Underworld: Blood Wars

For F*** Magazine

UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS

Director : Anna Foerster
Cast : Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Tobias Menzies, Lara Pulver, Peter Andersson, Clementine Nicholson, Bradley James, Charles Dance, Daisy Head
Genre : Action/Horror
Run Time : 1h 32min
Opens : 1 December 2016
Rating : M18 (Violence)

underworld-blood-wars-posterTo paraphrase Dracula, the granddaddy of all vampires, “Watch them, the children of the night. What terrible movies they make!” The fifth instalment of the Underworld franchise sees Selene (Beckinsale) hunted by the Lycans and the Vampire coven that betrayed her. She can only trust her protégé David (James) and his father Thomas (Dance), a vampire elder. The duplicitous, power-hungry Semira (Pulver) plots Selene’s destruction, while the Lycan leader Marius (Menzies) plans a Lycan siege of the Vampires’ stronghold. Both sides of the conflict are in pursuit of Eve, Selene’s daughter with the Vampire/Lycan hybrid Michael. Selene and David pay a visit to the reclusive Nordic Coven, appealing to Vidar (Andersson) and his daughter Lena (Nicholson) to ally themselves with them as the centuries-long war rages on.

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Back in 2003, there was at least a modicum of novelty in the premise of Underworld, which blended slick Matrix-style action with supernatural horror. Also novel was the casting of Kate Beckinsale, then known predominantly for English costume dramas, as an action heroine. It’s safe to say that 13 years and four further movies later, said novelty has eroded. Underworld: Blood Wars is impressive in that it somehow manages to make vampires fighting werewolves (with machineguns flung into the mix) boring. This was originally conceived as a reboot and ended up being a sequel – we can’t say for certain if either option is better than the other.

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Director Anna Foerster has several TV credits to her name and makes her feature film debut here. Instead of injecting some new blood into a franchise that sorely needs it, Foerster dutifully emulates the style established by the first two films’ director, Len Wiseman. While location shooting in Prague does lend the proceedings some mystique and grandeur, everything is smothered in that bluish-grey filter the series has become infamous for.

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The screenplay is written by Cory Goodman, whose credits include the mediocre genre flicks Priest and The Last Witch Hunter. The plot is muddled and conveyed via awkward chunks of expository dialogue. Even though we begin with a “previously on..”-type recap, what should be a straightforward story is still a challenge to keep track of. The political intrigue and back-stabbing within the vampire nobility is a pale imitation of the devious scheming we’ve seen on Game of Thrones and shows of its ilk. The action sequences are uninspired, barring a fun take on a cage match. The unintentionally funny computer-generated Lycans do make one hanker for the animatronic effects on display in the earlier films. A sojourn to the ice caves populated by the Nordic Coven should have made for a refreshing change of scenery, but it looks like a chintzy theme park.

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Beckinsale cuts as elegant a figure as ever in that PVC catsuit, but she’s going through the motions. Selene’s long life has been marked by multiple tragedies, but she never feels like an actual person the way iconic action heroines like Ellen Ripley from the Alien series and Sarah Connor from the Terminator franchise do. She’s just there to look badass, which isn’t going to cut it.

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James reprises his sidekick role from Underworld: Awakening, remaining sullen and uncharismatic. It is always fun to see respectable English actors pop up to cash a paycheck, with Dance also returning, albeit briefly. Pulver hams it up as the vampy femme fatale, something she’s perfected on Sherlock as Irene Adler. Semira struts about in an assortment of costumes, including a particularly daring criss-crossing barely-there number, Pulver relishing the silliness of it all. It’s too bad that Menzies, sporting a scraggly wig, is altogether too bland as her Lycan counterpart. Also suffering aesthetically are The Nordic Coven vampires, who look like rejects from an episode of Xena: The Warrior Princess.

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After sitting through 92 minutes of a film that felt far longer than that, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that this franchise’s blood has long since curdled. Providing neither pulse-pounding action spectacle nor a compelling, propulsive mythos, Underworld: Blood Wars leaves not a mark, but a stain.

SUMMARY: Between the confusing, over-plotted narrative, the stilted performances and the dull visuals, we can’t find much of a reason for the fifth Underworld movie to exist.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Incarnate

For F*** Magazine

INCARNATE 

Director : Brad Peyton
Cast : Aaron Eckhart, David Mazouz, Carice Van Houten, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Matt Nable, Carolina Wydra, Emjay Anthony
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 1 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Horror and Some Coarse Language)

incarnate-posterWhatever you do, don’t call Dr. Seth Ember (Eckhart) an ‘exorcist’. What others call ‘demons’, he calls ‘parasitic entities’. It’s all strictly scientific, and Ember isn’t affiliated with any religious organisation. When the Vatican sends Dr. Camilla Marquez (Moreno) to engage his services, Ember wants nothing to do with it. However, he is enticed by the possibility that the case is connected to the death of his wife and son, the same apparent accident that left him paralysed from the waist down. 11-year-old Cameron Sparrow (Mazouz) is possessed by an arch-demon. His recently-divorced parents Lindsay (Van Houten) and Dan (Nable) fear for their son’s life, as it becomes obvious that something evil has taken him over. Ember must dive into Sparrow’s subconscious to forcibly oust the entity, but will his own demons get the better of him?

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Incarnate is the latest horror flick from producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse, who partnered with WWE Studios on this one. It’s easy to see why Blum was drawn to the project: what savvy producer would pass up a film with the logline “Inception meets The Exorcist”? Unfortunately, Incarnate is less than the sum of its parts.

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This reviewer’s interest was initially piqued by the psychological thriller spin put on the usual supernatural horror formula: Dr. Ember proclaims himself to be a man of science, adamant against running errands for the Vatican. The execution is clumsy, with Dr. Ember’s assistant Riley (Emily Jackson) uttering the line “each of us is like a wifi hotspot” in one of those “explain the technical concept to a layperson” exposition scenes. All the imagery associated with demonic possession – bodies flying across the room, pupils turning inky black, a deep spooky voice emanating from a child, and black acid spewed from the mouth – is stuff genre aficionados will find overly familiar.

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While Eckhart does invest effort in playing the haunted shell of a man that is Dr. Ember, the character never becomes more than a mere assemblage of clichés. He’s a shadow of his former self, shattered after the trauma of losing his family. Eckhart apparently went method, disguising himself as a wheelchair-bound, mentally ill war veteran to yell at passers-by at Venice Beach in California. We can’t say all that effort was worth it. There is a neat device here, though: when we see Ember in reality, he’s dishevelled, but when he enters his patients’ subconscious, he’s clean-shaven and has the use of his legs.

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Mazouz plays the creepy kid, bringing nothing new to the table. He’s a fine actor, but we’ve seen all the intense staring and glowing eyes before. This comes right on the heels of Ouija: Origin of Evil, in which Lulu Wilson made for a far scarier possessed child. DC Comics fans might find it amusing that Two-Face is exorcising young Batman, seeing as Mazouz plays Bruce Wayne on Gotham. As a bonus, Cameron’s dad is played by Ra’s al Ghul from Arrow. Yes, this is how we kept ourselves amused through the dullness of Incarnate.

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Both female leads are talented performers: we know Van Houten from Game of Thrones, and Moreno was nominated for an Oscar for Maria Full of Grace, her first film role. Neither gets very much to do, which can’t help but feel like a waste. Ember’s assistants Oliver (Keir O’Donnell) and Riley are supposed to add some personality to the proceedings, but they’re more than a little ridiculous. It’s as if director Brad Peyton thought that if Oliver had tattoos and Riley wore necklaces and a beanie, they’d automatically be hip and with it.

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Incarnate promises a mind-bending take on the supernatural horror formula, but has no tricks up its sleeves. The twist is easy to see through since it’s clear what the film’s influences are, and we get a cop-out ending as the cherry on top. Blumhouse is always on the hunt for a new horror franchise, but we hope they let this one lie. Then again, maybe they’ll pull an Ouija: Origin of Evil and make a killer follow-up.

Summary: You’ll leave the theatre thinking “we should have gone deeper”. Inception with demons should be a whole lot more gripping than this.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Nocturnal Animals

For F*** Magazine

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS 

Director : Tom Ford
Cast : Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 57min
Opens : 1 December 2016
Rating : M18 (Nudity)

nocturnal-animals-posterTom Ford shows off his night moves in his second directorial effort, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Susan Morrow (Adams) is a wealthy L.A. art gallery owner, whose relationship with her second husband Hutton (Armie) has soured. Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ after Edward’s nickname for Susan and dedicated to her. The novel centres on Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), a mild-mannered man whose wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) are abducted after a violent encounter with local ruffians during a road trip through Texas. Detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) helps Tony track down the culprit, handyman Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson), in the hopes of finding Laura and India. The brutality and rawness of the story shocks Susan, who reflects on the circumstances that led to the dissolution of her marriage with Edward. With Edward back in town and Hutton away on business, old wounds are reopened as Susan plans to meet with Edward for the first time in years.

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Nocturnal Animals is based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. In addition to directing, Ford adapted the novel for the screen and produced the movie, meaning that his stamp is all over the film. Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man was critically acclaimed and netted star Colin Firth and Oscar nomination. Critics and audiences were curious to see what Ford would follow the period piece with. While it is reductive to say that Nocturnal Animals is a case of “style over substance”, that’s essentially true. Ford has a distinct vision, but much of the imagery can’t help but come off as pretentious. We realise we’ve dug ourselves a hole by trucking out the ‘p’ word, but bear with us. Nocturnal Animals is at once subtle and overwrought, and we have a feeling that this was intentional. Ford appears to enjoy toying with the form and the ‘story within a story’ structure, but it’s difficult to get at what the film really is about.

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Two stories sit side-by-side and gradually intertwine. The ‘real world’ is cold and manicured, while the world of the novel is earthy, gritty and raw. The transitions which jolt us out of the book’s narrative and back into Susan’s reality are effective, and there are moments of intensity which reel the viewer in. However, the larger approach seems designed to hold the audience at arm’s length, and there’s the sense that Ford is playing a game of pushing us away then pulling us close as he pleases. Individually and stripped of the atmospherics provided by Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, neither of the two stories is all that riveting. There’s some satisfaction to be derived in seeing how they fit together, but one can almost feel Ford dancing about behind the camera, shouting “isn’t this all very artsy? Isn’t that delightful?”

As Nocturnal Animals parcels out information about Susan and Edward’s marriage, there are heart-rending scenes and the film approaches being relatable. In a flashback, Susan’s obnoxious mother Anne (Linney) haughtily cautions against marrying Edward. Anne warns her daughter that as a writer, Edward won’t be able to make a stable living, and the qualities she’s drawn to will soon be the things she hates most about him. This is a scene straight out of this reviewer’s nightmares. The film conveys the tumult of the creative process, how difficult it is to make a living as an artist and the price one has to pay for falling in love with a creative type. Its portrayal of heartbreak rings true, but this is buried beneath layers of posturing and overblown metaphors.

The performances contain glimmers of shattering power, but many scenes are also stilted and over-directed. Adams has proven herself to be an actress of considerable depth, getting across the war that roils within Susan without resorting to histrionics. Clad in Arianne Phillips-designed costumes, Adams is the picture of glamour – this is, of course, a façade.

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Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and the author’s surrogate within his novel, Tony. The violent revenge tale set against the dusty, desolate west Texas landscape is reminiscent of True Detective or Justified, and Gyllenhaal does enough to differentiate Edward and Tony. Tony is the physical manifestation of Edward’s angst, a vehicle for the author’s catharsis. It’s a moving turn from Gyllenhaal, but it can also be perceived as a romanticising of the “tortured artist” archetype.

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Shannon is at his best when he gets to be nuanced, since he is often typecast as blustery villains. Bob Andes is the archetypical crusty small-town sheriff helping the stranded outsider, a southern-fried seeker of justice. Shannon brings what could have been a cartoon character to three-dimensional life. In the meantime, Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is equal parts pathetic and menacing, though he does have trouble with the accent.

The aloof, handsome and ultimately unfaithful husband, Hammer’s Hutton Morrow is a walking plot device. Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen and Jena Malone all show up for one scene each, filling out Susan’s social and professional circle. Ford has some fun in casting with a metafictional eye – Adams and Fisher are often called looklikes, and Fisher plays Adams’ surrogate in the story-in-a-story. In Tony and Susan, Tony and Laura’s daughter was named Helen. In the film, Helen is renamed ‘India’. Susan’s adult daughter Samantha is played by India Menuez. It was fun tid-bit to discover.

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Like the contemporary art that fills Susan’s gallery, some will laud Nocturnal Animals as deep and wise, while others will dismiss it as showy and hollow. The striking visuals and impactful vignettes make this worth a look, but the film’s refusal to arrive at a point and its flights of arthouse fancy are often alienating.

Summary: If you’re prone to using “artsy-fartsy” as a dismissive term, Tom Ford’s sophomore work as a filmmaker will leave you cold. However, there are moving performances and heart-rending statements about love and art that resonate.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong