The Wolfman: To “R” or Not to “R”

The first word on The Wolfman, starring the hirsute Benicio Del Toro as the murderous beast of yore, was that it was essentially a “re-imagining” of The Wolf Man, the 1941 monster movie starring Lon Chaney Jr.

Scary for its time, it’s hard to imagine that the Universal horror classic, shot in black and white, would earn a rating more restrictive than PG these days. And it’s doubtful that anyone under about 10 would find it frightening.

So I was a bit shocked to discover that the new tale of Lawrence Talbot’s fateful trek to the Old Country, directed by Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji), is being released as an R-rated movie.

Won’t that rating successfully cut out a potentially huge audience segment — adolescent to young-teen boys, and maybe some girls — and thus hurt the movie’s earnings? Families aren’t likely to come out for the movie, either.

And conventional wisdom has it that R-rated movies typically do far worse than PG-13 movies at the box-office. Ten out of 10 of the last decade’s top earners, including the graphically violent The Dark Knight, were rated PG-13. The Return of the King, the final film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, topped the list.

On the other hand, several R-rated movies have done big business in recent years, including 2009’s The Hangover and 2005’s Wedding Crashers, and, more to the point, ultra-violent “torture porn” like the “Saw” series and its ilk.

That latter trend likely had the biggest impact on The Wolfman being released with an R rating: Horror fans, the chief target of the Wolfman ad campaign, apparently want their shocks delivered with gory violence — gushing blood, and lots of it. Or they won’t bother to come.

And reportedly, that bloodlust will be satiated, at least according to one viewer who caught an early screening in Austin: “He is incredibly savage and basically eviscerates and mutilates with glee. There are some particularly gruesome sequences, some more realistic than others.”

That’s sad, in a way. And it doesn’t reflect the reality of the ginormous box-office success of last year’s Paranormal Activity, which delivered its big shocks with practically no blood at all.

Will The Wolfman, snagged by delays and reportedly beset by production difficulties, be worth howling about? I’ll find out tonight

Watchmen: Brutal, Fascistic, Overlong (movie review)

watchmenThe critics have spoken, and most are underwhelmed and put off by Watchmen: So far, it’s notched a score of 49 (out of 100) on Metacritic, and a 64% at Rotten Tomatoes. That’s called a failing grade.

Yes, “there are … flashes of visual brilliance,” as Peter Travers accurately observes in his review for Rolling Stone.”(Creator Alan) Moore recalled his four years of toil on the 12-issue DC Comics series as ‘slam-dancing with a bunch of rhinos.’ That description also fits watching the movie, which stumbles and sometimes falls on its top-heavy ambitions.”

But Anthony Lane, the far more insightful critic for The New Yorker, gets to the heart of what’s wrong with this bombastic, overcooked turkey: “The problem is that (director Zack) Snyder, following Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon.” Lane’s review.

Below is my review.

———-

WATCHMEN

Stars Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer. Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. 160 minutes. Rated R.

Grade: C-

Call me crazy. But I’m guessing that reading the graphic novel Watchmen is a prerequisite for fully appreciating the lovingly and expertly photographed brutality of the film adaptation.

On display: A prisoner’s arms are lopped off by a chainsaw; a child murderer’s skull is repeatedly hacked with an axe; vicious dogs fight over the remains of a little girl’s leg; a group of thugs are blown apart in a nightclub, their guts exploding and then left dripping from the ceiling; a female superhero’s face is bloodied and her body bruised during an attempted rape. Not to mention the repeat shots of one motion-capture character’s blue-tinted, dangling, uh, appendage.

Those are among the startling, strikingly ugly images that creep across the screen in Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder (300) and written by David Hayter and Alex Tse with an overabundance of reverence for the original work, acclaimed for its complexity, smarts and use of imagination.

Its author, Alan Moore, probably won’t appreciate all that effort — Moore, who has called his comic book “unfilmable” and disassociated himself from the movie, said, in response to an update on the production, “Do we need any more sh—y films in this world?”

