Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, by Laurell K. Hamilton

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“Buffy’s all grown-up and raising the dead…and having an ever-increasing amount of sex.”

This long-running series, with the 11th entry due in 2003, takes place in an alternative reality where vampires have equal rights as citizens. Heroine Anita Blake is a state-appointed executioner (“when good bloodsuckers…go bad…“) in St. Louis, who takes out the undead trash and also has a day job – actually, more of a night job – raising zombies. Oh, did I forget to mention them? There’s also were-creatures, ghouls, and pretty much the whole range of supernatural monsters.

It’s a grand, richly-detailed universe in which to play, and the first few novels are highly recommended, fast-paced action romps. Blake is a great character, who takes no bull from anyone, yet has vulnerabilities which are endearing (such as her stuffed penguin collection) and add depth. The first one alone will probably leave you wondering why in the hell any studio ever bothered with Anne Rice.

Unfortunately, beyond about the fourth or fifth, Hamilton loses the plot – literally. A truly bizarre love-triangle is set up between Anita, Richard the werewolf, and Jean-Claude, the walking cliche (all French accent and sensuous gaze) who is the local master vampire. By about the third volume of this, I was rolling my eyes and urging her to fuck one and kill the other, just to get it over with. If I wanted supernatural porn, I’d read it – instead, I’ll just quietly pine for the action-centred heroine of the earlier entries, and wait for Hollywood to catch up. Salma Hayek for Anita Blake?

By: Laurell K. Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin-Puttnam (US), Orbit (UK)

Bloody Mallory

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“From bad to hearse…”

It has been a long time since we’ve enjoyed a film so much. Right from the start, which shows a bride, in her wedding-dress, being stalked by a demon (or does it?), this grabbed our attention, and hardly let up for a second until the finale. I have to say, the odds are that you will either love this film, or fail entirely to ‘get’ what it’s trying to do and dismiss it as a lame Buffy ripoff. But in our living-room, it got four enthusiastic thumbs-up from the viewing panel, and seems like the perfect complement to beer and pizza.

After the opening, things for Mallory (Bonamy) go from bride to worse. [Hey, so I squeeze every drop of use from a pun. Sue me.] She’s now head of a team that investigates, and deals with, paranormal attacks – France seems to be the only country which has realised that such evil critters actually exist. She loses one member of her squad while repelling ghouls at a convent, and at the same time, new pope Hieronymus I (Spielvogel) is being kidnapped. She discovers he’s being held hostage in a nightmarish alternate dimension, so has to follow, and save the world from demonic invasion through the Hellmou…er, portal which is going to be opened, oh, any minute now.

There’s no doubt that director Julien Magnat was influenced by all the “right” films when it came to constructing his heroine: Mallory has Lola’s hair, Buffy’s martial-arts skill, the intensity of Michelle Rodriguez, and some of Resident Evil‘s Alice too. But none of them ever had gloves with ‘FUCK EVIL’ on the knuckles, drove a hearse, ran over black cats because “you never know”, or wore a tight, red waistcoat with a big ‘M’ embossed on the back [how there’s room in it for a large gun remains a charming mystery!]. Portrayed by Bonamy, who is unknown outside France (her only English-language role is a schoolgirl in Merchant-Ivory’s Jefferson in Paris), Mallory comes across as a convincing and original entry in the action heroine genre.

The other members of the team are hardly less imaginative – or, at least, the females, the guys are nowhere near so colourful or interesting. Completing the heroic trio are Vena Cava (Ribier – I think the character’s name is a Diamanda Galas reference), a six-foot “action transvestite”, as Eddie Izzard would say, an explosives expert with automatic weaponry in her platform soles, and Talking Tina, a mute telepath who can transfer her consciousness into animals or the dumber end of humanity. Both are excellent supporting characters; in a kinder universe, they would merit franchises of their own, Cava, in particular,

Less effective or interesting are the men, and it’s abundantly clear where Magnat’s passion lies. Father Carras (Collado), the Vatican priest and papal bodyguard is bland and colourless, despite having a name borrowed from The Exorcist. The best is actually Mallory’s demon husband (Julien Boisselier), now stuck in limbo after the murderous end to their marriage. The pair have a relationship which is genuinely touching, in a way which Joss Whedon could only dream of.

On the side of evil, again, the femmes rule, with Valentina Vargas and Sophie Tellier, as Lady Valentine and her shape-shifting sidekick, Morphine, giving performances which are suitably excessive and on the money. However, the climax of the film is disappointing, largely because Mallory has no genuine nemesis, with whom she can go toe-to-toe at the end – who’s she going to beat up, the Pope? [Actually, given his intolerant statements, you’ll likely be rooting for this from the get-go]

Some of the effects definitely leave a little to be desired – the demon masks look extremely rubbery, although personally, it reminded me of another energetic B-favourite, Rabid Grannies. However, the digital effects are great, particularly the exploding bodies; we especially loved the effect of Mallory’s cross-shaped holy-water spritzer. There were many moments where we went “Cool!”, at little things like the blood-red, swirling sky in the demon realm, the evaporation of Mallory’s husband into a cloud of rose petals, or the transformations of Morphine.

The attention paid to details like these helps immeasurably, and Magnat succeds admirably in his avowed intention of making something which has the look and feel of a Japanese comic-book come to life, with a lot of Dutch angles [this week’s pretentious technical term – it means the camera’s not level]. There’s almost no natural light at all, and each character has their own colour scheme: red/black for Mallory, blue/purple for Vena, burgundy/gold for Lady Valentine. Indeed, the soundtrack is by Kenji Kawai, whose credits include Ghost in the Shell.

Perhaps what we enjoyed most was the balance Magnat strikes between parody and drama. This is clearly not intended to be taken seriously – but the characters keep such admirably straight faces, that it became very easy to buy into the whole mythos, which in reality wouldn’t stand up to ten seconds of close scrutiny. There’s none of the self-awareness that plagued the later seasons of Buffy, and nor is there much angst or whining. The heroine has a mission to complete, and gets on with it, in a refreshingly straightforward manner.

Magnat’s wants his next project to be a return to The All-New Adventures of Chastity Blade, expanding on a 32-minute short film he made in the summer of 1999. This starred Lisa (Nightmare on Elm Street) Wilcox, playing a housewife who finds herself sucked into the world of the titular 1930’s pulp-fiction heroine after getting a bullet in the head. If he brings the same sense of style and wit to that concept as we enjoyed here, it promises to be worth our attention. Meanwhile, Mallory was picked up by Lion’s Gate in November 2002, and was passed by the MPAA (R, natch) in April last year – the same week as Gigli! Since then, nothing. However, a quick search on Ebay reveals it’s available from, ahem, the usual sources. [Update: It’s due a September 2005 release on DVD] And if you see only one film about a red-headed, hearse-driving demon-hunter this, or any year, Bloody Mallory should definitely be it.

Dir: Julien Magnat
Star: Olivia Bonamy, Jeffrey Ribier, Adrià Collado, Laurent Spielvogel

Underworld: Evolution

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“The evolution of species”

While undeniably flawed, the original Underworld had a big ace up its sleeve, in the basic concept of “vampires vs. werewolves”, which hadn’t received such a full-on depiction in cinema before. This time, the idea is familiar, and the story doesn’t have anything quite as cool to replace it. Sure, there’s the old fall-back of Kate Beckinsale in a PVC suit, but the sense of something genuinely new is rarely apparent. Sure, it’s a sequel, which in Hollywood translates to “more of the same”, but the lack of invention on view is still disappointing.

We start with a flashback to medieval times, explaining the basic premise, involving two immortal brothers, one bitten by a bat, the other a wolf. [A third brother was nibbled by a narwhal, but his role ended up on the cutting-room floor. Okay, I made that up.] Anyway, the lycanthrope is captured and locked up in a secret location by Victor (Bill Nighy – mercifully, only cameoing, since it’s impossible to take him seriously after his wonderful performance in Shaun of the Dead. We kept muttering, “I ran it under a cold tap…” every time he appeared). Back in the present, the vampire, Marcus (Curran), has been freed, and is now out to release his brother.

Meanwhile, Selene (Beckinsale) and her vamp-lycan hybrid lover Michael (Speedman) are bouncing around, trying to settle down and raise a family, of what I guess would be mostly vampires, but ones that get a little frisky around the full moon. Quite why they need to get involved in the storyline of the previous paragraph is unclear, but they do. And it’s probably relevant that contemplating the breeding habit of night creatures, and quoting lines from a British zom-rom-com were perhaps the best entertainment the film provided.

It isn’t entirely without merit though. Marcus is a memorable creation whose wings function as impressive weapons, and the effects are highly messy. In particular, the final two fights – and at least, this time, Selene does more than administer the coup de grace – both end in immaculately splattery ways. Though as an aside, I’m impressed with the sturdiness of a helicopter that can come crashing through a roof, yet still have engine and rotors running. But the action, on the whole, is fine, with an excellent chase which has Marcus harrying a truck, while Selene and Michael try to fend him off.

