February 14, 2014

Vampire Academy

It saddens me to think that Vampire Academy, which is currently playing in theaters, has barely even registered with movie-goers and was panned by most critics. It's not perfect, but Vampire Academy has a sense of humor, something consistently absent from a certain other undead franchise whose phenomenal popularity seems directly out of proportion with its quality. Vampire Academy is based on the young adult novel (one of a series) by Richelle Mead. It's a happy spawn of the current wave of new vampirism we're experiencing. If you're going to make a modern teen vampire thriller, this is how you should do it: smart, clever, surprising, sexy without being obsessed with sex, and able to take a joke.

The biggest problem with Vampire Academy is its pacing. Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) and screenwriter Daniel Waters (Heathers) hustle their way through this film. You get the feeling that anxious studio heads were putting pressure on them, and the result is that a lot of exposition is quickly dispensed by various characters, all of whom speak at about 75 miles per hour. There's never a "wasted" moment, and yet Vampire Academy doesn't feel economical, just rushed. But, compare this to four Twilight movies (well, five if you count the last one being split into two separate films) and, you'll see an interesting (and somewhat depressing) imbalance: the movie with the most to say is the one that gets the least amount of time to say it. It's an entertaining movie despite this flaw.

Here's the plot, in a nutshell: Rose Hathaway is a spunky, brash, ass-kicking teenager who has been entrusted with the care and protection of her best friend, Lissa (Lucy Fry), who's not only a vampire, but the last of her line in some kind of royal vampire clan. Both of them attend St. Vladimir's Academy, which is comprised exclusively of vampires and half-vampires. Rose is one of the half-vampires (a dhampir). She's free to go out in the daytime, while Lissa, a moroi (a good vampire) must cover up and wear sunglasses. And, unlike Lissa, Rose does not need to drink blood. Also, there are bad vampires called strigoi that resemble the traditional Dracula-type bloodsuckers.

The film opens with Rose and Lissa living on their own after having run away from St. Vladimir's. When they are captured and taken back to the academy, we immediately sense some kind of internal diabolical plot brewing. The headmistress of St. Vladimir's is oddly sinister, and pretty soon Lissa becomes the target of a series of creepy jokes/accidents/attacks. There are lots of other mysteries and plot developments in Vampire Academy, so many that you again wish the film had taken time to linger a bit and let things develop in a more organic fashion. But I won't reveal any more, because you should see it for yourself.

It's hard to complain too much, because the movie is continually surprising and fresh. These young women are tough and able to take care of themselves, and what's more, they don't sit around moping about how boring/unattractive/unappealing/pathetic they are. We need more movies about women like this. There were a few enjoyable jokes at Twilight's expense, but all in all, Vampire Academy wasn't setting itself up as the anti-Twilight. It's just trying to be a fun vampire movie, and I think it succeeds with relish. Some critics have suggested a TV show would have been a better format for this material, but I honestly think it works quite well as a movie. There are enough mysteries in Vampire Academy to keep the viewer in suspense, and enough interesting characters in this world to anchor you to the film: it has spunk and depth that are lacking in so much other teenager-marketed entertainment.

The culture of St. Vladimir's is an intriguing thread that the movie explores, although not enough to satisfy my curiosity. The school in Harry Potter feels like a character in and of itself. Vampire Academy doesn't quite achieve such a feat, although there is potential if a sequel happens. (The movie's poor box office performance thus far may prevent that from happening.) The writer of Heathers has certainly retained his keen sense of the viciousness of high schoolers: there's a subplot about a mousy, mean-spirited girl from the school (Sami Gayle, who has her blond hair cut short like Anne Hathaway), who spearheads much of the Carrie-like tricks played upon the endangered vampire girl. Of course, the movie belongs to Rose, or Zoey Deutch, the girl with a low tolerance for BS. There are plenty of interesting male characters too, like Rose's mentor, a Russian dhampir named Dimitri (Danila Kozlovsky), and an outcast student (whose parents willingly became the "bad" kind of vampires) named Christian (Dominic Sherwood), whom I guess you could compare to Edward Cullen, although again, Twilight fumbles where Vampire Academy gets it right.

With Claire Foy, Gabriel Byrne, Joely Richardson, and Olga Kurylenko.

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