Hunted

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“A four-episode story stretched over eight episodes.”

Sam Hunter (George) is an agent for a private intelligence agency, Byzantium. While on a mission in Morocco, she is shot and nearly killed, so opts to go off-grid for a year. She returns to her job, and is assigned the highly risky task of infiltrating a criminal family, who are one of the bidders on a lucrative Pakistani dam project. However, that may not be the biggest threat to Sam’s life, as she knows whoever was behind the attempt in Morocco may well try again, now she has come back out of the shadows. There’s also the question of her own past, involving a dead mother and some severely repressed memories.

Originally pitched as a vehicle for Gillian Anderson – creator Spotnitz was a head writer on The X-Files – the main problem here is likely a structure which demands a second season the show never received. This seems to have come as a surprise to the creators, since they had put together a writing team and planned out storylines. Then, the show was abruptly not renewed, in response to sagging British ratings (the series lost 30% of its viewers over the eight-week run). Even after the BBC pulled the plug, there were hopes Cinemax would continue the show, as it had sustained its audience much better in the US. Those failed to come to fruition either, and the story of Sam Hunter is left frustratingly incomplete.

It’s a shame, because the start and end of the first series had a great deal of promise. Hunter is quickly positioned as someone who is equally competent in both brains and brawn, with the action scenes here being impressively hard-hitting. George carries herself well, with a terse approach to combat that stresses efficiency over flamboyance. The main plot thread here, concerning corruption at the intersection between big business and high level government, is also well considered and not implausible. Kudos also to Patrick Malahide, as crime boss Jack Turner, who projects the right degree of barely-restrained malice, and also Spotnitz, for giving him a better motive than TV villains usually receive.

The problem is the middle episodes, where the show meanders off in half-baked directions likely intended for exploration in the second series that never happened. There are major segments concerning an even more shadowy conspiracy, named “Hourglass,” as well as a creepy-looking dude who takes over the identity of a scientist, and who has a fondness for jabbing syringes into people’s eyeballs. None of this ever comes anywhere close to being resolved, any more than the safe-deposit box key Sam is handed in the final episode. True, it’s not the creators’ fault the show was canceled. However, until the ink is dry on the contract for renewal, it’s probably a good idea to act as if every series will be your last. Otherwise, you run the risk of ending up with something like this, an infuriating mix of well-crafted elements, thrown away on a bunch of loose ends.

Creator: Frank Spotnitz
Star: Melissa George, Adam Rayner, Stephen Dillane, Stephen Campbell Moore

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

Crazyhead

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“Buffy does Britain.”

Amy (Theobold) is insane. Or so the rest of society thinks, due to her being able to see things nobody else can. She’s trying to keep her head down, working quietly at a bowling alley. But after being attacked, she is rescued by Raquel (Wokoma), another young woman who can see exactly the same things. Amy learns from her new friend that demons are real, and live among us: Raquel has appointed herself a demon-hunter, and convinces the reluctant Amy to join her. This causes no end of issues, not the least of which is Amy’s room-mate becoming one of the possessed, and the most of which is likely the apocalyptic plan of Callum (Curran). He intends to use Raquel to open the gates of hell on Halloween, allowing thousands more demons to flood into our world and take over humans.

It is, very clearly, inspired by Buffy in many aspects, from its blonde heroine, through the “Scooby Gang” of friends in assistance, such as long-suffering bowling-alley colleague, Jake (Reeves), who carries a torch for Amy and likes canoeing. On the villainous side, Callum also seems to owe a particularly large debt to the Mayor of Sunnydale (though in our house, Curran will always be Van Gogh from Doctor Who!). However, it’s almost fourteen years since Buffy Summers rode off into the sunset, so I guess the statute of limitations has run out there. Another potential inspiration could be a distaff version of Supernatural, but there’s still plenty here that’s fresh and fun, and it has a particularly British approach

For instance, it’s laden with sarcastic banter, as well as (for those who might be offended) plenty of harsh language and general crudity – an exorcism, for instance, requires a very special shower for the target… If somewhat lacking in originality, the dynamic between the two leads helps make up for this; it’s likely the show’s strongest suit, and overcomes most of the scripting flaws. Amy and Raquel are each outsiders in their own ways, who can mesh together into an effective whole. One possesses better social skills, and can hold down a job, so is able to interface with other people if necessary; while the other has superior knowledge about what’s going on, in part thanks to her “special” background. Though both are quite happy to resort to a more physical approach when necessary – and, given who they’re facing, that would be quite often.

It’s all over remarkably quickly, especially if you are more used to American series, typically lasting 20+ editions a season. This only takes six 45-minute episodes to go from introducing the characters to the eve of the apocalypse. It is perhaps a good thing, as the story written by creator Howard Overman is somewhat thin, and could potentially feel stretched if told at any greater length. Instead, you will likely be left wanting more, and that’s never a bad position for the audience to be in, at the end of a show’s first season.

Dir: Al Mackay and Declan O’Dwyer
Star: Cara Theobold, Susan Wokoma, Lewis Reeves, Tony Curran

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

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

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“Art VAGUELY imitating life.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucha Underground: Hitokiri vs Pentagon Dark

If like us, you’re lucky enough to get Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, consider yourself fortunate, since its mix of action, horror, SF and the other genres we love is right up our alley. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is Lucha Underground, a pro wrestling show that crams more into one hour (less commercials) than WWE manage in a bloated three hours of RAW. For the purposes of this site, it’s particularly notable for its roster of women wrestlers that (again, unlike WWE) are treated little or no different from the men; Mexican luchadora Sexy Star recently had a brief reign as the federation’s top champion, something no woman has ever managed under Vince McMahon. But the last show in November blew them all away.

Some storyline background is necessary. Last year, one of LU‘s top villains, Pentagon Dark, attacked and, using his signature move, broke the arm of Black Lotus, in her role as bodyguard to the federation’s owner, Dario Cueto. Since then, Lotus has been looking for revenge, and found her opportunity a month or so back during the show’s Aztec Warfare episode. Her intervention, along with three other women wrestlers known as the Black Lotus Triad, potentially cost Pentagon Dark his shot at the title. Now it was Pentagon’s turn to seek revenge on Lotus, and Cueto set up a a gauntlet match in which he would get his change to fight her – but only if he could first defeat, one by one, the three other members of the Triad.

All three, using the names of Doku (which translates roughly as “poison”, Yurei (“ghost”) and Hitokiri (“assassin”) are played by top fighters from Japanese women’s wrestling: Kairi Hojo, Mayu Iwatani and Io Shirai, respectively. I’ve largely been out of touch with puroresu of late; used to be a huge fan, but I hadn’t even heard of the Stardom promotion from which this trio come. That’s going to change going forward, for all three made a strong impression – even if Doku and Yurei lost the first two matches to Pentagon. They both had their arms broken in much the same way as Lotus, albeit only after having their own moments. [Doku, in particular, took such a pounding, I wondered if she had a side-job as a stuntwoman]

But what it did was set the table nicely. For one of the problems of inter-gender matches like this, is the inevitable difference in size and strength between the opponents. By Pentagon having had to go through two tough matches to reach Hitokiri, taking no small amount of damage on the way, it helped level the playing-field. The other main issue is a frequent sense that it’s “wrong” to hit a woman: while true on an everyday level, of course, this is pro wrestling, and such rules shouldn’t apply. They didn’t here, and there was never any sense of Pentagon holding back. He didn’t need to, since Shirai’s reputation is as one of, if not, the best woman wrestler in the world, and she absolutely lived up to that. Anyone who thinks wrestling is “fake”, should watch the bout below. Staged, yes, in the sense the outcome is predetermined, and the action is done in such a way as to look devastating, while not being lethal.

Yet, there’s much here that can only be described as jaw-dropping, even for someone like me, who has been watching wrestling for close to 20 years. For instance, there’s Pentagon basically skipping Hitokiri through rows of chairs like a pebble across a lake. Or the drop-kick as she tries a handspring off the ropes. Hitokiri gave as good as she received too, right from the get-go with a hellacious moonsault off the top rope onto the outside, and her dive off the second floor of the building onto Pentagon. Again, moves like that helped balance the scales, with quickness, agility and a reckless disregard for personal safety countering a larger and stronger opponent. The net result was the finest man vs. woman wrestling bout I’ve ever seen, and arguably one of the greatest such fights across any genre.

[Spoilers follow] After the bout, with her top minion having taken care of Pentagon, Black Lotus came out and took her vengeance, breaking his arm, as he had done to her last year. Worse was to follow, as Azteca Jr – another previous victim of Pentagon’s limb-snapping – seized his chance, coming to the ring and breaking the other arm too. We’ll have to wait and see what happens; I’d love to see the Triad stay on long-term in LU, even if the commingling of Japanese and Chinese elements is a little “Yellow Peril”-esque. But I’ve also read Shirai has been signed by WWE, so her time here may be limited. Still, we’ll always have this match, which even less biased observers have said, “might be the greatest debut in Lucha Underground history.”

Queen of the South vs. La Reina Del Sur

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


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

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“The reina in Spain, stays mainly in the plain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Warrior Women

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“If Xena was a history teacher.”

warriorwomenThis short series, originally produced for the Discovery Channel in 2003, consists of five, 45-minute episodes, each one focusing on a different historical figure. Specifically (and in Netflix-listed order), they are Joan of Arc, Grace O’Malley, Boudica, Lozen and “Mulan” – quotes for the last used advisedly, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The episodes themselves seem a little disjointed, composed of three separate elements that don’t quite mesh. You get talking-head interviews with academics and historical experts; dramatic re-enactments of events from the women warriors’ lives; and Lucy Lawless stomping around the locations, occasionally doing semi-practical demos like sword-wielding. The last seems particularly pointless, and seems inserted purely to appeal to Xena fetishists – not least the sequence where Lawless is getting woad applied on her face, and is informed by the giggling painter, that “the binding agent in this particular agent is semen.” And a thousand fan-fics were born…

The other main issue is, particularly in the early episodes, there isn’t anything new here – Joan, Grace and Boudica are all women whom we’ve written about here in the past, and you are largely watching them go over well-worn territory here. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone interested enough in the topic to watch the show, will also not already have heard of Joan of Arc. The only one I hadn’t heard of before was Lozen, an Apache warrior and contemporary of Geronimo; however, the approach for this story is deadly dull, batting so straight down the “noble savage” archetype, that I literally fell asleep. The final episode is entitled “Mulan”, and I wondered how they were going to squeeze 45 minutes out of this, given virtually everything known about her is a single poem.  The answer, it turned out, was to spent 80% of the show talking about someone completely different from the late 18th century, whose sole connection to Mulan was being Chinese. This is a bit like titling your show “King Arthur” and then talking mostly about the Duke of Wellington. They’re both Brits, right?

That said, the actual topic, Wang Cong’er, a leader of the White Lotus Sect who rebelled against imperial rule, was a very good one. The story is one that certainly deserves to be better known – I’m quite surprised the movie industry there, which has mined many less interesting characters in the past, hasn’t developed anything based on her life, which had a nice, “heroic bloodshed” arc to it, right up to Wang flinging herself from a cliff, rather than let herself be captured. This is one where the various approaches mesh to excellent effect, despite the rather tenuous efforts to connect her to Mulan; not just building a living character, but putting her in a historical context that makes sense. It’s a shame the other four episodes only manage to achieve the same success on a sporadic basis.

Dir: Noel Dockstader and Patrick Fleming
Presented by: Lucy Lawless

Rosario Tijeras (TV series)

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“Scissors cuts… well, just about everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painkiller Jane – TV Series

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“The pain and strain, stays mainly in the Jane…”

painkiller1Originally created as a comic-book by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada in the mid-nineties, it told the story of its heroine, Jane Vasko, who became effectively immortal after an incident left her with superhuman regenerative powers. She can still be hurt, certainly – even knocked down – but she heals at a phenomenal rate, rendering her nearly unstoppable. Over the years since, she has crossed paths with a number of other characters, including Hellboy and Vampirella, and the show became a TV movie on SyFy in December 2005, starring Emmanuelle Vaugier as Jane. The film was also used to gauge interest in a potential TV series, and one duly emerged in April 2007, albeit with Kristanna Loken now in the role, and effectively pretending the movie didn’t exist. For example, Jane went back from being a soldier to the law-enforcement agent of the comic, albeit a DEA agent rather than an undercover cop, and the cause of her abilities also became rather less opaque.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t very good, especially in the early episodes. This is actually my second attempt to review the show: after eight episodes or so in the my original effort, I realized I had entirely abandoned watching them, and simply had them on in the background while I did something else. The return effort proved my attention span was made of sterner stuff, though I admit that I might not have watched every single frame of every single show. But I did make it through to the end, which teases a second series that never materialized, SyFy deciding it would not renew the show in August, with half a dozen episodes remaining to be screened.

painkiller2Certainly, from a 2016 viewpoint, it seems overly familiar, treading territory we’ve seen, with variations, in X-Men, Heroes and Alphas, among others. The core concept here is the “neuro” – someone who has developed an inexplicable paranormal talent which might be anything from invisibility through mind control to fire manipulation. Jane encounters one such on a drug bust at a nightclub, and as a result, is recruited by Andre McBride (Stewart), who leads an undercover team dedicated to capturing and neutralizing neuros. The rest of the team are the usual bunch of shallow stereotypes e.g. computer wiz Riley Jensen (Roberts), ex-military muscle Connor King (Danby), etc. but Jane is “different” in that her first mission results in her neuro-esque ability being awakened, after she is defenestrated from a high-rise window. I say “neuro-esque,” since there’s an ongoing vague debate as to whether she should be chipped and shipped off to NICO, the internment camp set up for the “special”.

After that, however, the show rapidly became not much more than a series of “neuro of the week” episodes, effectively abandoning much real interest in its heroine and her abilities. To some extent, I can understand this: once you’ve established that she is, literally, bulletproof, what more can you do? There’s not much sense of threat. But outside of sporadic examples, the creators didn’t make sufficient use of Vasko’s abilities, which could certainly have come useful, as the most extreme example of “taking one for the team” Nor do they bother to give her much life outside the disused subway station which is her team’s super-secret lair. There’s a brief friendship with the girl next door, which comes to a sudden end with so little impact, it feels like the actress involved must have demanded a pay rise or something. Then there’s a boyfriend, and at least that relationship does end up having a point – like the rest of the show, however, it takes far too long to get there.

For after initially setting up an evil corporation as the Big Bad, the series seem to forget about them completely for the next 20 episodes, before suddenly blowing the dust of the company for the final episode. It seems likely that never-realized second season might have gone in that direction, though if that was always the intent, seems very odd to start off as they did. The budget was apparently jacked up for the final three episodes, allowing for the cast and crew to travel to Hungary and the NICO facility, where it turns out there have been various dubious medical experiments going on, involving reversing the chips implanted to disable the neuro abilities. There are some interesting moral questions raised in this arc, and it’s a shame the show chose to ignore them, until after it had been given the ace.

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That isn’t to say the show was entirely worthless up to that point. There were a few episodes which actually made use of the concepts and developed them in interesting ways. The one I liked most was Playback, about a neuro who could reset time to the beginning of the day. He was being used to plot the assassination of a visiting foreign politician, gradually refining his plan to negate the countermeasures of Jane and her team, as if this were Groundhog Day. Jane’s ability to take damage came in handy here, and the script was well-thought out, both in problem and solution; while they couldn’t foil the neuros plan, they could make the rest of his day such a bad one, he was compelled to rewind one more time. More of this smart invention would have been welcome, but the show instead seemed to run out of ideas almost immediately. I mean, a handful of episodes in, and you’re already going down the “ghost hunters” route? Why not just have a musical episode and be done with it?

AS in most things she has done – hell, even BloodRayne – Loken is fine, and seems to embrace the action aspects with enthusiasm. I’d say that gives her the edge over her predecessor, Vaugier, and the series likely solidifies her position on the B-rung of action actresses [“Can’t afford Milla Jovovich? Give me a call!”] It’s the writing that is the key weakness here, often giving the impression that they were making things up as they went along, never a good thing. Still, it may not be the end for Jane. In July 2014, it was announced that Palmiotti was producing an independent feature film version, with the Soska Sisters signing on to direct. While I’m not sure about them as a choice [I saw their horror film American Mary, and found it very much over-rated], and I haven’t heard anything much regarding the project since, it’s interesting that adapting Painkiller Jane appears to be every bit as difficult to kill off as the character herself!

Star: Kristanna Loken, Rob Stewart, Noah Danby, Sean Owen Roberts