Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Rating: 5.7) vs. Lincoln (Rating: 5.6) – DVD and theatrical viewing.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter received nearly unanimous critical pans when it was released in theaters last summer. Perhaps a lot of those critics tuned out as soon as they heard the movie’s admittedly ridiculous title, with some of them already even thinking about the more reverential Spielberg/Day-Lewis treatment they knew was waiting in the wings. Among the few positive notices: Suzi Doll praised the film’s “rich subtext” in a post at TCM’s Movie Morlocks site, and a capsule DVD review in the most recent issue of Film Comment makes it their “CGI Spectacle Pick,” calling it a “good bad movie.” AL:VH begins with a solemn voice-over, by the fine lead actor Benjamin Walker, intoning that “History prefers myths to men . . .,” a sly acknowledgment of the myth-making involved in all Presidential biopics. It isn’t long, however, before the film’s tone quickly and gleefully switches to one of cartoonish mayhem. While AL: VH is obviously, to put it mildly, a “low-brow” entertainment, there’s also no denying that it was directed in high-style. Director Timur Bekmambetov’s deft use of expressionist lighting and blue-tinting conjures up a consistently fun Gothic atmosphere, and his action/horror set-pieces recall the best traditions of American action filmmaking: a fist-fight on top of a train occurs while the train travels over a bridge that’s in the process of collapsing, a scene that merges iconic action movie moments that were first depicted in the silent era (The Great Train Robbery and The General, respectively).
There’s nothing nearly as fun nor as cinematic to be found in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which boasts a typically excellent Method performance from Daniel Day-Lewis but one that curiously feels as if it has been plunked down in the middle of a filmed stage play about Thaddeus Stevens. Remember what your high-school English teacher said about looking at how characters change in order to know what a story is about? Well, Stevens is the only character who changes. In fact, he’s the only character who comes across as coherent. For all of DDL’s impressive immersion tactics, he finally can’t transcend the way Tony Kushner’s script presents the Great Emancipator as little more than a collection of sometimes-contradictory traits (notice how Lincoln always has just enough time to finish a joke – “he was human too, you see!” – before another character bursts into the room to announce a dramatic new plot development). Lovers of good acting will want to see Lincoln for the strong ensemble cast but it’s also typical Spielberg all the way: overly sentimental, earnest, dull and stodgy. It’s full of the most transparent manipulation tactics: big John Williams music cues and shots where the camera dramatically dollies into close-ups of characters’ faces. Unfortunately, unlike Bekmambetov (not to mention John Ford), Spielberg just isn’t smart enough to acknowledge that he’s also “printing the legend.” If AL:VH is a “good bad movie” then I say Lincoln is a “bad good movie,” and I will always prefer the former to the latter.
December 16th, 2012 at 12:37 pm
I am glad that AL: VH is getting more love. I took a bit of a beating for speaking up for the film and for offering my political interpretation, but too bad, I stand by both. I did not really mind Spielberg’s sentimental myth-making, and I thought Day Lewis was terrific. Not only for the obvious reasons but also because there was a lot of dialogue explaining difficult legal maneuverings, which he handled so well. I commend Kushner and his researchers for a dense script that moved via conversation and discussion, not action, and I think Spielberg did a good job moving it along so that conversations were not merely dead weight. The ending of LINCOLN made me cringe a bit, because it was sentimental, but I have been thinking about this criticism in the last few weeks. I think we are too quick to judge “sentimental” these days, as though it were a bad thing. I fear that in our contemporary era, where ironic dialogue dominates almost every genre, and all serious conversations have to be peppered with jokes, we forget what it is like to be moved by movies.
December 16th, 2012 at 1:13 pm
Suzi, I was surprised to see you take a beating for that in the comments section of your blog, especially since, as you pointed out, the contemporary parallels were presented by the filmmakers themselves (implicitly in Spielberg’s case, explicitly in Bekmambetov’s).
I also hear what you’re saying about how refreshing sentimentality can be in our age of post-modern irony. However, something in me resists Spielberg’s particular brand of sentimentality. I prefer sentimentality when it’s combined with modesty (a la Ford), and Spielberg always has to be so damn grandiose about everything he does. Williams’ Lincoln score, for instance, struck me as truly awful.
December 17th, 2012 at 8:08 am
I think Spielberg has run out of his tricks, just like many famous Chinese directors.
December 17th, 2012 at 9:12 am
Well, I certainly agree with that sentiment, David. However, Lincoln has a LOT of admirers here in America, both critically and in the general public. I expect it to sweep the Oscars.
December 19th, 2012 at 8:19 pm
Man, I can’t wait to see DDL and Steven Spielburg basking in their glory at the Oscars.
What’d you think of Killing Them Softly? I liked that and Silver Linings Playbook. The latter is certainly a feel good film.
December 20th, 2012 at 8:04 am
I haven’t seen SLP yet thought I’d like to.
I thought KILLING THEM SOFTLY was pretty good though something of a letdown from the director-star team of the majestic (and massively underrated) THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. The performances in KTS were great across the board, of course, but I thought all of the “social commentary” was pretentious and awkwardly grafted onto the story. I mean, every dive bar in New Orleans has a T.V. tuned to C-SPAN?
December 20th, 2012 at 5:03 pm
Yeah I agree. I almost expected Brad Pitt to announce his candidacy for President. I liked the film’s nonsentimental look at violence – i.e. it’s horrible to get beat up and there’s nothing glorious about it.
December 31st, 2012 at 11:19 am
[…] Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Bekmambetov) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Wide Release). More here. Argo (Affleck, USA) – Wide Release. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin, USA) – […]
July 24th, 2013 at 7:11 am
[…] Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Nixey, USA, 2010) – 5.5 Lincoln (Spielberg, USA, 2012) – 5.6 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Bekmambetov, USA, 2012) – 5.7 The Man from the Future (Torres, Brazil, 2011) – 5.8 The Descendants (Payne, USA, 2011) – 5.8 Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA, 2012) – 5.9 […]