Buffy the Vampire Slayer: season six

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Slaybours, everybody needs good Slaybours…”

Season Six was in trouble from the start, with the titular heroine (literally) dead and buried. Bringing Buffy back from beyond was a problem always likely to perplex, because once you start resurrecting characters, nothing is a threat any more. Although this was handled moderately well, the show really started to fall apart after the musical episode. This demonstrated one thing beyond all reasonable doubt – why the cast are actors. From then on, most of the stories seemed to have been cribbed from daytime soaps. Buffy has sex with Spike, feels bad about it, then does it again. Xander and Anya’s on-off-off-on-off wedding and relationship. Willow and Tara were no more solidly committed, and the clumsy “magic=drugs” story arc was the sort of thing I’d expect to see on Charmed. In addition, the main bad guys for 90% of the series were a trio of geeks, minor bit players from previous episodes, who were about as threatening as flies, albeit rather more annoying.

I will confess to having lost a few episodes in the middle – here in Phoenix, it kept getting pre-empted for even more sucky local basketball – but it was hard to care. When things settled back down (the Suns having failed to make the playoffs), there were only three weeks to go, and after an episode in which Willow and Tara might as well have been saying “Look at us! We’re lesbians!” every line, I was ready to write the series off. Then a misaimed bullet took out Tara and Willow went berserk – black magic, apocalyptically berserk. It was quite, quite fabulous, despite a “love conquers all” ending which while well-handled, still remained cliched. Those two episodes, if not quite redeeming the dreck that had passed before, at least renewed my interest in season 7. Will Willow go straight? Is Spike now all Angelus i.e. mopey, pouty and deeply uninteresting? Time will tell…

Star: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Michelle Trachtenberg

Dead Men Can’t Dance

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“Army women are only twist to very routine action flick.”

Plotwise, this is a by-the-numbers action thriller about a special forces group on a mission in the Korean Demilitarised Zone, who get embroiled in a CIA operation to retrieve nuclear triggers. Why it merits any coverage here, is because their command structure is matriarchal, from Brigadier General Burke (Zabriskie), through their operational leader and former agency operative Victoria Elliot (York), down to Staff Sergeant Rhodes (Barbara Eve Harris), who could give R. Lee Ermey a run for his money – Ermey, incidentally, turns up as the CIA boss.

This does add a nice bit of sexual tension to matters, as the leader of the CIA team is Elliot’s lover, played by Michael Biehn – what are the odds against that? Characters like Zabriskie and Harris are fun to watch; however, the action is lacklustre, consisting largely of running around and firing automatic weapons, while the plot is painfully obvious – helpful of the Koreans to build their nuclear facility within convenient walking distance of the border. Still, had to laugh at the reason for betrayal given by the (inevitable!) CIA traitor: “large sums of hard cash, what else?”.

Dir: Steve Anderson
Star: Kathleen York, Michael Biehn, Adrian Paul, Grace Zabriskie

Burn Up W

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“T & A = terrorists and armaments…as well as what you’d expect.”

This teeters infuriatingly close to greatness, but eventually succumbs to mediocrity because of a tendency to juvenile smuttiness, that fatally weakens what is, at heart, an intriguing story and setting. The Warriors are a special police group – mostly female, with one token (lecherous) man – sent in to sort out nasty cases. The main thread in the four episodes here, is a virtual drug which can turn the consumer into a mind-controlled killer – or, presumably, anything else desired.

Each episode has largely the same strengths and weaknesses. For example, one part builds to a gripping finale with the team trapped in their own station, but starts with a scene where heroine Rio is selling her used underwear, to a shop specialising in such stuff. Then her male colleague enters, trying to buy it direct from her. This is played for cheap laughs, but comes across as downright creepy to these (admittedly Western) eyes. Same with the last episode, which ends with an unarmed Rio facing a terrorist…who orders her to strip naked. And did I mention the nude bungee-jumping?

I, of all people, have few problems with gratuitous nudity, but when it brings an interesting storyline to a grinding halt and stops the action, even I have to draw the line. If I wanted to watch animated soft-porn, there’s plenty of it out there, and the creators here obviously have enough imagination that they don’t need to ramp up the jiggle factor – Rio is a character in herself, and I especially liked mad sniper Maya. Presumably aimed at the acned teenage boy market, anyone else will likely find themselves intrigued and irritated in equal measure.

Dir: Hiroshi Negishi
Star (voice): Yuka Imai, Maya Okamoto, Ryutarou Okiayu, Sakaru Tange

Bad Girls: season one

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“Guilty of being a solid and thoroughly entertaining drama.”

Women-in-prison is not a genre greatly within our remit, since they’re often just an excuse for a bit of soft-core masochism. There are occasional exceptions, however, and this is one, with its origins as a network TV show forcing restraint of the more exploitative aspects, as well as permitting the characters to develop more fully than in a movie.

This is especially necessary, since at first glance they are your usual cliches: slimy warder, do-good governor, lesbian with a heart, wrongly imprisoned innocent, etc. However, over time, we get to see more facets, and the acting is, without exception, impressive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we particularly warmed to the villains, Jack Ellis as Fenner, a guard who deals out privilege in exchange for sexual favours, and Debra Stephenson as the psychopathic Michelle Dockley.

Credit to the writing too, which maintains a fine balance, most notably the episode which switched between a funeral and attempts to brew up home-made wine. You truly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But why does almost no-one ever get out of jail, except in a body-bag? Could probably stand a little less of the unresolved sexual tension between Nikki (the good dyke) and Helen (the nice governor) – I’m no fan of it, gay or straight – but I suspect this side will run and run, and we’re happy to put up with it.

Star: Mandana Jones, Simone Lahbib, Debra Stephenson, Jack Ellis

Cleopatra Jones

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“Blaxploitation goes bigtime.”

The success of independent blaxploitation films inevitably let to the major studios trying to cash in, and this applied to both sexes. Jones was their response, with 6’2″ Tamara Dobson over-filling Pam Grier’s shoes, as the special agent taking on dyke drug queen Mama (Winters, chewing scenery atrociously) and police corruption, at home and abroad (“Turkey”, supposedly – I wasn’t convinced).

Still, they’ve clearly thrown a lot of money at this, and Dobson has presence in a Grace Jones sort of way, if not perhaps much acting talent. She can’t do kung-fu for toffee either, but when Shelley Winters is your nemesis, how well do you need to fight? She can spray automatic weaponry with the best of them, however, and her car – a midnight blue Corvette Stingray with a customised hydraulic roof (to avoid messing up the ‘fro), and a secret arsenal in the door panel – is also fabulous, perhaps the best ever owned by a female action heroine.

Fargas, later to make his mark as Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch, pimps memorably as Doodlebug, a role he’d later parody in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka, and despite its studio origins, didn’t sell out to The Man as much as I expected. Can’t help wishing they’d used Pam Grier though; she deserved the production values on show here, and they deserve a better actress than Dobson.

Dir: Jack Starrett
Star: Tamara Dobson, Shelley Winters, Antonio Fargas, Bernie Casey

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: season two

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“Possibly the slayer’s finest hour…all 24 of them.”

While there have been stand-out Buffy episodes since, season two perhaps ranks as the most consistently high in quality. There’s hardly an episode that ranks as less than excellent, and the writing is sparklingly witty, with more eminently quotable lines than you can shake a stake at.

The big bad in this series is Angel, and he is far better as a villain than the drippy, mopey good guy he seemed in series one. By sleeping with Buffy, and thereby knowing true happiness (hmmm, so sex = happiness, does it, Joss?), he loses his soul. If this story arc has a weakness, it’s that it is spread over about nine episodes. In most of these he just pops in, torments Buffy and leaves, when it would have packed more wallop to cover the entire thing in three or four hours. However, even the less significant episodes are great, and the transformation of Spike from villain to Buffy’s unwilling accomplice is fabulous.

Other highlights include the Judge, a demon that can’t be killed by human weapons (or at least, couldn’t last time he was incarnated), Kendra the West Indian slayer (and her stake, Mr. Pointy), and the growing relationship between Giles and computer teacher Miss Calendar (about which the words “oh, dear…” come to mind). There is a certain feeling of rehash to some of the episodes – yet again, Xander falls for the wrong girl, making Inca Mummy Girl too close to Teacher’s Pet – but the actors have really grown into their parts and the results still seem fabulous and fresh.

Star: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, James Marsters

His Bodyguard

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“Competent but hardly thrilling role-reversal of The Bodyguard.”

The imagination on view is exemplified by the title; changing a definite article is about as imaginative as it gets in this TV movie. Kapture, a veteran of Silk Stalkings, plays Jenny Farrell, the security officer at a pharmaceutical company who has to guard the only witness to a robbery, a deaf man (Natale) whom the villains want dead. Oh, and they’ve got inside help.

Save for an interesting diversion at a deaf school midway through, the story (by Dynasty veteran, Emma Samms) follows exactly the path you’d expect: hero and heroine begin antagonistically before falling in love (and into bed). Naturally, the police are not brought in, no matter how many rounds of gunfire are sprayed at the target, with Jenny instead preferring to run and hide in the mountains, where the bad guys can come and have the obligatory final shoot-out.

Kapture isn’t bad, but lacks any physical presence, and while there are attempts made to give her flaws, this just ends up making her character seem weak. It’s nice to see a challenging role for a deaf actor, but it feels like an exercise in political correctness – there’s no reason for him to be deaf, so it smacks of tokenism. While never particularly bad, it’s a remarkably even film, and never gets much beyond mediocre either.

Dir: Artie Mandelberg
Star: Mitzi Kapture, Anthony Natale, Michael Copeman, Robert Guillaume

The Swordswoman in White

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“Dubbing proves most entertaining facet of otherwise sporadic hack job.”

Arriving on a DVD of such poor quality, it has been shorn entirely of both opening and closing credits, but hey, I paid $4.99, so can’t really complain. The heroine – named Charlene for most of the film – helps her father run the White Lotus, a rebel group fighting the government in 18th-century China. They have to avoid capture, while simultaneously looking for her long-lost mother (who is in her turn, looking after them), and further diversion is caused by a subplot involving an evil landlord trying to marry a young girl against her will.

There is some promise here and what action there is, is actually not bad, with the heroine handling herself well. However, far too much time is spent sitting around discussing action, rather than actually carrying it out. While this long-winded chatting is taking place, all there is to sustain your interest is a wildly anachronistic dub which includes references to deep-pan pizza (with anchovies!), Ed McMahon and swap-meets as well as a startling off-key rendition of Amazing Grace. But if I wanted to watch What’s Up Tiger Lily?, I would do so, and it’s not so bad a film as to deserve the MST3K treatment.

In some ways, it feels more like the middle of a long-running TV series, not least because of the sudden start, and a final caption which tidies up everything that would presumably have happened next episode. And would it be churlish to point out Charlene actually spends more time wearing red than white?

Dir: Zhang Xua-Xun
Star: Your guess is as good as mine…

Dragon Princess

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“Somewhere in here, there’s a decent film trying to get out.”

If ever a movie was condemned by the medium, this is it – it’s badly dubbed, cropped to oblivion, and the print looks as if it has recently been used as kitty litter. Just what DVD was invented for… Plotwise, there’s certainly nothing new. Shiomi plays the daughter of a kung-fu master (Chiba) who was crippled by his rival (Ishabashi) in a spat over a job. He retires to New York to plot revenge, using his daughter as his weapon. After the traditional, getting-beaten-up-repeatedly training, she returns to Japan, wastes no time in making a nuisance of herself and everything heads relentlessly towards the big showdown.

The low rating is largely because of the presentation; I really wouldn’t mind seeing a good quality, letterboxed, and ideally subtitled, print because Shiomi has definite talent – as can be seen in her nunchaku-twirling. However, few genres need widescreen as much as the martial arts. It’s hard to appreciate a good bout of fisticuffs when one participant is off-screen, and when you take that away, there’s precious little left here to entertain, with neither story nor characters possessing much originality. Shiomi’s role is nicely twisted, however, as she has been created entirely as a tool for her father’s vengeance. With that accomplished (and I don’t think I’m giving away much there!), what would become of her? In some ways, Dragon Princess 2 might be a more interesting film. Pity it never got made.

Dir: Hiroshi Kohira
Star: Sue Shiomi, Masashi Ishabashi, Yasuaki Kurata, Sonny Chiba

Madam City Hunter

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“Nice fights. Just lay off the caffeinated beverages beforehand.”

I have a headache. I want to lie down in a dark room, far from shrieking Chinese comedy harridans, incomprehensible plot twists and dialogue that loses everything in translation. And yet…have to say I liked this – especially when people are hitting each other, it’s grand fun. I’d credit producer Yuen Wo Ping (fight arranger on The Matrix films – making LCH very appropriate for coverage this week), whose group also handled the action.

Khan plays a cop, who kills one member of the Five Fingers gang, causing the other four to come after her; unfortunately, she’s been suspended from the force. Worse still, she thinks her father’s new girlfriend is an associate of the Fingers, out to kill him. Enter PI Charlie Chan, played by Anthony Wong – best known for his portrayal of lunatic psychos, here displaying unexpected comic and martial-arts talent. He and his shrill-voiced girlfriend “investigate”, and generally run interference.

There may be a time and place in which this movie makes sense, but it’s certainly not Arizona, 2003. Often, Chris and I turned to each other and simply went, “What?” – still, enough worked to keep us there, right until the utterly incomprehensible last scene (are “Blackie 7” and “White-Horse-Black” mah-jong references? Can anyone please explain?). Khan and Wong are very watchable, and the action is impressive; but under no circumstances should Western viewers expect enormous coherence.

Dir: Gong Yeuk Shing
Star: Cynthia Khan, Anthony Wong, Tommy Wong, Sheila Chan