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

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

La Viuda Negra vs. Griselda Blanco: Telenovela vs. real-life

The young Griselda Blanco: real (left) and telenovela versions.

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“Art VAGUELY imitating life.”

It’s probably safe to say La Viuda Negra is “inspired” by the story of Griselda Blanco, rather than anything more. But there are aspects of the telenovela which are surprisingly accurate, especially in the early stages, before things begin diverging for dramatic purposes. [Note: of necessity, what follows will include major spoilers for the TV series] For example, Griselda did move to the city of Medellin with her mother at an early age, not long after the end of World War 2, and it does appear she was involved in criminal activities there, before even becoming a teenager in the mid-fifties. 

A focus of the early episodes sees Blanco joining a gang, which then kidnaps the scion of a rich local family. In the telenovela, this kick-starts her career, because the victim dies, and his father vows vengeance on Griselda, forcing her to go on the run as a young adult. The reality is perhaps even more astonishing, with her former lover, Charles Cosby, reporting that the kidnap and murder took place when Blanco was only eleven years old. After the boy’s parents refused to pay up, the frustrated gang gave her a revolver and challenged her to shoot him in the head. Challenge accepted…

It was around this time she also met her first husband, Carlos Trujillo. In real life, he was involved in forging immigration documents; she had three children with him, all of whom would become involved in the drug trade, and suffer violent ends. The same happened to Trujillo, whom Griselda had killed, shortly after they divorced at the end of the sixties. In La Viuda Negra, her first husband, Puntilla, is part of the kidnapping gang, who goes on the run with Griselda, and is killed by him in Episode 6, after betraying her. [This is kind of a theme through the TV series; if Ms. Blanco has serious trust issues as a result, it’s understandable!]

It’s with her second husband that her career as a drug queen really started to take off, both in reality and fiction – though the latter has Robayo operating over the border in Ecuador, where Griselda (Serradilla) takes refuge. They establish a pipeline to move their product from South America to the United States, using attractive women as mules. The TV version has her having high-heeled shoes built, with hidden compartments to hide the drugs. That seemed a very inefficient approach to me: really, how much could one person carry? The reality made more sense: Blanco actually developed and used specially-made corsets and other lingerie, capable of holding up to seven pounds of cocaine per person. Even in those days, that was worth about a million dollars.

In the TV series, there’s a diversion after they’re established in New York, as Italian Mafia kingpin, Enzo Vittoria, falls in love with Griselda, and abducts her for reasons of affection, despite her having previously shot and wounded him. Never one to leave a job unfinished, she shoots him again, on their enforced wedding day (Episode 19), and this time completes the job. [Should that count as another murdered husband? They technically weren’t married…] However, she gradually grows estranged from Robayo, not least over the upbringing of their son, Michael Corleone Blanco – yes, he was named that in real life too! – and kills him in Episode 26, just before being arrested by long-running DEA adversary, Norm Jones (Gamboa), after having relocated to Miami.

The truth is somewhat different. Vittoria appears pure invention, although DEA agent Bob Palumbo did spend more than a decade on the trail of Blanco. There was indeed a falling out between her and second husband, Alberto Bravo, ending in her killing him. However, this took place back in Colombia. She and her top killers, Humberto Quirana and Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala, went to meet Bravo in a parking lot; the resulting gun-battle left Bravo and six bodyguards dead, and Blanco wounded. Later in the seventies, she returned to Florida, rising to the top in a brutal reign of terror, culminating in an infamous double homicide at Dadeland Mall. Her network brought in as much as $80 million a month, but Palombo eventually got his woman in 1985.

So, jail on both sides. But this is where the stories really start to diverge. In reality, she served 13 years in New York for cocaine smuggling, then was shipped to Florida where worse trouble awaited. For hitman ‘Rivi’ had turned stool-pigeon, and with his testimony linking her to literally dozens of murders, the death penalty loomed large. However, his testimony was largely discredited after a bizarre scandal in which he was shown to have paid secretaries at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for phone sex. In the end, prosecutors had to settle for lesser charges; Blanco got 20 years, and was released after only seven, returning to Colombia at the end of her sentence in 2004. The day she left, ‘Rivi’ was stabbed eight times in Dade County jail.

The TV series compacts the nineteen years Blanco really spent behind bars, in two separate sentences, into one period in New York alone. These 18 episodes add additional, entirely spurious aspects such as Griselda being forced to engage in cage fights (!) with other inmates, or her being attacked by guards, and getting revenge by setting them on fire. There are a couple of aspects one might call ‘somewhat true’. There was a plan hatched to kidnap the son of John F. Kennedy and exchange him for Blanco, though it never came as close to success as depicted in the telenovela. And while it is true that a man struck up a relationship by writing to her while she was inside, Charles Cosby was not the undercover DEA agent, portrayed as “Tyler” in the TV version.

Certainly, there’s major dramatic license in Blanco’s departure from prison. Rather than just reaching the end of her sentence, there’s a dramatic escape from literally being in the electric chair [which is odd, since no-one has been executed in New York state since 1963, and no woman since Martha Jule Beck in 1951]. Using a drug which gives the impression of death, allows her gang to break her out by ambulance (Episode 44). From there she returns to Colombia, and only at this point, does Blanco cross paths with the most notorious drug-lord of them all, Pablo Escovar. However, it appears they knew each other far longer. Some sources say they were childhood friends, others that he was Griselda’s “great apprentice,” and there are even salacious whispers they were lovers.

So any connection to fact in the show has now evaporated entirely. By this point, the real Griselda Blanco was in her sixties, and suffering badly from the effects of her life of excess – according to reports, “Court records show Blanco was a drug addict who consumed vast quantities of ‘bazooka,’ a potent form of smokeable, unrefined cocaine… would force men and women to have sex at gunpoint, and had frequent bisexual orgies.” After her release, she apparently lived quietly in Medellin. But it wasn’t enough to save her from a violent end. In September 2012, she was killed outside a butcher’s shop – ironically, in a motorcycle drive-by, the style of assassination she had pioneered and which became one of her trademarks.

This is as good a place as any, to mention the remarkably straight-edge depiction of Blanco in the telenovela. Unlike the sex- and drug-fiend described above, teleGriselda never gets high on her own supply, and is strictly monogamous – when anyone can get past her trust issues, that is. That’s something which I also noticed about La Reina Del Sur and the Mexican TV version was radically different from the American one, where the heroine was not averse to powdering her nose now and again. It’s an odd version of morality, considering how there’s apparently no problem with her being directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. “Yeah, but they were all bad,” to borrow a line from True Lies.

In the television version, however, she returns to business back on home turf. But there’s a problem, in the shape of Otalvaro. He’s another Colombian drug-runner, who holds a grudge against Blanco because she ordered the execution of his niece in her New York days – albeit for business rather than personal reasons. He teams up with Susana, another character apparently created for the show. She’s a Florida real-estate agent, who becomes part of Griselda’s crew, and is also a lesbian who has a long-time secret affection for her. When her hopes are crushed, she turns bitter, joining forces with Otalvaro, and tangentially, Escobar. Otalvaro’s daughter, Karla, meanwhile, goes the other way, falling for Michael Blanco after Otalvaro kidnaps him; she helps him escape and becomes part of Griselda’s crew.

In truth, these later episodes are less interesting, largely because the focus is so diluted – it gets away from Griselda, rather than focusing on her, as it should since she’s the most interesting character. I haven’t even mentioned Silvio, who betrays Griselda and tries to steal a submarine (!) packed with cocaine. He then gets miffed after she orders the death of his girlfriend, and begins his own, independent plot to take revenge on the family. Also still rattling around Medellin in the later stages is Jones, the series’s version of Bob Palumbo. He isn’t just chasing after her, he also ends up falling in love and prepared to do anything for her. Throw in his son and a renegade colleague, Garcia, prepared to go to any lengths to capture Griselda, and you’ll understand why it feels the writers are going for volume over quality in their storyline elements by the end.

But it’s at the end the story diverts furthest from reality. Instead of having Griselda gunned down in the street by an unknown adversary, she and her longest lasting and most faithful ally, Richi (Román), are trapped in a cold-storage room. Rather than surrender, or be captured by their enemies, legal or otherwise, they agree to a mutual suicide pact. The screen goes black, we hear the sound of gunfire, and the series ends. But mere mortality is no match for the demands of audience ratings. And so, two years later, the show began its second season, with a further 63 episodes detailing the further adventures of Griselda Blanco. The fictional version of the character appears to be even harder to kill than her real-life inspiration.

We’ll get round to watching that series in a bit, but after this 81-part marathon, I’m inclined to take a bit of a break! It wasn’t a bad show, and never became a chore: Serradilla is solid in the central role, and I also enjoyed Gamboa’s performance. But as noted, it did appear to lose focus as it went on, and did appear to be over-stretching its material. However, it will provide a useful template, against which other adaptations can be measured. For there are at least two competing Hollywood projects in various stages of production: one starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and the other, Jennifer Lopez. As and when those arrive on our screen, we can see how they compare to the extended version, offered by this telenovela.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Juan Pablo Gamboa, Julián Román, Ramiro Meneses

Gunslinger Girl

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“Young and heavily-armed.”

gunslingergirlIf you want something more cerebral and family friendly than Kite – if a story about underage assassins can ever be family friendly! – then Gunslinger Girl is perhaps for you. Set in Italy, a shadowy government organization, the Social Welfare Agency, has a prototype project which takes young women from hospital beds, augments their strength, speed and agility with cybernetic accessories, and unleashes them as state-sponsored special agents, with a wide-ranging license to kill. Each has a handler, to maintain and direct their conditioning and act as backup. But these trained assassins are still little girls at heart, with a fondness for teddy bears and ice-cream, as well as forming disturbing attachments to their handlers, who become their only family.

Though probably the most disturbing thing here, is that these are the forces of good: this is your tax dollars (well, tax lira) at work, fighting against radical terrorists and organized crime. Does the end justify the means, in terms of both the physical and emotional costs paid by those who take part, especially those too young to offer any kind of informed consent? Perhaps wisely, the thirteen 22-minutes episodes don’t delve too far down that rabbit-hole, preferring to concentrate more on the relationships between the five girls who are the subjects of the project. There’s something of Ghost in the Shell here, with the heroines’ awareness of their own (now, largely mechanical) nature leading them to ponder what it is to be human, and whether they can even consider themselves as qualifying any more.

The action here is perhaps less frequent than you’d expect, each episode typically having one or two brief bursts of intense activity. This doesn’t soft-pedal the violence in any way, even if it doesn’t seem to have the emotional impact on its young subjects that you feel it might; this could well be the point, and may also be a side-effect of the amnesia which is induced in them. The technical aspects are solid, in particular the music which prefers a classical tone to the (over-used, to be honest) standard large helping of J-Pop tunes, and the show has been complimented for its attention to detail, particularly in the details of the weapons it depicts.

My main issue is the lack of any real story arc or escalation. You reach the end of the 13th episode and, while not ineffective (most of the girls sit out in a meadow, watching a meteor shower and singing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, while one lies in a hospital bed), it would hardly pass for a satisfactory conclusion. This may well result from it being an adaptation of just the first two volumes, in a series actually running to fifteen. Given this, it might have been wise to cut down the characters; rather than splitting stories and characterization relatively evenly across the five, focusing on one or two in greater depth would potentially have been more successful. That said, I still appreciated its more thoughtful and leisurely pacing, and will certainly cover the sequel series in due course.

Dir: Hiroshi Ishidori
Star (voice): Eri Sendai, Yuuka Nanri, Kanako Mitsuhashi, Ami Koshimizu

The Frontier

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“A cash and grab story.”

Laine (Donahue) is on the run. From what isn’t immediately clear, but it seems to be something to do with the death of an oil executive. Whatever the reason, she’s staying off the highways and keeping to the back roads. One morning, she wakes up beside The Frontier, a diner/motel owned and operated by Luanne (Lynch), who offers Laine employment, in return for board and lodging. Laine initially rejects the offer, then discovers some other guests are apparently there in the aftermath of an armoured car robbery, which netted them two million dollars. Laine therefore decides it’s in her best interests to stick around, and begins a game of chess with the perpetrators, to see if she can end up walking away with their ill-gotten gains.

Opening in a shot of Laine, lighting a cigarette with her blood-stained hands, the story then unfolds in flashback. The style seems deliberately vague in terms of era; some aspects of this seem right out of the seventies, while others appear to be throwbacks to an earlier, film noir approach. There are definitely elements of David Lynch here – not just in the original title, Thieves’ Highway, also from the dialogue and a sense of lurking evil beneath a thin surface layer of everyday normality. Maybe The Hateful 8, with a group of players of uncertain agenda, forced to interact? You could even claim some Lars Von Trier here, in the way that the movie almost entirely takes place in a single location, often feeling like an adaptation of a play – perhaps one where the buildings are defined entirely by chalk lines, drawn on the stage.

Unfortunately, most of this fails to be as interesting as the sources it’s trying to imitate. The script makes the mistake of thinking that a sheer quantity of duplicity and double-crosses, will somehow make up for there being no particular reason to give a damn about most of the characters. Their obvious lack of honesty, everyone holding the cards close to their chest, makes it hard for the audience to get on board with any of them – particularly Laine, who is clearly intended to be the audience’s focus. Though Donahue, overall, isn’t bad in the role. She delivers an interesting mix of steely determination and street wit that, if not likeable, is always watchable, offering an acceptable twist on the typical femme fatale.

The rest of the cast feel more like standard tropes from that genre: the gruff, brutish thug; the ditzy moll; the fake “gentleman”, and so on, things you’ve likely seen far too often before, and neither the script nor their portrayals do enough to make them come alive. Things meander along to the entirely expected, bloody conclusion promised by that opening shot, and it feels longer instead of shorter than its relatively brisk 88 minute running-time. While there’s some promise here, and signs of talent, it would be a large stretch to say either are fulfilled.

Dir: Oren Shai
Star: Jocelin Donahue, Kelly Lynch, Jim Beaver, Izabella Miko

Kill La Kill

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“Not sure if serious…”

killlakillAfter I watched the first episode of this show, I was sure it was a delicious parody of anime shows, particular the “super-powered high-school” genre. It seemed to be taking the concepts of shows such as Sailor Moon, say, and ramping everything up to 11. The violence, in particular, is somewhere beyond Dragon Ball Z in terms of excess, except with copious additional amounts of arterial spray – though people survive far beyond the point at which any normal person would be a desiccated husk. I mean, just look at that heroine’s outfit on the right. They cannot be serious, can they? But the longer this went on… the less sure I was whether it was a parody. If it is, it’s an impressively straight-faced one.

The setting is Honnouji Academy, a Tokyo high school ruled over by Satsuki Kiryuin (Yuzuki), who runs the place as a neo-fascist regime, enforcing her will through selected pupils. Her chosen ones are enhanced by “Goku uniforms” of various levels, made from a strange substance called life fibers, which give the wearer superhuman abilities. But into this comes Ryuko Matoi (Koshimizu), a transfer student with an agenda all her own – as well as her own enhanced uniform, a sentient outfit called Senketsu (Seki), and half of a pair of giant scissors, which she starts using to take out Satsuki’s minions. For Ryuko is seeking the killer of her father, the scientist who developed Senketsu, and seems like Satsuki played a significant role in that murder.

There’s more. A lot more. Suffice it to say that just about no-one here is quite what they seem, right down to the life fibers, and by the time you reach the final episode, loyalties and alliances have gone to a completely different landscape. For something which feels like it should be shallow, tongue in cheek and certainly has copious amounts of fan service (albeit being fairly even-handed in its OTT depiction of both sexes), there’s clearly considerable effort gone into the plotting. But, let’s be honest, the main focus here is on the fights, as Ryuko first makes her way up the chain of command toward her nemesis, and then discovers the truth about what’s going on and has to recalibrate her sights. There’s hardly one of the 24 x 25-minute episodes which does not consist of at least one-third major, major animated mayhem, with Ryoko beating the tar out of one or more enemies, and taking as much damage as she receives.

As such, it does get somewhat repetitive – if you’ve seen Ryuko’s transformation sequence once, you’ve seen it several dozen times – and there isn’t much sense of escalation to the action. But it is brashly hyper-energetic, relentlessly female-driven, largely romance free and perfect for viewing in small, highly-caffeinated doses. If only I could figure out whether or not it was intended to be one big in-joke or not, I know whether or not to feel guilty about enjoying it.

Dir: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Star: Ami Koshimizu, Ryoka Yuzuki, Aya Suzaki, Toshihiko Seki

Neerja

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“Sticks to the plane truth.”

Time to set up GirlsWithoutGuns.org, perhaps. For this film brings home that among the most courageous of heroines are the unarmed ones – especially when facing people who are not. Such is the case with Neerja Bhanot, the 22-year-old head purser on Pan Am Flight 73 from Mumbai to New York in 1986. Just before takeoff after a stop in Karachi, the plane was taken over by hijackers from the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization, who intended to divert it to Cyprus. Bhanot alerted the pilots, allowing them to escape and thwarting that plan. She then discarded the passports of American passengers, stopping the terrorists from targeting them. When they believed Pakistani forces were about to storm the plane, she opened the emergency exits, help shepherd passengers out, and sheltered children from the terrorists’ bullets.

Yep, there are good reasons she became the first female recipient of India’s highest decoration for bravery in peacetime, the Ashok Chakra Award, and the youngest ever. Wisely, the film opts for a largely straightforward retelling of the events of those 24 hours, beginning with Neerja’s exuberant attendance at a birthday party the previous evening, through her trip to the airport and the mundane processes of the early, peaceful leg of the flight, before all hell comes storming up the stairs into her aircraft. Against a solid background, the only element which rings significantly false is the note given to her by a friend at the airport: its clichéd contents perhaps explain the disclaimer before the movie, about “Any resemblance to persons living or dead…”

Otherwise, however, it seems to stick to the truth, as far as my post-film Googling has been able to tell. Yes, Neerja was a part-time model as well as an air hostess. She also had already been through an arranged marriage which failed, to an apparently abusive husband (though here again: “Any resemblance…”). But it’s her amazingly calm, yet smart approach in the face of the four hijackers that is most incredible, with death never more than a hair-trigger’s breadth away. This hellish and escalating claustrophobia of the incident is the film’s strongest suit. Madhvani plays it expertly to a crescendo, as the hijackers become increasingly irritated by what they perceive (not incorrectly) as stalling tactics by the authorities in response to demands for new pilots.

It’s likely one of those cases where less knowledge may be useful in appreciating it. For I’m sure most of the original Indian audience was already well aware of the story here; in contrast, as someone who hadn’t heard about it before, I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion, with no clue of how it would end. As we enter the New Year of 2017, it certainly qualifies as one of the strongest entries of 2016, even if – or perhaps because? – the movie goes in a different direction from the more-traditional kind of action heroines, which we usually cover on this site.

Dir: Ram Madhvani
Star: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Abrar Zahoor

Scherzo Diabolico

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heatstroke

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“Hyenas: yes. Laughing? Not so much.”

heatstrokeWildlife researcher Paul (Dorff) is looking forward to a trip to South Africa with his new girlfriend, Tally (Metkina), when he gets The Call from his ex-wife, informing them their daughter, Josie (Williams) has been arrested, and is generally hanging out with a bad crowd. Paul brings the highly-reluctant Josie on the trip, in the hopes the experience will enlighten her. Doesn’t work: she spends the time on her iPad, headphones on, sulking and being grumpy. Finally, they’ve all had enough, and Paul leaves, to take Josie back to civilization. When he doesn’t return, Tally goes to look for him, only to find the jeep crashed, Paul shot dead and Josie injured. Turns out they ran across a couple of minions belonging to Mallick (Stormare), a smuggler with a very strong interest in keeping his operation under wraps. Tally and Josie are now a pair of unacceptable loose ends that need to be tidied up – but Tally is not going to let that happen without a fight.

If some of the DVD sleeves promise rather more heroic, gun-wielding Dorff than the film delivers, I’m perfectly fine with that, as watching Tally take over things is likely more entertaining – there’s something a little Ripley-esque about the way she’s prepared to go to bat for a kid that isn’t her own. And go to bat fiercely: “Guess we’re not dealing with a f____ housewife,” says Mallick, after she has disposed of one particularly nasty henchman. The sequence leading up to that is likely the best in the film, Tally using guile to lure her target in before trying to strangle him; it’s credible in terms of strength and exudes a true sense of danger. Shame the rest doesn’t have such a well-considered approach; indeed, the ending relies on a change of heart by one character that’s a great deal more convenient than it’s convincing.

In between bursts of action, you can admire the South African scenery and some fairly impressive work with hyenas in apparent close proximity to the cast. Williams also does fairly well with a role that could have been utterly unsympathetic – we have had our share of bratty teenagers, and don’t exactly need to experience them dramatically – even if I had to keep suppressing a strange urge to yell “Stick ’em with the pointy end!” [I’d better explain: Williams has a major role in Game of Thrones, and that quote was tactical swordfighting advice given her at one point]. Stormare is his usual good value, and despite its flaws, there’s enough going on here to make for a passable slab of entertainment on a wet Saturday afternoon.

Dir: Evelyn Purcell
Star: Svetlana Metkina, Maisie Williams, Stephen Dorff, Peter Stormare