December 29, 2005
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.
December 13, 2005
Kaiju Movie Of The Year!
GODZILLA FINAL WARS
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 (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.
December 06, 2005
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.