Deidra and Laney Rob a Train

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“Criminal train of thought.”

After their mother has a meltdown at her job and ends up in jail: teenage sisters Deidra (Murray) and Laney (Crow, somewhat infamous for her post-elimination meltdown on The X Factor) are left to fend for themselves. With household bills piling up – never mind trying to fund Mom’s bail, or even Deidra’s long dreamed-of college tuition – and Child Protective Services looming, things look bleak. But a visit to deadbeat Dad Chet (Sullivan, channeling David Spade), who works for a railway company, gives Deidra an idea. Hop aboard the freight trains that run by the back of their house, pop open a container to take some goods, and fence them on for cash. Things go surprisingly well, until a disgruntled railroad cop, Truman (Nelson), starts to close in on the pair, intent on rebuilding his reputation after an incident in Arizona.

A somewhat awkward mix of elements, some not working as well as others, it still manages to survive and be entertaining. This is largely through sheer force of will from the lead characters, who manage to make you forget the actresses playing them are both too old for high school. The pair share a fierce bond, prepared to do anything for each other, even at the cost of their own dreams – for as well as Deidra’s education, Laney finds herself a finalist in a beauty pageant, which sets her at odds with her best friend at school, who is also a competitor. You know I said, some elements don’t work as well as others? That would be one of them: Drop Dead Gorgeous this isn’t.

It’s much better off when not trying too hard to be heartwarming. For example, the reason for Mom’s meltdown, turns out to be so saccharine as to provoke eye-rolling rather than tugging on your heart-strings. It has a nicely cynical edge about small-town life, such as the school guidance councilor who is as desperate as Deidra to get out of this dead-end – if only she could just get someone accepted to a college which doesn’t have “community” in its name… Like most of the adults here, there’s a sense of benign incompetence here: they don’t so much pose a threat to our two heroines, as bumble around and get in the way of them achieving their goals.

That these involve repeated grand larceny… Well, best not dwell on the implications there, regardless of how righteous the cause may be. For the lack of effort the pair put into any legal methods of fund-raising to solve their issues, could be seen as a troubling indictment of modern youth and entitlement culture. But it would be particularly tough to blame such an adorable pair of siblings, they appear to have strayed in from the Disney Channel. All snark aside, these are fun characters to watch bounce in and out of scrapes, and you can’t help pull for them as they turn into fun-sized versions of Ronnie Biggs.

Dir: Sydney Freeland
Star: Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, David Sullivan

Catfight

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“All teeth and claws.”

My wife is a big fan of Sandra Oh, for her long-time work on soapy medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy. This is about as far from that as imaginable. It’s a gloriously mean-spirited “comedy” [and I used the quotes out of reverence, not in a bad way], which combines social satire with gleeful hyper-violence, at a level where you would not expect to find serious actresses. Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche) knew each other in college, and have since grown apart. Veronica is now wife to a defense contractor; Ashley a largely unsuccessful artist. They meet at a birthday party, and instantly the hate begins, each representing everything the other finds reprehensible. The night ends in a stairwell brawl, which leaves Veronica in a coma for two years. She awakens, to discover she has lost everything, and Ashley is now on top, enjoying commercial and critical success.

But things are only just getting started.

This is cinematic schadenfreude: watching two thoroughly unpleasant and entitled people lose it all, and take it out on each other. The three-act structure here has each act culminate in a ferocious bout of fisticuffs, whose only point of comparison would be the Roddy Piper/Keith David fight from They Live. It is, equally as much, entirely over-the-top and deliberately so, not least for being backed by classical music e.g. The Stars and Stripes Forever or even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Particular credit goes to the sound design crew, who really go to town, with the blows having so much impact, it feels as if the punches are being launched from a missile silo in Wyoming. You’ll certainly come away with a new appreciation for the art of foley.

It’s nicely even-handed in its cynical view: most films would be inclined to come down on the side of one or other protagonist, but here, any bias is more likely to reflect the viewer’s point of view. Personally, I though Oh hit it out of the park with her performance: she has a great face, capable of conveying a wealth of emotion with a look. Though no, darling: I still won’t watch Grey’s. [Bonus points to Chris, as she did notice the hospital in which Veronica wakes up is called Mercy General, a name likely chosen as a nod to the rival hospital in the show, Mercy West.] But it is undeniably a two-hander, with credit due to both: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in that, I was occasionally reminded of a more brutal version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Credit is particularly due for the ending, where I felt certain the movie was going to cop out, delivering a sappy “kiss and make up” conclusion. There would probably be hugs, it would be utterly at odds with the acid venom of the previous 90 minutes, and I’d walk away disappointed. I’m delighted to say I was entirely wrong, and the ending fits the film perfectly. This is an ugly, guilty pleasure: yet, a pleasure it undeniably is.

Dir: Onur Tukel
Star: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Ariel Kavoussi

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl

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“They’re super, thanks for asking…”

Initially a web series, the eight episodes are combined into a feature-length production here, and it’s done well enough you can’t see the join. It’s inspired by a Sid + Marty Krofft creation from the mid-seventies, which parodied the Batman and Robin dynamic. Four decades later, when it seems every other movie is a superhero of one form or another, the updated concept works deliciously well, helped by a winning lead performance from Hart as Dyna Girl. She and her partner Electra Woman (Helbig) are low-tier superheroines – without any particular powers, in fact – who operate out of Akron, Ohio until video of them disarming (literally) a convenience store robber goes viral.

That gets them the attention of CMM, the top talent agency for caped crusaders, which necessitates a move from Akron to Los Angeles. With the fame and fortune comes its share of problems, as the more photogenic Electra Woman is seen as the lead, with Dyna Girl increasingly reduced to “sidekick” status. Worse is to follow, as the first supervillain in a long time shows up in Los Angeles, and the ‘Empress of Evil’ rapidly takes out Major Vaunt, the city’s top hero. Can EW + DG patch up their creative differences and save the City of Angels? [Or, at least, the City of Vancouver, attempting to stand-in for the City of Angels…]

I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by this. I had no clue at all what to expect, having never even heard of the show before, and not even seen a trailer. But I greatly appreciated the dry wit, often bordering on sarcasm, not often seen to this extent in American films. Helbig and Hart are, apparently, YouTube stars, which may help explain the abundant references to social media and pop culture in the script. These may not date well, i.e. jokes about Uber discount coupons or filming with your phone vertical, and if you don’t know what a “Reddit AMA” is, much of the satire there may go over your head. For now, however, it hit the mark for me, and the entirely underwhelming nature of the heroines along with their (lack of) abilities and down-to-earth personalities made them far more relatable than the likes of Jessica Jones.

As you should probably expect, the action aspects are somewhat restrained. Yet these are more successful than you’d imagine and are meshed into the rest of the film nicely – the villains who are beaten up by our two leading ladies sell their punishment magnificently, which certainly helps! It’s also refreshing that there is basically not even the hint of any romantic elements here at all; EW & DG sleep in twin bunk-beds, above each other. This charming naiveté extends to other aspects, such as Dyna Girl’s adorably dorky hair-cut, which looks like the kind of thing you do to yourself in the mirror – if you had the attention span of Dory. The self-awareness here is almost off the charts, and this shows that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Dir: Chris Marrs Piliero
Star: Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, Matreya Fedor

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

Revolver Rani

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“More bemusing than amusing.”

revolverraniThe problem with satire, is you have to know what’s being satirized in order to appreciate it. In this case, the twin targets are Indian politics and Bollywood – the local movie industry. I am better informed about the latter than the former, though this is as much because I know virtually nothing about their politics, as because I have the soundtrack to Singh is Kiing [and, yes, that is how it’s spelled]. So it’s possible the satire here went over my head; however, given it was a box-office flop in its home territory, it’s perhaps more likely, this just isn’t very good.

I do get that the heroine appears based on Phoolan Devi, the subject of Bandit Queen. who transitioned from outlaw to politics. Here, Alka Singh, a.k.a. “Revolver Rani” (Ranaut), has just seen her group toppled in elections by her opponents in the Tomar party, led by her nemesis Udaybhan Singh (Hussain) – there is also a blood feud there, as Rani killed one of his relatives in her outlaw days. Her political career is further derailed by Alka falling for wannabe Bollywood actor, Rohan Mehra (Das), and the Tomars decided to take some of their revenge on her by kidnapping him. While she rides to the rescue and succeeds in liberating him, their relationship grows increasingly complicated: not only does she have to deal with the Tomars, her uncle (Mishra), who has been carefully plotting her rise to power and influence over the preceding years, is also unimpressed with what he sees as Rohan’s distraction. So he drugs his protege, and forces Rohan to marry in order to get him out of the picture, even though alka is, by now, pregnant with his child.

It is, presumably, deliberate that the songs here are quite extraordinarily crappy, featuring lyrics like “I am not bad, I am brutal, my baby/I will eat you like noodle, my baby.” And do not even get me started on the band of Michael Jackson impersonators, hired to perform at an event. The main issue is that, after a fun, animated opening credit sequence and Alka’s rescue of her boyfriend, we see virtually nothing of her bad-assishness until the very end of the film. Despite her fondness for metallic lingerie, “Revolver Rani” spends most of the intervening time – and, in keeping with Bollywood tradition, that is a lot of time (this runs 132 minutes in total) – either unconscious or wanting to be little more than a mother and housewife. She eventually does rebel against her uncle and his scheming betrayal, just as the Tomars send their forces to take her out, and the resulting gun-battle is impressively-staged; the very end also suggests Kabir has more than a passing acquaintance with Kill Bill. It is, unfortunately, very much a case of “too little, too late,” and while I admit this may play better to a native audience, any unprepared Westerner picking it up off Netflix is going to be very, very confused.

Dir: Sai Kabir
Star: Kangana Ranaut, Vir Das, Zakir Hussain, Piyush Mishra

My Young Auntie

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“Serious kung fu, light gags.”

youngauntieHui won the Best Actress award at the first ever Hong Kong Film Awards for her role in this 1981 film, in which she plays Cheng Tai-nun, a young martial-arts expert who marries an elderly landowner so that his unscrupulous brother won’t be able to take the landowner’s assets upon his death. Instead, title passes to Tai-nun, who heads off to Canton to stay with her (much older) nephew, Yu Cheng-chuan (Lau), and his son Yu Tao (Ho), whose hip, young ways clash badly with Tai-nun much more traditionalist views. But the brother plans to steal the dead to what he considers “his” estate, and it’s up to Tao and Tai-nun to prevent that – with the help of a roster of elder relatives and Cheng-chuan, who must also be coached in the ways of kung-fu.

There’s three-quarters of a very good film here, and Hui is amazing; not someone to whom I’d paid any attention before, she was both lithe and graceful. This isn’t limited to her fighting skills. Perhaps the peak of the film is a masked ball which Tai-nun is tricked into attending by Tao, and her lack of dance skills are embarrassingly exposed, in a range of genres from tango to swing. It’s brilliant, because you get a real appreciation for the coordination required in making yourself look incredibly uncoordinated. That this turns into a massive and well choreographed sword-fight, with Tai-nun dressed as Marie Antoinette [at a guess] is merely a very pleasant bonus. Director Lau went on to helm Drunken Master II and this has much the same approach, combining comedy and action to good effect; the laughter flows naturally from the characters, rather than (as so often) appearing forced; the caption from the trailer, quoted at the top, gets it about right.

The main problem is a final third which unceremoniously shunts Tai-nun off to one side, with the climax pitting Tao and his older uncles against their thieving relative, as they try to get the property deed back to its rightful owner. If decent enough, there’s nothing at all to separate it from a plethora of other films of its kind and type from the era, and you just wish they had given Hui – perhaps with Ho – a final chance to shine, instead of all but eliminating her from the movie that bears her character’s name. Still, if you can keep your brain around the blizzard of generational family loyalties (or, alternatively, ignore them completely), you’re in for a fun time. If it could fairly be accused of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the wall, more than enough sticks to justify it, and Hui makes for a striking heroine, whose other films I am clearly going to have to chase down.

Dir: Lau Kar Leung
Star: Kara Hui, Hsiao Ho, Lau Kar Leung, Wang Lung Wei, Gordon Liu

Chastity Bites

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“Not-so real housewives.”

chastitybitesA somewhat successful modernization of the vampire legend, it sees feminist wannabe journo Leah (Scagliotti) clashing with the popular clique at her high-school, under their queen bee Ashley (Okuda). Just as Leah is preparing a devastating expose on how the cool girls are planning a mass virginity loss, the ground gets pulled out from under her by the arrival of Liz Batho (Louise Griffiths), a counselor who begins a devastatingly successful abstinence program, the Virginity Action Group, into which Ashley and her cronies buy in, for their own ends. Liz also lures in the local moms, with her devastatingly impressive line of skin-care products. Leah digs into the past of Ms. Batho and thanks to a helpful tip from her Internet search engine (which is, at least, a first in cinematic plotting!), realizes Liz is – gasp! – Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who escaped being walled up in her chamber, and has roamed the world ever since, using the blood of virgins to sustain her youth. But since Leah’s relationship with local police soured following an article calling them racist, she’s going to have to stop the Countess using her own resources.

The results are sporadically funny. It’s a nice reversal on the usual horror trope of “have sex and die,” [albeit not the first: Cherry Falls already got there], and some of the characters are a hoot. Griffiths hits the spot just right as Bathory, combining elegance and threat with just a hint of Katie Holmes, and Okuda makes the Alpha Bitch far more rounded than most depictions [it took Chris to realize where we’d seen her before; she plays Tinkerballa in popular web-series The Guild] But she and Scagliotti are both clearly past high-school, well into their twenties, and so aren’t convincing teenagers. The heroine also appears to have eaten a dictionary, leading to dialogue that is both forced and not as witty as it thinks it is. Worst of all, I could have done entirely without Leah’s lesbian sidekick (Raisa), since her main purpose in the film appears to be to allow for embarrassingly-bad banter with her gal-pal.

It does make some nice stabs (hohoho) at social satire, in particularly the hypocrisy of high-school and American vs. European values, but it’s a bit too monotone in its approach. I did appreciate its almost entirely gynocentric nature. The only male character of note, is in the film mostly to ensure Leah is no use to the Countess, and when the chips are down, rather than rescuing anyone, is disposed of with ease, leaving Leah to face her immortal enemy alone. However, there remains too much of a problem with the heroine, who comes over for much of the movie as smugly PC, rather than someone with whom I’m interested in spending time. It’s this which restricts the film’s eventual success, leaving it as more of a respectable time-passer than an outstanding triumph.

Dir: John V. Knowles
Star: Allison Scagliotti, Louise Griffiths, Amy Okuda, Francia Raisa

Zero Motivation

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“Inaction heroines.”

zeromotivationWhile a period of national service in the armed forces may seem a good idea in theory, this satirical Israeli film is likely a good depiction of what it means in practice: a lot of thoroughly unmotivated soldiers, who just want to kill time and GTFO back to civilian life. This may not seem like an inspiring subject for a movie, yet somehow, ends up an endearing and amusing look at life in the armed forces, when your chief responsibility is basically to be in charge of shredding unwanted documents. For there is, it appears, a lot of bureaucracy and shuffling of paperwork in the the Israeli army, and that’s what Daffi (Tagar), Zohar (Ivgy) and their colleagues have to do.

They work in the office of their base, under the wary guise of long-suffering matriarch officer Rama (Klein), who tries to encourage their military habits into concepts such as, “Being a paper shredding NCO is what you make of it.” Of course, being young women, they are more interested in men, personal drama and owning the office high-score on Minesweeper. Or in Daffi’s case, getting out of the desert and being sent to an urban post like Tel Aviv. That requires her completing officer training, but when she does, Daffi discovers exactly why Rama perpetually has that look, and sets up a staple-gun shoot-out (right) with Zohar, after Daffi tries to erase her games.

Writer-director Lavie based the script on her own experiences, saying, “Like most girls during their two years of service, we didn’t risk our lives. But we were definitely in danger of dying of boredom.” There’s definitely an air of Private Benjamin here, and in particular Goldie Hawn griping, “I joined a different army. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms. ” While the conscripts here are under fewer illusions on their way in, it does a wonderful job of illustrating the gap between the broader perception of army life, and the tedious reality, which involves far more meetings, forms and guard duty. And for the last-named, not even the exciting stuff at the gates, but safely inside the base, where the sole “threat” is soldiers who can’t find the canteen.

The film is loosely divided into three sections, and it manages to juggle the comedic and dramatic elements quite nicely, so that some quite sharp shifts in tone are not too jarring. It’s certainly a concept which could easily be extended to a TV series – think M.A.S.H. in the Israeli desert, though I would certainly not have minded some more actual action. As is, the film may be almost the antithesis of what you’d expect in a “girls with guns” movie, yet you’d be hard-pushed to conclude this was a particularly bad thing. What it may lack in pulse-pounding, adrenalin-powered gunplay, is balanced by a selection of quirkily entertaining characters and a sharply-observed script.

Dir: Talya Lavie
Star: Nelly Tagar, Shani Klein, Dana Ivgy, Heli Twito

Hot Pursuit

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“Colombia 1, America 1.”

Your tolerance for this may well depend on your fondness for Modern Family, in which Vergara plays Gloria, who is much the same character: a Colombian spitfire trophy-wife. It works rather better there, as part of the broad palette of distinct individuals, and in an episode that lasts 30 minutes, including commercials. You get the sense she might not be too easy to live with, and the 85 minutes here does sometimes become more a slog than a pleasure, and we speak as big fans of Family. Here, rather than the wife of a closet magnate, Daniella Riva (Vergara) is married to the henchman of a drug lord, who gets gunned down after agreeing to testify against his employer  (Cosio), just as the straight-laced Officer Cooper (Witherspoon) arrives to escort them to court. When it becomes clear some corrupt cops are in on the action, Cooper and Riva are forced to strike out on their own, making for an unlikely odd couple, whose spiky relationship grows over the course of their unscheduled road-trip.

