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4 New films and 1 bonus review

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” is another of those high concept movies that would probably be a blast if it didn’t try quite so hard. The basic premise is pretty well explained by the title – it retells the story of Lincoln with one tiny extra detail – he was fighting and killing vampires before he was President. It all starts when he witnesses the death of his mother and yearns for revenge against the (presumed) man who killed her. After almost getting chewed up himself by the killer, he instead gets chewed out by a mysterious stranger who saves him and teaches him the ways of re-killing those who are already dead.

All of this is great fun and the basic vampire hunting and killing sequences would keep me coming back for more through several lifetimes. Except that somebody felt the need to throw in two spectacularly over the top and unnecessary scenes that don’t look good enough by today’s effects standards and which added nothing to the story. For example, Lincoln chases his nemesis across the backs of a herd of stampeding horses in one of the worst action sequences since Legolas rode his shield down a stone staircase.

The plot manages to weave its way around some major milestones and characters in Lincoln’s life (and death), while also leaving out most of the detail (albeit as unnecessary in this context as the scenes described above). But it also has some continuity flaws that occasionally take you out of the moment. All told it still manages to be fun, assuming you’re not tired of vampires sinking their teeth into every genre, but it would have been better if it had stayed focused on the central elements and not the showmanship.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the new Disney/Pixar movie “Brave” is the title. Originally to be called “The Bear and the Bow,” it seems as though the name was changed to allow for promotion based on the female lead – something new for Pixar. The problem however is that there’s not much bravery on display. There’s a lot of spoiled self-centeredness and plenty of ass-covering desperation but not that much straight-up courage from the lead character.

Merida is the daughter of a Scottish chieftain (spoken by Billy Connolly, whose voice doesn’t seem large enough for the vast body) and isn’t keen on the semi-arranged marriage that tradition calls for, so she takes things into her own hands with disastrous results. She then spends the second half of the film desperately trying to fix things without being found out.

It’s an awkward story with no clear villain, and plot developments that don’t so much develop as suddenly occur. For example, at one point her mother, who is having a bear of a day, has a complete change of heart about the marriage – out of nowhere. It’s also a film that some will probably say is strong on feminism – but aside from proving that girls can be just as bratty as boys, that also seems like a stretch. And it ends with an act that doesn’t come from bravery or canny deduction, but rather accidental dumb luck.

That said, it’s pretty to watch, especially the red hair. If you see it, be sure to stick around for the bonus scene at the end.

Probably my favorite film of the week, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” comes close to feeling like two separate films. It starts out as a hilariously dark exploration of the idea that the world is about to end due to an imminent asteroid strike. Steve Carell plays Dodge, an insurance agent (naturally) who keeps going to work yet is horrified that his housekeeper does the same thing. After his wife displays a lot less sticking power, he meets Penny (Kiera Knightley) and they embark on a trip to try to reunite her with her family before it’s all too late. This half of the film is a riot of understated but hilarious awkwardness and social/media commentary.

The tone then changes as it becomes more about the two of them than about the crazy circumstances and I thought for a while that it might lose me along the way. It’s not that I don’t like films of that tone, it’s just that it didn’t seem to be what I had been sold in the first half. However, it held my attention and interest with enough throwback moments to keep the newfound sincerity a little off kilter. There’s one “what the…” moment towards the end with a very large prop that simply isn’t large enough for what it needs to be, but it doesn’t detract from the actual content in the way that the flawed scenes in “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” or the flawed storytelling in “Brave” do. By the end, rather than feeling like a film I was enjoying had shifted directions rather uncomfortably, it felt more like two pleasant experiences for the price of one.

The smallest and most difficult new film to classify is “Safety Not Guaranteed,” an indie sci-fi romantic comedy character study (or something like that). In it, a magazine reporter and two interns head off to a small beach town to investigate a classified ad that seeks an assistant for a time traveling enterprise – the title of the movie being a clause from the text of the ad. The reporter (Jeff), it turns out, only really wanted to be there to look up an old flame and the investigation is largely left to the interns – one an introverted female wallflower (Darius) and the other an even more introverted male geek (Arnau). And this becomes a multi-dimensional examination of these three unlikely companions and the truly odd, seemingly nutty writer of the ad himself (Kenneth).

