Movies

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and To Rome with Love

An anemic muddle and a good Woody Allen.

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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."

Meanwhile, another American student, Hayley (Alison Pill), has gotten engaged to a handsome young Italian lawyer named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Her parents, Jerry (Woody) and Phyllis (Judy Davis), are on their way to Rome to meet their daughter's fiancé. Upon arrival, they all pay a visit to Michelangelo's parents. There, Jerry, a retired opera producer, discovers that Michelangelo's father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), is a world-class singer. (Armiliato, making his movie debut, is actually a noted operatic tenor.) Unfortunately, Giancarlo only sings in the shower. Jerry, itching to break out of retirement, determines to make Giancarlo an opera star. Since Jerry's own opera productions tended toward the avant-garde (staging Tosca in a phone booth, casting Rigoletto with mice), he feels he can work around this shower problem.

Then there's a newlywed provincial couple, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardo), who have just checked into a Roman hotel, and are awaiting a visit from Antonio's straight-laced relatives. But then Milly goes out and gets lost in the teeming streets, leaving Antonio alone in their hotel room, where he's soon surprised by the arrival of a spectacular call girl named Anna (Penélope Cruz), who has been prepaid to provide her services to a man who unfortunately is not Antonio. Then his relatives arrive to meet Antonio's new bride—who unfortunately is not Anna. Although not for long.

Finally, we have a shlumpy office drone named Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), a family man to whom nothing of interest has ever happened—until he steps out of his apartment one day and is accosted by a gaggle of tabloid reporters. He protests that they must have mistaken him for someone famous. But then a limo pulls up and he finds himself being driven to a TV studio, where he makes a talk-show appearance that turns him suddenly into a national star. Soon he's being harried for autographs and hit upon by gorgeous women who want to sleep with him. Leopoldo is appalled by this unexpected glitter storm…although not entirely.

The movie is an exercise in virtuoso confusion. Despite its structural complexity, it never wanders into incoherence or mindless clamor. It doesn't have the perfect fantasy glow of Midnight in Paris, but it does offer the uncommon pleasures of trimly wrought dialogue, witty situations, and some fine comic actors who seem happy to be serving their director's familiar purposes. Which, depending on your Woodman stance, I suppose, could be enough.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.