Saturday, November 3, 2012

Movie Reviews-Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Election, Blue Velvet, Deadfall

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
directed by Timur Bekmambetov
I actually read the book upon which this movie was based. I thought I did a review here but upon further research I just left a short blurb at a different site. I didn't really think the book deserved a huge review. Sometimes a book's or movie's title tells you exactly what it is about and that is definitely the case with this film. The book's author, Seth Grahame-Smith, wrote the screenplay and was a producer. Abraham Lincoln, retrofitted to be rather extremely anti-slavery and black-friendly, loses his mother at an early age to a vampire named Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). In this story line, vampires are relatively immune to sunlight and have only a few of the traditional signs of being undead. Bullets don't bother them and only total decapitation or bodily destruction seems to be able to kill them. Silver bullets, which are really more a werewolf vulnerability than vampire weakness, also kill vampires, but hey, who notices little things like that.

So, even though Abraham doesn't really believe in vampires, he knows that one killed his mother. He saw it happen though he's blacked a lot of it out. After his father dies, the adult Abraham (Benjamin Walker) is free to seek vengeance. But before he gets himself killed trying to get some getback, he is noticed and rescued by a mysterious mentor, Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) who insists upon training Abraham in the ways of vampires, their strengths, weaknesses and how to kill them. Sturges also puts Abraham through brutal physical training designed to make Abraham take a level in bada$$ so he can approximate a vampire's far greater speed, dexterity and strength. Sturges knows more about vampires than he should. Once he's convinced of Lincoln's capabilities he starts sending him as his own personal hitman to exterminate vampires across the Midwest.

Sturges urges Lincoln not to make any human connections but Lincoln of course meets and falls in love with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), makes a friend of his employer Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and rediscovers his oldest friend William Johnson (Anthony Mackie). Lincoln still wants some personal revenge against Barts but Sturges warns him that Barts is not even the most powerful vampire, that title belongs to Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his sister Vadoma (Erin Wasson). Of course Sturges is not telling Lincoln everything...

The vampires exist across the world but are disproportionately found in the Southern US where they just love the idea of cheap human life and are a driving force behind slavery and secession. A vampire dominated sovereign nation suits them just fine.
The film made regular usage of the slowed down-freeze frame-sped up visuals that were used to such tremendous impact in The Matrix and especially in 300. This can still be emotionally/visually engaging of course but the 5000th person to do something rarely gets the acclaim that the first or second person to do it does. What was stylish and cool and new in 1999 or 2007 is just expected in 2012. Don't get me wrong the fight scenes are okay but I never was quite able to suspend belief as I did for other movies. There's not really great chemistry between Walker and Winstead. The history stinks as it never really shows slavery as anything but what the vampires wanted. There is very little, well almost none, linkage of slavery to an economic and political-racial system that millions of whites supported.

This was a semi-fun Friday night/Saturday afternoon movie. It never really takes itself too seriously and neither should you. The special effects were decent, not great. It loses its way sometimes not really knowing if it should try to be a horror movie, action movie, fantasy movie or ironic comedy.

directed by Alexander Payne
With the election cycle about to conclude in the upcoming week I thought it would be funny to rewatch and mention this movie. It is a favorite. Much like life, not all the bad guys get their just desserts and it's really arguable as to who the real bad guys are here. It's a satire not only of high school with all of its cliques and rivalries but also of the entire political process. Good people do bad things and upon rewatching I've really changed my mind about who the real bad guy was anyway. Reese Witherspoon did a really good job in this film as her role requires her to not only be seemingly clueless about some very obvious things but also to act and look quite unattractive. The camera is not really her friend in Election but that is quite deliberate. Election may make you rethink your prejudices about some things as well as laugh at the reasons we vote for people and at the entire electoral process. And I think this also gives a great look at what Ferris Bueller would have been doing once he was grown up.
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a cynical but yet idealistic history teacher in an Omaha high school. He obviously doesn't make a lot of money. He drives a Ford Festiva. He tries to explain history and political science to uncaring students. One student in particular gets on Jim's nerves. Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) is the sort of irritating extremely ambitious aggressive person who takes everything seriously, is always looking for extra credit and wants to show what she knows. She doesn't do a lot of self-reflection and is an easy person to dislike. In just about any situation she's raising her hand to give the answer. The oh-so-cynical Jim doesn't like this, not only because he would at least like other people to show some interest but also because the underage Tracy previously had an affair with another teacher, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), who was a good friend of Jim's. Dave lost his job, got divorced from Linda (Delaney Driscoll) and is now persona non grata for any job involving children. Jim blames Tracy for this and is looking, unfairly or not, for any possible way to take her down.

