The Vault

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“It’s always somebody else’s vault…”

In an effort to pay off gambling debts their brother Michael (Haze) has run up, sisters Leah (Eastwood) and Vee (Manning) plan and execute a bank robbery. While smart in intent – they set up a diversion, and have a cunning escape route prepared – it’s not long before the operation goes wrong. The bank’s safe does not hold anywhere near the expected haul: fortunately, the assistant manager (Franco) helpfully informs them of an undisclosed vault in the basement holding six million dollars in cash. Sending some of their gang down to the vault, The sisters can only watch on CCTV aghast, as the men are picked off by mysterious figures. For, it turns out, the bank was the site of a robbery in 1982, leading to a hostage situation that ended in multiple deaths. The ghosts of those involved are still in the basement, and opening the vault has apparently released them to take revenge.

I don’t think I’ve seen a film which combined a heist flick with a ghost story before, and it works fairly well. I say “fairly”, since it feels uneven. The bank robbery side is meticulously assembled, to the point that it could have been better if that been the movie’s sole focus. Eastwood, who made a strong impression in M.F.A., is equally as good here, playing Leah as a cunning strategist who has put a lot of thought into her meticulous plan, only for it to be derailed by factors outside her control. Vee, on the other hand, is a loose cannon, driven by her emotions, and reacting to events rather than managing them. You understand perfectly why the two sisters have led separate lives prior to reuniting to help Michael, though the specific details of the estrangement are never revealed.

It was almost an annoyance when the supernatural elements began to kick in, for those were not handled as effectively. Perhaps it’s a case of over-familiarity, with the horror genre being one with which I am particularly well-acquainted; the barely-glimpsed dark figures just didn’t do it for me. Some elements reminded me of the dumber excesses of the genre too. For instance, the willingness of the robbers to stumble around an extremely dimly-lit basement, without going, “Hang on… This makes no sense”. Or given the spectacular and murderous nature of the original robbery, it stretches belief that these local robbers had apparently never even heard of it. That’s a bit like someone from Hollywood not having heard of Charlie Manson.

While never derailing entirely the solid foundation of character and story-line set up in the first half, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the relative weakness of the second portion. Matters are likely not helped by an unsubtle coda which appears to have strayed in from a far worse film. This adds little if anything to the movie, and isn’t the sort of final impression you’d want to leave on an audience. The performances definitely deserved better.

Dir: Dan Bush
Star: Francesca Eastwood, Taryn Manning, Scott Haze, James Franco

Viral

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“Facebook status: feeling infected.”

Firstly: it’s not a frickin’ virus at all! The threat here is a blood-borne parasite, which is completely different, so I have no idea where the title came from. Glad I got that off my chest. Where were we? Oh, yes… The Drakeford family have just moved in to a suburban community in California. Daughter Emma (Black-D’Elia) is trying to settle in at their new school. something at which her more extrovert older sister Stacey (Tipton) is better. This distraction is why they don’t notice the growing concern about a disease that’s spreading across the globe – until a classmate succumbs to this nasty ailment, which makes the infected highly aggressive.

From there, the siblings’ safe, stable world disintegrates rapidly. Mom is stuck at the airport, and when Dad goes to try and find her, he doesn’t come back. Matters escalate after Stacey drags the reluctant Emma to a particularly ill-advised house party [Maybe it’s just me, but in the event of any communicable epidemic breaking out, I would not exactly be attending social gatherings], where they get to see the effects of the illness first hand. Scurrying back to the sanctuary of their home, and hot local kid Evan (Tope), the sisters are thrust back on their own resources, as martial law is declared and the area comes under strict quarantine. This means fending off not only the infected; the military, too, pose a threat to what remains of the family.

Despite its title, the film makes a credible effort to ground its epidemic at least somewhat in real science. Specifically, it references the toxoplasma gondii parasite, which does affect the behaviour of its rat hosts. Of course, this is taken to extremes here, and you end up with something closer to what was seen in 28 Days Later: fast, neo-zombies, driven by hunger. Disappointingly, this is spun into a teen-centric story, which feels as if it might not be out of place on MTV. And, like most MTV shows, anyone older than the target audience will have to suppress a frequent urge to yell at characters for their poor life skills, e.g. the frequent removal of their face-masks (see Evan, above). Stacey fares especially poorly here, to the extent I suspect her brain being controlled by a parasitic worm might increase her IQ significantly.

The effects work is light, yet solid enough, and there is a shudder or two to be had, not least from the creepy parasites. If you can watch Emma hone her amateur surgeon skills – remembering a lesson given by her teacher father – without flinching, you’re tougher than I. Yet such moments are the exception, rather than the rule they need to be, and the lack of any real escalation is surpassed only by the underwhelming ending. Despite the unexpected death of one major character, as apocalypses go, this one feels more a moderate nuisance than life-threatening peril. “OMG, I can’t update my Instagram. This totally sux.” The movie certainly won’t be getting a “like” from me.

Dir: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Star: Sofia Black-D’Elia, Analeigh Tipton, Travis Tope, Colson Baker

Valley of Ditches

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“Dull as ditches-water”

After a brief prelude, we first see the heroine Emilia (Todisco) tied in the back of a car belong to her abductor, Sean (Fenton), who is nearby digging what appears disturbingly like a grave. He is seriously unhinged and driven by his loony religious faith to punish those whom he perceives as deserving the wrath of God. Which in this case would be Emilia and her boyfriend, Michael (Sless). Emilia’s first escape attempt does not end well, and she finds herself in the hole in the ground, handcuffed to the corpse of her boyfriend. Now what?

The answer, unfortunately, is “not nearly enough.” I think it’s the lack of any real development of the characters up front which is the main problem. There’s something to be said for cutting straight to the meat of the matter. Except here, we don’t have any reason to care about Emilia, before we’re thrown in alongside her, and immediately expected to root for her escaping this predicament. There’s no particular motivation given for any this, beyond Sean’s burbling about Old Testament stories, including the one which gives the film its name. He’s the same, cookie-cutter slice of fundamentalist fruitcake we’ve seen a million times before: I’m not in the slightest religious, and even I found this more annoying than convincing.

There are various flashbacks to Emilia’s earlier life with an abusive father (Novell), and I read that abuse is supposed to be one of the film’s main themes. It says a lot that I had to read this, because the film certainly does not do enough to put its point across, whatever this may have been intended to be. There’s an awful lot of sitting around in the desert, and the heroine takes about ten times as long to reach the necessary decisions as I would, given the same circumstances. [I’d start with the principle: “Look, he’s already dead…” and quickly figure things out from there]

I will admit, there’s something to be said for the sparse approach here. There are really only three characters, and the location is mostly the desert, both aspects which cut back on the potential costs. It’s a setting which could be leveraged into a taut, effective thriller, pitting Emilia against Sean in a lethal struggle. Yet instead, there’s precious little tension generated after the first few minutes, particularly after Sean appears to have wandered off entirely, for some ill-defined reason. There’s a final face-off, in which vengeance is sought; I’m not sure it makes much sense, based on what has happened to that point.

This is probably all a little too “indie” for its own good, not least in the soundtrack, which seems to have strayed in from a hip, locally-owned coffee bar. The points it’s trying to make might have been better served by another genre, rather than dressing it up in the guise of a thriller, that doesn’t appear particularly interested in providing any thrills.

Dir: Christopher James Lang
Star: Amanda Todisco, Russell Bradley Fenton, Jeremy Sless, Andrew Novell

Vendetta, by Jack McSporran

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2actionhalf

Let’s start with a grumble. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the number of full books – or even collections of multiple books – I’ve picked up for $2.99 or less. Maybe that’s why I can’t help feeling gypped when a book lasts only about an hour. The official page count on Amazon says 182 pages. But this figure doesn’t take into account that a significant chunk is actually the first few chapters of Kill Order, the first “full” novel about British government agent, Maggie Black – available separately for another $4.99! If I’d realized this was only 133 pages of actual story, I’d probably not have fast-tracked this. I was then further disgruntled to discover that the “Maggie Black Starter Library” includes both books at the same $4.99 price. Sadly, let the buyer beware. Is it too late to get a refund for this? Consider this volume docked a star of literary rating as a result.

It’s a bit of a shame, since what there is, isn’t too bad. Maggie Black is an agent of “The Unit”, an entirely off-the-grid intelligence agency of the British government, specializing in dirty work. She was recruited by her boss, Bishop, Nikita-style – whisked out of jail, after deciding his offer of employment was preferable to a lengthy prison sentence – and trained in all necessary skills. Her mission in this slim volume, is to go to Venice and disrupt an impending agreement between Carlo Rossi, an international drug trafficker, and Peter West, a British dealer looking for a supplier. To this end, she adopts the persona of “Rebecca Sterling”, a brash American also seeking a source of cocaine and heroin.

The task becomes a great deal more complicated after Carlo is assassinated during their first meeting, with Rebecca suspected of being involved in the murder. Fortunately, she has help, in the form of Leon, another Unit agent, playing the part of Rebecca’s bodyguard, as well as Isabella, an Italian undercover agent who had worked her way into a position as the late Carlo’s PA. This leads to three particular set-pieces: a chase across the Venetian roof-tops; an escape from a near-death situation; and a battle in a cemetery which turns into a lengthy battle and pursuit around the canals of the city, with an explosive finale.

McSporran (a pseudonym adopted by a children’s author – as a fellow Scot, I can’t figure out whether I’m amused or offended!) has a good handle on his location, capturing the atmosphere of Venice. The action, too, is quite well done, crisply and clearly handled. The main problem is the plotting, which runs the gamut from obvious to eye-rolling. One paragraph after Leon showed up, I could tell he and Maggie would end up in one of “those” relationships. The villains, too, do the evil overlord thing, such as chatting merrily away with their captives before deciding a quick death is too good for them [if ever I become an evil overlord, I will ensure any prisoners are checked for knives before being tied to a post below the high-tide mark…] There’s also a bomb which shows up out of nowhere, having not been mentioned at all before it goes off.

It is a solid enough set-up, with effectively infinite scope for development down the road, and I did like the lead character. However, the weaknesses in the story-line, combined with the bad aftertaste left by the quantity of content here, are enough to push any further installments quite some distance back down my literary waiting-list.

Author: Jack McSporran
Publisher: Inked Entertainment, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

The Villainess

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“Action cinema levels up in Korea.”

This opens with a blistering seven minutes of action which starts off in first-person perspective, looking like the most deranged video game ever, as the protagonist slices, dices and shoots their way through a building to a confrontation with the final boss. After being slammed head-first into a mirror, the point of view changes and we see the attacker is a young woman, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin). Finishing her slaughter, she calmly accepts arrest, but the Korean intelligence services recruit her, hoping to channel her skills to their own ends, after a spot of plastic surgery to ensure a fresh start. When training is completed, under Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung), she’s given an apartment, unaware that the man next door, Jung Hyun-soo (Sung), is actually her handler. However, he’s not the only person with something to hide. Because Sook-hee is out to leverage her new position, and is still after long-awaited revenge on the man who killed her father.

With a storyline that’s little more than equal parts of Nikita and Kill Bill, deep-fried in a crimson vat, the only way this is going to survive is to be all about the style. Fortunately, it delivers on that aspect by the bucket. I watched that opening sequence three times before I could bring myself to proceed, and other set-pieces are almost as spectacular (and slightly less motion sickness inducing!), such as the sword-fight on speeding motorbikes. Or the final battle on a bus. Or… Yeah, let’s just say, when this is in motion, it’s utterly glorious, demented and bloody beyond belief. The problems are when it isn’t, with a horribly muddled narrative structure which also seems cribbed from Tarantino. So it’s extremely heavy on the flashbacks, and leaps around the heroine’s time-line like an amphetamine crazed mountain-goat. The payoff, when it arrives, certainly isn’t worth the effort: I’d figured it out, well before the dramatic revelation arrives on-screen.

So convoluted and murky is the story, that I found myself increasingly tuning out, and was more or less disinterested in the characters’ fates, most damningly that of Sook-hee. About the only person I cared about was her little, moon-faced daughter, whose serious expressions provoked more emotion in me than all the contortions performed by the plotting. Director Jung, like David Leitch of Atomic Blonde, has a background as a stuntman before moving into direction, and perhaps that explains why it feels as if the attention and effort here have gone into those elements. In comparison, the script is something which could well have been cobbled together on the back of a beer-mat, after an all-night video session, and then run through a shredder in an attempt to instill it with some artistic merit. Jung is certainly an action director to watch, and I’ll be very interested to see where he can possibly go from here. Is there a setting for cinematic violence above eleven?

Dir: Jung Byung-gil
Star: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung

Violent Instinct

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“Mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

Valerie Graves (Osborne) is a powder-keg in her mid-twenties, barely surviving from job to job, and troubled by violent dreams. At a party, she meets Andy Cheney, who runs a locksmith company, and who offers her an admin job there. She eventually discovers the company is a front for far more questionable business, and eagerly accepts Andy’s offer of working on that side, collecting debts and enforcing his authority on those lower down the food-chain. But when one of her missions ends up hitting too close to home, she decides she’s going to quit. Her boss doesn’t take kindly to that, and stiffs her of the final payment she needs to set up life somewhere else. Which, needless to say, does not sit too well with Valerie.

This is a seriously grubby and downbeat spiral, which deserves credit for being largely unremitting and consistent in tone. However, that isn’t enough, in itself, to make for interesting viewing, not least because there’s little here to which the viewer can hitch their interest. Valerie is not a nice person. Which isn’t necessary a show-stopper. as that deficiency in warmth of character, can be made up for in a number of different ways. A charismatic lead, compelling back-story or interesting arc over the course of the film, would all help give reasons to watch. Unfortunately, none of them are present here: at least, not in sufficient quantities to take the audience along.

Osborne isn’t bad in  the central role – though she makes about the least convincing interior design consultant (her apparent initial job!) I’ve ever seen. She’s certainly different from the stereotypical mob enforcer you might expect, and have seen elsewhere. Valerie is roughly equal measures of tattoos, piercings and spiky attitude, with no genuine relationships to speak of, save for Tina (Ryan). And she’s probably even more anti-social and depressed than the anti-heroine, which I guess makes them perfect for each other. But I can’t say I was even remotely convinced by Rowley and his crew as supposedly hardcore gangsters. It’s often a problem with micro-budget movies, that the makers operate from a small circle of available talent, in a certain type. There’s a struggle when they need to fill roles outside that type, and this definitely hampers them here.

There are two versions of this floating around. This review is based on the 79-minute producer’s cut, which was edited down from the 124-minute version called Primordial. Among the apparent changes were some quite significant ones, including taking an ambiguous final scene and transplanting it to the start of the film, where it becomes a dream sequence. It also “shortens or removes many of the humorous scenes”, which is likely a good thing, given that the remorseless intensity is likely the film’s strongest suit. Still I’m not convinced enough I’ve missed out, to track down the longer version. Though must confess, I am somewhat intrigued by “the fish hook sex act” apparently included in the extended cut…

Dir: Eric Widing
Star: Marylee Osborne, Erin R. Ryan, Christopher Rowley, Adam Clevenger
a.k.a. Primordial

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

Vendetta

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“Ripe for a remake starring Zoë Bell.”

vendettaMovie stunt-woman Laurie Collins (Chase) is out for the night with her sister, Bonnie, until the latter accepts the company of a young man. When things get more than a bit rape-y, and Bonnie ends up shooting her attacker dead. She is convicted of second-degree manslaughter, much to the chagrin of her sister. Worse is to follow after Bonnie is sent to prison, as there, she then falls foul of the jail’s top dog, Kay Butler (Martin). Bonnie soon turns up a corpse, with the incident written off as suicide, due to the heroine found in her veins. But Laurie doesn’t believe a word of it, and deliberately commits grand theft auto, among other crimes, in order to be sent to the same prison, where she can find those responsible, and make them pay for what they did to Bonnie.

Starting with a film-within-a-film scene which had me wondering if I was watching the wrong, post-apocalyptic movie, it’s a nice idea to have the heroine be a stunt-woman, and gives a credible explanation for her physical talents. This 1986 film is also ahead of the curve in making, in explicitly making the facility a “for-profit” prison, something which would eventually become an issue almost three decades later. That said, this does appear to be a rather cushy penal establishment, where inmates are well compensated for their work, and there is both a swimming-pool(!) and a video-arcade(!!). It doesn’t skimp on the exploitational aspects, with the shower scenes typical for the genre, and the rape of Bonnie is genuinely nasty.

In this, it shares something of the same look and feel as Reform School Girls, made that year, right down to the presence of an blonde, obvious Ilsa-lookalike in charge, though Collins’s Miss Dice is far more sympathetic  than Sybil Danning’s Warden Sutter. [Coincidentally or not, both films also feature the Screamin’ Sirens’ song, “Love Slave”, during a scene of sexual abuse.] The main weakness here is likely Chase, who seems rather unconvincing in terms of physical presence, though does acquit herself half-decently in the action scenes. Her Laurie just doesn’t quite feel like the kind of character who would go to such elaborate lengths to extract brutal vengeance – and it’s a damn good thing she wasn’t sent to another facility. You can contrast her character with that of Martin, who definitely feel like the kind of scum that would rise to the top inside.

There is a certain bleakness to the ending [spoilers follow]. After Laurie has completed her revenge, with the help of Miss Dice, the warden turns to her and says, “Did it bring Bonnie back?”, then adding, “You have the rest of your life to think about that.” It’s somewhat disconcerting for the viewer who has been brought along on Laurie’s quest, suddenly to have the moral carpet yanked out from under them like this, instead of any closure. If the hairstyles haven’t aged well, this philosophical ambiguity has.

Dir: Bruce Logan
Star: Karen Chase, Sandy Martin, Kin Shriner, Roberta Collins

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

The Vengeance of Fortuna West, by Ray Hogan

vengeanceLiterary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

While I haven’t read many Westerns, my wife is an avid fan of the genre, and I know she also admires the strong, brave heroine type of character (so do I –I married one!), so I got her this book for Christmas, and then read it on her recommendation. Fortuna, the protagonist here, is the recent widow of a New Mexico marshal, who gets herself made a deputy in order to go after the outlaws who killed him –not as improbable a quest in her case as it would have been for most women of that era, since he taught her to handle a Colt more proficiently than most males, and she’s a skilled rider, huntress and tracker who once brought down a bear. (Of course, the terrain she has to search is rough, and the killer outlaws aren’t her only jeopardy.)

Hogan has been a prolific Western author, with well over 100 novels and a large body of short fiction to his credit; the sheer volume of his output probably militated against very careful craftsmanship, and his diction here is mediocre. He also gets his details tangled in a few places, and a few notes don’t ring quite psychologically true. But the novel succeeds as well as it does because of the appeal of Fortuna’s character; the plot is straightforward and Hogan’s writing style simple, making for a quick read (it could be read in a single long sitting, and he provides enough action and suspense that a reader might want to) and Fortuna’s need to choose whether she intends to bring her quarry in alive or execute them on the spot gives the story some moral depth. (There is some bad language here –which Hogan explains, through Fortuna’s musings, as a response to stress-and, obviously, some violence, but no sex.)

Author: Ray Hogan
Publisher: Doubleday, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.