Women Who Kill

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“Not so basic instincts.”

When I told Chris the title of this one, I swear you could hear her eyes rolling at the mere thought of it. But by the end, even she had to admit to having been won over by its dark charms. Most obviously is the sense of black humour which isn’t just dry, it’s as arid as the Atacama Desert. Morgan (Jungermann) and Jean (Carr) are fascinated by female serial killers, running a podcast on the topic which has acquired its own, unique fanbase. Morgan falls for Simone (Vand), a colleague at the food co-operative where she works. But Jean – who is also Morgan’s ex – can’t help thinking there is something seriously off with Simone.

At first, this seems like petty jealousy. But what exactly is Simone keeping in that lock-box of hers? Could she be a candidate for the podcast, more than Morgan’s new soul-mate? As things progress – a mysterious death at the co-operative, the realization that “Simone” may be just the latest in a series of identities, circling back towards one of their podcast subjects – the crunch eventually comes. Jungermann seems to be stressing the difference between chatting vapidly about which serial killer was the most “stylish”, or interviewing one in captivity (O’Toole provides a deliciously twisted cameo as the incarcerated Lila, voted second-most stylish by the podcast’s listeners – she is not at all impressed by the winner), and having to deal with one in the wild. When there’s someone who might or might not present a direct threat to you and your friends, it’s no longer a vicarious thrill.

This is set almost exclusively in the lesbian community – there are very few speaking male roles. But it’s still enormously accessible, and avoids the frequent pitfall of gay cinema, making its characters human first, rather than defined predominately by their sexuality. Morgan’s insecurities, such as the belief Simone is too attractive possibly to be attracted to her, are universal ones. Her reactions, similarly, make sense in the circumstances. These help keep the film grounded, along with dialogue which is all the better for being delivered almost entirely deadpan by everyone involved. [There’s something of Carrie-Anne Moss about Jungermann, both in her look and delivery of lines]

It is definitely a movie for a certain taste. If you’re not fond of acidic wit, this won’t be your cup of herbal tea, and it does occasionally become too wrapped up in itself; I’m sure aspects flew well over our heads. The script also seems to run out of steam, providing an ending that fizzles out into indie indecisiveness. Mind you, given one of the film’s subtexts is the fear of commitment, perhaps its ending is another reflection of the same thing. There was still easily enough to keep us interested, and it proves that good characters and solid dialogue are not limited by cinematic boundaries of genre or setting. I trust Chris learned not necessarily to judge a movie by its title!

Dir: Ingrid Jungermann
Star: Ingrid Jungermann, Ann Carr, Sheila Vand, Annette O’Toole

Colossal

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“A giant conundrum.”

After breaking up with her boyfriend, Gloria (Hathaway) holes up in her middle-American hometown. She gets a job in a bar, run by her childhood pal, Oscar (Sudeikis) – not that this employment does much for Gloria’s burgeoning alcoholism. Meanwhile, over in Korea, the city of Seoul is being plagued by a giant monster, which will appear out of nowhere, behave oddly, and then vanish again. Gloria eventually figures out that when she goes through a particular spot – a local children’s playground – at a specific time, the creature appears in Korea, and its actions reflect hers. Turns out Oscar can do the same, manifesting in Seoul as a giant robot, and he may not be as benign with his new-found powers, as Gloria is attempting to be.

This is a severe mess in terms of genre, and very difficult to put into any particular bucket. It’s part comedy, part drama, part fantasy – yet not sufficiently any of them to the point where I can confidently say it would appeal to fans of that kind of film. It is the kind of quirky role for which Hathaway is well suited, and Sudeikis does well, in a “low-rent substitute for Ben Affleck” kinda way. I just wish Vigalondo (whose time-travel flick, Los cronocrímenes, is one of the best of its kind) had taken the concept here and really run with the possibilities. I guess budget may have limited him there, but I’d like to have seen  Gloria and Oscar do more than standing around, waving their limbs somewhat. The trailer suggested a bit more than that.

I think this might be intended to be a parable for abusive relationships, with Oscar using controlling tactics and threats to ensure that Gloria doesn’t go back to the big city and/or her boyfriend there. Or perhaps Oscar is intended to represent the alcohol which is Gloria’s bête noire? You can more or less make up whatever you want here. And you’ll probably have to, because if this film doesn’t credibly explain how two people can project into South Korean monsters (it’s something to do with a childhood trauma, a smashed show-and-tell project and lightning), you know you’re not going to be given much in the way of character motivation.

Re-reading the above, it comes over as negative to a greater extent than it should. Gloria is a likeably flawed lead, I was kept interested, generally amused and occasionally impressed. Yet, it feels like a seriously wasted opportunity, something which could have ended up occupying a deliciously excessive and demented spot between Pacific Rim and Monsters vs. Aliens. Instead, it’s far lower-key and takes place on a surprisingly small scale, than anything involving a monster, hundreds of foot high, terrorizing an Asian city should. If your expectations are similarly restrained, this is likely to work better. I can state with a fair degree of certainty, you won’t have seen anything like it before. And once you’ve seen it, you will probably understand why.

Dir: Nacho Vigalondo
Star: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell

Taking Stock

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“Bonnie and Clyde? Banal and tired, more like…”

Kate’s (Brook) life has fallen apart: she has just been told the store she works at is closing because the owner is cashing in on a redevelopment offer; her boyfriend has dumped her; and Kate’s attempt at suicide by gas oven is doomed since she failed to pay the bill. What’s a girl to do? The answer is apparently, take inspiration from her heroine, Bonnie Parker. But rather than robbing banks, Kate teams up with her other disgruntled work colleagues, hatching a daring plan to copy the key to the store, seduce the safe combination out of the firm’s accountant, Mat (Williams) and plunder the ill-gotten gains.

This comes in at a terse 75 minutes, and that’s a very wise move, because the script’s actual content is thin to the point of paucity. Even with the short running time, it seems to run out of actual ideas round about the 30-minute mark, then tries to skate by for the remainder of the movie on Brook’s charisma. Which is not necessarily a bad idea in itself: Kate is an appealing character, with whom it’s easy to empathize, and Brook does a rather better job with her portrayal than I’d have expected from someone previously seen only in Piranha 3D – in which it wasn’t her acting talents which were most apparent, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

But the concept of transferring Bonnie & Clyde to a British setting is a poorly-considered one at best, not least because the closest Kate gets to touching an actual gun, is a vague impersonation of Travis Bickle, using a hair-dryer. Really, when it’s so watered down, what’s the point? I suspect the plot started from this ill-conceived premise, before writer-director Murphy quickly discovered it wasn’t working, only for her to plough on regardless, to the bitter end. Which, in this case, involves a getaway chase on bicycles. This perhaps illustrates its aim of being quirky, in the style of an Ealing comedy, yet contemporarily British. Perhaps too contemporary, with references to Nando’s that won’t travel or date well, and its hip-yet-casual attitude quite quickly turns into forced and artificial.

The rest of the cast beyond Brook are something of a mixed bunch. Williams occasionally appears to be channeling the spirit of David Tennant, and while there are worse things to channel, you’re left with a desire to go and rewatch Broadchurch. No-one else makes much of an impression. Did I say “much”? Any at all, would be more accurate. The film is in particular need of a better antagonist, against whom Kate can go up; her boss at the store is so lightly-drawn as barely to register. Indeed, beyond Brook, little of it will stick in the mind: this is cinematic fluff, and as such, its flaws may be a case of unfulfilled expectations. However, when I hear “a British Bonnie & Clyde,” what that suggests is considerably darker fare than this breezy, entirely forgettable romp.

Dir: Maeve Murphy
Star: Kelly Brook, Scot Williams, Georgia Groome, Femi Oyeniran

Scream of the Bikini

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“It is a regular adventure!”

This appears to have been filmed somewhere in South America around 1966, then “poorly translated and dubbed by Germans”. The truth? It’s a modern spoof, a loving re-creation of the sixties Eurospy thriller, featuring two gun-toting leggy lovelies, Bridget (supposedly “Jasmine Orosco”, but actually Wedeen) and Sophia (“Paola Apanapal”, Larsen), who are international fashion supermodels by day, and jet-setting bounty hunters and secret agents by night. They acquire a microchip, capable of storing a whole one kilobyte of data – more than all the computers of Interpol and the Pentagon combined! – which embroils them in an evil plot to unleash wholesale devastation on the world’s population. As you do.

It absolutely nails the tone on just about every level, from the fashion styles through the washed-out palette of an elderly print and super funky sixties soundtrack, to the poor dubbing and English-as-a-second-language translations. “A death cult!” burbles one of our heroines – “The worst kind of cult,” adds the other, helpfully. It’s a genre ripe for parody, but it’s clear that Scholl – a theater director – as well as his cast and crew, have an abiding affection for their subject. It probably will help to have seen at least some of these kind of movies, and it’s likely the greater your familiarity, the more you’ll get out. Though even those whose knowledge is no more than a viewing of, say, Barbarella, should still have enough expertise to mine a decent amount of amusement.

It definitely reminded me of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, though the target there was 50’s SF/horror. That was also somewhat more polished, and perhaps did a slightly better job of sustaining itself over the entire feature-length; there are spots here, particularly in the second half, where the script seems to run out of ideas. But just when your interest drops to a dangerously low level, a line of dialogue or a scene will pop up out of nowhere, that’s laugh out-loud funny,  and you’re back to being engrossed once more. If you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ll know the way this scatter-gun approach works, and that such an angle will generally result in considerable misses, as well as hits.

It can be a difficult task to pull off: when you go out there with the deliberate intention of trying to make a “cult” movie, more often than not, the results will end up self-absorbed and inadequate. [Compare, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the abomination which was its follow-up, Revenge of the Old Queen] I think the genuine affection mentioned above is a big help. While this is a parody, it’s a warm one, and you don’t get the sense it is laughing at this kind of film, so much as with it. In many ways, I probably found this more entertaining than many of its targets; an awareness of its own stupidity goes a long way to mitigating the flaws.

Dir: Kiff Scholl
Star: Kelsey Wedeen, Rebecca Larsen, Darrett Sanders, Kimberly Atkinson

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