Survivor (2014)

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“The post-apocalyptic horse whisperer.”

Arrowstorm Entertainment appear to have quietly become a minor creator of action heroine flicks. We’ve previously written about several entries in their Mythica series, and also Cyborg X, but seem to have missed this one. As in Mythica, the “name” star here is Hercules himself, Sorbo, who plays Captain Hunter. He’s in charge of one of seven interstellar ships, dispatched from Earth after the conditions for life here became increasingly precarious. Having spent four decades in space, they pick up a message, but when attempting to reach its source, go through a wormhole and their shuttle craft disintegrates. Hunter and his crew are scattered across the surface; with the captain having a broken leg, it’s up to his most highly-trained recruit, Kate Mitra (Chuchran) to rescue him.

Which would be fine, if that’s what it was. The first half of the film, in particular the section which has Mitra battling her way across the unforgiving landscape, and against the creatures (both humanoid and… not so much) who inhabit the planet, is actually pretty good. Chuchran looks thoroughly convincing, possessing actual muscle tone; the production makes good use of the Utah landscapes; and the lack of dialogue here may well work to the movie’s benefit. It’s undeniably a distraction how evolution on this alien solar system managed to produce something looking exactly like a horse. This is explained… but I have to say, the reason is something I had strongly suspected before it was delivered, and had been hoping I was wide of the mark.

Sadly, I wasn’t, and the film’s second half is considerably weaker. This stops focusing on its main strength – the heroine – and doesn’t live up to the poster tag-lines which use both the worlds “only survivor” and “alone”. She turns out to be neither, and the plot disintegrates into some kind of squabble between the tribes of local inhabitants, along with a couple of (somewhat convincing) monsters. Combine this with the explanation mentioned above, and my interest evaporated – in the same way the oceans back on Earth apparently had, according to Kate’s opening voice-over. Rather than going in an original direction, as had been the case earlier on, the influences become painfully obvious, and this film does not benefit in any such comparison.

From the technical point of view, this isn’t too bad, especially considering the budget was so low, a significant fraction came through Kickstarter. It mixes CGI and practical effects to generally decent effect; the odd shot looks ropey, and some of the “mutants” are a little Halloween-esque, but I’m gradually learning that comes with the Arrowstorm territory. There is just a strong sense of unfulfilled potential; in Chuchran, they had someone who could have been capable of carrying the entire film on her own. To see her character largely shuffled off to the side during the latter stages was a bit of a disappointment, and I hope future projects will offer her the opportunity she appears to deserve, based on a solid showing here.

Dir: John Lyde
Star: Danielle Chuchran, Kevin Sorbo, Rocky Myers, Ruby Jones

Senora Acero

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“The mother of unintended consequences.”

It’s supposed to be the happiest day of her life for Sara Aguilar (Soto). She’s marrying respected police commander Vicente Acero, legitimizing a relationship that has already given them a son, Salvador. But masked hitmen attack the party, killing her father – by the end of the day, Sara has also become a widow, the cartel having taken revenge on Vicente, for the three million dollars he apparently stole. To Sara’s horror, it turns out her husband-to-be was no less corrupt than anyone else. When Salvador then falls desperately ill, and in need of highly expensive health-care, there’s only one way Sara is going to be able to fund his treatment.

It’s a decision which brings her into conflict with a whole slew of people. Her main enemy in the first series is Indio Amaro (Zárate), a local gangster responsible for killing Vicente. He has vowed to make Sara’s life a living hell – not least because following that murder, she chopped off two of his fingers in a frenzied attack. There’s also Enriqueta Sabido, the owner of a local beauty salon where Sara gets a job after being thrown on her own resources; she also does (bad) plastic surgery in the back. And even her own sister, Berta, is jealous of Sara for marrying Vicente, and who blames her – with some justification, it has to be said – for everything bad that happens subsequently.

She does have allies, though I wouldn’t be selling any of them life insurance, if you get my drift. They include honest cop Elio Tarso; Colombian dreamboat Manuel Caicedo; and even an affable cartel boss, Miguel Quintanilla, who possesses a quite fascinating collection of suits. [The white ones make a terrible background for subtitles, producers please note.] However, it’s mostly Sara’s motherly inclinations that lead to problems, whether financing a transplant for Salvador by any means necessary, or demanding her cartel employer close down the tunnels through which drug-carrying kids are employed to cross the border, because… Well, Sara doesn’t like it, that’s why.

But it is actually fairly rough on occasions: for instance, the removal of Indio’s fingers is well-staged, and revisited frequently [this show loves its flashbacks, more than any other I’ve seen to date – sometimes even revisiting scenes from earlier the same episode]. There’s another scene where Indio is torturing someone for information. He has them stand on a bed of spikes, then breaks their ankles to ensure they can no longer support their own weight. While mild in terms of cartel acts – some of the stories I’ve read would make your hair curl – the show is relatively brutal by the standards of the telenovela, and contains more bloodshed than most.

The obvious influence is another Telemundo production, La Reina Del Sur, with which it shares a number of crew, in particular writer Roberto Stopello – its heroine is even name-checked explicitly here, in one episode toward the end. Both share protagonists who are dumped into trouble after the demise of their other halves, and find the only way out is to get their hands dirty and become part of the criminal underworld. Despite this, the leading ladies share a strong sense of morality, with lines they won’t cross, and despise the exploitation of others – in Reina, it’s trafficking in women, while here it’s the use of children that provokes the central character’s ire.

Notwithstanding the double-meaning of her married name in the show’s title – Senora Acero can be translated as “Woman of Steel” – I find there’s a certain hypocrisy to Sara, compared to Teresa Mendoza. She’s strident about only wanting to be involved in money laundering rather than the drug trade, which seems a perilously thin moral distinction to me. Where the heck does she think the money she’s taking across the border comes from? It’s an almost privileged attitude, which seems to permeate her character from the start. For me, this left her less appealing, in comparison to her telenovela sisters, and this central weakness may be the show’s biggest flaw.

It’s a bit of a shame, as the supporting cast are fun to watch, on both sides of the coin. The villains are led by Acasio “Don Teca” Martínez (Reséndez), a cartel boss who has longed after Sara from afar, since he was a geek in the local barrio. Now, he has a shrine to her at the back of his office, and wields his power in a creepy stalking campaign, designed to drive her into his arms at any cost. Meanwhile, on Sara’s side is Aracely Paniagua (Litzy), a good-hearted former hooker and drug addict, who just can’t seem to escape her past, which keeps dragging her back in. She offers a more traditional telenovela heroine, almost harking back to Victorian melodrama.

The music in the show is interesting… Norteña band Los Tucanes de Tijuana produced and performed a song for it, titled “La Señora de Acero”, which the series incorporates, as having being commissioned by one of Sara’s drug-cartel bosses in her honour. It’s the usual oompah laden nonsense (I don’t like country & western either!), and far more fun is the bombastic score that accompanies the tensest moments. I’ve not been able to pin down the creator – it may be Rodrigo Maurovich, credited for “musicalization”, or it may be stock composer Xiaotian Shi. But it’s so wildly over-dramatic, swelling ominously to a crescendo, even when no-one is doing anything more than staring at a door, I can’t help but love it.

Back before the show had even begun to air, in mid-2014, there was an option apparently granted to USA Network to produce an English-language version of Senora Acero. Nothing appears to have come of this, and it was only a couple of months later that the station ordered a pilot for Queen of the South instead. Having seen both Mexican series now, as well as the USA Network remake of Reina, the choice was probably a smart one. The darker storyline of Reina likely renders it more easily adaptable. I’d be hard-pushed to imagine this, really a story of maternal instincts gone wrong, being able to make an effective transition to the gritty series which USA apparently wanted.

Despite this diss by the American market, unlike Reina, the show wasn’t one and done. Senora Acero almost doubled its US audience over the four-month run, its finale winning its time-slot in a number of key demographics, regardless of language. And, so, a year, later season two began, with another 75 episodes, and a third season, with a monstrous 93 episodes, started last summer. [The most recent installments appear not to involve Blanca Soto, for reasons which would require major spoilage to discuss…] All three are currently on Netflix, and I’ll confess some of the pics used here are from them – but at somewhere north of 50 hours of viewing per series, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for in-depth reviews of the later seasons!

Star: Blanca Soto, Jorge Zárate, Litzy, José Luis Reséndez

Staff Sergeant Belinda Watt, by Tom Holzel

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This self-published novel was recently donated by the author to the library where I work, a kindness that we appreciate. The author and I are both members of the Action Heroine Fans group here on Goodreads, and I was intrigued by his posts there about the book. Understanding (from experience!) the frustrations of waiting for reviews in today’s glutted book market, and being a fan of kick-butt female protagonists myself, I’d hoped to help him out with a good review, though he didn’t donate the book with any such expectation. As my rating indicates, my reaction wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, so I would have refrained from writing a review at all; but Tom graciously indicated that he didn’t have a problem with a less than stellar review.

I’ll say at the outset that if you like to discover the plot of a novel (as opposed to the basic premise) for yourself as you read it, I would NOT advise reading the cover copy, which gives away a fair bit of the plot. Suffice it to say that our chronological setting is the year 3177. Chapter 2 begins –and Chapter 1 is just a one-page set-up; chapters here tend to be quite short, which helps the plot flow quickly– with our title character, a cook from Idaho in the Galactic Federation army (who’s recently been discovered to have extremely good natural marksmanship skills with a rifle) being acquitted by a court-martial of murder charges in the killing of her commanding officer, General Bloodworthy. The physical evidence overwhelmingly proved that General Bloodworthy had been raping her at the time. But the late General was the head of the Guardian Council, a semi-secret cabal of “right-wing” army officers who are suspected of self-serving and illegal behavior aimed at advancing and protecting their own members; and their power within the military makes them “virtually unstoppable.” Since it’s pretty plain that the Council will murder Belinda in retaliation for Bloodworthy’s death, Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Andrew Jackson Jones conceives the idea of spiriting her off-world for her own protection. (Why an Intelligence officer is serving on the Judge Advocate’s staff in the first place is only one of several unexplained problems here.) So these two characters take off for the stars, and the plot takes off along with them.

Holzel’s fictional universe has similarities to that of many other writers in the SF tradition: FTL space travel, a galaxy-spanning Federation, etc. But he puts his own original spin on this. Here, the Federation extends into several different galaxies, reachable by navigating through wormholes associated with black holes. There are, however, not very many habitable planets out there, and the few there are are populated by alien species that are all pretty much humanoid (this is explained by convergent Darwinian evolution adapting them all to similar conditions). Earth turned out to be the most technologically advanced of the lot (that, and the distances involved, might serve as a plausible explanation for the old chestnut about why, if there are alien civilizations out there, we’ve never picked up their radio waves, though Holzel doesn’t mention this). Jones and Belinda’s destination is the far-off, Jupiter-sized planet Magnus, a major source of a mineral that’s critical to FTL travel. The planet’s ultra-rapid rotation reduces its gravity around the equator to Earth-like levels, and its extremely strong magnetic field prevents electricity from being transmitted on the planet’s surface. As this discussion indicates, this novel is very much in the “hard” SF tradition. The effects of the planetary conditions on local technology are worked out in some detail, which will please fans who like that sort of thing. (Personally, I’m much more of a “soft” SF fan.)

I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand or evaluate much of Holzel’s above use of actual science, though I would say that it comes across as plausible. My interest in fiction, in this or any genre, is more in the human and literary elements of the stories. On that level, the plot is predictable, has serious logical gaps (beginning with the fact that the military even tolerates the Guardian Council to begin with, or that they would let a serving soldier simply go off planet with no orders), and IMO makes excessive use of coincidence. Some readers have found Belinda too passive; I’m not sure that criticism is entirely fair, since she grows here from a fairly naive and passive young woman to a greater maturity. But the characterizations are not well-developed, and I particularly don’t feel the romance as believable. (Jones treats Belinda with a degree of duplicity and manipulation that’s more or less treated here as just an example of how boys will be boys, but which I don’t think most women would or should accept.)

No serious Intelligence officer would confide his mission to total strangers the way Jones does twice here; and I seriously question whether it’s physically possible for one crucial plot point to have happened the way it did. The Galactic Federation’s policy of paternalistically controlling interstellar trade (to “protect” other species from the “bad” competition) and Exporting Democracy strikes me as a naive extension of the worst aspects of globalist American foreign policy extrapolated onto an inter-galactic scale, and the cavalier attitude of the characters towards mass destruction of innocent life with a tactical nuke was a really serious negative for me. There are also repeated editing issues, numerous plot points that are inadequately explained, and not much world building outside of the technological area. (A minor quibble is the unexplained variation in Belinda’s name, which seems to be random; I could understand “Bea” as a plausible nickname, but she’s also sometimes “Linda” rather than Belinda.)

On the positive side, I was interested enough in the story to finish it. There’s a certain amount of bad language (though I don’t recall any obscenity –there might be some I’ve forgotten) including religious profanity, but it’s probably within the bounds of realism for the milieu. Although there’s no explicit sex, there are sexual situations, and Belinda tends to be a frequent target of sexual harassment and rape attempts. However, this isn’t condoned, and it’s dealt with forcefully. I don’t think the “moral tendency” of the novel would be to encourage that sort of thing in any sense.

Author: Tom Holzel
Publisher: Self published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Stoner

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“On Her Mao-jesty’s Secret Service”

This production had a long, convoluted and quite interesting path to the screen. While Lazenby was always on board, the original plan was for him to be a Western bad guy, going up against Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba. But Lee’s death – oddly, he was supposed to have had dinner with Lazenby that night – resulted in Chiba quitting, and Warner Bros then also backed out of their worldwide distribution deal. It was reworked as a much smaller film, at less than one-tenth the original budget (although at around $850,000, was still very expensive for the time, location and genre), with Lazenby now teaming up with Angela Mao.

He plays rough, tough Australian cop, Joseph Stoner, who heads for Hong Kong after his sister gets hooked on the new, super-powerful aphrodisiac “happy pills” created in the laboratory of evil drug kingpin, Mr Big (Hwang). She’s Taiwanese cop Angela Li, sent undercover to bring him down. Eventually, they join forces, but this isn’t until well over an hour into the film. To that point, they are each investigating in their own way Mr Big’s activities. Stoner’s approach appears to involve doing an impression of a bull in a china shop, while Li uses a smarter approach, to infiltrate the temple which is the distribution hub, posing as an innocent vendor of soft drinks. Both eventually end up in the same place – a cage in Mr Big’s lair – leading to a creepy scene where she has to fend off a happy pill-crazed Stoner.

It’s interesting that, in both the dubbed and subbed versions, Mao gets top billing ahead of Lazenby, despite the latter’s fame for having played 007 a few years previously. It is very much a two-hander, with each getting their own share of screen time. Lazenby does a surprisingly impressive job with the more physical aspects, and apparently put in a great deal of training. The problem is – as with his portrayal of James Bond – the actor’s inability to convey any emotions with the slightest degree of conviction. Even when talking about his sister, he might as well be reciting sports scores. Still, there’s plenty of funky seventies style to appreciate, such as the rotating desk apparently bought by Mr. Big from a yard sale at a local TV news-room.

Mao is, for our purposes, the true star, and I’d be hard pushed to say this would have been improved by the presence of Sonny Chiba. You have to wait quite a while for any significant action from her though, coming when she sneaks into Mr. Big’s headquarters. This unfolds in a way which suggests Bruce Lee’s foray from Enter the Dragon, and you wonder if this was part of the original script, intended for him before his untimely demise. On the whole though, I’d rather have dispensed entirely with Lazenby, and given the entire film to Mao, for this demonstrates that brains is often more interesting to watch than brawn.

Dir: Huang Feng
Star: Angela Mao, George Lazenby, Betty Ting, Hwang In-shik
a.k.a. The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss

Scream of the Bikini

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“It is a regular adventure!”

This appears to have been filmed somewhere in South America around 1966, then “poorly translated and dubbed by Germans”. The truth? It’s a modern spoof, a loving re-creation of the sixties Eurospy thriller, featuring two gun-toting leggy lovelies, Bridget (supposedly “Jasmine Orosco”, but actually Wedeen) and Sophia (“Paola Apanapal”, Larsen), who are international fashion supermodels by day, and jet-setting bounty hunters and secret agents by night. They acquire a microchip, capable of storing a whole one kilobyte of data – more than all the computers of Interpol and the Pentagon combined! – which embroils them in an evil plot to unleash wholesale devastation on the world’s population. As you do.

It absolutely nails the tone on just about every level, from the fashion styles through the washed-out palette of an elderly print and super funky sixties soundtrack, to the poor dubbing and English-as-a-second-language translations. “A death cult!” burbles one of our heroines – “The worst kind of cult,” adds the other, helpfully. It’s a genre ripe for parody, but it’s clear that Scholl – a theater director – as well as his cast and crew, have an abiding affection for their subject. It probably will help to have seen at least some of these kind of movies, and it’s likely the greater your familiarity, the more you’ll get out. Though even those whose knowledge is no more than a viewing of, say, Barbarella, should still have enough expertise to mine a decent amount of amusement.

It definitely reminded me of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, though the target there was 50’s SF/horror. That was also somewhat more polished, and perhaps did a slightly better job of sustaining itself over the entire feature-length; there are spots here, particularly in the second half, where the script seems to run out of ideas. But just when your interest drops to a dangerously low level, a line of dialogue or a scene will pop up out of nowhere, that’s laugh out-loud funny,  and you’re back to being engrossed once more. If you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ll know the way this scatter-gun approach works, and that such an angle will generally result in considerable misses, as well as hits.

It can be a difficult task to pull off: when you go out there with the deliberate intention of trying to make a “cult” movie, more often than not, the results will end up self-absorbed and inadequate. [Compare, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the abomination which was its follow-up, Revenge of the Old Queen] I think the genuine affection mentioned above is a big help. While this is a parody, it’s a warm one, and you don’t get the sense it is laughing at this kind of film, so much as with it. In many ways, I probably found this more entertaining than many of its targets; an awareness of its own stupidity goes a long way to mitigating the flaws.

Dir: Kiff Scholl
Star: Kelsey Wedeen, Rebecca Larsen, Darrett Sanders, Kimberly Atkinson

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