Talking Movies

June 20, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D

Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov returns to the fray with Tim Burton producing an adaptation of his Dark Shadows cohort Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling novel.

In 1818 the 9 year old Abraham Lincoln tries to stop the whipping of his friend Will Johnson as Will’s family is sundered by slavers led by the evil Jack Barts (LOTR actor Marton Csokas), incurring the wrath of Barts who kills Abe’s mother Nancy. The adult Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) attacks Barts only to discover, in a neat long-take, that shooting him in the head isn’t enough… Lincoln is instructed in the art of slaying by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), and in 1837 is dispatched to Springfield, Illinois, to rid the city of vampires. He is distracted from his vengeance by meeting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and, when Will (Anthony Mackie) returns, Lincoln and his employer Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) enter politics to defeat slavery and the Southern vampires, led by Rufus Sewell’s Adam, who depend upon its continuation.

Far from the gleeful nonsense you’d expect, this film takes itself very, very seriously. The vampires are CGI enhanced ‘fangs like sharks’ monsters (think Supernatural) and played for horror as they walk in sunlight and can become invisible. Lincoln narrates that Henry has a few weeks to teach him a lifetime of skills. The same could be said of the jump-cutting script: Sturgess trains Lincoln in a Batman Begins vein before either character has been properly established. This film amazingly is both dragged out (its 105 minutes feel like 135) and rushed – at the same time. It lashes thru training, slaying, politics, and civil war, with infuriating gaps in detail, empathy and logic. Speed seems to know Abe’s secret before he’s told, Sturgess’ secret is obvious from the opening scene, Barts is seemingly killed, and Harriet Tubman appears but nobody mentions it…

There are precious few gags, and only the broadest one works: “We’ll be late for the theatre.” Alan Tudyk is tragically underused as Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s bête noire, here a romantic rival who becomes a political opponent, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead has her customary ‘MEW kicks ass’ moment, but the set-piece finale on a train exemplifies the film; just a bit stupid rather than OTT fun. Sewell enjoys himself and model Erin Wasson is a striking presence as his sister Vadoma but, like Walker (and indeed everyone bar Cooper who has the most interesting role), they have acres of screen-time and nothing interesting to do. Having read Adam Gopnik’s book which highlights the comic absurdity of Lincoln condemning the Southern code of vengeance and then duelling for Mary’s honour I have to say the real Lincoln is infinitely more complex, compelling, and yes, entertaining a character.

This film takes the most enjoyably absurd high concept imaginable, but instead of being delirious mayhem somehow ends up being just dull.

2/5

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July 25, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Franchise

Shia LaBeouf is done. Michael Bay is done. Transformers as a franchise is not done. But maybe it ought to be…

Whispers (by which I mean the usual incessant briefings by publicists) abound that Jason Statham is about to assume the lead role in the Transformers franchise and take it in ‘a darker direction’. While it’s always nice to see ‘The State’ in action movies, the last thing this franchise needs is to go any darker. It’s positively screaming out for a reboot to the sunnier climes of its original vision. And yes, I am aware that talking of something needing a reboot to capture the halcyon era of four years ago is a new level of preposterousness, but it’s justified. The third act of Transformers 3 is so dark as to resemble Independence Day by way of the back-stabbing betrayals by humans collaborating with exploiting aliens of Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD rather than the fun of 2007’s Transformers. This is amplified by very questionable touch of District 9 in the Deception guns that vaporise flesh so that piles of bones fall to the ground after they shoot people.

Ehren Kruger has written a script that, like his Scream 3 which also featured Patrick Dempsey, is structurally very sound and has any number of nice touches, but which fundamentally strays from the existing tone of the franchise.  Kruger’s rewriting of the space race as a cover story for a covert mission to retrieve an alien artefact, and the meltdown at Chernobyl being a disastrous attempt to utilise that alien technology, works as well as X-Men: First Class’ similar slyness. Patrick Dempsey impresses as two kinds of villain, the romantic rival who has more money and power to impress the girl, and the Quisling of smooth collaboration and self-justificatory villainy. The comedy with Ken Jeong maniacally harassing Sam, John Malkovich chewing scenery as Sam’s eccentric colour-coded boss, and Alan Tudyk freaking out as John Turturro’s unhinged PA is all very funny….but it’s insane; you’re laughing nervously because this doesn’t fit in with the rest of film almost as much as you’re laughing because it’s funny.

