Sunday, February 26, 2012

Underworld: Awakening

The Underworld franchise has never been terribly ambitious.

Its sales pitch is this: take British actress Kate Beckinsdale, squeeze her into a latex bodysuit, put plastic vampire fangs in her mouth, and have her run around shooting werewolves and other vampires.

Ought to be able to get four movies out of that, right?


And so they have, excepting a third movie that featured non-Beckinsdalian vampires and werewolves. It didn't do too well at the box office, but it was my favorite entry in the franchise.

Anyway, now we have movie #4, Underworld: Awakening, whose subtitle refers to the fact that humans have just stumbled onto the existence of vampires and werewolves.

This leads to the very cool notion that makes Underworld: Awakening as fun as it is. The notion that, once humans are aware of vampires and werewolves, they start kicking serious supernatural ass.

Isn't that great?

The beauty of this idea is twofold. One, it goes against the grain of genre expectation. Instead of humanity reacting with panic, dismay and massive incompetence -- like we ALWAYS do in these movies -- we bring to bear our hundred million to one numerical advantage as well as our advanced technology and scientific approach to problems. Within twelve years vampires and werewolves are practically extinct.

Woo hoo!

However, protagonist Kate Beckinsdale has sat out those twelve years frozen in a mysterious lab after getting captured while failing to save the life of her werewolf lover, Scott Speedman, the awful actor playing the tepid character who made the second installment such a chore to watch.

(Much like Jar Jar Binks, the series has responded to fan sentiment by keeping Speedman out of all subsequent installments.)

The action of movie #4 gets underway when Beckinsdale is mysteriously sprung from confinement and loosed upon a world where hostile werewolves and treacherous vampire superiors are the least of a girl's problems.

Nonetheless, she responds as she always does, by firing off LOTS of rounds of ammunition.

 

Beckinsdale's primary goal is to find her soulmate Speedman, but since he's been ditched, she instead finds a daughter she never knew she had. She spends the rest of the movie trying to protect this daughter from werewolves, human soldiers, and Stephen Rea, the scientist who runs the lab where Beckinsdale was kept the previous twelve years.

Stephen Rea is not what he seems to be, and that provides a nice twist that brings Beckinsdale back to the sinister laboratory for an Act Three showdown.

The story is surprisingly tight given the low-rent nature of the franchise. There are set-ups and payoffs, deftly handled subplots, and lots of enjoyable, if hardly fresh, action sequences.

The Achilles Heel of this franchise has always been a tendency to fall into exposition hell. Series creator Len Wiseman, AKA Mr. Kate Beckinsdale, seems to really like backstory. He's probably a sci-fi and fantasy nerd trying to recreate the depth and texture of worlds like Tolkien's or the Big Two sci-fi franchises.

But of course it's H-A-R-D to create a fictional universe as complex and authentic as those. Most attempts to do so make stories worse by bogging us down with unnecessary baggage. After all, we paid our money to see Kate Beckinsdale in a bodysuit, not to get a lesson in vampire history.

Awakening is successful because it stays light on its feet, covering backstory swiftly and focusing on the character relationships. And there are character relationships. Beckinsdale navigates tentative alliances with a vampire colleague and a human detective -- nice reversal that -- while getting to know her daughter. A little bit, anyway. Hey, it's something.

The Underworld movies are aptly named, as they inhabit a sort of box office underworld, ranking alongside genre companions Resident Evil and Hellboy, but far, far, far below the beloved franchises of our era, the Harry Potters, the Twilights and the Transformers.

Nonetheless, they're usually good for a passable eighty minutes.

Underworld #5, anyone?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 61/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 72/100

Monday, February 20, 2012

Safe House

It was a surprising little story in 2010 when US Magazine editor David Guggenheim sold his spec thriller Safe House to Universal Pictures for mid-six figures.

Gossip magazine editors don't typically make the leap to screenwriting.

Two years later we have the movie version of Safe House, directed by a young Swedish director named Daniel Espinosa.

It stars Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent who's been selling state secrets on the open market for the last nine years. He's now gotten ahold -- somehow -- of a tiny computer flashdrive that contains the mother lode: thousands upon thousands of files detailing the inner workings of a corrupt and ruthless American Government. It's essentially the wiki-leaks files, except in reality, the US came off pretty well in the wiki-leaks incident, whereas in the Safe House version, the truth will supposedly cause hundreds of heads to roll.

Unfortunately for Denzel, his efforts to sell this information, in Cape Town, South Africa, get thwarted by a nasty band of automatic-weapon-wielding thugs.

(According to Hollywood, Cape Town is rife with bands of automatic-weapon-wielding thugs, making pre-apocalyptic and post-apocalytpic Cape Town nearly identical. The script's original setting was South America, which was perhaps considered not lawless enough.)

To escape these thugs, Denzel flees into the nearest available building, which happens to be the US Consulate. There he is immediately taken into custody.

This causes a flurry of exposition-spouting in Washington D.C. -- "get me all the files you have on Tobin Frost!" -- between CIA Director Sam Shepard and lieutenants Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga. After trying to determine who can look more lifeless delivering bone-dry and cliched dialogue, they decide to have Frost interrogated where he is, which means Denzel gets shuttled off to a nearby safe house in Cape Town.

This safe house is babysat by handsome, square-jawed Ryan Reynolds, who desperately wants a promotion to do work in the field.

Naturally he gets all the field work he wants when the safe house is bulldozed by the aforementioned gang of automatic-weapon-wielding thugs. Reynolds manages to escape with Denzel, and the two of them go on the run for the rest of the movie.


"The rest of the movie" consists of chase after chase, gunbattle after gunbattle, and fistfight after fistfight. It pauses only long enough to cut over to D.C. for a little more exposition.

The directing is hilariously amateurish. In the D.C. scenes, the camera couldn't be more static, alternating over-the-shoulder shots with the regularity of a ping-pong match, whereas in the action scenes, the camera quivers and cuts and spins almost like we're watching the world's first impressionist movie.

Obviously Espinosa is going for the handheld Bourne look, but the overdone homage comes off as parody. It's hard not to be cynical and say that the quick-cutting, handheld style also appealed to Espinosa because it enables a director not to worry too much about how the story's action actually happens, how a combatant actually wins a fight, because it enables you to cut and jump and cut and jump until someone falls over dead and then you move on. This is good for filmmakers who don't want the challenge of actually revealing character and developing story through action, but who just want the action.

It's almost as if Guggenheim isn't a professional screenwriter and Espinosa isn't a professional Hollywood director...

The basic idea of Safe House is cool, the title is cool, and Denzel is certainly cool, but the execution is botched from frame one. This notwithstanding, the movie grossed forty million dollars its first weekend in theaters. Which is why Hollywood doesn't freak out about execution. If the idea is cool, the title is cool and the lead actor is cool, you'll have a very good chance of opening huge.

Safe House opened huge.

So it's got that going for it.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 44/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 37/100

Friday, February 17, 2012

Haywire

"Women who kick ass" is a terrific and relatively recent sub-genre of the action pic.

Sigourney Weaver may have pioneered the field -- or heck, maybe it goes back as far as Pam Grier -- but it's taken on fresh strength in the last decade or so with the likes of Milla Jovovich, Kate Beckinsdale and Angelina Jolie.

There's just something aesthetically satisfying about watching a beautiful woman karate chop her way through forty opponents before driving a car off an exploding building, jumping out in mid-air and parachuting safely to the ground.

That's never not fun to watch.

The genre is piggybacking on the fast-changing definition of female athleticism. There's nothing genteel anymore in the way Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova play tennis, or the way Abby Wambach plays soccer.

Because the perceived ceiling of what women can do is rising so fast, female athletics are arguably more dynamic and gripping than male athletics. Or at least they would be, if constant improvement in steroids wasn't raising the ceiling on male performance just as fast.

This means Hollywood would be dumb not to take advantage of the new breed of female ass-kicker newly embedded in the culture; and Hollywood is many awful things, but dumb is not one of them. Hence, we have three action flicks with female leads just this month: Underworld 4, One for the Money and Haywire.

Haywire came about because filmmaker Steven Soderbergh grew fixated on Gina Carano, the world's #2 ranked female mixed martial arts fighter. The #1 ranked fighter is someone named Cyborg, who beat Carano at 2009's Strikeforce bout. So why did Soderbergh cast the loser in his new film, and not the winner?

Because the loser is good-looking, of course.


Soderbergh was so smitten -- aesthetically, let's presume -- that he built Haywire around Carano. He paid a cast of fine actors, including Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas, to get bloodily abused by Carano, each in their turn, and he hired a competent but undistinguished screenwriter to fashion a story around these brutal beatdowns.

The resulting scenario makes Carano a mercenery-for-hire who gets betrayed by her boss while doing contract work for the CIA. The reason for the betrayal makes some kind of sense, but it's complicated enough that I don't remember it. Happily the movie never bogs down in exposition. It sticks with a primal situation -- Carano is being hunted by the authorities as well as her own colleagues while she tries to clear her name -- and lets the kicks and punches fall where they may.

There are two threads in the story -- one in the present and one in the past: the ominous "Barcelona Job" in which Carano gets betrayed -- and the jumping back and forth adds juice to the story's pace. Maybe because it gives us a mystery to ponder -- what the heck happened in Barcelona to make our girl such a public enemy? -- while the main chase plot barrels along.

Soderbergh was smart to demand that his story be clean and efficient, the better to showcase the gem at its center. Carano is just as good in the action scenes as one would hope. She's such an accomplished fighter that there is utterly no suspension of disbelief required when watching her dispatch bigger male opponents like Channing Tatum. Let me say that again: there is NO suspension of disbelief required.

Carano is not really required to act in Haywire but, really, no one's required to act in Hollywood. Film acting is mostly the product of a good script, a good director and a good editor. The only real indefinable is whether you look good on camera or not. And Carano looks great.

Gee, maybe I'm a little smitten with her myself.

Aesthetically speaking, of course.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 68/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 81/100