Among other unfortunate things, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter must be the crummiest-looking big-budget movie of the year to date. The picture has the flat lighting of a TV soap opera, and its effects—brazenly fakey landscapes under highly unlikely skies—might have been devised by a small child with a birthday watercolor set.
Also problematic is the film’s star, Benjamin Walker, a well-regarded stage actor who’s too bland here—and, worse, a bit too Randy-Quaid-like—to really work the stovepipe hat of our sixteenth president.
The Lincoln we have in this telling, of course, is more than just the log-chopper and Great Emancipator of history: he’s a scourge of the legions of vampires who infest his young country (with a heavy concentration in the Old South). This cute idea is the work of screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, adapting his own novel, which was itself a sequel to his breakthrough stunt, the 2009 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The movie might have been better with a bit more humor—well, intentional humor—of the sort that would seem to be inherent in the story’s smart-aleck concept. But Kazakhstani director Timur Bekmambetov is not a man to whom one goes for sly wit. Best known for his sprawling Russian vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch, and for the amusingly excessive Angelina Jolie vehicle Wanted, Bekmambetov is a filmmaker for whom too much can never begin to be enough, and he pulls out every available stop for the two most imaginative sequences here—a wild chase staged amid a thundering horse stampede and a raging confrontation aboard a train racing across a burning railroad bridge.
You can almost feel the director’s attention wander during the movie’s occasional quiet interludes—at a decorous ballroom gathering, for example—and then snap back for each of the many fight scenes. Unfortunately, this being the oblivious Bekmambetov, the leaping slo-mo martial moves on display, purportedly taking place in the mid-19th century, clearly date back no farther than The Matrix.
The story is simple. At the age of nine, little Abe runs afoul of a vile character named Barts (Marton Csokas, over-snarling). Barts is secretly a vampire, and when he steals into the cabinesque Lincoln home and bites Abe’s mother, causing her death, the boy vows to someday exact revenge. Nine years later, he’s ready. Armed with a pistol, he confronts Barts and shoots him. You can imagine how that goes. Having failed, Abe (now played by Walker) comes under the tutelage of Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a rogue vampire who’s determined, for touching personal reasons, to expunge the countrywide vampire plague, and ultimately to exterminate the top bloodsucker, a handsome fiend named Adam (Rufus Sewell).
Here it must be mentioned that all of the vampires in this movie are able to walk around in broad daylight solely with the aid of stylish steampunk sunglasses. Just so you know.
Abe takes a job clerking in a general store. He reunites with his childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), who becomes his loyal factotum. He studies law and hones his oratory skills. With tips from Sturgess he begins to terminate local vampires, using a trusty axe with a silver-coated blade. He meets the angelic Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), his future wife. He glues on a beard. He becomes a legislator. He becomes president. Then the Civil War breaks out, for reasons more complex than those traditionally adduced.
It turns out that the conflict wasn’t solely about abolishing slavery; it was also about vampire civil rights. (Feel free to think True Blood here.) The vampires want their own homeland, and in one scene we see the foul Adam extracting a promise of same from Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, the tradeoff being a commitment of vampire troops to the Rebel cause.
This is pretty clever. And it’s funny to see Union soldiers rearing back in horror as the uniformed vampires attack, their jaws stretched wide to bare mouths full of phlegm-webbed fangs. But since this effect is attained with the most cheapjack CGI (you’d never guess Tim Burton was a producer on this project), and since we see so much of it throughout the film, the thrill soon fades.
The movie ends with a jokey reference to a future tragedy that drew snickers at the screening I attended. But maybe the whole picture should have been played for laughs. That might have been a better—or at least more entertaining—direction to pursue. As opposed to the direction in which I suspect this movie may soon be headed.
To Rome with Love
In his late-period Euro films, Woody Allen has been content to employ the most familiar tourist sites for shorthand atmosphere. In the 2005 Match Point he wheeled in Westminster and St. James’s Park; in last year’s Midnight in Paris we got the Pont Neuf and the spires of Notre Dame. Now, in To Rome with Love, he naturally highlights the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps; and in a more resonant moment, he shows us a flirting couple at the Fontana di Trevi, where Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg splashed about in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, more than 50 years ago.
Allen is an avid Fellini admirer, and like the master’s great film, his latest is an examination of, among other things, the phenomenon of fame and the shallows of celebrity. It’s not a profound contemplation—Allen’s touch is light and charmingly comic, and he’s too sophisticated to pretend that even the most burdensome fame has no compensating pleasures. Why lie?
The director’s script is a roundelay of unconnected stories. In one of these we meet young Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an American student living in Rome studying architecture. In the street he encounters John (Alec Baldwin), a famous architect on vacation, who spent his own student days in Rome—in Jack’s very neighborhood—long ago. Jack invites the older man back to the apartment he shares with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), who informs Jack that her friend Monica (Ellen Page) will soon be arriving to spend some time with them. Sally notes that Monica is sensual and seductive, and the middle-aged John, remembering the ill-advised infatuations of his own youth, immediately warns Jack not to become involved with her.
This proves difficult. Monica, when she arrives, chatters provocatively about a lesbian affair she once had and scatters intellectual buzzwords—Rilke, Gaudí, Pound—like worn pennies. John knows she’s a poser, but Jack is entranced. Finally giving up, John tells him, “Go ahead, walk into the propeller.”