Monday, April 21, 2014



My nerves are absolutely shattered this morning. Here I am, two days before the election, and I awoke to find my reputation smeared all over the pages of the Los Angeles times in this morning's edition. A half dozen chorus boys have come forward with stories stating that I behaved badly towards them on the set of one my films, China Clown, the story of one woman's founding of a collectibles empire, way back in 1975. They've made allegations that I caused them emotional pain and suffering for ridiculing their tap dancing skills, that I inappropriately touched their feet as I rehearsed them in dance numbers, and that I voiced opinions in which I mentioned my affection and admiration for Eleanor of Aquitaine. Of course, the phone immediately began to ring off the hook with the political press looking for comment. I have referred them all to Madame Rose, my publicist.

Rose has suggested that I go public and fight back so I have scheduled a press conference for later in the day, just in time for the Sunday evening magazine shows. I'm to be making a speech to a group of Hells Angels in Petaluma, outlining how my 'Tap Into Change' philosophy will improve their life choices and I'll conclude my remarks with a few words over these totally unfounded allegations. Besides, as the whole world knows, I am now and forever thirty-nine years of age. Therefore, in 1975 I was all of eleven and must be forgiven a certain amount of youthful indiscretion; I had no idea at the time that Eleanor was such a controversial figure.

While waiting for my campaign jet to whisk me north, I had just enough time to head off to the multiplex for a film to calm my nerves. As I'm caught at the moment between the jackals of my fellow candidates and the vampires of the press, I thought a nice supernatural war story might be a good inspiration so settled in at a screening of the new film Underworld with Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman. I knew little about the film before viewing it, other than some mention in the trades of a lawsuit. Apparently the concept of competing groups of vampires and lycanthropes comes from a series of role-playing games by White Wolf Inc., including Vampire: The Masquerade and the makers of the film seems to have appropriated that universe without a royalty payment.

The time is modern day. The place is an un named Eastern European city (although an occasional Budapest or Prague building is visible). Kate Beckinsale plays Selene, a vampire, a member of one of the oldest covens of its kind in the world. The vampires live together in a house like Wayne Manor where they dress like extras from a college production of Cabaret and pose languidly on the furniture. They are led by Kraven (Shane Brolly), a vampire with an ego problem and a plan to make himself undisputed king of the vampires worldwide. He wants Selene as consort, but she sees him for the egotistical prick that he is.

The vampires are at war, and have been for hundreds of years, with their cousins the werewolves. The werewolves are led by the clever Lucian (Michael Sheen), long thought dead, who is also plotting a comeback and who has organized his clan together in new ways, after their near extermination by the vampires. His hopes are pinned on finding a descendant of Corvinus, the Romanian lord who was ancestor of both bloodlines, who carries a mutation allowing him to be host to both traits. He finds this in Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a medical resident at a local hospital (apparently Eastern European hospitals are importing American physicians in training). Selene, who is interested in unraveling all of the plots and counterplots, also sees Michael's importance and, in a development unworthy of Romeo and Juliet, falls for Michael even though he appears to be headed for lycanthropedom and, therefore, anathema to vampire kind. As this is a Hollywood film, love eventually triumphs, secrets are revealed, evil doers are punished and the door is left wide open for sequels.

Underworld, despite its debts to the traditional creatures of the horror genre, is much closer to the comic book films made from brooding graphic novels that have come to the fore in recent years. Much of the film is shot in silhouette and everything is converted through filters into cool blue hues and darkness that do much for atmosphere, but play hell with storytelling and plot. The first ten minutes, which involves a protracted gun battle in a subway station, was completely unintelligible. I had no idea who was whom, who was shooting at whom, who was being injured, much less why it might all be taking place. I'm sure the look was for effect, but ultimately, it's nerve-wracking, and difficult to stomach.

Ultimately, the film owes its greatest debt to The Matrix, which it slavishly copies and pays homage to in many forms. There are slow motion karate/gun battles, all with an earsplitting rock music soundtrack. There are cool clothes in uncomfortable fabrics like pleather and lycra. There are nods to the multiple cables running into bodies, the aforementioned subway battle, and the loner hero defying the rules and changing them for purposes of plot and theme. The Matrix was smart enough to vary its action set pieces with character driven moments; this one does the same, however there's little motivation for much of the action and the battles go on for far too long. There's a reasonable 100 minute film inside the 120 minutes on display.

There are some good things here. The plot and concept, when we're dealing with the politics of vampires and werewolves and their struggles, is engrossing and there are some good character bits, especially Bill Nighy as a vampire king called back to life a century too early. Kate Beckinsale, who usually plays prim British ingĂ©nues, is an interesting choice as Selene as it's such a departure from her usual image and she manages to humanize the cartoon she's given to play and can hold her own at the center of the mayhem surrounding her. Unfortunately her love interest, Scott Speedman (late of Felicity) has all the screen persona of Spam and scenes die every time he comes into view.

The film was shot on a relatively low budget of less than 25 million with essentially no above the line expenses. The eastern European locations also made the film inexpensive so the majority of the budget went into the visual effects. They're fine, but wasted when they're there just for the sake of the violence and not in service of plot or character. Director Len Wiseman, working from a screenplay by Danny McBride, keeps things moving along but needs to learn that sometimes, especially in battle scenes, less is more - particularly if you're going to shoot in a palette that makes it impossible to determine which characters are even on screen.

The film is a diversion. It's got some good ideas, but doesn't use them as well as it could. If there is a sequel, we hope they'll focus a bit more on character, and a little less on gunplay and perhaps they'll have something.

Multiple story leaps. Silver nitrate bullets. Ultraviolet light bullets. Ceiling clinging. Gratuitous best buddy intern. Railway carriage carnage. Hidden torture chambers. Vampire throne. Meaningful medallion. Gratuitous black beast. 

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