Film Blitz

The Arcane Enchanter (Pupi Avati) – Startlingly tedious Italian ‘horror’ movie, which looks lovely, but has all the entertainment value of a drying fresco. The story, about a guy sent to act as scribe to a heretic with occult leanings, is worth about thirty minutes — at movie length, it’s near unendurable, and I came close to walking out. Said heretic appeared to spend large chunks of the movie asleep, and I can sympathise, every scene seems to go on twice as long as even fractionally interesting. It’s nice to be reminded occasionally of why I tend to the view that most Italian horror movies are vastly over-rated. E

Armageddon (Gordon Chan) – I’m a big fan of religious apocalypse films like The Rapture and The Seventh Sign, and this is an HK spin on the theme, with Andy Lau as a tycoon who finds himself caught up in…well, weirdness is perhaps the best word, including SHC and the re-appearance of his dead girlfriend, while sceptical cop Anthony Wong investigates. It’s stretched thin for a movie, but Wong and Lau are good fun to watch between plot elements. After a bad start (the worst English accent I’ve ever heard), the menacing atmosphere improves as the film progresses and a fair head of steam is built up. Definitely different — just when you think you’ve got Hong Kong cinema figured, along comes a curveball like this! B-

Beavis and Butthead Do America (Mike Judge) – In a year of strangely unsatisfying Hollywood blockbusters, it was at once scary and wonderful to find this among 1997’s best, purely because it succeeds at what it’s trying to do, which is simply be funny. I’m no fan of the original TV show at all, but it was a stroke of genius to turn their moronic music video commentary into a road movie, by making it about B&B’s hunt for their stolen TV. This broadens out the horizons to permit more than their usual “This sucks”, and it’s honest enough that you’ll know whether or not you’re gonna like it within seconds of the start: if not you can probably claim you’re in the wrong cinema and get a refund. As for me, I was creased double for most of the film, and very few comedies manage to do that to me. A-

Caged Fear (Fred Olen Ray) – A rather clunky retitling of Fugitive Rage, which, combined with the cover, is designed to play up the women-in-prison angle, despite the fact that only perhaps the first third of the movie takes place behind bars. It’s closer to Nikita, with Wendy Schumacher as the girl given the chance to get out of jail with pal (and Penthouse Pet!) Shauna O’Brien, providing she finishes off the mob boss she shot and injured – which got her in jail to start with – though her victim is keen to finish her off too. Fred’s best work is made tongue-in-cheek, and while competent, this one is played too straight, despite the amusing efforts of Toni Naples and Nikki Fritz. With the action lame and the sex mediocre (Shauna O’Brien doesn’t get her kit off nearly often enough), it definitely needs something more. D-

Caroline at Midnight (Scott McGinnis) – A Roger Corman production, with the usual cast of B-grade actors, headlined here by Mia Sara, who’ll always have a place in my heart for her black-lipsticked appearance in Legend. Seems to have rounded out a bit since then, though I detect the hand of silicone at work. Her and Virginia Madsen both make fine, smouldering femmes fatales, taking on double-dealing corrupt cops and investigative reporters in a risky game involving drugs and cash. Pity the direction relies too heavily on cliched techniques, and the script left me far more interested in Mia’s occasionally-exposed charms. A fast-forward job par excellence. D-

Conspirators of Pleasure (Jan Svankmajer) – Possibly the downright strangest feature film I’ve seen, Svankmajer’s third feature is almost entirely live-action, only the final quarter explodes into the sort of warped animation for which he’s famous. You want high-concept? Try this: “six people have a wank”. Any further description is futile, and it’s the world’s most un-pornographic sex movie. If there is a theme, it’s “different strokes for different folks”: one guy pretends to be a chicken, a postwoman snorts bread balls, a TV newsreader gets her feet tickled by carp. It all loosely ties together, despite the lack of dialogue, and I can’t fault the imagination on view, which is often very funny in a dreamlike way. Not so sure that it works on a more intellectual level, and despite having the long-term impact of a pop promo, it remains a refreshingly bizarre change. C

