Kate Beckinsale roars back into action with Underworld: Evolution, a sequel that, like many follow ups, isn’t as structured or fresh as the first but still manages to be every inch as stylish, baroque and gorgeous looking as the other few in the series I’ve seen (I am making my way through a Blu Ray box set of all five films in their extended cut glory). The action takes up right where it left off; outcast warrior Selene (Beckinsale) has killed vamp elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) and ran off into the night with her halfbreed lover Michael (Scott Speedman) with monstrous final boss Marcus in hot pursuit. This provides one of the entire franchise’s most jaw dropping, visually dynamic action sequences as they careen down Vancouver’s Sea To Sky highway against a muted overcast sky in a big rig semi truck. Now Marcus (Tony Curran under a metric ton of makeup) is one of those snazzy Spawn-esque vamps who can fly and has extra razor sharp limbs and cool bodily accessories to help him fight, so basically he’s flying alongside them at a crazy speed attacking the truck while Selene empties clip after clip into his face from her semiautomatics before ploughing right into the Britannia Mine tunnels, it’s just an exhilarating, incredibly well shot action sequence and the highlight of the film. Also I’m a bit tired of American studios filming here and then trying to pass off my beautiful home province as some place in the states or wherever so from now on I’m just going to refer to any film shot in Vancouver as being set here as well. Anyways, this is a solid entry that benefits from Marcus as a formidable, physically ruthless villain and continues the ongoing trend of seasoned British stage actors cast as vampire elders, Derek Jacobi stepping in here for a mostly absent Bill Nighy. Not my favourite of the series that I’ve seen so far, but a solid entry with memorable set pieces including a snowy medieval prologue that sets the tone for Rise Of The Lycans, an impressive climax set atop a ruined mountain castle complete with hovering helicopters and that Sea To Sky truck chase is just one for the ages.
I feel like the Underworld films don’t get proper credit for just how visually magnificent and stylistically sumptuous they are. I mean sure the stories are often a muddle of faux Shakespearean shifting alliances and paranormal melodrama that are impossible to decipher but if you just approach them overall as the story of an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves with lots of preening politics, an abundance of beautifully gory, darkly balletic action sequences and the occasional splash of forbidden romance then you’re good, and don’t need to engage the brain much further. Take Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans, for example, which best I could figure is some kind of prequel to the first film where we see what went down between the two species hundreds of years before. Bill Nighy gives the word overacting new meaning here but is a lot of fun as Viktor, king of the vampire nation who has effectively enslaved all the werewolves for his own work/war effort and forces them to hunt down their own kind who rebel. His daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) does some rebelling of her own by constantly defying daddy’s orders and carrying out a secret romance with Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen). This overall unrest leads to the werewolf uprising and eventual incursion that will start a centuries long war. That’s all you need for story, trust me. What works best about this film is the resplendently beautiful production design and what makes it stand out in the initial trilogy is that it’s set far in the past so the uproarious gunfights become ruthless swordplay, the nocturnal urban atmosphere becomes a moonlit medieval castle aesthetic and never before has the franchise felt this gothic. Mitra is a beauty and then some, and while she’s not quite as lithe or physically distinctive as Beckinsale and her leather trench coat, she suits the ancient warrior aesthetic and does the Underworld name proud. Nighy is so far over the top I wanted him to calm down a bit before he had a stroke or something, he’s about as arch and theatrical as it gets but it suits the role and tone of the film nicely. Much of the film is sound, fury, blood and metal under inky black moonlight and some may have trouble deciphering the specifics of choreography under such a dim cloak of a visual palette but trust me it’s all there and it’s all *very* well done. This franchise has some of the most gorgeous, anatomically and aesthetically satisfying werewolves I’ve personally seen in horror, just great big bastards that look like they could rip a cow in half and are deadly in their speed, physicality and agility despite their hefty size. The Vamps have this eerie aristocracy to them and always seem calmly observant and deviously in charge, with help from the iridescent, creepy contact lenses the actors get to wear. The fight scenes are brutal and relentless, packed with gore and stylish weaponry and staged against spatially striking castle, river, forest and mountain vistas. There’s a shamelessly lurid sex scene between Sonja and Lucian where they’re literally writhing in slow motion on the edge of an impossibly baroque cliffside that is quite possibly one of the most arousing, breathtaking sex scenes I’ve ever seen on film. Say what you want about these movies man, and maybe I’m just a whore for visually stimulating horror films and am too generous on the ones that rely on the style over substance play, which is quite possibly the case, and I own that. However, I’m sitting there watching all of this play out and I’m in raptures about it, totally and completely entertained and pleased in my experience, and if that be the case, well I’m more than okay with all style and little substance, provided the style is as bounteous and well crafted as is the case here. *Great* looking film, if not a great one overall.
Who doesn’t love Love Actually? I know I do. It’s such a sentimental, goofy, overblown pile of mush and I love it even more for being so. It can be sappy, but a lot of the situations and character interactions it entails are blunt, awkward truths made even more hilarious by an even more awkward cast, and encapsulate the meaning of Christmas. Not all the couples work out, not all of the individual stories end well or in satisfaction for characters or audiences. But that’s life, and they make the best out of what they have at this time of year, which is what it’s really about. Some turn out splendidly for the characters, leaving them beaming. Some learn tough lessons that are necessary for growth, some find love in storybook fashion and others are simply there for comic relief. What comedy and tearful drama we get as too, delivered by an astoundingly massive cast of British legends, speckled with a few familiar Yankee faces just to garnish the giant British figgy pudding. Liam Neeson plays a grieving father whose son (Thomas Bodie Sangster) is sick with love. Neeson’s sister (Emma Watson, grounded, real, heartbreaking) deals with her irresponsible husband (Alan Rickman, incapable of a false note). The newly elected Prime Minister (Hugh Grant in full flustered, fumbling glory) is attracted to his cute secretary (Martine Mcutcheon) and aloof writer Colin Firth feels pangs for his Portuguese housekeeper (Lúcià Moniz) who speaks not a word of English. Laura Linney has a steamy office romance with Rodrigo Santoro whilst dealing with an ill sibling, Bill Nighy is hysterical as a cynical Grinch of a pop star with a jaded facade, Keira Knightely, Chiwetel Efjor and Andrew Lincoln are involved in a subtle love triangle, and there’s all kinds of interwoven vignettes including Martin Freeman, Elisha Cuthbert, Ivana Milicevic, January Jones, Claudia Schiffer, Shannon Elizabeth, Denise Richards, Joanna Page, Sienna Guillory, Billy Bob Thornton as the sleazy US President and a priceless Rowan Atkinson as the world’s weirdest jewelry salesman who gives new maniacal meaning to holiday gift wrapping. It’s a big old circus of Christmas spirit with all kinds of different desires, motivations and relationships that reaches a festive fever pitch before erupting into a joyous finale of giddy Yuletide melodrama and cathartic good times that is impossible not to smile at. An annual watch for me.
Gore Verbinski’s Rango is a wonder among animated films. Naturally the colourful, larger than life medium lends itself to the eyes, ears and hearts of children, which is the direction most of them take. But Rango presents a mature, raunchy, surreal, absurd spectacle rife with a mischievous buzz and peppered with laughs just bordering on the inappropriate, even though they’d go right over their heads anyway. This film broke the record for how many times my jaw hit the floor seeing what they could do with the visuals. It’s detailed, meticulous, gorgeously rendered and beautifully crafted, not to mention speckled with subtle references to other films, literary works and themes that Verbinski no doubt holds dear and uses to amplify the story nicely. Johnny Depp gives wit, endearing naivety and a sense of childlike wonder to his creation of Rango, a little lizard in the big desert, violently thrown from a car wreck into the greatest adventure of his life, and the archetypal heroes journey. He wanders through the baking Mojave desert into the town of Dirt, inhabited by sassy, loveable creatures modelled after all our favourite western characters and carefully constructed from the biological blueprint of wildlife in that area. He blunders his way into becoming the sheriff, and leads the whole town on a quest to locate their most sought after resource: Aqua. Verbinski directs with a snappy, take no prisoners sense of humour, throwing joke after joke after one liner after tongue in cheek nod at us, until we feel so bombarded with fantastic imagery, brilliant voice acting and just plain fun, that we more than feel like we’re getting our money’s worth. Each animal is beautifully designed, from the evil Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy having a ball with a mini gun tail and evil amber eyes), to Beans (a fellow lizard and love interest for our scaly hero), to the sleazy mayor (Ned Beatty, that old turtle), to a rampaging band of bank robbing moles led by a blind Harry Dean Stanton. The cast includes everyone from Timothy Olyphant to Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Lew Temple, Ian Abercrombie, Gil Birmingham and Verbinski himself in multiple roles. There’s just so much going on here visually, from a dusty cameo by The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’s Man With No Name to eerie trees that wander the desert searching for water, a cameo from Hunter S. Thompson’s Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo themselves and don’t even get me started on the batshit crazy aerial chase scene set to a mariachi version of Ride Of The Valkyries. The film is so full of detail, beauty and ambitious artistry that it has taken me at least three viewings to feel like I’ve noticed every character, one liner and cheekily brilliant little touch. It’s that good. Among the whacky antics there’s a theme of owning up to ones identity, becoming responsible for people you save, and finishing the work or task you set out to do, lest you leave your legacy unwritten. A classic.
Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener is a film you just can’t get enough viewings of, it’s such a dense, sumptuous and emotionally complex piece that each revisit rewards with new angles on story, perspectives on character motivation and comprehension of subtle, hazy moments in the performances that you didn’t pick up the first few times because the visual element just overwhelms you at first. This is a cool flick for me because it’s based on a book by John Le Carré, a spy novelist whose work I often find too dry and lacking in warmth, but not here, I saw this during it’s theatrical run way back when and have loved and felt connected to it ever since. It doesn’t hurt that it stars Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two of the most intuitive, brilliant performers of their generation, and if there’s a duo who could do justice to a story like this, it’s them. Fiennes plays Justin, a reserved, introverted diplomat in Africa. Weisz is his wife Tessa, a fiery, outgoing humanitarian worker. They couldn’t be more opposite, as we later learn through fragmented flashbacks, but the film throws us in the deep end by telling us right off the bat that Tessa has been murdered. So begins an elliptical mystery shrouded in a poignant love story, a conspiracy thriller that uncoils patiently, each clue spreading the seeds for ten more. Tessa was working in the field researching the actions of drug companies in this third world region, she may have been having an affair, and she was pregnant. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but so is the risk for Justin to become too entrenched in a quagmire of lies, red herrings and dead end crossroads, and, just like Tessa, lose his way. Who really knows what’s going on in such a chaotic part of the world? Does Pellegrino (Bill Nighy) the mysterious CEO of big pharma? Perhaps Sandy (Danny Huston) Tessa’s friend from the embassy? Or is it Dr. Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite, excellent in the haunting third act), an elusive aids worker, who holds the secret to her death? It’s not easy resolution this film is interested in, but rather overturning more stones that lead to more mysteries until one feels wonderfully beguiled, a true sign that script and edit are firing on all cylinders. Many things are hinted at, including whether or not the drug companies are illegally testing non FDA approved prototypes on poverty stricken locals under the guise of medicine, which seems just scary enough to be true. The film dangles answers just out of reach, and even in the eerie eleventh hour where Justin finds himself stranded in a desolate plane of Africa, you get the sense that the resolutions he comes too are only the half of it, if that. Meirelles also directed City Of God, another film set in an unfortunate area of the world, he brings a jagged, splintered perception to the editing and narrative, a perfect garnish to the already impenetrable nature of Le Carré’s literary work. Cinematographer Cesar Charlone (also responsible for City Of God) films with elemental grace and captures the light brilliantly. Weisz and Fiennes bring out humanity in Le Carré’s work that he probably didn’t even know was there, and are beacons in a weathered storm of indifference and injustice. Not an easy film to absorb, but what it withholds in straightforwardness (which is a plus quality in my books anyways) it makes up for in beauty, mystery and nuance. One of the best films of the last few decades.
Notes On A Scandal shines an unblinking and often bitterly tainted spotlight into what makes people tick, how they interact with one another and what a slap in the face it can be when you see what they really think and feel, independent of how they may carry themselves in public. Judi Dench is acid personified as an older woman and veteran teacher at a local high school, who’s ranks have recently been joined by a younger art instructor (Cate Blanchett). Dench is jaded, her only friend being her cat Portia, and has an insidious habit of keep a diary in which she writes down prickly little barbs about everyone and everything around her, often cruel and judgmental in nature. She takes a shine to Blanchett, who is married to a much older and renowned man (the excellent Bill Nighy) and has every vibrant thing in life that Dench is bereft of, left with the vacuum of her own empty existence. She envies, aspires to and resents Blanchett’s existence, and pours a malicious cocktail of verbal attacks into her journal, safe in the knowledge that it’s just as personal and private as her own thoughts, and that she’ll never be found out. Or will she? I’ve lived long enough to know that secrets you try to hide have a way of working their way to the surface, becoming known and hurting those you love or try to connect to. Speaking of secrets, things get incredibly complicated when Blanchett gets caught up in a torrid affair with a teenage boy she teaches, lured in by lust’s song and deaf to consequence, which is something that befalls us all more than we’d care to admit. Dench thinks she can use her knowledge of the affair as leverage to get what she wants, which she may not even be sure of at all, beyond it obsessively involving Blanchett. The two of them are dynamite as two sides of the many faced coin of ambiguity. The human behavior in this film somewhat defies the usual story structure and parameters of character we are used to in film. Decisions are arbitrary, ugliness is exposed, people are contradictory and confused in a way that leaves them stranded without beats to fall back on with their work. High praise is deserved to a piece this honest and willing to explore these places.
Usually, I’m not super hot on adaptations of John Le Carré novels. His style tends to veer towards dense, impenetrable narratives that confuse and confound me, and are further frustrating because they have such wonderful casts and production value (I’m lookin at you, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The Constant Gardener, however, is a breathtaking story that I’ve enjoyed very much since I saw it in theatres at probably too young an age. It fashions a story that although is complex and refuses to be straightforward about what it’s trying to say, contains essential beats and stunning performances from its actors. It’s also set apart from other Le Carré yarns for having the most humanistic, compasionate core to its story, centering it’s focus on the atrocities that humans can commit upon each other in mass, faceless fashion and showing us the sparse, golden good deeds that a few kind people can put forth to counter such madness. An organic, emotional theme is nice compared to the clinical, detached style we usually see from this writer. The film is lucky in the sense that it has deeply gifted leads: Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two actors who always resonate with a relatable human kinship in their work, and are both superb here. Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British ambassador in a god forsaken African region whose luminous wife Tessa (Weisz) is found dead in a remote area under suspicious circumstances. She was investigating several high profile pharmaceutical companies, under scrutiny for their sociopathic, amoral drug testing trials on the poverty stricken Africans. Intrigue strikes in after this, as shellshocked Justin pieces together what lead to her death, and how he can cripple those responsible using espionage and a level of keenness that’s well above both his pay grade and mental constitution. Flashbacks abound as we see Justin and Tessa’s early years unfold, adding all the more to the lumps in our throats as we know the ultimate outcome which the film frankly showed us in the opening frames. Welcome supporting turns come from other UK geniuses like Bill Nighy as an icy CEO, Richard McCabe as Fiennes’s courageous brother in law, Danny Huston as a shady friend of Tessa’s and Pete Postlethwaite as a mysterious doctor who figures later in the plot. Cinematographer César Charlone makes sweeping work of bringing the chaotic nature of Africa to life, it’s people, landcsape and aura beautifully rendered in shots that evoke the best of Monét and similar artists. Such beauty brought forth from a story filled with unpleasantness is interesting, almost a refusal to present the depressing story in any other fashion than to show us the virtue in tragedy, the cost of lost lives and unchecked corruption present for all to see and wince at, yet somewhat quelled by the undeniable forces of light also in play. Rachel and Ralph’s work is an example of this; They are compassion incarnate, pools of hurt, determination and love for one another in the face of evil, unfair odds. They should both be very proud of their work here. Direct Fernando Meirelles has helmed Blindness and the classic City Of God, and as such is no stranger to infusing pain and sorrow with esoteric, positive qualities. He takes full advantage of the African setting, where suffering is commonplace and along with his entire troupe, throws all the lush, alluring kindness straight into the face of horror in an audacious stylistic set of choices which make The Constant Gardener one of the most achingly well constructed romantic annd political thrillers of the decade.