Jane Got a Gun

starstar
“The sixties called. They want their Western back.”

janegotagunThere have been no shortage of revisionist spins on the Western over the last few years, looking to drag the genre into the 21st century after it seemed all but dead. Just in the last four months, I’ve seen Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight and The Salvation, and while their approaches have been radically different – as have the degree of their success – they are, at least, trying to bring something new to the party. Jane Got a Gun? Not so much, to the point that viewers may feel the urge to check they haven’t fallen through some kind of wormhole, back to the era of Bonanza and The Virginian.

The rural farming life of Jane Hammond (Portman) and her husband, Bill (Emmerich), is thrown into turmoil, when he comes home, shot multiple times. Turns out, he had a battle with notorious outlaws, the Bishop Boys, which ended with several dead on their side, and Bill severely injured. Worse follows in the wake, as John Bishop (McGregor) is on the trail, seeking revenge for his men. With Bill in no state to defend himself and Jane, she turns to former boyfriend Dan Frost (Edgerton, also co-writer on the screenplay), who reluctantly agrees to help Jane stand against the Bishops.

The results are so overwhelmingly bland, one suspects they’re a great deal interesting than the disastrous production, which saw original director Lynne Ramsay literally not show up on the set for the first day of shooting. It took almost three further years for the movie to be released – and they probably shouldn’t have bothered, since it was the lowest grossing wide opening weekend ever for the Weinstein company, then posted the worst second weekend drop ever for a 1,000-plus screen release. Though you can see why it flopped, it’s not a bad movie, just an utterly forgettable one, without a single particularly memorable character to be found. Portman – also a producer, which may explain some things – perhaps comes out best, although her performance consists mostly of setting her jaw and exuding steely resolve. It’s not complemented by the flashback structure used in the story, which is clunky at best, and results in a severe lack of narrative flow. What was the hot-air balloon about, for instance?

It’s even fairly retro in the way Jane leaves most of the fighting to Dan, at least until the very end, and the movie simply feels astonishingly safe, as if O’Connor was reluctant to take any risks at all, for fear of jeopardizing a production which had already gone very badly wrong before his arrival. But sometimes (and Apocalypse Now is likely the best example), film-makers just need to say, “Screw it”, and plunge on regardless towards realizing their vision. If the results may or may not be great, they’ll probably be less forgettable than here, and considering how long it took to arrive, it wasn’t worth the wait.

Dir: Gavin O’Connor
Star: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Ewan McGregor

Strange Empire

starstarstarstar
“Strangely appealing.”

strangemepireThis Canadian TV series ran for 13 episodes, but was not renewed at the end of the first series, leaving the double shock which occurred at the end of the final episode, with no hope of resolution. That’s a shame, since there was a lot to like about its grubby portrayal of 1869 life, just north of the border between Canada and Montana. It begins when a wagon train of settlers, passing near the mining settlement of Janestown, is attacked and almost all the men are killed or driven away, leaving the women to fend for themselves. In particular, there is Kat Loving (Gee), a half-Indian sharpshooter who seeks the truth about her husband’s fate, and Rebecca Blithely (Farman), a female medical researcher, something almost unheard of at the time. But they are up against John Slotter (Poole), who runs Janestown as his own personal fiefdom, and whose wife Isabelle (Jones) is a match for the new arrivals in terms of her wits, and likely surpasses them when it comes to crafting of intrigues.

It’s the characters – the three women, and let’s not forget John, who eventually becomes the glue that binds them together in common cause – which drive this. Kat is certainly the most conventionally “heroic,” becoming the town’s sheriff, a position which brings her into direct conflict with Slotter; yet, she also has a murky past, being a wanted woman for the murder of a surveyor. Rebecca is the most difficult to get a handle on; while possessing a brilliant mind, she has a near-total lack of “people skills”, to the point of near-sociopathy. Finally, Isabelle possesses no scruples and is prepared to do absolutely whatever may be necessary to achieve her goals and escape her low-born upbringing – including seducing her husband’s father, when access to his money becomes necessary. They make a fascinating trio, well-drawn and well-portrayed by the actresses concerned.

The past year has seen a number of new takes on the Western genre, from Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight to The RevenantEmpire does, perhaps, try somewhat too hard to be subversively revisionist, not least in the gratuitously transgender “cowboy”, who seems to have been added to the story for no reason than to appeal to trendy modern sensibilities. It’s much better when not attempting to pander to those, sticking with the Slotters’ efforts to keep their teetering mine business afloat, along with its probably more profitable brothel sideline, by any means necessary. This is balanced with Kat’s refusal to let John act like some kind of medieval baron, and insistence that he face the consequences of his murderous actions, which are becoming increasingly more frequent – if she can’t get justice for the massacre of the male settlers, perhaps there are other crimes that can be pinned on him.

While there are a number of side-threads (the strong role of Chinese businessman Ling is also very interesting), it’s this which drives the plot forward, and I was kept watching in the fervent hope of seeing Slotter get what he deserves. It’s to the show’s credit, with its unwillingness to collapse into a simple “black hat/white hat” mentality, that the outcome remained in doubt until almost the last few minutes of the final episode.

Created by: Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik
Star: Cara Gee, Melissa Farman, Tattiawna Jones, Aaron Poole

The Complete Adventures of Senorita Scorpion, by Les Savage, Jr.

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

scorpion1Action adventure fiction, in the pulp era, tended to be a male-dominated field; the writers and readers were overwhelmingly male, and the protagonists having the adventures and engaging in the derring-do tended to be correspondingly male. The culture of that day had deep-rooted stereotypes about the unfitness of the “weaker sex” for strenuous physical challenges, and about the inappropriateness of combat as a role for females who were supposed to be naturally gentle and demure. But there were writings that bucked these assumptions, particularly in the Western genre. Senorita Scorpion, the creation of Les Savage, Jr. (1922-1958), wasn’t actually the first pistol-packing cowgirl to be featured in the Western pulps of the 30s and 40s; but she proved to be the most popular, one of the most unique, and probably the subject of the longest running and thickest corpus of material of any of these fictional ladies: seven stories, originally published in Action Stories from 1944-49. Through its Altus Press imprint, (CreateSpace is just the printing service) Pro Se Press seeks to bring the best fiction of the early modern pulp magazine era back into print, in book form now, for a new generation of fans. These stories (plus one by Emmett McDowell, which used the Senorita Scorpion name for an entirely different character) were a felicitous choice for one of their first projects, in two volumes.

The stories included here are: “Senorita Scorpion” (1944); “The Brand of Senorita Scorpion” (1944); “Secret of Santiago” (1944); “The Curse of Montezuma” (1945); “Brand of the Gallows-Ghost” (1945); “Lash of the Six-Gun Queen” (1947); “Gun Witch of Hoodoo Range” by McDowell (1948); and “The Sting of Senorita Scorpion” (1949). For purposes of this review, the McDowell story is considered separately; the main body of the comments below refer just to the stories by Savage.

Our setting here is Brewster County, Texas in the 1890s. This is a real county, located in the Big Bend area west of the Pecos and north of the Rio Grande, and the geography of the area as depicted by Savage is real, including the inhospitable Dead Horse Mountains. When we first meet protagonist Elgera Douglas, a.k.a. “Senorita Scorpion,” she’s a girl outlaw pulling off a daring robbery, but she’s not an outlaw who wants to prey on others in order to live without working; her motivations are considerably different. They’re rooted in the background of the story series, which is gradually disclosed in the first tale; but it won’t be an undue spoiler to explain it here.

In 1681, a grandee of New Spain, Don Simeon Santiago, discovered a gold mine in the Dead Horse Mountains, originally worked by the local Indians. He built a house and ranch there, in the only valley in the range with enough water to support humans and cattle, and sent several fantastically rich shipments of gold south to Mexico. Soon, however, the ranch was attacked by raiding Comanche, who killed everyone they could find and, when they left, sealed off entrance or egress to the valley by caving in the mine tunnel which served for that purpose. The only survivors were George Douglas, a British-born slave originally captured from an English ship in the Caribbean, and a Mexican Indian slave woman. From these two, over the next two centuries an inbred Douglas clan of mixed Anglo-Indian ancestry and culture grew up in the valley. In 1876, they finally succeeded in digging through the mine and re-uniting with the rest of the world, though they kept the location of their valley secret.