An opportunity to do just that presents itself when Tracy announces she is running for student body President. Winning this office will help her college admission chances.
Jim is the faculty adviser to student government. Under the guise of claiming to protect democracy by not having Tracy run unopposed, but secretly just wanting to see her humiliated, Jim cajoles, urges and twists the arm of Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a injured football player and son of a very rich man, to get him to run for office. Paul is MUCH more popular than Tracy though he is nowhere near as smart or as hard working. He's nice though. We get to see some of the unfairness of the election process as support shifts to Paul, who knows absolutely nothing about the process and couldn't really care. Tracy and her hard working single mother put a lot of effort into making posters and cupcakes. They aren't rich. Tracy carries her mother's hopes and dreams. It all seems like it will go to naught. This brings much frustration to Tracy and massive joy to Jim. You may wonder if a high school teacher should feel this way.
But then out of the blue, equally motivated by nihilism, sibling rivalry and romantic revenge, Paul's younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) enters the race. She's determined to beat her brother, who's taken Tammy's previous lover as his lover and running mate. She wants to abolish student government altogether. Seeing his carefully laid plans start to fall apart, Jim takes more and more unethical and immoral steps both at home and at school. He's had goo-goo eyes for Linda for quite some time even though he tries to hide this from his own wife Diane (Molly Hagan). Do women always know when someone is trying to sneak a look down their top? In my experience they generally do though perhaps Jim would disagree. Jim is smooth like that you see. This all comes to a head in an incredible ending.

As mentioned although initial viewing sets up Tracy Flick as the villain and the denouement hints at that as well, you could just as easily see different people as the bad guy. Tracy breaks a few rules but certainly not as many as other people. If someone that you think of as unlikable does well playing by the rules does that mean the rules need to be tossed? Give that some thought and let me know what you think Wednesday morning. This is a wonderful satire and well worth watching. If you haven't seen it, please give it a look see.
Jim McAllister: Tracy, you're a very intelligent girl. You have a lot of admirable qualities. But one day maybe you'll learn that being smart and doing whatever you need to do to get ahead, and stepping on other people to get there... well, there's a whole lot more to life than that. And in the end you're only cheating yourself. 
Tracy Flick: Why are you lecturing me? 
Jim McAllister: This isn't the time or the place to get into it, but there is, for just one example, a certain former colleague of mine, who made a very big mistake, a life mistake. Now, I think the lesson here is, old or young, we all make mistakes. And we have to learn that our actions, all of them, can carry serious consequences. 
Tracy Flick: I don't know what you're referring to, but maybe if certain older, wiser people hadn't acted like such little babies and gotten so mushy, then everything would be OK. 
Jim McAllister: I agree. And I also think that certain young and naive people need to thank their lucky stars and be very, very grateful that the entire school didn't find out about certain indiscretions that could have ruined their reputations and their chances to win certain elections. 
Tracy Flick: And I think certain older people, like you and your colleague, shouldn't be leching after their students, especially when some of them can't even get their own wives pregnant. And they certainly shouldn't be making slanderous accusations, especially when certain young, naive people's mothers are paralegal secretaries at the city's biggest law firm, and have won many successful law suits. And if you want to keep questioning me like this, I won't continue without my attorney present. 

