Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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“Broads with swords.”

crouching2Not many subtitled movies can claim to have inspired commercials (Jean de Florette being the only other that comes to mind), but seeing the Mountain Dew advert obviously based on this movie makes you realise just how deeply this film has permeated into the American pop psyche. But while this contains the most spectacularly kick-ass action ever seen in Western multiplexes (note the qualifier), at heart, it’s a set of exquisitely tragic love stories, spun into a web which simultaneously confounds expectations and fails to live up to them.

 It’s clear from the start that Lee is not following the traditional approach to martial arts movies, which usually start with a thump to get the audience’s attention. He is happy to set the scene and introduce the characters for the first quarter of an hour in a stately and mannered way that belies what is to come. Similarly, the action climax happens twenty minutes before the end.

The other major variation from standard practice is that the acting is fabulous – often in HK action movies, this is an afterthought, and the likes of Jackie “two expressions” Chan and Jet “that’s one more than me” Li are never going to win Oscars. I would previously have put Yeoh in the same category, but Lee coaxes a performance of great depth from her – having Chow Yun-Fat, possibly the best, and certainly the most charismatic Asian star, to work against does no harm either. This is what lifts the film up to undreamt of heights: have Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme ever brought tears to anyone’s eye? [Except perhaps the poor schmuck who paid for a cinema ticket!]

Yet if the acting sets a new standard, the action surprisingly doesn’t, at least not to anyone familiar with Hong Kong movies. This kind of thing has been done, to the point where it can even be mercilessly lampooned by the likes of Flying Dagger, which has its own treetop battle. This perhaps explains why its record-setting box-office in the United States (doubling the take of any previous subtitled movie) was conspicuously absent in the Far East. While Zhang YiYi’s restaurant demolition job is memorable, for me the highlight pitted Yeoh against Zhang in Yeoh’s home, a balletic battle which worked particularly well because it largely rejected the fly-by-wirework running through the rest of the movie. I’m a traditionalist in such things, and always prefer genuine physical ability to special effects.

The plot unfolds with a stately elegance, showing little regard for normal chronology. The easiest way to describe it is to break it down into smaller components – any one of which would provide sufficient content for your average kung-fu film – each running through the movie like the strands in a rope:

  • The powerful but undeclared love between two swordsmen, Li (Chow) and Yu (Yeoh).
  • The struggle for control over the legendary Green Destiny sword.
  • Jen (Zhang) and her long lost love, the bandit Lo (Chang) – who returns just in time for her impending arranged marriage.
  • Jen’s apprenticeship to the villainous Jade Fox (Cheng), who will not let her go at any cost.
  • Li’s quest for revenge against Jade Fox, who killed his master.

crouching3The sisterly relationship between Yu and Jen is particularly impressive, with the older woman trying to guide the willful youth and prevent her from making the same mistakes she did. But when (even in ancient China!) has anyone been able to tell a teenager anything? Special praise also to veteran Cheng, whose Jade Fox is a fabulous character, worthy of more screen time than she gets here – I’d love to see a prequel, setting up the story between her and Li. In comparison, the men are somewhat ill-defined, particularly Lo: you never get much sense of why Jen fell for the man who kidnapped her, and I can only really blame it on Stockholm Syndrome. Despite being reduced to a supporting role, Chow Yun-Fat is as good as ever, though I’ve heard tell that his Mandarin accent leaves a little to be desired, since he’s a Cantonese speaker naturally!

Regardless: what you have here are three of the strongest and finest female characters of the past decade, excellent acting and amazing action. The result is as close to perfect as anyone could reasonably expect.

Dir: Ang Lee
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Zhang ZiYi, Chow Yun-Fat, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei Pei

Catwoman

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“Paws for concern…”

I entered the theatre with mixed feelings. This is, easily, the biggest action heroine film of the summer, and I want it to make a ton of money, so we’ll get more of them. On the other hand, it starred Halle Berry, whom I’ve loathed with intensity ever since she played the race card in her Oscar speech (and hell, our daughter is darker than Berry!). Her hideous performance as a Bond girl deepened this hatred, so the news that she would be Catwoman was a severe blow. But, hey, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, how bad could it be?