By 1891, clan leader and official landholder John Douglas, Elgera’s father, lies in a coma, and the Santiago lands are under the covetous eye of ruthless cattle baron Anse Hawkman, who owns everything in the area worth owning and has used legal chicanery to force the smaller landholders off their claims. Elgera (“El Gera” is Spanish for “the blonde one”) is one of three children, the only girl, and not the oldest; but with her father disabled she’s the undisputed leader of the family. Savage never actually explains why; we’re left to infer that it’s because of her strong, born-leader personality –which is definitely evidenced– and the respect commanded, in a situation where fighting is a necessity, by her formidable gun skills, which considerably surpass those of most men. She’s become an outlaw, as the law defines it, in order to strike back at Hawkman and his interests.

scorpion2From this beginning, the first four stories proceed in a chronological arc; each is self contained, but the following ones build on the preceding ones in terms of character and situational development, so that what we have is a genuine story cycle. In the later three stories, the chronological relationship to the rest of the corpus isn’t as clear, except that they all take place after the events of the first story, and that “Lash of the Six-Gun Queen” is set near the end of the decade. Savage makes statements inconsistent in details with what he wrote earlier in one story, and another tale also gives some evidence of forgetfulness on his part. The rest of the Douglas clan simply disappears in the later stories, and their unique sociological circumstances aren’t explored at all, while the Santiago Ranch functions about like a set or a piece of furniture; there’s not much attention to its fortunes or the practicalities of running it. Elgera’s supposedly well-known skill at cards is only brought out in “Brand of the Gallows-Ghost,” and never mentioned elsewhere.

The major characters are well-developed, and several appear in more than one of the stories. (Chisos Owens tends to play as large a role in most of the stories as Elgera does, and actually does more of the fighting.) Savage develops his plots with considerable originality and artistry, and the stories benefit from his trademark serious research to ground his work in actual Western history. (The fraudulent so-called “History of Montezuma,” for instance, really was produced in 1846 under the conditions he describes in “The Curse of Montezuma;” and while I haven’t been able to check his details about 17th-century Native American and Spanish mining/smelting practices in “Secret of Santiago,” they have a ring of truth.) He writes action scenes well; he’s an excellent prose stylist, and has a good sense of pacing, and the stories employ elements of mystery which are very effective in adding to the suspense he conjures. Elgera’s a likable character, as are the various good guys who assist her; and the villains are the sort you love to root against. A half-Indian heroine is as much of a trail-blazing feature, in this period, as a combat-capable one, and Savage’s treatment of Hispanic and Indian characters isn’t racist; some are villains, but others are treated very positively.

Critics might complain that some plot elements are a bit exotic (such as a character who’s a Satanist, or the premise of a peyote-based cult in one story), or that there’s some reliance on coincidence in places. But peyote use really is historically a feature of Southwestern Indian religion, and coincidence IS at times a feature of real life, too. There’s not much bad language in the stories (McDowell uses more of it than Savage does), and what there is isn’t particularly rough.

In terms of her action chops, we’re told much more often about Elgera’s gun skills than we’re shown them –but we are shown them occasionally. She uses lethal force sparingly (and only in defense of herself or others), though when she has to, she takes it calmly in stride. (Bad guys who take her on hand to hand –and she’s no slouch at that type of fighting, either!– usually wind up killing themselves accidentally; but as a group, they’re too stupid to recognize that pattern and avoid it. :-) )

Will Murray contributes introductions to both volumes; the second one deals mostly with the genesis and publication of the stories, but the first one regrettably concentrates mostly on the sex appeal of the pulp cowgirl characters in general and the more salacious aspects of the cover art. To be sure, many males then and now were, and are, culturally conditioned to view both real and fictional women only, or primarily, as sexual commodities. But that’s not, IMO, the most helpful lens here for viewing the character –nor the primary one that Savage invites us to use. Yes, he depicts Elgera as powerfully attractive to most of his male characters (and she tends to be fickle in her own romantic attractions –one of my primary quibbles with his portrayal of the character). But the stories certainly aren’t about sex, Elgera and her male admirers never do anything more than kiss, and her sexuality is just an ancillary part –not the be-all-and-end-all– of who her character is.

A brief word will suffice about McDowell’s story. My wife considered it out of place, and a detriment to the book; it’s included because Savage’s publishers, when he was too busy working on a novel at the time, enlisted McDowell to write a Senorita Scorpion story, and this is what they got. He used the name, but makes the woman’s character and circumstances totally different from Savage’s Elgera, and changes the setting to Arizona in the early 1880s to boot. Essentially, it’s a story about a completely different woman with the same nickname. Taken on its own terms, though, it’s actually a solid story with an excellent twist, and one of my favorites in the book.

Author: Les Savage, Jr.
Publisher: Altus Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as printed books: Volume 1 and Volume 2

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Bletchley Circle

bletchleystarstarstarstar

“A kinder, gentler time? Hardly.”

