What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

2017 #138
Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | New Zealand & USA / English & German | 15 / R

What We Do in the Shadows

There’s no two ways about it: I’m late to the party with What We Do in the Shadows. After rave reviews at film festivals and when it was released in some countries (including the UK) in 2014, its acclaim as a cult comedy seemed to reach a focal point in early 2015 when a Kickstarter campaign to give it a wider US release attracted over 7,000 backers and the best part of half-a-million dollars. I recall preordering the Blu-ray in the wake of the slow-burning fuss I kept hearing about it. That came out in April 2015, and swiftly ended up on one of my many unwatched piles… until now!

For the sake of those who are even later to it than me, it’s a mockumentary about a group of housemates in Wellington, New Zealand, who are vampires. With each of them being hundreds of years old, they’re thoroughly out of touch with the modern world — until they make some new, younger friends…

This juxtaposition allows the film two rich strands of humour. Firstly, it riffs off vampire movie clichés and references — there are bits about sleeping in coffins, turning into a bat, and so on. In a similar vein, each of the housemates is a version of a classic movie vampire: there’s a silent Nosferatu-ish one; a violent womanising Dracula-ish one; an effeminate dandyish one; and so on. There are also various scenes that play on vampires’ familiar abilities by featuring a neat and often surprising use of special effects — the film’s so low-budget and so naturalistically staged, you’re not expecting any outright fantastical stuff. That element of unexpectedness makes such moments all the more effective.

Night life

In the second strand, it embraces mundanity — putting these supernatural creates in the same dull suburban lifestyles that we all know, like struggling to get into the good nightclubs, or a supposedly grand ball taking place in a rundown community centre. Perhaps best of all are bits which straddle the two stools — the practicalities of being a vampire; like how do you get dressed up to go out if you can’t see your reflection, or having to clean up the mess after drinking someone’s blood. The film plays these various comic facets with a great deal of wit and cleverness, but it’s also suitably silly, which allows the humour to function at various levels. What’s even more surprising is that, as it goes on and we build up a connection to these characters, it becomes actually quite touching at times.

Apparently writer-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi wrote more than 150 pages of screenplay for the film, then didn’t actually show it to any of the cast so they would improvise scenes and be surprised by plot developments. That resulted in over 125 hours of footage, which took almost a year to edit down to just an hour and a half. (No wonder the Blu-ray includes piles of deleted, extended, and additional footage.) On the one hand, perhaps that helps explain why the film is so funny — they were able to really cherrypick the best bits. On the other other, it makes the final result all the more impressive — that they were able to hone storylines and character arcs from that immense supply of material. And it still clocks in at just 86 minutes! Hollywood moviemakers who let their part-improvised comedies sprawl to baggy two-hours-plus running times might learn a thing or two here.

Drinking blood

Perhaps the more familiar you are with vampire fiction the more you’ll get out of What We Do in the Shadows’ humour, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to enjoying it — I should think knowing the basics of vampire mythology is enough to get laughs from the majority of the movie without feeling like you’re missing anything. And in the end, the most important thing is that it’s incredibly funny. Or, as the poster accurately puts it, “hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious.”

5 out of 5

What We Do in the Shadows is available on iPlayer until 28th November.

It placed 12th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The UK TV premiere of Taika Waititi’s previous film, Boy, is on Film4 tonight at 10:50pm.
His new film,
Thor: Ragnarok, is out everywhere now and is reviewed here.

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The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

2017 #142
David Slade | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

For the third Halloween in a row, I’ve subjected myself to true cinematic horror: a Twilight film. I suppose this one’s theoretically the turning point of the franchise: it’s the middle movie in the film series, while in the books it’s the penultimate instalment — surely in every regard placed to set up the final conflict. Well, you wouldn’t know it, because this is another Twilight film where very little happens.

The plot, such as it is, sees Bella (Kristen Stewart) trying to juggle her romantic relationship with vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and her just-about-platonic friendship with werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), which is tricky because the pair don’t get on owing to an ancient feud between their species. Just your regular high school problems, then. Meanwhile, a series of mysterious murders in Seattle have caught the attention of Edward’s de facto vamp family, because they reckon it’s probably not your bog standard serial killer, but rather something in their neck of the woods. (Their neck of the woods. Geddit? Neck of the woods. Nothing? Okay then.) What do they plan to do about it? Watch it… on the news… and… er… wait and see… if it comes near them… maybe?

So, that, but for two hours.

I know how to settle this... a stare off!

So yes, nothing happens — and yet, somehow, nothing happens less boringly than last time. I mean, it’s not great, but it’s not as bad. It actually has some passably good scenes and conflicts, for example. That said, it spends the whole movie getting to basically where the last one ended. The dialogue’s still shit as well. Especially the supposedly passionate stuff, which is like some 11-year-old-who’s-watched-too-many-movies’ idea of what would be romantic. Most of the scenes go on far longer than needed. Plots go round in circles (as I said, nothing happens). And there’s nothing as brilliantly awful as Face Punch, though Edward and Jacob do get one passingly amusing one-liner each. And I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why it’s called Eclipse. I suppose Twilight and New Moon didn’t mean a great deal either, but I still think they meant more than Eclipse.

This may sound a strange thing to say, but this one’s very much a romance movie. The first two must’ve been as well, because that’s what Twilight is, so I’m not sure why I felt it more this time. I suppose the first one had a lot on its plate establishing all the supernatural stuff, and New Moon had a lot of palaver building out the world further, mixing in werewolves and the vampire high council (or whatever). Eclipse does have the Seattle stuff, but that just pops up now and then in between Bella umming and ahhing over her relationships.

Team Abs

As to that, the story tries so. hard. to make you believe it’s possible Bella could change her mind and switch affections from Edward to Jacob — but did anyone ever really believe that was an actual possibility? The story just isn’t built that way. Before I watched the films, I could never understand why anyone would be Team Jacob. It seemed so obvious she’d end up with Edward, why waste your energy? But now, even still thinking it’s inevitable, if I had to pick a team it’d definitely be Team Jacob. The reason is Taylor Lautner. No, not because of his phwoarsome abs. I remember everyone being very surprised when Lautner joined BBC Three sitcom Cuckoo, but actually watching these films you can see he has at least some ability with comic timing. His character is also more down-to-earth and levelheaded than his vampiric rival. Put together, these traits make Jacob much more likeable than bloody Edward.

The rest of the cast are as much nonentities as ever. It’s no wonder it’s taken Kristen Stewart years to re-establish the positive career path she was on before Twilight. Original Victoria actress Rachelle Lefevre was fired because her schedule for another film overlapped, and her replacement is Bryce Dallas Howard. Although Victoria has been an antagonist throughout the series, and her storyline ostensibly comes to a head in this instalment, she’s barely present. Quite why they cast a relatively well-known actress in such a minor role, or why she agreed to do it, is a mystery. At least it doesn’t seem to have harmed her career.

Team Sparkles

Others have been less fortunate. I mean, Robert Pattinson still works, but in what lately? I thought the same about director David Slade, whose work here is perfectly serviceable while at no point being memorable. Previously he’d helmed well-received horror/thrillers Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, a promising start to his career. However, since taking the Twilight dollar (he’d previously slagged off the series, comments he tried to pass off as a joke when he signed on for Eclipse) he’s shifted to TV, starting off poorly with a raft of pilot episodes like This American Housewife (not picked up), Awake (ditched after a half season), Crossbones (cancelled after nine episodes), and Powers (only available on PlayStation). But more recently he’s been an executive producer and director on Hannibal and American Gods, and has a Black Mirror coming up. I guess the era of prestige TV is working out for him.

Anyway, back to Eclipse. For a movie in which so little happens, I found it surprisingly unobjectionable. It’s not good, but I’d say it’s the least-bad Twilight so far. Of course, it wouldn’t make any sense to watch it without sitting through the previous two first, so my assessment is even more damning with faint praise than it sounds.

2 out of 5

See you this time next year for Breaking Dawn Part 1… and maybe Part 2, just to get this thing over with.

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.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

2016 #170
Chris Weitz | 131 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: New MoonLast Halloween, I reviewed one of the most horrifying movies of all time: Twilight. This Halloween, at the risk of establishing a terrible tradition that could potentially run for another three years, I’m turning my attention to its first sequel, New Moon.*

If you watched the first movie and thought things couldn’t get any worse… well, you clearly didn’t watch New Moon. I don’t blame you. My original plan had been to watch all five and review them over the course of a week last Halloween, like I did for George A. Romero’s zombie movies in 2013 (plug!), but after the first I couldn’t stomach any more straightaway. Or for an entire year, apparently.

