Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Very Merry Unbirthday... To Me!

I wasn't around yesterday. Why? 'Cause it was my Birthday. Mmmyep, 23 and already I feel like a washed up has been. That can't be good. But as is customary on my birthday, I still had a lot of fun, and man oh fucking MAN did I get some awesome stuff out of it.

First off, the present my too awesome for words wife got me:

This chunk of beautiful PVC is the YURIA figure released under Kaiyodo/XEBEC's 200X FIST OF THE NORTH STAR toy line. She was released back in 2001, and was one of about 3 Fist of the North Star toys to never get a US release. I've only ever owned a hand full of these plastic beauties (though as most of them are big beefy men in leather and covered in blood, maybe "beauties" isn't the right word), and this one - with a retail of 3,400 yen and no US availability - slipped through my grasp after she disappeared sometime 5 or 6 years ago. I've always regretted it, particularly when - as you can see - she can either be all cute in her little skirt, or decked out and incognito as the Nanto Saigono no Shou (The Last South Star General) in full samurai armor. She goes for $150+ on eBay, easily, and while I don't know for a fact what my wife spent on me, I know she asked what they sell for on the off-chance that she could grab another and make some of her money back. When I told her, she fell dead silent.

There's a reason we were out of food for a while.

But dammit, that glorious idol of plastic was worth every minute of hunger and wishing like hell that I had some ramen and soy sauce. I opened her - why the hell do people buy toys and then NOT play with them (or at least display them) anyway? - and found that while she poses beautifully, I can't actually put her in full armor yet. The paint job, while spectacular, has fused her boots (which are 2 separate pieces that enclose her lower leg) completely, and I'm going to have to go at them with a pot of hot water, an X-acto knife and a whole lot of luck and patience if I want her to be covered in a shell of badass armor. While she's certainly the sexiest looking toy I think I own (most of them fall under the "demon" and "buff men" variety), to not show off that suit of armor would be a crime. Now I clearly need to get a KING figure, a second version of the Shin 200X figure that included an alternate outfit to snap on to the Yuria figure. A shame they never came in a 2-pack... also a shame he'll be about $60 to import after Celga fees and shipping.

Anyway, this blog has (almost) always tried to remain pretty focused on movies, the people that make them, and how you can see them for yourself. With that in mind, I've got a present for you, the reader, on this, the day after my birthday.

...fuck, what am I, the godfather?

For some time, I've been a fan of Takashi MIIKE. By fan I mean that I'd suck his dick for him, choke a bitch for him, give him one of my kidneys - y'know. BIG fan, is what I'm getting at. And the second Miike Movie I was lucky enough to see is his now infamous horror film AUDITION. Audition, for those who've not seen it (and all of you should have) is the story of a kind middle-aged widower who, in a bout of loneliness and melancholy about the state of the world around him, holds a sort of fake audition with his TV producer confidant in what seems like a last attempt to find love. Under the right circumstances, Audition could have been the great romance. Aoyama, the lonesome and good natured protagonist, is a genuinely nice and humble man. He's a good father, he loved his wife, and this process to meet a nice girl - one he at first is against, even - isn't the reach of a sexual predator, just one of a nice guy who can't seem to get lucky a second time. Similarly, Asami - his beautiful love interest - is the perfect woman, a retired balet dancer who lives a quiet, simple life, and who's affection for Aoyama grows from his genuine interest in her, and his desire to nurture and care for the sweet girl.

Of course, if that's all there was to Audition I wouldn't have bothered. No, Audition is a horror film the likes of which the world hasn't known before, or since. Played in a delicate yet bipolar style I'd compare in principle only to the psychedelic works of Dario Argento, the film starts out with lucid, long shots bathed in a golden glow, and a sweet natured soundtrack makes the film feel like it's a straight forward character piece up until the audition itself begins. After a long, painful shot of the shutters in the room closing like a lock-down in a prison, Aoyama calls Asami as he promised he would... and there she is in her apartment, staring at the phone without moving, a large burlap sack in the background gurgling in a strained human voice kicking around behind her. Audition has mere moments of the surreal and the horrifying in what for the first half is the perfect romance, building and simmering until the camerawork and dialog becomes more frantic and chaotic, the perfect romance slowly turning into a hellish nightmare. All the same, even fans of Argento, Fulci, or any director with a love and appreciation for raw sadism won't know what the hell to expect from the final reel, in which memory, reality and Aoyama's darkest fears pile on top of one another like a fever dream. Audition's final reel is one of the most spectacular pieces of horror I've ever seen, and more importantly it's to this day the most mature and perfectly honed piece of Miike's filmography. This isn't to say it's my favorite, or even that it's the most brutal film Miike's created... but there is a reason he's known internationally as a "horror director" when, infact, the majority of his works are either about yakuza. He's a horror director in part because his non-horror films almost invariably have extreme and unpredictable sequences that fill the viewer with awe and disgust, and because when he is directing horror (particularly when it touches upon the subject of treacherous or frightening women... the hell did Mama Miike do to him?) he's unquestionably at the top of his game. Audition is a perfect introduction to Miike not because it sums up his career - doing so would be fucking impossible - but because it's a film that shows off pretty much all of his strengths and obsessions as a director.

It does lack gay buttsex, but if he ever goes directs Bishounen like he promised perhaps he'll finally admit that he's gay and stop fearing anything with a vagina so much. S'okay Miike, we don't give a damn. Hell, Roman Polanski butt-rapes 12 year old girls and everybody loves him.

Anyway, there has been a big problem with Audition for some time now: frankly, the DVDs floating around suck. They suck hairy donkey balls, even. For a while was a DVD from Chimera Entertainment that featured a slick orange digipack in the US, and it went out of print in 2005, to make way for a new "Uncut Special Edition" from Lion's Gate Entertainment. The only R-rated video release from Chimera went straight to rental chains that requested it (like Blockbuster), but, whatever. Lion's Gate promised new features, and a brand new print, which was nice since the R1 was non-anamorphic, and the Japanese DVD (and this master) was the same way. The R1 did have some nice exclusive features though, including an interview with Miike and a commentary track for the last reel. Unfortunately, both of these features were dubbed in English instead of subtitled. What the hell, people?

