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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The Grand Budapest Hotel


Caught in the act!

Caught in the act!

(2014) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Matthieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Florian Lukas, Giselda Volodi. Directed by Wes Anderson

There was a time when elegance was in fashion, when gentility was all the rage and a gentleman was a gentleman and a lady was a lady. Those days are gone.

A student sits down by a shrine to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. In 1985, a famous Author (Wilkinson) reads the book aloud and tells us about the time back in 1969 when he was young (Law) and visited the namesake hotel of the book in the beautiful Republic of Zubrowka and spoke with the owner of the hotel (Abraham). He, in turn, tells a tale of when he was but a young ambitious lobby boy named Zero Moustafa (Revolori) who came to be taken under the wing of the greatest concierge that ever lived – the legendary Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes).

Gustave has made his reputation by knowing what his clientele needs before they themselves know. He specializes in elderly dowagers, flirting and bestowing on them the sheerest form of flattery, leading them into bed. One of his more devoted clients is Madame D (Swinton), but there are many and nearly all of them blonde.

When one of his clients passes away, Gustave takes Zero to pay his final respects but it turns out that Dmitri (Brody), the manipulative greedy son, is absolutely scandalized that his mother had carnal relations with someone like Gustave whom he considers to be a perverted little bisexual. Dmitri has in his employ Jopling (Dafoe), a psychopathic assassin.

As it turns out Gustave is accused of the murder of his client and jailed. Zero, his devoted protégé and friend and Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Ronan), a comely assistant pastry chef with a distinctive wine-colored birthmark shaped like Mexico on her cheek, will have to overcome the canny Inspector Henckels (Norton) and the ruthless Jopling to help Gustave clear his name.

Anderson has always had a quirky comedic sense that crosses Ernst Lubitsch with the Coen Brothers. This is in my opinion his best film to date, taking all of the promise he has shown in films like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and delivering on it. The timing is impressive and the film is funny throughout.

In talking about this film one has to talk about the production design. Each time period has a certain color palate which grows more dingy and dreary in 1969 and 1985 1932 however is awash in color, the pink jewelbox of the hotel dominant. Often the movie looks like it was printed on paper, with animated cutouts doing some of the action. The stylized movements of the actors and the oddball facial hair of the men complete the overall air of gentility and hilarity.

Fiennes is perfect as Gustave. Genteel, manipulative, a bit of a cad but with a heart of gold, Fiennes carries the movie in his coat pocket. It is a magnificent performance that unleashes hidden depths from Fiennes who often plays roles that are emotionally closed off. This is right in his wheelhouse and he steps into it and knocks it out of the part with enthusiastic gusto. While I find it unlikely he’ll be nominated for any awards later on for the role, this is definitely one of the best performances you’ll see this year that won’t get awards consideration.

The only reason this doesn’t have a perfect score is the unnecessarily convoluted structure of having a student sitting by the grave of an older author who talks about his younger self hearing a story from an old man who tells about what happened to him and his mentor as a young man. The problem with peeling back the layers from an onion is that someone inevitably ends up in tears. Nonetheless this is a terrific movie, quirky but funny and satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and funny. Fiennes is transcendent. Clever for all the right reasons.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning is unnecessarily complicated.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of ungentlemanly language, some unseemly violence and some naughty bits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where the film is set actually comes from a Polish brand of vodka.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hudsucker Proxy

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Fireflies in the Garden

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance


 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Nicolas Cage may be laughing now but he won't be when he shows up on another Conan O'Brien Homeland Security Threat Alert sketch.

(2012) Superhero (Columbia) Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Idris Elba, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Fergus Riordan, Anthony Head, Christopher Lambert, Spencer Wilding, Sorin Tofan, Jacek Koman, Cristian Iacob, Jai Stefan. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

 

This is a movie that is just going to make you stammer. On Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: “Didn’t they direct Crank? That-that-that was so good!” On Nicolas Cage: “But-but-but-but…didn’t he win an Oscar? Didn’t he make Raising Arizona? Peggy Sue Got Married? Adaptation? Valley Girl?” All true. Throw those expectations out the window.

Johnny Blaze (Cage), the Ghost Rider has fled the United States and his curse of turning into a flaming headed demon who extracts vengeance (and the souls) of those who deserve it which is pretty much everybody. He is living in the Balkans now, skulking in the darkness. He is approached by a drunken French priest named Moreau (Elba) who tells him that he is needed to help protect a young boy that the Devil is after; should he fulfill his end of the bargain, his order will help him get rid of the curse. Having nothing better to do and 90 minutes of screen time to fill, he agrees.

Said boy is named Danny (Riordan) and he is the son of the comely gypsy Nadya (Placido) who wants him back. Denis Leary-esque thug Ray Carrigan (Whitworth) – who has a history with Nadya – has managed to steal the boy after blowing up the Ghost Rider with a grenade (they just don’t make demons like they used to). Still, you can’t keep a good Rider down and Blaze steals the boy back which hacks the devil off .

Satan, going by the name Roarke (Hinds) – and he’s about as far from “Fantasy Island” as you’re going to get – is pretty cheesed off so he turns the dead Carrigan into Decay, a demon that rots everything he touches – everything except Twinkies which are immune. Take that, snack food naysayers – who knew an armor made of sponge cake and filling would grant the wearer immunity from demonic powers?

Anyway it’s all leading to a ritual that must be performed on the solstice blah blah blah blah blah…you know the drill. The odds are against them but you know ol’ Flamehead will save the day. This is, after all, a Marvel Comic book adaptation.

And folks, I’m here to tell you it is the worst Marvel movie since the largely unseen 1994 Fantastic Four film that was made to retain the rights to the comic for Constantin Films (who would finally make a big budget version in 2005), and that’s saying something. This is Steel bad. This is Catwoman bad.

Neveldine and Taylor have made some nifty action films but you get the sense they were hamstrung by the PG-13 rating imposed on them by the studio. While there is some of the out-of-control seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that characterized their first movies, mostly they resort to clever camera angles and loud pulsating hard rock to turn the movie into an hour and a half long Megadeth video. This isn’t nearly as much fun or free-spirited as their earlier works; not only is it not anything goes, it feels more like nothing does.

Cage has gotten his fair share of flack for his overacting, but he sets a new bar here. Remember those Conan O’Brien bits about Nicolas Cage performances being the new means of setting Homeland Security threat levels? Cage has produced a whole new threat level. There’s a scene where he interrogates an Eastern European Eurotrash club owner about the whereabouts of Carrigan that has simply got to be seen to be believed. I honestly believed his head was going to explode (and it pretty much does in CGI when he transforms into the Rider). And while we’re on the subject of acting, can we not find a juvenile actor who could act? Riordan delivers a performance that compares unfavorably with Jake Lloyd’s wooden extravaganza as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And no, that’s not something you want said about your acting.

In fact, much of the CGI owes as much to Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes as it does to Marvel Comics. Cage’s eyes bug out like a wolf checking out a female – I half-expected a wolf whistle and an “Ah-OOOOOOO-Gah!!!” to accompany the transformation. He also spits out bullets machine gun-style at one of Carrigan’s thugs. When you can’t do a comedic scene as well as a 70-year-old cartoon, even with all the modern technology at your disposal, you’re doing something terribly wrong.

This is simply an embarrassment. I didn’t think the first Ghost Rider was as bad as it was made out to be but this one is far worse than you can imagine. Other than Placido who is sweet to look at, and Hinds who is at least having fun chewing the scenery as a Wall Street Beelzebub, and Lambert as a tattooed monk, there really isn’t a lot to recommend this movie, other than to serve as a warning that not all Marvel movies are necessarily good.

REASONS TO GO: Film is a bit better-looking than the first Ghost Rider.

REASONS TO STAY: Cage just…oh my God. Overacting doesn’t even cover it. Story is predictable and dull. Too much “look ma I’m directing” in the action sequences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some darkly disturbing images, and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eva Mendes was approached to reprise her role from the first movie but perhaps wisely she declined.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100. The reviews are a train wreck.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man (2006)

TATTOO LOVERS: Lambert sports a face full as do several of the other monks. Cage as Johnny Blaze doesn’t have any per se but his flaming skull would make a wicked awesome tat.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Shame

Hostel: Part II


Richard Burgi tries to prove that getting a tattoo is better than getting a massage.

Richard Burgi tries to prove that getting a tattoo is better than getting a massage.

(Lionsgate) Lauren German, Bijou Phillips, Roger Bart, Richard Burgi, Heather Mattarazzo, Jay Hernandez, Vera Jordanova, Jordan Ladd, Milan Knazko, Stanislav Ianevski, Monika Malacova, Patrik Zigo. Directed by Eli Roth.

There are places on this Earth that are a bit off the beaten path. No guidebook will tell you about them, no tour bus will ever stop there. However, if you should stumble on to these places, you are richly rewarded with a travel experience that all world travelers dream of; a place all their own. Of course, there are other places on this Earth that are best left unexplored.

Picking off where Hostel left off, Paxton (Hernandez) returns home to his girlfriend (Ladd) beset by nightmares and feeling that the unseen proprietors of the human abattoir that he escaped from are closing in on him. She’s less than sympathetic, tired of being awakened by his screams at 3am every morning. Of course, is it paranoia you’re feeling when someone really is out to get you?

Over in Rome, a trio of art students are trying to get away to explore Eastern Europe. Of course, when you’re a trio of attractive female art students, that brings problems in and of itself, like drunken Eurotrash not willing to take no for an answer. Whitney (Phillips) is the sexy one, Lorna (Mattarazzo) is the uptight nerdy one and Beth (German) is the sweet responsible one, for those keeping score. They run into one of their models, Axelle (Jordanova) from class and she promises to take them to a place that will give them an adventure they’d not soon forget.

They arrive at a charming Slovakian village in the midst of a harvest festival. However, there is something insidious and sinister happening just below the surface. The girls have been targeted by an organization that caters to super-wealthy businessmen from around the globe whose tastes run to the sick and grisly, who are willing to torture and murder young people for a very lucrative fee. Stuart (Bart) and Todd (Burgi) are a couple of American businessmen who have come to change their lives forever, to become men who are legitimately feared.

That’s pretty much it for the plot. Essentially, this is all an excuse to get to the grisly, cruel displays of torture that have been labeled “torture porn” by critics. And, quite frankly, those who are turned off by such things shouldn’t rent this, and probably weren’t going to anyway.

While this was critically disemboweled during its initial 2007 release, I actually found it to be a taut and suspenseful horror film. Yes, the acting is a step above a student film, the plot is riddled with clichés, and character development is non-existent or stereotypical at best. However, I found myself engrossed (no pun intended) by the movie. While it certainly wasn’t a movie that lacked for publicity, I do think that it qualifies as a hidden gem simply because it got such an unfair shake by critics that some folks might have avoided it after it was released.

Director Roth is an exciting up-and-coming director, one who has captured the eye of Quentin Tarantino, who was impressed enough to co-produce this. Yes, the gore can be hard to stomach at times; this certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. Nevertheless, it delivers the kind of visceral thrills that make horror movies so cathartic, and makes for a whole new subset of villains to hate; Eurotrash. C’mon, admit it; since we can’t hate the Commies anymore, there’s gotta be somebody to rise up and take their place in our pantheon of evil.

I found this to be a very competently-made horror movie with genuine shocks. Yeah, this isn’t the best-written movie you’ll see ever, but it’s good at what it is supposed to be good at, and you may come away pleasantly surprised.

WHY RENT THIS: Some excellent shocks and a crew of genuinely reprehensible baddies. Lots of visceral, cathartic thrills.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The torture scenes are extremely graphic and will turn your stomach if you are sensitive about such things. Plot and characterization are somewhat clichéd.

FAMILY MATTERS: Are you kidding? Only if you’re the Manson family.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During a scene in which a number of severed heads are displayed, one of the heads belongs to director Eli Roth.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An unrated director’s version features a commentary track with producer Quentin Tarrantino, and a Factory Torture Cam feature.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Day Four of Six Days of Darkness

Defiance


Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

(Paramount Vantage) Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, George MacKay, Iben Hjejle, Jodhi May, Sam Spruell, Mia Wasikowski. Directed by Edward Zwick.

More than 60 years after the events of World War II, the events of that conflict still resonate with all of us. It was a time when ordinary people were forced to confront true evil, rise up and make a stand for their very survival, as well as everything they hold most dear. Some of those stories, particularly those that took place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, are only now coming to light in the West.

It is 1941 in Belarus, and the Germans are systematically capturing, murdering and imprisoning Jews in ghettos. In a small Belarusian town, smuggler Zus Bielski (Schreiber) and his young brother Asael (Bell) hide out in the woods as the Germans decimate their town. They return to the family farm to find their parents murdered and their younger brother Aron (MacKay) traumatized by what he has seen.

Knowing that the Germans are not yet done with their pogrom, and that the local police are co-operating with the Nazis, they flee to the nearby forest where they are joined by their older brother Tuvia (Craig). Experienced at hiding from the police in the woods, they are confident they can hide from the Germans indefinitely. However, Aron soon discovers several other refugees who have fled to the safety of the forest. They are joined by still others from surrounding towns and villages. The number soon swells beyond the ability of the brothers to feed and shelter. There are many elderly and sick, some children and most truly unable to fend for themselves. The brothers give them unity and protection. The brothers give them hope.

After Tuvia confronts the police captain responsible for the murder of his parents and executes him, he forswears from further violence and reprisals, which creates a rift with his brother Zus, who wants nothing more than to get justice, or more to the point, revenge against those oppressing his people. After a food raid leads to the death of some of their number, and leniency with a collaborator brings armed police to their camp, the rift is broadened to the point where Zus leaves to join a Russian partisan group made up of Red Army.

In the meantime, winter comes, food is scarce and they are hunted by a determined and better-armed German army. Tuvia’s determination to adhere to non-violent standards begins to erode in the face of starvation, disease and fear. With the overwhelming odds against them, it would take a miracle for this starving group of refugees to survive.

Zwick, whose resume includes such big-budget fare as Glory, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, crafts a movie that has a big-budget look but an intimate feel. Gorgeous vistas of forest, bog and meadow are accentuated within the context of the nuances of the relationships between the brothers. Craig and Schreiber bring a quiet power to their roles as sibling rivals. These are men, proud and wounded, frustrated and helpless in the face of events they cannot control.

The supporting cast, for the most part made up of character actors and Eastern Europeans, does a solid job of portraying starving refugees, terrified townies, arrogant communists and/or occasional Germans, who for the most part remain an enemy without a face, other than the opening sequence, and one later on in the movie in which a terrified soldier is captured and brought before the camp to face a mob of angry Jews.

As for historical accuracy, well, the movie is probably about as accurate as any Hollywood film is (for example, a battle with a Nazi tank near the film’s climax never occurred). There has been some grousing that the film portrays much of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe as being passive in the face of mounting evidence of their own extermination, but I disagree. Certainly, there are scenes like the one where Tuvia pleads with the council of a ghetto to flee to the forest while the elders point out that the Germans kill 20 for every one that flees. However, the fact is that there are instances in which Jews were passive about what was happening to them, whether out of a desire to appease the Germans, or out of an unwillingness to believe the rumors of death camps or that the Germans would annihilate their own slave labor workforce, something that had never happened in the history of the world to that point.

This movie hasn’t received a lot of critical love. Some have called it heavy-handed, which I admit it is in places. Some have called it emotionally manipulative, but then again it is a story which incites strong emotions. Some have compared it unfavorably to Schindler’s List but honestly, that’s like comparing Gods and Generals to Gone With the Wind. Schindler’s List is a classic and most films about the Holocaust are going to come off unfavorably next to it.

I’ll cop to being a bit of a history buff, and I especially enjoy movies that inspire me to find out more about the era or episode that inspired them, and I certainly was hitting the Internet after I got home from the multiplex. The war in Eastern Europe is certainly a bit of a mystery to us in the West; while we are aware that there was a particular ferocity and savagery that took place there, we are for the most part unacquainted with the particulars. I, for one, am always grateful for the opportunity to learn more.

However, at the heart of this movie is the relationship between Tuvia and Zus. It is their strength that sets them apart and their pride that splits them apart, but ultimately it is their love and fierce loyalty that unites them. At the end of the day, that’s what makes the movie worth seeing.

WHY RENT THIS: Lovely Lithuanian vistas. Oscar-nominated musical score. A compelling, believable fraternal relationship.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasional heavy-handed storytelling. Some unnecessary historical inaccuracies to make the movie more “salable.”

FAMILY VALUES: Some intense battle scenes and language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Much of the movie was filmed within 100 miles of where the actual Bielski camp was located.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A criminally brief interview segment with descendents of the Bielski brothers, and a photo gallery of camp survivors in 2008 give faces to the real participants in the drama.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Secret Life of Bees