Deadly Innocents

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“Sisters are doing it for themselves.”

deadlyAfter shooting her husband, Beth (Crosby) is sent to the funny farm, due to her split personality, Cathy, who was responsible for the murder. Busting out of the funny farm after Cathy takes full control, she holes up in a gas station, run by Angela (Wyss), who is almost as loopy, albeit in a less murderous way, having been raised by her religious fruitcake father, who just passed away. Cathy/Beth’s resemblance to Angela’s late mother helps cement a relationship between the two women. Initially, it may all be frilly dresses, make-up and feminine bonding, as the newcomer brings the repressed young girl out of her shell. But how long will it be before Cathy is stabbing customers in the neck with syringes? [That’s almost guaranteed to get you a poor Yelp review: “while restrooms were clean, the murderous assault by a deranged member of staff was somewhat off-putting”]

Meanwhile, a local cop (Stevens) is courting Angela, and a local retard (Hellman) – hey, you watch the film and tell me that’s not the most accurate description – is exercising her investigative skills, which appear to be at least the equal of the local force. It’s the kind of the overblown Southern melodrama that’s basically begging for a drag queen singalong version; maybe a remake starring Gina Gershon as Cathy, or at least, Jennifer Tilly. Instead, however, we’ve got to make do with Bing Crosby’s daughter, who admittedly, probably knows a bit about controlling fathers. Here, the main takeaway is a new-found respect for Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Gollum, because watching Crosby switch between Beth and Cathy is cringeworthy. Fortunately, the makers appear to realize it, with this aspect all but abandoned once she escapes the mental hospital, and Crosby makes for an entertainingly loony tune.

However, there isn’t actually much, in content or execution, which will stick in your mind – between a couple of bits of gratuitous nudity, this feels for long periods more like a TV movie, or something you’d find on the Hallmark channel. I did quite like the ending, which I’ll confess didn’t see coming, and is darker than I expected. However, too much of this comes over as watered-down, without the courage of any convictions, and it needed to go a good deal further into the realms of madness, to possess any lasting value.

Dir: John D. Patterson.
Star: Mary Crosby, Amanda Wyss, Andrew Stevens, Bonnie Hellman

Emergency Police Lady

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There appear to be no words in Taiwanese for “short, controlled bursts.”

EmergencyPoliceLadyThis 1989 film from Taiwan, swings unevenly between some rather good action, wild stabs at comedy that isn’t as funny as it thinks, and one of the screechiest and least appealing single-note performances, this side of an Adam Sandler movie. Now, I’m not going to able to attribute specific blame for the latter, because it was tough enough finding names for the cast here, let alone associate them with particular characters. The only one I think I recognized was Hu, playing the officer in charge of a new “women’s department,” which is given all the female cops with whom none of their chauvinist colleagues want to work, and who is tasked with trying to forge them into a coherent force. You have the usual mix of “wacky” characters: the taciturn hard-case, the foreign girl (Singapore in this case), and worst of all, the whiny, bespectacled bitch who think she’s the bee’s knees, but is, in fact, completely useless.

I defy anyone to get through five minutes of her scenes, without wanting to reach through the TV and warmly greet her by the throat, to stop her high-pitched shrieking and manic over-acting. Actually, scratch that, since any use of the word “acting” in connection with this performance is entirely inappropriate: she just flails her arms around and pulls faces, in lieu of attempting to convey even the shallowest of emotions. That’s a shame, as there are some elements of this which are perfectly competent, though the script has no surprises, and indeed, doesn’t bother much with a genuine storyline. One second, the girls are going undercover at a nightclub to break up an arms deal (where we learn the ‘fact’ at the top of the review). The next, they’re investigating a gang of robbers who specialize in leaving no witnesses alive, but a torn-off button leaves one woman believing she knows the identity of a gang member.

Still, I’m prepared to forgive the narrative disconnects, because the action isn’t bad. Nothing amazing, mind, but it helps that the director films it well – in particular, finding a good middle-ground of distance, so you aren’t overwhelmed, yet can still tell it’s mostly the actual actresses who are being flung around. Some of the early judo stuff is good, and the final battle against the robbers is also memorable, ending in a giant fireball which seems to come perilously close to toasting the leads, in the same way Devil Hunters would actually do the following year. Admittedly, if the shrieking harridan had turned into a human marshmallow, I’m not sure I’d have shed a tear, and there’s just too much sub-Police Academy slack in the middle, with poor comedy and worse romance occupying far too high a percentage of the running time.

