An American Werewolf in London


Don't you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

Don’t you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

(1981) Horror Comedy (Universal) David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, Frank Oz, Don McKillop, Paul Kember, Michele Brisgotti, Mark Fisher, Gordon Sterne, Paula Jacobs, Nina Carter, Geoffrey Burridge, Brenda Cavendish, Michael Carter, Lila Kaye, Paddy Ryan, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Sean Baker, Rik Mayall, John Woodvine, Anne-Marie Davies. Directed by Jon Landis

sixdays2016-5

In the early 1980s the werewolf genre underwent something of a renaissance, with gaggles of new films that redefined the genre, including The Howling, Wolfen, Teen Wolf and this horror comedy. Landis, the director of Animal House, used the excessive gore of the period to offset the droll comedy which mostly was character-driven and while it wasn’t a huge hit, it has become an iconic film of its era.

David Kessler (Naughton) and his buddy Jack Goodman (Dunne) are on a walking tour of Northern England. The weather is cold (it’s England, after all) and the hospitality less than exemplary. As they walk out on the moors after an unsettling experience in the pub of a small village, they are attacked by an extraordinarily large wolf. Jack is killed and David badly injured.

David is brought to a London hospital where he is befriended by nurse Alex Price (Agutter) who once David is discharged, puts him up in her apartment since he literally has nowhere else to go. Soon David begins to have disturbing visions and unexplained things begin to happen to him. He wakes up naked in the zoo in an exhibit of wolves, for example, with no memory as to how he got there.

Worse, he’s seeing visions of his buddy Jack who informs him that they weren’t attacked by an ordinary wolf – it was a werewolf that killed him and now David has become one himself. He is also being haunted by the ghosts of his victims who are urging him to kill himself. David is understandably reluctant to do it – he and Alex have fallen deeply in love, after all, and he has a lot to live for but his new condition could endanger the life of the woman he loves. What is he to do?

This is in every sense of the word a horror classic. It is terrifying throughout and even though Landis keeps a light touch, there is always that air of menace and impending tragedy hanging over the entire film. He sets up the werewolf kills beautifully and doesn’t imbue them with camp. Landis clearly has a deep respect for not only the Universal horror films that inspired this but also the British Hammer horror films, although curiously the things that are Hammer-inspired tend to work the least well in the film.

Naughton at the time was best known for a series of commercials for Dr. Pepper in which he danced and sang “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, She’s a Pepper, We’re a Pepper, Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too? Dr. Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…” Look ‘em up on YouTube if you want to see them. At the time they were pretty popular. There were some who thought he was destined to be a huge star, but it didn’t happen – this was really the nadir of his acting career. Still, he acquits himself well and makes a pretty solid tragic hero. He’s no Lon Chaney however.

Agutter, an Australian actress who also had some notoriety playing the romantic lead in Logan’s Run five years earlier is also strong in her performance. While people scratched their heads that a seemingly pragmatic nurse would invite a total stranger to live with her after knowing him only as a patient (hey, it was a different era), the character is strong and sexy.

Dunne – who went on to a career as a pretty decent director – gets the lion’s share of the great lines. Most of his screen time takes place after he’s dead and it’s a bit of an in-joke that with each scene his appearance gets more and more gruesome. Jack and David have a bit of an early bromance going on and the interactions between them feels natural and unforced; it’s one of the best attributes of the film.

The gore here can be over-the-top, particularly for modern audiences that really aren’t used to it. People sensitive to such things are advised to steer clear; although the comedy does offset it somewhat, some of the scenes of mayhem and murder are pretty intense. The transformation scene in which David morphs into becoming a werewolf is absolutely amazing – even 35 years later. It is one of the best sequences of it’s kind ever filmed and in many ways is the crowning achievement of the great Rick Baker’s career and one in which he deservedly won an Oscar for.

