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.]

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

★★½ / 👎

Diablo Cody, Meryl Streep, and Jonathan Demme collaborate to bring out their respective worst tendencies, in what feels like three separate vanity projects stitched into a single feature film. The result is a mawkish melodrama with an unconvincing layer of irony, about a deeply talented performer apparently driven entirely by ego, and directed with the precise craft of a concert film designed to be aired during every annual PBS fund-raising drive until the end of time.

The first two-thirds of the movie do a fairly decent job of establishing the characters, setting up the conflicts, and getting in a few patented Diablo Cody barbs. The third act is an ineffective and sentimental rehash of the second, complete with sitcom-level social awkwardness, a pair of awards-show—friendly monologues and an insultingly pat ending.

Streep’s vastly more convincing as a third-rate musician who’s achieved all the success she ever will than Pacino was in Danny Collins as a genius who wasted his talent on bubblegum pop. It’s a “brave” performance in that Ricki is a genuinely unlikeable character (until she isn’t) with problems that can’t be easily waved away (until they are).

There are highlights. Demme still knows how to shoot concerts, even fictional ones. Audra McDonald kills in a straight dramatic role, despite barely being in the movie. (One of the script’s best touches is how well it establishes that character long before she shows up on screen.) Kevin Kline displays just enough humor to suggest how the hell he and Streep’s character stayed together long enough to have three kids. Rick Springfield is actually pretty good as Streep’s bandmate (and potential soul-mate); the pair have chemistry, and he helps carry Streep musically. There are even some interesting feints at making Ricki more three-dimensional, such as the strong suggestion that she is more of a reactionary than her square ex-husband in his Midwest McMansion. Unfortunately, nuance is completely at odds with the plot, and the claptrap wins.

Fantastic Four (2015)

★★ / 👎

The most fun I had with Fantastic Four was when a sepia-toned, mass-murdering Thing skulking in the shadows made me realize that this film could accurately be called a Grimmdark reboot.

It’s difficult to tell which parts are bad because of the obvious reshoots—Kate Mara’s fluctuating hairstyle is the true fifth member of the team—and which parts are bad due to a fundamentally flawed approach to the material. Even if we assume the abrupt and disastrous third act is solely due to executive meddling, that only made a bad film worse.

I wonder if those canon-obsessed reactionaries who were so angry at the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm will be just as pissed by a script that gives him nothing to do, sidelines Sue Storm in a way I wouldn’t have dreamed possible, and turns Ben Grimm’s powers into a mere externalization of a cycle of abuse.

Maybe Fox really was like the military-industrial complex in this film, trying to stifle and channel impulses it couldn’t really understand to retain control and power. And maybe Josh Trank really is boy genius Reed Richards, who just needs to be given the space and resources to do his work in peace, with no obligations to his backers. But then, as comic book fans know (and this film acknowledges) Reed Richards is also kind of a dick.

Southpaw (2015)

★★½ / 👎

A boxing picture, subtype riches-to-rags-to-redemption, in which Jake Gyllenhaal overcomes enormous odds to out-mumble Forest Whitaker.

The script for Southpaw is exactly what I’d expect from Kurt Sutter: melodramatic nonsense about a testosterone-driven dude with a temper who is ultimately less interesting than every other character in the story. (Despite every other character being an underwritten cipher who exists only to serve as a foil for The Great White Dope.)

I know I’m not the first person to snicker at the idea of Gyllenhaal and McAdams as foster kids from Hell’s Kitchen, but this film’s vision of Noo Yawk owes a lot more to Leo Gorcey in Dead End than it does to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. I grew up as a poor white kid in city-owned housing in the 1980s East Village, and found these characters—my alleged contemporaries—not only ludicrous, but alien to my own experience.

Forest Whitaker uses all of his trademark twitchiness to (almost) convince you the character he’s playing is a real person instead of a particularly effective Yoda puppet. Oona Laurence gives possibly the best performance in the film as Gyllenhaal’s young daughter; she shows a fair bit of emotional range, and only falters when the script fails her. McAdams and Naomie Harris are both wasted in thankless roles, but do what they can. (So does Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, but what he can do is very, very little.)

If you want faux-erudite earnestness about overcoming impossible odds that feels like the sincere output (however misguided) of an auteur, watch Rocky Balboa or Redbelt instead. If you want to watch a movie in which a pale male underdog triumphs in a field long since overtaken by people of color, preferably while an Eminem track plays, watch 8 Mile. If you want melodrama that actually feels like it has something to say about the men who step into the ring, watch Gavin O’Connor’s vastly superior Warrior. If you need to kill two hours in a dark, air-conditioned room this summer, then okay, watch Southpaw.

Jurassic World (2015)

★★★ / 👎

Adequate programmer that didn’t particularly work for me, but was a real hit for the dozens of children in my screening, complete with laughter, screaming, and thunderous applause at the end.

The sexism angle has been talked to death, but I agree with at least some of it. Pratt’s self-described “alpha” character reacts to romantic rejection with boorishness. Realistic, but insufferable.

More disturbing is the film’s glee at combining PG-13 violence with caricatures to allow guilt-free consumption of brutality. Watching a matinee full of pre-teens cheer the deaths of Fat Guys and Snooty Authority Figures and Bad Soldiers felt exactly like sitting in a midnight screening of a slasher film, listening to an older crowd root for the death of The Slut and The Jock.

(Yeah, I know the counterpoints: identification, catharsis, exercise in empathy. Fine, whatever. I still felt the distinct sensation that I was the odd man out sitting in the middle of a pack that, however weak the individual members are, could tear me apart if it chose to, with zero weight on its collective conscience.)

Terminator Genisys (2015)

★★ / 👎

Terminator Genisys tries to smuggle a reboot inside the skin of a sequel, and compromises both functions as a result. As a reboot, it fails to perform efficiently due to reliance on antiquated designs from an earlier era. As a fan-service sequel, it’s about as convincing as the rubber skin on the 600-series Terminators.

Viewers whose attention spans survive the film’s opening salvo of flashbacks and droning exposition are promptly targeted by an interminable dialogue scene that feels like a pick-up or reshoot. Seemingly shot in an unlit hallway, and exemplifying everything wrong with the flat, on-the-nose dialogue that permeates this film, the scene consists of Jason Clarke and Jai Courtney’s characters having a tête-à-tête about what they plan to do When This Cruel War Is Over. (This isn’t the only scene between these two actors in which the “comrades in arms” dynamic could be read as having a queer undertone. In a just universe, Terminator Genisys’s only lasting impact on the world would be a dramatic uptick in the number of John/Kyle fanfics in the Terminator fandom.)

Having declined to provide a fully-realized vision of the post-apocalyptic future, Terminator Genisis jumps back into the past, and fully off the rails. A significant chunk of this section of the film is taken up by tweaked reenactments of scenes from the first Terminator that add no value for new viewers and compare poorly with the originals. Yes, the original scene with the newly-arrived naked T-800 encountering some literal punks is goofy as hell, but the new version doesn’t fix that problem: it only recreates it, badly.

And, well, the film just sort of tools along from there, without any particular sense of urgency, for another 90 minutes or so. As Terminator Genisys putters down the freeway, you can occasionally catch a glimpse in the rearview mirror of a leaner, smarter, modern sci-fi thriller about time travel in the vein of Looper. Every time that happens, though, the film immediately does its best to distract the viewer by shouting nonsense at the top of its lungs, and veering directly into oncoming traffic. The ensuing crash inevitably turns out to be awkwardly framed and poorly rendered, consisting of inconsequential digital fireballs and a meaningless series of thuds on the soundtrack.

This is one of those movies where the supporting actors and bit players fare rather better than the leads. Byung-hun Lee out-Robert-Patricks Robert Patrick as a liquid metal T-1000 whose cheekbones are at least as sharp as his arm-blades. J. K. Simmons more than earns his paycheck in a comic relief role whose antics actually feel less obtrusive than most of the clunkers the the main cast is forced to deliver.

Of the main, “franchise character” roles in Terminator Genisys, Emilia Clarke is the only actor who manages to give a performance that rises above the level of mere cosplay. The script smartly retains a core element of the Sarah Connor character: a woman actively fighting to reclaim agency over her own life, refusing to be a damsel defined solely by her biological functions.

By contrast, the new version of Kyle Reese is a dud. Partly, of course, because Jai Courtney is no Michael Biehn. (Hell, Jai Courtney is no Sam Worthington.) But I don’t think the blame lies entirely with casting, either; it’s a fundamental script problem. Turning Kyle Reese from an archetype into an everyman proves disastrous for the character. Every new piece of information we learn about this version of Kyle Reese is designed to make him more relatable, but actually makes his character less interesting, or less plausible. The same could be said of Jason Clarke or Arnold Schwarzenegger here: they are performing at the top of their (vastly differing) abilities, but what they’re being asked to do simply isn’t very interesting.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

★★★ / 👎

Underwhelming.

This is very much a comic book movie, and certainly I prefer that to the grimdark nonsense coming out of Warner/DC; but this is also Whedon at his most self-indulgent, with fanservice overwhelming character.

I really disliked a significant chunk of the action sequences in this. I suspect the 3D was partly to blame for that; I’ll be watching it again flat. (I’m also definitely in the camp that feels that the house style of Marvel Studios—particularly in the large-scale action sequences—hurts the individual Marvel films.)

Between this and Guardians of the Galaxy, I suspect we’ve seen the best the current Marvel formula can provide. Time to shake things up.