Screen Shot: ‘The Wolfman’

Making a nicely produced piece of classic horror, if there is such a thing, director Joe Johnston (October Sky, Jumanji, The Rocketeer) depicts the son (Benicio Del Toro) of an eccentric gentleman (Anthony Hopkins) in the 1891 British countryside as they are ensnared in an Oedipal psychodrama that leads to romantic love, confrontations with religious fundamentalists, and the breathless sight of a rampaging werewolf in London.

Universal’s The Wolfman is not my cup of tea, typically, and viewers should be forewarned that the frights are deployed without warning and the blood and guts are on ample display, but for what it is, Mr. Johnston, one of Tinseltown’s top creators of exciting adventure, delivers a true thriller. Shot in black and gray, and shrouded in fog, its point that man and monster are sometimes indistinguishable comes early and often in the form of a mythical beast that is one of the screen’s best werewolves. The detail in this creature is amazing; he’s a ferocious beast with vaguely human characteristics, not an overdone computer image on steroids. Resembling Michael Landon’s classic werewolf, this wolf is cunning, nimble, and powerful, swiping with his deadly claws, tearing limbs like tissue paper, and sprinting while upright or chasing on all four legs.

With various literary and visual references to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, silver bullets, gargoyles, and the “power of Satan”, The Wolfman grabs a hold and doesn’t let go, with Mr. Hopkins simply devouring every scene as the morally monstrous father, Del Toro as Lawrence, an heroic American trying to set things right after a terrible childhood trauma, Emily Blunt (Dan in Real Life) as the young, nubile beauty whose husband was killed by the werewolf, Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta) as a policeman and Geraldine Chaplin (Tonia in Doctor Zhivago) as a gypsy.

While a religious zealot warns that the wolf represents man’s pride and alternately urges the besieged villagers to loathe themselves, an intellectual who’s more monstrous than the werewolf (and whose demise is too good for him) enters the picture as the policeman persistently observes, tracks, and hunts the creature. Characters and plot are fully engaging and seeing Anthony Hopkins in this voracious role is worth the admission price alone (don’t bring the kids) for those who can stand the horror. The only downside other than the gore is a throwaway servant character, a Sikh “warrior of God”. Blunt is good, Del Toro is excellent as usual, and Weaving’s earnestly intelligent detective puts last year’s manic Sherlock Holmes to shame. The Wolfman‘s theme that man is essentially self-made, even when faced by monsters that are not, is expressed in an exchange between Del Toro’s thespian character and Blunt’s grieving widow, when he comes upon a waterfall and recalls it as a place of refuge and she asks, “from what?” He answers, “you mean from whom.” This Wolfman has a mind of his own. But be prepared to close your eyes.

Sade’s ‘Soldier of Love’

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Soldier of Love, the new album from pop singer Sade, is perfect. Soft, soothing melodies fill this 10-song collection, available from Sony Music, with strings, horns, piano, and, of course, Sade’s clear vocals, which sound slightly more weathered than when she began her impeccable career during the 1980s. With the driving, irresistible title track, which grows on you, as the sole departure from her signature style, and a minor divergence at that, everything here is in order. Less sultry than her smash, Love Deluxe, but with more nuances, too, Soldier of Love is another meticulous, accessible recording from artist Sade Adu (who co-wrote the album). Sade’s unhurried delivery and gentle rhythm wraps around a tune every time. Dim the lights, loosen up, and enjoy.

Books: ‘Valley of Death’ and Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu

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Look for a former French lieutenant’s tale of pre-Vietnam War, Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War (Random House hardcover, 752 pages, available February 23 for $ 35) by Ted Morgan. The New York City-based writer and journalist, who fought in the French Army in Algeria, has produced an epic account of the contest that ended French colonial rule in Indochina, the 1954 battle between France and a Communist-backed “people’s army” in Vietnam.

Using French military archives and exclusive firsthand reports, and tracking countless errors by the American government, Morgan reframes the six-week battle for Dien Bien Phu, a remote valley on the border of Laos along a rural trade route, which was fueled by Communism’s rise following World War 2, particularly by Chinese dictator Mao Tse-tung and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who were already waging a proxy war with the West in the Korean peninsula. Morgan, a Vietnam reporter who knew the late David Halberstam, provides facts according to his research, which point to the West’s chronic ignorance and appeasement of Communism, though he is more focused on what happened than how and why it happened.

Morgan, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), Winston Churchill, and Somerset Maugham (The Painted Veil). In the fully annotated and indexed Valley of Death, he provides an important perspective on the West’s foreign policy in mid-20th century. That America’s ineffectual war in Vietnam began with this climactic battle, and has continued with decades of lost battles and wars, culminating in our current debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, is unmistakable.

As Morgan writes on page 172, some opposed American involvement in Vietnam, including Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican who, Morgan writes, “called for an amendment that no funds should be given to the French until they ‘set a target date for … complete independence … the people of Indochina … have been fighting for the same thing for which 177 years ago the people of the American colonies fought.” Morgan notes that “this was the man whom [President] Lyndon Johnson called ‘trigger-happy’ when he ran against him in 1964.” Sen. Goldwater went on, observing that, by aiding France, “we are saying to the great men who penned the document and whose ghosts must haunt these walls, that we do not believe entirely in the Declaration of Independence.” Despite Sen. Goldwater’s warning that “as surely as day follows night our boys will follow this $400 million [aid to France]”, Congress defeated his amendment, approved President Eisenhower’s 1953 aid package, and soon entered the Vietnam War, one of several wars in Korea, Iran, and Iraq, that the United States neither declared nor won.

