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DVD reviews: Start 2016 with some horror

Once upon a time, horror films used to end with several of the protagonists still alive but with the advent of the slasher sub-genre the survivors have been reduced to a solitary female character. “Final Girl” (2014 / Cinedigm / 84m / $19.97 BR / NR) riffs on that trope and presents a young woman who has been specifically trained to be the last one standing. Veronica (played as a grownup by Abigail Breslin) is recruited by William (Wes Bentley) shortly after she’s orphaned at a very young age. Now the film is rather vague as to whether this is a government or a private program; if the latter William must be quite wealthy to afford the facilities in use (and it does seem to otherwise untenanted). But if he’s a private citizen does he adopt her or what? Once deemed ready for an assignment, 10 years later, she is set out to put paid to a quartet of young men who take their “dates” out to the woods where they hunt down and murder them. Who knew that such gangs were so prevalent as to warrant a recruitment and training program?

Well, frankly, to get whatever good there is to be had from the film, you’ll have to cast a certain amount of logic to the four winds. To its credit, Tyler Shields’ film never tries for anything resembling realism. There is stark, stylish and totally unrealistic production design in the first part and wonderfully off-kilter dialogue throughout (the initial interview between William and Veronica sets the tone). Things get less interesting once Veronica is taken to the woods and turns the tables on her would-be killers, which is of course when it should get more interesting and build to a payoff. Part of the problem may lie in the woods being too realistic a backdrop for the outrageous proceedings. It might also be that Veronica doing away with one guy after another just becomes a tad too much of the same thing repeated over and over. In any case, the film sags when it should be getting more thrilling.

Suggesting that perhaps all young women should receive training from Wes Bentley is “The Hunting Ground” (2015 / Anchor Bay / 104m / $22.98 / PG-13). This may be the most disturbing documentary I’ve seen in the past year. The revelations about campus rape are shocking enough but the expose of how the college’s themselves are complicit in covering up the situation is downright disgusting. Victims are advised by university staff not to pursue the matter, especially with any police not affiliated with the colleges, and grilled as to whether they “invited” rape by drinking to excess or wearing provocative clothing. (Really? In 2015 this is still imposed on survivors?) The colleges of course have their images to protect and their income. A good many rapes are perpetuated by fraternity members and campus athletes. Alumni who were frat members are invariably college’s biggest donors and the billions of dollars the sports teams rake in is too well-known to address here. Kirby Dick’s and Amy Ziering’s film may stumble in devoting so much of its running time to an accused rapist who is a Heisman Trophy winner, not only because he has been cleared in three different investigations (not the least because his accuser can’t seem to stick to a single account of the events) and also because – as with most documentaries – the film is just too darned long. A half hour shaved from the running time would have worked wonders. “The Hunting Ground” has an important message but one can’t escape the feeling that it’s being hammered home over and over again.

After the less-than-positive reaction to his “Hostel: Part II” in 2007, goremeister Eli Roth swore he was giving up movies. Well, we’ve had a nice respite but just like someone else who famously swore we wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore Roth is back with more torture porn and xenophobia. “The Green Inferno” (2013 / Universal / 101m / $29.98 / NR) is Roth’s homage to the Italian cannibal films – a sub-genre better forgotten than resurrected. That this piece of cinematic effluvia sat on the shelf for a couple years before being released this past fall to general indifference is perhaps encouraging. The very news that it was going to have a release may have encouraged Roth’s South American backers to let him have a go at another feature, “Knock Knock” (2015 / Lionsgate Premiere / 100m / $19.98 / R), which appears to have done even less well in terms of putting rear ends in the seats. Both, however, have inevitably come to home video.

“Inferno” deals with a group of activists traveling from the U.S. to protest destruction of the rain forest. Thanks to a plane crash, they end up in the clutches of some natives whose idea of having guests for dinner is somewhat unorthodox. Oh, the supreme irony: they become the main course for the very indigenous people they were trying to protect (there’s a cynical reveal about their social activism that I won’t bother to disclose). What running time is left after an overlong set-up – something that mimics the films this puppy emulates, though it is thankfully without the endless slog through the jungle in all the Neapolitan productions – is given over to the cast of unknowns being dismembered and roasted or threatened with genital mutilation at the very least. The gore is explicit thanks to the work of Greg Nicotero but not exactly believable (I’m fairly certain the guy being hacked apart would have passed out from shock long before he was decapitated). It’s also nothing that fans of the horror genre – and who else would be watching this thing anyway? – haven’t seen before, sometimes even in better movies. Other than a depiction of natives that seems based on “Jungle Jim” movies, gore is all this thing has to offer.

There’s no gore in “Knock Knock,” but there isn’t a lick of sense to be found either. The cash saved on makeup effects is probably what allowed Roth to hire Keanu Reeves (no longer exactly A-list but at least a name) to headline this crackpot home invasion thriller. Architect Reeves is staying at home to meet a deadline while his wife and son hit the beach. The night turns dark and stormy and two nubile young women ring his doorbell seeking shelter and a dryer for their drenched clothes. (No they don’t knock on his door but I suppose “Ring Ring” sounded like a dumb title.) Once disrobed, the young ladies get all flirtatious and eventually things proceed to the expected threesome (brief and not so very explicit). The next morning, they take the most appalling liberties for guests and in the course of the day they trash the house and terrorize the architect. Why? Well, that’s revealed at the very end but even with that last minute info their behavior can still be summed up as psychotic. A better question than “Why?” might be “Who cares?” And at almost two hours this thing feels interminable. The knock-knock joke is on the viewer.

Getting back to cannibalism, the theme is served with more taste in “Hannibal, Season Three” (2015 / Lionsgate / 560m (3 discs) / $24.99 BR / NR), which also turns out to be the last of the NBC series, meaning its cliffhanger finale (quite literally in this case) will be forever unresolved and its suggestive final image unexplained. Aside from milking the franchise even more I never quite got the point of the series that takes events from the Thomas Harris novels (all of which have been filmed)  and reshuffles them. The third season uses storylines from both “Red Dragon” and “Hannibal Rising” with the first half showing Lecter (Mads Mikklesen) taking the identity of Dr. Fell in Italy with his therapist Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) posing as his wife. Lecter ends up back in the states when he and FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) are kidnapped by a vengeful former victim and soon thereafter the storyline involving The Tooth Fairy kicks in. To its credit, the show has strong performances from Dancy, Anderson and Laurence Fishburne (as Graham’s boss); Rutina Wesley is also quite wonderful in a recurring role in the latter half of the season. I am less taken with Mikklesen who seems to have taken a leaf from the Christopher Lee handbook of portraying infinite evil by doing as little as possible. On the downside, there are the arty, surrealistic visuals and food porn sequences that come off as pretentious on a show that is, at its heart, just a load of very overripe cheese. There are however those who see more in it than I do.

“The Guardsman” (Yu Qian Shi Wei – 2011 / Lionsgate / 94m / $19.98 / R) at least doesn’t seem to be laboring under any illusion that it’s anything other than cheese – though I suppose in this instance we’re talking tofu. This period Wuxia entry involves a plot (or possibly several) to assassinate the Manchu emperor by internal enemies in league with Japanese pirates and the efforts by the ruler’s guards to prevent same, led by an exceptional fighter (of course). That means the dude can run into the air and over rooftops and easily put paid to dozens of ninjas single-handedly. But then these ninjas are so laughably incompetent they can even be defeated by a middle-aged lady hurling chopsticks. Their chief asset seems to be of the magic cookie jar variety in that no matter how many are killed their numbers never diminish. There are so many characters threading through the story a scorecard should be provided with the DVD. All you really need to know however is that everyone is present to engage in fighting with our hero either to get at the emperor or maybe just for exercise. The wire work is as ludicrous as always; in one scene the titular character stands up on his horse and dismounts by running through the air for half the length of a city block. Jiao Xioa-Yu’s film is an average example of the form, neither the best nor the least interesting I’ve seen.

Cast in the form of a road trip, “Mississippi Grind” (2015 / Lionsgate / 109m / $24.99 BR / R) is a character study of two gamblers, Gerry (Ben Mendlesohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds). The former is a hopeless addict who is in hock to everyone, including loan shark Alfre Woodard (cast very much against type) while the latter enjoys gambling but professes not to care about winning. The two hook up for a journey to New Orleans with stops along the way for betting on horses, playing poker and so forth on the way to the riverboat establishment that is their ultimate goal. The team-up seems unlikely but Gerry has a car while Curtis floats about with no fixed abode (he apparently has a network of prostitutes who happily give him shelter), apparently owning nothing beyond what can be stuffed in a suitcase and oodles of charm. While Gerry may be the more obvious case Curtis is every bit as much a loser – or an outsider at any rate – by society’s standards.

As might be expected, things go downhill with Gerry continuing to bet large sums and losing continually and reaching rock bottom (even if he doesn’t recognize it) when he takes a detour to visit his ex-wife so he can steal money from her. All this sounds pretty bleak but co-writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, while never sugar-coating things somehow keep things from getting too grim and, even more surprisingly, lead you to care about these characters (and I was less than sanguine about doing so going in). It’s a heck of a tightrope act and they are aided immeasurably by superb, naturalistic performances from Mendlesohn and Reynolds – the latter proving once again he is too often unfairly dismissed as a lightweight. “Mississippi Grind” is sad and funny (sometimes simultaneously) and honest. It seems to have died at the box office which is a shame because it is one of the best films of the past year and you really should see it.