Daybreakers | Dear John | Mammoth

Daybreakers | Dear John | Mammoth

Daybreakers
Rating:

Written and directed by Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig. Starring Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Michael Dorman, Claudia Karvan, Mungo McKay, Emma Randall, Isabel Lucas, Christopher Kirby, Glen Martin, Isabel Lucas, Carl Rush, Paul Sonkkila, Vince Colosimo, Todd Levi, Charlotte Wilson, Harriet Minto-Day.

Vampires are immortal, they feed on human blood, and each human a vampire bites (but doesn´t kill) becomes a vampire. This is the essence of most vampire stories dating back to Bram Stoker, but if we logically extend this 50 or 100 or a 1000 years into the future, what would happen? Vampirism spreads and the food source (humanity) has to eventually run out, and what then?

That´s the premise of Michael and Peter Spierig´s Daybreakers, which was unceremoniously dumped with little fanfare for a January release in the US. Which is a shame, because the Brothers´ previous movie, Undead, really took off with the midnight movie crowd on the festival circuit, and because Daybreakers is, perhaps surprisingly, quite good.

Don´t get me wrong, this is a genre effort all the way, with grisly splatter effects, obligatory action sequences, and a look that borrows from other recent sci-fi like Dark City, The Matrix, and Equilibrium. But it´s a solid genre effort with an intriguing premise, and a welcome return to gory vampirism after years of Twilight-like romanticism.

In the year 2019, everyone is a vampire, and that´s just the problem: the blood supply is running low, with cafes serving drinks that are 80% unsatisfying blood substitute and human blood farms run by companies like Bromley Marks are (quite literally) drying up. What happens when a vampire goes too long without blood? They quickly transgress into a mindless zombie-vampire creature that cannibalizes its own kind.

Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), the head of the blood manufacturing company, employs doctor Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) to try to come up with an effective blood substitute. Early results aren´t exactly promising: transfusion causes a test subject´s head to explode, which seems illogical but makes for a great splatter scene. If there´s one thing Cronenberg´s Scanners has taught us, it´s the effectiveness of a good head explosion scene.

There are still roving bands of humans, which may be surprising given the quickness with which most of them are dispatched soon after we meet them. Two of the humans are Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan) and Elvis Cormac (Willem Dafoe); Elvis is a former vampire who may have discovered a cure for vampirism, and works with Edward to develop it. But Bromley isn´t too interested in a cure, which would cut down on his repeat business.

The vampires in Daybreakers are a welcome return to the traditional: pale creatures who don´t cast reflections, explode when exposed to light, and can be killed by a stake to the heart (at least, I think that´s why the humans arm themselves with crossbows).

There´s one big flaw here, though, and it´s the script: plot threads pop up and die off without much weight attached to them, including one between Bromley and his daughter that turns up late and fails to make much sense. The characters are underwritten, their decisions dictated by the story; this results in some underwhelming work from the cast, particularly Hawke and Neill. Dafoe, on the other hand, is fantastic.

Daybreakers failed to find its audience in a brief theatrical run stateside, but cult fans should eat it up on DVD. There is a market for these things, and this one is about as good as they come.

 

***


 

Dear John
Rating:

Directed by Lasse Hallström. Starring Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, D.J. Cotrona, Cullen Moss, Gavin McCulley, Jose Lucena Jr., Keith Robinson, Scott Porter, Leslea Fisher, William Howard Bowman, David Andrews, Mary Rachel Dudley.

I can tell you the exact moment Lasse Hallström´s Dear John dies on the screen: it happens right after the main characters everyday lives are disturbed by the events of 9/11. That scene in itself is quite nice, with dread casually (and surprisingly) enveloping the screen in our generation´s “where were you when JFK was shot?” moment.

But a minute or so later, it´s business as usual, and we realize that the film has invoked 9/11 as a minor plot point: it re-enforces patriotism in soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum), who signs up for deployment and leaves girlfriend Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) yearning. This is the moment Dear John dies, not because the 9/11 use is purely exploitative (though you could certainly perceive it that way), but because it overshadows – and puts into perspective – everything else that happens in this Nicholas Sparks romance.

Nicholas Sparks. The writer of Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe. I sense a trend here, not necessarily in the Sparks´ source novels, which I haven´t read, but in the Hollywood adaptations: they´re all manipulative weepers in the vein of Love Story, with endings that no longer surprise. Dear John is a little different, but only in the details: the schmaltz is poured on even thicker, to even less effect.

That´s a shame, because there´s one aspect of the film that, manipulative and schmaltzy as it is, really works: the relationship between John and his father (Richard Jenkins), who seems to suffer from some form of (undiagnosed?) autism. The scenes are unexpected and surprisingly touching – not that Hallström isn´t pulling out all the stops; the only thing missing is Harry Chapin´s Cat’s in the Cradle on the soundtrack – and will leave most audiences reaching for the tissues.

But the father-son stuff is just a subplot. The main thrust of Dear John is boy meets girl (via standard ‘meet cute´, this time involving a drowning handbag and a hunky diver), boy and girl fall in love, and boy goes to war. We´ve seen it all before; there are only a few directions this story could go in, and only one for a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel.

The opening works well enough, as does the ending in its own schmaltzy way, but the scenes where the young couple are apart (the title, of course, comes from the letters Savannah sends John while he´s away) bring the film to a screeching halt. War is a montage here, and Savannah is little more than a background character throughout much of the second half.

Lasse Hallström is typically a reliable director (What´s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules), but too often prone to sentimentality; the source material is not a good fit here, and too often the film is pushed over the line into – not forgetting the use of 9/11 – trite melodrama.

Otherwise, Hallström´s film is tightly directed and perfectly watchable, with two attractive and likable leads in Tatum and Seyfried, who I think are better actors than their resumes might indicate. Here´s hoping for better things from all involved.

***


 

Mammoth
Rating:

Written and directed by Lukas Moodysson. Starring Gael García Bernal, Michelle Williams, Marife Necesito, Sophie Nyweide, Thomas McCarthy, Natthamonkarn Srinikornchot, Jan David G. Nicdao, Martin Delos Santos, Maria Esmeralda del Carmen, Perry Dizon.

 

Lukas Moodysson, the talented Swedish director behind Fucking Åmål, Together, and Lilya 4-Ever, seemed to have lost his luster upon the release of A Hole in My Heart in 2004, an explicit amateur porn-focused fiasco which was widely panned and little-seen outside of the festival circuit.

Five years later, I wish I could say his latest, Mammoth, was a return to form. It isn´t quite that – it´s not as good as his earlier films, and has a newfound preachy vibe that feels like it was lifted from Crash – but it´s a return to acceptable filmmaking for Moodysson, and good enough in its own right to warrant a recommendation. Here´s hoping for better things in the near future.

Mammoth stars Gael García Bernal as Leo Vidales, New Yorker founder of a successful video game website, the “MySpace for the gaming community.” He´s off to Thailand to sign a major contract, which he, apparently, couldn´t be less interested in doing. On the way, his business partner (Thomas McCarthy) gives him a pen decorated with ivory from the tusks of a mammoth.

He leaves behind his wife Ellen (Michelle Williams), an emergency room surgeon who works nights and tries to save a young boy stabbed multiple times by his mother. Leo and Ellen´s daughter Jackie (Sophie Nyweide) is raised by Filipino nanny Gloria (Marife Necesito). Over in the Philippines, Gloria has two sons who live with a grandmother and an uncle, supported by the money Gloria sends back from the US.

There are some really lovely moments in Mammoth, including some touching moments between Leo and a Thai prostitute (Run Srinikornchot), and a scene in which the Filipino grandmother takes her grandson, who misses his mother, to a community of people scrounging off the local garbage dump. “Your mother is working in America so you don´t have to do this.”

There are also some surprisingly poor choices, like the stereotypical American child molester who shows up in the Philippines just in time for a convoluted story thread to drive its point across in excessive and unnecessary fashion.

And by the end, the point of it all gets muddled as Moodysson sympathizes with all our characters but decries the injustices in the world we live in. What he´s doing here essentially come across as a guilt trip, but there´s just enough ambiguity surrounding it to soften the blow.

Note: about 75% of Mammoth is in English. The rest is in Tagalog and Thai, subtitled in Czech on Prague screens.


Jason Pirodsky

Hailing from Syracuse, New York, Jason Pirodsky made his way to Prague via Miami and has stuck around, for better and worse, since 2004. A member of the Online Film Critics Society (www.ofcs.org), some of his favorite movies include O Lucky Man!, El Topo, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Hellzapoppin'. Follow him on Twitter for some (slightly) more concise reviews.

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