This Week In Film: The Good, The Not So Great, And The Insane

By , Columnist

After last week’s round of movie “meh,” the summer heats up again with some pretty damn strong releases.

First up the geniuses at the once Apple owned Pixar have gone and done it again, making yet another animated classic not just for children, but for anyone with eyeballs and ear holes. Next up is the gentle apocalypse comedy Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, which is guaranteed to thrill anyone obsessed with quirky semi-indie comedy and induce eyerolls in the rest of the audience.

Finally if you don’t care for movie that make you feel warm and gooey, then there’s a movie in which people get chopped up and spill out things that are warm and gooey. In this case I’m talkin’ bout Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a batshit insane horror/action movie that somehow managed to sneak out of a major studio and feels destined for some sort of cult appreciation. There’s definitely something for everyone at the multiplex this weekend, particularly considering the fact that Pixar movies are kind of for everyone already.

The Good: Brave 

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If you want a joyfully entertaining blockbuster with some emotional weight, you may as well go to the folks at Pixar. Aside from last year’s absolutely dreadful Cars 2, the studio has been cranking out one classic after another since launching the first CGI animated feature Toy Story back in 1995. Their latest effort Brave might not be their most adventurous or ambitious outing, but it kicks in all the Pixar staples for a gorgeous slice of entertainment guaranteed to plaster a smile on rambunctious children and cynical adults alike. Even though the film doesn’t dare attempt to be as complex as say Wall-E or Ratatouille, the fact that the Pixar wizards were able to create a princess title that doesn’t induce nausea like Disney’s last few failed attempts is an achievement in itself.

Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly MacDonald stars as Merida, a 10th century Scottish princess who in the opening scene is given a bow and arrow by her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) much to the dismay of her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). Flash forward a few years and Merida has grown into a wild independent spirit and archery champion. Elinor invites rival clans to present Merida with a marriage suitor in accordance with tradition, but Merida despises the idea and the idiots who arrive. She shows up all of the suitors in an archery competition and flees, causing strife amongst the clan leaders (hilariously voiced by Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson) that only a mountain of ale and food from Fergus can cure. Merida runs off into the woods where she encounters a witch who offers the princess a spell that will change her mother’s mind. Unfortunately that spell turns Elinor into a bear that all the Scotsmen instantly want to rip apart. So mother and daughter must run and hide while trying to break the spell that will become permanent in a few short hours. 

This is the closest the Pixar team has come to producing a traditional fairy tale in their 17-year run and as a result it’s one of their most traditionally structured movies, but not in a bad way. The company didn’t just borrow the medieval magic aesthetic, but also the universal moral lesson at the heart of any good fairy tale.

The scenes between Merida and her Bear/mother pack an emotional weight that shouldn’t be possible given the inherent absurdity of the situation. The gentle humor Pixar is known for shines through in the character designs and voice performances (particularly from the great Billy Connolly who rarely gets the chance to use his considerable comedy chops in films), while co-director Mark Andrews shows off his background storyboarding films like Spiderman with some spectacular action sequences and supervises some of the most remarkable design work Pixar has ever accomplished with lush Scottish landscapes that border on photorealism.

The only unfortunate thing about Brave is that audiences and critics are so accustomed to this kind of excellence from Pixar that it might be a little soft peddled simply because it isn’t instantly their greatest accomplishment (somehow they managed to top themselves with every movie during the 2000s). Brave shouldn’t just be compared to titles like Toy Story and Finding Nemo, but also crap like Shrek The Third and Tangled. When stacked up against any other CGI feature being kicked around Hollywood, this thing is one hell of an achievement. 

The Not So Great: Seek A Friend For The End Of The World 

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It would be unfair to instantly dismiss Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World as an outright bad movie, just like it would be unfair to pretend that it’s anything special.

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s (Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist) apocalypse comedy at least has its heart in the right place and an impressive cast, but as the movie meanders and stumbles along there’s never much sense of urgency or even many laughs. The tone is intriguing, approaching the apocalypse from the perspective of characters who have accepted that the world will end soon and aren’t particularly panicked about it. Unfortunately Scafaria never really goes anywhere with it. Her movie is episodic by nature and does hit a few high points along the way, just not nearly enough.

