The Champagne Gang

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“Contains 100% of your daily requirement of eye-candy.”

Under the leadership of Bliss (Toups), whose father is serving an extended stretch in jail, four young women stage a series of convenience-store burglaries in the San Diego area, before moving up to larger schemes. This brings them to the attention of local crime-boss, Cal Wertlieb, who makes them an offer they can’t refuse. He’ll train them to carry out more lucrative jobs, by cracking safes, which will give them access to cash and other easily fungible loot, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds – and their absolute silence in the event of them ever being caught by the authorities.

It opens with the “based on a true story” title, which as usual had me raising a sardonic eyebrow. However, in this case, it appears to be at least somewhat accurate, even if the end credits admit that the real “champagne gang” were Canadian men, rather than California girls! Still, I’m not inclined to criticize writer-diretor-producer Zirilli too much, for taking the more photogenic route. The film is at its best when it’s a lawbreaking version of the ‘police procedural’, i.e. instead of explaining how crimes are investigated, covering the nuts and bolts of how the group pulled off their thefts. These little details here bring the film to life, and help to keep it grounded in reality. That’s something sorely needed, given Zirilli’s horrid over-fondness for irrelevances, such as the make-over, the surfing montage, or the cringeworthy concert with a cameo by Bokeem Woodbine.

The film does make some effort at making the girls individuals, even if outside of Bliss, this largely consists of giving the other three a single-word character. Thus, we have Nerdy Michelle (Lakota), Bimbo Erika (Tobiason) and Bitchy Amanda (Serano), but I guess there was a conscious decision to sacrifice further character development, on the altar of that surfing montage. Shallow though these are, it does help set up the plot, with Erika tending to ill-considered actions which bring heat in their wake, such as contacting her boyfriend when they’re supposed to be laying low. There are also occasional moments of nice self-deprecation, such as when Bliss explains their aesthetic choice of footwear on their raids: “We really should have been wearing sensible shoes for the climbing. But we knew we could do it in high-heeled boots. After all – we’re girls.”

Unfortunately, the decent aspects tend to accentuate the copious quantities of padding necessary to get from the set-up to the conclusion, where the cops finally realize they’re not chasing a male gang. Zirilli the director should have gone back to Zirilli the writer, and demanded he put more meat on the bones, of a script that has flashes of some potential. Outside of Bliss, there’s not even a fragment of motivation for anyone involved, and you’re left watching something which too often drifts into being not much more substantial than an elaborate pop promo.

Dir: Daniel Zirilli
Star: Lacey Toups, Candise Lakota, Tarah Tobiason, Suri Serano
The whole movie is on YouTube, if the trailer below whets your interest.

Cyborg X

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“James Cameron’s lawyer, on line one…”

cyborgxMaybe the makers of this should just have been honest, and called it Terminaliens. For the amount of wholesale theft that has gone on here is really quite staggering. It takes place in the nearish future after a weapons research program goes haywire, and the cyborg results start attacking humans all over the globe. It’s up to a band of freedom fighters to attack the central computer complex and disable the system before humanity is entirely wiped out. Through in an adorable moppet young girl, who falls under the protection of the heroine, along with some crawling through air-ducts, and you’ve got a homage to James Cameron – back when he was good, rather making three-hour epics about doomed icebergs.

The main thread has heroine Lieutenant Spears (Mauro) rescuing Jack Kilmore (Myers), an X-Corp executive who holds the key to infiltrating his company’s former HQ. You may have to resist the urge to yell “He’s a cyborg!” at your television set, but that’s actually just Myers’s style of acting. There’s also Col. Shaw (Johnson), who smokes cigars and yells a lot, while the nerdy Wizkowski (Stormoen), has a name which seems curiously close to being another Aliens rip-off… Finally there’s even a tough Hispanic chick, Lopez, who – in full keeping with the Aliens approach – is played by the thoroughly non-Hispanic Angie Papanikolas.

One upgrade on Aliens is that Danny Trejo shows up for a bit, as another one of the soldiers, which is nice. We love us some Danny Trejo. He would likely have made Aliens  Otherwise, the rampant plagiarism is all a bit of a shame, since some of the other aspects aren’t bad. The CGI drones which are Skynet’s X-Corp’s surveillance system are nothing to write home about, but the more practical effects are solid, with some surprisingly gory moments. One woman gets the front of her head blown off, while later, a man is cut in half, and left to crawl along the ground, his intestines trailing behind him. Meanwhile, Spears manages to kick ass while looking decent doing it, even when yanking a Very Large Bazooka out of nowhere. Fortunately, supplies of beauty products apparently have not been interrupted by this apocalypse.

This wouldn’t be out of place on the SyFy channel, and stands up decently enough against others of its ilk. If you haven’t seen the Terminator series or Aliens, you would probably enjoy this a good deal more – though if so, that does beg the question, why are you watching the SyFy channel? But I just wish the makers had put more effort into creating a plot that was not so tired and over-familiar. If the resources devoted to this had been applied to an original story-line, it could have been a small gem, rather than feeling like a lame rip-off of genre classics.

Dir: Kevin King
Star: Eve Mauro, Rocky Myers, Adam Johnson, Jake Stormoen

Calamity Jane’s Revenge

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“Talk is cheap. VERY cheap…”

calamityTwo stars might actually be a bit generous, on an objective scale. But I confess to possessing a soft spot for low-budget films made with passion, even if the results fall short. The most obvious deficiency here is the location shooting. Outside of an opening scene with a few ramshackle houses, the entire film takes place in a forest. Seriously, the closest thereafter we get to seeing any other buildings, is two people leaning up against a fence… in the middle of the woods. Maybe they should have called it Calamity Jane: The Wilderness Years, and set viewer expectations appropriately.

It’s a revenge story, which we join in progress, with the husband of Jane (Ryan), no mean legend himself, Wild Bill Hickok, having already been gunned down. She’s now on the trail of the men responsible, who have split up and need to be tracked down individually. Complicating matters, one of the culprits is now accompanied by a kidnap victim, Fay (Gomez), whom Jane initially attempts to leave behind, but eventually agrees to help out. Additionally, Jane is being tracked by the new sheriff of Deadwood, along with renowned tracker, Colorado Charlie Utter (former WWE star Snow, which was an unexpected surprise). Will she be able to finish her mission of vengeance before the forces of law catch up with her?

And, more importantly, will the viewer be able to finish this movie, before unconsciousness catches up with them? Because the pacing on this leaves a great deal to be desired, without any real sense of building toward a climax. The film instead ambles its way through the trees, giving you two minutes of action, then 15 minutes of chit-chat. Rinse. Repeat. Forest. It’s not actually badly acted: Ryan has some presence, and Snow is certainly no worse than some others from the WWE who have stepped in front of the camera (looking at you, John Cena…). But the paucity of the resources available also leads to action more befitting a school playground, in which when people get shot, they fall over clutching their chest, without ever any apparent injury. Could the budget truly not stretch to a couple of bottles of fake blood?

On the technical side, it’s has its moments, with some impressive drone (I’m guessing) shots, capturing the epic grandeur of the mountains. These do, however, seem somewhat at odd with the static approach taken for the rest of the film. Couto seems to have tried his hand at various genres over the years, from horror to family films; while I guess he’s to be commended for that, it perhaps helps explains why this feels so generic. If you’re short on budget, you need to make up for this in other, inexpensive ways, from imagination to risk-taking. Unfortunately, Couto appears more concerned with playing it safe, and there’s precious little here that will stick in the viewer’s brain past the end credits.

Dir: Henrique Couto
Star: Erin R. Ryan, Al Snow, Julia Gomez, Adam Scott Clevenger

Curve

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“A feature-length advert for NOT wearing your seat-belt.”

Mallory (Hough) is driving to Denver for her wedding, though has some qualms about the upcoming event. She opts to take the scenic route, but her car breaks down – she’s startled, but delighted, when back-packer Christian (Sears) shows up out of nowhere to fix it. She offers him a lift, only to find once they hit the road, he’s a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. Realizing the dire straits she’s in, and that she’s wearing her seat-belt while he isn’t, she opts to crash the car into a ravine. However, the result is the exact opposite of what she wants: Christian is thrown free, and Mallory trapped by her ankle in the wreckage. Realizing he has a captive toy, Christian wanders off to terrorize the residents of a nearby cabin, but pops back occasionally to taunt his victim, who is forced to extreme measures to survive, while trying to figure out a way to escape.

curveIt’s a perfectly reasonable way to pass the time, and given its obvious limitations – there are barely a handful of speaking parts and the bulk of the running time takes place in and around the single location of Mallory’s car – works within them reasonably well. It’s a little weird to see Hough, whom we recently watched play Sandy in a televised “live” version of Grease, cooking and eating rat, and contemplating going all 127 Hours on her leg, but she pulls it off decently enough. Less effective is Sears, though he has the problem of walking in the footsteps belonging to the pinnacle of psychotic hitch-hikers, Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher; it’d be hard for anyone not to be overshadowed by that comparison. On the other hand, I like the way Mallory is thrown entirely on her own resources: there’s no knight in shining chain-mail coming to her rescue here.

For obvious, ankle-related reasons, this only kicks into high gear once the heroine has extracted herself from the car, and the boot goes, at least somewhat, onto the other foot (hohoho), as she begins to hunt Christian – the still, above, is obviously from the later section. It likely does take a little too long to reach this point, and once it gets there, offers at least one element of shamelessly obvious foreshadowing, which had me rolling my eyes when it appeared, then again when it came to pass. Yet I can’t say this affected the overall respectable level of enjoyment provided here. No-one could ever describe this as ambitious, and I was surprised to discover this was by the director of Hackers, as it seems a much smaller work. That aside, there’s something to be said for aiming low and hitting your target, rather than over-estimating your resources and talents, then falling short. This definitely falls into the former categoty.

Dir: Iain Softley
Star: Julianne Hough, Teddy Sears

Camino

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“Flash, bang, wallop – what? A picture!”

caminoFollowing up on their successfully crunchy collaboration in Raze, director Waller and star Bell head into the jungle and back to the eighties – an era before cell-phones and digital cameras – for this story of one woman’s fight for survival against a band of Colombian rebels, led by Spanish immigrant, Guillermo (Vigalondo). In this case, the woman is Avery Taggart (Bell), a lauded war photographer whose latest mission is to cover the enigmatic yet charismatic Guillermo, whose mission initially appears as much philanthropic as military. Keyword: initially. For Avery stumbles into the rebel’s darker side, witnessing, and worse, photographing him carrying out a drug deal, then slitting the throat of an inconveniently-passing local child. Knowing this revelation would destroy him, Guillermo blames Avery for the murder, and sets out after her with his group, intent on preventing the incriminating film from getting out of the jungle. However, it won’t be easy: Avery has picked up a few survival skills from her life during wartime, and some of Guillermo’s foot-soldiers are unconvinced by his explanation.

I think the first surprise here is the opening chunk, before she goes into the jungle, which has Bell delivering the most intense acting of her career. Quite a discomforting performance too, it has to be said, and I did wonder if I was watching the right film for a bit. Fortunately, we’re eventually on the right track; nobody will exactly have rented this to watch Zoë emote in a hotel room, surprisingly impressive though it is. The action here is brutal: while the body-count is relatively small – compared, say to Raze – nobody dies quickly here at all, with demises which seem to stretch out forever. The peak is probably the first fight, in which Avery is stalked by Guillermo’s psychopathic lieutenant. This turns into a knock-down, drag-out brawl that is relentless and hardcore. Nothing after can quite compare, to be honest. The ending of the main story thread is, entirely deliberately, understated and almost casual, though a coda delivers a satisfactory payoff.

You do wonder how a photographer is able to do more than hold her own against jungle-hardened soldiers; I was half-expecting a further appendix scene where Avery turned out to be a CIA agent of some kind. [Truth be told, I wouldn’t have minded!] Vigalondo makes for a decent villain, if a little too verbose; had this had actually been made in the mid-80’s, rather than just set there, it would have been a perfect role for Klaus Kinski, and Nacho puts over a similar mix of thinly-disguised psychopath. The jungle almost becomes a supporting character here, abetted by an unusual, crunchy yet chewy soundtrack from electronic project Kreng. The film might have benefited from some editing and the script an additional polish. But, as expected, it’s Bell’s show and she delivers the convincing mix of elegance and physicality we have come to appreciate, like a tightly-wound spring inside a camera case.

Dir: Josh C. Waller
Star: Zoë Bell, Nacho Vigalondo, Francisco Barreiro, Sheila Vand

The Circle (Cirkeln)

cirklen

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“Into every generation, half a dozen or so chosen ones are born…”

The first in an intended trilogy, based on a popular series of books, this is set in the fictional Swedish town of Engelsfors, where the high-school is rocked after a student commits suicide in the bathroom. At the same point, six female students start to experience strange events, hinting at undiscovered powers: one can move objects with her mind, another can influence people, a third becomes invisible. Turns out they – as well as the dead colleague – are proto-witches, one of whom will eventually develop into the Chosen One, who will save the world from her evil nemesis. However, said nemesis is not sitting around, waiting for thus development: that “suicide” wasn’t a suicide at all, and it becomes clear the remaining six are just as much in danger.

This starts off in highly-impressive fashion, setting up its premise with elegant style. The film looks great, makes excellent use of music, both original and adopted (the soundtrack is by Benny Andersson of ABBA fame, who is also one of the producers, and there’s a particular cool montage set to Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill), and the special effects are nicely understates: director Akin doesn’t throw them at the screen for the sake of it, he uses them to enhance the film’s atmosphere as much as for show. However, the second half feels unnecessarily stretched: this runs 144 minutes, and probably shouldn’t. Perhaps the process of adaptation from the book needed to be more ruthless; you get the sense the film is trying to juggle too many characters, simply because they were in the original source material. As a result, they all suffer since, even at its significant length, the film doesn’t have the chance to explore them in any depth: they remain not much more than stereotypes, e.g. the Goth, the slut, the bullied, the swot. Maybe they are leaving this for the subsequent entries?

However, it works well enough as a standalone movie – more Harry Potter than Lord of the Rings – and still continues to provide a sleek and shiny source of mainstream entertainment. There’s more than a hint of Buffy here, and not just in the “Chosen One” concept and high-school location, also the idea that Engelsfors is some kind of Hellmou… er, portal for evil, as well the Witches’ Council who try to run things. As yet, neither of these last two aspects have been explored much, and I sense they will likely come into play more, down the road. I also got a distinct hint of Eko Eko Azarak too. It’s probably true to say that you may get more out of this if you have read the books, which I haven’t; I suspect a remake is only a matter of time, likely bringing nothing of note to the party. Bit of a mixed blessing to see countries attempt to ape Hollywood so shamelessly: I can’t help preferring films like Let the Right One In, which do their own thing. This is perhaps just too slickly commercial for its own good.

Dir: Levan Akin
Star: Josefin Asplund, Helena Engström, Ruth Vega Fernandez, Irma von Platen

The Complete Adventures of Senorita Scorpion, by Les Savage, Jr.

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

scorpion1Action adventure fiction, in the pulp era, tended to be a male-dominated field; the writers and readers were overwhelmingly male, and the protagonists having the adventures and engaging in the derring-do tended to be correspondingly male. The culture of that day had deep-rooted stereotypes about the unfitness of the “weaker sex” for strenuous physical challenges, and about the inappropriateness of combat as a role for females who were supposed to be naturally gentle and demure. But there were writings that bucked these assumptions, particularly in the Western genre. Senorita Scorpion, the creation of Les Savage, Jr. (1922-1958), wasn’t actually the first pistol-packing cowgirl to be featured in the Western pulps of the 30s and 40s; but she proved to be the most popular, one of the most unique, and probably the subject of the longest running and thickest corpus of material of any of these fictional ladies: seven stories, originally published in Action Stories from 1944-49. Through its Altus Press imprint, (CreateSpace is just the printing service) Pro Se Press seeks to bring the best fiction of the early modern pulp magazine era back into print, in book form now, for a new generation of fans. These stories (plus one by Emmett McDowell, which used the Senorita Scorpion name for an entirely different character) were a felicitous choice for one of their first projects, in two volumes.

The stories included here are: “Senorita Scorpion” (1944); “The Brand of Senorita Scorpion” (1944); “Secret of Santiago” (1944); “The Curse of Montezuma” (1945); “Brand of the Gallows-Ghost” (1945); “Lash of the Six-Gun Queen” (1947); “Gun Witch of Hoodoo Range” by McDowell (1948); and “The Sting of Senorita Scorpion” (1949). For purposes of this review, the McDowell story is considered separately; the main body of the comments below refer just to the stories by Savage.

Our setting here is Brewster County, Texas in the 1890s. This is a real county, located in the Big Bend area west of the Pecos and north of the Rio Grande, and the geography of the area as depicted by Savage is real, including the inhospitable Dead Horse Mountains. When we first meet protagonist Elgera Douglas, a.k.a. “Senorita Scorpion,” she’s a girl outlaw pulling off a daring robbery, but she’s not an outlaw who wants to prey on others in order to live without working; her motivations are considerably different. They’re rooted in the background of the story series, which is gradually disclosed in the first tale; but it won’t be an undue spoiler to explain it here.

In 1681, a grandee of New Spain, Don Simeon Santiago, discovered a gold mine in the Dead Horse Mountains, originally worked by the local Indians. He built a house and ranch there, in the only valley in the range with enough water to support humans and cattle, and sent several fantastically rich shipments of gold south to Mexico. Soon, however, the ranch was attacked by raiding Comanche, who killed everyone they could find and, when they left, sealed off entrance or egress to the valley by caving in the mine tunnel which served for that purpose. The only survivors were George Douglas, a British-born slave originally captured from an English ship in the Caribbean, and a Mexican Indian slave woman. From these two, over the next two centuries an inbred Douglas clan of mixed Anglo-Indian ancestry and culture grew up in the valley. In 1876, they finally succeeded in digging through the mine and re-uniting with the rest of the world, though they kept the location of their valley secret.

By 1891, clan leader and official landholder John Douglas, Elgera’s father, lies in a coma, and the Santiago lands are under the covetous eye of ruthless cattle baron Anse Hawkman, who owns everything in the area worth owning and has used legal chicanery to force the smaller landholders off their claims. Elgera (“El Gera” is Spanish for “the blonde one”) is one of three children, the only girl, and not the oldest; but with her father disabled she’s the undisputed leader of the family. Savage never actually explains why; we’re left to infer that it’s because of her strong, born-leader personality –which is definitely evidenced– and the respect commanded, in a situation where fighting is a necessity, by her formidable gun skills, which considerably surpass those of most men. She’s become an outlaw, as the law defines it, in order to strike back at Hawkman and his interests.

scorpion2From this beginning, the first four stories proceed in a chronological arc; each is self contained, but the following ones build on the preceding ones in terms of character and situational development, so that what we have is a genuine story cycle. In the later three stories, the chronological relationship to the rest of the corpus isn’t as clear, except that they all take place after the events of the first story, and that “Lash of the Six-Gun Queen” is set near the end of the decade. Savage makes statements inconsistent in details with what he wrote earlier in one story, and another tale also gives some evidence of forgetfulness on his part. The rest of the Douglas clan simply disappears in the later stories, and their unique sociological circumstances aren’t explored at all, while the Santiago Ranch functions about like a set or a piece of furniture; there’s not much attention to its fortunes or the practicalities of running it. Elgera’s supposedly well-known skill at cards is only brought out in “Brand of the Gallows-Ghost,” and never mentioned elsewhere.

The major characters are well-developed, and several appear in more than one of the stories. (Chisos Owens tends to play as large a role in most of the stories as Elgera does, and actually does more of the fighting.) Savage develops his plots with considerable originality and artistry, and the stories benefit from his trademark serious research to ground his work in actual Western history. (The fraudulent so-called “History of Montezuma,” for instance, really was produced in 1846 under the conditions he describes in “The Curse of Montezuma;” and while I haven’t been able to check his details about 17th-century Native American and Spanish mining/smelting practices in “Secret of Santiago,” they have a ring of truth.) He writes action scenes well; he’s an excellent prose stylist, and has a good sense of pacing, and the stories employ elements of mystery which are very effective in adding to the suspense he conjures. Elgera’s a likable character, as are the various good guys who assist her; and the villains are the sort you love to root against. A half-Indian heroine is as much of a trail-blazing feature, in this period, as a combat-capable one, and Savage’s treatment of Hispanic and Indian characters isn’t racist; some are villains, but others are treated very positively.

Critics might complain that some plot elements are a bit exotic (such as a character who’s a Satanist, or the premise of a peyote-based cult in one story), or that there’s some reliance on coincidence in places. But peyote use really is historically a feature of Southwestern Indian religion, and coincidence IS at times a feature of real life, too. There’s not much bad language in the stories (McDowell uses more of it than Savage does), and what there is isn’t particularly rough.

In terms of her action chops, we’re told much more often about Elgera’s gun skills than we’re shown them –but we are shown them occasionally. She uses lethal force sparingly (and only in defense of herself or others), though when she has to, she takes it calmly in stride. (Bad guys who take her on hand to hand –and she’s no slouch at that type of fighting, either!– usually wind up killing themselves accidentally; but as a group, they’re too stupid to recognize that pattern and avoid it. :-) )

Will Murray contributes introductions to both volumes; the second one deals mostly with the genesis and publication of the stories, but the first one regrettably concentrates mostly on the sex appeal of the pulp cowgirl characters in general and the more salacious aspects of the cover art. To be sure, many males then and now were, and are, culturally conditioned to view both real and fictional women only, or primarily, as sexual commodities. But that’s not, IMO, the most helpful lens here for viewing the character –nor the primary one that Savage invites us to use. Yes, he depicts Elgera as powerfully attractive to most of his male characters (and she tends to be fickle in her own romantic attractions –one of my primary quibbles with his portrayal of the character). But the stories certainly aren’t about sex, Elgera and her male admirers never do anything more than kiss, and her sexuality is just an ancillary part –not the be-all-and-end-all– of who her character is.

A brief word will suffice about McDowell’s story. My wife considered it out of place, and a detriment to the book; it’s included because Savage’s publishers, when he was too busy working on a novel at the time, enlisted McDowell to write a Senorita Scorpion story, and this is what they got. He used the name, but makes the woman’s character and circumstances totally different from Savage’s Elgera, and changes the setting to Arizona in the early 1880s to boot. Essentially, it’s a story about a completely different woman with the same nickname. Taken on its own terms, though, it’s actually a solid story with an excellent twist, and one of my favorites in the book.

Author: Les Savage, Jr.
Publisher: Altus Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as printed books: Volume 1 and Volume 2

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Coyote, by Bran Gustafson

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

coyoteFull disclosure up front: the author and I are in a couple of Goodreads groups together, so I was aware of his debut novel; and I knew he’d offered a free review e-copy to group members. I didn’t request one, since I prefer to read in print format; but on the recommendation of my friend David Wittlinger, I did put my name in for the paperback Goodreads giveaway (which is still ongoing!). When Bran became aware of my preference for paper, he kindly gifted me with a paperback copy, which I really appreciate. His openness to honest feedback is also appreciated; he made it clear from the outset that he’d appreciate even a bad review as long as it was honest and provided him with feedback. It didn’t take me long to read enough to tell that my review wasn’t going to be a bad one!

Coyote (the relevance of the title becomes clear eventually, but it has a symbolic significance as well, IMO) is set in the fictional Western U.S. state of Montezuma, “the Untamed State.” Montezuma is a state in economic and moral free-fall since the depletion of its oil deposits and the resulting decamping of the industry, and the closing of its one interstate highway due to maintenance and safety issues. Much of it is inhospitable mountain and desert terrain, unable to sustain a large population without outside resources, so population (especially decent, wholesome population) is declining and social pathology is on the rise. Crime and violence flourish, but not much else does. To this not very inviting place comes Mai, our 20-something protagonist, with no resources but a Bronco (the four-wheeled type) and a .38. She was born here; but what motivates her to return isn’t immediately revealed. Her Bronco breaks down in a declining town, where she soon finds that its bleak, shabby exterior masks a festering, rancid mass of lucrative vice and corruption, over which two murderous redneck clans vie for control.

Author Gustafson has elsewhere cited “spaghetti Westerns” as a major literary influence on this novel (an opener for a projected series), and the noir tradition (more so in its extremely grungy modern state, rather than the more restrained classic models) is clearly another serious one. But the kind of central role Clint Eastwood so often played in Westerns of this stripe is Mai’s here, and the switch to the distaff side creates a subtly different dynamic of its own. One reviewer has said he’s not sure if Mai is a good or a bad person, nor sure if even she knows. Personally, I’m not that doubtful. Some significant choices Mai makes and significant things she does clearly show me that she is basically a good person at her core, who listens to her conscience. And while I’ve used the word “noir,” the author’s own vision clearly isn’t morally anarchic; in its own way, we could even call this a morality tale.

That said, readers have to be prepared for a journey through a world of moral and physical grunge that can almost be nauseating in places. Mai herself is no plaster saint. Raised without roots by a now-dead, peripatetic con man father (the Bronco was basically their home), she had virtually no positive rearing, by example or precept. Hard-living and sometimes hard-drinking, in desperate circumstances, she’s not above stealing what she needs; her speaking style can be profane or obscene, and she’s too emotionally-constipated and wary of others to form a relationship with any other person, but not averse to one-night sexual stands –more, I think, as a lonely way of reaching out for even illusory human connection than as a deliberate attempt to exploit others. (At this point in his life, that seems to me to describe bar owner/tender Slim’s sexual psychology, too.) She’s also got a savage temper that can be dangerous, though not to the inoffensive.

Slim has some qualities, good and bad, similar to hers; and flawed as they are, this pair actually represents, in the town of Maquina, the closest thing it has to forces of goodness and light. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the forces of real darkness and evil, embodied in the worst sadistic dregs of the Skaggs and Carter clans. In between these poles, we have a continuum of characters varying in their shades of gray, who may provide textbook examples of the unwillingness of most people to actively oppose evil if it involves any risk or inconvenience, and of the remarkable ability of humans to convince ourselves that our behavior is justified (even when we know it’s totally wrong).

On the plus side, all of these characters are drawn with wonderful precision and distinctness. The pace of the story is fast and non-stop, and it’s deliberately designed to be a quick read, with short chapters (some only a page long) that entice you into turning pages. (And you won’t need much enticement; the need to know what’s going to happen next here is compulsive!) Mai’s self contained and stand-offish, hard to get to know, much less like (though that doesn’t mean you won’t, by the time you close the book!), but she’s easy to side with and care about, and she’s a more dynamic character inside than she initially seems to be. In a novel where action is an important component, the author handles action scenes well. (Some are a bit graphic; there are a couple of mental images that aren’t best read by the squeamish.) As an action heroine, Mai’s got guts and resolve (she may not be the biggest dog in the fight, but she’s got more fight in her than some), but she’s not a trained pro with her gun, and she can make mistakes with it (one of them a lulu). In her situation, that makes her believable, where a super firearms expert wouldn’t be. And the ending is so perfect it raised the rating at least a quarter star. (There’s no cliffhanger as such, either.)

A final thought: obviously, in creating this setting, which is practically post-apocalyptic though not actually so, the author is trying to establish a modern American milieu where he can let his characters operate in an essentially lawless environment. Beyond that, though, I think there is some real social commentary here –an implication that it might not take much in the way of economic and moral collapse for the whole U.S. to go the way of Montezuma; and there are real life tendencies pushing in that direction. (And if that happens, decent people won’t have 49 other states to move to; they’ll have to keep a moral compass, and make their stand where they are.)

Note: Readers should be strongly warned that there’s a LOT of bad language here (f-words, profanity, vulgarism, etc., which characterizes the speech of most characters, some to the point where it’s clear they can’t communicate any other way. (Mai and Slim aren’t really any more profane than the average person with their background would be.) And although there’s really no explicit sex as such, there are very definite sexual situations and implied sex (the town brothel is a key part of the setting), and the exploitative sexual attitudes and raunchy, sexually-oriented talk from some characters is very pervasive. These factors were what cost the book a fifth star; just because they impacted my enjoyment that negatively. But it’s important to note that Bran is not trying to promote bad language or raunchy sex, and that these aren’t what the book is about; rather, it’s about morality and healthy relationships in the midst of a bad and raunchy world. And readers less bothered by these points might easily rate the book as even a five-star read.

Author: Bran Gustafson
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

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“Not as good as hoped, yet not as bad as feared.”

Before we get to the actual sequel, some updated thoughts on the original, which I re-watched, curled up on the couch with Chris for Valentine’s Day. It’s still awesome: absolutely unique, a wuxia epic which was far more successful outside its native China than within it, where the varied accents of its stars caused some criticism. It was a massive hit, far outside the normal boundaries of subtitled movies, and crossing over into mainstream popular culture – as mentioned in our review, when you inspire an advert for Mountain Dew, you’re not in Shanghai any more. It out-grossed Charlie’s Angels in North America, taking in over $128 million – and that was 15 years ago, the equivalent of over $200 million at current prices. For comparison, no foreign-language film in 2015 even reached ten million.

And re-watching it, you can see why, because it remains totally wonderful. I was chatting about it with Werner, and came to the conclusion it works because the film provides a very rare combination of action and heart. There are movies with great, arguably, better action. There are movies with poignant and affecting love stories that tug on the heart-strings. There are very, very few which have both, and the combination is magnificent. At the time, seems I was a bit sniffy about the heavily wire-assisted action; I think I’ve mellowed since for that really didn’t impinge on my enjoyment at all. I may even have undersold the gymnasium duel between Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Zhang Zi-Yi). This is not just the greatest female-female battle in cinema history, it may be the finest weapons fight ever.

Yet, without the twin love stories that are entwined here, it would be meaningless (if enjoyable) spectacle. Werner questioned my original casual dismissal of the relation between Jen Yu and barbarian boyfriend Lo (Chang Chen) as “Stockholm syndrome,” and that’s probably fair criticism: it’s clear they do develop a mutual attraction, though I still think it’s also true she was looking for an escape route from the rapidly approaching loveless marriage. I do prefer the unspoken simplicity of the unfulfilled mutual longing between Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat). It’s almost harder rewatching this, knowing how it’s going to end. When he says, “I would rather be a ghost, drifting by your side as a condemned soul, than enter heaven without you. Because of your love, I will never be a lonely spirit,” not a dry eye in the house. Or, at least, in our house.

sword2So, quite some high bar for any sequel to match, and it’s probably inevitable that the sequel falls short. On its own, this would probably be considered a perfectly enjoyable slab of kung-fu action, but to minimize the risk of such comparisons, the makers should probably have stepped further away from its predecessor. Because comparisons become almost inevitable, given this mirrors the original’s structure so closely. That’s especially true in the relationship department where as before, we have two couples: the older pair set apart by circumstance, the younger one brought together the same way. Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) is reunited with Silent Wolf (Yen), a man to whom she was once betrothed before his disappearance. Meanwhile, Wei-Fang (Shum) is out to steal the Green Destiny for his master, Hades Lee, only to be stopped by wannabe warrioress, Snow Vase (Bordizzo), and the pair begin their own tempestuous relationship.

Yeoh is the only returning character from the first film, and she is every bit as good at providing the film’s emotional heart – and still appears a remarkable bad-ass at age 53! No problems there. The main issue is probably Yen, who is not Chow Yun-Fat. If you want an illustration of the difference between “actors doing martial arts” and “martial artists doing acting,” you can compare and contrast Yen and Chow in these two films. The former can be faked, with a little physical prowess, and some technical know-how. The latter? Not so much, which leaves all the emotion to come from one side, and it simply isn’t as effective. As noted above, the first film was a near-perfect combination of that emotion and dazzling action; the latter sees its talents much more heavily-skewed towards the choreography, which drops it back in line with a thousand and one other genre entries.

Not that this is a bad thing, not when you have Yuen at the helm, since he has been responsible for some of the most brilliant fight scenes in cinema history, from The Matrix to… Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. No-one can match his talents for originality and inventiveness, best showcased here in a battle on a frozen lake that is as much skating as kung-fu. It does need a singular sequence of action heroine goodness; while both Bordizzo and Yeoh have their moments, there’s nothing as exquisite as the Yeoh/Zhang duel. There are some occasionally clunky moments of CGI, which we could probably have done without – two fighters crashing through the balconies of a tower appears to have strayed in from Dead or Alive – but Yuen makes good use of some lush New Zealand locations, even if I did occasionally expect to see Frodo and friends pop out from behind a shrub.

It was made in English, for purely commercial reasons – North American audiences still have issues with subtitles, but once you get over the surprise of seeing Chinese actors, in a film set in China, speaking English, it’s not a significant issue. Both Yeoh and Yen spent their teenage years in the West, so there’s none of the “English as a second acting language” you get with, say, Jet Li’s Hollywood productions. On the edges, there are a couple of other, potentially interesting female characters, Silver Dart Shi (Juju Chan) and a blind sorceress (Eugenia Yuan), although neither get enough screen time to be more than vague constructs. Overall, there’s more than a hint of The Force Awakens here, in that both films are rather too beholden to what has gone before, instead of forging their own path, and suffer in the comparison as a result. And like Awakens, this is still entertaining enough on its own merits to be entirely acceptable. However, I’d probably recommend you do not watch the original the previous weekend, because that is not a battle this movie has any hope of winning.

Dir: Yuen Wo-Ping
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Harry Shum Jr.

Chastity Bites

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“Not-so real housewives.”

chastitybitesA somewhat successful modernization of the vampire legend, it sees feminist wannabe journo Leah (Scagliotti) clashing with the popular clique at her high-school, under their queen bee Ashley (Okuda). Just as Leah is preparing a devastating expose on how the cool girls are planning a mass virginity loss, the ground gets pulled out from under her by the arrival of Liz Batho (Louise Griffiths), a counselor who begins a devastatingly successful abstinence program, the Virginity Action Group, into which Ashley and her cronies buy in, for their own ends. Liz also lures in the local moms, with her devastatingly impressive line of skin-care products. Leah digs into the past of Ms. Batho and thanks to a helpful tip from her Internet search engine (which is, at least, a first in cinematic plotting!), realizes Liz is – gasp! – Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who escaped being walled up in her chamber, and has roamed the world ever since, using the blood of virgins to sustain her youth. But since Leah’s relationship with local police soured following an article calling them racist, she’s going to have to stop the Countess using her own resources.

The results are sporadically funny. It’s a nice reversal on the usual horror trope of “have sex and die,” [albeit not the first: Cherry Falls already got there], and some of the characters are a hoot. Griffiths hits the spot just right as Bathory, combining elegance and threat with just a hint of Katie Holmes, and Okuda makes the Alpha Bitch far more rounded than most depictions [it took Chris to realize where we’d seen her before; she plays Tinkerballa in popular web-series The Guild] But she and Scagliotti are both clearly past high-school, well into their twenties, and so aren’t convincing teenagers. The heroine also appears to have eaten a dictionary, leading to dialogue that is both forced and not as witty as it thinks it is. Worst of all, I could have done entirely without Leah’s lesbian sidekick (Raisa), since her main purpose in the film appears to be to allow for embarrassingly-bad banter with her gal-pal.

It does make some nice stabs (hohoho) at social satire, in particularly the hypocrisy of high-school and American vs. European values, but it’s a bit too monotone in its approach. I did appreciate its almost entirely gynocentric nature. The only male character of note, is in the film mostly to ensure Leah is no use to the Countess, and when the chips are down, rather than rescuing anyone, is disposed of with ease, leaving Leah to face her immortal enemy alone. However, there remains too much of a problem with the heroine, who comes over for much of the movie as smugly PC, rather than someone with whom I’m interested in spending time. It’s this which restricts the film’s eventual success, leaving it as more of a respectable time-passer than an outstanding triumph.

Dir: John V. Knowles
Star: Allison Scagliotti, Louise Griffiths, Amy Okuda, Francia Raisa