January 21, 2009

HANSEL & GRETEL (2007) - Korea updates Grimm's fairy tale

(2007, South Korea)

A dark, beautiful mystery...

I didn’t even know what genre this movie was going to be in when I started to watch it. I like knowing nothing about the story and was intrigued by which way this tale was going to twist. Of course, I won’t spoil it for you, but must at least describe to you what kind of film to expect. The filmmakers call Hansel and Gretel a dark fantasy, a new movie genre for South Korea.

A young man, Eun Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon), is driving through a forest when he’s in a car crash. By the time he regains consciousness, night has fallen. A young girl finds him and leads him back to her house deep in the woods. There he meets her family, who look like they’re celebrating the most perfect Christmas ever. Colourful toys, fairy lights and cakes are everywhere. But after staying the night, he has trouble finding the way back to civilisation, or even contacting it… Why can’t he escape the forest?

I was bracing myself in case this mystery turned into an extreme horror, and as I was trying to work out what was going on. The result was simpler than I’d expected, but many minor questions raised along the way were left unanswered.

As usual, with the best of Korean cinema, it’s beautifully designed, with highly accomplished filmmaking and faultless acting, especially from the three children, one of whom is very young.

Before the answers come, it’s a wonderful mystery. The closing act could have been far shorter, a lot of momentum is lost towards the climax, but is eventually satisfying. Without giving too much away, this may be a new genre for Korea, but it appears to have drawn from a certain episode of The Twilight Zone and a little from Village of the Damned… Though thankfully this isn’t another horror about how evil children are - let's kill them!

It borders on being a horror film, but not one that will totally satisfy modern horror fans. Yet there are a few moments that are too tough for children to watch, so 'dark fantasy' will have to do. It's also quite Christmassy!

The film is playing in a couple of small London cinemas at the moment, so hopefully it will get a UK DVD release. If not, there’s a region 3 DVD from Malaysia which even has the extras subbed in English, though many of the features look quite low resolution. They start with director Phil-sung Yim (who previously made the chilly ghost story Antarctic Journal) explaining how he approached the story. The film itself looks good, with well translated subtitles and an anamorphic widescreen picture.

January 20, 2009

BASKET CASE (1982) - Frank Henenlotter’s world of wicker

(1982, USA)

This is a film that I was told I absolutely had to see when it came out. It was right up my alley and while it's not as essential now, it's still a hamper full of gory fun.

Duane Bradley carries his hideously deformed, psychotic brother around in a wicker basket, on a mission to track down and avenge the surgical team who separated them as Siamese twins…

Rental VHS cover art in the UK

Set in Manhattan's Times Square when it was more red light district than tourist trap, this low budget horror looks definitively grindhouse. At the time, it became a huge success on video, even though most of the gore had been censored out. Basket Case looked as grainy and low-budget as The Evil Dead, but was more like Evil Dead II with it’s mix of blood-letting and black humour.

Basket Case continues in the vein of sexual comedy horror that peaked in the 1970s with Andy Warhol’s Blood For Dracula and Flesh For Frankenstein (1973), and predates Stuart Gordon’s slicker Re-animator (1985). The extreme blood-letting was tempered by the over-the-top tongue-in-cheek approach, yet adult enough to include sexuality and nudity, which many American horrors shied away from.

The film features a wide mixture of good and bad acting talent, though Kevin Van Hentenryck as the amiable Duane holds the whole film together. The special effects are hit and miss, but take on a surreal charm - the evil twin Belial certainly has character and, for a lump of rubber, even delivers pathos. The wealth of ideas and humour in the script make it very watchable today. As do the women's bizarrely thick hairstyles, though they're no match for the sheer size of Duane's naturally curly perm.

Basket Case aimed to out-gore anything else around at the time. The murders are sometimes cheated off camera, but are amusingly inventive and usually ludicrous. Belial's revenge involved separating his victims, when though they're not Siamese twins...

The scalpels in the face scene is my favourite for delirious horror movie acting - revelling in excess, echoing the screaming women of old movie posters, rather than anything distressingly realistic. Gore can be fun! Diana Browne, as Dr Kutter, would have got my vote for ‘best performance in a death scene’ that year, if there was such a thing.

As Belial gets jealous of his relatively normal brother having a relationship, sex rears its ugly head. But Henenlotter keeps the sexual interests of his audiences fairly well balanced, featuring male and female nudity, and even male full frontal shots, rare in any film.

For a perilously low budget, Henenlotter wrote and directed a great film, making the most of the atmosphere of the down-at-heel locations. He became an essential director for a few years, keeping fans happy with two Basket Case sequels, Frankenhooker, and the marvellous Brain Damage (a title easily confused with Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead and Bad Taste).

It’s a shame he couldn’t keep it up – there’s a huge gap in his directorial career between Basket Case 3 and the recent Bad Biology, which I’ve yet to see, but it's out on DVD in February. Welcome back, Frank!

I watched this again on the Something Weird DVD which is presented 4:3 full-frame, hinting that it was framed as much for home video as cinemas. The extras include a commentary track, some great out-takes and a lively tour round the filming locations with the director. The picture looks far less grainy than I remembered it and the dialogue is clearly audible - it wasn't always easy to hear in cinemas and on VHS.

Go on, have a peek inside...

January 18, 2009

MILK (2008) - serious seventies flashbacks

(2008, USA)

Gus Van Sant's new film opens in UK cinemas this week. I don't normally plug new releases, but this one is exciting for me personally because it's a subject close to my heart - the gay rights movement. Some people may identify their teenage years with The Breakfast Club or some other John Hughes' movie. For others it might be Napoleon Dynamite. Back in the 1970s, I wanted to be someone in Quadrophenia (an anti-establishment punk rebel) or National Lampoon's Animal House, (a drunk but popular under-achiever). But in reality, I was far closer to several characters in Milk, being a closeted teenager at the time, and an out-and-proud politically-involved idealist of a few years later. But this was all in rural England rather than San Francisco, where it was all happening.

For a new audience to the story, Milk should prove an encouraging reminder of grass roots political activism. How the energies of an abused minority can even be diverted from the destruction of rioting and channelled into a positive force. In a time of murderous queerbashing and a hostile police force, it was very easy to get angry or keep very, very closeted.

I like Van Sant as a filmmaker, and when he gets weird and experimental with stories based on real-life, it can be fascinating. His takes on the death of Kurt Cobain (Last Days) and the Columbine High School murders (Elephant) were far from straightforward docu-dramas. But a film about Harvey Milk would be wrong to take such a chance with.

Van Sant tried for years to get this project made. The script by Dustin Lance Black (who's also worked on the Bill Paxton TV series Big Love), and the casting of Sean Penn, finally helped the film to get made. The story is of a gay-rights activist who successfully campaigned his way into San Francisco City Hall in the late 1970s against all the odds. Harvey's story was well-known in the gay press, and later in an Oscar-winning documentary (see below), but I can't imagine many people knowing about it now. So I was surprised when the film pre-empted the story's shock ending right at the start. I'd like to have seen an audience taken surprise by Milk's assassination, with the sense of foreboding building up suspense, rather than just being ironically insightful.

The recreation of the 1970s is as I remembered it, and was scrupulously reconstructed with the help of many who were around at the time. Using the actual locations of Harvey's camera shop on Castro Street, which became his campaign office, and the spectacular City Hall, where much of the story took place, make it all look totally convincing.

Sean Penn, as Harvey Milk, is an uncanny performance, not only reminding us totally of the person in the news footage, but also channelling his ideals and personality - a dedicated man fired up to make some positive changes - not in it for the money, and balancing the big issues with the plights of individuals. A charismatic speaker and not without a sense of humour. The sort of person who could give politicians a good name.

Seeing photos of Penn, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin in 1970s clothes and hairstyles makes each of them instantly recognisable compared to the original characters they play (whose photos are included in the end credits).

While gay rights were a hard sell in 1970s USA, things were about to get disastrously tougher. We really needed Harvey inside City Hall in California in the AIDS-blighted 1980s, making his death all the more tragic and untimely.

For a while, I thought he'd opened the doors to a more accepting government and society, and that things could only get better. But the long-established gay community of San Francisco still has a vocal anti-gay presence. On our last fleeting visit in 2007, we witnessed an impromptu sidewalk demonstration by vocal Christian moralists on a high-profile street corner in central San Francisco (see photo). Proof that once a battle is won, the fight is far from over.

The film's UK website is here and here's the YouTube trailer.

Timed to coincide with the UK cinema release is the welcome return of the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, newly remastered for DVD on its 20th anniversary. I look forward to seeing it again, a wonderful feature-length documentary with interviews and footage of the real life Harvey Milk and his adversaries. This was the first time the story won an Academy Award but not, I suspect, the last.

January 15, 2009

THUNDERBIRDS on Blu-Ray - looking fine in 16:9

4:3, or not 4:3, that is the question

One of my earliest TV memories, or earliest memories actually, was watching Thunderbirds on black and white TV in the 1960s. Another hazy childhood memory was a visit to the cinema and being frightened by a Martian rock snake during the first movie, Thunderbirds Are Go. One of the few survivors from my childhod toybox is a battered die-cast Thunderbird 2. Every week I'd get TV21, a tabloid-sized comic, full of Thunderbirds cartoons strips and impressive colour photos. All in all, Thunderbirds was a large part of my childhood and has survived as an oft-repeated pleasure on TV, VHS and DVD.

I'm still enthralled by the series, after forty years of watching it, and have been collecting books and memorabilia about it and similar shows (like Fireball XL5, Stingray and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons).

It's no surprise that for Christmas, I was given the new HD boxset of Thunderbirds on Blu-Ray, from ITV DVD (sic). So far, Blu-Ray releases have concentrated on movies and recent TV that were all originally produced in widescreen, perfect for the HD aspect ratio of 16:9.
The problem is, that until recent years, all TV shows were made with an aspect of 4:3 (otherwise known as 1.33), presenting a dilemma for Blu-Ray - how should a widescreen format present old 'fullframe' images? Widescreen TVs can of course display the entire original 4:3 image, but only with black strips down both sides. This preserves all of the original image but leaves part of the screen unused. But in a few cases, there's another option...

Original 4:3 fullscreen aspect (from DVD)

New 16:9 widescreen aspect (from Blu-Ray)

These screengrabs (from an overly heated debate in the DVD Forums) illustrate how ITV DVD have released Thunderbirds on Blu-Ray. By going back to the original film negatives, the image has been re-framed, cropping off the top and bottom edges, but showing more at the sides. This way, the widescreen frame is filled, and the image is undistorted.

OK, part of the image has been cropped off and the visual composition is altered, (usually looking more cramped over each character's 'headroom'), but the advantage here is a slight gain in image (usually down the left hand side) and, importantly, a startling increase in the clarity of the image and the richness of the colours.

Thunderbirds looks like it has had the same treatment as the upcoming Space 1999 HD release. Both series were originally shot on 35mm film, the same format as most feature films. In both transfers, there only seems to be a slight increase in image width.

While FAB (the official Gerry Anderson fan magazine) gave a thorough and largely negative review of the Thunderbirds Blu-Ray boxset, to me it looks far better than I'd been lead to believe. I've not watched the whole set, but the new widescreen framing has been very carefully chosen so as not to miss any action - the lost image at the top of frame even advantageously disguises most of the puppet characters' supporting wires. The high definition transfer is the best we're going to see unless actual film restoration is done. The zooming in and cropping means that owners of widescreen TVs can get closer into the action, the tighter framing feels more like a movie.

The current need to fill up new HD TV channel schedules is probably the reason this series was remastered in HD in the first place, and the requirement would be for a 16:9 transfer, and not a 4:3 one. If fans still want a 4:3 Thunderbirds in High Definition, ITV DVD will have had to pay for a whole new transfer, meaning an even more pricey boxset. Given the choce of high definition Thunderbirds in 16:9 or not at all, I'd definitely vote for 16:9.

This approach for 16:9 remastering, won't work for the hundreds of other TV programmes that were shot on video, or on film formats such as 16mm (a budget-conscious move for 1970s TV meant that pictures suddenly got extremely grainy). Only series filmed (and edited) on 35mm film can benefit from Blu-Ray and HDTV transmissions. Batman, Land of the Giants and The Avengers are all series that spring to mind as being potentially spectacular in HD.

Before I saw Thunderbirds on Blu-Ray, I was a sceptic and a purist. My goal as a collector has always been to collect my favourites in their original aspect ratios, in the best possible quality. With this new home video format offering so much extra storage capacity, I'd ideally like to have the option when such important decisions are made about how a classic series should look and sound. When VHS ruled home video, there was a decade of waiting for movies to be released widescreen. Now the tables are turned, I'm wishing for TV to be released 1.33 full-frame! The only way to keep everyone happy is to offer a choice of aspect ratios - either as a menu option or by two separate releases, but both options are far more expensive to manufacture. High definition transfers, restoration of old materials, and Blu-Ray mastering are all very expensive - and a TV series such as Thunderbirds is 16 times longer than the average movie.

To enjoy something for thirty years and then, at the point where it could be enjoyed at the best quality ever, to have it drastically changed, is frustrating. But like the classic 1950s Ray Harryhausen films currently being presented on Blu-Ray, I've become more open-minded. If it works, it works. Thunderbirds has been carefully converted to work for widescreen presentation and I'm excited to watch it in this new incarnation, especially with the huge leap in picture quality.

Looking around the fan forums, Gerry Anderson's live-action UFO series has also been cropped for HDTV, but the screen grabs here make it look like the most obtrusive reformatting so far - the original compositions only seem to work in 4:3.

The same decisions will be made about many other classic TV shows, as well as vintage cinema (from the 1950s and earlier, roughly speaking). HD or otherwise, new TV sets are all widescreen. Recent movies look good on widescreen sets, but old TV can only fill the frame by being cropped. In most cases it's going to look worse, in terms of quality and composition. Thunderbirds, I think, is a rare exception.

I'll give the series itself a proper review when I've seen some more episodes, again...

January 14, 2009

THE EXORCIST III (1990) - who you gonna call?

(1990, USA)

After the disastrous reception of Exorcist II: The Heretic (read more about that here), there was an understandable pause before the next moiver sequel... twelve years! But when the author of The Exorcist hit novel, William Peter Blatty, wrote the sequel Legion, there was an immediate interest in filming it. He also got to direct, having already directed The Ninth Configuration (1980) - a movie that thematically links Exorcists 1 and 3 as the centrepiece of his 'trilogy of faith'.

The film wasn't a totally smooth production, with a last-minute reshoot of a sizeable chunk of the climax (when it was finally decided that Exorcist films really should have an exorcism in them). But the tampering is well integrated and it's an absorbing story, totally ignoring the events of Exorcist II, and continuing the story directly on from the original.

It opens with Mike Oldfield's haunting theme, 'Tubular Bells'. Once again, the setting is Washington DC, and Detective Kinderman revisits the stone stairs under Regan's bedroom (where the first film ended).

The detective is investigating a nasty series of ritual murders, which remind him of the methods of a dead serial killer. Other details of the case point to his involvement with the Regan murders, and of his friendship with Father Karras. The case is baffling - the crimes all point to the same murderer, but the fingerprints never match. As Kinderman gets deeper into the case, his involvement gets increasingly personal and the murders get closer to home...

Legion is a unique story rather than a movie sequel that blindly blueprints the original. It goes in its own direction, and feels very much a Blatty film, mirroring the humorous dialogue and dream sequences of The Ninth Configuration. Much as I was impressed with it originally, The Ninth Configuration has dated relatively badly compared to The Exorcist III.

Kinderman has to face the demonic 'Gemini' serial killer, terrifyingly played by Brad Dourif (Alien Resurrection) in one of his strongest ever roles. I remember first seeing Dourif in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and in such diverse productions as David Lynch's films (Dune and Blue Velvet) as well as the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play series.

George C. Scott plays Lt Kinderman, originally portrayed by Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist, but had since passed away. Similarly, Father Dyer is now played by Ed Flanders, an actor who also starred in The Ninth Configuration. Both Scott Wilson, recently seen in Korean monster movie The Host, and Jason Miller had also appeared in The Ninth Configuration. Though Miller is the only actor in the cast who'd appeared in the first Exorcist.

The reshot ending adds Nicol Williamson as this episode's exorcist.

The end result is a powerful detective mystery with full-strength scares and a high calibre cast. The surreal dreams and bizarre murders place it firmly inside the horror genre.

There's much more about The Exorcist III on this William Peter Blatty fansite here.

Also a ton of stuff and screengrabbed spoilers for all The Exorcist films on Captain Howdy.com.

January 11, 2009

PLANETA BUR (1961) - Russian retro space adventure

(1961, Russia, Planet of Storms)

I’m always short of enjoyable science fiction films to watch. I mean the older ones, like the alien attacks and giant monster movies of the 1950s. I like seeing how space travel was visualised before it started happening - a genre that’s now called 'retro-futuristic'.

Planeta Bur fits the bill perfectly, but unlike Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth, it's almost completely unknown. To find a film this rich in futuristic design, with a pacy storyline and even a half-decent budget, is a joy to see.

In the 1960s, the space race had two competitors, inspiring films in the USA and USSR, but the Russian films of this era have hardly been seen outside its borders. Planeta Bur is a fantastic example. A prediction of how space travel might look, spiced up with monsters, a huge robot and even the possibility of first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life.

We join Earth's first mission to Venus just as a disastrous meteor shower jeopardises the trip. The survivors head down to the surface, leaving the only woman cosmonaut in orbit. The crew get separated as they land, their exploring has to take second place to a rescue expedition.

The impressive scale of the film, using many bleak locations representing Venusian landscapes, compares favorably to US and Europesn sci-fi of the time, as do the special effects. So much so, that Stanley Kubrick reportedly studied the director's space films when preparing 2001 - A Space Odyssey.

Planeta Bur is refreshingly different from Hollywood cliche. The only woman is an able astronaut, rather than a object to be rescued or romanced. The robot isn't a character with a personality, but more like a truck or piece of machinery – indeed, years before Hal 2000, it's almost a liability to the mission. The many local monsters and dinosaurs aren't crafty calculating adversaries, just local colour. The story is about the mission.

Besides the overly fantastic imaginings, the astronauts also philosophise about life beyond Earth, first contact with another alien race, whether Venus could once have had a civilisation many eons ago... all sorts of discoveries that space travel could possibly unlock. As it happens, almost all of their speculations come true during their brief expedition on the planet! Completely unlikely, but at least exciting the audiences with the prospect of what could be gained by such expeditions. All this and a super flying car too.

The Russian DVD is from a reasonable but faded print - it’s a bit scratchy, slightly soft and presented 1.33 full frame. The colour is vibrant and the sound good, remixed into stereo and 5.1. The main drawback is the tiny English subtitles, very hard to read on all but the hugest screens – they’re not pefect translations and also miss out some lines of dialogue, but I’m happy this DVD exists at all.

The extras are good and also have English subtitles. There’s a great documentary overview of the director, Pavel Klushantsev's other space films, featuring some astonishing clips of his visionary ‘documentaries’. He was a Russian equivalent of George Pal – weaving documentary with prediction and fantasy, but keeping the science as accurate as possible. His special effects are certainly a match for Pal’s technicians. There’s fantastic modelwork, made to look good by superior camerawork and seamless compositing. Like Pal, it’s designed to look like it would in real life.

One of his earlier documentaries is included on the DVD, but more can currently be found on YouTube. Get the DVD of Planeta Bur at Diabolik DVD or from ArtPop.

Do You Want To Know More?

DVD Beaver have some more screenshots from the film and a review.

An indepth look at the making of the film was printed in Outre magazine, the sister publication to Filmfax, in issues 14 to 17, written by special effects wizard Robert Skotak.

There was also an appreciation of Planeta Bur in the first Video Watchdog Special Edition back in 1991. In the 12-page article, John Charles examined how it was bought by Roger Corman, who used the special effects sequences for Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and its sequel.

Extensive screenshots from Pavel Klushantsev's Road to the Stars can be found here on Astronautix.com. Road To The Stars itself can be seen here on RuTube. Mars and even Planeta Bur are also on RuTube but without subtitles.

Tons more beautiful retro-future art here on these image-laden pages of Dark Roasted Blend.