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Archive for April, 2012

The Killer Nun: Blu Ray Review

Friday, April 27th, 2012

The Killer Nun (1979)

by Troy Howarth

D: Giulio Berruti; S: Giulio Berruti and Alberto Rarallo; MP: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, Joe Dallessandro, Lou Castel, Massimo Serato, Alida Valli

Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) tries to hide her deteriorating mental state before eventually spiralling into madness and murder…

The ‘nunsploitation’ subgenre found much favor in heavily Catholic countries, notably Italy and Spain, during the 1970s.  Inspired, no doubt, by the world wide success (and infamy) of Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils (1971), these films sought to explore fetishistic fantasies of what must ‘really’ be going on behind those convent walls.  None of the films came close to replicating the impact or quality of Russell’s altogether different picture (which can only be lumped in with these films by default), but a few managed to generate a legitimate frisson or two.  This cannot be said of The Killer Nun, which somehow found itslef on the UK’s much trumpeted ‘video nasty’ list, despite a general paucity of sleaze and gore.

Anita Ekberg tops an eclectic cast, and she’s most certainly a long ways from her early career pinacle, dancing in the Trevi Fountain with Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1959).  By this stage in the game, Ekberg had graduated to full ‘cougar’ status, specializing in older sex pot roles which merely sough to capitolize on her image as a sex kitten.  Ekberg still proves capable of commanding an audience, but the role requires far more of her than she is capable of giving.  An actress with some real dramatic chops might have made Sister Gertrude into a fully realized psychological case study; in Ekberg’s hands, however, it comes off as shrill and melodramatic at best.  The actress teases the audience with some near nude views, but for the most part, hysteria is the name of the game – and she approaches this with gusto, if not much in the way of conviction.  Paola Morra (Behind Convent Walls) provides the film’s quota of naked flesh, and she certainly is impressive to behold.  Like Ekberg, however, the role requires more of the actress than she is able to deliver.  Morra goes for broke when required to ratchet up the sex appeal, but her portrayal of the (not so) closet lesbian protege of Ekberg is one note in the extreme.  Joe Dallessandro (Blood for Dracula), never the most accomplished of thespians, is required to emote and keep his clothes on – and if his films for Paul Morrissey proved one thing, it’s that he had ample screen presence, but was best when used as something of a hunky prop.  This is especially abundant here, with the actor badly miscast as a compassionate doctor who comes across as neither compassionate nor especially knowledgable.  Accomplished veterans like Massimo Serato (Don’t Look Now) and Alida Valli (Lisa and the Devil) are on hand to lend some class, but they are given precious little to do.

Director Giulio Berruti had earlier had a hand in writing such cult items as Baba Yaga (1972) and They Have Changed Their Faces (1971), but The Killer Nun would remain the second of only two titles he would direct.  His handling of the material is by no means disastrous, but he fails to really energize the proceedings.  The pacing is slow, there’s some pseudo-pretentious attempts at bargain basement artisness to distinguish it from the ‘typical’ exploitation film, and apart from one memorably meanspirited sequence (the killer sadistically killing off a victim after torturing her with pins) there’s no real shock value.  The ‘twist’ ending is especially feeble, being fairly easy to predict early on.

On the upside, Alessandro Alessandroni contributes a decent soundtrack and the production values are above average.  The cinematography by Antonio Maccoppi is professionally realized, and if the film lacks much in the way of atmosphere, at least it comes off as polished.  The Killer Nun is by no means the worst of its subgenre, but it doesn’t offer up the juicy sensationalism that makes some of its less distinguished progeny so much fun to watch; and at the end of the day, a sense of fun is precisely what this picture is lacking.

Video:

Blue Underground continues to unleash some of their less exciting catalogue titles to blu ray, but at least the upgrade in video quality is noticable.  The Killer Nun looks far more detailed and vivid than it did on DVD, though it does suffer from some of the strange ‘grain’ issues typical of some of their other Italian BD releases, including The Stendhal Syndrome and Django.  The print is in very good shape overall, though a handful of shots flutter noticably, and colors appear to be accurately rendered.  The film is fully uncut and the image is sharp and nicely detailed.  The grain issue is most noticable during the darker scenes; since much of the film unfolds in brighter lighting, however, this isn’t too much of a distraction.

Audio:

Audio options include the English and Italian dubs, both in dts-HD mono.  The English track is wooden as hell, and none of the actors provide their own voices – not even Dallessandro.  The Italian dub is a bit better, and it does appear to at least retain Valli’s distinctive voice, but in the end it’s basically a matter of personal preference.  Both tracks are in good shape, with obvious source-and-age-related limitations.  English subs are included for the Italian track, as are English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Extras:
Extras include a trailer, a poster and still gallery and a featurette interview with writer/director Berruti.  Berruti looks back on the film with fondness, though he seems to be rather bitter on the way the film was received and how his subsequent career panned out.

Overall:

A mediocre nunsploitation item gets a decent upgrade from BU.

Film: ** out of *****

Video: *** out of *****

Audio: *** out of *****

Extras: *** out of *****

The Little Death (2010) DVD review

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

The Little Death (2010) DVD
Stars: Christie Vozniak, Clifton Guterman, Courtney Patterson, Daniel May
Director: Bret Wood
Released by Kino Lorber

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

It takes a certain combination of elements to drive a low budget independent film. On the one hand the production has to be easily manageable and cheap. In this case the whole film takes place in one location within just a few rooms. There is a minimum of actors and while the film is a period piece many of the costumes look like they have been lifted from a production of A Christmas Carol. There are no special effects and just two scenes of action. Much of the film is presented in stage bound sequences of two people talking together. On the other hand this has some very classy source material with a script based on Anton Chekhov’s short story “Nervous Breakdown” and a stage play, “Death and Devil” written by Frank Wedekind (Spring Awakening). Add to this a director with a decidedly unique appetite for tales of sexual adventure and deviance and you’ve got something that if given the chance will hold your attention and challenge your morality.

Set at the turn of the century, three well-dressed Victorian looking young men enter a brothel in search of an evening of fun and debauchery. Only one of them, played by Clifton Guterman is very timid about the whole thing, even afraid. While he deflects the efforts of two of the house’s charming ladies an upper class woman makes her way in. Courtney Patterson as Eleanor Malchus is all prime and proper, brimming with pumped up confidence. She is a temperance styled rescuer of young women who have been stolen and pressed into the evil world of White Slavery. She knows all about it and has even written a book detailing the ways in which the deviant and devious men who run these brothels operate to lure these young girls. She is there to rescue the daughter of a woman who works for her well to do family. Daniel May as the owner and manager listens patiently to her concerns. He points out that she has no first hand knowledge of what goes on there. What at first seems like a sly put down of her ignorance and presumptions is later revealed to be a slow and expert seduction. Meanwhile our timid young man is now in the hands of another woman who is indeed the very target of Miss Patterson’s search.

Director Brett Wood cuts back and forth between the twosomes. They each experience a sense of discovery that awakens deep feelings within them. It’s marvelously written. The spell that is cast is intoxicating. While the acting is not top drawer one can’t help but feeling drawn in deeper and deeper to the spider’s web. The whole thing is steeped in that Edwardian politeness and courtesy that hides a deep repression of feelings. This is very much a tale of sexual restraint and release. While this movie is nowhere near the caliber of Karel Reisz’s The Gambler with James Caan, there is something similar going on. At the end of Reisz’s film James Caan undergoes a bizarre rite of passage that brings a very unusual satisfaction. He is driven by a strange compulsion that Dostoyesky’s novel revels in. The Little Death also appears to have its intentions rooted in that odd mix of forbidden taboos and pleasures.

Granted the film behaves like a stage play and is abetted by some low rent technical support.The acting on the whole is not that good but Courtney Patterson does a nice job of conveying her change from uncomfortable hesitation to that slow surrender very nicely. There are moments when Daniel May gets it just right, too. Given the right mood it’s easy to get very captivated by this turn of the century tale. It felt like a satisfying night at the local theater, though we’ll make a note to keep an eye on just what kind of projects this director comes up with next.

Video –
1.78:1 16×9. The technical credits are just not very strong here. The brightly lit conversations are shot in a static frame with not much else going on. When shadows or anything too dark are present they appear too much of a challenge for the equipment used and render all kinds of aberrations. However this is all clear and totally watch-able. Today’s inexpensive cameras that do not require costly film stock and lab work make this kind of production possible. However this story is just the kind of tale that would have been enhanced immeasurably by good camerawork and that nice grainy look that even 16mm would have given.

Audio –
Stereo mix in English.

Extras –
Deleted scenes, Behind-the-scenes documentary, trailer and a short film “The Other Half” by the same director. Make sure you check out the short. Just like the feature the technical stuff is low rent but it delivers an arrestingly strange plot.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:

DVD – Fair/Good

Movie – Good

Strip Nude For Your Killer: Blu Ray Review

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975)

by Troy Howarth

D: Andrea Bianchi; S: Andrea Bianchi and Massimo Felisatti; MP: Edwige Fenech, Nino Castelnuovo, Femi Benussi, Solvi Stubing, Amanda, Franco Diogene

Models at a chic fashion salon find themselves targeted by a mysterious murderer in black…

The above synopsis could just as well apply to Mario Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace (1964), but director/co-writer Andrea Bianchi’s tackier intentions are evident from the opening, blue tinted (how appropriate!) prologue.  While directors like Bava and Dario Argento used the genre’s conventions to explore aesthetic and thematic obsessions, Bianchi’s eye is firmly on box office receipts as he ups the ante with a deliriously over the top melange of sex, sleaze and violence.  The end result isn’t quite the most excessive of gialli – the notorious Giallo a Venezia (1979) may well take the prize in that category, though Lucio Fulci’s underrated The New York Ripper (1982) may well trump it – but it is among the most absurd.

Giallo scream queen Edwige Fenech (Five Dolls for an August Moon, All the Colors of the Dark) toplines the cast, but she isn’t utilized very well – at least from an acting standpoint.  Bianchi makes ample use of Fenech’s physical attributes, lingering on leering shots of her in various stages of undress, but the script doesn’t give her a chance to show what a good actress she can really be.  Nino Castelnuovo (Massacre Time) is on hand to play the smug hero, but the character remains just that – smug.  Castelnuovo is a capable actor in his own right, but he seems to have understood the trashy nature of the material and coasts by on his natural charisma.  The supporting cast includes doe-eyed Femi Benussi (Hatchet for the Honeymoon), who also gets to display copious amounts of skin.  The biggest impression, however, is left by corpulent Franco Diogene – and not necessarily for the best of reasons.  Diogene does a credible job playing a pathetic sex starved victim, but genre enthusiasts are more likely to shudder in rememberance of his demise – wearing a none-too-flattering pair of tighty-whities.

Bianchi’s direction is hamfisted as ever, relying heavily on zooms to punctuate important plot points.  The film drags along at a sluggish pace, and for all the sleaze and gore on display, it’s surprisingly boring, too.  The police procedural scenes dog many a giallo, but they’re positively lethal here.  Given that Bianchi never displays the eye for macabre poetry typical in the films of Bava, Argento and Fulci, the various murder scenes are merely ugly.  Even so, the blood flows pretty liberally, and the sexualized nature of the violence makes the picture something of a dry run for the aforementioned New York Ripper. 

On the upside, at least there’s ample nudity from the gorgeous startlets, and Berto Pisano contributes a catchy theme or two to the soundtrack.  These elements alone are enough to elevate the film above the very worst the subgenre has to offer.  Not surprisingly, many fans have warmed to the film, embracing it as a bit of a kitsch classic; most viewers, however, will likely be far less forgiving.  In any event, giallo enthusists will still want to give the film a spin.

Video:

Blue Underground’s new Blu Ray release of Strip Nude For Your Killer is a winner.  The 1.85/16×9 transfer looks very nice on the whole.  The image is a little soft, leading one to assume that there’s been a little over zealous DNR applied, but this is not a major distraction.  Colors are vivid, the print is in very good shape, and the film is fully uncut, retaining all the full frontal nude scenes.

Audio:

Audio options are presented in English and Italian, both in dts-HD mono.  The Italian dub is the more satisfying, though arguably the ropey English dubbing suits the film’s wonky tone even better.  English subs are included for the Italian track, as are English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.  Both tracks are in pretty good shape, showing off Pisano’s groovy score to its advantage.

Extras:

The main extra is a 12 minute featurette featuring interviews with actress Solvi Stubing and co-writer Massimo Felisatti.  Felisatti is dismissive of the film and refers to director Bianchi as a ‘masochist’ who derived unhealthy pleasure from the film’s unsavory aspects, while Stubing seems somewhat more proud of the end result.  An international trailer, Italian trailer and poster and still gallery round out the package.

Overall:

A lower tier giallo gets a fine release from Blue Underground.

Film: ** out of *****

Blu Ray: ***1/2 out of *****

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol Blu-Ray, DVD Review

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol Blu-Ray, DVD

Stars: Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg
Director: Brad Bird
Released by Paramount

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This is one film that delivers on the promise of a great action film with no reservations at all. Cruise is first seen in a prison cell and he looks like a man. Still handsome but he has aged and it suits him very well indeed. His character Ethan Hunt has been away so when he accepts his mission he is met with a new team that features an IT geek who has been promoted into the field. Simon Peg is masterful in the comic relief support role. You know his mettle will be tested when the chips are down. He brings just the right level of humor and humanness to the part. He does not play it too broadly at all. He’s really perfected this kind of thing since his days on The Enterprise in the re-booting of the Star Trek franchise. Jeremy Renner plays the member with emotional baggage that has to come clean in order to be effective. The only one that falls just a bit shy of the mark is Paula Patton.

There were times when the pace, gadgetry and international settings brought to mind the globe trotting headiness of a good old  James Bond film. There is a sequence that feels right out of the old television series. A meeting between two couriers has to be stopped. Rather then just intercept each player and hijack the goods, Ethan Hunt’s team goes delightfully old school with rubber masks, re-designing hotel rooms on the fly and impersonating not only the hotel waiter but the couriers themselves to each other. There is a trade of diamonds for information and said jewels need to be swiped and smuggled out of one room and delivered literally into the hands of another agent at just the precise moment without a nanosecond to spare. The bit is giddy fun for fans of the original series.

J.J. Abrams has a producer’s hand here and it is evident as he brings in Anil Kapoor who is recognizable form the last season of 24 to play yet another target for the team, a rich sheik who must be charmed by Paula Patton. Producer Abrams’ (24) influence can be felt in the breakneck pace of the film, which really does cruise along even at 135 minutes (forgive the pun). Director Brad Bird is know for his work with animated features like The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouile. From the looks of the film, he’s ready for some more real live actors. He makes what could be yet another overstuffed dull big budgeted over the top action picture an enjoyable blast. The whole film has a nice sense of fun and that childlike thrill of rushing from one ride to the next at a Sunny Summer’s day at the Amusement park.


The fights scenes are well done and you can follow every move clearly. No hyper kinetic slice n’ dice cutting here. All of the action scenes rely on their execution, stunt work and construction. There is digital work done here to be sure but nothing that gets in the way of the action. With the over-reliance on fast, close cutting in most of today’s action films that choice, and the old school framing, is very much appreciated and frankly works so much better.

All formidable action movies have a set piece that stands out. This one has an amazing sequence with Tom Cruise climbing outside of a hotel window and scaling up and over several floors of sheer glass wall using these Spiderman like gloves that allow him to stick to the surface. It’s shot and edited extremely well producing several gasp for air moments as you are certain Cruise is taking the long way down. There are two other films with stunts that take place outside the slippery slope of a modern glass-sided building. In Sharky’s Machine (1978) a record was set at 220 feet for the highest free fall taken as legendary stuntman Dar Robinson plunged out from a window in Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. In Who Am I (1998) Jackie Chan slid down the accented glass face of a hotel in Rotterdam, Holland all the way to the ground. Ghost Protocol can proudly join the ranks of these exhilarating and exciting films that see a glass sided building and think…you know what would be really cool? And then they do it.

The plot points can be as easily forgotten as one of Hitchcock’s McGuffins. Bad guys are up to no good and the team has to stop them from getting X and Y  so they can blow stuff up. However the characters that make up the team work well together bustling the narrative forward with urgency and some comic relief courtesy of Simon Pegg. There is a bit of back-story given to Jeremy Renner’s character that introduces just a dash of gravitas and guilt. That shading works well and serves to keep you guessing as to the motivations of the members of the team. It’s not a terribly Machiavellian twist and you’ll see it coming, but again it’s a nice texture.

Video
2.35:1, 1080p. The Blu-Ray offers a slick and rewarding viewing experience. Excellent detail is readily apparent. The rich colors compliment the various exotic locations, especially in the wide establishing shots, some of which are done from high up in the sky. This is just what you’d expect from a topflight modern Hollywood production. It doesn’t disappoint at all. Though the Blu-Brother is the clear winner here, the DVD presentation more than holds is own. The screen caps are from the DVD.

Audio
The film sounds fine. Dialogue is supported with a generous amount of bass to give it that movie theater quality. Effects are good, though nothing jumps out as extraordinary. The 7.1 DTS mix (BR only) is presented in English, 5.1 in French and Spanish and Portuguese. Subtitles choices are English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Extras
There is an entire disc full of extras that comes with the Blu-ray. Mission Accepted, Impossible Mission, Deleted Scenes, and Trailers. Too many? Generally one needs a little more critical distance from a film to justify such depth, although this is very enjoyable chest thumping. The regular DVD edition does not come with the second disc of extras.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent