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Movie Review: The Underworld series and Awakening (2012)

May 21, 2012 1 comment

Underworld (2003)

underworld movie poster

Under the world is another world of Vampires and Werewolves. They are at war

Basic plot: Kate Beckinsale plays a Death Dealer, a vampire vanguard tasked with the job of defending her particular house or coven of vampires from the vengeful lycans/werewolves. While doing so, she falls for a human who is unaware that he is the last descendant of a special bloodline. This makes him valuable to both sides of the war.

Director Les Wiseman takes the reins of a movie that hopes to combine the lore of vampires and werewolves and blend them into a slick and fresh action thriller. He succeeds. What elevates Underworld above your basic b-movie is the visual flair and execution of the combat between species and the assembly of interesting characters. Kate Beckinsale is a perfect casting as the beautiful and deadly lycan-slayer Selene.  Michael Sheen plays Lucian, the leader of the wolfpack and arch-nemesis of Viktor (well played by Billy Nighy). Kevin Grevioux plays the awesome side-character Raze, a powerful lycan who is Lucian’s 2nd in command. And yes, that is his real voice. The central bit of human bait is Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), he is the ultra-important vessel of special DNA. I put focus on these actors because it is their screen presence and the dimensions of their characters that hold our attention. Remember them; they are all significant.

The movie is not without flaws. Among the great moments that will make your rewind are a few scenes that slip into cheesy soap opera lameness. There is a balance between the drama inside the house of vamps and the drama out on the streets as Selene becomes the unshakeable detective looking to solve an age old mystery. It’s deception at the highest level and will impact all involved. That impact is rendered in some cool confrontations that touch The Matrix style, but can stand on its own among fight-choreography since the combatants are…monsters, in a way.

The movie ends with a dark future coming. It’s not so much a cliff-hanger as first chapter in an awesome new franchise. I remember thinking ‘please let them make more of these’. That’s a good feeling to be left with after seeing a movie. Best of the series.

Underworld Evolution (2006)

The sequel to Underworld, Evolution, starts mere minutes after the first and really ties up some unfinished business in a shockingly immediate way. Wow, what a way to start off. The first movie ended with our star-crossed lovers on the run from both sides and no chance of a peaceful future together. This one picks up with the awakening of the elder vampire Marcus [Tony Curran] and his quest to gain information from a buried memory deep within Selene’s subconscious.

Overall, this is a solid sequel and worth watching. The first Underworld was shot in very dark settings which gave the movie an air of mystery when it came to what all the creatures look like. That’s been traded in for evening and open air visuals that display the workable CGI. You find more plot twists and turns that change the story around and give you more history to sink your teeth into (had to do it, sorry). I rank this movie third of the series. “Darkness is still ahead”

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

Oh no! The Underworld franchise is going to take a shot at a PREQUEL with a new director (Patrick Tatopoulos, who did the creature design for Underworld: Evolution and many other movies) and minus the main heroine we’ve all comes to know and love. Combine this with the fact that Evolution flipped the history as a surprise twist, you have, almost no reason to (re?)visit the past. It doesn’t look good.

But Wait! A gang of writers, including Les Wiseman (to preserve his original vision), Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain have tackled the task with terrific taste. Kate Beckinsale Seline is replaced by the perfectly cast Rhona Mitra as Warlord Vampire Viktor’s daughter Sonja. In the original Underworld it was stated that Viktor adopted Seline because she reminded him of his daughter Sonja. It’s fitting that they added a new actress we are instantly drawn to. So far, so good.

One of the main benefits of crafting a sequel is to explore and develop characters and events we wish we knew more about. [Side note: I’m not so sure the clone wars benefited from this second look.] Michael Sheen, who played Lucian (the Lycan leader in Underworld), is given his due for the character weight he added in the first Underworld. Another great character that is delightfully fleshed out is Raze, the top Lycan soldier is back with more bite. Sorry for that one.  I was shocked to find out the incredibly deep and rich voice is the natural voice of actor Kevin Grevioux.

Burial Plots, of a sort.

It’s a big rewind to medieval or mid-evil days when vampires ruled the land and used the werewolves/Lycans as slave labor. It’s the story of their revolution, uprising, and forbidden love… It’s a tale of desperate and horrific acts that will start the blood-war that will rage on for generations. This is a great addition to the series and a special treat to see vampires as knights in shining armor defending their rule. Knowing how the story ends doesn’t detract from the drama and in a rare occurrence, shedding new light to the origins adds to the deepness of the overall franchise. This is a prequel well done. This movie comes in at number two. The original Underworld still holds the top spot and the sequel; Underworld: Evolution is dropped to number three.

Underworld: Awakening (2012)

Underworld Awakening Movie Poster

Selene does what she does best: Deals Death

Rarely does a franchise make it to part four before the Hollywood engine sucks dry any interest the die-hard fans might have had. Series master of arms and original Underworld director Les Wiseman is still onboard as a writer and the directing chairs belong to Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein. Kate Beckinsale is back as Seline, the vampire death dealer, turned renegade and now, um… turned pop-sickle. I saw the trailer featuring Seline going up against…security guards and I was already sold. It looked like we were in for a bloody treat.

When we last saw Seline and Michael, they were once again facing an unknown future as star-crossed lovers on the run. The writers must have been given the title Awakening early in the process and asked to stick to it as a theme. I mean. Really stick to it. Humans awaken to the fact that two dangerous species walk the earth: vampires and Lycans. We ratchet up the action after Seline’s awakening 12 years later as she escapes and starts her own quest to find her companion Michael. There’s more awakenings, but spoilers here.

One of the big questions I had during the first Underworld was What exactly do the humans know about the war and existence of vampires and Lycans? Is it like Blade (Wesley Snipes Main) and there is some kind of truce or working relationship? I assumed there was since no one really seemed to mind all the blood shed and open fighting. Awakening explores the idea that humans are the newest and greatest threat and the war has expanded. Well, at least that was the set up of the trailer. In reality, all that humans verse vampires and lycans, which would have made an incredible movie, is actually just the set up that happens in a flash-back story mode. We start after The Purge where humans wipe every other species out and only a few remain of each hidden underground, which is pretty much how the first movie started off.

I’m overall, disappointed in this move and it lands at fourth and least favorite of the series. There’s just too much sameness to the overall movie. The gorgeous Kate Beckinsale still looks incredible dressed in black leather and still kicks major ass throughout, but we’ve seen that already. We’ve seen lots of that already. The whole movie is her chasing after someone or being chased after. Come to think of it, that’s been the entire plot of every movie. Underworld: vampires and lycans both scream get Michael Corvin! Evolution vampires scream: Get Selene! Awakening: humans scream get Selene as Selene screams get Michael. There’s a lot of looking for people and trinkets. Too much. And that’s really the problem of this latest installment; it’s too samey. It’s definitely time for a change. Maybe Selene can wear something different than the Underworld Death Dealer Night Mission Special. Maybe we need new weapons. Maybe it’s time to add a new enemy like (well rendered) Egyptian Mummies to complete the monster trio.

This movie feels like what happens when a franchise becomes comfortable with the fact that it is a franchise and is guaranteed more sequels. See Matrix part II and III and Star Trek: The Next Generation Movies as an example. There’s not enough emphasis on big turns and it becomes a work of artistic self-indulgence. At the end, we are once again left with a brooding Selene monologue about a dark future which hints at more sequels. Well not all that much happened in this one so I’m not so anxious about another episode. And that’s the overall feeling: this was another Underworld Episode. And if this continues, we will experience the Lethal Weapon effect. You will see it on cable and be unable to tell which movie it is because they all look and play out the same. You’ll be asking ‘Wait, is this the one with Jet Li?’ and watch for ten minutes to see if he shows up.

This is still one of my favorite series overall, but I really think a shake up is needed. I’d like to see a true sequel based on the wars, but seeing the few glimpses, I don’t know how much room there is expand on that decade of war. It could be time for new characters or least the addition of a few that could grow over the course of the movie and I don’t mean a growth in attitude or a change in opinion. This movie has left me curious to see what happens next and not excited to see what happens next. That’s not a good sign. There’s a bad moon rising for the Underworld Series if something isn’t done by the next movie. I am not a movie critic, I am simply critiquing a movie.

Movie Review Chronicle (2012)

May 21, 2012 1 comment

Movie Review Chronicle (2012)

Three friends discover an energy force that endows them with super-human abilities and changes their friendship. One is seduced by that power and embraces the idea that he is the apex predator. He is at the top of the food chain and feels no guilt for his actions, no matter how they may impact others further down the chain.

Chronicle movie poster

What if you suddenly became a god?

Director Josh Trank uses the hand-held camera technique to document the lives of three high school seniors as they become young gods after discovering an (alien?) force. There’s not much more to the movie than that plot summary so really, if you’ve ever wondered what if you gained super powers…and what would you do? The trick is to show us something that is so ordinary that it’s special and thanks to good writing by Max Landis and Trank, we get that. I’m not suggesting this is a greatly written movie, I’m suggesting that it has been written to steer us in a certain way that retains realism and believability.

Blair Witch showed us how effective documentary styled filming can be and Cloverfield showed us how it can be used to bring on the cheese. You always have that nagging voice in the back of your mind- asking about tape and battery time and you wonder if someone would really, really be filming this much. In this case it works well and the camera slides into normalcy and you forget its first-person and just watch the onscreen action. The special effects are well done and seem even more realistic when combined with the lo-fi camera grain.

Back to the writing. It’s important to note that what’s been written out is just as important as what’s been written in. There’s the cliché of the trio. We have a loner (Dane DeHaan), Mr Popularity (Michael B Jordan) and a too-cool-for-my-own-life pseudo-intellectual (Alex Russel). The reason they work well together is because each posses the qualities another lacks and it keeps them focused on group concerns: exploring their new powers and getting stronger.

In younger days, I and my friends would play ‘Adventure’ which was basically Dungeons & Dragons without the paper and dice. We would build scenarios and talk our way through our actions and create a story in real time. You do or say this and this is what happens after. You react and do that and here’s what happens next. In the earliest games, we spent our time exacting revenge on those that wronged us and getting the girl we wanted. Eventually thoughts about our real non-life seemed unimportant and we began to think about being super-heroes and fighting other beings with powers and becoming worldly beacons of justice. Really, we did.

Chronicle could follow that same ambition process, but we are narrowly focused on this trio and the early days of their enhancement. High School life is still most important, and should be because that is all the characters know. We don’t get answers for where the energy source came from and do not explore any of the hinted at tangents -like the world and government reaction to some of the incredible events the trio is at the center of. There’s a built in break for using the hand-held documentary style because you can say: if it wasn’t filmed by this guy then we can’t show it to you. That’s broken up in some nice shots where surveillance camera footage is spliced in at key moments.

Of course in any movie, you can criticize the actions of the main characters and figure you could have done better in their position. One character needs cash and so he robs the local (presumed) drug dealing a-holes. That’s not enough so he robs a gas station. At first I thought with those powers why isn’t he making tons of cash or if you’re going to rob something, rob an ATM or bank…but these are simple characters acting on impulse. This is a simple movie trying to explore what some would do if they suddenly became infused with super-human powers. Sometimes we come back with complex answers when in truth; it might all be as simple as this movie. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and the ending had a much bigger climax than I expected. I am not a movie critic, I am critiquing a movie.