CinemaConflict of InterestReviews

Review: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, The Unknown Woman, The Unborn, The Women and Notorious

By March 22, 2009 No Comments

Underword: Rise of the Lycans posterA friend of mine auditioned for Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (produced in Auckland in 2006) and didn’t get a part. I was pleased to report to him yesterday that he had dodged a (silver) bullet there as this nonsensical prequel to the Kate Beckinsale leather-fetishists fantasy series was not going to do anyone’s career any good.

The usually great Bill Nighy plays Viktor, leader of a bunch of aristocratic (but strangely democratic) vampires in middle ages middle Europe. They earn their keep by squeezing protection money out of the local humans — supposedly keeping the werewolves out of their hair — but evolution is not on their side and the wolves are in the ascendant.

The usually great Michael Sheen (David Frost in Frost/Nixon, Tony Blair in a few things) is a human-werewolf hybrid, kept as a slave/pet, who falls in love with Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) and initiates a Spartacus-like revolt. Complete balderdash from beginning to end, even the effects are trashy.

The Unborn posterThe Unborn is an atmospheric horror in the Exorcist tradition with more than its own share of silliness. Ingenue Odette Yustman (Cloverfield) plays popular student Casey Beldon, who is being haunted by visions of a mysterious child who may or may not be the one killing her friends (none of which stops her wandering freely around the house in her underwear with the camera following slavishly at butt-level).

In one of the more bizarre plots of recent times, it turns out that the concentration camp doctors at Auschwitz, in one of their experiments on twins, unwittingly unleashed a Jewish demon called a dybbuk who is now wreaking havoc in the Chicago suburbs. So, even though the demon is Jewish, it’s still all the fault of the Nazis.

The Unknown Woman posterDespite all The Unborn’s efforts to scare me, I wasn’t nearly as creeped-out as I was watching Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Unknown Woman — a genuinely scary and completely non-supernatural thriller. Luminous Russian actress Xenia Rappoport stars as a mysterious woman living a lonely but purposeful life in the city of Trieste, the closest Italian city to the badlands of the newly-free Eastern Europe.

She works hard to become the nanny for the family of a wealthy jeweller who, we think, she is going to rip off but in a series of flashbacks (with the emphasis on the ‘flash’) we see she is motivated by something more than money and that she is tormented by a past that is deeply shocking.

Director Tornatore is a master craftsman (Cinema Paradiso and A Pure Formality come to mind), and he’s expertly put together a gripping thriller with a tightly focused rage at the state of the ‘new Europe’ and the ‘unknown’ people who are discarded on the road to economic progress.

The Women posterI’ve never subscribed to Christopher Hitchens’ view that women aren’t funny, but I should point out to potential viewers of The Women that having five women starring in a film does not necessarily make the eventual film five times funnier. It’s the story of four middle-aged New York BFF’s (Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith) and how they react when Ryan’s husband starts fooling around with the hot young thing from the Saks perfume counter.

One of the problems with this sort of movie nowadays is that the supposedly aspirational Wall St and 5th Avenue world these people inhabit couldn’t be more doomed if Karl Marx had been the last President instead of GWB. There’s a value-system mismatch going on here that is going to prove hard for Hollywood to get its head around.

Notorious posterAs someone who was previously unfamiliar with the canon of the early 90s rapper Biggie Smalls (aka Notorious B.I.G.) I was interested in the biopic Notorious from an academic point of view. I can report that his music is actually really good but the lyrics, while virtuosic, are as shallow and inane as the population of the film. There are only two characters in Notorious that display any intelligence or decency and they are portrayals of the Producer and Executive Producer of the film (Angela Bassett as Biggie’s Mom Violetta and Derek Luke as Sean “Puffy” Combs). Take of that what you will.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 18th March, 2009.

Nature of Conflict: The Unknown Woman is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who I do a little work for now and then.

By the way, this post is short a few links but the Aro Video site is down. I may go back and update if I remember.