Friday, July 29, 2011



LABEL: Inception Media Group
DURATION: 85 mins
AUDIO: Dolby Digital 5.1
VIDEO: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.78:1)
DIRECTOR: Rene Perez
CAST: David A. Lockhart, Camille Montgomery, Rick Mora, Robert Amstler
TAGLINE: It's Clint Eastwood meets George Romero as undead, flesh-eating gun-slingers roam the Wild West.

Mortimer (David A. Lockhart, MINTY THE ASSASSIN) is a bounty hunter in the old west on the trail of a Native American named Brother Wolf (Rick Mora, TWILIGHT) who stands accused of raping a white virgin, as opposed to a virgin of non-Caucasian persuasion. Morty buys himself a would-be blonde bride by the name of Rhiannon (Camille Montgomery) from a shady entrepreneur selling "hostesses, not whores". He has no intention of marrying her but instead takes her to the highlands and stakes her to the ground in an effort to draw Wolf down from the hills, you know, by the allure of a white woman to rape, how could he possibly resist, natch. The portrayal of Brother Wolf is your stereotypically stoic, white woman raping native American, the only thing missing was perhaps for him to shed a lone tear at the site of someone littering in the town square. This is a lame plan of capture but of course it works and Morty escorts the white virgin-raper back to town.

At about the same time two local yokels mining for gold discover a meteorite embedded in the earth. The meteor emits an unearthly green glow, the two suppose there must be wealth of emeralds inside and schlep the hefty space rock back to town where a crowd of curious onlookers gather around for a look-see.  When one of the miners takes a sledgehammer to the rock  it ruptures and spews forth a cloud of green spores which infect everyone, turning them into ravenous, fast-moving zombies. The creatures head for the hills where they prove to be quite a nuisance to Morty, Brother Wolf and Rhiannon.

The zombie-western is not too shabby a premise for an indie horror film, it's an appealing genre mash-up, but the execution  lacks passion. Not helping the production is that the sets look super-flimsy, and it lacked that dusty, rustic aesthetic that sells westerns, there's just no atmosphere. It's also hamstrung by some pretty amateur acting. Star Lockhart begins strong as the silent but deadly gunslinger but as soon as the dialogue spills forth from his lips it's game over. There's a lot of CGI blood in this film, nothing takes the piss outta a zombie flick like a shitty digital headshot. Note to the effects team, bullets don't spark when they strike a tree, they splinter, just saying. The film wants to be an action-packed zombie genre mash-up but the action sequences are poorly executed with no kineticism, it's very flat, case in point a protracted shootout at the top of the film. The nail in the coffin is a very flaccid final 3rd that gets bogged down in needless back story and exposition, it was too little too late by this point and I was zoning out.

On the plus side the film has some decent cinematography, plus a few bits gratuitous nudity, the ace up the sleeve of indie horror, it didn't save the film bit it didn't hurt either. The natural setting is also attractive. Not sure where this was shot but the rolling hills, open plains and lush forests provided some gorgeous scenery. The non-period rock soundtrack features tunes ranging from Southwestern tinged rock to eerie mood pieces, great stuff but the film doesn't live up to either the score or the cinematography.

DVD: The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, no subtitles are offered. The image looks decent, it's a bit soft and lack fine detail, but well lit with some good lensing. No noticeable compression artifacts but some edge enhancement is visible throughout. The score and effects fare well in the mix but the dialogue is uneven and suffers a bit. The lone special feature is an extended theatrical trailer.

- Original Extended Trailer (2:07)

VERDICT: THE DEAD AND THE DAMNED promises a zombie-western mash-up where Eastwood meets Romero but it does not deliver. Don't be fooled by the admittedly great boxart, there are no zombie gunslingers, no red-eyed zombie horses nor outlaw zombie lynchings anywhere in this film. Skip it or wait for it to air on Syfy. 1.5 outta 5    


Thursday, July 28, 2011

DVD Review: THE SWEET LIFE (2003)

LABEL: Synapse Films 
RATING: Unrated
DURATION: 86 minutes
VIDEO: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
AUDIO: English Dolby Digital Stereo
DIRECTOR: Rocco Simonello
CAST: James Lorinz, Barbara Sicuranza, Joan Jett
TAGLINE: A romantic comedy... for people who hate romantic comedies!

Romantic comedies are easily one of the most eye-rollingly awful genre of films, at least in my experience and per my tastes. The prospects for this quirky indie comedy that had been collecting dust unreleased for the past eight years didn't exactly didn't promise what I would call satisfying entertainment. It had been sitting on my shelf collecting dust for a few weeks and probably would've sat there a while more if not for my wife crankily demanding "I'm not watching any of those hillbilly movies tonight, I want something romantic". "Hillbilly", that's her affectionate term for indie and micro-budget flicks that lack a certain amount of visual polish.

It was with that request that I scoured my stack of DVD screeners for something subversively "romantic" and with that I returned to the living room with CAMILLE 2000 (1969), an erotic love story. After inspecting the boxart she recognized director Radley Metzger's name from a previous viewing of THE IMAGE (1975) and summarily dismissed it with "classy porn is not romantic", sometimes I wonder to myself how I ended up with this woman, it must be love. Back to the stack out jumped THE SWEET LIFE which I knew little about though one name in particular popped out at me, Roy Frumkes, whom produced the 80's splatter classic STREET TRASH (1987) and Greg Lamberson's SLIME CITY MASSACRE (2010). Those aren't the films I remembered his name from though, and after a quick IMDB search I figured it out. Frumke directed the DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) fan documentary DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD (1985). THE SWEET LIFE director Rocco Simonelli is a writer turned first-time director who co-penned the Tom Berenger vehicle THE SUBSTITUTE (1996) which meant very little to me not having seen it. So, despite the intriguing Frumke association I still had very little interest in this indie rom-com. It came down to two things; first, it has the words romantic comedy on the boxart which fit my wife's demands and secondly, it's a Synapse title, a label who this past year introduced me to Jose Mojica Marin's EMBODIMENT OF EVIL, the 80's slasher THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD and the surreal Hammer bloodsucker VAMPIRE CIRCUS. In my experience great genre film labels are like directors, once you get a feel for their body of work you just trust their discretion and go with their choices sight unseen for better or worse, it's a devotion.

THE  SWEET LIFE is a romantic comedy about two New York brothers who  couldn't be more different in their approach to women. Michael (James Lorinz, FRANKENHOOKER) is a
bland, sensitive film magazine columnist who lacks self confidence, especially when it comes to the ladies. His shallow, twice divorced brother Frankie (Robert Mobely) is quite the opposite; a self-confident ladies man looking for a good time, not a lifetime. Frankie admonishes his brother for being what he calls a "pussy" and tells him he should treat women shit, cuz that's what they really want, he points out that the women in his office all think he's gay. The problem is that Michael is a true romantic at heart, he sets his sites low and has always had an affinity to Frankie's girlfriends. The film opens with a flashback to once such painful memory in which Michael leaves a heart-shaped box of chocolates for Frankie's girlfriend and then she and Frankie eat them while laughing at Michael. When Michael is introduced to Frankie's current plaything, a sexy tattooed bartender named Lila (Barbara Sicuranza, ANAMORPH), the cycle continues.

 Frankie is a bit of an jerky guy but he means well and just wants to see his brother get laid. He encourages Lily to hook him up with her "pussycat" roommate, a hard-drinkin' biker chic named Sherry played rather one dimensionally by rocker Joan Jett (LIGHT OF DAY). The date is a disaster that begins with a break neck bike ride through the streets of NYC, devolves into Michael being choked out by biker and ends with him handcuffed to a bed with the promise of sex and nearly puked on, sans sex. Sherry passes out leaving Michael handcuffed to the bed until Lily comes home. She and Michael go for a walk and strike up a conversation that lasts well into morning. There's definitely a spark between the two and when she tells him that Frankie dumped her the two pursue a romantic relationship of their own. Things get complicated when the Frankie has second thoughts about dumping Lily and the brothers vie for her affections.

Advertised as the romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies the film is somewhat successful. The comedy is guy-centric and irreverent with tons of ball-breaking humor and film references. Simonelli's writing is a occasionally a highlight though his directing not so much. The entire production is pretty rough around the edges. The acting is amateur with the exception of Lorinz who carries the film. Frankie is a one-note joke but I have friends who are equally shallow, so that's not too far fetched. Lorinzo's Michael is given the best lines with well-timed, wise-cracking, self-deprecating humor. Sicuranza as the tough but sensitive Lily was likable but her character just felt exaggerated, then again I've never dated a NYC gal, maybe they are that annoying, whatta I know? Despite these shortcomings the three make for a fun dysfunctional trio and the film's bittersweet romantic triangle was a fun watch, even if a bit formulaic and predictable. Even my wife enjoyed the flick though she was put off by the film's low-budget aesthetic, comparing it to public access programming. It's cheap but it ain't that cheap, just unpolished. The film also features a rockin' soundtrack with a title song performed by JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS

DVD: Synapse Films presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) aspect ratio with a Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack with no subtitles. This isn't going to win any awards for cinematography, it's a pretty flat image with no depth but it's watchable. Special features include director and cast commentary, a making of featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes plus a theatrical trailer. Apparently the finished version of the making of doc was lost and what we have here is a rough cut, it's a decent watch with interviews from producer Frumke, director Simonelli, and actor James Lorinz. There's much discussion about an unnamed but well-known rocker/actress and her husband muscling the production for more cash at the zero hour which threatened to nearly derail the project.

