Sunday, July 23, 2017

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) (Blu-ray Review)

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) 
Label: Warner Bros.
Region Code: A
Rating: PG-13 
Duration: 118 Minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD MA with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.39:1) 
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly

Synopsis: This compelling, original adventure tells the story of a diverse team of scientists, soldiers and adventurers uniting to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific, as dangerous as it is beautiful. Cut off from everything they know, the team ventures into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape a primal Eden in which humanity does not belong.

I was a fan of Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005), it was epic, adventurous and I loved the era it was set in - it was a love letter to the original King Kong, but it was a bit pacey at times, it was a slow-burn and it took a long damn time to even get to Skull Island and the titular Kong, and some of the special effects work was wonky, for example, those brontosaurus type creatures were a little rubbery looking, but I still love the movie a bunch. Now here comes Kong: Skull Island - a new take on the myth of Kong and set in a new era, the Vietnam era, and with it they bring in more than a tinge of cool Apocalypse Now influence on aesthetic and tone, the gritty 70s is a great era for this one. 

The film opens in '44 with an American fighter pilot going down in combat along with his Japanese counterpart - both are downed and stranded on the island, and both seem to want to continue the fight on land that began in the air - chasing after each other on the beach and deep into the jungle, intent on killing one another until they are interrupted by the titular Kong! 

Forward to '73 we have a Monarch government agent named Bill Randa (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski) who hires a former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, Avengers: Age of Ultron) to guide him and his expedition team of scientist to a place called Skull Island, a mysterious island located somewhere in the South Pacific. Transporting the expedition to the island is a Vietnam War helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel Jackson, Pulp Fiction), they're also joined by war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) who has served time "in the shit".

They arrive on the island with no small amount of bad weather, the island is hidden away by a seemingly impenetrable storm front, and begin to immediately place explosive charges around the island to assist in mapping the subterranean composition, going on a "hollow earth" theory favored by Randa and his team. No sooner have they started dropping explosives and fucking the pristine island up than they are besieged by a 100 foot tall ape who destroys/kills most of the team, smashing the helicopters like toys, scattering the survivors into two separate groups, everyone is in shock - no one's seen this sort of thing before. 

The groups begin traversing the island and the team encounters the island's indigenous people who are known as the Iwi, they also encounter the WWII soldier from the start of the film, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly, Boogie Night)who has become an indoctrinated member of the tribe, and we learn slowly what became of his Japanese counterpart. While most of the group hope to get off the island by travelling to a predetermined drop-off point Colonel Packard becomes obsessed with destroying this new enemy, having failed in Vietnam he seems sort of cracked, and won't leave the island until Kong is destroyed, and he doesn't seem to care if it ends up killing everyone.


The island is a gorgeous place, green, lush and terrifying, and wouldn't you know it, the damn place is lousy with killer creatures, the monstrous ape seems to be the least of their worries. The group find themselves assaulted by a bamboo-stalking giant spider, encounter a gargantuan water buffalo, a nightmarishly huge octopus, and a race of subterranean creatures called "Skull Crawlers", as they are named by Marlow. These are the main threat found on the island, Kong is a sort of gatekeeper that maintains the balance on the island, but Col. Packard's vengeful quest against the massive ape threatens that equilibrium of the island, and the skull crawlers which have been mostly kept below ground begin emerging at an alarming pace. 

The creature action here is awesomely entertaining, fearsome and outrageously large creatures face off against the humans and with Kong, the visual spectacle is absolutely fun stuff and the digital artistry is phenomenal. I do love most of the creature designs, I think Kong looks awesome, they don't go out of there way to over-emote Kong the way Jackson's King Kong did, but he has a great range of rages. The giant octopus and spider are great, but the main baddies the "skull crawlers" didn't quite do a lot for me, much how I didn't care for the MUTO in the recent Godzilla (2015) movie, but they're decent enough that I didn't hate the movie for them, in fact I loved it. 


I think adding the Vietnam war-theme to the movie kept it fresh, we've seen quite a few incarnations of King Kong since the original, and I love the Apocalypse Now aesthetic, the shots of the helicopter squadron in action, they're mirrored aviator glasses adding a certain coolness to the proceedings, reflecting certain scenes of action and horror. The PG-13 movie is never frightening, this is a straight-up action-creature feature, there are no frights, but there is some epic monster action, and loads of tiny human being picked-off by bizarre threats, including some sort of saw-billed birds, and of course by Kong. 


Blu-ray Special Features: 
- Director’s Commentary
- Creating a King: Realizing an Icon (12 min) HD
- Creating a King: Summoning a God (13 min) HD
- Monarch Files 2.0 (8 min) HD 

- On Location: Vietnam (6 min) HD
- Tom Hiddleston: The Intrepid Traveler (7 min) HD
- Through the Lens: Brie Larson’s Photography (2 min) HD
- Deleted Scenes (4 min) HD 


This movie gave me pretty damn near everything I wanted to see from a new Kong flick, it got to the action quickly, it offered a plethora of one-dimensional characters who do what they gotta do, and there's plenty of creature action, so good on director Jordan Vogt-Roberts for bringing Kong to the big screen with the action I craved and some cool visuals. Sure, it's loaded with the pre-requisite amount of Blockbuster bullshit, but as mindless, stuff your mouth with popcorn summer blockbuster goes this was a fun one, I didn't even mind that I cannot buy Hiddleston as a man-of-action, he's just not that guy, but he has charisma to spare. The movie is loaded with tasty classic 70's rock, including "Down On The Street" by Iggy and the Stooges, a seriously badass song for a seriously badass monster flick!



Disclaimer: This release was sent to us courtesy of Warner Bros. for review on the site. 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996) 3-Disc Limited Edition (Blu-ray Review)

THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996) 
3-Disc Limited Edition

Label: Blue Underground

Release Date: July 25th 2017 
Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated 
Duration: 119 Minutes
Audio: English and Italian Dolby Digital and DTS-HD MA Stereo 2.0, Surround 5.1, Surround 7.1 with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi, Luigi Diberti, Paolo Bonacelli

Synopsis: When beautiful police detective Anna Manni follows the bloody trail of a sophisticated serial murderer/rapist through the streets of Italy, the young woman falls victim to the bizarre “Stendhal Syndrome” – a hallucinatory phenomenon which causes her to lose her mind and memory in the presence of powerful works of art. Trapped in this twilight realm, Anna plunges deeper and deeper into sexual psychosis, until she comes to know the killer’s madness more intimately than she ever imagined.
In Dario Argento's arguably last really good film we have his daughter Asia Argento (Land of the Dead) portraying an Italian policewoman, Detective Anna Manni, travelling to Florence, Italy on the trail of a serial killer/rapist. An anonymous tip sends her to a fine art gallery on his trail, but while there she is overcome by a condition known as stendhal syndrome, a real condition wherein she is completely overwhelmed by the surrounding works of art, her head begins to spin, she experiences auditory hallucinations, and then begins to hallucinate that she is inside one of the paintings. In a grand dream like sequence she is plunged beneath the surface of the ocean where she encounters a nightmare-fuel vision of a fish with a very human looking face, it's unsettling, bizarrely she begins to make out with it and wakes up from her trance-state confused and a bit lost. A man named  Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann, Peter Jackson's King Kong) attempts to help her, but she heads back to her hotel alone, still disoriented. 

It turns out that the man she encountered at the gallery is the very serial killer/rapist she is looking for, back at the hotel she again begins to experience the disorienting effects of the syndrome, when she is attacked by Alfredo, who forces her onto a bed and stuffs a gun into her mouth, perversely slicing open her lip with a razor blade before brutally raping her, all the while trying to keep her conscious as she begins to pass out. eventually she passes out and awakens in a car parked on the street where Alfredo is raping another woman right in front of Anna, before shooting her in the face. Anna is able to escape but is scarred by the traumatic experience. In the aftermath she cuts her hair shorter, her personality begins to change, and she becomes obsessed with capturing the serial killer, and visits a therapist to help her sort through the traumatic experience. 

Meanwhile Alfredo is still on the loose, he continues to mind-fuck Anna in a perverse game cat and mouse, eventually kidnapping her and taking her to his graffiti covered sewer-lair where he rapes her again. Left alone for hours tied to a grungy mattress she again experiences the effects of the syndrome, the graffiti images around her come alive, including flying syringes and a strange creature with a large cock, which is glimpsed only briefly, but it's very strange indeed. Again, Anna is able to escape but chooses not run, instead she becomes the aggressor leading to what in any other film would be a logical end, but Argento keeps this psycho-sexual thriller rolling along, exploiting the devastating effects of Anna's damaged psyche for some full-on Psycho fun. 

Asia Argento is great in the triple-threat performance as the cop on the trail of a sadistic killer, despite her young age I think she does a commendable job playing a detective role that seems beyond her years, going through the varied emotions and physical and psychological torments with a good deal of believability, she's really put through the emotional wringer, raped multiple times, subjected to humiliation and physical pain. At the time and in the years since the fact that it was the actress's own father that put her through the on-screen torments has not gone unnoticed, but I will leave the family therapy to the Argento clan, all I can say is she does a great job with the character and her tribulations, making them believable within reason. Thomas Kretschmann is also quite good as the rape-y, sadistic killer, a brutal presence, unhinged and not someone you'd hope to ever encounter. Also showing up in smaller roles you might spot Italian familiars Marco Leonardi (Cinema Paradiso) as a cop and The Beyond's Cinzia Monreale as a victim's wife. 

