Monday, February 02, 2009

Film Review - UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS: A Bloodless Vampire/Werewolf Prequel Without Any Bite.

Out of all the cash-earning franchises available for prequel treatment, it’s difficult to think of one more undeserving and unnecessary than the Underworld series. Filled with warring factions of gun-wielding vampires and werewolves (dubbed Lycans) and digitally enhanced gore, 2003’s Underworld and 2006’s Underworld: Evolution were lazy, CG-stuffed supernatural riffs on The Matrix, whose only memorable feature was star Kate Beckinsale’s tight black latex bodysuit. At least in my lowly opinion...

Sadly, Beckinsale is largely absent from the series’ latest turgid entry, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, which instead shifts its focus towards the Lycan’s tormented leader, Lucian, played by Frost/Nixon and The Queen star Michael Sheen. Set in the Dark Ages, during a tumultuous time where vampires and Lycans battled for ruler-ship of the free-land, Rise of the Lycans begins in flashback, describing the miraculous birth of Lucian, a Lycan of unique attributes. Bearing a human appearance and rational mind, with little of his brethren’s uncontrollable bloodlust, he was adopted by the vampire lord Viktor (Bill Nighy), and used to breed a new race of subservient Lycan slaves.

Nevertheless, after defying orders and rushing to the aid of his secret lover Sonja (Rhona Mitra), who happens to be Viktor’s warrior daughter, Lucian is relentlessly whipped and imprisoned, thus losing what little freedom he once possessed. Under the threat of having his illicit love affair with Sonja revealed, and spurned by the suffering of his fellow werewolves, the reluctant leader doggedly plots to unite his Lycan people and lead a brutal rebellion against Viktor’s malicious forces in a last-ditch quest for freedom.

Curiously, despite a 35 million dollar budget, and an occasionally ambitious story featuring epic confrontations and dramatic revelations, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans comes across as a disastrously small-scale bore, seemingly lifted from a Direct-to-DVD pile. With shoddy production values, which apparently required that the film be staged almost entirely on a single location, or frequently jerky creature effects work, Rise of the Lycans seems less inspired by its forebears than by an obvious determination to become a bargain-basement supernatural rip-off of Spartacus.

Undoubtedly aware of his film’s shortcomings, Patrick Tatopoulos, a novice director taking over for the series’ founder Len Wiseman, attempts to mask the limited resources available to him by shooting the entire movie through an annoying foggy blue lens filter, and editing his action scenes into mish-mashy collages of Lycan fur, shining steel blades and more blood-splashed stone walls than you can shake a broadsword at. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with attempting to over-come budget constraints, Tatapoulos, in the process, has forfeited any sense of visual coherency or flow, making the film’s numerous climactic clashes about as exciting as staring a flickering screen-saver.

To make matters all the worse, Rise of the Lycans is a dour affair, taking its ham-fisted story and limited character development deadly serious at all times. While Bill Nighy manages, perhaps as a private joke, to camp up his later dramatic scenes in a last-ditch attempt to entertain, poor Michael Sheen - a dead-ringer, with his flowing locks and bugged-out eyes, for System of a Down guitarist Daron Malakian - is straight-jacketed by his goofy role as a lycanthropic Jesus figure (Passion of the Lycan would have been a more suitable title). When not being scourged to a pulp, the actor is forced to endlessly holler unspeakably awful lines such as “We are not animals!” and “We can be slaves... or we can be LYCANS!” Sheen does what he can with this flat material, but is eventually buried by the suffocating absurdity of the role.

The majority of the blame for why Rise of the Lycans falls apart so badly, and why it ends up being as terrible an experience as it is, lies mostly in the restrictions imposed by its framing device. As it is a prequel, there is an amazingly minute amount of story to tell, and we know exactly who will live or die. Hence, we find ourselves bored to tears by the film’s countless painful dialogue scenes, and waiting impatiently for the inevitable to occur. Excluding credits, the film runs roughly only 85 minutes, and even still feels padded for length, and the ending featuring stock footage intended to clumsily tie the three films together, is just plain embarrassing.

The most frustrating aspect of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, not to mention the entire Underworld series, is that it aims so painfully low. Content to pacify fans with tedious flashes of mindless blood and gore, and resemble little more than an extended PS3 pre-game cut-scene, the film fails to deliver on its kitchsy-cool premise. The filmmakers may have recognized the marketability in pitting vampires against werewolves, but movies as toothless as Rise of the Lycans sure don’t give movie-goers a whole lot to excitedly howl about.

1 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Feb. 2nd, 2009.

Film Review - NEW IN TOWN: ...But Same Ol' Story...

There are few actresses harder to dislike on-screen than Renee Zellweger. With her blond hair, perpetually pursed lips, and innocent doe-eyes with just a hint of mischief, she calls to mind Walt Disney’s classic depiction of Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell. In films as dissimilar as Bridget Jones’s Diary, Nurse Betty and Cold Mountain she’s shown a durable knack for mixing dramatic weight with a spot-on talent for comic timing that puts many of her peers to shame.

So what is she doing in a romantic comedy as exhaustedly formulaic and insipid as New in Town? Really, I want, no wait, make that DEMAND to know!

Initially set in sunny Miami, Zellweger’s Lucy Hill is a fashionable, business-minded consultant with a love of the fast-life and single-minded dreams for professional success, who tirelessly works for a powerful, faceless corporate entity called Munck Foods. Overshadowed and out-numbered by her male co-workers, Lucy is unanimously nominated to travel to a small Minnesota town (actually Winnipeg according to the film’s credits) and, in preparation for the company’s new line of “Rocketbar” energy bars, oversee the reconfiguration of their local manufacturing plant.

Arriving in the sleepy frozen burg of New Alms, however, Lucy quickly finds her assertive, domineering attitude at odds with the jovial, scrapbook-making, tapioca-eating, Jesus-worshipping town residents. Even more troubling is her constant conflicts with the local union leader, a tough but lovable single-father named Ted (played by Harry Connick Jr.). Over time, though, Lucy finds herself warming to her strange new friends (and Ted in particular), but when the new line fails, and the corporation demands the factory be closed, Lucy must decide what is more important: her friends or her work.

By now, you can probably easily connect the dots to figure out the ending, as well as every single possible plot development with the film, and therein lays the predicament. It’s as if the filmmakers simply tossed Notting Hill, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Welcome To Mooseport, Groundhog Day, You’ve Got Mail, Picture Perfect and Fargo (I’ll get to that part very shortly) in a blender and hit “goo-ify”. In fact, New in Town is so by-the-books predictable that had it been made in the forties or early fifties, and a variant of the blueprint likely was, it would’ve starred Doris Day or Jean Arthur. And still felt stale.

It’s hard to say whether writers Ken Rance or C. Jay Cox were attempting to add a touch of edginess to their floppy script by including blatant references to the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, or whether it was a last minute directorial decision, but either way it stinks. Not content to simply give all the characters cartoonish accents and cutesy-pie lines - which often recall Kathy Bates’ character in Misery - the filmmaker’s even cast an irritating Frances McDormand look-alike (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) in a carbon-copy role of McDormand’s Oscar-winning Fargo character. Hell, they even give her the same last name! (Gunderson, for those short of memory) Oy vey!

...And yet these self-conscious attempts to be endearing could be forgiven had the film bothered to come up with a single original idea. Even the romance between Zellweger and Connick Jr. is strangely under-developed and ill-fitting. She seems too prim and intelligent for him, while Connick Jr. just seems to darn weird and off-putting. The actor has a strangely unsettling look in his eyes, like he’d rather be hunting human beings for sport than romancing this adorably uptight cutie.

So, okay, the romance doesn’t work. But neither does the comedy, which relies on really awkward pratfalls and extended “naughty” comedy bits. Watching Zellweger furiously attempt to find a way to pee through a suffocating snowsuit is painful at best, while a bit featuring, ahem, the effects of cold air on a certain part of the female anatomy has the comic timing of a two-bit narcoleptic stand-up.

Regardless of its countless flaws, it’s hard to truly hate New in Town (although the use of “Walking on Sunshine” on the soundtrack pushed me ever closer!) due to the sheer good intentions behind it, and because of Zellweger’s effortless lovability. This is a square, junky, banal effort of minimal ability that will probably still manage to mildly entertain a certain demographic of middle-aged female viewers. But I’d urge that their friends, families and significant others would be significantly well-served in skipping Town.

2 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Feb. 2nd, 2009.