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Need for Speed

With the popularity of franchises like “The Fast and the Furious,” it was only a matter of time before a film adaptation of the popular video game racing series “Need for Speed” blasted its way into theaters. Coming from a series that features only the thinnest of stories (certain installments had none at all), it should come as no surprise that the film of the same name is similarly thin and meaningless. But while thin stories can be forgiven in a video game if the gameplay is solid, it’s hard to look past it here. “Need for Speed” features a capable leading actor with the former “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul, but the movie he’s in is near disastrous.

Tobey (Paul) is a down-on-his-luck mechanic. He owns a shop, but also owes his bank a lot of money. Unless he comes up with a substantial amount soon, the shop will be taken away from him and his crew. As luck would have it, along comes Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a rich entrepreneur who offers him a job: to build a fancy car worth millions of dollars. Once it sells, he’ll receive a quarter of the profit. It’s an easy job and the car is quickly sold, but clashing ideas lead to macho threats and the two, along with Tobey’s buddy, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), end up racing. Dino, who will do anything to win, ends up killing Pete during the race and frames Tobey, who is put in jail for two years for manslaughter. Upon his release, he sets out to win a spot in an underground street race called De Leon, which he hopes will clear his name and prove that Dino isn’t the person he pretends to be.

“Need for Speed” does something that is very hard to do: it brings together parts that are individually very good and mashes them into something that barely functions at all. Aaron Paul, for example, is a better actor than the typical meathead you get in these types of movies and he manages to give the emotional scenes some validity, but those scenes are so overwrought that they’re hard to take seriously. This vendetta Tobey has against Dino is nothing more than a flimsy excuse for high octane car chases. You see, the De Leon race he wants to participate in is actually in California. The problem is he resides in New York, so he has to make the long trek across the country, all while cops chase after him for breaking his parole and street punks try to take him out at the behest of Dino. There’s a proper narrative beginning and ending, but no arc in between. It’s essentially one long car chase.

Tobey also has a passenger, Julia (Imogen Poots), the assistant to the guy who lets Tobey borrow his car to drive across country, which leads to a number of narrative problems. Never mind the obvious question of why this man would let a recently paroled felon borrow his multimillion dollar car to travel cross country to an illegal street race. The biggest fail that derives from this forced companionship is a half-baked romance that falls flat on its face, despite the two spending the majority of the movie together in that car.

Much of this is to be expected, of course. Films like those aforementioned “Fast and Furious” films too suffered from many of the same issues, but that franchise eventually found its footing by realizing its absurdity and embracing it. Despite reaching a sixth installment in what amounts to a pretty thin premise, the popular franchise has only gotten better because of this self-awareness. Conversely, “Need for Speed” is oblivious and takes itself far too seriously. Even its score fails to realize the nature of the film it’s accompanying. By itself, or in another, more appropriately epic film, the score is majestic. It’s a sweeping, beautiful score that fits this film like an adult trying to squeeze into a baby sized onesie. When the score builds and hits a crescendo during such trivial moments like when Tobey and his crew gas up his car without stopping, the realization suddenly sets in that “Need for Speed” has absolutely no clue what it’s doing.

Some visual trickery is the only pleasure one can derive from the film outside of its far too lengthy car chases and races, but even that feels out of place. Its over-stylization is most notable in the random “Vertigo” tunnel shots and when it takes a page out of Tony Scott’s “Book of Manufactured Excitement” with rapidly rotating cameras during otherwise quiet conversations.

But while the film is easy to look at, it’s not easy to watch. The things that work on their own don’t fit within the context of the film, so all it has to fall back on is fast cars, loud engines and macho posturing. That may do it for some, primarily car enthusiasts and those easily amused, but it will undoubtedly bore those who wish for something a little meatier. Isolate certain aspects and you’ll find something worthy, but bring them all together and you end up with the absolute mess that is “Need for Speed.”

Need for Speed receives 0.5/5


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

There are a few movies that should have been amazing as soon as the title was cooked up. Alien Vs. Predator is one of those movies. Cowboys & Aliens is another. This week’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is yet another, but like those movies that came before, it fails to live up to its intriguing premise, though “fail” may not be a strong enough word. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is as incompetent as movies come. It does maybe a couple things right while it botches a couple hundred others. From the largest of problems to the tiniest of nitpicks, the film is so well rounded in its ineptitude that it’s almost kind of impressive. I’m not sure the filmmakers could make a worse movie if they tried.

The story begins in 1818 where a young Abraham Lincoln watches as his mother is murdered in the middle of the night by Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Years later, an all grown up and still angry Abe (Benjamin Walker) sets out to take his revenge. He soon learns, however, that Jack isn’t what he appears to be. He’s actually a vampire. After a bullet in the eye fails to kill him, it looks like he’s about to face certain death, but luckily, he’s saved by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) who begins to train him in the art of vampire hunting. He takes many out over the years, but as the nation continues to march towards Civil War, he decides to put down his axe and fight with words. His actions aren’t easily forgotten, though, and the vampires, including their leader Adam (Rufus Sewell), are coming for him.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a campy idea given a serious treatment, which may be its biggest problem. Though not impossible to make a serious movie with this subject, it’s undoubtedly the harder of the two paths to take. There won’t be many who approach the film looking for hard hitting drama or emotional highs and lows. Most will simply want to see Abe murder as many vampires as possible, a reasonable expectation given the title, but the film focuses more on family dynamic and character relationships than anything else, which wouldn’t be a bad thing had that focus not been so laughably misguided. The dialogue in the film consists of lines like, “Real power comes not from hate, but from truth,” which makes the characters come off like prophetic caricatures (the kind that only exist in screenplays). These lines aren’t carried out in jest, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, nor are the moments where Abe develops superhuman abilities like cutting down a tree in one swing.

There are a few humorous moments, like when Abe’s eventual wife, Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) remarks how she thought he was an “honest” man, but moments like this are too on-the-nose to be effective. In fact, nearly every facet of the movie is like this. For instance, Abe’s eventual desire to free the slaves comes from numerous moments in his life where he witnesses the harm brought upon African Americans by their slave owners. The screenplay has to give him a reason to want to free the slaves, as if the fact that they’re not free isn’t enough. Another great example comes when the Civil War finally begins and the vampires decide to join the Confederates in their fight. But vampires are inherently evil; such a plot turn is unnecessary. The film goes to great lengths to make us care about or hate certain characters and its desperation is clearly evident.

Further proof comes when the filmmakers force in a late scene where Mary becomes angry at Abe for lying to her all these years about his vampire hunting hobby, which would be okay, maybe even dramatically interesting, had Abe not already told her earlier in the movie. It’s these kinds of egregious oversights that show the film’s lack of polish, though it’s really a small example when compared to its horribly choreographed fight scenes. For the majority of the movie, Abe does little but twirl his axe around while the vampires charge him. Once they get within proximity, he either kicks them or takes a swing. These scenes are filled to the brim with stylized techniques like slow motion, shaky cam and close-ups as he makes contact with his victim to hide the fact that what’s happening simply isn’t very interesting. A late scene on top of a train shows more promise, thought that too succumbs to similar deficiencies, like an excessive use of fog (and later smoke brought on by a fire) to mask its pathetic special effects.

There are a few moments that are so absurd as to be somewhat amusing, like when a vampire grabs the leg of a stampeding horse, swings it around and throws it at Abe, or when Abe’s sidekick Joshua (Jimmi Simpson) somehow manages to drift a horse drawn buggy, but they certainly don’t make up for a film so lousy it manages to elicit physical anger upon its completion. It should be near impossible to make such a terrible movie based on such an awesome title and idea, but somehow, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter manages it.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter receives 0.5/5