  • “This plodding, by-the-numbers superhero flick has all the feline grace of a walleyed mastiff.” – Mark Holcomb, Village Voice

  • “Plays like a Lifetime movie on estrogen overdose, barely held together by a script that should have been tossed out with the kitty litter.” – David Rooney, Variety

  • “The stench of the litter pan is all over this big-screen $90 million disaster-in-waiting.” – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

  • “The Showgirls of superhero movies.” – Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune

Ah. That bad? Actually, I’m one of the very few people who genuinely likes Showgirls, figuring that Paul Verhoeven’s film does a brilliant job of capturing the sleazy, tawdry spirit of Las Vegas. However, even I know that when reviewers invoke its name, it’s never as a recommendation. When you go to a theatre in our area’s main mall, the first week of release, and there are nine people at an evening show…you know this is a disaster movie, at least in terms of studio returns. It’s no wonder, for this is pedestrian and unaffecting despite – or perhaps, because of – director Pitof’s desperate flailing around in an effort to make things interesting.

 The story is pretty basic: Patience Phillips (Berry) works for a cosmetic company, under husband and wife sleazebags, Mr + Mrs Hedare (Wilson + Stone). While creeping around the factory, aided by remarkably lax security, she finds out that their face cream has rather unpleasant side-effects – but they’re going to release it onto the market anyway. Startled by this discovery, she bumps into something conveniently noise-making: all of a sudden, security is not so lax. Flushed out a waste pipe, and left for dead, she gets new life when a mysterious cat breaths on her, and Patience turns into…Catwoman.

Now, she has not only to expose her former employer’s evil scheme, but keep investigating cop Tom Lone (Bratt) away from knowing her secret, while still finding time for coffee, dinner, and occasional romps with him. Not to mention a game of one-on-one basketball, which must go down as one of the most superfluous scenes ever; Lone’s lack of reaction to her superhuman prowess leaves me wondering how the hell he ever became a detective.

In the right hands, this storyline might have been fun, if played like the 60’s TV series – for camp value. Stone occasionally seems to be trying for this, but Berry is intent on trying to make us take the whole thing seriously, an endeavour that’s doomed to fail. Logic goes out the window pretty much about the same time Patience does – only it doesn’t get rescued: apparently, cat-induced skills include not only agility, but also the hotwiring and riding of motorbikes. And why, exactly, does she decide to cut her leather suit into something more befitting a two-bit dominatrix?

It’s almost as if, every time there’s a spark of intelligence or wit, a committee insisted it be removed. For example, at one point, Catwoman goes into a bar (which, appropriately enough, sounds like the start of a bad joke…), and asks for a “White Russian, no ice, no vodka…hold the Kahlua.” That’s kinda cute: until the barman responds with, “Cream – straight up,” just in case we’re total imbeciles who didn’t grasp the concept.

I could forgive that too, if the action had been at least competent. Instead, we get a mix of obvious doubling (most accounts say it was by a man, adding insult to injury!), and extremely poor CGI, both of which are shot as if Pitof was being paid by the number of edits. At best, it reaches the level of a mediocre video game, without any significant emotional or intellectual impact – the “Wow!” factor is entirely missing.

On the plus side, this clearly wasn’t a cheap movie, and it does put its budget on the screen – save the aforementioned CGI. Stone has fun with her role; she may even be getting a subtle dig in at Hollywood, when her character talks about being thrown on the scrapheap at 40. [Though in her case, it seems to have been less to do with her age than, by certain reports, being a bitch to work with in her superstar years…] And Pitof does have a sense of visual flair, even if the result is mostly to irritate. The movie also appears to be in focus, and the lip movements match the dialogue quite well. Can you tell I am stretching here?

It is, on the whole, about the bottom of what I expected or hoped. I didn’t fall asleep, but this was the epitome of lowest common denominator Hollywood film-making, with everything ground down to the mediocre, and possessing not even momentary impact. It doesn’t bode well for the upcoming Batman movie, and its failure will do absolutely nothing to promote the cause of big-budget action heroine films. However, if this is what we get in that field, that will be no real loss.

[February 2005: Berry took worst actress for her performance at the 25th annual Razzies, at which Catwoman also took worst film, director and screenplay. However, I do have to give Berry much credit for turning up to accept her award in person, saying: “When I was a kid, my mother told me that if you could not be a good loser, then there’s no way you could be a good winner.” My opinion of Ms. Berry just went up quite a few notches.]

Feedback

Brian S: “Came across your site a few days ago and thought I would drop you a line to say how much I enjoy it. I love this sort of movie and it makes a change to be able to read a review from somebody with similar tastes. I get really sick of these critics who only seem to like drama and think that all movies should have some deep meaning attached to them to be considered any good. I especially liked the review on Catwoman which I had seen the day before, and found myself agreeing with many of the points raised. I’ve got a few more points I think will interest you. It has only just been released here in New Zealand, and with its poor box office, I don’t think it will be around for very long.

First of all, I have never rated Halle Berry as an action heroine. This goes back to her Bond movie and the publicity shots they put out of her in wet bikini and knife belt. I knew there was something wrong with this picture when I first saw it, but was unable to work out what it was until I saw it again in a different article, on the same page as a picture of the immortal Ursula Andress from Dr. No. Looking at the two of them in more or less identical outfits explained to me what was wrong – not only with the Berry picture, but the way action women are treated.

Halle Berry wore her knife belt as a fashion statement. Her main concern: has she colour-coordinated? Her face and body language say, “I’m ready for my close up now, I am beautiful”; Ursula Andress wore her knife belt as a weapon, and her main concern is survival. Her face and body language say, “I’m ready for anything, I am dangerous”. If they fail to cast the right people into these roles. how can they possibly hope to make a successful film? You can get away with it in a Bond film, but not when she has to carry the show.

Low expectations stopped me from being too disappointed in Catwoman. It seemed to me that the script was written by a committee who couldn’t decide what genre it was going to be in. It started as a chick flick and slowly changed into an action film that was rather short of action. Even the climatic “catfight” scene was a let down. Now I love a good catfight – hell I even write the stuff – but I don’t appreciate one that’s badly done. I’m afraid that special effects and stuntwomen just don’t do it for me in this sort of situation.

I got the movie Bringing down the House starring Steve Martin from our local video a few weeks previous to this, and was pleasantly surprised at what a good fight it contained. It was between Queen Latifah and some blonde who fought mainly with their fists with a few kicks thrown in for variety. My question is; if they can put a good, knock-down, drag-out fight into a comedy, why can’t they put one into a so-called action movie?”

Dir: Pitof
Stars: Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, Sharon Stone, Lambert Wilson

Run Lola Run

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“She’s got legs… And she knows how to use them.”

The term “action heroine” moves into a whole new dimension with this movie: no gun-battles, no fight-scenes, no explosions, but it still maintains a breathless pace for almost the entire 81 minutes. Lola (Potente) needs to find DM100,000 in 20 minutes, after her boyfriend Manni (Bleibtreu) loses a bag of money he was supposes to deliver to a highly dubious character. All this is set up in about five minutes, and then Lola is off, sprinting to try and get the cash.

The key twist is the film depicting three parallel stories; all start with her leaving her apartment, but they gradually diverge, and end in three radically different conclusions. One of the film’s myriad delights is seeing how they interweave, with the differing fates of the various characters, and how tiny changes in the decisions we make can have massive consequences.

