Youth in Revolt attempts to charm but misses its focus and mark
Michael and Peter Spierig, the writers and directors of Daybreakers, have pulled off an increasingly rare feat. They made a vampire movie I like. They made a vampire movie that's smart, and it made me forget how sick I am of vampire movies.
I'll spare you the whole "most overused monster in film" spiel, or the sad romanticism of the current wave of teen-themed bloodsuckers in books, on the CW, and film; but the glut has been making me long for some different monsters.
I don't know if the upcoming Wolfman film will be worth a damn but I do know I'm looking forward to it because there aren't enough bad-ass werewolf flicks out there. The Wolfman (for whatever reason) feels fresh, even though it really isn't. Oddly, that was how I wound up feeling about Daybreakers.
Set in a not-too-distant 2019, Daybreakers reveals a world where the vampire takeover is complete. Society has been remade in their image, and it's really not much different. The cities have sub-walks, so they can get to work during the day; they drink (blood) coffee, drive cars. Some even run multi-national corporations. They are very much like they were, except for the immortality and hemoglobin quaffing.
But old human habits die hard, and precious human blood is becoming scarce from overuse. That's where Bromley Marks, a sort of agri-business conglomerate that farms humans for blood, comes in. Their chief hematologist, Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is hard at work on a blood substitute that he hopes will be the key to saving the near extinct humans, but his boss Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) is only looking to avert disaster for the vampire race, while calculating the riches of what a medical breakthrough would bring.
See, while everyone still looks normal (apart from the fangs, amber eyes and constant blue-filtered lighting), it turns out that when vampires become blood-starved they begin to morph into the feral, violent, ugly, people-shredders I know and love.
These "Subsiders" already multiply underground among the poor and homeless, but soon even those in the middle-classes are feeling the effects of blood rationing and starvation.
Edward Dalton eschews human blood entirely--though the film never really reconciles his alternative--and he has a genuine concern for the fate of humans. His brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), on the other hand, is a soldier just back from an overseas deployment spent hunting humans.
After an ideological argument with his brother, and a subsequent home invasion by a rabid Subsider, Edward finds himself driving into fate when he has a car accident with a band of humans led by Lionel 'Elvis' Cormac (Willem Dafoe), a wise cracking, crossbow wielding, resistance fighter who just might have the answer to all their problems.
The Aussie Spierig Brothers were previously known--amongst horror nerds, at least--for their 2003 micro-budget, zombie film Undead, which took yet another overused screen monster and recast it in an interesting, somewhat sci-fi context. They've gone bigger with Daybreakers.
This film has a neat hook that it takes seriously and, though the script amps up the allegory to obvious heights, I dug the ways you could easily graft this story onto various contemporary ills, from peak oil to drug companies that would rather treat a disease than cure it, to the horrors of animal cruelty or even homelessness. This kind of allegorical subtext is the mark of good science fiction.
And some people explode. I can't tell you how much I'll forgive a film when a few people convincingly explode.
Daybreakers has its share of cool visual moments. While much of the look is annoyingly similar to The Matrix, the Brothers Spierig can stage a pretty sequence and shoot action well, at least. The visual wizards at Peter Jackson's WETA FX house ensure that the design and execution of the Subsiders is realistic, creepy and cool. They also come through on the gore with a few well-conceived kills, a couple of which were the more impressive I've seen in recent memory.
It's B-material, relatively low budget, but often when you are working with those limits you are forced to become more inventive, and your film falls more heavily on your actors and the story. The Spierig Brothers come through on the story front and the actors ably carry it off.
Sam Neill oozes menace as Bromley, and Ethan Hawke mugs it up as Edward Dalton, a role that I'm sure appealed to his conservationist sensibilities. Willem Dafoe, as 'Elvis' Cormac, is quite clearly having a blast and chews on every scene he's in like a milk bone. But none of them are winking at the audience, and the imaginative story gives them a gleefully unpretentious framework to play with that appealed to my inner geek. My outer one, too.
While certainly not for everyone, with Daybreakers the Spierig Brothers have crafted a smart, gory and imaginative world that is bound to appeal to horror fans who appreciate films that can find a new twist on the well-worn icons of the genre. If you're a fan of vampires that sparkle in daylight? Maybe not so much.
Revolt Against the Machine
For some reason I have a hard time believing Michael Cera would really have any problems getting laid. I've heard too many girls express lustful appreciation for his doe-eyed, gawky charms, and let's face it; he's a movie star.
Granted, he's a movie star whose on screen persona seems little more than a slightly altered version of his actual personality--and for some reason that makes it difficult for me to suspend disbelief for his performances in variations on the awkward, sentimental, emo-nerd role.
To a degree part of Youth in Revolt's plot almost feels meta-joke directed at the overly typecast Cera. If that's the case then--unlike many of the gags in this wholly unremarkable entry into the teen sex-comedy genre--that would make the film almost subversive.
Cera plays Nick Twisp, a hapless, hormone-fueled teenager who lives with his divorced mother, Estelle (Jean Smart) and her slovenly, flake of a boyfriend Jerry (Zack Galifianakis).
Nick loves Sinatra, harbors aspirations of being a writer, and generally thinks he's got a fairly refined sense of taste. So, of course, he spends much of his time wondering why girls are utterly indifferent to his existence. After Jerry tries to scam a group of Navy sailors by selling them a lemon of a car, the dysfunctional trio hide out at a trailer park in the sticks, where Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a beautiful, intelligent girl who immediately captures Nicks heart (and raging libido).
But it isn't long before the obstacles to happiness present themselves. Sheeni's parents are deeply religious, and worse she has an on-again, off-again boyfriend who sounds sickeningly perfect for her.
Of course Nick doesn't even live in her town, and Sheeni harbors dreams of living in France, but Nick's real problem is his over-abundance of nice. He's just too non-threatening to get under Sheeni's skin--or in her pants. So Nick creates a suave, lascivious, scoundrel of an alter ego named Francois Dillinger to give him the confidence to get the girl.
Adapted from a series of books by C.D. Payne, and directed by television vet Miguel Arteta, Youth in Revolt is a pleasant enough affair. It's basically too light-hearted to hate, despite many of the hackneyed comedic bits failing to elicit much more than a few grins and a guffaw. It tries to find that sweet spot between raunchy humor and affectionate charm that is so regularly achieved by the comedies of Judd Apatow, but Arteta employs a more languid directorial style that, while not dull, is clearly less refined than Apatow's.
Arteta imbues the film with a nice look, indulging in occasional flourishes of animation (stop-motion and traditional) to enliven the largely inconspicuous visuals--with the exception of the mushroom trip sequence.
But directorially, Arteta lacks focus, as evidenced in the way Nick's best friend "Lefty" (Erik Knudsen) exists only briefly as a soundboard for Nick before disappearing from the film entirely. Perhaps that's more a fault of the script, but that's why God gave Arteta re-writes.
In fact, Youth in Revolt seemed so unconcerned with distinguishing itself from its genre forebears that I wondered if the film, on some level, were trying to say something more about schizophrenia or draw some deeper connection between mental illness and love or something. Francois manifests himself after Nick hits a wall in his desperate plan to be with Sheeni, and Francois guides Nick's increasingly impulsive, even criminal, behavior. He even has his own look, with the pencil thin pimp moustache, aviator shades and retro gigolo fashions.
I might be barking up the wrong tree with that idea, though it at least seems like the character of Francois is a meta-nod to the sameness of Cera's typecasting. That's the problem with Youth in Revolt. It feels ungrounded to the point that it seems unsure of what it wants to be and, even when it does hit the mark, its punch is weak. It speaks in a mumble.
Performances are fine, and my problems with Cera had more to do with the writing of Nick than his performance as him (this time). I really did like some of the veteran casting in supporting roles, be it Fred Willard as Nick's bizarre activist neighbor, Mr. Ferguson or Jean Smart as Nick's aging hottie mom, whose pragmatism about men should probably hint to some deep dysfunction in her son (I just can't let the mental illness angle go).
Newcomer Portia Doubleday is appropriately cute and desirable in a puppy dog crush way, but her character had me on the fence as to why Nick wouldn't see her as a manipulative drama queen born to mess with his head. Maybe I'm just too cynical for this sort of thing to work anymore. I don't know. Steve Buscemi as Nick's father turns up the stressed-out, while Justin Long as Sheeni's drug addled older brother Paul turns on the zoned out. It's a good cast looking for a sharper film.
But, like I said, the whole thing is too lighthearted to hate and while much of the humor is overly familiar it made me grin a bit, and chuckle a couple of times. Youth in Revolt felt like it was pulling its punches and that's a death knell for any ambitions it might have had for being remarkable. Maybe a few exploding people would have helped.
Share this article: