The Battalion

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“War is hell.”

The above is an equal-opportunity truism and, as we see here, applies just as much to the first matriarchal unit in the modern world. This was the charmingly-named 1st Women’s Battalion of Death, created late in World War I, as the Russian Revolution was taking place. Its aim was to encourage the disillusioned regular army into continuing the fight against Germany, in a “If the ladies are fighting, surely you should be, too?” kinda way. At least initially, it’s the story of two sisters, Nadya (Kuchkova) and Vera, daughters of a rich family, who volunteer for the unit after Vera’s fiance, Petya, is killed at the front. Their mother sends their maid, Froska (Rahmanova), to try and protect her daughters, as they go through the training that will turn them into soldiers capable of taking on the enemy. The film climaxes with an initially successful, but ultimately futile, offensive – while the women initially gain ground, the regular army’s morale is so broken, they don’t support the push, allowing the Germans to counterattack [this aspect is largely true to history].

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However, as the film unfolds, it gradually becomes more about the founder of the battalion, Mariya Bochkareva (Aronova) and her story. That’s perhaps wise – to be honest, it’s kinda hard to tell the rank and file soldiers apart, once they’ve had their heads shaved and are wearing the same uniform! This posed particular problems once battle was joined; on at least one occasion, I was convinced a character had been killed, only for her to pop up again, entirely alive, it having been someone else who bit the bullet. Fortunately, it seems Meshiev is more interested in Bochkareva, and it’s a wise decision thanks to a thoroughly convincing performance by Aronova. If she’s hardly the “girls with guns” archetype in looks, her commanding officer is smart, capable, patriotic and ferociously brave, leading from the front; you can see why she inspires the devotion necessary for the troops to follow her into the hell of trench warfare.

And that hell is appropriately portrayed in all its grim unpleasantness from poison gas [a sequence reminiscent of the end of Fraulein Doktor] through to brutal hand-to-hand combat, where we see the soft heart of a raw rookie is no match for a grizzled veteran’s sheer ruthlessness. It’s an approach which does allow the viewer to read this in several ways: it is commending the courage of those who fight, or condemning its pointlessness? The director made his opinion on this fairly clear. In a press conference promoting the film, when asked whether the events portrayed should be taken “as a feat or as a futility”, he replied, “Why would we give birth to a child if everyone will die anyway?” Oh, those wacky Russians… It may be militaristic propaganda; I’d not argue with that as an assessment. However, I don’t care, when it is as effective and well-made as this, with the cinematography and soundtrack standing out, in addition to the fine central performance.

Dir: Dmitriy Meshiev
Star: Maria Aronova, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Irina Rakhmanova, Alyona Kuchkova

Hell Fire

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“A bastard love-child of Bitch Slap and The Evil Dead.”

hellfire2This is unashamedly and unrepentantly B-movie fodder, pitting four prostitutes against the Antichrist and each other. If you’re expecting anything else from a sleeve like that, more fool you. But for something made on a budget likely measured in thousands rather than millions, it punches way above its financial weight, and barely pauses in its savagery and energetically bad taste.

The four hookers decide to rob their pimp, hearing whispers that he’s plotting a big deal. Finding no money present, they kidnap the man he’s meeting and take him to a remote cabin to extract whatever value they can. Unfortunately, they’ve bitten off more than expected, as they are now holding the literal son of Satan hostage. He (Green) isn’t quite up on his powers yet, but can move objects, read minds and also turn the women’s darkest secrets into physical, demonic form. Though he can’t read the mind of Rosetta (Beretta), it turns out she’s enthusiastically on his side, in exchange for the usual, “selling your soul” type stuff. Turns out Mr A.C. was negotiating with their pimp to go kill the currently unborn son of God, which would give Lucifer a huge leg-up in the imminent war between heaven and hell. Only Justine (Marshall) stands between the Antichrist, his new ally, and… Well, it’s unlikely to be good for mankind.

Green seems to be aiming for a Charles Manson vibe, and does a good job there, even as he spends much of the film tied to a chair. This leaves the floor literally open for the women, and it’s them – particularly Marshall and Beretta – who deliver carnage that’s brutal, heads right for the jugular and doesn’t stop chewing until it reaches bone. Beretta, in particular, exudes “Zero fucks given” and, with her Antipodean twang, has something of a younger, pissed-off Zoe Bell about her [though Beretta is Australian, rather than a Kiwi]. Although credit to everyone involved here, as they go full-throttle into their roles, and their enthusiasm helps paper over occasional moments of weakness, probably most notably in its audio work, often low-fi at best.

Additionally, there is some cheating here: the “rules” by which the Antichrist has to operate, e.g. he can’t kill the son of God directly, exist purely for the film’s purpose, not out of any theological basis. However, I can only admire the way Fratto and his cast have taken a concept, twisted it into an appropriate form for their tastes, and then run with it, far beyond what I expected going in. Sure, you undeniably need a fondness for low-budget horror, in order to appreciate this in the slightest. I do, and having sat through my share of tedious offerings in that genre, have to say this is one of the best such efforts I’ve seen in a long while. Rarely have the words “bloody good time” been more appropriate.

Dir: Marc Fratto
Star: Katelyn Marie Marshall, J. Scott Green, Selene Beretta, Jennice Carter

Wonder Woman trailer released

wonderwomanposterDC has always seemed to be stuck in second-place when it comes to their movies, trapped behind the behemoth which is Marvel and their “Cinematic Universe”. The underwhelming performance, both critical and commercial, of Batman vs. Superman seemed to solidify that. Combining perhaps the two biggest names in comic-book history should have led to equally spectacular results, but after the expected enormous opening, the film had no legs at all, pulling in more that debut weekend than it did over the entire rest of its theatrical run. They’ll be hoping for better with Suicide Squad which comes out in a couple of weeks, and have already set their tent-pole release for summer next year.  The much-anticipated Wonder Woman film, starring Gail Gadot, comes out on June 2nd, and the first trailer was released over the weekend at San Diego ComicCon.

It’s interesting that they have beaten Marvel to the action heroine punch. While Marvel have created TV Series such as Agent Carter and Jessica Jones, there’s still no firm word of any, say, Black Widow movie. Their only scheduled heroine is Captain Marvel, and that’s not due until March 2019; also announced at ComicCon this weekend, in what could be seen as a spoiling tactic, she will be played by Oscar-winner Brie Larsen. This delay leaves the floor open for DC, who will be seeking to wash away memories of the disaster which was Catwoman. Arguably, that 2004 film sunk the comic-book action heroine movie, single-handed, for more than a decade. [Truth be told, it’s not that bad. It ain’t good, certainly – but it’s no Batman & Robin] The stage was already set, with Wonder Woman making a supporting appearance in B.vs.S. And it’s this which brought me the first surprise about the trailer, because unlike that, it appears that Wonder Woman will be a period piece, set during the First World War. I guess being created by Zeus gives a lady certain advantages in the “aging gracefully” department.

While I don’t know the comics [Pretty much all I know of WW is Lynda Carter. Sue me] , this appears to be a deviation from them, which had her showing up in the Second World War. However, it would certainly explain why she more or less bailed on the human race for the next century, having experienced close to the worst that mankind could offer – with the emphasis firmly on “man” there. There’s some speculation we’ll find out Ares, the god of war, and WW’s nemesis, is behind everything, which would make sense. Given WW’s literally near-divine level talents, it would take some of equivalent power to pose much of a threat. Perhaps who she’s going to see with her Very Large Sword? However, in terms of sheer trailer-iness, I would say this comes close to hitting it out of the park. It lays out the basics of the story without giving too much away, showcases the look, provides some really cool moments of action, and leaves me wanting to head straight to the cinema and begin queuing up.

Of course, we’ve all seen movies that have had great trailers, yet the finished product has failed to deliver [the last Bond film comes immediately to mind]. There does seem to be a little too much Captain Kirk/Chris Pine in this. I hope they don’t bog things down with romantic subplot, for that would be insufferable. If he’s much more than the heroic sacrifice, whose death triggers WW into action, I’m not going to be happy. So I’m going to restrain myself from proclaiming this as the best action heroine movie of 2017 quite yet. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s what I’m saying on June 2 next year, when the film is released.

The Leopard’s Prey, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

leopardsThis fourth installment of the Jade del Cameron series has much the same strengths and general style of the previous books. We find Jade back in British East Africa, a few months after the events of the third book, The Serpent’s Daughter, and again encounter our old friends from the first two books. She’s supplementing her writing income by using her lariat and photography skills to help Perkins and Daley, the two partners in a small company that secures African animals for U.S. zoos. But we sense early on that her sleuthing skills may also be called on again, with the discovery of the dead body of a merchant from Nairobi (1920 population, ca. 11,000 –white population, ca. 3,000). Is his death, as the authorities initially suppose, suicide –or murder? And where is his unhappy wife? And did she or didn’t she have a recent unreported, unattended childbirth? Inquiring minds want to know; and Jade has an inquiring mind, soon made more so by the fact that the lead investigator seems to consider her beau, Sam Featherstone, a prime suspect.

