Outsystem by M. D. Cooper

Literary rating: starstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This is certainly “hard” SF, by which I mean a story driven by (and to a large extent, more interested in) scientific advancements. In tits 42nd-century future, humanity has expanded to fill the entire solar system, and is now reaching out with colony ships to nearby stars. One such ship, the Intrepid, is being assembled at the Mars Outer Shipyards, one of the massive ring-like complexes which surround the planet. But not everyone wants the project to succeed. Major Tanis Richards, who will be one of the colonists, is first tasked with ensuring the project’s security. The scope of her job becomes apparent quickly, as immediately on arrival, she has to fend off a terrorist attack, trying to set off a nuke on the Intrepid. It’s just the first of a number of sabotage attempts.

There is a lot of tech here, to the extent that the book includes multiple appendices, devoted to explanations of it. Everyone is interfaced to networks, each other and their own AIs – Tanis’s is called Angela – and medical advances mean age is now little more than a number. I found it a bit much, as if technology had become a gigantic, all-encompassing “Mary Sue” of unstoppable power. Whatever the problem… Well, there’s an app for that. The reality, as we’ve seen, is that new technology tends to create as many new problems as it solves: you don’t get much sense of that here. The issues are more old fashioned than that: terrorism is now corporate-sponsored, rather than state-sponsored.

The storyline also tends to get bogged down at times, in an alphabet soup of organizational structure. It seems as if the Major spends as much time in meetings, as actively hunting down the bad guys: it almost turns her into the world’s first bureaucratic action heroine. There are frustratingly incomplete hints at her past, with an incident which caused her to be tagged “The Butcher of Toro“. Though it’s suggested this is an unfair sobriquet, the incident – whatever it was – appears to have played a significant role in her decision to apply to become a colonist. Such an important piece of character motivation likely should not be swathed in such mystery, though it’s possible the details are revealed in one of the later volumes in this three-book arc.

Re-reading the above, this all seems highly negative, more so than it deserves – though I note Cooper recently released an expanded version of this and its sequel, which does suggest he was perhaps not satisfied with the first version. Still, despite flaws, such as a supporting cast who could have used more fleshing out (particularly Joe, the uninteresting romantic interest), I found the pages turned at a a solid rate, and the action sequences generally hit the spot. The version I read included the first couple of chapters of part two, A Path in the Darkness, and it possesses a good enough premise to make me consider going forward. Less is likely more, and the smaller-scale setting of the Intrepid is perhaps a better fit for Cooper’s voice, which isn’t strong enough to populate the entire solar system here.

Author: M.D. Cooper
Publisher: The Wooden Pen Press, available through Amazon, in both printed and e-book versions.

Daemonium: Soldier of the Underworld

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“…and one big cup of WTF?”

This is going to be a difficult review to write, and, for once, it’s the synopsis section which will be the problem. Because I can’t honestly say, with any degree of confidence, I know what was going on here. Rather than a standalone, coherent entity, this felt more like being dropped into the middle of a long-running TV show – one based on a series of books I’ve never read, but adapted on the basis viewers would know it well. I’ve seen a few Chinese films which have adopted a similar approach, taking legends familiar to local audiences and creating something all but incomprehensible elsewhere. This Argentinian movie generates similar feelings of baffled amazement. I’m going to start by copy/pasting the official synopsis:

The story of Daemonium begins in an alternate universe to ours, in which Magic and Technology Coexist with Humans and Demons. In Daemonium we see Razor rise to power! (He will be the new image of a dystopic power and seeks a full out war with Hell the demons that dwell there and anyone that stands in his way!), the doubts of Rebbecca (who will question everything she knew for a fact about her life), Lisa, a common woman with an unthinkable destiny (womanly force on their way), and the wizard and con artist Fulcanelli (facing his own destiny regardless of his intentions).

I trust that has cleared everything up. No? Well, it is at least an accurately confusing representation of how I feel. Let me try again. The heroine plays at least five different roles, including fallen angel Azazel, and three different android versions of herself, Loly, Nancy and Victoria. They’re embroiled in a battle between good and evil, alongside the morally ambivalent magician Fulcanelli (Cornás), after a portal to another world is opened, allowing a demonic entity to escape. The demon makes a deal with mercenary, Razor (Casco), for the usual wealth, power, etc, although Razor’s pregnant wife, Lisa (Presedo) is kidnapped and turned into a assassin, targeting her husband. But it’s Fulcanelli and Azazel who may be key to stopping the threat.

Even if I can’t say I comprehended much of what was happening – perhaps its origins as a five-part web series were an issue – I was certainly never bored. Clinging on to any passing scraps of coherence like a drowning man clutching a piece of driftwood, certainly. But bored? Not at all. For it looks very slick, and doesn’t pull any punches at all, particularly at the end, when the heroine enters full-on (and literal) “avenging angel” mode. The director is best known for a series of horror films, Plaga Zombie, and brings much the same enthusiastic eye for mayhem and splatter to this. I’d love to see what he could do with the same universe – only operating with a script which focused on telling a cogent and compelling story, rather than galloping from one cool sequence to the next, like a hyperactive child in a toy-store.

Dir: Pablo Parés
Star: Caro Angus, Walter Cornás, Dany Casco, Rocío Rodríguez Presedo

Atomic Blonde

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“Truly a nuclear option.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new action queen in town. With Angelina Jolie apparently abdicating that title after Salt, the throne was vacant. Theron had already made a very solid case in Mad Max: Fury Road, then solidified it in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. But there were still doubts: could she hold the true focus of a genuinely action-driven film? There are doubts no more, for Atomic Blonde gives us Theron in the role of Lorraine Broughton, the baddest-ass heroine since The Bride in the first Kill Bill.

She’s an agent of British intelligence, sent to Berlin in the very last days of the Communist regime. Her mission is to retrieve a list which details the identities of every Soviet agent in the field, provided by a Russian defector. Before she has even met her contact there, David Percival (McAvoy), chief at the Berlin station, Broughton has been made by the Russians. Turns out, they have a mole, codenamed “Satchel”, who will stop at nothing to prevent the list from making it into Western hands, thereby revealing their identity. The exhortation of one of her bosses on her way out the door in London, “Trust no-one,” proves to be entirely accurate, as she makes her way across a landscape formed largely of moral rubble from the imminently collapsing Berlin Wall.

The story unfolds in flashback, during a debriefing in London, in which a severely battered Broughton recounts the events that unfolded as she tried to track down the list – and when that proves impossible, the defector, since he claims to have memorized its contents. It’s a perpetually shifting quicksand of allegiances, not least Percival, who has been in the city so long as to have “gone native”. There’s also Delphine Lasalle (Boutella), a French agent for whom Broughton falls, though it’s never clear whether their resulting spot of canoodling is for the purposes of her mission. It’s certainly not difficult on the eye [Boutella may be an action heroine to watch in future, having impressed both as the spring-loaded Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service and one of the better things about recent Tom Cruise vehicle, The Mummy].

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know why this was my most anticipated film of the year, and the action is every bit as slickly brutal as you’d expect from the co-director of John Wick – Leitch wasn’t credited there because the Directors’ Guild of America don’t like dual credits. This is ferociously hard-hitting stuff, clear from the opening scene, and escalating steadily thereafter. Broughton’s credentials are equally apparent immediately, as she escapes a kidnap attempt on the way from Berlin Airport, brawling her way viciously out of a car’s back seat. Yet this is merely an appetizer for what is to come, and one sequence in particular.

The scene in question sees Broughton escorting the defector, who has already been wounded. They take refuge in an apartment building only to be followed there by a bevy of Russian agents, whom she has to fend off with bullets, fists and even a convenient corkscrew. It’s nine minutes long, and appears to be shot in a single, unbroken take. Key word “appears” – if you look closely, you will likely be able to spot the moments where they cleverly blend the shots (about 20 or so, according to Leitch) together while the camera pans, tracks and zooms through the building. It’s still likely the most intense and hardcore battle in action heroine history, with the participants selling every blow impeccably. This is awesome, ground breaking stuff, and I haven’t enjoyed a scene so much since – again – Kill Bill, Volume 1.

For I’ve seen hard-hitting and inventively choreographed fights before. I’ve seen well-shot and technically impressive fights before. It’s the combination here which is almost unparalleled. Maybe the duel between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi Yi in Crouching Tiger is the only one that comes close, though it had a very different kind of artistry, one that was based on grace and fluidity. [Outside our genre, I was additionally reminded of the car chase in Children of Men, which was apparently an inspiration] This is Lorraine Broughton, doing absolutely whatever she needs to survive, from second to second and moment to moment. It’s raw, animalistic and moves the bar for future action heroines to an entirely new level.

This is actually a problem, because it there’s still a good chunk of the film to go, and nothing the rest of the way comes close. As a result, there’s a sense of letdown from the adrenaline high, even if the final attempt of the Russians to kill Broughton is by no means bad. I’m hard pushed to find anything else of much significance to criticize here. We’ve got an Oscar-winning actress going full-on into the old ultraviolence? What’s not to love? Admittedly, the actual spy plot is a good deal less inventive and original than just about every other aspect here. But it’s merely a backdrop, the canvas on which Leitch and Theron paint their bloody masterpiece. Oh, and if you can’t get permission to use Ministry’s version of Stigmata, find something else. Do not use Marilyn Manson to cover it. He is not Al Jourgensen.

Otherwise, though, I should devote a full paragraph to the soundtrack, since it kicked ass, almost as much as Charlize. I’m a child of the eighties. It was the soundtrack to my teenage and college years, and I even spent some time in Berlin, on both side of the wall, in the middle of the decade. While that would be a couple of years before the events depicted here, it still brought back a heck of a lot of memories. Part of this might be the music, which plays like they rifled my CD collection. It starts with New Order’s Blue Monday, then segues into the opening credits which play out over David Bowie’s theme from Cat People, as Broughton stalks through the London streets. If not the first time that has been purloined for another movie – Quentin Tarantino used it, inexplicably, for World War 2 movie Inglourious Basterds – it works a lot better here. Consider me sold.

This is an action heroine in its most literal of terms. Broughton has often been compared to James Bond, yet she’s even more cool, detached and almost emotionless in some ways. It absolutely deserves a franchise, with its central character chewing her way through post-Cold War history like a shark in human form, always moving forward – and if you get in the way, it will end up the worse for you. Every step is absolutely purposeful and deliberate, a means to an end, and that end is her mission. Broughton does not fuck around, and neither does this film. Such single-minded determination can only be applauded.

Dir: David Leitch
Star: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones

Molly and the Gold Baron, by Stephen Overholser

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Stephen Overholser is the son of acclaimed Western author Wayne Overholser, who’s followed in his father’s footsteps as a writer of Westerns; both father and son have been Spur Award winners. The younger Overholser created the character of Molly Owens as the protagonist of one of his early novels, Molly and the Confidence Man (1975), and went on to write five more novels featuring her. Orphaned young, Molly and her now-deceased brother survived a rough childhood on their own; after he came West, she answered an ad and went to work for the Fenton Detective Agency, which is fictional, but modeled on the real-life Pinkerton Agency –which actually did employ women detectives, Kate Warne becoming the first in 1856.

Overholser set much of his work in his native Colorado; Molly’s based in Denver, and this tale is set in the real-life Colorado mining boom town of Cripple Creek in ca. 1893. That setting is actually drawn with considerable accuracy, and the depiction of the community’s history and labor troubles in that period reflects actual realities, with some license and changing of names. (I’ll give Overholser credit for doing serious research.) While I wouldn’t describe the author’s characterizations as sharp, Molly comes across as a kind person who cares about justice, as well as both brave and capable. She approaches her detective work with good observation skills and intuition (and isn’t above picking a lock or two if that’s what it takes to hunt for evidence).

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, debuting in 1982 in A Is for Alibi, is usually considered literature’s first gun-packing female detective who could handle rough stuff if the baddies wanted to throw it at her. Yet Molly preceded her by seven years and is no shrinking violet where combat is concerned, either with her double-action Colt or with her fists and feet (and she can deliver a pretty nasty head-butt as well); she just was never noticed by mystery-genre critics because her venue is in a different genre. Here, her assignment calls for her to get to the bottom of a pregnant prostitute’s bogus paternity suit against a newly-rich prospector; but the case soon morphs into an unauthorized murder investigation, in the context of a labor dispute between mine owners and mine workers that threatens to become a blood bath. (Some on both sides are up for illegal violence, but the mine owners and their thugs are the more dangerously violent.)

As is true of some other works in this genre that I’ve read, the author’s prose style is mediocre, adequate but uninspired, workmanlike pulp that does the job in an undistinguished way; he tells the story and allows you to picture the action and settings, but this isn’t a novel you’d read for scintillating dialogue, vivid turns of phrase, telling details, or description that soars and sings. His plotting is on a similar level; towards the end, a couple of characters make some decisions that serve the storyline, but struck me as dubiously likely to have been made had this been a real-life narrative in the same situation. The mystery element isn’t very deeply mysterious in the long run.

Despite its flaws,though, I basically liked the book as passing light entertainment, and liked and admired the heroine for her genuine good qualities. Personally, I won’t bother seeking out the rest of the series; but if you’re a Western fan who doesn’t demand much from your books and read for recreation, you could certainly pick a lot worse books, with a lot worse messages. And at 172 pages, it’s a relatively short read, and doesn’t require a lot of thought.

Note: Bad language, of the d-word/h-word sort, is minimal and Molly herself pretty clean in her own speech; I wouldn’t guarantee that she never lets a cuss word slip under stress (I don’t have the book in front of me to check) but she certainly doesn’t make it a noticeable habit. There are three explicit sex scenes. (They can be skipped over with no loss of anything.) However, this isn’t a romance as such, nor is it a trashy “adult Western”.

Author: Stephen Overholser
Publisher: Bantam, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Bleeding Heart

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“When good yoga instructors… GO BAD.”

Yoga instructor May (Biel) is delighted when she finally tracks down her long-lost biological sister, Shiva (Mamet) whom she has never met. However, the reunion is soured because May discovers the abusive relationship in which Shiva is embroiled. Worse is to come, as she finds out that Shiva is actually a hooker, and her significant other, Cody (Anderson), is more pimp than boyfriend. May’s efforts to help her sibling run into stormy water – not just from Cody, but also her own boyfriend, Dex (Gathegi) and adopted mother, who think Shiva and Cody are just shaking May down. Eventually, the point comes where May has to come out of this middle-class comfort-zone, because the downward dog position isn’t going to help her and Shiva escape their increasingly perilous situation.

As director Bell – herself, once a yoga teacher – put it: “It’s easy to be peaceful and feel blessed when everyone around you is like that. But… what is the correct choice, when confronted with someone who doesn’t want to sit down and have peaceful talks?” For it’s a relatively uncommon, even subversive, idea proposed here, especially in a Californian indie film [although Bell is a fellow Scot, the setting here is 100% Los Angeles]. While non-violence is clearly preferable, any realist must admit, it’s not necessarily the solution to every problem, and there are times when more direct action is not only justified – it’s required. It’s also interesting that both the conventionally villainous Cody and “nice guy” Dex are portrayed as controlling their women: one physically, the other psychologically.

I guess “interesting” is a good word to sum this up in general – it’ll make you think, rather than feel. Not that there’s anything wrong with thoughtful film-making as a concept. It’s just that the particular topic is one which should affect the viewer on a gut level. I kept thinking, “Is this the scene which will make me angry?”, and it never quite gets there, with my emotional needle failing to go past “somewhat annoyed.” It’s perhaps partly a result of the two leads being almost stereotypical in their lives: May, in particular, embodies just about every trope of the happy hippie chick.

The film becomes rather more satisfying after she realizes that pacifism and chanting are not going to address this particular problem. Especially amusing is the scene in which she bursts into the house where Shiva is working, ending in May bidding the client farewell with a cheery, “Namaste, motherfucker.” It’s a cheap shot, for sure, yet it worked for me. More of this intensity would be welcome, though since we enjoyed her in Blade: Trinity, Biel’s credible performance as a bad-ass didn’t come as a particular surprise. The trailer and cover do pull something of a bait and switch, significantly emphasizing the thriller elements over the dramatic ones. However, I can’t confess to feeling cheated: what it provides over and above expectations, balances out those shortcomings, and the venture proves to be a satisfactory overall experience.

Dir: Diane Bell
Star: Jessica Biel, Zosia Mamet, Joe Anderson, Edi Gathegi

GLOW

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“Fully deserves a GLOWing review.”

I have only vague memories of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which never quite made the same cultural impact on the far side of the Atlantic as in their native country. I seem to recall seeing a couple of episodes, deciding it was a bit crap, and then slapping in a Megumi Kudo barbed-wire death match tape instead. But my interest was rekindled by the wonderful documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and it appears I may not have been the only one. [Incidentally, we re-watched the doc after finishing the series; it’s still very much recommended, and likely even better as a parallel version to this] The creators of the show were inspired by the same film to create their take, a heavily fictionalized telling of the show’s origin, from auditions to their first TV taping.

It focuses on Ruth (Brie), a largely failed actress, who goes to the audition out of desperation. There, she meets the motley crew of other women, whom director Sam Sylvia (Maron) – a veteran of B-movies such as Blood Disco – has to try to lick into shape. The main dramatic tension is between Ruth and Debbie (Gilpin), a soap-opera actress, with whose husband Ruth had an affair. Their spat inspires Sam to recruit Debbie, who would provide much needed star-power – but convincing her to get on board is an issue in itself. And there’s then the issue of her severely strained relationship with Ruth. While this may give their in-ring conflict credibility, it comes at a cost.

This is a great deal of fun, striking a very impressive balance between the drama, comedy and – to my surprise – the wrestling elements. For the show does a particularly good job of explaining both the appeal of the sports entertainment in question, and the work that goes in to making it look good. Here, it probably helps that real wrestlers were involved: Chavo Guerrero was the main consultant, and his uncle, Mando Guerrero, helped train the original GLOW ladies in the eighties. Fans will also spot John Morrison/Johnny Mundo, Brodus Clay, Carlito and Joey Ryan in various roles. It’s not at all a parody of the sport; to a significant degree, the original GLOW felt like that. But it also does extremely well at linking the wrestlers and the characters they play, and showing how the latter evolve and develop out of the former.

So Ruth becomes “Zora the Destroyer”, a Soviet antagonist to Debbie’s All-American “Liberty Belle”, whose frosty face-offs mirror the women’s real-life grievances. It’s these, along with the other characters, who are the show’s greatest strength: even relatively minor supporting ones are deftly sketched, and feel like real people, rather than caricatures. Special credit to Maron, who takes a character that could be a real bastard (far and away the most significant man) and gives him depth and humanity. Yes, he can be that bastard – but he knows what he’s doing, and genuinely cares about making the show the best it can be, even if he has to tread on a few toes to get there. Having been on the fringes of both B-cinema and independent wrestling, we’re aware of how true to life that is, and based on the doc, it doesn’t appear too different from Matt Cimber, the show’s actual director.

The two lead actresses did virtually all their action – there was occasional use of stand-ins, but mostly for reasons of fatigue. Brie said, “Wrestling matches are meant to be done once a day for maybe 20 minutes. But then we would shoot them for 10 to 12 hours so our stunt doubles became our tag team that we could tag in when we needed a rest.” Otherwise, it’s almost all the actual women, and that adds a level of authenticity to proceedings that helps. If no-one’s going to mistake the pair for Manami Toyota and Akira Hokuto, they’re perfectly credible, given the original show’s undeniable limitations in the area of actual wrestling. 

If you’re a child of the 80’s – and those were my teenage years – you’ll be in heaven, as this is a true period piece, from the music, through fashion, to things as basic as telephones. With wires. Attached to the wall. [It was a dark, dark time…] There is an occasional tendency to drift into feminist showboating, and some of the off-GLOW drama feels more like it comes from one of Debbie’s soaps. Otherwise, this is near-perfect, and certainly the best truly original series which Netflix have produced to date.

Created by:: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch
Star: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel

Girl of Fire, by Norma Hinkens

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

You might be forgiven for expecting something Hunger Games-like, given Katniss was referred to frequently as the “girl on fire,” only one letter different from the title here. That really isn’t the case at all: though both are, broadly speaking, science-fiction, instead of an urban dystopia, this is sprawling space opera. The heroine, 17-year-old Trattora, lives on Cwelt, a fringe planet largely overlooked and bypassed by the rest of the galaxy. She’s a chieftain’s daughter there, but was adopted, and is clearly different from the rest of her people; she yearns to find the truth about her ancestry.

Her chance comes in the form of a trade-ship, captained by the untrustworthy Sarth. For it’s discovered that Cwelt is a source for dargonite, a mineral now in high demand for its use in cloaking technology. Before this can be announced, the planet comes under threat from the raiding Maulers, and Trattora strikes an uneasy bargain with the visiting captain, to sell dargonite in order to buy ships which can defend Cwelt. However, after an apparent double-cross, Trattora steals Sarth’s ship from under her nose, and strikes out on her own, to take care of business – and also locate her biological parents.

The latter thread doesn’t occupy much of this, the first volume in a trilogy called ‘The Expulsion Project’. That title is explained at the beginning: proceedings open with her parents on Mhakerta, sending Trattora into space, in a last-ditch effort to escape the clutches of an all-powerful AI who has taken over their planet. The only thing Trattora has left as a link with her parents is a bracelet – when she finds a similar item belonging to Velkan, an indentured serf in Serth’s crew, she realizes there are apparently others like her. But this book is more concerned with her attempting to sell the valuable minerals, and adapting to life in a universe very different from the one to which she is used.

The cover is rather misleading, since as soon as Trattora gets off the surface of Cwelt, she more or less abandons the “barbarian chic” aesthetic, as far as I can tell. Probably wise: carrying a spear around would likely attract undue attention in any space-faring civilization. Indeed, she largely avoids violence, hence the low kick-butt quotient. She still qualifies here, due to what would probably be described on her resume as “a pro-active approach to problem-solving, demonstrated ability at adapting to new situations, and proven leadership skills.” She’s certainly brave, prepared to risk everything to save her adopted home planet, loyal to her friends, and resourceful – all-round, she has the qualities of a good heroine.

I’m less convinced with the writing when it comes to the universe building, beginning with planet names which feel like the author made them up by pulling tiles from a Scrabble bag. You don’t get much sense of a structured universe, despite the apparently overwhelming presence of “The Syndicate”, a group whose power is vaguely ineffectual, except when necessary to the plot. This is where the “space opera” label becomes something of a double-edged sword. While I appreciated the brisk pace, Trattora and her pals whizzing from one incident to the next, the idea of a teenage girl hijacking a spaceship on her first trip off-world, from its far more world-wise captain, with most of the crew supporting her, was only one of a number of moments which stretched my credulity. It was just far too easy.

This probably falls into the category of a fun read rather than a good one, and is thoroughly disposable fluff. While there’s nothing wrong with that per se, this likely panders a little too much in the direction of the young adult audience, to be entirely acceptable for anyone who has grown out of that group.

Author: Norma Hinkens
Publisher: Dunecadia Publishing, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Two Wrongs

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“…don’t make the ending right.”

twowrongsThe first half of this is actually well-written, asking some difficult moral questions that left me intrigued, and wondering how they would be resolved. The answer, unfortunately, is by an escalating series of plot twists, culminating in one of the more ridiculous climaxes I’ve ever seen. I could go on to say, “even in a Lifetime TVM”, but that would be unkind, since I’ve seen both good and bad examples from there over the past year. Though as an aside, I note Netflix being increasingly quiet about the ties of films to Lifetime, which is interesting; but given the severe inaccuracy of their synopsis (No, the heroine does not get “sucked into a dangerous underworld”), that’s more likely a Netflix issue.

Sarah (Zinser) is a single mom, devoted to her daughter, who also works as a nurse. It’s clear from the get-go that someone is stalking her, and eventually the daughter is abducted on her way home from school. Sarah is called by the kidnapper, but his demands are not anything like you’d expected. For it turns out, one of Sarah’s patients is trying to escape his own past, where he was accused of kidnapping a young girl himself, who allegedly died while in the trunk of his car. Acquitted on a technicality, he moved away, but the father of his victim – whose mother also suffered a complete psychological breakdown as a result – has tracked the perp down, and is now intent on using Sarah as a vehicle for his revenge.  How far will she go, in order to save her own daughter?

Like I said: it’s a difficult moral question, not least in the early going, when the film maintains a nice sense of ambiguity as to whether or not the target of her second-hand wrath is guilty. If so, then the entire situation becomes a cascading series of wrongness, potentially culminating in the death of at least one other innocent. While a fascinatingly dark scenario, it’s not exactly Lifetime fodder, and things start to go off the rails when Sarah’s mother [from whom she clearly gets her style of “helicopter parenting”] shows up, extracting a confession that removes any ambiguity. He’s guilty as charged, m’lud – and probably guilty of a lot of other things, too. Hanging’s too good for him. From then on, the script staggers from one ill-conceived mis-step to the next, through everyone going on a road-trip and an amazingly coincidental meeting at a gas-station, to an ending that literally drips everywhere. There is, apparently, no loose end which can’t be tied up by someone drowning randomly and floating off downstream, resolving all those tricky moral dilemmas. Though Zinser is solid enough as a mom prepared to do anything to get her daughter back, she could have been Meryl Streep here, and still wouldn’t be capable of papering over the glaring flaws in the later portion of the script.

Dir: Tristan Dubois
Star: Gillian Zinser, Ryan Blakely, Aidan Devine

Never Let Go

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“Takenette.”

Based on the title and synopsis, I was expecting something like a Lifetime TV Movie. A mother frantically searching for her abducted child in a foreign location, before they can be sold off to some rich Arab, would seem right up their alley. [Though of course, this kind of thing has long been a popular subject for exploitation, to the point where the Hays Code of the thirties had explicitly to ban movies about “white slavery”] It’s a good deal grittier and harder hitting than that, though could have done with much better explanation of why this momma bear is so ferocious – among a number of other aspects.

The heroine is Lisa Brennan (Dixon), who is enjoying a vacation in Morocco with her child, the product of her affair with an up-and-coming politician, Clark Anderson (Whitney). A moment’s inattention sees the child snatched, and Brennan begins her hunt. She has to do it almost entirely on her own, and indeed, in the face of significant interference; because, after her involvement in the death of one of the kidnappers, Lisa is the target of a woman-hunt by the local authorities. Fortunately, what she does have are a very particular set of skills. Skills she has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make her a nightmare for people like the kidnappers. Skills that that poster tag-line references in a shameless way, which I can only applaud. Well played, marketers. Well played….

These would have probably come as less of a surprise had there been some content establishing Lisa’s credentials as a bad-ass. It’s only well after she has gone full Liam Neeson, that it’s even suggested the heroine is an FBI agent, rather than some random Mom on a beach. You just have to take her hand-t0-hand skills on trust. We also discover that the inhabitants of Marrakech leave their doors conveniently open, greet home invaders with little more than moderate confusion, and can be convinced to assist foreign fugitives on the run from the police, with little more than forcefully-spoken English and enthusiastic hand gestures. Meanwhile, the local armed cops will let said fugitive beat them all up, without so much as firing a single shot.

Fortunately, Ford is a much better director than a script-writer, keeping the pace brisk as he gallops towards a “surprise” ending that will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody (an additional black mark on Ford the author). Dixon is also very good in her role, projecting the right degree of focus and intensity, and the pounding, percussive driven score as she’s rushing around the narrow streets and across the rooftops, enhances proceedings significantly, in a way that echoes Run Lola Run. The problems are more whenever the film slows down from that frenetic and breathless pace. For it’s during these quieter moments, where the flaws in the story become most apparent, and you’ll probably find yourself going, “Hang on…”, to a degree that considerably weakens the overall impact.

Dir: Howard J. Ford
Star: Angela Dixon, Nigel Whitmey. Heather Peace, Velibor Topic

Girl in Woods

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“Why we don’t camp, #273.”

It’s always interesting when reviews of a film are deeply polarized, and that’s the case here. The first page of Google results run the gamut from “I simply despised the film as a whole” to “The images are frightening within, and the only thing better than the scares are the performances.” While I lean toward the latter, I can see how this could have failed to make a connection with some viewers, and if that happens, then there isn’t much else to prevent the former opinion. It’s the kind of film where there isn’t likey to be a middle ground in reactions.

Following an awful childhood trauma, Grace (Reeves) has grown up into a troubled soul, but has finally found some peace, through her boyfriend (not without his own issues) and pharmaceutical help. However, that’s all shattered on a weekend trip to a cabin in the forest; on the way there, an accident (or was it?) occurs, leaving Grace stranded, alone, in the woods and very poorly equipped to survive. For what follows is a gradual and relentless shattering of her sanity, as the stress builds up and the drugs run out, and she tries to get out of her predicament. Grace’s personality splits into three distinct versions of herself – then there’s the darkly aboriginal creature who appears to be stalking her.

Meanwhile, we get flashbacks to Grace’s life with her mother (Carpenter) and father (Perkins), shedding some light on the cause of her mental fragility. It’s not much of a stretch to see Grace’s lost physical state as a metaphor for her psychological one: the title (and yes, that is it – I didn’t miss out a “the”) suggests the same. Since her character is on screen in virtually every scene, it’s a movie which really stands or falls on whether you buy in to Reeves’s performance – or, more accurately, performanceS, since many of these have her interacting only with her other selves. After some shaky moments early on, I found the approach kinda crept up on me, and some of the three-way scenes are near-impeccable, both technically and dramatically.

When your story largely involves watching someone lose their mind, keeping it interesting for the viewer is not an easy task to pull off. Benson succeeds, even if you’ll be reluctant to commit too far, because it’s clear that what Grace remembers, and what actually happened, may be radically different things. There’s a sudden effort at the end to tie everything together into urban legend, which I’m not sure is particularly helpful. It seems to come out of nowhere and feels like pandering toward a sequel. Trim those few minutes off, because you’ll know the “true” ending when you see it, and it would be a tighter overall product. Yet, there’s still enough of merit here to make it worthwhile, if admittedly this could be seen as merely confirming our strong preference against woodland wandering.

Dir: Jeremy Benson
Star: Juliet Reeves, Charisma Carpenter, Lee Perkins, Jeremy London