A League of Their Own

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“A chick flick with balls…and strikes.”

Deserving credit for being about the only female sports film of note, this is actually pretty good, despite a pointless and schmaltzy wraparound, which gives us nothing but some wrinkly baseball, one of Madonna’s least memorable songs and Geena Davis as a thoroughly unconvincing pensioner. Which is a shame; if the bread in the sandwich is stale, the meat is tasty and filling.

From 1943 to 1954, women played professional baseball, a fact largely forgotten until this film. Davis plays the star catcher, taken from the countryside to play ball – giving a new meaning to “farm team”, hohoho – along with her sister (Petty). The movie covers the first season, under a recovering alcoholic coach (Hanks), leading to a face-off between siblings in Game 7 of the championship.

Davis is excellent and entirely convincing (she’d go on to make final trials for the US 2000 Olympic archery team): the interplay between her and Hanks is great, and most of her team-mates are also true personalities. However, Madonna is superfluous, given the similar presence of Rosie O’Donnell [I’m struggling to avoid obvious jokes here]. Jon Lovitz steals the first quarter as an acidic scout, and it’s a shame when he leaves.

If the characters are great, there’s a lack of narrative drive; how can you get excited over playoffs, when it looks like every team qualifies? The friction between Davis and Petty vanishes for much of the movie, in favour of a series of entertaining but – being honest – unimportant diversions. When we reach the finale though, it’s great; ever bit as exciting as any World Series Game 7. And coming from an Arizona Diamondbacks fan, that’s praise indeed.

Dir: Penny Marshall
Star: Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Tom Hanks, Rosie O’Donnell

Blood Games

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A Deliverance of Their Own

I guess Blood Sport was already taken? It’s softball beauties vs. rednecks after: a) the visiting ladies thump the home side 17-2, b) the team owner has to extract his fee at gunpoint, and c) the gals resist – forceably – the crude advances of the locals. Before you can say, “duelling banjos”, they’re being pursued through the woods, and picked off one by one.

This 1990 movie starts slow; any viewer will know exactly where this is going, yet they still take half an hour to get there. It’s not as if the time is spent on characterisation either; most of the softball team were clearly chosen for their appearance, while the yokels are straight from Cliched Casting, Inc. Yet if they’re stereotypes, they are undeniably creepy ones, well-portrayed by Cummings and Shay. Rosenberg uses them with enough skill to make you wonder why she never directed again, and ones things get going, she keeps the film going, without much slack.

Playing Babe, daughter of team owner Ross Hagen, Laura Albert is about the only one of the girls to make any impression as a character; she’d go on to become a stuntwoman, working on the like of Starship Troopers. The rest of her colleagues take showers, get assaulted (a sequence verging on the nastily gratuitous), die, turn psycho and take revenge, all without exhibiting any significant personality traits. Quite an achievement in itself. Another one of those movies which will put you off going to rural, Southern parts of America.

Dir: Tanya Rosenberg
Star: Laura Albert, Gregory Cummings, Luke Shay, Shelly Abblett

Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft

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“Tackily entertaining entry in sorcery saga. Mine’s a pint…”

This comes from Vista Street Entertainment, whom you might remember produced some of the worst entries in the Women Who Kick Butt box-set; they’re kinda like a poor man’s Troma. The series mostly feature attorney Will Spanner, but he took a break for this entry, being temporarily dead: it’s that kind of world. While I’ve not seen 1-9, I found this entertaining – trash rather than garbage – though Chris kept making sarcastic comments about Stephanie Beaton’s nipples (or lack thereof).

She plays an LAPD detective sent to England to extradite a Satanic serial-killer (Knowlton). Before she can, he’s freed from custody by vampire queen Raven (Daly) to assist in a dark ritual. Luckily, there’s white witch Celeste (Cooper), who runs round London at night, fighting evil in a fetching, powder-blue PVC costume, complete with cape. Cue catfights, human sacrifice and a ten-minute chunk where all three leading ladies get naked, simultaneously but separately.