Anyway, the film. New Moon picks up more or less where Twilight left off, with human teen Bella (Kristen Stewart) and 109-year-old vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) deeply in love. Their relationship is complicated by the slightest sign of Bella’s blood making members of Edward’s vampire pseudo-family want to kill her, but he refuses to turn her. Then Edward’s family have to leave the area and he decides it would be better if she didn’t come. Bella goes into extreme mourning — OK, teens over-feel break-ups, but Bella goes fucking mental, screaming in her sleep like a junkie going cold turkey. Her father confronts her: “It’s just not normal, this behaviour.” Bang on, daddy-o!

So, Bella discovers that doing crazy adrenaline-generating things — like riding on motorbikes with strangers — gives her visions of Edward. It’s unclear if she’s imagining these or if he’s actually manifesting to her. In most movies you’d know it was the former, but this is a supernatural flick about vampires and werewolves, for crying out loud — make yourself clear, moviemakers! Anyway, to replicate this rush Bella salvages some bikes from a tip or something and gets her chum Jacob (Taylor Lautner) to rebuild them. She still can think of nothing but Edward… until Jacob takes his top off. My face is up here, BellaAnd they accuse teenage guys of being shallowly obsessed with the opposite sex’s chests. But then Jacob starts acting aggressively, and hanging out with a gang, and there are stories about beasts in the woods killing people, and his tribe leader type guy looks shifty whenever all that’s mentioned, and… wait, could there be a connection between Jacob and his friends and the wolf-like attacks in the woods?! Gasp!

New Moon is a terribly slow, terribly mopey movie, which takes forever to get to really obvious ‘reveals’ — like, yes, Jacob and co are werewolves (after a fashion). That’s when it’s not trying to build a love triangle that we all know can only end one way. I mean, Bella tells Jacob “it will always be Edward”. Not subtextually — she tells him literally, with words. Those exact words. And when it’s not doing that, it’s slowly building up some form of mythology, presumably to use properly in future instalments. Then it ends with what I think is meant to be a cliffhanger and/or surprise ending, but it’s so ridiculously unsurprising or cliffhanger-y that it’s almost insulting. Bella’s forced Edward’s hand, making him agree to turn her into a vampire because they can’t bear to be apart and want to spend forever together, so why should it be such a surprise that he wants to marry her?!

Then there’s the pathetically hand-holding direction — a shot that shows the changing seasons conveys the passage of time perfectly decently, so why superimpose the names of the months on top as if we’re all 5 year olds who can’t understand it hasn’t literally turned from late summer to autumn to winter in 90 seconds? The CGI is uniformly terrible, We feel your pain, Bellaso that even bits that aren’t bad in isolation (the wolves, for instance) are poorly integrated into the live-action. And at one point the characters go to the cinema to see an action movie… called Face Punch. At this point New Moon slips from ineptitude into genius. It’s the best worst fake action movie title ever. The scene where they discuss it is so hilarious, I actually had to pause the movie to finish laughing.

Though it may contain the funniest thing I’ve seen in any movie this year, it’s not enough to save New Moon. It’s even worse than the first one, because it’s boring. Some bits and bobs may actually be improved (some of the direction is slicker; Bella’s terrible voice over is reduced), but goddamn, it’s so dull. So little actually happens. It feels like it’s probably setting things in place for whatever’s to come next for an entire movie.

On the bright side, that might mean the series improves from here. I can but hope.

1 out of 5

New Moon featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

* Here’s a thing: the film has two title cards: the first says New Moon, the second says Twilight Saga: New Moon — no “The”. But as all the posters and, y’know, everyone else uses the “the”, I am too. Fighting my urge to use the accurate on-screen nomenclature here, people. ^

Daybreakers (2009)

2016 #24
The Spierig Brothers | 89 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15* / R

Most of mankind have become vampires, but the blood supply is running out and without it people mutate into monsters. Ethan Hawke’s scientist is developing a substitute, but when he encounters human resistance fighters he learns there may actually be a cure…

Made by the guys behind Predestination, Daybreakers offers an original and imaginative world (how would mankind cope if we couldn’t go out in daylight? Maybe like this). It’s somewhat let down by a few campy performances and a sensibility that reverts to action sequences, but originality counts for a lot, especially for genre fans looking for something different.

3 out of 5

* The distributor chose to make six seconds of cuts to get a 15 in cinemas. The uncut 18-rated version was released on DVD and Blu-ray. No idea which version is available through Channel 5, where I watched it. ^

Blade (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #12

The power of an immortal.
The soul of a human.
The heart of a hero.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 21st August 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 13th November 1998
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Wesley Snipes (White Men Can’t Jump, Demolition Man)
Stephen Dorff (Backbeat, Immortals)
Kris Kristofferson (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Heaven’s Gate)
N’Bushe Wright (Zebrahead, Dead Presidents)

Director
Stephen Norrington (Death Machine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)

Screenwriter
David S. Goyer (Dark City, Batman Begins)

Based on
Blade, a Marvel comic book character created by Marv Wolfman & Gene Colan.

The Story
When hospital haematologist Dr. Karen Jenson is bitten by a living corpse — actually a vampire — she encounters Blade, leather-clad badass vampire hunter. He mercifully takes her to his lair, where she hopes to create a cure for her impending vampirism. Meanwhile, mid-ranking vampire Deacon Frost aims to take over the world, for which he needs Blade’s unique blood…

Our Hero
The Daywalker — half-human half-vampire Blade, who can go out in sunlight (hence the nickname) and controls his bloodlust with injections. Passes his time helpfully killing vampires.

Our Villain
Being born human, turned vampire, and consequently looked down on by the purebred elders, probably gave Deacon Frost a chip on his shoulder, which may be why he believes vampires should enslave humanity. Which, despite his betters’ disapproval, he sets about doing.

Best Supporting Character
Blade’s mentor and Q-like gadgetmaster, Whistler. According to Wikipedia he was created for the film, but made his debut two years earlier in the Spider-Man animated series (voiced by Malcolm McDowell, no less). 20 years hence, apparently he still hasn’t appeared in any comics, which is very unlike Marvel.

Memorable Quote
Blade: “There are worse things out tonight than vampires.”
Karen: “Like what?”
Blade: “Like me.”

Memorable Scene
The opening action sequence sets the tone: a vampire nightclub, where the music pounds and blood pours from sprinklers, as the Daywalker slaughters everyone inside in a display of gleeful ultra-violence. Hard R indeed.

Letting the Side Down
Computer-generated liquid is still hard to do, so in 1998 it must’ve been a nightmare. Some CGI blood plays a key role in the climax — it looked terrible then, and I bet it looks worse now.

Next time…
Two direct sequels, the first directed by Guillermo del Toro, the second designed to launch a spin-off (it failed). A semi-related live-action TV series lasted one season in 2006, and an unconnected animated series was part of the Marvel Anime project in 2011. The rights have since reverted to Marvel, so there’s talk (largely from fans) of Blade joining their Cinematic Universe, with or without Snipes and possibly on the Netflix side of things.

Awards
2 Saturn nominations (Horror Film, Make-Up)
1 MTV Movie Award (Best Villain, tied with… There’s Something About Mary.)
1 MTV Movie Awards nomination (Best Fight, for “the fight against vampires”. Oh, that one!)

What the Critics Said
“Sure, the story is pretty standard, and the dialogue is laughable or worse. But creative cinematography and non-stop, decently choreographed gratuitous violence make watching this comic-book movie — Blade is a minor, almost-forgotten Marvel comic — entertaining. In fact, it’s arguably the best comic-book movie of the year” — John Krewson, A.V. Club

Score: 54%

What the Public Say
“Stephen Norrington’s direction is superb here, and he handles most of the action scenes very well, mixing some beautiful establishing shot with tighter, jumpier shots during the film’s immersive fight scenes. Fight scenes are well-choreographed and never feel like they are going on for too long, and thanks to the superb stunt work, feel thoroughly brutal.” — thatfilmbloguk

Verdict

Before comic book movies were the all-conquering box office behemoth they are today, Blade was a Marvel Comics adaptation in technicality only. A violent, dark, appropriately bloody (’cause, y’know, vampires) horror-tinged late-’90s actioner, Blade isn’t big or clever, but it has style and a glorious commitment to its extremeness. Some say the Guillermo del Toro-directed sequel is even better, but for me that came a little too far into the era of CGI dominance and comic book movie popularity — the original has a kind of analogue purity that can’t be beat.

#13 will have… moments lost in time, like tears in rain.

Twilight (2008)

2015 #145
Catherine Hardwicke | 122 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I’m not a big one for Halloween, but I’ve acknowledged the horrific holiday on a couple of occasions now. For 2015, I decided to review one of the most notorious supernatural films of recent times. A movie so horrific, it sent critics cowering behind their sofas. A film so evil, it’s perverted the minds of children — and some adults — the world over. A movie so renowned, it strikes fear into the hearts of even hardened movie lovers.

I speak, of course, of Twilight.

(That was more surprising when it was in a generically-titled post as an introduction to a whole week of reviews for the entire saga, but then it turned out I had better things to watch in October than four more Twilight films, so you’re only getting this one for now.)

For thems that don’t know, Twilight is the story of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a teenager who moves to live with her father in the small town of Forks, Washington (apparently it’s actually a city, but the film would have you think it’s almost a village). Attending the local high school, she’s intrigued by the introverted Cullen siblings, in particular Edward (Robert Pattinson). To cut a long ramble short, it turns out they’re vampires, but friendly vegetarian vampires. Bella instantly falls in love with Edward in all of three seconds, because he’s kinda dangerous but pretty and sparkles in sunlight (we shall come back to this), though his lust for her brings out his blood-drinking side. Just to make things complicated, there are some other vampires visiting the area who have fewer qualms about drinking human blood…

Twilight is adapted from a young adult novel by Stephenie “one too many Es in her name” Meyer that no one had heard of (bar its legion of bloodthirsty fans) before someone thought it would make a good movie. It would probably have been better if things had stayed that way. There are many reasons for that, but let’s take them in the order they must’ve occurred. First: the story, which is also the worst part. Edward is an odd, creepy stalker — turning up in Bella’s bedroom and staring at her while she sleeps, that kind of thing — who she then finds out is a century-old man (bit of an age gap) and, literally, a predator… but she instantly unconditionally loves him. What the merry fuck? She’s given no reason to even like the guy, and plenty of reasons to run away scared of him, but no, she falls in love. What message is this sending to young girls? That the guy who follows you around everywhere just staring at you and then confesses he’s having trouble controlling his impulse to murder you (yes, he says that) is the perfect soulmate? Not to mention that he’s 100-and-something years old and dating a 17-year-old. He shouldn’t be pre-teen girls’ idol, he should be Hugh Hefner’s!

All of the characters are this poorly drawn. Their motivations, actions, and reactions often make little sense. The number of times one of them does something because Plot are incalculable. That’s without even mentioning Bella’s almost total inability to do anything for herself, except use Google to find some tiny second-hand bookshop in a rarely-visited town to buy a book about something she wants to research, rather than, say, use Google to read up a bit first. Then she gets the book, looks at one illustration and its caption, and it’s back on Google to find out more. Nice work, Bella.

All of this is Meyer’s fault, faithfully translated to the screen by adapter Melissa Rosenberg. This is a woman with quality TV form: she was a lead writer on Dexter back in its first four seasons, when it was really, really good; now she’s showrunner on the forthcoming Marvel/Netflix series Jessica Jones, which has promising trailers and a well-reviewed first episode, in particular its treatment of female characters. Yet she also wrote this. Even if you allow for her being hamstrung by the novel in story terms, the dialogue is appalling, in every respect. Characters bluntly state their own and each other’s emotions at each other. We’re always being told stuff instead of shown it. Scenes heavy with exposition are shot with frenetic camerawork and underscored with driving music as if that somehow makes it filmic and exciting.

Ah, the acting and direction! Nearly every performance is poor. Pattinson and Stewart spend the entire film appearing uncomfortable and puzzled — by themselves, with each other, with everyone else. Her only other emotion is “moody loner”; he at least manages a smile, maybe twice. Some of it is unbelievably cheesy, like an ’80s genre B-movie by a music video director. That kind of thing can work, a) when it’s from the period, or b) when it’s done knowingly. Twilight is neither. The Pacific Northwest location is inherently atmospheric, which is handy because Catherine Hardwicke’s direction does nothing to conjure up any such feeling itself.

And then we have vampires who sparkle. Sparkly vampires. Sparkly. Vampires. Just… why?! The whole traditional mythology of vampires is played fast and loose with, which is fine, that’s what many vampire flicks do; and there are even some borderline-neat subversions… but golly, that sparkliness is silly.

