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Tangerines (Mandariinid)

"Tangerines" is a profound and profoundly moving motion picture dealing with the futility of war. Set in the Apkhazeti region of Georgia in 1992 (after the breakup of the Soviet Union) it centers on Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), a woodworker who is occupied in building crates for his friend Margus' (Elmo Nuganen) crop of tangerines. As soon as they are harvested the latter intends heading off to relatives in Estonia but Ivo has no intention of leaving, no matter that the area is the center of conflict. Don't worry too much about the history behind the story; it pretty well stands on its own – this could be any war in any country at any time. Ivo takes in wounded soldiers, one Georgian and one Chechen, an action guaranteeing his instant execution by whichever side might discover it. Tensions ratchet up when the less severely wounded Georgian, Ahmet (Giorgi Nakashidze), vows to kill the Chechen, Nika (Misha Meskhi), to avenge his comrades. Telling you much more about the film would be unwise but I'll alert you that this is not one of those "Enemy Mine" scenarios where the combatants become buddies as they come to know each other – nothing here is that simplistic – though it does deal with coming to understand the enemy as more than just a faceless opponent.

Because "Tangerines" is set within a war – but most emphatically not a war movie – there are casualties and some of them include major characters. Zaza Urushadze's film is ultimately life-affirming (and astonishingly beautiful visually) but there are tragedies along the way. This realistic acknowledgement might turn away some viewers who will perceive the tone as downbeat (it is, to tell the truth not a load of laughs) but they'll be missing out on a film brimming with humanity. Most comes in the form of reflections and observations from Ivo, magnificently portrayed by Ulfsak who invests even such moments as methodically preparing breakfast with grace and dignity. No matter the turmoil roiling round him he will continue as he has always done and he will not take sides. It's an understated but densely rich portrayal that lingers in the memory. Most of the action takes place in his home and there is a lot of dialogue – "Tangerines" might work as well as a stage play – but the film never feels constrained or static; the direction is fluid and all the performances are riveting. This is easily one of the best films I've seen this year.

2013 / First Run Pictures / 87m / $27.95 [NR]

Ancient Aliens, Season 7

Seven seasons in and "Ancient Aliens" is looking a bit tired. The same graphics show up again and again and the same topics (caves, Nazis, pyramids of various cultures) are being explored over and over. Yes, some new information is offered as is a new theory or two but the speculation is getting increasingly wackdoodle. If you thought that Giorgio Tsoukalos' comment that Atlantis didn't sink but rather "took off" was nutty, wait till you hear (in the very first episode) David Childress propound his theory about crystals serving as recording media and then back it up by citing Richard Donner's "Superman" and its crystalline Fortress of Solitude. Excuse me, but when you "prove" your conjecture by referencing a movie adapted from a comic book, you do not come off as terribly credible. Even Jonathan Young of the Joseph Campbell Archives, who heretofore has confined himself to explaining and commenting on ancient myths of various cultures and noting similarities between them (almost every culture has a flood myth of some kind for instance), is now speculating on the intervention of extraterrestrials in human development.

Of course, it is Tsoukalos who has become the talking head most associated with "Ancient Aliens" and its most popular personality – he has even netted his own series. Apparently styling his hair by inserting his finger in a light socket every morning he looks like a total loon (talk about not coming off as terribly credible). He doesn't even seem to notice that on the one hand he backs up certain assertions about our ancestors by saying they "weren't that stupid" and yet will claim that they can only have been taught mathematics or language rather than inventing same. It is true that much of our history invites speculation. Traditional thinking has it that massive structures were erected by quarrying enormous rocks, transporting them many miles on log rollers (sometimes in locales with no trees!) or dragging them on sledges then fitting them together with astonishing precision. It is also usually noted that even with all our technological advances we couldn't replicate the results today. There are more than a few mysteries in human history and the official explanations sometimes seem woefully lame. "Ancient Aliens" offers some interesting speculation but you have to wade through a good deal of nonsense to get at it.

2014-15 / Lionsgate, History / 528m (3 discs) /$19.98 [TVPG]

Appetites

I watched "Appetites" last night (as I write this), and I'm danged if I'm quite sure what to make of it. I think I mostly loved it though it isn't without some problems (particularly a few dull patches). The film centers on Daisy (Lauren Parkinson) whose daddy is inclined toward incestuous rape until her brother Bubba (Tor Johnson lookalike Scott Barrows) puts paid to the old pervert. The two grow up in a compound rigged with booby traps, the better to hunt down young men for sport and for food. Meanwhile a fellow who goes by the cognomen of John Doe (Bret Roberts) is roaming the country murdering tattooed women after having sex with them. Doe turns up at the bar where Daisy is a waitress and is instantly smitten; she – because of her complicated relationship with Bubba – resists his advances even though she is equally taken with him. He pursues her, convinced she is finally "the one" even though their meetings invariably end with her running off, sometimes after clobbering him. Will they get together? Will they join forces on a spree of killing and eating of tattooed people? Or will one do in the other?

Possibly the most successful aspect of "Appetites" is that it's impossible to predict where this very quirky film will go next. I can't say it has any characters you might care about – even the detective on Doe's trail – his daughter was one of the victims – is a bit of a jerk as is the little person who runs the front desk at the motel where Doe is currently staying. But then the film, for all its gory moments, is a comedy – an amoral and very black one, true, but often very funny. Primarily, though, it's just plain odd in a David Lynch kind of way. It's not set in anything that resembles the real world. Consider that Doe fancies himself a musician but writes truly awful songs that nonetheless earn him a round of applause when he performs one in a bar. There's really no explanation for why Daisy and Bubba have developed a taste for human flesh after dad's demise – or was he the only thing in the house to eat? And even so why do they do a "The Most Dangerous Game" hunt for their prey? (Did dad never teach them not to play with their food?) But in a film this deliberately absurd such questions are irrelevant. It's gleefully gory fun for those who can appreciate such things – and you know who you are.

2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 106m / $27.97 [NR]

Black Box (aka Avarice)

"Black Box" is either a puzzle picture or a Rorschach test or a big mess that doesn't make any danged sense. I am heavily inclined toward the last. The film starts off at some indeterminate time in the old west where a woman prepares to abandon her husband and run off with her lover, taking a black box with them. They all end up deceased, some of them courtesy of Kevin Sorbo who arrives out of nowhere wearing a white cowboy hat. Jump to the present day and we get three intertwined and vaguely interconnected stories. All involve that mysterious black box in which different people see different things. A gangster sees it filled with diamonds, a farmer facing foreclosure (Brad Dourif) sees it stuffed with the cash he needs to pay off his mortgage. Both end up committing murder. None of the stories really goes anywhere but ultimately are resolved (or at least culminated) by Sorbo arriving and shooting whoever has been tempted by the box. Possibly it has been determined they are atheists. Or something.

That first-time writer/director Matthew Schilling intends "Black Box" to mean something (at least I should hope so) is probable. It was equally clear to both me and my viewing companion that we hadn't a clue what it might be. Just what is the box and from whence does it come? Heaven? Ancient aliens? Amazon dot com? Does it choose people at random and send out its immortal assassin to execute those who fall prey to its illusory temptations? Smacks of entrapment to me. It's depressing to see fine actors such as Patricia Richardson and Jeremy London trapped in this clunker. And what, praytell, is Dourif doing in this thing? We understand Sorbo claims he can't get work because of his religious beliefs but for what reason did the others take this job? Possibly the script read better than it plays out on the screen (the brief running time might be a clue that the money ran out before everything could be filmed). As with all the other questions raised by this movie the answer remains a mystery.

2014 / Lionsgate / 83m / $19.98 [R]

Burying the Ex

I had hoped for something much better in "Burying the Ex" than what I got. It is after all the at-long-last return to the director's chair of Joe Dante who with "Piranha," "The Howling," "Gremlins" and "Matinee" gave us some of the cheekiest horror films ever made, crammed with in-jokes for the knowing. (Such as having all the characters in "Howling" named for directors of films featuring werewolves.) In this film, we have horror fan Max (Anton Yelchin) who has a dream job of working in a store that sells Halloween costumes and other gruesome goodies. He and his significant other Evelyn (Ashley Green) decide it's time they cohabited. Only after she's moved in does he discover she's a manipulative control freak who gives his apartment a ghastly makeover and folds up his pristine movie posters so she can stick them in a drawer (thereby reducing their value to nil). Meanwhile he's met his perfect match in Olivia (Alexandra Daddario) and has to figure out how to break up with Evelyn. Fate steps in and she's killed in a freak accident. Alas the late woman's will to be with Max forever overcomes such measly obstacles as a burial and she claws her way back above ground. She doesn't see her continued decomposition and increasing appetite for human flesh as a bar to true love.

"Burying the Ex" should have been horror comedy gold but it's never frightening and rarely more than amusing. A sub-plot involving Max's slovenly and promiscuous brother is just sophomoric and a running gag involving how Max is required to send off customers is only funny the first time around. There are the typical Dante in-jokes such as a reference to George Romero on a passing commercial van; if you know your cheesy Italian horror films then Evelyn's name and action will ring a bell. Mostly the film falls into the trap of too many recent comedies in that the mere presentation of a humorous situation is deemed sufficient with no need to be developed and built to a payoff. One might expect Dante to have managed that task but with writer Alan Trezza (whose first feature script this is) also acting as producer perhaps he didn't have a free hand. In any event there's none of the wit or energy of earlier Dante efforts. Similarly Yelchin (who has impressed me more and more every time I've seen him) gives a disinterested performance. At least Green and Daddario make the most and more of what they're given and deliver striking performances.

2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 89m / $27.97 [R]

(The film is available on BR only as a Best Buy exclusive)

Lake Placid vs. Anaconda

"Lake Placid vs. Anaconda" is, I am reliably informed, the fifth entry in both series or franchises as they're known these days). This information took me rather by surprise as I was unaware either had gone beyond an initial entry – neither of which I've seen. You needn't have seen them either as this crossover works as a standalone (though I understand Robert Englund's and Yancy Butler's characters are holdovers – and frankly they walk away with much of the show). All you need to know is that we've got supersized crocodiles and snakes and after much of the running time spent consuming various bit players they do meet up and engage in a brief struggle. As with such previous pairings, such as "Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man" and "Freddy vs. Jason" (or is it the other way round?) the battle that climaxes the film has proved too short for some fans. And here I thought the point of any such endeavor as this was to see the big beasties chow down on the cast with as much splatter as CGI could render.

Well the splatter isn't quite as exuberant as it might have been for an unrated film and a couple of supremely insufferable characters take an awfully long time to meet their ends but otherwise "Lake Placid vs. Anaconda" is a dandy example of its kind. Assuming you have a taste (sorry) for such things, the film is lots of fun with a good pace and a cast that meets the nonsense more than halfway. The crackpot CEO of a pharmaceuticals company is convinced the monster anaconda eggs hold the secret to a rejuvenating drug and an injection from one of the gigundous crocs is somehow involved so her lackeys illegally trespass into the enclosure that keeps the quadruped reptiles sequestered from the populace. Naturally things go awry; the snakes and a number of crocs escape and the surplus population is substantially reduced. Sherriff Reba (Butler), her deputy Fergusen (a deliciously comic performance from Oliver Walker) and game warden Tull (Corin Nemec) to try to end the carnage. It ain't art, but it's the best chunk of overripe cheese I've seen in quite a while.

2015 / Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / 86m / $19.99 [NR]

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