Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Lost Art: Exploitation Posters By The Boatload







Oh, fuck yeah...


"Horror, Sci-fi, exploitation, cult, trash, B-Movie posters"

All high res, and all fucking awesome. I've wasted at least a week of my life on this site and only discovered it yesterday... I admit I wish the site had a strict "year 2000" cut-off date, but hell, I guess the occasional modern feature thrown in just for comparison's sake isn't hurting anything.

The art of the theatrical poster is, for all intents and purposes, a completely dead art form. In this age of viral marketing and leaked screeners and IMDb, there's virtually no need to advertise a movie anymore; everyone will know all about it without even trying, will dismiss it without having seen it, and then pay to see it in a theater even after they've seen a shoddy cam copy subtitled in Russian with some asshole farting all through the final reel. The poster seems quaint now when odds are you can watch the entire fucking movie on youtube in 10 postage-stamp sized chunks, but it was the only advanced marketing most non-blockbusters saw, and in the days before home video, it was literally their one and only shot to make some damn money. Because of this most of them were clever, enticing, and often just plain gorgeous... though odds are absolutely nothing you saw in the poster really appeared in the film...



Holy fucking Christ on a sybian, just look at that poster!
Lamberto Bava's DEVIL FISH must be the best. Movie. EVER.


A real pet peeve of mine is when films of a bygone era get modern photoshop nightmare covers... but that's something I'll have to rag on another day. There are a hand-full of films that try, bless them, to inject the elegant look of painted art - Mya, Anchor Bay, even X-Rated Kult has commissioned new pieces - but it's all an imitation... a well meaning throwback to an era long gone.

That doesn't make the posters we do have any less sweet, though.

...seriously, "Is The Father Black Enough"? I can't tell if this thing is legit, or if some bored anon just made it all up. The smirking nigra pumping his fist in the air looks oddly contemporary for a vintage piece, there's zero yellowing or reflections in the "white", the elements (text, logos, etc) don't look like physical cutouts, and the "Joy-Oke Production" tag is a hell of a red flag... still, the fact that it stuck into the page at all is a testament to the 'throwback' thing I was talking about, so kudos to Joy-Oke for making me laugh.

She-Panthers




Totally shameless A/B comparison to show what a train wreck Female Leopard was before I worked on it, and a peek at what the actual DVD encode of the scene looks like. I went out of my way to find a chunk of the film that shows both the issues on the source and the artifacts that the fix cause. I hate tiled Japanese bathrooms almost as much as I do ornate Italian wall paper - both are basically asking to get raped into oblivion by any DVNR and scratch repair tools out there. Still wish I had added just a bit of grain on top to hide the fact that I only got rid of about 3/4 of the source noise, but ah well.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

John Woo Gets Killed By The Weinsteins

So, John Woo's THE KILLER/喋血雙雄 is on Blu-ray from Dragon Dynasty - the "Asian Action" sub-label owned by Genius Products. Or as many of you may know them, the home video branch of The Weinstein Company.

Yes friends, the same Weinstein Company who ran "MiramAXE" with an iron fist back when they couldn't help but re-write, re-score, and generally butcher every single title they got their hand on to the point of suicidally-depressing hilarity.

I'll let the official SHAOLIN SOCCER video ad speak for itself.

They've gotten a little bit better since then. Most of their DVDs are reasonably competent, though we still have to put up with asinine retitlings like The Banquet becoming "Curse of the Black Scorpion", occasional dubtitled releases like Hard Boiled, and of course that ugly-ass video generated title card on Fist of Legend... they've come a long way, and yet they still really suck. The sad fact is that they don't screw these films up any harder than the Hong Kong producers themselves, which is exactly why some desperate fans still support these half-cocked DVD releases.


Cropped, not scaled.

I'll admit it, this shot physically can't be an upscale. There's more fine detail in Chow's greasy forehead than even square pixel SD PAL (1024x576) can resolve... in terms of being a "Real HD" transfer, I guess this gets a pass, if just barely. But does the whole disc look this good?


Of course not.


This particular shot is so heavily drenched in vaseline-like DVNR they could have cribbed that from an LD and you'd never know the difference. It looks to be sourced from the same restored print TF1/HK Video released in France, but "enhanced" after that to remove the grain and film damage... the result is that there's actually less fine detail in pores and backgrounds than on the French DVD. If you really want the best looking release of the film available, just get that and find a way to add English subtitles to it... I'm not kidding, and I'll prove that in a minute.

Sadly, we still have a much bigger problem than Noise Reduction...

Take a look at this:


Those are interlacing artifacts - yes, INTERLACING ARTIFACTS on a 35mm film. Every single frame is 100% interlaced, and this can't be fixed with IVTC based deinterlacing. The transfer only runs 107 minutes, despite uncut NTSC versions running 111 minutes, so the audio pitch and playback are affected the same way a PAL transfer would be... That's right my friends, this Blu-ray transfer is - alongside the premier Dragon Dynasty BD release of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin - is a motherfucking "PAL HD" to "NTSC HD" standards conversion! Keep in mind that the 36th Chamber of Shaolin was progressive NTSC on DVD (480p with 3:2 pulldown flags), yet the new Blu-ray release has this exact same field-blending problem...

However, The Killer is a PAL > NTSC transfer, even on DVD. What the hell? The French DVD taken from the same HD master was progressive, so this is NOT a problem with the materials themselves - this is just the Weinstein's screwing the pooch themselves, pure and simple. Either that or they were given a pre-converted master, which is so crazy that A) I refuse to believe it, and B) even if it was true, they should have refused to take it.

Besides a bullshit 1080i50>1080i60 transfer, you get no lossless "HD" audio - just Dolby DVD quality 5.1 upmix tracks. No Woo commentary despite two of them existing, and no, despite including an assortment of "Deleted Scenes" the full length 128 minute Taiwan sourced "Version Integrale" is nowhere to be found. So far, that moniker of "The Definitive Special Edition" is looking pretty weak.

We do get a series of new interviews with Woo running nearly 50 minutes, a location retrospective running about 10, a Woo trailer reel, and uh... well, fuck. That's it! Oh wait, we get a slipcover too. Wow...

The HK Video Limited Edition 2 DVD set includes a hand-full of decent bonus features - the original trailer and a 33 minute documentary among them, but the most important was the extended, original cut on disc 2. It's telecined from what appears to be a beat-up Taiwanese theatrical print, and as such it's got burned-in English/Chinese subtitles and is dubbed into the Mandarin dialect, but it's the only way you'll ever get to see the extended 128 minute (NTSC) cut of the film. The "Deleted Scenes" featured on the new Blu-ray account for only about a third of the missing footage found in the Taiwan version.


HK Video DVD (SD PAL) Disc 1


Dragon Destiny Blu-ray (1080i60) Deinterlaced


"Definitive" my ass, Weinsteins. The R2 DVD and the US Blu-ray are damn near identical in real-world image quality, with some scenes looking better on the Blu-ray, and others looking better on the DVD... it really comes down to how hard they tried to filter out each individual scene. You can find more comparison on the AVS Forum, if you're ever so inclined.

Max, Harvey... I know you're more or less used to incompetence, but for fuck's sake, find a new authoring house A.S.A.P. This shit is just embarrassing, even for you.

Forgive the 1600x900 resolution on the above caps. I have no clue how to get Blogger to stop doing that, and I'm far too lazy to link from separate image servers. Like I said, try AVS Forum if you want a comprehensive shoot-out between the two.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Beautiful Sisters: Slave To Analog Dropouts

Long story short: My international Pink Eiga hookup sends me box after box of obscure Japanese soft porn. I then record, restore, and pass along what I create. He gives me more stuff to play with, I give him better looking DVD copies, world keeps on spinning.

The trouble is VHS is prone to analog distortions, including wear on the tape. It so happens that an older copy of Beautiful Sisters Flesh Slaves/美姉妹肉奴隷 had some pretty heinous tape rolls thanks to some wanker constantly re-watching the sexier moments of the feature, and since the whole goal of me recording
a fresh tape was to improve on the old hard-subbed bootleg VHS, this seemed like a bit of a waste.

Here's a screenshot of the "new" tape we bought in the hopes that we'd finally have a pristine source... and no, that thing doesn't go away for at least the first 5 minutes:


Well, so much for that plan... right?


Here's the scary part: BOTH copies have this weird center-stripe! It must have been a problem on either Nikkatsu's master tape or perhaps their duplication equipment, since the odds of two separate copies having the exact same issue due to identical tape wear are so astronomical I don't even know what kind of calculator I'd need to crunch it out.

I know, all's been quiet on the Western Front lately. A combination of for-hire work, relearning fundamentally broken DVD authoring software, and playing the hell out of ninja jiggle simulators has left me without the will to do much else. There's quite a bit of weirdness going on behind the scenes that I hope will be enjoyed by many, but we can talk about that later.

EDIT: Well, this is strange...

As per usual, I recorded the 72 minute feature (82 my ass, box art!) on two DVD-RW. Disc 1 plays and rips without issue, Disc 2 freezes at 15 seconds in. There's no scratches or scuffs on the disc, so I can only assume the dye has deteriorated to the point where it's just not stable anymore. I've got another 10 DVD-RW kicking around, and recording the last 10 minutes over is hardly the end of the world. I've just not had this happen, ever, in 5 years. It amuses me for some reason.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Flutterby Interlacing

So... no more manual IVTC on Female Leopard. It worked like a charm, only had to switch it at reel changes, but the tape itself is so worn from years of rental patrons pausing and slow-motion replaying the delicious rape/incest that random shots of the tape are now completely fuxOred beyond repair. And they all said masturbation wasn't dangerous...


You'll put yer eye out, kid!


I'm pretty salty over the fact that massive cooling issues with my CPU made Neat Video impossible to use (safely), but the material was such a mess that FFT3D managed to give me very similar quality in the end. I've removed the source noise and replaced it with simulated film grain, which I know sounds redundant, but is probably the best thing I could have done with this mess... take a peek at a frame comparison that manages to show, in detail, both the good and bad things that come with restoring 18 year old VHS.


Before (WIP Script)


After (Actual MPV file)


Note the lack of film damage on her ass, as well as the much more natural looking outlines in her legs and hips. This shot - like the rest of the film - was originally crawling in minor film damage, and now there's virtually none. If the only thing I'd done was removed the specs and nics from the print that alone would have been a massive improvement, but the fact that I could clean up edges like this was a bonus that only makes my efforts feel all the more worth while.

I'll be the first person to admit that the outlines in the tile have been corrupted a little through DVNR, but as this is a hazy, slow vertical pan, the sudden specs of print damage are much more visible than the blurred tile grouting. Yes this does show that there has been a loss in background detail, which is an unavoidable side-effect of both DVNR and film damage filters. The only thing I can do is adjust the tools available to me to the point where the gains are more substantial than the losses, and I think the above example is pretty satisfactory.

Maybe others disagree? I dunno, but if you think my restoration's a pile of suck you're always welcome to comment below.

This will also be the first Kentai Films VHS restoration to feature audio filtering. Don't get your hopes up, it'll just be a relatively simple hiss removal pass, but I think it'll help quite a bit. I can't promise that every single VHS sourced project will get this white glove treatment, but I finally have these tools available to me, and I won't get results out of them if I don't practice, so why not give Female Leopard - a personal favorite of mine in the Nikkatsu catalog - the respect it deserves?


UPDATE:


Today's Experiment............

........fucked.

