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American Mary (Blu-ray / DVD)

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American Mary (Blu-ray / DVD)Starring Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren, Paula Lindberg, Clay St. Thomas, John Emmet Tracy, Twan Holliday

Directed by Jen and Silvia Soska

Distributed by XLRator Media


After reading loads of positive reviews and eagerly anticipating a new film starring the wonderful and woefully underemployed actress Katharine Isabelle, I was more than a little disappointed to hear fellow Dread Central contributor Brad McHargue call out American Mary for being, well, not-so-great. It is, he pointed out, well shot and features great performances by Isabelle and Tristan Risk, but it is also built upon a mess of a screenplay. Though I don’t always agree with Brad’s opinions, I’ve always respected them, and his “thumbs down” was a bit sobering after reading so many laudatory pieces on it.

Now, after having seen the film, I’m not certain I could say that Mr. McHargue was wrong. The script is indeed a mess. But in this case, this reviewer doesn’t see that as a negative. In fact, the script seems to be more of an affront to traditional three-act storytelling rather than being simply ignorant of it. The script for American Mary seems to eschew convention just as much as the film’s eponymous character and her endearingly bizarre clientele. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

American Mary concerns Mary Mason, a young student struggling to pay her bills as she makes her way through med school. With massive debt looming and her phone about to be shut off, Mary reluctantly considers taking a job as a stripper, going so far as to take her resume to her audition for sleazy club owner Billy (Cupo). When one of Billy’s criminal associates winds up in his bar sporting severe wounds and seeking help, he enlists Mary to tend to the man’s wounds in exchange for silence and a great deal of cash. And, of course, Mary complies.

Not long after, Mary is contacted by Beatress (Risk), a stripper surgically reformed to look like a living Betty Boop, who had overheard Mary’s financial woes and is aware of her surgical prowess and willingness to skirt the law for the right amount of cash. It seems Beatress has a friend interested in having some manner of body modification surgery performed – the type that reputable surgeons might refuse to do. With yet more money tossed her way, Mary agrees to the procedure and eventually finds herself highly in demand by a number of folks interested in all manner of personal image tweaking. But even as Mary’s reputation amongst this underground grows, a violent incident sends Mary spiraling into insanity, even as she becomes ever more efficient and lethal with the scalpel she wields.

With its often gorgeous photography and strong lead performance by Isabelle, along with its offbeat subject matter, American Mary has become one of my favorite genre films I’ve seen thus far this year. Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (the self branded “Twisted Twins”) have crafted an impressive film for their second outing (after their grindhousey debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk), creating a movie with quite the tricky tone – one that dances between darkly comedic and touchingly tragic, with very few missteps along the way.

In addition, the film’s central relationship between Mary and Billy is refreshing in that it’s in no way conventional. The two are obviously attracted to one another, and there is an odd sweetness to each scene they share, but the necessary connection the two need to make seems to be beyond them. I enjoyed how this played out in a subtle fashion, rather than having either character monologuing their innermost thoughts to telegraph each scene’s intention to the audience (as one might expect from a lesser film). Rather, the Soskas allow the briefest of looks or awkward silences to tell keenly interested viewers all they need to know about these people and how they feel about each other. Well done.

In addition, Mary’s madness is deftly handled, with Isabelle playing a woman who’s quite capable of hiding her boiling emotions for the bulk of the film – though once the inevitable cracks in her demeanor begin to show, Isabelle plays Mary as fierce and utterly lethal. Hers is a tragic story, with the film presenting her as both its hero and villain, all at once. We the audience can’t always cheer on her choices, though we can always sympathize because we’ve witnessed what led her down the horrible path she takes. It’s yet another powerhouse of a performance from an actress who really should’ve been an A-lister by now, after her impressive turn in cult hit Ginger Snaps and her brief but memorable role in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (to say nothing of her solid work in loads of indies and TV shows). Hopefully this film will get Ms. Isabelle the proper exposure she needs to climb the ranks in Hollywood. But if not, genre fans will no doubt be more than happy to see her headlining interesting indie pics like Mary.

For as much as I liked the film, though, it isn’t without its faults. The film’s wonky structure allows it to drift a bit at the halfway point, even introducing a detective character who is by and large entirely unnecessary. In addition, a few of the performances aren’t quite up to par with the leads (one otherwise wooden character uses foul language almost as a weapon, but neither the writing nor the performance is ever able to sell this character as a completely believable person). There is also a sequence of violence perpetrated on a character who simply waltzes into the proceedings from out of the blue, providing the film with a shocking burst of violence but little in the way of a setup or fallout. Still, these are nitpicks when judged against the whole.

XLRator Media has done a fine job in bringing Mary to disc. The image is sharp, with inky blacks and beautifully muted colors throughout. The DTS track is great as well, perfectly reproducing the film’s creepy sound design and affecting musical score (good work from composer Peter Allen).

Unfortunately, the bonus features section is a bit lacking. There is a seventeen-minute making-of (featuring some fun behind-the-scenes moments), and an audio commentary with the Soskas, Katharine Isabelle, and Tristan Risk. It’s an interesting if frustrating listen, full of fun and information – though one has to strain to hear Isabelle’s contributions, as she literally phoned in her part of the commentary. Still, it’s worth a listen for those enamored with the film and curious about its making. The theatrical trailer is also included, which is always nice.

Look – this flick will most certainly not be everyone’s cup o’ tea. In fact, you probably already have a good idea as to whether or not you’ll want to check it out. However, with its original script, offbeat tone, and fantastic lead performance, American Mary has claimed a top spot on this reviewer’s own personal Top Ten of 2013.

Can’t wait to see what the Soskas cook up next…

Special Features

  • A Revealing Look at the Making of American Mary
  • Commentary by Directors Jen and Silvia Soska, Katharine Isabelle, and Tristan Risk
  • Theatrical Trailer

    Film:

    4 out of 5

    Special Features:

    2 1/2 out of 5

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    Tribeca 2018: The Dark Review – Atmospheric Zombie Horror Done Different

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    Starring Nadia Alexander, Toby Nichols

    Written by Justin P. Lange

    Directed by Justin P. Lange


    The zombie subgenre often goes through waves where it focuses on one aspect that changes the status quo before overdoing it completely. Romero’s slow shuffling zombies were the norm until we got fast moving zombies with Return of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. There was even a period where we had smarter zombies, like in Fido and Warm Bodies. Now it seems like we’re about to enter an era where the undead are meant to elicit emotion, making us feel for those who have no feelings themselves. Such is the case with Justin P. Lange’s The Dark.

    The film follows Mina (Alexander), a young woman who was murdered and stalks the forest that saw her demise. Anytime some unfortunate soul enters her area, they are quickly dispatched and become her feast. But when she stumbles across a young boy named Alex (Nichols) in the back of a car who shows signs of clear and horrifying abuse, she can’t bring herself to do away with him. Rather, she becomes his protector while trying to protect her own little world. As police and locals search for Alex to help bring him home, their own growing relationship seems to be changing Mina in ways she never thought possible.

    Stylishly shot by cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl (The Eremites, Macondo), The Dark lives and breathes along with the forest in which it spends the majority of its time. The film feels very natural, as though no artificial lighting was used and we are brought into the world in which these characters live. Steel blue washes over the screen as dusk turns into night while light and dark contrast during the day. The only visuals that didn’t play well were Mina’s undead look and Alex’s scarred eyes, which were both distracting but possible to be overlooked.

    Both Alexander and Nichols performed well enough, although the film spent too much time on the first two acts of their story, their combative phase and then the period where they build trust, leaving them scrambling at the end to show that they not only trust but are reliant upon each other. Alex finds trust in Mina after his horrific ordeal while Mina’s choice to protect and guide him sees her humanity slowly coming back.

    Where the film goes awry is that it doesn’t know how to convey its message. We learn that Mina’s death was the result of a sexual assault by her mother’s boyfriend, who can barely look Mina in the eyes, turns violent. Alex’s captor is also a man of violence but that’s mixed with weakness and timidity. This is a theme throughout the movie, where the adults are wicked and/or self-serving and it’s only these teenagers, who certainly have endured a fair share of suffering, can be seen as worthy of empathy and understanding.

    Also present and enough to stay in the back of my mind while watching The Dark were the strange and inconsistent ways it handled time. We learn that Mina’s death was several years, possibly more than a decade, prior to where we see her now. But when presented with an iPhone, she first doesn’t know that it has a history of previously made calls and then, without anyone explaining it, she knows exactly how to use it. Meanwhile, Alex’s scars on his eyes, which the movie hints were done by his kidnapper, suggest that he’s been held captive for months if not longer but the the opening of the movie suggests that it’s been a few weeks, at most. While not overly distracting, these are certainly issues that pop out.

    These faults aside, The Dark is still effective and emotionally charged. With enough kills to satisfy the bloodthirsty, it will certainly have an audience who love films about the undead but are craving something with a different taste.

    • The Dark
    3.0

    Summary

    Poignant and original, The Dark is not without its flaws. But it sure does know that horror doesn’t have to be solely of the flesh. It can just as easily be horror of the heart.

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    Sinfonia Erotica Blu-ray Review – Jess Franco Meets The Marquis De Sade In This Romanticized Roughie

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    Starring Lina Romay, Armando Borges, Aida Gouveia, Mel Rodrigo

    Directed by Jesus Franco

    Distributed by Severin Films


    After going my whole life without ever seeing a Jess Franco film, Severin Films is slowly forcing me to appreciate the man’s work. Previously, I had only ever seen Franco’s gargantuan output as an exercise in quantity over quality, which it arguably still is, but viewing the two recent “lost” pictures Severin just released has brought about a new appraisal. Franco’s films may have been done on the cheap, but the man clearly had vision, ambition, and brought as much production value to his films as budgetarily possible. He also brought controversy and damnation, since many of his works seem heavily focused on nudity and all manner of depravity. Even by today’s standard, when you can see virtually anything sexual on the internet, Franco’s level of lasciviousness is mildly shocking, if only because certain acts are typically verboten on the silver screen.

    Sinfonia Erotica (1980) plays like it was trying to keep up with Tinto Brass’ Caligula (1979), only swap out Roman decadence for the posh trappings of a chateau in the French countryside. Franco remakes his own 1973 film Pleasure for Three here, though without having seen that picture I can’t say what he’s done differently. The storyline comes from the writings of the Marquis de Sade, whose writings were infamously erotic and dripping with all manner of sin. Franco brings as much of the page to screen as possible, leaving little to suggestion. Homosexuality, a “Devil’s threeway”, oral sex between all parties, rape, manual stimulation… all graphically presented in a way that is between Skinemax and actual pornography. But is there anything more to this threadbare feature than a storyline skeleton on which everyone can hang their clothes before getting down?

    Kinda. The general plot here is the return of Miss Martine (Lina Romay) to the palatial estate she shared with her husband, Marques Armando de Bressac (Armando Borges), a notorious hedonist. Upon arrival, Martine is not greeted by her husband because he’s off gallivanting with Flor (Mel Rodrigo), his younger male lover. During one of their trysts in the fields they come across Wanda (Aida Gouveia), an unconscious nun who is about to be rudely introduced to some bad habits. After Marques and Flor molest the barely coherent woman, she develops a craving for their brand of unorthodox lust. Martine, meanwhile, is struggling not only with the fact her husband is essentially ignoring her after returning from a lengthy absence but that he now plans to enlist Flor and Wanda to help kill her. Of course, none of these machinations or revelations will stop any of these pleasure seekers from continuing to drown in the Devil’s work and writhe in passion.

    While I can’t say this is a good movie, I do give Franco credit in a few areas. For one, I find it commendable that he’s chosen to redo an earlier film of his in the hope of making something grander. It shows maturity as an artist as well as a refusal to allow a perceived past failure to remain stagnant. Secondly, his location scouting ability is really something because one constant I have noticed across the three Franco films I’ve seen thus far is the man loves to shoot at places that seem like they’d be out of his budget range. The mansion and its impressive grounds are the ideal setting for this posh perversion picture, allowing Sinfonia Erotica to feel less like the Eurosleaze it is. Likewise, costuming and production design are a notch above what viewers might expect from such a ribald title.

    In terms of horror, aside from watching two men rape an incoherent nun the only murder comes during the climax. The deaths are quick and simple, with no lingering shots or impressive effects work. Violence is wholly secondary to sex here.

    The real coup here is that Severin Films is able to present this film in HD at all, sourcing their release from a newly unearthed 35mm exhibition print found in a crawlspace in Spain. Although scanned in a 4K the disc opens with a disclaimer discussing the provenance of available materials and suggesting viewers cut a little slack when watching something that might not have otherwise seen the light of day. That said the 1.66:1 1080p image isn’t awful by any means. Soft shots are frequent, film grain is often heavy and sometimes clumpy, and colors are lacking punch. Still, given what Severin was working with the picture does look reasonably cleaned up, though white flecks and damage are still visible, and the overall image is acceptably presented. Plus, like I’ve said many times before some films just look better when they stay rough around the edges and this is definitely one such example.

    No dub is available, leaving the only audio option as a Spanish DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. This is a simple track with minimal sound design. Dialogue is understandable enough, though for most viewers this won’t matter since the subs are doing all the work. There is some hissing but it remains a minor issue. The score, composed by Franco, has a classical romantic feel, heavy on the piano and adding an air of regality to the proceedings. Subtitles are available in English.

    “Jess Franco on First Wife Nicole Guettard” is an interview with the director in his later years (the year isn’t stated) discussing his working and personal relationship with the woman he divorced in the late ‘70s.

    “Stephen Thrower on Sinfonia Erotica” is a typically informative featurette wherein Thrower discusses the period in Franco’s career during which he made this film, as well as covering various edits and title changes.

    Special Features:

    • Jess Franco On First Wife Nicole Guettard – Interview With Director Jess Franco
    • Stephen Thrower On Sinfonia Erotica – Interview With The Author Of ‘Murderous Passions – The Delirious Cinema Of Jesus Franco’
    • Sinfonia Erotica
    • Special Features
    1.8

    Summary

    This is probably the sort of film that appeals to only the most fervent of Francophiles out there but the work Severin Films has done to bring it home is commendable and the results, while far from earthshaking, are impressive given the difficulty level. As for the film, it’s an interesting exercise in debauchery and not much more.

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    Warhammer: Vermintide 2 Review – Rat Exterminator Simulator 2018

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    Vermintide 2Developed and Published by Fatshark

    Available on PC through Steam (Coming to Xbox One and PS4)

    Rated M for Mature


    On the scale of cathartic guilt-free wanton slaughter, rat-men belong up there with zombies, Nazis, and cops in a Rockstar game. No matter how many limbs fly off, skulls get crushed in, and whispered wishes to see their families one last time before the cold embrace of death whisks them away, you’re pretty much free to do whatever without any of the self-conscious pangs that usually come along with murder. If Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide taught us anything, it’s that this unrestrained dealing of death is made all the more enjoyable when the victims are slightly adorable, in a gross ratty way. Now Warhammer: Vermintide 2 is here to deliver on more of the same, but with Chaos. Nurgle Chaos in fact, who are kind of like zombies and Nazis. So now that the gang’s all here, time to feel good about some ultraviolence.

    For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Vermintide tells the story of the heroic Ubersreik Five (…or Four, whatever). An ensemble of fantasy tropes, you’ve got the racist snarky elf, the cheerful and outgoing dwarf, the shrill and sneering Witch Hunter, the maniacal and bloodthirsty Bright Wizard, and Markus Kruber. The team is brought together by plot for the purpose of rat slaying, and together with three of your friends you’ll murder your way to saving the world (but not really, because canonically speaking the whole world is fucked anyways). The series is an FPS in the vein of Left 4 Dead, but with a much heavier focus on melee combat. You’ll also have to unlock new gear like in Call of Duty, but unlike Call of Duty the class you play and loadout you pick actually matters.

    Vermintide 2

    Mama shoulda taught you not to bring a bow to a Rat Ogre fight.

    Once you pick your favorite fantasy trope and prefered loadout, Vermintide 2 drops you into your selected level to complete a series of challenges and hopefully score some fat loot. In terms of simple playability, the maps are all as diverse as they are entertaining. The objectives are varied (sometimes you’ll be hunting for keys, sometimes surviving waves of foes, etc.), but always the same in that particular level. The level design is certainly geared more towards being a “game” than a living breathing world, and that’s fine. Games should be games, and if putting a random fence or broken bridge here or there to direct me towards my objective helps me slaughter rats I’m all for it. The overall effect is that the more you learn the level, the easier time you’ll have overcoming the endless hordes.

    Now if this all sounds a lot like Left 4 Dead… well it is very similar. The major difference is the aforementioned focus on melee combat. While Left 4 Dead 2 used melee as an optional replacement for your sidearm, melee is the bread and butter for most characters in Vermintide 2. In service of that, the melee combat system is far more robust. You’ll have to learn to alternate between heavy and light attacks, block, dodge, and even what body parts to hit. On top of that, weapons have certain properties like armor piercing and high stagger. Even more on top of that, certain attacks have different applications of those properties. If you have a halberd, you’ll have to learn the difference between your sweeping attacks and your piercing jab attacks. The elf and Bright Wizard are more ranged focused, but the basic principles of knowing what your attacks do and which moves pierce armor still apply.

    Vermintide 2

    Oh shiiiiiii-

    This is all just the basic overview of what Vermintide 2 is, but that’s basically all you need to know to have a good time. The game gets far more complex, but there’s a very primal satisfaction to be had in chopping your way through hordes of rats. In terms of just jumping in and having fun, the game is incredibly accessible. Anyone can understand the concept of pushing the attack button to remove heads from shoulders. Delving into the game’s complexity beyond that is really up to you.

    Vermintide 2

    I have come to grasp the fundamentals of the flail/rat face relationship

    If you do delve into it, you’ll find a hidden layer of challenge and reward that sets Vermintide 2 far above the competition. First off are the hidden tomes and grimoires. In every level there are three tomes and two grimoires hidden somewhere. These spots can be incredibly difficult to suss out, requiring excessive collectible hunting motivation to find them on your own. This can be a bit of a challenge when there’s an endless horde of rats nipping at your heels. In reality, you’ll probably just Google the locations and memorize them before the start of each map. Just knowing where they are isn’t all there is to it. Some are quite difficult to reach even if you know where they are, hidden behind jumping puzzles that are a bitch and a half. If you do pick them up, they will make your journey even harder. Tomes replace your potion slot—meaning that you cannot take a potion with you, not that you cannot ever heal again—and grimoires reduce your entire team’s max HP by 33% each. Collecting these prizes means more loot, but make sure your team knows their shit before you try one of these difficult challenge runs.

    Now this is all stuff that was also in Vermintide. More of the same can be good when it’s well done, and Vermintide 2 is certainly well done. What makes Vermintide 2 a cut above the original is the new leveling system. Each character now levels individually, unlocking new traits and classes. There are 30 levels of traits to unlock, and two extra “careers” for each of the five characters. Each character levels individually, but loot boxes can be carried over between characters to make the grind a little easier. Still, it’s a hell of a lot of grind.

    As a veteran of vanilla WoW, grind isn’t a dirty word to me. What matters is that the grind is leading towards something worth the time and effort. For Vermintide 2, that largely comes in the form of the different careers. More than just a visual change, careers can radically alter how your character plays. I’ve put the most time into Markus “Vanilla Ice Cream on a Waffle Cone” Kruber, as I like melee bruisers and I’ll be damned if I play a dwarf. Upon reaching level 7, I unlocked the Huntsman class and the character switched into a ranged damage role with strong melee backup. Reach level 14, and you’ll become a Man at Arms, an even tankier melee dude with a dash attack. Each career has its own skill tree, and certain weapons that only it can use.

    Vermintide 2

    So while I won’t see many people grinding all five of the crew to level 30, there is a lot of value to your repeated runs. The permanent progression that the leveling offers is a great way to add reward on top of the gear drops. The downside to this is that it’s far more difficult to hop between classes. While gear was certainly a factor in your success in Vermintide, you could still pretty easily jump into a character you only had a few pieces of gear for and do reasonably well. As your strength is now determined by your level, it’s not so simple in Vermintide 2.

    This is a good segway into my biggest overall criticism with the game: playing with random scrubs is unbearable. If I had the choice between sleeping in an Arizona bar dumpster during the summer and trudging through all of the levels with random people, then I’d be using garbage bags as a pillow. Between having to know the locations of the tomes/grimoires and knowing how to actually be good at the game, finding a proficient four man team comprised of random people is like watching the last white rhino get hit by a shooting star. Even in my three man team, we’d quickly write off the fourth random player as more of a liability. The AI is decent enough at shooting stuff, but won’t pick up any of the collectible goodies without some inconsistent trickery. So you can either waste your time in subpar games, or get a solid group without other life commitments. And given the amount of grind that’s in this game, finding that consistently is the four-leaf clover wreath left on the rhino’s grave.

    Vermintide 2

    Pictured: Most of my teammates, before asking why I didn’t back them up.

    It’s a pretty major gripe in terms of my own personal enjoyment, but even in my most frothing moments of scrub-induced rage I couldn’t exactly fault the game for just being what it is. And what it is is excellent. A huge cut above other cooperate shooters, the edition of new chaos units and the leveling system makes Vermintide 2 replace Left 4 Dead as the industry standard. Cleaving hordes of skittering rats has never been so fun, and definitely shouldn’t be missed.

    Here is where the review should end, but wait, there’s more! You can’t talk about Vermintide without mentioning the exceptional developer support. The original game was still cranking out patches, updates, and DLC years after its release. With Vermintide 2, Fatshark has already been on top of releasing a slew of balance changes, updates, fixes, and more. It’s only been a month since release (yes I know, this review is late), and they are on their third major quality of life improvement patch. As a game it was already excellent, but that kind of community interaction and developer support truly makes the game exceptional. It’s a game you should definitely buy, and a company you should be happy to support.

    • Game
    4.5

    Summary

    Ridiculously fun combat and near infinite replayability combine to form the perfect rat-smashing package. The best co-op shooter on the market. The only downside is that there isn’t a really good way to play without a solid team. Get your friends together and waste away the weeks.

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