by Steve Habrat
Considering how popular the classic Universal Studios monsters have become over the years, it’s no big surprise that the studio keeps digging them out of their graves. With remakes of three of their biggest ghouls already on the market (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, and Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy), it makes sense for the studio to update one of their last big name monsters for modern audiences. In 2010, director Joe Johnston released The Wolfman, a CGI heavy update of George Waggner’s haunting 1941 classic that starred Lon Chaney Jr. With two Oscar winners in front of the camera and Rick Baker in charge of the werewolf make-up effects, The Wolfman should have been a smashing success, but there are several elements that caused the film to come out a major disappointment. While The Wolfman drips atmosphere and gothic set design that would make Tim Burton drool, this werewolf offering seems formulaic and misguided. At times it seems to want to be an action movie and the climax features a fight scene that looks like it would have been more at home in The Matrix rather than Universal monster movie. And then there is Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, two award winners who deliver some of the most lifeless performances of their careers.
The Wolfman reintroduces us to Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro), a renowned Shakespearean actor with a traumatic past. When he was just a young boy, he witnessed his mother’s gruesome demise, and in the wake of the discovery, his father, Sir John Talbot (played by Anthony Hopkins), shipped him off to an insane asylum. One evening, John receives news that his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared. Lawrence returns home to Blackmoor where he is met with news that his brother’s body was found mutilated. As Lawrence comes to terms with his brother’s death, he attempts to reconnect with his father and he strikes up a relationship with his brother’s fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (played by Emily Blunt). One night, Lawrence decides to visit a local gypsy that his brother was said to have associated with. While visiting the gypsies, the camp is attacked by what appears to be a giant wolf. During the attack, Lawrence suffers a bite that leaves him bedridden and suffering from horrific nightmares. With the town in hysterics over the violent attacks, Inspector Aberline (played by Hugo Weaving) arrives from London to launch an investigation before more bodies turn up. After being unconscious for many days, Lawrence wakes up and he initially believes he is okay, but when the moon is full, Lawrence undergoes a horrible transformation that turns him into a snarling monster. To make things worse, horrific family secrets come back to haunt Lawrence and new details about his mother’s death slowly start to emerge.
With Johnston kicking things off with the shimmering retro Universal Studios logo, you’d think that The Wolfman would remain a grounded tribute to what Waggner terrified audiences with back in 1941, but you quickly realize that is far from the truth. The opening werewolf attack is appropriately dark and gloomy, but it’s fairly obvious that this film is going to be drenched in rubbery CGI that instantly takes us out of the moment. And that is just the start of it. When blurry werewolves aren’t speeding across the screen, Johnston and Baker are having an extremely difficult time meshing the practical make-up effects glued to Del Toro’s face with the CGI extensions that are there to add some extra menace. We know Baker can do practical, especially after what he delivered with 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, but it seems that Universal urged the filmmakers to cut corners with the practical effects, something that is perplexing when we consider what exactly Universal is remaking. Part of the appeal of the classic Universal monsters is their practicality—the idea that we could almost reach out and touch them. They are unnervingly real, even if we can see some of the lines in their make-up. When the Wolfman starts leaping, slashing, and killing here, it feels more like its playing out in the pages of an old EC Comic. It’s almost an insult to the original film rather than a loving tribute.
While the copious amounts of CGI hold it back, The Wolfman does excel in the set design and costume department. The shots of 18th century London are absolutely exquisite. There is a grittiness to the city shots but there is also plenty of glamour to be found, especially when Johnston delivers a shot of the Wolfman crouched on a gothic gargoyle while howling at the full moon. It’s spectacular and it certainly holds up on a high-definition television. When we get to explore the Talbot manor, Johnston presents a shadowy mansion that you could very well see Dracula prowling around. There are cobwebs dangling from the staircase railing and there are dead leaves scattered about the marble floors. There are closed off rooms with ghosts of traumatic years past and characters peek through the darkness with candelabras in their clutches. The outdoor gardens are tangled vines that died many years ago and the local villages are as muddy and cruddy as they can get. Then there is the insane asylum, which features patients crouched in their cells wrapped in straight jackets. There is an observation room that is a stand in for a massive coffin, a maze that traps in a slew of doctors as they wait to see if Lawrence will really transform into a chopping werewolf. If there is any reason to see The Wolfman, it’s because of the extravagant sets that obviously cost a pretty penny. However, it was disappointing to see Universal remake The Wolfman and not give us a few scenes in a foggy forest. Here, we do get an eerie forest, but it never features the rolling sheets of fog that crept by Chaney’s hairy feet.
What is perhaps the most frustrating part of The Wolfman is just how miscast Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins truly are. Del Toro certainly resembles Lon Chaney Jr., but there is also something faintly hard about the man that prevents us from viewing him as a tragic character doomed to a hellish fate. There are scenes where he seems be settling into the character, but some of the more dramatic moments seem put on. There is never any of the nervous shifting and antsy unease that kept Chaney pacing in his room waiting for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Hopkins is asked to fill the enormous shoes of Claude Rains, who portrayed Sir John as a compassionate but rational man who grapples with the wild story his son tells of a werewolf taking a chunk out of his chest. It’s best not to say too much about his role, but Hopkins seems all to eager to give away the big reveal. Blunt seems to enjoy playing the misty-eyed damsel in distress and mourning love interest. She isn’t given much to do beyond holding Lawrence’s head and skip stones at a local pond, but there is something about her character that you just can’t resist. Hugo Weaving rounds out the cast as Inspector Aberline, the rather bland antagonist out to get to the bottom of the brutal slaying happening around Blackmoor. He dashes around with importance and the unblinking determination carved into his face does do the trick, but we never come to truly like or loathe him.
As far as the scares are concerned, with so much CGI artificiality contaminating the screen, The Wolfman is never permitted to become very scary. Hell, not even the howls send a chill! However, if you’re in the market for some serious blood and guts, then you’ve come to the right gothic castle. Bodies are slashed and bitten into hamburger meat, with guts splattered on the autumn ground. Head’s go flying across the screen, werewolf nails shoot through open mouths, and limbs are sent flying through the air with a thin trail of—you guessed it—CGI blood. The gore is extremely entertaining and it is sort of fun to see Universal embracing such savagery, especially when the Wolfman goes berserk in the streets of London. All the savagery does spiral out of control by the end, as Johnston ends The Wolfman with goofy werewolf brawl that finds hairy beats flying all over Talbot manor. You honestly wouldn’t mind so much if they weren’t doing wiry flips and leaps that would have been more at home in The Matrix. Come to think of it, maybe that is why Hugo Weaving is on hand here. Overall, while Universal showered the project in money, The Wolfman 2010 never dares explore the monsters that can lurk in even the mot mild mannered individuals. It falls victim to what almost every other horror film falls victim to: CGI excess. It’s all to eager to top the original rather than acting as a respectful tribute to a classic.
The Wolfman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
For quite some time, I’ve been griping about the never-ending stream of recycled ideas coming out of Hollywood over the past few years. I’d say that one of the most original films I’ve seen recently is without question Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mind-boggler Inception, a film that left me speechless after my first viewing. Well, now I can add writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper to the short list of wholly original films. Fresh but flawed, Looper is truly something you’ve never seen before, a confident science-fiction vision that has the stones to pat itself on the back in the first fifteen minutes. While I believe that Looper is a little too hasty to congratulate itself for breathing new life into science fiction, the film’s opening hour is near classic levels. It’s incredibly riveting, funny, thrilling, and just begging to be revisited so the viewer can piece the brainy plot together. Unfortunately folks, it is too good to last and Looper does hit a snag in its second half, leaving Johnson in a scramble to recover. The second half of Looper is shockingly comatose, shifting the focus off the nifty time travel and onto a little boy and his mother, two characters who fail to draw the viewer in the way that stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt do early on. Luckily, the ending is somewhat of a recovery but it still leaves us feeling a bit empty.
In the year 2074, time travel exists but is instantly outlawed. Time travel is secretly controlled by a mob organization in Shanghai and is led by a mysterious figure called the Rainmaker. This organization captures individuals they want wiped off the map and they send them to the year 2044, where hitmen known as “loopers” kill the individual and then dispose of the body. Joseph Simmons (Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) happens to be a looper in Kansas City, a dystopia gangland controlled by Abe (Played by Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to run the looper organization in 2044. Joe and his looper buddies quietly carry out their assassinations by day and by night, they hang out in Abe’s nightclub where they take recreational drugs through eye drops and flirt with the beautiful dancers. While loopers appear to live the high life, their bosses can suddenly end their contract, which means they send an older version of the looper through time to the younger version to be killed off, which is known as “closing a loop.” After Joe’s friend Seth (Played by Paul Dano) fails to “close his loop,” he comes to Joe’s apartment in a panic and asks Joe to hide him. Joe agrees to hide Seth but is soon convinced by Abe to give him up. Thinking the mess is behind him, Joe heads out to wait for his target to arrive. To his horror, his next target is the older version of himself (Played by Bruce Willis). The older Joe manages to escape and sets out to settle a nasty personal score. As the younger Joe frantically searches for the older version, Abe’s personal army known as “gatmen” begin to close in.
Certainly not the easiest film to sum up, Looper is chock full of twists and turns that will have your brain swimming, at least at first. The opening introduction is truly something to marvel at as Johnson’s camera explores this rusty, unglamorous vision of the future where cell phones are transparent and hovering motorcycles exist. It is in these opening moments, when Joe and his friends zip through the city streets in a sports car, almost mowing homeless people over, that I was vaguely reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The comparison quickly fades and we are left with a completely original story with plenty of savage wit and blood-drenched violence. Johnson does his best to not have to pause and explain plot points to the viewer, something that films of this sort often are forced to do. He manages to find a way to let the story naturally play out with only a small assistance from Joe’s voiceover. The film also tells us that there are individuals that have suffered genetic mutation and posses telekinetic powers. The film never fully elaborates on this aspect of the story but it becomes increasingly important as the film advances towards the climax. The second half of the film introduces us to isolated farmer named Sara (Played by Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Played by Pierce Gagnon), who are forced to take in the younger Joe, who is hiding out from Abe. It is on Sara’s farm where you may find some yawns making their way into the story.
Judging from Looper’s trailer, you’d think the film would be heavy on action but you are in for a surprise. Looper puts more effort into exhaustively developing its main characters. This is all well and good with Willis and Gordon-Levitt but when the film shifts to Blunt and Gagnon, the film is sent into a slump. Gordon-Levitt continues to prove why he is one of the most talented men in Hollywood as Joe. A mumbling junkie who coldly carries out his work, Joe is a young man heading for an unknown disaster. We feel it in these early scenes but we can never put our fingers on what that disaster is. Joe is busy stock piling all the silver bars he is paid for his assassinations and studying up on his French so that he can retire from being a looper and move to France. He mimics Willis almost perfectly, with a little help from subtle prosthetics glued to his face. In the early scenes, away from Willis and Blunt, Gordon-Levitt has a groove that I was sure wouldn’t be thrown off. Then he comes face to face with the even colder Willis, who has some nasty business to attend to that I will not ruin here. Trust me when I say, his business got some nervous rustles and uncomfortable twitches from the audience in my screening. The scenes where Willis and Gordon-Levitt are forced to come face to face don’t seem to have the zing that Johnson thinks they do. They are devoid of any real chemistry that would make these exchanges fun. They are almost, dare I say, flat! Luckily, Johnson separates them and lets them shine on their own
Then we have beautiful Blunt, a moderately talented actress who always seems to fly just under the radar. She has never really delivered a performance that has absolutely floored me and here, she is really no different, no matter how much raw emotion she chooses to pour into her brooding role. Similarly to Willis, she can’t really seem to find a groove with Gordon-Levitt even if the two are demanded to spark up a romance. Surprisingly, the young Gagnon is another standout as the lovable tyke Cid who can turn into a monster in the blink of an eye (we will leave it at that for fear of spoilers). While there are brief moments where Sara and Cid’s story will have you at the edge of your seat, they just failed to make me really care about them and trust me, I wanted to. Looper also makes the grave mistake of under-using Paul Dano as the hotshot Seth. Johnson only hands him a small number of scenes before he vanishes. The same thing happens with Jeff Daniels, who is here on an extended cameo. While memorable, I wished he would have remained in the action a bit more than he does. He hands his dirty work off to the screw-up gatman Kid Blue (Played by Noah Segan), a character that is more for comic relief than true menace.
While I hesitate to really call Looper a mediocre movie, I was certainly hoping for more consistency. Instead, it gets switched on to autopilot before the furious climatic confrontation. While the arching plot is relatively easy to follow, Looper leaves a lot on the viewer’s plate to chew on and debate. I’m still trying to piece everything within the picture together and make sense of every little plot point that Johnson hands us. Despite the frustrating stand still in the middle of the film, there are moments where we are sucked back in and overtaken by the early thrill, especially when the film switches from Sara’s farm back into the city. Overall, I admire the ambition and I certainly have to give it up for the premise, as it truly is one of a kind. I commend Johnson for trying to do something new and I even have to give TriStar credit for taking a risk on Looper. Despite the flaws, Looper is still a minor triumph for science fiction and I am left wanting quite a bit more from Rian Johnson.
by Steve Habrat
I’m going to remember 2011 as the year that retro dominated at the movies. We have seen multiple releases throughout the year that have embraced a throwback aesthetic, ones that were evocative and nostalgic. They were all quite good too. We’ve had the candy-colored madcap The Green Hornet, 80’s horror nod Insidious, the Goonies/E.T. mash up Super 8, the dreamy pulp and Raider’s of the Lost Ark tribute Captain America, the ultra violent 80’s crime/actioner Drive, the arty silent film wonder The Artist, and we will soon see another Raider’s valentine when The Adventures of Tintin hits theaters. Many have been direct nods to the heyday of special effects and when escapism really dominated. In the late 70’s, Jim Henson’s Muppets took over television and went on to rally a group of loyal fans that have supported them through the years. After a long hiatus and being largely forgotten by pop culture, gargantuan funny guy Jason Segel, who is also said to be a huge fan of the felt critters, penned a fresh new screenplay along with Nicholas Stoller, wrangled director James Bobin and together they have delivered a winning piece of family entertainment that attempts to rally a new generation of fans while also making the adults who so enthusiastically watched their sketch-comedy mischief way back when inebriated with nostalgia of their youth. The Muppets is retro without being retro. It’s hilariously self-aware and willing to crack jokes on their absence. This world isn’t meant for the optimistic band of creatures ranging from the ringleader Kermit the Frog all the way to Sam the Eagle. And trust me, every Muppet you can think of pops up at least once. The movie almost isn’t big enough to contain them all. The best part of all of this is that The Muppets keeps things unadorned, making it even easier to love them.
The Muppets kicks off with the knee-slapping introduction of their newest member, Walter, a happy-go-lucky little puppet that is best buddies with his human brother Gary. The young Gary and Walter live in the perfect community of Smalltown, USA, and they both sit in their matching stripped pajamas and grin over The Muppet Show. Walter becomes a massive fan of Kermit and company, and as life gets tougher for the little Walter, he finds comfort in The Muppet Show. The film speeds forward to present day where the adult Gary (Played by Jason Segel) and Walter still live in Smalltown and are now shacking up together. They are still best buds and still do everything together, even hilarious musical numbers. We also learn that Gary is dating Mary (Played by Amy Adams) and they have been together for ten years. Gary plans a trip to Los Angles in celebration of their anniversary and he invites Walter to tag along to see the Muppet Theater. Mary is less than enthused but she understands how important Walter is to Gary and Gary to Walter. Once they arrive to Los Angles, Walter discovers that the world has left the Muppets behind and moved on. Their theater and studio lie in ruin and there is a plot by an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Played by Chris Cooper) to destroy what is left of their studios in an attempt to drill for oil. Horrified, Walter pleas with Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppet gang and help save the Muppet Theater.
It’s easy for us to wave off The Muppets and call it square. It features quirky puppets rather than fancy CGI creatures and, yes, it does seem a bit dated. It’s also heavy with musical numbers, which is also the furthest thing from hip. Yet that is what makes this film so irresistible. It’s simple and old fashioned, with a whole slew of cameos from big Hollywood names. Get ready to double over when Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez shows up and inquisitively asks Kermit if he’s one of the Ninja Turtles. Wait until you see Kermit’s reaction. Oh, and Neil Patrick Harris turns up too to deliver a real zinger. Truth be told, I’ve always been intrigued by the Muppets and how they convey so much emotion. When Kermit is sad, we can see it in his plastic peepers. It does fill you with a sense of wonder. It helps that the puppet work is punctilious and detailed. And yet this film is content with being square and a bit dated. In fact it is delighted by the very implication of it. It gives it fuel to crack joke after joke and believe me, the jokes come fast and furious. It’s a nice balance to Pixar’s films and the bizarre offerings like Alvin and the Chipmunks, where real actors interact with annoying CGI animals (Hollywood is forcing the annoying Chipmunks on audiences AGAIN! They showed the trailer before this film. I guess with every good thing, there has to be a bad.). With The Muppets, at least there is something palpable for the actors to work with.
The actors here all do a fine job playing old fashioned. Segel brings a gee-whiz energy with him and he really seems to be genuinely in awe at what is going on around him. It helps that he has a heart for this sort of thing. Adams steals the shows as Mary, as she just radiates girl-next-door charm. She looks like she stepped out of the 1950’s. Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones turns up as a straight-shooting television executive named Veronica who, in the words of Fozzie Bear, could shoot “a little more curvy”. Cooper’s oilman Tex Richman also provides some big laughs, especially his love of maniacal laughter. He also steals the show with a musical number so bold, I didn’t laugh until after it ended and I could register what had just happened.
The Muppets does have a handful of flaws that knocks it down a letter grade. The director handles some of that cameos carelessly, some are so brief; blink and you may miss them. There are some that shine (Emily Blunt turns up in a nod to The Devil Wears Prada) and some that should have been developed better (Sarah Silverman’s wasted potential as a diner hostess). Some of the Muppets themselves could have used a bit more screen time, but the film desperately tries to fit every single one of them into the film that it is almost overload. I was left wishing for more of daredevil Gonzo and Sam the Eagle. Walter ends up getting lost in the shuffle for about a half hour and it’s a shame because you really do fall in love with him. Every once and a while, it feels slightly unfocused, like a bunch of kids in a candy store.
Despite some minor hiccups, this is one of the best family films of the year. One that is not like Chinese water torture for adults and delivers slapstick laughs for children. I applaud Segel for making retro old-fashioned feel new again and I would gladly go back to the theater to experience all of this again. The film succeeds as a musical, with several numbers that really pop, the best one being shared by Mary and Miss Piggy. The Muppets finds itself on the retro list of 2011, one of the films where everything just clicks and it takes you back. Two of the people I saw it with were fans of the show when it was on and it left them beaming. My generation missed Kermit and Miss Piggy, but it still had me in a good mood after we left the theater. This film isn’t rocket science, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. It left me feeling all warm and felty inside. Who can argue with that?!