Darke Reviews – Underworld Awakening (2012)

I’ve decided Mondays this month shall be Underworld related. Unsurprisingly I own all the Underworld franchise films and have at least one poster from the series on my walls in my house. There was a time when I was playing City of Heroes I would watch Underworld and Boondock Saints every other day….for three months. So with that in mind, and the fact that I haven’t reviewed any of these films I am going to review them each monday this month, but in reverse order. Why reverse order? Why not? The closer we get to Halloween the more awesome the movie gets? It just happened to be the film Jess grabbed from her DVD shelf? Pretty much…a mix and match of those answers.

So, how is the 4th installment of the Underworld franchise?

The first warning comes in that there are a total of 9 credits related to writing. Nine.

 

This blow is softened only by the fact three of the credits are for character creation at the hands of Len Wiseman, Kevin Grevioux, and Danny McBride. That still brings us to six. Len Wisemen is repeated again in the story credit with John Hlavin, so in reality we only have four total writers on the work. Still…Jess’s Rule of Three applies. For those not familiar it is the rule where if you have more than three writers on a project that the movie downgrades by exponential degrees with only a handful of exceptions.  Hlavin had no film credits prior, but did some story editing for The Shield. Wiseman created the series and has been involved the entire time, when not creating Sleepy Hollow the series. The last two credits go to Allison Burnett who didn’t have a great track record with films such as Fame and Untraceable on his resume. Then, however, there is a great writer J. Michael Stracyznski. I know him best from Babylon 5, but he also was a writer on Thor and Sense 8. Sadly this many writers with such differing backgrounds and levels of experience makes it hard where to place the blame for the overall script.

How do I feel about the script?

 

Ok directing? Neither Måns Mårlind or Björn Stein had any US film experience prior to this. This does not surprise me however, as much of the movie feels like other films I have seen come out of northern and eastern european filmmakers. There’s just something about the structure of shots, geography, and overall film production that reads European vs North American. The pacing shifts, the budget seems to get tighter in some areas while it gets abused in others still.  I think what saves them on this project is the fact that Wiseman is involved along with Kate Beckinsale reprising Selene.

Kate once again fills the all too familiar corset and body suit and shoots her way through the setting with brilliant blue eyes, black hair, and pale skin. I think her familiarity with Selene makes so much of the movie possible as she is the audience connection into what is otherwise unconnectable. Theo James (Divergent) is almost laughable trying to be tough against the known Selene, he reminds me of a puppy puffing its chest and barking at a wolf. He has zero chemistry with her and next to no charm. Thankfully the movie gives us Stephen Rea who is an amazing and totally underrated actor who brings a level of gravitas to his roles that works really well for the films he is in, such as V for Vendetta or Citizen X.  We are also given the gift of Michael Ealy (Almost Human, The Following), who has an easy charm like Chiwetel Ejiofor that allows him to glide in, sync up, and work with anyone.

From an FX perspective – how can a movie get that much worse over this much time? In 9 years graphics should have gotten better not worse. Then I look at the production design and make up department and see a distinct lack of Patrick Tatopoulos. I’d like to think part of the 70 million dollar budget went into the effects, a significant part. Perhaps it did, but…it doesn’t show.

TL; DR?

This movie is a guilty pleasure. It isn’t good. Not by a longshot. It does some interesting things with the story and certainly advances the plot, but I just don’t care. Granted none of these films are great films, but this one is the weakest.

Should you watch it?

Well…only if you want to complete the series or prep for the next film. Otherwise Nope.

 

On a semi related note: do you like the youtube clips inserted in the review? Trying something new.

 

 

Darke Reviews | Insurgent (2015)

I love March. It marks the beginning of the end for the toughest time in the 9-5 and the beginning of movies worth watching in the theatres – at least it usually is. This year is really not off to a good start and I just looked at April and with one major exception (Furious 7) there is next to nothing until Age of Ultron. I also seem to be among the few who did not like Cinderella last week; at least until the Walker brothers discussed it recently. So this week we got the sequel to last years Divergent.

Does Insurgent live up to it’s name and break the trend?

First, let me compare a bit to last years review. My friend at the coffee bar at the theatre told me there was a near full house for earlier showings yet my show was near empty. This time, the house was nearly full in one of the largest rooms they have there; which tells me this one grew despite the mediocre ratings the first one got. I still haven’t read the books, though they do look nice in my library – which means this review is still going to talk about the work from a purely cinematic standpoint. My last review talked about dystopian teen fiction at length for a bit.

Divergent took the tact of giving us a movie about class-ism or elitism and threw it out the window by giving us a main character who isn’t of any caste. It’s a pleasant twist. Insurgent continues the story of Tris Prior, a divergent, picking up days/weeks after the events of the last movie. This time the story is as much internal as it is external dealing with Tris facing her demons within and without. I rather enjoyed the conceit as we have a world where that can actually be a real thing to you.

Rather than keep the writers from the last film, three new writers come in. That’s usually not a good thing as my rule of three comes into play. I haven’t mentioned the rule for awhile and have some new readers. If you get to three or more writers for a film there is a degradation in the quality of the film. Too many writers, rewrites, and cooks in the kitchen and it tends to show in the final work. It does here too. Newcomer Brian Duffield was involved, working with Akiva Goldsman (Winter’s Tale, Angels & Demons, I Am Legend), and Mark Bomback (The Wolverine, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). I can’t tell what Duffield did for this movie as I have nothing to compare against. Goldsman brought his ability to write someone facing their own psychology, while Bomback brought a sense of reasonably well written action. By their powers combined, however, we get a bit of a mess.

The movie, much like the first, meanders a bit too much and has some odd pacing and tonal switches. It wants to address some things and then decides not to. It gives you threats then promptly ignores most of them. Like the first I have an overwhelming sense of meh for what I watched; and yet an interest to see what they do next. I am not sure how that works more than the movie falling to Middle of the Trilogy syndrome where it comes across as mostly filler but provides a set up for a more interesting finale.

I think the writers are not solely to blame for me not caring too much, as the director is the one who brought us one of the most bilious, refuse laden, nausea inducing films I have ever watched R.I.P.D.. I have such contempt for that film and likely find Robert Schwentke to blame for any flaws in films he works on. While, again, I have not read the books, I blame the director for me being deeply annoyed with most of the characters in the film. I blame the director for wasting Shailene Woodley as Tris.

I do not blame Shailene (Fault in our Stars), she actually does a good job. I understand her logic. I understand her fears. She makes sense and every decision – makes sense. That is so rare and most of that comes from the actor being able to pull off the nuance of emotions. Sadly something happened between the last movie and this one (I’ll blame Schwentke) with Woodley and her romantic co star Theo James (Underworld 4) who plays Four. I could be missing something but for the better part of the film I don’t feel chemistry between them, which is sad as much of the film needs that. There are exceptions, but not nearly enough.

Kate Winslet, as Jeanine, is one cat short of being a Bond villain.  Jai Courtney still annoys me and I am reasonably certain they used a cardboard cut out in two scenes with him and they turned in a better performance than the actor. Ansel Elgort (also Fault in our Stars) does well with what he has, but I don’t think he has much. Miles Teller (Footloose, Whiplash, and the upcoming Fantastic Four) is surprisingly enjoyable; even when he’s a jerk. He just makes his character work. The rest of the cast is entirely not worth mentioning – which is unfortunate.

From a technical perspective I’ve already hinted at some pacing issues. There are horrifically bad CGI birds that keep coming. When CinemaSins gets their hands on this, I fully expect at least one Birdemic joke; they are that bad. They are also totally unexplainable from the cinematic narrative. Someone who read the book might be able to explain them but from someone who only has the cinema to go from they make no sense. Most of the green screen is hidden and the action is pretty good. It isn’t perfect from a CG perspective but it does better than most.

TL;DR

Once again I find myself in the category of meh. I don’t think I had high hopes for this one. It proved me right as it is clearly a middle less interesting film that serves no point than to prepare us for something new with Allegiant.

If you liked the first one, or have at least seen the first one. Continue the story. Give it a watch, you won’t feel your time is wasted. There are some genuinely good moments amidst the ok ones.

If you haven’t watched the first, you’ll want to before watching this. If you don’t you may care even less.

There’s nothing major to see here. This isn’t the game changer for 2015 we were looking for. I don’t suppose I believed it would be, but it would have been nice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Darke Reviews | Divergent (2014)

Let me open with, no I haven’t read the books. Remember that post on the personal facebook page about having an addiction? That was me dropping nearly $100 ON the Books (and a few others, like a hard cover of Frankenstein, but I digress). Now that I’ve seen the movie I can read them comfortably and know that this review is written from pure objectivity as a film. The girl at the coffee bar told me there was mad crowds for the earlier showings tonight and I find that interesting since my showing (the last of the night) only had about thirty or so in it.

what I truly find interesting is the range of material and world building that occurs within the Young Adult (YA) genre. I am twice the age, or more, of it’s target demographic yet I find the books in many of these series compelling. I suppose it’s ironic that a girl who read The Stand when she was eleven reads Vampire Academy, Hunger Games, and Divergent nearly three decades later. Back to the worlds though, when I was in high school it was the start of an interesting age in YA novels I think. I read Vampire Diaries (and still have my first prints) and the Secret Circle and they were sort of avant garde to my perception at the time. Now such works cover entire rows at the bookstores. They cover the supernatural romance, alternative history, alternative modernism, and dystopian futures.

They also show us who we are as a people and who we can be potentially when done properly. The dystopian futures do this best of all. Hunger Games being one of the stronger examples and now Divergent following close by. Where Hunger Games (movies) has actually kind meandered in showing what the best of us can do in adversity and a world that wants to devour of us; Divergent takes a different tact. They introduce a fascinating caste system (classism?) and promptly throw it out the window with the main character. Yes my review is still spoiler free, if you didn’t know she was different, then you haven’t watched a trailer of this yet and its been nearly a year since the first one. Statue of limitations is past. Deal.

Evan Daughtry (Snow White and the Huntsman, Bay’s TMNT) and Vanessa Taylor (three episodes of Game  of Thrones as a writer and 20  episodes of producer credits) have the task of converting twenty five year old Veronica Roths novels to film. As discussed before it is not an easy task. To be honest, I am not 100% sure they were up to it. Let me explain. Vampire Academy is an abomination of adaptation. It fails on more levels than it succeeds in taking the heart, soul and characters and bringing them to screen. It lacks subtlety in any way shape or form and you may feel dumber (or insulted) for watching it. Hunger Games (book 1) is a near perfect adaptation in terms of book to script to screen. There is very little actually cut from the story and the essence of what was trying to be told was brought to the screen.

In Divergent, we have the story of Tris a girl born to at once the lowest caste and the highest. When being tested and eventually choosing her caste for herself, she goes against the grain and adopts a new family forsaking her life and family before. In the course of training to become one with her new caste she truly comes to understand herself and her true nature. It helps to have a mentor along the way and she finds that in Four. While the discovery of self develops, there are machinations of the castes and politics of a different nature occurring that she is caught up in.

At the end of the movie I had an overwhelming sense of…meh. I wanted to care what happened next. I wanted to care and see more, but I didn’t. That is why I think the writers failed. when I read the book, I hope I can say they did what they could with what they had; but I have a feeling this isn’t the strongest adaptation out there. It’s still a  magnitude better than Vampire Academy or the movie that shares a title with the Max Brooks classic. Even not reading the books I know it is a better adaptation than those two repugnant pieces of cinema.

So if the script wasn’t to blame, then perhaps the directing? Neil Burger, best known for Limitless and the Illusionist (the less glitzy version of The Prestige), is the man to blame I think. He got some things right, but his sense of pacing is way off. The movie runs two hours and twenty minutes and it feels it. The best movies can run that long without the audience noticing. I noticed somewhere around the half way point that they were in no way even close to tying up this story. Its true in keeping with the amount of information in a novel it can increase running time, but a clever or skilled director knows how to mask that. Burger isn’t quite up to the task either. The shots are pretty, the direction of the actors is actually very well done, but the overall pacing allowed me to disengage from the story too often. A real problem towards the climax of the film. There are also some editing, continuity and logic fails that left me wondering.

The acting though. well…what to say there?

FINALLY. Finally a movie that isn’t starring Jennifer Lawrence or Chloe Grace Moretz where the younger (not teen) actors are not card board cut outs. actually in some films the cut outs might have more range. Divergent is not that film. All of the actors do their part and make it work. Shailene Woodley (Tris) who is relatively unknown unless you watched The Descendants or Secret Life of the American Teenager is able to carry the film. She brings the right emotions at the right times. Little body language ticks, eye movements, tears brimming, even posture and walk are spot on. She is engaging. She is believable. Her doubts and the fears she does have are played out beautifully as the character transitions due to her acting. She is also one of the strongest female characters I’ve seen of late that isn’t named Katniss. Theo James (Four) who really only has Underworld Awakening (yummy vampire…bad Jess) to his credit also has an amazing range displayed for someone trying to be stoic. While not as refined as Woodley he is just as engaging and worth watching in the time he is on camera. I have to admit, he’s not bad to just watch either. His acting though lets him bring both a certain physicality his role seems to call for and vulnerability in the right moments.

The remainder of the cast left me a little surprised in the opening credits. Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney (Reacher, I Frankenstein),  Ray Stevenson (Thor, the Punisher was almost unrecognizable), Zoe Kravitz (X-Men First Class), Miles Teller (Footloose, That Awkward Moment), Tony Goldwyn (Scandal, Last Samurai, Ghost), Maggie Q (Nikita, Preist) and Kate Winslet (her heart did not go on) cover the majority of the other roles. Most of them are playing their stereotypes well. To say they were anything other than stereotypes would be disingenous. I like and hate the characters accordingly and find that their performances are everything that they SHOULD be, and I really cannot ask for more than that; and I shouldn’t.

From an technical standpoint, seeing a post apocalyptic chicago was interesting. They did a good job crafting that and setting the stage for the world without going into too much exposition to explain it. The visuals tell a story all their own and thats what they should do. Wardrobe and make up were solid and I have to admit it was nice to see people in NOT black leather jackets at all times. The zip line scene was quite fun and might even be interesting in 3D. It’s something I would do.

That’s my final point before I get near the end (oh hush, I know this is a long one). Movies are about escapism to a point. While I don’t escape into this world as easily as I do others like City of Bones or Beautiful Creatures; I found myself wondering where I would be in this world. Dead probably. That said, it created enough of a world that while I wouldn’t want to go there, I could imagine it well enough to find myself there for two and a half hours. No mean feat really. I didn’t find myself wanting to beat the main character senseless for bad decisions, also a plus. In these facets the movie actually succeeds. It both comments on the class-ism of modern american society, gives an escape and entertains while it potentially informs. It does what a good movie should do.

TL;DR? (finally right?)

Divergent is a good movie. As I just said above, it does what a good movie should. It has the potential to inform you if you look beyond the cover, it can entertain you and can give you an escape from your own world for just a bit. It’s a nice place to visit, but you sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there. If you do, I am concerned for your well being.

Can I recommend it for everyone? No. It has problems in it’s execution that are enough that I wouldn’t highly recommend it. This isn’t Frozen or Avengers. This isn’t quite Hunger Games either and again thats to its benefit.

If you were already interested, you can breathe a sigh of relief.It is absolutely family friendly, but I saw someone’s face melt (Raiders) when I was five and was ok with it.

If you were curious, I can say give it a shot. You can even pay full price and not feel bad for it.

If you were not interested to begin with, you won’t be still and will likely find more flaws in it than I did.

After 300, Need for Speed (still surprised there) and now Divergent March has turned out to be a really good month. Here’s hoping the trend continues!