Huff

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“Brings home the bacon.”

A modern-day update of The Three Little Pigs, this works better than you might think. The wolf is “Huff” (O’Connell), a really warped individual whose interests appear to be religion, drugs and molesting his three step-daughters. Bit of an odd combination. Their mother, Lorelei (Elina Madison), is a largely absent stripper, who seems not to care too much that her boyfriend’s attention have now turned from her oldest daughter, Brixi (Bollinger), to the youngest one, Shay (Stefanko). But when Huff prepares his big score, using cash “borrowed” from his mistress’s ex-husband (or something like that – the relationships here are so complicated, you need a chart to keep track), Lorelei sees her opportunity, sending the three girls away with the money. That leaves Huff in serious trouble, and he’s soon after them, intent on retrieving the cash. Huff is indeed going to puff… on his asthma inhaler.

Yeah, that’s a bit of an over-reach, and you feel it might have worked better, had the makers not apparently felt obligated to stick so close to their source. Contrast, say, Freeway, which was a similarly modern version of a fairly tale, specifically Little Red Riding Hood – but had no qualms about discarding elements that didn’t fit, and was all the better for it. Here, even the daughters’ names are clunkily shoehorned in to the narrative; as well as Brixi and Shay, there’s Styx. Okay, I think we get the concept: even for a stripper mom, those are a bit much. Fortunately, when it’s not being incredibly contrived, this is a decent enough slab of trashy fun, located right at the bottom of the social pecking order – although everyone has far better teeth, and are generally much more attractive than you’d expect. This is a compromise I’m happy to live with, since it is clearly not intended to be Winter’s Bone.

O’Connell was The Batchelor in the show’s seventh series, in 2005, so guess it’s a bit of a change in pace and content here. He certainly makes for an ultra-evil villain, right from the get-go when he’s telling his (at that point, extremely young) daughters a particularly sordid tale from the Bible. Indeed, it’s kinda remarkable that the sisters have managed to survive with any fragment of their morality intact. Yet, on more than one occasion, Brixi is prepared to imperil herself to protect her siblings – a cooler head might have considered saner options. If you know the fairy-tale, you’ll already know how things progress, and the story follows its inspiration closely, up to the point where Huff and Brixi face off. It’s a finale that really doesn’t deserve the coda it receives, which seems to render much of what has gone before pointless, or close to. But as a tacky grab-bag of low-life scumminess, where an unpleasant death is never far away, it appears more than happy to wallow in the mud along with its “little pigs”. It does so adequately enough to be a guilty pleasure as a result.

Dir: Paul Morrell
Star: Marie Bollinger, Charlie O’Connell, Jenna Stone, Elly Stefanko
a.k.a. Big Bad Wolf

Queen of the South, season two

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“Queen vs. Queen”

The first series was the story of Teresa Mendoza’s fall and rise. From a comfortable life in Mexico, she dropped all the way across the border, to a drug mule at the very bottom of the organization belonging to Camila Vargas (Falcon), before beginning her climb up that cartel’s ladder. The series ended with her becoming Camila’s trusted lieutenant, as her cartel fought for its independence from estranged husband, Don Epifanio. In the second season, the landscape shifts, radically. Indeed, by the end, virtually everything you knew – or thought you knew – has been shaken up.  In particular, the relationship between Camila and Teresa falls apart, as Teresa looks to assert her independence. Initially, Camila is very much on the back foot, having been cut off from both her supplies and her distribution network, and has to rebuild both.

This task requires quite some effort on the part of both her and Teresa, and brings them into contact with some strange characters. On the distribution side, is an eccentric smuggler who calls himself “King George.” He does have a tough streak, but is a quirky character who feels more like a leftover hippie, more amusing than a real threat. That can not be said of Bolivian drug-lord El Santo (played by Steven Bauer, whom my wife says to remind you is Cuban!). He’s part shaman, part Jim Jones, leading his devoted cult of followers through a psycho-chemical process that leaves them… changed. And before he agrees to deal with Camila, he insists Teresa goes through that process. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. The episodes set in Bolivia were definitely eye-opening (an interesting contrast to the Bolivian Fighting Cholitas!), and Santo’s police associate, La Capitana, was almost as bad-ass as Teresa.

But they contributed to what I found was the main problem this season: a lack of focus. The plot seemed to be getting pulled in too many directions: a strength of the first season was it felt unequivocally like Teresa’s story. That didn’t feel the case here. While some of those elements were solid enough – Camila remains a fascinating character, worthy of her own show – I could probably have done, say, without the adventures of her and Epifanio’s bratty teenage daughter. It took until the final episode for that to become relevant; until then, it was more a chore than a pleasure. Similarly, the love triangle between Teresa, colleague-at-arms James (Gadiot) and her former, not-so-dead boyfriend, Guero, was all too obvious.

However, it’s still relentlessly gritty, and the way the relationships between the characters changed over time was very well-plotted. It’s done gradually, so that you don’t realize how former allies have become mortal enemies, until the betrayal occurs. Here, the pivotal moment was Teresa discovering papers proving Camila had set her up, dead in the firing line of a DEA investigation. This finally proved to Teresa what we had suspected all along: that Camila was simply using her, as and when necessary or beneficial, and was undeserving of the loyalty which Teresa had shown here.

The final episode confirmed the battle lines have been redrawn, and sets the stage for series three (the show’s renewal was already announced, last month). To quote the program’s showrunner, Natalie Chaidez, this season “was about Teresa learning what it takes to run a drug cartel from Camila Vargas… Camila taught her some good things, and she taught her some bad things. Now, Teresa has reached the end of the season ready, armed with all of the lessons Camila has taught her.” Mission accomplished, and with the pair now on opposing sides – and with Camila having very good reason to hate Teresa – I’m already anticipating the next series.

Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida

Female Fight Squad

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“Clubbed to death.”

This was originally known as Female Fight Club. I presume the title was changed after a strongly-worded letter from David Fincher’s lawyers, perhaps to evoke thoughts of its star’s stunt work on Suicide Squad. It’s interesting, because Amy Johnston’s previous feature, Lady Bloodfight also underwent a similar title change before release. Unfortunately, this isn’t as good. It reminds me a bit of the films Zoë Bell appeared in, early on in her career. She was usually the best thing in them, but they still weren’t up to much, because Bell was still finding her feet as an actress. Similarly here, there’s no denying Johnston’s talents in motion, yet this does not offer a good setting in which they can be appreciated.

For where Bloodfight played to her strength and packed in wall-to-wall action, here she’s required to do the dramatic lifting here and… Well, let’s just say, when you’re out-acted by Dolph Lundgren, it’s never a good thing.  The story is no better than boilerplate nonsense as well. Rebecca (Johnston) is a former fighter who now works in an animal shelter, because cute puppies. She is forced out of retirement to help her sister, Kate (Palm), who is a hundred grand in debt to some very nasty people. They are led by the creepy Landon Jones (Goyos) and his well-stocked freezer, which is used not solely to store his chosen variety of ice-cream. And he just happens to run an underground all-women fight ring, which Rebecca can enter. What are the odds? Meanwhile, the sisters’ father (Lundgren) is in prison, serving time for a crime he may or may not have committed, and has his own issues to deal with there.

Cue the rolling of eyes. It all rumbles along, from one cliché to the next, and if you’ve seen as many straight-to-video action flicks of the past couple of decades as I have, you’ll understand why this one largely failed to register. The only saving grace are the fights, which are well-enough staged. Johnston clearly knows her stuff, and there is good support from other women with a similar background, such as Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez, playing Landon’s top fighter, known as “Claire the Bull”.  The problem is, there just aren’t enough of these scenes, and the film escalates, inexplicably, to a fight between Rebecca and Landon. The latter was never established as any kind of bad-ass previously, so this makes little or no sense.