Here we have a screencap of the Chimera R1. As you can see, the transfer... isn't very good. It's very, very dark, has a bit of a warm cast to the image, there isn't a lot of fine detail, and with the master being non-anamorphic this will look like crap on a decent setup. It was taken from a component master though, artifacting is pretty minimal, and there isn't any obvious edge enhancement. It could have looked far worse than it does, but it could have been better too. At least both the 2.0 and 5.1 audio options sound very good, the subtitles are optional, and the disc wasn't horrendously prices ($30 was average back in 2001 or so when I bought it). While the screencap doesn't show is that this DVD was also encoded progressively, showing that it was indeed a transfer made specifically for DVD rather than a composite LD slapped on DVD, or something similarly strange.

Fair is fair though, and at first glance the newer transfer from Lion's Gate looks pretty awesome: there's more fine detail in Asami's face (isn't she pretty/nightmare inducing?), the image is a lot brighter and brings out formerly missing detail in the walls and chair behind her, and that strange golden cast is gone. That having been said, the tint may have been intentional... it's pretty common in Japanese films for the films to have been tinted a specific hue on a scene-to-scene basis, and much like the restored HALLOWEEN DVD from Anchor Bay entertainment, the attempt to "fix" the colors have made the film look more natural, but less impressive*. Also, take a look at Asami's hands... zoom in if you have to. See something 'funny' there?

What you're seeing on the Lion's Gate DVD is ghosting. Why? Because back when the film was licensed to Germany, the now-defunct German film studio Rapid Eye Movies (REM) thought the Japanese DVD looked less than impressive - particularly since the NTSC tape master would have to be converted to PAL, which would further degrade the quality for the finished DVD. Typical PAL to NTSC/NTSC to PAL conversions are done with a machine that are built to take several frames and then try to mush the frames together in a form that kinda', sorta' resembles the desired frame rate. It tends to screw with the colors, soften the picture, and create ghosting, which is in the above cap there (though I wasn't trying too hard to find it). PAL transfers are fine in theory, aside from their 4% speedup and half a semitone of audio pitch. NTSC is theoretically also fine, aside from the 3:2 pulldown (don't ask). Unfortunately, converting one to another - either way - always leaves you with a ghosting mess that often looks all right paused, but goes to hell in actual motion. It's a hard effect to describe, but once you see it it's almost instantly recognizable.

Now, the reason Lion's Gate used a PAL-NTSC conversion is simple: REM did the dirty work in creating an anamorphic print, and while they could have (ie: SHOULD HAVE!) taken the 25 frames per second PAL remaster and changed the framerate back to 24 frames per second, creating a progressive NTSC master, it was just easier to run it through a converter box and say "looks good enough". There are hundreds of conversion transfers running around - some of them unavoidable - but since I myself could have turned the PAL master into NTSC with nothing but some free time and a cracked copy of CCE, it makes me incredibly sad to see a touted special edition use a nasty transfer like this.

The real question, of course, is which transfer is better? While the Lion's Gate transfer ghosts and may or may not have the proper color timing... it is brighter and sharper than the old Chimera transfer. It's also anamorphic, and with the Chimera DVD sporting subtitles inside the black bars anyone with a 16:9 television would be fucked, unless they know Japanese well enough not to need them. Also, while Lion's Gate dropped the actual trailers for Audition and replaced them with a bunch of trailers for less impressive Asian horror films (despite there being plenty of room on the DVD - over a gig untouched!), they try to make up for it by including a new introduction with Miike, an interview with Ryu Murakami (who wrote the novel after having met several crazy bitches while casting the now-classic Japanese sex film Topaz/Tokyo Decadence), and a segment from Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments, in which Eli Roth squirms like a pussy remembering, and Rob Zombie acts like a man and calls it genius. It's amusing, but... not really all that enlightening. The commentary and interview from the Chimera release are still here, though unfortunately they're still dubbed, so we can't hear Miike whacking off during the finale. I've not watched the new material itself yet (apart from the Bravo thing), and hope to tomorrow: I have much else to watch, which I'll mention momentarily.

Since Tartan, a (mostly) UK distributor bought the REM master and released their own Audition Special Edition some time ago, you can now get the UK SE for under $12 shipped. It includes basically the same transfer as the Lion's Gate DVD minus the ghosting, and it also has the original trailers and an interview which... I THINK, is different from the one on the Lion's Gate release. It also has a DTS track, which everyone agrees was a waste of space. If you're a hardcore Miike fan, the UK release is probably the one to get for the transfer, with the Lion's Gate DVD a nice complimentary piece if you dig having every extra known to man. I've assumed for some time that the Lion's Gate SE was a PAL-NTSC transfer, and actually having it in my hand at least sets my curiosity to rest... if not my ire and frustration. Still, the extras are promising, and as I only spent a whopping $10 on it I'd consider it a good purchase. I think I can finally put my Chimera DVD out to pasture, and if I miss the Japanese trailer (which features a silly pop song also used in the end credits) I can always just add the Tartan SE to my shelf.

So, what else did I buy? The OLDBOY 3 DVD Ultimate Tin Edition from Tartan/Asia Extreme (US version) - a lucky find since this massive hunk of cool has been out of print for probably a year, and the recent Media Blasters' release of the ICHI THE KILLER 2 DVD Special "Blood Pack Edition". Uh-huh. They sold DVDs in a blood bag, and finally ported everything from the Dutch Special Edition, and even more besides. I'll post screenshots and ramble like a crazy person once I've... actually watched them. Oldboy has almost 6 hours of special features before the 3 commentary tracks... my god, what have I gotten myself into?

*Many remasters are done from the camera negative, which can lead to intentional tints not being in the finished films. One such example is the night-for-day scenes in several cult film remasters, like Sadomania or The Man From Deep River, where characters will say it's night when it's still bright and sunny. These scenes would have been tinted dark blue by the time they made the interpositives, which would in turn source cinema (and later video) prints. So, when Europe does a remaster of a Japanese film - like Ichi the Killer, Audition, or Versus - they do it without the presense of either the director, or the cinematographer. Clearly if they're handed a master and feel it's not good enough, something may have gone wrong, but without the film makers themselves there to decide if the colors are right, if the contrast is boosted, if the level of detail is acceptable - who are we to bitch otherwise?

We're frustrated fans who look at a man in a white shirt and see that it's yellow, despite him wearing white on the box, goddamn it. Sometimes even the cinematographers are full of shit, or don't remember, or simply don't care... it's a tough balance to come to, knowing "when I saw it, it looked like this" when the guy who MADE it says otherwise. Still, remasters made from the negative without the supervision of anyone involved - particularly if these masters were meant to be filtered in post production - is about as slippery a slope as you can find in this industry.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ohata's Trooper Vision

Blue and Humans are one in the same, draining the life out of the planet until there's nothing left!

- Yuji

It's a fascinating, if somewhat unfair, experience watching what are called "fan edits" of films. Commonly they're done to try and restore what critics - and even fans - consider deeply flawed films that, with a little less insistence on the director's (or producer's) part, would have been a much better movie than what actually hit theaters or video. One of the more famous examples is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Edit, in which a disgruntled Star Wars fan removed the most irritating aspects of this ill fated prequel (read; Jar Jar Binks) and just left the "good parts", in an attempt to... well, I'm not sure, really. Would someone watch the Phantom Edit over Lucas own Phantom Menace? There are certainly plenty of arguments to do so, but at the same time, a film is the product of a director's labor, and watching a film cut by someone who had no relation to the film what so ever can be an entirely different - though not always better - experience.

One such example would be the fan edit of The Big Boss, Bruce Lee's first film directed by Wei Lo. The reasons for doing it are actually fairly logical: there are several versions floating around with varying lengths, with some English prints running longer than some Mandarin versions. It's also worth pointing out that the feature - like virtually all 1970's Hong Kong films - was shot primarily in Cantonese, but dubbed into Mandarin to give the films more "credibility". Most Cantonese speakers find Mandarin to sound more... sophisticated, and it plays to a general Chinese audience as seeming more "authentic" that way. All the same, Bruce Lee didn't speak Mandarin on set. Also, the dock workers and prostitutes in the film were supposed to be from Thailand. So, what did the fan edit to? It took the Mandarin version, but gave Bruce Lee his Cantonese voice back, and also gave the Thai speakers their mother tongue once again. It also kept as much footage from all versions as was available.

Now, the trouble with this is pretty simple: the original Mandarin audio for The Big Boss has been lost, and so plenty of audio had to be cribbed from other sources. Also, the Cantonese dub was produced in the 1980's - over a decade after the premier - strictly to appeal to the emerging Hong Kong video market. This process gave the Cantonese version and entirely new (and in my opinion, better) soundtrack... so Bruce Lee's voice will be backed up with alternate musical cues*. While presenting the longest and most logical print of The Big Boss is commendable to everyone involved, watching the film in an amalgam of Chinese dialects and Thai isn't what the film-makers ever really intended. Arguing that Lee's voice was preserved is similarly bunk: Bruce Lee died about a decade before the Cantonese dub was made. Simply put, this edit is interesting... but not what anyone ever intended. If the point of preserving cinematic integrity is to present what the director completed and signed off on, how should we feel about fans trying like hell to fix what isn't really broken?

*It's possible that Lee's voice from the Cantonese dub was taken from a new 5.1 mix, in which case the vocal track was probably by itself in the center channel with the music in the left and right channels. I've sadly never been able to find this fan edit... I just found what it claimed to be fascinating. Other fan edits include making Peter Jackson's KING KONG black and white, mono, and covered in simulated film scratches. Considering the original King Kong is available in a pristine remaster, I... don't get that one. Beat-up film prints are a mere side-effect, not an intended look... unless we're talking about Grindhouse. And we aren't. I'm saving that expulsion of insanity for when I have the DVD on hand.

Making this even more interesting are instances where alternate edits were part of the plan. What I mean by this is something like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. See, Dawn of the Dead was what you'd call an international co-production, a once common method of movie making in which a film would be filmed with the cooperation of several film studios spanning the globe. The reason this came to be was Romero was scrounging for funding to complete is zombie epic, and Night of the Living Dead was successful in Italy. Dario Argento, once a master of the giallo and now kind of a running joke who's insane daughter Asia has since taken his daring and controversial position, agreed to help fund the film... on the condition that Argento was allowed to re-edit the feature and slap his name over it.

While I've only seen Romero's "Final Director's Cut" - the version that was actually shown in US theaters - I've known of Dario Argento's Zombi for many years. While Romero reveled in a perverted and grim sense of humor, playing the film as a social commentary on the waste and selfishness of modern America, Argento decided that a gory action film with less jokes, less dialog, and more musical cues from his beloved techno band Goblin would turn Zombi into a European success. He was right. Not only did Zombi make a killing, but Lucio Fulci was hired to make a "sequel", a bunch of other film studios knocked the concept off... zombies were all the rage in the early 80's in Europe, with even "art" director Jean Rollins making a pair of zombie films, to say nothing of the later resurgance that "Zombi 2: Day of the Dead" would cause, with Fulci having killed off the enthusiasm for the genre single handedly in Zombi 3... at least until 28 Days Later would inadvertently bring zombies back. Anyhoo, the point here is that while Zombi wasn't really Romero's Dawn of the Dead, it was an alternate telling of the same story using the same footage. Having never seen Zombi for myself, I can't say for sure if it's "better"... but I've heard plenty of people say that the film plays better when it's less bloated.

For those who prefer Dawn of the Dead to be as bloated as humanly possible, there's always the 156 minute Ultimate Final Cut... but that's another story (and only dubbed in German).

I bring all this up to explain why I fell in love with BLUE GENDER: THE WARRIOR, and acknowledge that the film may, or may not, be the ultimate version of the Blue Gender franchise. Originally a 26 episode series directed by Masashi ABE (Tokko, Casshan: Robot Hunter, and... Magical Kanan?) released in 1999, Blue Gender was a TV series that played out as a dramatic Sci-Fi title set in 2031, where "Sleepers" - people who were cryogenetically frozen in 1999 after they came down with a maddening sickness known as Prophecy Syndrome - have become Earth's last hope against the Blue, constantly evolving giant insects who have reduced mankind's existence to almost nothing. Yuji, a young man who was accidentally awakened during transport to Second Earth, an orbiting space station used to plot mankind's last stand against the Blue invasion - is thrust in the middle of a war he doesn't understand, and is kept under watch by Marlene, a tough as nails fighter who's sworn her life to her duty of recovering the Sleeper at all costs.

With comparisons to Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers adaptation from 1997 being almost too obvious to mention, the differences start out as simple enough anime cliches - particularly the surviving humans fighting in powered mecha suits, the presence of transforming and gelatinous monsters, and the concept of rebirth and renewal amongst utter destruction - and become more and more important as the title goes on. The true purposes of the Sleepers, their fragile psyche's being tapped to turn them into heartless and unparalleled killing machines to put a stop to the Blue once and for all, is a far more scathing concept that the fascism that seeps from every self-aware pore of Paul's feature. The fact that Earth is already fucked adds a further lever of post apocalyptic sheen to the tale, in which even victory would be hollow, with Tokyo and New York having been covered in Blue hives, with even scattered villages of survivors deemed unworthy of being sent to Second Earth not standing so much as a chance against the might of the vagina-faced beasts who roam the once beautiful blue planet. But most important to Blue Gender is humanity. Yuji, awakening fresh to the brutal and structured remnants of his own world, starts the title off as a man willing to put his own life on the line to save people he sees himself in. Marlene, a woman who can be defined only as heartless, remembers that she's human at a crucial point in which her role is swapped with Yuji's. Their love, hidden beneath balled fists and mouth fulls of bug blood, lets them both learn something from one another... but what they learn may not be enough to save either of them in the end.

In 2001, Blue Gender was given a "Movie", a 98 minute feature comprised mostly of footage from the TV series, but with brand new animation and a completely new ending. While the TV series was directed by Abe, the movie was - oddly, in a sense - directed by OHATA Koichi (Genocyber, M.D. Geist, and Burst Angel). While Ohata served as a lead animator on the series, he knew Abe prior - after all, Abe served as producer on every episode of Genocyber after the first OVA. Often criticized as being a hack by critics in the US (and elsewhere), some of that criticism may be justifiable... but to write off his career entirely based on productions where he admits time and money meant an epic vision had to be scaled down to nothing is just plain unfair. Ohata continues to (slowly) move away from his gory machine filled epics, and has recently directed the sequel to Ikkitousen, and has - for reasons beyond me - been attached to direct a new You're Under Arrest anime. Blue Gender: The Warrior lets Ohata do much what Argento did with Dawn of the Dead, and create an entirely new experience from a feature that was already finished.

Having only seen 1 or 2 episodes of the TV series when it aired on US cable (edited and poorly dubbed) in 2003, I can't say if 'The Warrior' is better than the original TV version. It becomes clear that a lot of details are glossed over - character introductions are sparse, at best, and most importantly the full scale assault against the Blue plays as brief sequences that felt like they were meant to last for quite a while more than they did. Honestly, with the segmented and psycho-drama pace of Ohata's OVA's prior, this was easy to follow in comparison. The title is also absolutely full of violence, including eyeballs torn from people's faces, heads crushed with reckless abandon, and a seemingly non-stop torrent of gore focused on Blue that puts even Berserk's savage brutality to shame. In a sense, The Warrior is fast, well animated, gory, and focuses on people being pushed past their limit... it fits into Ohata's filmography perfectly, and I'm honestly bummed that I'm not yet more familiar with the TV series to know what additional material Ohata had animated. I... assume most of the torn out eyeballs were at his demand. Watch Genocyber if you don't believe me that the man has an eyeball destruction fetish.

The ending, however, is a fascinatingly fitting anti-climax. The TV series has a completely different ending (and, amazingly for the time period, graphic sex that I was expecting to see in the "Movie" edit but didn't). The ending isn't explained in detail (something Ohata seems very fond of anyway), and at first it felt like a cop-out. But with the quote at the top of this rambling in my mind, it fell into place, and the true importance of the Sleepers and the Blue made sense. I won't spoil it, I'll just wonder if anyone else gets the same vibe out of the ending that I did. It's entirely possible that, much like with M.D. Geist, the ending we see here is less the result of insane artistic vision and more the fact that Ohata's plans of grandeur tend to meet with the reality of the under-funded animation industry. Still, that didn't keep me from liking Evangelion's cry-for-help ending, and I'll be damned if I'll let that keep me from enjoying what - I'm willing to believe - was an attempt to be intelligent.

FUNimation deserves some props for this release... just some. The transfer seemed free of their usual massive pixelation, until the heavier gun battles came into play... it's one of the better FUNi transfers I've seen in the days before Afro Samurai, but it isn't perfect either. Both Japanese 2.0 and English 2.0 and 5.1 audio are included, but the performances in English are so pitiful and flat I didn't even bother to check if the 5.1 mix was any good. (Ironically, the included preview pimping the TV series makes the US voice actors - who prior had both played Trunks in Dragonball Z - a selling point!) It's presented in it's original 4:3 ratio from a composite master, and I'm sure that encoding differences aside the R2 doesn't look any different - despite being labeled a "movie" this was more a cheap direct to video release, and if a theatrical showing happened it would have been from a video source and on a media projector (there's an awful lot of video editing, making a "real" film print impossible). Sadly, selecting "Japanese audio/English subtitles" gave me Japanese dialog with English dubtitles, rather than proper subtitles... Media Player must be crazy. Actual subtitles are included as well. No features beyond FUNi propoganda are included, and there were 30-something chapters, which struck me as impressive. Both Japanese and English end credits are included as alternate angles... yet the Japanese version had English credits to start with. Yeah.

AIC has done a lot for us, from Ai no Kusabi to Fight!! Iczer One, and now this interesting gory Starship Troopers that finds it's own axe to grind when it bores of being overly derivative. This presentation, while perhaps not what the original director ever asked for, was pretty damned good all the same. It's far from what the director planned for the world to see, but Ohata's version of Blue Gender was all the same a violent, exciting and fascinating look of whatever the TV series may have been. And regardless of how good the TV series is, there's a 9 DVD set with both the movie and TV series that can be had for under $50 with a bit of searching. While I enjoyed this feature on it's own (and would have not knowing a thing about it), more than anything it's made me insanely curious to see more...

...and it's exactly this feeling that makes me upset and excited that good movies have to have more than 1 version available.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

When Dreckschwein Loses All Meaning

Random thought before I begin: I've not yet watched Ikki Tousen (which also goes under the title Battle Vixens), since it was for all intents and purposes a cheap knock-off of Oh!great's own Tenjho Tenge, which alongside Airmaster were a total of 3 shows that all happened to be about high school girls pounding the living piss out of one another. Airmaster had the good animation and was actually funny, Ten-Ten had the hawt Oh!great character designs and "eff the man" vibe going for it, Real Bout High School came out a year or two before and nobody cared (apart from the fact that the animation was by Gonzo), and Ikki... well, it didn't appear to have shit in comparison. Thus, I've skipped it, and 'till now I've not seen a problem with that.

Now the sequel Ikki Tousen: Dragon Destiny was animated by Studio Arms, is directed by OHATA Koichi (that's "The MD Geist" guy - and everyone who wants to chime in with 'Genocyber sucks!' can just eat me right now. That includes John O, too.), and has character designs by Rin-Sin, the awesome ecchi woman who's been drawing hentai character designs and covers of them getting molested by tentacles since the original La Blue Girl. (No wonder the girls look better and lick up their own blood this time...) It also has a budget, something that screencaps of the original told me it lacked. Much as I'm still not sold on the original, I'll probably watch it now just to see what the hell Koichi's capable of without guro-mecha, and what Rin-Sin's capable of without penetration and semen.

The times, they are a changin'.

Anyway, I'm quite literally sick to shit of bad German gore movies. That's not to say I don't like German movies, or gore, or even bad movies... it's just the one I'm working on now is... well, fucking awful. The last one I did for my boss didn't phase me: it was low budget, but no worse than most zombie films. (And it wasn't quite a zombie film anyway, I guess.) It involved people running around and shooting puss-spewing monsters while German death metal bladed in the background. It didn't deserve any awards or break particularly new ground, but it was an amusing little piece of B-movie fun none the less. It also had decent dialog... the kind where not every single line was composed of the same insult.

Now let me explain something to you about German, if not as a language then from the perspective of bored 20-somethings' who make movies using their home video cameras. They can't come up with a creative way to insult someone, and from the past 2 films I've done, the insults are invariably linked to "schwein". That means pig, naturally, and I was rather amazed that German did have the word "fuck" considering how often the insult of 'you pig' is bandied about in these low budget features. Maybe "Fucker" just doesn't pack a punch in German for some reason... but really, the worst insult I've seen in the feature I'm working on now - and quite literally every third line is an insult! - is dreckschwein. That means "dirt pig", or 'Filthy Swine' I guess. The script I've been handed translates all words relating to 'schwein' as "fucker", or "mother fucker" in situations where they used more than -just- schwein.

All I know is "Brutality" is incapable of having a scene in which schwein isn't said at least 10 times, and while the movie could be worse, I've actually grown totally bored of typing the word "fucker". Really. Does not thrill me in the slightest anymore. I could mix it up maybe, throw in a "cock sucker" here and there... but I'll call up the big boss first and make sure that's cool first. Last thing I want to do is put every fucking "fuck" back where it fucking belongs.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck fuck.

...there, I feel better.

See, this became a problem the last German horror film I did, because I re-did the translation to be more accurate. Schwein became "fat bastard" and "dirty pig", as opposed to just "bastard" as the script I was handed noted. Also, lines that said (in German) 'what in God's name' were given as "what the fuck"... so I switched that back around. Nothing worse than hearing Gottes Namen, knowing that means "God's Name", and then not seeing that in the subtitles right?

Turns out my boss didn't feel that way. (Not that he's ever demanded very hard that I change anything, but he signs my checks, so I'd like to keep happy as du schwein im scheiss. And I'm sure that grammar is wrong just looking at it.) Despite having finished the script, I went back at his request and did an emergency cursing-up pass. Turns out only about a dozen lines needed to be fixed, but the first film - which for the sake or argument I'll call "Monster Hunter" (that isn't the title... but if you know who I'm working for, you know what film it is) - was better written than the latest film - which I'll call "Brutality". See, Monster Hunter was patterned off of Quentin Tarantino and George Romero films, which - for better or worse - meant it tried like hell to have a logical structure and some clever dialog. It didn't really pull it off, but it tried all the same, and wound up being a pleasantly silly film for it. It wasn't shocking or clever, but it was occasionally funny, my favorite part being when one of the anti-heroes finds a local TV celebrity has become a cannibalistic mutant, and notes "Your show sucked anyway!" before said celeb goes "huh?" and gets his brains blown out. See? Comedy. It ain't Monty Python, but it'll do.

The latest atrocity I'm finishing up, though, isn't even up to what I'd consider the upper end of no-budget shot-on-video horror film making. I'll be honest when I say the bar isn't set very high under the circumstances, and films that would get laughed off the big screen become semi-watchable when they're quietly released in independently owned rental stores. You don't expect to be served lobster bisque at McDonalds, and you don't expect compelling storytelling or amazing production values from a movie released direct to video either. Yet, there has to be a comfortable limit to what crap can be thrown at the screen without rhyme or reason before the experience starts to become confusing and frustrating.

In "Brutality", the set-up involves a ploy for revenge, and of course vengeance begets vengeance. This isn't normal vengeance though: this is (in a strikingly pre-Kill Bill video) the kind of vengeance where you wake up after a 10 year coma, your pregnant girlfriend is dead, and so you grab your step-brothers, a chainsaw, a claw hammer, and a shovel and go to town kinda' vengeance. It's also the kind of movie where getting your brain blown out isn't a big deal - just stuff someone else's half-a-brain in the skull and you'll be good as new. Also: staples, fix, everything. Like nut-sacs. But the single most amusing point of interest thus far (I've not watched the film through... clearly I'm going crazy) has been brain surgery using a chainsaw and hot glue. Oh, did I mention the aborted fetuses getting stomped like something out of an Uziga manga (minus said fetuses being fucked before being liquefied)? Yet with all this awesomely 'tarded imagery going on, I can't help but feel the film is a bit of a failure.

Let me say up front that I don't mind cheap films, films that lack a general narrative structure, or any of that nonsense. I like David Lynch and Tsukamoto Shinya and worship the crap that Takashi Miike wipes from his ass, so clearly I can get behind films that have no typical narrative and instead use abstract concepts to propel a story forward. The trouble with "Brutality" is that it simply has no narrative structure. If the whole point of the film is to get revenge against the Mafia who killed his family in retaliation for accidental manslaughter, they did it all wrong: we know nothing about this Mafia apart from a brief voice-over in the opening, which ends with most of that mafia dead. We don't know the names for half of these people - good or bad, it seems - and without establishing who did what, we don't even really know if the people the anti-heroes are cutting apart with saws and shooting the nipples off of did the horrible stuff we think they did anyway. Hell, the only character we do see acting like a total bastard is told in a flashback after he's dead. That's right: rather than play up the revenge angle by showing the sorta'-hero take out the most evil gangster of them all after he learns the horrible truth, they just shove it in later as a new way to get a gore scene in the mix. Clearly the film wants to have a logical structure - it isn't exactly fine art, I'm more than willing to say - but it slaps everything together in such a haphazard style that all the ingredients for an awesome movie were there... they just weren't mixed or cooked properly, and instead of a delicious cake you wind up with a scalding bowl of raw eggs, sugar and flour with a candle on top. It's edible... but you can eat better, too. Mafioso's, trigger happy retards, Fisher Price chainsaws, mad scientists, a zombie, nightmares about blood getting sucked out with a bike tire pump... the potential for an awesome movie is just lined up, waiting to happen.

The worst part is the director clearly is capable of a good movie (or, at least, a more focused one): the special effects - most of which are of the paper-mache and corn syrup variety - are amusing in a Halloween Party sort of way. The acting never takes itself seriously ("Geez, are you in never ending pain or what?" "I... feel sorta' woozy."), but it gets the job done in the loving confines of a B-movie shot in what looks like unused attics and back yards. The opening scene, simulated Super8 footage of the Mafia torturing the hero's family and friends, is actually creative and just a bit chilling... a shame we can't really recognize any of the mafioso's involved so we can hate on 'em and then want to see them die horribly later on. The whole feature comes across as disjointed, like separate movies were thrown together to create an uberfilm, but said uberfilm has an arm for a leg and 3 ears but no nose. The good parts don't quite equal a good whole, try as it might. Still, I've got another 20-odd minutes to sit through and subtitle... maybe it'll magically come together and be the best damn shot on video horror film I ever saw.

Granted I'm being too hard on "Brutality". It's the first ever self described 'Party Splatter Film'. Thinking (or writing) were never meant for a movie that features successful chainsaw-and-hot-glue brain surgery. It's a gory as fuck B-movie, and compared to the last B-movie my studio released (an American feature) this film is Citizen Motherfucking Kane in comparison. While I'm taking for-fucking-ever to finish this film out of a combination of apathy, a head-cold of somekind and other random bullshit, I am very, very grateful that I'm not subtitling that English language crime against humanity into German.

On the upside, as soon as I'm done with this pile on undercooked insanity I get to jump right back into unpleasant-as-hell nihilism from the guy who directed the last 2 Japanese movies I translated. Will I get chastised again for my lack of intermediate Japanese vocabulary, or can the rape of a girl covered in bandages inspire me to speak Japanese like a native?

Find out... sometime next year? Yeah. Next year sounds about right.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A (almost) Perfect DVD of the (almost) First Italian Cannibal Movie

Netflix does many things for me... sure, it doesn't do my windows, wipe my bottom, or help me with my taxes, but it does provide me with the infallibly awesome service of letting me watch DVDs before I decide to drop between $12 and $25 on them. Some films I've seen before and know are worth the investment. Others I've heard of and would probably love, but I'm not comfortable putting my wallet before my eyes. And some DVDs I know are twitching piles of crap, but wouldn't mind renting (or ripping) without the fear of having supported such a suck-tastic release.

Netflix let me learn that one such disc I've had my eye on for ages - the Shriek Show DVD of The Man From The Deep River - is perhaps one such release. It isn't awful on quite any level... but it isn't quite competent on any of them either.

For starters, what the hell is The Man From The Deep River? Released in North America as "Sacrifice!", in Germany as "Mondo Cannibale" (Cannibal World in it's native Italian), "Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio" in Italy (which means 'Deep River Savages'), and director Umberto Lenzi's prefered The Man From The Deep River pretty much everywhere else, it was - at it's core, anyway - the Italian remake of Elliot Silverstien's Western melodrama A Man Called Horse. The point of the film was actually suggested by Emmanuelle Arsan, the French writer who's novel "Emmanuelle: A Woman's Journey" (oft thought to be an autobiographical sexploitation epic) was adapted to the big screen in 1974, and inspired a non-stop slew of imitators bearing the same name. Anyway, she herself was born in Thailand, and at one point suggested that a film be shot there, a documentary showcasing the unique and - to a then naive Western audience - bizarre and barbaric customs of her homeland. In 1972, work began on making such a thing happen. According to both Lenzi and the opening credits, the story is fantasy, but the things you will see on-screen are indeed reality.

Starring Ivan Rassimov as an English photographer by the name of John Bradley, a trip to Thailand ends up going horribly wrong when after his guide is killed by natives, he himself is captured by a fierce tribe who keeps him alive for their amusement, calling him "Fish Man" for all the scuba gear he wore along the way. He particularly catches the eye of the chieftain's daughter (played by an adorably pre-boob jobbed Me Me Lai!) who asks that the funny creature's life be spared. While captured, he witnesses the cruelty they show towards another tribe they call cannibals, but also sees that they're people who learn, and love. After a failed attempt at escaping with the help of an old woman who was raised by missionaries, he finds himself becoming accustomed to the strange village... and when he bests the greatest warrior they have to offer, they give John the chance to prove himself and be a man, or die trying.

First and foremost, this film is a melodrama. Make no mistake, despite the constant parading of cute Thai boobs and genuine animal sacrifice this movie was never intended to be a horror film, despite the "brutal!" and "shocking!" nature of the adverts or the increasingly sadistic and horrific (and stupid) trials Lenzi would put his cast through in both of his later cannibalism themed epics, Eaten Alive!: The Emerald Jungle and Cannibal Ferox: Make Them Die Slowly. No, both of those films are filled to the brim with primitive techno, bad gore and a non-stop barrage of action, sleaze and lapses in logic the likes of which I've never seen before or since (apart from Lenzi's sole attempt at ripping off Romero in Nightmare City). The film we have here is very much trying to channel the vibe left by Prosperi and Jacopetti, the Godfathers of Mondo, in displaying mostly-accurate (or so we're always told) daily lives of people that no white man had before ever seen. The piece isn't even much of an adventure picture, since aside from a few fairly well-filmed spear battles and a fairly brief chase sequence (think Italian Apocalypto with a naked Russian as the target) the film is left without anything to truly get excited over. What we're left with is the character of John, and his interaction with a world he's never known. Rassimov (who's now deceased, despite interviews with him appearing on a few similar Shriek Show DVDs released only a year or two prior) is fairly good in the role, looking a bit like Charlton Heston - tan and in a tattered loin cloth, but skinner and not screaming nearly as much. It helps the archetype, and since he, the old woman and Me Me are the only people you'll hear not speaking Burmese the archetype actually helps. He plays the role seriously, and while he's not given nearly as much to do as, say, Massimo Foschi in Jungle Holocaust he comes across as a likable guy who's slowly changing attitude about the people who have captured him seems plausible. Rassimov isn't experiencing Stockholm Syndrome, rather the time he spends with them, and the interaction the village keeps as a whole in order to protect his own - particularly when contrasted against the less than civil life in Bangkok early in the film - convince him to start to like these people, rather than force him to.

Me Me Lai and the Old Woman, both characters who speak out language (quite literally), are... okay. Not amazing, but certainly serviceable. The biggest problem with the lovely miss Lai is less that she's a bad actress, and more that I refuse to believe that this remote tribe along the Burma border keep fake eyelashes and an eyebrow tweezer on hand. At least her not-fake breasts are a joy to see after the unconvincing lumps cut into her torso in later films, and her smile always shows better teeth than anyone else in the village (again, less so than in her later cannibal related films). Speaking about the other actors in the film is kind of tough though. To make the film as authentic as possible, Lenzi cast only the leads that needed to speak Italian or English and used genuine locals otherwise. This would be repeated ad-nauseum for later cannibal movies, and it works here especially well, due to the film trying like hell to be a Mondo psuedo-documentary.

The soundtrack is unimpressive, honestly... not bad, clearly an Italian trying to pick up some local Thai flavor and missing the mark, creating a fairly repetitive tune or two that don't bring much to the picture. Special effects are sparse, and while some of the fake limbs are obviously fake I'll give the film credit for ingenuity, including burying the limbs of a local prostitute who plays victim to a pair of wandering cannibals to make it appear as if she'd been dismembered. The film's infamy, if any is really to be attributed to it, comes in the form of authentic violence against animals: in the climate of mondo movie making scenes of animals being killed for food and sport was common place, and for better or worse, the most impressive scene to be had here is a monkey getting it's brains removed the fast and machete-based way. Other atrocities include a croc stabbed several times, a snake decapitated as a fertility rite, a genuine cockfight (bloody shit there), and a mongoose and cobra doing what they do best, which is of course killing one another. In the context of the film these scenes are used to try and create a feeling of brutality and documentary-like realism, but all they do is come off as disturbed and kinda' tacky. They did help sell the film in Japan however, and as every single cannibal film to come out of Italy for the next decade (Zombi Holocaust aside) would include authentic violence against animals, it was clearly at least a part of the success. The UK edition of the film cuts these scenes, and while compared to later Lenzi films it's almost... well, nice to furry critters, I almost wouldn't blame people for watching that one over the uncut version. That having been said, at least Lenzi's yet to get all emo over having killed some animals the local film crew would have eaten immediately afterwards anyway. Not once in the interview does he bring it up, and there's no "animal cruelty free" version like we had for Cannibal Holocaust's ultimate edition. So yay. I guess.

All things considered, there's nothing at all "wrong" with The Man From The Deep River. It's a competent film with some decent cinematography, some pretty good acting, and for a 1972 Italian psycho-drama it hits all the right notes of exotic locales, mindless violence, and a basic Hollywood styled structure to hold it all together. The problem is the film was out-classed in literally every way imaginable by Jungle Holocaust 3 years later - or as it was released in Germany, "Mondo Cannibale Part 2". After MFDR (Man From... oh, hell, figure it out) did very well internationally, they wrote up contracts saying they'd do a prequel/maybe sequel, starring Ivan Rassimov, Me Me Lai, and of course directed by Umberto Lenzi. Lenzi's career was starting to take off at that point, making films like Almost Human and Syndicate Sadists, so he did the smart thing and said "if I get 3 times what I got for the last jungle film, sure". The producers thought that Lenzi's name wasn't worth 3 times what he was paid the last time (despite this film having made a lot of money in Germany, Japan and the US), and thus they hired Deodato to make Jungle Holocaust in Lenzi's place. Deodato's film was bloodier, sexier, more surreal and above all else it played up the horrific and adventure angles over the drama, creating a film that was as ballsy at it was clever - despite my undying love for Cannibal Holocaust, it's hard to deny that Jungle Holocaust (or as I prefer, "Last Cannibal World") was overall the more subtle and effective film. Lenzi laid the groundwork for the genre, but the psuedo-sequel completely destroyed the original in every way. Deodato once again stomped Lenzi flat when Cannibal Holocaust was considered the best of the genre (now and forever baby!), stomping Lenzi's own Eaten Alive! like the silly derivative fantasy film it always was. (Sadly, I've not yet seen Deodato's Cut and Run, so comparing it to Cannibal Ferox would be unfair of me.) Lenzi doesn't in the interview included on the DVD - which gave me many of the random trivia above - notes that he thinks of Deodato as a comrade and equal as a film maker, and he's never bore him any ill will (despite Deodato being a crazy bag of dicks), he's just sick of people calling Ruggero the father of the cannibal genre. He ain't, and for anyone with even a passing interest in what's often considered to this day the most extreme form of exploitation cinema, this is still a must-see. Sadly for Lenzi, Deodato was clearly the best at it, and while I think The Man From The Deep River was the best film (technically and thematically) in Lenzi's cannibalism trilogy, it lacks the wanton violence - like castration, live lizard eating and poisoned bloody dildos - that made the later 2 cannibal films with his name so unintentionally awesome.

Media Blasters/Shriek Show presents the film in a completely uncut 93 minute print with (rather poor quality) English titles. The print used is pristine, and I wouldn't doubt that they used the original camera negative for this master, as there's very little grain, only some faint film damage, and lots of lush color and detail to be found. I doubt the film ever looked half this good on the big screen, and while the grain has probably been filtered a bit too much, making the backgrounds a bit soft, the anamorphic/progressive widescreen transfer is still the single most immaculate print that's available. Lenzi's compositions are always pretty nice, and I can't imagine how awful this film must have looked on non-anamorphic prints taken from theatrical prints (like in Germany), let alone on cropped VHS bootlegs. Both Italian and English audio are included, along with English subtitles... and that's where the big problem is.

See, the film was shot in English, Thai and Burmese the whole way through (since Rassimov, Me Me and the old woman played by Pratisak Singhara). A few minor characters early in the film speak a combination of Thai and English, but whatever. The tribe's dialog in Burmese, as well as the local's Thai, was all shot with synch sound while the English actors were dubbed later. Interestingly the film is played with Rassimov and Singhara speaking English at all times, with Me Me slowly learning English from Rassimov, her Brumese slowly being replaced with fairly broken English. It's a smart and logical way to play the film... but what about all that Burmese?
Well, you're allowed to watch the film in English with no subtitles, in English with subtitles, and in Italian with subtitles. Italian with subs subtiutles all dialog - Thai, Italian and Burmese. Great. English has a second subtitle set. To subtitle just the non-English stuff, right?

Ha. No, that would be the case if Media Blasters could release any DVD without fucking something up. The English subtitles subtitle all the dialog, including what's already in English. Based on the fact that there are 2 identical subtitle tracks, I assume this was just a mistake, but it is frustrating as fuck to see a less-goofy and racist translation while we hear a white man speaking English to us. The easy way to avoid this problem is to watch the film in Italian: most of the dialog is in Burmese either way, and whoever dubbed John in Italian was pretty good, playing him more serious than whoever did it in English. (I've never seen the film in German, and wonder if the natives spoke Burmese in that too?) I can only imagine the US release subtitled the Burmese dialog as well, since the trailer was careful not to let the natives say much of anything other than "Grr!" or "Augh!" There's also talk of "going to sleep" during daylight, making me think a day-for-night shot wasn't tinted right... but that's the fault of whoever did the remaster in Italy, not MB directly. It happens - even Blue Underground did that on Jess Franco's Sadomania, but of course they fixed it later for everyone who was upset. MB's never heard the word "mail-in fix", unless something they said was on the box wasn't there (like the Zombi 3 commentary track).

If you don't mind a scene not being tinted and watching the film in Italian (and you really should anyway), go for the MB/SS DVD. It's cheap, it's uncut, it's adequate... it fits the film perfectly, actually, it just required better quality control. Extras include a 10 mintue interview with Lenzi, an original English language trailer, a 2 minute gallery with German lobby cards and some posters (though sadly it's missing plenty of video covers), and propganda for other Shriek Show releases. Certainly not the special edition given to Jungle Holocaust, but for about $12 at Deep Discount, who am I to complain? 'Specially since I rented it. It'll be on my shelf someday, alongside Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Mountain of the Cannibal God and other second-stringer cannibal films. Just know that the likelyhood of a better release of this film happening is basically nada-over-nuttn'. So far, the MB DVD of Zombi 3 is still the best DVD of the film available, despite all the gore being taken from a BETA pre-record. About the only flick they ever screwed the pooch totally on and then had a fix for internationally was Werewolf Woman... another film for another blogging.

Finally, I'll put something to rest, just because it makes me happy: while most Italian exploitation films went under about 20 titles around the world, Lenzi's favorite title for this film is - and I quote, in his cute little Italian accent - "The Man From The Deep River". Why would he go with that one over Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio? Simple, the English title sounds a lot like "A Man Called Horse", the film from which the bulk of the story was culled from. So Lenzi freely admits (though not in so many words) that his film is a knock-off meant to exploit foreign cultures and international ignorance thereof. Granted, Lenzi also admits that he thinks Cannibal Ferox and Nightmare City are important, meaningful films that have a lot of smart commentary on modern Western society.

What I'm getting at is Lenzi is a friggin' nut case. And that's exactly why I love him.