Blood Redd

starstarstar
“What big secrets you have, Grandma…”

bloodreddLauren Redd (Huller) really doesn’t want to spend the weekend at Grandma’s house. Like most teenage girls, she has a million things she’d rather be doing than visit an elderly relation. On arriving, she meets Albert (Widener), a flamboyant caregiver – but one who turns out to be a serial killer with a wolf fetish. Fortunately, the threat – along with a little something slipped into Lauren’s drink – awakens her own inner wolf – and it’s not just a fetish, but true lycanthropy, passed down in maternal genes through her family. When Lauren wakes the next morning, she finds herself covered in blood, a severely-injured Albert not far away, and her mother (Hassett) with some serious ‘xplaining to do. However, pathologist Mortimer Clarke (Frainza) is piecing together the clues, even if no-one in the police force will take his belief in werewolves seriously, for obvious reasons.

It’s a bit of a fractured item this, with about three different stories going on, almost feeling like they come from entirely different films. First, there’s the obvious Little Red Riding Hood adaptation, focusing on the Lauren/Albert relationship, up to and immediately after her transformation. Then, there’s Lauren, coming to terms with her new talents, which are both a help and a hindrance at high-school. Finally, there’s also Clarke’s investigation, as he tries to figure out what happened at Grandma’s, and whether the supposed “dog attack” actually took place as claimed. Not all of these work equally well: the first is certainly overlong, especially given it is just not very interesting, in particular with Widener overplaying the “gay” thing like a drag queen on meth. I’d much rather have seen more of the high-school aspects, which are effectively played, reminding me somewhat of the truly awesome Ginger Snaps, or the familial history, also not dissimilar to the recently-reviewed When Animals Dream.

This is, let’s be honest, done on a much smaller budget than either, and there are aspects which make the limited resources painfully obvious, such as the actual transformation – they probably shouldn’t have bothered. On the other hand, some are well done: Hassett gives a convincing portrayal of a mother willing to do anything for her daughter, and the ending ties up the loose ends in a way that makes sense and is also emotionally satisfying. You may find, as I did, that the early going here is more than a bit of a slog, and you’ll need to persevere to reach the more interesting aspects that follow. Palmer has found some original twists for the genre, and it’s only a shame he didn’t concentrate more fully on these, instead of the less successful elements that bog things down considerably in the first half.

Dir: Brad Palmer
Star: Stephanie Hullar, Julie Marie Hassett, Christopher Frainza, Torey Widener

Blood Cross, by Faith Hunter

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

bloodcrossThe first book of this series was one of the best supernatural fiction reads, and best action heroine books, that I’ve ever read. It had me fully prepared to continue reading every installment of the series. This second novel picks up just a few days after the end of the first; the denouement of the latter was only the beginning in cleaning up some dark skullduggery afoot in the vampire community of Hunter’s slightly alternate New Orleans. As expected, this one thrust Jane into even more high-risk action and deeper into the mysterious secrets of the Undead race. But even though I gave it just one star less than the previous book, it was ultimately a disappointment, and I won’t keep on reading the series.

To be sure, the four stars are earned; this book has many of the same strengths as the previous one. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really like most of it, and almost to the very end, I fully intended to continue with the series. Hunter’s prose is as compelling and her plotting as strong as ever. The vivid sense of place, and the masterful evocation of the author’s world that draws you in for a complete immersion, is here too. Nor has her genius for characterization, skill at depicting human interactions, and ability to evoke emotional reactions from the reader deserted her. Her deft handling of the vampire mythos, and the exploration of the relationship of Jane and Beast, still fascinates. The serious exploration of Cherokee spirituality is a plus, and I appreciate Hunter’s continued restraint in the use of bad language. As always, she writes action scenes really well; I admire Jane’s prowess as a fighter and willingness to risk her life for things worth fighting for, and I continue to honestly like her as a person. (I did have an issue with the casual drug use of her occasional allies from the projects; in real life, I wouldn’t trust stoned or half-stoned fighters with automatic weapons anywhere near me. But that wasn’t my biggest problem with the book.)

As a person of faith myself, one thing that drew me to the series and to Jane’s character is the fact that she’s depicted as a professing, church-attending Christian. While she wasn’t pictured as a plaster saint (and I wouldn’t expect her, or anybody else in fiction or real life, to be one), the character portrayal in the first book was consistent with who she claimed to be. So nothing prepared me for being blindsided in this book by sexual behavior on Jane’s part (including unmarried sex, engaged in without any moral questioning) that’s totally inconsistent with her claimed Christianity, and which makes her seem, in places, as hormone-driven as the least responsible members of the adolescent community. The sexual content isn’t very explicit; and not in itself anything that would be all that shocking from a secular heroine (such as Modesty Blaise) who doesn’t base her sexual ethics on Christian beliefs, and doesn’t claim to. Coming from one who supposedly does, though, it’s feels like an exercise in false advertising, as if the author wanted to have it both ways to sell more books, with a heroine whose talk can bring in the religious readers and whose actions will appeal to the secular ones. I felt gypped and betrayed by that kind of cynicism, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Despite my disappointment with that aspect of the novel, it was a thought-provoking read in some ways, raising the question of what it means to be “human.” Because she’s a shapeshifter, Jane is told by one person, and thinks herself, that she isn’t human. But she’s a full-blooded Cherokee (which, if she’s not human, is a contradiction in terms!), and she’s physically, mentally and spiritually just as human as you and I are –she just happens to be differently abled in one respect. In my estimation, that doesn’t make her any more non-human than other people who are differently abled compared to me, like the majority of people who, for instance, can hear tonal differences in music that I can’t, or the small number of people who can guide themselves in the dark by echolocation (and yes, I thought that was strictly fictitious, too, until I learned that it isn’t). Related to this, I’ve often said that I don’t like super-hero stories, because I prefer heroes and heroines with human limitations and vulnerabilities. But I like supernatural yarns about vampires, werewolves, etc. –and the thought struck me, in reading this book, that the difference is less real than one might suppose. In a very real sense, Jane could be called a super-heroine, since she has abilities normal humans don’t. But she’s not SO super-enabled that she’s immortal and above human vulnerability. In the future, I think I might look at super-hero tales with a more nuanced perspective because of that insight!

Author: Faith Hunter
Publisher: Roc, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Battalion

starstarstarstar
“War is hell.”

The above is an equal-opportunity truism and, as we see here, applies just as much to the first matriarchal unit in the modern world. This was the charmingly-named 1st Women’s Battalion of Death, created late in World War I, as the Russian Revolution was taking place. Its aim was to encourage the disillusioned regular army into continuing the fight against Germany, in a “If the ladies are fighting, surely you should be, too?” kinda way. At least initially, it’s the story of two sisters, Nadya (Kuchkova) and Vera, daughters of a rich family, who volunteer for the unit after Vera’s fiance, Petya, is killed at the front. Their mother sends their maid, Froska (Rahmanova), to try and protect her daughters, as they go through the training that will turn them into soldiers capable of taking on the enemy. The film climaxes with an initially successful, but ultimately futile, offensive – while the women initially gain ground, the regular army’s morale is so broken, they don’t support the push, allowing the Germans to counterattack [this aspect is largely true to history].

battalion1 battalion2 battalion3

However, as the film unfolds, it gradually becomes more about the founder of the battalion, Mariya Bochkareva (Aronova) and her story. That’s perhaps wise – to be honest, it’s kinda hard to tell the rank and file soldiers apart, once they’ve had their heads shaved and are wearing the same uniform! This posed particular problems once battle was joined; on at least one occasion, I was convinced a character had been killed, only for her to pop up again, entirely alive, it having been someone else who bit the bullet. Fortunately, it seems Meshiev is more interested in Bochkareva, and it’s a wise decision thanks to a thoroughly convincing performance by Aronova. If she’s hardly the “girls with guns” archetype in looks, her commanding officer is smart, capable, patriotic and ferociously brave, leading from the front; you can see why she inspires the devotion necessary for the troops to follow her into the hell of trench warfare.

And that hell is appropriately portrayed in all its grim unpleasantness from poison gas [a sequence reminiscent of the end of Fraulein Doktor] through to brutal hand-to-hand combat, where we see the soft heart of a raw rookie is no match for a grizzled veteran’s sheer ruthlessness. It’s an approach which does allow the viewer to read this in several ways: it is commending the courage of those who fight, or condemning its pointlessness? The director made his opinion on this fairly clear. In a press conference promoting the film, when asked whether the events portrayed should be taken “as a feat or as a futility”, he replied, “Why would we give birth to a child if everyone will die anyway?” Oh, those wacky Russians… It may be militaristic propaganda; I’d not argue with that as an assessment. However, I don’t care, when it is as effective and well-made as this, with the cinematography and soundtrack standing out, in addition to the fine central performance.

Dir: Dmitriy Meshiev
Star: Maria Aronova, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Irina Rakhmanova, Alyona Kuchkova

The Ballad of Cat Ballou, by Roy Chanslor

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

catballouMy generation, raised on 1950s and early 60s TV, tends to think of the classic Western genre as a male preserve, where females were the gallant cowboys’ ever-so-meek love interests or damsels in distress, but where men wore the guns and did all the shooting, cow-punching and heavy work. This reflected a moment in American pop culture, post-World War II, when the cultural and socio-political elite of that day consciously cultivated a faux “traditional” cult of female home-bound domesticity and passivity (to encourage the myriads of “Rosie the Riveters” to butt out of the workforce and free up the jobs for the returning male ex-soldiers). But that state of affairs never reflected the actual reality of the Old West, a harsh and dangerous land that often demanded that both sexes step up to plate and take their share of both fighting and strenuous work. The work of earlier Western genre writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (The Bandit of Hell’s Bend) and pulp magazine authors like Les Savage Jr. often reflected that reality; and though written in 1956, this novel by Roy Chanslor (1899-1964), with its strong heroine, stands in that older tradition.

This is not, however, a novel of nonstop, slam-bang action from start to finish. On the contrary, Chanslor begins his story with his protagonist “Cat” (short for Catherine –she’s named after her mom) Ballou’s birth. (The titular folk “Ballad of Cat Ballou” that he quotes from, there and throughout the book, is completely fictional, as are the characters; but it imparts a mythic, larger-than-life quality to the narrative.) Then he goes back before that, to the days before her parents met, to help us understand the history of her family, the ill will between the Ballous and the Fields, and the nature of the world she was born into, in which the law was sometimes simply a perverted tool of the wealthy and powerful for plundering the weak, and where “outlaws” were sometimes only principled people fighting for their just rights. Our setting is Wyoming Territory; the localities of the main action are fictional, but supposedly in southern Wyoming, from clues in the text. Textual clues also suggest a date of ca. 1870 for Cat’s birth, and ca. 1886-87 for the crisis that ultimately confronts her. (The passing reference to territorial governor Ed Donaldson, however, isn’t a clue –no such name appears in the real-life roster of Wyoming’s governors!)

Chanslor uses an omniscient, third-person narrative voice, and a prose style that’s not unlike that of other Western writers of his generation –workmanlike, dignified without being stilted. He gives dialogue an authentic, colloquial feel, without resorting to heavy dialect. Not much attention is given to description of the natural world; the author’s focus is on the human world, and the thoughts, feelings and relationships of his characters. He’s also very good at creating an entire array of lifelike, nuanced characters, on both sides of the law (no simplistic “virtuous good guys in white hats and evil bad guys in black hats” here!). As in life, the storyline includes both tragedy and triumph. There’s violent death, and gun-play, in places (despite the cover art on the edition I read, Cat doesn’t wear or shoot a Colt here –but she’s as fast-shooting and as accurate with a rifle as any man); but it’s handled matter-of-factly, and as in the real world, it’s over quickly. (The results are what lingers.)

catballou2As is often the case with fiction that shows human beings involved in intense conflicts with life or death stakes, and making decisions about the use of deadly force, this novel brings to life very real questions about right and wrong, the relative primacy of law and order vs. justice, the moral obligations of humans to each other, the possibly conflicting claims of justice and mercy, the merits of being “fenced in” vs. freedom (and what exactly constitutes “freedom”), and what constitutes honorable behavior in difficult situations. Chanslor tends to point up right and wrong behavior by example rather than by exposition, though he does at times use Old Doc, Cat’s maternal grandfather, and Martha Babcock as mouthpieces for his opinions. In general, though, it’s clear that his own moral orientation is basically that of the traditional Code of the West, with a high value on respect for others’ rights, fair play, fidelity to one’s word, courage, and loyalty to family and friends. His attitude toward religion is aloof (Old Doc advocates reading Scripture “for the sound, not the sense”), but he’s respectful toward his preacher character, who’s definitely one of the good guys.

Romantic love plays a strong role in the tales of both Cat’s parents and her own story. In both cases, we’re dealing with situations of what could be disparaged as “insta-love.” As I’ve noted in other reviews, in pre-modern settings, what we think of as unrealistic “insta-love” could very often be true to life; men and women who didn’t expect to “date,” and who wanted matrimony rather than being afraid of it, learned to size each other up pretty quickly. Frankie and Catherine Ballou’s marriage, IMO, fits that pattern. Cat and her man’s union, though, strains the bounds of probability even for 19th-century attractions; and some of Cat’s attitudes and actions are those of a hormone-driven teen (she’s 16-17 at the time of her main story), not a responsible adult. I also felt Chanslor’s attitude was too cavalier in blithely excusing one character’s adultery when his wife was recovering from a miscarriage –I can understand the psychology of sexual deprivation, and don’t discount the value of forgiveness where penitence is genuine, but I don’t feel it’s “just being a normal male.” These points were what cost the book a star. In the main, though, the messages of the book promote sexual respect for women and glorify committed love in faithful marriage. Parts of the novel have an undercurrent of frank sensuality; but it’s monogamous sensuality that it celebrates.

I found the book a gripping read; there are moments of extreme suspense, and concern for the fate of characters you care about, and toward the end I read for longer than normal because I had to finish it! In some respects, this would actually make a great book for discussion groups to read together, because it can pose a lot to think about and discuss.

Note: Readers should be warned that the book has some d- and h-word bad language, and a fair amount of misuse of Divine names as well.

Author: Roy Chanslor
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Byzantium

starstarstarstarhalf
“Pride and Prejudice and Vampires”

byzantiumOk, that’s probably not strictly accurate, but there is more than a hint of it, in the way this manages to combine period drama with Gothic horror trappings – while also depicting the same characters in the present day. This slipping back and forth in time is somewhat distracting, and there are points where you wish they had just picked an era and stuck with it. The heroines here are a pair of mother and daughter vampires (Arterton and Ronan), who have been more or less on the run for about two centuries. For the mother, Clara, was a terminally-ill prostitute who stole the secret of vampirism from her client, Captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) in the early 19th century. She not only became immortal herself, she turned her daughter, Eleanor – an act strictly against the tenets of The Brethren, who are kinda like the vampire union, who put out a death-warrant on the pair. In the present day, this means Clara – still turning tricks to provide for Eleanor – has occasionally to decapitate people with a garrotte, should they turn out to be hunters sent by The Brethren.

The pair end up wintering in a boarding-house on the sea-front of a largely deserted seaside town (I got a strong whiff of Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness, which had Ostend instead of Hastings for its “experienced” female vampire and her acolyte). Eleanor is increasingly dissatisfied – and who wouldn’t be after two centuries stuck in perpetual adolescence – and seems almost to half a self-destructive streak, including writing essays at school about her vampiric life, which naturally cause concern to her teacher! She also builds a relationship with young, ill waiter Frank, something of which Clara also disapproves. There’s a good, dynamic contrast between the two leads. At the time, Ronan was fresh off both Hanna and than Violet + Daisy, though she is the cerebral of the pair here, careful only to drain the blood of those who are ready and willing to accept death. In comparison, Arterton is far more animalistic and instinctual, making this an interesting warm-up for her subsequent role in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

This isn’t Jordan’s first entry in the vampire genre, having previously directed Interview With the Vampire, and the two aren’t dissimilar, both being as much about the relationships as actual blood-sucking. I wish I’d learned more about the back-story of Clara and Eleanor; there would seem to be a rich history there, that’s almost entirely unexplored, with virtually nothing about the 190 years between the latter’s turning and the present day. Has Eleanor been a sullen teenager all that time? Dear God, I thought I was a saint, handling the resulting sulkiness for less than a decade, as our kids went through it. Decapitation by garrotte sometimes seemed a good approach to parenting. However, at least Eleanor doesn’t sparkle, although there’s an amusing nod to other vampire lore, as she watches one of the classic Hammer movies from the genre. If not developed fully enough to be a classic itself, there’s still enough new and/or well done here, to make this better than your average random Netflix selection.

Dir: Neil Jordan
Star: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Daniel Mays, Sam Reilly

Big Sky

starstarhalf
“This sky’s gone out…”

bigskyHazel (Thorne) suffers from severe agoraphobia, which has left her trapped in her room, but her mother, Dee (Sedgwick) has finally succeeded in convincing Hazel to seek treatment. A ride is arranged to a treatment centre in the middle of the desert: to help Hazel cope, she’ll travel in the blacked-out back of the van, with her mother up front. However, on the way, the van is ambushed and another passenger kidnapped. The perpetrators, brothers Jesse and Pru (Grillo and Tveit), shoot everyone else to cover their tracks, but don’t notice Hazel in the back. Dee is badly wounded, and their only hope of survival is for Hazel to overcome her fear and head out across the wide-open landscape for help. However, the brothers have realized they left some loose ends, and Pru – who has significant mental issues of his own – is sent back to tidy up the survivors.

Cutting to the chase here, there is limited entertainment value to be found in watching someone stare and their feet and move, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, through the desert. I get that they are struggling with their condition, but that doesn’t make it interesting to watch: I was painfully reminded of Roger Corman’s The Trip, one of the very few movies I have walked out on, which consists largely of watching someone else take drugs. I’m also a little bit unsure about what this is saying about agoraphobia. The film appears to suggest that all you need to overcome it, is sufficient incentive, and that feels a bit like somebody yelling “Cheer up!” at someone with depression. Credit for having a heroine with such an obvious disability, and Thorne does a decent job at making her a sympathetic LEAD, even if the reason for it also feels like it falls into the realm of cod psychology. Though probably not so much as Pru, whose issues, it turns out, were the result of being hit in the head with a garden tool.

The film is obviously trying to draw a line between him and Hazel, but the script seems to lurch between the two pairs of characters, as if unable to decide whose story it wants to tell. Things happen for no particular reason than because the film decides they need to, such as Dee finding a gun in the van, and the film crawls towards its obvious climax at about the same pace as Hazel crossing the desert. Quite how such an obviously half-baked script ever managed to make it to production, I’m not sure, but you’ll probably end up wanting to lock yourself up in a cupboard – or, at least, as far away from the film as possible.

Dir: Jorge Michel Grau
Star: Bella Thorne, Kyra Sedgwick, Frank Grillo, Aaron Tveit

Ballet of Blood

starstarhalf
“Bitchy ballerinas, being bitches.”

balletbloodWell, I will say this. If you start your film with a ballet class being interrupted by a former student, who rushes in – topless, for no readily apparent reason – and sprays the class with fire from her Uzi: you have my attention. Unfortunately, this early goodwill is utterly wasted, frittered away in a number of ways over the next 90 minutes that would be spectacularly impressive, if that were the aim of the film-makers. However, it appears their true intention was along the lines of, “Let’s do a micro-budget version of Black Swan, but one based on our obsessive watching of Suspiria, starring a cast of interchangeable Barbies rounded up from the strip-club nearest to the local community college.” Actually, that sounds rather more entertaining than this.

There are two intertwined threads here. One, is the aftermath of the shooting, carried out by mad dancer Nisa (Raye), which injured the school’s prima ballerina, Sylvie (Robinson). Nisa escapes, leaving the school on edge, and breaks her pal Ria (Knopf) out of the asylum where she’s being held – as, apparently, you are – in order to assist with an even more deadly assault. Meanwhile, the atmosphere at the school is becoming increasingly abusive and strained. Student Maren (Martinez) is disturbed to find that the novel she is writing is turning eerily predictive. Is her old typewriter somehow causing events to take place? Or is it all in her psyche?

There may be a bit of Showgirls, or perhaps cable series Flesh and Bone, to be found in here, Masters clearly having a fine appreciation of the trash aesthetic, which shines through in dialogue, particularly Sylvie’s, that is occasionally so dumb, it’s positive genius. The use of classical music for the soundtrack is not bad either. However, these don’t even start to balance the negatives: these begin with audio which often appears to have been recorded from the bottom of a nearby well, and continues into a slew of characters who look, sound and (fail to) act alike. This lends itself to viewer confusion, not helped by the fact your attention will likely be wandering to more interesting things – specifically, in my case, our cat playing in a cardboard box. There’s just too many scenes of the cast sitting about jawing tediously at each other, before Nisa and Ria kick things off.

Even though the grand finale is rather less than grand, the budget restrictions here being what they are, it does represent an improvement over the rest of the film, purely because something is happening. Quite what that something is, it’s harder to say, since this is where the giallo influence of Dario Argento really kicks in, meaning copious dollops of style, in lieu of substance. Except, Masters is not exactly Argento, and apparently forgets there’s more to creating cinematic style, than throwing a couple of filters on your lights. Much as I’m loathe to criticize micro-budget indie film, there just isn’t enough here to merit more than a clear warning.

Dir: Jared Masters
Star: Sydney Raye, Mindy Robinson, Marla Martinez, Jessica Knopf

The Bletchley Circle

bletchleystarstarstarstar

“A kinder, gentler time? Hardly.”

Set in the early 1950’s, this was a brief – seven episodes over two seasons – but very effective TV series, with heroines who used brains, rather than brawn, to solve crimes which the authorities are either unable or unwilling to address. The origins of the group were during World War II, when their analytical skills were put to vital use, cracking German communications, out of the then-secret Bletchley Park base. But after the war, the women returned to normal lives; Susan Gray (Martin) is now married, a mother of two, and uses her talents for nothing more taxing than crosswords. But she is intrigued by a series of serial murders, and detects an apparent pattern in them. When her attempts to through official channels are met with little more than a pat on the head and a suggestion to return to the kitchen, she contacts her colleagues from Bletchley, who begin gathering and analyzing information on their own. This makes use of the skills each has:  for instance, Jean (Graham) works as a librarian, while Lucy (Rundle) has a photographic memory, and asks as the group’s computer database.

There are basically three feature-length stories here. The first takes place over three 45-minute episodes, the others being covered in a pair. After the serial killer case, the group then move on to a case of murder involving another Bletchley Park girl, who is accused – with apparently damning evidence and no denial – of the murder of a scientist. The third story was, for me, the most interesting: one of the circle is involved in slightly-shady black market trades, which brings her into the circle of a vicious organized crime gang, perhaps surprisingly, also led by a woman, Maltese immigrant Marta Magro (Brana Bajic). It becomes apparent they are trading in a good deal more than French perfume and illicit booze – and also have friends in high places, who have no interest in having the highly profitable apple-cart upset by four inquisitive women.

This is a well-constructed look back at a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard, despite significant contributions to the war effort less than a decade previously. If occasionally a bit hand-wavey on the details, it’s also nice to see a series that values pure intelligence; while the physical aspects are limited, that works to the show’s advantage, since you know the heroines have to rely on their wits. There is a certain amount of over-correction in the other direction, with none of the male characters being particularly likable, and certainly nowhere near as smart as the female ones, and in a longer show that could become wearingly one-sided. However, the women are depicted as not without their flaws either. It’s not dissimilar in tone or era to another British show, Call the Midwife, though is much less sentimental and nostalgic; this was a time when food rationing was still in effect, and the nation was still struggling to rebuild itself.

It’s certainly a shame the show was so relatively short-lived, even by the brief standards of UK TV shows. There’s a quality of production here – not just in the period atmosphere, also in the performances – that is all too rare, and its an idea that had almost unlimited potential for future expansion. Refreshingly free of any need for romantic diversions or unresolved sexual tensions (I’m looking at you, Agent Carter), this may be relatively placid compared to some of the entries we cover here, yet is no less worthy for putting mind before muscle.

Creator: Guy Burt
Star: Anna Maxwell Martin. Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle, Julie Graham

Battle for Sevastopol

starstarstar
“Russian into battle.”

battleWe wrote previously about Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” one of the many bad-ass Soviet women who helped fight off the Nazis in World War II. So, if you’ve been paying attention, you should already know her story, as a female sniper credited with over three hundred enemy kills before being wounded and forced out of front-line action. She then became a spokesperson for the Russians, globe-trotting to raise funds and elicit overseas support, becoming the first Soviet citizen received at the White House, by then President Franklin Roosevelt, and his wife Eleanor – with whom, if this film is to be believed, Pavlichenko developed a strong friendship.

The movie was a Russian-Ukrainian co-production, which is interesting in itself, given the often strained nature of recent relations between the countries. I guess one of the few things on which they can both agree, is that killing Nazis should be lauded. The results are solid enough, hitting the expected notes and telling a respectful, if somewhat too distant, portrait of a heroic figure. The original Russian title translates as Indestructible, and that seems perhaps more appropriate, as she get blown up, shot, and blown up again, defiantly begging her way back to the front repeatedly. Mokrytskyi is at his best with these large-scale spectacles, unfolding over a soundtrack both period and contemporary; in particular, a sequence during an evacuation by boats is stunningly well-constructed, giving a real sense for the hideous, beautiful chaos of war.

It’s rather less successful at giving us insight into the character of the heroine, as played by Peresild; she’s clearly a strong-willed young woman, but that’s about all you get. There are various semi-romantic interludes, as various of her male comrades are wheeled on and off, yet these seem only to provide pauses before the next burst of (undeniably impressive) mayhem. The structure also leaves a little to be desired, switching back and forth between her wartime exploits, and Pavlichenko’s trip to the United States where she met Mrs. Roosevelt (Blackham). It’s all a little bit fragmented, without much narrative flow, and feels more like a selection of unconnected segments, rather than providing a sense of Lyudmila developing as a character. Perhaps it might work better for an already audience familiar with the backdrop of time and places in which it’s set; my knowledge of the Eastern front and Soviet geography is sketchy, to say the least, and the movie appears to presume a higher level.

This is somewhat disappointing, though some of that is because it makes for a really good trailer (below), and because this has been teasing me from the “to watch” pile for what feels like ages, as I waited for coherent English subtitles to be available. Not to say this is a bad film – far from it – just that Mokrytskyi has a better handle on the explosions than his character. Perhaps he is the Michael Bay of Russian cinema? If so, at least it’s closer to good Michael Bay, e.g. The Rock, than bad Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor).

Dir: Serhiy Mokrytskyi
Star: Yulia Peresild, Joan Blackham, Yevheniy Tsyganov, Vitaliy Linetskiy

The Bride Wore Black

starstarstarstar
“I’ve got a little list, of society offenders who might well be underground,”

“No remorse, no fear… The justice of men is powerless. It can’t punish me. I’m already dead.
I died the same day David did. I’ll join him after I’ve had my revenge.”

brideworeblack2Undeniably highly influential, this 1968 French film starts with a woman, Julie Kohler (Moreau) trying to commit suicide. Stopped by her mother, she begins her mission: to track down the five men who were, to some extent accidentally, responsible for gunning down her husband, literally outside the church where they had just got married. She jets around the country, taking care of them, and crossing their names off a list in her notebook. Sound familiar at all? Yes, this is another one of the sources which Quentin Tarantino shamelessly ripped off was inspired by for Kill Bill, though obviously Kohler is nowhere near such a sword-swinging badass as The Bride, opting mostly for less arterial techniques. Tarantino says he never saw it, but for a devoted film fan who worked in a cult video store, that’s about as credible as his claim not to have seen City on Fire before making Reservoir Dogs. It also inspired, as documented elsewhere, the Kate Bush song The Wedding List, in which a widow seeks revenge for those who slew her husband.

Truffaut had just finished a lengthy set of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, and you can see the influence here, not least in the score by frequent Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Hermann, which riffs on the Bridal March to positive effect. Though the director spent so much time on set here arguing with his cinematographer, that Moreau ended up directing the actors for significant chunks. Truffaut expressed disappointment at the time of its release, and the critical response was underwhelming, but it was a commercial success and its reputation has grown over time. You can see why, with Moreau holding the episodic nature of the film together well, gluing the segments together devoted to each victim. She may not be able to overpower them physically, and the film works within that admirably, using her smarts and guile as a weapon, to reel them in and put them in a position where they are vulnerable. Her first victim is an excellent example, as she flirts with the man and eventually gets him to climb over a high balcony to retrieve her scarf. One little push, and she gets to cross a name off her list.

brideworeblack3This intelligence holds throughout the entire movie. At first, it seems a fatal mistake when she leaves behind a bit of evidence at the scene of a crime, and worse still when she then attends the funeral of the victim, where she is arrested by the police. However, this leads to a glorious moment of realization for the viewer, when you figure out that it is all part of her meticulously-crafted plan. The last shot of the movie follows that to its logical conclusion [well, logical if you accept that, in sixties France, men and women could be held in the same prison; hey, it’s France!], in an entirely satisfying way.  Its inevitability is part of its charm, because the viewer and the heroine know what’s about to happen, while everyone else is ignorant. In effect, you become Julie’s accomplice at the end, and it works brilliantly.

It’s an interesting choice to make her targets not evil or even particularly malicious; careless, is probably closer to the truth, and the cost of that carelessness is, arguably, far in excess of what it deserves. This gives the film a moral ambiguity that’s the complete opposite of Kill Bill, where the rest of the DIVAS were set up as utterly deserving of the Bride’s vengeful fury. This almost absurdist balance seems typically French, as does the heroine’s remorseless quest for payback; both aspects are reminiscent of Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources, albeit clearly without those two films’ pastoral setting and tone. The film is based on a 1940 novel by American noir author Cornell Woolrich, though some imprints have it published under Woolrich’s pseudonym, William Irish. The novel opens with a quote by Guy de Maupassant: “For to kill is the great law set by nature in the heart of existence! There is nothing more beautiful and honorable than killing!”, and this is an apt summary of what follows.

It wasn’t Truffaut, but another cornerstone of the French new wave, Jean-Luc Godard, who supposedly said “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl” [though indications are, he was quoting D.W. Griffith]. While Godard certain included the combination often enough in his own work, it’s from Truffaut we get a more fully-fledged exploration of the theme, even if Julie barely touches an actual gun over the course of the film – it’s understandable, given the nature of her husband’s death, that she would adopt other approaches. This manages to be as much a satire of, as a loving homage to, both Hitchcock and the tropes of the “vengeful woman” genre, though plays it dead straight, so can be appreciated and enjoyed purely on its own merits. If certainly not lacking in style, Truffaut – and, perhaps more importantly, Moreau – also manage to deliver the substance, and almost fifty years later, this stands the test of time with rare persistence.

Dir: François Truffaut
Star: Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michel Bouquet, Charles Denner
[a.k.a. La Mariée était en noir]