Saturday, February 20, 2010

No Clever Title...This Movie Was a Mess - The Wolfman (2010)

Sometimes trailers can be misleading. In the case of The Wolfman, I thought it looked to be a tad reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula. It seemed like the film was going for a dream-like atmosphere that Francis Ford Coppola mastered 18 years ago (I feel old now), and I was intrigued. It's something that Tim Burton manages to do with just about every film he makes. Things don't look quite real, but they don't look fake either. It's a fine line to walk, and only a handful of directors can pull it off. But that's all irrelevant, because The Wolfman is not as good as its trailer makes it out to be. The cast is great and the material is ripe for a tragic tale of violence, love and remorse, but the final product is horribly, horribly flawed.

Now, as I understand it, the film went though a lot of development hell. Directors were changed and the editing was perhaps done with little time left, and it shows. I don't know any details, but if any of that is true, I can only wonder what I would have watched had the film been handled better. As it stands, it's a cobbled-together mess of good ideas and characters that makes me want to rip my hair out and eat it. I don't know why I would eat it, but that's what The Wolfman has reduced me to. For starters, the first half hour of the film contained the worst pacing and editing I've seen in years. Shit just starts happening without a moment to catch your breath or think about what's actually going on. It jumps from scene to scene at break-neck speed and doesn't let the viewer soak up anything being shown on the screen. They might as well have just started the thing with Benicio turning into a werewolf. Speaking of Benicio Del Toro, his character is shoddily introduced with an Emily Blunt voice-over of a letter she's writing to him. His brother (her fiance or husband, I forget) was missing and she was writing to ask for Benicio to come help aid in the search. That's all well and good, but 30 seconds of exposition later and there he is, standing inside his father's house. Ok, who is he? I don't know; there was a shot of him on stage doing Hamlet, so he's an actor. But the film never bothers to flesh his character out. In fact, the film doesn't flesh anyone out at all, and that's the most frustrating thing for me. If I'm supposed to care about what happens to these people, I need to have some kind of justification for investing my emotions. The Wolfman utterly fails in providing me with any reason to care, and that just makes the whole thing pointless.

pictured: Sir Not Appearing in this Film.

Also, a bizarre disappointment was Del Toro's performance. I know for a fact it's not due to his ability as an actor, so someone else needs to be kidney punched for making him do it. Every line he uttered was wooden and almost like he was reading it straight from the script. Everything else about him was fine, such as his facial expressions, posture, etc. But his line delivery was jarring and unnatural. Even more bizarre, however, was Anthony Hopkins' bi-polar accent. One minute he's speaking like he does in every other movie, and the next he has a full-on Irish accent. Then it's back to normal again. I can't for the life of me understand what the hell was going on with that. But the best performance of the film was pretty much wasted in Hugo Weaving as Inspector Abberline. He has a couple of stand-out scenes, then the film mostly forgets about him until he needs to shoot stuff at the end. There are numerous occasions - definitely with Abberline - where it seems like character development, scene transitions and plot points were cut from the film. Overall, it felt like about an hour of footage was dropped, and that hour was sorely needed.

In this scene, the gypsy lady was going to explain how to cure cancer, but the movie was getting close to its 102 minute runtime, so the camera just turned off.

This wouldn't be a Wolfman review without talking about the transformations and special effects, so here I go. Meh on both fronts. The werewolf transformations weren't awe-inspiring in the least. American Werewolf in London did the whole face-appendage-elongation thing 29 years ago, and did it way better. So my solution would be to not just stick with close-ups of hands and feet growing and changing, then quick face shots with the mouth open. I've seen that shit before, and I'm not impressed. Perhaps if it was done practically I might give it a pass, but it wasn't, so I won't. But the effects in general were hit-and-miss, with a lot of misses. There was an absolutely horrid-looking cgi bear in one scene that made my brain freeze and reboot. And I have a request for any special effects people who might be reading this: before we get any more shots of bi-pedal human-animal hybrids running on all fours, please make sure it doesn't look like shit. Thanks. As far as the blood and gore is concerned, well, werewolves sure do side slashes and head loppings a lot.

Pretty decent half-monster face, but it's been done better.

I feel I have to point out another pet peeve of mine. This applies to monster movies and straight-up horror films in general: STOP WITH THE JUMP-SCARES. Yea, I get it. 5 seconds of silence and camera-panning, then BAM! Scary thing with a shitty violin screech accompanying it! Instead of trying to surprise me with the same tactic 10 times, how about building actual tension and dread? It's a novel idea, I know.

