Watch ScarJo kick ass in the first five minutes of Ghost in the Shell

There will be a lot of Ghost in the Shell coming up this week on the site. Beginning on Monday, we’ll be reviewing the various animated incarnations of the universe, taking us through to next weekend, when we’ll be covering its entire world on Saturday, and then the new movie with Scarlet Johansson will be reviewed on Sunday. Hey, that’s the biggest action-heroine film since, certainly, the end of the Hunger Games franchise, and it’s a creation which has been hugely influential on SF since the manga version first came out in 1989. It’s amazing how accurate its prediction of the future, where everyone and everything is connected and interfaced, has proven – considering that at the time of its original release, the Internet was in its absolute infancy.

Anyway, the studio had released the opening five minutes, which depict the Major’s first action, after terrorists attack a business meeting. It answers some questions which you were perhaps asking after watching the trailer, such as her character’s oddly nipple-less appearance. Turns out she’s not naked, but wearing a skinsuit that provides optical camo, allowing her effectively to vanish. But my main takeaway is how goddamn gorgeous the whole thing looks. I know that’s what you’d expect – for all the flaws of Snow White and the Huntsman, from the same director, it was beautiful to look at. Still, even by those standards, this is a neon-drenched, all-you-can-eat buffet of visual stunnery. It certainly looks like every penny of the budget is up on the screen – combine this with a live-action rendition of one of the iconic action heroine of  Japanese animation, and that’s good enough for me.

So, I’m looking forward to seeing it on the largest screen possible, while stuffing my face with popcorn. And in the immortal words of D-Generation X, if you’re not down with that, we got two words for ya…

I Spit on Your Grave 3: Vengeance is Mine

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“Point made.”

Like much horror, the rape-revenge genre is one which overlaps with, rather than being wholly encompassed by, the action-heroine field. Some entries qualify: the awesome glory which is Ms. 45 being the most obvious example. But others appear to focus more on the rape than the revenge, and are far less interesting as a result. Such was the case for the first two entries in this series – and, indeed, the 1978 grindhouse classic which it rebooted. Here, however, in an interesting twist we bypass the assault entirely. This starts instead with the victim in the earlier movies (Butler) having adopted a new identity, that of Angela, and attending both one-on-one therapy as well as group sessions.

It’s at the latter she meets Marla (Landon), who shares Angela’s dislike for the whole touchy-feely aspect of recovery, and prefers a more… “hands-on” approach to working things out. When they discover that another member of the group is still being molested by her stepfather, it’s time to put their theory into practice. While apparently a success, at least initially, it turns out Marla has her own issues that still need to be dealt with. Additionally, the aftermath of their street justice is bringing the attention of the cops, in particular SVU Detective McDylan (Hogan). It’s kinda hard to explain why you’re in a bad part of town, fighting with a man in a back-alley, and carrying a knife, a Tazer and a can of lighter fluid.

I was sure I knew where this was going. Meeting someone called “Marla” at a support group, is such an obvious nod to Fight Club, I was certain she’d turn out to be a figment of Angela’s imagination, and there are fantasy sequences also pointing down that road. Happy to be proved wrong, and the film twists in some unexpected directions the rest of the way, right until the end. It’s most memorable feature, however, would be two absolutely – bold and capital letters please – BRUTAL sequences of Angela’s revenge. The first, in particular, is going to stick in my mind for a very long time, in part because it comes virtually out of nowhere. But once it begins, it delivers a one-two punch of almost unsurpassed magnitude: barely had the words “Holy sh…” begun to escape my lips, when it got ten times more savage.

It has to be said, having set the bar so staggeringly high in terms of carnage, I was left wondering how the movie could follow up. Truth is, it doesn’t, and that probably counts as a misstep, since it also distracts unnecessarily from what’s actually a solid performance from Butler. She gets to run the gamut from seductive to extremely scary, and is effective enough at both ends of the spectrum. Make no mistake, this is frequently vile and repellent; yet, it’s exactly how sexual assault should be depicted, because that’s what it is. Just be sure to find an unrated version, and if you’re male, you may want to watch from a spot where curling up into the foetal position is easily managed.

