Friday, February 12, 2010


Two opening today:

The Wolfman—Benicio Del Toro is a talented fellow, & he’s said to be a fan of the classic monster pictures, which makes him my kind of dude. It pains me, therefore, to say that the new, big-budget version of 1941’s The Wolf Man, in which he plays the title role of the unhappy Lawrence Talbot, is pretty weak.

I had high hopes for this one—the original is one of the very best of the vintage monster classics—but my heart sank in the opening minutes, before the title had even appeared onscreen, with a sequence in which we’re shown way too much & scared way too little. The director, Joe Johnston, made the sweet October Sky & brought some panache to Jurassic Park III, but has otherwise mainly helmed impersonal action spectacles like Jumanji, & he seems to have zero feel for old-school spooky atmospherics. He tries to compensate with excessive gore—especially in a scene of the werewolf’s attack on a gypsy camp—but the severed limbs & splattered blood seem corny & fake. The film moves along, it isn’t boring, & I enjoyed the amusing long episode set in an asylum in London. But I can’t recall one moment of genuine dread or suspense.

Del Toro has a fine haunted look, & he brings an excellent physicality to the role—I loved his little canine head-shakes. But his line-readings are flat, as if he couldn’t quite figure out what to do with his voice, & he doesn’t have the hapless everyman quality that Lon Chaney, Jr. brought to the role in the original. On the upside, the other actors—Anthony Hopkins as Lawrence’s aloof father, Hugo Weaving as a Scotland Yard Inspector, Art Malik as the loyal Sikh manservant, Geraldine Chaplin as the fatalistic gypsy woman & especially Emily Blunt as the stricken fiancé of Lawrence’s slaughtered brother—are all solid.

Also on the upside, the production designs have an appealingly stylized look that might be called “Scooby Doo Gothic,” & though we’re shown far too much of it far too early, I loved Rick Baker’s makeup. His bushy-haired design has a wonderfully retro feel, like something from an EC horror comic. At times, indeed, Del Toro looked to me a little like Wolfman Jack.

One more very minor perplexity—The Wolf Man was set in Wales, while The Wolfman moves the action to England. Considering that Anthony Hopkins, perhaps the greatest living Welsh actor, is one of the stars, I wonder why?

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)—Scarier by a long shot than The Wolfman is this Bergmanesque drama from the Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke. It’s set in a small German farming town the year before World War I begins, & it explores the lives of several families—the Baron and his wife, the widowed town doctor & his devoted midwife/mistress, a farm laborer whose wife has been killed in a mill accident, the stern local minister, & the gentle-souled but perceptive schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who narrates from the perspective of old age, telling us at the beginning that the story may help to clarify some of what happened in his country over the past century.

Actually, the movie never even solidly clarifies what the frig happens in its own length, but it’s still riveting & chilling: In black & white images of bracing crispness, we’re shown a series of premeditated crimes, petty in spirit but viciously cruel in practice, aimed at the powerful & the powerless of the town alike. In a couple of cases, we see who the specific perpetrators are; in others we don’t, but it’s clear who, as a group, is behind these outrages. What we want to know is why—I was hoping for some great revelation of the specific motive, some elegant mystery-story snap to the resolution.

This is precisely what Haneke doesn’t give us, & though I think I would have found it a more satisfying movie if he had, I suppose it would also have been a lesser movie. Haneke wants us to grasp that the crimes are a generalized response to abuse—the physical, sexual, emotional & religious tyranny both suffered directly & observed by the children, who will, of course, be all grown up just in time to elect Hitler Chancellor.

What makes The White Ribbon most disturbing is that it isn’t pitiless. Haneke isn’t suggesting that the adults are intentionally villainous; it’s clear that, on the whole, they honestly think their repressive, stony-hearted values are the best approach to life. Nor are the kids presented gothically; they aren’t little demons out of a Charles Addams cartoon. On the contrary, they’re lovely, loving & likable.

Accepting his Golden Globe for the film, Haneke made a point of thanking the kids, & well he might have; they gave him fantastic performances. There’s a flawless scene in which the doctor’s little son quizzes his older sister about death, & when she gently & sweetly informs him that everyone, even the two of them, will have to die someday, his angelic little face sets in anger & he knocks his bowl to the floor. That’s pretty much how I’ve always felt about it.

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