Goddess of Love

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“My super crazy ex-girlfriend.”

Right from the start, it’s established that Venus (Kendra) is not the most mentally stable of creatures, alternating between emotional fits in the bathtub, drug abuse and her day job as a stripper. That’s pretty much the trifecta of Stay Away for any man. But she ends up dating one of her strip-club customers, Brian (Naismith), a photographer who likes Venus because… she reminds him of his late wife. Which as opening lines go, I’d imagine would rank highly as Stay Away for any woman. While initially working far better than you’d expect, that only makes the eventual crash and burn of their relationship, all the more brutal.

It begins when she sees the name “Christine” (Sandy) pop up on his phone, setting off a downward spiral of insecurity and paranoia. Brian admits it’s an old flame, whom he still uses as a model, but Venus suspects there’s a lot more going on than photography. This doesn’t endear her to Brian, who stops replying to her text messages, and tries to end their relationship. Which works about as well as you’d expect – especially if you ever saw Fatal Attraction. Venus decides that the best way to Brian’s heart apparently lies through… Well, Christine’s rib-cage – though getting there requires some ramping up of their rivalry. And it turns out Christine has a vicious streak of her own, when pushed far enough. But how much of what’s unfolding has any basis in objective reality – as opposed to being merely shrapnel from Venus’s disintegrating psychological state?

It’s a tale as old as time, true as it can be: don’t stick your dick in crazy. But it’s still a topic worth revisiting, albeit likely for entertainment value, more than any educational purposes. The movie benefits by a good performance from Kendra, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Knautz. That likely helps defuse some criticisms of exploitation – while the stripper angle does appear to exist, largely for titillation, Kendra the writer can hardly be exploiting Kendra the actress. On the other hand, it’s not exactly what anyone would call a sympathetic portrayal of mental illness. The only person who shows even some concern for Venus’s plight is colleague Chanel (Scott), and that doesn’t make it to the end of the movie intact.

Still, it’s not unpleasant as potboilerish entertainment, particularly when Christine and Venus start going at it. I also appreciated the gradual slide into a state where you can never quite be sure of the accuracy of what you’re seeing. Everything is experienced from Venus’s point of view (which is where it differs from Fatal Attraction), and the unreliability of that perspective becomes increasingly called into question as the film proceeds. Technically, it’s reasonably sound, though a few rough edges did stick out, to remind me of its low-budget nature. But it’s perhaps best taken as a modern-day version of a morality play: don’t cheat on your significant other, do drugs, or date strippers. Rules we can all strive to live by.

Dir: Jon Knautz
Star: Alexis Kendra, Woody Naismith, Elizabeth Sandy, Monda Scott

Bleeding Hearts

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“Not bleeding awful – but close.”

Stumbled across this low-budget horror flick almost by accident when I was Googling the similarly-titled but very different, Bleeding Heart. The premise was kinda intriguing: five successful half-sisters (doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc), living in a small town, take a month off each year together and vanish off the grid. What the townfolk don’t know, is they kidnap various obnoxious menfolk under the guidance of leader Leslie (Robbins), subjecting them to unspeakable tortures and eventually killing them, before returning to everyday life. Into this town comes documentary film-maker Oliver Jaffe (Diamond), who starts to investigate the odd situation, after his car breaks down in town.

The same director previously made Scavenger Killers, which was kinda like a sleazy version of Natural Born Killers, also starring Robbins – this is similarly low-brow, apparently attempting to be as offensive as possible. If you’re not prepared to cope with a naked man in a cage on his haunches, being violated with a wire-brush, this is probably not for you. Though you’d be forgiven for wondering if there’d been some kind of mix-up with the DVD at the beginning, which starts as a social satire in which Santa (the late Charles Durning, in his last feature appearance), Jesus and Satan share a house, occasionally being harangued by God (Tony Todd). Turns out, this is a film-within-a-film, being made by one of the sisters’ targets this year.

Even as someone who IS prepared to cope with the extreme content, I found the results were actually kinda tedious: if ever a film is guilty of trying too hard, it’s probably this one. There’s no shortage of nudity from the actresses, to the extent I began to wonder if this was filmed in its entirety at an adult film convention. But it’s curiously uninteresting and ineffectual, since you’re never really given any reason to care much. The structure is weird too: there’s so little connection between the two halves of the story, right until the end, I wondered if Diamond and Robbins would ever meet (just as I strongly suspect Todd’s scenes were filmed separately from everyone else’s, since you don’t see him and anyone else in the same shot).