No, it’s the moments between the battles that are the problems, not least a dumb and gratuitous sex scene between Selene and Michael that appears to have wandered in from an airline version of a SkineMax movie. And the exposition also has to count as among the most leaden of recent times, achieving the rare double-bill of sending Chris and I independently off to sleep. Hey, we’d been out boating all day. So sue us. :-) However, for any action-fantasy to have both of us snoozing is definitely problematic.

So the results are disappointing, largely lacking the sense of style and invention that made the original a pleasant surprise (as well as something of a sleeper hit). However, it did well enough at the box-office to leave a third entry possible, and particularly when in motion, there was still sufficient life in the franchise to suggest that might not be an entirely bad thing. However, any future storyline must be limited to whatever complexity can be scrawled on a beer-mat. Anything more, and the scriptwriter should be sentenced to mop out sweat from Selene’s costume. With his tongue. :-)

Dir: Len Wiseman
Star: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Tony Curran, Derek Jacobi

Resident Evil

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“Alice in Underland”

Interestingly, in the past year, all three of the computer-game to movie adaptations have had heroines: Lara Croft, Aki (Final Fantasy), and now, Resident Evil‘s Alice, who wakes up one day with a splitting headache and no memory. I’ve had mornings like that too. However, I never found myself kidnapped by a SWAT team and dragged into the Hive, an underground complex populated by the walking dead (human and canine), a peeved computer, and a mutated computer graphic monster called the Licker. My stepson somewhat gleefully informed me that, in the game, the last-named’s method of attack is to wrap its tongue round your head and pull it off. The movie doesn’t go so far – it just kinda nibbles on its victims. I felt somewhat disappointed at this display of taste and restraint, not least because it ran contrary to much of the rest of the movie. This is not a subtle movie, relying heavily on things leaping in from outside the frame, while the soundtrack goes “Boo!”.

 Of course, that doesn’t make it a bad movie. Nor do the obvious plot-holes. Here are a few examples:

  • Why would an assault team choose to take a pair of amnesiac security guards on the mission with them?
  • Zombie humans shamble along at classic Romero speed. Zombie dogs can run like greyhounds.
  • Security lasers in a corridor zip along with a variety of heights/patters, before finally switching to an inescapable grid-pattern. Why didn’t they do that to start with?

These are forgivable – the first is necessary to the plot, and Anderson (a veteran of game/movies, having done Mortal Kombat) uses the other flaws to stage satisfyingly cool sequences, with the security lasers perhaps the highpoint of the film. It’s a shame this represents about the extent of the Hive’s defenses; I’d have liked to have seen more ingenuity of this sort. The rest of the story revolves around the T-virus, being developed by the corporation that runs the Hive – when the virus is stolen and released, the Hive goes into lock-down, with the central computer (the Red Queen, personified by a little girl hologram with a nice line in not-so-idle threats) killing all the personnel inside. Bad move, for the T-virus reanimates them, turning them into hungry cannibals, which adds an extra frisson to the assault team’s mission.

This is to…er, well, I think it was to disarm the computer, but I’m not certain about that. Mind you, I’m not certain about quite a lot in this movie. The characterisation is so woeful, I managed to combine two opposing characters into one for the entire film. And it still made sense – indeed, even after Chris enlightened me, I felt my version was better. My version would also have discarded the clock countdown, or used it as the basis for an exciting race against time through the tunnels. What’s the point of a countdown, if you don’t see it in the last ten minutes? There’s also maddeningly shallow nods to Lewis Carroll: the heroine is called Alice, who goes down a “rabbit hole”, while the computer is the Red Queen with a fondness for lopping off peoples’ heads. You should either do this stuff to the hilt, or not at all.

On the plus side, we do have Milla Jovovich as Alice, and Michelle Rodriguez as the Vasquezesque Rain, who are about the only easily identifiable characters. The former drives the plot along as her memory slowly returns at convenient intervals, along with her ability to kick butt. Most notable is the kung-fu vs. zombie Dobermann battle seen in the trailer, though she does the same neck-snap with the thighs thing that Famke Janssen did in Goldeneye. It’s a further step on for Jovovich, who showed action potential in The Fifth Element, yet there isn’t enough here to truly satisfy. Rodriguez, too, is underused, marching through her third straight film (Girlfight, Fast and the Furious) with the same expression. I thought I saw her smile once, near the start, but it was probably a digital effect added in post-production.

