Charlie’s Angels (movie)

starstarstarstar

“…and then there’s the ho.”

Making movies based on a TV show is always fraught with danger. You’ve got to convince the audience to pay good money to see the same thing they can watch for free at home, yet you can’t stray too far from the central concept, or you’ll alienate the fans. One possible countermeasure is to go for an old show, less likely to have a rabid fanbase, which you can update safely. Yet this too is problematic: anyone see The Mod Squad?

Charlie’s Angels, however, avoids most of the pitfalls, and is a thoroughly enjoyable blast – little wonder it took more money at the box-office than almost any other female action movie in history. While not faultless (the lack of characterisation is particularly woeful), it never sets out to be any more than a good time, and in that capacity it succeeds admirably, mixing violence, sex and humour to optimum efficiency. The plot can be easily dismissed: the trio investigate a kidnapped computer tycoon, only to find things are not quite what they seem, as they uncover a plot to kill their unseen boss, Charlie. There – that’s that out of the way.

Almost as rapidly put aside are the lead characters: Alex (Liu), Natalie (Diaz), and Dylan (Barrymore). Margaret Cho once said – partly in reference to the original Charlie’s Angels TV series – that whenever you get three female friends, there’s the smart one, the pretty one…and then there’s the ho. True to form, the movie replicates this: Alex’s main scene has her as a ferocious efficiency expert, the main ambition for Natalie seems to be to appear on Soul Train (in a totally irrelevant but good-natured sequence), while Dylan beds the client without even reaching a “first date”. Work out which is which yourself. :-)

If there’s nothing there to keep you interested, the film makes up for it in lots of other ways. The aim was to make it seem like turning pages of a comic-book, and this certainly succeeds – there’s always something going on. While the nods to political correctness are kinda irritating (the villain and all his henchmen can muster precisely one gun between them), no-one is really taking it seriously, and the tongue-in-cheek approach saves the whole thing. The supporting cast are good, too: Bill Murray as their overseer is his usual laconic self, while Kelly Lynch and Crispin Glover give good support to Sam Rockwell.

The film manages to capture the spirit of the original show, without being a slave to it. I appreciated the nods to its predecessor e.g. the voice of Charlie being the same actor, and I believe even the speakerphone was the very one used on the TV show! The soundtrack, similarly, is a nice mix of old and new, though points must be deducted for the film being partly responsible for inflicting Destiny’s Child on the universe at large.

 It is, however, the action scenes which stand out and, frankly, make up for the film’s deficiencies in other areas. Yuen Cheung-Yan is the brother of Yuen Wo-Ping – perhaps the greatest exponent of HK action – and while not quite as innovative or super-smooth as his sibling, he’s clearly cut from the same cloth. At the risk of sounding sexist, don’t forget we’re talking a bunch of girlies here – Diaz, Barrymore and Liu all came in without significant martial arts experience, and making them look as good as they do is a great feat. Kudos, too, for the actresses in question, who clearly put in no little effort themselves. [Thank heavens Thandie Newton, who single-handedly destroyed the first half of Mission Impossible 2, was unable to take part, and Lucy Liu stepped in.]

The pacing is a little weird though; apart from one impressive battle between the trio and Crispin Glover in a back-alley (to the tune of the Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up), all the martial arts is concentrated in one 20-minute span near the end. At one point we have Cameron Diaz taking on Kelly Lynch, Lucy Liu going toe-to-toe with Glover and Drew Barrymore taking on a whole roomful at virtually the same time, and the cross-cutting does get a little aggravating. Barrymore’s battle is very show-offish: she tells her opponents what she’s going to do, pauses in mid-stream to name the fighting techniques, and moonwalks out of there when she’s done. A tap on the wrist and a warning not to do it again, Drew.

Indeed, much the same could probably be said of the entire movie. It works beautifully, despite its flaws, but it wouldn’t bear frequent repetition. It’s no bad thing that, because of scheduling conflicts, the sequel isn’t due out until three years after the original. Candy is indeed dandy, but it’s not the sort of thing from which you can form your staple diet.

Dir: McG
Stars: Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz, Sam Rockwell

Bloody Mallory

starstarstarstarstarhalf

“From bad to hearse…”

It has been a long time since we’ve enjoyed a film so much. Right from the start, which shows a bride, in her wedding-dress, being stalked by a demon (or does it?), this grabbed our attention, and hardly let up for a second until the finale. I have to say, the odds are that you will either love this film, or fail entirely to ‘get’ what it’s trying to do and dismiss it as a lame Buffy ripoff. But in our living-room, it got four enthusiastic thumbs-up from the viewing panel, and seems like the perfect complement to beer and pizza.

After the opening, things for Mallory (Bonamy) go from bride to worse. [Hey, so I squeeze every drop of use from a pun. Sue me.] She’s now head of a team that investigates, and deals with, paranormal attacks – France seems to be the only country which has realised that such evil critters actually exist. She loses one member of her squad while repelling ghouls at a convent, and at the same time, new pope Hieronymus I (Spielvogel) is being kidnapped. She discovers he’s being held hostage in a nightmarish alternate dimension, so has to follow, and save the world from demonic invasion through the Hellmou…er, portal which is going to be opened, oh, any minute now.

There’s no doubt that director Julien Magnat was influenced by all the “right” films when it came to constructing his heroine: Mallory has Lola’s hair, Buffy’s martial-arts skill, the intensity of Michelle Rodriguez, and some of Resident Evil‘s Alice too. But none of them ever had gloves with ‘FUCK EVIL’ on the knuckles, drove a hearse, ran over black cats because “you never know”, or wore a tight, red waistcoat with a big ‘M’ embossed on the back [how there’s room in it for a large gun remains a charming mystery!]. Portrayed by Bonamy, who is unknown outside France (her only English-language role is a schoolgirl in Merchant-Ivory’s Jefferson in Paris), Mallory comes across as a convincing and original entry in the action heroine genre.

The other members of the team are hardly less imaginative – or, at least, the females, the guys are nowhere near so colourful or interesting. Completing the heroic trio are Vena Cava (Ribier – I think the character’s name is a Diamanda Galas reference), a six-foot “action transvestite”, as Eddie Izzard would say, an explosives expert with automatic weaponry in her platform soles, and Talking Tina, a mute telepath who can transfer her consciousness into animals or the dumber end of humanity. Both are excellent supporting characters; in a kinder universe, they would merit franchises of their own, Cava, in particular,

Less effective or interesting are the men, and it’s abundantly clear where Magnat’s passion lies. Father Carras (Collado), the Vatican priest and papal bodyguard is bland and colourless, despite having a name borrowed from The Exorcist. The best is actually Mallory’s demon husband (Julien Boisselier), now stuck in limbo after the murderous end to their marriage. The pair have a relationship which is genuinely touching, in a way which Joss Whedon could only dream of.

On the side of evil, again, the femmes rule, with Valentina Vargas and Sophie Tellier, as Lady Valentine and her shape-shifting sidekick, Morphine, giving performances which are suitably excessive and on the money. However, the climax of the film is disappointing, largely because Mallory has no genuine nemesis, with whom she can go toe-to-toe at the end – who’s she going to beat up, the Pope? [Actually, given his intolerant statements, you’ll likely be rooting for this from the get-go]

Some of the effects definitely leave a little to be desired – the demon masks look extremely rubbery, although personally, it reminded me of another energetic B-favourite, Rabid Grannies. However, the digital effects are great, particularly the exploding bodies; we especially loved the effect of Mallory’s cross-shaped holy-water spritzer. There were many moments where we went “Cool!”, at little things like the blood-red, swirling sky in the demon realm, the evaporation of Mallory’s husband into a cloud of rose petals, or the transformations of Morphine.

The attention paid to details like these helps immeasurably, and Magnat succeds admirably in his avowed intention of making something which has the look and feel of a Japanese comic-book come to life, with a lot of Dutch angles [this week’s pretentious technical term – it means the camera’s not level]. There’s almost no natural light at all, and each character has their own colour scheme: red/black for Mallory, blue/purple for Vena, burgundy/gold for Lady Valentine. Indeed, the soundtrack is by Kenji Kawai, whose credits include Ghost in the Shell.

Perhaps what we enjoyed most was the balance Magnat strikes between parody and drama. This is clearly not intended to be taken seriously – but the characters keep such admirably straight faces, that it became very easy to buy into the whole mythos, which in reality wouldn’t stand up to ten seconds of close scrutiny. There’s none of the self-awareness that plagued the later seasons of Buffy, and nor is there much angst or whining. The heroine has a mission to complete, and gets on with it, in a refreshingly straightforward manner.

Magnat’s wants his next project to be a return to The All-New Adventures of Chastity Blade, expanding on a 32-minute short film he made in the summer of 1999. This starred Lisa (Nightmare on Elm Street) Wilcox, playing a housewife who finds herself sucked into the world of the titular 1930’s pulp-fiction heroine after getting a bullet in the head. If he brings the same sense of style and wit to that concept as we enjoyed here, it promises to be worth our attention. Meanwhile, Mallory was picked up by Lion’s Gate in November 2002, and was passed by the MPAA (R, natch) in April last year – the same week as Gigli! Since then, nothing. However, a quick search on Ebay reveals it’s available from, ahem, the usual sources. [Update: It’s due a September 2005 release on DVD] And if you see only one film about a red-headed, hearse-driving demon-hunter this, or any year, Bloody Mallory should definitely be it.

Dir: Julien Magnat
Star: Olivia Bonamy, Jeffrey Ribier, Adrià Collado, Laurent Spielvogel

The Dallas Connection

starstar
Among Sidaris fans, I imagine arguments over whether this one counts, much like the Never Say Never Again debate among 007 lovers. For this was directed not by Andy, but son Drew; Dad and Mom were merely executive producers. However, the content is much the same, though (and I can’t believe I’m writing this) Drew lacks the subtle touch of Sidaris Sr. Case in point: the very first shot is of the Eiffel Tower, establishing that this is Paris. However, the point is then rammed home with footage of the Arc De Triomphe, Place de la Concorde and Notre Dame. Similarly before the ‘South African’ scenes; we get so much wildlife footage, it feels more like the Discovery Channel.

The story, also by the director (using his first name, Christian), is equally poor; something to do with a plan to steal chips being used in a new satellite system. Details are vague, too many sequences, such as the one at the race-track, are just meaningless filler, and the writer literally doesn’t know his acronyms from his anagrams. On the plus side, Julie Strain makes a good impression as a bad girl, leading her coven of killers who drop their tops at the drop of a…well, not just hat, but virtually any other piece of clothing.

They operate out of what appears to be a combination line-dancing bar/strip-club called Cowboy’s in Dallas, where the four chips are scheduled to be integrated into the system. For safe keeping, the “bureau” give one to each of their agents – what’s wrong with a bank vault? – led by the ludicrously over-inflated Samantha Maxx (Phillips). Another key clue is bullets found at the scene of a drive-by shooting, days after the event. I’d have words with your forensic technicians.

Long before the end, we were making our own entertainment, and you’ll probably get more fun from mocking this. One line is, “I told you – I bite”, to which the correct response is, “Unlike the rest of the film, which simply sucks.” “Do you think those are real?” asked Chris at one point, regarding a particularly scary pair of mammaries. “Yes,” I replied, “and the Pyramids are a naturally-occurring rock formation.” Little wonder Drew has since been relegated by Dad to second-unit work.

Dir: Drew Sidaris
Star: Sam Phillips, Bruce Penhall, Julie Strain, Wendy Hamilton

Enemy Gold

starstarstar
While containing many of the same elements as usual e.g. boobs and bombs, this does at least throw in a new angle, in the shape of some Confederate gold buried in the woods since the Civil War – I can only presume Sidaris must have befriended a Civil War re-enactment battalion. Out enjoying a bit of off-road action, amusingly-named federal agent Becky Midnite (Simpson) and her two co-workers stumble across a diary written by one of the soldiers transporting the gold. However, their plans to search for the treasure are disrupted by efforts to kill them, courtesy of mob boss Santiago. He is upset after they shut down his operation that involved shipping drugs in hollowed-out watermelons. Fed up with the ineptness of his minions, he hires even more amusingly-named assassin Jewel Panther (Strain) to carry out what they have failed to do.

There’s a loopy insanity to elements of this that are kinda endearing, such as with Strain’s bizarre topless sword routine, which comes out of absolutely nowhere, or her costume when she meets a couple of park rangers, which is not your usual hiker’s attire, shall we say. No-one but Strain could probably pull that off, and she’s fun to watch as usual. However, after a prelude which explains the gold, the first half abandons it entirely, and goes off in a totally different (and not very interesting) direction, involving the raid which get Midnite and her squad suspended, amid political shenanigans and an agent who’s secretly working for Santiago. The final showdown between the various parties concerned is, quite possibly, the worst ever committed to celluloid, even allowing for the fact that Santiago is apparently a “hands on” criminal overlord, who believes that if you want a job done well, you should do it yourself.

The action around the forest is well-staged, with a decent vehicle chase whose danger is enhanced by the lack of helmets worn by the participants, and you’ve got to love the crossbow whose bolts explode three seconds after embedding in the target. The sole purpose of this delay seems to be in order for the target to get a “Wile E. Coyote” moment of horrified realization before exploding. Hey, I laughed…

Dir: Drew Sidaris
Star: Suzi Simpson, Bruce Penhall, Tai Collins, Julie Strain

Fit To Kill

starstarstarstarhalf

Hang on, two movies ago, criminal mastermind Kane was Japanese – now, he’s the son of a Nazi officer who went on the run after the war with a diamond stolen from the Russians? I know I’m watching these all of our order, but still… They even refer to a pendant with a tracking device in it, given to the Japanese version of Kane, even though Moore now appears to be channeling Julian Sands, not Pat Morita. I’m so confused. Still, logic, continuity and coherence are not really the point here, are they?

This centres on said diamond, which a Chinese businessman plans to return to the Russians. When the jewel is stolen during a ceremonial party, Kane’s presence makes him the obvious suspect, not least because he has hired infamous assassin Blu Steele (Strain), turning her to his side after her attempt to kill him is foiled by a bulletproof vest. However, is everything what it seems? It’s up to Donna and Nicole (Speir + Vasquez), and their friends, to solve the puzzle, while dodging remote-controlled attempts to kill them (including a particularly-dumb pair of assassins known as Evel and Knievel), pausing only for changes of costumes, hot-tubs and the occasional spot of soft-core love-making. In other words, business as usual for a Sidaris film.

There’s a cheerful innocence to much of the nudity here, which harkens back to the 60’s, e.g. the radio station receptionist who has a hot tub as her desk, in which she sits topless. I actually prefer this approach to the more “intimate” scenes, and the relatively intricate plot also helps make this aspect a cut above [Kane and Donna end up having to work together after both are captured, which marks the first time I’ve genuinely been surprised by a Sidaris storyline development]. However, it does flag in the middle, and the obsession with remote-controlled models is not one I personally share, though overall, this still remains one of the better productions, with Strain fitting in perfectly as a villainess.

Dir: Andy Sidaris
Star: Dona Speir, Roberta Vasquez, R.J. Moore, Julie Strain

Hard Hunted

starstarstarstarhalf
It’s very easy to mock a film, when the lesbian necking starts before the meaningful dialogue, and is immediately followed by a musical number where Cynthia Brimhall channels the spirit of Jimmy Buffett. Yet the endearing loopiness on display here did a better job of keeping my interest throughout than many movies made with far larger budgets. The plot centers on a jade Buddha, containing a nuclear trigger, which starts off in the hands of Kane (Moore), only for it to be swiped by an undercover agent: she is gunned down, but passes it to Donna (Speir), who has to try and keep it out of Kane’s clutches. However, an unfortunate bout of amnesia leaves her partner Nicole (Vazquez) and the other agents trying to find her first.

This is the usual mix of decent production values [if too much footage of aircraft flying], dumb plotting and breasts; the preferred method of communication is radio host Ava Cadell – who occasionally does her show topless from the hot tub. Just don’t drop the microphone. It’s harmlessly entertaining nonsense, and even has some local interest for us here in Arizona, with sequences shot in Phoenix and up the road in Sedona, though the geography on view is a little flakey. We particularly enjoyed Kane’s incompetent henchmen, Wiley and Coyote – as they helpfully point out, “Those are codenames” – with their Acme brand hovercraft. While it’s clear the film doesn’t take itself seriously (the intelligence community is not, presumably, at it like knives on an almost permanent basis), more of this kind of genuine humour would be welcome, letting you laugh with the film rather than simply taking the mickey.

You do get the feeling that Sidaris could make this kind of thing in his sleep: there’s nothing remotely innovative or challenging to be found here. Yet for what it is, this is slickly-made, with more ambition than usually found in the genre. Er, at least as long as the genre is that narrow subset of movies where horizontal action is of equal importance to any other kind – if you know what I mean, and I think you do…

Dir: Andy Sidaris
Star: Dona Speir, Roberta Vasquez, R.J. Moore, Rodrigo Obregon

Do Or Die

starstar
In a filmography not exactly noted for thought-out plots, this maybe counts as one of the thinnest. Donna (Speir) and Nicole (Vasquez) are targeted by death for Kane (Morita) for their interference in his illegal business ventures. But rather than simply bumping them off, as any sane criminal mastermind would do, he informs them of his intentions to send six separate pairs of assassins after them, beginning the next morning. Our pair of federal lovelies head out of Hawaii, little knowing that a tracker has been placed on them, allowing Kane’s to follow them, while their master sits in his apartment and follows the progress of his “game” on a computer display resembling a bad TRS-80 game [younger readers can Google “TRS-80” if they need specifics], as they proceed from Las Vegas to Louisiana, with a motley crew of associated agents in tow, including infamous Meyer model, Pandora Peaks. No prizes for guessing her role.

There seems to be an awful lot more sex than violence here; the action sequences are not exactly thrilling, and the assassins are, almost without exception, entirely incompetent, so pose little or no threat. Even the boss level ninjas that represent the final obstacle are easily fooled into hanging around inside a hut long enough to be blown-up. The structure is obvious: the ladies are attacked, fend off their assassins with some semi-nifty piece of technology, then there’s the required love-making scene, showcasing generally artificial attributes. Rinse. Repeat. Six times. It’s kinda amusing to see Morita playing a bad guy, not least because his massaging Oriental sidekickess is a good four inches taller than him, as well as about forty years younger.

Brimhall gets to do another musical number, which is startlingly inappropriate in just about every way, though I confess I did find myself humming along when it was replayed over the end credits. However, I also found myself seriously dozing off during the early stages, and little of what transpired subsequently proved sufficient to retain my interest.

Dir: Andy Sidaris
Star: Donna Speir, Roberta Vasquez, Pat Morita, Erik Estrada

Underworld: Evolution

starstarstarhalf

“The evolution of species”

While undeniably flawed, the original Underworld had a big ace up its sleeve, in the basic concept of “vampires vs. werewolves”, which hadn’t received such a full-on depiction in cinema before. This time, the idea is familiar, and the story doesn’t have anything quite as cool to replace it. Sure, there’s the old fall-back of Kate Beckinsale in a PVC suit, but the sense of something genuinely new is rarely apparent. Sure, it’s a sequel, which in Hollywood translates to “more of the same”, but the lack of invention on view is still disappointing.

We start with a flashback to medieval times, explaining the basic premise, involving two immortal brothers, one bitten by a bat, the other a wolf. [A third brother was nibbled by a narwhal, but his role ended up on the cutting-room floor. Okay, I made that up.] Anyway, the lycanthrope is captured and locked up in a secret location by Victor (Bill Nighy – mercifully, only cameoing, since it’s impossible to take him seriously after his wonderful performance in Shaun of the Dead. We kept muttering, “I ran it under a cold tap…” every time he appeared). Back in the present, the vampire, Marcus (Curran), has been freed, and is now out to release his brother.

Meanwhile, Selene (Beckinsale) and her vamp-lycan hybrid lover Michael (Speedman) are bouncing around, trying to settle down and raise a family, of what I guess would be mostly vampires, but ones that get a little frisky around the full moon. Quite why they need to get involved in the storyline of the previous paragraph is unclear, but they do. And it’s probably relevant that contemplating the breeding habit of night creatures, and quoting lines from a British zom-rom-com were perhaps the best entertainment the film provided.

It isn’t entirely without merit though. Marcus is a memorable creation whose wings function as impressive weapons, and the effects are highly messy. In particular, the final two fights – and at least, this time, Selene does more than administer the coup de grace – both end in immaculately splattery ways. Though as an aside, I’m impressed with the sturdiness of a helicopter that can come crashing through a roof, yet still have engine and rotors running. But the action, on the whole, is fine, with an excellent chase which has Marcus harrying a truck, while Selene and Michael try to fend him off.

No, it’s the moments between the battles that are the problems, not least a dumb and gratuitous sex scene between Selene and Michael that appears to have wandered in from an airline version of a SkineMax movie. And the exposition also has to count as among the most leaden of recent times, achieving the rare double-bill of sending Chris and I independently off to sleep. Hey, we’d been out boating all day. So sue us. :-) However, for any action-fantasy to have both of us snoozing is definitely problematic.

So the results are disappointing, largely lacking the sense of style and invention that made the original a pleasant surprise (as well as something of a sleeper hit). However, it did well enough at the box-office to leave a third entry possible, and particularly when in motion, there was still sufficient life in the franchise to suggest that might not be an entirely bad thing. However, any future storyline must be limited to whatever complexity can be scrawled on a beer-mat. Anything more, and the scriptwriter should be sentenced to mop out sweat from Selene’s costume. With his tongue. :-)

Dir: Len Wiseman
Star: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Tony Curran, Derek Jacobi

Guns

starstarstarstarhalf
Two federal agents (Speir and Vasquez) are hot on the trail of South American gangster Degas (Estrada), after one of their friends is shot during one of his hits – but perhaps that’s really what he wants? Zipping around from Hawaii to Arizona to Las Vegas, this was the first Sidaris movie I saw, and was probably better than I expected. While obviously not shot on an unlimited budget, most of the deficiencies are made up for in energy and a host of interesting characters.

Those on the wrong side of the law come off particularly well: Estrada is suitably nasty, and his sidekick of few words is an early role for Danny Trejo. Add a pair of transvestite assassins, and Devin DeVasquez as Degas’ murderous squeeze, and the heroines seem kinda bland in comparison, despite good support from Chuck McCann and Phyllis Davis, making an impression in small roles. Cynthia Brimhall is perhaps the best of the cover starlets, though I could certainly have done without her lounge singer turn. Speir still seems to be finding her feet, while Vasquez merely looks pouty.

It’s the action sequences which really show up the paucity of the production. Helicopters chasing motorbikes is all very well, but Sidaris might have been better off reining in his ambition, to something more in keeping with his pocket. The smaller-scale stuff works better, such as a nice double-hit involving a computer screen and a radio-controlled boat – they were supposed to return the computer and get their money back, but couldn’t get the blood out of the keyboard…

Dir: Andy Sidaris
Star: Donna Speir, Erik Estrada, Roberta Vasquez, Bruce Penhall

Savage Beach

starstarstarhalf
This one doesn’t really get going until the second half, when the search for a lost hoard of Japanese wartime gold, looted from the Philippines, leads to a remote island. There are CIA agents, revolutionaries, a left-behind Japanese soldier and, of course, our lovely heroines Dona and Taryn (Speir and Carlton) who end up there after their plane crashes in a storm. Or rather, “storm” – you can get a cheap laugh by seeing the bright blue skies as they land in the middle of a clearly hose-supplied downpour. Sidaris probably felt the need to justify their otherwise implausible strip-tease shortly after departure. Or do FAA regulation stipulate pilots must remove their tops in emergencies? Two take-offs for the price of one…

Such clunky exploitation is disappointing, but the back and forth round the island is fun, though note how our heroines’ carefully-applied camouflage paint mysteriously vanishes minutes later. Not that it impairs their concealment abilities, given the brilliant white shirts they wear. Kudos to Teri Weigel as the rebel who spouts rhetoric before, during and after undressing, giving the lie to the myth that Playboy centerfolds can’t talk and walk simultaneously. The rest of the cast, however, seem to have problems in this department, though Speir acquits herself creditably.

There does seem to be rather more blood here than usual, with some enthusiastic squibbing. However, the characters show a low level of intelligence that is, unfortunately, necessary to the plot. While I’m happy to forgive economies of scale – and, really, the film looks pretty good for the budget – it’s harder to accept flaws in the script that would have cost Sidaris nothing to fix.

Dir: Andy Sidaris
Star: Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, Rodrigo Obregon, Michael Mikasa