Friday, February 26, 2010


2009/USA/Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

The war film genre has always been a continually evolving one. And it’s probably no coincidence that the depiction of war on film has reflected the way in which its coverage in the media is also constantly morphing with the advances in communications and technology.

In the 1940’s, we huddled around the radio or sat in cinemas watching carefully edited and cheerfully narrated newsreels of gung-ho allied soldiers, charging into a wall of enemy fire with a smile on their face and their national flag in their hearts. In the 40’s, the line between good and evil, and us and them, was clearly defined and mostly unquestioned.

As the late-1960s rolled along to the beat of psychedelic pop and the pungent odour of marijuana, the Vietnam War brought the horrors of armed conflict straight into the living room. With nightly reports being filed from the front lines, and broadcast live on the evening news, the politics of war became more complex, and trying to separate the good guys from the bad guys wasn’t so easy anymore.

In 2010, with the second US-led Iraq conflict still unresolved after six years, it seems as if very little is able to be kept from us anymore. Photos of degraded Iraqi prisoners confront us from the front page of every newspaper in the world, followed shortly by ghastly internet videos depicting Americans being beheaded by extreme Iraqi militants (in what can be seem as one form of semi-legitimized snuff film). Even grainy mobile phone footage of a dishevelled Saddam Hussein swinging from the gallows can be accessed and watched at the stroke of a keyboard button, mere hours after the actual event.

In many ways, the Iraqi conflict has progressed into some kind of ultimate-stakes, multimedia reality show, and it’s from this smoky atmosphere that The Hurt Locker materialises. The latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days) is an intense, fairly relentless war movie that deals primarily with the issue of combat as a drug, and an addiction that can mean sudden, violent death for anyone around them.

Following a small bomb disposal unit as they go about their treacherous business, The Hurt Locker doesn’t exactly have a complex, plot driven storyline. It’s basically a character study that’s structured around a series of individual set pieces. What makes it work is the almost continual thread of tension that weaves its way throughout the entire film, with the viewer always expecting, but never really knowing when, the next moment of violence will suddenly erupt (and when it does, it’s almost a relief). And when the tension’s not on the battlefield, it’s in the barracks, as the once cohesive unit comes to odds with their new, brash and seemingly irresponsible adrenalin junkie team leader, Sergeant William James (brilliantly played with a white trash edge by Jeremy Renner, who has early stunned me with his portrayal of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the 2002 Dahmer biopic).

With the gritty edge of a frontline television report to it (though thankfully not overly heavy on the shaky hand-held camera), and with its indelible sense of ‘stranger in a strange land’ isolation (it was filmed in Kuwait and Jordan), The Hurt Locker is one of the best American films I have seen for some time (even though its third act is something of a comedown after the first two), and an almost instant addition to the list of classic war cinema. A real triumph from Kathryn Bigelow and all involved, and one which I’d love to see Bigelow rewarded with an Oscar at the upcoming Academy Awards. If she happens to win, it will be one of the most deserved winners in the Oscars’ recent lacklustre history (and apart from being the first female to win a Best Director Oscar, it would also be great to see Bigelow upstage former husband James Cameron by denying him a win for the entertaining but way overbloated and hyped Avatar). A win for Renner as Best Actor would also not go undeserved.

Here’s hoping.


Review Copyright John Harrison 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010


2010/USA/Directed by Joe Johnston


Along with Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman was one of the ‘big four’ of horror characters featured by Universal Studios in their genre films of the 1930s and 40s. First featured by the studio in 1935s The Werewolf of London, the character would enter its classic period six years later when Lon Chaney Jr. played the title character in The Wolf Man, reprising the role in four follow-up films for Universal: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and the comedic classic Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Subsequent decades saw variations of the lycanthropy curse featured in such diverse films as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Hammer’s masterful The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, my personal favourite werewolf film), a string of Spanish horror films starring and directed by Paul Naschy, the 1971 biker flick Werewolves on Wheels, the 1981 double-whammy of Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (both enjoyable but somewhat overrated in my book) and the Michael J Fox spoof Teen Wolf (1985). And of course, who can forget Michael Jackson’s hairy transformation in his classic Thriller video.

Now Universal is attempting to resurrect their line-up of classic horror characters with this updating of the werewolf legend. One of the more troubled productions in recent Hollywood history, The Wolfman (the abbreviation of the title stops here) was initially set to be directed by music video veteran Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) from a script by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and David Self (Road to Perdition). Sets were built at Pinewood for a February 2008 shoot, but Romanek quit four weeks before filming, citing creative differences (apparently Universal execs wanted much of the psychological angle cut out in favor of a more action-oriented film). Enter Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III), who is bought in to helm the film with barely a few weeks notice and is given little time to plan how to put his own stamp on the film. Even Danny Elfman’s gothic score is scrapped and replaced by a more modern industrial soundscape composed by Paul Haslinger, before they eventually went back to Elfman’s original soundtrack. As studio and director bickered over the final cut (with rumors that two different cuts of the film were being prepared, one by Johnston and one by the studio) and special effects constantly getting tinkered with, the release of The Wolfman continued to get pushed back, from November 2008 to February (then April and November) 2009, until the film finally saw the light of the cinema projector in February 2010.


With the addition of a couple of clearly telegraphed ‘twists’, Joe Johnston’s finished film is a fairly faithful remake of the 1941 original, with Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot, a stage actor in 1880s England who returns home to his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins) following the violent killing of his older brother, supposedly by a wild animal. While visiting a gypsy camp, Talbot is bitten by a wolf and soon succumbs to the curse of lycanthropy, sprouting excess body hair and snarling wildly as her terrorizes (and tears apart) the local countryside, before he’s captured and put in an asylum, given ice baths and exhibited to a medical board, and led on a chase across the rooftops of London (highlighted by a stunning shot of the creature perched on a gargoyle, howling at the full moon), all the while trying not to disembowel his brother’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt), with whom he’s fallen in love.


So, after all the struggles to get the Wolfman howling again on screen, was it worth the wait? Well, yes and no. Many critics of the film have signalled out its pacing and, at the risk of being clichéd, it is a valid criticism. Nowhere in the film is the behind the scenes bickering more evident than in its pacing. Slow as molasses in some parts, jarringly fast in others, the film never seems to find a natural rhythm. The combination of old-school make-up and modern CGI never quite melds, although thankfully the CGI is not of the ‘video game’ variety, and with the way the filmmakers wanted the wolfman to look and move, it’s clear that CGI was the only viable option. A lifelong dream project for him, Benicio Del Toro (who also co-produced) certainly does his best to look tortured, but never seems to really convince as Talbot (and he lacks the good-natured ‘chumminess’ that made Chaney Jr. so endearing in the role). And Anthony Hopkings puts in another fairly clichéd, by-the-numbers performance of the kind that he has been telegraphing in for the past decade. In Silence of the Lambs, I see Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, a complex, unnerving sociopath. In The Wolfman, I see Anthony Hopkins as, well, Anthony Hopkins. It’s almost as if he has become a caricature of his former great self. Emily Blunt is good but underused, and Hugo Weaving adds a bit of needed weight as a detective on the trail of the beast.


However, that isn’t to say The Wolfman doesn’t have a lot of good things going for it. It does. The cinematography by Shelly Johnson is dark and moody, foreboding and foggy but still wonderfully lush, and many of the sets and locations give the film a nice, epic feel. The film drips with a thick, gothic atmosphere, and Rick Baker’s make-up is once again superb, the veteran artist creating a wolfman that combines elements on Lon Chaney, Paul Naschy and Oliver Reed in Curse of the Werewolf. There’s a few genuine scares (even if they are of the ‘quick shock’ variety) and the film has a surprisingly visceral edge, with bloody limbs flying everywhere during the wolfman’s rampaging outbursts. As he showed more successfully in The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston (soon to helm the Captain America movie) clearly loves genre material, and that love does show itself throughout The Wolfman, and it is just plain great to see a good old-fashioned monster movie up on the screen, one that is not populated by idiotic teens looking to have sex and party down before getting tortured and skinned alive by some generic psychopath.

While far from being the disaster it could have been given the film’s troubled production, The Wolfman is unfortunately not the definitive modern interpretation of the iconic character that many of us were hoping for. But it’s still a solid, reasonably entertaining and occasionally arousing production, and a much more genuine evocation of classic Universal horror cinema than the studios' string of recent Mummy movies starring Brendan Fraser. It would be great to see a sequel that irons out all the wrinkles but, given the film’s much-plagued road to the screen, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.

Copyright John Harrison 2010


Saturday, February 13, 2010


John Harrison

Creeping tails of wispy fog slithered their way up the tall window panes, shimmering with an eerie and ethereal glow in the cold light of the bright, full moon.

On the other side of the majestic glass, alone within the cavernous expanse of the isolated castle, Eva slept. Sheets of cool red satin hugged and highlighted her alluring naked form as she lay motionless on her back, as still as the night outside, and so deeply in sleep that she didn’t even sense the fog seeping it’s way through the keyhole and fine breaches in the window’s ornate frame.

The fog hugged the high walls and lushly carpeted floor as it slowly, purposefully made its way towards the bed, as if it had a heart and a soul lurking within its vapour, and was being driven by pure boiling lust. As the bluish-hued mist slowly nudged its way up under the sheets from the foot of the bed, Eva stirred slightly, her body stretching as she did so, but did not wake.

Beneath the sheets, the fog began to amass and attach itself around the silky skin of Eva’s lower legs, before it worked its way up around her thighs, the tingling sensation of arousal registering in the woman’s unconscious mind, causing her breath to deepen as her legs parted slightly and her hands flayed out to grip the sheets. Glistening with sweat, her chest began to heave upwards as the fingers of fog explored her torso, finding form and substance as they did so, until it was a pair of powerfully strong yet sensitive male hands that were travelling her body, bringing her every erogenous zone to life with an experienced precision that could have been mastered over centuries by the nosferatu that now had the woman in his grip, his handsomely cruel face breathing the hot air of passion over the nape of her neck, as he studied and drank in the beauty of the woman he was about to take and make his own.

Eva’s hands flung back and entangled themselves in her hair, rich and dark and flowing, as soft moans began to emanate from her moistened lips and her dreams became filled with flashing images of a powerful prince of the night, as much wild animal as he was passionate man, with blood red eyes that couldn’t be looked away from, and a body that was a sinewy mass of power and muscle.

Her body a simmering cauldron, Eva’s eyes opened and she awoke from her dreamy state just as her passion was about to be released. She stayed conscious for a mere split second, just long enough to see the man bare his taloned teeth and sink them into her soft, tender neck, feeding on her life’s blood as her body simultaneously climaxed. A scream that no one would ever hear echoed and reverberated around the halls of the castle as the visitor once again became sheathed in a web of fog and escaped into the night, leaving Eva exhausted, satisfied, and soon to be one of the beautiful undead.

Copyright John Harrison 2010