Dir: Lee Tso-Nam
Star: Sibelle Hu, Yip Chuen-Chan, Kau Hoi-Ching, Alexander Lo

Travelers: Dimension Police

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“Explanations? They’re vastly over-rated.”

Travelers_-_Dimension_Police_PosterThis doesn’t so much hit the ground running, as plummet into it at top speed, to such an extent I genuinely stopped the film, to check if this was perhaps part two of an ongoing series. It isn’t: it’s just that unconcerned about explanations. What seems to be going on, is a universe where the different dimensions are now connected. Hence, there’s Retro World, Fairy World, Lost World, etc. This offers new criminal possibilities; to counter these, a trans-dimensional police force is also created. One such officer is Ai (Nagasawa), but her mission, to protect a psychic (Takayama) against the terrorist group Doubt is thrown into… Well, doubt after she meets her former partner Yui (Kinoshita), who appears to have thrown her lot in on the side of the villains.

At least, I think some of the above is probably fairly accurate. I am not prepared to commit any more strongly than that. Easily the best thing this has to offer are the actual fight: Sakamoto did a lot of work on Power Rangers, and also the cult classic Mark Dacascos vehicle, featuring a young Britney Murphy, and the style here is fast and frenetic, with people being punched hard enough to fly into things. A lot. Credit both lead actresses for doing a good chunk of this themselves. Less successful, are just about all the other elements, led by the confusing plot, that appears to think whizzy SFX will remove any need for coherence. Admittedly, it’s not helped by subs, even the official DVD English ones, which are borderline illiterate, and on at least one occasion appear to contradict directly the on-screen action.

I was also more than a little uncomfortable with the apparently leering approach taken to the heroines. Chris, breezing through the living room, airily dismissed it with a roll of her eyes as “Oriental women in shorts,” (see the cover on the right for a good example). While part of me wanted to argue the point, the cheesecake quotient here was just too high for any credible defense: I mean, do you really need skimpy clothes for inter-dimensional travel? The final battle is kinda decent, but I’ll confess, my brain had largely given up on the entire exercise by that point, my attention only being somewhat regained whenever things e.g. fists or actresses started to fly. Sakamoto’s credentials as a fight choreographer are fine, just not in the director’s chair.

Dir: Koichi Sakamoto
Star: Nao Nagasawa, Ayumi Kinoshita, Yuko Takayama, Kenji Ebisawa

Ang Huling Henya

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“Pushing the Manilla envelope too far.”

huling-henyaI’ve seen quite a few Phillippine GWG movies – mostly thanks to Cirio Santiago and/or New World Pictures. But this is likely the first made for local consumption, rather than the West, which may explain why I found large chunks of it almost impenetrable. Is this the kind of thing that has them cheering in the aisles there?

The heroine is Miri (Quinto), an agent for an international organization devoted to protecting scientists, and keeping their inventions out of the wrong hands. After a mission goes bad, resulting in the death of her partner, Miri is sent back home for some time off. However, she’s called back in to help investigate the odd case of a professor who vanished for two weeks, only to return a cannibal and rip his wife’s throat out – and her corpse isn’t apparently entirely dead either. There’s also a mad scientist (Chan) who is experimenting with sucking memories out of people’s heads; her brother (Guzman), who is wasting his potential away in a dead-end job as a barman; and flashbacks revealing the tragic circumstances under which their parents, also scientists, apparently were killed for their invention.

Is it a horror film? It does have zombies. Is is a SF film? The memory transference and some nifty guns, which seem to shoot energy, suggest that. Comedy? The main villainess (Weigmann) shoots anyone who tells her she could be a model, and her sidekick perpetually needs to go to the bathroom. Action? Why not? There’s running around and pointing of guns. Family drama? Sure! The problem is – and some of the local reviews echo this – it just doesn’t commit to any of them, resulting in a movie which pays lip service to being scary, thrilling, funny, or intriguing. A few moments do work. I liked Miri having to go to the supermarket, prosaic stuff international agents aren’t usually seen doing. The finale, pitting heroes against the bad guys, very quietly, in a room full of sleeping zombies, also has potential. I even liked the cool way characters slid from English into the local tongue and back, in the middle of sentences.