Blue Velvet
directed by David Lynch
I first saw this either freshman or sophomore year in college. It left an impact. I'm not qualified to say that this is David Lynch's masterpiece, though it well might be. It is however my favorite Lynch film and arguably of all his works the easiest (for me) to follow. Of course being Lynch, there are still a lot of confusing elements, dead ends and unanswered questions. This film also has Dennis Hopper at his most unhinged. His performance here is the stuff of nightmares and shows why great acting beats special effects every single time. Lynch won the Academy Award for best director for this film. Blue Velvet also showed that Isabella Rossellini wasn't just a pretty face and could really act.

Before I discuss the story I want to point out here that the cinematography is just at a level that many other directors would like to reach. The camera work zooms around the story and is almost a character in and of itself. The colors, man, the colors! There is astonishing use of the primary colors red and blue but also of black and to a lesser extent green. You haven't seen anything like this since Wizard of Oz. It really is that good. It's a film noir but in color. And even though it's in color it manages to bring across that 1940s-1950s style and look. I am always and will always be fascinated and impressed by artists, athletes and intellectuals who are at the top of their game and Lynch was in the zone here. One motif that he uses a lot is showing everything seemingly going okay then zooming in to show that actually what you think you're seeing isn't what you're seeing at all. Various types of disgusting insects run around on the ground even as a parade passes by. You may have showered this morning but your skin is even now crawling with various bacteria, viruses, insects and parasites. You look closely enough, nobody is really clean. The question is can you find someone who doesn't mind your dirt or has the same sort of dirt that you do.
The story can be understood on a number of different levels which is part of the reason that it made such an impression on me. It could be understood as a simple mystery movie, a sort of Hardy Boys come to life story. Then you could look at some really disturbing Oedipal/Freudian overtones that sneak up on you and smack you in the back of the head before you know what hit you. It has elements of parody so maybe Lynch is giving a big middle finger to Middle American fantasies of clean living and happy families. There's homoerotic (homophobic??) subtext. And lots more. Every time I watch this film I come away with different insights. My latest take is that the film is just a metaphor for awakened sexuality. Just as his father was temporarily felled by a blockage, Jeffrey must remove the blockage or wall between his good desires and his bad ones in order to truly become a grown man. Maybe.
Anyway the story. Yeah. College student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan) returns home to his Northwest America small town home of Lumberton after his father suffers a stroke. Walking back to his childhood home he finds a severed ear in the field. Being the conscientious young man he is he takes the ear to the local police detective, John Williams (George Dickerson), who rather laconically tells Jeffrey "That's an ear alright" but tells him that his involvement is now over. Unsatisfied, the next night Jeffrey shows up at the detective's house to get more details but the detective doesn't let much slide, telling him again these are police matters. However in a amazing scene that shows light coming from darkness the detective's daughter Sandy (the future Mrs. Ben Harper, Laura Dern) comes forth to talk to Jeffrey as she is interested in any excitement that's going on in her dull town. She may or may not have had a crush on Jeffrey when they were in high school. Sandy is most definitely virginal. She tells Jeffrey that some of her father's investigation centers around a mystery woman named Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini)

That's all Jeffrey needs to hear. After he and Sandy see Dorothy sing at a night club, Jeffrey decides to break into Dorothy's apartment to spy on her. His interests aren't necessarily strictly platonic as the older Dorothy sort of defined MILF before the term became widely popularized. Dorothy gets home and starts to undress while Jeffrey watches from the closet. She hears him, grabs a butcher knife and then forces him to undress while she is (ahem) starting to please him. At that point however one of the scariest thugs in film history, the unremittingly profane and constantly hostile Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) makes his appearance. Jeffrey is forced to hide in the closet again while the somewhat insectoid Frank beats, verbally humiliates and sexually assaults Dorothy. Frank has kidnapped Dorothy's husband (the source of the ear) and son. Jeffrey starts to follow Frank to find out what his links and connections are. He finds himself drawn to Dorothy, who may actually like things rough. When Jeffrey tries to take things further with Sandy he is sweetly shot down and turns to Dorothy who demands things I won't detail. Eventually though the paranoid Frank catches Dorothy and Jeffrey together and from there the movie hits the afterburners. 