Right from the start, when Lola lobs a phone in the air and it lands spot-on the cradle, we know she has unusual powers. Her screams can shatter glass, and there’s one moment, in the casino, when she turns to the manager and looks at him. “Just one more game”, she says, and as portrayed by Potente (an amazing performance, with “future star” written through it), her gaze comes across as a force of nature more powerful than a typhoon. Lola is someone absolutely determined to have what she wants – “love conquers all”, if you like – and she even seems capable of rewinding time through sheer will, when the results go against her.

Yet, curiously, certain experiences appear to carry forward: in run #1, she is shown how to use a gun, in run #2, she needs no such tuition. A security guard we see clutching his heart in #2, is met in an ambulance in #3. Tykwer sees no need to explain any of this (is it merely being played out in Lola’s mind?), yet spotting these things are part of what makes the film so incredibly rewatchable. Even after half-a-dozen viewings, I’m still finding new facets e.g. the number she bets on in the casino, 20, is also the number of minutes she has to save Manni, since there’s simply so much crammed in.

lola2Special mention needs to be made of the soundtrack, a pumping mix of techno co-created by Tykwer, which helps drive the film along at a blistering pace, and is one of the few soundtracks I will listen to on their own. Yet there are also tender moments (probably essential to prevent the audience from hyperventilating and going into shock), which Tykwer handles with skill and aplomb. Lola is something of an aberration in his filmography, stylistically: his other work such as Winter Sleepers are much more languidly-paced, but do cover similar themes of randomness and its effects. The end result is a film which manages to be shallowly entertaining and deeply satisfying at the same time. You can enjoy it purely on a “what happens next?” level, or appreciate it as something with so much depth that it can even be viewed as a retelling of the myth of Orpheus (the evidence pointing to such an interpretation is too lengthy to go into here). Truly a film with something for everyone, and for some, like myself, it has everything.

Dir: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup, Nena Petri

To The Limit

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To_the_Limit_FilmPosterIf this film is superior to Skyscraper, it’s largely because it has a good bit less Anna Nicole in it. You may even actually find yourself paying attention, simply because the plot doesn’t make much sense for the first 45 minutes; you wonder how it took three writers to come up with the plot, unless they were locked in separate rooms. It was only later that I discovered it’s a semi-sequel to another Martino work, Da Vinci’s War, in which Nouri and Travolta’s characters previously appeared. Does help explain why the movie hits the ground running and doesn’t bother to explain who anyone is.

From what I can work out, ANS is Colette, an undercover CIA agent. It is at least more plausible than the helicopter pilot thing, since the best undercover agent is somebody no-one would ever believe was one. This makes Anna Nicole very, very good indeed. She gets involved when her lover (Nouri) is blown up by a car-bomb on his way to the wedding of Da Vinci (Travolta), which is simultaneously rudely interrupted by a massacre, though it’s not a patch on the amazing one in Queen’s High.

It does leave Da Vinci’s new wife dead, and he himself is badly injured, and barely survives a follow-up attempt in the hospital, when a “nurse” tries to poison him. It all turns out to be orchestrated by the heavily-tattooed, bearded but bald, bad guy Arthur (Bannon), who is after a CD-Rom that threatens to incriminate him in…oh, the usual bad-guy stuff, I guess: murder, drug-dealing, and not phoning his mother on Sundays.

As a result, both Da Vinci and Colette are now being hunted, and must team up to ensure their safety from a constant stream of assassins pointed their way by Arthur. A pleasing number of these are women, but what else would you expect from a film containing no less than three Playboy Playmates of the Year? [Smith (1993), Rebecca Ferratti (1986), and Kathy Shower (1985)]

This is shallow, straight-to-video fodder, but is at least workmanlike, and Travolta is a good deal less smug than his more famous brother. I still question the need for three writers, especially given a particularly lame climax on the Hoover Dam, which will certainly have you handling your CDs more carefully for a while. Nicole Smith is slightly better than in Skyscraper, though any speech longer than a sentence starts teetering perilously towards “I wanna have a baby!” territory.

tothelimitThere is one decent sequence in which she shoots her way out of a motel, which I confess had me wondering briefly who this competent action actress was. Otherwise, it’s pretty much business as usual, with two sex scenes (Nouri and Travolta are the unfortunate actors involved), one bath scene and a shower scene, both of which have Colette paying special attention to cleaning certain of her bits, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Actually, I’m reporting the shower scene second-hand; I dozed off, and it was left to my fiancee, Chris, to experience that horror…

Dir: Raymond Martino
Stars: Joey Travolta, Anna Nicole Smith, Jack Bannon, Michael Nouri

Skyscraper

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The obvious point of comparison for Smith would be Pamela Anderson, another Playboy playmate who moved into films of doubtful quality, but any such comparison would be unfair. To Anderson, that is, who given the right role, is not actually too bad. With Smith, you get the feeling she simply has no talent, and any character would be a stretch, let alone the Shakespeare-aware, ace helicopter pilot and crackshot she is supposed to portray in this shameless Die Hard clone.

She is trapped in a tower block by a bunch of criminals who are after a computer chip which…er, well they never actually say what it does, but they clearly want it bad. Just like Brooce, she’s bickering with her other half, a police officer – “I wanna have a baby,” she whines, not long after the immortal line, “Well, excuse me for still believing in Sunday walks in the park and little babies.” It was at this point, that my sympathy for her character made its excuses and left.

Other points of similarity with McTiernan’s classic action film:

  • Hero/ine crashes in through a plate glass window, half-way up the building.
  • Slimy worker tries to cut a deal with the terrorists, only to get a fatal come-uppance.
  • Bad guys are largely European types – though in Skyscraper they look pretty gay, too.

When in motion, the general execution is not so bad, and the first of these probably provides the film’s best sequence, as Smith leaps onto a window-washer’s cradle, and dangles from a cable, trying to avoid gunfire from the rooftop. Not brilliant, I admit, but compared to much of the rest of the movie, it stands out as tense and well-staged.

The script and the acting sink this one early, and it’s damned further any time Smith opens her mouth. The chief villain – associate producer Hubner – quotes Shakespeare badly, mixing in the odd Biblical quote for good measure: his performance is mercilessly skewered in one review which includes a highly amusing parody of his style. Another article, now sadly lost, spent half its time detailing a Saturday night search for a copy of the video. The other supporting characters such as the cowardly security guard are, at best, good ideas badly implemented, and at worst, pointless wastes of space (who are probably also associate producers – there’s a coincidence!).

Smith whips ’em out four times: one shower scene, two consensual sex scenes (one as a flashback, while she’s right in the middle of evading the terrorists!), and one rape – the last of these might actually have some vague relevance to the storyline, but the others certainly don’t. Her attempt at any kind of action are ultra-lame as well, presumably out of fear that any kind of sudden motion could rupture an implant. She might have been better served by trying to smother the terrorists, Double Agent 73 style.

It’s easy to imagine the pitch for this one: “It’ll be Die Hard with tits!” Given the vast number of other clones in that style made before and since, such an endeavour was probably inevitable – and in the right hands, or at least with the right leading lady, might have had some potential. Instead, the main reason to watch this is for some cheap laughs at the most woeful acting performance since the early days of Pia Zadora. Bad movie fans will likely love it; everyone else should stay clear.

Dir: Raymond Martino
Stars: Anna Nicole Smith, Charles M. Huber, Richard Steinmetz, Branko Cikatic

Return to Savage Beach

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This was Sidaris’s last film, and after the disappointment of Warrior, it’s nice to see him return to a more straightforward approach, with little of the post-modernity attempted there. It is largely a sequel to Savage Beach, with a raid on the LETHAL offices puzzling Willow (Strain) and her agents, because the only thing accessed was the files on that case, which have long been closed. However, it turns out the villain there, Rodrigo (Obregon) did not die in a fiery, explosive-tipped crossbow bolt explosion as thought, and now sports a nifty mask, apparently lifted from a production of Phantom of the Opera. He sends his blonde minion in her submarine(!), along with his ninjas(!!), back to the island to claim a priceless Golden Buddha buried there, and it’s up to Cobra (Smith), Tiger (Marks) and their himbo colleagues, to stop him.

There are plenty of elements to provoke amusement here, witting and unwitting. The former would include a response to an agent’s description of her revealing dress as “Just something I threw on”, which is basically, “Looks like you missed low.” The latter? Their ‘Lacrosse’ satellite, which they use to track bad guys, but whose footage is clearly not taken from anything like overhead. There’s also the return of the remote-controlled toys, used to dispatch more than one guy, Ava Cadell’s reprise as the bikini-clad radio host of KSXY (along with the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as her engineer Harry the Cat!), and how all the heroines and villainess are inevitably caught right when they are changing. I also enjoyed the nuclear countdown, which doesn’t just countdown, but does so in ever more hysterical tone.

There are still some negatives: in terms of drama, the movie effectively ends with that countdown, but there’s still 20 minutes to go. So it’s mostly filled with a rambling explanation by Rodrigo of everything that has happened to him in the decade since…which turns out to be completely irrelevant [“How many endings does this story have?” asks one character, with justification]. It’d also have been really nice if they’d brought back not just Obregon, but also the female stars of the original Savage Beach, Dona Speir and Hope Marie Carlton, rather than just use stock footage; their IMDB credits don’t show them as exactly having been busy. Still, with lines like “Now, what about that swim?” – and, oh look, their tops have come off – this is a fitting memorial to Sidaris, containing all the elements which made his films what they were.

Dir: Andy Sidaris
Star: Julie Strain, Shae Marks, Julie K. Smith, Rodrigo Obregon

Day of the Warrior

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Andy was back on the helm for this one, but appears to have opted to go beyond subtle self-referential digs into full-blown camp, and I tend to think this takes away from the overall experience. The intent is clear when we are brought into the office of Willow Black, the head of L.E.T.H.A.L. (The Legion to Ensure Total Harmony and Law), and find her exercising on a treadmill in an outfit more suited for an exotic dancer. Which makes sense, because if you’re a female agent of LETHAL, you can bet you’ll be going undercover as a stripper or a porn actress – not quite the empowering government job one might expect. It also appears that breast enlargement surgery is required for all such operatives.

The target this time is the Warrior (Bagwell, who was a fixture in WCW at the time), a former agent turned professional wrestler(!) turned liberator of ancient artefacts and runner of a range of dubious business enterprises, ranging from bootleg films to diamond smuggling. LETHAL have several agents undercover, but someone hacks into their computers (which seem strangely retro from this viewing point). So the spies have to be brought in from the cold by Tiger (Sidaris newcomer Marks) before their cover is blow, including Cobra (Smith), the aforementioned undercover stripper – though there’s not much of her under cover. There is also, for no readily apparent reason, a Chinese Elvis impersonator (Gerald Okamura), though I have to say, he is kinda engaging.

The problem is, when it’s obvious the makers aren’t taking this seriously – and that’s clear from the handicap wrestling match which is the climax, between Willow and Elvis Fu on one side, and the Warrior on the other – why should the audience bother? And though the tone is clearly intended to be light-hearted, it’s not actually very funny: the comic hamming of the Warrior’s surfer-dude sidekicks is particularly dreadful. There also seems to be a lot of padding, such as stock-footage shots of Las Vegas, which go way beyond anything necessary or interesting, and you get far more uses of “I need to get something off my chest,” than are in any way amusing.

And if ever I become an evil overlord, I will instruct all my minions on the perils of hiding out in a shack with “Fuel Supply” spray-painted on the side, especially when the opposition has access to an explosive-tipped crossbow… It can never end well for those seeking cover.

Dir: Andy Sidaris
Star: Shae Marks, Julie K. Smith, Marcus Bagwell, Kevin Light

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle

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“2 Fast, 2 Furious.”

A sequel to one of the most successful action heroine films of all time was perhaps inevitable, but this proves the difficulty of catching lightning in a bottle. What seemed light and breezy, an effortless concoction of bubbly entertainment, first time around, now appears forced and contrived. Put simply, it tries too hard, and as a result is significantly less successful than the original.

This time, the heroines are tracking down the villain responsible for stealing two rings that give access to the database of the Federal Witness Protection Program [note to government: I recommend not storing sensitive information on something quite so easily stolen] It hits close to home, since before becoming an Angel, Dylan (Barrymore) was given a new identity through the program. The Irish gangster she jailed (Theroux) is now out, and after her blood, as well as the rings.

ca2bThen there’s Demi Moore as a former Angel, now gone bad – which might be a shock if it hadn’t been promoted in every puff piece about the movie. Hey, at least she gets to use a gun, again otherwise mysteriously absent from the Angels’ world. Her role is smaller than you might expect, but unfortunately, is not the only bit of stunt casting. With a deep breath, we plunge in…

John Cleese, Bruce Willis, the Olsen twins, Pink, Luke Wilson, Matt LeBlanc, Robert Patrick, Eric Bogosian, Jaclyn Smith, Carrie Fisher… You get the concept? It’s my experience that films so burdened with celebrity cameos are usually trying to divert you from weaknesses elsewhere. The only one to make any impact is Cleese, as Alex’s father, who operates under the impression his daughter is a prostitute; his facial expressions as she describes taking on twelve sailors at once (and subsequent need for a shower) are the comic highlight of the film.

Speaking of comedy, Bernie Mac is largely unintelligible as the new Bosley, making you yearn for the subtlety (or, at least, audibility) of Bill Murray, and the film grinds completely to a halt so that the Angels can do a little dance number to M.C. Hammer. It’s not funny, and it’s not clever. After the Showgirls sequence – another showstopper in the worse sense of the word – you’ll be fairly sure all three are equally viable candidates as the ho. [See our review of the original if you need an explanation] Last time, the heroic trio had clearly differentiated personalities, but now, they seem like Barbie dolls with interchangeable heads, wardrobes and boyfriends.

ca2cI confess I did kinda enjoy watching the movie at the time, but as I’ve been writing this review, its grade has been steadily tumbling, since I can hardly remember anything positive to justify it. Oh, yes: Crispin Glover is back – inexplicably, since he died first time round, but he comes close to stealing the entire movie. We even get to see his background, which is as weird as you’d expect, and probably more entertaining than most of the film’s genuine plot-points. The start, with a Mongolian rescue mission, is also nicely done, but is about the only time where the costumes are more than pointless excess.

The action was one of the highlights of the first, thanks to a great deal of influence and help from Hong Kong. Here, it has some wonderful moments, but never works as a coherent whole – rarely do two seconds pass without some gimmicky piece of editing. The “extreme sports” focus is also weak: surfing, motocross, street luge, and boarding didn’t work in XXX, and they don’t work here, since you know full well the actresses were safely tucked away in their trailers, far from any risk or danger.

Rumour has it, Diaz demanded they shell out $200,000 to retouch her eyes digitally, making them bluer. They really would have been better spending the money on a less self-indulgent script. Despite much improved calendar position (June vs. November), this sequel made less money in its opening weekend than the original, and you can see why. There’s little point bothering with the new movie; you can just watch the original, turn the surround-sound up to 11, bury your head in the speakers and experience the same over-frenetic migraine that Full Throttle will cause.

Dir: McG
Stars: Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz, Justin Theroux

Charlie’s Angels (movie)

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“…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