HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Thursday, August 30, 2012

PIRANHA 3DD -- DVD review by porfle



What if they made a SyFy Channel original movie but with a much bigger budget, and they got John Gulager (FEAST) to direct it, and he spent half the extra money on better SPFX and the other half on pure, unadulterated stupid? 

Well, 2012's PIRANHA 3DD (or, just PIRANHA DD if you're watching the flat version) may not be a SyFy Channel flick but it might as well be one because, for me anyway, it exists in the same goofy, insubstantial "take it or leave it" zone as all the sharktocrocs and dinogators.

Maddy (Danielle Panabaker) returns home from college to find that her sleazy stepdad Chet (David Koechner) has stocked their family-owned water park with "water-certified strippers" as lifeguards and has installed a special Adult Pool that's like an aquatic nudie bar. 


With the park's grand opening looming, marine biologist Maddy discovers that the underground lake Chet's been illegally drilling into for free water also contains ravenous prehistoric piranha that threaten to start chowing down on all those tasty pool patrons.

With an opening that features Gary Busey and Clu Gulager as old-timers accidentally blowing up a flatulence-spewing cow (which also happens to be filled with piranha eggs), you'd expect PIRANHA 3DD to be a total spoof from start to finish. 

But despite all the farcical touches--including a corpulent park employee who's constantly humping the water jets and ends up with a live piranha lodged up his ying-yang--much of it is played straight, or at least as straight as the more "serious" movies of this kind. 


Teenagers pair off and get attacked before, during, and after sex, with the usual lame attempts at comedy relief thrown in before the carnage begins.  Since we've seen all this stuff a thousand times before, and since the movie isn't doing much to funny it up more than usual, it's not all that exciting. 

Only when virginal Shelby (Katrina Bowden) and Josh (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) finally go "all the way" after their initial aborted attempt does something really over-the-top occur, which may have viewers of both genders crossing their legs.

Maddy, whose story is also told pretty much straight here, gets young cop Kyle (Chris Zylka) and nerdy park employee Barry (Matt Bush), who's had a crush on her since childhood, to help her try and head off the impending piranha attack.  They visit an expert on the subject played by Christopher Lloyd, who, believe it or not, actually gives one of the more subdued performances in the film as the usual "Mr. Wizard" type who supplies us with all the exposition we need to prepare us for what's to come. 

Naturally, the big draw here is the extravaganza of blood 'n' guts that will take place on the water park's opening day, and director Gulager pretty much goes all out with the gore effects along with the expected shots of big, bouncing double-D's coming at the camera in glorious slow-motion 3D.  The sequence is a frenetic, choppily-edited mess really, but by this point it doesn't really matter as long as there's lots of gory stuff happening and plenty of T and A flying at us. 


Oddly, it's here that the film finally becomes the all-out comedy we expect, with David Hasselhoff hilariously spoofing his "Baywatch" image as a guest celebrity lifeguard (and appearing to enjoy himself immensely while doing it) and Ving Rhames reprising his role as the now-legless Sheriff Fallon from the 2010 PIRANHA remake, picking the wrong day to try and overcome his fear of water ("I ain't afraid of no punk-ass water," he chants to himself before the piranha attack).  The final gag is, admittedly, pretty outlandish.

The 3D Blu-Ray/Blu-Ray/DVD (plus Digital Copy) 3-disc combo pack from Anchor Bay and the Weinsteins is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras include a filmmakers' commentary track, deleted scenes, a short film featuring John McEnroe, and the following featurettes--"The Story Behind the DD", "The Hofftastic World of David Hasselhoff", "Wet and Wild with David Koechner", and "Busey's Bloopers."  The marathon end credits crawl also features lots of bloopers, outtakes, etc. 

PIRANHA 3DD isn't the worst film of its kind I've ever seen, but it's far from being the best.  (Actually, I'm not even sure what the "best" film of this particular kind would look like.)  It looks pretty good, is competently made, and has just about everything we expect from it, all coming at us in 3D.  But somehow it just isn't quite as entertaining as those low-budget exploitation flicks with Michelle Bauer and Linnea Quigley that usually ended up on USA's "Up All Night."


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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

MAD MONSTER PARTY- Starring Boris Karloff, Gale Garnett and Phyllis Diller Arriving 9/4



MAD MONSTER PARTY
Street Date: 9/4/12
Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack SRP: $14.99


What better way to get in the Halloween sprit than by celebrating with a monster party? Lionsgate Home Entertainment makes Mad Monster Party available for the first time in High Definition with the release of the Blu-ray Combo Pack (Blu-ray + DVD) as well as HD Digital Download and On Demand arriving just in time for the spookiest holiday of the year as well as the theatrical release of the similarly themed Hotel Transylvania.

From the team who created the stop-motion and animated holiday classics “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” Mad Monster Party stars the voice talents of Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) and Phyllis Diller (Eight on the Lam). The Blu-ray Combo Pack bonus materials include a “making of” featurette, plus two featurettes that look at the animation and the music of the film, as well as two bonus sing-along tracks. The Mad Monster Party Blu-ray Combo Pack arrives on September 4th for the suggested retail price of $14.99.

Baron Von Frankenstein (voice of Boris Karloff) has decided to retire as the head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters. But first, he must inform the other monsters about his plans. How to deliver the news? How else - through a Mad Monster Party! Von Frankenstein’s guests include a who’s who of Halloween favorites, including the Werewolf, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, the Invisible Man and more. But who among them is fit to be the new head of the monsters?

BLU-RAY & DVD COMBO PACK SPECIAL FEATURES*
“Mad Monster Party: Making of a Cult Classic” featurette
“Groovy Ghouls: The Music of Mad Monster Party” featurette
“It’s Sheer Animagic! Secrets of Stop-Motion Animation” featurette
Two Bonus sing-along tracks for kids of all ages
Trailer

*Subject to change

CAST
Boris Karloff       (Frankenstein, Thriller, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy)
Ethel Ennis            (Feature film debut)
Gale Garnett       (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Overnight)
Allen Swift (TV’s “Diver Dan,” TV’s “The Beagles”)
And Phyllis Diller (A Bug’s Life, TV’s “Family Guy,” TV’s “The Phyllis Diller Show”)

PROGRAM INFORMATION
Year of Production: 1967
Title of Copyright: © STUDIOCANAL - Videocraft International Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Type: Blu-ray Disc and Digital Premiere
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Family/Animation
Blu-ray Closed Captioned: English SDH
DVD Closed Captioned: English
Blu-ray Subtitles: English and Spanish
Blu-ray Format: 1080P High Definition 4x3 Full Screen (1.33:1)
DVD Format: 4x3 Full Screen (1.33:1)
Blu-ray Audio Status: English Monaural DTS-HD Master Audio
DVD Audio Status: English Monaural Dolby Digital Audio
Feature Running Time: 95 minutes

CLIPS
"All Aboard"
(Features the Voices of: Allen Swift)

"The Escape"
(Features the Voices of: Allen Swift, Gale Garnettand Phyllis Diller)


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THE WALKING DEAD: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON -- DVD review by porfle



The world's first serialized zombie saga for television (that I know of, anyway) continues with Anchor Bay's 4-disc DVD set THE WALKING DEAD: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON.  And if you enjoyed yourself the first time around you won't want to miss what happens next. 

This time, our ragtag group of still-warm survivors led by former Alabama state trooper Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his partner Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) are on the road again after last season's visit to a military laboratory for help ended on a decidedly hopeless note.  Now, with the zombie apocalypse raging fiercer than ever and flesh-eating reanimated corpses popping up at every turn, their tiny caravan hits a traffic jam on the interstate and comes to a screeching halt. 

While ransacking the stalled vehicles for supplies and fuel, the group must hide from an entire herd of zombies as they go shambling by.  This zombie herd is one of season two's most noteworthy features--we'll not only see them again during a key climactic sequence, but we'll even get a flashback which answers the question, "Why the heck would hundreds of 'walkers' get together and become a herd in the first place?" 

Anyway, their passing leads to two of the key events of the season.  One is that little Sophia, daughter of Carol (Melissa McBride), goes missing and forces the others to undertake an exhaustive search of the surrounding woods which will keep them there for days.  The other is that when Rick's son Carl (Chandler Riggs) is accidentally shot by a hunter, he is taken to the secluded farm of aging veterinarian Hershel Greene (IN COLD BLOOD's Scott Wilson) for treatment.  Rick and the others see Hershel's farm as an almost walker-free haven where they could live in relative peace and safety--but Hershel wants no part of them and insists they leave after Carl has recovered.

