Warrioress teaser promo

“Two powerful female warriors must journey across a post-apocalyptic land to fight a ritual duel, and fulfill an ancient prophecy. In the tradition of “Xena, Warrior Princess”, and influenced by seminal fantasy films such as “Excalibur” and “Flesh & Blood”, Warrioress combines a unique, mystically-infused atmosphere with blistering action scenes. The story features a wide array of vibrantly attractive and powerful female characters pitted against each other in mortal combat. In this world of mysticism and philosophy, ruled by dominant highly trained female warriors, the world is held in the grasp of the dark and malevolent Falonex Empire, and two distinctly different villages hold a deeply-held sworn belief in a powerful prophecy that will bring them salvation.

Once in every generation one chosen fighter from each village must travel on a quest across treacherous terrain to a sacred circle formed of ancient stones, to fight a ritual sword duel, each armed with a sacred sword. If the two warriors are of equal skill and wield the sister swords “the Opener” and “Dragon Singer” they will fullfil the Prophecy and lead the fight against the Falonex Empire. The time has come again for the prophecy to be fulfilled and the two fighters will meet at the pre-destined place. But will they meet as friend or foe?” It stars Cecily Fay, who’s been featured here before, as part of ‘Babes With Blades’, so I’m keen to see this. Here’s the trailer: see the film’s website for more information.

Sucker Punch

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“Suckers for punishment?”

Before getting to the film, what’s perhaps even more interesting is the critical reaction: it has been a long time since I’ve seen a film provoke such savagery, e.g. the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who wrote: “The film abdicates so many basic responsibilities of coherent storytelling, even coherent stupid-action-movie storytelling, director/co-writer/co-producer Zack Snyder must have known in preproduction that his greasy collection of near-rape fantasies and violent revenge scenarios disguised as a female-empowerment fairy tale wasn’t going to satisfy anyone but himself.” Ouch. That’s far from the only example, and covers the common planks used to whack Snyder: incoherence, faux-feminism and dubious sexual politics.

There’s not even any genre love lost. Joe Wright, director of the somewhat similarly-themed Hanna, which came out two weeks after Sucker, tore into it: “I probably shouldn’t say this but the posters for recent films with girls kicking arse – there’s one out at the moment – there’s girls in the poster in bikinis and crop-tops, and they’ve got pigtails and they’re dressed up as schoolgirls. They’re being sexualised, this is supposedly ‘Girl Power’ female empowerment and that’s bullshit. Female empowerment is not about sex, that is the point of female empowerment. It’s about brains and not objectifying women.”

It’s worth pointing out Wright hadn’t seen the film, but I can’t say I support his position of laying down canon law on what does or does not constitute “the point of female empowerment”, or accept that sex is incompatible with it, as he states. There’s multiple routes to the goal, just as the Camille Paglia approach to feminism differs from the Andrea Dworkin one. It’s not a Spandex leotard – one size fits all – and to denigrate another piece of entertainment (which is, after all, what both Hanna and Sucker Punch are) for an alternative approach seems petty and mean-spirited. There’s room in the playground for both. Of course, I’m not someone who relies upon Hollywood to provide any kind of moral compass: if you do, I’d say you have far bigger problems than Sucker Punch.

But those who like it, really like it. It’s rated at 6.6 on the IMDB, from over 25,000 votes, so it’s not just studio shills. Compare other critically-savaged and commercial genre “failures”: Barb Wire (3.1), Catwoman (3.2), Ultraviolet (4.0). Sucker is more in line with something like Underworld (6.8), and the reaction on Twitter is also far more positive. Star Cornish may have a point when she said, “It’s so stylised, so specific; there’s no other film like it at all. When you have something totally new, it’s going to be judged to the 10th degree… When you’ve got a totally new concept, it’s a love or hate relationship.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even if it fails, I’d rather have a film with ambitions, that tries something different, rather than another Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen “comedy”. There’s some parallel to be drawn between Snyder and Dutch maverick Paul Verhoeven. You could link Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake to Robocop, while 300 and Starship Troopers are both pseudo-fascistic tributes to the glory of war – and Sucker Punch would be Snyder’s Showgirls, a critically-reviled flop, damaged by its rating. Except here, it’s the PG-13 which hurts, but we’ll get more into that a little later.

