Dig Two Graves


Samantha Isler and the tunnel of terror.

(2014) Thriller (Area23a) Ted Levine, Samantha Isler, Danny Goldring, Troy Ruptash, Rachael Drummond, Dean Evans, Bradley Grant Smith, Gabriel Cain, Ryan Kitley, Audrey Francis, Mark Lancaster, Mikush Lieshdedaj, Bert Matias, Gregorio Parker, Ben Schneider, Ann Sonneville, Sauda Namir, Tom Hertenstein, Kara Zediker. Directed by Hunter Adams

 

Guilt when coupled with grief can make a very potent emotional stew. It can drive us to do things we would never ordinarily consider doing, to completely rewrite our moral codes. It takes a very strong will to grapple with these emotions at once and come out on top.

Jake Mather (Isler) however has the disadvantage of being a pre-teen. She and her brother Sean (Schneider) were standing on a cliff above a quarry which is now a lake. He urged her to jump. She didn’t want to. He offered to hold her hand. She said yes but at the last minute let go. Over the side he went and into the water, never to resurface. In fact, his body was never recovered.

She is soon approached by a trio of gypsy moonshiners who have the devil’s own offer for her; she can get her brother back if only she can get someone to take his place. They even have a specific person in mind – Willie Proctor (Cain) who has a huge crush on her. As it turns out their grandfathers have a connection to the gypsies going back to 1947, thirty years earlier. That connection has dark connotations for the two children who weren’t even born when the events took place.

Jake’s grandfather (Levine), the town sheriff, has been holding the guilt of those events in and as he investigates the mysterious gypsies and their designs on Jake, memories come flooding back, unpleasant ones. Keeping Jake alive will be hard enough; keeping her soul pure will be something else entirely.

Although this was filmed in Southern Illinois, there is more of a West Virginia vibe to it from my point of view. The movie seems to take its cues from Southern Gothic authors like Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. There is palpable menace but nothing so overt or concrete that we can identify exactly what it is. That makes the movie doubly scary. Adams chooses to take things slowly rather than racing towards the finish line; it’s a calculated risk but it serves the overall tone well.

Ted Levine is a fine character actor who is best known as the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs and the beleaguered San Francisco police captain in Monk. He goes subtle here, playing the haunted Sheriff Waterhouse mostly through the eyes and the cheroots he smokes. The sheriff loves his granddaughter fiercely and feels the pain of her grief keenly but he never talks down to her. I never thought I’d say this, but Ted Levine is the kind of grandfather I’d want to have. Most of the rest of the cast is decent although special mention must be given for Samantha Isler, who a couple years after this was filmed made Captain Fantastic. Her performance has depth far beyond that of most young actors.

The one place the movie goes wrong is the final act. It just seems to lose steam and never really regains it. There are some good moments that involve the Sheriff and his predecessor and we finally find out what the connection between the gypsies, Willie Proctor and Jake Mather is but I think a little bit too much is given away during the flashback sequences and as a result it comes as something of an anticlimax. I would have liked a bit more dramatic tension in the ending but at this point the film’s slower pace and languid tone work against it.

The rural setting is inherently creepy and dare I say haunted; thankfully, the horror elements are kept subtle and not too far-fetched. Adams has a very sure hand and the pacing is wonderfully slow. I’m absolutely flabbergasted this sat on the shelf so long but to be honest, this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. In these days of short attention spans and easily distracted youth, slow rolling thrillers simply aren’t going to get the audiences that quick cutting big budget CGI-laden franchise films are going to. And that’s okay; but there is an audience for movies like this and hopefully Dig Two Graves will find it.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a wonderful Southern Gothic feel to it.
REASONS TO STAY: It runs out of steam in the final act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some nudity and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is just now getting a limited release, it actually debuted at the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jessabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Spectral

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance


 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Nicolas Cage may be laughing now but he won't be when he shows up on another Conan O'Brien Homeland Security Threat Alert sketch.

(2012) Superhero (Columbia) Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Idris Elba, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Fergus Riordan, Anthony Head, Christopher Lambert, Spencer Wilding, Sorin Tofan, Jacek Koman, Cristian Iacob, Jai Stefan. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

 

This is a movie that is just going to make you stammer. On Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: “Didn’t they direct Crank? That-that-that was so good!” On Nicolas Cage: “But-but-but-but…didn’t he win an Oscar? Didn’t he make Raising Arizona? Peggy Sue Got Married? Adaptation? Valley Girl?” All true. Throw those expectations out the window.

Johnny Blaze (Cage), the Ghost Rider has fled the United States and his curse of turning into a flaming headed demon who extracts vengeance (and the souls) of those who deserve it which is pretty much everybody. He is living in the Balkans now, skulking in the darkness. He is approached by a drunken French priest named Moreau (Elba) who tells him that he is needed to help protect a young boy that the Devil is after; should he fulfill his end of the bargain, his order will help him get rid of the curse. Having nothing better to do and 90 minutes of screen time to fill, he agrees.

Said boy is named Danny (Riordan) and he is the son of the comely gypsy Nadya (Placido) who wants him back. Denis Leary-esque thug Ray Carrigan (Whitworth) – who has a history with Nadya – has managed to steal the boy after blowing up the Ghost Rider with a grenade (they just don’t make demons like they used to). Still, you can’t keep a good Rider down and Blaze steals the boy back which hacks the devil off .

Satan, going by the name Roarke (Hinds) – and he’s about as far from “Fantasy Island” as you’re going to get – is pretty cheesed off so he turns the dead Carrigan into Decay, a demon that rots everything he touches – everything except Twinkies which are immune. Take that, snack food naysayers – who knew an armor made of sponge cake and filling would grant the wearer immunity from demonic powers?

Anyway it’s all leading to a ritual that must be performed on the solstice blah blah blah blah blah…you know the drill. The odds are against them but you know ol’ Flamehead will save the day. This is, after all, a Marvel Comic book adaptation.

And folks, I’m here to tell you it is the worst Marvel movie since the largely unseen 1994 Fantastic Four film that was made to retain the rights to the comic for Constantin Films (who would finally make a big budget version in 2005), and that’s saying something. This is Steel bad. This is Catwoman bad.

Neveldine and Taylor have made some nifty action films but you get the sense they were hamstrung by the PG-13 rating imposed on them by the studio. While there is some of the out-of-control seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that characterized their first movies, mostly they resort to clever camera angles and loud pulsating hard rock to turn the movie into an hour and a half long Megadeth video. This isn’t nearly as much fun or free-spirited as their earlier works; not only is it not anything goes, it feels more like nothing does.

Cage has gotten his fair share of flack for his overacting, but he sets a new bar here. Remember those Conan O’Brien bits about Nicolas Cage performances being the new means of setting Homeland Security threat levels? Cage has produced a whole new threat level. There’s a scene where he interrogates an Eastern European Eurotrash club owner about the whereabouts of Carrigan that has simply got to be seen to be believed. I honestly believed his head was going to explode (and it pretty much does in CGI when he transforms into the Rider). And while we’re on the subject of acting, can we not find a juvenile actor who could act? Riordan delivers a performance that compares unfavorably with Jake Lloyd’s wooden extravaganza as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And no, that’s not something you want said about your acting.

In fact, much of the CGI owes as much to Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes as it does to Marvel Comics. Cage’s eyes bug out like a wolf checking out a female – I half-expected a wolf whistle and an “Ah-OOOOOOO-Gah!!!” to accompany the transformation. He also spits out bullets machine gun-style at one of Carrigan’s thugs. When you can’t do a comedic scene as well as a 70-year-old cartoon, even with all the modern technology at your disposal, you’re doing something terribly wrong.

This is simply an embarrassment. I didn’t think the first Ghost Rider was as bad as it was made out to be but this one is far worse than you can imagine. Other than Placido who is sweet to look at, and Hinds who is at least having fun chewing the scenery as a Wall Street Beelzebub, and Lambert as a tattooed monk, there really isn’t a lot to recommend this movie, other than to serve as a warning that not all Marvel movies are necessarily good.

REASONS TO GO: Film is a bit better-looking than the first Ghost Rider.

REASONS TO STAY: Cage just…oh my God. Overacting doesn’t even cover it. Story is predictable and dull. Too much “look ma I’m directing” in the action sequences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some darkly disturbing images, and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eva Mendes was approached to reprise her role from the first movie but perhaps wisely she declined.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100. The reviews are a train wreck.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man (2006)

TATTOO LOVERS: Lambert sports a face full as do several of the other monks. Cage as Johnny Blaze doesn’t have any per se but his flaming skull would make a wicked awesome tat.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Shame

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey Jr. always gets offended when someone disses Iron Man

(2011) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr. Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan, Paul Anderson, Kelly Reilly, Geraldine James, William Houston, Wolf Kahler, Affif Ben Badra. Directed by Guy Ritchie

 

When the game is afoot, there is nobody you want on the case more than Sherlock Holmes. Still more than 100 years after his debut there has been no detective to equal his keen deductive mind and razor-sharp observation skills.

Holmes (Downey) is investigating a series of terrorist bombings in Europe, mostly involving France and Germany. He is also preparing to be best man at his old friend Dr. Watson’s (Law) wedding. As distracted as Holmes is he nearly forgets to put together Watson’s stag party which he does only at the last minute, inviting only his brother Mycroft (Fry) and none of Watson’s friends.

He also has an ulterior motive for where he has scheduled the stag party; one of the clues he has discovered has led him to gypsy fortune teller Madame Simza Heron (Rapace). He arrives in time to foil a murder attempt by acrobatic Russian Cossacks but this leads him no closer to the truth. He only has his powers of deduction to lead him to who is behind all of this – Professor James Moriarty (Harris). But what is he up to and why?

The need to find out the truth will lead Holmes to tear Watson away from his honeymoon for one last case which will take him to the basements of Paris to the castles of Switzerland. At stake is the peace of Europe, which if disturbed too much will lead to a catastrophic war, one which Moriarty seeks to profit from and one which Holmes seeks to prevent.

The plot is slightly more convoluted than what I’ve presented but in the interest in keeping some of the twists hidden I’ve kept it deliberately vague. There are some cross-references to the industrial military complex and a few to modern economic issues. This is pretty much a mishmash of about half a dozen Conan Doyle-penned Holmes stories, primarily “The Final Problem” but there are elements from “The Sign of Four,” “Valley of Fear” and “The Greek Interpreter” among others.

Once again this isn’t your granddaddy’s Holmes; Ritchie and Downey bring him a little closer in some ways to how Conan Doyle originally wrote him (while Holmes in the stories wasn’t primarily a fighter, he certainly lacked in social skills) but this isn’t the urbane deerstalker-wearing sleuth depicted by Basil Rathbone whose performance has essentially defined the role ever since.

The action sequences, as befitting a sequel, are much more elaborate than the first and sometimes that’s a good thing (as is a gun battle on a speeding train, or a frantic escape through a forest while under heavy artillery fire) and sometimes, not so much (as in a Holmes solo fight against a group of thugs early on in the movie). Ritchie’s trademark of using extreme slow motion and extreme fast motion to stylize his fights is here in spades; there were times I wish he just filmed the sequences straight but I have to admit the forest sequence was made more powerful because of it.

Downey and Law are at the core of the film; their relationship is what powers the movie and thankfully the chemistry between them that the first film established is still going strong here. Their by-play makes for some of the best moments in the film, and is at times delightful. Downey plays Holmes as even more disreputable in this film than he is in the first; although there is little contact with Inspector Lestrade (Marsan) who is only in a single scene this time out, nonetheless Ritchie enhances Holmes’ keen sense of observation with camera and digital tricks meant to give us an idea of how Holmes sees the world. Downey plays into this nicely which is one of the best things about the movie.

Harris makes a competent Moriarty, definitely giving us a glimpse into his own intelligence but keeping his character rather bland. You would expect that a master criminal, a “Napoleon of crime” would want to fly under the radar somewhat so the flamboyant villains of other films in that sense don’t really work in real life, if you can call the Holmes films that.

There is plenty to delight those who like action-packed spectacles including some amazing sets (the castle in Switzerland is nothing short of astonishing) and some fine acting. However, be warned that the plot is pretty much the same as other movies we’ve seen set in the same time period where the hero attempts to stop Europe from being plunged into a massive war that it would be plunged into anyway – twice. Too bad Holmes wasn’t around to stop Adolph Hitler. Now that would make for an interesting movie!

REASONS TO GO: Great chemistry between Downey and Law. Harris makes a fine albeit bland Moriarty. Some action sequences are spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: The slo-mo/fast-mo action juxtapositions get a bit old. The “bringing Europe to the brink of war” saw is also a bit stale.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some action violence and brief drug use references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the beginning of the film, the camera pans over typed excerpts of stories Watson has been working on; these are from the Sherlock Holmes stories “A Study in Scarlet” and “A Blue Carbuncle.”

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely better on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Adventures of Tintin

Drag Me to Hell


Drag Me to Hell

This isn't exactly the girl-on-girl action I had in mind.

(Universal) Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Jessica Lucas, David Paymer, Dileep Rao, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee. Directed by Sam Raimi

Director Sam Raimi made his bones, so to speak, in the horror genre. His Evil Dead trilogy still remains today a classic of the genre, hallmarks of Raimi’s patented horror-with-laughs style. After doing Army of Darkness, the last of the trilogy, Raimi moved on to doing the Spider-Man movies as well as a couple of other non-horror movies, but the genre has never been far from his heart – his Ghost House Pictures production shingle has been responsible for such fare as The Messengers, 30 Days of Night and The Grudge trilogy.

Now he makes his return to the genre as a director with this nifty little film. Christine Brown (Lohman), a sweet, mousy blonde, is gunning for a promotion at the bank where she works. If it were given on competence alone, she’d be a lock but the slimy, smarmy Stu Rubin (Lee) is undercutting her and looks to have the promotion sewn up. Her boss, Mr. Jacks (Paymer) tells her that she needs to be making tougher decisions.

She puts this into practice when Mrs. Ganush (Raver) comes to her desk, begging for an extension on the third mortgage for her house. Christine is inclined to give it to her – she doesn’t have the stomach for throwing an old woman out into the street – but she reeeally wants that promotion so she turns her down, even when Mrs. Ganush gets down on her knees.

Christine has forgotten one of the basic rules of horror movies – never humiliate a gypsy. Has she learned nothing from Stephen King? Apparently not, so she reaps the consequences and hideous they are. Mrs. Ganush levels a curse on her that gives her three days before a demon drags her soul straight to H-E-double hockey sticks.

Before she gets there, however, she will go through all manner of being terrorized and grossed out, having all sorts of bodily fluids vomited onto her by the demonic Mrs. Ganush and her minions. Her incredulous boyfriend Clay Dalton (Long) thinks she’s out of her mind at first, but is supportive nonetheless – and as unexplainable things begin to pile up he too becomes a believer, sorta kinda.

She’s not alone in her fight, however; Indian spiritualist Rham Jas (Rao) helps her figure out what’s going on, and takes her to see legitimate psychic Shaun San Dena (Barraza) who fought one of these curses once before and lost, so is eager to redeem herself. It won’t be easy though, and with every possibility exhausted, there remains one last desperate hope for Christine, one that involves doing something terrible.

Most horror movies these days are either remakes of iconic franchises from the ‘70s and ‘80s, remakes of far superior Asian films, or the kind of torture porn of the Saw and Hostel series. It’s refreshing to see a good horror movie that has some great scares to it, a reasonably original premise and is a great ride to boot. Raimi hasn’t forgotten his skills as a genre director and has added to it the experience of making big-budget mega-effects driven movies, which help him increase the scope of his vision here.

Lohman has had something of a checkered career as an actress, but here she nails it. Her character doesn’t necessarily lack a moral compass in that she knows the right thing to do; she just doesn’t have the backbone to follow it. That makes her far more human than either a complete saint or an utter bitch might in that role.

Raver makes this a career highlight reel; she is astonishing as the old woman and after a career of soap operas and TV show guest appearances, she gets the kind of role finally that really lets her cut loose, even if you can barely recognize her under all the make-up. She takes a standard gypsy character and turns her into one of the most frightening movie characters of the last decade; it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they bring her back to curse other people in sequels to this if Raimi decides to make one.

While the rest of the cast is solid, kudos should be directed at Rao who turns his charlatan psychic which was meant to serve as a plot explainer into an integral part of the movie’s success. It’s not strictly comic relief, but suffice to work that he works similarly to what the Suresh character does in the “Heroes” TV show.

There are plenty of scares here and not all of them are the artificially manufactured kind, either – you know, the ones with the jumpy soundtrack, loud crashing noises and cats jumping out of dark spaces. Nope, this is a movie where the scares are earned, and the laughs that follow them legitimate. While the movie didn’t do gangbusters at the box office (only raking in $40 million domestically), it was so cheaply produced that it turned a tidy profit so the powers that be at Universal may be amenable to sequels, even though the movie doesn’t really seem to promise one.

For my part, I’ve found the American horror movie in something of a rut in the 21st century for all the reasons outlined above. While some terrific horror movies have come from places like Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and England, there have been very few to come from the States and there is something galling about that. Fortunately here comes Sam Raimi to deliver a movie that shows you why few movies can scare the bejeezus from you like an American horror movie can.

WHY RENT THIS: This might just be the best horror movie so far of the 21st century. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Christine is so ditzy and spineless at times it’s hard to really feel sympathy for her. The ending was a bit of a disappointment.

FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty scary, gang. Seriously, unless your kids don’t ever have nightmares, think twice about letting them see this – some of the imagery is really, really intense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie directed by Sam Raimi in which actor Bruce Campbell didn’t appear (he was busy with his television show “Burn Notice”).  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While the DVD and Blu-Ray covers trumpet that this is an unrated version, the difference between this and the theatrical release is a single scene; the unrated version is actually nine seconds shorter in total than the theatrical version. 

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Charlie St. Cloud

A Prophet (Un prophete)


A Prophet (Un Prophete)

Cesar is crimelord over all he surveys.

(Sony Classics) Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler, Leila Bakhti. Directed by Jacques Audiard

Prison is a human cesspool. We put all of our bad apples in one basket and expect every apple we throw in afterwards to somehow come out good. It doesn’t happen that way with apples, nor with people.

Malik El Djebena (Rahim) has been in trouble with the law since he was very young. Now, his crimes (apparently he attacked a police officer although it’s never stated outright) have landed him in an adult prison for the first time, with a six year sentence. He is understandably nervous, being neither an intimidating physical specimen nor a particularly violent person.

He is street smart rather than book-learned. He cannot read and he can barely write much more than signing his own name. The only thing he has going for him is a highly developed survival instinct, something that will serve him particularly well in this prison which is not controlled by the guards or the warden, but by a troll of a man named Cesar Luciani (Arestrup). Cesar is the leader of the Corsican crime faction in the prison, reporting in turn to shadowy people outside of the prison.

Cesar walks with impunity in places other prisoners dare not go. He is surrounded by bodyguards and has a cell phone from which orders come down, and one has; Reyeb, an Arabic criminal who will soon be testifying in court will be housed in the prison until the trial. Cesar needs to make sure that the man doesn’t make it to court.

Unfortunately, Cesar’s tentacles don’t extend far beyond his own immediate world. Reyeb is being housed in a wing where prisoners, including newcomer Malik, are kept “under observation” until it is deemed they are fit to join the general observation, after which he will be moved to the wing where the Muslim prisoners are kept, and where he will be beyond Cesar’s reach.

Cesar knows he must strike swiftly while the prisoner is in the temporary wing, but if he uses one of his men to do the deed, it would likely be traced back to him. When the newcomer shows sexual interest in Malik (who showers in the stall next to him), Cesar realizes he has his solution.

Malik is given no real options; he has never killed before, but he must kill this stranger or else Cesar will kill him. That Cesar will carry out that threat is made very clear to Malik, who is reluctant to cross this particular line. A lieutenant instructs Malik in how to conceal a razor blade in his mouth and how to strike suddenly.

When the time comes, Malik, given a terrible choice, chooses self-preservation. He performs the deed, but botches it; still, he gets away with it because Cesar had the foresight to make sure that the temporary wing was cleared of people when Malik was doing what he was supposed to do.

This act earns Malik protection from the Corsicans and alienation from the Muslims. Malik becomes a quick study, learning the ways of criminal success and develops a little mini-empire of his own, thanks largely to his only friends Ryad (Bencherif) and the gypsy stoner Jordi (Kateb). Furthermore, Malik has visions of Reyeb, visions that give him guidance on what to do, which leads people to wonder if Malik is something of a prophet. Still, it is a brutal world he exists in and the closer Malik gets to Cesar, the more dangerous things become.

This was one of the most acclaimed movies to come out of France last year, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and sweeping the major categories at the Cesars, France’s version of the Oscars. Speaking of the Oscars, it was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, losing out to Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes.

This is a stark, grey movie with little color; the bleakness of the prison surroundings prevents that and that’s mostly where this movie takes place. It is characterized by some startling performances, particularly Arestrup as Luciani. His eyes are cold, reptilian but filled with intelligence. He is a man prone to fits of sudden and brutal violence, but has enough self-discipline to keep that rage in check. He has the arrogance of a man who knows he is in absolute control, yet is so unprepossessing physically that you might think him the prison librarian.

Rahim plays Malik as a bit of a cipher. Malik rarely displays much of what he’s feeling or thinking, and while he may be illiterate, he is still a clever man. He realizes that his key to survival is to blend in with every faction and become indispensible to both sides, which he does with a vengeance. He also observes everything he can and winds up learning enough to not only succeed but thrive.

One of my big issues with the movie is that it is almost two and a half hours long – I’m not sure if it’s a mindset endemic to gangster epics, but this is a movie that really didn’t need to be that lengthy, particularly the last twenty minutes. It seemed to me that the points the filmmakers were trying to make could have been made a lot more simply and in a lot less time. Perhaps it’s my American impatience, or the fact that by the end of the movie I reeeeeally had to use the restroom, but I found myself wishing the movie would reach its conclusion, which is a bad place for a movie to be in.

That’s why it’s not getting as high a rating as it probably deserves. Audiard has crafted a gritty and realistic look at French prison life and it isn’t a pretty picture as well you might imagine, but then again it’s not supposed to be. Leo Tolstoy once wrote that you judge a society by how it treats its prisoners, and A Prophet will give you plenty of food for thought.

REASONS TO GO: A gritty look at French prison life; at its best recalls some of the best moments of Coppola and Scorsese.

REASONS TO STAY: Too, too long – the last 20 minutes could have been easily have been condensed into scenes totaling about two.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brutal violence including at least one blood-soaked murder, disturbing images and much male nudity along with some scenes of sexuality. This is not for the squeamish and certainly not for the young ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Audiard met Rahim when the two shared a ride from another film set.

HOME OR THEATER: The claustrophobic atmosphere of prison life is more suitable for the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Oceans

The Wolfman (2010)


The Wolfman

Someone's in need of a manicure...REEEEEEAL bad!

(Universal) Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Nicholas Day, Michael Cronin, David Sterne, David Schofield, Roger Frost, Rob Dixon, Clive Russell. Directed by Joe Johnston

We may carry a civilized veneer, but inside we all carry the soul of the beast. Inside, we are primitive, vicious and impulsive. The beast is never far from the surface, nearer for some than for others.

Laurence Talbot (Del Toro) is summoned to Blackmoor, the country village near Talbot Manor where he grew up. His brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Blunt) has written him to inform him that his brother has turned up missing. Laurence is a distinguished actor on the London stage, but he hurries out to his old stomping grounds, from whence he’s been estranged for nearly his entire adult life.

When he arrives there he finds his ancestral home is falling apart at the seams. Fallen leaves and dirt have blown into the main hall, bringing the autumn indoors. Cobwebs adorn the rafters and ghosts roam the hallways. His father, Sir John Talbot (Hopkins) inhabits the house but he doesn’t really live there – it couldn’t possibly be called a life. His faithful servant Singh (Malik) tends to his needs, but Sir John is a shadow of his former self and has been that way since his wife killed herself in full view of young Laurence.

His father greets him with the bleak news that his brother’s body had been found only the day before. The body has been severely mutilated, so much so that nobody’s really sure whether it was the work of an animal or a human lunatic loose on the moors. The suspicious and superstitious townspeople (really, is there a Universal horror picture that doesn’t have suspicious superstitious townspeople?) know what they think – that it’s the work of a group of gypsies that have been in the vicinity at about the time that other bodies similarly mutilated started turning up.

Laurence meets Gwen, whose staying at the house until the funeral and it becomes quickly apparent that there is a very strong bond between them. Laurence’s main concern, however, is to find out what happened to his brother and make sure the guilty party is brought to justice. Although he is warned to stay indoors that night because of a full moon, Laurence decides to go to the gypsy camp. He meets there with an old woman named Maleva (Chaplin) who knows more about the murder than she is letting on. Before she can tell anything, however, a group of angry townspeople burst into the camp, looking for retribution. Just then, the camp comes under attack.

The attacker is incredibly fast, savage. Both gypsy and townsperson are at risk; nobody is safe and people on both sides are maimed and killed with abandon. Laurence himself is viciously wounded in the attack.

He is taken back to the Manor where he is found to be healing unnaturally fast from his wounds. While he is convalescing he is questioned by Inspector Abberline (Weaving) of Scotland Yard, who has been called in to investigate the gruesome murders. It becomes apparent that Abberline regards Laurence as a suspect more than a victim.

Secrets from the Talbot family’s past slowly begin to surface from the bowels of the decrepit mansion and an unspeakable horror is soon unleashed on London. Can Laurence discover a way out of the events that are spiraling to an inevitable conclusion before he is swept under by them?

This is not a faithful remake of the 1941 horror classic of the same name. Director Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, The Rocketeer) does an excellent job of creating a gothic atmosphere that is filled with foreboding and grimness. The moors become a palpable presence, shrouded by mist and filled with primeval beauty that comes upon them unexpectedly. Of all his directing efforts (which have been marked with considerable box office success), this is his best work to date.

One of the hardest things to do is remake a classic because if you go with the same elements that worked the first time, you’re accused of ripping off the original and if you try to put your own stamp on it, you are criticized for desecration of the original. It’s a lose-lose situation, and only rarely have these types of remakes succeeded (as The Mummy did). The writers here tend to go more extreme with gore and special effects in order to differentiate itself from the original. I’m not sure that this will completely eliminate unfavorable comparisons with the original.

I will admit this movie resonated with Da Queen much more than it did with me. She found Del Toro’s Laurence Talbot to be understated and subtle, expressing his inner torment on his face without resorting to shouting at the camera. He managed to elicit compassion from Da Queen and, I suspect, much more of the female portion of the audience than the male. She found it a convincing performance.

For me, Del Toro was a bit too understated. I would have liked to see a little more passion from him. I think in many ways he was trying to distance himself from the original Lon Chaney Jr. performance by distancing himself from the audience; in that he is successful. His character was meant to be a tragic romantic hero and in an era when gothic romance means Edward Cullen, the Laurence Talbots of the world get swept aside in a wave of female teenaged hormones. In some ways, Del Toro never had a chance.

He has some support though. Rick Baker was the only name on the short list of make-up effects wizards to pull off the look of the Werewolf, and he does an amazing job. The hirsute look of Del Toro allows him to look bestial and feral while retaining the human emotions that Del Toro is obliged to display. There’s enough difference between the make-up design here and on his seminal An American Werewolf in London that it doesn’t feel like he’s repeating himself.

Effects-wise, the one area that disappoints is the actual transformation from human to werewolf. We’ve seen it done in a variety of ways from the original optical dissolves to the practical effects of The Howling and the aforementioned An American Werewolf in London. What we see here doesn’t really make me forget any of those movies and quite frankly, given today’s digital technology, it should have. I was certainly expecting better.

There is a lot of gore here but not enough of the eye candy that modern audiences have come to expect. There is a terrible misuse of CGI; the scenes of the werewolf bounding through the forest looks patently fake and serves to jar the viewer out of the atmosphere of the film, which is a pity because Johnston and his team worked so hard in creating a good one. I love the classic gothic horror movies, and this one retains enough of the original that I can recommend it, but walk into the multiplex with the expectation that this remains the dark shadow of the original, reflected by flickering candlelight. Which, in its own way, is appropriate.

REASONS TO GO: Johnston really captures the gothic and grim atmosphere of the moors. Rick Baker’s make-up is astonishing.

REASONS TO STAY: Del Toro isn’t particularly scintilating in a role that calls for a romantic lead who’s actually romantic. Transformation sequences aren’t any better than, say, An American Werewolf in London.

FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome, horrific violence and gothic images make this strictly for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspector Abberline is a fictionalized version of an actual historical figure. He was, as Laurence alludes to in the film, the man who was a crucial member of the Jack the Ripper investigation for Scotland Yard. Francis was the nickname of the detective, whose real name was Frederick. He would wind up working for the Pinkertons after retiring from Scotland Yard.

HOME OR THEATER: The chilling atmosphere is definitely suitable for the small screen and the intimacy of house and home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: September Dawn