“Questionable quarrels.”

It’s not often a film manages to be under-written AND over-written. Yet this tale of wilderness survival does both. A group of women are out on what’s supposed to be an empowering hike through the forest, designed to boost self-reliance, esteem and all that good stuff. But they come under attack from a group of local men, apparently intent on a hunting expedition, with the woman as the prey. They’ll need to learn survival skills, that’s for sure.

There’s a not-so-subtle message of gender politics here. The males here are all utter bastards or completely ineffective. Heroine Kat (Johnson, who also co-wrote the script with the director) is there to get away from an abusive relationship. It’s brick-like in its obviousness, yet it’s almost half-way before the two sides face off. Until that point, it’s virtually a poster-child for demonstrating why one of the rules of cinema is “show, don’t tell”. This does far too much telling, and to negligible effect. Maybe there are just too many members in the party, to allow for decent fleshing out? Beyond Kat, none of them are given any depth, defined by one or two simple characteristics. And I note the film’s fondness for liberal gender politics doesn’t extend to issues of race, perpetuating one of the most common genre stereotypes [minor spoiler at the link].

After an immensely annoying first half, things become somewhat better, when the film climbs off its soapbox, and gets down to the raw meat of rednecks vs. disgruntled women. However, we’re never given anything approaching an explanation for the huntsmen. There’s some vague hints in the intro about this being a former mining area, and one of the participants has a nasty burn on the side of his face. Quite how this ties into creating a pastime inspired by The Most Dangerous Game, is never clear. Given all the screen time (ineffectually) put into the victims’ back stories, you feel they could have spared two minutes and given a coherent motive to the other side.

The women handle themselves surprisingly well in the battle, making good use of the environment – which, basically, means clobbering the men with branches, rocks, and anything else the environment can provide them. Possibly a bit too good, given the absence of anything to explain why they can go toe-to-toe with opponents who are generally bigger, better armed and have the advantage of home territory. Yet these heroines seem curiously averse to taking weapons off those who are attacking them: I’d be looting the bodies and powering up with anything I could find.

The closest parallel I can provide in overall tone, might be to think of this as like an above-ground version of The Descent. Yet it’s not as entertaining or well put together: there, the lack of any real explanation for the cave-dwelling creatures didn’t pose any issue – because monsters. But when you introduce a human element, there generally needs to be at least some kind of motivation provided, or it just seems like lazy film-making. Despite some decent performances – not least from Johnson – it falls flat and forgettable. On the evidence here, she’s a better actress than a scriptwriter.

Dir: Nils Taylor
Star: Nicole Marie Johnson, Leisha Hailey, Carrie Finklea, James Devoti

Queen of the South, season two

“Queen vs. Queen”

The first series was the story of Teresa Mendoza’s fall and rise. From a comfortable life in Mexico, she dropped all the way across the border, to a drug mule at the very bottom of the organization belonging to Camila Vargas (Falcon), before beginning her climb up that cartel’s ladder. The series ended with her becoming Camila’s trusted lieutenant, as her cartel fought for its independence from estranged husband, Don Epifanio. In the second season, the landscape shifts, radically. Indeed, by the end, virtually everything you knew – or thought you knew – has been shaken up.  In particular, the relationship between Camila and Teresa falls apart, as Teresa looks to assert her independence. Initially, Camila is very much on the back foot, having been cut off from both her supplies and her distribution network, and has to rebuild both.

This task requires quite some effort on the part of both her and Teresa, and brings them into contact with some strange characters. On the distribution side, is an eccentric smuggler who calls himself “King George.” He does have a tough streak, but is a quirky character who feels more like a leftover hippie, more amusing than a real threat. That can not be said of Bolivian drug-lord El Santo (played by Steven Bauer, whom my wife says to remind you is Cuban!). He’s part shaman, part Jim Jones, leading his devoted cult of followers through a psycho-chemical process that leaves them… changed. And before he agrees to deal with Camila, he insists Teresa goes through that process. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. The episodes set in Bolivia were definitely eye-opening (an interesting contrast to the Bolivian Fighting Cholitas!), and Santo’s police associate, La Capitana, was almost as bad-ass as Teresa.

But they contributed to what I found was the main problem this season: a lack of focus. The plot seemed to be getting pulled in too many directions: a strength of the first season was it felt unequivocally like Teresa’s story. That didn’t feel the case here. While some of those elements were solid enough – Camila remains a fascinating character, worthy of her own show – I could probably have done, say, without the adventures of her and Epifanio’s bratty teenage daughter. It took until the final episode for that to become relevant; until then, it was more a chore than a pleasure. Similarly, the love triangle between Teresa, colleague-at-arms James (Gadiot) and her former, not-so-dead boyfriend, Guero, was all too obvious.

However, it’s still relentlessly gritty, and the way the relationships between the characters changed over time was very well-plotted. It’s done gradually, so that you don’t realize how former allies have become mortal enemies, until the betrayal occurs. Here, the pivotal moment was Teresa discovering papers proving Camila had set her up, dead in the firing line of a DEA investigation. This finally proved to Teresa what we had suspected all along: that Camila was simply using her, as and when necessary or beneficial, and was undeserving of the loyalty which Teresa had shown here.

The final episode confirmed the battle lines have been redrawn, and sets the stage for series three (the show’s renewal was already announced, last month). To quote the program’s showrunner, Natalie Chaidez, this season “was about Teresa learning what it takes to run a drug cartel from Camila Vargas… Camila taught her some good things, and she taught her some bad things. Now, Teresa has reached the end of the season ready, armed with all of the lessons Camila has taught her.” Mission accomplished, and with the pair now on opposing sides – and with Camila having very good reason to hate Teresa – I’m already anticipating the next series.

Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida

Queen of the South vs. La Reina Del Sur


“She’s a woman in enemy territory. All women are in enemy territory for centuries, but in this case, this is particularly accentuated because the drug-dealing world is a very machista, hostile environment. Here, the survival of a woman in enemy territory is even more spectacular. That’s the original challenge of the novel — to ensure that in a machista, violent world, which is the territory of men — that in such a world where the women use the weapons of men, they use the intelligence and penetration of a woman. The challenge is for her to do more than what men do in those circumstances and for her to become the boss of men.”
Arturo Pérez-Reverte

There have been two, significantly different televisual adaptations of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, La Reina Del Sur (you can read our review of the source material here). The first, was a Mexican telenovela that ran for 63 episodes during 2011. However, this summer saw the premiere of an American television series based on the same novel, which played on the USA Network. This covered 13 episodes thus far, and finished its first run last month, with the network agreeing to a second season next year. Let’s take a look at both shows: their similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses, starting with the Mexican version.

reinaLa Reina Del Sur
“The reina in Spain, stays mainly in the plain.”

The impact of La Reina Del Sur probably can’t be exaggerated. Right from the first episode, screened in February 2011 on Telemundo, it was a smash hit. The premiere drew the network’s biggest ratings ever for a first episode, and perhaps surprisingly, the audience was almost equally split between men and women. The following week, viewers increased by almost 20%, and beat all English-language stations in the 18-34 demographic. The final episode, on May 30th, was the most-watched program in Telemundo’s 19-year history – and again, was watched by more men than any show on TV at the time. Though since surpassed, it was also the station’s most-expensive production, shot in five countries and budgeted at $10 million, So if you’re expecting cheesy drama, you’re going to be surprised – at least somewhat.

It tells the story of Teresa Mendoza, whose life is thrown upside down when her boyfriend, El Guero, is killed by the organized crime gang for which he has been flying planes. She trades his notebook to the head of the gang, Epifanio Vargas (Zurita), in exchange for her help escaping to Spain. There, she gets a job as a waitress in a brothel, and gradually works her way up to running the place’s books. She begins a relationship with a smuggler, and learns the ropes of the trade from him, only for tragedy to strike. While trying to out-run the authorities, their boat crashes into rocks, killing him and leading to her being sent to prison.

reina2In jail, she links up with Colombian Patricia O’Farrell (Urgel), who knows the location of a huge cocaine stash, hidden by her late boyfriend from the Russian mafia. On their release, the pair work out a risky deal with Oleg Yasikov (Jiménez) to sell it back, giving them the cash to set up in the drug business, with Yasikov’s help. However, this attracts unwelcome attention from two fronts. The DEA start sniffing around, with the help of the local cops. Potentially more lethally, Epifanio is now on the political rise, and Teresa’s existence represents an unwelcome loose-end that must be tidied up. Not least because the DEA are interested in getting her back to Mexico to testify against him.

According to del Castillo, the entire series was shot in just seven months, which is an extremely quick pace: it works out at more than two episodes, or over an hour of new footage, every single week. At one point, the star required medical treatment for exhaustion. Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of the source novel (whose work also inspired Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), helped extend the material, a very necessary task given the 63 episodes the show lasted. Not having read the book myself, I can’t comment on what was added, but having read Werner’s scathing review, seems like the telenovela is superior to the novel, and has certainly made its heroine a more sympathetic character.

The two areas where it works best are Teresa Mendoza’s character arc, and the supporting cast. With the story unfolding over such a long period (by English-language TV standards), the former kinda creeps up on you. It’s only near the end, when the show includes a number of flashbacks to what Teresa used to be like, that you realize how drastically she has been changed by events. The plucky yet naive young woman to whom we were initially introduced has gone, replaced by a thoroughly hard-bitten woman, She learns the hard way that trust and affection are traits that can get you – or your loved ones – killed in her chosen profession. Frankly, the trail of dead bodies left behind Teresa in one way or another, is so high, her belief she may be cursed begins to seem credible.

reina3I also liked the background characters. O’Farrell is a hard-drinking, coke-snorting, flagrantly bisexual party girl, yet still vulnerable and insecure at her core. She’s played by Urgel, who looks like a supermodel version of Brienne of Tarth, taller than most of the men on the show [Per Google, she’s officially 5’7″, but as this pic of her, del Castillo and male star Ivan Sanchez shows… someone’s not telling the truth] Another woman Teresa meets in jail, who becomes a key part of her team is Marcela, known as “La Conejo” (the rabbit). She looks like she wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but actually poisoned her husband and his mother. Alberto Jiménez, as Yasikov, seems to be channeling Lee Van Cleef. Finally, DEA agent Willy Rangel, shows up early, vanishes in the middle, then comes back to be pivotal at the end, drinking coffee from his Union Jack mug.  Given this show is a marathon, not a sprint, having these to sustain interest is likely a necessity.

It is disappointingly low-key in terms of action: Teresa’s first boyfriend teaches her to shoot, as shown above. But after using it to escape early peril, she doesn’t fire another round until the final battle. To be honest, even the efforts at generating tension are only sporadically successful, and this is more drama-than thriller-inclined. There are some moments of plotting which don’t ring true either. Apparently, in Spain, police procedure means than when someone confesses to having hired a hitman, you then let them wander off upstairs on their own to, oh I dunno, tidy up or something. Such mis-steps are likely inevitable at some point though. All told, I found it acceptably entertaining, with a lot less time spent on torrid romance than I expected, and anchored by del Castillo’s sound performance.

Finally, in a bizarre element of life imitating art, Kate del Castillo subsequently became involved with notorious fugitive Mexican drug-lord El Chapo, after Tweeting about him in 2012. Turns out he was a fan of La Reina Del Sur, telling her, “That series that you made, I saw it and I loved it. I’ve seen it many times—you’re a great actress in it.” He authorized Kate to begin work on a film version of his life story, before his break-out from jail in July 2015. Subsequently, she traveled to Mexico, along with Sean Penn, to meet El Chapo, a trip which Penn later chronicled in a heavily-criticized article for Rolling Stone. The relationship brought del Castillo scrutiny by the Mexican government, including an investigation for involvement in money-laundering. As of July, this was still ongoing…

Star: Kate del Castillo, Cristina Urgel, Humberto Zurita, Alberto Jiménez

Queen of the South
“Don’t mess with Tex-Mexicans.”

I’ll likely have less to say about the American version, because thus far, it has run barely 20% of the length of its predecessor, and tells far from a completed story. It is, however, radically different to this point in a number of ways. The most obvious is the shift in Teresa’s destination from Spain to the United States. This has caused some complaints among fans of the series and the novel, yet seems entirely understandable, given this is aimed squarely at the mainstream American market. While she’s still running from her boyfriend’s former employer, with a book containing a wealth of incriminating evidence, that information plays a more significant part here, becoming the McGuffin which drives the final third of the first season.

queen2The other major difference is one of focus. Teresa (Braga) has, to this point, not risen very high at all up the ladder of the drug business. There’s some obvious foreshadowing that she will, in that her “spirit animal” is an impeccably-dressed version of herself. But that appears well off into the future. For now, the real “Queen of the South” so far is Camila Vargas (Falcon). She’s the separated wife of Epifanio Vargas (de Almeida), who runs the American side of the business. She seizes an opportunity presented by Epifanio’s political campaign, and is working on going into business entirely on her own, dealing directly with the Colombian cartels. Needless to say, this does not sit well with her former husband, and when she discovers he is also after Teresa – no more than a low-level runner in her Dallas, Texas organization – her interest is inevitably piqued.

So far, it has not been at all interested in romance, unlike LRdS, where Teresa’s various boyfriends and entanglements were a significant part of the show. This may develop down the road: for now, US Teresa has been too busy trying to survive. Likely as a consequence, she has also directly slain more people than Mexi-Teresa at the same point. The first came as the result of a drug deal/heist gone bad, and you could make a good case for self-defense. The killings in the final episode, however? Not so much. I sense she’s going to be considerably more “hands on” than LRdS, where Teresa delegated all the dirty work to her minions [I may be wrong, but I don’t recall her killing anyone personally until the shoot-out in the final episodes]

Where Queen really scores, however, is in its production values. Despite the solidity of the performances, Reina always felt like a soap-opera: largely enclosed in its sets and constrained by a budget that, while unprecendented by telenovela standards, was still low by comparison to American TV. That isn’t the case here: at its best, this even goes beyond television and has a cinematic feel, comparable with the likes of Traffic or Sicario. I particularly liked the use of music, which was certainly a lot more appropriate than the jaunty Norteño awfulness which permeated LRdS. [I should point out, my tolerance for country & western is equally low!] The electronic beats used here instead, felt a bit reminiscent of Miami Vice, or perhaps Giorgio Moroder’s work for Scarface, both of which are certainly relevant.

It’s a grittier version of the drug life too. In LRdS, you largely felt one or more degrees of separation from the harsh realities involved, with the drugs almost an abstract construct. There’s no such escape here, right from the opening episode when a drug mule has the packages she’s carrying burst in her stomach, with fatal results. But the biggest ace the show has so far is Vargas – a character not present at all in Reina, and neither in the book as far as I can tell. She’s part chess player, part grim reaper, with a voice which sounds like honey being slowly poured over sopapillas. She’s a fascinating, complex creation, beautifully portrayed by Falcon, and we’d have happily watched an entire series focused entirely on her.

Certainly, it’ll be interesting to see where the story develops from here. The first season ended with Epifanio ascending to the governorship of Sinaloa, and immediately exercising his new-found power, calling in the military against the cartel his ex-wife had just taken from him. Meanwhile, Teresa suffers a heart-breaking personal loss, yet rises above it to tell Camila, “I don’t work for you any more.” And, to nobody’s great surprise, there was a shock final twist, revealing something which wasn’t all that much of a shock, Reina having prepped me for it (albeit, a lot later there than in episode #13).  None of which diminished my interest in the next season, slated for summer 2017. While fans of the telenovela may choose to differ, I think any neutral would likely agree that this is a more polished and effective rendition of the story.

Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida


The Queen of the South, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Literary rating: star
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

reina-novelDisclaimer at the outset: I haven’t read this novel from cover to cover. Seven years ago, I read the prologue and first three chapters; this time around, I read the first seven (re-reading the ones I’d read before), and skimmed the last ten and the epilogue –though I skimmed very thoroughly, taking about three hours and absorbing all of the major plot points. I feel qualified to give it a fair rating and review; but the level of bad language and grungy sexual content, blended with the tedious prose style and the wall-to-wall cynicism of the author’s literary vision (if we can call it that) made this too distasteful to read word-for-word any further.

Our title character here is Teresa Mendoza, who, when we first meet her, is a 22-year-old girl from Culiacan, Sinola, Mexico, a community dominated by the cross-border Mexican-U.S. drug traffic. Her boyfriend is a airplane pilot ferrying drugs for a local narco kingpin. But this boyfriend had a bad habit of defrauding his employer with side deals of his own and bragging about it when he was drunk; the prologue opens with her phone ringing to inform her that his boss has just had him killed –and that she’d better run, because the killers are on their way to dispatch her, too. Her resulting 13-year odyssey will take her to Spain (Perez-Reverte’s home country), see her eventually rise to control the drug traffic into and through southern Spain, and eventually bring her back full circle to the place of her birth and a reckoning with the past.

There’s a solid story here, which despite its seeming far-fetched improbability is plotted in a way that actually comes across as believable (except for Teresa settling and working in Spain under her real name, and not getting whacked within a matter of weeks!) and told with a few twists that I did not see coming, even though I’d skimmed the ending seven years earlier. The author appears to be extremely knowledgeable about the history and minutia of drug trafficking, at least up to 2002 when the novel was written (though he doesn’t quite understand that not all readers are necessarily as fascinated as he apparently is with every scrap of minutia). Teresa is a complex character, not one a reader will readily forget; and there are moments in the story that are quite emotionally evocative, even poignant.

However, the execution of the idea is wanting here, in several respects. First, Perez-Reverte gives us two interlaced narratives, Teresa’s own direct story in the third person and that of a journalist, in the first person, who’s piecing together her story from interviews with her (in the first chapter; most of the rest of her saga unfolds in flashback) and others who knew her. The actual meat of the story is in the former strand of narrative, however; the journalist’s really adds nothing except padding to bulk the book up to its 436 pages. There’s nothing of substance in his contribution that couldn’t have been conveyed much more economically, and with a more unified structure, by incorporating it into the third-person narrative. Every time we switch to his strand, there’s a marked loss of momentum and interest.

Even in the strand focused on Teresa directly, however, the prose is slow-moving, and detail heavy (about a third of the text could probably have been edited out without major damage, and it would have produced a quicker, more easily-flowing read). Given that it’s also peppered with constant f-words (probably incongruous for Spanish-language speakers) and other foul language and crude sexual content, both heterosexual and lesbian, for me it was a real chore to read as much as I did. Perez-Reverte (who’s the author of at least five other novels, though I haven’t read any of those) also affects a self-consciously “literary” style, with a lot of emphasis on his protagonist’s inner thoughts and on portentiously-described Significant Moments, which gets old quickly. In fairness to the author, the translator is probably responsible for the f-words and for the erroneous use of “clips” to describe ammunition magazines –and certainly for the frequent Spanish phrases left untranslated, apparently to give the text a Spanish flavor. (Most monolingual English-language readers would have preferred that he’d stuck to doing that with familiar words like “si” and “gracias,” that don’t need translation.)

reina-novel2For a writer who was so inclined, the subject matter here would be a gold mine for moral and social reflection. The storyline cries out for exploration of the (im)morality of a drug trade that corrupts and destroys every life it touches, of the roots of demand for drugs in modern society, of the inequities in Mexican government and society for which the drug trade is a symptom and a result, of the failure of the prison system as an instrument of rehabilitation or justice, and any number of other serious themes. Readers who bring the raw materials for such reflection with them to the book may indeed think about these things, but without any direct encouragement from the author. His basic message appears to be nihilistic cynicism; and if anything, he tends to glorify drug trafficking, in somewhat the same fashion as the “narcocorridos” that he quotes at times.

To the extent that he has a vision, it could fairly be summarized as: “Wow, Teresa is a tough survivor who climbs to the top of the heap against odds; isn’t she COOL?” Well –no. She is a tough survivor who can handle threatening situations with courage and resolution; she has intelligence and talents that could be put to more constructive uses than they get, and she demonstrates some instinctive basic decency in her face-to-face relations with people. But she’s incapable (or doesn’t want to be capable) of any reflection about the consequences of her actions for people who use the drugs she transports, and doesn’t come across as particularly likable or admirable in most ways that count. (We’re also asked to believe –unrealistically– that her own drug habit has no more psychological or physical consequences than chewing gum would have; and some readers probably will believe it, to their own detriment.) I wouldn’t characterize her as an evil villainess –but I wouldn’t call her a heroine or a role model, either.

Readers who frequent this site will, understandably, be interested in the book’s action component. I set Teresa’s kick-butt quotient at three stars as a matter of attitude; she’s pragmatic about the elimination of enemies, though unlike the drug lords of Sinola, she’s not into slaughtering their innocent families. (She may threaten it for effect, but the reader knows that on that score, her bark is worse than her bite; and she’s capable of mercy where others in her position might not have shown it.) But as far as any direct personal action on her part goes, she picks up and uses a gun here exactly twice, once near the beginning and once in the climactic shoot-out near the end. And that scene is described, in Perez-Reverte’s typically “literary” fashion, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style from a slightly befuddled viewpoint; he doesn’t handle the action with the clarity that some other writers would.

Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Publisher: Putnam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

Queen of the Desert

“Just deserts”

queendesertEccentric explorers with strong personalities facing the challenge of the wilderness is hardly uncharted territory for Herzog. Most famously, his pair of incendiary collaborations with fellow German, Klaus Kinski, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God are both classics, so I had high hopes for this biopic about Gertrude Bell, who was, according to her Wikipedia page, “an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, spy and archaeologist,” operating in the Middle East during and after the first World War.

Daughter of an English baronet, she found the aristocratic English life stifling, and want to Teheran where her uncle was a diplomat. She fell in love with the region and its people, and spent almost the entire rest of her life there. It was a time of turmoil, as the ruling Ottoman Empire was collapsing, with other Western empires, including the British, seeking to take over the territory. In that setting, Bell’s expert knowledge of the region was invaluable, and she became an intelligence asset, working alongside T.E. Lawrence (Pattinson). better known as Lawrence of Arabia. But her personal life was more troubled; her father refused permission to marry her first love (Franco), who then committed suicide. After a long lay-off from love, she begins a relationship with soldier Charles Doughty-Wylie (Lewis) – who is already married.

Herzog’s work is at its best when he invests fully in it, such as Fitzcarraldo, where he told the story of a man who dragged a steam-boat over a mountain (for rubber plantation purposes), by actually dragging a steam-boat over a mountain – watch the documentary, Burden of Dreams, for more on this, and the psychological toll the whole production took on the director. Here, you don’t get any sense of personal cost; it’s probably the most slick and Hollywood film Herzog has ever made, and that takes away more than it adds. Kidman is decent enough, yet her depiction is likely too restrained. It peaks very early, with Bell’s barely-suppressed, seething hatred for the suitors who come to woo her in England, and there are not many occasions after, where you get any sense of emotion. The desert landscapes are impressive [not the first time Herzog has been there either; see his post-war documentary on the Kuwaiti oil fields, Lessons of Darkness], yet there’s only so often you can watch Bell riding across them while a vaguely epic score swells behind her, before the impact diminishes.

All told, you probably get a better insight into Bell’s life from reading the Wikipedia page mentioned earlier. The obituary quoted there is likely a better testament to its subject, than the two hours of scenic desert landscapes and unresolved sexual tension we get here:

No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.

Dir: Werner Herzon
Star: Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis, James Franco, Robert Pattinson

The Quiet Hour

“Alien apocalypse? Time for a nice cup of tea.”

quiethourIt took me forever to figure out where I’d seen the heroine before. Turns out Richards was also the young central character of The Golden Compass though in my defense, she was two-thirds of the age she is here. The film takes place some time after an alien invasion has effectively destroyed humanity, in order to strip-mine resources from the earth’s core: for all except a brief period of two hours each day, anyone found outside is ruthlessly tracked down and killed by the aliens’ craft. Hiding out in their rural farmhouse are Sarah (Richards) and her brother, Jude (McMullen), the latter having been blinded during the initial assault. Their isolated security is disrupted by the arrival of the wounded Tom Connelly (Davies) – he is being pursued by another group of survivors, with highly unpleasant dietary habits and led by Kathryn (Millar), who lay siege to the house, demanding Sarah hands over Tom to them.

By coincidence, I watched this the same week as the similarly-themed (though alien-free) October Gale, with Patricia Clarkson as the woman under siege after helping a wounded guest. This is actually better, with the director here having a better handle on the escalating tension, and Richards giving a solid performance, trying to put a brave face on a steadily-disintegrating situation, for the sake of Jude. What’s curious here, is how the aliens are almost irrelevant to the rest of proceedings: for virtually the entire movie, they’re just a backdrop in front of which the bigger threat, of Kathryn and her clan, plays out. It’s a strange approach. I kept expecting the extraterrestrial angle to be more significant, and if you’re expecting something like a British version of Independence Day, you are going to be very, very disappointed, as this is much more slower-paced, almost to the point of glacial.

However, I can’t say I minded too much, as that makes for a more character-driven movie, and the aliens’ almost-complete indifference to humanity is, in some ways, more chilling; it’s as if we were insects, worthy only of swatting. On the other hand, it feels a bit of a bait and switch, being little more than an excuse for why there’s no external help coming for the siblings – a slightly more sophisticated version of waving a cellphone around and saying, “No signal”. Still, Sarah has a nice sense of English resolve to her, in a ‘Keep calm and carry on’ kinda of way, and Richards shows enough here to make her a name to look out for. Hopefully, The Golden Compass, will not be her sole big-budget effort, since on the evidence here, she deserves better..

Dir: Stéphanie Joalland
Star: Dakota Blue Richards, Karl Davies, Jack McMullen, Brigitte Millarof

The Queen of the Pirates


“Court in the act.”

queenofthepiratesSandra (Canale)  and her father fall foul of the local tyrannical Duke (Muller) after they refuse to pay his excise duty. Arrested, the arrival of the poor but noble Count of Santa Croce, Cesare (Serato), saves them from death – or a fate worse than in Sandra’s case, as the Duke has a profitable sideline, shipping local girls off to the Middle East. After escaping, they join up with a local pirate band, who agree to help target the Duke after Sandra bests their leader in sword-play. To gain the hand of the duke’s daughter, Isabella (Gabel), Cesare agrees to hunt down the “Queen of the Pirates” who has brought trade to a standstill, not knowing that his target is the same woman he helped save, and since then has had a secret longing.

Its storyline is more than slightly similar to the other Italian piratess movie we also covered here, Queen of the Seas, from the following year. This is slightly weaker, mostly because Sandra ends up taking a back seat to the heroic Cesare in the second half, though it benefits from a solid supporting performance by Gabel, who brings a genuine nastiness to her role as the spoiled heiress, who is perfectly happy to endorse Daddy’s white slavery operation, as long as it keeps her in jewels and pretty dresses. The shift in focus from Sandra is disappointing, not least because she can handle a sword pretty well – that’s clear right from the fight against the Duke’s excise-men, and reached its peak during the friendly duel against the pirate king. Really, given the era (1960) and Canale’s provenance as a former runner-up in Miss Italy, it’s genuinely impressive.


