Senora Acero

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“The mother of unintended consequences.”

It’s supposed to be the happiest day of her life for Sara Aguilar (Soto). She’s marrying respected police commander Vicente Acero, legitimizing a relationship that has already given them a son, Salvador. But masked hitmen attack the party, killing her father – by the end of the day, Sara has also become a widow, the cartel having taken revenge on Vicente, for the three million dollars he apparently stole. To Sara’s horror, it turns out her husband-to-be was no less corrupt than anyone else. When Salvador then falls desperately ill, and in need of highly expensive health-care, there’s only one way Sara is going to be able to fund his treatment.

It’s a decision which brings her into conflict with a whole slew of people. Her main enemy in the first series is Indio Amaro (Zárate), a local gangster responsible for killing Vicente. He has vowed to make Sara’s life a living hell – not least because following that murder, she chopped off two of his fingers in a frenzied attack. There’s also Enriqueta Sabido, the owner of a local beauty salon where Sara gets a job after being thrown on her own resources; she also does (bad) plastic surgery in the back. And even her own sister, Berta, is jealous of Sara for marrying Vicente, and who blames her – with some justification, it has to be said – for everything bad that happens subsequently.

She does have allies, though I wouldn’t be selling any of them life insurance, if you get my drift. They include honest cop Elio Tarso; Colombian dreamboat Manuel Caicedo; and even an affable cartel boss, Miguel Quintanilla, who possesses a quite fascinating collection of suits. [The white ones make a terrible background for subtitles, producers please note.] However, it’s mostly Sara’s motherly inclinations that lead to problems, whether financing a transplant for Salvador by any means necessary, or demanding her cartel employer close down the tunnels through which drug-carrying kids are employed to cross the border, because… Well, Sara doesn’t like it, that’s why.

But it is actually fairly rough on occasions: for instance, the removal of Indio’s fingers is well-staged, and revisited frequently [this show loves its flashbacks, more than any other I’ve seen to date – sometimes even revisiting scenes from earlier the same episode]. There’s another scene where Indio is torturing someone for information. He has them stand on a bed of spikes, then breaks their ankles to ensure they can no longer support their own weight. While mild in terms of cartel acts – some of the stories I’ve read would make your hair curl – the show is relatively brutal by the standards of the telenovela, and contains more bloodshed than most.

The obvious influence is another Telemundo production, La Reina Del Sur, with which it shares a number of crew, in particular writer Roberto Stopello – its heroine is even name-checked explicitly here, in one episode toward the end. Both share protagonists who are dumped into trouble after the demise of their other halves, and find the only way out is to get their hands dirty and become part of the criminal underworld. Despite this, the leading ladies share a strong sense of morality, with lines they won’t cross, and despise the exploitation of others – in Reina, it’s trafficking in women, while here it’s the use of children that provokes the central character’s ire.

Notwithstanding the double-meaning of her married name in the show’s title – Senora Acero can be translated as “Woman of Steel” – I find there’s a certain hypocrisy to Sara, compared to Teresa Mendoza. She’s strident about only wanting to be involved in money laundering rather than the drug trade, which seems a perilously thin moral distinction to me. Where the heck does she think the money she’s taking across the border comes from? It’s an almost privileged attitude, which seems to permeate her character from the start. For me, this left her less appealing, in comparison to her telenovela sisters, and this central weakness may be the show’s biggest flaw.

It’s a bit of a shame, as the supporting cast are fun to watch, on both sides of the coin. The villains are led by Acasio “Don Teca” Martínez (Reséndez), a cartel boss who has longed after Sara from afar, since he was a geek in the local barrio. Now, he has a shrine to her at the back of his office, and wields his power in a creepy stalking campaign, designed to drive her into his arms at any cost. Meanwhile, on Sara’s side is Aracely Paniagua (Litzy), a good-hearted former hooker and drug addict, who just can’t seem to escape her past, which keeps dragging her back in. She offers a more traditional telenovela heroine, almost harking back to Victorian melodrama.

The music in the show is interesting… Norteña band Los Tucanes de Tijuana produced and performed a song for it, titled “La Señora de Acero”, which the series incorporates, as having being commissioned by one of Sara’s drug-cartel bosses in her honour. It’s the usual oompah laden nonsense (I don’t like country & western either!), and far more fun is the bombastic score that accompanies the tensest moments. I’ve not been able to pin down the creator – it may be Rodrigo Maurovich, credited for “musicalization”, or it may be stock composer Xiaotian Shi. But it’s so wildly over-dramatic, swelling ominously to a crescendo, even when no-one is doing anything more than staring at a door, I can’t help but love it.

Back before the show had even begun to air, in mid-2014, there was an option apparently granted to USA Network to produce an English-language version of Senora Acero. Nothing appears to have come of this, and it was only a couple of months later that the station ordered a pilot for Queen of the South instead. Having seen both Mexican series now, as well as the USA Network remake of Reina, the choice was probably a smart one. The darker storyline of Reina likely renders it more easily adaptable. I’d be hard-pushed to imagine this, really a story of maternal instincts gone wrong, being able to make an effective transition to the gritty series which USA apparently wanted.

Despite this diss by the American market, unlike Reina, the show wasn’t one and done. Senora Acero almost doubled its US audience over the four-month run, its finale winning its time-slot in a number of key demographics, regardless of language. And, so, a year, later season two began, with another 75 episodes, and a third season, with a monstrous 93 episodes, started last summer. [The most recent installments appear not to involve Blanca Soto, for reasons which would require major spoilage to discuss…] All three are currently on Netflix, and I’ll confess some of the pics used here are from them – but at somewhere north of 50 hours of viewing per series, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for in-depth reviews of the later seasons!

Star: Blanca Soto, Jorge Zárate, Litzy, José Luis Reséndez

Scherzo Diabolico

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“Hell hath no fury like a pissed-off teenager.”

scherzo-diabolicoIf you go in with expectations based on the poster, you are going to get two-thirds of the way into this and wonder if there was some mix-up. It’s only as the last act unfolds that the image makes sense – though it’s still somewhat of a misdirection. The main central character is actually Aram (Barreiro), a middle manager accountant stuck in a dull job, and an even less fulfilling marriage and family. He has a plan to break the monotony, which involves kidnapping a teenage girl, Anie (Vell), and Aram is plotting the crime with his trademark attention to detail.

At first, it all appears that everything has gone perfectly to plan, and Aram’s life changes for the better in a range of ways. The victim is released and returned to her family, alive if hardly undamaged by the psychological trauma of her ordeal, and Aram enjoys the fruits of his efforts. That includes a promotion at work, and an affair with a young woman in the office. It appears to have been the perfect crime. Except, there was one tiny flaw, which opens the door for Anie to take vengeance for what she went through. While the monster which Aram created, may still look like a young, innocent girl, he’s going to find out, her heart is now in a very dark place indeed.

My two main issues with the film were the pacing and a tendency to keep information back from the viewer that should have been revealed. With regard to the latter, for example, there’s one key fact about the identity of his victim which is withheld, for no particularly necessary reason. I’m also unclear on a couple of story points: the length of Anie’s abduction, and why she goes after her first two victims, on discovering who was responsible, rather than directly for Aram. It does also grind to a halt in the middle, with the actual kidnapping and its immediately aftermath, which is a bit of a shame, since the first half does a good job of setting up the situation, and the second half provides an solidly chilling payoff. Not least the final shot, which suggests Aram won’t be the end of the matter…

Bogliano makes particularly good use of classical piano music, which also plays a key role in the plot in a couple of ways – the non-spoiler one is Aram’s childhood ambitions being dashed by his stubby little fingers. The tinkly tunes forming a stark counterpoint to the callous and chilling brutality as it unfolds. Both leads give solid performances too, with Vell certainly having the bigger character arc. There’s enough potential here to leave me interested in tracking down the director’s other efforts, but the problems noted above stop this from being more than an interestingly flawed effort. The less you know going in, likely the better for the experience.

Dir: Adrián García Bogliano
Star: Francisco Barreiro, Daniela Soto Vell, Milena Pezz, Jorge Molina

Queen of the South vs. La Reina Del Sur

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“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
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“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
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“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

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Muñecas Peligrosas

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“Carlitos Angels”

munecasNot far removed from Peligro… Mujeres en acción!, this is actually a sequel to Con Licencia para Matar, which I’m still seeking in a subtitled format. Some day… While nominally starring Fernando Casanova as agent Jim Morrison (maybe The Doors weren’t big in Mexico?), this is really about the Tigresses, a freelance group of female bodyguards, with a fetching line in black catsuits. There’s leader Emily (Cranz), associates Barbara (Angela) and Diana (Monti) and Tigress in training, Leonor (Ochoa), experts variously with a gun, bow, sword and fists. Jim brings them on board to help protect scientist Professor Livingson, the inventor of a key ingredient in rocket fuel, K-20; he’s travelling to Mexico to update its manufacturing plant. That will expose him to Garrick (Armando Silvestre), a villain who wants the secret of K-20 for himself, and it’s up to Jim and the ladies to protect the Professor.

Despite the name of the group, the title actually translates as “Dangerous Dolls,” and this takes itself a bit less seriously than Peligro – a mixed blessing. There are aspects that are deliciously silly: Garrick’s minions all wear uniforms and hats with his logo on it, making it look as if he recruited en masse from a Devo convention. There’s also a (likely borderline offensive now) running gag involving an obviously not-Japanese karate instructor, speaking gibberish. However, the storyline doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny at all, such as the way Emily just happens to be going out with Garrick’s second-in-command. What are the odds? I could also have done without the musical numbers, and describing most of the actresses’ action abilities as “a bit crap,” would be kind. It’s clearly less about what you do, than about how cool you look doing it, except for Leonor, who is there for comic-relief purposes. Fortunately, the martial abilities of Garrick’s minions are worse still – near what you would get if you did recruit from a Devo convention.

That all said, I can’t claim I disliked this, and it’s certainly self-aware, so the flaws don’t stop it from being entertaining nonsense. If Garrick’s motivation is largely obscure – what, exactly, is he going to do with the catalyst? – he’s very well-dressed, and it’s nice to see a supervillain with a sense of style to match the good guys. He takes the time to come up with ingenious items like an “organic disintegrating agent” and chivalrously sets a countdown time for four minutes, to allow the Tigresses and Jim time for a final fight-back. Meanwhile, the ladies (outside of Emily) are largely independent-minded, and in no need of male attention or help, quite a laudable feat for 1969 Mexico. I was expecting Jim to bed his way through most of them, and was gratified to see this doesn’t happen: it’s likely less chauvinist than Bond films of the era. If only they’d put more effort into the action.

Dir: Rafael Baledón
Star: Barbara Angely, Leonorilda Ochoa, Emily Cranz, Maura Monti

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

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

Peligro… Mujeres en acción!

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“On Her Mexico’s Secret Service.”

peligrosIn the sixties, it seemed the world was awash in 007-inspired romps, with immaculate-dressed, heroic secret agents from every nation punching, shooting and sleeping their way through friends and enemies, with a quip and a raised eyebrow. One such Bond-wannabe was Alex Dinamo (Alemán), star of two Mexican movies, 1967’s SOS Conspiracion Bikini, and this sequel, made the following year, whose title translates as Danger! Women in Action. Which is where we come in. For despite stemming from a time and place not exactly noted as a bastion of advanced sexual liberation, it manages to be a damn sight more equal-opportunity than any Bond film of its time, or even since. For not only is the chief villain a woman – territory at yet still unexplored by 007 – Dinamo’s is given a sidekick, Maura (Alava), who is equally as competent, and he is happy to use the skill-sets of a number of other women on the battlefield here, without too much in the way of sexist one-liners.

As in its predecessor, the story sees Alex take on shadowy evil organization S.O.S, the Secret Organizational Service, who intend to carry out various terrorist acts in Central and South America, and exploit the resulting chaos. Initially, the target is a refinery in Ecuador, whose destruction will paralyze the country, and it’s only with the timely delivery of information from Barbara (Angely), that the location where the S.O.S. commandos will come ashore is discovered: it’s up to Alex, Maura and Barbara to hold them off in an extended (and quite well-staged) fire-fight. With that dastardly plot foiled, S.O.S’s evil overlady, Solva (Campbell) moves on to a plan to poison the water supply in Puerto Rico with a biological weapon. It’s up to Alex and Maura, this time with the help of an agent working undercover in S.O.S, to foil that plan, by launching an assault on the facility producing the bioweapon. Yeah, there might be some shooting here too. And explosion. Plenty of explosions.

Frankly, it’s strikingly progressive how gender is mainly a non-issue here, though Alex clearly has an eye for the ladies, whose costumes are designed to reveal as much as conceal. In particular, for a terrorist group, S.O.S. appear to be firm believers in affirmative action, with its top tier mostly consisting of women, all the way up to Solva. Similarly, Alex treats Maura, Barbara, etc. as competent individuals in their own right. The main problem is the stuff around the fringes, which is not as exciting as the makers seem to think. For example, there is a sequence of Barbara scuba-diving which seems to go on for ever; while I’m sure that kind of thing was novel and worth touting in the sixties (Thunderball, made a couple of years previously, had exactly the same problem, as I recall), it has not aged well at all. The film is also generally inordinately proud of production values which are no more than workmanlike. On the other hand – literally – you have stuff such as an S.O.S. operative with a gold artificial limb, whom we first see casually sharpening its edge on a whetstone. That’s still pretty cool, and as knockoffs go, this is better than most.

Dir: René Cardona Jr.
Star: Julio Alemán, Priscilla Alava, Elizabeth Campbell, Barbara Angely

La Culata: Mexican Standoff

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” Like a low-budget Andy Sidaris film. If he was Mexican and couldn’t talk his actresses into undressing.”

I vibrated between 2 and 2 1/2 stars for this, but opted for caution: it’s probably not as bad as it seems, despite an obvious lack of budget and ambition far in reach of its abilities. Or, at least, I maybe liked it a little more. As the alternate title suggests, it’s the third in a series, though information on the first two is scant: there’s no IMDB entry for them, and they appear to have different cast members. The central character is Maria Navajas (Ponce), an abused woman who turned to killing, discovered a talent for it, and took it up as a career. This entry finds her being sought by two different groups of gangsters who believe she ripped them off, as well as the feds. She has to fend them all off, with the aid of a friendly undercover cop (Sevilla) and her agent (played by, according to the IMDB, one of the producers of Napoleon Dynamite!).

There are elements of this that are quite laudable, with a host of strong female characters – not just Navajas, but her main adversary, the mob boss knows as “La Culata” (Cepinska), who has a fondness for female enforcers. Both the roles, and the performances behind them, are interesting enough to hold your attention, and some of the supporting pieces are also decently constructed. However, for every step forward, there’s at least one, and often two back. The storyline is over-stuffed, and at 113 minutes, this would benefit from a lot of editing. The action is largely poorly-shot, probably to conceal the limited combat talents, and with bizarre mis-steps such as one awful moment where the heroine throws her knife down the barrel of an enemy’s gun. Look, if you’re that good with the weapon, just embed it in their eye, alright? There are several moments where it looks like this is going to kick off, but doesn’t – most notably, we never get the expected confrontation between La Culata and Maria, which is a shame. Instead, the finale is the biggest let-down since the Hindenburg.

Certainly, don’t be fooled by cover art which appears to have strayed in from Single White Female, or something similar. This is a zero-budget action movie, but coming from a culture which doesn’t exactly regard women as equals, deserves some credit for putting them front and centre. However, the execution in this case leaves just too much to be desired.

Dir: Jorge Ramirez Rivers
Star: Cecilia Ponce, Anna Cepinska, Guillermo Iván, Manuel Sevilla
a.k.a. Maria Navajas 3

La Mujer Murcielago (The Batwoman)

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” If Batman was a woman. And a Mexican wrestler. Who swam. A lot.”

Someone is abducting wrestlers, extracting serum from their pineal glands and dumping the bodies in the ocean, at various locations around the world. Most recently, Acapulco. Investigating the crime is Batwoman (Monti), a rich socialite who has a masked alter-ego that fight crime. Oh, and is also a pro wrestler. Which makes her ideal for this case, since she can hang around the gym and check out suspicious characters, while working on moves with her fellow luchadorettes [Not a real word, but I like it]. Who is involved? The blind lottery ticket salesman? The chief of police? Or Dr. Williams (Cañedo), who won’t let anyone on to his ship, which is called Reptilicus, by tha way, and who possesses a sidekick called Igor? Go on, take a wild stab in the dark…

Turn out Williams is attempting to create a race of man-fish hybrids. When sneaking around his ship. Batwoman is caught, and only escapes by flinging a flask of something noxious into his face. Now a disfigured mad scientist, naturally, he vows vengeance on our heroine, sending his scaly creation off to bring her back, so that she can become the first literal fish-wife. The sight of which immediately turns her into a screaming, fainting kind of girlie, and it is a kinda creepy creation, even it’s obviously a man in a rubber-suit. Though as we see at the end, if you want to turn Batwoman into real terror, you need a staple from sit-coms of the era.

This 1968 film came only three years after Thunderball, and shows much the same amazed fascination with underwater photography, which has not aged well. Sure it was amazing at the time: now, not at all. Indeed, that could be the theme of the entire movie: I’m sure it was pretty daring, especially in sixties Hispanic culture, which wasn’t exactly at the forefront of women’s liberation. Now, the main thought it provokes, is wonder at how they managed to avoid someone from DC Comics driving down to slap the makers with a massive law-suit, purely on the basis of the poster.

In the film’s defense, it’s probably not its fault that I came down with a nasty spot of indigestion while watching, which doesn’t exactly leave me with fond memories of it. Monti certainly looks the part, an Italian-born actress and model stepping up from supporting roles in Santo films, as part of a ferocious blitz where she appeared in 30 films over five years, before becoming a TV host. She spends most of the time running about in her blue bikini and mask, which certainly beats George Clooney’s nippled Batsuit. If falling some way short of the promise of the very cool poster, it’s not entirely unwatchable as B-movies go, especially given its age.

Dir: René Cardona
Star: Maura Monti, Roberto Cañedo, Héctor Godoy, David Silva

La Metralleta

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“Mexploitation, let down by shoddily-staged action.”

Mexican culture is just so damned macho, there isn’t much room for action heroines, though there have been a few. As well as Santo and Blue Demon, The Wrestling Women donned the lucha masks in the sixties, and La Reina del Sur had a surprisingly feisty heroine for the telenovela genre; we’ve covered a couple of other entries previously, also covering life on the criminal side of the tracks.

However, this would be the first I’ve seen where the heroine is a Mexican policewoman. It’s Lt. Diana Gonzalez (Dosamentes), who is focusing her efforts on catching drug lord Constantino, and has had some success in disrupting his operations. He takes revenge by targetting Diana’s younger sister Sandra (Buitron), turning her into a junkie and eventually killing her, making it look like she was taking part in an S&M party. But far from taking the hint, this just causes Diana to become even more determined, and reckles – starting with the nightclub singer who got Sandra hooked, she works her way up the food chain from there.

Diana is knows as “La Metralleta”, which is Spanish for machine-gun, due to her weapon of choice – which, in a testament to lax Mexican gun-control regulations in the early nineties, she takes home after work, in what appears to be a shopping bag. The two things this has going for it are the script and the central performance. The story is nice and direct, and it seems appropriate that Constantino and his henchmen really don’t take Diana seriously until it’s too late. Dosamentes also does well with her role, and is nowhere near as matronly as the sleeve on the right would suggest, despite being in her forties. She has a steely intensity, especially after the death of her sister, that works nicely.

What doesn’t work? Sadly, the action is completely crap. Constantino’s men are from the Imperial Stormtrooper school of marksmanship, unable to hit La Metralleta, even when she’s basically standing in front of them with no protection at all. Worst yet are the woeful attempts at fisticuffs: wisely, the makers keep these to a minimum, but the couple of scenes where Dosamantes tries to go hand-to-hand are unutterably awful. It’s a shame, since I’d have been prepared to settle for mere competence on this front, because there’s enough going on elsewhere in this to keep your interest.

Dir: Roberto Schlosser
Star: Susana Dosamantes, Carlos Cardán, Juan Gallardo, Blanca Buitron