Crazyhead

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“Buffy does Britain.”

Amy (Theobold) is insane. Or so the rest of society thinks, due to her being able to see things nobody else can. She’s trying to keep her head down, working quietly at a bowling alley. But after being attacked, she is rescued by Raquel (Wokoma), another young woman who can see exactly the same things. Amy learns from her new friend that demons are real, and live among us: Raquel has appointed herself a demon-hunter, and convinces the reluctant Amy to join her. This causes no end of issues, not the least of which is Amy’s room-mate becoming one of the possessed, and the most of which is likely the apocalyptic plan of Callum (Curran). He intends to use Raquel to open the gates of hell on Halloween, allowing thousands more demons to flood into our world and take over humans.

It is, very clearly, inspired by Buffy in many aspects, from its blonde heroine, through the “Scooby Gang” of friends in assistance, such as long-suffering bowling-alley colleague, Jake (Reeves), who carries a torch for Amy and likes canoeing. On the villainous side, Callum also seems to owe a particularly large debt to the Mayor of Sunnydale (though in our house, Curran will always be Van Gogh from Doctor Who!). However, it’s almost fourteen years since Buffy Summers rode off into the sunset, so I guess the statute of limitations has run out there. Another potential inspiration could be a distaff version of Supernatural, but there’s still plenty here that’s fresh and fun, and it has a particularly British approach

For instance, it’s laden with sarcastic banter, as well as (for those who might be offended) plenty of harsh language and general crudity – an exorcism, for instance, requires a very special shower for the target… If somewhat lacking in originality, the dynamic between the two leads helps make up for this; it’s likely the show’s strongest suit, and overcomes most of the scripting flaws. Amy and Raquel are each outsiders in their own ways, who can mesh together into an effective whole. One possesses better social skills, and can hold down a job, so is able to interface with other people if necessary; while the other has superior knowledge about what’s going on, in part thanks to her “special” background. Though both are quite happy to resort to a more physical approach when necessary – and, given who they’re facing, that would be quite often.

It’s all over remarkably quickly, especially if you are more used to American series, typically lasting 20+ editions a season. This only takes six 45-minute episodes to go from introducing the characters to the eve of the apocalypse. It is perhaps a good thing, as the story written by creator Howard Overman is somewhat thin, and could potentially feel stretched if told at any greater length. Instead, you will likely be left wanting more, and that’s never a bad position for the audience to be in, at the end of a show’s first season.

Dir: Al Mackay and Declan O’Dwyer
Star: Cara Theobold, Susan Wokoma, Lewis Reeves, Tony Curran

Iron Swallow

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“A bit hard to swallow.”

ironswallowGenerally, if someone is roaming the country, carrying out brutal attacks on apparently innocent citizens, blinding and disfiguring them, they’d be the villain of the piece, right? Not so here. For despite such distinctly non-heroic actions, Iron Swallow (Lee) is the heroine, disabling the men she holds responsible for killing her father years earlier. Needless to say, they’re not exactly impressed with the situation. To make matters worse, someone is flat-out killing her targets, intent on covering up something or other, and is trying to make it look like Swallow is responsible, by leaving her trademark darts behind at the scene. There are also two friends (Tao and Chung) rattling around, the son and pupil respectively of the region’s leading martial arts master Chu Hsiao Tien (Yuen), who get involved in the murky situation because Chu is one of Swallow’s targets and has hired a particularly loathsome assassin to bury the case.

Murky is, to be honest, putting it mildly, and the plot here appears to have been constructed from finest quality raw ore, taken from the Kung Fu Cliché mine. And I stress the word “raw”, since there doesn’t appear to have been much processing, in the way of logical thought, given to those ideas between their conception and the screen. It’s the kind of kung-fu film where you can’t be sure whether they made the story up as they went along – however, if they had, it would explain a lot of the tedious incoherence. I read another review which called this a martial arts version of I Know What You Did Last Summer, and that’s a decent enough summary. At one point, Chris meandered in and wondered whether this was the source film for Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, based mostly on Swallow’s hair-style. Though she says that for about 40% of period kung-fu films, so it probably doesn’t mean much.

It’s certainly one of those cases where you might as well bring a book, and forget about trying to follow the indigestible lumps of plot between the action scenes. Fortunately, those are decent enough to sustain interest, and relatively copious, particularly in a final third which more or less abandons the plot, replacing it with multiple varieties of fisticuffs. Swallow’s skills are obvious, and given multiple opportunities to shine. It’s a shame that Lee was never allowed to showcase her own identity, in the way Angela Mao received, instead being the victim of a highly dubious marketing campaign which alleged she was Bruce Lee’s sister. Whatever the short-term benefit that brought, it did her career no good in the longer term, and she was all but gone from the screen by the end of the seventies. I have to wonder if whoever came up with that genius idea, was also responsible for the script here…

Dir: Judy Lee, Don Wong Tao, Ting Wa Chung, Yee Yuen
Star: Chang Pei-Cheng
a.k.a. Shaolin Iron Eagle

Lady Bloodfight

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“Now available for Playstation and Xbox”

This rattled around in pre-production for a while, originally being called Lady Bloodsport, and with the names linked to it being significantly higher in profile: Maggie Q, Shu Qi and Zhiyi Zhang. The end result here is obviously smaller and cheaper – the fights at its core all take place in the bastion of martial arts, a warehouse – and you can’t help but think, “What if…?” However, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable, despite – or, perhaps because of – feeling like a throwback to straightforward movies such as the original Bloodsport, which helped launch the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1988.

The basic approach seems entirely deliberate, and the simplicity works to the film’s benefit. You don’t watch a film with this title for intricate plot or subtle character study; you watch it to see asses being kicked, and there’s enough of that, you’d be hard-pushed to feel cheated. The excuse is the well-worn trope of a martial-arts tournament for women, the kumite, being held in Hong Kong. The last time it happened, it ended in a tie between deadly rivals, Shu (Hofmann) and Wai (K. Wu). They’re now both looking for someone who can fight on their behalf. Shu selects Jane Jones (Johnston), in Hong Kong seeking a father who vanished under murky circumstances years earlier. Wai chooses and trains Ling (J. Wu), a cocky, streetwise fighter. But there are 14 other entrants, hailing from all over the world, including Russia, Australia and Brazil, who must be defeated before the inevitable Jones vs. Ling showdown.

Yes, it’s utterly contrived, not least in not one, but two, master-student threads. If you can’t think of better ways to achieve the same end, you need to watch more movies. Fortunately, it’s salvaged by a quarter of decent performances from the lead women, who take the clichés they’re given by the script, and round them out into at least an approximation of real characters, good enough for the movie’s purposes. Bonus points due, for not inflicting any sappy romance (although Jones’s interactions with the spirit of her father are occasionally on perilously thin ice instead) and also largely avoiding potentially sleazy cheesecake, save for one locker-room pan.

As the tag-line above suggests, this feels very much like an adaptation of a non-existent video-game. As such, it would have helped if they’d mixed up the environments for the fights a bit, in the name of variety. This is a minor quibble, however, and what you get are some well-crafted slabs of action, showcasing various styles and approaches. Outside of Jones and Ling, the character which stuck in our mind most was likely Mayling Ng’s monstrous Svietta, freed from a Russian prison for the kumite. All tattoos and snarls, she might have made a better “final boss” for the heroine than Ling, who is perhaps a little too sympathetic. Despite any flaws, it’s a brisk tale, energetically told, and with plenty to commend its no-nonsense approach.

Dir: Chris Nahon
Star: Amy Johnston, Muriel Hofmann, Jenny Wu, Kathy Wu

Chosen, by K.F. Breene

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Shanti is a bad-ass. Not that you’d know it when we first encounter her, staggering through the wilderness on the edge of death, after an ill-considered choice of route as she escapes from… Something. We’ll get back to that. Fortunately, she is found by Sanders, a career soldier from a nearby city, out on a training mission with a band of raw recruits. They take her back to their town, where she’s nursed back to health – then the awkward questions begin, concerning where she was going and precisely why she was carrying weapons. But the key turns out to be Captain Cayan, who possesses the same psionic warfare capabilities as Shanti; except, he’s all but unaware of it, a sharp contrast to her finely-honed and practiced expertise.

When the city comes under attack, it appears initially just to be another raid by the Mugdock, a barbarian tribe who have caused trouble for years. However, it turns out they aren’t alone, and have partnered up with others who pose a bigger threat. While her adroitness, with both mind and sword, are key in fending off the enemy, it offers only temporary relief, because Sanders is then captured while out on a mission, and tortured to reveal the city’s secrets. Cayan, together with Shanti, lead the expedition to rescue him, but the resulting conflict brings her presence in the area to the attention of the very people she least wants to find out.

I enjoyed reading this – after a couple of fairly lackluster entries in the genre, it was refreshing to find something where you wanted to keep turning pages, to find out what would happen next. Shanti is an excellent heroine: smart, fiercely loyal to those who have earned her trust, takes no shit from anyone, with a sardonic wit and possessing copious back-story, some of which is filled in over the course of this book. But woe betide you get on the wrong side of her, for she can kill you quickly with her sword – or very slowly with her mind. As we see near the end of the book, you’d better pray you get the former fate. Speaking of which, her talents are showcased particularly well in the following passage, depicting her defense against the Mugdock attackers:

Words could not describe how thoroughly Sanders had underestimated her. How they all had. She moved as if in some elaborate dance. Every nuance of her body was in perfect harmony as she glided through her fighting postures, slicing and cutting, weaving in and out. Even her sword was part of the dance, moving like an extension of her arm. She was breathtaking. And extremely deadly. Her pile was larger than her male counterpart’s. It was neater, too. One cut, maybe two, and they were brought down. Appendages sliced off, heads, limbs, incapacitated, then she moved on. Every so often she would throw a knife, hitting someone in their head, heart, or, most often, their neck. He had never seen anything like it.

Damn. It’s a bit of a shame that there isn’t more action, because it’s described so evocatively when it comes along, you’re left feeling as if you were there, and wanting more. To her credit, Breene also does a good job of Shanti’s psychic abilities; I’ve seen books where that kind of thing turns into clunky and ineffective prose, not the case here. A couple of other points worthy of praise. While there’s obvious unresolved sexual tension between the heroine and the Captain, this provokes a lot less eye-rolling than usual; indeed, it makes sense, given their mental bond. It’s also a fully-formed story – Shanti’s saga goes on, obviously (there are six books in The Warrior Chronicles to date), yet this finishes at a point that feels complete, not an obvious “Continued in Volume 2!”

There were occasional passages which I did find myself having to re-read, because the intent or meaning of them seemed rather confused. But that’s a small quibble, for an engrossing story in a universe a bit reminiscent of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (albeit with fewer dragons… at least, so far!). My rule of thumb for deciding whether a book is good or not, is whether I watch it unfold cinematically in my mind’s eye as I read. That wasn’t just the case here, I was also actively casting it. What do we want?! Cecily Fay for Shanti. When do we want it? As soon as someone gets the budget. :)

Author: K.F. Breene
Publisher: Through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

Angel Force

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“In the jungle, the Lee-on sleeps tonight…”

This is confusing. For the IMDb lists a completely different film by the same title – also made in 1991 and starring Moon Lee. That one stars Simon Yam: this one doesn’t. Meanwhile, Amazon has Yukari Oshima in the cast – I may have blinked and missed her, but more likely she was in the other one. It is also, despite the title, entirely unrelated to the Angel series, though did remind me I’ve not yet got round to reviewing parts two and three of that. If you see it referred to as Mission Kill and Mission of Condor too, I think that’s the “other” Angel Force as well; one site even refers to this movie as Lethal Blood 2, although it bears no relation to the first movie there either. I hope this helps…

Regardless, I wondered early on if this would even qualify, as May (Lee) takes a back seat, playing second banana to her boss, Peter (Lam). He has been tasked with rescuing kidnapped Westerner Harrison, stashed away after his capture, deep in the Burmese jungle by local drug lord, Khun Sa [who appears to have been a real person]. After putting together a team, on virtually the eve of the recovery mission, Peter is gunned down in an attempted hit, and it’s up to May to lead things. There are problems both outside and inside the team. A mole is leaking information on the mission to the people they are after, and the first guy Peter recruits, Benny (Ng), turns out to be a borderline psycho, who gets a bit rapey with a captured enemy. It’s up to May to complete the mission, get out alive, and then figure out who is the informant.

Right from the start here, there’s no shortage of action. Though a bit too much of it consists of two group spraying automatic gunfire at each other, through thick jungle foliage and with all the accuracy of Imperial Stormtroopers. While I am never averse to seeing a guard-tower explode in a good, giant fireball, there is a limit to the appeal of such things, and it is certainly reached here, well before the arrival of what may be the first deus ex helicopter in cinema history. I was also amused by the painfully early nineties approach to both mobile phones the size of bricks,  and high-tech searches represented by a computer screen where the text largely consists of word-processor installation instructions. No wonder the team ended up with Psycho Benny.

Fortunately, the guns here jam or run out of ammo with regularity which could be concerning if I were a weapons manufacturer. As a viewer though, the film is on far more solid ground when dealing with the hand-to-hand action. Lee leads from the front with some fights that showcase her speed and agility to good effect. The most notable of these is a battle against Fujimi Nadeki after the near-assassination of Peter, in which May chases the killer through the streets on a motorcycle, to a half-demolished building. A savage gun-battle follows, notable not least for May’s point-blank execution of one man, ending with her going up against Nadeki. While it forms the high point, more or less any time Lee puts the gun down is a good indication you should start paying greater attention here.

Dir: Shan Hua
Star: Moon Lee, Wilson Lam, Hugo Ng, Fong Lung
a.k.a. Tian shi te jing

Miss Diamond

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“More like, Miss Cubic Zirconia”

diamond1There’s an exhibition showcasing the first diamonds ever mined in Germany, dug up by the company belonging to Buhler (Kier). Keeping thing safe is the responsibility of security expert Tim (Kretschmann), who doesn’t realize that renowned jewel thief Lana (Speichert) has her eyes on the jewels. So they’re both in for a nasty surprise, because after Lana is caught by Tim in the process of stealing them, it turns out the diamonds are completely fake. Buhler gives her an ultimatum: Lana must find the real diamonds, or she’ll be handed over to the police, and to ensure she doesn’t just run off, tasks Tim with keeping an eye on her. It soon becomes clear, though, that there is more to the mystery than there appears initially, and someone is very keen to stop them from getting to the truth.

This is flat and uninspired in almost every way, beginning with the complete lack of chemistry between Speichert and Kretschmann, though in their defense, the dubbing isn’t exactly helping them. [Or the beloved Udo Kier, who seems to be sleep-walking through his role] However, that can’t explain away the story, which is about as far from sparkling like diamonds as possible, even if you allow for the ludicrous central concept. Diamonds. In Germany.  It features villains who resolutely refuse to behave with even a modicum of common sense. For example, if ever I become an evil overlord, capture my enemies, and need to dispose of them, I will kill them on the spot, not tie them up underground, with the intention of letting them be run over by a slow-moving tunneling machine.

Which brings me to the topic of the action showcased here, and unfortunately, most of it ranges from the physically impossible to the cringe-inducing. The former is showcased during that escape from the tunneling machine, where Lana somehow dangles from a chain with one foot, while simultaneously pulling the 180-lb plus Tim up off the ground. The latter sees Lana doing front flips as she is simply trotting across a roof. Who does she think she is, Catwoman? This soundtrack also appears to be composed by somebody who has listened to too many James Bond films, which simply reminds the viewer of the gulf between this and any 007 movie of the same era.

A couple of marginal saving graces do exist, just not in the central performances, main story-line or cinematic direction. I was kinda amused – perhaps unintentionally – by how crap Tim is. He’s the one that’s always getting knocked out, captured, falling out out boats and generally put in peril, from which Lana has to save him. Some of the vehicle stunt-work is not too bad either. But overall, what you appear to have here is little more than a underwhelming TV pilot, certainly bad enough not to make it to series.

Dir: Michael Karen
Star: Sandra Speichert, Thomas Kretschmann, Udo Kier, Michael Mendl
a.k.a. Die Diebin

Prophecy of Eve

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“Puts the ‘eve’ in dry heave.”

This will be a slightly shorter review than usual. For there’s not much to say about a film which runs only 77 minutes, yet still somehow managed to feels both confused and full of unnecessary padding. “Well done”, maybe? Certainly, as a model of what not to do, this hits all the necessary marks. It seems be set in Los Angeles, renamed Angel City, for no particularly good reason. There is a struggle between demons and those they possess – whose eyes flash red at dramatic or necessary to the plot moments – and those on the side of good, whose eyes flash green. Leading the latter side are the Order, and two of their members have, in defiance of the rules, have a child, Eve. Her parents are attacked and apparently killed by the demon-possessed, and Eve is left to fend for herself on the streets, while the Order try to locate her.

They are apparently a bit crap at the locating thing. For 15 years later (!), Eve (Villatuya) is still roaming the streets taking out bad guys with her sword. Meanwhile, demonic possessions have increased dramatically, and it appears to be connected to a certain company and its headquarters downtown. Fortunately, the Order have managed to infiltrate the place, and their operative, Esther (Maxali) has just escaped with footage showing exactly what the company are up to. Eve may be the only thing standing between the world and disaster. Or maybe not. Because the film may not even bother with anything approaching a coherent ending, opting instead to finish just when the film should be ramping up to an exciting climax.

Admittedly, any excitement would likely be a large improvement over what the movie provided to that point. Which would be a string of B-grade martial arts fights and C-grade performances. At first, I thought it was refreshingly ambitious of a Filipino production to attempt to make a movie set in Los Angeles, and quite brave of them to do so in English, when it clearly wasn’t the native tongue of the lead actors. Then, I realized my mistake: this is actually American. Oh, dear. I’m struggling to find many positives, but have to say, the look of the film is rather better than you’d expect from the reported $15,000 budget. It has a nicely drenched sheen of wet neon, that appears to have strayed in from a much bigger production. The poster, too, looks slick, and promises much: unfortunately, these positive aspects only stand in sharp contrast to what the film can actually deliver.

Dir: Ron Santiano
Star: Ia Villatuya, Michelle Laurent, Nicole Maxali, Roberto Divina

The Avenger

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“It’s a cover-up!”

Teetering on the edge of qualifying as false information, this TVM was originally released under the more relevant, yet great deal less salacious (and, let’s be honest, less appealing) title of A Nanny’s Revenge, along with a greatly subdued sleeve. Marketing works, people: for put it this way, I’d never have watched it in that presentation. I can’t feel utterly cheated, even if what I got is closer to a low-rent version of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle than the tempting treat promised by the cover. 

Gina Wright (O’Keefe) has a really bad day – though likely not as bad as her parents. For her father dies in a building-site accident, and her mother in a car crash as she rushes to hospital. The site owner, mogul Parker Randall (Pratt, channeling Alec Baldwin), seeks to cover up the shoddy Chinese materials responsible, and fakes a toxicology report to show that Gina’s dad was drunk. A bit of a white knight – we first meet her quitting her job as a teacher, in support of an unjustly fired colleage – Gina won’t stand for that. So she hatches a plan to expose Parker’s wrongdoing, and to that end, worms her way into a job as nanny to his son, by befriending his wife, Brynn (Pratt). Little does she know, however, that her  employer’s predatory instincts are not limited to the business world, and he’s making plans for a hostile takeover, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

There was a moment towards the end of this, where for one glorious second I thought Gina, Brynn and Parker’s spurned mistress were going to team up in order to take revenge on the man they all have good reason to hate, in a Murder on the Orient Express kinda way. I’m filing that one away in my box of script ideas for potential future use, since the movie here failed to take advantage of it. That’s inexplicable, since what it instead delivers is more or less entirely predictable, and if generally competent and not badly-acted, rarely gets beyond the obvious. For instance, we know Gina is impulsive. Because someone explicitly tells us she is. Oh, and she wears a nose-ring (although does not sport the neon highlights shown on the cover), which in the world of TV movies, is one step above being a crack whore.

There’s an entirely unnecessary subplot involving a colleague of her Dad, who is trying to take Parker to court – he meets the end necessary to the plot, in order to show how ruthless a villain Gina is facing. Indeed, by the end, you’ll likely find yourself with a long laundry-list of ways in which this could have been improved, or come closer to the movie promised by the sleeve. More violence. More nudity – well, make that any nudity. Boost the subtext about big business being bad into a whole class-war thing. Make Parker look slightly more like Donald Trump. Instead, you’ll get this vanilla pudding: filling enough, just not what many people would call tasty.

Dir: Curtis Crawford
Star: Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Michael Woods, Victoria Pratt, Cynthia Preston
a.k.a. A Nanny’s Revenge

Deidra and Laney Rob a Train

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“Criminal train of thought.”

After their mother has a meltdown at her job and ends up in jail: teenage sisters Deidra (Murray) and Laney (Crow, somewhat infamous for her post-elimination meltdown on The X Factor) are left to fend for themselves. With household bills piling up – never mind trying to fund Mom’s bail, or even Deidra’s long dreamed-of college tuition – and Child Protective Services looming, things look bleak. But a visit to deadbeat Dad Chet (Sullivan, channeling David Spade), who works for a railway company, gives Deidra an idea. Hop aboard the freight trains that run by the back of their house, pop open a container to take some goods, and fence them on for cash. Things go surprisingly well, until a disgruntled railroad cop, Truman (Nelson), starts to close in on the pair, intent on rebuilding his reputation after an incident in Arizona.

A somewhat awkward mix of elements, some not working as well as others, it still manages to survive and be entertaining. This is largely through sheer force of will from the lead characters, who manage to make you forget the actresses playing them are both too old for high school. The pair share a fierce bond, prepared to do anything for each other, even at the cost of their own dreams – for as well as Deidra’s education, Laney finds herself a finalist in a beauty pageant, which sets her at odds with her best friend at school, who is also a competitor. You know I said, some elements don’t work as well as others? That would be one of them: Drop Dead Gorgeous this isn’t.

It’s much better off when not trying too hard to be heartwarming. For example, the reason for Mom’s meltdown, turns out to be so saccharine as to provoke eye-rolling rather than tugging on your heart-strings. It has a nicely cynical edge about small-town life, such as the school guidance councilor who is as desperate as Deidra to get out of this dead-end – if only she could just get someone accepted to a college which doesn’t have “community” in its name… Like most of the adults here, there’s a sense of benign incompetence here: they don’t so much pose a threat to our two heroines, as bumble around and get in the way of them achieving their goals.

That these involve repeated grand larceny… Well, best not dwell on the implications there, regardless of how righteous the cause may be. For the lack of effort the pair put into any legal methods of fund-raising to solve their issues, could be seen as a troubling indictment of modern youth and entitlement culture. But it would be particularly tough to blame such an adorable pair of siblings, they appear to have strayed in from the Disney Channel. All snark aside, these are fun characters to watch bounce in and out of scrapes, and you can’t help pull for them as they turn into fun-sized versions of Ronnie Biggs.

Dir: Sydney Freeland
Star: Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, David Sullivan