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Rough night? Del Toro in The Wolfman.

Where’s the Bite?

By Ann Morrow

The Wolfman

Directed by Joe Johnston

Special effects have become a lot more special since the 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man, but judging by Joe Johnston’s remake, bad acting and lousy plotting are timeless. This Wolfman is preternaturally pretty: The English country estate where Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) meets his lupine fate is more ravishingly atmospheric than a Merchant Ivory pastoral drama, while the costuming, interior design, and nighttime lighting almost compensate for the tattered script—but not quite. Adapted from the original, the screenplay is bloated with histrionics when it easily could’ve been updated with psychological suspense. That talented cowriter Andrew Walker (Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow) seemingly fell asleep on the job is only one of the film’s many peculiarities.

Lawrence is an American actor who returns to London to play Hamlet. After his arrival, the film promisingly builds in intensity. Lawrence’s brother, Ben, is missing, as he is informed by Ben’s waifish fiancée, Gwen (a luminous Emily Blunt). Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) is strangely stoic when his son’s body is found with most of its flesh torn off. The provincial villagers suspect a local encampment of gypsies, but when the gypsies, too, fall prey to the mysterious monster (in the only scary scene), the villagers, and Scotland Yard, come into conflict as to whether the predator is man or beast. Or mortal or infernal. These conflicts eventually sink under their own vapidity, but in the meantime, Lawrence, who was clawed, and Gwen, who is fearful of Sir John, find solace by casting rapt gazes at each other while grieving in a nearby forest primeval.

And then, it happens: Lawrence notices animalistic traits taking him over, and Rick Baker’s creature effects improve on his work for an American Werewolf in London with grisly realism. And after much moody skulking about the Talbot mansion, something else happens: The film transforms into a campy flop and neither the not-so-mystical gypsies, nor the Talbots’ underutilized family tragedy can be blamed. This mid-movie curse may have been caused by a last-minute change in directors, or maybe Sir Anthony Hopkins overpowered Sir John’s role so he could unleash his beastly craving for hammy overacting. Hopkins, who certainly should have an upper-class accent down after doing two acclaimed Merchant Ivory movies, seems to revel in the dialogue’s unintentional, er, howlers, and he does so with a garbled gothic accent.

With a little more interaction, Del Toro and Blunt could’ve given the story a poignant heart of doomed romance, but then, there wouldn’t have been time for all the kitschy asylum scenes and childhood flashbacks. Even a delectably grim Hugo Weaving as famed Inspector Abbeline can’t save The Wolfman from plunging into the brambles of nonsensical action sequences inspired by other movies, most noticeably Bram Stoker’s Dracula (another horror movie diluted by kitsch). And out of all the actors who might be frightening bouncing through the air in a smoking jacket, Hopkins isn’t one of them.

Looking for Justice

Crude

Directed by Joe Berlinger

Once upon a time, Texaco arrived in the Ecuadorian Amazon to drill for oil. The company left a few decades later, leaving behind either a little bit of pollution (says successor company Chevron), or an environmental disaster that’s still sickening and killing the indigenous population. Joe Berlinger’s verité-style documentary makes a good case that petroleum pollution is still having devastating effects on people, but the legal thicket the film covers is murkier, and is both inspiring and depressing.

Crude chronicles how a team of lawyers from Ecuador and the United States press on with a 13-year-old class-action lawsuit against Chevron/Texaco. Filed on behalf of 30,000 plaintiffs, the case has a twofold desired outcome: a huge cash settlement and environmental remediation. The charismatic lead attorney is Pablo Fajardo; only three years out of law school when we meet him, he is a dogged advocate for his people. The American legal muscle is provided by Steven Donziger, a bulldog of a lawyer who isn’t afraid to fight dirty. And the money comes from a Philadelphia law firm that’s banking on a big slice of any judgment (or settlement).

Berlinger, who codirected the wonderful documentaries Brothers’ Keeper and Some Kind of Monster, never lets one part of this sad story dominate. There is a goodly share of heartbreaking testimony by parents of sick or dead children, and he takes us right to the edges of the waste pits Texaco left behind—where animals and birds still die of petroleum poisoning. The editorializing is subtle but unmistakable; we know where Berlinger’s heart is.

The oil company lawyers, scientists and spokespeople are predictably reasonable-sounding. Their arguments are calm and considered; a few of these people are even a little bit convincing. But most come across as soulless assholes.

The saga has plenty of twists and turns as both sides play the media game. The plaintiffs end up featured in a Vanity Fair profile; Sting’s activist wife makes an appearance. It’s a weird moment of recognition, watching the sick and dying trotted out for wealthy celebrities and realizing that we have a hell of a lot more in common with the latter than the former.

We’re the ones driving the cars and trucks fueled by Chevron, after all.

—Shawn Stone


Grand Hotel it ain’t: (l-r) Roberts and Cooper in Valentine’s Day.

Boredom, Actually

Valentine’s Day

Directed by Garry Marshall

There was a time, first during the hard days of the Great Depression and later during the waning days of the studio star system, when audiences flocked to see “a cavalcade of stars” all in one movie. Some of these efforts were really very good, notably Grand Hotel, which gave ticket buyers the chance to gaze at two Barrymores, a Crawford, a Garbo, a Beery, and more. Others, like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, were just silly, more potent in reminding us of the swift passing of youth than in providing any major bang for our entertainment dollar. Most recently, filmmakers have tried throwing together an all-star oleo to grasp at recapturing the heights of romantic comedy, and with mixed results (Love Actually, anybody?). Which brings us to what must have been dreamed up as the ultimate date flick, Valentine’s Day, in which scores of hot young things, and a few legends (including Shirley MacLaine), cross paths and try to work up enough steam to have us longing for more.

Sadly, this just doesn’t happen. Nor does anything else of any importance, humor, or substance. At about two hours’ running time, Valentine’s Day is the cinematic equivalent of water torture, so much so that I even texted my editor husband halfway through with the reviewer’s version of an SOS—“Don’t know how much longer I can sit through this.”

Director Garry Marshall plumbs new depths of boring, with one-dimensional characters like Jamie Foxx’s sportswriter, who, because it’s a slow sports day in Southern California (!), is forced by his editor (Kathy Bates, collecting a paycheck) to try to find something romantic to write about. Then there’s Reed (Ashton Kutcher), a florist who singlehandedly delivers flowers to several characters, thereby supposedly linking a thread, however tenuous, between them. Reed loves Morley (Jessica Alba), who can’t commit, and is best buds with Julia (Jennifer Garner), a teacher in love with Dr. McDreamy, I mean Copeland, (Patrick Dempsey), who is actually married to someone else. Meanwhile, Julia Roberts, in uniform, is seated on a plane next to recently single Holden (Bradley Cooper), and we’re meant to wonder if something’s going to happen, but get thrown a not-so- surprising curveball at film’s end. Anne Hathaway shocks boyfriend Topher Grace with the revelation that she’s a phone-sex operator. For the teenybopper set, there’s Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner and Emma Roberts and Carter Jenkins; of the four, only Lautner comes off as semi-appealing.

Presumably, by the “let’s get naked” line at the end of the movie, all ends well for most of this disparate bunch, but does anybody in the audience particularly care? Robert Altman did far more with far fewer (but still a lot of) characters in Short Cuts, from which Marshall cops for the Hathaway storyline. For all these beautiful people, there’s little to no sense of the thrill of falling in love, or of being madly attracted to another being, however inappropriate. There’s no joy, no passion, just pretty faces and hot bodies posing without purpose.

—Laura Leon


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