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Knight at the Movies: Byzantium; White House Down; note
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Nearly 20 years after Interview with the Vampire, director Neil Jordan returns to the land of the living dead with Byzantium, the tale of a mother-daughter vampire duo whose 200-year history is threatened when their existence comes to light. Though much surer in tone than its predecessor, this is not quite as far from the Tom Cruise-Brad Pitt, big-budget razzle-dazzle as it would appear on the surface. While certainly made on a much smaller scale, Byzantium shares the earlier movie's gorgeous look, signature Jordan lyrical touches and the material again focuses on the brooding nature of its central character.

Instead of Pitt moaning for two hours about the curse of being turned to the dark side, we have the sober-faced Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor Webb, a perpetual 16-year-old who is also deeply conflicted about her eternal fate. Ronan is surely one of cinema's most gifted young actors: With her ginger locks and freckled, milky skin, she shares many of the same qualities as the young Sissy Spacek. Also, Ronan's Eleanor, while no wallflower, shares with Spacek's Carrie White a tentativeness and the palpable, aching loneliness of the outsider. Ronan telegraphs more with a lowering of her cornflower blue eyes or a gentle touch on the arm than Pitt did with the entirety of his less-than-memorable performance in Interview.

To be fair, the source material—which comes from A Vampire Story, a play by Moira Buffini—is less pulpy, less melodramatic than the Anne Rice novel. Like Pitt's Louis and Barnabas Collins, the central character in the gothic Dark Shadows TV series and various film incarnations, Eleanor, is a vampire by default. During the Napoleonic wars Eleanor's mother, Clara (the voluptuous Gemma Atherton), is forced to abandon her. Years later Clara, who had stolen the secret of eternal life from a strictly male group of vampires called The Brotherhood and became a bloodsucker herself, turns Eleanor in order to save her from certain death after Eleanor has been attacked by the evil Captain (played by Jonny Lee Miller).

Women aren't supposed to make vampires, so Clara and Eleanor have been on the run ever since. Clara, who for reasons I couldn't quite fathom, works as a prostitute in the neon night world of the boardwalk and local strip joints, trolling for victims (with sensual cinematography by Sean Babbit). When she meets Noel (played by Daniel Mays), mourning over the death of his mother, Clara and Eleanor move into his nearly deserted seashore resort hotel the Byzantium. In no time, Clara has turned the place into a house of ill repute and Eleanor—in between drinking the blood of elderly folks at death's door, prepared for her to take their lives to be at peace—falls hard for young waiter Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), identifying with his similar outsider status (thanks to his physical challenges).

Eleanor feels compelled to share her story with Frank and after putting it on paper, it falls into the wrong hands. Soon both the Brotherhood, led by Sam Riley as Darvell, and social services come calling, and it's time for Clara and Eleanor to again hit the road. (They're like a vampire version of Cher and Winona Ryder in Mermaids.) But this time Eleanor doesn't want to go and the stage is set for a final confrontation.

Although audience fatigue regarding vampires has surely set in, thanks in part to the mawkish, juvenile Twilight series, Byzantium is a really great addition to the genre—and not unlike Jordan's other excellent films that tackle the otherworldly (Ondine and The Company of Wolves), this is a romantic, sensual, bloody good time of a movie for sophisticated adults. Byzantium plays exclusively in Chicago at the Landmark Century Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.

The sight of the White House being blown up in Independence Day had the effect of genuinely shaking audiences up in 1996. But in the 17 years since, a huge cultural shift has taken place. So when out director Roland Emmerich, he of the massive blockbuster Fourth of July movies, takes out both Congress and Air Force One in his new popcorn flick White House Down it's really no surprise—or that these beloved institutions are destroyed in asides and quickly dispensed.

Emmerich himself can take plenty of the blame for numbing audiences—here is a filmmaker who has previously destroyed just about the entire world in 2012, frozen the Northern Hemisphere in The Day After Tomorrow and given Manhattan a big clean-up bill in Godzilla. Emmerich's pictures are junky and pleasurable in the way that disaster pictures have always entertained audiences but the bar has been set so high with such a surplus of these bigger is better movies that it's next to impossible to be dazzled by any of them anymore. Left with the cardboard characters and situations that are sprinkled in between the violent set pieces, how can these movies not become a parody of themselves?

Although the destruction count in White House Down is much less than usual, that turns out to be a misstep. Instead of having the Smithsonian or the Washington Monument or the Pentagon get blown to smithereens, we are stuck in all 132 rooms (or rather, three or four and a creaky elevator) of the White House with a batch of those cardboard characters. In a plot that seems to have been freely cribbed from Die Hard, Channing Tatum (fit as ever, stripped to a wife-beater throughout) improbably finds himself protecting Jamie Foxx as the president from violent (but hunky) terrorists within 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. while searching for his snarky, puffy-lipped 11-year-old daughter at the same time.

Clocking in at close to two and a half hours—at least 40 minutes past its expiration date—and featuring dialogue like, "Do not hit me with a rocket launcher when I'm trying to drive!" White House Down is instant blockbuster camp as it teeters between solemn, preachy uplift one moment, brutish violence the next, while adding in healthy dollops of WTF plot, dialogue and implausibilities in-between. Is this hybrid entertaining enough to make the trek to the sixplex? Kinda.

Film note:

Helen Mirren won the Oscar for her sensational portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in 2006's The Queen and the movie also got a nomination for its screenwriter Peter Morgan. Now the two have reteamed for the rapturously received West End production of The Audience, in which Morgan imagines what has taken place behind closed doors between The Queen in her weekly meetings with her 12 prime ministers (from Churchill to Cameron) over the 60 years of her reign. National Theatre Live is broadcasting a performance of the play (helmed by out director Stephen Daldry) at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on Sunday, June 30, at 1:30 p.m. and again on Wed., July 3, at 7:30 p.m.

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