Angel Fist

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“Proof that it’s easier to train an actor to fight, than a fighter to act…”

Cat opted not to follow in the footsteps of her father, shampoo magnate Vidal, preferring instead to win various karate titles (allegedly) before moving into movies. Between two parts of the Blood Fist series, she popped over to the Philippines, and made this one for Roger Corman, under the gaze of familiar GWG director Santiago (TNT Jackson, etc.). She plays an LA cop, who comes to Manilla to investigate her sister’s death – she was killed after photographing a political assassination. And, hey, whaddya know? She was also taking part in a karate tournament… I trust I need not extend the plot synopsis any further.

Quite how Sassoon won her titles is unclear from the evidence on view here; perhaps screen fighting isn’t her forte, but there seems to be a lot of doubling and not much apparent ability. She does, however, possess the necessary lack of acting talent – the only things more fake than her dialogue delivery, are her breasts. Which we see, along with Melissa Moore’s, frequently, to no real surprise or, being honest, effect (though the topless kung-fu in which Sassoon engages is a sleazy piece of inspiration, albeit one borrowed from Santiago’s earlier Silk 2)

There is a semi-interesting subplot, in that the villains are actually opposed to American bases in the Phillipines, and this allows for a slight level of political complexity. However, before too long, we’re back to mediocre fist-fights and more titty action. Sassoon, meanwhile, died at a New Year’s Eve party a couple of years back from a heart attack. Which is kinda sad.

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Cat Sassoon, Melissa Moore, Michael Shaner, Denise Buick

Avalon

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“Infuriatingly uneven cyberworld pic: looks great, but loses its way far too often.”

While this is live-action, Oshii is best known for his anime work, such as Ghost in the Shell. That also had an action heroine, great visual style and lost its way in philosophical navel-gazing. There, it was the nature of self – here, it’s the nature of reality. Set in Poland, which may be a first for a Japanese film, the heroine, Ash (Foremniak), is addicted to an illegal computer game called Avalon. When she hears about the existence of a special level in it, she’ll stop at nothing to find the entrance. But, for her, the line between life and pastime is becoming more and more blurred…

It’s a fabulous concept, and the virtual world is realised beautifully, with CGI that are carefully made to look like CGI. There are any number of cool touches, such as how the only people in Ash’s “real life” who move are animals and other players – everyone else is frozen in place. But the tedium of her real life is hammered home to such an extent that it becomes every bit as dull to the viewer, as it is to her. Worse still, the final confrontation is interrupted by lengthy, pointless shots of an orchestra playing portentous classical music; what could, and should, be a gripping climax is brought to a grinding halt.

Still not quite convinced it completely makes sense, with a lot of unanswered questions at the end, some of them significant: suspect David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ covered similar ground with much more confidence. However, even if Oshii needs to exercise tighter control on scripting, this is probably still worth a look, purely for the eye-candy of the game sequences.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star: Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudejko, Dariusz Biskupski

Golgo 13: Queen Bee

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“A tale with plenty of sting, but too much sexual bee-haviour.”

Four stars but no seal of approval? That’s because this is about the most wildly variable animated film I’ve seen. The story and characters are great, but the frequent sex scenes are incredibly tedious and clearly put in solely for the teenage male fan (all pneumatic breasts and moaning). It’s rare for me to say this, but they are genuinely gratuitous, and the film could have coped fine without them.

Between times, there’s certainly plenty going on in terms of plot. Ultra-taciturn hitman Golgo 13 is hired to kill narco-terrorist Queen Bee, who has been sending threatening letters to a presidential candidate. From here an entire web is spun (sorry, failed to come up with a bee analogy!) of deceit, double-dealing and death. The anti-heroine comes across rather better than the anti-hero, since you see more about her background, and she’s certainly a fascinating personality, even in a grim world where no-one is innocent.

The animation uses every trick in the book to mixed effect, with some of the violence particularly well-executed. The tape I saw was dubbed, which is another reason to deny it the seal, though the voice acting here is largely painless (it helps that Golgo 13 has about five lines!). It may yet make it: I’ll likely pick up the subtitled DVD sometime, with a director’s commentary, apparently revealing that the candidate and his adviser were shown as gay lovers in a deleted scene. Frankly, I’d have been happy to trade that for one of the heterosexual encounters.