Some of these points are definitely just niggles, but the film is so laden with them that it all becomes ripe to cause either laughter or frustration. Better the former than the latter, which is why the Honest Trailer is so entertaining. See for yourself:

Believe it or not, I didn’t actually hate Twilight as much as I thought I might. Occasionally there are shots or moments that work, maybe even the odd whole scene. Bella’s dad is pretty good, both their relationship and Billy Burke’s performance. I quite liked some of the aggressively-blue cinematography, but then I do like the colour blue. There’s almost a nice element of melancholic “leaving a fun ordinary life behind for this fantastic but dangerous new one”, but I think that might be limited to literally one shot-reverse-shot of Bella seeing her friends leaving a café.

So it’s not a good film, but it’s not a “worst film ever made”-level disaster either. I mean, it’s not so bad that I can’t even bear the thought of watching the sequels. Actually, they kind of intrigue me, because (spoiler warning!) it hasn’t even got to the Jacob/werewolves stuff yet, and that whole Team Edward / Team Jacob aspect seemed to be such a big thing. And I want to see what Michael Sheen has to do with anything. And I kinda wanna see if Breaking Dawn is as batshit crazy as the plot description I once read made it sound. And maybe there’ll be more of Anna Kendrick’s cleavage, because wow, who knew that was there? (Look, it’s a movie about a creepy stalker romance between a 100-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl — a little light ogling of someone around my own age pales in comparison.)

So that’s Twilight for you: poorly plotted, poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed, teaching poor life lessons to its target age group, and yet still somehow so compelling that I’m prepared to sit through another eight-ish hours of the stuff. Never has the phrase “your mileage may vary” been so apt.*

2 out of 5

* Unless someone used it in reference to the Fast & Furious films.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

2012 #4
Patrick Tatopoulos | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | New Zealand & USA / English | 18 / R

Underworld: Rise of the LycansIt never seems to have been fashionable to admit to liking Underworld, the 2003 urban-Gothy-fantasy-actioner about vampires vs werewolves (here, Lycans) in the modern day, but I’ve always quite enjoyed it. It’s far from perfect, that’s for certain, but it has a kind of style-over-substance charm that I quite enjoy.

The 2006 sequel, Underworld: Evolution, is very much Part 2 of the story, but moves away from the urban settings to an array of more traditional Eastern European forests (albeit shot in Canada, I believe) and increasingly intricate myth-based storytelling. But still with guns. It’s also more full of creature makeup and gore (enough to bump the certificate to an 18 after the first film’s 15), and it’s not as good — Underworld may not be wholly groundbreaking (there’s a fair dose of The Matrix in there), but it felt less familiar than its sequel.

This third film is a whole different kettle of fish. With the first film’s dangling story pretty much wrapped up by the sequel (there’s room for more, but the main thrust is done with), this entry jumps back in time several hundred years for an origin of sorts, fleshing out flashbacks and backstory from the first two films. Unfortunately, we learnt pretty much all we needed to know in those flashbacks, and so in terms of both story and world-building Rise of the Lycans has little to add to the Underworld franchise. I suppose you could treat it in the style George Lucas wants us to take the Star Wars prequels and watch it before the first two films, but I don’t think it really fits there either — Scary Michael Sheenbeing set in medieval/dark ages times, this has a very different, more traditional feel than the urban original film… albeit with lashings of CGI.

In fact, it probably has most in common with the cycle of fantasy films we’ve received post-Lord of the Rings. There’s swooping shots of towering castles, werewolf armies storming the walls, over-designed armour, all that kind of stuff. It makes for passable fare, and I suppose if you watched it before the other two films you might be surprised with where the story ultimately goes. That said, the one twist aside — and it’s the kind of twist the studio would only have allowed a modern filmmaker to get away with because it was established in the backstory of another film — everything’s pretty standard and predictable, just with more (CG) blood and gore than you’d normally find (I’m surprised they didn’t push to bring it down to PG-13 territory).

The cast is led by two supporting actors from the preceding films, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. Nighy hams it up exquisitely, but placing him centre stage makes it a mite less fun than it was in the past. Sheen brings quality to any part and we get no less here. Rhona Mitra, being the franchise’s obligatory ass-kicking-girl (replacing Kate Beckinsale, whose character comes in to play much later in the fictional world’s timeline), is fine. I’ve seen an awful lot worse.

Camp Bill NighyIn the director’s chair for the first (and, to date, last) time is special effects whizz Patrick Tatopoulos, who does a fine job of producing an action-fantasy film. There’s nothing remarkable about it but it largely works, though it’s a little bit on the dark side at times. I don’t know why so many films do this, incidentally — we’ve reached an era where people are mostly watching films in cinemas where the bulbs are under-lit to save money, or at home in probably less-than-ideal conditions, with various lights on and a screen left on factory settings. I wouldn’t mind if these dark movies looked fine once you were properly calibrated, but most of them are still ever so dark. Why do they think this is a good idea? Especially when you flick into 3D (which, fortunately, this film was just ahead of.)

But I digress. If you’re the kind of fantasy fan who was switched off by the urban antics of the first Underworld, this more traditional swords-and-monsters effort may appeal to your sensibilities. Otherwise, it’s really one for franchise devotees only, telling a tale you’ll know in a bit more detail. And for that, it’s not bad.

3 out of 5

The fourth film in the series, Underworld: Awakening, which picks up the story twelve years after the end of the second film, is in cinemas in the UK and US from today.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

2009 #56
E. Elias Merhige | 81 mins | TV | 15 / R

Shadow of the Vampire“What if Max Schreck really was a vampire?” is the simple, thoroughly daft, and equally promising, premise of this low-budget horror/drama/comedy.

Having the advantage of such a good concept to kick things off, all starts well, but the longer it runs the more it loses it. Screenwriter Steven A. Katz seems unsure of what Shreck/Orlok actually wants or what the rules governing his existence are, leaving him little more than a threat for the sake of a threat. Still, Willem Dafoe’s performance in the role is brilliant, reveling in the chance to overact — and yet, somehow, subtly overact — as a silent movie vampire. The rest of the cast are fine; in particular, the obsessive and mildly unhinged Murnau seems to suit Malkovich down to the ground. It’s also scary in places, as it should be, because it’s a vampire horror movie that just happens to take the making of another real one as its starting point. Unfortunately, as the plot becomes confusing and ill explained towards the end, so the scares dissipate alongside the viewer’s understanding.

My confusion over the film’s third act may have an external explanation, however. The BBFC list the PAL running time as 88 minutes, but BBC Four’s showing only just hit 81. It certainly felt like there was a chunk missing somewhere in the middle — a slew of characters just disappear and there’s an unexplained leap in the plot — but I can’t think of a reasonable explanation for why or how the BBC would cut seven minutes out of the middle of a film, and the only detailed plot descriptions I can find don’t describe anything I missed.

Nonetheless, even allowing for omissions Katz gives up on any semblance of following the facts toward the end (and throughout, apparently): almost everyone involved is slaughtered, even when they clearly survived in reality, while one character is driven out of his mind, even when he clearly wasn’t… well, presumably. That said, we all know Schreck wasn’t a vampire — his life isn’t nearly mysterious enough to allow for the possibility, should you even believe in such a possibility being possible — so with that leap already taken, why not take as many others as you fancy? Perhaps because it’s not as clever, and not nearly as much fun, as fitting the preposterous tale around the known facts.

Merhige’s direction is occasionally very interesting, such as a couple of grand shots early on, but at other times is perfunctory. To be kind, one might say he goes too far in the aim of replicating silent film style — certainly the intertitles that needlessly replace chunks of the plot are a step beyond. He does manage to create and maintain a weird, unsettling atmosphere, which remains even when all sense disappears.

It’s difficult to accurately assess a film when it appears a good chunk has been lost somewhere in the middle, especially when one suspects some of its major flaws — namely, a lack of coherence at the end — may be due to this omission. On the other hand, I can’t find any evidence that something has been cut, so maybe it just doesn’t make sense? Either way, even on the evidence of what I’ve seen it feels like Shadow of the Vampire takes a good idea, runs well for a while, but winds up uncertain of what to do with it. Though it remains interesting, I won’t be rushing to see any fuller form.

3 out of 5

Nosferatu (1922)

aka Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens / Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

Nosferatu2007 #18
F.W. Murnau | 81 mins | DVD | PG

One of the earliest and most-referenced horror films, and the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (faithfully, albeit unofficially).

With such a weight bearing down upon it I found it quite hard to watch it objectively, and so was mainly left with the sense that I didn’t enjoy it as much as Sunrise and that I’d rather like to see a fully restored version. Perhaps Masters of Cinema shall treat us to one soon.*

Whatever one’s thoughts on it, it really is a must see for anyone into sci-fi/fantasy, horror, or (again) the history of film.

3 out of 5

* In the years since this review was written, they have. ^