The Wolfman, Joe Johnston, 96 mins (15)
Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki, 93 mins (U)
Valentine's Day, Garry Marshall, 125 mins (12A)
Benicio Del Toro's howling at the Moon. Me? I'm just howling
Sunday 14 February 2010
Sometimes a film can be beset by all sorts of hitches during production, and yet still be greeted as a potential classic (Casablanca) or at least a hit (Titanic) by the time it reaches cinemas.
On the other hand, there are films like The Wolfman. Its original director walked out just before shooting started, and, by all accounts, matters didn't improve much when his replacement took over. And, in this instance, all the difficulties encountered behind the scenes are apparent in the finished product. The Wolfman is a dog's dinner.
A remake of the Lon Chaney classic of 1941, it stars Benicio Del Toro as a Victorian gent who visits the family pile, just across a foggy moor from a gypsy encampment, and finds himself immediately cursed to have a bad-hair day every full moon. Del Toro is also one of the producers, so you'd assume that it was some kind of passion project, and yet neither he nor anyone else appears to have had a clear vision of the film they were trying to make. The tone continually wavers between silly and serious, and because scenes have been edited down to bite-sized chunks, there is a general impression that the cast members want to get to the end of the nonsensical screenplay as quickly as possible, so as to put the whole sorry business behind them.
To be fair, there's some romping energy whenever the werewolf is lopping people's heads off, and Hugo Weaving and Antony Sher ham it up nicely as a police detective and a Sigmund Freud-like psychiatrist respectively. But the three actors with their names on the poster look thoroughly bored. Their characters are brought together by the grisly murder of a loved one – Del Toro's brother, Anthony Hopkins's son, and Emily Blunt's fiancé – but they're so unmoved that you'd think they'd never met him. It's hard to care what happens to Del Toro as a wolfman when he's such an expressionless lump as a man.
Just a fortnight after The Princess and the Frog, along comes another hand-drawn cartoon, Ponyo. The latest film from Hayao Miyazaki, creator of the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, it's a delightful contemporary fairy tale featuring a mermaid shaped like a glove puppet. She's tired of being stuck under the waves with her wizard father, so she swims to the surface, where she meets a boy called Sosuke, who lives on a clifftop overlooking a seaside town. He names her Ponyo. When her father drags her back to the briny deep soon afterwards, she's determined to become human so that she and Sosuke can be reunited.
Ponyo is more comprehensible than most Japanese animes, but it has its head-scratching moments. If Miyazaki were an American writer-director, rather than a Japanese one, critics wouldn't be so soft on all his mystic waffle about Sosuke's love for Ponyo "bringing nature into balance". Still, you can't blame anyone for being swept along by the film's hearty orchestral score or by its many visual enchantments: a submerged town where prehistoric eels glide along the roads; a city seen twinkling in the distance that turns out to be a pile-up of ocean liners. And, crucially, the film balances its unearthly magic with down-to-earth human interaction. What makes it so special is that Miyazaki puts as much loving care into showing Ponyo eating noodles as he does into showing her running along the backs of fish the size of whales.
Valentine's Day is an all-star ensemble romantic comedy which unfolds over the course of one grindingly long day – you can guess which one. During that day, various interchangeable Jessicas, Jennifers and Julias scurry around Los Angeles, obsessing over their love lives. It's a calculating, banal and deeply unromantic affair which brings the adjective "Altmanesque" into disrepute, and which makes you re-evaluate Love Actually, not because its jokes aren't funny or because its set-pieces fall flat, but because there aren't any jokes or set-pieces in the first place.
Garry Marshall, the director, seems more interested in selling the soundtrack album, and the wholesale commercialisation of the feast of St Valentine. Even the woman (a Jessica, or possibly a Jennifer) who claims to hate 14 February hosts a themed dinner to mark the occasion, complete with balloons, banners and a heart-shaped pinata. But, strangely enough, amid all the proposals and break-ups, not one of the overlapping storylines concerns the sending or receiving of an anonymous card, which is what I always thought Valentine's Day was about. If you must see one of Marshall's rom-coms, stick to Pretty Woman, the subject of a 20th-anniversary reissue this week.
Also Showing: 14/02/2010
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (110 mins, PG)
Having directed the first two Harry Potter instalments, Chris Columbus must have been in the mood to try something radically different, hence the hero of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is American, not English. As for the rest of the film, well, you be the judge. It's a CGI-heavy fantasy adventure, based on a series of children's novels about a troubled boy who finds he's inherited superpowers, and who is packed off to a place where others like him learn to use their magical abilities. All right, so it's more of a camp than a boarding school, but its name, "Camp Half-Blood", rings a bell of Big Ben proportions.
The gimmick is Greek mythology. Percy (Logan Lerman) may be a Zac Efron-lookalike who lives with his mother (Catherine Keener) in a cramped New York apartment, but he's the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), and he goes on a quest that brings him into contact with Medusa (Uma Thurman, pictured above), Hades (Steve Coogan) and all the other gods and monsters we're due to meet in the imminent Clash of the Titans remake. None gets as many laughs as Harry's adult supporting cast – not intentionally, anyway – and the plotting that unites them all is creaky compared with J K Rowling's. But it's harmless and sometimes spectacular fun, and it might even induce its younger viewers to read some Greek myths.
Food Inc. (94 mins, PG)
Robert Kenner's Oscar-nominated documentary goes behind the closed doors and blacked-out windows of America's ecologically, medically and economically ruinous farming industry, which is subsidised by the taxpayer and controlled by a handful of companies with government ties. There isn't much in it that hasn't been seen in several other recent documentaries, but it's worth being reminded of the stomach-churning truth.
Malice in Wonderland (83 mins, 15)
Bizarre collision between a post-Ritchie mockney gangster thriller and Alice in Wonderland, which means that it stars Danny Dyer as a taxi driver called Whitey who keeps rabbiting on about being late for a very important date. If it had been shown late at night on Channel 4 in the 1980s, it would probably have been applauded as experimental.
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