Spinning Discs: New Year’s Evil

Written by Film, Spinning Discs

Start 2016 with assassins, cannibals, and ghosts.

Happy New Year? Well, it was, until the latest DVD and Blu-ray releases showed up. Brace yourselves…

Let’s start with the baleful Sicario, which, if it were a silent movie with music accompaniment, would be just about perfect. Splendidly arid widescreen visuals, attractive performers moodily posed, an atmospheric score propelling some excitingly edited sequences. Four stars. But: content, which I already groused about. An underperformer with audiences, Sicario overperformed with critics, who at least in my acquaintance tend to be meek, left-ish types–were their positive reviews a way of showing a certain secret solidarity with certain paranoid, government-hating, wall-building presidential candidates? Did they not understand what gonzo prejudices this plays into? Beats me. But I can see it being shown in Iowa as the primaries loom, as what could happen if we don’t shut the damn border down now.

Anyway…the building blocks of a good thriller are there, I just object to the way they’ve been assembled, and how Emily Blunt’s character is slighted. As I wait for the score-only soundtrack version, I can report that the A/V aspects of the Sicario Blu-ray are expectedly excellent (love that Dolby Atmos sound) and the supplements are decent–the three leads are heard from, as are Oscar-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and perennial Oscar bridesmaid, DP Roger Deakins, and the nasty facts behind the nasty fiction are explored.

That said, compared to The Green Inferno, Sicario is like a weekend in Disneyland. Eli Roth, the director of the family classics Cabin Fever and Hostel, throws himself back, and into, the Amazon-set gutmunchers of the late 70s and early 80s, when the Italian-made Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox jolted awake even the most jaded grindhouse patrons. The theaters are long gone but Roth’s film means to keep the spirit alive, as a bunch of dopey collegiate activists Occupy Peru, then have their innards occupied by spears and knives and crunching teeth when they run afoul of cannibal tribespeople on the hazardous trek home. Saddled with bad actors and pedestrian setup, Roth’s director’s cut is grisly but affectless–a single scene of similar activity in Bone Tomahawk (now on home video) delivers the goods far more effectively, and the movie never gets, umm, “under your skin” in the same way as its nightmarish progenitors. Even with state-of-the-art gore it’s a little too slick to be really, really sick, and we’re asked to swallow some unbelievable contrivances along the way. (You may never look at marijuana in quite the same way again.) Extras: An extensive photo gallery of messing around on location, and a commentary track with Roth, his producer, and the cast. Hey, look, they survived!

Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother and Grandfather’s house we go…but with M. Night Shyamalan pulling the reins, The Visit is no ordinary one. Like Peter Bogdanovich before him, Shyamalan had three big hits in a row (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs), then nothing for a decade except for critical and audience disdain as the likes of Lady in the Water, After Earth, and The Happening didn’t happen. Low-budget and star-less, The Visit gives the worn-out “found footage” gimmick a modestly appealing spin, as two kids who’ve never met their grandparents are obliged to spend some time with them, only to discover that they may have some Green Inferno tendencies. It’s not that kind of a picture, however, being more of a short story-ish slow burn, and sustaining its video-dependent plot twists with more finesse than usual. Going back to basics, Shyamalan wrings good performances from his actors (even with some rapping schtick to get through, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould are completely credible as brother and sister, ably supported by the more familiar faces of Kathryn Hahn as their mom and Peter McRobbie and Tony winner Deanna Dunagan, of August: Osage County, as the sweetly troublesome grandparents) and establishes an absorbing tone and mood. He has a few words about a return to form in an accompanying featurette, and there are deleted scenes and an alternate ending to look at to complete your visit.

Next destination: The House Where Evil Dwells, for a taste of early 80s horror now on Blu-ray. After The Land That Time Forgot (1975) and its spinoffs, director Kevin Connor made the cult cannibal comedy Motel Hell (1980), then with Land co-star Doug McClure went to Japan for this offbeat if unedifying 1982 ghost story. Photojournalist Edward Albert and the intrepid, game-for-anything Susan George (Straw Dogs) move to a house said to be haunted by a long-ago samurai love triangle that ended in bloodshed; the arrival of diplomat McClure, who tends to the now-possessed George, rekindles the bad vibes, and pretty soon strange faces are appearing in the soup and large, misshapen crabs are scuttling about the bedrooms.  Other than one fun jump-out scare where the loitering ghosts rush in through a doorway, there’s not much of interest going on in this house, and its failure pretty much foreclosed Connor’s big screen career as TV beckoned. (He’s made as many Christmas movies as dinosaur ones at this point.) A high-quality transfer, revealing the limits of its effects work, is accompanied by a trailer and another samurai-related feature, 1984’s Ghost Warrior (aka Swordkill). The no-budget but aspirational adventure has a 16th century-warrior-awakened-in-the-20th-century premise, and offers offers another nice presentation, a few unintended laughs as we yuk it up over 80s fads and fashions (it was never released in theaters here), and a game performance by Hiroshi Fujiok as the unflappable lead. Both movies are amusing for after-hours viewing, which is how I saw House back in the day, on HBO.

New DVDs that came in over the transom didn’t offer much relief. Cruel, a French thriller about a lonely murderer reliving memories of his dismal childhood, fit right into the general theme but felt oppressive, yet it has some pedigree. (Filmmaker Eric Cherrière is an acclaimed crime novelist.) Mylene Jampanoi, star of the awfully cruel French horror film Martyrs, plays a promiscuous artist with a yen for a conflicted priest in The Maneater–I felt his pain (hottie), yet, some other late night for those two. The Gambler is neither James Caan nor Mark Walhberg but rather a Lithuanian paramedic in too deep when he begins betting on his patients’ lives. Hmm, that’s get a spin. Needing to wind down I selected a fine documentary, The Barefoot Artist, the story of Lily Yeh, an artist drawn to mend “broken places” with her art, starting with her home in North Philadelphia, which houses her communal sculpture garden. Yeh’s son, co-director Daniel Traub, follows her on some distant voyages, including to her native China, where she confronts a difficult childhood history. A relief from my earlier traumas, it’s an inspiring portrait.

Two recent Blu-rays got a bit lost in the Christmas rush. With Jason Statham off to Furious 7, The Transporter: Refueled puts Ed Skrein (Deadpool)  in the driver’s seat. and he’s an able replacement, helping a quartet of lovelies avenge themselves upon a human trafficker. Not one of the more scintillating products from Luc Besson’s funhouse, it’s still diverting in motion, and brawny Ray Stevenson plays the Transporter’s dad.

I’d love a Blu-ray of Never Cry Wolf (1983). While we wait, we have Wolf Totem. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud was in hot water with Beijing over Seven Years in Tibet (1997). but, bygones being bygones, he found himself in starkly beautiful Mongolia to film an adaptation of a Chinese memoir, which plunks down a greenhorn cultural revolutionary amidst the faraway peoples. A harsh existence kis further complicated by packs of wolves, whose habitat is threatened by the encroachment of civilization. While somewhat barren of drama, the 3D photography brings us close to some stunning vistas (Annaud’s Wings of Courage, in 1996, was the first narrative Imax 3D venture). The intrinsic fascination of our coexistence with the natural world carries the film through some sluggish moments, as does one of the late James Horner’s final scores. Also splendid: a supplement detailing the complexities of wrangling creatures even more cunning and dangerous than Benicia del Toro.