Wanted: Seasons one and two

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“Where women glow and men plunder.”

Not to be confused with the Angelina Jolie movie, this Australian TV series kicks off with an incident at a bus-stop, where Lola (Gibney) and Chelsea (Hakewill) are witnesses to a bloody battle, in which Lola accidentally shoots one of the participants. Both women are abducted by the survivor, but he in turn is gunned down by a former policeman. The pair high-tail it from the scene in the car, and discover it contains a hold-all carrying a large quantity of cash. Unable to trust the authorities – not least because both women have legal clouds hanging over them – they are forced on the run. In pursuit is the owner of the cash, Morrison (Phelan), and his minions, led by corrupt copper Ray Stanton. For Lola and Chelsea are entirely right in their paranoia.

There have been two seasons to date, each of six 45-minute episodes, making for a relatively quick watch. The story does occasionally strain belief in a couple of areas, with the long arm of coincidence playing more of a part than it ideally should. Chris also would like you to know that none of the dramatis personae should submit their applications to MENSA any time soon [or put another way, I lost track of the numbers of times, she yelled “STU-pid…” at the screen]. But I was largely willing to overlook these flaws, in the service of two great lead characters, whose interaction is a joy to watch. Lola is the tougher one out of the box, for reasons that become apparent, and more likely to engage in direct action, right from the very beginning. She’s driven by fierce loyalty to her family, especially her son. Chelsea, is almost the exact opposite: a mouse who slowly finds her inner lion, who is both smart and dumb at the same time, without it seemed a contradiction.

The first season ended in a pure cliff-hanger, Lola getting a call to be told, “Did you think this was over? We have your son.” Consequently, the second broadens the scope of the show considerably, with Lola haring off to recover and try to protect him (cue Chris with the “STU-pid…”, as the young man makes another in a series of questionable decisions!). She’s also after a key piece of evidence that will put Morrison away, allowing her and Chelsea to return to something approaching a normal life. The setting expands out too, from Australia to include both Thailand and, in particular, New Zealand, where the landscapes are almost a distraction on the “Tourist Board promotional film” level. [Seriously, at one point, a villain even pauses in his pursuit to take a selfie with the scenery]

The strength of the show though, remains the pairing of Gibney and Hakewill; the former’s age (in her fifties) makes her an interesting rarity in our genre, where youth dominates. She was also co-creator of the show, along with her husband – the lesson here being, if you want a good role, write it yourself! Despite obvious comparisons I’ve seen to Thelma & Louise, this does a better job of digging into the depths of the central pair, albeit with few scenes even approaching Ridley Scott’s style. Perhaps Season 3 can have a little less reliance on unfortunate happenstance, rather than direct action. For example, we do not need anyone else being disposed of, by falling onto a pointy branch…

Created by: Rebecca Gibney, Richard Bell
Star: Rebecca Gibney, Geraldine Hakewill, Stephen Peacocke, Anthony Phelan

Scorched Earth

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“Future imperfect.”

This workmanlike effort, if not particularly memorable, does at least cross two genres not frequently combined: the Western and the post-apocalypse movie. For it takes place in a world where global warming and other stuff have created a poisoned wasteland. Consequently, the currencies of choice are water purification tablets and silver, the latter being the raw ingredient in the air filtration masks which have become essential. Using vehicles powered by fossil fuels is totally outlawed, and those who do have rewards placed on their heads, attracting the attention of bounty hunters.

One such is Atticus Gage (Carano), who hears from former partner, Doc (Hannah) of an outlaw town, Defiance. This is run by Thomas Jackson (Robbins), whose bounty exceeds them all. Inevitably, Gage heads to the town to take Jackson out, adopting the identity of one of her previous targets, and insinuating herself into his posse. And equally inevitably, he turns out to have a connection to a dark incident in Gage’s past, when not plotting to re-open a nearby silver mine, the ore being dug out by pilgrims kidnapped off a nearby trail.

Carano has struggled to repeat the success of her (effective) feature debut, Haywire, with cinematic supporting parts in the likes of Deadpool and Fast and Furious 6 alternating with straight-to-video starring roles, such as In the Blood. These have been best when she has been allowed to concentrate on the physical aspects which are her strength, and the same goes here, right from the first moment we see her, riding into shot and dragging a coffin behind her, in a nice nod to the original Django. However, if she’s ever going to go further, she needs to show significantly more development as an actress. Haywire was now seven years ago – not that you’d know it from her performance here, especially when put alongside someone like Hannah.

