Hell’s Fury: Wanted Dead or Alive

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“There’s nothing like a good Western. And this is nothing like a good Western.”

Eryn Cates (Hague) returns home to Texas from finishing school in New York, to find her family farm teetering on the edge of foreclosure [maybe if they hadn’t spent all that money to send her to finishing school in New York…]. In a misguided attempt to help things, her brother tries to rob a stagecoach carrying payroll, but is injured. The attempt fails, but local mogul Mortimer (Harris), who holds the loan on the Cates farm, sees a chance and pockets the loot. Two Texas Rangers, including the young and handsome Flint (Hagenbuch) show up to investigate the robbery, but it’s up to Eryn to save the family property, take on the mantle of the bandit, fend off the unwanted advances of Mortimer and engage in pseudo-romantic banter of the least interesting or convincing sort with Flint.

It’s not very good, and the problems start right from the format: it was shot on low-definition video, which gives everything a harsh, modern look that really doesn’t suit the genre. Hague is equally unsuited for the role, and never succeeds in putting across any significant degree of emotion. And quite why there’s a kung-fu master in an early scene, I have no idea: he crops up once, and then is never seen again. It’s not as if Eryn exactly wields nunchakus against Mortimer’s minions. There are some cheap laughs to be had, not least the town dance where the band appear to play the same eight bars of The Streets of Laredo for six minutes straight, but most of this is just terribly pedestrian.

The DVD cover blurb claims, “The Quick and the Dead tips its cowboy hat to True Grit in this action packed Western gun battle.” Hmm. The tubes of the Internet deny any such phrase, though since Independent Film Quarterly [or “Quartly”, as the blurb has it] appears to be that endangered species, a print magazine, we can’t definitively claim fabrication here. What I can say with certainty, is that the apparent provider of the quote, Stuart Alson, has crafted a far greater work of fiction in that single sentence, than anything the writers here manage to conjure up in their 72, almost entirely tedious minutes.

Dir: Alan Chan
Star: Hannah Hague, Adam Hagenbuch, Ron E. Harris, Richard L. Olsen

Chicks who love guns

With Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained opening last week, seems appropriate to go back to his 1997 film Jackie Brown, starring GWG icon, Pam Grier, and give you the full promo video for the fake Chicks Who Love Guns video. Though it’s really not too far from certain offerings out there!

Warrior Queen (2003)

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“Rates much better as a drama than for historical accuracy.”

Probably best to approach this with few expectations of this being a factual representation of the time; more than once, it felt clearly like the writer was using the Roman occupation of Britain, and Boudica’s rebellion, as a metaphor for American’s involvement in Iraq. There are certainly enough anachronisms, particularly in the dialogue (the Roman Emperor chatting informally away with the leader of a British tribe, and references to “terrorists”), that it seems deliberate. The basic story is the one well-known of legend: after her husband’s death, and the raping of her daughters by the invading Romans, Boudica (Kingston) led her tribe in an initially successful revolt, only to be stopped when the full force of the Empire was turned on them.

There’s a lot of familiar faces here, most obviously Kingston, who is well-known (in this household, at least) as River Song from Doctor Who – I kept expecting Boudica to enter a scene and say, “Hello, sweetie!” But there’s also Potts, as a deeply creepy Emperor Nero, well before we knew him a nerd in Primeval, and Blunt, as one of Boudica’s daughters, has gone on to significant Hollywood fame. The performances are really what keeps this interesting: Kingston brings the right level of steely resolve to her role, and is particularly convincing when rousing her troops to battle. Equally as good is Michael Feast, as Roman general Suetonius, who is there because of a combination of “professional pride” and the Emperor’s whims, and puts across exactly the right sense of battle-weary experience.

What doesn’t work as well are the battles, in part because the budget for this falls well short of what we’re used to seeing in terms of the approximate period, e.g. Gladiator, 300. There are some moments of spectacle, such as a burning Roman encampment, or a plain covered with corpses, but the shortage of live extras is often embarrassingly obvious. They’re not well-shot either, with an irritating strobing effect which serves no purpose, and Boadica doesn’t do much actual fighting, mostly waving her sword from the back of a chariot [without spiked wheels, I was disappointed to note. Look, if you’re gonna play fast and loose with historical accuracy, you might as well include the coolest thing about the queen…]

Still, I can’t say we were bored, and the solid acting more than made up for the occasionally-shaky production values, though it is definitely important to go in to this, not expecting a Discovery channel documentary. Instead, this is Exhibit A, proving that when cinematic necessity and historical facts collide, the latter will almost always come off worse.

Dir: Bill Anderson
Star: Alex Kingston, Hugo Speer, Emily Blunt, Andrew Lee Potts

Resident Evil: Retribution

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“Games without frontiers.”

While being (again) largely disappointed by the previous entry, Afterlife, I wrote: “There’s really only one reason we bother with this series: to see Milla Jovovich kicking righteous ass. Everything else is – or should be – secondary.” And that’s why this is the best Resident Evil movie in eight years. It may not be anything significant in the plot department. There are not hidden depths or great moments of character revelation. But it does contain entirely acceptable amounts of Milla Jovovich Kicking Righteous Ass, and succeeds as an entertainment spectacle, almost entirely due to this.

Though actually, this is almost a “greatest hits” package, especially in terms of participants. Not seen since the first film, are Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez) and James Shade (Colin Salmon). Apocalypse brought us Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and Carlos Olivieira (oded Fehr), while Extinction introduced the audience to Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) and K-Mart (Spencer Locke). Finally, Afterlife was the debuts of Luther West (Boris Kodjoe) and Chris Redfield (Wentworth Miller). But they are all present for this fifth edition: though the focus is kept, as it should be, on Alice (Jovovich). The others all play their parts – notably Valentine, who is now a brainwashed toy of the Umbrella Corporation, out to hunt Alice down – but it’s the MJKRA show, all the way.

The series has had a tendency to end its entries with a wallop, right from the original, with Alice discovering the infection has escaped the Hive. Part 4 was no exception, with Alice and assorted survivors on a supertanker, only for an F-sized swarm of attack helicopter to hove into view, commanded by Valentine. This takes off from there, but begins with Alice plunging into the water, only to rewind in slow-motion to the arrival of the helicopters, then playing forward again. It’s a striking sequence, that certainly hits the ground running. It ends with Alice waking to find herself in a suburban house, with a husband and daughter…or is she? Turns out it’s all an Umbrella simulation: she has been captured, and they still want her, even if she’s no longer the superhuman she was.

There’s an unlikely ally, who releases Alice, and tells her she has two hours to meet up with a rescue team coming in to the under-Siberian complex from the outside, and get out of the place before it all goes boom. To do so, both she and they have to make their way through the various simulated arenas, designed to demonstrate the T-virus effects in Tokyo, Moscow, suburbia, etc. All the while, naturally, Valentine and her many, many Umbrella minions are on their respective tails. It could hardly be a more video-gamesque storyline, and is pretty scant. Still, in an action pic, it’s better to be too simple than too clever (I recently watched both The Raid: Redemption and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, and will take dumb over aspirations to smart, any day!), providing you use the room freed up for plenty of MJKRA.

It might be wise for Jovovich to contemplate retirement from the series. After all, she turned 37 earlier this month, and there are few things sadder than an action hero/ine desperately clinging on, past their prime (see also, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning). She’s not quite there yet, being still capable of holding her own, but there does seem to be rather more wirework and greenscreen-fu here than in previous editions. Director Anderson. a.k.a. Mr. Milla Jovovich distracts us by putting his wife in a costume whose S/M inspiration is so obvious, even another character comments on it. On the other hand, we could probably have done without the efforts to imbue Alice with some kind of maternal instincts [inevitably inviting comparisons with Aliens].

The net result is something which doesn’t so much need to be watched, just simply pass in front of a receptive pair of eyeballs. As mentioned, there is not much new here, Anderson happy to recycle the best characters and monsters from the first four movies [though, regrettably, there are no zombie canines for Milla to engage in thigh-powered neck-snapping]. Certainly, it’s lazy film-making, but actually, that’s less of an insult than it sounds. It’s more like going round a friend’s house and he knows, without asking, to provide chips and beer. Sure, it can legitimately be described as lazy hospitality – but when this is just what you want, somehow it seems churlish to complain.

A sixth entry is already mooted, and Miila says that will be her last in the series [hang on: didn’t see say that after part 2?], with a reboot being considered by the producers beyond that. This decision may come as a surprise, if you look at the distinctly underwhelming US box-office figures: only $42 million, barely more than the original, even with a decade of inflation plus the cost of 3D tickets in its favor. However, as noted last time, the meat here is not North America, but overseas. This racked up more than $175 million there, easily enough to justify a further sequel. And, for the first time in a while, I am actually enthusiastic about the prospect: hopefully, Jovovich will go out with a bang like this one, not a whimper like the preceding two.

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
Star: Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory, Michelle Rodriguez, Ali Larter

IWA Mid-South: Queen of the Deathmatch

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“Only women bleed…”

The Hardcore genre is denigrated by some pro-wrestling fans as “garbage wrestling,” but I’ve never quite felt that way. To be good, you still need many of the same skills necessary to be good at the more regular end of sports entertainment: ability to work the crowd, sell the offense of your opponent, put over a storyline, etc. It’s true, you don’t need much in the way of technical aptitude to let someone break a fluorescent light-tube across your head, but the willingness to do so is certainly worthy of undeniable respect (if coupled with questions about your sanity). The bottom line is, there are good “garbage wrestlers” and there are bad ones. We’ve seen both in our previous coverage of the genre, when we wrote about FMW: Torn to Shreds, where we saw Megumi Kudo and Shark Tsuchiya, who represent the two ends of the spectrum.

We’ve also spoken before about the gulf betwen Japanese women’s pro-wrestling and the largely pathetic excuse for it put out by the WWE, where two minutes of a glorified cat-fight passes muster as a title match. You need to abandon network TV and go down to the independent level if you want to look for anything comparable – in style, if not necessarily in quality – to joshi puroresu, and it’s there that we found this. The IWA Mid-South federation had been holding annual “King of the Deathmatch” tournaments for quite some time, the first being won by Ian Rotten, one of the most well-known/infamous garbage wrestlers (current WWE heavyweight champion, C.M. Punk was part of the 2004 event, in a non-deathmatch bout). But in 2006, they also staged a similar event for women wrestlers.

Of course, this being independent wrestling where the phrase “card subject to change” is a given, the eight women scheduled to complete ended up being seven and a man. MC Ian Rotten said that Delilah Starr had a car-crash on the way here, and another competitor, LuFisto, had broken her hand fighting another notorious garbage wrestler, Necro Butcher, in a Canadian Death Match tournament called “Bloodstock”. Taking advantage of the open spot was SeXXXy Eddy, a male wrestler with a long history of intergender matches, which his in-ring persona thoroughly enjoyed, as you can imagine from his name. The roster also included reigning IWA women’s champion Mickie Knuckles, Rachel Putski (grand-daugher of WWE Hall of Famer Ivan Putski), and two joshi wrestlers, Mayumi Ozaki and Sumi Sakai.

The first round got under way with a Staple Gun Match between Knuckles and Ann Thraxx: it was best of 13, so the first to embed seven staples in their opponent won. Knuckles was busted open immediately, but this was very much equal opportunity carnage: as the pic on top shows, the red, red blood contrasted nicely with Thraxx’s bleached blonde hair. The score was tied at six with a staple to Knuckle’s crotch, but she took the win by tacking a dollar bill on Thraxx’s nose. Next up was a disappointingly bland thumbtack match, with Putski taking on Vanessa Kraven in ring containing a small box of tacks: it was Kraven’s first death-match, and you could tell her heart really wasn’t in it. Add another skill to the list necessary to succeed as a garbage wrestler: commitment.

The third match was improved, though from a strictly aesthetic and visual sense, was hard to watch. Amy Lee – about as far from a WWE diva as it’s possible to get – took on SeXXXy Eddy, who was wearing what can only be described as a “banana hammock”. This was a “Four Corners Of Pain” bout, with the corners of the ring behind home to barb-wire/salt, mousetraps, fluorescent light-tubes and..,er, lemons? Life gives you lemons, you…stage a death-match. That said, this was mostly fun for Eddy’s antics, not least his epic selling of the mousetraps: though he won, he took care in the post-match interview to put Amy over, for which he deserves credit. The first round finished with Mayumi Ozaki taking on Japanese colleague Sumie Sakai, in a Barbed Wire Ropes and Boards match: this was basically a squash, Sakai taking all the damage, as Ozaki prevailed.

Moving on to the semi-finals, the first pitted Knuckles against Putski in a Taipei Death Match. In this, the wrestlers’ fists are taped, dipped into glue and then in broken and crushed glass, to turn their fists into nasty weapons – its use here may have been because the most infamously bloody of these was between tonight’s MC, Ian Rotten, and his “brother” Axl, at a 1995 ECW show. This one is not much less messy, especially when the two wrestlers set up on facing chairs, and take turns whaleing away at each other’s foreheads [a common target in this kind of wrestling, being an area not likely to incur permanent damage, but capable of generating plenty of the red, red kroovy, as A Clockwork Orange called it, running down the face]. Knuckles prevailed, but hard to say who lost more blood.

Osaki took on Eddy in a two out of three, light-tube log-cabin match. You’re wondering what a light-tube log-cabin is, aren’t you. Those are fluorescent tubes, taped together in a square, four to a side and maybe stacked four interweaved rows or so high. They make a very satisfying crunch when you drop your opponent through one, as we discover here. One thing wrestling fans know, is “two out of three” anything means the first two will inevitably be split, and that’s the case here: Ozaki gets backdropped through the first log-cabin, but comes back with a flying kick off a chair to send Eddy into the second. She takes the win after he tries a high-risk manoeuvre off the top rope, only to be grabbed by his banana hammock and flipped through the deciding log-cabin. Ozaki, again, appears to avoid significant damage.

The final, between her and Knuckles was officially described as a (deep breath!) “No Rope Barbed Wire Fans Bring The Weapons Electrified Lighttubes Cage Match”. Basically, pretty much anything went, inside a steel cage which came already furnished with a ladder, beer barrel, barbed-wire ropes, a host of other offensive shrapnel (barbecue fork, baking tray, and bizarrely, a light-up magic wand with a star on the end) and enough fluorescent light-tubes to illuminate Vegas – yes, some of which were plugged in and working, for added emphasis. It is, I think, the first wrestling bout I’ve seen where the referee wore eye-protection. Knuckles hadn’t even bothered to clean up after the last bout, coming to the ring still covered in dried gore from her semi-final.

This one was relatively brief, and must confess, I actually found it somewhat disappointing, especially considering it was supposed to be the grand final. It felt almost as if both women had been drained by the previous encounters, so (understandably) had little energy left for their third match of the night. There was some breaking of glass and some mild use of foreigh objects, but it lasted only a little more than seven minutes in total, before Knuckles kicked through one of the electrified light fixtures into Ozaki’s forehead, following up with a pin for a three-count and victory. She didn’t really get to enjoy her title for long, as LuFisto and Kraven came in, blindsided her and left Knuckles draped in a Canadian flag, obviously intended to set a grudge-match up for the next IWA Mid-South event,

This is not great wrestling, by any means: matches generally proceed at a sluggish pace, and the format offers little scope for any significant degree of technical skill. But I have nothing but total respect for the participants, who put their bodies on the line for the entertainment of the audience, with a cheerful lack of concern for safety. If they were getting paid tens of thousands of dollars, I could perhaps understand it, but the paying crowd here probably numbered a hundred or less, so the compensation for their efforts can have been little more than token. Such willingness to suffer for your art (and there is no doubt in my mind, that pro wrestling is indeed an art), can only be applauded.

Date/time: November 3, 2006 at the Capital Sports Arena in Plainfield, Indiana.
Participants: Mickie Knuckles, Mayumi Ozaki, Rachel Putski, Sexxxy Eddy
Available through Amazon, as The Best of Deathmatch Wrestling, Vol. 4: Queens of the Deathmatch.

La Femme Nikita: season one

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“French kissing in the USA”

To say I approached this show in a roundabout way would be an understatement. 15 years after its original screening, after three separate movie versions and two seaseons of the largely unrelated version of the story starring Maggie Q, I finally got round to it. So, bearing tht in mind, it’s a different beast from what I expected – mostly because it’s a lot less action-oriented. Peta Wilson, as lost soul turned government operative Nikita, looks like she could potentially kick your arse, but (largely for budgetary reasons, I believe) there’s only token moments of hand-to-hand action: the focus is much more on spycraft, undercover work and deceit, rather than full-on assaults. There are still occasional sequences, but even these tend to involve relatively brief gun-battles, not the martial arts brawls which are one of the new version’s trademarks.

The other chance is that Section One, their version of Division, is not malicious – at least not in the same way. It’s certainly a heartless organization, which is utterly ruthless, and prepared to dispose of anyone who may interfere with their actions, but it’s more an awareness that when you’re dealing with terrorists, organized crime or other threats to the country and world, you can’t be unwilling to get your hands dirty. It leads to a significant bleaker overall tone, and is amazingly prophetic, given this was screened well before 9/11 led to this attitude become a necessary part of national security. Early on, it’s established that you can never trust Section heads Operation (Glazer) and Madeleine (Watson, who was also part of the remake, playing Senator Pierce – her given name there was also Madeleine), to the extent that their deceit becomes almost a cliché.

There are some direct nods to Besson’s movie: her first assignment is to murder a target in a crowded restaurant, and the bathroom assassination crops up in a later episode. On the other hand, there is one significant difference from the original film, in that Nikita here is genuinely innocent of the crime for which she is sentenced, simply happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her refusal to engage in the actions Section demands of her is a strong thread of the first season, with a reluctance to compromise her moral code being pitted against Section’s desire to control her for their own ends. Early on, she risks “cancellation” (termination with extreme prejudice) more than once, by disobeying orders, usually to protect others from Section action.

Another area in which this show differs from the current version, is a much more pronounced use of music. There are fairly lengthy sequences, several minutes on occasion, where scenes unfold over almost all of a song. A soundtrack CD was about the only piece of merchandise given any wide-scale release by Warner Bros, including the title track by X-Files composer Mark Snow, as well as songs by Depeche Mode and Morcheeba. Also popping up in the first season, are Morcheeba, P.J. Harvey, Sister Machine Gun and several tracks by neo-classical/industrial band In The Nursery, whom I coincidentally went to see in Hamburg, back around the time these episodes first aired. It’s certainly a trademark of the show, and is an aspect I consistently enjoyed.

On the other hand, apart from the lack of action, the angle I liked least was the relationship between Nikita and her handler/fellow agent, Michael (Dupuis). I’ll come right out and say it: I hate ‘shippers, and storylines that pander to them are nothing more than an irritant to me, especially in shows which I watch for action, where they do little except interfere with the good stuff, in my humble opinion. [We’ve seen this in the new incarnation, where the show has disintegrated from one of the best shows on TV, into little more than Mr. and Mrs. Smith And Friends.] I’m definitely a “noromo”: If I wanted unresolved sexual tension and relationship nonsense, I’d watch daytime soap operas. Right from the first time Nikita and Michael meet, it’s doe-eyed heaven, even though there is obviously little or no honesty, trust and anything else on which a genuine relationship could ever be founded.

There are also a number of aspects of the show which now seem undeniably dated, which is always going to be an issue when a series is trying to be “cutting edge”. Most obvious is the technology – an early episode has tech wiz Birkoff explaining about IRC, something now so passé, an explanation would probably be needed again! – but the opening credits always get a chuckle, especially the final “morph” at the end, which looks incredibly cheap. Meanwhile, Wilson’s accent drifts in and out without rhyme or reason: at times, she seems straight off Bondi Beach, while at others it’s almost entirely subdued.

The episodic nature of this, with less concentration on an over-riding story arc, is both a strength and a weakness. It frees the creators up for some really good stories, but there’s not much incentive to plug in the next episode – I largely watched them in double-bills, but it took me more than seven months to get through the first season’s 22 shows. I enjoyed the bleakness and emotional chilliness depicted here, which as noted above, is probably more relevant now than then, but the obviously lower production values, and its replacement of high-energy action with dramatic angles that Wilson isn’t quite up to handling, brought its overall entertainment value down significantly. I’m probably just about interested enough to pick up the second season at some point: however, that is not likely to be for a while.

Star: Peta Anderson, Roy Dupuis, Eugene Robert Glazer, Alberta Watson

Alien 3

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“Lost in space.”

“No one hated it more than me. To this day, no one hates it more than me.”
David Fincher

Few films have had such a troubled path to the screen. The story of those struggles, and the various versions of the story generated by William Gibson, Eric Red, David Twohy, Vincent Ward and others, is probably worthy of an entire separate article. For now, we concentrate on what finally came out, but let’s quote writer Rex Pickett:

“I was hired by 20th Century Fox four weeks prior to the start of principal photography… First on my agenda was a complete rewrite of the second half of the Walter Hill/David Giler screenplay due to certain major character and narrative changes mandated by Walter Hill. Once that was accomplished I was to attend to the first half and write an amalgamated version which was to include scenes from their draft and new scenes that I wrote. Thus, the resultant screenplay – particularly the first half – contains scenes that I was instructed to include whether I wanted to or not.”

The end result is every bit as awful and borderline incoherent as you’d expect, given the circumstances. At the time, Fincher had no feature-film experience. He was known almost entirely for music videos, particularly for Madonna – when it was announced he would be helming the third part, I recall idly wondering if we were going to see the aliens in pointy bras. That isn’t quite the case, and it does make more sense in the light of Fincher’s subsequent work, from Seven through to the The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake. But it’s worth considering that neither Ridley Scott nor James Cameron had worked on a large-budget sci-fi flick before their entries – Cameron had made The Terminator, but it was low-budget, at barely one-third the cost of Aliens. Both seemed to deliver a more consistent vision, though I suspect neither suffered from the copious degree of studio interference apparently seen here.

Right from the get-go, the script basically junks its predecessor. An emergency on the spacecraft bringing Ripley, Newt, Hicks and Bishop home causes it crash-land, with Ripley apparently the only survivor. It’s a near-derelict former prison planet, which was about to be decommissioned, but the inhabitants, under spiritual leader Dillon (Dutton), opted to stick around, under minimal supervision. They’re none too happy to have a woman dropped into the middle of their society, and a message is sent to request Ripley be removed as soon as possible. Needless to say the Weyland-Yutari Corporation are more than happy to oblige. However, it soon becomes clear that Ripley was not the only living thing to escape the crash, as local residents start turning up “diced.” When it’s confirmed, through Ripley re-activating Bishop, that there was indeed an alien present: destroying it is necessary, not only to survive, but also to stop it from falling into the hands of Weyland-Yutari.

You can almost take Aliens and this, using them as point-counterpoint examples, of how you should and should not handle almost every aspect of genre film-making. Aliens built logically upon what had gone before, but this throws it all out the window, apparently making the rules of engagement up as it goes along. Aliens was a near-textbook example of how to create supporting characters with a few simply brush-strokes, giving them character and motivation: this has very little beyond a bunch of unlikeable bald-headed monk/prisoner types, with absolutely no reason provided for the audience to care about anyone beyond Ripley, as they get picked off. The pacing is terrible too, with little or no sense of progression or any significant twists, beyond the one that Ripley finds out about herself. And that makes no logical sense, given what we learned about the alien’s life-cycle in the first two movie. Everyone – Ripley, the prisoners and even the marauding alien – seems to be in a holding pattern, waiting for the corporate ship to show up so something (pleasegodanythingatall) can happen.

Without wishing to give away too much about the finale, it bears more than a slight resemblance to the one used by Aliens director Cameron in Terminator 2, which came out the previous year. He later told the BBC, “I couldn’t stand Alien 3 – how they could just go in there and kill off all these great characters we introduced in Aliens, and the correlation between mother and daughter. It stunk.” So was the similarity coincidence? Or did Cameron see a script during the long, pre-production process and opt to swipe it, to thumb his nose at the makers for basically jettisoning his entire contribution to the series? I’d like to think it was the latter, but suspect it was indeed one of those Hollywood flukes.

However, it’d be no better than this massively disappointing movie deserved, with Fincher and co. literally making it up as they went along. The first time I saw it, was on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, its original theatrical release coinciding with a trip to California. I fell asleep. 20 years later, I saw it for the second time, in the comfort of my own home… I fell asleep again. As Oscar Wilde might have said, “To lose consciousness once, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose it twice looks like carelessness.”

Dir: David Fincher
Star: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Brian Glover