However, at over two hours, it’s a good thirty minutes too long, and you could just about slice any half-hour out, and the result would be an improvement. Quinto also makes for a thoroughly unconvincing action star: from what I’ve read, a credible comparison would be a Pinoy version of Amy Poehler, and I’m not sure I would want to see Poehler try her hand in this genre. It’s certainly different, and it’s not bad enough to put me off other example of cinema from the Philippines. However, it’s certainly not good enough to make me actively seek them out.

Dir: Marlon N. Rivera
Star: Rufa Mae Quinto, Edgar Allan Guzman, Ricci Chan, Valerie Weigmann

Gravity

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“Run Sandra Run”

GRAVITY2013 was perhaps a landmark for women in action films. with the top slot at the American box-office going to Jennifer Lawrence in Catching Fire. But also present in the top five was this, which kicked Katniss’s arse for critical acclaim, snaring 10 Oscar nominations to Fire’s… Well, none at all, actually. That’s probably a little starker contrast than is accurate – they are respectively 97% and 90% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes – but it is interesting to compare the two films and their approach. In Gravity, the sex of the lead character simply isn’t very relevant: you could switch it to being a man, and you wouldn’t need to change much, not even the name – Ryan Stone. I’d be unsurprised if told that, like Salt, this was originally written for a male lead. Indeed, it also fails the infamous Bechdel Test of feminism, passing none of its three criteria – though this says more about Bechdel’s uselessness than Gravity, I feel (Run Lola Run also goes 0-for-3, and it’s not the last thing it has in common, as we’ll see).

But Gravity certainly deserves coverage here, every bit as much as Alien – another film where the gender of the hero is largely irrelevant.  Admittedly, in some ways, it’s the very antithesis of what we now associate with “action film”, most obviously with an average shot length claimed in a number of places to be about 45 seconds. I’m not sure the math on that quite works out, and it’s certainly boosted by its amazing opening shot, which runs well over 10 minutes. But in an era where the dreaded “MTV-style” of editing has hampered many a genre entry e.g. a number in the Resident Evil franchise, this is truly a breath of fresh air, with Cuarón happy to let things unfold in front of us, rather than jazz things up with frenetic and pointless cutting, that doesn’t generate tension and excitement less than confusion. Of course, that’s Cuarón’s style: his previous (and excellent) Children of Men had a couple of similarly spectacular long shots.

Stone (Bullock) is a mission specialist, whose debut flight into space is to carry out maintenance on the Hubble. She’s on a spacewalk with shuttle commander, Matt Kowalski (Clooney), when a devastating storm of debris strafes them, knocking out their comms with Earth and leaving Stone tumbling through space. Though Kowalski, with the aid of his jet-pack, brings her back, the shuttle is toast, and there’s no option but to head for the International Space Station, hoping it will provide a safe haven and means of returning to Earth, before both Stone’s air hits empty, and the debris completes another orbit and blasts them once more. However, before getting inside [SPOILER], they get hung up on deployed parachute cords from a module attached to the ISS, and Kowalski cuts himself loose, drifting off in to space. This saves Stone from immediate threat, but she’s now utterly alone and [END SPOILER] facing an escalating series of predicaments, requiring her to dig deep into her inner resources, both mental and physical.

gravity2More than once, I found myself holding my breath, as the heroine fought against the implacable foe of a brutal, unforgiving environment. That’s the first element this has in parallel with Lola, which also had no human adversary. There, it was time which was the enemy, and that’s an aspect here too, with every 90 minutes bringing a new barrage of destruction. But the main thing this has in common is the heroine’s initial dependence on a paternal figure (her true father in Lola) for rescue from their difficult situation. It’s only when that support is removed, and she is thrown back to surviving entirely on her own merits, that the film blossoms fully. For the first 30 minutes, this is little more than space opera heroics, with Clooney being Clooney and some eye-rolling clichés: Kowalski is on his last mission, and another member of the crew has a picture of his family taped to his spacesuit. Yeah, that’ll end well. Still, extremely nice visuals – stunning, to the point this is one of those rare films I will buy on BluRay – are enough to get us through to the last hour, which is basically woman vs. space, and is absolutely compelling.

B-movie critic Joe-Bob Briggs once declared, “The first rule of great drive-in movie-making: Anyone can die at any moment.” By this metric, Gravity is a great drive-in movie, because Ryan’s survival is, often literally, dangling by a slim thread. Whether she’s bouncing around like an interstellar crash-test dummy, running out of oxygen, or bailing out of a space-station on fire, the peril is right there, and it’s Stone finding ways to deal with it that help make her one of the best heroines in mainstream cinema of the past few years. Cuarón, mercifully, doesn’t give her a romantic interested, no boyfriend or even a child back on Earth as motivation for survival: she explicitly says at one point, “No one will mourn for me. No one will pray for my soul.” And it doesn’t matter.  Indeed, that’s a big part of her transformative journey, going from someone who relies on others, uncertain of her own abilities, to being completely self-assured and single-minded. She wants nothing but to live – not for a man, or her offspring, just for herself.

Her final words are a simple, “Thank you”: it’s not clear to whom they’re addressed, since it has been made clear, Stone isn’t religious. Perhaps it’s gratitude for her rebirth: I suspect it’s no coincidence that there are scenes and shots here, which appear consciously to echo a caterpillar emerging from a cocoon, or a turtle struggling out of the egg. Bullock’s performance is beautifully understated, which is exactly as needed for the scenario – what’s the point in hysterics when there’s no-one around to see them? – and over the course of the film, she goes from a somewhat annoying, dependent second banana, to someone in whom you are fully invested. With her survival highly uncertain, right until the final frame (hey, cameo appearance by Arizona’s own Lake Powell!), I’m not certain how much repeat viewing this might have. It’s possible knowing the outcome may degrade the tension which is certainly one of the film’s strongest suits. However, even discounting that, there’s an awful lot here to like and appreciate, Cuarón has likely become one of those few directors whose name alone is enough to get me to watch, but everyone involved here deserves enormous praise for their work in crafting a memorable piece of cinema.

Dir: Alfonso Cuarón
Star: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

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T.N.T. Jackson

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“More of a damp squib than dynamite.”

tntjacksonDescribed in 1975 by no less than Roger Ebert as, “easily the worst movie I’ve seen this year,” Jackson concerns the investigation of the titular T.N.T. (Bell) into the disappearance of her brother in Hong Kong. It seems to have something to do with the drug-smuggling ring run by Sid (Metcalf), whose minions include Elaine (Anderson), who might not be quite what she seems, and Charlie (Shaw), the only person in Hong Kong whose Afro can rival TNT’s for size, firmness or general Afro-tastic quality.  Someone keeps hijacking Sid’s shipments, so Charlie puts together a team of the colony’s finest fighters to protect it: seeing her chance to get into the organization, T.N.T. auditions and gets a job. However, no everyone is as convinced of her innocence as Sid.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as the late Mr. Ebert (though the cover on the right likely ranks up there with the very worst visualizations of all time!), but this comes over as a lame imitation of Pam Grier’s genre entries, with a greater emphasis on martial-arts, rather than gunplay or other forms of violence. Which is kinda weird, considering that Bell was previously most famous for being the first African-American woman to be seen on the cover of Playboy. The other oddness here is that it was co-written by cult actor Dick Miller, who had a long career working for Roger Corman, in the likes of Bucket of Blood, and The Little Shop of Horrors. This was the last of his three writing credits; I guess, he figured that after this, things could only go downhill.

There are a couple of scenes of striking brutality – an early arm-breaking and the finale, where she punches her opponent’s heart out – and one, which I’m still trying to figure out if it’s empowering or racist, where T.N.T., keeps turning the lights out because she’s almost invisible in the dark. Well, as long as she doesn’t smile, I guess. The fights are pretty unimpressive, with some painfully obvious stunt doubling for Bell. Truth be told, Anderson probably fares better than the heroine in this category, and the best fight might be between the two of them in a graveyard. However, much of this has not stood the test of time well, and the film desperately needs someone like Grier, to elevate proceedings through sheer force of personality.

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Stan Shaw, Pat Anderson, Ken Metcalf
Previously capsule reviewed in the Women Who Kick Butt box-set.

Raze

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“Raze-ing the standard.”

 It’s interesting to read other reviews, which span the range from “This ugly, dull and idiotic actioner doesn’t know if it wants be fun or grim. It winds up simply bring deplorable exploitation,” to “an incredible action film… giving viewers exactly what it promises to give without pulling any punches or wasting time. I absolutely loved it.” This seems to be one of the cases where your preexisting mindset may determine your reaction, as much as any qualities of the movie. There’s not really any other way I can see, to explain a reaction like the former. I mean, “deplorable exploitation”? Really? There’s no nudity at all, and indeed, the basic plot is familiar from any number of films with male protagonists, which somehow managed to avoid such sniffy critiques. Rather than JCVD, say, being forced to kick arse in an underground fighting tournament, it’s Zoë Bell. I’m down with this, and also find the complete lack of any romantic interest, for example, a refreshing change [as contrast, we watched this the same day as Killer Women, which wheeled out so many clichés, it needed a separate trailer for them].

It does throw something of a left-turn at the beginning, starting with Jamie (Rachel Nichols) waking to find herself in an underground bunker. More casual viewers – which would not be anyone here, we trust – will assume she’s the heroine. They’re in for a nasty shock, as she meets another prisoner, Sabrina (Bell), and in the ensuing fight, Jamie’s head is reduced to something resembling an uncooked pizza, in both shade and texture. Sabrina is apparently ahead of the curve, being aware of what’s going on. 50 women have been hand-picked for their fighting ability, and have been abducted to take part in a series of fights to the death, their participation ensured by threats to their loved ones [it’s implied that women are more susceptible even though, for example, Sabrina gave up the daughter at risk for adoption over a decade ago]. This is under the control of Joseph (Jones) and his equally-nutty wife Elizabeth (Fenn), who appear to have been at this for some time, providing viewing pleasure of a select group of spectators, though the logistics are left kinda vague.

Of the 50, we see only one small corner, less than ten of the women, focusing on Sabrina as she makes her way through the competition. It’s obvious from the first time we see the others who her nemesis is going to be. Phoebe (Marshall) appears to be genuinely enjoying the chance to unleash her inner psychopath, and to some extent, you’re left to twiddle your thumbs waiting for the inevitable face-off to occur. The other women, including fellow Death Proof alumni, Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, aren’t given much more than extended cameos: while still personalities to some degree, these are quick sketches, not enough to do more than trigger a vague burst of sympathy, before their lifeless corpses are being dragged out of the stone-lined ring. However, Sabrina vs. Phoebe is far from being the end of the matter. Indeed, it’s thereafter that things become most interesting, as we eventually enter what the inter-title accurately calls “Sabrina vs. everybody.” This includes an amusing, brief appearance by Saw‘s Leigh Whannell, who disses Bell’s home country, and pays the price, almost before he can finish the sentence.

If the action is good to very good, it’s just a little disappointing, in part I suspect because none of the other women are up to Bell’s high standard of work. I should stress, they certainly don’t suck: however, the gap between her and them is obvious, and a longer climax, pitting Sabrina against guards closer to her skill-set would have been welcome. The fights are also much of a muchness in terms of style: while the tournament cliché often has different martial-arts forms battling for dominance, the cliché makes sense, as it allows for variety. Here, not so much, and the uniform look of white vest and sweat-pants worn by all competitors also tends to leave them merging in to each other as you look back. That said, they’re brutal to the max, Waller keeping the camera in very tight to enhance this aspect. There’s one moment, involving a face being repeatedly introduced to the wall, which reminded me of The Raid, and any comparison to the best action film of the last decade is a good thing. However, it’s perhaps telling that I couldn’t tell you without checking, which two competitors were fighting at the time.

slice-razeOn the other hand, the acting was certainly much better than in the male versions of the storyline mentioned earlier. You’ve seen Jones before, but probably under make-up, e.g. as Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films, and he chews the scenery at just the right level of intensity here for an insane villain, with Fenn not far behind, and as much fun to watch. [I was somewhat reminded of the antagonist in ferocious French horror film Martyrs: both have their own, vastly twisted agenda, and don’t give a damn who gets hurt as a result] I already mentioned Marshall, but it’s Bell who gets the most screen time, and the most difficult role, having to provide the film with an emotional heart while smashing heads, and not having much dialogue to speak of. Instead, it’s mostly a physical performance – which may work to Bell’s advantage. Regardless, I’d say it succeeds, particularly on a visceral level: if you don’t cheer when Sabrina charges out of the cell, on her way to the long-awaited, no-holds barred confrontation with Phoebe, you’re far more phlegmatic than I.

The makers have said they weren’t going for any deep philosophical or moral meaning, and just wanted a female take on a male genre. Inevitably, it’s going to be treated as more by a lot of people, and I suspect it’ll end up being a cinematic Rorschach test, where people will see whatever they want to see. Looking for feminism? You’ll find it. Expecting exploitation? It’s there. However, I’m happy to take the end result purely at face value, and considering the budget was below a million dollars, can only conclude that – much like Bell herself – it punches well above its weight. There will be bigger action heroine films this year, certainly. Will there be any better ones? We’ll have to wait and see, since this has set the bar at a decent height, particularly for early January.

Dir: Josh C. Waller
Star: Zoe Bell, Doug Jones, Rebecca Marshall, Sherilyn Fenn

High Kickers

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“Desperately in need of more kick.”

highkickersHanging on the wall of the training gym in this film, is a banner on which is written in large letters: “WTF”. I imagine this is probably supposed to stand for “World Taekwondo Federation”, but it’s an unfortunate acronym for any organization. Says quite a bit that this is perhaps the most memorable thing, in what is not far from a Chinese knock-off of one of the more forgettable American martial-arts flicks of the 80’s, Best of the Best. Lingling (Huang) shows up one day at a failing taekwondo school run by Zhao Yumin (Liu), and asks to be trained for the national championships, even though she’s never fought before. Zhao sets her an impossible challenge, but when Lingling succeeds, is forced to take her on. As the rest of the film unfolds, we discover why the gym is failing – a former pupil died in a previous championship bout against the cockily brutal Gao Zhi (Cheng) – and also the reason for LingLing’s sudden interest in martial arts. If you’ve seen Best, you’ll probably be there already.

To give you some idea of how generally lame this is, the “impossible challenge” set for the heroine is… to go to a railway station and buy a ticket. We’re given no idea of why this is supposedly such a feat, because we don’t get to see any of it. Maybe it’s surrounded by a pit of crocodiles or something. Huang is also pretty unconvincing, with arms like twigs: before her climactic battle, we get to see her in one bout, which she wins with a gimmick move, so the viewer is never given any reason to feel that she has a realistic chance against Gao. That’s especially the case, after the only martial arts worthy of note, which is when he comes to the gym and basically demolishes an entire platoon of trainees.

The rest of the time is little more than a parade of martial-arts clichés, with Xie far too over-fond of the training montage as a cinematic device. Admittedly, my school of thought says “once” is about the limit, and you’d better have a good reason for doing it that often. Still, it’s in line with the other aspects: the characters are uninteresting, performances nothing special and, with the sole exception noted above, the fight sequences do little to generate excitement or interest. I note that the film is conveniently missing from Gordon Liu’s filmography on the IMDb: if I were in his shoes, I’d probably hope it stays that way.

Dir: Xie Yi
Star: Eva Huang, Gordon Liu, Mark Cheng, Daniel Chan

Kite trailer + clips

The adaptation of the infamous manga and anime was mentioned just a few days ago, in our 2014 preview, but we now have more info, in the shape of the first trailer, and four clips. Per the synopsis, it’s the story of “Sawa (India Eisley), a young woman living in a failed state after the financial collapse, where a corrupt security force profits on the trafficking of young women. When Sawa’s policeman father is killed, she vows to track the murderer down with the help of his ex-partner, Karl Aker (Samuel L. Jackson).”