I watched this again recently and have to admit that it actually holds up pretty well. A lot of movies from that era feel dated, but this one is pretty timeless. It remains one of those movies that pops up every so often and when you re-watch it, you wonder why it’s been so long since you’ve seen it. There are a few who don’t care for the film but it remains a favorite for a lot of horror buffs and cinema fans to this day.

WHY RENT THIS: The by-play between Naughton and Dunne is realistic and fun. The film’s transformation scene is perhaps the best ever filmed. Naughton and Agutter give credible performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Hammer horror influences don’t really fly as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence/gore, disturbing images, sexuality, foul language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Make-up Effects, a category established in 1981. It remains the only film directed by Landis to win an Oscar.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The original 2001 DVD includes outtakes (without sound) and interviews with Landis and Baker. The 2-Disc Full Moon Collector’s Edition DVD from 2009 as well as the Blu-Ray includes a featurette on Baker and the documentary Beware the Moon in addition to the original content.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $62M on a $10M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Trick ‘r Treat


Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

(2007) Horror (Warner Brothers) Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Quinn Lord, Rochelle Aytes, Lauren Lee Smith, Monica Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Samm Todd, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Gerald Paetz, Connor Levins, Patrick Gilmore, T-Roy Kozuki, Britt McKillipp, Brett Kelly, Isabelle Deluce, Alberto Ghisi, Barbara Kottmeier, Laura Mennell, Amy Esterle. Directed by Michael Dougherty

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Halloween has become a revered American holiday with many traditions and tales. Some are more or less universal (at least here in America) and some are regional but all are important as part of the holiday that signals the approaching end of the year and the beginning of the holiday season.

This anthology sat on the shelf at Warners for two years before getting an excuse me release and heading straight to the purgatory of home video. Usually that’s what happens to movies that are just plain lousy. Was that the case here?

Trick ‘r Treat is an anthology horror movie in the tradition of Tales of the Crypt with interconnected stories all connected by a diminutive linking device. The movie opens with a young couple, Henry (Penikett) who loves Halloween and Emma (Bibb) who clearly doesn’t returning home after a Halloween party. Emma’s distaste for the Halloween ends up having some fairly nasty consequences for her.

Their neighbor Steven Wilkins (Baker) the high school principal, catches a young teen stealing candy from his yard which leads to a lecture – and the revelation of the principal’s dark secret which doesn’t turn out so well for the teen. It does however lead to an interesting jack-o-lantern carving session with his boy Billy (Levins). Then we move on to four teens – who had visited the Wilkins home earlier – who head out to the local quarry where according to local legend a school bus full of mentally and emotionally challenged kids were driven into the lake by the school bus driver while chained to their seats and drowned – supposedly at the behest of their ashamed parents. As one of the teens – bullied Rhonda (Todd) – discovers, some urban legends should remain just that.

Another quartet of teens including virtuous Laurie (Paquin) go to the town’s annual Halloween party on the square, hoping to find Laurie’s “first.” However, it’s not the “first” you’re probably thinking of. Finally, the town curmudgeon (Cox) who hates Halloween with an absolute passion finds that one little trick or treater named Sam (Lord) in a filthy pair of orange pajama footies with a burlap sack wrapped around his head will give him a Halloween he will never forget.

All of the stories are connected together mainly by Sam who appears in one way or another in each one. Some of the connections are a bit of a stretch but by the end of the movie it all makes sense. A tip of the hat for the writing which is rock solid.

There is a pretty decent cast here with several veterans like Cox, Paquin, Bibb and Baker who have turned in a number of solid performances over the years and all are just as solid here. Most of the supporting cast is more or less unknown but there aren’t any false notes in the acting which is impressive. Todd as a matter of fact distinguishes herself as the put-upon teen who ends up in an urban legend of her own.

The stories themselves aren’t particularly gory or innovative but they get the job done. While modern horror movies tend to rely on gore and/or special effects, these are more story-driven and in some ways are throwbacks. For old school horror fans, this should be welcome news as this really is the kind of horror that isn’t done very often these days – although in the last 18 months or so I’ve noticed that there has been more of a movement in that direction with certain individual tales in anthologies and a movie or two.

Throughout the movie we do see children and teens put in jeopardy – while the latter is no biggie as far as Hollywood is concerned, the former is a major no-no and was likely the reason the movie stayed shelved so long. The major studios are a bit squeamish about children in jeopardy, Jurassic Park notwithstanding, especially when said children are not only in peril but don’t always survive. For horror fans, that’s a big deal as we usually see kids saved in unrealistic ways or have movies watered down so the kids can survive. It’s refreshing to see that taboo bridged somewhat.

So this is one of those movies that didn’t get the release it was expected to receive nor the attention it deserved (although critics generally praised it). The horror film fan community however is well aware of the movie and has generally embraced it – so much so that a sequel has been planned (although not yet come to fruition). In any case, if you’re looking for a hidden gem to watch this Halloween, here is one for your consideration.

WHY RENT THIS: Really good scares coupled with genuinely funny moments. Pretty solid cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kids in peril may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and some gore, some sexuality and nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam takes his name from Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An animated short prequel detailing the story of the demonic Sam is included on all editions, while the Blu-Ray also has a short history of the holiday and a look at the special effects used in the school bus scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Creepshow
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

Cub (Welp)


I am NOT Groot!

I am NOT Groot!

(2014) Horror (Artsploitation) Maurice Luijten, Evelien Bosmans, Titus de Voogdt, Stef Aerts, Jan Hammenecker, Gil Eeckelaert, Noa Tambwe Kabati, Ricko Otto, Louis Lemmens, Thomas de Smet, Pieter De Brabandere, Jessie Tweepenninckx, Isah de Zutter, Hauke Geimaert, Ebe Meynckens, Ymanol Perset, Nabil Missoumi, Jean-Michel Balthazar. Directed by Jonas Govaerts

What could be more natural than a bunch of young boys, scouts in fact, camping in the woods? It’s one of the rites of boyhood throughout the world. Of course, the boys are supervised by a pair of scout leaders and a den mother, but still, there’s something liberating about ghost stories of werewolves and monsters in the woods in the dead of night. But what if the monsters are real?

Kris (de Voogdt) and Peter (Aerts) – the later of which goes by the name of Baloo – are the said scout leaders. Jasmijn (Bosmans) is the den mother/camp cook/Peter’s girlfriend. Among the boys are David (Kabati), the troop leader and Dries (Lemmens), the timid bespectacled boy who is bullied by the bigger ones. And then there’s Sam (Luijten).

Sam, who has had a difficult childhood, has been bullied by all the others all his life. He has seized upon the camp leaders’ tale of Kai, the werewolf and is looking high and low for the feral boy, even though the tale is just a legend. Then Sam finds Kai (Eeckelaert). Of course, nobody believes him; Sam has been known to tell a tall tale or two throughout his life. This time, though, he’s not fibbing. He runs into a feral boy who wears a wooden mask, giving him a kind of primeval feel. He looks awfully scary at least.

It turns out that when the local school bus factory was shut down, there was a rash of deaths in the woods. Most of the local townsfolk like the go-kart riding delinquents Vincent (Perset) and Marc (Missoumi) are uncomfortable going into those woods. There are traps set all over the woods, some of them lethal. Someone is watching them…all of them and what they don’t know is that they’ve blundered into the territory of a madman who will see all of them dead – no matter how young.

This indie horror opus hails from Belgium and gives us a little bit of insight into  Belgian life. I was unaware that there was that much antipathy between the French and Flemish communities, but I suppose that ill feelings for those not belonging to the same group as you is pretty much universal.

It is also pretty much universal that the woods are a beautiful place and the cinematography here is nice and lush. It really is a pretty looking film, despite the fairly significant amount of gore. One doesn’t always find decent camera work in an indie horror film, so when there is a movie that has some you can’t help but be grateful for it.

I also liked the score, which is organ heavy and reminded me of the Goblin-scored giallo films of the 70s, which for a horror buff like myself brought back some pleasant memories; less experienced horror buffs may feel less nostalgic about it.

Most of the attention here centers on the three adults – or teens, which would probably be more accurate, and on Sam. The rest of the kids get little screen time, which is probably wise; good child actors are hard to find. However, Luijten is a find. He plays the timid, put-upon bullying victim, but he’s also stone cold at times. He shows some impressive acting range and I wouldn’t mind seeing him in more films someday.

In many ways, this is a bit of a throwback sort of horror piece; while there are a few too many camping-in-the-woods horror cliches here, for the most part this compares favorably with movies of the 70s and 80s that could be called the golden age of slasher films. There are some clever traps here, including one involving a beehive and a bow and arrow, that make the death scenes less rote than other, less imaginative films have given us.

While there are some hints of sexuality here, there really isn’t a lot that is overt; I think the movie would have benefited from less subtlety in that department. Also, we don’t really get a good deal of background about Sam and why he is the way he is and I think a little bit more explanation would have been helpful as well. Still, these are quibbles and this is quite impressive, not just for a first-time director on a micro-budget but for anybody. This has made some appearances on the festival circuit here on the states and is fixing to get released on DVD and Blu-Ray here on August 18. This isn’t a game-changer but it is a well-made horror movie in a sub-genre that is fairly crowded, but it acquits itself pretty well by comparison. Definitely recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Nicely executed. Some clever traps.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many kids in the woods horror tropes. Some character background might have been nice.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gore and images of terror, children in peril, foul language and a smidgen of sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scouts camp near a village called Casselroque, a sly reference to Castle Rock where Stephen King set many of his stories.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a music video and a short film; both editions feature an SFX reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Friday the 13th
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Brighton Rock

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2


Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart eavesdrop on their accountants discussing future earnings.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart eavesdrop on their accountants discussing future earnings.

(2012) Romance (Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone, Kellan Lutz, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Chaske Spencer, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Sheen, Maggie Grace, Jamie Campbell Bower, Christopher Heyerdahl, Lateef Crowder, Lee Pace, Omar Metwally, Dakota Fanning. Directed by Bill Condon

Our Film Library 2015

All things come to an end – even the Earth one day will flicker out of existence, the victim of our sun’s own demise. For fans of the Twilight Saga, the approach of the final movie in the franchise was met with a bittersweet mixture of anticipation and sadness, knowing that once the movie was viewed that the series would be done forever and yet looking forward to seeing the climactic chapters in the book come to life.

Following the conversion of Bella Swan (Stewart) to vampirism by her new husband Edward Cullen (Pattinson) in order to save Bella’s life while giving birth to their new daughter Renesmee (Foy and ten other actresses not to mention CGI babies) life has resumed normalcy in the vampire household of the Cullens but it won’t stay that way for long. The vampire ruling class, the Morituri, have been informed of Renesmee’s birth and have decided that the child is an abomination that will never age, will become exceedingly powerful and dangerous and must be destroyed. They don’t like her name much, either. Then again, nobody does.

So leader Aro (Sheen) and an army of vampires from throughout the world come to Forks to do battle. Meanwhile, werewolf Jacob (Lautner) has been imprinted upon by baby Renesmee, which means that the two are destined to be lovers which is kind of creepy when you think about it. The feud between Jacob and Edward is more or less resolved, although neither Bella nor Edward are all that keen on having a werewolf as a future son-in-law. However, with Jacob imprinted by the vampire Jacob’s wolf clan reluctantly agrees to aid clan Cullen in the coming fight, which they know about because Alice Cullen (Greene) is, as everyone knows, psychic. Convenient, that is.

Anyway, it’s all going to culminate in one big battle in the snow with vampires and werewolves alike getting their heads torn off like so many cheap action figures. Bella, however, is now one mother of a badass and no longer needs to be the weakling relying on the protection of Edward and his family. Can the Cullens defeat the numerically superior Morituri clan or will the Morituri succeed in destroying the Cullens and the new baby once and for all?

Well, I’m sure you can figure out the answer to that one even if you aren’t familiar with the series. I have to admit that I actually enjoyed the first movie in the series but they’ve gotten progressively worse as the series has gone along. The fifth and final cinematic opus in the saga is unfortunately the very worst of the lot.

The cast is as a whole excruciating to watch. Even eminently watchable actors like Sheen and Dakota Fanning overact so shamelessly that the union might have considered revoking their membership. Worse still are the special effects, which for a movie with a $75 million production budget are unforgivably bad. More on that in a minute.

Despite their poor performances, I do feel for the cast because quite frankly, there are no actors good enough to elevate the script which contains dialogue that doesn’t sound like real people talking. Mostly you get the sense that the producers wanted the cast members (particularly the main characters) to look cool to the tween audience and their moms that make up the core of the Twihard nation. Tweens and moms are generally not the most trustworthy arbiters when it comes to cool.

Even so, I can even feel for the screenwriter because the little of the Twilight books I’ve read have been uniformly poorly written. They are a soap opera on a page, a lily white telenovela that shamelessly pushes buttons but doesn’t have the grace of self-awareness. Everything that happens in this movie lands with a mind-numbing dull thud.

I will say this, however. The movies have as rabid a fanbase as any in the history of books and movies. Those who love this franchise do so with all of their heart and soul and their loyalty is kind of touching. They don’t care whether the books are great literature. They don’t care that Pattinson and Stewart are spouting dialogue that sounds like it was written by an alien who has never spoken with an actual human being ever. They don’t care if the CGI wolves move like wolves, or if the decapitations look realistic, or if the wire work of the actors is graceful.

None of that matters to them. What they care about is the fantasy that the love story gives them, and it certainly appeals to the target audience without question. One thing you can say about author Stephanie Meyer – she truly understands what the audience she’s writing for wants and gives it to them. Many authors would kill for that kind of knack and I can’t really condemn her for doing what many writers dream of doing – connecting to her audience in a meaningful way.

I really can’t recommend the movie to general audiences, but that’s okay. This is a movie made for a specific niche audience and at the end of the day, it serves them well. I look at the Twilight series much the same way I look at rap; it’s not written for me, I was never meant to relate to it and it’s okay if someone else relates to it and it’s certainly not a bad thing. At the end of the day, it’s a good thing to feel a strong connection to something, whether it be to a book, a rap song, or a movie. Saying merely that something sucks is to not only to judge the book/song/movie in question but also the person who connects with it deeply and doing so betrays a certain amount of arrogance. Certainly I can be critical of the cinematic missteps that I found here in the movie and I have to be true to myself when I say I can’t encourage anyone who isn’t a fan of the series already to go see it. That doesn’t mean that I hate this movie or what it represents; clearly there are people who are truly inspired by the Twilight books and films. Even if I don’t share that connection, I can’t deny that it exists nor can I entirely say that the series is unsuccessful because clearly it has not only made the filmmakers and the author a whole lot of money but a whole lot of fans as well and who am I to object to that?

WHY RENT THIS: Twihards will want to see this again and again.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Horrible special effects, bad acting, worse writing and a sense that the studio just punched this out without support or care in order to make as much money as possible.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent battle sequences, some disturbing images, a little sensuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the highest budget of any of the films in the series, and also was the only film in the series that had a complete opening credits sequence.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains a feature that allows you to jump to either Edward or Jacob-centric scenes. The making of feature is surprisingly good and Condon proves to be an interesting subject as he talks about the pressures of meeting fan expectations and staying true to the book while remaining cinematically viable. It’s really a lot better than most of these. There’s also an interesting featurette on the logistical issues that came from shooting two movies simultaneously.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $829.7M on a $75M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romeo + Juliet
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Our Film Library concludes!

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