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.


November 14, 2005


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



(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.


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.


November 06, 2005

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

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...

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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