Escape (Flukt)

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“Memo to self: Scandinavian women were bad-ass.”

14th-century Norway, not long after the Black Death has decimated the population. Signe (Andreasen) and her family are on the road, seeking a new life, when they are attacked by bandits. Signe is captured and taken to their camp, ruled by Dagmar (Berdal); she was expelled from the nearby town, whose inhabitants thought she was a witch. Signe isn’t the first girl abducted to give the matriarch a family; there’s also Frigg (Olin), a younger girl whom Dagmar is inducting into the ways of the clan. But Frigg is not there yet, and help Signe to escape: needless to say, an enraged Dagmar and the rest of her gang, are soon hot in pursuit, chasing them across the chilly (and beautifully-photographed) wilderness.

It’s a straightforward story, effectively told, and held together by very good performances from the two leads. It would have been easy for Signe to become some kind of teenage Rambette, but her transformation from plucky but inexperienced daughter into someone who can credibly take on a bunch of crypto-Vikings is well-handled. She hardly ever goes hand-to-hand with them, avoiding the obvious issues of size and strength, in favour of guild and wits. In the other corner, Dagmar, while being a complete bad-ass bitch, who looks like she would rip you head off for us, if she found herself short of a goblet, is given enough backstory to turn her into something of a sympathetic character, which is more than you can say for most villains in this kind of survival flick.

Of course, there are inevitably points where the characters behave in ways that are more necessary for the plot, than perhaps the most logical course of action. However, I can’t say those irritated myself or Chris too much – and she’s usually far less lenient of such things, especially in action heroine movies, where I want to give the film the benefit of any doubt. The action scenes are well-handled, and the deaths each pack more wallop than you’d expect, with the way in which they’re staged enhancing the emotional impact. It’s more than a little reminiscent of Pathfinder, another Norwegian film, made in 1987, which was also set in medieval times, and concerning a young boy abducted by a savage tribe [it was remade by Hollywood a couple of years ago, transplanting the story to North America].

However, the mother-younger daughter-older daughter triangle here adds a significant new angle, and clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes, there’s hardly an ounce of fat in the form of wasted moments, on its lean Scandinavian frame. What few such pauses there are, you can just admire the lovely Norwegian scenery.

Dir: Roar Uthaug
Star: Isabel Christine Andreasen, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Milla Olin, Kristian Espedal

Magnificent Warriors

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“Raiders of the East Ark.”

Ok, the above is a rabid simplification; there are no artifacts here at all, but there’s no doubt Michelle Yeoh’s adventurer owes more than a touch to the archaeologist we all know and love – not least in the bullwhip she wields in the opening sequence. While for nasty Nazis, read nasty Nips, with the Japanese who are occupying mainland China at the time of this film, so villainous they might as well be twirling wax moustaches and wearing top hats. They’re building a poison gas factory, and it’s up to Yeoh, agent 001 Yee and scoundrel Ng to stop them.

It does live up to the claim of “nonstop action” on the sleeve, certainly, and when Yeoh is in full flow, it’s a joy and absolute delight to see. For example, almost the first fight has her wielding a rope with a blade on the end, and it’s better action than many films have as a climax. There’s plenty of similar scenes, and more than enough moments make you go, “Whoa!”, in your best Keanu voice. Though for my tastes, and especially towards the end, there’s too much running/driving about, firing of weapons, explosions and stuff that doesn’t particularly showcase the skills of those involved. Supporting actress Cindy Lau comes over well as the feisty sidekick of the man they have to rescue.

This was the last action film in the first stage of Yeoh’s career; in 1988, she retired, and married D&B Films owner Dickson Poon, until her return to the screen in Supercop. This is perhaps the least well-known of her early trilogy of starring action roles, behind Yes, Madam! and Royal Warriors; in all honesty, it is probably the slightest, yet is still an impressively insane piece of work.

Dir: David Chung
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Derek Yee, Richard Ng, Lowell Lo

Zeiram + Zeiram 2

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Zeiram and its sequel, Zeiram 2, both concern a creature which combines all the most unpleasant and lethal features of The Thing with The Terminator. It’s humanoid, at least in the number of functioning limbs, but its head appears almost mushroom shaped – though it’s hard to tell where Zeiram ends and its hat begins, for there’s a second face, embedded in the hat. This is capable of extending on a tentacle, to attack victims, taking in nourishment, and there’s evidence to suggest that it can absorb their DNA and use it to create monsters. Oh, and the rest of it is almost impossible to destroy.

However, trying to do exactly that is Iria (Moriyama), an interstellar bounty hunter, who has laid a trap to take Zeiram into an alternate, uninhabited dimension, in order to deal with him in a way that will pose no threat to the local population. However, she reckons without the arrival of electrical techs Kamiya (Hotaru) and Teppei (Ida), who have been dispatched by the power company to investigate the power-drain resulting from Iria’s tech. Through an unfortunate series of events, they end up in the alternate dimension with Zeiram, while Iria is largely stuck in our world, trying to keep them alive until she can fix her portal and get in there to help them.

The problems here are largely two-fold. Kamiya. And Teppei, There are few things less appealing than comic relief characters whose antics and mugging are supposed to be endearing or amusing, but fail miserably on both fronts. They bring very little to proceedings except for running time, and that’s a shame, because there is no shortage of bizarre inventiveness on view. And when the pair stop trying to be characters, shut the hell up, and simply team up with Iria to kick alien arse, it’s a lot better, because whatever they do to Zeiram, he/she/it just keeps mutating into another form and fighting back. You get the sense being fed through a wood-chipper would only be a minor inconvenience.

This also helps cover up Moriyama’s somewhat limited set of fighting skills. Admittedly, it’s possible she had to slow things down in order to fight a giant mushroom, but the hand-to-hand combat here is choreographed at about the speed of a Strauss waltz. She does have screen presence, however, and looks decent enough firing a gun. To a casual eye – that’d be my wife’s, wandering through the living-room – this could look like an episode of Amemiya’s Power Rangers, and it’s not surprising he would go on to direct some Kamen Rider films. But it’s too uneven to succeed: for every moment where you go, “Cool!”, there’s another where you’ll roll your eyes, or just go “Eh?”. For instance, the section where Zeiram squeeze out goo onto the ground, which grows into a half-man that has a burbling conversation with Zeiram, before getting its head stomped on. Altogether, now: eh?

The sequel, which came out three years later, restores the “i” in the title, which was inexplicably removed from the original for it US release by Fox Lorber. This installment starts off as if it’s going to go in some radically different directions, even if all the main players are back. Iria is seeking an ancient artifact called the Carmarite, and additionally, has a new assistant, but he turns out to be untrustworthy. Meanwhile, a shadowy group has succeeded in regenerating Zeiram as a cyborg warrior (which makes a lot more sense if you’ve seen the anime, and know its origins), bending its will to their needs and turning it into a weapon. While initially successfully, this works about as well as most plans usually do, and it’s not longer before Zeiram is much more a menace than an ally.

However, just when you think the film is going into new and interesting territory… Well, I’m not quite show how it happened, but before long we were back in more or less the same situation as the original. Blah blah irritating comic relief blah another dimension blak Iria unable to help (this time because she gets herself locked in a room), etc. You’re looking at something which borders on being a remake of the original, and unlike something like Terminator 2, which upped the ante significantly, while telling a largely similar story, there isn’t any real sense of progression or development. Much as before, things do get better when things move into action, and Zeiram is again, a shape-shifting nightmare that won’t stay dead. And this time, not even a cute dog which strays into proceedings is off the menu.

It also helps that, this time around, Moriyama has a better handle on the action angle. Previously, it was very much a case of kick, pause, punch, pause, move, but she is a good deal more fluid here, and makes for a more credible heroine as a result. However, her strength is still more in the “looking cool with a gun” department, because her punches still look like they might be troubled by a damp paper-bag. On balance, the sequel’s lack of invention is approximately balanced by the overall improvement in Iria’s character and the slightly better overall production values – it still looks like you could fund it from your bedside table change – and it’s as worth watching as the first part. Which would be “somewhat”: call both of them a rent (or more likely these days, a download), rather than a buy.

Dir: Keita Amemiya
Star: Yûko Moriyama, Mizuho Yoshida, Kunihiro Ida, Yukijirô Hotaru

Zeiram

“Z is for Zeiram”

Keita Amemiya was one of the directors of the show Kyõryû Sentai Zyuranger, a Japanese series which provided the initial basis (and much footage) for Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. But he is a bit of a Renaissance man, also working in animation, video games and illustration. His work seems to have a common sense of imagination, to the extent that it can be a bit overwhelming. A review of his first feature, Cyber Ninja – a title that, alone, give you a fairly idea of the location from where Amemiya is generally coming – hits the mark: “A feature length video game commercial, a much too-long advertisement for a Namco arcade game that never made its way into American pizza parlors.”

For our purposes here, however, we are concerned solely with Zeiram, his creation which spawned two live-action movies, a six-part anime adaptation, and I’m pretty damn sure a comic-book [though Google isn’t proving much help, and I’d have to go down and open my comic boxes to confirm that; since the last time they were cracked was, I kid you not, in 2000, I am reluctant to break the seal on them now]. As we’ll see the titular creature is very much the villain, but it easily qualifies here thanks to its kick-ass heroine. I had hoped to get round to watching the anime in time for this month’s installment, but I didn’t quite make it. Since baseball Opening Day and the subsequent summer go-slow is almost upon us, probably best if I cover the two movies now, and I’ll add the anime… hopefully in April, but no promises! [Update: got to it in May, so not too bad!]

  • Zeiram + Zeiram 2

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    Zeiram and its sequel, Zeiram 2, both concern a creature which combines all the most unpleasant and lethal features of The Thing with The Terminator. It’s humanoid, at least in the number of functioning limbs, but its head appears almost mushroom shaped – though it’s hard to tell where Zeiram ends and its hat begins, for there’s a second face, embedded in the hat. This is capable of extending on a tentacle, to attack victims, taking in nourishment, and there’s evidence to suggest that it can absorb their DNA and use it to create monsters. Oh, and the rest of it is almost impossible to destroy.

    However, trying to do exactly that is Iria (Moriyama), an interstellar bounty hunter, who has laid a trap to take Zeiram into an alternate, uninhabited dimension, in order to deal with him in a way that will pose no threat to the local population. However, she reckons without the arrival of electrical techs Kamiya (Hotaru) and Teppei (Ida), who have been dispatched by the power company to investigate the power-drain resulting from Iria’s tech. Through an unfortunate series of events, they end up in the alternate dimension with Zeiram, while Iria is largely stuck in our world, trying to keep them alive until she can fix her portal and get in there to help them.

    The problems here are largely two-fold. Kamiya. And Teppei, There are few things less appealing than comic relief characters whose antics and mugging are supposed to be endearing or amusing, but fail miserably on both fronts. They bring very little to proceedings except for running time, and that’s a shame, because there is no shortage of bizarre inventiveness on view. And when the pair stop trying to be characters, shut the hell up, and simply team up with Iria to kick alien arse, it’s a lot better, because whatever they do to Zeiram, he/she/it just keeps mutating into another form and fighting back. You get the sense being fed through a wood-chipper would only be a minor inconvenience.

    This also helps cover up Moriyama’s somewhat limited set of fighting skills. Admittedly, it’s possible she had to slow things down in order to fight a giant mushroom, but the hand-to-hand combat here is choreographed at about the speed of a Strauss waltz. She does have screen presence, however, and looks decent enough firing a gun. To a casual eye – that’d be my wife’s, wandering through the living-room – this could look like an episode of Amemiya’s Power Rangers, and it’s not surprising he would go on to direct some Kamen Rider films. But it’s too uneven to succeed: for every moment where you go, “Cool!”, there’s another where you’ll roll your eyes, or just go “Eh?”. For instance, the section where Zeiram squeeze out goo onto the ground, which grows into a half-man that has a burbling conversation with Zeiram, before getting its head stomped on. Altogether, now: eh?

    The sequel, which came out three years later, restores the “i” in the title, which was inexplicably removed from the original for it US release by Fox Lorber. This installment starts off as if it’s going to go in some radically different directions, even if all the main players are back. Iria is seeking an ancient artifact called the Carmarite, and additionally, has a new assistant, but he turns out to be untrustworthy. Meanwhile, a shadowy group has succeeded in regenerating Zeiram as a cyborg warrior (which makes a lot more sense if you’ve seen the anime, and know its origins), bending its will to their needs and turning it into a weapon. While initially successfully, this works about as well as most plans usually do, and it’s not longer before Zeiram is much more a menace than an ally.

    However, just when you think the film is going into new and interesting territory… Well, I’m not quite show how it happened, but before long we were back in more or less the same situation as the original. Blah blah irritating comic relief blah another dimension blak Iria unable to help (this time because she gets herself locked in a room), etc. You’re looking at something which borders on being a remake of the original, and unlike something like Terminator 2, which upped the ante significantly, while telling a largely similar story, there isn’t any real sense of progression or development. Much as before, things do get better when things move into action, and Zeiram is again, a shape-shifting nightmare that won’t stay dead. And this time, not even a cute dog which strays into proceedings is off the menu.

    It also helps that, this time around, Moriyama has a better handle on the action angle. Previously, it was very much a case of kick, pause, punch, pause, move, but she is a good deal more fluid here, and makes for a more credible heroine as a result. However, her strength is still more in the “looking cool with a gun” department, because her punches still look like they might be troubled by a damp paper-bag. On balance, the sequel’s lack of invention is approximately balanced by the overall improvement in Iria’s character and the slightly better overall production values – it still looks like you could fund it from your bedside table change – and it’s as worth watching as the first part. Which would be “somewhat”: call both of them a rent (or more likely these days, a download), rather than a buy.

    Dir: Keita Amemiya
    Star: Yûko Moriyama, Mizuho Yoshida, Kunihiro Ida, Yukijirô Hotaru

  • Iria – Zeiram the Animation

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    Though released several years later, this is a prequel to the two Zeiram movies, telling the story of the first encounter between Iria (Hisakawa, who was also Sailor Mercury) and Zeiram. At the time, she was an apprentice bounty-hunter, working alongside her brother Gren. They take a mission to rescue a VIP and recover the cargo from a stranded space-ship. However, once there, they discover the “cargo” is actually the alien Zeiram, which a corporation is interested in using as a weapon. The result leaves her brother apparently dead, and Iria now the target for the corporation, who want to hush up their thoroughly-dubious plan, by any means necessary. Fortunately, as well as her own skills, our heroine has the assistance of former rival bounty-hunter, Fujikuro (Chiva), endearing urchin Kei (Kanai), and Bob (Ikeda), a colleague whose consciousness has been turned into an AI.

    The six-episode (about 25 mins per part, by the time you skip the opening and closing credits) series worked, for me, a little better than the live-action, simply because of the nature of animation: there’s no need for restraint. There were times in the movies where you could see where Amamiya wanted to, but has to restrain his imagination for budgetary reasons. Here, there’s close to a fully-fledged universe, with content which would likely be well beyond the budget of anyone not named James Cameron. There’s also a nice character arc for Iria: initially, she is probably too big for her boots, with an over-inflated sense of her own skills. When she meets Zeiran, she soon discovers she isn’t quite the cat’s whiskers, at least, not to the extent she thinks.

    As with most animation of the time, it’s not going to be confused with Miyazaki, and it would be silly to expect otherwise. However, there remain weaknesses. Most obviously, and surprisingly – because it’s the same issue as in the live-action version – is the diversion of time to secondary characters, in particular Kei and sidekick, the latter of whom is there for one purpose only (too spoilerific to discuss in detail; I’d say it falls into the category of “surprising, but almost entirely pointless”). That’s true for much of the plot, which feels over-similar to the Aliens series, and at times, the conspiracy angles just seem to be there to fill in time, before we get to the inevitable final battle between Iria and Zeiram. It did generally keep my interest, overall; but I can see why it hasn’t exactly been remembered as a classic of the medium.

    Dir: Tetsuro Amino
    Star: (voice) Aya Hisakawa, Shigeru Chiba, Mika Kanai, Masaru Ikeda

The Bullet Wives

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“A heavily-armed version of The First Wives’ Club.”

According to the film’s introductory narration, Thailand now has about three women for every man. This has led to many men both having an “official” wife, while also keeping a mistress, and not exactly being secretive about it – when the wife dies, the mistress gets “promoted” to replace her, which has obvious implications for both parties. In order to protect their rights, the eives form an association, the FCWI, which stands for First Class Wives International. Not to be outdone, the mistresses do the same thing, with the ECWI (Economy Class Wives International). After two members of the former are gunned down on a stretch of highway, the two groups seem set for a fiery and murderous collision between the wives and mistresses.

Except, it doesn’t really happen until the very end. Even at a brisk 77 minutes, there are way too many scenes of the two groups sitting around chatting, getting information from a guy who is selling to both sides, and deciding not to attack each other quite yet. Some of the technical aspects are also remarkably awful, given what appears to be a professional production in other ways – the audio, in particular, appears to have been recorded on a cellphone [which reminded me of another weird aspect; the informant’s cellphone appears to be right out of the 1980’s, the size of a brick, while everyone else has modern ones]. And since it appears the cast are almost entirely models, rather than even model/actresses, the performances are largely uninspiring, though Punnakan as first wives’ leader Jittra, does hold the viewer’s attention nicely when on-screen.

What also worked for me, surprisingly well, were the action choreography and cinematography. However, for that to happen, you must accept that the former is clearly intended to by hyper-stylized rather than in any way realistic. Once I understood and accepted that, I was able to enjoy those for what they are, and the camerawork is nicely fluid and, occasionally, truly beautiful, as when there’s a slow zoom out with the camera going up, over a bathtub containing a dead body. It’s moments like that which will keep you watching, through the severely tedious sitting around and feminine bickering.

Dir: Kittikorn Liasirikun
Star: Metinee Kingpayom, Nussaba Punnakan, Manassavee Krittanukoon, Naowarat Yuktanan

The Day

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“After the apocalypse, there will be blood. Oh, yes: there will be blood…”

There are times when not saying too much can work for a film; Night of the Living Dead is the classic example, and it works, because you don’t need to know why there are zombies. Just that they are. A similar approach is taken here: you’re dumped more or less into the middle of a post-apocalyptic scenario, with five people wandering the wilderness. They take shelter in a farmhouse, only to discover it’s actually a trap for a cannibalistic tribe living nearby. The group’s leader, Adam (Ashmore) believes Mary (Bell) deliberately led them into the house, but she convinces them she is a member of a different clan, with just as much reason to hate the cannibals. Knowing they would rapidly hunted down if they tried to make a break for it through the open countryside, the prepare to defend the house against those outside, who want to have them over for dinner. And I mean that, in the most literal sense of the term.

Bell, previously, best-known for playing a possessed girl in The Last Exorcism, is an effective and impressive bad-ass in this movie, gradually moving from the side to centre-stage. There’s also little no attempt to make her prettified: understandable, given the situation, but it always kinda irritates me when heroines are miraculously immune to damage, and always immaculately made-up and coiffured. Definitely not the case here. However, the lack of any significant explanation does damage proceedings, because it means things appear to unfold simply because they need to for the plot, without any other justification: there’s no scene-setting to make them logical. Why did these people turn to cannibalism? What happened to destroy civilization so completely? Unlike NotLD, these are relevant questions, that the film stubbornly refuses to answer. While cheaper aspects, such as the few sets and small cast, are explicable by the budget, more exposition would have been welcome.

I did like the visual style, which is muted, to the point of often almost becoming entirely black and white: there’ll be a single object painted in colour to stop you from getting up and adjusting your set. But rather than a fully-fledged movie, it feels like an single episode taken from a long-running TV series. While it’s one I’d be interested in watching, thanks largely to Bell, as a stand-alone feature, it doesn’t quite work, and feels like a good idea in need of significantly more development.

Dir: Douglas Aarniokoski
Star: Ashley Bell, Shannyn Sossamon, Shawn Ashmore, Cory Hardrict