‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ is a guilty pleasure; ‘Brave’ disappoints.
My fellow film critics and I tend to use previous films of a similar genre to compare and contrast the worthiness of the latest entry in that genre. However, when your film is titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, there isn’t much hope of finding a similar effort for a side by side comparison. After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is still in production, and, like this film, is based on a novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the screen adaptation of his novel.
Then it hit me. A standard historical drama that has a head-on collision with the utmost silliness and tries to play it straight; darn if that doesn’t describe last summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. Unfortunately, that film was a badly written mess, while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is oddly endearing.
Chalk this up as a guilty pleasure thanks in large part to the excellent visual imagery provided by director Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian-Kazakh film director known for two cult vampire Russian movies, Night Watch and Day Watch, as well as his action-packed American film debut Wanted. His vampires’ mouths look like piranhas going in for the kill rather than the tame fangs we’ve come to expect from the Twilight series and the like.
The other element that keeps us engaged is the excellent title performance by Brit Benjamin Walker. His Abraham Lincoln is but a boy when he is traumatized by the death of his mother. His initial foray into vamp hunting as a young man is based on a thirst for vengeance. He doesn’t know his mother’s killer, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), is of the living dead variety until he finds out a bullet in the brain won’t kill the blood-sucking freak.
Lincoln manages to escape thanks to help from a devoted vampire killer named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who takes him under his wing in true Karate Kid fashion showing him how to wield an ax for maximum vampire killing power.
Why this works is that the story outside the vampire zone sweet spot is played straight and with some heart. His courtship of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is understated and effective, and his decision to go into politics seems like a reasonable day job to go with his night job.
Director Bekmambetov creates truly unusual action sequences — a showdown between Honest Abe and Barts in the middle of a horse stampede is particularly inventive. But beyond the director’s inventive technique when it comes to vampire action, the film works because this version of Lincoln, despite his secret obsession, still feels like the president we revere from history, a true hero who believes in what is right, and that includes freeing slaves and slaying vampires.
Yes, I just wrote that last sentence with a straight face.
Not So ‘Brave’
The latest Pixar animated adventure is Brave, set in medieval Scotland. The film was considered a risk since the animated heroine is a willful teenage girl Merida (voiced by Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly MacDonald), the idea being young boys would not be interested. The success of The Hunger Games perhaps squashed the notion that a young girl with archery skills would be a turn-off. However, what is a turn-off is the petulance of our heroine, in particular something she does to a family member (being vague on purpose so as not to spoil the twist) that makes her far from brave, it makes her selfish and petty. These are not characteristics one wants in a heroine we are expected to champion. The film features the gorgeous animation we would expect from the talented Pixar animators, but the story dampens the effectiveness of those visuals.
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