A Lonely Place to Die

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The Ascent rather than The Descent. With humans as the monsters. “

Five mountaineers are exploring the remote Scottish highlands, when they stumble across an underground box containing a terrified, near-dead young girl who speaks no English. Two of the party are sent, by the most direct but not child-friendly route, back to civilization to get help, but it’s not long before they discover the parties who buried the girl are not too happy with her removal. For they are two kidnappers, Mr. Kidd (Harris, who also plays a psychotic killer in The Borgias) and Mr. McRae who are negotiating with her father’s emissary, Darko (Roden) to pay the ransom, not aware that Darko has hired some ex-soldiers to resolve the matter. Having lost the child, the pair set out to recapture her, and don’t care how many bodies are left in their wake.

It’s only slowly that Alison (George, whom GWG fans may remember as Lauren Reed, Vaughn’s wife in Alias – the role here was originally intended to go to Franke Potente) comes to be the focus, but it’s clear that her maternal instincts have been aroused, and she’s prepared to do anything to protect the child, and she’s got the skills for the environment. That’s when the film is at its strongest, pitting Alison and her steadily-dwindling band of friends against Kidd and McRae. Once they reach civilization, it becomes notably less credible, not least because the “festival” conveniently going on in town (whose fireworks are needed to mask the gunshots), is so wildly inappropriate for small-town life. I grew up not far from where this was shot, and we certainly never had festivals involving topless women in body-paint. It’s a shame, as I liked how the protagonists were not your usual college students in peril, the staple of survival horror, but a little more mature and sensible. Not that this helps their longevity.

It’s always a difficult call whether the “final girl” genre should be included here. To me, the decisive factor is less how she takes on the monster, villain or nemesis in the last reel, it’s how she has behaved before that point. The Friday the 13th heroines, for instance, do little or nothing to justify the term “action heroine”. Here, however, Alison proves herself worthy of the title, almost from the first scene, which finds her half-way up a mountain-face. By the time she becomes the kidnappee’s sole hope, she has already covered miles both horizontal and vertical, fallen off a cliff, gone through rapids and survived her fair share of bullets aimed in her direction. Yeah, she qualifies, and only a clich├ęd last 20 minutes stops this from being thoroughly satisfactory.

Dir: Julian Gilbey
Star: Melissa George, Ed Speleers, Sean Harris, Karel Roden

Tokyo Gore Police

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“The middle word in the title is easily the most applicable. Far and away.”

In the near-future, Japan is plagued by “engineers” – criminals who have voluntarily undergone genetic modifications, which not only mutate their bodies in bizarre ways, but give them near superpowers and the ability to sprout weapons from their wounds. To combat this, the privatized Japanese police force under their chief (Benny) has an absolutely no-holds barred policy of shoot first, ask questions… Well, don’t bother asking questions. Their top “engineer hunter” is Ruka (Shiina, whom you may recognize from Audition), the daughter of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty while she was just a young girl. She is tracking down the scientist behind the engineers, known as “Key Man” (Itao) because of the key-shaped tumours which trigger the mutations. But when they meet, he infects her – and also reveals the truth behind the deaths of both their fathers.

The most obvious parallel would by Robocop, not only in the cautionary tale of law-enforcement run for profit, but also the sardonic commercials which pepper proceeding, showing how brutal society has become [here’s an example, for a wrist-cutting knife]. It’s against this backdrop that the cold, to the point of being emotionally-dead, heroine plies her trade, troubled by a past that she can’t forget. Shiina is certainly good at that kind of role, but it’s more or less a one-note performance, that doesn’t provide much reason for the audience to empathize with her. However, I get the sense that, as far as director Nishimura is concerned, characterization is probably not quite the main thing he’s concerned with here.

That would, instead, be the splatter, which goes to a whole new level, even by the outrageous standards of the genre. The arterial spray is so copious and powerful that, at one point, an engineer uses it to propel himself about, like a haemoglobin propelled jet-pack. That pretty much sums up the tone to be found here, with body parts also flying when not attached to their owners. It’s arguably the goriest movie ever made, though I’d have to re-watch Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead before I can be certain on this front. However, there isn’t quite enough to sustain it, especially at a fairly extended running-time of 110 minutes. While there no shortage of surreal imagination on view (like the creature which has had all four limbs replaced with samurai swords), and it’s undeniably the most OTT of its siblings, this probably works better as a party tape, playing in the background for your next Halloween bash, given its apparent apathy towards more conventional cinematic attributes.

Dir: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Star: Eihi Shiina, Itsuji Itao, Yukihide Benny, Shoko Nakahara

Underworld: Awakening

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“a.k.a Underworld: Look, We’re Really Sorry About The Last One. Here’s Kate Beckinsale In PVC Again.”

Actually, we quite enjoyed the third part, but we’re Bill Nighy marks. Still, nice to get back to the basics mentioned above, and the storyline here was a good one, even if more than a tad reminscent of Ultraviolet. After the revelation that vampires and lycans exist, humanity goes on a pogrom against the two species, driving them underground. Selene is capture, and wakes up to find herself, a dozen years later, in a wrecked research lab. Initially, she suspects Michael Corvin, but discovers a young girl, Eve (Eisley) to whom she has a connection; turns out to be another vampycan hybrid. Research company Antigen, under Dr. Jacob Lane (Rea) were using the two of them to make a vaccine, until Eve escaped, freeing Selene, and are now desperate to get their subjects back. But are their motives quite as altruistic as they appear?

Plenty of action, plenty of Beckinsale (I’m glad Corvin was basically absent), interesting scenario. Unfortunately, the CGI Lycans are utterly, utterly horrible, like something from a mid-90’s console game. There’s absolutely no sense of them being anything other than a visual effect added later, and this distracts terribly from a lot of the battle scenes. I’m generally pretty good at suspending disbelief; here, it was the CGI equivalent of the fake Bela Lugosi in Plan 9, holding his cape in front of his face. It was that much of an attention-grabber. The film was originally made in 3D, and one wonders whether that’s part of the problem: I saw it in regular format, and was vastly underwhelmed. Indeed, too much even of things like Selene’s falls, were obviously pixels being moved with a mouse.

That’s a shame, as there’s a fair bit to enjoy here, providing you’re looking for nothing more complex than straightforward ass-kicking. They could probably have done with developing the human angle and make this fight a three-way dance – after initiating the first purge, we are hardly seen again. However, Beckinsale has the presence and – when not replaced by her virtual stunt-double – continues to look the part with splendid self-confidence, in a way few actresses can manage. It’s an improvement over Evolution, certainly, though the series remains one where all the entries have had their flaws, preventing it from achieving the greatness which one feels they could have achieved.

Dir: Marlind + Stein
Star: Kate Beckinsale, India Eisley, Stephen Rea, Michael Ealy

Nikita: season two

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“More characters! ADD MORE CHARACTERS!”

When we last saw Nikita (Q), she’d gained some help for her struggle against Division in the shape of fellow defectors from the organization, Michael (West) and tech guy Birkhoff. But she’d lost protege Alex (Fonseca), who had stayed with Division to further her lust for revenge on those who’d killed her parents, while reclaiming her family fortune. Meanwhile, Nikita’s nemesis and former boss Percy had been usurped by Amanda (Clarke), and was now in a plexiglass box in the basement. Throw in Oversight, the government committee supposedly in charge of Division under Senator Madeline Pierce; CIA agent Ryan Fletcher and Pierce’s son Sean, who join Team Nikita; Owen, a rogue guardian, keeper of one of Percy’s black boxes… And I haven’t even got to Michael’s love-child, a source of much angst for all concerned.

I think the main problem with this sophomore season is clear: too many characters, resulting in plotting that’d be thrown out by a telenovela as far-fetched and convoluted. It was also notable that Nikita did significantly less heavy lifting on the action front, with Michael taking up more. Because, of course, no woman can survive without a man. Unfortunately, the increased focus on relationships – of multiple kinds – is probably almost inescapable on a network like the CW, even when a show gets buried in the “death slot” of Friday night. But it defused what made the show stand out: a kick-ass independent heroine, who could handle herself without relying on a team of men, and as a result, I frequently drifted off, either to sleep or to do something else more interesting. Which would be just about anything.

By the time of the last few eps, I would genuinely not have been bothered if the show had been canceled. But then, it returned to form: Percy escaped, getting himself a nuke and a satellite – nothing good can come of this. Focus on a genuinely threatening villain and the heroine, not the soap-opera “Mikita” ‘shipper bullshit, and I was engaged again. The end came almost full-circle – in part, I suspect because the makers didn’t know when they were shooting the final episodes, whether or not they’d be renewed. And, in the end, I am glad it has been given a third season, because there’s no show quite like it on television – despite the flaws, it’s flying the flag for genuine action heroines, almost solo. Still, how long my interest lasts when it returns, remains to be seen.

Star: Maggie Q, Shane West, Lyndsy Fonseca, Melinda Clarke