With this idyllic farm setting as a backdrop, season two is less episodic than before and allows our characters time to engage in plenty of interpersonal dramatics punctuated here and there by sudden walker attacks to keep viewers jumpy.  The love triange between Rick, his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and an increasingly resentful Shane becomes more bitter and curdled than ever, especially with Lori's discovery that she may be pregnant.  Andrea (Laurie Holden) eschews "women's work" and wants to go zombie-hunting with the guys; she also clashes with the group's sage old RV driver Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) over whether she should be allowed to carry a gun or even, if she chooses to, commit suicide. 

Hershel's insistence that the group leave his farm turns explosive when they make a shocking discovery about what he's keeping out in the barn, leading to what is probably the most emotionally devastating scene of the series thus far.  Heated disputes between Rick and Shane over how things should be handled escalate until the former friends are at each other's throats, with the entire group split down the middle as well.  As Rick struggles to retain his humanity and Shane becomes increasingly ruthless, it becomes harder to decide whose way is more beneficial to the group and who will lead them to ruin.

But even with all this dramatic stuff going on, the main emphasis of "The Walking Dead" is still on zombies, zombies, and more zombies.  Despite the safety of Hershel's farm, there are frequent opportunities for our main characters to put themselves in danger during supply runs and other necessary excusions, which usually result in their being set upon by scores of ravenous walkers. 
Makeup effects are better than ever, with several of the "hero" zombies looking exquisitely horrible and some of the attack scenes generating nail-biting suspense.  As usual, a hapless human will occasionally find himself (or herself) feasted upon by a group of ghouls like a living, screaming buffet (I call this the "Full Meal Deal"), surely the most awful fate that can befall anyone in any zombie flick since George Romero's seminal work, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. 

A hefty percentage of the gory violence in "The Walking Dead", however, comes from humans dealing that fatal brain-extinguishing death blow to their undead foes in all manner of extremely messy ways including machetes, screwdrivers, hatchets, shovels, and, of course, guns. An impromptu autopsy by Rick and group outsider Daryl (Norman Reedus, BLADE II) on an expired walker is especially gruesome (and perversely amusing), as is the aftermath that occurs when a bloated ghoul is found splashing around at the bottom of a well and is hauled up by rope only to be pulled in half at the waist.  

The 4-disc DVD set from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with English Dolby Digital 5.1 and French Dolby Surround 2.0.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  Bonuses include several behind-the-scenes featurettes, five cast and crew commentaries, deleted scenes, and a stunning 6-webisode tale that gives us the backstory for one of the most memorable minor characters in season one.

Filled with all the gruesome zombie action and intense personal drama we've come to expect from this unique series, THE WALKING DEAD: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON ends with the inevitable as Hershel's farm turns out to be not so walker-free after all.  As carnivorous chaos reigns over the once-peaceful countryside in a free-for-all of flesh-eating and brain-bashing, the season not only goes out with a bang but leaves us with a teasing glimpse of what's in store for our heroes next time.


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Saturday, August 25, 2012

SPARTACUS: VENGEANCE--THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON -- DVD review by porfle



When we last saw him at the end of season one, Spartacus had just ignited a bloody slave revolt against the house of Batiatus, supplier of gladiators to the arenas in Rome.  Now, with Anchor Bay's 3-disc DVD set SPARTACUS: VENGEANCE--THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON, we join the slave rebellion already in progress as Spartacus struggles to unite his disparate followers in a common purpose over the span of ten incredibly action-packed episodes. 

The biggest change since SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND--THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, of course, is the absence of the late, lamented Andy Whitfield in the title role.  Newcomer Liam McIntyre takes some getting used to but eventually suffices as a replacement, even though watching him in the role is a little like watching George Lazenby in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and wishing it were Sean Connery instead.  Also taking some getting used to is Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Naevia, awkwardly replacing Lesley-Ann Brandt as the love of Crixus' life. 

Manu Bennett as arena champion Crixus and Peter Mensah as former gladiator trainer Oenomaus resume their roles with all the usual soulful intensity.  There's an exciting subplot involving Crixus' attempt to free Naevia from the mines to which she's been banished, and a series of flashbacks shows us a young Oenomaus being discovered and groomed as a gladiator by the elder Batiatus, after which we see him in his current fugitive state, fighting incognito in the horrific arena known as "the pit." 

Craig Parker returns as Spartacus' arch-enemy Glaber, now a Praetor sent by Rome to quell the rebellion.  His expectant wife Ilithyia, once again played to perfection by Viva Bianca, is in her usual fine form as the ultimate scheming status-seeker who will do anything to advance herself.  Reluctantly taking up residence in the abandoned house of Batiatus, they're shocked to find his wife Lucretia (the always awesome Lucy Lawless), thought dead after the slave revolt, still alive and haunting the place like a ghost. 

Now seemingly out of her mind, Lucretia becomes Ilythyia's closest friend and conspirator even as her eyes flicker with their own ominous secret intent.  The two actresses play their roles like virtuosos, reveling in a heady concoction of sexually decadent melodrama and two-faced political intrigue.  These are soap opera machinations on a gut-wrenching level, often with a visceral intensity that makes "The Sopranos" look relatively tame.

Things get really interesting when Ilithyia plans to dump hubby Glaber for the up-and-coming Praetor Varinius (Brett Tucker), forcing Glaber to take drastic action.  His reaction to Ilithyia's later kidnapping by Spartacus' forces is to take beautiful young Seppia (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) into his bed after murdering her brother, with whom she had incestuous relations.  And lurking in the background all the while is the traitorous Ashur (Nick Tarabay), now more monstrous than ever as he schemes to take revenge against his former gladiator brothers and acquire both Batiatus' house and his wife Lucretia as rewards for service to Glaber.

Meanwhile, Spartacus and his followers continue to cut a swath of violence across the countryside in a series of battles which, more than anything, give the show its distinctive look and appeal.  Filmed in highly impressionistic, almost fetishitic style, these incredibly entertaining action scenes are often slowed almost to a halt in order to highlight certain violent tableaux as though they were ornately-rendered comic book panels drawn by the likes of Jim Steranko or Barry Smith.

Blood is the main motif here, and it would be an understatement to say that there's buckets of it.  Even optical-wipe transitions between scenes are often composed of splashes of blood.  Gorehounds will be in seventh heaven as the screen is filled with more blood 'n' guts than most horror movies, including one sword slash by Spartacus that ends an altercation with a rowdy German ex-slave in jaw-droppingly decisive fashion, and another incident in which Naevia proves that it is indeed difficult to remove a man's head with a single sword thrust.  Crucifixions, eviscerations, and other atrocities abound, many committed by the Roman upper class for their own amusement or as an example to others.  

Of these ten episodes, two stand out as especially thrilling.  The first is episode five, "Libertus", in which captives Crixus and Oenomaus are to be executed in the arena while Spartacus sets a plan into motion not only to rescue them but also to bring calamity on a scale that will shock both the Romans in attendance and the viewers watching it all on TV.  When a group led by Spartacus' current love interest, the warrior woman Mira (Katrina Law), sets fire to the bowels of the arena, it starts a chain reaction of destruction that gives the show's SPFX team a real workout.  "Libertus" also heralds the return of Dustin Clare as Gannicus, the most memorable character from the prequel mini-series SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA.

The other episode is, naturally, the season finale, "The Wrath of the Gods", which features not only the epic confrontation between the forces of Spartacus and Glaber but also the startling resolution to the whole Ilithyia-Lucretia business that's had us guessing throughout the previous episodes.  Other subplots are resolved in highly dramatic fashion as well, as the season is drawn to a satisfying close.

The 3-disc DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 English sound and Spanish mono.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  Extras include seven behind-the-scenes featurettes, a blooper reel, a teaser for season three's SPARTACUS: WAR OF THE DAMNED, and a DVD-ROM extra, chapter one of "Spartacus: Swords and Ashes."  The Blu-Ray also has nine extended episodes plus audio commentaries.

With its fierce, furious battles between gladiators, soldiers, and slaves, SPARTACUS: VENGEANCE--THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON is intoxicatingly action-packed--that's a given.  But it also overflows with giddily decadent drama that had me rooting for one human monster over another and celebrating the utter deviousness of whoever manages to outwit their equally monstrous opponent.  Some developments--such as Ilithyia's surprisingly pointed handling of a romantic rival--go beyond shocking into being downright flabbergasting.  This is just the kind of thing I want from a show like this and it really delivers.


