Cleopatra Jones

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“Blaxploitation goes bigtime.”

The success of independent blaxploitation films inevitably let to the major studios trying to cash in, and this applied to both sexes. Jones was their response, with 6’2″ Tamara Dobson over-filling Pam Grier’s shoes, as the special agent taking on dyke drug queen Mama (Winters, chewing scenery atrociously) and police corruption, at home and abroad (“Turkey”, supposedly – I wasn’t convinced).

Still, they’ve clearly thrown a lot of money at this, and Dobson has presence in a Grace Jones sort of way, if not perhaps much acting talent. She can’t do kung-fu for toffee either, but when Shelley Winters is your nemesis, how well do you need to fight? She can spray automatic weaponry with the best of them, however, and her car – a midnight blue Corvette Stingray with a customised hydraulic roof (to avoid messing up the ‘fro), and a secret arsenal in the door panel – is also fabulous, perhaps the best ever owned by a female action heroine.

Fargas, later to make his mark as Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch, pimps memorably as Doodlebug, a role he’d later parody in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka, and despite its studio origins, didn’t sell out to The Man as much as I expected. Can’t help wishing they’d used Pam Grier though; she deserved the production values on show here, and they deserve a better actress than Dobson.

Dir: Jack Starrett
Star: Tamara Dobson, Shelley Winters, Antonio Fargas, Bernie Casey

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: season two

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“Possibly the slayer’s finest hour…all 24 of them.”

While there have been stand-out Buffy episodes since, season two perhaps ranks as the most consistently high in quality. There’s hardly an episode that ranks as less than excellent, and the writing is sparklingly witty, with more eminently quotable lines than you can shake a stake at.

The big bad in this series is Angel, and he is far better as a villain than the drippy, mopey good guy he seemed in series one. By sleeping with Buffy, and thereby knowing true happiness (hmmm, so sex = happiness, does it, Joss?), he loses his soul. If this story arc has a weakness, it’s that it is spread over about nine episodes. In most of these he just pops in, torments Buffy and leaves, when it would have packed more wallop to cover the entire thing in three or four hours. However, even the less significant episodes are great, and the transformation of Spike from villain to Buffy’s unwilling accomplice is fabulous.

Other highlights include the Judge, a demon that can’t be killed by human weapons (or at least, couldn’t last time he was incarnated), Kendra the West Indian slayer (and her stake, Mr. Pointy), and the growing relationship between Giles and computer teacher Miss Calendar (about which the words “oh, dear…” come to mind). There is a certain feeling of rehash to some of the episodes – yet again, Xander falls for the wrong girl, making Inca Mummy Girl too close to Teacher’s Pet – but the actors have really grown into their parts and the results still seem fabulous and fresh.

Star: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, James Marsters

His Bodyguard

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“Competent but hardly thrilling role-reversal of The Bodyguard.”

The imagination on view is exemplified by the title; changing a definite article is about as imaginative as it gets in this TV movie. Kapture, a veteran of Silk Stalkings, plays Jenny Farrell, the security officer at a pharmaceutical company who has to guard the only witness to a robbery, a deaf man (Natale) whom the villains want dead. Oh, and they’ve got inside help.

Save for an interesting diversion at a deaf school midway through, the story (by Dynasty veteran, Emma Samms) follows exactly the path you’d expect: hero and heroine begin antagonistically before falling in love (and into bed). Naturally, the police are not brought in, no matter how many rounds of gunfire are sprayed at the target, with Jenny instead preferring to run and hide in the mountains, where the bad guys can come and have the obligatory final shoot-out.

Kapture isn’t bad, but lacks any physical presence, and while there are attempts made to give her flaws, this just ends up making her character seem weak. It’s nice to see a challenging role for a deaf actor, but it feels like an exercise in political correctness – there’s no reason for him to be deaf, so it smacks of tokenism. While never particularly bad, it’s a remarkably even film, and never gets much beyond mediocre either.

Dir: Artie Mandelberg
Star: Mitzi Kapture, Anthony Natale, Michael Copeman, Robert Guillaume

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