Black Cat

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blackcatBefore the official remake of Nikita came out, Hong Kong had already delivered its take on the matter. The film starts in New York, and a large part of this is in English, though the acting there is so woeful as to make you lean towards the Chinese dubbed version. The heroine, Erica, is made more sympathetic: while she still kills a cop, she’s not a junkie, and is “shot” while trying to escape. She wakes up under the watchful eye of Simon Yam, in the “Uncle Bob” role (though here, he’s a ‘cousin’).

From here, the plot is similar to Nikita – missions, qualms, romance, escape attempt, etc – and interestingly, her boyfriend (Thomas Lam) is a photographer, an idea also used in the later Point. There are, however, significant differences in the details. For example, Erica has a chip implanted in her brain, supposedly, to help her achieve her full potential, but all it seems to do is give her raging headaches [admittedly, a potentially useful control mechanism]. They also skip the etiquette lessons, which seemed irrelevant to me anyway – how do good table manners help, when your mission solely involves the use of a sniper rifle?

The specifics of her missions are also altered. The final test, rather than an assassination in a restaurant, is to kill the bride at a Jewish wedding, for reasons left unexplained – but given the heavy weaponry carried by a lot of guests, it’s perhaps no bad thing! Others involve shooting an executive of the WWF (the nature group, not the wrestling federation!), a throat-slitting at a Japanese hot spring resort, and, in the best-staged sequence, dropping a lot of metal from a great height onto the roof of her target.

However, the movie’s main strength is Jade Leung, who fully deserved the Best Newcomer award she won at the 11th Hong Kong Film Awards. Every facet of her character is consistent and believable, certainly more so than Bridget Fonda – it’s at least the equal of Anne Parillaud, and arguably may be even better. Yam is perhaps a kinder, gentler handler: he doesn’t shoot his protege in the leg, for example, yet the relationship between them is missing the romantic spark which lurked in the original. As for Thomas Lam, he’s not Dermot Mulroney, and that alone is an improvement.

The film is undeniably flawed, not least in a soundtrack that is often wildly inappropriate, and seems to have been pulled at random from easy-listening CDs. But its core is solid, and in a lot of ways, this is a more justifiable movie than Point of No Return. While the story remains the same, Black Cat does at least bring a bottle to the party, adding enough new twists to make it interesting (and avoid a lawsuit). Leung’s fine performance is an unexpected bonus.

Dir: Stephen Shin
Star: Jade Leung, Simon Yam, Thomas Lam

Point of No Return

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ponrThis was called The Assassin in Britain, though a more fitting title would be Remake of No Point. I hadn’t seen this since it originally came out, and it was a quite deliberate choice to watch it first for this article, hoping to escape the sense of deja-vu. Unfortunately, I couldn’t: its strengths are exactly those of Besson’s original, while the weaknesses are largely its own.

I can see the purpose of remakes, be they of old movies or foreign ones, when you bring something new to the table. However, it’s entirely understandable that Luc Besson passed on directing the American version, pointing out that he’d already made the movie he wanted. For Venice, read New Orleans. For Nikita, read Nina. For Jeanne Moreau, read Anne Bancroft. About the most significant difference in the storyline is that Fonda listens to Nina Simone.

Balancing the cast off, most are fractionally less effective than their French counterparts, although not so much that you’d notice. There are two exceptions: Dermot Mulroney fails miserably as Maggie’s boyfriend, J.P, to the point where I would have run screaming out the door, and that was after less than two hours in his company. Their relationship fails to convince, and since Badham places it close to the centre of the film, it’s a major flaw.

On the other hand, Harvey Keitel comes perilously close to stealing the whole show as Victor the Cleaner. Jean Reno was good in the original, yet Keitel brings a whole new dimension of menace, and clearly inspired Tarantino for Pulp Fiction. They missed the chance for a spin-off of genuine inventiveness there.

 But what little originality actually is brought to the film, largely doesn’t work, in particular a sappy romantic montage between Maggie and J.P. As a director, Badham does a good job with the action sequences – you’d expect nothing less given his track record in the likes of War Games – even when all he’s really doing, is recreating scenes such as the kitchen shoot-out (watch those desserts fly!). There does seem to be rather more Fonda underwear footage too… :-)

Relocating everything to the States is not such a bad thing. While I don’t know about the French government, a school for psychotic murderers is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility – the infamous School of the Americas does much the same for Latin American death squads. And, taken on its own, this is not a bad film. But if you have ever seen the French original, then the American remake becomes entirely superfluous and, as mentioned above, it feels more like you’re watching an English dub, albeit a credibly well-voiced one.

