December 29, 2005

Finally on DVD - NIGHT CREATURES aka CAPTAIN CLEGG


Finally on DVD:
NIGHT CREATURES (1962)

Out of the blue, a previously unreleased Hammer film suddenly appears on DVD nestled away in a Region 1 Universal DVD Boxset (pictured). Made at the height of the studio’s powers, the only reason this one isn’t hailed as a classic alongside Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Mummy and Curse of the Werewolf, is that no one has had much chance to see it before. I can’t remember it even being shown on British TV in the London region.

More popularly known as Captain Clegg, it was made at Bray Studios, and is the best example of Hammer’s ‘swashbuckler’ strand - slightly sadistic period adventure yarns, with a hint of supernatural horror (in this case, luminous skeletal horse-riding marsh phantoms, years before the Knights of the Blind Dead ever rode out).

The cast features many Hammer regulars, but mainly this is a perfect showcase for horror maestro Peter Cushing’s talents. To me he was a versatile and subtle actor who, like Boris Karloff, had the ability to make the supernatural believable. Even with some of the hastily written scripts that were thrown at him, he could still convince an audience that the outlandish events of the plot were actually happening… Here he enjoys playing a pirate captain hiding from the King’s soldiers by disguising himself as the village vicar!

There’s also a marvellous early performance from Oliver Reed, seen here reunited with his Curse of the Werewolf co-star Yvonne Romain.
Perhaps one of the reasons Night Creatures has had a rough ride over the years is because it was based on a story that was also being adapted as a movie by Disney, at the same time! Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow was a live action movie, starring Patrick McGoohan, and was aimed safely at a family audience.

Beside making a belated debut on home video, Night Creatures has been digitally mastered, it looks fantastic, and is presented in anamorphic widescreen (though the aspect ratio looks closer to 1.85 than the 2.0 stated on the packaging) – there’s a slight letterbox but it looks overmatted - some of the headroom is a tightly framed at the top edge. But the picture definition is sharp and the rich colour does justice to the sets and costumes, not to mention the countryside exteriors – altogether the film effortlessly recreates the 18th century setting.

The boxset features 7 other Hammer horrors from the early 1960’s, some of them making their widescreen debuts on DVD. I must warn you though that all 8 films have been crammed onto 2 double-sided double-layered DVDs, (known as ‘DVD-18’s), a format that is the most technically difficult to manufacture without playback problems. My set, I’m happy to report, plays perfectly.


Update, June 2014 - Captain Clegg is now on blu-ray in the UK!


December 13, 2005

Kaiju Movie of the Year! - GODZILLA FINAL WARS - DVD review


Kaiju Movie Of The Year!
GODZILLA FINAL WARS
(Japan, 2004)


Region 1 US DVD review


This monster movie was released to mark Godzilla's 50th Anniversary, and has finally surfaced with optional english translations on a US Region 1 DVD.

Godzilla Final Wars came out in Japan at the end of 2004. I've been avoiding publicity, reviews and spoilers for the past year and have just watched the US DVD. I know the film is a departure from the usual approach, but I'm writing this review before reading any others, not knowing what other Godzilla fans think about It.

Personally I thought this was totally entertaining. I'd have to think twice before recommending it to any of my friends who are into, say, mainstream American movies, but I'll certainly try and coax anyone I know who's into Japanese action or sci-fi fare. It's an outrageous, epic monster movie, in keeping with other films from cult director Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus and Azumi). The nearest movie comparison I can make is Tim Burton's Mars Attacks, where the director obviously wanted to include all his favourite ingredients, destroy the world, but keep it humorous rather than grisly.


The homage factor rates almost off the scale - Toho Studio's back catalogue of giant villains is cherry-picked for a monster rally to rival Destroy All Monsters, some after forty years in offscreen exile. The director is obviously a fan of the 1960's and 1970's Godzilla films, as these seem to be where many of the monsters have been resurrected from. Past cast members and plotlines have been plundered too and thrown together into an epic 2 hour stew.

But despite all the anniversary retro, the action and effects are cutting edge, for Japan. Yes, there's still men in suits playing the monsters, yes, there's a lot of model work, but these are occasionally supplemented by CGI for the impossible stuff. I read that the director preferred to keep as many of the special effects as possible physical (rather than CGI) because he doesn't like the CG look. That's also in keeping with the budget - Godzilla films are made for a fraction of Western action movie budgets, though Final Wars was more expensive than usual for the franchise.


What's different about this Godzilla film then is the higher budget, (noticeably bigger explosions), bigger cast, the high number of monsters (a whopping 15), and the action-packed non-monster scenes. On the premise of a superhuman defence force made up of human mutants capable of impossible strength (like X-Men meet The Matrix), besides fighting each other, we finally get spectacular scenes of humans in hand-to-hand combat with giant monsters! Makes a change from the traditional toy tanks. The lead actors seem to be doing the lion's share of the stuntwork as well.

What's harder to accept is everything that usually detracts from these admittedly family films, such as cute animals, cute monsters, a surfeit of professors, silly plotlines, and non-professional Western actors... all have all been included here. It wouldn't be a Godzilla film without some of these elements, but at least this time it's not taken seriously. The action sequences however are very seriously mounted, maybe a little more over-the-top than usual. Some of the aerial dogfight sequences are awesome.