The mystery (or mysteries) here was more challenging than in the previous books; I was able to figure out the basic solution about the same time that Jade did, but not before. Jade will face life-threatening jeopardies, and get to display her action-heroine credentials before the book is over; she’s also learning to fly Sam’s biplane, to add to her accomplishments (and yes, she’ll get to fly solo here). Arruda isn’t simply marking time with this installment; there are significant developments in store for some of the secondary characters, and one for Jade herself.

In a couple of areas, Arruda touches on serious issues in this book, issues from a 1920 context, but which have continuing relevance. By 1920, wildlife in parts of Africa was already coming under pressure from the great influx of European settlement and urbanization, as well as the spread of European-style agriculture. This brought habitat destruction, and the killing of predators to protect livestock –the old Africa already at war with the new. For Jade, taking individual animals to safety in a zoo is a way to help protect their species from extinction. But she’s also painfully aware that from the standpoint of the animal, life in a zoo isn’t the same thing as freedom; something important is lost. This is a quandary the morality of which is still being debated, nearly a century later. And much more so than in the previous books, we’re brought face to face with the ugly injustices of British treatment of native Africans: subjected to arbitrary taxation without representation, payable only in British money, and solely designed to force the males over 13 into oppressive labor contracts with white employers; subjected as well to travel restrictions (in their own country), that leave them virtual wards of the British and bind the males to their jobs.

This has always been, and continues to be, a seriously researched series, in which the results of the author’s research are blended seamlessly into the narrative, creating a strong sense of place. Here, we have a close look at traditional Masai culture –not as immersive and detailed a literary experience as the exploration of Amazigh (Berber) culture in the previous book, but still fascinating to me. Arruda’s treatment of non-European cultures is realistic but respectful. As always, her concluding Author’s Note here is mainly an annotated description of the source material she used in writing the novel, which would be valuable to readers who want to learn more about Africa (and post-World War I Africa in particular).

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Kung Fu Darling

As an expat Brit, I’m always pleased to see my former home coming up with action heroines. It hasn’t been a strength: any list of mainstream entries tends to run out soon after Diana Rigg, Kate Beckinsale and Rhona Mitra. However, there is some hope. Cecily Fay made an impact in Warrioress, and one of the supporting actresses there was Zara Phythian, who stars in the video that follows.

Cranking things back, Phythian first entered the public eye in 2009, when she set a world record for “Most items kicked off peoples’ heads in one minute”. [Yeah, I didn’t know that was a thing either. 43, since you ask] Zara was also the leading lady in 2011’s The Hike, but has clearly taken things up a notch since. She’s someone you’re going to be hearing more of, too, since she has a role in the upcoming Marvel movie, Doctor Strange, due out in October. There, she’ll be playing Zealot, alongside Mads Mikkelsen. She also won Woman of the Year this past April, as part of the British Martial Arts Awards.

This short, Kung Fu Darling, was written and directed by Benedict Sanderson, and has fight choreography by Joey Ansah. It’s a small slice of fast-paced fun, shot in the East End of London, in which a woman has her handbag snatched, while enjoying a coffee with friends. The culprit doesn’t realize he has bitten off more than he can chew with his unfortunate choice of target. And neither do the pals who come to his aid…

Judy

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“Insane Clown Posse”

judyAt first, I wondered if this was some kind of post-apocalyptic work, with Ursula (Giorgi) the leader of a face-painted tribe, enforcing discipline with extreme brutality on her minions. But it turns out to be everyday society: she actually heads a group of “street performers” [I guess; not quite sure what they do, but it’s likely something between mime and a freak show]. who survive by extracting money from members of the public. Ursula’s next target is Mary (Babusci), who pulls over in her car to have a phone conversation (an admirably safe approach, it has to be said), only to find herself being menaced by Ursula. Panicking, Mary pulls a gun on the whey-faced loonette, and drives off. Despite making it safely back to the apartment where she lives with her dog, Judy, it becomes increasingly apparent that Ursula has not taken kindly to her rejection at gunpoint, and will have her revenge – both on Mary and Judy.

What’s particularly interesting here is, this is a horror film almost entirely without male characters. There isn’t a single speaking, on-screen male role: there is a emergency dispatcher whom Mary calls on her cellphone (before Ursula’s blocker kicks in), and one of the villains could be male, since they wear a mask and never speak. But otherwise, not just protagonist and antagonist but all the supporting roles – hell, even the dog! – are female. That’s not common in any genre; it’s likely entirely unique in the “home invasion” sub-division of horror. De Santi sets the table well, quickly establishing both the ruthless brutality of Ursula as well as her mercurial nature: Giorgi does very well at putting over the idea that her character could explode into savage violence at any second.

Significantly less effective is the middle section, which largely consists of Mary pottering around her flat. There are attempts at building menace, such as a creepy-looking robe in the bathroom, or incoming phone-calls consisting of almost dead-air. However, there’s no real sense of escalation or progression to these, and they appear little more than trivial gimmicks. Things ramp up appreciably when Judy goes missing from the locked apartment. Mary goes to look for her canine on the beach, but the answer to the mystery may be closer to home than she initially thinks, and when she discovers that… Hoo-boy. There’s also the question of what, exactly, Ursula keeps in that manacled, spike-encrusted box (and, perhaps, also the one of how the hell she got it up all those stairs).

To call the ending abrupt, on the other hand, would be the understatement of the year. Admittedly, it doesn’t seem like there’s anywhere else the story could go, at the point when the credits roll; yet there’s usually at least a momentary coda at the end of most movies. Here? Not so much. All told, it would likely have worked better as a short film, in the 15-20 minute range, which gives you an idea of how much padding is present. Still, given the low budget, it is certainly better than some I’ve endured, and is helped by a creepy central premise, especially if you suffer from coulrophobia. Look it up…

Dir: Emanuele De Santi
Star: Orietta Babusci, Marlagrazia Giorgi

Relentless Justice

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“1980 called. They want their action film back.”

relentlessBefore his death last August, Prior had a long career churning out straight-to-video action flicks with amazingly generic titles. Have a few samples. Deadly Prey. Death Chase. Invasion Force. Raw Justice. You get the idea. He was also responsible, on this site, for Mankillers, and returns to the female fray with this, which also mines another popular trope of the action film genre, the “hunting of humans”, which dates back to 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game.

Victoria De Vries (Sarelle) is a quiet suburban mom – albeit, one who happens to be the owner-operator of a martial-arts gym, and who used to be a member of Australian special forces. Her daughter heads off for a weekend’s camping with her boyfriend, but runs afoul of the local rednecks, led by local mayor Jason Macendale (Wells). They slit his throat and kidnap her – but when they discover mom’s background, use her daughter as a lure for their next bit of sport. Little do they know what they are getting into, however, and may have bitten off a lot more than they can chew, even with help from another special forces veteran, Joe Mangine (Rolston).

I had to think for a while and figure out why Sarelle’s name was familiar, and eventually remembered she played Sharon Stone’s girlfriend in Basic Instinct, back in 1992. Hardly seen her in anything since, and she’s certainly changed a bit – now, all “mumsy” and sporting an Australian accent for some reason that serves no apparent purpose, not even a  “That’s not a knife…” joke. The main problem here, is it takes way too long to get to the crunchy stuff, of Victoria kicking ass and breaking bones – literally, the final ten minutes of the movie have all the good stuff there. Up until then, you’ve got a lot of sitting around chit-chatting, with Roberts wheeled on for a role of absolutely no relevance at all, playing a big city mobster.

Sarelle isn’t actually too bad; from what I’ve read Kathy Long, five-time world kickboxing champion, was in charge of stunt coordination and fight choreography, and seems to have done a decent job in making the heroine look credible. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for everyone else, and in particular there’s one knife fight, which is among the most cringe-inducingly terrible of all time [names redacted to protect the inept]. This all might have passed muster in a more innocent time, when audiences were happy to put up with low-rent former stars running around a forest, while someone shoots them with a video camera, accompanied by a low-fi synth soundtrack (courtesy here of the workmanlike Chuck Cirino, who has been a staple for the likes of Jim Wynorski over the past three decades). Now, viewers are… well, if I’m reluctant to say “more sophisticated”, this kind of second-tier production needs to be a good deal more self-aware, or at least provide something not findable in better quality with three clicks on Netflix.

Dir: David A. Prior
Star: Leilani Sarelle, Mark Rolston, Vernon Wells, Eric Roberts

Curve

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“A feature-length advert for NOT wearing your seat-belt.”

Mallory (Hough) is driving to Denver for her wedding, though has some qualms about the upcoming event. She opts to take the scenic route, but her car breaks down – she’s startled, but delighted, when back-packer Christian (Sears) shows up out of nowhere to fix it. She offers him a lift, only to find once they hit the road, he’s a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. Realizing the dire straits she’s in, and that she’s wearing her seat-belt while he isn’t, she opts to crash the car into a ravine. However, the result is the exact opposite of what she wants: Christian is thrown free, and Mallory trapped by her ankle in the wreckage. Realizing he has a captive toy, Christian wanders off to terrorize the residents of a nearby cabin, but pops back occasionally to taunt his victim, who is forced to extreme measures to survive, while trying to figure out a way to escape.

curveIt’s a perfectly reasonable way to pass the time, and given its obvious limitations – there are barely a handful of speaking parts and the bulk of the running time takes place in and around the single location of Mallory’s car – works within them reasonably well. It’s a little weird to see Hough, whom we recently watched play Sandy in a televised “live” version of Grease, cooking and eating rat, and contemplating going all 127 Hours on her leg, but she pulls it off decently enough. Less effective is Sears, though he has the problem of walking in the footsteps belonging to the pinnacle of psychotic hitch-hikers, Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher; it’d be hard for anyone not to be overshadowed by that comparison. On the other hand, I like the way Mallory is thrown entirely on her own resources: there’s no knight in shining chain-mail coming to her rescue here.

For obvious, ankle-related reasons, this only kicks into high gear once the heroine has extracted herself from the car, and the boot goes, at least somewhat, onto the other foot (hohoho), as she begins to hunt Christian – the still, above, is obviously from the later section. It likely does take a little too long to reach this point, and once it gets there, offers at least one element of shamelessly obvious foreshadowing, which had me rolling my eyes when it appeared, then again when it came to pass. Yet I can’t say this affected the overall respectable level of enjoyment provided here. No-one could ever describe this as ambitious, and I was surprised to discover this was by the director of Hackers, as it seems a much smaller work. That aside, there’s something to be said for aiming low and hitting your target, rather than over-estimating your resources and talents, then falling short. This definitely falls into the former categoty.

Dir: Iain Softley
Star: Julianne Hough, Teddy Sears

Mythica: The Iron Crown

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“Mythica makes its mark.”

mythica4While this fourth entry in the Mythica series is certainly flawed, I have to confess, I found it hugely entertaining. There’s a very strange Mad Max vibe present here, and no small amount of steampunk influence. But despite (or, perhaps, because of?) this, I still enjoyed the most of the series to date. It’s basically a feature length chase sequence, beginning with heroine Marek (Stone) and her two sidekicks ambushing a powered wagon, on which is being transported the fourth part of the DarkSpore. This must be kept, at all costs, from falling into the hands of the evil Szorlok, as he already has the other three. They succeed, picking up a zombie princess in the process. However, they then have to transport it to a secure location, while under attack from:

  • Szorlok’s trio of undead warrior minions. Fortunately,  Szorlok himself is otherwise engaged, having been yanked through a portal into another dimension by Obi-Wan Gojun Pye (Kevin Sorbo), where the two duel using their magic.
  • Owner of the wagon, Admiral Borlund Hess (Eva Mauro), is miffed at the hijack, and ambushed them from her airship and squadron of attack hang-gliders (like I said: Mad Max meets steam-punk).
  • A mercenary crew is also after the DarkSpore. Their employer wants to barter it with Szorlok, who currently has the titular headwear, which allows the owner to rule over the dwarfs.

Oh, and we also hear about the Hammer of Tek, a legendary, long-lost weapon that can destroy anything… even the DarkSpore. File this away for future reference, it may be important later, and should be quicker than a trip to Mordor, anyway. So plenty going on, and it’s more or less non-stop, beginning with a 20-minute action sequence which sets a fast-paced tone, that barely lets up thereafter. It’s largely a light-hearted contrast to the darker, almost brooding, atmosphere hovering over part three; not entirely a bad thing, since even the most serious of legendary sagas benefits from a slice of levity. It’s perhaps not the kind of style on which you could found an entire, mythic universe (unless your name was Terry Pratchett), yet as a one-off, I haven’t enjoyed a fantasy film this much in quite a while.

There are still a couple of mis-steps, such as a woeful attempt to depict pilots from the attack hang-gliders dropping into a shallow lake. I’m also concerned about how death appears to be not much more than a minor inconvenience. People are returning from the grave rather too often – frankly, once is too much, for a loophole I’ve hated since the episode where Buffy Summers came back to life. I know fans and creators get attached to characters, but if you kill someone off, then bring them back, what’s left in the way of threat? On the other hand, you can argue it’s not entirely out of character in an entry that’s likely a bit of palate-cleansing before the grand finale of The Godslayer. Suspect there’s not going to be much amusement to be found with that title.

Dir: John Lyde
Star: Melanie Stone, Jake Stormoen, Adam Johnson, Ashley Santos