Daybreakers

Imagine a world where vampires live in fear. And not of Dr. Van Helsing or Blade, but of poverty, crime and environmental destruction. Sound hard to believe? That’s the world of Daybreakers (2009), directed by the Spierig brothers.

In 2019, vampires outnumber humans more than ten to one. The vampires have become somewhat comfortable with their dominant status, and now drive expensive cars away from suburban homes to boring white collar jobs in the city. Certain noteworthy changes in culture have resulted from this. For instance, all buildings and vehicles are now equipped with lead sheets that cover the windows during daylight hours, and loudspeakers broadcast warnings when there is one hour until daybreak. Vampires in suits line up at coffee stands for coffee with a shot of blood in it.

Subway commuters. And you thought vampires were cool.

But of course, there’s a problem; one that you’ve probably already guessed. With so few humans left, vampires are in danger of starvation. Most of the humans still in existence are kept sedated, hooked up to giant machines ala The Matrix, being farmed for their blood. The government rations blood more and more strictly, with those in control keeping a little extra for themselves, naturally. An increasingly fearful – and hungry –middle class hurries past dark alleys and hides in their homes, and the lower classes, “subsiders,” deprived of blood, mutate into something out of … well, a vampire movie (below).

Amidst all this, we meet Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), chief hematologist for a corporation that controls most of America’s remaining blood supply. With riots breaking out over the blood shortage, the company is putting increasing pressure on Ed to create some kind of “blood-substitute.” Meanwhile, Ed wrestles with his conscience over being a vampire and refuses to touch human blood, to the detriment of his health. This creates a good deal of tension between Ed and his brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), who hunts humans for the U.S. Army.

A small number of humans are still free, hiding in rural areas. After a chance meeting with some of them, Ed receives an invitation to the countryside to learn about a cure for vampirism that they have discovered, and a chance to restore balance to the food chain.

The cast drives this one home with a number of powerhouse actors. Sam Neil, whom we seem to see about as often as a real vampire, plays Charles Bromley, the CEO of Ed’s company. One of history’s most under-rated actors, Neil blends the smooth charm of a Manhattan sophisticate with the sinister nature of a bloodsucker in a fascinating way. The inimitable Willem Dafoe also appears as the grizzled former vampire who stumbled upon the miracle cure. A collection of Aussie stars (Daybreakers was filmed in Australia) rounds out the cast nicely.

Hawke and Dafoe do not suck in "Daybreakers."

Daybreakers could justifiably be called a horror movie, but not in the way one normally thinks of horror. It does get gory – even ridiculously so – at times, but it’s not about the gore. It’s about the horrors of a society that has gotten too comfortable, and is eating itself. As corrupt potentates drink blood wine and eat blood caviar, we wonder how much longer civilization can bear the strain. The pristine homes and manicured lawns of suburbia are nothing more than petty amusements the vampires use to distract themselves from their impending doom. Near the end, we bear witness to the kind of moral travesties that desperation is often used to justify. And it’s all horribly familiar; the story of our lives, retold through the bloodshot eyes of the undead.

I wouldn’t want to put anyone off this movie, because it is one of the best I have

Neil drinks blood, but still does not suck in "Daybreakers."

seen in a long time. For all of the negativity, it actually has a pretty uplifting ending (especially for a vampire movie), despite a few painfully sad moments along the way. There are also a number of genuinely fun scenes, including a hair-raising home invasion by a bat-like subsider. Even better, this scene is followed by an unintentionally hilarious crime-investigation scene, with every law enforcement cliché from the past 60 years standing around the decapitated body of this bizare creature from hell.

I figured I could get some work done during this movie, but my papers were left forgotten on the coffee table as I was glued to the screen. Daybreakers was only the second movie done by the Spierig brothers, but it’s as gripping and thought-provoking as anything out there. If you’ve got a strong stomach, it’s a must see.

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Second Chance

2nd Chance posterIt seems before Fireproof, members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany Georgia were honing their film-making skills on smaller projects. One example is The Second Chance, in which they used their own church building as a set. Second Chance tells the tale of two churches, sister churches in fact, one of them a wealthy mega-church in the suburbs, the other a financially strapped church in the inner city, surrounded by prostitutes and drug dealers.

