Sweet Revenge

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“More sour than sweet.”

sweet-revengeAh, the eighties. A time of big guns and even bigger hair, going by this underwhelming entry, which sees Allen as feisty and well-lacquered reporter Jillian Grey, who gets too close to the white slaving operation run by Mr. Cicero (Landau). [Even though he operates out of the Philippines, he’s still kidnapping girls out of bars in Los Angeles, which seems logistically inefficient, shall we say] She is abducted and offered for sale, only to break out of the auction with a couple of other American girls – the non-Caucasians are, it appears, left to their own survival – pausing only to rescue international perfume smuggler, Boone (Shackelford). Believing Cicero has also kidnapped her daughter, Jillian convinces Boone to join her and the girls in an attack on the white slaver’s compound – but to get the necessary weapons for that, they’ll first have to help out his outlaw friend, Buddha.

Shudderingly uneven in tone, this would have worked much better if the makers had figured out whether they were going for Romancing the Stone style hi-jinks or New World Pictures exploitation, because what we get here doesn’t work as either. The problem with the former is Boone, who demonstrates the thin line between endearing and irritating, falling firmly on the latter side, as the result of Shackleford’s painful lack of charisma and acting talent. The latter, meanwhile, is defused by the almost complete lack of nudity; save one bit of skinny-dipping, the rest of the film would likely merit a PG these days. There’s lots of running around with automatic weapons, of course, and an energetic amount of things being blown up, plus you get Gershon in what may well be her first feature role, apparently knowing martial arts and making far more of an impression than Shackleford. You can certainly see why, almost 20 years later, she’s still working and he isn’t.

Indeed, the film as a whole would be significantly improved if Boone was removed entirely, and the film concentrated solely on Grey and her sidekicks, even if the whole subplot about the heroine’s daughter is half-baked at best. Just have that happy-go-lucky trio going up against Cicero and his gang of (fortunately, incapable of aiming) goons, and you could have something looking like a better-financed version of an Andy Sidaris film. Though admittedly, you would need some more gratuitous hot-tub action as well, before it would reach that level. Instead, you have something trying to be too many things and appealing to too many audiences, instead ending up as a film which is no better than “somewhat satisfactory” for just about anyone.

Dir: Mark Sobel
Star: Nancy Allen, Ted Shackelford, Gina Gershon, Martin Landau

Hard Bounty

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“Nobody dressed like that in those days.”

hardbountyI can’t believe an IMDb reviewer wrote the above, with an apparently straight face, because it’s severely missing the point of this nudie-cutie Western. The women are certainly packing, but the large-caliber weapons on display are not restricted to six-shooters, if you know what I mean, and I think you do…  That said, I reviewed this as a girls with guns flick a long time ago, back when this site was not even a gleam in my eye. But watching it again, I was beginning to wonder if I’d seen a different movie, as the first half is entirely action-heroine free.

It focuses more on bounty hunter Kanning (McCoy), whose life is disturbed when his former partner shows up, the murderous Carver (Terlesky, whom we’ll always remember fondly for his role in another Wynorski film, the brilliantly tongue-in-cheek Deathstalker II). The tension of unresolved issues runs high between them, in and out of the saloon/brother where Kanning’s girlfriend, Donna (LeBrock sporting a British accent for some ill-explained reason) is the head girl. There’s no shortage of nudity, certainly, but that’s the only action in which the ladies take part. Then, Carver – again, for ill-explained reasons – strangles one of the saloon ladies, and high-tails it off back to the land baron who employs him. Donna and her colleagues decide to head after him and take revenge for their fallen comrade, and Kanning, fearing the worst, tails along to help them out as they go in with guns a-blazing. Ah, so that’s why I reviewed this.

It certainly isn’t saying much, but this is far better than Gang of Roses II, and arguably more entertaining than the similarly-themed Bad Girls [which I probably should review here at some point, though that would mean having to watch it again]. The players are easy on the eye, though who knew breast implants were so prevalent in the Old West, and the dialogue could certainly have used an additional polish. For example, just before heading off on her mission, Donna is told by Kanning, “You can’t do this!”, to which she replies with the immortal (for all the wrong reasons) line: “There’s only two things I can’t do. One is make love to a woman, the other one is piss up a wall. And right now, there’s only one of those I regret not being able to do.” Er… what?

The action is about what you’d expect from a modest genre entry, with a moderate amount of blood-free gun-fighting. The ease with which the whores become stone-cold killers is quite surprising, given the complete lack of any fondness for guns shown previously. However, I was just happy to see it at all, having started to question my memories from two decades previously. You need to be able to handle that this almost feels like two different films joined in the middle, with the first being a lightly-amusing excuse for lingerie and less, and the second a revenge-driven thriller. Still, I can’t say I minded either too much, and as long as you manage your expectations, you probably won’t either.

Dir: Jim Wynorski
Star: Matt McCoy, Kelly LeBrock, John Terlesky, Rochelle Swanson

Garm Wars: The Last Druid

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“In serious need of more tell, don’t show”

garmwarsOshii is best known for his anime work, but this isn’t his first foray into live-action; we already reviewed Assault Girls, and this has much the same strengths and, unfortunately, weaknesses. It looks wonderful, but the script here is virtually impenetrable, leaving the viewer on the outside, looking in. I had to watch this twice, because an hour into the first time, I realized I had absolutely not been paying the film any attention for at least 15 minutes. The setting is the planet Annwn, where a long, ongoing war has reduced the original eight tribes to Columba, who rule the air, versus the land-based Brigga, who also have the support of the few remaining members of the Kumtak tribe, who specialize in information technology. When an Brigga escape pod is retrieved, it contains Kumtak elder Wydd (Henriksen) and a druid (Howell), which is a shock, because druids, who provide a direct line of communication to the gods, are supposedly extinct. Wydd offers the druid’s potential power to the Columba in exchange for his tribe’s freedom, but the Brigga mount an attack and re-capture them. Pilot Khara (St-Pierre) leaves in hot pursuit, but is forced to crash-land and team up with Brigga warrior Skellig (Durand, a ringer for Benicio Del Toro), as Wydd’s agenda becomes clear.

Well, somewhat clear. Like many of the other plot elements, it’s never quite clarified to the point you’d be willing to swear to them. For example, the druid’s power is shown when plugged into the central computer, resulting in… a swirling, red-tinged CGI sphere. What is it? Why should we care? Oshii is untroubled by such concerns, being more concerned with creating a universe that, like Sucker Punch, appears almost entirely green-screen. It looks very nice, certainly, but only occasionally provokes anything more than wondering “Is this available in a format suitable for framing?”. An early narrated sequence gives you the setting; after that, you’re on your own, and the visuals come wrapped in some particularly leaden and indigestible pseudo-philosophical dialogue, that is neither as deep nor as interesting as Oshii seems to think.

Once the foursome reach their heavily wooded destination, things perk up somewhat, with a nicely-staged battle against a set of robotic guardians that is likely the film’s high-point. There are other potentially interesting, yet under-explored aspects, such as the way dead soldiers on both sides are resurrected to continue fighting – Khara is currently on her 23rd incarnation. However, the film ends just as things look about to kick off seriously, in an Attack on Titan kinda way, with far too many plot threads left unresolved. I can only presume this is intended to be the first in a multi-episode saga, since on its own, it feels severely incomplete. If I can’t argue with Oshii’s amazing eye for visuals, he really needs to ensure his scripts are  better developed.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star: Melanie St-Pierre, Lance Henriksen, Kevin Durand, Summer H. Howell

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

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“Who said crime doesn’t pay?”

the_life_and_crimes_of_doris_payne_3By the time I reach the age of 80, I think I’m probably going to be content simply to be waking up each morning. Not so for Doris Payne, a woman whose first conviction for jewel theft came in 1952 and her last – or at least, her most recent, for I think we’ll only be sure she’s done when she’s six foot under – came sixty-two years later, at the age of 83. She’s the charming topic of this documentary, which both looks back over her criminal career as an expert international purloiners of diamonds, and at her then-current legal troubles. Was she still actually at it, almost two decades after normal retirement age? Or is this simply a case of her reputation preceding her, and causing a heinous case of mistaken identity?

It’s a wild tale, which would likely be rejected by Hollywood as implausible [there’s vague mentions of a movie version of Payne’s life, starring Halle Berry, though exactly how far that has got is left annoyingly vague]. According to Doris, She got her start when she was hustled out of a watch store by the owner, when a richer, less black customer came in, and he didn’t realize she still had the watch. Her adoption of a life of crime, using sleight of hand and distraction to confuse sales assistants, was in part a reaction to this – but it also opened the door to a life likely unobtainable to a poor, half-black half-Cherokee girl from West Virginia.

Her career likely peaked with a seventies theft of a 10-carat diamond ring in Monte Carlo, valued at over half a million dollars. Though arrested, she managed to hide the loot by sewing it inside her girdle. On another occasion, she jumped from a moving train in Switzerland to evade the authorities. But it’s the fact that she never stopped which makes for such an intriguing character. It may be a case of rampant kleptomania at work, with her skills now no match for technology, such as the unblinking eye of closed-circuit television, but it comes embodied in the adorable form of someone who you feel should be baking cookies for her grandkids. Which may, of course, be how she (more or less) got away with it for six decades, for the first rule of successful thievery is, don’t look like a successful thief. It’s that contradiction which powers the film, and you keep watching to find out whether she will be found guilty of the crime with which she has been charged. She certainly seems credible enough in her testimony – but, again, credibility is probably the second rule of successful thievery.

Mixing interviews, re-enactments and footage of her ongoing legal issues, the film probably errs too much on the side of falling in love with its subject, never probing beyond her surface or seeking to establish the validity when Doris provides her version of events. While they may have said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” a documentary is likely not the best format for such a collection of questionable tales, regardless of how appealing the teller may be.

Dir: Kirk Marcolina, Matthew Pond

Awaken

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“Liver and let die.”

awakenThere’s a stellar B-movie cast here, of faces you’ll recognize, even if you don’t remember their names; let me start by listing a few. Vinnie Jones! Daryl Hannah! Edward Furlong! Robert Davi! Michael Paré! David Keith! Even Benny Urquidez, whom I don’t recall seeing since he memorably battled Jackie Chan in a couple of 80’s flicks. Shame the plot is such nonsensical garbage. The heroine is Billie Kope (Burn), whose sister disappeared five years ago and Billie has been trying to solve the mystery ever since. She mysteriously wakes up to find herself on a tropical island with a group of other, similarly abducted people, who are occasionally hunted by camo-clad soldiers, under the command of Sarge (Jones). Turns out they are, effectively, a holding pen for an organ trafficking ring run by Rich (London). With the help of some of the the other prisoners, such as Nick (Copon), Billie has to fight her way off their island prison and find the truth about her sister’s fate, before becoming a live organ-donor herself.

There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense, with characters wandering in and out of the movie without logic; for example, leader of the prisoners Quentin (Davi) just walks out of the plot, and you never find out either what happens to Mao (Hannah), whose daughter is intended as the recipient of Billie’s liver. I’m not certain of the medical accuracy of much of what’s depicted either, but I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, so we’ll leave that alone. Instead, I wallowed in some of the more surreal aspects, such as the football commentary Sarge is listening to on the radio; seriously, just listen to it and see if it sounds like any game you’ve ever heard. Though at least Jones, and to a lesser degree Hannah, appear to have realized the dumbness of what they signed onto, and decided to go full, bone-in ham and have some fun with it. If only the rest of the cast had adopted the same approach.

However, Burr isn’t too bad: she also co-produced and co-wrote the film, so credit is certainly due for her passion. While she could do with some more muscle, she packs the right attitude and the scenes of her training with her father (Urquidez) set the tone early. She uses a brisk, no-nonsense style of fighting, closest to MMA than kung-fu, and the fights in general are edited and put together well – fast-paced, yet still coherent, which is less common than it should be. Unfortunately, it’s the storyline which strangles this puppy, and any viewer who is moderately high up the evolutionary ladder will be alternating raised eyebrows and derisive snorts for much of its duration. Occasionally-decent action makes this just about an adequate time-passer, and there’s worse on Netflix. Yet, that last clause falls more into the “damning with faint praise” category, and is hardly much of a recommendation.

Dir: Mark Atkins
Star: Natalie Burn, Michael Copon, Jason London, Vinnie Jones

The Girl With Ghost Eyes, by M. H. Boroson

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“A Chinatown Ghost Story.”

girl with ghost eyesDisclaimer. I first heard about this on our forum, where the author posted about it. That said, my copy of it was bought and paid for from Amazon at full price, so I’ve no commercial bias. And of the 58 customer reviews currently on Amazon, not one is less than four stars, and it’s also rated at 4.2 stars on Goodreads, so I’m comfortable my appreciation of it appears to fall in line with others, and is no way appears abnormal.

It takes place in turn of the century San Francisco, almost exclusively in the city’s Chinatown, and is told in the first person by Xian Li-lin, who is 23, already a widow, and “a Maoshan Nu Daoshi of the Second Ordination.” That’s a clause which probably makes no sense. Don’t worry, one of Boroson’s strengths is explaining a world which is about as weird as Middle-earth. She’s effectively an exorcist in training, under the watchful eye (literally!) of her stern, much more experienced father, and who has the ability – or curse, in her father’s opinion – of being able to see the many different kinds of spirits which inhabit the world alongside us. A supposedly simple ceremony, involving Li-Lin visiting the astral plane, turns into an ambush, staged with the intent of possessing her and using her to attack her father.

For his rival, Liu Qiang, has teamed up with one of Chinatown’s organized crime leaders, with a plan to use dark magic to raise the Kulou-Yianling, a nightmarish creation that will destroy all their rivals. Naturally, knowing Li-Lin’s father would stop them, the first step is to take him out. While that doesn’t quite succeed, it does enough damage to leave his daughter as the only person standing in their way. But as a mere second-level exorcist – albeit one who also has good martial-arts talent – can she stand up to, and defeat, someone far above her? Perhaps, if she can convince some of those spirits she can see to help her – though they must first put aside their concerns about helping an exorcist.

There’s a similar feel to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away here, with quirky characters including an animated eyeball (I told you her father kept a literal eye on her…), a tiger-monk and three-eyed seagulls. There are less appealing creatures too, not least the monstrous Kulou-Yianling, which feels like it may have strayed in out of H.P. Lovecraft. Oh, and incidentally, the manner in which Li-Lin eventually handles it is elegant and simple; let’s just say that the bigger you are, the larger become your vulnerable spots. If anything, there’s perhaps too much going on, in terms of invention, with creatures blazing across the firmament of the storyline almost tangentially. At one point, Li-Lin witnesses the Night Parade, a near-endless procession of the weird, the freakish and the outlandish, and readers may feel the same way, to some extent.

However, that’s a minor quibble, when set besides the positives, such as Boroson’s handle on the kung fu. Writing a description of martial arts is hard: like editing a fight sequence, you have to balance excitement with coherence and pacing. You don’t want to spend 10 times as long describing something as it would take to watch, yet need more than “She kicked him. Repeatedly.” Boroson gets the balance right, creating passages that flow, like a good fight should, and making it easy for the reader to imagine what’s going on, in their mind’s eye. I’d love to see this turned into a film, though it would certainly not be cheap to make – and, unfortunately, Lam Ching-Ying, who would have been perfect as Li-Lin’s father in my mental cinema, died in 1997.

It’s a thoroughly engaging read, with a setting that’s new (to me) and a heroine who is well-rounded, with just enough imperfections to make her seem real. I will be eagerly looking forward to the next installment of Li-Lin’s adventures, which I’m assured is in the works.

Author: M. H. Boroson
Publisher: Available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

Chastity Bites

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“Not-so real housewives.”

chastitybitesA somewhat successful modernization of the vampire legend, it sees feminist wannabe journo Leah (Scagliotti) clashing with the popular clique at her high-school, under their queen bee Ashley (Okuda). Just as Leah is preparing a devastating expose on how the cool girls are planning a mass virginity loss, the ground gets pulled out from under her by the arrival of Liz Batho (Louise Griffiths), a counselor who begins a devastatingly successful abstinence program, the Virginity Action Group, into which Ashley and her cronies buy in, for their own ends. Liz also lures in the local moms, with her devastatingly impressive line of skin-care products. Leah digs into the past of Ms. Batho and thanks to a helpful tip from her Internet search engine (which is, at least, a first in cinematic plotting!), realizes Liz is – gasp! – Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who escaped being walled up in her chamber, and has roamed the world ever since, using the blood of virgins to sustain her youth. But since Leah’s relationship with local police soured following an article calling them racist, she’s going to have to stop the Countess using her own resources.

The results are sporadically funny. It’s a nice reversal on the usual horror trope of “have sex and die,” [albeit not the first: Cherry Falls already got there], and some of the characters are a hoot. Griffiths hits the spot just right as Bathory, combining elegance and threat with just a hint of Katie Holmes, and Okuda makes the Alpha Bitch far more rounded than most depictions [it took Chris to realize where we’d seen her before; she plays Tinkerballa in popular web-series The Guild] But she and Scagliotti are both clearly past high-school, well into their twenties, and so aren’t convincing teenagers. The heroine also appears to have eaten a dictionary, leading to dialogue that is both forced and not as witty as it thinks it is. Worst of all, I could have done entirely without Leah’s lesbian sidekick (Raisa), since her main purpose in the film appears to be to allow for embarrassingly-bad banter with her gal-pal.

It does make some nice stabs (hohoho) at social satire, in particularly the hypocrisy of high-school and American vs. European values, but it’s a bit too monotone in its approach. I did appreciate its almost entirely gynocentric nature. The only male character of note, is in the film mostly to ensure Leah is no use to the Countess, and when the chips are down, rather than rescuing anyone, is disposed of with ease, leaving Leah to face her immortal enemy alone. However, there remains too much of a problem with the heroine, who comes over for much of the movie as smugly PC, rather than someone with whom I’m interested in spending time. It’s this which restricts the film’s eventual success, leaving it as more of a respectable time-passer than an outstanding triumph.

Dir: John V. Knowles
Star: Allison Scagliotti, Louise Griffiths, Amy Okuda, Francia Raisa

The Quiet Hour

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“Alien apocalypse? Time for a nice cup of tea.”

quiethourIt took me forever to figure out where I’d seen the heroine before. Turns out Richards was also the young central character of The Golden Compass though in my defense, she was two-thirds of the age she is here. The film takes place some time after an alien invasion has effectively destroyed humanity, in order to strip-mine resources from the earth’s core: for all except a brief period of two hours each day, anyone found outside is ruthlessly tracked down and killed by the aliens’ craft. Hiding out in their rural farmhouse are Sarah (Richards) and her brother, Jude (McMullen), the latter having been blinded during the initial assault. Their isolated security is disrupted by the arrival of the wounded Tom Connelly (Davies) – he is being pursued by another group of survivors, with highly unpleasant dietary habits and led by Kathryn (Millar), who lay siege to the house, demanding Sarah hands over Tom to them.

By coincidence, I watched this the same week as the similarly-themed (though alien-free) October Gale, with Patricia Clarkson as the woman under siege after helping a wounded guest. This is actually better, with the director here having a better handle on the escalating tension, and Richards giving a solid performance, trying to put a brave face on a steadily-disintegrating situation, for the sake of Jude. What’s curious here, is how the aliens are almost irrelevant to the rest of proceedings: for virtually the entire movie, they’re just a backdrop in front of which the bigger threat, of Kathryn and her clan, plays out. It’s a strange approach. I kept expecting the extraterrestrial angle to be more significant, and if you’re expecting something like a British version of Independence Day, you are going to be very, very disappointed, as this is much more slower-paced, almost to the point of glacial.

However, I can’t say I minded too much, as that makes for a more character-driven movie, and the aliens’ almost-complete indifference to humanity is, in some ways, more chilling; it’s as if we were insects, worthy only of swatting. On the other hand, it feels a bit of a bait and switch, being little more than an excuse for why there’s no external help coming for the siblings – a slightly more sophisticated version of waving a cellphone around and saying, “No signal”. Still, Sarah has a nice sense of English resolve to her, in a ‘Keep calm and carry on’ kinda of way, and Richards shows enough here to make her a name to look out for. Hopefully, The Golden Compass, will not be her sole big-budget effort, since on the evidence here, she deserves better..

Dir: Stéphanie Joalland
Star: Dakota Blue Richards, Karl Davies, Jack McMullen, Brigitte Millarof

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies

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“Not the zombie apocalypse I expected.”

ppz09I’d imagine the market who would most appreciate this – those who like early 19th-century literature, but feel it would be improved by the addition of the walking dead – is rather small, which may explain its lackluster performance at the box-office. Personally, I’m more a fan of Victorian and later work, and have never actually read Pride and Prejudice, so suspect all those aspects here, flew entirely over my head. I have, however, seen more than my fair share of zombie flicks, so that’s the angle from which I will be reviewing this. Several angles surprised me. Firstly, it’s not a comedy. While we laughed, the film takes its theme seriously. Secondly, there’s surprising invention here. It’s not just dropping zombies into a costume drama; there’s thought gone into details of the setting, and also ideas such as the undead initially retaining their humanity.

On the other hand, it’s not the action extravaganza I expected from the trailer, and never achieves the all-out heights of excess I was hoping to see. There are some decent sequences, but a number of missed opportunities, for example, in eye-patch wearing aristocrat, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey), who is described as the ultimate bad-ass, yet barely lifts a finger. I expected a massive battle at the end, and didn’t get one; instead, the film almost rubs our face in this, inserting a mid-credits epilogue that’s the biggest tease since the end of My Wife is Gangster 2. Not that you’ll mistake this for anything other than a zombie film, of course, even if it is closer to Pride and Prejudice (and Zombies) – which would make sense since I believe the book was about 85% Austen’s original text. There are still plenty of positives, led by James, as Elizabeth, the feistiest of the five Bennet sisters, whose father (Charles Dance) has brought them up as zombie-killers, much to the concern of their mother (Sally Phillips), who’d rather they married rich.

The story revolves around a love-triangle between Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy (Riley) and Lieutenant Wickham (Huston), unfolding against an the backdrop of an escalating zombie threat, which lurks in almost every hedgerow, whist party and back bedroom. Previously, the walking dead have largely been confined to London, but appear to be developing organization, and given their increasing numbers, this could be disastrous for humanity. Meanwhile, Elizabeth also has to fend off the perhaps even more threatening predations of Parson Collins (Matt Smith), who has been brought in to marry one of the sisters, providing a male heir that will secure the family’s future, since the daughters are unable to inherit property. Her skills are unquestioned, and nicely understated; when Darcy suspects one of Elizabeth’s sisters of being bitten, and releases carrion flies to see if he’s right, she plucks them out of the air, one at a time, and hands them back to him.

Their relationship is another well-handled aspect. This Darcy is not exactly swoonworthy, and hardly the life of the party (no-one who totes carrion flies everywhere they go, ever will be), yet he’s prepared to let Elizabeth be the person she wants to be – a sharp contrast to Collins. It’s her free-spirited nature and stubborn refusal to be ground down by the conventions of society – even the severely-skewed ones of this scenario – which make her an engaging heroine. Other pleasures are the work of Smith and Phillips, adding a great deal of background charm, largely due to their total indifference to the zombie apocalypse – achieving marital bliss is clearly far more important. It probably works better as satire on class, rigid social norms and the British stiff upper-lip, than as real horror; its PG-13 rating obviously limits the latter aspect. As long as you are not going in expecting a Georgian-era version of World War Z, this should be well-made and enjoyable enough.

Dir: Burr Steers
Star: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote

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