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

 

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Resident Evil: Retribution


Go ask Alice.

Go ask Alice.

(2012) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Sienna Guillory, Kevin Durand, Shawn Roberts, Colin Salmon, Johann Urb, Boris Kodjoe, Li Bingbing, Aryana Engineer, Robin Kasyanov, Ofilio Portillo, Oded Fehr, Megan Charpentier, Mika Nakashima, Ray Olubowale, Toshio Oki, Takato Yamashito, Ali Larter. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Some fights you can’t run away from. Sooner or later you have to take the fight to your enemy because otherwise you’ll be running until you’re caught and/or killed. Sometimes those fights will cost you more than you know.

After the events of Resident Evil: Afterlife Alice (Jovovich) has been taken prisoner by the evil Umbrella Corporation and is being interrogated by former ally turned enemy (thanks to a parasite buried in her chest) Jill Valentine (Guillory). She escapes with the help of Ada Wong (Bingbing) who is one of the chief operatives of Albert Wesker (Roberts), the evil head of the Umbrella Corporation. However, he is no longer in charge; the computer program Red Queen, activated after the fall of The Hive has taken over and is at war with humanity – and she is winning.

Alice and Ada are in an Umbrella cloning facility where several environments were created to work out different scenarios to T-Virus infection protocols. Wesker sends in a strike team to retrieve Alice and Ada and also Becky (Engineer), a cloned little girl who operated as a daughter to a cloned Alice in a Raccoon City scenario. Make sense? Don’t sweat it.

Anyway the strike team along with Alice and Ada are up against hordes of mutants, Jill Valentine as well as clones of Rain Ocampo (Rodriguez) and Carlos Olivera (Fehr). They will have to fight their way through simulations of Moscow, Tokyo and Raccoon City. The now-fully human Alice will have to rely on her wits and her indomitable will to survive in order to get out of the base alive and once they do, a final battle on the surface awaits in which friend becomes foe, foe becomes friend and the world prepares for a last stand in the most unlikely of places.

The thing that has made this series so spectacular is not just the videogame franchise it’s based on but on Milla Jovovich’s interpretation of Alice. Jovovich, because of her appearances in a lot of sci-fi, horror and action movies, is sometimes underrated as an actress (much like Kate Beckinsale is) but she really has a great deal of screen presence and the focus is entirely on her, which gives the filmmakers smart points. Then again, Anderson is married to her so he probably knows her abilities better than any other.

The movie is like a non-stop chase scene, beginning with the spectacular opening sequence in which Alice’s capture is done in reverse sequence going back to the final moments of Afterlife. It’s imaginative, far more so than one would have expected from a franchise that’s supposed to play to a less-discerning crowd. While the sequence following that opening which consists of cloned Alice, cloned Carlos and Becky playing house is a bit confusing, the rest of the movie takes off at warp speed. Non-stop battles between humans with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ammo and increasingly grotesque mutants will more than satisfy the entertainment quotient.

The Resident Evil film series has been the only successful franchise (or standalone film for that matter) to capture the nature of the videogame that inspired it. While it doesn’t compare to playing the game and having that interactive element that is missing in a film, it is as close as film is going to come to that element simply because of the frenetic pacing and touches that less attentive directors might miss. One gets a sense that Anderson plays a lot of videogames.

I’m not sure how much farther they can take this franchise. There are after all only so many ways you can go here until it starts to get repetitive and it is absolute death for a franchise such as this to repeat itself – even the Friday the 13th franchise fell into that trap. They do seem to be leading to a climactic battle and the next movie, scheduled for release on September 12, 2014 may be the climax of the series. If so, they’ll have a fairly high bar set for them in order to make the series go out with a bang, which I sure hope it does rather than the fizzle that it could easily go out with.

WHY RENT THIS: Mindless fun. Jovovich has made the role of Alice iconic in horror films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of been there, done that.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of violence. And I mean lots.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jovovich is the only actor to appear in every Resident Evil film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Along with outtakes, there’s a nifty interactive database that allows viewers to explore the world of the franchise through bios, video clips and more. There’s also a look at Nakashima, the lead Japanese zombie and a reunion of cast members from previous installments in the series.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $240.2M on a $65M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent Hill

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2013 concludes!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Axe not what your country can do for you…

(2012) Horror Action (20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Jimmi Simpson, Robin McLeavy, Alan Tudyk, Marton Csokas, Joseph Mawle, Erin Wasson, John Rothman, Cameron M. Brown, Frank Brennan, Jaqueline Fleming. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

 

Our nation’s 16th president is widely beloved, considered our most courageous and visionary president and for good reason. He led our nation through its darkest hour, freed the slaves and in general kept the nation together even as it was coming apart. He also rid the country of vampires. Yeah, that was him.

Of course, you might not be familiar with that last part but don’t worry. This isn’t a history lesson. It’s rip-roaring bloodsucking entertainment from the man who directed Night Shift and the man who wrote the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) watches as his mother (McLeavy) is murdered by Jack Barts (Csokas), whom Abe’s father (Mawle) crossed when he protected his impetuous son from stopping Barts from whipping an African-American boy. Young Abraham wants revenge but his more level-headed dad makes him swear not to do anything foolish which Honest Abe does…until his father passes away.

Going to a bar to gather some liquid courage, Abe runs into Henry Sturgess (Cooper). Eventually, Abe discovers that Barts is a vampire and his guns are ineffective against him. Lincoln is saved by the intervention of Henry, but not before permanently scarring Barts by leaving the ball of his pistol in his eye.

Sturgess heals Abe’s wounds and tells him that the vampires have mostly been hiding out in the South as plantation owners, using the slaves as a food supply. Abe, studying for the law, is also trained by Henry in the fine (or not-so-fine) art of vampire hunting – and not a Scooby in sight (obligatory Buffy reference considering the subject matter). Having had a bad experience with guns, Abe prefers the silver-coated axe as his weapon of choice.

Sturgess sends the newly martial arts-trained Abe to Springfield to practice law. There he meets shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Simpson), who hires the young man and allows him to stay in a room above the store. The two become fast friends but coming back into Abe’s life is Will Johnson (Mackie), the young boy Abe saved from whipping years ago. Also in his life; Mary Todd (Winstead), the fiancée of rising political star Stephen Douglas (Tudyk).

By night, Abe kills local vampires and chafes for the chance to get his hands on Barts. Finally, when Sturgess finds out that Abe has been making friends and fallen in love, he warns him that he’s making a horrible mistake – these people will be endangered by the things Abe does at night. And that’s just what happens. Once Abe finally gets his hands on Jack Barts, people – okay, vampires – take notice. In particular, Adam (Sewell) who is the leader of the vampires here in the States, a creature who has lived since the days of the pharaohs and who is eager to establish a nation of his own for his kind – the Confederate States of America, for one.

He and his sister/enforcer Vadoma (Wasson) hatch a plan to bring Lincoln to them, kidnapping Will and bringing him to their New Orleans plantation. Abe and Speed rescue him by the skin of their teeth, but Abe determines to fight Adam in a less direct way – through politics. Abe’s determination and vision leads him to the White House.

However, Adam has been busy as well, allying with Jefferson Davis (Rothman) to supply vampiric troops to overcome the numeric superiority of the North as well as their armament. With unkillable soldiers, Adam and the Southern generals decide to put an end to the war by invading, leading to a place called Gettysburg. Realizing that the only hope of defeating the army of the undead is to arm his own troops with silver ordinance, Abe, Will and Joshua set out on a desperate train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania. The entire nation’s future hangs in the balance but Adam knows he’s coming.

This is an idea that does tend to stretch one’s tolerance for fantasy. That it has been largely unsuccessful at the box office speaks more about the imagination of the moviegoing public than that of the specific filmmakers here. The movie is certainly filmed in dark tones with bright moonlight. There is certainly a gothic feel to the film but with more of an action sensibility than, say, Dark Shadows.

The special effects are okay, though not ground-breaking in most senses. However, there are a couple of scenes which are done rather badly – the scene where Lincoln chases Barts through stampeding horses – where the horses look like something out of a computer game, complete with a dun-colored sky. It looks fake and pulls the audience right out of the reality of the film.

I have no problems with fudging with history to suit the needs of the story, although here some of it was, I thought, unnecessary. Making Will Johnson a lifelong friend instead of someone he met in Springfield (which is, as I understand it, what actually happened) or having Joshua Speed as part of Lincoln’s inner circle in Washington (in reality he declined to leave Springfield and sent his brother James whom Lincoln liked less in his stead) doesn’t really make the story any easier – it’s just simpler to write it that way.

Mackie is a fine actor who brings some gravitas to the role of Johnson. Simpson as well, who is channeling Christian Slater to my mind, gives Joshua Speed a fairly ambiguous role which aids the story nicely in the last reel. Winstead is an underrated actress who has done admirably well in a bunch of movies that haven’t been as good as her performances. It’s no different here; hopefully she’ll be cast in a movie that’s worthy of her talents soon.

The main problem here is Walker. He might be a fine, capable actor but this is a part that is almost impossible to pull off to begin with – Abe Lincoln as an action hero? Doing Matrix-like moves while wielding an axe like something out of a Tsui Hark movie? Uhhhhh…it’s kind of entertaining, I have to admit, while you’re watching it. Thinking about it now, reading it on paper…sounds kind of dumb. The other issue is that Walker has moments where he really carries the essence of the Great Emancipator. At others though, he seems to be floundering, not quite sure how to capture Lincoln’s natural self-effacing demeanor and homespun humor.

This is entertainment, pure and simple. There is no moral message, and if you take this as a history lesson you’re clearly insane. This is meant to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours. Nothing more, nothing less. The movie isn’t always successful at it but it succeeds more than it fails. If you’re willing to give the concept a shot and throw logic and history out the door for two hours while you’re in the air-conditioned cinema, then you might actually be surprised at how good this is.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action and some nifty effects. Mackie, Cooper and Winstead are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Walker’s performance is a bit inconsistent. Too many liberties with history and facts. Some of the CGI is surprisingly poor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence as well as a hint of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man in the film’s final scene who is approached in a similar manner as Abe was recruited was played by book and screenplay author Seth Grahame-Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews were mostly bad.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Near Dark
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS LOVERS: Walker recites the speech here in a re-creation of the address.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The American Experience series begins

Underworld Awakening


Underworld Awakening

Selene can be a real bitch when she doesn't get her morning coffee

(2012) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Stephen Rea, Michael Ealy, Theo James, India Eisley, Charles Dance, Sandrine Holt, Kris Holden-Ried, Jacob Blair, Catlin Adams, Wes Bentley, Adam  Greydon Reid, Robert Lawrenson. Directed by Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein

 

Things change, especially in a movie universe. The vampires and the Lycans (Underworld-speak for werewolves) are no longer existing in a vacuum where the humans are oblivious to their presence. The secret is out, and as humans will do when confronted with new things a genocidal war is in full swing and the humans are winning.

Selene and her half-vampire half-Lycan lover Michael (Scott Speedman in archival footage but he doesn’t actually appear in the new film – an uncredited stand-in took his spot for several scenes in the movie) see the graffiti on the wall and figure to get out of Dodge but it doesn’t work out quite the way it’s supposed to and she is captured by humans and put into cryo-stasis.

Twelve years pass and an unknown party rescues Selene from her frozen sleep. The former Death Dealer is out in a world she doesn’t know, and not particularly well-liked by the vampire coven that finds her, as leader Thomas (Dance) says, to be someone untrustworthy, who has chosen humans over her own kind every time. However his son David (James) is a bit more supportive and a bit more aggressive than dear old dad.

Selene has a lot to deal with. Not only is she in a brand new world with a dead lover, she also has a daughter who is known as Eve (Eisley) but is also known as Subject 2 at Anti-gen, the mega-corporation that held Selene in stasis. It seems that Dr. Jacob Lane (Lea), the head honcho over at Anti-gen, was experimenting on finding a cure for vampirism and lycanthropy, or at least that’s the story. It turns out he has a much different agenda in mind, one which Eve figures in quite a bit. The icy Selene has never particularly had a ton of maternal instincts but her hybrid daughter seems to be stirring those to life – and the fact that rescuing Eve will piss off her enemies mightily is just an added bonus.

Beckinsale is actually an accomplished actress (if you haven’t seen her in Snow Angels by all means do) who is also an accomplished action heroine. The fact that she’s pretty hot in her catsuit, bustier and long leather coat doesn’t hurt either. She kind of goes through the motions here, but with the digitally-enhanced cobalt blue eyes she looks pretty good at least.

James makes for a pretty decent hunkazoid and gives the film a certain flair. He is coming into an established film universe that is actually pretty well drawn out, four films in. We kind of know what to expect more or less. That works for and against the movie; there’s a certain comfort in that but there’s also a certain amount of “been there done that.”

Still, the action works although the CGI Lycans tend to look like CGI Lycans. It’s a fun universe to play in and it’s good to see Beckinsale in it again (she missed the 3rd movie which was more of a prequel). Not the best action movie you’ll see this year – it’s not even the best movie in the series, but it’s adequate for the needs of most action fans – fun and not too complicated.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale is a terrific action heroine. The Lycan/Vampire world is well-drawn.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot is confusing and the suspense is non-existent.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, a bit of gore, some horrific images and a few choice words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in the series in which either Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen or both weren’t in the cast.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100. The reviews are pretty bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resident Evil

CATSUIT LOVERS: Kate Beckinsale still looks plenty awesome in one.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Gangs of New York