The movie itself is imperfect; by some measures perhaps not even the “best” GWG film I’ve seen at the cinema this month. However, it is thoroughly cinematic and can only be admired as such – I’m far more likely to pick up the Blu-Ray DVD of this than Hanna. An un-named 20-year old (Browning) is sent to a lunatic asylum by her stepfather, after rejecting his attentions and being made the scapegoat for the death of her younger sister; her lobotomy is scheduled for five days time. Turns out the asylum is a high-end brothel where our heroine – nick-named “Baby Doll” – and the other girls are kept to perform for the pleasure of various high-rollers. Baby Doll plots an escape, the tools necessary lifted by her accomplices while she entrances the staff and customers with her dancing. During these, Baby Doll retreats even further, to fantasy worlds to do battle against dragons, robots, samurai warriors, etc. But which “reality” is real?

There’s more doubt over that, than which reality Snyder likes: hands-down, it’s the one filled with carnage, and his love for it shows. It’s only April, you could nominate these as the best four action sequences of the year, and I wouldn’t argue. My personal favourite sees the five girls storm the trenches in World War I, taking on steampunk-powered German zombies, with the aid of a rocket-powered walking tank. Remarkably, as cool as that sounds on the page, seeing it on screen is even better. Yes, all bear more than a passing resemblance to video games: they still work, possessing an elegant flow to them. And while none of the heroines will make Zhang Ziyi lose sleep, nor are they left looking horribly out of their depth, a major fear on hearing a High School Musical star was involved.

Since Baby Doll is explicitly stated to be 20, this doesn’t strictly fall into the category of “teenage action heroines,” but her hair, clothes, make-up, etc. all are designed to evoke the spirit of what Chris disparagingly called, “schoolgirl porn” – but the PG-13 rating means it can get absolutely no closer, so really, what’s the point? At least Showgirls delivered the goods: Baby Doll’s fantasy world might as well have been an office, college dorm or, frankly, convent, instead of the world’s most demure brothel. Reports indicate it took seven submissions and the removal of 18 minutes to get past the MPAA, so I have to ask. Should a film that, on one level, is about an abused girl forced into prostitution by her step-father, share a rating with Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire?

However, I do like a little more plot and better characterization with my action sequences. I think Baby Doll probably sings more than she speaks in the film. Browning is responsible for the cover of Sweet Dreams, which backs the immensely creepy opening that paints, in swift efficient brush strokes, the lead-up to her arrival at the asylum. It’s almost as if Snyder says, “Well, that’s that out of the way,” and there’s nothing anywhere near as effective the rest of the way. The rest of Baby’s posse don’t even get the benefit of that, and remain little more than lingerie-clad chess pieces, to be moved around the board of Snyder’s (undeniably impressive) imagination. Same goes for the plot, which has the action sequences more grafted on, than flowing naturally from the plot.

Overall, however, for all its undeniable flaws, this is a rare beast: an action film where women [rather than a singular woman] take center-stage. I’m hard pushed to think of anything like it out of Hollywood since, perhaps, The Descent, and this is clearly on a much bigger scale. Unfortunately, the luke-warm box-office probably makes it unlikely anyone else will follow suit, though I get the feeling it will do very nicely on DVD. It’s certainly close to a unique movie, for its content of style, content and execution, and I tend to think/hope that the passage of time will be kinder to it, than most contemporary critics.

Dir: Zack Snyder
Stars: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens

The Sexy Killer

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“Cheap Chinese knock-offs aren’t limited to toys and electronics.”

Not to be confused, in any way with SexyKiller, this 1976 Shaw Brothers film is more of an unofficial remake of Coffy. Wanfei (Ping), a nurse by day, decides to go vigilante by night, after her sister falls victim to druglords and ends up brain-damaged and drooling. With most of the police force in the pockets of the dealers, Wanfei opts to go undercover as a drug-addict of loose morals, so she can make her way up the chain of command, to deliver justice on behalf of her sister to the sinister Boss (Hsia). This finds her an ally in Weipin (Hua), a childhood friend and honest cop whose hands are tied by pesky bureaucratic niceties, like “needing a search warrant”; she’s also encouraged by her pundit boyfriend (Wei), who has long taken a strong anti-drug stance.

This has its moments, and I’m likely remembering those more fondly than the movie overall, which grinds to a halt in the middle, and diverts far too much running time over to Weipin. Action-wise, this is from the Dark Ages of Hong Kong movies, after the death of Bruce Lee and before Jackie Chan resurrected the genre. The fights here are pedestrian and poorly-staged, with Ping’s credentials particularly limited, though male viewers may be distracted by her alternative assets [another review described her as spending most of her career lying on her back, and there’s plenty of that to go around here too]. The problem with remakes, is you inevitably compare them to the original, and while the heroine here is easy on the eye, there’s a reason Pam Grier is a genre icon, and Chen Ping isn’t.

Onto those “moments” mention above, which are the film’s saving grace. They start with Wanfei’s showing off her topless kung-fu, and build up to her crashing a car into the Boss’s mansion and letting loose on his minions with her shot-gun, apparently made by Perpetually Loaded Armaments, Inc. The film’s highlight probably comes when we discover what happens when you fire said weapon at a water-bed, which is something the Time Warp crew really should be looking into. However, between the opening and the finale, this comes over mostly as a pale (literally) imitation of Pam Grier’s journey down the same path, from three years previously.

Dir: Chung Sun
Star: Chen Ping, Yueh Hua, Wang Hsia, Szu Wei
a.k.a. The Drug Connection

Zorro’s Black Whip

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“Masked woman with a whip? Despite being almost 70 years old, still better than Catwoman.”

This 12-part serial from Republic was a spin-off from the success of Zorro – though despite the title, the Z-word is never mentioned. It moves the legend from Spanish California to Idaho in the 1880’s, just before a vote to decide whether it would become a state. Villainous Dan Hammond (McDonald) begins a violent campaign to prevent this, and is opposed by local newspaper owner Randolph Meredith, who has a secret identity as The Black Whip, a masked vigilante. When he is shot dead, his sister Barbara (Stirling) takes up the cape and whip, along with the help of undercover federal agent, Vic Gordon (Lewis). Together, they foil Hammond’s increasingly-desperate plots as voting day nears, and escape from 11 precarious positions. Well, it is a serial, after all…

Within the harsh limitations of the format, it does its best. In less than 15 minutes per episode, they have to fit in opening credits, a recap, replay the previous cliff-hanger, resolve that, set up the next cliff-hanger and finish with the closing credits. It leaves precious little time for plot or character development, which may explain why all the bad guys wear black hats. Seriously. They could reduce crime by 90% simply by banning the sale of non-white headgear, or so it would appear. Vic does most of the heavy lifting, action-wise, brawling frequently; Barbara generally stands back and uses her whip, which makes sense. Though, to be honest, the villains are remarkably oblivious to the Whip’s feminine curves: they’re blinded by their own sexism, at one point rejecting a suggestion Babs is the masked marauder, saying, “She couldn’t be! The Black Whip’s got to be a man!”

While clunky, sporting a dreadful ending for Hammond, and truly a product of its time (1944), the action is frequent and competent, thanks to the second-unit work of the legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, who was the inspiration for much of John Wayne’s on-screen persona, and is best-known for staging the chariot-race in Ben Hur. The horse-work here is still outstanding: Babe DeFreest was the double for Stirling, and can be seen riding with her here. You could edit this down into a somewhat hyper feature, which would still be complete nonsense, yet given its age, is far from unwatchable.

Dir: Spencer Bennet and Wallace Grissell
Star: Linda Stirling, George J. Lewis, Francis McDonald, Hal Taliaferro

Female Slave Ship

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“Could have lived more fully up to its promise later, when the Japanese taste for pinku films had really awakened.”

It isn’t terribly ahead of its time, but one senses this could have done better later in the career of leading lady Mihara – she’d go on to movies such as the unforgettably-titled School of the Holy Beast. Here, however, exploitation largely stops at the title, with no sex to speak off [a cutaway to a gramophone needle is as salacious as it gets], female flesh is strictly limited to underwear, and the violence consists of bloodless gun-battles and a plethora of backhand slaps. With admirable equality, these are administered both to the square-jawed Japanese office hero, Lt. Suguwa (Sugawara), and the dozen women on whose ship he ends up, as World War II winds towards its end.

He was carrying crucial radar plans, when his plane is shot down. He gets picked up by a white-slaving vessel, taking a dozen women to Shanghai for sale – most are hookers, but there’s also Rumi (Mitsuya), who thought she was signing up as a combat nurse. Oops. Operations are overseen by the “queen” (Mihara), who is clearly a bad girl, since she smokes and sits with her legs crossed. However, the plan is derailed when the boat is hijacked by pirates: the girls, under Sugawa, mount a rebellion, but they are, frankly, a bit crap at it, and the pirates reverse the coup inside two minutes. It turns out the Americans wants Sugawa and the plans, so the pirates head for an island, to cut a deal with a Chinese spy for the officer, and auction away the curvier cargo. Can Sugawa and his bevy of beauties escape, despite the queen’s efforts to play both sides?

While not unentertaining, as noted above, it’s a film that would likely have been more successful made in 1970 rather than a decade previously. That said, Mihara is an excellent villainess, right from the first time we encounter her, as Sugawa tries to stop Rumi from getting a whipping for having the temerity to go on deck. She’s far more fun that the bland hero, and the film’s needle moves appreciably toward “Interesting” whenever she’s on screen. Unfortunately, that’s not often enough.

Hard to Die

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“I just want to get my clothes on and get out of here.”

This slice of cheese couldn’t be any riper. Five employees of the Acme Lingerie Company are called in to work on a Saturday to do inventory, despite the presence of creepy janitor Ketchum. A misdelivered package arrives, intended for Dr. Newton, an investigator of witchcraft, and when the ladies open it, they unleash the soul of a serial killer (allowing the use of flashback footage from a previous Wynorski flick. Sorority House Massacre). Meanwhile, the workers, having got all dusty gathering up boxes in the basement, make the logical decision: to take showers and try on the latest Acme line of skimpy products. Which they then wear for the rest of the film. As the unleashed killer picks off them, and everyone else in the building, one by one. Fortunate that there’s an arms dealer who has also set up shop on another floor, and who has left large quantities of merchandise and ammo around…

For the first 70 minutes, you’ll be wondering why this even qualifies for the site. It’s more in the campy horror line, with the emphasis more on the “camp” than the horror: always nice to see genre icon Forrest J. Ackerman in a supporting role. Otherwise, this is basically an excuse to ogle scantily-clad babes, but the tone is kept light – check out the squeaking sounds when they are assiduously soaping their breasts in the shower. Even the deaths are basically off-screen, with a fraction of the gore we get now, more than twenty years on. As a B-movie, it’s fine, but despite the title, Joe-Bob Briggs was about a million miles off when he said, “It’s the female version of Die Hard, full of lighting-hot action.” There’s a reason just about everyone involved uses pseudonyms. And then, fortunately, there’s the final reel, to which no description can do justice. Fortunately, someone posted it on YouTube, so I think I’ll just let the footage speak for itself.

Quite why they waited until the end to unleash this furious assault on the senses, I don’t understand. Is it great art? Not in the slightest. But it crams in more marvellous, lingerie-clad, automatic, dumbness into ten minutes than many better-known GWG entries do in their entire running-time, and should only be respected as such.

Dir: “Arch Stanton” [Jim Wynorski]
Star: Robyn Harris, Lindsay Taylor, Debra Dare, Orville Ketchum

Fascination

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“An iconic low-budget combination of sex and violence.”

Mark (Lemaire), is a thief on the run from his collaborators after absconding with the loot. He takes refuge in a remote country manor, all but surrounded by water, which he believes to be deserted. Turns out he was almost right. The sole inhabitants are a pair of chambermaids, Eva (Lahaie) and Elizabeth (Mai), but despite his gun, they don’t seem quite as terrified of the intruder as one feels they should be, and tell him they are expecting some other female visitors later that evening. Elizabeth does take a shine to Mark, and tells him he should leave, but Eva uses her wiles to keep Mark there. The rest of his gang show up, and lay siege to the house, but Eva takes the loot out to them and single-handedly dispatches them, before returning to the manor. As night descends, the visitors finally arrive, and the noose tightens around Mark’s neck, as the truth about the get-together is revealed…

Watching porn stars try to act is often a painful experience, but renowned 70’s XXX starlet Lahaie is perfectly cast here. She plays a feral creature, driven entirely by instinct, and with no qualms about using sex or violence to achieve her aim, of keeping Mark in the house for the night. The sight of her stalking across the bridge which forms the castle’s sole entrance, wielding a blood-stained scythe almost the same size as the actress, is one that will stick with you. The film does betray its cheapness with some fairly crappy effects [you’re going to have someone hacked apart with a scythe, you should do better than some red gunk on the throat], but more than makes up for it with a parade of strong, confident and sensual female characters. Mark is by now means an idiot or a weakling, but from the moment he arrives in the house, it’s clear he’s completely beyond his depth, out-maneouvered at every turn by the women.

Indeed, right from the opening scene, where a group of elegant ladies sip blood in a slaughterhouse, there’s something off-center about proceedings, and Rollin maintains that sense throughout. While Rollin made several entries in the vampire genre, this is easily his most interesting take on the genre’s mythology – one which doesn’t actually mention the V-word at any point in the film. Lahaie and Mai deserve much of the credit for that.

Dir: Jean Rollin
Stars: Jean-Marie Lemaire, Brigitte Lahaie, Franka Mai, Fanny Magier