Friday, October 29, 2010

House: Criterion Collection

House is a fever dream of childhood nightmares distilled through the demented lens of visionary (hallucinatory?) director Nobuhiko Obayashi. Utilizing horrific scenarios concocted by his pre-teen daughter, Obayashi constructed his take on a haunted house film and then threw seemingly every camera trick and technique at it, crafting a boldly original and strikingly memorable landmark of ‘70s Japanese cinema.

The film follows seven high school damsels with fanciful names such as Gorgeous, Melody, and Kung Fu as they set out on a vacation to the remote home of Gorgeous’ aunt. Her house looks unassuming and safe, and the girls delight in their country vacation until they start disappearing one by one under mysterious circumstances. It’s soon apparent that they’re in incredible danger, but by that time they’re also captives of the house and its otherworldly owner, the spirit of the aunt who died waiting in vain for the return of her deceased soldier husband. Their killings are inventive and filmed in gory detail, but the film never really becomes terrifying due to its trippy nature as well as its groovy 70s soundtrack by pop group Godiego that is often at odds with the creepy visuals. Among the most memorable of those deaths are Melody’s prolonged dismemberment by a grand piano and Prof’s death by drowning in a room filled with blood spewing from a demonic cat painting. Yes, you read that right.

The acting is nothing special, with almost all of the student leads recruited from the modeling ranks of Obayashi’s previous commercial endeavors. I believe Gorgeous was the only professional actress at the time in the group of seven girls, although Kung Fu stuck out for me as the most memorable performance with far more energy than the mostly subdued Gorgeous.

Where the film really leaves its mark is its direction, with Obayashi determined to utilize every conceivable form of visual manipulation to bring his experimental film techniques to this major studio release. Among those techniques were frame and time altering, mixed media incorporation such as fanciful animation (especially prevalent during Melody’s death), literally chopped up film images, and kaleidoscopic backgrounds (with a particularly vivid color wheel filling the screen during Kung Fu’s death battle). The film is like nothing before or since, and surprisingly made a mark at the Japanese box office with younger viewers who welcomed its experimental leanings.

House is presented in its original aspect ration of 1.33:1 in a new, restored high-definition digital transfer created from a 35mm low-contrast print struck from the original camera negative. The mono soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from an optical track print, and cleaned up with Pro Tools HD. Criterion’s loving restoration of the film results in a pristine presentation that is evident from the first glimpse of the venerable Toho studio logo preceding the feature, looking freshly minted and better than new. As for the merits of disc version, the film is not especially technically impressive on Blu-ray due to the somewhat substandard quality of the original material, but hardcore fans will appreciate the seemingly more intense color and fine detail available in the upgraded format.

The variety of bonus features isn’t extensive, but makes a big impact in the quality department. They include:
• “Constructing a House”, a generous (45 minutes!) new 2010 video interview with director Nobuhiko Obayashi and his daughter
Emotion, a 40 minute 1966 experimental film by Obayashi that shows some genesis of his filmmaking techniques later used in House
• New video appreciation by director Ti West (House of the Devil), a very brief and unnecessary addition
• Theatrical trailer
• An essay in the Blu-ray case insert by Chuck Stephens regarding the film and the Japanese film industry of the time

House is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Paths of Glory

Back when Stanley Kubrick still had all of his hair and was just making a name for himself in film, he caught a lucky break by attracting the already famous Kirk Douglas to star in and champion this powerful antiwar film. While it’s not clear that the star’s heroic tendencies on screen suitably merged with the material or the budding auteur director, there’s no denying that the film is completely engrossing and a vital viewing experience. With a sparkling new Criterion release, viewers now have the luxury of enjoying the best possible version of this largely forgotten gem.

Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a French officer in charge of a battered regiment at the front lines of World War I. His men have been pinned down by German artillery spewing from an unassailable stronghold called The Anthill, offering them no hopes of advancement. When his superior officer is offered a promotion in exchange for a foolhardy move on the German position, he orders Dax's regiment into action. When the mission inevitably fails and his men retreat to their trenches, Dax is forced by his general to send three men to their deaths at the hands of their own firing squad as scapegoats and as punishment for the perceived cowardice of the entire regiment.

Douglas is steely and smug in his self-righteous indignation at the atrocities of war transpiring around his character. He cuts an entirely heroic figure, both leading the charge on the battlefield and later in the courtroom as self-appointed counsel for the condemned men, making him appear as such a shining savior that he nearly walks on water. He was clearly the star and the main draw of the film, so if his overemphasized heroism is what helped it get made it’s a fair tradeoff for the existence of the potent final product. The power-crazed general (George Macready) is suitably devilish, while the soldiers are all adequate with the exception of the particularly good Ralph Meeker as one of the three condemned men and the particularly odd and miscast (and eventually fired) Timothy Carey as another condemned soldier. There’s also a brief appearance by Richard Anderson as the court martial prosecutor, instantly recognizable to TV viewers of a certain age thanks to his later role as Oscar Goldman on “The Six Million Dollar Man”.

Kubrick's film does a sublime job of criticizing the folly of war as well as the corrupt and delusional leaders calling the shots from their ivory towers. The film was banned in France for many years after its release, but the situations presented are ultimately universal and timeless in spite of their basis in historical fact, making this far less a condemnation of French military history than the political and self-serving maneuverings that can lead to such tragic results in any land. Kubrick's gritty battle footage and miserable trench conditions contrast so sharply with the ornate headquarters of the aloof generals that there's no shade of gray about the true enemy in the film. Although it sounds depressing, it's an enthralling and enriching cinematic treasure thanks to Kubrick's thoughtful, assured direction.

The restored and refined image quality of this release on Blu-ray is breathtaking, with such crystal-clear depth, contrast and detail of its black and white images that I wanted to crawl inside them in spite of the war taking place. It’s almost certain that there has never been a more precise and pristine viewing experience of this film, even during its original theatrical release. This is especially obvious when viewing the apparently unrestored theatrical trailer available as a bonus feature, as the images there appear as alternately washed-out and murky as one might expect. Comparing the riveting tracking shot through a soldier-filled trench in the trailer and then in the movie reveals such a vast improvement that the restored scene virtually cries out with the silent looks of desperation and resignation on the faces of the hundreds of anonymous soldiers. The high-definition digital transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and manually cleaned to remove flaws such as dirt and scratches. The sound retains the original mono presentation, remastered at 24 bits and completely uncompressed on the Blu-ray version.

This being Criterion, the bonus features are extensive and fascinating. They include a new audio commentary track featuring film critic Gary Giddins, a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick supplemented by stills, new video interviews produced exclusively for this release with Kubrick’s longtime executive producer Jan Harlan, Paths of Glory producer James B. Harris, and actress/wife Christiane Kubrick (who appeared in the final scene of the film). There’s also a brief French TV news segment about the real-life World War I execution that inspired the film, and some rare footage I enjoyed the most: a convivial and wide-ranging 1979 British TV interview with Douglas that finds the relaxed star surveying his life and career including his experiences making this film.

“Paths of Glory:Criterion Collection” is available for purchase on October 26th, 2010. For more information, visit

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl

Ah, Japan: last bastion of truly gonzo gorefests. The latest bizarro flick to wash up on our shores is the instantly descriptive Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl. Yes, with a self-explanatory title like that there’s little point in reviewing the plot, so let’s get right into the creative ways the directors cooked up the film’s increasingly insane and hilarious comic mutilation.

The movie starts on a high point with Vampire Girl (Yukie Kawamura) facing off against a trio of undead schoolgirls where she skins one of their skulls like she was peeling an orange, then throws it at zombie #2 where it proceeds to latch onto its nose and somehow slowly pulls the skin completely off its head while levitating in mid-air. Zombie 3 eventually ends up skinned as well, leaving Vampire Girl with a neat stack of skulls for a nice foot stomp. And that’s just the opening scene. By the movie’s end, we’ve witnessed Frankenstein Girl (Eri Otoguro) removing one of her own arms to install it on her head as a helicopter rotor, an epic showdown atop and all over Tokyo Tower, and the introduction of innovative vampire powers such as sentient blood that seeks out human hosts and also solidifies into deadly arm blades at will.

Most of the action takes place at a typical Japanese high school, with its requisite girl clubs pumped up to the most extreme of fringe groups that act as warring cliques. The loli-goth club is the most normal, although Frankenstein Girl is eventually created from its deceased leader. The wrist cutter club is a not at all subtle poke at the teen suicide and self-mutilation subculture, with the girls meeting solely to practice their wrist-slashing techniques together. And then there’s the tanning club, the most patently racist thing in a movie in probably the last 50 years unless you understand the culture (and possibly even if you do). These girls take their desire to be black to the furthest extremes, with the darkest tans, huge (and I mean HUGE) noses and lips, afros, and attire. If Oprah ever gets a whiff of this movie it will be permanently banned in the US.

When the school’s resident mad scientist learns of the special powers of Vampire Girl’s blood and finds the host body for Frankenstein Girl, he goes on a whirlwind killing spree to enhance his creation with the best of the school clubs, namely the extremely strong arms of the wrist cutter club girls and the athletic legs of the tanning club girls. There’s also a sex-crazed school nurse and a hellish sumo wrestler along for the ride, as well as an innocent boy student who becomes the object of Vampire Girl’s affections, but for the most part the film is all about the Japanese school girls. It’s wildly creative, well-paced, and ultimately one of the better entries in this peculiar genre to come along in the last few years.

The movie was very loosely based on a comic book of the same name, although apparently the stars never face off against each other in the book. The co-directors liked the comic book cover image and title and basically made everything else up themselves. Those directors are separately famous for such cinematic landmarks as Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura) and Zombie Self-Defense Force (Naoyuki Tomomatsu), so they’re operating well within their comfort zones this time around.

Surprisingly, the image quality of this low-budget effort is quite good on Blu-ray, although it maxes out at 1080i instead of 1080p. For a few extra dollars, it’s worth the bump up in quality from DVD. The sound mix is nothing special, but the subs are well done. The extras include footage of a Q&A session with the directors and stars at a theatrical screening, as well as a couple of brief behind the scenes featurettes.

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, just in time for your Halloween viewing needs.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl on Blogcritics.

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Hatter M: The Nature of Wonder

After his lengthy jaunt across 19th century Europe, royal bodyguard Hatter Madigan takes a trip to the New World in the latest installment of his ongoing “geographic” adventures, The Nature of Wonder. It’s a refreshing change of scenery for the character and readers, but Madigan’s principal quest remains the same: locate the missing heir to the Wonderland throne, Princess Alyss Heart. What originally started as an idea for a brief web comic to expand upon and promote the Looking Glass Wars trilogy of prose novels has turned into a monumental project that has taken on a life of its own and will shortly eclipse its source novels in total volumes.

The latest adventures are chronicled by series creator Frank Beddor along with co-writer Liz Cavalier, ensuring cohesive continuance of the ever-evolving tale of Madigan’s adventures in our world. As in past volumes, Madigan continues his search for Alyss by attempting to follow the Light, better known as White Imagination, a particular strain of good magic native to Wonderland. This volume starts in 1865, marking it as the approximate midpoint of Madigan’s 13 year quest in our world.

This time Madigan’s search leads him across the US, with notable stops along the way. In Washington D.C., he briefly encounters President Lincoln (who greatly admires Madigan’s similar choice in haberdashery), as well as members of a paranormal investigation bureau founded by Lincoln, something like an X-Files precursor. Then it’s off to Arizona where he meets an Indian shaman with a particularly strong affinity for White Imagination and helps her defend her tribe from soldiers corrupted by Black Imagination. Finally, he journeys further into the wild west in California where he meets a milliner from Wonderland, providing him a brief respite and full rejuvenation of his otherworldly weapons. Unfortunately, still no sign of Alyss, but it appears from the included sneak peak that he will continue his search in the Far East in Volume 4, Zen of Wonder.

It’s great fun to see Madigan’s adventures in the US, but the biggest surprise comes from a lengthy flashback to Wonderland where it’s revealed that Madigan has an older brother who was also a highly talented and respected royal bodyguard and also journeyed to our world, a certain setup for a future family reunion but an interesting development nonetheless. The Indian shaman is also surprising due to her significant White Imagination power, forcing Madigan to rethink everything he knows about Wonderland’s exclusivity as the primary domain for Imagination magic and as an independent world.

As in Volume 2, the art duties are masterfully handled by Sami Makkonen, showing even greater range as he fully asserts himself as the visual artistic force of the series. His engaging and extremely original art style continues to work very well for the material.

The book is supplemented by dozens of pages of bonus features including additional background about the places and people Madigan visits, full page artwork of custom Wonderland cards, art and journals from Alyss (I believe originally published in the now out-of-print Princess Alyss of Wonderland), and a brief sample from Volume 3 of the Looking Glass Wars novels. This wealth of features along with the great story combine to make the book a highly enjoyable read and left me anxiously awaiting the next installment.

Of special note and a further nod to Makkonen’s skill, Beddor is re-releasing Volume 1 (now retitled as Far From Wonder, with art by Ben Templesmith) in November with two entirely new chapters drawn by Makkonen. Those chapters are largely inconsequential to the overall story, but chronicle Madigan’s encounter with Spring Heeled Jack in Ireland as well as his temporary incarceration in a Siberian prison where he again crosses paths with intrepid reporter and ally Magda Pushkin. Fans of the series will appreciate the extra dose of Madigan, and the new cover art now nicely ties the book in with the other volumes.

Article first published as Book Review: Hatter M: The Nature of Wonder by Frank Beddor and Liz Cavalier, illustrated by by Sami Makkonen on Blogcritics.

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

Mad Max

Can you believe it’s been over 30 years since this movie came out? Or as my wife so elegantly commented, “Wow, I never knew Mel Gibson used to be hot!” A surprise hit from the land down under, the film was a star-making vehicle for Gibson as well as director George Miller as they told this story about what drove officer Max Rockatansky mad enough to seek revenge against an outlaw motorcycle gang. Now it's back in a brand new combo Blu-ray/DVD release from MGM; the DVD offers the movie widescreen and fullscreen.

Frankly, this is not a film that benefits from hi definition transfer. Considering its decidedly low-tech origins, there's no overcoming its inherent image graininess. Dedicated fanatics may rejoice at the chance to make out more details than in the past from its 1080p/AVC encoded transfer, but for the casual enthusiast, there's just not enough improvement over DVD to warrant upgrading.

Audio is similarly suspect, as the Blu offers an “Australian” English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, but considering that the film was originally released in mono there's only so much digital separation can accomplish. The Blu also offers the original mono, Spanish mono, French stereo, and American English dubbed mono.

Where this release really drops the ball is its bonus features. A quick glance at the contents reveals that the DVD contains far more bonus features than the Blu, and in fact the Blu offers no exclusive content. Both discs have a commentary track by art director Jon Dowding, cinematographer David Eggby, special effects artist Chris Murray and Max historian/collector Tim Ridge as well as the "Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon" featurette. It's a disappointing slap in the face to the fans and colors this even more as a money grab. Skip right to the DVD for your bonus feature viewing of the following:

"Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar" documentary
Original trailers
"Road Rants" trivia and fun fact track
Photo gallery
TV spots

While the DVD's bonus features are robust, the disc appears to be an exact duplicate of the 2002 Special Edition DVD release. In other words, one more reason for existing owners to skip the upgrade.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Mad Max on Blogcritics.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Human Target: The Complete First Season

"Human Target" feels like a throwback to the late Stephen J. Cannell's school of formulaic, action-heavy, standalone episodes that demand very little intellectual investment from its viewers but deliver significant weekly thrills. Sure, there's a shadowy backstory floating around in there somewhere, but the producers mainly aim to catapult their audience directly into the weekly action rather than getting bogged down in character mythology. As such, it's a surprisingly fun show that you can drop in and out of with little danger of missing out on important plot threads.

The show stars Mark Valley as a charming rogue named Christopher Chance, a talented private eye/bodyguard available for hire to the most deserving of clients. He's joined by his back office support team of Laverne Winston (Chi McBride) and phenomenally skilled hacker and ex-assassin Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley). That's it. No other regular stars, just a revolving door of guest actors apparently plucked from Vancouver's Who's Who acting directory, with many familiar faces from "Battlestar Galactica" and "The X-Files" in particular. I counted at least five "Battlestar" vets, and even the show's music is by "Battlestar" composer Bear McCreary, although I didn't notice any other causative link in the production and casting credits. As an aside, while I loved McCreary's work on "Battlestar", I was fairly disappointed with it here, so I'm happy to hear he's moved on for Season Two.

Valley is perfectly cast in his role, although you almost feel sorry for him with the amount of action he's put through each episode. Haley is fine in his role as well, but McBride serves no purpose and appears to just be going through the motions to collect a check. His character is of the Danny Glover "I'm getting way too old for this" variety of skeptical, everyman sidekicks generally doing little more than commenting on the superhuman heroics of Christopher Chance. Lose him and the show loses nothing.

The show is based on a DC comic book character created in the '70s and recently relaunched in their Vertigo line. I read the Vertigo work and was curious how they would transition to TV considering some seemingly insurmountable technical obstacles. You see, in the comic book Chance doesn't just work with his clients, he fully assumes their identities to become a...human target, completely adapting his physical appearance, mannerisms, and thought processes to perfectly impersonate his clients. That's a pretty heady concept for a weekly show, so I wasn't surprised to find that the TV Chance just protects his clients as himself without ever attempting to replace them. More fun trivia: there was a previous "Human Target" TV series in the early '90s starring Rick Springfield as Chance!

The show's writing veered from one of the most ridiculous and preposterous hours of TV I've ever seen, involving a hostage situation on a plane in episode two (although the pilot episode's bullet train was fairly dopey too) to a very strong season finale, with special mention to a late season episode featuring the return appearances of two female characters who work well with the boys, an FBI agent and an apprentice hacker. That episode in particular felt like where the show finally came together and was firing on all cylinders, while the season finale built on its momentum with some payoff for the limited mythology, a bit of backstory, and even the welcome appearance of ex-"Six Million Dollar Man" Lee Majors.

The show benefits from viewing on Blu-ray, with its crisp, precise hi def images and sound letting viewers fully experience the bone-crunching action. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray bonus features are nothing special, with just a few deleted scenes and a couple of perfunctory behind-the-scenes featurettes.

"Human Target: The Complete First Season" is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Human Target - The Complete First Season on Blogcritics.

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