The classic Universal monsters have been icons for much of the past 80 years. Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman have inspired many decades worth of films, books and television--from American Werewolf in London to Twilight to The X-Files.
Then a few years back, Universal decided to mine their old franchises and give them a modern makeover. Conscripting Stephen Sommers to write and direct, they began with The Mummy, taking what was a truly creepy slow burn of a film--that, for my money, was the best of the classics--and turning it into a slap-sticky Indiana Jones knock-off.
Of course, it was a massive success (to be fair, I've come around to it's fun factor throughout the years) and after an even cheesier sequel, The Mummy Returns, Universal thought it might be a good idea to give Sommers a shot at combining all of their heavyweight monsters into one mash-up film, Van Helsing.
Perhaps they paid attention to the box office instead of the critical response because Van Helsing was something of a self-indulgent travesty loaded with silly performances, a ridiculous story and enough crappy CG FX to fill a hundred misguided "re-imaginings." The audience caught on, the film tanked and Sommers didn't make another movie for five years.
Now with The Wolfman, Universal has reshuffled the deck, playing more towards a straight re-make.
The results, while uneven, give me hope that there is a future for serious updates of these classic monster films of yore.
It's 1891 and Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) has returned to his family estate outside of London after learning of the violent death of his brother at the hands of an unknown lunatic.
Talbot has been living in America since the death of his mother years earlier and has been estranged from his eccentric father John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) since he had Lawrence committed to an asylum.
After looking for clues amongst his brothers belongings, Lawrence discovers an old medallion that he learns came from a nearby Gypsy camp. Lawrence tracks down the medallion's former owner, an old fortune teller, who tells Lawrence he is in grave danger.
On cue, a manic beast invades the camp killing with savage impunity. Lawrence saves a boy from certain death and is attacked by the beast instead. The remaining villagers scare the beast away, but Lawrence has suffered a mortal neck wound.
The villagers are prepared to let him die, knowing he is cursed, but the old Gypsy woman witnessed his bravery and decides to save Lawrence, telling the villagers the curse can only be broken by someone who loves him.
Of course, on the next full moon, Lawrence turns into a murderous lycanthrope whose bloodlust overpowers the humanity of his very soul.
For a film with such a famously troubled production--a film that is at the end of the day another remake--The Wolfman mostly succeeds in doing justice to its source.
It's clear that the filmmakers are swinging for the fences from the meticulous production design to the award winning cast. Despite coming in on the film mere weeks before principal photography began, veteran director Joe Johnston ably guides the proceedings from a script by heavyweight writers Andrew Kevin Walker (Sleepy Hollow) and David Self (The Road to Perdition).
All of the production aspects are top-notch, from the period authenticity of 19th Century London to the costume design by Milena Canonero, who worked for Stanley Kubrick on Barry Lyndon. The film drips with dark, foggy atmospherics that are lovingly captured in cinematographer Shelly Johnson's painterly compositions.
But the cornerstone of the film's solid technical foundation is practical FX master Rick Baker's stellar make up for The Wolfman.
Based on the original film's character design, Baker not only takes it to the next level but gives us transformation sequences that recall his ground-breaking work on American Werewolf in London.
It also bears mentioning that The Wolfman is a surprisingly bloody affair, with each visceral attack sequence punctuated with flying limbs and gory violence.
On the acting front, The Wolfman is buoyed by its performances, which ably carry the human moments in-between the eye candy. Benicio Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot as a tortured soul even before he becomes afflicted by his murderous curse. It's a nearly operatic-turn fueled by Del Toro's love for the Gothic source material. It's clear that he's keenly aware of the legacy he's paying homage to.
Anthony Hopkins is fine as Sir John Talbot, the family patriarch, whose cool demeanor conceals dark secrets. His reliably strong presence is tempered by his effortless ability to veer from Shakespearian gravitas to subtly demented creepiness, with a slight inflection of his mellifluous voice.
Hugo Weaving as Scotland Yard detective Inspector Abberline is a joy, commanding the screen in every scene he's in. No mean feat considering the wattage of the actors alongside him. His arc isn't a particularly surprising one, but Weaving imbues Abberline with enough layers to make him feel like a flesh and blood cop pulled straight from London's foggy streets with a little help from H.G. Wells' time machine.
But The Wolfman is not without its flaws. The third act collapses on itself, straying into a fairly standard climax that tonally feels out of step with what came before it. While the film never loses sight of Talbot's internal struggle, it does devolve into a borderline silly climactic battle that almost feels like it came from a different movie, and that's a bit disappointing. Worse, it sets up a sequel that dampens the emotional impact of Talbot's plight.
Still, considering the troubles that beset the film's production, it's kind of amazing The Wolfman turned out to be as good as it is. And as a love letter to the classic original, you'd be hard pressed to find a film more devoted to respectfully dragging Old Hollywood aesthetics into the 21st Century.
Chocolate without the Sweet
"I wish I were like you, easily amused," Kurt Cobain said.
I'm not much of a romantic, so when I see a romantic comedy I really need the comedy half of that equation to connect. I can forgive formulaic predictability when the laughs are inspired. I can give a pass to shallow characterizations if the cast is good and hitting on all cylinders. I'll even let cloying cuteness slide as long as a film defies some expectations along the way.
But it must be funny. And apparently either my bar for hilarity is unrealistically high, or that of my fellow movie goers is depressingly low.
Enter Valentine's Day, director Garry Marshall's American rehash of Love, Actually--the superior 2003 British rom-com that didn't forget the laughs.
Valentine's Day follows the romantic trials of a group of Los Angelinos, couples and singles, as their lives inexorably intertwine in the face of the oncoming holiday.
Reed Bennett (Ashton Kutcher) is a florist who has just proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba), a driven business woman. Reed's friends, Alphonso (George Lopez) and Julia (Jennifer Garner) are supportive, yet surprised that she accepted. Julia, who chafes at Reed's protectiveness of her, is in love with her doctor boyfriend, Harrison (Patrick Dempsey).
Across town, we meet Jason (Topher Grace) a mail room clerk who has just begun a relationship with Liz (Anne Hathaway), a beautiful and gregarious girl who works in his office but, unbeknownst to Jason, moonlights as a phone sex worker.
Then there's Kelvin Briggs (Jamie Foxx), a television sports reporter who, much to his chagrin, has been assigned to do man-on-the-street interviews about people's plans for Valentine's Day.
Kelvin abdicates his assignment to follow a possible story on Sean Jackson (Eric Dane), a pro football star who is trying to decide whether or not to retire, which brings Kelvin into contact with Jackson's publicist Kara (Jessica Biel), a lovelorn beauty whose apathy for V-Day is the catalyst for her annual "I Hate Valentine's Day" party.
There's more, but part of the point of synopsizing is to give you an idea of the plot which, in Valentine's Day, is so sprawling and bloated it becomes almost non-existent.
Most of the characters in this huge ensemble cast have some kind of thinly sketched arc, and the film expends a lot of effort tying them together at key points.
I could almost see the flow chart that director Marshall must have used to keep all the disparate story threads together. Too bad it feels so contrived.
And despite the film's Robert Altman-esque aspirations--in addition to Love, Actually the film also cribs from Short Cuts--Marshall's tendencies for sugary blandness mire the film while spoon-feeding the audience ladlefuls of syrupy cliché.
Working from a script by Katherine Fugate, Marshall elicits nothing that feels like a true slice of life, instead amping up the big Hollywood fantasy moments in lieu of coloring outside the lines. The film takes almost no chances, and Marshall's cookie-cutter direction gives the story's already episodic nature the feel of an epic TV movie without the commercials.
There are a few bits of charm from the cast--almost an inevitability due to the sheer size of it--though many seem like they were on set for maybe a few days. It feels like a film loaded with cameos that could have easily dropped a few story lines and about 20 minutes off of its run time. None of it would be missed.
And I could have forgiven some of that, had the movie evoked consistent laughs. But the comedy here is diluted for easy consumption and the broadest possible appeal. Valentine's Day feels so eager to please that the film, like most of it's characters, seems desperate.
Of course it was the No. 1 movie last weekend. Man, Cobain got it right.
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