Sudden Death

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“Ms. 12-inch 45”

suddendeathThe star of this rape-revenge film, Denise Coward is a former beauty-queen, who was the second runner-up at Miss World in 1978, representing Australia. She didn’t exactly have a long movie career – this and sci-fi flick Galaxy representing roughly the sum total of it. Watching this, it’s easy to understand why, though it would require a significantly better actor than her to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear of a script and direction she is given here. Coward plays Valerie Wells, a career woman in New York who gets into the wrong taxi one night. For it has been stolen by a pair of low-lifes, who rape their passenger before dumping her unconscious body on the street. The cops, in particular Detective Marty Lowery (Runyeon) are sympathetic but over-worked, and Coward’s fiancé is about as much help as a chocolate teapot. What’s a girl to do?

Obviously, this being an eighties video flick, the answer is: pick up a handgun on a trip to Hilton Head with a friend, then start stalking the mean streets of the Big Apple, acting as a human honey-pot. And woe betide anyone who tries to take advantage of her, as they’ll find themselves being shot by what the press soon terms “The Dum-dum Killer”, named after Valerie’s ammunition of choice. Her ongoing relationship with Det. Lowery, however, poses something of a problem, not least when he comes across a box of those bullets in her night-stand. Meanwhile, it turns out – what are the odds – that the very same scumballs responsible for kicking off Valerie’s vendetta, are planning to rob a courier of bearer bonds, and their intent comes to Lowery’s attention.

In the right hands, this would have worked a great deal better – and, the truth is, that was exactly what was done a few years previously, in Abel Ferrara’s classic, Ms. 45. Coward certainly is not Zoe Tamerlis/Lund, and Shore, a producer on Super Fly, isn’t Ferrara either, with the New York he portrays being invested with nowhere near the same sense of perpetual menace. Instead, this never seems to get out of second gear, and is happy to endorse her vigilante murder, except for one sequence where Valerie ends up showing mercy for one of her targets, despite having just delivered the immortal line at him, “You’re gonna get what you deserve, you rapist!” It’s the only scene which comes even close to approaching the depth of 45.

The rest is more ludicrous than discomforting, probably peaking with Valerie wandering round what has to be the gayest-looking non-gay bar in the city. Otherwise, the highlight has nothing to do with the main plot, being the final foot-chase which is more of a marathon, running through Manhattan (look, kids! Th World Trade Center!), and over a bridge to Queens (I’m guessing), unfolding to the strains of classic 80’s pop tun, I.O.U by Freeez. For somehow, the producers here got hip-hop legend Arthur Baker to produce the music – yeah, I finally explained my choice of tag-line! – and this means you’ll also hear a lot of New Order’s Confusion. But this really only works as a musical time-capsule of the mid-eighties.

Dir: Sig Shore
Star: Denise Coward, Frank Runyeon, Jaime Tirelli, Robert Trumbull
a.k.a. Dirty Harriet

Seven Vengeful Women

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“The good, the bad and the pretty.”

7-mujeresA wagon train on its way West to California is besieged by multiple waves of Apaches. Between attacks, the seven women among the settlers are hidden in a nearby cave, but the next assault proves terminal, and the women are left, alone and deep in enemy territory. The only hope for this band of largely unprepared women, is to strike out across a hostile landscape. They’ll need to cross 100 miles between them and the nearest settlement, Fort Lafayette, while fending off further native attacks.

This 1966 film is an early example of a “Europudding,” being a co-production between Spain, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein(!). There are three directors credited, though Parolini’s name appears to have been simply to get Italian funding, and Pink was apparently the main man behind the camera. The results are only sporadically effective, being hampered by characters and actions which are often little more than clichés, on all sides. They actually use the line, “Never turn your back on an Indian,” and I literally LOL’d when the settlers formed their wagons into a circle, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done in a film, except as a parody.

The star is former Oscar-winner Baxter, who plays Mary-Anne, the de facto leader of the group, and delivers a solid performance. Though as action-heroines, I was probably more impressed with the Grimaldi Sisters, a circus act (played by Como and Adriana Ambesi) whose skills help save the group on multiple occasions – there’s a running joke about these abilities inevitably being obtained from previous sideshow boyfriends. Most of the rest don’t make much impression, and while trying to avoid spoilers, the mortality rate is so low that the Apaches don’t present much of a threat. While there are some dark hints about the women being wanted alive, this was the mid-sixties, so hints are all you’ll get, and the whole thing is rather too gentle for its own good.

That said, the women develop a harder edge over the course of proceedings. The first time they repel an Indian attack, the victim they capture is kept alive, at least until he escapes. By the end, they’re ruthlessly clubbing natives to death with their rifles, in the closest the film goes to a genuinely disturbing sequence [Look, I saw Bone Tomahawk recently. My “genuinely disturbing” scale got entirely re-calibrated, as far as the Western genre goes] Second spot likely goes to the Apache victim whose body is found, mostly for Mary-Anne’s stern instruction that nobody should look under her clothes.

But this is the kind of film where the heroines start off their hundred-mile trek in long skirts. Even for the time, that seems a stretch, and is an unfortunate precursor to the rest of the movie. It’s not a bad idea, and the leads are fine too; the problem here is a script which hasn’t aged well

Dir: Gianfranco Parolini, Rudolf Zehetgruber, Sidney W. Pink
Star: Anne Baxter, Maria Perschy, Gustavo Rojo, Rossella Como
a.k.a. The Tall Women

Scherzo Diabolico

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorrow

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“Coherence. It’s vastly over-rated.”

sorrowEven given my tolerance for small budget and independent films, this was a chore both times I watched it. The first time, I got half-way through and gave up. Returning the next day, I decided to give it another chance, and started from the beginning again. While I did make it all the way to the end on the second occasion, this is one of those cases where I reached the end, and was actively irritated by the fact I could have spent the time doing any number of more interesting, productive or fun things.

It starts with the aftermath of a shoot-out at a house, which leaves the cops picking over multiple dead bodies – including one of their own, killed by a booby-trap – and the sole living witness, Mila Sweeney (Vasquez) in hospital with a shoulder wound. She absconds from there, because in one of the inexplicable pieces of plotting, the cops don’t bother to keep an eye on her there, and it’s up to Detective Ana Salinas (Mars) to try and reel Mila back in. Alongside this, we get a series of flashbacks (except, you have to figure out what’s a flashback and what’s current, entirely on your own), depicting events leading up to the shoot-out, which saw Mila have the misfortune to knock on the door of a house occupied by a nomadic trio of psychopaths, Dale (Martinez), Hersey (Etuk) and Gambit, who welcome the delivery of fresh meat.

The rest of the film judders back and forth between the heroine’s efforts to escape her captivity, and her post-shootout quest for vengeance, yet also wobbles between portraying this from Mila’s perspective and those of the perpetrators. It’s as if the script – also written by director Loredo – couldn’t figure out what angle or approach to take, and ended up going for a half-assed attempt to cover them all. This is one of the reasons why hard experience has shown me that it’s a warning sign when any low-budget film is written by the same person directing it. This approach largely removes the opportunity for an outsider  to look at the script with a critical eye and go, “Hang on. That won’t work.”

You can see what Loredo is going for, and I can’t deny the obvious passion here. It’s just a shame that there is virtually nothing else good enough to retain your attention. In particular, occasionally good performances are wasted because the script is horrible at its most important and basic job: telling a coherent story. The viewer is left thrashing around trying to put together the pieces, and while not impossible, this is a task where the director needs to be someone more like David Lynch, rather than a rookie trying her hand at directing a feature for the first time, especially one who appears to this she is Quentin Tarantino.

Dir: Millie Loredo
Star: Vannessa Vasquez, Melissa Mars, Eric Martinez, Mary Etuk

The Sister Street Fighter series

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Sister Street Fighter
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sisterstreetfighterfI have reviewed this previously, way back at the birth of the site, as part of the Women Who Kick Butt box-set, where it was easily the best film present. However, that was in a dubbed version, and having recently got hold of a copy in the original Japanese, I thought it deserved a re-watch. I’m pleased to report it remains a supremely loopy bit of fun, fully meriting the seal of approval and deserving of its own page, However could it be otherwise, with dialogue such as the title caption above, or the unforgettable line, “I killed fifty bulls with my bare hands in South America, you know.” It’s 70’s martial arts plot #26: central character goes to look for missing relative. In this case, it’s Tina (Shihomi), whose brother, an undercover cop, vanished while looking into a Japanese drug cartel. She agrees to follow in his footsteps, and soon finds the gang, under boss Hayashi (Yamamoto), handle snoopers with extreme prejudice. As that caption suggests, they bring the merchandise in using heroin-infused wigs(!), and the eccentric boss is now keeping Tina’s brother as a plaything in his basement – presumably alongside the “men who know where they are and care, but don’t drink.”

Oh, and Hayashi also collects martial artists: “Some rich men buy race horses or keep an expensive dog as a pet. But I keep unusual humans instead of animals. It amuses me.” This includes everything from an expert in the Okinawan Kobudo, a chained sickle, through to a pack of Thai kickboxers called the “Amazon Seven.” There’s also a guy with a mohawk who shoots poisoned darts from his blowgun, and bunch of fairly ineffective minions, who walk around wearing what look kinda like ski-masks made of straw. Wisely, they remove these before going into battle, although this does make me wonder what the point is. These and more will all, at some point or other, be faced down by Tina and/or her own allies, including colleagues of her brother, Sonny Hibachi (Chiba) and Emmy Kawasaki (Hayakawa), as well as a ballet-school teacher, because everyone in Japan knows some version of karate, it appears. [I should also mention the unfortunate logo of the karate school is a swastika!] Though Tina’s most startling skill is her ability to fall hundreds of feet from a high bridge, then re-appear without the slightest explanation as to how she survived.

Yamaguchi’s directorial style appears to consist of tilting the camera semi-randomly, leading to some sequences being Everyday Etsuko Shiomis, seen from unusual angles. But he also is smart enough to stand back when appropriate, letting her and everyone else do their thing, and this is when the film earns its keep. Watching Shiomi duel with nunchakus is worth the cost of admission alone, with the rest of the fights, and the general lunatic approach, merely a bonus. Released almost exactly a year after Enter the Dragon, the debt owed to that classic is certainly clear, not least in the tiger claws wielded by Hayashi. If some performances may be on the functional side (watch the drug withdrawal scene for truly epic over-acting), it still does a better of job of repaying its debts than many other imitators of the time, being an enjoyable slab of excessive kung-fu action in its own right.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Shohei Yamamoto, May Hayakawa, Sonny Chiba

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread
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ssf2Even before the original film was released, the studio was spurred into making a swift follow-up, and the rush into production shows itself in a plot more than somewhat similar to its predecessor. Koryu Lee (Shiomi) looks for Birei, a friend from high-school, at the request of Birei’s father, after she vanishes from Hong Kong. She tracks Birei down in Japan where the girl is being used as a mule by a diamond-smuggling gang, operating under the front of a company owned by Kazunari Osone (Murota). They don’t take kindly to Koryu’s investigation, and send a range of thugs to stop her, which only encourages Koryu, naturally. However, turns out there’s a more personal connection, since her sister Bykuran (Mitsukawa) is working for Osone – both on her feet and her back, if you know what I mean…

Sure, it’s smuggling diamonds not drugs, and Koryu’s sister instead of her brother who is in bed with the criminals. But if you watch this back to back with the original, it’s almost going to seem like a mockbuster rather than a sequel, albeit made by much the same people. One semi-significant difference is that replacing Sonny Chiba, you have Kurata, playing a martial-arts master who joins the Osone gang with his own agenda. The opponents for our heroine are still the same selection of fighters with different talents, each introduced with a caption describing their origin. But these seem significantly more restrained than first time round, outside of the transsexual killer with her lethal fingernails.

The main problem is Yamaguchi’s direction, apparently considerably less stable than previously. It was a while ago I watched the first film, so perhaps I just didn’t notice it there, but for this entry he seems to have developed a terrible habit of moving the camera enthusiastically during Shihomi’s fight sequences. Which might have worked better, if the SteadiCam had arrived in Japanese cinema at the time of shooting. Instead, the results more closely resemble handing the camera to a amphetamine-crazed chimp, and are an unpleasant distraction, rather than providing any kind of enhancement to proceedings. It’s a blessed relief, whenever things calm long enough for viewers to appreciate the actual skill possessed by Shihomi, with her use of the nunchakus remaining a particular highlight.

The film does seem to have jacked up the exploitation aspects, with surprisingly disturbing (for the mid-seventies time) gore, in particular some eyeball violence, with what feels like more nudity as well. These are occasionally combined, such as the removal without anaesthetic of the smuggled diamonds, from the buttocks of the woman smuggling them. That’ll leave a mark. Not sure that’s necessarily a plus, since Shihomi’s wholesome and earnest intensity was one of the pleasures in the first film, making it stand out from the more common and salacious “pinky violence” cousins, that this sequel appears to be aping.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Hideo Murota, Yasuaki Kurata, Tamayo Mitsukawa

The Return of the Sister Street Fighter
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ssf3The third in the series is something of a return to form, not least because Yamaguchi goes back to holding the damn camera steady. But, really: another friend/relative has vanished into the clutches of a yakuza smuggling ring? At this point, it’s going beyond the realms of coincidence and, as Oscar Wilde (somewhat) said, now looks like carelessness. In this case, it’s cousin Shurei, though it’s not entirely clear if she is the cousin of Koryu (Shihomi) or the detective who gives our heroine her mission. The details are largely irrelevant, however. For what matters is that Koryu has not yet touched dry land after her arrival in Yokohama, accompanied by Shurei’s adorable little daughter Rika, when she is ambushed on the pier.

Having survived that, she links up with Shurei’s sister, Reika, then goes to meet “Suzy Wong”, who supposedly knows Shurei’s whereabouts. Koryu learns Shurei has become the mistress of Oh Ryu Mei (Yamamoto), “the shadow ruler of Yokohama’s Chinatown,” before Suzy becomes another in what turns out to be quite a lengthy string of dead bodies. For Mr Oh’s approach to henchmen employment is to have the potential candidates fight each other in death matches to determine who gets the four open spots as his enforcers. One of these ends up being Takeshi Kurosaki (Kurata), though if you’ve seen the second film, you will not be at all surprised to learn that he has his own agenda once more. Really, it’s like they’re not even making a token effort in terms of the script at this point.

That said, I enjoyed this one significantly more: as noted, the cinematography is less flailing, there’s no shortage of action, and there are some surreal touches (both deliberate and, I suspect, accidental) that enliven proceedings. For example, [mild spoiler] Mr Oh is wheelchair-bound, though this certainly doesn’t stop him from being wheeled around to slap under-performing minions silly. Except, at the end, he suddenly leaps from his wheelchair into battle. I guess he was just being a lazy bastard the rest of the time. In the “accidental” category, there’s the saxophone rendition of Danny Boy, which accompanies the Very Serious conversation between Koryu and Suzy, in a spectacular display of inappropriateness.

I wondered why chunks of this felt so familiar, and eventually discovered I had reviewed this previously, back in September 2008. I wasn’t as impressed at that point, awarding it only two stars at that point (though I appear to have been equally amused then by the whole Danny Boy thing). Either my tastes have changed over the intervening years, or perhaps I was influenced by watching this in close proximity to the inferior second film? But, if I ever become an evil overlord, and have a mortal enemy in my grasp, I will not stop a henchman about to kill them, with a quip such as, “The crows will feed on her by morning anyway.” That never ends well for the evil overlord…

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Yasuaki Kurata, Rinichi Yamamoto, Akane Kawasaki

Sister Street Fighter: Fifth-level Fist
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ssf5The fourth entry marked several changes, although given it was also the final one, that suggests these were not considered too successful. A new director was brought in; Ozawa is best known for The Streetfighter, starring Sonny Chiba, which inspired the spin-off series here, though this was the last of the 30-odd films in his career. Shihomi also plays a different character from the earlier movies: Kiku Nakagawa, the daughter of an upwardly-mobile kimono designer who is trying to marry her off to a salaryman. Kiku is having none of it, not when her Okinawan friend, Michi (Love), needs help. For Michi’s half-black stepbrother, Jim (Wallace), has been targeted by the drug-smugglers he has fallen in with, who are using a movie studio as a front for their activities, under its owner Fujiyama (Kawai).

This takes a long while to get going, with Kiku having precious little to do in terms of action until the final 20 minutes or so. When it does, have to say, she and Michi deliver one of the best fights of the entire series, in an extended brawl around the film lot. Until then, it’s as much social commentary as anything, with the siblings the target of prejudice for their mixed-race nature [something which also formed a significant aspect of Rika the Mixed-Blood Girl and its sequels]. This is also more explicitly feminist than its predecessors, and not only in the arranged marriage Kiku wants to avoid. When that falls through, her father tries to set her up with Detective Suji Takagi, but he’s an unrepentant chauvinist and tells Riku: “Men are attracted to a woman’s gentleness. Cooking good food for your husband and raising your children well – isn’t that what makes a woman happy?” Showing remarkable restraint, she somehow managed to avoid punching his lights out as a counter-argument.

There seems to be a bit more comedy in this one, and additionally, it seems somewhat brave of Ozawa to make a film linking a movie studio to the Yakuza, given the long-standing whispers linking Toei, the company behind this series, to organized crime in the seventies. [According to Federico Varese, “Bosses not only took a keen interest in their portrayal and demanded to pre-approve the content of movies but also encouraged the production of hagiographies about themselves and their gangs.”] Maybe that explains why it was the last movie he ever directed… While this was also the last entry in the Sister Street Fighter series, Shihomi continued acting for another decade, before marrying fellow-actor Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, marrying him and retiring from acting at the ripe old age of thirty-one. However, these four features likely remain the definitive works in her filmography, showcasing her skills, and putting them front and centre, where they belong.

Dir: Shigehiro Ozawa
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Mitchi Love, Ken Wallace, Nobuo Kawai

StalkHer

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“Stalk is cheap.”

As high concepts go, this one is impressive. Serial killer Jack (Jarratt) breaks into the house of his latest intended victim, Emily (Fairfax), a middle-aged nurxe in the hospital where he works as a pharmacist, whom he has been quietly stalking. Expecting no problems, Jack is in for a surprise; Emily is waiting with a tazer. Jack regains consciousness to find himself tied to the chair, and facing someone who may well be his superior in terms of well-concealed psychotic intentions – not to mention, previous body-count.

This is the kind of story that’s more interesting in where it’s going than in how it gets there. The way it ends, opens up a broad swathe of possibilities, most of which would likely be more fun than watching the two foul-mouthed leads interacting. [It’s certainly undeniably Australian in its harsh and copious bad language!] For, truth be told, neither Jack nor Emily are particularly likeable, and you’re are left watching their verbal sparring without any genuine emotional investment. There is some resonance, due to Jarratt having also played a serial killer in the two Wolf Creek films, but some of the plot developments here seem artificial and forced for the sake of the ending, rather than flowing naturally out of the characters.

The concept of a middle-aged, almost matronly female serial killer is intriguing, and could have become an amusingly sharp contrast to the lurid excess of Nurse 3D. Alternatively, Jarratt could perhaps have followed in the footsteps of John Waters’ Serial Mom, in which Kathleen Turner played an insane housewife, whose victims were chosen on the slightest of pretexts, e.g. failing to separate properly their recyclable garbage. Instead, while the poster proclaims the film to be “inappropriate, funny, romantic,” I can’t honestly say it made the slightest ripple as far as the second and third categories are concerned. Even the first comes up short, not least because it includes inserts of sequences that are only taking place in the characters’ minds – on more than one occasion, I was disappointed by that realization.

It’s Jarratt’s first time as a director, and although he has plenty of experience in front of the camera, it’s a remarkably “safe” project, especially given the subject matter, and comes over almost entirely as a stage-play unfolding in front of the camera. The script is also by a first-time writer, Kristijana Maric, and I can’t help suspecting the whole project would likely have been better served with longer track records in both departments.

Dir: John Jarratt
Star: Kaarin Fairfax, John Jarratt

Sumo Vixens

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“Su’mo money, su’mo problems.”

sumovixensYes, it’s a thinly-disguised excuse to see topless women grappling with each other. It’s from the director of Big Tits Zombie and the charmingly-titled Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy. The budget appears to have been several thousand yen, at least. But, you know what? I didn’t mind this. There’s a sense of self-awareness here that helps defuse (though certainly not eliminate) the creepier elements. When the heroine proclaims, “People have dirty thoughts about women’s sumo, but I believe there’s something more than that,” you want to believe her. Well, at least until the lesbian canoodling starts, anyway, and you realize

Said heroine is Ruriko Sakura (Eba), whose aunt used to be a woman’s sumo champion in her day, which gives Ruriko the idea of reviving the sport. To this end, she recruits former master Szenjirou Arakami (Arase), who has just been relesed from jail for pushing a car loaded with Yakuza into a river. The women they recruit are a motley bunch at best, but Komasa (Mizutani) appears to have strayed in from a pinky violence film, so has promise. However, the Domino Group, a Yakuza-run “agency” has their eye on Ruriko and owns loans held by Arakami. A challenge match is arranged against the Domino girls, and if they win, the loans will be forgiven. If they lose, Ruriko must become their exclusive talent.

It’s the little things that keep this memorable, like the quirky characters, such as the tattooed, green-haired and pierced sumo who spends literally the entire film huffing paint thinner from a plastic bag – even for her bout, she’s like “Here, hold this” to the referee. Or Komasa’s one-eyed nemesis and former partner in a lesbian strip show, Oryu (Kudou), who I’m fairly sure is another pulp cinema tribute. Nakano also slyly subverts some of the obvious sports movie cliches. I trust I’m not spoiling this for anyone, when I tell you plucky underdog Ruriko loses her climactic match in about 0.3 seconds. I think he also takes pot-shots at cable TV – the final match is broadcast there – and its fondness for staged reaction shots.

The action is, as you’d expect, entirely woeful and the camera angles are particularly predatory, tending to focus on specific body parts to the exclusion of, say, the women’s faces. Yet the makers are clearly aware of the idiocy on view, and certainly cannot be accused of taking themselves too seriously. Ruriko somehow manages to keep her clothes on, when all about her are losing theirs, and though she has a boyfriend, he doesn’t turn up until literally the final scene. She’s goal-oriented, committed and you could make the case she’s actually a better role-model of independent womanhood than many depictions in more mainstream works. At heart, though, this could only be fully appreciated by the 16-year-old male audience, for whom it was apparently made.

Dir: Takao Nakano
Star: Eba, Arase, Kei Mizutani, Shouku Kudou

A Shot Through the Heart, by J. C. Antonelli

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Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

shotheartThis book wasn’t on my radar until a friend recommended it. But it proved to be well worth the read –and further demonstrates that there are independent authors out there producing quality work, and who aren’t getting the notice they ought to. J. C. Antonelli is one of these! Hopefully, this review will give you an idea of whether or not the book would be up your alley. If so, the novel has the added advantage of being a stand-alone; reading it won’t suck you into a long series.

This is, unabashedly, modern pulp action-adventure, with a kick-butt female protagonist. That doesn’t mean it’s without serious moral reflection or psychological depth; it has some of both to offer. (Although it has a 17-18 year old protagonist, its significant bad language, sexual content, and violence mark it as an adult read, not a YA –though there are certainly teens of both genders who’d read it avidly.) It doesn’t stint on the physical action (with a high body count) though, nor on the gripping suspense. The snappy prose style and short chapters, and the storyline itself, compel the reader to keep turning pages; if I’d been able to, I’d have read it at one sitting. (And I did finish it in about a week, which is a pretty quick read for me!) It’s too bad fiction by independent authors is ignored by Hollywood as fodder for adaptations, because this would make a stem-winder of an action flick, which would probably be a box office smash.

We open with our heroine/narrator Samantha (“Sam”) wounded and bleeding in a fleabag Bucharest hotel room, waiting for shadowy killers to close in and try to finish her off. (But she’s got two pistols, and she’s not going down without a fight.) From there, she goes back a year to tell the story of how she got here, to the summer before her senior year of high school. Not having a driver’s license yet, to get out of the house and fight boredom, she got her dad to take her for an outing at a shooting range, using a coupon that came in the mail. That experience revealed that she has a natural talent for handling firearms: quick reflexes, a keen eye, and an instinctive ability to aim accurately, that would place her probably in the 99th percentile for naturally-gifted shooters. This evokes a LOT of attention, because this range happens to be a clandestine screening tool used for recruitment by a super-secret quasi-government agency. Its mission is the targeted assassination of large-scale evil-doers whose power and position makes them untouchable by legal channels –and they have a job in hand for which a pretty 17-year-old girl might actually be what the operation’s profile needs.

“Laid-back California girl” Sam’s a wonderfully drawn, complex, round and dynamic character, as real as any girl her age you might meet at your local mall. Yes, she’s flawed. She’s the product of her culture in some ways, with its prejudices and blind spots; she has a potty-mouthed speaking style, and has the issues that come from losing her mom at a very young age and growing up raised by an inept and emotionally distant dad (whom she truly loves, but whose faults she realizes). But she emphatically isn’t the borderline “sociopath” the organization’s psychiatrist considers her. True, when she thinks it’s justified, she’s quite capable of killing without any emotional distress.

However, she has genuine feelings and a conscience, a respect for innocent life, and people she cares about; and she approaches what she’s asked to do from within a serious moral framework. And while, like most of us, she can’t help taking pride in doing something she’s good at (which, in her case, is lethal combat), she doesn’t revel in hurting people as such –she’s compassionate even towards enemies’ pain. Having had to take a lot of responsibility from a young age, and natively smart (she scored 2200 on her SATS), she’s also more mature and grounded than many teens are. But she’s a believable teen, and a believable teen girl (I raised three, so I know something about the demographic) –not, as some critics snidely say about action-oriented female characters, especially those created by male writers, an essentially male figure disguised as female.

While Sam’s the only character whose head we get inside, Antonelli is able to make the rest of the cast (especially Tico) vivid and life-like as well. His plotting is taut, driving, well-constructed and twisty –complications, both logistical and emotional, are going to ensue. Though the book most definitely isn’t a comedy, he understands the uses of comic relief, and Sam’s wry narrative voice and quirky (sometimes off-color) humor provides it at times, as do the inherent incongruities of the situations. Being a keen and accurate observer both of herself and others enhances Sam’s effectiveness as a narrator. We have a variety of physical settings here, all brought to life pretty well, but the description is never intrusive.

The author clearly knows his weaponry (though he calls magazines “clips” –but that’s a common mistake), and writes clear, exciting action scenes; he doesn’t over-stress the gore of violent death –it is what it has to be, but he doesn’t rub our noses in it. Moral reflection about the ethics of extra-legal, vigilante killing in particular cases is serious, and adds depth to the book. (Though it’s not true that all or most religions have a blanket prohibition against killing.) Finally, the book puts Sam through a wringer of tough moral choices and emotional stresses that really challenge both her and the reader –I consider that a hallmark of superior fiction.

The idea of “insta-love” can be a problematic issue for readers, and there’s a romantic component here that develops in a quick time-frame. Honest love between two people has to have a basis, and that takes some time to develop and build. But the amount of time can vary with the people and circumstances. For the two principals here, their prior experience with the opposite sex has been largely fallow and unsatisfactory, and there’s a mutual perception that they want something different than what they’ve been offered in the past; the attraction is based on personal qualities rather than just physical appearance, and the circumstances are of the sort that would stimulate quick bonding. I don’t automatically believe in relatively “insta-love” just because an author wants to throw it into the plot; but I didn’t have a problem believing in it for this couple.

Notes: (Although there’s no explicit sex in the book, some non-explicit unmarried sex does take place; but it came across to me as being loving rather than exploitative and lewd. Bad language is pervasive; I lost count of the f-words, though there’s no religious profanity. Devout Catholic readers will be apt to be very offended by a passing thought of Sam’s about the Mass, evoked by a stressful mental comparison between the sight of red wine and of blood (though to a girl ignorant of theology, the whole idea of deliberately drinking blood would appear “crazy”).

Prolifers will strongly disagree with her advice to a pregnant friend to abort the baby; but it was well-intended advice –and the fact that her friend has the baby anyway makes a statement of a different sort, as well. Also, Sam makes a passing comment near the beginning that it would be wrong to assassinate Mother Teresa, but okay to do Rush Limbaugh (and by implication, anyone with right-of-center views); that will sit poorly with those readers whose views are right of center.

Author: J. C. Antonelli
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Shallows

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“Does for surfing what Open Water did for scuba-diving.”

the-shallowsThe older I get, the less any kind of extreme sports appeal. It’s likely an awareness that life is limited, and I’d rather hang on to it for as long as possible, rather than risk it in pursuit of a quick thrill. Parachuting? Skiing? Hell, even camping? No, thanks. I’ll be by the pool – not in it – with a cold drink and an exciting novel. This inevitably limits the attraction of this kind of “true life” adventures, because they rarely bother to demonstrate why the protagonist is doing what they are. Admittedly, that’s not the point: it’s all about the peril into which they get, and their struggles to extricate themselves. Everything else is somewhat superfluous, and that’s one of the issues here. Do we care about Nancy’s mid-twenties career choice crisis? Or that she’s on the beach because her late mother was there decades previously? Probably not. We’re here to see woman vs. shark.

Fortunately, the film largely delivers on this front, and it’s also nice to see a film where the heroine has absolutely no romantic interest at all. Once shark hits surfboard, and woman hits water, there are virtually no other speaking parts. It’s Nancy (Lively) in a stark battle for survival against the creature that’s circling her small, rock outcrop sanctuary. And with a large, dead whale nearby, the shark certainly isn’t going anywhere. That’s a problem for Nancy, because the initial attack has left her with a very badly-gashed thigh and potential gangrene. Fortunately, her medical training helps her patch up her own wounds, though the degree of damage she takes over the course of the film remains impressive. Enjoy the bikini-clad hottie, over whom the camera lingers in the early scenes – because by the end, Nancy looks more like she has gone five rounds with Gina Carano.

Inevitably, there are some concessions required. You’ve got a film that largely consists of a woman on a rock, so there’s more “thinking out loud” scenes than one normally sees. The shark, like most movie monsters, also demonstrates admirable dramatic timing, showing up when needed for the plot, and staying away during the moments necessary for the audience to get its breath back. Collet-Serra does an admirable job with the pacing, and the economical 87 minute running-time flies by. If the gilled antagonist here is a killing machine, streamlined by evolution over millions of years, with all extraneous irrelevancies removed, much the same can probably be said about this movie.

It has now been more than 40 years since Jaws made the entire world afraid to go into the water, but over the past few years, the shark movie has become more of a running-joke. Much as I must confess to having enjoyed Sharknado and its cronies, it’s nice to see something which redresses the balance somewhat. The Shallows certainly treats these lethal denizens of the deep with the respect and fear which they likely deserve, and endorses my ongoing decision to stick to dry land.

Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra
Star: Blake Lively

Survival Instinct

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“Gratuitous violins.”

survival-instinctStacey and and Thom are on their way to a friend’s wedding, where she’ll also be providing the music, when their car breaks down. Stacey walks back to a garage they passed, but while she’s away. Thom is accidentally shot by father and (unwilling) son hunting duo, Weaver (Coughlan) and Rex (Smith). Realizing their victim was not alone, they wait for Stacey to return, so her presence as a loose end can be tidied up. But Rex’s reluctance to pull the trigger gives her a lifeline, and begins a game of cat-and-mouse through a remote, wooded area of the Derbyshire Peak District.

I guess the aim is something like a British version of Deliverance, but the resources aren’t there – and neither are the performances, direction and script, none of which reach above workmanlike at best. The worst offender is the script, which frequently had me rolling my eyes at the stupidity of the characters, who frequently behaved in ways that made no sense in real-life, purely for cinematic purposes. Not the least of these is the way Stacey suddenly opts to start carrying her precious violin around with her for the final sequence, having not apparently given a damn about it before that point. You don’t have to be a seer to predict why this is needed.

The idea isn’t a bad one, and the cinematography is solid, with the locations used photogenic. However, the action is nothing short of awful, possessing absolutely no impact. While Crevel’s performance as Stacey is okay, she needs to be a much more pro-active heroine, trying to turn the tables on her attacker. Instead, she spends the first hour doing virtually nothing but running away, save for dropping a sign with a nail on it, hoping Weaver will stand on it. [Spoiler alert: inevitably, he does!] Coughlan does exude a nice, unhinged menace as the villain, and the script does attempt to give him both motivation and a back-story. Unfortunately, this isn’t conveyed organically, rather in large gobbets of monologue that tend to bring the film to a halt.

Clocking in at 75 minutes, including credits, is likely a wise decision given the paucity of the material present. It’s clear the budget here was limited – simply because how expensive can four people running around a forest be? Lawson deserves credit for not letting those resources be too obvious. On the other hand, money doesn’t excuse the apparent lack of effort put into a lazy script, apparently worked out on the back of a beer-mat one Friday lunch-time. The fact it had different titles while shooting (Rites of Passage), from its limited cinema run, then a third name for its DVD release, is perhaps another indication more forethought would have been helpful.

Dir: Steve Lawson
Star: Helen Crevel, Andrew Coughlan, Sam Smith, Jay Sutherland
a.k.a. Footsoldier