Underworld


Black leather outfit #231.

Black leather outfit #231.

(2003) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robby Gee, Wentworth Miller, Kevin Grevioux, Zita Gorog, Dennis Kozeluh, Scott McElroy, Todd Schneider, Sandor Bolla, Hank Amos, Zsuzsa Barisi, Rich Cetrone, Mike Mukatis. Directed by Len Wiseman

 

Underworld sounds like a great concept: a secret war between vampires and werewolves going on for a thousand years without humans knowing a thing about it. In the midst of this, a vampire falls in love with a human who becomes a werewolf but is really something else … oh dear, my brain just exploded. Let me start again.

 

Selena (Beckinsale) is a Deathdealer, one of an elite vampire warrior caste that hunts down werewolves. She is quite good at it – maybe better than anyone. Things are looking up for the vampires at this point. They are winning their war with the Lycans (werewolves), their high-tech weapons more than overcoming the brute strength and power of the lycanthropes. On top of it, the time of the Awakening is near, when one of the ancient original Vampires awakens from its slumber to assume the mantle of leadership for a few centuries (there are three original vampires still around; they require centuries of sleep in order to survive).

 

Selena notes that the Lycans have taken interest in a human named Michael Corvin (Speedman), an intern at a large urban hospital. She decides to investigate. This becomes a tightrope as she tries to keep him alive, saving him both from the Lycans who seem to want him, as well as from her own race who wants him dead, The other vampires become downright irate after Corvin is bitten by Lucian, the Lycan leader (Sheen). And as Selena digs deeper, she is thwarted by Craven (Brolly), the Vampire leader, and in desperation, awakens her mentor Viktor (Nighy) for guidance.

 

Before you can say “Wouldn’t it be a total Hollywood cliché if she fell in love with Michael Corvin?” she falls in love with Michael Corvin. Then she begins to find out the truth about the war, and it ain’t pretty. In fact, the vampires are keeping a lot of deep, dark secrets.

 

The problem with “Underworld” is that there is an incredibly rich backstory that screams for further exploration. But director Len Wiseman is forced to sacrifice much of the dialogue and backstory for action and effects, and so it can be kind of hard to keep track. Those who have seen the sequels to this will find that it is less of a problem but seeing the original cold without the benefit of some of that backstory that comes out in the sequels can be confusing.

 

The vampires, who are supposed to be arrogant and aristocratic, come off as indolent and lackadaisical. Think of it almost like vampires written by Anne Rice on lithium. I know that at the time this was made it was fairly fashionable to portray vampires as members of a vanishing race, going un-quietly into oblivion, but, sheesh. At least none of them sparkle in the sunlight.

 

Although technologically advanced, there’s no real hint as to where the vampire technology is coming from. Few of the vampires in the movie seem to do little more than sit around in crumbling, faded mansions sipping what I guess is meant to be blood from wineglasses. They wear trendy Eurotrash fashions and generally behave as if they are guests at an interminably long party at which the guest of honor hasn’t yet arrived. And they’re supposed to be winning?

 

As decadent as the vampires are, they are in some ways preferable to the Lycans. Although they have more vitality than the vamps, they still come off little better than the disposable thugs that populated the  TV Batman series. When they hit someone, you almost expect cartoon graphics reading “POW!” “BAM!” and “KA-THUNK!”

 

In any Romeo and Juliet type of romance, which Underworld ultimately is, there has to be an element of tragedy and there just isn’t one here. Sure, there’s bloodshed, mayhem, death and destruction, but as the movie lurches to a climax, the tragedy seems to be less and less involved with the romantic leads. That strips the love story of its poignancy and just about kills any shot at romanticism. If you were to populate Romeo and Juliet with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver in the leads and instead of having them kill themselves at the end instead mowing down all the Montagues and Capulets with machine guns, you get the idea of what we have here.

 

It’s a shame, since Speedman and Beckinsale work well together and have some nice chemistry. And while Beckinsale’s costume designer seems determined to break some sort of cinematic record for the most variations on black leather in a single movie, Beckinsale still manages to look vivacious and attractive, even alluring, while kicking some major patootie.

 

The visuals are what work about Underworld which makes sense, since director Wiseman comes from an art-direction background. The cityscapes are crumbling, corrupt, dimly lit and depressing, a cross between the landscape of Tim Burton’s Gotham City and  the Detroit of The Crow. The effects are pretty nifty too, particularly the sequences in which the Lycans morph from human to werewolf. The action sequences are a highlight, beautifully choreographed.

 

Ultimately, though, this is a good concept gone bad. Think of Underworld as a grand mansion that looks terrific from the outside, but once you open the door turns out to be empty and cold.

WHY RENT THIS: Beckinsale is an excellent action heroine. Some nice art direction and special effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing with more backstory than time to explore it. Sets up a romance then forsakes it for action and gore. Vampire profile a little too Anne Rice.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of violence and gore, as well as some pretty foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Beckinsale and Wiseman would fall in love after meeting on this film. They eventually got married and remain so to this day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Special Edition DVD includes a storyboard vs. film comparison and a music video. The unrated 2-Disc DVD edition (and Blu-Ray) includes these as well as a History Channel Fang vs. Fiction quasi-documentary that looks at traditional vampire/werewolf lore and compares it to this film for reasons unknown.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $95.7M on a $22M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Pool Boys

 

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1


Be still my heart.

Be still my heart.

(2011) Romantic Fantasy (Summit) Kristin Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Ashley Greene, Kellan Lutz, Jackson Rathbone, Elizabeth Reaser, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Rami Malek, Maggie Grace, Mackenzie Foy, Dakota Fanning, Lee Pace, Anna Kendrick, Michael Sheen, Christopher Heyerdahl, Booboo Stewart, Daniel Cudmore, Justin Chon, Julia Jones, Sarah Clarke. Directed by Bill Condon

Sometimes you have to take into account as a critic that your own personal taste isn’t going to mesh well with the intended audience of a film. One instance where that has been demonstrated time and again is in the Twilight series. Wildly popular, particularly among young girls (and to a large extent, their moms) it has spawned a diehard fanbase who identify themselves as TwiHards. It has also spawned an incredible backlash, mainly among boys (and to a large extent, their dads) who despise the series with a vitriol heretofore reserved for the same regard held by Jews for Nazis.

So what is a critic to do? Are we supposed to write one review for the intended fanbase and another for the rest of the world, or try to make something that can be useful to those who aren’t necessarily fans of the series but may be curious whether or not to see the movie for themselves? Generally, I tend to go for the latter route as those fans have likely already seen the movie at least once – probably during its theatrical run or if not on home video certainly.

Taking place following the events of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, the long-awaited wedding of Bella (Stewart) and Edward (Pattinson) is finally here and yes, the blushing bride looks ravishing in a demure-yet-sexy wedding dress that of course keeps her grinning groom hungry for more. Bella’s good friend Jacob Black (Lautner), the werewolf who was the third leg of the love triangle with vampire Ed, is less sanguine about the union – not just because he wants Bella for himself but also because he realizes just how dangerous it can be for Bella. They have words and Jacob ends up running into the woods, leaving Edward to escort a distraught Bella back into the reception.

They honeymoon on Isle Esme off the coast of Brazil. There, the loving couple at last consummates their marriage. True to form, Bella wakes up one morning and discovers herself pregnant. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. It isn’t that Bella and Edward don’t want children – it’s just that the mortal human body wasn’t meant to bear the child of a supernatural undead being like Edward. It is unlikely that Bella will survive it.

Her pregnancy proceeds at an advanced rate and they cut short their honeymoon and head back to Forks. When the werewolves find out what has happened, they are furious – and terrified. The spawn of such a union will be demonic indeed and in order to protect themselves, they must kill Bella before she can give birth. Jacob of course is having none of this and he leaves his pack, creating a new pack with Seth (Stewart) and Leah (Jones) with Jacob as the Alpha.

Bella grows progressively weaker and soon is forced to drink human blood to keep the fetus viable and allows Bella to gain some much-needed strength. When she goes into labor, all Hell is going to break loose. Edward must convert her into vampirism but will it be enough to save him – to save them all?

Condon is actually a pretty decent director with such movies as Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls to his credit. He brings Guillermo del Toro’s usual cinematographer Guillermo Navarro on board and Navarro responds with the most beautifully shot movie of the series. He also continues to stock the soundtrack, as those who came before him did, with some nifty alt-rock tunes that nicely enhance the movie and appeal nicely to the target crowd.

Unfortunately, the dialogue is cringe-inducing and the acting really hasn’t improved much over the course of the series. Of course, you can’t really blame the actors for that – Summit’s demanding shooting schedule in producing one of these suckers every year is bound to take its toll.

There is enough here that makes this a much superior film to New Moon which isn’t saying much, but it’s still not enough for me to really recommend it to most audiences. Hardcore fans will love this as they inevitably would – TwiHards are nothing if not loyal – and even those not quite so obsessed but still within the target audience are likely to find this worthwhile.

The overwrought drama and again, choosing to make Bella a simpering idiot rather than a truly strong role model for her audience is frustrating. Meyer and those involved with the series have chosen to waste an opportunity to create a hugely popular series with strong female role models and instead turns it into an indigestible bodice ripper with little redeeming value other than it excites the fantasies of young girls and middle-aged women alike. While there is certainly nothing wrong with that as a goal, at least couldn’t they have made Bella able to protect herself?

WHY RENT THIS: There are plenty of fans who think this is the best film of the series.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I’m not one of them.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of paranormal action, some partial nudity and scenes of sexuality, a couple of disturbing images and some mature (relatively speaking) thematic elements..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author of the Twilight series of books Stephenie Meyer has a cameo appearance as a guest at the wedding of Bella and Edward.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a wedding video done in the hand-held style of most home wedding videos. There’s also a Jacob Fast-Forward and an Edward Fast-Forward in which those on the respective teams can watch all the scenes that their favorite heartthrob is in without having to endure those scenes with that other guy.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $712.2M on a $110M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Creatures

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Farewell, My Concubine

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones


Stop! In the name of love...

Stop! In the name of love…

(2013) Supernatural Fantasy (Screen Gems) Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Kevin Zegers, Robert Sheehan, Lena Headey, Kevin Durand, Aidan Turner, Jemima West, Godfrey Gao, CCH Pounder, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Harry van Gorkum, Stephen R. Hart, Chad Connell, Chris Ratz, Elyas M’Barek, Melantha Blackthorne, Lucy DeLaat. Directed by Harold Zwart

Even William Shakespeare knew enough to write “tis nothing new under the sun” and nearly 500 years later that’s even more true. We’ve seen it all and there is little out there that is going to be completely original. Of late there have been a spate of young adult fantasy books that have gone for film franchise-dom a la Harry Potter and Twilight with varying degrees of failure – most don’t get past the first installment. Is this another would-be phenomenon destined to crash and burn?

Clary (Collins) is a fairly normal Brooklyn teenager who has just had her 18th birthday (at least I think so – she’s apparently old enough to go to bars and drink) who has had enough of her overprotective mother Jocelyn (Headey). She’s not really seeing anybody, although her bookish buddy Simon (Sheehan) wouldn’t mind changing that which Clary is wholly oblivious to.

However Jocelyn has good reason to want Clary home early – she’s part of a half-human, half-angel group of warriors called the Shadowhunters, who battle demons in the ongoing war of good against evil. When Clary witnesses (apparently) a brutal murder in a nightclub, she’s pretty shaken up but more so when she comes home to find her apartment trashed and her mother missing. Oh, and there’s a demonic dog waiting to play fetch with her intestines.

She’s saved by a Shadowhunter named Jace (Bower), a blonde even prettier than Clary who’s a bit of a badass in his metal band leather pants and bad boy with a heart of gold attitude, certainly enough to have teenage girls hearts melt in ways that Buffy’s Angel and Twilight’s Edward could only dream of. He takes her to the Institute, home base for the few remaining Shadowhunters where they and housebound Hodge (Harris) discuss ancient runes and compare Goth tattoos.

Apparently Clary is being stalked by Valentine (Meyers), a renegade Shadowhunter who only wants to rule the world (doesn’t everybody?) and his thugs as well as vampires (bad) and werewolves (good). They discover that Valentine is after an artifact called the Mortal Cup, one of several powerful artifacts that Hodge is aware of. Clary and her friends will seek the help of a somewhat agoraphobic witch (Pounder) and a mackin’ wizard (Gao) but the only salvation for Clary and her mother will lie inside Clary. But when Clary finds out the truth about who she is, which side will she choose?

The source young adult novel by author Cassandra Clare was over 500 pages in length. There are a couple of ways to go about adapting it – one, cut extraneous plot points out and condense the novel into a 120 page script, or cram as much as you can in there. The filmmakers went the latter route and unfortunately that leads to the serious drawback of an often confusing and conflicting plot. While those who love the series (and there are 22 million copies of the book sold worldwide) will be happy that they didn’t skimp (although the book is far more detailed on the background of the Shadowhunters), those that are less familiar with the books may feel like they’re treading water.

We might be able to tolerate the overabundance of plot if it weren’t so darn familiar. Those who wait for the home video edition of the movie can have themselves a nifty little drinking game if they try to spot all the plot elements borrowed from other movies – I stopped keeping track after I saw things from Twilight, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Priest. Someone can get themselves smashed real good playing that game.

The mostly young cast are exceptionally attractive (even the semi-nerdy Simon is quite the hunk) so that will appeal to the teen audience to whom such aesthetics are important. In terms of their skills as actors, let’s just say they’re an attractive cast and leave it at that. Collins in particular doesn’t seem to have done much more than reprise her work from Mirror, Mirror.

While the movie looks good and the CGI isn’t bad, the movie’s final confrontation suffers from an excess of histrionics. I do think they were going for an epic scale on this one but really fell short of the mark. I also think that they are really trying to play to the Twilight crowd with a plucky heroine with hidden powers who has two gorgeous guys vying to be her protector and both deeply in love with her yet she merely bestows semi-chaste kisses on one and not even that on the other. Screen Gems confidently green-lit the sequel even before City of Bones opened but the anemic box office and terrible critical reception may cause them to reconsider. Unfortunately, this is just another in a long line of young adult fantasy adaptations that fails to make it as a cinematic franchise which begs the question – maybe if they tried doing some adult fantasy series (i.e. The Wheel of Time, The Codex Alera or Shannara) maybe they might attract a broader audience – but maybe people who read a lot of books don’t have time to go to the movies as much.

REASONS TO GO: Attractive cast. Decent effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Meandering plot. Overwrought climax. Borrows from other sources a bit too freely.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence of a fantasy nature, some fairly disturbing-looking demons and some sexually suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Collins, who was an ardent fan of the book series, active campaigned for the role of Clary when she discovered that there was to be a film made of it.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: American Reunion

Dark Shadows


Dark Shadows

You’d be grinning too if you had a sex scene with Johnny Depp that ended up trashing a set.

(2012) Gothic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Helena Bonham Carter, Bella Heathcote, Christopher Lee, Gulliver McGrath, Ray Shirley, Alice Cooper. Directed by Tim Burton

 

Sometimes without meaning to we cause harm to people. We never know exactly who we’ve created an enemy of, or what they’re capable of doing though even if we’re innocent of any real wrongdoing.

Barnabas Collins (Depp) was living the high life, 18th century style. His family owns a wildly successful fishing fleet in Maine; the town built around their enterprise, Collinsport, is thriving; they’ve built an extravagant mansion overlooking the town and the Atlantic that would be the equivalent of a castle. And Barnabas is deeply in love with Josette duPres (Heathcote).

This is bad news to Angelique Bouchard (Green). She and the handsome Barnabas had a fling which meant much more to her than it did to him. She was a maid, he the master of the house; a relationship between them would not be appropriate if it were even possible. Scorned, Angelique resolves to get even and since she happens to be a rather powerful witch, that’s even worse news for Josette. Angelique casts a spell on her, causing her to throw herself off a cliff into the sea despite Barnabas’ desperate attempts to save her. Heartbroken, he throws himself off the same cliff but fails to die. You see, he’s been cursed as well – to become a vampire, a hideous creature of the night.

The implacable Angelique lets the good citizens of Collinsport know they have a monster in their midst and Barnabas is dragged out into a remote field where he is chained up and buried alive. There he remains, deep in the ground in the woods far outside of town.

That is, until he is dug up some 200 years later by contractor. It is now 1972 and two centuries without a meal can make one…peckish as the workers find out to their dismay. He longs to find his estate and get his bearings. When he gets there, he is overjoyed to find that the family still survives (although it’s never explained quite how, since he apparently was the only son – perhaps some other Collins’ emigrated from England to take over the family business). However, they are definitely down at heel. Their fishing business is a shadow of its former self. The mansion is crumbling and what was once a vast army of servants is down to two – the elderly Mrs. Johnson (Shirley) and the booze-addled Willie Loomis (Haley) who does most of the heavy lifting.

The family is down to four members – matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer), widowed mother of rebellious teen Carolyn (Moretz). Her brother Roger Collins (Miller) who is also a widower and a womanizer, not to mention somewhat useless. The last is his son David (McGrath) who talks to and sees his dead mother. This tendency to dwell on his late mother has alarmed Elizabeth who has opened her penurious pursestrings and hired Julia Hoffman (Carter), a psychiatrist who seems more interested in drinking and smoking than therapy and Victoria Winters (Heathcote), a governess who bears a remarkable resemblance to Josette.

They welcome Barnabas with mostly open arms although Elizabeth alone is aware that Barnabas is that Barnabas rather than a distant English relation (the cover story they use for Barnabas’ unusual and sudden appearance). Elizabeth wants to regain the family name and glory and she knows that his keen business acumen can only help (it doesn’t hurt that as a vampire he can use his mind to control others to do his will). However, they have a long ways to go to catch up with Angel Bay, the corporate entity that has taken over the fishing business in Collinsport. However, Barnabas is dismayed to find out that at the head of Angel Bay is an old nemesis (emphasis on the old) – Angelique (going by Angie these days) who hasn’t aged a day. Like as not, their old quarrel is going to resurface and there’s going to be fall-out and only one of them will be left standing.

On the surface this seems like a perfect fit – Burton, one of the quirkiest directors in Hollywood but one who knows how to tell a good story and the iconic gothic soap opera from the 60s and 70s. He has chosen to go the cheeseball route, not just by setting the movie (mostly) in the 70s but by changing its original dark, gothic tone to one that is more comedic. In all honesty it doesn’t work as well as I would have hoped.

It’s not Depp’s fault. He takes the late Jonathan Frid’s (who played Barnabas in the series) mannered, courtly vampire and takes that to the extreme, playing up the fish out of water angle a great deal more. In the original, Barnabas seemed to adjust much more quickly and readily to his new time. Frid was a sex symbol in his time albeit not to the same degree Depp is now. Depp’s Barnabas seems sexier more by accident than by artifice; indeed, the original Barnabas was far more evil and dangerous than Depp who is almost apologetic when he feeds. In fact, Frid seems to revel in his undead status more than Depp who would just as soon be rid of his curse.

The supporting roles vary wildly. Pfeiffer is always magnificent and although she seems a bit young to play the matron, she pulls it off here well. Green is the most impressive; with her carefree grin, she sees to be having the most fun of everybody (she does get to have a hot and somewhat violent sex scene with Depp so I suppose she comes by her smile honestly) and it translates into making her character more attractive to audiences. She may be vindictive and cruel but she’s a woman scorned – they’re supposed to be vindictive and cruel.

Personally I think the filmmakers missed an opportunity there. She was supposed to be desperately in love with Barnabas despite his rejection, but as he noted she saw him as more of a possession than a partner. I think if she had shown real love towards Barnabas it would have been much more poignant, but then it might have ruined the comic tone which I also think may have been a misstep – the film rarely achieves more than being amusing which is not what you want in a summer comedy.

The movie looks impressive with Collinswood being an amazing set, full of nautical touches that are gratifying in their detail and fully understandable given the family’s source of income. However, as lavish as the film looks and as well as Green and Depp do, it doesn’t hide the fact that there isn’t really a whole lot of passion displayed by the filmmakers; at least, I never feel inspired by the movie to do much more than smile occasionally. The movie felt to me almost workmanlike which is a shame because I had high hopes for it. Despite a lot of nice little touches it doesn’t add up to a satisfying film overall; but those touches are enough for me to recommend it with the caveat that it isn’t going to remain in your memory as long as the original series did.

REASONS TO GO: Depp inhabits his role well. Green has fun with her part. Nicely Gothic sets.

REASONS TO STAY: Most of the funniest bits are in the trailer. Purists will bemoan the comedic tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence, a fairly bizarre sex scene, some drug use and smoking and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To prepare for his role as Barnabas, Depp subsisted on a diet of green tea and low-sugar fruits in order to slim down to 140 pounds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews have been mixed although leaning more towards the negative side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vampires Suck

DARK SHADOWS LOVERS: Original series cast members Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby and Jonathan Frid (in his last onscreen role before his death earlier this year) have cameos as guests at a party at Collinswood.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Dog Soldiers


Dog Soldiers

Never wolf down your food.

(2002) Horror (Artisan) Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer, Darren Morfitt, Chris Robson, Leslie Simpson, Tina Landini, Craig Conway, Bryn Walters, Brian Claxton Payne, Ben Wright. Directed by Neil Marshall

 

If you were in the woods far away from civilization, where would the safest place to be? You would think among a troop of soldiers on training exercises. There are some things though an entire army wouldn’t even be able to protect you from.

Private Cooper (McKidd) looks to join the elite SAS unit and looks to have the skills to do it. However when he is ordered to kill a dog, he refuses. The commanding officer, Captain Ryan (Cunningham) shoots the dog himself and sends Cooper back to his unit.

A month later, Cooper’s squad, commanded by Sgt. Wells (Pertwee), is dropped into the Scottish highlands for training exercises. They’re supposed to attack a squad of SAS commandos but when they reach their encampment, the place has been torn to shreds. There are no bodies but plenty of bodies and bits of flesh and organ strew about. It looks like the scene of a massacre. There is just one survivor – Captain Ryan, who is grievously wounded and keeps muttering “there was only supposed to be one.”

Right about then the soldiers are attacked by unknown assailants. Corporal Bruce Campbell (Lockyer) is impaled on a tree branch and the rest of the squad make their way to an abandoned farmhouse with the help of a zoologist they encounter on the road, Maggie (Cleasby). They hole up there, thinking if they can hold out until morning the werewolves will revert to human form and they’d be safe.

Soon it appears that won’t be happening. One of the soldiers, Private Terry Milburn (Simpson) is abducted and their ammo is running low. It becomes obvious that they will need to find a way to escape before dawn or they just won’t survive.

Marshall has crafted an old-school kind of werewolf movie that eschews CGI for practical effects and with a script clever in its references to all sorts of movies, from Zulu to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Night of the Living Dead. That sounds like a bit of a mishmash (and it is in a way) but it actually works really well. The movie has a clever sense of humor that is going to appeal to not just the fanboy but the casual horror fan as well.

Marshall apparently has a pretty good sense of how military units operate – he’s gotten praise for getting that aspect right. He also has a good sense of how soldiers talk – not like cliché machines but with a wide swagger, a hefty dose of macho but also a sense of precision. Military units thrive on precise communications; they would be pretty unsuccessful if they weren’t efficient that way.

The movie was produced on the cheap; in that sense from time to time the lack of a budget shows through although for the most part the movie looks more expensive than it was. The cast is solid and talented (although Jason Statham was offered a part in the movie he had to decline to commitments to other films) and gets the military jargon down, not to mention the swagger. There are a few twists and turns (although you should be able to guess what the “mission” of the SAS really was, what the significance of the farmhouse is and what the secret of the werewolf clan is) and even better, plenty of visceral thrills to deliver the discerning horror film fan to hog heaven.

The movie failed to get theatrical distribution in the United States as distributors labeled it as “too British” which just goes to show you how stupid distributors can be (just check the box office receipts for Shaun of the Dead if you don’t believe me). It was initially shown on the SyFy Channel (and it still turns up on cable regularly) before getting a home video release, including a bare-bones Blu-Ray release a couple of years ago. That’s a shame; I think someday this will be recognized as a classic in the genre and given the respect and treatment it deserves. Until then, it can be our little hidden gem.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best werewolf films of recent years. Practical-effect werewolves rock. Reminiscent of Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London in tone. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cheap production values sometimes show through.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, lots of gore and lots of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set in Scotland it was actually filmed in Luxembourg.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Ledge

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse


 

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

It's a hunk-off.

(2010) Romantic Fantasy (Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Bryce Dallas Howard, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Dakota Fanning, Kellan Lutz, Ashley Greene, Nikki Reed, Jackson Rathbone, Elizabeth Reaser.  Directed by David Slade

I can’t think of many teenage girls – or middle aged women for that matter – who don’t find the idea of two hunky guys fighting over her appealing. Add the additional factor that both of them are willing to give up their lives in defending her and, well, let’s just say it makes for a lot of soulful sighing.

Bella Swan (Stewart) is finally blissful. Graduation is rapidly approaching and she has been reunited with her vampiric boyfriend Edward Cullen (Pattinson) following the events of The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Not only that but he has proposed! Wedding bells are most definitely in the offing!

However, all is not roses and chocolate for the happy couple. Bella is very conflicted by her feelings for her hunky werewolf friend Jacob Black (Lautner) and Victoria (Howard) is back in town, recruiting an army of Newborns (recently converted vampires who tend to be more vicious and stronger than regular ones) to tear Bella’s face off since she blames her for the death of her boyfriend in the first movie.

In order to protect Bella, the vampires and werewolves of Forks agree to get together to hold off Victoria’s army. In addition, the vampire ruling body the Volturi, in the person of Jane (Fanning) are watching very keenly to see what happens and whether or not the Cullen family should be allowed to handle things in Forks their own way. It’s enough to make a girl break out the Clearasil, y’know?

I will admit that I was actually surprised at how much I liked Twilight. New Moon I didn’t like so much and now the third movie I have to say was so bad I almost didn’t review it. The dialogue is impossibly overwrought, and the characters act like their brains shut off because their emotions were just…too…much.

I’ve always considered the Twilight series to be the Harlequin Romance novels for teen girls and in a lot of ways that’s pretty accurate. In another era, Edward Cullen would have been played by Fabio, but in this case the trade-off might not have been so bad. Pattinson is a decent enough actor but he is given little to do but brood, sulk and glower at Lautner. There is a bro-bonding moment in the snowy mountains during a scene when they are attempting to hide Bella from Victoria (unsuccessfully – as most of their plans usually are) that comes out of nowhere, but is mercifully short. Just for the record, guys never ever EVER talk about their feelings for a girl, especially when they both have feelings for her. Even if one of them is 109 years old.

Like many writers, I don’t see why anyone would fight over Bella. Author Stephenie Meyer has mistaken willful for strong. Being stubborn in the face of common sense isn’t empowering, ladies – it’s just plain foolish. Other than occasional defiance of those who love her, Bella is more or less a weak sort, more upset over having to choose between Jacob and Edward than she is at having a vicious killer after her. She requires constant supervision and protection – yeah, just the sort of girl I want to be around.

I have in the past been guilty of damning movies in this series with faint praise and I will admit without hesitating that I’m not the target audience for this movie. However, I try to give even hormone-soaked teens and their estrogen-infused moms the benefit of the doubt. They aren’t stupid and I think if the movie had more realistic depictions of the relationships, the ladies might actually accept that just as readily – and their boyfriends might even show up too. A little more maturity might actually be good here. Too bad the studio and the filmmakers – and the author – don’t give the audience credit for appreciating a romance that actually has some depth to it.

WHY RENT THIS: Western Washington scenery is breathtaking.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Action sequences are awkward and the movie is just flat-out poorly written, poorly acted and falls short of the other movies in the series.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly intense action sequences and a bit of sexuality; should be okay for all but the youngest pre-teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Howard replaced Rachel Lefevre as Victoria due to Lefevre’s filming commitment to Barney’s Version which overlapped with this movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are music videos from Metric and Muse (a couple of pretty cool bands) and a still photo gallery but that’s about it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $698.5M on a $68M production budget; the movie was a big time blockbuster like the first two installments in the series.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: The Trip

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night


Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

A corpse is a corpse of course of course...

(2010) Horror Comedy (Omni/Freestyle) Brandon Routh, Sam Huntington, Peter Stormare, Taye Diggs, Anita Briem, Kurt Angle, Brian Steele, Kimberly Whalen, Randal Reeder, Courtney J. Clark, Kent Jude Bernard, Marco St. John. Directed by Kevin Munroe

Being an investigator for cases involving the living is hard enough. Being one for cases involving the undead…well, now, that’s durn near impossible.

A private eye with the unlikely name of Dylan Dog (Routh) is one such investigator, one who is designated by the non-breathing community to be an independent and impartial arbitrator of disputes, keeping the peace between vampire, werewolf and zombie alike. However, he has retired from that position, opting instead for chasing infidelities in tawdry hotel rooms while his assistant Marcus (Huntington) yearns for better cases that might make him a partner in the agency.

One such comes along when Elizabeth (Briem) hires Dylan to find out what killed her father. When he discovers it might be a werewolf, he doesn’t want to take the case but when Marcus is killed by a zombie and it looks like the deaths might be related, Dylan decides to take the case after all.

Along the way he runs across an ambitious vampire club owner named Vargas (Diggs) who has plans of ruling the entire supernatural community after using Dylan as a pawn to take out his rivals in the vampire elite; Gabriel (Stormare), an old werewolf friend who doesn’t take kindly to Dylan’s investigations; his son Wolfgang (Angle) who has a bit of a temper and a nasty streak for breathers and vampires (breathers is the creature term for us humans) and a zombie supermarket for parts. Oh, and about Marcus – he doesn’t stay dead for long.

The whole thing turns out to be about a supernatural artifact that if used could bring about the end of the world, yadda yadda yadda. The sad fact is that we’ve kind of heard this tune before. It’s dressed up nicely however, with some decent creature effects and some underlit shots of New Orleans (even the scenes shot during the day seem dark somehow) that showcase the gothic side of that city to nice effect.

Routh is a nice enough lead, although he is far from the hard-bitten film noir detective the role needs. I might have cast someone along the lines of Bruce Willis or not being able to afford him, someone rumpled like Paul Giamatti or Jack Coleman, the Horn-Rimmed Glasses man from “Heroes.” A little more world-weariness might have amped up the noir quotient somewhat, and Routh is more of a Superman type than a Sam Spade type.

Huntington plays a very similar role to the one he plays in the excellent SyFy Network series “Being Human,” except there he’s a neurotic werewolf and here he’s a neurotic zombie. Stormare and Diggs are solid performers who don’t disappoint, with Diggs getting a slight edge for his silky smooth megalomaniac role. Angle, the professional wrestler, shows some promise in his part as the tempramental lycanthrope.

The movie is based on an Italian comic book that is immensely popular in Europe but has made little impact here. The original source material uses horror to examine social issues and contemporary morality whereas this is more of a straight horror spoof, something which infuriated Italian critics when the movie was released in Italy earlier this year. Not being as familiar with the comic, I didn’t have so much of an issue with that (although I admit it probably would have made for a better movie) but my problem is that the story tended to be a little scatter-brained, with characters saying and doing things that didn’t always make sense within their character. Why would someone, for example, dedicated to hunting down and killing monsters want to create a more powerful monster in their place? It’s all apart of the “smart people doing stupid things” syndrome that plagues Hollywood.

Quite frankly, this isn’t as terrible as you’ve probably heard it was (if you’ve heard anything at all) but it isn’t very good either. There are some moments that sparkle here (as when Dylan goads a werewolf by quipping “You fight like a vampire”) but there aren’t enough of them to fully recommend this. Still, any movie that brings the dark side of New Orleans to the screen scores big points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Nice creature effects and Routh is a decent lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Humor tended to fall flat and story took several head-scratching turns.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some creepy creatures, a goodly bit of horror violence, a few drug and sex references and a smidgeon of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Routh and Huntington previously worked together on Superman Returns.

HOME OR THEATER: Probably won’t be in theaters long enough for you to catch on the big screen but at home is just dandy.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Eragon