Monday, July 05, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Wolfman (2010)

In director David Cronenberg's landmark remake of The Fly (1986), Dr. Seth Brundle -- the intrepid scientist played by Jeff Goldblum -- realizes something important about his invention, a teleportation device.

A computer cannot understand flesh
.

It must be taught to understand flesh.


Well, apparently the computers still haven't learned their lesson.

Exhibit A is The Wolfman (2010), a horror film featuring some truly fine performances, a decent screenplay, a solid thematic subtext, and an appropriate degree of reverence for its celebrated source material: the 1941, Lon Chaney Jr./Curt Siodmak The Wolfman.


For all of these many and much-appreciated virtues (including an intriguing leitmotif regarding the Biblical tale of the Prodigal Son), this Joe Johnston film ultimately flounders due to the largely-unnecessary bells and whistles of the troubled production: namely inadequate special effect presentation.

I don't often write at length about special effects in my reviews, you may have noticed. Effects rarely make or break a picture as far as I'm concerned.
The Wolfman is a rare exception. Here, the effects succeed only in taking the audience completely out of the human dimension of the narrative, and are never responsible for generating a single scare.

This is a big problem. Good horror is all about the flesh. The blood is the life, and computerized splatter and digitized flesh just don't get the job done. They both appear, well, lifeless when rendered in CGI.

Now, I'm not trying to be cranky or overly nostalgic for "the good old days" here.

On the contrary, my trusty eyes inform me straight -- especially when I watch a film like The Wolfman -- that something is definitely wrong; that something is not true or authentic. The practical effects are fine in the film...quite good actually. But then, the digitized Wolfman starts leaping from London rooftop to rooftop like Halle Berry in Pitof's Catwoman (2004) and there is a fatal disconnect for me. I'm watching bad effects, not a character. Suddenly, I lose my investment in the story, in the outcome of the tale.

This Wolfman's hair doesn't ruffle right. He doesn't displace atmosphere believably. He has no feeling of weight, of Earthly gravity. He is not...photo-real. And yet even monsters must obey the dictates of gravity, right? They can't run faster than The Flash or jump higher than Superman. Some of the battle effects here between dueling wolves are bafflingly rendered in fast-motion as well, which make the monsters appear even less impressive; even more cut-rate. Fast-motion traditionally denotes comedy; it creates the opposite impression as the one desired here. The audience doesn't think "power." It thinks..."lame...they had to speed up the footage because the effects are so terrible."

Perhaps most importantly, the Wolf Men in this film move in a show-offy sort of over-the-top manner that not only defies physics, but exposes the important character flaw of the programmers who create such cinematic creatures. Just because they can make their computerized monsters do a thing -- like leap tall buildings in a single bound -- does not mean that they should do such a thing. These computer jockeys get carried away, and reality is sacrificed for ostensible thrills.

But again, the horror genre concerns those things about our human existence that make us uncomfortable about ourselves, that make our blood run cold. Our skin is our layer of protection from the world, and also our connection to it. The blood running in our veins throbs and pulses...and nourishes us. Good horror often concerns the way our bodies are subverted or damaged or changed by outside forces. So horror is -- for lack of a better word -- organic. The Wolfman is perhaps the most organic of horrors as it concerns a man whose body is subverted from the inside; from a contaminated bite. Throw in computer-generated effects -- with all their problems in gravity and movement and realism -- and some essential characteristic of the genre is sacrificed, or at the very least, mitigated.


The Wolfman, which down to the lavish costumes makes a sincere effort to remain in the classic mold of its progenitor, shoots itself in the foot time and time again by reaching for the bells and whistles, the big digital shots, when they simply aren't necessary, especially given the quality of Rick Baker's practical effects. The film lingers on several shots of a full moon, and even a shot of a prowling camera approaching a full moon through gnarled trees. All these shots are largely CGI too. Even the suffusing fog of the moors seems, largely, digital. Again, this may seem like nitpicking, but computers shouldn't be used as substitute for legitimate "atmosphere." Atmosphere isn't something you can fix in post. I wish it were.

The result of these fakey computer shots, which stick out like a sore thumb, is that every time the film goes to effects sequences, the audience feels a jarring effect. It's like you're watching two movies.

No, scratch that. One movie and one cartoon.

The transformation effects featured in the film -- for the most part -- are terrible CGI. The result is that they do not appear as authentic as the work vetted in An American Werewolf in London back in 1981. That climactic transformation, created without benefit of computer generated imagery, both captured and transmitted the agonizing, bone crushing and skin-twisting nature of the human-to-werewolf change. Digital morphing -- literally the smooth shaping of one face into another -- simply can't express, again, the pure physicality of such a transformation.