From about the midpoint on, it is entirely predictable, and becomes much less interesting as a result, despite some efforts to suggest that Cesare might not really be smitten by the heroine – just pretending to be, in order to lure her in. There’s also some desperately unfunny attempts at comedy, courtesy of his squire, and the English dub appears to have been written by someone practicing for International Talk Like a Pirate Day, spattering every other sentence with gratuitous nautical vernacular. I can’t call it disastrous, and at 75 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome; there’s just too much queening and not enough pirating in this for me.

Dir: Mario Costa
Star: Gianna Maria Canale, Massimo Serato, Paul Muller, Scilla Gabel
a.k.a. La Venere dei Pirati

Queen of Swords


“Leather, whips and lace – gotta love the type.”

In 1817, a young Spanish aristocrat, Tessa Alvarado (Santiago), returns to Spanish California after the death of her father and finds her home in ruins, her father’s manservant reduced to stealing. The town where she was born is run by militaristic governor Colonel Luis Ramirez Montoya (Pelka), who abuses his power, resulting in the miscarriage of justice and the poor living conditions of his subjects. Upset about the state of her birthplace and the murder of her father, Tessa’s path is revealed to her in a mysterious dream where her father comes to her and talks of his murder, his hidden gold, and of his “Avenging Angel”. She will take up arms to protect the people from the town’s governor and to avenge her father’s death. Tessa will do this in disguise behind a mask, becoming that “Avenging Angel”, The Queen of Swords.

Synopsis shamelessly cribbed from Wikipedia, but why re-invent the wheel? That seems to have been the approach taken by the makers here anyway, for their show which ran a single season from October 2000 through June 2001. The obvious, if unacknowledged, inspiration here is Zorro, in which another member of Spanish nobility, adopts a secret identity in order to defend the downtrodden populace from corrupt officials, etc. etc. Indeed, so close were the similarities that Sony sued Fireworks Entertainment, the producers of Queen of Swords, asserting that there was a breach of their rights. The resulting decision was murky: the court initially ruled the character was in the public domain, but later vacated that decision, and the suit was settled out of court, but it’s certainly possible the legal wrangling contributed to the decision to pull the plug on the show, after only eight episodes had aired.

qos2Certainly, in terms of quality, it’s by no means a disaster, and I enjoyed this more than other, recent shows which were yanked as fast, e.g. Killer Women or the Charlie’s Angels reboot. Of course, the central premise requires quite some suspension of disbelief: the concept that putting a little lacy mask on somehow transforms Alvarado and renders her completely unrecognizable by anyone, is nonsense. It’s not as if the town is full of similar-looking women, and she doesn’t even bother to change her voice. Still, if Superman can put on a pair of glasses to the same end, I guess we shouldn’t pick on Queen of Swords. What does work, is the interesting range of characters. Montoya is a bastard, always out for himself, but he’s quite a clever bastard with it, aided by captain of the guard Marcus Grisham (Lemke). On Santiago’s side, she assisted by her gypsy maid – who, like all gypsies, has psychic powers (I think it’s genetic) – and also by the local doctor, Robert Helm (Wingfield), who also has secrets of his own. These are all well-rounded characters whose interaction is fun to watch.

The action work is a bit of a mixed bag. Santiago was found at an open casting call, and underwent two months of training under swordmaster Anthony De Longis, who also plays Tessa’s fencing tutor in the opening episode. However, portraying the character required cobbling together a patchwork of Santiago with stunt doubles and other replacements, including Natalia Guijarro Brasseur, Roberta Brown, Gaëlle Cohen, Mary Gallien, Mary Jose, and even the occasional male for particularly difficult stunts. Again to quote Wikipedia, this “is exemplified in the Queen’s run up the hill away from the soldiers in Death to the Queen. Mary Gallien started the run, Roberta Brown performed the medium shot duel with swords on the hill, Tessie Santiago performed the spoken parts and was in the close-up, and Natalia Brasseur fell off the cliff.” The results are hardly seamless, and fall more into the category of competent than anything else, with the occasional moment that either impresses, or is painfully obvious in the doubling.

The shows did have some decent guest stars. Among the most memorable was perhaps Bo Derek, who played retired pirate captain (!)  Mary Rose, who is intent on seeing her son escapes a murder charge. She could, at least, do her own horsework, being quite an accomplished ride. David Carradine also appears, getting to wield a sword some years before doing so in Kill Bill, and Sung-Hi Lee plays another action heroine in a later episode, The Dragon, where she plays a member from a temple of Japanese warrior-priests, whose master (Burt Kwouk – not Japanese either!) is killed, and seeks vengeance on the Queen after being told by Montoya she was behind the attack. Elsa Pataky also has a regular role, playing the wife of a local landowner, who is having an affair with Grisham. Other guests in the series include Simon MacCorkindale and Ralf Moeller. Oddly, given the setting, there’s a high percentage of British actors in both the regular and guest cast, led by Pelka who, despite his accent, was actually born in Yorkshire – his exotic name is Polish, rather than Hispanic…

A few random other thoughts: I grew to despise the theme song, which sounds like a low-rent version of something by the Gypsy Kings. But the lack of over-riding romantic entanglement works in the film’s favour. While there’s a sense Tessa and Dr. Helm have an attraction, unlike certain shows I could mention, the storylines never gets bogged down in this ‘shipper drivel. I reached the end with a feeling of sadness that the show never quite did well enough to merit further season. If far from original, and not even the first female version of Zorro [which would be Zorro’s Black Whip], it was generally entertaining, with performances that were better than I expected. Even now, the legal status of Zorro remains undecided, and until that is resolved, I doubt anyone will head down the distaff version path again.

Star: Tessie Santiago, Valentine Pelka, Anthony Lemke, Peter Wingfield

Queen Boxer


“Lee’s skills all but concealed by dreadful release of her debut.”

I have to say, this film would probably merit a higher score given a better presentation. Not only is the GoodTimes DVD barely VHS quality, dubbed and horribly cropped, the dialogue is missing from the right audio. Worst of all, the two tracks are out of sync, meaning that every punch is accompanied by a double sound effect. If there’s a more dreadful DVD in existence, I don’t want to see it: those responsible should suffer the fate depicted in the fabulous poster, shown on the right.

However, one suspects that even under better conditions, large chunks of this would be pretty poor, bordering as it does on the incoherent, with inadequate definition both of plot and characters. Also known as The Avenger, this 1972 film marked Judy Lee’s first film – originally from Taiwan, she was a Peking Opera classmate of Angela Mao. In this, she plays a woman for revenge on the man who killed her brother and gouged his eyes out, and teams up with another guy (Yeung), who is fed up paying protection money to the same villain. They enter the boss’s lair, but he gets shot, and they have to back off – only for her to return, and take them on by herself.

Those two action scenes are both lengthy and pretty good. The lack of directorial inspiration shown here is actually a virtue, since he basically just turns the camera on and off – this is what you need to admire Lee’s skills, which aren’t bad at all. However, up until the last 20 minutes, the only fun is making fun of the film, or listening to the chunks from Shaft and Bond ripped off on the soundtrack. That, and a glorious, deeply satisfying final shot, aren’t enough to save things – but, being honest, few movies could probably survive such godawful treatment.

Dir: Han Wah [according to the DVD sleeve, anyway…]
Star: Judy Lee, Yeung Kwan, Wong Yeuk Ping, Lee Ying



“Slow, slow, Quick…”

Polo plays Quick, an assassin whose job is to take out mob accountant Brewer (Donovan) after he turns stoolpigeon. When her employer tries to double-cross her, she goes on the run with her target, who has hidden $3m in ill-gotten gains. Her corrupt cop boyfriend (Fahey) also has designs on the money, raising the suspicions of his partner (Carrere, an effective but wasted performance).

Despite the potential here, this 1993 film ends up being remarkably sluggish, with Brewer and Quick mostly driving around and, inevitably, going through the Stockholm Syndrome thing, wherein they eventually bond. While the sleeve wants you to believe she’s the ultimate bad-ass (“Young, hot and deadly…She’s Quick. You’re dead. She’s the perfect assassin”), the heroine is actually a bundle of badly-controlled neuroses. Which may be the point: everyone in the film seems to be controlled by someone or something else, save perhaps the top mobster, played by Robert Davi, who could do this kind of role in his sleep.

Polo, who’d go on to find stardom as the girlfriend in Meet the Parents, does make Quick an interesting character, but we’re given no reason why she turned killer, for example. And while the aim here seems more psychological than action, she’s not cold-blooded enough, or sympathetic enough, to be memorable. If the film occasionally manages to be surprisingly earthy, the overall effect is otherwise almost completely forgettable.

Dir: Rick King
Stars: Teri Polo, Martin Donovan, Jeff Fahey, Tia Carrere
a.k.a. Crossfire