Movie Review: Dear John

Dear JohnDirector Lasse Hallstrom’s first movie in four years, Dear John, feels half-hearted. Working with a screenplay by Jamie Linden (who wrote the powerful We Are Marshall), based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook), Hollywood’s best director starts with refined, beautiful scenes of young lovers on a beach in Charleston. As the story of two self-sacrificing lovers comes undone, so does Dear John. What’s left is an empty exchange between selfless characters competing to do themselves in.

That might be alright if the result was involving, as is typically the case with Lasse Hallstrom’s movies, such as Casanova, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog, An Unfinished Life, or his best picture, Chocolat. Instead, we get vacant Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and blank John (Channing Tatum), each saddled with sacrifice after sacrifice. The only person in the movie with something close to a sense of purpose is Savannah and her goal is to open a camp for kids with “special needs”, not necessarily because she loves the work; she says they need help, so Savannah feels a duty to serve others. So does everyone else in this sad, forlorn movie. John serves in the military merely as something to do and, later, as an evasion of reality. Watching this pair deny themselves for two hours is tedious.

With a theme that one must live for the sake of others, anyone can see where the plot will lead. But it isn’t convincing in Mr. Hallstrom’s hands. He can’t resist focusing on life, which means showing the couple in lingering close-ups and focusing on singularly meaningful pieces of property, such as rare coins that are rich with history or a dish with a simple yet elegant pattern. His tendency to evoke people in motion, fleetingly in love with life, people, places and things, only makes one impatient with the zombies these characters become. John used to be a tough guy; he serves in the Army and likes to surf and that’s about it. Savannah is a rich kid; she goes to college, builds houses for charity, and seeks to serve the disabled. They act like a brochure for national service. They talk in slogans. They both lack an ego.

Add an apparently unemployed family friend (Henry Thomas) and his son, John’s father (The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins), and America’s worst act of war (appallingly described as “buildings falling” with no mention of war let alone those who started it), mix in cancer, autism and a guitar-driven soundtrack more suited to 1970s southern California than early 2000s South Carolina and Dear John disappoints. Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) and Tatum (Stop-Loss, Coach Carter) have decent moments as they exchange letters across a jumbled timeline but they are reduced to holding up the morals of the Peace Corps, an ideal which, it turns out, is undramatic. Having the hero plead for Savannah to tell him what to do after he was shot by unnamed enemies is more sadistic than romantic. Even the presumed “benefits” of Savannah’s altruism don’t come off: one never sees the completed charity house and we never lay eyes upon those who will own it.

Lasse Hallstrom remains one of most talented artists in pictures. He is a masterful storyteller and he makes marvelous movies that celebrate life. Unfortunately, Dear John is not one of them.

California Adventures: Pyramid Lake and Yosemite

Golden state day trips to Yosemite and Pyramid Lake lived up to expectations this winter.

Bridalveil FallsBridalveil Falls/Yosemite National Park
© copyright 2010 Scott Holleran

In one day, I saw the breathtaking Bridalveil Falls, which is stunning, El Capitan (the largest monolith of granite in the world), Cathedral Rocks and spires, Half Dome, the famed Ahwahnee lodge and hotel, named after the Ahwahneechee Indians that roamed the Yosemite Valley, and a mighty black bear. Waterfalls roar, giant sequoia trees tower, meadows dance in the wind and it is a wonderful experience with nature. The park has it all: backpacking, rock-climbing, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, birdwatching, museums, buildings, and points of historical interest. This park, granted to California by President Abraham Lincoln, offers an authentic California adventure.

Visiting the vast, federal government-controlled Yosemite requires having an agenda, so plan ahead and be prepared, as the Boy Scouts motto goes. There’s a government-imposed fee for practically everything, including a new tax on hiking at Half Dome, in addition to other fees and taxes collected for the parks program (park admission is $20 per vehicle). Only the handicapped are admitted for free. Check daily for weather conditions, updates, and seasonal rules and regulations. Bring plenty of money if you plan to visit and stay inside the park, where everything from smoking, pets, and traffic to lodging is tightly controlled by the government and subsequently terribly expensive. I opted for a stay at a cabin located just outside the park, which was fine.

This swath of wilderness is bear country. Though guides claim that rangers patrol the park for safety, I spotted one ranger during the visit and that was outside the visitors’ center. This being my first bear sighting in the forest, I must say I’m glad I wasn’t close enough to be noticed. Deer also dart in front of a moving vehicle, as happened on this trip, and rocks near the waterfalls are of course wet, slippery, and dangerous. It’s a good idea to wear hiking boots, bring bottled water, and pack a camera and binoculars. You’ll probably want to remember your trip to Yosemite. I know I will.

Pyramid LakePyramid Lake/Gorman, California
© copyright 2010 Scott Holleran

The manmade Pyramid Lake, near where gold was discovered in 1843, is located in Gorman off the Golden State freeway (Interstate 5) at the Smokey Bear Road exit (Emigrant Landing). The recreational lake is named after a pyramid-shaped rock carved by engineers who were creating the old highway 99. Here, there’s camping, picnicking, boating, water skiing, swimming, fishing (large and small-mouth striped bass, trout, catfish, blue gill, and crappie), and the Vista Del Lago Visitors Center, which sits on a bluff overlooking the lake and contains exhibits in the state’s water treatment and its version of the state’s and region’s history, which includes interesting facts about businessman Henry Newhall and the Newhall companies that built and developed the Santa Clarita Valley. According to Pyramid Lake’s Web site, most beaches are accessible only by boat because of the steep shoreline.