Set in the early 1950’s, this was a brief – seven episodes over two seasons – but very effective TV series, with heroines who used brains, rather than brawn, to solve crimes which the authorities are either unable or unwilling to address. The origins of the group were during World War II, when their analytical skills were put to vital use, cracking German communications, out of the then-secret Bletchley Park base. But after the war, the women returned to normal lives; Susan Gray (Martin) is now married, a mother of two, and uses her talents for nothing more taxing than crosswords. But she is intrigued by a series of serial murders, and detects an apparent pattern in them. When her attempts to through official channels are met with little more than a pat on the head and a suggestion to return to the kitchen, she contacts her colleagues from Bletchley, who begin gathering and analyzing information on their own. This makes use of the skills each has:  for instance, Jean (Graham) works as a librarian, while Lucy (Rundle) has a photographic memory, and asks as the group’s computer database.

There are basically three feature-length stories here. The first takes place over three 45-minute episodes, the others being covered in a pair. After the serial killer case, the group then move on to a case of murder involving another Bletchley Park girl, who is accused – with apparently damning evidence and no denial – of the murder of a scientist. The third story was, for me, the most interesting: one of the circle is involved in slightly-shady black market trades, which brings her into the circle of a vicious organized crime gang, perhaps surprisingly, also led by a woman, Maltese immigrant Marta Magro (Brana Bajic). It becomes apparent they are trading in a good deal more than French perfume and illicit booze – and also have friends in high places, who have no interest in having the highly profitable apple-cart upset by four inquisitive women.

This is a well-constructed look back at a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard, despite significant contributions to the war effort less than a decade previously. If occasionally a bit hand-wavey on the details, it’s also nice to see a series that values pure intelligence; while the physical aspects are limited, that works to the show’s advantage, since you know the heroines have to rely on their wits. There is a certain amount of over-correction in the other direction, with none of the male characters being particularly likable, and certainly nowhere near as smart as the female ones, and in a longer show that could become wearingly one-sided. However, the women are depicted as not without their flaws either. It’s not dissimilar in tone or era to another British show, Call the Midwife, though is much less sentimental and nostalgic; this was a time when food rationing was still in effect, and the nation was still struggling to rebuild itself.

It’s certainly a shame the show was so relatively short-lived, even by the brief standards of UK TV shows. There’s a quality of production here – not just in the period atmosphere, also in the performances – that is all too rare, and its an idea that had almost unlimited potential for future expansion. Refreshingly free of any need for romantic diversions or unresolved sexual tensions (I’m looking at you, Agent Carter), this may be relatively placid compared to some of the entries we cover here, yet is no less worthy for putting mind before muscle.

Creator: Guy Burt
Star: Anna Maxwell Martin. Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle, Julie Graham

My Young Auntie

starstarstarstarhalf
“Serious kung fu, light gags.”

youngauntieHui won the Best Actress award at the first ever Hong Kong Film Awards for her role in this 1981 film, in which she plays Cheng Tai-nun, a young martial-arts expert who marries an elderly landowner so that his unscrupulous brother won’t be able to take the landowner’s assets upon his death. Instead, title passes to Tai-nun, who heads off to Canton to stay with her (much older) nephew, Yu Cheng-chuan (Lau), and his son Yu Tao (Ho), whose hip, young ways clash badly with Tai-nun much more traditionalist views. But the brother plans to steal the dead to what he considers “his” estate, and it’s up to Tao and Tai-nun to prevent that – with the help of a roster of elder relatives and Cheng-chuan, who must also be coached in the ways of kung-fu.

There’s three-quarters of a very good film here, and Hui is amazing; not someone to whom I’d paid any attention before, she was both lithe and graceful. This isn’t limited to her fighting skills. Perhaps the peak of the film is a masked ball which Tai-nun is tricked into attending by Tao, and her lack of dance skills are embarrassingly exposed, in a range of genres from tango to swing. It’s brilliant, because you get a real appreciation for the coordination required in making yourself look incredibly uncoordinated. That this turns into a massive and well choreographed sword-fight, with Tai-nun dressed as Marie Antoinette [at a guess] is merely a very pleasant bonus. Director Lau went on to helm Drunken Master II and this has much the same approach, combining comedy and action to good effect; the laughter flows naturally from the characters, rather than (as so often) appearing forced; the caption from the trailer, quoted at the top, gets it about right.

The main problem is a final third which unceremoniously shunts Tai-nun off to one side, with the climax pitting Tao and his older uncles against their thieving relative, as they try to get the property deed back to its rightful owner. If decent enough, there’s nothing at all to separate it from a plethora of other films of its kind and type from the era, and you just wish they had given Hui – perhaps with Ho – a final chance to shine, instead of all but eliminating her from the movie that bears her character’s name. Still, if you can keep your brain around the blizzard of generational family loyalties (or, alternatively, ignore them completely), you’re in for a fun time. If it could fairly be accused of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the wall, more than enough sticks to justify it, and Hui makes for a striking heroine, whose other films I am clearly going to have to chase down.

Dir: Lau Kar Leung
Star: Kara Hui, Hsiao Ho, Lau Kar Leung, Wang Lung Wei, Gordon Liu

Coyote, by Bran Gustafson

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

coyoteFull disclosure up front: the author and I are in a couple of Goodreads groups together, so I was aware of his debut novel; and I knew he’d offered a free review e-copy to group members. I didn’t request one, since I prefer to read in print format; but on the recommendation of my friend David Wittlinger, I did put my name in for the paperback Goodreads giveaway (which is still ongoing!). When Bran became aware of my preference for paper, he kindly gifted me with a paperback copy, which I really appreciate. His openness to honest feedback is also appreciated; he made it clear from the outset that he’d appreciate even a bad review as long as it was honest and provided him with feedback. It didn’t take me long to read enough to tell that my review wasn’t going to be a bad one!

Coyote (the relevance of the title becomes clear eventually, but it has a symbolic significance as well, IMO) is set in the fictional Western U.S. state of Montezuma, “the Untamed State.” Montezuma is a state in economic and moral free-fall since the depletion of its oil deposits and the resulting decamping of the industry, and the closing of its one interstate highway due to maintenance and safety issues. Much of it is inhospitable mountain and desert terrain, unable to sustain a large population without outside resources, so population (especially decent, wholesome population) is declining and social pathology is on the rise. Crime and violence flourish, but not much else does. To this not very inviting place comes Mai, our 20-something protagonist, with no resources but a Bronco (the four-wheeled type) and a .38. She was born here; but what motivates her to return isn’t immediately revealed. Her Bronco breaks down in a declining town, where she soon finds that its bleak, shabby exterior masks a festering, rancid mass of lucrative vice and corruption, over which two murderous redneck clans vie for control.

Author Gustafson has elsewhere cited “spaghetti Westerns” as a major literary influence on this novel (an opener for a projected series), and the noir tradition (more so in its extremely grungy modern state, rather than the more restrained classic models) is clearly another serious one. But the kind of central role Clint Eastwood so often played in Westerns of this stripe is Mai’s here, and the switch to the distaff side creates a subtly different dynamic of its own. One reviewer has said he’s not sure if Mai is a good or a bad person, nor sure if even she knows. Personally, I’m not that doubtful. Some significant choices Mai makes and significant things she does clearly show me that she is basically a good person at her core, who listens to her conscience. And while I’ve used the word “noir,” the author’s own vision clearly isn’t morally anarchic; in its own way, we could even call this a morality tale.

That said, readers have to be prepared for a journey through a world of moral and physical grunge that can almost be nauseating in places. Mai herself is no plaster saint. Raised without roots by a now-dead, peripatetic con man father (the Bronco was basically their home), she had virtually no positive rearing, by example or precept. Hard-living and sometimes hard-drinking, in desperate circumstances, she’s not above stealing what she needs; her speaking style can be profane or obscene, and she’s too emotionally-constipated and wary of others to form a relationship with any other person, but not averse to one-night sexual stands –more, I think, as a lonely way of reaching out for even illusory human connection than as a deliberate attempt to exploit others. (At this point in his life, that seems to me to describe bar owner/tender Slim’s sexual psychology, too.) She’s also got a savage temper that can be dangerous, though not to the inoffensive.

Slim has some qualities, good and bad, similar to hers; and flawed as they are, this pair actually represents, in the town of Maquina, the closest thing it has to forces of goodness and light. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the forces of real darkness and evil, embodied in the worst sadistic dregs of the Skaggs and Carter clans. In between these poles, we have a continuum of characters varying in their shades of gray, who may provide textbook examples of the unwillingness of most people to actively oppose evil if it involves any risk or inconvenience, and of the remarkable ability of humans to convince ourselves that our behavior is justified (even when we know it’s totally wrong).

