Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Little Timmy Bekmambetov makes good

Even after he's made four movies that have been seen widely in the United States, Timur Bekmambetov is still not a name that rolls off the tongue, and not just because it's Russian. We've learned far harder names of foreign-born directors. (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, anyone?)

But at least it's finally a name worth saying again.

After I was disappointed in, well, almost everything he's been involved in since he made a splash with Night Watch (which hit Russian theaters in 2004 and which I saw in 2006), little Timmy Bekmambetov is finally back in my good graces with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Little Timmy?

It's something I started to call him a couple years back. I have no idea why except that it made me laugh. It seemed like a guy named Timur might go by Tim as a nickname, and Timmy is a funny nickname for Tim. What's funny about it is that unlike Jimmy, Johnny, Joey or any number of nicknames that end in a Y sound, no one goes by Timmy as an adult. In fact, probably no one goes by Timmy much later than third grade.

It wasn't really meant as a diss to Bekmambetov, and it doesn't have an overt meaning. It's not that I think his filmmaking is childish, or that I think he wears a bib while he eats. It was just a little slice of randomness that made me giggle.

But after watching Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I think I owe the guy a lot more respect, perhaps enough that I need to ditch the nickname for awhile.

Let's go back and explore his career to this point to get a better idea what we're talking about.

Little Timmy made two films few have heard of -- the Russian film Peshavar Waltz and the American straight-to-video movie The Arena, produced by Roger Corman -- before taking the cinematic universe by the lapels with his 2004 vampire movie Night Watch. The movie pulsed with style and innovation, whipping up some terrific action set pieces and all manner of blood and viscera in its eye-popping production design. But perhaps its most original aspect was something its Russian audience didn't even get to see. The film turns its English subtitles into living pictorial elements, typing out in bursts, dripping off the screen like blood, that kind of thing. This little touch only served to make the experience of watching it all the more immersive and exciting.

Where to go but down? So down Little Timmy went. The follow-up in an expected trilogy was 2006's Day Watch, which returned the same world and many of the same characters, but little of the wonder. For reasons I won't get into at length now, the film is narratively static and dull, doing little better than treading water in terms of both its story and technical innovation. To use a (probably cliched) pun, this vampire movie is surprisingly toothless -- in part because vampires actually take a back seat to witches, shapeshifters and other mythological creatures in this installment, to the movie's great detriment. And all the sudden I kind of didn't care if I saw the series' third film, which has not yet transpired and probably never will.

I can't comment on Bekmambetov's next Russian language project, which came along the next year, because I have yet to see (and probably never will) The Irony of Fate 2, a sequel to a popular Russian movie from 1971. Although the movie did incredibly well in Russia, second only to Avatar for the highest box office in Russian history, it never made it here.

And so it was Bekmambetov's Hollywood debut that made his downward slide all the more precipitous. That was a little 2008 movie called Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy and Morgan Freeman. You may remember it. Here's hoping you don't. Although I'm sure Wanted has some ardent fans, I found it to be non-stop ridiculous -- and not the good kind of ridiculousness Bekmambetov had peddled in Night Watch and to a lesser extent Day Watch. Although it is an adaptation of previously existing material, the movie plays like its only reason for existence is so Bekmambetov can indulge his desire to see things that he (and no one else) had ever seen before on screen. Namely, absurd stunts involving jumping cars and the physics-defying flight paths of bullets, each more absurd than the one before it. What takes the movie from silly to actively bad is that it has a number of big problems in its moral world view, which I also won't get into here. Oh yeah, and the fact that much of the plot revolves around a giant loom. You know, for sewing.

Bekmambetov took (or was forced to take) four years before his next Hollywood directing project surfaced, but he was busy producing other people's movies in the meantime. None of the movies that have his name in a producer capacity have really done it for me (the ones I've seen, anyway). I wanted to like 9, but just didn't like it that much. The same was true for Apollo 18, though I liked that one even less. Then there was last year's flop The Darkest Hour, which I never caught up with, but which received awful reviews. He did go against type a bit by directing a Russian comedy in 2010, Six Degrees of Celebration.

When I sat down to watch Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on Friday night, I didn't even remember (if I ever knew) that it was Little Timmy in the director's chair. Maybe that's a good thing. By carrying in no preconceived notions, I just took it all in as a fresh new experience with the potential to excite me. And that it did. In fact, only when the credits rolled, and I saw who was responsible for this gloriously kooky movie, did I smack my forehead and realize that I'd felt an excitement akin to the excitement of watching Night Watch for the first time.

Here the audacious and outrageous set pieces really work, and the mixture of over-the-top action with a loving and detailed production design did indeed remind me of Bekmambetov's debut. There's something joyously nutty about watching a young Abraham Lincoln twirl a silver-tipped axe like a baton twirler would twirl a baton. But where Bekmambetov et al really succeed is by telling their story with a straight face. As much attention as possible is paid to developing a reasonably plausible interrelationship between his political career/personal ideals and his role as a man who hunts vampires. You could easily (obviously) go campy with a movie like this, but playing it straight delivered the best possible realization of what was, nonetheless, clearly envisioned as something of a joke by writer Seth Grahame-Smith. Then again, Grahame-Smith adapts his own work here, and keeps the respectful tone toward Lincoln, so maybe the joke never went beyond the title to begin with.

But let's talk about Bekmambetov's contributions, or one in particular that seems to be worth singling out (so as not to ruin the others). It scores a ten in both absurdity and creativity, and on this particular night, that's what I was looking for. Picture this: Lincoln hunts down one particularly reprehensible bloodsucker and chases him into the middle of a field full of stampeding horses. (Best not to think too much about how the stampede started, and why it includes no less than 500 horses.) Now imagine Honest Abe and this demon chasing each other across the backs of the horses in full sprint, occasionally falling down in between them, and sometimes even using the horses as weapons against each other. All shot with enough verisimilitude to make you wonder exactly how they did it.

I thought I should also take a moment to praise Little Timmy as a director of actors -- a side of directing that's oft-forgotten when it comes to directors of grand spectacles like this one. Benjamin Walker makes a highly credible Lincoln, and let me just say that I applaud the balls it took to cast an unknown in this role. (I thought I was making an original observation when I noted that he looked like a young Liam Neeson, and then I learned that he had actually played a young Liam Neeson -- Walker was cast in the role of a younger version of Neeson's title character in Kinsey.) However, the smart casting and the good performances don't end there. Mary Elizabeth Winstead puts her all into Mary Todd Lincoln, Jimmi Simpson, Dominic Cooper and Anthony Mackie are all solid as Lincoln's various cohorts, and Rufus Sewell sinks his teeth deliciously into the villainous role of a vampire who has roamed the earth for millennia, who unsurprisingly passes this particular decade as a plantation owner.

Of course, numerous liberties taken with the life of Abraham Lincoln and fight scenes conducted across the backs of stampeding horses may just not be your thing.

Then again, you may not have liked Night Watch either.

Welcome back, LTB. 

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