Dir: R.D. Braunstein
Star: Sarah Butler, Jennifer Landon, Doug McKeon, Gabriel Hogan

The Champagne Gang

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“Contains 100% of your daily requirement of eye-candy.”

Under the leadership of Bliss (Toups), whose father is serving an extended stretch in jail, four young women stage a series of convenience-store burglaries in the San Diego area, before moving up to larger schemes. This brings them to the attention of local crime-boss, Cal Wertlieb, who makes them an offer they can’t refuse. He’ll train them to carry out more lucrative jobs, by cracking safes, which will give them access to cash and other easily fungible loot, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds – and their absolute silence in the event of them ever being caught by the authorities.

It opens with the “based on a true story” title, which as usual had me raising a sardonic eyebrow. However, in this case, it appears to be at least somewhat accurate, even if the end credits admit that the real “champagne gang” were Canadian men, rather than California girls! Still, I’m not inclined to criticize writer-diretor-producer Zirilli too much, for taking the more photogenic route. The film is at its best when it’s a lawbreaking version of the ‘police procedural’, i.e. instead of explaining how crimes are investigated, covering the nuts and bolts of how the group pulled off their thefts. These little details here bring the film to life, and help to keep it grounded in reality. That’s something sorely needed, given Zirilli’s horrid over-fondness for irrelevances, such as the make-over, the surfing montage, or the cringeworthy concert with a cameo by Bokeem Woodbine.

The film does make some effort at making the girls individuals, even if outside of Bliss, this largely consists of giving the other three a single-word character. Thus, we have Nerdy Michelle (Lakota), Bimbo Erika (Tobiason) and Bitchy Amanda (Serano), but I guess there was a conscious decision to sacrifice further character development, on the altar of that surfing montage. Shallow though these are, it does help set up the plot, with Erika tending to ill-considered actions which bring heat in their wake, such as contacting her boyfriend when they’re supposed to be laying low. There are also occasional moments of nice self-deprecation, such as when Bliss explains their aesthetic choice of footwear on their raids: “We really should have been wearing sensible shoes for the climbing. But we knew we could do it in high-heeled boots. After all – we’re girls.”

Unfortunately, the decent aspects tend to accentuate the copious quantities of padding necessary to get from the set-up to the conclusion, where the cops finally realize they’re not chasing a male gang. Zirilli the director should have gone back to Zirilli the writer, and demanded he put more meat on the bones, of a script that has flashes of some potential. Outside of Bliss, there’s not even a fragment of motivation for anyone involved, and you’re left watching something which too often drifts into being not much more substantial than an elaborate pop promo.

Dir: Daniel Zirilli
Star: Lacey Toups, Candise Lakota, Tarah Tobiason, Suri Serano
The whole movie is on YouTube, if the trailer below whets your interest.

Fight Valley

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“Ring around the poses.”

The results of bringing female MMA fighters to the screen have been a bit mixed, shall we say. Gina Carano has looked decent in her films, but Ronda Rousey’s performances have been roundly criticized, and her Mile 22 project appears dead in the water. The performance by the recently retired from MMA Miesha Tate, which is likely the film’s major selling-point, rates… somewhere in the middle. She doesn’t disgrace herself – but that may be partly because there is no shortage of other weaknesses to criticize here. Tate is convincing in her role – yet since she’s playing a mixed martial-artist, it’s hardly proof of any acting ability. But I guess, everyone has to start somewhere, and a thinly-disguised version of yourself is a good place to begin.

The film’s heroine, though, is Windsor (Celek), part of a separated family. She lives with her mother in a well-to-do part of New Jersey; her sister, Tory, lives with Dad in a far more dangerous neck of the woods, and is persistently getting into street brawls. Tory asks Windsor for money and is spurned, only to turn up beaten to death later. Windsor goes slumming to investigate, with the help of Tory’s lesbian lover, Duke (O’Brien), and discovers her late sister was involved in underground fights. In the time-honoured trope of B-grade martial-arts films, Windsor decides to strap on the gloves so she can find and take revenge on Tory’s killer, convincing the reluctant Jabs (and this character is where Tate comes in) to train her for this purpose.

According to the IMDb, the budget here was twenty-seven million dollars. If true, I have no clue quite where that went, because this is absolutely the kind of film that could be churned out for a a million and change. It’s not like there are any name stars here, unless you count the bevy of UFC people who show up in minor roles: as well as Tate, the film also includes Cris Cyborg, Holly Holm and Cindy Dandois, among others. Though despite the poster shown, the non-Tate roles are barely cameos. Certainly, the script consists of little more than a selection of random clichés, as it lumbers towards a conclusion you would have to be legally blind not to see approaching. Hawk’s background in music videos is painfully apparent, and O’Brien is the only person here who comes out with much real credit, playing Duke in a way that is credible and, hence, surprisingly scary. She isn’t someone whose drink you’d want to spill in a bar, put it that way.

What sinks the movie is Celek, who is woeful: thoroughly unconvincing at every step of her implausible journey from Disney princess to hard-as-nails brawler, supposedly capable of going toe-to-toe with Cyborg. If they’d kept the film on the streets, since it does a semi-decent job of capturing a world where everyone operates on a hair-trigger, and had Duke trying to revenge her lover’s death, this might have had a chance of being more than the thoroughly forgettable project, deserving little more than a quick, straight-to-video death.

Dir: Rob Hawk
Star: Susie Celek, Erin O’Brien, Miesha Tate, Cabrina Collesides

Getting Wilde, by Jenn Stark

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I initially thought I had a fairly good handle on where the first book in the Immortal Vegas series (currently at six entries, plus a prequel) was going, with a Lara Croft-esque lead, who specializes in locating and recovering ancient artifacts. You can also throw in fragments of The Da Vinci Code, since she is hired to retrieve a relic from the secret basement beneath the Vatican, and is going up against a cult of religious, Catholic fanatics. But it somehow ends up taking a sharp right-turn, ending up in a version of Las Vegas where, just out of phase with the casinos and hotels, lurks a hidden dimension of other venues, populated by…

Well, probably best to rewind a bit. For in this universe, magic is real, albeit not apparent to the vast majority of the population. Some, particularly sensitive types, have an affinity for it, in one way or another, giving them abilities such are remote viewing or precognition. These are the Connected, and our heroine Sara Wilde is one of them. She started before she was even a teenager, using a talent for locating missing things to help her local police. But after a tragic incident, she was forced out on her own, and now wields her skill in the pursuit of material objects.

Meanwhile, the Arcana Council – largely formed of characters out of the tarot deck, e.g. the High Priestess, the Magician and the Devil – are based in that alternate Vegas strip. They seek to maintain the balance between good and evil, preventing either from prevailing, and that’s becoming a problem. For the increasing intersection of technology and magic is being exploited by those who want to benefit from the resulting synergy – they don’t care how many lives have to be destroyed in that process. Which is where Sara comes in, as exposure to a psychoactive drug turns her into a seer, and she unwillingly takes on that mantle, to protect the innocent alternatives.

If it sounds rather complex and confusing, that’s about right. You’d expect the first book in a series to set out the universe and its rules fairly clearly. But here, you’re largely dropped in to the middle of things, then have to try and figure out what’s going on, from nuggets dropped by Sara almost in passing. Maybe previous knowledge of Tarot might help? It also suffers from incompleteness, a sadly common trait in e-books; Stark sets up the characters and plot, then more or less ends in “Buy volume 2!” rather than offering any resolution. The book’s attitude to sex is kinda weird as well. Wilde doesn’t actually have any, but comes perilously close on multiple occasions, to the extent this seems like some kind of edging fetish.

But you shouldn’t take the above to mean it’s all negative. In particular, Wilde is a very well-formed character. She’s clearly a heroine, willing to put herself in harm’s way (both physically and psychically) to protect others, out of genuine concern for their well-being. Yet she’s far from flawless, carrying her own share of historical baggage, and has a sarcastic wit to which I can easily relate. Stark has a good eye for her settings too – having been to Las Vegas, it would be the perfect location for a supernatural governing body to set up their operations, just out of sight behind the lurid facades.

I’d probably have liked to have seen more action out of Sara. Her first excursion, into the depths beneath of the Pope’s palace in Rome, is almost an occult Indiana Jones escapade, and she clearly is capable with more than just her mind. But after that, there is a lot more talk than walk, save perhaps for her helping bust loose some unwilling participants from behind a sleazy casino, in an even sleazier back-room. Hopefully, future entries will have more of this, and she won’t be stuck doing remote viewing for the High Priestess, which is where she ends this volume. I’d probably be interested in another adventure, given the potential here; yet there are enough flaws, it could all end up being thoroughly wasted.

Author: Jenn Stark
Publisher: Elewyn Publishing, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

All Girls Weekend

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“Why we don’t camp, #173.”

There’s something admirable about a film entirely cast with and directed by women, especially in such a generally male-dominated genre as horror. Unfortunately, all this effort really goes to prove, is that the fairer sex are every bit as capable of turning out uninteresting crap as any man. An ill-conceived cross between The Descent and The Blair Witch Project, this has four old school friends reuniting, along with the workmate of one of them, who tags along because… Well, as with so much in the movie, for no particularly good reason.  There’s friction between the friends, from the moment Nancy (Bernadette) shows up four hours late, forcing their departure to be pushed back.

But it’s when an innocent little pre-dinner hike is suggested that things truly go off the rails. For the workmate falls, and is impaled on… well, let’s be honest, and call it a twig. The party is unable to get out of the woods and find help, finding themselves perpetually going in circles. It’s almost as if the forest itself is trying to keep them from leaving. Turns out that’s exactly the case – not much of a spoiler this – for there was a mill there, which polluted the entire area, and unleashed a curse. Now, in order to regenerate, the earth spirit is now demanding blood sacrifices. So, before you can say, “Hang on – this doesn’t make much sense,” the party are being threatened in different, mostly fairly ludicrous ways. It’s almost like a live-action version of The Gashleycrumb Tinies: “N is for Nancy, pursued by a bear,” albeit where it’s abundantly apparent that Nancy and the bear were never simultaneously in the same zip-code.

Whoever designed the poster likely deserves some kind of award, for making the film look a hundred times more exciting than it is ever capable of delivering. The final 10 minutes can’t make up for the poor pacing and horribly talky nature of what has gone before, Simon appearing to have misheard the cardinal rule of cinema as, “Tell, don’t show.” Hence, we get an awful lot of scenes of exposition and unnecessary back-chat: I mean, do we really care that one of the girls used to be fat at high-school? Does it matter in the slightest? Meanwhile, seems like at least half the deaths take place off-screen, culminating in a staggering moment where it appears someone is found drowned in a pile of leaves. What? No, really: what? About the only positive to come out of this is Bernadette, who gives Nancy more of a character arc than everyone else in the film combined, her character turning a full 360-degrees over its course.

I guess we should at least be grateful that Simon did not make the obvious artistic decision and turn this into yet another “found footage” abomination. It’s one of the few things which would have made this more of a chore to watch.

Dir: Lou Simon
Star: Jamie Bernadette, Katie Carpenter, Gema Calero, Karishma Lakhani

The Ascent

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“Suffers from a mountain sense of disinterest.”

One year ago, the boyfriend of Emily Wilks (Davis) vanished, along with the mountaineering party he was taking on an ascent of the notoriously lethal Devil’s Peak summit. Emily is no mean climber herself, and still works as a trail guide on the mountain. But the group who have booked her services on this day have another motive: finding the legendary stash of gold they believe is hidden on the mountain, which they believe Emily knows the location. Unable to convince them it’s just a myth, she’s forced to lead the gang through the wilderness. Fortunately, it has many, many potential perils which can be used to thin the herd out.

The IMDb contains a (suspicious?) number of reviews touting the merit of the “director’s cut” of this movie, over the officially released version. But with the former apparently unavailable, we can only review the latter – and it’s severely underwhelming stuff. Davis isn’t the problem, however. The makers choose an actress who actually looks like she could be a climber, with well-defined upper body tone and decent muscles, rather than possessing the twig-like limbs, still seen rather too often. Emily exudes a no-nonsense confidence which also fits her character, and is smart enough to know when to use her physical strength, and when not to.

The problem is… Well, more like the problems are, for just about everything else misfires. First of all, the “mountaineering” scenes are almost entirely shot in super close-up, presumably because the participants were dangling no more than three feet off the ground. It is all completely unconvincing and the movie offers absolutely no sense of danger from the terrain, at any point; far from needing a guide, this mountain looks far more like a literal walk in the park. Large chunks of the plot don’t make much sense either, such as the fight with ice axes which takes place in a desert. [This is perhaps because the makers originally intended to shoot in Alaska, then relocated to Texas – apparently, without bothering to revise the script!] The actions of the villains also often appear to fall into the crevasse marked, “Dumbness necessary to the plot”.

I’m reluctant to condemn completely a film which appears to have been the innocent victim of a tussle between the producer and director. But without access to any other version, the audience here are as much casualties as the movie. Who is responsible for the problems with the other elements, doesn’t matter much, in any final analysis from a neutral observer. You can sense where the writer-director wanted to go with this, and as noted above, I genuinely liked the lead. It isn’t enough, with the undercooked script and weak execution draining most of the film’s nascent promise.

Dir: S.J. Creazzo
Star: Josie Davis, William McNamara, Martin Kove, Martin Kove

Charlize Theron Kills in ‘Atomic Blonde’ trailer

Charlize Theron has been an interesting character and action-heroine contender since 2004’s Aeon Flux. She also impressed as Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman and The Huntsman: Winter’s War, before blowing the roof off the place in Mad Max: Fury Road. She’s also heavily featured alongside action icons Jason Staham and Dwayne Johnson in the upcoming Fate of the Furious, in which she plays a villainess with a fondness for remote-controlled cars. But as the trailer for her latest film (below) shows, she might only be getting started.

Atomic Blonde is set at the end of the eighties, in the dying days of the Eastern Bloc, and she plays Lorraine Broughton, a British spy sent to Berlin to break open a Communist spy ring. They have already killed a colleague, and are apparently involved in the insertion of double agents into the West. It’s up to Lorraine and station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to dismantle the threat.

What particularly made me sit up and take notice about this project, was that it’s directed by David Leitch, who was co-director of the excellent John Wick. Going by the trailer, this appears to bring much the same hard-hitting approach to its action: check out in particular, the opening stairwell brawl,  apparently filmed in one shot, which represents a glorious and very welcome reaction to the hyper-cut hell which was too much of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. Bonus points for incorporating both a cover version of “Blue Monday” and the original of “Killer Queen” into the trailer.

It’s based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, The Coldest City, and also stars John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones. The film gets its world premiere at SXSW this weekend, so we should start to hear reviews etc. before long. The rest of us, however, will have to wait for a while, because Atomic Blonde will not be exploding into cinemas in the rest of America, until July 28.

Think I’m going to be circling that date in the calendar… Anyway, here’s the trailer to tide you over until then!

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

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“Better head(-shot) than dead.”

Important to note the year here, because the original Night of the Living Dead, for all its massive influence (without it, there’d be no The Walking Dead or World War Z) was very, very far from an action heroine film. Though it started off focusing on its female lead, Barbara, after she reaches sanctuary in the farmhouse, she spends virtually the rest of the movie in a near-catatonic state, and the film switches focus to Ben, who becomes the film’s hero. The change for this remake is one of a number of alterations, which are likely both necessary and helpful: when you are redoing a film widely regarded as a classic, you’d better bring something new to the party. That’s something largely forgotten by many horror remakes.

Even to non-horror fans, the plot likely doesn’t need much description. On a visit to her mother’s grave with her brother, Barbara (Tallman) finds herself the target for first one, then multiple, crazed attackers. She takes refuge nearby, along with others seeking shelter. They include Ben (Todd), a no-nonsense type, who repeatedly and at increasing volume crosses swords with Harry (Towles) over whether or not everyone would be better off sheltering in the cellar. As the zombie hordes congregate, various escape plans are formulated and tried – but tensions continue to rise, and the biggest threat to collective survival may not be the undead, banging on the doors.

