Even Lambs Have Teeth

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“Romy and Michelle’s Vicious Vacation.”

Katie (Skovbye) and Sloane (Prout) are teenage BFF’s, who head off to spend time on an organic farm – though their real goal is the weekend shopping in New York which will follow it. On the way, they are distracted by a couple of bits of prime young, rural manhood. But before you can say “roll in the hay,” they are drugged, the pair waking up to find themselves chained to duplex shipping containers, from where they are rented out as sex slaves to anyone interested. Their sudden dropping off the grid concerns Katie’s uncle Jason (Richards), who happens to be an FBI agent. He heads to the area to investigate, unaware the local sheriff is in on the plot. However, there’s only so far you can push a person, before they break. When Katie and Sloane snap, and escape, rather than heading for safety, they decide to stick around, so they can get thoroughly medieval on those responsible.

This could have gone thoroughly grindhouse, as is the usual approach in the rape-revenge genre. Credit Miles, therefore, for zigging in another direction, with the actual assaults far more implied than actually shown. This is something of a double-edged sword: there isn’t the same resulting sense of horror or outrage, but on the other hand, I’m always far more about the revenge half of the equation. As the review tagline above implies, the film also manages to be surprisingly light in tone, given the subject matter. That’s particularly the case in the second half. For instance, the ladies get the shopping spree they want – except, it’s in the local hardware store, picking up tools for their vengeance, rather than going down Fifth Avenue.

It’s also as much about the relationship between the two women, with the switch in their characters between the two sections. Initially, Sloane is the outgoing and dominant one; however, it’s Katie who instigates the switch from passive to active, and takes charge thereafter. When they were making up alternative personas for the trip, shortly before departure, let’s just say there were apparently good reasons why she chose “Ripley” as the name of her alter ego.

The main weakness is likely the overall sense of restraint, which unfortunately applies equally as much to the revenge – precisely the aspect which needs to be ramped up to 11. And, really, given the entire town is apparently in on it, including the police department, I was expecting much more of a reaction from the locals. Even when Katie and Sloane drive through town in a stolen truck, dragging the body of one victim behind them… nobody so much as notices. There’s not any sense of escalation either. Arguably the worst fate, happens to their first target, although some credit is due for imaginative use of a weed-whacker.

The results are all amiable enough entertainment – and that’s probably the first time I’ve ever used the word “amiable” in regard to a rape-revenge flick. If these lambs have teeth, this movie is more an affectionate nibble than a fully-fledged bite.

Dir: Terry Miles
Star: Kirsten Prout, Tiera Skovbye, Michael Karl Richards, Garrett Black

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl

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“They’re super, thanks for asking…”

Initially a web series, the eight episodes are combined into a feature-length production here, and it’s done well enough you can’t see the join. It’s inspired by a Sid + Marty Krofft creation from the mid-seventies, which parodied the Batman and Robin dynamic. Four decades later, when it seems every other movie is a superhero of one form or another, the updated concept works deliciously well, helped by a winning lead performance from Hart as Dyna Girl. She and her partner Electra Woman (Helbig) are low-tier superheroines – without any particular powers, in fact – who operate out of Akron, Ohio until video of them disarming (literally) a convenience store robber goes viral.

That gets them the attention of CMM, the top talent agency for caped crusaders, which necessitates a move from Akron to Los Angeles. With the fame and fortune comes its share of problems, as the more photogenic Electra Woman is seen as the lead, with Dyna Girl increasingly reduced to “sidekick” status. Worse is to follow, as the first supervillain in a long time shows up in Los Angeles, and the ‘Empress of Evil’ rapidly takes out Major Vaunt, the city’s top hero. Can EW + DG patch up their creative differences and save the City of Angels? [Or, at least, the City of Vancouver, attempting to stand-in for the City of Angels…]

I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by this. I had no clue at all what to expect, having never even heard of the show before, and not even seen a trailer. But I greatly appreciated the dry wit, often bordering on sarcasm, not often seen to this extent in American films. Helbig and Hart are, apparently, YouTube stars, which may help explain the abundant references to social media and pop culture in the script. These may not date well, i.e. jokes about Uber discount coupons or filming with your phone vertical, and if you don’t know what a “Reddit AMA” is, much of the satire there may go over your head. For now, however, it hit the mark for me, and the entirely underwhelming nature of the heroines along with their (lack of) abilities and down-to-earth personalities made them far more relatable than the likes of Jessica Jones.

As you should probably expect, the action aspects are somewhat restrained. Yet these are more successful than you’d imagine and are meshed into the rest of the film nicely – the villains who are beaten up by our two leading ladies sell their punishment magnificently, which certainly helps! It’s also refreshing that there is basically not even the hint of any romantic elements here at all; EW & DG sleep in twin bunk-beds, above each other. This charming naiveté extends to other aspects, such as Dyna Girl’s adorably dorky hair-cut, which looks like the kind of thing you do to yourself in the mirror – if you had the attention span of Dory. The self-awareness here is almost off the charts, and this shows that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Dir: Chris Marrs Piliero
Star: Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, Matreya Fedor

Eye for An Eye

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“No-nonsense crypto-fascist cinema.”

eyeforaneyeSubtle, this ain’t. But if you’re looking for a knee-jerk tale of vigilante vengeance, when the lily-livered justice system has failed, kowtowing instead to the “rights” of the guilty… This has certainly got you covered. Karen McCann (Field) is on the phone with her teenage daughter, planning a birthday party, when their call is interrupted by the arrival of serial rapist and murderer, Robert Doob (Sutherland). Karen can only listen as her daughter is brutalized by Doob, then bludgeoned to death with an ice sculpture. While his DNA is found at the scene, Doob walks because of a prosecutorial blunder, leaving Karen and husband Mack (Harris) aggrieved, and investigating detective Joe Denillo (Mantegna) powerless to help, even when Karen follows Doob and finds him apparently preparing to strike again. She joins a support group for those who also lost their kids, only to discover some of the members have an additional agenda; to help each other take revenge, where the law has been unable to do so. However, it turns out the FBI have also been monitoring the group, so what is Karen to do?

It’s entirely straightforward, pitting the perfect American family against an utter sleazeball; Sutherland is extremely creepy in his portrayal of Doob, and it’s quite eye-opening if you’re more used to him as (the similarly crypto-fascist) Jack Bauer. This reaches its apex when Doob confronts Karen and her surviving six-year-old daughter, Megan, whom he has been stalking, and whispers to the mother, “I don’t even really like kiddie pussy – but I’m willing to make an exception…” Yeah, I think that was probably the point at which the last vestiges of my liberal sensitivities checked out, and I could throw myself fully behind Karen’s mission. Just don’t expect anything approaching moral balance, or philosophical insight: this is rabble-rousing cinema at its most elemental. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s following in a long line of such movies, going back at least as far as Dirty Harry in 1971.

On the other hand, I can’t really argue with Roger Ebert, when he wrote, “Movies like Eye for an Eye cheapen our character by encouraging us to indulge simplistic emotions – to react instead of analyzing.”  For this certainly is simplistic, and if Sutherland is impressively one-dimensions as the villain, Field is less convincing as Karen, in what needed to be a rather more nuanced performance, if it was going to rise above the material [There’s also an unexpected cameo from Cynthia Rothrock, of all people, as her self-defence teacher]. However, not all cinema needs to be “deep” or “thought-provoking,” and Schlesinger clearly has no such aspirations. Even if the targets here are hung low, it still hits more than it misses.

Dir: John Schlesinger
Star: Sally Field, Kiefer Sutherland, Ed Harris, Joe Mantegna

Earthkiller

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“In space, no-one can hear you yawn.”

earthkillerIf one and a half stars is likely kind, I know how much work goes into micro-budget film-making, and this is clearly a labour of love. However, if ever there were evidence more than that is needed… this would be it. At some point in the future, an android, “Helen” (Kurtz), reboots to find herself on a space-station with no memory of why she is there. It turns out, she was part of a mission sent to the space-station, involving a massive weapon located there, capable of creating a black hole and destroying the Earth below. Some want to destroy the weapon; others want to set it off, in order to fulfill religious prophecy. Helen initially assists the former side, but as her memories return, it turns out that may not have been her originally programmed mission. As well as the fanatics, there are also nanobot-infected zombies [I think – my notes grew a bit vague on the details of some elements, as my interest waned!] who must be avoided or fought, for Helen to make her way through the station to the Doomsday device’s location.

Which would be okay, if the film-makers could deliver anything approaching the productions values necessary for this kind of epic science fiction. Instead, we get what feels like the same three sets, shot repeatedly from slightly different angles, in a touching and severely-flawed belief that no-one will notice; “zombie” make-up which looks like an Alice Cooper look-alike contest got left out in the rain; and perhaps one of the worst “acting” performances of the decade. Though, I have to say, this does not belong to Kurtz, who acquits herself adequately as a robot. She spends the first 20 minutes of the movie naked, for no reason ever satisfactorily explained, and I wondered is she was going to go all Lifeforce here. Kurtz is – how can I put this? – more reminiscent of Tilda Swinton than Mathilda Maym and it’s about the least erotic nudity you can imagine, but I kinda respect her and the director for that. Anyway: no, the acting Razzie for this one gives to whoever is playing her boss, who delivers his lines with considerably less enthusiasm than the zombies. It’s certainly memorable; unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.

Throw in poorly conceived and badly-executed CGI blood (something I generally dislike and rarely used except out of laziness),  exposition that manages to be uninteresting during the minority of the time when it is intelligible, and digital effects that run the gamut from acceptable – the space-station exteriors aren’t bad – to 8-bit video game, and you have something which even the best will in the world can’t save. Sometimes, reining in enthusiasm is good; sometimes, realizing you aren’t yet ready for public consumption is better.

Dir: Andrew Bellware
Star: Robin Kurtz, Lisa Marie Fabrega, Stacey Raymond
a.k.a. Total Retribution

Evangeline

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“Revenge – less eaten cold than luke-warm leftovers.”

evangelineWhile I can’t find any sources to back my memory, I vaguely recall hearing a while ago about plans, either for a sequel or a reboot, to make a female version of The Crow. This seems like much the same thing, though based on the incoherent results here, they probably should bury the concept alongside Brandon Lee. Eva (de Lieva) is a preacher’s daughter, who has apparently led a sheltered life before enrolling at college. It’s not long, however, before she is attending her first frat party; unsurprisingly, this leads to her driving the big white bus. Things then go from bad worse, as a subsequent invitation from a fellow student leads to her being drugged, taken to the forest, gang-raped by a trio led by Michael Konner (Harmon), and left for dead. Or perhaps actually dead. For what happens next is either a) Eva’s corpse is possessed by some kind of demonic entity, and restored to life to take revenge, or b) she merely thinks that’s what happened, this being her psyche’s way of explaining and justifying said revenge.

Both, widely disparate explanations are equally plausible, and writer/director Lam seems to have little or no interest in clarifying matter, perhaps because, from what I’ve read, she was more interested in making “feminist response horror,” whatever that is. As the quote mis-attributed to Sam Goldwyn put it, “If you have a message, call Western Union.” While I’ve no problems at all with messages in films, feminist or otherwise, they should always be secondary to the film, and you don’t get the feeling that’s the case here. Admittedly, this is because so little effort is put into telling a decent story: when you’ve so little idea of what’s going on, there’s no reason to care about any thing the creators are trying to say. Here, for example, there is also a confused and superfluous subplot about a PTSD-afflicted veteran, living in the woods, as well as an apparent serial killer, “Mr K”. The purpose of both these are obscure, since neither seem to add much of significance.

This is a bit of a shame, since the look of the film is much more decent than its content, aspects such as the photography, sound design and special effect meshing to an okay degree – even if some of the visual techniques do appear to have been lifted wholesale from a far better film about someone’s sanity falling apart and/or demons, Jacob’s Ladder. That creature, mostly seen in its grey, spindly fingers, is undeniably a creepy motif. However, particularly in this genre, style can only take you so far, before it emphasizes and exacerbates a lack of content. In that area, I kept hoping the film was going to deliver enough to justify its existence; but the end-credits rolled, and I was still left entirely unsatisfied.

Dir: Karen Lam
Star: Kat de Lieva , Richard Harmon, Mayumi Yoshida, David Lewis

Eko Eko Azarak

ekoekomanga“Into every generation a sorceress is born.”

No, Buffy was not the first schoolgirl with supernatural powers, tasked with ensuring the denizens of hell were kept under control. Beginning in 1975, Shinichi Koga’s manga series Eko Eko Azarak, serialized in Weekly Shōnen Champion, told the story of Misa Kuroi, a young girl who transfers in to a new school, bringing with her occult abilities as a witch. This is not the first, nor will it be the last, darkly-troubled educational establishment attended by Misa, whose name can loosely be translated in Japanese as “Black Mass”. In this case, it’s the focus of a Satanic cult, who are killing students at precise locations around the city, as ingredients in a ritual with the intended end result of summoning Lucifer himself.

This and the subsequent adventures of Misa, ran for three and a half years, and was subsequently collected into an 18-volume manga series. The title comes from a Wiccan chant, first recorded in the 1920’s, and which also shows up during a 1971 Doctor Who serial, The Dæmons. [Its meaning is obscure, but the names appear to belong to old gods and goddesses] But it took more than two decades for the series first to be turned into a live-action film. This pre-dated the breakout hit of Japanese horror, Ringu, by two years, which may explain why it didn’t receive a fraction of the attention. However, it did begin a series of adaptations which intermittently continued, across various media, for the following 15 years. This included six films, a pair of separate television version and something best described as pseudo-anime. Let’s take a look at some of those, pausing only to hold hands and chant as one:

“Eko Eko Azarak, Eko Eko Zamelak.
Eko Eko Kernonos, Eko Eko Aradia.”


Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness

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ekoeko1Someone appears to be offing pupils at a Tokyo school, in messy “accidents”, such as getting their head crushed by a falling girder: the death scenes form a pentagram, with the school at its centre. Into this strained atmosphere comes Misa Kuroi (Yoshino), who soon established herself as someone with a solid knowledge of certain occult arts, by taking care of a grubby male teacher who has, shall we say, a “hands on” approach to education. She and 12 classmates are ordered to stay behind one day and take a test: on completion, they discover they can’t leave the school, with every exit either sealed, or taking them right back inside again. Worse soon follows, beginning with a drowning in a toilet cubicle: the number 13 which appeared mysteriously on the blackboard, becomes 12, and it’s clear that someone has malicious intent towards the group, with the aim of sacrificing them all, in order to resurrect Lucifer himself.

Who might that be? Creepy classmate Mizuno  (Takahashi), who is openly interested in black magic, yet keeps pointing the finger of suspicion at Misa? The predatory, lesbian teacher, Miss Shirai (Takaki)? And even if she finds out, what can Misa do, given the binding which traps her and the rest of her colleagues, has also severely weakened her own powers? While low-rent in nature, and obviously shot on video, this is decent enough, and despite being just past its 20th birthday, hasn’t dated too badly, in the wake of what seems like a million and one J-horror films set in similar establishments. There’s something of a Buffy echo (though the manga was decades before even the Kirsty Swanson version), in that Misa has come to a new school under murky circumstances, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. However, I’m not quite sure who the target audience is: one would presume a young adult one, based on the high-school age of the characters. Yet, there’s a lengthy lesbian sex sequence, which seems to be aimed at a rather different set of viewers, shall we say, and according to the (female) director, were required by the film’s producers. [I just realized she also did the Western film, Tale of a Vampire, starring Julian Sands, which I remember seeing and enjoying, not least since I was living near some of its South London locations]

The film does occasionally suffer from being too obvious. For instance, we really do not need repeated shots focusing on a pointy object, to foreshadow the fact that someone will shortly be falling onto it. Nor do we probably need 13 victims before we get the idea, and the film seems to realize this, wiping out half of them in once particularly messy incident. Misa, herself, is also somewhat disappointing: we never get any real appreciation for her powers, before she’s robbed of them for much of the film. Maybe this is better explained in the manga, though reports indicate her character there is much more of a vengeful bad-ass. Which, to be honest, sounds more interesting. However, as a messy romp, perhaps in the vein of a Japanese Dennis Wheatley adaptation, this was interesting enough to keep me interested and entertained.

Dir: Shimako Sato
Star: Kimika Yoshino. Miho Kanno, Naozumi Takahashi, Mio Takaki

Eko Eko Azarak II: Birth of the Wizard

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ekoeko2It took me quite some time to realize that this in not actually a sequel, it’s a prequel, telling the story of how Misa (Yoshino) came to realize her powers, and what awakened them. The history of that actually dates back more than a century, when a misguided attempt to resurrect a dead woman, actually triggered the extermination of an entire village. The demon responsible then goes into hibernation for a century, waiting for an appropriate vessel to be born. A century later, this happens: that would be our heroine. When the demon’s mummified body is dug up by unwitting archaeologists, it is awakened, and it foes in search of its new home, possessing those unfortunate enough to cross its path. Saiga (Shihôdô) is sent forward in time from the 19th century to locate Misa. Plan A has her untapped potential being triggered, since she is the only one capable of killing the demon. Plan B, in the event of Plan A, not being possible, is to destroy Misa, since allowing her to be taken would lead to horrors of unimaginable proportion.

Yeah, it’s basically a shameless occult knock-off of the first two Terminator movies, albeit with the time-frame flipped and someone coming from the past to protect the future, rather than the other way around. There is a nice touch, in that Saiga has previously met Misa when she was a little girl, and she has held a candle for him ever since, even into high-school. However, the obviously derivative nature is definitely a step back from the first film, and nor does it help that Misa spends 95% of the time with her powers dormant, just as Linda Hamilton spends most of the first Terminator film running and screaming, reliant on the superior fire-power of her male protector. It’s a curious decision by Sato who, unlike for the first film, also wrote the script here. Everything seemed set up nicely at the end of part one, for a kick ass sequel that shows her putting her abilities to full use, so I was disappointed this went in, literally, the opposite direction, with an origin story.

Don’t interpret this criticism to mean it’s actually bad, for Sato again does wonders in terms of generating atmosphere on a low budget, and this also moves on at a steady pace, with few dull moments. For other purposes, this would certainly rank half a star, perhaps a full grade, higher. However, we’re all about the action heroine on this site, and the paucity of such here leaves me with a clear sense of disappointment and feeling it was a lost opportunity, failing to capitalize on the promise shown in the original.

Dir: Shimako Sato
Star: Kimika Yoshino, Wataru Shihôdô, Chieko Shiratori, Eisei Amamoto

Eko Eko Azarak: The TV series

 

In between the second and third entries of the movies, there was a television series that ran between February and May in 1997. Information on the show, which ran for 26 episodes of twenty-five minutes, is hard to come by, beyond it starring a new actress, Hinako Saeki in the role of Misa Kuroi. It appears in some ways to be a supernatural version of Sukeban Deka, with Kuroi acting as a roaming investigator, who attends various educational establishments where paranormal or occult events are taking place. I’ve only seen the first three episodes (embedded above, with English subtitles), but according to the IMDb synopsis, “Carrying a dagger and a heavy leather bag, she uses her powers to eliminate the evil forces that thrive on deadly sins of the human race… Her parents were changed into wooden miniatures and her beloved sister is captured by the demons. Her ultimate aim is to cleanse the earth and rebuild her broken family.”

The opening trio all take place in the same location, Huirigaoka High School, but tell separate stories. The first deals with a rash of suicides, which initially look like the work of a vengeful spirit, but it turns out there’s something nastier at work. This also sets up Misa’s  “Scooby Gang” of fellow pupils – Ikuo, Hiromi and Taketo – whom she saves from dark forces in this episode. The second is kicked off by an unofficial beauty pageant held by the pupils: when the reigning champion discovers Misa poses a threat to her crown, she attempt to use black magic to ensure her victory. But it isn’t Misa’s first time at the magical rodeo, and she reflects the curse back to its perpetrator, with face-melting results. The third sees a teacher at the school getting married, but Misa has serious qualms about her fiancé, especially when she sees the occult relic sitting in pride of place on their mantelpiece.

Having seen barely 10% of the series, I can’t give it a rating, but based on these three, I was generally impressed, particularly with the writing. Between opening and closing credits, there’s little more than twenty minutes to work with, but the show does a good job of telling a complete tale, without seeming rushed. The Misa we see is clearly experienced, well-versed in the dark arts, and largely doesn’t give a damn who knows it. When a dagger falls out of her bag and is spotted by Taketo, she straight up informs him, it’s for use “In rituals, to offer blood sacrifices.” Containing some surprising nudity – maybe it was a cable show? – there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of character development or an over-riding story arc – certainly none of the topics mentioned in the IMDb synopsis – but it’s still early. I just hope the fan-subbing group which did the first three, will eventually get back to working on the remaining 23.

Eko Eko Azarak III: Misa the Dark Angel

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ekoeko3With a new director and a new actress in the role of Misa Kuroi – Hinako having carried over her role in the TV series from the previous year – this has a somewhat different feel, but works better than the first sequel, simply because Mida is fully aware of her powers, which lets her kick more ass. The story kicks off with the discovery of a horribly disfigured dying young woman, who whispers “Misa Kuroi” with her last breath. Conveniently, the autopsy doctor is Misa’s uncle, so she is aware of the presence in the victim’s possession of a play script. This takes her to the unsubtly-named St. Salem School for Girls, where she hooks up with the local drama club, under head-girl Hikaru (Hagiwara). They are working on a play which, shall we say, appears to have more than its fair share of occult symbolism, and the dyfunctional bunch of teenagers are about to head off on their traditional summer camp in a remote mansion. What could possibly go wrong?

If you are in any way surprised to learn that the answer to that question is, “Just about everything.” you need to watch more Japanese horror movies. For what unfolds is unsurprising more in the details, which harken back to an earlier attempt, first, to create a homunculus – artificial life – and then, imbue it with a human soul, this lack being what distinguishes it from the rest of us. The process, again unsurprisingly, involves a lot of human sacrifice, and Misa is the only one savvy and gutsy enough to stand in the way. There also appears to be a Lovecraftian subplot, with the gods invoked in the ceremonies being taken from the Cthulhu mythos; unfortunately, the subtitler appears blithely unaware of this, so you get frequent references to “Yog Sototo” instead of Yog-Sothoth. It’s a small matter, but the lack of attention to detail does rub me the wrong way.

Hinako does bring a different approach to the character from Yoshino, both in look and temperament, she’s less “cutesy”, seeming more angular and cold, as if by this point Misa had seen too many things and failed a few saving throws on her “Humanity” skill.  Katsuhiro borrows liberally from the classics, in particular a shrubbery assault lifted from The Evil Dead, but more subtly, a sense of atmosphere that seems to echo Dario Argento’s Suspiria. But it’s also its own beast, and it’s good to see Misa getting a far greater chance to be the heroine whose potential has only been occasionally glimpsed in the first two episodes. The ending is both surprisingly poignant, and unexpectedly final: it doesn’t appear to leave significant room for a sequel – but just as in Western horror franchises, it appears that if the box-office returns prove adequate enough, a way will always be found for another entry…

Dir: Ueno Katsuhiro
Star: Saeki Hinako, Ayaka Nanami, Yuki Hagiwara, Chika Fujimura

Eko Eko Azarak IV: Awakening

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ekoeko4After a few years’ break, the series returned in 2001 with a fourth installment, that took a radically different approach – and one which, for my money, was all the better for it. It’s actually a reboot – the Japanese release was simply Eko Eko Azarak, with the suffixes only being added for the bootleg edition available in the West from the usual sources. Certainly, the Misa Kuroi we get is initially again one who is unaware of her powers. We first encounter her as the sole survivor of an apparent massacre in a forest which left five corpses, all badly mutilated. Misa (Kato) is carted off to hospital, unconscious, where the police wait to question her and find out what happened. But even as she lies unconscious, the body-count continues to mount.

Needless to say, the media has a field day, especially after Misa escapes the hospital, leaving the body of a nurse by her bed, turned into a starched-white popsicle. The film has a lot to say about how the media twists a story to its own purposes and sensationalizes or trivializes things in pursuit of ratings. For instance, they prepare two versions of the initial story, depending on whether they want to portray Misa as a virgin bravely defending her honour, or a psycho slut who was asking for it. As one hardbitten journalist puts it, “If you don’t come up with a sensationalist headline immediately you see something, you aren’t going to make it.” The defense for this is that television is just a mirror for society, and “A mirror doesn’t have a soul, does it?” So, they frame the story as they want, even going so far as to hire a fake to pretend to be Misa, leading to the climactic confrontation at the TV station between media, police, pseudo-Misa and the real thing, where the journalist taunts Misa into revealing her true powers

This goes about as well for him as you’d expect.

What works really well is the sense of foreboding, with a brooding atmosphere which is incredibly well realized. Rather than explicit shocks, it relies much more on things happening out of sight. While this can often be a cop-out [you don’t have to budget for what you don’t show!], in the right hands this can also be highly effective. Suzuki is clearly the right hands, and is a master at using sound – or even the lack of sound – to create apprehension in the viewer. This is reflected in things like a really creepy answering machine message left for Misa by her mother, or at the end, when the camera pulls slowly away from a closed studio door, leaving you to imagine what awful forces are at work on the other side. While the others are easy to write off as genre entertainment, that isn’t the case for the combination of social commentary and thoroughly effective chills that you get in this installment. Smart and scary like this is a rare combination.

Dir: Kosuke Suzuki
Star: Natsuki Kato, Mitsuho Otani, Hassei Takano, Ken Mitsuishi

To Be Reviewed

There are a number of other entries and adaptations of the character, which I have not yet been able to find, or which only exist at this point in Japanese language versions, without subtitles. First of all, 2004 brought a further television series to TV Tokyo, lasting 13 episodes, called Eko Eko Azarak -eye-. In 2006, there were a pair of features, released two weeks apart theatrically: R-Page and B-Page. The first saw a journalist investigating a string of mysterious deaths in a rural town, who teams up with Misa Kuroi to find the (supernatural, unsurprisingly) cause behind them. In the second,  Misa continued her search for the demon Ezekiel, bringing her into contact with a wheelchair-bound doll maker.

Around the same time, there was also an anime OAV with two stories in one volume – though by most accounts, this was less “animated” than using still images with voiceover narration (a medium known as “ga-nime”). Finally, there is The First Episode of Misa Kuroi, a 60-minute story which came out in January 2011. It was supposed to have been released in the West by Tokyo Shock, first in December 2013, then was delayed to August 2014, but does not appear to have turned up at all. As/when I get access to an understandable version of these, I’ll include them here.

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Eko Eko Azarak: R-Page
Dir: Taichi Ito
Star: Narumi Konno, Mitsuki Koga
Eko Eko Azarak: B-Page
Dir: Shinichi Koga
Star: Narumi Konno, Rina Takagi
Eko Eko Azarak:
The First Episode of Misa Kuroi

Dir: Shinichi Koga
Star: Nozomi Maeda

Everly

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“In which Salma Hayek suffers from an apartment complex.”

everly6Not sure how this managed to escape attention in our 2015 preview, because it’s hard to think of a film more directly positioned in our wheel-house. This unfolds entirely in a single building, close to real time, the vast majority of it (as with 2LDK) in one apartment, where Everly (Hayek) has just been outed as betraying her boss, a ferociously vicious Japanese mobster called Taiko (Watanabe). Desperately, she calls her mother (Cepeda), begging her to take Everly’s daughter out of town, but when that route is closed, they’re forced to hide out with Everly in the apartment. It’s not much safer, for Taiko has offered a bounty to anyone in the building willing to take down his turncoat – and also some increasingly-deranged professionals. Meanwhile, we also find out more about Everly’s history, which includes four years trapped in the apartment building as a sex slave for Taiko and his cronies.

Lynch has described this as Die Hard in a room, with Hayek instead of Bruce Willis. Despite sharing a similarly “ironic” Christmas setting, it isn’t: Lynch may wish it were, but the pacing is nowhere near perfect, the script isn’t as engaging, and whatever Watanabe’s qualities are, he’s no Alan Rickman. Not to say that it’s a bad film at all, especially considering this wasn’t originally supposed to star Hayek. Back in February 2012, Kate Hudson was announced as headlining the cast, before being replaced 15 months later by Salma Hayek. One can only wonder what difference that might have made, because her replacement certainly takes the role and owns it. [Side note: she’s only a couple of months younger than me. Damn…] It’s also gleefully and gloriously R-rated, not skimping on the bad language or hyperviolence, resulting in a comic-book feel which works nicely.

However, this leads to problems with the script, right from the opening sequence in which an apparently untrained Everly takes out, with unerring accuracy, an entire room of gangsters. Given her supposed prisoner-like status, it also proves remarkably easy for her mother and daughter to join her, basically swanning into the building on the pretext of visiting someone on another floor. And, to be honest, some of those who lay siege to our heroine aren’t as amusing as Lynch and scripter Yale Hannon seem to think, with the Sadist (Igawa) in particular overstaying his welcome. On the other hand, the lack of any romantic interest is refreshing: the only vaguely sympathetic male character is a Japanese man, and he spends his entire screen-time bleeding out on the sofa. It probably needs to be more unrelenting and with a better sense of escalation: as is, the film peaks in its opening 10 minutes, when it seems killers are popping out from everywhere. However, it’s been a while since we’ve seen Hayek in an action role: between this and Bandidas, she has done a good enough job, it’s something I wish we got to enjoy more often.

Dir: Joe Lynch
Star: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Laura Cepeda, Togo Igawa

L’Exécutrice

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“Bon flic, mauvais flic”

They say, write about what you know – and writer-director Caputo certainly appears to have done that here. What better topic for the director of Pénétrations humides to choose for a police thriller, than the sleazy world of porn? Especially, when you can get adult legend Lahaie as your lead. She plays police detective Martine who finally manages to ensnare noted smut-monger Madame Wenders (Erlanger), only to find her gang retaliating by kidnapping Martine’s little sister and demanding the release of their boss. Making things even murkier, her boss (Modo) has a stalkery crush on Wenders, and her colleague, Valmont (Oudrey), carries a picture of the perp who shot his partner around with him. He is inclined to shoot first and ask questions later, and teases her about her reluctance to carry a gun. As the pictures here suggest, that reluctance doesn’t survive until the end of the film.

executrice2It’s all pretty implausible, and doesn’t exactly paint a kind picture of the French police, who are portrayed, almost without exception, as mad, incompetent or both – if it wasn’t for Martine’s informant, she would literally be clueless. However, Lahaie is always worth watching, showing much the same solid screen presence which I’ve previously enjoyed in Fascination. This isn’t as impressive, trading in the ethereal, other-wordly quality for a grubby and gritty urban approach that is never particularly convincing in its depiction. Still, there are some good moments, in particular an extended sequence where Wenders is released from jail, knowing full well the police will be tailing her. The cat-and-mouse game between them, leads to an explosive climax that was genuinely surprising, but the film doesn’t seem to know quite where to go from there.

Against that, there are too many scenes which make little or no sense, such as the one where Martine is attacked in a car-park, only to be rescued by a guy carrying a shotgun in his coat. Or her fondness for sitting in a luminescent hot-tub. While I’m not inclined to complain too much about either, there are times when you wonder if this is the policier version of Caligula, and there’s a three-hour version with hardcore inserts, lurking out there somewhere. I don’t think there is, but it has that kind of disjointed feel to it. Not the disaster I was expecting from some reviews, yet outside of Lahaie, there is little here to commend it to the view.

Dir: Michel Caputo
Star: Brigitte Lahaie, Dominique Erlanger, Pierre Oudrey, Michel Modo

Emergency Police Lady

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There appear to be no words in Taiwanese for “short, controlled bursts.”

EmergencyPoliceLadyThis 1989 film from Taiwan, swings unevenly between some rather good action, wild stabs at comedy that isn’t as funny as it thinks, and one of the screechiest and least appealing single-note performances, this side of an Adam Sandler movie. Now, I’m not going to able to attribute specific blame for the latter, because it was tough enough finding names for the cast here, let alone associate them with particular characters. The only one I think I recognized was Hu, playing the officer in charge of a new “women’s department,” which is given all the female cops with whom none of their chauvinist colleagues want to work, and who is tasked with trying to forge them into a coherent force. You have the usual mix of “wacky” characters: the taciturn hard-case, the foreign girl (Singapore in this case), and worst of all, the whiny, bespectacled bitch who think she’s the bee’s knees, but is, in fact, completely useless.

I defy anyone to get through five minutes of her scenes, without wanting to reach through the TV and warmly greet her by the throat, to stop her high-pitched shrieking and manic over-acting. Actually, scratch that, since any use of the word “acting” in connection with this performance is entirely inappropriate: she just flails her arms around and pulls faces, in lieu of attempting to convey even the shallowest of emotions. That’s a shame, as there are some elements of this which are perfectly competent, though the script has no surprises, and indeed, doesn’t bother much with a genuine storyline. One second, the girls are going undercover at a nightclub to break up an arms deal (where we learn the ‘fact’ at the top of the review). The next, they’re investigating a gang of robbers who specialize in leaving no witnesses alive, but a torn-off button leaves one woman believing she knows the identity of a gang member.

Still, I’m prepared to forgive the narrative disconnects, because the action isn’t bad. Nothing amazing, mind, but it helps that the director films it well – in particular, finding a good middle-ground of distance, so you aren’t overwhelmed, yet can still tell it’s mostly the actual actresses who are being flung around. Some of the early judo stuff is good, and the final battle against the robbers is also memorable, ending in a giant fireball which seems to come perilously close to toasting the leads, in the same way Devil Hunters would actually do the following year. Admittedly, if the shrieking harridan had turned into a human marshmallow, I’m not sure I’d have shed a tear, and there’s just too much sub-Police Academy slack in the middle, with poor comedy and worse romance occupying far too high a percentage of the running time.

Dir: Lee Tso-Nam
Star: Sibelle Hu, Yip Chuen-Chan, Kau Hoi-Ching, Alexander Lo

Escape (Flukt)

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“Memo to self: Scandinavian women were bad-ass.”

14th-century Norway, not long after the Black Death has decimated the population. Signe (Andreasen) and her family are on the road, seeking a new life, when they are attacked by bandits. Signe is captured and taken to their camp, ruled by Dagmar (Berdal); she was expelled from the nearby town, whose inhabitants thought she was a witch. Signe isn’t the first girl abducted to give the matriarch a family; there’s also Frigg (Olin), a younger girl whom Dagmar is inducting into the ways of the clan. But Frigg is not there yet, and help Signe to escape: needless to say, an enraged Dagmar and the rest of her gang, are soon hot in pursuit, chasing them across the chilly (and beautifully-photographed) wilderness.

It’s a straightforward story, effectively told, and held together by very good performances from the two leads. It would have been easy for Signe to become some kind of teenage Rambette, but her transformation from plucky but inexperienced daughter into someone who can credibly take on a bunch of crypto-Vikings is well-handled. She hardly ever goes hand-to-hand with them, avoiding the obvious issues of size and strength, in favour of guild and wits. In the other corner, Dagmar, while being a complete bad-ass bitch, who looks like she would rip you head off for us, if she found herself short of a goblet, is given enough backstory to turn her into something of a sympathetic character, which is more than you can say for most villains in this kind of survival flick.

Of course, there are inevitably points where the characters behave in ways that are more necessary for the plot, than perhaps the most logical course of action. However, I can’t say those irritated myself or Chris too much – and she’s usually far less lenient of such things, especially in action heroine movies, where I want to give the film the benefit of any doubt. The action scenes are well-handled, and the deaths each pack more wallop than you’d expect, with the way in which they’re staged enhancing the emotional impact. It’s more than a little reminiscent of Pathfinder, another Norwegian film, made in 1987, which was also set in medieval times, and concerning a young boy abducted by a savage tribe [it was remade by Hollywood a couple of years ago, transplanting the story to North America].

However, the mother-younger daughter-older daughter triangle here adds a significant new angle, and clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes, there’s hardly an ounce of fat in the form of wasted moments, on its lean Scandinavian frame. What few such pauses there are, you can just admire the lovely Norwegian scenery.

Dir: Roar Uthaug
Star: Isabel Christine Andreasen, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Milla Olin, Kristian Espedal