September 29, 2008

The VAN EATON GALLERY - animation art for sale

I enjoy watching animation from many different eras, from the perfectionism of the early Disney artists to the fast-paced and anarchic Warner Bros Looney Tunes. I still watch early TV animation, which first appealed to me for the characters and comedy voices rather than the quality of animation. Scooby Doo - Where Are You? and Wacky Races are my favorites of the 1960's.

I've followed computer-generated animation from the early experiments, through Tron (1982) to Toy Story. I also love the more ambitious recent animated TV like Invader Zim and Samurai Jack.
Of course, Japanese anime providea high alternate benchmark to Pixar's productions, with visually beautiful and more complex, adult stories.


The ultimate memento from any animation is the original artwork, painted onto clear plastic cels - the actual item that was photographed as part of the finished film. These often look like the Roger Rabbit cel above, as they were usually laid over painted backgrounds, or over live-action in the case of Roger.

When we were in Los Angeles earlier in the year, we
visited the Van Eaton Gallery, situated North of the Hollywood Hills in the Sherman Oaks neighbourhood. This fantastic double-fronted store displays and sells hundreds of animation cels and drawings.


It's like a museum of animation history, with examples of American and English animation as far back as the silents - they recently had some of the drawings used in Winsor Mackay's Gertie the Dinosaur (1911), like the one above.

Nowadays, painted colour cels are no longer used in animation, due to the crossover to computers. The pictures above are examples of what you can collect from modern productions. The first is a pencil drawing from The Batman series. It's the only hand-crafted art that's needed. The drawing is scanned in and the rest of the animation process (inking, inbetweening, colouring) is done in the computer. The Simpsons is now done this way, having swapped from cel animation after Season Thirteen. The second Batman item is therefore a painted cel recreated as if it was made using the old method, but this item wasn't actually photographed for the TV show. It's purely made for the collectors' market, looking more desirable than the line drawing.


I was mainly interested in the older, original cels and there's a very wide choice. Cult animators like Richard Williams (The Thief and the Cobbler, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) were well-represented, and we were surprised to see reasonably-priced cels from the animated Lord of the Rings movie (1978), like the above shot of Frodo. There were also more unusual items - from the animated sections of live-action films like Tron (which used just as much cel animation as early computer animation), Xanadu and even Mr DNA from Jurassic Park.

There were colourful, large-format, Don Bluth cels from the Space Ace and Dragon's Lair arcade games (which I heard may still be resurrected on Blu-Ray). They also had cels from his many feature films, like An American Tail.



The gallery's priciest items are naturally Disney films, all the way back to the first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
I was surprised that anything was still available from the old classics. Less expensive, but still pricey, are the current hit series like The Simpsons. But there were also many bargains on offer too - like original 1970's Godzilla cels for $35 each.

If you're ever in Los Angeles you'll need a car to get to the store in Sherman Oaks, but they'll also ship items everywhere via their website.


September 27, 2008

DVD NEWS - US updates

HOLOCAUST 2000 (1977)

This Italian/UK horror film follows in the wake of the original The Omen (1976) but succeeds better than its sequels. I previously reviewed Holocaust 2000 here, which I could only locate on DVD in Italy. It was also known as The Chosen but has finally been released on DVD in the US as Rain of Fire by Lionsgate on October 28th.



THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967)
IT! (1966) double-bill

DVD Drive In once again has the scoop on upcoming Best Buy exclusives, including the latest DVD cover art on their website. The new releases include this atmospheric chiller, based on H.P. Lovecraft's The Shuttered Room - which I reviewed here, but can shortly removed from Not On DVD status on October 7th.

It's twinned with It! - a cheap-looking sequel to the German and Czech Golem movies. But It! stars Roddy McDowall and Jill Haworth, which certainly makes it watchable.

The previous Warner Bros. double-bill releases are now more widely available - Diabolik DVD are now selling Moon Zero Two, for instance, so hopefully The Shuttered Room will also eventually be easier to get.




