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Breaking Dawn: Part Two (2012)

Ignoring the ironic nature of the Breaking Dawn Part 2 poster taglines declaring love to be “forever,” the box-office juggernaut that is the Twilight franchise is coming to an end. Based upon Stephenie Meyer’s outrageously popular series of books, we’ve followed the love life of Bella Swan as she’s experimented with human, vampire, and werewolf. The studio heads decided to take Meyer’s final book and split it into two books. Breaking Dawn Part 1 had a wedding, honeymoon, pregnancy, supernatural birth, and Bella’s death/resurrection. And yet, that movie was still crushingly boring. My hopes were substantially low for Part 2, despite director Bill Condon’s (Dreamgirls) best efforts to jazz up all the awful plotting, characters, and romance. Then a funny thing happened. I started enjoying myself, and then the movie took some chances that I felt were daring considering its rabid fanbase. And then watching Breaking Dawn Part 2 became more than watching the film, it was also the experience of watching the audience. To that end, the movie delivers and I may rue these words but I kinda sorta almost liked enough of it.

Bella Cullen nee Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her husband, immortal vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), have gone through the wringer. In her waning days as a human, Bella got knocked up during her honeymoon, and her half-human half-vampire baby killed its mama on the way out. Now Bella’s a vampire and a mom (note to self: start writing new script – “Single Mom Vampire”). Her daughter, Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy’s face on a whole lot of other people’s bodies), is rapidly growing. She’s mistaken for a vampire baby, which is a punishment worthy of death. This news gets Aro (Michael Sheen) to rustle up his Volturi forces, a group of vampires with super powers. They’re coming for the Cullens and little Renesmee. The friendly vampires scour the world, gathering “witnesses” to the tyke’s half-vampire status, but really they’re gathering an army to defend themselves. It’s super vamp against super vamp and heads will roll.

I clearly understand that I am in no way the target audience for this franchise and that my reams of pithy words will find little traction in the hearts of the Twi-hard faithful, but I’d like to state that I’ve never been a hater of the movies. Well, let me rephrase that. My thoughts ping-pong from liked okay (Twilight) to hated (New Moon) back to liked okay (Eclipse) back to hated (Breaking Dawn Part 1), and now here we back are to liked okay. Consider it a double-dip recession in quality. I still view the whole franchise as an exercise in pre-teen wish fulfillment, but I’ve already written extensively upon that theory so I won’t bother re-litigating that battle. With all that said, I found myself oddly enjoying myself for sustained durations. It’s just as silly as the other movies but finally we can move on from mopey Bella and her dubious romantic triangle. Finally we don’t have to suffer through two hours of kids making (new) mooneyes at each other (did I just out myself as “old”?). By this I mean finally something ELSE happens rather than the incremental coupling of Bella and Edward. Granted their kid is really more a prop than a character, but at least the story has taken one gigantic leap forward. Finally Stewart can actually smile and, you know, do things of actual consequence!

It’s no secret that the Twilight saga, as its monetary benefactors would like to dub the franchise, has noticeably been better the less time it spends with its female protagonist, Bella. Breaking Dawn Part 2 might just be the least Bella-filled episode yet, a cause of celebration for my brethren who view Ms. Cullen as an infuriating, insufferable, insulting protagonist. At least in this movie she develops a sense of self-identity, though too often that identity falls into the camps of Wife and Mother. With this movie, she’s adjusting to life as a vampire, so we get cutesy scenes of her hunting prey, learning how to fake looking like a puny human, and arm-wrestling the strong cocky vampire guy to, you know, for the strides in girl power. Too little too late, Bella. I find it more than a little funny that Bella’s super power is passive in nature, fitting a passive protagonist that waist for people to give her meaning and tell her what to do. I should stop before another rant unspools as I’ve done on previous Twilight writing occasions. In short: Bella sucks.

We’re introduced to a lot of new characters in this movie and each brings some sliver of backstory to develop. I’m not saying they’re all deserving of attention or interest, but at least these new clans of vampires brought some much-needed life to what has often been a claustrophobic, monotonous love triangle. Opening up Meyer’s world and seeing other vamps with special powers are a fun detour that I wish had taken place sooner. I liked seeing Lee Pace (TV’s Pushing Daisies) as a soldier from back to America’s colonial days. I’m left scratching my head why certain vampire members were added to the ranks when they didn’t even show up for the final showdown. What was the point of having Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) show up and be all skeptical about the group’s chances of winning… and then not have him join? So he was skeptical from the start and then remained so, choosing to sit the finale out. Well I’m sure glad we spent time on him then. Also, the movie falls into the trap of establishing super-powered beings that are too powerful. We get one guy who can control the elements. Not just one or two but freaking all of the elements. He’s like Captain Planet minus that dumb kid with the lame heart power. During the climactic battle, this kid uses his power ONCE. How do you give him a wealth of super powers and then sideline him? There’s also an Amazon vampire who can control people’s vision, namely making them see whatever she wants. How are these two assets not utilized for tactical supremacy?

I had the suspicion that Breaking Dawn Part 2 might be the best film in the series simply by the fact that it’s the one with the most Michael Sheen. God I love this man. His last-minute turn in the appalling New Moon banished the suicidal thoughts swirling in my head. Even when he’s in bad movies, Sheen is usually the best thing about them (see: TRON: Legacy or the Underworld films). Here’s an actor who knows exactly how ridiculous everything about this universe is, and by God he sinks his teeth in. The benefit of added Sheen cannot be overstated. The movie greatly benefits by having a strong outside threat early. Only the third movie, Eclipse, had an external threat from the start, and that gave the film a much-needed sense of urgency. I was with Sheen and the Volturi on this one. They were merely following the laws of vampires meant to protect their own kind. Vampire babies are a no-no since they cannot control their otherworldly urges, so they and their makes must be destroyed. You know you’re in for a darker Twilight when early on we witness a baby getting tossed into a roaring fire. I admit that I have a susceptibility to falling under the sway of magnetic villains. Perhaps this speaks to some character defect of my own. It probably just speaks to the fact that movies often have boring heroes and charismatic villains. Sheen is so hammy and delightful and I just wanted more of him amidst the melee that punctuates the end. The man even looks like he’s about to lead a marching band during the battle and he’s still badass. Such is the awesomeness of Michael Sheen. Of this there can be no question.

But then the Condon and series scribe Melissa Rosenberg do something almost extraordinary given the slavish devotion to the series fans have. They divert from the source material in broad strokes during the climactic vampire brawl. I won’t go into exact details but the preview audience I was with was absolutely losing their collective minds. Women were screaming, cries of “Nooo” rang through the room; all around me was the echo of consternation and shock, women trying to absorb the reality of what they were viewing. Sitting with them, taking in their shrieks and lamentations, the general horror of what might happen next… it was a thing of beauty. I can almost recommend seeing Breaking Dawn Part 2 simply to be part of this experience. However, you’ll have to act quickly and be selective. You’ll need a packed theater filled with vocal Twi-hards, likely an opening weekend evening crowd, the kind that openly cheer shirtless revelries from the male co-stars. And then just sit and wait, knowing that soon all that revelry will turn to shock. I sound so mean-spirited explaining this and that’s not my intention. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the discomfort of the Twi-hards. I enjoyed the bewilderment. It felt like the theater was alive, coursing with the energy of alert uncertainty. Anything could happen, including some very not nice things. To be one tiny drop in an ocean of furious estrogen, well it’s an experience that deserves mentioning. Its strange experiences like this that make me love going to the movies, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a combination of words I’d never thought I would write about any Twilight film.

Also, though my expectations were never that high to begin with, I have to credit Condon with fashioning a fairly exciting action brawl, one that’s surprisingly graphic at spots for a PG-13 movie primarily aimed at young girls. The series has been building up to a massive showdown, and the movie itself has been putting the feuding factions into place, so it’s satisfying that the finale truly feels climactic and delivers some thrills. For the record, Meyer’s book was free of any climactic battle. This movie is chock full of decapitations. I cannot recall another PG-13 film that had this many beheadings. I think you could watch a drama set during the French Revolution and you wouldn’t witness this many people lose their heads. Is there no other ay to kill a vampire? What ever happened to the good old fashioned staking of the heart? These kids these days; all they want to do is decapitate. To dull the grisly spectacle, the beheadings are weirdly bloodless. Condon does a bangup job of setting up plenty of mini-payoffs and duels throughout his busy action centerpiece. Then when it looks like the carnage is at an end, the movie takes a page from the Final Destination playbook, which Twi-hards will probably find relieving. I thought it was a major cop-out but whatever. Let the kids have their happy ending.

Before you get your hopes up too extravagantly, this movie still offers plenty of stupid. I don’t care how you explain it, the imprinting thing is stupid incarnate. I still find it eternally creepy that Jacob couldn’t have the mother so he settles for the daughter. The fact that everyone treats this development so seriously makes me laugh. And oh boy, let’s talk about those Amazon vampires. First off, I find it hilarious that Meyer’s vision of vampire clans from around the world really just boils down to Europe and the Amazon. When they stepped onto screen wearing, and I kid you not, loin clothes and tribal markings, I was flabbergasted. Doesn’t anyone find this depiction to be at least deeply ignorant and culturally insensitive? I’ll stop short of calling it quasi-racist; though attaching “quasi” to anything lets you get away with most declarations (“This movie is quasi-watchable”). But when our big battle over a frozen lake takes place, why are these Amazon characters STILL wearing loincloths in the frozen landscape? Then there’s the annoying fact that Renesmee rapidly grows, meaning that Bella and Edward get to skip out on actually raising a baby. If Meyer intended to punish these kids for having sex in Part 1, then she needs to follow through on her antiquated sexual hang-ups.

As the franchise draws to a close, I’m trying to take stock of the five films and their overall impact (sadly, we all know with the potential riches, a reboot is likely only five years out). The end credits play out like a gauzy yearbook for the franchise, visually highlighting every significant speaking role, including the two different actresses who played villainous Rachel.  The Twilight series has been very good to me as a writer; I’ve produced long-winded reviews with each new entry, and the opening-day people watching has become part of the spectacle I enjoy. That’s really what we’re dealing with here – spectacle. It’s all gooey romantic fantasy nonsense with some pretty bland characters, questionable messages for young girls, and such deadly seriousness. If we were grading on a curve, I’d say Breaking Dawn Part 2 is actually tolerable thanks to nominal character development, less whiny Bella, an influx of new characters, extra Sheen time, a better sense of humor, and a climax that truly feels climactic.

I can’t say the Twilight movies have gotten better as they’ve gone, though Condon has proven to be an apt choice to steer this franchise to a close. He’s given the franchise a bit more life, a bit more blood. I’ll never admit that the love story of Bella and Edward deserved five full-fledged movies, but I recognize the significance Twilight stands in many young girls lives. Fans will eat this stuff up. They’ll certainly enjoy the Bella/Edward sex where she doesn’t end up bruised. For them, it ends in a fitting sendoff, even after the jolts of text deviation morphs into giggled recounts on car rides home. For them, Breaking Dawn Part 2 will be the perfect ending to their beloved series. I can’t imagine anyone indifferent to the series working up that much interest, but I can say with sincerity that Breaking Dawn Part 2 is the best film in the Twilight series and potentially worth seeing for the rollercoaster ride of bewildered fan reactions. Now that the last blood has been drained from this franchise, let’s move on to more important items… like the next Hunger Games movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

Did you know that our sixteenth president had a rather unorthodox hobby, and it was really the purpose that drove him into politics and later the White House? That’s what the gonzo best-selling book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter purports. When he was talking about a house divided not being able to stand, he was secretly talking about vampires, you see. The film version, under the tutelage of producer Tim Burton, looks like it’d be an axe-swinging good time. I realize the absurdity of wishing the filmmakers had hewn closer to the source material, a radical reinterpretation of American history, but there it is. I cannot tell a lie.

Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is a man determined to rid this new country of the scourge of vampires. His mother was murdered by a vampire landlord, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), when Lincoln was only a little boy. As an adult, Lincoln tries to avenge his mother’s death but Barts is too strong. Henry (Dominic Cooper) saves Lincoln and teaches him all about vampires and, more importantly, how to hunt and kill them. They strike up a partnership: Henry will provide names of vampire targets and Lincoln will dispatch them with extreme prejudice. Lincoln tries to live a solitary life but keeps building attachments; to his co-worker Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), to his childhood friend Will (Anthony Mackie), who needs Lincoln’s help to forge some slave papers, and the enchanting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Abe realizes the limitations of killing vampires one by one. The vampires are exploiting Southern slavery as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Lincoln realizes the only way to foil the vampires is to eliminate slavery, and to do so he must be in a high government position, and so Lincoln retires his axe to turn to abolitionist politics.

It feels that rather than embrace the courage of its convictions, the movie is trying to please as many mass markets as possible. So many characters and storylines are inserted wholesale without any connection to the book. The film is almost unrecognizable from the book. Now, I’ll quit my bemoaning for the time being because a movie has to exist on its own merits, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is just a mess. As far as new characters included only to appeal to broad audiences, there’s the Black Best Friend, long a staple in movies meant to say, “Hey, our lead character is hip and has no problems with race,” but really it’s always been a depressing act of pander and I always feel sympathy for the thousands of black actors who have to compete over the limited best friend parts. Giving Lincoln a black best friend seems to remind the audience that Lincoln was against slavery, you know, in case anyone didn’t know anything about the man nicknamed the Great Emancipator. Then there’s the ascension of Mary Todd Lincoln into a feisty, strong-willed, formidable ally rather than the insular, clinically depressed woman she was in real life and in the book. Mary even gets some grand hero moments taking out a vampire in slow-mo coolness. The transformation of Mary feels just as big a pander as the character of Will. Then there’s the idea that Lincoln and his small inner circle of pals are placed in the center of action, like they alone and their heroic escapades single-handedly turn the tide of war. It’s handled so ham-handedly that it all plays out like they’re the Scooby Doo gang solving the Case of the Vampire Insurrection.

Lincoln’s history is given such shrift attention, just enough to fill out the standard tortured hero’s backstory for the aims of the story. We see Lincoln as a child but just enough to establish his tragedy and hunger for revenge. Then we cut to him as an adult and going to kill Barts. That’s quite a big leap in time with little careful setup. The time before Lincoln’s presidency is just enough to supply him with a stock character posse and a plucky love interest, and then it’s right to the Civil War. So much time in between the main events just gets squeezed out, and so Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter feels like it’s always one scene away from a clumsy montage.

The vampire threat, as presented, also feels too insurmountable. Not only can these vampires walk in the daylight, they’re super strong, super fast, and can make themselves invisible, a neat new trick. When they ally with the South they seem nigh unbeatable. The movie makes the mistake of making the adversary seem too powerful, so the eventual thwarting of the vampire Confederacy feels too easy and far-fetched given the magnitude of the threat. Adam (Rufus Sewell) is hinted at being like the first vampire, but then this idea is never picked up again. Why even hint at something significant if you have no intention of pursuing it? There’s another new wrinkle where vampires are incapable of killing their own kind. If this is the case then why aren’t the vampires turning every single person they can find into vampires? It shores up their side and guarantees less potential people that could kill them. I’m curious how certain swaths of southerners are going to react to seeing their beloved Confederacy teeming with devilish creatures. Then again, I think the romanticism of the Confederacy is hogwash. When insurrections win we call them revolutions of independence, and when they lose we call them treason. Guess what? The South lost.

As much as I enjoyed his book, I have to lay the blame at the hands of Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his book into the screenplay (he’s 0-2 this summer after his disastrous screenplay for the other vampire movie this summer, Burton’s Dark Shadows). Granted, I’m sure he got intensive notes on how to alter his story for the big screen; the whole projects reeks like it had too many cooks in the kitchen. The interconnection from the book, finding clever ways to marry history and alternative history together, have been ground down to stream line Lincoln into an American super hero. Not only is he handy with an axe, this Honest Abe can leap from racing horse back to racing horse back, and even get clobbered by a horse and keep on going. The coda at the end feels like a missed opportunity to carry on the Lincoln tradition into our modern age. With the clever reworking replaced by blockbuster superficiality, the film merely takes history and has it perform the outrageous rather than finding smart ways to connect all the outrageousness to the established facts.

What the movie has to the credit of director Timur Bekmambetov is a strong visual pulse. Bekmambetov directed 2008’s testosterone-soaked Wanted, so you know you’re going to get some crazy and eye-catching images on display. The action sequences do pack a punch and I’ll admit that seeing an axe utilized as an inventive martial arts weapon is considerably cool. There are two standout set pieces. The first is a fistfight between Abe and Barts in the middle of stampeding horses. You feel right in the thick of the action, horses stampeding all around, the sun setting to offer an eerie yet beautiful glow to the ordeal. It’s one of the more reality-stretching moments, as I noted above, but man if it isn’t thrilling and lovely to watch. The other standout sequence is a climax aboard a speeding locomotive itself atop a large wooden bridge engulfed in flames. Abe and Will stand back to back, swapping the axe to kill vampires, and then hey have to outrun the collapsing train. In these moments, the movie is joltingly alive, bursting with excitement and that rare yet glorious feeling of watching something beautifully different. I just wish this sensation wasn’t so fleeting in the movie.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a violent historical reworking that isn’t good enough to be properly entertaining and it isn’t bad enough to be considered camp. The film is mostly disappointing because it should feel far more engaging given its whacked-out premise the very cheeky promise of its title, and strong source material, a pulpy, ripsnorter of a read. The movie has some stellar standout moments but I think what ultimately hinders the entertainment value is how dumb everything comes across. This is not dumb in the winking, self-aware, satiric sense, but dumb in more of the blockheaded, Michael Bay, formulaic blockbuster sense. I wouldn’t even classify this movie as an enjoyably dumb, a silly summer slice of escapism like Battleship, which is looking better every week after new, disappointing summer releases (and it’s not even July yet!). The spirit of this movie is missing, the cleverness of the conceit drained, and the fun is bottled up. What this movie reminds me of is the stupid 2003 film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which took classic literary characters and threw them into a genre movie. Both movies figure the exercise alone, seeing classic literary or historical figures in absurd contexts, was enough to justify entertainment. I say that you have to work harder.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows was a daytime soap that aired for only a brief period of time as far as soaps are concerned, 1966-1971, but it was enough to make a lasting impression. The supernatural soap featured vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night, entangled in high-stakes drama and romantic excursions – it was the Twilight of its day. Director Tim Burton and his attached-at-the-hip collaborator, actor Johnny Depp, were fans as children and have kicked around a big-budget big screen version for years. Now that Dark Shadows hits theaters, you’ll be left wondering whether they really ever liked the original show or secretly despised it.

In the 1770s, Barnabus Collins (Depp) is the son of fishing and canning magnate in colonial Maine. He has a fling with Angelique (Eva Green), one of his family’s servant girls, and unfortunately for him, the gal is also a witch in her spare time. She curses the Collins family, killing Barnabus’ mother, father, and the woman he loves. She then turns him into a vampire, riles the villagers into mob mode, and Barnabus gets trapped in a coffin and buried for good.

Two hundred years later, a construction crew unearths an old coffin and out pops Barnabus from his prison. The world is a very different place. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is running the Collins family manor and canning company, which has fallen on hard times. A rival canning company is snapping up fisherman contracts, and this company is led by none other than the same ageless Angelique. Elizabeth tries to conceal her distant relative’s unique “condition” from the rest of her family, her brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), grieving the loss of his mother, moody 15-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), and caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). The Collins family also has a new hire, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who looks strikingly like Barnabus’ lost love from 200 years ago. He becomes smitten with the new lass, who may be the reincarnation of his lost love. That’s enough to rev up Angelique’s wild sense of jealousy, as she tries to get her long-desired man and destroy anyone that stands in her way.

Is this ever one ghoulish mess of a movie. It never settles on a tone; is it supposed to be a larky tongue-in-cheek send-up, a Gothic melodrama, a dysfunctional oddball family comedy? What is this supposed to be, because whatever it is, it isn’t entertaining. Oh sure, it’s entertaining in a, “Where the hell is this going?” kind of way, but so is being kidnapped by a drifter. The movie feels like it has a box filled with ideas, and every so often it just shakes up that box, reaches inside, grabs one and says, “Let’s give this a try.” The screenplay, credited to author Seth Grahame-Smith (Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), is awash with half-baked ideas and poorly developed characters. The live-in doctor, played by the second stalwart of the Burton Repertory Players, Helena Bonham Carter, is a hoot. Carter (The King’s Speech) has got an edge to her and an interesting dynamic with Barnabus, but sadly her storyline is tied up far too quickly. The character of Victoria is a rather interesting one, a girl who could communicate with her ghostly former relatives, who happen to look just like her. The gal was sent to a mental asylum by her parents and escaped, compelled to come to the Collins mansion. Why in the world wasn’t she the movie’s protagonist? That is a far more compelling perspective than a goofy vampire who speaks all old timey. Seriously, the Barnabus stuff is your basic fish-out-of-water comedy, lazily commenting on the times. There is no joke that is too obvious for this movie (Barnabus inquires why Carolyn has no husband; Barnabus is fascinated by a lava lamp; Barnabus thinks Alice Cooper is an ugly woman – sigh). A lot of the shapeless narrative would be forgivable if the movie was just funnier. Barnabus is just not that fun of a character. His anachronistic verbiage gets dull when you discover that seems to be the movie’s one joke. You may start tuning him out like I did.

The movie feels like a collection of subplots and no main storyline to gather traction. We’re told that the youngest Collins, little David, is enamored with Barnabus, though considering we’ve only seen the two together in like one previous scene, this seems like quite a leap. Unless David has gotten particularly skilled at hiding behind rocks, we haven’t seen any of this. The entire character of David and his sleazy father could be eliminated and they would only minimally affect the story. And then there’s the late revelation that one of our characters has a hidden secret identity, a revelation that fostered no setup. When the character looks into the camera to explain and ends with a curt, “Deal with it,” it’s like Grahame-Smith himself is speaking directly to the audience, mocking it for hoping that the movie would actually do a good job of setting up and paying off character development and relationships. Stupid audience. Why can’t you just be happy with all that neat Tim Burton set design?

The final melee between the Collins family and Angelique keeps reminding you of the dashed promise of the flick. Angelique, in her witchy withiness, summons dark forces to make statues come alive. Well, sort of. They flail their arms a tad. And then she makes the walls bleed. Well, sort of. The dripping blood stops after just a few inches from where it began. If you’re going to make the house bleed, I want Shining-level torrents of the red stuff. The tonal inconsistency, matched with the muddled plot and scant character work, makes for a pretty frustrating bore of a movie.

You could usually count on Depp (Alice in Wonderland) for at least committing himself to another bravura weird performance, but the material fails him. He’s caked with alabaster makeup, given claw-like hands thanks to additional knuckles (why…?), and he’s trying his best to transform a list of peculiarities into a character, but like most things concerning the movie, it does not coalesce properly. I actually think the most entertaining actor in the movie is Green (Casino Royale). Part of that might be my hormones revved up from her frequent cleavage-baring outfits as the vampy villainous (no pun intended). There’s not much to her role but at least she has fun with it, bringing an admirable level of energy while her peers remain laconic, content to submerge into the 70s scenery. She shows a nice flair for comedy heretofore unseen. Strangely, Green adopts a slightly raspy voice that sounded like an imitation of, none other than, Helena Bonham Carter. If Burton’s note to his film’s young, frisky, sexy antagonist was, “Sound more like my wife doing an American accent,” then I think we’ve butted into something personal best left between husband and wife.

Ultimately, I have no idea who this movie is going to appeal to. The fans of the original soap will surely not be pleased with the jokey, tongue-in-cheek manner that Dark Shadows treats its source material. Fans of Burton’s stylized, dreamy, Gothic fairy tale visuals will find the film tedious and a poor waste of the man’s talents. Even the casual Depp fan will probably find the movie mostly unfunny, weird, and boring. The tonal whiplash never settles down, and the plot is replete with half-developed characters, ideas, and plot points. It just seems to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, but that’s not the best way to tell a story. Not even Burton’s visuals or Depp’s performance can save this movie. Dark Shadows is unquestionably amongst Burton’s worst films (2001’s Planet of the Apes debacle takes the crown), made all the more inexplicable by the fact that Burton and Depp are self-described fans of the TV show. Maybe we all have different definitions of “fan” that I am not privy to. This movie deserves a quick death.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fright Night (2011)

Horror is a genre that’s been notoriously cannibalistic, especially as of late. I don’t mean flesh-eating, I mean the glut of remakes that has polluted the horror market in recent years. After remakes of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth, The Hills Have Eyes, House of Wax, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, The Amityville Horror, The Fog, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, Sorority Row, Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, The Thing, and scads more, you’d be forgiven for believing that the remake of 1985’s Fright Night would be another soulless cash grab. It turns out that it’s way better than even the original and quite an entertaining movie that got lost in the shuffle.

In a quiet little suburb outside Las Vegas, students are going missing. Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) suspects that there is a vampire in town. Ed’s former friend, Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin), dismisses this idea, especially since the would-be vampire in question is his new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), a home construction worker who seems to work at night mostly. But lo and behold, after Ed goes missing, Charley concludes that his old friend was right all along. Jerry has his eyes set on Charley’s single realtor mom, Jane (Toni Colette), and maybe even Charlie’s sprightly girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots). The only ally Charley can muster is a drunken Vegas magician in the Criss Angel tradition. Peter Vincent (David Tennant) has been studying vampires for years due to his tragic personal connection to vampires, notably Jerry.

Fright Night finds that horror sweet spot, equal parts scary and funny. Credit screenwriter Marti Noxon who cut her teeth on TV’s seminal show (yeah, I said it) Buffy the Vampire Slayer; there’s even a reference to a “Scooby gang” for we Buffy fans. Noxon does a terrific job of establishing a suspenseful situation and then developing it nicely, teasing it out. There’s a sequence where Charley is trying to rescue a neighbor lady that just involves a series of hiding places but uses a simple setup of ducking around corners so well. When our plucky protagonist checks in with Vincent for some assistance, we’re introduced to an array of exotic vampire-hunting weapons and artifacts that the Vegas magician has under glass. With a setup like that, you better believe we’re going to be using those weapons later, and how. The character development is richer than most teens-battle-monster genre films. The relationship between Charley and Ed, and the awkwardness and resentment of two friends growing apart, feels rather believable even dropped into the middle of a vampire adventure. The standard girlfriend role is given a bit more weight, as she’s the one who feels confidant and aggressive. She knows what she wants, and as played by the adorably named Imogen Poots (Solitary Man), you want to be what she wants. Seriously, this actress is striking in her Grecian features and I like a woman who knows how to handle a mace. There are also small touches that I really enjoyed that helped round out the movie. At one moment, a woman is being fed on by Jerry and she spots Charley hiding behind a door. Rather than cry out for help, she carefully draws a shaking finger to her mouth, wishing him to keep quiet and not to save her. The resolution of this rescue attempt is shocking in all the right ways. It’s a surprise that feels completely within reason, and organic twists and turns are always the most satisfying.

