The Rowdy Girls

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“If Andy Sidaris directed a Western.”

rowdygirlsThe self-awareness of the film’s own silliness is clear, virtually from the start in which a singing cowboy – referred to in the credits as a minstrel – strolls through the countryside, crooning his ballad of the titular ladies. He pops up intermittently throughout to narrate, and it does a good job of setting the tone: clearly, this is not intended, in any way, to be a serious look at historical life in America. It is, very much, gyno-centric: beyond the leads, this was also written by two women, including India Allen, who was the 1988 Playmate of the Year. Not just a pretty face, then.

The three characters at the center have different stories, that all end up taking them to the same place. Velvet McKenzie (Tweed) has bailed out of her life in a bordello, with a travel-bag full of cash, and is travelling disguised as a nun. Sarah Foster (Brooks) is similarly making a break, fleeing an arranged marriage and heading for San Francisco, on the same wagon as Velvet. But in their way is Mick (Strain), member of an outlaw gang and the leader’s lover; the group rob the stagecoach, taking both Velvet and Sarah hostage. The attack is interrupted by the local sheriff, until Mick slides a knife between his ribs; that just sets his younger brother, Joe Pepper (Varga) on the trail of both the criminals and their captives.

No shortage of curvy nudity here, as you’d expect given the cast, though it certainly qualifies as being at the tasteful end of the spectrum. There is probably more of a plot than you would expect too, with loyalties and alliances shifting over the course of the 87 minutes, and despite its B-movie origins, the production values are better than certain Troma movies I could mention [though I’m not entirely sure about the credibility of some of the costumes, which appear more Victoria’s Secret than 19th-century Western America!] Strain is particularly fun to watch, not least because her 6’1″ frame towers over some of the male cast, and her attitude is equally imposing, but Tweed, well into her forties at the time, is by no means outclassed.

Sure, the makers of this have set their sights low, not appearing too interested in offering up much more than a soft-core exercise in historical inaccuracy. Adopting a tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole thing was thus likely a wise movie, effectively defusing most of the (numerous) critical arguments which could be made against it. Manage your expectations, therefore, and those expectations will be met. For as soft-core exercises in historical inaccuracy go, you could certainly do an awful lot worse. Below, courtesy of Troma, you’ll find the whole thing, so you can judge for yourself!

Dir: Steven Nevius
Star: Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Deanna Brooks, Richie Varga

Resident Evil: The Novels, by S.D. Perry

I will cheerfully confess to never having played any of the Resident Evil video-games at all. Everything I know about its universe, I learned from the films starring Milla Jovovich. It was thus something of a surprise to learn that her character, Alice, was entirely created for the films, and doesn’t appear in the game series at all. That said, there’s a reason why Paul Anderson opted to make his hero a heroine. The series has been emphatic about being thoroughly equal-opportunity in its carnage since 1996. It was then the first game came out, as Biohazard in Japan, offering players a choice between playing as either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine.

With the film series coming to an end (supposedly!), it seemed like a good point to dip into the more “authentic” parts of the universe. I don’t have the time or enthusiasm for the games, but figured the novels, written by S.D. Perry, would fit my lifestyle nicely. There are seven of these, with five being novelizations based on the first five games, along with two original stories, which take place between #1 and #2, and #2 and #3 respectively. While they’re not as thoroughly heroine-centric as the movies, they’re no less equal-opportunity than the games, with Valentine leading a swathe of solid and strong female characters.

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The Umbrella Conspiracy

In the opening book, we follow members of  the S.T.A.R.S. task force, investigating a series of brutal murders on the outskirts of Raccoon City, only to be trapped in a manor house. This turns out to be a research facility for the Umbrella Corporation, abandoned after an accidental release of T-virus and now inhabited by zombies and other unpleasant creatures. These include cannibalistic plants and the “Big Bad”, the Tyrant, the end result of prolonged exposure to the virus.

In terms of spirit, this isn’t dissimilar to the first film, which similarly had a group of soldier types exploring a research complex infested with both monsters and traps, albeit a far larger one. The book’s origins as a game are sometimes clunkily obvious here, with traps and puzzles showing up in the prose here, in ways that would only make sense in a Playstation context. It’s also a little heavy on minute details, such as getting very specific on the layout of the house, which really doesn’t deserve as many words.

There’s a multi-threaded storyline, focusing on Redfield and Valentine, but also involving the other members of the S.T.A.R.S. team, and this works better than you might expect. Perry keeps all the balls in the air effectively, and things converge nicely on a rather Aliens-esque finale, the team rushing to escape the facility before it self-destructs. Which probably makes sense, as Perry also wrote several entries based on the Dark Horse Comics Aliens series

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Caliban Cove

The second book takes place between the first and second entries in the game series, rather than being an adaptation. Despite this, it feels similar to the first novel, with another S.T.A.R.S. team – this one not officially sanctioned – investigating another Umbrella facility gone awry. In this case, however, it’s not the result of an accident, but deliberate malfeasance. Rogue biochemist, Dr. Nicholas Griffin, has created a virus which turns humans into zombies, and now is preparing to unleash that virus on the world.

The main heroine is Rebecca Chambers, the teenage biochemist who is the only significant player here carried forward from Book #1. So, I guess she’s playing the Ripley in Aliens role. The “puzzles” the team need to solve barely register: “As I was going to St. Ives…”? Really? Guess Perry didn’t see Die Hard With A Vengeance. The other weakness is the author’s struggles with the action sequences; while these are fine when it’s one-on-one, the depiction of anything involving more participants becomes hopelessly jumbled and confusing.

There are some positive aspects. One perspective provided in the book is that of someone infected by the virus, which is chilling in its depiction of the inexorable loss of control. Some of the monsters are also nicely done, particularly the aquatic Leviathans, whose understated descriptions are quite Lovecraftesque.  Otherwise, though, this feels too much like a retread of its predecessor, in both style and content.

City of the Dead

A novelization of the second game, this introduces two major characters. Along with Claire Redfield, who arrives in Raccoon City seeking her brother, the other hero is Leon Kennedy, a newly-assigned cop. Both are understandably disturbed to find it the epicentre of a zombie outbreak, and have to survive those and a bevy of even nastier monstrosities. There’s also Ada Wong, an independent agent, who has been sent in to obtain a sample of the G-virus, the even more twisted successor to the T-virus.

This is a relatively straightforward tale, simply and effectively told. That said, the Aliens aspects are almost overwhelming. Monster which crawls down your throat, gestates for a bit and then comes out? Check. [The book even calls it, “A chest-bursting parasitic creature. straight out of a sci-fi movie”…] Heroine who ‘adopts’ a little girl who has been scurrying around, trying to survive and hide from the monsters? Check. Frenzied rush to escape, as the location counts down towards complete immolation? Check.

Otherwise, though, it’s not bad at all, even if I could probably also have done without the clunky romantic tension between Kennedy and Wong. I definitely wish they had made this into a movie; Redfield and Wong provide enough action heroine-ness to go around, and the chief human antagonist is also female, Umbrella researcher, Annette Birkin. Perry delivers a solid page-turner, engaging in spectacularly moist prose to describe the creatures now roaming Racoon City.

Underworld

Sadly, not the hoped-for crossover featuring Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale. Instead, it sees a five-person team of former S.T.A.R.S. sent to Utah, where the mysterious Trent tells them a simple retrieval mission awaits. Needless to say, it proves to be anything but, with the team separated. Three members are stranded up top, facing Umbrella security, while two are stuck below, to run a gauntlet through four test areas, stocked with some of Umbrella’s most lethal creations [It’s a little like the simulations in Resident Evil: Retribution, but with different terrain types, rather than different cities]

Indeed, this was disappointingly heroine-light: Leon and John Andrews do most of the heavy lifting, as the pair trapped in the underground complex. Rebecca and Claire are both left up top, and the former is wounded while trying to hide from the security team, so is more an encumbrance than an asset to her colleagues. That only leaves Claire; while brave and resourceful, she’s a civilian, with a civilian’s skill-set, and the ass-kicking which results is inevitably limited in its scope.

Like Caliban Cove, this is a standalone work rather than an adaptation of a game, though the structure of the test areas certainly has the feel of stages, with the “Fossil” at the end undeniably Boss-level. I did enjoy the “first-monster” perspective section, telling events from Fossil’s point of view; it’s a somewhat chilling angle, since its life is “Eat. Sleep. Repeat.” But overall, this would likely have been significantly improved if there had actually been considerably more Selene.

Nemesis

I was surprised to discover in the course of this one, the short time frame over which this all takes place – it’s only about six weeks since the events of the first novel, and we’re already into the fifth installment, based on the third computer game. The central characters here are Jill Valentine, returning from The Umbrella Conspiracy, and new hero, Carlos Olivera, an Umbrella operative who is unaware of the company’s secrets.

The latter is dropped into Raccoon City on a supposed rescue mission, really intended to provide data to the corporation, and it’s not long before he’s the sole survivor of his platoon. Meanwhile, Valentine seeks her own way out, having abandoned her humanitarian efforts, but is trailed by the Nemesis, a particularly unstoppable Umbrella creation programmed to hunt and kill S.T.A.R.S. members. The human villain is another Umbrella soldier Nicholai Ginovaef, a psychopath with his own agenda.

It’s decent enough, and good to see Valentine again, who kicks ass solidly. Its origins as a game occasionally remain too obvious – the laser cannon sure is convenient! – though at least the puzzle aspects are more restrained. Ginovaef is a nasty piece of work, especially disturbing since much of it is told from his perspective. Something of a shame he doesn’t get the deserved comeuppance, at the hands of Jill, since the game is played largely from her perspective (Olivera being a helpful NPC). Though Perry probably should have skipped the feeble attempt to explain her tube-top and miniskirt costume. “Mobility”? Suuuuuure…

Code: Veronica

Looked like earlier entries in the series were building toward a raid by the ex-S.T.A.R.S. on Umbrella’s European headquarters. But this entry leaps over it entirely, and the subsequent capture of Claire Redfield, and begins with her locked up on Rockfort Island, a remote corporation outpost in the Southern Hemisphere. The facility descends into chaos after a T-virus outbreak, and she is set free by a sympathetic employee, to fend for herself among the weaponized creatures roaming the isle. They’re overseen by Alfred Ashford, who’d be described by any passing psychiatrist as “batshit crazy”; she teams up with another prisoner, the even younger Steve Burnside. Cue romantic tension…

You sense even Perry is becoming jaded by the repetitive nature of the source material. Early on, Claire quips to herself, “What’s a biohazardous disaster without a crazy or two?”, and later, Steve wonders, “Keys and emblems and proofs and submarines; it was a wonder [Umbrella employees] ever got shit done.” However, Redfield’s return is as welcome as Valentine’s was – pity the game makers never saw fit to team them up. And if the nature of Alfred’s insanity will come as absolutely no shock to anyone who has seen Psycho, the story here then layers an additional level of horror on top, rescuing it from the over-obvious.

It felt like the novel is going to end at the 3/4 point, but the plot suddenly diverts to Antarctica for a final section. Claire’s brother, Chris, shows up at Rockfort in search of her, then ends up near the South Pole as well, where we get the grand finale, which seems tacked on. Again, hard to blame Perry for this, and likely not her fault either that, despite being the last novel chronologically, it offers very little in the way of a true conclusion.

Zero Hour

Hang on, didn’t you say Code Veronica was the last novel? Ah, important word there: “chronologically”. For Perry finished off the series with another novel, which comes at the beginning; it covers the first S.T.A.R.S team to come into contact with the results of the T-virus, whose ‘chopper goes does in the woods near Raccoon City. In particular, it’s the story of Rebecca Chambers, then on her first mission. She comes across a train which has been attacked by persons or creatures unknown, and also Billy Coen, a prisoner and former soldier who escaped while being taken to an impending execution.

On balance, I should probably have read this one in its position at the beginning. If there’s not much lost, I was aware Rebecca survived to appear in the subsequent entries, and Coen is nowhere to be found, so there wasn’t much tension here. However, the small cast – there is hardly anyone else present – does mean Perry has the chance to give the characters more depth than some entries in the series. The Coen/Chambers pairing is a good one too, matching up brawn and brains respectively, and I didn’t even mind the inevitable unresolved sexual tension too much.

What I particularly liked was the sense of vulnerability that we get from Chambers. She isn’t an unstoppable ass-kicking machine – frankly, after the preceding novels have left the score S.T.A.R.S 6, Umbrella 0, that’s a refreshing breath of fresh air. It left me wishing I’d seen more of her in the series.

All told, even as someone who has never so much as picked up one of the games, I generally found the novels entertaining. They’re a fast, easy read: my main criticism would be they’re too loyal to the puzzle-solving aspects. These may be an intrinsic part of the game experience, but fail to transfer at all well on to the printed page. But the books do offer a potential route forward for the film franchise, if they decide to continue with it, on past the “final chapter”.

Perhaps the main criticism from existing fans is the way they diverted from the games, but these novels do show, a more faithful adaptation can work as entertainment. There would still need to be some adjustments – tone down the puzzle solving and probably find out a way to limit the need for multiple perspectives too. But there’s little doubt that the characters, situations and monsters offer plenty of cinematic scope, and CGI has improved enough since the original movie in 2002, it is now capable of doing the creatures justice. If Sony opt to reboot, they could go back to Zero Hour, introducing Rebecca, then move into The Umbrella Conspiracy for the rest of the S.T.A.R.S. team. It would be a seam of fresh material, and one potentially also embraced by those “long-suffering” game fans.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

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“Sometimes I feel like this has been my whole life.”

We’d skipped the last two installments at the movies, having been burned by part three, but after the excellent content of #5, and since this was likely to be our last chance, Chris and I made it a “dinner and a movie” thing on Saturday. Was disturbed by how many kids there were for this R-rated film – hell, even a couple of babes in arms, whom I’m sure loved the non-stop violence. I guess it was deemed kid-friendly by their parents, with this one getting its MPAA rating just “for sequences of violence throughout,” rather than anything truly corrupting, such as momentary Milla mammarage. Cutely, the feature was preceded by a quick personal message from director and star, thanking us for their support of the series. Yeah, it’s utterly meaningless, but nice to be appreciated.

Onto the movie, which I think probably would have been better received by us as a stand-alone entry, if we hadn’t watched parts 1-5 last weekend. #QuickPlug: re-reviews of all those to follow later this week. For there seems to be an awful lot of ret-conning going on, in particular for the Red Queen, played here by Milla’s daugher, Ever. Not only is her origin story drastically revised from Apocalypse, there’s also a new, Robocop-esque rule that she can’t harm Umbrella employees. [I note that Anderson even lifts the same escape clause used by Verhoeven] Must be Red Queen v1.1, because all the workers at the Hive she killed in the original movie, didn’t seem to benefit from this protection…

The story sees Alice (Jovovich) returning to Raccoon City, seeking the airborne antidote she discovers – from of all people, the Red Queen, little Miss Laser Corridor herself – was created by Umbrella. If Alice can release it into the wild, it will take out all the T-virus infected. Which is a bit of a problem since, don’t forget, the list includes our heroine herself. Standing in her way is Dr. Isaacs (Glen), who has set his plan in motion to exterminate the last remaining pockets of humanity and complete his apocalyptic vision thing, along with a massive swarm of zombies he’s leading back to the Hive. On Alice’s side are a few of those final survivors, including Claire Redfield (Larter) and Abigail (Rose), adding extra girls-with-guns firepower – as if it were really necessary here.

The main problem is this: editor Doobie White really should lay off the caffeine. I don’t think it’s Anderson’s problem, as Retribution was perfectly fine in this area, but the hand-to-hand fights look like they were edited by putting them through a highly enthusiastic wood-chipper. They stay just about on this side of incoherent, but you don’t so much watch these, as experience them on a subliminal level. Maybe it’s a result of protagonists Jovovich and Glen being in their forties and mid-50’s respectively: I know if I was appearing in an action movie, you’d certainly have to edit the hell out of me to look good! But it’s still annoying as hell. The best sequence is when the camera sits back a bit and we can actually appreciate Alice, dangling from an underpass, as she beats up a posse of hapless Umbrella drones (below).

Due to this, the film is at is most effective in other areas, mostly when going wide and giving us a look at the bigger picture, specifically the sheer scope of the devastation and conflict. There’s a couple of scenes where I think the zombie count may have surpassed World War Z, and that volume is undeniably impressive. It requires, naturally, equally large-scale defense and the sequence where the humans create multiple waterfalls of fire is startling and striking. An an aside, I note the film cost only $40 million, which is $25m less than last time, and little more than the price-tag for the original, 15 years ago. Anderson is clearly great at getting bang per buck, and if the box-office reception was lukewarm in North America, the film has already almost made its cost back in Japan alone.

I also was glad to see Glen back, and just as in #3, he brings a human face to the evil corporation. [Yes, he died at the end of that one. No, it’s not a problem.] I envisage a long career for him, in the mode of Charles Dance and Alan Rickman, being the go-to guy whenever a film needs a solidly British villain. Here, he gets to show a couple of facets, both coldly calculating and manically psychotic, and is fun to watch in both. But, of course, it’s Milla’s show, and she also gets to do a bit more than you might expect: if you ever wondered what she’ll look like in her seventies, this movie will answer your question. Though going by how little she seems to have changed over the decade and a half of the series, if she looked exactly the same at that age, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Otherwise, she has become Alice, adopting a world-weary stare here, reminiscent of our cat when we annoy him. It seems to say, “I could get violent, but you’re just not worth the effort,” while she re-enacts some of the series’s greatest hits, such as the laser corridor, or a whole pack of zombie dogs (well, more dog-shaped things, to be honest). Is there closure for Alice? Yes, although not as much as I would have liked. The film had a chance to draw a line under itself in permanent marker, and allow Milla to go off into the happy suburban life her character briefly enjoyed in #5. Sadly, the script doesn’t quite have the courage to do that; let’s just say, if Mr. and Mrs. Anderson need an extra wing on the mansion the franchise’s profits has bought them, it won’t be impossible.

All told, if you’ve got this far in the series, you’re not likely to be disappointed, except by the over-active editing. If you haven’t, this is certainly not going to convince you of its merits. And that’s okay too.

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
Star: Milla Jovovich, Ian Glen, Ali Larter, Ruby Rose

The Resident Evil animated films

residentevilanimeThe Milla Jovovich series are not the only films set in the Resident Evil universe. There have also been two feature-length computer animated movies: Degeneration was released in 2008, and Damnation four years later. A third, Vendetta, is scheduled to be released in Japan this spring. While made in Japan, with a Japanese director and crew, the voice cast are English-speaking. As with the novels, the stories and characters are in line with the universe of the computer games, rather than the live-action features, and tend to occupy spots in the timeline between the entries in the game series. Therefore, there’s no Alice, but the animated films contain their fair share of strong heroines and, of course, action.

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Resident Evil: Degeneration

degenerationThere’s a new EvilCorp in town, and its name is WilPharma, as we learn during the montage of news stories which opens this. In game terms, the film takes place after the events of “Resident Evil 4”, which saw the dismantling of the Umbrella Corporation. Its assets and research naturally proved too valuable to destroy, and WilPharma has taken over, with the announced goal of developing a vaccine for the troublesome T-virus. However, some dubious medical research in India leads to the company being targeted by protestors from TerraSave. It’s one such demo, at the Harvardville Airport, that kicks things off, as a plane of infected subjects crashes into the terminal, where Senator Davis is trying to avoid the protestors. TerraSave’s Claire Redfield (Court) finds herself trapped with the Senator, before they’re rescued by a team of soldiers including Angela Miller (Bailey) and Leon S. Kennedy (Mercier).

Claire goes to the WiiPharma research facility, at the invitation of researcher Frederic Downing, and discovers they have the even more lethal G-virus being studied. There is… oh, dammit, let’s just call it “quite a lot more plot”, involving WiiPharma’s efforts to sell the virus as a bioweapon to General Grande; Angela’s brother, Curtis (Smith) an ecoterrorist who deliberately injects himself with the G-virus; and the true identity of the mastermind behind it all. It’s probably too much to be crammed into 98 minutes, especially when you also have to fit in copious amounts of action. The second half, in particular, is more or less one long action sequence, with Angela and Leon trying to survive in the facility. It’s a change of focus, since Redfield was the main protagonist during the first half, becoming the guardian of a friend’s child during the attack at the airport, maybe reflecting her switch to pacifism (albeit pacifism of an oddly bad-ass kind!).

Being CG, and of a 2008 vintage, the animation is good at doing what 2008-era CG was good at, which is movement rather than emotion – as you’d probably also expect from a film produced by a video-game studio. The sequences and shots where the camera is swooping in and around the battle participants, are sometimes spectacularly good, and in general, while in motion, this is effective and exciting. Beyond the technical, its problems are more a plot which lurches from frantic action set pieces to expository lumps, and seems to rely too much on viewers being familiar with the characters and creatures from the games. But it has to be said, WiiPharma certainly seem to have a better handle on the proper use of containment mechanisms than Umbrella ever managed…

Dir: Makoto Kamiya
Star: Alyson Court, Paul Mercier, Laura Bailey, Roger Craig Smith

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Resident Evil: Damnation

adawong-jpgIncluded here largely for completeness, since the action heroine content likely would fall a little short of qualification on its own. Not that it’s entirely lacking, as the video at the bottom shows. But it’s definitely more a vehicle for Leon S. Kennedy (Mercer/Dorman). Which brings me to one of the odd things here: that is not a typo, it’s a double-credit for the character, because two different actors played the role, one providing the voice, the other the source for the motion-captured animation. Not sure I’ve seen that before.

Anyway, Kennedy finds himself dumped into the middle of a former Warsaw Pact satellite nation, the Eastern Slav Republic, which is being torn apart by a struggle between Government forces, under President Svetlana Belikova (Lee/Lee), and rebel groups. Both sides are making use of B.O.W’s, Bio-Organic Weapons, which have now been developed to such an extent that humans can now mind-control some of the creatures, using a parasitic organism called Plaga – albeit not without some unpleasant effects. Meanwhile Ada Wong (Taylor/Andersen) – hang on, last time I saw her, she was dying in one of the novels? – is trying to insert herself into Belikova’s circle, with her own agenda in mind. It all builds to an extended battle, pitting Leon and rebel commander, Alexander Kozachenko (Wittenberg/Earnest), along with the Lickers the latter controls, against the monstrous Tyrants fighting on behalf of Belikova.

This is particularly well done, a lengthy, escalating sequence of animated carnage, even if it does require something of a deus ex machina to show up at the end. It’s clear that animation has progressed markedly since the first movie, and this film takes full advantage of those improvements in its action scenes. For the purposes of this site, I’d really like to have seen more of Wong, whose moral ambivalence is intriguing; I reached the end, and still didn’t know on whose side she was supposed to be. [She does show up in RE: Retribution, played by Li BingBing, albeit dubbed there too]. The scene below, where she goes hand-to-hand with President Belikova, is a lot of fun – Belikova certainly counts as one of the more hard-core politicians I’ve seen! Bet she could kick Hillary Clinton’s ass…

And that is as close to politics as I’m ever going to get o

Dir: Makoto Kamiya
Star (voice): Matthew Mercer, Dave Wittenberg, Courtenay Taylor, Wendee Lee
Star (motion-capture): Kevin Dorman, David Earnest, Jolene Andersen, Melinda Lee

Roommate Wanted

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“Share today, gone tomorrow.”

If this concept sounds familiar, it should. Because this bears a strong resemblance to 2003 Japanese film 2LDK. Most obviously, both films are virtually single-location set pieces, in which the relationship between two room-mates devolve over the course of the feature, into a full-on brawl. Perhaps even more damningly, the original working title for this was 2BR/1BA – exactly like 2LDK, real-estate shorthand. [I wonder where the new title came from, since there’s no “wanted” at any point here] Yet there’s not even a “based on” credit to be seen, and no apparent acknowledgement of any inspiration. Hmm.

roomatewantedOn the other hand, if the plot has more than some similarities, the tone and approach are different here. There’s much more in the way of social commentary here, with the disparate personas of the two young women. [Indeed, so disparate, you have to question how the heck they ever ended up sharing a house] Jamie (Vega) is serious-minded, the kind of person who labels her food in the fridge, and seeking to pursue an academic career, but desperately needs funds to cover tuition at her chosen college. Dee (Grammer) is a party girl, whose days are filled with going to the gym and tanning, while her nights are filled with tequila and casual sex.

The culture clash between them is obvious, and provides most of the dramatic tension, as well as the more comedic aspects. For instance, Dee offers to make Jamie a smoothie, and on being reminded the latter is vegan, replies that she’ll use low-fat milk. Grammer nails the vapid, wannabe model-type perfectly, yet there’s an undercurrent of bitterness (particularly, as things turn out, toward Jamie and her perceived superiority) and you get the sense she’s smarter than she appears. Jamie has her own set of insecurities to deal with; as well as her tuition situation, she just broke up with her boyfriend after finding a thong in his car’s glove-box. Might Dee be able to shed some light on that?

Where this isn’t as good as 2LDK is in the mayhem. The Japanese version was, literally, no-holds barred, up to and including the use of a chainsaw. Here, there’s rather too much of the protagonists standing at a distance and lobbing things at one another. While the cynical social commentary and bite can make up some of the difference, this needs to amp up the brutality significantly, and include more surprises. When a point is made of a giant fish-tank in the living room, you know it’s only a matter of time before it’s going to come crashing down in a mini-tsunami of water, broken glass and flailing fishies.

Then there’s the ending. It could be the greatest ever. Or the worst ever. I’d listen to arguments, and could be convinced in either direction. It certainly is… a shocking ending. I should say no more than that. We will remember it, that’s for sure. But we’ll be more likely to watch 2LDK again, and an interest in doing so, is likely the main takeaway from this unofficial reboot.

Dir: Rob Margolies
Star: Alexa Vega, Spencer Grammer, Kathryn Morris, Bryan Dechart

Relentless Justice

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“1980 called. They want their action film back.”

relentlessBefore his death last August, Prior had a long career churning out straight-to-video action flicks with amazingly generic titles. Have a few samples. Deadly Prey. Death Chase. Invasion Force. Raw Justice. You get the idea. He was also responsible, on this site, for Mankillers, and returns to the female fray with this, which also mines another popular trope of the action film genre, the “hunting of humans”, which dates back to 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game.

Victoria De Vries (Sarelle) is a quiet suburban mom – albeit, one who happens to be the owner-operator of a martial-arts gym, and who used to be a member of Australian special forces. Her daughter heads off for a weekend’s camping with her boyfriend, but runs afoul of the local rednecks, led by local mayor Jason Macendale (Wells). They slit his throat and kidnap her – but when they discover mom’s background, use her daughter as a lure for their next bit of sport. Little do they know what they are getting into, however, and may have bitten off a lot more than they can chew, even with help from another special forces veteran, Joe Mangine (Rolston).

I had to think for a while and figure out why Sarelle’s name was familiar, and eventually remembered she played Sharon Stone’s girlfriend in Basic Instinct, back in 1992. Hardly seen her in anything since, and she’s certainly changed a bit – now, all “mumsy” and sporting an Australian accent for some reason that serves no apparent purpose, not even a  “That’s not a knife…” joke. The main problem here, is it takes way too long to get to the crunchy stuff, of Victoria kicking ass and breaking bones – literally, the final ten minutes of the movie have all the good stuff there. Up until then, you’ve got a lot of sitting around chit-chatting, with Roberts wheeled on for a role of absolutely no relevance at all, playing a big city mobster.

Sarelle isn’t actually too bad; from what I’ve read Kathy Long, five-time world kickboxing champion, was in charge of stunt coordination and fight choreography, and seems to have done a decent job in making the heroine look credible. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for everyone else, and in particular there’s one knife fight, which is among the most cringe-inducingly terrible of all time [names redacted to protect the inept]. This all might have passed muster in a more innocent time, when audiences were happy to put up with low-rent former stars running around a forest, while someone shoots them with a video camera, accompanied by a low-fi synth soundtrack (courtesy here of the workmanlike Chuck Cirino, who has been a staple for the likes of Jim Wynorski over the past three decades). Now, viewers are… well, if I’m reluctant to say “more sophisticated”, this kind of second-tier production needs to be a good deal more self-aware, or at least provide something not findable in better quality with three clicks on Netflix.

Dir: David A. Prior
Star: Leilani Sarelle, Mark Rolston, Vernon Wells, Eric Roberts

Rosario Tijeras (TV series)

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“Scissors cuts… well, just about everything.”

rosario2As previously noted, one of the trademarks of the telenovela is the flashback, and the one we get here is a doozy. For, this begins with Rosario Tijeras (Yepez) being shot and rushed to hospital, prompting frantic phone-calls to her yuppie boyfriend, Emilio (Martinez). It then rewinds some five years, to show the events by which everyone got there, and takes roughly 45 episodes – three-quarters of the series! – to catch up and once more reach the point at which it began. Admittedly, this does reflects the structure of the source novel, and I don’t know if that’s why the final quarter feels like a marked improvement in terms of pacing and energy: the critically-injured Rosario is hunted in the hospital by those who want to finish the job, and has to be rescued by her brother Johnefe (Restrepo) and his crew – along with an unwilling doctor, to tend to Rosario in a workshop. From there, it’s an escalating series of death, betrayal, death, death, tragedy and death, with a body count that makes Hamlet look like Mary Poppins.

This is, however, getting well ahead of ourselves, and you have to trudge through your fair share of soap-opera drama and “love across the class divide” to reach these excellent 15 final episodes. It begins with Rosario still a schoolgirl, albeit a rebellious one: an incident where she gives a teacher an unrequested hair-cut gets her and pal Dayra expelled, but also gets her the “Tijeras” (scissors) nickname, and wins the heart of Antonio de Bedout (Sandoval), a student visiting her school as part of a college project. He is the son of a rich businessman! She is the daughter of a poor but honest beautician! They keep just missing each other, even though her mom does house-calls on his sisters! But, wait! There’s more! His best-friend, Emilio (Martinez), gets to Rosario first, and they begin a torrid romance! But he’s already in a relationship with Paula, a girl from his social level! Okay, enough already. Although I think I probably used up the entire month’s quota of exclamation points there, they did not die in vain – you presumably get the picture.

tijerasFortunately, that’s not all that’s going on. After their expulsion, Dayra and Rosario work for the latter’s sleazy step-dad in the local market, selling cellphone minutes. Not cellphones. Cellphone minutes. They have a set of mobile phones chained to them, one for each carrier, and rent them out to whoever needs to call – I believe it’s the result of a market where calls between networks is extremely expensive, so if you want to speak to someone whose mobile uses a different carrier, it’s better to pay a small mark-up to a third-party. This demonstrates one of the confusing joys of watching foreign shows; the cultural differences, with things that seem strange to an outside, yet make perfect sense as part of the cultural norm, to locals.

I digress – but given a show telling a single story over 60 episodes, so does the series, so we’re even. Anyway, the girls’ job brings them into contact with their stepfather’s boss, Gonzalo González, whose even sleazier, and has a “thing” for young virgins. Hoping to make her way out of the slums, Dayra sashays into Gonzalo’s ranch, but when he discovers she is not quite as pure as advertised, his revenge is swift and brutal, and her lifeless body is found on a patch of wasteland. Meanwhile, Rosario is having issues of her own, culminating in her abduction and rape at the hands of a local gang led by Cachi. She takes revenge there first, castrating him, and then goes after Gonzalo – although the plan is for Johnefe to help her, she ends up entirely on her own resources, but doesn’t flinch, and he becomes her first victim. Gonzalo’s drug-running rival, Adonai, known as “The King of Heaven” is delighted by her actions, and the first phase of the show ends with her becoming part of his organization.

We then fast forward a few years. Emilio and Antonio encounter Rosario again, in a nightclub, and begin their dalliance anew, unaware that she was there on a job for the King, and is now a feared and notorious assassin for him. The love triangle is more of a love quadrilateral, thanks to barrio boy Ferney, and it’s this which provides the key to the Shakespearean events of the second half. Rosario discovers evidence that the king’s brother, Teo, is deceiving him, having swapped out two tons of cocaine for sugar, blown up the plane on which the cargo was being transported, then sold the real thing off to another buyer. Teo realizes Rosario must be silenced, and convinces Ferney that he has no chance with her, when put beside the rich yuppies, and that she’s going to betray her roots for a future as part of the upper classes to which the pair belong. And that’s how we eventually end up, 45 episodes later, back where we started, with Rosario being rushed to hospital.

The early going is certainly more soap-opera than anything else, it still makes for adequate entertainment, with the good characters appropriately likeable, and the bad ones suitable evil. That said… Damn, the guys in this show appear to be almost entirely driven by their genitalia. In particular, Emilio has absolutely no issue with bedding Rosario, even as he is going out with, then engaged to, and even married to Paula Restrepo, an aspiring model. She shows rather more tolerance for his roaming than I would, and I can’t really blame her for eventually taking steps to remove Rosario from her married life. But Emilio is hardly alone: there’s an entire subplot involving Antonio’s father, Luis Enrique, who has been having a long-time affair with his secretary, including a secret daughter, which may explain his wife’s heavy drinking. Not sure how much of this is in the book, and how much is additional padding: I suspect the latter, since when you’ve got 60 episodes to fill, you’re likely going to need more material than a single novel. Some aspects does appear directly derived, however – or, at least, were also in the film version, made five years previously.

rosario3One such is the funeral of one character: it appears such events, at least in the Medellin slums, are rather less… formal than we’re used to. By which, I mean the corpse is paraded about on a sun-lounger, to loud reggaton, then placed on the back of a motorcycle which pulls wheelies around the neighbourhood. Like I said: these kind of cultural differences, can only be accepted for what they are. Though it might have helped if Netflix had the same person subtitle all the episodes, as there are sometimes confusing inconsistencies. It took me a while to figure out that characters called “Querubin” and “Mago” were the same ones called “Cherub” and “the Magician” elsewhere, depending on whether the subtitler bothered to translate their names.  Even more confusing, Netflix managed to list one episode entirely out of order. When watched in the order provided, this led to Luis Enrique’s affair-daughter suddenly being held to ransom, for no apparent reason, then being released, and only finally, getting kidnapped – at which point, it all made sense, rather than being some particularly obscurist structure involving nested flashbacks.

One aspect worthy of note is that the police aren’t shown here as being particularly corrupt or bad, in contrast to some I’ve seen where they are the “bad guys”. Detective Pamela Pulido, played by Jenny Vargas Sepulveda, is both honest and smart, and gets a fair amount of screen-time as she tries to disentangle the increasing mess with her partnet, Isaak – in particular, by turning up the heat on Emilio and Antonio. [During filming, there was an odd incident where Sepulveda was arrested and held for five hours, at the airport on the way to Medellin, after her luggage was inexplicably found to contain a number of live rounds of ammunition!] Rosario’s second step-father, Libardo, is also a member of the police force, though his morality turns out to be considerably more murky, even if some of his actions largely appear to be driven by concern for the welfare of his step-daughter.

I’d have liked to see more from the period over which the show entirely skips, showing Rosario’s rise to the top of the King’s accomplices, rather than the various subplots involving the business and property dealings of the de Bedout family. The show is called Rosario Tijeras after all, and should be about the heroine and her lethal exploits, not country-club memberships and tennis matches. Still, even during the lengthy periods where it focuses more on the drama than action, the cultural freshness and generally engaging nature of the people depicted, kept this ticking over. Rosario herself makes for a very good and strong heroine, who takes absolutely no shit from anyone, and when life gives her lemons, she makes lemonade – albeit, one imagines, only after repeatedly stabbing the lemons with a pair of scissors.

Star: Maria Fernanda Yepez, Andres Sandoval, Sebastián Martínez, Juan David Restrepo

Revolver Rani

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“More bemusing than amusing.”

revolverraniThe problem with satire, is you have to know what’s being satirized in order to appreciate it. In this case, the twin targets are Indian politics and Bollywood – the local movie industry. I am better informed about the latter than the former, though this is as much because I know virtually nothing about their politics, as because I have the soundtrack to Singh is Kiing [and, yes, that is how it’s spelled]. So it’s possible the satire here went over my head; however, given it was a box-office flop in its home territory, it’s perhaps more likely, this just isn’t very good.

I do get that the heroine appears based on Phoolan Devi, the subject of Bandit Queen. who transitioned from outlaw to politics. Here, Alka Singh, a.k.a. “Revolver Rani” (Ranaut), has just seen her group toppled in elections by her opponents in the Tomar party, led by her nemesis Udaybhan Singh (Hussain) – there is also a blood feud there, as Rani killed one of his relatives in her outlaw days. Her political career is further derailed by Alka falling for wannabe Bollywood actor, Rohan Mehra (Das), and the Tomars decided to take some of their revenge on her by kidnapping him. While she rides to the rescue and succeeds in liberating him, their relationship grows increasingly complicated: not only does she have to deal with the Tomars, her uncle (Mishra), who has been carefully plotting her rise to power and influence over the preceding years, is also unimpressed with what he sees as Rohan’s distraction. So he drugs his protege, and forces Rohan to marry in order to get him out of the picture, even though alka is, by now, pregnant with his child.

It is, presumably, deliberate that the songs here are quite extraordinarily crappy, featuring lyrics like “I am not bad, I am brutal, my baby/I will eat you like noodle, my baby.” And do not even get me started on the band of Michael Jackson impersonators, hired to perform at an event. The main issue is that, after a fun, animated opening credit sequence and Alka’s rescue of her boyfriend, we see virtually nothing of her bad-assishness until the very end of the film. Despite her fondness for metallic lingerie, “Revolver Rani” spends most of the intervening time – and, in keeping with Bollywood tradition, that is a lot of time (this runs 132 minutes in total) – either unconscious or wanting to be little more than a mother and housewife. She eventually does rebel against her uncle and his scheming betrayal, just as the Tomars send their forces to take her out, and the resulting gun-battle is impressively-staged; the very end also suggests Kabir has more than a passing acquaintance with Kill Bill. It is, unfortunately, very much a case of “too little, too late,” and while I admit this may play better to a native audience, any unprepared Westerner picking it up off Netflix is going to be very, very confused.

Dir: Sai Kabir
Star: Kangana Ranaut, Vir Das, Zakir Hussain, Piyush Mishra

Robot Revolution

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“The revolution will not be televised.”

My heart sank when I saw the production company’s logo in the opening credits, as I realized this was from the same people who brought us Earthkiller, which… Well, wasn’t very good, to put it mildly. Four years and several features later, has Bellware and his micro-budget associates improved? Yes, actually, they have. Not that this is “good”, by any neutral standards, especially if you’re expecting anything like glossy, big-budget SF. However, it does seem more aware of its own limitations, and works within them a lot better than Earthkiller.

robotrevolutionIt’s set somewhat in the future, where Constable Hawkins (Logan) and her android partner have been ordered to pay a visit to the apartment of a researcher (Murphy), who is allegedly working on a weapon for a notorious terrorist. Unfortunately, the terrorist’s henchmen show up at the same time, and the weapon is activated. It consists of a swarm of nanobotz that can “hack” into anything containing electronics and control it. Which is unfortunate, since in this future, all adults have been implanted with an identification chip. Fortunately, the scientist has a somewhat effective countermeasure, but she and Hawkins still have to try and make their way out of the apartment, dealing with both the infected human residents and the automated cleaning robots, that are intent on preventing them.

It’s actually not a bad idea, even if derivative of Dread [which was, itself, derivative of a truly superlative Indonesian action film, The Raid] With just a single location, it’s a good setting for a low-budget film – except Bellware, for some reason, still injects repeated, really crappy CGI exteriors, and the static-laced camera shots, whether from the android’s POV or elsewhere, are also far too excessive. He should just have kept things claustrophobic. A bigger problem are the infected residents, who are about the least threatening monsters I’ve ever seen: a trickle of blood from the nose and five minutes of Zombie 1.0.1. training do not make you scary. [Indeed, it’s probably less horrific than their attempts at acting] The cleaning robot is far more impressive: in form and execution, it appears to have strayed in from a much bigger, better movie.

Logan, sporting a fetching eyepatch, for no readily apparent reason, isn’t bad, projecting a degree of no-nonsense competence appropriate to the character. However, in the film’s second half, it does degenerate into a long series of sequences in which people creep around corridors, that are neither as tense or as interesting as Bellware seems to think. Though I did appreciate the discussion on whether or not these should be considered as zombies, and whether shooting them in the head is the only way to kill them. If Earthkiller’s 1½-star rating was charitable, this one is perhaps a tad harsh, though my appreciation may in part be due to expectations that were not so much low, as subterranean. At this rate, by 2030 or so, Bellware might actually be making decent films.

Dir: Andrew Bellware
Star: Virginia Logan, Mary Murphy, Matthew Trumbull, Dirk Voetberg.

Return to Sender

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“Deadlier than the mail”

Return_to_SenderPike seems to have been teetering on the edge of action-heroineness since she first reached popular attention as Bond girl Miranda Frost, in Die Another Day, thence through the likes of Queen Andromeda in Wrath of the Titans, and her upcoming portrayal of an undercover CIA agent in High Wire Act. With her star also on the rise for her Oscar-nominated performance in Gone Girl, one wonders whether such mainstream fare will become “beneath her”? If so, this may be among her final stops of at least tangential appeal, and with her character the focus of attention, the only one which reached the necessary threshold to qualify for inclusion on this site. Here, she plays Miranda, the victim of a brutal rape, whose orderly life is destroyed by the assault, yet who begins a long-distance relationship with her attacker (Fernandez). She claims this is a necessary part of the healing process, much to the disgust of her father (Nolte), who is concerned his daughter may be suffering from some variant of Stockholm Syndrome. However, are Miranda’s intentions quite as forgiving as they appear?

The existence of this review likely gives away the answer to that question, though the poster on the right (a Finnish one, emphasizing an element found in other publicity material) isn’t exactly avoiding the issue. And that’s the problem: the middle portion here, between the attack and the pay-off, more or less operates in a holding pattern, with the audience largely aware of where it’s going, yet the script still needs to put in the legwork to make its payoff credible. I can’t say it succeeds, leaning heavily on the fact that her attacker is a complete idiot, and like many rape-revenge films, also relies on the conceit that many rapists will have no problem hanging out with their victims after the event. I’ve no idea whether there is any psychological basis for fact in this, or if it’s just a convenient plot nicety. The other aspect which is kinda weird, is that Miranda isn’t actually a very nice person; a bit of a control-freak in many aspects of her life, and her lack of meaningful relationships is entirely unsurprising.

Between this and her subsequent actions, it appears the only reason the audience is given to care about her, is because she gets raped. Wait, what? I suppose the point might be, to show that sexual assault does not only happen to “nice” girls, but we’re not talking about a sociological study here. This is a work of fiction, and if you’re going to focus on a character with whom the audience is given no good reason to empathize, the film-makers had better be damn sure of their ground. Here, neither Mikati nor the writers are, even if Pike’s performance is decent, showing why I think she has potential as an action-heroine. This is left to operate in a vacuum, resulting in perhaps only the final 15-20 minutes achieving any degree of impact, and this is still muted, since you don’t care enough about anyone involved. Nowhere near as provocative or powerful as this needed to be.

Dir: Faoud Mikati
Star: Rosamund Pike, Shiloh Fernandez, Nick Nolte, Camryn Manheim