#103 - Gun It Comin' Offa The Line
1952 - 2010
Hello there, cyber-neighbor. I’m glad that we could get together today for another trip to the land of make-believe. Here comes the trolley! Let’s climb aboard.
NOW IN THEATRES
More and more these days, I find myself longing for the pre-internet days when movie fans knew precious little about the business and really just cared about the show. We’re learning too much, too soon about many movies, creating a level of anticipation that can often cement your opinion of a film before it’s even released. In the case of The Wolfman, it’s no secret that the project went through multiple directors and endured several release delays, making even the most optimistic fan fear the worst. If you allow this information to cloud your judgment, you’ll either see the train wreck you fully expect or be pleasantly surprised and think the movie is much, much better than it actually is. To my eyes, The Wolfman is neither an unmitigated disaster nor a mini-masterpiece. Rather, it’s one of the most unremarkable, average movies I’ve seen a long time.
A brooding Benicio Del Toro takes over as Lawrence Talbot, an actor from America performing in London. Talbot is summoned to his ancestral home by his brother’s fiancée (Emily Blunt) after her betrothed disappears. When Larry arrives, Talbot’s estranged father (Anthony Hopkins) tells him he’s too late. His brother’s body has been found, savagely killed by…well, I’m sure you can figure it out. Talbot tries to get to the bottom of things, is himself attacked and, one month later, finds himself howling at the moon.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about The Wolfman is how resolutely, almost obstinately old-fashioned it feels. Del Toro’s performance recalls both Lon Chaney, Jr. in the original The Wolf Man and Oliver Reed in Hammer’s The Curse Of The Werewolf. The movie wouldn’t have been out of place had it been released by Hammer back in the 60s. At best, The Wolfman feels like it arrives about fifteen years too late. It would certainly make a better companion piece to Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein than Mike Nichols’ ill-conceived Wolf. But Coppola enlivened his version of Dracula with a genuinely unique, opulent visual style. With The Wolfman, Joe Johnston makes a movie that’s handsome without being beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with it. There just isn’t anything particularly special about it, either. Rick Baker’s makeup design is predictably strong and I’m glad that they stayed true to the title by transforming Del Toro into a wolf-man instead of simply a werewolf. But the effects work best in close-up. Shots of Del Toro racing along the rooftops of London are undone by mediocre CGI. Again, they aren’t truly bad effects. They’re just average. They don’t draw you in the way truly impressive visual effects should.
There’s nothing wrong with making a film that hearkens back to its ancestors. But instead of feeling timeless, The Wolfman feels somehow trapped in time. The dialogue and performances are often stiff and stilted, which I’m sure is intentional but may not have been the wisest course of action. Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow captures the same Hammer vibe as The Wolfman but the eccentric performance of Johnny Depp livens the formula up for a modern audience. The Wolfman has nothing new to bring to the table. It’s not a bad enough movie to actively dislike but it also isn’t good enough to get excited about. It’s an inert mass of a movie that fades from memory even while you’re watching it. (* *)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
King Of California
If Michael Douglas is underappreciated as an actor, and I think he frequently is, he is at least partly to blame himself. Since at least the mid-80s, there has been a very specific “Michael Douglas character”. He’s the smooth, confident, master-of-the-universe type whose perfect universe is thrown into chaos, frequently by women (see Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure, et al). More than many other movie stars, Douglas rarely strays from his set image. Whether this is by choice or simply because he isn’t offered the opportunity to play against type very often, I have no idea. But just as it was fascinating to see Douglas play the disturbed, dweebish, angry white man in 1993’s Falling Down, it’s great fun watching him as essentially Don Quixote in Mike Cahill’s 2007 comedy, King Of California.
Douglas plays Charlie, a former jazz musician who has spent the last two years in a mental institution. Evan Rachel Wood is his daughter, Miranda, who had to drop out of school and get a job at McDonald’s to make ends meet after her dad went away. Charlie comes home obsessed with tracking down a lost Spanish treasure. While he was in the hospital, he read up on the subject and is convinced he’s cracked the code that will lead him to a fortune in buried gold. Miranda allows herself to get swept up in the quest, not entirely convinced by the story but so used to her father’s tall tales that she doesn’t see any reason not to go along with one more.
King Of California could easily spin off into a too-cute celebration of eccentricity but Cahill’s script and direction is surprisingly restrained. Cahill also has a keen visual sense, using the generic, box-store landscape of suburban California in interesting ways. Douglas and Wood play off each other nicely, forging a believable father-daughter relationship despite the somewhat flighty story. Wood was an excellent choice for Miranda. It can be difficult to play a mature teenager without seeming either too old or too young and she strikes just the right balance between naïve youth and emerging adult. With Wood grounding the picture, Douglas is free to explore his wild side. He’s clearly having a ball here, all wide eyes, bushy hair and single-minded obsession. By the end of the movie, we want Charlie’s story to be true just as much as he does.
This is a sweet, light-hearted movie that occasionally strains credibility but never quite breaks it. Like Charlie’s quest for lost gold, you can buy as much or as little of Cahill’s sunny mixture of fantasy and reality as you like. But King Of California unfolds with such good humor that it’s difficult not to get swept up in the proceedings. At its best, it’s a warm, delightful film with charm to spare. (* * *)
Thanks to Mike MacMillan for this week’s TFTQ recommendation! Once again, if you know about a movie that deserved a bigger audience, email me or socially network at the JET Facebook page. With Valentine’s Day just behind us, it’s a good time to remember that TFTQ is all about spreadin’ the love!