A couple of times the result is awkwardly slow and the film has that super low budget feel that suggests the biggest line item might well have been the food. But then it surprises you with some of the most wonderful and funniest moments, including fantastically quotable lines of dialog. In one moment, while trying to keep up with Kenneth’s apparent lunatic ranting, Darius comes out with “There’s no sense in nonsense, especially when the heat’s hot” to Kenneth’s surprising and immediate satisfaction. Later, when Darius and Jeff argue about “Star Wars” and technology, the downtrodden Arnau verbally tramples them both by frustratedly pronouncing “Stormtroopers don’t know anything about lasers or time travel, they’re blue collar workers.” “Safety Not Guaranteed” doesn’t get easier to define as it continues, but it does win you over with its heart and sincerity.

Bonus Guest Review:
“Moonrise Kingdom”
Directed by Wes Anderson
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

If the Coen brothers took ecstasy and made a movie, they might end up making something a lot like “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Director Wes Anderson has long formed a kind of bookend to the Coens. So many of the stylistic flourishes are similar: the bright primary colors, the subtle absurdist humor, the actors standing around declaiming in dialogue that is usually more clever than realistic. But while the Coens had long been heading towards the stark nihilism of “No Country for Old Men” and the arguably-darker careerism and self-absorption of “Burn After Reading,” Anderson’s characters really just want to talk about their feelings. The dramatic tension comes because they’re not very good at it.

There’s a feeling of safety in his films, a cocooning Americana where mistakes can be made and people forgive each other. In this way, “Moonrise” is Anderson boiled down to this essence. The opening takes us through a giant New England farmhouse opened up like a dollhouse. The soundtrack for the scene is "Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra," a classic record which broke down the different parts of a large philharmonic so children could understand it. Moving neurotically around all of it is 12-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who with her binoculars understands far more than the adults around her know, including who is cheating on who in their little island town.

This is another common Anderson theme: Children wise beyond their years, contrasted with adults who have lost their way or reached the limit of their abilities. It’s the Generation X theme also at the heart of Anderson films from “Bottle Rocket” to “The Royal Tenenbaums:” How do you become a well-adjusted adult when there aren’t any around to model on?

Suzy’s romantic foil is Sam (the scene-stealing Jared Gilman), who’s deep unpopularity with the other boys at Khaki Scout camp probably has a lot to do with his extreme competence and self-assurance. He’s a younger version of high school Renaissance man Max Fischer from “Rushmore,” the role that made Anderson-favorite Jason Schwartzman famous. Both are focused on actual mastery over credentials, and suspect other people have their priorities out of whack. Like Suzy, he’s surrounded by adults who aren’t nearly as in control as they pretend to be.

In other words, the characters are cartoonish versions of familiar types. But all of these extremes of character and dialogue serve a purpose: providing a stark highlight on the actual moments of humanity and connection. Witness a late scene between Frances McDormand and a schlubby Bruce Willis, or a Sam-Suzy exchange where he reacts to one of her complaints about her life by saying “I love you, but you have no idea what you’re talking about.” When the snark and irony are snatched away, these moments get burned into your post-film memory.

I’ve always liked Anderson’s films, but also often thought they were very flawed. I’ve also always been leery of films that seem like they were made with the idea of being instant classics. “Moonrise Kingdom” throws both of those out the window. It’s Anderson’s best film, unpredictable, completely absorbing and oddly touching.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is in limited release at the Crest Theatre and one or two other area locations, while “Moonrise Kingdom” continues at the Tower Theater. The other films are in wide release at a multiplex near you. The Sacramento French Film Festival continues on Saturday and Sunday at the Crest Theatre with more details at sacramentofrenchfilmfestival.org.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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