DVD reviews: DiCaprio carries 'The Revenant'
“The Revenant” (2015 / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment / 156m / $24.99 / R) has received an abundance of awards, accolades and huzzahs. I had a contrarian reaction to this overlong and relentlessly dreary tale of survival and revenge. Based on actual events – though inspired by would be a more accurate description – it tells of trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) left for dead after being mauled by a bear. They are in some haste to depart, fleeing from marauding Native Americans, but one of them (Tom Hardy) has silenced the dissenting Hawk (Thomas Goodluck), Glass' son, by strangling him to death. Glass has witnessed this and so claws himself out of his grave and makes way back to headquarters, more than 100 miles away, despite all sorts of insurmountable obstacles. Not the least of these, at least initially, are his wounds (he seals a gash in his neck by packing in gunpowder and igniting it).
Alejandro Inaratu's film can't be faulted from a technical level. It is spectacularly photographed, though I think the impressive vistas might register better had they not been rendered in a monochrome blue. The visual approach does nothing to offset the grimness of the proceedings, and given a running time of more than two and a half hours, some relief would have been advisable. We have been barely introduced to Glass when the Indians attack (an excitingly staged and edited sequence) and send everyone fleeing and the bear wrestling follows shortly after. We hardly know Glass and so are given no particular reason to care a lick about him. I suppose witnessing his son's death (a fictional invention – Glass had no offspring) substitutes but no reason is provided for caring about him either. DiCaprio's performance is fierce but hardly as complex as his best work (do check out “Gangs of New York” if you haven’t already); still it is the only thing keeping “The Revenant” from being a completely tedious slog. Its spectacle is sadly empty.
Courtesy of a hospital stay for surgery and a recuperation that has lasted longer than wished (and is still ongoing) I was able to tackle several seasons of a few TV series. The largest investment of time went (appropriately) to the best of the lot, the first three seasons of “A French Village” (Une village Francaise – 2009-11 / MHz Netwworks / 587m, 584m, 700m (4 discs each set) / $39.95 each / NR). Each season covers somewhat less than a year in the fictional village of Villeneuve, located along the Swiss border, beginning with the German occupation of 1940 (the seventh and final season is now in production). The large cast of characters represents the spectrum of reactions to the invading forces from those who embrace the conquerors to those who resist them. Some collaborate in hopes of keeping community damage, particularly deportations to work camps, to a minimum or to prevent wholesale unemployment of workers should factories be closed down. Some citizens become resistance fighters, hiding out in the woods or abandoned farms while others are in sympathy with the anti-Semitic ideology of the Third Reich.
Now all this would get pretty dry if all the storylines were confined to political situations, but the private lives of the citizens and some of the Germans are part of the mix, mostly in the nature of romantic connections. The series never quite becomes “Peyton Place” with Nazis but there's no denying it verges on getting a tad soapy at times. This is offset by the tragic fates of various likeable characters who have taken prominent roles in the action. The who-will-survive aspect of the series as well as the fictional recreation of historical events makes for compelling viewing, unless of course you're completely phobic about subtitles. Those who aren’t will find the show richly rewarding with top-notch writing and acting by a cast pretty well unknown to U.S. audiences.
Television in the U.S. is almost without exception less adventurous as regards subject matter, and “Casual, the first season” (2015 / Lionsgate / 262m (2 discs) / $29.98 BR / NR) certainly doesn't even need to be compared to the preceding effort to come off lacking. (Then again, can a series created for Hulu properly be deemed television?) It involves Alex (Tommy Dewey) who has created an enormously successful dating site and uses it himself for casual sex hookups. His newly divorced sister Valerie (Michaela Watkins) and her daughter have moved into his enormous house and their romantic/sexual pursuits are also explored. Despite some nicely crafted dialogue, it's all pretty pointless until the introduction midway through the season of Alex and Valerie's self-absorbed parents. At that point, things simply become annoying because we are now presented with main characters who are doormats incapable of saying scram to toxic family members who are trying to reconnect for financial reasons. The show has been renewed for a third season, so obviously someone is watching but it will never be appointment TV for me.
Even more disposable is “Scream, the TV series” (2015 / Anchor Bay / 402m (3 discs) / $34.98 / NR), a sorta-kinda continuation of the popular film trilogy made for MTV (and streamed on Netflix). In an early episode, a character opines that you can't do a slasher TV series and the production bears this out. What we have here is a victim-of-the-week set-up with gore too restrained to satisfy splatter fans and characters that it's impossible to care about. A rare clever line of dialogue only serves as a reminder that the series is woefully lacking in the wit of the films scripted by Kevin Williamson (now involved in “The Vampire Diaries”) and directed by Wes Craven. (The latter gets a producer credit, but I wonder just how much he was involved before his death.) This show, too, has been renewed so some obviously get more mileage out of it than I did.
Taking its cue from reality “Bloody Wednesday” (1985 / Film Chest Media / 96m / $17.98 / NR) was inspired by a 1984 massacre in a San Diego McDonald's. Here we have Harry (Raymond Elmendorf), unable to keep a job due to his mental instability. His brother (Navarre Perry) ensconces him in a closed hotel doing security duty and gets him under the care of a psychiatrist (Pamela Baker) but only until her higher ups deem him fit for release. In the hotel Harry has delusional encounters with an aged and long departed bellhop, several former tenants who have committed suicide by leaping from the same window and conversations with his teddy bear (voiced by Billy Curtis – the closest thing to a name in the cast). There's also a trio of thugs who may not be imaginary; they do seem to provide him with the automatic weapons he carts into a diner at the finale. How much any of this really explains why he mows down a gaggle of total strangers is another matter entirely. What writer Philip Yordan provides – aside from clunky dialogue – is a series of harmless delusions capped by a sudden turn toward homicide. Yordan had a long career in Hollywood but there is some doubt whether his best scripts weren't the result of fronting for blacklisted writers. That might explain his descent from megabudget spectacles to the likes of things like this and “Night Train to Terror.” If the writing is bad it's fair to say that the acting meets it head on. The film at least is inventively photographed.
Scrumptious photography is also a hallmark of “Kingdom of Blood” (aka “The Four III” - 2014 / Lionsgate / 107m / $ 19.98 / R), the third in a trilogy of martial arts fantasies based on a popular series of Chinese novels by Woon Swee Owen. The second in the trio “Lawless Kingdom” was reviewed here some months back but as near as I can determine the first film has never been released on DVD in the states. This final chapter will probably be nigh impossible to decipher without at least the second one and even that might be of limited help (at least I found much of it baffling). It centers on a plot to kill the emperor by a noble who of course aspires to assume that position (he has also for some reason grafted his own son to a tree, thus assuring the offspring's immortality but presenting the young man with distinct liabilities regarding his love life). He is aided by a female shape-shifter who wreaks all sorts of confusion. Opposing the plot is a quartet of police, all of whom have special abilities even beyond being able to run across thin air. This marks the film as being part of a distinct martial arts genre that has legions of fans in both the East and the West. If you are not of their number you might be well advised to pass this effort by.
In the horror genre we have two low budget offerings, one brand new and one vintage. The new one is “The Haunting of Alice D” (2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 79m / $27.97 / NR), which can only be described as a hopeless mess on just about every level. It involves a party thrown by a loutish type for his equally loutish buddies with all the hookers they can handle. He's holding the bash in a Victorian house that was once a bordello run by his ancestors and reputed to be haunted by one of the former prostitutes – the titular Alice – who was much abused by S&M types until she took her own life. Naturally she shows up to wreak havoc, though it's not as gore drenched as the box copy would lead you to believe (if that’s what you want in horror, you won’t find it here). Surprisingly her victims are all the girls-for-hire at the party, not the guys who are using and abusing them. The writing is atrocious and the acting follows suit. The camerawork is mostly long master takes from much too far away with the occasional artsy shot that can only have been an accident. Sound recoding is so unbalanced that it seems the entire cast is galumphing about in wooden shoes. Worst is that the film doesn't so much end as it abruptly stops. Did the money run out or is this non-finale what was intended?
When it comes to cheese I prefer mine aged and that brings us to the HD restoration of Roger Corman's “The Terror” (1963 / The Film Detective, Allied Vaughn/ 79m / $14.99 BR / NR). Of course calling it Corman's film is a trifle charitable; he only started the production. Finishing “The Raven” Corman discovered that its sets weren't due to be torn down immediately to make way for another film and that Boris Karloff still has three days left on his contract. Over a rainy weekend that prevented Corman from playing tennis he and writer/actor Leo Gordon whipped up a scenario and scripted all the scenes that would involve the aged horror star, all to be filmed on those leftover sets and involving then nobody Jack Nicholson and Corman stalwart Dick Miller. (It is reported that Karloff never forgave Corman for squeezing a second movie out of him without a single penny more being paid and refused to work with the director/producer ever after.) The balance of the film was shot over time as money became available by the likes of Monte Hellman and Francis Ford Coppola – then Corman assistants. Even Nicholson got to direct some footage. This additional work brought another Corman regular, Jonathan Haze into the cast.
Not surprisingly each contributor made some alterations and when filming finally wrapped things didn't make a lot of sense. That was rectified by placing Miller and Nicholson in front of neutral backdrops and giving them dialogue that sorta kinda tied things together. The plot has Napoleonic soldier Nicholson somehow separated from his fellows and ending up at the castle of the Baron von Lepp (Karloff), an old gent harboring a terrible secret that the busybody soldier becomes obsessed with unraveling. It seems to involve a young woman who has a disconcerting habit of appearing and disappearing inexplicably and who is a dead ringer for the baron's long deceased wife. The film looks luxurious thanks to those leftover sets and it has a wallop of a climax in a flooding crypt (where Karloff surprisingly seems not extensively doubled), not to mention a gruesome final reveal. It's great fun, though perhaps not a great movie, and better than it has any right to be given the circumstances of its creation.
“Remember” (2015/ Lionsgate / 95m / $19.98 / R) certainly has its share of screwiness as well though that shouldn't be taken as a negative assessment. The set-up has incapacitated Nazi Hunter Zev (Martin Landau) task fellow nursing home resident Max (Christopher Plummer) with locating three men who might be a former concentration camp commander and determining which one assumed a false identity at the end of the war to escape justice. Zev is wheelchair bound and on oxygen 24/7 so he is no longer up to his former occupation. But Max is slipping into dementia and is just as unlikely a candidate for the job; he constantly has to consult a notebook to refresh his failing memory and is physically frail to boot.
On the face of it this may sound like a cross between “Mr. Holmes” and “Momento” but with the gravitas of Plummer and Landau the outrageous concept of a geriatric Nazi hunter who is supposed the execute the guilty man when identified – and some truly oddball sequences along the way – seems believable even as the film gets odder and odder. Still it isn't until a surprise ending that would do M. Night Shyamalan proud that anyone's jaw will drop. But if only as a vehicle for Plummer – and slightly less so for Landau in a supporting role – the film is well worth your time. And it's refreshing to encounter a production built around older performers.
Another in that vein is “The Dresser” (2015 / Anchor Bay / 109m / $24.98 /TV-14) with Ian McKellan and Anthony Hopkins. (And if there are more starring roles for older actors these days it is undoubtedly due to the success of these two in some popular franchises.) This is a revisiting – made for the BBC – of the Ronald Harwood play previously filmed with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. McKellan is the tippling, gay dresser to “Sir” (Hopkins), an aging and possibly always second-rate Shakespearean bringing the bard to the provinces. Norman coaxes Sir – failing both physically and mentally – into giving one more performance of “King Lear.” The character of Sir is based on Sir Donald Wolfitt who – to judge from several film performances I've seen – was an unregenerate ham. I'm not quite certain why this version doesn't have more impact than it does but I suspect it has to do with Hopkins. The actor is certainly capable of slicing the ham thickly but his style is not of the old school and Sir ought to rival Tod Slaughter in over-the-top performing. Still Hopkins is good, McKellan is terrific and this is a perfectly decent adaptation of the material.