Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Antithesis Of Twilight

With high-priced dreck currently filling the theaters, and unfortunately making enough money to assure the continuation of said trash, what can a poor boy do? The Last Airbender and Grown Ups are just slow, agonizing trainwrecks condensed to a film reel. Same with almost everything else out there, with Toy Story 3 as the only, very notable exception. So, what is left? Another installment in the Twilight series, this one called Eclipse, was just released to a critical beating, but that did not stop the lines of eager teenage girls from making this film another commercial smash. What gives? This franchise does not capture the real essence of vampires and werewolves, so I instead watched two films that did. These two were Daybreakers, an interesting take on vampire mythology, as well as The Wolfman, a modern retelling of the classic "werewolf" story. The results were mixed, though I am sure I enjoyed them much more than a sparkling Robert Pattison.

Directed by Michael & Peter Spierig
Released in 2009

What if vampires ruled the world? Now calm down, we are not speaking of dreamy boys who are willing to fight to the death over a pretty, disillusioned girl. This is the real deal:  pale, cold creatures with fanged teeth who fry upon sunlight, disappear in mirrors, die when struck by a wooden stake to the heart, and, of course, drink human blood. Their real, sole advantage is that they can live forever (as long as not encountering an aforementioned obstacle), which entices the majority of the world to convert to Transylvanian ways. Well, it is 2019, and humans, the vampires' irreplaceable life source, are running out. The majority of them are "farmed" in grotesque machines that slowly harvest blood from their bodies,  while the rest are constantly on the run from the vampire hunting squads, in a fashion not dissimilar to the Nazi's Einsatzgruppen. Well, Edward Dalton (Edward, really?), played by Ethan Hawke, has found a way to cure vampires of their condition completely, but how does a world so entrenched in their sinister ways switch back to normalcy? Many lives must be sacrificed as a result.

And, boy, do those people die in fantastic, shocking ways. Countless vampires and humans alike are torn apart, impaled, exploded, burned alive, decapitated, disemboweled, or otherwise bloodily disposed of with frequency. This violence is not going to be seen in an Edward/Bella love story (little girls would be scarred for life), and a scene of mass chaos at the end more resembles a blood orgy than the furtive, "I vant to suck your blood" style of Bela Lugosi.  Any reason for watching this movie will center around the action and, while it takes awhile to actually occur, the ending will more than suffice any gore junkie.

However, while the action starts slow and ends in full, bloody glory by the end, everything else seems to start promising and just end an incoherent, sappy mess. The intriguing premise of the film is wasted by a vapid, slogging middle section that tries to insert uninteresting and failed character development in favor of any appealing action. Apparently there is romantic tension between Edward and human Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan), but the pair's acting is usually too stilted and wooden to achieve any emotional resonance. Hawke is a curious Hollywood case as he does not fit any real mold. That is fine, as his performances in Gattaca and Training Day can attest to his range of talent. But here, he is neither truly tough or the underdog you root for, leaving his character bland and unremarkable. For instance, he insists on not drinking any more human blood to account for his growing sympathy for the dying race. When did he have this epiphany and why exactly? These questions are not explained, a fault to the script, and it seems that Hawke is unaware of what his character is supposed to be feeling as well. Sam Neill appears as the dark, soulless antagonist and Willem Dafoe is entertaining as the human with a mysterious past. They both suffer from laughable lines but, hey, you have seen these two actors before and they fill their parts just fine. 

Daybreakers, as a whole, fails to meet the expectations I had for it but it should appeal to anyone who is just looking for a gorefest and nothing more. These are not high standards by any means, so that is why I raise my benchmark for quality. The writing and acting is just subpar, while the ending is plain ridiculous, as if the screenwriters ran out of paper and did not feel like refilling their printer.  It's not that it leaves lingering questions, which it does and is still a fine ploy in my book, but it fails to deliver any closure and comes out of nowhere. This film shows how easy it is to come up with an enticing premise, but also how tortuous it is to devise the most important part: your final impression. 

Final Verdict:
2.5 Stars Out of 5

The Wolfman:
Directed by Joe Johnston
Released in 2010

If you think about it, Hollywood has not devised a memorable, original monster for years now. With the exception of Heidi Montag, when was the last time a new creature shocked audiences? Most of today's supernatural monsters are ripped from comic books or simply retouched versions of Hollywood classics. The latest in this cycle is The Wolfman, an updated version of the 1941 horror classic. Basically, a werewolf terrorizes a Victorian England town and infects the protagonist, causing him to undergo a grotesque transformation from man to beast.  This story has been told millions of times before, but because the original Wolf Man was one of the first to do so we should give the modern update free reign to stick with its ancient formula, right? Well, that is what the screenwriters, Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, believed and the result reflects this unoriginality rather slavishly. 

The star of the film, Benicio del Toro, plays Lawrence Talbot, the ill-fated "hero" whose quest to kill the beast ends up, literally, biting him in the neck. He sets out to dispose of the werewolf after it brutally kills his brother, leaving him and his brother's widow (Emily Blunt) alone, while also bringing them together, if you get my drift. Lawrence's father, Anthony Hopkins as total fromage, has a complicated history with his surviving son, so the events between them after the infection are mysterious, to say the least. The bloody death of his mother during his childhood allows Lawrence to start to put together the pieces of his strange family. 

There's nothing wrong with exposition, especially well-crafted character development, but sometimes it is better to get to the hard-boiled fight scenes.  Unfortunately, this film, just like Daybreakers and countless other mediocre action films, dabbles far too long in tedious scenes of characters conversing in bars or walking through Victorian streets. By the end, Lawrence was waltzing through London with a tophat and cane; I was too delirious to make any sense out of it. It makes me wonder:  do the writers and director really refuse to believe that anything in their film may be flawed? With some editing, this could have been a tighter, more succinct film. Or with better screenwriters, every verbal exchange could have had some more biting wit or philosophical punch with it. 

Saying all of this, there are reasons to watch The Wolfman. Sure, the story moves along at a plodding pace and the script is laughable, but it is worth mentioning that this film is beautifully shot. The cinematography (led by Shelley Johnson) may be the film's brightest aspect, as the foggy pastures and villages of Victorian England come alive with the right blend of cinematic precision and grim obscurity. The Bluray release will please any visual connoisseurs, as will Benicio's fur coat, made with a mix of involved makeup application and computer effects. I am not a fan of most CGI in films nowadays, as I feel most of it looks cheap and detracts from any sense of realism or grittiness, and while this film suffers from exactly that at times (digital bear? why?), the Wolf Man's look is strong and captures the raw essence of the character without too much ostentatious visual flair. The violence is your typical bloody, R-rated fare. Expect more decapitations, disembowelment, the works as the werewolves in this film do not simply kill their enemies but destroy them. Some of the bloodshed is unnecessary (ripping out livers is a little...much), but it should appeal to the horror film junkies this is aimed for, even if the film itself is devoid of any real scares besides one or two closet jumps. 

As for the acting, which should be high considering the talent at hand, do not expect much. Benicio del Toro plays his role well, though there are certain scenes where he lacks any enthusiasm or emotion whatsoever, such as his first appearance where he listlessly performs Shakespeare. Forgivable, but, then again, this is the Oscar-winning actor from Traffic and Sin City. The same can be said for Anthony Hopkins, who hams it up in this role that was clearly just another paycheck. He looks much more Saint Nicholas than Hannibal Lecter this time around, and his penchant for staring blankly into the camera and delivering prolix speech without much conviction makes his performance less than remarkable. Emily Blunt, on the other hand, fits her role well, as she already showed in The Young Victoria that she can excel as beautiful, privileged Victorian women. The script sloppily attempts to jam in a romance between her and Benicio, and it basically fails on all accounts, but her performance remains solid. Hugo Weaving (Mr. Smith(s) from The Matrix) is a London investigator, with an interesting fate, while Max Von Sydow stops by for a scene to give Lawrence a deadly cane. The acting vacillates from pure cheese to satisfactory, if unremarkable, efforts; it is neither below nor above the average expectations. 

The Wolfman is basically mediocre:  not terrible nor is it that impressive, it rests comfortably in the middle. It has a half-decent story, with half-decent acting to accompany it, along with impressive werewolf effects that are balanced with a terrible script. It suffers from many of the same problems as Daybreakers, as its strong opening quickly tumbles to the ground due to the screenwriter's incompetence to create a complete, compelling product. Certain parts of The Wolfman will appeal to classic horror film fans, but it is nothing worth howling about. 

Final Verdict: 
1.5 Stars Out of 5

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