The movie has a strange story structure, with what feels like the main climax coming towards the middle of film, it seem like the natural end to the story, but Argento prolongs it and explores the fallout from the trauma, with Argento again changing hairstyles, transforming from a boyish short-crop cut to donning a blond wig, giving the movie a bit of a Hitchcock blond, and further exploring the psychological underpinnings of the stendhal syndrome and the trauma caused by the brutal rapes. I think the unorthodox story structure makes the final reel fizzle just a little bit, but this is a movie that I feel has only gotten better with age, each viewing bringing with it a new appreciation as one of Argento's more solid entries during his late-era, and one of Asia Argento's strongest performances to date. 

The special effects are decently bloody, the violence is visceral and most of the effects hold up well aside from a few early digital effects, which are most noticeable during scenes of swallowing pills and another of a  bullet being fired through the face of an unfortunate victim, the latter of which feels like an early attempt at the type of effects shots we would often see later on the C.S.I. TV shows, with bullets being tracked through the body causing damage, and also a bit of a nod to Daria Nicolodi's death scene in the superior Opera (1987). The more unfortunate digital pill-swallowing felt like something out of the Lawnmower Man, not good. One area where the effects are well done and hold up even with the digital stuff are the scenes of the Stendhal syndrome in full-effect, as Anna walks into the painting, overwhelmed by them, it's not quite seamless but it is pretty cool, and Morricone's dizzying score further accentuates the surreal imagery.     
Audio/Video: The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) arrives on 3-disc limited edition Blu-ray/DVD from Blue Underground with a brand-new 2K scan of the original camera negative, framed in the proper 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and this is the first home video release to frame it in the proper widescreen aspect ratio, all previous versions have been cropped 1.66:1. The results are pleasing, a crisp and vibrant image with a tighter grain structure, colors are vivid, a nice step up from my Blue Underground 2-disc edition DVD. That said, there are some compression issues present throughout the presentation, while I honestly didn't take note of it during my initial viewing, after some online comments regarding the issue came to light I did see some of what has been described during my second viewing. Blue Underground are aware and are looking into the issue as stated on their Facebook feed: "We’ve received a few emails from customers noting a possible compression problem on The Stendhal Syndrome Blu-ray. We are in the process of investigating this issue with the facility that authored the disc. We will post an update as soon as we have further information.". So, the issues that have been reported are being looked into to, not sure if these are authoring issues, but hopefully we will know soon enough. 

Audio options on the Blu-ray include both English and Italian Dolby Digital and DTS-HD MA mixes in Stereo 2.0, Surround 5.1 and Surround 7.1 with optional English subtitles. The lossless 7.1 audio mix is fantastic, there's a nice spacial filling of the room, the Italian track is the one to go with here, it's powerful, robust and well-mixed, the English-dubbed audio is weird, and Asia did not dub the English track, her natural voice is more pleasing on the Italian options. The Ennio Morricone score is highlighted throughout, lush and rich compositions that pleasantly tickle the ear-holes, Morricone scored Argento's first three films, the animal trilogy, before the director joined forces with prog-rockers Goblin, it's great to hear/see their work melded together again onscreen. 

Of note, apparently the audio is not without controversy either, the English dubbed audio has been reported to be missing a few seconds of audio and dialogue, one instance around the 51:08 mark seems to be missing a few short lines of dialogue. As I preferred the Italian mix it didn't effect my viewing experience but it is an issue worth knowing about going in. Also in question is some missing additional audio of Anna screaming that appears to be missing around the 20:28 mark, though when I watched it it doesn't appear that the character is screaming at that moment, but apparently there are other releases said to include the additional audio cue.  

Onto the bountiful extras Blue Underground carry over all the features from the previous 2007 Blu-ray, over 103-minutes of interviews with Argento, special effects maestro Sergio Stivaletti, psychological consultant Graziella Magherini, assistant director Luigi Cozzi, and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. All of these are conducted in Italian with English subtitles. These are presented on a separate DVD in standard definition. 


Ltd. Edition (500)slipcover available
only from www.diabolikdvd.com
Blue Underground have also created several brand new extras exclusive to this release, these are on the main Blu-ray disc and on the identical DVD presentation, beginning with a top-notch commentary from with Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse, Howarth goes deep with loads of information about the origin, making and reception of the film, it's distribution and adding many of his own insights and readings about the psychological thriller. There's never a dull moment and he keeps chipping away throughout the entire movie. 

There are also brand new interviews with star Asia Argento (20 min), Special Makeup Artist Franco Casagni (10 min) and Co-Writer Franco Ferrini (14 min), all in HD, spoken in Italian with English subtitles. Rounding out the extras is a trailer and a gallery of poster and stills. There's also a 20-page color booklet with a new essay by author Michael Gingold including images from the film and posters. 


The release comes housed in a Criterion-style oversized clear Blu-ray keepcase, with a sleeve of reversible artwork.  Inside are three discs, a Blu-ray and DVD containing the same feature and extras, plus the bonus DVD disc containing the extras from the 2-disc DVD edition from 2007.  Also of note, the first 500 copies order from www.daibolikdvd.com will include an exclusive limited edition embossed, raised lettering slipcover with unique artwork as pictured above.  


Special Features: 


Disc 1/2 Blu-ray/DVD Extras:
- NEW Audio Commentary with Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse
- Three Shades Of Asia – NEW Interview with Star Asia Argento (20 min) HD  Interview with Special Makeup Artist Franco Casagni (10 min) HD Italian with English Subtitles. 
- Prisoner Of Art – NEW Interview with Co-Writer Franco Ferrini (14 min) HD  Interview with Special Makeup Artist Franco Casagni (10 min) HD Italian with English Subtitles. 
- Sharp As A Razor – NEW Interview with Special Makeup Artist Franco Casagni (10 min) HD Italian with English Subtitles. 
- Theatrical Trailer (1 min) HD 
- Poster and Still Gallery

Disc 3 DVD Extras: 2007 Extras 

- Director: Dario Argento (20 min) Italian with English Subtitles. 
- Inspiration: Psychological Consultant Graziella Magherini (22 min) Italian with English Subtitles. 
- Special Effects: Sergio Stivaletti (16 min) Italian with English Subtitles
- Assistant Director: Luigi Cozzi (22 min) Italian with English Subtitles
- Production Designer: Massimo Antonello Geleng (23 min)Italian with English Subtitles 
- 20-Page Collectible Booklet with new essay by author Michael Gingold

The Stendhal Syndrome has aged surprisingly well despite some goofy, early digital special effects, it's a brutal film with some truly interesting psychological twist and turns, it may not shine as bright as some of the gems in Argento's prime-era canon but it is a damn good watch. This is an Argento entry deserving of some serious reassessment, there's a lot to love about it, and while it might not be the best Argento had to offer it is a solid psychological-thriller with some tasty giallo-esque moments. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

TERMINAL ISLAND (1973) (DVD Review)

TERMINAL ISLAND (1973) 

Label: Umbrella Entertainment

Region Code: Region-FREE NTSC
Rating: R
Duration: 88 Minutes 
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (No Subtitles) 
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Stephanie Rothman
Cast: Tom Selleck, Don Marshall, Ena Hartman, Phyllis Davis, Sean Kenney, Roger Mosley 


Synopsis: America in the near future, the Supreme Court drops the death penalty in favour of an initiative that designates San Bruno island as a dumping spot for first-degree murder convicts, free to do what they like except leave. Surrounded by murderers and mayhem, without any law or law-keepers it is a living hell-on-earth! Ruthless convicts Bobby (Sean Kenney, The Corpse Grinders) rules the main camp and keeps the women under his thumb as sex slaves. Tensions within the group flare-up and when courageous A.J Thomas (Don Marshall, Land of the Giants) decides to turn his back on tyrannical Bobby he leads a group of like-minded convicts into hiding, determined to liberate the women once and for all. With the line drawn in the sand, it is only a matter of time before an all-out battle is mounted for control of the island.

One of the very few female drive-in directors of the 70s, Stephanie Rothman (The Velvet Vampire), brought us this action-packed slice of 70s exploitation, a sleazy and violent movie that predates both Battle Royale (2000) and John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981) but traffics in the same sort of anything goes scenario on a remote island - it was a bit ahead of its time. Here we have a dystopian vision wherein the American Supreme Court has abolished the death penalty, the chosen alternative is to strand the convicted murderers on San Bruno Island, a remote island off the coast of California, a place dubbed "Terminal Island", where the murderers live a Lord of the Flies existence, fending for themselves, there are no rules, and only the strongest and most vile of the bunch will survive. 


First-degree murderers are sentenced to live the remainder of their natural-born lives on the island, after sentencing they are transported to the island via a small boat by armed guards through a maze of mines by that surround the island, dropped off on the shore and left to make due on their own with just the clothes on their back and a few cans of food. The inhabitants on the island have formed into two factions, one group aligning themselves with a sadistic bastard named Bobby (Sean Kenney, The Corpse Grinders), who along with his muscleman Monk (Roger E. Mosley, Land of the Gainst), rule the island with violence and tyranny, imprisoning the few women left-alive as sex-slaves who serve at the pleasure of the men, which gives the movie a certain women-in-prison (WIP) aesthetic. The smaller faction of men living on the island are more civilized and less rape-y, lead by  A.J. (Don Marshall), they seem to just want to exist and live freely and are not into the violence, and imprisoning and raping the women.

The latest woman to arrive on the island is the bad-ass and bad-tempered Carmen (Ena Hartman), she arrives to the sight of dead bodies littering the surf and beach, victims of the island, it's a nice touch. She doesn't take too kindly to the new accommodations, she fights back but ends up beaten down and forced into labor by Bobby and his crew. However, not all of Bobby's crew are completely diabolical, we have a sympathetic, but drug-addled doc, named  Dr. Milford (Tom Selleck), who was sent to the island for having assisted a terminally ill man with his own suicide, he's the first resident of the island that Carmen encounters, and he proves to be a decent man by the end of the flick, despite his affiliation with Bobby.  


The two faction who are ideologically opposed and are at war with each other, when A.J. and his men free the enslaved women from Bobby's crew it starts an all-out war, with the women aligning themselves with the smaller group. As the violence goes on we get multiple knifings and fist fights, blow darts, home-made grenades, lashings with a whip, and a bang-up finale at the end with plenty of cheap action, bloody violence and a fiery explosion that was quite satisfactory. 

The movie does a good job setting-up the dystopian mythology in a short amount of time in the opening few minutes with a TV news segment that sets up the idea of Terminal Island, how it came to pass and introduces us to a few of the characters through a series of images and mini-bios for key players. It's a cheap but effective bit of world building, not too different from our own, but only slightly more dystopian than what we're experiencing at this moment in time. 


The cast features a load of familiar face, even through the beard it's hard to not to recognize future TV star Tom Selleck (Magnum P.I.) and his future co-star Don Marshall, but we also get fun turns from busty Phyllis Davis from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Marta Kristen (Battle Beyond the Stars), and Barbara Leigh (Student Nurses) as a mute convict who murdered her parents, and James Whitworth who played Jupiter in Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes shows up as one of the baddies. The cast is fun and jump right into the action with plenty of explosions, fighting and gunplay, more than enough to keep the eyes glued to the TV - even if some of the acting is only just passable and a few of the fight scenes are clumsy. There's also some humor peppered throughout, highlighted by a fun skinny-dipping scene with a topless Phyllis Davis that ends with her smearing honey from a beehive onto the private parts of one of the men in a would-be act of seduction that ends with him being stung by a swarm of bees, it's a fun bit. 

Audio/Video: Terminal Island (1973) arrives on DVD from Umbrella Entertainment framed in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) from what looks to be a theatrical print. Colors are muted and a bit washed out, the fine detail is lacking but overall this is a decent print that is very watchable, it just has that grindhouse patina to it. The English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono audio likewise is rough but listenable, with some audible hiss and crackling from time to time. There are no subtitles options and no extras, not even a start-up menu, this goes right into the film once you pop it on. The disc is marked as region 2 and 4 compatible, but it played just fine on my region 1 DVD player, so it would appear to be region-free! 


Terminal Island (1973) has everything a cheap exploitation flick needs, there's loads of action, plenty of violence and the prerequisite nude scenes, and to top it off, it's actually a well-made movie with a solid premise.  If you're a fan of the Roger Corman produced WIP and jungle exploitation films like Jack Hill's  The Big Bird Cage this one fits comfortably in that very same 70s exploitation sweet spot.

Monday, July 17, 2017

PROBABILITY ZERO (1969) (DVD Review)

PROBABILITY ZERO (1969) 

Label: Umbrella Entertainment

Region Code: O NTSC
Rating: M (Mature Audiences)  
Duration: 91 Minutes 
Audio: English Dolby Digital Mono 2.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Director: Maurizio Lucidi
Cast: Henry Silva, Luigi Casellato, Riccardo Salvino, Ezio Sancrotti, Franco Giornelli, Vittorio AndrĂ©, Marco Guglielmi, Maria Cristina Farnese, Paolo Magalotti, Fulvio Mingozzi, Tony Roico, Pietro Martellanza, Katia Christine, Renato De Carmine, Bill Vanders


In this Italian produced WW2 slice of war-is-hell cinema we have an Allied Spitfire fighter plane going down in Nazi occupied Norway, aboard the plane is a new form of radar equipment utilized by the Allied forces, and the fact that this has fallen into the hands of the enemy poses a threat to the war effort. The Nazis are transporting the wreck of the plane to a underground mountain base in Norway where it will be dissected and repaired, and the Allies must assemble a ragtag brigade to infiltrate the base and destroy the plane before it can give up its secrets to the Nazis.

What first caught my eye about this movie was that the screenplay was written by Dario Argento (Suspiria), a year before he directed his breakout debut crime-thriller The Bird with The Crystal Plumage (1970). It was produced by his father Salvatore Argento, and Dario had been cutting his teeth penning stories for Italian movies for a few years already, including Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Cemetery Without Crosses (1969), and a few other spaghetti war movies like Sullivan's Marauders (1968).


The Argento connection might prove disappointing to anyone expecting more than a fairly standard issue WW2 film along the lines of The Dirty Dozen (1967), with a rag tag crew of men assembled by American officer Duke (Henry Silva) who amasses a small squad of mercenaries willing to join his team, sometimes under coercion, for what has been deemed a "probability zero" mission with almost no chance of success or survival. It's fun stuff for what it is, with way more production value than I had envisioned going into it, we get decent WWII Nazi costuming, and some fun action set pieces at sea, on the battlefield, on the mountain, and even some submersible underwater action in a mined river, leading up to a full-on assault at the underground Nazi base, which was action-packed. Along the way there's plenty of small skirmishes, turmoil and tension amidst the group that all adds up to a gritty war film that moves along swiftly. 


Henry Silva (Escape from the Bronx) is the main attraction here, a sort of duplicitous bad ass willing to kill his own men if they disobey or stray from the mission, at one point taking out an AWOL member of the brigade with a sniper rifle when it becomes apparent he's heading for the hills. The men that make up his misfit brigade are a good bunch, there's not much depth to any of them but they do what they need to do, getting the mission done against the odds. We have the usual array of miscreants - a mountain climber accused of cowardice, a black market smuggler, an Italian POW with a penchant for torpedoes, and a troublesome frogman/saboteur, plus blond femme fatale (Maria Cristina Farnese, The Conspirators) who is not above using her curvy body to get what she needs from the Nazi scum. 

It all comes to a proper head at the Nazi base in Norway, the men crawling through an AC duct, dragging along a rather large torpedo, which they use to blast the Nazi base (and the plane with the top-secret radar system) to smithereens, but not without some casualties to the Allied team, but trust me they take a metric ton of Nazi to the grave with them, ha ha. 


The action is pretty damn good throughout, the production value is high, and while I am pretty sure this was shot in Spain through he magic of color grading it does have a certain cold Norway atmosphere, and to be honest I wouldn't know Norway from Spain anyway, so they convinced me at least. The action is plenty gritty, loads of bullets flying, stressful dramatic tension and Argento stuffs the story it with some convoluted story stuffing. It makes for a damn decent WWII flick with plenty of action, I'll definitely be adding a few more of the spaghetti war flicks to my to-watch list, this was fun. 


Audio/Vidoe: Probability Zero (1969) arrives on region-free NTSC formatted DVD from Australian label Umbrella Entertainment in anamorphic widescreen, framed in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio The source looks beats to Hell with all manner of blemish, vertical scratches, dirt, fading and blown-out whites - it certainly has a grindhouse feel about it. Likewise the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono audio audio is boxy with distortion, with plenty of snaps, crackles and pops, but the whole affair was watchable, and it didn't detract much from my viewing. The DVD is bare-bones, there's no start-up menu, it goes straight into the feature. There are no subtitle options, and no extras.

Fans of Italian-made WW2 films should enjoy this one, plenty of cool scenery and gritty action, a fun turn from Henry Silva as a badass and a simple but action packed war-story that keeps the momentum moving forward.   


Monday, July 10, 2017

AMERICAN FABLE (2016) (DVD Review)

AMERICAN FABLE (2016)

Label: IFC Midnight

Region Code: 1
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 96 Minutes
Audio: English Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 with Optional English Subtitles
Video: Anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1)
Director: Anne Hamilton
Cast: Peyton Kennedy, Kip Pardue, Gavin Macintosh, Rusty Schwimmer, Marc Miller


In director Anne Hamilton's American Fable (2016) 11-year old  Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) lives on a farm in Wisconsin during the 80's, the Reagan-era, not a great time for family farms as I recall, with thousands of farmers losing their family farm to the banks, and her family is right in the middle of that sort of financial trouble, with their farm crumbling around them and sinking into a hole debt, foreclosure looms on the horizon, and it seems the homestead will soon be swallowed up by the banks.

Her father Abe (Kip Pardue) dotes on his daughter, quietly struggling to keep the farm afloat and to keep his daughter in the dark about it. Her mother Sarah (Marci Miller) is pregnant with her third child, and her older brother Martin (Gavin Macintosh) psychologically tortures his younger sibling at every opportunity, this teen is a serial killer in the making right from the get-go, a cruel and deviant kid heading down a dark path. 


With his farm sinking Abe reaches out to a mysterious woman named Vera (Zuleikha Robinson), who brings him in on a kidnap scheme that will put some cash in his pocket and keep the farm afloat for a bit longer, but if caught he risks losing everything. The plan requires Abe to keep a wealthy banker named Jonathan (Richard Schiff ) locked away in one of his feed silos until a ransom is paid, his wife and teen son are in on it, but wide-eyed Gitty only finds out about the stranger in the silo when her dear old dad warns her to stay away from it, telling her it's off-limits, which of course she cannot help but disobey, she's a curious id after all. 

The story is told from the young girl's perspective, and Peyton Kennedy is wonderful, carrying the film on her shoulders with a naive and nuanced depth that I found rather amazing. The movie itself is as advertised a "fable", it has a dark fairytale quality about it that distorts the line between reality and imagination as perceived by young Gitty. Assisting in that is the gorgeous scope lensing, the rural Wisconsin countryside with it's seemingly endless green fields of corn and grain are captured with a keen eye that brought to mind the meditative cinematography of a Terrence Malick movie, behind the lush greenery a darkness is implied, as if behind every lush row of corn may lay a secret or some rural slice of evil, it's that sort of movie. 


While not a horror movie, it is dark and slightly fantastical, when Gitty first encounters the kidnapped Jonathan through a hole in the side of the silo I wondered to myself if he was imagined, or perhaps a dark elf trying to trick her into freeing him from his prison, it has that sort of 'what if' magic about it, and I loved it. One of the more striking aspects of the film is the presence of a dark queen, a manifestation of a growing darkness that Gitty envisions in dreams, and during her waking hours, a leather clad woman adorned with horns, riding a black horse, it's a very striking image and something that really struck me, there's a reason that the image of the dark woman pursuing Gitty through the rows of corn adorns almost all the advertising.

There are so many great character moments and interactions throughout, young Gitty is wise beyond her years, but also naive and imaginative, her interactions with Jonathan are a treat, him trying to slyly influence her to free him, she grateful for a captive audience, for some semblance of a friend, particularly after an accident incapacitates her beloved father. Her cruel brother's torments are rough, going as far as to kill her pet chicken out of spite and feeding it to her, in retaliation for her humiliating him during a simple game of chess, Macintosh is frightfully good as the disturbed older sibling.

Special Features: 

- Deleted Scenes (5 min) 
- Behind-the-Scenes Still Galleries: Costume Build, Silo Build, Silo Sketch 
- Trailer (2 min) 


American Fable (2016) is a thoroughly engrossing film carried in large part by Peyton Kennedy's powerful performance as a wide-eyed, imaginative young girl coming of age during a difficult time on the family farm. I love the rural 80's setting, the surreal pastoral imagery is wonderful and unsettling, all wrapped up in an intriguing veil of youthful imagination and dark fantasy, it made for a great watch, highly recommended.  

CURSE OF THE PUPPET MASTER (1998) (Blu-ray Review)

CURSE OF THE PUPPET MASTER (1998) 

Label: Full Moon Features

Region Code: A
Duration: 78 Minutes 
Rating: R
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: David DeCoteau 
Cast: George Peck, Emily Harrison, Josh Green

You just can't keep a good puppet down, and though Charles Band seemingly retired the franchise with Puppet Master 5 (1994) the series was resurrected four years later with the sixth installment Curse of the Puppet Master (1998). Director Jeff Burr (Night of the Scarecrow) who helmed the previous two entries did not return for this one, David DeCoteau (Nightmare Sisters) who directed my favorite entry in the series, the WW2 prequel Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge (1991) returned to the series, though notably he originally chose to use the directorial pseudonym Victoria Sloan on the film, perhaps a reflection of how he felt about the finished movie, but his name is back on the Blu-ray now. Also not returning is former puppet master Rick Meyers (Gordon Currie) from parts four and five, and there's no mention of what has become of his character either. The puppet master this time out is Dr. Magrew (George Peck, Deathtrap), an older gentleman who runs a puppet sideshow of sorts called The House of Marvels, on the side he's also experimenting with transferring the soul of a human into a puppet, trying to replicate the autonomy of the puppets he purchased at an auction years earlier, though we don't get any information about how he came into possession of the puppets other than he purchased them at auction. As for the returning puppets we have Six Shooter, Jester, Tunneler, Pinhead, Blade and Leech Woman, the latter of whom is back despite having been killed off in Puppetmaster 2 as I recall. The puppets Blowtorch and Decapitator are nowhere to be found, though we do get a new member to the pint-sized puppet team by the end of this movie.


Magrew is assisted by his daughter Jane (Emily Harrison, Dangerous Intentions) who is home from college, on a trip to the local gas station they meet the gentle giant Robert "Tank" Winsley (Josh Green, Pearl Harbor), a dimwitted gas station attendant with a knack for creating ornate wood carvings. Dr. Magrew hires Robert on the spot to work for him, tasked with carving intricate pieces of wood for what Magrew hopes to be a new animated puppet. Upon arrival at The House of Marvels Robert is introduced to the puppets, he's immediately mystified by how they are "alive", Magrew tells him that the secret is to put a soul into them. Not so coincidentally Magrew's previous assistant Matt has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, drawing the attention of Sheriff Garvey (Robert Donovan, Murdercycle) and Deputy Wayburn (Jason-Shane Scott, Deadland), whom pay the doc a visit after Matt's worried family files a missing person's report.  


In his lab Magrew attempts to replicate Toulon's creations have thus far been unsuccessful and it seems his former assistant Matt may have been an unwitting victim of said experiments. Jane takes a liking to Robert and the two develop a sweetly romantic relationship which upsets her father, he knows Robert won't be around too long, and he doesn't want his daughter too involved with is next victim. At the same time Robert begins having strange nightmares, including one where his legs have been replaced by carved wooden appendages, an effectively creepy visual and a nice nod to Pinocchio, which is appropriate in a reverse sort of way. 


The movie comes to an all too abrupt end when Magrew sends Jane on a fool's errand to keep her occupied while he attempts to place Robert's soul inside a metallic-robotic puppet, which is strange when you consider that for the whole damn movie he's been carving a wooden puppet! Unfortunately for Magrew the puppets, who have always been inherently good, turn on him when they realize he's hurt Robert whom they've bonded with, the final scenes are fun, but come on fast and end quickly.


Unfortunately the puppets take second billing to the mad scientist storyline and the puppet animation is at an all time low, probably owing to the absence of long time Puppet Master effects man David Allen, in fact many of the shots in this film are pulled directly from the previous five entries of the Puppet Master series. On the plus side this is one of the more gruesome Puppet Master entries with some nice moments of bloodshed, Tunneler and Blade both get some gruesome kills, but there's no nudity, so there's some good and bad about this one, but there's some decent pint-sized puppet fun to be had. 


The film is too much a departure from the series for my tastes and is definitely the weakest of the six up to this point, but not nearly the worst of what would come, which is not too surprising considering that Puppet Master four and five were already running on fumes. It's hard to deny the influence of the drive-in shocker Sssssss (1973) on this production, a film featuring a scientist who operates a snake-themed roadside attraction and is diabolically perfecting a serpent-human hybrid and whose daughter is romantically entangled with his doomed assistant, sounds familiar? There's even a shot of a statue of the snake-creature from Sssssss in this movie at the House of Marvels, and if you listen to the commentary director DeCoteau makes some very thinly veiled comments about the influence of that film on this one, I love how honest he is about it. 


Audio/Video:  Curse of The Puppet Master (1998) arrives on Blu-ray for the first time from Full Moon, presented uncut in HD using a composite of the original 35mm negative, original SD release and Digi-Beta videotape master, which makes for some uneven viewing. Apparently not all the original negative were available to Band and company while assembling this Blu-ray, some of it lost to time, and Full Moon have been very transparent about that with this release, what they've done is make a composite cut of HD elements and upscaled standard-def video elements, the video master shots look atrocious to be straight, fuzzy, artifacted and just an eyesore all the way around, but it is the fully uncut version, and this is the best the movie has looked or will ever look, unless the rest of the negative is found in some dusty movie vault. The HD images transferred in 2K from the negatives look great, with the exception of some minor scratches appearing at times. There's a nice depth, vibrant colors, film grain is intact, with some good color timing having been applied, but the viewing experience is uneven. The disc includes both lossy dolby digital 2.0 and 5.1 audio options, it's clean and free of defects, nicely balanced and the Jeffrey Walton (Shrieker) score is well mixed. 


Onto the extras we have a great commentary from David DeCoteau who speaks at length about the nature of film archiving, the trouble bringing this one to Blu-ray without the complete cut negative, and making this movie with the goal of creating an ad of sorts for the Puppet Master toys, and pretty much stealing the story structure for the movie from the drive-in classic Ssssssss (1973), which I've always suspected to be the case. He also speaks about the cast and crew for the movie, working with George Peck and how his back problems lead to a stand-in on the first few days of filming, working with cinematographer Howard Wexler, and linking working in special effects to the cancer deaths of David Allen and others. I love DeCoteau's commentaries, he's the ultimate Full Moon insider and her always gives us a mini-history lesson of Full Moon behind-the-scenes stuff.  There's also a 20-min vintage Videozone, and a selection of Full Moon Trailers. 


Special Features:

- Brand New Audio Commentary with director David DeCoteau
- Videozone Featurette (20 min) 
- Trailers: 

If you're a fan of the Puppet Master series this new Blu-ray of Curse of The Puppet Master might be worth a double-dip for the right price, the HD image is spotty at best due to the composite construction from various, sometimes inferior, elements, but it's is probably the best we're gonna see for this particular entry. The commentary on the disc from DeCoteau is top-notch and a must listen for fans of the film and the series, and I sort of dig how they're knocking off the drive-in classic Sssssss (1973), it's a fun entry, but i think you'd have to be a hardcore Puppet Master fan to need this one in your collection, for all others you can stream it via the official Full Moon Amazon channel and FullMoonStreaming.com.