On the plus side, all of these characters are drawn with wonderful precision and distinctness. The pace of the story is fast and non-stop, and it’s deliberately designed to be a quick read, with short chapters (some only a page long) that entice you into turning pages. (And you won’t need much enticement; the need to know what’s going to happen next here is compulsive!) Mai’s self contained and stand-offish, hard to get to know, much less like (though that doesn’t mean you won’t, by the time you close the book!), but she’s easy to side with and care about, and she’s a more dynamic character inside than she initially seems to be. In a novel where action is an important component, the author handles action scenes well. (Some are a bit graphic; there are a couple of mental images that aren’t best read by the squeamish.) As an action heroine, Mai’s got guts and resolve (she may not be the biggest dog in the fight, but she’s got more fight in her than some), but she’s not a trained pro with her gun, and she can make mistakes with it (one of them a lulu). In her situation, that makes her believable, where a super firearms expert wouldn’t be. And the ending is so perfect it raised the rating at least a quarter star. (There’s no cliffhanger as such, either.)

A final thought: obviously, in creating this setting, which is practically post-apocalyptic though not actually so, the author is trying to establish a modern American milieu where he can let his characters operate in an essentially lawless environment. Beyond that, though, I think there is some real social commentary here –an implication that it might not take much in the way of economic and moral collapse for the whole U.S. to go the way of Montezuma; and there are real life tendencies pushing in that direction. (And if that happens, decent people won’t have 49 other states to move to; they’ll have to keep a moral compass, and make their stand where they are.)

Note: Readers should be strongly warned that there’s a LOT of bad language here (f-words, profanity, vulgarism, etc., which characterizes the speech of most characters, some to the point where it’s clear they can’t communicate any other way. (Mai and Slim aren’t really any more profane than the average person with their background would be.) And although there’s really no explicit sex as such, there are very definite sexual situations and implied sex (the town brothel is a key part of the setting), and the exploitative sexual attitudes and raunchy, sexually-oriented talk from some characters is very pervasive. These factors were what cost the book a fifth star; just because they impacted my enjoyment that negatively. But it’s important to note that Bran is not trying to promote bad language or raunchy sex, and that these aren’t what the book is about; rather, it’s about morality and healthy relationships in the midst of a bad and raunchy world. And readers less bothered by these points might easily rate the book as even a five-star read.

Author: Bran Gustafson
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Hooker With a Rocket Launcher

promo6Some titles conceal their meaning behind layers of depth. Needless to say, this is not one of those – but it is, instead, one that demands your attention, and I was not surprised to hear that, according to its Canadian creator, Chris Greenaway,”The title definitely came first.” However, inspiration for this short came from a number of sources. Most obvious among those is Hobo With a Shotgun, the fake trailer originally part of the Grindhouse double-bill, directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, before eventually becoming a real (and wonderfully trashy) movie, starring Rutger Hauer.  But Chris says the project additionally “drew inspiration from 80s ‘hooker movies’ such as Angel and Vice Squad. As Misty’s weapon of choice indicates, we were also heavily influenced by the awesome Cannon Films action movies of the 80’s like the Death Wish sequels and Delta Force.” I’ll pause here, for anyone of a certain age to sigh nostalgically.

Lead actress Adrianne Winfield needed no convincing, having worked with Greenaway previously: “Adrianne enquired about the role when I posted a casting call so I didn’t actually have to pitch it to her at all. She really liked the premise.” The actual production was relatively quick, just 2-3 evenings – one of those a reshoot day – with between two and four hours of shooting each night. Perhaps surprisingly (or not, if you have experience of how tolerantly placid our Northern cousins tend to be!), the film-makers didn’t have any problem toting large weaponry round the streets. “We had no issues with the rocket launcher because up close it looks VERY fake,” laughs Greenaway. “We also shot at night when most people were out of the downtown area.”

Chris came relatively late to production. Originally a writer, of everything from comic strips to travel articles, he transitioned into making films after returning home in 2006, after teaching English in Japan. He recalls, “I went through a number of training workshops, and worked as a P/A on a number of sets while making the transition into writing screenplays.” He has been making web series since 2008, with six to his name so far, as well as a host of shorts, and directed his first full-length feature, Witchstalker, in 2013, which was released by Screamtime Films the following year. His IMDb filmography reads like a love-letter to pop culture and bad film, with titles such as Beach Blanket Lucha, Ninjas of the Caribbean and Escape From Ridgemont High.