It’s certainly far from novel, and the whole concept is so well-worn and utterly predictable, the script might as well have grooves and be mounted on rails. This is not a film to watch if you want to be surprised, in any shape or form; it’s more like a comfy jersey, that you pull on, knowing exactly what to expect. As such, there are some moments which are genuinely amusing, such as when Cooper ends up coked-up by (literal) accident, chattering away like a highly-caffeinated dolphin. It’s not Witherspoon’s first entry here either; back in her early days, Freeway won our Seal of Approval, and more recently, we also reviewed Wild, which had her stepping out into the wilderness. This is a more obvious role, in more ways than one; like the story, Cooper is over-familiar from a hundred other comedies, and making her a woman isn’t sufficient deviation to create interest. Witherspoon certainly tries, and the effort is palpable; however, there’s only so far effort can take you, given such lazy writing.

With Vergara, the problem is almost the reverse; Riva certainly has more of an arc than Cooper, and is given some genuine motivation for her actions, rather than existing purely because the plot demands it. However, if you’ve caught one episode of Modern Family, you’ve already seen all this performance has to offer. It probably says a lot, that Vergara’s turn in Machete Kills offered a more highly-nuanced approach to acting. I’m thinking this is probably the first time Machete Kills and “highly-nuanced” have ever been used in the same sentence. The end result just about manages to skate by on the charisma of its two leads, and I can’t say we were ever bored; that hardly counts as anything even approaching a glowing recommendation, however, and you should be in a thoroughly undemanding mood before approaching this one.

Dir: Anne Fletcher
Star: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Robert Kazinsky, Joaquín Cosio,

Miss Nobody

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“Climbing the corporate ladder can be murder.”

missnobodySarah Jane (Bibb) has been working for years as a unassuming secretary in a pharmaceutical company, and egged on by colleague and best friend Charmaine (Pyle), eventually gets up the courage to apply for an executive position. With some embellishment of her resume, she gets the post, only to have it yanked from under her when a new hotshot arrives. The hotshot makes a pass at her, leading to his accidental death; Sarah Jane has her position restored as a result of this untimely demise, and discovers her late rival had the plans for a wonder-drug with the potential to reverse Alzheimer’s. However, she soon realizes that further deaths will be necessary, both to keep her secret, and also continue her rise up the chain of command. Complicating matters, she starts dating one of the policemen (Goldberg) involved in the investigation of the slew of suspicious corporate deaths, by train, photocopier, gas explosion, etc.  Worse yet, someone clearly knows what Sarah Jane has been up to, and starts trying to blackmail her.

The film could have gone a number of different ways in terms of its approach, such as black comedy – Heathers would be the best example of that approach. However, Cox strenuously avoids the darker tone, opting to keep things frothy and light: there’s little or no doubt, for example, that Sarah Jane’s victims deserve some kind of retribution [although you can certainly argue whether their crimes reach a level where the death penalty is merited]. It does, of course, rely heavily on the stupidity of just about everyone beyond the heroine, the rest of the characters behaving in ways that would only happen in this kind of film. However, the cast are good enough to pull this off, with Bibb endearingly perky in the lead, and getting good support from Pyle (Cleaners), as well as Vivica A. Fox (Kill Bill) as another corporate rival, plus Barry Bostwick as the local Catholic priest, who has some difficulty coming to terms with the heinous crimes to which Sarah Jane confesses.

I was, however, unconvinced by the ease with which she slides from mouse-like secretary into serial-killing predator. Especially given – or, depending on your view of religious zealotry – even allowing for, her devout faith [she prays nightly before a shrine to St. George, a statue of whom played a formative role in her youth], it’s a slippery slope down which Sarah Jane less slides, than cheerfully sprints. The bubbly approach also seems awkwardly at odds with the subject matter, though the performances help deflect attention from this while the film is in motion. I’d likely have preferred a sharper edge to the corporate satire; there’s no shortage of potential targets there, yet this has about as much edge as a letter-opener, and that limits the impact, turning this into little more than a competently fluffy time-passer.

Dir: T. Abram Cox
Star: Leslie Bibb, Adam Goldberg, Missi Pyle, Kathy Baker