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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Review

Young Mr. Lincoln

You may remember Abraham Lincoln; slim gentleman, tall hat, cameoed in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. You would think that’s all you’d need to know about the American president and slave-liberator before going into a film with this title, but in actuality Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter shows a great deal of knowledge, and a surprising amount of respect, for its subject. Too bad its lack of silliness is to its detriment.

Adapted from the humorously historical-revisionist novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, the best-selling author of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, ALVH is altogether too serious for the B-movie idea at its core.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Kazakh madman behind the deliriously silly Wanted and off-the-wall Russian vampire yarn Night Watch, ALVH is a straight-up biopic with fantasy/action inserts that manages to be fascinating, thrilling and occasionally a little bit boring.

So, what’s the fact and the fiction? Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is a young man from Illinois in the 1800s [true] who trains to be a vampire hunter [false] after his mother dies [true] at the hands of an undead fiend [false]. He is aided in his quest for vengeance by vampire expert Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper, perfecting the Dominic Cooper role), who teaches him the art of slow-motion axe-wielding.

Soon he is slaying vampires by night and boning up on the law by day, while courting the beautiful Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who begins to suspect that this not-quite-so-honest Abe has a dark secret. When Abe learns that plantation-owning vampires from the South are supporting slavery to keep a steady food source for themselves, he decides to kill two birds with one axe by moving to abolish slavery and denying the monsters their meals.

In all of this the film follows Lincoln’s life with surprising accuracy, with the last act focusing on his years in office (with added vampires). Before he woos Mary, she is (true to life) dating Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), later Lincoln’s biggest political rival. If you wrote this in a high-school drama it would almost seem unbelievable!

The film is at its weakest during the vampire sequences, with darkly lit scenes, shaky cam and rapid editing combining to create dizzyingly difficult-to-follow action sequences (and then there’s the 3D on top of that). The action has all the mania of Wanted without any of the wit. As chief vampire Adam, Rufus Sewell slums it wearily, finding neither camp nor relish in the role.

Lincoln: As wicked with a speech as he was with an axe

But in its strict ‘Lincoln the man’ scenes the film finds unexpected success. In the lead role, relative newcomer Walker excels; playing young Abe all Peter Parker, the nervous nerd with a secret, while carrying shocking levels of gravitas as the president Lincoln. This is not Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln, but it subscribes to the same school – Walker has completely committed to the role as if it were Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming biopic Lincoln, and it is utterly endearing. Winstead similarly shows acting chops far beyond what is required of a nonsense blockbuster.

A few jump scares aside, the film’s pacing really begins to drag it down, and the final act goes on forever. You’ll be checking your watch four score and seven minutes in, and there’ll still be 15 minutes left in the movie.

There’s no denying that this should have been an unmitigated disaster, and thanks to superb production values and Walker’s remarkable breakout performance we instead have a curiosity on our hands. It remains to be seen whether or not there’s an audience out there for it.


(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)



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Happy Darwin/Lincoln Day!

And what a fine day it is. To think that two of the greatest men to change the world in the 19th Century would have been born on the same day in the same year; February 12 1809.

In all the hullabaloo and celebrations of both men’s lives, there’s been little if any reference in the media to this astral pairing, quite curiously. Perhaps there is fear of upsetting those who would support President Lincoln but think of Darwin as a devil of history. It’s all very suspicious.

Surely if there was ever a time when we needed to look to the great minds of the past for inspiration it is now.

I for one have celebrated all day in my own way, reading articles and debates scattered across the internet during breaks from my work. Now I intend to continue that celebration into the early hours of the morning watching films about them, as is my style.

First up is Inherit the Wind, not exactly about Darwin, but about Darwinism, and also fantastic. As a teenager it was heavily responsible for my lapse into dedicated atheism and my love for Spencer Tracy (seen around the same time I first saw Bad Day at Black Rock – who could resist?). With a Paul Bettany biopic on the way, it was either this or The Fall, which would likely raise questions about whether I know anything about Charles Darwin at all.

After that I have also rented out Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford’s biopic with Henry Fonda. I’ve always found something disturbingly charming about Ford’s non-westerns (though that is likely to be because I am Irish), so this should be an interesting portrayal. Again, I can’t help but feel cheated that the long-promised Spielberg biopic was not delivered on time for the bicentenary. Well, not to worry.

It’s going to be a long, inspiring night.


UPDATE: 3.30am – Damn that was some good courtroom drama!

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Dr. Fail-Safe: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I first saw Dr. Strangelove in school at about fifteen. I’d been trying to track it down for some time beforehand, but the one time it had been on the TV my attempts to set the VCR had resulted in my taping only the last 2 minutes. I have seen it several times since, in all formats; at home on my own, with a group of friends after several beers, once in college on the big screen. For much of this time I was aware of the existence of its cinematic counterpart Fail-Safe.

Fail-Safe was always a bit of a mystery, as I’m sure it still is too many. The Shark Tale to Strangelove’s Finding Nemo it seemed, an inferior, later model, unlikely to compliment, certain to disappoint.

But then you look at the people behind it, Sidney Lumet at the helm. There’s Henry Fonda… I always thought he’d make a great president. Walter Matthau’s there too. And look, Dan O’Herlihy… he was in RoboCop. And RoboCop is awesome, right?

Tonight I finally watched Fail-Safe, which I managed to record off the telly the other night. It never comes on too often, not like its satirical second cousin Strangelove, and is far from readily available on DVD. But there it was, and I was certain not to miss it like I missed Strangelove all those years ago.

The similarities in plot are unmistakable, but the tone is so utterly different. As a thriller this is truly intense. What’s more, because it cannot take the same black comedic view as the finale of Strangelove, and since this predates the pessimistic political thrillers of the 70s (Chinatown, The Parallax View), the ending is quite astonishing.

The choice to use grainy footage of aircraft and Space Invaders­-like animation for the “Big Board” (to use a Strangelove-ism), does not quite live up to the effects and models used in Kubrick’s film, despite how much they now appear dated themselves. However, the intense use of shadow and close-up really make this an edge of your seat film, which Strangelove never quite succeeds in becoming, although it could easily be argued it is not attempting to be.

What is spectacular here is how it is all in the hands of the US President and military. Unlike President Muffley and co. who can only try every option available to get the abort order through to the planes and abide by the consequences of the Doomsday Device should they fail, Fonda’s anonymous president is constantly looking for a solution in the worst case scenario. His solution, particularly to audiences in the post-9/11 world, is utterly ghastly, and that personal and political drama is incomparable to anything in Strangelove.

That is hardly to argue that Strangelove is a worse film; despite their similarities they exist in separate genres and with separate intents and thus cannot be fairly compared. Dr. Strangelove is undoubtedly the more influential, is certainly more ahead of its time, and its humour has rarely if ever been equalled. Yet it seems unfair that Strangelove’s undoubted successes should so utterly wipe Fail-Safe from the popular cinematic map. Few political thrillers have quite the same level of intensity as that which Fail-Safe musters in its final 20 minutes. It is a shame that it should be viewed as little more than a lesser relation of a film so godlike in its reputation.

Fail-Safe is a film that needs to be revisited, both popularly and critically. Now if only I can get my hands on the 2000 live television production…

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