I’m still excited to see where Johnston goes from things like this. Right now, she has some room for improvement, both on the acting side and in her choice of projects. But both of these are areas where more experience should naturally lead to positive development. That’s exactly what happened with regard to Bell, who has worked her way up to become of the more reliable action actresses. I get the feeling Johnston has much the same potential, and there’s certainly room for them both in the field.

Dir: Miguel A. Ferrer
Star: Amy Johnston, Cortney Palm, Rey Goyos, Dolph Lundgren

Asphalt Angels

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“More carbon-copy than asphalt.”

While the lack of resources is frequently and painfully obvious, I’m inclined to look kindly on this. My tolerance is due to the abiding love for our genre possessed by writer-director Krueger, shown in the influences, both obvious and subtle, on display here. From Faster Pussycat to Female Prisoner 701, he seems like the kind of man whose DVD collection reflects my own. Hell, despite being set in America, a character here even uses the greeting stance beloved of bad girls in pinky violence movies: knees bent, right arm outstretched, palm up. I can’t truly hate a film made by someone who knows what that is.

The heroine is Casey (Renee), leader of an all-girl gang, but who wants to keep her sister Virginia (Gomez), an up-and-coming BMX champion, out of the criminal lifestyle. Two things derail Casey’s life. Firstly, while rescuing li’l sis from the predatory clutches of another gang, she kills one of their members, and leader Dante (Epperson, shamelessly channeling a young Kevin Bacon) vows revenge. Secondly, a jewel heist goes wrong: she takes the fall so the other members can escape, and ends up in prison, where she has to survive the unwanted attentions of a sadistic lesbian guard, as well as the other inmates. Her absence is particularly bad news for Virginia, since her sibling’s absence means there’s nobody to protect her, when Dante and his crew decide she’s a suitable target for their vengeance.

This production is certainly guilty of trying to go in too many directions. Is it a heist film? A women-in-prison movie? A gang flick? Revenge film? Krueger would have been better off concentrating his efforts in one area, especially given the extremely limited raw materials available to him. The prison, for example, appears to consist of a softball park and a field. There are almost no interior scenes at all. Worst of all is Virginia’s BMX career, which includes copious shots of her waving to an entirely non-existent crowd, nowhere near any BMX track. Really, just make her an honor student at high school and it would have been far easier for everyone involved.

It’s also rather tame for a film with grindhouse aspirations, though this is somewhat “explained” by bookend sequences which make it look as if it’s a late-night movie on seventies network TV. That’s an issue, because the bottom line here is, no matter how adoring a fan letter to the genre this is, it remains that: just a fan letter. Krueger’s heart is in the right place, so it’s not like this is some kind of cash-in “mockbuster”. However, the harsh truth is, you’re simply a good deal better off watching the films that inspired this. For no matter how much Renee tries (and, bless her heart, she certainly is trying), she’s never going to be Tura Satana or Meiko Kaji. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, to be sure.

Dir: Christopher Krueger
Star: Justine Renee, John C. Epperson, Hillary Cook, Blanca Estella Gomez

Blowtorch

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“A mother’s love is relentless.”

Ann Willis (Robbins) is a single mother, working as a waitress and trying to keep family together after the death of her husband from lung cancer. To help out, son David (Abrahamson) abandons his plans to attend college and gets a job in a local factory. But he falls in with some questionable company there and, lured by the prospect of easy money, starts dealing drugs for the local mobsters, run by Canarsie. Things go from bad to worse after his supposed “friend” Mike (Falahee) frames him for the disappearance of some product, and things end with David’s dead body floating in the river, having been beaten to death by his associates. The cops, and in particular, Detective Frank Hogan (Baldwin), investigate – but to be honest, aren’t particularly interested in one drug-dealer being killed.

Ann, however, is made of sterner stuff, and is determined to get to the truth; she doesn’t have the legal limitations which hamper the police either. She realizes that Mike, addicted to the drugs he sells, is the weak link in the cartel. She begins to pick away, relentlessly, at the guilt he feels for having caused the death of David. This brings her into conflict with Det. Hogan. He is not only concerned for her safety in this dangerous world – Canarsie is growing increasingly aware of Ann’s activity – but also the waves she is causing, that threaten to capsize his more measured investigation.

It’s not a terrible film, anchored by a very solid central performance from the thoroughly convincing Robbins. Her mother positively oozes steely determination, and refuses to back down, despite being faced by some authentically unpleasant bad guys. That’s part of a generally good sense of place here: Breslin is born and bred Big Apple, and comes from a family well aware of the scummy side of life. By which I should quickly explain, his father, Jimmy, was a long-time and renowned New York journalist who wrote about organized crime, and was also written to by the “Son of Sam” during the latter’s seventies crime-spree.

However, the script here contains too many missteps to be considered even somewhat successful. Not least is the relationship between Ann and Mike, with Ann acting unfortunately like some kind of revenge-driven MILF. I suspect the intent is to show her “by any means necessary” approach; yet it seems severely out of place with the character established in the first half. The final take-down of the perpetrators doesn’t ring true either, reliant upon that most obvious of saws, criminals who can’t keep their mouths shut – even when, as here, they’re talking to the mother of one of their victims. Really? The net result is a film which builds a solid foundation, and does a good job of populating its world, only to go off the rails increasingly, as it then moves through its story.

Dir: Kevin Breslin
Star: Lois Robbins, Jared Abrahamson, William Baldwin, Jack Falahee

The Collection, by Lance Charnes

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Lance Charnes and I are Goodreads friends, having “met” (electronically) a few years ago through the Action Heroine Fans group. Some time ago, I bought a copy of his outstanding debut novel, Doha 12, and it got five stars from me. This new novel, the opener for a projected series, didn’t come to me as an official review copy –instead, Lance generously donated a print copy to the library where I work– but he knew I would read and review it, and knew my tastes well enough to be pretty sure I’d like it. Of course, we both understood that he might be wrong –but he wasn’t! For much of my reading experience, I expected to rate the book four stars –a denouement and conclusion that blew me to pieces and then knit me back together easily pushed it up to five stars.

Being his Goodreads friend, I try to keep abreast of Lance’s book reviews, so I know firsthand how well read he is in the whole area of the contemporary fine arts market, and particularly of its increasingly seedy underbelly. In real life, art by big-name artists can command staggering prices, and in the last 15-20 years it’s come to be a major commodity in the world of big-time international money laundering and shady commercial exchanges where cash transfers come too easily to the attention of authorities. And a lot of art that’s traded this way may be stolen, or forged.

Rich collectors with an enthusiasm for art aren’t the only players any more; we’re dealing with crime syndicates, corrupt and despotic governments and their officials, and billionaires looking for ways to cheat the tax authorities, and violence and murder may be aspects of normal business operations for some of these people. Lance sets this novel in that milieu, and he and his protagonist Matt Friedrich know it like the back of their hand. The author is also well-traveled; he sets his tale mostly in Europe, and principally Milan, and brings the locale to life with an assurance and level of detail which suggests he’s actually been there, or researched it a LOT online.

This is crime fiction more than traditional mystery; and as in his debut novel, Lance uses the knowledge of skulduggery, weapons, and high-technology snooping gained as a military intelligence officer to good advantage. The plotting is taut (first-person, present-tense narration is used for maximum immediacy) and the pace brisk, with a steady dose of dangerous situations and life-threatening tension. Matt’s crafty scheming sometimes takes the reader by surprise, and he’s sometime majorly taken for surprise himself, along with the reader. Action scenes aren’t frequent, but you never know when they could erupt, and when they do they’re well depicted. I’ve used the term “thriller” for this book, and that’s one I seldom use; I don’t seek out books that bill themselves that way, because I think the plotting is usually so cliched and stereotyped that it fails to thrill. This one doesn’t fail.

I’ve also used the term “gritty.” As described above, the moral world of this novel is a dark one where people are generally guided by the most selfish and cynical of motives, where the law is typically powerless to do much, and where innocent people are hurt as a by-product of what some of the characters routinely do. The DeWitt so-called “Agency” is a morally ambiguous enterprise that works for the highest bidder, and our narrator is an ex-con who was once involved in crooked art deals, and is now so crushed under a mountain of legal debts that he’s willing to violate his parole by working for said agency if it gives him a shot at paying it down.

And yet this is a surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly, given the moral vision that animates the author’s earlier novel) moral work of fiction, with a main character who’s learned something about life and ethics from his time in prison, and who wants to become a human being that he can look in the mirror and respect. He’s going to encounter challenges and decisions here that will put that resolve to the test. Both Matt and Carson (the female operative he’s paired with –who provides the team’s muscles and fighting skill when it’s needed) are intensely vital, round, realistic characters with a credible pattern of interactions that doesn’t stay static, but develops believably. Unlike some writers of this type of fiction, Lance understands that characters you care about are the only thing that can truly provide it with its heart, and he gives character development and relationships their due. There’s a lot that I can’t tell you because I’m determined to avoid spoilers; but I can say that this is where the book really earns its stars. (The principal supporting characters are masterfully drawn as well.)

You don’t have to be familiar with the world of the contemporary art market to enjoy this book (I’m not, at all); the author explains everything you have to know, and he does it easily and smoothly, in small doses with no info-dumps. None of the discussion is detailed enough to be boring. He uses enough physical description to let you visualize scenes, but not, IMO, too much; the same with technological exposition. (At one point, I didn’t really understand what one of the villains was trying to gain by his conduct; but the narrative drive carried me through without asking questions.) f you’re any kind of fan of crime fiction thrillers in a contemporary setting, and my review intrigues you rather than turning you away, I’d say this is definitely worth your checking out. I’m certainly going to be following the series; and I’m now even more anxious to read the author’s South, sooner rather than later!

Matt’s very sensible to feminine charms (he hasn’t been out of prison very long), but there’s no sex here, and Matt actually refrains from taking sexual advantage of one young woman. Violence isn’t any more frequent or graphic than it needs to be. As for bad language, not all of the characters swear, but some do, including Matt; Carson and one of the villains have the worst mouths (including the f-word as regular vocabulary). I never felt that the author was trying to mainstream that kind of thing, nor push the envelope with it.

Author: Lance Charnes
Publisher: Wombat Group Media, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

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

Miss Diamond

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“More like, Miss Cubic Zirconia”

diamond1There’s an exhibition showcasing the first diamonds ever mined in Germany, dug up by the company belonging to Buhler (Kier). Keeping thing safe is the responsibility of security expert Tim (Kretschmann), who doesn’t realize that renowned jewel thief Lana (Speichert) has her eyes on the jewels. So they’re both in for a nasty surprise, because after Lana is caught by Tim in the process of stealing them, it turns out the diamonds are completely fake. Buhler gives her an ultimatum: Lana must find the real diamonds, or she’ll be handed over to the police, and to ensure she doesn’t just run off, tasks Tim with keeping an eye on her. It soon becomes clear, though, that there is more to the mystery than there appears initially, and someone is very keen to stop them from getting to the truth.

This is flat and uninspired in almost every way, beginning with the complete lack of chemistry between Speichert and Kretschmann, though in their defense, the dubbing isn’t exactly helping them. [Or the beloved Udo Kier, who seems to be sleep-walking through his role] However, that can’t explain away the story, which is about as far from sparkling like diamonds as possible, even if you allow for the ludicrous central concept. Diamonds. In Germany.  It features villains who resolutely refuse to behave with even a modicum of common sense. For example, if ever I become an evil overlord, capture my enemies, and need to dispose of them, I will kill them on the spot, not tie them up underground, with the intention of letting them be run over by a slow-moving tunneling machine.

Which brings me to the topic of the action showcased here, and unfortunately, most of it ranges from the physically impossible to the cringe-inducing. The former is showcased during that escape from the tunneling machine, where Lana somehow dangles from a chain with one foot, while simultaneously pulling the 180-lb plus Tim up off the ground. The latter sees Lana doing front flips as she is simply trotting across a roof. Who does she think she is, Catwoman? This soundtrack also appears to be composed by somebody who has listened to too many James Bond films, which simply reminds the viewer of the gulf between this and any 007 movie of the same era.

A couple of marginal saving graces do exist, just not in the central performances, main story-line or cinematic direction. I was kinda amused – perhaps unintentionally – by how crap Tim is. He’s the one that’s always getting knocked out, captured, falling out out boats and generally put in peril, from which Lana has to save him. Some of the vehicle stunt-work is not too bad either. But overall, what you appear to have here is little more than a underwhelming TV pilot, certainly bad enough not to make it to series.

Dir: Michael Karen
Star: Sandra Speichert, Thomas Kretschmann, Udo Kier, Michael Mendl
a.k.a. Die Diebin

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

The Champagne Gang

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“Contains 100% of your daily requirement of eye-candy.”

Under the leadership of Bliss (Toups), whose father is serving an extended stretch in jail, four young women stage a series of convenience-store burglaries in the San Diego area, before moving up to larger schemes. This brings them to the attention of local crime-boss, Cal Wertlieb, who makes them an offer they can’t refuse. He’ll train them to carry out more lucrative jobs, by cracking safes, which will give them access to cash and other easily fungible loot, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds – and their absolute silence in the event of them ever being caught by the authorities.

It opens with the “based on a true story” title, which as usual had me raising a sardonic eyebrow. However, in this case, it appears to be at least somewhat accurate, even if the end credits admit that the real “champagne gang” were Canadian men, rather than California girls! Still, I’m not inclined to criticize writer-diretor-producer Zirilli too much, for taking the more photogenic route. The film is at its best when it’s a lawbreaking version of the ‘police procedural’, i.e. instead of explaining how crimes are investigated, covering the nuts and bolts of how the group pulled off their thefts. These little details here bring the film to life, and help to keep it grounded in reality. That’s something sorely needed, given Zirilli’s horrid over-fondness for irrelevances, such as the make-over, the surfing montage, or the cringeworthy concert with a cameo by Bokeem Woodbine.

The film does make some effort at making the girls individuals, even if outside of Bliss, this largely consists of giving the other three a single-word character. Thus, we have Nerdy Michelle (Lakota), Bimbo Erika (Tobiason) and Bitchy Amanda (Serano), but I guess there was a conscious decision to sacrifice further character development, on the altar of that surfing montage. Shallow though these are, it does help set up the plot, with Erika tending to ill-considered actions which bring heat in their wake, such as contacting her boyfriend when they’re supposed to be laying low. There are also occasional moments of nice self-deprecation, such as when Bliss explains their aesthetic choice of footwear on their raids: “We really should have been wearing sensible shoes for the climbing. But we knew we could do it in high-heeled boots. After all – we’re girls.”

Unfortunately, the decent aspects tend to accentuate the copious quantities of padding necessary to get from the set-up to the conclusion, where the cops finally realize they’re not chasing a male gang. Zirilli the director should have gone back to Zirilli the writer, and demanded he put more meat on the bones, of a script that has flashes of some potential. Outside of Bliss, there’s not even a fragment of motivation for anyone involved, and you’re left watching something which too often drifts into being not much more substantial than an elaborate pop promo.

Dir: Daniel Zirilli
Star: Lacey Toups, Candise Lakota, Tarah Tobiason, Suri Serano
The whole movie is on YouTube, if the trailer below whets your interest.