The film really plays up the classic stereotype of the blonde innocent naif and the sexier darker brunette. Some of Sandy's scenes are played so straight it's hard to believe they weren't meant as parody. And some of Rossellini's scenes are hard to take. They are almost a forerunner of ugly scenes that a later Italian bombshell, Monica Bellucci, would do in the film Irreversible.  And as mentioned the connection between Frank and the nasty bugs that root through the dirt and the s*** on the ground is beat into your head. I have never known anyone like Frank but if I did I would shoot first and ask questions later. Frank is the human equivalent of a cockroach. This was fantastic work by Hopper. Evidently he drew in part on his own experiences with drug abuse and out of control activity to fill out Frank's attitude and behavior. For David Lynch, small Reaganesque towns can hide a lot of dirty secrets. Dean Stockwell and Brad Dourif have small roles.
What Kind of Beer do you like?

directed by Stefan Ruzowitzy
This heist and family secrets film is something of a mixed bag. It features Olivia Wilde in various states of undress which has to count for something. But the black guy dies first. Heck the black guy dies literally not 2 minutes into the movie. It's like the director just couldn't wait to kill him.  Can I kill him yet? How about now? Okay how about now? Oh come on!!! Again, if black people routinely created movies in which everybody white died almost immediately I think white people would start to say "Hey! What's going on here??"  Also Deadfall is set in Michigan which gets bonus points but it's very obviously shot somewhere besides Michigan (Quebec). That's excusable but what's not excusable is that the bad guys (well guy and girl) keep talking about trying to make it to the Canadian border. And they're heading north after having pulled a casino robbery in Mt. Pleasant. Um Newsflash. Michigan, if you hadn't noticed is a PENINSULA. It's not like Texas and Mexico where you can literally walk across a very long border. There are only four Michigan-Canada border crossings and they're all either bridges or tunnels. Unless you cross at one of those you'd better be prepared to do a LOT of swimming or walk across sizable and unstable expanses of ice during the winter. And from where they pulled the robbery it's arguable as to whether they'd be just as well off heading south to go to Canada. 


Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) are a brother and sister crime team who have robbed a casino in Mt. Pleasant. They're heading north when their partner and getaway driver, aforementioned disposable black guy, hits a deer or just is driving too fast and they have an accident. When a cop shows up to help Addison shoots him. He then tells baby sis that they had better split up for a while, which they do but not before Addison takes an appreciative, extended and unbrotherly look at Liza's curves as she changes clothes. Evidently these two are Lannisters.

Liza is waiting for a ride. Of course women who look like Olivia Wilde don't have to wait long. She gets picked up by thug ex-boxer with a heart of gold Jay (Charlie Hunnam). Jay is not too bright. He just got out of prison (but the subtitles say jail so it's unclear) for shenannigans involving a fixed fight. I say Jay is not too bright because as soon as he gets out he goes to beat up his shady promoter/trainer who had him take the fall and stole his money. On the run again Jay heads to his parents' home for Thanksgiving. His parents are played by Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson. Their names really aren't that important for this review. Jay is estranged from his father over decisions made in his boxing career.

Despite having killed a cop and then killing another man for his snowmobile, Addison is actually a man who doesn't like people who abuse women. In something of a contrivance he just happens to run across a stereotypical woodsman who beats his wife. Addison removes him from the planet and starts checking for messages from baby sis. 
After brief flirtations and cryptic storytelling (i.e. someone hint, hint, hint, killed her sexually abusive father when she was a little girl) Liza decides to share her cherry pop with Jay. Enthusiastically. Repeatedly. In various positions. This however doesn't stop her from calling Addison and telling him where to meet her. And the local sheriff at the town where everyone will meet up is Sheriff Becker (Treat Williams) who is not too crazy about having women on the force, even if the woman in question is his daughter Hanna Becker (Kate Mara in a deliberately deglamorized role) Hanna is a friend to Jay's family and once may have been more to Jay. But now she's dealing with her father's sexist insults, the quiet contempt of her co-workers and deciding if she wants to leave this podunk town and become an FBI agent.

This was like a low rent Fargo. The actors all did a good job with what they had but they didn't quite have enough. It was ok but not a must see. It was fun to watch Eric Bana as a bad guy.

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