Archive for January, 2012

Bite Me Kate – Underworld Awakening

January 26, 2012

Vampires are supposed to be scary. If there is one thing that makes the Twilight movies suck, it is that they have forgotten that fact and made vampires into pasty-faced hunky dreamboats.   Vampires prey on humans, they don’t date them. Last year the excellent Stakeland brought the horror back to the vampire genre and provided a bloody antidote to the Twilight barf-fest. Now Kate Beckinsale returns to the character and catsuit of vampire warrior-woman Selene for her third entry in the Underworld series (there is a prequel in which she does not appear, before anyone feels the need to point that out, so technically this is the fourth Underworld movie).

In the prologue, the existence of vampires and lycanthropes (werewolves) is exposed to the waking world, leading to a mass cull to rid humanity of their “infection”. Attempting to flee with her lover Michael, Selene is captured. When she wakes up in a laboratory, years later, she discovers the humans have been experimenting upon a child called Eve (India Eisley) who is a rare vampire-lycan hybrid and with whom Selene shares a strange bond. Selene takes Eve and goes on the run from the human authorities, determined to protect the girl from humans and lycans alike. They find an ally in vampire David (Theo James), all the while pursued by the forces of Antigen, led by Dr Lane (a sanguine Stephen Rea).

Eve hides in shame after wearing white to Goth Night.

Man Marlind and Bjorn Stein take over the directorial duties and to their credit they have greedily embraced the horror elements of the franchise. If the first Underworld was gothic in tone and style, with gorgeous vamps languidly reclining in sprawling, gloomy mansions, Awakening is the industrial Underworld – a loud, pounding onslaught of a movie. The violence is aggressive, unrelenting and at times quite shocking – a shot of Eve being attacked by a werewolf is graphic and unsettling. However, this is no retrograde horror flick in which women are helpless before unstoppable male predators. The most dangerous character here is Selene, consumed by a maternal desire to protect Eve. Selene is far more ferocious than in the previous films and, unlike the appalling Edward in Twilight, she is not shy about sinking her fangs into a human’s jugular when she’s hungry. Beckinsale imbues Selene with an air of power and self-assurance. She is more dynamic than any of the men, a better fighter and, when matched against a larger, more powerful opponent, smarter.

It is arguable, of course, that Selene is a male fantasy construct – a beautiful image of an idealised female form but the character is never presented as being beholden to or defined by the men in her life. She has her own agenda and relies upon no-one but herself, unlike Bella “How can I make him love me?” Swan.

The movie looks tremendous on a big screen and the action scenes are ambitious and extremely well realised. In the first Underworld film, it was never entirely clear what made Selene special in her status as a Death Dealer who hunted werewolves. This time around, it is abundantly clear that Selene is lethal. The sequence in which she tears through a squad of human police is brutal and delivered with bombast and style. The battles with the lycans are bloody affairs, thrilling in their visceral impact, while the climactic showdown provides an almost deafening crescendo of mayhem. The stunt work is top notch, with cars being thrown around and a lovely shot in which Selene knocks over a moving van by charging into the side of it. She’s a bloodthirsty super-heroine who could punch Batman into next week.

There are some plot elements sure to raise a smirk – the humans hold Selene in captivity as a test subject but inexplicably decide to keep her distinctive catsuit, corset and boots in a cabinet close at hand so that moments after escape, Selene is back in her fetish gear. Beckinsale looks amazing but she does rather look like she’s on her way to a goth-industrial nightclub somewhere to spend the night dancing to Rammstein and Nine Inch Nails. Just as in all the films in the Resident Evil franchise, the ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel. If Beckinsale wants to get back in the catsuit again, I’ll be there. Bite me, Kate. Bite me hard.

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Haywire – An Alpha Female Hits The Big Screen

January 5, 2012

Since the boom in public interest in MMA following the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, a growing number of MMA fighters have dabbled in acting. The results have been, by and large, teeth grindingly awful. Straight-to-DVD releases like Circle Of Pain and No Rules are unwatchable, and far and away the best MMA movie so far – Gavin O’Connor’s superb Warrior – made the smart choice to use actors in the leading roles, because, let’s face it, it’s easier to teach an actor to fight than a fighter to act. But then along comes Steven Soderbergh with Haywire, an action thriller starring former American Gladiator, kickboxer and MMA starlet Gina Carano, to buck the trend.

The new "Dodge The Bullets" round on American Gladiators really thinned out the competition

The basic premise is that Mallory Kane (Carano) is an operative working for a private contractor that works with the US government carrying out espionage for hire. Betrayed by her employer and hunted by the authorities, Mallory goes looking for answers and revenge. The script adds interest to the fairly straightforward premise by telling the story out of sequence and teasing out information gradually.

It was bold of Soderbergh to have a first-timer carry the film, but Carano rises to the challenge. Certainly, the script gives Mallory little time for introspection and certainly none for soliloquising but then this is Soderbergh showing the same lean, muscular style he displayed in The Limey. Carano makes Mallory likeable to root for, with a fair dash of sex appeal, and she exudes enormous self-belief. She’s the alpha female and it certainly does not hurt that she is surrounded by a top notch supporting cast. Channing Tatum (who was excellent in The Eagle, which is well worth your time) is spot-on as Aaron, an agent obviously hired for his muscles rather than his brain, and Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender and Bill Paxton are all on reliably good form. Ewan McGregor drips sleazy intentions as Kenneth, Mallory’s boss and former lover. He makes a despicable villain and has one of the best lines of the film – “You shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. That would be a mistake.”

The movie opens with a confrontation in a cafe between Mallory and Aaron that explodes into shocking violence. This is where Carano’s casting really pays off. The fight scenes are brutal, no-frills affairs and benefit enormously from the fact that Carano is visible performing them herself – there is no need for frantic editing and lurching cameras to conceal the presence of a stunt double. Carano carries herself with a fighter’s confidence and cuts an athletic figure. An illuminating contrast is with Angelina Jolie in Salt (such a dumb movie – apparently you can infiltrate the White House by hiding round corners). Jolie is so thin she singularly fails to convince as a hand-to-hand combatant – it is hard to believe anyone so emaciated could pack a punch of any consequence, but Carano has power in her physique and makes you believe in Mallory’s ferocity.

Sure, she can jump over a car - but can she cook?

The stripped down direction of the fight scenes brought to mind the classic scrap on the train in From Russia With Love. There is no time for witty banter or clever insults – these are desperate encounters where defeat will result in death, so the combatants’ concentration is absolute and there is no energy or time to talk. The fight in the hotel room is a knockdown, drag out classic and matched by the scene in which Mallory takes out two members of the Garda in Dublin with ruthless determination. J.J. Perry, who worked on Warrior, is credited as fight choreographer and has really hit the mark. If there was any wirework, I didn’t spot it. Instead there is a mix of Muay Thai and jujitsu all performed with total conviction. It looks painful but is thrilling to behold. If Carano stays in the movies and never returns to the fight game, Haywire suggests she could have a bright future as long as directors continue to play to her considerable strengths.