Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Wolfman

My dad is a big werewolf fan. I wrote a book on werewolves. So the notion of bringing the Wolf Man back to the screen is near and dear to my heart.

This version is actually a new incarnation of the classic Wolf Man movie of 1941 from Universal Studios, which in turn was preceded by Werewolf of London. The new version incorporates elements from both movies. From Werewolf London, we get the origin of the werewolf originating in Tibet, dueling werewolves, and death by gun. From the Wolf Man we get the Talbot family line, the "wolfbane" poem, and the silver wolf-headed walking stick. Perhaps the biggest inspiration is the makeup itself, which eschews the now standard gorilla-werewolf transformation for a form that looks distinctly like the original Wolf Man makeup.

Shakespearian actor and American Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns to his family manor after a long separation at the bequest of his dead brother's fiancé Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Conliffe is central to the plot; she enamors Lawrence as well as his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), and it is her presence or lack thereof that drives the lycanthropes to murder. As the body count rises, Francis Aberline of Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) arrives to solve the mystery. The hunt is on, but who's hunting whom?

Benicio del Toro is undeniably wolfish-looking, but he seems wooden and out of his element compared to Blunt, who uses her big soulful eyes and gothic Victorian attire to good effect. Unfortunately, they lack chemistry. More imposing but erratic is Hopkins, who lends a cold menace to the cast. Weaving doesn't have much to do but glare and shout orders, but then that's what we're accustomed to by now. He does add "horrified stare" to his trademarked expression.

Interspersed throughout the mystery is the family rivalry between sons and father. The best part of the movie takes place in an insane asylum. It provides an ironic take on lycanthropy as a mental disease and contrasts Victorian logic with the lurking world of magic and curses.

The Wolfman stays true to its roots. This is not a remake as much as it is a reimagining, filled with lush backdrops, gloomy settings, ancient moors, and a Tim Burton soundtrack that pays homage to Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. This incarnation is a gothic period piece set in Victorian times

Unfortunately, you get the sense that this new version is very insecure about its choices. The movie isn't particularly scary -- the horror is meant to be from the doomed plight of the protagonist -- but it nevertheless resorts to random shrieks and jump cuts. The Wolfman, while undeniably violent, transforms into an over-the-top death machine capable of tearing off heads and limbs with one swipe of his claws. This isn't just a new version of the Wolf Man, he's the Wolf Man on steroids.

Like Dracula, The Wolfman does not end well for any of its characters. As a gothic romance the best we can hope for is a resolution, not a happy ending. And that's exactly how it should be. The Wolfman respectfully carries a legacy of violent beasts on its hirsute shoulders, but mainstream audiences will probably hate it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


At a glance, it's hard to figure out what 9 is all about. There are ragdolls fighting in a post-apocalyptic landscape, but beyond that the trailers don't convey much. It probably didn't help that 9 was released amidst a swirl of movies with "nine" in the title.

9 takes place in a steampunk cross between Terminator and Little Big Planet, where the soulless Fabrication Machine known as BRAIN has destroyed all of humanity in an alternate history version of World War II. 9 is a Tim Burton tale of good and evil, as evidenced by the soft cloth of the "stitchpunk"-style green-eyed homunculi and the soulless red eye of BRAIN (Binary Reactive Artificially-Intelligent Neurocircuit). Similar to the premise of the sci-fi flop Virus, BRAIN sees everything as raw material, including organic remains. It fashions a series of increasingly lethal scouts, all with the sole purpose of absorbing and retrieving the souls of the heroic homunculi.

These poor little dolls are in for a world of hurt. Not much larger than a human hand, they embody all the traditional survivalist tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre: the power hungry leader (1), the befuddled but kind scientist (2), the innocents (3 and 4), the apprentice (5), the crazy prophet (6), the tough chick (7), the muscle (8), and of course or titular hero (9) who bucks the system. In this little slice of hell, the homunculi battle for both dominance and survival.

But really this is about fights between little stitch dolls and cyborgs. And what fights they are! There's the Cat Beast, the Winged Beast, and the Seamstress, and of course the BRAIN itself. The battles are as much symbolic as they are exciting, contrasting human vs. machine, soul vs. soulless, emotion vs. logic.

There are problems however. The biggest issue being that 9 is as much responsible for the plight of the homunculi as he is the solution. There are twists along the way, but the emotional heft lent to the struggle of these human-analogues is weakly supported by its simplistic setting. Because the ending is largely open to interpretation, a viewer's level of satisfaction depends on his perspective on evolution, faith, and the meaning of floating green dots in a drop of water. 9 is more metaphor than movie and certainly not for children, but it's a story worth watching.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Jennifer's Body

You might think, judging from the commercials, that Jennifer's Body is about some high school queen bee that uses her unholy popularity to cut a bloody swath through cliques and clichés of all types. Alternately, you might think it's basically soft-core porn featuring Megan Fox. None of these marketing approaches served Jennifer's Body well. Please note: this review contains spoilers!

Diablo Cody, who earned a reputation for smart dialogue from Juno, isn't interested in writing a horror flick. She wants to delve into the issues of friendship and sexual maturity, as viewed through the lens of demonic possession.

Right, about that. In a fashion similar to Ginger Snaps (which combined lycanthropy with puberty), Jennifer (Megan Fox) is now the sexiest girl in high school. Her best friend, helpfully identified as "Needy" (Amanda Seyfried), has nothing in common with her. In a twist on the old trope, it's Needy who has the boyfriend (Chip, played by Johnny Simmons).

The two end up at a dive bar for an emo band, Low Shoulder. Low Shoulder is actually a band of amateur cultists who believe, on the strength of Jennifer's transparent lie, that the hot chick oozing sexuality is in fact a virgin. This leads to a hilarious misunderstanding with hell, in which Jennifer is sacrificed only to return from the dead as a succubus.

Jennifer's Body waffles between horror tropes of stupidity – the band believing Jennifer's lie; Jennifer's ability to get away with murder; victims doing really dumb things – and mood-killing reality checks. The murders are drawn out over time, such that the high school deals with them in a realistic way reminiscent of other real-life high school tragedies. Midnight vigils are held, jocks cry, and camera crews roll tape.

Although Jennifer's Body is supposed to be about its namesake, we get precious little insight into Jennifer's thoughts. The film is actually about Needy, who is a typical "Final Girl" of horror movies. Like the legions of Final Girls that have gone before her, Needy is psychically connected to Jennifer in a way that's never explained. This movie is much more about Needy, her boyfriend, her "nerdy" persona that's never convincingly portrayed, and her awkward relationship with Jennifer. Jennifer's Body tries hard to imply there's some chemistry between the two of them, but it just doesn't click. Jennifer comes off as uniformly one-dimensional and Needy as a disconnected cipher.

The pacing in this film is incredibly jarring; at various points, Jennifer just jumps out the window and exits a scene. The movie starts to feel more like a series of vignettes than an actual plot. Cody uses the Lovecraftian technique of "I was there!" that is no longer in favor because it saps a film's momentum.

The ending, such as it is, is something of a foregone conclusion – we know that Needy is committed to an insane asylum because as narrator she tells us in the beginning of the film. But don't worry, Jennifer's condition is some kind of super-virus (you can "get succubus" on you, apparently), which destroys any pathos around Jennifer's transformation and turns our Final Girl into a superhero who can fly. That's right, fly.

Still, Jennifer's Body isn't terrible. Slickly produced, with competent special effects, the movie tries hard to be both sexy and cool. All the navel gazing around why it "failed" is unwarranted; Jennifer's Body made back twice what it cost to produce. It's just that Jennifer's Body, despite using lots of "hip" dialogue, wants you to like it so much that it throws everything at you: a contrived horror plot, prolonged seduction scenes, a lesbian kiss, and a superhero revenge sequence. In the era of the Internet, that's not enough to make a great horror film anymore. It could just have been easily called Needy's Movie.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is a vastly underappreciated film that mixes martial arts swordsmanship, a post-apocalyptic setting, and a biblical narrative.

A war, over thirty years ago, killed off many people in the United States. Others were blinded from the blast. This creates an interesting disparity between those over thirty years of age who received an education and those under thirty who know nothing of the modern world (at one point, one of the thugs asks, "What's a television?").

This is an unpleasant world. Cannibalistic brigands ambush unwary travelers, identifiable by their shaking hands. Water is at a premium. Batteries are hard to find. The Book of Eli makes it clear that there's no currency, only barter.

Roaming the land is Eli (a subdued Denzel Washington), carrying a book with a cross on it. This book is greatly desired by Carnegie (a greasy Gary Oldman), who is also old enough to remember the power such a tome can have over the people. While Eli has been wandering for thirty years in pursuit of such a destination, Carnegie has been sending illiterate henchmen to retrieve every book he can find. The encounter between the two has all the fire and brimstone of a battle between heaven and hell.

