Film Blitz

Angel Heart (Alan Parker) – Blimey. Rarely has a film swung so wildly from the crassly obvious (“Louis Cyphre”…why didn’t they make it “B.L.Zebub” and have done with it?) to the utterly obscurist (most of the rest of the movie). Mickey Rourke stumbles along convincingly as the P.I. trying to find a singer with whom Mr.Cyphre had a deal, only to find murder, evil and Lisa Bonet stalking his every move. So it’s not all bad, then. Long on atmosphere and short on coherence, it’s a film you need to watch twice in a row to get a grip on – except it relies so much on precise mood, that it could be years before I feel I want to see it again. Unsettling stuff, mixing Christian and voodoo mythologies to discomforting effect, even if most of the time, you don’t have a clue what’s happening or what it all means. C+

Dark City (Alex Proyas) – Bring yer sniperscope for this one, as Proyas delivers a viable candidate for Least Lit Film of 1998. Peering through the murk, we see a city run as an experiment by an alien race, which gets reset every midnight, though only a handful of people realise this, notably scientist Kiefer Sutherland. [If that idea sounds a bit familiar, it’s because a very similar concept was used in ‘The Matrix’] Though over-reliant on computer graphics, it all looks very nice – what you can see of it in the gloom – but hero Rufus Sewell is unconvincing, and it might have been better had there been another tragic on-set accident, such as Proyas already endured in ‘The Crow’. The audience can empathise with the sets, both being largely left in the dark, even if by the end you get just about enough grip on it to wish you’d not lost interest earlier on. C-

Deep Rising (Stephen Sommers) – Starting off as ‘Under Siege’, with a group of crims preparing to assault a liner, this suddenly warps when they find a distinct lack of passengers, and something very icky now inhabiting the stricken ship. From here, you’re in ‘Aliens’ territory, with the odd nod to the likes of ‘Tremors’ and ‘Anaconda’, though the relatively brief period since the last-named has seen computer effects go from obviously artificial to solidly convincing. There’s an inevitability about who gets shredded, yet Treat Williams and Famke Janssen put enough effort in to balance the cardboard villains. It’s crunchy and juicy on the gore front and, probably wisely, no effort at all is made to explain the Rob Bottin designed creatures. The result is an old-fashioned monster mash, albeit one bordering on ‘Legend of the Overfiend’ for sheer tenticularity, and of rather more than B-movie quality, at least on the technical side. B+

Enemy of the State (Tony Scott) – Taking paranoia to new heights, this pits lawyer Will Smith against, oh, the entire bulk of the National Security Agency and every closed-circuit TV camera on the continent, after he acquires proof of a Senator’s murder. Gene Hackman and Lisa Bonet provide assistance, Jon Voight and Jake Busey don’t. Scott delivers his usual blend of flashy smoke and mirrors, to distract from a plot which…hey, look at that hyper-kinetic zoomy camerawork! Still, Smith turns in an appealing and winning performance, while Hackman does his best to lend gravitas to things, and even the NSA bad guys are a nice mix of thugs and nerds. The overall effect  may be that you find yourself looking nervously up into the sky for a few days… B

From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (Scott Spiegel) – The first film has George Clooney; this one has Robert ‘T2’ Patrick. And that sums up the problem here; compared to the first film and its playful maliciousness, this comes up short in most directions. Patrick is part of a bank-robbing gang down Mexico way, who finds his colleagues turning vampirical after an encounter with Danny Trejo – about the only person to return from the original. Spiegel certainly doesn’t stint on the action, but it seems a steadily more desperate attempt to keep the audience interested, since the plot and characters fail to do so. Cameos by Bruce Campbell and Tiffany-Amber Thiessen engage excitement in the first five minutes; however, from the moment you realise that’s just a film-within-the-film, it’s downhill all the way. D

Guyver: Dark Hero (Steve Wang) – Wang deserves credit for twisting the first film, a tongue-in-cheek rubber-monster romp, into something as downbeat as the title suggests. It combines extraterrestrial archaeology (Quatermass and the Pit), an evil, weaponry-seeking corporation (Aliens), a tortured cyborg hero (David Hayter, training for his role as the voice of Solid Snake in Playstation classic ‘Metal Gear Solid’)…and latex monsters, which do make it hard to take as seriously as it wants – the surprising amounts of gore do help there. At least the gore is present in the uncut version reviewed here, which comes in at a terrifically ambitious two hours; unfortunately, the UK release is over 20 minutes shorter. This is a shame since, while it doesn’t quite pull it off, being both too po-faced and too silly, it’s a brave stab at an intelligent B-movie. C+

Highway to Hell (Ate de Jong) – This quirky little horror pic proves that given enough imagination, even a ludicrous central premise can work. And, boy, do we mean ludicrous here: a Satanic cop stalks a stretch of road, kidnapping beauties for his master in Hell, until the boyfriend of one follows him below, intent on rescue. This part of Hell looks like Arizona, it would appear, and there are too many mis-steps to make this a classic; the astonishingly annoying kid guarantees that. Yet, equally, there are enough cool elements casually dropped in without fanfare to keep you watching, and Jason Patric makes a fine Devil. Nice touch that Satan wants only virginal beauties, reversing the usual ‘have sex and die’ cliche – but such is the kind of oddball movie we have here. Worth a look. C+

It’s Alive + It Lives Again (Larry Cohen) – Cohen has an ability to take even the most ridiculous of concepts and turn it into a horror movie. Whether it’s killer yoghurt (The Stuff), killer flying snakes (Q: The Winged Serpent) or, as in this case, killer babies, his technique is to play it all totally straight, no matter to what depths of bizarreness things sink. In the first film, we have a mother giving birth to a mutant kid, which then proceeds to rampage through LA on its way back home, yet no-one ever bothers to mention how ludicrous it is. Perhaps wisely, the baby is kept mostly out of sight, Cohen endeavouring to create a creepy atmosphere while making social comment on the evils of pollution: neither are hugely successful, but it’s only in the last fifteen minutes that boredom really sets in. Given the severely limited material, this isn’t a bad squeeze job at all. The follow-up heads off in a different direction, concentrating on the government plot to kill all the mutant babies, and the counter-conspirators trying to save them. This works better, and the feel is similar to ‘Scanners’ (albeit with fewer exploding heads). Cohen adopts Jim Cameron’s approach to sequels i.e. if one baby is scary, three must be scarier – however, you rarely see more than one, presumably for budgetary reasons, leaving the effect somewhat diluted! Still, Cohen’s reputation for strange little efforts is proven once more to be well-deserved. C- and C+

Jawbreaker (Darren Stein) – High school can be murder. Literally, in this case, as Rose McGowan (whose boyfriend is the cameoing Marilyn Manson) and her clique of cronies, try to cover up a death when a prank goes wrong. Shades of ‘Heathers’ here, obviously, though the film’s main weakness is  sympathetic characters who are so bland as to be forgettable. Bad girls have more fun, it would appear., and McGowan is great, towering above everyone else in the film like the Gucci-clad embodiment of pure evil. The script is nicely observed, yet your attention may wander during the middle section, since it’s fairly obvious where it’s all going to end up – at the Senior Prom. The soundtrack is also way too intrusive, with most of an eye on the inevitable spin-off compact disk. Chewy, yet lacking in bite and eventually unsatisfying. C+

John Carpenter’s Vampires (three guesses) – …though if I was JC, I’d be a little wary about putting my name to it, since this modern-day vampire film comes over as limp and anaemic, not sexy or gory enough, and seriously short in the bad attitude bureau. However, I definitely  exempt one person from criticism: James Woods as the “heroic” vampire-killer, who demonstrates the difference between A-movie actors like himself, and the B-movie rest of the cast. The man is utterly hardcore, even if this is the sort of film you expect to see at the start of a career, not after Oscar nominations. He is the film’s main saving grace; a couple of nice ideas (winching the vampires into the sunlight) are buried in a definite sense of seen-it-all-before. Carpenter’s career continues to sink, and may be irrevocably holed. Meanwhile, the iceberg that is James Woods sails serenely on. D+

The Mangler (Tobe Hooper) – It’s hard to take any film seriously where a major protagonist is a possessed iron, even if admittedly it’s a somewhat larger than average model, being fed with 16-year olds by evil laundry owner Robert Englund. You can spot the plot elements a long way in advance, and there’s a curious lack of era, which could be any time from the 1930’s on. The gore is infrequent, but copious and effective when it appears, even if getting sucked through a steam press miraculously leaves your skull uncrushed. Such incongruities indicate where this is coming from, and the plot is both ludicrous and slipshod. There is a certain Grand Guignol charm about the climax, however, when the industrial equipment starts stalking its victims through the laundry. Laugh? I did. D-

Mixed Blood (Paul Morrissey) – This has the low-budget feel of something Abel Ferrara would do; grubby, down-beat New York locations populated by scummy characters dealing in copious quantities of drugs. It’s giving nothing away to say it all ends in tears. Alphabet City is the name of the area in question, where a range war is going on between two groups seeking to control the coke + heroin trade. The film centres on the La Punta family, ruled by a matriarch so desensitised to death that she happily plans funeral and christenings simultaneously. This performance, by Marilia Pera, drags the film up by its bootstraps; the rest of the actors largely fail to deliver identifiable characters, and often, intelligible dialogue. The other major thing you’ll take away is a firm resolve to drive speedily past Alphabet City, should you be in the neighbourhood. C+

Raw Justice (David S.Prior) – Pamela Anderson in reasonable performance shock! Okay, she’s playing a hooker here, so unkind elements might suggest it’s not much of a stretch. Bounty hunter David Keith (doing a Patrick Swayze impression) is “looking after” a murder suspect, and links up with Pammie for no apparent reason – although let’s face it, who wouldn’t, given the opportunity. His task apparently involves chasing through swamps in hoverboats and copious amounts of property destruction. Oh, and having sex with Pammie up against the wall of a warehouse, though she also bonks the murder suspect in a motel room. Friendly girl. This is, of course, total nonsense, and the New Orleans location is sadly wasted. However, it lacks all pretensions to higher things and hits the target – albeit the one labelled “lowest common denominator” – with practiced ease. C

The Rock (Michael Bay) – As a Brit, there’s something very satisfying about watching Sean Connery, pensionable and locked up for 30 years, kicking the arses of the best American special forces. Indeed, this is on the whole fairly gratifying, particularly a first half which has two sequences that lesser films would happily claim as a finale. As is standard in this kind of thing, the professionals are toast early on, and it’s up to amateurs Connery and Nicolas Cage to save the day, in this case by evicting evil terrorists from Alcatraz. One at a time. In interesting ways. Usually involving explosions or gunfire, for this is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. The major problem here may be biochemical: the human body can’t contain enough adrenalin for 135 minutes of uninterrupted climax, and by the end, I found myself punch-drunk and wobbling. Though that might just have been too much microwave popcorn. B-

Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow) – With James Cameron lurking as writer and producer, it’s hard to tell to whom this film belongs, not least because there are two different stories crammed into it. Both take place in the same dystopian future, on the eve of the year 2000, and involve a device which records life experiences, but one is a serial-killer thriller and the other a political polemic about a murdered rapper. The two fail to meld, despite obvious efforts, and the overall effect is of flicking TV channels; an appropriate metaphor for a movie which wears its media-consciousness like a medal, burying any interesting ideas, about the street finding uses for technology, in a tidal wave of chases and pop-promo style. Ranulph Fiennes is barely okay as the dodgy dealer still in love with wannabe rock star Juliette Lewis, who seems keen to show her breasts off. Like the film itself, these are something of a disappointment, but at least they’re a good deal less confusing and noisy. D+

Vampire Journals (Ted Nicolaou) – This Full Moon production clearly wants to be ‘Interview with the Vampire’; luckily, it isn’t, despite a similar fondness for candlelit angst and heaving bosoms. The hero, a “vampire with a mortal’s heart”, is hunting Ash, the most powerful of his breed in Romania. It’s largely traditional stuff, dark and brooding vamps, and Nicolaou does overplay his limited hand – if you see one shadow flitting across a building, you see twenty! Despite a heavy reliance on drapes ‘n’ chandeliers, the Eastern European setting (more for pecuniary reasons than out of any desire for authenticity, I suspect) gives this a lush and decadent feel, while the internecine vampiric bitching is a nice touch. In the end, though, you can’t help wondering where Buffy is when you need her… D+

Hong Kong Special

Beyond Hypothermia (Patrick Leung) – A classy little film, mixing ‘Leon’ and ‘Nikita’ to good effect, in a beautifully shot tale of a female assassin (Ng Sin Lin), totally numbed by her work, who finds humble noodle vendor Lau Ching Wan defrosting her heart. On the action side, she incurs the wrath of a Korean gangster, who single-mindedly starts to track her down. Told largely in subtle flashback, it benefits from good performances on both sides of the camera. As the heroine thaws, so we grow to like her, increasing the impact of the final, bloody confrontation in which she faces her destiny. The feel is very Western, with little suspension of disbelief required by the viewer, and it’s a minor gem. B+

The Big Score (Wong Jing) – A rollicking start here, as an undercover cop has revenge taken on him by the gangster he betrayed: specifically (deep breath), he is kneecapped, blinded and has nitric acid poured down his throat, while his daughter is killed and his wife raped then killed. These are not nice people. Enter his friends, one an ex-cop, the other a gambler, who join forces for revenge on the perpetrator. Typically, of course, the cop ends up doing the gambling, while the card shark wields the weapons. Not just directed by, but starring Wong Jing (as a lecherous swindler – ­hmmm…), this is easy on the brain, yet if it goes pretty much as you’d expect, the initial violence gives it an edge beyond the brain candy. And only Wong would pull a refreshingly incorrect “blind girl as comic relief” stunt. A working knowledge of mah-jong would probably help a good bit. C+

The Ebola Syndrome (Herman Yau) – Perhaps the most notorious Cat.III flick, I think this does live down to its reputation. Murderer, pervert and generally non-nice guy Anthony Wong becomes a carrier for Ebola after having sex with a dying African woman. When he heads back to Hong Kong, it’s virus-on-the-loose time, as the police try and track him down. A graphic autopsy scene, killings, rapes and a sequence which will put you off steamed pork for ever are the ‘highlights’; the stuff between gross-outs is scarcely memorable in comparison, though Wong is clearly making fun of his own role in the same director’s ‘Untold Story’. Calling this a black comedy might be going a little far, but it’s certainly not a film to take seriously. Ethnic stereotypes, gore, sexploitation: hard to see how they could top this one, which is certainly memorable, though you will need to be in a very liberal mood! B-

High Risk (Wong Jing) – The Cantonese title may be approximately translated as “Mouse Courage Dragon Might”, which makes a good bit more sense when you know that, in Hong Kong, ‘Die Hard’ was called “Tiger Courage Dragon Might” for this is somewhere between a parody of, and a homage to, that film. Jacky Cheung plays Frankie Lane, an actor who relies on stand-in Jet Li to do the work. The pair, together with a nosey TV reporter (Chingmy Yau), are taken hostage in a skyscraper by a gang of jewel thieves – led by the guy who killed Li’s wife and child two years before. The first half is broad parody: Lane is famed for doing his own stunts, but is actually a fake, drunkard and lecher. Do you think Wong Jing was pissed at Jackie Chan or something? Eventually, however, even Lane becomes a hero when the second half kicks into full-on “Willis in vest” mode. Jet Li never gets to do much, surprisingly, leaving the final battle to Cheung, yet the end result is fast and fun – as long as you’re not a hardcore Chan fan… B

In the Lap of God (Lo Kin) – Almost an HK version of ‘Jewel on the Nile’, with Roy Cheung and Irene Wan as Douglas + Turner, travelling through Burma, the former to reclaim diamonds, which the latter hopes to exchange for her kidnapped fiance. The sparky fencing between these two keeps the first half alive, with Cheung particularly personable as they try to outwit each other en route from Hong Kong. Probably inevitably, they then have to team up in the face of corrupt soldiers, guerillas, crocodiles, etc – the usual stuff. It does become a little ho-hum and predictable eventually, while the ending is blatantly visible from a long way off. Still, an aimiable time-passer. C

Once Upon a Time in Triad Society (Cha Chuen-Yee) – The structure of this one is great; a gang boss is shot and, lying on the operating table in hospital, looks back on his life. But is it real, or is it what he wants to be true? Half-way through, this flips, forcing you to re-evaluate what you have seen, and there are a host of other cool touches which have to be experienced to be appreciated. Francis Ng delivers two more or less independently good performances as the boss, though it’s really scriptwriter Chung Kai-Cheung who deserves most of the credit. If you think you’ve seen all the twists on Hong Kong gangster films, this one will probably make you sit up and take notice. Going by this film, Depeche Mode were right – God has indeed got a sick sense of humour. B+

Sex and Zen II (Cheuk Man Yu) – Only loosely connected to the original, this is not as sexy nor as, er, Zenny, preferring to head into supernatural territory. A female spirit roams the countryside, draining life energy from her victims (three guesses how) and with the ability to change sex thanks to a guidebook of advanced carnal knowledge. It’s closer to things like ‘Ghostly Vixen’, even if at the start it has some elements you’d expect – ­specifically, a penis transplant. In Part 1, it was from a horse, this time it’s a mechanical device with more functions than a Swiss Army knife, although this fine idea is sadly underused. The odd scene works well, yet it falls uncomfortably between sex and horror, and ultimately fails to satisfy as either. Best line: “I must make her come, to avenge my father”. D+

She Shoots Straight (Corey Yuen) – This blast of largely revenge-driven cinema stars Joyce Gaudenzi (who is Mrs. Samo Hung – he has a minor role here) as Mina, a cop who marries into a whole family of police, but finds trouble being accepted by her sisters-in-law, who resent her getting promotion over their brother. Things go from bad to worse, after she kills a Vietnamese criminal and becomes the target for retaliation, and from worse to utterly dreadful when it’s her husband who ends up getting murdered. Time for her own revenge, methinks. The action is good, yet sits awkwardly with the dramatic elements, and the scene which will stay in my mind has Mina at her mother-in-law’s birthday party, trying desperately not to let on about her husband’s death. It’s all rather too relentless, and this one catches fire only occasionally when compared to Gaudenzi’s superior, albeit much lighter, ‘Licence to Steal’. C

A Taste of Killing and Romance (Veronica Chan) – Perhaps oddly, given its female director, the killing works better than the romance in this film about two assassins, Andy Lau and Anita Yuen, who meet and fall in love, until one of them is ordered to take out the other. Meanwhile the cops are closing in, and there’s also a Very Bad assassin – in the film’s most memorable scene, he suffocates a pensioner in clingfilm, pours Dettol down her granddaughter’s throat, and chucks her dog in the washing machine. This cheerful exuberance enlivens most of the action, even if ‘The Killer’ is an obvious inspiration – in some ways, this is a remake with extra added lurve. However, that angle falls some way short of being convincing, and too often you find yourself waiting for the next piece of imaginative mayhem. C+

To Be Number One (Poon Man-Kit) – Downbeat, realistic, but not actually all that entertaining saga of life among the triads. Ray Lui plays a junior thug at the bottom of the heap, who has a chance encounter with the head of his triad and embarks on a spree of violence to impress and win promotion. Except, of course, it doesn’t quite go as planned, and his boss eventually has to deal with his loose cannon. The violence is well-staged and possesses the required impact, but the characters are ill-defined and there are simply too many subsidiary ones rattling around – a concentration on the central character would have helped. As it is, you simply don’t care what happens to him, leaving the result distant and unengaging. D+

Treasure Hunt (Jeff Lau) – Chow Yun-Fat playing a CIA agent sent into China scarcely seems like a stretch, but this is less wall-to-wall action than poignant romance. Chow ends up stuck in a Shaolin temple, where he meets and falls in love with Wu Chien Lien, a girl possessing psychic powers – ­and introduces the monks to the delights of baseball and Nintendo! It’s all rather sweet, with one particularly beautiful moonlit flight through the snow, and not much violence or blood until the bad guys kidnap his girl when…well, I’m sure you can guess what happens. While the gunplay seems somewhat perfunctory and half-hearted, the other elements work nicely, right up to an ending straight out of ‘The Railway Children’. Heroic tearshed, shall we say. B-