Unsullied

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“Tumblr in action-movies”

unsulliedIf you’re looking for unsubtle social commentary, you’re in the right place, because this take on The Most Dangerous Game ticks off the trifecta of -isms:

  • Sexism: men abusing women
  • Classism: the 1% versus the 99%
  • Racism: the main protagonist is black, all the antagonists are white.

Heroine Reagan (Gray) is a track star on her way to a college meet, when her car breaks down in a remote area of Louisiana. Unfortunately for her, this leads her into the grasp of Noah Evans (Joiner, looking very much like Brad Pitt’s stunt double) and Mason Hicks (Gaudison), two stockbrokers with a fondness for kidnapping and hunting down young women. They have the deep pockets to ensure that just about everyone in the local area looks the other way, so Reagan is on her own. However, might her athletic ability make her survival changes rather better than the previous victims?

I was kinda hoping this might be some kind of Game of Thrones spin-off – if you don’t watch the show, the title is shared with one of the fiercest warrior armies there. Unfortunately, Reagan’s main skill is, as you might surmise from the synopsis, running away rather than combat, so there’s a lot of jogging here. And swimming, too, for some reason. You also get copious flashbacks of back-story, since Reagan’s sister mysteriously vanished some time previously. You don’t exactly need to be a psychic to figure out where that plot-thread is going to lead, in a remarkable piece of happenstance which will likely stretch disbelief for even the most credulous of viewers.

Director Rice is actually a former NFL defensive end, which I think is a first. I’ve seen a few go on to be actors, such as Fred Williamson and O.J. Simpson, but not direct. Save for a couple of flashy “Go Pro”-esque shots, he takes a workmanlike approach in his debut feature, which is likely wise. Gray is proficient enough too, putting over strength and resolve which is appealing. The problems here are largely in a script which concentrates on the duller aspects, to the exclusion of potentially more interesting ones, such as the apparent way the hunters have bought the connivance of the entire town. Yet even this doesn’t make sense, with them randomly killing someone who appears to be entirely on their side. Because they’re bad people, that’s why. Hey, they’re bored and rich, young white men. What else would you expect?

That may be the core here: an almost total lack of motivation for everyone in the cast, from the moment Reagan blithely decides to get in her abductors’ truck – minutes after cautiously spurning a single man who tries to help. Thereafter, the film relies too much on mutual idiocy. For every moment where Reagan, say, decides to start a fire for no particular reason, there’s one where a captor doesn’t bother to tie her up. The number of times I rolled my eyes was likely exceeeded only by the number of derisive snorts.

Dir: Simeon Rice
Star: Murray Gray, Rusty Joiner, James Gaudioso, Erin Boyes

Vampire Chicks With Chainsaws

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“Had me at ‘chainsaws’, to be honest.”

This probably seemed better than it is, simply because it had the benefit of being watched immediately after Iconoclast. Two hours of static would have been an improvement on that. All told, this doesn’t suck. While clearly extremely low-budget (it reportedly cost a thousand bucks), and I’m not sure the plot would stand daylight any better than a vampire, it does at least deliver on what the title and sleeve promise. Indeed, within the first five minutes, we have fanged women wielding mechanical wood-cutting equipment. Check, check and check, even if the specific woman on the poster is not actually in the movie.

It plays somewhat like a backwoods version of Underworld – there’s certainly a lot more running through forests. By this, I mean the vampires are engaged in a centuries-long war against their enemy, into which an innocent human man is drawn, only for the lead vampire ass-kicker to fall in love with him. The vampires here also seems to share the same couture choice, albeit (obviously) at a much lower level of budget. The main difference is the opposition is provided, not by werewolves, but extra-terrestrials called “outlanders”. They came to earth and mated with our species, the resulting offspring being vampires. However, again for reasons of cost, the aliens are indistinguishable from humans, except for coughing up green blood when shot, stabbed or cut up (out of shot) with chainsaws.

The hero is Quinn Ash, whose life has sucked since his wife left him, and he’s living in crappy trailer, thoroughly disgruntled. Even though he’s a redneck in a vest. he speaks in voice-over, like a private eye in a hard-boiled film noir. Things change, albeit not necessarily for the better, when he literally runs into a young woman on a country road. Remarkably unhurt, she injects him with a syringe and runs off, before being captured by a group of men. Quinn is then captured too, by Karel (Lisonbee) and her vampire posse. They eventually – and by this, I mean after about 40 minutes where neither hero nor audience have any clue what’s going on – explain the scenario. Turns out Quinn had been injected with an experimental drug, developed by the outlanders to kill the otherwise immortal female vampires. So, the makers have seen Ultraviolet as well.

With a bit more money, this could have been worthwhile, even if the scenario (as noted) largely consists of aspects cobbled together from elsewhere. Instead, there’s too much running around in woods, and even the chainsaws are almost entirely sound effect. The script also needs to establish what the hell is going on a lot quicker: by the time there’s any meaningful exposition, you’re halfway through and have largely given up hope. All this said, it was never specifically dull, and I’d not mind seeing what Diego could do with a bit more resources. But this was simply a significant improvement on Iconoclast, and I’m very grateful for that alone.

Dir: Carlos Don Diego
Star: Adam Abram, Jenna Lisonbee, Jamie Rosquist, RaeAnn Christensen

Iconoclast

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“Does ANYONE know what’s going on?”

iconoclastLadies and gentlemen, we have finally found it: the Plan 9 From Outer Space of action heroine films, which manages to combine shoddy production values and pretentious nonsense to devastating effect, with the result being a completely incoherent mess. I knew I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake inside the first five minutes, which consisted of utterly overlong shots of a beach, into which a woman strolls, apparently coming directly from a clearance sale at Hot Topic, and performs an interpretive dance routine. She then wanders aimlessly round the woods, and menaces another woman, who is tied to a tree, while endlessly repeating, “Blood for blood. A life for a life. The wheel upon which we must all be broken.” It didn’t get any better, or any more comprehensible, thereafter.

For the closest thing you’re going to get to an explanation, I turn to the official synopsis, as written by the director: “Iconoclast is the story of a lone warrior who is resurrected by a dark goddess and sent into the wilderness to slay all of the old gods and take their power, so that she can craft him into a powerful weapon to wield against the crusading knights that sweep across the land.” Ooh. Sounds quite good. I wouldn’t actually mind watching that film. However, it bears absolutely no resemblance to what was delivered, and even less to the sleeve. I should have realized that any production with an obviously “artistic” cover is not going to live up to it. I remember first learning that particular lesson at the video store in the late 80’s, with any number of sub-Frazetta covers that concealed badly dubbed Italian B-movies.

It pains me to skewer this as utterly irredeemable, since it was obviously an effort of love for Argo.Based on the Kickstarter page, he appears to have gone out to New Zealand and begged WETA for some leftover bits and pieces of armour and weapons from Lord of the Rings, and shot their footage there. I’ve no idea why they bothered, because unlike LotR, this is not in the slightest bit epic. Indeed, there is nothing to indicate this wasn’t shot in the forest behind Argo’s house, never mind New Zealand. What narrative there is (as opposed to droning pseudo-philosophical nonsense, vaguely derived from Celtic mythology 1.0.1) , gets delivered entirely in voice-over, by completely different people to those performing on screen. The fight scenes are staggeringly inept, and the storyline is flat out baffling, with no clear expression of even the most basic of ideas.

About the only positive thing I can say is that Ms. Hot Topic, a.k.a. “The Black Goddess of the South Gates” (Kristel) is kinda hot, if you like chicks who have angel wing tattoos on their bac. Otherwise, how bad was this? By the end of it, I was devoting more attention to arguing with 9/11 Truthers on Reddit. That’s pretty frickin’ terrible.

Dir: Sean-Michael Argo
Star: Stellar Kristel, Sean-Michael Argo, Petra Grace, Penny Walker

Black Rock

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“Naked and afraid”

black rockMaybe I’m getting old and deaf. Or maybe it’s just not a good idea to have dialogue that appears to consist largely of characters yelling (or whispering) over the top of each other. Either way, probably a negative the muddy audio is the main thing I remember about this survival horror film. Childhood friends Sarah (Bosworth), Abby (Aselton) and Lou (Bell) re-unite for a weekend on an island near where they grew up. There’s some reluctance here, Abby and Lou not having been on speaking terms for some years, due to the latter having slept with the former’s boyfriend years previously. The island is supposedly deserted, so they’re surprised to encounter three men hunting there, one of whom is known to Lou. A drink leads to another, and before you know it, Abby has fended off advances, in lethal fashion. The two survivors don’t take kindly to this, and begin hunting the trio to take revenge for their friend.

A credible alternative title for this one would be Stupid Decisions, Volume I. For if you’re not yelling more sensible choices at the screen, almost as soon as the action here kicks off, you are simply not paying attention. Indeed, even earlier, such as when one of the women here lies about having cancer – always a great way to build sympathy. Perhaps the nadir is the shouting match while they are supposedly trying to sneak across the beach: another wise idea. Fortunately for them, this is strictly equal-opportunity in terms of idiocy, since the men are no better equipped in the smarts department. Supposedly ex-soldiers recently returned from deployment in the Middle East after being “dishonourably discharged” [hello, giant red flag!], one suspects they wouldn’t have made it through basic training, based on the competence level they display here. The wisest approach to surviving would be to hole up and wait for the guys’ to shoot themselves in the head. It could only be a matter of time.

The film presents an awkward mix of empowering feminism and shallow exploitation. One moment, “No” means “I’m going to bash your head in with a large rock.” The next, the women are stripping out of their wet clothes for an extended sequence of running around the woods naked, after one of their many ill-advised choices, in this case a midnight swim out to a boat moored offshore. It seems equally unsure about whether it wants to destroy the tropes of the horror genre, or simply imitate them. Either way, it doesn’t do an effective job. There are only a couple of moments that pack any wallop, and you have a trio of lead characters that rarely manage to rise above irritating. Lou manages to come out the best, at least relatively: 90 minutes of her battling for survival on her own, without all the girlie chit-chat, would likely have improved this considerably.

Dir: Katie Aselton
Star: Lake Bell, Katie Aselton, Kate Bosworth, Jay Paulson

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 Bride

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“Tree’s company”

thebrideAbout to get married, Kira (Riddervold) and Marco (Campos) head out for a last quiet weekend together, at a luxurious cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, they become the target for the local rednecks and their kidnapping plot. This goes wrong, leaving Marco shot dead and Kira raped, then shot dead. Both bodies are buried in the woods, but – what are the odds? – it’s at the base of a tree where a native American woman was similarly slain by American soldiers in the mid-19th century. The spirit of that victim resurrects Kira out of her grave, in order for her to take her vengeance on those responsible.

The problems from here start early, beginning with the inability to spell the word “battalion” in the opening titles. Yes, it’s a small thing, but a low budget is no excuse for such sloppiness. Things continue wobbly, with both leads clearly having English as a second acting language; Campos, in particular, is often borderline unintelligible, and I wondered if this was perhaps filmed deep in the forest territory of the lesser-known Belgian Apaches. Things perk up a bit once the kidnap kicks in. There’s a suggestion Kira might be military trained, as her hand-to-hand skills are clearly non-standard issue. This is rapidly discarded, and never mentioned again; you wonder why they bothered, especially since the main thread is supernatural power.

There are some other issues too. Too much time is spent on the bad guys, who are little more than shallow and uninteresting stereotypes – save the one who admits to a fondness for Elton John because “his music soothes me.” I did like that. Partly as a result of this padding, as well as an excess of Kira/Marco shenanigans early on, the entirety of her revenge ends up shoe-horned into the last 30 minutes, when it should certainly be the focus of the majority of the movie. On the plus side, the film goes old-school for its (fairly copious) gore, using practical effects instead of the bad CGI we see too often these days in low-budget films.

Riddervold is somewhat better when not burdened with the lumpy dialogue the film inflicts on her. I mean, who comes up with lines such as, “Fuck it in a bucket”? Probably the same person who thought it was a good idea to simulate FaceTime with video superimposed on a very obvious still photo of a hand holding a phone. Those kind of blatant and entirely unnecessary mis-steps are all too common. Sadly, they tend to rob the film of the intermittently entertaining energy it possesses, at least when concentrating on the revenge which should have been the main topic.

Dir: Marcello Daciano
Star: Henriette Riddervold, Lane Townsend, Burt Culver, Charles Campos

Nightmare Nurse

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“Nurse shark.”

nightmarenurseThis Lifetime TV movie is the story of Brooke (Butler) and Lance (Good). The happy young couple get into an accident returning from celebrating her promotion at the restaurant where she works. The pedestrian they hit is killed, while Lance breaks his leg, and is confined to bed while he recuperates. To assist with that task, since Brooke has to work, they hire Chloe (Hartley). She initially appears perfect for the job, helping out with the household chores as well as her nursing work. However, it’s not long before strange little incidents suggest that not all is well in Chloeland. We see her life with an abusive boyfriend, and she develops an attachment for Lance well beyond the normal bounds of professional concern. Might this, possibly, be something to do with the accident?

Oh, who am I trying to kid. This is a Lifetime TV movie. Of course it has something to do with the accident, although the precise details are vague until the final 20 minutes. Which are actually when the film raised itself beyond the painfully humdrum, not least because of the return of Traci Lords. She plays “good” nurse Barbara, in what initially appears to be a glorified cameo, yet ends up an extremely pivotal role. Lords wipes the floor with the rest of the cast, and it’s a shame she is almost absent from the first hour. [It has to be said, knowledge of her past adds to the frisson here; she wouldn’t exactly be person most women would want caring for their boyfriends!] The final battle, as Brooke defends her territory like a lioness, is certainly the most fun this has to offer.

Unfortunately, you have to get through an awful lot of Very Obvious to reach that point. Naturally, it’s another sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of mental illness and the stigma faced by those who suffer fro… Oh, again – who am I trying to kid? Chloe is as batty as a fruitcake, whose direction appears to be the result of viewing Fatal Attraction. Except, Hartley isn’t exactly Glenn Close, no matter how wide she opens her eyes and stares really hard. She’d have been better off watching Nurse 3D, and taking lessons in scenery-chewing from Paz de la Huerta. Butler and Good are serviceable enough as the perfect couple with impeccable teeth. Though I’m surprised Lance remains faithful, given the Lifetime tendency for all men to be unreliable in the loyalty department.

It just about stays on the acceptable side of entertainment, until the final reel. However, the main thing you’ll take from that is how much more entertaining it all might have been, if the makers had Lords play Chloe instead.

Dir: Craig Moss
Star: Sarah Butler, Steven Good, Lyndsay Hartley, Traci Lords

Grand Auto Theft: L.A.

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“Leaves you yearning for the high quality of Asylum mockbusters.”

grandautotheftVixen (Zachary) and her girl pals Sarita (Almonte), Kandy (Kodding), Electra and Katie are ambitious young dope-dealers on the streets of Los Angeles. After discovering that someone is pushing lethal drugs, Vixen’s moral streak kicks in, and she cuts off the head of the snake responsible, Kane. Unfortunately, this opens the door for the even more dangerous Andre, who is completely insane and willing to stop at nothing to prevent Vixen and her gang from interfering with him. After he kidnaps, rapes and kills one of her crew, it’s clear this war won’t end until one of them is dead. Then there’s “The Shadow,” a mysterious and unknown figure, lurking behind Andre.

This is clearly designed to look like a Grand Theft Auto film, complete with animated cut scenes. I’m somewhat surprised there wasn’t a cease-and-desist from Rockstar Games. However, the execution is so painfully poor and unconvincing, viewers would likely be more entertained if the makers had video-taped someone playing the game for 85 minutes and released that instead. Virtually no-one here is at all convincing in their roles as dangerous gangsters: Kodding, in particular, appears to be visiting the mean streets of Los Angeles on day-release from a Beverly Hills spa, and Dolinar resembles Neil Patrick Harris trying to play a thug. Both are as ineffective as that would suggest. Almonte did manage to sell her character in one monologue; otherwise, the best actor here is porn star Ron Jeremy. He gets his penis yanked off after it’s caught in a car door.

I’ve enjoyed some of Leroy’s low-budget work in the past; Hell’s Highway hit the spot, and The Witch’s Sabbath had the awesome line, “Where y’going? You crazy-ass witch with titties.” Those both managed to, if not conceal their limited resources, at least make them relatively unimportant to the entertainment provided. Here, there’s just not enough effort invested. While the film is hyper-violent in the same way as GTA, it’s all digital effects – which might be the point, I suppose, yet feels more like a choice made to save money than out of any stylistic consideration. It seems rather ambivalent towards its female characters as well, wanting to depict them as strong and independent, yet also degrade them with sexual violence. On the other hand, anyone watching B-movies for a moral education is in about as much trouble as anyone who plays video games for that reason.

I look forward (for some very loose definition of “look forward”) to seeing whether Leroy continues down this road. Perhaps we may soon be seeing Alive or Dead, Evil Resident or, perhaps, Raider of Tombs? I’m not sure which is sadder: the possibility of those, or the fact I’d almost certainly end up watching them…

Dir: Jeff Leroy
Star: Mahogany Zachary, Alexis Kodding, Tim Dolinar, Jessica Almonte

PMS Cop

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“A not-so fair cop”

pmscopBeginning with a jokey caption stating “The producers of this movie are in no way admitting to the existence of PMS,” this is a rather uneven B-movie, which has a potentially interesting premise. Unfortunately, it then does not enough with the concept.

Mary (Hall) is a police officer with anger management issues. After beating up a rapist dressed as a clown. she’s ordered to undergo counseling. Her therapist puts her in contact with a pharmaceutical company testing a new drug, Corybantic, aimed at reducing the impact of PMS. After consulting with the leader of the project, Dr. Sokolov (Skinner), Mary starts taking the drug, and is injected with a chip to track her body’s response. But after witnessing her partner being gunned down during a convenience store robbery, it triggers a violent psychotic reaction. The drug company re-capture their test subject, only for her to break out of their restraints and go on a brutal rampage through the facility. Turns out the chip wasn’t just for telemetry either; it came from an abandoned Soviet project into mind-control.

There a number of ways this could have gone. Social satire, as hinted at in the opening caption, or perhaps a modern version of the Frankenstein story. Instead… Well, there’s not much more than Mary, or her “PMS Cop” alter-ego (played by a different actress, Means), roaming the drug company’s building, banging heads together. The gore is enthusiastic and nicely practical; I particularly enjoyed the silicone implants ripped out of one poor victim’s chest, then used as the means of death for another. You don’t see that every day. However, there simply isn’t enough going on with the story-line to sustain audience interest.

It also shifts notably in tone. Early, it’s almost jokey – for instance, the clown rapist ties up his victim with balloons. Yet the humour is abruptly switched off as soon as Mary begins the drug trial; you’re left feeling like the rest of the film is a comedy without jokes. You can certainly check off the movies director Blakey is inspired by. Robocop, The Terminator and possibly Lady Terminator. Not that there’s anything wrong with influences. It’s just that those are all significantly better movies, and Blakey doesn’t bring sufficient new or interesting to offset this disadvantage. In technical terms, the lighting could certainly also have been better, with too many scenes painfully under-lit, in what may have been a misguided attempt as “atmosphere.”

While I’ve seen and enjoyed B-movies which have skated by on even thinner premises, they’ve been able to take their concepts and do more with them. This instead feels like a 15-minute short, stretched into a feature. I suspect it’s one which would have been more effective at the shorter length.

Dir: Bryon Blakey
Star: Cindy Means, Heather Hall, Elaine Jenkins, Megan Dehart

Heatstroke

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“Hyenas: yes. Laughing? Not so much.”

heatstrokeWildlife researcher Paul (Dorff) is looking forward to a trip to South Africa with his new girlfriend, Tally (Metkina), when he gets The Call from his ex-wife, informing them their daughter, Josie (Williams) has been arrested, and is generally hanging out with a bad crowd. Paul brings the highly-reluctant Josie on the trip, in the hopes the experience will enlighten her. Doesn’t work: she spends the time on her iPad, headphones on, sulking and being grumpy. Finally, they’ve all had enough, and Paul leaves, to take Josie back to civilization. When he doesn’t return, Tally goes to look for him, only to find the jeep crashed, Paul shot dead and Josie injured. Turns out they ran across a couple of minions belonging to Mallick (Stormare), a smuggler with a very strong interest in keeping his operation under wraps. Tally and Josie are now a pair of unacceptable loose ends that need to be tidied up – but Tally is not going to let that happen without a fight.

If some of the DVD sleeves promise rather more heroic, gun-wielding Dorff than the film delivers, I’m perfectly fine with that, as watching Tally take over things is likely more entertaining – there’s something a little Ripley-esque about the way she’s prepared to go to bat for a kid that isn’t her own. And go to bat fiercely: “Guess we’re not dealing with a f____ housewife,” says Mallick, after she has disposed of one particularly nasty henchman. The sequence leading up to that is likely the best in the film, Tally using guile to lure her target in before trying to strangle him; it’s credible in terms of strength and exudes a true sense of danger. Shame the rest doesn’t have such a well-considered approach; indeed, the ending relies on a change of heart by one character that’s a great deal more convenient than it’s convincing.

In between bursts of action, you can admire the South African scenery and some fairly impressive work with hyenas in apparent close proximity to the cast. Williams also does fairly well with a role that could have been utterly unsympathetic – we have had our share of bratty teenagers, and don’t exactly need to experience them dramatically – even if I had to keep suppressing a strange urge to yell “Stick ’em with the pointy end!” [I’d better explain: Williams has a major role in Game of Thrones, and that quote was tactical swordfighting advice given her at one point]. Stormare is his usual good value, and despite its flaws, there’s enough going on here to make for a passable slab of entertainment on a wet Saturday afternoon.

Dir: Evelyn Purcell
Star: Svetlana Metkina, Maisie Williams, Stephen Dorff, Peter Stormare