Bad Girls: season two

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“Back behind bars, but brilliant as before.”

Somewhere around the middle of the series, I realised that this is soap-opera, pure and simple. As someone who’d never be seen dead watching a soap, this was disturbing. Fortunately, moments later, Jim Fenner did something else truly rotten to the core, and my attention went back to H.M. Prison Larkhall. Such is the joy of the show: it defies categorization.

All our favourites return, though both good and bad show more character development than previously. Evil guard Fenner (Ellis) in particular demonstrates amazing depth, and we find out why resident bitch Dockley is that way. Top plot-arc this season was a through-the-bars romance between lifer Niki Wade and former governor Helen Stewart, that sprouted wings, flew, then crashed-and-burned (apparently) in the final ep.

Of the new characters, gangster’s wife Yvonne Atkins made the biggest impression – a nemesis for her arrived too, but was offed after only a couple of episodes, in a disappointing second case of “sudden fatal illness as plot device”. While there wasn’t perhaps anything as heartrending as we saw in the first series, the breadth and depth of storylines remains a joy to watch. Soap opera or not, we’ll start season 3 sooner rather than later.

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

Killers 2

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“Heather is sick and twisted…”

Director Latt and star (and wife) Little came to our attention through a highly-amusing comedy about TV, Jane White is Sick and Twisted. This is radically different, but still effective, thanks to Little’s performance as Heather. The sole survivor of a warehouse massacre, she is taken, catatonic, to a mental hospital. The bad news is, associates of the gangsters she killed want her dead – try convincing a doctor his staff have been bribed to off you. [They skip the potential ambivalence as to whether Heather actually is imagining everything.] The good news is, she has developed ‘hunter craze’, and is capable of enormous strength and savagery when threatened; hence her nickname, ‘The Beast’.

The detailing is poor: Heather’s hair changes length at random; crop-tops & make-up are apparently easily available; she dislocates her shoulder to escape a straitjacket, but five seconds later, she’s 100% well. Yet there is a lot to admire, especially a final battle where the gangsters give up trying to make Heather’s death ‘accidental’, and storm the hospital – it’s an excellent sequence, albeit underlit, like much of the film. We also liked co-incarceree Emma (Martin), in for clinical depression, and not the best hostage for the villains, since she wants to die. There’s something of Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted about her. We haven’t seen Killers, yet happily recommend the sequel, though it ain’t One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Refreshingly free of romantic interest, this is a straightforward story, vigorously told and largely avoiding low-budget pitfalls.

Dir: David Michael Latt
Star: Kim Little, D.C.Douglas, Mellisa Martin, Nick Stellate

Fatal Conflict

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“Die Hard in space – no ifs or ands, though plenty of butts…”

Wuhrer plays Sasha, a space pilot coerced into attempting to stop a rocket, hijacked by evil emerald dealer Conrad Nash (Rossi) and his creepily incestuous sister Carla (Rubin), from ploughing into LA. The proper pilot (O’Keefe) provides assistance, with much running around corridors and plunging into a glycerine tank. Yes, glycerine: a feeble excuse to give our heroine the wettest T-shirt of all time. Between this and the “ass panning” (as Chris described Simandl’s fondness for shooting at waist level), it seems disturbingly fetishistic, though a large chunk is due to footage spliced in from another movie – see Jolly Roper’s review for full details. Hack out all that stuff, and you’ve got a serviceable little movie in the Die Hard vein, with the cast doing surprisingly well. Wuhrer, Rossi and Rubin are all interesting to watch, and are entirely responsible for this being half-decent.

Well, I thought it wasn’t bad – Chris, in her regular role as voice of sanity, pointed out several gaping plot holes. Not least, when Sasha gets the drop on the villain, she doesn’t simply kill him, but embarks on a convoluted plot to con him into believing she’s an escaped prisoner. This was perhaps to justify earlier jail footage, large chunks of which also look suspiciously like they came from somewhere else. If I’d watched these other movies, I’d probably feel significantly more cheated – as is, it gets the benefit of first sight and so proves an acceptable time passer. If all else fails, start the drinking game where you take a swig for every gratuitous buttock shot. Unconsciousness will soon be upon you.

Dir: Lloyd Simandl
Star: Kari Wuhrer, Leo Rossi, Miles O’Keefe, Jennifer Rubin

Outside the Law

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“A reminder of the inalienable rule of Rothrock films: the US ones suck.”

This is the first Cyn-flick seen in a while: rumour has it, she made a brief diversion (after implants) into erotic thrillers, but the good news is, she’s back in the martial arts arena. The bad news is, er, the film. It starts with her DEA colleague, about to bust a Colombian drug-lord, promising Julie (Rothrock), “Four kids, a dog, and a house with a white picket fence.” You know he’s dead, though given his willful lack of a bullet-proof vest, he also has a death-wish.

Before dying, he hands her evidence on the sale of US-government supplied equipment to the cartel, making Julie a target. Returning to Florida (how, exactly?), she goes on the run, with a dog, a truck and a sense of justice. Eating in a restaurant, she breaks up a fight, and gets fully involved when the woman running the joint is murdered by a guy connected to (tah-rah!) Colombian drug-dealers.

All of which might not be so bad; you watch this kind of film for action, not plot. But the director has no idea how to shoot fights, and the results are so poor as to make it look as if Rothrock has been replaced by a stunt double in a bad wig – oh, sorry, that’s her hair. The results are a pale imitation of her work in Hong Kong, and are even less interesting than the likes of China O’Brien. If she is, as the sleeve claims, “the queen of martial arts”, a popular coup must surely be imminent.

Dir: Jorge Montesi
Star: Cynthia Rothrock, Jeff Wincott, Seamus Dever, Dan Lauria

Supreme Sanction

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Alias kicks back with a martini and some valium.”

Director Terlesky starred in one of my favourite guilty pleasures, Deathstalker II, but this shows he still has much to learn about directing and, particularly, scripting. There just isn’t enough going on here to sustain attention, with too many scenes taking twice as long as necessary. Swanson plays Jenna, assassin for a government counter-terrorist agency which is now creating incidents in order to get increased funding. She switches sides and protects TV journalist Jordan McNamara (Dukes), whom she has been ordered to kill – her handler Dalton (Madsen) must now take her out.

Subsequent events have given this 1999 film a creepily prescient air, and I’m always up for a good conspiracy. But neither Swanson nor Madsen ever provide the necessary energy, which we know the latter at least can deliver (though he gets the best moment, shooting the journalist, then offering him a BandAid). Faison makes a mark as Marcus, Jenna’s gadget man who avoids the usual stereotypes, but Dukes is so irritatingly whiny, it’s hard to see why Jenna chose to save him.

There are moments proving the ideas have potential, such as Jenna and Marcus disguising themselves to penetrate the enemies’ base. More of this invention would have helped enliven what is instead just marginally acceptable entertainment. The climax also relies on chief villain Ron Perlman willingly confessing all to his “helpless” captive. Guess he must never have seen any Bond films.

Dir: John Terlesky
Star: Kristy Swanson, Michael Madsen, David Dukes, Donald Adeosun Faison

Retroactive

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“Trippy time-travel done with almost enough energy to cover the plot holes.”

It’s not often I criticise a film for too much explanation, but Retroactive might have been better off with more hand-waving. I’ll explain later; first, the plot. Travis plays Karen, a police negotiator who just screwed up badly; driving down South she ends up hitching a ride with Frank (Belushi) and his abused wife Rayanne (Whirry). Frank is a psycho, and Karen ends up sheltering in a secret lab where time-travel experiments are going on – she ends up with another chance to deal with Frank, only to discover this second attempt may not be an improvement…

This is a nifty little sleeper that seemed to get buried when Orion Pictures went belly-up. It deserved a better fate, with everyone turning in sterling performances, even if Karen’s reaction to being shot back in time is too calm and understated! Belushi makes a fine, creepy redneck, a sense of tension springing from your feeling he is capable of anything at any time. The deviations with each attempt are marked and cleverly written, and the ending is satisfactorily imperfect.

Our qualms were largely because, unlike Run Lola Run or Groundhog Day, which made no attempt to explain what was happening, here there’s just enough logic to be unsatisfying. The “rules” are clearly important – for example, do time-travellers keep their memories? – yet are inadequately laid out. We spent the last 15 minutes with furrowed brows, trying to see if it made sense. It may, or may not, but either way was an unwelcome diversion in an otherwise pleasant surprise.

Dir: Louis Morneau
Star: Kylie Travis, Jim Belushi, Shannon Whirry, Frank Whaley

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, by Laurell K. Hamilton

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“Buffy’s all grown-up and raising the dead…and having an ever-increasing amount of sex.”

This long-running series, with the 11th entry due in 2003, takes place in an alternative reality where vampires have equal rights as citizens. Heroine Anita Blake is a state-appointed executioner (“when good bloodsuckers…go bad…“) in St. Louis, who takes out the undead trash and also has a day job – actually, more of a night job – raising zombies. Oh, did I forget to mention them? There’s also were-creatures, ghouls, and pretty much the whole range of supernatural monsters.

It’s a grand, richly-detailed universe in which to play, and the first few novels are highly recommended, fast-paced action romps. Blake is a great character, who takes no bull from anyone, yet has vulnerabilities which are endearing (such as her stuffed penguin collection) and add depth. The first one alone will probably leave you wondering why in the hell any studio ever bothered with Anne Rice.

Unfortunately, beyond about the fourth or fifth, Hamilton loses the plot – literally. A truly bizarre love-triangle is set up between Anita, Richard the werewolf, and Jean-Claude, the walking cliche (all French accent and sensuous gaze) who is the local master vampire. By about the third volume of this, I was rolling my eyes and urging her to fuck one and kill the other, just to get it over with. If I wanted supernatural porn, I’d read it – instead, I’ll just quietly pine for the action-centred heroine of the earlier entries, and wait for Hollywood to catch up. Salma Hayek for Anita Blake?

By: Laurell K. Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin-Puttnam (US), Orbit (UK)

The Terrorist

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“Not your average Bollywood film – some fabulous moments, and some really tedious ones.”

Loosely based on the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, this focuses on Malli (Dharker), a 19-year old guerilla chosen as a suicide bomber. With flashbacks to earlier events, it covers the journey to the killing zone, where she awaits her target and her destiny.

Right from the start, where she shoots a traitor in the throat, we realise Malli is not your average teenager; she has lost all her family, and has nothing left but the cause. She isn’t the only one – perhaps the most chilling sequence is an ‘interview’ for the position of “thinking bomb”, where the candidates beg for the honour of dying. However, when she leaves the moral certainty of camp, she begins to have doubts. Perhaps there’s more to life than death; it’s hard to destroy yourself when you feel someone would miss you. In particular, the farmer with whom she stays (a charming, voluble performance from Parmeshwaran) embraces this taciturn stranger without qualm and leaves Malli with a dilemma.

A lot of the weight of the film has to be carried by Dharker, who is in almost every frame. She has a definite presence; however, staring at the camera is hardly a stretch. Throughout this, there are frequent moments which make you gasp, but Malli’s silence leaves a huge gap in the film, and there are just too many scenes which are beautifully photographed but otherwise appear pointless. The ending, too, is distinctly unsatisfying on all but a basic level. It does give an understanding of fanatical psychology: post 9/11, that’s an area deserving of coverage.

In the Line of Duty IV

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“A thinly connected series of action set-pieces…but what set-pieces!”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a HK film with more action; it seems that every five minutes, along comes another breathtaking fight or stunt sequence. Of course, when you have a master at the helm (Yuen did the fights for The Matrix), you expect a little more, but this is fabulous, even by his standards.

Donnie Yen is perhaps the most under-rated martial artist of our generation, and watching him here, it’s hard to see why he hasn’t become a major star, rather than lurking in (effective) supporting roles in Blade 2 and Highlander: Endgame. For speed, agility and skill, his fights are almost without equal, and most female co-stars would be overshadowed. Fortunately, Cynthia Khan, though occasionally clearly doubled, does more than enough to keep on the same lap – the fight atop, alongside, and dangling from the front of, a speeding ambulance is eyepoppingly extreme, while her aerial battle around a lift shaft is also worthy of mention.

The story is clearly secondary to all this, but for the record, Khan and Yen are cops, one from Hong Kong, one from America, who team up to find a witness to a murder. Double-dealing and twists abound, though most are so obvious, you suspect they were just waiting for cast members to get out of hospital. :-) Interesting to see a foreign view of American cops – even Yen is a barely-controlled psychonaut. Khan is more sympathetic, but characterisation never goes beyond the most basic. However, this is an action movie, and as such, it’s near-perfect, with invention, energy and hardcore guts to spare from all concerned.

Dir: Yuen Wo-Ping
Star: Cynthia Khan, Donnie Yen, Michael Wong, Yuen Yat Choh

Freeze Me

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“A chilly tale of rape, revenge and household appliances.”

Five years after a vicious gang-rape, Chihiro has somewhat recovered, with a new apartment, job and boyfriend. But one of the attackers turns up on her doorstep, with a video of the assault, and threatens to destroy her new life. He moves in. Worse yet, his colleagues are on their way. What’s a girl to do? If you answered “kill the bastard, stuff him in her freezer, then wait for the other two rapists”… you’ve clearly seen this before.

This film is often difficult to watch, on several levels. On the down side, Chihiro is such a passive victim, it’s hard to feel much initial sympathy for her – letting the guy who raped you stay in your flat with barely a whimper of protest, is so damn… wussy as possibly to turn you off her character. It might have made more plot sense to have her kill the first one, then she’d have good reason not to seek help when the second moved in. Though when you see the attack, it’s so brutal, nasty and vicious (exactly how rape should be depicted), that her post-traumatic shock is more explicable.

The change that comes over her as a result makes for intriguing viewing – the title is entirely apt, since she gradually transforms into something every bit as cold as her enemies, and is finally so blase as to order another fridge while the intended occupant is playing video-games in the same room. By the end, it’s hard to say who is more dangerous to know; at least the rapists know they’re doing wrong. Credit to Inoue – better known as a model in Japan – for a creepy performance, and to Ishii for pulling no punches, an approach which rescues the film after a wobbly start.

Dir: Takashi Ishii
Star: Harumi Inoue, Shingo Tsurumi, Shunsuke Matsuoka, Kazuki Kitamura