Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie

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“Not be confused with the old movie.”

Really, that was the best name they could come up with? Oh, well. “A rose by any other name…” Released in Japan in June 2015, more or less on the 20th anniversary of the “not-so-new movie”, I guess, it’s the most recent incarnation of the animated universe. This is more or less a direct follow-on from the Arise series, following up on the “Firestarter” arc, the name for both a wizard-class hacker and the virus they have created. As such, you’d definitely fare better if you’ve seen that series first, since (as we’ll see) it has enough issues with new plot elements, and doesn’t bother with much explanation about any pre-existing ones.  This feature is also using the same redesigned character designs, and with the Major (Sakamoto) operating in conjunction with Section 9 and Aramaki (Juku), rather than under his direct control.

The main incident under investigation is the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister, blown up with a briefcase bomb, during a meeting. That’s the simple synopsis. The more accurate one would involve a complex and tangled web of government departments and their intersection with elements of the military-industrial complex. It’s a alphabet soup blitzkrieg of acronyms: MOD, MOC, DFA. Or was it MFA? Either way, it becomes awfully hard to keep track of who is doing what to whom, for the sake of which alliance. Perhaps it makes more sense if you have a pre-existing awareness of the intricacies of the Japanese federal bureaucracy. Otherwise, you’ll be left scratching your head and/or yawning for significant chunks of this.

Which is a shame, as there are some aspects which are still enjoyable. I particularly liked the idea that the head villainess actually uses the same make and model of prosthetic body as Major Kusanagi, so in effect she is hunting her own doppelganger. This ties together with more information on her childhood, in a cybernetic orphanage, which is being run for purposes that are very far from charitable. There is more of a sense of team here. The Major refers to her colleagues as “parts,” something they take to mean they’re expendable – or it could actually be high praise, given the nature of her existence. It’s symptomatic of the ambivalence about technology that has been present throughout, over a period now spanning two decades.

The action is as impressive as it was in Arise, with a number of show-stopping set-pieces, pitting Kusanagi and her team against a range of opponents, from near-human to entirely artificial. There are also surprisingly poignant moments, such as their questioning of a former active-duty soldier whose job is now to receive the last words of his colleagues. This renewed his purpose in life, after he had been left behind to wallow in his obsolete prosthetic body. But these elements just make the murky plotting all the more frustrating, and I can’t help suspecting the writers confused obscurity with depth.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star: Maaya Sakamoto, Ikkyuu Juku, Kenichirou Matsuda, Tarusuke Shingaki

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

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“Brains and brawn.”

Much more a reboot, complete with a redesigned lead, than any kind of sequel, this four-part series of hour-long episodes received a theatrical release in Japan, before being released on DVD. In a typically confusing GitS universe approach, it was then broadcast on TV in 10 episodes, with extra material added. I mention this only because it’s the four-part version which will be reviewed here. It starts before Major Kusanagi (Maxwell) joins up with her boss, Aramaki (Swasey): initially, she’s part of the 501st, a counter-cyberterrorism group which owns her cyborg body. However, Aramaki offers her the opportunity to go freelance under him, doing similar work, and assemble a team who will largely be free from bureaucratic oversight.

Over the course of the four episodes, she recruits others whose names will be familiar. For example, ex-Ranger Batou (Sabat), comes aboard after initially being part of a team working against Kusanagi, who are trying to prove government complicity in war crimes. This is an interesting change, compared to the previous versions, which always seemed to join Section 9 “in progress,” and provides some intriguing insight into what makes – literally, to some extent – the Major the way she is. For, in this incarnation, we discover that she has been in her prosthetic body since birth, and has never known any other way of life.

The other main focus is the dangers of a society which is totally reliant on technology, because of the horrible opportunities for exploitation it presents to terrorists. Even the heroine is not immune to being hacked, and one of the themes is the implications of a world in which you can’t trust your own memories, when these could be false implants. This makes police work incredibly hard, because as is pointed out, even if someone admits to committing a crime, they could actually be entirely innocent. This illustrates the nicely cynical streak here, concentrating heavily on the potential downsides of scientific advancement.

I found the main strength to be the much better balance struck between the intellectual and action elements. If you’ve read the previous reviews, you’ll know I’ve rolled my eyes at the uber-dense lumps of philosophy, shoehorned in for no reason more necessary than, apparently, to prove how well-read the script-writer was at college. Here, those are refreshingly absent, although you still need to be paying damn good attention to the plot: I made the mistake of drifting away in episode 2 for a bit, and finally had to admit defeat, cranking things back to re-watch what I’d missed.

The battle sequences are awesome. Whether it’s the Major going up against another enhanced human, or taking on a massive battle-tank which has been hijacked by a pair of “ghosts,” these are slickly animated and edited with precision, in a way from which many live-action films could learn. They’re also incredibly violent, both on a personal level and in terms of the material carnage caused by them. But such is the joy of cyborgs, they can take a lickin’ and keep right on tickin’… The result is a rare combination of action and intelligence, that offers something for both the lizard portions of the brain, and the more highly-developed parts.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star (voice): Elizabeth Maxwell, John Swasey, John Swasey, Jason Douglas

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

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“Shellfishly indulgent.”

This is largely included purely for completeness: if this had been a stand-alone film, it likely wouldn’t have qualified, not reaching the mandatory minimum quota of action heroineness. For in this sequel, Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) has abandoned even her artificial physical form, for life entirely inside the Internet. Her presence in this is therefore more spiritual, with Batou (Yamadera) referring to her as his “guardian angel”, and her impact is more felt than seen – particularly in its ramification for Batou, whose degree of cybernetic enhancement is not much lower than hers. She only returns to a tangible persona in the final scene, where Batou has to take on a near-endless stream of combat-reprogrammed sex robots. My, that’s a phrase I never thought I’d be writing…

So this is much more Batou’s story, as he and the much-less enhanced Togusa (Ōki) investigate Section 9’s latest case. In it, the “gynoid” sex robots created by tech company LOCUS SOLUS, are involved in a series of their owners’ deaths, which have been covered up and settled quietly, out of court. Section 9 are brought in, over concerns the incidents are a prelude to a cyber-attack by terrorists. Instead, they discover human “ghosts” are being implanted into the gynoids, to make them more realistic. It eventually turns out LOCUS SOLUS, from their floating headquarters (conveniently in international water) have been kidnapping young girls, in order to repeatedly copy the victim’s personality into their robots – a process which eventually drives the source insane.

It’s quite a trip for Batou and Togusa to get there, however. They have to handle a very pissed-off Yakuza gang, whose boss was one of the gynoid victims – they don’t respond well to Batou’s style of investigation, shall we say. Then there’s Kim, an ex-military hacker who can hack the pair’s cyber-brain, and twist the reality they experience into a pretzel. This is where the mix of animation styles is perhaps at its best: Oshii opts neither for pure CGI nor traditional hand-drawn, instead combining them in a way that uses the strengths of each to good effect.

But it probably is too damn cerebral for its own good. Per Wikipedia, “quotations in the film come from Buddha, Confucius, Descartes, the Old Testament, Meiji-era critic Saitō Ryokuu, Richard Dawkins, Max Weber, Jacob Grimm, Plato, John Milton, 14th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, the Tridentine Mass, and Julien Offray de La Mettrie, French Enlightenment philosopher and author of Man a Machine.” This is a common problem for Oshii: see Avalon or Garm Wars, for other examples of his work which also struggle to hold up under the philosophical weight he throws onto genre fare.

Look, I’m not averse to intellectual concepts in film. But when it comes to action film, they need to be a garnish rather than the main ingredient – something to tickle the higher parts of the brain, while the lizard areas enjoy the spectacle and gratuitous violence. While those latter aspects are present, it comes with indigestible lumps of philosophy, that I would rather had been present in lesser quantity, if not left out of the dish entirely.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star: Akio Ōtsuka, Kōichi Yamadera, Tamio Ōki, Atsuko Tanaka

Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex

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“We need to go deeper…”

Despite the critical and commercial success of the original film, it took a while for anything further to emerge from the GitS universe. Over the seven years after the movie, the only adapted media to be released was a 1997 video-game. This hiatus came to an end in October 2002 when Stand Alone Complex took the air on Japanese satellite station  SKY PerfecTV!. This was a 26-part series, each episode lasting 25 minutes, and was followed in 2004 by S.A.C. 2nd GIG, which had the same format. In turn, the first season was adapted into both a feature-length version, The Laughing Man, and two manga volumes, while the second was also edited down into a feature-length edition, Individual Eleven.

The main advantage the TV series offers over the movie should be apparent: it has much greater scope at which to explore the world of cyberbrain networks, information warfare, and their resulting impact on society and humanity. This is particularly apparent early on in the first series. There does eventually develop an ongoing story arc, focusing on the search for an elite hacker (the “Laughing Man”, who takes inspiration from a J.D. Salinger short story) who is trying to expose a conspiracy between the government and cyber-medical companies. But the series also has episodes that don’t advance this at all, exploring other aspects of life in the technologically advanced society which is 2030’s Japan.

It can also be pretty damn cerebral at times. Even the titlular concept, the “Stand Alone Complex”, is not easy for the viewer to wrap their head around. It’s a little bit like the notion of copycat incidents – except, in the case of the Stand Alone Complex, the original didn’t take place, or at least not in the way perceived by those who copy it. It’s probably easiest to provide an example: “Slender Man”. This was a supposed supernatural creature, belief in which reportedly caused two 12-year-old girls to stab another, a ritual designed to impress Slender Man. But the urban legend in question was actually a piece of fiction, created wholesale by a Internet forum user. This idea informs both seasons, with reality and perceived reality both triggering subsequent actions. It’s sometimes way above my head, that’s for sure.

Another result of the extra room is an approach which occasionally becomes meandering to the point of irritation. On the other hand, you can only admire a show which is confident enough in its own abilities, to have an episode which takes place, almost in its entirety, in an Internet chat room. Another ongoing thread is the growing self-awareness of the Tachikomas, independent AI tanks employed by Section 9. These feature in little vignettes at the end of every episode in the first season. To be honest, I initially found their squeaky little voices fairly irritating and fast-forwarded as soon as the final credits rolled. However, they did redeem themselves with a surprising bit of altruism at the end of the series, and were considerably more tolerable in the second season.

Compared to the movie, the animation is a little less fluid – as you’d expect, given the constraints of cost and time. The budget was reportedly $300,000 per episode, compared to $10 million for the film: so the entire first season, running nine hours or so (excluding credits), still cost less than the 80-minute movie, even allowing for seven years of inflation. The style is also a little different, with the character designs more closely resembling the original manga. This is perhaps most apparent in the look of Major Kusanagi. For the TV version seems quite enthusiastic in the area of fan service, with some of her costumes looking as if she’d just rolled out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, rather than those typically worn by a public servant – see below for an example!

While the feature focused directly on the Major and her quest for identity, the series also uses its greater freedom to become more of an ensemble piece. The Major is clearly still the leader and boss, with skills that surpass everyone else – they defer to her, and it’s entirely understandable. But over the course of these 52 episodes, the spotlight turns at one point onto just about everyone else, from her hulking second-in-command, former Army Ranger Batou, through to Togusa, the member of Section 9 who has undergone the least amount of cybernetic enhancement. This allows it to explore their history. For example, the (somewhat notorious, due to its graphic violence) “Jungle Cruise” episode, had Batou hunting down an ex-military colleague who has become a serial killer.

The second season, while still having some individual episodes, has an interesting main thread which has become particularly relevant in the light of subsequent geo-political events. A refugee crisis has broken out, leading to a large influx of displaced people to Japan, causing tension between them and the locals. A charismatic refugee leader, Kuze, has sprung up, leading a movement demanding autonomy for the island where they are being housed. A right-wing group within the government, led by creepy intelligence officer Goda, seeks to exploit the tension by “false flagging” a nuclear incident as a refugee terrorist act, allowing the group to stage effectively a military coup. While originally inspired by the Japanese reaction to 9/11, it’s easy to see parallels to the current world situation here.

Partly due to this, I’m curious to see how much of the series ends up present in the live-action film. The very first episode includes a hostage situation involving android geisha, which is a part of the trailers we’ve seen. As mentioned, each series was edited down into a feature-length compilation, so could be the basis for the 2017 story – though as I haven’t bothered with those, I can’t comment on how coherent the results ended up. But other aspects of the trailers appear to come from the original movie, so I suspect we’ll be looking at a combination, drawing from multiple elements of the GitS universe. It’ll probably be based more on “what looks cool?” rather than narrative sense!

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, William Frederick Knight

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society
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“Solid State Survivors.”

A rather clunky title for an OAV (original animation video), which came out in September 2006, about 18 months after the end of season two. It’s also two years after the events depicted, with Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) having quit her job as Section 9, and largely dropped off the grid. Batou (Ōtsuka) has taken over her position as S9’s top field operative, with Togusa (Yamadera) the. After a series of suicides exposes a plot for a bioterror attack, the group is on the hunt for a hacker called the Puppeteer, apparently behind it. But the investigation finds the apparent attack was almost a diversion, and uncovers a massive child abduction ring that may be responsible for as many as 20,000 kidnappings.

Even by the standards of a series which has always waxed philosophical, this has some pretty deep constructs. For example, the Puppeteer is described by the Major as a “rhizome”. Wikipedia tells me this is a concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972–1980) project. It is what Deleuze calls an “image of thought,” based on the botanical rhizome, that apprehends multiplicities. Well, glad we’ve cleared that up, then. Fortunately, you don’t really need to understand any of this: basically just think of of it as an example of a computer network becoming self-aware, and acting on its own behalf. Everything beyond that, feels a bit like extracts from a paper by a college student who wants you to know how deep they are.

It’s somewhat better when not vanishing up its own philosophical backside. Probably the best sequence has Togusa becoming the victim of a brain-hack and compelled to make a terrible choice: hand his own daughter over to the Puppeteer, to become one of the abductees (with his memory then wiped) or kill himself. It’s a chilling sequence, and also marks the return of the Major to work with Section 9. She has been carrying out her own investigation, free from the restrictions inevitably resulting out of her official role. It turns out to be connected to the aging of Japanese society – a major problem now, and likely to be worse by the late 2030’s when this is set.

It looks pretty slick, with a budget definitely on the high-end for video animation, and there’s no need to have seen the TV series, for this to make sense. But it’s largely forgettable stuff, and the significant absence of the Major, particularly in the first half, weakens proceedings considerably, robbing it of the universe’s most memorable character.

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Osamu Saka

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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“The ghostess with the mostest.”

ghostintheshell1985Renowned for its influence on just about every subsequent cyberpunk entity, from The Matrix to Westworld, this also remains one of the classic anime movies, more than two decades after its release. The main problem though, is the translation of a densely-packed and heavily notated manga series by Masamune Shirow, into an 82-minute action feature. You’re left with something forced to cram the philosophical aspects into a couple of indigestible lumps – an approach certainly also adopted by the Wachowski Brothers.

It’s set in a future Japan where cyborg enhancements have become the norm, to the point where some people are beginning to question what’s left of their own humanity (the “ghosts” in the hardened artificial “shells”). Among them is Major Motoko Kusanagi (Tanaka), an assault-team leader in Section 9, a federal public security agency. They are attempting to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious hacker, who uses an automated facility to create an entirely artificial body. Section 9 discover that the truth about the Puppet Master’s origins is closer than is comfortable, stemming from the actions of another government department and “Project 2501”. But what, if anything, does this say about the Puppet Master’s goals?

It’s a rather uneven mix of high-paced action sequences and more leisurely scenes. Each work well on their own (helped immeasurably by Kenji Kawai’s score), yet fall short of combining into a thoroughly cohesive whole. The Major might be rather over-fond of waxing philosophical, as shown in the following monologue, during a down-time conversation with her less-enhanced colleague, Batou (Ōtsuka), which feels more like the sort of thing I heard out of my fellow students – typically, the damn philosophy ones – at university, late on Saturday nights after the bar had closed.

Just as there are many parts needed to make a human a human, there’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware of yourself. The hand you see when you awaken. The memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data net my cyberbrain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am. Giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me’. And simultaneously confining “me” within set limits.

While certainly a good summary of the movie’s main theme, it’s the kind of thing best explored in a longer, more leisurely format such as the TV series which were to follow. Here, this kind of rumination seems a bit forced. More effective than the chat is the action. Kusanagi’s talents and ability to take damage make for some glorious set pieces, such as her fight with one of the Puppet Master’s host bodies, and a battle against a tank, possessing vastly superior fire-power. The look of the film is just glorious as well, combing traditional cel animation and computer graphics to an effect rarely, if ever, matched. There was an “enhanced” version which came out in 2008, with upgraded CGI; yet after two minutes, I switched back to the original, where the combination feels more seamless. It’s certainly preferable to much modern anime – I’d rather have something try too hard to be smart, as here, than not try hard enough.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi, Kōichi Yamadera

Watch ScarJo kick ass in the first five minutes of Ghost in the Shell

There will be a lot of Ghost in the Shell coming up this week on the site. Beginning on Monday, we’ll be reviewing the various animated incarnations of the universe, taking us through to next weekend, when we’ll be covering its entire world on Saturday, and then the new movie with Scarlet Johansson will be reviewed on Sunday. Hey, that’s the biggest action-heroine film since, certainly, the end of the Hunger Games franchise, and it’s a creation which has been hugely influential on SF since the manga version first came out in 1989. It’s amazing how accurate its prediction of the future, where everyone and everything is connected and interfaced, has proven – considering that at the time of its original release, the Internet was in its absolute infancy.

Anyway, the studio had released the opening five minutes, which depict the Major’s first action, after terrorists attack a business meeting. It answers some questions which you were perhaps asking after watching the trailer, such as her character’s oddly nipple-less appearance. Turns out she’s not naked, but wearing a skinsuit that provides optical camo, allowing her effectively to vanish. But my main takeaway is how goddamn gorgeous the whole thing looks. I know that’s what you’d expect – for all the flaws of Snow White and the Huntsman, from the same director, it was beautiful to look at. Still, even by those standards, this is a neon-drenched, all-you-can-eat buffet of visual stunnery. It certainly looks like every penny of the budget is up on the screen – combine this with a live-action rendition of one of the iconic action heroine of  Japanese animation, and that’s good enough for me.

So, I’m looking forward to seeing it on the largest screen possible, while stuffing my face with popcorn. And in the immortal words of D-Generation X, if you’re not down with that, we got two words for ya…

I Spit on Your Grave 3: Vengeance is Mine

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“Point made.”

Like much horror, the rape-revenge genre is one which overlaps with, rather than being wholly encompassed by, the action-heroine field. Some entries qualify: the awesome glory which is Ms. 45 being the most obvious example. But others appear to focus more on the rape than the revenge, and are far less interesting as a result. Such was the case for the first two entries in this series – and, indeed, the 1978 grindhouse classic which it rebooted. Here, however, in an interesting twist we bypass the assault entirely. This starts instead with the victim in the earlier movies (Butler) having adopted a new identity, that of Angela, and attending both one-on-one therapy as well as group sessions.

It’s at the latter she meets Marla (Landon), who shares Angela’s dislike for the whole touchy-feely aspect of recovery, and prefers a more… “hands-on” approach to working things out. When they discover that another member of the group is still being molested by her stepfather, it’s time to put their theory into practice. While apparently a success, at least initially, it turns out Marla has her own issues that still need to be dealt with. Additionally, the aftermath of their street justice is bringing the attention of the cops, in particular SVU Detective McDylan (Hogan). It’s kinda hard to explain why you’re in a bad part of town, fighting with a man in a back-alley, and carrying a knife, a Tazer and a can of lighter fluid.

I was sure I knew where this was going. Meeting someone called “Marla” at a support group, is such an obvious nod to Fight Club, I was certain she’d turn out to be a figment of Angela’s imagination, and there are fantasy sequences also pointing down that road. Happy to be proved wrong, and the film twists in some unexpected directions the rest of the way, right until the end. It’s most memorable feature, however, would be two absolutely – bold and capital letters please – BRUTAL sequences of Angela’s revenge. The first, in particular, is going to stick in my mind for a very long time, in part because it comes virtually out of nowhere. But once it begins, it delivers a one-two punch of almost unsurpassed magnitude: barely had the words “Holy sh…” begun to escape my lips, when it got ten times more savage.

It has to be said, having set the bar so staggeringly high in terms of carnage, I was left wondering how the movie could follow up. Truth is, it doesn’t, and that probably counts as a misstep, since it also distracts unnecessarily from what’s actually a solid performance from Butler. She gets to run the gamut from seductive to extremely scary, and is effective enough at both ends of the spectrum. Make no mistake, this is frequently vile and repellent; yet, it’s exactly how sexual assault should be depicted, because that’s what it is. Just be sure to find an unrated version, and if you’re male, you may want to watch from a spot where curling up into the foetal position is easily managed.

Dir: R.D. Braunstein
Star: Sarah Butler, Jennifer Landon, Doug McKeon, Gabriel Hogan

The Champagne Gang

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“Contains 100% of your daily requirement of eye-candy.”

Under the leadership of Bliss (Toups), whose father is serving an extended stretch in jail, four young women stage a series of convenience-store burglaries in the San Diego area, before moving up to larger schemes. This brings them to the attention of local crime-boss, Cal Wertlieb, who makes them an offer they can’t refuse. He’ll train them to carry out more lucrative jobs, by cracking safes, which will give them access to cash and other easily fungible loot, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds – and their absolute silence in the event of them ever being caught by the authorities.

It opens with the “based on a true story” title, which as usual had me raising a sardonic eyebrow. However, in this case, it appears to be at least somewhat accurate, even if the end credits admit that the real “champagne gang” were Canadian men, rather than California girls! Still, I’m not inclined to criticize writer-diretor-producer Zirilli too much, for taking the more photogenic route. The film is at its best when it’s a lawbreaking version of the ‘police procedural’, i.e. instead of explaining how crimes are investigated, covering the nuts and bolts of how the group pulled off their thefts. These little details here bring the film to life, and help to keep it grounded in reality. That’s something sorely needed, given Zirilli’s horrid over-fondness for irrelevances, such as the make-over, the surfing montage, or the cringeworthy concert with a cameo by Bokeem Woodbine.

The film does make some effort at making the girls individuals, even if outside of Bliss, this largely consists of giving the other three a single-word character. Thus, we have Nerdy Michelle (Lakota), Bimbo Erika (Tobiason) and Bitchy Amanda (Serano), but I guess there was a conscious decision to sacrifice further character development, on the altar of that surfing montage. Shallow though these are, it does help set up the plot, with Erika tending to ill-considered actions which bring heat in their wake, such as contacting her boyfriend when they’re supposed to be laying low. There are also occasional moments of nice self-deprecation, such as when Bliss explains their aesthetic choice of footwear on their raids: “We really should have been wearing sensible shoes for the climbing. But we knew we could do it in high-heeled boots. After all – we’re girls.”

Unfortunately, the decent aspects tend to accentuate the copious quantities of padding necessary to get from the set-up to the conclusion, where the cops finally realize they’re not chasing a male gang. Zirilli the director should have gone back to Zirilli the writer, and demanded he put more meat on the bones, of a script that has flashes of some potential. Outside of Bliss, there’s not even a fragment of motivation for anyone involved, and you’re left watching something which too often drifts into being not much more substantial than an elaborate pop promo.

Dir: Daniel Zirilli
Star: Lacey Toups, Candise Lakota, Tarah Tobiason, Suri Serano
The whole movie is on YouTube, if the trailer below whets your interest.

Fight Valley

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“Ring around the poses.”

The results of bringing female MMA fighters to the screen have been a bit mixed, shall we say. Gina Carano has looked decent in her films, but Ronda Rousey’s performances have been roundly criticized, and her Mile 22 project appears dead in the water. The performance by the recently retired from MMA Miesha Tate, which is likely the film’s major selling-point, rates… somewhere in the middle. She doesn’t disgrace herself – but that may be partly because there is no shortage of other weaknesses to criticize here. Tate is convincing in her role – yet since she’s playing a mixed martial-artist, it’s hardly proof of any acting ability. But I guess, everyone has to start somewhere, and a thinly-disguised version of yourself is a good place to begin.

The film’s heroine, though, is Windsor (Celek), part of a separated family. She lives with her mother in a well-to-do part of New Jersey; her sister, Tory, lives with Dad in a far more dangerous neck of the woods, and is persistently getting into street brawls. Tory asks Windsor for money and is spurned, only to turn up beaten to death later. Windsor goes slumming to investigate, with the help of Tory’s lesbian lover, Duke (O’Brien), and discovers her late sister was involved in underground fights. In the time-honoured trope of B-grade martial-arts films, Windsor decides to strap on the gloves so she can find and take revenge on Tory’s killer, convincing the reluctant Jabs (and this character is where Tate comes in) to train her for this purpose.

According to the IMDb, the budget here was twenty-seven million dollars. If true, I have no clue quite where that went, because this is absolutely the kind of film that could be churned out for a a million and change. It’s not like there are any name stars here, unless you count the bevy of UFC people who show up in minor roles: as well as Tate, the film also includes Cris Cyborg, Holly Holm and Cindy Dandois, among others. Though despite the poster shown, the non-Tate roles are barely cameos. Certainly, the script consists of little more than a selection of random clichés, as it lumbers towards a conclusion you would have to be legally blind not to see approaching. Hawk’s background in music videos is painfully apparent, and O’Brien is the only person here who comes out with much real credit, playing Duke in a way that is credible and, hence, surprisingly scary. She isn’t someone whose drink you’d want to spill in a bar, put it that way.

What sinks the movie is Celek, who is woeful: thoroughly unconvincing at every step of her implausible journey from Disney princess to hard-as-nails brawler, supposedly capable of going toe-to-toe with Cyborg. If they’d kept the film on the streets, since it does a semi-decent job of capturing a world where everyone operates on a hair-trigger, and had Duke trying to revenge her lover’s death, this might have had a chance of being more than the thoroughly forgettable project, deserving little more than a quick, straight-to-video death.

Dir: Rob Hawk
Star: Susie Celek, Erin O’Brien, Miesha Tate, Cabrina Collesides

Getting Wilde, by Jenn Stark

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I initially thought I had a fairly good handle on where the first book in the Immortal Vegas series (currently at six entries, plus a prequel) was going, with a Lara Croft-esque lead, who specializes in locating and recovering ancient artifacts. You can also throw in fragments of The Da Vinci Code, since she is hired to retrieve a relic from the secret basement beneath the Vatican, and is going up against a cult of religious, Catholic fanatics. But it somehow ends up taking a sharp right-turn, ending up in a version of Las Vegas where, just out of phase with the casinos and hotels, lurks a hidden dimension of other venues, populated by…

Well, probably best to rewind a bit. For in this universe, magic is real, albeit not apparent to the vast majority of the population. Some, particularly sensitive types, have an affinity for it, in one way or another, giving them abilities such are remote viewing or precognition. These are the Connected, and our heroine Sara Wilde is one of them. She started before she was even a teenager, using a talent for locating missing things to help her local police. But after a tragic incident, she was forced out on her own, and now wields her skill in the pursuit of material objects.

Meanwhile, the Arcana Council – largely formed of characters out of the tarot deck, e.g. the High Priestess, the Magician and the Devil – are based in that alternate Vegas strip. They seek to maintain the balance between good and evil, preventing either from prevailing, and that’s becoming a problem. For the increasing intersection of technology and magic is being exploited by those who want to benefit from the resulting synergy – they don’t care how many lives have to be destroyed in that process. Which is where Sara comes in, as exposure to a psychoactive drug turns her into a seer, and she unwillingly takes on that mantle, to protect the innocent alternatives.

If it sounds rather complex and confusing, that’s about right. You’d expect the first book in a series to set out the universe and its rules fairly clearly. But here, you’re largely dropped in to the middle of things, then have to try and figure out what’s going on, from nuggets dropped by Sara almost in passing. Maybe previous knowledge of Tarot might help? It also suffers from incompleteness, a sadly common trait in e-books; Stark sets up the characters and plot, then more or less ends in “Buy volume 2!” rather than offering any resolution. The book’s attitude to sex is kinda weird as well. Wilde doesn’t actually have any, but comes perilously close on multiple occasions, to the extent this seems like some kind of edging fetish.

But you shouldn’t take the above to mean it’s all negative. In particular, Wilde is a very well-formed character. She’s clearly a heroine, willing to put herself in harm’s way (both physically and psychically) to protect others, out of genuine concern for their well-being. Yet she’s far from flawless, carrying her own share of historical baggage, and has a sarcastic wit to which I can easily relate. Stark has a good eye for her settings too – having been to Las Vegas, it would be the perfect location for a supernatural governing body to set up their operations, just out of sight behind the lurid facades.

I’d probably have liked to have seen more action out of Sara. Her first excursion, into the depths beneath of the Pope’s palace in Rome, is almost an occult Indiana Jones escapade, and she clearly is capable with more than just her mind. But after that, there is a lot more talk than walk, save perhaps for her helping bust loose some unwilling participants from behind a sleazy casino, in an even sleazier back-room. Hopefully, future entries will have more of this, and she won’t be stuck doing remote viewing for the High Priestess, which is where she ends this volume. I’d probably be interested in another adventure, given the potential here; yet there are enough flaws, it could all end up being thoroughly wasted.

Author: Jenn Stark
Publisher: Elewyn Publishing, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.