Thrown into the mix is Solara (played beautifully by Mila Kunis, who finally sheds her trademark accent), a young, attractive girl who has grown up under Carnegie's protection but, as she flowers into womanhood, is about to become a bargaining chip, a piece of meat, and a lure. When there's no one left to protect her, she becomes a wanderer in Eli's footsteps.

From a religious point of view, it's educational to understand who Eli was in the Bible. In the Bible, Eli's children are cursed for behaving wickedly, a parallel for the war that destroyed civilization in the movie. God's curse assures that all men will "die by the sword" – in the movie Eli expertly cuts a bloody swath through his enemies with his machete. In the Bible, it was the job of Eli's sons to guard the Ark of the Covenant – the pact God made with man – just as Eli guards the holy book in the movie.

There's a twist ending that's not a twist of all if you read up about Eli in the Bible. But don't – watch the movie, then do some research, then watch the movie again. Like Eli, the experience will be rather eye-opening.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

I am not a Sherlock Holmes scholar.

I KNOW of him, in the sense that I know that he's the fictional father of forensic science, was often portrayed with a deerstalker hat, pipe, and cape, and had a well meaning if bumbling sidekick known as Watson. He was also very British, a fact that looms large in this new interpretation of Holmes.

Holmes skill, and by proxy his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, orbited around the fundamentals of British society, something I think we Americans don't always appreciate. The notion that you can tell something about a man by the way he dresses, by the stains on his shirt, by the way he walks, by the inclination of his head or how he swings his arms, all feed into the insidious belief that one does not rise above one's class. This is part of Holmes' brilliance in penetrating disguises and deceptions – the bad guys can pretend to be someone else, but their true nature gives them away.

Viewed through this lens, this latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes (played with beleaguered smugness by Robert Downey Jr.) gives us glimpses of the society that helped shape him. We understand that Holmes can spot a tobacco stain, chalk dust, or a shoe scuff – but not the reasons that such details are intuitively obvious to a man of Holmes' intellect and perception. He's paying attention to things that the society of his time took for granted.

The plot revolves around Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a cultist capable of manipulating a secret society into believing that he can survive even the hangman's noose. The name is reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood, the author of the horror classic, The Wendigo, and a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn manifests in the film as "The Temple of the Four Orders." Blackwood's sinister influence is perhaps more appropriately attributed to Aleister Crowley. The secret society is significant, because it blurs the social boundaries, with members from across high society (even Americans!). This is simply intolerable, and we look to Holmes to set the social order straight once more.

Guy Ritchie is no fool – he knew that to make Holmes palatable to Americans the Holmes myth would need to be punched up (literally). So all the vices, all the physical prowess, and all the eccentricities of Holmes are in full display here – his lack of tidiness, his familiarity with the marital art bartitsu, and his obsession with Irene Adler. There is evidence that all these elements existed in the Holmes canon. They were of course revealed gradually, whereas the film throws them all into the pot at once. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your appreciation for pulp.

The pulp film style – non-stop action interspersed with little explanation – is in full force. Victorian England isn't explained; it's simply on display in all its gritty glory. The extras are really ugly, brutish caricatures while the leads are almost luminescent in their cleanliness and pearly-white teeth. Adler being the prime example (played by the delicious Rachel McAdams).

McAdams seems woefully out of her depth. While her character is supposedly so wily as to be the only woman to give Holmes a run for his money, it's established very early that Holmes has the upper hand. In fact, their relationship comes off as something of a schoolboy crush – understandable, but not quite a worthy foil for Holmes.

Downey is his usually disheveled, recovering-addict self. It's clear Downey's become the new go-to man for playing characters that closely parallel his own real-life troubles, and the actor inhabits them ably. Maybe a little too much so – the infernal "Downey mumble" is in full effect here—sometimes I can't make out a single word of what he was saying.

The real standout is Jude Law as Watson. Law's refined yet frustrated Watson grounds Holmes, as he should. He also upstages Downey with his easy British eloquence. This version of Watson is no fool but a worthy equal, establishing a buddy-cop vibe to the film.

Ritchie's cinematography is practically a character unto itself. Whether he's showing Holmes' calculating his attacks in slow motion or zooming through carriage and across cobblestones, he manages to encompass all of Victorian England with a sweep of the camera. It's a testament to Ritchie's skill that the film doesn't drag despite its long running time.

Loud, violent, fast-paced, and a little too blasé in its forensic explanations, Sherlock Holmes is nevertheless entertaining enough to make it worth seeing for fans who know of Holmes by reputation only.