So, not as good as it could have been, with even the most undemanding viewer able to imagine improvements. Yet, as an action/SF/horror film goes, it’s not bad at all, with very little slack or let-up. The virus is released in the first two minutes, and it’s pretty much non-stop from there on, with plenty going on. Jovovich looks the part, and the final shot has me anticipating the sequel, in a kind of Evil Dead 2 way, with her character getting totally medieval on the zombies’ asses. We can but hope.

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
Star: Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Mabius, James Purefoy

Underworld

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“Vampires and Werewolves and PVC, oh my!”

The day before this opened, we watched a “documentary” on AMC, entitled Fang vs. Fiction: The Real Underworld of Vampires and Werewolves. Quotes used advisedly, as they must be when the program interviewed someone who said he was a werewolf. Regrettably, despite our yelling at the TV, he refused to transform on camera, claiming it was too taxing. Wuss. What it did demonstrate was that the old stereotypes are alive and well – or at least undead and well. And so it is with Underworld: the vampires all dress in black, and mope around a mansion like 18th-century slackers. Not what I’d be doing if I was an immortal. Which is probably why I amn’t.

A bit of an exception is Selene (Beckinsale), a “death dealer”, part of a team of vampires who go out and hunt down werewolves – the two races have been at war for the past fourteen centuries. When she discovers a party of lycanthropes following a human, Michael Corvin (Speedman), she realises something is up, and uncovers a plot to create a vamp-wolf hybrid. She awakens her mentor, Viktor (Nighy) from his slumber 100 years too soon, which brings down the wrath of clan leader Kraven (Broly), who is ‘suspicious’ in more ways than one. Add her growing feelings for Corvin, and life is going to be kinda complex for Selene.

There’s a lot to admire about this film. Beckinsale is great, and the look of the film far surpasses what you’d expect from the budget ($20m) – it’s filmed in an almost monochrome way, and this makes sense, given it takes place almost entirely at night. The script holds together elements which feel supernatural, with a healthy dose of science: no garlic, no holy water, and no crosses here, but daylight and silver still do the job, however.

 What doesn’t work, on any level, is the Selene-Corvin relationship, which is never given any reason to blossom as it does. Worse, still, though the film is told largely from Selene’s point of view, at the end, it’s Corvin who has to battle against The Big Bad [and I’d best not say who that is; the film takes delight in pulling the carpet out from under the viewer]. Sure, Selene gets to deliver the coup de grace – and impressively so – but reducing the heroine to someone left holding her man’s coat, is mostly why this one doesn’t get our seal of approal. Making it even more embarrassing, by this stage, the hero looks like a blue version of the Incredible Hulk.

And that’s a shame, since the first half in particular is a joy to behold. It hits the ground running, with a subway shootout that will likely leave your popcorn quietly forgotten in your lap, and Selene’s independent and feisty streak is swiftly established, rapidly winning us over. Also worthy of praise is Nighy, who exudes exactly the sort of aristocratic grumpiness you’d expect from an immortal being who has just been shaken roughly awake. Neither Speedman nor Broly make any impression at all – the former is perhaps more forgivable (he’s a mere human, after all), but you’d expect a vampire leader to ooze charisma and personality. Or at least have one…

The most obvious influences are Blade 2 – not least in the Eastern European setting (for the dark streets of Prague, read the dark streets of Budapest; both are now overused, we need to discover a new continent or something) – and The Matrix, with Beckinsale dressing like Carrie-Anne Moss on her way to Goth-Industrial Nite. Plenty of slow-mo and wirework enhance the feeling that this is a particularly murky corner of the Wachowski Brothers world.

There are some plot points which are never quite explained. At one point, Selene hides Corvin in a safe house, which then mysteriously comes under attack from the lycanthropes. How did they know? Why the werewolves don’t take advantage of the daylight, and avoid moving around at night when the vampires are about? It probably also gets rather too embroiled in creating an entire society and culture for the vampires, explaining stuff not necessary to a 90-minute movie – that’s why it’s actually a 121-minute movie.

And, some lawyers believe, not an original one. Sony are being sued by game makers White Wolf, who allege 60 points of copyright infringement with their games. Personally, this sounds like a cheap publicity ploy, but to add to the tension, Beckinsale left the father of her child, Michael Sheen, who plays the head of the werewolves, and is now shacked up with the film’s director, Len Wiseman. Bet that made for a cheerful wrap party. Overall, this is disappointing – however, only slightly so, and for most of the movie, it’ll provide plenty to keep movie-goers with horror/action tendencies entertained. And we also got to see the trailer for Kill Bill and the sublime teaser for Resident Evil: Apocalypse (not what it appears at first!) – as female action heroine sessions go, a pretty good day’s work.

