Saturday, June 30, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed (and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)

I'm huge into cinematic greatness and perfection, but there's an obvious limit on these two quantities when it comes to certain types of films. Sundance indies, that much-derided sub-genre that's become so clear in the past couple decades, is probably the most prominent example of this, along with Hollywood blockbusters. "Safety Not Guaranteed" is in many ways a textbook example of a cliched low-budget film. But even though it has a flawed framework, it comes to work marvelously in spite of itself, and though many of its sins can be pardoned, I wish it had gone the extra mile and done all of the work for us. Alas, neither Colin Trevorrow as director nor Derek Connolly as writer has the chops to make a film like that at this point in their careers, as they're still cutting corners with bright montages and jokes about nerds. But they do provide some surprisingly provocative insights under the playfulness. Most of all, though, they have a remarkable cast of actors, each at the top of their game, who make this a movie worth taking the time to see.

The chemistry achieved by Audrey Plaza and Mark Duplass (also individually outstanding) is an amazing thing, harkening back to the work done by Britt Marling and William Mapother in last year's "Another Earth" but flowering more because this is a stronger film. Both play people on the societal fringes who are looking for happiness in  what appear to be wrongheaded ways. Darius (Plaza), working on a potentially illuminating magazine story with Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and Arnau (Karan Soni), hasn't been happy since her childhood, and looks dubiously on this assignment to try and find out about Kenneth (Duplass). Kenneth posted a very unspecific classified ad asking for a time-traveling partner, and after Jeff tries to be his man (failing as no doubt many others have in Kenneth's eyes), Darius steps in with the right amount of confidence to satisfy the role. Kenneth has extremely high standards and at first seemingly warped ones; he's a longtime social reject who is routinely considered crazy and whom fears rejection and scorn. In Darius, he finds someone willing to take him seriously and who's actually serious about something herself. 

The film feels the need to take some detours since it apparently can't be only about the relationship of these two. Thus, there is a subplot involving the other two members of the team, most prominently Jeff. Jeff wants to rekindle a long-gone relationship with a girl he used to know in high school (because, weirdly enough, Kenneth is set up in the same Washington town where Jeff went to high school). This could have been a significant misstep, as could have Jeff's attempts to get the shy and conventionally nerdy Arnau laid. But these scenes are played very right, with perfectly chosen details (the aviator sunglasses), and at certain points reach a beauty that really floored me. (They also fit into the film's perceptive overall message about revision and regaining a lost feeling.) I was also impressed with Johnson, whom I remember as being incredibly annoying in the not-often-discussed indie "Paper Heart" with Charlyne Yi and and Michael Cera. Here he's certainly abrasive but much more bearable. 

You have to meet this film halfway. No doubt about it. Perfectionists stay away. It's not incredibly polished, and you might not be happy with the directions it goes in (and avoids). But if you're willing to accept it for what it is, it's quite a pleasure, and certain moments and performances (Duplass' most especially; a heartbreaking and very intense contender for best male acting of the year) are to be savored. B

Abraham Lincoln was already a badass. Okay, maybe not as much as George Washington, but surely, freeing slaves and helping end the Civil War count for something. Add to that an unknown history of vampire hunting, and man, this guy's the real deal. This could have provided for an outlandish, campy, schlocktastic blast, but somewhere along the way, the fun stopped. Was it the studio head, the screenwriter (Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the book), or the director (Timur Bekmambetov, who made the plenty insane "Wanted")? My guess is some combination of the first two (as Bekmambetov has run wild in the past), but there's no way to know why "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" failed to be a transcendent B-movie diversion. Sure, it has some slaying and historical inconsistency, but all the same, this is nowhere near as hilarious and irreverent as it should have been. I did read in an in-flight magazine interview something that may indicate Grahame-Smith was trying to please historical scholars along with regular filmgoers, but that honestly shouldn't have been a factor in the slightest. If only it had been scarier, wackier, or funnier. Only one scene (a completely left field chase sequence through a stampede of horses) shows the kind of tone the film should have had.

Dominic Cooper was the absolute right actor to cast as Henry Sturgess (who teaches Honest Abe in the vampire-hunting arts), and Anthony Mackie is good to have on hand as a freed slave, but having the stolid and too rigidly Lincoln-like Benjamin Walker as the great man was a huge mistake. A better or more game actor could have saved the film from becoming too polite, but Walker seems caught in the middle. The film can be dismissed on these grounds alone, so I suppose it's not particularly worth it to comb through the film's ridiculously-PC racial politics or lack of coherent follow-through. It all feels so tasteful, when very little of it should have been. It does look good, though: Caleb Deschanel (who shot the gorgeous "Natural" way back when), lends allure to mundane moments. C

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