The Vault

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“It’s always somebody else’s vault…”

In an effort to pay off gambling debts their brother Michael (Haze) has run up, sisters Leah (Eastwood) and Vee (Manning) plan and execute a bank robbery. While smart in intent – they set up a diversion, and have a cunning escape route prepared – it’s not long before the operation goes wrong. The bank’s safe does not hold anywhere near the expected haul: fortunately, the assistant manager (Franco) helpfully informs them of an undisclosed vault in the basement holding six million dollars in cash. Sending some of their gang down to the vault, The sisters can only watch on CCTV aghast, as the men are picked off by mysterious figures. For, it turns out, the bank was the site of a robbery in 1982, leading to a hostage situation that ended in multiple deaths. The ghosts of those involved are still in the basement, and opening the vault has apparently released them to take revenge.

I don’t think I’ve seen a film which combined a heist flick with a ghost story before, and it works fairly well. I say “fairly”, since it feels uneven. The bank robbery side is meticulously assembled, to the point that it could have been better if that been the movie’s sole focus. Eastwood, who made a strong impression in M.F.A., is equally as good here, playing Leah as a cunning strategist who has put a lot of thought into her meticulous plan, only for it to be derailed by factors outside her control. Vee, on the other hand, is a loose cannon, driven by her emotions, and reacting to events rather than managing them. You understand perfectly why the two sisters have led separate lives prior to reuniting to help Michael, though the specific details of the estrangement are never revealed.

It was almost an annoyance when the supernatural elements began to kick in, for those were not handled as effectively. Perhaps it’s a case of over-familiarity, with the horror genre being one with which I am particularly well-acquainted; the barely-glimpsed dark figures just didn’t do it for me. Some elements reminded me of the dumber excesses of the genre too. For instance, the willingness of the robbers to stumble around an extremely dimly-lit basement, without going, “Hang on… This makes no sense”. Or given the spectacular and murderous nature of the original robbery, it stretches belief that these local robbers had apparently never even heard of it. That’s a bit like someone from Hollywood not having heard of Charlie Manson.

While never derailing entirely the solid foundation of character and story-line set up in the first half, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the relative weakness of the second portion. Matters are likely not helped by an unsubtle coda which appears to have strayed in from a far worse film. This adds little if anything to the movie, and isn’t the sort of final impression you’d want to leave on an audience. The performances definitely deserved better.

Dir: Dan Bush
Star: Francesca Eastwood, Taryn Manning, Scott Haze, James Franco

The Bad Batch

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“After the apocalypse, there will still be photocopiers. And raves.”

In the film’s defense, it’s not clear quite how post-apocalyptic this is meant to be, since we don’t see anything of the world at large. Everything takes place inside a stretch of desert which has been used, apparently for some time, as a dumping ground for the dregs of society. Into this environment is dropped Arlen (Waterhouse), who soon gets first-hand experience of the situation, when a cannibal mother and daughter capture her, and cut off an arm and a leg. She escapes, and is found and rescued by the Hermit (Carrey), who brings her to Comfort, the nearest the zone offers to civilization. When she’s well again, Arlen returns to take revenge on the mother, but believing the daughter to be innocent, takes her back to Comfort. Which provokes the ire of Miami Man (Monoa), a tattooed behemoth who turns out to be the girl’s father, and wants her back.

There’s also Keanu Reeves, running around as “the Dream,” a rave promoter, drug pusher and overall lord of Comfort, who has a harem of pregnant, gun-toting women, all sporting “The Dream is inside me” T-shirts: probably the film’s most memorable image, despite its undoubted ludicrousness. But it all fails to gel into anything coherent or interesting, except in very sporadic moments. It’s a long slog through the first 30 minutes, which are almost entirely dialogue-free, to get to what passes for the meat of the story – though it’s more like undercooked tofu, to be honest.

For the movie never achieves anything like a consistent direction or even tone. Even its Wikipedia page calls the film a “romantic drama horror-thriller”. Good luck juggling all those genres. Is it aspiring to be Mad Max? A spaghetti Western? My best guess could well be, merely a six million dollar budgeted excuse for the director’s favourite Spotify playlist, the soundtrack roaming with jarring inconsistency from Culture Club to Die Antwoord, while we endure lengthy shots of Arlen wandering the desert, high on the Dream’s product. And don’t even get me started on the Hawaiian Momoa playing a supposed Cuban, with a cod-Mexican accent. I’m just glad Chris (whose family is genuinely Cuban) wasn’t around, or all Momoa’s scenes would have been overdubbed with a stream of her derisive snorts, emanating from next to me on the couch.

I did appreciate the look of the film, with some striking imagery: the towering wall of shipping containers, parked in the middle of the desert, for example. That just isn’t enough to sustain a 115-minute running-time, especially when the film seems to get bored of its own ideas, and forget about them. Miami Man, for example, despite proclaiming that his daughter is the only thing he cares about, apparently abandons this search and drifts away from the picture, apparently preferring to do something else for much of the second half. This viewer’s interest was right there beside him.

Dir: Ana Lily Amirpour
Star: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey

Camelia La Texana

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“Approximately 900 times longer than the song which inspired it.”

“A woman, if she loves a man, can give him her life.
But you must be careful if this woman is hurt,
For betrayal and smuggling are incompatible.”
Contrabando y Traición, by Los Tigres del Norte

I almost gave up after 20 episodes, as it had largely degenerated into a telenovela version of American Idol. [Seriously: the heroine had partnered up with a wannabe singer, trying to break into show-business] But literally in episode 20, Camelia finally got her act together. She gunned down both a corrupt Border Patrol officer, then pumped seven rounds into her boyfriend after he announced he was going back to his wife and child. Ok, I’ll watch a bit further. Turns out, the show seemed to operate on 10-episode arcs. Episode 30 saw a Godfather-like wedding massacre, which rewarmed my interest. By part 40, we had a former Interpol agent, who had taken the veil and was hiding out in a convent, while still having her “very particular set of skills” And at the 50th show… Well, we were close enough to the end – the series had 60 episodes – it seemed kinda pointless to stop.

The problems were the nine episodes in between, which were much more a chore than a pleasure. The basic story has Camelia (Maldonado) being seduced away from her family in San Antonio, Texas, and ambitions of a career in dentistry, by hunky Emilio Varela (Hayser). He’s working for drug lord Antonio Treviño (Gama), who is actually Camelia’s father, and who wants her to join him in Mexico. Emilio’s mission diverts badly off-book, and ends up dying in a Californian back-alley. Thereafter, it’s a meandering tale involving the battles for turf between Don Trevino and his rival, Arnulfo Navarro, as well as the extended families on both sides, and various other elements, such as corrupt Army officer General Urdapilleta, who may (or may not) also be a serial killer.

This will happen: significant expansion is obviously needed when you adapt a three-minute song into about 45 hours of TV drama. For the inspiration here was 1972 song Contrabando y Traición, by Los Tigres del Norte. While colloquially known as “Camelia la Texana,” the original title of this narcocorrida – a genre once described as “gangster rap with tubas and accordions” – translates as “Smuggling and Betrayal.” That’s a fairly accurate summary of both the song and the series. It tells of a couple who drive from Tijuana to LA with marijuana in their car tires. There, as in the show, Emilio tells Camelia he’s breaking up with her after they cash in their cargo. The result? “Seven gunshots rang out, Camelia killed Emilio/All the police found was a discarded pistol/Of the money and Camelia, nothing more was ever known.”

The song had previously been adapted into a 1977 film, starring Ana Luisa Peluffo and Valentín Trujillo – though the dynamic was rather different there, with the leading lady being a couple of decades older than her lover. (More than 20 years earlier, Peluffo had caused a significant scandal, when she appeared nude in 1955’s La fuerza del deseo, the first such scene in Mexican cinema) The song was also adapted into an opera in 2008, and has been acknowledged by Arturo Pérez-Reverte as a significant inspiration for his novel, La Reina Del Sur. The author said, “The day I heard Camelia La Tejana, I felt the need to write the lyrics of one of those songs myself.

It’s an interesting decision to set the series in the seventies, at the time the song was released, rather than in the contemporary era. Though, outside of the cars and the preponderance of vintage facial hair, it’s easy to forget this is a period piece. The story is little more than a hodge-podge of telenovela cliches, semi-randomly stitched together. Emilio has a twin brother! Unexpected pregnancies! Long-lost siblings. And vengeance. Damn. So much vengeance, to the point that it was more of a surprise on the rare occasions when somebody didn’t have a deeply-held grudge. Emilio’s wife Alison against Camilla, for killing her husband. Don Trevino’s current wife, Lu, against the previous occupant of the position, Camilla’s mother, for rendering her infertile. Navarro against Camilla, for burning his face at a cockfight. And so on.

Hell, even ten-year-old blind girl Alma (Ana Paula d’León) is seeking revenge on those who killed her parents, before her adoption by Don Treviño. She’s actually one of the more interesting supporting characters, because she seems to have second sight, able to see things before they happen, and act to prevent them. It’s a shame the story lose sinterest in her entirely during the second half, because this concept could have developed in a number of intriguing ways. Someone with Alma’s talent would be a great weapon for any drug cartel, effectively keeping them one step ahead of their enemies. She’s not the only decent supporting character: “Queens of the South” La Nacha in the first half, and Concepción “La Cuquis” Olvera during the latter stages, both demonstrate it’s not just a man’s world.

Unfortunately, these delights are all rather minor. The great bulk of the episodes are unaffecting, not least due to a heroine whose middle names appear to be “Questionable Life Choices”. If there’s a poor decision to be made… Camilla makes it, with an inevitability previously associated only with characters from 19th-century Russian novels. Up until the very last episode, she’s less an action heroine than a reaction heroine, and you would probably need two hands to count all the female characters elsewhere in this show, who are more interesting than Camelia. The series seems tacitly to accept this, hence falling back on a tangle of subplots in which the supposed heroine is only tangentially involved.

The series ended as it had consistently done throughout: another 10-episode arc, ending in interest being piqued once more. [Spoiler warning] Camelia became the head of the Treviño family, and took her revenge on Navarro, spitting out the line, “No man made me a legend. I chose my own life, and I’ll choose my own death.” But there was also a schism, with Alma and Lu heading off, suggesting they would go up against Camelia in a second series. However, it has now been more than three and a half years since the first season ended, and the chances of any sequel seem increasingly slim. It isn’t too surprising. Adapting a three-minute pop song into a movie can be done: Convoy and Harper Valley PTA come to mind as examples. Stretching it into something of this length, however, is likely a remix too far.

Star: Sara Maldonado, Erik Hayser, Andrés Palacios, Dagoberto Gama

Viral

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“Facebook status: feeling infected.”

Firstly: it’s not a frickin’ virus at all! The threat here is a blood-borne parasite, which is completely different, so I have no idea where the title came from. Glad I got that off my chest. Where were we? Oh, yes… The Drakeford family have just moved in to a suburban community in California. Daughter Emma (Black-D’Elia) is trying to settle in at their new school. something at which her more extrovert older sister Stacey (Tipton) is better. This distraction is why they don’t notice the growing concern about a disease that’s spreading across the globe – until a classmate succumbs to this nasty ailment, which makes the infected highly aggressive.

From there, the siblings’ safe, stable world disintegrates rapidly. Mom is stuck at the airport, and when Dad goes to try and find her, he doesn’t come back. Matters escalate after Stacey drags the reluctant Emma to a particularly ill-advised house party [Maybe it’s just me, but in the event of any communicable epidemic breaking out, I would not exactly be attending social gatherings], where they get to see the effects of the illness first hand. Scurrying back to the sanctuary of their home, and hot local kid Evan (Tope), the sisters are thrust back on their own resources, as martial law is declared and the area comes under strict quarantine. This means fending off not only the infected; the military, too, pose a threat to what remains of the family.

Despite its title, the film makes a credible effort to ground its epidemic at least somewhat in real science. Specifically, it references the toxoplasma gondii parasite, which does affect the behaviour of its rat hosts. Of course, this is taken to extremes here, and you end up with something closer to what was seen in 28 Days Later: fast, neo-zombies, driven by hunger. Disappointingly, this is spun into a teen-centric story, which feels as if it might not be out of place on MTV. And, like most MTV shows, anyone older than the target audience will have to suppress a frequent urge to yell at characters for their poor life skills, e.g. the frequent removal of their face-masks (see Evan, above). Stacey fares especially poorly here, to the extent I suspect her brain being controlled by a parasitic worm might increase her IQ significantly.

The effects work is light, yet solid enough, and there is a shudder or two to be had, not least from the creepy parasites. If you can watch Emma hone her amateur surgeon skills – remembering a lesson given by her teacher father – without flinching, you’re tougher than I. Yet such moments are the exception, rather than the rule they need to be, and the lack of any real escalation is surpassed only by the underwhelming ending. Despite the unexpected death of one major character, as apocalypses go, this one feels more a moderate nuisance than life-threatening peril. “OMG, I can’t update my Instagram. This totally sux.” The movie certainly won’t be getting a “like” from me.

Dir: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Star: Sofia Black-D’Elia, Analeigh Tipton, Travis Tope, Colson Baker

Black Mirror: Metalhead

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“Run Bella Run”

Black Mirror has consistently been the standard for thought-provoking, usually (although not always) dystopian science-fiction since it first aired in 2011. The latest season, the fourth, premiered on Netflix just before Christmas, and the fifth episode falls squarely into our wheelhouse. Filmed entirely in black-and-white, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic landscape following some unspecified catastrophe. A group of three people prepare to raid a warehouse in search of supplies – and, in particular, one item. However, their search alerts a security robot, which looks somewhat like a greyhound made of black metal, and makes quick work of two intruders, leaving only Bella (Peake) left to pursue. The robot’s combination of stamina, speed and absolute lethality will require all her human ingenuity, if she’s to escape.

The influences here are numerous. You could start from Terminator crossed with Night of the Living Dead, though there was a 1953 SF story by Arthur Porges called ‘The Ruum’ which was also built around someone pursued through a rural landscape by an unstoppable robotic pursuer. As such, this is always going to be a limited scenario, especially when there’s only person on the other side. It was probably wise for the makers to keep this at a crisp 41 minutes; the other entries in the season run as long as 76 minutes. However, I still had a feeling they left food on the table, storywise: this was especially true at the ending, where the strength of character Bella had shown to that point, apparently deserts her entirely. It seemed to me she still should have had fuel left in her tank, and this made for a disappointing conclusion.

Until then, however, it was a very well-constructed thrill-ride, with Bella using her smarts to deal with everything her dogged (hohoho!) adversary can throw at her. The balance ebbs and flows between the two, as human and robot tussle across the battlefield, both using what they can find along the way to help themselves. [Sideline: why is it, whenever anyone picks up a knife in a kitchen to use as a weapon, it is always the Psycho knife?] Especially in the latter stages, when the setting moves from the countryside to inside a house, it almost seems to nudge over into slasher film territory, with Bella as the “final girl” – albeit one rather more mature than the usual, teen-aged inhabitants of that trope.

Like the best dystopias, there’s more than an element of plausibility here, with the robot’s shape and movements inspired by the (somewhat creepy) products already being put out by Boston Dynamics. It’s also more straightforward than many Black Mirror episodes: creator Charlie Booker specializes in the final “gotcha”, a twist that radically re-defines what has gone before. Here, this is limited to a last shot in which the viewer discovers the purpose of the raid on the warehouse, and it’s more poignant than upending. It may not be one of the most memorable Mirror stories, which stick in the mind long after it has finished. Yet it’s an efficient and lean effort, capable of standing alongside any other episode.

Dir: David Slade
Star: Maxine Peake

The Golden Cane Warrior

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“I guess Golden Cane Training Montage wouldn’t be as marketable.”

Veteran martial arts guru Cempaka has been training her four students, the children of other gurus she defeated, for years. It’s time to pass on the ultimate move, and the titular artifact which goes with it. She selects Dara (Celia) as her heir, but before Cempaka can bestow the necessary knowledge, she is attacked by Biru (Rahadian) and Gerhana (Basro), two of the students passed over for Dara. In the ensuing fight, Cempaka is killed and the cane stolen by Biru. The injured Dara is found and nursed back to health by the mysterious Elang (Saputra), a man with a murky past and no shortage of his own skills. Biru and Gerhana frame Dara for the death of their mistress, and use the cane’s power to take over the local area. Can Dara track down the last living practitioner of the Golden Cane style, and learn the skills necessary to defeat her fellow students?

Indonesia seems to be an increasing source of action films of late, though this is both different in style from, and not as good as, The Raid. It trades contemporary grit for a more classic and historical approach. Not that there’s anything wrong with this approach, intrinsically. It’s just that if you aren’t bringing much new to the table, then to make an impression, you have to do what you do well enough to make an impression. This only succeeds sporadically, and is bogged down by a middle section that’s positively glacial in pace. From when Dara falls off a cliff at the end of her first duel with Biru and Gerhana, the action takes a back seat until the final rematch. Cue instead, the training montages and drama that falls well short of being… well, dramatic.

Fortunately, the action which bookends this troublesome section is not bad at all. Though, unfortunately, the editing style is a little less than traditional, and appears more informed by MTV than classical kung-fu. This makes it hard to tell exactly how skilled Celia and her friends are; at least it never descends into incoherence, and you can tell who’s doing what to whom. The fight between Dara and Gerhana is likely the highlight, the two women battling both outside and inside, throwing everything they can at each other.

Of course, you wonder why Dara doesn’t break out the Golden Cane move quicker. Logically, it’s a bit like having a machine gun in your back pocket, yet still deciding to fight your opponent with a stick first. Dramatically, it’s both essential, and in line with the tropes of the genre. To be fair, you will need to accept that this is a film content to follow well-trodden paths, rather than breaking any new ground of its own. Even allowing for this, while delivering a couple of memorable moments, it certainly does not come anywhere near justifying its 112-minute running-time.

Dir: Ifa Isfansyah
Star: Eva Celia, Nicholas Saputra, Reza Rahadian, Tara Basro

Ingobernable: season one

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“Dirty politics, Mexican style.”

This is not quite a telenovela, for this has only 13 episodes and aired directly on Netflix, without appearing on any television channel. It’s also a little more punchy and gritty than most, and rather than going down the well-trodden path of what I guess we should call the narconovela, is rooted instead in political conspiracies.

Mexican President Diego Nava Martínez (Hayser, the male lead in Camelia la Texana) plummets from a hotel balcony to his death. The prime suspect is his estranged wife Emilia Urquiza (del Castillo, the original Reina del Sur), though she was actually unconscious at the time. Rather than sticking around, Emilia decides to leg it, and is helped by some old friends in the Mexico City slums. It turns out the President was preparing to announce an end both to the war on drugs, and the resulting secret detention camps, run by the military. This appears to have triggered an assassination by a murky coalition involving the army, the CIA and a secret group known as “X-8”. Can Emilia prove this is more than tin-foil hat malarkey, and clear her own name?

Weirdly, the show was filmed without its star ever setting foot in Mexico. She is still on thin ice there, as a result of her relationship with jailed drug lord, El Chapo, and a subsequent – trumped-up, according to del Castillo – money-laundering investigation. Despite this, it does a good job of depicting life at both the very top and bottom of Mexican society, and pointing out the stark difference. As Castillo said, “The real criminals are the ones who wear white shirts and a tie.” Though this is likely heavy on the working-class hero trope, with the noble peasants banding together to stick it to the man.

Still, there’s enough to appreciate here, with Emilia being harried from one place to another, while trying to get to the truth. It helps that, before marrying the president, she was involved in security operations, which gives her an insight into their tactics – and more importantly, how to avoid them. If this is never quite leveraged as much as it could be, it does at least help explain her action heroine abilities! Emilia isn’t the only woman who knows her way around a gun either; given the reputation of Mexico as a very macho culture, these are quite surprising characters.

They include Anna Vargas-West (Ibarra), who pulls triple-duty as Chief of Staff of the President’s Office and the dead president’s lover… while also being a somewhat reluctant CIA agent, under the command of Pete Vázquez (Guzmán). And then there’s Patricia Lieberman (Marina de Tavira), the tenacious special prosecutor appointed to look into the President’s death. But the most striking cultural difference is when Emilia and her team are trying to get evidence about the detention centers, and decide that merely catching the Defense Secretary at an S&M brothel wouldn’t be sufficient to discredit him. Suspect that would be more than plenty in Anglo-American politics!

Annoyingly, the 15-episode series ends in a cliff-hanger, without any true resolution: something I should likely have guessed, once it was revealed that the Defense Secretary had nothing to do with the President’s death. Fortunately, the show has been renewed for a second season, or I have been severely peeved. Overall, I was reasonably impressed by the first, and if you’re looking for something with aspects of both Jason Bourne and House of Cards, this should fit the bill.

Dir: José Luis García Agraz
Star: Kate del Castillo, Alberto Guerra, Erendira Ibarra, Luis Roberto Guzmán

Wynonna Earp: season one

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“Wynonna the Demon Slayer”

After a long absence, Wynonna Earp (Scrofano) returns to her home town of Purgatory, near the Rockies. There, we discover the truth about the death of her father and disappearance of her sister, events which precipitated Wynonna’s departure. Turns out the great-great-granddaughter of the legendary Wyatt Earp has a supernatural duty to fulfill, using her ancestor’s equally legendary 16-inch barrel “Peacemaker” revolver. Wyatt kept demons known as “revenants” in check, and the mission has been passed down the family line since, with Wynonna the current incumbent. Fortunately, mystical borders keep the revenants within the “Ghost River Triangle,” and she has the help of Deputy Marshal Xavier Dolls (Anderson), an agent in the “Black Badge” division of the US Marshals Service; Doc Holliday (Rozon), the now-immortal former friend of Wyatt; and Wynonna’s kid sister, Waverly (Provost-Chalkley).

Yeah, as the tag-line above suggest, there’s more than an echo of Buffy here, from Wynonna being the unwilling “chosen one”, through Purgatory being a hot-bed of supernatural activity (or “Hell Mouth”?), and the associated “Scooby Gang” who help out the heroine. Doc is a parallel for Angel, being a somewhat ambivalent immortal who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Wynonna. Dolls is Giles, the sensible adult of the group. And Waverly is a lumpy combination of Giles (research skills), Dawn (bratty little sister) and Willow (gratuitous lesbian tendencies). I’m not sure how many of these similarities come from Beau Smith’s comic which is the source here. It first appeared in 1996, when Buffy was still a failed movie, and not yet the successful TV series it would become. But the showrunner admits, when pitching Wynonna, she would describe it as “Buffy meets Justified.

So, if you’re looking for originality, you are far better off elsewhere, certainly. That said, the horror-Western is some way from being an over-familiar genre, and the obvious influences certainly do not mean it is without merit or appeal. There has been a real shortage of action heroine shows on American television – which leaves me happy to see, even one as derivative as this. I particularly liked Scofrano, who brings a cynical world-weariness to her mid-twenties character.The show also does a good job of disseminating information, striking a nice balance between revealing its secrets, and keeping the audience guessing. The middle episodes do degenerate a bit into ‘Occult Monster of the Week’ territory, yet the writers redeem themselves with a strong final arc that sets the stage nicely, and not too obviously, for the second season.

Wynonna [a spelling which looks plain weird, with at least one N too many] takes to her destiny with gleeful abandon, dispatching revenants with enthusiasm. It’s refreshing to see a heroine who doesn’t agonize endlessly about dispatching the enemy – even if in this case, it’s probably because they are already dead. Overall, I think the show will likely go as far as Scrofano can take it. If it takes advantage of the chance to improve, and does so to the same extent Buffy did (the cast there didn’t grow into their characters until perhaps the third series), it’ll certainly be worth another look.

Creator: Emily Andras
Star: Melanie Scrofano, Shamier Anderson, Tim Rozon, Dominique Provost-Chalkley

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