Special Features:
- Audio Commentary with Director Rocco Simonelli and Stars James Lorinz and Barbara Sicuranza
- The Making of THE SWEET LIFE (34:54)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (13:05)
- Outtakes (7:23)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:29)

VERDICT: THE SWEET LIFE is a bittersweet, guy-centic indie anti-rom-com that managed to elicit a few good chuckles with it's New Yorker ball-breaking humor despite some spotty performances and a formulaic story. The winner here is James Lorinz's line deliveries and comedic timing, without him the film would have suffered greatly. It doesn't have a lot of rewatch value in my opinion, it's a one and done, so you may not want to buy this sight unseen but I have no problem recommending this as a passable date night rental.
2.5 outta 5  

An email to me from THE SWEET LIFE director Rocco Simonelli can be found in the comment section where he addresses the picture qaulity of the film.

Monday, July 25, 2011



LABEL: RaroVideo USA [RVDUSA 014]
RATING: Unrated
DURATION: 94 mins
VIDEO: Anamorphic 1.85:1 Widescreen
AUDIO: English, Italian Dolby Digital Mono with English subtitles
DIRECTOR: Ruggero Deodato
CAST: Marc Porel, Ray Lovelock, Adolfo Celi, Silvia Dioniso

No stranger to disturbing exploitation cinema Ruggero Deodato's Euro-crime actioner LIVE LIKE A COP DIE LIKE A MAN (1976) opens with a horrendous  purse-snatching perpetrated by thieves on motorcycle. Unwilling to relinquish the bag they drag her for a distance until her head smashes against a lamp post. Still unable to wrench the bag from her deathgrip one of the thugs hop off the bike and savagely beats her. Abandoning their prize they speed off but unfortunately for them the commotion has caught the notice of the twisted Italian STARSKY AND HUTCH, the dark haired Fred (Marc Porel, Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC) and sandy haired Tony (Ray Lovelock, LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE) whom give chase to the thieves on motorbikes in a stunning motorcycle chase throughout Rome, it's a wild ride. The dizzying pursuit takes them through cafes, over the tops of cars, up and down flights of stairs, whizzing in and out of traffic and taking the life of a seeing-eye dog leaving it's owner stranded in the middle of the street. Darkly funny, but funny nonetheless. The chase comes to a violent end when the thieves plow headlong into the back of a parked truck. The driver dies after being impaled while the passenger is thrown some distance, but survives, that is until Fred comes to assist. He helps the injured man to an upright position, cautiously removes his helmet and then discreetly snaps his neck. This was my bizarre and thrilling entry into Italian crime-action cinema and it definitely let me straight away that this wasn't going to be like any crime film I'd seen before, leave it to the Italians and Deodato in particular.

Obviously these two are not your average cops on the beat, these
crime-fighting anti-heroes are part of an elite task force called "Special Squad" run by The Boss (Adolfo Celi, THUNDERBALL). The task force is a secret arm of the law geared towards the apprehension of the city's most violent criminals by whatever means necessary. These two read perhaps too much into the "whatever means necessary" and the lengths to which their depravity extends is pretty scary. The film is a non-stop parade of sexual harassment, kinky sex, renegade justice, arson, torture, and the pre-emptive gunning down of would-be bank thieves, it's definitely a perverse form of justice, these guys just aren't fucking around. They're a mean-spirited, wise cracking duo but they're effortlessly charming characters who just happen to have a nasty sadistic streak, luckily there on the "good" side. The violence and the duo's brand of lethal justice is made a bit more palatable by the dark humor inherent in Fernando Di Leo's (CALIBER 9) script. It's a nasty bit of business that to me recalled some of the more demented morality seen in Nico Mastorakis' tasty slice of exploitation ISLAND OF DEATH (1976).

Special Squad's public enemy #1 is the elusive gangster Robert "Bibi" Pasquini (Renato Salvatori, Z) a notorious criminal who proves to be a formidable adversary. When one of the Squad's agents get too close for comfort he has him shotgunned in an elaborate set-up right outside headquarters in broad daylight. The duo taunt Pasquini at every turn, killing his henchmen, double-teaming his knock-out nympho sister Lina (Sofia Dionisio, I PROSSENETI) and setting fire to a fleet of expensive luxury cars outside of his social club.

Deodato's eye for action is as keen as his eye for disturbing violence, the set-pieces are well-staged and the action is exquisitely kinetic, everything looks pretty great with the notable exception of an insert shot featuring an exploding miniature. Porel and Lovelock's chemistry is paramount, they're as vile and reprehensible as the crooks they kill but their charisma and charm goes a long way towards endearing them to me. The film is violent but it's not overly gory, there's a lot of thick 70's-era red-paint styled bloodshed, it's nothing compared to what Deodato would offer in later films. The film has a nice swinging soundtrack courtesy of Unbaldo Continiello (MACABRE) as well as a few daydreamy folk ballads from co-star Ray Lovelocke, which nicely juxtapose the film's violence. As for on-screen beauties Deodato's then wife Silvia Dionisio (TERROR EXPRESS) appears as the Special Squad's sultry secretary Norma who always has a snappy comeback to the duo's strong sexist come-ons.

It's too bad this would be Deodato's lone entry in the Italian Euro-crime action genre, it's a fantastic watch with no small amount of violent action, spilt blood, gunplay and perverse justice. This is actually what I would consider his most entertaining film I've seen thus far.

DVD: RaroVideo's re-release of LIVE LIKE A COP DIE LIKE A MAN is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen with original Italian or dubbed English Dolby Digital mono audio. The image is quite remarkable, the brand new HD anamorphic transfer from the original 35mm negative surprised me, it's a near-pristine print. The colors are nicely saturated, the greens particularly pop, with good black levels and a crisp image with a satisfying amount of fine detail.  There's also a fine layer of natural film grain left intact, no abusive DNR scrubbing here. This would have made a stunning Blu-ray, perhaps at a later date. The Italian and dubbed English mono audio is quite strong, there is some hiss and pop throughout, particularly the English dub, but it's nothing too distracting other than for a brief moment when the score drops out. 

The supplemental materials include the 42 min documentary 'Poliziotti Violent' which features interviews with director Ruggero Deodato, star Ray Lovelock, and actor Al Cliver (WAVES OF LUST) who does not appear in the film but actually turned down a starring role much to his own regret following the film's commercial success. Deodato delves into the amount of freedom he was given during production, illegally filming the motorcycle sequences that opens the film without permits, working with Porel and Lovelock, and a never-filmed sequel. While Deodato does speak to Porel's competitive style of acting Lovelock is quick to dismiss any friction between the two on-set. The clips in the doc seem to be have been sourced from RaroVideo's previous non-anamorphic edition of the film and the clips serve as testament to how stunning the new anamorphic HD transfer is, it's really quite remarkable. There's also a 21 min commercial reel highlighting Deodato's Italian TV commercial work with optional commentary from Deodato whom speaks about it with great affection. Both the doc and the commercial reel are in Italian with English subtitles. Lastly is a 4 pg. booklet containing an overview of the film and a Deodato biography by writer Robert Firsching.

RaroVideo USA  is a partnership formed in 2010 when Stefano and Gianluca Curti, owners of Rarovideo Italy, teamed with Nico Bruinsma, owner of U.S. DVD label Cult Epics with the shared passion of producing high-quality DVD, Blu-ray and VOD releases for American audiences. This is my first viewing of any of their titles and I'm quite enamored, definitely a label I'm willing to pump some of my hard earned cash into.

- Documentary: Poliziotti Violent (42mins)
- TV Advertisements directed by Ruggero Deodato with Commentary (20 mins)
- Illustrated Booklet

VERDICT: LIVE LIKE A COP DIE LIKE A MAN is an insanely fun and violent Euro-crime actioner. If all you know Deodato by are his more infamous offerings like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK definitely give this one a watch, it's still crazy violent but it's also darkly comedic and is a thrilling watch from start to finish. RaroVideo's gorgeous transfer and the 'Poliziotto Violent' doc makes this a must-have for fans of Euro-crime cinema, bloody action or just Deodato connoisseurs. As my introduction to Italian crime films it would seem that the benchmark has been set pretty high.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

DVD Review: SCULPTURE (2009)

Rating: Unrated
Duration: 88 mins
Video: 1.77:1 Widescreen 16x9
Audio: English Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, 5.1 Surround Sound
Director: Pete Jacelone
Cast: Raine Brown, Misty Mundae, Dustin Kerns, Susan Anderson, MArv Blauvelt
Tagline: Your Worst Nightmare is Her Greatest Work of Art

SCULPTURE centers around a struggling young artists named Ashley Steele (Raine Brown, PSYCHO HOLOCAUST) whom returns to her childhood home following the death of her father. It's a painful homecoming, her childhood is filled with violent memories of abuse, both physical and sexual, at the hands of her vicious bodybuilder father. She had hoped the homecoming would prove to be a fresh start for her but it is instead fraught with traumatic flashbacks and painful memories long buried but now brought to the surface. Her bastard of a father abused not only her but her artist mother Rose as well.

