Queen of the South, season two

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“Queen vs. Queen”

The first series was the story of Teresa Mendoza’s fall and rise. From a comfortable life in Mexico, she dropped all the way across the border, to a drug mule at the very bottom of the organization belonging to Camila Vargas (Falcon), before beginning her climb up that cartel’s ladder. The series ended with her becoming Camila’s trusted lieutenant, as her cartel fought for its independence from estranged husband, Don Epifanio. In the second season, the landscape shifts, radically. Indeed, by the end, virtually everything you knew – or thought you knew – has been shaken up.  In particular, the relationship between Camila and Teresa falls apart, as Teresa looks to assert her independence. Initially, Camila is very much on the back foot, having been cut off from both her supplies and her distribution network, and has to rebuild both.

This task requires quite some effort on the part of both her and Teresa, and brings them into contact with some strange characters. On the distribution side, is an eccentric smuggler who calls himself “King George.” He does have a tough streak, but is a quirky character who feels more like a leftover hippie, more amusing than a real threat. That can not be said of Bolivian drug-lord El Santo (played by Steven Bauer, whom my wife says to remind you is Cuban!). He’s part shaman, part Jim Jones, leading his devoted cult of followers through a psycho-chemical process that leaves them… changed. And before he agrees to deal with Camila, he insists Teresa goes through that process. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. The episodes set in Bolivia were definitely eye-opening (an interesting contrast to the Bolivian Fighting Cholitas!), and Santo’s police associate, La Capitana, was almost as bad-ass as Teresa.

But they contributed to what I found was the main problem this season: a lack of focus. The plot seemed to be getting pulled in too many directions: a strength of the first season was it felt unequivocally like Teresa’s story. That didn’t feel the case here. While some of those elements were solid enough – Camila remains a fascinating character, worthy of her own show – I could probably have done, say, without the adventures of her and Epifanio’s bratty teenage daughter. It took until the final episode for that to become relevant; until then, it was more a chore than a pleasure. Similarly, the love triangle between Teresa, colleague-at-arms James (Gadiot) and her former, not-so-dead boyfriend, Guero, was all too obvious.

However, it’s still relentlessly gritty, and the way the relationships between the characters changed over time was very well-plotted. It’s done gradually, so that you don’t realize how former allies have become mortal enemies, until the betrayal occurs. Here, the pivotal moment was Teresa discovering papers proving Camila had set her up, dead in the firing line of a DEA investigation. This finally proved to Teresa what we had suspected all along: that Camila was simply using her, as and when necessary or beneficial, and was undeserving of the loyalty which Teresa had shown here.

The final episode confirmed the battle lines have been redrawn, and sets the stage for series three (the show’s renewal was already announced, last month). To quote the program’s showrunner, Natalie Chaidez, this season “was about Teresa learning what it takes to run a drug cartel from Camila Vargas… Camila taught her some good things, and she taught her some bad things. Now, Teresa has reached the end of the season ready, armed with all of the lessons Camila has taught her.” Mission accomplished, and with the pair now on opposing sides – and with Camila having very good reason to hate Teresa – I’m already anticipating the next series.

Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida

Bolivia’s Fighting Cholitas

Professional wrestling is perhaps more international than you’d expect. While traditional territories – USA, Japan, Mexico and the UK – still remain the powerhouses, there is hardly a country in the world without its own local pro federation. But even I had not heard of Ecuador’s cholita luchadoras. Cholita is a term used for the native women there, usually found at the bottom of the social pyramid, both in terms of wealth and education. So the term translates as the “fighting cholitas“, who use pro wrestling as a way out of poverty, and to help them at least approach the average wage there, which is around $270 per month.

While initially intended purely for local consumption, it has achieved renown, both local and internationally, and become a tourist attraction. Local company “Andean Secrets” – run by one of the cholitas – runs excursions that pick visitors up at their hotel and take them to one of their shows at the Multifunctional Centre in El Alto. Tourists have to pay five times the cost for locals, but the price does get them ringside seats. In style, it’s closest to Mexican lucha libre, with the good girls (technicos) going up against the rudos, who cheat. abuse the audience and collude with a corrupt referee to try and achieve victory. You can generally tell who’s who from the names they choose. There’s an almost standard format to these: Chela la Maldita, Sonia La Simpática, Juanita La Cariñosa (Affectionate), Rosita La Rompecorazones (Heartbreaker) or Silvina La Poderosa (Powerful).

An exception is the matriarch of the cholitas, known as  Carmen Rosa. She was part of the original group of cholitas and one of the three who made it through the training program. She said, “For me, wrestling is my life; it is in my heart. It makes it hard for me to choose between wrestling and my family. They have asked me to stop fighting and sometimes I think about quitting, but I can’t. My heart beats fast at the mere mention of wrestling, or when I go to see a show, not to mention when I am about to enter the ring. There is nothing I love more than wrestling.” But even after a decade, she’s not fully professional: her day job is running her family’s local snack-bar.

That’s par for the course – as another example, Benita La Intocable (the Untouchable, one of the most high-flying of the cholitas) was training to be a nurse. Because the pay received is still peanuts by Western standards – typically no more than thirty dollars for their night’s work – but it’s an improvement on the very limited opportunities available to cholitas, typically as maid or other menial work. For until recently, the indigenous men and women had suffered a long history of discrimination, denied education, health care and public presence. The election in 2006 of the first Bolivian President from their group, Evo Morales, has helped address things, but there’s a reason the cholitas fight in El Alto, not the more prosperous La Paz.

They first entered the ring around the start of the millennium, the idea of local promoter Juan Mamani. Initially intended purely as a gimmick during a period of audience decline – he also considered using midgets – it took off in an unexpected way, with over fifty women showing up for that first open try-out. But after years under Mamani’s thumb, in which the women took the risks, and the associated damage, while his promotion, Titanes del Ring (Titans of the Ring) took the profits, there was a schism. Carmen and others among his top wrestlers left in 2011, starting up their own independent association, Diosas del Ring (Goddesses of the Ring), to gain the fruits of their own efforts. [Mamani allegedly then hired another woman, to play what I guess was Carmen Rosa v2.0!]

It was initially a struggle, with the women struggling to find even a place to train, and some of the defectors subsequently returning to Mamani – a man whom National Geographic once described as “a tall, angular man whom it would be kind to call unfriendly”. But Carmen and her colleagues persisted, and now they’ll get close to a thousand people attending their weekly events. She has become a celebrity, and not just in El Alto or even Bolivia. Carmen has traveled widely as a result, including trip to America and Peru, as well as being brought to London for 2015’s ‘Greatest Spectacle of Lucha Libre’ festival at York Hall.

The most immediate difference any wrestling fan will notice, is the costumes. While in America, wrestlers typically wear a limited amount of tight-fitting clothing, intended not to interfere with their moves, the cholitas come to fight in the traditional native costumes, consisting of multiple layered skirts (typically five or six), and little bowler hats which perch on top of their long, braided hair. [Bonus fact: the angle of the hat indicates marital status] It seems implausible they would be able to do anything requiring significant movement, but you’d be surprised. Also worth noting: the women need particular endurance, due to the altitude. Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, is the highest in the world, and the nearby low-income suburb of El Alto, home of the cholitas, is more elevated still, at over 13,500 feet above sea-level. Simply breathing is hard work, that far up.

The matches are not limited to women vs. women, with the cholitas taking on their male counterparts, as dictated by the storyline. It’s a one of a kind breed of professional wrestling, and a take which goes beyond the first impression of the unique style. For it is sports entertainment, not just based on athletic talent combined with the struggle of “good against evil,” but a version which offers social and political commentary too. Below, you’ll find a playlist of Youtube videos, including both documentaries and other clips, which give a bit more insight into the world of the fighting cholitas.

“Sometimes my daughters ask why I insist on doing this. It’s dangerous; we have many injuries, and my daughters complain that wrestling does not bring any money into the household. But I need to improve every day. Not for myself, for Veraluz, but for the triumph of Yolanda, an artist who owes herself to her public.”
  — Yolanda La Amorosa

Tag

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“Virtually game for anything.”

A bus full of Japanese schoolgirls includes the quiet, poetry-writing Mitsuko (Triendl), who drops her pen. Bending down to pick it up, she thus survives the lethal gust of wind which neatly bisects, not only the bus, but the rest of her classmates. Ok, film: safe to say, you have acquired our attention. [Not for the first time the director has managed this: the opening scene of his Suicide Circle is one we still vividly remember, 15 years later]

What follows is an extremely hyper-violent gallop through a series of scenarios, with Mitsuko and her friends becoming the target for assaults by everyone from teachers to bridesmaids. Can she figure out what the hell is going on, with matters not helped by her apparent amnesia, with no memory of everything prior to the bus? And, more importantly, is the film going to be able to deliver any kind of rational explanation for this?

The further this went on, the less convinced this would be possible. However, I have to say, it ends up making far more sense than I expected. It even explains things as disparate as the fairly lecherous costume choices (the schoolgirls’ skirts are more like broad belts, and frequently fly up in anything more than a light breeze) as well as the extremely drone-heavy cinematography. On reaching the end, I immediately wanted to watch this all over again, armed with the provided explanation, and see what other clues I had missed.

There’s a lot to admire here: it plays almost like a cross between Sucker Punch and Run Lola Run, combining the slick visuals and “anything can happen” mentality of the former (and has been similarly condemned), with the latter’s… Well, mostly its running. Seriously, Triendl (who is Austrian-born, hence her non-Japanese surname) racks up as many miles in this 85 minutes as an entire series of Doctor Who companions. But not just her, because even more confusingly, her character is played by multiple different actresses across the various scenarios.

Interestingly, until the very end, there are almost no men in the movie at all, save the pig-headed bridegroom, to who our heroine will be wed. Perhaps that’s a clue in itself to the nature of the multi-verses around which Mitsuko finds herself bouncing. It’s fascinating to watch everything unravel, and the lead actresses do very well, in a role or roles that could have been little more than a place-holder. Watch the emotions flickering across Triendl’s face, for instance, as she tries the virtually impossible task of explaining to one of her friends what she has gone through.

There’s no denying the strongly feminist subtext here, providing you can look past the chauvinist trappings and arterial spray. Sono is both embracing and critiquing the exploitation world in which he has largely operated, although does so with a light enough touch, you can simply enjoy it as a blood-drenched action film, rather than having to worry about its philosophy. And the less you know about it going in, perhaps the better.

Dir: Sion Sono
Star: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Yuki Sakurai

Female Fight Squad

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“Clubbed to death.”

This was originally known as Female Fight Club. I presume the title was changed after a strongly-worded letter from David Fincher’s lawyers, perhaps to evoke thoughts of its star’s stunt work on Suicide Squad. It’s interesting, because Amy Johnston’s previous feature, Lady Bloodfight also underwent a similar title change before release. Unfortunately, this isn’t as good. It reminds me a bit of the films Zoë Bell appeared in, early on in her career. She was usually the best thing in them, but they still weren’t up to much, because Bell was still finding her feet as an actress. Similarly here, there’s no denying Johnston’s talents in motion, yet this does not offer a good setting in which they can be appreciated.

For where Bloodfight played to her strength and packed in wall-to-wall action, here she’s required to do the dramatic lifting here and… Well, let’s just say, when you’re out-acted by Dolph Lundgren, it’s never a good thing.  The story is no better than boilerplate nonsense as well. Rebecca (Johnston) is a former fighter who now works in an animal shelter, because cute puppies. She is forced out of retirement to help her sister, Kate (Palm), who is a hundred grand in debt to some very nasty people. They are led by the creepy Landon Jones (Goyos) and his well-stocked freezer, which is used not solely to store his chosen variety of ice-cream. And he just happens to run an underground all-women fight ring, which Rebecca can enter. What are the odds? Meanwhile, the sisters’ father (Lundgren) is in prison, serving time for a crime he may or may not have committed, and has his own issues to deal with there.

Cue the rolling of eyes. It all rumbles along, from one cliché to the next, and if you’ve seen as many straight-to-video action flicks of the past couple of decades as I have, you’ll understand why this one largely failed to register. The only saving grace are the fights, which are well-enough staged. Johnston clearly knows her stuff, and there is good support from other women with a similar background, such as Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez, playing Landon’s top fighter, known as “Claire the Bull”.  The problem is, there just aren’t enough of these scenes, and the film escalates, inexplicably, to a fight between Rebecca and Landon. The latter was never established as any kind of bad-ass previously, so this makes little or no sense.

I’m still excited to see where Johnston goes from things like this. Right now, she has some room for improvement, both on the acting side and in her choice of projects. But both of these are areas where more experience should naturally lead to positive development. That’s exactly what happened with regard to Bell, who has worked her way up to become of the more reliable action actresses. I get the feeling Johnston has much the same potential, and there’s certainly room for them both in the field.

Dir: Miguel A. Ferrer
Star: Amy Johnston, Cortney Palm, Rey Goyos, Dolph Lundgren

Last Girl Standing

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“In the beginning was the end.”

The horror genre has a tangential connection to the action heroine one, most directly through the concept of the “final girl” – when the last person left alive is a woman who confronts and defeats the threat. From Halloween to Alien, this has been a staple of the genre, but whether it qualifies a film for inclusion here, depends largely on what has gone before. For example, 10 minutes of frantic action at the end can’t counterbalance the first 80, if the focus there was not on a female lead.

Here, we instead jump right to the “final girl” section, with Camryn (A. Villalobos) pursued by a masked psycho known as “The Hunter” (Vines), who has already killed everyone else. She survives, and he is apparently the victim of one of his own traps. Fast forward five years, and understandably, Camryn is still damaged by the events. Shunning the media circus which followed, she now works in a dry-cleaners, all but avoiding human contact and unable to find closure. New colleague, Nick (B. Villalobos) tries to bring Camryn out of her shell, with the help of Danielle (Ploeger), who understands what trauma feels like. But a series of unsettling incidents leave Camryn increasingly convinced she is being stalked again. Is the Hunter really dead, and if not, can she save her friends from him this time?

The key factor here is largely whether what Camryn – and only Camryn – sees can be trusted, or if her sanity has finally cracked. Unlike some, the film does firmly and definitively answer that, and the final 15 minutes have a nicely cyclical nature, with Camryn’s new friends doing a great deal of running and screaming. While I can’t say much more there without spoilerage, until then, the script does a decent job of keeping the two alternate possibilities plausible, helped by the supporting characters. Most amusing there is likely Maelyn, who is firmly convinced Camryn is a loonie – and, to be honest, given a fondness for acts such as smashing bottles on people’s heads, you can see Maelyn’s point.

This does make the growing relationship between Brian and Camryn fairly  implausible, since the latter’s instability seems like a huge red flag – especially without, say, raging hotness which could cause us men to overlook it [Been there, done that, deeply regretted it!] However, it’s an interesting touch to have a husband and wife playing the two leads, perhaps giving things here a needed dash of authenticity. But this is most fun at the blood-soaked end, when Camryn is in full-on “final girl” mode, and the film gets to wallow in some gorey – and non-CGI, I’m pleased to report – mayhem. An earlier commitment to this direction might have been preferred, rather than the over-familiar “is she or isn’t she?” uncertainty. The lead performance was good enough to keep me interested though, and the structure offers some fresh takes, in a genre not exactly noted for them.

Dir: Benjamin R. Moody
Star: Akasha Villalobos, Brian Villalobos, Danielle Evon Ploeger, Jason Vines

The Belle Starr Story

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“A blandly over-cooked platter of spaghetti”

This is virtually unique, in being almost the only spaghetti Western with a female lead, and certainly unique in being the only one directed by a woman. Unfortunately, beyond these novelty aspects, it’s really not very good. Indeed, the overall attitude on view here is so remarkably retrograde, the gender of its director would likely be a surprise, if you didn’t know what it was going in. The film certainly keeps it quiet, disguising Wertmüller – who, seven years later, would become the first woman ever to receive a Best Director Oscar nomination, for Seven Beauties – under the pseudonym of “Nathan Wich”. Whose brother is called Sam, presumably. 

The anonymity is perhaps because she wasn’t originally intended to direct. She took over from Piero Cristofani, some sources say as a favour to leading lady Martinelli. Wertmüller then rewrote the script to reduce Woods’s role, with whom she reportedly had on-set battles. A bit like the more recent, yet similarly cursed Western, Jane Got a Gun, it’s perhaps remarkable the makers managed to come up with a finished product at all. And also similarly, the behind-the-scenes saga is likely a good deal more interesting than said finished product.

There’s no denying Martinelli looks the part, as renegade, gambler and outlaw Belle Starr. She falls for the charms of fellow poker player Larry Blackie (Eastman), and they begin a tempestuous romance, which my wife sarcastically described as “Hit me! Kiss me! Rape me! Love me!” It’s this aspect which seems especially at odds with the rest of Wertmüller’s filmography, much of which is populated by strongly feminist characters. Here, Belle seems both to crave Blackie’s attentions and loathe him with a passion. She declines an offer to bring her on board for his planned robbery of a diamond shipment, instead setting about assembling her own crew, which will beat him to the loot.

Before we get to that, there’s a long, long flashback, covering Starr’s life to that point. In its entirety. In real-time. Or perhaps it just seems that way. It certainly brings the story grinding to a halt. We see how she was brought up by an abusive foster uncle, from whom she was rescued by the outlaw Cole Harvey (Woods). He tries to rape her – yeah, you may be forgiven for detecting a bit of a theme here – and is killed for his pains, which helps set Belle off on her life of crime, poker and questionable romantic choices.

Beyond Martinelli’s look, there’s very little to recommend this, particularly for the first hour – it does pick up somewhat late, as Belle and Larry simultaneously stage their robbery attempts. Until then, even getting beyond the dubious sexual politics on view, this is poorly written, and just not very interesting. Wertmüller can’t even shoot a poker game properly; she’ll show you the cards, and half the time, you don’t know whose they are. Sad though it to say this, you can certainly understand why it was a case of “one and done,” both for spaghetti Western heroines, and Wertmüller’s genre efforts.

Dir: Lina Wertmüller
Star: Elsa Martinelli, George Eastman, Robert Woods, Francesca Righini

Asphalt Angels

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“More carbon-copy than asphalt.”

While the lack of resources is frequently and painfully obvious, I’m inclined to look kindly on this. My tolerance is due to the abiding love for our genre possessed by writer-director Krueger, shown in the influences, both obvious and subtle, on display here. From Faster Pussycat to Female Prisoner 701, he seems like the kind of man whose DVD collection reflects my own. Hell, despite being set in America, a character here even uses the greeting stance beloved of bad girls in pinky violence movies: knees bent, right arm outstretched, palm up. I can’t truly hate a film made by someone who knows what that is.

The heroine is Casey (Renee), leader of an all-girl gang, but who wants to keep her sister Virginia (Gomez), an up-and-coming BMX champion, out of the criminal lifestyle. Two things derail Casey’s life. Firstly, while rescuing li’l sis from the predatory clutches of another gang, she kills one of their members, and leader Dante (Epperson, shamelessly channeling a young Kevin Bacon) vows revenge. Secondly, a jewel heist goes wrong: she takes the fall so the other members can escape, and ends up in prison, where she has to survive the unwanted attentions of a sadistic lesbian guard, as well as the other inmates. Her absence is particularly bad news for Virginia, since her sibling’s absence means there’s nobody to protect her, when Dante and his crew decide she’s a suitable target for their vengeance.

This production is certainly guilty of trying to go in too many directions. Is it a heist film? A women-in-prison movie? A gang flick? Revenge film? Krueger would have been better off concentrating his efforts in one area, especially given the extremely limited raw materials available to him. The prison, for example, appears to consist of a softball park and a field. There are almost no interior scenes at all. Worst of all is Virginia’s BMX career, which includes copious shots of her waving to an entirely non-existent crowd, nowhere near any BMX track. Really, just make her an honor student at high school and it would have been far easier for everyone involved.

It’s also rather tame for a film with grindhouse aspirations, though this is somewhat “explained” by bookend sequences which make it look as if it’s a late-night movie on seventies network TV. That’s an issue, because the bottom line here is, no matter how adoring a fan letter to the genre this is, it remains that: just a fan letter. Krueger’s heart is in the right place, so it’s not like this is some kind of cash-in “mockbuster”. However, the harsh truth is, you’re simply a good deal better off watching the films that inspired this. For no matter how much Renee tries (and, bless her heart, she certainly is trying), she’s never going to be Tura Satana or Meiko Kaji. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, to be sure.

Dir: Christopher Krueger
Star: Justine Renee, John C. Epperson, Hillary Cook, Blanca Estella Gomez

Hell’s Rejects by M.R. Forbes

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Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2
“I am going to die, surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.”

The heroine in this enjoyable slice of space opera is Lieutenant Abigail Cage. She’s a “breaker” – effectively, a hacker – although one who is highly trained in combat. Her latest mission is to enter a rebel compound and recover a laptop, but the job goes awry, and she finds herself framed for treason after a cache of weapons goes mission, and sent to Hell. No, literally: that’s the name of the planet, and it’s an entirely apt one.

Once imprisoned there, two competing forces come into play. One has interest in using Cage as the guinea-pig for a program to unleash an army of superhumans. The other is Captain Olus Mann, who needs her for quite a different task. Because the rebels have stolen two cutting-edge spaceships, the Fire and the Brimstone, which could tip the balance of the ongoing conflict. Someone needs to find and retrieve them. That someone is Cage, together with a motley crew of other convicts, liberated by Capt. Mann from Hell.

The first in the “Chaos of the Covenant”  series, it strikes a decent enough balance between telling a self-contained tale and luring you in to the next volume. As the tagline at the top – not an actual quote from the book! – suggests, it falls somewhere between, and owes a big debt to, both Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad. With a side order of La Femme Nikita. There’s a big sprawling universe out there, and Cage has to try and wrangle her motley crew of species through a task which rarely seems less than an impossible assignment.

Fortunately, if a little conveniently, Mann has a very discerning eye for personnel, and put together a good team as backup, out of the pieces to hand in the prison. For instance, one is an incredible pilot, another a wiz with machinery, etc. Cage, meanwhile, can keep them all in line, both through her force of personality and with force if necessary. She’s desperate to complete the mission, win her freedom and return to her daughter – who doesn’t even know Mom is in prison, let alone has been broken out in order to chase a stolen spaceship across the galaxy.

Meanwhile, there’s also the side-effects of the experimental injection she received while in Hell. If only apparently half of what she could have received, the effects are impressive, effectively rendering her near-bulletproof. [She can still be shot, it just… doesn’t appear to have any real effect] This could have ended up being a real “Mary Sue,” in the sense of a heroine who is utterly unstoppable. Except those responsible want to track Cage down, and send Trin after the heroine. She is another woman who has gone through both halves of the process, making her a particularly tenacious adversary. This leads to the final epic battle, in a series of what must be said, are largely epic battles.

Yeah, if you’re fond of large-scale destruction, this book certainly delivers. The carnage begins with the scene where the two spaceships are stolen, that escalates into the demolition of an entire spaceport: like many sequences, it seems written with one eye on a cinematic adaptation. Refreshingly free of romantic distractions, this does an excellent job of setting up its universe and populating it with interesting characters, each of whom have their own, interlocking agendas. Indeed, it may perhaps be slightly overstuffed with ideas, species and technology. Better too much invention than too little though, and it’s a series I can see myself picking up subsequent volumes down the road.

Author: M.R. Forbes
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, available through Amazon, both as an ebook and a paperback.

Blowtorch

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“A mother’s love is relentless.”

Ann Willis (Robbins) is a single mother, working as a waitress and trying to keep family together after the death of her husband from lung cancer. To help out, son David (Abrahamson) abandons his plans to attend college and gets a job in a local factory. But he falls in with some questionable company there and, lured by the prospect of easy money, starts dealing drugs for the local mobsters, run by Canarsie. Things go from bad to worse after his supposed “friend” Mike (Falahee) frames him for the disappearance of some product, and things end with David’s dead body floating in the river, having been beaten to death by his associates. The cops, and in particular, Detective Frank Hogan (Baldwin), investigate – but to be honest, aren’t particularly interested in one drug-dealer being killed.

Ann, however, is made of sterner stuff, and is determined to get to the truth; she doesn’t have the legal limitations which hamper the police either. She realizes that Mike, addicted to the drugs he sells, is the weak link in the cartel. She begins to pick away, relentlessly, at the guilt he feels for having caused the death of David. This brings her into conflict with Det. Hogan. He is not only concerned for her safety in this dangerous world – Canarsie is growing increasingly aware of Ann’s activity – but also the waves she is causing, that threaten to capsize his more measured investigation.

It’s not a terrible film, anchored by a very solid central performance from the thoroughly convincing Robbins. Her mother positively oozes steely determination, and refuses to back down, despite being faced by some authentically unpleasant bad guys. That’s part of a generally good sense of place here: Breslin is born and bred Big Apple, and comes from a family well aware of the scummy side of life. By which I should quickly explain, his father, Jimmy, was a long-time and renowned New York journalist who wrote about organized crime, and was also written to by the “Son of Sam” during the latter’s seventies crime-spree.

However, the script here contains too many missteps to be considered even somewhat successful. Not least is the relationship between Ann and Mike, with Ann acting unfortunately like some kind of revenge-driven MILF. I suspect the intent is to show her “by any means necessary” approach; yet it seems severely out of place with the character established in the first half. The final take-down of the perpetrators doesn’t ring true either, reliant upon that most obvious of saws, criminals who can’t keep their mouths shut – even when, as here, they’re talking to the mother of one of their victims. Really? The net result is a film which builds a solid foundation, and does a good job of populating its world, only to go off the rails increasingly, as it then moves through its story.

Dir: Kevin Breslin
Star: Lois Robbins, Jared Abrahamson, William Baldwin, Jack Falahee

Undead Pool

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“Buffy the Zombie Slayer goes for a dip.”

I strongly prefer the alternative name (as given in the credits below, though in some territories this was also known as Inglorious Zombie Hunters) – it’s one of the finest exploitation titles of all time, both describing exactly what the film is about, while simultaneously reeling in the potential viewer. Certainly beats something which sounds more like an Asylum “mockbuster” version of a certain, snarky Marvel superhero. If the product itself doesn’t quite live up to it’s own name, this mostly a case of, really, how could it?

New transfer student Aki (Handa) has the misfortune to arrive at the school on inoculation day, and ditches class to the stress of her new situation, so doesn’t get her jab. This turns out to be extremely fortunate, as the supposed “vaccine” turns out to be the plot of an evil scientist, and those injected with it – both students and teachers, the latter receiving a particularly strong version – turn into flesh-eating zombies. Despite Aki’s strong aversion to water, she finds some allies in the shape of Sayaka (Hidaka) and her colleagues on the girls’ swimming squad, because it turns out the chlorine in the pool negates the effects of the compound. It’s up to them to defend themselves from the hordes, and also resolve the murky nature of Aki’s previous history, which turns out to be not entirely disconnected from current events. Oh, yeah: there might be some lesbian canoodling as well. Just so you know.

The zombie aspects in particular are well-executed: energetically messy, with plenty of blood and a sense of self-deprecation that helps to counter-balance negates the obviously low-budget approach, most apparent in the rubbery nature of the severed limbs, flying through the air. It’s as if the film is saying, “Yeah, we know we’re cheap, come along for the ride anyway.” It helps that the zombies retain some of their pre-infection character, rather than being just mindless flesh-eaters. For example, there is the maths professor who continues to mumble about a problem involving apples, while wielding an inexplicably razor-sharp yard-stick around. Mind you, this is a school which leaves chainsaws lying around, and than there’s also Aki’s spiked swim-fins [which looks and acts like the iron fan beloved of martial arts flicks]

There is, as you’d expect, copious fan service – though the title does at least explain the swimsuits, which are likely less gratuitous here than in, say, D.O.A. This is probably the least interesting aspect, and I was reminded of Fred Olen Ray’s comment that nudity is the cheapest special effect. The finale, where Aki reveals one particularly startling special talent, likely doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either: quite how she acquired the skill is never adequately explained. While there was still enough here to keep me entertained, this mild recommendation should come with a caveat that I’m significantly more tolerant of low-budget goofiness than most people.

Dir: Kōji Kawano
Star: Sasa Handa, Yuria Hidaka, Hiromitsu Kiba, Mizuka Arai, More
a.k.a. Attack Girls’ Swim Team vs. the Undead