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DVD reviews: 'Partisan' is too oblique for its own good

Not long ago there was a “Ziggy” cartoon that had the little bald-headed guy opining that when the episode dealt with missing socks “Ancient Aliens” had run out of topics. That might be one reason why “Season 8” (2015 / Lionsgate / 424m (2 discs) / $19.98 / NR) is only a mere 10 episodes (not a one of them about socks however). It might also be that the History channels have such a backlog of reruns they can run the shows back to back for days if they choose (and it sometimes seem they do precisely that). A further sign that perhaps economies are being made is that the usual line-up of talking heads all seem to have been filmed at the same time from the same angle and wearing the same clothes. Well, perhaps Giorgio Tsoukalos is busy with his own show or arranging his hair (I finally have to conclude that he really does want it to look that way) but there are some subjects that the producers seem to be returning to again and again. Enough with Die Glocke already. As usual the episodes are a combination of the intriguing and wackdoodle leaps of logic.

Amongst the intriguing is the discovery that those elongated skulls found in Peru years ago have been subjected to DNA analysis and they don’t match up quite to human DNA. But then neither does that of Neanderthals; in fact there may have been as many as three other humanoid species that lived at the same time as the one that became modern humans but that went extinct. It is not however “proof” that any of them were aliens or subject to alien tampering. Equally fascinating are the looks at various ancient sites throughout the world such as, in this season, a vast complex of enormous man-made caves in China, so old even the Chinese don’t know who constructed them or when. Or what their purpose might have been for that matter. And then there are the explorations into the mythology and/or religions of various cultures – which tell surprisingly similar stories of our pre-history – that just don’t get near enough exposure elsewhere in popular media. There’s a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat but enough good stuff that this series isn’t as worthless as some claim.

Speaking of longevity there’s the series of Japanese origin going back Cthulhu alone knows how many permutations that now comes to us as “Power Rangers: Dino Charge Unleashed” (2015 / Lionsgate / 92m / $14.98 / TV-Y7). Every two years Saban Brands comes up with a new line-up of rangers (always aided by ancient aliens) primarily so they can unleash a new line of cheap plastic tie-in toys at prices that can’t be described as cheap. This time it seems that an alien being known as The Keeper (who is sort of a cross between Yoda and E.T.) came to earth 65 million years ago to keep 10 energems (that’s power crystals to you) out of the hands of an alien baddie named Sledge. He passed them on to a group of dinosaurs just before sending a bomb to Sledge’s spaceship. The explosion blows the ship to another galaxy far, far away and also causes the disaster that wiped out the dinosaurs. This does suggest that The Keeper may not be the brightest bulb in the galaxy if only because dinosaur Power Rangers would’ve been very cool.

Anyway, fast-forward 65 million years and a group of teens and one caveman (don’t ask) are being chosen by the glowing crystals to be the new Power Rangers – and just in time, too. Seems Sledge and his assorted goofy minions have made their way back. Alien naughty persons always zero in on earth in these shows and for me the chief fun to be had is in the cockamamie monsters the Saban crew dreams up. Nuttiest so far is Sledge’s girlfriend who wants him to be done conquering the universe and just marry her already. She has a red heart-shaped head and polka dot hears attached to her shoulder blades; one of the rangers asks if she’s a lollipop. My viewing companion commented she wanted some of whatever the designers were on. I’m not so sure I could handle whatever they’re taking. The rangers this time round are a pretty bland bunch but then again who watches the show for them?

Two Israeli films have arrived on home video; the more interesting is “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” (aka Balada le'aviv ha'bohe – 2012 / SISU Home Entertainment / 105m / $24.95 / NR). Please ignore the various descriptions – even in SISU’s own press release that compare the film to “The Magnificent Seven,” only with musical instruments or as an homage to Sergio Leone. Both do this quiet and contemplative film a serious disservice. The set-up has one founding member of The Turquoise Ensemble dying and the other in serious retirement after having caused a car accident that killed two members of the group and crippled another. The former’s son approaches the latter to gather musicians for a final concert where the last work they composed together will finally be performed. Aside from the quest to locate the best musicians this might just as easily be “The Blues Brothers” as “The Seven Samurai” and as far as resembling Leone this film could use more than a dollop or two of any visual style at all. That’s not as big a drawback as it might be, though it would have been a major plus if it weren’t quite so ordinary looking. But the focus here is on the ethnic music, which is pleasant enough, and the performances, which are very good indeed.

I was far less taken with “The Dealers” (2012 / SISU Home Entertainment / 101m / $24.95 / NR), a purported comedy about two friends who play on a neighborhood soccer team but otherwise spend their time getting wasted on weed. They attempt to raise money so they can get in on a big drug deal with a gangster who was once a member of the team and complications, supposedly humorous, occur. That one involves a roommate with bronchitis dying from smoke inhalation after one of the stoners sets fire to a pile of weed and thus to the apartment may give you some idea of the level of hilarity contained herein. My feeling is that they’d work less hard if they simply got jobs. Now I’ve never found Israeli cinema all that terribly interesting; that the productions all rely on government subsidy seems to guarantee that there’s nothing terribly adventurous about them. But if this had been the first example I’d encountered I might have sworn off all films coming from that country entirely.

You know that relative that your aunt describes with the phrase “His/Her heart’s in the right place?” That’s pretty much the case with “Susie’s Hope” (2013 / Green Apple Entertainment / 105m / $9.96 / TV-PG), a made for TV production that relates the true story of a woman who survived a savage attack by a neighbor’s abused pit bull and shortly after rescued and fostered a severely abused pit bull puppy; jaw broken and set afire it was not expected to survive. Donna Lawrence (Emmanuelle Vaugier) and her initially skeptical but ultimately supportive husband Roy (Burgess Jenkins) also take on the daunting task of fundraising for little Susie’s hefty medical bills and determine to track down and prosecute the man responsible. Surprisingly while animal abuse was considered a felony in their state no prison time was attached to the crime so they also lobby to change the law. (Susie’s attacker was jailed because the dog was his girlfriend’s and he was prosecuted for destruction of property!)

The chief problem here is that too many things are glossed over. Donna is so badly mauled that she nearly dies (and furthermore loses her baby and the ability to have more children) but she is getting about on crutches with only some red marks on her leg in what seems a very short time. (For that matter Google images of the real Susie at the time of her treatment to see how the film has downplayed her injuries.) Susie has several triggers that send her ballistic (lighted matches for one) but the film gives no indication that most, if not all, abused animals never get past these. Susie seems to react but once and then gets on with her life. As all sales from the DVD go to the Susie Rescue Fund (a very worthy cause) I certainly won’t recommend you steer clear of this title even though it’s no more than your average TV-movie. I do have some concern that it might cause some folks to adopt rescue animals without knowing just what a daunting task they may be taking on.

The science fiction entry “Painkillers” (2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 105m / $27.97 / NR) starts well with a coed group of soldiers in what appears to be a good sized medical facility. That these half-dozen seem to be the only patients in the establishment is only the beginning of the mystery. None of them have any memory of their most recent mission or even who they are. Cafferty (Tahmoh Penikett) doesn’t even recognize his wife when she comes to visit. But Dr. Troutman (Colm Feore) holds out hope that an experimental drug he’s developed will restore their memories. After all it’s not known if they achieved their objective or what happened to the soldiers from the mission who are missing. As none of the publicity that’s out there makes any secret of it, it’s no spoiler to reveal that our doughboys and doughgirls were sent to retrieve a powerful energy source left behind by some more of those pesky ancient aliens. There’s more of course but I’ll leave that to the film. This is one of those unpretentious Canadian genre productions I tend to find so satisfying. They don’t aim terribly high (this one has practically no special effects) but they generally reach their goal. Peter Winther’s film only suffers from a finale that relies on the old cliché of the protagonists shooting their way out of their predicament. The movie would be more interesting with a cleverer resolution.