Her overprotective and pervy brother Adam (Dustin Kerns) is now running the family gym and Ashley takes a job there where she is warmly received by the vain and horny bodybuilders who frequent the gym. A local art dealer named William (Alan Rowe Kelly, I'LL BURY YOU TOMORROW) who once showcased her late mother's artwork also extends an invitation to her but Ashley's not quite sure what to create for the exhibit. She takes inspiration from her best friend Emily (Misty Mundae, THE LOST) who jokingly asks Ashley to sculpt her the perfect man, though I'm sure the end result is not quite what she had in mind. Ashley enlists the gym's beefy body-builders and sets about "sculpting" the ideal man for the exhibit. The artistic endeavor further exposes the deep seated psychological turmoil that Ashley has endured which now manifests itself in a bloody downward spiral of murder and dismemberment leading to the reveal of her finished "sculpture".

It was nice to see up and coming horror actress Raine Brown just after watching the brutal backwoods slasher PSYCHO HOLOCAUST, she is definitely one to watch and is making quite a name for herself in the indie-horror community. The supporting role from Misty Mundae as Ashley's trampy friend Emily is fun and brings with it the all important nude factor her throngs of fans have come to expect. A flaw with the film in my opinion is that Ashley's turn from troubled girl to psychotic killer is not well represented or conveyed throughout the film, it just sorta happens and escalates from there. It's not a deal breaker for me but I felt it needed more development. It's also pretty clear what happening from early on, as such the film's final reveal loses much of it's potency. As a psychological-thriller is loses points but the film's horror elements are pretty decent.

The film has quite a few grisly moments as Ashley seduces the bodybuilders one after the other and dismembers them working towards her ultimate goal, which winds up very similar to what we saw with Lucky McKee's MAY. Lots of stabbings, strangling, skin-peeling, eye-gouging and dismemberments. While I thought the psychological elements struggles to find a footing there are no such issue with the outright horror elements, very well done.

DVD: Camp Motion Pictures DVD of SCULPTURE is presented in anamorphic 1.77:1 widescreen with both English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound options, no subtitles are included. The image looks very good if a bit soft at times. Colors look good and black levels are adequate. The disc has quite a few special features including the short film ROSE'S FANTASY which is an extension of the main feature of sorts and puts forth a revenge fantasy in which Ashley's mother Rose exacts revenge upon her abusive husband. There's also a selection of deleted scenes including a bizarre and prolonged masturbation fantasy with some panty sniffing hijinx that should not be missed plus an extended kill scene. Rounding out the DVD are featurettes with cast, crew and director interviews, and trailers.

Special Features:
- Theatrical Trailer (2:42)
- The Making of Sculpture (20:19)
- On the Set of Sculpture (6:10)
- Sculpture Premiere NYC (7:15)
- Body Builder's Video (5:01)
- Steele's Gym Promo (1:28)
- ROSE'S FANTASY Short Film (10:09)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (20:01)
- Camp Motion Pictures Trailer:  ROT, BOOK OF LORE, SHOCK FESTIVAL
Verdict: While I feel the intended psychological elements of the film are underdeveloped the horror elements are well represented. It's a very bloody slasher with satisfying array of kills. That the reveal is telegraphed pretty early on and pulls the rug out from under the finale takes a few points off though and renders this flick a rental. 2 outta 5

Friday, July 22, 2011

Blu-ray Review: OBSESSION (1976)

Label: Arrow Video
Region: ABC (Region FREE)
Rating: 15 Certificate
Duration: 98 mins
Video: 2.35:1 16x9 1080p
Audio: English LPCM Mono and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Genevieve Bujold, Cliff Roberston, John Lithgow
Tagline: The Love Story That Will Scare The Life Out Of You

Brian De Palma gets unnecessarily hammered for his Hitchcock fetish but it's never irked me the way it does some, I actually relish it, much like I did JJ Abram's Spielberg nostalgia porn SUPER 8 - I ate it up with a spoon and asked for seconds, but it was not always so for me, no sir. Like many my introduction to the films of Brian De Palma came with viewings of the Stephen King adaptation CARRIE, but this came along prior to my interest in film as a bodies of work by specific directors, it was just another awesome scary movie at the time. Unfortunately my deeper awareness of De Palma's filmography came with THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, SNAKE EYES and RAISING CAIN, a series of films that really put me off De Palma's work. I was in my late teens at the time, and walked outta the cinema scoffing RAISING CAIN, I thought it was simply horrendous stuff, though I will say that a recent viewing of it has much improved my opinion of that film, I was in my teens, what the shit did I know anyway? It was just this past year that a rewatch of CARRIE  spurred me to seek out a few of his earlier works, so I snatched up BODY DOUBLE and DRESSED TO KILL and what can I say? I was floored by how utterly captivating these films were, both wonderfully twisted Hitchockian thrillers with no small amount of deliciously pulpy subject matter. And after slapping myself for not doing so earlier so began a Brian De Palma journey of sorts. Apparently my rediscovering of De Palma's early works is well-timed for at this very moment I'm waiting for my Criterion Blu-ray of BLOW OUT to arrive and both DRESSED TO KILL and SCARFACE are coming to Blu-ray in September. I also continue my quest for both SISTERS and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, hopefully at a price that won't break the bank, such is the life of a poor blogger.

OBSESSION opens in 1959 New Orleans. Michael Courtland (Cliff Roberston, SPIDER-MAN) is a wealthy real estate broker celebrating his 10th anniversary with his lovely wife Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold, DEAD RINGERS). It's a grand occasion with a large celebration at his Southern home attended by friends, associates and his business partner Robert La Salle (John Lithgow, BLOW OUT). After the festivities have ended and every one's departed for the evening the family are settling in for the night when the unthinkable happens, his wife and daughter are kidnapped. Michael discovers a ransom note demanding $500,000. He contacts the authorities who arrange a sting operation which spins wildly outta of control and the ensuing car chase results in the fiery deaths of both mother and child.

Now fifteen years later Michael is still deeply distraught over the deaths of his beloved family, he blames himself in part for going to the authorities. He regularly visits the enormous monument he's erected in their memory on a vast parcel of land which remains undeveloped, to the chagrin of his business partner. Robert convinces Michael to accompany him on a business trip to Florence, Italy where their firm is brokering a real estate deal with a group of wealthy Italian businessmen. While in Florence Robert attempts to distract Michael from his mourning with women and wine but it has little affect on him. As it turns out Michael met his late wife here at a church years earlier. He makes a day trip to the church and is quite startled to meet a young woman named Sandy (Bujold) who is the spitting image of his late wife, it's uncanny. Michael immediately begins courting the young woman, he's completely obsessed with her, at one point training her to walk like his late wife. If you've seen VERTIGO this will be very familiar territory, De Palma makes no efforts to disguise the film as anything other than a love letter to Hitchcock's film. It's a whirlwind romance and they fall deeply in love with each other. Michael whisks Sandy away to New Orleans with the intention of marrying her.

Once she settles into the house Sandy becomes more aware of the circumstances behinds his wife and daughter's death, and just how truly similar in appearance she is to his wife after viewing a portrait of the woman. At the same time his obsession is becoming worrisome to friends and business partner,and  they call in his psychiatrist whom it seems Michael have not seen in some time. The encounter it's deeply unsettling to him. It's pretty obvious that he is lost in a fantasy, angered by his partner's meddling he sells his share of the real estate business and severs ties with pretty much everyone. At the same time he is haunted by dreams of Elizabeth and Sandy merging into the same person, the dreams are blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, and his sanity is crumbling fast. At the height of this confusion Sandy is kidnapped and Michael discovers a ransom note demanding $500,000, history is repeating itself. At his sanity's end he is determined to not to make the same mistakes again, which lead to a truly twisted finale featuring Michael reliving the events from 15 years earlier culminating in a series of reveals that are disturbing on several different levels.

As the deeply troubled but sympathetic widow Cliff Robertson sells the film, sadly my only recollections of the actor outside of Uncle Ben from SPIDER-MAN is as the president from John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM L.A.. The stunning Genevieve Bujold was only slightly more familiar to me having recognized her from the medical thriller COMA and David Cronenberg's DEAD RINGERS. These two fantastic performances anchor the films tragic love story with nuanced, subtle performances. In only his second film John Lithgow, who recently knocked it out of the park in season 4 of DEXTER, is pretty great as the deceitful business partner, though he's clearly too young to play the part convincingly in my opinion.

For a thriller with such a deeply fucked-up finale the film is steeped in pure romantic melodrama, at it's heart it's a tragic tale of romance gone wrong, which is immeasurably enhanced by Bernard Hermann's (PSYCHO, VERTIGO) sweeping score which accentuates the film's deeply romantic leanings. The film is lyrical in it's soft focus cinematography and the gorgeous gliding camera movements enhance the otherworldly qualities of the film, for this much credit must be given to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND). I found myself entranced with the film though I would say it does have a particularly deliberate pace which may threaten to throw off viewers looking for something more psycho-sexual or feverishly pulply from De Palma like DRESSED TO KILL and BODY DOUBLE but stay with it, it's a well-crafted thriller that's evocative of a bygone era with a dizzying twist that won't disappoint.

Blu-ray: Arrow has given OBSESSION a brand new 1080p HD transfer and the film's grain structure is left nicely intact. I saw no clear evidence of heavy DNR scrubbing in effect here, if it was used it was done so appropriately and respectfully. The film's preference for soft focus cinematography has a slightly gauzy effect that adds a dreamy quality to the proceedings but doesn't really allow for the razor sharp fine detail that some viewers may expect from Blu-ray but when compared to the alternately sourced clips from the featurette on the disc it's pretty obvious this is an improvement in every way. The color scheme feels  natural if a bit muted, though some of the reds do occasionally pop. The image does not appear to have been color boosted or artificially heightened, it's a very natural looking transfer that's sure to please.

Audio options include English LPCM mono and a DTS-HD Master 5.1 track with optional English subtitles. It's nice to have Bernard Herman's lush score in lossless surround sound, it's a powerfully dramatic score, almost overpowering at times. The 5.1 gives the film some breathing room but I had no issues with the original mono audio either. There were no snap, crackle or pops noted during playback, it's a very clean and dynamic audio presentation.

By Arrow standards the supplements are pretty slim but quite interesting. They begins with Laurent Bouzereau's 2001 documentary OBSESSION REVISITED which is ported over from the now out of print R1 Sony DVD. It's a great watch and features interviews with De Palma, writer Paul Schrader, actors Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, editor Paul Hirsch and producer George Litto. De Palma right off the top tells of the fim's origins beginning with screenwriter Schrader and himself seeing Hitchcock's VERTIGO and immediately wanting to do something similar, he also speaks about the difference in opinion between the two about the film's ending which led to Schrader disowning the film. It's a great watch and the numerous film clips prove to be a great measuring stick by which to judge the Arrow transfer, it's quite impressive. Also included are two of Brian De Palma short films; WOTON'S WAKE (1962) and THE RESPONSIVE EYE (1966)  which are presented in their original fullframe aspect ratio in 1080p. The film's are in pretty rough shape and have pretentious film school leanings but should prove of value to De Palma fans. There's also the original theatrical trailer in 16x9 1080p. Like most of Arrow's releases the extras aren't merely limited to the AV presentation, there's a slipcase, 4 reversible art options, a collector's booklet containing an essay from author Brad Steven's plus Paul Schrader's screenplay, originally titled DEJA VU which includes unfilmed sequences. One thing I found slightly conspicuously absent was the non-inclusion of any supplements from High Rising Productions who are usually all over the Arrow titles. A quick tweet to Nick Frame from High Rising Production's garnered this response "all extras were brought in with the master - no need for anything from us this time - very nice extras though!". Well, there you have it, and I would agree, very nice extras indeed.

Special Features:
- Exclusive collector’s booklet featuring an essay on the film by critic and author Brad Stevens
- Paul Schrader’s original screenplay of the film in a perfect bound booklet. With the original title Déjà vu, Schrader’s original script includes unfilmed sequences and sees the tripartite structure deal with the past, present and future of Michael Courtland.
- Obsession Revisited: Interviews with director Brian De Palma, stars Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold and more!
- Early Brian De Palma short films: WOTON'S WAKE (1962) and THE RESPONSIVE EYE (1966) 1080p
- Original Trailer (1:35) 1080p
- Original art by Tom 'The Dude Designs' Hodge

Verdict: OBSESSION is not as lurid or deliciously pulpy as either DRESSED TO KILL or BODY DOUBLE but it's still a dark melodramatic thriller that's up to it's elbows in Hitchcock devotion with a satisfyingly disturbed shock ending. It's early still in his career and he isn't quite the Brian De Palma of legend we know but the pieces are being set in place and coming to fruition, that's for sure. The film is definitely overshadowed by CARRIE, which was released that same year, but it deserves more attention and now that we have a great Blu-ray from Arrow Video I say have at it and enjoy.   

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

DVD Review: 13 ASSASSINS (2011)

13 ASSASSINS (2011)
Label: Magnet Releasing
Region Code: Region 1 NTSC
Rating: R
Duration: 125 mins
Video: 2.40:1 Widescreen 16x9
Audio: English, Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1
Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Koji yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuka Iseya, Goro Inagaki

Prolific Japanese cult director Takashi Miike is known for his stylish, twisted, often ultra-violent films. In just twenty years Miike has amassed a filmography of over 85 films, it's an unsettling body of work that I've only just scratched the surface of with viewings of AUDITION (2000), ICHI THE KILLER (2001), DEADLY OUTLAW: REKKA (2002), THREE... EXTREMES (2004), SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (2007) and the MASTERS OF HORROR episode IMPRINT (2005) with MPD PSYCHO (2000) still sitting on a stack of films yet to be watched.  What's that, seven films out of 85, yeesh, it could be a while before I even begin to approach the midway point and by that time he could have 150 films under his belt. What I've seen I've particularly enjoyed. Like most I know it was AUDITION that brought him to my attention after seeing it featured on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments special, but it's ICHI THE KILLER and DEADLY OUTLAW: REKKA, his Yakuza films that really captured my attention, brilliantly violent films.

This time out Miike has chosen to remake Eiichi Kudo's 13 ASSASSINS (1963) which I've never seen so I have no comparison's to make. The setting is feudal Japan in 1844. The former Shogun's son and the current Shogun's brother-in-law is Lord Narritsugu (Goro Ingaki, SAIMIN), the heir to Clan Akashi, he is a vile man who uses his royal lineage to get away with the rape and murder of innocents. His disregard for life borders on insanity and his actions threaten the stability of the empire. The Shogun turns a blind eye to these despicable actions. however, one of the Shogun's advisors Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira, RAMPO) realizes his ascent to power must be terminated. He secretly meets with a retired samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho, EKIRO) whom after hearing of Naritsugu's atrocities sets about amassing a band of twelve honor-bound samurai whom will join him on his quest to assassinate the sadistic Lord. 

His band of samurai include his womanizing nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), a master spearsman, two demolitions experts, a deadly ronin, a spirited novice and war weary samurai among others. It's readily acknowledged this is a suicide mission, no one expects to return from battle, only to die a noble death worthy of a samurai. It is shortly before they embark on their grim sojourn that Shinzaemon is visited upon by Hanbei (Misachika Ichimura), someone from his past whom is a samurai in Naritsugu's service who's come to dissuade Shinza from interfering in Naritsuga's affairs. It is quite evident that these battle worn samurai respect one another but both hold separate allegiances, the meeting is civil but tenuous, a promise to meet again is made and Hanbei departs.
The decision is made to ambush Naritsugu's entourage, which numbers two-hundred men, in the village of Ochiai as he makes his way through the Edo territories before entering the Akashio domain. The 12 assassins decide to travel through the heavily forested mountains, it is here they encounter a hunter named Koyata (Ysuke Iseya, BLINDNESS), a quirky character that claims to come from samurai lineage but also disparages the samurai at every opportunity, he infuses the film with a great deal of humor and he slings a mean rock, too. The group take him on as the 13th assassin and he guides them through the thick terrain to the village of Ochiai. Once there they evacuate the townsfolk and set about fortifying the village and laying traps in preparation of the ambush.
Thus far the film has been building tension and anticipation, both sides maneuvering their men like chess pieces, positioning them for the epic battle finale. Miike has masterfully led us to this point, and when the kettle boils over he does not disappoint in any way, it's a truly epic forty-five minute battle scene. It's a bloody affair but I may have been expecting a bit more from Miike in the gore department. Regardless, the last 45 minutes of this film are non-stop samurai action, constant momentum, moving forward, blood-spilling awesomeness. 
There's definitely some comparisons to made here to Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), as the band of warriors go up against overwhelming odds, it's compelling stuff. Not that I've seen a ton of Miike's films but this had a different kinda feel, it's more polished, it has broader appeal and there weren't many typical Miike moments aside from a few notably disturbing scenes that put Naritsugu's cruelty on display. The first is of him using a family with small children as targets for archery practice, the other is of a woman he's rendered limbless, her tongue removed, as she clutches a paintbrush between her teeth scrawling the words "total massacre" onto a scroll of paper, that was 100% Miike.

That his demented hyper-violent signature isn't stamped across this film doesn't detract from it in the least, this is a modern classic, a samurai epic. The film looks fantastic, the battles are superior, the set pieces are amazing and it's steeped in fate, duty bound honor and glory, the stuff of samurai legend. This could definitely be the film to bring Miike throngs of new fans and I would dare say that this is his most easily digestible film that I've seen, surely one of the greatest warrior films to come along in some time.

DVD: 13 ASSASSINS is presented in it's original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 widescreen and is 16x9 enhanced, it looks quite good, the color scheme is a bit muted, there's lots of earth tones and natural colors, so it's not a very vibrant disc. The print is impeccable, no flaws but I didn't think the SD image was very sharp, I would love to see this on Blu-ray to compare. Audio options include a choice of Japanese or English language Dolby Digital 5.1 with optional English and Spanish subtitles. Both tracks sound great though I would say stick with the original Japanese language track, it's a more nuanced performance than the English dub, naturally.

Special features are pretty slim, there's a Japanese TV interview with Miike, a trailer and nearly 20 minutes of deleted scenes which were trimmed from the Japanese release for the international market. I would have enjoyed seeing them stitched back into the film for this DVD release but that's not to be. Lastly, a collection of Magnolia release trailers and a digital copy for your mobile devices.

Special Features:
- Interview with Director Takashi Miike (18:44) 16x9
- Deleted Scenes (18:14) 16x9
- Theatrical Trailer (2:33) 16x9

Verdict: Miike's 13 ASSASSINS is much more a classical Samurai film than what I would have expected from this gonzo cult filmmaker, but fear not for it's both stylish and ultra-violent if not particularly gory, there's severed limbs, decapitations, harakiri and lots of bloodshed but it's just not glorified to the nth degree. Up next for Miike is HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI (ICHIMEI) which is a remake of Masaki Kobayashi's 17th century Samurai revenge tale HARAKIRI (1963). The film is shot in 3D which doesn't exactly set my mind on fire with anticipation, but knowing what Miike is capable of I'm 100% in at this point. 4.25 outta 5