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Thursday, August 23, 2012

CAESAR AND OTTO'S DEADLY XMAS -- movie review by porfle



(NOTE: This review is based on a bare-bones advance screener.  Watch for further DVD news and other updates as they become available.)


When we last checked in with those wacky half-brothers Caesar and Otto, they were frantically eluding the bloody clutches of a serial killer in CAESAR & OTTO'S SUMMER CAMP MASSACRE and trying not to get sued by the Prince of Darkness himself in CAESAR & OTTO MEET DRACULA'S LAWYER.  Now, with CAESAR AND OTTO'S DEADLY XMAS (2012), even "the most wonderful time of the year" becomes a nightmare of horror and hilarity for our dauntless dim-bulbs.

Directing his own screenplay (from a story co-written with Joe Randazzo) in his usual frenetic and wildly inventive style, indy auteur Dave Campfield once again stars as "effete tough guy" Caesar Denovio, a whirling dervish of cowardly aggression who fancies himself a great actor even though he bungles even the tiniest bit parts (such as "Waiter" or "Background Pedestrian").

Caesar constantly bullies and beats up on his much larger but mild-mannered half-brother Otto (Paul Chomicki), an unemployed "sponge" living in Caesar's apartment.  Together, Campfield and Chomicki form a comedy team that harkens back to such classic duos as Abbott & Costello and Ren & Stimpy, but with their own amusingly unique style.


Several elements from SUMMER CAMP MASSACRE are carried over here, including Caesar and Otto's quest for employment leading them into the manipulative clutches of the deceptively pleasant Jerry (Ken MacFarlane), who now heads an evil organization called XMas Enterprises.  Caesar gets to display his bad-acting chops again, this time failing his audition to play Santa due to a childhood trauma caused by crazy Grandpa Denovio (a hilarious cameo by Troma's Lloyd Kaufman).

There's a road trip complete with endearingly bad (if not impossible) process shots, along with another of Caesar's BABY JANE-style attacks on Otto as they compete for the same acting role.  The suspenseful climax recalls that of the previous film, with Caesar, Otto, and their dad Fred in grave peril at the hands of Jerry and his minions.

One of the most delightfully funny new wrinkles in DEADLY XMAS is when Caesar gets the chance to write, direct, and star in his very own low-budget horror film (financed by XMas Enterprises) which, of course, is a disaster.  "Hand-hold it, the shakier the better!" he says gleefully during one scene.  "That's, like, never done in independent films!"


Other returning castmembers include Robin Ritter as Nurse Helen, Avi K. Garg as the plucky Drew (who remains upbeat even though he keeps losing his arms and having them reattached), Scott Aguilar as Caesar and Otto's no-good but lovable dad Fred, Summer Ferguson as Otto's boyhood love interest Allison, Keith Bush as the Caesar-hating chief of police, Dawn Burdue, Jen Nikolaus, and Derek Crabbe. 

Felissa Rose (SLEEPAWAY CAMP), Martin Sheen's brother Joe Estevez, and scream queens Brinke Stevens and Debbie Rochon make their customary cameo appearances, while Linnea Quigley plays Caesar's crabby agent Donna and recreates her celebrated death scene from 1984's SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

Felissa's husband Deron Miller, who had a much smaller role in SUMMER CAMP MASSACRE, plays Santa-clad serial killer Demian, a crazed lackey of XMas Enterprises who becomes fixated on our heroes and starts killing off everyone on the "called to cancel" list for Caesar's annual Thanksgiving feast (which features pretzel sticks, popcorn, and toast on picnic plates).  Demian's axe-wielding exploits supply the film with most of its over-the-top comedic gore, aside from a dream sequence in which a mortified Caesar gets drenched from head to toe in the red stuff while Santa dismembers Otto with a chainsaw.


Once again, Dave Campfield is able to overcome a rock-bottom budget simply by means of creative directing, camerawork, and editing (the latter is especially good), along with sound design and a hyperkinetic pace which recall classic theatrical cartoons.  In addition to this, the cast is brimming with talented performers rather than, as in so many low-budget features, a bunch of nitwits thrown together on the cheap.  There's a lot of good comic acting going on here, with each castmember seemingly inspired by the project.

This is especially true in regard to Campfield himself, who, given the right resources, has (in my opinion) the potential to develop into one of the sharpest and most visually creative comedy filmmakers working today.  While still suffering from a lack of polish that a decent budget would solve, his "Caesar and Otto" series has its own distinctly warped slapstick style and sensibility in the same way that, say, the Zucker Brothers' comedies do.  I'm not saying Dave Campfield is the next Buster Keaton, but I think ol' Stone Face might've gotten a few good laughs out of CAESAR AND OTTO'S DEADLY XMAS.

caesarandotto.com

Caesar & Otto’s Deadly Xmas--Fun Facts and Trivia

Story: With the holiday season approaching, Caesar and Otto find themselves employed at X-Mas Enterprises Inc., where a disgruntled employee wearing a Santa suit has begun a killing spree, and has appeared to have found himself the perfect patsies.

Cast: Dave Campfield, Paul Chomicki, Deron Miller, Ken Macfarlane, Summer Ferguson, Brinke Stevens, Scott Aguilar with special appearances from Lloyd Kaufman, Felissa Rose, Debbie Rochon, Joe Estevez and Linnea Quigley.


Trivia

The film is part spoof of 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, and features many direct homages. Most notably, Linnea Quigley being impaled upon antlers.

Lloyd Kaufman’s appearance is a direct spoof of an opening scene from Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984).

Deadly Xmas is a sequel to Caesar & Otto’s Summer Camp Massacre, which lampooned “Sleep away Camp” (1983). Summer Camp featured Felissa Rose in a role that parodied her Angela character from the original.

Deron Miller, who portrays Demian in this feature, was lead singer of the hit rock group, CKY.

Deron Miller and Felissa Rose play husband and wife in the film. In real life they in fact are.

Neil Leeds is in fact a local Los Angeles celebrity known for his around the clock television ads as Leeds Mattress owner and spokesperson.

Preproduction has begun on the next installment, which will satirize both Halloween and the Paranormal Activity movies.

Intended to be a modern day throw back to the Abbott and Costello horror/comedy crossovers of yesteryear.

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

JERSEY SHORE SHARK ATTACK -- DVD review by porfle



Never having seen a single episode of MTV's "Jersey Shore" nor ever been interested in discovering anything about it, I found myself in the rare position of watching the SyFy Channel's JERSEY SHORE SHARK ATTACK (2012) without any preconceptions at all, except that it was supposed to be a "Jersey Shore Meets Jaws" spoof. 

Well, it may be a dandy spoof of the MTV reality show for all I know, but unfortunately it isn't very funny.  The few laughs that there are come mainly from some of the "guido" humor--the main characters are all Italian-American party animals who hang out at the beach looking for A.S.S. (alcohol, sun, and sex)--and the occasional lucky gag that's funny by accident (usually involving either sex or cartoonishly extreme gore).  Also, anything related to former N'Sync member Joey Fatone, whose guest appearance as himself lends the film its one solidly funny moment.

The story, unsurprisingly, is about a 4th of July shark attack on a town whose summer tourist business is crucial, with evil capitalist Dolan (William Atherton) and corrupt mayor Palantine (Paul Sorvino) hushing it up so that construction of Dolan's new resort hotel will continue.  But it's this construction that is sending out underwater vibrations which are disturbing some albino bull sharks and driving them into attack mode.

Meanwhile, guido T.C. "The Complication" (Jeremy Luc) is having chick problems with Nooki (Melissa Molinaro) even as a wet T-shirt contest is taking place at the beachfront bar of Captain Salie ("Sopranos" regular Tony Sirico).  A clash with some rich brats from the local yacht club--who are all bad because they're (gasp) WASPS!--leads to the shark-related death of one of T.C.'s friends, sending the gang into action against the aquatic pests. 

T.C.'s cop dad, Sheriff Moretti (Jack Scalia) doesn't believe their story until the shark attacks escalate into a full-scale invasion.  Grabbing an arsenal of weapons and making off with a police boat, our heroes go shark hunting even as the rich kids come under attack when their yacht is surrounded by sharks. 

One of the main problems with this movie is that the tone is all over the place.  One minute it's an outlandish farce, the next it's trying to be serious--and not just ironic, tongue-in-cheek serious, but actual drama-type serious.  The latter is represented mostly by bad guys Atherton and Sorvino clashing with good guy Scalia in scenes that would fit right into a non-comedic "Jaws" ripoff.  We also get some genuinely sappy romantic moments between T.C. and Nooki and some attempts to make the gang's battle against the sharks come off as true-blue action-movie stuff. 

Not only do these disparate elements fail to mesh, but the shark scenes are marred by SPFX that are sub-par even for a SyFy Channel flick.  The final shark attack sequence itself looks like something that could've been plucked straight out of any number of recent "nature goes amok" duds that SyFy churns out like sausage these days, only with more of the extras dying "funny."  It's hard to get excited seeing swimmers threatened by cartoony CGI thingies that hardly seem more advanced than a 90s video game.  The annoyingly inappropriate musical score doesn't help.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Bonus features include a making-of featurette and a cast and crew commentary track. 

Good things about JERSEY SHORE SHARK ATTACK: a few of the "guido" gags are amusing, the Joey Fatone stuff is gold, and there are some awesome-looking (and refreshingly non-anorexic) babes running around in bikinis and occasionally firing guns.  Unfortunately, the good is far outweighed by the bad, not the least of which being plain old boredom. 


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Friday, August 17, 2012

AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: SERIES 6 -- DVD review by porfle



David Suchet's exquisite portrayal of Agatha Christie's fussy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot continues to delight and entertain with Acorn Media's 4-disc DVD set AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: SERIES 6. 

With series six, we see the end of the lean, short-but-sweet episodes (under one hour each) in favor of feature-length adaptations of Christie's famous mystery novels.  Naturally, this leads to a more leisurely pace and an increase in what might be called "padding" if it weren't all so much fun. 

Especially enjoyable is the added character interplay between Poirot and his friends and associates, including the dull but reliable Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), his spinsterish, ever-efficient secretary Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), and Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson), a Scotland Yard man who was once Poirot's rival but is now a staunch friend.

Poirot himself is still the fastidious, obsessive-compulsive little fellow whose no-nonsense demeanor is often betrayed by the twinkle in his eye.  The great loves of his life are gourmet dining, expensive clothes, and solving complex mysteries which baffle lesser minds and challenge his "little gray cells"--after which he isn't above basking in the resulting recognition and praise.

As always, the four mysteries in this collection are impeccably mounted with lavish production values and period atmosphere to burn.  The first, "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" (1995), adds a richly nostalgic Yuletide flavor to the proceedings.  It's the familiar story of a rich, hateful old man (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME's Vernon Dobtcheff) and a houseful of potential heirs (including Sasha Behar of INJUSTICE), each of whom would benefit from his death and be a likely suspect when the old man eventually does turn up murdered.

As usual, Agatha Christie takes these well-used elements and makes them seem new again with interesting characters and circumstances, along with the usual wonderful bits of business with Poirot himself straining his brain to solve a classic "locked door" murder as suspects pile up like presents under a Christmas tree.  Speaking of which, the scene in which Poirot unwraps the gift given to him by Inspector Japp may have fans of the series laughing out loud. 

Poirot's characteristically theatrical "reveal" here is drawn out even longer than usual to allow him (and us) to fully savor it, raking each suspect over the coals as he is wont to do--especially those he doesn't particularly like--before finally unveiling the true identity of the killer.  For the patient viewer who has followed every torturous twist and turn of the story, these sequences can be particularly rewarding.

"Hickory Dickory Dock" (1995) takes place in a students' hostel where a series of minor thefts, apparently the work of a kleptomaniac, leads tragically and inexplicably to murder.  Since the woman who helps manage the place happens to be Miss Lemon's sister, Poirot eventually gets involved and brings his considerable skills to bear against a clever murderer. 

The plot is somewhat convoluted this time, but things get more and more interesting as Poirot starts weaving all the loose strands together.  Pauline Moran makes the most of her rare chance to shine as Miss Lemon while the story's visuals are augmented by a playful subplot involving a mouse who happens to observe the action from its perch atop a grandfather clock.  (Which, of course, it runs down at the stroke of one.) 

There's also a rare foot chase at the end as the main suspect takes flight in a subway station.  The episode's most endearing subplot involves Inspector Japp, who stays with Poirot while his wife is away.  Much comedic mileage is drawn from Japp's dismay at Poirot's eccentric culinary habits as well as the puzzling fountain-like fixture in his bathroom.  The viewer is similarly kept guessing throughout the episode as it draws to a particularly satisfying conclusion.  Damian Lewis ("Band of Brothers") appears as one of the students suspected of the murder.

Captain Hastings gets to indulge his love of golf in "Murder on the Links" (1996) while he and Poirot spend some time at a French resort.  Poirot, as usual, gets involved in murder when a businessman named Paul Renaud (Damien Thomas) implores him to help in a matter in which he fears for his life. 

When Renaud's body is found in a sand trap the next day, Poirot's investigation is thwarted by pompous French police detective Giraud (Bill Moody), who is jealous of Poirot's reputation.  Giraud makes a wager with Poirot--if Poirot solves the case, Giraud will give him his trademark pipe.  If Giraud wins, Poirot must shave off his famous, finely-waxed moustache!  Meanwhile, Captain Hastings spends much of the episode in a daze after falling head-over-heels in love with one of Poirot's chief suspects.

Finally, "Dumb Witness" (1996) is a real treat for Agatha Christie fans who love pastoral murder mysteries filled with eccentric characters.  When an old woman seems to be the target of an attempted murder, Poirot advises her to change her will and disinherit her relatives--thus making her death unprofitable for anyone.  She does so but is murdered anyway, and in a particularly bizarre fashion. 

Suspects include the usual ne'er-do-wells sponging off a rich relative, a Greek doctor and his seemingly abused wife, a live-in companion who may have had secret designs on the inheritance herself, and, best of all, the wonderfully weird Tripp sisters, who believe that they can commune with the spirits of the dead.  (At one point Poirot hints that the Tripps may be suspects, to which they react with giddy excitement and ask, "Are you going to interrogate us, like normal people?")  Poirot gains a canine friend in this one, a terrier named Bob who actually helps him solve the case.

The 4-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 4:3 full screen with Dolby 2.0 sound and English subtitles.  There are no bonus features.

AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: SERIES 6 finds both Suchet's remarkable character and his excellent ITV television series in fine form.  Poirot fans should find these four mystery adventures delightful as usual; for the uninitiated, they should serve as an ideal introduction to Christie's celebrated detective.


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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

LOVELY MOLLY -- DVD review by porfle



"Scary" means different things to different horror fans these days.  For some, a movie is scary if it features lots of graphic gore and excruciating torture scenes that are hard to endure.  For others, "scary" is still about establishing an atmosphere and mood that makes the viewer feel as though they'd just stumbled into a waking nightmare, in which waiting in dread for a door to creak open can be more unsettling than a graphic evisceration.  For me, "The Blair Witch Project" had that quality in spades, and if you liked it too, then chances are LOVELY MOLLY (2011) will give you a serious case of the creeps.

Not surprisingly, Eduardo Sánchez served as director and writer on both films, and while MOLLY isn't your standard "found footage" novelty, it's shot mostly documentary-style and we see much of what goes on through the lens of Molly's camcorder.  This is due to her desire to document some of the apparently supernatural things that have happened to her ever since she and her new husband Tim (Johnny Lewis) moved into the centuries-old house where Molly grew up with her older sister Hannah (Alexandra Holden) and their deranged, abusive father.  And whatever occurred on the night Hannah and Molly's father was found dead seems to be on the verge of replaying itself.

For much of the story we question whether the paranormal events in the house are real or simply a figment of the increasingly disturbed Molly's imagination.  Either way, anyone who's ever spent the night alone in a spooky old house (truck-driver Tim is often gone for days at a time) will identify with what she's feeling when the unexplainable begins to manifest itself in terrifying ways. 


And anyone who's ever watched a loved one go slowly bonkers will know how Tim and Hannah feel as they observe Molly's behavior become more and more irrational, as though she has been possessed by some evil outside force that will eventually make her dangerous to be around. 

It's Molly's descent into madness--or possession--that becomes the scariest aspect of the movie.  In her film debut, Gretchen Lodge's performance in the title role is outstanding and we're never quite sure what Molly's going to do next, even directing her bursts of violence toward Tim in some of the film's most harrowing scenes. 

The hapless Pastor Bobby (Field Blauvelt), who married the two in happier times, fares no better when his attempts to help Molly are turned back on him in perverse ways.  Molly's stalking of an unsuspecting neighbor woman and her children elevates the story's creep factor considerably as well.  So, while we worry for her, we also fear what she herself will do next as something evil seems to be working through her. 


Sánchez knows how to sustain a steady buildup of fear and suspense in a story like this while introducing little elements along the way that keep us off-balance.  It's all done with more subtlety than most current horror films, playing up the ghostly supernatural angle with the intent of evoking goose pimples rather than jump-scare jitters or nausea. 

However, there are a couple of key scenes in which the violence is both shocking and utterly disheartening--almost in an EDEN LAKE sort of way--and, yes, a jump-scare or two that may have you launching your popcorn at the ceiling.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and English subtitles.  Besides a trailer, extras include a commentary track with director Sánchez and co-scripter Jamie Nash and a series of four featurettes which, in the style of "The Curse of the Blair Witch", explore aspects of the film's story as though it had actually occurred.

LOVELY MOLLY is the kind of horror movie during which you'll either be sitting there thinking "When is something scary going to happen?" or shivering in fear at the scary things that are happening.  While certainly no THE EXORCIST, it should be enough to give you a hefty sense of unease--especially if you happen to be watching it alone in a spooky old house at night. 



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Monday, August 13, 2012

DAMON AND PYTHIAS -- DVD review by porfle



I was expecting the usual comic-book-level sword 'n' sandal yarn with DAMON AND PYTHIAS (1962), but this Italian/USA co-production--released by MGM--aims to be a sober, respectable historical tale and in its own relatively modest way manages to hit that mark pretty well.

When the ruler of Athens dies, Pythias (Don Burnett) is sent to Syracuse to fetch his replacement, a missionary named Arcanos (Andrea Bosic) who is there preaching brotherhood and equality while being hunted by the guards of tyrannical emperor Dionysius (Arnoldo Foà).  Pythias falls victim to and then befriends a charismatic street thief, Damon (Guy Williams), who finds inspiration in Pythias' bravery and beliefs. 

When Pythias is captured and condemned to death by Dionysius, Damon offers himself as a substitute so that Pythias may return to Athens to visit his ailing wife Nerissa, with the promise that he will return in two months' time.  Dionysius agrees, confident that Pythias will never return and thus disprove the Greek's liberal philosophies in the eyes of the people when Damon is publicly executed. 


Filmed partly at Cinecitta studios in Rome, DAMON AND PYTHIAS is colorful and eye-pleasing, with attractive sets and some scenic locations along with several impressive and authentic-looking subterranean interiors.  While the sword 'n sandal flicks that this closely resembles seem inherently juvenile, this production succeeds in presenting its story with maturity and restraint but can't avoid also being rather dry and slow-moving.  Only when the substitution deal is made does the plot take a suspenseful turn that puts some spark into it. 

With so much dialogue, it's good that the writing is fairly sharp and most of the cast are able to carry it all off well.  Arnoldo Foà's subtlety and lack of the usual villainous traits make his Dionysius interesting to watch--he even bursts out with delighted laughter at an insult the captive Damon levels at cruel head guard Cariso (Carlo Giustini), and shows fatherly love for his son even while earnestly teaching him the most vile philosophies.

It's fun to see Guy Williams of TV's "Zorro" and "Lost in Space" as one of those cheerful rogues who constantly taunt and elude authority figures while running around doing roguish things.  His evolution into a more thoughtful and responsible person under Pythias' influence is touching.  As Damon's steady gal Adriana, the beautiful Liana Orfei proves as adept at playing a fiesty peasant woman as she is at being the Queen herself, as in HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES a year later. 

Don Burnett makes a rather bland Pythias, especially next to Ilaria Occhini as his emotional wife Nerissa. Her deliciously overwrought performance is a delight, with Occhini becoming wonderfully unhinged during her final scene with Burnett, perhaps the film's dramatic highpoint.  Fans of THE GREAT ESCAPE will recognize Lawrence Montaigne as Damon's flute-playing accomplice in thievery.


German director Curtis Bernhardt, whose other credits include MISS SADIE THOMPSON, THE MERRY WIDOW, and KISSES FOR MY PRESIDENT, gives the entire production a stately veneer but manages a few effective action sequences.  In the film's final moments, Pythias attempts to return to Syracuse only to be headed off by Dionysius' guards, later engaging in a hand-to-hand clash with Cariso himself. 

Best of all is the sequence midway through the film in which Damon, Pythias, and Arcanos flee from a band of guards via horseback and horse-drawn cart, staged thrillingly by Bernhardt with some amazing stuntwork (including, alas, one of those cringeworthy horse-tripping stunts).

The "manufactured on demand" DVD from the Warner Archive Collection is in 16x9 widescreen with Dolby 2.0 sound.  No subtitles or extras.  The print used looks pretty good to me, although as I've said before I'm not nearly as picky about such things as the usual videophile. 

What might've been a much more emotional ending is simply cut short abruptly--there's no follow-through to send DAMON AND PYTHIAS home with a genuine emotional catharsis.  Then again, the film doesn't gush all over us to get its message across, but states it simply and succinctly before bowing out.  I may not have been deeply moved, but I felt pretty good overall about having watched this surprisingly thoughtful and mature film about the true meaning of friendship and brotherly love.



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Friday, August 10, 2012

HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES -- DVD review by porfle



It's been a long time since I was a kid and my local TV station used to show Italian sword-and-sandal flicks on a weekly show called "Saturday Spectacular."  So I'm no expert on the genre but I can tell if an example of it is entertaining or not, and in its own blissfully hokey and cheapjack-"spectacular" way, 1963's HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES is just that. 

This briskly-paced Warner Archive Collection DVD release comes through with the action sequences we expect without too much lollygagging around in between.  It begins with Greek strongman Hercules (Kirk Morris) and his smaller but smarter pal Ulysses (Enzo Cerusico) setting sail from Ithica with their valiant crew to hunt down a sea monster (which, if I'm not mistaken, is actually a live sea cow) that's been killing local fishermen. 

A terrible storm sinks their ship, drowns most of their crew, and leaves them stranded in Judea.  There, Hercules is mistaken for Samson (Richard Lloyd), a fugitive who battles against the oppression of tyrannical Philestine king Seren (Aldo Giuffrè). Seren threatens to kill Hercules' crew unless he brings the real Samson in dead or alive, but after a massive clash the two titans join forces against Seren, leading to an epic battle against his attacking army.


Admirers of bronzed beefcake will enjoy gawking at the sculpted pecs of matinee-idol handsome Hercules and those of the darker Samson, who resembles a cross between Victor Mature and Frank Stallone by way of the Hulk.  When these guys go mano a mano, they make a ruin of the ruins they're fighting in as fake slabs of granite go flying all over the screen.  Between tossing each other through stone walls and wrapping iron pipes around their opponents' necks, they even manage to work in a little Greco-Roman wrestling along the way.  It's a fight the likes of which I haven't witnessed since the Six Million Dollar Man took on Bigfoot.

Watching Samson devastate Seren's army singlehanded is equally exciting, as he rains down spears upon them with both hands to the accompaniment of some extremely goofy sound effects (and several horse-tripping stunts that should have animal lovers squirming in their seats).  Not to be outdone, Hercules whacks both a lion and a bull (at least it looks like a bull to me, though Hercules seems to have no idea what it is) with his bare hands, the latter providing a tasty mystery-meat feast for him and his men. 

But this is nothing compared to the spectacular climax in which Hercules, Samson, and Ulysses literally bring the house down while fighting off an advancing horde of Philestine soldiers who, oddly enough, sport German helmets left over from some World War II movie. 

Since she's dressed in such a stimulating military-chic dominatrix outfit for this final battle, it may be a good time to mention the gorgeous Liana Orfei as Philestine queen Delilah.  Despite the scenic locations and sometimes breathtaking sets (which I assume were left over from a much more expensive film), I found Liana to be the most stunning visual aspect of HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES, as Delilah--she of the prediliction for unsolicited haircuts--uses her seductive wiles against our stalwart heroes. 


Fortunately, Hercules has an equally hot babe (Diletta D'Andrea) waiting for him at home, and Samson's probably knee-deep in groupies when he isn't chucking spears through bad guys, so they manage to remain immune to the delectable Delilah's lacivious lure.  

Morris and Lloyd are adequately photogenic as the heroic hunks, with Enzo Cerusico a curious choice as Ulysses--he's more Bill Bixby than Lou Ferrigno--but this is no doubt meant to emphasize his superior intellect when it comes to figuring out smart stuff like "Push temple over on bad guys!" and "Dive off of burning ship!"  The one familiar face I recognized in the cast was that of Aldo Giuffrè ("Seren"), whom fans of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY will fondly remember as the ill-fated Union officer who fantasized about blowing up that damn bridge.

The "manufactured on demand" DVD from the Warner Archive Collection is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound.  No subtitles.  A cool trailer is the sole extra.  I thought the print used looked very good, but be advised--I'm easily pleased. 

HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES doesn't try to be anything more than a lively, colorful, and unabashedly hokey live-action comic book adventure, and in this it meets expectations quite well.  The down-and-dirty rumble between the two big guys alone is worth the price of admission--even Chuck Norris might be hesitant to get involved once those granite blocks start flying.


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INJUSTICE -- DVD review by porfle



In the suspenseful British mini-series INJUSTICE (2011), now a two-disc DVD from Acorn Media, we get what you might call "Law vs. Order" with a ruthless cop sending 'em up and a crusading barrister getting 'em off. 

The barrister, William Travers (solidly portrayed by James Purefoy of A KNIGHT'S TALE), has a phobia against defending anyone he thinks may actually be guilty.  He's been fooled in the past, resulting in a violent nervous breakdown and a "no more murder cases" rule.  But a former college chum, Martin Newall (Nathaniel Parker), contacts him with an urgent plea: defend him against a charge of murdering his secretary whilst fooling around with her in their hotel room.  Reluctantly, Travers takes the case. 

Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Wenborn (Charlie Creed-Miles), who already hates Travers, is assigned the case of a man shot dead on a secluded farm.  Wenborn discovers that the victim is one of Travers' former clients, and there's physical evidence that may place the lawyer at the murder scene.  Is this Wenborn's chance to take Travers down? 

There are various other plot threads during the five episodes of INJUSTICE, including Travers' do-gooder wife Jane (Dervla Kirwan, BALLYKISSANGEL) working with a young inmate in a boys' detention facility who dreams of being a writer, but it's Purefoy and Creed-Miles who command most of our attention.  Purefoy has developed into quite a skilled actor, and scripter Anthony Horowitz ("Foyle's War") gives us a character we want to believe in despite growing evidence that he himself is a killer out to avenge a past miscarriage of justice. 

On the other side of the coin, Creed-Miles leaves teeth marks on the scenery as the abrasive, unscrupulous cop Wenborn whose boss (David Schofield, FROM HELL, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) allows him to bend the rules as long as he "gets results."  If this were an action flick instead of the low-key, slowburn, methodical thriller that it is, Wenborn would be screeching around corners or leaping from building to building chasing down suspects and then beating confessions out of them. 

As it is, his ever-roiling hostility is taken out on a hapless rookie partner (Obi Abili) and, unforgivably, his long-suffering wife Maggie (Kirsty Bushell).  The character is vile but fascinating, and it's interesting to see Creed-Miles in such a role since the only other thing I know him for is as Ian Holm's timid apprentice priest David in THE FIFTH ELEMENT. 

INJUSTICE follows the two investigations as they manage to intertwine not only with each other but also with Jane's attempt to help young inmate Alan (Joe Cole), whose repellent mother (Amelia Lowdell will make you appreciate your own dear old mum a bit more) is shacked up with an illegal gun dealer who may have supplied the murder weapon in the farm killing.  While Wenborn closes in on Travers, the lawyer tries to sort out his client's story as the circumstances around it get darker and more nefarious, with the fear that Newall may really be guilty hanging over Travers all the while. 

The story is involving enough to keep us hooked for all five episodes, giving us some pretty good twists here and there and offering a couple of relatively odd protagonists whom we're never really sure we should be rooting for or against at any given time.  The cast is fine and the production is slickly done, with some imaginative visuals--an early sweeping crane shot of the farm is gorgeous, while director Colm McCarthy ("Murphy's Law", "Single-Handed") has fun with such things as a car exploding in super-duper slow motion and a generous use of rapid-fire editing in the many flashbacks. 

The 2-disc DVD from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  A brief photo gallery is the sole extra.

INJUSTICE progresses at a literary pace and depth, taking its own sweet time to unfold a story which ultimately proves rewarding for the patient viewer and has a twist ending that's fun even if we see it coming.  With that, the main attraction for me was the performances, with Purefoy, Creed-Miles, Kirwan, and Parker heading an exceptional cast. 


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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

GHOST HUNTERS: SEASON 7: PART 1 -- DVD review by porfle



If you're one of those people who like to make up drinking games at the drop of a cork, here's a good one--watch Image Entertainment's 4-disc DVD set GHOST HUNTERS: SEASON 7: PART 1 and take a swig every time a member of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) says "Wuh-wuh-zat?"  You'll be bombed out of your skull in no time.

Regular viewers will know that this SyFy Channel series follows the supernatural adventures of TAPS founders Jason Hewes and Grant Wilson, who, along with their team of investigators, visit some of the most haunted spots in America and have plenty of opportunities to utter their ubiquitous catchphrase.  Episodes often begin with a dramatization of Jason and Grant going about their day job as plumbers and receiving a call from case manager Ami Bruni, who lays out the facts behind their next exciting exploit.  (It's kind of like "Mission: Impossible" meets Roto-Rooter.) 

Their clients can be employees, tour guides, or other interested parties who work in a haunted building, or they can be homeowners with unwelcome houseguests.  The latter are usually the most compelling, since these people and their families have to live with some pretty scary goings on every day and night, and their stories are the closest the show ever comes to anything like "Poltergeist" or "The Amityville Horror."  (Although nothing even nearly that extreme ever actually happens.)

Besides Jason and Grant, who are a couple of regular, likable guys, the core team consists of case manager Ami, tech guy Steve Gonsalvez (who sets up all the cameras, recording devices, and other equipment), investigator Dave Tango, and trainee Adam Berry, who is pretty much Ami's sidekick for most of the season.  A new canine addition to the team, Maddie, proves valuable due to her innate sensitivity to things that go bump in the night.  After learning the background of each case, the team enter the location in question and it's "lights out", after which they wander around in the dark for several hours inviting any ghosts in the vicinity to interact with them. 

The first episode, "Haunted Town" (mislabled "Alcatraz" on my DVD), gets things off to an interesting start since TAPS' client in this case is the entire town of Alexandria, Louisiana, including the mayor.  Apparently many businesses on their main street are haunted and the citizens of the town want our heroes to get to the bottom of it all.  The climactic "reveal", in which Jason and Grant offer the evidence they've gathered to the client, takes place at an actual town meeting.

"Pennsylvania Asylum" is, as described in the episode, "one of the world's most nefarious madhouses" and the sort of place where you'd expect one of those mockumentary horror movies to be filmed.  Shadowy figures and moaning greet the team within its darkened halls.  "Century of Hauntings" concerns a Massachusetts family in a centuries-old house whose renovations reveal odd things behind the walls and under the floorboards.  After that, we visit the U.S.S. Olympia, whose interior is so cramped that only shoulder-mounted and stationary cameras are used during the investigation.

"French Quarter Phantoms" takes place at the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans, a creepy, crumbling old ruin said to be haunted by the ghost of a man who was hanged there after the Civil War.  "Hotel Haunts Unleashed" is Maddie's debut, as the team visit a hotel near Mt. Rushmore and manage to debunk most of the claims of ghostly encounters there.  (One of the nicest things about "Ghost Hunters" is the extent to which the TAPS team go to try and offer logical explanations for things instead of automatically accepting them as supernatural.)

"Frozen in Fear" takes place on frigid Mackinac Island in Michigan, where a lamp will turn on by itself in the hotel room Jason's sleeping in and disembodied voices are heard.  The most suspenseful part of this one is whether or not Steve, who refuses to fly, will be stranded on the island if the ice around it gets too thick for the ferry to take him back to the mainland. 

"Residual Haunts" concerns an old military fortress in Maine where people are said to sense the "presence of evil."  Then we visit a family in North Carolina who keep seeing Grandpa standing on the porch of his house even though he's dead.  In "A Soldier's Story", the sorta-blah investigation of an old opera house in Connecticut is followed by another North Carolina family living in terror because their house seems to be infested with apparitions. 

"Pearl Harbor Phantoms" finds the team wandering through a couple of huge hangars at the Pacific Aviation Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, where all sorts of cool stuff happens including running footsteps, rooms illuminated by mysterious floating lights (captured on video), voices speaking entire sentences (saying things aircraft mechanics might say such as "Come over and weld this wing!"), and, best of all, spirits seemingly turning flashlights on and off at the prompting of team members (one flashlight also rolls around on its own). 

The episode ends with Steve, who didn't come because he's afraid to fly, urgently calling Jason and Grant to return to Rhode Island to help a family whose four-year-old daughter Hannah is being terrified by apparitions and other domestic frights.  "Urgent!" continues the story with the Pearl Harbor reveal and the investigation of the Rhode Island house, in which Jay and Grant make a discovery about the house's electro-magnetic field which may prove to be a breakthrough in dealing with Hannah's fears.

Maddie the dog returns just in time to get the wits scared out of her in the final episode, "Hill View Manor", about another one of those big old decrepit institutions that just seem to breed otherworldly malevolence.  It's another lively mission in which the flashlight trick is used once again to impressive effect and the team have a wealth of mindboggling personal experiences with the unknown.

The 4-disc DVD set from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital stereo sound.  No subtitles.  Disc four consists entirely of bonus footage and extended scenes. 

Of all the methods used by TAPS on GHOST HUNTERS: SEASON 7: PART 1, the flashlight game is my favorite.  There's simply no other explanation for the phenomenon besides one of two possibilities: either the show is rigged, or the spirits are real.  Skeptics will no doubt choose the first without question.  As for me--having once heard footsteps in an empty room myself (and thinking, "Wuh-wuh-zat?"), I tend toward giving the TAPS gang the benefit of the doubt. 


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Monday, August 6, 2012

AMATEUR PORN STAR KILLER -- movie review by porfle



(NOTE: This review originally appeared online in 2006 and is based on the VHS release.)


After having just watched the Shane Ryan short film collection, BIG BOOBS, BLONDE BABES, BAD BLOOD, I was aware of what a flamboyantly visual director he can be. So when I popped in AMATEUR PORN STAR KILLER (2006), my first feature-length Ryan film, I expected more of the same. Little did I know that, here, he would almost completely eschew any semblance of style in order to create a straightforward cinema verite' experience presented solely through the lens of a video camera in real time.

The video camera belongs to Brandon (Ryan), a serial killer who coaxes young women to strip and have sex with him for the purpose of making "amateur porn films", while his actual intention is to make snuff films. He does this only for his own sick gratification, not to sell them--in fact, we're told in the postscript that he likes to rent movies at various video stores, replace them with his own horrific home movies, and return the tape cases to the store to be rented later on and viewed by unsuspecting patrons.

As the movie opens, we see Brandon getting ready to leave the house to cruise for his next victim. (During much of the film there's also a picture-in-picture view of one of Brandon's earlier on-camera victims, played by the beautiful Jan Gould, who does a striptease and eventually engages in sex with him. We never see him kill her, though, so is this simply for our voyeuristic gratification, or is it a statement about voyeurism? Or both?)

Brandon keeps the camera running all the time, so even when he isn't carrying it, it sits somewhere and records his actions. Thus, we follow him as he gets in his car, drives the dark streets for awhile, and pulls to the curb to lure a young girl named Stacy (Michiko Jimenez) into his car.

They drive to a motel, where for the next hour or so Brandon will coax and cajole the shy, reticent Stacy into eventually removing her clothing a little at a time for the camera. He starts out with friendly small talk, joking about what kind of movie they are going to make ("How about a documentary about you?" he laughs), and gradually begins to introduce the subject of amateur "adult" films.

Except for very few cuts, this is all done in real time, and most if not all of the dialogue is improvised. In an interview that is included with the movie, Michiko Jimenez tells us: "Well, before we started filming, he just told me the storyline, and that's just where I...I don't know, just put myself into character. Just act what he told me, and it just came out natural, I don't know. I didn't have any lines--I just did it right off the top of my head, basically..."

In my review of BIG BOOBS, BLONDE BABES, BAD BLOOD (I hate typing that dumb title), I mentioned how good she was in the short film "The Cold Heat", and here she's amazingly believable. Her "Stacy" sits on the bed nervously responding to Brandon's prodding questions, glancing around, smiling sheepishly, playing with her hair. Although eighteen at the time, she really seems to be the thirteen-year-old girl she's portraying, and, knowing what will eventually happen, we hate Ryan's character for using her with such evil intent.

"And because of 'The Cold Heat', it kinda broke the ice in order to do this."

On and on this goes--AMATEUR PORN STAR KILLER certainly isn't the nail-biting, body-count slasher film suggested by the title--until I was beginning to write it off as a failed experiment on Shane Ryan's part. At around the half-hour point, Stacy hesitantly removes her jeans; much later her top comes off. Not that I wanted her to do this, mind you--I just wanted the poor kid to get the hell out of there--but I was anxious for the story to advance at more than a snail's pace.

Gradually, though, Brandon moves into camera range and begins to fondle her. She obviously doesn't like it, but we see him grinning with a perverse, growing excitement (he looks a bit like Ralph Fiennes in SCHINDLER'S LIST) that is only increased by her trembling unwillingness.

"It was very...it was very realistic, actually. I mean, there were a couple of times when I had to take breaks, you know what I mean, cuz it was so intense."

Finally all pretense disappears and Brandon is having rough sex with Stacy as the camera impassively observes. At one point, there are a few blurry, shadowy shots that make it appear as though Shane Ryan's erect "member" has actually joined the cast of the film. Which made me wonder: am I watching an exploitation flick about a guy who makes amateur porn movies? Or a porn movie with artistic aspirations?

"It's to show how bad porn can get, actually, you know?"

At any rate, Ryan seems to be making a point about voyeurism here, although this is hardly the sort of thing I would watch in order to satisfy that particular impulse. In fact, I almost wanted to take a shower after it was over, especially after seeing what happens at the end.

Without the normal conventions of plot or any traditional cinematic devices (besides an evocative musical score by Daniel A. Scott and Boneshin), AMATEUR PORN STAR KILLER is basically our ticket to a slow, relentless descent into depravity, presented in a disturbingly realistic manner. There's no blood 'n' gore, no graphic violence, no need to consult Tom Savini for technical advice.

What finally happens at the end is no less shocking for its sudden, matter-of-fact inevitability; in fact, after such a slow, sometimes boring build-up, it comes as an emotional payoff. This movie has stayed on my mind off and on since I watched it, but I can't say whether or not I really "liked" it. I've even had a hard time deciding what rating to give it.

But it certainly had a lasting effect on me, which would seem to indicate that Shane Ryan succeeded in what he set out to do here. AMATEUR PORN STAR KILLER is definitely an unforgettable work by a talented filmmaker. I'm just not sure I'll ever feel like seeing it again.

"...but I will, eventually. I will eventually watch it."



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Sunday, August 5, 2012

HOLY FLYING CIRCUS -- DVD review by porfle




And now for something completely different--a (very, very loosely) fact-based "mock-u-drama" about Monty Python but with actors playing them and actual events depicted as a string of vaguely Pythonesque comedy sketches, animations, fantasy sequences, non-sequiturs, and various other bits of silliness.

HOLY FLYING CIRCUS (2011) is the story of the legendary British comedy team's controversial 1979 film "Monty Python's Life of Brian" and the storm of protest that greeted its premiere.  While Christian organizations and religious leaders branded the film blasphemous without having seen it, many communities were bypassing its general audiences rating and stamping it "X."  Not only that, but the Pythons themselves encountered considerable harrassment, possible legal consequences, and even death threats.

What "Life of Brian"'s staunch detractors failed to understand is that the film was, as its Wikipedia entry points out, simply lampooning the New Testament era itself the way its ground-breaking predecessor, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", poked fun at the Arthurian legend.  In no way is Jesus Christ ridiculed or made sport of during the story (Eric Idle would later comment: "He's not particularly funny, what he's saying isn't mockable, it's very decent stuff..."), which focuses on a hapless schlub named Brian (Graham Chapman) who is mistaken for the Messiah as his life runs a parallel but comically skewed course to that of the real thing.

As a Christian, I found the film remarkably unoffensive upon my first-run viewing, with some scenes featuring Christ in the periphery but not as the target of any mockery.  Strangely enough, HOLY FLYING CIRCUS itself is considerably more blasphemous, with a surf-bum Christ (Ben Crispin) arguing with his "Dad" (Stephen Fry) and, in the opening scene, passing an unholy amount of flatulence.  By comparison, "Brian" is exceedingly tame in that area.

Writer Tony Roche was in a decidedly silly mood when he wrote the screenplay for this BBC Four production, basing much of the Pythons' behavior on that of their best-known fictional characters and trying to recapture the atmosphere of their films and TV series.  Little of the genuine Python spirit comes through, however, and almost none of their distinctive visual and directorial style.  While the film boasts some extremely oddball characters (especially BBC Four's talk programming head Alan Dick, as played in the broadest manner by a manic Jason Thorpe) and situations, most of the comedy is of a more generic bent.

What should make HOLY FLYING CIRCUS most interesting to fans is the actors' portrayals of the Pythons themselves.  While I didn't find Thomas Fisher and Phil Nichol to be especially reminiscent of Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam, Steve Punt's Eric Idle comes to life during one of his familiar rants.  Oddly, Rufus Jones doesn't really bring Terry Jones to mind all that much until he's in drag (as Michael Palin's wife), at which time he becomes a delight to watch.

The most eerily accurate performances are those of Charles Edwards as "nice guy" Michael Palin and Darren Boyd as abrasively opinionated John Cleese.  Both have the voices and mannerisms down cold, as well as bearing remarkable resemblances to Palin and Cleese.  One recurring gag is Palin's tendency to lapse into vivid fantasies which result in much of the film's most off-the-wall visuals.  (I was reminded of "Time Bandits" during one or two of them.)  Edwards' Palin, despite his apparently being married to Terry Jones, is the story's island of calm and reason and the only main character to appear in an even halfway serious scene.
 
Boyd, on the other hand, is an exquisitely volatile, high-strung, verbally caustic combination of both Cleese's "Basil Fawlty" and "Argument Clinic" personas, supplying HOLY FLYING CIRCUS with several of its most nostalgia-provoking comedy highlights.  These include a heated dispute with a newspaper vendor (which ends with a Basil Fawlty-style leaping attack with tree branch) and some amusing run-ins with a religious group whose members include a man suffering from extreme Tourette's Syndrome.

The film's climax is a televised debate on BBC Four's "Friday Night, Saturday Morning", moderated by Tim Rice (Tom Price), with Cleese and Palin defending their film against conservative humorist Malcolm Muggeridge (Michael Cochrane) and the Bishop of Southwark (Roy Marsden).  What may have been an uncomfortable experience for Palin and Cleese in real life is depicted here as nothing less than a nightmarish ordeal of frustration and miscommunication as the Pythons' reasoned arguments are met with smug sarcasm and unyielding dismissal.  It's a strange sequence that's actually rather unpleasant to watch until a final cathartic burst of insanity reminiscent of "Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days."

The DVD from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital stereo and English subtitles.  Extras consist of deleted scenes (9 min.), outtakes (19 min.), production stills, and a look at the making of the astoundingly impressive phonotrope which graces the opening titles.  The film is presented in a 2-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack.

While Python fans will definitely want to give HOLY FLYING CIRCUS a peek simply out of curiosity, it may appeal to non-fans as well for its grab-bag style of off-kilter whimsy and occasional brief snatches of historical interest.  I liked it mainly because of Darren Boyd's marvelous portrayal of my favorite Python, John Cleese, and because it made me want to dig out my DVD of "Life of Brian" and watch it again.


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Thursday, August 2, 2012

THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA -- DVD review by porfle




Based on an actual event which occurred in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa in 1942, THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA (2010) is an odd, moody, atmospheric little war saga that takes advantage of its cramped settings to put much of the human drama into pinpoint focus. 

Of course, before we get shut up in that tiny U-boat for most of this two-part BBC film there's the matter of the titular event, which is rather stunning.  The Laconia is a White Star cruise ship pressed into service as a military transport and currently carrying 1,800 Italian POWs, their brutish Polish guards, and a number of civilians.  Dedicated young U-boat captain Werner Hartenstein (Ken Duken) doesn't know about the civilians and POWs, however, and can't resist such a juicy target.  A couple of well-placed torpedoes later, and the grand old tub is on her way down to Davy Jones' locker.

The great Brian Cox (MANHUNTER, X2) appears all-too-briefly as the Laconia's world-weary Captain Sharp, but the main focus is on junior officer Thomas Mortimer (Andrew Buchan), a family man about to receive very bad news from the homefront, and a German woman named Hilda Smith (RUN, LOLA, RUN's Franka Potente) posing as a British citizen so that she and her baby will be granted passage.  The grief-stricken Mortimer seeks solace from Hilda before discovering her secret, then shuns her until she reveals her own personal tragedies as a result of Hitler's Third Reich. 

There's little of the conventional use of exciting music, quick cuts, etc. to build suspense.  Instead, Hartenstein's boat slowly and methodically stalks the ship as director Uwe Jansen depicts it all in low-key, matter-of-fact style.  The sinking itself is realistically chaotic but not theatrically overwrought.  Jansen indulges himself sparingly, as in the breathtaking shot of a filled lifeboat upending on its way down to the water, its hapless passengers tumbling out like rag dolls.  SPFX consist mainly of some pretty well-rendered CGI. 

Upon realizing that there are hundreds of civilians and Italian POWs now struggling to survive in the water, lifelong sailor Hartenstein observes the rules of the sea and begins a rescue mission whereupon the women, Italians, and injured are squeezed aboard the U-156 while the lifeboats containing everyone else are tethered together to the U-boat. 
Thus begins the main dramatic thrust of the film, with Hartenstein's humanitarian instincts outweighing his military duty while his wartime enemies begin to develop a grudging respect and admiration for him and his crew.  Except, that is, for the only German civilian aboard, Hilda Smith, who can't forget that Hartenstein serves not just Germany but Hitler and the Third Reich.

Like THE LONGEST DAY, this film presents German officers realistically rather than as moustache-twirling stereotypes, including a well-cast Thomas Kretschmann (Peter Jackson's KING KONG) as Admiral Dönitz, who is sympathetic to Hartenstein's cause while trying to avert the ire of his superiors.  The crew consist of a bunch of regular guys such as rookie Fiedler (Frederick Lau), suffering a grueling initiation as a new member of the crew, and the boat's affable chief Rostau (Matthias Koeberlin), who gently reminds Hartenstein of his duty to the Fatherland at every turn.

Hartenstein himself is presented essentially as a modern-day saint, all the more so in contrast with the film's withering depiction of many Allied characters including a dithering British officer who chooses to do absolutely nothing in response to U-156's call for a rescue truce, instead passing the problem along to a U.S. Army Air Corps squad secretly stationed in the South Atlantic. 

Since the film needs a bad guy, it falls to--whoops, big surprise--the Americans to fulfill the role as a group of callow young airmen "yee-hah" their way into their bomber and set out to attack the U-boat.  (One of them, no kidding, actually says "Yippee-ki-yay.")  Despite the special conditions inherent in this particular story, I have to admit that it's a bit disconcerting to see British characters in a World War II movie pointing to an American plane and imploring their German captors to "Shoot the f**kers!"

The other big action scene in the second half of the film is one which is obligatory to any U-boat adventure--the full emergency dive that tests the hull capacity of the boat at great depth as valves spring leaks, rivets threaten to pop, dials creep past maximum, and people sweat profusely.  This time it's made all the more difficult by the presence of a couple hundred civilians weighing the vessel down. 

For the most part though, THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA features lots of dialogue shot in extreme close-up, with the characters sometimes barely speaking above a whisper.  Fortunately, these actors can handle such intimacy with the camera.  RUN, LOLA, RUN fans will especially enjoy seeing lovely Franka Potente making the most of such a juicy role.  Another standout is Lindsay Duncan as oversexed British socialite Elisabeth Fullwood, who realizes only too late how much she loves her long-neglected daughter when she's unable to locate her after the ship's sinking. 

The 2-disc DVD (running time 171 minutes) from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby stereo sound and English subtitles.  Disc two's bonus feature is the half-hour documentary "The Sinking of the Laconia: Survivors' Stories." 

After being a ship-sinking disaster tale, a tense U-boat adventure, a political thriller, and an intimate human drama, THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA ultimately winds up as a survival tale as those remaining in the lifeboats make their way across hundreds of miles of empty ocean to the coast of Africa.  Mainly, though, it's a thoughtful and deeply contemplative look at how even the staunchest wartime adversaries can still interact as human beings under the right circumstances, even if some of them happen to be the misguided minions of the big "H."  Still not quite sure if I'm voting "yes" on sainthood for Captain Hartenstein, but he definitely rates a hearty thumbs-up.


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