Warrior Women – the Amazons of Dahomey, and the Nature of War, by Robert B. Edgerton

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“A little-known piece of African history…and rather too much other stuff.”

Back in the mid-19th century, the West African kingdom of Dahomey had a singular army, led not by men, but by women. Even now, the “Amazons” of Dahomey represent an almost unique fighting force, the only confirmed case in history where the best soldiers in a male-led society were female. Their origins date back to rules forbidding men from being in the royal palace after dusk, leaving women to act as palace guards. When King Gezo took the throne in 1818, he was so impressed by the loyalty of his female protectors that he made them his army’s elite. So they remained, as many as 8,000 of them, until wiped out at the century’s end by vastly better-armed French colonial troops. Even then, they commanded respect. “These young women were far and away the best men in the Dahomeyan army, and woman to man were quite a match for any of us” – and this wasn’t any regular French soldier writing, but a member of the elite Foreign Legion.

Edgerton’s book tells their history, as well as seeking, though failing to find, parallels elsewhere in history. He also discusses Dahomean society, which followed a dual cosmology, balancing life/death, left/right, and male/female, appointing for each male official a kjopito or “mother”, who would shadow them. These diversions into areas of doubtful relevance e.g. how the king maintained power, are due to a shortage of firsthand data. While sometimes memorable (aware of the shortage of marriageable women caused by his massive harem, the King financed a corps of royal prostitutes, to serve the needs of his male subjects at low cost), unless you’re interested in 19th-century African culture, these sidetracks are largely padding.

Even so, it’s still under 200 pages, including notes, bibliography and index. There is some fascinating material, just not enough to justify the recommended retail price. I picked up a remaindered copy, though, and at the princely cost of $3.00, certainly have no hesitation in recommending it.

By: Robert B. Edgerton
Publisher: Westview Press, 2000, $25.00

Alien Blood

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“Aliens? Vampires? Scenery? Horrible start wrecks this strange genre hybrid.”

After thirty minutes, I was toying with the idea of giving this the first ever 0 star rating. On that basis, eventually creeping up to two counts as something of a miraculous recovery. The heroine is an alien, transporting her child across the English countryside, while being pursued by white-masked hunters. There is almost no dialogue, which is so obviously a penny-pinching device it hurts – the video stock and woeful “martial arts” don’t help.

She takes refuge in a house, and that’s where things start to perk up, as it’s occupied by a group of vampires – albeit really wimpy ones with no apparent powers, even “Dracula”, who’s there too. A siege then begins, with vampires and alien teaming up against the human attackers, before…well, let’s just say you can tell from the finale that the director’s background is in FX. There’s some effective gore, and the vampire girls (rapidly abandoned by their malefolk) strip to their lingerie for no readily apparent reason, save to fire off automatic weapons. Though must say that the cast is perhaps the ugliest ever assembled for a motion picture.

It’s a nice idea, which could have been so much better. Imagine the humans’ shock, if they found out who they’re facing. Maybe the vampires were aliens too, just from a different planet. The unexplored possibilities are almost endless, and speculating on them will provide a good chunk of the entertainment value to be found here.

Dir: Jon Sorenson
Star: Francesca Manning, Glyn Whiteside, Vanessa Stevens, Catherine Whitaker

If They Only Knew, by Chyna

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“Now we know. We just don’t care…”

This is probably the first WWF bio from a wrestler who never won the world title. Yet Chyna made her mark, largely through her abandoning the T&A of the women’s division, to take on the likes of Triple H and Stone Cold. This would seem to be an interesting angle, from which to report. So why is the result so goddamn…well, whiny? Part of the problem is that any wrestle-bio has to compete with the genius which was Mick Foley’s first book, Have a Nice Day – for insight and sheer good humour, it’s almost impossible to beat. Yet that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother trying. Chyna, on the other hand, runs out little more than a “woe is me!” tale about what a horrible life she had, all the way from her childhood, up until the WWF plucked her from obscurity to make her a star.

If she’d paid her dues, I might have more sympathy, but there’s hardly any info on her (apparently brief) time as an indie wrestler. You get a fair bit on the training at Killer Kowalski’s school, but otherwise, you can’t help wondering if there are any number of other women who are more deserving of the chances she’s had (Intercontinental Champion! Playboy centrefold!) and wouldn’t complain about everything so much. Hell, she could always go back to her planned career as an air-hostess – indeed, this might yet be her best option if she doesn’t meet with success outside the WWF soon, and that’s something notable by its absence since her departure. What insights there are come from other people e.g. WWF heavyweight champ (at time of writing) Chris Jericho, who says, “Women’s wrestling is kind of dead in the States almost. In Japan, it’s awesome”, though subsequent comments about “porky, chubby lesbians” may merit a visit from Manami Toyota and Mima Shimoda.

But the best quote comes from Luna, daugher of Maurice ‘Mad Dog’ Vachon: “We’re shit-out-of-luck. We’re not strippers. We’re not bimbos. We’re not empty-headed females. We like this sport. We love to entertain. We didn’t want to be in this sport to be close to men – we got in this sport because we love wrestling. But SOL, baby. You know what the men have done to us? Besides paying us tons less than the men, objectifying us into eye candy, T&A, the little wet dream for the little weenies? They turned us on each other… And the real bitch is, you try and get tough, you show ’em you’re into the moves and counter-moves and that you can take a dive off the top rope as good as any of them, they start calling you a man, a dyke, a ‘roid junkie, a muffin diver, all that crap. SOL, Joanie, SOL.” This is far more honest and to the point than anything Chyna comes up with – any chance of Luna writing a book?

By: Chyna
Publisher: Harper-Collins, 2001, $26.00

The Spree

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“Xinia, Burglar Princess, learns that crime does pay.”

Good films about women burglars are hard to come by, for some reason. Mind you, good films about male burglars are also kinda thin on the ground; need I say any more than Hudson Hawk. This isn’t quite as bad (at least they don’t burst into song at any point), but falls well short of something like License to Steal, and comes closer to The Real McCoy territory. Xinia (Beals) is a burglar, who falls in love with snake rancher, Bram Hatcher. Bad news: he turns out to be an undercover cop. Good news: he wants a new career…as her accomplice.

This simple tale of infatuation, inevitably, turns out to be not so simple. The problem is, it’s still pretty simple-minded, with only one real twist, which is so unsurprising, it probably fails to count as a twist. Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III) handles the burglary scenes nicely, in particular an opening which has the heroine progressively more cornered in a house. She ends stuck in a bathroom, behind a shower curtain, with the owner in the room and about to have a shower; her escape is audacious, but it’s all downhill from there.

Could have done without the frequent sex scenes too; the use of a double for Beals is laughably obvious (breasts and face never seen together), while Boothe was 47 when this was made, and really should know better than to flash his ass. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for West Side Story, also turns up as Xinia’s mother – should probably have given Beals some dialogue coaching, as her accent wavers between doubtful and AWOL. Your interest will likely do the same.

Dir: Tommy Lee Wallace
Star: Jennifer Beals, Powers Boothe, Garry Chalk, John Cassini

A League of Their Own

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“A chick flick with balls…and strikes.”

Deserving credit for being about the only female sports film of note, this is actually pretty good, despite a pointless and schmaltzy wraparound, which gives us nothing but some wrinkly baseball, one of Madonna’s least memorable songs and Geena Davis as a thoroughly unconvincing pensioner. Which is a shame; if the bread in the sandwich is stale, the meat is tasty and filling.

From 1943 to 1954, women played professional baseball, a fact largely forgotten until this film. Davis plays the star catcher, taken from the countryside to play ball – giving a new meaning to “farm team”, hohoho – along with her sister (Petty). The movie covers the first season, under a recovering alcoholic coach (Hanks), leading to a face-off between siblings in Game 7 of the championship.

Davis is excellent and entirely convincing (she’d go on to make final trials for the US 2000 Olympic archery team): the interplay between her and Hanks is great, and most of her team-mates are also true personalities. However, Madonna is superfluous, given the similar presence of Rosie O’Donnell [I’m struggling to avoid obvious jokes here]. Jon Lovitz steals the first quarter as an acidic scout, and it’s a shame when he leaves.

If the characters are great, there’s a lack of narrative drive; how can you get excited over playoffs, when it looks like every team qualifies? The friction between Davis and Petty vanishes for much of the movie, in favour of a series of entertaining but – being honest – unimportant diversions. When we reach the finale though, it’s great; ever bit as exciting as any World Series Game 7. And coming from an Arizona Diamondbacks fan, that’s praise indeed.

Dir: Penny Marshall
Star: Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Tom Hanks, Rosie O’Donnell

Blood Games

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A Deliverance of Their Own

I guess Blood Sport was already taken? It’s softball beauties vs. rednecks after: a) the visiting ladies thump the home side 17-2, b) the team owner has to extract his fee at gunpoint, and c) the gals resist – forceably – the crude advances of the locals. Before you can say, “duelling banjos”, they’re being pursued through the woods, and picked off one by one.

This 1990 movie starts slow; any viewer will know exactly where this is going, yet they still take half an hour to get there. It’s not as if the time is spent on characterisation either; most of the softball team were clearly chosen for their appearance, while the yokels are straight from Cliched Casting, Inc. Yet if they’re stereotypes, they are undeniably creepy ones, well-portrayed by Cummings and Shay. Rosenberg uses them with enough skill to make you wonder why she never directed again, and ones things get going, she keeps the film going, without much slack.

Playing Babe, daughter of team owner Ross Hagen, Laura Albert is about the only one of the girls to make any impression as a character; she’d go on to become a stuntwoman, working on the like of Starship Troopers. The rest of her colleagues take showers, get assaulted (a sequence verging on the nastily gratuitous), die, turn psycho and take revenge, all without exhibiting any significant personality traits. Quite an achievement in itself. Another one of those movies which will put you off going to rural, Southern parts of America.

Dir: Tanya Rosenberg
Star: Laura Albert, Gregory Cummings, Luke Shay, Shelly Abblett

Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft

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“Tackily entertaining entry in sorcery saga. Mine’s a pint…”

This comes from Vista Street Entertainment, whom you might remember produced some of the worst entries in the Women Who Kick Butt box-set; they’re kinda like a poor man’s Troma. The series mostly feature attorney Will Spanner, but he took a break for this entry, being temporarily dead: it’s that kind of world. While I’ve not seen 1-9, I found this entertaining – trash rather than garbage – though Chris kept making sarcastic comments about Stephanie Beaton’s nipples (or lack thereof).

She plays an LAPD detective sent to England to extradite a Satanic serial-killer (Knowlton). Before she can, he’s freed from custody by vampire queen Raven (Daly) to assist in a dark ritual. Luckily, there’s white witch Celeste (Cooper), who runs round London at night, fighting evil in a fetching, powder-blue PVC costume, complete with cape. Cue catfights, human sacrifice and a ten-minute chunk where all three leading ladies get naked, simultaneously but separately.

Daly (plus henchwoman Emily Booth) chews the scenery to fabulous effect, and the Raven/Celeste conflict is the stuff of which franchises are made – imagine Buffy and Glory, ten years after. Given sufficient beer, experienced bad movie lovers will appreciate the badly dubbed sound effects, clunky dialogue and cheap production values. But how can you not like a heroine who travels on the astral plane, yet still also uses payphones, clad in her little costume? It will, however, probably be some time before I get Chris drunk enough to pick Witchcraft XI from the unwatched pile…

Dir: Elizar Cabrera
Star: Wendy Cooper, Eileen Daly, Kerry Knowlton, Stephanie Beaton

Pushed to the Limit

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“A title equally applicable to heroine and viewer.”

If I ever become an evil overlord, I will conduct thorough background checks on all entrants to my martial arts tournament, to ensure they are not related to anyone I may previously have had killed. I will also teach my guards that if a prisoner is apparently not in his cell, they will use mirrors to examine all its corners, rather than rushing in and allowing him to drop from the ceiling onto them.

But I digress (if you can do so, before actually saying anything). In this film, wrestling champion Mimi Lesseos plays…wrestling champion Mimi Lesseos. Clearly a stretch for her there, then; think her brother and mother are perhaps also…her brother and mother. Is this a documentary? ‘Course not: real life would never be so cliched and predictable as this, which plods along, almost entirely as predicted. Mimi (Mimi) loses her brother to evil Oriental drug dealer Henry (Henry) – with hindsight, telling “gook” jokes was probably not a wise move on his part – who just happens to run a martial arts tournament. I trust I need say no more with regard to the plot.

