El Palo (The Hold-Up)

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“Women on the Verge of an Armed Robbery.”

Four unlikely women team up, for their own but unselfish reasons, in order to rob the bank where one (Ozores) works as a cleaning lady. There’s also a rich bankrupt, out to fund her daughter’s wedding; a slutty hairdresser who’s just found out she’s pregnant; and an antisocial punk orphan, who wants to be reunited with her father in Argentina. What makes this Spanish film work, is less the action, and more the characters – or at least, the women, since the men never become more than two-dimensional. The script is brisk and efficient, moving things along with swift abandon, and sucks the viewer in to a connection with the ladies, their problems, and the solution.

Of course, this being a heist film, spanners get thrown in the works at random, derailing their non-violent way to liberate the cash. Add in to the mix, that the cleaner ex-husband is a cop, and their young son has picked up on Mommie’s plan, and the potential for disaster is clear. Interestingly, however, the film may not quite end up where you think, and director Lesmes deserves credit for avoiding the most obvious cliches or, at least, presenting them with enough spin as to keep them entertaining. The four lead actresses are all excellent – if you’ve seen many Almodovar films, you’ll recognise Maura as the rich lady. Just on top is Alterio, playing punk Pecholata (which translates as ‘Thimbletits’!), who combines strength and vulnerability in a way that’s a good summary of the whole movie.

Dir: Eva Lesmes
Star: Adriana Ozores, Carmen Maura, Maribel Verdú, Malena Alteiro

Arizona Roller Derby: She-Devils on Wheels…

Roller Derby is quintessentially American; like the drive-in, it’s rarely seen outside the US. And also like the drive-in, it began in the 1930’s, when Chicago’s Leo Seltzer combined two crazes: roller-skating and the dance marathon. His contest for couples, over 57,000 laps (the distance between Los Angeles and New York). drew 20,000 spectators in its opening week. The power of the concept was proven, but it took a few years for it to evolve into a contact sport – Damon Runyon, author of Guys and Dolls, helped Seltzer incorporate these elements, and also the change in aim from distance to the scoring of points.

The golden era of the sport began in the 1950’s, when television helped roller derby become popular in almost every state. However, the 1970’s saw it go into decline, and it has never recovered, despite attempts to revive it. Most recently, there was RollerJam, an exercise closer to professional wrestling and co-funded by TNN, that stumbled along despite the assistance of Leo Seltzer’s son, Jerry, and finally went under in June 2000.

A minor footnote in American pop culture? Perhaps. Yet it survives, with federations in Texas, California and even the Cayman Islands, not to mention here in Arizona. An impressive crowd, several hundred strong, turned up on a Saturday night and paid $10 to attend a double-header of roller derby, at Surfside Skateland in Phoenix. The Furious Truckstop Waitresses came up from Tucson to challenge the hometown Smashers, while the French Kiss Army took on the Bruisers. Women? Action? Violence? Naturally, we here at gwg.org wouldn’t miss that, and the chance to see what is perhaps the only contact sport played mostly by women.

A quick explanation of the basic rules, as played in AZ Roller Derby – they’re little changed from the ones created by Seltzer and Runyon back in the early days. There are two teams of five players. One from each side is designated the jammer, and these two start off a little way behind the other players. Their initial task is to make their way through the pack – the first to do so is the “lead jammer” and can end the bout at any point she deems tactically prudent (if she doesn’t, they last a maximum of two minutes).

After getting through, the jammers then lap the pack, and again approach it from behind. Only this time, they score one point for every opponent they pass. Which is where the fun starts, since the opposition is trying to block them, and their team-mates are trying to block the blockers, while also stopping the opposition’s jammer from passing them and scoring. A match consists of two periods, each lasting twenty minutes; most points wins.

The opportunities for violence are obvious, and are reflected in players who adopt nommes des guerre such as Mayhemily, Joan Threat [along with her cute-as-a-button little daughter, Kitty Ka-Boom, who had her own uniform], Kim Sin and Ann Ihilate. The creative imagination extends further: the Bruisers’ uniforms were patterned after nurses (down to the little white peak and red cross on their helmets), while the Furious Truckstop Waitresses were…well, work it out yourselves.

There are rules which stipulate the types of blocking allowed, but despite the presence of multiple referees, penalties seemed to be rarely enforced. Even when the occasional fight broke out – usually after one player took exception to a block by another – the referees stood back for a bit before interfering, realising that, in truth, this was what the bulk of the audience wanted to see. With helmets compulsory, odds were against any significant injury, and while one suspected everyone involved heads down the bar and has a drink afterwards, this does not reduce the guilty pleasure involved in the spectacle.

I was a little surprised to see a flat track, it was simply marked out on the surface of the rink with rope lights; the teams are working towards banking, and have weekly fundraisers at Ziggy’s in Tempe – including a spanking booth! For the moment, they make do and, regardless, the pace was fast and furious; while the skating ability on view was variable, these women are athletes, make no mistake about it. The best jammers, such as Sara Veza and Go Go Liz, slid through the pack like a knife through butter. Even rookies like ourselves could see the skill required, while perhaps not appreciating the subtle refinements of the sport. [Alright, “subtle” is stretching it. There’s a whole page on their website, with photos of the injuries players have received…]

Did find it hard to keep track of the jammers; they have a star on their helmet but, especially on the far side of the track, it’s hard to see. Maybe some kind of yellow/orange bib would work better? The scoreboard was often some way behind the action, though since the scorekeeper was hobbling around on a broken ankle, it’s hard to be too critical. And while the action was fast and furious when it happened, four 20-minute periods took 3 1/2 hours to complete, thanks to the lengthy intermissions. Entertainment therein was provided by a couple of bands, but given an audience reaction that could be described as ‘indifferent’ (and that’s being kind), they might be better off scrapping that, and getting everything done in two hours. Perhaps it’s just me – in Britain, a ninety-minute football game takes an hour forty-five, tops – but we were there for roller derby, and everything else was, inevitably, filed under ‘pointless distraction’.

However, we remained enormously impressed: as a mix of sport, entertainment and spectacle, it was a damn fine evening, and the effort the participants put in was clear to all. Oh, and for the record, the Smashers beat the Furious Truckstop Waitresses, in a contest that went right down to the wire, while the French Kiss Army staged a come-from-behind victory to defeat the Bruisers. We’re certainly up for the rematch next month!

[Postscript. Kim Sin, of the Furious Truckstop Waitresses, wrote in to say, “Cool story, but you failed to mention FTW is not part of AZRD; we are our own league of two teams in Tucson, Tucson Roller Derby, a non-profit organization. We work with AZRD, but are a totally separate entity.” And their website is at http://www.tucsonrollerderby.com]

Kim Possible: The Secret Files

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“A semi-random grab-bag of bits and pieces. Coherent – no. Amusing – most definitely.”

This compilation puts together four episodes – three from the first season, plus another at the time exclusive to the DVD. It’s hard to see who this is aimed at: if you’ve not seen the series, novices may find elements, such as Ron’s naked mole rat, kinda bizarre (trivia note: the rat’s squeaks are by Nancy Cartwright, who also does some loser called Bart Simpson). On the other hand, fans will have seen almost all the material, and would likely far rather have seen a complete Box Set rather than semi-random episodes. They’re not even particularly highly-regarded ones: the TVTome viewers’ poll ranks only one in the Top 20. However, it’s still the smartest thing on the Disney Channel, and easily kept the GWG viewing panel (ages from 19 to forty-coughhackwheeze) entertained.

The first episode, Attack of the Killer Bebes, is the best, I’d say. Ron wants to be a cheerleader, while Kim’s dad is kidnapped by the evil Dr. Drakken, who has built three fem-bots in order to…er, do something. It illustrates the central idea of KP – Kim’s Sisyphean struggle to balance home, school and fighting evil – with beautifully surreal moments, such as Drakken’s quest for a phone-book to prove that Possible is a common surname. Downhill, the second ep, works less well; it’s too group-huggy, teetering on the edge of sickly. But the concept of D.N.Amy, a toy collector and crazed bio-geneticist intent in making live version of her plush pals, is enough to keep things interesting.

Third is Partners, where Kim is paired with the class genius for a science project, while Drakken and D.N. Amy team up, with the following immortal exchange:
D.N.Amy: ”But I’m all about cute and cuddly!”
Dr. D: “Have you ever tried vicious and bloodthirsty?”
D.N.Amy: “Do you think I’d like it?”
Finally, tucked away in the special features, there’s Crush: how it all began, though with surprisingly little insight into Kim’s origins as a superheroic teenager. She springs, fully formed, taking on Drakken’s giant robot and asking her crush, voiced by Breckin Meyer, to the dance. Overall, it’s a cute package, but you’d probably be better off starting with A Sitch in Time, and waiting (hopefully…) for that Season One box set.

Star: Christy Carlson Romano, Will Friedle, John DiMaggio, Melissa McCarthy

Alias: season three

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“…In Which Sydney Experiences The Mother of all Hangovers.”

Where is Sydney, and what have you done with her? We might have been forgiven for uttering this cry at the end of season three, which exited not with a bang, but a whimper. “We need to talk.” That’s pretty much what Jack said to Sydney after she discovered, apparently, that her entire life had been a CIA operation. This was hardly a surprise, if you remembered Project Christmas from earlier on, Jack’s plan which tested first-graders – including his own daughter – for spyworthy attributes. The news that the show wouldn’t restart until January 2005 thus provoked little more than mild disappointment.

The deficiencies this time were particularly obvious when viewed alongside the first on DVD. The twists and turns back then were far superior; in series 3, the main ‘surprise’ was Vaughn’s wife being a Covenant agent. Again, this was no shock once we realised nothing would be allowed to get permanently in the way of the Vaughn-Sidney relationship. That this over-extended soap-opera plot thread was allowed to be the focus of the third series (along with everyone bar Sidney appearing to know where her missing two years went) is evidence of shortcomings in the writing department.

Can I also make a plea for Rambaldi to be retired honourably? He’s been rolling along for three seasons now, and any surprise value long since evaporated. We have become jaded by stories involving Rambaldi’s shopping list or whatever, which absolutely must be located by the good guys before SD-6/K Directorate/The Covenant get their hands on it. This is beginning to feel like The X Files, where Chris Carter never did provide “the truth” which was supposedly out there.

alias3Moving away from the storylines, also apparent is a big drop in the quality – and quantity – of the action. The battle between Sydney and Lauren in the final episode was a blur of two-frame shots, edited together so as to leave the viewer with little clue about what was going on. That’s not the tingle of excitement, it’s the beginning of a migraine headache. Again, one can compare and contrast the first series; it may or may not have been Jennifer Garner doing the stunts, but you could at least see them.

Okay. Let’s take our foot off the show’s throat for a minute, and talk about what it did well. The central characters remain the show’s strength, and the relegation of Will to a minor role was a definite plus – he had become an irrelevant distraction and a spare wheel. All the major players, however, showed they could still surprise us; can anyone deny a shudder when Jack Bristow gave Vaughn a set of keys, and told him where he could dispose of Lauren’s body?

If you’ve read these reviews previously, you’ll know we adore Marshall, and once again, he managed to steal just about every episode he was in. Fatherhood doesn’t seem to have changed him much; it’s just a shame we missed the past two years of his life too, which would likely have been most amusing [Marshall fans will get a kick out of the Alias video game, in which he has some classic lines.]

There were also some interesting guest stars this season, led by Isabella Rossellini as Sydney’s aunt (on her mother’s side, natch – though between that and the sudden appearance of a sister, she has an entire new family to deal with). Quentin Tarantino also came back, and another cult director appeared, in the shape of David Cronenberg, whose understated approach was a marked and refreshing contrast to QT.

The ratings for the show remained mediocre: even the finale was seen by only 7.7 million viewers, down from an average 9.7 and 8.9 through seasons one and two. A change in the way Nielsen measure ratings means it’s difficult to make comparisons, but this suggests a vague disenchantment among more fickle, casual viewers, without a huge loss of the core fanbase [and certainly, we remain some way from a Buffy-esque turn-off for the series] The ABC network also underwent a shake-up, with the president and chairman of its entertainment division departing. With them will hopefully go the cringeworthy product placement, in particular for the Ford F150. As if it weren’t bad enough to have to sit through the adverts.

Still, a fourth season has been commissioned, although as mentioned, it’s not starting until January – the fall sees Desperate Housewives instead, which isn’t the reality show it sounds like. Mind you, perhaps it would be best for the network if it were, given ABC’s dreadful track-record with drama. See the awful Karen Sisco and the entirely pointless Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital – and we loved Lars Von Trier’s original – for details. Roll on January, and let’s hope for a return to the form and content which made the first two seasons of Alias such a refreshing, energetic delight.

Star: Jennifer Garner, Victor Garber, Michael Vartan, Ron Rifkin

Gang of Roses

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“Hip-hop feminist revisionist Western is entertaining mostly for fans of bad movies.”

This comes across less like a Western, more like a feature-length rap promo – with every bit as much emotional depth or historical accuracy. The idea that a gang of ethnic gun-toting women could ever ride into town at the turn of the century, and get served at the local saloon with little problem stretches credulity to near-breaking. It then snaps entirely when faced with their always-immaculate clothes and hair, even as the ladies sleep rough. The group of former bank-robbers return to the fray after the sister of one is killed by outlaws, under the control of the one-eyed Bobby Brown. Insert Whitney Houston joke here. He and his gang have taken control of a town, from a sheriff with a startlingly Australian accent, as part of their search for treasure supposedly buried locally.

With cameos by Mario Van Peebles and Macy Gray, the characterisations never pass the obvious: the revengeful one (Calhoun), the mercenary one (LisaRaye), and then there’s the ho – Lil’ Kim, of course. Despite dialogue about a hundred years later than the period, and an odd subplot that sputters out lamely, about a mysterious figure who seems to be stalking the girls, the directing manages somehow to be worse than the script. Case in point: the innumerable scenes of our heroines riding through the landscape, which serve no purpose whatsoever. The cliches come thick and fast, to the point where you wonder if this is supposed to be a parody – if so, however, it isn’t funny.

What it often is, is bad enough to be entertaining; otherwise, it’s bad enough to be utterly forgettable, and why this got an ‘R’ rating beats me entirely. The writers of another screenplay, Jessie’s Girl, sued the makers, claiming the story here was stolen from their work: in their shoes, I’d have kept very quiet. Must say though: the beautifully colour co-ordinated costumes, below, are fabulous, and the designer thereof deserves an award. Writer/director Lamarre, on the other hand, should be firmly discouraged from carrying out any more ‘reimaginings’.

Dir: Jean-Claude La Marre
Star: Monica Calhoun, LisaRaye, Lil’ Kim, Marie Matiko