Friday, 29 September 2017

Secretary (2002)

Lee Holloway is an emotionally sensitive young woman who uses self-harm to cope with her feelings of awkwardness and isolation.  After learning to type, she wins the job of secretary of uptight lawyer E. Edward Grey.  Grey warns her that the work is dull, but Lee simply answers that she "likes dull".

It soon becomes clear that Grey is sexually aroused by Lee's compliant and obedient nature; an arousal he attempts to quell with vigorous exercise.  After he becomes aware of her self-harm, however, he orders her to stop, and the pair begin a BDSM relationship.  Unfortunately, Grey remains deeply conflicted by his own desires, and this quickly becomes a threat to their relationship and the happiness Lee has found in it.

Secretary is a film full of awkward, uncomfortable moments between two awkward, uncomfortable people, but - provided you're okay with the BDSM elements, and if you're not you probably won't be watching it to begin with - it's also a quite touching romance.  The two main cast members are both very strong, and do a great job of conveying the tension and passion between their characters.  I do think the film overplays things a bit in the final act, which undercuts the impact a little, but overall it's quite effective: I found it easy to like both parties and to hope for their happiness together.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

House of Cards, Season 3 (2015)

Frank Underwood has clawed his way to becoming the most powerful man in the world, but his savage campaign to seize the top job has left his own party bloodied and battered.  President Underwood faces a hostile congress that emphatically rejects his political agenda and a rebellious party that doesn't want him to run for re-election.  Oh, and there's the little matter of a flare-up in the middle east and an adversarial President of Russia to deal with.

Of course, Underwood didn't get where he is by wilting under pressure, and you can bet he'll fight hard and dirty to keep what he's gained and to secure his own legacy.  And any collateral damage he inflicts on others who are in the way ... well, that's too bad for them, but it's the price they pay for trying to mix with the ruthless and powerful.

I enjoyed this season of House of Cards considerably more than I did season two.  It feels more grounded, and the rivals with whom Underwood faces off feel more compelling and real than those of last year.

If you like your political fiction (as opposed to your political reality!) bleak and Machiavellian, this is solid stuff.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Bedevilled (2010)

Hae-won is an over-stressed, confrontation-averse bank officer.  When the pressure finally overwhelms her, she's forcibly instructed to take a vacation.

Initially, Hae-won follows this instruction by moping around her apartment and drinking heavily, but then she decides to spend a week visiting the isolated Mudo Island, where she spent holidays as a child.  Given some of the things we later learn about those holidays, you might wonder what would prompt her to return at all, but nothing can really prepare her for what she finds on arrival.  The island has fewer than ten inhabitants, and her childhood friend Bok-nam, who is the only young, able-bodied woman, is more or less treated as a slave by the men and older women.  About the only two things that make Bok-nam's terrible existence bearable are her love for her daughter and her hope that her old friend Hae-won will help her, and so this visit may ignite events that Hae-won never could have imagined.

This is an ugly film.  Most characters are outright evil and even those that aren't are rather broken.  The film rarely flinches from depicting the full ugliness of Bok-nam's life, and the few times it does show circumspection, you'll be glad of it.  It's not quite a "video nasty" in the style of say I Spit On Your Grave in that it doesn't generally have the skeevy titillating atmosphere of those films, but it's certainly every bit as graphic.  And it does occasionally overplay its hand into unintentional absurdity, especially during the final act.

Ultimately I feel like Bedevilled falls a little uncomfortably between two different camps.  It's much too grim and stark to fit into the sensationalised sex and violence oeuvre so successfully adopted by shows like Game of Thrones, but at the same time it veers in that direction often enough that it doesn't quite gel as the harrowing, impactful experience it might otherwise have been.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Banshee, Season 1 (2013)

Banshee's premise was explained to me as "Jewel thief gets released from jail and then pretends to be the new sheriff of a small town as he attempts to track down his former accomplices".  From that, I kind of went in expecting something dry and a bit quirky.

Not so much.  While I was thinking it would maybe be like Northern Exposure meets Breaking Bad, what I actually got might be better described as "a car crash meeting of Riverdale and Spartacus: Blood & Sand".

So yeah, dry and quirky isn't Banshee's thing.  Sex and violence, on other hand, most definitely is.  There's frequent nudity and numerous sexual scenes, and even more frequent (and often rather unnecessarily protracted) bloody mayhem.

This isn't to say that the premise that was described to me is inaccurate.  It's not.  The show is very much about a jewel thief pretending to be a small town sheriff while trying to reconnect with his former accomplices, but it's also about that jewel thief trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous Ukrainian mobster who wants him dead.  And about the ruthless crime boss who pretty much runs the town in which our main character is carrying out his sheriff-impersonating shenanigans.  So many people get bloodily beaten or killed in the course of the season's ten episodes that things occasionally venture across the line from "ferocious" to "farcical".

If you don't mind the deliberately shocking content, and the rapidly escalating implausibility of the premise, there's fun to be had with Banshee, but it's very much exploitation-level stuff, on the whole.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Operation: Endgame (2010)

It is the inauguration of Barack Obama, which is bad news for the black ops agency The Factory.  It's been allowed to get up to all sorts of inappropriate mischief in the previous eight years, and that's all about to come to the light of day.  Or at least, it should.  Some within the Factory are determined to ensure that their tracks are covered.  And they don't really care what they need to do in order to achieve that goal.

Apparently the original script for this film did quite well in screenwriting competitions back in 2004.  It was presumably at least somewhat different back then, what with Obama's election being several years in the future.  I wonder if it was also funnier back then, because while I did laugh a couple of times during this ostensible comedy, there was an awful lot of macho posturing type stuff that I think was supposed to be comically over the top, but didn't really work for me.  It was over the top, certainly, but I didn't find it to be so in a manner that was funny.

Things do improve once the action elements of the film kick off, as the film at least has momentum then, but it's best not too think too closely about the plot.  It's one of those complicated triple-cross things which only work if everything falls exactly into place.

There's a great cast here, of recognisable if not exactly A-list names.  I just wish they were assembled for a better film.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Orphan Black, Season 3 (2015)

The writers of Orphan Black seemed to have created a rod for their own backs.  By far the most engaging and entertaining of the various clone sisters in the show is the uptight soccer mom Alison, but she's also the one that's got very little to do with the whole "secret cloning/genetics experiments" storyline at the heart of the show.  Everyone else has some skill or ability that ties into this.  Cosima has the science; Helena the special forces skills; while Sarah has both street smarts and is the only clone able to have children of her own.  Alison ... well, she used to help with the finances but even if this was still necessary it's not exactly something that keeps her front and centre in the show.

What this means is that season three sometimes feels like you're watching two different programs, as most of the characters feel like they're in something like The Americans while Alison's apparently turned up to work on Weeds.  Both solid shows, but not exactly an easy mix.  The writers do what they can to generate reasons for other characters to get involved in Alison's story arc, but they can't so readily resolve the problem of the different tones.

Fortunately, the show does a better job handling its other challenge: maintaining a core mystery and moving it forward in a satisfying way.  There is one major plot twist that I don't think was entirely earned, but other than that it holds together quite nicely.  I'll certainly be checking out season four.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Wonder Women (1973)

Renowned athletes are mysteriously disappearing.  On the hook for half a million dollars of insurance over the latest disappearance, Lloyds of London hire ace investigator Mike Harbor to find the missing man.

Harber (played by Russ Hagen, who looks kinda like a cut price Dirk Benedict) is the kind of man who keeps a sawn-off shotgun in his safari suit, but even he isn't really ready for where this case is going to go: black market brain transplants, pubescent assassins, murderous mutants, and an army of kung fu femme fatales.

The sad thing about Wonder Women is that it takes that gonzo list of ingredients and produces such a tepid final product.  A big part of this is that it doesn't really build or integrate the components at all.  The killer kid, for instance, disappears out of the film about halfway through without any kind of resolution, while the mutants are clumsily introduced all of five minutes before they're needed for their murderous rampage.

The film's second major flaw is the pacing.  Even at about 85 minutes, it feels pretty stretched at times, with one chase scene in particular going on and on and on and on.  And on.  It does have a couple of moments of quite neat stunt work, I have to admit, but that doesn't really compensate for how interminable it feels.

At the end of the day, if you're looking to get your "70s cheapie" groove on, there are better options than this out there.  Black Mama White Mama comes to mind, for one.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

House of Cards, Season 2 (2014)

There's an explosive plot development in the very first episode of the second season of House of Cards.  It's a stark and shocking moment.

The problem with explosions though, is that while they can start fires, they can also snuff them out.  And for my tastes, the latter case applies here.  As I said, the moment itself is stark and shocking, and honestly it was probably inevitable that it would happen at some point.  But while doing it early gives the opening of the season some real impact, it has some significant drawbacks that I think hamper the rest of the episodes.

For one thing, it deprives the show of one of its most interesting interpersonal relationships, and while the writers make an effort to fill the gap in a couple of different ways, one of them never really gets out of second gear, and the other takes a while to build up.  I do have hopes it will pay off in season three, but honestly, it needs to, as pretty much all the original conflict of the show has been resolved now.

Overall, House of Cards is still an enjoyable show in season two, but the sophomore offering does definitely feel like a step down from the first year.  It will be interesting to see how it develops - and whether it recovers or falters further - from here.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Gun Woman (2014)

A sadistic monster rapes and murders a woman, then cripples his victim's husband.  Said husband is a successful doctor, who applies his brilliant mind and large sums of cash to getting revenge.  This won't be easy, because the villain also has vast sums of money, and is protected by an entire platoon of armed guards.  In fact, the only time the bad guy is vulnerable is when he makes a visit to a secret compound that caters to necrophiliacs.

The doctor's scheme for revenge is thus rather elaborate: he will train a woman to be a deadly killer, then surgically conceal the components of a gun inside her body, give her drugs so she appears to be dead, and have her deliverable to necrophilia central, where she'll wake up, rip open her own body to get at the gun, and execute an inevitably gory revenge in 22 minutes or less, because that's how long she'll have before she bleeds to death.

Gun Woman consciously evokes the exploitation films of the 1970s in its look and feel, and it starts as it means to go on: with a naked woman, who is promptly murdered.  Nudity and gore are pervasive throughout the film, especially in the final act, where Asami Sugiura spends a solid 15-20 minutes killing folks while stark naked and covered in blood.

Obviously, given the deliberately gratuitous content, this will not be a film for all tastes.  But if you are in the market for a trenchantly exploitative 80 minutes of sex and violence, it certainly has you covered!