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

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: season seven

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“Not with a bang, but a whimper, and a whine.”

Hannigan and Brendon claim to have learned about the show’s demise in Entertainment Weekly, but it was apparent early on that Gellar in particular was going through the motions. Whedon too, seemed to have lost interest, and you know a show is in trouble when they drag back characters from previous series, who seem ten times more interesting than the regulars. The thrust this season was towards a confrontation with the ultimate evil. Oh, my: an apocalypse – how original. And look! It’s a vampire with a soul! Pushing Buffy back into the school environment was another admission that the show had lost its way when it “graduated”, abandoning the whole concept which had powered it early on. It never found a replacement, floundering around in search of a point.

Did like the idea of an army of proto-slayers, despite the painful inevitability of one falling into Willow’s bed, reinforcing our theory that everyone in Sunnydale is a slut. That’s been something of a mantra over the past couple of series [when we talk about Buffy the action heroine, this isn’t the sort of action we mean…]. The return of Faith added a sharp edge, though Buffy’s transition to “adulthood” ended with her becoming a morose, introverted, self-centred bitch. Presumably not quite what Whedon and Co. intended. She was still far better than pointless waste of air Andrew, who deserved to die ten thousand times.

Unlike series six, where the finale rescued the season, this time, it was dreadful, despite some cool effects. They threw out fundamental Buffy philosophy – “into every generation, a slayer is born” – in favour of vapid girl power posturing. What about the previously-expressed idea that imposing slayerdom on someone without their consent was equal to sexual assault? Give it up for Willow, the lesbian who ‘raped’ thousands, if not millions, of little girls… I will miss the show; there was nothing quite like it on TV, and it leaves the networks devoid of action heroines save for Alias. But before it ended, watching it ceased to be a pleasure, and much of the final series bordered on a chore. They should have quit while they were ahead. Somewhere round about three years ago.

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

Wounded

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“A forest frolic which is bear-ly satisfactory.”

This starts off brightly, and ends not badly – if a little predictably – it’s the middle where it falls apart, spending the best part of an hour fiddling around to no particular purpose. Amick plays a forest ranger whose fiance is murdered by a bear poacher (Pasdar, looking disturbingly like Al Jourgenson of Ministry) – she nearly dies too and, rather than helping the authorities, vows to take revenge herself.

The wilderness portions of the film work well, with cool ideas like the poacher finding the bears through the radio collars put on them by the rangers, and there’s also a grisly grizzly graveyard scene which is quite spooky. After she’s shot, however, the movie wanders back into civilization. This could still have worked, with the poacher hunting down the only witness amid an “urban jungle” theme, but he just comes to town, taunts her a bit, kills a supporting character and heads back to the wilderness for the obvious finale.

Amick isn’t bad, conveying smouldering hatred effectively enough to make her unwillingness to help the police more than an obvious plot device. There’s also a nice twist where the buyer of the bear parts helps out, after deciding his supplier has become a loose cannon. However, the second act is so lacking in energy, with the heroine doing little more than sitting round, gazing into space and answering the telephone, that my attention wandered severely. A good idea, doomed largely by a serious lack of development.

Dir: Richard Martin
Star: Madchen Amick, Adrian Pasdar, Graham Greene

Trapped

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“Hell hath no fury like a mother separated from her daughter.”

Karen and Will Jennings have an idyllic life – money, a really nice house and Abby, the sort of six-year old daughter only ever seen in Hollywood films. That is, it’s idyllic until Joe Hickey (Bacon) and his family enter, kidnapping Abby for ransom, just after Will has left for a conference. Their scheme of terror has proven effective several times before, and the Jennings have just 24 hours to save their daughter.

This film is a contrast between the Jennings and the Hickeys, and in particular Karen Jennings (Theron) and Cheryl Hickey (Love), who are polar opposites in looks, lifestyle and background, but share a fierce dedication to their families – especially, their daughters. Both are prepared to go to any extreme, even violence, to right what they perceive as an injustice [if the preceding sentence sounds awkward, it’s because I’m waltzing around a spoiler!], and I defy you to watch the scalpel scene without a twitch.

Karen has to handle the ever-dangerous Joe, while Will (Stuart Townsend) is kept occupied by Cheryl, and Joe’s cousin (Pruitt) looks after Abby, who turns out to be severely asthmatic. The cutting back in forth is designed, partly to increase tension – it does – but perhaps more importantly, cover some dodgy plot elements. As with all kidnappings, how do the criminals expect to collect the ransom? This is never made quite clear, and as the film goes on, it unravels to a frankly implausible finale involving a light aircraft, a logging truck and a mile of busy highway.

Which is a shame, since the actors involved are good, even if none of the roles are much of a stretch: Courtney Love playing a white trash slut doesn’t exactly show imagination in the casting department. Still, if you want a Discovery channel documentary about a mother bear defending its cub, in human form, this is effective. I just wish they’d developed that side more, and the usual thriller aspects less. Hell, who wouldn’t want to see Theron in a 2 Days in the Valley-style catfight with Love? :-)

Dir: Luis Mandoki
Star: Charlize Theron, Kevin Bacon, Courtney Love, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Steel and Lace

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“Rape, revenge and robots, cheap and cheerful.”

Inside ten minutes, we’ve had heroine Gaily Morton (Wren) raped and her attackers acquitted in court, not to mention her subsequent leap off a roof-top to her death – this isn’t a film which hangs around, boys and girls. Luckily, her brother is a NASA boffin (Davison – you might recognise him as the Senator from X-Men), who builds a robot in her image, in order to wreak gory revenge on the perpetrators five years later. Cleaning up behind are a cop (Naughton) and his ex-girlfriend, a courtroom artist (Haiduk) who joins the dots.

This was a notch or two better than I expected, with Wren managing to bring a surprising degree of emotion to her role as the robo-revenger. Despite obviously not being a large budget movie, most of the deaths are impressive (one meriting a spontaneous round of applause from the GWG viewing panel) and the android effects are decently realised. The plot holds few surprises – actually, the count probably falls short of two; while that one certainly nailed me, Chris did spot it – though the whole brother/sister thing had a nice, creepy and unhealthy edge.

If the main plot works, the cop/courtroom artist thing doesn’t, and the two characters are largely superfluous. There’s no chemistry to speak of, and their sole purpose appears to be occupying screen time between the killings. When they’re on screen, the movie dies – yet much like the heroine, it keeps coming back, until the perfectly executed ending which is sudden, memorable and fitting.

Dir: Ernest Farino
Star: Clare Wren, Bruce Davison, David Naughton, Stacy Haiduk

Alias:Recruited and A Secret Life, by Lynn Mason

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“Before she was CIA, before she was SD-6…and largely, before she was interesting.”

To tide you over the summer until the new series starts, as well as an ‘official companion’, Random House has published two novels, which fill in the back story before the show. Recruited tells of how Sydney Bristow was brought into SD-6, while A Secret Life details her first overseas mission, infiltrating a Paris fashion house being used as a cover for gun-running.

Neither are exactly great literature; they seem to be aimed at early teen readers (not that you’d know from the covers), and of necessity, the plot-lines are linear and straightforward, this being before Sydney realised SD-6 were evil, her father’s involvement, etc. There’s disturbingly little action, and a significant quantity of Mills & Boon-esque romantic prose. Bizarrely, it’s mainly over Noah Hicks: viewers of the show know how well that turned out. Save Francie, few other regulars make appearances – Sloane and someone who might be Dixon get cameos, and that’s it.

Recruited is the stronger, rating half a grade higher; the mechanism of the recruitment is well-handled, and we initially see a very different Syd from the uber-confident one of the TV series. A Secret Life hardly contains enough meat for one episode, the prose frequently toppling into drool, especially when it talks about Hicks. However, as light summer reading, these are harmless stuff, and as an afternoon would likely suffice, they won’t waste too much of your time.

By: Lynn Mason
Publisher: Random House

Bury Me An Angel

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“Nowhere near as good as the advertising.”

Though with a tagline of “A howling hellcat humping a hot steel hog on a roaring rampage of revenge”, how could it be? Dag (Peabody) sees her brother get blown away for stealing some guy’s motorcycle, and goes on a hunt for the killer, all the while tortured by visions of her dead sibling’s death – which is perhaps not a good move, since it lets us see how woefully inept the effects were. Accompanied by two male sidekicks, she tracks the killer down as he heads towards Canada.

This 1971 film is a rarity for an action heroine movie (and also for a biker flick), in that it was written and directed by a woman, Barbara Peeters, who’d go on to make Humanoids From the Deep. This shows itself in little touches throughout, but mostly through the heroine’s over-frequent mental anguish – the ‘roaring rampage of revenge’ never materialises much. Dag makes for an interesting heroine, determined and obstinate (she hangs on to her shotgun, even when visiting a school!), but Peabody never seems to get the tone of her performance right, under- or over-acting at random.

The best moments see the trio interacting with other people, be this taunting a midget cop, provoking a bar-brawl with locals, or being out-weirded by a witch. Apart from this, and one impressive nightmare where Dag repeatedly blasts her brother’s murderer with a shotgun, only for him to keep coming back, there’s way too much sitting around, and not enough action. Selling largely on sizzle, this is truly a classic of exploitation, and as such, deserves grudging respect – if not perhaps any further attention.

Dir: Barbara Peeters
Star: Dixie Peabody, Terry Mace, Clyde Ventura, Stephen Whittaker

Hot Wax Zombies on Wheels

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“A special level of hell should be built for those who make this kind of self-consciously ‘cult’ garbage.”

Few things are more painful than a film that wants to be cult, forgetting that such things grow organically and cannot be created at will. Witness this, which tries desperately to be hip, knowing and self-aware, but is permanently crippled by the fact that my bowel movements are more entertaining than its script. A new beauty salon opens in a sleepy town – and soon, residents are ridding themselves of “pesky body hair” thanks to its owner (Somers)…and also becoming mindless automatons. It’s up to the local exotic lingerie shop owner (Miller) to stop them, and save the world from depilation.

Okay, I look at that synopsis and have no idea what I was thinking when I bought this. Very early on, it was clear this was a mistake: possibly when the characters started laughing at their own witticisms, or perhaps when we realised the director believed sped-up footage to be the acme of cinematic humour – though anything that ended the movie sooner was fine by us. Only Somers’ enthusiastic scenery-chewing makes her scenes bearable, with the rest of the cast ranging from the uninteresting (the heroine) to the hugely irritating (her boyfriend and sidekick).

We almost turned it off 50 minutes in, but want you to know that we bravely soldiered on, so you don’t have to. The most annoying thing is, knowing that there are a thousand movies out there which can’t get distribution. This waste of film stock certainly doesn’t deserve it.

Dir: Mike J. Roush
Star: Jill Miller, Gwen Sommers, Tre Lovell, Jon Briddell