Underworld: Blood Wars


Never tell Selene that her catsuit makes her look fat.

Never tell Selene that her catsuit makes her look fat.

(2016) Action Horror (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Tobias Menzies, Lara Pulver, Charles Dance, James Faulkner, Peter Andersson, Clementine Nicholson, Bradley James, Daisy Head, Oliver Stark, Zuzana Stivinova, Brian Caspe, Jan Nemejovsky, Sveta Driga, Dan Bradford, David Bowles, Rostislav Novak, Tomas Fisher, Eva Lavoire. Directed by Anna Foerster

 

Sometimes audiences don’t need a whole lot to be happy. They don’t need a coherent plot or character development. They just want to sit back, relax and shut their brains off for a couple of hours. It’s not much to ask. In other words, sometimes a concept is enough to satisfy an audience. This explains why the Underworld franchise has confounded critics by surviving 13 years and five movies without any letup in popularity.

A lot of the reason behind that is Kate Beckinsale. She plays Selene, a former member of the Death Dealers, an elite squad of vampires who exterminate their mortal enemies the Lycans (a.k.a. werewolves). These days, Selene is a renegade, on the run from both Lycans and vampires alike. She is aided only by David (T. James), son of Thomas (Dance) who at one time was Selene’s enemy but is now her only ally on the Eastern coven council.

The war isn’t going well for the vampires and in their dogged pursuit of Selene has led them to fighting a war on two fronts. Their Death Dealers have been depleted and while they are training new ones, the coven is vulnerable. Council member Semira (Pulver) realizes this and entreats Thomas to convince council leader Cassius (Faulkner) to revoke the exile of Selene and bring her back to train the Death Dealers.

Meanwhile, the Lycans have grown more powerful led by Marius (Menzies), their leader who has united the Lycan clans like nobody else ever has. They want Selene’s daughter Eve whose blood contains both Lycan and vampire elements along with human – she is the key to victory for both sides. Selene however doesn’t know where Eve is which is the way she wants it to protect her daughter. That doesn’t stop the machinations of various parties within both the Lycan and vampire communities who will betray anyone and stop and nothing to find Eve – and to do so they all believe they must control Selene. But can Selene be controlled?

As I said earlier, the plot is convoluted and often senseless but that’s unimportant; what matters is vampires vs. werewolves and there is plenty of that, plenty of carnage (including spines being ripped out and bodies being cleaved in half) and of course plenty of Beckinsale in skintight leather. Say what you want to about the franchise but there is no doubt that Beckinsale has made Selene one of the more formidable female action heroes of the 21st century. Critics however lament that the extremely talented actress who showed her abilities in Love and Friendship last year has been slumming by appearing in these films. Paychecks like the ones she gets from the Underworld series are what allow her to appear in less lucrative but more substantial roles like the one mentioned.

Beckinsale is as always the best reason to see these movies and while she seems a little more restrained here than in previous incarnations of the franchise, she has a presence nonetheless that keeps the focus on her every time she’s on the screen. There are those who grouse that the catsuit she wears is demeaning to women but I hear nobody complain that the ripped shirts (and occasionally shirtless look) that male action stars often wear are demeaning to them. Sex appeal remains a big selling point for action movies.

Like most of the Underworld films the lighting is dim which looks cool enough but makes some of the action sequences hard to follow which becomes a particular problem given the accelerated reflexes of the two warring factions. Again, the vampires are portrayed as indolent Eurotrash while the Lycans come off as kind of grunge chic. Also as usual, other than Selene and maybe David there is little in the way of character development, leading to all the various supporting roles to kind of blend together.

Then again, that scarcely matters. What the audience for these films are looking for are right here in great quantities. First-time feature film director Foerster (who cut her teeth on the Starz Outlander series) clearly demonstrates an understanding of the wants and needs of the audience and if she doesn’t apply much of a stamp of her own to the franchise is more likely due to the producers wanting to keep thematic and tonal continuity between the various films more than anything. I’m actually interested in seeing how Foerster does with other action, adventure and genre films in the future; I suspect she would supply a much-needed female voice to what is largely a male-dominated profession. After all, women like a good brainless action and/or genre film just as much as the next guy.

REASONS TO GO: It’s really more of the same, so if you like the same…
REASONS TO STAY: …and if you don’t…
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of violence, quite a bit of blood and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this was initially believed to be the final film in the series, producer Len Wiseman has confirmed that a sequel is in the planning stages with Beckinsale returning as Selene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lost Boys
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Elle

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

 

Let Me In


Let Me In
Owen demonstrates the proper way to mess up a Rubik’s Cube to Abby.

(Overture) Chloe Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, Cara Buono, Sasha Barrese, Dylan Kenin, Chris Browning, Richie Coster, Dylan Minnette, Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak, Nicolai Dorian, Rebekah Wiggins, Seth Adkins, Brett DelBuono.  Directed by Matt Reeves

As children, we dread the monsters, the ones that emerge from our nightmares and hide in the shadows of our room. As we grow older, we learn there are no monsters, but some children know better. There are all sorts of monsters.

Owen (Smit-McPhee) is a young boy growing up in New Mexico in 1983. He’s 12, small for his age, living in a run-down apartment because his parents are in the middle of a bitter divorce, which has led his mother (Buono) to alcoholism. As many emotionally traumatized boys are, he is fragile, aloof and a little weird. He is bullied at school by Kenny (Minnette), a boy much bigger than he.

To combat his loneliness, he binges on candy (particularly Now and Laters, his favorite) and hides the wrappers in the snow. He hangs out in the deserted playground of the apartment and watches the inhabitants through a telescope; a young fitness freak, a romantic couple. He has a small knife that he sometimes whispers threats to his tormenters with – never face to face. He is alone and terrified.

One night, he sees a young girl and her father move in to the apartment next door. The next day, the windows are all covered with cardboard, which seems a bit unusual but with many daysleepers in the complex, not that unusual. One night, the little girl comes out to visit with him on the playground. Her name is Abby (Moretz) and she can’t be his friend. This she announces in a sad but firm voice.

However, they do become friends. Abby has a thing for puzzles and Owen has a doozy – the Rubik’s cube. A very strong bond develops between the two of them, despite the warning of Abby’s father (Richard Jenkins) to stay away from him. Soon, Owen is finding the strength to stand up to those who are bullying him.

However, Abby is not what she seems. As they grow closer and a series of unexplained murders bring the police in the form of a single, unnamed dogged detective (Koteas), Abby eventually reveals the truth – she needs blood to survive. Yes, that would make her a vampire.

This is based on the acclaimed Swedish film Let the Right One In which in turn was based on a novel of the same name. Many who saw the first film cringed at the idea of a Hollywood version. Cringe no more; this is nearly as good as the original. Reeves captures the feeling of despair and hopelessness that was the backdrop to the first movie, and adds the dread and sense of something really terrible about to happen that was the original’s spice.

It helps that he has two strong juvenile leads to carry the movie. Moretz has made a name for herself with astonishing turns in Kick-Ass and (500) Days of Summer. She is clearly an actress of immense talent and should have a satisfying career ahead of her. Smit-McPhee, who was also in The Road, captures the innocence and sadness of his character very nicely, retaining the kid aspect in a role that lesser actors would have tried to make more precocious.

The adult actors tend to be moved off to the side, but Jenkins does a noble job in a thankless part, while Koteas continues his strong work of late. However, it is not so much the actors but the atmosphere that will get your attention. The movie is set in the dead of winter and the bleak landscapes and frigid temperatures contribute to the overall mood, which I will admit starts to get to you after awhile.

Still, it’s a great setting for a horror movie and this is a particularly well-written one. There is just enough gore and horrifying violence to satisfy the horror fan, and enough character development to satisfy the cinephile. I happen to fall into both camps, so this movie was like catnip to me. It’s not quite as good as the Swedish version, but it’s so close that the differences are negligible. It’s well worth your Halloween dollar.

REASONS TO GO: A vampire movie that will give Twilight-haters a reason to rejoice. Strong performances from all of the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: The dismal atmosphere can get overly oppressive.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some violent, disturbing scenes and a fair amount of foul language. In addition, there’s an unexpected sexual situation; this is very much for older teens and above only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “vampire” only is spoken once in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the moody forest scenes benefit from the big screen, overall I’d say the movie is just as effective on your own television or computer screen.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Day Two of Six Days of Darkness