That’s a good question to ask about Watchmen, as Snyder’s skewed-superhero movie, at 160 minutes, is overlong, loud, grim, often nonsensical and willing to place beloved pop, rock and folk songs — Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” — into odd settings, benefitting neither the songs nor the film.

Aside from hardcore fans of the graphic novel, and 18-to-25-year-old guys looking for nearly three hours’ worth of extreme violence and raunchy sex at the local cineplex, who, exactly, was this movie made for?

The credit sequence, following an impressively photographed fight marked by whooshing sound effects and capped with a spectacular slow-motion crash through plate glass and a short fall from a high-rise, suggests good things to come.

Snyder unfurls a series of still shots and clips that track the progress of the Minutemen, a group of crime-fighters, from their beginnings in the 1940s — when they organized in response to masked gangs of villains — through the present, 1985.

The story’s alternative history has it that the U.S. won the Vietnam War, and Nixon (Robert Wisden), having won a third term in 1976, is still in office. The Watchmen, the Minutemen’s superhero successors, are experiencing various degrees of dysfunction.

Although the plot spins off in a dozen or so rather incongruous directions, the story halfway focuses on a central mystery: Who killed the Comedian, born Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the trigger-happy, woman-abusing least likable of the Watchmen, and are his old colleagues next on the list?

Potential suspects include all of the superfriends, er, superfrenemies. On the nice-guy end of the spectrum is Nite Owl II, known to his intimates as Dan (Patrick Wilson), an aw-shucks fellow who spends much time taking off his Clark Kent glasses and wiping them clean, and occasionally goes down to his Bat Cave-like basement to admire his old, rubbery, Batman-like costume.

watchmen-2The object of his affection is Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), better known as Laurie, bodacious brunette who enjoys sex with two superheroes. Her most recent main squeeze is that aforementioned blue man, Dr. Manhattan (variously, Billy Crudup and a digital representation of the actor), a fit and trim, wisdom-dispensing fellow who practices nudism; he became an all-powerful being after a terrible accident in a physics lab, and went on to singlehandedly defeat the Vietcong.

Suicide is painless, apparently, for one unfortunate character in the film, but exposition isn’t, as there are two more Watchmen to watch out for.

Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley, reuniting with Little Children cast member Wilson) is a psycho killer with a bizarre, ever-changing mask and a raspy voice about halfway between Clint Eastwood and the Batman of The Dark Knight; both films, as well as 300, are products of L.A.’s Legendary Pictures. Adrian, also known as Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), is a handsome dressed-for-success guy who prefers an icy HQ and, like the others, may be holding a secret or two.

Watchmen, making liberal use of flashbacks, follows its characters to various homes, haunts and hideouts, and hurls headlong toward a conclusion regarding potential nuclear annihilation.

Along the way, there are sequences set on Mars, at a burning apartment building, and in a prison. There, the creepy, indestructible Rorschach, intensely disliked by the facility’s inmates, gets off one of the script’s best lines: “None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me.”

Many viewers will experience a sensation similar to that experienced by Rorschach’s fellow prisoners: Is early release an option?

———-

A variation of the above review appears on the web site of Jacksonville  paper Folio Weekly.

Oscar Talk: Viewership Jumps

oscars10Blame it on the down economy, and the accompanying desire for escapist entertainment. Or perhaps it’s the fault of the nasty winter weather, which continued to break records nationwide (global warming, or new ice age?). Who wants to go outside?

Or  maybe there simply wasn’t anything else worth watching on Sunday night.

At any rate, the 81st annual Academy Awards telecast drew 36.3 million viewers, an increase of 13 percent over the 32 million who caught the show last year, according to a report in the New York Times. Viewership grew by 22 percent among men ages 18 to 34.

That’s despite the predictable post-show grumbling by television critics and others, some of whom probably wouldn’t be pleased by the Oscars even if the telecast ran no more than two hours and was the funniest thing on TV.

By the way, some of these same critics kill acres of trees in the course of endlessly hyping such awful “reality” programming as “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Bachelor” and “The Biggest Loser.” Like they know from quality.

More factoids: Viewership for the show peaked in 1998, when 55 million watched Titanic win 11 Oscars, including best picture and best director (James Cameron). More than 40 million watched the Oscars show in 2007, when the award for best picture went to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.

So much for those who would want to force the Oscars to honor only the year’s biggest crowd-pleasers.* Isn’t television already overwhelmed with popularity contests?

*(This is NOT a dis on The Dark Knight, which deserved Oscar attention on artistic merit alone. Its exclusion had more to do with a)a general disrespect for comic-book culture, and b)a liberal political agenda that clearly dominates the thinking of Hollywood types).

UPDATE: Mary McNamara, a television critic for the L.A.Times, writes, “If nothing else, the 81st version proved that the Oscars are important after all, that in this digitally splintered world where everyone can find something better to do every single second of the day, there remain media and entertainment experiences we long to share with one another.” The rest of her piece.

Oscar Talk: Slumdog Wins Big with Best Picture, Multiple Major Other Awards

oscars7Nice touches for this year’s Oscars, including insightful and sometimes touching introductions of this year’s acting nominees by notable past winners; a terrific musical sequence featuring A.R. Rahman, John Legend and the Soweto Gospel Choir; and a Busby Berkeley-style dance sequence, capped with Jackman’s shout, “The musical is back!” (well, not quite).

slumdog_poster1Best picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Said Christian Colson, Slumdog’s producer: “We had passion and we had belief and our film shows that if you have those two things then truly anything is possible.”

Best actor: Sean Penn, Milk.

Penn (joking): “You commie, homo-loving sons of guns. I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me, often” and “Mickey Rourke rises again, and he is my brother.”

Best actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader

Winslet: “I think we can’t believe that we’re all in the same category at all. I’m sorry Meryl, you’ll have to just suck that up.”

Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Foreign Language Film: Departures (Japan)

Original song:  A.R. Rahman, “Jai Ho,” Slumdog Millionaire

Rahman talked about how Slumdog is about “optimism and the power ofhope in our lives. All my life I’ve had a choice of hate and love. I chose love, and I’m here. God bless.”

Original score: Slumdog Millionaire

Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was presented to Jerry Lewis, who has raised $2 BILLION — I was stunned by this number — for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. No surprises, just a brief thanks. I’m thinking that Lewis probably deserved a more extensive tribute, at least via a longer series of clips from his films and a more expansive explanation of his impact on film comedy than that offered by Eddie Murphy.

Editing: Slumdog Millionaire

Sound mixing: Slumdog Millionaire

Sound editing: The Dark Knight

Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Documentary short: Smile Pinki

Documentary feature: Man on Wire

Supporting actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Ledger’s father, mother and sister accepted on his behalf. Sister: “We proudly accept this award on behalf of your beautiful Matilda (his daughter)”

Live Action Short: Toyland

Director of Toyland: “I spent four years of my life making this 14-minute movie.”

Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire

Ben Stiller offered a hilarious impression of Joaquin Phoenix, circa his recent, bizarre visit with David Letterman – i.e., Stiller, wearing an out-of-control beard, and chewing gum, was entirely distracted. Stiller: “I just want to retire from being a funny guy.” He aimlessly wandered around while Natalie Portman talked about cinematography.

Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Costume Design: The Duchess

Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Animated Short Film: La Maison en Petits Cubes

Director Kunio Kato ended his speech with “Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto” (from the Styx song)

Animated Feature: Wall-E

Wall-E director Andrew Stanton thanked his high-school drama teacher for casting him in “Hello, Dolly”

Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Simon Beaufoy said that the cast and crew taught him so much about India and “changed my life.”

Original Screenplay:  Milk

Funny “instructional” sequence about screenwriting, with Steve Martin and Tina Fey. And terrific quick illustration of how screenplay translates to a movie.

Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona

Cruz spoke about the long road from her lowly origins to the Oscars, and said: “Art in any form is and has been and always will be our universal language and we should do everything we can to protect its survival.”

Oscar Talk: My Envelope, Please

oscars6After what feels like the longest Oscars PR run-up in Academy Awards history, the 81st annual Academy Awards arrives Sunday night.

Wolverine, I mean, Hugh Jackman, will play host in a ceremony purportedly designed to honor the year’s best achievements on the big screen.

Sadly, this year that means that The Dark Knight, the visually astonishing fantasy film directed by Christopher Nolan, was robbed of a best picture nomination, and was all but ignored in most categories. A notable exception: The late Heath Ledger’s bone-deep performance as The Joker, a shoo-in to win for best supporting actor.

Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, compelling but essentially designed to win an Oscar, is just one of the best picture nominees that might have been bumped to make way for The Dark Knight.  Another is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, vastly overrated — some have called it Forrest Gump redux — but nonetheless the recipient of 14 nominations (!!!???!!!).

The Oscars goofed, too, in leaving a pair of quite accomplished and quite different foreign films — Gomorra, a crime film from Italy, and Swedish horror shocker Let the Right One In —  off the list of foreign language nominees.

On the other hand, it’s gratifying to see underdogs Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Melissa Leo (Frozen River) land major acting nominations. Their chances at winning are practically nil.

Without further ado, my picks.

—–Picture—–

  • Most likely to win, deserves to win: Slumdog Millionaire
  • The rest: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader

—–Director—–

  • Most likely to win: David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Deserves to win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
  • The rest: Stephen Daldry, The Reader; Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon; Gus Van Sant, Milk

—–Actor—–

  • Most likely to win, deserves to win: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
  • The rest: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor; Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon; Sean Penn, Milk; Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

—–Actress—–

  • Most likely to win: Kate Winslet, The Reader
  • Deserves to win: Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  • The rest: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married; Angelina Jolie, Changeling; Melissa Leo, Frozen River; Meryl Streep, Doubt

—–Supporting Actor—–

  • Most likely to win, deserves to win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
  • The rest: Josh Brolin, Milk; Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt; Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

—–Supporting Actress—–

  • Most likely to win: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
  • Deserves to win: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona

—–Foreign Language—–

  • Most likely to win: The Class
  • (Probably) Deserves to win: Waltz With Bashir
  • The rest: The Baader Meinhof Complex, Departures, Revanche

—–Animated—–

  • Most likely to win: Wall-E
  • Deserves to win: Kung Fu Panda
  • The rest: Bolt

—–Documentary—–

  • Most likely to win: Man on Wire
  • Deserves to win: Trouble the Water
  • The rest: Betrayal, Encounters at the End of the World, The Garden

—–Adapted Screenplay—–

  • Most likely to win, deserves to win: Slumdog Millionaire
  • The rest: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Reader

—–Original Screenplay—–

  • Most likely to win: Milk
  • Deserves to win: In Bruges
  • The rest: Frozen River, Happy-Go-Lucky, Wall-E

—–Cinematography—–

  • Most likely to win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Deserves to win: The Dark Knight
  • The rest: Changeling, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire

—–Art Direction—–

  • Likely to win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Deserves to win: The Dark Knight
  • The rest: Changeling, The Duchess, Revolutionary Road

—–Music (score)—–

  • Most likely to win, deserves to win: Slumdog Millionaire
  • The rest: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Defiance, Milk, Wall-E

—–Music (song)—–

  • Most likely to win, deserves to win: “Jai Ho,” Slumdog Millionaire
  • The rest: “Down to Earth,” Wall-E; “O Saya,” Slumdog Millionaire