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Underworld: Awakening (2012)

For me, this was a “wait for it on cable” movie.  The premise for this fourth film in the series simply did not appeal to me.  Frankly, it seemed more like another Resident Evil sequel than an Underworld one.  I straight up didn’t like the more science fiction edge to everything.  It seemed to be trading off the wonderful depth of mythology and classy production design for hollow science and sleek, cold settings.  I could not get excited to see this, and from the way the trailers looked, I wasn’t going to spend money to see it.  Ultimately, I didn’t have to, and I’m glad for it.  Underworld: Awakening is not worth spending your hard earned money to see.

The vampire and lycan species have been discovered by humanity, and have waged a war of annihilation against both.  Twelve years later, vampire Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) awakens from a cryogenic sleep in an Antigen genetics laboratory, and manages to escape her human imprisonment.  On re-entering this world, she finds that the lycans are almost extinct, but somehow, have begun creating stronger, enhanced lycans.  She also discovers that she has a twelve year old daughter, Eve (India Eisley), who is a vampire/lycan hybrid that everyone either fears or fights to re-capture for their own vile purposes.  While on the run, Selene is aided by vampire David (Theo James) who brings her to a diminished coven hiding underground led by Thomas (Charles Dance), who does not welcome her presence knowing her past, but David stands with her in her fight.  However, soon, all are thrown into danger as those who would use Selene’s daughter for a mysterious antidote abduct her, forcing Selene to take the fight directly back to Antigen, and uncover an unsettling truth.

I will say that the film didn’t turnout to be as bad as I anticipated it to be, but it wasn’t all that worthwhile either.  This franchise feels about a half step away from going direct-to-video.  The only thing that saves this film from feeling as such are the action sequences.  They are still very high grade with big, slam bang stunts and good choreography.  However, there are moments that felt a little too preposterous for me.  Granted, Underworld: Evolution didn’t have the time to really show the potential of Selene’s newfound abilities, but some of them just seemed ridiculous and beyond the laws of physics in Awakening.  Selene might be exceptionally strong now, but I don’t think that someone of Kate Beckinsale’s slim size and weight could possibly ram into a van and barrel it over like a freight train.  Enhanced vampire strength or no, it’s just a little too much for me to buy.  There are other little moments throughout the film that delve into that well of exaggeration.  Some have a mild pay-off like Selene actually reaching into David’s chest and restarting his heart with her bare hand, but most are just there to amp up Selene beyond the suspension of my disbelief.  It’s one blatant sign that the filmmakers have ceased to care about creating an interesting story, and just want to go for ridiculous indulgences.

The CGI might be a little better than the previous film – Rise of the Lycans – but it’s still not all that good.  There are some sequences that are better than others, but on the whole, it’s still distinctly below the exemplary standards of the first two films.  This mainly affects the appearance of the lycans themselves.  Sometimes they look cartoonish and silly, other times they appear more real and believable.  This could be the difference of some practical lycans having been used in some sequences as opposed to others.  Still, it’s all a real lazy job done with them as a whole.  None of the transformations were particularly impressive as they lack the harsh, visceral quality that we saw in the series’ earlier installments.  It really is a mystery why, with more than triple the budget of the first movie and nine years of progress in digital effects, does the CGI here look inferior to that of the original 2003 Underworld.  Maybe too much of that budget went to the 3D aspects of the film, which have no impact on a viewer who doesn’t view films in 3D, such as myself.  The vast majority of the digital effects of this film are a substandard failure.

I will confirm to you that Scott Speedman does not reprise his role of Michael Corvin in this film, but the character does appear.  The filmmakers simply hired a not-so-convincing look alike and used some digital effects to mask that fact, but it’s pretty clear to my eyes what they did.  As a result, Michael is barely seen in the film, and I think that is a severe negative mark against this film.  Firstly, what they did comes off as cheap and obvious.  If they could have gotten Speedman, we could’ve at least had some substantive scenes with the character who was so pivotal to the start of this whole series.  To do what they have done just feels disrespectful to the foundations of this franchise.  Selene developed into the character we now know because of Michael, and everything erupted in this first film over Michael.  To now sweep him under the rug or hide him in the dark corner works against the story that they have here.  It feels like there’s this gaping hole in the film that is never plugged up due to his absence.  It forces Selene into a more isolated and coldly violent state of mind which is a huge step backwards for her.

In the least, this felt like the wrong direction to take the series’ storyline in.  The end of Underworld: Evolution left the possibilities wide open for something radically different and brave to be done.  Instead, what we get is very bland and narrow.  I also remember the filmmakers saying after Evolution that they weren’t going to go the route of Selene and Michael having a child together, but here it is.  Not to mention, it’s done with the least amount of effort possible.  It just feels like they took the creative low road, and it resulted in a cheap substitute for not having Michael present.  There are now very few places they could take another sequel because they have setup a very restrictive world for our characters.  They can’t simply exist in the world as it is.  Any new film has to deal with vampires and lycans being exposed to the world at large, and thus, no film can just be about vampires and lycans anymore.  This is what I do not like about this film’s premise.  It takes the war between vampire and lycan and shoves humans prominently into it.  This makes the human race the dominant aggressors due to manpower and resources.  While the story is able to twist it back around to being primarily between the vampires and lycans, the world is already set as both races being fully exposed and hunted by humanity.  That just drains all the interesting qualities from the base premise of this series.  Compared to how immensely textured and fascinating these vampire and lycan characters had been, making humans such a large and oppressive cog in this dynamic hits like a dull thud to me.  The history of both species are essentially meaningless now.  None of that will be explored any further because it’s about genetics, cloning, and humans trying to eradicate both species like a plague.  There’s no personal depth to humans being the enemy.  The first two films were interesting because they dealt with personal loyalties, deceptions, secrets, lies, and emotional motivations on both sides.  It was a very complex web that was intriguing to see unravel, but now, all of these fascinating characters are dead and none of the new ones have any textured history to explore.  It’s very hollow, and that essentially explains this film in general.  It’s a lot of flash and action with little substance.  The story it tells doesn’t even push the franchise forward.  It leaves it stalled out, dead in the water.  This film really doesn’t care much for developed plots or characters, unlike it’s predecessors.

The actual villains in the film are boring to no end.  There’s nothing on the page or in the performances to make an audience give a damn about what they’re doing or why.  Stephen Rea is certainly a better actor than this film demonstrates.  He’s entirely phoning this performance in.  There’s no passion in anything he does as Dr. Jacob Lane, and the plot twist with him still left me not caring.  No one else around him does anything worth caring about either.  These are pointless, empty, disposable villains.  I can feel the lack of giving a damn coming directly from the script.  Previously, you’ve had Viktor, Lucian, and Markus as powerful, vibrant, and intense foils for our protagonists.  They had a lush depth and emotional vigor that made them compelling to watch.  They were written greatly and portrayed brilliantly by some amazing actors.  They felt dimensional, real, and purposeful.  The supposed villains of this film couldn’t be a more stark opposite to all of that.  When the scripts start falling this far off in quality from where the franchise started, you know the direct-to-video market is not far away.

I will admit that Charles Dance does a rather good job as Thomas, the head of the diminished vampire coven.  Dance puts in the effort to make a poignant impression upon the audience for Thomas to have relevance.  I felt him channeling Bill Nighy a time or two with his line deliveries.  Of course, it would’ve been wiser for him to not keep trying to talk through the vampire teeth, or at least, have him re-record his dialogue in post-production.  It just seemed to impede his performance a little, but overall, Charles Dance did well here with a solid, dimensional performance.  Theo James does a fair job as David, but ultimately, it’s a take it or leave it character and performance.  There’s simply no depth or charisma coming from him.  If he had remained dead, it wouldn’t have mattered to me.  Much the same could be said for the rest of the supporting cast.  They are just there to serve a role in the story, but they’re just disposable and forgettable.  Whether they are given some substance or not, they just have no lasting impact.  Even India Eisley offers nothing to endear herself to an audience.  She should be someone we come to care about, but neither the script nor her performance give you anything to latch onto.  Even when the previous films failed to reach an emotional connection with the audience, it wasn’t for a lack of trying by the screenwriters to give depth to the characters.  Here, everyone just exists in the film for the sake of the plot, and they offer up nothing else beyond those narrow, shallow confines.  I’d almost welcome another prequel film just to have some characters I care about show up again.

The film at least has something somewhat worthwhile for Kate Beckinsale to do.  She’s given a decent emotional range to convey with some tears to shed, and some heartfelt concern to struggle with.  However, again, it feels like a step down from where she was in Evolution where there was the bond with Michael to flesh her out and open her up, emotionally.  Here, she’s even more cold blooded and vicious than ever before killing helpless humans left and right on a rampage to find the person she loves.  As always, Beckinsale looks great, and handles the physical demands of the role excellently.  Still, it is a film heavy on the action and lighter on substance.  In the hands of a screenwriter with some enthusiasm and ambition, a great deal more could’ve been done with Selene in this premise.  Themes could’ve been explored in depth about her uncertainty in this new world, and her finding a new purpose with or without Michael.  The ideas of rebuilding the vampires as a strong species could’ve been grappled with more intensely as well.  Instead, these are just background elements to the bland forefront storyline.  I believe Beckinsale has said she will not come back for another film, and I think that’s a wise decision.  She is a very good actress who should focus on expanding her career instead of shackling it to a franchise that is on a steep decline in creative quality.  Not to mention, the filmmakers and screenwriters seem to have no ambition to push the character to anywhere that challenges Beckinsale.  Rarely is any charisma ever is injected into the character, either.  Any expansion on the character’s range is marginal from film-to-film.  There are leaps and bounds they could take Selene with some powerful new stories, but there is just no place for that in this franchise, four films on.  Underworld has settled into a straight action film franchise with some thin emotional strands and increasingly weaker plots and characters.

I think the problem with the franchise is that the filmmakers have never been confronted with the problems of the films.  Therefore, they have never had critical pressure put on them to improve the aspects that have dragged along unchecked from movie to movie.  The odd thing is that they have all been different problems in each movie.  Whether it’s a lack of emotional vibrancy, thoroughly fleshed out stories, or a prequel that doesn’t just retread the same back story we’ve already been told about, the screenwriters and filmmakers just can’t balance out the vital aspects of these films.  There simply doesn’t seem to be a fire lit under the filmmakers of this franchise to push themselves to do more with it.  They settle for something adequate instead of striving for exceptional.  Underworld: Awakening is a blatant example of that slipping, lax attitude.

I honestly only took the time to watch this film in order to round out my reviews of the franchise.  There was nothing I saw of this marketing campaign that gave me any confidence in this sequel.  It is excessively mediocre in almost every aspect.  While I have never viewed any of the films in this series as great, there has been potential here and there that has just never been put together in the same film.  The best aspects of one film combined with those of another could be forged into just the right mix of story, action, and character to make a fully satisfying film.  Instead, we either get something too oppressive in tone and complex in story dragging the excitement of the film away, or something with a lot of good action and excitement with not enough substance to make it feel like a full film.  Underworld: Awakening is the latter done to an excessive degree in addition to populating itself with an array of forgettable characters and bland performances.  It’s never an outright bad film.  It’s just one I fail to care at all about, same as the filmmakers, evidently.  The creative forces behind this film put forth no effort to improve upon the franchise when there was ample opportunity to do so.  It’s disappointing when a franchise fails to reach its full potential when it has good ideas and good talent to start with.  It’s just plain sad when those in charge of it simply stop trying, and that summarizes my feeling on the Underworld series as a whole.  If another sequel is to come, I deeply hope the studio brings some talented writers and filmmakers on board with some original, ambitious ideas to revitalize this series.