The inner city church, Second Chance Community Church, was once pastored by Jeremiah Jenkins (J. Don Ferguson) before he went on to bigger and better things in the suburbs. He left behind one of his early converts, Jake Sanders (Jeff Carr), a drug dealer turned pastor, to carry on. Jenkins is now grooming his son, Ethan (singer Michael W. Smith in his first acting job) to take his place at the mega church, The Rock, when he’s gone.

Jake addresses the congregation of The Rock one Sunday and, in disgust

Ethan (Smith) and Jake (Carr) kickin' it in da hood, yo.

Ethan and Jake kickin' it in the hood, yo.

over its lack of physical participation in inner city outreach, spurns its financial participation, saying “Keep your damn money!” (Yeah, that’s right, he said damn in church.) The Church Board blames Ethan for giving Jake the pulpit, and sends him to Second Chance to “observe and learn” from Jake. Thus worlds collide.

One reason Second Chance is such an interesting piece of film making is that, like Fireproof, you can tell they had a limited budget. What they do with it is quite impressive, though. From repeated confrontations on the same footbridge, each more intense than the last,  to a shot of a condemned church building with a wrecking ball dangling in the foreground, director Steve Taylor communicates volumes without a single line of dialogue. Instead of the seamless camera cuts that we’re used to, there will often be a single shot for a whole scene, with the camera panning back and forth to different speakers or facing the back of one side of a conversation. It’s kind of fun to watch for a change. In one scene, Smith accompanies a ghetto choir on the piano. Taylor tried to get fancier for this scene, and so we see a lot of rapid panning and zooming. It doesn’t look terrible, but still serves to highlight the budget limitations more than conceal them.

The credits start rolling at about 90 minutes, which is really too bad. The movie has a lot of subplots and a number of them could have stood more development. There are a lot of scenes that one would have to already be familiar with church life to appreciate. That’s okay, though, because this film doesn’t really have a message for the unchurched (which isn’t to say that they wouldn’t find it interesting). It’s a story about Christians, by Christians for Christians. It’s greatest contribution is its exhortation to those in safe and comfortable neighborhoods to leave them and be among the broken and the poor. Anyone who lives in the suburbs could learn a great deal by watching this film. It is a film riddled with clichés, but clichés exist for a reason, and these bear repeating. In other words, this is what The Preacher’s Wife would have been like if it had been made by smarter people.

The film’s greatest downfall is probably its two-dimensional portrayal of Jake as not needing to learn anything or repent of anything. Jake should have been forced at some point to reexamine his ideas the same way Ethan

"You see that cross? Anywhere you see that cross is MY hood!"

"You see that cross? Anywhere you see that cross is MY hood!"

is. Instead Carr plays the same two rolls the whole way through, waffeling between pastor and big, scary black man, and delivering lines like “The Bible says I have to love you, when right now, I just want to beat the hell out of you.” (Yeah, he says hell, too.) This is a problem for two reasons: it burdens the story with yet another cliché, and, frankly, Carr just isn’t very convincing in the roll. Still, I can’t deny that there’s something very grin-worthy about seeing him grab a gang banger’s fist, twist his arm behind his back, and say “ … I’m gonna open up a can o’ the wrath a’ God, all over your sorry ass.” (Yeah, he says ass, too.) If you’ve got two hours and a few dollars, get this one from your local rental (or Christian book store) and check it out. You won’t be sorry.

(I should note that, while this film was made by Christians, it is not for little kids. It deals with some very intense subjects, and it deserves its PG-13 rating.)

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Pathfinder

pathfind posterWith “Pathfinder,” horror Director Marcus Nispel, (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Friday the 13th, Killer Cut”) attempts to branch out into the historical epic/adventure genre.

Nispel Does deserve kudos for at least one thing with this movie: venturing into a part of history where Hollywood has feared to tread. Much like his characters, he is blazing uncharted territory.

