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Entries in Mary Elizabeth Winstead (3)

Friday
Jun222012

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

Friday
Oct142011

The Thing

The Thing is a franchise that continually defies expectations. The 1951 original, The Thing from Another World, escaped the usual silliness of man-from-space pictures of the time period with strong central characters and a couple of impressive horror set pieces. In 1982, John Carpenter released his take on the story, simply titled The Thing, that managed to be one of only a select few remakes in movie history that improved on the original in almost every way. What it may have lacked in characterization, it made up for with unrelenting terror. It was a masterful display of suspense and it still holds up today. Then in 2002, Carpenter’s film got a terrific video game sequel that surprised gamers everywhere by breaking the trend of poor licensed video games. Now in 2011, we get a prequel to Carpenter’s film, also titled The Thing, that any person would rightfully expect to be lousy, but it’s not. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but it works and does so in a different way, separating itself from Carpenter’s version while still retaining its style. This is a franchise that can do no wrong.

The film takes place days before the events of 1982’s The Thing at a nearby Norwegian camp in Antarctica where a team of scientists have just found an alien spacecraft and a specimen frozen in the ice. To help unearth and examine it, they enlist the help of American paleontologist, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who soon realizes that the cells of the creature aren’t dying and are able to fuse themselves with the cells of other living creatures, replicating them perfectly. After it escapes, it’s a game of wits as nobody in the compound can trust anybody else. Any of them could be the thing.

The idea of not knowing who is a person and who is a thing was the driving the force behind Carpenter’s movie and the same is true here, though to a lesser degree. Although technically a prequel, it feels like a remake of the remake, following in its footsteps to a tee, including the lock-up of suspicious characters in a cabin outside and a variation on the blood test scene to check who is a monster and who isn’t, but it’s done well, building a good amount of tension and excellently playing off the fears of paranoia and claustrophobia. These early moments are undoubtedly its high points.

Eventually, however, it succumbs to monster movie madness and becomes nothing more than a gross-out creature feature. It becomes more jumpy and more effects oriented and thus, less effective. The tension is replaced by loud, overblown spectacle and the characters spend less time worrying about who is a thing and more time running from them, but it never gets boring. Because the movie has spent its early moments focusing on the characters, the sense of peril remains. You’ve come to care about them and even though the mystery is gone and the suspense is fading, its outcome remains as emotionally important as ever, despite the fact that, thanks to its prequel status, it had already been decided.

Where The Thing falters the most is in its climactic moments where it gets a bit too Hollywood and shows us too much. To go further would be critically irresponsible, but it ends up raising more questions than it answers, which is baffling given that it won’t ever have the chance to answer them (short of shooting a sequel separate from the Carpenter movie). Still, as far as these things go, this is pretty good. Creature features are generally silly, redundant and ineffective. The Thing proves not all creature features are created equal.

The Thing receives 4/5

Friday
Aug132010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Video games are rarely talked about in the movie world. When they are, it’s usually with contempt. Most adaptations of hit games are mind numbingly bad and Roger Ebert writes video games off as nothing more than worthless entertainment, arguing that they can never be art. I wonder what he’ll think about Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a film that can only be described as a video game movie that isn’t based on a video game. From the 8-bit Universal logo (complete with Nintendo music circa 1985) to the numerous nods to hit franchises like “Rock Band” and “Super Mario Brothers,” this thing screams video games, and being a gamer myself, I found it quite enjoyable.

Michael Cera plays Scott Pilgrim, a young Canadian who falls for a cutie named Ramona Flowers, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but to date her he must first defeat her seven evil exes. That’s the whole thing in a nutshell. It’s a simple story, as it needed to be, and it’s carried out with wit and style. Scott Pilgrim is a hyperkinetic, off-the-wall, roller coaster of a movie. It speedily moves forward with nary a downtime. However, it doesn’t always move with grace.

The tagline for Scott Pilgrim is, “An epic of epic epicness.” That’s a lot to live up to and, frankly, it falls short of its promised epic epicness, far short. Due to its quick pace, things get a bit hectic, even during dialogue driven scenes, and the film tries way too hard to be quirky and zany. The madcap nature of the movie goes off the rails at times, deviating away from its video game inspiration and traversing into territory that seems forced, even going so far as to use the “Seinfeld” musical sting and a laugh track in one scene.

There’s also Michael Cera who, despite the originality of the material, plays the same awkward, clumsy loser he’s been playing since “Arrested Development,” but all of that is easy to forgive given the energy of the production. While the story revolves around Scott battling seven evil exes, the fights never become redundant. All are varied and have their own unique style. This is a video game brought to life.

And those who play video games will undoubtedly get the most out of it. It may mean nothing to the average moviegoer, but to gamers, hearing the bass line from “Final Fantasy II” will bring a tear to the eye and knowing that the name of Scott Pilgrim’s band, Sex Bob-omb, is a reference to the little walking bombs in the “Mario” games will make them feel special, as they should. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is nerd service, made for nerds by nerds. And I mean that in a good way.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World receives 3.5/5