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.
It's easy to hate on the Twilight movies. They're the epitome of indulgent fan-servicing filmmaking alienating anyone on the outside of their cultish fanbase. With consistent navel-gazing screenplays by series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (adapted from the equally shallow source material from author Stephanie Meyers) there's little reason to think future installments could ever transcend their predecessors.
But whereas Twilight New Moon and Eclipse contently burrowed themselves under the forlorn faces and over-dramatic moping of stars Kristen Stewart Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls Kinsey Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh) unearths a saving grace in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1: pure insanity from which blossoms color comedy and scares. The movie is one giant wink to the camera—and it serves the melodrama of Twilight tremendously.
The first half of the not-quite-epic Twilight conclusion kicks off with the wedding of Bella (Stewart) and Edward (Pattinson) a long-awaited event Condon manages to spin into an authentically nerve-wracking and touching sequence. Finally a Twilight movie with an obvious purpose—Bella and Edward have been waiting since Movie One to consummate their relationship (waiting until marriage) but lingering at the end of every daydream every loving gaze every sweet nothing is the gut-wrenching fact that Bella will give up her humanity. Breaking Dawn - Part 1 confronts this dead on with an overtness absent from the previous movies.
While the script is still committed to visualizing Bella Edward and Jacob's uncinematic inner monologues Condon peppers every scene with the zest of ridiculousness saving Breaking Dawn from ever dragging. Edward cracking a bed in half during his first sexual experience is just the beginning—the movie features everything from demon-fearing Brazilian housekeepers to body horror straight out of a Cronenberg film to corny CSI-esque shots of vampire venom jetting through bloodstreams. In one scene Jacob (Lautner) morphs into canine form to telepathically declare (in Lautner's brooding "tough guy" voice) that he is the true Alpha Male of the pack. The moment's hammy and trite but Condon shoots it with all the over-the-top machismo exuding from the wolfpack. Subtle no. Fun yes.
Breaking Dawn - Part 1 is far and away the best of the Twilight series. Sexy silly scary and stupid the movie's tonal balancing act amounts to an Evil Dead for tween romantics. There's gravity to the events we're witnessing on screen (Pattinson and Stewart even have a tense argument that results in an explosion of their previously-presumed non-existent emotions) but a self-reflexive lens keeps the normally-idiotic confessions of love and hushed prophetic warnings of the Cullen family in check. The operatic tale crescendos with buckets of blood and "tragedy" straight out of a high school Shakespeare production—completely in tune with the outlandish plot and a satisfying cliffhanger for Part 2. The movie is weighed down by the baggage that comes with a Twilight movie but the formula is shaken up just enough to inject the undead franchise with a little life.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.
The Whole Ten Yards picks up about two years after the events that changed the lives of Oz (Matthew Perry) Jimmy "The Tulip" (Bruce Willis) Jill (Amanda Peet) and Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge)--and made them a whole lot richer. Nice-guy dentist Oz is now married to Jimmy's ex-wife Cynthia and living in Brentwood Calif. where he still practices dentistry. They seem happy but Oz is so paranoid someone will come after him that he keeps an arsenal of weapons in his home which is teeming with high-tech surveillance equipment. His suspicions however are not so farfetched: Turns out Cynthia is in cahoots with Jimmy who is now married to Jill and living in Mexico and they're planning to rob Hungarian mobster Lazlo Gogolak (Kevin Pollak) who's just been released from prison. But Lazlo has an agenda of his own. He wants to kill Jimmy for the murder of his son rival hitman Yanni Gogolak a couple of years ago. When Lazlo kidnaps Cynthia to get to Jimmy (he figures Oz will spill the beans on his whereabouts) poor Oz runs off to Mexico and pleads for Jimmy's help. What Oz and Jill don't realize however is that they are part of a much bigger revenge plot against Lazlo perpetrated by their own spouses Jimmy and Cynthia.
The only thing that makes The Whole Ten Yards engaging is the returning cast who have a playful and endearing on-screen chemistry. Willis and Perry are at the forefront reprising their roles as Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudesky and Nicholas "Oz" Oseransky respectively. The actors craft their characters well and uniquely and the conflicting personalities they create--Willis' cool and collected Jimmy and Perry's nervous and scatterbrained Oz--make watching their interactions entertaining. When the two discover that the hostage in the trunk of their car has died for example Willis stands there unflinchingly while Perry yelps "It looks like he got shot in the foot! Who dies from being shot in the foot?" Peet blends in with her own brand of humor; her klutzy character Jill is hilarious without trying to be which is the key to her performance. Jill's hung up on the fact that although she's a professional marksman she's never had a real kill--she's so accident-prone that her targets always die by default. Also returning for the sequel is Pollak who played Yanni in the first film. Here he returns as Yanni's father Lazlo aged with the help of prosthetics and makeup. It's a great idea and the result is pretty funny although the character is cartoonish.
Director Howard Deutch makes a valiant effort with this sequel to the 2000 hit; there's continuity in the characters although their lives have progressed since the events of the last film. The problem with The Whole Ten Yards is its story penned by Mitchell Kapner and George Gallo. While The Whole Nine Yards had an elaborate storyline it was easy enough to follow--everyone was basically trying to kill one another. Here the plot's equally convoluted but rather than interesting twists and turns we get inconsistencies and dead ends. Take Jimmy's new Suzy Homemaker role for instance. As the film opens Willis is traipsing around his Mexican villa in bunny slippers wearing a 'do-rag on his head fussing over dinner and the fact that the potatoes are supposed to be "floating around the lobster not just stuck there." We find out it's all an act but the reasons are never disclosed. By the time the film ends audiences will be asking themselves what it was all for. Perhaps the filmmakers thought the sight of Willis as a dowdy housewife would make moviegoers laugh so hard they'd forget to ask why.