Kruger’s comedy is a style of humour which is entirely different from the comedy of the first film which organically grew from the characters around who an action story suddenly took place. This lack of organicism is a problem unwisely highlighted in-camera when Frances McDormand’s spook tells Sam he really has no function in this story, and sure enough Sam later inserts himself into the storyline by sheer perseverance rather than any interior logic. A greater problem is the discordant note struck by Kruger’s approach against Kurtzman and Orci’s template. It’s always embarrassing to remember just how juvenile a director the middle-aged Michael Bay is, but the ogling of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (all low-angle shots and short skirts) is different than that of Megan Fox, because it lacks the nod and wink self-awareness of Kurtzman and Orci’s script. It’s as if Kruger has no interest in semi-apologising for this nonsense. Bay’s lingering introductory shot of Huntington-Whiteley is, fittingly, of her arse, which is what her performance is a load of, to paraphrase Shirley Manson. But this can be forgiven as just Bay being Bay…

What is unforgivable, after the disastrous introduction of so many non-characterised or racially caricatured robots in the last film, is that Kruger doesn’t retrench and try to fully utilise the original Transformers, but instead retains racially caricatured characters and then (like a LOST scripwriter) continues to hoover up yet more new characters. I’ve complained about this before but Kruger here reaches the apotheosis of this franchise’s incomprehension of the riches available in the Transformers comics. Sentinel Prime may be from the comics but so is Shockwave, and he’s outrageously wasted in the film when in the comics he has the most distinctive style of delivery of any Transformer bar Grimlock and is a wonderfully nuanced villain. Kruger’s shocks are effective but the killing of Ironhide is incredibly gimmicky and the weak exits of Starscream and Megatron from the franchise are disgracefully disrespectful to their characters’ status in both the comics and the previous films, and, in Megatron’s case, as tonally wrong as Burton’s Batman dispatching the Joker. But then how Optimus finally deals with Sentinel plainly belongs in a macho action movie for adults, not a sunny blockbuster for children. Characters gushing blood oil, having limbs parts torn off, and their spines CPUs torn out is too much. The darkness makes this film feel loooong…

Transformers was a cartoon series designed to sell toys by creating archetypal characters who had entertaining adventures. The comics injected cod-Shakespearean parallels and ended in traumatic apocalypse but they were also great fun. Surely the film-makers could remember their true target audience and lighten up a bit…

September 28, 2009

Pandorum

There’s an intelligent sci-fi film in here somewhere but it’s bludgeoned to death by the typical Paul WS Anderson computer game approach.

Ben Foster, Henchman of the Year in my 2007 Film Awards for his psychotic turns in 3:10 to Yuma and 30 Days of Night, graduates to leading man status and acquits himself well. However he does so in a film that lifts large chunks from Joss Whedon’s 2005 film Serenity. Perhaps the passing physical resemblance between Foster and Serenity’s Alan Tudyk saw writer/director Christian Alvart suffer some unconscious free-associating while co-writing the script about psychotic cannibals in outer space.

Foster plays the unintentionally hilariously named Corporal Bower (pronounced Jack Bauer) who awakes from hyper-sleep on the super-space ship Elysium some hundreds of years from now to find something has gone badly wrong with the power, navigation systems and crew… He wakes his commanding officer Lt Payton (Dennis Quaid) and their struggle against amnesia regarding their identities, mission, and the basic functions of the ship’s equipment is all nicely intriguing before Foster sets off on a trek to fix the nuclear reactor. At this point he meets Antje Traue, who plays the obligatory busty scientist with a tight top, greasy hair and kung-fu skills, and Cung Le, the token Asian character, who gardens when not being a ninja. Predictably enough getting to the nuclear reactor involves completing a number of levels first, sorry, navigating a number of layers of the ship.

These levels are populated by the CGI villains, who appear to have strayed in from I Am Legend, but are still terrifying. I hate fast-moving scary monsters, you should see me squirm when demons move in missing frames every week in Supernatural. Meanwhile back on the secondary bridge Dennis Quaid once again proves that he is a remarkably under-appreciated screen presence as he tries to guide Foster thru the ship, before another crew member appears… Twilight villain Cam Gigandet does surprisingly well in what is basically a two-hander against Quaid. Gigandet has a pretty boy physique but his eyes somehow always hint at something deeply sinister, a fabulous asset in a film which plays on the fact that memory-loss is endemic among the crew and no-one knows just what happened to the ship. Gigandet’s scenes with Quaid are more interesting than the running from cannibals action as they both start to get paranoid and accuse the other of suffering from Pandorum, a wonderfully conceived deep-space illness that starts as an uncontrollable twitch of the hand before escalating to a certainty that the ship is cursed leading to a suicidal mass-evacuation of hyper-sleep pods into the empty wastes of space.

Alvart’s film can be very clever, especially in its creation of a very plausible future Earth riven by conflict over food-supplies, or the tiny touch of laser-shaving, but producer Anderson’s trademark drivel sinks it.

2.5/5

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