ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including Sexual References, and brief Nudity

Directed by: Terry Jones

Written by: Terry Jones & Gavin Scott

Starring: Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rob Riggle, Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, Robin Williams, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones & Michael Palin

Simon Pegg was funny in the Cornetto trilogy (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and THE WORLD’S END). Rob Riggle delivered some of the biggest laughs in both JUMP STREET films. Eddie Izzard’s stand-up comedy is hysterical, while Robin Williams is arguably one of the funniest men who ever lived. Also, the Monty Python troupe were groundbreaking for their irreverent humor and uniquely British sensibilities. With all of these funny and talented people crammed into one film, you’d think that ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING would, at the very least, be fun to watch. That’s what I thought and it turns out that I was sadly mistaken. Learn from my error and avoid this disappointing excuse for a comedy.

After a group of hyper-intelligent aliens (voiced by Monty Python) stumble across a space probe, the extraterrestrials begin a test to decide whether or not Earth needs to be destroyed. This test selects a random human and gives them god-like powers. Unluckily for us, that test subject is amateur writer/teacher Neil (Simon Pegg) and he begins using his amazing abilities to do absolutely anything (see what I did there?). Before you can say BRUCE ALMIGHTY, Neil’s powers start landing him in hot water as he tries to win over the affection of his neighbor Catherine (Kate Beckinsale).

One of ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING’s biggest problems stems from it feeling like a Monty Python sketch that was extended 75 minutes past the point of being funny. There are a couple of chuckles to be had here and there, but the script doesn’t have much compelling flow. The repeating joke is that Neil keeps wording his wishes incorrectly and hijinks ensue. Some of these bits run for almost all of the film (with one co-worker’s crush taking a cult-like turn), and others are over in a matter of minutes (wishing people back to life and winding up with a bunch of decaying zombies).

The film’s characters aren’t worth much either. Simon Pegg is playing a bland nobody and that might be part of the joke, but you’ve seen this type of boring protagonist a million times before. There’s nothing to this person. He’s boring and his biggest story arc is the clichéd motivation of trying to win his neighbor’s love. Kate Beckinsale attempts to make her love-interest/supporting character worth something and winds up with mixed results. She definitely delivers the biggest “life lesson” in a scene where she explains how god-like powers might not be the best thing ever. Also, Robin Williams’s final role was the voice of Neil’s dog Dennis. Much like the rest of the film’s attempts at humor, Williams’s sentient pooch gets a few chuckles at first and then becomes boring.

The biggest conflict comes from Rob Riggle as Catherine’s headstrong, cocky ex-boyfriend Grant. He only plays a tiny part in the film and brings a plot point that exists for a total of 10 minutes, coming off as lame and needlessly dark in the process. A pretty huge plot hole also rears its head during Riggle’s final minutes of screen time. It’s sad when the viewer can figure out how to get out of a dilemma before the main character can, but this protagonist is so much of an idiot that he doesn’t take advantage of an obvious flaw in the villain’s half-assed plan. Also, the Monty Python cast seem like they reunited purely as a favor for director/co-writer Terry Jones (one of the members of Monty Python). Eddie Izzard also shows up for about five minutes a strict head teacher, so there’s that.

ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING is a bland excuse for a comedy that wastes an unbelievable amount of talent. The premise might have made for a fun ten-minute skit, but it simply repeats its one-note beats for 85 minutes that drag out in a manner that feels like three hours. The film is a missed opportunity all around, but I don’t know if it ever had much of a chance with its flimsy concept. Pegg, Riggle, Williams, Izzard, Beckinsale, and the entire Monty Python troupe deserved better than this.

Grade: D

UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Violence and Gore, some Sexuality/Nudity and Language

Directed by: Len Wiseman

Written by: Danny McBride

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Tony Curran, Derek Jacobi, Steven Mackintosh, Shane Brolly & Bill Nighy

Because 2003’s UNDERWORLD banked at the box office (doubling its budget domestically and cracking 100 million worldwide), Screen Gems was eager to pump out a sequel. Series creators Len Wiseman and Danny McBride were up to the task, because they originally mapped out UNDERWORLD as a trilogy (with different stories to be told at different times). Little details from the first film make big returns in this second installment. While it serves as a decent enough follow-up to that first entertaining vampires vs. werewolves flick, UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION falls into the typical sequel pitfall of not living up to its predecessor.

To properly set up this sequel, I’ll have to spoil 2003’s UNDERWORLD. So, you have been warned. After slicing the villainous vampire Viktor’s head in half and turning Michael (Scott Speedman) into a hybrid species of vampire/lycan, former death-dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is running from both monster clans. Selene soon discovers that original immortal Markus (Tony Curran) has a long-standing score to settle with her and his reasoning extends far beyond her murdering an elder. There’s a secret key and an ancient prophecy coming to light, all while Selene and Michael struggle to stay alive.

EVOLUTION hits the ground running as it introduces potentially interesting new plotlines. Even though he was bland in the first movie and remains just as bland here, Scott Speedman’s Michael receives a brief subplot about adapting to his new monstrous cravings. Meanwhile, there’s the obvious bit about Selene being a fugitive from humans, vampires, and werewolves (though that latter detail opens up a plot hole about whether the lycan clan was fully supportive of Lucian’s master plan in UNDERWORLD). Finally, there’s Markus and his deadly intent to find a hidden secret in Selene’s blood. All of these storylines sound like they belong in an awesome sequel, so what the hell happened?

While EVOLUTION doesn’t exactly drop the ball, it certainly takes its sweet time to let things come to light. For the first half, we’re sporadically shown scenes of an elderly “cleaner” (Derek Jacobi) wiping evidence of vampire and werewolf existence from the human eye. These bits don’t come into play until a character points out this character’s existence far later in the film. When Jacobi’s mysterious man’s identity is revealed, he merely delivers a ton of tedious exposition and becomes a walking plot device (much like Speedman’s Michael in the first film). This character’s inclusion seems arbitrary and boring in the grand scheme of a vampire and a hybrid battling the most powerful vampire in existence. Michael’s struggle with being a new monster only lasts for a single scene too, when it could have been a far more interesting subplot.

Kate Beckinsale slips back into her form-fitting latex catsuit with ease and plays Selene about as well as she did the first time around. This vampire is a conflicted do-gooder who’s now on a quest to make up for her past wrongs and save the world from extinction. As the villainous Markus, Tony Curran is intimidating enough. He doesn’t pack the scenery-chewing presence of Bill Nighy’s Viktor (who shows up for a brief prologue), but remains an interesting baddie nonetheless. Markus is benefited by a bat-like appearance at points and interesting weapons of death (his razor-sharp wings).

As far as EVOLUTION’s action goes, this film is a downgrade from the original in many ways. There are cool bits of Selene taking out vicious lycans and a few fun fights with Markus. However, EVOLUTION seems too reliant on cheesy-looking CGI. The corny-looking effects invade otherwise neat action sequences. A prime example of this is when Markus wipes out an entire room of vampires during his introduction, with low-grade wings impaling and decapitating folks in Syfy-level cheesiness. However, it’s worth noting that Selene’s final confrontation against Markus has one hell of a bloody conclusion.

EVOLUTION is the lowest point of the first three UNDERWORLD films and ends on another obvious cliffhanger for a sequel (that didn’t arrive until 2012). EVOLUTION isn’t bad, but it’s certainly a downgrade from the period piece creativity of its later prequel and the MATRIX-inspired entertainment of the first film. There are loads of interesting plot points that are passed over for the sake of feeding the viewer more exposition and lore about this world/conflict. Some of it is welcome, but a lot of it feels unnecessary. UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION has enough positive qualities to warrant a recommendation for fans of the first film (and the prequel), but expect to be underwhelmed.

Grade: B-

UNDERWORLD (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence/Gore and some Language

Directed by: Len Wiseman

Written by: Danny McBride

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robbie Gee & Kevin Grevioux

2003’s UNDERWORLD came out when I was just entering junior high school and this film was the talk of all my preteen friends, though we were far too young to go watch this in a theater. When it premiered on cable, I remember watching it and liking it. However, I haven’t seen this first film in over a decade. UNDERWORLD has the nifty premise of vampires fighting werewolves…in present day…with cool weapons. While it’s far from perfect, UNDERWORLD is an entertaining watch that has amazing visuals and lots of creativity (alongside many clichés).

For centuries, a war has raged between vampires and lycans (the fancy word for werewolves). Humans are unaware of these monsters’ existence and their feud, but this changes when medical student Michael (Scott Speedman) is thrust into the middle of the conflict. Supposedly dead lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen) wants Michael for some reason and vampire death-dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) has taken an interest in the human. The monstrous factions begin to reach boiling points as new weapons come to light, alongside buried history and a master plan that may end the war. Selene soon finds herself saddled with deep feelings for Michael and discoveries that blur her long-standing loyalty.

When watching UNDERWORLD, it immediately becomes clear that creators Danny McBride, Kevin Grevioux, and Len Wiseman put a lot of thought into crafting extensive lore behind the plot. The politics of vampire coven rituals are complicated, but the trio simplify things to the point where the viewer can easily grasp what’s going on. There’s also an avid history behind the vampire-lycan conflict itself, but this won’t come as a shocking twist to first-time viewers who’ve already seen origin story RISE OF THE LYCANS. UNDERWORLD was originally planned as a trilogy of films, which explains the eye-rollingly obvious cliffhanger ending that’s left wide open for a sequel.

Plot-wise, UNDERWORLD is a bloody, clichéd, and fun mixture of ROMEO & JULIET, BLADE, and THE MATRIX. Even with these obvious influences, the resulting film is its own cinematic beast (aided by lots of latex and blue filters). The pacing is mostly compelling, though the middle section occasionally drags for the sake of giving lengthy exposition behind the series’ fanged/furry mythology. These slower points are easily remedied by an action-packed final third that delivers a bad-ass creation that’s never been seen on film before.

Though the plot may contain more than its fair share of clichés and familiarity, UNDERWORLD is a visually stunning movie. Lots of slow motion, slick cinematography, and MATRIX-inspired (in a good way) action sequences make their way into the mix. This film doesn’t skimp on the gore either, because vamps and wolves go at each other’s throats with a variety of weapons. Sometimes, these are specialized bullets and hand-to-hand/claw-to-claw combat. Other times, these warring monsters use kick-ass weapons brought in for a specific scene (e.g. metal whips, bladed discs, etc.).

Kate Beckinsale slips into a sexy latex catsuit as vampire Selene, though she’s just as dangerous as she is attractive. This female bad-ass provides a solid protagonist for the audience to root for, especially as her preconceived notions about the war begin to shatter. I wish the same could be said for Scott Speedman as Selene’s human love-interest Michael. Speedman is wooden as the dude-in-distress and functions as a walking plot device. Even worse than Speedman’s blandness is Shane Brolly as scumbag vampire Kraven. He plays his character with all the subtleties of a moustache-twirling villain. Thankfully, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen make up for Speedman and Brolly’s bad acting, as the determined leaders of the warring monster factions.

Though UNDERWORLD suffers from overly familiar clichés, two lame characters, and an occasionally dull middle section, this film still delivers on being entertaining. If the idea of vampires and werewolves fighting (with guns, no less) intrigues you, you’re likely to have a good time watching UNDERWORLD. It’s far from high art, but very much succeeds at being a fun, visually stunning horror-actioner!

Grade: B

STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing and Violent Images, Sexual Content and Language

Stonehearst poster

Directed by: Brad Anderson

Written by: Joe Gangemi

(based on the short story THE SYSTEM OF DOCTOR TARR AND PROFESSOR FETHER by Edgar Allan Poe)

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Jason Flemying & Sinead Cusack

The source material for STONEHEARST ASYLUM isn’t Edgar Allan Poe’s most renowned tale. THE SYSTEM OF DOCTOR TARR AND PROFESSOR FETHER is more like a one-note joke that’s spread out for a few pages. Not even Roger Corman (who adapted as much Poe as he could in the 1960’s) bothered to touch this material. It’s 2014, enter screenwriter Joe Gangemi and director Brad Anderson. This filmmaking team have fleshed out a darkly funny little tale into something special. Anderson, who’s been on a bit of a downward spiral with his last efforts (VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, THE CALL), has returned to cover his second creepy movie set in a huge asylum (he’s responsible for 2001’s disturbing SESSION 9). STONEHEARST ASYLUM isn’t perfect due to a couple of issues, but it’s probably my favorite of the genre crop for 2014’s Halloween season.

Stonehearst 1

The story begins on Christmas Eve 1899 at an isolated sanitarium in Britain. Edward Newgate is an up and coming doctor who only needs clinical experience to move his career forward. He chooses to gain his hands-on knowledge at the countryside Stonehearst Asylum. It is here that he meets the eccentric Dr. Lamb, who employs unorthodox methods in feeding patients delusions and letting them roam free around the asylum. Though uncomfortable with his surroundings, Edward is immediately attracted to a patient named Eliza Graves. Graves suffers from hysteria, but finds solace in music thanks to Lamb’s treatments. During his first night at the hospital, Edward discovers terrible evidence in the basement that suggests that the unusual Stonehearst staff might actually be mental patients who have taken over the Asylum (NOT a spoiler, it happens about 20 minutes into a nearly two-hour movie). Edward must keep his head low, search for clues, and use any clever ideas he has in order to get out of the hospital alive.

Stonehearst 2

STONEHEARST kicks off with quality right out of the gate in a thick fog-laden atmosphere and an eerie location. This film would be right at home in the 1960’s with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as headliners (could you imagine how awesome that project would be?). This isn’t a detriment at all. There is plenty of style, glossy visuals, and fantastic sets (I believed this was a real location and wouldn’t be surprised if it actually was) that feels as modern as you can get in a period piece set at the end of the 19th century. The story is also compelling the whole way through. Even if it does rely on a couple of familiar clichés in a few scenes (a guy hiding in a closet while someone’s about to find him), I was hooked from start to finish.

Stonehearst 3

Besides a great atmosphere and solid story, the cast here is hugely impressive. Jim Sturgess is good as Edward Newgate and Kate Beckinsale is Eliza Graves. The relationship between the two feels a little forced (which is one of my problems with the film). They’re really not the focus here though. The script is packed with such an interesting array of characters that I found myself entranced with each individual for different reasons. Michael Caine plays a side character who doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but raises a few questions as to what kind of man he is. Jason Flemying and Brendan Gleeson also have ever-so-fleeting roles as well that leave enough of an impact to warrant their appearance. David Thewlis steals almost every scene he’s as the ironically named Mickey Finn (meaning drink laced with drug). The best performance here comes from Ben Kingsley. Silas Lamb is not a simple character by any means and Kingsley’s talent lends to the man being a complicated antagonist of sorts. Even if I didn’t agree with his actions, I saw we’re he was coming from and completely understood his motivation. Fleshed out villains offer more to chew on than someone who’s all out evil. Kingsley sells Silas as such.

Stonehearst 4

Aside from the forced romance between Sturgess and Beckinsale, the plot weaves through one twist too many. Though there’s plenty of unexpected revelations and reveals through this tale that never drags, STONEHEARST ASYLUM needed a better closing scene. I didn’t completely buy what the movie was selling me, but everything else up to that point was so awesome that it didn’t wreck or put a damper on the whole film. STONEHEARST perfectly captures madness in its various forms, which is entirely appropriate and essential given the subject matter. While the lunatics are indeed criminals, the methods being used by the staff aren’t humane either (science and medicine were far from they are today). Add to the mix that some off-centered camera angles and little details (like a cook eating a maggot off a piece of fruit) blend in perfectly to the unsettling tone of the film too.

Stonehearst 5

A forced relationship and one tiny plot twist too many are the only two flaws that keep STONEHEARST ASYLUM from being a completely ideal film. Everything else considered, this is a really solid horror flick that doesn’t rely on gore (the PG-13 rating is not a distraction here) or quick jump scares to freak out the viewer. Instead, a sophisticated sense of ever-building dread and a complicated story full of interesting characters (boasted by great performances) make this one of the best horror films I’ve sat through in 2014. Those who love Roger Corman’s Poe classics and yearn for a throwback to those films had better check themselves into STONEHEARST ASYLUM for two hours.

Grade: A-

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