Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Cinema File #34: "Vamps" Review

Alright, it's entirely possible that Breaking Wind, Part 1 has completely destroyed my ability to fairly judge a mediocre film. I know I've said that shit before, but seriously, I have looked into the abyss, and it has changed me. I fear my taste in movies might have shifted, as one's hair might shift to white upon staring into the face of a Lovecraftian God. Case in point, I just watched Amy Heckerling's Vamps, a story about vampire single girls played by Alicia Silverstone and The B I'm not supposed to trust from Apartment 23...and I actually kind of liked it.

Vamps follows the nightly exploits of two vampiress best friends who struggle to balance love, work, and unlife as perpetual twenty somethings while dealing with psychotic vampire lords, diminutive monster hunters, and their ever present craving for human blood. This might be really sexist, but when I saw the set up for this movie, my first thought was that it was kind of sad to see Alicia Silverstone, now a much older actress than she was in the last good Heckerling movie that made her famous, paired up with Krysten Ritter, who seems poised to assume the mantle of the latest young hot female movie star, as if they're both equally relevant.

The thing is, this movie does not avoid that dichotomy, but rather embraces it. Silverstone's character looks young (ish) but was turned in the 1800's, and she keeps this a secret from her much younger companion for fear of seeming out of touch. A major theme of this movie is recognizing that your heyday has passed and its time to pass the torch to the next generation, and its done really well in the context of vampires, who are all at once frozen in time, but also forced to take on new lives every few years to avoid detection. One of them is stuck in the past, nostalgic for the time of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplan, but she's forced to keep up with the times to keep up with her best friend, who was turned in the 90's and still lives for the next big thing.

This division between them extends into their romantic lives, as Ritter's character meets and falls in love with a young man, unaware that he belongs to an ancient family of vampire hunters, while Silverstone begins to reconnect with an old flame played by Richard Lewis, now an old man who has moved on with his life, but always wondered what happened to his first love. Both relationships are sweet without becoming trite or annoying, and by the time everyone comes together, every snide, cynical impulse I expected to have with this movie was replaced with, if not actual laughter, at least a pleasant feeling that I wasn't being condescended to as many movies of this type tend to do. There are no phoney manufactured points of conflict or wacky misunderstandings that threaten to derail the flow, and the obstacles that do arise are organic to the story and dealt with in an ultimately rewarding fashion.

The supporting cast are all enjoyable for the most part. Sigourney Weaver's evil vampire queen Ciccerus seemed a bit over the top at first, but quickly grew on me as she became more crazily menacing, and Wallace Shawn as the grim-faced elder Van Helsing is delightful as always, especially when his dark monster hunter veneer gives way to an exasperated, bickering husband and father. Justin Kirk shines as a swarthy Ukrainian Vampire lord, and Malcolm McDowell's reformed, hobby obsessed Vlad the Impaler made me laugh pretty much every time he was on screen. The only exception I would say would be Todd Barry, only because I've always thought he was very funny, but they never really give him anything to do, and it seems odd to cast someone that recognizably funny in such a nothing role. Also, Marilu Henner shows up at one point for a cameo out of nowhere that was so random, it almost took me out of the movie.

It's sort of becoming a running theme at this point, but I have to mention the treatment of vampire lore in this movie. Many will dismiss Vamps as a worthless chick flicky romantic comedy, but whatever you want to say about it, at the very least it treats the concept of cinematic vampires with more reverence than most movies do nowadays, which often go for completely unnecessary re-interpretation. For one thing, sunlight kills them. It's simple, I know, but you wouldn't know that if you watched half the shit out there with so-called modern vampires in it. They crawl up walls, hypnotize people, levitate, and do all the stuff vampires do in classic vampire movies, and most importantly, they don't do anything vampires can't do, like turn invisible. Some of it is played for laughs, like the awkward explanations for their not showing up in photos, or the Renfield-esque bug eater re-imagined as their whiny gay best friend, but even then, it comes off as tribute rather than insult.

They do breed, kind of, but unlike The Thompsons, its done in a way that fits with the rest of the well known mythology while providing an emotional push for the third act, instead of just being a twist for the sake of a twist. With the exception of a rather needless post credit sequence that introduces the concept of a vampire hybrid, its a plot point that helps to encapsulate the theme of choosing whether or not to accept the consequences of growing up, so I can forgive the leap of logic inherent in the walking dead becoming pregnant. And on that note, the situation that brings us to that point, while somewhat convoluted, leads to an ending that was much more somber and reflective than I had thought the movie was capable of. Without spoiling too much, the last act sets in motion a series of events that promises very tragic results for one of the main characters, and I just assumed they would find some way to work around it to get to a happy ending for everyone, but instead they power through it, and still find a way to end on an optimistic note

Vamps is not an amazing or life changing movie. Its just decent and much better than I expected it to be. Overall, it's much closer to Clueless than Loser in terms of the Amy Heckerling Scale of Quality (trademark, stupidblueplanet, 2012), but probably not quite as good, which certainly isn't a knock on this movie as much as a compliment to her prior work. It may be too light and breezy for some, but I would at least recommend not rejecting it out of hand just on the grounds that it seems too chick-flicky for your tastes. I almost did, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much was there for me to enjoy.

Well, that brings me to the end of this trilogy of vampire movie reviews, and if anything, it definitely brought me out of the funk I was in after Breaking Wind. I think I've got it out of my system. Until the next shitty movie with vampires in it that is, which given this year's track record might be sooner rather than later. 
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