Noxon’s script continually surprises even when it starts to follow a by-the-numbers plot. Instead of an axe lopping off a vampire’s head, it just goes about halfway through thanks to the rigidity of bone. That’s a nice touch, but then when that same vampire tries to bite our hero and can’t move his fairly severed neck closer, then that’s when Noxon has capitalized on her cleverness. And she capitalizes often enough for Fright Night to be a real step above most vampire action flicks. Noxon also finds clever spins on vampire mythos; to get around the whole can’t-enter-without-an-invitation rule, Jerry just attempts to blow up the Brewster’s home to drive them out (“Don’t need an invitation if there’s no house”). There’s a particularly ingenious method to light a vampire on fire. And the entire character of Peter Vincent, played brilliantly by Dr. Who actor David Tennant, is a hoot and a great addition. He’s a riot as a cynical, profane, and selfish stage performer.  His character is such an enjoyably comic foil, and Tennant plays him with aplomb, that you almost wish for a Peter Vincent spinoff movie.

Director Craig Gillespie shows that he is shocking adept when it comes to staging a horror film. I would not have expected this level of competency from the director of Lars and the Real Girl. It embraces its R-rating and the bloodshed is plentiful though the gore is restrained. Gillespie draws out scenes with judicious editing, letting the dread build steadily. The tension of something simple like Jerry standing in a doorway, waiting for any verbal slipup to come inside, can be terrific. Gillespie also has some nifty visual tricks up his sleeve to complement Noxon’s crafty screenplay. There’s one scene where Jerry walks into a hotel lobby and is confronted by a security guard. The camera pans over a series of security monitors that do not pick up Jerry. Then in the background we see Jerry hurl the guard to the ground to bite him and in the foreground we see the security footage minus Jerry. There’s an ongoing tracking shot inside a fleeing minivan that’s not exactly Children of Men but still a good way to feel the fever of panic. The final showdown between Charley and Vincent versus Jerry is suitably climactic and rewarding, nicely tying back elements that were introduced earlier and giving Poots an opportunity to vamp out, literally and figuratively.

Farrell (Horrible Bosses) is a charming, sexy, alluring menace as Jerry, which is exactly what you’d want in a vampire (sorry Twilight fans). Vampires are supposed to be seductive; they’re inherently sexual, what with all that biting and sucking and sharing of body fluids. If Jerry is going to be dangerous, he also has to be seductive, and Farrell is exactly that. With his swaggering walk, with his pose-worthy stances, with his grins, he’s a great ambassador for vampire kind. But this guy does more than preen; he’s also a credible threat. He’s the bad boy that is actually quite bad. Farrell’s enjoyment of his villainous role is noticeable. Jerry taunts Vincent: “You have your mother’s eyes.” He shoots and misses the big bad vamp. “And your father’s aim,” he add, chillingly. Having a strong villain can do wonders for an action movie, and Jerry is a formidable foe played with great relish by Farrell.

Not everything goes off without a hitch. The special effects can be dodgy at times, especially when Jerry goes into full CGI vampire face. The vampires tend to look like shark people, with long exaggerated jaws and rows of gnarly teeth. It’s not a particularly good look. While Noxon’s script excels in most areas, there is still enough dangling plot threads. Charley’s mother is really never a figure of significance. Her potential romance of her neighbor/vampire is a storyline that is never capitalized upon, oddly enough. That seems like the kind of storyline you’d build a whole movie around. She’s written out of the movie in hasty fashion, immediately going from a sequence of driving to being unconscious in a hospital bed. How did that happen exactly? After the Brewster house explodes, nobody seems to make a big deal out of this, like it’s just some regular neighborhood occurrence. What kind of neighborhood watch is this?

Fright Night is just a fun night out at the movies. It’s got plenty of laughs thanks to Noxon’s clever script, plenty of scares thanks to Gillespie, and plenty of sex appeal oozing from Farrell (though “sex appeal” and “oozing” don’t sound like an advisable linguistic match). It’s not much more than a vampire action flick but it’s a really good vampire action flick, clearly a cut above the dreck that usually just relies on its audience’s understanding of genre convention to cover up for its shortcomings. There’s no reason you cannot be a good movie with this genre, and Fright Night is proof of that. Convincingly acted, cleverly staged, and surprisingly well-executed, this is one genre movie that hits the right vein.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Blubberella (2011)

The action/horror spoof Blubberella is Uwe Boll’s second attempt at (intentional) comedy. He did re-release a “funny” version of his 2003 disaster, House of the Dead. That seems like the same opportunistic rebranding and dubious retconning that Tommy Wiseau pulled when he tried to claim that his magnus opus of suck, The Room, was always intended as a “quirky black comedy.” Sure, Tommy. Boll’s first attempt at comedy, 2007’s Postal, almost worked despite itself; the taboo-smashing genre of wacky comedy seems like a better fit for Boll’s cinematic tendencies. Blubberella is proof that Boll should stick to schlock and leave comedy to the professionals.

Blubberella (Lindsay Hollister) is a dhamphir, half-vampire/half-human, but really she’s just looking for a good man and a good meal. It’s 1944 Germany, and Blubby has joined forces with a resistance group lead by Nathaniel Gregor (Brendan Fletcher). Together, the group, along with the sassy gay soldier Vadge (William Belli), must battle a mad scientist (Clint Howard), a vampire Nazi general (Michael Pare), and the prospect of an immortal Adolf Hitler (Uwe Boll himself!).

Leaden puns, obvious jokes, clueless pacing and comedic construction, tiresome one-liners, incessant yet flaccid sex jokes, a desperation to be shocking, Blubberella is a bizarre and staggering failure even by Boll standards. Rarely does the movie actually land a funny line (you want to know the best line? Here it is: “My friend says I replace sex with food… but then he raped me, so that kinda shot that theory.” Yes, that is the best one). The jokes aren’t textured in the slightest and can’t be bothered with basic constructive issues like setup, context, and payoffs. Instead, the movie is rife with random sexual and scatological references. It’s like the film is the living embodiment of a Tourette’s child. Belli (TV’s Nip/Tuck) is a braying gay stereotype that wears out his abrasive welcome in no time flat. At one point Pare just goes into a garbled Marlon Brando impersonation for no clear reason, and then it’s done. This would-be comedy, in name only, confuses randomness for clever. Here’s an example: a group of characters are crouched waiting for an all clear signal, and Vadge blurt out, “If you’re going through the drive-thru get me a Frosty.” Just because it’s a random line and anachronistic does not cover up the fact that it’s simply not funny in any context. There is no joke there. Everything in the movie just seems like a meaningless throwaway gag, never accumulating or having any connection to situation. Randomness does not excuse sheer ineptness. Given the understated title, I’d expect there to be a plethora of fat jokes that the movie would routinely fall back on for easy punchlines. I actually counted: there are approximately 35 fat-related jokes; at barely 75 minutes, that comes to about one fate joke every 45 seconds. I’m shocked they had that much restraint considering the opening minute of the movie featured Blubby walking into a giant walk-in freezer filled with enough blunt Flintstones-style sight gags.

Even worse, Blubberella relies on pitiful attempts to be “shocking” to rouse the audience into laughter. And so we endure scenes like the resistance fighters relocking a boxcar full of concentration camp victims (“No wonder they took you. That hat does nothing.”), Blubby killing a man by farting on his face, playing RISK with Hitler and then there’s the blackface. In the movie’s most obscene, whiplash-inducing moment, Blubby suddenly morphs into a Caucasian version of Precious being berated by her abusive and spiteful mother. Belli portrays the monstrous mother in drag and blackface. Amazingly, this is not the only character Belli plays in blackface. There’s another regrettable moment during that Hitler RISK sequence where Belli plays Hitler’s black assistant (“One of our new allies from Africa,” Hitler explains), and the guy can’t go a single sentence without referring to people as MF-ers. Whoo boy. Here’s the thing about the attempted Precious parody: just taking a situation and copying and pasting it to a new location doesn’t make it a parody. The blackface moments, in particular the Precious aside, feel completely out of place and tacky at best. Just because something is supposedly shocking or in bad taste does not mean it is funny without due context and setup. Blubberella does not understand this comedy truism, and so we get more of the same wearisome crass crap.

Blubberella was shot simultaneously with Bloodrayne: The Third Reich, utilizing the same sets, costumes, actors (literally everybody does double duty), recycled action footage, and more or less the same script. It’s not like the script for Bloodrayne 3 was that strong to begin with to warrant a copycat. It’s like Boll’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, though with more Nazis. Actually, just that very description is giving the movie far more credit than it could possibly ever hope for. There’s nothing clever about Boll’s alternative spin on his third Bloodrayne vehicle; just replacing Rayne with a 300-pound actress and making her go through the same motions doesn’t mean it’s a comedy. The laziness on display is powerfully lulling. I don’t think anyone on the entire planet was praying for a wackier retread of Bloodrayne 3. The funny thing is I don’t think the change of tone makes that much difference to Clint Howard.