I did like the overall setting, despite odd gaps in logic: sometimes people need to wear masks, at other times they don’t. It’s a universe which I’d have been interested to see explored some more, perhaps in an extended format, such as a TV series. This could have answered questions such as, where are those pilgrims going, anyway? I also appreciated how Gage has the ability to be a complete bad-ass, on more than one occasion showing absolutely no qualms about shiving or shooting those who might be about to blow the gaff on her assumed identity.

The tone is likely best summed up by a sequence in which Gage finds herself sealed into her own coffin and tossed off the side of a cliff. Naturally, she survives, staggering back to Doc, who patches her up, allowing the pair of them to return to Defiance, for a final grandstand(ish) shoot-out. It’s all thoroughly implausible, yet somehow, is in keeping with the pulp/comic-book aesthetic for which the makers seem to be aiming. I can’t say it’s entirely, or even largely, successful there. Yet it’s just enough to leave me back on the hook for whatever Carano does next, hoping for better.

Dir: Peter Howitt
Star: Gina Carano, Ryan Robbins, John Hannah, Stephanie Bennett

A Deadly Game

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“An arrow escape.”

Winner of the “Most misleading DVD cover of the year” award, the gap between expectation and reality has rarely been wider. It starts off promisingly enough, with young woman Kayla (Fairaway), carrying a bow and running away from a man in a car. She’s rescued by a passing motorist, but they are run off the road by their pursuer. There’s then a flashback, to explain how these events came about. Which would be fine, except for the flashback lasting close to an hour and a quarter of thoroughly mind-numbing chit-chat, before anyone even picks up a bow in anger. It’s not exactly the Hunger Games wannabe the sleeve is trying to suggest.

One of the alternative names, Deadly Spa, is far more accurate, even though it’s a title more likely to raise a smirk than a rush of adrenaline-charged excitement. Kayla is at the spa in question – ‘The Source’ with her mother, Dawn (Pietz), having convinced Mom she needs a break. At first, the place seems beyond perfect: all meditation rooms, power food breakfasts, toxin-cleansing saunas, and of course, no cell-phones allowed. Though Kayla has a yearning for a cheeseburger, which she guiltily admits to sympathetic (and hunky!) spa employee, Brett (Werkheiser).

Like most things in Lifetime TV movies which seem too good to be true, this is too good to be true. In particular, spa owner David James (Whitworth) has more in common with David Koresh than his customers should expect. He takes a shine to Dawn, and successfully pulls the wool over her eyes. Kayla is nowhere near so easily convinced, not least because she has seen David’s more psychotic side. When her mother finally sees the light as well, the two try to escape, planning to divulge David’s dirty little secrets to the authorities. If you’re well-read on cult leaders like Jim Jones, you’ll know that, to David, it makes them a problem. The solution initially involves tying Kayla up in an attic and inflicting low-rent brain-washing techniques on her. It doesn’t take. This is my unsurprised face. 

Eventually – and, boy, do I mean “eventually” – this brings us back to where we came in. It takes so long, that I was beginning to feel I was the one held captive against my will, though unfortunately without any of that nice Stockholm syndrome kicking in. [And the sooner the PTSD kicks in and erases the whole movie from my memory, the better] First mom, and then the daughter, use their archery skills, miraculously picked up after little more than two arrows, to defend themselves. It’s just enough content – along with Mom’s miraculous and unannounced judoka talents, allowing her to flip one of David’s henchmen off a cliff – to allow this to qualify for the site. However, this review should be considered far more of a warning, than any kind of endorsement. I’m sure the place will be getting a one-star review on Yelp as well.

Dir: Marita Grabiak
Star: Amy Pietz, Tracey Fairaway, Johnny Whitworth, Devon Werkheiser
a.k.a. Zephyr Springs and Deadly Spa

The Fire Beneath The Skin series, by Victor Gischler

Ink Mage

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

The small duchy of Klaar has been impervious to invasion, due to a secure location offering limited access. But when betrayal from within leads to its fall, to the vanguard of an invading Perranese army, heir apparent Rina Veraiin is forced on the run. She is fortunate to encounter one of a handful of people who know how to create mystic tattoos that will imbue the recipient with magical abilities. With her already significant combat skills radically enhanced, and her body now also blessed with a remarkable talent to heal, Rina can set about trying to recover her domain. It won’t be easy, since the king is not even aware the Perranese have landed. But she has help, albeit in the motley forms of a stable boy – sorry, head stable boy – a gypsy girl and a noble scion, whose charm is exceeded only by his ability to irritate.

