Barb Wire

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“Play it again, Pam…”

When I picked up this DVD, I could hear Chris rolling her eyes at me. And during the first five minutes of the movie – which consists of virtually nothing but Pam on a swing, getting sprayed with a fire-hose, silicone on display – this eye-rolling escalated to the point where I swear I could hear them whirring like the reels on a slot-machine. But by the end, even she had to admit that being a titty-fest – and there’s hardly a scene here without cleavage – doesn’t necessarily make this a bad movie…

For this is nowhere near as bad as its Gigli-like reputation would have you believe. Okay, for $18m, you might expect a bit more than a post-Mad Max setting, and you would certainly expect more from your screenwriter than a blatant steal from Casablanca – Ilene Chaiken should be drummed out of the WGA for claiming a story credit here. But this is an adaptation of a comic-book, starring Pamela Anderson (Lee, as she was then known): what do you expect? I venture to suggest that, if I was 15, this would probably be the greatest story ever told.

Barb Wire runs a club called the Hammerhead in Steel Harbour, one of the last bastions of freedom in 2017 America, where a civil war is ongoing. She funds the club by catching bail-jumpers and rescuing kidnap victims (inevitably, posing as a stripper or hooker), and has to deal with all sides to keep the venue open. But when her former lover Axel (Morrison) turns up, with his new wife, who desperately needs out, her position on the fence suddenly becomes untenable, and she has to choose which side she’s really on.

For those who know Casablanca, almost every element appears in that Bogart classic:

Element Casablanca Barb Wire
Setting Casablanca Steel Harbor
Era World War Two Second American Civil War
Enemy Nazis Congressional Directorate
Hero Rick Blaine Barb Wire
[A cynical expatriate who owns a bar and plays both sides]
Former lover Ilsa Axel
Now wedded to Victor Laszlo Cora D
Who needs… Exit visas Contact lenses
[Which let the bearer escape to safety]
Location Rick’s Bar The Hammerhead
Head Waiter Carl Curly
Chief Villain Major Strasser Colonel Pryzer
Top Cop Louis Renault Alexander Willis
Slimy dealer Guillermo Ugarte Schmitz
Mr. Big Signor Ferrari Big Fatso

About the only new facet is Barb’s blind brother (Noseworthy) – it’s a shame he doesn’t play the piano, though he does act as Barb’s conscience. This concept, turning one of the most beloved Hollywood films of all time into a post-apocalyptic cheesecake-fest, is worth the price of admission alone, simply for its surrealness and sheer audacity. What next? Britney Spears as the lead in a remake of It’s a Wonderful Life?

While one might question Pam’s acting talents, she is backed by a sterling cast of character actors: Steve Railsback, Xander Berkeley, Clint Howard, Udo Kier and Temuera Morrison. Each one hits the mark in their role, delivering lines with the correct level of enthusiasm. Kier, as usual, steals the show (his presence definitely helped soothe Chris’s eye-rolling), though Berkeley’s sleazy cop is perhaps the biggest surprise, especially if you’re only familiar with him as Jack Bauer’s boss in the first two seasons of 24.

Credit should also go to Debbie Evans, Anderson’s stunt double, since it’s fairly obvious that Anderson, while having an undeniable presence (albeit a presence severely diluted whenever she opens her mouth for more than a one-liner – not that this ever stopped Van Damme, Stallone, or even Governor Arnie), is not doing her own stunts. Despite this, the action in the movie is well above-average, with some really cool explosions and fights, notably Axel’s battle a long way off the ground.

Certainly, Barb’s psychotic opposition to being called “babe” seems somewhat hypocritical given how she dresses. And really, despite the, ahem, “inspiration”, the plotting is a lot less fluid than you’d hope, with scenes that come out of and/or go nowhere. Just keep an eye on the contact lenses – alternatively, a familiarity with Casablanca will help you keep things straight and ignore the irrelevant threads.

I admit, you could argue the entire story is irrelevant, and this is nothing more than an indefensible cocktail of eroticized violence. But those who live in such a moral vacuum as to require Hollywood to fill in the gaps, have got much bigger problems than Pamela Anderson’s breasts. If you can get past the first five minutes (which even I will say seem a lot longer), there’s no denying the effort expended here – albeit mostly on sex and violence, aimed at the lizard section of the viewer’s brain.

Yet curiously, actual sex doesn’t seem to take place in this universe at all, having apparently been replaced by tight-fitting costumes: claiming it’s a comment on life in a post-AIDS world is likely more credit than it deserves. Still, probably not a date movie (except in our house!), for this is trash, with hardly a thought in its vapid little head or 17-inch waist, and no agenda worth mentioning. Film doesn’t always need to be great art, any more than music; reprising the Britney motif, Barb Wire is equivalent to something like Hit Me Baby One More Time.

Perhaps the best comment comes from the Screen It website of parental reviews: “Topics to talk about – none”. There are times when this is a glowing recommendation for a movie, and at those times (probably a late weekend night, with a well-stocked fridge), Barb Wire fits the bill admirably.

Dir: David Hogan
Star: Pamela Anderson, Steve Railsback, Temuera Morrison, Jack Noseworthy

Birds of Prey

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“Wing and a prey-er.”

2002 should have been a great time to start a TV series based on a popular comic book – the biggest box-office hit that year was Spiderman, and with a host of other high-profile movies in the pipeline, comics had their highest profile in a long time. So what happened? Why was the show cancelled before Christmas, limping lamely along to the conclusion of its 13-episode run, the finale sacrificed against American Idol and The Bachelorette?

Weak writing, would seem to be the main reason – Jordan Levin, entertainment president of The WB, producers of the show, said, “We really could not find someone who could write that show”, describing its cancellation as the biggest disappointment in eight years. Certainly, the central concept was sound, and appealing, going by the decent ratings for the premiere: 7 1/2 million viewers, twice what the channel had for the same slot in 2001. But by the fourth episode, more than a third of those had been lost, and they kept falling – at the time of its demise, it was ranked 107th out of 118 prime-time shows.

The show did perhaps have an excess of back story to cope with. There’s Barbara Gordon (Meyer), who used to be Batgirl until she was paralysed by the Joker, and now calls herself Oracle. Then there’s Huntress (Scott), a.k.a. Helena Kyle, who was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman. There’s Dinah – no secret identity – the daughter of Black Canary, another character from the comics. Oh, and Huntress’s psychiatrist, played by Mia Sara, is really the chief villainess who runs crime in the town, though this thread was underwritten and never explored as it could have been. She all but vanished from the second half of the series, before an impressive return in the finale.

It seems almost the law that any series with action heroines must have three; see Charlie’s Angels and She Spies for further examples. Why this is, I don’t know, but it can cause problems with dynamics. I’d have been happy with just Huntress and Oracle since, personally, I felt the main problem with the series was Dinah. Never felt her role was really necessary as a recurring character (any similarity to Dawn in Buffy is, I’m sure purely coincidental) – in most episodes, she was little more than a spare wheel, with bratty tendencies which were more irritating than endearing.

It’s a shame, as both the other two were interesting and well-rounded characters, portrayed with skill and charm. Meyer, perhaps best known for her role in Starship Troopers does particularly well, given she is confined to a wheelchair for most of the show. Credit must also be given to Scott, who has to handle the majority of the action, and does so fluidly – the fight sequences are certainly well above average for network television, and hopefully those responsible will find work elsewhere.

The show was at its best playing with the conventions of superhero TV; I particularly remember a discussion over secret identities and whether you could have one without a mask. But the same episode also featured – like the WWE, just without the chocolate pudding – a fight club where evil men watched as women fought. Given part of the appeal of the series itself was exactly this, it was shooting the audience in the foot, and illustrates the apparent schizophrenia of the show.

It fell uncomfortably between stools, neither camp like the original Batman, nor dark and gothic like the comics, save for the last episode when death revealed its sting. Even if it had gone either way, it was hardly likely to appeal to fans of Dawson’s Creek, the show preceding it. This, and some vicious competition in the time slot, likely doomed it. In the end, though, Birds of Prey never became compelling TV. We’d watch one episode, then forget all about it for a week; there wasn’t the same sense of anticipation that better series create in viewers.

We also hated the shameless plugs for the music, though was thoroughly amused to see infamous Russian teen pseudo-lesbians t.A.T.u. provide the song for the final battle. Still, it deserved a happier fate than effectively being replaced by another one of those cheapjack reality show, High School Reunion. Anybody up for a movie in which a disgruntled actor storms a television station and kills the producers responsible for all this low-quality dreck? Pretty sure Dina Meyer would be interested…

Star: Dina Meyer, Ashley Scott, Rachel Skarsten, Shemar Moore

The Descent

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“Six chicks with picks.”

Simplicity is under-rated, especially when it comes to genre films. The simplest horror movies often work the best, because they prey on widely-held fears: monsters (Jaws), getting lost (The Blair Witch Project) or claustrophobia (Below). And now, we get The Descent, which combines all three into one ball of nerves, pitting six female cave-explorers against things below ground. This will do for speleology, what Touching the Void did for mountaineering or Open Water for scuba-diving – and I don’t care if the cave, as one character here disparagingly says, “has handrails and a gift-shop”.

This is an interesting reversal by Marshall from his first film, Dog Soldiers, though both did have a group of people in a small location, facing an outside menace. Dog centered on a group of soldiers in an isolated farmhouse, facing a pack of werewolves – as you can imagine, testosterone levels were set to eleven on that one. Here, save one brief, opening character, all the roles are filled by women, which adds a different dynamic to things. Central are friends Sarah (Macdonald), Juno (Mendoza), and Beth (Reid), whom we first encounter white-water rafting, though it seems Juno and Sarah’s husband have their own leisure activity…

However, a year later, a car accident has changed Sarah’s life, and the trio re-assemble, with three other women, for a little light caving. Unfortunately, rather than the scheduled, well-known cave, Juno opts to take them into a newly-discovered one. This is unfortunate when a rock fall shuts off the entrance, and it becomes clear no-one outside knows where they are, so the women have to press on, into the depths. Sarah is convinced she sees someone nearby: initially, no-one believes her, but eventually it’s clear that there are inhabitants of the system, who are none too pleased to see them – except in a “nourishment” kind of way.

There’s no doubt, this is not exactly new – you’ll spot references to (if you’re feeling kind – “bits stolen from”, if you’re not) other films throughout, from The Thing through Aliens to Pitch Black. The first half is also, to be honest, a little sluggish. Marshall throws in some cheap “Boo!” moments to keep the audience awake, of varying effectiveness, but it’s only when the movie goes underground that this the edge of your seat becomes familiar territory. And once it does, the film barely pauses for breath until the final frame [The American version had a different, slightly-less bleak ending, from the UK version – having had it described to me, I’m curious to see it, though can’t say that I felt the US cut was significantly deficient].

The focus of the film is Juno and Sarah, with the rest of the cast largely reduced to cannon-fodder – though not badly-drawn cannon-fodder, I must admit. Juno is a near-Amazon, while Sarah has to become one, simply in order to survive, and that’s about the extent of the character development here. Demureness, beauty, the ability to bear babies, and all other typical “feminine” traits, are of absolutely no use whatsoever. The ability to drive your pick-axe, repeatedly, into the head of pissed-off Gollum wannabes, on the other hand… Yeah, that will help. But in another interesting contrast to Dog Soldiers, sisterly teamwork is notable by its absence. In the end, the women do almost as much damage on themselves, as the monsters.

The technical aspects are great, with set design and cinematography particularly worthy of praise. An uncomfortable feeling of being trapped in a dark, enclosed space has rarely been better captured; the only light present is what the explorers bring, and it gradually becomes less and less effective for their needs. It is occasionally chaotic, and a combination of limited illumination and the incidents that befall the characters often make it easy to lose track of who’s who. That aside, however, this is a seriously kick-ass film, and the prospect of The Descent 2 would be extremely welcome here (though particularly in the British cut, somewhat unlikely…). I’m thinking, in that one, our heroine could perhaps get talked into leading a team of marines back into the monsters’ lair… Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. :-)

Dir: Neil Marshall
Star: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder

Amazons (1986)

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“More Argentinian sword ‘n’ sorcery: mostly harmless.”

It’s amusing to see that even New Concorde – who released it – don’t seem to have watched the film, their website describing it as “about the legendary lost tribe of warrior women”. Er, no: the A word doesn’t actually get used in the movie, which is really about the quest for a legendary sword, the only thing which stands between an evil sorcerer and world domination.

There’s something irresistible about a film where it sometimes feels like characters were given names by pulling letters from a Scrabble bag – the sword of Zjiqkl – and for half the movie, we were prepared to swear one villain was called Al Gore. Sadly, it was Balgur. Ah, well, never mind. There’s certainly plenty going on, with plots, treachery, topless human sacrifice, bad blood and an alternate dimension largely realised with dry ice and strobe lights.

The action, unfortunately, sucks, though credit is due to Randolph for struggling with a lethargic snake, making it look like the most ferocious attack in cinematic history. Not sure the animals here were monitored by the American Humane Society either… Less bondage-heavy than the other Argentinian Corman productions, the nudity is still frequent. It’s kinda neat how no-one really makes a fuss about the warriors being female, but this is, at best, a passable waste of 80 minutes.

Dir: Alex Sessa
Star: Windsor Taylor Randolph, Penelope Reed, Joseph Whipp, Danitza Kingsley

Mission of Justice

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“Ten minutes of good action, and a lot of zzzzzz.”

I hoped for more from a pairing of Lee and Oshima, each having done fine work individually, but as is often the case, the return declines, the more action heroines are crammed in. There’s no less than five here: two special agents (Lee and Oshima), their commander (Ng), plus the smuggler they’re after (Sharon Yeung, at a guess?) and her sidekick. Oh, Sophia Crawford turns up briefly too. Never mind the quality, feel the width…

I think it’s drugs that are involved here, but weapons, forged money and white slavery are also thrown in at various points. There’s also no honour among the thieves, as the middle part of the film proves, during an immensely tedious trek through the jungle. Lee and Oshima vanish without a trace, after a couple of good fights early on; the pacing then collapses entirely, until a ludicrous, excessive gun-battle at the end. Fortunately, the baddies have attended the Imperial Stormtrooper accuracy course – though since our heroines are supposed to be capturing their target alive, would have thought hurling an apparently infinite supply of hand-grenades might not be the best tactic…

Could really have done without the tone-deaf music and the lurid costumes, but I suppose it’s nice to see the disabled getting work. Sure there’s an excellent trailer to be made here, and when the ladies get to do more than wave guns around, this is pretty good – unfortunately, there isn’t enough of that, and the rest of the movie is almost embarrassingly weak.

Dir: Chun-Yeung Wong
Star: Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Tommy Wong, Carrie Ng

The Princess Blade

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“Imaginative and well-executed modern samurai tale.”

The same source comic inspired Lady Snowblood, but plenty of original thought has also been put into this, set in an interesting alternate present, after 500 years of imposed isolation. A band of fighters, the Takemikazuchi, have been thrown out of work and now roam the country, killing for pay. One of their number, Yuki (Shaku), discovers their leader (Shimoda) killed her mother, and after confronting him, leaves. Except the group’s motto seems to be, “No one here gets out alive”… She finds shelter with Takashi (Ito) – except he is part of a rebel group with a similar philosophy, so a quiet, peaceful life is not on the cards for either of them.

The action, choreographed by Hong Kong’s Donnie Yen, is excellent, combining swordplay with martial arts to great effect. This is so good as to leave the bits between fights feeling dull in comparison, and as a result the film seems a little uneven and choppy. Also, Yuki’s lack of emotion makes her a somewhat unengaging heroine, though it’s both plausible, and reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. The use of CGI for backgrounds is very effective in creating this parallel world, and it’s interesting to see how Yuki and Takashi deal with their similar situations. Credit also to Sano as the rebel leader, for creating a villain nasty enough to have us hoping earnestly for his death. Very cool overall, and definitely recommended.

Dir: Shinsuke Sato
Star: Yumiko Shaku, Hideaki Ito, Kyusaka Shimoda, Shiro Sano

Sakuya, Slayer of Demons

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“Into every generation, a slayer is born…even in 18th-century Japan.”

Any similarities to Buffy are purely coincidental – despite the fact that our heroine Sakuya (Ando), like the blond one, has a soft spot for what she’s supposed to be slaying. Here, she saves the child of her first demon victim, and raises him as her kid brother Taro, despite unnervingly rapid growth and green lump on his head. She takes him on the ultimate mission, travelling to the recently-erupted Mount Fuji, which is the hellmou…er, source of the demons, to face the Spider Queen.

The special effects here are probably the highlight, both simple (the blue flames enveloping Sakuya’s kills) and complex, such as the impressive volcanic eruption and climactic battle with the Spider Queen. En route, she also meets a range of imaginatively-realised creatures – though one set look particularly cheesy, they are, apparently, a nostalgic collection from some classic 60’s films, so we’ll let Haraguchi off with a slap on the wrist for his self-indulgence. The problem is that when there aren’t any demons around, the movie seems lost and is, frankly, pretty dull. The basic premise is established early on, and not much more happens, storywise.

It also doesn’t play by its own rules. It is carefully explained that Sakuya’s Vortex Sword feeds off her life-force, and only human blood is an acceptable substitute. This just doesn’t seem to happen – I was, admittedly, watching a Chinese dub (featuring Anita Mui as the Spider Queen), so maybe something got lost in translation. But between such shaky plotting and the song(!), can’t help feeling it was perhaps aimed at a more juvenile, less critical audience. And that’s something of a shame.

Dir: Tomoo Haraguchi
Star: Nozomi Ando, Kyusaku Shimoda, Keiichiro Sakagi, Yuki Kuroda

I Spit on Your Corpse!

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“Surprisingly survivable 70’s schlock – but, oh, that soundtrack!”

Porn stars who try to act are usually on shaky ground – see Traci Lords’ career – except, it seems, when the characters they play have something of the porn star in them. Brigitte Lahaie in Fascination is a good example, and Spelvin, best known for The Devil in Miss Jones, impresses here as Tate, a cold, animalistic killer, freed from prison by mob boss Moreno (Taylor) to kill a treacherous lawyer. Which goes fine, it’s when her unwitting accomplice Donna (McIver) realises what happened, and goes on the run, that the film really starts. The chase is on: can Tate and sidekick Erica (Miles) hunt Donna down before she reaches Mexico?

Originally Girls For Rent, the new title (presumably inspired by I Spit On Your Grave) is certainly more apt, thanks to Spelvin’s brutal character – particularly one scene involving a mentally deficient kid, that is simply nasty. Moments like that, or Erica’s sudden ‘conversion’ to Christianity, are great and will hopefully stay in my mind longer than the truly dire stock soundtrack, which alternates between being woefully inappropriate, and simply bad. I suspect Adamson, buried in concrete beneath his own hot-tub in 1995, was murdered by a music-lover.

However, Spelvin and Miles hold this together well, and at times it has the same energetic air as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! This is cheap, drive-in product, shot in only 9 days (not counting the sex scene spliced-in later), and won’t be mistaken for anything else. Don’t expect too much, however, and this will occasionally surprise pleasantly. Just bring the ear-plugs.

Dir: Al Adamson
Star: Susan McIver, Georgina Spelvin, Rosalind Miles, Kent Taylor

The Avenging Quartet

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“Enormous potential, largely wasted thanks to dreadful script.”

Add supporting roles for Michiko Nishiwaki and Yukari Oshima to Khan and Lee, and you should have a winner, all four being in perhaps the top half-dozen or so action heroines from Hong Kong. Yet while the fights here are grand, the film wastes far too much effort elsewhere. Khan is a Chinese cop who comes to Hong Kong and bumps into gangstress Lee while looking for former lover Waise Lee, who is a) also Lee’s love, and b) now involved with a painting that hides documentation on Japanese wartime human experiments, which Nishiwaki is trying to sell to Oshima. Like I said, far too much effort (if you want to know about those experiments, track down the grim but jaw-dropping Men Behind the Sun).

The opening act is particularly dire, consisting largely of Cynthia Khan wandering round looking pouty, while “If he only loved meeeee…” music plays, followed by female bonding with Moon – Chris started complaining of cramps around this time. We can hardly blame the actresses, who do what they can; a decent writer would have dealt with this in five minutes, and could then have spent time on Oshima, who has absolutely no character development. The good thing is, you soon learn that when she appears, a fight will shortly follow.

Things do perk up later on; after all the oestrogen, Chin Kar Lok is welcome light relief as an amusing dumb cop, and the finale is excellent, with echoes of Thelma and Louise. However, it’s too little, too late. It’s worth pointing out that while the title and artwork imply some kind of team-up, as in The Heroic Trio, the reality is unfortunately totally different, and nowhere near as interesting.

Dir: Stanley Siu Wing
Stars: Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee, Waise Lee, Chin Kar Lok
a.k.a. Tomb Raiders

Dragon Inn

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“Flying remake kicks up a sand-storm, Brigitte Lin in drag again.”

Eunuchs are always trouble. Here, in the Ming Dynasty, they’ve reduced the Emperor to a puppet, and are close to wiping out all opposition. The last rebel leader Chow (Leung) is on his way to a meeting with his subordinate Yau (Lin) at Dragon Inn, a venue in the middle of nowhere owned by Jade (Cheung), a woman whose interests include sex, bounty hunting, and spicy meat buns of dubious content. However, also waiting for him are government forces. And when the rain comes down – which it does with surprising venom for a location supposedly in the middle of a desert – no-one gets to leave…

There’s a lot to enjoy here, particularly Maggie Cheung’s performance, which is excellent. Her character pivots the film, with the other forces too well-balanced to prevail on their own – the sparring and negotiation means there’s more tension and less fighting than might be expected. The action is good (perhaps most memorably, the Yau-Jade duel where they manage to swap clothes), but it seems as if the camera is often half a step behind; even the wide-screen DVD doesn’t seem big enough. There always seems to be a sandstorm, or something else, stopping the martial arts from fulfilling their potential. Donnie Yen as the Chief Eunuch is also wasted, in a way more common in his Western movies – he vanishes for the middle 70 minutes; Yau, too, takes a back seat once Chow arrives on the scene.

Still, the finale is excellent, with the deciding player not perhaps being who you’d expect, and as a whole, the film is a more than entertaining entry into the flying swordplay genre.

Dir: Raymond Lee
Star: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Brigitte Lin, Donnie Yen