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Reviews for the Spanish historical fantasy ‘The Bastards’ Fig Tree’ and more VOD films

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Karra Elejalde in the movie “The Bastards’ Fig Tree.”
(Dark Star Pictures)

‘The Bastards’ Fig Tree’

The Spanish Civil War has been the backdrop for multiple great movies, many of which are steeped in metaphor as much as history: from Victor Erice’s 1973 arthouse classic “The Spirit of the Beehive” to Guillermo del Toro’s more fantastical “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” While not on the same level as those films, writer-director Ana Murugarren’s “The Bastards’ Fig Tree” (an adaptation of a 2006 Ramiro Pinilla novel) similarly couches social criticism in whimsy.

Karra Elejalde stars as Rogelio, a ferocious fascist who has a crisis of conscience after noticing a 10-year-old boy watching one of his terrorist rampages. Certain the youngster will grow up and seek revenge, Rogelio immediately swears off violence, and dedicates his life to nurturing a single fig tree.

“The Bastards’ Fig Tree” spans decades, using the tree’s growing branches and Rogelio’s hermit-beard to signify the passage of time. Politics and fashions evolve, until, eventually, this one stubborn plant and its increasingly shaggy protector become a symbol to Spaniards, who travel far and wide to be in the presence of the fig man.

What exactly does the fig tree symbolize? To her credit, Murugarren keeps the meaning ambiguous. Maybe Rogelio replaces one kind of fanaticism with another. Maybe the tree is the true, enduring spirit of Spain — or its undying conflicts.

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A thin plot and a distractingly jaunty score hold “The Bastards’ Fig Tree” back. But for the most part, this is a thought-provoking historical fairy tale about the values — and grudges — that survive whomever’s in power.

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‘The Bastards’ Fig Tree’

In Spanish with English subtitles

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Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle Glendale; available June 4 on VOD

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‘Saint Bernard’

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Jason Dugre in the movie "Saint Bernard."
(Severin Films)

Throughout makeup artist Gabe Bartalos’ long career, he’s had one foot in the splatter genre, working with B-movie auteurs such as Frank “Frankenhooker” Henenlotter, and one foot in the fine arts, making masks and effects for Matthew Barney. His “Saint Bernard” (made in 2013) sits squarely between those two worlds. It’s essentially a feature-length video sculpture exhibit, shot on 16mm and 35mm film, showcasing Bartalos’ knack for turning revolting nightmares into physical objects.

Consider this both an explanation and a warning. The “story” in “Saint Bernard” (such as it is) involves a classical musical conductor who stumbles through a city, encountering strange creatures and dangerous eccentrics. But the movie’s really just a series of loosely connected vignettes, featuring astonishing, often repulsive images of severed heads, oozing orifices and gnarled beasts.

“Saint Bernard” is like the raw material for a vintage David Lynch or David Cronenberg movie — only disassembled, and divorced from any engaging narrative. Even adventurous filmgoers should approach it with caution.

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‘Saint Bernard’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Available May 14 on VOD

‘Peel’

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Jack Kesy, left, and Emile Hirsch in the movie "Peel."
(Dan Anderson / Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.)

The frustratingly quirky “Peel” stars Emile Hirsch as the title character: a blank-faced naif raised by an overprotective hippie. When his mom dies, the 30-year-old man-child is forced to learn about the world — first by taking in three macho boarders, who rush him into manhood, and then by hitting the road to find his long-lost brothers.

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Directed by Rafael Monserrate and written by Lee Karaim, “Peel” has a gentle, fable-like quality, evoking films such as “Being There” and “Harold and Maude,” in which kindly simpletons have positive impacts on the lives of troubled people. The movie means no harm, and thus is hard to hate — even when its hero does irritatingly precious things such as packing a plank of wood for his road trip, so he can measure his brothers’ height the way their parents did when they were kids.

The problem is that “Peel” is so persistently twee that when it tries to introduce heavier themes — involving the lasting damage family and friends thoughtlessly inflict on each other — the general sense of unreality gets in the way. Sweet or not, who needs to take life-advice from a 30-year-old who acts like he stepped out of a children’s book?

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‘Peel’

Rated: R, for language including sexual references, and for some drug content

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: Available now on VOD

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‘Don’t Look’

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A scene from the movie "Don't Look."
(Wild Eye Releasing)

The throwback slasher picture “Don’t Look” is so short and slight that it’s more like a demo reel than a feature film. Directed by Luciana Faulhaber (who also came up with the story, and is in the cast) the movie follows a group of young adults who take a Thanksgiving trip to a friend’s country house. About 30 minutes into the 70-minute running-time, the pals pair off in dark corners of the property, where they start getting skewered by a maniac in a baby mask.

Faulhaber makes some effort to give “Don’t Look” some substance, spending time developing the characters’ relationships, while teasing out the mystery of who the murderer really is. But this is standard slasher formula; and there’s nothing exceptionally good or bad about how the movie handles its business. The horror scenes are just fine: They make good use of practical gore effects, and are freaky enough to be mildly disturbing. But the rest of “Don’t Look?” Well… the title says it all.

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‘Don’t Look’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 11 minutes

Playing: Available May 14 on VOD

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