Bury Me An Angel

starstarhalf

“Nowhere near as good as the advertising.”

Though with a tagline of “A howling hellcat humping a hot steel hog on a roaring rampage of revenge”, how could it be? Dag (Peabody) sees her brother get blown away for stealing some guy’s motorcycle, and goes on a hunt for the killer, all the while tortured by visions of her dead sibling’s death – which is perhaps not a good move, since it lets us see how woefully inept the effects were. Accompanied by two male sidekicks, she tracks the killer down as he heads towards Canada.

This 1971 film is a rarity for an action heroine movie (and also for a biker flick), in that it was written and directed by a woman, Barbara Peeters, who’d go on to make Humanoids From the Deep. This shows itself in little touches throughout, but mostly through the heroine’s over-frequent mental anguish – the ‘roaring rampage of revenge’ never materialises much. Dag makes for an interesting heroine, determined and obstinate (she hangs on to her shotgun, even when visiting a school!), but Peabody never seems to get the tone of her performance right, under- or over-acting at random.

The best moments see the trio interacting with other people, be this taunting a midget cop, provoking a bar-brawl with locals, or being out-weirded by a witch. Apart from this, and one impressive nightmare where Dag repeatedly blasts her brother’s murderer with a shotgun, only for him to keep coming back, there’s way too much sitting around, and not enough action. Selling largely on sizzle, this is truly a classic of exploitation, and as such, deserves grudging respect – if not perhaps any further attention.

Dir: Barbara Peeters
Star: Dixie Peabody, Terry Mace, Clyde Ventura, Stephen Whittaker

Barbarian Queen II

starstarstarhalf

“In which our heroine learns the ropes…and the chains…and the rack…”

Much like the first, bondage fans would probably mark this a grade, possibly one and a half, higher given the amazing length of time the heroine spends tied to racks and other torture devices – or just tied in general. Not that this, per se, makes it a bad movie. No, the severely limited budget (the population of the land where this takes place appears to be about 1/10th that of San Marino) and clunky acting take care of that…

However, the writing helps, since tongue is in cheek, right from the movie’s subtitle: The Empress Strikes Back. It would be churlish to point out the total lack of any empress in the film. There’s also the mud-wrestling bout, carefully set up early on when a barrel of water is knocked over, instantly turning about two acres into the Everglades. As for the story, Clarkson plays Princess Amathea – her character has the same name as the first part, but how she became the king’s daughter is never explained – whose father’s throne has been usurped by the evil Ankaris (Bracho). She escapes and builds a band of curiously large-haired heroines to lead a revolt.

One interesting subplot is Ankaris’s daughter (Tijerina), a genuinely creepy teen with a disturbing interest in methods of torture. She has a crush on Amathea’s love interest and evokes the spirit of her dead mother to help her out. This angle adds a welcome depth, to a story that otherwise is largely what you would expect. The fighting is largely woeful: one participant holds their sword up while the other bangs their weapon off it. Yet, it’s never dull and Clarkson makes a good heroine, independent and feisty from the opening scene.

Dir: Joe Finley [probably a pseudonym for Hector Oliviera]
Star: Lana Clarkson, Greg Wrangler, Cecilia Tijerina, Alejandro Bracho

Bad Girls: season two

starstarstarstar

“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

The Black Angel

starstarstarhalf

“Promising start to gangster revenge, but goes off rails badly.”

The first half of this is quite excellent. A young girl, Ikko, daughter of a Yakuza boss, sees her parents murdered on the orders of her step-sister but is rescued by the Black Angel (Takashima), a female assassin, and escapes to America. 14 years later, she returns (Hazuki), calling herself the Black Angel and starts wreaking revenge on those responsible – who retaliate by calling in the real Black Angel. The potential here is huge, not least because the original is now an alcoholic junkie, at one harrowing point reduced to licking drugs from broken glass.

Then it all goes horribly wrong for the viewer. The dividing line is the eight-minute, one-take shot of Ikko wandering around a building trying to escape while being taunted by thugs. It is incredibly pointless, overlong, and sucks the energy out of the movie like a vampire. After that, it just collapses in on itself like a balloon, and has very little more of interest to offer – both Chris and I dozed off at various points. There’s much pointing of guns at each other, and one final twist, but it was nothing you won’t see coming, and of absolutely no significance by that stage, since we had long ceased to care. A spectacular crash.

Dir: Takashi Ishii
Star: Riona Hazuki, Reiko Takashima, Kippei Shiina, Yoshinori Yamaguchi

Bandidas

starstarstarstar

“How the West was Wo(ma)n…”

Let us make no mistake about this, this is a frothy confection of a film, which is not intended to be taken seriously; to do so, would be a serious mistake. The closest parallel here is probably to think of it as a distaff version of Shanghai Noon, with an odd couple teaming up for fun ‘n’ frolics in the Old West. Robber baron Tyler Jackson (Yoakam) comes to Mexico to take away land from the locals so a railroad can be built. In the process, he kills the fathers of both farm-girl Maria (Cruz) and rich-girl Sara (Salma), so he can take their property and bank respectively. To get revenge, each lady independently decides to rob the same bank at the same time, and are forced to team-up; their widely-disparate characters initially cause friction, but they eventally come to respect each other, after being trained by retired robber Bill Buck (Sam Shephard).

When they start their campaign, Jackson brings in a specialist in the new ‘scientific method’ of criminal investigation, Quentin (Zahn), to help track down the bandidas. However, after discovering Sara’s father was poisoned, heis convinced by the pair that he is actually working for the wrong side, and comes across to join them. The latest security measures are defeated – with the aid of a pair of ice-skates! – and as a result a train is loaded with the Mexican government’s gold reserve, to ship it to safety in Mexico. The bandidas resolve to take the cargo, but Jackson and his gang are waiting for them…as is Quentin’s fiancée…

This was co-written by Luc Besson: he is the engine-room of European cinema, listed as a producer of no less than 60 titles over the past five years on the IMDB. He likely deserves a place in the Girls With Guns hall of fame, having directed Nikita and The Messenger, given Milla Jovovich and Natalie Portman their action-debuts in The Fifth Element and Leon respectively, worked as an uncredited co-producer on Haute Tension, and now delivers this. It came up in response to a request from the two leads, who’ve wanted to work together for a long time, and he handed the script to two Norwegians, making their feature debut [but with a lot of commercial experience].

However, there’s no doubt that it’s the leading ladies who make this one click, right from the first scene together, where Sara confronts Maria, who has snuck in to the house to argue with Sara’s father about the ongoing land-grab. The bickering between the two, which continues, in an increasingly friendly way, through the entire film. Maria snipes at Sara because the latter can’t fire a gun to save her life – in a beautiful touch, she gets terrible hiccups when she tries; Sara taunts Maria for her lack of education.

The two also argue over who is the best kisser, notably in a scene where they are dressed as Paris showgirls, and are trying to extract information from Quentin, who is tied to the bed. And Steve Zaun was actually paid to take part? ;-) That’s about as far as the film goes, sexually speaking; much cleavage, but no actual nudity. A fondness for the heroines splashing around in water, especially early on, and the above-mentioned comedic seduction scene, is about as close as we get to exploitation. That news may disappoint some readers, but it really wouldn’t be in keeping with the overall tone of the movie, which is light-hearted and firmly PG-13 rated, despite lesbian scuttlebutt which circulated afte a press conference where Penelope (gasp!) touched Salma’s butt.

What did disappoint me was the action. I expected more from Besson, who helped give us such gems as The Transporter and District B-13, as well as the titles mentioned above, though a couple of moments stand out. There’s a bravura slow-motion scene in the final battle – bullets, knives, bodies and debris fly in a single shot, the camera panning back and forth to capture the carnage. But, the most amazing part is seeing a horse, with a rider on its back, climb a ladder. This was apparently a combination of training (the horse, with a stunt rider, walked up a specially-made set of stairs) and CGI work by Parisian FX house Macguff, to replace the stairs with a ladder, add dust and bounce, etc. It’s a throwaway moment, in a throwaway film, but is worthy of note, and applause.

That may be perhaps down to the leads’ lack of experience: Cruz’s only real brush with the action genre was Sahara, Hayek has more background (working with Robert Rodriguez helps there), but neither of them would appear to be looking to make a name for themselves with their work here. A sequel is hinted at by the ending; however, that this $30m production went all but straight to video in the US and notched only $18m overseas would seem to rule this out. One wonders why, for a film set in Mexico and with two Hispanic leads, why they didn’t speak Spanish; one assumes Besson, with his eye on the international market, went for the more commercial English, even though Cruz seems slightly ill-at-ease thee.

These qualms are relatively minor, and if not the all-out action fest I was hoping for, it’s certainly among the best Westernettes of recent years. This is not a genre which has been kind to action heroines in the past, including such bombs – justifiable or not – as Bad Girls and The Quick and the Dead, as well as less high-profile turkeys as Gang of Roses. Bandidas is nowhere in the same league, and if survives almost entirely on the charisma and energy of Cruz and Hayek, that’s by itself is something which most movies would like to have. If you can certainly argue that to some extent this is a vanity project, here, I’d be very hard pushed to call vanity a sin.

Dir: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Stars: Penelope Cruz, Salma Hayek, Steve Zahn, Dwight Yoakam

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