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Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (6/23/12)

Movie Poster: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith

Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas

How long is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? 105 minutes.
What is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter rated? R for violence throughout and brief sexuality.

CLR Rating: 2/5 stars

Movie Still: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Benjamin Walker, as Abraham Lincoln, in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Photo: Alan Markfield/TM and ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Completely silly, thoroughly entertaining revisionist history swept under the rug by Pixar’s latest.

It’s sweltering throughout the southern US right now, and in hot weather people flock to theaters – it’s dark, cool, and often foolishly entertaining in there this time of year. On June 22nd, theaters around the country were packed with people anxiously awaiting Pixar’s latest (and from all the preliminary reviews, greatest). So when I waltzed into the theater showing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, prepared to scout out seats for myself and a few friends, I was stunned to see the trailer for Django Unchained playing to five hundred empty seats.

The great thing about an empty theater is that you can act out your own (not as awesome) version of MST3K, project your aggression onto the characters onscreen, and generally act like a fool. In other words, it’s the best environment in which to take in a movie like Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Fantastical revisionist histories are not a new thing (see: CSA: Confederate States of America, Red Dawn), but inserting supernatural beings into great literature (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies) and into the lives of America’s most beloved presidents is a fairly recent trend. In Timur Bekmambetov’s latest offering (penned by and based on the titular book by Seth Grahame-Smith), Honest Abe, that lanky gentleman with the top hat whose pleasant face graces our least valuable coin, is…well, what else? He’s a vampire hunter. Grahame-Smith weaves Lincoln’s passion for Abolition together with his other, secret obsession: ridding this great nation of vampires.

During the 16th President’s childhood in Indiana, Grahame-Smith writes, Abe got on the wrong side of a slaveowner as boy-Abe struggled to protect his black best friend, Will Johnson. Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), wearing darkly tinted sunglasses and a perpetual sneer brimming with ragged yellow teeth, is not just a simple Southern man; he attacks Abe’s mother in the dead of night, sucking the blood from her body as Abe watches.

Years later, a teenaged Abraham (Benjamin Walker, a perfect casting choice if ever there was one) seeks out Barts to wreak vengeance for his mother’s murder. So begins our nation’s forefather’s journey into the depths of hell – and one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve seen in awhile. Every vampire hunter needs a mentor (Buffy Summers has Giles, Blade had Whistler), and in Abe’s case the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) provides. Sturgess warns him, “No friends, no wife; you can have no one.” Well, as we all know, that isn’t how it worked out. Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was at the time engaged to senator Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), finds herself infatuated with Abe’s passion and sense of adventure, and before long the two are married. (As a side note, using “Firefly”’s favorite pilot and Scott Pilgrim’s favorite lady in one movie ups the nerd factor in a good way.) Lincoln’s life progresses the way the history books tell it – he becomes a successful lawyer, attains the Presidency, and has a son with Mary, all while struggling to keep the nation safe from the undead.

These undead, led by Adam (perpetually spooky Rufus Sewell), saw slavery in the US for its lucrative properties…but also as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Seeing as how people were effectively chattel, they made very easy targets for the bloodsuckers. These undead led the Confederate Army into battle – and how could the Yankees fight the immortal?

But that would be revealing too much. What you need to know about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is this: you’ll almost certainly enjoy yourself. You will laugh. The characters do unbelievable things with ordinary tools; they toss each other like rag dolls; they bounce back after mortal blows. You know that scene in every second action film where a hero and villain battle atop moving traffic, leaping improbable lengths while hurling objects at each other at the expense of public safety? Well, no one had mass-produced automobiles yet in the beginning of Abe Lincoln’s life, so instead there are mustangs (it’s brilliant). The final scene takes place atop a moving steam locomotive (Wanted‘s Bekmambetov enjoys trains).

I’m wary of 3D, as anyone who’s read my writing before knows. I blame James Cameron for this blight on cinema. It’s a scam. So few filmmakers know how to use it correctly, so few theaters truly understand how to accommodate the technology, that it often makes for a more frustrating moviegoing experience than plain old 2D.

That’s not true of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. 3D is a perfect venue for a movie like this one. Bekmambetov’s vampires have shimmering eyes whose effect is truly chilling with the extra “dimension;” their eyes glint like a cat’s in the dark. The filmmakers’ meticulous attention to detail graces the viewer with glowing cinders and floating dust motes that stir pleasantly to and fro in the depth of the frame. Further, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel evidently worked closely with visual effects crew to ensure that the movie is filmed brightly, starkly, so that the darkening effect of 3D glasses doesn’t detract from what you see onscreen.

The writing, while snappy and catchy, is trite and worthy of good-natured mocking. “True power lies not in hatred, but in truth!” Sturgess screams to Abe, as the not-yet-Pres sends a whole tree flying with one blow of his axe. “Men have enslaved each other since they invented gods to forgive them for doing it,” says Adam, threatening Abraham. As with Bekmambetov’s other films, the emphasis here isn’t on reality, but fantasy. The director’s signature speedy, frenetic zooms punctuate a film that’s smoothly paced and winkingly earnest. The characters perform impossible deeds in stylized slow motion so that we’re too enamored of how cool it looks to care that it’s impossible.

I won’t go so far as to recommend intoxicants to go along with Abe Lincoln. However, I can suggest that it might be even more entertaining, if that’s your thing. The empty theater on opening tells a tragic story of audience apathy, but you’ll come away satisfied. It’s not good; not by a long shot. I predict a small cult following, but only after the Brave hype dies down. Anyone who’s enamored of Bekmambetov will enjoy herself, and anyone who takes pleasure in revisionist history will love the intertwining of reality and fantasy (or is it fantasy?). It’s a fun movie for a hot summer evening – and after you’ve seen Brave (Because who are we kidding here? That’s obviously your priority), you’d probably do well to check it out. Or, you know, you can wait until DVD.

Movie Review: Super 8 (6/11/11)

Movie Poster: Super 8

Super 8

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Screenplay by J.J. Abrams

Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb
Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard
Kyle Chandler as Jackson Lamb
Amanda Michalka as Jen Kaznyk

How long is Super 8? 112 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Super 8

Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), and Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb) in Super 8.
Photo credit: François Duhamel
© 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Action-adventure flick throws us back to the days of yore, gives us something to smile about.

A group of plucky, slightly foulmouthed teenagers inadvertently witness the release of an alien creature onto their small town. They must subvert the sinister military presence to discover the mystery behind its origins, and soon they discover it only wants to go home. Sound familiar? Perhaps a little “E.T. phone home?” Well, Super 8 producer Steven Spielberg knows from whence he comes, and he and director J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) fashioned a summer movie that’s both homage to and a playful jibing at 1980s action/adventure filmmaking. Since the first full-length trailer released, people have guessed that Super 8 is a cross between The Goonies, E.T., and Cloverfield, and that’s exactly true. But luckily for us, those flicks were pretty great.

In 1979 in Lillian, Ohio, thirteen-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in a gruesome accident. He’s harboring a problematic crush on tall, willowy blond Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), and only just getting to know his gruff deputy father (Kyle Chandler). Meanwhile Joe and his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) are making a Romero-inspired zombie movie along with Alice and three friends. When they sneak off in the dead of night to film at a train station, the six teens witness a train crash that is certainly the coolest you’ve seen in years. While the accident miraculously only leaves them a little charred and jarred, the thing that escapes from an armored train car causes very real, very frightening troubles in Lillian.

The film’s opening features the Amblin logo writ large, the soaring bicycles silhouetted on the moon deliberately evocative of that other alien movie. Super 8 is a very purposeful throwback to early 80s filmmaking, from color scheme to tone to subject matter. Even more than that, though, Abrams and Spielberg made certain the camera itself plays an integral role in the film. Lens flares chop through characters’ faces, obscuring them in favor of reminding us we’re watching a movie. Blatant Steadicam is a continuous reminder that this is all playing out in front of a camera. The movie is sprinkled with dual focus shots, which are as jarring as they are captivating – and were heavily used by Brian de Palma in the heyday of 1976’s Carrie. Super 8’s title is derived from the most readily available home video film in that era. Charles’s room is adorned lovingly with posters for Halloween and Dawn of the Dead, and it escapes exactly no one that what’s happening in Lillian is exactly the plot of a disaster movie. The self-referential tone reminds us that we’re watching a movie that’s as much about aliens in small-town America as it is about other movies.

Abrams brought crew members from “Lost,” including composer Michael Giacchino and cinematographer Larry Fong, onto Super 8. Giacchino’s score seems to be aping those of Spielberg’s most frequent musical collaborator John Williams, but that works here. Fong’s experience occluding monsters in “Lost” and “Fringe” comes in handy; although a super 8 camera is the first thing to capture our E.T., we first see the creature in the reflection of a puddle. Just as it becomes maddening that we can’t get the bigger picture, Abrams finally hands it to us – and the creature won’t disappoint. Abrams wrote the script, which manages to balance wit, sweetness, and scares with aplomb.

Twelve-year-olds the world round will shortly be nursing a crush on Joel Courtney, whose infectious grin, floppy mop of brown hair, and button nose would’ve landed him on the cover of Tiger Beat twenty years ago. Kyle Chandler, AKA Coach Taylor on the brilliant “Friday Night Lights,” may be a one-trick pony, but damned if he isn’t great at playing a brusque but caring father. Elle Fanning, younger sister to Dakota (whose child-star trajectory seems the least disastrous of any recently, and who whipped out a great performance in The Runaways), captures the camera’s attention with her ability to change personas in a flash. Good genes and an almost eerie maturity must run in the Fanning family.

Super 8 is by no means perfect. It’s a little trite, a little sentimental, and glosses over a few plot points that should’ve been fleshed out. The military men are unreasonably evil – no Peter Coyote to play the friendly believer in uniform here. The Romeo and Juliet subplot that underscores Joe and Alice’s innocent romance could’ve used a little more development. The troupe of kids doesn’t quite have the rapport they did in The Goonies or E.T., but their reactions to catastrophe are charming all the same (the screaming, cussing, and puking are reminiscent of another period favorite, The Sandlot). Finally, this creature is no cute little humanoid that heals wounds, though our protagonists do form a psychic connection with it; Abrams smoothes over its penchant for brutality with a slightly ham-fisted attempt at humanizing it.

These small flaws aside (and they really are small), Super 8 is quality filmmaking. This is what a PG-13 summer blockbuster looks like. For those of us who grew up on 80s action flicks it’s a delightful return to form. Hopefully it will engage a whole new crop of kids and entertain their parents in the process. Smart, scary, sweet, and witty are not attributes you often get to assign to one film, but this one takes them all. We’re in the midst of a country-wide heat wave, so what better thing to do than retreat into a cool, dark theater and let Abrams and Spielberg thrill you? Go. Enjoy.

Movie Review: Kick-Ass (4/17/10)

Movie Poster: Kick-Ass

Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar, John S. Romita Jr.

Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass – Aaron Johnson
Chris D’Amico/Red Mist – Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Frank D’Amico – Mark Strong
Mindy/Hit Girl – Chloe Grace Moretz
Marty – Clark Duke
Katie – Lyndsy Fonseca
Todd – Evan Peters
Damon/Big Daddy – Nicolas Cage

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Kick-Ass

Aaron Johnson (as Kick-Ass) and Chloë Moretz (as Hit Girl) star in Kick-Ass
[Photo courtesy of Marv Films/Lionsgate]

A Really Entertaining,
Shallow, Ultraviolent Action Comedy

Kick-Ass doesn’t boast deep, meaningful characters, nor is it a film about the fate of the human condition—not really, anyway. It is, however vulgar, violent, and juvenile—a fun movie to watch. The film, which is based on a series of graphic novels by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., tells the story of a totally average high school kid Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who dons a wetsuit and decides to be a superhero. At first it’s all kind of a fun game. Dave gets shanked on his first real outing, of course—but after a long stay in the hospital and installation of steel-reinforced bones, he finds himself back in a position to, well, kick ass. Thanks to the YouTube revolution, Dave’s alter ego Kick-Ass makes 17,000 MySpace friends overnight and becomes an underdog hero. Then things start to get really crazy.

“Like every serial killer ever knew, eventually fantasizing doesn’t do it for you anymore,” Dave narrates. That comparison is frighteningly apt; sometimes giving yourself an alter ego is enough to unleash the id, and daydreaming just doesn’t cut it. Dave meets fellow heroes Hit-Girl (Chloë Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), whose idea of vigilante crimefighting involves machetes, katanas, every kind of firearm imaginable, and buckets of blood. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy have daddy-daughter bonding time over new weapons, the merits of Kevlar and hot chocolate (with extra marshmallows). However adorable their personal relationship may be, they have an agenda: they’re out to avenge Hit-Girl’s mother (Big Daddy’s wife) who died because drug kingpin Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) had Big Daddy locked up. D’Amico’s son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who hungers for his father’s power, helps lure Kick-Ass into a web of trickery by creating his own superhero alter, Red Mist.

Superheroes have long been the territory of comic geeks everywhere (though the aughties have been a decade of hero worship, what with the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman franchises taking over the world). Kick-Ass knows its history: it translates nearly word-for-word from the graphic novel. Director Vaughn stuck neatly to the cartoon aspect of comics: shots fade to Big Daddy’s hand-drawn comics, narrative bubbles pop up in the corners of the screen, a neatly animated sequence wraps up Big Daddy’s past, and sometimes the cinematography takes a direct queue from a panel. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s 2005 hit Sin City was a nearly shot-for-shot interpretation of the Sin City graphic novels, and while Kick-Ass isn’t nearly as anal retentive, the influence is clear. The filmmakers even inserted first-person shooter perspective to further combine elements of different media. And yet, the movie doesn’t feel forced or contrived; it’s a smart amalgam of comics, video games, and film.

Most importantly, Kick-Ass doesn’t pull any punches. The violence is hardcore, the cursing is constant, and the subject matter is not for the faint of heart. If you have an aversion to the f-word, the c-word, bloody violence, or an eleven-year-old girl brutally murdering bad guys (and taking a fair beating herself), avoid this movie. Otherwise you’ll be in hog heaven with the rest of the action- and comics-geeks. In video stores (do they still exist?) Kick-Ass would be comfortable in either the Comedy or Action sections. Vaughn and Jane Goldman adapted the books into a smart script, and each actor has fantastic comic timing. Watching two kids in superhero costumes rock out to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” may be the highlight of your week. Or a little girl in a plaid skirt kicking the living crap out of a bunch of scary goons might float your boat.

Relative newcomer Aaron Johnson plays squeaky-voiced Dave with gusto, especially considering the British actor played a New Yorker—and well. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who will likely spend the rest of his career trying to outgrow his role as McLovin in the brilliant Superbad, coasts through Red Mist on his geeky charm. Thirteen-year-old Chloë Moretz, who’s also playing the controversial child vampire role in this year’s American remake of Sweden’s Let the Right One In, displays wit, grace, and guts befitting a much older actor. This girl is definitely worth keeping an eye on. Her role is making news for its adult nature: she cusses and kicks ass with the best of them, and people can’t take that coming from a little girl. It’s refreshing to see a kid get to hold her own against the baddies. Nicholas Cage puts on his goofball persona as Big Daddy, unnecessarily adding an earnest and stilted quality to the character. Mark Strong bared his chops as a villain in last year’s Sherlock Holmes, and shows once again that evil doesn’t have to mean somber.

As a fun action flick, Kick-Ass definitely holds its own, but it sticks to the shallow end of the pool. With subject matter like this, so much more could’ve been done. For a movie about heroism in a generation of nonchalance, a flick that deals with the translation of video game violence into the real world, pits Freud’s id against ego against superego, and adds in a dash of coming-of-age, it only scratches the surface of the important bits. But its action sequences are utterly rewarding, the script is smart and entertaining, and it’s wide open for myriad sequel possibilities. Though it’s not the year’s best movie, Kick-Ass is a really entertaining escape into a world where the bad guys don’t always get away with dirty deeds and even the most normal among us have a shot at, if not saving the world, at least getting the girl.