I suspect the toughest hurdle to audiences will be the use of American stereotypes, particularly the New York Cop/Pimp scene! But at least it gives us a taste of our own medicine - goodness knows how many cross-cultural errors are going to be in Memoirs of a Geisha, for instance. Another problem is the use of apparently non-acting actors for the Western characters. All the Americans in the movie appear to be pro-wrestlers, and not the sort who can act! It all adds to the unique, mad, pumped-up, fun atmosphere of the film.


Overall, I'm thrilled by the film. I love the epic scale, the outrageous action scenes, the homage, the monsters... but will someone please open an English-speaking acting school in Tokyo?


Finally, look here for my attempt to catalogue all the Godzilla film releases on home video.

(December 2007 - this review was updated for EVIL DREAD reviews)


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December 12, 2005

TETSUJIN 28 - VOLUME 1 (2004) HK DVD REVIEW


TETSUJIN 28 (2004) - Volume 1
Hong Kong DVD release

This 2 DVD set includes episodes 1 to 13 of the newly re-imagined Japanese anime, remade for the fortieth anniversary of this classic story.

Also known in America as GIGANTOR, this is the story of a leftover giant robot, a weapon from WWII, now in the hands of Shotaro, the young son of its original inventor. The series is set in 1950's post-war Japan. Shotaro is something of a boy detective, who uses the Iron Giant to fight crime, and these adventures often lead to him fighting other giant robots.

Like the new ASTRO BOY series, TETSUJIN 28 appears childish at face value, but the stories are so serious, its themes so anguished, that I'd certainly hesitate in recommending it for pre-teens. The series constantly examines the physical and psychological problems faced by the Japanese people after the war, often through imaginary situations. There were no giant robots built during the war, but these plot devices mean that the moral implications for the inventors are examined. Other stories look at human medical experiments, American mobsters, and space exploration technology derived from rocket weaponry. Each story often involving a large amount of tragedy and suffering, in keeping with the subject matter. The stories are well told, dramatic and pacey. The animation veers between simple and spectacular - the rainy tableau for instance are quite beautiful - the action scenes are imaginative and suitably gigantic. I'm enjoying the series, but have got to be braced for the utterly downbeat aura of most episodes.

This DVD set from Hong Kong has split the 26 episode series into two volumes (the first is pictured here). It's reasonably priced, but has several drawbacks - as usual the quality of the english subtitles range from good to poor, in terms of translations. I often felt I was missing plot points, and there was no distinction made between lines spoken by different characters - it's just presented as a block of text - you have to work out which line is spoken by whom.

The other shortcoming of the set is that it has been cropped from the original 16:9 widescreen down to 4:3 fullscreen, severely chopping the compositions, and often cutting characters in half down the edge of the frame.

For these reasons, I'll be waiting for other future releases - the USA is gradually releasing the series at the moment - with Japanese or English audio tracks, and in widescreen. Also, hopefully the 2006 UK release will use the same specifications.

The story's popularity meant that Japan recently also made a live action movie of TETSUJIN 28 - it's currently available on DVD in Japan, but without english subtitles. So again I'm hoping for a promised UK release of the movie on DVD sometime in 2006.

Max

December 06, 2005

ASTRO BOY - REBIRTH (2003) HK DVD REVIEW

ASTRO BOY- REBIRTH (JAPAN, 2003)
Hong Kong Region 3 DVD release

As usual, nothing is straightforward. If you're looking for the perfect way to enjoy this spectacular anime series, and you don't speak Japanese, you're in trouble.

This 50 episode series retells the classic Japanese story of the little robot boy, created in the image of a scientist's dead son. Macabre stuff given an upbeat spin for children's TV. Facing many of the same philosophical questions about self-aware androids as Spielberg's movie "A.I.", this is a lot more fun, yet surprisingly gritty in places. Society's only remaining conflict seems to revolve around whether A.I. robots are a good thing or not - that the omnipresent robot help should just remain as workhorses.

The characters remain faithful to the original designs, yet the animation leaps into the new millennium with great flourishes. There must be some CGI stuff going on, but it all looks like traditional animation, no small feat (hidden inside Astro Boy's huge red boots, no doubt).The future cityscapes are spectacular, and retain original artist Osamu Tezuka's colourful utopian style. Like the feature anime METROPOLIS, the future is optimistically bright.

The stories show us many imaginative possibilities of future society, while exploring a long story arc of Astro Boy discovering his origin and true identity of his father. Astro's not aware that Dad is making him some extremely dangerous adversaries...

Not having seen any previous ASTRO BOY series - I don't think the old series ever aired in the UK - I'm not nostalgic about the 1963 or 1980's series, like they are in the U.S. or Australia, for instance. I don't know whether I'd enjoy the older ones, but I certainly like this new series, but how to see it properly?

I've been watching the first set of Hong Kong DVDs (pictured above) - this box has 3 DVDs which cover the first 26 episodes. It has the original Japanese audio, with optional Chinese or English subtitles. Unfortunately the english translation is very poor, I'd say that it only makes sense half of the time. The plots are easy to follow, but I'd still like to know what's being said! Also, the series was made in 16:9 widescreen format, but these HK dvds are only 4:3 fullscreen. The last problem is that there is a digital clock top left onscreen throughout the entire episodes - I'm not sure why. Two further boxsets make up the complete series.

The US DVD set of the 2003 series is called THE COMPLETE COLLECTION (in a black box). It has no Japanese audio on it, and contains the re-edited versions that were dubbed for US transmission. Again, these are cropped to 4:3 fullscreen. According to the review on the DVD TIMES website, they are also in the wrong running order.

The best set seems to be the Korean DVD release, which supposedly has the Japanese audio in 5.1 surround, widescreen pictures and optional english subtitles. Of course there's no guarantee that the translations will be better than the Hong Kong release. I can only find the first 24 episodes on sale (in 6 volumes or 2 boxsets), so I'm not even sure if the whole series is on release yet.

Finally, don't forget that original ASTRO BOY manga are currently on release in natty little paperback collections, translated into english. Volume 1 of which is pictured here.

Max

November 24, 2005

ARAHAN (2004) Korean DVD review

ARAHAN (Urban Martian Arts Action) - Korea 2004
Korean all-region DVD, single disc release

Intrigued to see some wirework action in a modern Asian setting, I tried out this film and was generously rewarded. Whereas earlier entries such as VOLCANO HIGH only succeeded in the action scenes, ARAHAN delivers a more rounded film where the characters and the story are almost interrupted by the fights.
A novice policeman stumbles upon a group of Tau-Chi masters who are facing an old and powerful threat.. Actor Seung-beom Ryu plays a geeky traffic cop so well, I couldn't believe that he was going to be the central character. His acting is superb, amongst an excellent cast of strong characters. The directing is also inspired, with some tour-de-force single-take sequences, show-stopping fights and masterly comic touches. The film delivers as much comedy as gritty action. Any CGI effects are sufficiently restrained so that humans are involved for the larger part, meaning that I remained connected with the film - which didn't happen with the similar city-spanning sequences in SPIDERMAN.
Impressive, likeable and very entertaining, it's another Korean keeper!
This Korean DVD release is 16:9 anamorphic widescreen - it has well-translated optional english subtitles, DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 Korean audio. If you want any extras, seek out the 2 DVD set.

November 22, 2005

ANTARCTICA (1983) Japanese movie review


ANTARCTICA (Japan, 1983)
CBS FOX release - U.S. NTSC VHS
Soundtrack by Vangelis

Well, having thought that the fantastic Vangelis album was a soundtrack to a documentary, I discovered that it was actually a Japanese feature film. It's a dramatisation of an actual incident - when a Japanese Antarctic expedition ran into trouble and were forced to leave a dog pack behind to fend for themselves. The incident seems to have hit the Japanese headlines at the time and had books written about it.

The film felt a little drawn out, but was countered by some truly spectacular location photography, rivalling scenes from MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, for instance. The music, composed by Vangelis at the top of his form, just after he had scored BLADE RUNNER, gives the film a haunting and unique feel.

I suspect more people have heard the album than have seen the film and it's certainly hard to find. I believe it is still available on DVD in Japan, but with no English subtitles. I found an old NTSC VHS of the U.S. version (dubbed into English), which is watchable enough, but I suspect the cinematography looks better widescreen on DVD, rather than fullscreen on tape. (UPDATE 21st JULY 2006 - HK DVD with English subs released - details here.)

Despite an onscreen disclaimer assuring that no dogs were hurt in the making of the film, they certainly look like they had a rough time in some of the scenes. The re-enactments of what may have happened to the original dogs are upsetting enough as it is. Animal lovers, you have been warned.

UPDATE 19th August 2008 - Just been told that Disney remade this true story as Eight Below (2006), starring Paul Walker.

November 17, 2005

SIREN (Korea, 2001) Region 3 DVD review


SIREN - Region 3 DVD (Miro Vision release)

I was expecting this Korean film to surpass the action in BACKDRAFT. But despite the ferocity of the fire stunts, it's not as spectacular. Also, whenever there's any special effects, the print changes colour completely, giving it away. Similarly, at various points in the film, it changes slightly in colour and clarity, due to faults in the mastering process, presumably. Quite distracting. The subtitles are average too, they seem to be only approximate translations sometimes. You can follow the story easily enough though.

Full marks to the cast, but the script could have used a few less cliches.

Max

November 14, 2005

Finally on DVD - MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)


MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) -
included on the HOUSE OF WAX (1954) DVD

OK, so on the new DVD release of the old (Vincent Price) version of HOUSE OF WAX, you'll find the marvellous 1933 MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM on the flipside!

Fast-talking, wise-cracking Glenda Farrell steals Fay Wray's limelight with a storming performance as a tough, sexy newspaper reporter. She's chasing a suicide story that turns into a serial murder/ body-snatching epic, all centred round a newly-opened House of Wax...

I love this film. With a twisty plot, snappy, racy dialogue (Glenda asks a policeman, "How's your sex life"!), creepy sets, dynamic camerawork, this is a super early ‘talkie’, and the colour helps you forget just how early... the problems of unwieldy cameras and hiding microphones are all surmounted, only 5 years after the THE JAZZ SINGER!

Made before Hayes Code film censorship kicked in, (in 1934) WAX MUSEUM is almost ‘edgy’ today - racy city characters abound (Glenda's character starts off the film nursing a New Year's hangover, a police friend is flaunting a ‘naughty’ magazine and one of the baddies is a total coke addict), as well as many (irreverent) references to petty law-breaking (prohibition) and marrying for money.

