Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)

JANUARY 27, 2017


In case it never dawned on you, projected film is nothing more than a series of still images played in succession, fast enough to create the illusion of movement that you'd witness in real life, with your brain kind of filling in the missing chunks in between those frames. That same kind of idea applies to how I saw the action sequences in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter - I (usually) could tell you what happened from point A to B, but only because my brain was sorting it out through context clues. Milla Jovovich and some monster rush toward each other, and then ????? (STUFF!), and then the monster is dead, so I can safely assume Milla killed it. However, I couldn't usually tell you HOW, because Paul WS Anderson and his editor (named Doobie, and - trigger warning - a frequent collaborator of Neveldine/Taylor) often cut five or six times per second during the action scenes, and often in closeups, so my brain couldn't quite process who was hitting who and where - I just had to wait until the encounter had concluded and then use context clues to determine what happened.

It's a shame, because on a script level this is one of the better entries in the series. The story isn't too complicated, the villains are fun (Iain Glen, you have been missed, sir), and there's a pretty great final showdown between the major players that not only pays off the things set up in this movie, but the series as a whole. The action scenes, poorly edited as they may be, are varied and frequent, and the movie series has finally embraced the giant monster element from the games, pitting Alice against a giant bat for the first big sequence and some Cerebrus (basically GIANT dogs) later. It even brings back the horror element that's been largely scaled down in favor of action; there are at least three legit scare moments in the movie, plus a lot of creeping around and "I think something's watching us" kind of moments. The budget was scaled down from previous entries (with inflation factored in, it's actually the cheapest, by my math), so Anderson and crew were forced to rely on such things and save the big-scale action for highlight sections instead of throughout the movie. In a general sense, it pays off.

Plus, the aforementioned Iain Glen is a total hoot, and the best reason to see the movie. Even if you're not a fan of the series, it might be worth a look just to enjoy the sight of a gifted, theater-trained (and award-winning) actor making his way through a B-movie like this. As with the Underworld films, these UK theatre guys not only lend the proceedings a touch of class, but make the gibberish plot believable by committing 100% instead of smirking their way through it like American actors in his peer group might. He's clearly enjoying himself, and he even gets to play two roles - or, two variations of the same role. By now you should be used to the use of clones in this series, so it's not really a spoiler to say he plays both the original Isaacs and a clone who is unaware of his clone status. One is in charge of Umbrella and spends his time in a nice suit and delivering exposition, the other is out in the wild and seemingly on his way to becoming a Mad Max villain of sorts. It's the best of both worlds, and both of them get to fight Alice and spout a few applause-worthy lines (one, involving the word "trinity", is so glorious it might be the main reason I watch the movie again if I ever have the option).

But the editing! Along with that reduced budget came the fact that they shot with traditional cameras and converted it to 3D later, and apparently Anderson didn't seem to care much about people seeing it in that format (I saw it in 2D, thankfully). Whereas on the previous two films he knew to keep the action fluid and with long edits (in fact, perhaps TOO long in Afterlife's case - he nailed it with Retribution), here he dishes out the most over-edited and choppy action scenes this side of Olivier Megaton. There is a scene about halfway or so through the movie where the heroes are making their way through a giant turbine fan that's been turned off, and naturally the thing turns on before everyone is safe. But it's "warming up", making the blades turn slow enough that people can still get their way through (like they would in *a* video game, though this kind of platforming thing has never been present in a Resident Evil as far as I can recall). All well and good, but I swear to Christ, I had no idea what was happening as the sequence neared its conclusion. I couldn't even tell which character got stuck, let alone how they were eventually freed, and this wasn't the only example of such editing atrocities in the film. I mean, it's one thing to pull the "hero moves so fast the villains never know what hit them so lets disorient the audience in turn" stuff every now and then, I don't even mind that - it's another to keep us in the dark of who we're even looking at and what needs to be done for them to be safe (I THINK the girl got her bag of gear stuck on a blade, but I honestly don't know). I've seen trailers with smoother, more complete action beats.

And while I'm used to it by now, the series' penchant for abandoning its characters really hurts this time around, in that it kind of leaves the movie feeling like we missed a giant sequence. When the last one ended, Wesker and Alice stood side by side along with the latter's friends, ready to save humanity together using their combined resources. When this one starts, Alice is just under a pile of rubble, and she immediately goes off on her own looking for supplies/shelter/etc. Much later, we learn that Wesker betrayed them (again) and only brought her there to kill her, a scene that we probably should have seen, not just heard about (by the time we've probably forgotten the gap anyway). As for Jill, Ada, etc. - we just have to assume they're dead, as they're completely omitted from the film beyond the obligatory opening recap footage - no in-film mention whatsoever. Later, Alice finds (spoiler for those who didn't see the trailer) Claire, who got the same treatment along with Chris in between Afterlife and Retribution, and she gives a half-assed explanation for her survival, but doesn't mention Chris nor does Alice inquire about him. Then there's the minor issue of her surrogate daughter from the previous film, who is also never mentioned even when Alice's past and current humanity comes into question. For a series of films that are all written by the same man, it's remarkable how little he ever seems to care about the characters he created (and yes, he created them, as they rarely have anything to do with their game counterparts beyond their name). Granted, cast availability might throw a wrench into the plans, but would recasting really be an issue? Especially for this film, when it's so dark and over-edited that I couldn't tell you who I was looking at half the time anyway?

That all said, I really did enjoy it overall, at least as much as I can for these things. As I rewatched them all this past week (save for the original, which I got through a couple weeks ago - it took me this long to get to 2-5, sigh), I realized that I couldn't even rank them in any definitive way - they're all just varying shades of "OK". I know people really hate Apocalypse, but I can't see why it gets singled out - there's no discernible difference in the CGI (it's not great), the cast (Milla and... some others!), the way it translates stuff from the game (loosely!), etc. It's got some truly awful slo-mo stuff, but I can't imagine that'd be enough to sink it below the others, especially when compared to this (slo-mo > incoherent-mo). They're never great, but never terrible either - they're just kind of enjoyable in their own low-key way. I own all the Blu-rays but can't imagine a scenario I'd ever sit down and listen to the commentaries (at this juncture, I mean - back in 2005 when I had little else to do I recall going through the features on Apocalypse DVD), because I just don't get INTO them like I do for things like Halloween and Friday the 13th, where I'll devour the bonus features for even the entries I hate. It's a decent series that got a decent send-off, far as I'm concerned; if you hated the others this won't change your mind, and if you loved them... well I'm not sure what you love about them, so I couldn't tell you how you'd feel about this one.

I do know this though (minor spoiler ahead): for all the talk about this being the "Final Chapter", they don't exactly close the book on the series in any meaningful way. The last shot is literally of a monster chasing one of the heroes, so if this makes a zillion dollars you can expect Resident Evil: A New Beginning in ten months, if history repeats itself. The one bonus to Anderson introducing cloning and also leaving so many characters' fates ambiguous is that the series can conceivably run forever if they continue to be profitable, simply by rotating out the players - a concept that would be more believable if he ever gave anyone even half as much weight as Milla/Alice. It baffles me that in this MCU/Fast & Furious-heavy world that Anderson wouldn't use "The Final Chapter" to bring back as many characters as possible instead of paring it down (Alice, Claire, Isaacs, and Wesker are the only returning characters - there are no surprise appearances) and give them legitimate closure, because even if they're not exactly iconic it'd mean more when say, Leon died instead of one of the random people we just met. And maybe that's part of why I can't really get into these as much as say, the Saw series - there's an air of indifference to them. There's been a decent attempt at continuity at least in broad strokes (though they've completely abandoned Extinction's idea of the entire world being a wasteland), but no one to really get attached to besides Alice - who is a blank slate. Had this one been better directed/edited, it might have managed to be my favorite just for the sheer variety of action scenes and legitimately great final reel (well, great for this series), but thanks to Anderson's hyper-active nonsense it ends up being just another entry in this entertaining but forgettable series.

What say you?

P.S. I know I said I'd review Apocalypse and maybe do a real one for Retribution, but I'm so behind on work I can't really justify it. Long story short, Apocalypse is the least boring entry and seems to have the games at heart more than any other film in the series, but the slo-mo stuff is terrible and Mike Epps' character is annoying as all hell. As for Retribution, I kind of regret making my review a gimmick, because it's actually pretty good and a big step up from the previous one. But I still can't forgive it for finally introducing Barry and giving him so little to do (great death scene though). P.S.S. I really want to play Resident Evil 7 on PS VR but I swore not to buy any more games until I got through a good chunk of my backlog. So someone buy it FOR me. Thanks in advance!


Split (2016)

JANUARY 20, 2017


Following The Visit, it seems that working with the small budgets but (far as I know) creative freedom of a Blumhouse production (as opposed to expensive studio gigs where you might be at the whims of people like Will Smith) is a fine fit for M. Night Shyamalan. Split is another winner from the pairing, and continues his creative comeback after a period filled with duds, from Lady in the Water up until After Earth, which I liked for the record, but was a costly money loser, and worse - saw his name removed from the marketing because it had become such a red flag for audiences. Time will tell if he mucks it up again by getting too indulgent, but if that's the case, I'm happy I was able to see him prove he still had it in him, unlike other genre directors who flame out and seemingly never find their groove again, even temporarily.

Split sees him trying something new: containment. It's not as claustrophobic as something like 10 Cloverfield Lane, because we occasionally leave to spend time with a psychiatrist played by the great Betty Buckley, and a few flashbacks to the childhood of Casey, the character played by Anya Taylor-Joy, but he gets to show off precious little of his beloved Philadelphia, and sets 75% of the movie in one of two rooms. Yet, it never gets visually dull - his directorial prowess has never been questionable (it's his screenwriting that sinks him - like Rob Zombie, his lesser efforts probably would have improved if he had a writing partner), and if there ARE any doubters they should be silenced after seeing the film, as he never seems to settle into standard ways of filming these small rooms. David "Panic Room" Fincher and Vincenzo "Cube" Natali would be proud, and I couldn't help but wonder if, after (quite skillfully) dealing with the confines of found footage in Visit, he was eager to get his Spielberg/Hitchcock on again and frame things impressively without having to worry about the camera being a character.

But even if he locked a tripod down in a corner and took a break, the film would still be engaging thanks to James McAvoy, who is given the role of a lifetime with Kevin, who has Dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder - I'm not clued into the psychiatric world enough to know why this changed but I'll assume someone took offense to the old term, as they always do). Kevin has 23 personalities, and McAvoy is able to make each of the ones he shows (I think we only see eight of them throughout the film) a complete character, and while he's usually aided by wardrobe changes, he is able to sell a change occurring with simple gestures and expressions. Night uses the camera wonderfully during these moments, angling things ever so slightly to make McAvoy even appear larger/smaller as necessary. It's the most impressive of its type I've seen since John Lithgow in Raising Cain, and in some ways even more so since he has more roles to play and (minor spoiler) at one point cycles through several in one go. I fully expect that he'll be passed over by the Academy, but if he doesn't win the Saturn Award (since they DO take such films seriously), it'd be a damn crime.

Like Cain (De Palma being on the mind a lot here, thanks to Buckley and showy camera moves), he also has to toe the line between being a hero and a villain, as some identities are good-natured and seemingly want to help the three girls, but he's also the guy holding them hostage in the first place. And we don't know exactly what he has planned for them, but we can be pretty sure they won't like it and it will be another one of his identities doing it. There's a lot going on during any given encounter due to this setup, and I like that Casey is smart enough to understand this early on, and plan her moves carefully. The movie thankfully doesn't waste time on her trying to escape, because we know she won't (the other two girls she's with aren't as intelligent, so we get those minor chase scenes to pepper a little action throughout the film), and it's a delight watching her take on different approaches with each identity as she starts to get a better handle on who is who. Given that the film suggests such a disorder is the direct result of abuse, and both characters were abused as children (Casey's flashbacks spell out the nature of her own trauma, and it's fairly grim stuff for a PG-13 movie), the movie could have gone for broke and triggered her own full blown disorder for a battle of dissociative wits, but thankfully it sticks to just "Casey is smart and thinks things through rather than act impulsively".

That's not to say the movie doesn't go nutty in other areas, however. This being an M. Night joint, it'd be foolish to go in thinking that there wouldn't be a surprise or two. As the billboard tells us, he has 23 personalities and the 24th is about to be unleashed, so a good chunk of the mystery is finding out the exact nature of this 24th personality and how it will differ from the others if and when it appears. I wouldn't dare answer that question for you, but I will say that you should probably see the movie sooner than later, because unlike back in the days of Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, we have the internet now, and people seem hellbent on making sure they spoil the film's surprises (one of which has been floating around since September, though MOST people who saw the film then have been cool about keeping it to themselves). At any rate, the answer is a satisfying one.

Unfortunately, not ALL of the film's final scenes are as satisfying. Without getting into spoilers, Casey's arc feels like it's missing a final beat, and I'm baffled why Night chose to end her part of the story the way he did. Not that every little thing needs to be tidied up and closed off, but it's almost like they lopped out her final scene to save it for later, as if Split 2 would be about her instead of McAvoy's character (I'm not saying there will/could/should be a sequel, just saying that I would assume if the money men demanded a followup, it would seem like he'd be the one to follow - same as the Friday the 13th sequels follow Jason instead of the Final Girl). And the final shot is a great moment on its own, but wasn't wholly necessary in a film that's already a bit too long; it's JUST under two hours, and possibly could have been nipped and tucked in a few spots to get it down some. As much as the last shot put a smile on my face in the moment, overall and probably down the road, I think I'd rather that time was spent giving Casey some more closure.

You might be wondering if this is a horror movie, and no, it's not really, but it inches so damn close to that territory I figure it's OK to talk about here. The D.I.D. stuff is unpredictable enough to make it tense as all hell (though it's also funny at times - it's kind of great how a moment that plays as a really freaky scare in the trailer is actually the setup for a legitimately hilarious non sequitur), and with four females being menaced by a very messed up individual in a Blumhouse movie rated PG-13 for violence I don't think it's really a spoiler to say not everyone makes it out alive, but if you go in expecting a horror film (even by M. Night standards, who usually kind of plays in on the borders of horror instead of diving right in) you might walk out disappointed. But if you're a fan of his you should probably know not to expect full-blown horror movie stuff, and you should also join me in thinking this is easily his best film in years (yes, better than The Visit in my opinion, and I liked that one a lot). Can he make it a hat trick with his next one? Let us just forget that unfortunate mid-to-late '00s period? I hope so.

What say you?


The Bye Bye Man (2017)

JANUARY 13, 2017


Had I gone to a Thursday night showing of The Bye Bye Man, I probably would have seen it with more people, but I likely would have missed out on what became the only memorable part of what was a Friday morning viewing with three other sad bastards. For those uninitiated to the Bye Bye Man's whims, one of his calling cards is to drop a coin near an intended victim, for reasons that will never be known to us. As such things go, it ranks somewhere between the keys jingling in Venom and Shocker's limp, i.e. it's kind of lame, but it paid off about halfway through the movie, when one of the other people there (so, 25% of the crowd) moved his coat or something and a coin fell out, rattling on the floor and making me laugh out loud at what I might have thought was a William Castle-esque gag if I thought for one second there would be that much of a spark to this movie.

You know that great Key & Peele skit about Gremlins 2, where a guy goes around the room asking for random ideas and demands they all go into the movie? (The final "all of that is in the movie" joke might work even better on someone who hadn't seen Gremlins 2, rather than someone like me who loved it - but it's still hilarious.) It seems like this thing was written in a similar manner, with a bunch of people just throwing out ideas for what might be cool in a horror movie (A boogeyman! A giant dog! ...uh, coins!), but without a genius like Joe Dante to make something memorable out of all the seemingly ill-fitting elements. Add in the fact that the three leads are among the least interesting in modern horror history (I watched Friday the 13th Part 7 again yesterday, and even those generic assholes were slightly more appealing) and that none of the movies plot threads ever really pay off, and you have an early frontrunner for what I hope will be the low point for big-screen horror this year.

To be fair re: plot threads, the movie was cut from an R to a PG-13, though it still runs 93 minutes (well past the minimum allowance) and includes a couple scenes that have neither scares nor plot points (including one where a character goes to see a florist who doesn't know anything), so my finely-tuned sense for these things tells me that the original cut wouldn't have helped much, if at all. A lack of gore wasn't the movie's problem (ironically, this is the same issue I take with F13 7), and if they were just trying to cut it down to get people in and out of there (aka the Dimension maneuver), there was still plenty they could have chucked. I could still be wrong, and if an extended cut comes along I'll be happy to apologize if so, but THIS VERSION is the one they're asking people to pay to see, so I can't let them off the hook on the small chance it might have been more satisfying at one point.

A big part of the problem is that it's got all these specific things (like the aforementioned coins) but zero explanation for their presence. Now, the lack of exposition isn't a bad thing as a rule - I obviously have no problem with it in Halloween - but you have to keep things simple if you're going to go the vague route. You can't just have a ghost train, and a giant demon dog, and all these other very specific, would-be iconic things without even the slightest indication of what they mean or represent. Yes, Halloween itself doesn't explain why he's chasing Laurie, but he's a blank slate anyway. It'd be like if the Shape was, I dunno, swinging a yo-yo around and leaving a piece of cake on each victim's corpse or something. You can have a cool little tic that isn't explained, but Bye Bye Man clearly has this giant backstory, while the film gives zero context for anything we see. It's not creepy or offbeat, it's just frustrating - we hear the sound of a coin drop every day, so we need to know what the significance of THIS coin is in order for it to provide the desired effect. It'd be like if Leprechaun didn't explain that he had a thing about dirty shoes and yet kept in all the scenes where he acts upon that handicap

But even if we had all that motivation and gap-filling, we'd still have to deal with our bland heroes, whose names I couldn't even keep straight while I was watching the movie. There's a guy, his girlfriend, and his best friend (who is maybe sleeping with the girlfriend; there's a lot of weird moments between the two of them before Bye Bye Man even shows up and makes it worse, but it's never clarified - shocking, right?), and they've just rented an off-campus house, which comes with all the furniture but it's all been placed in the basement for reasons unknown. Why would someone move a bed down two flights of stairs (one tiny and shown to be dangerous - there's no payoff for it, naturally)? The previous owners didn't clean it up or anything, so the whole thing is, I guess, just an excuse to set a scene in the creepy basement that we rarely see again. Bye Bye Man's history doesn't even have anything to do with the house, best as I can tell, so it's just a lot of cumbersome plotting for no real reason. Anyway, as the movie proceeds we don't really learn much about them; the hero lost his parents at an early age and the best friend was the only one that was there for him (his older brother, another character we see a few times, apparently wasn't there for him?), and the girl... uh, gets a cold. Seriously. She spends the whole movie sniffling. She likes lemon in her tea, and I think that's about as much as we learn about her.

And it's a shame, because it actually starts off really strong, with a '60s set flashback showing a man (Leigh Whannell in suburban dad mode!) blowing away his family and then some neighbors while asking them if they said the name to anyone. Since we bought a ticket and know the plot we can assume what name he is referring to, but for someone going in blind this would be an even more effective sequence, as you'd be just as confused as the people he is killing (instead of seeing it from his perspective and knowing that he's killing them to prevent more people from dying). That said, it's still a pretty chilling sequence either way, and buys the film more time than it deserves; it wasn't until (sigh) a seance sequence later on that I realized the opener's goodwill had died off and I was starting to get fairly annoyed by the damn movie. Every now and then there is another moment that feels inspired, like a bit where two characters both see the other as someone else that they're afraid of, but the movie always botches it (in this case, once one finally attacks the other, it's not clear when or even IF the hallucination goes away with it).

The older characters fare slightly better, because they at least bring along baggage/good memories of their past glories to distract us, unlike the lesser known heroes who do nothing to make us remember them. Whannell pops up again in one other scene later, a flashback narrated by, of all people, Faye Dunaway, who I can only assume happened to be in someone's social circle and they called in a favor, because she rarely does things like this and I can't imagine why she'd break tradition for this particular film. Fittingly for a movie that seemingly can't tell the difference between what we should know and what we don't care about, she merely explains why she (Whannell's character's wife) is still alive, because she didn't ever hear the name. So they introduce a character for the sole purpose of explaining to us why she wasn't dead, wasting five minutes that could have been applied elsewhere, but left in the movie because it means another good name for the credit block. Carrie-Anne Moss gets slightly better treatment as the late-arriving detective who inexplicably lets our hero go after - this is amazing - he is seen brandishing a hammer and chasing a screaming woman into the path of a train (a real one, not a ghost one). He manages to pull this off by convincing her that he simply can't tell her what's 'going on' because she'd be dead too, something this veteran officer of the law buys with zero evidence. To be fair, he offers a decent analogy of her lying to her kids that her day was fine when she really saw a dead person, saying it's the same sort of thing that he is hiding from her to protect her, but, you know - witnesses, an actual dead girl as opposed to a theoretical one, etc.

Moss is hardly the only character that doesn't act like a human being, however. I was quite delighted with the librarian who helps our hero find some background info on Whannell's character, who was working on a Bye Bye Man story when he went on his killing spree. Not only is she the most actively interested librarian in history, she later calls the kid on his cell (he's got her number programmed in!) and tells him she wants to meet up, after which we pan down and see that she's killed two people (her family, we can assume, but as we haven't met them or even knew they existed until this moment, and all we see are their motionless legs, it's not even clear if it's like, her husband and a kid, two kids, a kid and the babysitter, a husband and a mistress... you get the idea. Then later, our hero is driving along (listening to "Bye Bye Love", because the movie hasn't made you roll your eyes enough) when he gets distracted and ends up running her over - because she was apparently on her way to kill him by walking down the middle of the street? And why did she kill her kids (?) anyway when she already knew the whole thing about it? Or did she, like the hero does at a key moment, while knowing that they're not supposed to say the name out loud, say it anyway and then cover their mouth like it's Jim Carrey in Liar Liar?

This is such a bad movie, guys.

What say you?

P.S. If you absolutely must watch the goddamn thing, you will get to hear the lamest kids' joke in history, courtesy of the hero's niece. It's almost endearing.


Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

JANUARY 7, 2017


A week or so ago, I pointed out how the last time a new Underworld movie came out (2012's Awakening), there was no such thing as Thursday evening shows for the new movies - if you didn't want to deal with going over the more crowded weekend, you had to go at midnight, which was difficult for me given my well-documented battle with Cinesomnia. So, now that Thursday night shows at 730 or so is the norm, I was excited that I'd be able to watch Underworld: Blood Wars at a normal time, before I get real sleepy and end up being more confused with these movies than I am when wide awake. Alas, for whatever reason, Sony seems hellbent on burying this one - not only did they not have much of a marketing campaign for it (I've seen next to no posters/billboards around town - that town being Los Angeles), but they also skipped the Thursday shows entirely, with only a handful of theaters opting for an old-school midnight showing. I even went to a theater that had a 7:45 showing listed, only to be told it was pulled, disappointing me, my friend, and (this made me sad) a dad and his two teen sons who all showed up expecting to enjoy the latest round of vamp v. wolf action.

Now I'm sure there are complicated and possibly even legitimate reasons for this, but to the above-average moviegoer (i.e. the people that go to the early shows on Thursday night), this suggests that they're trying to hide the film, a bizarre course of action for a franchise entry. Even if they thought it was a stinker, why make it seem like one by hiding it from the people who probably wouldn't care much about what critics think anyway? Especially for a series that's on a high; while the last one cost more than usual, it also MADE more than usual - nearly $200m worldwide. A franchise hitting highs with its 4th entry is pretty rare, so while I don't get why they dilly-dallied making the next one (the five year gap is the longest for this usually "every three years" series), I'm more confused that they seem to be content with letting it wither and die, even with yet another cliffhanger ending that sets up the already promised sixth entry. Will it actually happen?

Based on the box office so far (which I finally got to add to, by myself, on Saturday), I wouldn't exactly hold my breath, though the reduced budget means they might be able to justify another in the same ball park if they can play up the "final chapter" element (as Resident Evil is currently doing) and sell another batch of boxed set Blu-rays (maybe even 4K ones - who wouldn't want that for Kate in her leather suit?). If this turns out to be the last we see of the Lycan vs Death Dealer battle, at least it goes out on a relative high, in that it follows Underworld series tradition of being better in some areas than its immediate predecessor while lacking in others, making a ranking of the franchise - a time honored tradition for any horror series - rather difficult. If I absolutely had to rank them right now, it'd be something like Evolution > Awakening > Blood Wars > Lycans > original, but that could completely change depending on my mood (though I suspect the original will always be at the bottom, given its punishing length and lack of any good action scenes). They each offer something I like while frustrating me in other ways, unlike most franchises where I can clearly peg which ones I love and which ones I don't. For Underworld, they're all... not bad!

So what does this one offer that the others don't? For starters: SWORD FIGHTS! OK, that's not really new - Rise of the Lycans had them, but this is the first time they've used them in the present day, when they had their machine guns and what not at their disposal. They still have the guns of course, but it's fun seeing Charles Dance aka Tywin Lannister getting in on the action in a manner Game of Thrones never afforded him, as he was always just sitting around killing people with his words instead of weapons. Speaking of Thrones, they seem to be influenced a lot by the show; not only does it have other actors from it (new bad guy Marius is played by Tobias Menzies, aka Edmure Tully, and one of the vamp elders is played by Sam's dad), but a new character looks and acts exactly like Jamie, and there are seemingly more political chess-playing maneuvers than usual. But fear not, for those who find Thrones too talky - there's still plenty of violence to enjoy between conversations, and thankfully it's not all just "Selene vs whoever else" this time around. Even the gun action is stepped up a bit; there's a pretty great bit where a vamp and a lycan (in human form) are firing machine guns at each other as they walk toward one another, eventually riddling each other with bullets from only a few feet apart while barely flinching - it's laughable but in that awesome kind of way, not unlike the Fast & Furious guys defying gravity and what not. Selene also gets a pretty good fight on an ice lake with another giant Lycan, slightly more satisfying than the parking garage one she had in the fourth movie.

And that's the other thing that I liked more about this one than Awakening - it's been largely shed of that one's overly stylish, futuristic decor, largely due to the return to Europe for filming as opposed to the previous film's Canadian production. While I can appreciate a fresh look (it certainly helps to know which one you're watching), when I rewatched Awakening the other day I couldn't help but think it felt like a half-assed attempt to make it feel like a Resident Evil film, with all the secret labs and evil scientists running shady corporations. This one returns to the Gothic feel of the first two entries; set in the modern day but letting its characters favor old compounds and castles instead of bland looking office buildings. A good chunk of the action takes place at a coven that was set up by Amelia back in the day (which, for this series, means the 13th century), and then later Selene and David (Theo James) travel to an even older area that's hidden in this world's version of Siberia (guessing, since we see the Northern Lights as they make their way there and it's in an ice-covered area). Modern tech shows up when necessary - a car, a security system, etc. - but otherwise this feels like they wanted to return to the "old and new" feel of the original, as opposed to the last one's "just new" look.

However, they also shed something else from Awakening - its characters. David and his father return, but Eve and Sebastian are gone, and in the latter's case he isn't even mentioned (when we last saw him he was fending off attackers to buy Selene and Co. some time, so I guess he's just dead). As for Eve, it's not clear how they got separated - since it took five years I guess they felt they couldn't just pick right up where Awakening left off with a new actress for Eve (even though they'll replace Scott Speedman...?), but since the plot revolves around the Lycans hunting Selene to get a hold of her, it's very odd that their separation is left so vague. Selene keeps denying that she knows where Eve is, and we're not even sure if she's lying or not because it's not clear how they got split to begin with. The film doesn't pick up x number of years later, best I can tell, but it still feels like I missed a movie in between that detailed a. how Eve and Selene got split and b. where all of the new enemies came from, as they're kind of established as big players right off the bat. I mean, both races are dying out, shouldn't there be few surprises concerning this kind of thing? Wouldn't they already all know about this Marius guy (the new Lycan villain) at the end of Awakening if he was such an important factor now, a couple days later?

Then again, this helps keep the plot more streamlined and thus easy to follow, so if you skipped Awakening you wouldn't be as completely lost as someone who, say, watched Evolution without seeing the original. As always there's a recap of the whole thing at the top, given by a bored sounding Beckinsale, so as long as you see that and have some passing knowledge of the series, you should be fine. Characters occasionally say aloud things that they both know for our benefit, just to make sure everyone's up to speed, but really the whole thing boils down to what the title promises - blood. The Lycans want Eve's blood, the bad guy vampires want Selene's blood, and that's pretty much it. Every 15-20 minutes we get another big action scene, a traitor or two will be exposed (the trailer gave away the biggest, but thankfully it's an "end of act one" twist so ultimately not a big deal), and Kate Beckinsale will wrap her legs around the world's luckiest Eastern European stuntman when she takes him down - it's pretty much status quo for the Underworld series.

That is, until the 3rd act (SPOILERS AHEAD! Skip this paragraph if you don't want to know the context of why she has lighter hair in the film's poster), when Selene is killed and revived by a group of vampires who are tuned into some witch type powers, including the ability to teleport. The revival makes her become one of them, so now she can zip around like Jason Voorhees in Manhattan, adding to her already impressive stable of superpowers. This gives her renewed value in the vampire world, to the extent that they make her an elder at the end - it almost seems like a way to set up a future where Beckinsale's presence is reduced in favor of "on the ground" participants in this endless war? I can almost see her making a cameo in an Underworld TV show pilot just like Sam Jackson did for Agents of Shield, or taking the "and" role in the next film as new heroes take the spotlight. I mean, she's basically invincible at this point, so they almost have to scale her back somehow to keep it fresh/interesting. The film moves along just fine without her for that 15-20 minute chunk where she's "dead", and I actually liked Lycans a lot when I saw it (I only rank it low now because it's really dull on the action front, giving it very little rewatch value), so as much as I love the woman I don't think she needs to be front and center for the Underworld series to sustain itself - but keeping her out entirely would probably be something they'd have to gradually work towards, not introduce out of the blue (indeed, Lycans is the series' lowest-grossing entry, so clearly people want her around).

But even that development doesn't exactly send the film skyrocketing to another level, so ultimately whether or not it has any value depends on how you feel about the others. They're preaching to the choir here at this point; like the Saw franchise, at a certain point they were no longer interested in scoring new fans, just making sure they didn't lose any more of the ones they already had. Die-hards may nitpick about hiccups in the mythology (with the original writers all having since moved on, I'm sure there are some inconsistencies), but for others like me who find them enjoyable enough but probably wouldn't bother reading an official tie-in novel or watching a Kate (or Rhona Mitra)-less TV show, I think it will provide a pretty entertaining 90 minutes at the movies. They still use CGI wolves more often than not (another casualty of Len Wiseman's reduced involvement; say what you will about the guy, but he has a preference for practical FX), and Scott Speedman's absence has yet to be fully resolved (it feels like they keep Michael alive but MIA just in case they can get him back), but overall I had a good time and hope that the 6th film comes to pass. But if it doesn't? I'm sure I'll get over it.

What say you?

P.S. I saw it in 2D, so I dunno how the 3D was, if you were wondering. I will no longer pay extra for it since projection standards are so low around here (indeed, the film did not fill up the screen, either on the sides OR the top/bottom. I complained, but naturally the theater did nothing to fix it.) But I'm guessing that big ice battle looked great.


The Rezort (2015)

DECEMBER 30, 2016


There's a long-standing theory that if Halloween III was just titled Season of the Witch, it would have been a bigger hit*, and we'll never know if it's true or not. But I DO know that if The Rezort didn't have such a stupid title, I might not have had such low expectations for it going in, so there's definitely something to be said about how important a title is and how it affects one's perception of what they're about to see. With the dumb misspelling (which I mocked repeatedly on Twitter), I figured this was some Asylum level zombie schlock in the vein of House of the Dead or something, but as it turns out, the errant Z is the only goofy thing about the film - it's actually a fairly serious, largely enjoyable zombie flick, the kind that I thought would be playing multiplexes in the wake of World War Z, but always seem to be DTV efforts.

I also would have had higher expectations if I knew beforehand that the film was directed by Steve Barker, who previously impressed with the first two Outpost films (he did not make the 3rd one, and it was not very good). Like Outpost, the movie takes a B-movie kind of plot and carries it out with an A-level amount of effort, elevating it above its brethren in ways the average watcher (who doesn't overdose on this junk like seasoned viewers might) might not notice. Sure, it's not a great movie, but it's worth seeing, which is more than I can say for the likes of Zombie Massacre 2 and Army of Frankensteins (or even Cell, which had a bigger budget than those two and this combined), and if you're looking for more traditional zombie action than Walking Dead provides (i.e. without all the tired monologues and "humans are worse" stuff), it should satisfy and then some.

Oddly enough the last zombie movie I remember liking more than I imagined I would was Zoombies, which was heavily inspired by the Jurassic Park films, and this actually goes a step further by pretty much directly copying JP's concept, albeit with zombies you can hunt instead of dinosaurs you can look at (if they show up). The titular "rezort" is a pricey vacation spot on a private island for folks to come and take down masses of captured zombies, both in the wild (roaming around in fenced in areas where the shooters are safely on hills nearby) and in shooting gallery type scenarios where they're secured to targets that pop out as you make your way through corridors and alleyways. And like in JP, too much of the security relies on malfunctioning computers and electric fences, and when Nedry- er, a blond woman messes with the system, the zombies get free and our protagonists need to make their way back to safety without any protection in place or vehicle to use.

And that's pretty much it, and I say that as a compliment - it's refreshingly straightforward and fast-paced enough to be exciting but without making us numb or leaving character development by the wayside in their attempts to keep "stuff happening" at all times. Our heroes are a pretty decent and varied lot, from a typically brooding mystery man (Dougray Scott) to a jilted would-be bride who got the trip as a wedding gift and decided to go solo, to a pair of 16 year olds (no age limit, I guess) who won the trip on a contest sponsored by the Call of Duty-esque online shooter that they play. These two provide the movie with one of its few jokey moments, as they are apparently amazing at their video game but (no surprise) can't aim worth a damn in the real world, blasting away at the dirt and the zombie's feet when going for headshots. They're probably the closest the movie gets to annoying characters, and they're not even that bad (and they're SUPPOSED to be obnoxious, anyway), which was also a relief - I actually liked pretty much everyone and wasn't happy to see anyone die when they did. Hell, even the obligatory asshole who leaves his friends behind to save his own ass wasn't really that much of a prick.

I also like that we get just enough of a glimpse of how the park actually operates on a normal day, something I wish Jurassic World had offered more of (I really wish the Operation Genesis game was revived for new consoles, post-World - I'd play the hell out of that) even though I understand that "things going wrong" is what we're here to see. There's a great bit where one of the guides mutters his "great job, you're doing awesome" to what is probably his 1000th group of middle-aged businessmen living out their Rambo fantasies as they shoot down (secured, distant) zombies, and they also make them gun train and such before heading out. Also, unlike Jurassic, they actually have a goddamn plan for when things go to shit, though it's hardly enticing: they basically just blow the island to smithereens via jets dropping explosives on it (like at the end of The Rock, sans Nic Cage and his green flares), so our heroes have two threats - staying away from the zombies, and getting off the island before it's blown up. Not the most original scenario on the planet, but it works as well as it needs to, with some added personality and a few clever touches here and there for flavor.

It's also not as overly digital-ed as I've come to wearily "accept", for lack of a better word. Bullet hits tend to be digital (foregone conclusion nowadays - I think they lost the recipe for squibs), but when things get up close and personal they favor practical work. There isn't much gore, I should note, but there's enough to satisfy, and the "less is more" approach extends to the zombie numbers - Barker understands that seeing 1,000 digital zombies isn't nearly as interesting as seeing a few dozen real ones for "shit hits the fan" moments, so everything's on the up and up there, too. Really, the only thing working against it (besides the phony looking news footage at the top and bottom of the film - why can't digital artists ever make these graphics look legit? They're using the same programs the stations have!) is that you and I have both seen plenty of "We have to escape the zombies and get to safety" movies before, and it operates more or less exactly like them; the setup is new enough but once everything goes to hell it doesn't much matter (they wipe out the anonymous park goers and staff members pretty quickly). There is a pretty interesting concept regarding where the zombies come from, but it's underplayed (saved for a sequel? The movie ends almost exactly like Outpost 2 did, now that I think about it), and we never learn much about Scott's character - these things probably could have given it a little more of its own identity if embellished.

But as it is, like I said, it's not an essential viewing, but it's much better than I had any reason to believe it would be given the current state of indie/low-budget zombie fare and movies that misspell words for their title. I've ranted before about how people seem to forget that there's a middle ground, and not everything is "amazing" or "shitty". Sometimes (in fact, a lot of times) it's fine to watch a movie that's just enjoyable for what it is, and nothing more. Rogue One is currently on the verge of breaking $500m in the US alone, which will put it in the top 10 of all time, and that too is a movie that's just perfectly OK (but it has Darth Vader and some familiar music, so people see it over and over). It's a shame that these two movies, that I'd give the exact same grade to if I was a grading type, will be judged in entirely different ways by the masses (and by history; I doubt anyone will remember The Rezort in ten years) just because one has the right title to connect, and the marketing to get it out there (indeed, this has actually been playing fests for over a year but I never even heard of it until I was assigned to watch it for my job). Hopefully a couple of you will check it out and feel the same way. And yay, I get to end 2016's batch of reviews on a high note! Happy New Year!

What say you?

*Halloween III actually sold more tickets than Halloween 4, the series' "comeback". I always found that funny.


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