Saturday, August 7, 2010

'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' offers little
but pale reflections of past glory

Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (2010)
Starring: Levi Fiehler, Taylor M. Graham, Jenna Gallaher, Tom Sandoval, Ada Chao, and Aaron Riber
Director: David DeCoteau
Producer: Charles Band
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

As America goes to war overseas against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, a young man (Fiehler) finds himself facing off against an unholy union of Nazi and Japanese saboteurs (Chao, Sandoval and Riber) in California, with Toulon's legendary magical puppets as his allies.

If there ever was a movie I sat down wanting to like, it's "Puppet Master: Axis of Evil."

Although I was disappointed to learn that Charles Band didn't direct it himself--despite the film's full title being "Charles Band's Puppet Master: Axis of Evil"--David DeCoteau did previously direct one of the very best entries in this series, so I still had some level of hope for this film.

Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge" was also set during the 1940s, and while it stood perfectly well on its own, it was a film I wouldn't have minded seeing a real sequel to. Although I have panned almost every DeCoteau, I still hoped that he would surprise... just as I had hoped that Band was telling the truth when he implied the puppets in this movie would be truly and fully animated for the first time in many years.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed in all counts. And the disappointment was almost nearly as bad as the one I experienced over Band's other recent trip to the well of past glories, Demonic Toys 2.

The most glaring problem is a continuity issue that undermines literally everything that follows the title card that establishes the events of the film take place in 1939. Yet, one character is about to be deployed to fight overseas, and another character gives repeated speeches about his desire to join the U.S. military to fight "Japs" and "Krauts." That's all good and well if the film had been set in 1942 or 1943 or even 1944... but in 1939, America was not at war with either Nazi Germany nor Imperial Japan. No regular American would be carrying on the way the characters in this film carry on the way they are here--the ignorance and historical illiteracy displayed by whoever approved the final cut of this film is beyond tragic. And the tragedy is made even more-so by the fact that if continuity had been maintained with DeCoteau's previous, and superior, contributions to the "Puppet Master" series--like if this film had been set in 1944--the one thing that makes this movie nearly unwatchable for anyone who has ever read anything about the United States' role in WWII would have been avoided.

Another problem, one almost as bad, is that the puppetry featured here as at the same level of everything else that has been present in Full Moon pictures for the past few years. The animation that made Toulon's puppets so cool in the first three "Puppet Master" films is nowhere to be found here, except in instances when stock footage from the original "Puppet Master" film is incorporated in a clumsy attempt to make it appear that more skill and effort was put into the puppetry than just some prop-man off camera shaking a doll.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, this is not a complete movie. It's like someone forgot that a movie needs a third act to follow the first and second. The film basically ends on a cliffhanger, with only a single major plot-point resolved and one of the villains in possession of several of Toulon's puppets. Sadly, in every prior case when a Full Moon picture has shown this particular defect--such as "HorrorVision", "Huntress" and "Retro Puppet Master"--a continuation or completion of the story has never been materialized.

I hope that "Puppet Master: Axis of Evil" breaks the pattern, and that Band has the funding and cast for the next Puppet Movie locked down. Hell, I hope they're shooting it as I write this. If not, I have to wonder if the many folks I've encountered over the years who portray Band as a huckster who gets by more on luck and charm than skill and creative talent. I may also have to finally surrender my belief that Band still has an interest in making the best movies possible rather than just trying to milk his properties for a final few bucks before retirement. What other explanation might there be for him not learning the lessons of the previous "half movies" he's produced?

For all that is bad with this movie, it actually one of the best films DeCoteau has made for Full Moon. It pales when compared to "Puppet Master III", but DeCoteau gets better performances from the cast here than in anything since that aforementioned film. With the exception of Ada Chao, who gives a performance almost as embarrassing as the Kabuki theater/geisha outfit she spends the entirety of the film in.

I wish I could have given a more glowing review of this film, but it's barely worth watching for even the most hardcore fans of Toulon's puppets. Or, I suppose, if you're like me and still hold out hope that Band will bring us something approaching the movies he used to make, it might be worth supporting just in the hopes that success will motivate the "part two" this film needs.

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