La Viuda Negra vs. Griselda Blanco: Telenovela vs. real-life

The young Griselda Blanco: real (left) and telenovela versions.

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“Art VAGUELY imitating life.”

It’s probably safe to say La Viuda Negra is “inspired” by the story of Griselda Blanco, rather than anything more. But there are aspects of the telenovela which are surprisingly accurate, especially in the early stages, before things begin diverging for dramatic purposes. [Note: of necessity, what follows will include major spoilers for the TV series] For example, Griselda did move to the city of Medellin with her mother at an early age, not long after the end of World War 2, and it does appear she was involved in criminal activities there, before even becoming a teenager in the mid-fifties. 

A focus of the early episodes sees Blanco joining a gang, which then kidnaps the scion of a rich local family. In the telenovela, this kick-starts her career, because the victim dies, and his father vows vengeance on Griselda, forcing her to go on the run as a young adult. The reality is perhaps even more astonishing, with her former lover, Charles Cosby, reporting that the kidnap and murder took place when Blanco was only eleven years old. After the boy’s parents refused to pay up, the frustrated gang gave her a revolver and challenged her to shoot him in the head. Challenge accepted…

It was around this time she also met her first husband, Carlos Trujillo. In real life, he was involved in forging immigration documents; she had three children with him, all of whom would become involved in the drug trade, and suffer violent ends. The same happened to Trujillo, whom Griselda had killed, shortly after they divorced at the end of the sixties. In La Viuda Negra, her first husband, Puntilla, is part of the kidnapping gang, who goes on the run with Griselda, and is killed by him in Episode 6, after betraying her. [This is kind of a theme through the TV series; if Ms. Blanco has serious trust issues as a result, it’s understandable!]

It’s with her second husband that her career as a drug queen really started to take off, both in reality and fiction – though the latter has Robayo operating over the border in Ecuador, where Griselda (Serradilla) takes refuge. They establish a pipeline to move their product from South America to the United States, using attractive women as mules. The TV version has her having high-heeled shoes built, with hidden compartments to hide the drugs. That seemed a very inefficient approach to me: really, how much could one person carry? The reality made more sense: Blanco actually developed and used specially-made corsets and other lingerie, capable of holding up to seven pounds of cocaine per person. Even in those days, that was worth about a million dollars.

In the TV series, there’s a diversion after they’re established in New York, as Italian Mafia kingpin, Enzo Vittoria, falls in love with Griselda, and abducts her for reasons of affection, despite her having previously shot and wounded him. Never one to leave a job unfinished, she shoots him again, on their enforced wedding day (Episode 19), and this time completes the job. [Should that count as another murdered husband? They technically weren’t married…] However, she gradually grows estranged from Robayo, not least over the upbringing of their son, Michael Corleone Blanco – yes, he was named that in real life too! – and kills him in Episode 26, just before being arrested by long-running DEA adversary, Norm Jones (Gamboa), after having relocated to Miami.

The truth is somewhat different. Vittoria appears pure invention, although DEA agent Bob Palumbo did spend more than a decade on the trail of Blanco. There was indeed a falling out between her and second husband, Alberto Bravo, ending in her killing him. However, this took place back in Colombia. She and her top killers, Humberto Quirana and Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala, went to meet Bravo in a parking lot; the resulting gun-battle left Bravo and six bodyguards dead, and Blanco wounded. Later in the seventies, she returned to Florida, rising to the top in a brutal reign of terror, culminating in an infamous double homicide at Dadeland Mall. Her network brought in as much as $80 million a month, but Palombo eventually got his woman in 1985.

So, jail on both sides. But this is where the stories really start to diverge. In reality, she served 13 years in New York for cocaine smuggling, then was shipped to Florida where worse trouble awaited. For hitman ‘Rivi’ had turned stool-pigeon, and with his testimony linking her to literally dozens of murders, the death penalty loomed large. However, his testimony was largely discredited after a bizarre scandal in which he was shown to have paid secretaries at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for phone sex. In the end, prosecutors had to settle for lesser charges; Blanco got 20 years, and was released after only seven, returning to Colombia at the end of her sentence in 2004. The day she left, ‘Rivi’ was stabbed eight times in Dade County jail.

The TV series compacts the nineteen years Blanco really spent behind bars, in two separate sentences, into one period in New York alone. These 18 episodes add additional, entirely spurious aspects such as Griselda being forced to engage in cage fights (!) with other inmates, or her being attacked by guards, and getting revenge by setting them on fire. There are a couple of aspects one might call ‘somewhat true’. There was a plan hatched to kidnap the son of John F. Kennedy and exchange him for Blanco, though it never came as close to success as depicted in the telenovela. And while it is true that a man struck up a relationship by writing to her while she was inside, Charles Cosby was not the undercover DEA agent, portrayed as “Tyler” in the TV version.

Certainly, there’s major dramatic license in Blanco’s departure from prison. Rather than just reaching the end of her sentence, there’s a dramatic escape from literally being in the electric chair [which is odd, since no-one has been executed in New York state since 1963, and no woman since Martha Jule Beck in 1951]. Using a drug which gives the impression of death, allows her gang to break her out by ambulance (Episode 44). From there she returns to Colombia, and only at this point, does Blanco cross paths with the most notorious drug-lord of them all, Pablo Escovar. However, it appears they knew each other far longer. Some sources say they were childhood friends, others that he was Griselda’s “great apprentice,” and there are even salacious whispers they were lovers.

So any connection to fact in the show has now evaporated entirely. By this point, the real Griselda Blanco was in her sixties, and suffering badly from the effects of her life of excess – according to reports, “Court records show Blanco was a drug addict who consumed vast quantities of ‘bazooka,’ a potent form of smokeable, unrefined cocaine… would force men and women to have sex at gunpoint, and had frequent bisexual orgies.” After her release, she apparently lived quietly in Medellin. But it wasn’t enough to save her from a violent end. In September 2012, she was killed outside a butcher’s shop – ironically, in a motorcycle drive-by, the style of assassination she had pioneered and which became one of her trademarks.

This is as good a place as any, to mention the remarkably straight-edge depiction of Blanco in the telenovela. Unlike the sex- and drug-fiend described above, teleGriselda never gets high on her own supply, and is strictly monogamous – when anyone can get past her trust issues, that is. That’s something which I also noticed about La Reina Del Sur and the Mexican TV version was radically different from the American one, where the heroine was not averse to powdering her nose now and again. It’s an odd version of morality, considering how there’s apparently no problem with her being directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. “Yeah, but they were all bad,” to borrow a line from True Lies.

In the television version, however, she returns to business back on home turf. But there’s a problem, in the shape of Otalvaro. He’s another Colombian drug-runner, who holds a grudge against Blanco because she ordered the execution of his niece in her New York days – albeit for business rather than personal reasons. He teams up with Susana, another character apparently created for the show. She’s a Florida real-estate agent, who becomes part of Griselda’s crew, and is also a lesbian who has a long-time secret affection for her. When her hopes are crushed, she turns bitter, joining forces with Otalvaro, and tangentially, Escobar. Otalvaro’s daughter, Karla, meanwhile, goes the other way, falling for Michael Blanco after Otalvaro kidnaps him; she helps him escape and becomes part of Griselda’s crew.

In truth, these later episodes are less interesting, largely because the focus is so diluted – it gets away from Griselda, rather than focusing on her, as it should since she’s the most interesting character. I haven’t even mentioned Silvio, who betrays Griselda and tries to steal a submarine (!) packed with cocaine. He then gets miffed after she orders the death of his girlfriend, and begins his own, independent plot to take revenge on the family. Also still rattling around Medellin in the later stages is Jones, the series’s version of Bob Palumbo. He isn’t just chasing after her, he also ends up falling in love and prepared to do anything for her. Throw in his son and a renegade colleague, Garcia, prepared to go to any lengths to capture Griselda, and you’ll understand why it feels the writers are going for volume over quality in their storyline elements by the end.

But it’s at the end the story diverts furthest from reality. Instead of having Griselda gunned down in the street by an unknown adversary, she and her longest lasting and most faithful ally, Richi (Román), are trapped in a cold-storage room. Rather than surrender, or be captured by their enemies, legal or otherwise, they agree to a mutual suicide pact. The screen goes black, we hear the sound of gunfire, and the series ends. But mere mortality is no match for the demands of audience ratings. And so, two years later, the show began its second season, with a further 63 episodes detailing the further adventures of Griselda Blanco. The fictional version of the character appears to be even harder to kill than her real-life inspiration.

We’ll get round to watching that series in a bit, but after this 81-part marathon, I’m inclined to take a bit of a break! It wasn’t a bad show, and never became a chore: Serradilla is solid in the central role, and I also enjoyed Gamboa’s performance. But as noted, it did appear to lose focus as it went on, and did appear to be over-stretching its material. However, it will provide a useful template, against which other adaptations can be measured. For there are at least two competing Hollywood projects in various stages of production: one starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and the other, Jennifer Lopez. As and when those arrive on our screen, we can see how they compare to the extended version, offered by this telenovela.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Juan Pablo Gamboa, Julián Román, Ramiro Meneses

Golden Swallow

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“Roc beats Swallow”

If this seems somewhat familiar, it’s because it is not dissimilar to Iron Swallow, reviewed just a couple of weeks back. However, this is the official sequel to Come Drink With Me, in which Cheng reprises her character of Golden Swallow, rather than being the Taiwanese knock-off. Ms. Swallow is living a fairly quiet life, fighting for the rights of the underdog, etc. along with the aid of Golden Whip (Lo). Their peace is disturbed by the actions of Silver Roc (Wang Yu), who is carrying out various massacres, and leaving Swallow’s trademark darts at the scene, in order that she gets blamed for the crimes.

Turns out this is Roc’s idea of courtship, figuring it’ll force Swallow to track him down – and not with the aim of serving a restraining order, as I’d have said was more likely. Odder still, this “massive body count in lieu of a bouquet of flowers” concept actually appears to work, at least piquing Swallow’s interest, and thus  setting up a love triangle between Swallow, Roc and Whip. It’s only interrupted by the arrival on the scene of Poison Dragon (Yeung), and the two suitors put aside their scheduled duel to the death on top of a mountain, in order to take care of the real villain.

Despite the title – particularly the alternate one, which promises a whole level of action the film isn’t interested in delivering – and lead billing, this is significantly less about Swallow than Roc. And that’s a shame – Wang Yu would get plenty of his own opportunities to shine, he didn’t need to be hijacking the limited chances given to Cheng. Took me a little while to work out, too, that his character is named after a mythical giant bird, not a boulder. The references to “soaring rocks” were quite confusing for a while, until I figured this out.

The fights are okay, rather than impressive. They’re certainly not helped by Chang’s style, apparently an early ancestor of the MTV style of shooting action. This involves the camera being pushed too close in to capture the skills of the participants, and a primitive version of steadicam, which is certainly not steady in the slightest. I didn’t like it. I had high hopes for a scene which began with Swallow sitting quietly in a tea-house, which seemed to be echoing one of the most memorable sequences from Come Drink With Me, but it was little more than a nod, and was over before it had properly begun.

I wasn’t all that impressed with Drink, finding it more influential than entertaining. But it is still considerably better than this, which never gets off the ground thanks to a laughable plot, and carries out something perilously close to a bait and switch, with the heroine of its title reduced to a supporting role. What a waste of Cheng’s talents.

Dir: Chang Cheh
Star: Cheng Pei-pei, Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Yeung Chi-hing
a.k.a. The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick

The Rowdy Girls

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“If Andy Sidaris directed a Western.”

rowdygirlsThe self-awareness of the film’s own silliness is clear, virtually from the start in which a singing cowboy – referred to in the credits as a minstrel – strolls through the countryside, crooning his ballad of the titular ladies. He pops up intermittently throughout to narrate, and it does a good job of setting the tone: clearly, this is not intended, in any way, to be a serious look at historical life in America. It is, very much, gyno-centric: beyond the leads, this was also written by two women, including India Allen, who was the 1988 Playmate of the Year. Not just a pretty face, then.

The three characters at the center have different stories, that all end up taking them to the same place. Velvet McKenzie (Tweed) has bailed out of her life in a bordello, with a travel-bag full of cash, and is travelling disguised as a nun. Sarah Foster (Brooks) is similarly making a break, fleeing an arranged marriage and heading for San Francisco, on the same wagon as Velvet. But in their way is Mick (Strain), member of an outlaw gang and the leader’s lover; the group rob the stagecoach, taking both Velvet and Sarah hostage. The attack is interrupted by the local sheriff, until Mick slides a knife between his ribs; that just sets his younger brother, Joe Pepper (Varga) on the trail of both the criminals and their captives.

No shortage of curvy nudity here, as you’d expect given the cast, though it certainly qualifies as being at the tasteful end of the spectrum. There is probably more of a plot than you would expect too, with loyalties and alliances shifting over the course of the 87 minutes, and despite its B-movie origins, the production values are better than certain Troma movies I could mention [though I’m not entirely sure about the credibility of some of the costumes, which appear more Victoria’s Secret than 19th-century Western America!] Strain is particularly fun to watch, not least because her 6’1″ frame towers over some of the male cast, and her attitude is equally imposing, but Tweed, well into her forties at the time, is by no means outclassed.

Sure, the makers of this have set their sights low, not appearing too interested in offering up much more than a soft-core exercise in historical inaccuracy. Adopting a tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole thing was thus likely a wise movie, effectively defusing most of the (numerous) critical arguments which could be made against it. Manage your expectations, therefore, and those expectations will be met. For as soft-core exercises in historical inaccuracy go, you could certainly do an awful lot worse. Below, courtesy of Troma, you’ll find the whole thing, so you can judge for yourself!

Dir: Steven Nevius
Star: Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Deanna Brooks, Richie Varga

Gunslinger Girl

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“Young and heavily-armed.”

gunslingergirlIf you want something more cerebral and family friendly than Kite – if a story about underage assassins can ever be family friendly! – then Gunslinger Girl is perhaps for you. Set in Italy, a shadowy government organization, the Social Welfare Agency, has a prototype project which takes young women from hospital beds, augments their strength, speed and agility with cybernetic accessories, and unleashes them as state-sponsored special agents, with a wide-ranging license to kill. Each has a handler, to maintain and direct their conditioning and act as backup. But these trained assassins are still little girls at heart, with a fondness for teddy bears and ice-cream, as well as forming disturbing attachments to their handlers, who become their only family.

Though probably the most disturbing thing here, is that these are the forces of good: this is your tax dollars (well, tax lira) at work, fighting against radical terrorists and organized crime. Does the end justify the means, in terms of both the physical and emotional costs paid by those who take part, especially those too young to offer any kind of informed consent? Perhaps wisely, the thirteen 22-minutes episodes don’t delve too far down that rabbit-hole, preferring to concentrate more on the relationships between the five girls who are the subjects of the project. There’s something of Ghost in the Shell here, with the heroines’ awareness of their own (now, largely mechanical) nature leading them to ponder what it is to be human, and whether they can even consider themselves as qualifying any more.

The action here is perhaps less frequent than you’d expect, each episode typically having one or two brief bursts of intense activity. This doesn’t soft-pedal the violence in any way, even if it doesn’t seem to have the emotional impact on its young subjects that you feel it might; this could well be the point, and may also be a side-effect of the amnesia which is induced in them. The technical aspects are solid, in particular the music which prefers a classical tone to the (over-used, to be honest) standard large helping of J-Pop tunes, and the show has been complimented for its attention to detail, particularly in the details of the weapons it depicts.

My main issue is the lack of any real story arc or escalation. You reach the end of the 13th episode and, while not ineffective (most of the girls sit out in a meadow, watching a meteor shower and singing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, while one lies in a hospital bed), it would hardly pass for a satisfactory conclusion. This may well result from it being an adaptation of just the first two volumes, in a series actually running to fifteen. Given this, it might have been wise to cut down the characters; rather than splitting stories and characterization relatively evenly across the five, focusing on one or two in greater depth would potentially have been more successful. That said, I still appreciated its more thoughtful and leisurely pacing, and will certainly cover the sequel series in due course.

Dir: Hiroshi Ishidori
Star (voice): Eri Sendai, Yuuka Nanri, Kanako Mitsuhashi, Ami Koshimizu

The Frontier

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“A cash and grab story.”

Laine (Donahue) is on the run. From what isn’t immediately clear, but it seems to be something to do with the death of an oil executive. Whatever the reason, she’s staying off the highways and keeping to the back roads. One morning, she wakes up beside The Frontier, a diner/motel owned and operated by Luanne (Lynch), who offers Laine employment, in return for board and lodging. Laine initially rejects the offer, then discovers some other guests are apparently there in the aftermath of an armoured car robbery, which netted them two million dollars. Laine therefore decides it’s in her best interests to stick around, and begins a game of chess with the perpetrators, to see if she can end up walking away with their ill-gotten gains.

Opening in a shot of Laine, lighting a cigarette with her blood-stained hands, the story then unfolds in flashback. The style seems deliberately vague in terms of era; some aspects of this seem right out of the seventies, while others appear to be throwbacks to an earlier, film noir approach. There are definitely elements of David Lynch here – not just in the original title, Thieves’ Highway, also from the dialogue and a sense of lurking evil beneath a thin surface layer of everyday normality. Maybe The Hateful 8, with a group of players of uncertain agenda, forced to interact? You could even claim some Lars Von Trier here, in the way that the movie almost entirely takes place in a single location, often feeling like an adaptation of a play – perhaps one where the buildings are defined entirely by chalk lines, drawn on the stage.

Unfortunately, most of this fails to be as interesting as the sources it’s trying to imitate. The script makes the mistake of thinking that a sheer quantity of duplicity and double-crosses, will somehow make up for there being no particular reason to give a damn about most of the characters. Their obvious lack of honesty, everyone holding the cards close to their chest, makes it hard for the audience to get on board with any of them – particularly Laine, who is clearly intended to be the audience’s focus. Though Donahue, overall, isn’t bad in the role. She delivers an interesting mix of steely determination and street wit that, if not likeable, is always watchable, offering an acceptable twist on the typical femme fatale.

The rest of the cast feel more like standard tropes from that genre: the gruff, brutish thug; the ditzy moll; the fake “gentleman”, and so on, things you’ve likely seen far too often before, and neither the script nor their portrayals do enough to make them come alive. Things meander along to the entirely expected, bloody conclusion promised by that opening shot, and it feels longer instead of shorter than its relatively brisk 88 minute running-time. While there’s some promise here, and signs of talent, it would be a large stretch to say either are fulfilled.

Dir: Oren Shai
Star: Jocelin Donahue, Kelly Lynch, Jim Beaver, Izabella Miko

Double-Sided Magic, by McKenzie Hunter

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This is set in a world where various kinds of magic exist, alongside humans. The former include shapeshifters, vampires, faes (fairies), mages and the despised “Legacies”. The last-named cover the heroine, Levy Michaels, and that’s a bit of a problem. The reason for the hate, is because some of her kind were responsible, in previous generations, for a very nasty bit of spellcasting called “The Cleanse”; it was basically intended to cause occult genocide, and only narrowly avoided. Since then, Legacies have been harried and hunted by the other kinds. Levy’s late parents taught her to hide her abilities and pass as human, and she does so now, albeit occasionally having to handle those who track her down.

This mostly quiet, largely undercover existence is rudely ended when she suffers a blackout, only to regain consciousness standing over several very dead bodies, with absolutely no recollection of how she got there. Almost simultaneously, a relic called the NecroSpear, with which she was involved in a professional role, goes missing. This all brings her to the attention of Gareth, who heads the Supernatural Guild that are responsible for policing crimes involving magic. Again, a bit of a problem, since attention is the last thing an incognito and persona non grata creature like Levy needs. But it eventually becomes clear that someone equally powerful is out there, and she may be the only thing standing between humanity and an even bigger calamity than The Cleanse.

This is the first book in Hunter’s second series; her first, the Sky Brooks series, is about a werewolf who also has the unique (for her type) ability to do magic. This seems more like a slightly different variation on the same recipe, rather than a different meal, but a sai wielding heroine is always going to get my attention. Having her an uber-powered magic-user does initially seem a bit of a “Mary Sue”, but the constraints of Levy’s situation mean she has to survive as far as possible without using those skills. That said, she’s not exactly as reticent with them as I would have expected, and it’s fortunate everyone else appears to have a blind-spot with regard to her. She does wield those sais effectively; just not enough for my tastes.

It’s not exactly a finished story either, ending in a neo-cliffhanger way that appears largely designed to get the reader to part with their shekels for the upcoming book two. My other main qualm was Gareth: I rolled my eyes at the initial description of him as “sexy and dangerous” [which seems an archetype for Hunter, based on synopses from her other works, as well as some of the characters here] – and yeah, the sexual tension between him and Levy ran the entire gamut, from tiresome to cringeworthy. That’s a shame as Levy actually worked nicely as a standalone character, with a self-deprecating sense of wit that is quite appealing. But it appears almost obligatory to shoehorn in a romantic angle to this kind of book, whether it is necessary or not.

Hunter has put some obvious thought into the universe and its rules, making it certainly one with scope for development, though some additional exposition would have helped with certain aspects. I’m also not certain this is the best place to have started. Hearing about The Cleanse in a “previously, on…” kinda way, seems like a waste of an epic opportunity. There’s an origin story for Levy, which could well have been more interesting than the one actually told. Still, I wouldn’t be entirely averse to reading more of her adventures, though it would likely be a case of waiting for a 99-cent sale on Amazon, rather than paying full-price.

Author: McKenzie Hunter
Publisher: Through Amazon, only as an e-book.

Naam Hai Akira

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“Finally, a 21st-century successor to Fearless Nadia.”

akiraThis is the first “true” modern Bollywood action heroine film I’ve seen, and has to be appreciated as such. While we’ve covered a couple of Indian films before, these have either been from outside the mainstream e.g. Bandit Queen, or have carefully corralled the action into socially-acceptable avenues, such as sport in Mary Kom. Neither is the case here, though the ending certainly has its share of hypocrisy, with the heroine being more or less sidelined, “for the greater good”.

Akira (Sinha) establishes her “take no shit” attitude early, stopping a local bully – unfortunately, his influential family mean she spends three years in juvenile correction while the wheels of justice grind on. After her release, she moves to Mumbai and starts college, only to bump heads with the local mean girl, after refusing to take part in a school protest. Meanwhile, corrupt cop Govind Rane (Kashyap) is tidying up after finding a suitcase full of cash at a car accident – and by that, I mean killing off the driver. However, it kicks off a convoluted series of plot twists, in which evidence of his crimes is used to extort him, then is stolen, and ends up in Akira’s possession. Rane will do anything to ensure she won’t be able to use it, including framing her as a delusional paranoid and having her committed to an insane asylum, courtesy of a friendly doctor.

That’s a slimmed-down synopsis, and there’s a lot more going on here; probably too much, to be honest, and I think half an hour less than the actual 137-minute running time would have been a good thing all round. However, it goes with the territory: two hours is close to a minimum for Bollywood. One pleasant surprise was the lack of musical numbers; I’ve seen these shoehorned into just about every genre, including horror, and sometimes they just don’t fit. Here would likely have been one such case, so we were grateful for their absence. Also worth mentioning: this is a remake of a 2011 Tamil film, Mouna Guru, with the sex of its lead character changed.

Sinha is definitely better than expected in the action scenes: the standout sequences are a full-on brawl in the student cafeteria, after she absolutely destroys her tormentor with a potted plant [you can see a fragment in the trailer below; no subs, but if you’ve read the above, it’ll be clear enough], and her escape from the asylum through a series of unfortunate and ill-prepared guards. Again, given the running time, the action is perhaps a little on the infrequent side, yet there’s enough going on between times to keep you entertained. Particularly notable among the supporting cart was SP Rabia (Sharma), the honest cop trying to piece together the truth; both heavily pregnant and smartly competent, she reminded me to a large degree of Marge Gunderson from Fargo.

All told, this was surprisingly accessible to our Western eyes, though some cultural aspects had to be taken on trust: for example, acid attacks are, apparently, an everyday thing in Akira’s hometown. Bollywood still has some catching up to do; while decent enough, no-one will exactly mistake Sinha for Milla Jovovich or Zoë Bell. However, this is a solid step in the right direction, and will hopefully pave the way for others to follow.

Dir: AR Murugadoss
Star: Sonakshi Sinha, Anurag Kashyap, Konkona Sen Sharma, Ankita Karan Patel 

The Monster

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“Less would be more.”

monsterThere is a time when a film-maker needs to fall out of love with their script, and approach the resulting movie with a cold, critical eye, analyzing every scene with a single question in mind: Is it essential to the story being told? And if the answer isn’t “Yes”, then the scene needs to be ruthlessly excised. If you don’t, then what results is this film, where a good idea, which could have been lean, mean survival horror at its most stripped-down, becomes instead a cumbersome exercise in social drama.

Single mother Kathy (Kazan) is driving teenage daughter Lizzy (Ballentine) to her father, when they hit a wolf that has run out into the middle of the road on a remote country stretch of highway. While injuries are relatively minor, the car is unable to continue, and they have to hang out and wait for a repair truck to show up. However, when it does, and the mechanic is at work beneath their vehicle, the wolf’s corpse vanishes. Lizzy tracks it down in the woods, only to discover it shows signs of having been eaten, leaving her and her mother to wonder: what was bad enough that it could make a wolf run? They’re about to meet the answer.

It’s all the film needs, and when it concentrates on this, Bertino (who directed above-average home-invasion film, The Strangers) crafts a taut, effective work, as mother and daughter have to put aside their differences in the name of fending off the creature. The problem is the film’s insistence on inserting entirely unnecessary flashback scenes. They’re unnecessary because the dysfunctional nature of Kathy is established perfectly well before they have even left the house; everything thereafter is superfluous, and had me suppressing an urge to yell, “Enough, already! We get it!” at the screen.

I also get that the creature is intended to be a metaphor – though whether it’s intended to represent Kathy’s addiction-affected personality or Lizzy’s issues with trust and abandonment, is likely open to discussion. Either way, the mother is the monster in this interpretation; but again, it’s the kind of thing which works best when left for the audience to figure out or not, offering bonus depth if you want it. Here, Bertino seems to prefer whacking the viewer over the head with his subtext, to the point I had to undergo concussion tests.

On the plus side, Ballentine makes for an engaging young heroine, and the monster was laudably done with practical effects rather than CGI; given the relatively small budget, it looks decent enough. If you liked The Babadook – and I wasn’t particularly impressed with that either – then you might look more kindly on this attempt to merge the cerebral and the visceral. Only the latter half worked for me, the former providing more of an annoying distraction than offering any enhancement to the story.

Dir: Bryan Bertino
Star: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine

The Muthers

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“Jolly rogered.”

This is a strange cross-breed between a blaxploitation flick, a pirate movie and a women-in-prison film. Then again, a lot of the seventies films coming out of the Philippines tended to be at least somewhat bizarre, and this is likely no exception. The titular gang are pirates, led by Kelly (Bell) and Anggie (Katon), who roam what appears to be the Caribbean, going by the mention of Santo Domingo, but is actually in the Eastern hemisphere, boarding and robbing unsuspecting vessels, and fighting with a rival band of brigands using their kung-fu skills. However, Kelly’s sister goes missing, and is tracked down to a coffee farm belonging to the evil Monteiro (Carreon), which he runs in the manner of a pre-Civil War Southern plantation. Our heroines go undercover, only to discover getting out will be tougher than getting in.

It starts off in fine form, coming over as a modern, urban version of a sixties swashbuckler, and it’s a shame it didn’t stick to this premise, which would have offered something rather innovative. Instead, from the time Kelly and Anggie – yes, there is apparently an extra “g” in there – show up on the farm, it goes down too well-worn a path, with sadistic guards, fellow inmates who cozy up to their captors, and showers. Lots of showers. After the expected breakout attempts, recaptures and punishments, things eventually end in an equally expected riot, enlivened somewhat by the unexpected return appearance of the rival pirates, as allies of Monteiro,

muthersBoth Bell and Katon had worked with Santiago before, in T.N.T. Jackson and Ebony, Ivory & Jade respectively, and make a decent impression here. I’ve read a few other reviews that rip into this for poor-quality action, yet I can’t say I hated that aspect too much. Sure, there are times, particularly for any acrobatic moments, where the doubling is not exactly well-concealed. But there are other times where they’re putting in their fair share of effort, and should be appreciated for that. It is, if not quite tame, rather less sleazy than some on Santiago’s offerings. At first, I thought this was because I was watching it on Turner Classic Movies (yes, a refreshingly broad definition of “classic”!), but turns out to be fairly mild. Mind you, Bell’s ultra skin-tight top doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination there!

On the whole though, I’d have preferred if it had stuck with the pirate theme present at the beginning, which was a good deal fresher than the rote WiP fodder served up in the middle. Maybe I’m just grumpy because I did lose a bet with the wife: on seeing a guard tower overlooking the workers’ huts, I predicted it would later explode in a giant fireball, as a guard falls from it. I am disappointed to report that this simple pleasure was with-held from me. Sheesh, what is the world coming to, when a film from the golden age of Phillsploitation can’t even deliver on this expectation?

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Rosanne Katon, Trina Parks, Jayne Kennedy

The Darkest Dawn

starstarstarhalf
“Illegal aliens”

darkestdawnThis is apparently a sequel to a previous movie about an alien invasion of Earth (and, specifically, the United Kingdom) from the same director, Hungerford. While I haven’t seen it, this likely didn’t impact things too much here; I sense it’s perhaps closer to a separate story, unfolding in the same universe, than a true sequel. It’s the story of teenage sisters Chloe (Leadley) and Sam (Wallis), with the former getting a video camera for her birthday – just in time for said invasion to kick off, with their family being separated in the ensuing chaos. Toting her camera, Chloe and her sibling take shelter, then scurry through the blasted landscape, facing the threat not just of the extra-terrestrials, but renegade bands of survivors. For it also turns out Chloe, specifically her blood, is a key to the resistance. What are the odds?

There’s a strong sense of Cloverfield here, with the alien threat glimpsed more in passing than directly. The major difference is probably the human element, since the sisters are in peril from other people, as much if not more than from the invaders. Of course, the whole “found footage” thing has been utterly done to death since Blair Witch – and I think even that was vastly over-rated. Here, it adds precious little to proceedings, and there’s not much which could have been done equally as well (or, arguably, better), with an external viewpoint. It has all the usual issues of the genre; most obviously, why the lead character keeps filming, when on multiple occasions common sense and survival instinct would dictate dumping the camera and legging it. But then, a more conventional approach probably would have led to the production costing a great deal more than £40,000 (approx. 1/500th that of Cloverfield).

The two leads are, I believe, YouTube stars rather than professional actresses, and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. They do have a natural and unaffected quality, which helps their characters avoid falling into the irritating teenager trap. But they don’t have much more, and any time there is actual acting required – rather than reacting – then they come up short. While the script does give Chloe a decent arc, going from a typically self-obsessed teenage girl into a focused and determined young woman, the climax feels somewhat undercooked. It does not offer the viewer much in the way of resolution, I suspect because writer-director Casson perhaps wants to return to the same milieu in future.

While I wouldn’t be averse to that, I hope Casson (dear God, I just realized he’s only 22 and has already made and had released two cinematic features) stretches his talents into more than the found footage genre, since too often this is merely a crutch for low-budget film-makers, used to excuse away shaky camerawork and improvised dialogue. There’s some evidence of talent visible here, on both sides of the camera – providing you can get past the likely motion sickness this may cause.

Dir: Drew Casson
Star: Bethan Mary Leadley, Cherry Wallis, Stuart Ashen, Drew Casson