Staking a claim as the year’s worst film

It is the best title of the year and will almost certainly be the worst movie. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter looked a dead, or undead, cert on the poster: a preposterous treat for postmodernists and Gothics with funnybones. In spare time he was a US president and civil war victor, in youth and vocation he was a man in a beard who went around lamming vampires. Yes, there was more to Honest Abe, according to novelist/screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (author also of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, now filming), than history has allowed. And more inspired comic insanity than – sadly – Hollywood’s sense of humour will allow.

The 3D specs are the first warning. Oh no: we are going to get wham-bang special effects instead of wit and tease? We are. Tim Burton was once the promised director, a man hip to the history and heritage of America while not above “having a go” at them. But to whom does Burton pass the project? Kazakh-born action director Timur Bekmambetov (previous film, the straight-to-dead Wanted), who directs for all the world as if Lincoln, leadenly played by Benjamin Walker, really were a vampiricide. This unsmiling, thick-eared, effects-intensive costume picture is ready to go straight out to every American schoolchild. Youngsters already ignorant of who Adolf Hitler was can now grow up thinking Lincoln really did biff bloodsuckers while daylighting as a nation’s president.

Shot on digital video, the film leaps into visual overdrive with every fatuous action set-piece. It is not enough to kill vampires, you must do it atop roaring trains, burning bridges or stampeding horses. It is not enough to have a corny, sneering villain (Rufus Sewell), you must give him lines – “We’re all slaves to something” – that suggest someone thinks this garbage actually has a philosophical underpinning. I blame 20th Century Fox, famed outpost of Murdoch Media. There’s a thought for Burton’s or Bekmambetov’s next: Rupert Murdoch: Zeitgeist Killer. “He hacked our phones! He wrecked our newspapers! See him ruin our movie culture and humour industry! ... ”

Now for something completely different. Listen! Ssh! The screen is so quiet you might not hear it at all. We grow up blasted by babble, violated by vampire mayhem; now along come a South Korean documentary and a Russian film that dare you to hear their most superfine sounds.

The hypnotic Silent Souls, from Russian director Alexei Fedorchenko, is about life, death and the uncertain things between. Is anything real, even, as it were, fictionally, in the story narrated by Aist (Igor Sergeyev), about a journey with his bereaved friend Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) to give the friend’s wife a funeral in the ancient Merjan custom? Is Aist dead and narrating posthumously? Who are the Merjans? Did they – do they – tie coloured ribbons into dead women’s pubic hair, let alone encourage widowers to relate salacious memories, a conversational rite called “smoke”? “All three of Tanya’s holes were working and I unsealed them,” relates Miron with wistful lubriciousness.

Based on a novel, Buntings, by Aist Sergeyev, the wheels within wheels of sly tale-spinning turn quietly, turn deep. Fedorchenko’s style is as stark and sombre as Tarkovsky’s. The town of Neya, a backwater with a paper mill (owned by the widower), is dourly picturesque. A pair of the novel’s titular buntings, caged, solemnly accompany the car journey and precipitate a fatal coda after the funeral. Throughout the movie, exquisitely played and paced, and scored for eerie-elemental music, we feel we are in the power of some mad foreign storyteller at a party, whose tales we never quite believe but never want to leave either. Pass us another vodka. Let’s hear another Merjan story ...

Seung-Jun Yi’s Planet of Snail is a South Korean documentary about a deaf-blind man. When a child, Young-Chan lost his sight and hearing from a fever. He remembers both senses, a consolation or a supplementary torture, you decide. He lives with the un-beautiful, midget-sized Soon-Ho, whom he calls beautiful because he sees only her love. They walk the world like a sad comedy act, incongruous and defiant. Soon-Ho drums her fingers on the backs of his to communicate words; he deploys a Braille machine to read or write; he wants to win an essay competition. When she brings him the published results – he failed – it’s as wounding as if we had failed ourselves. Meanwhile the senses of taste, smell and touch aggregate to create a new perceptual cosmos. Young-Chan is a tree hugger. Don’t laugh. We don’t laugh when he hugs a tree in a park. “I’m dating now, don’t bother us,” he tells Soon-Ho. There, but for the grace of a full set of senses, go all of us. In the meantime, of course, we’re missing the small, super-delicate joys that he has ...

The charm of The Five-Year Engagement is that, like its betrothal, it goes on too long. Whenever the end seems in sight – in another Judd Apatow-produced comedy with what we expect to be a short and fizzing fuse – writer-director Nicholas Stoller and co-writer/star Jason Segel say, “Fooled you.” Aspiring San Francisco chef Segel and English PhD-student fiancée Emily Blunt uproot to Michigan, her university, and that’s only the start. Marriage plans get snow-drifted: he becomes a hunting redneck, she has a near-fatal fling with Professor Rhys Ifans. (What is it with Hollywood and Ifans? They only recently cast him as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Do they take his gangling, boyo Welshness as a sign of bionic braincells?) It’s a long day’s journey into relationship insight, but with fun on the way.

Why was Lay the Favorite made? I wish I had been a fly on the wall at the dealmaking. I could have pointed out – in my fly voice – “Excuse me, folks, this is a character comedy with no comedy and no character.” (A fly is never heard; that is the film industry’s tragedy.) Bruce Willis as an ageing Las Vegas bookie and Rebecca Hall as a bubbleheaded stripper trying to go straight as a bookie’s runner are both good – Hall staggeringly so since she must overcome both brains and Britishness. But nothing comes good in the script. It is as flat as a steeplechase where the fences have collapsed. Who cares if Catherine Zeta-Jones (camping it up as Mrs Willis) throws an “other woman” wobbly over Hall, or if Hall does or not find a Willis-escaping berth with flash New York bookie Vince Vaughn? Like many colleagues I couldn’t follow the gambling minutiae. Nor could I in director Stephen Frears’s earlier The Grifters, but that didn’t matter. You liked the people and the plot. Lay the Favorite is the Grifters B-side, destined for oblivion after a few plays on outer Hollywood radio stations and the geek turntables of Frears completists.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.