Transfiguration, The (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
A dark character drama with a premise of a horror film, “The Transfiguration” begins with great promise but fizzles out about halfway through when one realizes we are simply being made to sit through a series of uneventful scenarios in which the punchline is repeated until boredom sets in. Had writer-director Michael O’Shea taken another pass at his screenplay, I think, or I hope, he would have realized that breaking the ennui is necessary to tell a compelling story even though the subject’s malaise, his deep melancholy, is itself the point.
Milo (Eric Ruffin) is convinced he is a vampire—so convinced that he murders unsuspecting strangers and drinks their blood. He is obsessed with nearly everything that has to do with vampirism—books, movies, television shows, magazines—so long as they are realistic. (He is more a fan of “Let the Right One In” than “Twilight.”) I enjoyed that the title sounds fantastical, but the story is truly a study of a pathological condition: Milo is a budding serial killer… and yet we are asked to understand him.
I welcomed its goal of trying to comprehend what goes on in the mind of someone who feels the need to kill. We observe Milo’s life at home—how he is barely raised by his brother (Aaron Moten) because both of their parents have died; his community—a poor neighborhood in which the majority of the population is black; what goes on at school—particularly with the counselor he is required to visit; how he attempts to make a connection with a girl named Sophie (Chloe Levine) who is new to the neighborhood. Although an important piece worth looking into can be found in every one of these contributing factors, the screenplay fails to move beyond them eventually. A third of the way through, I began to notice ideas being repeated and nearly every unfortunate encounter feels like padding.
We get it: Milo is disturbed and depressed—a dangerous combination for himself and those around him. But what else? Given that the material is supposed to be a character study, there has to be more than situational drama. I wondered if we were supposed to empathize with Milo. At least to me, he is already beyond help in that he has killed—more than twice or even three times—which is established within the picture’s opening minutes. So why is it worth following this subject? What makes him special beyond his pathology? When the end credits began to roll, I felt I had no idea. But I feel it must be stated that Ruffin has done a solid attempt in creating a convincing character who is so closed off from the world that he began to feel supernatural, maybe even superhuman, despite a stagnant screenplay. I felt that he is capable of doing so much more.
Some scenes are quite chilling, particularly when Milo leads a white male teenager into his apartment building only to watch his prey get killed by gang members. (I believe Milo had every intention of murdering the teenager before circumstances changed.) Notice the lack of empathy in those eyes. Gunshots do not even make him flinch. Maybe Milo is a vampire: dead on the inside. These dramatic developments are few and far between, however.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Currently living in Tangier, Eve (Tilda Swinton) decides to pay Adam (Tom Hiddleston) a visit in Detroit given his increasing depression. Its source: once a wonderful world quickly being reduced to a wasteland of mainstream-mindedness and self-imposed limitation resulting in humanity’s failure to progress. Eve hopes that her presence will help her fellow vampire to climb out of the rut, but the eventual arrival of Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s sister, threatens to lodge him deeper into his crippling frustrations.
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Only Lovers Left Alive” rests on its mood and atmosphere to tell a relatively forgettable story of two lovers who have lived together for centuries and are now questioning, in their own ways, if their everlasting lives, given that they choose to sustain it, is still worth continuing. Its languid pacing gives plenty of room for thought but it is certainly not the kind of picture that offers any kind of excitement despite its blood-drinking—preferably from blood donations—protagonists.
In a way, the slow as molasses pacing is appropriate. Since Adam and Eve are able to live for eternity and have been alive—if such a word is appropriate—for hundreds of years, time for them is to be relished. The film concerns itself with the details of its characters’ lives. Looking at the state of their homes, we can tell immediately that they admire art and music, like to read books, and value antiques. We get a taste of their personalities through the clothes they wear and how they are worn. We get an idea of what they like to do by looking at materials left on tables, chairs, and beds.
Casting Swinton and Hiddleston works for the movie’s advantage. These great performers are able to create something from pretty much close to nothing. Imagine if actors of lesser caliber were cast instead. Gone are the subtleties in facial expressions, how their limbs are placed and hung just right to evoke both menace and elegance, the control of movement from one point to another which communicates that they may look human on the outside but inside they are not. Both conjure up a mythical presence about them.
For instance, one of the more memorable shots is Swinton’s nostrils flaring just so when Eve, on her way to the City of Champions, notices a man’s finger dripping with blood. Just imagine: Creating tension from a simple millisecond movement of the nostrils? Only seasoned or naturally gifted thespians are able to pull that off without looking silly.
There is talk of “contaminated” blood which forces vampires, at least the very few we meet, to withhold from drinking any red at the most convenient opportunity. Is contamination referring to disease or drugs? There may be some evidence that it is the latter given one remark about a character spending too much time in underground clubs. Has the contamination gotten so bad that the vampire community is under a threat of extinction?
“Only Lovers Left Alive,” not without a sense of humor, gives audiences time to wonder what one might decide to do if one were given a chance to live forever. I would like to say something typical like “travel the world” or something of that sort. But I propose to take on a more challenging prospect: To watch every movie that has ever been released around the world… including those that are believed to have been destroyed. Places to visit are limited but movies are made and released on a daily basis.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There are very few comedies that tickle me to the soul from beginning to end and “What We Do in the Shadows,” written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, is one of them. What could have been a one-note joke about a documentary crew capturing the every day lives of four vampires living together is turned into a wellspring of creativity that is so endlessly quotable, I wanted to see it again right after the credits.
The jokes command range. Perhaps easiest to pick up on are the pop culture references of recent mainstream films. At one point, a character (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) tells random people that he is the actor from “Twilight” and that is why cameramen are following him. One cannot help but wonder if these scenes were shot without the extras being fully aware that a feature film is being made because their reactions are so spot-on and natural. There is a synergy between acting and realism. Part of the enjoyment is seeing how ordinary people react to someone who they might consider to be drunk.
It requires a bit more attention to appreciate the subtler jokes. The dialogue is teeming with funny bits all at once that perhaps a second viewing is required. Exchanges amongst fellow flatmates are at their best when generational gaps are underlined. Each vampire has a distinct personality and perspective about how to live. For instance, the first few minutes highlights their differences, from Viago (Taika Waititi), who is three hundred seventy-nine years old, leading a house meeting because he has grown tired of the unkempt state of their flat, to Deacon (Jonny Brugh), the youngest of the group, who does not see the point of cleaning up for themselves exactly because they are monsters.
Even the images are genius. In-between scenes and during interview sessions, a series of drawings, paintings, and photographs are shown in order to convince us that these vampires have hundreds of years worth of history and that they have a history together. These seemingly insignificant touches elevate the film from being a good faux-documentary comedy to one that can and should be enjoyed decades from now. Also, kudos to the look and portrayal of the eight-thousand-year-old vampire named Petyr (Ben Fransham). He does not say a word but he is memorable.
Other creatures are sewn into the fabric of the story which makes room for even more laughter. Any scene with the pack of werewolves is hilarious. Even the zombies, who we normally expect to simply lumber around, actually get a chance to speak. There is a running bit about a servant-master relationship between a human (Jackie van Beek) and one of the vampires. Because our expectations are consistently turned on their heads, we look forward to what else it can offer. Thus, even though the film is less than ninety minutes, it feels much shorter than it is.
“What We Do in the Shadows” has intelligence, perfect timing, imagination, and is willing to take risks. At one point, I stopped to wonder if the work had been a real documentary. It would still work because the filmmakers treat their subject with empathy without dulling some of the more difficult aspects of living a life after death. This is not to be missed.
Underworld: Awakening (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After humans discovered that vampires and werewolves walked the planet, they performed a mass cleansing of the abnormal. Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire, was eventually captured by a drug company called Antigen, led by Dr. Lane (Stephen Rea), and experimented on her, while frozen, for twelve years. Their goal was to create a drug that could help authorities recognize the so-called infected. When she woke up, vampires and werewolves, though still at war with each other, were forced underground and had depleted in number. Directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, the way in which “Underworld: Awakening” began felt cheap. The narration and synopsis of what happened in its predecessors felt completely unnecessary. Instead of a movie, I felt like I was watching an introduction to a video game: you want to fast forward but it’s part of the whole package so you sit there and take it. My problem was it didn’t really try to make me care about the war among humans, lycans, and vampires. However, I found the action sequences very entertaining because they had a sense of humor. When Selene tried to escape from Antigen, she had complete disregard for the humans. She shot limbs, sliced throats, and cracked bones like it was nobody’s business. She didn’t crack a smile. I didn’t even notice her blink. What mattered was getting out and finding her boyfriend, Michael (Scott Speedman), the only vampire-werewolf hybrid in existence. Or so she thought. Eventually, Selene found a girl named Eve (India Eisley) who was supposedly her daughter. I began to have more questions and not all of them were answered or even addressed. For instance, though it was obvious, through snarling and looking morose, that the vampire and werewolf communities were against commingling of race, if Selene finally found Michael, what would it mean for the two camps? Did the plan involve Selene and Michael making a lot of babies so that, when the time came, werewolves and vampires would have no choice but to accept one another? Or did the plan simply involve the couple and their daughter, once reunited, hiding from the world and living happily ever after? Admittedly, I gave up trying to figure out motivations which wasn’t difficult to do when action scenes were thrown at the audience’s faces every ten minutes or so. I was very entertained by the scene where Selene, David (Theo James), a vampire with great bone structure, and Eve drove a van in the middle of a city while trying to escape from three lower-level–but still scary–werewolves. I found it amusing that although the werewolves jumped on top of one vehicle to another, the human drivers didn’t seem at all perturbed that a hairy beast was on the roof and, at times, blocked their vision. One would expect more car crashes considering how stupid people really are while behind the wheel. I was also tickled by watching Selene being thrown like a rag doll by a giant werewolf (Kris Holden-Reid). “Underworld: Awakening” was like eating popcorn: it’s salty, buttery goodness on the outside but the inside is all air. That doesn’t make it any less delicious.
Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, The (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Invitations were sent to family and friends about Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward’s (Robert Pattinson) upcoming wedding. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) was far from happy after receiving the news so he headed outside, took off his shirt, transformed into a wolf, and ran to ameliorate his rage. During their honeymoon, Bella discovered that she was pregnant. The couple was surprised because it was believed that a human and a vampire could not conceive a viable being. The fetus was growing at a rapid rate and it threatened the life of its host. Despite sensible advice that she ought to terminate, Bella decided to keep the thing inside her. Based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” was the weakest entry in the series. It was divided into three parts: the wedding, the honeymoon, and the horrific pregnancy. There was absolutely no reason for the film to be divided into two halves other than to make money. There was no pretentiousness, which I would have welcomed and possibly interpreted as ambition, or even an attempt of artistic integrity. The movie lacked interesting events, both big and small, designed to challenge who the characters were and what they really stood for. Since Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the screenplay, stretched about half the novel for almost two hours, the pacing felt unbearably slow. It got so bad to the point where the characters actually ended up watching television together because they had nothing better to do. At least it was unintentionally funny. The acting was never the series’ strong point, but I’ve always managed to stick with it. In this installment, I lost my patience within the first few minutes. It was supposed to be Bella’s wedding day. It’s a big day when everyone is supposed to be excited and happy. Or at least pretending to be. Walking down that aisle, Bella looked absolutely miserable, like she was being punished and in pain. Take off the wedding dress and she looked like she really needed to go to the restroom. I understood that maybe she was nervous about marrying a vampire. Maybe she was even having second thoughts about making a monumental commitment. If those were the emotions that the actress wanted to portray, the responsible thing to do was for the director, Bill Condon, to do a reshoot until the right emotions were conveyed through the screen. The director had no control over his material. It looked like the filmmakers did only about ten takes and were forced to pick the best one, which was below mediocre. I’ve seen Stewart’s work in other movies and I know that she can act well given the right script and direction. I wish Jessica (Anna Kendrick), Bella’s friend from high school with whom she never interacted with, had more lines during the scenes prior to the wedding. Kendrick brought a certain energy, a realism and effortless charisma, that the other actors either didn’t have or were unwilling to show. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” could not afford its characters to look bored because the pacing, the script, and the plot were already on the verge of lethargy. For instance, instead of showing the Cullens, Bella, and Jacob just sitting on the couch and watching TV, why not explain the concept of imprinting? It was an important part of the movie, but I found myself having to look up exactly what it was after watching it. Like the parasitic creature in Bella’s womb, that’s not a good sign.
Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.
★★★ / ★★★★
It was year 2019 and vampires have taken over the world while humans were forced to hide because the creatures of the night hunted and used them for blood. Now faced with a shortage of blood because there were more vampires than humans, a hematologist (Ethan Hawke), a vampire who also sympathized with humans, aimed to create a blood substitute that could solve vampires’ problems. However, the leader (Sam Neill) of the company in which the hematologist worked for and the hematologist’s brother (Michael Dorman) himself had other plans. This movie had an interesting take on vampire movies because, like “28 Days Later” in terms of zombies, it related vampirism to a disease because it talked about having a cure. That scientific angle fascinated me, even though not 100% of it made sense in the end, and appreciated that it tried to do something new with the genre. Hawke did a great job as a man who, ten years being a vampire, hated what he had become because he did not want to become a vampire in the first place. I enjoyed his interactions with Claudia Karvan, as a human who led a resistance against vampires, and Willem Dafoe, as a vampire who accidentally turned human. The action sequences where exciting, thrilling and sometimes startling because it went in directions I did not expect. I just wished that the picture had a stronger last twenty minutes. It felt anticlimactic instead of urgent (especially if the fate of the planet boiled down to one showdown) and the abrupt ending left much to be desired. I was not quite certain whether it was setting itself up for a sequel or we were supposed to be hopeful for what would happen next. The ending needed a defined tone but it did not have a chance to reach a certain point because the filmmakers did not allow it to simmer. “Daybreakers,” written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, caught my attention and managed to keep it because it had grand and creative ideas about vampirism. It had its weak moments such as introducing a politician who was not explored in any way but it also had strong moments showing how far vampires would go to get food. Perhaps it took itself too seriously at times (it certainly would have benefited if it had taken some pages energy-wise from “Zombieland”) but I could not help but admire how dedicated it was with its new concepts.
★ / ★★★★
“Transylmania,” directed by David and Scott Hillenbrand, is one of the dumbest movies I have ever seen. That’s saying a lot because I’ve seen my share of egregious films. A group of college friends decided to go to Romania for an international studies program. Little did they know that the school was a nest of vampires wanting to feed on their blood. The premise made it seem like it would somewhat be a fun spoof because of the vampire craze these days. Unfortunately, the movie started off bad and only got worse from there. Throughout the whole thing, I felt like I was watching a really bad play where all the actors were overexaggerating everything. Worse, I felt like the actors didn’t know their lines at all and made them up as it went along. There was no sense of consistency or even a minute effort to make a decent movie. Everything was random, everything was flying all over the place, and everything was beyond boring. I would rather watch a group of real life kids pretending to be superheroes as they try to save the world using blankets and toys because at least those kids would put imagination into their pretend play. (Not to mention children are generally cute.) “Transylmania” had no material to build upon at all so I was shocked that it was even made in the first place. The characters were devoid of intelligence but they did have high levels of libido. They should have made softcore pornography instead of running around acting like idiots and wasting our time. But the point where I thought I had enough was when a girl was decapitated yet she was still able to speak. I mean, come on, are you serious? But my complaining won’t do anyone any good so I’m going to propose how this picture could have been improved in the most basic levels. I think this film should have taken the “Scary Movie” or “Not Another Teen Movie” route. There are so many vampire flicks out there worth making fun of (not just the “Twilight” series) from smart (“Fright Night,” “Interview with a Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles,” or the cult classic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television show) to stupid ones (“BloodRayne” which also happens to be one of the worst movies I’ve seen); it’s just a matter of finding the right jokes and comedic timing. The main characters (or one of the main characters) should have been likable. Without anybody to root for, why would the audience care? I wish I could say that “Transylmania” was so bad that it was good. Unfortunately, it was just really bad and it was stuck on that level because no effort was put into it. Needless to say, one should avoid this movie at all cost.
Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
I can always rely on the “Twilight” series to be consistently mediocre despite the fact that each movie released was better than its predecessor. In “Eclipse,” based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer and directed by David Slade, the love triangle between Bella (Kristen Stewart), Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Jacob (Taylor Lautner) reached its peak but the vampire and werewolf camps decided to join forces in order to protect Bella from newly-born vampires led by Riley (Xavier Samuel) and Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard taking over for Rachelle Lefevre). Like the first two movies, “Eclipse” suffered from far too many ways Edward and Bella expressed how much they loved each other. I understood that the whole thing might have worked on paper or else the novels wouldn’t have been as successful but it just did not work on film because it quickly became redundant. Even when the movie tried to explore the romantic relationship between Bella and Jacob, the picture lacked energy and, to be quite honest, I started noticing the make-up, editing and the lighting. In other words, it lost my interest despite my best intentions of sticking with the story. The movie would have benefited if it had more action sequences. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy but I did enjoy the climax when the werewolves and vampires came head-to-head with the vampire army while Edward and Bella faced Riley and Victoria. Victoria was probably my favorite character since the first movie because I thought she was menacing but enchanting at the same time. Unfortunately, even though I could tell she was trying her best, Howard’s interpretation of her character did not work for me because she lacked Lefevre’s subtleties (which the series desperately lacked). In this installment, Victoria felt like a pawn instead of a rogue vampire who was full of malice and thirst for vengeance. I also enjoyed the tent scene when Edward and Jacob finally connected not because it was touching on any level but because it was very amusing to the point where people were actually laughing out loud in the theater. There was something purposely homoerotic about the very intense glares the two sent each other. Even though that scene wasn’t very effective, I admired that the material was aware enough to make fun of itself. Furthermore, I can criticize the film for not being a good example for teenagers in promoting marriage considering the characters’ ages but I won’t because it simply tried to remain loyal to its source. I can only hope that the final installment (divided in two) will have more suspense and action than romance. It needed less cheese and more bloodshed.
★★ / ★★★★
“Bakjwi” or “Thirst,” directed by Chan-wook Park, was about a priest (Kang-ho Song) who knowingly participated in a fatal experiment in order to help other people who might be infected with the disease in the future. Surely enough, the experiment killed him but he later returned from the dead as a blood thirsty vampire. I couldn’t quite enjoy this movie as a whole because it was very odd which, frankly, I did not expect. I thought it was going to be a pretty standard horror film about a vampire. Others may like the fact that the movie tried to pull off some comedy here and there but I found it to be very distracting. Maybe the humor was lost in translation because I’m not Korean so I didn’t think it was funny at all. I found the scenes with the family (Ok-bin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin) to be very dull and redundant. And the whole “romance” between Song and Ok-bin Kim did not persuade me at all that they were “in love.” There were far too many–from what it felt like–obligatory sex scenes that didn’t quite move the story forward. As realistic as they were, they didn’t do anything for me; I was more interested with the scares that it had to offer. I wanted to know more about what it meant for the lead character to be a vampire and the struggles he had to go through since he chose to live by certain codes. One of the most important of those codes included not killing people because God saw it as a mortal sin. Did he, when stripped with religion, inherently thought it was wrong? After all, he was no longer a “normal” human. I didn’t really get my questions answered because the movie insisted on spending time with that annoying family. The priest was a very interesting character because I don’t know a lot of vampire characters who remain loyal to his religion after death. However, I very much enjoyed the last forty minutes because I finally felt that I was watching a film that was edgy, suspenseful and mysterious. I don’t want to spoil anything because I did not see certain things coming but the events that happened in the last third of the movie really fascinated me. I felt like the movie finally came alive especially the beautiful outdoor scenes. It had this mesmerizing glow that glued me to the screen. If only the level of filmmaking was the same as the last third of the picture, I would have given “Thirst” a recommendation. With a running time of about two hours and ten minutes, it certainly felt that long or maybe even longer.