Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Wolfman Movie Review

This review is based on the extended cut version.

Can anyone remember the last time Anthony Hopkins made a film that didn’t look like a complete sellout? In the last decade or so he’s probably made one film that’s worth watching – The World’s Fastest Indian. You should seriously give it a look because The Wolfman is anything but worthy of two of hours of your time.

The Wolfman is director Joe Johnston’s attempt at bringing back that old Hollywood monster movie feeling. He’s trying to invoke nostalgia from the appearance of the Universal logo, which is a retooling of the one used in 1941, when Lon Chaney, Jr. donned the wolf makeup and chased Claude Rains around the backlot. It has an opening scene that suggests we might be in for a wonderfully campy ride, with a bombastic and ridiculous musical score, fast cuts of wolf’s claws, growling and snarling on the soundtrack and just enough dripping blood from the victim to be scary without tipping the balance toward gruesome.

But from there the screenplay by David Self (who got his start with the 1999 remake of The Haunting) and Andrew Kevin Walker (known for other dark thrillers such as Sleepy Hollow) takes itself way too seriously. The monster movies of the 40s were brisk exercises in visceral frights. They had short running times, good scares generated through effective film making. This updated extended version clocks in at a full 45 minutes longer than the original (the theatrical release was 15 minutes shorter than that) and barely musters anything even resembling a fright. In fact, it completely forgoes the promise of the pre-title sequence by heaping as much gore, blood and guts into the frame as possible.

Anthony Hopkins takes over the Claude Rains role of John Talbot, a wealthy landowner in England with one son, Ben, recently gone missing (he’s the opening fresh kill) and the other, Lawrence (Benicio del Toro) estranged, raised in the United States (a detail added I suppose because del Toro could not produce a convincing English accent), but now performing Hamlet on the London stage. Ben’s fiancé, Gwen (Emily Blunt) comes to see Lawrence after a show to ask for his help searching for his brother. He rather begrudgingly makes the journey to his childhood home where he is recognized by both his father and Singh (Art Malik), a faithful servant to John for many years.

The exteriors in the film are shot in soft focus (it was most likely done digitally in post production) to give everything a slightly blurry hue. Add to that the pervasive fog and mist and you have a phony attempt at recalling old Hollywood, when the result is a hazy and muddy looking production.

Emily Blunt, so very, very good in both Young Victoria and The Devil Wears Prada has so little to do here. This is rather unfortunately the case with so many action films or thrillers with male protagonists. The female leads are relegated to the role of weepy afterthought. Most of the time Blunt has to stand around looking forlorn, or sad, or in love, or frightened. It’s not that she doesn’t do these things well – it’s that it gets boring after a while.

Makeup artist Rick Baker, who has made a career out of putting fake hair on actors, is responsible for the makeup effects here. He earned himself his seventh Oscar and his first in nine years. Although it’s not Baker’s fault, his brilliant work is masked by unnecessary CGI. The two styles are blended together during the wolf transformation sequences. The makeup looks best in the static shots of the fully transformed wolves. I don’t understand the obsession with CGI (well I do really – it’s cheaper) because Baker did the makeup for An American Werewolf in London 30 years earlier and to watch the wolf transformation scenes in that film you would still be amazed today – and none of it was done with computers, just good old fashioned latex and yak hair.

Not content to simply be a monster movie, this Wolfman has to drag in a leaden back story to augment the plot. There are all kinds of oedipal implications in the long-ago death of Lawrence’s mother. And the secret that’s revealed in the third act is barely veiled through the first two. The mystery is paper thin and barely disguised.

For good measure, a couple of supporting roles are filled by screen legends. Geraldine Chaplin appears briefly as Maleva, an old Gypsy woman who knows things about werewolves (they always have useful mystical information, those Gypsies), and Max von Sydow is a man sharing a train compartment with Lawrence early in the film. Not even their presence can salvage this mess.

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