Diamond Cartel


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“Kazakhstan, number one exporter of potassium”

This Kazakhstani production took its time in seeping out to the West, having originally been filmed over a three-year (!) spell back in 2011-13. While slickly produced, and with some impressive sequences of action, its storyline is garbled nonsense, to the point of almost being incomprehensible, and is utterly without heart or soul. Millionaire crime-boss Musar (Assante) is negotiating the purchase of a renowned diamond from another gang, but the deal goes south, with both diamond and cash ending up in the hands of one of his assassins, Aliya (Mukhamedzhanova). She goes on the run with her former boyfriend (Frandetti), pursued by her more recent boyfriend, who is another one of Musar’s hitmen.

Which would be fine, if that’s what this was. But the film muddies the waters terribly, with secondary plots, a bevy of superfluous characters, and a convoluted flashback structure which explains how Aliya went from a casino croupier to part of Musar’s posse. In some ways, that story would probably have been more interesting that the one actually told, not least because of all the other leather-clad hitwomen he keeps hanging around his lair. Not that they appear to do much; outside of the attempted double-cross at the diamond handover, they are notable by their absence from the action elements, disappointingly.

I should instead talk about the supporting cast, which is far more laden with Western stars than you’d expect from the source. Though by “laden”, this does include people with one scene, such as Michael Madsen. And by “stars”, beyond Assante, I mean people such as Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, Bolo Yeung, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister. But the name which stands out is Oscar-winner Peter O’Toole – sadly, in his final film role before his death in December 2013. Here, bizarrely, he plays a Kazakhstani customs agent. And it’s not even O’Toole’s own voice, because his performance has been dubbed over, making for a sad end to a stellar career. Though he’s not alone in losing out in post-production, with even the lead actress, as well as her copious voice-over narration, being dubbed too.

The only aspects which pass muster are the technical ones. Mukhammed-Ali seems to have studied at the same school of flashy visuals as the other Kazakhstan director, Timur Bekmambetov, who gave us Wanted and The Arena. It’s hard to deny that the frequent car-chases and shoot-outs here are handled with a decent degree of hyperviolent flair. But this is in pursuit of nothing having any significance. The plot falls somewhere between uninteresting and incoherent, and the audience will have little or no reason to care about even the reasonably photogenic lead, whose story this is supposed to be. It comes over as little more than a poorly-constructed exercise in stunt casting, with a succession of somewhat recognizable names, passing across the screen to trivial effect. I hope they at least got a nice holiday in Kazakhstan out of it.

Dir: Salamat Mukhammed-Ali
Star: Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova, Aleksey Frandetti, Armand Assante, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa
a.k.a. The Whole World at Our Feet

The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate Del Castillo Story

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“Life imitating art, imitating life”

Del Castillo is the undisputed queen of the action telenovela. She made her name as the original “Queen of the South” in one of the most popular entries ever, La Reina Del Sur, and has since followed that up with Ingobernable and Dueños del Paraíso, playing the Mexican First Lady and another ambitious drug dealer. It was while filming the latter, that the stranger than fiction story told in this documentary reached its climax.

As we mentioned at the end of the Reina article, in January 2012, she Tweeted about notorious drug-lord El Chapo. Three and a half years later, after he had been arrested, and subsequently escaped from prison, this led to her and Sean Penn visiting the fugitive, with the plan being to make a film based on his life. Except Penn turned it into an interview for Rolling Stone, the Mexican government got very upset with Del Castillo, and when El Chapo was recaptured, they said it was largely a result of the Del Castillo/Penn visit – with all that implies. The actress was investigated for money laundering, the charges being dropped only a couple of days ago, and is still largely persona non grata in her home country.

The three-part series tells events from her perspective. and even though she was a producer on it, Del Castillo doesn’t necessarily come out clean. From her first Tweet, she seems a little naive. “Let’s traffic love,” she says to a man who supposedly told authorities subsequently, he had killed between two and three thousand people. It feels as if Del Castillo believed the narcocorrida hype: bosses like El Chapo are often seen as folk heroes in Mexico, along the lines of Robin Hood. How much their social works are genuine, and how much practical business sense, is open to question. She does say she understands the cinematic meaning of the word “cut”, and lets go of the characters she plays. Yet I also suspect Kate may have felt that playing a trafficker on TV made her El Chapo’s “equal” somehow.