WAX MUSEUM was previously released as a perfect laserdisc double-bill with DOCTOR X. For decades both were rarely seen 'lost' films, but found new appreciation when the colour versions were discovered in the 1980's. Despite their age, they were remarkably filmed in an early colour process - 'Two-Strip Technicolor' (the 'two strips' were red and green, the colours needed to render fairly accurate flesh-tones) - imagine seeing Fay Wray in colour before she'd even appeared in KING KONG!

Both films were expertly directed by Michael Curtiz, almost 10 years before he made CASABLANCA. Fay Wray and the marvellous Lionel Atwill star in both of these ground-breaking horrors. One is on DVD, DOCTOR X sadly not… I'd ideally like to see DOCTOR X on DVD as a double-bill with itself! Both the Technicolor AND black-and-white version - each version was shot on a different camera, sometimes from different angles, sometimes as separate takes (usually when a complicated camera move was needed).






November 13, 2005

YONGARY MONSTER FROM THE DEEP - US DVD


KAIJU OF THE WEEK:
YONGARY - MONSTER FROM THE DEEP


(1967, South Korea)

Region 1 US DVD (Alpha Video release)


Considering myself to be a Giant Monster Movie completist, I felt compelled to get this, despite the awful stills I'd seen. It’s South Korea's answer to GODZILLA (every country should have one). The modelwork isn't THAT bad, about the same level as early GAMERA films, but the script goes way beyond stinky.

The giant monster emerges from the deep (earth), heads for Korea (in search of oil), fights off a small army of toy tanks and still finds time to dance (I’m not making this up). But an annoying kid and his scientist dad discover how to make the monster scratch... a lot...

The writer also ensured that the worst monster movie cliches were included (a prophet of doom, a baby left behind, a kid has all the bright ideas etc). The motivations of many characters are so consistently unfathomable as to make the movie enjoyably bad.

It's certainly not boring and is, perhaps, the best example of a bad kaiju movie - it's got the bad monster suit, the non-existent science, and totally ignores logic. I'll definitely be watching it again, as a double-bill with the also awful 1999 remake.

Alpha Video keeps many obscure titles in circulation for a very low price. This means no money for remastering – YONGARY is presented in a very tightly panned and scanned full screen version – sometimes the action happens out of frame!

The only extras are some stills and posters from the original release. Cheap and cheerful!



UPDATED September 2007:
YONGARY - MONSTER FROM THE DEEP was finally been given a 2.35 widescreen DVD release, on a double bill with KONGA!

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November 12, 2005

UMIZARU (Sea Monkeys) - HK R3 DVD review


UMIZARU (2004 Japanese movie) - Hong Kong Region 3 DVD release

I was expecting an action adventure, but instead got a rites of passage story following a squad of trainee Japanese Coast Guard rescue divers (nicknamed 'Sea Monkeys'). The TOP GUN formula is followed so closely, there are even dollops of male nudity throughout the film. It's like a grown-up version of the popular WATERBOYS movie and TV series (also produced. by Fuji TV).
Despite many corny scenes, the likeable cast make it very watchable, though the lead is, dare I say, a bit drippy. It's undemanding, but still packs a few flourishes (like an extremely creepy underwater hallucination). As always, it's simply interesting to see more of Japanese life - a parallel society mirroring western life and technology, but different in locale and custom.
UMIZARU seems to be setting up either more films, or a TV series (check out the end credit tease), so I'm guessing there'll be further adventures. Unsurprisingly, the whole project started out as a popular manga...
This Region 3 DVD is labelled as "Standard Edition" and contains one movie-only disc. (On the menu it says "Disc 1", so I presume there's also a 2 disc version as well.) The optional english subtitles are very well translated. The DTS 6.1 audio is full, punchy and complements the rich musical soundtrack.

Max

November 07, 2005

ULTRAMAN NEXT (2004) - R2 DVD review


ULTRAMAN NEXT - THE MOVIE (2004) - Japanese R2 DVD review
(Released by Emotion dvds)

OK, to recap. To coincide with 2004's ULTRAMAN NEXUS tv series, a movie, simply called ULTRAMAN, was released in Japan in November. The events in the movie helped to clarify (slightly) the climax of the NEXUS TV series. Popular in the cinemas, and even warmly received by critics, this is one of the most successful ULTRAMAN movies. I would argue that, even on their low budgets, the ULTRAMAN COSMOS movies had been of a very high standard too.

In ULTRAMAN NEXT, our new Ultra-hero starts as a humble fighter pilot for the Japanese self-defence forces. Before you can say "electrical storm", his jet hits a UFO and he melds with ULTRAMAN. Another evil UFO has already claimed a victim which keeps on absorbing animals, until he becomes the lizard-like monster baddie...

The ULTRAMAN NEXT suit looks more organic than usual, more 'Guyver'. I think this biological look works better for the various stages of monster rather than Ultraman himself (he looks his usual fantastic, shiny metallic self in the series though). In the early, moody low-light scenes, you can't tell when the lizardy monster is CGI or 'suitmation', it's very well done. The monster also has human eyes, another touch that really works. Towards the climax, the CGI stuff gets annoying, painstaking though it is - it just seems to me that once they use high-speed CGI representations, they throw out the idea of slow-motion to represent giant size creatures.

Thankfully, the Japanese DVD release has English subtitles, well-translated, for the feature only. Extras include a 20 minute featurette (with enough behind-the-scenes footage to explain the FX involved), trailers and TV spots. The film is presented 16:9 anamorphic, the audio is 5.1 dolby digital.

Max

November 06, 2005

Finally out on DVD - THE MANITOU (1978) R2 DVD review

THE MANITOU (1978)
Region 2 UK DVD (released by Momentum Pictures)

Until last month this was on my NOT OUT ON DVD list.
It's been a long time coming, and needed a new home video release to befit it's 2.35 widescreen status. This PAL region 2 DVD still looks cramped to me (with an aspect ratio more like 1 to 2.0, than 2.35) especially the opening credit sequence with the first shot of the 3 x-rays side-by-side. But the framing problems soon disappear as the film gets going.

The stereo audio sounds very subtle, not separated at all, but doesn't sound out of the ordinary for a film of the seventies. The state of most cinemas' sound systems in the 1970's, you were lucky to make out dialogue clearly at all! Not keen on the cover artwork of the DVD either, it could be an image from a dozen other movies. Griping aside, this is a very decent release of a film we're lucky to have on DVD at all!



THE MANITOU came out in cinemas in 1978, riding on the reputation of Graham Masterton's best-selling novel, which was seriously and creatively gory (I was disappointed that we didn't get the cops-in-the-lift sequence in the film)! Something is growing inside a tumour on a young woman's back, it seems to be a foetus, it can defend itself and is starting to control her...
I was expecting another film like THE OMEN, what I got was less serious but more fun! It starts off mimicking possession thrills from THE EXORCIST, then manages to pitch in a special effects climax more inspired by the first STAR WARS (released the previous year). It prefigures the comedy horror, and indeed the native-American theme, of Spielberg's horror-blockbuster POLTERGEIST that came out 4 years later.
Tony Curtis in particular livens up the proceedings by improvising some of his dialogue and adding light comedy touches to alternate with his serious scenes. I particularly like the way he keeps calling the evil spirit Misquamacus, the 'Mix-master'! It's interesting to note that in the same year, Curtis' daughter would become a horror film staple in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN...

T
he film has been accused of being camp, but I don't think the film ever makes unintentional fun of itself. I do wonder though how Susan Strasberg used 'the method' to get to grips with the scenes of Manitou combat.
I'd recommend THE MANITOU to fans of 1970's horror and disaster movies too. Don't expect too much blood, just one weird plot.

This was the last movie from director William Girdler. His name on a film meant you were going to be entertained, albeit on a budget. If you like THE MANITOU, then please seek out his DAY OF THE ANIMALS (hikers discover that the thinning ozone layer has turned every animal against mankind) and GRIZZLY (a JAWS rip-off with a bear instead of a shark). Both films are on DVD, but only in fullscreen versions. DAY OF THE ANIMALS should really be seen 1.85 and GRIZZLY should definitely be seen 2.35. In fact GRIZZLY should just be seen - it's a bad taste classic.

In the 1970's, disaster movies meant that no-one, however likable, was spared from spectacular death scenes - children, pets and old people included. We also get an animal attack on a helicopter before JAWS 2 hit the screens!
A link to an excellent website about William Girdler's many films, including his early Blaxploitation movies, can be found here. He sadly died in a helicopter crash scouting for locations, aged 30.

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October 23, 2005

THE WIG (2005) - R3 Special Edition DVD review

THE WIG (a.k.a. SCARY HAIR) - Korean Region 3 Special Edition DVD (released by BEAR dvd)

American action-horror films like FINAL DESTINATION that combine chills with gore, also have release mechanisms where humour can relieve the suspense and horror. Good Japanese and South Korean horrors rarely let you off the hook so easily... On top of that, THE WIG also gives you a raw taste of the emotional impact of, say, a nasty car crash.


THE WIG is a dark, gut-wrenching, deeply emotional chiller, that injects more than its fair share of shock moments and visceral horror. I was expecting the chills, based on the scary effects that Sadako's long black hair have in the RING movies. What I also got was an emotionally intense drama comparable to A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, yet much faster paced. There were also violent moments I'd expect in OLDBOY but not here. So basically my expectations were way off, THE WIG delivers the creepy chills, but much more.

The high quality of directing, cinematography and acting defy the basically silly premise of a haunted wig. I would even recommend that the title be renamed to give the film a better chance internationally. Imagine if RING had originally been called THE VIDEOTAPE, what chance would it have stood? So far the only alternate title to be used is SCARY HAIR, which makes this excellent film sound like a Troma flick. If you're not convinced, try out one of the online trailers (search Twitchfilm.net for details).

The Special Edition DVD from Korea is a region 3 NTSC on one disc, with the film's 1.85 aspect ratio anamorphically presented. The beautifully mixed audio is also included in an extremely effective DTS track, if you want to jump that little bit higher during the shock moments. The English subtitles are well-translated, though probably don't do justice to the subtleties of the script. Signs, headlines and other written text are translated too.


A generous amount of extras includes extensive behind-the-scenes footage of the film's many FX sequences and the actors enduring their most emotional scenes. THIS FOOTAGE CONTAINS MANY STORY SPOILERS so please don't watch it before seeing the film. There's also footage of the photo-shoot for the posters and publicity art. These beautiful photos are faithful to the gloomy and colourful look of the final film. Thankfully the action in the featurettes is self-explanatory because none of the extras are subtitled. There is also a 2002 short film from the director, also unsubtitled, and 2 trailers for THE WIG.

Max

October 22, 2005

Not always DVDs


Of course, it's not always DVDs on this blog, despite the title...

Just had the privilege to see SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE at the London Film Festival - all I can say is that there aren't too many movie trilogies out there where all three films are of such a high calibre (pun intended). I have no idea when a DVD boxset of this film, OLDBOY and SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE will come out, but I'll be getting one, for certain.

Saw this today and TIM BURTON'S CORPSE BRIDE, which I'm sorry to say didn't hold a candle to NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

Earlier in the week, saw 'electroclash' funsters LADYTRON live at Koko in Camden, North London. It seems that the excellent (am I overusing this word?) support band BATTANT is lucky enough to have an early Siouxsie Sioux reincarnation fronting them.

Finally, I got to see the British Film Institute release of the original Japanese version of the 1954 GODZILLA at the Curzon Cinema in Soho. The BFI are promising a DVD release in the UK, though I'm hoping that they have better materials at their disposal than the theatrical print that's on show. Soft, scratchy and dupey, it looks every inch a 1950's film, but I'm sure the Japanese DVD will have been restored within an inch of it's nitrate - I'd get that, but it has no english subtitles...
The re-emergence of Godzilla films in the early 1990's was the reason that I started to look east for other more interesting films. During the search for watchable videos, VCDs and laserdiscs, I discovered the joys of RINGU, ULTRAMAN TIGA and AKIRA as they first came out. But despite the fact I've seen every one of his films, this was my first ever experience of Godzilla on the big screen.
Below is the excellent poster art by Phil Ashcroft to publicise this well overdue event, which even managed to miss the big guy's 50th birthday. (Fortunately I was able to celebrate properly last year with a trip to Japan, but that's another posting...)











Max

October 20, 2005

ULTRAMAN NEXUS (2004) - HK DVD review




ULTRAMAN NEXUS
- JAPANESE TV SERIES
(37 episodes)

ULTRAMAN NEXUS is a much more adult series than its predecessor, ULTRAMAN COSMOS. Admittedly it's still a guy in a rubber suit fighting monsters that are other guys in rubber suits but Tsuburaya Productions don't like to slack. I've remained a fan of the various Ultra-series ever since ULTRAMAN TIGA because of their constant inventiveness with the format.

ULTRAMAN NEXUS is set after the movie ULTRAMAN NEXT. It delivers the usual Ultra-fights, but defies the usual formulaic episode structure by using a complex story arc involving multiple Ultra-men both good and bad. The subplots range schizophrenically between sudden death and balloon animals, alien invasion and sappy romance. There's a new underwater base and far more physical action from the Earth Squadron than usual - like energy weapon fights with smaller monsters lurking in forests and factories. There are some great new CGI monsters thrown into the mix - the first monster to appear defies description! Less successful is the intercutting between CGI aircraft and slow-motion miniatures - they suddenly become extra fast and manoevrable. The same can be said of the infrequent fights using CGI Ultramen. But, all in all, a darker, unpredictable, action-packed series.

ULTRAMAN NEXUS was released in Hong Kong as 7 dvds. These were sold individually or as 2 fold-out boxsets (pictured). The same discs were used in both releases. I bought these Hong Kong versions because the Japanese releases had no english subtitles. These subs aren't the best translations in the world - you can follow the plot, but people's names aren't consistent and are occasionally translated. Attempts to translate pseudo-scientific jargon can only be understood using an excess of lateral thinking.

Also annoying is the presence of a clock top-left in picture throughout each episode. Looks like these were mastered off breakfast-time transmission tapes! (This also happened on the FIRESTORM anime release).

There are absolutely no extras and the chaptering is sparse. The picture is standard 1.33 aspect ratio, as originally broadcast. The cover art is excellent, showing off the designs of the various Ultra-suits, and the fold-out cases of the boxsets are well made and very displayable.

Lastly, I've never seen a series with as many different theme tunes!

Max

October 17, 2005

Takashi Miike's ZEBRAMAN (2004) - review


ZEBRAMAN
(2004, Japan)

Well, given the choice, I'd rather watch a low, low budget Asian film over a Hollywood blockbuster. This film was just so much fun, beautifully acted, eccentrically mad plot, great visual gags, killer fight scenes... It's like an episode of ULTRAMAN or KAMEN RIDER, but aimed at an adult audience.

It's 2010. ZEBRAMAN is a seventies TV superhero idolised by a Yokohama school teacher. When strange men in masks start a series of local rapes and murders, who you gonna call..?



Director Takashi Miike is so versatile that his films can never be predictable, given the extremes he's gone to in the recent past. You're never sure how far he's going to go in terms of plot twists or sexual or violent extremes. He might even start telling the story with CGI, stick-figure animation or plasticine figures.

ZEBRAMAN is of course very restrained for Miike, that doesn't mean to say the film would be rated at less than an 'R' for violence and sexual content. On many occasions, it looks like it's going to get very dark, very quickly...



DVD UPDATE March 2008
Zebraman finally gets a release in the US on region 1 DVD from Tokyo Shock...




October 14, 2005

GIANT ROBO MIKAZUKI (2000) - best kaiju series ever!


(Japan, 2000, imdb: Tekk├┤ki Mikazuki)

If you like the look of the new Japanese short NEGADON, seek out the very similarly themed live-action mini-series GIANT ROBO MIKAZUKI. This came out in 2000 and I heard it was Japan's most expensive TV series!

Based on an old anime GIANT ROBO, this sublime six hour mixture of suit action and CGI, pits a mysterious giant robot against floating bell-shaped monsters, demons and watermelon lizards!. All mixed in with a powersuited action team (with pull-string activation), a cyber-defence HQ, crappy government giant robots (designed like 1950's clockwork robots) and more... all marvellous tongue-in-cheek fun. Mightily powerful fight scenes, fun characters, and a highly successful depiction of what havoc a giant robot might actually wreak by simply taking a walk!

Why this isn't out in the west is beyond me. Dare I say, it's more fun than many recent Godzilla films. There, I said it, I'm not proud of myself, but it's true.

There was a 2 DVD Hong Kong boxset of MIKAZUKI (front cover pictured) with really, really bad english subtitles and botched letterboxing on the awesome, awesome first episode. But it's a lot of telly, a lot of fun, and the Hong Kong set is really cheap. The huge Japanese DVD boxset looks 100 times better, but there aren't any subtitles...


Even the soundtrack's good!


October 12, 2005

TALES OF TERROR 1 - Region 3 DVD review


TALES OF TERROR - Volume 1 - Hong Kong Region 3 DVD (Unicorn release)

First volume of episodes from the Japanese TV series TALES OF TERROR (2005).

Must have missed the small print when I bought this one. There are 8 episodes on this DVD, but the episodes are barely 5 minutes long each! That's under 40 minutes of tales of terror. There's also an interview with the director. For once, the interview is subtitled in english (extras on HK releases rarely are), but this doesn't really compensate for the scant running time.

If you like really short short stories (I mean the one or two page sort) this may be for you. Each little episode hits the ground running and often manages to generate chills in the short time available.

The cover describes the aspect ratio as 4:3, but the image is in fact 16:9 letterboxed within a 4:3 frame (otherwise known as non-anamorpihc widescreen). The subtitles are unfortunately positioned halfway over the lower letterboxing. They are well written and removable, and the optional DTS audio is creepily directional.

Looks like there are 3 more volumes to come...

Max

October 05, 2005

HAUNTED SCHOOL (1995) – Region 3 HK DVD review


HAUNTED SCHOOL (1995)
aka GAKKO NO KAIDAN
Region 3 HK DVD review (Universe Video)


First I saw HAUNTED SCHOOL 4 and had to see more of the series...


This is the first in a successful series of Japanese children's films, released presumably to tie in with the Japanese Oban festival season (a rough equivalent of Halloween). The titular school is full of demons and ghosts, some silly-looking, some seriously creepy. Japanese kids must be made of stern stuff judging by the almost RING-worthy opening scene.

Also the heavyweight make-up fx used later in the film rival (and rip) THE THING and THE FLY 2. I though I was watching a film from the eighties, but in fact it's a dated-looking 1995. Not many shocks, but very many original scenes for fans of the fantastic. The grinning demon, the giant legs and the upside-down room all make a unique impression.

This Hong Kong release is presented in a 1.85 letterbox (but not anamorphically). The (optional) English subtitles include a few typos, but are well translated. The pictures are a bit smeary but not bad. The worst defect of this DVD is the muddy sounding audio. The only extras are trailers for HAUNTED SCHOOL itself and the similarly interesting Japanese short story omnibus TALES OF THE UNUSUAL.

What I'd really like to get is an English-subbed DVD of HAUNTED SCHOOL 4 - an excellent, less childish take on the secrets of the school. The other 2 sequels are also unavailable (subtitled) on DVD at present.

October 01, 2005

ATOMIK CIRCUS (2004) – Region 4 THAI DVD review

ATOMIK CIRCUS (2004) aka ALIEN VS VANESSA PARADIS – Region 4 Thailand - DVD review - (J-BICS release)

A messy, mad movie - a sci-fi horror comedy musical... breaking its back to be original. (A french language film with english subtitles).

An unlucky stuntman (Jason Flemyng turns action hero) tries to rescue a wannabe rock star (Vanessa Paradis) from space aliens attacking a (very french) swampland shanty town.

The cinematography is fantastic (though the DVD gets a little murky in the darker details) with exciting angles and all the latest camera moves. Full of amazing, unique, chaotic fx shots as the aliens float around committing bloody mayhem.

Some of the humour has been lost in the translation (unless it's not funny in the first place) - but the english subs do a good job getting the wordplay across, though mostly they are timed before the lines are even spoken.

The film is presented in 2.35 anamorphic, though the letterbox seems tight on the composition - often cutting off the tops of heads... but I guess that's what this film is all about!

The french language 5.1 audio mix is fairly muddy (though Paradis' songs come through lod and clear) and there are very few directional fx.

There are no frills and no extras on the disk BUT this is the first release with english subtitles, so I'm very pleased to have had the chance to see it.


MAX


September 19, 2005

PARANOIA AGENT (2004) - Hong Kong DVD set


PARANOIA AGENT (2004) - HK DVD Review

This anime TV series from Satoshi Kon (PERFECT BLUE, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS) is hard to categorise, or even describe. Suffice it to say that a sick little monkey on rollerblades is skating round a Japanese city and crowning a wide range of different people with a baseball bat... I found it inventive, dramatic, chilling, funny, horrifying, original and exquisite entertainment.

The series is being released on region 1 DVDs (in the US) and region 2 DVDs (in the UK) . . . but as 4 seperate volumes. This HK DVD set crams the entire 13 episodes onto 2 DVDs (9 of them onto disc 2). There's a nice fold-out case in a transparent slip cover with vibrant artwork. But apart from the episodes themselves there are absolutely no extras.

The optional english subtitles are pretty poorly translated - I followed the story adequately but the dialogue was repeatedly spoilt. I'll wait until the series is released as a boxset in the UK or US and see what the total price tag hits.

The HK set presents the series in widescreen but not anamorphically. The master tape has occasional faults on it (a betacam sp tape crease spanned the width of the screen at one point).

This is a cheap way to experience the series, but not the best way.

There is also a CD soundtrack available of some of the music composed for the series. The end theme music is especially haunting and catchy!

September 14, 2005

THE CALAMARI WRESTLER (2004) – Region 1 DVD review

THE CALAMARI WRESTLER
(2004, Japan)

Region 1 US DVD (
Pathfinder Video release)

It started with an action figure... which I bought in Japan when this film had just come out. I've since waited a year to get to see this film with English subtitles. Some of my friends couldn't believe the DVD existed. They thought the cover art was a leg-pull!


THE CALAMARI WRESTLER turns out to be a comedy with drama, pro-wrestling, religion and a lot of seafood.

Film Review (no spoilers):
The Japanese wrestling scene is turned on its head when the reigning champion is challenged by a man-sized squid. Where did it come from? Why does it wrestle? What does it eat? Can it find true love between bouts?

Despite the low, low budget, the production is successfully ambitious. The tight, twisting plot is large-scale and full of ideas (behind the scenes footage, in the DVD extras, shows the crew improvising on set and create an excellent shot of 'Calamari' on an exercise machine). The drama and occasional melodrama becomes instantly entertaining because one of the characters is a giant squid!

The comedy walks a very fine line, but they've nailed it. The actor playing the fantastic lead character, makes no effort to walk like a squid! He just walks down the street with a slight swagger, shopping basket over one tentacle! Superb. Not even a mention of how a squid can walk around - his abilities are just taken for granted. It looks like a fantastic suit - but no matter what FX budget you threw at it, you'd still know it was a special effect - what makes the whole concept work is the script, the director and the cast. I believe the director got the idea while working on the ULTRAMAN TIGA TV series (around 1997).


THE CALAMARI WRESTLER is full of surprises, and I thought it was going to be a one-joke film. The director has his tongue in his cheek, but has the cast play it totally straight – I find the Japanese are fantastic at playing in fantasy situations (be it ghosts, giant monsters or superheroes of any size). A couple of the lead actors wrestle as well as act. There are many presumably famous commentators and wrestlers scattered throughout the film, not least the pundit who insists on sticking a drinks can to his forehead. All these celebrities (?) mean nothing to me, as a clueless but inquisitive westerner - the monks, the religion, the seafood are all part of Japanese culture, in a film presumably intended for a local audience. For me it's a stretch to take it all on board - but it's funny, as well as fascinating.



DVD REVIEW:
The English subtitles are very well done, which is crucial for comedy. The transfer is good, but don’t ask me whether it was shot on film or video – I’m guessing it was shot on a mixture of video and film and then edited on video (which would make it V-Cinema). The worst technical aspect is the under-produced audio mix, which is occasionally distracting. But I guess that was due to budget rather than the mastering of the DVD.

There aren’t many extras – the best trailer I’ve seen online is missing here. Thankfully there’s a good behind-the-scenes featurette (which is a bit short on subs) which shows the suit actors, the sets, and a generous glimpse of how much fun they had shooting it all.

I’m extremely thankful that this film ever got released at all – this is the only DVD I’ve found with subtitles, and it’s the only release outside of Japan.

September 11, 2005

DARKNESS (2004) - Thai DVD Review


Much-delayed horror film starring Iain Glen, Lena Olin (before she appeared in ALIAS) and Anna Paquin. The film was made in English by Spanish director Jaume Balaguer├│.

The Thai version of the DVD looks good, but the drawback is that it is in 1.33 aspect and not widescreen. I'm guessing that this is the unrated cut (and not the PG-13 US release cut) because of the spurting blood!

This movie is now widely available in the US, UK and even as a Spanish 2-DVD set. When I bought the Thai version, I don't think these other copies were available.


The film looks fantastic, the set design and cinematography make the spooky interiors look gothically gorgeous, while each of the interiors trail off into shadowy darkness.

But. Iain Glen's American accent is very distracting, not at all what he usually sounds like. In his first scene it sounds like a very poor Marlon Brando imitiation!

The film achieves many unsettling moments, some very creepy tableaux, but very few horror "pay-offs". Plenty of promise but a disappointing climax. I was also hoping for a long flashback, rather than the many half-second hints of what had gone before.