THE BEYOND (1981)

One of my favourite Lucio Fulci Italian horror films gets re-released by Grindhouse from October 28th. After directing Zombie Flesh Eaters, Fulci injected some undead action into several subsequent stories, like this one and City of the Living Dead, which both got released in UK cinemas. This is infamous for introducing a large jar of acid to an annoying little girl, and for the flaying of an unfortunate prisoner with chains - both scenes regularly being heavily censored on home video through the years. It stars David Warbeck, Catriona MacColl and Al Cliver.



THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970)

This is appearing for the first time on DVD and the first time in widescreen for this ground-breaking movie where gay men took centre-stage as characters rather than incidental stereotypes. Leonard Frey, as the acid-tongued Harold gets many of the best lines, in the drunken bitchy style of Roger the alien from American Dad. Based on Mart Crowley's play, it's now dated today, but provides a reminder of life in the gay ghetto and in the closet of sixties America. It's due on DVD from November 11th.

William Friedkin may not be the obvious choice as director, but he'd previously shot comedies and even a vehicle for Sonny and Cher. This was before his breakthrough hit The French Connection and of course The Exorcist. Though Friedkin returned to the gay subculture in Cruising, which has just been restored and remastered. If these early works can get released, where is Friedkin's masterpiece Sorceror?



DUCKMAN (1994)

With all the adult animated sit-coms out there at present, let us not forget this earlier dysfunctional family, just as surreal and political as American Dad. Duckman is a truly terrible detective whose success stems from his pig sidekick, Cornfed. He lives with his dead wife's sister, two sons, (one is two-headed, the other stupid beyond belief) and a comatose flatulent mother-in-law. His appetites for porn, booze and cigarettes are constantly challenged by his feminist sister-in-law and ultra-PC stuffed bear secretaries. Cornfed Pig is the standout character, with his droll, private dick monologues that contrast with Duckman's foul-mouthed tirades.

This is a late DVD release for a very funny animated series. The first boxset contains seasons 1 and 2, but further sets are already on the way.



EXECUTIVE KOALA (2005)
RUG COP (2006)
THE EARTH SINKS EXCEPT JAPAN (2006)

Coming on November 18th from Synapse films, are three new DVDs from the director of Japanese comedy The Calamari Wrestler (reviewed here). Hopefully these will be released seperately as well as a boxset, because I wholeheartedly don't recommend The World Sinks Except Japan (reviewed here) although all three look fun on paper. The Calamari Wrestler may prove to have been Minoru Kawasaki's best film, but I'm willing to risk his murder comedy Executive Koala, and martial arts cop comedy Rug Cop (his wig is a deadly weapon!) just in case.



FREEDOM (2007)

I heard that this anime was coming on Blu-Ray in Japan, and I reviewed the first episode on HD-DVD, but the great news is that the entire series should debut on DVD and Blu-Ray in the US and UK on November 11th. The contents will probably look like the Japanese release pictured above.


September 20, 2008

DVD NEWS - UK and region 2 updates

MS. 45 / ANGEL OF VENGEANCE (1981)
Infamous under both titles, Abel Ferrara's almost mainstream rape/revenge reaction to Death Wish has been notably missing from DVD. It's surfaced in France in a reportedly uncut version with English audio. While it serves as a Maniac-style borderline slasher, Ms. 45 also has the most feminist subtext for the era.


TOKYO ZOMBIE (2005)
This offbeat horror comedy has been a long time coming, and will finally appear in the UK on October 13th. Nippon Cinema has a review. Starring Tadanobu Asano - Ichi The Killer himself.


GUARD POST / GP506 (2008)
For any fans of the creepy cross-genre wartime ghost story R-Point, comes this follow-up by the same director in similar territory. Also out on October 13th in the UK.


CHOCOLATE (2008)
The female follow-up to Thai action sensation Ong-Bak is out in the UK in November. While Tony Jaa is still mucking about with Ong-Bak 2, Chocolate should keep non-CGI, non-wirework martial arts fans very happy. There's a trailer and more news on 24framespersecond.

September 18, 2008

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970) - remastered DVD



VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS
(1970, former Czechoslovakia)

I first encountered the name Valerie and her Week of Wonders when it was the name of an electro band featured on John Peel's radio show in the eighties. When I discovered it was also a the name of a film, I sought out the eventual Redemption VHS and was delighted with the film, even though it wasn't in great shape. Now Valerie has been released again, and will hopefully find a new audience.

It's an enchanting, deliberately dreamlike tale of a young woman coming of age. Newly aware of the world of sexuality, the behaviour of everyone around her hints at life's possibilities. While she is inexperienced, Valerie isn't ready to blindly follow the examples of others. When a school friend gets married, Valerie is very aware that matrimony and religion aren't for her.

Indeed, most of her friends and family are either acting strangely. One character in particular seems intent on confusing her. A scary-faced shape-shifting monster, who begins the film as a weasel (!) also poses as a young man, a priest and Valerie's father.


Valerie wafts through the sexual situations, but the film is more about her awareness than sex itself. It's hypnotic, beautiful and visually poetic, but there's more subtext going on than actual story. It could all be a sexual dream, waiting to be decoded and analysed.

As cinema, it's unique and memorable, with an influential soundtrack that was recently remastered on CD.


Until this Second Run DVD release, there was only a very battered film print used for the Redemption releases, where some shots repeatedly skipped frames like a silent movie and the image was often obscured by showers of scratches.

Now an excellent print has been used which appears to be complete, gaining over a minute of missing damaged footage - gone are the jumps and scratches. But...


For me, the transfer of the film to a new digital master has compromised the look of several sections of the story. Some shots are so bright that the image electronically bleaches out detail, other scenes are so dark that the action disappears into murk. Comparing it to the Redemption release showed me how severely different the colours and contrasts of some scenes now look.

For instance, there's an early scene of Valerie swimming face up in a pond (the shot is used for the DVD menu) - the first time it appears it's so bright that her face almost disappears, but repeated later in the film it's exposed properly. This occasional lack of continuity also extends to the colour of Valerie's hair. Sometimes it's chestnut brown (the same as the Redemption release, and many publicity photos) but now often appears to be dark brown or black. Similarly a scene in The Weasel's dungeon that was previously perfectly well lit, is now so dark that at one point the screen goes completely dark during the action.

While this is the best release of the film I've seen, and the extras include a wonderful recent interview with 'Valerie' herself, I'm afraid that we've yet to see this magical film looking its best.


DVD Beaver now has a review, and large comparitive screengrabs of the three DVD versions for you to check out.

September 15, 2008

SPEED RACER (2008) - fast, furious and futuristic

SPEED RACER
(2008, USA)

What do you mean, you missed it?

Speed Racer is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray in the US, and due out in November in the UK.

I was seriously impressed with this new film from the Wachowski Brothers, but couldn’t understand why so many Matrix fans weren’t interested in it. I saw Speed Racer on the largest Imax screen in the UK and was bowled over by it. The film proved to be a hard sell in the UK, where the anime show was never shown on TV and has only just surfaced on DVD. Besides few people knowing the concept or the characters, it was widely perceived as a children’s film. But I think that many people who would have enjoyed it have missed out.



It's a great example of digital cinema - using actors amongst CGI settings and action - an opportunity to unleash filmmakers' visual imaginations. There's already been the stylised, monochrome Frank Frazetta 'graphic novel' realities of Sin City and 300, and of course the recent Star Wars trilogy. But so far I've only really enjoyed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in this style of film-making, until now.


Speed Racer attempts to portray a reality in the narrative style of the 1960's anime that inspired it, with infinite focus, garish colour and impossible action. The hyper-design of the race tracks, duelling cars and fictional but familiar-looking quixotic locations all dazzle the eye and boggle the mind.

The Wachowski Brothers have been pretty quiet since the Matrix Trilogy, apart from their work on V for Vendetta, but have now achieved a breakthrough film that could be just as influential - with breakneck action on the racetracks that the eye can just about follow, revolving horizons, warping perspectives, and impossible camera moves. There’s also a complex narrative style condensing an even longer running time by layering additional scenes in the background behind the main action.

While there is a retro, almost Brady Bunch family at the heart of the story and buckets of chimpanzee humour for younger children (though still funny for adults), the action, spectacle and technical virtuosity is ample reward for any fan of super-rich eye-candy and anyone wanting a sneak-peak at the potential future of cinema.

Once again, children's entertainment is a safe haven for psychedelia – here using fast moving, intensely detailed patterns and every colour on the pallette all at once. The story was more complex than I'd expected, with our heroes battling corrupt sponsors as well as other drivers.

An international cast is headed by Emile Hirsch and John Goodman, with strong support from Christina Ricci. There’s also a great role for Matthew Fox (of Lost) as the mysterious Racer X, convincingly threatening and mean, but keeping his performance rooted in reality. He also gets a kickass martial arts fight scene. Susan Sarandon is underused amongst all the boy racers, her most important contribution being the making of sandwiches! It also took me a while to recognise her – she looked like she’d been digitally tweaked to look ten years younger – another potential use of digital cinema.


From South Korea, Rain (recently the star of I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK) gets a good role as a rival racer, and Hiroyuki Sanada (Ring, Twilight Samurai) is in there too. Both actors are majorly hyped in the Far Eastern publicity, as you can see from the posters. I'm still puzzled that most of the baddies are uniformly grotesque, overweight and British. Somone care to tell me why we’re so often portrayed as cockney bad guys?


So far, this is my Film Of The Year (and yes, I've seen Dark Knight). Don't miss it again.

September 11, 2008

Three years of BLACK HOLE DVD REVIEWS

This site has now been around for three years. At present I want to write for many more, about the same kinds of movies. But what kinds are they? Here's a bit more about choosing what's in the Black Hole.

While I'm attempting to collect every single movie that I've ever enjoyed (preferably the original version that I first watched, maybe with the censor cuts replaced, and always in the original aspect ratio - this makes the process even slower), I'm very aware that many of them are only enjoyable because of a personal nostalgic memory. So while sifting through my favourites, I only like to recommend the ones I think could easily appeal to an audience today.

So, I'll carry on talking about the 1970's and 1960's, indeed any older movies that still hold up. I wanted to start a 1980's section, but when I watch the ones that I thought were good, I can't honestly recommend many - they seem to date much more badly than the other decades!

Of course I'm still looking for new films from all over. There's many news sites getting worked up about exciting sounding upcoming films, but I'm only interested in telling you about the ones that actually fulfilled their promises and manage to get subtitled in English, somewhere.

Although the J-horror bubble has burst in the eyes of many critics, there's still many Japanese films that I want to explore. I don't believe that Japan has stopped making good horror. They've been guilty of repeating themselves - but who hasn't? With so much creativity in an industry that still enables low-budgets and artistic vision, they're still able to be unusual and interesting. And I think there are many older gems yet to see.

My South Korean coverage has been comparatively lacking, because I watched many excellent films just before the Black Hole began. Because I like to write reviews while they're still fresh in my mind, it's only now that the time has come around to watch them again.

While I feel a little cruel reviewing films that are hard to find (in the Not On DVD list), it's good to see that every month or two, some of them are finally getting a release somewhere in the world. I'm still amazed at some of the classics that are still missing. But it's also to mention the smaller films that I think could still make their money back.

I might start including embedded movie trailers and clips again. I'm not a fan of the look of big blurry, randomly-picked freeze frames, of most movie-viewers. So, please let me know if they at all effect your enjoyment of this site. I only want to improve things, not include stuff you find annoying, unsightly or a drag on your load times.


When I started on this, I only wanted to wish the Black Hole a happy birthday...

"Every large galaxy has at its center a massive black hole"

September 10, 2008

WESTWORLD (1973) - when theme parks attack

WESTWORLD
(1973, USA)

Westworld is getting a DVD release in the UK this month. It’s also currently being prepped for a Hollywood remake. You ever been to Westworld, Futureworld or beyond?

Science fiction has long toyed with the concepts of sophisticated humanoid robots being able to replace humans. TV and film producers love the idea of robots that look like people because building robots is very expensive - Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956) was the most expensive prop in the film. Robots that look like humans (androids, to be exact) are a very cheap special effect.

In the 1970's, writers were still being inspired by the technology of the Disneyland theme park attractions, like the animatronic Hall of Presidents, and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. This was specifically referenced in the 1975 thriller made of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, and in Westworld - an expensive playground where adults dress up as cowboys, shoot gunslinger robots and shag robot dancing girls.

Westworld struck a vein, depicting the funland of Delos, deep in the desert, made up of Westworld (the wild West), Medieval World (sword fights, jousting, wenching) and Roman World (orgies).

While it didn’t predict that the electronic games of Pong would evolve into virtual reality gaming, the writer envisaged a reality re-created on a Hollywood-style set with robots fulfilling sexual and violent fantasies. In retrospect, I don’t think everyone would want to live out their fantasies in public, and not many businesses could really make money out of building expensive robots but having to repair their gunshots every night. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.


Written and directed by Michael Crichton, on a roll between medical sci-fi thrillers The Andromeda Strain (1971, based on his novel) and Coma (1978, which he directed), he injects a problem into the computerised resort. The machines start breaking down in a pattern that spreads like a disease, thus predicting the computer virus, but calling it a "central mechanism psychosis". Of course, this plot device was later recycled for Jurassic Park (1993).

Westworld caught the public imagination at the time, though it was a hard project to find financial backing. Crichton describes his script getting turned down all around town – perhaps executives liked big stars and directors with good track records more than they liked original stories. As a result, the movie is low budget, but still considerably smarter looking than other pre-Star Wars sci-fi at the time. After a lengthy set-up to explain what the Delos resort is all about, and some lightweight comedy padding (like the low-rent balsawood bar-room brawl), the pace tightens considerably as things start to go wornnnng… With the robot gunslinger programmed to get into fights, but his fail safe mechanisms deactivated, a deadly chase begins. As the other guests get massacred, one survivor has to fend off the unstoppable top-of-the-range killing machine…

This was an early starring role for James Brolin, before he rounded off the decade with genre classics The Car, Capricorn One (1978) and The Amityville Horror (1979). Richard Benjamin is better known for comedy, like the Dracula spoof Love at First Bite, but this and Catch 22 proved he had more range. Of course, Yul Brynner efortlessly recreates the look of his character from The Magnificent Seven (1960). His silvered eyes and removable face giving away his robotic status.


The functional sets are under-dressed and flatly lit, though the endless white corridors of the Delos resort work well as a maze. You can tell it from a TV movie by the 2.35 widescreen aspect, the bloody slow-motion squibs, and the hints of cyber-sex. In the UK, it got an AA certificate, restricting under 14’s from seeing it. I first saw it on a double-bill with Soylent Green.

The long final act with the unstoppable robot with infra-red vision anticipates elements of The Terminator, Predator (right down to a crucial plot point), even the robo-vision of Robocop. In fact, the American Cinematographer articles about Westworld (November 73 issue) point out that the gunslinger’s electronic viewpoint was the first sequence to use actual computer imaging – the footage was scanned in, digitally simplified and played out again. Westworld also features an early instance of the baddie who won't stay dead (before Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers and again The Terminator).


The paperback tie-in book that was sold at the time was simply a draft of the script, as it stood just before filming began – hence the different ending to the film. This has an interesting and thorough introduction by Crichton, talking about the making of the film.



Westworld spawned a sequel in 1976, but Futureworld wasn’t written by Crichton. It picks up years after the Delos disaster, replacing the resort of Westworld with an outer space simulation. But somehow the relaunch of the resort to the public also incorporates a sinister bid at world domination (a story continued in the short-lived 1980 TV series Beyond Westworld).


The story isn't as intersting as the actual NASA hardware used as a backdrop, all far more impressive than the many dull predictions of 'future' technology - holographic chess, dream machines, remote-controlled robot boxing… I remember it even being unexciting at the time. They even throw away the return of the Gunslinger character, using him for seduction rather than gunplay. But it’s not every day you can say that you’ve seen Gwyneth Paltrow’s mum (Blythe Danner) making love to a robot (Yul Brynner). Peter Fonda and Arthur Hill starred, though Danner's character makes more of an impression, playing a fiesty journalist.

Futureworld has now had a PAL region 2 DVD release in the UK.