Yesterday I was able to watch, back to back, Pixar's Brave and then Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The viewing itself was quite the adventure, so let me tell you about that before I get into the reviews.
I arrived at the Tinseltown theater in Louisville and purchased a ticket 20 minutes before showtime. I didn't care to see it in 3D or XD (which will forever look like an emoticon face to me), so was able to get the cheaper matinee option. I didn't think anything of the purchase at the window, and had no reason to until later. Later, it was the lack of anything untoward that was the problem. I bought the requisite Mr Pibb and medium popcorn, doused the popcorn with oily butter and a more-than-healthy dash of salt. I checked to be sure no one else was going to be joining me, and proceeded to the theater room. This is when things went awry. There was a line leading into the seating area, and a panicked-looking hostess directing traffic. Coming around the corner, I saw that four rows of a very small theater room were roped off. Murmurs of "birthday party" wafted back to me from those eyeing the situation ahead of me. There were louder murmurs of "getting a refund" and "this is ridiculous" as well as "who has an opening-weekend movie in the smallest theater room, and then doesn't tell anyone that a birthday party is being hosted in the middle of it?" While I weighed my options, the seats that were not reserved were quickly filled.
The hostess and I made eye contact, and I took the opportunity to ask, "I'm not keen on getting my money back, so, is there another option?" She was the picture of relief as she agreed there was, and ushered me back out the theater to a line that was already forming for the next showing. We agreed on a quick refund/replacement maneuver and she was back in moments with my credit card and a new receipt. By the time the movie was playing in the other room, my queue was filing into a fresh, larger theater. Even this one, however, quickly filled up with small children and tweens. Some parents arrived moments after the movie began, long after the previews were done, with multiple excited - and then disappointed - children in tow.
In contrast, once the showing was over and I moved on to watch Abraham Lincoln in the theater next door (don't worry, I purchased a ticket via the very convenient ATM-looking machine in the main lobby), the theater was half-empty and held only teenagers and a few of my fellow old folks. I imagine half of those were there because they'd read the book (highly recommended). Being as the film is rated R (for good reason), I was glad not to have any kiddos there. The thoughts of their future therapy sessions would have been distracting.
Brave starts off with the standard beauty we're becoming spoiled by in any Pixar production. In this case, they were able to play with some gorgeous landscapes, sunbeams and waterfalls, high cliffs and expansive oceans. "Tadah," they say. "Your introduction to the Emerald Isles!" And throughout the movie, they do a good job of touching on just about every bit of mystical foreigness that I could think of from that faraway land. Celtic knots abound, haggis appears and is gross, a caber is tossed, and there are kilts aplenty ("Feast yer eyes" was said many many times while waiting in the queue outside the theater.) And this theme of showing off the scenery continued even as the action nosedived into the 'spoiled princess' trope.
I recognize the age-group that BRAVE is aimed at, and maybe they haven't encountered this before, or the other dozen tropes that were crafted into a finely wrought gold and green sledgehammer. So I started watching for the times when the story deviated from the obvious. For one, the 'evil witch' is not evil. She, as well as the other bits of magic that sneak into the world seem to be as much a force of nature like a stone or waterfall. Hercharacter is cute, but really doesn't impact the story except to allow the princess the chance to break the status quo. The horse, though given a little bit of personality, is not treated like another character to keep track of; he vanishes and reappears as needed, like all the other horses. To break from the "You're not listening!" theme, BRAVE adds a nice touch of having the two characters give their "You never listen to me!" speech while not even speaking to the target of their ire. At the end of each speech, the characters seem to realize this as well, which adds a nice (though rare) touch of self-awareness. I did expect, at a few points, that the kingfather character would point out to the queenmother character that she was not so much speaking to their daughter, as at her. But it was never said.
This moment was also the only point where the kingfather character broke from his rut of being pure comedic relief and showed some insight into the problem, or at least some interest in solving it. By forcing the queenmother to speak to him as she would her daughter, he showed compassion for both of the women in his life and a true desire to have them see eye to eye. Like everything this character does, however, the effectiveness is questionable. They do take some time, near the climax of the film, to allow the menfolk to expound on their good qualities. Bold, brave, fearless warriors defending their homeland and each other from the Romans. But even this falters when one admits that his last-minute intervention to save a life only happened because he missed his intended target - the one who was saved. Back to being just the bumbling manfolk, ho ho ho.
BRAVE is not a high-point for feminists either, so don't get the idea that this is some anti-male film. According to what we are shown, women are only powerful when they are pretty and grumpy. This is only broken in the final moments of the film, but as it is under very unusual circumstances, it's hard to tell if the paradigm is truly changed.
I went into BRAVE with very high expectations. Pixar is to blame - they've set the bar so high that few other studios can even dream to reach it, but that means they themselves are constantly challenged. This film is gorgeous, and witty, and fun throughout - but that sets it as rather mediocre for a Pixar production. At no point was I actually surprised or delighted with a twist or decision that was made. More than once I was irritated by the way drama was artificially heightened by arbitrarily having characters cry out "Listen! You have to listen!" and even at the points where they did follow that line up with something coherent, the one they were speaking to decided to run away instead. Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine in any story. It is grating and I consider it a personal flaw that it distracts me so much. Maybe it doesn't bother the tweens and younger that were dreaming of taking archery lessons.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
I came into this movie with lower expectations, possibly because of BRAVE, but also it may have been simply because of the kind of movie I was prepared to see. I have read the book, thoroughly enjoyed it, and was excited (dumbfounded) that they would make a movie of it. Apparently the audience for alternative-history with monsters thrown into otherwise-historically-accurate set pieces is larger than I imagined. And they certainly do a good job with that part. To my completely untrained (but highly critical) eye, everything from the backdrops to the costuming was spot on. Just writing this, thinking about the movie, it's difficult not to let my mind's voice slip into that stilted early-American accent that may or may not have actually ever existed. The scenery and camera-work just put the final touches on making the film feel authentic and old. Especially compared to the previous movie's limitless palette, Abraham Lincoln seemed to have a heavily sepia-toned colorscheme going on throughout.
Benjamin Walker is excellent as the soft-faced, soft-voiced POTUS16, Abraham Lincoln. He towers over the rest of the cast, especially Mary Winstead (playing Mary Lincoln). He is handed a backstory, a tragic vengeance path, and almost immediately deviates. The focus of his rage winds up becoming a mere 'miniboss' in the grand scheme of things, and what a grand scheme it is. Rather than have us ask why the 16th president would be a vampire hunter, we are introduced to the idea of "Why would a vampire hunter become president."
Admittedly, one of the biggest reasons I enjoyed the book (and the movie) so much, was the way they interwove the vampire hunter storyline into an already incredible story without detracting from the nobility of the characters involved. Abraham Lincoln is already a near-myth in our history books; slipping the subtext of actual myth tinto the tale adds a level of fun and doesn't turn it into a mockery.
Do note: these vampires don't sparkle or writhe in existential angst. Even the supposedly 'good' vampires are monsters, and as such, are quite dangerous. They are also, apparently, full of so much blood that it is under extraordinarily high pressure. One fears what would happen if they tripped in the street, or pricked themselves on a needle. PFFWOOOOSH. Thankfully, Abe is a master axe-slinger and quickly introduces each enemy to some violent exsanguination. One can not say he is THE master axe-slinger, because his camrade seems to have picked up the same anti-gravity combat abilities by the final conflict and is inexplicably slinging axe and kicking heads right alongside the prez.
The film does not stick strictly to the book, for which I was grateful. Not only is there too much to condense, and the movie enjoys its slow-motion- and blood-drenched combat scenes too much already to make way for all the story elements of the novel, but it would be dull to just have the book translated to film. I don't recall if the gaeas that vampires fall under is in the book (they cannot kill their own kind), but it makes for good internal logic. Once change I do recognize is the way the film ends. In the movie, Lincoln trundles off in his carriage to the theater, and the audience is inteded to 'Aww' as we know this is a final goodbye. The book hints that his vampire tutor and friend rescues him from the brink of death to continue their fight against injustice as undead cohorts.
There are a few twists, some surprises, and more than a couple jump-scares in the film. As I mentioned, there is quite a bit of blood - mostly black vampire blood - and a brief glimpse of some dead-corpse-nudity (does that count?) But as it is an action film, I found myself leaning back and enjoying some over-the-top violence and predictable dialogue. It was comfortable territory and I knew what I was getting into from the beginning. One single scene that stood out to me as high-tension was to see the ungainly Abraham try to rise from a creaky rocking chair without waking his wife and ailing son in bed beside him. I don't know how long it took him to get up from that chair, but it felt like a full minute, and I didn't realize how involved I was until I had to let out my breath when he finally stepped away from the bed.
Neither film would be worth seeing in 3D, I think, or another viewing in theaters. Given the choice between the two if I could only own one on DVD, I would definitely choose Abraham. Despite the expansive (and beautifully rendered) scenery, the president commanded a bigger story than the princess.