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Underworld: Evolution (2006)

Evolution is glossier, gorier, and even goofier than the first Underworld film. The improvements are almost entirely surface-level, but that’s all that one realistically hope for in a movie like this. This is the kind of franchise where switching from oppressive blue color grading to oppressive teal-and-orange color grading not only signifies an aesthetic improvement, but passes for emotional resonance.

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This flashback-heavy sequel jettisons or retcons many of the specific details of the Underworld mythology while going even deeper down the lore rabbit-hole. The emphasis on mythology (and a noticeably higher budget) lets Evolution pilfer from the fantasy/horror of Peter Jackson in addition to the usual post-Matrix action movies. Like the creatures at the center of its plot, the film is a hybrid that swipes inspiration and power from multiple sources, seemingly makes up its own rules as it goes along, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s admittedly ludicrous, and even more self-serious than last time around, but I have a healthy tolerance—or, possibly, a fatal weakness—for exactly this sort of thing.

The action is notably improved, at least if you can accept heavy use of wire-fu, CGI-fu, and just-go-with-it-because-it-looks-cool-fu. Everyone involved seems to have figured out how to block and cut around the awkward moments far more successfully than in the first film.

underworld-evolution-2006-artThe overall level of acting is more even: fewer highlights and bright spots, but at least this time the supporting and bit players aren’t quite so distractingly wooden. Beckinsale takes full advantage of the greater (if still shallow) emotional depth and expressive latitude afforded to her. Speedman continues to look great with his shirt off, even in full makeup as The Incredible Uruk-Bro.

To be sure, this is not a good movie, but it’s much more in line with the sort of disposable entertainment I was hoping for from this franchise. Onward to Rise of the Lycans!

[Originally posted on Letterboxd.]

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Underworld (2003)

I’d previously only watched a few minutes of Underworld a decade ago, on TV, with a friend who snarked that we should do a shot every time Kate Beckinsale sashayed into (or flounced out of) a room. That distant memory sprang to mind 12 minutes into the unrated extended cut on Blu-ray. And twice more at 14 minutes in. And again at 24 minutes in. And…yeah, that drinking game would probably make this movie increasingly more amusing, until it actually killed you.

underworld-2003-posterUnderworld opens with a looooong voice-over. The lore-dump narration is so extensive that it made me wonder if I’d mistakenly pulled one of the later sequels from the box set I was suddenly regretting having impulse-purchased. I liked the fourth film, Awakening, despite its many flaws and had at least hoped for similarly brainless fun, but this first film was a real slog.

To begin with, these vampires—sorry, vampyres—are, wait for it, different. They are “immortals” evolved from a plague virus rather than supernatural undead. Not only do they cast reflections, but they come fully-equipped with working respiratory, circulatory, and reproductive systems. Their higher-level functioning is a bit suspect, though. Twice in this film we see a coven of vampyres, whose implacable enemies in a centuries-long war are werewolves (sorry, lycans), schedule a major political ceremony to coincide with a full moon. You’d think that after 600 years that would be a faux pas in vampyre society at least on the level of wearing white after Labor Day (or, like…ever). I’m being glib, but as a fan of “urban fantasy” long before that genre acquired a specific and highly gendered stigma, I was not won over by Underworld’s elaborate but flimsy world-building. In retrospect White Wolf’s lawsuit claiming copyright infringement over this movie is a little sad. Hopefully they were doing it for the cash or the publicity, rather than from a sincere belief that their World of Darkness setting was indistinguishable from this generic mash-up.

Nerd-rage aside, I truly don’t care that Underworld is blatantly derivative and pandering; I do mind that Kate Beckinsale’s tactical corset and machine pistol are damn near the only things of interest in the movie, with action as illegible or incoherent as the narrative, poorly staged and choppily edited to show too little or far, far too much.

It is fun to watch Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy nosh on the scenery (and occasionally their costars), but otherwise the acting is a dull affair. Beckinsale is given a fabulous outfit and a theoretically fascinating character, but the actual role is a blandly traditional action lead, oscillating between taciturn and pensive as the script requires, with only a handful of moments to suggest that the character (or actor) has any depth. Scott Speedman is very pretty as the damsel in distress, and even gets to show a bit of pluck despite his uselessness, the poor dear. Shane Brolly as the beta-male vampyre Kraven (cringe) is, depending on your viewpoint, either disastrously cast, or perfect for the part. He resembles not so much John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, as John Travolta’s stand-in from Pulp Fiction, possessing neither charisma nor menace. Brolly typifies much of Underworld: he has the right look at first glance, but can’t pull it off for very long.

Final doorway drinking game tally: up to 19, depending on how loosely you count; see for yourself.

[Originally posted on Letterboxd.]

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Crimson Peak (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

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I didn’t love this movie, but I never expected to. I prefer my ghost stories ambiguous and restrained; Guillermo del Toro is an artist driven by bold colors, broad strokes, and the satisfying clack of interlocking gears. Crimson Peak is a Gothic film through and through, and—in the words of Stephen King—a primary attraction of the Gothic is that the machinery is PRETTY GODDAMN LOUD.

Mia Wasikowska has what could only ever have been a thankless part, given the type of movie being made. It’s never quite clear what turns the intelligent, independent-minded, somewhat cynical woman we see at the beginning into—well, into a Gothic heroine, rather than the proactive, goal-driven protagonist we expect of a feature film released by a major studio in 2015. The audience would likely be contemptuous of her if she didn’t have those “strong female character” attributes at all, but those traits do make the artificiality of the situation even more apparent than it already is.

I first saw Jessica Chastain in two very different films on the same day—Tree of Life and The Help—and I’ve always mentally categorized her as an actor who adds surprising depth to stock archetypes. Her grounded performance in Mama (produced by del Toro) was wasted because it was at odds with that film’s jump-scare creature feature elements. Here, she’s given a character on the same wavelength as the movie, and makes the most of it. Watching Chastain sink her teeth into the role, and occasionally the scenery, is a genuine pleasure.

Hiddleston is wonderful as a latter-day Vincent Price here, splitting the difference between the dashing cruelty of Dragonwyck and the later tortured soul (with just a hint of camp) of Corman’s Poe adaptations. Charlie Hunnam’s floundering performance and unconvincing accent serve (intentionally or not) to mark his character as the sort of well-meaning but ineffectual man who is de rigueur in a Gothic.

I don’t love Guillermo del Toro’s films, but I do admire him as a “genre” filmmaker, in the specific sense of an artist who seeks to understand and replicate the core elements of a specific type of story, even at the expense of wider acceptance from the uninitiated. Rather than a middlebrow version of a kaiju film, akin to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s art-house take on the wuxia, Pacific Rim gave us a big-budget Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em monster rally that delighted fans of those films, and baffled almost everyone else. Crimson Peak continues this trend: it’s nearly devoid of sense, and embraces sensibility, to a degree that many will find unacceptable—or even laughable. I don’t know if del Toro’s cinematic necrophilia is any more or less distateful than, say, Quentin Tarantino’s; I only know that my particular kinks map more closely to Guillermo’s than Quentin’s.

The CGI ghosts are unconvincing and distracting, but they are, after all, only a metaphor.

[Hoop2fer #24. Watched with: The Innocents (1961).]

The Innocents (1961)

★★★★½ / 👍

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“Sometimes one can’t help…imagining things.”

Like Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is a masterpiece of the cinematic form that I find deeply disturbing, but not even remotely frightening. (As with Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, the psychological cracks in Kerr’s Miss Giddens, and her tendency “to be carried away quite easily,” are apparent long before she even accepts her new job.)

This is a gorgeously shot, expertly edited thriller with excellent use of sound, and filled with pitch-perfect performances. But no matter what pressure I might feel to say otherwise, I’ve quite given up on trying to convince myself that I can see anything supernatural here.

[Hoop2fer #23. Watched with: Crimson Peak (2015).]

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The Martian (2015)

★★★★ / 👍

The Martian (2015) posterRidley Scott directs his best film in years (if not decades), and it’s an inspirational science fiction epic about human ingenuity in the face of enormous obstacles, rather than timey-wimey space magic and the power of love over the laws of thermodynamics.

The least plausible element in the film is, of course, the initial premise of a series of American-led human missions to Mars in a recognizable near-future. The obligatory disclaimer in the closing credits that NASA doesn’t actually endorse this film is a bit disingenuous; this film is, however unofficially, propaganda for the space program.

I am personally too cynical to fully accept the vision of scientific and political cooperation on display in The Martian, and sometimes the optimism is a bit forced. (As when the film pointedly uses Bowie’s “Starman” rather than, say, “Space Oddity” for a musical montage.) Still, I would like to believe that human beings could accomplish things like this within my lifetime, and that certainly colors my perception of the film.

Probably my favorite part of The Martian is not any of the stirring inspirational drama, or the technical aspects of the science fiction, but the matter-of-factness with which the movie asks us to treat interplanetary travel. For the most part, the script doesn’t shy away from the implication that pretty much every character in it is, by definition, smarter and better at their jobs than almost any member of the audience. The film’s worst missteps are precisely when it plays to the crowd: an eccentric genius making infuriating comedy-relief rocket noises as he explains his plan; a fully-qualified astronaut and pilot demanding things be explained to him “in English!”

There are characters and scenes which seem practically irrelevant to the story. Not having read the novel, I can’t tell whether their purpose will be clearer in the inevitable director’s cut, or if they are simply vestigial elements of the source material which could have been eliminated. Along those lines, there is one gag presumably from the novel which, though amusing, also pulled me out of the film because of a casting choice. (One does not simply walk into Tolkien references.)

Finally, I do hope that The Martian sets a precedent for more lenient MPAA ratings for films not from major directors; it gets a PG-13 despite explicitly drawing attention to its multiple examples of “strong language” through a self-reflexive bit of self-censorship that is the funniest thing in the film.

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

★★★ / 👍

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The fourth Frankenstein film from Hammer is a stylish if somewhat plodding return to form after an ill-advised experiment in licensed nostalgia. Frankenstein Created Woman restores Peter Cushing’s Baron to the sociopathic mad doctor we love to hate, adds a stronger metaphysical element than usual to the series, and manages to provide a healthy dollop of erotically-tinged violence before the end credits roll.

Baron Victor von Frankenstein—doctor “of medicine, law, and physics”—has made a breakthrough in his quest to conquer death. Earlier attempts had him seeking out only the best ingredients (“the finest hands in Europe!”) and only substituting peasants and criminals faute de mieux. Here he is much less concerned with the physical shell: “Bodies are easy to come by. Souls are not.”

Due to complicated plot events that take up the majority of the running time, Frankenstein is able to use a “frame of force” (i.e., a force field) to trap a freshly-guillotined prisoner’s soul before it leaves the body. After taking a few moments to gaze at the soul through an observation window like a proud father at the maternity ward—the only unfeigned smile Frankenstein displays in the entire movie—the Baron and his assistant get to work rebuilding the body of a “twisted, deformed, and broken” woman who drowned herself.

Frankenstein Created Woman is no Bride of Frankenstein. That said, the unveiling sequence of the drowned woman, Christina, does have a pretty nifty visual joke. As the last bandage is removed, the film withholds the reveal of Christina’s face by cutting to her point of view, slowly coming into focus as Christina’s eyes adjust. Our first full glimpse of Susan Denberg’s unblemished blonde beauty is intercut with her character’s first impression of the world—a couple of old dudes looming over her. The way her eyes flick from the beaming, ruddy-cheeked Thorley Walters to the grim, distant Cushing isn’t exactly Elsa Lanchester’s hiss, but it’s delightful nonetheless.

Susan Denberg was likely hired primarily because she was Playboy‘s Miss August 1966, and not for her acting abilities. While her ultimate transformation into a monstrous femme fatale is actually pretty great, it comes very late in the film. For most of the running time Denberg is stuck playing a meek, high-strung peasant girl, saddled with terrible dialogue and disfiguring makeup that distracts more than it disgusts. (That her performance was dubbed by someone else certainly doesn’t help.)

Once revivified and given decent costuming, makeup and hair, though, Denberg can draw on her modeling skills to pose in a series of confident, erotically-charged tableaux. The change isn’t exactly subtle, but the flimsiness of the pretext begins to work in the movie’s favor: it’s difficult not to share the thinly-veiled contempt she displays for her targets.

Peter Cushing is delightfully amoral throughout. Though clever and capable of charm, his Frankenstein reflexively insults others through arrogance and impatience, even when it makes his life more difficult. Cushing’s gravitas also helps to smooth over some potentially creepy moments. The audience might be leering as he manipulates Denberg’s legs, but as far as Frankenstein is concerned, she’s just a “very healthy young girl” and that’s that.

[Hoop2fer #1. Watched with: She Killed in Ecstasy (1971).]

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Straight Outta Compton (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

Straight Outta Compton (2015) poster

Ninety minutes of amazing filmmaking, followed by an hour of self-aggrandizing “and then I wrote” corporate propaganda from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

As someone who spent part of his teen years as a semi-libertarian freeze peach advocate with very thin skin, I winced in identification during the scene in Straight Outta Compton when Paul Giamatti’s character loses his shit the second he finds himself on the wrong end of a barbed lyric. I’m an East Coast white-boy tourist whose lived experience was that of The Tompkins Square Park Riot, not the Los Angeles riots. I never got much deeper into hip-hop than some old-school beats and half of the Def Jam catalog before The Chronic scared me away, and not even Illmatic could bring me back. The closest I’ve ever been to a rap controversy was that one time I got into an argument with a Tower Records clerk about how dumb it was that you couldn’t buy an uncensored version of the Romeo Must Die soundtrack.

With all that said, I loved this movie, until I didn’t. I walked out of the theater wanting to see it again immediately, but I really don’t know if it’ll hold up. The hagiography of Dr. Dre in particular rings very false, although it probably isn’t that much worse than the omissions and whitewashing in other musical biopics like Ray or Walk The Line.

The performances are uniformly strong. Jason Mitchell is the standout as Eazy-E, providing layers to what could have been a caricature as the self-destructive frontman who loses sight of what’s really important. Corey Hawkins shows chops while shouldering the burden of the worst of the script’s cheap sentiment. O’Shea Jackson Jr. shows talent and charisma that goes beyond his resemblance to his father. Aldis Hodge gets a well-deserved straight dramatic role as MC Ren, albeit a thankless one; he’s Johnny Exposition, feeding setup lines for the flashier characters to drive home. Paul Giamatti sells the manipulative manager stereotype, conveying his own particular brand of hunger—that of a man who had relevance and lost it—while making it ambiguous as to how much of his self-justifying spiel he’s actually come to believe.

Which, come to think of it, is basically my one problem with this movie overall. Are Dre and Cube, as producers, simply giving the audience what it wants to see, or do they genuinely think this is a fully accurate depiction of their lives? There’s a telling scene where Ice Cube deflects criticism of his lyrics by claiming the “brutal honesty” of a journalist. The power of N.W.A.’s music was rooted in “the strength of street knowledge,” but a whole lot of this movie feels like Hollywood bullshit.