You can certainly argue that journeying into the heart of the Mexican countryside to meet the most wanted man on the world, who seems to have a crush on you, shows poor judgment. On the other hand, she does come over as courageous. While you can question her ideals, it’s hard to say she’s not entirely committed to them, regardless of the personal cost. Even now, you sense the personal cost has, if anything, probably hardened her resolve. I can’t blame her at all for that: the Mexican government appear to have engaged in a campaign of harassment of Del Castillo, little short of a vendetta. This involves everything up to, and including, fabricating text messages between her and El Chapo, with the intention of damaging her reputation and credibility.

Penn comes off little better. Though we don’t hear directly from the actor – he refused to take part in the documentary – the evidence presented here seems to suggest he used her for his own ends. Most damningly, he got journalist accreditation from Rolling Stone for himself and the film producers who also went with them – but not Del Castillo. And while he may not have directly or wittingly informed the authorities of their plans, it’s quite possible it was through his circle they became aware of the trip. In a subsequent media statement about the film, Penn’s camp didn’t hold back, saying, “This is nothing but a cheap, National Enquirer-esque tale spun by a delusional person whose hunger for fame is both tawdry and transparent.” I think it’s safe to say, if Kate ever gets to make her El Chapo movie, Penn will not be taking part.

While mostly talking heads and old news footage, it does a decent job of weaving the narrative, despite the lack of contemporary input from two-thirds of the people in the photo above. It was still interesting enough to make Chris become one of Del Castillo’s 3.5 million followers on her bilingual Twitter feed. Now, if only I can get her into watching Dueños del Paraíso

Dir: Carlos Armella

Here Alone

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“Forest of the Dead”

A viral plague has decimated mankind, turning its victims in mindless, flesh-craving ghouls. One of the few to have survived is Ann (Walters), who has taken up residence in the woods, where she has camped out. Ann uses the survival skills she received from her now-absent husband, Jason (West), only occasionally having to emerge and risk the threat of the infected, in order to gather supplies. Her secluded, yet relatively safe existence is disturbed, when she finds an injured man, Chris (Thompson) and his teenage daughter, Liv (Piersanti) on a road. They are supposed to be on their way north, to where the epidemic is reported to be in check. Yet Chris, in particular, seems curiously unwilling to be on his way.

If there’s nothing particularly new or inventive about this version of the zombie apocalypse, it’s not without its small-scale merits. Ann is far from some kind of survivalist Mary Sue: she’s barely getting by, perhaps having paid less attention to her wilderness lessons than she should have. Probably wisely, for a small budget film, the infected – the term “zombies” is never used – are kept largely out of sight, heard more than they are seen. While their shrieks are unnerving enough, the tension comes more from internal forces: the opaque nature of Chris’s motives, for example, or Ann’s dwindling supply of bullets. The former are particularly troubling: the dynamic between Chris and Liv just seems “off” in a variety of ways, and I was not surprised when this played a part in the film’s climax. However, things do not unfold in the way I expected, so credit for that.

The film does cheat a bit with regard to previous events. At the beginning of the film, Ann is already alone, and information about what happened to Jason and their child, is only doled out in teaspoon-sized flashbacks over the course of subsequent events. It matters, because these flashbacks reveal quite a lot about her character, and the way she interacts with other people: information we otherwise don’t have. By not getting it until later, we end up retro-fitting it into what we’ve already seen, and I’m not certain the additional complexity of structure imposed, serves any real purpose.

In the earlier stages, it reminded me of The Wall, with its tale of a woman thrown back entirely onto her own resources. While that solo adventure would have been difficult to sustain, it is the most interesting and original part of proceedings. I was rather disappointed when Chris + Liv showed up, because the entire dynamic changes at that point, and the film becomes something with which I’m somewhat too familiar. While there are twists down the stretch, this rejects the chance to truly separate itself from the large pack of zombie apocalypse movies in terms of plot. Fortunately, a solid performance from Walters helps the film sustain viewer interest through the weaker second half.

Dir: Rod Blackhurst
Star: Lucy Walters, Adam David Thompson, Gina Piersanti, Shane West

What Happened to Monday

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“Seven Noomis for the price of one!”

In the future, overpopulation becomes such a problem that strict limits are placed on children per family. You are only allowed one, with any others being taken by the authorities and put into “cryosleep”, so they will no longer consume resources until the situation has been addressed. After a woman secretly gives birth to septuplets, their grandfather, Terrence Settman (Dafoe), brings them up, rigidly schooling their actions so they remain under the radar. Each gets to go out on the day of the week corresponding to their name e.g. Monday on Monday, etc. On their return, they share with their siblings the events of the day, so the illusion can be sustained. 30 years later, with their grandfather gone, the seven women have evaded capture, though tensions between the different personalities are growing. Then, one evening, Monday simply doesn’t come back. The following day, neither does Tuesday. The remaining sisters have to try and figure out what’s going on, without exposing themselves.

There are strong hints of Orphan Black here, the TV series in which Tatiana Maslany played multiple clones, with distinct personalities, who end up working together to uncover a conspiracy. That ran for five seasons, truly flogging a dead horse into the ground, and the concept works a good deal better at the two hours for which this runs. Though even here, the third quarter does somewhat run out of steam. The main pleasure is the seven different versions of Rapace – and, indeed, the seven mini versions seen in flashblack, played by Read. Watching them bickering around the dinner table is a marvel on both technical and acting levels. Despite limited screen time, Rapace imbues them with distinguishing characteristics that mean you can tell the players without a scorecard. Though, again, the third quarter gets rather murky in this area, especially when two versions start rolling around, brawling with each other.

Wirkola is best known for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (a film which, like the Resident Evil series, performed much better overseas), and has a similarly stylish grasp of the action here. Though not all the seven sisters are action-oriented, some of them most definitely are. The highlights are a chase through the streets of the city, and a misguided attempt by the authorities to storm the apartment where the sisters are embedded. It does not go well. These sequences likely work rather better than the plot. As well as my doubts a subterfuge like this could be sustained for three decades, despite Settman’s undeniable commitment to it, I must confess I’m with Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), head of the Child Allocation Bureau. She points out the grandfather’s actions are thoroughly selfish: he feels that rules for the necessary good of all, should only apply to other people, not his descendants. The story likely also needs a better antagonist: someone against whom the Noomis can directly battle. Cayman is largely absent and operating at just too much of a distance to qualify.

There’s still more than enough here to appreciate, with a well-crafted dystopian world which seems not implausible – see China’s “one child policy,” for instance. But it’s really Rapace’s show, and the actress builds on the intensity shown in the Millennium Trilogy. She seems to have both a fondness and a talent for action: Noomi likely has as good a claim to being the current Queen of European Action Heroines as anyone.

Dir: Tommy Wirkola
Star: Noomi Rapace, Clara Read, Marwan Kenzari, Willem Dafoe

La Esquina del Diablo

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“Stuck in a corner.”

You’re in deep in Devil’s Corner
And you already realize it’s hard to get out.
What would you do if there’s no place to run
Sharpen your senses and defend yourself well

In Devil’s Corner, walking towards love
Dodging bullets and risking your heart 
It’s so hard to escape from Devil’s Corner 
Defying death I came here to fight 
And to love 

Thus goes the peppy pop ditty which plays over the opening credits of this Colombian telenovela. It stars Ana Serradilla, whom we previously saw as the heroine of La Viuda Negra. Here, she’s on the other side of the law, playing cop Ana García. She wants to be assigned to the special operations group. But her temper gets the best of her when she’s given a surreptitious test, interviewing a suspect who’s actually a policeman, and is deliberately trying to provoke her.

Fortunately, she gets a second chance to make a first impression, and is inserted in an undercover role to the aptly-named “La esquina del diablo” – the Devil’s corner. It’s a no-go zone for police, a ghetto perched high up on the hills overlooking the city. The area is controlled with an iron hand by the Velasco family, led by patriarch Angel (Tappan); they run drugs and other criminal activities, and have been a thorn in the side of the local authorities for years. Local cop Eder Martin (de Miguel) sends Ana into the area as a social worker, to gather information, after a helicopter crash supposedly kills Angel. However, it quickly turns out this was merely a ruse by the boss, to get the cops off his back. Can Ana embed herself deeply into the local community to complete her mission?

That’s just one – possibly not even the main one – of a number of plot threads which are woven into the fabric of the 70 episodes. Additional elements include:

  • Angel’s second-in-command, Yago (Pernia), who was a childhood friend of Eder
  • Angel’s son, Angelito, who is an ambitious loose cannon with psychopathic tendencies
  • Eder’s relationship with the mayor’s daughter, and its conflict with the growing attraction to Ana
  • Meanwhile, Ana’s gradual realization that Yago may not be as bad an apple as he seems
  • The mayor’s political aspirations and presidential campaign
  • Yago’s son is a promising football player, but is also on the verge of being recruited by Angelito
  • The other undercover cop, who befriends Angelito in jail and helps him escape
  • The mysterious “He”, a rival crime boss who inhabits the upper echelon of the city’s elite
  • The serial killer who is leaving a trail of women’s corpses, tattooed with numbers on their shoulders

Phew. This cornucopia of plot-lines likely both the series’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness. There’s no doubt it’s actually very well-handled by the writers and cast: even the relatively minor characters are given an impressive amount of depth, and the script never gets jumbled or confused. This is a sharp contrast to Camelia la Texana, the show I’m currently watching: you don’t so much follow the plot, as desperately cling to it, as various groups of sideburn-wearing people scheme against each other. It’s also a contrast, in another way, to Viuda Negra, which was unashamedly about Griselda Blanco. In this case, the breadth of focus inevitably leads to a dilution of why we’re here, with poor Ana often sidelined.

This is a shame, since the heroine here is shown in the first episode, as fully capable of single-handedly taking out and/or down multiple villains with her skills. The mission here is much less direct: it’s very much undercover intelligence-gathering. She can’t kick ass, because that is not what social workers do: if she did, anyone who saw it would have cause to suspect Ana’s real identity and mission, immediately becoming part of the problem. So instead, there’s a lot more skulking around, trying to earn the trust of Eder, and narrow escapes from being caught by Velasco’s gang. After what we saw at the beginning, this passive approach seems like a sad waste of her law-enforcement talents.

This is the main reason for the relatively low score above. For in some ways, it’s the best of the shows I’ve seen, in terms of combining characters and plots in an engaging way. I’m impressed with the non-specific nature of the location, mentioning no particular country or city. The sharp divide between rich and poor, with the latter living in ghettos run by a largely criminal element, reminded me of the Rio favelas – I highly recommend you watch the amazing Elite Squad if you want a glimpse of the hellish life there. But I would imagine it’s equally likely to be Colombia, since that’s where the series was actually shot. The series does well too, in portraying the moral grey-scale: between Ana at one end and Angelito at the other, most making choices based on pragmatism rather than idealism.

There are a lot of interesting supporting characters: not so much Eder and Yago, who are fairly cookie-cutter in terms of being opposing romantic heroes, with dark, troubled (and somewhat shared) pasts. It’s mostly on the fringes of Velasco’s gang that all the fun is to be found. Cachalote (Julián Caicedo) is a burly thug with a surprisingly soft heart – he has an unrequited crush on the mayor’s daughter, formed during her kidnapping. Meteoro (Erick Leonardo Cuellar) is the gang’s drug chemist, though he looks and acts like a methed-up version of Giorgio Tsoukalos, from the Ancient Aliens show. Most notable of all is Michelle (Estefania Piñeres, right), a hard-nosed barrio brat who is more than capable of holding her own in the tough environment, and is ferociously loyal to her boss. She would have enough stories to tell for her own, lengthy series, I’ve no doubt about that.

However, as an action heroine series, it’s undeniably a disappointment: I was expecting much more focus on the central character, based both on Negra and the first episode. And, indeed, much more action. As a regular TV show, it would deserve a higher rating, likely a full star better, since I genuinely did enjoy it. It just isn’t quite the fit for the site which I was hoping to see.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Miguel de Miguel, Gregorio Pernía, Christian Tappan 

Ataúd Blanco: El Juego Diabólico

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“Who takes the child by the hand takes the mother by the heart.”

This crisp little Argentinian film clocks in at 70 minutes – not even enough to be considered a feature by the Screen Actors Guild. You’ll understand, therefore, there isn’t much fat on its bones. Virginia (Cardinali) has left her husband, taking daughter, Rebecca (Duranda), with her. But a moment’s inattention at a gas-station proves fatal, as Rebecca is abducted, and Virginia’s car driven off the road during the subsequent pursuit. Brought back (from the dead?) by a mysterious stranger (Ferro), she is told Rebecca has been chosen by a religious cult as a sacrifice. It’s up to Virginia to stop them, and she can let no-one get in her way. Which becomes an issue, for we quickly find out, she is not the only mother looking to recover a child from the cult – and, it appears, only one can succeed.

It’s a blowdart of a movie, picking nastily away at the scab of “How far would a mother go to save her own child?” – and keeping at it. “No, really. How far?” It does require a certain suspension of disbelief, not least in Virginia’s inexplicable failure even to attempt contacting the authorities regarding her missing child, surely the first thing most people would do. If you are able to get past that – and it is likely the plot’s biggest weakness – then you’ve got a steady descent into hell. The unspoken question which informs everything is whether the stranger actually has her best interests at heart, or is simply pulling her strings. Weird sacrificial cults in rural places tend to do that, as anyone who has seen The Wicker Man knows. And if to you, that means only the Nicolas Cage version: my sympathies on your loss.

However, there are elements of another Cage movie here: Drive Angry, in which he played a criminal who came out of the grave, to track down the cult who are preparing to sacrifice his grand-daughter. This is nowhere near as lurid: save for perhaps one sequence involving a chainsaw, this is more about psychological torment than the physical. For example, Virginia’s quest involves tracking down and burning the white coffin referred to in the title (the subtitle translates as “A diabolical game”). Yet as the film goes on, it becomes clear that any success in this is going to come at a hellish cost to her own humanity – and, arguably, that of her daughter as well.

The quote at the top is a German proverb (or maybe Danish, depending which Internet site you believe), and it’s an appropriate summary, though doesn’t capture the thoroughly mean-spirited nature of this, especially in the final reel. That’s no criticism in the genre of horror, which should go the extra mile to push the viewer’s buttons, yet especially in more mainstream works, tends to bail out at the last minute. It’s something of which this isn’t guilty; when it ends, it’s going further into the same bleak darkness, where the movie has been heading all along.

Dir: Daniel de la Vega
Star: Julieta Cardinali, Rafael Ferro, Eleonora Wexler, Fiorela Duranda
a.k.a. White Coffin

Tag

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“Virtually game for anything.”

A bus full of Japanese schoolgirls includes the quiet, poetry-writing Mitsuko (Triendl), who drops her pen. Bending down to pick it up, she thus survives the lethal gust of wind which neatly bisects, not only the bus, but the rest of her classmates. Ok, film: safe to say, you have acquired our attention. [Not for the first time the director has managed this: the opening scene of his Suicide Circle is one we still vividly remember, 15 years later]

What follows is an extremely hyper-violent gallop through a series of scenarios, with Mitsuko and her friends becoming the target for assaults by everyone from teachers to bridesmaids. Can she figure out what the hell is going on, with matters not helped by her apparent amnesia, with no memory of everything prior to the bus? And, more importantly, is the film going to be able to deliver any kind of rational explanation for this?

The further this went on, the less convinced this would be possible. However, I have to say, it ends up making far more sense than I expected. It even explains things as disparate as the fairly lecherous costume choices (the schoolgirls’ skirts are more like broad belts, and frequently fly up in anything more than a light breeze) as well as the extremely drone-heavy cinematography. On reaching the end, I immediately wanted to watch this all over again, armed with the provided explanation, and see what other clues I had missed.

There’s a lot to admire here: it plays almost like a cross between Sucker Punch and Run Lola Run, combining the slick visuals and “anything can happen” mentality of the former (and has been similarly condemned), with the latter’s… Well, mostly its running. Seriously, Triendl (who is Austrian-born, hence her non-Japanese surname) racks up as many miles in this 85 minutes as an entire series of Doctor Who companions. But not just her, because even more confusingly, her character is played by multiple different actresses across the various scenarios.

Interestingly, until the very end, there are almost no men in the movie at all, save the pig-headed bridegroom, to who our heroine will be wed. Perhaps that’s a clue in itself to the nature of the multi-verses around which Mitsuko finds herself bouncing. It’s fascinating to watch everything unravel, and the lead actresses do very well, in a role or roles that could have been little more than a place-holder. Watch the emotions flickering across Triendl’s face, for instance, as she tries the virtually impossible task of explaining to one of her friends what she has gone through.

There’s no denying the strongly feminist subtext here, providing you can look past the chauvinist trappings and arterial spray. Sono is both embracing and critiquing the exploitation world in which he has largely operated, although does so with a light enough touch, you can simply enjoy it as a blood-drenched action film, rather than having to worry about its philosophy. And the less you know about it going in, perhaps the better.

Dir: Sion Sono
Star: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Yuki Sakurai

Daemonium: Soldier of the Underworld

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“…and one big cup of WTF?”

This is going to be a difficult review to write, and, for once, it’s the synopsis section which will be the problem. Because I can’t honestly say, with any degree of confidence, I know what was going on here. Rather than a standalone, coherent entity, this felt more like being dropped into the middle of a long-running TV show – one based on a series of books I’ve never read, but adapted on the basis viewers would know it well. I’ve seen a few Chinese films which have adopted a similar approach, taking legends familiar to local audiences and creating something all but incomprehensible elsewhere. This Argentinian movie generates similar feelings of baffled amazement. I’m going to start by copy/pasting the official synopsis:

The story of Daemonium begins in an alternate universe to ours, in which Magic and Technology Coexist with Humans and Demons. In Daemonium we see Razor rise to power! (He will be the new image of a dystopic power and seeks a full out war with Hell the demons that dwell there and anyone that stands in his way!), the doubts of Rebbecca (who will question everything she knew for a fact about her life), Lisa, a common woman with an unthinkable destiny (womanly force on their way), and the wizard and con artist Fulcanelli (facing his own destiny regardless of his intentions).

I trust that has cleared everything up. No? Well, it is at least an accurately confusing representation of how I feel. Let me try again. The heroine plays at least five different roles, including fallen angel Azazel, and three different android versions of herself, Loly, Nancy and Victoria. They’re embroiled in a battle between good and evil, alongside the morally ambivalent magician Fulcanelli (Cornás), after a portal to another world is opened, allowing a demonic entity to escape. The demon makes a deal with mercenary, Razor (Casco), for the usual wealth, power, etc, although Razor’s pregnant wife, Lisa (Presedo) is kidnapped and turned into a assassin, targeting her husband. But it’s Fulcanelli and Azazel who may be key to stopping the threat.

Even if I can’t say I comprehended much of what was happening – perhaps its origins as a five-part web series were an issue – I was certainly never bored. Clinging on to any passing scraps of coherence like a drowning man clutching a piece of driftwood, certainly. But bored? Not at all. For it looks very slick, and doesn’t pull any punches at all, particularly at the end, when the heroine enters full-on (and literal) “avenging angel” mode. The director is best known for a series of horror films, Plaga Zombie, and brings much the same enthusiastic eye for mayhem and splatter to this. I’d love to see what he could do with the same universe – only operating with a script which focused on telling a cogent and compelling story, rather than galloping from one cool sequence to the next, like a hyperactive child in a toy-store.

Dir: Pablo Parés
Star: Caro Angus, Walter Cornás, Dany Casco, Rocío Rodríguez Presedo

GLOW

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“Fully deserves a GLOWing review.”

I have only vague memories of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which never quite made the same cultural impact on the far side of the Atlantic as in their native country. I seem to recall seeing a couple of episodes, deciding it was a bit crap, and then slapping in a Megumi Kudo barbed-wire death match tape instead. But my interest was rekindled by the wonderful documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and it appears I may not have been the only one. [Incidentally, we re-watched the doc after finishing the series; it’s still very much recommended, and likely even better as a parallel version to this] The creators of the show were inspired by the same film to create their take, a heavily fictionalized telling of the show’s origin, from auditions to their first TV taping.

It focuses on Ruth (Brie), a largely failed actress, who goes to the audition out of desperation. There, she meets the motley crew of other women, whom director Sam Sylvia (Maron) – a veteran of B-movies such as Blood Disco – has to try to lick into shape. The main dramatic tension is between Ruth and Debbie (Gilpin), a soap-opera actress, with whose husband Ruth had an affair. Their spat inspires Sam to recruit Debbie, who would provide much needed star-power – but convincing her to get on board is an issue in itself. And there’s then the issue of her severely strained relationship with Ruth. While this may give their in-ring conflict credibility, it comes at a cost.

This is a great deal of fun, striking a very impressive balance between the drama, comedy and – to my surprise – the wrestling elements. For the show does a particularly good job of explaining both the appeal of the sports entertainment in question, and the work that goes in to making it look good. Here, it probably helps that real wrestlers were involved: Chavo Guerrero was the main consultant, and his uncle, Mando Guerrero, helped train the original GLOW ladies in the eighties. Fans will also spot John Morrison/Johnny Mundo, Brodus Clay, Carlito and Joey Ryan in various roles. It’s not at all a parody of the sport; to a significant degree, the original GLOW felt like that. But it also does extremely well at linking the wrestlers and the characters they play, and showing how the latter evolve and develop out of the former.

So Ruth becomes “Zora the Destroyer”, a Soviet antagonist to Debbie’s All-American “Liberty Belle”, whose frosty face-offs mirror the women’s real-life grievances. It’s these, along with the other characters, who are the show’s greatest strength: even relatively minor supporting ones are deftly sketched, and feel like real people, rather than caricatures. Special credit to Maron, who takes a character that could be a real bastard (far and away the most significant man) and gives him depth and humanity. Yes, he can be that bastard – but he knows what he’s doing, and genuinely cares about making the show the best it can be, even if he has to tread on a few toes to get there. Having been on the fringes of both B-cinema and independent wrestling, we’re aware of how true to life that is, and based on the doc, it doesn’t appear too different from Matt Cimber, the show’s actual director.

The two lead actresses did virtually all their action – there was occasional use of stand-ins, but mostly for reasons of fatigue. Brie said, “Wrestling matches are meant to be done once a day for maybe 20 minutes. But then we would shoot them for 10 to 12 hours so our stunt doubles became our tag team that we could tag in when we needed a rest.” Otherwise, it’s almost all the actual women, and that adds a level of authenticity to proceedings that helps. If no-one’s going to mistake the pair for Manami Toyota and Akira Hokuto, they’re perfectly credible, given the original show’s undeniable limitations in the area of actual wrestling. 

If you’re a child of the 80’s – and those were my teenage years – you’ll be in heaven, as this is a true period piece, from the music, through fashion, to things as basic as telephones. With wires. Attached to the wall. [It was a dark, dark time…] There is an occasional tendency to drift into feminist showboating, and some of the off-GLOW drama feels more like it comes from one of Debbie’s soaps. Otherwise, this is near-perfect, and certainly the best truly original series which Netflix have produced to date.

Created by:: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch
Star: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel

Two Wrongs

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“…don’t make the ending right.”

twowrongsThe first half of this is actually well-written, asking some difficult moral questions that left me intrigued, and wondering how they would be resolved. The answer, unfortunately, is by an escalating series of plot twists, culminating in one of the more ridiculous climaxes I’ve ever seen. I could go on to say, “even in a Lifetime TVM”, but that would be unkind, since I’ve seen both good and bad examples from there over the past year. Though as an aside, I note Netflix being increasingly quiet about the ties of films to Lifetime, which is interesting; but given the severe inaccuracy of their synopsis (No, the heroine does not get “sucked into a dangerous underworld”), that’s more likely a Netflix issue.

Sarah (Zinser) is a single mom, devoted to her daughter, who also works as a nurse. It’s clear from the get-go that someone is stalking her, and eventually the daughter is abducted on her way home from school. Sarah is called by the kidnapper, but his demands are not anything like you’d expected. For it turns out, one of Sarah’s patients is trying to escape his own past, where he was accused of kidnapping a young girl himself, who allegedly died while in the trunk of his car. Acquitted on a technicality, he moved away, but the father of his victim – whose mother also suffered a complete psychological breakdown as a result – has tracked the perp down, and is now intent on using Sarah as a vehicle for his revenge.  How far will she go, in order to save her own daughter?

Like I said: it’s a difficult moral question, not least in the early going, when the film maintains a nice sense of ambiguity as to whether or not the target of her second-hand wrath is guilty. If so, then the entire situation becomes a cascading series of wrongness, potentially culminating in the death of at least one other innocent. While a fascinatingly dark scenario, it’s not exactly Lifetime fodder, and things start to go off the rails when Sarah’s mother [from whom she clearly gets her style of “helicopter parenting”] shows up, extracting a confession that removes any ambiguity. He’s guilty as charged, m’lud – and probably guilty of a lot of other things, too. Hanging’s too good for him. From then on, the script staggers from one ill-conceived mis-step to the next, through everyone going on a road-trip and an amazingly coincidental meeting at a gas-station, to an ending that literally drips everywhere. There is, apparently, no loose end which can’t be tied up by someone drowning randomly and floating off downstream, resolving all those tricky moral dilemmas. Though Zinser is solid enough as a mom prepared to do anything to get her daughter back, she could have been Meryl Streep here, and still wouldn’t be capable of papering over the glaring flaws in the later portion of the script.

Dir: Tristan Dubois
Star: Gillian Zinser, Ryan Blakely, Aidan Devine