Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov
Based on the Novel by: Seth Grahame-Smith
Starring: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Abraham Lincoln, a vampire hunter? Regardless of whether or not you count yourself as a history buff, the mere thought of America's 16th president killing supernatural bloodsuckers is an example of pulp fantasy history at its finest. It's just a shame that the CGI-laden Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn't live up to the entertaining potential of its title.

Based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the screenplay) and directed by Timur Bekmambetov, Vampire Hunter is never given the chance to let loose and have fun with the subject matter. Author and director make the curious decision of taking the tale seriously, the result being a slow slog through what ultimately amounts to nothing more than a fictional biography of a respected historical figure.

In the prologue, young Abe witnesses the death of his beloved mother at the hands of a slave-owning vampire (Marton Csokas). Years later, Abraham (Benjamin Walker) teams up with Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a man with his own ax to grind when it comes to vampires.

Henry informs Abe that there's been a rampant infestation of bloodsuckers since the Europeans emigrated to North America. The vampires, in particular, were attracted to the Deep South, where they fed off the bodies of African slaves and gathered under the rule of their 5,000-year-old leader, Adam (Rufus Sewell).
Erin Wesson and Benjamin Walker
Unaffected by sunlight (which they block out with the protection of sunglasses anyway just to err on the side of caution) the vampire race suffers from a severe aversion to silver -- something that Abe takes advantage of by wielding a silver-edged ax. Vampire Hunter (very) loosely follows the basic outline of Lincoln's life, from his time spent as a shoekeepers assistant to meeting his future wife, Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), to his political rivalry with Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk). 

It's the thought of Adam and his undead henchmen wreaking havoc across the United States that ultimately inspires Abe to run for office. The flick posits that he didn't necessarily sign the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery per se -- he did it moreso out of a desperate attempt to quell the tide of vampires controlling the United States. 

All of this sounds as though it would make for an instant cult classic. Alas, instead of a wildly entertaining and clever piece of tongue-in-cheek revisionist history, Vampire Hunter is as dull and lifeless as its nocturnal villains. If nothing else, it should be pure, unadulterated camp. Instead it's saddled with clunky dialogue and randomly inserted action sequences that try desperately to hold viewer interest. Only Walker and Sewell seem to be having some fun in their respective roles as Lincoln and Adam, yet even they can't rise above the plodding material.

Anyone looking for laughs or the cheap thrills that usually come with B-movie territory will be sorely disappointed. Vampire Hunter promises much and delivers little.

Why so serious, Abe?


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Movie Review: Brave

Brave (2012)
Directed by: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson

Since Pixar's debut with Toy Story in 1995, the studio has been at the forefront of quality family entertainment. Setting a new standard of excellence that appeals to both kids and their parents, Pixar forced other animation production companies to sit up and take notice. With a team of writers and directors with a keen understanding into what draws in audiences of all ages, Pixar has an unmatched ability to make you both laugh and cry.

With only one misstep in 12 features (Cars 2), the studio seems poised for another instant classic with the release of Brave, setting out to do something it had never done before -- centre one of its films around a plucky heroine. It's just a shame that the film doesn't quite live up to expectations.

Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a strong-willed Scottish teen whose tongue is as sharp as her archery skills are exact. With a tangle of the most beautiful red hair you'll ever see, Merida resists the attempts of her parents, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), to see her wed to a rival clansman to keep the peace. Shirking her royal duties, Merida enlists the help of a witch (Julie Walters) in an attempt to change her fate. However, in doing so, Merida unwittingly unleashes a curse that could potentially tear her family -- and the entire kingdom -- apart.

Brave is Pixar's most visually stunning film; arguably their best since Finding Nemo. The colours are so rich and vivid you can see every inch of their textured details, from Merida's wisps of red hair to the beautiful Scottish scenery. Even the unnecessary inclusion of 3D doesn't affect the overall beauty of this film. Every single colours pops.
Credit is also due to the writers for not doing the obvious in pairing Merida up with a young prince. She struggles for her freedom and her actions are thus rewarded. It was a wise decision considering that, above all, this is a story about the often tumultuous relationships between mothers and their daughters. 

However, Brave doesn't quite live up the standard set by Pixar predecessors, falling well short of classics like Finding Nemo and WALL-E. It's thin premise contains few jokes or rousing action sequences, leaving the middle of the film feeling a little aimless. It's a simple, straight-forward narrative and that may ultimately be the reason it doesn't truly excel. Although there are moments of drama and a few touching family sequences, Brave lacks scenes with the emotional wallop of the opening 10 minutes of UP or the finale of Toy Story 3.

We can only hope that, now that Pixar has broken new ground with a predominantly female-centred story (one devoid of a male love interest), that others will follow suit. Brave is still a warm and fuzzy family outing, it just feels a little lacking.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Movie Review: Danny Boyle's Frankenstein

Danny Boyle's Frankenstein (2011)
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

Push aside all thoughts of Boris Karloff, Robert DeNiro or even Peter Boyle. Last year, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle created a sharp, mostly faithful retelling of the classic novel for London’s National Theatre that was eventually filmed and screened for audiences around the world.

Working with a script from Nick Dear, Boyle returns to his stage roots with his take on Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein. In a pre-show behind-the-scenes look at the dress rehearsals, Boyle reveals that he took on this ambitious production in an attempt to tell the story almost solely from the Creature’s point of view – a risky venture considering the first half of the play has very little dialogue as the Creature grunts and moans his way to some semblance of humanity.

As a result, we see smaller, poignant moments that build on the Creature’s characterization, such as his obvious delight at the sight of the sunrise or how the thought of the moon makes him feel solitary. While cutting out the first portion of Shelley’s novel may be jarring to some of her fans, Boyle and Dear manage to narrow the focus and create a tighter narrative structure that rearranges certain pivotal events while still remaining loyal to the original text.

Right from the stunning opening scene, where a naked Creature emerges from the womb-like contraption in which he was created, Boyle’s Frankenstein holds our attention for more than 10 minutes as we lay witness to the Creature’s first fumbling steps. Without the additional narrative exposition of how he came to be, we are thrust right into the Creature’s story the very same way he is suddenly thrust into life.

The sparse sets leaves more room for the actors to breath and the very presence of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller’s performances fill the stage (and screen).

Miller perfectly fills the shoes of the arrogant Victor Frankenstein, his assured answers eventually giving way to his haunted inner torment and indecision over whether or not he could muster the courage to destroy his own creation. Just when you may start to feel a twinge of sympathy, he brushes away any thought of the sort with his cold conceit. He’s a tragically flawed figure who hastily decided to play God, only to be humbled by the fact that his own creation had to teach him about what it means to love.
Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein
In the more difficult role of the two, Benedict Cumberbatch is simply astonishing – completely inhabiting the character of the Creature. It’s a fearless performance. As Cumberbatch revealed in the pre-show behind-the-scenes interview, he studied the movements of accident victims who were learning to walk again. As a result, you feel the Creature’s frustration as he learns to walk for the first time, along with his desperation to communicate with words and his all-encompassing desire to experience love. Both Cumberbatch’s performance and Dear’s script make the Creature more than just a pile of contorting limbs – he’s a full-blown intellectual, a man who can recite Milton’s Paradise Lost by heart and muses over what it really means to love. It is mankind that shows him evil and teaches him about hate and the death of one’s soul, making the scenes where the Creature euphorically tastes his first meal and feels his first rainfall all the more bittersweet.

Cumberbatch and Miller play well off one another and their shared scenes are some of the play’s highlights. Both men recently won Best Actor at the Olivier Awards, handed out by the Society of London Theatre.

The rest of the supporting cast doesn’t fare as well in underwritten roles, with the exception of Karl Johnson (TVs Rome) in the role of the blind cottager that kindly takes the Creature in and provides him with an education.

In the final scene, as the Creature forces Frankenstein into a game of cat and mouse across the North Pole, both of their utter desolation is keenly felt – Frankenstein’s for his inability to overcome his pride and destroy his creation and the Creature’s for his failure to find someone to love him.

The two are destined to share their final days together as Boyle’s play hauntingly comes to a close with the image of their worn frames wandering away through the cold mists.

It's an extraordinary piece of theatre, led by two spectacular lead performances, that makes Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein an absolute must-see.

Note: Cumberbatch and Miller alternated roles throughout the London run. Both options are available to view on this international cinema tour.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Movie Review: Prometheus

Michael Fassbender 
Prometheus (2012)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and Guy Pearce

In one of the most anticipated blockbusters of 2012, Ridley Scott introduces viewers to a new kind of origin story -- an ambitious attempt from a well-established director who made a name for himself with 1979's classic, Alien.

The film opens on a high note, with an eerily human-like alien sacrificing himself for the "greater good" during the early stages of Earth's existence. The scene than jumps to 2089 where we meet archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) as they uncover strange star markings on Scotland's Isle of Skye -- the very same markings that have appeared in multiple locations around the world. They eagerly interpret this as an invitation to explore the dark, unknown recesses of space in an attempt to come in contact with the "Engineers" (a name which they use to refer to the alien race that appears in the carvings). With the help of an ageing benefactor named Peter Weyland  (a barely-recognizable Guy Pearce, buried under latex), Elizabeth and Charlie have a crew assembled on the corporate spacecraft, Prometheus, for a two year voyage. They awake from their long slumber on a dormant-looking planet and are introduced to the crew: Captain Janek (Idris Elba), sergeant Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and android David (Michael Fassbender), who bases his imitations of human behaviour after Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. 

Prometheus raises interesting questions about mankinds origins and the very foundations of our faith, yet stops short of answering any of its own queries. The film starts strong, making great use of its arresting visuals and two excellent performances from Rapace and Fassbender. However, by the halfway point the narrative begins to unravel, leaving dozens of loose threads behind. For what started out as such an ambitious and thought-provoking script, why stop short of putting the audiences mind at ease with answers to some of the bigger questions? Just who are these Engineers and what made them suddenly turn their back on humanity? With an obvious lack of motivation, the Engineers simply come off as exceptional-looking CGI creatures that add little to the overall plot.

The erratic pacing comes to a head in the second act as it becomes clear that Scott and his screenwriters, Damon Lindelof (he of Lost fame) and Jon Spaihts, are not entirely committed to tying up its loose ends. The film will likely leave most viewers somewhat confused -- and not in the brilliant way that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey weighs on the mind. It's lack of character development (and sometimes startling, out-of-left-field revelations about certain characters' backstories) and often incoherent narrative make for an uneven film.

Yet, despite its flaws Prometheus still manages to tell a mostly entertaining sci-fi story that is boosted by the very presence of the lovely Rapace and the coldly captivating Fassbender. If not quite the prequel we all had in mind back when Scott first announced he was returning to the Alien franchise, it's still the rare summer flick that generates heated and in-depth discussions from both its fans and its detractors. It's one of those films that is bound to divide audiences and disappoint hardcore Alien devotees -- but the performances of its two leads and its strong first hour still make it a worthwhile venture.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Written by: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray

For every fan of Wes Anderson's directorial efforts, there are the naysayers who brush off his whimsical comedies as emotionless trifles. While Anderson's style may not be to everyone's taste it's hard to deny the impact of Moonrise Kingdom's wonderful, poignant script.

Set on an island off the New England coast in 1965, Anderson's latest is arguably his best since 1998's cult classic, Rushmore. Twelve-year-olds Sam and Suzy (fantastic newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) fall in love and, after spending months apart while Sam -- a Khaki Scout -- is away at camp, decide to run away together. Suzy's parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) enlist a group of ragtag townspeople, from the Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) to the police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), to help them track down the runaways.

Anderson's sharp script and precocious leads envelope the film in a nostalgic embrace -- despite its fantastical elements it feels grounded in reality, reminding you of your first childhood crush. Suzy treks through the wilderness with her kitten, record player and favourite books to meet Sam, searching for a place to belong. Sam, an orphan, is eager for a sense of family, something he feels Suzy can provide. These two lonely kids are the heart of soul of Moonrise Kingdom and Gilman and Hayward have a natural chemistry together. The duo nail Anderson's dry, witty dialogue.

The rest of the talented cast is comprised of both Anderson regulars and a couple of new faces (Norton, especially, fits in comfortably, taking on a rare comedic role). Like other Anderson films, the stories he creates are detached from the rest of the world -- however, the issues that come up are relatable: first love, impeding divorce, depression and isolation.

In a summer filled with action sequels and comic book superheroes, Moonrise Kingdom is a welcome treat -- funny, sweet and whimsical. It's an elegantly strange confection.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

Charlize Theron
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
Directed by: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth

In a year when not one, but two, Snow White adaptations hit the big screens, you'd be hard-pressed to decide which of these two mediocre outings was more fairer than the other -- the kids flick Mirror Mirror or this decidedly more adult update, Snow White and the Huntsman?

This time around, first-time feature film director Rupert Sanders concocts an ambitious, if flawed, rehashing of the famous fairy tale geared towards the Twilight crowd.

Princess Snow (Kristen Stewart) is raised by her wicked and vain step-mother Ravenna (Charlize Theron) after her father dies suddenly when she's still a child. While Ravenna tears the country apart in her quest for eternal youth and beauty, Snow is locked away until her eventual escape at the age of 18. Ravenna, who refuses to allow the rightful heir to the throne to just wander the countryside raising armies, hires a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track down her whereabouts. What follows next is a meandering plot that involves a lot of long walks through various fantastical forests and a cluttered battle sequence as the grand finale.

Sanders is no Guillermo del Toro, nor is he even a Tarsem Singh, but, if nothing else, Sanders should be given credit for at least trying his hand at a more grown-up glimpse of an oft-repeated story. He has an eye for outlandish, fantastical elements and, combined with the costumes by Oscar winner Colleen Atwood, the movie has some visually stunning moments. It's just a shame that the script is so ploddingly dull.

It's Theron who rides away with the film -- her entertaining, scenery-chewing performance as Ravenna is the lone highlight. However, the plot comes to a standstill the moment the action moves away from Theron and focuses on Stewart and Hemsworth arguing their way through dark forests and fairy sanctuaries. Even an impressive who's-who of British acting vets in the roles of the seven dwarves are unable to liven the script (the heads of Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Nick Frost, among others, are CGI-ed over the faces of the little people doing the actual footwork, an unfortunate decision).

Ultimately, the story falters under the weight of its patchy script and lifeless performances from two of its three leads. With the non-existent chemistry between Stewart and Hemsworth, audiences wouldn't be blamed for wanting Ravenna to win and defeat them both.