The Harvesting, by Melanie Karsak

Literary rating: starstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2
“Twilight of the Living Dead…”

This is likely the kind of book you enjoy rather than appreciate. While no-one will ever mistake this for great literature – you could go with “ludicrous nonsense,” and I’d not argue much – it’s a fun enough bit of pulp fiction that I kept turning the pages. Layla Petrovich gets a strange call from her Russian grandmother in her hometown, the remote rural community of Hamletville, requesting her presence. When Layla arrives, she finds Grandma, a noted local seer, clearly preparing for something. What isn’t clear, until Layla wakes up to find herself in the middle of the zombie apocalypse.

Fortunately, Layla is a bit of a weapons expert – she had moved to Washington D.C. and was working in a museum, specializing in medieval weapons, while giving fencing lessons on the side. What are the odds? So she is soon leading the townsfolk in defense of their realm, while they wait for help to arrive. In the meantime, she has to fend off the unwanted advances of ex-boyfriend Ian and the not-so-unwanted advances of his brother Jamie, deal with her own apparently blossoming psychic talents, and figure out, when the aid eventually shows up, whether it’s quite the kind they want to accept. Hey, who ever said life after the zombie apocalypse would be easy?

There are two aspects that I found memorable here. The first is the psychic angle, which is largely at odds with the straightforward, two-fisted zombie slaying otherwise present. It doesn’t serve much purpose here, to be honest: there is only one supernatural revelation that matters, and you wonder why Granny didn’t simply tell Layla, “You need to get ready for this, that and the other, dear.” However, it adds some off-kilter atmosphere that’s welcome – and perhaps explains why her hit-rate with firearms is close to 100%, despite never having picked one up before going to Grandma’s house. She has the second telescopic-sight, hohoho.

The other thing is the way the story takes an abrupt right-turn at about the two-thirds point, with the zombies being entirely abandoned as a threat, and replaced by… Well, let’s just say, I didn’t see that coming. It’s not the smoothest of transitions, and feels like two separate novels ended up mashed into one file, thanks to an error in the Kindle factory. Yet it perhaps makes some logical sense given the circumstances. On the other hand, the new enemy have a convenient weakness, rendering them astonishingly vulnerable – except their leader, for reasons never made clear, but presumably to avoid the final battle with Layla being over in 0.7 seconds.

Outside the heroine, the rest of the characterization is limited, to put it mildly. While Ian and Jamie gets the most sentences, they’re never much more than cyphers, who exist purely as the other two sides of the love-triangle. Hardly anyone else stands out – save perhaps Buddie, the bow-wielding woodsman who appears to have wandered in on a guest appearance from The Walking Dead. Karsak saves the enthusiasm for the decapitations and brain-splatter, as you’d expect from the very first line: “If you ever need to slice someone’s head off, this is the blade you want.” Providing you’re fine with that, you’ll be fine with this as well.

Author: Melanie Karsak
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, available through Amazon, both as an ebook and a paperback.

Senora Acero

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“The mother of unintended consequences.”

It’s supposed to be the happiest day of her life for Sara Aguilar (Soto). She’s marrying respected police commander Vicente Acero, legitimizing a relationship that has already given them a son, Salvador. But masked hitmen attack the party, killing her father – by the end of the day, Sara has also become a widow, the cartel having taken revenge on Vicente, for the three million dollars he apparently stole. To Sara’s horror, it turns out her husband-to-be was no less corrupt than anyone else. When Salvador then falls desperately ill, and in need of highly expensive health-care, there’s only one way Sara is going to be able to fund his treatment.

It’s a decision which brings her into conflict with a whole slew of people. Her main enemy in the first series is Indio Amaro (Zárate), a local gangster responsible for killing Vicente. He has vowed to make Sara’s life a living hell – not least because following that murder, she chopped off two of his fingers in a frenzied attack. There’s also Enriqueta Sabido, the owner of a local beauty salon where Sara gets a job after being thrown on her own resources; she also does (bad) plastic surgery in the back. And even her own sister, Berta, is jealous of Sara for marrying Vicente, and who blames her – with some justification, it has to be said – for everything bad that happens subsequently.

She does have allies, though I wouldn’t be selling any of them life insurance, if you get my drift. They include honest cop Elio Tarso; Colombian dreamboat Manuel Caicedo; and even an affable cartel boss, Miguel Quintanilla, who possesses a quite fascinating collection of suits. [The white ones make a terrible background for subtitles, producers please note.] However, it’s mostly Sara’s motherly inclinations that lead to problems, whether financing a transplant for Salvador by any means necessary, or demanding her cartel employer close down the tunnels through which drug-carrying kids are employed to cross the border, because… Well, Sara doesn’t like it, that’s why.

But it is actually fairly rough on occasions: for instance, the removal of Indio’s fingers is well-staged, and revisited frequently [this show loves its flashbacks, more than any other I’ve seen to date – sometimes even revisiting scenes from earlier the same episode]. There’s another scene where Indio is torturing someone for information. He has them stand on a bed of spikes, then breaks their ankles to ensure they can no longer support their own weight. While mild in terms of cartel acts – some of the stories I’ve read would make your hair curl – the show is relatively brutal by the standards of the telenovela, and contains more bloodshed than most.

The obvious influence is another Telemundo production, La Reina Del Sur, with which it shares a number of crew, in particular writer Roberto Stopello – its heroine is even name-checked explicitly here, in one episode toward the end. Both share protagonists who are dumped into trouble after the demise of their other halves, and find the only way out is to get their hands dirty and become part of the criminal underworld. Despite this, the leading ladies share a strong sense of morality, with lines they won’t cross, and despise the exploitation of others – in Reina, it’s trafficking in women, while here it’s the use of children that provokes the central character’s ire.

Notwithstanding the double-meaning of her married name in the show’s title – Senora Acero can be translated as “Woman of Steel” – I find there’s a certain hypocrisy to Sara, compared to Teresa Mendoza. She’s strident about only wanting to be involved in money laundering rather than the drug trade, which seems a perilously thin moral distinction to me. Where the heck does she think the money she’s taking across the border comes from? It’s an almost privileged attitude, which seems to permeate her character from the start. For me, this left her less appealing, in comparison to her telenovela sisters, and this central weakness may be the show’s biggest flaw.

It’s a bit of a shame, as the supporting cast are fun to watch, on both sides of the coin. The villains are led by Acasio “Don Teca” Martínez (Reséndez), a cartel boss who has longed after Sara from afar, since he was a geek in the local barrio. Now, he has a shrine to her at the back of his office, and wields his power in a creepy stalking campaign, designed to drive her into his arms at any cost. Meanwhile, on Sara’s side is Aracely Paniagua (Litzy), a good-hearted former hooker and drug addict, who just can’t seem to escape her past, which keeps dragging her back in. She offers a more traditional telenovela heroine, almost harking back to Victorian melodrama.

The music in the show is interesting… Norteña band Los Tucanes de Tijuana produced and performed a song for it, titled “La Señora de Acero”, which the series incorporates, as having being commissioned by one of Sara’s drug-cartel bosses in her honour. It’s the usual oompah laden nonsense (I don’t like country & western either!), and far more fun is the bombastic score that accompanies the tensest moments. I’ve not been able to pin down the creator – it may be Rodrigo Maurovich, credited for “musicalization”, or it may be stock composer Xiaotian Shi. But it’s so wildly over-dramatic, swelling ominously to a crescendo, even when no-one is doing anything more than staring at a door, I can’t help but love it.

Back before the show had even begun to air, in mid-2014, there was an option apparently granted to USA Network to produce an English-language version of Senora Acero. Nothing appears to have come of this, and it was only a couple of months later that the station ordered a pilot for Queen of the South instead. Having seen both Mexican series now, as well as the USA Network remake of Reina, the choice was probably a smart one. The darker storyline of Reina likely renders it more easily adaptable. I’d be hard-pushed to imagine this, really a story of maternal instincts gone wrong, being able to make an effective transition to the gritty series which USA apparently wanted.

Despite this diss by the American market, unlike Reina, the show wasn’t one and done. Senora Acero almost doubled its US audience over the four-month run, its finale winning its time-slot in a number of key demographics, regardless of language. And, so, a year, later season two began, with another 75 episodes, and a third season, with a monstrous 93 episodes, started last summer. [The most recent installments appear not to involve Blanca Soto, for reasons which would require major spoilage to discuss…] All three are currently on Netflix, and I’ll confess some of the pics used here are from them – but at somewhere north of 50 hours of viewing per series, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for in-depth reviews of the later seasons!

Star: Blanca Soto, Jorge Zárate, Litzy, José Luis Reséndez

Deeper: The Retribution of Beth

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“Don’t do porn.”

Investigative journalist Mark (Anderson) is not too happy about his latest investigative assignment: going on a ride-along with Steve (Francis), the sleazy owner of porn company “XBus”. He picks up girls on the street and supposedly, talks them into getting naked for his website, Girls Gone Wild-style. But Steve’s latest predatory mission doesn’t go as planned, after picking up the very lovely Beth (Sam) and her friend Sam (Gatien). For Beth pulls a gun, hijacks the limo, and drives the two men into the forests on the outskirts of town, clearly with savage vengeance on her mind for an incident in her – and Steve’s – past. Not quite the story Mark anticipated getting.

I read one review which complained about the moral ambiguity here, but I felt this was actually the movie’s strong suit. Not that there’s necessary much ambiguity for me: it’s entirely possible to have no issues with pornography, while simultaneously frowning upon drugging girls in order to rape them. Seems fair enough to me. It is true that in this case, we don’t discover the truth about Beth’s mission until relatively late on, which goes against the grain in this kind of film. We usually start off with the crime, which creates sympathy for the vengeful heroine, and puts the audience in her corner. Here, Beth is a rather more ambivalent creature, particularly as her mission goes outside its parameters i.e. Steve, to encompass innocent bystanders like Mark.

Less successful is the injection of a randomly passing hunter into the film, and it might have been interesting if Mark had turned out to have some kind of dark secret in his past as well. He’s just a bit too squeaky-clean e.g. devoted to his pregnant wife. That particular phone-call had me rolling my eyes at the excessive obviousness. I had, literally, to rewind the scene where Steve has his hands zip-tied behind him, and is somehow able to get them around his legs, and in front of him. Seriously: just put your hands behind your back, and you’ll see exactly how impossible that is. It was also rather too convenient how Beth never bother with her captives’ legs, even after their efforts to run away.

Overall though, this is well put together. It’s well-crafted to work within its limited resources, requiring little more than two locations – the car and the woods – and the four occupants of the limo. There’s a particularly interesting dynamic on the female side, contrasting the aggressive Beth, and the apparently much more passive Sam. Although, that does change over the course of the film and the view at the far end is radically different from that at the beginning. It benefits from some good performances too. Francis, for example, manages to make Steve a relatively sympathetic character, rather than being 100% douchebag. But it’s Harmon who is the glue that holds this film together, even as she becomes increasingly unhinged, and a serious danger to anyone who crosses her path.

Dir: Jeffrey Anderson
Star: Jessica Harmon, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Andrew Francis, Elise Gatien

From Parts Unknown: Fight Like a Girl

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“Ringpocalypse now.”

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not the first attempt to cross over between the worlds of zombies and pro wrestling. There was also the imaginatively-named Pro Wrestlers vs Zombies, which included Roddy Piper, Kurt Angle and Matt Hardy. This is much lower-budget, Australian and almost certainly contains nobody of whom you’ll have heard. But what both movies share is that… they aren’t actually very good. And that’s a shame, because I’m pretty much the ideal target audience, being a fan of both wrestling and horror. That this one has a heroine, should be another factor in support of it, but it ends up falling apart and devolving into a second half that is little more than a procession of uninteresting set-pieces.

Though in fairness, the makers deserve credit for persevering with production in the face of numerous calamities. The IMDb page lists a few of these, which should stand as a warning to anyone thinking about venturing into the creation of low-budget cinema:

The first edit was completed by the end of 2009 but, due to inexperience and lack of technical know-how, it was completed without location audio… Most of FPU was shot in an abandoned warehouse with no power, requiring a large generator to run lights, the noise of which can be heard in every shot at this location. By 2011 location audio had been re-synced but due to a falling out with those responsible was never delivered to the producers.

During production the director’s car was written off by a drunk off-duty police officer, the insurance money was just enough to allow shooting to continue… In a pivotal scene depicting the death of a main character the actor playing the part of the killer failed to turn up and didn’t return calls. An attempt was made to shoot the scene from a first person point-of-view, but in post production a random beam falling from out of shot was added to create the death scene instead.

All of which is likely more interesting than the finished film, unfortunately. Still, all production problems aside, what of the plot? Charlie (Dwyer) is the daughter of Buffalo Daddy, a wrestler who died in the ring. She’s now training in his footsteps, while working at a video-game company. Their current game, “From Parts Unknown”, involves the use of nanobots to… Well, it’s a bit vague on the details, but to cut to the chase, the nanobots get loose, turning everyone they encounter into flesh-munching monsters. It’s up to Charlie, and some of her pals, to fend off the impending zombie apocalypse.

There are occasional moments that are fun, such as the guy who seizes the chance to channel his inner Bruce Campbell, gleefully quoting Army of Darkness. However, it topples over far too often into self-indulgent stuff, that I’m sure had everyone involved cracking up on set, but triggers less than a faint smile in the viewer. The action scenes are disappointing too: I was expecting to see zombies getting suplexed through tables ‘n’ stuff – instead, it’s just the usual, humdrum removing of the head or destroying the brain, which we’ve seen too often before. I won’t give up though; maybe the third undead ‘rassling film will prove to be the charm. They just need to get Lucha Underground involved somehow.

Dir: Daniel Armstrong
Star: Jenna Dwyer, Elke Berry, Mick Preston, Josh Futcher

Taking Stock

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“Bonnie and Clyde? Banal and tired, more like…”

Kate’s (Brook) life has fallen apart: she has just been told the store she works at is closing because the owner is cashing in on a redevelopment offer; her boyfriend has dumped her; and Kate’s attempt at suicide by gas oven is doomed since she failed to pay the bill. What’s a girl to do? The answer is apparently, take inspiration from her heroine, Bonnie Parker. But rather than robbing banks, Kate teams up with her other disgruntled work colleagues, hatching a daring plan to copy the key to the store, seduce the safe combination out of the firm’s accountant, Mat (Williams) and plunder the ill-gotten gains.

This comes in at a terse 75 minutes, and that’s a very wise move, because the script’s actual content is thin to the point of paucity. Even with the short running time, it seems to run out of actual ideas round about the 30-minute mark, then tries to skate by for the remainder of the movie on Brook’s charisma. Which is not necessarily a bad idea in itself: Kate is an appealing character, with whom it’s easy to empathize, and Brook does a rather better job with her portrayal than I’d have expected from someone previously seen only in Piranha 3D – in which it wasn’t her acting talents which were most apparent, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

But the concept of transferring Bonnie & Clyde to a British setting is a poorly-considered one at best, not least because the closest Kate gets to touching an actual gun, is a vague impersonation of Travis Bickle, using a hair-dryer. Really, when it’s so watered down, what’s the point? I suspect the plot started from this ill-conceived premise, before writer-director Murphy quickly discovered it wasn’t working, only for her to plough on regardless, to the bitter end. Which, in this case, involves a getaway chase on bicycles. This perhaps illustrates its aim of being quirky, in the style of an Ealing comedy, yet contemporarily British. Perhaps too contemporary, with references to Nando’s that won’t travel or date well, and its hip-yet-casual attitude quite quickly turns into forced and artificial.

The rest of the cast beyond Brook are something of a mixed bunch. Williams occasionally appears to be channeling the spirit of David Tennant, and while there are worse things to channel, you’re left with a desire to go and rewatch Broadchurch. No-one else makes much of an impression. Did I say “much”? Any at all, would be more accurate. The film is in particular need of a better antagonist, against whom Kate can go up; her boss at the store is so lightly-drawn as barely to register. Indeed, beyond Brook, little of it will stick in the mind: this is cinematic fluff, and as such, its flaws may be a case of unfulfilled expectations. However, when I hear “a British Bonnie & Clyde,” what that suggests is considerably darker fare than this breezy, entirely forgettable romp.

Dir: Maeve Murphy
Star: Kelly Brook, Scot Williams, Georgia Groome, Femi Oyeniran

Heroines of F.U.R.Y.

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“The world’s first microbudget superheroine wrestling soft-porn film.”

Given the cover, you might reasonably have expected one of the above, but if you saw the rest coming, you’re a better judge of cinematic dreck than I am. It’s hard to work out exactly who would form an overlap between the various potential audience sections here. And even someone not averse to any of the categories (I’d probably qualify) might well be turned off by the poor production values and overall shoddy quality of this.

The film is set in “Metro City”, which was my first surprise, because a lazy reading of the synopsis had me believing this was “Mexico City”. My bad. Turns out Omega is putting together a squad of super-powered heroines, having discovered that someone, somewhere appears to be abducting their colleagues. Nothing good can come of this, naturally. The main focus is Cosmic Girl (Lane), who has only gained her costume and secret identity relatively recently, so is still coming to terms with her situation. But she’s just one of a slew of caped crusaders, including – I’ll pause to take a deep breath, and copy-paste from my notes here – Lady Victory, Sunder, Spyder, Starlet, Dusk and Lilith.

Which wouldn’t necessarily be bad, if it had delivered something along the lines of the wonderful, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. But the actual tone becomes creepily apparent here almost immediately. In the first scene featuring Lady Victory, we’re treated to close-ups of her feet, cleavage, butt, crotch and cleavage again, before we get to see her face. Sadly, this turns out to be an accurate indication of the movie’s priorities, with the eye of the camera adopting a highly fetishistic approach to its subjects. That’s when the film isn’t toppling over entirely, such as the 10-minute sequence of Cosmic Girl masturbating on her bed, in full costume, which ends up coming – a word used advisedly – about the width of her gusset elastic from being hardcore porn.

Then there are the scenes in a wrestling ring. For it turns out, part of the point of the abductions is to put together a forced “fight club” for these “metahumans”, which is streamed online. The losers also have their powers stolen. Which is an idea with some potential. Or, rather, it might have, if anyone involved could actually fight, or give a credible illusion of fighting: this isn’t exactly Lucha Underground, shall we say. It turns out to be little more than a thinly-disguised excuse for some sub/dom play.

Look, I’m sure there’s a market for this kind of thing, and I’m certainly not one to judge it. But this is masquerading under the illusion of being a real film – it’s on sale at Walmart ‘n’ stuff – and that creates certain expectations, which the movie is woefully ill-equipped to meet. Admittedly, if you had the foresight to Google “Brookland Brothers”, the studio behind it, you would find yourself looking at a page of thoroughly NSFW links. However, the rest of us will probably be looking nervously over our shoulders for fear of a family member showing up, and wishing for an industrial-sized bottle of hand-sanitizer.

Dir: Tyler Benjamin
Star: Halsey Rae, Ashley Lane, Krisa Kouture, Christina Verdon

Staff Sergeant Belinda Watt, by Tom Holzel

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This self-published novel was recently donated by the author to the library where I work, a kindness that we appreciate. The author and I are both members of the Action Heroine Fans group here on Goodreads, and I was intrigued by his posts there about the book. Understanding (from experience!) the frustrations of waiting for reviews in today’s glutted book market, and being a fan of kick-butt female protagonists myself, I’d hoped to help him out with a good review, though he didn’t donate the book with any such expectation. As my rating indicates, my reaction wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, so I would have refrained from writing a review at all; but Tom graciously indicated that he didn’t have a problem with a less than stellar review.

I’ll say at the outset that if you like to discover the plot of a novel (as opposed to the basic premise) for yourself as you read it, I would NOT advise reading the cover copy, which gives away a fair bit of the plot. Suffice it to say that our chronological setting is the year 3177. Chapter 2 begins –and Chapter 1 is just a one-page set-up; chapters here tend to be quite short, which helps the plot flow quickly– with our title character, a cook from Idaho in the Galactic Federation army (who’s recently been discovered to have extremely good natural marksmanship skills with a rifle) being acquitted by a court-martial of murder charges in the killing of her commanding officer, General Bloodworthy. The physical evidence overwhelmingly proved that General Bloodworthy had been raping her at the time. But the late General was the head of the Guardian Council, a semi-secret cabal of “right-wing” army officers who are suspected of self-serving and illegal behavior aimed at advancing and protecting their own members; and their power within the military makes them “virtually unstoppable.” Since it’s pretty plain that the Council will murder Belinda in retaliation for Bloodworthy’s death, Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Andrew Jackson Jones conceives the idea of spiriting her off-world for her own protection. (Why an Intelligence officer is serving on the Judge Advocate’s staff in the first place is only one of several unexplained problems here.) So these two characters take off for the stars, and the plot takes off along with them.

Holzel’s fictional universe has similarities to that of many other writers in the SF tradition: FTL space travel, a galaxy-spanning Federation, etc. But he puts his own original spin on this. Here, the Federation extends into several different galaxies, reachable by navigating through wormholes associated with black holes. There are, however, not very many habitable planets out there, and the few there are are populated by alien species that are all pretty much humanoid (this is explained by convergent Darwinian evolution adapting them all to similar conditions). Earth turned out to be the most technologically advanced of the lot (that, and the distances involved, might serve as a plausible explanation for the old chestnut about why, if there are alien civilizations out there, we’ve never picked up their radio waves, though Holzel doesn’t mention this). Jones and Belinda’s destination is the far-off, Jupiter-sized planet Magnus, a major source of a mineral that’s critical to FTL travel. The planet’s ultra-rapid rotation reduces its gravity around the equator to Earth-like levels, and its extremely strong magnetic field prevents electricity from being transmitted on the planet’s surface. As this discussion indicates, this novel is very much in the “hard” SF tradition. The effects of the planetary conditions on local technology are worked out in some detail, which will please fans who like that sort of thing. (Personally, I’m much more of a “soft” SF fan.)

I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand or evaluate much of Holzel’s above use of actual science, though I would say that it comes across as plausible. My interest in fiction, in this or any genre, is more in the human and literary elements of the stories. On that level, the plot is predictable, has serious logical gaps (beginning with the fact that the military even tolerates the Guardian Council to begin with, or that they would let a serving soldier simply go off planet with no orders), and IMO makes excessive use of coincidence. Some readers have found Belinda too passive; I’m not sure that criticism is entirely fair, since she grows here from a fairly naive and passive young woman to a greater maturity. But the characterizations are not well-developed, and I particularly don’t feel the romance as believable. (Jones treats Belinda with a degree of duplicity and manipulation that’s more or less treated here as just an example of how boys will be boys, but which I don’t think most women would or should accept.)

No serious Intelligence officer would confide his mission to total strangers the way Jones does twice here; and I seriously question whether it’s physically possible for one crucial plot point to have happened the way it did. The Galactic Federation’s policy of paternalistically controlling interstellar trade (to “protect” other species from the “bad” competition) and Exporting Democracy strikes me as a naive extension of the worst aspects of globalist American foreign policy extrapolated onto an inter-galactic scale, and the cavalier attitude of the characters towards mass destruction of innocent life with a tactical nuke was a really serious negative for me. There are also repeated editing issues, numerous plot points that are inadequately explained, and not much world building outside of the technological area. (A minor quibble is the unexplained variation in Belinda’s name, which seems to be random; I could understand “Bea” as a plausible nickname, but she’s also sometimes “Linda” rather than Belinda.)

On the positive side, I was interested enough in the story to finish it. There’s a certain amount of bad language (though I don’t recall any obscenity –there might be some I’ve forgotten) including religious profanity, but it’s probably within the bounds of realism for the milieu. Although there’s no explicit sex, there are sexual situations, and Belinda tends to be a frequent target of sexual harassment and rape attempts. However, this isn’t condoned, and it’s dealt with forcefully. I don’t think the “moral tendency” of the novel would be to encourage that sort of thing in any sense.

Author: Tom Holzel
Publisher: Self published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Lipstick

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“Model behaviour”

There are times when a film doesn’t deliver anything close to what the sleeve promises. This would be one of those times. However, in this case, while disappointed, I can’t claim it was an entire waste of my time. Or, at least, it wasn’t a waste of very much of my time, coming in at a brisk 70 minutes. Yokoyama plays Arina, a fashion model who has a burgeoning online profile. However, this is not without its dangers, in some questionably creepy admirers. When one of them shows up at a fashion shoot, she and her sister, Keiko, are rescued by a conveniently passing cop, Gotoda – much to their relief. As a token of gratitude, Arina gives him a tube of lipstick, but it soon turns out that the policeman is a far bigger threat than any fan.

It takes quite some time to get to anything even remotely resembling what’s shown on the cover. And by remotely, I mean: no machete, and the costume worn by the heroine is nowhere near as luridly exploitational, when she finally gets to have a roof-top confrontation with Gotoda. Nor does she have the word “BITCH” written in lipstick on her thigh, though her predator’s use of lipstick is hardly any less unpleasant. Until then, it’s more of a study in psychological torture: after she’s attacked and raped, Arina finds her own sister unwilling to believe it. And even after she has got past that, the film’s most chilling scene has the model agency’s (female) lawyer explaining to her in cold, logical terms, exactly why pursuing any kind of case against Gotoda is going to cause more problems than it would solve.

It’s this, along with the realization that this is not going to be a one-off incident, because the cop has longer-term plans, which finally pushes Arina to take matters into her own hands. I’d certainly prefer to have seen this aspect expanded upon at greater length, instead of the five minutes it seems to get here. It certainly doesn’t seem adequate payback for the hell through which she has gone over the previous hour. There’s a particular resonance if you’re aware of Yokoyama’s “regular job” as an adult video star, as one imagines most Japanese viewers would be. The shift to playing a “fashion model” here is slight, but significant: she more or less gets to be herself, just with (slightly) more clothes. And I’m fairly sure she has also dealt with her share of creepy fans at some point.

It’s certainly a cheap topic and approach, and the script doesn’t bring much that’s innovative or memorable. But given the obvious limitations of budget and scope, this is effective enough – providing you are definitely NOT expecting mayhem on any significant scale. Yokoyama’s performance is good enough for the job, and it manages to strike a decent balance between drama and exploitation.

Dir: Ainosuke Shibata
Star: Miyuki Yokoyama, Hiroaki Kawatsure, Mitsuki Koga

Stoner

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“On Her Mao-jesty’s Secret Service”

This production had a long, convoluted and quite interesting path to the screen. While Lazenby was always on board, the original plan was for him to be a Western bad guy, going up against Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba. But Lee’s death – oddly, he was supposed to have had dinner with Lazenby that night – resulted in Chiba quitting, and Warner Bros then also backed out of their worldwide distribution deal. It was reworked as a much smaller film, at less than one-tenth the original budget (although at around $850,000, was still very expensive for the time, location and genre), with Lazenby now teaming up with Angela Mao.

He plays rough, tough Australian cop, Joseph Stoner, who heads for Hong Kong after his sister gets hooked on the new, super-powerful aphrodisiac “happy pills” created in the laboratory of evil drug kingpin, Mr Big (Hwang). She’s Taiwanese cop Angela Li, sent undercover to bring him down. Eventually, they join forces, but this isn’t until well over an hour into the film. To that point, they are each investigating in their own way Mr Big’s activities. Stoner’s approach appears to involve doing an impression of a bull in a china shop, while Li uses a smarter approach, to infiltrate the temple which is the distribution hub, posing as an innocent vendor of soft drinks. Both eventually end up in the same place – a cage in Mr Big’s lair – leading to a creepy scene where she has to fend off a happy pill-crazed Stoner.

It’s interesting that, in both the dubbed and subbed versions, Mao gets top billing ahead of Lazenby, despite the latter’s fame for having played 007 a few years previously. It is very much a two-hander, with each getting their own share of screen time. Lazenby does a surprisingly impressive job with the more physical aspects, and apparently put in a great deal of training. The problem is – as with his portrayal of James Bond – the actor’s inability to convey any emotions with the slightest degree of conviction. Even when talking about his sister, he might as well be reciting sports scores. Still, there’s plenty of funky seventies style to appreciate, such as the rotating desk apparently bought by Mr. Big from a yard sale at a local TV news-room.

Mao is, for our purposes, the true star, and I’d be hard pushed to say this would have been improved by the presence of Sonny Chiba. You have to wait quite a while for any significant action from her though, coming when she sneaks into Mr. Big’s headquarters. This unfolds in a way which suggests Bruce Lee’s foray from Enter the Dragon, and you wonder if this was part of the original script, intended for him before his untimely demise. On the whole though, I’d rather have dispensed entirely with Lazenby, and given the entire film to Mao, for this demonstrates that brains is often more interesting to watch than brawn.

Dir: Huang Feng
Star: Angela Mao, George Lazenby, Betty Ting, Hwang In-shik
a.k.a. The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss

Scream of the Bikini

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“It is a regular adventure!”

This appears to have been filmed somewhere in South America around 1966, then “poorly translated and dubbed by Germans”. The truth? It’s a modern spoof, a loving re-creation of the sixties Eurospy thriller, featuring two gun-toting leggy lovelies, Bridget (supposedly “Jasmine Orosco”, but actually Wedeen) and Sophia (“Paola Apanapal”, Larsen), who are international fashion supermodels by day, and jet-setting bounty hunters and secret agents by night. They acquire a microchip, capable of storing a whole one kilobyte of data – more than all the computers of Interpol and the Pentagon combined! – which embroils them in an evil plot to unleash wholesale devastation on the world’s population. As you do.

It absolutely nails the tone on just about every level, from the fashion styles through the washed-out palette of an elderly print and super funky sixties soundtrack, to the poor dubbing and English-as-a-second-language translations. “A death cult!” burbles one of our heroines – “The worst kind of cult,” adds the other, helpfully. It’s a genre ripe for parody, but it’s clear that Scholl – a theater director – as well as his cast and crew, have an abiding affection for their subject. It probably will help to have seen at least some of these kind of movies, and it’s likely the greater your familiarity, the more you’ll get out. Though even those whose knowledge is no more than a viewing of, say, Barbarella, should still have enough expertise to mine a decent amount of amusement.

It definitely reminded me of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, though the target there was 50’s SF/horror. That was also somewhat more polished, and perhaps did a slightly better job of sustaining itself over the entire feature-length; there are spots here, particularly in the second half, where the script seems to run out of ideas. But just when your interest drops to a dangerously low level, a line of dialogue or a scene will pop up out of nowhere, that’s laugh out-loud funny,  and you’re back to being engrossed once more. If you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ll know the way this scatter-gun approach works, and that such an angle will generally result in considerable misses, as well as hits.

It can be a difficult task to pull off: when you go out there with the deliberate intention of trying to make a “cult” movie, more often than not, the results will end up self-absorbed and inadequate. [Compare, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the abomination which was its follow-up, Revenge of the Old Queen] I think the genuine affection mentioned above is a big help. While this is a parody, it’s a warm one, and you don’t get the sense it is laughing at this kind of film, so much as with it. In many ways, I probably found this more entertaining than many of its targets; an awareness of its own stupidity goes a long way to mitigating the flaws.

Dir: Kiff Scholl
Star: Kelsey Wedeen, Rebecca Larsen, Darrett Sanders, Kimberly Atkinson