Sunday, December 29

Some quick thoughts on Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)


Picking up shortly after the events of the first film, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) start anew with their children in the home of Josh's mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hersey). Amidst lingering questions over who, or what, killed Elise (Lin Shayne), it becomes clear the family is still under otherworldly threat. Only an unexplained occurrence buried in Josh's past can save them, as the malevolence targets Josh himself to serve its own dastardly ends.

Back when Insidious was fresh, I wrote this review proclaiming the film a "sign of health in modern horror." Repeat viewings have only strengthened this praise, but its positive qualities simply don't carry over in this ho-hum, but amazingly box office successful follow-up. It's surprising this sequel has an association via director and lead to the vastly superior The Conjuring (2013), review here, released theatrically a short time prior. Although director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell aren't entirely to blame. A potential sea change in this brand of horror could be the cause of this follow-up feeling too overfamiliar.

Despite its intriguing premise, Insidious 2 is too self-indulgent, rolling out vital twists without much more consideration than any of its other beats. Insidious geared itself toward a grand reveal of a parallel spirit dimension and this build toward something so ominous greatly helped smooth over the film's issues with barreling through finer details. There's nothing that mysterious in this sequel which, even if the film was on par with the first, would relegate it to feeling smaller. The biggest reveal, again played out with little sense of importance, just leads to the narrative messily skipping across dimensions and timelines. And not to get too into spoiler territory, but Lin Shayne does make an appearance only for her character's vast knowledge and circumstance to be completely wasted.

The most chilling scene, Barbara Hershey's Lorraine recalling a brush with an apparition while working as a hospital nurse, is also the simplest scare illustrating the "less is more" mantra that made the first film more effective. It's not uncommon for a sequel to branch out, but the story soon bloats, becoming laughable at times, causing any concern for the characters and unsettling atmosphere to become muddled. Insidious did a fantastic job of straddling this line, never quite becoming so far-fetched as make one become very aware they're sitting in front of a horror movie. So in a very "theatrical horror show" sense this sequel succeeds, though you'll probably likely forget about it soon afterward much like other labored ghost flicks in recent years.

One of the best horror films of 2013, The Conjuring, is really to blame for my sour reaction to Insidious 2. By that's film's precise simplification of the poltergeist formula, Wan's effort here feels antiquated in all its bloat. It'll be interesting to see how things shake out between the eventual sequels of both series. If Conjuring 2 keeps up the quality and beats Insidious 3 to the box office, the third coming of "The Bride in Black" might perform significantly less if it continues this over-the-top routine. Of course, this 6.8 IMDB-rated sequel made a shit pot full of money, so what do I know? If you're a fan of the first Insidious, best remain content considering it as a standalone and view The Conjuring as James Wan's logical evolution. Just pray the recent news of three Conjuring spin-offs doesn't mar that series.

Friday, December 27

Second Update on Happinet Japan's Dawn of the Dead Blu-ray Box (w/ screenshots!)



(click for full size, not zoomed or resized)

Thanks goes to my buddy Christian for the quick work with these screenshots comparing all three versions across four Blu-ray editions (US/UK/JP/FR). Tentatively based off these few captures, it looks like Happinet Japan has stepped up and surpassed the previous Theatrical Version Blu-ray offerings (JP marks the first-ever Extended Version Blu-ray). Here's my impressions based off these shots:      
  • Theatrical Cut: Both Anchor Bay US and Arrow Video UK (darker contrast levels) are from the same master, probably originally made for Anchor Bay's 2003 DVD. 
  • Theatrical Cut: Both the US and UK suffer from excessive digital noise reduction (AB more so), automatic scratch correction, and digital artifacts from weak encoding.
  • Theatrical Cut: The Happinet JP doesn't have these problems and exhibits damage (perfectly fine trade-off in my opinion), but is zoomed-in a little on all sides while bumping out the widescreen aspect ratio to 1.78:1. It also might suffer from some blown out contrast, note the intensity of the light above the biting zombie. However; color, overall contrast, tonality, and detail look clearly improved. Finally!
  • Extended Cut (Japanese): Based off the one capture provided, it appears to be virtually identical to the Japanese Theatrical (at least with regards to framing).
  • Argento Cut: Both the French and Japanese sadly appear to be identical with grid-like mosquito noise (not grain). The Japanese is a bit more detailed with the noise level and has better contrast.

Update on Happinet's 35th Anniversary Dawn of the Dead Blu-ray Box from Japan

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EDIT: Just ordered the Theatrical Version Blu-ray from Amazon.jp, so of course I'll do a follow-up with impressions!

Here's an update to this September entry detailing Happinet's plans to release a three Blu-ray set of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) back on December 3rd. That date slipped to the 20th, and I've just started to see images from Japanese collectors getting their copies within the last week. The images below are from catalina.blog.so-net.ne.jp.

Initial reports indicate generally good quality of all three high definition transfers, some are stating the Theatrical Version just looks fair, but I haven't found any screenshots to get a better gauge. The back specs do confirm all three versions being 1080p HD encoded with MPEG-4 AVC with all featuring English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (w/ 96kHz upsampling) and 2.0 tracks. The supplemental material is still skimpy with mostly theatrical trailers/teasers previously available on Anchor Bay's DVDs and Blu-ray.

Although if the image quality of the transfers is great, advertising claims "state of the art" restorations, then this set will certainly be worth picking up. There's certainly room for improvement beyond both the Anchor Bay and Arrow Video UK Blu-rays. Regardless, this set's packaging is fantastic, reminiscent of Bandai Emotion's stunning silver "Perfect Collection" LaserDisc set from 1995 (seen here). The Blu-ray cases also appear to be the thicker, more conventional DVD style not seen stateside. I'll keep abreast of information and screenshots, but I'm waiting before ordering until hearing more definitive word. Check the first link above for Amazon.jp and CDJapan seller links if you're bold enough to order straight away.

Saturday, December 14

Some quick thoughts on Jungle Rats (1988)


Rom Kristoff leads a squad specializing in underground tunnel combat back into Vietnam to rescue several POWs, including jungle action veteran Mike Monty, after the war's official conclusion.

There's something innocent about these cheap Rambo echoes from the late '80s. It's hard to fathom there being a market for these even back when these were fresh. I can only figure the only target audience for this very niche brand of war flick, especially nowadays, is wannabe veterans or those that those that grossly inflate their service simply to impress others that also don't have very discriminating cine tastes. In that respect, these old flicks are like those old guys in that they're usually harmless with their bullshit stories, yet you can never really expect too much from them.

As far as these Philippines-lensed war actioners go, Teddy Page's Jungle Rats is fairly generic. The team assembles, engages in skirmishes with Vietcong, rendezvouses with a female defector, encounters more micro battling, gets a bead on the prisoners, and a finally climatic blow-up ensues. With its story being your standard POW rescue, the many goofy details outside the plot become the reason to keep watching. In the initial capture of the soldiers, flashbangs are indiscriminately fired at scattered American fighters that somehow magically explode exactly about two feet from each of them. We're introduced to the team, all with goofy nicknames (Boom-Boom, Batman, Blackstar), and despite being all decked out to remain hidden in the green inferno, one wears a bright blue baseball cap for reasons beyond comprehension.

There's also an intense scene in which a landmine is defused with its would-be victim still standing on it. Kristoff then stands back and detonates it since naturally loudass explosions aren't a dead giveaway to enemy forces potentially nearby. After finally reaching a few tunnels over an hour into the movie, one of the supposed experts in underground warfare whines about it being so dark. In the concluding battle, apparently short wild sprays of machine gun fire can accurately strike and kill ten-to-fifteen Vietcong soldiers at a time. Just some of the crazy oddball aspects that constantly remind your brain to remain shut off.

(From Nanarland's Phantom Commando review)
There's two last tidbits of note concerning Jungle Rats. Director Teddy Page and writer/co-star Jim Gaines (pictured) had a professional partnership spanning the decade with several jungle brawlers. So curiously Gaines' character nicknamed "Killer", a misfit soldier that constantly goes over the head of his commander, is by far the most fleshed out even trumping Kristoff's one dimensional lead. Yet still, like everything else here, don't expect anything more than a poorly written take on the token stereotypical asshole seen in many other war pictures.

Concerning the soundtrack, much of it is actually Jack Trombey from the De Wolfe collection of library music, even the two Trombey pieces heard in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) are played several times throughout. I thought I was hearing things when same music from Roger struggling with his rifle with zombies nipping at his boots in the truck barricade sequence played over the team's first descent underground. Neither as fun as Bruno Mattei's Strike Commando (1987) or as ridiculously over-the-top as Ignazio Dolce's Commander (The Last American Soldier) (1988), Jungle Rats isn't one to watch as a first experience, but you'll want to track it down once becoming acclimated to these meat n' potatoes 'Nam-fueled actioners.

...do you dare tread upon the staircase?
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