Opening Friday, Feb. 26, is The Last Station, based on Rose Tremain's novel about the last years of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Tolstoy's wife is played by Helen Mirren and his disciple by Paul Giamatti. Plummer and Mirren are both up for Oscars. Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity. 112m. At the Minor.
From director Kevin Smith, whose flying troubles were recently in the news, comes the buddy comedy Cop Out, starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as police partners tracking down a valuable stolen baseball card. Adventures occur along the way. Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violence and brief sexuality. 108m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.
A remake of the 1973 horror film, The Crazies takes place in a small town in Iowa where some toxin that causes insanity followed by death has gotten into the water supply. How will the few survivors avoid being killed by the military trying to contain the situation? Hint: don't fake insanity. Rated R for bloody violence and language. 101m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
Oldies-but-Goodies at the Arcata Theater Lounge this week include the campy sci-fi of Mars Attacks! (1996) on Saturday, Feb. 27, at 11 p.m.; Bill Murray's bad day in Groundhog Day (1993) on Sunday, Feb. 28, at 6 p.m.; and a sci-fi night double feature of H.G. Wells' Things to Come (1936) and Journey to the Center of Time (1967) on Wednesday, Mar. 3, at 6 p.m.
THE WOLFMAN: I was only three when the 1941 film The Wolf Man was released, so I could not have seen it then. Nonetheless, one of my earliest film memories is of a man turning into a fearful wolf, usually in some moonlit woods.
Of course, the wolf man has had an enduring legacy in film history, including a number of sequels to the 1941 version. I have fond memories of An American Werewolf in London (1981), which injected some humor into the mix, and The Howling from the same year, where a couple having sex by a campfire turn into werewolves during the act. (Who needs a full moon?)
The latest version attempts to keep the feel and intent of the 1941 version. Set in 1891, the Victorian setting is full of dark moonlit woods, moody mansions and a village with gypsies who recite the poem about wolfbane turning even a man pure of heart into a beast.
There are a few differences: The setting has been moved from Wales to Blackmore, and Gwen (Emily Blunt) is no longer a local girl but the London fiancée of Ben Talbot (who is disembowled in the film's opening scene). Ben's death brings estranged brother Lawrence (Benicio del Toro) back to the village and to his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins).
Making Gwen the fiancée of Ben does result in an awkward plot development not handled well here. Somehow, we have to believe that Gwen transfers her affection rather quickly to Lawrence; otherwise, she would have no reason to stay in Blackmore.
At any rate, Lawrence himself is soon bitten, and the story unfolds mostly along genre lines. As with most legends, there is an underlying moral principle informing the narrative. Of course, good versus evil is one theme, but the story puts more emphasis on the nature of human identity. The gypsy Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin) says there is no cure for the infection and the beast must be killed. As Gwen notes at the end, it is a sin to kill a human -- but how does one know where the human ends and the beast begins?
From a technical perspective, the major interest in various versions of the wolf man story is how the transformation is accomplished. In 1941, Lon Chaney, Jr. underwent his transformation with makeup and a series of lap dissolves, and somehow that fit the style of the film. In the current version, the computer effects just don't fit the setting.
Anthony Hopkins seems to have created his character from his standard bag of acting tricks. Del Toro looks really intense and haunted until he has to howl at the moon. Blunt is a fetching enough Victorian woman, but there is little bite to her role. In fact, one wonders why this remake was made. It adds nothing to the wolf man narrative and while not terrible it may be worse: bland. Rated R for bloody horror violence and gore. 102m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
SHUTTER ISLAND: I have been a huge fan of Dennis Lehane since his first novel A Drink Before the War, which was published in 1994. This novel was the first of a five-book P.I. series set in the Boston area, featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. The fourth book of the series -- Gone, Baby, Gone -- was made into the very good 2007 film of the same name.
He has also written four non-series novels, including Mystic River, made into the excellent 2003 film directed by Clint Eastwood, and Shutter Island, the basis for the latest film adaptation of his books. He was also one of the writers for the TV series The Wire.
Clearly his vision runs toward the dark side; the forces of evil, whatever they may be, are constantly threatening to overturn or even end people's lives. Shutter Island (2003) may not be one of his best books, but it is still very good. It creates an unrelenting tension and it represents somewhat of a departure for Lehane in that it is primarily a psychological thriller.
Unlike the relatively straightforward narratives of his other books, the story here is replete with deception. The film begins in 1954, as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives at Shutter Island by ferry with his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). The island off Massachusetts is the site of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson), convicted of multiple murders, has escaped and is presumably loose on the island.
The screws are quickly turned. The only way on or off the island, eleven icy water miles from the nearest land, is the daily ferry. The marshals must give up their weapons. The room where Rachel was incarcerated seems escape-proof. The staff seems uneasy and scared, and Chief Administrator Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) won't let the marshals see certain documents related to the case.
During the night, a hurricane-strength storm cuts off power and severs all communication with the mainland. On top of that, Teddy may have a personal motive for coming to the island unrelated to the missing Rachel, and his recurring visions of his dead wife Delores (Michelle Williams), who keeps telling him to get out of Dodge, along with horrifying memories of his part in liberating the Nazi camps at the end of WWII, may indicate he is being given psychotropic drugs.
In general, Scorsese builds and maintains the tension very well, aided by some fine performances from the cast. One misstep for me was the occasionally overly dramatic and obtrusive soundtrack, particularly during the opening and closing scenes, an underscoring that seemed totally at odds with the rest of the film.
Unless you've read the novel, though, the film will keep you guessing until the end, as a psychological thriller should. There are clues (note Ruffalo's approach to his character, for example) but I'll say nothing further here except that the ending is open to interpretation. Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity. 138m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, Minor and Fortuna.
ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL. Alvin and the gang meet their female rivals, the Chipettes. Watch the fur fly! Rated PG. 88m. At the Broadway.
AVATAR. Military forces attempt to control and exploit a region and its people, which they know little about. Rated PG-13. 162m. At the Broadway (3D), Fortuna (3D) and Mill Creek.
THE BLIND SIDE. A homeless African-American youth is taken in by a well-to-do white family that helps him realize his football potential. Rated PG-13. 126m. At the Broadway.
THE BOOK OF ELI. Denzel Washington possesses the one thing that will save civilization. Rated R. 118m. At the Broadway and Garberville.
CRAZY HEART. Jeff "The Dude" Bridges guns for Oscar gold by playing a washed up country singer. Rated R. 112m. At the Minor.
DEAR JOHN. Through the years, a soldier stays in touch with his love interest through a continuous stream of love letters. Rated PG-13. 108m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
EDGE OF DARKNESS. A homicide detective investigates the death of his daughter and finds more than he wanted to know. Rated R. 117m. At the Broadway.
IT'S COMPLICATED. Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin play divorcees who reignite the flame after 10 years apart. Rated R. 118m. At the Broadway.
PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF. The gods of Mount Olympus have walked out of Percy's Greek mythology texts and into reality. And they aren't happy. Rated PG. 120m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.
TOOTH FAIRY. Dwayne "Don't Call Me The Rock" Johnson plays a tough-as-nails hockey player who, after discouraging a young child, is forced to perform the duties of the actual tooth fairy as punishment. Rated PG. 101m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
VALENTINE'S DAY. An all-star cast led by Julia Roberts star in this romantic comedy/savvy studio marketing decision. Feel the love. Rated PG-13. 125m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.
WHEN IN ROME. Didn't your parents ever teach you not to steal coins from the Fountain of Love? Rated PG-13. 91m. At the Broadway.