Queen of the South vs. La Reina Del Sur

reinaqueen

“She’s a woman in enemy territory. All women are in enemy territory for centuries, but in this case, this is particularly accentuated because the drug-dealing world is a very machista, hostile environment. Here, the survival of a woman in enemy territory is even more spectacular. That’s the original challenge of the novel — to ensure that in a machista, violent world, which is the territory of men — that in such a world where the women use the weapons of men, they use the intelligence and penetration of a woman. The challenge is for her to do more than what men do in those circumstances and for her to become the boss of men.”
Arturo Pérez-Reverte


There have been two, significantly different televisual adaptations of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, La Reina Del Sur (you can read our review of the source material here). The first, was a Mexican telenovela that ran for 63 episodes during 2011. However, this summer saw the premiere of an American television series based on the same novel, which played on the USA Network. This covered 13 episodes thus far, and finished its first run last month, with the network agreeing to a second season next year. Let’s take a look at both shows: their similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses, starting with the Mexican version.

reinaLa Reina Del Sur
starstarstar
“The reina in Spain, stays mainly in the plain.”

The impact of La Reina Del Sur probably can’t be exaggerated. Right from the first episode, screened in February 2011 on Telemundo, it was a smash hit. The premiere drew the network’s biggest ratings ever for a first episode, and perhaps surprisingly, the audience was almost equally split between men and women. The following week, viewers increased by almost 20%, and beat all English-language stations in the 18-34 demographic. The final episode, on May 30th, was the most-watched program in Telemundo’s 19-year history – and again, was watched by more men than any show on TV at the time. Though since surpassed, it was also the station’s most-expensive production, shot in five countries and budgeted at $10 million, So if you’re expecting cheesy drama, you’re going to be surprised – at least somewhat.

It tells the story of Teresa Mendoza, whose life is thrown upside down when her boyfriend, El Guero, is killed by the organized crime gang for which he has been flying planes. She trades his notebook to the head of the gang, Epifanio Vargas (Zurita), in exchange for her help escaping to Spain. There, she gets a job as a waitress in a brothel, and gradually works her way up to running the place’s books. She begins a relationship with a smuggler, and learns the ropes of the trade from him, only for tragedy to strike. While trying to out-run the authorities, their boat crashes into rocks, killing him and leading to her being sent to prison.

reina2In jail, she links up with Colombian Patricia O’Farrell (Urgel), who knows the location of a huge cocaine stash, hidden by her late boyfriend from the Russian mafia. On their release, the pair work out a risky deal with Oleg Yasikov (Jiménez) to sell it back, giving them the cash to set up in the drug business, with Yasikov’s help. However, this attracts unwelcome attention from two fronts. The DEA start sniffing around, with the help of the local cops. Potentially more lethally, Epifanio is now on the political rise, and Teresa’s existence represents an unwelcome loose-end that must be tidied up. Not least because the DEA are interested in getting her back to Mexico to testify against him.

According to del Castillo, the entire series was shot in just seven months, which is an extremely quick pace: it works out at more than two episodes, or over an hour of new footage, every single week. At one point, the star required medical treatment for exhaustion. Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of the source novel (whose work also inspired Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), helped extend the material, a very necessary task given the 63 episodes the show lasted. Not having read the book myself, I can’t comment on what was added, but having read Werner’s scathing review, seems like the telenovela is superior to the novel, and has certainly made its heroine a more sympathetic character.

The two areas where it works best are Teresa Mendoza’s character arc, and the supporting cast. With the story unfolding over such a long period (by English-language TV standards), the former kinda creeps up on you. It’s only near the end, when the show includes a number of flashbacks to what Teresa used to be like, that you realize how drastically she has been changed by events. The plucky yet naive young woman to whom we were initially introduced has gone, replaced by a thoroughly hard-bitten woman, She learns the hard way that trust and affection are traits that can get you – or your loved ones – killed in her chosen profession. Frankly, the trail of dead bodies left behind Teresa in one way or another, is so high, her belief she may be cursed begins to seem credible.

reina3I also liked the background characters. O’Farrell is a hard-drinking, coke-snorting, flagrantly bisexual party girl, yet still vulnerable and insecure at her core. She’s played by Urgel, who looks like a supermodel version of Brienne of Tarth, taller than most of the men on the show [Per Google, she’s officially 5’7″, but as this pic of her, del Castillo and male star Ivan Sanchez shows… someone’s not telling the truth] Another woman Teresa meets in jail, who becomes a key part of her team is Marcela, known as “La Conejo” (the rabbit). She looks like she wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but actually poisoned her husband and his mother. Alberto Jiménez, as Yasikov, seems to be channeling Lee Van Cleef. Finally, DEA agent Willy Rangel, shows up early, vanishes in the middle, then comes back to be pivotal at the end, drinking coffee from his Union Jack mug.  Given this show is a marathon, not a sprint, having these to sustain interest is likely a necessity.

It is disappointingly low-key in terms of action: Teresa’s first boyfriend teaches her to shoot, as shown above. But after using it to escape early peril, she doesn’t fire another round until the final battle. To be honest, even the efforts at generating tension are only sporadically successful, and this is more drama-than thriller-inclined. There are some moments of plotting which don’t ring true either. Apparently, in Spain, police procedure means than when someone confesses to having hired a hitman, you then let them wander off upstairs on their own to, oh I dunno, tidy up or something. Such mis-steps are likely inevitable at some point though. All told, I found it acceptably entertaining, with a lot less time spent on torrid romance than I expected, and anchored by del Castillo’s sound performance.

Finally, in a bizarre element of life imitating art, Kate del Castillo subsequently became involved with notorious fugitive Mexican drug-lord El Chapo, after Tweeting about him in 2012. Turns out he was a fan of La Reina Del Sur, telling her, “That series that you made, I saw it and I loved it. I’ve seen it many times—you’re a great actress in it.” He authorized Kate to begin work on a film version of his life story, before his break-out from jail in July 2015. Subsequently, she traveled to Mexico, along with Sean Penn, to meet El Chapo, a trip which Penn later chronicled in a heavily-criticized article for Rolling Stone. The relationship brought del Castillo scrutiny by the Mexican government, including an investigation for involvement in money-laundering. As of July, this was still ongoing…

Star: Kate del Castillo, Cristina Urgel, Humberto Zurita, Alberto Jiménez

Queen of the South
starstarstarstar
“Don’t mess with Tex-Mexicans.”

I’ll likely have less to say about the American version, because thus far, it has run barely 20% of the length of its predecessor, and tells far from a completed story. It is, however, radically different to this point in a number of ways. The most obvious is the shift in Teresa’s destination from Spain to the United States. This has caused some complaints among fans of the series and the novel, yet seems entirely understandable, given this is aimed squarely at the mainstream American market. While she’s still running from her boyfriend’s former employer, with a book containing a wealth of incriminating evidence, that information plays a more significant part here, becoming the McGuffin which drives the final third of the first season.

queen2The other major difference is one of focus. Teresa (Braga) has, to this point, not risen very high at all up the ladder of the drug business. There’s some obvious foreshadowing that she will, in that her “spirit animal” is an impeccably-dressed version of herself. But that appears well off into the future. For now, the real “Queen of the South” so far is Camila Vargas (Falcon). She’s the separated wife of Epifanio Vargas (de Almeida), who runs the American side of the business. She seizes an opportunity presented by Epifanio’s political campaign, and is working on going into business entirely on her own, dealing directly with the Colombian cartels. Needless to say, this does not sit well with her former husband, and when she discovers he is also after Teresa – no more than a low-level runner in her Dallas, Texas organization – her interest is inevitably piqued.

So far, it has not been at all interested in romance, unlike LRdS, where Teresa’s various boyfriends and entanglements were a significant part of the show. This may develop down the road: for now, US Teresa has been too busy trying to survive. Likely as a consequence, she has also directly slain more people than Mexi-Teresa at the same point. The first came as the result of a drug deal/heist gone bad, and you could make a good case for self-defense. The killings in the final episode, however? Not so much. I sense she’s going to be considerably more “hands on” than LRdS, where Teresa delegated all the dirty work to her minions [I may be wrong, but I don’t recall her killing anyone personally until the shoot-out in the final episodes]

Where Queen really scores, however, is in its production values. Despite the solidity of the performances, Reina always felt like a soap-opera: largely enclosed in its sets and constrained by a budget that, while unprecendented by telenovela standards, was still low by comparison to American TV. That isn’t the case here: at its best, this even goes beyond television and has a cinematic feel, comparable with the likes of Traffic or Sicario. I particularly liked the use of music, which was certainly a lot more appropriate than the jaunty Norteño awfulness which permeated LRdS. [I should point out, my tolerance for country & western is equally low!] The electronic beats used here instead, felt a bit reminiscent of Miami Vice, or perhaps Giorgio Moroder’s work for Scarface, both of which are certainly relevant.

It’s a grittier version of the drug life too. In LRdS, you largely felt one or more degrees of separation from the harsh realities involved, with the drugs almost an abstract construct. There’s no such escape here, right from the opening episode when a drug mule has the packages she’s carrying burst in her stomach, with fatal results. But the biggest ace the show has so far is Vargas – a character not present at all in Reina, and neither in the book as far as I can tell. She’s part chess player, part grim reaper, with a voice which sounds like honey being slowly poured over sopapillas. She’s a fascinating, complex creation, beautifully portrayed by Falcon, and we’d have happily watched an entire series focused entirely on her.

Certainly, it’ll be interesting to see where the story develops from here. The first season ended with Epifanio ascending to the governorship of Sinaloa, and immediately exercising his new-found power, calling in the military against the cartel his ex-wife had just taken from him. Meanwhile, Teresa suffers a heart-breaking personal loss, yet rises above it to tell Camila, “I don’t work for you any more.” And, to nobody’s great surprise, there was a shock final twist, revealing something which wasn’t all that much of a shock, Reina having prepped me for it (albeit, a lot later there than in episode #13).  None of which diminished my interest in the next season, slated for summer 2017. While fans of the telenovela may choose to differ, I think any neutral would likely agree that this is a more polished and effective rendition of the story.

Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida

queen3

The Queen of the South, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Literary rating: star
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

reina-novelDisclaimer at the outset: I haven’t read this novel from cover to cover. Seven years ago, I read the prologue and first three chapters; this time around, I read the first seven (re-reading the ones I’d read before), and skimmed the last ten and the epilogue –though I skimmed very thoroughly, taking about three hours and absorbing all of the major plot points. I feel qualified to give it a fair rating and review; but the level of bad language and grungy sexual content, blended with the tedious prose style and the wall-to-wall cynicism of the author’s literary vision (if we can call it that) made this too distasteful to read word-for-word any further.

Our title character here is Teresa Mendoza, who, when we first meet her, is a 22-year-old girl from Culiacan, Sinola, Mexico, a community dominated by the cross-border Mexican-U.S. drug traffic. Her boyfriend is a airplane pilot ferrying drugs for a local narco kingpin. But this boyfriend had a bad habit of defrauding his employer with side deals of his own and bragging about it when he was drunk; the prologue opens with her phone ringing to inform her that his boss has just had him killed –and that she’d better run, because the killers are on their way to dispatch her, too. Her resulting 13-year odyssey will take her to Spain (Perez-Reverte’s home country), see her eventually rise to control the drug traffic into and through southern Spain, and eventually bring her back full circle to the place of her birth and a reckoning with the past.

There’s a solid story here, which despite its seeming far-fetched improbability is plotted in a way that actually comes across as believable (except for Teresa settling and working in Spain under her real name, and not getting whacked within a matter of weeks!) and told with a few twists that I did not see coming, even though I’d skimmed the ending seven years earlier. The author appears to be extremely knowledgeable about the history and minutia of drug trafficking, at least up to 2002 when the novel was written (though he doesn’t quite understand that not all readers are necessarily as fascinated as he apparently is with every scrap of minutia). Teresa is a complex character, not one a reader will readily forget; and there are moments in the story that are quite emotionally evocative, even poignant.

However, the execution of the idea is wanting here, in several respects. First, Perez-Reverte gives us two interlaced narratives, Teresa’s own direct story in the third person and that of a journalist, in the first person, who’s piecing together her story from interviews with her (in the first chapter; most of the rest of her saga unfolds in flashback) and others who knew her. The actual meat of the story is in the former strand of narrative, however; the journalist’s really adds nothing except padding to bulk the book up to its 436 pages. There’s nothing of substance in his contribution that couldn’t have been conveyed much more economically, and with a more unified structure, by incorporating it into the third-person narrative. Every time we switch to his strand, there’s a marked loss of momentum and interest.

Even in the strand focused on Teresa directly, however, the prose is slow-moving, and detail heavy (about a third of the text could probably have been edited out without major damage, and it would have produced a quicker, more easily-flowing read). Given that it’s also peppered with constant f-words (probably incongruous for Spanish-language speakers) and other foul language and crude sexual content, both heterosexual and lesbian, for me it was a real chore to read as much as I did. Perez-Reverte (who’s the author of at least five other novels, though I haven’t read any of those) also affects a self-consciously “literary” style, with a lot of emphasis on his protagonist’s inner thoughts and on portentiously-described Significant Moments, which gets old quickly. In fairness to the author, the translator is probably responsible for the f-words and for the erroneous use of “clips” to describe ammunition magazines –and certainly for the frequent Spanish phrases left untranslated, apparently to give the text a Spanish flavor. (Most monolingual English-language readers would have preferred that he’d stuck to doing that with familiar words like “si” and “gracias,” that don’t need translation.)

reina-novel2For a writer who was so inclined, the subject matter here would be a gold mine for moral and social reflection. The storyline cries out for exploration of the (im)morality of a drug trade that corrupts and destroys every life it touches, of the roots of demand for drugs in modern society, of the inequities in Mexican government and society for which the drug trade is a symptom and a result, of the failure of the prison system as an instrument of rehabilitation or justice, and any number of other serious themes. Readers who bring the raw materials for such reflection with them to the book may indeed think about these things, but without any direct encouragement from the author. His basic message appears to be nihilistic cynicism; and if anything, he tends to glorify drug trafficking, in somewhat the same fashion as the “narcocorridos” that he quotes at times.

To the extent that he has a vision, it could fairly be summarized as: “Wow, Teresa is a tough survivor who climbs to the top of the heap against odds; isn’t she COOL?” Well –no. She is a tough survivor who can handle threatening situations with courage and resolution; she has intelligence and talents that could be put to more constructive uses than they get, and she demonstrates some instinctive basic decency in her face-to-face relations with people. But she’s incapable (or doesn’t want to be capable) of any reflection about the consequences of her actions for people who use the drugs she transports, and doesn’t come across as particularly likable or admirable in most ways that count. (We’re also asked to believe –unrealistically– that her own drug habit has no more psychological or physical consequences than chewing gum would have; and some readers probably will believe it, to their own detriment.) I wouldn’t characterize her as an evil villainess –but I wouldn’t call her a heroine or a role model, either.

Readers who frequent this site will, understandably, be interested in the book’s action component. I set Teresa’s kick-butt quotient at three stars as a matter of attitude; she’s pragmatic about the elimination of enemies, though unlike the drug lords of Sinola, she’s not into slaughtering their innocent families. (She may threaten it for effect, but the reader knows that on that score, her bark is worse than her bite; and she’s capable of mercy where others in her position might not have shown it.) But as far as any direct personal action on her part goes, she picks up and uses a gun here exactly twice, once near the beginning and once in the climactic shoot-out near the end. And that scene is described, in Perez-Reverte’s typically “literary” fashion, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style from a slightly befuddled viewpoint; he doesn’t handle the action with the clarity that some other writers would.

Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Publisher: Putnam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

High School Hellcats

starstarstar
“Pussies galore.”

hellcatsSpectacularly dated in some ways, this also possesses comforting resonances with the present day: hey, teenagers were brattily rebellious in 1958 too. New girl Joyce (Lime) is lured in by the bad-girl posings of the Hellcats, led by Connie (Lund) and her long-time second in command, Dolly (Sidney). They shoplift! They throw knives about! They smoke! This is all to the concern, not so much of her parents (who seem largely oblivious to the moral depths into which their daughter is sinking, providing her skirts aren’t too short), as her boyfriend, Mike (Halsey), who is concerned about where the Hellcats are leading Joyce.

Dolly, meanwhile, is none too happy at the increasingly cozy relationship between Connie and Joyce, that threatens to supplant her position as deputy. Matters come to a head after a party at an unoccupied house, where a game of “sardines” has a tragic conclusion. The death is hushed up, with all present vowing to keep it secret – but the cops are soon nosing around, and the pressure starts to cause cracks in the Hellcats – some members in particular…

Probably the most deliciously mad element is the first “initiation” through which Joyce has to go, involving her in the hideous crime of… wearing slacks to school. Clearly, these young women are completely irredeemable and beyond any hope of redemption. Yeah, it all seems remarkably sweet and innocent in comparison to modern life; though on the other hand, this was also while segregation was still part of American culture, and the entirely Caucasian nature of the film and its cast is also notable. But as so often, the bad girls seem an awful lot more fun than the blandly-uninteresting Joyce; give them seven more years (plus some plastic surgery), and they could end up starring in Faster, Pussycat! – there’s much the same enthusiastic spitting of over-ripe dialogue here.

It isn’t just their attitude: it’s notable that, unlike some entries in the “teenage girl gang” genre, the Hellcats are not an off-shoot of a male gang, or indeed, beholden to men in any way – the only male character of note is Mike, and he is basically as useful as a chocolate teapot. Even at the end, when Joyce is lured into a late-night meeting at the derelict cinema which is the gang’s HQ, he serves no significant purpose. That’s remarkably advanced for its time, and is the kind of forward thinking which keeps this watchable when, let’s be honest, many of the topical elements are more likely to trigger derisive snorts in the contemporary viewer. On the other hand, the amusement added certainly can’t be said to detract from the overall entertainment value.  While I’m not exactly going to claim this is some kind of hidden gem, it was certainly more watchable than I expected, given both the passage of time and its obvious throwaway nature, even in its day.

Dir: Edward Bernds
Star: Yvonne Lime, Brett Halsey, Susanne Sidney, Jana Lund

The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl

starstarstarhalf
“Great idea, spoiled by limp execution.”

goldenclawsInspired by the first in a series of books by Albert Sainte-Aube, it’s easy to see why this proved a successful concept. Beautiful circus performer Françoise (Gaubert, who managed to marry both a dictator’s son and a triple Olympic gold medalist, in Radhamés Trujillo and Jean-Claude Killy respectively) takes her talents to the criminal field, where her tightrope and trapeze skills help in her secret life as a cat-burglar. However, this is derailed when she falls for a sting by government operative Durieux (Guiomar), and the price of her freedom is her assistance with a task set by him.

Diplomat Saratoga (Pitoëff) is using his status as a cover for drug-running, and in order to break the operation open, Durieux needs Françoise to break into Saratoga’s office and liberate a 20 kg package of drugs from the safe. To this end, she’s given the help of Bruno (Duchaussoy), a gifted lip-reader who’ll be able to figure out when the deal is going down, and the two of them begin a stake-out from a nearby apartment. But our heroine’s sticky fingers don’t stop at the drugs, and when she also liberates a large sum of cash from the safe, and heads for Switzerland, with the cop, the criminal and Bruno, all keen to track her down, each for their own reasons.

Unfortunately, this is one of those films that, despite a brilliant title (not the original one, which translates as much more prosaically, as The Lone Wolf). doesn’t live up to its promise. There is an awful lot of sitting around and chatting, filmed in a flat and uninteresting manner, and none of the supporting cast provide any kind of depth or interest. That’s a shame, as the action is generally well-handled, not least the heist at the movie’s core, which takes place during a thunderous rainstorm, making every move all the more treacherous. I do have to wonder, however, quite where they are hanging the trapeze from which the heroine swings, or why she bothers – the tightrope-walking depicted on multiple occasions previously, would seem a much more sensible and reliable method of getting from High Point A to High Point B!

Regardless, after a wonderful 10 minutes, it’s back to sitting around and chatting, and that’s largely where the movie remains until the end. More than one review has remarked on the film’s possible status as an inspiration for Luc Besson’s Nikita. While I can see that possibility, in its tale of a woman coerced into working for the government, who yearns to escape, this would be a case where the student’s efforts significantly surpassed those of his master.

Dir: Edouard Logereau
Star: Danièle Gaubert, Michel Duchaussoy, Julien Guiomar, Sacha Pitoëff
a.k.a. La Louve Solitaire

Rosario Tijeras (TV series)

starstarstarstarhalf
“Scissors cuts… well, just about everything.”

rosario2As previously noted, one of the trademarks of the telenovela is the flashback, and the one we get here is a doozy. For, this begins with Rosario Tijeras (Yepez) being shot and rushed to hospital, prompting frantic phone-calls to her yuppie boyfriend, Emilio (Martinez). It then rewinds some five years, to show the events by which everyone got there, and takes roughly 45 episodes – three-quarters of the series! – to catch up and once more reach the point at which it began. Admittedly, this does reflects the structure of the source novel, and I don’t know if that’s why the final quarter feels like a marked improvement in terms of pacing and energy: the critically-injured Rosario is hunted in the hospital by those who want to finish the job, and has to be rescued by her brother Johnefe (Restrepo) and his crew – along with an unwilling doctor, to tend to Rosario in a workshop. From there, it’s an escalating series of death, betrayal, death, death, tragedy and death, with a body count that makes Hamlet look like Mary Poppins.

This is, however, getting well ahead of ourselves, and you have to trudge through your fair share of soap-opera drama and “love across the class divide” to reach these excellent 15 final episodes. It begins with Rosario still a schoolgirl, albeit a rebellious one: an incident where she gives a teacher an unrequested hair-cut gets her and pal Dayra expelled, but also gets her the “Tijeras” (scissors) nickname, and wins the heart of Antonio de Bedout (Sandoval), a student visiting her school as part of a college project. He is the son of a rich businessman! She is the daughter of a poor but honest beautician! They keep just missing each other, even though her mom does house-calls on his sisters! But, wait! There’s more! His best-friend, Emilio (Martinez), gets to Rosario first, and they begin a torrid romance! But he’s already in a relationship with Paula, a girl from his social level! Okay, enough already. Although I think I probably used up the entire month’s quota of exclamation points there, they did not die in vain – you presumably get the picture.

tijerasFortunately, that’s not all that’s going on. After their expulsion, Dayra and Rosario work for the latter’s sleazy step-dad in the local market, selling cellphone minutes. Not cellphones. Cellphone minutes. They have a set of mobile phones chained to them, one for each carrier, and rent them out to whoever needs to call – I believe it’s the result of a market where calls between networks is extremely expensive, so if you want to speak to someone whose mobile uses a different carrier, it’s better to pay a small mark-up to a third-party. This demonstrates one of the confusing joys of watching foreign shows; the cultural differences, with things that seem strange to an outside, yet make perfect sense as part of the cultural norm, to locals.

I digress – but given a show telling a single story over 60 episodes, so does the series, so we’re even. Anyway, the girls’ job brings them into contact with their stepfather’s boss, Gonzalo González, whose even sleazier, and has a “thing” for young virgins. Hoping to make her way out of the slums, Dayra sashays into Gonzalo’s ranch, but when he discovers she is not quite as pure as advertised, his revenge is swift and brutal, and her lifeless body is found on a patch of wasteland. Meanwhile, Rosario is having issues of her own, culminating in her abduction and rape at the hands of a local gang led by Cachi. She takes revenge there first, castrating him, and then goes after Gonzalo – although the plan is for Johnefe to help her, she ends up entirely on her own resources, but doesn’t flinch, and he becomes her first victim. Gonzalo’s drug-running rival, Adonai, known as “The King of Heaven” is delighted by her actions, and the first phase of the show ends with her becoming part of his organization.

We then fast forward a few years. Emilio and Antonio encounter Rosario again, in a nightclub, and begin their dalliance anew, unaware that she was there on a job for the King, and is now a feared and notorious assassin for him. The love triangle is more of a love quadrilateral, thanks to barrio boy Ferney, and it’s this which provides the key to the Shakespearean events of the second half. Rosario discovers evidence that the king’s brother, Teo, is deceiving him, having swapped out two tons of cocaine for sugar, blown up the plane on which the cargo was being transported, then sold the real thing off to another buyer. Teo realizes Rosario must be silenced, and convinces Ferney that he has no chance with her, when put beside the rich yuppies, and that she’s going to betray her roots for a future as part of the upper classes to which the pair belong. And that’s how we eventually end up, 45 episodes later, back where we started, with Rosario being rushed to hospital.

The early going is certainly more soap-opera than anything else, it still makes for adequate entertainment, with the good characters appropriately likeable, and the bad ones suitable evil. That said… Damn, the guys in this show appear to be almost entirely driven by their genitalia. In particular, Emilio has absolutely no issue with bedding Rosario, even as he is going out with, then engaged to, and even married to Paula Restrepo, an aspiring model. She shows rather more tolerance for his roaming than I would, and I can’t really blame her for eventually taking steps to remove Rosario from her married life. But Emilio is hardly alone: there’s an entire subplot involving Antonio’s father, Luis Enrique, who has been having a long-time affair with his secretary, including a secret daughter, which may explain his wife’s heavy drinking. Not sure how much of this is in the book, and how much is additional padding: I suspect the latter, since when you’ve got 60 episodes to fill, you’re likely going to need more material than a single novel. Some aspects does appear directly derived, however – or, at least, were also in the film version, made five years previously.

rosario3One such is the funeral of one character: it appears such events, at least in the Medellin slums, are rather less… formal than we’re used to. By which, I mean the corpse is paraded about on a sun-lounger, to loud reggaton, then placed on the back of a motorcycle which pulls wheelies around the neighbourhood. Like I said: these kind of cultural differences, can only be accepted for what they are. Though it might have helped if Netflix had the same person subtitle all the episodes, as there are sometimes confusing inconsistencies. It took me a while to figure out that characters called “Querubin” and “Mago” were the same ones called “Cherub” and “the Magician” elsewhere, depending on whether the subtitler bothered to translate their names.  Even more confusing, Netflix managed to list one episode entirely out of order. When watched in the order provided, this led to Luis Enrique’s affair-daughter suddenly being held to ransom, for no apparent reason, then being released, and only finally, getting kidnapped – at which point, it all made sense, rather than being some particularly obscurist structure involving nested flashbacks.

One aspect worthy of note is that the police aren’t shown here as being particularly corrupt or bad, in contrast to some I’ve seen where they are the “bad guys”. Detective Pamela Pulido, played by Jenny Vargas Sepulveda, is both honest and smart, and gets a fair amount of screen-time as she tries to disentangle the increasing mess with her partnet, Isaak – in particular, by turning up the heat on Emilio and Antonio. [During filming, there was an odd incident where Sepulveda was arrested and held for five hours, at the airport on the way to Medellin, after her luggage was inexplicably found to contain a number of live rounds of ammunition!] Rosario’s second step-father, Libardo, is also a member of the police force, though his morality turns out to be considerably more murky, even if some of his actions largely appear to be driven by concern for the welfare of his step-daughter.

I’d have liked to see more from the period over which the show entirely skips, showing Rosario’s rise to the top of the King’s accomplices, rather than the various subplots involving the business and property dealings of the de Bedout family. The show is called Rosario Tijeras after all, and should be about the heroine and her lethal exploits, not country-club memberships and tennis matches. Still, even during the lengthy periods where it focuses more on the drama than action, the cultural freshness and generally engaging nature of the people depicted, kept this ticking over. Rosario herself makes for a very good and strong heroine, who takes absolutely no shit from anyone, and when life gives her lemons, she makes lemonade – albeit, one imagines, only after repeatedly stabbing the lemons with a pair of scissors.

Star: Maria Fernanda Yepez, Andres Sandoval, Sebastián Martínez, Juan David Restrepo

Sin Dejar Huella

starstarstar
“The road through Mexico.”

sindejaThe title translates as Leaving No Trace, and is entirely appropriate, since it focuses on two women who, each for their own reasons, are very keen to disappear off the grid. There’s MariLu (Sánchez-Gijón), a.k.a. Ana, a.k.a. a bunch of other names – she has three different passports – who works in the murky world of art smuggling, and is first encountered sneaking across the border from Arizona into Mexico [a nicely-ironic reversal of the usual traffic]. She is being pursued doggedly by cop Mendizábal (Ochoa), who is trailing Ana to find out who she works for. Then there’s Aurelia (Scanda), a single mom who is on the run after stealing and selling the stash of drugs her boyfriend Saul (Altomaro) was holding for the cartel, and who is on the run with the resulting cash. The pair meet up and agree to share the drive to Cancun, though neither is willing to reveal the truth about themselves. However, a red car with tinted windows is tailing them: is is Saul or Mendizábal behind the wheel?

This plays a little like a Mexican version of Thelma & Louise, although the women here begin as strangers instead of friends, and their film is as much about the growth of their relationship as the interaction with the outside world. It’s also very much a road movie, with the landscape through which they move almost another character; there are some amazing locations, such as the abandoned and derelict plantation mansion, now taken over and inhabited by the local peasants, or the near-deserted hotel in which the final act unfolds. Novaro does a great job of contrasting the grinding poverty and stunning natural beauty, and there’s an undercurrent of political subtext, with apparent nods toward NAFTA and the female homicides in Juarez. However, it is all kept light enough to teach Callie Khouri a thing or two about the benefits of subtlety and understatement.

Aurelia is likely the more sympathetic character, mainly because we know the truth about her situation – Ana appears almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth to anyone, about anything. However, the motivations and eventual goals of the women are left murky and unclear; this is a film definitely more interested in the journey, both physical and spiritual, than the destination. This is most apparent in an unsatisfactory conclusion, which zigs in one direction before inexplicably zagging back in another, without adequate explanation for either. The two pincers closing on the women do cross, only for one then apparently to meander off, as if distracted. And that’s a shame, as the film had put together a number of compelling elements and memorable sequences, including one of the more brutally realistic crashes I’ve seen [cars don’t fly, they plummet]. You should accept going in, this is much more drama than action; do that, and it’s an enjoyable enough ride, even if the final objective is rather disappointing.

Dir: Maria Novaro
Star: Tiaré Scanda, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón Jesús Ochoa, Martín Altomaro

Wicked Blood

starstarstar
wickedbloodLittle Miss Sunshine no more.”

The obvious inspiration here is Winter’s Bone, with its similar tale of a teenage girl trying to rescue her meth-infected family. Indeed, given the title here goes so far as to share the same initials, this feels almost like a “mockbuster,” hoping to capitalize on RedBox or Netflix consumer confusion. That said, it’s solid enough, even if there’s just something… wrong about watching Abigail Breslin, one of our most beloved of screen moppets since we saw her in Signs, blowing people up with hand-grenades. She plays Hannah Lee Baker, a bright young girl with a fondness for chess, but an orphan. Along with her older sister Amber (Vega), she lives with her Uncle Donny (Temple), who cooks meth for local crime boss, Frank Stinson (Bean). As Amber falls for Stinson’s rival, Hannah works on a chance to move away from their precarious position, but “Uncle Frank” isn’t exactly going to let any of them leave easily.

It’s a good cast, though both Breslin and Vega bring some baggage in their filmographies: Vega was one half of Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids series, so is clearly growing up as well. They aren’t the only ones in unusual roles, Also kinda weird to see the very Yorkshire Bean sporting an American accent; while I won’t say whether or not he lives up to the Sean Bean meme, this is probably the third-creepiest Uncle Frank in cinema history [behind the ones in Hellraiser and Blue Velvet]. The chess metaphor is nice, if somewhat over-used; it’s clear Hannah is the smartest tool in her family, and the only one that’s capable of thinking further ahead than the next meal. She desperately wants to avoid becoming like Donny, having seen the terrible toll “hillbilly crack” has taken on him and his life, and is prepared to go to any lengths to avoid the same fate.

However, there is certainly a sense that we’ve seen this all before, with nothing particularly new in the storyline department. While I certainly admire the way Heather went about things, some of her actions were rather poorly explained, seeming to serve no purpose for her expressed goal. In particular, she opts to start stealing meth from Uncle Frank, but doesn’t appear to have any particular plan with what to do with her box o’ drugs. I’d like to have seen more of the heroine using her intellect, playing the factions off against each other, and using her smarts for leverage, because that’s obviously Hannah’s biggest edge, and the film doesn’t make enough of it. However, the performances are effective, and they help this one pass the time perfectly adequately, even when the plotting leaves a considerable amount to be desired.

Dir: Mark Young
Star: Abigail Breslin, Alexa Vega, Lew Temple, Sean Bean

Modesty Blaise, by Peter O’Donnell

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2actionhalf

modesty1British author Peter O’Donnell created the iconic character of Modesty Blaise in 1963 as the heroine of an action adventure comic strip. He didn’t do the art work for the strip (that was done by four successive artists altogether), but he was responsible for the storylines and printed matter during the whole 38-year run, continuing until 2001. (These original strips are currently being reprinted as a series of graphic novels.) It quickly proved popular enough that 20th-Century Fox enlisted him to write a screenplay for a spin-off movie, which he did. However, he approached the character and the project seriously; and the filmmakers decided that they wanted to produce a parody of the James Bond films instead.

So, they brought in another writer to rework his screenplay, and ended up only keeping one sentence of it. Surprisingly, though, they asked O’Donnell, not his replacement, to do the novelization. He did –but he used his screenplay as the basis. That became the book I’m reviewing here, which was published in 1965 and sparked a long-running series of novels and stories, all with original plots distinct from those of the comic strips. (Meanwhile, the movie, with its caricature of Modesty in the main role, hit the screens in 1966, but failed to spark any fan enthusiasm comparable to what the books and comics generated.)

O”Donnell’s Modesty is a fascinating, complex and layered character, with an unusual back-story that’s provided in its basics at the beginning of this book, but fleshed out more as the tale unfolds. Born about 1939 –she doesn’t know exactly when, nor what her real name and nationality is– she was orphaned as a small child in the chaos and atrocities of World War II, and wandered alone through the Balkans and Middle East, sometimes living in refugee or DP camps. Exposed to a lot of danger and brutality, she survived against all odds because she learned to defend herself and to develop a tough, pragmatic mentality. As a tween, she was mentored by another refugee, a former university professor (whom she protected, rather than the other way around) who taught her a great deal; intelligent and gifted with a good memory, she’s well-educated as a result.

Winding up in Tangier at 17, she soon succeeded to the leadership of a criminal gang, and built it into a substantial international organization, the Network, that engaged in art and jewel thefts, currency manipulations, smuggling, and intelligence brokering. She did NOT, however, engage in drug or sex trafficking (and sometimes provided the authorities with tips that enabled them to bust drug operations); her criminal activities violated the law, but never her own personal moral code and sense of honor. (It was during her Network days that she forged her abiding friendship with Willie Garvin, a skilled knife-fighter whose life had pretty much hit bottom until she saw his potential and recruited him; he would become her lieutenant and faithful sidekick.) Having amassed her goal of half a million pounds sterling by the time she was about 25, she turned the Network over to its regional bosses and she and Willie (also wealthy by that time) retired to a quiet life in England.

The book opens about a year later, when she’s bored and restive, increasingly aware that she’s psychologically geared to find fulfillment and purpose in high-risk physical action, and doesn’t feel really alive when she’s vegetating without it. At this point, she’s approached by Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of British Intelligence (who did business with her, through Willie, when she was brokering items of information that interested the British government). As partial payment to a Middle Eastern sheik for an oil concession, Britain is shipping ten million pounds worth of diamonds from South Africa to Beirut –and there are rumors that the secrecy of the shipment has been compromised, and that someone may be out to steal it. Being aware of Modesty’s unique wide knowledge of, and contacts in, the international underworld, Tarrant would like her to check this out for him. First, though, she’ll have another priority on the agenda –rescuing Willie (also bored and restive) from the South American prison where he’s awaiting execution, having been a mercenary on the losing side in a civil war.

modesty2O’Donnell is a master of characterization; not just Modesty and Willie, but all of the secondary characters here too, are wonderfully wrought, full-orbed and realistic. The plotting is taut and well-paced, with no unnecessary filler, and there’s a real sense of danger and challenge. It’s clear that the author has a very good working knowledge of traditional Arab culture, which adds texture here. Unlike Ian Fleming, he doesn’t go in for far-fetched gadgetry, but he does endow his heroine and hero with some believable gadgets and an ability to secrete them on their person. He writes action scenes that are clear, vivid and gripping; and he sets his action in the context of a moral framework –recognizable good is pitted here against genuine evil, and O’Donnell makes us root wholeheartedly for the former and despise the latter. Modesty herself is no plaster saint; I didn’t approve of everything she’s done in her life, or every aspect of her lifestyle now. But I could understand her motivations, and didn’t have any trouble liking and respecting her as a heroine –she has a lot of very real virtues, is a born leader and as valiant a fighter as ever lived, cares about others and treats them decently, and respects innocent life (and will spare adversaries’ lives at times when some people in her shoes probably wouldn’t).

At one point, O’Donnell makes use of a double coincidence in his plotting, which some critics might fault him for. (But that personally didn’t bother me much; I ascribed it to the action of providence.) And while he drops the names of various firearms models to lend verisimilitude to his narrative, he makes a couple of bloopers in his treatment of guns. Also, he describes technical processes at places in the narrative in more detail than I would (I have a low tolerance for that kind of thing), but he usually has a good reason to, and does it with reasonable clarity; some fans will actually regard this as a strength of the writing. One major character displays some sexist attitudes, but I didn’t think O’Donnell was sharing in or justifying them, just realistically depicting the way many males in 1965 thought (and still do).

There’s a high body count here, but the violence is handled quickly and cleanly; while some of the villains are sadists, O”Donnell isn’t. There’s some bad language, and a certain amount of religious profanity, but no obscenity. While there’s no explicit sex, it’s made clear that unmarried sex took place a few times, and will again; Willie and Modesty are single, but not celibate. (Their relationship with each other, though, is perfectly chaste and Platonic –they genuinely do love each other, and would die for each other, but as true friends, not as erotic partners.)

In this book, it’s noted in passing that Modesty has been raped twice in her life. As it stands, that’s just a reflection of the tragic fact that women in our world often do face a lot of sexual violence; and she isn’t defined by the experience, and doesn’t have a victim mentality that allows it to permanently scar her life, which is positive modeling. But I’m told by other readers that in the other books of the series (though not the comics) Modesty tends to be raped quite frequently. To me, that’s a disturbing amount of sexual violence for one character to have to undergo; and it does seem like a morbid overuse of the motif. But that said, I’m still invested enough in this heroine and her future adventures to continue reading the series!

Author: Peter O’Donnell
Publisher: Souvenir Press, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase

starstarstar
“A movie packed with blow(-up) jobs.”

dynamitegirlsSorry. Couldn’t resist the above tasteless joke. I did try. It was the longest five seconds of my life. But, let’s face it, the late Ms. Jennings would probably have approved, as she shot across the B-movie firmament like a meteor, in other films reviewed here, such as Gator Bait and Unholy Rollers, before her untimely death at the age of 29.

This is an energetic and briskly-paced B-movie, with no pretensions, perhaps inspired somewhat by the Italian film Blonde in Black Leather, made two years earlier, which also had a downtrodden woman breaking free of the shackles of society for wild adventures alongside a rebellious friend. Here, the former is bank-teller Ellie-Jo Turner (Jones), who has just been fired when her branch is robbed by the dynamite-toting Candy Morgan (Jennings). in need of funds to save her family’s farm. The two meet each other again on the road, and Ellie-Jo convinces Candy that a life of crime would be fun, and so the pair – after scoring some non-fizzling explosives – begin a cross-Texas bank robbery spree. During an unscheduled diversion to a convenience store, they pick up a hostage, Slim (Crawford), who turns out to be rather happy in his plight. However, for how long can they stay ahead of the law?

I didn’t even realize this was an action heroine film, until a friend reviewed it on his site, so a hat-tip to Hal for that. The alternate title – particularly if accompanied by the over-enthusiastic French poster accompanying this piece! – makes this more clear.  I enjoyed the Thelma and Louise vibe here, with the two heroines playing off each other nicely, and while it is obviously exploitational, right from the moment Jennings gratuitously changes her top inside the first five minutes, these aspects are relatively restrained. To be honest, I could very easily have done without Slim entirely, as his character appears to add nothing of significance to the film, and Crawford’s performance is so blandly uninteresting, he sucks the life off the screen whenever he appears – quite a contract to Jennings.

There is also a sharp shift in tone for the final reel, where Pressman [whose subsequent directorial career include a pair of really bad sequels in The Bad News Bears: Breaking Training and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze] apparently getting in touch with his inner Sam Peckinpah, and delivering a slow-mo blood-squibtravaganza that is not at all in keeping with what has gone before. However, I’m prepared to forgive it for one big reason, though unfortunately it’s too spoilery for me to provide more details. For the same reason, I have to remain vague in my approval of the ending, which went in a different direction from the one I was expecting, and was all the better for it. This is more evidence that Jennings’ early departure was certainly our genre’s loss.

Dir: Michael Pressman
Star: Claudia Jennings, Jocelyn Jones, Johnny Crawford
a.k.a. Dynamite Women

The Great Chase

starstarstar
“Driver with a thousand faces.”

greatchaseShinobu Yashiro (Shiomi) is nationally known as a race-car ace, but also moonlights as an undercover agent for Japanese law enforcement. That’s motivated by a desire to track down those responsible for the death of her father; he was a ship’s captain, convicted of smuggling drugs, who “committed suicide” in prison, though Shinobu thinks he was framed by the real perpetrator. She gets a possible lead, in the shape of Henry Nagatani and starts tracking him down, with the help of the brother and sister who run her fan-club (!) out of a florist’s shop (!!). Using a wide range of disguises, from a businessman through an old wonan to a nun and a Cambodian diplomat, Shinobu gets closer to the core of the conspiracy, and the man responsible, Onozawa (Ishibashi) though the cost on those she knows proves heavy indeed.

It’s kinda all over the place in terms of tone, charmingly naive and innocently light-hearted in some ways, such as the entirely gratuitous presence of Mach Fumiake, as a nightclub singer who follows up her songs with an in-club wrestling bout. [Fumiake was at the time, one of the starts of All Japan Women’s Wrestling, along with a tag team known as the “Beauty Pair”, whose name inspired the Dirty Pair]. Similarly, Shinoby’s disguises are also more than somewhat variable in terms of how convincing they are, and the drug-running through a convent, with guys dressed as nuns, may have inspired a similarly ridiculous plot thread in They Call Her Cleopatra Wong. Yet this can be grubbily sleazy, particularly in the second half. Onozawa likes to have rough sex while dressed in a bear suit, which reminded me of Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bête, released the same year, and there’s also an excessive amount of S&M, though Shiomi, naturally, remains above that sort of thing.

The action is probably not as frequent as Sister Street Fighter, and probably not as good, except for the final battle, where Shiomi gets to wield her nunchakus to excellent effect. Up until that, there are a lot of scenes where her kicks and punches don’t seem to have much force to them – to be honest, Fumiake comes over rather better in that department! The whole race-car driver aspect is rapidly discarded, and provides nothing more than the title sequence; I was expecting at least a car-chase so the heroine could show off her mad driving skills, but the makers apparently felt no particular need to justify their choice of name for the movie. Yet it moves along briskly, and you have to appreciate Shiomi’s enthusiastic performance, selling over-cooked lines such as: “Can’t you tell who I am? We’ve seen each other so many times. A woman gambler at times; a young gentleman at times; a tea-serving old lady at times; a nun in a black dress at times; and a white haired Cambodian woman. And, under the mask, my true self is the daughter of Masahiro Yashiro, who was brutally murdered by you five years ago – Shinobu Yashiro!” Half a star extra, purely for delivering that with a straight face.

Dir: Noribumi Suzuki
Star: Sue Shiomi, Eiji Go, Mach Fumiake, Masashi Ishibashi