Lesseos makes for a decent fighter and a tolerable actress, though the subplot which has her as a showgirl in Vegas is irrelevant, inane and positively wince-inducing. She does rely too much on wrestling moves – flying drop-kicks are not a genuinely viable tactic in deathmatches, I imagine. It’s the story that really kills this. There’s a moment when it seems that the bad guy is becoming infatuated with Mimi, regardless of her background, and this could have gone somewhere. Instead, it’s discarded as she works through a range of opponents, leading to the (yawn) final confrontation with her brother’s killer. The result is something which works, only if you’ve never seen any of this kind of film before – having a female lead is a nice idea, but much more effort is needed, rather than thinking this is sufficient, in and of itself.

Dir: Michael Mileham
Star: Mimi Lesseos, Verrel Reed, Henry Hayashi, Greg Ostrin

Bubblegum Crisis

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“Hardsuits, rogue mecha and day jobs.”

Worthy of note as one of the first pieces of anime made available to an English-speaking audience, (not long after its original 1985 Japanese release), BGC is set in 2032, when Tokyo has been rebuilt, post-earthquake. The Genom corporation are fiddling with Boomers, biomechanical robots of immense strength but with a nasty tendency to run amok. Standing guard are a mysterious team, the Knight Sabers, with their own technological strengths, who alternate between merc work and more altruistic concerns.

Any similarity to Blade Runner is entirely deliberate; the heroine is called Priss, and sings with a band called The Replicants. She, and her three colleagues (Nene, Linna, and Sylia) moonlight from their various day-jobs as the Knight Sabers, each with their own special abilities. The eight episodes in the series combine multiple plot arcs and standalone stories, with mixed effectiveness, though the later ones tend to work better. There’s not much background on the characters, save Sylia, and a tendency to gallop through towards the final fight in a number of the OAVs. There’s a lot of emphasis on the music, but I’m no J-Pop fan, so they needn’t have bothered.

The animation looks a little creaky now, as you’d expect from a show of its age, but also seems to improve as the series progresses – the artists learn what works and what doesn’t. I confess to preferring secondary characters such as Nene, to supposed heroine Priss; when we get to see their lives (as in #8, which has Nene acting as “babysitter” to a teenage girl on a quest to photograph the Sabers), it’s a more fully satisfying experience. Followed by two sequels, Bubblegum Crash and Bubblegum Crisis 2040.

Dir: Various
Star (voice): Kinuko Ohmori, Akiko Hiramatsu, Michie Tomizawa

Coffy

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“The godmother of blaxploitation’s debut in the field.”

Neither star Grier nor director Hill were exactly strangers to the world of exploitation when they made this, but their combination here created a whole new subgenre, crossing action heroineism with black cinema. Following her would come Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and the rest, but let it be said, Coffy was the first of any significance.

It’s a robust tale – or at least one reused frequently since with minor changes. Nurse Coffy (Grier) goes after those she sees as responsible for leaving her kid sister a drug-addled vegetable, be they low-level pusher, high-level supplier or the politician in cahoots, who just happens to be her lover. There’s no hanging round here; almost before the credits have finished, we get someone’s head being blown off with a shotgun, and Hill brings a hugely gleeful air to the violence. This is perhaps exemplified best by a marvellous and justifiably classic catfight in which Coffy, razorblades hidden in her hair, takes apart an entire escort agency’s worth of hookers.

Dramatically, it’s less successful, with neither the supporting characters nor the plot holding your interest. It often borders on the painfully obvious; when her cop friend turns down a bribe, you just know he’s going to end up hooked to one of those hospital machines that goes “Beep”, and inside five minutes, yep, there he is. Beep. He then vanishes from the film shortly thereafter, though it’s never clear whether he dies or not. At least this does mean we don’t get the even more painfully cliched “flowers on the grave” sequence. But as a Pam Grier vehicle, it’s fine, and if little more than a vehicle for sex ‘n’ violence, with questionable morality and a hackneyed storyline, it is at least done enthusiastically enough to pull you along with it.

Dir: Jack Hill
Star: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert Doqui, William Elliott