High School Hellcats

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“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

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“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)

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“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

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“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

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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

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“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

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“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

The Action Heroines of Telenovelas

lareinaThe recent arrival of a large batch of telenovelas on Netflix has opened the window on a new field of potential action heroines. For these Latin American TV series – often (and, admittedly, not entirely incorrectly) derided as soap operas – appear to be featuring an increasing number of strong heroines. Before we get to the reasons for that, let’s have an overview of the field in general. They began in the 1950’s, springing up almost simultaneously out of Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, but there is now hardly a Spanish-speaking country that doesn’t produce them – indeed, the style has also been adopted by non-Hispanic countries, such as Korea. That format differs from soap-opera in that it is less open-ended: rather than an indeterminate run, it is a single story, told in concentrated form, typically daily, or at least multiple episodes per week.

While associated with romantic entanglements, class divides, family drama. terminal illness, pregnancies and extreme over-acting, that is not quite accurate. Yes, there are plenty which feature that kind of thing – the four R’s of the genre being romance, rivalry, revenge and redemption – and even the top-end are still budget productions by the standards of English language television, costing at most $170,000 per 45-minute episode, a fraction of the $1 million per episode spent in Hollywood on even the cheapest of scripted dramas. But an increasing number have become more interesting and gritty, exploring darker themes. There’s even a telenovela version, also available on Netflix, of Breaking Bad, called Metástasis, which is basically identical to the original, right down to a hero called “Walter Blanco”.

In particular, the landscape changed with the unprecedented success of La Reina del Sur in 2011. During its American screenings, even though it was on a purely Spanish-language station, Telemundo, it was often the most-watched program in the coveted age 18-49 demographic, beating the English-language channels. Its finale scored the highest-ever ratings in Telemundo’s history, and was seen by about the same number of people as watched the last episode of, say, Parks and Recreation. [An English language remake, Queen of the South, starring Sonia Braga, will appear on the USA Network later this year]  It was the station’s most expensive production, but it’s the story – a woman who rose from nothing to become the biggest drug boss in southern Spain – which matters here.

rosario2For the new ground it broke, in its depiction of a heroine who could be as tough and ruthless as any man, clearly resonated with the audience. Inevitably, the show spawned a slew of others seeking to imitate its success, with similarly single-minded and ambitious heroines, prepared to gun down anyone who wrongs them, or gets in their way. And it’s this new generation of telenovelas, that we find showing up on Netflix in bulk. But where to start? That’s what this article is for: I’ve watched the series of potential interest to gauge whether they deliver on the potential offered by their covers. Though I give you a caveat. These shows typically run anywhere up to 80 episodes, and watching that would be about three months of the viewing time I devote to this site. So, I’ve based what follows, mostly on the first 10 episodes of each. Full reviews will follow eventually.

Before I break them down. there are some common elements in these shows, worth addressing to avoid having to repeat myself!

  • The glamorization of criminality. The heroines here are generally not cops, private eyes or other characters on the side of law and order. They are almost all criminals; some begin as criminals (or their other halves), some become criminals, and others have criminality forced upon them. But the escape from whatever perils befall them inevitably involves illegal activities of one kind or another.
  • Flashbacks R Us. In most of these, we join proceedings at a particularly dramatic moment, and then skip back to see what brought us to that point. This isn’t unheard of in American TV of course – the “24 hours previously” trope – but in telenovelas, this can last for multiple episodes. Indeed, in at least one case, I get the feeling the entire series may be a flashback.
  • Sexual assault as a plot-device. Unfortunate, this one, and also symptomatic of lazy writing, in that the creators can’t seem to think of many other ways to trigger the heroines into action. Want her to move out? Sleazy stepfather tries it on. Need her to get her hands bloody? Rape and revenge! Then again, it kinda makes sense, since they seem to take place in a universe where all men appear to be scumbags with exactly one thing on their minds…
  • Recommended for viewing at about 75% attention. If I actually sit down and watch these, their flaws (such as fairly obviously being shot on video) tend to become a bit too glaring. I’ve found that they’re more palatable watched while doing something else, lightly-engaging – in my case, the daily stint on the treadmill.

Camelia la Texana

camelia1If perhaps the least “action heroine-y” of the shows taste-tested here, there’s a fair case to be argued for the storyline being the most interesting, overall.  The show was inspired by Contrabando y Traición (Smuggling and Betrayal), one of the first “narcocorrido” songs from legendary norteño band, Los Tigres Del Norte. It tells of Emilio and Camelia who smuggle drugs into America, only for him to dump her. Camelia does not respond well: she shoots him seven times and vanishes with the money. It led to a movie of the same name, and has since become embedded in popular Hispanic culture, even becoming an opera in 2013, with Camelia becoming a mythical figure, whether or not she ever was based on a real person.

A three-minute song doesn’t have enough meat for a 60-episode series, so of necessity the show expands the scope significantly. With occasional flashbacks to events during the forties, it mostly takes place in the early seventies, when Camelia (Sara Maldonado) is training to be a dentist in Texas, working part-time at a diner, and waiting for her boyfriend to return from the Vietnam War. In short order, pretty much all of that falls apart, and she is instead thrown together with a well-groomed gangster called Emilio Varela (Erik Hayser), who has been tasked with bringing Camelia back to Mexico, where a drug lord has an inexplicable – well, it’s pretty explicable, actually – interest in her.

If Camelia has not, in the early going, done much to justify the viewer’s interest [thus far, she has mostly been making gooey eyes at her beau], the rest of the show is quite intriguing. There’s a power struggle south of the border between rival gangs, and it’s the women there who hold much of the power, albeit from the shadows. There’s even an occult subplot, involving a blind young girl who can foresee the future – as well as a transvestite shaman who cannot, despite her claims! Add in a good deal of political chess, and there has been enough to sustain interest, while we twiddle our thumbs, waiting – if the series is true to the song – for Camelia to pop the requisite seven bullets into Emilio and, one hopes, head into business on her own terms.

La Esquina Del Diablo

I was initially pretty excited by this one because unlike the other shows, its central character is a policewoman, not a perp. Ana García (Ana Serradilla, fresh off the success of La Viuda Negra – more on which below) blows her chance at joining the special forces due to her temper. But she is then recruited for a clandestine mission into the lawless barrio of the title (which translates as “The Devil’s Corner”). The crime-lord who rules it, Ángel Velasco, has supposedly just been killed in a helicopter accident, but there are suspicions this was staged. In the guise of a social worker, Ana infiltrates the area, in her mission to find out what’s really going on.

By the end of the first episode, García has proven her bad-ass credentials, gunning down four robbers and arresting two more after stumbling into a crime in progress. Unfortunately for my adrenalin levels, this was an exception rather than the rule over the first 10 episodes, as the undercover nature of her work relies more on stealth than the banging of heads together. Indeed, the focus as a whole becomes a good deal more diluted, with the script juggling a large number of balls. These included, but are not limited to: Ana’s boss, who is dating the mayor’s daughter; Velasco’s quest for a large quantity of explosives; his second in command’s delinquent son, befriended by Ana in her social worker guise; a rival criminal gang, operating in the heart of the city rather than the barrio.

It’s a lot of threads to try and keep in the air, and I’m not sure it has been entirely successful thus far. It seems pretty clear where this is going to end up, with Ana and her boss having already shared their first, fleeting kiss. However, the second in command mentioned above, Yago, has the kind of smouldering good looks you know they’re not going to waste on celibacy. So I strongly suspect we’re going to see, down the road, Ana having to make some kind of dramatic choice between the two men in her life, on opposing sides of the law. I may be beginning to get the hang of this whole telenovela thing…

There are some positives. The location work is good, and much like Rosario Tijeras, you get a clear sense of the class divide in Colombia between the haves and the have-nots. I’m also intrigued by Michelle (Estefania Piñeres), one of Velasco’s enforcers. I have to wonder whether she was named after Michelle Rodriguez, for she sports a similar sneer, chip on the shoulder and corn-row hair-style. Hopefully, her character won’t be disposed off too quickly; if they can also give Ana more of an active role, rather than her character just being a passive information gathering conduit back to her boss, there’s still potential. While Serradilla’s charisma is still undeniable, it needs to be more focused than it has been thus far.

lareina2La Reina Del Sur

Based on a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, as noted above, this was the entry which truly kicked off the recent surge in the market. It’s the story of Teresa Mendoza (Kate del Castillo), whose boyfriend is “killed” by his drug-dealing cronies, which forces her on the run. She heads over to Spain, and begins work as a waitress at a brothel in the North African enclave of Melilla, after refusing a more “horizontal” position there, and begins to work her way up the crime ladder. However, her ambition brings her to the jealous attention of a workmate, who frames her for dealing drugs – to avoid deportation, she has to sleep with the brothel’s owner, although this also brings her into contact with the real power behind the local throne, Colonel Abdelkader Chaïb.

I like Teresa’s unwillingness to compromise her ideas: even though she’s on the run, she clearly has a goal, is intent on achieving it, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. She’s also fiercely loyal to those who help her – and even has a sympathetic streak for her enemies (as we see when the woman who framed her falls afoul of her abusive boyfriend). It’s nice she also finds someone possessing similar moral scruples – smuggler Santiago Fisterra (Iván Sanchez), reluctant to transport cocaine or people, even though that’s where the big money is. Although nothing much has happened between then in the first 10 episodes, I’m predicting a relationship in their future. To be frank, I’m also predicting a return for her original boyfriend, because the way they filmed his death appeared deliberately vague i.e. no actual body was ever seen, to the point of obviousness.

Teresa has been relatively restrained in her actions so far, except for shooting one of her boyfriend’s former colleagues who tried (sigh… inevitably) to rape her. However, she has managed to disarm the jealous counterpart who came at her with a knife, and one senses more to come. I also like that much of this has taken place outside the standard settings of Mexico and Columbia, with the heroine now the one who is maligned for her otherness, and “talking funny”, even if Teresa plays up to the stereotypes as much as runs counter to them. When a friend needs help getting her son from Morocco into the enclave, Teresa basically points out that “us Mexicans are good at crossing borders”! Donald Trump would likely not disagree, but I suspect it’s likely for the best if we keep politics off the site.

Full review

tijerasRosario Tijeras

The first one I tried, in part because the title was familiar from a film adaptation of the same novel, which I’d already seen. This one is a little older, dating back to 2010, and like the movie, is also from Colombia. The heroine, Rosario (María Fernanda Yépes), gets her nickname – Tijeras means “scissors” – after an incident at her Medellin school where she cuts off the hair of a teacher who is scolding her. That gets her expelled, but she also catches the attention of a visiting college student, Emilio, who spends many subsequent episodes trying unsuccessfully to track her down. Meanwhile, she also comes to the attention of an underworld boss with a thing for virgins, and he eventually provides Rosario with her first kill – a murder that is gratefully received by his rivals, and allows her to become a full-time assassin.

I’ve actually gone deeper into this one – 30 episodes to date, though that’s still well short of even half way – and it certainly does take its time to get going, with Emilio’s inability to locate her, in particular outstaying its welcome. Despite a tagline which proclaims “It’s harder to love than to kill.” there is clearly a great deal more of the former than the latter, and even though the men are generally more engaging and well-drawn than in some of the other series, that doesn’t stop them from behaving like stags during the breeding season. There’s also a big helping of class divide here, with the show depicting both the working-class lifestyle of Rosario and her family, which is in sharp contrast to the upper-class one enjoyed by Emilio and his chums.

If somewhat short on action thus far, it has still been entertaining viewing, not least by providing a door into a world that’s far removed from anything familiar to me. The split focus helps maintain freshness, and there’s greater depth given to the supporting cast than usual. The show came in for a lot of flak at the time of its broadcast in Colombia for glamorizing the drug traffickers lifestyle, with the main local newspaper sniffily calling the series a “gulp of absurdity, vulgarity, bad manners and a big dose of narco-culture.” Needless to say, that didn’t exactly stop the show from becoming a big ratings hit.

Full review.

senoraaceroSenora Acero

Well, this one doesn’t hang around. Inside the first episode, we’ve seen a wedding turn into a blood-bath, as heroine Sara Aguilar (Blanca Soto) sees her marriage to a Tijuana police commander lead to her own kidnapping and near-rape, her father’s death, and not one but two assassination attempts on her husband – he survives the first, but not the second. Turns out he was actually in bed with the cartel, unknown to Sara, and during a drinking session, unwisely boasted about stealing $3 million from them. [Memo to self: not a good idea] They presume she knows where the money is, and she has to bail with her son for Guadalajara, while fending off others trying to figure out the stash’s location – not just the cartel, also the mayor of Tijuana, and even her own family members, who blame her for the misfortune which has befallen them.

However, despite some cool imagery – Sara riding through the forest on horseback in a tattered wedding-dress – this is likely the most “traditional” of the shows, and is probably the worse for it. There’s an excess of angst-filled family feudin’, and way too much in the way of medical misfortune as a plot device: inside the first 10 episodes covered here, we’ve already had multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, and a surprise pregnancy – that’s all discounting the plastic surgery disasters overseen by Enriqueta Sabido (Rebecca Jones), who uses cooking oil when there’s no silicone to be found. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a steady stream of dead bodies out the back door of her beauty salon. Frankly, she’s probably a bit more interesting and lively character than Sara, who has spent much of the time so far pouting ferociously and being concerned about her son’s health.

Maybe it’ll pick up down the road. For this was such a success it became one of the few telenovelas to be renewed, getting not just a second season, but a third due out at the end of this year. While not available yet on Netflix, the second series looks like it might be a bit of an improvement going by this promo pic. Absolutely nothing along those lines has yet to show up in the show thus far!

Full review

La Viuda Negra

This is, at least nominally, based on a true story, having been inspired by Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. “The Godmother,” who was one of the major players in the boom days of cocaine trafficking into Miami, in the seventies and eighties. Naturally, the actress who plays her here, Ana Serradilla, is considerably less homely than the real person – though since Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing Blanco in an upcoming Hollywood film, we can’t really mock the telenovela for prettifying the character.

In some ways, it certainly pays fast and loose with the truth. It begins with Blanco facing the death penalty in New York, and flashes back as she literally takes her seat in the electric chair. Never happened – indeed, no-one at all in New York state has been executed since 1963. But in other ways, it appears fairly accurate: her first serious criminal activity, kidnapping the son of a rich family for ransom, a crime which ended in her shooting the victim dead, did actually occur. Although she was actually younger in real life: eleven years old, which is likely more disturbing than anything scripted drama can offer.

The best thing about this is its relentless forward progress: going by the frantic early pace, there’s a lot to cover. In the first 10 episodes alone, Blanco goes to Medellin, joins a street gang, escalates to that kidnapping, and is then forced on the run by the victim’s rich parent who is obsessed with revenge. That leads to a lengthy hunt, as well as Blanco shooting her first husband for betraying her. She then heads to Ecuador, teams up with a local drug boss there, and returns to Medellin for revenge of her own, before setting up shop, and beginning her plan to import copious quantities of cocaine to the United States, hidden in high-heeled shoes. While I don’t know whether it can keep this going, so far, this has been among the most enjoyable of the series, and is probably the one I’m most interested in continuing.

Full review

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

starstarstarstarhalf
“Who said crime doesn’t pay?”

the_life_and_crimes_of_doris_payne_3By the time I reach the age of 80, I think I’m probably going to be content simply to be waking up each morning. Not so for Doris Payne, a woman whose first conviction for jewel theft came in 1952 and her last – or at least, her most recent, for I think we’ll only be sure she’s done when she’s six foot under – came sixty-two years later, at the age of 83. She’s the charming topic of this documentary, which both looks back over her criminal career as an expert international purloiners of diamonds, and at her then-current legal troubles. Was she still actually at it, almost two decades after normal retirement age? Or is this simply a case of her reputation preceding her, and causing a heinous case of mistaken identity?

It’s a wild tale, which would likely be rejected by Hollywood as implausible [there’s vague mentions of a movie version of Payne’s life, starring Halle Berry, though exactly how far that has got is left annoyingly vague]. According to Doris, She got her start when she was hustled out of a watch store by the owner, when a richer, less black customer came in, and he didn’t realize she still had the watch. Her adoption of a life of crime, using sleight of hand and distraction to confuse sales assistants, was in part a reaction to this – but it also opened the door to a life likely unobtainable to a poor, half-black half-Cherokee girl from West Virginia.

Her career likely peaked with a seventies theft of a 10-carat diamond ring in Monte Carlo, valued at over half a million dollars. Though arrested, she managed to hide the loot by sewing it inside her girdle. On another occasion, she jumped from a moving train in Switzerland to evade the authorities. But it’s the fact that she never stopped which makes for such an intriguing character. It may be a case of rampant kleptomania at work, with her skills now no match for technology, such as the unblinking eye of closed-circuit television, but it comes embodied in the adorable form of someone who you feel should be baking cookies for her grandkids. Which may, of course, be how she (more or less) got away with it for six decades, for the first rule of successful thievery is, don’t look like a successful thief. It’s that contradiction which powers the film, and you keep watching to find out whether she will be found guilty of the crime with which she has been charged. She certainly seems credible enough in her testimony – but, again, credibility is probably the second rule of successful thievery.

Mixing interviews, re-enactments and footage of her ongoing legal issues, the film probably errs too much on the side of falling in love with its subject, never probing beyond her surface or seeking to establish the validity when Doris provides her version of events. While they may have said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” a documentary is likely not the best format for such a collection of questionable tales, regardless of how appealing the teller may be.

Dir: Kirk Marcolina, Matthew Pond