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

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

Operações Especiais

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“Brazilian whacks.”

The Brazilian special police unit, known as BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais) have a ferocious reputation for a hard-edged approach to its work. This is, likely, necessary for surviving the favelas (slums) of Rio in which they operate, going up against heavily-armed drug dealers. But with this also comes a “by any means necessary” approach, which has come in for criticism. They’ve been the topic of films before, most notably the incredible Elite Squad, which is an all-time classic of action cinema (and removed any chance of us attending the 2016 Olympics). It’s into this obviously macho environment, that rookie policewoman Francis (Pires) is dropped, and has to make her way.

Early on, this is a heroine who is seriously out of her depth, being a former hotel administrator, who opted to join the police after a robbery at her place of work. Quite how she ends up on the squad is a bit vague: quotas may have been involved. Anyway, they’ve just succeeded in flushing the bad guys out of Rio, but the perps have taken root in a suburb instead, so for their next mission, BOPE are sent there to supplement/replace the local cops. Initially, both residents and city government are delighted to have someone there, following an incident in which local kids were shot. But after the gang members are defeated, the squad decide to turn their attention to the resident corrupt politicians. All of a sudden, they aren’t quite so welcome any more…

I loved Francis’s character arc: far from initally being any kind of bad-ass, her reactions during the first raid and subsequent gun-battle are much closer to the “cowering in a corner” which would likely be my personal approach to coming under attack. Her courage is latent, and somewhat misdirected – early on, she’s chewed out by her commanding officer, after risking herself to drag a wounded suspect out of the line of fire, something which clearly demonstrates the attitudes of BOPE. But she gets a tip from a prisoner, which pays off, giving her the self-confidence to come out of her shell. She blossoms from there, to the point that, by the end, she has become almost indistinguishable from her colleagues in terms of that attitude.

It does share a certain, alluring crypto-fascist attitude to Elite Squad: it seems to suggest that the cops deserve greater slack, since they never have anything but the best interests of the population at heart. At least Squad was willing to admit the potential for corruption – something this largely skirts, with the main villain carefully portrayed as a former cop. It also ends abruptly, feeling more like a pilot than a fully rounded feature, with too many loose ends. It’s still a sharp piece of social observation, with some good characters; her commanding officer is a particularly delight, someone who clearly gives not a damn for the niceties of convention. However, I’m still not likely to book any holidays to Rio for a while.

Dir: Tomas Portella
Star: Cleo Pires, Fabrício Boliveira, Thiago Martins, Marcos Caruso

Crazyhead

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“Buffy does Britain.”

Amy (Theobold) is insane. Or so the rest of society thinks, due to her being able to see things nobody else can. She’s trying to keep her head down, working quietly at a bowling alley. But after being attacked, she is rescued by Raquel (Wokoma), another young woman who can see exactly the same things. Amy learns from her new friend that demons are real, and live among us: Raquel has appointed herself a demon-hunter, and convinces the reluctant Amy to join her. This causes no end of issues, not the least of which is Amy’s room-mate becoming one of the possessed, and the most of which is likely the apocalyptic plan of Callum (Curran). He intends to use Raquel to open the gates of hell on Halloween, allowing thousands more demons to flood into our world and take over humans.

It is, very clearly, inspired by Buffy in many aspects, from its blonde heroine, through the “Scooby Gang” of friends in assistance, such as long-suffering bowling-alley colleague, Jake (Reeves), who carries a torch for Amy and likes canoeing. On the villainous side, Callum also seems to owe a particularly large debt to the Mayor of Sunnydale (though in our house, Curran will always be Van Gogh from Doctor Who!). However, it’s almost fourteen years since Buffy Summers rode off into the sunset, so I guess the statute of limitations has run out there. Another potential inspiration could be a distaff version of Supernatural, but there’s still plenty here that’s fresh and fun, and it has a particularly British approach

For instance, it’s laden with sarcastic banter, as well as (for those who might be offended) plenty of harsh language and general crudity – an exorcism, for instance, requires a very special shower for the target… If somewhat lacking in originality, the dynamic between the two leads helps make up for this; it’s likely the show’s strongest suit, and overcomes most of the scripting flaws. Amy and Raquel are each outsiders in their own ways, who can mesh together into an effective whole. One possesses better social skills, and can hold down a job, so is able to interface with other people if necessary; while the other has superior knowledge about what’s going on, in part thanks to her “special” background. Though both are quite happy to resort to a more physical approach when necessary – and, given who they’re facing, that would be quite often.

It’s all over remarkably quickly, especially if you are more used to American series, typically lasting 20+ editions a season. This only takes six 45-minute episodes to go from introducing the characters to the eve of the apocalypse. It is perhaps a good thing, as the story written by creator Howard Overman is somewhat thin, and could potentially feel stretched if told at any greater length. Instead, you will likely be left wanting more, and that’s never a bad position for the audience to be in, at the end of a show’s first season.

Dir: Al Mackay and Declan O’Dwyer
Star: Cara Theobold, Susan Wokoma, Lewis Reeves, Tony Curran

Lady Bloodfight

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“Now available for Playstation and Xbox”

This rattled around in pre-production for a while, originally being called Lady Bloodsport, and with the names linked to it being significantly higher in profile: Maggie Q, Shu Qi and Zhiyi Zhang. The end result here is obviously smaller and cheaper – the fights at its core all take place in the bastion of martial arts, a warehouse – and you can’t help but think, “What if…?” However, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable, despite – or, perhaps because of – feeling like a throwback to straightforward movies such as the original Bloodsport, which helped launch the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1988.

The basic approach seems entirely deliberate, and the simplicity works to the film’s benefit. You don’t watch a film with this title for intricate plot or subtle character study; you watch it to see asses being kicked, and there’s enough of that, you’d be hard-pushed to feel cheated. The excuse is the well-worn trope of a martial-arts tournament for women, the kumite, being held in Hong Kong. The last time it happened, it ended in a tie between deadly rivals, Shu (Hofmann) and Wai (K. Wu). They’re now both looking for someone who can fight on their behalf. Shu selects Jane Jones (Johnston), in Hong Kong seeking a father who vanished under murky circumstances years earlier. Wai chooses and trains Ling (J. Wu), a cocky, streetwise fighter. But there are 14 other entrants, hailing from all over the world, including Russia, Australia and Brazil, who must be defeated before the inevitable Jones vs. Ling showdown.

Yes, it’s utterly contrived, not least in not one, but two, master-student threads. If you can’t think of better ways to achieve the same end, you need to watch more movies. Fortunately, it’s salvaged by a quarter of decent performances from the lead women, who take the clichés they’re given by the script, and round them out into at least an approximation of real characters, good enough for the movie’s purposes. Bonus points due, for not inflicting any sappy romance (although Jones’s interactions with the spirit of her father are occasionally on perilously thin ice instead) and also largely avoiding potentially sleazy cheesecake, save for one locker-room pan.

As the tag-line above suggests, this feels very much like an adaptation of a non-existent video-game. As such, it would have helped if they’d mixed up the environments for the fights a bit, in the name of variety. This is a minor quibble, however, and what you get are some well-crafted slabs of action, showcasing various styles and approaches. Outside of Jones and Ling, the character which stuck in our mind most was likely Mayling Ng’s monstrous Svietta, freed from a Russian prison for the kumite. All tattoos and snarls, she might have made a better “final boss” for the heroine than Ling, who is perhaps a little too sympathetic. Despite any flaws, it’s a brisk tale, energetically told, and with plenty to commend its no-nonsense approach.

Dir: Chris Nahon
Star: Amy Johnston, Muriel Hofmann, Jenny Wu, Kathy Wu

Deidra and Laney Rob a Train

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“Criminal train of thought.”

After their mother has a meltdown at her job and ends up in jail: teenage sisters Deidra (Murray) and Laney (Crow, somewhat infamous for her post-elimination meltdown on The X Factor) are left to fend for themselves. With household bills piling up – never mind trying to fund Mom’s bail, or even Deidra’s long dreamed-of college tuition – and Child Protective Services looming, things look bleak. But a visit to deadbeat Dad Chet (Sullivan, channeling David Spade), who works for a railway company, gives Deidra an idea. Hop aboard the freight trains that run by the back of their house, pop open a container to take some goods, and fence them on for cash. Things go surprisingly well, until a disgruntled railroad cop, Truman (Nelson), starts to close in on the pair, intent on rebuilding his reputation after an incident in Arizona.

A somewhat awkward mix of elements, some not working as well as others, it still manages to survive and be entertaining. This is largely through sheer force of will from the lead characters, who manage to make you forget the actresses playing them are both too old for high school. The pair share a fierce bond, prepared to do anything for each other, even at the cost of their own dreams – for as well as Deidra’s education, Laney finds herself a finalist in a beauty pageant, which sets her at odds with her best friend at school, who is also a competitor. You know I said, some elements don’t work as well as others? That would be one of them: Drop Dead Gorgeous this isn’t.

It’s much better off when not trying too hard to be heartwarming. For example, the reason for Mom’s meltdown, turns out to be so saccharine as to provoke eye-rolling rather than tugging on your heart-strings. It has a nicely cynical edge about small-town life, such as the school guidance councilor who is as desperate as Deidra to get out of this dead-end – if only she could just get someone accepted to a college which doesn’t have “community” in its name… Like most of the adults here, there’s a sense of benign incompetence here: they don’t so much pose a threat to our two heroines, as bumble around and get in the way of them achieving their goals.

That these involve repeated grand larceny… Well, best not dwell on the implications there, regardless of how righteous the cause may be. For the lack of effort the pair put into any legal methods of fund-raising to solve their issues, could be seen as a troubling indictment of modern youth and entitlement culture. But it would be particularly tough to blame such an adorable pair of siblings, they appear to have strayed in from the Disney Channel. All snark aside, these are fun characters to watch bounce in and out of scrapes, and you can’t help pull for them as they turn into fun-sized versions of Ronnie Biggs.

Dir: Sydney Freeland
Star: Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, David Sullivan