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movie review

Ruff Trade: A Mangy Wolfman, a Juiceless Lightning Thief

  • 2/11/10 at 7:05 PM

The best thing about the Universal remake of the 1940 classic The Wolf Man (called, here, The Wolfman) is the gnashing title beast of horror maven Rick Baker, whom the late, punny Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman used to call, “Rick Baker, Monster Maker.” As a fellow FM geek, I’m tickled whenever Baker gets a chance to re-imagine the great monsters. Unlike the CGI werewolves of New Moon, the (partially CGI) creature of Benicio Del Toro is truly a wolf-man, and true in its way to Jack Pierce’s odd homo erectus design for Lon Chaney, Jr. The third of Baker’s werewolves (he began with An American Werewolf in London, then the minimalist Jack Nicholson make-up for Wolf), it’s not his most original effort (that would be the hero’s agonized transformation in American Werewolf), but it’s his most pleasing, a kind of CGI dialogue between horrified human and liberated carnivore. The hirsute one switches back and forth between two and four legs, running down victims and rising to rip out their steaming intestines and send chunks of flesh flying. The over-the-top carnage caps the mostly pedestrian dialogue scenes with riotous Grand Guignol.

Director Joe Johnston did good, unpretentious work in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, and Jurassic Park 3, but his staging of The Wolfman is flat: thick fog, a few canted angles, and a lot of framed-for-TV close-ups. Even the sets by Rich Heinrichs and the music of Danny Elfman can’t raise this thing to Tim Burton-esque heights of inspired grotesquerie. As in the original, we’re in late nineteenth-century England, where gypsies might or might not carry in the lycanthropic plague, and where brave scion Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) has the good/bad fortune of surviving an attack. As the old gypsy verse (read here by a withered Geraldine Chaplin) goes, “Even a man who is pure at heart/And says his prayers by night/ Will become a wolf when the wolf’s bane blooms/And the moon is full and bright.” Alas, screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self borrow the Oedipal conflict of the Ang Lee Hulk. (Did they think it worked there?) Instead of Claude Raines’s prim and conflicted dad we get Anthony Hopkins’s — what? Best not to say but he’s howlingly mad. Note the resemblance between Lawrence’s late brother’s fiancĂ©e (Emily Blunt) and their dead mother: It comes down in the end to which monster has the greater stamina and longer talons.

Del Toro’s Talbot is supposedly an actor on the order of Kean or Garrick, but when he arrives at the family manse after a long self-exile, he’s about the same dullard that Lon Chaney, Jr. was. That’s not entirely a bad thing. Chaney, despite his blockishness, already had the look of a puffy, dehydrated alcoholic, a man who will never sleep peacefully, and Del Toro — with his sunken eyes — looks similarly eaten away from within. Emily Blunt makes any film worth seeing, if only to gaze on her poetic features, and she looks on Del Toro with just the right mix of romantic longing and motherly protectiveness. Crisp, elegant Hugo Weaving nearly steals the movie as the Scotland Yard detective convinced that Talbot is not just a homicidal maniac but Jack the Ripper himself. But the only sequence that kills is the one in which the shackled Talbot is presented to an audience of physicians — the compositions and lighting recall Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic” — as the prime specimen of a delusional psychotic, and hairy Larry gets to put the dinky shrink in his (spiked-fence) place.

Normally I’d steer clear of reviewing Chris Columbus’s dud movie of Rick Riordan’s lighthearted Harry Potter-versus-Greek Gods saga The Lightning Thief (here called Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief). But someone has to warn the kids and kids-at-heart who love the books that the film will break their hearts. As he demonstrated in the first Potter film, Columbus is incapable of (or uninterested in, or clueless about) capturing the tumultuous emotions that feed these adolescent fantasies of loneliness and magical empowerment. Riordan borrows from Potter but cheekily upends J.K. Rowling’s orderly patriarchal universe in favor of an Ancient Greek psychodrama of gods bruising one another’s egos, their petty animosities raising storms that threaten the human world. Columbus brings the kind of soulless craftsmanship that depends on (largely second-rate) computer-generated imagery to fill in the emotions. Raising the age of the characters (they’re pubescent instead of prepubescent) suggests naked commercial calculation, with the daughter of Athena, Annabeth, now a boobalicious Megan Fox lookalike. The novel’s fun of figuring out just which major god is Percy’s father is crushed in the movie’s first sequence, in which the boy sits comfortably, in his element, at the bottom of a swimming pool. And then screenwriter-defiler Craig Titley supplies an omniscient patriarch in the form of an Obi-Wan-like voice in Percy’s head — a guiding force so pointedly lacking Riordan’s novel. I hesitate to disparage the young lead, Logan Lerman, because it’s really the director’s job to cast the part right or to work overtime to get a decent performance, but the handsome Lerman is such a stiff that being turned into stone by Medusa (a wasted Uma Thurman) doesn’t seem like such a threat.

Related: Monster-Movie Legend Rick Baker on His Greatest Creations, Including Benicio Del Toro As Wolfman