Instead, Diamond’s half feels almost like complete filler: there’s no real sense of “investigation” since the audience already knows the truth about what’s going on. Or, most of the truth, at least. While there’s a last reel twist or two, these are no more effective than most of the other aspects. You may be left to wonder why they bother having five sisters, when there’s no more than 2.4 personalities between them – Leslie, and perky foot-model Candy (Lorraine) being responsible for the great bulk of that. This is one of those cases where I can see how the various pieces of the jigsaw could have been fitted together into something potentially transgressive and interesting. It never gets there though, and the likes of Todd, Durning and even Robert Loggia, who plays the local sheriff, are not well-served by this at all.

Dir: Dylan Bank
Star: Rachael Robbins, Dustin Diamond, Suzi Lorraine, Melantha Blackthorne

Julia X

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“Battle of the sexes.”

juliaxA date appears to go badly wrong for Julia (Azlynn), when her companion (Sorbo) turns out to be a serial-killer who has been using Internet dating sites to find the young women he targets. However, it turns out the tables are eventually turned, for Julia and her sister Jessica (Willis) are every bit as monstrous, who have been luring in and killing men, as a result of the abuse they both suffered at the hands of their father. But Jessica is a bit fed up of taking a back seat to her big sis, and wanders across the street to kidnap a victim of her own (Moore). But Julia’s captive is not exactly prepared to give up his liberty without a fight.

Nice bit of casting against type for Sorbo, whom we’re used to seeing in more heroic roles. He’s quite effective in a Patrick Bateman-esque way (American Psycho, if you’d forgotten), and this is certainly an equal opportunity film, in terms of the copious violence inflicted both on and by women. The last third is not much more than the two leads battering each other forcefully through the entire house, with extreme and escalating aggression. It’s the kind of thing which I should love. So why does it all feel relatively unaffecting and forced?

It may be because the scenario unfolding requires almost industrial strength idiocy from the main characters. Sorbo’s killer, for example, is so sloppily incompetent, it’s a wonder he managed to pull off his first murder without accidentally killing himself. The sisters aren’t much better, and we’re not given much of a reason to root for Julia and Jessica either. I get the feeling the reveal of them being psychos as well is supposed to “matter”, but it has next to no impact at all. The backstory offered for the sisters is pretty trite and cliched too; maybe it would have been better off if they’d begun with that, and we’d been brought along with the siblings on their journey, to the point where murder apparently started to make sense.

What does work, fortunately, is the action, which is well-staged and crunchy. The film doesn’t linger on the pain with sadistic glee, as it could; this is wise, since if the makers did, some scenes would likely be hard to watch. Instead, there’s an almost Looney Tunes element to the mayhem, particularly in the way the protagonists are able to take a pounding, and bounce back with an even more enhanced vengeance, like a human version of an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. On the whole, I’d not have minded at all to see this deliberately outrageous aspect played up, highlighted particularly by a beautifully ironic use of The Carpenters’ soft-pop anthem, Close To You. For the film arguably doesn’t do enough with its script or characters to make the viewer interested in taking them seriously.

Dir: P.J. Pettiette
Star: Valerie Azlynn, Kevin Sorbo, Alicia Leigh Willis, Joel David Moore

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

Blood Widow

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“The eighties called. They want their movie back.”

blood-widow_large_800In the slasher genre of horror, the perpetrators seem almost exclusively male: Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, etc. Women can play an important role, and we’ve covered some of them here before – but it’s much more often as the “final girl”, than the one wielding the machete. However, it’s often forgotten that, in the original Friday the 13th movie, the killer was not Jason, but his mother, so there is some precedent for the female antagonist. See also Nurse 3D, American Horror Story: Coven or perhaps best of all, SexyKiller, whose heroine manages both to be the killer and the final girl.

It was in the hopes of getting something novel along those lines that I went into this, only to be severely disappointed by a product which is very little more than a standard slasher. A group of photogenic, but vacuous and tremendously uninteresting, teens head out to a remote house to par-tay, only to break into the spooky dwelling on the next door property, engage in petty vandalism, drug-taking and other anti-social behaviour, for which they naturally pay a heavy price. About the only difference is, the mad, masked killer dispatching them with extreme prejudice is a woman, a former resident of the boarding school next door, who was tormented into psychosis. It’s an idea not without potential: the look of the maniac-ette is very stylish (even if the mask seems a Halloween knock-off), and the actress portraying her (Henry) does a good job, particularly considering her face is rarely if ever seen, coming over as menacing in just about every one of her scenes.

But beyond that, none of the potential is utilized, In fact, the gender of the killer is entirely irrelevant to proceedings, and the final scene seems more appropriate for a male psycho – it left me wondering if perhaps that was the original plan. Really, for a first-time feature, as this is for the director, I’d have tried to push the envelope much more, instead of apparently being content to tread the same ground as we’ve seen a million times before. Maybe this would have passed muster thirty years ago? Now, not so much, with viewers far more cynically self-aware, and wanting more than an uninteresting rehash of its predecessors. Save the gender of the assailant, there’s nothing new or of note here; it isn’t enough, when it’s little more than an afterthought, and everything else we get, has been done a lot better elsewhere.

Dir: Jeremiah Buckhalt
Star: Danielle Lilley, Brandon Kyle Peters, Christopher de Padua, Gabrielle Ann Henry

Loves Her Gun

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“A cautionary tale. And you’re cautioned not to watch this movie.”

lovehergunPerhaps surprisingly, given the nature of this page, I’m not inherently averse to the idea of gun control. I lived in Britain until I was in my thirties, which seems to work fairly well without the whole “right to bear arms” thing. It probably made sense in 1776, but certainly wouldn’t be high on my to-do list if I was writing the constitution now. However, I now live in a country with 300 million guns or so, and I’m pragmatic enough to accept that the genie is out of the bottle here: any attempt to impose it at this point, would only impact law-abiding citizen and weaken their ability to defend themselves against criminals who would still have their weapons. Gun control works – but only if you already have it. Anyway, I mention all this to establish that I’m not averse to a movie which makes a well-reasoned argument against guns. Unfortunately, this is about as far from well-reasoned as imaginable. The facile scaremongering here leaves this mild-mannered Brit, who has touched a gun once in his life, with a strong wish for the makers of this, some day, to find themselves in need of some well-armed help.

Walking back to her Brooklyn apartment, Allie (Dunn) is the victim of a swift but brutal mugging. It’s the last straw for her, and she bails out of the city the next day, hitching a ride to Texas with a touring rock band and its “charismatic” leader, Clark (Barrero). She stays in his house, and gets a job working alongside local landscaper Sarah (Bisagni), but it unable to shake the PTSD caused by the attack. Sarah introduces Allie to the joy of firearms, eventually leading to her purchasing her own weapon for personal defense. However, the presence of the gun turns Allie into a raging Charles Bronson, as we see when she charges into a local domestic dispute, all a-firearmy. From here, it’s painfully if illogically obvious where this is going to end up. Oh, look: Allie getting her hands on a gun turns out to be A Bad Idea, in an incident a third-grade English teacher would mark down as poorly considered. This is my unsurprised face.

The end credits proudly proclaim that the dialogue was largely improvised, which might be okay, if it didn’t seem they also made the story up as they went along too. There are a number of interesting ways this could have gone. Unfortunately, the film chooses none of them, preferring to drive a path through Austin’s hipster scene, populated by “wacky” people, apparently expelled from Portland for being too smug and self-centred. Marslett seems more interested in them than his lead and her story – Dunn is actually not bad in the role, her character at least not leaving me with violent urges. So, we get lengthy, pointless scenes of a tubing trip down the river, or a party where people write their hopes and dreams on pieces of paper, stuff them into a Yoda piñata and sets fire to it. Very deep. Perhaps worst of all, Clark’s band, The Karate Kids, perform behind mannequins posed into the crane-kick move from the film. Was that idea improvised as well? Because I can’t think of any other explanation for it being such complete shit. Hang on: turns out it’s the director’s band. Explains a lot

So much of the running-time here is completely wasted on these self-indulgent excuses for film-making, of interest only to Marslett and his cronies in Austin’s scene. The net result, is that Allie’s transformation from scaredy-cat into vengeful vigilante is so fast as to be utterly implausible. They needed to establish the more problematic side of her personality earlier, rather than making it seem as if purchasing a gun immediately causes psychosis since that’s what guns do. There’s a brief spell, where Allie is taken shooting by Sarah, that does catch fire, capturing something of the awe-inspiring power firing a gun can create, but it’s soon forgotten – because we have to go to the Yoda party! Even to a neutral in the debate like myself, this is a facile and simplistic approach to a subject which deserves a far more complex exploration, from people who aren’t fascinated by an aimless, slacker lifestyle that’s entirely uninteresting or noteworthy.

Dir: Geoff Marslett
Star: Trieste Kelly Dunn, Francisco Barreiro, Melissa Hideko Bisagni, Ashley Rae Spillers

Deadly Innocents

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“Sisters are doing it for themselves.”

deadlyAfter shooting her husband, Beth (Crosby) is sent to the funny farm, due to her split personality, Cathy, who was responsible for the murder. Busting out of the funny farm after Cathy takes full control, she holes up in a gas station, run by Angela (Wyss), who is almost as loopy, albeit in a less murderous way, having been raised by her religious fruitcake father, who just passed away. Cathy/Beth’s resemblance to Angela’s late mother helps cement a relationship between the two women. Initially, it may all be frilly dresses, make-up and feminine bonding, as the newcomer brings the repressed young girl out of her shell. But how long will it be before Cathy is stabbing customers in the neck with syringes? [That’s almost guaranteed to get you a poor Yelp review: “while restrooms were clean, the murderous assault by a deranged member of staff was somewhat off-putting”]

Meanwhile, a local cop (Stevens) is courting Angela, and a local retard (Hellman) – hey, you watch the film and tell me that’s not the most accurate description – is exercising her investigative skills, which appear to be at least the equal of the local force. It’s the kind of the overblown Southern melodrama that’s basically begging for a drag queen singalong version; maybe a remake starring Gina Gershon as Cathy, or at least, Jennifer Tilly. Instead, however, we’ve got to make do with Bing Crosby’s daughter, who admittedly, probably knows a bit about controlling fathers. Here, the main takeaway is a new-found respect for Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Gollum, because watching Crosby switch between Beth and Cathy is cringeworthy. Fortunately, the makers appear to realize it, with this aspect all but abandoned once she escapes the mental hospital, and Crosby makes for an entertainingly loony tune.

However, there isn’t actually much, in content or execution, which will stick in your mind – between a couple of bits of gratuitous nudity, this feels for long periods more like a TV movie, or something you’d find on the Hallmark channel. I did quite like the ending, which I’ll confess didn’t see coming, and is darker than I expected. However, too much of this comes over as watered-down, without the courage of any convictions, and it needed to go a good deal further into the realms of madness, to possess any lasting value.

Dir: John D. Patterson.
Star: Mary Crosby, Amanda Wyss, Andrew Stevens, Bonnie Hellman

À l’interieur (Inside)

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“Some women will stop at nothing to have a baby. Whether it’s theirs or not.”

The ‘final girl’ is a well-worn concept in horror: the last survivor, typically the “good” girl, finally fights back against the assailant in the movie’s climax. It is isn’t normally enough to merit inclusion here, since it’s usually a relatively minor aspect of the film. Here, however, not only is it just about the entire film, the main theme – motherhood and the instincts it arouses – is entirely feminine. Aliens, and Ripley’s surrogate parenting of Newt, would be another example. And it’s also a rarity in the horror genre for both protagonist and antagonist to be female, but the threat here certainly deserves to be up there with Freddy, Michael, Jason and their cousins.

The action here does take place on a much smaller-scale, with the vast majority occurring in a semi-remote house. Sarah (Paradis – her older sister is Johnny Depp’s other half) is left alone on Christmas Eve, her husband having been killed a few months previously in a car accident. She’s about to give birth, but is more depressed by her current situation than delighted. There’s a knock on the door from a mysterious woman (Dalle); Sarah, suspicious, does not let her in, but it seems the woman knows Sarah and her history. The police are called but find no trace and leave. Later that night, the woman returns, and it’s soon clear she will go to – bold, underline please – any lengths to take Sarah’s baby.

Let me be perfectly clear: this is hardcore horror of the most unrelenting sort, completely unsuitable for those of a nervous disposition, and particularly pregnant women. In the 1980’s, Dalle was a sexpot, for her role in Betty Blue, but you can flush all memory of that down the toilet: here, she has a feral, near-demonic intensity, and god help anyone who is unfortunate enough to get in her way. Particularly the men, who are disposed of with complete dispassion and brutality; as the film goes on, her relationship with Sarah becomes complex, and more a case of, “I’m taking your baby, and we can do this the hard way or… Well, really, that’s all there is. Sorry.” Friends, family, even an entire patrol of cops – no-one can help Sarah. She’s completely on her own, and her fate is entirely in her own hands.

Somewhat inspired by the 2006 case of Tiffany Hall, who removed a foetus from her friend’s womb with scissors, the film escalates from a quiet opening, through tension, before exploding in a literal tidal-wave of gore, as the protagonist and antagonist battle each other. My sole complaint is a couple of incidents in the final act that seem to stretch belief, e.g. a character conveniently rising from the dead for another assault, though it’s a common complaint in this area. Otherwise, even though we are jaded fans of both genres covered here, this one will stick with us for a long time, and cements France’s place at the forefront of horror.

Dir: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
Star: Alysson Paradis, Béatrice Dalle

Pretty Poison

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“Perkins not weirdest character in movie! Shock! Horror! Probe!”

I was expecting more a quirky comedy than a dark thriller from this 1968 film, and only bothered with it because I’m a fan of Perkins (Edge of Sanity is a beautifully-lurid retelling of the Dr. Jekyll story, with the trash quotient cranked up to 11). Imagine my surprise when… Well, let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Juvenile arsonist Dennis Pitt (Perkins) is finally released back into the community as “cured”, though his fondness for fantastic invention appears unchanged. For a while he works at a chemical in the small town of Winslow without apparent issue. But trouble looms in the pretty, 17-year old shape of Sue Ann Stepanek (Weld), even though she appears to be squeaky-clean – an honor-roll student, majorette, etc. To entice her, Pitt spins a tale of being a secret agent, investigating a plan to poison the water supply. Sue Ann seems to swallow it, hook, line and sinker, but after one of their ‘sabotage mission’ goes wrong, it’s apparent that Sue Ann has her boyfriend seriously trumped when it comes to sociopathic behaviour.

Black delivers a fairly bleak picking away at the fabric of semi-urban Americana, with a near-Lynchian feel for the rottenness that lurks just beneath the thin veneer of civility. Perkins is, more or less, repeating the same role he had played in Psycho eight years earlier, though in a slightly less socially-inadequate version. As noted, it initially seemed more like a comedy, with this Walter Mitty-esque character leading on the teenager, and is not particularly interesting as such. However, things skew almost completely around in the middle, with Stepanek becoming the dominant character in the relationship, controlling Pitt in such a way that makes the viewer wonder if that was always her intention (the final scene also suggests this to be the case). She’s a good deal better at concealing her darker side, and while the conclusion is somewhat contrived, requiring Pitt basically to surrender, it makes sense in its own twisted way.

Weld was actually 25 when this was made, which may explain the maturity of her “teenage” character, though physically, it’s not a stretch. Her background – a nervous breakdown at age nine, an alcoholic at 12, and a suicide attempt around the same point, all likely triggered by the pressures of her career as a child actress – certainly may have helped with her portrayal of a character that’s rather darker than many of her role in the decade. If there are certainly girls with guns who killed more people, few have done so beneath a more innocent-looking exterior.

Dir: Noel Black
Star: Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, Beverly Garland, John Randolph

Marujas Asesinas

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“Marriage can be murder.”

This tale of a Hispanic wife whose sanity disintegrates, beginning with the murder of her husband and ending with…well, you have to see it, had me shifting somewhat nervously, as my Hispanic wife sat beside me. “These are your people,” I said. Chris disavowed all knowledge, being Cuban rather than Spanish – while I can see her point, still… Azucena (Asensi) is unhappy in marriage to a greedy builder (Resibes), but his money keeps her family afloat, so she tolerates it, finding love with his hunky employee, Pablo. However, when the money looks like drying up, she hatches a lethal plan – which would probably go better if she didn’t hire the local retard [Non-PC that may be, there’s no other way to describe him; he agrees to do the murder for 1,000 pornos and a VCR]. However, that’s just the start: Pablo has a nasty surprise, and Azucena soon finds others needing disposal. And did I mention her TV is now talking to her?

Things take a bit of time to get going, and for a while it looks like it’s going the tiresome, Almodovar route of “All men are bastards.” Fortunately, it starts to develop its own style, and Asensi is great in her role; you can see while the individual choices make sense, even if the end result is disastrous in every way. The director does a nice job mixing a number of genres: telenovelas [the Spanish soaps], black comedy and horror – particularly the final scene. Credit also to Karra Elejalde as the imbecile Lalo, who manages to bring humanity to a role which could easily no more than a stereotype. There is some unexplored potential in the idea of the heroine getting advice from her television, and that could easily have been expanded. Mind you, at 105 minutes, it is somewhat over-stretched too, and tightening of the early portions would have helped. Overall, though, the time passed quickly enough, even if I will be keeping Chris away from sharp objects for a while. :-)

Dir: Javier Rebollo
Star: Neus Asensi, Antonio Resines, Nathalie Seseña, Pere Ponce