Saturday, September 18, 2010

A New Breed Of Terrible

The time has come for change. I realize that as I write more and more of these that there needs to be a line drawn; I need to be more constructive in my criticism. When I started handing out Z grades to movies I knew that though it was a step in the right direction, it didn't really satisfy me. It didn't say quite what I needed it to. You see, when a movie is so offensive it stops you in your tracks, you surely want to warn people. But when a movie is jaw-droppingly terrible or delightfully, irredeemably sleazy and you want everyone to rush out and see it as quickly as possible, you are equally driven to alert the masses. So, clearly I need to start making that distinction, otherwise I might give people the wrong impression. I don't want people to go see Avatar (but boy did they) but if you were planning a party I could think of worse ways to spend it than by howling along to Zombie Lake, The Devil Hunter or Massacre In Dinosaur Valley. Sometimes there is a grey area, as when a movie has a few rough spots and I'm drawn to it time and again after being disappointed by it. So as in the case of a movie like Joe Johnston's stupendously awful The Wolfman, I know it's terrible even if I've watched it twice now in the hopes that it'd show me something I missed. It hasn't and though I'll probably watch it again I don't for a second recommend that you watch it even once. Clearly I need to start being more proactive about pointing students in the direction of something they'll enjoy watching for the qualities that make it so terrible versus something that either means to offend or simply doesn't know how far it's gone. In other words, I need to let you know about movies that I would watch over and over or never again. So from now on be warned: if you watch a movie I've given a Z minus rating, you do so at your peril.

The Wolfman
by Joe Johnston
We open on the first of many, many great mistakes that The Wolfman has in store for us. A man we'll later learn is called Ben Talbot is out on the grounds of his family's rather large English estate. He's able to call out for someone once or twice before that person (or thing) steps out of the dark and cuts him in the throat and stomach with two large claws. He manages to run a pretty good distance despite this before the creature claws him to death on the steps of a mausoleum. To start a movie with someone's guts getting spilled is basically announcing that you should put your monocle away. And that's fine, but then the movie tries so desperately to be taken seriously for the next twenty five minutes and just can't quite get us to forget the opening. What I take to be little more than a week later Lawrence Talbot closes a night of what looks like the most lifeless performance of Hamlet I've seen since I was in the sixth grade. Backstage a woman announces herself as Ben's fiance and Lawrence quickly clears the dressing room to hear her story. Evidently they haven't found Ben's body since his attack so no one knows yet the hairy, toothy fate he met. Lawrence isn't really keen on going back to Blackmoor; he hates his father, always has, and hasn't seen his brother since they were kids. Plus he's been paid to sleepwalk through Shakespeare for another 30 performances. But seeing as how Gwen is played by the unfairly gorgeous Emily Blunt I guess I'd probably quit my day job, too. So, for better or worse, Lawrence finds himself on a train to Blackmoor a few days later. Curiously the man he shares his car with is none other than Max Von Sydow and after mentioning a werewolf story of his own (name dropping a much better movie than this in the process) gives Lawrence his silver cane. This will serve no function in the story, defying Chekhov's third act rule and proving how utterly confused the screenwriters must have been.

By the time Lawrence gets to the Talbot estate Ben's body's been found and he's obviously quite dead. Gwen's distraught as anything. Not only has her fiance been murdered but his dad, Sir John Talbot, refuses to stop creeping her out. When he and Lawrence aren't bickering about petty bullshit John won't stop staring at Gwen like a blind rapist. Because, once again, she's played by Emily Blunt, Gwen persuades Lawrence not only to stay at Blackmoor but openly investigate Ben's murder, which he does that very evening. The problem is, as Sir John warns him, whoever killed Ben is probably still out there. And as luck would have it, as Lawrence is paying a visit to the Gypsy Camp on the edge of the forest that surrounds Blackmoor, who Ben used to barter with, the same murderer strikes again. After a lot of airless comic-gore set-pieces, the creature corners Lawrence in a sort of mini-Stonehenge and bites him on the shoulder. The police bring him back to Blackmoor where Gwen, John and the family servant Singh, tend to him. From here we're treated to the requisite healing-too-soon stuff and falling for Gwen (fucking duh) and then when the full moon comes around John engineers a situation whereby Lawrence is locked outside when he turns into a werewolf and kills a bunch of superstitious townsfolk. The next morning the authorities find Lawrence covered in blood and cart him off to the looney bin. But this wouldn't be much of a Werewolf movie if he didn't get out.
But even still this isn't much of a werewolf movie. It isn't much of a horror movie, it isn't much of any kind of a movie. In fact it's fucking terrible. In The Wolfman's favour is Anthony Hopkins swimming effortlessly above this shipwreck doing the thing he does when he isn't being directed - making it up and still being the most capable and assured performer in the movie. The monologue he gives when he visits Lawrence in the asylum is the best part of the movie, hands down. I'd call Emily Blunt's myriad appearances in mostly flattering Victorian garb the best part but her role is so underwritten that she looks in danger of falling asleep at any moment. She's crushingly attractive and a fierce talent, and unfortunately Joe Johnston didn't make use of either of those factors. Apparently he was too busy getting the worst performance Benicio Del Toro has given maybe ever...certainly since The Usual Suspects. I love Benicio Del Toro and I give him a pass for this because, well let's face it, he's earned his life pass by this point: The Way of the Gun, Che, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 21 Grams, Traffic, etc. After earning his Oscar Del Toro probably decided that he had enough staying power that he could safely do basically one movie a year and would only donate his time to projects he believed in. And even the films of his I haven't yet seen post-Traffic (The Hunted, The Pledge) have big name directors attached and I could easily see that even if they don't meet his usual standard the prospect of working with Jack Nicholson, William Friedkin and Sean Penn was a big enough draw in and of itself that I'd see why he signed on the dotted line. But the things the script asks him to do as Talbot - brood, get mad, prevent himself from falling in love - he could do in his sleep but it actually looks like he tried to do just that. The problem with his casting is simply that he's too old to be either skipping stones or running around the moors at night. In his defense he's been a huge fan of the original The Wolfman for many, many years and when he signed on it certainly didn't look like this. And frankly if they'd made it how they planned to, when they planned to, he might have looked the part but I wouldn't be surprised if the process of getting The Wolfman made didn't turn his hair grey. Nearly every aspect of the film was changed from when the film was announced in 2006 and finally tripped into theatres in February 2010.

The screenplay was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, the man behind the Seven script but when Johnston signed onto direct (after Mark Romanek had parted after hearing how the studio wanted the film to turn out. As I understand it Johnston gave them exactly what they wanted), just a few weeks before shooting was to start, he had David Self rewrite it. This is maybe why so much set-up goes on unrelieved by the time the credits roll. Take for instance the silver cane. Horror novelist Jonathan Maberry was given an early draft of the script in order to write the novelization which is so much better than the movie it's almost ridiculous to consider that he got his ideas from such a muddled script. Maberry told me that when he saw the final cut he recognized passages from his book that he'd fabricated to fill in the gaps; the producers had simply lifted dialogue that was better than what their people had come up with. By this time the film was already such a mess that any hope that his book (based on what I think was the first draft of the script) was going to save their movie was just so much dreaming. Just as Johnston and Self weren't the first directors screenwriter, the editing has an equally problematic story. When the movie was finished, everyone involved knew how bad it sucked and that the only chance of making it watchable was to get someone in the editing room to work a minor miracle. Naturally they went to Walter Murch because though he hadn't worked on Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, the movie The Wolfman wishes it was, he had worked with the director a number of times. He demanded that they bring him an antique Steenbeck editing table and even still he couldn't make this shit play. And keep in mind this guy made sense of Apocalypse Now.
So with all this talk of stock shuffling and drop-outs and add-ons, just what does it look like when vomited at us through the screen? Well, the problem is that though the movie is nicely shot, the costumes and production design are rich in detail and the people all look the part there is not an ounce of tension or a surprise in the plot or a special effect that doesn't actively hurt the film. Self's screenplay paints in broad strokes: the townsfolk are superstitious and violent and most of them pay for it, a priest delivers a sermon that acts as voice over in one scene only, Del Toro drops his brooding exterior for Emily Blunt alone, Anthony Hopkins' character couldn't be anything but what it is, the gypsies are full of ancient wisdom about curses, everyone arrogant loses their footing, the climax plays out exactly how you expect it to, the CG adds nothing and is nothing you haven't seen a hundred times. And in Johnston's hands the few diversions it has from its own hopelessly derivative structure explode into chaos. Take the scene in the asylum. Lawrence's hallucinations ought to be cool, except until that point The Wolfman has not film that can support such flights of fancy. It's already filled with dream-lake flashbacks and we know very well what the werewolf looks like by this point (he's not scary) so what did Johnston think he would accomplish by showing us what we've already seen just at a higher volume and quicker? There is brief respite in Hopkins' speech about his history with wolves but then it's back to too-little-too-fast. In the asylum Lawrence is looked after by the amazingly overwrought Freud clone Dr. Hoenneger. After days of dunking Talbot in cold water (for no reason) he presents him to a room full of colleagues in a scene that's probably supposed to mimic Van Helsing's introduction in Dracula but comes off like one of the worst Abbott & Costello routines never made. Hoenneger blathers on and fucking on about how it's all in Talbot's head and how the moon will do nothing to him. Then he turns into a wolf and kills him (he even throws him out the window he makes specific reference to not being able to fly out of). Such dogged meeting of expectations comes off as sad and almost perverse. Could a film be so out of ideas that they need to add something like this?

And all this is bad but it's proven worse by it's dramatic incongruousness. If like Francis Ford Copolla's Dracula, this film's obvious inspiration, The Wolfman had gleefully thrown everything at the wall then played with it with like a bunch of special ed kids it might have been worth watching. The problem is that Joe Johnston (or somebody) decided to keep a veneer of professionalism about the joint so everytime it goes off the rails, there's someone there trying to make it look it happened on purpose. Slapstick gore scenes, CG action scenes a la Underworld or Van Helsing (in whose company this film belongs) would be fine if they were this film's sole elements, but contrast it with the constant references to classical literature and the quiet romance between two actors as seasoned as Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt and they tear the movie down. Subtle, candle lit flirtation and scenes like Del Toro teaching Blunt how to skip stones don't exactly gel with a Wolf aping King Kong on the rooftops of London (like so much of The Wolfman's "humour" that pun was intended). Emily Blunt's character and the sadness she brings to it outweigh a scene of two hirsute stuntmen doing wire work in the Talbot's living room. Aside from Rob Bottin and Tom Savini, Rick Baker is easily my favourite make-up artist and his talents are many. Here they fail him. Del Toro's Wolfman looks exactly like a man in a shitty, unflattering wolf suit (somewhere between Oliver Reed, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Teenwolf) and Hopkins looks exactly like a CG werewolf who behave nothing like a proper wolf. And when did we stop hiring real animals to appear in movies? I kinda get the wolfman but A CG bear and a CG deer that do nothing but stand there? That shit is just fucking lazy and annoying. And will someone tell me what Hugo Weaving is doing in this movie. His character does nothing, adds nothing and has no bearing on the proceedings. If he was simply excised the movie would have been exactly the same minus a few close-ups. In fact if his character was removed we'd have been spared another pointless tangent about Jack The Ripper that goes nowhere. If they'd played that up even a little it could have paid off. In fact if they'd stuck with any one element long enough for it to make a dent in this cliche-tastic screenplay maybe The Wolfman would be worth your time.
There are things that work occasionally but there is no fun to be had with The Wolfman. It's out and out terrible and that is what gets you a Z- around here. The movie so often shoots itself in its big hairy feet that I simply can't stand everything that surrounds its best parts. If someone recut this movie or better yet remade it as a character study with someone like Tom Hardy or Karl Urban as Lawrence Talbot and just focused on the relationship between Lawrence, crooked Sir John and gentle but cautious Gwen and never left the estate, not only would I pay to see such a film I'd fucking bankroll it if I had the money. But what we have is a kitchen sink film, a movie that changes tone every five minutes and always fumbles. So, in summary, I will not be watching The Wolfman again if I can help it and as the Z Minus below will let you know, neither should least not without silver to protect yourself.


Dizzy said...

Massacre In Dinosaur Valley!!!! WHAT

Scøut said...

It's a classic....or anyway it should be!