia (Jennifer Garner) has her own V-Day worries, when surgeon boyfriend Harrison (Patrick Dempsey) leaves for work -and promptly drives home to his wife and children. Alphonso (George Lopez) provides some ethnic comedy relief out of Reed´s flower shop.

Then there´s businessman Holden (Bradley Cooper) and servicewoman Kate (Julia Roberts), who strike up a conversation, and a friendship, on a lengthy flight to L.A. And NFL quarterback Sean Jackson (Eric Dane), who seems to be spending V-Day alone while contemplating retirement, while agent Paula (Queen Latifah) and P.R. woman Kara (Jessica Biel) swarm around him. Sean´s segment has the best (and most surprising) payoff in the film, and Dane – one of lesser name brands among the cast – gives the best performance.

But wait! There´s more! Paula´s fill-in assistant Liz (Anne Hathaway) also makes a living as an “adult phone entertainer”, something that unknowing suitor Jason (Topher Grace) will eventually have to come to grips with. TV sports guy Kelvin (Jamie Foxx) is assigned to cover some lighter V-Day fare, against his will, by producer Susan (Kathy Bates). An elderly couple (Marshall standby Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine) discover some secrets from their past.

And that´s not all: cute little fourth grader Edison (Bryce Robinson) stops into Reed´s shop to buy a dozen roses to impress the girl he loves. And two high school couples – Alex (Carter Jenkins) and Grace (Emma Roberts, Julia´s niece), and Willy (Tyler Lautner) and Felicia (Taylor Swift) have some breezy V-Day fun. These segments are easily the least in Valentine´s Day, a mom-and-dad fantasy view of high school romance.

I think that just about covers the main characters, though there´s a few more plot strands that tie them all together. In other words, there´s a lot going on here: about twenty stars in roles that would be leads in other films, in plot threads that would be a main narrative in other features. There´s so many characters here that you can tell they started to run out of decent names for them: Morley? Kelvin? Reminds me of an old Simpsons gag (Bort?)

Expectedly, none of them are done any kind of justice. Which is probably just as well, as towards the end most of them were starting to get on my nerves anyway. By my count, each storyline is given about 10-12 minutes of screen time, and then they´re cut up into segments that are about 2-3 minutes long apiece and mixed in with the rest of them. If only the film were directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and cut together out-of-order, 21 Grams style; that would have provided some interest.

There´s nothing really bad about Valentine´s Day, but nothing really good, either. Malnourishing would be the appropriate word. If you have any inclination to seeing it I daresay you won´t be disappointed, and if you´re dragged to it kicking and screaming you may be pleasantly diverted. Yawn.

It´s difficult to handle such a complicated narrative structure, and Marshall should be given some amount of credit for that; as lightweight as it is, Valentine´s Day may be his best film in twenty years, dating back to Frankie and Johnny and Pretty Woman. Given the L.A. setting and ensemble structure, I was thinking of Altman´s Short Cuts a few minutes into the film. Silly me.


The Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of Darkness


Edge of Darkness
Rating: The Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of DarknessThe Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of DarknessThe Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of DarknessThe Wolfman | Valentine's Day | Edge of Darkness

Directed by Martin Campbell. Starring Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic, Shawn Roberts, David Aaron Baker, Jay O. Sanders, Denis O’Hare, Damian Young, Caterina Scorsone, Frank Grillo, Wayne Duvall, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Gabrielle Popa, Paul Sparks, Christy Scott Cashman. Written by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell, from the 1985 TV miniseries written by Troy Kennedy-Martin.


In Edge of Darkness, director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) returns to familiar ground: his well-regarded, if mostly forgotten (in the US, at least, where it was rarely shown in the first place), 1985 BBC miniseries. In this remake, the environmental and (for lack of a better word) supernatural elements have been toned down, the violence amped up, and 300+ minutes of story have been condensed to 120; it doesn´t rate highly next to the original, but it´s good enough on its own terms.

Mel Gibson stars as Thomas Craven, a Boston policeman whose estranged daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) comes home from her work for a shady corporation in the Berkshires. But all isn´t right: she seems sick, and just as she´s about to tell her father something important she vomits on the kitchen table and asks to be taken to the doctor. On their way out the front door, a masked gunman screams “Craven!” and fires a shotgun into Emma´s chest.

The police – Craven´s friends and colleagues – suspect the shot was intended for Thomas, not his daughter. But he knows better, and – after the requisite mourning period, in which he asks to be left on the case – he sets out to find out more about his daughter. A handgun along with her belongings is the first clue (in the original series, Craven – played by Bob Peck – finds and kisses his daughter´s dildo in this scene; expectedly, the uncomfortably intimate father-daughter subplot has been excised here).

Craven´s investigation leads him to his daughter´s boyfriend (Shawn Roberts), Northmoor – the corporation she worked for, it´s slimy head Jack Bennett (Danny Huston), hired goons in black suits, a potentially corrupt Senator (Damian Young), and an environmental organization that may have been trying to expose wrongdoings at the company.

And there in the shadows is Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a mysterious figure who is working for a government organization trying to clean up the mess. He operates in a grey zone, his motives and allegiances unknown to us and Craven and maybe Jedburgh himself. Jedburgh was played by Joe Don Baker (a favorite whipping boy on Mystery Science Theater 3000) in the original, who gave a truly memorable performance; there he was the American good ol´ boy operating in England, here the nationalities are reversed and the effect muted.

A cathartic ending (not dissimilar to the one in The Departed, also scripted by William Monahan) is fitting, but I can´t help but feel the bar has been raised for these Death Wish revenge dramas (particularly due to films like Man on Fire). No longer are we satisfied when the villain is simply killed, now we want to see them really suffer.

Edge of Darkness is exceptionally well-cast, right down the line: Danny Huston is the go-to villain these days, but backing him up is some really great work by Young as the Senator and Denis O´Hare and David Aaron Baker as government agents. Even the head goon, played by Frank Grillo, is memorable, in the Frank Nitti/The Untouchables vein.

Mild annoyance: Gibson´s thick Bostonian brogue. It´s just laid on too thick: Gibson is (was?) a “movie star” who draws an audience by playing the same (or a similar) character in film after film; to hear him speak as we´ve never heard him speak before – no matter how “good” the accent may be – is distracting, at least initially. See also: Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island, opening next week. And yet I´d complain if they didn´t attempt an accent, like Tom Cruise in Valkyrie. Damned if they do, damned if they don´t.

One more annoyance: a subplot with Robinson Jr., the head of the environmental organization, ends almost as soon as it begins, with no resolution; we´re simply missing a scene here, which must´ve ended up on the cutting room floor, noticeably absent.

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