A remake was supposed to be necessary because American audiences wouldn’t watch a subtitled film, but when the box-office spoke, Point took only $30m. The original was a French take on a mostly-American genre, but something is definitely missing when it comes home. Perhaps Badham should have slept with Fonda during production, as Besson did with Parillaud.

Dir: John Badham
Stars: Bridget Fonda, Gabriel Byrne, Dermot Mulroney, Anne Bancroft

Nemesis 4

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“Bizarre, ultra-cheap, post-apocalypse fetish film for body-building fans.”

Though the lead actress, body-builder Sue Price, looks nothing like the cover pic (right), credit is due for choosing someone who defies conventional standards of female beauty. However, take all the points away, and then some, for pretending she does; having her spend half the film naked is something both Chris and I could very easily have lived without. She is, frankly, scary. That’s a shame, as while the budget here was obviously tiny, it’s put (mostly) to good use, with an interesting script.

The year is 2080, and Alex (Price) is a cyborg assassin on the verge of burn-out. When she kills the son of a mob boss on her final mission, she becomes the target – knowing escape is futile, she waits, tormented by visions of the Angel of Death. It’s all very talky, but is brisk enough to keep you occupied, and the location (my guess is somewhere in Slovakia) is great, a bombed-out, deserted city that’s very eerie. Also impressive is the freaky cyborg-sex, all orifices and mechanical devices, as if David Cronenberg was assistant director.

However, there’s no justification for Alex taking her clothes off every five minutes, except perhaps the nasty spikes that come out of her chest, which is slim excuse indeed. There’s also the lamest helicopter explosion I’ve seen, and huge amounts of irrelevant footage from (presumably) Nemesis 3, to get the running time up to 80 minutes. Still, this could have been a small gem, if only Price had stayed dressed – the cheapness often works for it. Just expect no action extravaganza, more a philosophical rumination on life and death. Albeit with lumpy breasts.

Dir: Albert Pyun
Star:

Sue Price, Blanka Copikova, Andrew Divoff, Michal Gucík

Kill Bill, Volume 2

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“And she’s not Kiddo-ing…”

Let’s be blunt: Kill Bill would probably have been a better movie, if the Weinsteins had told Tarantino, “No: you can not cut this into two – you’re going to have to edit it down like every other director.” The second section of the film is notably less strong than the first, its 135 minutes containing too much stuff which a better, less self-indulgent moviemaker would realise was superfluous and chop out.

Precisely what, I’ll get to in a minute. But I also have to say that when this film works, it does so extremely well, with moments – and a good number of more lengthy sequences – that are just about perfect. We learn why Elle Driver (Hannah) has only one eye; the relationship between Budd (Madsen) and Bill (Carradine); the reason the Bride quit her life as an international jet-setting killer; and how the Crazy 88’s didn’t actually have 88 members. All these elements are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, plugged in like jigsaw pieces in their correct place, so it’s not as if Tarantino can’t do the right thing.

The film is at its best in the middle, from when Beatrix Kiddo (Thurmann – her character’s name is revealed, making the bleeping-out in the first part seem like nothing more than a childish prank at the audience’s expense) takes a shotgun blast to the chest from Budd, on through a flashback to a training sequence with a kung-fu master (the wonderful Gordon Liu), Beatrix’s ‘resurrection’ and up to and including a brawl with Elle that is probably the most brutal woman-woman combat ever filmed by Hollywood.

But this is not the action-fest of part one; and more’s the pity, I would say. In fact, the Bride only actually kills one person in this film [since we go in expecting her to dispose of Budd, Elle and Bill, this should whet your appetite more than it counts as a spoiler] Save her fight with Elle, there is nothing that comes within a mile of the House of Blue Leaves battle which ended the first movie. This renders the two together as possessing an uneven tone, since that massacre is the climax of the combined stories told in Kill Bill 1+2, on just about every level of cinema. Tarantino would have been better off getting his spaghetti Western influences out there before the kung-fu ones.

Tarantino’s lust for rubbing chunks of pop culture in our face rears its ugly head early on, with Bill playing a flute, just as Carradine did in his Kung Fu days. It’s a pointless anachronism, which doesn’t fit the character, and is topped only at the end when Bill rambles on, pontificating about the symbolism of Superman and how it relates to Beatrix. I can see the lines spewing forth from Quentin’s smug mouth, or even Kevin Smith’s; coming out of Bill’s, they seem absurdly forced and artificial.

But when Tarantino just nods to other movies, rather than waving them in the air and shouting “Look at me! Amn’t I clever?”, it works – sometimes sublimely. Beatrix professes her love to Bill, saying she’d ride a motorcycle onto a speeding train for him, likely a reference to Michelle Yeoh’s amazing stunt in Supercop. It succeeds, because it’s such an effective image, you don’t need to know the details; if you do, it merely lends them extra resonance. Similarly, at the end, when Beatrix and her daughter are re-united, the latter wants to watch Shogun Assassin; her father demurs…because it’s “too long”. [If you don’t get that joke, Shogun was one of the most arterial movies ever released…up until KB 1, anyway]

Unfortunately, Tarantino then subjects us to lengthy footage of mom and little girl watching the film, another pointless indulgence. But generally, it’s when characters open their mouths that the film hits trouble; there’s hardly two lines of dialogue which could not be, and probably should have been, compacted into one. Whole scenes cry for removal, such as Budd’s day job, which tells us nothing about him that his habit of drinking from jars doesn’t say, more efficiently and cinematically. And if I wanted to learn the precise volume of Black Mamba venom injected per bite, I’d tune to the Discovery Channel.

The deluxe box set, with both movies and a host of extra footage is, undoubtedly inevitable, which is why I haven’t bothered with the initial release of Volume 1, and nor will I bother with Volume 2. When it arrives, I will be sorely tempted to take everything and produce a proper edit, running two hours or less, which will have everything we need and none of the dreck. Instead, for the moment, you have one extremely good film and one pretty good film. Under normal circumstances, I’d take that from Hollywood in a heartbeat. But when, with a little care, this could have been the finest action heroine movie of all time, I must admit to a little disappointment.

Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen

Nikita (film)

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nikitaLuc Besson’s original contains all the necessary elements which would become standard for the field. A criminal is “killed” by the government, only to be resurrected into a new life as an assassin for the authorities. Initially resistant, she eventually embraces her new life, but a romance reminds her of the world she left behind, and becomes a potentially lethal threat to her existence when it starts to interfere with her professional capabilities.

This kind of thing has been done so often since, in one form or another, it’s hard to remember how fresh and invigorating it seemed at the time. Even so, not many movies since have had the courage to make their heroine a junkie cop-killer, and it says a lot for both Parrilaud and Besson that Nikita still comes over as sympathetic. She’s a victim of circumstance, her only use to the state as a trained killer, but the film strongly makes the case that she remains a person, with feelings and emotions like the rest of us.

It is these that eventually prove her downfall, when she encounters Victor the cleaner (Jean Reno), and realises that he is what she will eventually become. Seeing him kill people, as easily as we would swat a fly, it’s clear that, no matter how lengthy her indoctrination and training, she still kept her essential humanity and there is a line she won’t cross. Mind you, the original ending was rather more explosive, with Nikita turning her skills to exact revenge on her creators. Whether through a lack of resources, or a desire for a less confrontational finale, this was dropped in favour of a softer, more ambivalent ending which was also copied by subsequent versions.

Though this might have been nice from an action heroine point of view – as is, you wonder why they bothered with all that specialized training – I’m more than prepared to settle for the actual version of the film. The performances are all sound, Parillaud’s in particular (her “singing” voice is a stroke of genius!), and Besson’s style shines through a bluish haze of raindrops, wet streets and car headlights. Avoid, at all costs, the English dubbed version: that’s what Point of No Return is for. Even if you can’t or won’t read subtitles, you will have little difficulty in understanding the film, such is the raw emotion the actors put into their portrayals.

At two hours long, there is perhaps a slight deficit of actual action, not least in comparison to the hyperkinetic pace of contemporary genre entries. Some facets of the film, such as the romance, seem overplayed, albeit largely because the actors get the significance over so well. However, it’s not as if you’ll find yourself looking at your watch, and – if you’ll pardon the pun – the execution here is almost flawless.

Dir: Luc Besson
Star: Anne Parillaud, Tcheky Karyo, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Jeanne Moreau

Kill Bill, Volume 1

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” Here Comes ‘The Bride’…”

I don’t like Quentin Tarantino. In fact, every time I see his smug little face, I have to resist the urge to hit something. I do admire his talents as a scriptwriter, but think he needs someone else to rein in the pop-culture references and other self-indulgent excesses which pepper his work. That’s why I prefer From Dusk Till Dawn, Natural Born Killers and True Romance, and find Reservoir Dogs, and especially Pulp Fiction, very over-rated. I have no interest in hearing about the meaning of Madonna songs, or knowing what they call quarter-pounders in France. And don’t even get me started on his lack of ability as an actor…

There is also the nasty question of how much of what is praiseworthy, is actually Quentin’s own work. If you’ve seen the infamous Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?, which intercuts clips from Reservoir Dogs with very similar scenes from a Hong Kong movie made several years previously, City on Fire, you’ll know what I mean. I’d rather praise film-makers such as David Cronenberg, who do more than cobble together pieces “borrowed” from other people, no matter how amusingly post-modern the results may be.

 I say this, so you know I am no drooling fanboy, and am probably inclined to be more critical than most. But I have to say, the first part of Kill Bill is almost entirely satisfactory, recovering after a shaky start. When it opened with a quote from Star Trek (of questionable relevance), I feared this was a Kevin Smith movie, rather than the brutal action pic I wanted. But such tendencies were largely kept under control, perhaps because there wasn’t much dialogue in which to work smug references.

Instead, it’s the soundtrack which slides into self-indulgence. You can tell Tarantino grew up in the 70’s: he has rifled his CD collection yet again, mixing everything from the theme to The Green Hornet to spaghetti western music, with the overall effect leaden-footed and rarely more than painfully obvious. Yet there are more than enough wonderful moments to compensate for the odd bit of weakness.

Uma Thurman is The Bride – her character is never named (it’s given a couple of times, but beeped out) – a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination squad operating under the eye of Bill (David Carradine, not yet seen). When she tries to quit, her marriage is interrupted by the rest of the team, who kill the groom, the priest and even the guy playing the organ. They think they’ve killed the pregnant bride. They’re wrong.

 Four years later, she wakes up in a hospital bed, with her child not to be seen. And, boy, is The Bride pissed. She vows to kill her four former colleagues, plus Bill. Volume One covers her awakening, plus the first two-fifths of her mission: Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), now a housewife and mother, plus O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), now head of the Tokyo underworld.

She actually goes after O-Ren first; in typically maddening Tarantino style, he screws around with the timeline, and makes that the dramatic climax. Having seen her face Green, we know she survives O-Ren and returns to the States – so much for tension in the climactic battle. Okay, we know there’s another whole movie, and this is probably a moot point. But why bother? Why not just make Green her first target? That, and his tendency to go for a snigger at the most inopportune moments, is why I couldn’t let go completely, and love this as I wanted to.

Plotwise, there are certainly questions (spoiler alert!), though a second viewing might answer these:

  • How does Vernita Green, supposedly a top-rate assassin, manage to miss shooting The Bride from five feet?
  • After years in bed, The Bride’s legs are understandably weak: yet her arms are strong enough to drag her about?
  • What are the police up to for thirteen hours, while The Bride wiggles her toes in the parking lot of the hospital, after killing two people and leaving the corpses in her room?

The Ladies of Kill Bill, Volume One
[Click pics to enlarge]

Uma Thurman
Lucy Liu
Chiaki Kuriyama
Daryl Hannah

However, there’s a beautiful, horrible animated sequence early on, depicting the early life of O-Ren, which proved so completely seductive, I gave up contemplating such trivial things as whether the plot made sense. I suddenly “got” the comic-book style the film was trying to achieve, and things like, oh, The Bride’s ability to bring a Samurai sword onto an airliner no longer bothered me. From then on, the movie became a delicious thrill-ride, albeit one of highly questionable morality – in many ways, that flashback also made O-Ren a more sympathetic figure than The Bride, who has (so far) no motivation for her career choice whatsoever. Liu also gets the best speech, after one of her underlings chooses to mention her mixed heritage. Fabulous stuff.

In contrast, The Bride is largely a machine for extracting revenge, particularly once she hits Japan, picks up a weapon from a master sword-maker (70’s icon Sonny Chiba, as namechecked in True Romance), then heads to O-Ren’s headquarters, where all hell breaks loose. Dressed in a Game of Death yellow jumpsuit, she takes out her enemy’s minions in ones, two, then tens and twenties, with so much arterial spray I suspect the switches to black-and-white and silhouette were as much to avoid censorship as a stylistic choice.

The trailers make this look as if it’s non-stop action, but it isn’t really – there are only a couple of proper set-pieces. The first (cinematically, if not chronologically for the characters) is between The Bride and Green, a brawl around the latter’s house. Despite imaginative use of kitchen utensils, the photography is all wrong, with way too many closeups, leaving it impossible to tell whether there’s any skill – or, indeed, what the hell is going on. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of the first things Tarantino shot, since it’s the kind of mistake you’d expect from someone like him, unfamiliar with shooting martial arts.

 However, this is more than made up for with the lengthy sequence in Tokyo. In particular, the battle between The Bride and GoGo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), the Japanese schoolgirl who is mistress of a weapon that can kill you in a dozen different ways. It’s a pity that the excruciating Japanese band, The 5678’s, who are playing in the venue, don’t get taken out as collateral damage. [Ten seconds of them is at least nine too many – they make Shonen Knife sound like the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra] Regardless, much credit is due to Thurman, Kuriyama and fight co-ordinator Yuen Wo Ping for creating a fight which is simultaneously hard-hitting and original, as well as being aesthetically beautiful.

It’s difficult to give a comprehensive review to a film without an ending – indeed, we’re only half way through the story so far. But what we’ve seen so far beats up 2003’s other Hollywood action heroines, the lame Tomb Raider and Charlie’s Angels sequels, without even breaking a sweat. Roll on Volume 2 early next year, and I’ve a sneaking suspicion we’ll be heading back to see this one a few more times between now and then.

[Thanks to The Reel Truth for tickets to the advance screening of this movie.]

Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox

Aeon Flux (animation)

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“State of flux”

Difficult though it may be to credit, especially for younger readers, there was a time when watching MTV could actually be interesting occasionally, back in the days when the station had its own animation division. The best-known product to seep out was Beavis and Butthead, but more interesting was Aeon Flux, perhaps the most dense and impenetrable animated series to reach a wide audience – even if the general reaction was “Eh?”

It debuted as part of Liquid Television, and right from the start, makes an impression with its lack of dialogue, weird design and astonishingly high body-count. The first series of mini-eps depicted the mission of an apparent secret agent, Aeon Flux, who comes within moments of solving the case of a mysterious epidemic, only to meet an untimely death. Undaunted, the second series had a variety of cases, whose only real linking theme was the repeated untimely death of Aeon.

aeonanThen MTV commissioned some 25-minute episodes, and things inevitably started to mutate. The characters started to speak (gasp!), but anyone who thought this meant it would become easy to understand was in for a shock – if anything, it added an extra new dimension of complexity. More of the setting was exposed: two countries, Monica and Bregna, of opposite character and once united, but now in perpetual tension. Extra characters were added, most notably Trevor Goodchild, the Breen leader, whose relationship with Aeon (a Monican “agent”?) is perhaps the central focus of the series.

“What I was trying to go for was a kind of ambivalence.” So said creator Peter Chung, and as ambivalence goes, there’s little doubt he succeeded – rarely has a show hidden its light quite as effectively. Very little is laid out for easy consumption, and each episode repays, and indeed demands, repeat viewings. Every action and line of dialogue sometimes seems to have multiple meanings.

If it has a weakness, it is perhaps too obscurist, and you wonder whether the show is quite as deep as it wants you to think. In addition, there are parts which, however stylish, just don’t seem to make sense. But Aeon is a fabulous character, who in the words of Chung, “is not someone who reacts to things. She makes things happen…she’s a force for change as opposed to the status quo”, and the combination of intelligence and malevolent brute force is immensely appealing. Chung again: “I think it’s undeniable that there’s a certain glamour or a certain seductive power of violence on film. Her whole design and the way she looks, the way she moves is engineered purely to evoke that attraction.”

A feature version of Aeon Flux has occasionally been hinted at (Liz Hurley would seem a leading candidate for any live-action version!), but at the moment seems somewhat unlikely, especially with MTV having now folded their Animation Division. Chung has moved on too, first to work on Phantom 2040, whose characters are clearly cut from the same cloth, in their spidery style, and then off to the Far East, for an animated series based on the life of, I kid you not, Alexander the Great. Whether anything created in his future will be as memorable, intense and downright impenetrable as Aeon Flux is surely in doubt.

Creator: Peter Chung
Star: (voice) Denise Poirier, John Rafter Lee

Barb Wire

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“Play it again, Pam…”

When I picked up this DVD, I could hear Chris rolling her eyes at me. And during the first five minutes of the movie – which consists of virtually nothing but Pam on a swing, getting sprayed with a fire-hose, silicone on display – this eye-rolling escalated to the point where I swear I could hear them whirring like the reels on a slot-machine. But by the end, even she had to admit that being a titty-fest – and there’s hardly a scene here without cleavage – doesn’t necessarily make this a bad movie…

For this is nowhere near as bad as its Gigli-like reputation would have you believe. Okay, for $18m, you might expect a bit more than a post-Mad Max setting, and you would certainly expect more from your screenwriter than a blatant steal from Casablanca – Ilene Chaiken should be drummed out of the WGA for claiming a story credit here. But this is an adaptation of a comic-book, starring Pamela Anderson (Lee, as she was then known): what do you expect? I venture to suggest that, if I was 15, this would probably be the greatest story ever told.

Barb Wire runs a club called the Hammerhead in Steel Harbour, one of the last bastions of freedom in 2017 America, where a civil war is ongoing. She funds the club by catching bail-jumpers and rescuing kidnap victims (inevitably, posing as a stripper or hooker), and has to deal with all sides to keep the venue open. But when her former lover Axel (Morrison) turns up, with his new wife, who desperately needs out, her position on the fence suddenly becomes untenable, and she has to choose which side she’s really on.

For those who know Casablanca, almost every element appears in that Bogart classic:

Element Casablanca Barb Wire
Setting Casablanca Steel Harbor
Era World War Two Second American Civil War
Enemy Nazis Congressional Directorate
Hero Rick Blaine Barb Wire
[A cynical expatriate who owns a bar and plays both sides]
Former lover Ilsa Axel
Now wedded to Victor Laszlo Cora D
Who needs… Exit visas Contact lenses
[Which let the bearer escape to safety]
Location Rick’s Bar The Hammerhead
Head Waiter Carl Curly
Chief Villain Major Strasser Colonel Pryzer
Top Cop Louis Renault Alexander Willis
Slimy dealer Guillermo Ugarte Schmitz
Mr. Big Signor Ferrari Big Fatso

About the only new facet is Barb’s blind brother (Noseworthy) – it’s a shame he doesn’t play the piano, though he does act as Barb’s conscience. This concept, turning one of the most beloved Hollywood films of all time into a post-apocalyptic cheesecake-fest, is worth the price of admission alone, simply for its surrealness and sheer audacity. What next? Britney Spears as the lead in a remake of It’s a Wonderful Life?

While one might question Pam’s acting talents, she is backed by a sterling cast of character actors: Steve Railsback, Xander Berkeley, Clint Howard, Udo Kier and Temuera Morrison. Each one hits the mark in their role, delivering lines with the correct level of enthusiasm. Kier, as usual, steals the show (his presence definitely helped soothe Chris’s eye-rolling), though Berkeley’s sleazy cop is perhaps the biggest surprise, especially if you’re only familiar with him as Jack Bauer’s boss in the first two seasons of 24.

Credit should also go to Debbie Evans, Anderson’s stunt double, since it’s fairly obvious that Anderson, while having an undeniable presence (albeit a presence severely diluted whenever she opens her mouth for more than a one-liner – not that this ever stopped Van Damme, Stallone, or even Governor Arnie), is not doing her own stunts. Despite this, the action in the movie is well above-average, with some really cool explosions and fights, notably Axel’s battle a long way off the ground.

Certainly, Barb’s psychotic opposition to being called “babe” seems somewhat hypocritical given how she dresses. And really, despite the, ahem, “inspiration”, the plotting is a lot less fluid than you’d hope, with scenes that come out of and/or go nowhere. Just keep an eye on the contact lenses – alternatively, a familiarity with Casablanca will help you keep things straight and ignore the irrelevant threads.

I admit, you could argue the entire story is irrelevant, and this is nothing more than an indefensible cocktail of eroticized violence. But those who live in such a moral vacuum as to require Hollywood to fill in the gaps, have got much bigger problems than Pamela Anderson’s breasts. If you can get past the first five minutes (which even I will say seem a lot longer), there’s no denying the effort expended here – albeit mostly on sex and violence, aimed at the lizard section of the viewer’s brain.

Yet curiously, actual sex doesn’t seem to take place in this universe at all, having apparently been replaced by tight-fitting costumes: claiming it’s a comment on life in a post-AIDS world is likely more credit than it deserves. Still, probably not a date movie (except in our house!), for this is trash, with hardly a thought in its vapid little head or 17-inch waist, and no agenda worth mentioning. Film doesn’t always need to be great art, any more than music; reprising the Britney motif, Barb Wire is equivalent to something like Hit Me Baby One More Time.

Perhaps the best comment comes from the Screen It website of parental reviews: “Topics to talk about – none”. There are times when this is a glowing recommendation for a movie, and at those times (probably a late weekend night, with a well-stocked fridge), Barb Wire fits the bill admirably.

Dir: David Hogan
Star: Pamela Anderson, Steve Railsback, Temuera Morrison, Jack Noseworthy

Birds of Prey

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“Wing and a prey-er.”

2002 should have been a great time to start a TV series based on a popular comic book – the biggest box-office hit that year was Spiderman, and with a host of other high-profile movies in the pipeline, comics had their highest profile in a long time. So what happened? Why was the show cancelled before Christmas, limping lamely along to the conclusion of its 13-episode run, the finale sacrificed against American Idol and The Bachelorette?

Weak writing, would seem to be the main reason – Jordan Levin, entertainment president of The WB, producers of the show, said, “We really could not find someone who could write that show”, describing its cancellation as the biggest disappointment in eight years. Certainly, the central concept was sound, and appealing, going by the decent ratings for the premiere: 7 1/2 million viewers, twice what the channel had for the same slot in 2001. But by the fourth episode, more than a third of those had been lost, and they kept falling – at the time of its demise, it was ranked 107th out of 118 prime-time shows.

The show did perhaps have an excess of back story to cope with. There’s Barbara Gordon (Meyer), who used to be Batgirl until she was paralysed by the Joker, and now calls herself Oracle. Then there’s Huntress (Scott), a.k.a. Helena Kyle, who was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman. There’s Dinah – no secret identity – the daughter of Black Canary, another character from the comics. Oh, and Huntress’s psychiatrist, played by Mia Sara, is really the chief villainess who runs crime in the town, though this thread was underwritten and never explored as it could have been. She all but vanished from the second half of the series, before an impressive return in the finale.

It seems almost the law that any series with action heroines must have three; see Charlie’s Angels and She Spies for further examples. Why this is, I don’t know, but it can cause problems with dynamics. I’d have been happy with just Huntress and Oracle since, personally, I felt the main problem with the series was Dinah. Never felt her role was really necessary as a recurring character (any similarity to Dawn in Buffy is, I’m sure purely coincidental) – in most episodes, she was little more than a spare wheel, with bratty tendencies which were more irritating than endearing.

It’s a shame, as both the other two were interesting and well-rounded characters, portrayed with skill and charm. Meyer, perhaps best known for her role in Starship Troopers does particularly well, given she is confined to a wheelchair for most of the show. Credit must also be given to Scott, who has to handle the majority of the action, and does so fluidly – the fight sequences are certainly well above average for network television, and hopefully those responsible will find work elsewhere.

The show was at its best playing with the conventions of superhero TV; I particularly remember a discussion over secret identities and whether you could have one without a mask. But the same episode also featured – like the WWE, just without the chocolate pudding – a fight club where evil men watched as women fought. Given part of the appeal of the series itself was exactly this, it was shooting the audience in the foot, and illustrates the apparent schizophrenia of the show.

It fell uncomfortably between stools, neither camp like the original Batman, nor dark and gothic like the comics, save for the last episode when death revealed its sting. Even if it had gone either way, it was hardly likely to appeal to fans of Dawson’s Creek, the show preceding it. This, and some vicious competition in the time slot, likely doomed it. In the end, though, Birds of Prey never became compelling TV. We’d watch one episode, then forget all about it for a week; there wasn’t the same sense of anticipation that better series create in viewers.

We also hated the shameless plugs for the music, though was thoroughly amused to see infamous Russian teen pseudo-lesbians t.A.T.u. provide the song for the final battle. Still, it deserved a happier fate than effectively being replaced by another one of those cheapjack reality show, High School Reunion. Anybody up for a movie in which a disgruntled actor storms a television station and kills the producers responsible for all this low-quality dreck? Pretty sure Dina Meyer would be interested…

Star: Dina Meyer, Ashley Scott, Rachel Skarsten, Shemar Moore

The Descent

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“Six chicks with picks.”

Simplicity is under-rated, especially when it comes to genre films. The simplest horror movies often work the best, because they prey on widely-held fears: monsters (Jaws), getting lost (The Blair Witch Project) or claustrophobia (Below). And now, we get The Descent, which combines all three into one ball of nerves, pitting six female cave-explorers against things below ground. This will do for speleology, what Touching the Void did for mountaineering or Open Water for scuba-diving – and I don’t care if the cave, as one character here disparagingly says, “has handrails and a gift-shop”.

This is an interesting reversal by Marshall from his first film, Dog Soldiers, though both did have a group of people in a small location, facing an outside menace. Dog centered on a group of soldiers in an isolated farmhouse, facing a pack of werewolves – as you can imagine, testosterone levels were set to eleven on that one. Here, save one brief, opening character, all the roles are filled by women, which adds a different dynamic to things. Central are friends Sarah (Macdonald), Juno (Mendoza), and Beth (Reid), whom we first encounter white-water rafting, though it seems Juno and Sarah’s husband have their own leisure activity…

However, a year later, a car accident has changed Sarah’s life, and the trio re-assemble, with three other women, for a little light caving. Unfortunately, rather than the scheduled, well-known cave, Juno opts to take them into a newly-discovered one. This is unfortunate when a rock fall shuts off the entrance, and it becomes clear no-one outside knows where they are, so the women have to press on, into the depths. Sarah is convinced she sees someone nearby: initially, no-one believes her, but eventually it’s clear that there are inhabitants of the system, who are none too pleased to see them – except in a “nourishment” kind of way.

There’s no doubt, this is not exactly new – you’ll spot references to (if you’re feeling kind – “bits stolen from”, if you’re not) other films throughout, from The Thing through Aliens to Pitch Black. The first half is also, to be honest, a little sluggish. Marshall throws in some cheap “Boo!” moments to keep the audience awake, of varying effectiveness, but it’s only when the movie goes underground that this the edge of your seat becomes familiar territory. And once it does, the film barely pauses for breath until the final frame [The American version had a different, slightly-less bleak ending, from the UK version – having had it described to me, I’m curious to see it, though can’t say that I felt the US cut was significantly deficient].

The focus of the film is Juno and Sarah, with the rest of the cast largely reduced to cannon-fodder – though not badly-drawn cannon-fodder, I must admit. Juno is a near-Amazon, while Sarah has to become one, simply in order to survive, and that’s about the extent of the character development here. Demureness, beauty, the ability to bear babies, and all other typical “feminine” traits, are of absolutely no use whatsoever. The ability to drive your pick-axe, repeatedly, into the head of pissed-off Gollum wannabes, on the other hand… Yeah, that will help. But in another interesting contrast to Dog Soldiers, sisterly teamwork is notable by its absence. In the end, the women do almost as much damage on themselves, as the monsters.

The technical aspects are great, with set design and cinematography particularly worthy of praise. An uncomfortable feeling of being trapped in a dark, enclosed space has rarely been better captured; the only light present is what the explorers bring, and it gradually becomes less and less effective for their needs. It is occasionally chaotic, and a combination of limited illumination and the incidents that befall the characters often make it easy to lose track of who’s who. That aside, however, this is a seriously kick-ass film, and the prospect of The Descent 2 would be extremely welcome here (though particularly in the British cut, somewhat unlikely…). I’m thinking, in that one, our heroine could perhaps get talked into leading a team of marines back into the monsters’ lair… Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. :-)

Dir: Neil Marshall
Star: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder