Altitude

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“Fly the unfriendly skies.”

If you ever wanted to see Denise Richards brawl with MMA star Chuck Liddell, or even the daughter of Frasier, this film delivers. For Richards plays FBI hostage negotiator, Gretchen Blair, who is being ignominiously sent back to Washington after willfully disobeying orders during a siege. She ends up sitting next to the increasingly-nervous Terry (Barker), who offers her $50 million if she helps him get off the plane alive. For he knows it’s about to be hijacked by Matthew Sharpe (Lundgren) and his cronies, who will stop at nothing to retrieve the item which Terry took from them. It’s up to Gretchen, with the dubious help of an air marshal on his third solo flight, to stop their plan.

Far from the first film of its kind – Passenger 57, with Wesley Snipes, most obviously comes to mind – this starts off almost as a self-aware version of the genre, and is all the better for it. Witness, for example, Jonathan Lipnicki’s brief cameo as one of those super-perky flight attendants everyone hates, the cold, dead eyes of Sharpe’s lead henchwoman, Sadie (Grammer), while she has to pretend to be a stewardess, or Blair’s rant at the passenger who occupies her prized window-seat. It’s clear the writer has flown a lot. More of this, as well as further examples of Arnie-esque one-liners such as “You need to adjust your altitude, bitch!” and we could have had a cult classic.

Unfortunately, as things proceed, it loses a bit of its quirky charm and becomes just an increasingly implausible actioner. I mean, a plane taking off with the escape slides deployed is one thing; passengers escaping from the aircraft while it does so? I also wonder who, exactly, cleared and prepared the wilderness runway on which Sharpe lands the plane, surely the work of hundreds of people over a significant period. Richards is surprisingly credible here, especially if you remember her utterly unconvincing turn as Ph.D Dr Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough. However, it’s former Miss Teen Malibu Grammer who is outstanding here among the villains for her lack of scruples, not least because Lundgren – presumably now too old for this shit – spends almost the entire time in the cockpit. Though him flying the plane through a thunderstorm, while the score plays Ride of the Valkyries, was a nice touch.

The plane on which 90% of this takes place, already lends itself to a claustrophobic setting, but Merkin seems to prefer to push the camera in too close to the action, and in half-darkness. I suspect the stand-ins may have been involved, since looking at the IMDb, even Liddell, who plays another of Sharpe’s minions, had two stunt doubles. By the time this finishes – likely no spoiler to say there’s a giant fireball involved – its welcome has just about been exhausted. Yet there has been enough wit and energy to make this qualify as a pleasant surprise, one which surpassed my (admittedly low) expectations.

Dir: Alex Merkin
Star: Denise Richards, Kirk Barker, Greer Grammer, Dolph Lundgren

What Happened to Monday

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“Seven Noomis for the price of one!”

In the future, overpopulation becomes such a problem that strict limits are placed on children per family. You are only allowed one, with any others being taken by the authorities and put into “cryosleep”, so they will no longer consume resources until the situation has been addressed. After a woman secretly gives birth to septuplets, their grandfather, Terrence Settman (Dafoe), brings them up, rigidly schooling their actions so they remain under the radar. Each gets to go out on the day of the week corresponding to their name e.g. Monday on Monday, etc. On their return, they share with their siblings the events of the day, so the illusion can be sustained. 30 years later, with their grandfather gone, the seven women have evaded capture, though tensions between the different personalities are growing. Then, one evening, Monday simply doesn’t come back. The following day, neither does Tuesday. The remaining sisters have to try and figure out what’s going on, without exposing themselves.

There are strong hints of Orphan Black here, the TV series in which Tatiana Maslany played multiple clones, with distinct personalities, who end up working together to uncover a conspiracy. That ran for five seasons, truly flogging a dead horse into the ground, and the concept works a good deal better at the two hours for which this runs. Though even here, the third quarter does somewhat run out of steam. The main pleasure is the seven different versions of Rapace – and, indeed, the seven mini versions seen in flashblack, played by Read. Watching them bickering around the dinner table is a marvel on both technical and acting levels. Despite limited screen time, Rapace imbues them with distinguishing characteristics that mean you can tell the players without a scorecard. Though, again, the third quarter gets rather murky in this area, especially when two versions start rolling around, brawling with each other.

Wirkola is best known for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (a film which, like the Resident Evil series, performed much better overseas), and has a similarly stylish grasp of the action here. Though not all the seven sisters are action-oriented, some of them most definitely are. The highlights are a chase through the streets of the city, and a misguided attempt by the authorities to storm the apartment where the sisters are embedded. It does not go well. These sequences likely work rather better than the plot. As well as my doubts a subterfuge like this could be sustained for three decades, despite Settman’s undeniable commitment to it, I must confess I’m with Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), head of the Child Allocation Bureau. She points out the grandfather’s actions are thoroughly selfish: he feels that rules for the necessary good of all, should only apply to other people, not his descendants. The story likely also needs a better antagonist: someone against whom the Noomis can directly battle. Cayman is largely absent and operating at just too much of a distance to qualify.

There’s still more than enough here to appreciate, with a well-crafted dystopian world which seems not implausible – see China’s “one child policy,” for instance. But it’s really Rapace’s show, and the actress builds on the intensity shown in the Millennium Trilogy. She seems to have both a fondness and a talent for action: Noomi likely has as good a claim to being the current Queen of European Action Heroines as anyone.

Dir: Tommy Wirkola
Star: Noomi Rapace, Clara Read, Marwan Kenzari, Willem Dafoe

If Looks Could Kill

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“Keeps the pot boiling energetically enough.”

I’ve been a fan of The Asylum studio for a while. They’re famous – or infamous – mainly for two things. Originally, they churned out “mockbusters”, films that rode the advertising coat-tails of larger budget and more famous movies, using titles such as (I kid you not), Snakes on a Train. More recently, they are also creators of the cult Sharknado series for SyFy. However, The Asylum can and will, make more or less anything they think will turn a profit. Their quality of output does vary, shall we say. Yet I was entertained by this slice of Lifetime fluff ‘n’ nonsense more than expected, mostly due to effective performances from the two leads.

There’s Faith Gray (Estes), whose new job as a beat cop has re-united her with Detective Paul Wagner (Kosalka), for whom she has always had a “thing.” But at an incident in a local bar, he meets and ends up beginning a relationship with, Jessica Munroe (Spiro). She’s a drop-dead blonde with aspirations of becoming a movie star – not something easily accomplished in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Before you can say “We’ll be right back after these words from our sponsors,” she’s pregnant and married to Paul. Faith, however, thinks there’s something not quite right about Jessica, though her investigation could be considered more as jealousy-induced stalking. It’s certainly painted as such by its target.

The film never tries to hide the fact that Jessica is nutty as a fruitcake. As a result, its plotting is instead very much concerned just with getting the story from Point A to B, offering few surprises. I’m not exactly convinced by the “Based on a true story” claim here. And let’s not even start with the police procedures depictede: let’s just say, Stillwater PD could use some re-training, and move on. Yet the pleasures outweighed the deficiencies; in particular, as mentioned, watching the mousy Faith and psychotic glam-girl Jessica face off. The latter gets most of the cinematic highlights, vamping it up to great effect. Witness, for example, her hyper-ventilating in order to place a convincingly panicked phone call to her lover. Guess all Jessica’s acting classes finally paid off!

I admit, there’s something fun about watching a manipulative sociopath at work: there’s a reason Dangerous Liaisons is one of the all-time greats. Spiro isn’t quite at Glenn Close standards, yet both she and Estes give it their all, and elevate the material to enjoyable nonsense. Even if we didn’t quite get the hellacious cat-fight climax for which I was hoping, it’s always good to see a film where both protagonist and antagonist are women, and there’s no doubt all the effort went into Faith and Jessica, with the male characters barely registering. Paul, in particular, is so easily deceived you wonder how he ever became a detective. Yet, as pulpy nonsense goes, this hour and a half certainly went by quickly and painlessly enough.

Dir: James Cullen Bressack
Star: Stefanie Estes, Summer Spiro, Tomek Kosalka, Brian Shoop

The Institute

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“A girl has no name.”

Game of Thrones, this clearly isn’t. But both Chris and I were struck by the similarities between what befalls the main character here, and the re-programming which Anya Stark underwent at the hands of the Faceless Men. Because the first, and arguably key, step in both is to destroy the existing personality, so there is a blank slate – the phrase “tabula rasa” is explicitly used here – on which the new character can be drawn. In this case, the victim is Isabel Porter (Gallerani), a young woman who has sunk into depression after the death of her parents. She opts for a stay at the Rosewood Institute, a highly regard mental sanatorium in Baltimore.

It soon turns out those who run it have an extremely creepy agenda, sitting somewhere between local hero Edgar Allen Poe and the Illuminati. Through a mix of drugs and mind-control techniques, Isabel is being transformed from the somewhat rebellious but polite young woman who went in, into… Well, it’s kinda hard to say. But it turns out that her rebellious streak may be about the most robust aspect of her personality, and those in charge will perhaps end up wishing they had left well alone. For when you destroy all moral governors in someone, what’s left can potentially turn round and bite their purported master.

While certainly not for everyone, this is a horror/conspiracy combination which puts it right in our wheelhouse. And perhaps surprisingly, the “based on a true story” claim has more veracity than you might expect. Between the war, poor female patients were basically sold to upper-class families, and put to work by them, as little more than slaves, in what has been described as “a well-oiled human trafficking operation.” The bizarre ritual ceremonies depicted here, do appear to be the fruits of imagination – though I would say whoever was responsible has done their paranoid homework with some of the details.

There’s a strong feminist subtext, with the story set in a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard – Isabel describes her curiosity as a symptom of mental illness. It’s a joy when the tables are turned, though I’m not quite so sure about the final twist, which seems wholly unnecessary, to put it mildly.  I also enjoyed the more Gothic aspects, not least a sequence which is lifted wholesale from one of Poe’s most famous stories. Gallerani is excellent in the central role, and that’s probably a good thing, since some of the other performances aren’t, not least James Franco as Dr. Cairn, who appears to have strolled in from a fancy-dress party. And I’ve no clue at all, what Pamela Anderson is doing in this.

Taking this seriously, would likely be a mistake. Treat it as something inspired by, and in the lurid spirit of, a Victorian “penny dreadful” story, however – right down to the hunchback – and you’ll find plenty of fun here.

Dir: James Franco and Pamela Romanowsky
Star: Allie Gallerani, James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Lori Singer

The Eyes of My Mother

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“Eyes without a farce.”

“Post-horror” is now, apparently, A Thing. It refers to horror films that subvert the traditional tropes and style of the genre in some way. Though based on the so-tagged example of it I’ve seen, the main subversion appears to be “not being frightening.” I think there’s a spot of pretension mixed in as well, since horror is generally regarded as marginally above pornography in terms of critical appreciation. By calling it something else, this gives those who turn their nose up at “horror” a chance to appreciate it. But it’s a bit of a double-edged sword for marketing, because you’re as likely to lose fans of “true” horror, who have been burned badly by films riding on the genre’s coat-tails.

There’s nothing particularly new about this. Films which rely on implied rather than explicit horror have generally been more warmly received by critics. Think of Psycho, The Shining, or even contrast the receptions of the original Cat People and Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake, which took all the repressed sexuality of the original and brought it front and center. Critics hated the latter. It’s one of my top 10 films of all-time – but I can also love the original, even though it’s so understated as barely to qualify as horror by modern standards. There’s room for both, and neither is innately superior. However, it generally takes a bit more skill to provoke an audience reaction with unseen terrors, especially if the viewer has seen their share of genre entries.

Which (finally) brings me to The Eyes of My Mother, a black-and-white film, which I guess is post-horror. For while it tells the story of a family of psychos living in the country, with a fondness for kidnap and torture… This is not exactly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It starts off as a family affair, with young Francesca living on a farm with her mother (Agostini), a former Portuguese eye surgeon, and father (Nazak). A home invasion results in a death, but the perpetrator is captured, and becomes Francesca’s tormented plaything as she grows into adulthood (Magalhães), honing her surgical skills on him. That turns out to be just the first victim, as Francesca if a firm believer in crafting a new family by abduction.

It’s all too highbrow for its own good, Pesce apparently believing that cutting away from virtually all actual violence, and draining the colour from proceedings is equivalent to art. He’s wrong, for you also need to be a Hitchcock or a Polanski. Although some day, Pesce might reach those heights, this is his feature debut, and the style instead comes over as unbearably pretentious: art purely for art’s sake, instead of serving the story. Not to say it gets everything wrong; the lead performance is deliciously chilling in its utter placidity, going to the other extreme from Texas, and all the more effective for it. But when Chris’s first post-screening comment is, “I wonder how they paid their electricity bill?”, you know that any supposed horror movie (even a post-horror one) has fumbled the ball badly in terms of impacting the viewer.

Dir: Nicolas Pesce
Star: Kika Magalhães, Olivia Bond, Diana Agostini, Paul Nazak

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

Almost all the action heroine novels I’ve read of late have been Volume 1 in a series. While not necessarily a bad thing, this does tend to lead to a sense of unfulfilled resolution. “Happy ever after” is frequently replaced by a semi-cliffhanger, intend to separate the reader from their cash for Volume 2. It rarely works, and is more likely to annoy me. After all, I’ve invested significant quantities of time (if not perhaps money; these introductory items tend to be of the 99-cent variety, so I guess the buyer should beware) in each tale, and to be left dangling is frustrating. That’s why it was especially nice to read a book like this, which tells a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and a solid, satisfactory end.

It plays like a feminist version of a Grimm fairy tale. The heroine is 15-year-old Rhea, a miller’s daughter whose life is upended after a member of the local nobility, Crevan, requests her hand in marriage. This comes as a shock to everyone, not least Rhea. Her parents are hardly in any position to refuse, and Rhea is packed off to Crevan’s manor, where a further shock awaits her. As the title suggests, she’s not exactly the first proposal – and the other six women are still present on the estate, from which no escape is possible, since it’s like the fairy-tale version of the Hotel Californa. Nor are they in the same status as which they arrived, for Crevan has a very nasty agenda, taking one precious thing from each of his betrothed. There’s the clock wife, for example. And you probably don’t want to know about the golem wife. How can Rhea escape the fate of the previous brides, given she has never battled anything nastier than an upset swan?

The fairy-tale aspect is mostly in the characters. Rhea is good and pure and kind, like all the best princesses. Crevan is the archetypal “wicked stepmother” of proceedings: evil for no more particular reason than because the plot requires it. Indeed, he’s entirely absent from the great bulk of this, popping back occasionally to give Rhea a new task. But the heroine here is a good deal more pro-active than your classic Disney princess, and there is absolutely no Prince Charming, who’s going to sweep in and rescue her. She’s entirely reliant on her own wits, bravery and persistence, and the story is all the better for that. The feminist aspects are obvious, though are handled lightly enough to be non-didactic; Rhea’s problems are as much a result of class problems as gender ones.

The fantastic elements, such as the wild and bizarre domain where the clock wife resides, play more like Lewis Carroll. Indeed, I got a strong Tim Burton-esque vibe overall here; maybe Helena Bonham-Carter could play one (or here’s an idea – all?) of the previous wives. Kingfisher (the awkward name is actually a pen-name for Ursula Vernon, intended to separate works like this from the children’s books which are her bread and butter) has a darkish wit to her writing as well. That comes through particularly in Rhea’s internal monologues, and gives her a grounded and common sense feel, which is especially appealing. Ironically, it’s one of those cases where I wouldn’t actually mind further stories in the series.

Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: 47North, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

.357: Six Bullets for Revenge

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“As the crow lies…”

It wasn’t until the end, when the credits ran and I saw someone’s name I knew, that I realized this was actually a local production, shot here in Phoenix. Maybe I should have been paying more attention, or maybe that just speaks to the bland lack of place present in this low-budget Crow knock-off. For, despite the poster which is obviously riffing off another comic-book movie, this one is clearly inspired by Alex Proyas’s cult classic. I am, however, pleased to report that the lead star here did actually make it through the entirety of production with a pulse, so they come out ahead of their inspiration in that department.

On their wedding night, Eric – yes, as in Eric Draven – and Jade (Love) have their nuptials rudely interrupted by a gang of thugs belonging to Lyle Barnes (Ames), due to Eric having skipped out on them with Jade and, more importantly, fifty grand. He is killed; she is brutally assaulted and wakes up the next morning beside his corpse, with one though on her mind: vengeance. She trades her wedding ring for a gun at a pawn shop, and with the assistance of a mysterious stranger, Hammer (Williamson), begins a relentless pursuit of those responsible for her husband’s demise, all the way up the chain of command to Barnes.

The problem with being such an obvious copy, from the page-flipping opening credit sequence, to the black, feathery wings worn by Jade as she goes about her business, is you’re inevitably going to be measured at every step against your inspiration. And when you are going up against an undeniable cult classic, it’s unlikely to be a positive comparison. If this had taken the same basic elements, but gone in its own direction, I’d likely have been more tolerant of its flaws, most notably fight scenes which are ploddingly assembled – apparently from flat-packs with an Allen wrench. And a low budget is absolutely no excuse for the apparent lack of originality, which is the main problem here.

Fred Williamson’s presence helps elevate things, but it’s clear they only had him around for a couple of days, and his character’s departure from the film is every bit as abrupt as his arrival [though I was amused by him being called Hammer, that basically being what Fred calls himself!] If he had lurked in the background for the entire movie, providing motivation and guidance, it would have been better. William Katt, playing a sleazy pawnshop guy, also stands out, but Love’s performance isn’t enough to overcome an ill-considered costume, which feels like it came off the remainder rail at Hot Topic. The grindhouse aspects offer a welcome dose of grime, and is perhaps the one area where this does manage to surpass its predecessor, with the film offering copious female nudity (from just about everyone bar the heroine, who may have been body-doubled). This probably isn’t quite enough to justify it as a viewing experience.

Dir: Brian Skiba
Star: Laurie Love, Brian Ames, Krystle Delgado, Fred Williamson

La Esquina del Diablo

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“Stuck in a corner.”

You’re in deep in Devil’s Corner
And you already realize it’s hard to get out.
What would you do if there’s no place to run
Sharpen your senses and defend yourself well

In Devil’s Corner, walking towards love
Dodging bullets and risking your heart 
It’s so hard to escape from Devil’s Corner 
Defying death I came here to fight 
And to love 

Thus goes the peppy pop ditty which plays over the opening credits of this Colombian telenovela. It stars Ana Serradilla, whom we previously saw as the heroine of La Viuda Negra. Here, she’s on the other side of the law, playing cop Ana García. She wants to be assigned to the special operations group. But her temper gets the best of her when she’s given a surreptitious test, interviewing a suspect who’s actually a policeman, and is deliberately trying to provoke her.

Fortunately, she gets a second chance to make a first impression, and is inserted in an undercover role to the aptly-named “La esquina del diablo” – the Devil’s corner. It’s a no-go zone for police, a ghetto perched high up on the hills overlooking the city. The area is controlled with an iron hand by the Velasco family, led by patriarch Angel (Tappan); they run drugs and other criminal activities, and have been a thorn in the side of the local authorities for years. Local cop Eder Martin (de Miguel) sends Ana into the area as a social worker, to gather information, after a helicopter crash supposedly kills Angel. However, it quickly turns out this was merely a ruse by the boss, to get the cops off his back. Can Ana embed herself deeply into the local community to complete her mission?

That’s just one – possibly not even the main one – of a number of plot threads which are woven into the fabric of the 70 episodes. Additional elements include:

  • Angel’s second-in-command, Yago (Pernia), who was a childhood friend of Eder
  • Angel’s son, Angelito, who is an ambitious loose cannon with psychopathic tendencies
  • Eder’s relationship with the mayor’s daughter, and its conflict with the growing attraction to Ana
  • Meanwhile, Ana’s gradual realization that Yago may not be as bad an apple as he seems
  • The mayor’s political aspirations and presidential campaign
  • Yago’s son is a promising football player, but is also on the verge of being recruited by Angelito
  • The other undercover cop, who befriends Angelito in jail and helps him escape
  • The mysterious “He”, a rival crime boss who inhabits the upper echelon of the city’s elite
  • The serial killer who is leaving a trail of women’s corpses, tattooed with numbers on their shoulders

Phew. This cornucopia of plot-lines likely both the series’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness. There’s no doubt it’s actually very well-handled by the writers and cast: even the relatively minor characters are given an impressive amount of depth, and the script never gets jumbled or confused. This is a sharp contrast to Camelia la Texana, the show I’m currently watching: you don’t so much follow the plot, as desperately cling to it, as various groups of sideburn-wearing people scheme against each other. It’s also a contrast, in another way, to Viuda Negra, which was unashamedly about Griselda Blanco. In this case, the breadth of focus inevitably leads to a dilution of why we’re here, with poor Ana often sidelined.

This is a shame, since the heroine here is shown in the first episode, as fully capable of single-handedly taking out and/or down multiple villains with her skills. The mission here is much less direct: it’s very much undercover intelligence-gathering. She can’t kick ass, because that is not what social workers do: if she did, anyone who saw it would have cause to suspect Ana’s real identity and mission, immediately becoming part of the problem. So instead, there’s a lot more skulking around, trying to earn the trust of Eder, and narrow escapes from being caught by Velasco’s gang. After what we saw at the beginning, this passive approach seems like a sad waste of her law-enforcement talents.

This is the main reason for the relatively low score above. For in some ways, it’s the best of the shows I’ve seen, in terms of combining characters and plots in an engaging way. I’m impressed with the non-specific nature of the location, mentioning no particular country or city. The sharp divide between rich and poor, with the latter living in ghettos run by a largely criminal element, reminded me of the Rio favelas – I highly recommend you watch the amazing Elite Squad if you want a glimpse of the hellish life there. But I would imagine it’s equally likely to be Colombia, since that’s where the series was actually shot. The series does well too, in portraying the moral grey-scale: between Ana at one end and Angelito at the other, most making choices based on pragmatism rather than idealism.

There are a lot of interesting supporting characters: not so much Eder and Yago, who are fairly cookie-cutter in terms of being opposing romantic heroes, with dark, troubled (and somewhat shared) pasts. It’s mostly on the fringes of Velasco’s gang that all the fun is to be found. Cachalote (Julián Caicedo) is a burly thug with a surprisingly soft heart – he has an unrequited crush on the mayor’s daughter, formed during her kidnapping. Meteoro (Erick Leonardo Cuellar) is the gang’s drug chemist, though he looks and acts like a methed-up version of Giorgio Tsoukalos, from the Ancient Aliens show. Most notable of all is Michelle (Estefania Piñeres, right), a hard-nosed barrio brat who is more than capable of holding her own in the tough environment, and is ferociously loyal to her boss. She would have enough stories to tell for her own, lengthy series, I’ve no doubt about that.

However, as an action heroine series, it’s undeniably a disappointment: I was expecting much more focus on the central character, based both on Negra and the first episode. And, indeed, much more action. As a regular TV show, it would deserve a higher rating, likely a full star better, since I genuinely did enjoy it. It just isn’t quite the fit for the site which I was hoping to see.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Miguel de Miguel, Gregorio Pernía, Christian Tappan