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Column Fri Jun 22 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Brave, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Dark Horse & The Woman of the Fifth

Steve at the Movies

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Of course, everything about it is ridiculous right down to the title. Yes, it's positively blasphemous to tie the Civil War to vampires needing to keep slavery alive so they will have a constant supply of food. It's downright sacrilegious to turn Harriet Tubman into a soldier in the fight against bloodsuckers. And its positively insane to make Abraham Lincoln a vicious assassin, trained in the art of hunting and killing vampires. And it's because of all of those things that this bit of historical fiction had to be told. People who roll their eyes at the very idea of this story (let alone this movie) have completely lost their sense of fun.

That being said, the elements of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that are most disappointing have nothing to do with its premise and everything to do with its execution. Almost every second of director Timur Bekmambetov's (Wanted, Night Watch) film seems single-mindedly focused on moving forward as fast and blurrily as possible. Yes, in most cases, the plot should move forward (with the exception of a handful of flashbacks), but the director (working from a script by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel) never lets up. He pushes so hard to get to the next scene and the next scene and the next scene that we never get time to settle in with these characters and actually experience a bit of their lives. Character development is a thing for dreamers here. People become friends because we are told they are friends; Lincoln and Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) fall in love because we are told they do.

I'm not here to judge the movie against the source material. I don't really care if the film follows the book closely or not; the film exists as its own entity, and I'll judge it as such. That being said, it's my understanding that the book is a well-researched biography with vampire elements sprinkled throughout. The film, on the other hand, skims over the surface of Lincoln's life and career — as a child, a struggling lawyer, and eventually the president — like a stone skipping across a vast pond. I know history on film can be taxing, but there is almost no sense of time and place in this film. The environments look artificial, and the characters feel the same.

As much as I enjoyed Benjamin Walker as Lincoln, he's essentially operating at two speeds — nice guy and rage monster with an axe. He plays both effectively, but Lincoln's abilities as a statesman and strategist are woefully undervalued. His relationship with his wife is treated like something Bekmamabetov considered a distraction, and the filmmakers invent the character of Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), a freed slave who just happens to be Lincoln's best buddy. Faring slightly better are the more ominous characters, especially Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), the man who recruits Lincoln as a boy to erase his identity and train to kill vampires. Henry has a few secrets of his own, but Cooper works beyond the restrictive script to give Henry some humanity.

Also mildly amusing is Adam (Rufus Sewell), a ruthless plantation owner and head of a great number of the vampires of the South. Sewell plays his character with a bit too much mustache-twirling villainy (no, he does not have a mustache), but there's something fun about his portrayal as well.

There are two big action sequences I like for their audacity more than their achievements in special effects. There's a chase scene with Lincoln where he's hopping over, under and through stampeding horses after a vampire. It doesn't look particularly real, but it does register high on the cool scale. The other involves a train going over a high bridge that seems to span the entirety of the Grand Canyon (not really, but it sure seems that way), with said bridge on fire and collapsing just as the train attempts to cross. It's a stupid, stupid scene, but damn if it didn't take my breath away (some of which was the result of laughing so hard).

I think everyone involved in making Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had a better movie in them. You can also smell the concessions that were granted to get this movie made. The performances are serviceable, with the occasional actor rising up during key scenes just long enough to be impressive. Walker never fails when he's delivering one of Lincoln's classic speeches. I truly hope people get more out of it than I did, but most of what I saw left me empty and wanting so much more. A few moments of exhilaration don't make up for two hours of messy fumbling... at least that's what I've always been told. God, could I set you guys up any more than that?

Brave

Let's talk about tone. When someone tells me that they feel a film's tone is inconsistent, I usually respond, "Instead of being monotone?" I was always under the impression that monotony was a bad thing in speaking or singing. So why would I want a movie that was afraid to stray from the tone it begins with? In the case of Pixar's latest feature Brave, the film starts out as something of a family drama, with the parents of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) forcing her into a marriage with one of three suitors, none of whom she loves. By the end of the film, Merida is attempting to save her mother from a spell she paid a witch to cast on her. And as the film progresses from Point A to Point B, the tone shifts dramatically, and I adore this film for it.

Perhaps because it features human characters in the lead roles (not especially common for Pixar), Brave's focus is on letting go both as a parent and as a keeper of antiquated traditions. In this film, said tradition is arranged marriages. It's never in doubt that King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) love Princess Merida, but her tomboyish ways (she is unmatched as an archer) and rebellious spirit make her an unlikely match for any of the weird young men (sons of the kings of the other regions in the Scottish setting). Plus, she wants to marry for love. Hard to argue with that. But after a fight with her mother, Merida runs off into the woods and stumbles upon a witch's lair, where she manages to change her mother's "demeanor" with a little spell, and that's when all hell breaks loose.

Brave is such a lush, gorgeous film to watch. I actually saw the film in 2-D for my first viewing, and assuming I'd make a point of seeing it in 3-D eventually, but now I'm not so sure. The water, greenery, fur on animals, beards on humans, fabrics, and of course Meridas fiery red mane of hair all look spectacular — better than I've ever seen them look in an animated work. True, gorgeous visuals don't make a movie good or bad, but they sure to make my eyes happy.

But there's something kind of great about this way Brave's plot unfolds. It takes some crazy twists and turns, for sure, but I was always guessing and getting more interested in where it would take me. I loved the parent-child emphasis, but there's also a mystical quality to the film that seems drawn directly from Scottish folklore. Since this is Pixar, humor is also a big part of the movies, but most of that involves the fathers (Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane and Craig Ferguson) of the three suitors, who lock horns with King Fergus about the possibility of their peace treaty falling apart if Merida doesn't pick a husband. The film's greatest lesson is about taking responsibility for your actions.

Pixar has taken the Disney "Princess" movie template and turned it upside down and inside out. They've given us a rough-and-tumble heroine in a true adventure story that also has practical life lessons about not being in such a rush to grow up when the rest of world demands it of you, but still making smart decisions that can affect the rest of your life. But really what Brave is about is putting weapons in the hands of small children, and if you can't get behind that, you don't have a soul. There are also a couple of very scary animal attack sequences that are going to make smaller kids go running for the bathroom. You should still take your over-protected little brats to see Brave; I'm just giving you a heads up.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

I'm not sure if this new romantic-dramady had the desired effect on me that writer-director Lorene Scafaria (screenwriter of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) intended, but that didn't stop me from being endlessly charmed by its gentle, moving moments as well as its weirdly off-kilter humor provided by the likes of Rob Corddrey, Melanie Lynskey, William Petersen, Gillian Jacobs, T.J. Miller and the downright reprehensible Patton Oswalt. But at its core, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World asks very real questions about what we would do and who we would do it with if we found out the earth had only a few weeks of existence left.

The film opens with Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife sitting in their car, heading home, and hearing the news of a 70-mile-wide asteroid hurtling toward Earth. As if broken out of a trance, the wife simple unbuckles her seatbelt and exits the car, never to be seen again. Dodge is left devastated, still going through his daily routines at home and his office job. Coming home to his apartment one day, he runs into Penny (Keira Knightley, performing about as free and loose and lovely as I've ever seen her), whose significant other has also just abandoned her and left her with only her endless supply of vinyl LPs to keep her company.

As one might expect, the pair decide that they both have a few things they'd like to find closure with before they die, he with his first love in high school, and she with her family overseas in England. But what happens to them on their odyssey is often unexpected and extremely emotional as the reality of their time-limited situation presses down on them. Scafaria does a really beautiful job never letting things get too heavy or too silly. But perhaps most importantly, she presents this series of moments in the final weeks of Dodge and Penny's lives is such a way that it forces us to contemplate what our chosen path would be under similar circumstances. And she does so in a way that is actually quite empowering, even in the face of certain death.

I don't think there's ever really a question whether Dodge and Penny get into some desperate romantic entanglement. The most interesting and unpredictable aspects of Seeking a Friend... is what they do with the power that new love fortifies them with. For those of you who tend to avoid films that bum you out, don't worry so much about that. This isn't a movie that leaves you in the dumps; it's a quietly uplifting experience that allows you to care about its characters and their journey.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World writer-director Lorene Scafaria.

Dark Horse

Writer-director Tood Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) has always been a acquired taste, but his latest work, Dark Horse, is actually a little more palatable than many of his films, which all exist in a morally hazy world where we are often asked to sympathize with or even love some truly depraved characters. The resident unlovable in Dark Horse is Abe (Jordan Gelber), a mid-30s schlub of man living with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken, worth the price of admission alone), working for his father, collecting action figures and other toys, and generally avoiding any responsibilities around the home or office. He's also a highly abrasive asshole that would rather yell and complain than actually discuss.

As the film opens, Abe is at a wedding seated next to Miranda (Selma Blair), who seems half in a coma (we find out later she's power-dosing her meds) but somehow musters up just enough enthusiasm to give Abe hope that he has a shot at dating her. When they do finally go out, they have an so-so time, with him doing most of the talking, and he is noticeably more agreeable than at any other time in the film, so much so that at the end of the date he asks Miranda to marry him.

Dark Horse presents us with a character who seems somewhat aware of his own shortcomings, and lack of ambition and social skills, but who still manages to muster an unearned pomposity that seems to be the fuel that feeds him. For reason even he is unsure of, the cougar-ish office secretary (Donna Murphy) throws herself at him and actually seems to be stalking him at times, and he so confused that someone actually finds him worth this level of attention that he's never sure quite how to respond.

Even if Abe never really changed that much during the course of the story, he'd still be interesting with his completely resentful way of talking to everyone around her (except Miranda). It's impossible to anticipate just where the film will take Abe as he's asked to deal with revelations concerning Miranda's health, extreme layers of guilt he didn't know he possessed, and the ever-present sibling rivalry between him and brother Richard (Justin Bartha), a successful doctor and clearly the parents' child of preference. At times we aren't sure if what we're seeing is real or a product of Abe's warped mind; sometimes, I'm convinced it's a combination of the two. And this is Solondz's stomping ground, the place he positively owns as a filmmaker. Sometimes it is more important to understand a lead character than to like him or her, and Solondz excels at this type of storytelling. This may feel like a minor work from Solondz, but it's still a solid effort from a director who isn't satisfied until his audience is some level of uneasy. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Woman of the Fifth

There are few actors who play writers more convincingly than Ethan Hawke, but even he has his limits. In particular, The Woman of the Fifth exists in a surreal plain of the writer's mind. In it, Hawke plays Tom Ricks, an American author who had one moderately successful book published several years earlier and then went off the deep end in some fashion when his wife left and took their young daughter with her to Paris to escape him. We meet Hawke as he's arriving in Paris to try and see his child, but his wife calls the police the minute he shows up, and he goes on the run, hopping a bus to the end of the line and promptly falling asleep. When he awakes, his suitcase and all his money are gone.

He wanders into a bar looking for a room on credit, and the friendly owner lets him stay and even offers him a job, which involves sitting in an isolated, soundproof room for several hours, two nights a week, with a closed-circuit monitor and a code to buzz people in the front door who say the correct code word. When he's not playing security guard (and working on his new book, in theory), he manages to get entangled with two women: one the Polish barmaid (Joanna Kulig, recently seen in Elles) and an older, sophisticated widow (Kristen Scott Thomas) with literary connections that intrigue him.

As his story progresses, things get less and less certain about what is real and what isn't. Or is someone trying to make him doubt his reality? The film unravels like a novel, and for a while I thought we might find out at the end that Tom's story was actually the one he was writing (much like the plot twist in Swimming Pool). Polish director Pawel Pawlikoski (My Summer of Love) has great skill at creating works with thick inviting atmospheres, and The Woman of the Fifth is no exception. Still, the film is a bit uneven and unnecessarily complicated, so much so that it almost feels like the filmmaker lost track of where he was going to take Tom and simply threw up his hands in frustration.

In the film's final act, there's a murder that Tom appears to have been framed for, but nothing is that simple here, and the unsatisfying ending may be too disappointing for me to recommend what is good about the work. The performances are compelling and handle the weight of the cerebral material, but they can only support so much. There are so many better movies out there that unless you are a hot-blooded fan of Hawke or Thomas, you can probably skip this one. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 

Jeff Jennings / June 22, 2012 1:35 AM

Honestly, the vampire hunter movie just got me really excited for Batman. I just feel that Batman will be our first great movie of the summer!

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Feature Mon Jun 09 2014

I Grew Up in a Big Ol' Gay Disco: an Interview with Oli Rodriguez

By H. Melt

Oli Rodriguez is an interdisciplinary artist working in film, photography, and performance. H. Melt sat down with him to find out more about his relationship to Chicago, the city's queer history, and how it impacts his artmaking.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Aug 01 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy & Get On Up

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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