Blubberella plays out like a tired improv game that has gone on for an eternity. The film is stuffed with scenes that just seem to spin on and on, lacking momentum and any discernable direction. Scenes will just wander aimlessly like Boll is just waiting for his actors to somehow produce quality jokes spontaneously. Newsflash: this isn’t a Judd Apatow movie. Hollister and company will just spout random lines and riff off one another, acting like a troupe of lobotomized circus acts that have stumbled into a war zone. The results are pitiful, though occasionally they will hit a somewhat amusing idea that will be aborted in the next breath/stab at improv. It’s merely a numbers game and if they fire 100 jokes maybe 2 find some footing. Such shrug-worthy moments include Blubby holding a soldier’s hand to her stomach and saying, “If there wasn’t a baby in there, would that be okay?” Huh? At one point, Boll’s narration pops up to declare the following scene “boring,” and yet the entire scene from Bloodrayne 3 plays out uninterrupted or unedited. What was the point of that? If you’ve already made an attempt to side with your audience by declaring your scene boring, then why leave it unabridged? Why is keeping this scene vital from a plot standpoint for what is intended to be a silly spoof? Why does plot continuity even matter?

I noted with Bloodrayne: The Third Reich a theory that Boll, a notorious cinematic pick-pocket, was trying his hand at recreating Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning WWII drama, Inglourious Basterds. Well after sitting through this movie, I can confirm without a doubt that Boll has a raging hard-on when it comes to Tarantino homage. The movie is broken up into chapters, including such delightful titles as “Titty Titty Fang Bang,” the score will resort to periods of long whistling, Hitler screams “nein nein nein,” and for older references, one character says, “Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey,” and another, “I’ll kill every last mother fuckin’ last one of you.” Are you going to tell me that is all a coincidence?

The lingering problem with Blubberella, besides its overwhelming incompetence and inexplicable existence, is that it feels more like a gag reel accrued for the cast and crew of Bloodrayne 3. This doesn’t feel at all like a movie or even an attempt at a movie. I’m of a mixed mind when it comes to Hollister. The central Ohio native (represent, girlfriend!) is probably not going to get many starring roles, though she has shined in guest roles on numerous TV shows like My Name is Earl, Big Love, Law and Order: SVU, and Scrubs, so I can’t blame her for jumping at the chance to be the lead star, the headliner (she and Belli are also listed as co-writers). Hollister is actually a pretty nice actress and has strong comedic instincts; however, that doesn’t mean she will rise to the occasion if left to her own devices by Boll’s paucity for scripted jokes. Boll isn’t exactly the most creatively nurturing collaborator. It’s all one big fat mess. You want the most telling moment? It occurs during the dull outtakes peppered throughout the end credits. One of the actresses, little seen in the flick, remarks astutely, “It’s not working. It’s not funny.” In six short words, she has summarized Blubberella better than I could ever hope to.

Nate’s Grade: D

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011)

Cheap in just about every aspect, Dylan Dog is a monster noir that turns out to be one dog of a film. The conceit of a private detective for the monster world is a pretty keen idea and one that could certainly have fun skewering genre conventions. But this movie is not clever, not in the slightest. It’s a lousy detective story where Dylan Dog (Brandon Routh) investigates a murder victim (death by werewolf) that threatens to break the shaky peace between the vampire and werewolf families. The story flounders and even messes up its limited flashes of comic potential, like Dylan’s partner adjusting to life as a zombie (maggot burgers, yum). Dylan Dog is a rather uninspired horror comedy with little scares, little intentional laughs, and a critical lack of imagination. It’s got legions of supernatural creatures and a noir setting to play with, and this is the best they could do? Director Kevin Munroe (TMNT) cannot hide the shoddy budget and shoddier special effects. Routh (Superman Returns) is a likeable guy but he delivers every single line in the same wooden style mistakenly believed to be hard-boiled. What was the last good PG-13 horror comedy that didn’t involve Tim Burton? The rating kneecaps the movie’s darkness, which means the monsters don’t seem too monstrous. Everyone seems to take a cue from the undead and just acts resoundingly bored. Dylan Dog is one shaggy mess.

Nate’s Grade: D

Breaking Dawn: Part One (2011)

Taking a cue from the blockbuster film franchise of our age, the Harry Potter series, the producers and studio heads decided to split the final Twilight film into two separate movies. Yes, for you cheerless, unfortunate males dragged along to author Stefenie Meyer’s estrogen-drenched soap opera, hoping to be done with Bella Swan and her sparkly vampire boyfriend, well your pain soldiers onward another year. If Breaking Dawn: Part One is any indication, we’re all in for a world of hurt come November 2012.

Wedding bells are ringing for Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her undead boyfriend, noble vampire/undead heartthrob, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Bella’s persistent demand to be turned into a vampire is finely about to come true. She wants to stay human a bit longer, to savor her last days on Earth before sipping blood through a bendy straw. Her always-in-second best bud, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), is worried for Bella’s well being. The wedding is like a fairy tale and Edward sweeps his new bride away to a tiny island off of Rio de Janeiro, where the housekeepers illogically speak Spanish. The couple makes the most of their time alone, and by this I mean they have sex (I refuse to believe this couple would play chess in their newlywed downtime). Edward withholds any second rounds of sex, fearing he’ll seriously harm his bride (he destroyed the bed in mid-copulation). No matter because Bella gets pregnant right out of the gate. We’re told this is impossible, yet her half-human/half-vampire fetus is rapidly growing inside momma’s belly. The baby is also destroying its host, eating away Bella’s body. Edward demands to kill the baby but Bella will have none of it. She’s going to deliver this baby even if it kills her. If it does kill her, then the truce between the werewolves and vampires will be broken, and Jacob’s feistier tribe mates will be knocking down the Cullen doors looking for some tasty vampires to chomp.

Director Bill Condon, he of Dreamgirls fame and an Oscar-winner for 1998’s Gods and Monsters, goes hog-wild with the emotions, fittingly reminiscent of the life-and-death swings of emotional polarity that orient a teenager’s life. Condon plays all of the ridiculous melodrama straight. It successfully channels the feelings of teenage angst and obsession, much like the first Twilight film. This Teutonic exhibit of buzzy hormones is like catnip to the Twilight faithful. Finally, they get what they’ve been waiting for, and Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg delay that gratification even longer. This is the longest wedding I’ve seen on screen since The Godfather. It takes up about 45 minutes of the movie. The protracted walk down the aisle literally takes longer than the rest of the ceremony combined. I can already envision thousands of young girls asking for the “Bella dress” when their time down the aisle comes. At no point does the movie address the fact that the “groom’s side” probably are all absent a heartbeat (“Hmm, extreme paleness? Are you with the bride or the groom? I’m at a loss.”). That’s a missed comedic opportunity. What’s with the wedding guests played by name actors like Maggie Grace (TV’s Lost, Taken)? Did they hire recognizable actors for one-line bit parts? They better have larger roles in the second feature. Under Condon’s direction, the film looks marvelous, and even the long-awaited love scene has some discernible heat to it that will give teen girls “funny” dreams for the next few months. Condon’s also helming the next and final film, so I can at least say it’ll look swell.

This last film was broken into two parts due to the mountains of money the studio would make. It surely wasn’t for some sort of artistic necessity. The plot of BD: Part One is stretched mighty thin. It’s no joke that the wedding and honeymoon takes up half the running time. The baby drama is handled so amateurishly, and the plot ramps up the incubation time so that everything happens too fast for the audience to adjust to how stupid everything truly is. The first half of the movie is free of meaningful conflict. It’s just concerned with payoffs. From everything I’ve read online, and from female friends who have partaken of the series, BD: Part One pretty much covers most of the plot of the 400-page book. What’s left? I would totally give the series a pass if the second movie started with Bella, hair a knotted mess, holding a shrieking baby. Edward sits at the table, drinking. “When are you gonna get a job?” she yells. “When are you gonna stop being a bitch?” he retorts, then gulps down a swig of booze. This domestic downer of an ending would almost make the whole series worth sitting through. Truthfully, as the teaser during the end credits advertises, if Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) has a larger part in BD: Part Two, it automatically becomes, sight unseen, the best movie of the series. Thus is the awe-inspiring power of Michael Sheen.

This has long been a silly franchise filled with poorly veiled messages that seem less empowering to teenage girls than reassuring to their parents. Long a heavy-handed message about abstinence, the characters finally get to have sex, after they’re properly married of course (does God really object more to vampire-human relations or when it occurs?). And you better believe the moment Edward and Bella eventually do the deed is a moment that teen girls, and their mothers, around the nation have been anticipating for three long, hard years. The buildup to the carnal climax is a rapturous release for the audience of Twi-hards; my theater felt like it exploded in pubescent hormones and giggling as soon as the proverbial train entered the station. Speaking of euphemisms, I find it telling that not a single character ever refers to sex as, well, “sex.” They keep dancing around the term, referring to it as indistinct pronouns like “this” or “that” or the slightly more specific “honeymoon activities.” It’s like the characters can’t talk about a mature topic without a case of the giggles. There’s even a scene where Jacob talks about Bella’s forthcoming tangle between the sheets, openly, and with alarm: “You’ll kill her,” he tells Edward. He doesn’t kill her but he does leave bruises all over her body. Bella assures her new husband that he’s not to blame, arguing, “You just couldn’t control yourself.” What kind of irresponsible message is that sending to teenage girls? But after enduring three movies of “save it until marriage,” the message is made even clearer when Bella, after one bout of sex, gets pregnant. Boom. Bella breaks the news by saying, “The wedding was 14 days ago, and my period’s late.” Edward stares dumbfounded and replies, “What does that mean?” Apparently, after graduating from high school 200 times just for kicks, Edward must have been absent every damn time for sexual education (“Condoms go OVER? Oh! This whole time I thought they went UNDER, you know, to hold everything in.”).

It’s here where the movie awkwardly shifts into a relentlessly pro-life message on legs. I’m not against movies presenting messages, but when a movie is as narratively empty and transparently padded as BD: Part 1, then the movie just gets swallowed up by the clumsy message. It doesn’t matter that Bella’s unborn hell spawn is literally killing her, sucking her dry from the inside out, she’s going to have this baby no matter what, even if she dies in the process. Okay, Meyer, we get it. Here’s a question for the world: can anyone really tell that much difference between emaciated Kristen Stewart and her normal self? She always appears a little sickly and hollow-eyed, but maybe that’s just me. The baby is basically the only conflict the movie presents and it happens so late in the film. Thanks to a fast gestation period, the demon fetus is determined not to wait until Part Two to make its grand entrance. Now that Bella is preggers, she’s become instant buddies with Rosalie (Nikki Reed, a long way from Thirteen), and the two of them begin a war against non-gender pronouns (its vs. he/her). The baby conflict would be more interesting if it was a tad more ambiguous, but the fact that it literally is killing Bella, not to mention its monstrous possibilities, and yet she persists to give birth is less characterization and more stubbornness. If Bella’s worried she’ll never have another chance to have a flesh-and-blood daughter, then explore this. Otherwise it makes Bella look blithely cavalier with her own life.

It’s here where Meyer and the Twilight franchise, already deliriously high on teen angst, goes off the charts into weirdo territory (some spoilers will follow). Never mind where the werewolf boys (and a girl) manage to find new clothes after they destroy them after each beastly transformation, we’ve got far weirder moments to process. There’s a vampire C-section via biting. There are giant wolves communicating via growling telepathy and bad CGI. There are Bella’s completely batshit names for her child; if it’s a boy she wants to combine Edward and Jacob’s names because that’s not awkward (“See, son, you’re named after the other guy I could have slept with but decided to just string along instead.”). And if it’s a girl she wants to combine her mother’s name and Edward’s mother’s name forming the atrocious “Reneesmee.” Excuse me? That makes “Apple” seem as traditional as apple pie. No one tells Bella these names are horrific because she’s pregnant, naturally. I imagine all the characters broke out into laughter as soon as Bella left the room to go puke into a bucket. Easily the weirdest and dumbest thing in the history of the Twilight franchise occurs as a contrived deus ex machina and a tidy solution to Jacob’s eternal, annoying pining. Jacob is determined to slay the monster he believes responsible for killing his unrequited love, Bella, but then he looks into those cute little baby eyes and… swears devotion to this newborn babe. He “imprints” on her, which means that they are meant to be together, and thus the werewolf/vampire truce holds. “Of course,” Edward intones, “Imprinting is their number one law. They cannot break it.” Of course! This reminded me of the scene at the end of the second Harry Potter movie where a phoenix comes from nowhere and cries into a wound (“Of course, phoenix tears can heal anything,” Harry informs while I was physically smacking myself in the head). Doesn’t anyone else find this whole plot development creepy? Jacob can’t have the mother, so he’s going to have the baby? And he’s got to wait 18 years if he wants their coupling to be legal on top of that. I think a messed up name is the least of this kid’s worries.

Does she look like a healthy person? This is pre-baby succubus.

It all comes down to the heroine of the franchise, Miss Bella Swan (sorry, Bella Cullen now). I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. To me, Bella isn’t worth the effort. She’s never really been anything close to a fully formed character. Bella Swan has always defined herself by having a boyfriend, and when he was gone it was about pushing her friends away and moping until she finally found a new guy. She has zero self-identity, no center, she is an empty shell, there is no there there. She’s a cipher, meant for the teenage readership to plug themselves into her place. I won’t restate my theory that the Twilight series is glossed-up pre-teen wish fulfillment, but there you have it. Yet there are sneaking moments where Bella seems almost shockingly… human. Her anxious montage of preparation before her first night of sex is relatable and sympathetic (what outfit to wear? Shave the legs? What kinds of makeup?). Too bad this relatable side of her character vanishes all too quickly. Before Bella defined herself by her boyfriend and now she defines herself by her baby. She’s still the same whiny, selfish, morose, and cruelly manipulative Bella, though. She can’t let Jacob alone; she has to continue stringing him along, bringing him into inappropriate personal matters. Jacob’s always been a bit of a control freak who seems to spout quasi-rapist dialogue (the classic “You love me, you just don’t know it yet.”), but the guy’s always gotten a raw deal as far as I’m concerned. Betrothed to a baby is not a worthwhile parting gift. I worry that young, impressionable girls are going to look at Bella as an influential figure. If these same gals want a literary heroine they could truly look up to, they should feast their eyes on Katniss Everdeen, proactive and laudable star of the Hunger Games and forthcoming movie of the same name.

The three actors have been playing the same character notes for so long that they could all just go on autopilot and collect their paychecks. Stewart (Adventureland) is less annoying than she has been in previous films. I’m trying not to take out my disdain of her character on the actress, who I’ve genuinely liked in pre-Twilight projects (even her Joan Jett performance was pretty decent). Pattinson (Water for Elephants) seems to shrink into the background for this movie. There are a lot of long, ponderous, somehow meaningful stares between the two, with the soundtrack trying to communicate emotions that the screenplay has failed to do (a little more variety on the soundtrack next time, fellas? I think I tuned out after the twelfth melancholy piano ballad). Luckily, Pattinson does have something of a screen presence to go with those abs. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Lauthner (Abduction). The young buck, formerly of Shardkboy fame, just cannot act. He has a nostril-heavy manner of expressing emotion that makes you wonder if he’s about to blow your house down. It’s telling that within mere seconds of the film beginning, the guy rips off his shirt, the peak of his acting abilities. I suspect it will not be long before Lautner and his six-pack and sitting at home, unemployed, and indulging in a different six-pack.

Breaking Dawn: Part One is certainly not intended for critics of the book and film series or really any audience member lacking ovaries. But I think that even the most ardent Twi-hards will walk away giggling at the silliness of the overripe melodrama. I try not to be out rightly dismissive of the whole series, but the bad characters, bad plotting, and questionable messages make it hard to continue bending over backwards to find slivers of quality to support. I get the appeal of the series, the fact that Bella Swan is a cipher to exercise frothing teenage wish fulfillment, but that doesn’t excuse the movies from being so bad. This isn’t the painful abomination that was 2009’s New Moon, but it’s come the closest. Only the promise of more Michael Sheen makes me hopeful that BD: Part Two will be better than its predecessors. When you’re talking about an obscenely popular moneymaker, quality becomes secondary to delivering a product that is recognizable to the demands of the screaming fans. BD: Part One is less a payoff than a warning. There is more to come, and if you thought Bella was intolerable before just wait until her vampire growing pains.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Bloodrayne: The Third Reich (2011)

It took five years and three movies, but notorious film director Uwe Boll has finally gotten to the original time period of the Bloodrayne video game. The popular game concerns a lithe, redheaded half-vampiric lass killing nefarious Nazis in World War II. You would have thought that would make for a decent starting point. But Boll instead took his time, possibly always envisioning a trilogy to due the character and his storytelling ambition proper service. Or it was just a way to make more money. So after stops in 18th-century Romania and the Wild West, Rayne comes home, so to speak in Bloodrayne: The Third Reich. What if somebody was adapting the Grand Theft Auto franchise into a film and took Boll’s dawdling approach? The first film would probably start with horses and buggies.

Rayne (Natassia Malthe), our favorite dhampir, is back at slaying them dead. She teams up with Nathaniel (Brendan Fletcher) and his band of resistance fighters on the Eastern front. They rescue one train filled with prisoners and get into a shootout with Commandant Ekhart Brand (Michael Paré). But Rayne makes the unfortunate mistake of biting the Commandant before impaling the guy. She has unknowingly turned the Nazi officer into a vampire like her, one that can walk in daylight. You would think after 200 years of existence she would have a handle on this. The Commandant is educated in the ways of the vampire by a mad scientist, Dr. Mangler (Clint Howard), who enjoys torturing human and vampire alike for science. At one point the doc says, while slicing up a living body,” Vampires no longer have any bonds to the moral laws of man.” That seems like a pot/kettle situation to me. The Commandant assembles his own undead army of vampire soldiers. Rayne feels responsible for this ugly mess and vows to kill the Commandant again and to a satisfying degree of dead this time.

For a while, Bloodrayne III looks like it might be the best in the trilogy, admittedly a dubious honor. Despite all my misgivings, Bloodrayne III almost works on its own lowered-expectation exploitation genre level. Almost. The campy combination of Nazis and vampires is a wild premise, though hardly original, and should reap some ripe and schlocky exploitation entertainment. The locations in Croatia are terrific and add just enough authenticity for a story about a vampire lady killing Nazis. In fact one sequence plays like Boll’s take on Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, involving a tavern showdown where people play a tense game of secret identities. There are moments that work, little bursts of promise, but they get reaped all too quickly. Boll’s action choreography is sadly limited in scope and editing. He sticks too close to his characters, never allowing for complicated tussles or expanding the scope of the action. There are a few serviceable explosions, some minor gore effects, but Boll does nobody any favor when the action is too brief and brittle. Everything feels pared down so most of the fights involve minimal players and the sequences themselves mostly give way to redundant posturing.

The failings of Bloodrayne III are roughly the same failings that dogged Bloodrayne II: Boll does not embrace his film’s inherent cheesiness. I wrote about 2007’s Bloodrayne: Deliverance: “Boll seems uneasy about embracing its supernaturally campy potential. Bloodrayne II has little blood, zero gore, no nudity, no sex, and a pitifully scant amount of action. In other words, it’s missing all of the exploitation elements that make a movie like Bloodrayne II worth watching.” While Boll has seen fit to correct the absence of certain genre elements, notably blood and boobs, he still cannot seize the pulpy premise into Grand Guignol. Nazi vampires, an immortal Hitler, a 200-year-old ass-kicking woman with signature arm-blades AND Clint Howard as a mad Nazi scientist and this is the best you can do? That’s unacceptable. The supernatural potential is wasted here. Rayne’s vampire side is barely utilized. She bites people, she jumps high once, but there’s nothing really vampiric about her beside one scene where she complains about having to drink pig’s blood. She might as well be anything else if you’re not going to take advantage of what makes a vampire a vampire. At one point, the Commandant turns his best tracker into a vampire for the purposes of finding Rayne (her secret hideout turns out to be a not very discreet large castle). That idea had great promise, all things considered, but like most of the other fights, it’s one-and-done. Rayne takes out the guy and we move along. Rayne is betrayed by one of the brothel girls who has her eyes set on running the business (“You’re a cocksucking entrepreneur,” someone declares, though I wouldn’t put that exact terminology on a resume). She gets turned into a vampire too. All right, she could work as a character that could get close to Rayne. But then she too is dispatched with mercurial swiftness. Why the hurry? Bloodrayne III runs a total 72 minutes before end credits. The film could have used a lot more fleshing out, and it could have benefited from being less serious with something so flatly ridiculous.

It wouldn’t be a Boll movie without the whiplash-inducing shifts in tone. One second we’re dwelling on the campy idea of Herr Hitler becoming a powerful vampire (there’s even a goofy dream sequence where Rayne is terrorized by Adolph with fangs) and the next minute the film descends into soft-core porn territory. Rayne visits a brothel to get an oiled massage, because apparently being a centuries-old undead slayer of evil can really cause some killer knots that only hookers are properly trained to knead away. Anyway, Rayne saves one of the brothel girls from an abusive Nazi john, and the women of the brothel wish to show their gratitude via some sex “on the house.” We’re then treated to a solid four minutes of heavy breathing and gauzy soft-focus shots of hands, nipples, and crevices. To Boll’s credit, it’s on par with most soft-core porn productions. When Rayne is beating the Nazi john she becomes a feminist mouthpiece: “I can’t punish you for the legions of women who have been brutalized by men, but I’ll give it my best shot.” If Sucker Punch proved anything, it’s hard to stand on a feminist soapbox when your characters are pure male fantasy figures. The onscreen lesbian tryst would fit the context of the film better if Boll kept a continuity of tawdry sensuality. I don’t recall any other lesbian leanings in previous entries but I suppose spontaneous lesbians/opportune bisexuality just goes with direct-to-DVD territory. The only other element of sexuality occurs late in Bloodrayne III, like ten minutes to credits. Rayne and Nathaniel decide it’s time to get it on. Oh, did I mention that they come to this decision while in the back of a German transport truck on the way to Berlin. Nonetheless, an awkward and deeply unerotic sex scene follows before their rescue. They appear to be making the most of their time, though curiously both participants leave their fingerless gloves on while they copulate. I call it “hobo lovemaking.”

Boll doesn’t seem to understand what a truly juicy concept vampire Nazis are so we are treated to a lot of talking. But it’s not talking that really establishes character, setting, or plot; it’s mostly a jumble of self-aggrandizing, hyperbolic asides as heroes and villains are constantly reconfirming the stakes. Vampire Nazis. Trust us, we get it. But alas, the Commandant keeps gripping his fists and speaking about being “power incarnate” and how everyone shall bow to his power and how he’s “the prodigal son of the Third Reich,” which I don’t think is the proper analogy to apply. Dr. Mangler (too on-the-nose or an attempt to reference Dr. Mengele? You be the judge) will not let any situation to bray about the obvious go to waste, sometimes with peculiar anachronisms. Over the course of the film, this talkative evil scientist will reference Shakespeare, say “the world is your oyster,” and even, “The times they are a changin’, gyspy.” He even slams the father of penicillin, saying, “Alexander Fleming had his fungi. I have [Rayne].” But the worst offenders have to be Rayne and Nathaniel. At one point they bellow, “He’s not just a vampire! He’s a vampire with an entire German army behind him!” You know, in case you couldn’t grasp the subtleties of the narrative. Rayne is given to long passages of voice over where we get to listen to her wax poetic about man’s inhumanity to man, the cycle of violence, and other hilarious grasps at being mistaken as having, you know, depth or thoughts. This is the same character who ends the film saying, “Guten tach, mother fuckers!” Yeah, this one’s a regular Rodin.

The film is populated entirely with Boll’s stock players, so you know the acting returns will be fairly diminished. Malthe (Elektra) returns for her second go-round as the titular half-vampire half-human heroine. For what reason, I could not say. Perhaps the former Maxim model had a large gas bill one winter. Malthe hasn’t advanced much as an actress in the layover between sequels. She fills out a bodice heavenly, but her acting is about as emotionless and dryly ineffectual as a corpse. Speaking of, Malthe looks deathly pale in the film with alabaster skin. Apparently in the 60 years since the events of Bloodrayne II, she decided to keep the cleavage-accentuated fighting outfits but lose her skin tone and her heretofore signature red hair. But fear not video game aficionados because this Rayne has streaks of bright red amongst her otherwise jet black tresses. I suppose she found the one Hot Topic open on the Eastern front. Malthe is a fine-looking woman who will look the part, no matter what improbable form-fitting outfit she chooses to slay evil in, until she opens her mouth and destroys the illusion. There’s a reason not too many Maxim models have transitioned over into being award-winning actresses. To be fair, the Rayne character is mostly defined by costuming and weaponry. Don’t believe me? Read the user reviews by fanboys and see what they quibble over most.

It wouldn’t be a Boll film without his lucky charm, Paré (11 Boll film appearances!). The plainspoken actor was actually a fine fit in Bloodrayne II as a cowpoke. He’s not so well a good fit as an evil Nazi officer. Paré is never truly threatening in any capacity as a Nazi or a vampire. That’s pretty sad. He’s given tough guy things to say, and he bites people, but he never comes across as menacing. He’s letting the uniform do the acting for him. Likewise, Howard (first Boll appearance since 2003’s House of the Dead) gets lost in the broad generalization of his character. Howard always seems like he’s on the verge of breaking into third person. He seems lost in a daze too often. Howard comes across as more Igor than mad scientist. He’s definitely not going to be one the scientists other countries offer asylum for at war’s end.

Bloodrayne: The Third Reich could have been a ridiculously yet enjoyably campy B-movie that knew how to play to its strengths – vampire Nazis, attractive woman killing vampire Nazis. You would think that salaciously junky concept would write itself. The problem is that Boll seems to have made a movie that seemed like it would write itself. It’s not enough to just have a handful of genre elements (vampires, Hitler, lesbians!), you have to present those elements in an appealing manner. The premise is workable but the plot, characters, action, and tone are not given necessary attention. I never thought I would say this, but there’s just not enough holding together a movie about vampire Nazis. The dialogue is mostly characters talking in circles, rehashing what should be obvious, explaining why the bad guys should be threats when they fail to be credible onscreen. The film might be the best of the ongoing trilogy, but what exactly is that saying? Barely covering 75 minutes, with negligible action and an overall rushed pace, Bloodrayne III is a sterling example of disposable entertainment that hasn’t even been given the necessary components to be “entertainment.” Instead it’s just eminently disposable. The saddest part is knowing it’s only so long before this character gets resurrected for a fourth movie. Perhaps by then Boll will have figured out what to do with his vampire-killing hottie. Fourth time’s the charm, right?

Nate’s Grade: C-

Let Me In (2010)

Essentially a faithful remake of the Swedish pre-teen vampire romance, Let the Right One In, this American reinterpretation loses points in originality and freshness but makes up for it with a bigger budget and better acting. Even fans of the original, and count me as one, must admit that Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) as a pint-sized vampire stuck forever in pre-pubescence, and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) as her aging caretaker, are upgrades. The true surprise is the eerie assuredness of the entire production from director Matt Reeves, he of shaky-cam Cloverfield fame. The entire film just feels so placidly precise, even as it draws tension and sets up for one vicious poolside climax. Some of the audience unfriendly moments from the original have been exorcised (say goodbye to lingering gender identity questions), but Let Me In still happily dwells in an unsettling place, forcing its characters to do questionable things in the name of companionship and forcing the audience to decide how they fell about that. Also, the film still retains its ambiguity for interpretation; whether you view it as a depressing saga of use and abuse, or an disaffected teen romance is entirely up to you. Let Me In won’t grab peoples’ attention in the same way its Scandinavian predecessor did, but it doesn’t screw it up either. And these days, that’s got to count for a lot.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Vampires Suck (2010)

I anticipate and dread the arrival of each new spoof from the wretched comedy team of writer/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. The pair are responsible for some of the worst movies of the modern era, blindly groping for some sort of fleeting pop-culture relevance. I vehemently oppose their idea of what constitutes comedy and I resent that these two nitwits get to keep making their reprehensibly awful spoof movies at the pace of one a year. They may have taken 2009 off but they released two regrettable spoof movies in 2008 (Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie), and those two films tied for the honor of my Worst Film of that year. Think of all the exciting, groundbreaking, eclectic, and challenging independent movies that could be bankrolled with the budget of one of these self-indulgent, disposable, juvenile, pop-culture-saturated comedies. Each new Friedberg/Seltzer movie is like a slap in the face and a reminder that the lowest common denominator rules along with the almighty dollar. So I have an open slot at number one on my annual Worst Movies list for whatever Friedberg/Seltzer slap together. I anticipated that their spoof of the popular Twilight series would be more of the same. Vampires Sucks is another ghastly, failed attempt at parody that goes off the rails early and often, but it’s not as egregious as past Friedberg/Seltzer comedy abortions. It’s not even the worst movie of 2010 I’ve seen this year, which is a complete shock. After careful deliberation, that ignoble honor remains with The Bounty Hunter. I never thought a movie could out-suck a Friedberg/Seltzer suckfest.

The plot pretty much follows the first two Twilight films closely. Becca Crane (Becca Proske) is the new girl in Sporks, Washington (laughing yet?). She’s living back with her father (Diedrich Bader) and looking for a way to fit in. Then along comes Edward Sullen (Matt Lanter) and the two can’t resist each other. He’s a vampire, she’s a moody teen girl, blah blah blah. There’s also Jacob White (Chris Riggi) who turns into a little toy dog instead of a werewolf. He also chases after cats. How can you resist?

There are less throwaway pop-culture references that have a predetermined expiration date soon approaching. Sure, there’s still references to pop-culture figures without any meaning of setup, context, or satire, like half-hearted momentary glances to the Jersey Shore goons, Gossip Girl, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and an inexplicable reference to Alice in Wonderland. The heroine is seen getting shot by a stray bullet and falling down the rabbit hole. What makes that funny? Is it funny because we recognize the identity of who was shot? Would it therefore not be funny if it was an unknown victim? Wouldn’t it be more amusing if the figure who got clipped was someone who people secretly, or openly, wished would get injured? Does anyone hold such animosity against Alice? But this example also showcases the comedy construction issues that plague Friedberg/Seltzer movies. I just don’t know if these guys understand the fundamentals (fall down = funny) but they haven’t advanced beyond the infantile stage. Take for instance a scene where Edward promises Becca that he won’t ever let anything hurt her. Obviously we know what will happen next and sure enough the roof caves in on her while Edward stands and grimaces. The joke sort of works (I’m feeling charitable) as long as the onslaught of bricks keeps falling on the off camera Becca. But when Friedberg and Seltzer cut to a shot of legs kicking underneath an increasing pile of bricks and hold onto the shot for ten seconds, it kills the gag. Editing choices change the violence from cartoonish to uncomfortable, and realistic violence is rarely funny.

Friedberg and Seltzer litter their script with wandering setups in desperate search for punch lines. Take the line: “We’re just like any normal family, except we never go to sleep and drink blood.” The line is begging for a “like” reference to make a further connection. As is, it’s a setup disguised as a weak punch line, and they’re everywhere in Vampires Sucks. I kept waiting for punch lines that never came. The best example is Bella and her friend leaving a theater that is playing the final Twilight film, Breaking Dawn (unclear which half). They stroll along the theater loudly complaining about the absurd ending and then the Twilight fans waiting outside are upset that the ending has been spoiled for them. This joke stands in direct conflict with the Twilight subculture it intends to satirize. Twilight fans are obsessed about their brand and alliances (Team Edward vs. Team Jacob). And these people would not wait a nano-second to be surprised by plot. They voraciously consume all things Twilight and know every detail. The idea that obsessive Twilight fans would willingly abstain from knowing the ending of the book series is preposterous. This joke does not work at the construction level.

Perhaps the reason why Vampires Sucks feels less scattershot and cannibalistic of pop-culture is because the film spends less time lampooning Twilight and more time replicating them. Many scenes play out in the same fashion as Twilight and New Moon, so you’re left scratching your head and waiting for when something deemed a “joke” in other contexts, though they don’t have the same feel here. What happens is that you end up with a Twilight movie that just ends scenes with people getting subjected to slapstick violence. A rule you can set your watch to: in a Friedberg/Seltzer movie, if a character throws something off screen, it will hit another character in the head or, if recipient of broadside is male, the junk.

Since the Twilight series is so overwrought with teenager hormones and old-fashioned yearning, it practically begs to be mocked. Because it’s so ripe a subject for ridicule every now and then Friedberg and Seltzer stumble upon a mildly effective shot at the goofy, gooey nature of the vampire series. It’s all criticisms that have been well established, including the pre-teen wish-fulfillment angle I’ve touched upon in all three of my personal Twilight reviews. One of the three and a half laughs I gave this movie was a faux alt-rock song by Magicwandos called “Panties” with lyrics like, “I feel so lonely/ Nobody gets me/ I feel so unhappy/ Why can’t I find a cool, alternative boyfriend?” and the chorus, “We can watch Degrassi/ Shop at Hot Topic/ Sexting dirty pics of me in my panties.” It’s pretty one-the-nose and not very nuanced but it got me to laugh, plus it’s a laugh I can credit to the band Magicwandos and not Friedberg and Seltzer. After five movies, Friedberg and Seltzer have made me laugh a total estimate of 8 times. At a combined 410 minutes, that’s .87 laughs per hour.

The lead actress is far, far too good for this movie. Proske delivers a spot-on impersonation of Kristen Stewart’s acting mannerisms, from playing with her hair, to lip biting, to the blink-heavy shifty eyes and mumbled monotone. Proske isn’t given much assistance from Friedberg and Seltzer but she still provides one reason to watch the screen for those painful 80 minutes. It’s too bad she isn’t given anything funny to do or say. It’s a waste of a perfectly good Kristen Stewart impersonation. You may also recognize Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall) and openly wonder why good comedic actors would be duped into a Friedberg/Seltzer production. The answer can only be that of gambling debts. I’m shocked that Carmen Electra is nowhere to be seen, thus breaking her streak of appearances in 4 Friedberg/Seltzer movies.

In the realm of crappy cinema, Vampires Sucks definitely lives up to its lofty title. Yet it’s not the outright creative abomination and entertainment vacuum that was Epic Movie (worst films of 2007), Meet the Spartans, and Disaster Movie. Does that qualify the film as good? Not even close. Relying less on Friedberg and Seltzer’s M.O. of disposable pop-culture references posing as “jokes,” Vampires Sucks manages to suck less by the sheer genius act of laziness. The film doesn’t attempt as many jokes therefore offering fewer opportunities for jokes to die horrible, excruciating deaths. The ratio of comedic failure is still the same depressing level of ineptitude, but less jokes equates to less mind-numbing torture disguised as comedy. It also makes the movie more pointless and an even bigger waste of time than previous Friedberg/Seltzer efforts. It’s the kind of accident that doesn’t even allow for rubbernecking.

I’m finding it hard to as incensed as other Friedberg/Seltzer movies have made me. These guys bring out something virulent from me. Maybe it’s my love of movies and comedy and my distaste for hacks being rewarded for repeated hackwork. Maybe I’m trying to take a final stand against the cultural shift that confuses situation-free pop-culture references as jokes. Whatever the case, the guys are at the top of my cinematic shit list. So you can trust me when I say that Vampires Sucks is easily terrible, poorly conceived, poorly filmed, and with limited aims that it still misses by a mile, but it’s not the abysmal, faith-destroying experiences that the last three Friedberg/Seltzer offerings were. It is simply just bad. Really, really bad. And yet with Friedberg and Seltzer, that is an improvement. It’s all about perspective, people.

Nate’s Grade: D

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