Jessica Alba, Kathy Bates, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper, Eric Dane, Patrick Dempsey, Hector Elizondo, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah, Taylor Lautner, George Lopez, Shirley MacLaine, Emma Roberts, Julia Roberts, Taylor Swift. —There. That’s about all that need be said about Valentine’s Day, and the ad already said it. In grudging addition, it might be considerate to say, by way of warning, that out of the multicultural, multigenerational, multidemographical alphabetical all-stars, Jennifer Garner and Ashton Kutcher command the most attention. And it might be charitable to say that only Topher Grace and Anne Hathaway demand any more. It might, too, be appropriately pointless to point out the unbilled cameo of Joe Mantegna. Apart from the celebrity merry-go-round, no other focus of interest will be found within the movie. (Without, there might be some slight interest in contractual and scheduling matters.) In Katherine Fugate’s screenplay, the navigation of the human heart, morning to night on the Fourteenth of February in Los Angeles, is as a leaf afloat on a puddle: superficial on top of shallow. But then, director Garry Marshall has never been one to venture so deep on any subject as to bother about rolling up his pants cuffs.
The Wolfman, under the drillmasterly direction of Joe Johnston, emerges as your basic tale of Oedipal lycanthropy, an Oedipus simplex if you will (the ungovernable son, for good measure, has been playing Hamlet on the London stage), so basic that it takes place in the 19th Century, unearths an archetypal gypsy fortune teller (a gaunt and gaudy Geraldine Chaplin), and fashions its werewolf makeup in the classic style of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s. The human drama, however Freudian, proves to be refreshingly unpretentious and earnest, as well as stoutly acted by Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, and Hugo Weaving, though it is never quite so dramatic as the Caspar David Friedrich smoky skies, a variegation of nacreous grays. The marauding wolfmen (plural, yes) on the other hand, completely modern in their dispensing of gore, are quick as Bugs Bunny, rapid as the Road Runner, fleet as Speedy Gonzales, which only makes sense when you stop to consider that they are after all primarily computer cartoons, and they seem not in the least to be subject to the erosions of age. One might ask, on that point, why the crisis, the curse, has only just come to a head, why the villagers have not until now had to reach for their rifles and pitchforks. The Oedipal pater over the course of his lifetime has seen many and many a full moon.
It would be hard to conceive a more painful introduction to Greek mythology than Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Or reintroduction, even more. Chris Columbus, who directed the first couple of Harry Potter entries, is here looking literally for another lightning bolt — Zeus’s stolen one — in the quest of a dyslexic present-day teenager, the unknowing bastard spawn of Poseidon, teamed up ad hoc with a same-aged demigoddess and semigoat (“The politically correct term is satyr”), to retrieve his mother from Hades (located beneath the Hollywood sign), solve the mystery of the missing bolt, and avert an apocalypse. Under these circumstances, the language is appallingly banal even for a movie populated with teenagers and targeted to their juniors: “Check this out,” as an example, gets spoken no fewer than three times during the visit to Medusa’s lair and twice more in its immediate sequel. The computer-generated Fury, Minotaur, Hydra, etc., interject only technology, no magic.
Creation, tracing the origin of The Origin of Species, is the sort of stuffy biopic that once would have starred Paul Muni. Granted, in those days the achievement of Charles Darwin would not have been summed up in such bellicose terms as “You’ve killed God, sir,” and this alone may be sufficiently satisfying for the acolytes of Bill Maher. But the writing of a book, even one containing “the biggest single idea in the history of thought,” is inherently not a screen-friendly subject, and it will not be warmed up by exhibitionistic struggles with health and sanity, hallucinations, bad dreams, ghostly apparitions, laboratory specimens coming to life in their glass jars. And the climax where the conflicted naturalist leaves the fate of his book in the hands of his God-fearing wife is as hokey as it is unsuspenseful. Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, in those roles, submit graciously to Jon Amiel’s graceless closeups.
Saint John of Las Vegas, the feature debut of writer-director Hue Rhodes, is a pack-following independent film caroming from oddball to oddball: a midget boss, a sunny secretary surrounding herself with yellow Smiley Faces, a wheelchair stripper, a gun-toting militant nudist, a sideshow human fireball, and so forth. It’s nice, or it ought to be, to see Steve Buscemi once again in a lead role, and he certainly has the casino pallor, not to mention the riverboat sideburns and the slicked-back hair, to pass as a recovering and relapsing gambling addict. But the anticipated laughs never come, and the transparent hommages to Dante — characters named John Alighieri, Virgil, and Lou Cypher (get it?) — bring only frowns.
The practice, the custom — is it yet a tradition? — of Landmark Theatres to exhibit in separate programs the Academy Award nominees for animated and live-action shorts, at the Ken Cinema for the next week, warrants special mention this year for the inclusion in the animated category of a new Wallace and Gromit outing by Nick Park, A Matter of Loaf and Death. Back to the wieldy length of under a half-hour after the cumbersome feature-length puff-up of their last outing, and even if a shade off top form, it serves as a vivid reminder that nowhere in contemporary cinema exists a continuing character more admirable or endearing than that devoted yet doubting dog, a humbling example to us all.