Daly (plus henchwoman Emily Booth) chews the scenery to fabulous effect, and the Raven/Celeste conflict is the stuff of which franchises are made – imagine Buffy and Glory, ten years after. Given sufficient beer, experienced bad movie lovers will appreciate the badly dubbed sound effects, clunky dialogue and cheap production values. But how can you not like a heroine who travels on the astral plane, yet still also uses payphones, clad in her little costume? It will, however, probably be some time before I get Chris drunk enough to pick Witchcraft XI from the unwatched pile…

Dir: Elizar Cabrera
Star: Wendy Cooper, Eileen Daly, Kerry Knowlton, Stephanie Beaton

Pushed to the Limit

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“A title equally applicable to heroine and viewer.”

If I ever become an evil overlord, I will conduct thorough background checks on all entrants to my martial arts tournament, to ensure they are not related to anyone I may previously have had killed. I will also teach my guards that if a prisoner is apparently not in his cell, they will use mirrors to examine all its corners, rather than rushing in and allowing him to drop from the ceiling onto them.

But I digress (if you can do so, before actually saying anything). In this film, wrestling champion Mimi Lesseos plays…wrestling champion Mimi Lesseos. Clearly a stretch for her there, then; think her brother and mother are perhaps also…her brother and mother. Is this a documentary? ‘Course not: real life would never be so cliched and predictable as this, which plods along, almost entirely as predicted. Mimi (Mimi) loses her brother to evil Oriental drug dealer Henry (Henry) – with hindsight, telling “gook” jokes was probably not a wise move on his part – who just happens to run a martial arts tournament. I trust I need say no more with regard to the plot.

Lesseos makes for a decent fighter and a tolerable actress, though the subplot which has her as a showgirl in Vegas is irrelevant, inane and positively wince-inducing. She does rely too much on wrestling moves – flying drop-kicks are not a genuinely viable tactic in deathmatches, I imagine. It’s the story that really kills this. There’s a moment when it seems that the bad guy is becoming infatuated with Mimi, regardless of her background, and this could have gone somewhere. Instead, it’s discarded as she works through a range of opponents, leading to the (yawn) final confrontation with her brother’s killer. The result is something which works, only if you’ve never seen any of this kind of film before – having a female lead is a nice idea, but much more effort is needed, rather than thinking this is sufficient, in and of itself.

Dir: Michael Mileham
Star: Mimi Lesseos, Verrel Reed, Henry Hayashi, Greg Ostrin

Coffy

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“The godmother of blaxploitation’s debut in the field.”

Neither star Grier nor director Hill were exactly strangers to the world of exploitation when they made this, but their combination here created a whole new subgenre, crossing action heroineism with black cinema. Following her would come Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and the rest, but let it be said, Coffy was the first of any significance.

It’s a robust tale – or at least one reused frequently since with minor changes. Nurse Coffy (Grier) goes after those she sees as responsible for leaving her kid sister a drug-addled vegetable, be they low-level pusher, high-level supplier or the politician in cahoots, who just happens to be her lover. There’s no hanging round here; almost before the credits have finished, we get someone’s head being blown off with a shotgun, and Hill brings a hugely gleeful air to the violence. This is perhaps exemplified best by a marvellous and justifiably classic catfight in which Coffy, razorblades hidden in her hair, takes apart an entire escort agency’s worth of hookers.

Dramatically, it’s less successful, with neither the supporting characters nor the plot holding your interest. It often borders on the painfully obvious; when her cop friend turns down a bribe, you just know he’s going to end up hooked to one of those hospital machines that goes “Beep”, and inside five minutes, yep, there he is. Beep. He then vanishes from the film shortly thereafter, though it’s never clear whether he dies or not. At least this does mean we don’t get the even more painfully cliched “flowers on the grave” sequence. But as a Pam Grier vehicle, it’s fine, and if little more than a vehicle for sex ‘n’ violence, with questionable morality and a hackneyed storyline, it is at least done enthusiastically enough to pull you along with it.

Dir: Jack Hill
Star: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert Doqui, William Elliott

She

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“She may be the face you can’t forget…the film, too, has its moments.”

Proof positive that a lack of narrative coherence is no barrier to a good time, She makes about as much sense as you’d expect from a film where the soundtrack veers wildly from Rick Wakeman to Motorhead. It’s post-apocalyptic sword and sorcery, with Bergman as She, the immortal goddess ruling a tribe of Amazon warriors. For reasons which are never explained, She ends up tagging along with hero Tom as he searches for his kidnapped sister. Hey, even Immortal Goddesses need some time off, I guess.

Loosen up, realise this bears effectively no relation to the H.Rider Haggard novel (previously filmed by Hammer, with Ursula Andress in the Immortal Goddess role), and you may find this fun, albeit the dumb kind. I should warn you that the first 20 minutes suck, make little sense and are remarkably tedious. Once we get moving, things perk up, because on their travels, Tom and She encounter a wild range of wacky adversaries: chainsaw-wielding lepers, mad zookeepers, vampires and someone doing a convincing impression of Robin Williams at his most irritating. None of these could hold an entire movie, and Nesher realises this, wisely whizzing them past at high speed, despite the resulting random air, like a D&D adventure written by a rank novice.

The action is competent, if obviously cheap, though surprisingly, Bergman is outdone by her sidekick (Kessler). Tom rescues She, She rescues Tom, repeat with minor variations until it all ends in a pitched battle against the bad guy and his army of, oh, say 30 soldiers. Whatever its shortcomings (and space is too short for a listing), lack of imagination is not one of them. Many less inventive movies are out there – thus, this one can only be applauded.

Dir: Avi Nesher
Star: Sandahl Bergman, David Goss, Quin Kessler, Harrison Mueller

Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever

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To quote Marshall Fine: “Kaos would have saved everyone a lot of time and money by simply eliminating the stars and the story and releasing Ballistic as Giant Fireballs, Vol. 1.”

Despite the title, this movie rarely pits Ecks (Banderas) vs. Sever (Liu). The two spend more of the film teamed, up taking on the evil duo (Henry and Park) who killed Sever’s family and have kidnapped Ecks’ son – perhaps a spoiler, but anyone who didn’t see that one coming, was probably run over on the way to the cinema.

The film raises a number of interesting issues. Unfortunately, they stem more from the cinematic process, such as wondering why no-one taking part in the car-chases ever appears to drive faster than the speed limit. I know it’s Canada, but these are supposed to be characters living on the edge, not concerned with getting traffic tickets. And speaking of Canada, why are so many American government agencies operating in the open, blowing things up and shooting anyone in range, with barely a whimper from the locals?

The other problem is that no-one in the movie can act – we should perhaps exempt Liu, since she has barely a dozen lines. The scenes of Banderas and his wife (Soto) are woefully lacking in chemistry, and Ray Park is simply dreadful, despite looking so much like Oz from Buffy, that I kept expecting a full moon and a transformation. The plot is equally inept, tacking on an entire chunk about microscopic robotic assassins which is almost totally redundant. It’s nice that the studio changed Sever from male to female, but the results are…well, at time of writing, the Rotten Tomatoes review score runs 64-0 against the movie, which must be some kind of record. [Update, December 2013: Try 110-0!. Which is, indeed, the worst ever.]

There is one great sequence, when Sever is ambushed at a library, in which she mows down an entire army, picking up their weapons and turning them against their owners. This culminates in a fabulous shot from above of a victim dropping onto a car which you keep thinking is going to cut away – it doesn’t. That, however, is it, and despite such brief flashes of potential, this is largely lame, tame and full of unfulfilled possibilities. Ten years ago, it might have been a Hong Kong movie starring Simon Yam and Yukari Oshima – on the whole, that would have been much more entertaining.

Dir: Kaos
Star: Antonio Banderas, Lucy Liu, Gregg Henry, Ray Park

Fathom

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“Credits includes “Parachute jump suits for Miss Welch by…” ‘Nuff said.”

Released five years before Jennifer Garner was even born, there are some odd similarities between this 1960’s time-capsule and Alias:

  • A girl is plucked to work as a secret agent…
  • …for a group that may not be all it seems…
  • …and is tasked with a perilous mission…
  • …which involves exotic gadgets…
  • …not to mention running around a lot…
  • …in a variety of interesting costumes.

Hmmm.

After an excruciating opening sequence, with what feels like a real-time jump from 30,000 feet, parachuting dental hygienist (!) Fathom Harvill (!!) is recruited by HADES to find a lost nuclear detonator. Which might not be nuclear, or a detonator, and which two other interested parties are also keen to find. The latter aspect is where the film is most entertaining, twisting and turning in its second half like a frantically fruggin’ go-go dancer. There’s also entertainment to be had in seeing a very young Richard Briers: I kept expecting Penelope Keith to peer over the bushes.

Chronologically between Modesty Blaise (with whom it shares a composer and Clive Revill) and Barbarella, its attitude fits there too. To modern eyes, Fathom is very passive, doing little except run; a little karate would have helped. It’s all hugely Sixties, wouldn’t stand the slightest scrutiny, and wobbles precariously near camp – as you’d expect from the original Batman director. The music is excruciatingly easy-listening: at one point, Welch halts it by taking the needle off a record, and I hoped that’d be a running gag. I was disappointed, but just can’t bring myself to dislike any movie with explosive ear-rings.

Dir: Leslie H. Martinson
Star: Racquel Welch, Tony Franciosa, Ronald Fraser, Richard Briers

Dead Men Can’t Dance

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“Army women are only twist to very routine action flick.”

Plotwise, this is a by-the-numbers action thriller about a special forces group on a mission in the Korean Demilitarised Zone, who get embroiled in a CIA operation to retrieve nuclear triggers. Why it merits any coverage here, is because their command structure is matriarchal, from Brigadier General Burke (Zabriskie), through their operational leader and former agency operative Victoria Elliot (York), down to Staff Sergeant Rhodes (Barbara Eve Harris), who could give R. Lee Ermey a run for his money – Ermey, incidentally, turns up as the CIA boss.

This does add a nice bit of sexual tension to matters, as the leader of the CIA team is Elliot’s lover, played by Michael Biehn – what are the odds against that? Characters like Zabriskie and Harris are fun to watch; however, the action is lacklustre, consisting largely of running around and firing automatic weapons, while the plot is painfully obvious – helpful of the Koreans to build their nuclear facility within convenient walking distance of the border. Still, had to laugh at the reason for betrayal given by the (inevitable!) CIA traitor: “large sums of hard cash, what else?”.

Dir: Steve Anderson
Star: Kathleen York, Michael Biehn, Adrian Paul, Grace Zabriskie

Cleopatra Jones

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“Blaxploitation goes bigtime.”

The success of independent blaxploitation films inevitably let to the major studios trying to cash in, and this applied to both sexes. Jones was their response, with 6’2″ Tamara Dobson over-filling Pam Grier’s shoes, as the special agent taking on dyke drug queen Mama (Winters, chewing scenery atrociously) and police corruption, at home and abroad (“Turkey”, supposedly – I wasn’t convinced).

Still, they’ve clearly thrown a lot of money at this, and Dobson has presence in a Grace Jones sort of way, if not perhaps much acting talent. She can’t do kung-fu for toffee either, but when Shelley Winters is your nemesis, how well do you need to fight? She can spray automatic weaponry with the best of them, however, and her car – a midnight blue Corvette Stingray with a customised hydraulic roof (to avoid messing up the ‘fro), and a secret arsenal in the door panel – is also fabulous, perhaps the best ever owned by a female action heroine.

Fargas, later to make his mark as Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch, pimps memorably as Doodlebug, a role he’d later parody in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka, and despite its studio origins, didn’t sell out to The Man as much as I expected. Can’t help wishing they’d used Pam Grier though; she deserved the production values on show here, and they deserve a better actress than Dobson.

Dir: Jack Starrett
Star: Tamara Dobson, Shelley Winters, Antonio Fargas, Bernie Casey