“A not-so fair cop”

pmscopBeginning with a jokey caption stating “The producers of this movie are in no way admitting to the existence of PMS,” this is a rather uneven B-movie, which has a potentially interesting premise. Unfortunately, it then does not enough with the concept.

Mary (Hall) is a police officer with anger management issues. After beating up a rapist dressed as a clown. she’s ordered to undergo counseling. Her therapist puts her in contact with a pharmaceutical company testing a new drug, Corybantic, aimed at reducing the impact of PMS. After consulting with the leader of the project, Dr. Sokolov (Skinner), Mary starts taking the drug, and is injected with a chip to track her body’s response. But after witnessing her partner being gunned down during a convenience store robbery, it triggers a violent psychotic reaction. The drug company re-capture their test subject, only for her to break out of their restraints and go on a brutal rampage through the facility. Turns out the chip wasn’t just for telemetry either; it came from an abandoned Soviet project into mind-control.

There a number of ways this could have gone. Social satire, as hinted at in the opening caption, or perhaps a modern version of the Frankenstein story. Instead… Well, there’s not much more than Mary, or her “PMS Cop” alter-ego (played by a different actress, Means), roaming the drug company’s building, banging heads together. The gore is enthusiastic and nicely practical; I particularly enjoyed the silicone implants ripped out of one poor victim’s chest, then used as the means of death for another. You don’t see that every day. However, there simply isn’t enough going on with the story-line to sustain audience interest.

It also shifts notably in tone. Early, it’s almost jokey – for instance, the clown rapist ties up his victim with balloons. Yet the humour is abruptly switched off as soon as Mary begins the drug trial; you’re left feeling like the rest of the film is a comedy without jokes. You can certainly check off the movies director Blakey is inspired by. Robocop, The Terminator and possibly Lady Terminator. Not that there’s anything wrong with influences. It’s just that those are all significantly better movies, and Blakey doesn’t bring sufficient new or interesting to offset this disadvantage. In technical terms, the lighting could certainly also have been better, with too many scenes painfully under-lit, in what may have been a misguided attempt as “atmosphere.”

While I’ve seen and enjoyed B-movies which have skated by on even thinner premises, they’ve been able to take their concepts and do more with them. This instead feels like a 15-minute short, stretched into a feature. I suspect it’s one which would have been more effective at the shorter length.

Dir: Bryon Blakey
Star: Cindy Means, Heather Hall, Elaine Jenkins, Megan Dehart


“Stalk is cheap.”

As high concepts go, this one is impressive. Serial killer Jack (Jarratt) breaks into the house of his latest intended victim, Emily (Fairfax), a middle-aged nurxe in the hospital where he works as a pharmacist, whom he has been quietly stalking. Expecting no problems, Jack is in for a surprise; Emily is waiting with a tazer. Jack regains consciousness to find himself tied to the chair, and facing someone who may well be his superior in terms of well-concealed psychotic intentions – not to mention, previous body-count.

This is the kind of story that’s more interesting in where it’s going than in how it gets there. The way it ends, opens up a broad swathe of possibilities, most of which would likely be more fun than watching the two foul-mouthed leads interacting. [It’s certainly undeniably Australian in its harsh and copious bad language!] For, truth be told, neither Jack nor Emily are particularly likeable, and you’re are left watching their verbal sparring without any genuine emotional investment. There is some resonance, due to Jarratt having also played a serial killer in the two Wolf Creek films, but some of the plot developments here seem artificial and forced for the sake of the ending, rather than flowing naturally out of the characters.

The concept of a middle-aged, almost matronly female serial killer is intriguing, and could have become an amusingly sharp contrast to the lurid excess of Nurse 3D. Alternatively, Jarratt could perhaps have followed in the footsteps of John Waters’ Serial Mom, in which Kathleen Turner played an insane housewife, whose victims were chosen on the slightest of pretexts, e.g. failing to separate properly their recyclable garbage. Instead, while the poster proclaims the film to be “inappropriate, funny, romantic,” I can’t honestly say it made the slightest ripple as far as the second and third categories are concerned. Even the first comes up short, not least because it includes inserts of sequences that are only taking place in the characters’ minds – on more than one occasion, I was disappointed by that realization.

It’s Jarratt’s first time as a director, and although he has plenty of experience in front of the camera, it’s a remarkably “safe” project, especially given the subject matter, and comes over almost entirely as a stage-play unfolding in front of the camera. The script is also by a first-time writer, Kristijana Maric, and I can’t help suspecting the whole project would likely have been better served with longer track records in both departments.

Dir: John Jarratt
Star: Kaarin Fairfax, John Jarratt


“Hyenas: yes. Laughing? Not so much.”

heatstrokeWildlife researcher Paul (Dorff) is looking forward to a trip to South Africa with his new girlfriend, Tally (Metkina), when he gets The Call from his ex-wife, informing them their daughter, Josie (Williams) has been arrested, and is generally hanging out with a bad crowd. Paul brings the highly-reluctant Josie on the trip, in the hopes the experience will enlighten her. Doesn’t work: she spends the time on her iPad, headphones on, sulking and being grumpy. Finally, they’ve all had enough, and Paul leaves, to take Josie back to civilization. When he doesn’t return, Tally goes to look for him, only to find the jeep crashed, Paul shot dead and Josie injured. Turns out they ran across a couple of minions belonging to Mallick (Stormare), a smuggler with a very strong interest in keeping his operation under wraps. Tally and Josie are now a pair of unacceptable loose ends that need to be tidied up – but Tally is not going to let that happen without a fight.

If some of the DVD sleeves promise rather more heroic, gun-wielding Dorff than the film delivers, I’m perfectly fine with that, as watching Tally take over things is likely more entertaining – there’s something a little Ripley-esque about the way she’s prepared to go to bat for a kid that isn’t her own. And go to bat fiercely: “Guess we’re not dealing with a f____ housewife,” says Mallick, after she has disposed of one particularly nasty henchman. The sequence leading up to that is likely the best in the film, Tally using guile to lure her target in before trying to strangle him; it’s credible in terms of strength and exudes a true sense of danger. Shame the rest doesn’t have such a well-considered approach; indeed, the ending relies on a change of heart by one character that’s a great deal more convenient than it’s convincing.

In between bursts of action, you can admire the South African scenery and some fairly impressive work with hyenas in apparent close proximity to the cast. Williams also does fairly well with a role that could have been utterly unsympathetic – we have had our share of bratty teenagers, and don’t exactly need to experience them dramatically – even if I had to keep suppressing a strange urge to yell “Stick ’em with the pointy end!” [I’d better explain: Williams has a major role in Game of Thrones, and that quote was tactical swordfighting advice given her at one point]. Stormare is his usual good value, and despite its flaws, there’s enough going on here to make for a passable slab of entertainment on a wet Saturday afternoon.

Dir: Evelyn Purcell
Star: Svetlana Metkina, Maisie Williams, Stephen Dorff, Peter Stormare

The Girl King

“Queen of Arts”

girlkingThis isn’t the first biopic about Christina, Queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654. Most notably, Greta Garbo played the role in 1933’s Queen Christina, though one sense the focus here is rather different. Certainly, she’s an interesting character, the only child of King Gustav II Adolph. She became queen at age six on his death, then was brought up as if she were a prince, taking over actual rule on turning 18. She caused major ructions with the established order with her plans to end the Thirty Years’ War, educate the population and turn the capital city, Stockholm, into the “Athens of the North”. It didn’t help her case in a strongly Protestant Sweden and a very fraught religious time, that she was influenced by Catholic writers such as René Descartes. Nor her reluctance to marry, or the (according to this telling) passionate relationship with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre (Gadon).

This focuses on the period between her 18th birthday in 1644 and abdication a decade later – she left the throne to her cousin, turned Catholic and headed off to live the rest her life in Italy. The film suggests this was largely a reaction to an enforced separation from Sparre, which is depicted as causing Christina a breakdown. [The mentally-fragile apple depicted, apparently didn’t fall far from the tree. Her mother was barking mad, who preserved her husband’s embalmed corpse for two years after his death and, again per the movie, made Christina kiss it good morning and good night] That seems a little too trite of an explanation, for someone who spoke nine different languages and was as much driven by admiration for her “virgin queen” predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I of England, as any passion.

It’s more successful in documenting the struggle between Christina and the nobles who had no interest in an educated underclass, or even peace, the loot “liberated” from enemy countries being a major source of income. Mind you, the peasants aren’t necessarily interested either: an amusing scene has the monarch about to quote Marcus Aurelius to them, when she’s interrupted by an offer of free beer from a rather more down-to-earth adviser. The tension between a high-minded – possibly too high-minded? – queen and the realities of 17th-century European politics, would have benefited from additional exploration.

It would likely have been preferable to a rather uninteresting love affair, one which seems to say more about 21st century sexual politics than anything at that point. While I generally liked Buska’s performance, there were a couple of points I felt like I watching a modern teenager, rather than one of the most well-educated women of her time. I have to think there was rather more to Queen Christina, than the slightly-unstable lesbian portrayed here, but the true depth of that character only occasionally pokes its head over the large dresses and even larger wigs seen here.

Dir: Mika Kaurismäki
Star: Malin Buska, Sarah Gadon, Michael Nyqvist, Lucas Bryant

Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler

“Goddess of gamblers.”

wgb2Nami (Kaji) – or, to give her character’s full name here, Nami the Crimson Cherry Blossom – is still the same ice-cold, vengeful warrior as before. Though for this sequel, for some reason, she has switched to rather more traditional attire, in the shape of a kimono. She encounters Hanae, trying to escape a Yakuza sex-trafficking gang, to whom she has been sold by her father(!). Nami rescues her, subsequently wins Hanae’s freedom in a card game, and returns her to Dad. Turns out he can shed some light on Hoshiden, the man who killed Nami’s own father in a gambling spat, years earlier, and for whom she has been searching ever since. To find her target, Nami needs to embed herself deep in the murky, Ginza world of gambling and prostitution, helped by former friend Miyoko (Kagawa), now part of Hoshiden’s organization, and rival pimp, Ryu (Chiba).

This is slightly better than its predecessor, though is still hampered by too much reliance on gambling. It doesn’t help that the cards here are not the ones familiar in the West. As a result, we only know how the game is going by the reaction of the participants. Imagine watching Casino Royale with no idea of how poker works. It’s like that. When not actually gambling, things improve, and interesting to see Chiba play somewhat against type. Ryu is more stammering comic relief than the typical Chiba hero, though this dates from 1972, a couple of years before his star-making role in The Street Fighter.

As in its predecessor, this isn’t exactly action-packed. The opening confrontation, between Nami and the Yakuza gang on the bridge, looks like it’s about to explode… Right up until she pulls a gun. That’s not exactly very samurai (or geisha), is it, Ms. Kaji? From there until Nami and Ryu storm Hoshiden’s headquarters, it’s restrained, with more drama than swordplay. However, it is better at sustaining interest than part one, helped by aspects such as Ryu’s noble approach to prostitution. As he says, “We don’t force you or watch what you do. Our motto is clean, virtuous and classy,” prompting the sarcastic retort from one of his whores, “Well, you sound like Governor Minobe!” [The socialist governor of Tokyo at that time]

These elements help tide viewers over the card-playing scenes, until all sword-swinging hell finally breaks loose. This is rather at odds with some of the broad stabs at humour previously attempted. The “how to use a bidet demonstration” scene sticks in my mind there, and not exactly as an iconic sequence of comedy. It doesn’t sit easily in a storyline kicked off when a daughter is sold into sex slavery by her own father, and the ending of the series with this entry suggests the intended market was equally unimpressed.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Meiko Kaji, Sonny Chiba, Junzaburo Ban, Yukie Kagawa

Blood Redd

“What big secrets you have, Grandma…”

bloodreddLauren Redd (Huller) really doesn’t want to spend the weekend at Grandma’s house. Like most teenage girls, she has a million things she’d rather be doing than visit an elderly relation. On arriving, she meets Albert (Widener), a flamboyant caregiver – but one who turns out to be a serial killer with a wolf fetish. Fortunately, the threat – along with a little something slipped into Lauren’s drink – awakens her own inner wolf – and it’s not just a fetish, but true lycanthropy, passed down in maternal genes through her family. When Lauren wakes the next morning, she finds herself covered in blood, a severely-injured Albert not far away, and her mother (Hassett) with some serious ‘xplaining to do. However, pathologist Mortimer Clarke (Frainza) is piecing together the clues, even if no-one in the police force will take his belief in werewolves seriously, for obvious reasons.

It’s a bit of a fractured item this, with about three different stories going on, almost feeling like they come from entirely different films. First, there’s the obvious Little Red Riding Hood adaptation, focusing on the Lauren/Albert relationship, up to and immediately after her transformation. Then, there’s Lauren, coming to terms with her new talents, which are both a help and a hindrance at high-school. Finally, there’s also Clarke’s investigation, as he tries to figure out what happened at Grandma’s, and whether the supposed “dog attack” actually took place as claimed. Not all of these work equally well: the first is certainly overlong, especially given it is just not very interesting, in particular with Widener overplaying the “gay” thing like a drag queen on meth. I’d much rather have seen more of the high-school aspects, which are effectively played, reminding me somewhat of the truly awesome Ginger Snaps, or the familial history, also not dissimilar to the recently-reviewed When Animals Dream.

This is, let’s be honest, done on a much smaller budget than either, and there are aspects which make the limited resources painfully obvious, such as the actual transformation – they probably shouldn’t have bothered. On the other hand, some are well done: Hassett gives a convincing portrayal of a mother willing to do anything for her daughter, and the ending ties up the loose ends in a way that makes sense and is also emotionally satisfying. You may find, as I did, that the early going here is more than a bit of a slog, and you’ll need to persevere to reach the more interesting aspects that follow. Palmer has found some original twists for the genre, and it’s only a shame he didn’t concentrate more fully on these, instead of the less successful elements that bog things down considerably in the first half.

Dir: Brad Palmer
Star: Stephanie Hullar, Julie Marie Hassett, Christopher Frainza, Torey Widener


“An R-rated version of Home Alone

intrudersSince the death of their father, brother and sister Conrad and Anna (Riesgraf) have been each other’s companions. Virtually sole, in the latter’s case, as Anna suffers from severe agoraphobia, which means she hasn’t left the house for a decade. After Conrad dies of cancer, her only visitor is Meals on Wheels delivery guy, Dan (Culkin), who dreams of escaping town, but lacks the means. In a moment of empathy, Anna offers him a slab of cash: he declines, but after mentioning it in the wrong place, three criminals, led by J.P. (Kesy), decide to pay the house a visit. They’re expecting Anna to be at Conrad’s funeral, unaware of her condition. They are even more wrong about how helpless it makes her.

Big Sky also used agoraphobia as a plot point, but where this works better, is it uses this as a starting point, rather than becoming the defining characteristic of its heroine. We get an indication, not only of where her condition came from, but how it has affected her in other ways. That helps fill things in after the big reveal, where the tables are suddenly turned on the home invaders, and the hunters become the prey. It’s somewhat disconcerting, since this comes almost out of nowhere and leaves you going “Huh?” for a bit, until things are explained. Better not reveal too much there: let’s just say, this trio of robbers are not the first to enter the house and get what they deserve, instead of what they want.

Originally known as Shut In, before a competing (and larger-profile) film with the same name forced a title change, you do have to wonder if less would have been more. The story eventually unfolding here is rather more convoluted than necessary, except for the desire to provide Anna’s mayhem with moral justification. It isn’t needed, assuming you agree that if you invade someone’s home, your right to life is immediately severely curtailed. You’re Next was better in this area: it didn’t bother with any imperative; for its heroine, all the motivation she needed was her own survival. I’m also not quite sure about the layout here – it’s the same problem we saw in Sweet Home, where it feels as if a floor-plan would help figure out how the various pieces fit together.

However, if you’re looking for a darker version of To Catch a Predator, with additional (mercifully, staged) violence against a budgie, this should be satisfactory. Riesgraf is best known for her work as Parker in Leverage, and you could almost speculate on this being some kind of prequel to the show. It would make for a rather twisted shared universe, to be sure…

Dir: Adam Schindler
Star: Beth Riesgraf, Jack Kesy, Rory Culkin, Martin Starr
a.k.a. Shut In

Full Strike

“Shaolin Shuttlecocks”

fullstrikeThis mediocre sports comedy seems to want to do for badminton what Shaolin Soccer did for the beautiful game. However, it falls short on just about every level, delivering little more than a shallow series of cliches. Former champion Ng Kau-sau (Ho), a.k.a. “Beast”, was drummed out of the sport ten years ago for anger management issues. However, her love of the game never died, and is rekindled when she bumps into a trio of former armed robbers, led by Lau Dan (Cheng). They have reformed and taken up the sport, under the tuition of an alcoholic former star, Master Champion Chik.

This is much to the consternation of the locals, who believe “Once a thief, always a thief.” They set up an opposing team, with their own coach, and both sign up for the Fantastic Five Asia-Pacific Badminton Tournament in Macau. Meanwhile, Lau Dan’s old buddies are trying to lure him back into a life of crime, and are plotting a raid on the Macau casinos the same night. What are the odds? About the same as both teams making it to the tournament final and facing off in a climactic showdown. Which, in this kind of film, is probably close to 100%.

There are a bunch of problems here, starting with the lead character, who isn’t exactly sympathetic. Let’s just say, her nickname is justified. The film then diverts into a middle section which seems almost to forget about her, being more concerned with Lau Dan. The height of the comedic stylings on view is when Master Champion Chik throws up, delivering the longest and grossest projectile vomit scene since The Meaning of Life. I will admit, I actually laughed. Still, it gives you a new appreciation for the true genius of Stephen Chow, who makes this kind of “plucky under-dog” comedy look easy. He combines plot, characters and, yes, jokes with grace into a consistent whole.

This never achieves anything like the same degree of cohesiveness, lurching uneasily from broad comedy to heartfelt drama. Then we reach the tournament, which covers most of the film’s second half. This involves a contrived version of badminton, requiring teams to substitute personnel half-way through the game. Why? The sole reason is, because the plot demands it. There’s no sense of escalation here either, unlike Shaolin Soccer. If you’ve seen one slow-motion shot of a shuttlecock crossing marginally above the net, or landing just inside the line, you’ve seen… The last 20 minutes of the movie to be honest.  The idea here isn’t without potential, and most of the personnel involved here have proven their talent elsewhere. The actual end product, unfortunately, falls well short of delivering.

Dir: Derek Kwok and Henri Wong
Star: Josie Ho, Ekin Cheng, Ronald Cheng, Tse Kwan-ho

The Young Boss

“Singing samurai swings sword.”

youngboss18 years ago, the maid to a Japanese lord had twins by him. This was, apparently, a disgrace to the family – not the affair, so much as it being twins. So it was pretended she had only given birth to one daughter, Chiyo, who was brought up as the heiress. The mother and other daughter, Yuki, were sent away and after the former died, the daughter was brought up as a sword-wielding boy, Kichisaburo, by her mother’s brother, Edoya Kichibei. However, she still has a certificate proving her birth-right, and various factions are now stirring to establish her as the “rightful” heir to the title. Or, if she’s unwilling to go along with this, the plotters will simply steal the certificate from Edoya, and use an impostor to make their claim.

Misora has a double role here, playing both princesses. Though this dates from 1958, and any interaction uses stand-ins rather than more sophisticated techniques. Not that it matters much. She was a cultural icon, best known as a singer, selling over 80 million records during and after her lifetime. This explains the several occasions on which she bursts into song here. I was quite surprised, since I do not typically expect warbling in my samurai flicks. But she was also an actress, with over 150 films to her credit, and her performance is fine here. As usual, the “woman pretending to be a man” plotline is unconvincing, though at least the haircut and costumes help sell things in this case.

It’s certainly tame by subsequent Japanese swordplay movies, no surprise given the kinder, gentler era from which this comes. In contrast to their arterial spray, no-one here dies with more than a smudge of blood on their robes. I’d rather have seen the heroine remain as Kichisaburo throughout, rather than reverting to a “princessy” look after her sister’s betrothed shows up to bring Yuki back to her ancestral home. It’s certainly a more interesting character, complete with a minion whose purpose appears to be to rabble-rouse on her behalf, like a personal ring-announce. Witness lines such as, “If you don’t know him, you must be country bumpkins! Listen up. He helps the weak, and crushes the strong. Known as a man’s man, he’s the second generation of Edoya Kichibei.” Meanwhile, in the blue corner…

The other subsidiary characters aren’t very interesting, unfortunately, and get more screen-time than they warrant. The romantic angle – Yuki falls for her sister’s betrothed – doesn’t work, and the political shenanigans of a lot of people with similar top-knots, bog proceedings down more than they enlighten or entertain. It does better when in motion, Misora proving effective with the sword. They wisely give her a style that relies much more on speed than strength, dispatching her victims in two or three swift strokes. It also ends satisfactorily, with a surprisingly poignant ending that sees the heroine step aside and return to her former life so Chiyo can be happy. And just time for one last song, naturally!

Dir: Kiyoshi Sakei
Star: Hibari Misora, Hashizo Okawa, Denjiro Okochi, Shunji Sakai

Sumo Vixens

“Su’mo money, su’mo problems.”

sumovixensYes, it’s a thinly-disguised excuse to see topless women grappling with each other. It’s from the director of Big Tits Zombie and the charmingly-titled Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy. The budget appears to have been several thousand yen, at least. But, you know what? I didn’t mind this. There’s a sense of self-awareness here that helps defuse (though certainly not eliminate) the creepier elements. When the heroine proclaims, “People have dirty thoughts about women’s sumo, but I believe there’s something more than that,” you want to believe her. Well, at least until the lesbian canoodling starts, anyway, and you realize

Said heroine is Ruriko Sakura (Eba), whose aunt used to be a woman’s sumo champion in her day, which gives Ruriko the idea of reviving the sport. To this end, she recruits former master Szenjirou Arakami (Arase), who has just been relesed from jail for pushing a car loaded with Yakuza into a river. The women they recruit are a motley bunch at best, but Komasa (Mizutani) appears to have strayed in from a pinky violence film, so has promise. However, the Domino Group, a Yakuza-run “agency” has their eye on Ruriko and owns loans held by Arakami. A challenge match is arranged against the Domino girls, and if they win, the loans will be forgiven. If they lose, Ruriko must become their exclusive talent.

It’s the little things that keep this memorable, like the quirky characters, such as the tattooed, green-haired and pierced sumo who spends literally the entire film huffing paint thinner from a plastic bag – even for her bout, she’s like “Here, hold this” to the referee. Or Komasa’s one-eyed nemesis and former partner in a lesbian strip show, Oryu (Kudou), who I’m fairly sure is another pulp cinema tribute. Nakano also slyly subverts some of the obvious sports movie cliches. I trust I’m not spoiling this for anyone, when I tell you plucky underdog Ruriko loses her climactic match in about 0.3 seconds. I think he also takes pot-shots at cable TV – the final match is broadcast there – and its fondness for staged reaction shots.

The action is, as you’d expect, entirely woeful and the camera angles are particularly predatory, tending to focus on specific body parts to the exclusion of, say, the women’s faces. Yet the makers are clearly aware of the idiocy on view, and certainly cannot be accused of taking themselves too seriously. Ruriko somehow manages to keep her clothes on, when all about her are losing theirs, and though she has a boyfriend, he doesn’t turn up until literally the final scene. She’s goal-oriented, committed and you could make the case she’s actually a better role-model of independent womanhood than many depictions in more mainstream works. At heart, though, this could only be fully appreciated by the 16-year-old male audience, for whom it was apparently made.

Dir: Takao Nakano
Star: Eba, Arase, Kei Mizutani, Shouku Kudou