[A lot of people seem to come here looking for info on the weapons Beckinsale used in the film. From what I’ve been told, she used a range of guns, including a Walther P99 9mm and the Beretta 92FS and/or 93R’s. Hope this helps! :-)]

Dir: Len Wiseman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy

Alien

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“Feeling Alien-ated”

alien1The lack of a seal of approval here is less a comment on the quality of the film, than the fact that it only starts to qualify as an action heroine flick in the final twenty minutes. [Though for sheer influence, omitting it entirely here would be unthinkable] For most of the film, Ripley (Weaver) has been just another one of the crew; if you found someone unaware of the series, and showed them the first two-thirds, they’d probably have Dallas (Skerritt) down both as the hero, and the character most likely to survive.

But it is one of the central rules of horror movies – or, at least, good horror movies – that anyone can die at any time. This is a rule to which Alien adheres, and makes it as much an entry in the haunted house genre as a science-fiction film. True, it’s set in space, with the main threat an extra-terrestrial creature, but outside of these elements, and in both tone and structure, possesses little in common with contemporaries like Star Trek and The Empire Strikes Back.

Indeed, perhaps the closest relation this film has, is Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Like Ripley, Bruce Campbell’s Ash (oddly, a name shared with the Nostromo crewman played by Holm) only assumes a heroic posture late in proceedings, forced by adversity to tap unexpected reserves of courage and strength. The movies also share characters trapped in a location from which they can’t escape, by a creature whose presence is in part self-inflicted, and at the same time wildly beyond their understanding. Their enemy is also pissed.

A plot synopsis hardly seems necessary, but here goes. [A spoiler warning is also in effect, albeit one probably relevant only for any Bantu tribesmen who happen to be surfing this site] The spaceship Nostromo, on its way home, picks up an unexplained signal from a planet and goes to investigate. On landing, they find an alien craft, and a lot of eggs, from one of which a creature leaps, attaching itself to crew member Kane (John Hurt). It later falls off, but not, as it turns out, until he has been implanted with a larva which bursts out of him during a meal, and scurries off into the ship. From there, it picks off the crew one by one, growing bigger and badder all the time.

Scott barely lets us see the monster for most of the film, probably a wise move given the budget, which at $11m was below average for the time, especially for a film with so many effects. While the designs, by Swiss weirdo H.R.Giger, are fabulous, their realization sometimes leaves a little to be desired. The scene of the critter scurrying away from Kane’s body is more likely to provoke sniggers these days, as are some of the model shots.

 It helps enormously having a great cast: Ian Holm and John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and of course, Sigourney Weaver, in her feature debut. They are a million light-years away from clean and shiny SF characters, and the film owes more to Dark Star than 2001. It does start off at a very leisurely pace, perhaps too leisurely for an informed viewer, who knows that almost all these lovingly-detailed characters are going to bite the big one before long.

alien2Once Kane gets infected, and especially after the alien gets loose, the pace picks up significantly, with tension being ratcheted to the max. The final sequences rank among the most memorable of all time, when Ripley realises all her crewmates are dead – it’s just her and the monster. And just when you think the film is over, with Ripley blowing up the Nostromo [in space, it appears, no-one can hear you scream, but you can hear a ship explode] and escaping by shuttle, clad in the smallest pair of knickers imaginable…it isn’t.

alien3The film’s most important contribution to the girls-with-guns genre was in creating a plausible heroine, capable of surviving through her own skills, rather than being saved by the macho hero. This was a cliche particularly relevant in SF films, where women were usually passive, and though Alien‘s place in that genre is questionable, as discussed earlier, it opened a lot of eyes to the possibilities. Without Ripley, there quite probably would be no Sarah Connor, Lara Croft or Sidney Bristow.

The director’s cut, released 25 years after the film’s initial release, isn’t as much an alteration as some – as with Blade Runner, Scott opted to trim as well as insert, leaving the new version almost the same length as the original. The main addition is a sequence where Ripley discovers the remains of two of her colleagues, cocooned in preparation for the next step of the alien’s life-cycle. Otherwise, it is simply a joy to experience this film in the darkness of a theatre, where its understated creepiness is undeniably at its most effective.

Its critical and popular acclaim – adjusted for inflation, it’s the best-grossing girls-with-guns film ever at the box-office – inevitably meant that a sequel would follow. While Scott would return to similarly empowering themes more than once, first in Thelma and Louise, and then, less successfully in G.I. Jane, the reins were handed over to another director, James Cameron. He took the franchise in a radically different direction, arguably to even greater success. But that’s another story…

Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton