A short review of “Underworld: Blood Wars” (2016)

I’m not sure what to say about “Underworld: Blood Wars” (2016).  It really differs little from the previous “Underworld” movies.  If you’ve seen those, you’ve kinda seen this one.

The vampires look like underwear models, or maybe a goths-only high school drama club.  The werewolves look … not homeless, exactly, but like burly, long-haired, unemployed grunge rockers.  Both groups speak portentously and repeatedly about things like “LINEAGE” and “BLOOD LINES” and “THE WAR” and “AMELIA.”  (Who was Amelia again?)  There are the requisite betrayals and forbidden inter-species romances.  The entire thing felt like a feature-length music video.

Maybe I’m being too harsh.  I would actually give this film a 5 out of 10 for at least bringing some good things to the table.  Kate Beckinsale is a good actress, and she brings the same magnetism that she always does to Selene, the franchise’s protagonist.  Charles Dance is always superb, and is always fun to watch.  (There are at least two “Game of Thrones” alumni here — one is Dance as a vampire elder, and the other is Tobias Menzies as the leader of the “Lycans.”)  The nicest surprise, though, was seeing Lara Pulver as an ambitious vampire alpha female — fans of “Sherlock” (2010 – 2017) will recognize her as that series’ incarnation of Irene Adler.  She’s a great actress, and she seems to relish this kind of role.

All in all, though, I can’t say I actually recommend this.

 

 

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Dennis Villelmi interviews Rob Goodman

Be sure to stop by The Bees Are Dead for Dennis Villelmi’s interview with actor and author Rob Goodman.  Depending on your tastes in film and television, you might recognize him from “Gangs of New York” (2002), “Game of Thrones”  (2014) or “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003).

Mr. Goodman was a truly wonderful interviewee, and spoke on subjects ranging from his own tumultuous school days to the field of paranormal inquiry known as psychogeography.

And hey — while you’re there at The Bees Are Dead, also be sure to peruse Ryan Quinn Flanagan’s poem, “The Birds of Afghanistan.”  It’s a terrific piece.

 

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First snowfall on Peace Mountain, 2017

Credit for the name of the mountain where we live goes to my girlfriend; I named the house — “Winterfell.”  I’m naming a lot of things after “Game of Thrones” this winter.  (Because it is “Coming.”)  Remember I shared a picture of the vestigial remains of shack, in which only a strewn roof was still intact?  That I dubbed “Craster’s Keep.”  And I am starting to think of Lynchburg as “King’s Landing.”

This was only the  initial powdering last Friday — of course the snow became much heavier that night.

 

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A few quick words on “Game of Thrones” Season 3

To avoid spoilers, my review of “Game of Thrones” Season 3 will be necessarily brief, dependent as this show so often is on the key betrayals that affect its plot.  In short, I loved it, and I’d give it a 10 out of 10.  I don’t know why I’ve felt so reluctant to do that … maybe because I used to view it as too mainstream, given its zealous and seemingly universal fandom?  This would be a dishonest review if I didn’t admit that I was hooked on the show I used to make fun of.

It has some of the best acting and dialogue in recent memory.  The show might be worth watching for Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance’s verbal sparring, alone, for example.  Now, in this third season, Jon Snow and Daenerys finally evolved into heroes that I could actually root for.  (They seemed a bit thinly rendered up until now.)  I actually cheered when she wiggled that deal to purchase “The Unsullied” slave army.  And there was just more … fun stuff — dragons, White Walkers, melees, surprise attacks, etc.

At times the show feels slow to me — its is still pretty chatty, and neither the White Walkers nor Daenerys’ forces will ever win a war by moving swiftly.  After three years of the show, they’re … still moving south and north, respectively.  Rommel would have routed them easily.

And, at times, “Game of Thrones” is too dark even for me.  The scenes of torture and the bloody betrayals among allies’ sometimes make me think that the writers (or George R. R. Martin himself) simply wish to depress their audience.

Those things can’t prevent me from being just as hooked on this as everyone else, though.  Great stuff.

 

A review of “Game of Thrones,” Season 1

I liked Season 1 of “Game of Thrones;” I really did.  I don’t yet love the show in the same way that so many other people do, however, and I’d honestly rate this 10-episode season an 8 out of 10.  If that sounds like faint praise for a show that seems universally loved, I concede that my criticisms really reflect my own personal tastes, not to mention my admittedly narrow attention span.

It’s an undeniably well made show, in terms of everything from acting to set design.  Its densely plotted story (with so many characters!) suggests to me that it is probably true to George R. R. Martin’s books, which I have not read.  The show seems like an authentic adaptation that respects the viewer’s intelligence and consequently demands a lot of him or her.

There is a lot to admire, such as the show’s attention to a myriad of details in order to meticulously render Martin’s fantasy universe.  Peter Dinklage is consistently wonderful to watch as Tyrion Lannister.  Aidan Gillen and Conleth Hill are both downright Shakespearian as Littlefinger and Varys, the two duplicitous members of the Court at King’s Landing.  Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister) and Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont) are also all favorites of mine.  (Glen is none other than the “Resident Evil” films’ original Wesker!  And he has such a damn cool voice.)

The script, direction and production values all usually seem quite good.  The show even has moments of brilliance — the first episode’s opening teaser, in which we witness an attack on the border wall by the icy “White Walker” monsters, was scarier than a hell of a lot of horror movies I’ve seen.

Which brings us to my frustrations, and, yes, they are mostly subjective.  I actually did bring certain appetites as an audience member that weren’t met.   I craved more action, and greater emotional payoff for the dialogue-heavy story arcs that built tension throughout the first season.  (Caveat: I am a fan of both horror movies and war films, and I suspect I’m not exactly the target audience for what is essentially a political thriller in a fantasy context.)

The inaugural episode’s White Walkers were what I was dying to see the most.  And I do think they should have been featured more prominently, from a storytelling perspective.  Otherwise they shouldn’t have served as the teaser-opener for the entire season.  Nor should they have been the plot driver for the storylines connected with the Wall and The Night’s Watch.

We also see extensive preparations for war, and military maneuvering — we even have important scenes taking place at troop encampments.  But there is absolutely no climax for these steadily building plot developments.  I know I sound like a 13 year old, and maybe I am just not sophisticated enough to enjoy the show on its current levels, but I wanted see a battle.  From a storytelling perspective, I suggest it’s a bad creative decision to end the season without allowing us to truly witness a major land engagement.  I do realize that we indeed see one house’s brutal invasion of another’s castle, and that it’s well done.  But it was too brief.  Again, while “Game of Thrones” has all the trappings of a period war series, this is a political thriller in a fantasy context.

As for the Machiavellian politics, I am embarrassed to admit that I got lost early on.  Yes, I’m fully aware that others are able to follow these plot threads quite easily.  (My college chums can.)  I’d just advise another viewer of average intelligence that their enjoyment might be affected by an unusually detailed story that requires their strict attention.

Finally, I do feel that there is a dearth of likeable and identifiable characters.  Nearly every major player is motivated by an ignoble goal (power).  Many betray one another; that’s the show’s favorite plot point.  Sean Bean’s Eddard Stark is only a putative hero, to me.  Yes, he’s fighting for the rightful heir to the throne, but he’s still serving a monarchy; he’s not sticking up for the common man or anything.  (We see loyalty among various characters to various noblemen, but nobody seems to care about the peasants.)  Furthermore, Stark’s actions toward a scared subordinate in the first episode made me unsympathetic to him.  (I don’t care who has vowed to do what — his action in the series premier was unwarranted.)

Jon Snow is well scripted as a “good” character, but the actor portraying him needs to work on his range.  Kit Harrington is decent in the role, but he too often looks like a sad, spurned poet.  (Hey, it’s okay, Snowman, I’ve been there myself.)

Daenerys Targaryen appears to be a “good” character, and I do like her.  She’s thinly rendered, though, despite what seems like an inordinate amount of screen time devoted to her major subplot.  (And this subplot, with its legions of bare-chested barbarians, seems like a slowly paced cousin of the 1990’s “Xena: Warrior Princess.”)  Daenerys seems like an obvious power-fantasy for victimized women.  (Yeah, I know there’s nothing wrong with that.  And, yeah, I know that people say something similar about my beloved comic book movies.)

With all of these criticisms, it may sound as though I didn’t enjoy “Game of Thrones.”  To the contrary, I did.  If you like fantasy and are looking for something well made and different, I’d recommend you try this.  I think maybe I’m just trying to justify my more modest enthusiasm for one of contemporary pop culture’s sacred cows.

 

I finally watched an episode of “Game of Thrones.”

So I finally caved and watched the series pilot of “Game of Thrones.” Here is my summary:

[SPOILERS.]  Albino forest monsters are f**king terrifying. Boromir actually survived “The Lord of the Rings;” now he’s a d**k to his subordinates. Cool Sarah Connor dyes her hair blonde; lame Sarah Connor gets nude. Peter Dinklage is a fantastic actor; every other character is dwarfed by his intellect. (See what I did there?)  Wolf pups look suspiciously like Husky pups.

Dragon eggs look disappointingly fake. Barbarians act all badass; 1980’s Conan could take all of them. People have to take a vow of celibacy to guard Donald Trump’s wall, for some reason.

A child is named “Bran;” is he good for roughage?  Denis Leary Doppleganger is a d**k to children.

Seriously, though — this show is awesome.

 

“The … Stalking Dead?” (A review of “Daredevil” S2E1)

[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ONE SPOILER.]  So the fantastic John Bernthal is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Punisher,” debuting (however briefly) in the first episode of Netflix’ “Daredevil” Season 2.  I just know that there is a great “Walking Dead” joke hiding around here somewhere; but I can’t seem to put my finger on it …  (Something about … Blind Grimes?  Disabled Rick?  Daredevil can’t see “stuff?”  Or “thangs?”)  You people work that out for me.

Bernthal’s arrival is dream casting, every bit as perfect as bagging the inimitable Robert Downey, Jr. as the MCU’s Iron Man.  Even though the actor speaks only a single word, it’s goddam beautiful.

That’s one of the better things about Season 2’s first outing, which, for me, fell into the category of “good, but not great.”  (I’d still give it an 8 out of 10, and I feel certain the season will get better.)  What we see in S2E1 is mostly setup.  The episode clearly tried to introduce tension by grooming the Punisher as a frightening antagonist, with limited success.  Even casual Marvel fans know that Frank Castle is a good guy, and nothing close to a Big Bad.  Yes, he’s an anti-hero who fatally shoots villains, and will be a foil for Matt Murdock’s Boy Scout restraint (as he was in the comics, back in the day).

But I doubt that the Punisher can be made scary or truly tension-inducing.  (Are we afraid of Wolverine?)  We know that his shoot-em-up tactics won’t leave Daredevil dead.  (This isn’t “Game of Thrones” or TWD.)  And I’d guess that most viewers, like me, aren’t too emotionally invested in this show’s minor characters.  (The only exception would be the quite interesting and three-dimensional Karen Page, still wonderfully portrayed by Deborah Ann Woll.)  Hell, I think the show would be better if the painfully annoying Foggy Nelson were made an early casualty.  Finally, if the show stays true to the original comics, then the Punisher has that most sympathetic of “origin stories” — a murdered nuclear family.

Both the Punisher and Bernthal have such devoted fanbases that a lot of viewers will probably root for him against Matt.  (Our very own Blog Correspondent Len Ornstein, for example, was known for firmly being on “Team Shane” for TWD.)  Looking back at my fervent comic-collecting days in the 1990’s, I seem to recall the Punisher having a far bigger fan following.  He was a mercenary and Vietnam veteran who simply shot up whatever corner of the Marvel Comics universe to which his quarry had tried in vain to escape.  Fans compared him to DC Comics’ iconic cash cow, Batman.  Matt Murdock, on the other hand, had niche appeal.  He was a liberal superhero if there ever was one — a Columbia-educated defense attorney who employed nonfatal force, and who fought for the “everyday man on the street.”  He was like a grownup, thoughtful, socially conscious Spider-Man.  If ever there was a comic book hero who would join the American Civil Liberties Union, it was Daredevil.

Moving forward, I think that Netflix will need an altogether different adversary than Castle to raise the stakes emotionally, and bring suspense to its second season.  Maybe the show will accomplish that with Elektra, who we know will also appear.  (And fans of the comics know that this integral character has far greater implications for our hero.)

The new season’s inaugural episode might have been slightly better if it had been tweaked elsewhere, as well.  Much ominous language is devoted to characterizing the Punisher as a killer with military proficiency.  We kinda don’t see that.  The largest action set piece shows no precision or professionalism, just a room full of gangsters being hosed down by gunfire from an offscreen shooter.  And while the sequence itself was dramatic, it seemed like something that could have been perpetrated by a (very well armed) street gang in a drive-by shooting.

We also see some of the dialogue problems that were so evident in the first season — as superb as the screenwriters are, they don’t do casual conversation among friends very well.  There’s the same forced banter and an embarrassing lack of chemistry among the three lead protagonists, this time on display during an awkwardly staged after-work barroom pool game.  (It’s particularly puzzling because Woll and Charlie Cox are both very good actors.)  This show scripts its villains, petty crooks and adversaries with such flair — why does it seem to fail so often with friendly conversation?  And why bother with these strange attempts at Scooby-Gang camaraderie in the first place?  I think it’s a weird creative choice.  These are serious characters leading serious lives.  It seems implausible to me that they should be so frequently upbeat anyway.

Hey — if I’m nitpicking a lot here, it’s only because I love the show, and consequently hold it to a very high standard.  It really is the best superhero adaptation on television.  My review of last season was absolutely glowing, and I honestly think that Season 2 will be just as good.  If you haven’t checked out “Daredevil” yet, you ought to.

 

 

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