In all honesty, the actual werewolf design was a bit hokey and it detracted from how bad-ass it should have looked. The filmmakers decided to lean heavily on the original design, which sort of looks like a really fucking hairy Guile (minus the blond hair color and tank top/wife beater). It's just, And the numerous close-ups while running on all fours didn't help. At all.

In conclusion, I want to punch whoever is responsible for this disaster. A really cool monster movie/period piece is hidden underneath what turned out to be a rushed, poorly put together mess of a film. This thing could have been like an English-language Brotherhood of the Wolf, but instead we got stuck with a Lycanthropic Van Helsing. Oh, joy.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Public Introspection - JCVD (2008)

Right off the bat I'm starting with this clip, which is the opening scene of JCVD. It is in no way, shape or form indicative of the rest of the movie. In fact, put in context, it's the exact opposite of the film. But I thought it was an especially evocative opening, and once you've seen the whole thing, it gives some perspective as to how Van Damme sees (at least a part of) his career.

Once I had finished watching JCVD, I immediately had a LOT more respect for Jean-Claude Van Damme as an actor. He really did put a lot of himself up on display here, and the finished product speaks a lot toward some kind of redemption for him - both as an actor and as a person. It's not every day an actor allows a movie to capture parts of their personal life - complete with commentary - in order to seemingly help others on their own path. If I'm reading too much into the intentions of the film, then at the very least JCVD was a cathartic project for Van Damme, and maybe he can start making better movies from now on. I won't be holding my breath, but one can always hope (his IMDB isn't promising).

The film follows Van Damme as himself as he's going through a custody hearing for his daughter. In what I thought was a great touch, his wife's lawyer trots out the dvds of all of his movies and starts describing the different violent ways people are killed in them. "Run over by a car. Decapitated. Beaten to death." etc, etc. This is one example of Van Damme's self-critique that I found especially effective in terms of showing a man looking back at his life. Put another way, there aren't a lot of actors who would want to show the negative side of what they've been doing for the greater part of their entire lives, and certainly not in a movie they're starring in. So, props for that.

After the hearing, he gets a call from his lawyer saying the check he wrote bounced. So, off he goes to the post office to send the money. Oopsie, doopsey; he picked the wrong day to have a shitty legal battle over his offspring. As it turns out, three armed men are holding up the post office when he walks in, and he gets taken as a hostage along with everyone else. The gunmen decide to use him as their mouthpiece, presumably to stay as anonymous as possible. Obviously, the police think Van Damme is the lone perpetrator and act accordingly. The film makes good use of time and perspective, as it jumps between events to give the viewer multiple takes on certain situations. For instance, the first time you see Van Damme going to the post office, it's from the perspective of the video store dudes across the street, as they gawk and ask to pose for pictures with him. Later in the film, you get the same scenario, but from Van Damme's perspective. There are a lot of nice little directing touches throughout, and the film greatly benefits from this style. I was pretty impressed, being that I've never heard of the director before.

Now, there's a scene in particular I'd like to address. About three-quarters of the way through, Van Damme is sitting in a chair inside the post office. He's facing the camera, and all of a sudden he starts lifting upward - chair, camera and all. He lifts above the set, and you can see the fake walls, lights, and everything used to make the film. He stares at the camera and starts talking about his life. He talks about the highs, the lows, his regrets, his disappointments, and everything that made up the last 25 years of his life. It's pretty heavy stuff. The one thing I'll confess to is not knowing how much of his monologue was straight art, and what was really from the heart. Regardless, it all seems legit, and it's god-damned great. There are movies that have attempted to do this sort of thing, but a lot of time they shit all over themselves by doing so. But in the case of JCVD, for some reason it fit. It felt oddly organic, despite breaking all the rules set forth up to the point it happened. Basically, Godard can go fuck himself; this is how you eviscerate the 4th wall.

As I eluded to in my opening paragraph, this is not an action movie. There's tension in the post office, to be sure, but there are no ridiculous heroics by Van Damme this time. He doesn't ever round-house kick a baddy in the face, and he ( ! ) never does the splits in his underwear. In fact, there's a fantastic scene between him and one of the gunmen, where the guy wants Van Damme to do the ol' kicking a cigarette out of someone's mouth without hitting him trick. Van Damme obliges, and the only fanfare he receives is forced applause from the hostages at the behest of the robber. It's actually sad, in the sense that he's being reduced to barking on command to do a parlor trick. It's another example of the way Van Damme talks about his career without actually saying a word.

JCVD is definitely a breath of fresh air. An actor known for playing basically the same dude over and over again opens up and actually plays himself. It's not tongue-in-cheek, it's not hokey or pandering, and it's not something you would expect from Jean-Claude Van Damme. As long as you go into the film without any preconceived notions, you'll be alright.