Bandidas

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“How the West was Wo(ma)n…”

Let us make no mistake about this, this is a frothy confection of a film, which is not intended to be taken seriously; to do so, would be a serious mistake. The closest parallel here is probably to think of it as a distaff version of Shanghai Noon, with an odd couple teaming up for fun ‘n’ frolics in the Old West. Robber baron Tyler Jackson (Yoakam) comes to Mexico to take away land from the locals so a railroad can be built. In the process, he kills the fathers of both farm-girl Maria (Cruz) and rich-girl Sara (Salma), so he can take their property and bank respectively. To get revenge, each lady independently decides to rob the same bank at the same time, and are forced to team-up; their widely-disparate characters initially cause friction, but they eventally come to respect each other, after being trained by retired robber Bill Buck (Sam Shephard).

When they start their campaign, Jackson brings in a specialist in the new ‘scientific method’ of criminal investigation, Quentin (Zahn), to help track down the bandidas. However, after discovering Sara’s father was poisoned, heis convinced by the pair that he is actually working for the wrong side, and comes across to join them. The latest security measures are defeated – with the aid of a pair of ice-skates! – and as a result a train is loaded with the Mexican government’s gold reserve, to ship it to safety in Mexico. The bandidas resolve to take the cargo, but Jackson and his gang are waiting for them…as is Quentin’s fiancée…

This was co-written by Luc Besson: he is the engine-room of European cinema, listed as a producer of no less than 60 titles over the past five years on the IMDB. He likely deserves a place in the Girls With Guns hall of fame, having directed Nikita and The Messenger, given Milla Jovovich and Natalie Portman their action-debuts in The Fifth Element and Leon respectively, worked as an uncredited co-producer on Haute Tension, and now delivers this. It came up in response to a request from the two leads, who’ve wanted to work together for a long time, and he handed the script to two Norwegians, making their feature debut [but with a lot of commercial experience].

However, there’s no doubt that it’s the leading ladies who make this one click, right from the first scene together, where Sara confronts Maria, who has snuck in to the house to argue with Sara’s father about the ongoing land-grab. The bickering between the two, which continues, in an increasingly friendly way, through the entire film. Maria snipes at Sara because the latter can’t fire a gun to save her life – in a beautiful touch, she gets terrible hiccups when she tries; Sara taunts Maria for her lack of education.

The two also argue over who is the best kisser, notably in a scene where they are dressed as Paris showgirls, and are trying to extract information from Quentin, who is tied to the bed. And Steve Zaun was actually paid to take part? ;-) That’s about as far as the film goes, sexually speaking; much cleavage, but no actual nudity. A fondness for the heroines splashing around in water, especially early on, and the above-mentioned comedic seduction scene, is about as close as we get to exploitation. That news may disappoint some readers, but it really wouldn’t be in keeping with the overall tone of the movie, which is light-hearted and firmly PG-13 rated, despite lesbian scuttlebutt which circulated afte a press conference where Penelope (gasp!) touched Salma’s butt.

What did disappoint me was the action. I expected more from Besson, who helped give us such gems as The Transporter and District B-13, as well as the titles mentioned above, though a couple of moments stand out. There’s a bravura slow-motion scene in the final battle – bullets, knives, bodies and debris fly in a single shot, the camera panning back and forth to capture the carnage. But, the most amazing part is seeing a horse, with a rider on its back, climb a ladder. This was apparently a combination of training (the horse, with a stunt rider, walked up a specially-made set of stairs) and CGI work by Parisian FX house Macguff, to replace the stairs with a ladder, add dust and bounce, etc. It’s a throwaway moment, in a throwaway film, but is worthy of note, and applause.

That may be perhaps down to the leads’ lack of experience: Cruz’s only real brush with the action genre was Sahara, Hayek has more background (working with Robert Rodriguez helps there), but neither of them would appear to be looking to make a name for themselves with their work here. A sequel is hinted at by the ending; however, that this $30m production went all but straight to video in the US and notched only $18m overseas would seem to rule this out. One wonders why, for a film set in Mexico and with two Hispanic leads, why they didn’t speak Spanish; one assumes Besson, with his eye on the international market, went for the more commercial English, even though Cruz seems slightly ill-at-ease thee.

These qualms are relatively minor, and if not the all-out action fest I was hoping for, it’s certainly among the best Westernettes of recent years. This is not a genre which has been kind to action heroines in the past, including such bombs – justifiable or not – as Bad Girls and The Quick and the Dead, as well as less high-profile turkeys as Gang of Roses. Bandidas is nowhere in the same league, and if survives almost entirely on the charisma and energy of Cruz and Hayek, that’s by itself is something which most movies would like to have. If you can certainly argue that to some extent this is a vanity project, here, I’d be very hard pushed to call vanity a sin.

Dir: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Stars: Penelope Cruz, Salma Hayek, Steve Zahn, Dwight Yoakam

The Arena (2001)

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arena2001A remake of the 1974 film of the same name, starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov, it’s a case of “good news, bad news”; some of the changes are improvements, while others are perhaps not as well thought-out. Firstly, McDougal and Dergan fall some way short of Grier and Markov – while I may have criticised their fighting abilities, at least they both had more than adequate screen presence. McDougal and Dergan are, first and foremost, Playboy playmates, and were clearly employed for this reason, rather than any acting ability. Though, as in the original, the quantity of skin on view is actually pretty limited – this is even more surprising, given our heroines’ background.

Bekmambetov’s directorial style is very stylish and flashy, probably too much so; you’ll frequently find yourself wishing he would keep the camera still and pointing in one direction, as well as laying off on the whizzy optical effects. There are moments when it does work, but particularly in the arena battles, it looks as if they are trying to distract the viewer from inadequacies that would otherwise be painfully obvious.

On the plus side, tweaks to the story-line have probably been for the better. The setting is moved to a far outpost of the Empire, which renders the final revolt much more plausible. The focus of the film is also shifted, with more emphasis being given to the doomed romance between slave-trainer Septimus and one of his gladiatorettes. This did exist in the 70’s version, but was really more of a sideplot; here, it gets boosted and is actually quite effective, not least because the actor playing Septimus (Mambetov) has an amazing face, full of character. The climax now sees local governor Timarchus pitted against his own gladiators, obviously inspired by Russell Crowe and Joaquim Phoenix’s duel.

The Russian locations, mainly near St. Petersburg, work well for the most part; the central arena is dropped in the middle of a blasted forest, leaving it looking like a crashed spaceship. Actually, that’s perhaps the point, in that the Romans were, to the locals, an alien race with gladiatorial combat and other bizarre customs. But by most accounts, conditions on the shoot were pretty basic – Karen Macdougal’s comments on the DVD are especially revealing here, not least where she says she never wants to go back to the country! Apart from the two heroines, the rest of the cast (including the wonderfully-named Severina Kamugisha Kemirimbe) are local, and consequently their performances are dubbed, not badly, but one suspects towards mediocrity.

Overall, this remake isn’t a disaster, and stands on its own without too much difficulty. The problem is, that if you’ve seen the original, the new one doesn’t bring all that much to the party, save for some hyperactive camerawork. We can’t really blame Macdougal and Durgan – they received precisely four hours training for their swordfighting – but you can only wonder how much of the film’s obvious potential might have been realised, if Corman had hired actresses with actual combat skills.

Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Star: Karen McDougal, Lisa Dergan, Viktor Verzbitsky, Anatoly Mambetov

The Arena (1974)

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arenaThe tagline for this was “Black slave, white slave”, a less than subtle nod to the fact that it reunited Grier and Markov, the star of Corman’s jailbreak movie from the previous year, Black Mama, White Mama. The similarities of this film to it are obvious: two women from opposing backgrounds forced, through adversity, to unite, respect eventually growing between…etc, etc. Hell, there’s even a shower-scene – although since this dates back to pre-shower days, it should strictly be called a bucket-of-cold-water scene.

Here, Grier and Markov play Mamawi and Bodicia respectively, slaves captured and put to work in a provincial gladiatorial arena – at first working the concessions (or Roman equivalent thereof), but when the owner discovers the appeal of women fighting, he sends them into the arena. They eventually rebel against the authorities, and help each other in an escape attempt that puts their lives at risk.

Not quite as ludicrously anachronous as it sounds – there actually were female gladiators – the small budget is helped immeasurably by shooting in Cinecitta, Italy’s main studio, which no doubt provided sets, costumes and props. There is a good feel for the callous barbarity of the time, which contrasts well with a touching love story between the trainer and one of the slaves. Once you get beyond the shower scene, it’s surprisingly restrained – while there’s no shortage of nudity, it is less gratuitous that you might expect.

The leading actresses are both good in their roles, but their fighting skills leave too much to be desired. It’s difficult to see how they could have won over the crowd to their side, as is required by the plot. Once they escape the arena, things do perk up a little on this front, but it remains not a movie to recommend for action. This is not least because, while it was shot in ‘Scope, even the DVD is pan-and-scanned. It’s thus rare that you get to see both participants on the screen at the same time.

Despite this, it’s rarely boring and never unwatchable, with decent production values and everyone putting in sufficient effort to make it worthwhile. Can’t help wondering if Sid Lawrence’s fey Roman Priscium, had some kind of influence on Joaquim Phoenix’s performance in Gladiator. Certainly, this film was among the final twitches of the sword-and-sandal genre, which would go into hibernation, to await rejuvenation courtesy of Ridley Scott.

Reports suggest director Carver was largely helped out by Joe D’Amato, who’d go on to make both video-nasties and porno films. Perhaps the most famous name involved, however, is editor Joe (Gremlins) Dante, another one of Roger Corman’s alumni. Pam Grier, of course, would become a favourite of Quentin Tarantino, but let’s not hold that against her. Markov, on the other hand, would make only one more movie, the barely known There Is No 13.

Dir: Steve Carver
Star: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, Lucretia Love, Paul Muller

All-Japan Women: St. Battle Final, 6th December 1993

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“The final countdown.”

The tapes for this show – it’s a 2-cassette set – came from a friend in Hong Kong; I have to say, when I saw the official retail price, was rather gobsmacked. Y180,000, which is about $150! And that’s in 1994 money… I can only presume it was intended for the rental market rather than the fan. Needless to say, I didn’t pay so much for it…

Still, financial considerations aside, 1993 may have been the year when Japanese women’s wrestling was at its peak. Perhaps the greatest single event ever, Dreamslam, took place in April, pitting the best wrestlers against each other, regardless of what wrestling company they worked for. The St. Final show in December, was a similar cross-promotional attempt to create a mega-event, and took place in Tokyo’s Sumo Hall, before a crowd of 11,500.

Leo Kitamura/Otaku Hozumi vs. Tomoko Watanabe/Chikako Shiratori. Not really much to say about this opening match, which was clearly a warm-up; the crowd were still coming to their seats. Tomoko Watanabe would go onto much greater things (particularly as part of the ZAP tag-team), and Shiratori would also move on, but Kitamura and Hozumi vanished off the radar as far as I can tell. Next up after this was a midget wrestling bout – it says something that it was considered worthy of a higher place on the card!

Chaparrita ASARI vs Candy Okutsu (JWP). Here is another case where the contenders would go on to better things, and their feud for the WWWA Super-lightweight title in the late 90’s is well-regarded. But even now, and despite both wrestlers having only made their first appearances the previous year, this bout had its moments, though it was pretty variable. The boston crabs Okutsu put on ASARI were spine-poppingly good, while ASARI was athletic and agile, in a fast-paced bout. She failed to hit her finisher, landing head-first after a Skytwister Press, and the rapid pin thereafter by Okutsu was probably very welcome.

Sakie Hasegawa/Kaoru Ito vs. Miki Handa/Yasha Kurenai (LLPW). This one wasted no time, the combatants going at it before the introductions were even completed. The bout was a good illustration of the difference between single bouts and tag teams; both sides worked well together, both to attack their opponents, and making saves when their partner was in trouble. I note with interest that the referee was also from the LLPW – the shirt kinda gave it away – so it was no surprise when Handa and Kurenai took the win. However, when the “visitors” win the undercard bouts, it’s often a clue that the main events will go to the home federation…

Bull Nakano/Mima Shimoda/Etsuko Mita vs. Cuty Suzuki/Plum Mariko/Hikari Fukuoka (JWP). This had the makings of a squash match, with the JWP girls out of their depth. However, when Nakano wasn’t in the ring, it was well-balanced. Fukuoka in particular performed like ring-icon Manami Toyota, even using Toyota’s signature rolling cradle move. Suzuki took a lot of punishment, and her gold armour costume was cool, while Mariko (later in her career, she would die after a bout) helped out with good assists. Shimoda and Mita kept pace nicely, but Nakano ruined things by brushing off all attacks, destroying their impact by her refusal to sell. No surprise her team got the win, but this bout was one player short of being memorable.

Kyoko Inoue/Takako Inoue/Yumiko Hotta vs. Eagle Sawai/Rumi Kazama/Harley Saito (LLPW). Onto the second tape, having got the appetisers out of the way. Things still not quite at full boil, as this match was dominated by the strength brigade of Kyoko Inoue, Hotta and Sawai – the other three were next to invisible. Hotta is infamous for her kicks, and they’re not something I’d like to receive, while Sawai gave a good account of herself, flinging Inoue across the ring. But it lacked much in the way of variety, though Kyoko Inoue’s agility was impressive for someone of her size.

Aja Kong vs. Megumi Kudo (FMW). It says something that a match for the WWWA World Title wasn’t the main event, or even the second one. We know how this one’s gonna go: Kudo getting punked repeatedly. Wrong. Had quite forgotten Kudo knows how to wrestle, easy to do when she’s fighting talentless thugs like Shark Tsuchiya. Kong was playing the straight champion, at least until Kudo took advantage – then the gloves came off, Kong giving her opponent no slack, with brutal kicks and slaps.

Initially, this was mat-based, which seemed like a bad move for the much smaller Kudo, but when Kudo started locking in the cross arm-bars, the balance shifted. Her problem was keeping Kong from heading for the ropes, but frequent repetition (and Kong’s excellent selling of the moves) made the possibility of an upset quite plausible. Kong hit back with power moves, and Kudo switched to trying for falls…a fatal mistake. :-) She would have got one but the ref had been “knocked out” – a rare stunt in Japan – and we all know that means you’re gonna lose. Kudo seemed genuinely tearful in the post-bout interviews.

Dynamite Kansai/Mayumi Ozaki (JWP) vs. Manami Toyota/Toshiyo Yamada. This was for the WWWA tag bout, but was just one fall, rather than the usual three. Probably wise, as the pace was totally frenetic. My notes for this one peter out after about 10 minutes, since I gave up trying to write because something was always happening. I like well-balanced bouts, and this was one which could have ended at almost any time, in either direction – both sides had one high-flyer (Ozaki & Toyota), and one powerhouse (Kansai & Yamada), giving plenty of variety and scope for action of all sorts.

Toyota was likely the star, not just for the pounding she took, or even her usual suicidal athleticism – though the moonsault from the top rope to the arena floor was memorable – but because she seemed really into the contest, screaming like a banshee. This in no way should be taken to indicate slackness on anyone else, as they all played their parts. Kansai and Yamada punted each other ferociously, the latter also hitting Ozaki with a seemingly-endless Giant Swing. The only weakness was an ending which seemed sloppy and not up to the amazing standard of the rest of the bout, but this contest still merited an immediate rewind and repeat.

Akira Hokuto vs. Shinobu Kandori. Can you imagine the WWE headlining a pay-per-view with a non-title bout? But these two had a ferocious rivalry – their Dreamslam I match was voted the best contest of the 90’s in an Internet poll – and any contest between these two was an obvious attraction. Within ten seconds Hokuto was bleeding badly from the mouth, after trading lethal punches with Kandori, and you just knew this was going to be a brawl from hell, rather than an exercise in scientific wrestling.

As such, while you couldn’t knock the intensity on view here, couldn’t help shake the feeling that we’d left the wrestling world behind, and were now operating somewhere between pro boxing and Brawlin’ Broads. Kandori had a nice arrogance though, deliberately holding back on her kicks and, at one point, applying a submission hold on Hokuto then letting go with a waggle of her finger, as if to say, “Too easy!”. But it was just too close to an episode of Jerry Springer to make this a classic in my eyes.

Overall, this is a solid tape. Perhaps only the WWWA tag team bout would make it onto any best-of compilation – but even the worst is still better than 90% of the contests in the WWE these days. Even though it’s only a single event, it demonstrates the breadth and depth of Japanese women’s wrestling, with a variety of styles, looks and attitudes which we in the West can, for the moment, only dream of enjoying.

Star: Akira Hokuto, Shinoba Kandori, Dynamite Kansai, Manami Toyota

Alien vs. Predator

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“Slime of your life.”

Initially inspired by a throwaway joke in Predator 2 – an alien skull in the Predator’s trophy cabinet – this has been some time in the making. Seven years have passed since the last entry in the Alien franchise, and fourteen since P2. Comics and video games have beaten the movie to the screen, and if truth be told, this film bears more resemblance to them than anything else. This is no surprise, given director Anderson helmed both Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. Interestingly, it takes place pre-Alien, in the present day. A pyramid is discovered deep under the ice on an island near Antarctica; industrialist Charles Weyland (Henriksen) puts together a team to investigate, led by Alexa (Lathan), the kind of lady who free-climbs ice-walls for kicks. They soon find that the pyramid is a training compound where, every 100 years, the Predators come to hunt aliens, with humans hosts for the acid-blooded critters

It’s a totally ludicrous concept. The Alien life-cycle, from hatching, through infection and chest-bursting, to full-sized monsterhood, is now ridiculously fast. In an idea lifted from Cube, the pyramid floor-plan changes configuration precisely every ten minutes – even though the “minute” wasn’t invented (by the Babylonians, fact fans) when this supposedly “first pyramid” was built. And expending such effort on a stadium used a couple of hours per century is wildly implausible.

There’s never any doubt who the stars are here, and it’s not the humans, who engage in such cliched behavious as showing photos of their kids – which, as we all know, is a death sentence in this kind of film. In addition, they persist in using hand-held flares when they possess perfectly good flashlights, for no reason other than to create spooky shadows. Alexa’s bilingual sidekick Sebastian (Bova) is intensely irritating in both English and Italian, but fortunately the heroine herself makes a decent impression, improving as the film goes on in much the same way as Ripley did in the original. Of course, Lathan is not Sigourney Weaver – but neither was Weaver when she started. [Er, if you see what I mean…]

The film steps up towards the end, finally delivering what we all came to see: full-on, three-way carnage, climaxing in Alexa + Predator vs. the Alien Queen. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was cool, and the thought crossed my mind: with two of the three combatants being female, is the Predator perhaps one too? If so, this would probably be the ultimate in brawlin’ broads. However, the best moment is actually a flashback to an earlier cycle, with the Predators atop a pyramid, up which thousands of Aliens are swarming. It makes you wish they’d dropped us altogether and just let the titular twosome go at it, head-on.

There are a couple of nice nods to the inspirations, such as Lance Henriksen’s presence in the cast, albeit not playing an android this time. Alexa at one point almost echoes Arnie’s line, “You’re one ugly motherfucker!”, though doesn’t get to complete it, thanks to the film’s PG-13 rating. It’s hard to deny the toning-down this requires hampers the production, limiting the amount of violence that can be done (to the humans, at least – on both Alien and Predator planets, this would likely still be rated R). The effects are mostly adequate to well-done, though Anderson’s style is to cut fast rather than linger so we could give them any scrutiny.

The end result is a disappointment that works better as a high concept than on the screen. Part of the problem is that we’re never given any reason to root for anyone, from anywhere in the universe. The Aliens are the villains, who must be contained at any cost – fair enough. However, the Predators are equally opaque, and most of the human characters are a far cry from, say, Aliens‘ marine corps. Sure, they were sterotypes, but they proved you could quickly create endearing and memorable characters with well-chosen dialogue. In contrast, there are few memorable lines to be found here. Indeed, few moments will stick in your mind at all – and when they do, you may find yourself wishing they had slid right on past, such as the moment where a facehugger suddenly enters The Matrix. Hey, now there’s an idea for a crossover: Neo and Trinity take on the extra-terrestrials. Quick, where’s my typewriter?

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
Star: Sanaa Lathan, Raoul Bova, Lance Henriksen, Ewan Bremner

Cutthroat Island

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“Rated Arrrrrrr…”

It seems to me that Cutthroat Island was largely just ahead of its time. Made in 1995, it shares a lot of the same elements as the wildly-successful Pirates of the Caribbean, which also had two gangs of pirates, feuding over treasure, while the British navy runs interference. Hell, there’s even an annoying pet monkey in both movies. But Cutthroat was such a big disaster at the box-office, it sat in the Guinness Book of Records, until subsequently passed by the likes of Gigli, and helped bankrupt Carolco.

Certainly, with an estimated $92m budget and a US gross of only $10m, it was a disaster movie, in the most literal sense of the word. But, truth be told, it’s not that bad: in the IMDB it rates a 5.4, which is respectable enough, and there’s no denying that, unlike many such films, the money is actually obvious on the screen. For this was made in the days before large-scale CGI, when the only way to have pirate ships battling on the high seas was…well, actually to have pirate ships battling on the high seas. Malta and Thailand stood in for the Atlantic, Davis mostly does her own stunts, and the finale features one of the best explosions captured on celluloid.

The plot is patterned after classic Errol Flynn films like The Sea Hawk, with Davis in the Flynn role as Morgan Adams, who inherits a ship after her father is killed by her evil uncle, Dawg (Langella). She also has part of a treasure-map – Dawg has another chunk, with the final portion owned by a third brother. The film is largely concerned by the various parties trying to acquire all the parts of the map, race to the treasure, avoid the British navy, and escape with the loot. There’s also a romantic subplot involving career thief William Shaw (Modine), needed to translate the map, but he and Morgan don’t have much chemistry. That’s perhaps because Davis was, at the time, married to director Harlin, and it’s certainly notable that every other woman in the film looks like she’s been keel-hauled beside the impeccably-styled Davis.

cutthroat1[The plan at first was to have Michael Douglas as the male lead – at a price of $15m – but he supposedly withdrew when his role was shrunk to make Davis the lead. Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise got the same offer, but declined. The producers then worked their way down the food chain, through Daniel Day Lewis, Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Charlie Sheen, Liam Neeson and Tim Robbins, before getting Modine for $4m. It’s interesting to speculate about how the film might have ended up with any of the other names – I mean, Charlie Sheen in a pirate film? On the other hand, a lot of people thought Johnny Depp, and letting him channel Keith Richards, was a bad idea…]

What the movie lacks in love interest, it more than makes up for in action – particularly, things going BOOM. This was set in an era when men were men, but women were men too, and everything was apparently likely to explode in a monstrous fireball at a moment’s notice. The opening sequence sees Morgan being recognised as a pirate, and chased by the British through Port Au Prince, a sequence which contains enough action for the climax of most films, not least when the navy decides to open fire from off-shore. The highlight has Davis rolling out a window, off a roof and onto a moving carriage, a serious “How the hell did they do that?” moment [the answer is, it’s a composite shot, joining one of her falling from the roof, to one of her pretending to have landed on the coach].

You will probably spend much of the film wondering how the film is going to top that, not least because the middle-part of the movie is not exactly enthralling. I mean, we know everyone is going to Cutthroat Island, so could they possibly hurry up and get there already? I’m also unimpressed by Chaykin as a journalist, embedded with Morgan, who is supposed to be writing up the activities of the pirates for his publisher. Not sure quite what his purpose was, and in a film that already runs over two hours, reckon he could have been removed without issue. It would also be fair to say that the plot, in general, is no more than a string of cliches, and the characters are similarly over-familiar, a disappointment given the transgressive concept at the film’s heart.

But it is a pirate movie and, to quote Roger Ebert, “is everything a movie named Cutthroat Island should be, and no more.” The final battle, where everyone collides in the middle of the ocean, is a great action set-piece, and Morgan duels her way with Dawg everywhere from the crow’s nest to the hold. Though I do feel his final dispatch (it hardly counts as a spoiler – I stress once more, this is a pirate movie) is, again, a slight shame, with the heroine forced to pull out the, ah, big guns to deal with him, rather than using her own skill.

Still, an entertaining effort, which truly deserves to be seen on a big screen with a good sound-system, and is an interesting precursor to The Long Kiss Goodnight, made by Harlin and Davis shortly after, which also tanked. In light of the subsequent success of Caribbean (and its imminent sequels), the time seems right for a re-evaluation, and I note that most of the recent IMDB comments have been warmly enthusiastic towards the movie. While the chances for the obvious sequel likely evaporated with the couple’s messy divorce – she filed in 1997, the month his personal assistant gave birth to his son – it certainly deserves to be freed from Davy Jones’ Locker of Hollywood Failure.

Dir: Renny Harlin
Star: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Maury Chaykin

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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“Broads with swords.”

crouching2Not many subtitled movies can claim to have inspired commercials (Jean de Florette being the only other that comes to mind), but seeing the Mountain Dew advert obviously based on this movie makes you realise just how deeply this film has permeated into the American pop psyche. But while this contains the most spectacularly kick-ass action ever seen in Western multiplexes (note the qualifier), at heart, it’s a set of exquisitely tragic love stories, spun into a web which simultaneously confounds expectations and fails to live up to them.

 It’s clear from the start that Lee is not following the traditional approach to martial arts movies, which usually start with a thump to get the audience’s attention. He is happy to set the scene and introduce the characters for the first quarter of an hour in a stately and mannered way that belies what is to come. Similarly, the action climax happens twenty minutes before the end.

The other major variation from standard practice is that the acting is fabulous – often in HK action movies, this is an afterthought, and the likes of Jackie “two expressions” Chan and Jet “that’s one more than me” Li are never going to win Oscars. I would previously have put Yeoh in the same category, but Lee coaxes a performance of great depth from her – having Chow Yun-Fat, possibly the best, and certainly the most charismatic Asian star, to work against does no harm either. This is what lifts the film up to undreamt of heights: have Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme ever brought tears to anyone’s eye? [Except perhaps the poor schmuck who paid for a cinema ticket!]

Yet if the acting sets a new standard, the action surprisingly doesn’t, at least not to anyone familiar with Hong Kong movies. This kind of thing has been done, to the point where it can even be mercilessly lampooned by the likes of Flying Dagger, which has its own treetop battle. This perhaps explains why its record-setting box-office in the United States (doubling the take of any previous subtitled movie) was conspicuously absent in the Far East. While Zhang YiYi’s restaurant demolition job is memorable, for me the highlight pitted Yeoh against Zhang in Yeoh’s home, a balletic battle which worked particularly well because it largely rejected the fly-by-wirework running through the rest of the movie. I’m a traditionalist in such things, and always prefer genuine physical ability to special effects.

The plot unfolds with a stately elegance, showing little regard for normal chronology. The easiest way to describe it is to break it down into smaller components – any one of which would provide sufficient content for your average kung-fu film – each running through the movie like the strands in a rope:

  • The powerful but undeclared love between two swordsmen, Li (Chow) and Yu (Yeoh).
  • The struggle for control over the legendary Green Destiny sword.
  • Jen (Zhang) and her long lost love, the bandit Lo (Chang) – who returns just in time for her impending arranged marriage.
  • Jen’s apprenticeship to the villainous Jade Fox (Cheng), who will not let her go at any cost.
  • Li’s quest for revenge against Jade Fox, who killed his master.

crouching3The sisterly relationship between Yu and Jen is particularly impressive, with the older woman trying to guide the willful youth and prevent her from making the same mistakes she did. But when (even in ancient China!) has anyone been able to tell a teenager anything? Special praise also to veteran Cheng, whose Jade Fox is a fabulous character, worthy of more screen time than she gets here – I’d love to see a prequel, setting up the story between her and Li. In comparison, the men are somewhat ill-defined, particularly Lo: you never get much sense of why Jen fell for the man who kidnapped her, and I can only really blame it on Stockholm Syndrome. Despite being reduced to a supporting role, Chow Yun-Fat is as good as ever, though I’ve heard tell that his Mandarin accent leaves a little to be desired, since he’s a Cantonese speaker naturally!

Regardless: what you have here are three of the strongest and finest female characters of the past decade, excellent acting and amazing action. The result is as close to perfect as anyone could reasonably expect.

Dir: Ang Lee
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Zhang ZiYi, Chow Yun-Fat, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei Pei

Catwoman

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“Paws for concern…”

I entered the theatre with mixed feelings. This is, easily, the biggest action heroine film of the summer, and I want it to make a ton of money, so we’ll get more of them. On the other hand, it starred Halle Berry, whom I’ve loathed with intensity ever since she played the race card in her Oscar speech (and hell, our daughter is darker than Berry!). Her hideous performance as a Bond girl deepened this hatred, so the news that she would be Catwoman was a severe blow. But, hey, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, how bad could it be?

  • “This plodding, by-the-numbers superhero flick has all the feline grace of a walleyed mastiff.” – Mark Holcomb, Village Voice

  • “Plays like a Lifetime movie on estrogen overdose, barely held together by a script that should have been tossed out with the kitty litter.” – David Rooney, Variety

  • “The stench of the litter pan is all over this big-screen $90 million disaster-in-waiting.” – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

  • “The Showgirls of superhero movies.” – Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune

Ah. That bad? Actually, I’m one of the very few people who genuinely likes Showgirls, figuring that Paul Verhoeven’s film does a brilliant job of capturing the sleazy, tawdry spirit of Las Vegas. However, even I know that when reviewers invoke its name, it’s never as a recommendation. When you go to a theatre in our area’s main mall, the first week of release, and there are nine people at an evening show…you know this is a disaster movie, at least in terms of studio returns. It’s no wonder, for this is pedestrian and unaffecting despite – or perhaps, because of – director Pitof’s desperate flailing around in an effort to make things interesting.

 The story is pretty basic: Patience Phillips (Berry) works for a cosmetic company, under husband and wife sleazebags, Mr + Mrs Hedare (Wilson + Stone). While creeping around the factory, aided by remarkably lax security, she finds out that their face cream has rather unpleasant side-effects – but they’re going to release it onto the market anyway. Startled by this discovery, she bumps into something conveniently noise-making: all of a sudden, security is not so lax. Flushed out a waste pipe, and left for dead, she gets new life when a mysterious cat breaths on her, and Patience turns into…Catwoman.

Now, she has not only to expose her former employer’s evil scheme, but keep investigating cop Tom Lone (Bratt) away from knowing her secret, while still finding time for coffee, dinner, and occasional romps with him. Not to mention a game of one-on-one basketball, which must go down as one of the most superfluous scenes ever; Lone’s lack of reaction to her superhuman prowess leaves me wondering how the hell he ever became a detective.

In the right hands, this storyline might have been fun, if played like the 60’s TV series – for camp value. Stone occasionally seems to be trying for this, but Berry is intent on trying to make us take the whole thing seriously, an endeavour that’s doomed to fail. Logic goes out the window pretty much about the same time Patience does – only it doesn’t get rescued: apparently, cat-induced skills include not only agility, but also the hotwiring and riding of motorbikes. And why, exactly, does she decide to cut her leather suit into something more befitting a two-bit dominatrix?

It’s almost as if, every time there’s a spark of intelligence or wit, a committee insisted it be removed. For example, at one point, Catwoman goes into a bar (which, appropriately enough, sounds like the start of a bad joke…), and asks for a “White Russian, no ice, no vodka…hold the Kahlua.” That’s kinda cute: until the barman responds with, “Cream – straight up,” just in case we’re total imbeciles who didn’t grasp the concept.

I could forgive that too, if the action had been at least competent. Instead, we get a mix of obvious doubling (most accounts say it was by a man, adding insult to injury!), and extremely poor CGI, both of which are shot as if Pitof was being paid by the number of edits. At best, it reaches the level of a mediocre video game, without any significant emotional or intellectual impact – the “Wow!” factor is entirely missing.

On the plus side, this clearly wasn’t a cheap movie, and it does put its budget on the screen – save the aforementioned CGI. Stone has fun with her role; she may even be getting a subtle dig in at Hollywood, when her character talks about being thrown on the scrapheap at 40. [Though in her case, it seems to have been less to do with her age than, by certain reports, being a bitch to work with in her superstar years…] And Pitof does have a sense of visual flair, even if the result is mostly to irritate. The movie also appears to be in focus, and the lip movements match the dialogue quite well. Can you tell I am stretching here?

It is, on the whole, about the bottom of what I expected or hoped. I didn’t fall asleep, but this was the epitome of lowest common denominator Hollywood film-making, with everything ground down to the mediocre, and possessing not even momentary impact. It doesn’t bode well for the upcoming Batman movie, and its failure will do absolutely nothing to promote the cause of big-budget action heroine films. However, if this is what we get in that field, that will be no real loss.

[February 2005: Berry took worst actress for her performance at the 25th annual Razzies, at which Catwoman also took worst film, director and screenplay. However, I do have to give Berry much credit for turning up to accept her award in person, saying: “When I was a kid, my mother told me that if you could not be a good loser, then there’s no way you could be a good winner.” My opinion of Ms. Berry just went up quite a few notches.]

Feedback

Brian S: “Came across your site a few days ago and thought I would drop you a line to say how much I enjoy it. I love this sort of movie and it makes a change to be able to read a review from somebody with similar tastes. I get really sick of these critics who only seem to like drama and think that all movies should have some deep meaning attached to them to be considered any good. I especially liked the review on Catwoman which I had seen the day before, and found myself agreeing with many of the points raised. I’ve got a few more points I think will interest you. It has only just been released here in New Zealand, and with its poor box office, I don’t think it will be around for very long.

First of all, I have never rated Halle Berry as an action heroine. This goes back to her Bond movie and the publicity shots they put out of her in wet bikini and knife belt. I knew there was something wrong with this picture when I first saw it, but was unable to work out what it was until I saw it again in a different article, on the same page as a picture of the immortal Ursula Andress from Dr. No. Looking at the two of them in more or less identical outfits explained to me what was wrong – not only with the Berry picture, but the way action women are treated.

Halle Berry wore her knife belt as a fashion statement. Her main concern: has she colour-coordinated? Her face and body language say, “I’m ready for my close up now, I am beautiful”; Ursula Andress wore her knife belt as a weapon, and her main concern is survival. Her face and body language say, “I’m ready for anything, I am dangerous”. If they fail to cast the right people into these roles. how can they possibly hope to make a successful film? You can get away with it in a Bond film, but not when she has to carry the show.

Low expectations stopped me from being too disappointed in Catwoman. It seemed to me that the script was written by a committee who couldn’t decide what genre it was going to be in. It started as a chick flick and slowly changed into an action film that was rather short of action. Even the climatic “catfight” scene was a let down. Now I love a good catfight – hell I even write the stuff – but I don’t appreciate one that’s badly done. I’m afraid that special effects and stuntwomen just don’t do it for me in this sort of situation.

I got the movie Bringing down the House starring Steve Martin from our local video a few weeks previous to this, and was pleasantly surprised at what a good fight it contained. It was between Queen Latifah and some blonde who fought mainly with their fists with a few kicks thrown in for variety. My question is; if they can put a good, knock-down, drag-out fight into a comedy, why can’t they put one into a so-called action movie?”

Dir: Pitof
Stars: Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, Sharon Stone, Lambert Wilson

The (Short) Life and (Quick) Death of Charlie’s Angels

Well, that didn’t take long. While not quite the first new show on the fall 2011 schedule to get cancelled, the Charlie’s Angels reboot did survive much longer. After scathing reviews and ratings that were weak to begin with, and went downhill from there, not even a spot of same-sex canoodling on set could shore things up. Four weeks in, ABC pulled the plug. Let’s start with those reviews, shall we?

  • “ABC’s new drama Charlie’s Angels seem to want to go back to the ’70s to rustle up some girl power, but it fails miserably and offensively… It contains some of the worst acting of the last decade on network television, much of it by Minka Kelly. The writing is atrocious… It sets the standards of television back to, well, the lesser efforts of the 1970s. And that’s nostalgia nobody needs to relive.” – Hollywood Reporter
  • “A cluttered, poorly acted, ridiculously predictable wannabe action show with an alarming wardrobe budget and few surprises… Would be better if it was faster-paced, grittier, and the characters should be more flawed – because that’s how audiences like their heroes in the new millenium.” – Starpulse.com
  • “A silly hour of escapism even less believable than Vampire Diaries. If you were looking for something witty or sly, I think you were out of luck.” – Entertainment Weekly
  • “It’s unlikely anyone expected much from a revival of that eye-candy progenitor Charlie’s Angels; the surprise is that you’re getting so little… [The original] had energy and glamour and a self-aware sense of frothy fun, all of which are missing from this lugubrious update.” – USA Today
  • “The truly and genuinely terrible acting…is hard to separate from the execrable script they’ve been saddled with… It feels like pre-chewed food: intended for easy digestion, it comes out (1) unappetizing, (2) textureless, and (3) devoid of character.” – NPR

It could perhaps have withstood these barbs, if it hadn’t been for the poor ratings. 8.76 million viewers watched the Sept. 22 premiere, leaving it third in the timeslot, with less than half the audience for CBS and Fox’s offerings. That was disappointing enough, but it lost 19% of its audience the following episode, and by week three, it was down below six million. The death-knell was that, among the 18-49 year old demographic key to advertisers, Angels was on a mere 4% of the TVs in use during its time slot.

I watched the show, albeit out of a sense of duty more than real expectation; I loved the first of Drew Barrymore’s movies, but was unimpressed with the sequel, and the series seemed to fall uncomfortably between paying homage to the original, and being in tone with modern action heroine mores. Said creator Alfred Gough, “It won’t be campy or retro. The characters are real and emotionally grounded, but they still like to have fun, wear great clothes, solve crime and kick some serious ass.” And, unfortunately, take orders without question from an unseen male boss. While the makers could hardly dump that, it’s an angle that now comes off as less whimsical than creepy and stalkerish.

This illustrates a tension that couldn’t be adequately resolved. They killed an Angel with a car-bomb early in the first episode, but the show also had silly banter about handbags, and the results possessed an unevenness of tone that dogged things for the entire run. Trying to balance dark and light on television is a lot harder than it looks, and few shows manage to do so effectively; those in charge here should have watched and taken copious notes from Burn Notice, which does this much better (and is also set in Miami).

Mind you, they’d be hampered given there’s little indication of any significant acting talent among the lead trio, whose laughter seemed perpetually forced and who gave their characters little in the way of distinct personalities. I also have to wonder if making them all ex-criminals – rather than underutilized cops, as in the original – made it harder to empathize with them. However, there is also a lot more competition among action heroines these days; when the original aired, kick-ass chicks (even to the limited degree in Angels) were rare. Now: not so much, and Nikita or Sidney Bristow would eat up and spit out the entire trio, picking their teeth with the bones.


That said, the series was not without its moments, and the action, though sporadic, was generally okay – they did at least use guns, despite the presence of Drew Barrymore as a producer. Ironically, the last episode before the death sentence was handed down, was probably the best. This was a loose remake of a cult favorite from the original series, Angels in Chains, which saw the trio thrown into a Cuban prison being used as a source of women for a call-girl ring (I’m sure that was also the plot of a full-on exploitation pic, but I’m damned if I can remember the name). It benefited from a good supporting cast: Erica Durance as a CIA agent, Elizabeth Pena as the prison warden and James Morrison (who played Jack Bauer’s boss Bill Buchanan in 24) as a corrupt businessman.

But I can’t confess to feeling upset in the slightest that it has gone, beyond a sense of vague disappointment that any series involving action heroines has bitten the dust – there aren’t enough on broadcast TV. I’m sure it’ll be used as “proof” that these shows just don’t work, but the problem here was less the concept than the execution. While not the worst remake attempt to come out of Hollywood lately (no-one who saw Knight Rider will argue!), it was a poorly-conceived adaptation of a show that truly was a product of its era, and should have been left as such.

Run Lola Run

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“She’s got legs… And she knows how to use them.”

The term “action heroine” moves into a whole new dimension with this movie: no gun-battles, no fight-scenes, no explosions, but it still maintains a breathless pace for almost the entire 81 minutes. Lola (Potente) needs to find DM100,000 in 20 minutes, after her boyfriend Manni (Bleibtreu) loses a bag of money he was supposes to deliver to a highly dubious character. All this is set up in about five minutes, and then Lola is off, sprinting to try and get the cash.

The key twist is the film depicting three parallel stories; all start with her leaving her apartment, but they gradually diverge, and end in three radically different conclusions. One of the film’s myriad delights is seeing how they interweave, with the differing fates of the various characters, and how tiny changes in the decisions we make can have massive consequences.

Right from the start, when Lola lobs a phone in the air and it lands spot-on the cradle, we know she has unusual powers. Her screams can shatter glass, and there’s one moment, in the casino, when she turns to the manager and looks at him. “Just one more game”, she says, and as portrayed by Potente (an amazing performance, with “future star” written through it), her gaze comes across as a force of nature more powerful than a typhoon. Lola is someone absolutely determined to have what she wants – “love conquers all”, if you like – and she even seems capable of rewinding time through sheer will, when the results go against her.

Yet, curiously, certain experiences appear to carry forward: in run #1, she is shown how to use a gun, in run #2, she needs no such tuition. A security guard we see clutching his heart in #2, is met in an ambulance in #3. Tykwer sees no need to explain any of this (is it merely being played out in Lola’s mind?), yet spotting these things are part of what makes the film so incredibly rewatchable. Even after half-a-dozen viewings, I’m still finding new facets e.g. the number she bets on in the casino, 20, is also the number of minutes she has to save Manni, since there’s simply so much crammed in.

lola2Special mention needs to be made of the soundtrack, a pumping mix of techno co-created by Tykwer, which helps drive the film along at a blistering pace, and is one of the few soundtracks I will listen to on their own. Yet there are also tender moments (probably essential to prevent the audience from hyperventilating and going into shock), which Tykwer handles with skill and aplomb. Lola is something of an aberration in his filmography, stylistically: his other work such as Winter Sleepers are much more languidly-paced, but do cover similar themes of randomness and its effects. The end result is a film which manages to be shallowly entertaining and deeply satisfying at the same time. You can enjoy it purely on a “what happens next?” level, or appreciate it as something with so much depth that it can even be viewed as a retelling of the myth of Orpheus (the evidence pointing to such an interpretation is too lengthy to go into here). Truly a film with something for everyone, and for some, like myself, it has everything.

Dir: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup, Nena Petri