Wonder Woman (Unaired TV Pilot)

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“Nowhere near as bad as you might think.”

Allowing for the fact this was more or less a rough-cut – you can still see the wires as the heroine throws villains around – this actually is far from the atrocity you expect, going from the pre-production fan loathing. The story avoid the whole “origins” thing, hitting the ground running by having Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Palicki) already fully-active, and busting crime around Los Angeles. Her extra-legal activities, with the local cops’ complicity, bring her to the attention of the federal authorities. Meanwhile, she’s tussling with the board of her company over the merchandise that funds her crime-fighting, objecting to the size of the tits on her action-figure – and, yes, they actually say “tits”, to my surprise. Finally, the villainess (Hurley) is performing illegal medical experiments with steroids and such, to create super-soldiers, and it’s up to Wonder Woman, her plane (wisely, no longer invisible), bullet-deflecting bracelets and lasso which may or may not be of truth (it’s unclear from this episode) to stop her.

Yeah, there’s probably too much going on, as it establishes that Prince is not just an action heroine, but also a business mogul, being the CEO of Themyscira Industries, and a woman: y’know, with needs. They each have their separate identities: it’s a nice touch, though not all of this needed to be put across in the pilot I think. They might have been better off bringing the other angles in down the line. What does work, surprisingly well, is Palicki, who both looks the part – a particular surprise, given the heat the costume took – and manages to hit most of the dramatic points necessary. However, I can see how fans of the comic books would probably still hate it, since there’s barely any acknowledgment of her ancestry as the princess of an all-female tribe from a remote island.

I particularly liked the hard-edged “neo-vigilante” approach of Wonder Woman, who has no aversion to violence and at one point, flat out kills someone by driving a pipe through his neck. Don’t recall Lynda Carter doing that: The Dark Knight has a lot to answer for. On the down side, the script does have its fair share of cliches, from the grieving mother through to the romantic interest. But, really: you can turn on the television any night of the week and see far less interesting or well-considered excuses for series, which somehow managed to get themselves green-lit. It has potential to be, if not great, at least half-decent: given the lack of action heroines on TV these days, it’s a pity this one received the televisual equivalent of a wire coat-hanger.

Dir: Jeffrey Reiner
Star: Adrianne Palicki, Elizabeth Hurley, Carey Elwes, Tracie Thoms

The Last Rites of Ransom Pride

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“Well, at least it’s different…”

Though nominally a Western, this perhaps has more in common with the surreal works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, in particular El Topo, with mystical elements and downright weirdness. Ransom Pride (Scott Speedman, from the Underworld series) is killed in a gun-battle while trying to broker an arms deal with the locals. His corpse is kept by the local bruja, or witch (de Pablo), because her brother also died in the fight, shot by Ransom. That doesn’t sit well with his lover, Juliette (Caplan), a half-breed who has been raised in blood since slitting the throat of the Mexican general who killed her parents, while still not yet a teenager. She returns to Ransom’s home, and recruits his brother (Foster) to help recover the body, on the way back to Mexico, meeting a bevy of strange characters and situations. Their mission doesn’t sit well with the Pride patriarch (Yoakam), a gun-fighter turned preacher, who sets loose a pair of hunters, but is prepared to get his own hands dirty in pursuit of that “whore of Babylon.”

In terms of visual style, it seems almost as if the appeoach was to try and irritate the hell out of the viewer, with frequent interruptions of scenes with a few frames takes from other sequences, past or yet to come. It certainly keeps the audience on their toes, but is both overused and outstays its welcome. That’s a shame, as there are other elements worthy of credit, not least the overall look, which has a bleached tone that is quite effective. Caplan is undeniably impressive, as is de Pablo – both come over as women with whom you do not want to mess. That’s impressive given both are probably best known previously, for fairly bland TV fare. Here, they are genuinely disturbing, and it’s a mix of the generally decent performances, and weird sense that anything could happen, that kept me watching.

On the downside, as well as the opaque visual sense, the audio is not infrequently as muddied as the picture, though it’s harder to say whether or not it was deliberately so. The script also has a tendency to drift off into areas that are probably not necessary – there’s too much backstory involving Ransom and his brother, when the film should instead have been moving forward. Finally, the editing during the action scenes is disappointing fractured, to the extent that you largely have to wait for the dust to settle and see who’s still alive. The negatives and positives end up just about balancing, and the end result is something that you don’t mind watching, yet will likely not have much interest in seeing again.

Dir: Tiller Russell
Star: Lizzy Caplan, Jon Foster, Cote de Pablo, Dwight Yoakam

Girl Boss: Escape From Reform School

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“Bad girls go to…the seaside?”

Serial escaper Ruriko (Sugimoto) is more persistent than good, and is dragged back to reform school after her seventh escape attempt ends the same way as her previous six. After whizzing through most of the standards of the women-in-prison genre in about 30 minutes or so e.g. corrupt staff, gratuitous nudity, solitary confinement, etc. she and a few of her colleagues (supposedly teenagers, but that clearly ain’t the case) break out as a group. Splitting up to avoid detection, they arrange a rendezvous at a deserted building by the sea, from where they plan to hijack a ship and escape Japan for good. Truth be told, a sense of urgency isn’t exactly top of the their skill-set, and as they meander their way there, various escapades happen, of which the only significant one is Ruriko meeting, by chance, a male criminal (Watase), who is also trying to out-run the law. But the police are also keen to ensure that they run their record in terms of Ruriko to a perfect 8-for-8…

I watched this less than a week ago, but already, I can’t remember very much about it. Sugimoto is her usual charismatic self, and the film is certainly more interesting when she’s on-screen. However, the supporting characters are entirely forgettable, and in my mind, all merged into one amorophous, largely uninteresting blob. That’s particularly problematic after they split up, which is when the film seems to lose direction entirely, meandering around until the finale, where the police besiege the perps in their beach-house. I have to say, the major takeway from that is how incredibly inept the Japanese SWAT team are. Not only are they easily held at bay by criminals armed with precisely one gun, they mill around like disturbed sheep in the face of anything coming the other way, e.g. burning tyres, and are completely oblivious to even the most basic law-enforcement principle, such as “maintaining a perimeter.” If those are supposed to be the elite, it makes me wonder how the hell Ruriko managed to get herself caught the previous seven times she escaped.

It’s probably significant that the lack of compentence by the special forces of law and order is my lasting memory here. While competently made, and touching all the expected bases [that’s clear from the way solitary confinement in the prison involves Ruriko both bondaged up and topless!], it doesn’t have any real heart or passion, and if you skip this one, you won’t be missing much.

Dir: Sadao Nakajima
Star: Miki Sugimoto, Yuko Kano, Hiroko Isayama, Tsunehiko Watase

Amazons (1984)

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“Almost 30 years later – despite binders full of women – this is still politically advanced for its day.

This made for TV movie first aired in January 1984, and was likely fairly topical at the time, with Geraldine Ferraro then on her way to becoming the VP behind Walter Mondale. It’s still just her and Sarah Palin as far as major party tickets in American history go. Her candidacy is foreshadowed by this piece of masculine paranoia. Stowe plays Dr. Sharon Fields, a doctor who is sued for malpractice after her hospital patient, a leading Congressman, had an unexpected psychotic episode, which leads to him playing in traffic. She finds a series of similar deaths linked by trace elements found in autopsies, all of men, whose deaths benefit women, in general or specifically. Turns out they are assassinations, carried out to the orders of an ancient, matriarchal cult: they now have their eye set on the leading presidential candidate – who just happens to have picked a woman as his running mate.

It’s an impressive cast. As well as Stowe (now lording it over the rich and famous as the matriarch in guilty pleasure Revenge), there’s Stevens as cult member Kathryn Lundquist, and Dobson as Rosalund Joseph, another hospital worker – the two faced off previously, in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold – while Scalia plays the cop whom Fields has to try to convince. Behind the cameras, the cinematography is by Dean Cundey, who did the Back to the Future trilogy, The Thing and, er, Ilsa, Harem-Keeper of the Oil Sheiks; the music is from Basil Poledouris (Robocop); and it’s the directorial debut, outside the series, of Starsky [as in “…and Hutch”], three years before he did The Running Man. Solid stuff, and from a technical level, this makes for a pretty decent TVM, both in performances and production values.

However, the concept and the script appear nothing more than a Robin Cook medi-thriller laced with a large helping of delusional male chauvinist nonsense, portraying women – and, in particular, those who want to achieve political, social or economic power – as literal man-haters, who have absolutely no qualms about poisoning or killing by other means, any man unfortunate enough to get in their way. Admittedly, it’s not carried out with the level of hysteria one might think; in some ways, it’s fairly sympathetic to the Amazons. But it makes little or no sense (I mean, this cult has been around for thousands of years and has achieved exactly what?), and there’s no detectable irony, despite the absolute daftness of the central concept. Surely the eighties weren’t as naive as all that? Actually, looking at the hairstyles and fashions on view here, I think they were.

Dir: Paul Michael Glaser
Star: Madeleine Stowe, Jack Scalia, Stella Stevens, Tamara Dobson

Angels’ Brigade

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Charlie’s Magnificent 7 Angels.”

After her brother is severely beaten by a drug dealer, Las Vegas lounge singer (!) Michelle Wilson (Kiger, Miss January 1977) is visited by his teacher (Cole), who knows the location of the cartel’s drug warehouse. Wilson puts together a team of women who have reason to want to take the dealers down, including a stuntwoman (Anderson) and an undercover cop (Grant). There’s also a martial-arts instructress, a model and, tagging along, one of the teacher’s pupils. They build a heavily-armed van, train in the ways of war, and rip off a bunch of militia types for weaponry, before staging a successful raid that destroys the warehouse. However, the mob (led by veteran actors Peter Lawford and Jack Palance) are not prepared to let them get away with it.

This is best known through its use – in a severely truncated form – on MST3K, and I suspect that’s where most of the 1,200+ votes on the IMDB come from [it’s more than, say, the rather better-renowned Black Mama, White Mama]. The unedited version is less worthy of derision. I wouldn’t call it great cinema, but it heads from Point A to Point B in a brisk fashion, and the practical effect – stunts, explosions, etc. – are decent enough. Of course, there’s little or no characterization to speak of, on either side, it’s clearly ripped off from Charlie’s Angels, and there’s a weird unevenness of tone that is hard to handle. For instance, the militia types are incredibly incompetent, bumping into each other at the drop of a swastika, but then the girls seriously consider dropping a truck on the head of an informant.

However, I couldn’t bring myself to hate this to the level its former position in the IMDB Bottom 100 would project. There’s something almost charmingly naive about such a simplistic approach, and it’s also refreshingly free of any romantic angles to slow things down. At a few points, I even found myself contemplating the remake potential. If the discussed all-female version of The Expendables ever comes to pass, it might not be too dissimilar to this, though hopefully with more originality.

Dir: Greydon Clark
Star: Susan Kiger, Sylvia Anderson. Jacqulin Cole. Robin Greer

Alien Resurrection

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“Alien vs. Firefly”

It’s not often that a film series manages to recover from – or even, survive – such a disastrous mis-step. But the Alien franchise managed it, though it took five years to come to fruition, and a Really Big Cheque to Sigourney Weaver [reportedly, $11 million, as well as a producer’s credit. The results, while short of the original two movies, are an awful lot better than its predecessor, managing to progress the story, re-invent Ripley and be generally entertaining. However, from a 2012 perspective, it’s painfully obvious that writer Joss Whedon recycled large chunks of the supporting characters, and turned them into Firefly. We’ll get to that a bit later.

It is set 200 years into the future, and begins with scientists on a space-station creating a clone of Ripley, using DNA from blood samples. They also remove the alien queen embryo which she was carrying, growing that, but keep her around for further study, intrigued by her apparent mix of human and alien DNA that’s giving her unusual powers [not unlike the way Alice fuses with the T-virus in the middle Resident Evil movies]. Docking with them is the Betty, a ahip operating on the fringes, which is bringing the scientists some meat popsicles in which they can incubate more aliens. Annalee Call (Ryder) appears to recognize the threat Ripley poses, and tries to kill her – but it’s too late, as the aliens have escaped their containment facility. Ripley and the crew have to team up, to try and fight their way back through the station to the Betty, which is the only means of escape left.

That’s an improvement in terms of a storyline over 3, simply because it is one, and provides a skeleton upon which a good amount of interesting ideas and fun sequences can be built. Jeunet came to the movie from some visually-striking French films, such as The City of Lost Children, and there’s a much better sense of cinematography apparent here – it’s a striking contrast to Fincher’s approach, where it appears his main direction to the DP was “Darker. Make it darker.” Here, you can see what’s happening: particular standouts include the first confrontation between Ripley and the Betty crew, in the basketball court, where Ripley sinks a long-range shot behind her back [legitimately done by Weaver], and a lengthy underwater sequence, where you’ll probably find yourself trying – and likely, failing – to hold your breath.

But the central idea is the one of Ripley now being something more than human, and Weaver has a great deal of fun with that, playing as if she’s half a beat ahead of everyone else, and completes her transition by no longer being scared of the aliens. It’s them who need to be scared of her, and again, I’m reminded of Milla Jovovich in the RE series: more than human, and yet, less than human at the same time. There’s even a creature with the proportions the other way round – monster with a touch of human – like Nemesis from RE: Apocalypse, and it was no surprise to read that Paul W.S. Anderson was one of the many directors considered for this (Danny Boyle, Peter Jackson, Bryan Singer and David Croneberg beinh among the others). I briefly drifted off to speculate on the possibility of an Alien vs. Resident Evil cross-over; would probably have been a lot more fun than anything involving Predators.

As noted, what’s startling are the parallels between the Betty and the Serenity, from Whedon’s show Firefly, which came out in 2002. Both operate on the edge of legality, with a small crew of oddballs: Capt. Frank Elgyn (Michael Wincott) is somwhat less sympathetic than Mal Reynolds, but in both you have a captain/first-mate/pilot trio of two men and a woman, two of whom are in a relationship, plus a mechanic from an unexpected minority (there, a woman; here, disabled). If Perlman’s lumbering mercenary Johner isn’t a blatant dry run for Jayne Cobb, I don’t know what is, and there’s more than a touch of mechanic Kaylee Frye to be seen in Annalee. Writing as someone who found Firefly no more than a passable timewaster, it’s amusing to see Whedon was stealing from himself. Still, if you’re going to plagiarize, best use your own work, I suppose.

Oddly, Whedon hated this finished product almost as much as Fincher did the third, saying, “It was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.” It seems likely that’s why he recycled so many of his characters for Firefly.

It’s far from perfect, however. The biggest flaw is Ryder, who is completely unconvincing, and not a patch on her predecessors [if you’re thinking, “What predecessors?”, there’s a clue in the initial letter of her character’s surname…]. I wasn’t too fond of the way the film went in the final act, and the human-alien hybrid is neither convincing nor scary. It’s damn hard to believe that Whedon came up with five endings, and this was the one Jeunet picked as the best. But, really: after the dismal failure which was part three, it was a major relief to see something even semi-competent, which managed to sustain my interest (okay: consciousness) much better, and be generally entertaining.

Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Star: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon

Hoodrats 2: Hoodrat Warriors

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“And no: neither of the actresses on the cover actually star in the film, as far as I can tell.”

When Chino (Rodil) beats up his woman, Lucia (Sparagna) decides it has happened for the last time, and accompanied by her two friends, Celia (Mortel) and Miriam (Cho), she gives him a dose of his own medicine, with a baseball bat. This turns out to be a clear case of thinking without acting, because it turns out he’s a big kahuna in one of the local gangs, and is now out for revenge on the trio. After a drive-by cripples their vehicle (a ghettomobile with the amusing personalized plate, ‘ICUHATN’), they are stuck deep in enemy territory, with a lot of unfriendly people looking for them. And even if they make it out alive, what then?

I like the idea a lot: it could have become a Latina take on The Warriors, an urban nightmare journey pitting the heroines against a range of city low-lives, as they battle their way back across Los Angeles. And, perhaps surprisingly, the acting is not terrible: I was expecting something sub-amateur, but the three ladies are competent, and Rodil is actually more than adequately unpleasant as the villain. Arellano knows where to point the camera too – and, as an aside, you do not appear to need any knowledge of his previous Hoodrats. Two things, however, undo all the positives, and send this heavily into the red.

Firstly, the script is really badly written, with any number of scenes that outstay their welcome or are simply unnecessary. I’ll describe a couple of the worst offenders. Late on, two of the women are captured; the third just wanders off, bumps into a complete stranger and has an irrelevant conversation, resulting in her grooving out to some tunes. What? That, however, is a masterpiece compared to the scene where they seek help from the local king pimp, the inexplicably-British Baron of New Orleans. He looks like Simon Pegg, sounds (dubbed?) like Russell Brand, and must have been an investor in the film, because there is absolutely no justification for the seemingly endless minutes of screen time allocated to his vapid burblings.

The other problem is the fights, which are largely predictable, uninteresting and completely fail to be hard-hitting. For instance, the enemies met by the three women as they head home, are inevitably…three women, and the sluggish cartwheel move Lucia uses, apparently inspired by capoeira, doesn’t improve with repetition. I’ve seen films where my attention drifts away, except during the action scenes: here, however, it drifted away more during the action. It builds to a finale in what could well be a school gym, that is ludicrous in its implausibility, though is a fitting end to an inept work.

Dir: Edgar Arellano
Star: June Marie Sparagna, Donnabella Mortel, Arden Cho, Neal ‘Xingu’ Rodil

FMW: Torn to Shreds

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“Megumi Kudo: the real ‘Barb Wire’…”

I really wanted to use little barb-wire icons to mark this one, instead of the usual stars, but whenever I typed in “barb wire jpg” into search engines, I always seemed to find myself staring at Pamela Anderson.  Yes, get those digressions out of the way early, that’s what I always say…

This is the sixth in Tokyo Pop’s ongoing series of releases featuring Japanese wrestling from the FMW (Frontier Martial-arts Wrestling) federation, and while the others have all contained women’s matches, it’s the first to concentrate exclusively on this angle. So credit to them for putting out what is – correct me if I’m wrong – the first official release of Japanese women’s wrestling in the West. Unfortunately, that’s largely where the credit stops as far as they’re concerned.

To start with, FMW are a long way from being the best Japanese federation for women’s wrestling – they don’t even bother these days, having given up several years ago (these bouts largely date from 1995, so are hardly current) and think they might even have gone bankrupt now. Secondly, in line with FMW’s policy of hardcore – they’re kinda the Japanese equivalent of ECW – the women have largely been chosen for their willingness to do the extreme stuff, rather than any actual wrestling ability. This shows itself most prominently in the case of Shark Tsuchiya, whom I’ve encountered on several “unofficial” tapes, and is definitely one of the worst pro wrestlers I’ve seen. It’s significant that the best wrestler to be seen in this title is KAORU, who’s actually from another federation.

Thirdly, while they could have cherry-picked the best matches, most of the fights here are off one card, including lame rookie bouts not really worthy of note. [People like Sonoko Kato might be good now, but she had a lot to learn in those days…and was unlikely to do it in FMW] Fourthly, and most damningly, since the others are perhaps less within Tokyo Pop’s control, the two presenters are awful. John Watanabe is clueless, while his irritatingly fey partner, Eric Geller, annoyed me in a disturbingly Tarantino-esque way. On the DVD, you can at least switch to Japanese commentary during the matches, but you will want to skip their inter-bout “banter”.

There’s only one bout here that’s genuinely memorable, and it’s purely on a geek-show level. It’s part of the long rivalry between Shark Tsuchiya and the queen of FMW, Megumi Kudo, and is notable for it being a barbed-wire match, with the ropes of the ring being replaced by strands of (entirely genuine, I might add) barbed-wire. Having seen Kudo fight in cards for other promotions, I know she can actually wrestle, but there’s no sign of that here, stuck as she is with a useless lump like Tsuchiya. The bout follows almost the same pattern as all their others: Tsuchiya brutalises Kudo, Kudo bleeds, Kudo comes back gallantly.

The only major change here is how much Kudo bleeds: it’s buckets. I’ve seen few men’s matches as gory, and this is certainly among the worst of women’s bouts (there was a cage match pitting Shimoda and Mita against Watanabe and Ito that may come close). Kudo takes some severe bumps, particularly against the folding table that just won’t give, taking four attempts to break it [the Japanese must make them of stronger stuff!] You’ll probably find yourself shaking your head as Kudo’s face becomes totally red, a mask of blood.

The DVD offers some extras: brief highlights from an additional bout, extra footage of Watanabe and Geller (oh, joy…), a picture gallery of FMW wrestlers and some cheesecake footage of Kudo, which you’d be advised to watch before you see her gushing blood, as that will likely destroy any cuteness factor present for her. In other words: nothing to sway the vacillating purchaser.

As mentioned, it’s good to see this release, even if as an introduction to Japanese women’s wrestling, it’s largely a failure, being neither representative, nor good enough to attract the casual viewer. Meanwhile, the hardcore fan will likely have the bouts already, and will certainly possess better. This is a shame since there are some phenomenal athletes to be found, and it’s an area deserving of exposure here, particularly given the largely-woeful state of mainstream women’s wrestling. If it opens the gate to other, better titles, it’ll have performed an excellent, much-needed job, but on the whole, you should go for some of the unofficial tapes available through the Internet: names to look for would include Manami Toyota, Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong, Kyoko Inoue and Mima Shimoda. And definitely not Shark Tsuchiya…

Star: Megumi Kudo, Shark Tsuchiya, KAORU, Combat Toyoda