Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

When it’s on: Monday, 26 January (11.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The Underworld franchise is contained within that strange hinterland of mid-budget film works that nobody especially loves yet make enough money to guarantee sequels, a bit like the Resident Evil flicks that keep appearing, whether you want them to or not. Before buying the boxset holding all four instalments, I had seen each one, always at home, late at night, having had a few and not each time obtaining them by fair means. They’re okay. There’s little pretence that they started as a pet project for action director Len Wiseman to cast his wife, the English actor Kate Beckinsale, as a vampire in skin tight leather outfits, cavorting around the streets and sewers of a modern cityscape in search of werewolves to smite. and you are either on board with that or you aren’t.

The first film held the conceit that the centuries long war between the vampires and werewolves – known as lycans – threw up misguided loyalties. Bill Nighy, the haughty vampire leader, turned out to be a villain, whereas it was Lucian (Michael Sheen) who was actually all right, much to Beckinsale’s chagrin, who had once blindly followed the former only to have her world turned upside down by the film’s close. The second advanced the mythology a little further whilst plunging its bigger budget into snappier special effects and more dazzling action sequences, but for the third instalment, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, without Wiseman or Beckinsale’s involvement (the latter provides some narration), it was decided that they’d go for an origin story, explaining the background to the conflict. Again, your choice whether to find this sort of thing interesting, or a big waste of everyone’s time.

These films were always decent enough for an undemanding late night watch, but this one turns out to be the best, perhaps because the medieval setting works so well for these characters of mythology. You don’t need to care for the story or the characters to enjoy the eternal tale of maltreated good against unashamed evil, and that’s exactly the tale served up by Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. It tells how Viktor (Nighy) is the leader of a vampire coven in some dusky European locale, and one day in his fight against the savage lycans comes across a human baby that’s been born of a werewolf. Fighting his natural instinct, Viktor takes in the child, names him Lucian and watches him grow into a strong and fierce warrior. Perturbed by the potential threat Lucian poses to his kind, Viktor places him in a yoke that prevents him from transforming into a wolfman, whilst making him assault other humans in order to create a servant class. Only, Lucian dreams of freedom, and freedom with Viktor’s daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra), with whom he’s involved in a passionate, illicit love affair. As tensions rise and Lucian develops into a charismatic leader of the lycan underclass, Sonja’s decision to win him his liberty comes with a fateful toll and Viktor’s despotic malevolence has awful repercussions for all concerned.

Bill Nighy has always been able to add value as villains, often heavily made up, baroque baddies, whether Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or Naberius in the execrable I, Frankenstein. But it’s Michael Sheen who really owns the film. Better known for his talent at mimicking real-life figures like Brian Clough (The Damned United), David Frost (Frost/Nixon), and Tony Blair in various adaptations, he turns in a muscular performance here, adding real dramatic heft to what is essentially a silly story. He’s beaten, scourged, watches Sonja suffer, imprisoned and impaled, and with each blow makes the viewer really feel his pain.

First time director, Patrick Tatopoulus, makes good use of the New Zealand location shooting to create an untainted forest environment from the Middle Ages, often shot at night to bring the bare winter trees to eerie life, casting dark shadows over the landscape. The darkness helps with the special effects, ensuring those poor sods dressed in werewolf outfits never look so much like men in daft costumes as they could. Considering the production cost $35 million, it never looks cheap, the transformation sequences kept to a merciful minimum and relying instead on glares of dark intent between Lucian and his captors.

As this set a millennia ago, the endless machine gun fire of the first two films (which, naturally, had no effect on the undead) is no more, and instead we get swords and arrows, both of which have a devastating impact on their targets. The fact we see vampires and lycan alike dying in droves gives the film a sense of weight that the others lack. Strangely, it’s all the better for the lack of a Beckinsale upon whom to lavish lascivious close-up shots.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans: ***

The Queen (2006)

When it’s on: Thursday, 31 May (8.00 pm)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

You’ll forgive me if this entry gets a bit ‘bloggy’ (and if you can’t, there’ll be another one along tomorrow), but that’s what you get with a historical drama that covers such recent ground. I think most of us know what we were doing on the day we learned Princess Diana had died. Whether you cared about her or not, it was one of those ‘out of tune’ moments, the sort of impact news that stunned the world because relatively young royals, or even former royals, just didn’t snuff it like that, instead lingering on into quiet infirmity. It’s difficult to believe a more shocked reaction if the news headlines had trumpeted the arrival of curious extra terrestrials on our planet.

I remember exactly what I was doing. In the final stages of moving from our flat in fashionable West Didbury to a house in the more suburban eastern end, the future Mrs Mike and I were off to clean up the old place so we could get our deposit back. With all our furniture shifted, we took our cleaning products and a radio, only to learn to our horror that every station simply rotated the same three or four songs betwixt sombre announcements of the royal passing. I seem to recall some anodyne Toto nonsense being played again and again. The level of grief intensified. Early during the following week, the first shop in Didsbury Village announced it would be closed during the funeral on Saturday as a mark of respect and this was steadily followed by all others, as though everyone was trying to out-mourn each other in the face of ever-increasing wailing that frankly became rather surreal.

Personally, I didn’t care. Not one bit. I had nothing against Diana, but I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in her either. To me, the levels of press intrusion she faced probably were beyond any semblance of reasonable proportion; then again, she was an expert media player and knew exactly how to court the tabloids. You can’t live in the public eye to the extent she did and expect much in the way of privacy. In any event, I was 25. On the day of the funeral, I answered the phone with a cheerful ‘Mo(u)rning!’ and went to the pub I knew would be frequented with like-minded people to get well and truly soaked.

I didn’t know much about the temporary hatred of the rest of the Royal Family, the topic of Stephen Frears’s The Queen, because I wasn’t bothered. But I knew all about Tony Blair, expertly mimicked in the film by Michael Sheen. As a Labour Party member, I voted for him to be leader in 2004 in the wake of John Smith’s death. I liked Smith. He came with massive dollops of credibility, yet compared with Blair he was old school. The new leader brought fresh energy to the table, vital as the Conservatives lurched towards the end of their long, long tenure like a slowly dying, sleaze-riddled leviathan. In short, I opted for whoever I thought would win. True to form, Blair looked like a Prime Minister long before he eventually took office. It felt as though good times were on the horizon. And then three months into his tenure, the most famous woman in the world died.

Diana only appears in The Queen via media footage of her, yet her shadow looms over the Royal Family, an ‘establishment’ of which she was apparently never a part. Her death provokes ill feelings towards Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) as the monarch refuses to bend royal protocol in lamenting her demise. Eventually, her mind is changed by Blair, a more astute judge of public opinion who steadily urges her to play a role. Yet before this happens, the Queen faces accusations of being blinkered and uncaring, retreating to Balmoral with her family and trying to let the mournathon cry itself out miles away. Bluff Prince Philip (James Cromwell) takes the children on deer hunting expeditions to take their mind off it. A wavering Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) oscillates between familial duty and attempting to bridge the gap with Blair. As for the PM, he swans around in a Newcastle United shirt, taking in trendy Republican sentiments from Cherie (Helen McCrory) and accounts of how well he’s doing in the opinion polls from a horribly oily Alistair Campbell (Mark Bazeley).

Pre-Spitting Image, it was difficult to imagine anyone getting away with this sort of thing, a ‘warts and all’ (well, nearly) hard stare at the inner chambers of the monarchy and about real people who are still alive. Yet Frears gets it about right, transforming a ruler who’s been on the throne during most peoples’ living memories yet whose feelings remain by and large a mystery. It works because Mirren’s Elizabeth is on the money, drily witty and introspective, completely believable as someone capable of spellbinding Tony Blair. Her best moments come perhaps during her pithy little asides with Robin Janvrin (Roger Allam), her Private Secretary. Baron Janvrin was, in reality, still a Deputy in 1997, but it’s a small inconsistency and the warm relationship between the on-screen pair is obvious.

In a film where the small moments count the most, its most moving scenes concern the Queen’s sighting of a magnificent Red Deer whilst she’s stranded alone on the road from Balmoral. Later, the deer’s killed, shot by a stockbroker and clearly dying a slow, painful death. It causes HRH some dismay, and it’s here you discover the beast wasn’t meant to represent Diana at all, but instead the Institution to which she belongs and that she must save.

The finest irony of The Queen is that it ends with Blair at the height of his powers and feeling he’s now his monarch’s equal. She reminds him that the day will come when he’s in similar trouble. In the year the film was released, the PM was serving out his final days in office and facing heavy criticism for the war in Iraq. Its screening today comes as the UK prepares to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, which seems to have rekindled this country’s love affair with its Royal Family. In the meantime, Blair’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry found him confronted with accusations of being a war criminal. He remains the model for satirists wishing to create fictional politicians for whom popularity is everything. Queen Elizabeth continues to be largely enigmatic. No prizes for guessing who’ll be the more fondly remembered.

The Queen: ***