Tokyo Blue: Case 1

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“Cops and robbers, Japanese style, with much T&A.”

You know where you stand with this film inside five minutes, from the moment policewoman heroine Mika Hino (Shiratori) is made to strip off by bad guys hunting for a key – which she naturally is keeping in her lingerie. Mind you, this pales in comparison with where partner Rin Kakura (Kuribayashi) hides her gun… The problem with this tape is that such intimate details are far more interesting than the plot, a tired and severely uninteresting search for a master counterfeiter.

While there’s no denying the charms of the leading ladies, most of the time they’re displayed with precious little imagination, and their characters are far less appealing than their bodies. It’s also very hard to disapprove of the lecherous colleagues depicted by the movie, when the film is at almost the same mental level. Only in the last fifteen minutes, as Mika strives to rescue the captured Rin from an all-girl team of guards, do things start to perk up, with Mika becoming something of an avenging angel, slaughtering receptionists with effective skill and disturbing delight. Unfortunately, this only really goes to show up the first hour of this film, actually the third in the Metropolitan Police Branch 82 series, for the tedious waste of time it is. Best line in the enthusiastic but futile dub: “I’m a blueberry tart!”

[This review originally appeared in Manga Max]

Dir: Younosuke Koike
Star: Chieko Shiratori, Tomomi Kuribayashi, Keiji Matsuda, Hitomi Shimizu

Trapped

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“Hell hath no fury like a mother separated from her daughter.”

Karen and Will Jennings have an idyllic life – money, a really nice house and Abby, the sort of six-year old daughter only ever seen in Hollywood films. That is, it’s idyllic until Joe Hickey (Bacon) and his family enter, kidnapping Abby for ransom, just after Will has left for a conference. Their scheme of terror has proven effective several times before, and the Jennings have just 24 hours to save their daughter.

This film is a contrast between the Jennings and the Hickeys, and in particular Karen Jennings (Theron) and Cheryl Hickey (Love), who are polar opposites in looks, lifestyle and background, but share a fierce dedication to their families – especially, their daughters. Both are prepared to go to any extreme, even violence, to right what they perceive as an injustice [if the preceding sentence sounds awkward, it’s because I’m waltzing around a spoiler!], and I defy you to watch the scalpel scene without a twitch.

Karen has to handle the ever-dangerous Joe, while Will (Stuart Townsend) is kept occupied by Cheryl, and Joe’s cousin (Pruitt) looks after Abby, who turns out to be severely asthmatic. The cutting back in forth is designed, partly to increase tension – it does – but perhaps more importantly, cover some dodgy plot elements. As with all kidnappings, how do the criminals expect to collect the ransom? This is never made quite clear, and as the film goes on, it unravels to a frankly implausible finale involving a light aircraft, a logging truck and a mile of busy highway.

Which is a shame, since the actors involved are good, even if none of the roles are much of a stretch: Courtney Love playing a white trash slut doesn’t exactly show imagination in the casting department. Still, if you want a Discovery channel documentary about a mother bear defending its cub, in human form, this is effective. I just wish they’d developed that side more, and the usual thriller aspects less. Hell, who wouldn’t want to see Theron in a 2 Days in the Valley-style catfight with Love? :-)

Dir: Luis Mandoki
Star: Charlize Theron, Kevin Bacon, Courtney Love, Pruitt Taylor Vince

The Touch

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“Opens brightly, peters out into sub-Indiana Jones heroics, with some awful use of CGI.”

Yeoh’s English-language follow-up to Crouching Tiger was highly anticipated, but the end result is a disappointment. Yeoh plays Yin, the head of a family of acrobats who guard part of the key to a Sharira – a holy relic with potential for good or evil. The latter is supplied by Carl (Roxburgh), who hires Yin’s former boyfriend Eric (Chaplin) to steal the other elements needed to get the Sharira. Eric, however, switches sides, and teams up with Yin to race Carl to the prize.

It starts well: Carl has an excellent line in sarcasm, and his army of bungling henchmen provide plenty of ways to use it. And while the action scenes use an annoying ‘drop-frame’ technique, they are at least frequent. Once Yin and Eric hit the road, however, it grows steadily less interesting, among much “without good, there can be no evil” banal chatter. Yin’s kid brother (Chang), kidnapped by Carl, also becomes irritating, and it’s clear that Pau’s talents lie in cinematography (as in CTHD), not direction.

Worst of all, given a $20m budget, you’d think the climax would be more than extremely lame CGI, barely worthy of a Playstation game. Yeoh is her own best special effect, and the finale gives her little or no chance to shine. I suspect she’d have been better off taking a part in the Matrix sequels, which she turned down in order to make this mediocre action-adventure entry. Little wonder Miramax pushed the US release back to Spring 2004 – almost two years after the HK release. Do not be surprised if it quietly gets dumped to video.

Dir: Peter Pau
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Ben Chaplin, Richard Roxburgh, Brandon Chang

The Terrorist

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“Not your average Bollywood film – some fabulous moments, and some really tedious ones.”

Loosely based on the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, this focuses on Malli (Dharker), a 19-year old guerilla chosen as a suicide bomber. With flashbacks to earlier events, it covers the journey to the killing zone, where she awaits her target and her destiny.

Right from the start, where she shoots a traitor in the throat, we realise Malli is not your average teenager; she has lost all her family, and has nothing left but the cause. She isn’t the only one – perhaps the most chilling sequence is an ‘interview’ for the position of “thinking bomb”, where the candidates beg for the honour of dying. However, when she leaves the moral certainty of camp, she begins to have doubts. Perhaps there’s more to life than death; it’s hard to destroy yourself when you feel someone would miss you. In particular, the farmer with whom she stays (a charming, voluble performance from Parmeshwaran) embraces this taciturn stranger without qualm and leaves Malli with a dilemma.

A lot of the weight of the film has to be carried by Dharker, who is in almost every frame. She has a definite presence; however, staring at the camera is hardly a stretch. Throughout this, there are frequent moments which make you gasp, but Malli’s silence leaves a huge gap in the film, and there are just too many scenes which are beautifully photographed but otherwise appear pointless. The ending, too, is distinctly unsatisfying on all but a basic level. It does give an understanding of fanatical psychology: post 9/11, that’s an area deserving of coverage.

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

Thelma & Louise

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“Two Bitches in a Car.”

But to quote one character in the movie, “Bitches from hell“… :-) Guess a spoiler alert is needed, though I suspect 90% of readers know how this ends. Better safe than sorry though. That said, it’s possible to pinpoint precisely the pivotal moment in Thelma and Louise. A thug is raping Thelma (Davis) in the parking lot of a bar. Louise (Sarandon) comes out, sees the assault, and puts a gun to the attacker’s head. The man freezes, and Thelma wriggles away. But when he tells Louise to “Suck my cock!”, she guns him down anyway.

It’s a shocking climax to a highly disturbing scene. Writer Callie Khouri made a very conscious decision for the ‘victim’ – quotes used advisedly – not to be a threat when he dies, and it leaves the viewer with really only two options. Lose empathy for a character capable of such a crime; or, somehow, accept that it’s okay to shoot someone for what they say. [Rumblings of a previous incident in Texas are hardly a defence] To reverse things, any movie where the hero gunned down a mouthy woman would not, I feel, get an Oscar for Best Original Script, or be described as “empowering”.

This is brave, but seems designed to fit her agenda better than the needs of the audience. Indeed, much the same could be said of the whole script, which can be summarised in four words: all men are bastards. The problem is, cliches are cliches, regardless of what sex they are. Every man is reduced to a crude stereotype – mostly petulant boys – even Harvey Keitel’s stoic cop (with an Arkansas accent this Brit knew was lame) demands T&L do things his way. On the other hand, the script goes out of its way to ensure every woman is portrayed sympathetically, down to the truckstop waitress.

It becomes like having Andrea Dworkin yelling in your face for two hours, yet the film’s moral is that if women empower themselves, death inevitably results. Khouri seems to be saying, “You can only beat the system by suicide,” while the patriarchy watches from behind its sunglasses and firearms. We win, guys – now, let’s go back to our Bud and football, while the little ladies make us dinner. With such confused writing, little wonder one studio executive’s opinion, as given to Ridley Scott, was the quote headlining this article. Khouri, meanwhile, largely vanished until 2002’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. However, if you need proof that a mediocre script can be salvaged by acting and directing, this is it. Between them, Davis, Sarandon and Scott (plus cinematographer Adrian Biddle) bring incredible depth to the characters and their story. No further proof is needed than to contemplate some of the other pairings who were mooted for the film: Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer or, god help us, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn.

I hadn’t seen this since its original release over a decade ago. At the time, I remember being more impressed by Davis’ performance; now, my opinion has changed, and Sarandon comes across better. This is partly because Thelma is such a dumb broad, who behaviour is initially more like that of a hormone-crazed teenager. Within hours of nearly being raped – hey, you go line-dancing, whaddya expect? – she’s virtually sliding off the car seat when she sees cowboy JD (Pitt, though the role almost went to another then-unknown: George Clooney). She knows he’s a criminal, yet leaves six grand on the bedside table for him to steal. Oops! Silly Thelma!

600full-thelma-and-louise-screenshotIt’s impossible to blame her for long, however, and the character development is fascinating. She starts the subordinate, but it’s Thelma who robs the convenience store to fund their journey to Mexico (a great place to escape male oppression…), locks a whimpering cop in the trunk of his car, and suggests they should die rather than tamely accept capture. While Louise initially seems to be the stronger, the cracks begin to show before long, not least in her near-hysterical refusal to enter Texas, regardless of the resulting detour.

These are two fabulous portrayals – unlike Khouri, fully deserving their Oscar nominations (the statue went to Jodie Foster for Silence of the Lambs) – which salvage potentially laughable moments with convincing emotion that blows away the script deficiencies. And in contrast to the grim ugliness of their predicament is the luminous postcard photography of mythic America, in the shape of oil-wells, ruler-straight roads, pylons and buttes, on their way to that quintessential American location, the Grand Canyon. [Actually Utah’s Deadhorse Point]

Certainly, it has to be considered one of the most important entries in the GWG genre, and despite its flaws, this film struck a chord which resonates even now. Perhaps its most powerful testament is a creepy little fact I found in Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon [Ghigieri and Myers, Puma Press, 2001]. It has been possible to commit suicide by driving off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for about eighty years. Almost one-third of all those who chose this method, did so in 1993, the year after Thelma and Louise came out on home video…

Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel, Brad Pitt

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

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“Old and Busted – New Hotness”

I feel a certain camaraderie with Arnie, since I’ve largely grown up alongside this series of movies, which is probably his finest work. I was at university when the first one came out; the second saw me living the life of a bachelor in London; and the latest installment finds me a happily married man in Arizona. Just as I’ve evolved, so have his opponents: they’ve become harder, faster and more difficult to kill; my sarcasm has been honed to a lethal edge, thanks to living with two teenagers and a pair of dogs.

One good thing about the series is that they haven’t rushed into quick-buck sequels – three movies over 19 years is unlikely to leave the audience jaded. It’s been more than a decade since the last part, leaving a lot of people wondering if Schwarzenegger could still cut it, especially after a slew of underwhelming films like End of Days and Collateral Damage. Those, however, required him to act: I’m happy to report there is no such pretense here, and the results are all the better for it.

The twist this time, and why it’s covered on this site, is that his nemesis is female. The latest model – an appropriate term given Loken’s background – is a T-X, and comes fully equipped with DNA-analysing tongue, throat-box modem, and a broad selection of interesting weaponry, though regrettably, we only get to see a couple in actual operation. They are, however, pretty damn cool.

The plot is effectively a retread of the previous entry, with John Connor (Stahl) a drug-confused member of the underclass since his mother died of leukemia (possibly Hollywoodese for “Linda Hamilton wanted too much money”). He goes on the run with former schoolmate Kate (Danes), whose father just happens to be the guy in charge of SkyNet. What are the odds against that? These two are supposed to meet and fall in love, but there’s a bump on their road to happiness, in the shape of a nuclear war due to start at 6:18 pm that night.

This romantic angle has all the excitement of a pound of herring, and may be safely ignored. What you’re here for is things hitting other things, and there’s certainly plenty of that. It is perhaps significant that the two best sequences largely eschew whizzy CGI, in favour of actual physical destruction. There is a fabulous chase, involving a mobile crane driven by the T-X, which for my money surpasses the summer’s other big helping of road-rage, served up in Matrix Reloaded. She demonstrates an almost human appetite for destruction that borders on endearing; such wilful chaos is likely counter-productive to her mission, yet she goes ahead anyway.

The other chunk that will stick in your memory is when the T-X and T-101 go toe-to-toe. No wirework, no Matrix-fu, just full-on, hardcore brutality, a brawl surely permitted by the MPAA, only because the two protagonists are robots. Walls, floors, urinals – all are just tools into which your opponent can have his/her head driven. Repeatedly. With venom.

One interesting point, is that nobody ever mentions the T-X’s gender. The concept certainly held potential for a lot of PMS-type comments, but save for one minor joke involving Victoria’s Secret, sexuality is entirely kept out of things. The T-X, with her impossibly perfect hair and the coolest red leather jacket worn by a actress playing a superviolent female robot since Eve of Destruction, just goes about her business like an evil babysitter.

After what had been a disappointing year for high-end action movies so far, Terminator 3 restores my faith in the genre. It may be a pip below the first two entries, since you get little in the way of intelligence or innovation, but it’s still a entry worthy of the name. Despite James Cameron being notable by his directorial absence, Mostow delivers everything you could want from a summer film. Here’s to Terminator 4 in 2010!

Dir: Jonathan Mostow
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kristanna Loken, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes