“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” Review

The concept behind “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is simple. Take historical events and actions and add vampires to the mix. Shake well, and hope that people appreciate the joke. In the original novel, Seth Grahame-Smith pulled it off by showing readers the grand scope and narrative heft ofLincoln’s life in great detail. But Grahame-Smith bungles his own adaptation by simultaneously providing too much and not enough.

The story, unsurprisingly, is that Abraham Lincoln has some vampires to hunt. After seeing his mother murdered by a vampire, he makes it his life’s mission to hunt the bloodsuckers down one by one. He comes across another crusader, Henry Sturges (an awesome Dominic Cooper), who trainsLincolnand gives him high-profile targets to kill. The head vampire is Adam, played convincingly by Rufus Sewell. Although he realizes the life of a hunter is an isolated one, he can’t help falling for Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He begins to find his life as a hunter conflicting with his burgeoning romance and political career.

As unfair an accusation as it may be, a big problem with the film is that it is not, in fact, the book. Grahame-Smith’s own screenplay lacks his detailed and engaging prose, and many of his hefty ideas. For example, the parallel between the blood-sucking vampires and the human slave owners who figuratively sucked the blood from an entire race of people, so eloquently explored in the book, is merely hinted at here. Also, many of the great scenes from the book are not even used; instead we get more “movie friendly” set pieces that are ridiculous in their silliness. A fight that takes place atop a stampede of horses is particularly idiotic.

Many critics would not consider it fair to read the book and then criticize the movie for not living up to those standards, and there is definitely some truth to that. But I can’t help but thinking of a movie like “Watchmen” which, flawed as it was, managed to retain the lofty ideas and pivotal scenes from its excellent source material.

So, is the movie good for people who haven’t read the book? Well, things don’t start off too good. Much of the movie is a jumbled mess of half-completed actions scenes, clumsy editing and inconsistent acting. Winstead, who was so good in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” comes off as an actor trying to play Mary Todd Lincoln. She doesn’t seem to embody the role.

Equally distracting is the uneven visuals. The vampires look great, but the cinematography is excessively dim (even in 2D), and the screen often looks like its been soaked in tar.

But something strange happens about halfway through the movie. It gets, dare I say, good. Not just the story, but the acting. Benjamin Walker, who seems miscast as Abraham Lincoln, suddenly seems to embody the sixteenth president. I still wouldn’t say he looks likeLincoln, but his acting provides an emotional heft that can be surprisingly resonant, particularly in his scenes with Winstead, who also finds her own during the second half, partially due to some good makeup work. AsLincolnmust decide between his crusade and the good of the nation, and where those two overlap, the film finds its pulse. There’s even an actions sequence on a train that is visually stunning and features some excellent action scenes.

Unfortunately, at that point, the movie is pretty much over. Without giving too much away, it ends before the book does. The movie leaves a lot of the plot to the imagination, while focusing too much on gory action that overuses slow-mo to an almost excruciating degree. Is it fair to ask for a more detailed and less rushed plot from a movie like this, source material notwithstanding? I think so, but maybe I’m being too harsh.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is never anything less than ridiculously silly, but never anything less than entertaining, either. Alas, despite being filled with vampires, the movie never really gets the blood pumping. But, during the second half in particular, it is probably better than it has any right to be. That doesn’t make it good, but…it’s something.

Classic Hunter: “Ace in the Hole”

I have a soft spot for classic films. My list of favorite movies often differs greatly from those of people my own age, and I will always find Turner Classic Movies’ host Robert Osborne more of a man than George Clooney and Brad Pitt put together. Here, the classic geek in me reviews classic movies. Sometimes, it will be as I see them for the first time myself; other times, it will be after re-watching one of my favorites. Either way, I hope you’ll check these out, especially if the majority of movies you watch are in color. 


Billy Wilder’s 1951 classic “Ace in the Hole” is a great movie about bad people. Or perhaps it’s a great movie about good people corrupted by the idea of greatness.

Charles Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas, certainly knew greatness once. As a hot-shot journalist in cities likeChicagoandNew York, he ruffled more than a few feathers. But libel lawsuits and Tatum’s notorious alcoholism shot him straight back to the bottom. He shows up at a quaint newspaper in Albuquerque,New Mexico, looking for that one big story that will restart his career and bring him back into the good graces of New York’s media elite.

After spending a year writing about rattlesnake hunts and tornadoes that never showed up, Tatum gets his story when he hears about a local man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who is trapped under rubble in a mountain while digging for ancient Indian artifacts. He sees an opportunity to exploit the story for all it’s worth.

Kirk Douglas made his career off of playing honorable heroes in such films as “Spartacus” and “Paths of Glory,” but there’s none of that here. He’s mostly a snake, and, even his brief moments of humanity are in stark contrast to his actions. He’s not really a character to root for, but, withDouglasthis memorable in the role, he doesn’t have to be. WatchingDouglasis like coming into contact with a terrifying force of nature; the on-screen spectacle he creates is never anything short of mesmerizing.

The campaign to “save” Minosa, led by Tatum, reveals a colorful cast of characters, including the sheriff, who hopes to use the rescue as an opportunity to boost his reelection campaign, and Minosa’s wife, Lorraine (played with icy effectiveness by Jan Sterling), who desires to use her husband’s predicament as an opportunity to split town and make something for herself.

Billy Wilder was one of the first Hollywooddirectors to subvert the traditional archetypes of hero and villain, and one of the first to reject the typical happy ending. Even his comedies, such as the famous “Some Like it Hot, end on a note of apprehension and uncertainty about the future. The same goes here. The only truly “good” characters here are Leo Minosa and Tatum’sAlbuquerque editor, Jacob Q. Boot (Porte Hall); one trapped in a hole and the other facing irrelevance as the sensible “old guard” of journalism is swept away by sensationalism and the desire to be the first rather than the best. In Wilder’s world, the crooked are powerful and the good are often fighting against a system that finds them increasingly useless.

Looking back on the film today, it’s amazing to see how prescient it was about the course of journalism. In an era of increasing sensationalism, Wilder saw honesty as the first thing to go. Indeed, Tatum fabricates story elements in order to give the people “what they want.” In a world of quick-hit online journalism, this idea is more relevant than ever. But, more importantly, Wilder nailed the idea of the reporter as celebrity and active participant rather than impartial observer. Tatum takes an active role in the rescue efforts and does all he can to bolster his public image. In the process, the publicity becomes more about him than the man stuck in the mountain. This was all before the television even came along. It’s not hard to watch someone like Anderson Cooper today and nod in acknowledgement.

Tatum becomes fiercely protective of “his story” as the big city reporters start to move in on his turf. “This is my story,” he tells the sheriff, “and I’m going to make sure it stays mine.” The idea that stories are shared, and that people’s lives are not a commodity, does not cross his mind. Meanwhile, the popularity of the story brings in spectators from all over the country, and a carnival is set up to entertain the guests. It’s not a subtle image, but it is an effective one.

Without giving too much away, hardly anyone gets what they want by the end. And, with a story this cynical, how can they? Wilder desired to reveal the lowest depths human nature has to offer, and he did so splendidly. Despite this, the movie remains a joy to watch, filled with fine performances and particularly good black-and-white cinematography, emphasizing harsh shadows and showcasing the barren desolation of the desert landscapes.

“Ace in the Hole” is a truly great movie, and an oft-forgotten one in the Billy Wilder cannon. And, in today’s increasingly fast-paced and bottom-dollar world of journalism, it’s an important reminder that, when the humanity is taken out of “human interest,” nobody wins. It’s available on Netflix instant until the end of the month.

Netflix Hunter: “Rubber”

I’m trying out a couple of different ideas for “series,” if you will. People always seem to complain that there’s “never anything good on Netflix,” but I say they just don’t know how to sort through the vast amounts of useless garbage to find the gems hidden within. Some people might consider this one useless garbage. I don’t. 

“Do you think the tire’s gonna get laid?” Not a line I thought I’d ever hear in a movie. But, then again, “Rubber” is no ordinary movie. The opening of this incredibly odd film contains a monologue that describes how “all great films contain an important element of ‘no reason.’”

“This film is an homage to ‘no reason,’” the narrator, a police officer who is also one of the main characters, explains. Well, at least the filmmakers are willing to admit their movie is pointless. But really, did you expect a movie about a killer tire to need a reason to exist?

“Rubber” goes out of its way to let you know that the filmmakers are in on the joke, that yes, they know the movie is bad. They even create an audience of characters who are watching the events of the film to point out all of the strange pointlessness.

But, here’s the funny thing: the movie isn’t nearly as bad as its creators seem to think it is. While it borrows from a great many movies, it is itself, a unique creation.

The “birth” of the tire is an impressive scene. As it slowly picks itself up out of the sand, it attempts to stand up straight, faltering just a few times. As it begins to roll, it explores both its abilities and its limitations, such as whether it can roll over a water bottle or through a puddle of water. The camera follows from behind, providing, as best as it can, a “point of view” perspective from the “eyes” of the tire. Without dialogue or even sound, the tire is effectively brought to life and given a personality.

Pretty soon, however, we see that the tire has “psychokinetic powers,” and can make things explode with its…mind, I guess. It blows up a rabbit and a crow before making its way up to humans. For just a moment, I felt empathy for this sad little tire, but I can’t muster that much emotion for a serial killer.

Not that I was expecting to feel genuine emotion in a movie about a killer tire anyway. The film, which moves at a brisk pace, is, to put it mildly, odd and surprising. Others might call it batshit insane. Few movies these days are genuinely surprise or offer us something we haven’t seen before. If nothing else, it’s definitely something new. To top it off, this movie does it all with high production values and an unexpected amount of polish, not to mention a healthy dose of self-deprecation.

When you get down to it, “Rubber” is nothing more than artfully constructed schlock. But hey, if you’re in the mood for something stupid, at least you can enjoy some well-executed stupidity.

…And, in case you were wondering, no, the tire doesn’t “get laid.” Even this movie isn’t quite that weird. There’s probably some porn for that out there somewhere. “Rubber” is available now on Netflix instant.

God Presents: At the Movies

If there’s one thing about Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi opus “Prometheus” that stand out, it’s this: the movie sure seems to have God on its mind. In fact, a viewer would not be remiss to refer to it as a philosophical pondering on the nature of humanity to its creator or creators before calling it a science fiction film.

While Scott and the screenwriters of “Prometheus” have no desire to preach, they nonetheless reflect one of the more unexpected changes that Hollywoodcinema has undergone in recent years: the shift from wondering if God exists to wondering who he is and why he exists. It seems that God, in one form or another, is becoming a given in the eyes of many prominent filmmakers. For Scott, at least, this subtle-yet-powerful change in perspective is reflected in his own changing beliefs. In an interview with The New York Times, the filmmaker said he had “converted” from atheism to agnosticism. His attitude towards God? “Now my feeling goes with ‘could be.'” Perhaps more important than Scott’s searching is his willingness to admit such a thing in public and, even, express such thoughts through his art. But he’s not the only one asking questions.

One of the most theological filmmakers working in the industry is, and always has been, Terrence Malick. He has never provided many answers, but has always asked excellent questions. His latest film, “The Tree of Life, focuses on the life of a family living in the South, and how God intervenes in their lives in the midst of tragedy. At the beginning of the film, Mrs. O’Brien says, “there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” Malick establishes a world where there is an intersection between tangible creation and the realm of the spirit. Despite this intermingling, the two are nonetheless distinct entities. Compare this to say, the presentation of the Earth and the spiritual as one and the same, as in James Cameron’s Avatar. 

Some recent movies have been a bit more overt in their spiritual implications. In “The Adjustment Bureau,” we find two people who meet and fall in love, despite the fact that it wasn’t part of the “plan.” This plan is created by the “chairman” (aka God) and enforced by the “adjustment bureau” (aka angels). In this world, there is a clear force that guides humanity on a set path. When the politician David Norris deviates from the path by risking his political career for the sake of love, the bureau comes in to set everything right.

In one telling scene, Norris, played by Matt Damon, asks bureau agent Thompson, “whatever happened to Free Will?” Thompson responds, “We actually tried Free Will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of theRoman Empirewe stepped back to see how you’d do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries… until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought maybe we just needed to do a better job of teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason, then in 1910 we stepped back. Within fifty years, you’d brought us World War I, the Depression, Fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that point a decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn’t fix. You don’t have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.” Here, the creator gave humanity a chance, but we proved to be inept at running ourselves, so he kindly stepped back in to guide us on the path.

A film with more overt Judeo-Christian implications is the Denzel Washington vehicle The Book of Eli. Washington plays a man on a mission from God to travel West while protecting a powerful “book,” the last of its kind, which is clearly the Bible. Eli reads the book religiously and protects it at all costs. At the end of the film, Eli prays to a clearly-defined God: “Dear Lord, thank you for giving me the strength and the conviction to complete the task you entrusted to me. Thank you for guiding me straight and true through the many obstacles in my path. And for keeping me resolute when all around seemed lost. Thank you for your protection and your many signs along the way. Thank you for any good that I may have done, I’m so sorry about the bad.” Eli’s mission is never his own, but is guided by a clear light from above. God is omnipresent, even in a violent, apocalyptic wasteland. Returning from a screening, a friend of mine excitedly proclaimed, “I want to read the Bible. Like, right now!”

Back in the world of “Prometheus,” the android, David asks the scientist, Charlie, “Why do you think people made me?” Charlie responds, “We made you because we could.” David’s reply: “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be to hear that from your creator?” That’s pretty heavy, even by sci-fi standards. I don’t think people of faith want to go see “religious” movies. Like any good moviegoer, they want to be challenged. They want to know that popular filmmakers are taking the idea of God seriously.They want to hear good questions. And, for a generation increasingly wary of religion and its role in the public sphere, people are being asked to ponder these questions in the last place they’d expect; a dark and crowded theater, as they sit down to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.


Taking on Ebert

This guy created a website that specifically chronicles his picks for the great critic Roger Ebert’s 75 worst reviews in a very  respectful manner. I think he’s right on with a lot of these; Roger’s my favorite critic, but I often think he can be harsh on greatness and very forgiving of garbage.


“Prometheus” Review

       Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is the kind of sci-fi movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Big, ambitious, and waxing philosophical, it’s a film of intelligent ideas, which is not something you can say about most movies featuring sentient beings from another planet these days. And, while it can sometimes be lumbering, and is certainly too epic for its own good, Scott proves that, like the mythological Titan from whom the film gets its name, it is sometimes better to try and fall short than to not try at all.

      After one of the more enigmatic (not to mention disturbing) openings in recent memory, the film introduces us to the crew of the spaceship Prometheus, who believe they have found another planet that may play host to extraterrestrial life. But these aren’t just any aliens; they are our creators. At least, that’s what scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) think. Others on the ship, such as Captain Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), are not so sure. They’re just in it for the money. Conflict ensues between the scientists, who are eager to ask their creators why they were created, and Vickers, who has no desire for contact, only proof of the creators’ existence.

            The cast here is phenomenal. Theron turns in another great performance a second week in a row, and Rapace is very believable as the scientist who is just trying to put everything together. The star of the show, however, is Michael Fassbender as the android David. Praising Fassbender is par for the course these days, but I am not yet done being   surprised by how consistently excellent he is.

Searching for the origins of life is not a task to be taken lightly, and Scott treats the subject of man’s search for meaning in the universe with appropriate gravitas. It’s refreshing to see a blockbuster filmmaker ask big questions about God, man’s place in the universe, and even the place of the universe itself without offering definitive answers one way or the other. And, rather than glossing over the theological implications of such an expedition, screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (a Lost veteran) allow us to revel in the mystery.

Unfortunately, some of the mystery reveals itself in unresolved plot points and incomplete character development. This is most evident in the character of David, who makes a major decision in the first half of the movie that is never explained. We see the consequences of his actions, but are never led to why he did what he did in the first place. It’s a shame, because Fassbender’s performance is so good, that we can never really understand if we’re supposed to be rooting for him or against him.

While the film’s reach extends its grasp in some areas, it benefits from Scott’s minimalistic filmmaking. The film is gorgeous, yes, but it’s not flashy, and there’s nary an explosion in sight. He allows the story to unfold slowly, the pace rising alongside the intensity. Other than one scene, it never reaches fever-pitch levels of horror like his original Alien consistently delivered, but that does not make it slow. The pacing fits the more contemplative and philosophical nature of the screenplay.

Whether you like it or not, Prometheus is the kind of film that sticks with you. Ever since leaving the theater, I find myself mulling over its lofty themes and reflecting on the beauty of its cinematography. It’s the most obtuse film this side of The Tree of Life, but that’s what makes it stand out amidst a Summer sure to be filled with explosions and check-your-brain-at-the-door plotlines, Prometheus is far from perfect, but it’s haunting, thrilling, and, most importantly, has something to say. What is that something? Beats me. Just sit back and enjoy the mystery. 

“Snow White and the Huntsman” Review

At the beginning of Snow White and the Huntsman, it is established that the King of the land marries the Queen the day after he meets her. I was inclined to think that this was a sly mockery of the whole “we just met let’s get married” motif that runs throughout most classic fairy tales (not to mention their Disney adaptations). If I had known of the generic dark fantasy adventure that awaited me, I wouldn’t have been inclined to give the film that much credit.

It all begins well enough. After the death of the Queen, the King grieves, but gets over it pretty quickly when he finds a beautiful blonde (Charlize Theron) as a spoil of war. She appears innocent enough, but it turns out she is actually evil (gasp!) After killing the King and taking over the throne, she locks the King’s daughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in a dungeon. The film shrugs off the rather important question as to why the Queen keeps Snow White alive in the first place (because then she’d be dead and we’d have no movie, probably).

You know how the rest goes. There’s a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), dwarves (eight this time, providing some much-needed comic relief) and a poisoned apple. The movie, however, twists some of these familiar plot points in some occasionally surprising ways, but even these small twists can’t help the film from falling into bland familiarity.

The problem is not so much the story, but rather the way in which the story is told. In a post-Lord of the Rings world, generic fantasy just doesn’t cut it anymore. The film is constantly caught between its desire to be a revisionist fantasy and its constant reliance on the most staid of fantasy tropes. We get large battle scenes straight out of a Ridley Scott film ( flaming projectiles and tar are present and accounted for) and sweeping, birds-eye-view camera shots of traveling companions ripped wholesale from The Lord of the Rings.

It’s a shame, because the visuals are, on the whole, rapturous, particularly the scenes in the enchanted forest. Some top-notch CGI work even leads to some winking references to the original Disney animated film. They’re some of the best visuals I’ve seen in a long while; I just wish they were wrapped in a better package.

The acting is also a mixed bag. Theron is fantastic in the role of the evil Queen. Her beauty notwithstanding, she really knows how to have fun with and add complexity to a familiar character. She expertly balances the fine line between terrifying and campy, and that is meant as a great complement. Hemsworth is just playing Thor again, and Kristen Stewart does, thankfully, cut down on the lip-biting. I appreciate the film’s attempt to paint her character as a capable feminine hero, rather than a damsel in distress, but her character arc is practically non-existent. Early in the film, she tells the Huntsman that she can’t imagine ever having to kill someone. By the end, she’s killing enemy soldiers with panache. Maybe the training montage had to be cut.

There is an excellent movie here somewhere, but it is trapped in a package of bland familiarity. While it may be ambitious for a Snow White adaptation, as a dark fantasy epic, it plays it way too safe.

I’m all for violent, revisionist updates on classic fairy tales, and hope to see more in the future. Next time, though, I would appreciate a bit more originality.

What It’s All About

My name is Kyle, and I like movies. Like, a lot. Seriously, it’s downright unhealthy. I am also a big fan of pop culture in general, and, as an aspiring journalist, my writing tends to lean towards coverage of the arts and entertainment. I am acutely aware of the power that entertainment and popular culture can have over our lives. This power can be positive, but is most often negative, particularly in regards to the cult of celebrity that pervades our culture.

So, why this blog? First and foremost, I am here to write about things that interest me (and hopefully you too), and this is a good outlet in which to do so. Beyond that, I am here to demystify the sometimes gloomy pall that popular culture can cast over us. We often consume our entertainment passively, without realizing what it is actually doing to us. This is not the way it’s supposed to work. We need to engage the culture around us, and, sometimes, our greatest cultural discussions begin after we leave the movie theater, or during the commercial breaks of our favorite TV shows. If we don’t analyze our entertainment, it becomes more difficult to analyze the world around us.

Now, some might say “well, it’s just entertainment, it doesn’t affect my life.” And yes, some entertainment is probably that disposable. But, even the lightest of entertainment has probably caused you to feel something. Maybe a light, airy comedy you caught on TV has pulled you out of a slump, turning your day from bad to good. Or, maybe an evening newscast or episode of “Dateline” has bummed you out. At the very least, entertainment often affects our moment-to-moment moods.

At its best, however, entertainment isn’t just a reflection of life. It is life itself. Filmmakers, novelists, and video game designers bring their own life experiences into their works. This kind of entertainment doesn’t just affect our mood; it can reveal a part of ourselves we didn’t know existed, or illuminate a topic we had no idea was so important.

So, how will I approach entertainment here? Through thoughtful reviews, essays, news critiques and analyses, I will try to get at the deeper meaning of entertainment. But, I will also share tons of aggregated content or post my own reflections that are just plain fun. It is entertainment, after all, and if I make everything serious and stoic, no one will have any fun (including myself).

So, please, explore the world of entertainment and pop culture with me. I hope you enjoy (and maybe feel a bit more illuminated in the process).