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Old 07-14-2004, 05:11 AM
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Default Uncle Sam




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: July 13, 2004

Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: 2/24/2004
MSRP: $19.95
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes



With anti-American sentiment still resonating in people’s minds after the Iraq crisis, who better than to restore the faith in the flag than good ol’ Uncle Sam? Originally released in 1997 as a commentary on George Bush Sr.’s antics in the Gulf War in the early 90s, Uncle Sam takes on new meaning today in light of George W. Bush’s recent invasions in Iraq. Elite Entertainment previously put out a special edition DVD back in 1999, but director William Lustig (Maniac, Relentless) figured he’d give the film another chance on his own Blue Underground label. How does Uncle Sam hold up in today’s war ridden climate? Enlist and find out.

The Story

inline Image The film begins in Kuwait, where a graveled and grisly soldier (William Smith) leads his troops to the ruins of an aircraft shot down accidentally in friendly fire. As the gang look through dog tags they find out that Sam Harper (David Fralick) isn’t quite dead…and he is more than a little angry. After killing his own troops, Sam plays dead to hitch a free ride back to his homeland, where his wife (Anne Tremko) and nephew (Christopher Ogden) mourn his death. Little Jody Baker misses his “Uncle Sam” (clever) and wishes for his return.

inline Image Before Sam rises again from the grave, we are introduced to a number of characters who exploit or ignore the American dream. Draft dodgers, tax cheaters, flag burners, peeping toms and corrupt politicians all drive Sam out of his grave to instill this little Norman Rockwell-esque town with some good old fashioned conservative values. The date is conveniently July 4th, and Harper fits right in with his Uncle Sam mask and getup. Lurking around the independence day festivities, he seeks to punish all those desecrating American values…even if it means death.

inline Image It is up to the baaadaassssssss Jed Crowley (Isaac Hayes) to return his former wartime accomplice back to the grave, and to teach Jody that hey, sometimes war isn’t the best alternative. Draped in the red, white and blue, Sam won’t go down without a fight.

inline Image Uncle Sam was penned by the adept, if erratic, Larry Cohen (It’s Alive!, Phone Booth) and offers up a promising premise. A cautionary tale of when American values are contorted to dangerous extremes, it is amusing to see Cohen pick apart the flaws of the American system in Uncle Sam. Sam’s right wing extremism and perverted logic can be seen as a warning against corrupted motives running the American system. “It was all about oil,” one of the characters states in the film, and Cohen is more right today than he was back in 1997 when he penned the Uncle Sam script. It is an interesting and timely concept, and Cohen delivers up a good script to support his ideas.

inline Image Where the film falters however, is in Lustig’s direction. Although he infuses the film with a good bit of style, with some stylish angles, slow motion and exaggerated shadows (like the coffin cam and ceiling fan shadow shots) he largely fails when it comes to pacing and generating suspense. After a strong beginning, the film spends too much time developing insubstantial characters before Sam continues his killing streak. The Uncle remains dormant for far too long, and when he finally does rise from the grave, far too little screen time is devoted to him or his kills. Some of the deaths are very inventive, like the flagstaff hanging, but the problem is that Lustig seems to be content merely with the death itself, rather than the establishment of tension or suspense. Several deaths, like that of the draft dodger or the tax evader (arguably the two most interesting characters) are completely ignored, offering only a quick aftermath shot to confirm their deaths. Considering how well executed the infamous chase scene in Maniac is, where Joe Spinnell stalks and follows a nurse through the New York streets, there should be no excuse for Lustig’s lackluster pacing.

inline Image What made Maniac one of the genre’s most effective slasher films was Lustig’s ability to commit and develop the film’s bleak and depressing tone. In Uncle Sam he seems to direct with an indifference to the material, not sure of whether to make the film a social satire or a straight up slasher film. Sam starts off uttering one liners in a Freddy Krueger-like fashion, (“Don’t be afraid…it’s only friendly fire!”) but then by the film’s end becomes a silent murderer. The film also inconsistently jumps from over-the-top deaths to heartfelt dramatic monologues, like Timothy Bottom’s speech on Vietnam or Isaac Hayes’ many mumblings on the war. It is as if Lustig could not decide how to treat the picture, and the result is a mismatch of conflicting genres.

inline Image While the film may be terribly uneven and poorly paced, Lustig manages to bring in a hearty cast of character actors. It is a who’s who of 70s acting icons, from P.J. Soles to Robert Forster to Isaac Hayes. The veteran actors, even if in mostly small parts, manage to elevate their scenes above the mediocrity of Lustig’s direction. The best moment in the film comes from Timothy Bottoms in his aforementioned monologue about draft dodging and the Vietnam War. His performance is so sincere, and he tries to educate his hostile young class about instances when war is not the answer. Bottoms’ words on the war seem to come right from the heart, which is fitting, since his star making role was in 1971’s Vietnam parable Johnny Got His Gun. Bottoms’ performance is a brief, but memorable performance among many forgotten talents. Seeing all these unique talents assembled throughout the film is the main attraction in an otherwise middling picture.

inline Image It is a shame Uncle Sam did not amount to a better film, since all the ingredients were there: an intriguing idea, talent in front and behind the camera, and some good make-up effects. The final shot of the film, of the frame shattering and falling downward, is an homage to the final shot in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. Although done to commemorate Fulci’s recent death, the shot is more than fitting in indicating the type of film Lustig has made. The final shot in City is one of the worst moments of Fulci’s career; a botched ending in an otherwise interesting picture. Uncle Sam was similarly botched; a film of interesting ideas hindered by lackluster execution.

Image Quality

Previously released in non-anamorphic by Elite, Uncle Sam now benefits from a sharp 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer by Blue Underground. Some of the darker scenes suffer from a slight grain, but otherwise this transfer is clear and precise. While colors may not jump off the screen, saturation is fine. The transfer does seem a bit too bright, with some of the day scenes, like some of the interiors in Sam’s house, looking overly white. Overall though, it is a noticeable step up from the previous DVD release, and should please fans.

Sound

The two included tracks, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 seem to be the same ported over from the previous release. The 5.1 track is very strong, with plenty of activity in the rears and some solid bass. The potato sack race is particularly effective, as is the scene with the spinning fire flag. For a low budget production like this, this surround track is extremely solid.

Supplemental Material

inline Image Lustig & Co. have peppered this release with a number of additional extras. First up are two audio commentaries. The first is the commentary with Lustig and Isaac Hayes, which was recorded for the original Elite DVD. Isaac is one cool dude, but he is basically reduced to just stating the obvious, which becomes tiresome. The next commentary is better, as Lustig returns along with Larry Cohen and producer George G. Baunstein for an newly recorded commentary. The three are a very tight bunch, and together share some good laughs. Cohen wears a little thin with his repetitive jokes (“that’s me in the coffin!”) and constant over analyzing. But Cohen also provides plenty of funny anecdotes, and offers some good insight into the story and production. Bill Lustig is always a pleasure to listen to, as he is always exuding a good natured love for the movies. He is not afraid to note what he did wrong in his film, and his humbled presentation is a nice change for audio commentaries. Both are good listens, but the new one is clearly the better one.

The next major supplement is a “Fire Stunts” featurette, which contains behind-the-scenes stunts footage with narration by stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos. There were a few elaborate fire effects, and Razatos gives a deep look into the stunt process with several interesting facts and observations. There was considerable controversy on set when a large explosion ended up blowing out the windows of several people’s homes in the shooting area, and the featurette uses this for good drama. It is rare that stunts are covered on DVD, and this is a unique little window into the filmmaking process.

Rounding off the disc is a hilarious theatrical trailer that is arguably better than the film (“Just when you thought it was safe to stand up and salute the flag…Uncle Sam is back!”). A fairly brief poster and still gallery is included, with shots from the poster and video releases, as well as promotional photographs. An easter egg hinted at in the Cohen commentary can also be found for those who seek it.

Final Thoughts

Uncle Sam is an interesting critique of war and American values marred by an inconsistent tone and slow pacing. Even with some solid cameos by B-movie veterans, the film is mediocre at best. As far as the disc goes however, there is little to complain about. A solid anamorphic picture, an active surround track, and a handful of quality supplements all make for a strong DVD. If Uncle Sam is a 4th of July favorite, then this is the perfect release for you. For all others, Deathdream, Blue Underground’s other anti-war zombie flick, will more than satisfy the post-mortem bug.

Rating

Movie – C
Image Quality – A-
Sound – A-
Supplements – B

Technical Info.
  • Running Time - 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Color
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1
  • English Dolby Digital Surround 2.0
Supplements
  • Commentary with director Bill Lustig and actor Isaac Hayes
  • Commentary with Lustig, writer Larry Cohen and producer George G. Baunstein
  • “Fire Stunts” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Poster & still galleries
  • Easter egg

 

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Old 07-14-2004, 05:26 AM
This movie was okay, but I highly doubt I would get the DVD. Sounds like a good one though, Lustig sure did a great job on his own film.

Great review, Rhett... and I like the screenshots. I had no idea it was filmed 2.35:1, I always thought it would have been fullscreen since it was direct to video.
 
 
Old 07-14-2004, 03:49 PM
Victim
Sounds like my original impressions of this movie were correct when I first saw it in Fango way back in 1996 or so.

I think they shouldn't have tried to make it serious at all really with that title and premise.
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Old 02-17-2010, 02:03 PM
Stalker
Does anyone know if there is anything on the Elite DVD that wasn't carried over to the Blue Underground disc? Secondhand sellers are charging ridiculous prices for the OOP Elite disc on amazon. Saw a copy of the Elite version for $5 at a used DVD shop - now I'm wondering if I should have picked it up. Is there something collectible about it?
 
 

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