But what of Misty, whose armaments would make the residents of Sin City‘s Old Town deeply envious? “The reactions have been very positive from the get go. We’ve had several very positive reviews and feedback from my existing fans on Youtube has also been great,” says Greenaway, who would like to see Hooker follow in the footsteps of its Hobo predecessor, and blossom from a trailer into a full-blown movie. “We’re hoping to do a crowdfunding campaign to make it into a feature film. Once I’m done with a few other projects I’m involved in at this time, we can go all in with this!” We certainly hope that’s a project which comes to fruition – some day, we will get to utter the immortal line, “Play Misty for me…” Here’s the film, in its glorious, full 132 seconds.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

starstarstarstarhalf
“Not exactly Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, shall we say”

mockingjay2Unlike the adventures of our schoolboy wizard, where the final installment took the most at box-office, this was the least successful of the Hunger Games movies. And I can see why: almost without exception, it’s a relentless downer, rather than a grandstanding finale. I have not, to this point, read the book on which it is based, so can’t say how accurately this cynical tone reflects the novel, but based on the movie, let’s just say, politicians as a species do not come out of it with a glowing portrayal! It begins immediately after the end of the events of Part 1, when Katniss (Lawrence) was attacked by brainwashed ally Peeta (Hutcherson). Meanwhile, the rebellion gains momentum and territory, as they head towards the Capitol. Katniss’s role is now as a ‘Joan of Arc’, a rally point, and she is sent into the Capitol as part of a propaganda squad. However, she subverts the mission, claiming secret orders to assassinate President Snow, although it becomes clear that the lines between “good” rebels and “evil” establishment are increasingly vague.

Perhaps more than in the other installments, it’s apparent here how good an actress Lawrence is, and how much this helps. Some of the scenes are extraordinarily impressive, such as her quietly talking to a loyalist soldier who has his gun jammed up underneath her chin. There are also some impressive moments of spectacle, such as her squad’s entrapment by a massive, rising flood of tar. Two hours of that, ending in Katniss delivering a monologue and shish-kebabbing President Snow, would I think, have been superior to the rather bloated two-parter we were given – even if it’s not as gratuitously over-stretched as The Hobbit. Still, even looking strictly at this final part, the last third (and given the film runs almost 140 minutes, that’s a fair amount of screen time)  feels more like reading the Very Deep political thoughts of a somewhat paranoid teenage boy. Virtually all nuance is replaced with the movie’s largely unsubtle whacking on the audience’s head with a copy of the script, when not tying up a love triangle, which has been an irritant for the entire series.

Even if none of the four entries managed to achieve our seal of approval (this one likely came the closest), you can’t argue with the success of a franchise which earned almost three billion dollars at the box-office worldwide, and countless more on DVD, etc. Depending on your definition, no action heroine film before this had taken even $140 million at the North American box-office; the lowest figure achieved here was more than double that. It has, unquestionably redefined the landscape and shown that, yes, girls with guns bows can hold their own in purely commercial terms. We can but hope that its success will open the door for other ventures, whether based on existing properties or fully-original ones. Though those will probably have to overcome the significant difficulty, of not having an Oscar-winner like Lawrence to anchor them. At least going by her ongoing work as Mystique in the X-Men universe, it doesn’t seem our genre’s biggest star now considers action to be beneath her – hopefully, that will continue. For there can be no question that throughout this, she was The Hunger Games’s biggest strength, and whatever its flaws overall, she gave us a Katniss Everdeen the character deserved.

Dir: Francis Lawrence
Star: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson

Agent Carter: Season two

starstarstar
“A movie based on a comic book? Sounds like a dreadful idea.”

The obviously self-referential parody of Peggy Carter’s line above indicates one of the main issues with this show: an uncertainty over whether or not it should be taking itself seriously. It wasn’t even clear if the network was doing so: sure, they gave it an extended run, the sophomore series running 10 episodes, two more than its original one. But somehow, they then ended up having to run most of those in double helpings, to fit them all in between a start that was two weeks later, and Agents of SHIELD‘s return. Probably no wonder it struggled for an audience, the premiere scoring less than half the ratings obtained by season one, then dropping a further 25% from there. Between that and its star signing on for another ABC series, legal drama Conviction, it would not surprise me if this is Carter’s swansong, despite an ending which hints at more. [Though recent rumors suggest it may survive to fight another season]

That’s a bit of a shame, as I felt the show was better this time round, not least because they dropped the tedious “Carter has to prove herself” subplot, which was flogged to death in the first season. Praise be, she is now regarded as competent enough to be trusted by those around her. It relocates Peggy Carter (Atwell) from New York to Los Angeles, where she helps Daniel Souza, the chief of the new SSR office there, investigate the mysterious case of a woman’s body found in a frozen lake. The trail leads to Isodyne Energy and their research into “zero matter”, an extra-dimensional energy potentially more powerful than an atom bomb. When the owner’s wife, actress Whitney Frost (Everett) is exposed to the matter, she develops abilities, but also a very bad attitude, and it’s up to Peggy and her SSR colleagues to stop her from cracking open our dimension.

agentcarter2

At its best, this is smart and a great deal of fun – it’s good to see Marvel providing not just a heroine, but a villainess, and, indeed, at one point Carter is forced to turn to her season one enemy, Dottie Underwood for help, completing a trifecta of female awesomeness. Much less interesting are the ongoing dismal efforts to shoehorn romance into the proceedings, even if last season’s focus of unresolved sexual tension, Howard Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis (D’Arcy), suddenly turns out to have a wife. Instead, Carter’s affections are divided between Sousa and Isodyne scientist Dr. Jason Wilkes – though since the latter spends most of the season only tangentially connected to our dimension, this makes for more puppy-eye gazing than anything. All this is no less annoying than the first time round, and Marvel still seem unable to grasp that a heroine does not “need” a man, any more than their heroes “need” women. Nor did we really need a musical dream sequence, which I find the last refuge of the desperate show-runner, even if it did give us a quick cameo from Lyndsy Fonseca.

On the other hand, Atwell remains as good a figure as ever, and I did enjoy the dry stabs at wit, with the characters playing nicely off each other, in between romantic interludes. It also helped that there was a single, over-arching storyline, while its predecessor seemed to spend most of its time thrashing about, trying to find a direction. If the series is renewed, it’s those positive aspects I hope are emphasized in its third season: while there remains a lot of room for improvement, there is also significant potential, and it would be interesting to see how the show bridged the gap between its era and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Star: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Wynn Everett, Reggie Austin

Mother

starstarstarstarhalf
“The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

motherBong is best known in the West for recent SF film, Snowpiercer, and also for monster movie The Host, but this, which came between those two, is somewhat less of a genre piece. A woman, known only as “Mother” (Kim), lives with her… intellectually-challenged, shall we say, shy son Do-joon (Won) in a small Korean town, making her living as a seller of medicinal herbs and grey-market acupuncturist. When a local schoolgirl is found dead, with one of Do-joon’s golf-balls next to her, he’s immediately the prime suspect, and the police investigation doesn’t bother looking much further. His lawyer is no help, and when the easily-fooled Do-Joon is browbeaten into signing a confession, it appears the case is closed. The only one still convinced of his incident is his Mom, who begins a quest, along with her son’s semi-delinquent friend, Jin-Tae (Jin), to find the truth behind the murder.

Be careful what you wish for, could be the moral of the story here, for the results of Mother’s investigation might not necessarily be what she wants to find. The film deliberately keeps the question of Do-Joon’s guilt or otherwise unresolved, almost until the very end. I suspect any Hollywood version of the same story would not have the guts to walk that tight-rope for as long, and it’s that tension between the audience’s uncertainty and Mother’s absolute, unwavering commitment to, and belief in, her son’s innocence, which largely keeps this interesting as things move forward. You desperately want her faith to be justified; I’ve been in a similar situation, someone I know having been arrested and charged with multiple murders, and denial is an entirely natural reaction. I can only imagine what it’s like for a mother, but in this case, her relentless and fearless pursuit of the real killer is what moves the film into our territory.

It’s not perfect, with neither the opening nor the end being as strong as the middle section deserves, and the resonance of Kim’s history as an actress is largely lost – I wasn’t aware she had spent much of her career in Korea playing the motherly type. There are also moments of strange irrelevance, such as when the cops taking Do-Joon away, are involved in a car crash, for absolutely no reason; it’s not referred to at any other point in the film, and seems a pointless diversion in a film that’s probably overlong, at 129 minutes. However, there’s enough meat here, and a very good central performance, to overcome the weaknesses, and make for an interesting and uniquely independent twist on the female detective sub-genre.

Dir: Bong Joon-ho
Star: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon