Saturday, 29 June 2013

AMERICAN MARY (BLU-RAY & DVD) Review By Greg Klymkiw - COUNTDOWN TO CANADA DAY 2013 - One of the best Canadian horror films of all time! Now available on Blu-Ray/DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada

L'Avare de cinéma et les étranges
soeurs jumelles du cinéma d'horreur
vous accueillent dans leur lieu de perdition
qui est remplie de plaisirs insondables.

American Mary (2012) ****
Dir. Jennifer Soska and Sylvia Soska
Starring: Katharine Isabelle

Blu-Ray/DVD Review
By Greg Klymkiw

The time has come for all serious fans and aficionadi of truly magnificent horror to rejoice in whatever manner they choose. They might wish to hoist a glass of the best bubbly or partake in Holy Communion in their favourite Catholic Church or dance naked in the moonlight, covered in the blood of a virgin sacrifice. There is, finally, no celebratory activity too grand for this genuinely momentous occasion.

American Mary has arrived for private home consumption via Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada on two formats - Blu-Ray and DVD - and whichever is your poison, you'll be guaranteed a lifetime of joy. Unlike using the far inferior streaming or download formats such as Netflix, iTunes, etc. there is NOTHING - and I goddamn well mean this - NOTHING like owning the product itself in a form that will allow the very best picture quality. Add the packaging and added features to the mix and there's no substitute for home entertainment of the highest order - especially the kind you can put your mitts, handle with admiration, place lovingly on display in an IKEA Billy Bookcase and, in general, just plain fetishize.

And let it be said, that American Mary IS entertainment of the highest order! I've (insanely) seen this movie six (count 'em - 1,2,3,4,5...6!!!) times. I've let it unspool before me twice in motion picture theatres (once in the majestic Bloor Hot Docs Cinema during the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and then again at the AMC Yonge and Dundas Cinema during a Cineplex Entertainment Front Row Centre event presented by Sinister Cinema and Anchor Bay), twice more on a DVD screening copy and yet two more times on the new Anchor Bay Blu-Ray (NOT counting my one screening of the film with the commentary track).

My first helping of the film was a mind-blower. They say you never forget your "first time". THEY are correct. However, like any "first time" activity worth its weight in gold, American Mary gets better and better. This is no mere "entertainment" (though entertaining it most certainly is), but it's without question one of the best Canadian Horror Films of all time (and the land of the Beaver and the Maple Leaf has been a leader in this department for decades, so to proclaim the film as such is no backhanded compliment). Moreover, and I'll go out on a limb here, but I'm more convinced than ever that American Mary is one of the best horror films of all time - period! That it's Canadian is the mere cherry on the ice cream sundae for those of us who live above the 49th parallel.

I've written extensively about the film, so I'll include a cut-and-paste to my most recent review below (AND, you can read my scintillating interview with its brilliant directors in the next issue of the immortal Joe Kane's "Phantom of the Movies VIDEOSCOPE"), but I want to use today's column to briefly discuss what's on the Blu-Ray/DVD, but also, what I hope can eventually be included on any future releases of the film. Since the Soska Twins are destined for greatness and more movies, I suspect that eventually there will be a Special Limited Edition to end all Special Limited Editions. (Well, at least through MY rose-coloured lenses.)

First of all, for those of you who've inexplicably not made the move to Blu-Ray, I'm happy to report that the picture looks just fine on DVD - especially when it's up-rezzed to an HD monitor with a DVD player that allows up-rezzing. If you already own a Blu-Ray player and an HD monitor, the DVD looks especially amazing, but I'd really have to wonder WHY you'd buy a DVD disc when Blu-Ray is available. You're either a bear of very little brain and/or little faith. No matter. DVD is a more than acceptable format and for my money, it still beats streaming and downloading - maybe not by much, but it beats it all the same.

HOWEVER, the Blu-Ray edition of American Mary is completely and utterly orgasmic. This is ultimately the best way to see the movie at home - bar none. The Soska Twins have a great imagination, but even better (and most importantly for the best filmmakers), they have a phenomenal eye (well, actually, make that, uh... FOUR eyes).

Working with an astounding team of artists, all aspects of the cinematography and other visual accoutrements (including, but not limited to production design, costumes and F/X) are, on Blu-Ray, simply astounding. Wherever the film was mastered digitally, I am thrilled to report that the colourist and whomever he/she worked with from the creative team indelibly captured the visual richness of this great film (sometimes overt, more often intelligent and subtle). The sound also kicks major ass. The location sound in addition to the post-production sound design, cutting and mixing is rich and varied and as such, translates magnificently to Blu-Ray.

The added features will definitely please fans of the film and the Soska Twins.

The primary value of the "making of" bonus is giving us a few excellent snapshots of how the Soskas work collaboratively with what clearly appears to be a crack crew. Thankfully, it never comes off like some slick, bullshit glorified electronic presskit. Christ, I hate those things. They're so goddamned phoney-baloney. I can't imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to watch them on a Blu-Ray/DVD. Even worse is that they're actually made and used so heavily by media outlets in the first place which, frankly, is merely another example of how lazy, unimaginative and dumbed-down broadcasters (and sadly, most other mainstream media) have become when covering cinema.

It's a nice feature, but I do think the title used for this segment, "The Making of American Mary" is, well... a tad unimaginative. It gives the impression that you WILL be watching some horseshit glorified EPK instead of what you DO get. The piece feels like it has a bit of an arc to it and as such, might have benefited at the concept and cutting level with a more defined title (and hence approach, or in egghead terms: thesis) - something like: American Mary: The Collaborative Process - which is, essentially what this added feature offers in an almost purely direct cinema fashion.

Secondly, the Blu-Ray/DVD includes the de rigueur commentary track and again, it's going to please fans of the film immensely. Jen and Sylv Soska lead the discussion as the movie unspools with added comments from the brilliant actresses Tristan Risk and Katharine Isabelle. There's a bevy of tidbits thrown our way about the making of the film that bounce almost seamlessly from screen specific to in-depth to anecdotal. All four ladies seem comfortable together and it has the feel of old friends/collaborators getting together for a few drinks to sit in front of the movie and reminisce about it.

However, Isabelle appears to be on a speaker phone. I have no problem with this, but some twisted post-modernist excuse for this could have been offered up. When I couldn't be present for the recording of a commentary track for one of the Guy Maddin movies I produced, I used a crappy little cassette recorder, made a whole bunch of comments timed to scene specific moments, sent the tape to Guy, whereupon he brought his crappy portable cassette player to the official recording and announced I was present via trans-Atlantic cable. Given that American Mary is cult film of the highest order, a similarly perverse approach might have been nice to please a handful of mega-geeks.

At the end of the day, there's not a darn thing wrong with either of these added bonii, but I have to say that this is the perfect film to describe my own frustration over the use of extra features. I think doing more than what's been done for this initial home entertainment release of the Soskas' film would indeed be a bit much, however, I keep seeing terrific films like American Mary that, at some later juncture deserve so much more.

For example, I can imagine a point when one could add three additional commentaries to a limited edition. Firstly, a very focused and MODERATED commentary with the Soskas discussing screen specific elements as they relate to both narrative and theme (and especially the feminist aspects of the picture). Secondly, a semi-eggheaded commentary from a film critic - not unlike those one finds on Criterion releases - would give viewers a "reading" on the film from the perspective of someone who watches movies in ways most viewers never do. It not only gives fans cool shit to mull over, but in its own way can contribute to a higher level of cinema appreciation and literacy - a movie like American Mary is not only deserving of such regard, but frankly, so are its fans. Thirdly, a focused and (again) MODERATED commentary with the Director of Photography, Production Designer and someone from the F/X team dealing specifically with the look of the film and how it relates specifically to story, character and theme would be an absolute-must for any American Mary added feature. Interestingly and in fairness to what already exists, this latter point is dealt with in both the "making of" and the current commentary, but the problem for me, is that I want more. The movie is so rich and layered in terms of its visuals that a solid, detailed discussion of them in a scene-specific setting would give fans, geeks and eggheads a veritable buffet.

As for added visual materials beyond the commentaries, I think specific mini-documentaries with detailed interviews would be the way to go here. They'd have to be conducted by someone who knew what they were doing and had a passion for both this film and cinema in general. The number of interesting topics to cover with American Mary feels almost infinite (which, by the way, is kind of my own yardstick for whether or not a movie will attain masterpiece status). The bottom line for such materials is that they actually have to be produced and directed by genuine filmmakers. Very few people in the world can do this properly, but they're out there and it has been done on a variety of great added bonus features - mostly via Criterion, but for a longtime on selected Universal and Warner Brothers DVD releases.

In any event, this current release of American Mary on Blu-Ray/DVD is a phenomenal must-own item. It's such a great picture that its fans will never feel ripped-off with the eventual availability of special limited additions (often referred to a double or multiple dipping). Besides, like I said earlier, it's too early in the lives of most films to create such materials - they're always better and more valuable when enough time has passed to let the film age like a fine wine.

And American Mary is nothing if not a fine wine - blood red, of course.
"American Mary" is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD via Anchor Bay Entertainment Limited. Below, you'll find a cut-and-paste of an earlier review of the film itself if you haven't read it yet.
American Mary (2012) ****
dir. Soska Twins: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska
Starring: Katharine Isabelle, Tristan Risk, Antonio Cupo, David Lovgren

Review By Greg Klymkiw
(Note - Rewrite/Revision of an earlier piece)

The scalpel enters a full, fleshy breast and delicately, almost sensually circles the areola's entirety whilst blood oozes out, the surgeon's fingers gently tracing her handiwork.

Both nipples are eventually removed.

The next procedure involves surgically removing all physical receptors of pubic ecstasy and stitching shut the vagina of the aforementioned nipple-bereft body, save, of course, for the smallest allowable opening for the expulsion of urine.

The surgeon is spent, stunned, but satisfied - secure in the knowledge that her first stab (so to speak) at body modification is a success. The client eventually expresses sheer joy over her all-new sexually adhedonic state; how perfectly she's been able to fulfil her own personal essence of womanhood via the excision of those physical extremities which alternately offer enticement and pleasure. Whatever you say, babe. In the words of Marlo Thomas: "Free to be you and me."

Can movies possibly get any better than this?


Well actually, I guess Psycho, Citizen Kane, Birth of a Nation, Bicycle Thieves and Nights of Cabiria might be slightly better,  but it doesn't change the fact that American Mary is a dazzlingly audacious sophomore effort from the Vancouver-based twisted twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska (who made a promising debut with their micro-budgeted 2009 effort Dead Hooker in a Trunk).

Videodrome, David Cronenberg's perversely creepy semi-precursor to the Soskas's new masterpiece-to-be, features the famous sentiment uttered by the Moses Znaimer-like character Max Renn (James Woods) that he must "leave the old flesh" in favour of the future. He intones ever-so scarily: "Long live the New Flesh!" Gotta love Cronenberg when he made some of the best horror movies on the planet, but we've got to call a spade a spade - he hasn't made a horror picture since Dead Ringers in 1988 and his recent output (Spider, A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis) has been downright dreadful. There's a new marshall in town and the reigning royalty of Canadian Horror is not one, but TWO Soska sisters.

Leave the old flesh.

Long live the New Flesh!

With American Mary, the Twisted Twins are perched delightfully on (at least for some, if not many) shaky moral ground (and/or crack), but happily, they maintain the courage of their convictions and do not tread lightly upon it. There are no half-measures here to even attempt making the picture palatable to the gatekeepers of political correctness (those purported knot-headed pseudo-lefty Great Pretenders who reside just to the right of Mussolini, Stevie Harper or Mitt Romney - take your pick). I'd even vigorously argue that non-fascist PC-types (as opposed to the truly fascist PC-types who make most thinking people sick to their stomachs) will, in fact, find the picture more than palatable.

The rest of us (we're cooler and smarter than YOU!) will get it, groove on it and celebrate its excellence.

This movie is some mighty nasty stuff - replete with elements of slashing satire that hack away and eventually tear open "normally" accepted versions of right and wrong whilst grasping the exposed nerve endings of morality, holding them taught and playing the jangling buggers like violin strings. The picture will provoke, anger, disgust and scandalize a multitude of audiences, though chances are good that the most offended will be those "smugly fucklings" (phrase courtesy of the late, great CanLit genius Scott Symons), the aforementioned fascist PC-type poseurs who claim to be outside the mainstream, but have their noses deeper up the rectal canals of fascists than the bloody Tea Party.

Strange as this might seem, the picture comes from a place deep in the heart, so deep that the twins don't bother ripping the pulsating muscle out, but rather, invoke the spirit that lies dormant within to deliver a surprising level of humanity to the proceedings. As far as the picture's carnage takes us we're allowed, in more than one instance to even be moved by the plight of some of the characters.

The screenplay, written by the Soska twins, is - on its surface only - a rape-revenge fantasy, but it goes so much further than that. It's a vital examination of subcultures representing people disenfranchised from the aforementioned accepted standards of human existence. In a world increasingly aspiring to the living death of homogeneity (this includes those who purport to be untouched by homogeneity), the characters will never fit any mould that represents "normalcy", no matter how hard they try.

Within the world of the film, those who refuse to conform (not because it's "cool" to do so, but because they simply cannot conform) seek avenues that will fulfil their basic needs as human beings, no matter how strange or repellent a majority finds them.

The tale told involves Mary (Katharine Isabelle), a med student struggling under the crushing weight of ever-mounting debt and the constant psychological abuse from her mentor Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), the chief professor of surgery - a field of practice she longs to serve in. In desperation, Mary scours the "adult services" want ads and is drawn to one with keen interest. Under the cloak of night she arrives at a nondescript warehouse in an industrial park that emits the thumping bass of dance music, a neon sign promising sensual delights and a burly doorman who immediately allows her entrance - as he clearly does to any babe seeking admittance.

Mary meets with the charmingly sleazy proprietor Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) who scoffs a bit when she hands him her resume. The only pre-requisites to work in his club are a good overall "package" (which he discovers after telling her to strip to her undies and show-off her gorgeous body), an ability to deliver a fine massage (as she ably proves with her nimble surgeon's fingers) and a willingness to suck him off with skill and abandon (which, she sadly never gets to do). The job interview is interrupted with news that all is not well in another part of the club. Knowing Mary is a med student specializing in surgery, Billy asks her to join him.

In a dank, dungeon-like room within the club's bowels, Mary's eyes widen at a gruesome sight - nothing to phase a surgeon, but the context would be, at least initially, pretty bizarre to anyone - even her. Whatever goes on in this room, has gone seriously awry and as luck would have it, Mary is just what the, shall we say, doctor, has ordered.

For a wad of pure, hard, cold cash - the likes of which she's never held in her hands, Mary agrees to perform some illicit surgical magic which will not only make a wrong right, but provide a much needed service beyond simple lifesaving. The subject, twitching and bleeding on the filthy table, will most definitely require saving, but the painful manner in which he will be saved will provide him with added ecstasy.

Soon Mary is in demand amongst the body modification subculture who troll about the same underbelly as those who work and patronize the club (in addition to the genuine underground activities involving extreme masochistic indulgence - no healthy, mutually consenting BDSM here - this is a place where people go to be maimed, hurt and tortured).

The other subculture portrayed is that of the surgeons themselves. The Soskas create a creepy old boys club where the power of slicing into live human beings has engendered a world of ritual abuse. In the worlds of body modification and masochistic gymnatics, the subjects are ASKING for it. Not so within the perverse world of the surgeons. They use psychological abuse to break down their victims, then administer kindness and fellowship to lure them, then once their quarry is in their clutches, they use deception of the most cowardly, heinous variety to fulfil their desire to inflict sexual domination.

The body modifiers and masochists are pussycats compared to the surgeons who are portrayed as little more than pure exploiters. Their air of respectability as healers and academia is the weapon they use to commit violence and perpetrate subjugation.

Someone's gonna pay. Bigtime.

So, I'm sure you've already gathered that American Mary is not (Thank Christ!) Forrest Gump. We're bathing in the cinematic blood spilled into the tub that is this movie by the insanely imaginative Soska Twins - clearly the spawn of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Elizabeth Bathory with, perhaps, some errant seed from Alfred Hitchcock or William Friedkin.

One of the extraordinary things about American Mary is that it dives headlong into a number of subcultures, which, even if they've been completely and utterly pulled out of the Soska Sisters' respective Autoroutes de Hershey, they feel like genuinely real worlds. The locations, production design, art direction, set dressing and costume design for the various interior and exterior settings look lived in and completely appropriate to the scenes in which they appear.

Even the curse of most lower-budgeted Canadian films - that notorious lack-of-dollars underpopulation - is not especially egregious as some Canuck pictures since many of the settings demand it, while others are appropriately framed (most of the time) to mask it. As well, the Soska Sisters generally have a good eye for composing shots that provide maximum dramatic impact and the lighting and cutting is always appropriate to the dramatic action rather than calling attention to itself.

The performances are generally first rate and the background performers always look 100% right for the scenes. The fine acting, coupled with a script packed with dialogue that's always in keeping with both character and milieu rather than going out of its way to be overtly clever, also contributes to the overall sense that we're wandering through very real, albeit completely, utterly insane worlds. This is also not to say the film is bereft of stylish visual touches, but they're again used for dramatic effect rather than the annoying curse so many younger filmmakers suffer when they abandon narrative (or even dream) logic to say, "Look Ma, I can use a dolly." And believe me, when a shot and/or cut NEEDS to knock the wind out of us, it happens with considerable aplomb.

What sells the film is the world the Soska Sisters create. It's seldom obvious and more often than not we believe it - or at least want to. In many ways, the film is similar to the great early work of Walter Hill (pretty much anything from The Warriors to Streets of Fire) wherein he created worlds that probably could ONLY exist on film, but within the context of the respective pictures, seldom felt less than "real". (That said, Hill was ALWAYS showy, but he knew how to make it intrinsic to the dramatic action.) This makes a lot of sense, since it always feels like the Soska Twins are making movies wherein those worlds that exist realistically on-screen, but furthermore evoke a feeling that the film has been wrought in a much different (and probably better) age than ours.

Dead Hooker in a Trunk and especially American Mary, seem to exist on a parallel plane to those halcyon days of 70s/80s edginess reflected in the Amos Poe New York "No Wave" - not to mention other counter culture types who straddled the underground and the mainstream - filmmakers like Scorsese, Rafelson, Waters, Jarmusch, et al who exploded well beyond the Jim Hoberman-coined "No Wave". Their work even approaches a bit of the 80s cult sensibilities of Repo Man, Liquid Sky or even such generational crossover titles as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) and the deranged work of more contemporary directors like Eli Roth, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino - all of whom "steal", to varying degrees, from earlier periods of film history, but use the work of previous Masters as a springboard to make the pictures all their own. (By the way, I'm not necessarily suggesting American Mary is culled from any of the aforementioned but rather, that the Soska Twins are clearly working in the same sort of exciting territory. It's especially dazzling when it's within a burgeoning stage of their development as film artists.)

The character of Mary, though, seems like she was born on the set of a 70s James Toback movie like Fingers or the Toback-penned Karel Reizs masterpiece The Gambler or yes, even Don Siegel's magnificent work of cold-cocking art Dirty Harry and though the decade was replete with male heroes of the anti-hero variety, the world just wasn't quite ready for a female heroine to embody the steely resolve of Harvey Keitel, James Caan and Clint Eastwood in the respective pictures. So somehow, Mary was transported in some kind of time machine into the minds of the Soska Twins (at the point of their conception) and spewed herself upon the pages of their script and into the body of Katharine Isabelle.

Well thank Christ for open portals in the time/space continuum - we now have a genuine horror hero who embodies all the anti-hero qualities of a 70s character and is 110% ALL WOMAN!!!

Katharine Isabelle as Dr. Mary has come long and far from her groundbreaking performance in the classic John Fawcett-Karen Walton werewolf picture Ginger Snaps. Here she delivers a courageous performance on a par with her turn as the cursed teen werewolf back in 2000. It's 12 years later and Isabelle has blossomed into a tremendously engaging screen personality. The camera might actually love her even more now that she's gained considerable physical maturity (and the Soska Twins have definitely used their four great eyes to work with their cinematographer Brian Pearson's additional two eyes to add to Isabelle's stunning, real-woman looks). This great actress's 12 years of toil in mainly television has given her a myriad of roles and experience, but in American Mary, her brave, deadpan (and often very funny) delivery blended with moments where the character is clearly repressing anything resembling emotion is the kind of thesping that demands more roles as terrific as this one. Please, get this woman out of Television Hell and put her on the big screen where she belongs.

The film also has a cornucopia of terrific supporting performances. Antonio Cupo as the sort-of male love interest is both sleazy and endearing (a pretty amazing double whammy). David Lovgren is suitably creepy and reptilian. Paula Lindberg as the nipple-extracted bombshell who also gets her vagina sewn shut and Tristan Risk (easily the best supporting work I saw from any actress in any movie in 2012) as the body modified dancer who promotes Mary's talents far and wide, both transcend the expert makeup effects to bring their respective characters' spirits beyond the almost freakish intensity of their body modifications.

And finally, no review of American Mary would be complete without a special nod to Nelson Wong who wins the alltime accolade for the scariest, creepiest, sickest, funniest rendering of a surgeon you hope NEVER to meet - even in your dreams.

American Mary is a true original. The Soska Twins have generated an utterly buoyant, crazed, thrilling and gob-smackingly brilliant motion picture experience. I expect - NO! I DEMAND! - one kick-ass devil-may-care rollercoaster ride through hell after another from the Soska Twins.

I'm waiting with baited breath. In the meantime, I'll be watching American Mary over and over and over again. I can't get enough of it.

"American Mary" is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD via Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada and Anchor Bay Entertainment Limited.