The Wolfman – neither a howler nor a howling success

the wolfmanI’m halfway through watching The Wolfman — the new one, with Benicio Del Toro going all fur and fangs — and I’m thinking, I’m sure I’ve seen this movie before, but it was in black and white. I wonder if this new effort shouldn’t have been as well, just to make the point.

The delight (and dogged duplication) in the premiere werewolf movies of yore is clear in this effort, directed by Joe Johnson. Lots of moon shots, lots of foggy forests and silhouettes. Gypsies. Mobs with flaming brands. The village tavern that falls silent when the stranger enters. And absolutely nothing new.

But don’t let that put you off. It’s a solid, if uninspiring and strangely uncompelling, effort. The love story is such an undeveloped and fleeting thing, the tension between father and prodigal son so underplayed, the concentration on werewolfy rampaging with lots of gibbets so great, that it’s hard to get into the characters much at all.

The music, by reliable Danny Elfman, isn’t always used to best advantage, either. It’s not bad, it’s just used out of context at times, trying to make tension and jump! surprise! where there doesn’t need to be any.

But my goodness, there are other times when the suspense does kick in, and all those stereotypical Gothic scenes are portrayed in full cinematic glory: ruins, sweeping staircases, misty forests, gibbous moons through the spindly branches of trees. There’s even a decrepit, sprawling mansion in need of a serious cobwebbing and sweeping, complete with family tomb (I wouldn’t have been gobsmacked to see a headstone out the back with maybe Karstein written on it, or Usher, or Ligeia). Some not-too-shocking family secrets. Oh yum!

There are some adorable scenes set in old London town, and the whole is enlivened by Hugo Weaving as a Scotland Yard detective with a fascinating past, regrettably only mentioned in passing. I almost wish we’d seen more of his story: the echo with his previous, infamous case would have been delicious. And spare a thought for poor Art Malik, hidden in a beard as a servant with more silver bullets than he has brooms (neither of which he proves much use with).

I wouldn’t be cleaning my Universal and Hammer classics from the shelf to make way for this one, but lovers of that kind of werewolf movie will find something to appreciate in this recycled homage.

Ewoks fight better than Na’vi

I finally succumbed to the allure of James Cameron’s 3D SF extravaganza Avatar, partly because of all the mixed reports about it, primarily because it was really hot here today and three hours in air-conditioning (with choc-top icecream!) was not to be sneezed at.

Don’t really want to dwell on it, the thing has been hashed around all over the net (for instance, at Talking Squid), but my quick reaction is: thank goodness for the 3D effects. I thought they were handled so very well. The depth of field is the real highlight of the format for me, rather than things popping out of the screen at you, and the scenery shots and even the live action stuff provided plenty of this kind of immersion.

And Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver were pleasures to watch, too.

Regrettably, the storyline was thin and hackneyed, the theme overly overt, the indigent aliens the same old patois of Earth tribes minus any of the nasty stuff — some kind of Jamaica meets Native America. And their tactics, even with a Marine at the helm (because you need a Great White Hunter to save you when you’re a native), woeful. Honestly, the Ewoks did better using bows and ropes against mechanised troops. And the Empire at least had a reason for staging a ground assault. Anyhow, I guess I shouldn’t knock the good old Gaia message too much; friends in the northern hemisphere are dodging blizzards while we’re dodging forest fires.

If Cameron had chopped the film back to even two thirds of its length, and used the money he’d have saved to fund some truly alien aliens and a storyline with a little more moral complexity, Avatar could really have been something.

In other words, it delivered pretty much what I expected. And the cinema was cool.

You can see the Avatar trailer here for a taste.

Another flick with some groovy special effects I saw recently was The Lovely Bones. I’d had high hopes for it, because Peter Jackson also directed Heavenly Creatures, which used special effects brilliantly to convey two girls’ fantasy world. (And, um, that little Lord of the Rings movie. All three of ’em.)The Lovely Bones showed us images of a pre-Heaven limbo, which were striking. Largely irrelevant to the story, but striking. Sadly, this movie also left me feeling a little underwhelmed, mainly because the narrator has so little to do with the story. She’s an observer for the most part, after her death sets balls in motion, and so we’re always kept at a remove from the characters and the action. It was too sweet and had too many endings for my taste.

So, who’s up for The Wolfman (out in Oz February 25) – trailer here?