Largely done for financial reasons – creator George A. Romero made very little from the original, despite its success – this works unexpectedly well. Right from the start, it adjusts the story in small ways that will surprise those familiar with the original, on its way to an ending which twists sharply away from the source, not once but twice. However, it’s the change in Barbara which probably represents the largest shift. Initially, it looks like she’s going the same route, and will spend much of the film suffering from shock. However, she snaps out of it, and rapidly becomes the most sensible member of the group: her suggestions are credible, and she doesn’t engage in the bickering which threatens to tear the group apart, instead firing back, “You can talk to me about ‘losing it’ when you stop screaming at each other like a bunch of two-year-olds.”

She’s well ahead of the curve in terms to figuring things out, too. Witness the scene where there’s still some uncertainty about what they’re facing: she fires several shots into a zombie’s body, asking repeatedly, “Is he dead?”, before finishing the creature off with the archetypal bullet to the brain. No further questions. At the end, while still having some moral qualms – “We’re them and they’re us” – she is capable of putting them aside, and become a bandolier-wearing bad-ass. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, this version of Barbara is one of the people you’d most want beside you; she’s smart, ruthless and takes absolutely no shit from anyone, human or zombie.

Dir: Tom Savini
Star: Patricia Tallman, Tony Todd, Tom Towles, McKee Anderson

Cyborg X

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“James Cameron’s lawyer, on line one…”

cyborgxMaybe the makers of this should just have been honest, and called it Terminaliens. For the amount of wholesale theft that has gone on here is really quite staggering. It takes place in the nearish future after a weapons research program goes haywire, and the cyborg results start attacking humans all over the globe. It’s up to a band of freedom fighters to attack the central computer complex and disable the system before humanity is entirely wiped out. Through in an adorable moppet young girl, who falls under the protection of the heroine, along with some crawling through air-ducts, and you’ve got a homage to James Cameron – back when he was good, rather making three-hour epics about doomed icebergs.

The main thread has heroine Lieutenant Spears (Mauro) rescuing Jack Kilmore (Myers), an X-Corp executive who holds the key to infiltrating his company’s former HQ. You may have to resist the urge to yell “He’s a cyborg!” at your television set, but that’s actually just Myers’s style of acting. There’s also Col. Shaw (Johnson), who smokes cigars and yells a lot, while the nerdy Wizkowski (Stormoen), has a name which seems curiously close to being another Aliens rip-off… Finally there’s even a tough Hispanic chick, Lopez, who – in full keeping with the Aliens approach – is played by the thoroughly non-Hispanic Angie Papanikolas.

One upgrade on Aliens is that Danny Trejo shows up for a bit, as another one of the soldiers, which is nice. We love us some Danny Trejo. He would likely have made Aliens  Otherwise, the rampant plagiarism is all a bit of a shame, since some of the other aspects aren’t bad. The CGI drones which are Skynet’s X-Corp’s surveillance system are nothing to write home about, but the more practical effects are solid, with some surprisingly gory moments. One woman gets the front of her head blown off, while later, a man is cut in half, and left to crawl along the ground, his intestines trailing behind him. Meanwhile, Spears manages to kick ass while looking decent doing it, even when yanking a Very Large Bazooka out of nowhere. Fortunately, supplies of beauty products apparently have not been interrupted by this apocalypse.

This wouldn’t be out of place on the SyFy channel, and stands up decently enough against others of its ilk. If you haven’t seen the Terminator series or Aliens, you would probably enjoy this a good deal more – though if so, that does beg the question, why are you watching the SyFy channel? But I just wish the makers had put more effort into creating a plot that was not so tired and over-familiar. If the resources devoted to this had been applied to an original story-line, it could have been a small gem, rather than feeling like a lame rip-off of genre classics.

Dir: Kevin King
Star: Eve Mauro, Rocky Myers, Adam Johnson, Jake Stormoen