Steve Carell stars as an insurance executive whose wife left the same night he learned the world would end once a fast approaching meteor smacked into the planet. While his friends played by the likes of Patton Oswalt and Rob Corddry, decide to whittle away their final days in an ever-lasting booze, sex, n’ drugs fueled party, Carell keeps going to his soul crushing job through some irrational sense of obligation.

Eventually he decides to try and hook up with an old high school flame and travels across the country with an eccentric vinyl-clutching British 20something (Keira Knightley) who is hoping to find one last flight to Britain before the planet goes kaput. At that point the whole thing turns into a road movie with the leads stumbling into a comedic collection of people struggling to deal with this whole “end of the world” thing. And hey, since this is a quirky comedy starring a depressed, but nice man and a manic girl with zest for life, do you think there might be a love story in there as well? Hmmm….

Carell does that sadsack thing well, though it’s sad to see such a comedic talent consistently wasted on playing middle age straightmen. Knightly is spunky and cute, but her character gets annoying over time rather than becoming increasingly appealing. Some comedic veterans wander in and out along the road to provide laughs, but nothing much sticks in this movie beyond the central concept (which sadly won’t seem too fresh to anyone who has seen Don McKellar’s deeply underrated Last Night).

Scafaria came up with a setting and characters that are intriguing, but seems to have forgotten to do much with it beyond the most obvious road movie and mismatched love story plot beats. Enough of Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World works that it’s not a movie to inspire rage or hate. It’s just one of those movies that never seems to live up to its clear potential. Definitely disappointing, if not a full on disaster of apocalyptically bad movie proportions.

The Insane: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter 

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Finally, this week we are all getting treated to one of the most ridiculous and absurd (in the best possible sense) blockbusters to come out of Hollywood in…well…ever.

Adapted from a book by Seth Grahame-Smith (a follow up to his best selling Jane Austen/zombie mashup) it tells the secret tale of Abraham Lincoln’s early days as a vampire before becoming a politician and how the bloodsuckers returned just in time for the end of the civil war. Getting into specifics is pointless as it’s just as absurd to describe as it is to watch. The good news is that the movie is a hell of a lot more fun than it has any right to be. Not quite a comedy, horror or action movie Grahame-Smith nimbly mixes all three genres through a deadpan absurdist tone that is completely unique and translates surprisingly well to the big screen.

A major reason for the film’s success was the choice of director Timur Bekmambetov (Nightwatch, Wanted). The man has a gift for visual design and insane set pieces that is put to good use here, particularly during Lincoln’s many silver axe-based vampire slaughtering sprees. Bekmambetov has always been a bit weak in terms characterization and storytelling, but in a weird way it kind of works here.

The director clearly never imposed himself onto Grahame-Smith’s script, which plays out true to the author’s voice. More importantly, he plays the inherent camp humor so straight it’s almost as if he didn’t realize the material was comedic. This works perfectly though. It’s easy to imagine a straight up comedy take on this exact script that would get a little muggy and irritating. However, with Bekmambetov not playing to the gags, they are there to be discovered only by knowing viewers and it’s all the more funny because of how seriously this ridiculous subject matter is treated.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an expert piece of genre cheese with mindblowing horror/action sequences, surprisingly understated performances from a cast of character actors rather than stars, and a sneaky n’ witty streak of dark/camp humor. It’s too weird to be a blockbuster hit, but just weird enough to become something of a cult classic. Movies this wacko and creative aren’t supposed to come out in the summer and certainly aren’t supposed to be financed by major studios. If you have the right sick sense of humor, this thing is an oddity to be cherished.

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Phil Brown was born years ago. He then grew up, went to university, and now reviews movies, interviews people and writes comedy. He writes for a number of websites and publications including the one you are currently reading. Phil can be found haunting movie theatres around Toronto. He isn't dangerous,…

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