Sometimes even a lame explanation is better than none at all and “Partisan” (2015 / Well Go USA / 94m / $29.98 BR / NR) is rife with questions that lack direct answers. It’s not a puzzle picture exactly but it is mostly elliptically told, particularly in the beginning that (I think) portrays Gregori (Vincent Cassel) salvaging furniture for what becomes a compound 11 years later (and one that becomes – or is revealed as – increasingly surreal as the film progresses). The eventual populace of this commune is single mothers and their children with Gregori as the only father, teacher and benevolent dictator. It also soon is revealed that he is training the youngsters to be assassins. Now very little is stated outright in director Ariel Kleiman’s film (he also co-scripted) so who these killer tots are targeting and why is never addressed. The title suggests a political agenda but I’m guessing the victims are the men who impregnated and abandoned the women of the compound – but it is only a guess. The real point of the film however is a study of Gregori and his star pupil, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) who, as he approaches puberty, is beginning to do what growing children do: question and challenge authority.

I found “Partisan” ultimately uninvolving, or at any rate unmoving and I think that’s in part to the many unanswered questions. What country does this take place in? It seems Third World but is it? What happens to the boy who, after a violent confrontation with Gregori, departs the compound along with his mother? And do they merely leave or does something more sinister transpire? Ultimately the unanswered questions get in the way of caring much about any of the characters –and we never do quite understand why Gregori has such a hold over the women other than having given them shelter when they were abandoned (his appeal to the children is more clearly portrayed). The film is beautifully photographed and impressively acted; Cassel is frightening, most especially when he’s being charming and young Chabriel just might best him. But ultimately the film is too oblique for its own good. It held my interest during its running time but I can’t imagine ever watching it again.

Back in its heyday under the Laemmle family Universal essentially invented the horror genre in films with “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” and their assorted relatives not to mention other natural and supernatural monsters. Granted the studio has changed ownership several times since the mid-1930s but I still can’t help but ponder how a studio that was once famous for its horror films – some of which are great films, period – now can’t seem to come up any that are better than half decent. The last third of 2015 saw the abysmal “The Green Inferno” and “The Visit” vanish from theaters in the twinkling of an eye and released to DVD with almost obscene alacrity (and thus reviewed here some weeks back) and “The Forest” is in cineplexes as I write this but probably not by the time you read it. In between those we got “Sinister 2” (2015 / Universal / 98m / $34.98 BR / R) which is the best of the lot, though that’s not really saying all that very much.

The story picks up with James Ransone continuing as Deputy So and So from the first film. He’s now a private investigator (or so he claims) but his major occupation seems to be torching the houses where Bughuul (aka the Bogeyman, sensibly rechristened from Mr. Boogie), a demon of Babylonian ethnicity, has convinced a child to murder his or her family. There’s a link between the houses that I won’t go into here and the ex-Deputy hopes to end the cycle of massacres by burning the houses. Unfortunately his latest goal is not empty and up for sale but occupied by a woman (Shannyn Sossamin) and her twin sons (Robert Daniel and Dartanian Sloan) fleeing an abusive husband. Naturally Bughuul has targeted them. That’s the gist of things in what is – as with so many horror sequels – essentially a rehash of the original. The main characters are a more likeable lot and in that this entry is an improvement over the original but aside from a sequence involving ham radio broadcasts (which will resonate only with certain conspiracy buffs) there aren’t any creepy moments to equal the one in the first where Ethan Hawke discovers an attic full of ghost children. And Mister Boogie still looks like a cross beween Lon Chaney’s Opera Ghost and Michael Jackson on a really bad day (director Ciaran Foy wisely keeps his appearances limited to nigh subliminal flashes). File this one under Acceptable Time Waster.