Samurai Princess

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“Whoever knew arterial spray could be so…dull?”

Ok, “dull” is perhaps not quite the word, but Chris voted on this one with her closed eyelids and heavy breathing, and I was struggling to avoid joining her, despite some impressive ideas. It’s set in the Forest of Infinity, a strange locale where past, present and future all seem to merge. Hence, you’ve got renegades with samurai swords and Buddhist nuns and a party of a dozen young women whose paths cross with the former, resulting in the rape and death of 11. The un-named survivor (Kishi) is rescued by a scientist who creates mecha – cyborgs – and he uses the organs of her friends as a core to rebuild her, with the nun adding their 11 souls. The new super-powered samurai princess goes after the killers, and then Red Dragon and Butterfly, who instigated the murders in the name of what they call “art.”

It’s not as good as it sounds. I think it’s a lesson that gore, no matter how impressive, does not make a “good” film, because plot and characters still matter. That’s where this falls down, with too many scenes between the blood-letting that fail to go anywhere. It’s a huge letdown, especially after a undeniably spectacular opening ten minutes, highlighted by the heroine turning her breasts into a sort of ‘flying guillotine’ device that she shoots out on a chain and… Well, you gotta see it. [And, since the whole thing is now legally available through Youtube, feel free to do so. We’ll wait here.] But beyond that, the script wanders off on tangents, like the two female detectives apparently hunting mecha builders, with muddied motivation for a lot of the characters and performances which, too often, rely on pulling faces in place of acting.

It’s a shame, as I liked the concepts, underexplained as they were – is the Forest of Infinity anywhere near Versus‘s Forest of Resurrection? – and the fusion of elements from different periods. However, it felt as if the makers concentrated all their efforts on the gore effects, and that will only work if your entire running-time is composed of these. Though at times it felt like this was the case here, it wasn’t so, and the makers could learn from other, better entries on matters like pacing and characterization.

Dir: Kengo Kaji
Star: Aino Kishi, Dai Mizuno, Asuka Kataoka, Mitsuru Karahashi

A.F.R.I.K.A.

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“Thelma & Louise go to Korea, and leave their intelligence at home.”

Ji-Won (Lee Yo-Won) and her friend So-Hyun (Kim) make a trip to the seaside, borrowing a car from a friend. However, the auto turns out to have a couple of guns in it, lost by a gangster and cop in a poker game. The weapons come in handy when the girls need to escape from some assailants, but when they are joined by a manic waitress with no sense of gun-control, the now-trio find themselves on the run from police. A clothing-store owner with a grudge, completes the quartet, as they try to make their way back to Seoul – and they are pursued not only by the cops, also by the previous owners of the guns, who need to get them back to prevent issues of their own. Conversely, their exploits and subsequent media attention are getting them fans of their own, with the titular website (it stands for Adoring Four Revolutionary Idols Korea Association) extolling their virtues and provoking copycat crimes.

The main problem here is a film that can’t work out what it wants to be. Comedy? Thriller? Social satire? Drama? Action? There are elements of all those genres here, and most of them show occasional flashes of potential; yet none of them are done well enough to prove particularly memorable. The women largely come across as flimsy characters, with little in the way of background or even distinguishing traits, and there’s hardly any kind of a character arc for them, though I enjoyed the subversive message of “personal empowerment through fire-arm possession” – it’s especially surprising from a country like South Korea, where guns appear to be very strictly controlled [“You are only allowed to own a gun for hunting purposes, and the few who do, have to keep these guns at the local police station. When you want to hunt, you go to the police station, check your gun out, hunt, and return it to the station when you’re finished.”]

Even exploring this angle, of gun culture in a land without guns, would have been a potentially intriguing approach. Instead, there’s hardly any dramatic impetus, even when the tensions mount between the four girls over where their crime spree should take them next. Instead of building, the film peters out at the end, and is nothing more than forgettable commercial entertainment, slickly-made and unsatisfying.

Dir: Shin Seung-Soo
Star: Lee Yo-Won, Kim Min-Seon, Cho Eun-Ji, Lee Young-Jin

Salt

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“See Salt?”

Angelina Jolie is the undisputed US box-office queen of action heroines. With Lara Croft: Tomb Raider‘s $131 million, and the $117 million this had earned to date, she owns two of the top four all-time genre entries (the other two being Crouching Tiger and Charlie’s Angels). While that’s not adjusted for inflation – Aliens would likely come out on top there – it’s still an impressive feat, and there probably isn’t any other actress in Hollywood capable of opening a large-budget action movie on this scale. Even in a supporting role, e.g. Wanted, she has credibility as an action heroine few can match.

Here, she plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who returns from time in captivity in North Korea, and resumes her cover as a company executive. She and her colleague Ted Winter (Schreiber) are called in to interview a Russian defector, and decide if he is telling the truth. He spins a tale of a long-running project, dating back to the Cold War era. Young children were groomed from a very early age to become sleeper agents abroad, leading normal lives without suspicion until the time comes to activate them. That time has now come, with one agent tasked with killing the Russian President, currently on a state visit to the US. Oh, yeah – and that agent’s cover name is… Evelyn Salt.

When Salt can’t contact her husband (Diehl) and the defector escapes from custody too, Salt bolts from the impending custody closing around her and goes on the run. Is it because she wants to rescue her husband and prevent the assassination, to clear her name? Or is she the double-agent claimed? The film doesn’t hold out too long in this regard before committing itself. However, that isn’t the main focus, as the script then swerves in a different direction, and it also turns out that the assassination attempt is not an end in itself, only the start of a more far-reaching, and disturbing, plan to incite Armageddon.

I confess to being somewhat disappointed, especially after I realized this was written by Kurt Wimmer, who gave us Equilibrium and Ultraviolet [the former was a lot more warmly-received, but I’ll defend the latter to my dying breath as pure adrenalin/popcorn nonsense]. This is rather more restrained, which likely explains why it took nine figures at the box office, yet is also rather less memorable as a result. Not to say it’s “bad”, or anything like that; just that it’s very easy to see it, as originally envisaged, starring Tom Cruise. Pretty much run a global search and replace on the script, changing the lead character’s name [to, oh, I dunno: “Jason Bourne”?] and you’d be there. It’s too generic to be a true classic of the action heroine genre.

Still, it’s entertaining and keeps moving. Credit for clocking in at a brisk 100 minutes, rather than stretching things out beyong what’s necessary: there’s isn’t much unnecessary fat on its scriptual bones, and a refreshing lack of romantic chit-chat. There are a couple of solid action set-pieces, most notably an early, frenetic chase through the streets, and Salt overall has an ability to withstand falls that Wile E. Coyote would envy. Towards the end, she descends a lift-shaft leading to the presidential bunker, without bothering to wait for the elevator, and can also turn a few common cleaning supplies into an impromptu rocket-launcher. These are talents I’m sure we all could use occasionally.

Despite this, and Jolie’s undeniable screen presence, it lacks any truly memorable moments, and has little you won’t have seen before, assuming a passing knowledge with action franchises like Bourne, 007, Jack Ryan, etc. [Worth noting that two entries in the last-named series were directed by Noyce] We sniggered more than once at the way Salt always seems to have a new outfit, even as she runs from the entire weight of federal law-enforcement, and Salt’s husband is never developed enough to justify the pivotal role he plays. However, the ending is left wide-open for a sequel, pointing in a definite direction, presumably in the hope of a franchise emerging. The $162 million this has taken overseas, in addition to the US earnings, make that a distinct possibility, and I would certainly not be averse to the prospect of another helping of Salt.

Director: Phillip Noyce
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, August Diehl

Whip It

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“Mostly harmless.”

Bliss Cavendar (Page) is stuck in the hickville of Bodeen, Texas: her mother (Harden) coerces her into small-town beauty pagents, but Bliss’s heart isn’t in it. On a shopping trip to Austin, she picks up a roller-derby flyer, and on attending the event with her friend Pash (Shawkat), falls in love with the sport and decides to try out. She has to lie about her age to do so, and also keep her attendance a secret from her parents. Bliss has a natural talent, and helps her team, the Hurl Scouts, previously the doormats of the league, to the championship game against the Holy Rollers, under Iron Maven (Lewis). The confidence Bliss gains is not without its issues however, bringing her in to conflict with her boyfriend and Pash, as well as her parents…

In many ways, it’s A League of Their Own for the modern era, right the way down to the male coach, trying to get his girls to play the game the way he wants. Adversity must be overcome, friendships formed, life lessons learned, etc. These aspects are more like a chick-flick with a roller-derby backdrop, but it does manage to avoid the usual pitfalls of that genre. While skipping over some details of the game, the film does gets the “feel” of roller derby right, with the participants – Lewis in particular – capturing the cheerful anarchy at play, and the way they live for the game [it’s also nice to see Zoe Bell as one of her team-mates].

It’s a bit much to believe she can skip out for an entire season of games and practices, without her parents noticing, and Page is probably too much a physical lightweight to be truly convincing, though that’s disgused well enough you don’t really notice. However, the story is completely predictable, and without giving too much away, even the ending is little surprise at all, and fits in with the generally feel-good nature of this. As warm, fuzzy sports movies go, roller-derby may not be the most obvious choice, yet Barrymore has made a nice promo for the sport, and if the film would certainly have benefited from more conflict on the track, and less soap-opera off it, I certainly can’t claim to have disliked this.

Dir: Drew Barrymore
Star: Ellen Page, Alia Shawkat, Marcia Gay Harden, Juliette Lewis