After sitting out most of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans the 2009 “prequel” to the Underworld saga Kate Beckinsale returns to her trademark role as the face of the blockbuster action-horror franchise in Underworld: Awakening. The film finds Beckinsale’s vampire heroine Selene waking up in a research facility after a dozen years in hibernation whereupon she discovers that both vampires and lycans the traditional adversaries of the Underworld universe are now nearly extinct – “cleansed ” as it were by us good-old humans – and that her 12-year-old daughter Eve (India Eisley) is imperiled. It seems that both the dreaded lycans and a mad scientist named Dr. Jacob Lane (poor Stephen Rea) are after the girl on account of her special DNA.
All of which is meant to provide a serviceable backdrop for a good 85 minutes or so of relentless carnage orchestrated with relish by the Swedish directing tandem of Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein and meted out dutifully by Beckinsale. Nine years after she first portrayed Selene the actress appears as comfortable as ever in her familiar black leather as she carves through waves of monstrous creatures and hapless henchmen performing the odd acrobatic feat to better position herself for the killing blow. The bloodlust occasionally pauses to allow Beckinsale a moment to emote over lost love or seek a fleeting bond with her offspring but soon more CGI beasts arrive on hand and the soulless slaughter hastily recommences. Gorehounds hungry for splatter will delight at the myriad ways Underworld: Awakening finds to depict an exploding skull (in fabulous brain-bursting IMAX 3D!) but in the end they’re likely the only ones who’ll leave the theater sated.
Marcus Nispel’s silly violent fantasy epic Conan the Barbarian is Hollywood’s second attempt at building a franchise based on pulp author Robert E. Howard’s signature character. The first yielded two films of diminishing quality – 1982’s Conan the Barbarian and 1984’s Conan the Destroyer – and is best remembered for launching the career of future governor Arnold Schwarzenegger whose Austrian accent in the films is so thick as to render the bulk of his dialogue unintelligible.
Playing the title role in the update is Jason Momoa whose muscles aren’t quite as gargantuan as his predecessor’s but whose line-readings are at the very least comprehensible. (His own accent betrays hints of Hawaiian surfer-dude.) Momoa is most famous for his recent turn as a Khal Drogo on the hit HBO series Game of Thrones a far superior work of hard-R sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Thrones like Conan the Barbarian boasts bare breasts and beheadings galore but beneath the sex and savagery lies real intelligence. All the titillating elements are icing on the cake for a series founded on compelling characters and ingenious storytelling
Not so much with Conan the Barbarian. The film begins with a lengthy prologue inexplicably narrated by Morgan Freeman that briefs us on the essential details of the film’s mythology – and you’d best be paying attention because the ensuing film treats story and character as so many enemies to be vanquished. The opening scene announces the movie’s savage B-movie ethos thusly: When Conan’s very pregnant mother is injured in battle (barbarians don’t get maternity leave) his father (Ron Perlman) delivers his son via an impromptu battlefield Cesarean photographed in graphic detail. A warrior is born.
The plot involves a grown-up Conan gunning for revenge against Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) the sorcerer-chieftan who killed his father and obliterated his tribe the Cimmerians when he was just a boy. Conan is something of a rock star in the marauding world his bloodlust not so all-consuming that he can’t stop to enjoy a flagon of mead with the odd topless slave babe. His credo is cogently expressed as “I live I love I slay I am content” – words to live by if there ever were.
On the path to vengeance Conan links up with a runaway nun Tamara (Rachel Nichols) whose special blood is required by Khalar to resurrect his dead wife. Or maybe it’s needed to conquer the Kingdom of Hyboria. Whatever. The attraction between Conan and Tamara is instantaneous and powerful – what girl can resist such charming lines as “Woman come here ” and “You look like a harlot”? Films like this can usually get by with one female speaking role but Conan the Barbarian offers a second: Marique (Rose McGowan) a scheming goth-witch whose affection for her father Khalar is clearly beyond familial. The role was originally written for a man.
Nispel’s previous films include two horror remakes (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th) and the barely releasable Pathfinder. He directs with casual disregard for context rushing hurriedly from one bloody set-piece to the next coherence be damned. Action is paramount in Conan the Barbarian; the film is positively bursting with it leaving little room for anything that might engage us on any level beyond “guilty pleasure.” Some of the action is memorable some of it tedious but the violence is inspired. In one scene while questioning a man whose nose he’d hacked off just a few frames earlier Conan jams his finger into the man’s exposed nose-hole causing it to spew icky clear fluid. Now that is some enhanced interrogation.
This is one of those stories you want to keep vague for fear of giving away too much. It starts when photographer Matthew (Josh Hartnett) sees dancer Lisa (Diane Kruger) for the first time as she passes by his video shop in the Wicker Park section of Chicago immediately captivating him. He follows her they meet and soon fall deeply in love. All things seem to go perfectly until Matthew asks her to move in with him--and she up and leaves on a dance tour without a word. Two years later Matthew has moved on with his life has a good job even a fiancée (Jessica Pare)--but he still has completely gotten over Lisa and the nagging torment of the "what ifs?" Then suddenly he thinks he catches a glimpse of her in a bar. Not sure if it was she all the feelings come rushing back nonetheless and Matthew begins a twisting obsessive search for the woman who captured his heart years ago. But as Matthew's search intensifies it leads him deeper into a mystery which now includes his best friend Luke (Matthew Lillard) and Luke's newfound paramour Alex (Rose Byrne). Facing deception at every turn Matthew quickly learns that obsession can go both ways--and that indeed you can love someone too much. Fuzzy enough for ya?
Once considered the "It" boy especially after a string of films including Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbor Hartnett took himself out of the heartthrob equation by slowing down to one film a year. His last two efforts--2002's 40 Days and 40 Nights and 2003's Hollywood Homicide--didn't do so well at the box office so in a way Wicker Park is a coming out party for Hartnett. It deftly brings the actor back into the spotlight as a romantic lead as well as taps into some of that talent we all know he has (remember
The Virgin Suicides?) His Matthew is a rather intense fellow but his emotions about the love that got away ring true even when things turn dangerously towards obsession. In one telling scene after Hartnett finds out he's been played he registers his anger through those penetrating brown eyes. As for his female co-stars Kruger and Byrne (who starred together in the epic Troy) also play well off the situation. Kruger has the easier job of being the sweet object of affection while Byrne turns in the more complex performance as Alex who has hidden agendas of her own. As the best friend Lillard (Without a Paddle) delivers in his usual high energy goofy shtick but at least this time it's with real human beings instead of CGI dogs named Scooby-Doo.
Director Paul McGuigan (The Reckoning) describes Wicker Park as a "love story told in a very non-linear way." Boy he isn't kidding. Although Park is a remake of the French film L'Appartement it takes a wholly original spin on staid themes which in this day and age is getting harder and harder to do (and usually only comes in the form of a Charlie Kaufman script). Through McGuigan's guidance Park toys with your emotions--and your expectations. Jumping back and forth through time and seen through varying perspectives the film starts out very slowly--almost too slowly-- setting up what you think is a sweet love story but then having things quickly turn darker. It's plodding and confusing at first but then it begins to pull back the layers and as you fit the pieces together you're hooked. And as cheesy as it might sound you want to the two lovebirds to find each other; you're on the edge of your seat urging Matthew to hurry up and get to Wicker Park to meet Lisa before she thinks he's never coming and gets on a plane to London forever. Run Matthew run!