Dir: Osamu Dezaki
Star (voice, English dub): Denise Poirier, Carlos Ferro, Dwight Shultz, John Dimaggio

Freeway

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“Little Red Riding Hood: the crack whore years…”

Right from the opening credits, a debt to the Brothers Grimm is clear. In this modern-day version, Red’s stepfather is a sleazebag crackhead, and her mother a street hooker; when both get carted off to jail, Vanessa Lutz (Witherspoon) heads, with basket, up Interstate 5 towards Grandma’s house. Except that on the way, she meets Bob Wolverton (Sutherland), the notorious I-5 killer. And what big teeth he has!

From there, the tale diverges a bit: I don’t remember a prison catfight in the original, and recall Red relying more on a woodsman with a large axe than her own handguns, but it has been a while since I read it. This is, however, unashamedly grim with a small G. Er, and one m. :-) The Lutzs take “dysfunctional” to new levels, and it’s frankly astonishing that Vanessa has retained any sense of morality, albeit a severely skewed one. I wasn’t surprised when her only decent relationship was terminated by a drive-by.

The cast is a mixture of has-beens (Sutherland, before resurrection in 24, and Shields) and will-bes (Witherspoon and also Brittany Murphy), but all deliver fine performances. The weakest point is a script more concerned with satire than logic – would they really let a convicted arsonist carry a lighter in jail? No wonder Oliver Stone is a producer, given the undeniable echoes of Natural Born Killers. As a benchmark, at one point, when Vanessa shows Bob a photo of her “real” father, it’s actually serial killer Richard Speck. If that amuses – and must confess, it did us – this film is probably for you.

Dir: Matthew Bright
Star: Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Brooke Shields, Bokeem Woodbine

Picture Claire

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“Bit of a tossed salad – in need of more tossing.”

Set over one day, more or less, in Toronto, this can’t make up its mind whether to be a tense thriller, or an art-house drama. The result is an uneasy blend, where most of the elements are fine, yet the overall result falls short of completely satisfying. Quebecois Claire (Lewis, spouting an irritating French accent, and shouting “Beelee!” a lot) travels to Toronto in search of a photographer with whom she had a brief relationship. She doesn’t initially find him, but ends up chief suspect in a murder committed by Lily (Gershon), and also the only person who knows the whereabouts of Lily’s film canister, which is being sought by a psychotic criminal (Rennie).

It’s definitely Canadian: Claire’s lack of English and Toronto’s ignorance of French, jab at provincialism in a country with two official languages. Still, it’s fast-paced, and Beresford’s use of split screens sometimes adds tension, as when Lily chases after Claire’s taxi, which is stopped at a red light. Of course, at others, the results look like a pointlessly frame-obsessed website. Either way, Gershon is particularly good, and you’re left feeling there’s much more to discover about Lily. This is made clear from her casual, broad-daylight garroting of the sleazy Eddie (Rourke) in a cafe, when she merely suspects him of a double-cross. How Lily got hold of that film-canister is probably a movie in itself.

Dir: Bruce Beresford
Star: Juliette Lewis, Gina Gershon, Callum Keith Rennie, Mickey Rourke

Gunsmith Cats: Bulletproof

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“Fast, hardware-heavy fun in Chicago, Japanese-style!”

Watching this dubbed was, for once, viable since despite its Japanese origins, it’s firmly set in and around Chicago. So we did sit through some of it in English, but the accents were woefully Cal-girl and thus we’d recommend sticking with the Japanese, even more unlikely though it might be. That out of the way, this is an action-packed romp, in three episodes but effectively one story. Rally Vincent and May Hopkins, one a crack marksman, the other an explosives expert, own a gun store, but are blackmailed by the ATF into helping nail an arms ring. It’s not as simple as it seems, since the perps have connections at a high level, and the services of a former Soviet Special Forces hitwoman.

The episodic structure means there’s never a dull moment and you effectively get three climaxes for the price of one, with the car chase in #2 perhaps my favourite. If it occasionally teeters on the edge of cheesecake – Rally gets her blouse shot open – it’s made clear early on that the heroines have little time for romantic dalliance. Indeed, there’s little time for anything much, including character development, but the story charges on at a great pace, so it’s not as if they’re wasting time.