Despite the young age of the protagonist, who is still a teenager, this isn’t the Young Adult novel it may seem. It’s rather more Game of Thrones in both style and content, with the point of view switching between a number of different characters. Some of these can be rather graphic, particularly the story of Tosh, an army deserter who ends up working as a cook in a Klaar brothel. But even this thread turns out more action-heroine oriented than you’d expect. For the madam gets Tosh to train the working girls in weaponcraft, so they can become an undercover (literally!) rebel force against the Perranese. Can’t say I saw that, ah, coming…

Gischler seems better known as a hard-boiled crime fiction author – though I must confess to being probably most intrigued by his satirical novel titled, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse! The approach here does feel somewhat fragmented, yet is likely necessary, given the amount of time Rina spends galloping around the countryside. It may also be a result of the book’s original format as a serial. However, it translates well enough to a single volume, and I found it became quite a page-turner in the second half. There, Rina readies her forces to return to Klaar, and take on the occupying forces, which have settled in for the winter. 

The tattoo magic is a nice idea, effectively providing “superpowers” that can help balance out the obvious limitations of a young, largely untrained heroine. It is somewhat disappointing that, after significant build-up involving the Perranese’s own tattooed warrior, the actual battle between him and Rina seemed to be over in two minutes – and decided through an external gimmick, rather than by her own skill. In terms of thrills, it’s significantly less impressive than a previous battle, pitting her against a really large snake, or even the first use of Rina’s abilities, which takes place against a wintry wilderness backdrop – more GoT-ness, perhaps?

Such comparisons are unlikely to flatter many books, and this is at its best when finding its own voice, as in the tattooing, or the gypsies who become Rina’s allies. He does avoid inflicting any serial cliffhanger ending on us, instead tidying up the majority of loose ends, and giving us a general pointer toward the second in the three-volume series. Overall, I liked the heroine and enjoyed this, to the point where I might even be coaxed into spending the non-discounted price for that next book.

The Tattooed Duchess
A Painted Goddess

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

It makes sense to treat the second and third volumes in the series as a single entity. Ink Mage worked on its own as a one-off, with a beginning, middle and reasonably well-defined end, and the eight-month pause between installments was not a problem. Duchess and Goddess, however, really need to be read back-to-back. Mage ended with Rina Veraiin having recovered her family’s territory of Klaar, thanks largely to the magical tattoos covering her skin. But the new duchess is discovering that fighting to get territory is one thing, ruling over it on an everyday basis, quite another. Especially since the Perranese invaders repelled in the first volume, are on their way back with a vengeance. For their Empress Mee Hra’Lito needs a big win to keep control of things on her side of the ocean.

Rumbling in the background, and coming to a head particularly in Goddess, is a changing of the guard in the Kingdom of Helva’s divine pantheon, with the current incumbent as top god being challenged for that position. Disturbingly, the likely replacement is the god of war: never a good thing, especially when he can raise an army of unstoppable dead soldiers and send them after Rina and her allies. Dealing with both those threats, requires Rina to ink up some more. Since she’s otherwise engaged, that means sending expeditions to the furthest corners of the lands and beyond, to retrieve the templates needed for Rina’s power-ups. [Though part of the problem is, these don’t come with instructions, explaining what a tattoo will do…] 

In particular, off to the Scattered Isles go stable-boy Alem, who carries a torch for Rina, and gypsy girl Maurizan, who is interested, both in Alem and getting some magic ink of her own. Meanwhile the noble Brasley and a new character, near-immortal female wizard Talbun, are exploring the depths – or, rather, heights – of the Great Library. This is a building so vast, it remains largely unexplored, with its origins and contents lost in the mists of time. Rina, meanwhile, is on a diplomatic mission, aimed at securing support for Klaar, only to be abducted by a group of Perran soldiers and their own mages, left behind when the army withdrew.

Especially in the second volume, poor Rina is largely relegated to a supporting role. The major threat to her is, not deities or monsters, but the arguably more insidious danger of an arranged marriage, necessary for the defense of Klaar. Maurizan becomes the action heroine focus, supported by members of the “Birds of Prey”, ex-prostitutes who have become the castle guard, as well as Talbun. It’s decent, yet almost inevitably, suffers from the bane of trilogies, “second volume syndrome”, lacking both a beginning an an end [I will say, for understandable reasons, explained by the author on his site]. It was originally published in serial format, so feels a bit episodic too, though I can’t say this impacted my enjoyment particularly much.

Rather than having to wait for the next part, as readers at the time had to do, I was able to head straight on into volume three. And Gischler redeems himself admirably for any flaws, with an excellent final volume. Rina has pretty much completed her set of tats, now possessing superhuman strength, speed and healing, as well as the ability to have anyone believe what she says, plus more. However, there’s a darker side to her talents, which becomes apparent to everyone when the Perranese lay siege to the port of Sherrik. With great power comes… scary responsibility, it appears: Rina has to make some unpleasant decisions about how far she is prepared to go, in order to repel the massive invading fleet. And they aren’t even her toughest adversary.

There are a lot of disparate elements across the series, yet Gischler melds them together into a coherent whole, rather than feeling like he’s simply plugging in fantasy tropes. I was particularly impressed by how even minor characters feel well-developed, such as Mee Hra’Lito. She didn’t need to be in the book at all, being simply the force behind the big bad (or more accurately, the secondary big bad). Yet seeing her motivations, adds depth to proceedings and enhances the epic scope. On the other hand, perhaps the series’s main weakness is lacking a truly central character. Is this Rina’s story? Alem’s? Maurizan’s? The answer is both all of the above, and none of them.

Still, this is the first true series I’ve completed since beginning book reviews on the site, and I’ve certainly enjoyed the experience. Gischler hinted at further volumes in February, saying of his universe, “I feel there’s more there to be mined,” and I wouldn’t mind in the slightest – even if Rina’s role would need… let’s say “serious revision”, based on how this ends, and leave it at that. Or a Peter Jackson trilogy of films based on these: that’d do, just as well.

Author: Victor Gischler
Publisher: 47North, available in both printed and e-book versions, as folllows:

The Vault

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“It’s always somebody else’s vault…”

In an effort to pay off gambling debts their brother Michael (Haze) has run up, sisters Leah (Eastwood) and Vee (Manning) plan and execute a bank robbery. While smart in intent – they set up a diversion, and have a cunning escape route prepared – it’s not long before the operation goes wrong. The bank’s safe does not hold anywhere near the expected haul: fortunately, the assistant manager (Franco) helpfully informs them of an undisclosed vault in the basement holding six million dollars in cash. Sending some of their gang down to the vault, The sisters can only watch on CCTV aghast, as the men are picked off by mysterious figures. For, it turns out, the bank was the site of a robbery in 1982, leading to a hostage situation that ended in multiple deaths. The ghosts of those involved are still in the basement, and opening the vault has apparently released them to take revenge.

I don’t think I’ve seen a film which combined a heist flick with a ghost story before, and it works fairly well. I say “fairly”, since it feels uneven. The bank robbery side is meticulously assembled, to the point that it could have been better if that been the movie’s sole focus. Eastwood, who made a strong impression in M.F.A., is equally as good here, playing Leah as a cunning strategist who has put a lot of thought into her meticulous plan, only for it to be derailed by factors outside her control. Vee, on the other hand, is a loose cannon, driven by her emotions, and reacting to events rather than managing them. You understand perfectly why the two sisters have led separate lives prior to reuniting to help Michael, though the specific details of the estrangement are never revealed.

It was almost an annoyance when the supernatural elements began to kick in, for those were not handled as effectively. Perhaps it’s a case of over-familiarity, with the horror genre being one with which I am particularly well-acquainted; the barely-glimpsed dark figures just didn’t do it for me. Some elements reminded me of the dumber excesses of the genre too. For instance, the willingness of the robbers to stumble around an extremely dimly-lit basement, without going, “Hang on… This makes no sense”. Or given the spectacular and murderous nature of the original robbery, it stretches belief that these local robbers had apparently never even heard of it. That’s a bit like someone from Hollywood not having heard of Charlie Manson.

While never derailing entirely the solid foundation of character and story-line set up in the first half, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the relative weakness of the second portion. Matters are likely not helped by an unsubtle coda which appears to have strayed in from a far worse film. This adds little if anything to the movie, and isn’t the sort of final impression you’d want to leave on an audience. The performances definitely deserved better.

Dir: Dan Bush
Star: Francesca Eastwood, Taryn Manning, Scott Haze, James Franco

The Bad Batch

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“After the apocalypse, there will still be photocopiers. And raves.”

In the film’s defense, it’s not clear quite how post-apocalyptic this is meant to be, since we don’t see anything of the world at large. Everything takes place inside a stretch of desert which has been used, apparently for some time, as a dumping ground for the dregs of society. Into this environment is dropped Arlen (Waterhouse), who soon gets first-hand experience of the situation, when a cannibal mother and daughter capture her, and cut off an arm and a leg. She escapes, and is found and rescued by the Hermit (Carrey), who brings her to Comfort, the nearest the zone offers to civilization. When she’s well again, Arlen returns to take revenge on the mother, but believing the daughter to be innocent, takes her back to Comfort. Which provokes the ire of Miami Man (Monoa), a tattooed behemoth who turns out to be the girl’s father, and wants her back.

There’s also Keanu Reeves, running around as “the Dream,” a rave promoter, drug pusher and overall lord of Comfort, who has a harem of pregnant, gun-toting women, all sporting “The Dream is inside me” T-shirts: probably the film’s most memorable image, despite its undoubted ludicrousness. But it all fails to gel into anything coherent or interesting, except in very sporadic moments. It’s a long slog through the first 30 minutes, which are almost entirely dialogue-free, to get to what passes for the meat of the story – though it’s more like undercooked tofu, to be honest.

For the movie never achieves anything like a consistent direction or even tone. Even its Wikipedia page calls the film a “romantic drama horror-thriller”. Good luck juggling all those genres. Is it aspiring to be Mad Max? A spaghetti Western? My best guess could well be, merely a six million dollar budgeted excuse for the director’s favourite Spotify playlist, the soundtrack roaming with jarring inconsistency from Culture Club to Die Antwoord, while we endure lengthy shots of Arlen wandering the desert, high on the Dream’s product. And don’t even get me started on the Hawaiian Momoa playing a supposed Cuban, with a cod-Mexican accent. I’m just glad Chris (whose family is genuinely Cuban) wasn’t around, or all Momoa’s scenes would have been overdubbed with a stream of her derisive snorts, emanating from next to me on the couch.

I did appreciate the look of the film, with some striking imagery: the towering wall of shipping containers, parked in the middle of the desert, for example. That just isn’t enough to sustain a 115-minute running-time, especially when the film seems to get bored of its own ideas, and forget about them. Miami Man, for example, despite proclaiming that his daughter is the only thing he cares about, apparently abandons this search and drifts away from the picture, apparently preferring to do something else for much of the second half. This viewer’s interest was right there beside him.

Dir: Ana Lily Amirpour
Star: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey

Cocaine Godmother

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“A slice of Welsh rarebit”

As we mentioned in the 2018 preview, this has had a rather tortuous journey to the screen, with Zeta-Jones inked to the part of Griselda Blanco as long ago as October 2014. That theatrical film appears to have died on the vine, but the actress’s interest clearly did not. Last May, Lifetime gave the go-ahead to a TV movie version instead, telling the life story of a character who has already crossed this site before. Needless to say, there were howls of indignation from the usual quarters that the Welsh Zeta-Jones had been cast to play Blanco, though as she herself pointed out, she’d played Hispanic women before, such as in Zorro. It’s something which never bothers me: whether the performance works is always more important to me than the location of the performer’s birth.

In this case (and going by the Twitter reactions, many tend to agree), I’d say that Zeta-Jones certainly wasn’t the problem with the finished product. If considerably more attractive than the real Griselda, she is mostly very convincing, giving her portrayal the combination of driven intensity and potential for furious rage that Blanco possessed. The problem is more a script which simply fails to flow. Sure, the story touches most of the obvious moments in Griselda’s life, yet these appear completely unconnected to each other. The end result feels almost as if someone took a 70-episode telenovela and edited it down into a 90-minute TV movie. It’s more like Griselda Blanco’s Greatest Hits – and she was allegedly responsible for over 200 of those, hohoho.

It is a disturbing start, with the very young Blanco being pimped out by her mother in Medellin, only to pull a gun and shoot one of her customers dead after he refuses to pay. Damn. Thereafter, however, it bounces around rapidly, with little or no real time-frame. You get her killing husbands, inventing the motorcycle drive-by, the Dadeland Mall shootout, using attractive women to smuggle drugs in their lingerie and high-heels, etc. But all these fragments combine to provide little or no insight into her character, motives or personality (though I was somewhat impressed this did not soft-pedal Blanco’s bisexuality, unlike La Viuda Negra); I wanted to know what made her tick, and was sorely disappointed. You’d likely come away better informed simply by reading the Wikipedia article on her.

Perhaps it’s the kind of life which simply cannot be told adequately in such a brief time-span. I saw a number of comparisons to the Netflix series, Narcos, and do have to wonder if a 13-episode series might have been better suited to the material, rather than this breathless, and ultimately empty, gallop through Blanco’s life. There is still reported to be another take on the topic coming down the pipeline with Jennifer Lopez playing Blanco in an HBO movie. Like Zeta-Jones, Lopez had been linked to the role for a long time (since at least the death of the real Griselda in 2012), but little has been heard about that version since 2016. For now, this version will have to do.

Dir: Guillermo Navarro
Star: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Raúl Méndez, Juan Pablo Espinosa, Matteo Stefan

No One Can Touch Her

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“Don’t drink and fu.”

In this late era Judy Lee film, she stars as the confusingly-named Brother Blind, a name which scores only 50% for accuracy. She is indeed, largely unable to see, the result of a confrontation with the motley group of bandits who killed her father (Sit). Though even here, there is some confusion as to whether there are 13 of them, as an alternate title suggest, or 14 as the English dub mentions on several occasions. They’re certainly a random bunch, some of who are missing limbs or fingers, as well as two “giants” who aren’t very tall, and a “poison dwarf” who wields a blow-gun, responsible for Brother Blind losing her sight.

She becomes a nomadic alcoholic, roaming the country with her kid brother and stealing wine wherever she can – not that this impacts her kung-fu skills [the most common date for this, 1979, would put it one year after Jackie Chan’s classic Drunken Master, which inspired a host of imitators]. It turns out she’s not the only one to have suffered at the hands of the gang, who are out for revenge on Wang, the official who jailed their leader, Wolf Fang. To cut a long story short – and the film certainly doesn’t – Brother Blind teams up with Wang’s daughter, Mei Gwan (Sun), his long-lost son, Brother Mallet (Kam), who works as a carpenter, and a imperial bureaucrat with a fondness for pipe-fu, to stop the bandits after they have infiltrated a wedding.

This is almost completely mad, right from the opening credits which tells us the martial arts director was “King Kong.” Yet there’s a lot here to admire, with both Lee and Sun kicking butt in a variety of styles, for a director who knows how to show off the talents of everyone involved. The characterizations here are interesting too, with Brother Blind largely grumpy and irascible, rather than being heroic. The bureaucrat (who is never named) is worse still: basically an entitled and arrogant dick. Yet, when the chips are down, he doesn’t back off, and demonstrates his arrogance is not unjustified.

The film does contain the typical unfortunate stabs at comedy, which would have been much better left to Jackie Chan. Even if we allow for everything amusing in the dialogue having been lost in the dubbing, the physical stuff is no more entertaining. Fortunately, the martial arts on view, more than makes up for it. There are a huge range of different styles, courtesy of the dozen or more bandits and their various abilities, and the same goes on the side of the good guys, whose varying talents all get showcased. It even does an unexpectedly good job of dealing with firearms, their firing pins being surreptitiously removed by the bureaucrat. The prints floating round are desperately in need of restoration, however: a letterboxed and subtitled version might merit our seal of approval, especially if the plot then made more sense. This pan ‘n’ scanned, dubbed atrocity? Not so much.

Dir: Ting Shan-Hsi
Star: Judy Lee, Sun Chia-Lin, Kam Kong, Sit Hon
a.k.a. Against the Drunken Cat’s Paws, 13 Evil Bandits, Revenge of the Lady Warrior or Flying Claw Fights 14 Demons

Suspension

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“The night HE came home…”

Bullied by her peers at high school, Emily (MacNevin) takes refuge in drawing. Although, rather than high art, her preferred method of expression is horror comics: working on these in class is what gets her the titular punishment, imposed by a disapproving teacher. Emily’s strip depicts the havoc wreaked by a serial killer – who might (or might not) be inspired by her absent father. However, the line between imagination and reality becomes blurred, and on the night of a student party to which Emily has not been invited, someone starts stalking and murdering those who have tormented her. Looks like Daddy is out, and protecting his little girl – or, is he?

Oh, what the hell: when the sleeve (right) can’t even be bothered to avoid a major spoiler, why should I? Turns out Emily’s mind has snapped entirely, and she’s actually responsible for all the deaths. Otherwise, as my tag-line suggests, there’s more than a little of Halloween here, not least in the look of the killer, whose bland, white mask is more than an echo of the one famously worn by Michael Myers. Indeed, this feels as much of a homage to the slasher films of that era as anything; that’s likely the charitable way to view it, at least, since the supporting characters, situations and even specific kills contain little in the way of originality.

The most interesting thing is likely the effort put into fully developing Emily’s graphic art, beginning with the highly-stylized opening credit sequence. From here, it moves into a female masked killer – I’m guessing, intended to represent Emily’s idealized version of herself – who captures, tortures and dispatches other killers, recording it all on film. It’s a shame this angle isn’t sustained for, to be honest, it’s a good deal more imaginative and possesses a lot more potential, than the rehashed tribute to 80’s horror into which this quickly devolves.

It’s both too much, and not enough – the comic story occupies excessive screen-time in the first half, which could have gone to better development of the “real life” characters or setting. On the other hand, it could also have danced for longer along the line between Emily’s fantasies and reality. Instead, it occupies a mediocre middle, with only one plot element which surprised me – and it was almost a sidelight, not anything to do with Emily’s desire for ultra-violent revenge on her peers. MacNevin isn’t bad in the role; she has a nice, “everygirl” quality about her that generates empathy, along with the devotion she shows to her apparently mute kid brother.

The gore is plentiful enough, and Lando (veteran of many a shaky SyFy Original Movie) has a decent enough eye. The problem is mostly the script, hampered by its apparent unwillingness to commit to being one thing or the other. The result is not a slasher, nor a psychological exploration of homicidal imagination, and instead is a half-baked combo, which satisfies as neither. 

Dir: Jeffery Scott Lando
Star: Ellen MacNevin, Taylor Russell, Courtney Paige, Steve Richmond

Abducted by T.R. Ragan

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

A largely uninteresting and occasionally tedious read, this begins when the 17-year-old Lizzy Gardner is abducted by a serial killer known as “Spiderman”, for his habit of using insects to terrorize his victims. Lizzy manages to escape, but Spiderman isn’t captured, until almost a decade and a half later, when someone confesses to the crimes. By then, Lizzy has become a private eye, and also giving lectures to young girls, on how to avoid falling victim as she did. She’s not convinced the right person has been caught, and she’s right: the real Spiderman is by no means happy that someone else has taken “credit” for his crimes. So he starts up again, with the eventual aim of recapturing Lizzy, the one who got away…

It’s really extremely contrived, with Lizzy fortuitously unable to recall any significant elements of her ordeal – even the place where she was held – which could have allowed the police to capture the perpetrator. Then there’s the convenient coincidence that her boyfriend of the time has grown up to become (what are the odds?) an FBI agent. Of course, when they reconnect, the old sparks still fly, and he’s also the only one who thinks she’s not a demented PTSD victim. Somewhat more engaging, to be honest, are the supporting female characters, including Jessica, Lizzie’s intern, who has her own reasons for interest in the case. Leading them is likely Hayley, an abused teenager and attendee at Lizzy’s lecture, who takes it upon herself to become bait for Spiderman, so that she can deal with him. If the whole story had been told from her point of view, it could have been a fresh perspective.

Instead, you could make the case Spiderman is given better motivation and characterization than the heroine. Although even here, it’s the usual mix of childhood trauma and hatred of women; the only unusual aspect is he seems himself as what could be described as a “social justice warrior,” punishing those he perceives as “bad girls.” Yet the prose devoted to him is one of the problems here: Ragan’s desire to show both sides of the story, almost inevitably, leaves both of them under-cooked. Despite its clear desire to be Silence of the Lambs, this most certainly falls short, on both sides of the scales of justice.

Part of the problem is that it feels like the characters are universally weighed down with the burden of a tragic past, from which they can’t escape. While I know tragedy is one of the driving forces of drama, this appears to be Ragan’s literary version of “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The plot offers virtually nothing in the way of surprises or twists, meandering on to the confrontation between Lizzie and Spiderman, which you’ve been expecting since about chapter three. There’s precious little here to explain the series’s apparent success, and even less that would get me interested in reading any further entries.

Author: T.R. Ragan
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.