The Arena (1974)

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arenaThe tagline for this was “Black slave, white slave”, a less than subtle nod to the fact that it reunited Grier and Markov, the star of Corman’s jailbreak movie from the previous year, Black Mama, White Mama. The similarities of this film to it are obvious: two women from opposing backgrounds forced, through adversity, to unite, respect eventually growing between…etc, etc. Hell, there’s even a shower-scene – although since this dates back to pre-shower days, it should strictly be called a bucket-of-cold-water scene.

Here, Grier and Markov play Mamawi and Bodicia respectively, slaves captured and put to work in a provincial gladiatorial arena – at first working the concessions (or Roman equivalent thereof), but when the owner discovers the appeal of women fighting, he sends them into the arena. They eventually rebel against the authorities, and help each other in an escape attempt that puts their lives at risk.

Not quite as ludicrously anachronous as it sounds – there actually were female gladiators – the small budget is helped immeasurably by shooting in Cinecitta, Italy’s main studio, which no doubt provided sets, costumes and props. There is a good feel for the callous barbarity of the time, which contrasts well with a touching love story between the trainer and one of the slaves. Once you get beyond the shower scene, it’s surprisingly restrained – while there’s no shortage of nudity, it is less gratuitous that you might expect.

The leading actresses are both good in their roles, but their fighting skills leave too much to be desired. It’s difficult to see how they could have won over the crowd to their side, as is required by the plot. Once they escape the arena, things do perk up a little on this front, but it remains not a movie to recommend for action. This is not least because, while it was shot in ‘Scope, even the DVD is pan-and-scanned. It’s thus rare that you get to see both participants on the screen at the same time.

Despite this, it’s rarely boring and never unwatchable, with decent production values and everyone putting in sufficient effort to make it worthwhile. Can’t help wondering if Sid Lawrence’s fey Roman Priscium, had some kind of influence on Joaquim Phoenix’s performance in Gladiator. Certainly, this film was among the final twitches of the sword-and-sandal genre, which would go into hibernation, to await rejuvenation courtesy of Ridley Scott.

Reports suggest director Carver was largely helped out by Joe D’Amato, who’d go on to make both video-nasties and porno films. Perhaps the most famous name involved, however, is editor Joe (Gremlins) Dante, another one of Roger Corman’s alumni. Pam Grier, of course, would become a favourite of Quentin Tarantino, but let’s not hold that against her. Markov, on the other hand, would make only one more movie, the barely known There Is No 13.

Dir: Steve Carver
Star: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, Lucretia Love, Paul Muller

All-Japan Women: St. Battle Final, 6th December 1993

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“The final countdown.”

The tapes for this show – it’s a 2-cassette set – came from a friend in Hong Kong; I have to say, when I saw the official retail price, was rather gobsmacked. Y180,000, which is about $150! And that’s in 1994 money… I can only presume it was intended for the rental market rather than the fan. Needless to say, I didn’t pay so much for it…

Still, financial considerations aside, 1993 may have been the year when Japanese women’s wrestling was at its peak. Perhaps the greatest single event ever, Dreamslam, took place in April, pitting the best wrestlers against each other, regardless of what wrestling company they worked for. The St. Final show in December, was a similar cross-promotional attempt to create a mega-event, and took place in Tokyo’s Sumo Hall, before a crowd of 11,500.

Leo Kitamura/Otaku Hozumi vs. Tomoko Watanabe/Chikako Shiratori. Not really much to say about this opening match, which was clearly a warm-up; the crowd were still coming to their seats. Tomoko Watanabe would go onto much greater things (particularly as part of the ZAP tag-team), and Shiratori would also move on, but Kitamura and Hozumi vanished off the radar as far as I can tell. Next up after this was a midget wrestling bout – it says something that it was considered worthy of a higher place on the card!

Chaparrita ASARI vs Candy Okutsu (JWP). Here is another case where the contenders would go on to better things, and their feud for the WWWA Super-lightweight title in the late 90’s is well-regarded. But even now, and despite both wrestlers having only made their first appearances the previous year, this bout had its moments, though it was pretty variable. The boston crabs Okutsu put on ASARI were spine-poppingly good, while ASARI was athletic and agile, in a fast-paced bout. She failed to hit her finisher, landing head-first after a Skytwister Press, and the rapid pin thereafter by Okutsu was probably very welcome.

Sakie Hasegawa/Kaoru Ito vs. Miki Handa/Yasha Kurenai (LLPW). This one wasted no time, the combatants going at it before the introductions were even completed. The bout was a good illustration of the difference between single bouts and tag teams; both sides worked well together, both to attack their opponents, and making saves when their partner was in trouble. I note with interest that the referee was also from the LLPW – the shirt kinda gave it away – so it was no surprise when Handa and Kurenai took the win. However, when the “visitors” win the undercard bouts, it’s often a clue that the main events will go to the home federation…

Bull Nakano/Mima Shimoda/Etsuko Mita vs. Cuty Suzuki/Plum Mariko/Hikari Fukuoka (JWP). This had the makings of a squash match, with the JWP girls out of their depth. However, when Nakano wasn’t in the ring, it was well-balanced. Fukuoka in particular performed like ring-icon Manami Toyota, even using Toyota’s signature rolling cradle move. Suzuki took a lot of punishment, and her gold armour costume was cool, while Mariko (later in her career, she would die after a bout) helped out with good assists. Shimoda and Mita kept pace nicely, but Nakano ruined things by brushing off all attacks, destroying their impact by her refusal to sell. No surprise her team got the win, but this bout was one player short of being memorable.

Kyoko Inoue/Takako Inoue/Yumiko Hotta vs. Eagle Sawai/Rumi Kazama/Harley Saito (LLPW). Onto the second tape, having got the appetisers out of the way. Things still not quite at full boil, as this match was dominated by the strength brigade of Kyoko Inoue, Hotta and Sawai – the other three were next to invisible. Hotta is infamous for her kicks, and they’re not something I’d like to receive, while Sawai gave a good account of herself, flinging Inoue across the ring. But it lacked much in the way of variety, though Kyoko Inoue’s agility was impressive for someone of her size.

Aja Kong vs. Megumi Kudo (FMW). It says something that a match for the WWWA World Title wasn’t the main event, or even the second one. We know how this one’s gonna go: Kudo getting punked repeatedly. Wrong. Had quite forgotten Kudo knows how to wrestle, easy to do when she’s fighting talentless thugs like Shark Tsuchiya. Kong was playing the straight champion, at least until Kudo took advantage – then the gloves came off, Kong giving her opponent no slack, with brutal kicks and slaps.

Initially, this was mat-based, which seemed like a bad move for the much smaller Kudo, but when Kudo started locking in the cross arm-bars, the balance shifted. Her problem was keeping Kong from heading for the ropes, but frequent repetition (and Kong’s excellent selling of the moves) made the possibility of an upset quite plausible. Kong hit back with power moves, and Kudo switched to trying for falls…a fatal mistake. :-) She would have got one but the ref had been “knocked out” – a rare stunt in Japan – and we all know that means you’re gonna lose. Kudo seemed genuinely tearful in the post-bout interviews.

Dynamite Kansai/Mayumi Ozaki (JWP) vs. Manami Toyota/Toshiyo Yamada. This was for the WWWA tag bout, but was just one fall, rather than the usual three. Probably wise, as the pace was totally frenetic. My notes for this one peter out after about 10 minutes, since I gave up trying to write because something was always happening. I like well-balanced bouts, and this was one which could have ended at almost any time, in either direction – both sides had one high-flyer (Ozaki & Toyota), and one powerhouse (Kansai & Yamada), giving plenty of variety and scope for action of all sorts.

Toyota was likely the star, not just for the pounding she took, or even her usual suicidal athleticism – though the moonsault from the top rope to the arena floor was memorable – but because she seemed really into the contest, screaming like a banshee. This in no way should be taken to indicate slackness on anyone else, as they all played their parts. Kansai and Yamada punted each other ferociously, the latter also hitting Ozaki with a seemingly-endless Giant Swing. The only weakness was an ending which seemed sloppy and not up to the amazing standard of the rest of the bout, but this contest still merited an immediate rewind and repeat.

Akira Hokuto vs. Shinobu Kandori. Can you imagine the WWE headlining a pay-per-view with a non-title bout? But these two had a ferocious rivalry – their Dreamslam I match was voted the best contest of the 90’s in an Internet poll – and any contest between these two was an obvious attraction. Within ten seconds Hokuto was bleeding badly from the mouth, after trading lethal punches with Kandori, and you just knew this was going to be a brawl from hell, rather than an exercise in scientific wrestling.

As such, while you couldn’t knock the intensity on view here, couldn’t help shake the feeling that we’d left the wrestling world behind, and were now operating somewhere between pro boxing and Brawlin’ Broads. Kandori had a nice arrogance though, deliberately holding back on her kicks and, at one point, applying a submission hold on Hokuto then letting go with a waggle of her finger, as if to say, “Too easy!”. But it was just too close to an episode of Jerry Springer to make this a classic in my eyes.

Overall, this is a solid tape. Perhaps only the WWWA tag team bout would make it onto any best-of compilation – but even the worst is still better than 90% of the contests in the WWE these days. Even though it’s only a single event, it demonstrates the breadth and depth of Japanese women’s wrestling, with a variety of styles, looks and attitudes which we in the West can, for the moment, only dream of enjoying.

Star: Akira Hokuto, Shinoba Kandori, Dynamite Kansai, Manami Toyota

Alien vs. Predator

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“Slime of your life.”

Initially inspired by a throwaway joke in Predator 2 – an alien skull in the Predator’s trophy cabinet – this has been some time in the making. Seven years have passed since the last entry in the Alien franchise, and fourteen since P2. Comics and video games have beaten the movie to the screen, and if truth be told, this film bears more resemblance to them than anything else. This is no surprise, given director Anderson helmed both Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. Interestingly, it takes place pre-Alien, in the present day. A pyramid is discovered deep under the ice on an island near Antarctica; industrialist Charles Weyland (Henriksen) puts together a team to investigate, led by Alexa (Lathan), the kind of lady who free-climbs ice-walls for kicks. They soon find that the pyramid is a training compound where, every 100 years, the Predators come to hunt aliens, with humans hosts for the acid-blooded critters

It’s a totally ludicrous concept. The Alien life-cycle, from hatching, through infection and chest-bursting, to full-sized monsterhood, is now ridiculously fast. In an idea lifted from Cube, the pyramid floor-plan changes configuration precisely every ten minutes – even though the “minute” wasn’t invented (by the Babylonians, fact fans) when this supposedly “first pyramid” was built. And expending such effort on a stadium used a couple of hours per century is wildly implausible.

There’s never any doubt who the stars are here, and it’s not the humans, who engage in such cliched behavious as showing photos of their kids – which, as we all know, is a death sentence in this kind of film. In addition, they persist in using hand-held flares when they possess perfectly good flashlights, for no reason other than to create spooky shadows. Alexa’s bilingual sidekick Sebastian (Bova) is intensely irritating in both English and Italian, but fortunately the heroine herself makes a decent impression, improving as the film goes on in much the same way as Ripley did in the original. Of course, Lathan is not Sigourney Weaver – but neither was Weaver when she started. [Er, if you see what I mean…]

The film steps up towards the end, finally delivering what we all came to see: full-on, three-way carnage, climaxing in Alexa + Predator vs. the Alien Queen. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was cool, and the thought crossed my mind: with two of the three combatants being female, is the Predator perhaps one too? If so, this would probably be the ultimate in brawlin’ broads. However, the best moment is actually a flashback to an earlier cycle, with the Predators atop a pyramid, up which thousands of Aliens are swarming. It makes you wish they’d dropped us altogether and just let the titular twosome go at it, head-on.

There are a couple of nice nods to the inspirations, such as Lance Henriksen’s presence in the cast, albeit not playing an android this time. Alexa at one point almost echoes Arnie’s line, “You’re one ugly motherfucker!”, though doesn’t get to complete it, thanks to the film’s PG-13 rating. It’s hard to deny the toning-down this requires hampers the production, limiting the amount of violence that can be done (to the humans, at least – on both Alien and Predator planets, this would likely still be rated R). The effects are mostly adequate to well-done, though Anderson’s style is to cut fast rather than linger so we could give them any scrutiny.

The end result is a disappointment that works better as a high concept than on the screen. Part of the problem is that we’re never given any reason to root for anyone, from anywhere in the universe. The Aliens are the villains, who must be contained at any cost – fair enough. However, the Predators are equally opaque, and most of the human characters are a far cry from, say, Aliens‘ marine corps. Sure, they were sterotypes, but they proved you could quickly create endearing and memorable characters with well-chosen dialogue. In contrast, there are few memorable lines to be found here. Indeed, few moments will stick in your mind at all – and when they do, you may find yourself wishing they had slid right on past, such as the moment where a facehugger suddenly enters The Matrix. Hey, now there’s an idea for a crossover: Neo and Trinity take on the extra-terrestrials. Quick, where’s my typewriter?

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
Star: Sanaa Lathan, Raoul Bova, Lance Henriksen, Ewan Bremner

Cutthroat Island

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“Rated Arrrrrrr…”

It seems to me that Cutthroat Island was largely just ahead of its time. Made in 1995, it shares a lot of the same elements as the wildly-successful Pirates of the Caribbean, which also had two gangs of pirates, feuding over treasure, while the British navy runs interference. Hell, there’s even an annoying pet monkey in both movies. But Cutthroat was such a big disaster at the box-office, it sat in the Guinness Book of Records, until subsequently passed by the likes of Gigli, and helped bankrupt Carolco.

Certainly, with an estimated $92m budget and a US gross of only $10m, it was a disaster movie, in the most literal sense of the word. But, truth be told, it’s not that bad: in the IMDB it rates a 5.4, which is respectable enough, and there’s no denying that, unlike many such films, the money is actually obvious on the screen. For this was made in the days before large-scale CGI, when the only way to have pirate ships battling on the high seas was…well, actually to have pirate ships battling on the high seas. Malta and Thailand stood in for the Atlantic, Davis mostly does her own stunts, and the finale features one of the best explosions captured on celluloid.

The plot is patterned after classic Errol Flynn films like The Sea Hawk, with Davis in the Flynn role as Morgan Adams, who inherits a ship after her father is killed by her evil uncle, Dawg (Langella). She also has part of a treasure-map – Dawg has another chunk, with the final portion owned by a third brother. The film is largely concerned by the various parties trying to acquire all the parts of the map, race to the treasure, avoid the British navy, and escape with the loot. There’s also a romantic subplot involving career thief William Shaw (Modine), needed to translate the map, but he and Morgan don’t have much chemistry. That’s perhaps because Davis was, at the time, married to director Harlin, and it’s certainly notable that every other woman in the film looks like she’s been keel-hauled beside the impeccably-styled Davis.

cutthroat1[The plan at first was to have Michael Douglas as the male lead – at a price of $15m – but he supposedly withdrew when his role was shrunk to make Davis the lead. Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise got the same offer, but declined. The producers then worked their way down the food chain, through Daniel Day Lewis, Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Charlie Sheen, Liam Neeson and Tim Robbins, before getting Modine for $4m. It’s interesting to speculate about how the film might have ended up with any of the other names – I mean, Charlie Sheen in a pirate film? On the other hand, a lot of people thought Johnny Depp, and letting him channel Keith Richards, was a bad idea…]

What the movie lacks in love interest, it more than makes up for in action – particularly, things going BOOM. This was set in an era when men were men, but women were men too, and everything was apparently likely to explode in a monstrous fireball at a moment’s notice. The opening sequence sees Morgan being recognised as a pirate, and chased by the British through Port Au Prince, a sequence which contains enough action for the climax of most films, not least when the navy decides to open fire from off-shore. The highlight has Davis rolling out a window, off a roof and onto a moving carriage, a serious “How the hell did they do that?” moment [the answer is, it’s a composite shot, joining one of her falling from the roof, to one of her pretending to have landed on the coach].

You will probably spend much of the film wondering how the film is going to top that, not least because the middle-part of the movie is not exactly enthralling. I mean, we know everyone is going to Cutthroat Island, so could they possibly hurry up and get there already? I’m also unimpressed by Chaykin as a journalist, embedded with Morgan, who is supposed to be writing up the activities of the pirates for his publisher. Not sure quite what his purpose was, and in a film that already runs over two hours, reckon he could have been removed without issue. It would also be fair to say that the plot, in general, is no more than a string of cliches, and the characters are similarly over-familiar, a disappointment given the transgressive concept at the film’s heart.

But it is a pirate movie and, to quote Roger Ebert, “is everything a movie named Cutthroat Island should be, and no more.” The final battle, where everyone collides in the middle of the ocean, is a great action set-piece, and Morgan duels her way with Dawg everywhere from the crow’s nest to the hold. Though I do feel his final dispatch (it hardly counts as a spoiler – I stress once more, this is a pirate movie) is, again, a slight shame, with the heroine forced to pull out the, ah, big guns to deal with him, rather than using her own skill.

Still, an entertaining effort, which truly deserves to be seen on a big screen with a good sound-system, and is an interesting precursor to The Long Kiss Goodnight, made by Harlin and Davis shortly after, which also tanked. In light of the subsequent success of Caribbean (and its imminent sequels), the time seems right for a re-evaluation, and I note that most of the recent IMDB comments have been warmly enthusiastic towards the movie. While the chances for the obvious sequel likely evaporated with the couple’s messy divorce – she filed in 1997, the month his personal assistant gave birth to his son – it certainly deserves to be freed from Davy Jones’ Locker of Hollywood Failure.

Dir: Renny Harlin
Star: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Maury Chaykin

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