Review – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, 2012): Many modern genre movies have developed a worrisome post-modern tic, often rushing to point out their own ridiculousness before the audience even gets a chance to get swept up and taken in. The historical monster mash Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is profoundly silly – even sillier, possibly, than the title suggests – but it conducts itself with an admirably straight face.

Seth Grahame-Smith’s script (based on his own novel) finds the Young Mr. Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) set on a path of righteous vengeance after watching his mother get fatally fanged. As he studies the law and woos the ravishing Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) by day, the nights find him throwing down with an unending army of the undead. When he discovers the plot of a master vampire (the excellently dry Rufus Sewell) to conquer the United States, he makes the fateful decision to throw his hat (and silver-bladed axe) into the ring of national politics.

Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, the Night Watch series) brings a wide-eyed fervor to the material, offering tantalizing hints of a larger mythology while also glorying in the wonky kineticism of the plentiful action sequences. (He’s aided in his mission by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who gives the images an old-timey Viewmaster texture.) Scholars of the historical record may well develop the vapors, but for susceptible viewers, the film’s wink-free approach and exceedingly game performers make it frightfully easy to sit back, switch off, and bask in its poker-faced outrageousness. Many movies have had somebody thrown by a horse; this movie has a bad guy pick up a horse and throw it at the hero. Brothers and Sisters, there is a difference.  (originally published at Amazon.com)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – THE MUPPETS

The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011): Movies attempting to retrieve cherished nuggets of pop culture often stumble, either by appealing solely to the die-hard minutia enthusiasts or clunking up the batter with unnecessary additions to the base material. (Enough with the human love triangles, get to the giant robots fighting.) Thankfully, this revival of Jim Henson’s beloved characters gets the formula delightfully right, providing a googly-eyed nostalgia trip for adults while also retaining the original’s sense of bright (and mildly subversive) wonder. All that’s missing is a cameo from Shields and Yarnell, really. Kicking off with a boffo musical number, the story follows a boy named Walter (voice of Peter Linz), a small town boy with a uniquely personal affection for the long-retired Muppets. (Okay, he’s made of felt.) Teaming up with his brother (Jason Segel, who also co-scripted) and the local schoolteacher (Amy Adams), they attempt to get Kermit, Fozzie and the gang back together in order to save their studio from an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper, going all in). Director James Bobin (Flight of the Concords) does a marvelous job of updating and honoring his material, weaving sly references to days gone by (the contents of Kermit’s rolodex are a particular delight) into the mix of songs, celebrity cameos and barn-broad puns that gave the original show its bubbly kick. (Fans of Animal and the Chickens will not go home disappointed.) Even the moments that don’t quite work land with a cornball brio that feels wholly of a piece with Henson’s universe. The result is a true family movie that still brings on the blissful, uncomplicated grins days after viewing. The show goes on, marvelously.  (originally published at Amazon.com)

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2011):  The original Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle scored not only with its decision to focus on characters normally relegated to the comedy sidelines, but also with its delivery, wobbling from gross-out to absurdism with an organic late night randomness. The guys are still present in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, but the timing feels a little off, frustratingly lurching between highs and lows. Still, if one gag doesn’t grab you, just wait a minute. Kicking off with a timely 99% joke, the story finds once inseparable buds Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) now gone their different ways, until a chance reunion involving a Christmas tree brings back the haze. Bad taste abounds, including an amped up toddler, naughty Claymation, and a couple of anatomic close-ups that make the zipper scene in There’s Something About Mary look like a Puritan woodcut. Throughout, director Todd Strauss-Schulson gleefully makes hay with the 3D format, throwing every conceivable solid, liquid and gas out into the audience, while also making room for a few memorable bits of out-and-out strangeness. (The waffle-making robot deserves a trilogy of his own.) That said, the inspired bits do have to compete with more than a few dead spots, including a subplot involving Ukrainian gangsters that lurches right into a wall. Thankfully, the performers manage to keep things buzzing. While Cho and Penn still bring the lived-in funny, the series’ Trump card remains Neil Patrick Harris, who plays up his image with a debauched gusto that’s wondrous to behold. While this installment delivers enough laughs to justify a viewing, NPH’s outtakes could make for a perennial Holiday classic.  (originally published at Amazon.com)

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – In Time

In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011): As a storyteller, Andrew Niccol tends to think big, tackling heady subjects such as genetic predestination (Gattaca), the nature of reality (The Truman Show), and celebrity in the cyber age (S1m0ne). In Time, Niccol’s first film since 2005’s Lord of War, has a typically gigantic premise–a world where everyone over 25 years old must pay for every continued second of their existence–but stumbles in the execution. While the ideas are exceedingly clever, the telling isn’t especially witty. Justin Timberlake stars as a goodhearted but desperate minimum-wager trapped in a society where the rich are essentially immortal and the poor see their lifespan shorten with every purchase. (A cup of coffee costs 4 minutes, taking the bus also takes 30 minutes off of your life, and so on.) After being gifted with a century by a mysterious benefactor, he begins a romance with a beautiful socialite (Amanda Seyfried), whose father holds the key to the entire monetary system. Matters are complicated with the introduction of a relentless time cop (Cillian Murphy) with his own motivations for restoring the unnatural balance of things. Niccol has fun laying out the aspects of a world where even the elderly are genetically frozen at age 25 (the scenes where Timberlake interacts with his mother, played by a disturbingly spry Olivia Wilde, are an unsavory hoot), but has difficulty translating the ingenuity of his concept to a compelling narrative, which rapidly devolves into a mix of uninspired chase scenes and a succession of time-related puns that would have trouble passing muster on a Laffy Taffy wrapper. (The bad guys threaten to clean Timberlake’s clock. Repeatedly.) While science fiction aficionados will find much to chew on in Niccol’s askew reality, In Time never quite hits the marks that its own ideas suggest. As a film, it’s more fun to think about than watch. (originally published at Amazon.com)

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Reviews – The Thing, Thunder Soul

The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., 2011): A masterful combination of gnawing paranoia and shockingly overt glop, John Carpenter’s The Thing stands alongside David Cronenberg’s The Fly at the absolute peak of remakes done right: movies that honor their source material, while following their own unique path.  While this CGI tricked-out prequel can’t come close to equaling Carpenter’s slow burn, it’s by no means a disgrace, either. Much like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead revamp (also produced by Strike Entertainment) this version of The Thing respects its predecessors, while amping up the action-movie RPMs.  What it lacks in resonance, it mostly makes up for in enthusiasm. Set immediately before the events in 1982’s film, the plot follows a Norwegian/American research team (including Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, and Ulrich Thompson, amusingly made up to resemble the eggheaded scientist in 1951’s original The Thing From Another World) who stumble across the frozen remains of an alien spacecraft. One ill-advised defrosting later, and the dwindling crew find themselves facing a viral enemy that duplicates its prey.  Making his feature debut, commercial director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. admirably attempts to replicate Carpenter’s gliding camera and claustrophobic staging, with diminished yet still effective results. (Likewise the special effects, which, while inventively disgusting, lack the germy viscosity of Rob Bottin’s landmark work.) Thankfully, the filmmakers do prove remarkably successful at recapturing its predecessor’s sense of fatalistic xenophobia, with a slew of characters seemingly capable of Thinging out at any time. While the disquiet ultimately fades as the third-act explosions mount, this reverent redo succeeds to a degree that might give even scoffing purists a goosebump or two.  Keep watching the skies, and stick around during the end credits. (originally published at Amazon.com)

Thunder Soul (Mark Landsman, 2011): Some of the best documentaries arise from premises that, if fictional, would likely be jeered off the screen. Thunder Soul, the story of a beloved teacher’s lasting effect on his students, contains characters and events that seem plucked straight from the Inspirational Screenwriting handbook. But it’s all real, and pretty wonderful. Director Mark Landsman (with an assist from producer/narrator Jamie Foxx) tells the story of Conrad O. Johnson (known to his students as “Prof”), a Count Basie accompanist who stopped his performance career in favor of teaching music at an impoverished Houston high school. Under his tutelage, the Kashmere Stage Band became a sensation, winning national championships and bringing on the gargantuan funk in a fashion that still influences hip-hop. Nearly 30 years after his retirement, his students stage a reunion to show the ailing Prof his profound influence on their lives. The potential for melodramatics is certainly high, particularly as the rusty musicians scramble to meet their concert date, but the filmmakers cannily show restraint, using a mixture of found footage and interviews from admirers to pump up the emotion without ever quite edging over into sentimentality. Ultimately, what launches Thunder Soul into the stratosphere is its central subject, who, quite simply, comes across as one of the coolest people to ever walk the Earth. Sporting a beatnik goatee and a delightfully garish assortment of clothes, Johnson cuts an almost ridiculously magnetic figure, as a man so serenely secure in his abilities that it infuses everything within his general vicinity. The good vibes from him, and the surrounding film, roll off in waves. This movie should be played loud. (originally published at Amazon.com)

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – Restless

Restless (Gus Van Sant, 2011): After nearly 30 years in the business, Gus Van Sant still feels like a new filmmaker, approaching each project with an energy and clarity of vision that makes even his less successful films worthy of consideration. Van Sant’s empathy and lack of calculation keeps Restless from succumbing to terminal tweeness, but it’s an awfully close call.  Smushing together elements of both Harold and Maude and Love Story, the script follows mortality obsessed teen Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis), who meets beautiful cancer patient Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) after crashing a funeral. As the two prepare for Annabel’s last few weeks on Earth, Enoch’s own reasons for carrying on are called into question.  While both Wasikowska and Hopper do their best to flesh out their material, first-time screenwriter Jason Lew seems oddly reluctant to delve into the inner lives of his characters, focusing more on oddball Emo curlicues (Hopper’s best friend is the boardgame-loving ghost of a Kamikaze pilot) than what really makes these two tick. Thankfully, Van Sant does what he can to diffuse the ethereal whimsy. Shooting in his adopted home of Portland, the director successfully evokes a feeling of magic realism, indulging the main characters in their flights of fancy while also ensuring that the reality of the situation lurks just outside the frame. Viewers with a low tolerance for preciousness may want to look elsewhere, but Restless definitely has its moments, particularly when it cuts through the whimsically vintage clothing and talk about Fluffernutter sandwiches to hit a genuine vein of feeling. Rare is the director who can make an audience feel sympathy for an imaginary friend.  (originally published at Amazon.com)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – Dream House

Dream House (Jim Sheridan, 2011): Horror fans are by nature a forgiving lot, willing to overlook balsa-grade characterizations and visible zippers for a few decent jolts. When a scary movie fails to provide on that most basic level, however, the theater floor has rarely seemed so interesting. Released after riding the pine for nearly a year, the paranormal thriller Dream House is impeccably cast, handsomely mounted, and just as dead as dead can be. There are few hard and fast rules in the genre, but when the presence of two little undead girls can’t raise even a single goosebump, warm up the hearse.

David Loucka’s script sports a serviceable enough hook: After moving into a Thomas Kinkadeish new home with his wife (Rachel Weisz) and adorable little girls, a book editor (Daniel Craig) begins to receive disquieting hints that the previous tenants may not have left voluntarily. With the aid of a sympathetic neighbor (Naomi Watts), he begins to uncover the reason for the things bumping in the night. Those with a further interest in the story should avoid the trailer by any means necessary.

To his credit, director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, Get Rich or Die Trying) eschews cheap jump scares — this may be the only family in haunted house history to not own a cat — but fails to supply much of anything else in the way of mood, leaving the cast to wander dejectedly through the carefully applied cobwebs and just-so creaky floorboards. That the movie carries even a semblance of a spark is due to Weisz, whose anime-sized eyes and tremulous emotional shifts hint at a deeper, tragic tale. Unfortunately, her efforts can’t make much of a mark when pitted against a film that seems actively designed to ward off any bad vibes. If this story was told around a campfire, sm’ores would be thrown. (originally published at The Stranger)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized