The Mae Young Classic

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“Girlfights.”

The WWE and women’s wrestling have had a fractious relationship over the years. For every two steps forward, there has been one – or, more often, two – backward. But under Executive Vice President of Talent Paul M. Levesque, better known by his ring-name of Triple H, there have been hopeful signs of progress. Perhaps the biggest of late was WWE staging an all-woman tournament this year, featuring 32 wrestlers from 13 different countries. This was named the Mae Young Classic, in honour of one of the field’s pioneers and longest-serving members; she wrestled from 1939 through 2008, and passed away in 2014.

It was a little surprising that both Japan and Mexico, likely the biggest pro wrestling markets outside the US, only had one competitor each (fewer than, say, Scotland or Australia). This could be a result of most existing talent already being under contract to federations in those countries. Otherwise the 32 wrestlers included a surprisingly broad range. There were both veterans and newcomers: Mercedes Martinez has been wrestling since 2000, while Indian Kavita Dalal only started training last year. Similarly, styles represented a broad range: some had MMA backgrounds, others were pure pro wrestlers.

In terms of looks, there was generally a certain “body type”, lean and muscular – though that didn’t quite apply to Scotland’s Piper Niven, billed at five foot five inches, and 207 pounds, though remarkably agile for it. But there was a significant variety in size, ranging from the 5’1″ Kairi Sane, up to those a foot taller (the pic, top, significantly evens this out!). However, as they say, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, and that was proved frequently true over the 31 matches in the tournament. You could never be sure who would prevail. [Just to be clear: I am entirely aware that all the results were pre-determined. But “good” pro wrestling, like good cinema, is at its most enthralling when it avoids predictability]

One thing I noticed was the particularly direct nature of the episodes. If you watch a typical episode of, say, Monday Night RAW, considerably less than half of each show will be actual, new wrestling. Between the various story-lines, chit-chat in and out of the ring, recaps and so forth, our son may not be far wrong when he calls it “soap-opera on steroids. The Classic was much more streamlined: with typically four bouts per episode, it had to be. Before each, you’d get a minute or so about each competitor, and then it was straight to the in-ring introductions. I was fearing this would end up being some kind of Total Divas-like, bitchpocalypse atrocity: those concerns proved completely unfounded.

It’s a little difficult to review without spoilers, which we were largely able to avoid – like any “real” sport, it’s a lot more fun to watch wrestling when you don’t know the outcome. So I’ll just go with some notes on the five competitors who stood out the most for us, in alphabetical order. Wild horses could not make us reveal whether or not they won any of their matches. :) I will say, it was a heck of a lot of fun, and I’d love for it to become an annual fixture on WWE’s calendar.

  • Shayna Bayzler (USA). Chris described Bayzler as “a female Brock Lesnar,” and that’s likely an accurate comparison. She became the wrestler we loved to hate, mostly for her thoroughly intimidating, take no prisoners attitude. While she’ll need to work on her wrestling technique, which is a little rough, there’s a lot of promise here, particularly as a heel.
  • Jazzy Gabert (Germany). At 6’1″, the tallest competitor, and with her short, platinum blonde hair (seen above), reminded us strongly of Brigitte Nielsen. Another veteran, wrestling since 2001, if you were going purely on who looked the part most impressively, she’d be the winner of the tournament. Only disappointment? She didn’t say, “I must break you…” to her opponents pre-fight.
  • Dakota Kai (New Zealand). Was already signed to a contract to WWE’s developmental show, NXT. Kai’s match was far and away the most-watched first-round contest on YouTube. Her kicks are lethal, many and varied. She looks like she has been teleported straight to the ring from a video-game like Dead or Alive.
  • Mercedes Martinez (USA). You could really tell the depth of her experience, both in terms of ring technique and psychology, and that helped elevate her less well-practiced opponents. Seemed to be playing the “gangster” heel for the purposes of this show, and did so effectively enough to irritate the hell out of Chris during her run. Which was likely the point!
  • Kairi Sane (Japan). Won us over completely with her heart and attitude, as she looked genuinely pleased to be there, and her elbow drop from the top-rope is a thing of wonder. [Typically, wrestlers break their fall somewhat with their legs, but Kairi leads with her elbow. This GIF likely explains it better!] Her first-round contest against Tessa Blanchard might have been the match of the tournament. Here are some highlights.

 

Monolith

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“Here in my car, I feel safest of all…”

As a joke I saw on Facebook went, “With all these self-driving cars, it won’t be long before there’s a country song about your truck leaving you.” The rise of smart vehicles is inevitable, and likely, so are other films like this, which falls somewhere between Christine and 2001. In this case, mother Sandra (Bowden) is driving to see her husband, whom she suspects of cheating on her, with their young child David (played by the two Hodges brothers, whom I’m assuming are twins!) in the back seat. Her car is the state-of-the-art Monolith, equipped with every safety feature imaginable, and then some. But a series of events – a diversion, an encounter with roadkill on the hoof, and Sandra giving David her smartphone as a distraction – lead to a tricky situation. She is stuck on a remote desert road, outside of a car that has now entered its impenetrable “vault mode”, with David trapped in its interior.

It’s not necessarily a bad idea, with the Monolith (voiced by Lang) having a personality that’s somewhere between Siri and GLaDOS from the Portal games. But there are quite a few problems with the execution. Once Sandra is locked out, it’s less “Man vs. Wild” and more “Woman vs. Brick,” as the car is simply sitting there. It isn’t particularly exciting, which is why the script tries to inject various exterior threats, most obviously a feral canine attracted by the roadkill. Though it’s kinda hard to care much, given the heroine’s situation is largely the result of her own poor decisions. I mean, for heavens’ sake, what kind of mother chooses to light up a cigarette, while in the car with her asthmatic child? At that point, being raised by the feral canine and its pack, is probably the kid’s best hope. And don’t even get me started on the finale, which takes ludicrous to a whole new level. [It turns out this car truly is completely indestructible]

There are a few subplots which don’t particularly go anywhere: the whole “husband affair” thing, for example. Or the fact that Sandra used to be the lead singer for a pop group, which seems to be there purely for vaguely regretful thoughts about having settled down to start a family. Neither it, nor the fans she runs into at a gas-station, serve any purpose once we get to the meat of the story. On the plus side, the film looks great, with Utah’s wilderness providing a wonderfully scenic backdrop, and Bowden isn’t bad, as a woman clearly out of her depth and forced to desperate lengths to try and rescue her child. However, the script is at least two rewrites from reaching a point, where the makers should have looked at it and decided to abandon the resulting project altogether as poorly conceived. For in its current in-car-nation (hohoho), there isn’t enough meat on its bones to make it through the road-trip.

Dir: Ivan Silvestrini
Star: Katrina Bowden, Krew + Nixon Hodges, Katherine Kelly Lang

M.F.A.

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“Like father, like daughter”

I say the above, since the father of the star here is Clint Eastwood, possibly the most famous vigilante in cinematic history. He gave us Dirty Harry, who memorably spat out lines such as, “When an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard – that’s my policy.” This apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Though Noelle, the art student who becomes an avenging force after being raped at a party by a fellow student, takes a little longer to get to that point of unrepentant street justice. Her first victim is purely accidental, her attacker falling over a balcony after she confronts him, in the hope of getting some kind of apology. Doesn’t happen, and his death doesn’t exactly cause her sorrow. When she realizes she is also far from alone in what she has gone through, she decides that active retaliation is the best approach.

There’s something particularly timely about watching this, the same week that the truth about Harvey Weinstein finally came out. For it’s clear that the film world is far from the sole province of jackasses who use their power to abuse women: the music business, for example, is no better, and colleges appear to be another rat-fest. Yet despite this, the script here is considerably more measured than I expected. Given the current climate, I certainly wouldn’t have blamed writer McKendrick (who plays Noelle’s room-mate Skye too) for going off on a misanthropic rant about #AllMen. It’s to her credit she doesn’t, adopting instead a laudably nuanced approach. The men here run the gamut from good to bad – perhaps more surprisingly, so do  the women. The campus victim support group is entirely useless; the college psychiatrist is worse still, actively engaged in suppressing incidents so they don’t enter the public record.

Even the vigilantism at the film’s core is not portrayed as universally the right thing. The film suggest it may do more harm than good when you carry it out on behalf of other people – perhaps doing more damage by re-opening wounds they are trying to heal. For some victims would rather forget it and move on, writing off their experience as “one shitty night,” and refusing to let it define who they are. Noelle’s action robs them of the ability to do that, arguably an abuse of power in another way. It’s all remarkably complex, and the film doesn’t shy away from any of the mess. I haven’t even discussed how Noelle takes her experience and transforms it through her (initially mediocre) art, truly a case of the Nietzschean aphorism, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

It’s all far more thought-provoking than I expected, and it helps there’s something of a young Angelina Jolie about Eastwood, between her high cheekbones and expressive eyes. Though it did take me virtually the entire movie to figure out what the title meant; I’ll spare the torment and let you know it’s a peculiarly American phrase, being an abbreviation for “Master of Fine Arts.” In the UK, there’s nothing “fine” about those degrees, they’re just M.A’s. Never let it be said we don’t educate as well as entertain here…

Dir: Natalia Leite
Star: Francesca Eastwood, Leah McKendrick, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Welch

Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I’m not sure if the problems here are a result of there being two authors credited on this story. It could certainly explain them. For rather than providing a single coherent vision, this feels like both its universe and characters are being pulled in too many different directions. It’s overstuffed with ideas and, instead of them being developed fully, scurries from one to the next, as if the writers were competing to have the final word. This comes to an end in a rather ludicrous finale. There, the entire plot takes a right turn, with the biological weapon which has formed much of the early focus all but discarded.

The heroine is Keva Duste, an “engineered human,” who was originally pod-grown for use as a super soldier. However, she proved able to over-ride her programming so was discarded after refusing an order. And by “discarded”, I mean tossed into space. From there, she was fortuitously rescued, and began a new life as an agent working for the Syndicate. This is one of a number of murky groups, including the Elite and the Families, who are waging a proxy war for power around the network of planets and space stations which are the setting here. None of them seem to have the population’s interests at heart.

She’s sent undercover to an Elite planet, to find out information about the bio-weapon mentioned, which will shortly be tested on an unsuspecting batch of subjects. However, troubled by an increasing moral compass, she goes off-mission and also rescues Dothylian, the new wife of the not very nice Elite (to put it mildly) on whom Keva is spying. This causes problems all its own, partly because of Dot not being fit for the harsh world of the “Black”, where Keva operates. And partly due to the increasingly self-aware AI she brings with her, which has an agenda of its own.

I found it all kinda annoying. Ideas and concepts like the “slip drive” are hurled at the reader, without adequate explanation, and the focus bounces around, to diminishing effect. There is some a bit of decent tension built up when Keva is on the Elite planet, because her undercover identity is that of a dead woman. Anyone who knows that will be understandably surprised to see the corpse walking around, so it’s a very risky situation. For a genetically-engineered super-soldier though, especially one with a permanent connection to a high-powered AI in her head, she doesn’t seem to make much use of her talents. There’s rather more of Keva moping around her spaceship, and unresolved sexual tension with Captain Hale.

From reading interviews with the authors, it appears one wrote and the other edited, so my theory about competing pages doesn’t seem to be valid (much though it’d explain the deficiencies). I’ll split the blame here, with perhaps a little more going to the editor, Tyler. She should perhaps have spotted and corrected the structural issues that rendered this more chore than pleasure at about the half-way point, and turned into a real slog in the final stretch.

Authors: S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
Publisher: Macmillan, available through Amazon as an e-book only. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Molly and the Gold Baron, by Stephen Overholser

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Mythica: The Godslayer

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“End of days”

I think it was only as the end credits were rolling, that I perhaps appreciated this series fully. Sure, in many ways, these films have been a poor man’s Lord of the Rings knock-off, with a disparate band of hardy adventurers on a quest to stop Ultimate Evil (TM) from taking over. But, dammit, I found myself enjoying them, appreciating their smaller-scale charms and actually liking the characters – possibly even more than Frodo. While this finale doesn’t sustain the non-stop pace of its most recent predecessor, it does a good job of tying up all the loose ends. And if you’ve watched all five, and don’t have a slight moistness around the eyes at the end, you’ve a harder heart than I.

It has all been building to this. Evil necromances Szorlok (Mercer) has put into operation his plan for world domination, using a vast and still growing army of the possessed – and as the title suggests, intends to wipe out the gods, leaving him in sole charge. Can he coerce Marek (Stone) to join him, saying it’s the only way the mass slaughter can be stopped? Or can she and her group of friends track down the Hammer of Tek, the long-lost artefact once wielded by a legendary king, and the only thing capable of shattering Szorlok’s Darkspore, stopping his bid for power? However, if they succeed, what will be the personal cost?

It certainly has been a journey, particularly for Marek, who began as a slave girl with no inkling of the power she held within her, and ends up going toe-to-toe with the darkest force around. Here, her battles are as much mental as physical, since she has to weigh Szorlok’s offer. Is it okay to join up with evil in order to save others? Her moral compass – Jiminy Cricket, if you like – is the half-elf thief Dagen (Stormoen), who not only has to try and keep her focused, but also venture into the underworld, in search of that pesky hammer. [Tek is played by Kristian Nairn, a name you might recognize from another fantasy series. If not, this should be a clue: “Hodor!” Yep: he gets more than that one word here, too…] While Marek is the heroine, it is an ensemble piece, and the others get their moments of bravery and sacrifice too.

The technical aspects are certainly improved from the early days. The Kickstarter alone for this one raised over $131,000, and if sometimes short on the epic scale we’ve come to expect from Peter Jackson, it still has occasional moments where it punches above its weight. But I think it’s really the characters which are the heart of this, as with any good story. What seemed initially like a collection of four cast-offs from a bargain-bin Dungeons & Dragons campaign, have ended up becoming individuals I found myself caring about, and for all the low-budget flaws, I’m genuinely sorry this is the end of the saga. The series proves you don’t need $100 million to make a movie, and also that entertainment value is not strictly correlated to your budget.

Dir: John Lyde
Star: Melanie Stone, Jake Stormoen, Adam Johnson. Matthew Mercer

Miracles Still Happen

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“Truth is certainly more entertaining than fiction.”

We documented elsewhere the incredible, true survival story of Juliane Koepcke, who survived a two-mile fall from the sky, then 10 days alone in the Amazon rain-forest. Naturally, it wasn’t long before a “true-life adventure” version of the story made its way to the screen, starring English actress Susan Penhaligon as Juliane. Outside of Penhaligon, and the actor and actress who play Koepcke’s father and mother (Muller and Galvani), the hook here is that everyone else plays themselves, such as the people involved in the search and rescue mission, for example.

Unfortunately, it isn’t much of a hook, because they didn’t really do much. Like finding the freakin’ plane, it being left up to Koepcke more or less to rescue herself, walking out of the jungle to be found by some very surprised loggers, ten days after the crash. Thus, you get a lot of footage of people flying planes, taking off, landing, radioing in for instructions… None of which adds significantly to the atmosphere, or adds any factual notes of importance. The film is also hamstrung by the very fact this is a saga of solo adventure, which means that once Juliana hits the ground like a giant lawn-dart, it’s her against the jungle. And the jungle isn’t exactly a witty, sparkling conversationalist.

Working around this, Scotese makes heavy use of flashbacks and voiceover. It does stick relatively closely to the facts of the narrative. There is some scathing criticism of this film in Werner Herzog’s documentary about her ordeal, Wings of Hope; Herzog describes it as “extraordinarily bad”, and Koepcke pans Penhaligon for stumbling through the jungle “with the look of a hunted doe” (as shown above!). However, she did apparently consult with the creators – likely further than certain Italian moviemakers would have gone, especially in the seventies. So most of the key moments do agree with what Juliane has said over the years. For instance, she did remember a key survival lesson about finding a stream and following it down, and she did stumble across some crash victims, briefly wondering if they included her mother, with whom she had flown.

It’s generally better off when it simply concentrates on the perilous jungle, especially the moments when you get some idea of scale. The Amazon is big, folks. Credit also due to Penhaligon, who gets steadily more disheveled over the course of what can’t have been an easy film to shoot. She certainly gets closer to a very large anaconda than I would have been prepared to go! But watching her stagger, increasingly bedraggled, around the rainforest is something that isn’t enough to sustain interest. We can only wonder what the results might have been like had Herzog, who narrowly escaped being on the plane which crashed (doing location scouting for Aguirre, Wrath of God), directed this instead.

Oddly, this is credited to ‘Brut Productions’, which was the film production division of cosmetics company Fabergé. I say oddly, because those of a certain age and location will remember 70’s commercials in which heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper touted “the great smell of Brut” aftershave. Seeing its logo pop up in the opening credits here was certainly unexpected. I may well remember that much more than the rest of the film

Dir: Giuseppe Maria Scotese
Star: Susan Penhaligon, Paul Muller, Graziella Galvani

Miss Diamond

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“More like, Miss Cubic Zirconia”

diamond1There’s an exhibition showcasing the first diamonds ever mined in Germany, dug up by the company belonging to Buhler (Kier). Keeping thing safe is the responsibility of security expert Tim (Kretschmann), who doesn’t realize that renowned jewel thief Lana (Speichert) has her eyes on the jewels. So they’re both in for a nasty surprise, because after Lana is caught by Tim in the process of stealing them, it turns out the diamonds are completely fake. Buhler gives her an ultimatum: Lana must find the real diamonds, or she’ll be handed over to the police, and to ensure she doesn’t just run off, tasks Tim with keeping an eye on her. It soon becomes clear, though, that there is more to the mystery than there appears initially, and someone is very keen to stop them from getting to the truth.

This is flat and uninspired in almost every way, beginning with the complete lack of chemistry between Speichert and Kretschmann, though in their defense, the dubbing isn’t exactly helping them. [Or the beloved Udo Kier, who seems to be sleep-walking through his role] However, that can’t explain away the story, which is about as far from sparkling like diamonds as possible, even if you allow for the ludicrous central concept. Diamonds. In Germany.  It features villains who resolutely refuse to behave with even a modicum of common sense. For example, if ever I become an evil overlord, capture my enemies, and need to dispose of them, I will kill them on the spot, not tie them up underground, with the intention of letting them be run over by a slow-moving tunneling machine.

Which brings me to the topic of the action showcased here, and unfortunately, most of it ranges from the physically impossible to the cringe-inducing. The former is showcased during that escape from the tunneling machine, where Lana somehow dangles from a chain with one foot, while simultaneously pulling the 180-lb plus Tim up off the ground. The latter sees Lana doing front flips as she is simply trotting across a roof. Who does she think she is, Catwoman? This soundtrack also appears to be composed by somebody who has listened to too many James Bond films, which simply reminds the viewer of the gulf between this and any 007 movie of the same era.

A couple of marginal saving graces do exist, just not in the central performances, main story-line or cinematic direction. I was kinda amused – perhaps unintentionally – by how crap Tim is. He’s the one that’s always getting knocked out, captured, falling out out boats and generally put in peril, from which Lana has to save him. Some of the vehicle stunt-work is not too bad either. But overall, what you appear to have here is little more than a underwhelming TV pilot, certainly bad enough not to make it to series.

Dir: Michael Karen
Star: Sandra Speichert, Thomas Kretschmann, Udo Kier, Michael Mendl
a.k.a. Die Diebin

The Monster

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“Less would be more.”

monsterThere is a time when a film-maker needs to fall out of love with their script, and approach the resulting movie with a cold, critical eye, analyzing every scene with a single question in mind: Is it essential to the story being told? And if the answer isn’t “Yes”, then the scene needs to be ruthlessly excised. If you don’t, then what results is this film, where a good idea, which could have been lean, mean survival horror at its most stripped-down, becomes instead a cumbersome exercise in social drama.

Single mother Kathy (Kazan) is driving teenage daughter Lizzy (Ballentine) to her father, when they hit a wolf that has run out into the middle of the road on a remote country stretch of highway. While injuries are relatively minor, the car is unable to continue, and they have to hang out and wait for a repair truck to show up. However, when it does, and the mechanic is at work beneath their vehicle, the wolf’s corpse vanishes. Lizzy tracks it down in the woods, only to discover it shows signs of having been eaten, leaving her and her mother to wonder: what was bad enough that it could make a wolf run? They’re about to meet the answer.

It’s all the film needs, and when it concentrates on this, Bertino (who directed above-average home-invasion film, The Strangers) crafts a taut, effective work, as mother and daughter have to put aside their differences in the name of fending off the creature. The problem is the film’s insistence on inserting entirely unnecessary flashback scenes. They’re unnecessary because the dysfunctional nature of Kathy is established perfectly well before they have even left the house; everything thereafter is superfluous, and had me suppressing an urge to yell, “Enough, already! We get it!” at the screen.

I also get that the creature is intended to be a metaphor – though whether it’s intended to represent Kathy’s addiction-affected personality or Lizzy’s issues with trust and abandonment, is likely open to discussion. Either way, the mother is the monster in this interpretation; but again, it’s the kind of thing which works best when left for the audience to figure out or not, offering bonus depth if you want it. Here, Bertino seems to prefer whacking the viewer over the head with his subtext, to the point I had to undergo concussion tests.

On the plus side, Ballentine makes for an engaging young heroine, and the monster was laudably done with practical effects rather than CGI; given the relatively small budget, it looks decent enough. If you liked The Babadook – and I wasn’t particularly impressed with that either – then you might look more kindly on this attempt to merge the cerebral and the visceral. Only the latter half worked for me, the former providing more of an annoying distraction than offering any enhancement to the story.

Dir: Bryan Bertino
Star: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine

The Muthers

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“Jolly rogered.”

This is a strange cross-breed between a blaxploitation flick, a pirate movie and a women-in-prison film. Then again, a lot of the seventies films coming out of the Philippines tended to be at least somewhat bizarre, and this is likely no exception. The titular gang are pirates, led by Kelly (Bell) and Anggie (Katon), who roam what appears to be the Caribbean, going by the mention of Santo Domingo, but is actually in the Eastern hemisphere, boarding and robbing unsuspecting vessels, and fighting with a rival band of brigands using their kung-fu skills. However, Kelly’s sister goes missing, and is tracked down to a coffee farm belonging to the evil Monteiro (Carreon), which he runs in the manner of a pre-Civil War Southern plantation. Our heroines go undercover, only to discover getting out will be tougher than getting in.

It starts off in fine form, coming over as a modern, urban version of a sixties swashbuckler, and it’s a shame it didn’t stick to this premise, which would have offered something rather innovative. Instead, from the time Kelly and Anggie – yes, there is apparently an extra “g” in there – show up on the farm, it goes down too well-worn a path, with sadistic guards, fellow inmates who cozy up to their captors, and showers. Lots of showers. After the expected breakout attempts, recaptures and punishments, things eventually end in an equally expected riot, enlivened somewhat by the unexpected return appearance of the rival pirates, as allies of Monteiro,

muthersBoth Bell and Katon had worked with Santiago before, in T.N.T. Jackson and Ebony, Ivory & Jade respectively, and make a decent impression here. I’ve read a few other reviews that rip into this for poor-quality action, yet I can’t say I hated that aspect too much. Sure, there are times, particularly for any acrobatic moments, where the doubling is not exactly well-concealed. But there are other times where they’re putting in their fair share of effort, and should be appreciated for that. It is, if not quite tame, rather less sleazy than some on Santiago’s offerings. At first, I thought this was because I was watching it on Turner Classic Movies (yes, a refreshingly broad definition of “classic”!), but turns out to be fairly mild. Mind you, Bell’s ultra skin-tight top doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination there!

On the whole though, I’d have preferred if it had stuck with the pirate theme present at the beginning, which was a good deal fresher than the rote WiP fodder served up in the middle. Maybe I’m just grumpy because I did lose a bet with the wife: on seeing a guard tower overlooking the workers’ huts, I predicted it would later explode in a giant fireball, as a guard falls from it. I am disappointed to report that this simple pleasure was with-held from me. Sheesh, what is the world coming to, when a film from the golden age of Phillsploitation can’t even deliver on this expectation?

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Rosanne Katon, Trina Parks, Jayne Kennedy