Zero Woman: Assassin Lovers

“Grimly fiendish yet effective killers’ romance.”

zerowoman3Mob boss Daidohji (Yutani) has the city almost within his grasp, thanks to a minion promising him material he can use to blackmail the mayor. But his success is short-lived, as the minion is taken our by Rei (Takeda), who is then ordered by her boss Takefuji (Nishioka) to finish the job, taking out Diadohji and the rest of his gang. Not that the mobster is sitting back and waiting: he hires his own assassin, Katsumura (Matsusa), to get to Rei before she can get to him. However, neither killer is exactly happy with their role as pawns in the bigger scheme of things, and when they meet, it’s time for a little R&R. As in “romance and rebellion.”

This is the best of the saga which I’ve seen to date, mainly because it does a better job of striking a balance among the various elements. The storyline and characterization are not lazily ignored in preference for more easily exploitable elements; not that there’s any shortage of either sex or violence, but they seem to flow naturally from the plot, rather than appearing to drive it. The relationship between Katsumura and Rei has some credibility to it, with each seeing a reflection of themselves in the other. But will that be able to over-ride Rei’s strong loyalties to Section Zero? The film does a good job of keeping that in doubt, right up to the very end, where Rei is given the ultimate in ultimatums by Takefuji, and it’s not clear what way she’s going to jump.

There’s also a nice, slick look to the film, which unfolds under an apparent endless array of neon lights, and on perpetually-moist streets, a visual style that helps conceal the low-budget nature of proceedings. While the story may rely to heavily on the clichés of the genre, those involved, on both sides of the camera, execute – pun not intended – their responsibilities with enough flair and energy to counter-balance its shortcomings, and the end result is certainly a significant improvement on the first two films in the revived series.

Dir: Masahide Kuwabara
Star: Kumiko Takeda, Keiji Matsuda, Charlie Yutani, Tokuma Nishioka

Sucker Punch animations

It’s amazing what you find randomly. I was actually looking for a replacement of the Sucker Punch trailer, as the one I had been using was no longer available, and stumbled across this fabulous animation by Ben Hibon, inspired by the movie. It’s actually a set of four pieces – one for each segment of the film, but combined here into one film – created in association with Zack Snyder, and effectively, filling in the background for some of the “victims” of the carnage which unfolds in the main feature. It’s very cool, and makes me kinda wish the film has been successful enough to merit further exploration of the universe.

Female Ninjas: Magic Chronicles, Part 1

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“At least it’s imaginative. Unfortunately, that’s all it is.”

femaleninja1Samurai lord Toyotomi Hideyori is about to lose his lands, to an assault from his wife’s grandfather, Tokugawa, but he’s not going down without a fight. Or, at least, to continue the battle, he has sex with her multiple female ninja handmaidens, in the hope of having a son who can continue the battle – that’s some long-term thinking, right there. Lady Sen (Shiroshima) is down with her husband’s plan; Tokugawa, not so much. When he finds out about the resulting pregnancies, he dispatches a series of ninjas of his own – men who have, shall we say, a very particular set of skills; skills they have acquired over a very long career – to ensure there’s no live births. Fortunately, the lady ninjas have some unusual abilities of their own, with which they can counterattack: as one of them says, “As ninjas, we’ve been trained to master sexual challenges.” Let battle begin!

This is such an… educational movie. I mean, if your sperm lands on a woman’s skin, she won’t rest until she has had sex with you. Who knew? Maybe it needs to be ninja sperm or something: the film is kinda unclear on the specifics. Meanwhile, on the distaff side, there’s the transference of a fetus from woman to woman as necessary, and most impressively of all, the ability to blow bubbles from your vagina, which send men they contact back to the womb. It’s insane moments like these which keep this marginally watchable, simply on the level of “What the hell will they come up with next?”, and it’s clear this is where the majority of the makers’ imagination and effort went. The rest of the time is filled with soft-core gropings and largely unconvincing fight sequences, when the sexual trickery proves inadequate. Though I did quite like the bit where one ninja’s shadow detaches itself and goes into battle independently.

The actors and actresses involved make absolutely no impression at all, though deserve applause, simply for keeping a straight face while dealing with “female ninja lock magic”, which is exactly what it sounds like, and delivering lines like “Now, I’ll squirt my own seed into your vile body,” without bursting out laughing. I’d be lying if I said this was in the slightest bit “good”, by any conventional measure. But even I have to admit it’s once seen, never forgotten, and so deserves credit above and beyond that given to many, far more forgettable flicks.

Dir: Masaru Tsushima
Star: Yasuyo Shiroshima, Ginji Gao, Reiko Hayama, Hitomi Okazaki

Bounty Killer

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“A taste of anti-paradise”

bountykillerSomehow, I get the feeling I should have liked this more than I did. The elements are all these – high-energy, hyper-violence and no shortage of style – but, somehow, the whole felt rather less than the sum of its parts. It’s a post-apocalyptic scenario, after the corporate wars have pretty much trashed the planet, and the Council of Nine hand out rewards for the deaths of white-collar criminals. These are collected by the titular hunters, the best being Drifter (Marsden) and Mary Death (Pitre) – the latter is a star, followed by fans and paparazzi, much to the chagrin of the former. However, the Council suddenly issue a kill notice for Drifter; he heads to confront them and sort out the “mistake”, with Mary in hot pursuit, intent on collecting the bounty. Of course, and after quite a bit of the old ultra-violence, Drifter and Mary team up, to take down the real bad guys.

An adaptation of a graphic novel, it does, at least, a better job of capturing the grindhouse philosophy than the limp Machete Kills. The inspiration – actually, it’s more shameless plagiarism – is more Mad Max 2, particularly in its stubbly hero and an extended chase sequence across the desert, in which he’s chased by a pack of nomads with painted faces. That’s perhaps the problem, because Drifter was a great deal less interesting than Mary Death to me; Marsden delivers a bland performance, over so much screen-time that this almost didn’t meet the necessary minimum standards for GWG qualification. I could also have done without the embarrassingly blunt attempts at “satire”, which feel like they came from an earnest late-night session at a liberal arts college. It’s not clever and it’s not funny.

But the bits that work, work quite nicely. There’s a great scene where Drifter is being yelled at in a soundproof office by the lead villainess (Loken), who is oblivious to the mayhem being wreaked by Mary on the other side of the glass. Indeed, virtually every time Ms. Death is on screen, the interest level increases significantly, and not merely for the obvious reasons. Pitre struts, stomps and raised the sardonic eyebrow to such impressive effect, that you wonder why you’ve never heard of her before. If Drifter is reheated leftovers of every post-apocalypse hero from the past 20 years, Death gives us something new. Hopefully, if there’s any sequel, Marsden will be “unavailable”, and the makers can concentrate much more on the heroine.

Dir: Henry Saine
Star: Matthew Marsden, Christian Pitre, Barak Hardle, Kristanna Loken

Dreaming the Reality

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“Taking the red pill”

Dreaming the RealityThere’s half a good movie here, albeit one which treads some rather familiar territory. It might seem hard to go wrong, with three of the most-renowned Hong Kong action actresses in one place, but as we saw with Avenging Quartet, quantity does not guarantee quality. The main issue is two separate plots, which appear to have strayed in from entirely different movies, and which don’t even cross paths for about an hour.

In one corner, we have Kat (Oshima) and Silver Fox (Lee), who have been raised by their foster father as assassins. But after one hit results in collateral damage to an unfortunately-timed school bus, Fox starts to have doubts about her career path. They’re dispatched to Thailand to recover a floppy disk containing damaging evidence [Older readers: it wasn’t even one of the little ones, but a full-on 5 1/4″ disk! Younger readers: look “floppy disk” up.]. Fox gets their target, but in the ensuing chase suffers a bout of cinematic amnesia. And that’s where the other plot kicks in. Lan (Hu) is an ex-HK cop who has been trying to keep her brother, Rocky (Lam), out of trouble, despite his ambitions to be a champion kick-boxer. This leads to all kinds of goofy and entirely uninteresting shenanigans, with Lan having to sub for Rocky in one fight, fend off an evil manager, etc.

It’s only after Fox stumbles into Lan’s bar, that things gel, and from then on, it’s an almost ceaseless barrage of gunfire and punches, with some surprising deaths, and all three heroines on top form, particularly Lee and Hu. This makes up for the opening hour, which largely alternates between the “tortured killer” cliché and excruciating comic mugging. The former is preferable, not just because the action is better-staged, but also because Lee and Oshima do get to deliver some interesting lines, which succeed in giving their characters a bit more depth than you’d imagine. When Fox asks Kat, “What would you do if I died?”, her answer is a straightforward yet poignant, “I’d die with you.” But this darkness jars badly with the slapstick elements, and Liu has no idea how to combine them into anything like a coherent whole.

Dir: Tony Liu
Star: Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Sibelle Hu, Ben Lam

Here’s the end fight, with Lee going up against Eddie Ko, who plays her foster father.

Naked Vengeance

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“In which we learn that small-town folk are dicks.”

nakedvengeanceWhile clearly knocking off I Spit on your Grave – not least in the underwater castration scene – this did at least have the good grace to wait for a bit, coming out seven years after Meir Zarchi’s infamous grindhouse pic. It’s one of the many pictures churned out by Roger Corman’s New World company, with the Philippines doing an admirable job of standing in for California, directed by Santiago, who’s no stranger to the GWG genre, with the likes of TNT Jackson and Ebony, Ivory and Jade also in his filmography.

The heroine is small-time actress Carla Harris (Tranelli), whose life is torn apart by tragedy, when her husband is killed after trying to intervene in an assault. With the law powerless to do anything, she heads off to the town where she grew up, to recuperate with her parents. However, the locals are unimpressed by her “big city” ways, in particular the men, after she rebuffs their crude advances. A drunken raid on her home, led by the local butcher (Garaz), ends in tragedy, and Carla in a catatonic state at the local hospital, apparently with no memory of the night’s events. Key-word there: “apparently”…

Yeah, it’s not exactly a spoiler that she’s soon tracking down those responsible, and disposing of them with extreme prejudice. It would have been cool – if, admittedly, fairly implausible – had she kept faking her illness and apparently remaining in hospital, while sneaking out to take her vengeance. But it’s only about two kills in before the ruse is discovered, and the rest of the film has her trying to complete the mission before the local cops, led by Sheriff Cates (McLaughlin) can track her down. I liked the pacing here: while it’s only about seven minutes in before Carla is burying her husband, the film then takes its time demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the police, and how she is now out of synch with the Neanderthal attitudes of the town where she grew up. Then: BANG. The assault is a nasty piece of work, but Santiago doesn’t linger too much there, before getting on to our leading lady’s retribution.

The problem is more one of plausibility, particularly in the second-half, where Carla seems about as indestructible as Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. Car crashes, fires, impalement, all barely seem to slow her down with barely a scratch, and like those horror icons, she’s not interested in simply killing her victims, the stalk is just as important as the slash. Of course, it helps that her victims are equal idiots to the horny teenagers in Friday the 13th. I mean, that’s a woman you raped undressing and coming towards you. How much do you have to think with your pecker, for that not to set off all kinds of warning bells? Disengage your own brain’s higher-order functions here – and maybe your ears for the startlingly-bad theme song and you’ll have a better time.

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Deborah Tranelli, Bill McLaughlin, Kaz Garaz, Ed Crick

Inara, the Jungle Girl

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“The film that could only be made in South America, where hair-care products are cheap…”

inaraDear god. It has been a very, very long time since I have seen a film displaying such a degree of ineptness, in so many areas. About the only exception is the look of the film, which is nicely lush, allowing the makers to put together the trailer below. It’s a greater work of fiction than the movie itself, because the preview manages to give the impression that the feature its advertising does not entirely suck. In reality, trust me: it does. This is clear within the first 15 minutes, where we’ve had one burbling monologue of sub-Tarantinoesque proportions, two musical montages of absolutely no point, and the worst attempt by an actor to look drunk in cinematic history. I started looking up other reviews online at that point, and discovered, no, it wasn’t just me.

The plot is basically Avatar in bikinis. No, wait: that sounds a lot better than this actually is. Inara (Danger) has been raised by her father, after her mother was killed during a jungle operation by mercenary group Asguard. Dad killed the perp responsible – the one with a taste for long, droning speeches rather than action – and his son still bears a grudge against Inara, 18 years later. After her father’s death, Inara is recruited to join Asguard and return to the scene, but on the way there an entirely unexplained (and unshown: trust me, if this film can skimp on any cost, it does) crash leaves Inara the sole survivor. She joins a tribe of local “Amazons” – quotes used advisedly, since they are basically Caucasians with unlimited expense accounts for Target’s bikini department. Discovering the true meaning of life, our heroine switches sides, and joins the natives for a battle against Asguard. This clocks in at a brisk one minute, 40 seconds, or rather shorter than the average WWE Divas match.

Lead actress Danger appears to be a star of fetish sites like RingDivas.com, which offer services such as filming of “custom wrestling matches,” and that may explain why there is little acting demanded of her. However, the rest of the cast are tasked to no greater extent, by a script consisting largely of scenes that begin nowhere, end nowhere and, in between, serve no purpose in developing story or characters. Now, every film might have a couple of these: here, they crop up with such regularity, it begins to feel that Desmarattes is playing some kind of surreal joke, making a native warrioress version of My Dinner With Andre. Sadly, I think it’s pure incompetence. Any time the film has a choice, and can go either towards being interesting or boring, it’s always the latter. And if you’re watching in the hope of some nudity or action, forget it: this fails to deliver anything of note in either category. I don’t use the phrase “worst movie ever” lightly, and have seen plenty of truly terrible offerings, but this certainly deserves to be in the conversation, for both its breadth and depth of awfulness.

Dir: Patrick Desmarattes
Star: Cali Danger and other people. Names redacted: they’ll thank me later.

A Girl Fighter

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“…and lots of boy fighters.”

girlfighterSuma Moyung (Kwan) rides into town, offering to rid the locals of a pesky warlord’s son, who is making a nuisance of himself, not least by being a bit rapey. After proving herself by slicing off the shoe-tips of the local police force (!), Suma is given the job, and proceeds to deliver, capturing the scion and bringing him back to face justice. Except, that’s only the start of the problem, because his father is none too happy with Suma, and unleashes his forces to rescue his son, by any means necessary. That covers bribery, threats and then full-on violence as it becomes clear Suma will not be easily cowed. Fortunately, she has help, in the shape of a man (Tien) who lost his entire family to the man she is now guarding. And she’ll need all the assistance she can get, if she’s successfully to transport her captive through the countryside to the state capitol, under siege from the warlord’s forces just about every step of the way.

As that summary perhaps implies, there’s certainly no shortage of action here, with a new fight sequence popping up almost every five minutes. The main problem is that titling your film A Girl Fighter does create certain expectations in your audience – among which would be, that your heroine will be depicted as the most prolific and/or the best martial artist in the movie. Neither are true, with Tien doing most of the heavy lifting for the good guys, against an apparently endless stream of minions in small groups (if the warlord ever actually committed to rescuing his son, he’d easily have the numbers to overpower the hero and heroine!). While not exactly missing in action, too often Suma is reduced to a supporting role, or worse still, left in a situation where she needs the help of her colleague. That’s a shame: while Kwan’s style is a little too theatrical for my tastes (all her punches and kicks appear to start from the next time-zone over), it’s also graceful and flowing, especially impressive when the moves are combined into an extended sequence.

However, the overall sense is of a film more interested in the volume of action, than doing anything particularly new or interesting with it. It seems particularly old-fashioned, considering that this came out the same year (1972) as Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. As a taste from the tail end of what that hard-hitting style was about to replace, this isn’t bad, and it certainly doesn’t dawdle. But it feels about a decade older than it actually is.

Dir: Yeung Sai Hing
Star: Polly Shang-Kwan, Tien Peng, Law Bun, Cho Kin

Violet and Daisy

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Hanna turns eighteen. Not what you’d expect from the writer of Precious.

sealvioletdaisyThis opens with two young women, Violet (Bledel) and Daisy (Ronan), peeved because their favourite singer, Barbie Sunday, has cancelled an upcoming concert, to which they’d been looking forward. Their conversation continues as they approach an apartment, curiously dressed as nuns, and delivering pizza. However, curiosity will likely turn to bewilderment: when the door is opened, the girls both pull out hand-guns, and a brutal gun-battle erupts. Welcome to the surreal, yet oddly heart-warming world of Violet and Daisy, two hit-women who are talked out of a planned holiday with the promise of a job, offering them enough money to buy their hearts’ desires: clothes from Barbie’s Sunday’s fashion line. Except, their target, Michael (Gandolfini), seems bizarrely happy to see them. I mean, as well as him helpfully telling them where to get additional bullets, after their misguided attempt to shoot him with their eyes closed, none of their other victims have ever baked them cookies before…

From there, things are gradually revealed about the participants and their various issues. Violet, the older assassinette (Bledel was almost 30 while shooting this), acts as a mentor to Daisy, who has just turned 18, and hasn’t yet come to terms with the violence required for the job. It’s an interesting contrast to Ronan’s younger, somewhat similar, yet far more callous character in Hanna. Meanwhile, lurking in the background is Iris (Jean-Baptiste), the number one killer, who is intent on ensuring that Violet + Daisy don’t feel too much sympathy for their intended victim, and back out of the job. Michael, meanwhile, is keen for them to get on with it, because a pair of more unpleasant fates are also coming towards him. It’s nicely nuanced, shifting from blackly-comedic – check out V+D’s “internal bleeding dance” – through to poignant and emotional, the latter enhanced by the death, earlier this year, of Gandolfini.

There seems something almost Tarantino-esque about this: more than the hefty body count and a generally whimsical style, definitely a surprising choice as the directorial debut of the man who gave us the bleak urban coming-of-age story which was Precious. Like QT, Fletcher, who wrote the story too, has an excellent ear for dialogue, though fortunately lacking the more egotistical aspects, and the movie also jumps back and forth in time; so, as in Pulp Fiction, some scenes don’t make sense immediately, until the blanks are filled in later. Throw in cult icon Danny Trejo in a cameo role, and Orphan Black herself, Tatiana Maslany, as Michael’s estranged teenage daughter, and you’ve got one of the most unexpectedly pleasant surprises of 2013 overall. It’s an engaging and effective action heroine film too, and one which doesn’t rely purely on adrenalin and cleavage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course…

Dir: Geoffrey S. Fletcher
Star: Saoirse Ronan, Alexis Bledel, James Gandolfini, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Bring me the Head of the Machine Gun Woman

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“Sam Peckinpah would likely approve – as long as he has a console in the afterlife.”

machineWhen not spinning platters as the DJ at a tango club in Chile, Santiago Fernández (Oviedo) likes nothing better than to kill, rob and steal – at least, from the comfort of his couch, as he plays a game just dissimilar enough to Grand Theft Auto to avoid a lawsuit. There is, of course, a huge difference between video-game malfeasance and the real thing, as he discovers after being unfortunate enough to overhear a conversation of local crime boss Che Longana (Alis), in which he makes the titular request, said skull belonging to his ex-girlfriend (Urrejola), who is also an assassin of no mean talent. Caught eavesdropping, Santiago’s escapes execution by promising to deliver her to Longana – a task for which he is woefully unprepared, despite the countless hours of console practice for a life of crime.

While containing nods to the grindhouse era, the style is very much more GTA, with villains being introduced by a still, on which is overlaid their value, and Santiago’s car, as he drives around town, being filmed from behind and slightly above, the standard angle for the genre. Progress is even broken down into a number of missions, whose success or failure is documented by a large on-screen graphic. Yes, it’s undeniably gimmicky; however, at a brisk 73 minutes, including credits, it’s a gimmick which just about manages to avoid overstaying its welcome. My main problem is instead a strong preference for the Machine Gun Woman – she’s never named anything else – over Santiago, because she is exactly the sort of creation, in attitude as much as dress-sense, who would be perfectly at home in a video-game. Brutal and manipulative, she’s simply more interesting than the snivelling hero, who sole redeeming feature appears to be that he loves his Mom.

By the end of the film, he’s the one charging in, with all guns blazing to rescue her – albeit, after he has forgotten to mention a tiny detail on their initial assault against the Boss Level. Still, considering the film’s events unfold in barely a day, it’s a remarkable transformation, even by video-game standards; not least in his ability to hit the broad side of a barn, something notable by its absence early on. That said, it’s still an entertaining and briskly-told tale: Espinoza is very much aware that the “cut scenes” are likely to be of lesser interest to his audience, and whizzes through them to get to the next spurt of action. The results are clearly not intended to be taken too seriously, and shouldn’t tax the attention span of even the most ardent gamer.

Dir: Ernesto Díaz Espinoza
Star: Matías Oviedo, Fernanda Urrejola, Jorge Alis, Francisca Castillo