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New Releases for Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Titans: The Complete First Season

Genre: Comic Book/Action

Created by: Greg Berlanti, Akiva Goldsman and Geoff Johns

Run time: 528 minutes

Rating: TV-MA

Format: Blu-Ray

The Lowdown: Finally, 38 years after Marv Wolfman and George Perez introduced The New Teen Titans to DC Comics, there’s a live-action adaptation of one of my most favorite books growing up.

The lineup is a little different, given how DC and Warner Bros. totally screwed the pooch by including Cyborg in Justice League, and there’s no Kid Flash to be found, but the core group – Robin, aka Nightwing, Raven, Starfire and Beast Boy, aka Changeling – remains intact.

And, just in case you have yet to check it out, Titans, the inaugural launch for the new streaming platform, DC Universe, is a bona fide hit.

Brenton Thwaites might look a little young to already be a jaded, lone wolf police detective in Detroit, but he brings a solid stoicism to Dick Grayson, along with a bone-crunching tenacity as Grayson’s alter-egos, Robin and Nightwing. Teagan Croft is just goth-y enough as Rachel Roth, aka Raven. And Ryan Potter is perfectly cast as Gar Logan, aka Beast Boy. It may take longtime fans a while to warm up to Anna Diop as Koriand’r, aka Starfire, but try to curb your fanboy anger long enough to avoid going on an Internet troll tirade. You will like her, trust me.

What Titans does well is use Raven and her burgeoning dark powers to serve as a catalyst to bring all our heroes together, and kudos to show creators Greg Berlanti, Akiva Goldsman and Geoff Johns for not shying away from the horror.

Titans makes the most of its unrated streaming opportunities. Much like Marvel’s Netflix serials, these characters swear, they get naked and they stumble just as often as they save the day.

There’s plenty of nods to DC’s iconic older heroes, but what I appreciated is that Titans isn’t interested in rehashing the familiar. While Grayson is perpetually haunted by his adoptive mentor Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, the character is relegated to the shadows, which allows the focus to remain firmly on Robin’s evolution into Nightwing.

The show also does a wonderful job introducing DC’s own band of misfit heroes, the Doom Patrol, with the fourth episode serving as a perfect launchpad for the group’s own series on the streaming service.

Now, just to be honest, given the time constraints that critics often work under, especially when faced with trying to absorb an entire season of a television show in time to pen a review, we only made it through four episodes, but we definitely plan on finishing the entire season soon.

If you’re the kind of fan who can’t help themselves and you seek out spoilers, then you already know that Titans is expanding in its second season to introduce Donna Troy, aka Wonder Girl, along with younger versions of classic villains like Deathstroke.

Whatever happens with DC Universe (given how the service already did such a disservice to Swamp Thing, it’s perfectly okay to question its longevity), I’m still beyond thrilled to see these Titans finally in action.

And I can’t wait to see if they go all-in and introduce Princess Komand’r, aka Blackfire.

Here’s to hoping all our comic book dreams can come true.

The Stuff You Care About: Hot chicks – Yes.

Nudity – No. Gore – No.

Drug use – No.

Bad Guys/Killers – Iconic DC foes.

Buy/Rent – Buy it.

Shazam! (Warner Bros., 132 minutes, PG-13, 4K Ultra HD): Back in April, I gave Shazam! a lowly 2.5-star review for Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

Even I was surprised at how much I didn’t like this film, especially since I had fully expected it to be one of the few bright spots in the mostly-miserable-to-date shared cinematic DC universe.

Was I simply biased against DC given that not even Wonder Woman, which millions of people loved, was able to make me a believer. (For the record, I still believe the first 35-40 minutes of Wonder Woman is exceptional; my issue with the overall movie comes down to the mind-numbing CGI effects that overwhelmed the third act and essentially ruined the entire production for me.)

Had I exposed myself as a Trojan horse-style critic, secretly working for Marvel Studios with the intention of belittling any other comics studio’s efforts, just to make the MCU appear more dominant than it already is?

The long and short answer is: No.

My issues with Shazam! are justified, and supported, especially if you look at lower-tier Marvel efforts like Ant-Man or long-groomed passion projects like Captain Marvel.

The problem that DC has yet to figure out is how to launch a franchise character that isn’t Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman, whose backstories and villains and heroic deeds are already part of our collective pop culture conscience.

Shazam! doesn’t even try to make sense. It just plows through all the rich character building that such films depend on to introduce a boy-hero (Billy Batson) and a villain (Dr. Sivana) that are so one-dimensional it hurts the brain.

For instance, Sivana has spent decades trying to figure out how to get back to the secret hall of warriors that he once visited as a child. Decades. Yet, as soon as he sees a video with some random, cryptic symbols, he is immediately able to scribble the symbols on a door and open a portal to that world.

Shazam! is more interested in playing for laughs than playing for keeps. It doesn’t bother to properly explain the origin of the original Captain Marvel’s powers. It doesn’t even foreshadow the film’s climax when Batson, as Shazam, is able to transform all of his foster siblings into heroic gods. That kind of crap just happens and we’re supposed to be like, okay, cool.

Even Ant-Man, regardless of how you felt about it, was smart enough to use comics canon to flesh out Hank Pym’s backstory and offer some much-needed context so audiences could sit back and enjoy the sight of miniature Paul Rudd flying around on the back of a giant ant.

Even Captain Marvel, which some fans weren’t bowled over by, explained the origin of her powers in a way that made sense and was easily digestible. In fact, the moment that she’s imbued with superhuman energy by a Kree alien blast is a pivotal sequence in the film.

In Shazam!, Batson simply gets on a subway after defending his new foster brother, who is disabled, and is suddenly transported to the hall of warriors where he meets a wizard who basically tells him to say “Shazam” and suddenly he’s a superhero. But the wizard doesn’t tell him jack-shit about his powers or elaborate very much on why he’s the special chosen one, other than Batson is supposedly pure of heart.

Wait, what?

And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous fight sequences between Shazam and Sivana, which once again exist solely to fill the screen with untold amounts of structural damage to a major U.S. city (Man of Steel, anyone?) without any recourse, consequence or justification other than it looks cool to see Shazam and Sivana flying around like a pair of costumed clowns making their debut months ahead of Halloween.

In hindsight, maybe 2.5 stars was being generous.

Blood Paradise (Artsploitation Films, 84 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Blood Paradise, the feature debut of director/co-writer Patrick von Barkenberg, is a confounding, though at times brilliant, meditation on the process needed for creative individuals to create.

Robin Richards (Andréa Winter, co-writer), a once-acclaimed, now shamed, novelist, whose lurid, pulpy crime thrillers troll in slick, sick fetishes and sexual deviancy, is dispatched by her agent to a remote Swedish farm in order to focus on writing her next novel, which everyone hopes will be a return to form.

Early on, at its most effective, Blood Paradise uses mundane, everyday actions and interactions to show how creepy, depending on your perspective, such moments can be.

Upon her arrival, Richards must contend with an over-zealous fan named Hans Bubi (please tell me this is an homage to Die Hard), who also is a struggling writer trapped in a loveless marriage, and Farmer Rolf, the stoic hayseed who spends his days tending to crops and sneaking into an off-limits cabin that catches Robin’s eye.

von Barkenberg uses long shots, intense close-ups, ambient noise (like a buzzing fly) and an atmospheric, at times jarring, score to keep his audience off balance and uncomfortable, at least early on.

Blood Paradise is divided into sections: The Writer. The Farmer. The Sister. Etc. And each new portion of the film creeps ever-so-purposefully to a big reveal at the start of the third act, which I won’t spoil here.

The problem is that this reveal isn’t so much a spoiler as it is a critical plot decision that spoils your overall enjoyment of the film, and steers the movie's climax down a very predictable path.

Blood Paradise is a curiously confident debut that aspires to be something more than the sum of its parts. You can tell the care that went into its crafting, but even such moments of appreciation aren’t enough to overcome what amounts to a ho-hum climax followed by a bizarre coda that raises questions the filmmaker has no intention of answering.

The Chill Factor (Arrow Video, 86 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): It’s not often that BVB receives a long-lost title, one we’ve never seen, much less even knew existed, that’s been dusted off and enhanced for our high-definition digital age.

But isn’t that the ultimate point for distributors like Arrow Video, to scour the annals of genre cinema for obscure movies that deserved to be re-introduced to the world?

The Chill Factor, which was originally released in 1993, is just such a movie.

The film, which focuses on a group of snowmobiling family and friends, is the lone directorial credit for Christopher Webster, who was as an executive producer for such classics as Hellraiser, Heathers and Deadgirl.

The Chill Factor comes complete with an unnecessary, often distracting voiceover by the main heroine, Jeannie (Dawn Laurrie), who apparently has had a recurring vision where her boyfriend Tom (Aaron Kjenaas) is critically injured.

When her vision turns into reality, the group seeks safety in an abandoned facility that once was home to an obscure religious cult and used as a kind of summer camp for kids.

The Chill Factor is one of those odd genre films that looks like it might emulate other, better films, but ultimately just limps along to its conclusion without making a lick of sense or offering anything in the way of decent entertainment.

The main antagonist, I shit you not, is a shadow.

The Chill Factor also shows its age by displaying the kind of blatant, yet casual racism that was allowed to go unchecked in the 1980s and ‘90s. One of the main characters is dating a young African American woman who is subjected to discrimination by rednecks at a local ski lodge.

It also features a bizarre and wholly unsettling subplot about Tom being sexually attracted to his sister Karen and he makes so many inappropriate, suggestive statements to her, along with caressing her butt in ski pants, that you eventually become numb.

I wish that I could report that The Chill Factor is an unexpected diamond in the rough, waiting to be discovered and revered, but this release is strictly for purists who want to absorb as many lost titles from the genre’s past that they are willing to overlook all of a movie’s shortcomings.

Also Available:

Space: 1999 – The Complete Series

Criminal Minds: The Fourteenth Season

Now on Video-on-Demand:

Darlin’ (Dark Sky Films, 100 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): True story, the one and only home video title that I’ve ever received that came with its own barf bag is Lucky McKee’s divisive The Woman, which was released way back in 2011.

That film was essentially a sequel to 2009’s Offspring, which first introduced genre fans to a clan of feral cannibals that had roamed the northeastern U.S. coastline for decades.

The tether, the connective tissue, so to speak, was The Woman, a character that has been played for the past 10 years by Pollyanna McIntosh, who many people will recognize instantly from The Walking Dead.

With Darlin’, the concluding chapter in this unexpected trilogy, McIntosh is back, this time serving as the film’s lead, as well as its co-writer and director.

Darlin’ is a challenge, I’ll be honest.

It’s a bleak, blistering, beat-you-over-the-head style gorefest that seems to be making a not-so-subtle connection between the inbred clan that populated the first two films and institutions like organized religion.

McIntosh, making her feature debut, doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff, whether its subjecting viewers to her character chewing out the throat of a cop who happens by at the worst possible time or watching a church bishop effectively torture The Woman’s feral daughter (Lauryn Canny) through a series medieval religious persecutions meant to sway her from a life of untamed lawlessness to devout servitude.

Now, mind you, the film opens with The Woman knowingly forcing her daughter to leave her side and seek care at a local church-run hospital.

But no sooner than this happens, McIntosh starts stalking the edges of Darlin’, lurking in the wooded shadows outside the convent like some mythical slasher, waiting for the chance to lash out and kill anyone who stands between her and her daughter.

It begs the serious question: What’s the point?

If the point is simply to watch these two rabid women tear through a bunch of holier-than-thou hypocrites, okay, but why go to the trouble of setting up the film as something with a lot more on its mind.

Maybe if Darlin’ had simply been content to troll in the black-blood and fleshy carnage of its two predecessors then it would be easier to turn off our brains and enjoy the amplified violence.

As it is, in its finished form, Darlin’ feels like a passion project eight years in the making that somehow lost sight of its ambition and chose instead to settle for being a middling thriller about a crazed parent providing the worst possible role model for a highly impressionable child.

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