The Queen of the South, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Literary rating: star
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

reina-novelDisclaimer at the outset: I haven’t read this novel from cover to cover. Seven years ago, I read the prologue and first three chapters; this time around, I read the first seven (re-reading the ones I’d read before), and skimmed the last ten and the epilogue –though I skimmed very thoroughly, taking about three hours and absorbing all of the major plot points. I feel qualified to give it a fair rating and review; but the level of bad language and grungy sexual content, blended with the tedious prose style and the wall-to-wall cynicism of the author’s literary vision (if we can call it that) made this too distasteful to read word-for-word any further.

Our title character here is Teresa Mendoza, who, when we first meet her, is a 22-year-old girl from Culiacan, Sinola, Mexico, a community dominated by the cross-border Mexican-U.S. drug traffic. Her boyfriend is a airplane pilot ferrying drugs for a local narco kingpin. But this boyfriend had a bad habit of defrauding his employer with side deals of his own and bragging about it when he was drunk; the prologue opens with her phone ringing to inform her that his boss has just had him killed –and that she’d better run, because the killers are on their way to dispatch her, too. Her resulting 13-year odyssey will take her to Spain (Perez-Reverte’s home country), see her eventually rise to control the drug traffic into and through southern Spain, and eventually bring her back full circle to the place of her birth and a reckoning with the past.

There’s a solid story here, which despite its seeming far-fetched improbability is plotted in a way that actually comes across as believable (except for Teresa settling and working in Spain under her real name, and not getting whacked within a matter of weeks!) and told with a few twists that I did not see coming, even though I’d skimmed the ending seven years earlier. The author appears to be extremely knowledgeable about the history and minutia of drug trafficking, at least up to 2002 when the novel was written (though he doesn’t quite understand that not all readers are necessarily as fascinated as he apparently is with every scrap of minutia). Teresa is a complex character, not one a reader will readily forget; and there are moments in the story that are quite emotionally evocative, even poignant.

However, the execution of the idea is wanting here, in several respects. First, Perez-Reverte gives us two interlaced narratives, Teresa’s own direct story in the third person and that of a journalist, in the first person, who’s piecing together her story from interviews with her (in the first chapter; most of the rest of her saga unfolds in flashback) and others who knew her. The actual meat of the story is in the former strand of narrative, however; the journalist’s really adds nothing except padding to bulk the book up to its 436 pages. There’s nothing of substance in his contribution that couldn’t have been conveyed much more economically, and with a more unified structure, by incorporating it into the third-person narrative. Every time we switch to his strand, there’s a marked loss of momentum and interest.

Even in the strand focused on Teresa directly, however, the prose is slow-moving, and detail heavy (about a third of the text could probably have been edited out without major damage, and it would have produced a quicker, more easily-flowing read). Given that it’s also peppered with constant f-words (probably incongruous for Spanish-language speakers) and other foul language and crude sexual content, both heterosexual and lesbian, for me it was a real chore to read as much as I did. Perez-Reverte (who’s the author of at least five other novels, though I haven’t read any of those) also affects a self-consciously “literary” style, with a lot of emphasis on his protagonist’s inner thoughts and on portentiously-described Significant Moments, which gets old quickly. In fairness to the author, the translator is probably responsible for the f-words and for the erroneous use of “clips” to describe ammunition magazines –and certainly for the frequent Spanish phrases left untranslated, apparently to give the text a Spanish flavor. (Most monolingual English-language readers would have preferred that he’d stuck to doing that with familiar words like “si” and “gracias,” that don’t need translation.)

reina-novel2For a writer who was so inclined, the subject matter here would be a gold mine for moral and social reflection. The storyline cries out for exploration of the (im)morality of a drug trade that corrupts and destroys every life it touches, of the roots of demand for drugs in modern society, of the inequities in Mexican government and society for which the drug trade is a symptom and a result, of the failure of the prison system as an instrument of rehabilitation or justice, and any number of other serious themes. Readers who bring the raw materials for such reflection with them to the book may indeed think about these things, but without any direct encouragement from the author. His basic message appears to be nihilistic cynicism; and if anything, he tends to glorify drug trafficking, in somewhat the same fashion as the “narcocorridos” that he quotes at times.

To the extent that he has a vision, it could fairly be summarized as: “Wow, Teresa is a tough survivor who climbs to the top of the heap against odds; isn’t she COOL?” Well –no. She is a tough survivor who can handle threatening situations with courage and resolution; she has intelligence and talents that could be put to more constructive uses than they get, and she demonstrates some instinctive basic decency in her face-to-face relations with people. But she’s incapable (or doesn’t want to be capable) of any reflection about the consequences of her actions for people who use the drugs she transports, and doesn’t come across as particularly likable or admirable in most ways that count. (We’re also asked to believe –unrealistically– that her own drug habit has no more psychological or physical consequences than chewing gum would have; and some readers probably will believe it, to their own detriment.) I wouldn’t characterize her as an evil villainess –but I wouldn’t call her a heroine or a role model, either.

Readers who frequent this site will, understandably, be interested in the book’s action component. I set Teresa’s kick-butt quotient at three stars as a matter of attitude; she’s pragmatic about the elimination of enemies, though unlike the drug lords of Sinola, she’s not into slaughtering their innocent families. (She may threaten it for effect, but the reader knows that on that score, her bark is worse than her bite; and she’s capable of mercy where others in her position might not have shown it.) But as far as any direct personal action on her part goes, she picks up and uses a gun here exactly twice, once near the beginning and once in the climactic shoot-out near the end. And that scene is described, in Perez-Reverte’s typically “literary” fashion, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style from a slightly befuddled viewpoint; he doesn’t handle the action with the clarity that some other writers would.

Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Publisher: Putnam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

Warrior Women

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“If Xena was a history teacher.”

warriorwomenThis short series, originally produced for the Discovery Channel in 2003, consists of five, 45-minute episodes, each one focusing on a different historical figure. Specifically (and in Netflix-listed order), they are Joan of Arc, Grace O’Malley, Boudica, Lozen and “Mulan” – quotes for the last used advisedly, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The episodes themselves seem a little disjointed, composed of three separate elements that don’t quite mesh. You get talking-head interviews with academics and historical experts; dramatic re-enactments of events from the women warriors’ lives; and Lucy Lawless stomping around the locations, occasionally doing semi-practical demos like sword-wielding. The last seems particularly pointless, and seems inserted purely to appeal to Xena fetishists – not least the sequence where Lawless is getting woad applied on her face, and is informed by the giggling painter, that “the binding agent in this particular agent is semen.” And a thousand fan-fics were born…

The other main issue is, particularly in the early episodes, there isn’t anything new here – Joan, Grace and Boudica are all women whom we’ve written about here in the past, and you are largely watching them go over well-worn territory here. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone interested enough in the topic to watch the show, will also not already have heard of Joan of Arc. The only one I hadn’t heard of before was Lozen, an Apache warrior and contemporary of Geronimo; however, the approach for this story is deadly dull, batting so straight down the “noble savage” archetype, that I literally fell asleep. The final episode is entitled “Mulan”, and I wondered how they were going to squeeze 45 minutes out of this, given virtually everything known about her is a single poem.  The answer, it turned out, was to spent 80% of the show talking about someone completely different from the late 18th century, whose sole connection to Mulan was being Chinese. This is a bit like titling your show “King Arthur” and then talking mostly about the Duke of Wellington. They’re both Brits, right?

That said, the actual topic, Wang Cong’er, a leader of the White Lotus Sect who rebelled against imperial rule, was a very good one. The story is one that certainly deserves to be better known – I’m quite surprised the movie industry there, which has mined many less interesting characters in the past, hasn’t developed anything based on her life, which had a nice, “heroic bloodshed” arc to it, right up to Wang flinging herself from a cliff, rather than let herself be captured. This is one where the various approaches mesh to excellent effect, despite the rather tenuous efforts to connect her to Mulan; not just building a living character, but putting her in a historical context that makes sense. It’s a shame the other four episodes only manage to achieve the same success on a sporadic basis.

Dir: Noel Dockstader and Patrick Fleming
Presented by: Lucy Lawless

The Graves

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“Home cooking isn’t necessarily more tasty.”

thegravesI must confess to being drawn in to this 2009 film partly by the “local interest” factor, it being an entirely Arizona-grown product. This is obvious – indeed, painfully so – in the early going, which includes a plug for a comic-store chain and a performance by a local band, as well as a particularly cringe-inducing cameo by some of the director’s own comics. Mercifully, the film rapidly moves on to the actual plot. This has sisters Megan and Abby Graves (Grant and Murray) head out for a spot of sibling bonding, before one moves from Phoenix to New York. Their road-trip takes them to a diner where they’re told about a nearby ghost town, Skull City, the site of a former gold-mine. Megan – the more outgoing and confident – is all for it; Abby is less sure, but is eventually convinced. What they don’t know, is that the mine is the home of a very nasty cult of religious psychos led by the Reverend Abraham Stockton (Todd), and even the friendliest of locals (Moseley) can turn out to be potentially lethal.

I appreciated the straightforward and unpretentious nature of this: it’s the two girls (really, it’s almost entirely Megan who’s the proactive one, with Abby only really good for running and screaming, with a side-order of quivering in terror) against the world. The story is thus largely to the point, though they might as well have disposed entirely with the unseen demonic entity subplot, since it doesn’t add anything, given the effects budget was apparently largely limited to hearing it consume souls… Unfortunately, that poverty extends to quite a few other aspects. For example, the mayhem has a tendency to happen just off-screen, which is never satisfactory at the best of times, and the use of obvious CGI blood only draws attention to this shortcoming.

The performances are a bit over the place too. I enjoyed Todd, who chews scenery to good effect, from the moment he stalks into the diner, a terrified young girl in tow. He seems to have a handle on the comic-book tone for which Pulido is going. The rest of the cast? Not so much, particularly Moseley, who seems to think that putting a fake pig’s nose on equates somehow to exuding menace. He’s wrong. The two leads fall somewhere in between: while they’re okay, the characters are never much more than generic cyphers. At least Pulido was wise enough to dump the hand-held video camera which infects some of the early going: a good rule for the use of such being, it’s never a good idea. I’ll admit half a star of my grade is likely the kick I got out of seeing places I know, such as scenes filmed at the late, lamented venue, The Sets in Tempe.  Take that away and sad to say, there isn’t enough meat on the bones of its potential. The moral here is, just because you can make a film, doesn’t mean you should….

Dir: Brian Pulido
Star: Clare Grant, Jillian Murray, Bill Moseley, Tony Todd

A Shot Through the Heart, by J. C. Antonelli

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

shotheartThis book wasn’t on my radar until a friend recommended it. But it proved to be well worth the read –and further demonstrates that there are independent authors out there producing quality work, and who aren’t getting the notice they ought to. J. C. Antonelli is one of these! Hopefully, this review will give you an idea of whether or not the book would be up your alley. If so, the novel has the added advantage of being a stand-alone; reading it won’t suck you into a long series.

This is, unabashedly, modern pulp action-adventure, with a kick-butt female protagonist. That doesn’t mean it’s without serious moral reflection or psychological depth; it has some of both to offer. (Although it has a 17-18 year old protagonist, its significant bad language, sexual content, and violence mark it as an adult read, not a YA –though there are certainly teens of both genders who’d read it avidly.) It doesn’t stint on the physical action (with a high body count) though, nor on the gripping suspense. The snappy prose style and short chapters, and the storyline itself, compel the reader to keep turning pages; if I’d been able to, I’d have read it at one sitting. (And I did finish it in about a week, which is a pretty quick read for me!) It’s too bad fiction by independent authors is ignored by Hollywood as fodder for adaptations, because this would make a stem-winder of an action flick, which would probably be a box office smash.

We open with our heroine/narrator Samantha (“Sam”) wounded and bleeding in a fleabag Bucharest hotel room, waiting for shadowy killers to close in and try to finish her off. (But she’s got two pistols, and she’s not going down without a fight.) From there, she goes back a year to tell the story of how she got here, to the summer before her senior year of high school. Not having a driver’s license yet, to get out of the house and fight boredom, she got her dad to take her for an outing at a shooting range, using a coupon that came in the mail. That experience revealed that she has a natural talent for handling firearms: quick reflexes, a keen eye, and an instinctive ability to aim accurately, that would place her probably in the 99th percentile for naturally-gifted shooters. This evokes a LOT of attention, because this range happens to be a clandestine screening tool used for recruitment by a super-secret quasi-government agency. Its mission is the targeted assassination of large-scale evil-doers whose power and position makes them untouchable by legal channels –and they have a job in hand for which a pretty 17-year-old girl might actually be what the operation’s profile needs.

“Laid-back California girl” Sam’s a wonderfully drawn, complex, round and dynamic character, as real as any girl her age you might meet at your local mall. Yes, she’s flawed. She’s the product of her culture in some ways, with its prejudices and blind spots; she has a potty-mouthed speaking style, and has the issues that come from losing her mom at a very young age and growing up raised by an inept and emotionally distant dad (whom she truly loves, but whose faults she realizes). But she emphatically isn’t the borderline “sociopath” the organization’s psychiatrist considers her. True, when she thinks it’s justified, she’s quite capable of killing without any emotional distress.

However, she has genuine feelings and a conscience, a respect for innocent life, and people she cares about; and she approaches what she’s asked to do from within a serious moral framework. And while, like most of us, she can’t help taking pride in doing something she’s good at (which, in her case, is lethal combat), she doesn’t revel in hurting people as such –she’s compassionate even towards enemies’ pain. Having had to take a lot of responsibility from a young age, and natively smart (she scored 2200 on her SATS), she’s also more mature and grounded than many teens are. But she’s a believable teen, and a believable teen girl (I raised three, so I know something about the demographic) –not, as some critics snidely say about action-oriented female characters, especially those created by male writers, an essentially male figure disguised as female.

While Sam’s the only character whose head we get inside, Antonelli is able to make the rest of the cast (especially Tico) vivid and life-like as well. His plotting is taut, driving, well-constructed and twisty –complications, both logistical and emotional, are going to ensue. Though the book most definitely isn’t a comedy, he understands the uses of comic relief, and Sam’s wry narrative voice and quirky (sometimes off-color) humor provides it at times, as do the inherent incongruities of the situations. Being a keen and accurate observer both of herself and others enhances Sam’s effectiveness as a narrator. We have a variety of physical settings here, all brought to life pretty well, but the description is never intrusive.

The author clearly knows his weaponry (though he calls magazines “clips” –but that’s a common mistake), and writes clear, exciting action scenes; he doesn’t over-stress the gore of violent death –it is what it has to be, but he doesn’t rub our noses in it. Moral reflection about the ethics of extra-legal, vigilante killing in particular cases is serious, and adds depth to the book. (Though it’s not true that all or most religions have a blanket prohibition against killing.) Finally, the book puts Sam through a wringer of tough moral choices and emotional stresses that really challenge both her and the reader –I consider that a hallmark of superior fiction.

The idea of “insta-love” can be a problematic issue for readers, and there’s a romantic component here that develops in a quick time-frame. Honest love between two people has to have a basis, and that takes some time to develop and build. But the amount of time can vary with the people and circumstances. For the two principals here, their prior experience with the opposite sex has been largely fallow and unsatisfactory, and there’s a mutual perception that they want something different than what they’ve been offered in the past; the attraction is based on personal qualities rather than just physical appearance, and the circumstances are of the sort that would stimulate quick bonding. I don’t automatically believe in relatively “insta-love” just because an author wants to throw it into the plot; but I didn’t have a problem believing in it for this couple.

Notes: (Although there’s no explicit sex in the book, some non-explicit unmarried sex does take place; but it came across to me as being loving rather than exploitative and lewd. Bad language is pervasive; I lost count of the f-words, though there’s no religious profanity. Devout Catholic readers will be apt to be very offended by a passing thought of Sam’s about the Mass, evoked by a stressful mental comparison between the sight of red wine and of blood (though to a girl ignorant of theology, the whole idea of deliberately drinking blood would appear “crazy”).

Prolifers will strongly disagree with her advice to a pregnant friend to abort the baby; but it was well-intended advice –and the fact that her friend has the baby anyway makes a statement of a different sort, as well. Also, Sam makes a passing comment near the beginning that it would be wrong to assassinate Mother Teresa, but okay to do Rush Limbaugh (and by implication, anyone with right-of-center views); that will sit poorly with those readers whose views are right of center.

Author: J. C. Antonelli
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Shallows

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“Does for surfing what Open Water did for scuba-diving.”

the-shallowsThe older I get, the less any kind of extreme sports appeal. It’s likely an awareness that life is limited, and I’d rather hang on to it for as long as possible, rather than risk it in pursuit of a quick thrill. Parachuting? Skiing? Hell, even camping? No, thanks. I’ll be by the pool – not in it – with a cold drink and an exciting novel. This inevitably limits the attraction of this kind of “true life” adventures, because they rarely bother to demonstrate why the protagonist is doing what they are. Admittedly, that’s not the point: it’s all about the peril into which they get, and their struggles to extricate themselves. Everything else is somewhat superfluous, and that’s one of the issues here. Do we care about Nancy’s mid-twenties career choice crisis? Or that she’s on the beach because her late mother was there decades previously? Probably not. We’re here to see woman vs. shark.

Fortunately, the film largely delivers on this front, and it’s also nice to see a film where the heroine has absolutely no romantic interest at all. Once shark hits surfboard, and woman hits water, there are virtually no other speaking parts. It’s Nancy (Lively) in a stark battle for survival against the creature that’s circling her small, rock outcrop sanctuary. And with a large, dead whale nearby, the shark certainly isn’t going anywhere. That’s a problem for Nancy, because the initial attack has left her with a very badly-gashed thigh and potential gangrene. Fortunately, her medical training helps her patch up her own wounds, though the degree of damage she takes over the course of the film remains impressive. Enjoy the bikini-clad hottie, over whom the camera lingers in the early scenes – because by the end, Nancy looks more like she has gone five rounds with Gina Carano.

Inevitably, there are some concessions required. You’ve got a film that largely consists of a woman on a rock, so there’s more “thinking out loud” scenes than one normally sees. The shark, like most movie monsters, also demonstrates admirable dramatic timing, showing up when needed for the plot, and staying away during the moments necessary for the audience to get its breath back. Collet-Serra does an admirable job with the pacing, and the economical 87 minute running-time flies by. If the gilled antagonist here is a killing machine, streamlined by evolution over millions of years, with all extraneous irrelevancies removed, much the same can probably be said about this movie.

It has now been more than 40 years since Jaws made the entire world afraid to go into the water, but over the past few years, the shark movie has become more of a running-joke. Much as I must confess to having enjoyed Sharknado and its cronies, it’s nice to see something which redresses the balance somewhat. The Shallows certainly treats these lethal denizens of the deep with the respect and fear which they likely deserve, and endorses my ongoing decision to stick to dry land.

Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra
Star: Blake Lively

The Woman Who Dared

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“Flight of fancy.”

womanwhodaredMade during World War II under the Vichy regime which controlled the South of France, it’s tempting to read the story as a metaphor for France’s struggle to be free. It begins with the Gauthier family having to relocate their family garage business, to make way for an airfield (strictly recreational, mind). This, along with a visit by famed aviatrix Lucienne Ivry (Vandène), rekindles a love of flight Pierre (Vanel) has had since his days as a mechanic in World War I. At first, his wife Thérèse (Renaud) is dubious, but after she experiences the joy of soaring through the air, her passion soon exceeds his. She flies, he mechanics, and they prepare a bid, out of their garage, to set a record for long-distance flying by a woman – even as Ivry prepares a much higher profile and better funded attempt on the same mark.

Oddly, it’s a film which reminded me most of two anime. Firstly, the work of Hayao Miyazaki, which has consistently demonstrated a love of flight – most obviously, Porco Rosso. Yet here, it’s odd that a film so much about aviation, is literally grounded. The only shots of planes in motion are taken from the earth, and Thérèse’s record-breaking flight is entirely off-screen. In this, it feels more like The Wings of Honneamise. This was a movie about an alternate-world race into space – yet it was a great deal more concerned about the human aspects than the actual end result. Similarly, this is as much about the love Thérèse and Pierre have for each other. It does come with a note of caution about how shared obsessions can cause tunnel-vision; they even sell their daughter’s beloved piano to fund their project.

Given the era, it’s remarkably forward-thinking. Lucienne and Thérèse are portrayed as easily the most competent aviators, with the men pottering around in their flying machines by comparison. Yet Thérèse is also the glue that holds the Gauthier family together; when she moves to the big city to take on management of a car dealership, their home life suffers considerably. I’d have liked to have seen a better case made for what the appeal of flying is; you’re left to deduce it second-hand, from the reactions of those who have experienced it. Regardless, the appealing central characters here help ensure the viewer is slowly drawn in to proceedings, through a low-key process of familiarity. There’s something particularly genuine about their relationship, and how they’re prepared to sacrifice so much for each other’s dreams. If you’re not holding your breath as Thérèse’s attempt unfolds into disconcerting silence, and even Pierre’s steadfast confidence begins to waver, you’ve clearly not noticed the ominous and foreboding processions of orphans through the town’s streets…

Dir: Jean Grémillon
Star: Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel, Raymonde Vernay, Anne Vandène
a.k.a. Le ciel est à vous (The Sky is Yours)

Women on the Run

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“Letting the Cat III out of the bag.”

womenChinese teenage martial-arts champ Li Siu-Yin (Guo) is seduced into a life of prostitution by her boyfriend, but eventually snaps and kills him. She escapes to Hong Kong, only to be arrested there, and given a stark choice: help ensnare crime boss King Kong (Kim) or be deported back to China. Unwillingly, she takes the former and goes back over the border with undercover cop Hung (Cheung), who is also having an affair with colleague David (Lai). However, it turns out that David is in cahoots with King Kong, and the pair end up in Canada and in jail. It’s a long way back from there, before the two can take their revenge on the men who betrayed them.

It appears my memories of this were conflated with another “Cat III” (the Hong Kong adults-only film classification) kung-fu film, the considerably more sleazy Escape From Brothel. Aside from some nekkid kung-fu and a couple of scenes of sexual violence, this is mostly mainstream. And it’s kinda hard to take the gang-rape sequence seriously when the perpetrators are set up as being Really Bad People by punting a clearly stuffed dog, as they make their way into the warehouse where our heroines are hiding out. Elements like these deflate entirely apparently serious attempts at drama; see also a flashback to an apparently kinder, gentler era of airport security when you could not just take your stun-gun onto a plane, you could apply it to other passengers without anyone rushing you with a drinks trolley. Ah, those were the days, eh? There are also bad subtitles which translate the line “smoke some weed” in English as, “get some sweet meat,” and a really nasty portrayal of Canadian law-enforcement, that left me wondering if the directors got a traffic ticket in Vancouver or something.

Fortunately, salvaging proceedings are some decent to solid action, as you’d expect from Yuen, who has a long track record of such things. Both Guo and Cheung are more than credible; the former, in particular, to an extent where it’s a surprise that she never appeared in anything of significance again. As a villain, Kim lets his feet in particular do his talking, and he makes for a formidable opponent, particularly at the end. There are a number of solid sequences before that, that let both leads show their skills – though I could perhaps have done without the comedic drug addiction, Liu doing her best kung-fu after a little H. I guess it’s a variant on Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master? All told, this is more or less your typical Cat III film, containing both the good and bad the classification implies. Action, exploitation, comedy, brutality and nonsensical aspects all rub shoulders, with the end product being… Well, while I could point out any number of other flaws, let’s accentuate the positive instead, and just say. this is certainly never dull.

Dir: David Lai and Corey Yuen
Star: Tamara Guo, Farini Cheung, David Lai, Kim Won-Jin

Forget and Forgive

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“Largely forgettable.”

forgetAmnesia as a plot device is something which almost inevitably triggers heavy eye-rolling in me, because the results nearly all involve the subject regaining their memory in the precise way required by the plot. It’s so incredibly contrived. About the only films to have used amnesia that I like, are Memento, which was utterly consistent in its depiction, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, which was not about the effects of losing your memory, but much more about what happens when it comes back. This Canadian TVM will not become the third in the series, squandering some potentially interesting ideas.

Anna Walker (Röhm) is the subject of a vicious interrogation and beating, then nearly drowns. She wakes up in the hospital with no memory of her life or her family, and is surprised to discover she is actually a vice detective, with a husband, Tate (Napier) and extremely bratty teenage daughter, Emily (Douglas). Turns out her new personality is also radically different from the old one; a good deal stricter, as Emily finds to her distaste. That’s true at work as well; turns out that Anna was not entirely a straight arrow as a cop, as she discovers after finding a box in her closet containing a cellphone and a lease agreement to an apartment where, in turn, she finds large wads of cash. Her partner (Runyan) seems to be equally crooked Is this tied to the incident which caused her amnesia?

Röhm herself is okay, and the opening sequence is surprisingly brutal, given the medium and origins. However, the rest of the cast range from the thoroughly bland (Runyan) to the immensely irritating (Douglas), though in the latter’s case at least, this seems deliberate. This would be forgivable if the script managed to live up to the toughness with which it begins. In other hands, the general scenario might have made for an interesting study: how a sudden, externally triggered change in someone’s character affects them and those around them.

However, the film instead chooses to wander off in a number of far less successful directions. Turns out there’s a young prostitute that Anna was protecting, and whose existence poses a threat to those at the top of the vice food-chain. Throw in a pointless subplot involving her relationship with her estranged father – because, this is a Lifetime TVM, after all – plus some meaningless flashbacks of her wandering in the woods, wearing her police uniform, and you’ll probably find your interest waning well before the climax. It’s likely too much for all save the most undemanding of viewers to forgive, and everyone else will have no problems at all forgetting this one.

Dir: Tristan Dubois
Star: Elisabeth Röhm, Tygh Runyan, Neil Napier, Vivien Endicott Douglas

A Marine Story

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“Topples over from worthy into over-earnest.”

marineLet me start with the Amazon synopsis, since this explains what it’s doing here: “Dreya Weber stars as Alex, a decorated Marine officer who is unexpectedly discharged from her wartime duty. Returning to her conservative home town she agrees to coach and counsel the precocious teen rebel Saffron (Paris Pickard). Alex is the no-nonsense role model and authority figure that Saffron needs, and in true Karate Kid style she inspires the young woman s transition from slacker to boot camp-ready Marine recruit. But as Saffron is finally finding the strength to grow up, Alex must find new courage to face her own demons.” While not technically incorrect in any detail, it’s probably significant that it makes absolutely no mention of a very significant plot element, which impacts just about all other aspects of the story. Alex was kicked out of the Marines for being a lesbian.

While knowing that likely would not have impacted my selection of the film, I would have to say the heavy emphasis placed on it likely did detract from my enjoyment. Not, I should stress, for the gay angle. The issue would be exactly the same if the lead character had been heterosexual, and defined to an equal degree by her relationships, because that’s the kind of thing I expect from a soap-opera character, rather than an action heroine. It’s clear the topic of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a subject about which both director and star felt passionately, and it’s perhaps unfortunate (for the film, rather than those affected by it!) the policy was revoked by the US government shortly after the movie’s release, rendering it a lot of well-intentioned hand-wringing about not much, from a 2016 perspective.

The rest of this isn’t bad, although the ease with which Saffron is turned around by Alex is remarkable, suggesting that a stint in boot camp is just the cure all America’s disaffected youth requires. The synopsis does nail this as in “True Karate Kid style”, being roughly as plausible. But I do have to say, Weber completely nails the Marine thing, both in well-muscled physical appearance – and, perhaps more importantly, the attitude of quiet, coiled energy and absolutely confidence in her own abilities. Yet there’s also a streak of aggression, and some which is perfect for a soldier, yet less compatible with civilian life, and causes no shortage of issues, especially when combined with Alex’s tendency to react first. There’s likely enough meat there for a story, without having to add the sexual politics angle which, as noted above, has not dated particularly well, and to be honest, becomes moral overkill before the final credits roll – complete with another nugget of social justice. No, the topic isn’t the problem here: it’s the heavy-handed treatment.

Dir: Ned Farr
Star: Dreya Weber, Paris P. Pickard, Christine Mourad, Anthony Michael Jones

Angel’s Bounty

starstar
“More double-blank domino, than a double-six”

angelsbountyHaving been involved in low-budget feature films (on both sides of the camera), I’m very much aware of how much dedication and hard work it takes to bring a feature to the screen. I tend to try and cut them slack where possible, especially when they’re in our genre. Unfortunately, the results here aren’t actually very good, and I struggled to stay focused on the film for much of the running time.

The heroine is Angel Sommers (Springer), a bounty hunter with dreams of opening a “doggie daycare” business in Los Angeles. Her chance comes when she gets notice of a fugitive called Tommy Briggs (Giuliotti), with a sizable reward on his head. And there’s a personal element too, for Briggs was involved in the death of Angel’s father, also a bounty-hunter, when she was a young girl. The capture of Briggs goes relatively smoothly. It’s the journey back that’s the problem, for it turns out his Russian ex-wife, Isabelle (Chris Stordahl) has her greedy eyes on Tommy’s life-insurance. To this end, she has hired a couple of bumbling assassins, who are intent on making sure he doesn’t make it into custody alive. If Angel gets in the way, that’s her problem.

In other words: nothing here you haven’t seen before. Right down to the bickering between the assassins about Doritos, which sounds like something from a first draft of a Tarantino movie, this is a warmed-over hodge-podge of over-familiar concepts and tropes. Curiously though, Angel is not particularly interested in revenge against the man who killed her father. You’d think there’d be a good deal more heat generated by that long-held grudge, yet the relationship remains almost defiantly low-key. The production also makes almost all the mistakes made by low-budget films. [I know, because we’ve made ’em.] Murky sound? Check. Supporting cast of enthusiastic amateurs? Check. Pointless cameo by a local band, in which the director may well have friends? Check: Guns of Nevada here.

There are occasional scenes that work. A nice one has Angel interacting with a husband and wife couple who run a motel. And I actually liked Springer, who brings an entirely appropriate, world-weary quality. However, the threat level of the hitmen is so feeble, there’s not a shred of excitement to be had. Which would be okay if the aim was comedy, except there’s even less mirth to be found here, than excitement. There’s also needless diversion in the shape of Angel’s cronies, who add nothing of significance to the entire production. Their roles should have been excised entirely, and the freed-up running time used to add depth to Angel, or her relationship with Tommy, the latter existing only because the plot demands it.

While it’s clear Fleming and Springer have a love for the genre, that isn’t enough to salvage this. And a demerit for apparent ballot-box stuffing on Amazon. A suspicious number of the glowing five-star reviews, are from people who have never reviewed anything else…

Dir: Lee Fleming
Star: Kristen Springer, J.P. Giuliotti, Alastair Bayardo, Travis Gray