MOVIE REVIEW – ‘ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER’

Call me crazy, but if you’re going to make a film titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you have a responsibility to the audience to embrace the absurdity of that premise and deliver a movie that’s fun, irreverent, and in no way serious.  Lincoln is unquestionably a very silly movie; the problem is Timur Bekmambetov – director of Wanted and the “Russian version of the Matrix,” Nightwatch – doesn’t know how silly his movie is, as he attempts to balance the ridiculous with the sacrosanct and fails miserably. For every ludicrous sequence of our 16th President brandishing a silver-dipped axe against the hordes of the undead, there’s a ponderous attempt to juxtapose monumental events in our nation’s history (utilizing actors in cheesy, glued-on chin beards) that completely sucks all the fun out if it.

This is a movie that features an incredibly insane sequence of Abraham Lincoln chasing down a vampire in the middle of a horse stampede, jumping and flipping off of the backs of the running horses! Then, thirty minutes later, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd Lincoln imagines herself in a better, Oscar-baiting Lincoln biopic, bawling, screaming, and pounding on Abe’s chest as their 4-year-old child Willie lies dead next to them after a sneak vampire infiltration into the White House. (Willie’s age at the time of his death incidentally – is historically inaccurate. He was twelve when he died of Typhoid, and the film never bothers to mention any of Lincoln’s other children.) It’s moments like these – and the attempts to shoehorn in events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates – that curse the film with schizophrenic shifts in tone, dooming it to misguided novelty status.

Benjamin Walker plays it painfully straight in the titular role, buried under laughably bad facial prosthetics that make him look like a young Liam Neeson (strangely enough, Walker actually portrayed the 19-year old version of Liam Neeson’s Alfred Kinsey in the FOX Searchlight biopic). This choice was no doubt inspired by Steven Spielberg’s desire to cast Neeson in his long-in-development Lincoln film (Daniel Day Lewis has since taken the role). He seems affable enough, with a Eric Bana-esque charm, but would it have killed him to cock his stovepipe hat and deliver a snappy one-liner to a vampire about having his head “emancipated” from his shoulders, just one time? His trainer/mentor Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) brings a bit more life to the proceedings with an edgy, proto-punk/goth approach to counter Walker’s stodginess, but not enough to raise the movie out of its self-aggrandizing mire.

Despite the woodaxe-flashing, vampire shrieking, numerous cheap jump scares, and all the flipping, twirling, slashing, Civil War-Fu, the action in Abe Lincoln feels static and pedestrian; Bekmambetov is still too beholden to the now rote and tedious fight choreography of The Matrix films, going to the dramatic, slow-motion well once too often. Yet, there are some truly fun and original set pieces here, like the aforementioned utterly ludicrous horse stampede, and the whole thing wraps up with a very impressive and visually spectacular vampire assault on a cargo train carrying silver bullets and cannonballs to combat the vampiric Conferdate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg. (Did I really just write that sentence?) The perennially smarmy and sneering Rufus Sewell as the main baddie, “Adam,” sets fire to the wooden supports of  the railroad tracks during the attack, creating a fantastic, fiery blaze and sending Lincoln and his freed slave buddy Will (Anthony Mackie) leaping from plummeting, flaming train cars. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter also boasts a beautiful, sweeping helicopter shot at the opening that transitions from the current Washington monument, to its half-built state in the 1800’s. In fact, most of the digital effects work here is solid, featuring some truly epic Civil War battlefield scenes and nice glimpses into our nation’s past, like the under-construction White House and Capitol building.

Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Little did they know that one day, their legacy would be warped and used for Summer entertainment cannon-fodder for the masses,with a grating, thumping dubstep soundtrack and buckets of demon blood.

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘SUPER 8’

When I was a young boy, Summer was filled with trips to the  soft serve stand, colorful spinning mag wheels on Raleigh BMX bikes, imaginary lightsaber duels in the backyard with green plastic wiffle bats, and  – since my family had no swimming pool to seek refuge in – hazy afternoons spent in air-conditioned movie theaters. Sitting there in the frosty darkness, I was entranced by flickering images from a golden age of kid cinema crafted by masters with names like Lucas, Spielberg, Dante, Henson, and Zemeckis.

No director defined this period of my youth more so than Steven Spielberg. In the wake of the fantasy-based, otherworldly Star Wars phenomenon, he told Earth-bound stories that, on the surface were about alien creatures and spaceships, but at their cores were heart wrenching stories of complex father/son issues; children dealing with living in broken homes; the bonds of true friendship; the loss of Mom & Pop Americana to corporate sprawl; and the struggle to keep creativity and cultural identity alive within the confines of suburbia.

Spielberg also mastered a beautiful visual trademark for his early films. Movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had an ethereal “fuzziness” to them, a misty dream-like quality that permeated every frame. Now that I’m an adult, I realize all of that was achieved through film stock, camera lenses, and diffused lighting, but my 8-year-old mind perceived only enchanting Summer magic. In Super 8, writer and director J.J. Abrams (LOST, Cloverfield, the Star Trek reboot), sets out to unabashedly pay homage to this long-lost aesthetic.  I’m delighted to say that he succeeds brilliantly; effectively capturing a sense of time and place  that is important both in a filmic sense, and in  personal manner for people like me who were coming of age smack in the middle of that era.

It’s best to walk in to Super 8 knowing as little as possible, but the basic story centers on 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) a budding effects makeup artist and model builder who is looking to spend his Summer helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish an 8mm monster movie. Joining in on the project are Joe and Charles’ group of friends, including the female lead Alice (Elle Fanning). During a scene at a small train station, a passing military train de-rails and crashes in one of the loudest, most dazzling displays of destruction and chaos you will see in the theaters this Summer. It was almost as if J.J. was trying to top the infamous crash of Oceanic Flight 815 that he directed for the LOST pilot. Amidst the fiery carnage, something punches its way out of one of the cargo containers and escapes into the warm Summer night. What happens afterwards is simply too good to spoil in any review…

Super 8 is not your standard 21st century Summer Blockbuster popcorn schlock. It’s not a hyperactive, crash-edited spectacle of excess. There are no gratuitous pans over the sweaty chests of bronzed starlets; no low-brow, slapstick pratfalls or talking animals; no national monuments obliterated by meteors; no garish, rubber-suited superheroes. It’s a film driven by friendships,  innocence, and memories of a simpler time. Scenes are paced slowly, but never feel tedious.  The camera is allowed to linger on faces longer; dialogue is delivered as if every line were of desperate importance, because Abrams understands that is exactly how it feels when you’re 12 years old.

Thankfully, the dialog never sounds forced or ponderous, and that’s mostly due to the terrific performances of Courtney and Fanning, who have absolutely magnetic screen presence. I was utterly transfixed by their sincerity, their innocence, and the purity of their blossoming relationship. These two characters are connected in a way that I won’t reveal here, but it’s heavy stuff which leads to some big emotional payoffs towards the end of the film. The pair handle everything thrown at them beautifully, especially Courtney, who at the beginning of the film is dealing with a very difficult family dynamic involving his policeman Father, played by Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler.

That conflict takes a back seat early on to serve as an undercurrent for Joe’s arc during the meat of the film’s running time, allowing the narrative to focus on his relationships with Alice, Charles and the gang, which was fine by me, because I loved these kids and wanted to spend as much time as possible with them. The young actors that make up the film crew are kids that anyone can relate to and remember hanging out with in the halcyon days- the shy one, the  group leader, the hellraiser, the nervous geek, the blockhead, etc. yet none of them come across as rote or underdeveloped. In fact, this batch of kids instantly conjure up fond memories of other fun child gangs like  The Goonies or – since this does take place during the 70’s – the squabbling Bad News Bears. (Cary, the group’s firecracker-obsessed loose cannon played with devilish glee by Ryan Lee, reminded me a lot of the Tanner character).Their chemistry together is just that good. It’s a joy to watch them making their movie, and simply being kids in a time before technology lashed them to gaming consoles and laptops.

Super 8 is unquestionably an unapologetic love letter by J.J. Abrams to  Steven Spielberg and 1970’s suburban nostalgia. Many people aren’t going to truly understand or appreciate what that means, but luckily for them, it’s not necessary to enjoy this magnificent piece of Summertime entertainment.  For two hours I was transported back in time…back to my room filled with Star Wars action figures, Mad magazines, an Atari 2600 attached to a dying 13″ color TV, and E.T. looking down on me from a poster on the wall. When a film can do that, you know you’ve just witnessed something very special.

EXCLUSIVE MTV ‘SUPER 8’ TRAILER

 

I’m a little late to the game on this, but MTV aired this exclusive new trailer for JJ Abrams Super 8 (which opens this Friday), during the Twilight Awards Movie Awards last Sunday night. I could not be more pumped to see some soft-lit, lens flarey, vintage 70’s-looking Spielbergian goodness this weekend!

ROBOTS GO ROCKY IN “REAL STEEL” TRAILER

J.J. Abrams’ production company is called Bad Robot. Abrams has nothing at all to do with next year’s boxing-robot drama Real Steel, I just thought the name sounded like a perfect fit for this Dreamworks Pictures futuristic-pugilist flick slated for an October 2011 release because a) it’s about robots and b) looks like it has the immense potential to be bad. Decide for yourself with the trailer below: Continue reading