You can see why Sonoda set it in America, since handguns are illegal in Japan, and the crowded streets would likely impair the auto quotient. Creator Kenichi Sonoda’s fondness for fast cars was apparent in his earlier work, Riding Bean, and by the end of this, Chris had decided she wants a Shelby GT Cobra, just the like the one Rally drives. Drool. :-) A lot of effort went into reproducing Chicago and wiser heads than mine (who have actually been there!) say it’s accurately detailed. Though undeniably great fun, perhaps the most amusement we got was from pretending the opening song was the theme to Saturday Night Live, to which it bears a spooky resemblance…

Dir: Mori Takeshi
Star (voice): Michiko Neya, Kae Araki, Aya Hisakawa

Aruba Red

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“Hooray, beer!”

Don’t look for Aruba Red in your local video store. You won’t find it, because it is a beer. Yes, an alcoholic beverage. So, what in heaven’s name is it doing on this site? Well, as far as I know, it’s the only beer inspired by a female action heroine, albeit a fictitious one.

It’s only available at the Bahama Breeze restaurant chain – to quote their site: “No one knows where she came from, but over 200 years ago she appeared, leading a pack of pirates spreading mischief and mayhem throughout the Caribbean. Nicknamed Aruba Red for her fiery red hair, she was as sly as she was fearless. She would slip aboard ships at sea in the dark of night, scouting for treasure. At sunrise, her pirate band would board the ship and make off with its valuables.”.

There’s a fair bit more: as yarns go, it’s kinda cool, even if I don’t believe a word. I still approached with caution, since it’s exclusively brewed for Bahama Breeze by the Evil Empire: Anheuser-Busch, makers of Bud and Michelob. As someone who likes beer, it is a tenet of faith that they are the Antichrist. Aruba Red, however, isn’t bad – in terms of flavour, it’s as if someone attempted to make Red Stripe based on a second-hand description. Though the hint of bananas is odd, if fitting the tropical theme. Going by the headache that eventually arrived (though my dehydration probably helped), it seems quite strong, and at only $2.50 for a pint – and a 20 oz. British one at that – is excellent value.

Over at BeerAdvocate.com, it’s ranked #2 out of 38 Anheuser-Busch products. You go, girl. :-) If only it was widely available: the sole thing preventing it from getting our seal of approval, is that you can only get it in the restaurant. For what could be more perfect to accompany that viewing of Cutthroat Island?

Brewer: Anheuser-Busch
Available: Bahama Breeze restaurants

Perdita Durango

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“The two greatest pleasures in life are fucking and killing.”

perdita_durangoDespite flaws, this merits your attention simply because of the title character, even if describing her as a “heroine” would necessitate a wholesale redefinition of the term – the quote above is entirely typical of her attitude. When she teams up with bank-robber Romeo Dolorosa to traffic a truckload of foetuses to Las Vegas (as you do…), it’s like putting a lit match to fuel. You just know there’s trouble ahead.

Romeo is into Santeria, and Perdita convinces him to perform a human sacrifice; to this end, they kidnap a slumming young WASP couple (Cross and Graham – and yes, it is Heather’s sister, though notably less well-endowed), and the film goes into nightmare mode. You get the horrible feeling that absolutely anything could happen, and de la Iglesia shows that he has no problems pouring on both sex and violence. [I should mention at this point that you should track down the German DVD, which is the only uncut version currently available, AFAIK] It’s difficult viewing – and Rosie Perez always seemed so nice. You certainly won’t sustain that view afterwards.

The film does run out of steam when this extremely menacing section is completed, and ends up petering out somewhat, as the focus moves off the couple and more onto Romeo – Perdita is pushed into the sidelights, and she deserves a much better fate. If there’s also a sense of deja vu, it’s because the story comes from the same writer as Wild at Heart, and both depict a twisted love-story/chase. Despite this, there’s enough perverted nastiness here to satisfy the most jaded palate.

Dir: Alex de la Iglesia
Star: Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, Harley Cross, Aimee Graham

Bad Girls: season two

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“Back behind bars, but brilliant as before.”

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

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

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

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

Killers 2

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“Heather is sick and twisted…”

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

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

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