UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence and some Sexuality

Directed by: Patrick Tatopoulos

Written by: Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman & Howard McCain

Starring: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, Steven Mackintosh, Kevin Grevioux, David Aston, Elizabeth Hawthorne & Craig Parker

Most horror franchises don’t receive prequels that take place in the Dark Ages, but UNDERWORLD has a most-welcome exception in its cinematic timeline. The third film in this “vampires vs. werewolves” franchise and the first in the chronological order of events, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS offers a surprisingly huge amount of entertainment. This film plays out like GAME OF THRONES crossed with werewolves/vampires. It’s a ton of fun and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but a great installment in a franchise that’s a bit all over the place in quality.

In the Dark Ages, vampires, werewolves, and human live in violent ways. The vampires have humans pay tribute to them, while also fighting against the vicious Lycans (werewolves). When vampire warlord Viktor (Bill Nighy) finds a werewolf infant who’s capable of taking human form, he decides to let the child live as a loyal servant. As the years go by, loyal Lycanthrope Lucian (Michael Sheen) gets the hots for Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) and the two engage in a forbidden relationship. As werewolves beat at the castle doors and tensions rise between Lucian and Viktor, events spiral out of control to the point where we see a centuries-long vampire-lycan war begin in its gory glory.

First things first, RISE OF THE LYCANS’s production values are stellar (almost) all across the board. With the exception of some brief corny CGI in the werewolf transformations and blue filters that are used to a comically excessive degree, this film looks like it cost far more than its meager 35 million price tag would indicate. Lots of authentic looking armor, costumes, and sets were used to bring this medieval world of violent blood-suckers and hairy shapeshifters to life. Judged on a spectacle alone, RISE OF THE LYCANS is awesome.

The cool factor extends into action sequences that have a steady (non-shaky cam) eye on the combat, though there are occasional bits of annoying quick editing. The fights also have believable emotion thrown into them. Besides featuring the Lycans fight for freedom, this is also Lucian’s romance with Viktor’s daughter. Therefore, we have great scenes of a werewolf fighting for the love of his life and the vampire father being protective of his daughter (with a sword). There is plenty of gore to go around, as we see vampires get slashed and werewolves dismembered. One of the film’s best scenes has an escape through the castle hallways, all while giant metal spear-like arrows crash through the walls. That entire sequence is just plain cool to behold.

It helps that this material (which seems tailor-made for a glorified B-movie) is being brought to the screen by a talented trio of performers. The three big stand-outs are Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, and Rhona Mitra. Michael Sheen has severely ranged in the quality of his acting. Sometimes, he’s great (UNTHINKABLE) and other times he’s terrible (the TWILIGHT series). LYCANS sees him playing the heroic leader of werewolves and a man driven by forbidden love (as cliché as that motivation may be). Sheen is basically playing werewolf Spartacus and that’s pretty awesome, because he’s putting in A-grade effort into his performance.

As the story’s blood-sucking baddie, Bill Nighy is great as the scenery-chewing, permanently scowling Viktor. He displays a sympathetic side to Lucian as an owner would to be a pet and has genuine fatherly concerns for his daughter. When he receives some emotional moments during the latter half, his angry responses feel genuine and his sadness is palpable. One quiet scene that sees him silently grieving in a corner is more than believable and offers a deeper layer to this undead antagonist. Meanwhile, Rhona Mitra plays her heroine as a sword-wielding bad-ass and a determined woman who’s not held back by the constraints of vampire society norms. I can’t believe I’m saying all of these things about an UNDERWORLD prequel, but these performances work and then some.

UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is far better than it has any right to be. The acting is stellar from the three main leads and adds a more emotional layer to the proceedings (which also strengthens the later chronological films). Though some of the werewolf transformations may look cheesy and the color blue is everywhere, this period piece horror-action flick is pretty damn great. The fights and battle scenes are exciting, while there’s A-level effort being thrown into this B-movie premise. UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is a fantastically fun time for fans of the franchise, while also serving as a solid introduction to the series for newcomers!

Grade: B+

GET CARTER (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language, some Sexuality and Drug Content

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Directed by: Stephen Kay

Written by: David McKenna

(based on the novel JACK’S RETURN HOME by Ted Lewis)

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Miranda Richardson, Rachael Leigh Cook, Alan Cumming, Mickey Rourke, John C. McGinley, Michael Caine & Rhona Mitra

Though it eventually went on to win critical acclaim, 1971’s GET CARTER wasn’t originally well-received upon release. Due to marketing blunders and a studio that seemingly didn’t care, the Michael Caine revenge-thriller wound up sinking into obscurity in the USA. Two decades passed and the film gained a cult following behind it, eventually re-entering the cinematic scene during the 90’s. Where there’s popularity (no matter how niche it is), there will be a studio exec waiting to cash in on that craze. I present to you the 2000 remake of GET CARTER. This was a cooler, more hip and edgier take on the material…at least, that’s what one studio exec would have you believe. Though it’s watchable and does try to tell its story in a slightly different manner, this remake of GET CARTER ultimately feels like a bit of watered-down bore.

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Jack Carter is mob enforcer in Las Vegas (as opposed to London). When his brother winds up dead in an apparent drunk driving accident, Jack returns to his home in Seattle (as opposed to Newcastle). Something surrounding his brother’s death doesn’t seem right, so Jack goes sniffing around the darker corners of the city for answers. While on his quest for the truth, Jack bonds with his young niece and discovers a conspiracy involving a porn kingpin and a computer genius…that could be linked to his brother’s suspicious untimely demise.

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Credit where credit is due, 2000’s GET CARTER does try to tell its story in a different way. Those new spins on the material don’t quite work out, because the movie still finds itself clinging to the original to move the plot forward. However, this inferior remake is still watchable…even if it’s poorly made. Sylvester Stallone is certainly not the actor that Michael Caine is, so he plays his usual tough guy role here. Stallone aside, every other character has been slightly shaken up. The innkeeper is now Jack’s sister-in-law. Jack’s sister has now become Jack’s niece. The shady businessman has transformed into a computer geek (played in not so intimidating fashion by Alan Cumming). Then there’s Mickey Rourke as the porn kingpin who’s pretty much the same scumbag as the original character, but with a website and CD’s. While the original GET CARTER had bad guys and worse guys, this new version has been painted with a good vs. evil brush. Jack Carter wasn’t someone who you could completely root for in the original, but he’s pretty much a generic action hero in this reboot. As you might imagine, this lessens the moral ambiguity that made the original so haunting and special.

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On the technical side of things, GET CARTER feels like it’s trying way too hard to be hip and cool. For crying out loud, this new Jack Carter wears cufflinks with his initials on them. The film is over stylized to the breaking point. There are lots of useless lens flares, fast editing, quick cutting and slow motion. The movie speaks for itself in a scene where Jack makes a horrifying discovery. The original let the scene quietly play out and all the emotions break across Michael Caine’s face. This remake doesn’t give us much a glimpse of Stallone’s face in that moment that isn’t in double vision or with the camera spinning upside down. Those technical touches are supposed to portray the emotion, instead of the actor. If you’re wanted an MTV action-packed thrill-ride the first time around, then this 2000 reboot also tries to throw in lots of pointless action scenes that exist for the sake of having a chase or fight sequence. To top it all off, the stunning, depressing conclusion that so perfectly closed out the original has been replaced with a forced, uplifting Hollywoodized hodge-podge of an ending.

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I had kept my hopes at a reasonable level for this remake and was still let down. I should have taken the techno-reboot of the original’s theme as a warning. Though this new version of GET CARTER may have tried to do things differently, but none of it fully works. I did somewhat enjoy one sub-plot, but it’s only purpose was to add in pointless action scenes that never amount to anything by the ending. Michael Caine shows up in a side role as if to give his approval for this remake and that’s sort of neat, but again, it all amounts to nothing. All this dumbed down remake accomplishes is showing how vastly superior the 1971 original really was. I think I’ll let Michael Caine’s final line in this remake sum everything up. He’s walking away from Sylvester Stallone and says “I’m not turning around.” You should take his advice and just walk past this remake of GET CARTER on the DVD shelf at your local store.

Grade: D+

THE LOFT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Nudity, Bloody Violence, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Erik Van Looy

Written by: Wesley Strick

Starring: Karl Urban, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller, Eric Stonestreet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Rhona Mitra, Rachael Taylor, Isabel Lucas & Valerie Cruz

THE LOFT is strange in that I can’t imagine the conversation that green lit this project in the first place. A remake of a 2008 Dutch thriller directed by Erik Van Looy, who helmed the original film, this would-be Hitchcockian thriller revolves around an iffy premise to begin with. The viewer is forced to follow five wholly unlikable scumbags put in a compromising position. Originally scheduled for an August 2014 release and then postponed until January (where studio films go to die), THE LOFT isn’t nearly as terrible as the promotional material and critical reception suggests. It’s certainly bad, but also ridiculous to a level where I found myself half-heartedly enjoying it for the sheer cheesy nature of the ludicrous story being told.

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Five friends (Vincent, Chris, Luke, Marty, and Phillip) rent a secluded loft where they can bring their one night stands and mistresses. All five husbands don’t necessarily feel like filing for divorce, so this clever ruse leaves their wives in dark about their infidelity. However, this scheme blows up in their faces when a dead girl is discovered in the loft. She has been handcuffed to the bed, her wrist sliced open, and a message in Latin written on the bed frame. Someone is going after these five unfaithful jerks, but the mystery is to who that person is and what exactly is happening. The plot (connected through flashbacks) slowly pieces the puzzle together as its revealed that each of these men have dark personal secrets to hide from each other as well as their wives.

THE LOFT, from left: Rachael Taylor, James Marsden, 2014. ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

THE LOFT is constructed in a way that feels very cheap, in spite of a 14 million budget. There are unneeded lens flares, scenes with far too much quick editing (I counted 10 cuts in the space of less than 10 seconds at one point), out of focus shots, and the corny trick of using hazy post-production blurs to simulate someone being drugged. There’s a strong sense that this should have been dumped direct to DVD as opposed to receiving a wide theatrical release, but there’s also enjoyment in just how silly the execution of this already questionable thriller comes off.

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I think it’s fair to say that everyone in this cast was phoning their performances in for a quick paycheck. Karl Urban is usually quite good, but feels like he’s rushing through his lines as the obligatory one-dimensional scumbag. James Marsden and Wentworth Miller are given slightly more fleshed-out characters, but come off wooden too. Relative newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts actually delivers the best performance as Marsden’s character’s mentally unstable cokehead brother, but isn’t given as much screen time as everyone else. The less said about Eric Stonestreet’s embarrassing comic relief character, the better. The female characters might as well have been cardboard cut-outs, including a criminally wasted Rhona Mitra as Marsden’s already suspicious wife who grows even more bitter against her husband after the Loft scheme begins.

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I said at the beginning of my review that there’s silly enjoyment to be gained in watching THE LOFT, but thus far I’ve bashed the lame style and bad performances. However, I was entertained watching the plot unfold in an interesting manner. The characters might be totally irredeemable, but there’s some fun to be had in seeing them turn on each other and reveal dark secrets that make up the overall story. Big plot holes are opened by a handful of ridiculous revelations (one bombshell in particular), but a couple of surprise developments actually work to a certain degree. If these moments were employed in a better thriller, they could have easily been shocking twists. Instead, they come off as ridiculous entertainment in a poor man’s attempt at a Hitchcock thriller. Still, I was never bored and there’s something to be said for that.

THE LOFT, James Marsden, 2014. ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s still a mystery how this remake was even made in the first place. The premise doesn’t exactly scream widespread appeal and the cast all deliver sub-par performances. I’m not sure how this compares to the original Dutch version (which might be a far better film), but I enjoyed the entertainingly convoluted nature of the already silly overcomplicated plot. THE LOFT is trashy fun. This is certainly a bad movie, but still might entertain you in a guilty pleasure way that was never intended to begin with.

Grade: C-

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