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DVD reviews: 'Bone Tomahawk' is brilliant film

The New Western, as I’ve come to dub it, continues on; it doesn’t much resemble the classic Hollywood oaters or the Italian “spaghetti” westerns aside from the setting; it’s grittier than the former and – as strange as it may seem – odder than the latter in many ways. Certainly this is true of “Bone Tomahawk” (2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 132m / $29.96 / NR), which might be described as “The Searchers” meets “Cannibal Holocaust.” Writer/director S. Craig Zahler sets the tone immediately with two bushwackers (Sid Haig and David Arquette) polishing off some settlers, the older man instructing the younger in the proper way to cut a throat (seen in closeup – this is not a film for the squeamish). In making their escape the two trespass on and desecrate the burial ground of a tribe of troglodyte cave dwellers. Members of the tribe sneak into town and kidnap several people, including the town’s woman doctor. Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) sets off on a rescue mission accompanied by Brooder (Matthew Fox) – a tracker who professes to have killed over 100 Indians in revenge for the deaths of his family – the doctor’s husband (Patrick Wilson), who insists on going despite having a broken leg, and Hunt’s ancient deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), who declares it’s his duty despite Hunt’s protestations.

Saddled with two men he feels are impediments and another he dislikes (in fact few of this quartet much like each other) Hunt begins the long journey to save the captives. The journey may cross the prairie rather than the jungle but here it becomes apparent that the template for “Bone Tomahawk” is the Italian cannibal films even if it also references John Ford. Unlike them and Eli Roth’s recent homage, “The Green Inferno,” Zahler fills his trek with first rate, quirky and often hilarious dialogue, particularly the banter between Hunt and Chicory. There’s also a good bit of character development included that causes you to care about the characters, even ultimately Brooder, when things become very grim and gory indeed. The writing does much to keep a film that clocks in at well over two hours from sinking like a stone but surely the foursome of Russell, Wilson, Fox and Jenkins deserves a great deal of credit as well (not to mention Haig and Arquette in cameo appearances). This is a brilliantly written, directed and acted film.

With “The Visit” (2015 / Universal / 94m / $34.98 BR+DVD combo / PG-13) M. Night Shyamalan enters the found-footage subgenre of horror and the results are pretty dire. Possibly the only thing raising this slightly above the level of most of such efforts is that the footage is neither shaky, out of focus or poorly lit. Yes, that’s about the best that can be said and if that’s damning with faint praise, so be it. The plot, or what passes for one, has mom (Kathryn Hahn, totally wasted but the closest thing to a name in the cast) parking her kids with the grandparents she hasn’t so much as talked to in a couple decades so she can go on a cruise with her current boyfriend. If you can get past that little leap in logic you may be able to deal with the nonsense that follows. Nana and Pop Pop are more than a tad peculiar; the former roams the house at night naked while the latter is forever dressing up to attend a party that doesn’t happen. Despite these obvious signs of the old folks being very much not right, they’re supposed to be counselors at some local therapy center. The strangeness – which the kids mostly brush off for far longer than is reasonable – is all build-up with little pay-off until the unsurprising revelation. As usual Shyamalan has taken the kind of tale Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock’s anthology shows would have polished off in half an hour and dragged out to a feature length production that feels interminable. I am reliably informed that this nonsense is purported to be a comedy but any laughs genefated are purely unintended.

While John Cusack and Adrien Brody are prominently billed, “Dragon Blade” (Tian jiang xiong shi – 2015 / Lionsgate Premiere / 103m / $19.98 / R) is very much Jackie Chan’s movie with the other two actors playing prominent but still supporting roles. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but fans of Cusack and Brody should know going in that their screen time is limited. Huo An (Chan) is arrested on a trumped up charge of gold smuggling and tasked, along with other prisoners, of rebuilding a demolished city along the Silk Road. Along comes a sizeable contingent of Roman soldiers led by Lucius (Cusack) that looks like an invading force but is really spiriting away the child emperor from the murderous intentions of Tiberius (Brody). The Romans and the Chinese join forces to rebuild the city, the better to defend the boy from Tiberius who of course soon comes calling with an enormous contingent of soldiers. While he’s at it he’s going to claim the Silk Road and the only way to prevent that is for Huo An to convince the warriors of the several dozen nations that use the trade route to unite against Tiberius.

Writer/director Daniel Lee’s film is epic action on an old-fashioned grand scale. If CGI had been part of his toolbox Cecil B. DeMille might have made this and that is part of the problem, although “Dragon Blade” works at least as often as it doesn’t. Enhancing the retro feel is that Cusack and Brody are miscast at least insofar as looking anything but at home in Roman armor (and Brody has inexplicably adopted a not terribly convincing British accent). I don’t know how based in history this account might be but I also found it a downer that so many likeable characters (including the young heir) bite the dust along the way. That the underdogs will somehow ultimately prevail is a given but their victory feels hollow and the film therefore has an ending that’s not entirely satisfactory. On the upside the action sequences are very well done and Chan is still an appealing screen presence (though I suspect more of his stunts are handed off to a double than in the past). As spectacle the film works but not quite as enjoyably as it should.

While it wasn’t of course “The Last Horror Film (aka Maniac – 1982 / Troma Entertainment / 87m / $24.95 BR / NR) is the kind of production that could kill a genre. Okay, I exaggerate a mite; there are worse films out there and some of them boasting such lavish budgets it’s difficult to fathom why they aren’t better. This affair had a budget so low it was shot guerilla style (in other words without permits) at the Cannes Film Festival. That’s where taxi driver and wannabe film director Vinnie (Joe Spinell) has gone to convince cult star Jana (Caroline Munro, playing essentially herself) to star in the film he’s written. Vinny stalks and surreptitiously films Jana but her entourage prevents him from making contact. Soon they start getting gorily killed off (a beheading by chainsaw anyone?) but the way the deaths are filmed will tip off the savvy that Vinny is probably not the killer. Writer/director David Winters’ film purports to be a black comedy and is generous with the splatter and bared breasts so it has its devotees. But I find it difficult to get past the dodgy camerawork and crummy dubbing. And I also prefer my comedies to be, you know, actually funny. (I’m peculiar that way.) Spinell overacts shamelessly, Munro can’t act at all and as far as slice-n-dice efforts go this is strictly by the numbers.

I am in the minority having been underwhelmed by “Sicario” (2015 / Lionsgate / 121m / $39.99 BR+DVD combo / R). Oh it’s well made and very well acted but it’s really just a tarted up arthouse version of your basic violent action thriller (lots of gunfire and explosions). Things start promisingly when a drug operation accidentally uncovers dozens of bodies secreted in the wall of the house that’s just been raided. Policewoman Emily Blunt resultantly finds herself asked to volunteer for a super-secret mission south of the border to get to the leader of the drug cartel involved. The operation is headed by Josh Brolin who is revealed in his first scene to be wearing flip-flops in the conference room. I suppose this is to suggest that he’s unorthodox but the film never does anything more with that idea and that’s a tip-off to some of what’s amiss here.

“Sicario” is so obsessed with details, many of which prove irrelevant, that it never engages emotionally. This is exacerbated by so many scenes played out in such extremelong-shot that the actors are mere specks in the landscape. (Because of the distancing tone of the film and the cinematography I couldn’t escape the notion that I was watching “The Hurt Locker Goes to Mexico.”) With Benecio del Toro as an independent agent connected with the mission, there is an intimation that possibly the issue might be raised of what we become if we deal with crime by becoming as dirty as the perpetrators. That might be hinted at but it’s never addressed – but I really can’t say more on that score without introducing major spoilers. The film is a guessing game for the viewer but so focused on minutae instead of clues as to what’s going on that I was bored rather than engaged. (My viewing companion bailed on the film at least a half hour before the finale, instructing me to let her know if anything interesting happened by the end.) Bear in mind it has a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has struck many as brilliant. Perhaps I’m missing something.

I don’t know how many other web series have made the leap from You Tube to DVD but “Steam Room Stories” (2010-15 / Cinema 175 / NR) has and its first three seasons are available individually and as collection of three discs (which is the version received for review). A sketch comedy series set in a college’s co-ed steam room (a woman shows up irregularly to remind us of that), the webisodes are all relatively brief. As the performers are all clad only in towels the chief audience for this series is gay men but anyone who is straight but not narrow might find some amusement in the show as well. Mild amusement at any rate because there’s nothing ground breaking here and little that is laugh out loud funny. As far as any satiric exploration of the spectrum of male sexual behavior goes so the series ducks (or can’t manage) being funny or pertinent. It’s also somewhat confusing that the fairly large component of actors sometimes seem to be playing the same characters but at other times aren’t. Perhaps I nitpick and perhaps I expected too much from a web series but given its premise I was expecting something a bit more substantial and much funnier from “Steam Room Stories.”

In the utterly charming “Tokyo Fiancee” (2014 / First Run Features / 100m / $24.95 / NR) young Amelie (PaulineEtienne) is so enamored of Japan – where she was born and lived until five years of age – that she buys a one-way ticket back from Belgium on her 20th birthday. She advertises as a French tutor to earn her keep and enters into a passionate affair with her first student, Rinri (Taichi Inoue), who is as big a Francophile as she is a Japanophile. There isn’t much more to the plot than that to this not-as-light-as-it-seems romance. As Amelie and Rinri explore Tokyo and each other they begin learning about themselves and Amelie especially comes to understand much about Nipponese culture of which she was uniformed. She also begins to ask questions about herself, most crucially whether she really does love Rinri and does he really love her, or is it a case of them loving what the other is rather than who?

The film is adapted from Amelie Nothomb’s autobiographical novel by director Stefan Liberski who has made an absolutely beguiling confection of it. If sometimes a tad too cute for its own good it must be remembered that we are seeing Tokyo through Amelie’s eyes , which are viewing things through the proverbial rose-tinted lenses. Liberski also infuses a lot of humor, partly through language disconnects and also through the astonishing high-tech gadgets (such as a faucet with LED lights that color the water) that are in the home of Rinri’s wealthy family (leading her to ponder if they are yakuza). While the humor of the latter is useful in keeping things from getting too gooey (always a pitfall with first love films) Liberski juxtaposes the gadgets and the city’s garish neon-lit nightlife with nature, which has a final say of sorts courtesy an earthquake (the real-life 1990 Fukishima eruption). “Tokyo Fiancee” is one of those films that has a lot to say but has the good sense to do so in a whisper.