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

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny


Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

(2016) Martial Arts (Netflix) Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Harry Shum Jr., Jason Scott Lee, Eugenia Yuan, Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Darryl Quon, Roger Yuan, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Dev Kingsley, Woon Young Park, Andrew Stehlin, Gary Young, Tim Wong, Sharon Zhang, Kevvy Sing-Hoi Ng, David T. Lim, Alex Shi, Thanh Van Ngo, Shuya Chang. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000 in the United States, remains to this day the highest grossing foreign language film to be released in the United States. The Ang Lee-directed martial arts classic combines a heart-wrenching love story with innovative martial arts battle sequences making extensive use of wire work to wow audiences of the time.

It has taken 16 years for the sequel to be made, loosely based on the final book of the five-book series by Du Lu Wang that inspired the first film, but the director responsible for those amazing fight scenes is at the helm here and while the absence of Lee and star Chow Yun-Fat are keenly felt (particularly Fat, whose presence hovers over the film throughout like a sad-eyed ghost) the movie surprisingly stands on its own two feet.

Nearly two decades have passed since the events of the first film and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), the deadly assassin and swordsman of the first film has removed herself from the world, mourning her lover and feeling keenly the weight of the changing nature of the world. She is called from her lonely isolation to attend the funeral of an old friend, one charged with storing and protecting the Green Destiny, Li Mu Bai’s famous sword. When sneak thief Tiefang (Shum) is caught attempting to steal the sword by house guest Snow Vase (Bordizzo), Yu realizes that bandit king Hades Die (Lee) and his blind enchantress (E. Yuan) are behind it.

Snow Vase, realizing the identity of Yu, asks her to become her teacher and Yu agrees. However, Hades Western Lotus army is dead set on acquiring the sword for their master and Yu knows the compound will need additional protection. She hires a group of six mercenaries, led by the enigmatic Silent Wolf (Yen) with whom Yu has a particularly convoluted past. It seems that the two were lovers before she was with Li Mu Bai, and that she believed Silent Wolf had been killed in a fight with Hades Die many years earlier. It seems the rumors of his death had been exaggerated.

Despite his deception, there is clearly heat between the two former lovers while Snow Vase is developing a relationship with Tiefang. The two relationships will be tested as the ruthless Hades and his evil enchantress will stop at nothing to acquire the one sword that would make him all-powerful and rule the martial arts world with an iron fist.

I went into this movie with a little bit of trepidation, fully expecting it to be a blatant cash grab knock-off, profiting off of the name of a classic movie. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie captures the melancholy tone of the first film, delivering on the martial arts sequences as well as the emotional resonance. While it isn’t quite to the level of that film, the sequel is still a very worthwhile successor.

Much of the credit must go to Yeoh, the lone returnee of the acting cast here. Her character is the emotional center of the film, dealing with loss with dignity and honor. She is a mighty warrior, yes, able to strike fear in the hearts of strong men and garner their respect, but she is also feminine and certainly still beautiful and graceful at 53. This is perhaps her signature role and the movie is worth seeing just for her.

Yen, one of the biggest and most bankable stars in China, fares less well here but to be fair his character isn’t as well drawn. Silent Wolf is meant to be enigmatic, but he is so enigmatic that some of his motivations ring false and while his fight scenes are some of the best in the film, he is relegated to pretty much a supporting character when he should have been one of the leads.

Like the first film, the cinematography is breathtaking, although there is a lot more CGI here of crumbling ruins, temples and towers that give the movie a kind of a Lord of the Rings feel. I’m not sure how much of this was filmed in China – iMDB lists the filming locations as China and New Zealand – but there is something about the natural beauty of China that speaks to me.

The problems here are that there are too many characters who aren’t fleshed out very much beyond colorful nicknames. While some of them have definite personalities, they are little more than a single trait with a body attached and they’re there mainly to get into spectacular fights with somebody. That’s all well and good but one cares more for the outcome of a fight when one cares for the people doing the fighting.

This is playing on Netflix and on a smattering of IMAX screens across the country. Because it’s getting a simultaneous release on Netflix, the larger theater chains refused to carry this on their IMAX screens, so in places like Orlando there are no IMAX screenings for the film available which is a crying shame – I suspect this would be amazing in IMAX. Hopefully at some point it might show up in some form on IMAX but until then most of us will have to content themselves seeing it at home on Netflix. Even that is well worth the effort as this is a wonderful and worthy follow-up to a classic.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Recreates the melancholy feel of the first film. Some incredible martial arts sequences. Michelle Yeoh.
REASONS TO STAY: A little less graceful than the first film. Too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of martial arts violence as well as a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Jen, played by Shuya Chang here, was played by Ziyi Zhang in the first film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Empire of Silver
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trumbo