Daybreakers (2009)


Today’s cinema adventure: Daybreakers, a 2009 sci-fi/horror/action mash-up about a dystopian near-future in which an epidemic has turned most of the world’s population into vampires, and the remaining humans are farmed for their blood.  Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, it is elevated above the usual standard of B-grade schlock by the presence of an unusually distinguished cast, and features a slick and well-executed visual style enhanced by special creature effects from New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.  It was met with fairly positive critical response upon its initial release, but despite the presumably heightened appeal of its combined fantasy genres, its box office performance was somewhat disappointing, owing largely to its competition with the blockbusters Avatar and Sherlock Holmes.

Set in 2019, Daybreakers depicts a world not unlike our own, a place where high-tech convenience and corporate domination rule the day; the fact that most of its inhabitants are vampires makes little difference- modern technology ensures the uninterrupted flow of culture by providing protection from sunlight, and industrial farming procedures provide the required supply of human blood, while the military takes care of hunting down and capturing the few remaining mortal survivors.  The rewards of embracing vampirism- immortality, superhuman strength, enhanced senses- seemingly outweigh any troubling moral concerns, at least for most, and the only real problem is the dwindling supply of blood- an ongoing issue which has reached the level of an international crisis as the non-vampiric representatives of the human race have reached near-extinction.  While corporate experts race to find a synthetic substitution, rationing and poverty have begun to take their toll by causing the malnourished to “subside,” morphing them into primal, instinct-driven monsters who terrorize and feed on their own kind.  In the midst of this dire state of affairs, Edward- a blood expert whose ethical beliefs lead him to sympathize with humans- becomes involved with a group of mortal fugitives that have found a cure for vampirism, and he joins them in their quest to save humanity.  The powers that be, however, have no interest in a cure, so Edward and his new companions must fight to stay alive until they can find a way to spread their miraculous discovery and reclaim the future of the human race.

The premise is undeniably intriguing, though it clearly requires some serious suspension of disbelief for viewers beyond the age of, say, 14.  The metaphorical possibilities are provocative; Daybreakers could be viewed as an allegory for corporate greed and its ruthless bleeding of the underclasses, or as an indictment of humanity for its merciless over-exploitation of natural resources, or simply as a parable about the conflict between the dark and light sides of human nature.  Implicit as these ideas may be in the scenario, however, the Brothers Spierig have included little, if any, subtextual emphasis on anything beyond the necessary psychological conflicts of the story, such as the desire of a corporate chief executive to bring his resistant daughter into the vampiric fold or the struggle for reconciliation between Edward and his military brother, who converted him unwillingly to his undead state.  There are unavoidable parallels, too, between the vampiric “subsiders” and the homeless population of our own world- viewed as undesirables, they are feared and persecuted, a reminder of the larger social problem of which they are a symptom and of the potential fate which threatens the entire civilization.  Here too, the film’s creators have chosen to leave the obvious comparisons in the background, instead treating this element as just another complication in their plot.

With all this possible social commentary inherent in the material, one might expect the filmmakers to find creative ways to explore it within the framework of the narrative, particularly since their screenplay was an original work, unencumbered by the need to adhere to an existing storyline; but throughout their movie, opportunities for such resonance are ignored, and the script contents itself with a reliance on melodramatic confrontation and goofy one-liners, setting up its conflicts sufficiently to allow for dramatic tension and to provide the justification for its climactic bloodbath, but leaving larger and more significant questions unasked and unanswered.  In essence, the Spierigs have made an extended chase movie, spiced up with the trappings of a sci-fi/horror fantasy, and everything else within it exists merely to serve its crowd-pleasing purpose.

This is not to say that Daybreakers is without redeeming quality; indeed, its lack of pretension might be its saving grace, keeping it from becoming one of those preachy, self-important epics that gives lip service to a politically-correct stance while asking us to believe in a patently absurd premise (such as the movie that buried this one at the box office, the obscenely successful Avatar).  The Spierigs keep it simple, confining their socio-political observation to the world of the film, and incorporating only as much of it as is needed to set the stage for their story.  Unfortunately, that story is not a particularly compelling one- the protagonist is something of a wimp, and the developments which lead to the film’s resolution are even more far-fetched than its premise- but it manages to be entertaining enough; and because Daybreakers does not take itself too seriously, we can allow ourselves to enjoy the gratuitous violence and gore that we ultimately expect from any vampire movie.  There is quite a lot of it, actually, increasing in frequency and intensity as the plot progresses, until it culminates in a climax dripping with cathartic carnage.  On this level, at least, Daybreakers does not disappoint.

Besides the guilty pleasure of bodies being exploded, incinerated, beheaded and otherwise torn to bits- justifiable because they are, mostly, vampires, after all- there are some other features worth attention in Daybreakers.  Most noticeable, perhaps, is its cool, slick visualization of a not-too-distant future marked by a sterile, streamlined elegance in architecture and interior design, and rendered in a muted palette of steely grays and icy blues by cinematographer Ben Nott.  The vampiric mutants, debased by their malnutrition into anthropomorphic creatures (which look decidedly similar to the notorious “Bat Boy” of tabloid fame), are effectively creepy and pathetic at the same time, and well-executed by their aforementioned creators at Weta.  As for the acting, well, clearly nobody expects Oscar-caliber performances from a movie like Daybreakers, but that said, the presence of a particularly high-grade trio of actors in the key roles- Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill- helps to elevate it from the level of a run-of-the-mill formula thriller to something at least a little more engaging.  Dafoe in particular deserves credit, in his role as a former-vampire-turned-human savior, for being able to utter some truly ridiculous dialogue with enough conviction to make it seem believable; and there is a nicely subdued and grounded performance from the less-familiar Claudia Karvan as the mortal female refugee who brings Hawke (as Edward) into the cause and becomes a possible love interest.  It’s also notable that she takes an active and heroic role in the proceedings instead of being presented as the typical passive woman usually seen in such male-centric adventures- though she does, ultimately, have to be rescued, it’s also true that Hawke’s character does too, and more than once, at that.

Daybreakers makes an attractive package, with its skillful technical and visual elements providing considerable distraction, and the work of its competent players ensuring that we can stay involved in its plot; but that plot is all-too-familiar despite the painfully clever conceits in which it is framed, and though it manages to grow on you as it goes, in the end it offers nothing more than a mildly interesting 90-minutes-plus of entertaining fluff.  The rich potential of its scenario seems to beg for further development, but goes unexplored, creating half-formed thoughts and ideas about its implications that are quickly left in the wake of its action agenda; the result, though not exactly a bad movie, is not exactly a good one, either.  Rather, it’s just another gimmicky thriller that capitalizes on the surging craze for vampires, and though it’s a well-made and fairly likable one, the sense of missed opportunity makes it very disappointing, indeed.


Eyes Wide Open/Einayim Petukhoth (2009)

Today’s cinema adventure: Eyes Wide Open, a 2009 Hebrew-language film by first-time director Haim Tabakman depicting the spiritual and social conflict sparked by a blossoming homosexual relationship within a deeply Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. One of the growing number of gay-and-lesbian-themed films to come out of Israel in recent years, it is the story of Aaron, a dedicated husband and father who inherits his father’s butcher shop; when he takes on a young homeless student as an apprentice, a forbidden attraction develops between them, eventually growing into an affair that tests his faith and threatens to cost him not only his beloved family but his place as a well-liked and respected member of the community as well. A film that treads on potentially dangerous, controversial ground, it handles its subject matter with respect for both the valued traditions of the Orthodox Jewish Church and the importance of fulfilling the needs of the heart; the screenplay by Merav Doster carefully constructs its narrative around the delicate issue at its center, choosing to offer up a chronicle of a man’s personal crisis of faith rather than an indictment of attitudes, and to focus on the honest examination of emotional experience instead of on the promotion of a particular agenda, treating its characters with sympathy regardless of which position they hold in the moral tug-of-war being staged. The result is thought-provoking without being inflammatory, moving without being manipulative, and reverent without being precious- a fine example of the kind of slice-of-life drama that achieves its goals simply by presenting its tale in a straightforward manner and allowing the viewer to make up their own mind about the issues raised within.

Despite the weighty social and spiritual matters being explored here, Eyes Wide Open is by no means an entirely solemn film. It manages to find many ways to lighten its tone, from the ironic and observational humor inherent in its situation to the more abstract metaphorical connections drawn from the large amount of meat its two main characters must handle throughout; and lest we forget it in all this talk of moral dilemmas and social obligations, this is first and foremost a romance- and a steamy one, at that. The passion between these two men is carefully crafted, building steadily from their first glimpse of each other, smoldering insistently as they grow closer and becoming stronger with each averted opportunity, until it finally explodes in a fervent love scene that is as joyful as it is erotic- and it is extremely erotic, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is not visually explicit. The power of their connection does not end there, however, because the bond is not merely a sexual one; their emotional connection is built just as carefully, and it is this deeper feeling that makes their relationship so engaging and places the stakes so high. For in the end, it is the love they have for each other that turns Aaron’s life inside out, not the mere physical attraction that has brought them together; and it is the convincing portrayal of that love that keeps us invested, sharing with this illicit couple in their happiness and their heartbreak. The credit for this, of course, must go to the two actors who play them, Zoharr Strauss and Ran Danker, neither of whom, as far as I know, are gay offscreen- not that it matters. Both men are charismatic and instantly likable, and they each convey the depth and range of their roles with clarity. In particular, Strauss (who plays Aaron) does a superb job of allowing his inner landscape to show through a necessarily stoic exterior; his is the more complex role, requiring him to wrestle with a much wider range of conflicts than his younger counterpart, and he meets the challenge admirably. Which is not to say that Danker (an impossibly handsome young actor) is overshadowed or outdone; his Ezri is a portrait of a man who is resigned to the necessity of hiding his true nature, but is not ashamed of it- as he reveals in his intimate moments with Strauss when the veneer slides away and his passion and sensitivity shine through. Also delivering fine performances are Tinkerbell as Aaron’s patient wife, struggling with her growing suspicions and doing her best to fight, in her own small way, for her husband’s love; and Tzahi Grad as Aaron’s rabbi and friend, whose loyalty is stretched to its limit as he tries to maintain his support.

Director Tabakman wisely chooses to place the burden of telling the story on his actors, largely using stationary, long takes that permit an uninterrupted flow within the scenes; but he nevertheless brings his visual sense to the film with a keen eye for composing his frames, and he utilizes his Jerusalem setting- beautifully photographed by Axel Schneppat- to underscore the movie’s central conflict with the visual clash between the city’s ancient architecture and its contemporary, urban feel. His greatest accomplishment with Eyes Wide Open, however, is undoubtedly the way he allows it to deliver its full, cumulative effect without trying to tip the scales one way or the other. The scrupulous fairness with which he handles his subject is, in terms of artistic integrity, his greatest strength.

That fairness, however, also opens up the film to its greatest criticism. By refusing to overtly choose a side in this struggle between traditional religious doctrine and contemporary respect for individual freedom, the film risks interpretation as an anti-gay polemic. Certainly its treatment of homosexuality itself is beyond reproach, but so too is its sensitivity to the ancient mores of the Orthodox Hebrew culture; it is far too heavy and complicated a conflict to deserve glib or easy treatment, but those with a more progressive bent might wish for a stronger stance on the side of tolerance and equality. Personally, it is hard for me to characterize a film as anti-gay when it creates such sympathy for its homosexual characters and works so hard to generate hope from the audience for them to be together; and by virtue of exploring the conflict- which is clearly universal, for the setting could just as easily be in a heavily Christian or Muslim community- the film opens up the kind of thinking and discussion which can ultimately lead to positive change, whether socially or personally. Eyes Wide Open, however, is not a fantasy: in the end, Aaron must make a choice between holding on to the beliefs upon which he has built his life or abandoning everything he has ever known for the sake of his own happiness. The choice will not be a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the struggle of this noble, upright man; and though one might wish that choice were a different one, how many of us would truly have the courage to make it? Still, in the film’s final moments, when Aaron is submerging himself in the waters of a cleansing spring he had once visited with Ezri, and he doesn’t come back up before the camera cuts to black, we cannot help but wonder how long he can hold his breath.

An Englishman in New York (2009)


Today’s cinema adventure: An Englishman in New York, the 2009 British telefilm which marked the return of John Hurt to the role of noted real-life author/performer/raconteur/gay icon Quentin Crisp. A follow-up to the acclaimed1975 telefilm based on Crisp’s landmark memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, which made Hurt into a star and won him a BAFTA for Best Actor, this modest biopic covers the later years of the famous eccentric’s life, when he became a celebrated resident of Manhattan and a polarizing figure in the continuing struggle for gay rights. While Hurt maintains his customary brilliance in revisiting and expanding his legendary performance, this outing lacks the strong, central drive of the original film, which had the benefit of focusing on Crisp’s early struggle and triumph in asserting his homosexuality and his individuality in the repressive England of early 20th century. Part of the reason is likely that the first outing was built upon the solid ground of Crisp’s superb book, which portrayed his early life and experiences as a personal journey culminating in his courtroom victory blow against the antiquated morality laws which kept most English homosexuals fearfully cringing in the closet; but here, writer Brian Fillis attempts to encapsulate the remarkable life which followed those events into a 90 minute whirlwind, consolidating characters and contriving scenes in order to address key issues and events. To be sure, he has a cohesive purpose- the main focus here is Crisp’s fiercely guarded individuality, which put him at odds with the ongoing gay rights movement and often made him the object of exclusion within his own community (particularly after an infamous remark that AIDS was “a fad”)- and he does an admirable job of creating a portrait of a man who is forced into continuing growth in spite of himself; but the end result is considerably less satisfying than Civil Servant and leaves us wondering about many of the blank spots in between. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to admire this belated sequel, not the least of which is the rich background of late-century New York scenery lending an authentic documentary feel to the proceedings. By far, however, the greatest joy here is the magnificent performance of John Hurt, who once again captures to perfection the physical and vocal character of this legendary figure while simultaneously conveying the depth of emotion and experience which lies beneath that flamboyant exterior; in Hurt’s hands, the affectations of dress and manner become (as they were in real life) an expression of Crisp’s true self rather than a costume proclaiming his refusal to conform. Nevertheless, in spite of the more obvious success of his characterization, it is in the more intimate moments when Hurt’s brilliance as an actor really shines through- his weathered face and soulful eyes wordlessly express volumes, whether he is confronting the thoughtless prejudice of younger gay men or his own mortality. Supporting him are an array of established character actors- Dennis O’Hare, Swoosie Kurtz, Cynthia Nixon- who are never quite allowed to rise above the constraints of the condensed format, although Jonathan Tucker has some nice moments as artist Patrick Angus, whose work was championed into success by Crisp. Overall, though its hard to call An Englishman in New York a worthy successor to the still-lauded Civil Servant, it offers many rewards in its own right; and though it may ultimately contain less insight into Quentin Crisp than the Sting-penned song from which it takes its title, it is still a fitting and necessary epilogue to the story of a man who changed the world by refusing to change himself.