The Touch

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“Opens brightly, peters out into sub-Indiana Jones heroics, with some awful use of CGI.”

Yeoh’s English-language follow-up to Crouching Tiger was highly anticipated, but the end result is a disappointment. Yeoh plays Yin, the head of a family of acrobats who guard part of the key to a Sharira – a holy relic with potential for good or evil. The latter is supplied by Carl (Roxburgh), who hires Yin’s former boyfriend Eric (Chaplin) to steal the other elements needed to get the Sharira. Eric, however, switches sides, and teams up with Yin to race Carl to the prize.

It starts well: Carl has an excellent line in sarcasm, and his army of bungling henchmen provide plenty of ways to use it. And while the action scenes use an annoying ‘drop-frame’ technique, they are at least frequent. Once Yin and Eric hit the road, however, it grows steadily less interesting, among much “without good, there can be no evil” banal chatter. Yin’s kid brother (Chang), kidnapped by Carl, also becomes irritating, and it’s clear that Pau’s talents lie in cinematography (as in CTHD), not direction.

Worst of all, given a $20m budget, you’d think the climax would be more than extremely lame CGI, barely worthy of a Playstation game. Yeoh is her own best special effect, and the finale gives her little or no chance to shine. I suspect she’d have been better off taking a part in the Matrix sequels, which she turned down in order to make this mediocre action-adventure entry. Little wonder Miramax pushed the US release back to Spring 2004 – almost two years after the HK release. Do not be surprised if it quietly gets dumped to video.

Dir: Peter Pau
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Ben Chaplin, Richard Roxburgh, Brandon Chang

The Powerpuff Girls Movie

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“Rated PG, for non-stop frenetic animated action.”

Rarely have the MPAA spoken truer words than that – crack open the highly-caffeinated, carbonated beverages, tuck into those sugary snacks and sit through the equivalent of eight straight Powerpuff Girls episodes. Preceded in theatres by a startlingly unfunny Dexter’s Laboratory cartoon, the weakness here is the obvious one of translating a ten-minute TV show to feature length; going by the lack of a crowd when we saw it, few people saw the point of paying $8 for what they could get at home for free. Though this is actually less like eight episodes than one, really stretched out, covering the creation of the girls and how they came to be Townsville’s protector, taking on former lab monkey Mojo Jojo and his evil plot to take over the world through the creation of super-powered simians.

If the above seems breathless and short of full stops – so is the movie. It’s at its best when riffing off pop culture, with a host of Planet of the Apes and King Kong references – I was really expecting an “It was the beauties that killed the beast…” line at the end. The animation is rarely any better than the TV show, but this is mostly a stylistic decision and there are occasional more advanced techniques such as a CGI ball which are used effectively.

Otherwise, it’s largely business as usual, with the tiny heroic trio coming to terms with their superpowers, Bubbles sniffling a lot, etc. It’s just rolled out at greater length, e.g. a hyperdestructive game of tag which might last 30 seconds on TV, goes on here for what seems an eternity (but was probably only five minutes – blame the caffeine). And this is the problem. As the pile of dire Saturday Night Live movies shows, what works great in short bursts often becomes, if not tedious, merely average when extended to feature length.

Creator: Craig McCracken
Star (voice): Cathy Cavadini, Tara Strong, E.G.Daily, Roger L. Jackson

‘Gator Bait

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“Swamp saga is buoyantly sleazy, but sinks at the end.”

Between being Playmate of the Year in 1970, and her death in a car accident at the end of the decade, Jennings appeared in a slew of action/exploitation flicks which earned her the title “Queen of the B’s”. Despite unlikely casting as Desiree, an alligator poacher – with perfect hair and make-up, even in the Louisiana swamps – this film comes within an ace of getting our seal of approval, falling short only at the finale.

Desiree finds herself in trouble when she’s involved in the death of a local cop. His family, a bunch of half-breeds of hugely dubious morals (witness the immortal line, “What’re ya tryin’ to do, ya horny little bastard? That’s yer sister!!”), get on her trail, dragging the more or less unwilling police chief with them. But the bayous and backwoods are home turf (the title comes from her father’s habit of dragging her behind his boat as a lure!) and after her sister is murdered in truly repellent fashion, mercy is in short supply.

Rather too much speedboat footage slows the second half down, but it’s an interesting twist on the Deliverance nightmare, with rednecks being hunted rather than the hunters. Jennings doesn’t have many lines (kid bro’ is mute, so there are few chances for conversation), which is perhaps wise. However, she carries herself well, whizzing through the swamps, blazing away with her shotgun – it’s unfortunate she has to rely on assistance to finish things off, a weakness in character which is hugely disappointing.

Dir: Ferd and Beverly Sebastian
Star: Claudia Jennings, Sam Gilman, Doug Dirkson, Clyde Ventura

Pep Squad

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“High school rivalries turn murderous; one fabulous character makes this worth a rent.”

This predates both Jawbreaker and Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and thanks to being a cheap, indie film, manages to out-do them both. No studio to enforce post-Columbine political correctness here: the fight is on to be declared Prom Queen at Oak Hill High, located in the heart of Kansas. And when I say “fight”, I mean it – going head to head are Terra (Kelly) and Cherry (Balderson), but running interference is a sideplot involving the kidnap and murder of the principal. Though since his idea of fun involves molesting his students, he largely deserves it. This all builds to a murderous finale at Prom Night, at which bullets fly and flags burn.

Seeing Balderson in the credits, and realising she was a relative of the director – sister, actually – had us fearing Godfather III-style nepotism. But Balderson (bottom left) is actually the best thing in the film, lifting every scene in which she appears with venom, attitude and lines like, “I’m not insane – I’m an artist!”, as she chews up the opposition and spits them out in her wake. The rest of the cast aren’t even close to being in the same league, the most startling thing being Dreiling’s resemblance to Juliette Lewis. Without Cherry the film positively drags its feet, and the whole ‘principal’ subplot never catches light.

There is still a bunch of stuff to like: the cheerleaders practicing obscene chants; Terra’s inability to walk in heels; the Xena-like swoosh every time Cherry turns her head; spats over yearbook photos, etc. and if the film had stayed focused on the hell of high-school, it might have been more effective. As is, you’ve got one fabulous character and performance, and the rest is variably effective satire.

[The UK title is I’ve Been Watching You 2: Prom Night. Which is strange, since I’ve Been Watching You itself retitled the David DeCoteau vampire-frat-boys-in-underwear romp, The Brotherhood. The two movies have absolutely nothing in common.]

Dir: Steve Balderson
Star: Jennifer Dreiling, Brooke Balderson, Amy Kelly, Summer Makovkin

Red Sonja

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“Nice hats – shame about the movie.”

No, really. The milliner on this production deserves an Oscar, simply for providing the most amazing range of headgear I’ve ever seen. Everyone seems to have a different selection of pointy things to choose from; this civilization may have limited technology, but it’s clearly not short of hat-shops.

Unfortunately, this is largely the best thing about the movie. Nielsen, before getting buffed-up and implanted, doesn’t have the physical presence to carry off the role. On its own, this wouldn’t be fatal to the film, but she is woefully short on the emotional intensity which could have compensated (c.f. Hudson Leick) – she makes Arnie look like a talented thespian. The purpose for her revenge against Queen Gedren (Bergman – who turned down the title role, showing remarkable foresight perhaps) is glossed over so rapidly that it has no impact either, and the pointless and extremely annoying kid made me wish that the talisman stolen by Gedren would suck the entire universe out of existence. Way too many riding-riding-riding shots too, accompanied by one of Ennio Morricone’s less memorable scores.

Good stuff? Er…the fight between Sonja and Gedren at the end is actually pretty good, and you wish Sonja hadn’t spent the first 90% of the movie having to be rescued all the time. The only other saving grace is that it isn’t quite as bad a comic-book adaptation as Tank Girl. But how could it be?

Dir: Richard Fleischer
Star: Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Paul L. Smith

Femme Fatale

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“Stylishly-shot but largely uncredible thriller, with a lame twist befitting bad soap-opera.”

Odds are you won’t see the key twist here coming, but on the other hand, it renders the preceding hour almost redundant. This sums up the entire film: as an exercise in technical style, few directors are as good at camerawork as De Palma, yet little here withstands scrutiny, despite an abundance of smoke, mirrors and Romijn-Stamos. She plays Laure, a jewel thief who cons her partners out of $10m in diamonds, then is lucky enough to fall into another identity. Seven years later, they get out of jail, still miffed, and she’s now married to the American ambassador. When paparazzi Bardo (Banderas) exposes her identity, she instigates a complex plan to play her various problems off against each other.

You have to admire De Palma’s guts: large chunks are without dialogue, and what’s spoken is mostly in subtitled French. It’s almost as if he wanted to piss off a typical American audience, not least in a finale so audacious, it almost invites you to come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough. However, too often the style is pointless – a split-screen, except nothing of significance occurs on either side – and the twist remains a copout on every level.

While at best a borderline entry in the action heroine genre, femme fatales have a long, dishonourable history, going back to before women got to kick butt. Pointedly, the film opens with Laure watching Double Indemnity; both psychologically and mentally, she punts Bardo’s ass into 2008. This isn’t great art, and neither Banderas nor Romijn-Stamos were unjustly overlooked for Oscars, but any film where the heroine says, “You don’t have to lick my ass, just fuck me” has guilty pleasure potential.

Dir: Brian De Palma
Star: Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Gregg Henry

Murders Made to Order

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“Leading contender for least helpful DVD sleeve of all time, for a reason.”

Look at the picture. Note the complete lack of an English language title; I’ve heard of directors taking their name off a movie, but never the film’s name. Also notice the undeniable presence of Cynthia Khan: she is in the film for the first three minutes (in a scene lifted from Nikita), then vanishes without plausible explanation. It’s almost as if she quit the movie after one day, being replaced by Shaw, but they kept the footage shot of her.

There’s a lot going on that makes no sense, but it’s forgivable since we only discovered later that this is a sequel to Sting of the Scorpion, which we hadn’t seen*. The heroine is Maggie, a cop released after two years in psychiatric care because she shot her boss, blaming him for the death of her boyfriend. He sends her undercover to infiltrate a gang responsible for a string of mob-related murders, a task which includes shooting herself up with drugs. Then, as revenge for Maggie’s attack, he hangs her out to dry.

A lot of this is wildly incoherent, badly-staged or just plain dull. However, Shaw provides a cold-hearted performance that is occasionally very effective, in a Jade Leung kinda way, and there are some moments which border on genius. For example, as Maggie comes off the drugs, a fanlight casts spinning shadows on her body, to fabulous effect; once she’s down, the fan spins slower. Shame the scriptwriter, director and voice actresses doing the post-synching were nowhere near as talented as the DP.

* – We did have it on DVD, but on sitting down to watch it, found the box actually contained the wrong film! Wouldn’t mind, except we already had a copy of Mission of Justice

Dir: Lee Kwok-Lap
Star: Maggie Shaw, Waise Lee, Lester Chan, Fennie Yuen

Barbarian Queen II

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“In which our heroine learns the ropes…and the chains…and the rack…”

Much like the first, bondage fans would probably mark this a grade, possibly one and a half, higher given the amazing length of time the heroine spends tied to racks and other torture devices – or just tied in general. Not that this, per se, makes it a bad movie. No, the severely limited budget (the population of the land where this takes place appears to be about 1/10th that of San Marino) and clunky acting take care of that…

However, the writing helps, since tongue is in cheek, right from the movie’s subtitle: The Empress Strikes Back. It would be churlish to point out the total lack of any empress in the film. There’s also the mud-wrestling bout, carefully set up early on when a barrel of water is knocked over, instantly turning about two acres into the Everglades. As for the story, Clarkson plays Princess Amathea – her character has the same name as the first part, but how she became the king’s daughter is never explained – whose father’s throne has been usurped by the evil Ankaris (Bracho). She escapes and builds a band of curiously large-haired heroines to lead a revolt.

One interesting subplot is Ankaris’s daughter (Tijerina), a genuinely creepy teen with a disturbing interest in methods of torture. She has a crush on Amathea’s love interest and evokes the spirit of her dead mother to help her out. This angle adds a welcome depth, to a story that otherwise is largely what you would expect. The fighting is largely woeful: one participant holds their sword up while the other bangs their weapon off it. Yet, it’s never dull and Clarkson makes a good heroine, independent and feisty from the opening scene.

Dir: Joe Finley [probably a pseudonym for Hector Oliviera]
Star: Lana Clarkson, Greg Wrangler, Cecilia Tijerina, Alejandro Bracho

The Silencer

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“Soft gun-porn with hidden depths. Probably too hidden.”

This is an odd little film; heroine Angel (Walden – by some reports now a ski-lift attendant) is an assassin, ordered to take out the leaders of a white slavery ring. After the first killing, she finds solace in the arms of a random guy, and you think you know where this is going: a killing, then a sex scene, for the rest of the movie. Yet this first is also about the last, from then on, the erotic thriller angle is largely ignored, in favour of her former partner George (Mulkey), who takes out any man with whom Angel forms a relationship. It’s almost like she’s working for SD-6.

The film may be all the better for this avoidance of the obvious, and certainly improves as it goes on – though after an opening credit sequence that appears to have been shot directly from the screen of a ZX Spectrum, it could hardly be otherwise. [It’s also the distinctly cheapskate method by which Angel gets her orders] Morton Downey Jr. makes a cameo, and the movie even brushes against self-reference, when one of Angel’s hits takes place on the set of a girls-with-guns movie.

Walden certainly looks the part, and there was one major surprise at the end. But the surreal, dreamy approach for which Goldstein appears to be aiming, comes off more as if the whole cast were dosed up on ketamine. Is there any reason why George is able to follow Angel’s entire life on the screen of an arcade game? It’s a rare genre entry, in that it was directed by a woman; however, it did take her eight years to make another movie. Read into that what you like…

Dir: Amy Goldstein
Star: Lynette Walden, Chris Mulkey, Paul Ganus, Jaime Gomez

Fallen Angel

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“Workmanlike but largely uninspired serial killer thriller.”

Paul plays Philadelphia detective Laura Underwood; while investigating a string of deaths in which men have fallen from buildings, she discovers they are all her high-school classmates. Someone is clearly delivering payback for old misdemeanours. That someone would be Vicky (Johnson); the film is upfront about this, and indeed, there’s very little that isn’t out in the open. We know the who and the why, which leaves the film short on suspense. Paul is hardly credible playing a cop either, and Hall as her ex-fiance Brian is simply irritating.

Fortunately, the script is better than you might expect, with some thought going into the actual detective work – a phrase used by the killer during one of her taunting calls, eventually leads to the discovery of her identity. Brian gets his just reward, and the obvious cliches we expected, never quite materialised, though it teetered precariously close on occasion. There’s also a nice circularity; the opening scene, in which Underwood disarms an abused wife, who is threatening her husband with a gun, is more significant than you’d think.

The film still plays too much like an ABC movie of the week, or perhaps a discarded pilot, and there’s no reason to feel anything at all for the victims. If this one has a moral, it’s likely less the oft-stated, “Never trust a man after midnight,” and more “Don’t climb over railings to have sex with suspiciously-blonde women on the edge of seven-storey drops.”

Dir: Marc S. Grenier
Star: Alexandra Paul, Vlasta Vrana, Michelle Johnson, Anthony Michael Hall