If the bells are difficult to stomach here, the whistles are just as bad. The soundtrack by Danny Elfman (which had some problems, I understand...) is woefully inappropriate to the action. It is overdone to the point of lunacy; as if hoping desperately, somehow, to wring some sense of emotion, investment or involvement out of the fleshless, heartless effects sequences. I like Danny Elfman and consider him highly talented, but the music in The Wolfman feels as out-of-place as the CG effects. It feels desperate.

Benecio Del Toro is quite good in the film as Lawrence Talbot, the man who becomes the werewolf, and Emily Blunt, who plays Gwen, becomes more lovely and winsome, literally, by the moment. By the end of the movie she is absolutely gorgeous...and totally involving to watch. These actors seem to understand the name of the game so far as The Wolfman's underlying meaning: that men either repress or release their wolves; and women, often, are the only ones that can save them from that inner beast unloosed. Del Toro and Blunt play their scenes with restraint and dignity and deserve heaps of praise for their sober, human performances. They are grown-ups playing grown-up parts (which isn't entirely common in the era of Twilight), but the movie doesn't trust them to carry the film's message. So The Wolfman throws CGI action scenes at us instead.

The cinematography here is strong at moments, certainly. There's a terrific and enticing shot of Gwen's neck and chest...her heaving bosom, as it were, in close-up. You can almost feel her blood pumping right beneath the unblemished skin...and that's the point of this drama, and this review. She's real. She's flesh. She's tangible. Lawrence wants her...and the animal inside him wants her. This shot is more honest and more effective in transmitting the subtext of the film (men = wolves) than CGI playtime on the roof with Wolfie.

I don't blame Joe Johnston, a man whose work on The Rocketeer (1991) and even Jurassic Park III (2001) I admired. The problems that diminish The Wolfman are the problems, by and large, that plague Hollywood today. In particular, studios seem afraid to let big "event" movies actually be about...well, anything...let alone human beings and their problems. They don't "trust" the story of The Wolfman, the story of a man cursed and tormented by the animal inside, and so action scenes, special effects and a driving score get slathered on to lard up a sense of audience involvement with the material.

It's all just bloody unnecessary. The original version of The Wolfman remains beloved today -- seventy years after its release -- because people connected with the man played by Lon Chaney Jr., and also with the monster he became. They connected with the movie because it was genuinely atmospheric, not to mention literate. In many ways, this was the same formula that worked for Let The Right One In in 2008, so it can still be done today. You just have to believe in your material. This movie has a good director, great actors (including Anthony Hopkins) and absolutely zero trust in any of them.

Horror movies had a great year in 2009, so I'm not just dissing the new out of some misplaced sense that what is old is better, a priori. I don't even believe that. But I also don't believe that Hollywood has yet learned the lesson of Godzilla (1998). That -- if you're making a serious monster movie -- the filmmakers must decide how they feel about their monster; so that we, as audience members, also know how to feel. Was it just bad luck that Lawrence became a werewolf? Was it fate? Or was it something else? What does Lawrence think about this? Is he cursed or just unlucky?

Computers still can't understand the flesh, so if CGI is indeed the mode of the future, we better teach 'em and teach 'em fast, or we'll get more films of tremendous promise and botched execution, like The Wolfman.

I think we need a flesh comprehension program called No Computer Left Behind. Or something.

Note: My wife watched The Wolfman with me, and liked it considerably more than I did. The CGI effects simply did not impede her enjoyment of the film, and she liked the underlying psychological ramifications of the plot (about the nature of men and women; and the nature of wolves). We both compared the film to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), if that helps you decide whether you want to see it or not. We also both agreed that it wasn't scary (though it is gory.) Interestingly, she watched the film almost as though it were a fantasy/superhero effort (right down to the Gargoyle Shot), whereas I was looking at it primarily as horror. Were I rating the film officially, I would probably rate two or two-and-a-half stars out of four, if that helps you get a feel for it.

11 comments:

  1. Just saw this myself and you are spot on about the CGI. The only exception I would make are the shots when the wolfman drops from two legs to run on four (at a realistic clip), which did work well. Then he turns into The Flash and ruins everything.

    I loved the art direction, and the cast is first rate as you mention. My wife hated the screenplay, and we both thought that there seemed to be a lot of hands involved - good dialogue would be followed in the next scene by howling tin-ear clunking. I suspect a good fanediter can make a better version of this without much effort... or maybe we'll see a a director's cut (hope, hope)? (Is it just me, or did there seem to be a missing reel in the second act? One character's revelations seem to drop in out of nowhere - "Hey, how's it goin'? Just dropped by the asylum to explain every single mystery that the plot's laid out so far.")

    Overall, I liked it. There's a classic werewolf movie just barely hidden in here. But then again I kind of liked Big Bad Wolf so I'm an easy mark.

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  2. Hey DLR:

    Great insights about The Wolfman: it truly had me flummoxed. Parts of it were very, very good. And then parts of it...well, as you say were "ear-clunking." I agree.

    Usually, I fall pretty hard on one side of a movie. Either I really like it and think it's good; or I dislike it and think it's terrible. The Wolfman really is right in the middle...it could go either way, depending on taste, which is why I added the note about Kathryn to my review. Not everyone will feel the same way I did; some may like the film more. Who knows, I may revisit it in five years and like it more...but right now it just feels like a very mixed bag. (And I suspect the effects -- which are already questionable -- will age very poorly.)

    Thanks for the comment, my friend.

    best,
    JKM

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  3. John Voorhees11:41 AM

    I also really enjoyed this movie, but I loved your perspective, JK. As a moviegoer, I'm not as steeped in the horror genre, and now that you point it out, I can certainly imagine how a defter touch in the effects would have made The Wolfman far more unsettling. At the same time, I think that this film and the Coppolla Dracula are two very rare examples of modern interpretations of classic horror films EVEN COMING CLOSE to the chills of their predecessors.

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  4. Hi John!

    I wish I enjoyed The Wolfman as much as you, DLR and Kathryn (my wife) did. It really makes me wonder if it is "just me."

    I wish the effects were better, but most of all, I wish the film were scarier.

    Maybe that's the difference in our appreciation of it...?

    Thanks for the comment, buddy!

    best,
    JKM

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  5. John, you're right about fast-motion traditionally denoting comedy, and detracting from any dramatic effect. The same thing occurred in "Highlander: The Source," where the supposedly super-powered immortal guardian of the source moves in fast-motion, especially when he's fighting. It totally sucked any tension from his scenes, and made them seem comical.
    I also agree with you that the transformation effects in "An American Werewolf in London" remain the gold standard in terms of effectiveness.

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  6. Another of your fine film examinations, John. When I took this in early in the year (while attending a conference in S.F.), I came out of it missing something. It certainly doesn't compare to the early 80's greats like An Amercian Werewolf in London and The Howling for story (or SFX) -- and not in the vicinity of the Lon Chaney Jr. classic. The filmmakers looked like they were shooting for that, but came up short (BTW, I just spotted in IMDB that AAWiL is in development for a 2011 release... oh, lord). And, I agree with your perspective on why they did. They didn't trust or respect their material on hand and felt they had to throw in more SFX as horror eye candy.

    I'm still curious about this DVD release, though. It is the UNRATED Director's Cut, and I'd like to compare it to the theatrical version I took in. I'll re-watch this hopefully soon. Thanks so much for this, John.

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  7. Hey LeOpard13:

    Thanks for the comment, my friend. I should have noted, I did review the unrated version/director's cut for this review. I would love to read your comparison between versions!

    As you rightfully note, I just don't know that remaking classics like (AAWiL) is going to get the genre, or the studios, anywhere worthwhile. A variation on a theme (on a classic monster), like what Landis did back in the early 1980s would seem preferable.

    I would love to see someone look at werewolf legends in today's world -- in 2010 -- and come up with a new spin.

    Is that too much for us to ask?

    best,
    John

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    1. Here's my look at the un-rated version of THE WOLFMAN and something that was more worthwhile. Thanks, John.

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  8. I haven't personally seen this yet, but, I do have a family member who did see it and said the same thing..parts were great and parts weren't. He said it was ok. Heck, give me Lon Chaney Jr anyday over all of today's slick CGI and FX.
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

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  9. Trick or Treat Pete:

    Thanks for the comment!

    You said it well here: "parts were great and parts weren't." That's it exactly....just about sums up the whole Wolfman experience for me.

    And also, I totally agree with you about L.C. Jr...he was amazing in The Wolfman!

    best,
    JKM

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  10. I have not watched this film, precisely because of the use of cgi, and as I suspected, it would ruin the film. My favorite werewolf film is 'The Howling',followed closely by 'American WW in London' & I knew watching this film would be pointless. Thanks to the review, all my above suspicions were proven to be true.

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