We know that Vikings began to explore North America somewhere between A.D. 900 and 1200. We also know that there were already people there. What happened next must have been a fascinating clash of cultures, and could have made for a really interesting movie. Sadly, Pathfinder never transcends a level of shallowness reminiscent of 1940s propaganda.

The first thing we see in Pathfinder is a montage of Vikings mercilessly slaughtering and enslaving Native Americans. The Vikings don’t even appear human, their horned helmets (which Vikings did not wear) hiding their faces, and they shake the very ground on their horses (which Vikings did not ride).

The text on the screen reads: “600 years before Columbus, North America was invaded by a brutal people bent on settling there. Something stopped them. This is the legend.”

In the scenes that follow, a Native American woman happens upon a wrecked dragon boat, and finds that a Viking boy, 12 years of age, is the sole survivor. She takes him to her village, where the natives in this movie, remarkably ungrizzled by thousands of winters, spout the same humanistic rhetoric as contemporary Hollywood liberals. The boy, now named “Ghost,” is allowed not only to live with the tribe, but also to retain possession of a number of artifacts of the civilization that is slaughtering his hosts, most notably a Viking sword.

Fast forward 10 years. Ghost (Karl Urban) is now a man; a loyal brave of his tribe, although someone (it’s anyone’s guess who) has apparently taught him swordplay and other Viking tactics. Things seem peaceful until another army of Vikings makes landfall nearby and begins raiding villages and killing natives. This time, however, they face a strangely pale-skinned native, who is familiar with their weapons and tactics, and once they’ve killed his adoptive parents, he wages a one-man war against them. One has to wonder how so many men and horses could fit into a few dragon boats, but at least there’s plenty of fodder for Nispel’s next gore fest. Really, the movie is less deserving of ink than the real story.

Karl Urban takes up the sword in "Pathfinder."

Karl Urban takes up the sword in "Pathfinder."

Firstly, while no one could ever call the Vikings humanitarians, there was more to them than sacking and pillaging. The ones who came to the Americas were aspiring not to raiding, or “viking,” but to a quiet life of settled farming. (see  www.mnh.si.edu/vikings) What’s more, the Viking raids of European towns were motivated by a desire for precious metals and stones. Needless to say, native American villages wouldn’t have had these, although there still would have been conflicts over land and resources. It is also worth noting that European scholars recorded that Vikings were actually quite hygienic for their time. (Lost Civilizations: Vikings, Thomas H. Flaherty, 1993) The story of their colonization of Greenland is one of remarkable courage. A Viking skeleton has been found there of a man who dislocated his arm during farm work. With no medical care available, he worked with that arm for several more years until he actually wore a new socket in the scapula! (Lost Civ, Faherty, ’93)

As for what “stopped them,” the harder question would be what didn’t. The ships Vikings had were glorified canoes, and the journey – some 3,000 miles across the violent north Altlantic – would have been exceedingly difficult for seasoned sailors, let alone women, children and livestock.

The land that far north was only slightly more hospitable. (www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook) The Vikings might have made it had they learned from the Inuit, who subsisted entirely on seals and fish. The farming lifestyle that Vikings knew would have been extremely difficult in a part of the world reputed to have “10 months of winter and two months of bad sledding.” A combination of rough seas, brutal winters and starvation are much more likely to have “stopped” the invaders than a guy with a slingshot (not to spoil the end or anything).

It also needs to be said that native Americans were far from gentle when it came to dealing with captured enemies. The Iriquoi, whom the Vikings would have encountered, made a habit of torturing prisoners. The accounts of some of their activities are enough to chill the blood. (The Jesuite Relations, Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1791) This wasn’t because they were any less civilized than anyone else, but because they were hardened by a daily fight for survival. Hollywood humanism didn’t exist yet, and a child of an enemy tribe, native or European, probably would have been ignored, if he were lucky.

It’s not that I expect movies to be 100% realistic. It’s just that this could have been a great film. The Vikings and the various native tribes of the northeast were fascinating peoples. Doubtless there was bravery, passion, and at times great evil on both sides. “Pathfinder” cheapens both sides almost beyond recognition. And all for the sake of turning our brains off for battle-action that’s too gruesome to enjoy anyway.

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