Unholy Rollers

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“The Adventures of Grandmistress Karen on the Wheels of Steel”

unholyWinner of Most Unexpected Credit goes to this roller-derby exploitation flick, out of cheapie producers American International, because the opening credit proclaim, “Supervising Editor – Martin Scorsese.” Yep. THAT Scorsese, the year before anyone much noticed him with Mean Streets, worked on what would now be called a “mockbuster” – Scorsese later describing it in Scorsese on Scorsese as “the rip-off of the Racquel Welch movie about roller-derbys, Kansas City Bombers“. However, it ended up trailing in to cinemas in Bombers‘ wake and, according to its editor, “was destroyed.” That’s a shame, as there’s a nicely gritty feel to this, which rings true. It certainly acknowledges that the action and fights in roller-derby may be staged, but – as we’ve seen in the local roller-derby scene – the inter-personal dramas are entirely real. It also reminded me of the independent pro wrestling world, of which we’ve had some experience, promoter Mr. Stern (Quinn) harping on about showmanship, perpetually aware of the need to give his audience what they want.

And, what they want is Karen Walker (Jennings), who quits her job in a canning plant after one too many bouts of sexual harassment, and tries out for the Los Angeles Avengers. Making the team, her no-holds barred approach to competition wins over the fans, much to the disdain of current audience favourite, Mickey Martinez (Rees). Karen’s rise is, correctly, perceived as a threat by Mickey – though only has herself to blame, having led the rest of the team in humiliating the rookie at a bar, after she rebuffs Mickey’s sexual advances. Karen is rescued by the captain of the Avengers’ male squad, Nick (Warela), and they begin a torrid, hot-cold affair, in part due to Nick’s marital status. As the tension between Karen and Mickey grows, Stern senses an opportunity, and transfers the veteran to the Avengers’ hated rivals, the San Diego Demons. setting up a show-down between the two, which touches off Karen’s fuse, in no uncertain terms.

Roger Ebert called Jennings, “the hardest, most vicious female performance in a long time,” and you can see why: there’s not much effort here to make her likeable, and that’s a good part of the appeal. She’s all spiky, defiant attitude, and any attempts to make her conform simply result in greater rebellion. Meanwhile, the cheapskate nature of the whole operation is made clear before the opening credits, with a brutalized rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. Jennings is clearly doing a good bit of her own skating, with a lot less protection than Ellen Page had in Whip It, Throw in the funky retro-sounds of Louie and the Rockets, and you’ve got something which makes for an entertaining time, even if many of the supporting performances are basic at best, and the film doesn’t so much end, as crash headlong into the end-credits. Still, this is a case where lack of polish perhaps works for a film, as much as against it.

Dir: Vernon Zimmerman
Star: Claudia Jennings, Betty Anne Rees, Louis Quinn, Jay Warela

Camino

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“Flash, bang, wallop – what? A picture!”

caminoFollowing up on their successfully crunchy collaboration in Raze, director Waller and star Bell head into the jungle and back to the eighties – an era before cell-phones and digital cameras – for this story of one woman’s fight for survival against a band of Colombian rebels, led by Spanish immigrant, Guillermo (Vigalondo). In this case, the woman is Avery Taggart (Bell), a lauded war photographer whose latest mission is to cover the enigmatic yet charismatic Guillermo, whose mission initially appears as much philanthropic as military. Keyword: initially. For Avery stumbles into the rebel’s darker side, witnessing, and worse, photographing him carrying out a drug deal, then slitting the throat of an inconveniently-passing local child. Knowing this revelation would destroy him, Guillermo blames Avery for the murder, and sets out after her with his group, intent on preventing the incriminating film from getting out of the jungle. However, it won’t be easy: Avery has picked up a few survival skills from her life during wartime, and some of Guillermo’s foot-soldiers are unconvinced by his explanation.

I think the first surprise here is the opening chunk, before she goes into the jungle, which has Bell delivering the most intense acting of her career. Quite a discomforting performance too, it has to be said, and I did wonder if I was watching the right film for a bit. Fortunately, we’re eventually on the right track; nobody will exactly have rented this to watch Zoë emote in a hotel room, surprisingly impressive though it is. The action here is brutal: while the body-count is relatively small – compared, say to Raze – nobody dies quickly here at all, with demises which seem to stretch out forever. The peak is probably the first fight, in which Avery is stalked by Guillermo’s psychopathic lieutenant. This turns into a knock-down, drag-out brawl that is relentless and hardcore. Nothing after can quite compare, to be honest. The ending of the main story thread is, entirely deliberately, understated and almost casual, though a coda delivers a satisfactory payoff.

You do wonder how a photographer is able to do more than hold her own against jungle-hardened soldiers; I was half-expecting a further appendix scene where Avery turned out to be a CIA agent of some kind. [Truth be told, I wouldn’t have minded!] Vigalondo makes for a decent villain, if a little too verbose; had this had actually been made in the mid-80’s, rather than just set there, it would have been a perfect role for Klaus Kinski, and Nacho puts over a similar mix of thinly-disguised psychopath. The jungle almost becomes a supporting character here, abetted by an unusual, crunchy yet chewy soundtrack from electronic project Kreng. The film might have benefited from some editing and the script an additional polish. But, as expected, it’s Bell’s show and she delivers the convincing mix of elegance and physicality we have come to appreciate, like a tightly-wound spring inside a camera case.

Dir: Josh C. Waller
Star: Zoë Bell, Nacho Vigalondo, Francisco Barreiro, Sheila Vand

Byzantium

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“Pride and Prejudice and Vampires”

byzantiumOk, that’s probably not strictly accurate, but there is more than a hint of it, in the way this manages to combine period drama with Gothic horror trappings – while also depicting the same characters in the present day. This slipping back and forth in time is somewhat distracting, and there are points where you wish they had just picked an era and stuck with it. The heroines here are a pair of mother and daughter vampires (Arterton and Ronan), who have been more or less on the run for about two centuries. For the mother, Clara, was a terminally-ill prostitute who stole the secret of vampirism from her client, Captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) in the early 19th century. She not only became immortal herself, she turned her daughter, Eleanor – an act strictly against the tenets of The Brethren, who are kinda like the vampire union, who put out a death-warrant on the pair. In the present day, this means Clara – still turning tricks to provide for Eleanor – has occasionally to decapitate people with a garrotte, should they turn out to be hunters sent by The Brethren.

The pair end up wintering in a boarding-house on the sea-front of a largely deserted seaside town (I got a strong whiff of Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness, which had Ostend instead of Hastings for its “experienced” female vampire and her acolyte). Eleanor is increasingly dissatisfied – and who wouldn’t be after two centuries stuck in perpetual adolescence – and seems almost to half a self-destructive streak, including writing essays at school about her vampiric life, which naturally cause concern to her teacher! She also builds a relationship with young, ill waiter Frank, something of which Clara also disapproves. There’s a good, dynamic contrast between the two leads. At the time, Ronan was fresh off both Hanna and than Violet + Daisy, though she is the cerebral of the pair here, careful only to drain the blood of those who are ready and willing to accept death. In comparison, Arterton is far more animalistic and instinctual, making this an interesting warm-up for her subsequent role in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

This isn’t Jordan’s first entry in the vampire genre, having previously directed Interview With the Vampire, and the two aren’t dissimilar, both being as much about the relationships as actual blood-sucking. I wish I’d learned more about the back-story of Clara and Eleanor; there would seem to be a rich history there, that’s almost entirely unexplored, with virtually nothing about the 190 years between the latter’s turning and the present day. Has Eleanor been a sullen teenager all that time? Dear God, I thought I was a saint, handling the resulting sulkiness for less than a decade, as our kids went through it. Decapitation by garrotte sometimes seemed a good approach to parenting. However, at least Eleanor doesn’t sparkle, although there’s an amusing nod to other vampire lore, as she watches one of the classic Hammer movies from the genre. If not developed fully enough to be a classic itself, there’s still enough new and/or well done here, to make this better than your average random Netflix selection.

Dir: Neil Jordan
Star: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Daniel Mays, Sam Reilly

L.A. Bounty

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“Deeds, not words.”

labountyI’ve been doing this site for 13 years, and it’s amazing that this is the first “real” Sybil Danning movie I’ve covered (save her appearances in Malibu Express and Grindhouse), For she was one of the first action heroines I ever noticed, back in the golden era of VHS which was the eighties, when I was at college. Battle Beyond the Stars, Phantom Empire, Reform School Girls…. While I’d be hard pushed to call many of them cinematic classics – or even good, by normal standards – Danning, whose picture can be found in the dictionary beside the word “statuesque”, made an impact in them all. She seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough, when an accident during rehearsal effectively ended her action career, leaving her with severely herniated discs in her back, and LA Bounty as her swansong.

She plays bounty hunter of few words, Ruger, an ex-cop who has been holding a grudge against those who killed her partner and got away with it. In particular,. that’s Cavanaugh (Hauser), an import-export businessman who has a number of other, shadier sidelines. His latest involves kidnapping a candidate for mayor of LA, only for Ruger to interrupt the process. As a result, the victim’s wife could identify the perps, so must be disposed of, only for Ruger to come to the rescue once again, intent on being the heavily-armed fly in the ointment, as she works her way up the chain of lowlife scum, towards Cavanaugh.

It is a bog-standard actioner from the period, with eighties hair, eighties fashion, an eighties soundtrack, and lots of bloodless gunplay. But two things salvage it from absolutely forgettability. And, no, that isn’t a set-up for a reference to Sybil’s breasts [impressive though they are; as a teenager, I must have worn out my copy of The Howling II…], for I mean Danning and Hauser, who are nicely constructed as polar opposites. Ruger is a women of very few words; the IMDb says it’s a a total of 31 during the entire film, but that doesn’t diminish much from the badassery of her character. At the other extreme, Cavanaugh runs his mouth at hypersonic velocity, and you get the sense he is capable of going from playful puppiness to psychotic rage in the blink of an eye. The contrast is well-conceived and nicely-executed, building to an extended finale around the villain’s warehouse where Ruger has to fend off everything from clockwork explosive birds to a giant, stuffed polar-bear.

As mentioned, while you’d be hard pushed to argue this was unjustly overlooked at the Oscars or whatever, it’s workmanlike enough. If the material has seen better days and the budget seems to be missing a zero, it’s improved enough by the two leads to leave you wondering where Danning’s career might have gone, if fate hadn’t dealt her such a crappy hand.

Dir: Worth Keeter
Star: Sybil Danning, Wings Hauser, Blackie Dammett, Henry Darrow

Modesty Blaise, by Peter O’Donnell

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2actionhalf

modesty1British author Peter O’Donnell created the iconic character of Modesty Blaise in 1963 as the heroine of an action adventure comic strip. He didn’t do the art work for the strip (that was done by four successive artists altogether), but he was responsible for the storylines and printed matter during the whole 38-year run, continuing until 2001. (These original strips are currently being reprinted as a series of graphic novels.) It quickly proved popular enough that 20th-Century Fox enlisted him to write a screenplay for a spin-off movie, which he did. However, he approached the character and the project seriously; and the filmmakers decided that they wanted to produce a parody of the James Bond films instead.

So, they brought in another writer to rework his screenplay, and ended up only keeping one sentence of it. Surprisingly, though, they asked O’Donnell, not his replacement, to do the novelization. He did –but he used his screenplay as the basis. That became the book I’m reviewing here, which was published in 1965 and sparked a long-running series of novels and stories, all with original plots distinct from those of the comic strips. (Meanwhile, the movie, with its caricature of Modesty in the main role, hit the screens in 1966, but failed to spark any fan enthusiasm comparable to what the books and comics generated.)

O”Donnell’s Modesty is a fascinating, complex and layered character, with an unusual back-story that’s provided in its basics at the beginning of this book, but fleshed out more as the tale unfolds. Born about 1939 –she doesn’t know exactly when, nor what her real name and nationality is– she was orphaned as a small child in the chaos and atrocities of World War II, and wandered alone through the Balkans and Middle East, sometimes living in refugee or DP camps. Exposed to a lot of danger and brutality, she survived against all odds because she learned to defend herself and to develop a tough, pragmatic mentality. As a tween, she was mentored by another refugee, a former university professor (whom she protected, rather than the other way around) who taught her a great deal; intelligent and gifted with a good memory, she’s well-educated as a result.

Winding up in Tangier at 17, she soon succeeded to the leadership of a criminal gang, and built it into a substantial international organization, the Network, that engaged in art and jewel thefts, currency manipulations, smuggling, and intelligence brokering. She did NOT, however, engage in drug or sex trafficking (and sometimes provided the authorities with tips that enabled them to bust drug operations); her criminal activities violated the law, but never her own personal moral code and sense of honor. (It was during her Network days that she forged her abiding friendship with Willie Garvin, a skilled knife-fighter whose life had pretty much hit bottom until she saw his potential and recruited him; he would become her lieutenant and faithful sidekick.) Having amassed her goal of half a million pounds sterling by the time she was about 25, she turned the Network over to its regional bosses and she and Willie (also wealthy by that time) retired to a quiet life in England.

The book opens about a year later, when she’s bored and restive, increasingly aware that she’s psychologically geared to find fulfillment and purpose in high-risk physical action, and doesn’t feel really alive when she’s vegetating without it. At this point, she’s approached by Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of British Intelligence (who did business with her, through Willie, when she was brokering items of information that interested the British government). As partial payment to a Middle Eastern sheik for an oil concession, Britain is shipping ten million pounds worth of diamonds from South Africa to Beirut –and there are rumors that the secrecy of the shipment has been compromised, and that someone may be out to steal it. Being aware of Modesty’s unique wide knowledge of, and contacts in, the international underworld, Tarrant would like her to check this out for him. First, though, she’ll have another priority on the agenda –rescuing Willie (also bored and restive) from the South American prison where he’s awaiting execution, having been a mercenary on the losing side in a civil war.

modesty2O’Donnell is a master of characterization; not just Modesty and Willie, but all of the secondary characters here too, are wonderfully wrought, full-orbed and realistic. The plotting is taut and well-paced, with no unnecessary filler, and there’s a real sense of danger and challenge. It’s clear that the author has a very good working knowledge of traditional Arab culture, which adds texture here. Unlike Ian Fleming, he doesn’t go in for far-fetched gadgetry, but he does endow his heroine and hero with some believable gadgets and an ability to secrete them on their person. He writes action scenes that are clear, vivid and gripping; and he sets his action in the context of a moral framework –recognizable good is pitted here against genuine evil, and O’Donnell makes us root wholeheartedly for the former and despise the latter. Modesty herself is no plaster saint; I didn’t approve of everything she’s done in her life, or every aspect of her lifestyle now. But I could understand her motivations, and didn’t have any trouble liking and respecting her as a heroine –she has a lot of very real virtues, is a born leader and as valiant a fighter as ever lived, cares about others and treats them decently, and respects innocent life (and will spare adversaries’ lives at times when some people in her shoes probably wouldn’t).

At one point, O’Donnell makes use of a double coincidence in his plotting, which some critics might fault him for. (But that personally didn’t bother me much; I ascribed it to the action of providence.) And while he drops the names of various firearms models to lend verisimilitude to his narrative, he makes a couple of bloopers in his treatment of guns. Also, he describes technical processes at places in the narrative in more detail than I would (I have a low tolerance for that kind of thing), but he usually has a good reason to, and does it with reasonable clarity; some fans will actually regard this as a strength of the writing. One major character displays some sexist attitudes, but I didn’t think O’Donnell was sharing in or justifying them, just realistically depicting the way many males in 1965 thought (and still do).

There’s a high body count here, but the violence is handled quickly and cleanly; while some of the villains are sadists, O”Donnell isn’t. There’s some bad language, and a certain amount of religious profanity, but no obscenity. While there’s no explicit sex, it’s made clear that unmarried sex took place a few times, and will again; Willie and Modesty are single, but not celibate. (Their relationship with each other, though, is perfectly chaste and Platonic –they genuinely do love each other, and would die for each other, but as true friends, not as erotic partners.)

In this book, it’s noted in passing that Modesty has been raped twice in her life. As it stands, that’s just a reflection of the tragic fact that women in our world often do face a lot of sexual violence; and she isn’t defined by the experience, and doesn’t have a victim mentality that allows it to permanently scar her life, which is positive modeling. But I’m told by other readers that in the other books of the series (though not the comics) Modesty tends to be raped quite frequently. To me, that’s a disturbing amount of sexual violence for one character to have to undergo; and it does seem like a morbid overuse of the motif. But that said, I’m still invested enough in this heroine and her future adventures to continue reading the series!

Author: Peter O’Donnell
Publisher: Souvenir Press, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Sweet Home

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“Hogar, dulce hogar…”

sweethomeA straightforward yet effective cross between a slasher film and Die Hard, sees Alicia (Garcia-Jonsson) plan a birthday dinner for her boyfriend, Simon (Sevilla) in an almost deserted apartment building. However, she stumbles into a plot to evict the last remaining tenant… in a body-bag. Trapped inside the locked tenement, the young couple become the target, first for the evictors, and then their boss, the Liquidator (Tarrida), as they seek to cover the tracks of their murderous work.

Three sentences, and that’s basically the entirety of the plot covered, since most of the film is an extended stalk ‘n’ slash, with Alicia, in particular, seeking a way out. It’s absolutely her story, because Simon is wounded relatively early in proceedings, and ends up close to a non-factor in proceedings – for one reason or another. Even though there’s a sense of Garcia-Jonsson acting mostly in her third language (she was born in Sweden, most of her career has been in Spain, yet her dialogue here is mainly English), it doesn’t harm the film, because Martinez is a firm believer in showing, rather than telling. That’s just what something like this needs, with gratifyingly few pauses for exposition after things kick-off. In particular, things are ramped up with the arrival of the Liquidator, who disposes of bodies with the aid of liquid nitrogen and a hammer. This is about as wince-inducing as it sounds.

As well as a fairly monstrous villain, who is quite prepared to dispatch his supposed allies if they prove more trouble than they are worth, the main appeal is seeing Alicia use her wits to survive, clambering in, around and through the maze of corridors and service passages in the building, as she tries to stay one step ahead of those hunting her down. The claustrophobic setting, enhanced by a thunderous deluge coming down outside, which has cleared the streets of everyone else, generally work for the movie too. Reading other reviews, seems I’m not the only person to detect notes of John Carpenter, with this in particular evoking feelings of Assault on Precinct 13 crossed with Halloween. Though it has been a very long while since Carpenter has directed anything as shallowly entertaining as Sweet Home.

On the other hand. the floor-plan of the house, an important factor in proceedings, seems more than a little inconsistent. This may be less an apartment building, and more a Klein bottle, for there were times when I was thought Alicia was on an upper level, only for her to open a door and suddenly be back at ground level. However, if you’re prepared to let that aspect slide, along with the occasional moments of less-than-sensible behaviour (almost inevitable, given the genre), this is an energetic and enthusiastic romp, which will likely have you quoting various John McClane-isms over the course of proceedings. But it’s safe to say that Die Hard did not end in a climax which had Bruce Willis in the basement, unconscious, dotted lines drawn on his limbs, in preparation for easy separation by Alan Rickman and his hacksaw. More’s the pity, perhaps.

Dir: Rafa Martínez
Star: Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson, Bruno Sevilla, Oriol Tarrida, Jose Maria Blanco

The Paleface

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“Starring the two and only Jane Russell.”

palefaceOr, to steal another line from Mr. Hope, “Culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands”. It’s surprisingly advanced for its 1948 era, with Russell playing Calamity Jane, who is busted out of prison to go undercover and infiltrate an arms ring guilty of the heinous crime of selling weapons to Indians. [Because, from a liberal 2015 perspective, god forbid anyone try to even the playing field on that particular genocide…] She’s set up with a cover husband, but when he turns up dead, she’s forced to improvise and settles on ‘Painless’ Peter Potter (Hope), an itinerant dentist, as the patsy for the role, as they join a wagon train heading West. Needless to say, he’s delighted, and the legend of his own mind only grows after he fends off an attack by Indians – unaware, all the sharpshooting was entirely Jane’s doing. For her aim is to set him up as some kind of heroic Federal agent, provoking the gang into tipping their hand with retaliation.

It’s impressively even in tone, with Jane clearly the smarter, braver and more talented one of the pairing, running rings around Peter as she manipulates him into being the unwitting stalking horse for her mission. It’s only right at the end, when they both have (somewhat inexplicably) been captured by the Indians, that he rises above his humble origins and skills, doing his part in a rousing finale involving some brisk horse stunts. Russell’s performance was the subject of some mockery, Life magazine saying at the time, in a feature called Jane Russell’s Gamut of Emotions, “she demonstrates how to express a great variety of emotions, without twitching a facial muscle.” However, I think it has perhaps stood the test of time better than Hope’s comic mugging, playing into the cold and calculating killing machine trope – she would rather whack Potter into unconsciousness than kiss him. Certainly, it has lasted better than Bob’s rendition of Buttons & Bows, which inexplicably won the Academy Award that year for best original song.

To be honest, the comedic aspects also seem rather out of keeping with the body count, though it’s hard to tell how much of this may be parody of the genre – certainly, the site of Potter standing beside a literal pile of native American corpses is more likely to provoke embarrassed silence these days, than mirthful chuckles. The film is on much less questionable grounds concentrating on the nicely reversed dynamic between the two leads; even if this collapses into the obligatory and entirely expected fluffy ending, the final sight gag did actually make me laugh out loud, and that’s not easy to do.

Dir: Norman Z. McLeod
Star: Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Robert Armstrong, Iris Adrian

Texas Lady

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“The Queen of Hearts”

texasladyThe start here is absolutely fascinating. Riverboat gambler Chris Mooney (Sullivan) is getting his ass kicked by an unknown amateur – and, worse yet, it’s a woman. Certain it’s just bad luck, he borrows $30,000… and loses that too. The woman, Prudence Webb (Colbert), takes the money and gives it to a bank. Her father, who had a gambling problem, had embezzled cash, lost it to Mooney, and subsequently committed suicide. To gain revenge, she had learned to play poker, studied his tactics quietly and, when she felt assured of victory, put her plan into action. Talk about best served cold. With the balance of the cash, she buys a newspaper in a small Texas town, Fort Ralston. Why? Why not. But on arriving there, she finds the local land barons, in particular Micah Ralston (Collins), after whom the town is named, less receptive to her new-fangled ways, though his hired gun Foley (Walcott) takes a rather creepy shine to Webb.

Intent on recovering his reputation as much as the cash, Mooney has followed Webb to Fort Ralston, where Foley resents the new arrival, seeing him as a rival for Prudence’s affection. Meanwhile, roused by her newspaper’s editorial stance, promoting developments such as the railroad, the town is beginning to stand up against their landlord. Ralston retaliates by fabricating a claim of unpaid back taxes on the newspaper, for which Webb is deemed liable. When that fails to get rid of her, and the residents revolt by electing their own mayor, sheriff and judge, replacing Ralston’s cronies, he blockades the town, citing his ownership of the land all around it. Will Prudence and Chris prevail, in their efforts to bring the town into the modern era [or, at least, the late 19th century?]

Colbert is an interesting choice. She won an Oscar almost two decades earlier, for It Happened One Night, and was among Hollywood’s biggest stars at the end of the thirties. The romantic aspects here are, at first sight, implausible, since she is in her fifties (easily old enough to be Walcott’s mother, for example) and not what you’d describe as classically “pretty.” But screen presence and personality make up for a lot of that gap, with the strength of Webb’s character well ahead of its time. I almost wish they had made the entire movie about the initial plot to get revenge for her father; it would have made for a unique and fascinating tale in itself. Instead, the film more or less collapses into standard Western shenanigans with Mooney’s arrival in town, the film becoming mostly about his struggle against Ralston, with Webb largely taking a back seat in her own movie. This is much less interesting, unfortunately: Sullivan isn’t as good an actor, and his character is largely a stock white-hat. Collins’ portrayal of the villain isn’t bad; you do appreciate he has something of a legitimate beef, having sacrificed his life to the town and its people, which is more motivation than you usually get.

In the end, the production lives or dies with Colbert. When focusing on her, it’s thoroughly entertaining and innovative. Unfortunately, the second half largely shifts its attention off Webb, and significantly weakens the overall quality of the movie.

Dir: Tim Whelan
Star: Claudette Colbert, Barry Sullivan, Gregory Walcott, Ray Collins

Home Invasion

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“Not-so sweet home.”

homeinvasionNicole Johnson (Sheridan) comes home with her daughter to find a robbery in progress, but is a well-armed home-owner and ends up blowing away one of the intruders. The other, Ray (Howell), bails with their getaway driver, Jade (Duff), who was also the dead perp’s girlfriend. She vows to take vengeance on Nicole and her family, in a variety of forms, from posing as a swimming teacher, to poisoning the customers at Nicole’s restaurant, then setting the place on fire and framing her for arson. Plus, of course, she’s a believer in the old Biblical law of an eye for an eye – or, in this case, a boyfriend for a boyfriend, Jade fixing to inject her nemesis’s other half with that old “undetectable poison”, potassium chloride. I have probably just got myself on a government watch-list by Googling that. Should have done it on my boss’s computer. Oh, well….

So, before they come to take me away, this is a competent if hardly memorable TV movie, which is hampered significantly by the limitations of that medium. While the concept isn’t bad, the inability to go full-bore into it with the necessary energy and – let’s be honest – luridness, leaves the end result as bland as a bowl of rice-pudding. Duff isn’t bad, with a feral intelligence that’s somewhat endearing – frankly, I was largely rooting for her to get the revenge she craves – and Howell is good value as ever. Though Ray spends half the film hiding out in a shack after the aborted robbery, which makes for a bizarre time-frame, since it appears everything else unfolds over the period of several weeks or even months. I’m not actually sure what purpose his character particularly serves; however, watching Howell play a middle-aged gangsta in a bandana is bizarrely fascinating for some reason.

I was hoping it would all build to some kind of extended brawl through the house, with the lioness defending her cub against a predatory newcomer. It’s not much of a spoiler to say I was almost entirely disappointed, though Jade’s final moments have a poignancy that is surprisingly effective, and quite at odds with the low-key banality that preceded them. For almost everything else found here, is the very definition of workmanlike: largely non-threatening drama, technically solid enough, yet possessing all the bite of a geriatric chihuahua, and delivering about as much threat.

Dir: Doug Campbell
Star: Haylie Duff, Lisa Sheridan, Jason Brooks, C. Thomas Howell

Big Sky

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“This sky’s gone out…”

bigskyHazel (Thorne) suffers from severe agoraphobia, which has left her trapped in her room, but her mother, Dee (Sedgwick) has finally succeeded in convincing Hazel to seek treatment. A ride is arranged to a treatment centre in the middle of the desert: to help Hazel cope, she’ll travel in the blacked-out back of the van, with her mother up front. However, on the way, the van is ambushed and another passenger kidnapped. The perpetrators, brothers Jesse and Pru (Grillo and Tveit), shoot everyone else to cover their tracks, but don’t notice Hazel in the back. Dee is badly wounded, and their only hope of survival is for Hazel to overcome her fear and head out across the wide-open landscape for help. However, the brothers have realized they left some loose ends, and Pru – who has significant mental issues of his own – is sent back to tidy up the survivors.

Cutting to the chase here, there is limited entertainment value to be found in watching someone stare and their feet and move, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, through the desert. I get that they are struggling with their condition, but that doesn’t make it interesting to watch: I was painfully reminded of Roger Corman’s The Trip, one of the very few movies I have walked out on, which consists largely of watching someone else take drugs. I’m also a little bit unsure about what this is saying about agoraphobia. The film appears to suggest that all you need to overcome it, is sufficient incentive, and that feels a bit like somebody yelling “Cheer up!” at someone with depression. Credit for having a heroine with such an obvious disability, and Thorne does a decent job at making her a sympathetic LEAD, even if the reason for it also feels like it falls into the realm of cod psychology. Though probably not so much as Pru, whose issues, it turns out, were the result of being hit in the head with a garden tool.

The film is obviously trying to draw a line between him and Hazel, but the script seems to lurch between the two pairs of characters, as if unable to decide whose story it wants to tell. Things happen for no particular reason than because the film decides they need to, such as Dee finding a gun in the van, and the film crawls towards its obvious climax at about the same pace as Hazel crossing the desert. Quite how such an obviously half-baked script ever managed to make it to production, I’m not sure, but you’ll probably end up wanting to lock yourself up in a cupboard – or, at least, as far away from the film as possible.

Dir: Jorge Michel Grau
Star: Bella Thorne, Kyra Sedgwick, Frank Grillo, Aaron Tveit