Check out my latest pieces: “The Wolfman,” “In The Loop,” and “Shutter Island”!
Del Toro’s Wolfman Stays in the Doghouse
Universal’s Attempt to Reclaim Past Monster-Movie Glory Falls Short
Feb 26, 2010 Lita Robinson
The Wolfman, directed by Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park 3) and starring Benicio Del Toro, is a 21-st century update to the 1941 Universal classic starring Lon Chaney, Jr. While its fealty to its source material is admirable in our age of filmic ADHD, its lack of introspection–the quality that made the original film so compelling–ultimately robs it of both poignancy and true horror.
Granted, the advent of CGI and other special-effects wizardry does make the 2010 version more eye-popping than the original, but you can really only watch so many livers get untimely ripped from their rightful owners before you’ll inevitably start to wonder, “is this it?” The computer-generated scenery also tends to detract from the story rather than adding to it–it’s the live-action footage of the crumbling family mansion, where the Wolfman takes refuge, and its surrounding woods and moors that give the story its admittedly small ration of believability and gravitas.
2010 Version Offers More Mayhem, Less Introspection
The story follows Lawrence, played here by Del Toro–a casting decision some have called unwieldy–an aristocrat turned actor who returns to his ancestral home after the untimely death of his brother Ben (by werewolf). There, he must confront his increasingly eccentric father (Anthony Hopkins, not taking things too seriously) with whom he has had a strained relationship since the long-ago untimely death of his mother (also, as it turns out, by werewolf). Once back home, Lawrence begins to develop feelings for his brother’s widow, Gwen, who is played with a gritty (but ultimately useless) earnestness by Emily Blunt. Soon, Lawrence joins the country folk in their hunt for the beast that killed his brother–a roving band of gypsies is suspected–and ends up having a very close encounter with the creature itself, who bites him and leaves him to die. But, of course, Lawrence doesn’t die; he becomes a werewolf.
Much mayhem ensues as Lawrence tries to prevent himself, unsuccessfully, from going too crazy during his nocturnal rovings. Naturally, there is much blood and gore to be had–a surprising amount of gore, actually, so much so that one gets the distinct sense that the “gotcha!” strategy being implemented is really covering up for a larger lack of true scariness. Indeed, things really tip over into the realm of camp when Lawrence is thrown into a mental institution, where he is tortured and subsequently made into an exhibition for a “psychiatrist” who seems to be a mixture of Freud, Oscar Wilde, and Pee Wee Herman.
More’s the pity, really, because the psychiatrist-exhibition scene is supposed to be a crowning tableau for the film as a whole. Lawrence is bound to a chair in the center of an old-fashioned surgical theater (an especially apt term in this instance) and is forced to have the moonlight shine upon him without being able to escape. The quack psychiatrist, who clearly is too flamboyant to understand the gravity of supernatural afflictions, thinks that Lawrence’s fear of moonlight is a psychological hangup that will be easily cured. Of course, when the moonlight does hit him, Lawrence makes the painful transformation into the Wolfman before our very eyes. (He then proceeds to literally throw the psychiatrist out the window, which is, you know, a nice touch). Sadly this transformation scene, which was revolutionary in the 1941 version, lacks any real sense of horror. I’m tempted to say that this is due to the film’s reliance on now-familiar CGI techniques which, once you recognize them, are difficult to take all that seriously. As soon as your brain stops accepting what you’re looking at as a real person, it’s difficult to stay invested or frightened for long.
Focus on the Body is Key to Real Horror
What made the Lon Chaney transformation so surprising and frightening was the fact that Chaney’s actual body was indeed changing, just as the story said. Though now it’s easy to look at the original film and snigger at the lack of technical bravado on display–he looks like he’s wearing a onesie!–the fact that Chaney’s body itself was the site on which the horror of the film played out makes the film as a whole so much more affecting than this latest interpretation. Even though portions of the 2010 version were, in fact, done in live action with hours’ worth of makeup, the critical transformation moment really loses the horror of the film by being so essentially modern. Not only is the body on display obviously not real most of the time, but the camera keeps cutting back and forth to accentuate the grotesqueries of individual body parts. The fingers bend the wrong way! The teeth sprout from nowhere! His toenails are turning into claws!
This film could really do with a lesson from the 1981 horror classic An American Werewolf in London, in which the always-pivotal transformation scene actually manages to live up to the horror of its film lineage while not detracting from the rest of the film. Having nabbed an Oscar for Best Makeup, it stands as the major Western werewolf film between these two versions of The Wolfman, binding together the 1940s and the 2010s. Though there are, of course, more modern special effects used in London than in the original Wolfman, the sense of bodily reality is maintained; you never lose the feeling, when the protagonist transforms, that you are watching a human change into a non-human. This is what’s essential to making horror films truly horrifying: the audience, presumably human, has to have a way to physically identify with the characters onscreen. Otherwise, you may as well be watching Avatar.
Overall, the film is a fine diversion, but not much more. You’d do better to rent An American Werewolf in London, save yourself $10, and settle in for a real thrill.
DVD Movie Review
“In The Loop”
By our guest blogger, Lita Robinson
“In The Loop” is a frantic British farce that imagines the beginning of the war in Iraq as one giant miscommunication between British politicians, who are incompetent, and American politicians, who are crazy.
The story centers on Toby (Chris Addison), a young aide to minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander, excellent as always). When the film opens, Foster has just gone on a well-known British radio program to discuss his opposition to the British and American governments’ desire to go to war together against Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, when the interviewer ambushes him with an Iraq-related question, Foster’s bumbling response ends up sounding like an endorsement of the impending military offensive.
Soon, Foster is being hounded by the Prime Minister’s chief of communications, Malcolm Tucker (played with cheeky venom by Peter Capaldi), who is determined to avoid another public-relations meltdown. Foster’s comments are then picked up by American politicians eager to try and stop the rush to war on their side of the Atlantic, and soon Foster, Tucker and ingénue Toby are flying back and forth from London to Washington in an effort to clarify Foster’s position on the war.
Naturally, the more everyone else focuses on Foster’s position, the less sure he becomes of what his position really is, and much hilarious dithering ensues. The film ends in almost as much chaos as it begins, with Toby now woefully educated on the dangers of political talking points, and both the British and American governments still steaming together toward impending war.
The storyline of this film is really less important than its structure, which essentially is just a series of gaffe-filled vignettes strung together with breathtaking speed. The film’s director, Armando Iannucci (whose screenplay has been nominated for both a BAFTA and an Academy Award) has lots of experience in television, and that sort of smash-cut sensibility is what animates the film. Imagine “Notting Hill,” but on fast-forward, full of truly amazing obscenities, and about war rather than love.
James Gandolfini’s appearance as a retired Army general trying to stop the rush to war is especially inspired (choice quote: “Once you’ve been to war, you never want to go back unless you absolutely have to. It’s like France.”). In fact, the cast as a whole works together very well, with each insane political operative acting even crazier than the last. Watch this film if you’re a fan of “Dr. Strangelove” and other classic war satires–just be prepared for some updated, truly R-rated language.
Grade: B+ http://www.weekinrewind.com
Scorsese’s Shutter Island
DiCaprio and Scorsese’s Latest Film is a B-Movie Mashup
Mar 6, 2010 Lita Robinson
Shutter Island is ostensibly a film about Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Federal Marshall who, in 1954, is called to a mental hospital on the eponymous island because one of its patients has mysteriously vanished. What it’s really about are the 1950s paranoia films and low-budget B-movies that its director, Martin Scorsese, grew up on.
We all know Scorsese–or at least we think we do. The director of such seminal works as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, Scorsese’s reputation as a meticulous visual choreographer has been well-earned. However, he’s not the first director who pops to mind when the phrase “psychological thriller” is uttered–and that’s what Shutter Island is. This doesn’t necessarily detract from DiCaprio’s character or the momentum of the narrative–one just gets the feeling that the ambiance of Shutter Island may be better conceived than the actual plot.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote the source material for Clint Eastwood’s excellent Mystic River), the story follows Teddy Daniels to the mental hospital perched on the ominous island, where he and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) begin their investigation. From the beginning, the hospital’s chief psychiatrist (Sir Ben Kingsley) seems reluctant to fully cooperate with the Marshall’s investigation. Even more suspicious is another chief psychiatrist, played by Max Von Sydow, who may or may not be a retired Nazi and whose German accent and air of nonchalance instantly set Teddy’s alarm bells ringing.
Intimations of the Holocaust
Here it is necessary to point out a major plot device which pops up repeatedly in the film: Teddy Daniels, we discover from both his own conversations and his frequent, debilitating flashbacks, is a veteran of World War II and was present at the liberation of the infamous Dachau concentration camp. Periodically, Teddy’s vision is overtaken by horrific scenes of the camp, which show throngs of freezing, starving prisoners next to piles of denuded, frozen bodies. If this sounds like a cheap way to both give Teddy’s character some gravitas and to add some extra horror to the film, well, it is.
Let me be specific, though: invocations of the horrors of WWII are not out of place in this film, considering its time period, especially as its plot begins to revolve more and more closely around the subject of trauma and mental illness. But it’s the particular ways in which these sequences are staged and shot and the meanings that are layered upon them that I, among other reviewers, find objectionable. The shots of dead bodies in piles next to train cars are somehow too lurid, too in-your-face for them to have the real sense of apocalyptic horror that actual footage of concentration camps produces. Instead of feeling like you’re bearing witness to something as awful and enormous as the Holocaust, you get the feeling that the film is just trying to goose you with the ghosts of history.
Teddy’s flashback sequences grow more and more elaborate, until they begin to feel like they were dropped into the film by a different director all together; David Lynch, perhaps, or maybe even Baz Luhrmann. As they become more frequent and more lengthy, the audience begins to have trouble distinguishing between the parts of the film that are “real” and the parts that are taking place only inside Teddy’s mind.
This, of course, turns out to be the real point of the story–the mystery of the mental hospital isn’t really in the hospital, it’s inside Teddy’s head. Without spoiling the rest of the plot entirely, suffice it to say that in the end, Teddy’s search for the truth uncovers something far more disturbing than even his wildest paranoid fantasies. I should mention that DiCaprio, who I don’t usually admire these days, does some good work in this role; he is easily believable as a man on the edge of sanity.
Back to Shutter Island‘s 1950s roots. As is mentioned several times throughout the film, we are in the height of the Red Scare when Teddy ventures onto the island; the general air of suspicion at first seems like a realistic relic of the times. Many films of this period present physical places as manifestations of such Communist paranoia: think of the different settings in Vertigo, to which Jimmy Stewart is compelled to return, or the suddenly dangerous suburbs of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. Shutter Island itself looms out of the mist in the beginning of the film much like Skull Island in King Kong. It’s clearly a malevolent place, and the film’s totally over-the-top score, which sounds like stripped-down Wagner on steroids, adds to what’s already very obvious: this is not a place anyone should visit, let alone someone already losing his grip on reality.
If Scorsese had really embraced the schlocky-ness of some of the more lowbrow 50s classics, particularly those produced and directed by horror legend Roger Corman (for whom Scorsese worked when he was just starting out), Shutter Island might be able to succeed as a half-scary half-campy homage. However, its desire to harken back to these earlier film traditions while simultaneously taking itself so seriously ends up hampering the film, turning it into a confusing muddle of movie traditions rather than the elegant, modern update on paranoia that it wants to be.