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Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)

There are countless interpretations of vampires out there.  Whether it is from Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, John Carpenter, or Joss Whedon – vampires will continue to be explored in literature, films, and television.  What Anne Rice has presented the world is a very classical, romantic, and aristocratic view of nosferatu.  It seems that many may have soured to this interpretation in recent years, at least in the filmed media.  With films like The Lost Boys, Fright Night, John Carpenter’s Vampires, and the television series of Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer integrating vampires into a modern setting with pop culture references and humor.  Still, Anne Rice’s view will likely remain the most traditional perception.

Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) has chosen to grant an interview to a persistent reporter in Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) in present day San Francisco, California.  Louis is, in fact, a vampire.  This easily takes Daniel by surprise, and is even more shocked to learn it is true.  Louis tells the tale of his life in darkness, as a vampire.  After the death of his wife and child in the year 1791, life lost its meaning for him, and he welcomed death at every turn.  Although, it would never come until he met Lestat (Tom Cruise), who offered him a new life where pain, death, and disease would no longer be a burden to him.  Still, he would have no idea the endless agony that would await him.  Louis spins the tale of two hundred years from Louisiana to Paris and beyond.  Encountering others of his kind, leaving a trail of blood, pain, sorrow, and death behind him.  It is a compelling and enthralling story which has many twists and some surprises.

There’s so much to praise about this film.  Director Neil Jordan gives us a beautiful sense of time and place.  With so much of this film being a period piece extending from the late eighteenth century to the present day, that is the most critical element in this film.  The landscapes are indeed gorgeous with a rich depth and a textured history.  The production designs and values are impressive and masterful.  This is award winning work.  I don’t think I really have the words to express how spectacular, epic, and grand it all is.  Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography compliments it all greatly and beautifully.  I have never seen anything else from Jordan, but I know that this film shows an immense breadth of artistry that I’m sure transcends into his other films.  Though, elegance is essentially the one word to describe this film.  Every second is filled with it from Elliot Goldenthal’s classical score to the performance of the actors.

Brad Pitt is sympathetic as a tortured man condemned to endure it all forever.  As a vampire, who knows for certain if he has a soul (again, depends on your chosen interpretation of them), but it becomes hard to dispute that Louis does.  He so tries to fight against his nature, to be a decent person, and thus, eventually finds nothing but agony from this eternity.  He does not seek death – he could easily step into the daylight and let himself fry – but some form of peace and solitude from eternal damnation.  Pitt portrays and emotes all of this to a tragic degree, but by the late twentieth century, he seems to have come to terms with most everything.

The flip side of this comes from Tom Cruise.  His Lestat finds nothing but pleasure and wonder in his reign as a vampire.  He is somewhat reminiscent of Julian Sands in Warlock – someone with a high sense of elegance and charm, but underneath this gentle facade is pure, delicious, sadistic evil.  Although, Lestat is far more naturally cultured and arrogant.  Up until this film, Tom Cruise had been the young heartthrob leading man with the million dollar smile.  He was the hero, the nice guy.  Here, he shows us his dark side, a striking performance that showed the world he had a talent no one imagined he had.  Cruise wouldn’t step into another dark, let alone villainous role for another nine years in Michael Mann’s Collateral as the sociopathic contract killer Vincent.  As Lestat, he shines with ease, and enjoys every magnificent moment of it.  Kirsten Dunst won several awards for her portrayal of the girl who would be eternally young by way of the blood of a vampire.  Those awards were well deserved, and easily launched her young career forward starring in dozens of films in the subsequent years.

The story eventually moves forward to Paris where new characters come into play.  Stephen Rea portrays Santiago as a very playful, mischievous, but still sadistic creature of the night.  It’s a fun performance, giving the film a different spark of life when it really needs it.  After the departure of Lestat from the story, these new personalities are quite welcomed.  Antonio Banderas, as always, is marvelous.  As Armand, he carries much weight about him, and has a powerful presence and allure.  He easily becomes the main antagonist at this point in the film.  He is more directly evil and seductive than Lestat.  Outside the view of the public, he makes no allusions to being anything but what he truly is.  Louis calls he and his minions monsters, and that is indeed true.  The final talent to mention is Christian Slater.  While his role is minimal, it is well played with an apprehension and fear.   The late River Phoenix was originally chosen to play this role, but when he met an untimely and tragic death, Slater stepped in to deliver a solid performance.

Louis’ story is filled with much emotional richness with so much tragedy, love, heartbreak, and pathos.  It surely has a different quality to something like Highlander where immortals are still human, can still do most things any other person can, but simply have to live for centuries on end enduring life on a larger canvas of time.  Here, Louis is tortured because he has become something ungodly and so against his nature.  He’s a man who comes to realize that he only traded one kind of pain for another, and now, must live with it for eternity.  It’s a journey that might be a little romanticized, but it is mostly sorrowful and somber.  His story is populated with rich, fascinating characters in a wide, sprawling, gorgeous world.

Overall, I must say that this is a remarkable film.  It is wonderfully constructed.  Everything blends and weaves together in an enrapturing narrative.  The editing remains wholly coherent and competent.  You never got lost in the timeline of events, or in the few flashes from the present to the past.  Anne Rice adapted her own novel for the film, and while I know nothing to the novel itself, I surely get the feeling that it is faithful from how much care clearly went into the film.  The film also definitely has its share of scares and frightening moments while gore is kept to a respectable minimum, but showcases some wonderful makeup work.  The movie concludes with a Guns N’ Roses cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil,” which I find very appropriate.  The lyrics of the song are very much akin to Lestat and those like him in the film.  Many never liked this cover deeming it tacky, but I truly enjoy it.  It was the last thing recorded with anything resembling the classic line-up of the band.  However, as far as the film goes, it was critically and commercially successful.  I have no qualms about it, and give it a perfect score!  While it might not be every horror fans’ taste, this is an extremely well made film showcasing an abundance of talent in every frame from everyone involved.  It gets my highest recommendation.


Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

The problems with a prequel are many.  With Underworld, the biggest is that so much back story has already been detailed throughout the previous two films that we already know what led to what, and the motivations behind everyone’s actions.  All making a prequel can do is flesh out these ideas and show us something deeper, and possibly previously unrevealed to make it worthwhile.  Unfortunately, prequels are hardly ever that imaginative or worthwhile.

The other detractor is that we are already familiar with these characters at the end of their lives.  We’ve seen their emotional states after centuries of turmoil, conflict, and deceit.  So, in a prequel, one must strip all that emotional depth and history away.  These are not the characters as you’ve come to know or enjoy them, and that can make them far less interesting or entertaining.  Basically, in a prequel, there is less to explore because we already know the outcome, and that’s worst thing to go into a film knowing.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans takes place centuries ago telling the tale of how Lucian (Michael Sheen) came to be, and his eventual struggle to break out of the oppressive tyranny of the vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy).  Lucia is a lycan, the first of a new species able to retain human form, and change to a wolf at will.  As he is brought up under Viktor’s vampiric regime, Lucian becomes passionately in love with Viktor’s beautiful and strong willed daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra).  However, they must keep their love a secret as Viktor would never allow such a union to exist, but it is only a matter of time before secrets are uncovered and a lycan revolt is sparked.

Michael Sheen is clearly at the forefront of this film as Lucian.  It’s his story to ascension from slave to lycan leader.  He fills the role well as a strong, bold, and passionate warrior.  He is clearly a deeply talented actor with wide range that understands the character completely.  Sheen is able to take what Lucian was in the first film, and wrangle him back to a more impulsive, youthful man driven by his passions instead of being methodically driven by sorrowful vengeance.  Of course, Bill Nighy returns as Viktor, and is much more in the forefront of the story.  He commands his scenes with his usual intensity and venom, but also brings forth the pain of a hurt father when needed.  His subtlety of emotion gives Viktor his gravitas.  I couldn’t imagine anyone else bringing this much theatricality and impact to Viktor.  I just wish Nighy wasn’t so gung ho for those blue contact lenses.  They get to be distracting after a while.

The one thing this film allows us to freshly explore is Sonja, portrayed by the always fantastic Rhona Mitra.  She has spirit to spare.  Sonja won’t be held down by anyone as she is a brash, capable, and proud warrior.  She lacks no confidence, but is emotionally torn between the man she loves in Lucian and her beloved father, Viktor.  Rhona plays the heartbreak very well showing it troubling Sonja beneath the surface.  She is absolutely a strong lead, and entirely convincing as the kind of strong, bold woman that Lucian would devote his heart to.  Simply due to Sonja’s confidence, strength of character, and emotional context, she can prove to be an even stronger lead than Kate Beckinsale at times.  She is a finely textured character that makes it easy to see how a war could breakout over her by two men who deeply loved her.  However, it is Viktor who allows his disdain for the lycan species to eclipse his love for his own daughter.

Steven Mackintosh reprises the role of Tanis.  I absolutely loved his uninhabited weasely personality in Underworld: Evolution.  Here, it’s much more restrained because Tanis cannot risk Viktor knowing of his shady dealings.  So, Mackintosh never gets a chance to really flesh out the character.  He plays it quite straight and low key.  It’s a shame that is necessary since, as we’ve already seen, Tanis can be an immensely entertaining character.  It’s almost a disservice to the film and the actor to have him play the character as so subservient.  He was always a bit of a coward, but at least he had some bravado before.

On a side note, I had hoped that Kraven would appear in the film.  I had seen Shane Brolly in the IMDb credits prior to seeing the film, and expected his despicably deceitful character to grace this film.  Unfortunately, his credit is merely for the re-use of dialogue from the first Underworld at the film’s end.  While Shane Brolly did overplay Kraven at times before, I still enjoyed the character in general.  He was fun because, while surrounded by characters full of honor, dignity, and respect, he was an entirely straight forward self-serving, egotistical, and reliably disloyal delight.  What you saw was what you got, and he never wrapped himself up in a web of facades to cloak his dishonorable actions.  Truly a character you loved to hate.  Unfortunately, it is doubtful we’ll ever get to see him, again.

Patrick Tatopolous takes over the directing reins from Len Wiseman, and does a fine job.  He maintains a consistency for the franchise in all aspects.  To his credit, he handles every dramatic moment as if this was the first film in the series.  He doesn’t allow foreknowledge from the previous films to diminish the dramatic integrity of what he’s putting on screen here.  He surely makes it so that any newcomer can watch this film first, and still feel the weight it deserves to give the other films their proper context.  And quite seriously, the drama can be heart wrenching and deeply impactful.

The film does lack in the CGI area.  Where the previous two films had quite seamless effects, here, it’s not quite as smooth.  The first film had a $22M budget while Evolution had $50M.  This falls in between with $35M.  Still respectable, but with larger effects sequences featuring more lycans running amuck and so forth, the filmmakers probably had to stretch the dollar thinner to accommodate it all.  The practical effects are still consistent with the rest of the franchise, but the screenplay required CGI visual effects to take a more prominent role this time out.

The music here is an expectedly more traditional film score.  While that’s not entirely new for the series, it clearly wouldn’t be peppered with industrial rock remixes.  As with Tatopolous’ direction, the cinematography also maintains a consistent cinematic quality throughout.  It’s very well shot and edited.  Much of the same techniques are used with momentary slow motion action beats, and the desaturated blue tones.

Ultimately, what we have here is a hard film to sum up.  There’s solid talent up and down the line on both sides of the camera.  The screenplay is executed very well by deeply talented individuals.  The CGI is a bit dodgy here and there, but the real stinging point that damages the film is that there’s nothing new to be had here.  From the first film, we knew all of this story, and more importantly, the end results of it all.  The screenplay, while well conceived, offers nothing that we weren’t already told two films ago.  It simply takes that spoken back story, and shows it to us.  No new layers are added to the Underworld mythology, and no new perspective can be really had by watching this film.  Maybe there’s a little more emotional context seeing who Lucian was, and then, who he came to be centuries later.  So, you see it’s not a bad movie at all, but it just is a generally unnecessary one.  You can take it or leave it because, quite frankly, there’s very little to gain if you’ve seen the first two Underworld movies.  I like a good, solid back story to be fleshed out, but if a prequel isn’t going to flesh anything out to show us something new to the storyline, it fundamentally fails.  That could launch me into a whole different rant about another film franchise’s prequels, but who really has the time for that sordid mountain of madness?


Underworld: Extended Edition (2003)

After seeing and enjoying the sequel Underworld: Evolution on its theatrical opening weekend, I decided to give the original film a second chance with the extended edition.  It was clear then that I should’ve given Underworld a second viewing quite a while before then.  With that viewing, things became more enjoyable, and more importantly, coherent in a second viewing (even with two solid years between viewings).  Anyway, this version of the film has 12 minutes of additional footage with 11 minutes of replacement footage.  The audio commentary with director Len Wiseman and cast members Kate Beckinsale & Scott Speedman help to mark the new footage (quite important to me only seeing the theatrical version once).  More back story is revealed on our leads, and a few other tidbits are injected.  Now, there’s really no extra gore here, and so, don’t let the “unrated” moniker get you excited.  It’s just a marketing tool for horror fans, plain and simple.  Now, I will endeavor to make a far briefer synopsis this time out.

A war between vampires and lycans has raged for numerous centuries, but the reasons why there ever was a war is unknown to most everyone.  Digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires, and that’s just the least of what’s forbidden.  There are many unknowns that none question, but the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) soon raises all those questions.  After tracking a pair of lycans and subsequently engaging in a shootout in a subway station, she becomes convinced that they were after a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman).  She persists in unraveling this mystery, even more so when met with resistance from the decadent second-in-command Kraven (Shane Brolly).  He pushes so hard against her that she becomes even more suspicious, and goes to desperate measures.  She awakens elder vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) a century ahead of schedule, and seeks his help.  With his power of command and physicality, he easily reaffirms control of things.  Meanwhile, the lycans’ plan slowly is revealed, but not fully until far later in the film.  In any case, this plan has everything to do with Michael’s bloodline, and with the survival of the lycan species.  Selene soon becomes Michael’s only ally when it seems all are gunning for him, and neither of them know why, not truly.  Ultimately, all the lies, deceit, deception, and secrets are made known, and the consequences of them all will change everything for both species.

When I first watched this film, it was very confusing and tiring on a mental level.  There were so many plot twists and turns that from one scene to the next I didn’t know who was a villain, an ally, or a hero.  I was completely lost on the geography of this plot, let alone where these characters stood within it.  By the end, nearly everyone you believed was a protagonist or an antagonist flipped sides, and it was all very confusing.  I felt like Michael Corvin wondering just, “what the fuck is going on?”  This time through, I was fully aware of where the plot was going, and everything made much more sense.  A second viewing allows you to be “in the know” about the intentions, schemes, and treachery of all.  It allows you to enjoy the film more since you are not trying to re-decipher the plot every few minutes.

Now, I still find the action sequences to be lacking.  A shootout is a shootout – practically every action flick has one.  Granted, it would be silly for the vampires and lycans to be doing battle with swords and battle axes since these are technologically evolved times, but after seeing the sequel, Underworld: Evolution, there are other ways to create multiple action sequences unique within one film and make them exciting and dynamic.  Since I had already seen this movie, I knew what to expect from the action sequences, and so, I was able to enjoy them more.  But still, they could have been much more impressive and unique.

I still give major praise for the effects in this film, both practical and computer generated.  They are exponentially better than the cheesy, third-rate CGI in Van Helsing, and nothing here comes off cheap.  It’s all wonderfully designed and executed.  After watching some of the featurettes on disc two of this set, I got to appreciating the development of this film even more than before.  I do retain the belief that this film could have benefited from a bit less dreary visuals.  The desaturated colors really bring down the potential beauty of this motion picture.  The Crow absolutely had an insane amount of darkness, and a heavily gothic look to it, but it is a beautiful film.  It didn’t use desaturated colors, but instead used the contrast of light and dark.  I believe the same could’ve been done here, and made the visuals much more compelling.  Still, the cinematography is fabulous, and the production design is deeply intricate.

The music as well as the costume design is directly in line with that of The Matrix – industrial rock remixes and tight black leather n’ latex.  Yes, it’s been done to death, but it certainly works fantastically well here.  Kate Beckinsale looks all the more beautiful and sexy the more you see her.  The lycans have a far more down n’ dirty look as they live a more low class lifestyle than the aristocratic vampires.  I guess leather attire will always be some indefinable symbol of coolness.  So, despite my previous negative attitude towards said choice in costume design, I really won’t knock it now.  It’s cool, and I’ll leave it at that.

The quality of the acting doesn’t change in this extended cut, we just get more of it.  I speak nothing negative about it, and knowing where things ultimately lead up to not only in this film, but the next, I truly understand the coldness of some characters.  Those that survive this film definitely show far more depth in the sequel.  Still, I still have to praise Michael Sheen for bringing such a great character like Lucian to life.  He does an incredibly intriguing job with him, and by far, proves Lucian to be the most in-depth and emotionally invested character here.  The rest of the cast has acting chops to spare, and while Speedman may seem miscast in this film, I think him coming into his own in the sequel really makes up for anything he may appear to lack in this film.

Again, what this extended cut gives us is more character moments.  These are nice extra elements, but don’t change the complexion of the story or characters much at all.  They just add some additional depth and back story.  The pace of the film was already pretty slow, and thus, this only elongates the existing pace.  There is a sex scene between Kraven and Erika, but there’s nothing gratuitous about it.  It’s sexy and lustful, but no real nudity  Beyond that, there are a few bits and pieces of scenes added back in that were likely just cut for time originally.

All in all, with two years later and a fresh perspective along with the knowledge of the sequel with me, I appreciate Underworld much more.  The story does drag in the middle (even more so in this extended cut), but it really picks up near the end.  I recommend that anyone who may have disliked or was disappointed with this film should give it a second viewing.  Being aware of the plot and its progression will allow you to appreciate the overall film much more.  Your mind is more free to enjoy it instead of trying to keep up with plot twists.  Simply put, you’ll spend much less time being confused, and more time enjoying yourself.  Checking out this extended cut should be an option for you, but it doesn’t offer anything greatly important regarding the plot, let alone the action, but does offer more on the characters themselves.  Theatrical or extended is perfectly fine for a second viewing.


Underworld (2003)

I have become a fan of this franchise based on its potential.  I don’t think any entry, so far, has really been great overall.  One entry excels in areas that others fall short in.  It’s hard to do a straight update on my old review of this film.  There are two reviews I did.  One from my initial viewing of the theatrical version, and one from the extended edition which serves as a more informed second viewing.  So, what follows is merely a polished up version of my original 2004 review of Underworld.  Bare in mind that this is a first reaction review, and does not reflect my current sentiments on the film after multiple viewings.  For that perspective, check out my review of Underworld: The Extended Edition.

When I first heard about the premise for this movie, I thought it was gonna be one to watch.  A must-see, even.  Simply put, that premise was the dynamic of Romeo & Juliet set in the world of vampires & werewolves.  I was so very excited to see this movie!  Through all the trailers and TV spots.  With all the months passing by, I only became more anticipatory of this film’s release.  But in the week of the theatrical release, I starting reading the reviews.  They were bad.  Even the horror sites were saying it was a dull, boring, unoriginal, unimaginative movie.  Bloody Disgusting, Diabolical Dominion, and Creature Corner all gave it BAD reviews.  After that, and numerous visits to RottenTomatoes.com, I chose against going to see this film that I had been so anxious to see all year long.  However, after its release on DVD, I finally decided to plunk down some bucks to rent it, and all I can say is that all the reviews were right.  But before I go any further, let’s TRY to lay down the plot for this quite dull and highly non-innovative film.

Kate Beckinsale plays the vampire Selene, a Death Dealer whose job it is to hunt down and kill off the Lycans (aka ‘Werewolves’).  At film’s start, she gives us a nice expositional voice over to help with the film’s general setup.  A war between the two species has raged for 600 years, and despite the fact that no one truly knows how it all began (digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires), the war continues.  Though, the vampires believe that the war is soon to end, it would leave Selene’s kind, the Death Dealers, as an obsolete faction among the decadent lifestyle the vamps have adopted.  Meanwhile, two werewolves are shadowing the footsteps of a mortal man, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), but for what purpose, that is not revealed for another HOUR, maybe more!  A shoot-out goes down in a subway station between the vamps and the ‘wolves, amongst humans.  We get our first look at the werewolf transformation, and it’s not half bad.  Now, at this point I would like to rush the plot synopsis quickly along, but there is too much to simply sum in one paragraph, but I’ll try.

On the vampire side of things, it is only a short time before they are to reawake one of their elders from a centuries’ old sleep.  These elders are held in a tomb of sorts inside the Victorian-esque mansion all these vampires live in.  In the meantime, their acting leader is Kraven (Shane Brolly), a very self-minded bloodsucker who is Selene’s greatest obstacle.  This becomes even more evident when Selene’s interest is peaked as to why the Lycans were following Corvin, and she ultimately is forced to go against everyone’s orders to discover the truth.  While investigating Corvin at his apartment, a small pack of Lycans come looking for him, including their leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen).  During this encounter, Lucian takes a heap of a bite out of Michael’s shoulder, and damning him to become a werewolf, in time.  At the tail end of this encounter, an amazing stunt is performed where Sheen chases after Selene’s luxury import car, and just runs up atop of it.  How it’s performed, I’ll tell you later, but no wirework was involved.

Anyway, to find guidance and wisdom as to what plans the ‘wolves might be forging, Selene awakens the one who made her into a vampire: Viktor (Bill Nighy).  He is awakened in a manner not far off from Hellraiser.  He must be regenerated via the absorption of blood, but they throw a nice twist on it.  Now, even though Viktor has been awakened, Selene STILL is faced with adversity where she believed that she would have an ally.  It only forces her into an even more rebellious state to uncover what treachery has occurred amongst these immortal enemies.  There is, of course, more to this film, but I will not divulge such spoilers to you.

Yes, I know, that was more than one paragraph, but I tried.  I guess the first thing that I realized with this movie was that the action sequences are really nothing new.  How many shoot-outs have we seen in movies?!  Far too many to even consider counting, I’m sure.  And that’s basically the only way the vamps and the lycans fight.  They pull out guns and a few other weapons.  Both sides now have bullets designed specifically to kill their rival species.  The lycanthropes have irradiated ultraviolet bullets that burn vampires alive.  From that idea, the vampires invent a bullet that releases silver nitrate directly into the lycans’ blood stream.  Lycans themselves are allergic to silver.  Most have the ability to force a silver bullet from their body, but the liquid silver injected into their veins is a near instant death.  However, a lot of other rules are tossed completely out the window such as vampires now have reflections, don’t seem to have any bit of flying ability, and well, don’t really have much powers at all.  They are undead bloodsuckers that are incredibly agile, nothing more.  And any charm or veracity that have become characteristic staples of vampires are certainly drained from these vampires.  The filmmakers were going for a more biological, scientific angle, but in the process, eliminate much of the powers of the creatures.  Of course, the werewolves don’t seem to have much of a change, except for the fact that they can now switch between their two forms at will, but it takes a full moon to initially trigger their transformation after they’re first bitten.  Also, no one has ever survived a bite from both vampire and lycan.

Now, since the action sequences are tired and bland, the next question has to be, “is the movie fun at all?”  No.  Everything and everyone is taken very seriously here.  Not a singular joke is cracked, not one witty play, nothing humorous of the sort makes its way into this film.  Which makes for a very dull 121 minutes.  I don’t even think anyone in this movie even cracks a damn SMILE!  Also, the film never really delves much past the surface of these characters to give us any sort of emotional involvement with them.  And in fact, the only character I really, really liked was Lucian.  Michael Sheen has a lot of charisma and sharp theatrical sense to give the lycan leader a strong gravitas.  His is the only one with a heartfelt emotional motivation for his actions that are not wrapped up in lies and deception.  Lucian also has a great look which supplements the feral lycan quality.  Despite Sheen’s shorter stature, he really is a strong presence that commands respect, even next to his hefty second-in-command Raze.  Kate Beckinsale IS quite seriously sexy in her skin-tight PVC leather / rubber cat suit and corset, but it’s a hard thing for an attractive young woman to NOT be sexy in such an outfit.  Her character is the heroine, but despite the script’s best efforts, she’s rather mono-emotional (as practically all of the characters are).  It’s not an issue of acting quality, but the tone of the film and characters that creates such a heavy, dry movie.  Bill Nighy is fantastic as Viktor bringing his always intense emotional sense to the vampire elder.  He also commands his scenes with theatrical breadth and subtlety.  Shane Brolly as the snake-in-the-grass, short tempered vampire Kraven can feel a little over-the-top at times.  The character is wonderful as it becomes refreshing to know that, at the end, he is just as vile and self-centered as he first appeared to be.  Still, the rage and shouting could’ve been turned down a few notches to make him a little more intimidating.

Now, we hit the assessment of the plot (and yes, the film feels, at least, as long as this review).  The plot is very tiresome.  Not that it’s repetitive or anything like that, but because we keep getting more and more elements added to this plot without reason.  Well, without reason until the last 30 minutes of the motion picture.  And by that time, you really don’t know who to root for.  Those who you believed to be the villains aren’t really doing anything villainous, but some of the despised characters are despised for a reason.  Although, some of the protagonists become deserving of all that they have coming to them.  So, through the whole film you’re acting like Michael Corvin after being bit saying, “What the HELL is going on?!”  You get tired of waiting for the plot to progress to a point where you actually know WHAT the real plot is.  And once you get there, there’s not much left of the film to hold any bit of interest in you.  The fact is, the screenplay is structured in such a way that you have no clear understanding of the plot’s landscape, or where any of the characters stand in that landscape until the final act of the film.  Selene herself doesn’t know who to fight against either until that point.

And for the final bit of assessment, the special effects.  I am so very glad that director Len Wiseman chose to do as much of the effects practically as possible.  The werewolf designs are very impressive, and that certainly helps to inject much to the feel of the film, keeping it as grounded as possible.  Though, the werewolves don’t happen to showcase much movement or flexibility in this form, but when they’re crawling rabidly along the walls, they are very animated (not in the CG sense).  Also, remember that stunt I mentioned earlier involving Michael Sheen running up atop an accelerating automobile?  That was executed using a tarp of sorts attached to the back end of the car, and Michael Sheen simply ran up that tarp while the car was in motion, and thus, making him seem like he was actually running at 35 miles per hour.  Very cool, yet simple stunt.  You can catch that on the DVD.  Now, the vampires don’t have much makeup of effects work aside from their fangs and contact lenses, but Viktor is a whole ‘nother story.  As he goes through a regenerative process, a series of progressive effects were designed for him.  They were full body casts, no suits.  This is well documented on the DVD’s featurettes, and it is a make-up effects process that was well worth the time and effort.  However, what was very disappointing was the design of the vampire-lycan hybrid.  It seems highly underdeveloped as it does not work as a pay-off at all.  There is nothing special or intimidating about this design.  It showcases nothing of feral strength or creative ingenuity.  Basically, it is a vampire with a more pronounced rib cage with deep, dark blue skin.  His abilities are more impressive, but it’s still a grave disappointment on both counts, to me.  Nothing impressive at all, as is practically everything with this movie.

So, to sum it up.  Underworld is a mix of Blade and The Matrix (maybe a bit of The Crow woven in), but it lacks any of what made those such entertaining films.  There’s no fun, no excitement, or character depth to be had in Underworld.  A whole boat load of never ending plot developments that just weigh this film down far, far too much.  Add that to the fact that the characters’ emotions are practically as flat as a board.  Also, I agree with a few others that the role of Michael Corvin was miscast.  Scott Speedman just doesn’t play it with anything but weakness.  And when the finale comes, he is not one bit convincing as the bad ass that he should’ve been.  While the cast is full of talent, there’s very little to nothing for them to showcase that talent, aside from Sheen.  And as I’ve said many times, great creature and makeup effects do not a good film make.  And as strange as this may sound, I stick with a quote by George Lucas, circa 1983: “Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That is very true.  The makings of a good film start in the screenplay.  If you don’t have that solid foundation in place to build upon, it doesn’t matter if have the best special make-up, visual, or creature effects ever in the history of cinema.  The quality of your film will falter.

Now, wrap ALL of this together and add in the most obvious and cliché of sequel segue endings, and you’ve got Underworld.  A greatly disappointing film that could’ve been a great, fun ride with fabulous creature effects, stunts, and at least, somewhat interesting characters.  The script was done all wrong, and it never opens itself up for some fun.  Everything is played with such earnestness and grim drama that it’s hard to gain entertainment value out of it.  We get so much plot, a good deal of back story, but belated answers and no character depth.  Plus, the look of this film is tired as well.  All blue and gray filters that make the film’s look as grim as everything else in it.  The whole movie takes place at night, in shadows, indoors, or in subterranean environments.  It makes the film feel very visually dull and bland.  And I’m not even gonna BOTHER critiquing the leather-heavy costume department as this has been a BIG trend since The Crow, or even more so since The Matrix.  Can’t seem to outlive this trend, can we?  Simply put, this is a painfully derivative film that takes ideas, production designs, costumes, action set pieces, and pretty much anything else you can think of from other sources.  And other, better ideas that could’ve injected some life into this rather dead film are jettisoned for bland, tired ones.

So, you think this review has gone on long enough, huh?  Well, now you know how long this film feels.  In the very conclusion, Underworld – a disappointment?  Indeed.  Greatly.


Blade (1998)

An organized vampire underworld operating in league with key human figures in a covert plan to control the world.  All that opposes them is the Daywalker, Blade (Wesley Snipes).  He was born shortly after his own mother was bitten by a vampire, and thus, inherited all their powers with none of their weaknesses, except the thirst for blood.  The serum concocted by ally and fellow “suckhead” slayer Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) suppresses this thirst, but Blade is building up an immunity to it.  As Blade tears through the vampire underworld, he moves in closer and closer to Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) who has major plans to cease control of the vampire nation from the “pure bloods.”  Caught in the middle of this bloody, unseen war is Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright).  As the film unfolds, Frost’s own plot is slowly uncovered as well as the origins of our heroes, and the potential for a cure to vampirism.

Wesley Snipes owns this entire film.  His expert martial arts skills are executed with machine-like precision making Blade into the ultimate vampire slaying bad ass.  Beyond that is the pain within.  Blade has a lot of obvious internal pain that keeps him distant from even Whistler, who is the closest thing to a friend and parent he ever had.  While Blade plays their relationship very coldly, in the end, there’s a lot of emotion there.  Blade owes Whistler everything.  In contrast, Kris Kristofferson plays Whistler like an cowboy.  He’s a real tough old bastard that doesn’t show any real sentimentality, but he’s exceptionally likable.  He’s a hard ass for sure, but with his past and allegiance with Blade, it’s difficult to be any other way.  He gives Blade the needed kick in the ass when he’s getting a bit too enveloped in his own agendas.

Stephen Dorff plays a wonderfully despicable villain in Frost.  He’s defiant, sadistic, and completely vile.  He has a lot of fun with the role, playing it up with a sick enthusiasm.  Frost is also very frustrated with the arrogant and aristocratic attitudes of the pure bloods, thinking they have the right to run everything, and tell him what to do.  His ultimate scheme intends to wipe them off the face of the planet, and bestow god-like powers upon himself.  Dorff has so much charisma that makes him deliciously evil, if even a bit annoying to some.  His henchman Quinn, played by comedian Donal Logue, is a energetic and hilarious delight.  In a film handled with so much weight, levity is so valued.  Snipes and Kristofferson also have tinges of humor in their performances, but it is easily the villains here that offer up the most.  This allows the film to not be cheesy, but instead delightfully villainous at times.

The other notable villain here is Dragonetti portrayed by the eccentric and distinctly European actor Udo Kier.  He’s an amazing genre actor with a perfect German accent and look to fit into the classic vampire motif.   He has over 170 acting credits on his filmography, and has worked with Peter Hyams, Dario Argento, and even John Carpenter on an episode for Masters of Horror.  Udo plays Dragonetti as greatly as he does in any other role, and adding a real air of sophistication to the vampire elders.

Stephen Norrington directs this film with much style, but also a lot of weight.  The source material is updated, cleaned up, and given a lot of seriousness.  Still, as stated, there’s humor and an excellent sense of fun.  Never does anything get to feeling so serious that you lose interest.  The dramatic and emotional moments are handled well, and the action sequences are shot with a lot of fun and top-notch composition.  This was easily before every action director was shooting their films with the infamous shaky-cam style.  The end duel between Blade & Frost has such speed and ferocity that you’ll be hard pressed to find a more intense one-on-one fight with this great of choreography.

Director of photography Theo Van De Sande gave the film an amazing look.  The coldness of the blues and grays goes a long way to establishing the feel of this underground world of vampires, but it doesn’t dominate the film.  There’s plenty of daytime and certain indoor scenes with a warmer color palette.  This is a needed counterbalance to avoid making the film too dreary.  Films like Underworld failed to offer such a visual counterbalance as well as a sense of levity that hurt its entertainment and enjoyment value.  Norrington and Theo Van De Sande got it right the first time out the gate.

Eight years later, I do have to say that the visual effects here don’t hold up well at all.  They look very low budget by today’s higher end standards.  Even the visual effects in Blade: The Series looked better than they do in this feature film, but for the time of its theatrical release, they were pretty good, but no great.  I can’t help but hold 1993’s Jurassic Park as a CGI standard bearer since so many films these days still fail to live up to that level of quality and realism.  Though, the makeup effects here are great with much gory texture and detail.

Mark Isham’s score coupled with a pulsating soundtrack gives this film great power and vibrancy.  It hits all the right marks, and flows with the moments to keep the film coherent in style and mood.

Now, I’ve seen mixed results with David S. Goyer’s screenwriting. Blade: Trinity was an awful mess with bad dialogue and poor plotting.  What I’ve come to believe is that the influence and vision of the directors he has worked with have geared his scripts into far higher quality territory.  In any case, this adaptation of a lower tier Marvel Comics character turned out greatly!  The final shooting script was obviously very strong, and created an excellent film.

Overall, I would call Blade a definite classic that combines elements of horror, action, and martial arts in a very fresh and intelligent way.  Remember, this predated The Matrix by several months, and honestly, any martial arts sequence in this film kicks the crap out of all of The Matrix trilogy.  Who needs ten tons of wire work and a thousand Kung Fu blocks when you’ve got some full-on vampire martial arts and swordplay ass-kicking?  Wesley Snipes definitely solidified himself as a certified bad ass with this film.  Stephen Norrington also displayed a great artistic eye and killer talent for making genre-blending films.  It’s all too bad that after his exceptionally difficult experience making The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he vowed never to direct another film.  But in regards to Blade, I give it a 9.5/10.  The CGI is certainly dated, and the final duel could’ve been extended for greater dramatic effect.  Still, it’s a stellar film with fantastic action and a definite dramatic weight overall.