Wednesday, May 9, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING (2012), PLAYBACK (2012)

(US/Canada, 2012)

The fourth film in the still-financially durable Vampires vs. Lycans franchise is about as disposably forgettable as it gets, with a threadbare plot that's just an excuse for one stylized video game battle after another.  There's hardly a frame in this that isn't wall-to-wall CGI, and it mostly looks cruddy, though I can't say how it looked theatrically in 3-D.  If someone told me Kate Beckinsale was completely CGI'd throughout, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.  After skipping the prequel third entry except for a brief cameo, Beckinsale returns--possibly at gunpoint--as vampire Seline, captured once humans get the edge on vampires and Lycans and spending ten years in a deep freeze.  She's awakened and finds that she's somehow had a daughter (India Eisley, daughter of Olivia Hussey of the 1968 ROMEO & JULIET) while cryogenically frozen, and also that the Lycans, thought to be exterminated, are about to be more powerful than ever thanks to an even stronger strain that's been developed, plus the fact that Dr. Lane (Stephen Rea), ostensibly working on a Lycan antidote, is actually a Lycan developing a drug that makes them more dangerous than ever by producing an immunity to silver.  So, the vampire/Lycan battle goes on.  Again.  Still. 

Beckinsale looks great in her skin-tight leather outfit and AWAKENING is by far the goriest UNDERWORLD yet, but creatively, this franchise is running on fumes.  Remember how cheap and careless something as majestic as the SUPERMAN series got by the time SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE rolled around?  Similar situation here, despite the $70 million budget ($70 million!  On this!  And it looks like shit!), making it the most expensive UNDERWORLD yet.  The CGI'd Lycans are laughably cartoonish and Seline's physical abilities make her look like the protagonist in a PS3 game.  It's not often that you get to the fourth film in a franchise and the remaining participants are still as invested in it as they were in the first or even the second entries, back when the whole thing was new and fresh.  UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING runs just 88 minutes, with the closing credits rolling at the 78-minute mark, which means that a full 11.36% of the movie is closing credits.  Rea and Charles Dance (as a vampire lord) effortlessly bring some class to their supporting roles but they're doing the minimum to get by, and well, why wouldn't they?  Wes Bentley has a small, uncredited role as one of Rea's assistants,  Directed by the team of Mans Marlind & Bjorn Stein, as if that matters in the slightest. (R, 88 mins)

(US, 2012)

Plot holes seem to be the primary menace in this inane Grand Rapids, MI-shot horror dud that feels like it's been kept in a storage unit since the J-horror craze of a decade ago.  It opens with a 1994 prologue where town weirdo Harlan Diehl (Luke Bonczyk) slaughters his entire family--except for his sister's newborn son--and videotapes it before being killed by police. 18 years later, high school student Julian (played by 30-year-old Johnny Pacar) is making a short film about the Diehl tragedy--against the wishes of his mother--for a school project, borrowing some A/V equipment from butane-huffing creep Quinn (Toby Hemingway), who works at an area TV station and has a side business where he sets up hidden cameras in the girls locker room at the school and sells the footage to pervy local cop Lyons (a slumming Christian Slater, clearly on the Val Kilmer career plan).  Quinn snoops around the TV station's archives and watches some footage of the Diehl incident and gets possessed--through the TV--by the spirit of Diehl.  Turns out Diehl was the great-great-great grandson of late 19th century filmmaking pioneer Louis Le Prince (a real person), who, PLAYBACK asserts via Julian's video store co-worker and tireless exposition machine Wylie (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell), who's conveniently an expert in both Satanism and early experimental filmmakers, dabbled in the black arts and found a way to possess a soul through film.  So Quinn is now possessed by the Diehl's ghost and starts killing off Julian's friends in a variety of gory ways, leading to a late twist that you likely figured out ten minutes into the film.

Writer/director Michael A. Nickles, a former actor (HAMBURGER HILL, LICENSE TO DRIVE, and, in what might be his signature role, Juan the Bandito in 8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG), gives PLAYBACK one of the most laborious set-ups this side of Wes Craven's MY SOUL TO TAKE.  It takes nearly half the running time to set the plot in motion, and it all feels like padding since the premise is barely enough to fill a TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode.  Why is Christian Slater even in this?  His character has no bearing on anything and it doesn't even feel like he's in the same movie.  Most of the younger actors (I include Pacar even if he's closer to 40 than 18) have logged time on TV, but other than Slater and Mitchell, the only other actor of note in PLAYBACK is Mark Metcalf--aka ANIMAL HOUSE's Doug Neidermeyer--in a thankless role as a retired reporter.  Unfocused, dull, and not at all scary, PLAYBACK only has a few spectacularly gory kills in its favor, but wait until someone puts them up on YouTube.  Otherwise, this is recommended for only the most obsessive Christian Slater stalkers. (R, 99 mins)

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