Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Film review: Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans

Director: Patrick Tatopoulos
Cast: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra
Country: USA

Hot on the heels of last month’s teen-vamp juggernaut Twilight comes the third instalment of popcorn goth franchise Underworld, subtitled Rise Of The Lycans. If the timing didn’t already seem futile in the wake of those brooding pubescents, then imagine trying to sell Underworld minus its Kate Beckinsale.

Under the circumstances it hardly seems credible that there would be enough goodwill left for a series that had already run its course to return without its black-leather clad starlet. Nevertheless, here we are again: werewolves versus vampires; this time it’s history! Operating under the presumption that no franchise worth its salt should be without a prequel in today’s serialised cinema, producer Len Wiseman takes the Underworld mythos back a thousand years to the beginning of war between the two fanged frenimies.

If you missed the first two instalments that might not exactly be a bad thing because Rise Of The Lycans, whilst filling in the back-story of Underworld, effectively recycles the retelling of Romeo and Juliet from the 2003 release. Bill Nighy reprises his role as Viktor, leader of the aristocratic, immortal Vampire creed who have enslaved their Lycan cousins. The Lycans had been purely animal in form until the birth of Lucian (played once again by Michael Sheen), the first werewolf with they ability to interchange with human form.

Viktor’s got a soft spot for Lucian, who he sees as part protégé part pet complete with fido collar that prevents him and the other Lycans from transforming into werewolves and running amok. Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Beckinsale-alike Rhona Mitra) has got a soft spot for Lucian too, but not the kind that daddy would approve of.

Rather awkwardly, director Tatopoulos chooses to reveal their love in a fleshly sequence of interspecies relations that manages to be gratuitous to the point of distraction without showing anything more than two thronging bodies in the heat of passion. It’s not long before Lucian and Sonja’s secret is uncovered which leads to the necessary betrayal, rebellion and finally a good old-fashioned smackdown between vamps and wolves for the film to ticks all its boxes.

Tatopoulos' handling of the unholy romp becomes a reflection of most the elements in Rise Of The Lycans. Everything from Sheen’s Spartacus-evoking speeches, vampire dress chic, cockney-geezer guards and Shakespearean tragedy are laid on so thick it makes the original Underworld look the very example of subtle filmmaking.

But it is also in this regard that any of the fun from ROTL can be derived with Nighy finding his usual fine form, enunciating his way through every ham-fisted piece of dialogue. Despite starring roles it is Mitra and Sheen who provide the support as Nighy carries the franchise to the finish line amidst largely poor CGI, disguised only by the night settings of most the films major set pieces.

With the trilogy complete; sequel and prequel wrapped up nicely – all that’s left is for the fashionable series reboot. Perhaps the West Side Story version, Underworld 4.0: this time it’s musical.

Scott Henderson
Published in issue 944 of 3D World.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Film review: Black Ice

Director. Petra Kotwica
Country: Finland
Cast: Outi Mäenpää, Ria Kataja, Martti Suosalo

Revenge is rarely a simple matter, rarer still is an act of revenge that doesn’t come back to bite its perpetrator in the ass. It is with this in mind that Black Ice, whilst gamely accomplishing heightened states of tension, struggles to mask a sense of inevitability that veers closer to a frozen platter of predictability than a cool dish of genuinely dreadful vengeance.

Helsinki gynecologist Saara (Outi Mäenpää) is gracefully entering her middle age, still very much in love with her charming architect husband Leo (Martti Suosalo) and still habouring a dream of having children together. Finding a half-used pack of condoms (in his guitar case no less, the cad) on her birthday throws something of a spanner in the works. Leo's absurd denials lead Saara to turn detective and to the discovery that her husband is having an affair with one of his students, 20-something Tuuli (Ria Kataja).

Rather than confront Leo’s young mistress, Saara somehow finds herself enrolled in the marital arts class that Tuuli teaches and begins a masquerade that takes Black Ice down a slippery road of mild farce and tenuous melodrama. Assuming a new identity Saara sets about befriending Tuuli, to what end is never quite clear to anyone involved, but her motivation becomes increasingly conflicted as her relationship with her rival deepens.

It is on these psychological strings that Black Ice pulls in its vague single white female dalliance. Thriller elements are all there and ably magnified by the cold, dark and bleak Finnish landscape, but they struggle to carry the weight of disbelief requiring suspension over the calamities of circumstance that slowly build throughout the film. And with that in mind it is in the third act that writer-director Petra Kotwica’s script finds itself skating on the proverbial thin stuff as the squirms and cringes induced are less resulting from frayed nerves, but rather the sort afforded an episode of The Office.

Kotwica’s second outing behind the camera is, nevertheless, an assured work with two solid and one strong performances from the actors caught in the film’s central love triangle. It is in the exploration of intimacy, frailty and insecurity that Black Ice is at its observational best – probing human relations with a curious sense of cruelty. Ria Kataja, for her part, becomes the film’s greatest asset completely occupying Tuuli as Kotwica struggles to manage the melodrama. The young actress exudes not only the energy and confidence required of her superficial role as scarlet woman, but also the naivety of a young woman love-struck and led astray.

However, whilst Kotwica’s characters are all well-rounded and believable ones their contrived march toward the improbable inevitable becomes a full blown force against the credibility the film strives for. By the time events have culminated in film’s coup de grâce, the most disturbing pregnancy test in recent memory, there’s nothing left that could surprise you.

Scott Henderson
Published in issue 943 of 3D World.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Don't call it a comeback

Dark Habits is returning soon after a six-month hiatus of snowboarding, veggie picking, and other such adventures