Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

2017 #72
Anna Foerster | 91 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Underworld: Blood Wars

Kate Beckinsale is back in skintight leather for……

I’m sorry, my mind wandered off then. As I was saying: Kate Beckinsale is back in… skintight leather……

Sorry, happened again. As I was saying: Kate Beckinsale is back in… her role as a werewolf-killing vampire for the fifth entry in the Underworld series, which seems to be as undying as its star creatures.

Picking up a little while after the last one left off, the war between vampires and Lycans (aka werewolves) is now back in full swing, and both sides are hunting Selene (Beckinsale). Her own kind want her for previous crimes (see: the first two films), while the Lycans are after her daughter (see: the last film) to give them an advantage in the war. Fearing for their safety, the vampires invite Selene back into the fold to train a new generation of combatants, but there are sneakier plans afoot…

Kate Beckinsale in leather. Nuff said.

The first Underworld marked out somewhat-new territory when it hit screens in 2003 by taking fantasy/horror elements like vampire covens and werewolves and placing them in a modern urban environment, fighting more with guns than swords and teeth. It certainly wasn’t wholly original — Blade had already done a similar concept and visually it owed a lot to The Matrix — but it was fresh enough. Since then the series has increasingly strayed away from that: the second film brought more traditional-style Eastern European countryside, the third was a medieval prequel, and the fourth was… kind of nothing-y, really.

Now, they seem to have made something of an effort to get back to the ‘world’ of the first film, with extravagant vampire covens and underground Lycan forces, while also growing the series’ mythology by introducing us to new areas of vampiredom, primarily a Nordic coven. This move also brings with it a degree of politicking among the vampires, which is kind of what I imagine a millennia-old secret society would be like. I mean, don’t expect House of Cards — it’s done at the level of the action B-movie this series is — but it’s kinda fun. To achieve this it’s had to ignore an awful lot of the last film — not entirely, by any means, as it’s quite heavily based in some leftover plot points — but other parts have been completely glossed over. This lax attitude to continuity could be irritating, but a counterargument might go that isn’t it better to ditch stuff that isn’t really working in favour of stuff that’s more entertaining?

Vampire politics

Part of the entertainment comes from characters talking rather than just fighting, and we’re treated to some magnificently cheesy, overworked dialogue. Some of these scenes are edited within an inch of their life, lines almost tripping over each other as they’re rushed on to the screen. By rights that should be a problem, yet in something as fabulously trashy as Underworld it feels more expedient — they’re getting on with it, rather than being ponderous about the mythology, like much fantasy is wont to do. I kinda like it for that. Alternatively, there’s one bit where the main characters seem to express themselves in a quick-cut series of heavy breaths and grunts. It’s either terrible or genius, or possibly both.

This tone is supported by some superbly hammy acting from a cast filled with faces from British TV. Sherlock’s Irene Adler, Lara Pulver, seems to be having a whale of a time as the scheming head of a vampire coven, while giving Miss Beckinsale a run for her money in the kinky outfit department. She’s accompanied by Merlin’s Arthur, Bradley James, pouting around as her frequently-insulted boy toy. Tobias Menzies (take your pick of what you consider him best-known for) does his best as the Lycan’s cunning new leader, who’s most threatening in his CGI-powered transformed state. And Charles Dance is back, exuding pure class as always, completely convincing you that he believes in all the high-fantasy drivel he has to spout.

Irene and Arthur

Similarly, we all know Kate Beckinsale is better than this — and if you’d forgotten, Love & Friendship should’ve reasserted it. Even here she’s called on to be more than just a shapely pair of buttocks, getting to inject Selene with some rare emotion on several occasions. She also once again kicks ass left, right, and centre. The film’s action on the whole is fairly entertaining. There’s little impressive choreography or particularly original combat concepts, but it passes muster. Even Charles Dance gets to do some swashbuckling (as he terms it in the making-of), which is only brief but also as awesome as it sounds. Another part amusingly sees two bulletproof adversaries walk slowly towards one another while emptying their guns into each other. It’s, again, simultaneously close to being both terrible and genius.

Despite being renowned as a visually gloomy series, I thought it looked pretty nice in 3D — better than Awakening did, at any rate. Awakening was genuinely shot in 3D, whereas (based on what I could see in behind-the-scenes footage from the special features) Blood Wars appears to have been post-converted. It shows how far that technology has come that even a modestly budgeted movie like this (just $35 million) can afford post-conversion that often looks very good indeed.

The only major disappointment I had with the film was that, thanks to it being in a rush every time it had some plot to get through, parts of it don’t quite make sense. The ending, in particular, where a voiceover monologue mentions a load of stuff we haven’t just seen happen and doesn’t quite flow. Surely they could’ve afforded an extra two minutes to connect the dots? Apparently the ending was designed to both brings things full circle and, perhaps, leave it open for a sixth instalment. Well, I would say it shortchanges the wrapping-up bit — this could be a place to conclude the series, but by not giving that sufficient weight (i.e. by rushing it), it implies a kind of “tune in next time”-ness.

Kate Beckinsale. Leather. Nuff. Said.

That aside, I actually massively enjoyed Blood Wars; much more than the negative reception led me to expect. Of course, the Underworld films are a fan-only experience at this point — not because of diminishing quality, as most reviews would cite, but because of how much the story is based in events from three of the previous four films. If you’ve watched any of those previous movies and not enjoyed them, it’s not worth catching up for this — it’s fundamentally “more of the same”, just done better than it’s been since the first movie.

These days franchises can revive themselves for new viewers later in their runs — Fast Five being the best Fast & Furious movie is a case in point — but Blood Wars isn’t a Fast Five. However, as someone who would, at this point, I guess, count myself as a fan of the series, Blood Wars delivered.

4 out of 5

Underworld: Blood Wars is released on DVD and Blu-ray (in regular, 3D, and UHD flavours) in the UK today.

Last Action Hero (1993)

2014 #108
John McTiernan | 126 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Last Action HeroThe first film to be advertised in space (no, really) sees movie-obsessed schoolboy Danny (Austin O’Brien) acquire a golden ticket that transports him into the latest movie staring his favourite action hero, Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger). With Danny’s knowledge of the genre’s clichés, Slater can solve the murder of his favourite second cousin and stop the machinations of sharpshooting henchman Benedict (Charles Dance).

Last Action Hero is effectively a spoof of action-thrillers, albeit with a real-world framing device instead of just leaping in Airplane-style. That has distinct pros and cons. In the former’s camp, the film is most alive in the first and third acts, when the two worlds initially collide and, later, when the fictional characters enter our world only to find that not everything’s the same as in the movies.

The downside is that the bulk of the middle is set in movie-world, and it’s simply too long to spend there. The film that Danny jumps in to, Jack Slater IV, deliberately has a highly generic action-thriller plot… but that means Last Action Hero plays like one too. There’s fun stuff centred around Danny’s “impossible” knowledge of what’s going on, as well as a playfulness with genre conventions, but it quickly runs out of ways to be unique, and we’re left having to sit through a terribly rote story with flashes of humour.

Brits make the best villainsThat said, it’s probably a good thing this isn’t a whole movie of “fictional characters in the real world” — you can imagine how that would play out; all the predictable “fish out of water” hijinks. However, at just over two hours, this isn’t a short film, and cutting out some of the middle wouldn’t have hurt.

It’s also a shame it ended up with a 15 certificate over here. It’s very much a PG-13 movie — it’s got that almost-kid-friendly tone, not to mention the pre-teen protagonist. These days it would surely get a 12A, even if changes were needed. I’d argue the disjunct between certificate-based expectations and the reality of the film accounted for some of its poor reception… but as it was a PG-13 in the US and went down badly there too, who knows.

Still, there are many memorable moments, like the (in)famous Arnie-in-Hamlet sequence, and Dance makes for an excellent adversary, both humorous and genuinely villainous. Although it could benefit from numerous tweaks across the board, there’s actually an awful lot to enjoy here, even if the highlights are mainly for fans of the specific genre it’s so accurately spoofing.

3 out of 5

Alien³: Special Edition (1992/2003)

aka Alien³: Assembly Cut

2011 #14
David Fincher | 145 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Alien3 Special EditionIt’s getting on for two years since I last (and first) watched most of the Alien Quadrilogy series, provoking some relatively lengthy (for this blog, anyway) debate on my reviews of the three sequels. I refer you to those at the outset for a couple of reasons. One, because a lot of my review of Alien³’s theatrical cut still holds true for this half-hour-longer version; two, because other points in that review may make an interesting counterpoint to the more positive thoughts I now have (“may”); and three, because some of the comments on the reviews also discuss this extended cut, which may also interest you.

They’re also relevant to highlight this point: it’s been two years since I watched Alien³ and I’ve only seen it once. Despite this extended version being 26% longer, that means I still found it hard to spot much of the additional material. I’m sure fans who’d seen the original multiple times in the decade between its theatrical release and this cut appearing in 2003 were able to spot changes much more readily. Nonetheless, a few obvious additions and modifications stand out: an extended opening when Clemens discovers Ripley on the beach; the Alien birthing from an ox (rather than a dog); the lack of a Queen chestburster at the very end. I could’ve turned on the Blu-ray’s “deleted scenes” marker of course, and I did consider that, but I thought it might just get distracting on a first viewing. And speaking technically, I don’t know what the new scenes looked like on the Quadrilogy DVDThe Alien (as I haven’t watched that copy, obviously), but on Blu-ray the added footage, 2003-era new effects and 2010 re-recorded audio are indistinguishable from the rest of the film.

Readers interested in the history and reasoning of this new, significantly longer cut may appreciate the introduction it had in the Quadrilogy set’s booklet (sadly nowhere to be found on the Anthology Blu-ray). I’ve reproduced the majority of it below:

Following its troubled production and controversial release, Alien 3 slowly became something of a curiosity among serious enthusiasts of the Alien series. Not only would its first-time director, David Fincher, go on to become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after filmmakers but the film itself would generate quite a mystique thanks to heated rumours of creative interference, lost scenes and even a completely different cut of the film that supposedly restored Fincher’s original vision of what many believed to be a seriously compromised work.

Rumour control, here are the facts. There is no wondrous lost “director’s cut” of Alien 3. It doesn’t exist. Indeed, for such a dream to be realised, Fincher would have to be allowed to remake the film from scratch with complete creative control. What does exist is something perhaps equally fascinating.

For the first time, fans can now experience a restored and re-mastered presentation of the 1991 assembly cut of Alien 3. With a running time increased by more than 30 minutes, this Special Edition contains several never-before-seen sequences that offer a fascinating insight into the film’s difficult editing process. This cut also reveals a combination of vintage, previously unreleased optical effects shot and several newly-composited digital effects necessary to seamlessly integrate new footage into the body of the film…

The Alien 3 Special Edition offers fans a unique chance to witness the lost work of a remarkable director.

So there you go. As I mentioned, this version updates the 2003 one with some re-recorded dialogue.

On my original review, Matthew McKinnon commented that as he watched this new cut he realised “it wasn’t shaping up into a more coherent or purposeful movie… just a longer version with more of the same.” I agree that, to an extent, it’s “a longer version with more of the same”, but I found it more coherent too. While the major plot beats still occur at the same time and in fundamentally the same way, perhaps the myriad tweaks have made it clearer just what’s going on? Or perhaps I was just more familiar, having seen it once already? Either way, sequences and events that left me a bit lost last time seem to make perfect sense on this outing.

Paul McGann as GolicOne of the biggest things I remember being told about Alien³, before the Special Edition, was that most of Paul McGann’s performance had been cut; that originally he had a sizeable role that justified his fourth billing, rather than his cameo-sized part in the theatrical cut. It doesn’t feel like there’s an awful lot more of him in this version, though scanning through Movie-Censorship.com’s thorough list of changes one can see a lot of brief shots as well as one or two significant scenes featuring him. Again, despite the sense that little has changed, his character does feel more comprehensible, so maybe these barely-noticeable additions do make all the difference?

As a little aside, I sometimes feel a little sorry for McGann — since his acclaim in The Monocled Mutineer, numerous shots at bigger success seem to have passed him by. He gets a key role in a Hollywood blockbuster, but is then largely cut out; he’s cast as Richard Sharpe in a major ITV series, but is injured and has to pull out (and we can see where that led career-wise for Sean Bean); he’s cast as the Doctor in a big-budget American backdoor pilot for Doctor Who, which flops Stateside and goes nowhere… He’s undoubtedly talented, but these days seemingly forced into lacklustre supporting roles in the likes of Luther. Maybe he doesn’t mind, I don’t know (at least he got “the largest insurance settlement in British television history” for missing out on Sharpe), but it seems like he deserved greater success. Poor guy.

Still, McGann’s performance here is exceptional, even if it’s still brief. He’s just one member of an outstanding British cast though, many of whom are recognisable for the excellent work they’ve done since. Actors with a PUnsurprisingly, therefore, they’re almost all totally underused. Charles Dance gets the biggest slice of the cake and is as good as ever, but doing little more than show their face we have Pete Postlethwaite, Phil Davis, Peter Guinness, Danny Webb (they don’t all begin with P…) Alien³ is 19 years old now, no one could’ve predicted the future; but viewed with hindsight, the volume of under-utilised talent is almost astounding.

Hindsight also affords other interesting perspectives. Dance’s death is still very effective, for instance. It’s not surprising once you’ve seen the film more than once — obviously — but killing off really the only character our hero (and, by extension, the audience) has become sympathetic to at around the halfway mark? Not unheard of, true (see: Psycho), but still rare enough to be a shock, to disconcert and wrong-foot the viewer.

Plus, we can now look at it in the context of Fincher’s following work. Even though he had limited — often, no — control over much of the project, there are still signs that link it with his later films. It’s stylishly shot for one thing, most of the locations either soaked in shadow or cold light, with an often fluid camera. Darkness litters the film thematically too: setting it on a prison colony for murderers and rapists, the violent attempted gang rape of Ripley, the death and autopsy of a 10-year-old girl… Even if we see no real detail on screen (thank goodness this wasn’t made in recent torture porn-obsessed years), the implication and the emotional connection is harrowing enough. Then there’s the Alien itself, from its ugly birth to its violent murders. Fincher may have not turned so explicitly to horror since, but that brand of darkness does flow on into most of his best films: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac.

Ripley rapeIt’s also, perhaps, interesting to remember this being Fincher’s first film. He might seem like an odd choice, a first-timer paling beside the experienced hands of Scott and Cameron. But that would be to forget that, for both, their Alien films were only their second time helming a feature*; and while Cameron’s previous had been sci-fi (The Terminator), Scott’s was period drama The Duellists. A first-timer — especially one versed in commercials and music videos — isn’t all that different, really, and Fincher has certainly gone on to show his worth. Indeed, his very next film was the incredible Se7en.

Alien³’s Special Edition didn’t strike me as massively different from the theatrical cut, despite some obvious changes, with the exception that I now found it to be more intelligible. Whereas before I thought it started well and became less coherent — and, consequently, less good — as it went on, with this version I felt I was following the story and characters throughout. As a result, I enjoyed it more. Perhaps it also benefitted from my viewing situation: the first time I watched it within days of both Alien and Aliens; this time, I chose to watch it in isolation. Whatever the reasons, this Special Edition earns Alien³ an extra star from me.

4 out of 5

* Cameron’s name is on Piranha II, and it is a fun joke to think such dross was his directorial debut, but his version (at least) of the behind-the-scenes story suggests it should in honesty be ignored. If you prefer, imagine I said Aliens was only his second major feature.

I watched the Alien³: Special Edition as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

Ladies in Lavender (2004)

2007 #36
Charles Dance | 100 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

While You Were SleepingJudi Dench puts in her fourth appearance in this list (far and away the most represented actor, I should think) in Charles Dance’s first film as writer and director.

Dench and her long-time friend Maggie Smith play believable sisters in a beautiful Cornish setting who discover a young Pole washed up on their beach. The story progresses from there in a gentle but engrossing fashion, and the cast of experienced Brits are as excellent as ever.

4 out of 5