Crying Freeman (Christophe Gans) – This adaptation of the manga and anime is a faithful recreation, which fails to ultimately engage despite some well-handled set pieces. Mark Dacascos is Freeman, an assassin who falls in love with a girl he’s supposed to kill, amidst a web of betrayal and death. Y’know, the usual. The performances are pretty decent, though the director has an unnerving fondness for the hero’s bottom. It’s problem is one of pacing, the first half crawls past and it takes ages for the hero and heroine to get together. When they finally do, sparks fly, and both Freeman’s first hit and the final battle provide memorable moments, albeit too late. As straight-to-video fodder, better than average; as a cinema release, I’m less sure of its merits. D

Cutthroat Island (Renny Harlin) – After the disappointing Long Kiss Goodnight, I was pleasantly surprised by this – though admittedly wasn’t expecting much – as Geena Davis gets support from Matthew Modine, Frank Langella and a bunch of other memorable characters. It lacks the heavy-handed moralising which sank ‘Kiss’, and Harlin pitches it with the right level of tongue-in-cheek. Things getting slow? Let’s blow something else up. This attitude culminates in an explosion which is so large it tends to suggest pirates had access to nuclear weapons. A fast, flashy and unpretentious film, which substitutes things going ‘Foom!’ for a real plot. B+

Darklands (Julian Richards) – Craig Fairbrass’s three-film contract with Metrodome has churned up two of the worst British genre pictures ever: Beyond Bedlam and Proteus. This one isn’t quite as bad, but is amazingly unoriginal, being a remake of The Wicker Man set in South Wales. Fairbrass is a journalist who investigates a pagan cult and…you can guess the rest. Which is a major flaw: you know where it’s going, so there is precious little suspense, and what there is seems largely to devolve from sequences nicked from other films. This is a shame; given the half-million pound budget, it is technically fine, with good use of music to generate atmosphere. It’s just a pity the director didn’t have the courage to make something a bit less derivative. C-

Dobermann (Jan Kounen) – Dutch director, French film, mentality somewhere on another planet. The titular hero gets a gun as a christening gift; leap forward 20-odd years — he’s graduated to blowing up tankers and has embarked on a crime spree with his (equally weird) cohorts. To catch an excessive criminal, it takes an even more excessive cop, and no prizes for guessing it will all end a) excessively and b) messily. This is perhaps the most amoral film of the year; all the nice characters get ripped off, beaten up or killed — which is exactly the way it should be. Well-shot in both senses, it’s somewhere between Man Bites Dog and Delicatessen, and there are worse places to be. B-

Ed Wood (Tim Burton) – I can see why this bombed, big-time. It’s 127 mins long, in b&w, and the hero is a transvestite — not qualities that appeal to middle America. It also doesn’t go anywhere, being a biography of a life without true highlights, even though it almost skips Wood’s descent into alcohol and skin flicks. Despite this, for any fan of his movies, there’s a wealth of detail that rings true, regardless of whether it is or not. Johnny Depp plays Wood with much sympathy, putting him across as someone deeply cunning when it came to raising finance, yet remaining naive. Martin Landau also stands out as Bela Lugosi, and Burton pushes his usual themes of isolation and “being different”. A total mess of a movie, yet none the worse for it. B

Electra (Julian Grant) – One hoped this might be a spoiler of the oft-promised Elektra Assassin movie; it isn’t. Instead, it’s Shannon Tweed (a woman for whom time is clearly running out) as the stepmother of a young man who holds the key to a serum that gives its subject superhuman speed and strength, and who is consequently in demand by a lot of bad people. Far too restrained – it’s one of those films where people keep their clothes on while having sex, and even Shannon only gets ’em out once – with strictly low-rent production values: there are almost no extras, everyone in the film is in the film. Never actually dull though, and one of the evil henchwomen (sadly, not fully identified in the credits) has definite potential as a leather-bitch-goddess. D-

Felony (David S.Prior) – David Warner, Jeffrey Combs, Lance Henriksen, Joe Don Baker, Ashley (Hellraiser) Lawrence, Charles (Supervixens) Napier: truly a cult cast to die for, in this thriller where Combs is a cameraman who films Warner’s gang killing a SWAT team. As a result, everyone wants the video. Though double-crosses abound in this standard fare, the pedestrian action and plot are saved by the aforementioned actors who show why they are in the Hall of Fame: Joe Don Baker just sneaks the honours, as a CIA agent — or is he? Whoever was casting this deserves far more credit than the director. C+

Une Femme Francaise (Regis Warnier) – Staggeringly dull French film, which even actors of the calibre of Daniel Auteiul and Emmanuelle Beart fail to make even remotely interesting. Wartime soap-opera stuff, with Beart as a woman whose husband (Auteiul) returns from the war to discover her infidelities. Tedious beyond belief, I found myself reaching for the fast-forward in the hope of finding a) anything interesting or b) whatever provoked the ’18’ certificate. I failed. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that failed to justify its existence so completely. Such is the life of a reviewer; we suffer so that you don’t have to. Many more turkeys like this and Beart is in danger of disappearing up her own art-house. E

Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters 1+2 (Jopi Burnama + Arizal) – This pair of Indonesian movies, catchily retitled by Troma, star the very lovely Eva Arnaz, and TC fave Barry Prima, last seen battling killer shrubbery in Special Silencers (TC 10). Only the first even partly lives up to its title, as a gang of women forced into prostitution fight against their captors with some of the worst kung-fu I’ve seen (Moon Lee will not be losing sleep), and also one of the most gratuitous mud-wrestling bouts. The second is bizarre: part melodramatic love story between Prima and Arnaz, part occult horror, part kung-fu, and Arnaz’s grip on the action (or at least, her stunt double’s) is notably better, which just gives it the edge. Prima is his usual square-jawed and heroic self, while Arnaz looks decorative and emotes a lot. Dumb trash, not without its charm. C- and C

The Frighteners (Peter Jackson) – Meatier than your average Hollywood FX-fest i.e. it actually has a plot, yet something of a disappointment as Peter Jackson movies go. Reminiscent of Mr. Vampire 3 (exorcist teams up with ghosts to make money, only to find himself facing a seriously peeved spectre), it lacks the strong, memorable characters which made his other films such classics. Michael J. Fox is almost forgettable as the exorcist and the superfluous heroine is severely underwritten; only Jeffrey Combs saves the day on the acting front, playing an utterly mad FBI agent. The effects work well and the New Zealand locations are excellent, but it has a mildness (’15’ rating!) that’s a bit worrying, even if there have been far worse Hollywood debuts. Note: it’s his third consecutive film with a domineering mother. Tell us more about your childhood, Mr. Jackson… C-

Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage) – John Cusack makes the transition to action hero in this unlikely but likeable tale of a hitman who returns for his high-school reunion, only to find he’s the sanest man there. The action and comedy elements are great: good to see Benny Urquidez again, and Dan Ackroyd is excellent as a rival killer. However, Minnie Driver, as Cusack’s old flame, seems to have wandered in from a Nora Ephron movie; maybe she’s supposed to be the ‘straight man’, but the overall effect is more to deaden and slow the pace and a better (albeit incestuous) match would be sister Joan, who plays his wonderfully kooky secretary. An amazing gun-battle wraps things up admirably though, and the end result is slick and fun. B+

Howard the Duck (Willard Huyck) – Slagged off last time, Miles Wood insisted I re-view it: “it is a terrific movie”, he said, “you owe it to yourself and to Howard to give it a measly two hours of your life”. So I did. And? It still hasn’t a clue what it’s supposed to be: if it’s a comedy, it ain’t funny, despite leaving no “duck” pun un-utilised. Lea Thomson asking “Can I find happiness in the animal kingdom?” is satisfactorily perverse, and the hyper-extended, excessive climax almost makes the effort worthwhile. However, the novelty of a kid in a feather suit soon wears off, and Howard comes across as just plain unpleasant. Perhaps that explains the original title: ‘A New Breed of Hero’ means one you don’t like very much. What are people like Thomas Dolby and Tim Robbins doing in this? [save inane mugging in the latter’s case] Divide by the budget and you certainly have a viable contender for Worst Movie Ever, on a per-dollar basis. Sorry, Miles! E+

The Jerky Boys (Scott Melkonian) – Looks like a possible influence on Beavis and Butthead Do America, with two foul-mouthed layabouts getting mistaken for mob hitmen, after which things then spiral out of control. The main difference is that Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed (noted American phone pranksters, as yet almost unknown here) are smart rather than dumb, constantly outwitting the gangsters led by Alan Arkin. Though I suspect it’d be funnier if you’re familiar with the New York borough of Queens, the Jerkys are nice characters, and there are a quite adequate number of laughs. Nice to see James Lorinz, of Frankenhooker – and interviewed way back in TC 6 – is still alive, playing a much put-upon associate. C-

Killer: A Journal of Murder (Tim Metcalfe) – James Woods playing convicted serial killer Carl Panzram may not be particularly subtle casting. But who can really complain? Woods, as usual, is excellent, overshadowing Robert Sean Leonard as the prison guard who uses a diary to try and understand what’s going on in the murderer’s head. The major flaw is that once the central concept (“Society’s to blame”) is made apparent, it is rammed home for the next hour or so without significant variation. It might have been more interesting to have made the guard question Panzram about taking responsibility for his actions – instead, there’s nothing here that will challenge anyone’s views to a significant degree. D+

The Natural (Barry Levinson) – On one level, this is your usual shallow baseball film: team of no-hopers fight for the championship. Yet there is rather more to it than this, from the moment when Robert Redford’s farmhand easily strikes out the era’s biggest superstar to win a bet, it’s clear that something special is happening. Even a somewhat curious shooting incident only delays the inevitable by a decade or two before this amazingly gifted “middle-aged rookie” hits the major leagues, an almost mythic figure in status, with a bat hewn from a tree struck by lightning as his Excalibur. This is the stuff of legend, and an excellent supporting cast (Glenn Close plays the Guinevere role, plus you’ve got Joe Don Baker and Michael Madsen in small parts) make it rewarding, probably even for non-fans. B-

Nick of Time (John Badham) – Why this went straight to video here, when so much dreck gets a cinema release, is a mystery; it’s a perfectly solid thriller featuring Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken. The former has his child kidnapped by the latter, who gives him 90 minutes to kill the governor of California, or his brat gets it. Aside from the fact that the kid is no nauseating, you pray for her demise, this works well, propelled by the effective idea of unfolding the film in real time. Badham is a past master at this sort of thing, and delivers tension by the spadeful, with Walken outstanding as ever. Implausible as hell, yet if you can accept the central premise, the rest runs like a Swiss watch. B+

A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (Brett Piper) – Odds on that being the title before Troma got to it: slim. Post-apocalyptic prehistory, with the heroine fighting off mutants and dinosaurs, while trying to keep her top on — though the cover art bimbo is rather more impressive than the reality there. If you’re a fan of stop motion animation, this will be right up your street, with a lot of surprisingly decent (given the budget) work on view. However, the rest of the movie isn’t as engaging or appealing, and unless you have a keen interest in the works of Ray Harryhausen and his like, there are better post-apocalypse movies to be found. D

Once Upon a Time in China and America (Samo Hung) – Jet Li returns as hero Wong Fei Hung, only this time in the US, defending Chinese miners from small-town bigotry. Lighter in tone than the original, it really tries to cram in too much: there’s a sub-plot involving Indians (who switch between English and their native tongue semi-randomly!) that just peters out half-way. There’s also every cliché under the sun, which may or may not be sly parody. Oh yeah, and a great deal of fighting — it’s a surprise this hasn’t been done before, seems like an ideal combination, even if the result is bordering on a dog’s dinner. C+

Paganini (Klaus Kinski) – This is vanity film-making at its most excessive, with cinematic wildman Kinski writing, directing and employing his relations in this tale of a tortured artistic genius bonking his way round Europe; I imagine any similarity to Klaus is purely deliberate. Much of this is completely laughable – Paganini’s music apparently made women instantly go all squishy, and even starts horses shagging, in a scene reminiscent of Borowczyk’s La Bete – yet Kinski has the charisma to (barely) pull it off, assisted by some of the most berserk violin-playing you are ever likely to hear. I’m left wondering why anyone would give out money for this project but, let’s face it, would you be brave enough to turn the man down? C

The Prophecy (Gregory Widen) – Another entry in the “religious apocalypse” genre (see Armageddon above), Christopher Walken (again!) plays rebellious archangel Gabriel like a mobster, as he hunts the blackest soul in the world. Only people between him and it are a good angel (Eric Stolz) and a priest who lost his faith and became a cop instead. Gothic horror-fantasy, effectively driven by Widen, that uses FX sparingly on the whole, leaving Stolz and Walken room to act. After this, the finale is something of a disappointment, with dodgy optical work (Widen wrote Highlander, which had the same problem), though Viggo Mortensen as Lucifer almost steals the film. I suspect we might get more of this sort of thing as the millennium approaches… B- [Indeed, there is also in existence ‘Prophecy II’, which certainly comes into the category of “more of this sort of thing”. Sadly though, in this case more is less, and even the return of Christopher Walken can’t manage to save a very tired looking sequel, possessing little or none of the innovatively creepy stuff which characterised the first film. The Devil may have all the best tunes, but he also has some rather poor movies…]

The Razor (Misumi Kenji) – Seriously tacky Japanese film, from much the same team as Lone Wolf and Cub. The hero is a renegade cop, macho beyond belief, who interrogates women by bonking them into submission, having honed his technique on sacks of rice (and a training regime which adds a whole new dimension to ‘beating your meat’). After finding a conspiracy to cover up some high-level goings-on, he comes under pressure to drop the case. Three guesses whether he does. Body fluids everywhere and a script full of double-meanings, are wrecked by a tendency to go on and on, plus the deeply incongruous 70’s soundtrack (19, rather than 1770’s). A Shogun Assassin style edit of two or three entries in the series would be an improvement, and conceivably an undoubted trash classic. C-

The Relic (Peter Hyams) – In these post-Jurassic Park days, monster movies have changed. It is no longer acceptable to hide them in the dark, the odd claw peeping out, they have to be in your face. And, Mr. Hyams please note, in daylight, too — never has a film looked so murky. With a heroine who is self-centred and whiny, my sympathies were with the monster; some Amazonian DNA-fungoid-mutant-lizard-human, though its origins were obscured by copious technobabble, Rather gory for a ’15’, with a great decapitation, it is a stream of missed opportunities. When the monster finally lumbers into plain sight, it’s quite, quite lovely — you just wish it had appeared 90 minutes earlier. D-

Return of the God of Gamblers (Wong Jing) – A long time after the original, and choosing to ignore completely the Chow Yun Fat-less pseudo-sequels, this was a huge hit in Hong Kong, becoming the first movie ever to gross HK$50m. Despite this, it’s a strangely flat kind of film, which is simply just not as good as the original — for example, in it, the humour seemed to flow naturally from the characters, but in ‘Return’, it all seems forced in there, with some parts feeling like discards from a Steven Chow movie. It doesn’t take itself seriously, which leaves the dramatic elements flailing around aimlessly, especially a villain whose sheer evilness goes beyond caricature, and that’s before he kills Chow’s wife and unborn son. Speaking of Chow, he is, of course, charismatic and powerful as ever, yet even he ends up strangely unmemorable — there are hardly any moments which will stay with you once the movie has ended. C-

The Silencers (Richard Pepin) – An interesting counterpoint to what might be seen as the cynical pro-Conspiracy propaganda of Men in Black (“the MiB are your friends!”). Here they are the advance guard of an alien invasion, while a Secret Service agent and a dude from the Pleiades try and stop them. Owing quite a bit to The Hidden, though the heroes here lack the same chemistry as McLachlan and Nouri had there, The Silencers tries to make up for this deficiency with nifty whizz-bang action scenes — it’s 45 minutes before any significant plot turns up. The pyrotechnics are cool, but the stuff between them is facile and banal. At least you know you’re no more than ten minutes from another car flying through the air. C+

Swallowtail Butterfly (Iwai Shunji) – This Japanese movie is all over the place in genre terms, combining drama, blood-spattered action, comedy and musical numbers – if the end result is some way short of perfect, it’s always interesting to watch. The setting is the underbelly of Tokyo’s sprawl, peopled by gangsters, junkies, whores and migrant workers; a group of the last-named stumble onto a tape of computer data, and use it to forge money. Lots of money. Needless to say, the Yakuza owners are keen to get the tape back: cue mayhem (the fire-fight in a car is particularly impressive), intrigue, and a grunge version of ‘My Way’. While it’s at least half an hour too long, and sags badly in the middle, it’s buoyed up by a host of great characters, and is a glimpse into a part of Japanese culture that is rarely seen. B

Teenage Catgirls in Heat (Scott Perry) – Another Troma contender for Inspired Title of the Year, possibly too inspired, as it’d be hard for any movie to live up to it. This is basically a micro-budget comedy slant on Cat People, with an ancient Egyptian cat-goddess coming back and turning the local girls into cats (or was it the local cats into girls?). It reminded me of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, with worse production values – difficult though that might be to believe – while the producers must have had the gift of the gab, going by the number of women they talked into taking their tops off. I have to admit I did laugh out loud on a few occasions, though it won’t be replacing the Kinski flick in my affections, I was amused enough. C+

Underworld (Roger Christian) – One of the better Tarantino ripoffs, it clearly helps a lot to have someone like Dennis Leary mouthing your “amusing” dialogue, since he actually makes it funny. He is in full-on wacko mode, a psychotic psychotherapist (he got the degree in jail) now out to find and eliminate all those who put his Pop in intensive care, while dragging Joe Mantegna with him round a city virtually devoid of other life. Oh, and he sings selections from the work of Rogers and Hammerstein while he’s at it. Compared to him, every else in the movie seems to be operating at half-power, and while undeniably loopy, you can’t help liking his character. It all takes place over the course of a single night and thanks largely to Leary, comes over as an elegant, compact item. B

Wax Mask (Sergio Stivaletti) – Despite the limited resources, this is entirely acceptable as cheerful tack. Originally intended for Lucio Fulci, Stivaletti makes a decent fist of this remake, but ultimately falls down because he doesn’t bring anything much new to the old “waxworks using real people” story. Its looks do belie the $1.25m budget though, with the sets especially worthy of mention, and there are a few decent babes too, so it’s never tedious. However, it is hard to distinguish the actors from the waxworks, and ripping off the climax from Terminator probably wasn’t a wise move. C-

Wing Chun (Yuen Wo Ping) – A neo-feminist kung-fu flick? For here we have two sisters, neither much in demand by the local men — at least, not until they rescue a beautiful widow from bandits, and give her a home. The movie then teeters between bedroom farce, OTT kick-ass action, and something disturbingly close to a lesbian sub-plot for the rest of the way. Even if the action is too “fly by wire” for my taste, it somehow works: recent Bond girl Michelle Khan (no, hang on, if it’s Tuesday, it must be Michelle Yeoh) is perhaps the only female action star who could be mistaken for a man, as required here. It’s also nice to see Donnie Yen back, and the overall package is highly entertaining. B-