Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Bekmambetov, 2012) and Beirut: The Last Home Movie (Fox, 1987)

Two films with colons in their titles!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

To call Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter revisionist history would be to give it credit beyond a rudimentary skimming of a 19th century United States narrative.

Honest Abe (a sickeningly earnest Benjamin Walker) hates vampires.  And who can blame him?  One is responsible, after all, for killing his mother.  So when Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), an enigmatic figure with a dark – and obvious – secret offers to train Abe in the art of vampire-killing, the future president takes up that famous cherry-tree axe, coats it in molten silver, and battles the undead.

Director Timur Bekmambetov – he of the brutally bad Night Watch/Day Watch Russian double-feature, and perhaps better known for his frenetic Wanted – sticks to his aesthetic guns, casting Lincoln in a highlight-heavy, slow-motion world, where night looks unnaturally blue and hazy light seems to always find a crack to shine through.

It’s not that the look of Lincoln is its only problem, it’s that it compounds them.  For such a bold title, Bekmambetov’s film feels a lot like a typical action flick, with slightly more awkward pacing and a few more tonal shifts.  That glossy look doesn’t help – steering the flick away from what could be an interesting reconstruction and towards a vampire movie that happens to feature Abraham Lincoln.

And that’s the main problem.  Like Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, the titular character feels more like a marketing tool than an intrinsic part of the narrative.  Sure, there’s some history involved here – vampires “explain” the turning tide of the battle of Gettysburg, the death of one of Lincoln’s sons, and the popularity of slavery in the south – but the two narrative threads – vampirism and the Civil War – aren’t inextricably linked.  Pull Lincoln out of here and you’ve got a pretty similar film to what’s up there now.  In short, Lincoln’s involvement is wasted.

While a recent film like District 9 is tied to its apartheid subtext inseparably, where the narrative is made stronger by commentaries and comparisons between a fictional alien subculture and actual Johannesburg, Lincoln, despite playing it straight-faced, sheds no new light on anything.   Instead, the film prefers to continue hammering “Lincoln-isms” into the audience’s head (how many times can the word “honest” or some iteration of it be said in a 105 minute span?) and juxtapose that gleefully with gory violence, hoping that the contradiction will be satisfactory enough.  It’s not.

How much logic do you want from a film that calls itself Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?  Do you care that Abe can knock down a tree in one swing because he says something true?  Do you care that his trusty sidekick Will (Anthony Mackie) can suddenly fight with the best of ‘em atop a moving train?  Or, because it’s a vampire narrative, do you also accept other absurdities?  The best horror/monster films concoct clever ways to establish the rules and then play by them.  Lincoln moves quickly past the rules, throwing a few others conveniently in along the way via clumsy exposition – vampires can’t kill other vampires?  Got it.  The pure of heart will die when bitten by a vampire but those with sin in them will become a vampire?  Check.  Lincoln can chop down said tree with one mighty, start-stop swing of an axe (but then doesn’t really ever exhibit said power again)?  Okay then.

What’s annoying about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the myriad of possibilities that are left on the table.  Rather than underplay the southern vampire-slave trade connection why not make the vampires less creatures of true evil and closer to the underprivileged African-American minority?  And can I get a John Wilkes Booth?

Outside of one pretty darn enthralling action sequence that takes place largely atop a pack of galloping horses – and notably relies on dramatic angles and editing more so than other overly slick techniques – and a very strong performance by Rufus Sewell as Adam, the lead vampire, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn’t live up to the possibilities of its name.

Beirut: The Last Home Movie

A lot of people that have seen Beirut are split.  Is this film a portrayal of a naive aristocratic family, whose upper-class malaise is more important to them than the Lebanese Civil War raging outside?  Or, conversely, is this a film about holding onto a last bastion of life, and of refusing to let the war impede upon daily routine?

What makes Jennifer Fox’s documentary about the Bustros family so fascinating is that both reads are accurate.  As much The Exterminating Angel and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis as it is Don’t Look Back, Fox has claimed that her doc is part re-creation.  A few choice quotes from an interview with her on the DVD extras:

“[The film is about] my wanting to understand the seduction of war.”

“The film is a recreation of what happened to Gaby [Bustros].”

Her re-creations aren’t the dramatic, Errol Morris type.  They’re far more hidden and less self-conscious.  The intention is to weave them into the narrative, not to stop the form to change gears.

Fox utilizes a variety of technique, particularly impactful crosscuts to make apparent her comparison – the Bustros inside their crumbling mansion vs. the war raging outside, for example.  A slow-motion sequence towards the end of the film, where the first real signs of death have finally appeared on-screen, pushes the tongue-in-cheek narrative even further.  Is this a film about a family and their beautiful old home?  A film about small possessions?  A film about life amidst decay and destruction?

Here’s a clip from the film:

Listen to the voiceovers.  They’re so dispassionate, detached.  The sequence beginning at 0:10 points to much of the re-creation in the film.  Some of those shots (0:31, for example), feel quite staged.  The few shots of war in this clip are also emblematic of its usage throughout the film: quick cuts, usually from a distance.  The connection made between the shots of war and the family is only that they are in the same film and nothing more – one does not seem to influence the other at all, and Fox keeps them separate in her technique as well.

The soundtrack of Beirut is perhaps the lone element that brings the Bustros family close to the war, but even that is subtle and distant – rumblings of gunfire and explosions miles away.  We pay more attention to them than does the family.

There’s a particularly great sequence involving a chandelier – and it’s worth noting that the film ends on a chandelier – which is the only time that the war seems to intrude into the house.  Fox utilizes near split-screens to literally section her characters off from what’s happening outside – placing them in only 40% of the frame, while the rest goes to black.  The intent is clear: even within the frame the family is cut off.

Here’s a poster for Beirut:

It’s a great poster, if not overdramatic (calling it a ‘psychological mystery’ seems like a stretch).  The poster designer here does a great job, nonetheless, of telling the story in a simple graphic design.  The Bustros are white and together, foregrounded in front of a building (i.e. the rest of Lebanon).  The lines in front of their face represent a dominant technique in the first half of the film – shooting through bars on windows and doors and really any foreground object to enhance the idea of a prison.  Who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside is up for debate.

TRAILER – Beirut Last Home Movie from TypecastReleasing on Vimeo.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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