Fuck me! I'd rather have hard interlaced frames due to tape issues than relatively stable shots looking like... well, like this! So it's back to the manual IVTC I go. I'll be further tweaking the DVNR/Scratch Removal filters to fit the "new" psuedo-RGB source, too, so the final encode will vary ever so slightly from what you see here after all.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Back to Time Basics: Soft Porn Style

Kyou OHARA's criminally obscure Roman Porno feature FEMALE LEOPARD/女豹 is a title I've had on the back burner for ages now. The trouble was some horny clod kept pausing the tape on the lead chick's ass shots to jerk off to, and warped these scenes in the process, making it unusable for creating a high quality DVD transfer.

Eventually my international hookup sent me a brand new copy. It seems to lack any major tape-wear, but some douchebag stopped the tape about a minute in, which stretched the first several feet of tape! Between the two copies I cobbled together a single "perfect" VHS sourced run, and I'm in the process of restoring it now. Surprising the hell out of me, this Nikkatsu transfer seems to have stable 3:2 cadence, so this will be a "genuine" progressive transfer instead of a deinterlaced one.

While restoring this, I did encounter a funky problem though... this is one that's easier to show rather than explain. Sorta.


Frame 1


Frame 2


Frame 3


Frame 2 has a nasty red smear that's missing in Frame 3. It's temporal ghosting issue... and as you can see, it was information from Frame 1 - the red information from the woman's face has smeared only 1 frame from the next shot, and then it's gone.

I've seen this problem on plenty on all of my VHS recordings, but since most of them have wonky 3:2 pulldown, I assumed that temporally blended chroma was a source issue... but then, I always had the TBC/DNR on, largely because the stabilizers built into my DVD recorders sucked. This is no longer an issue, so when I turned the TBC/DNR off, this problem completely disappears on Female Leopard.

That's right, the DVNR feature built into the JVC Prosumer decks have been sabotaging my efforts to create progressive transfers for years, and I never once suspected it.


*Sigh*


So, will I re-record both copies of this film so I can get it sans-NR issues? Haven't decided yet. I've released dozens of archived VHS transfers with the same problem, and have archived hundreds already. It IS a problem, but plenty of these tapes I no longer have access to, so it's a problem I have to learn to live with... it's something I'll be avoiding now that Neat Video is a realistic option, but it's still something that frustrates the living crap out of me.



The fact that I call this a "High Quality" source
without a hint of humor or irony is terrifying.


On the upside, a subbed DVD of Female Leopard's still coming - temporal DNR smearing or not. I've got Shougorou NISHUMURA's Beautiful Sisters' Rape on tap too... but we'll worry about restoring that one later.

With those two films, my Caterpillar cohorts and I may well have restored the entirety of the Video Search Miami pink catalog... good God, what else is left to live for?!

Hey, don't judge me... how else am I supposed to get all of
the kids in the van without them asking stupid questions?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Culprit Apprehended!


Picture this, except the color of Char's MS-06 Zaku II.

Yep, that's my baby, the magi2... and unfortunately, there's simply no way to keep her from overheating. Back when I was using a single core CPU, the lack of a front-fan wasn't such a big deal. Now, it's choking and threatening to burn my CPU up like your tongue on so much spicy curry.

I'm kind of in a no-win situation. This thing is solid aluminum, and I lack a drill press (or an M-16) to fill the sides with holes. They do make some wily contraptions that sit in the HDD bay and turn the entire front panel into a giganto-fan, but I fear that'll make an already loud rig sound like a goddamn wind tunnel - and would make the closing front panel totally worthless. But a new case would most certainly lower those dangerous peak temperatures, along with a better heat sink and maybe some thermal grease. But I'll try the case, first, once I get paid again. Just building it ate up the majority of my money, so I'm glad to still have several projects waiting for me.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

FUNimation Refuses to Dance

It's not always good to be the queen.

FUNimation has, for the first time in a decade, internally censored an anime title. While studios including AD Vision, Central Park Media, Media Blasters, Adult Source Media and JapanAnime have all edited offensive titles in the past, they were all hentai titles - pornographic shows which featured material that could, in no uncertain terms, be victims' of the First Amendment destroying law known as "Obscenity". The basic idea is that Free Speech doesn't protect "obscene" material, and as such a test was devised in 1973 to qualify obscene material in a jury setting...


* Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the purient interest.

* Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law.

* Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.



IF the work should fail all three tests, it's ruled obscene, and the penalties for "receiving" obscene material are a minimum sentence of 5 years jail time... yet pleading guilty to merely "possessing" obscene material carries a much less harsh sentence. This has given the American legal system a plea-bargain trap for anyone who's caught buying, selling, or even just owning obscene material - which, mind you, can be any record, book, film, drawing or photograph of essentially anything a government prosecutor can deem "offensive sexual conduct".

Manga fans should know about obscenity all too well these days... Christopher Handley was tried for, and pleaded guilty to, charges of obscenity for various pornographic Lolicon ("Lolita Complex") works in May of 2009. That's right, land of the free. He was sentenced just last week to six months in half-way house, and even lost his extensive non-pornographic manga collection... all for importing a few fucking comic books.

We're already seeing a knee-jerk reaction to this case, as FUNimation has just announced that DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND, the currently-airing gothic horror/gothic lolita title from director SHINBOU Akiyuki and adapted from TAMAKI Nozomu's ongoing manga serial, will be censored both on its' internet-only streaming broadcast, and home video. The former is almost expected, the latter is quite a shock in this day and age.

FUNimation is currently streaming episodes 1-4, and as I had feared, the second episode not only features digital censorship of nudity, but also cut over a minute's worth of footage.

And yes, she was already wearing panties.
Now she looks naked. Great job, FUNimation!

FUNimation issued the following statement on their blog, after a viewer pointed out that the US stream was more heavily edited than the Japanese TV broadcast, with the bold emphasis being my own:

“FUNimation Entertainment is known for releasing the titles we license in their original, uncut form, as their creators intended. However, after viewing the unedited as well as the Japanese broadcast edit of the series “Dance in the Vampire Bund,” we have determined the series contains controversial elements which, when taken out of context, could be objectionable to some audiences.

With this in mind and with approval of the licensor, we will edit select scenes from the series in streaming and home entertainment release. These are scenes which are inappropriate for U.S. viewing and are not essential to the storyline.

“Dance in the Vampire Bund” is a complex and dark drama cited by press and fans as one of the best anime series out of Japan this season. Its strong story is what brought the series to our attention and why we are bringing it to the U.S.”


Seig Heil, Herr Fukunaga!
Funny how it goes from being "
controversial elements which, when taken out out of context, could be objectionable to some audiences", to "These are scenes which are inappropriate for U.S. viewing" from one paragraph to another. Aren't you glad that FUNimation entertainment has flatly decided what you, as an American, should be watching? FUNimation certainly have the right to censor a title you hold the rights to and avoid a potential PR shit storm, but they have absolutely no place telling anyone else what is and isn't "appropriate" in this - or any - country. I guess they could have taken this one step further and said the material "is simply inappropriate" and alienate the Japanese companies they work with, but clearly saving face with Japan is more important to them than looking respectable to their consumers.

What's particularly sad here is the fact Seven Seas, the distributor who pussied out on the lolicon satire Nymphet: Kodomo no Jikan, have already published the first six books of the manga, which is more graphic than the TV adaptation, without any censorship at all. Seven Seas' has the strict policy of not censoring internal* artwork, and simply opts to not release a title they feel uncomfortable releasing in American bookstores, even if they've already announced it. This is a gold standard by which no other American manga publisher operates, and for that, I adore them. Now, if they could just not slap fugly covers on Wicked City and Spice and Wolf...

*What this means is they're only willing to modify the cover artwork, and indeed, vol. 5 has used some "creative" logo placement to hide Mina's assets. But not a scrap of the actual content within has been modified, so I could care less.

FUNimation hasn't released a product in an edited-only format since they were "The Dragon Ball Z company". They made great strides to convince the rabid hardcore fanbase that they were only going to present their home video releases uncensored, and up until this week, they had done exactly as they'd promised - even with "extreme" titles including Blue Gender, Speed Grapher, Shigurui: Death Frenzy and Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne. They've even gone as far to release unedited versions of not only their own properties, but "rescued" the occasionally brutal pirate adventure One Piece, a title that was rendered both irrelevant and unwatchable by the previous rights' holders, 4Kids, and re-release the title from the beginning completely uncensored.

So what's the goddamn problem?!


In this scene, Mina - the immortal lolipire, who's 9 year old form is really just a ruse to shrug off some unpleasant responsibilities she might otherwise have to contend with - is chiding her amnesiac lupine manservant Akira into smearing her with a UV-protection lotion enabling her to walk in the sun without bursting into flame. SPF 5,000, I'd wager, a product as popular with vampires as it is the Irish. Akira himself is made uncomfortable by the whole thing, but he's certainly not molesting her. If anything, Mina's simply testing and teasing him, hoping to draw out some of his repressed memories, and give her favorite plaything something to grumble about.

In the end, over 60 seconds was removed from the second episode entirely. If you're interested, you can download the entire second episode using any torrent search engine - like ISOHunt. In any other circumstance I'd suggest that anyone curious about the show check out FUNi's free stream, but I refuse to support this needlessly edited version of the program in any way I can reasonably avoid. I don't know if later episodes will be edited - or if they are, in what way - because even viewing the FUNi streams are giving them a minuscule level of revenue.

Could the above be tried for obscenity, landing either a consumer or even a FUNimation employee in real butt-pounding jaim? Sure, theoretically. But it would never stand up in court because it's not pornographic, and the whole show isn't purient - this isn't anywhere near as offensive as several other FUNimation properties, it just involves a younger looking character, and that made their PR department nervous. The odds of a self-righeous "Save the Children" group publicly crucifying FUNimation is actually more likely than any legal charges being brought against them, but even then, the more-offensive and unabridged manga from Seven Seas is already there for them to start shit with.

The issue is that FUNi has more lawyers than SS, and more lawyers make you tread more carefully, wither you really have to or not. They chose cowardice over an imagined threat of controversy from strangers, and in the end only pushed away the people who probably would have been their best customers for the title.

Titles including Dragon Ball Z and Afro Samurai were made available both in their censored TV broadcast and "uncut" editions on home video. Titles like Strike Witches were initially broadcast as censored online, but are being released uncut on DVD. Holding aside complex music rights issues (which I can't fault FUNimation for), this will be the very first time FUNimation has released only a censored version to the North American marketplace, and the fact that they censored it themselves is more troubling than had they merely been denied the unedited home video version. This is a matter of our freedom as consumers being stripped from us, and I for one will not be supporting FUNimation's bastardized presentation beyond having checked the streaming version of episode 1 and 2.

As for the show itself... honestly, it's kind of a mess. A combination of internal Japanese broadcast censorship - most of it more concerned with violence than nudity - has already made much of the show's action incomprehensible, and the limited budget and/or production difficulties on the thinly spread SHAFT animation staff has left the program looking a bit like the 21st century equivalent to The Violinist of Hamlen. The show is most certainly full of flaws, but the core story, characters, and limited-animation aesthetic from director Shinbou have all combined into a fascinating mess I can't take my eyes from. I'd have bought this show on DVD/Blu-ray in an instant, but if FUNimation is going to only offer the censored version, I'll be keeping my money... and continuing to watch the show via unlicensed fansubs. FUNimation has no one but themselves to blame for this, either.

In closing, eat a dick, FUNimation. Just make sure it doesn't look like it's 9 years old before you pay for it.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Clerks III: Dante's Inferno

DANTE SLASH!

Much like Dante Alighieri's epic poem which inspired this mess, DANTE'S INFERNO: AN ANIMATED EPIC is a miserable torment the viewer can't turn away from. It's just a shame the reasons for my revulsion are pretty far removed from what the father of modern Christianity could have ever dreamed imaginable in the mid 19th century.

Unlike in the original work, here Dante is a simple crusader who begins this saga by returning suddenly from the Holy Land, still stained in blood from the crusade. He arrives home only to find his father, and lover slain. Filled with shock and rage, he watches as Lucifer himself appears to snatch his lovely bride-to-be's soul, and Dante rushes head-long into the maw of the damned, guided by the spirit of the ancient poet Virgil on a crash course with every demon the 9 circles can throw at him...

If the original L'inferno poem was the Travelogue of Hell, then Dante's Inferno is the cliff notes pamphlet, played out in the style of Frank Miller's 300 whilst butt-fucking the life's work of Hieronymus Bosch. Picking apart the story and characters would be redundant; the whole thing is based almost word-for-word on the Visceral Games/Electronic Arts title now available in retailers everywhere, so any and all complaints of this thing being a silly mess are to be taken up with the game's writer, Will Rokos.

As is typical of any video game trying like mad to rip off the God of War franchise, character development is completely optional: Dante has the nasty habit of killing everything in his path before the audience even gets a good peek at it, and while flashbacks reveal that he was a weak man in life, once in Hell he becomes a one man Ninja Master Prep, sticking the business end of his stolen Hellscythe into the squirming guts of every critter that blocks his path, farts in his general direction, or has the gall to ask him for directions to the bus station so he can pick up his mother from chemo. Dante's a massive ass, is what I'm getting at - It's amazing he doesn't hack Virgil in half the moment he appears, or simply plummet to his untimely death with the nasty habit he has of running off in random directions, seemingly knowing that he'll reach the 9th level if he just keeps going in the same general direction the entire time.

I guess it works, since he does face off with the Prince of Darkness in the frozen creamy center of Hades, but it doesn't make his exploits any less... stupid. There are points in the feature when you can practically see the HUD and feel the controller vibrating in your hands, begging the viewer to press X not to die riiiiiiight... NOW! Wither this is a movie or simply an atrocity, it still feels like a video game, and for all the cinematic strides that gaming has made over the last 15 years, games still make much better games than they do anything else - books, action figures, comics, breakfast cereals, marital aids, and above all else, movies.

Seriously now, when Paul W.S. Anderson's
Mortal Kombat is the single best cinematic
adaptation your medium has to offer, you
should probably quit while you're ahead.

With the animation being based fairly closely on an American video game based oh-so loosely on a massive story about the horrors of Hell, I guess I should be grateful that the film even makes as much sense as it does. The fact that the hero is a chowder-head who thinks that molesting foreign women and slaughtering heathen children is forgiven in the eyes of The Lord is something I have to live with, and expected as much going in. But it's still frustrating to see how badly the storyline itself is handled - Neil Gaiman managed to do a pretty good job of making the CG Beowulf an interesting screenplay, despite having a similar action oriented and post-modern approach to the epic source material... I guess the difference was Beowulf wasn't a cowering poet in the original, and Grendel wasn't a bloated Oedipus symbok with a talking throat-vagina.

While I'll be the first to admit the archaic Italian translated into dull English has never made La Divina Commedia a personal favorite of mine, I'm still familiar enough to say that this story has as much to do with L'inferno as, say...

...close enough, right?

The English dialog is saddled with a god-awful script that's regularly a mess even before it wipes its' ass with the single most important and memorable bit of Christian literature... so let's just skip on to how the cast itself handled it. Graham McTavish does his damnedest to sound just like Gerard Butler in the title role of Dante, and I'm sure several outtakes include "THIS... IS... CHRIST'S LOVE!" I wish I could say anything nicer than "he sounds a hell of a lot like Leonidas" since that is kind of an impressive feat unto itself, but seriously, there's nothing else to add.

Anime dubbing regular Steve Blum plays Lucifer in a performance that's certainly adequate on all levels, but damn, if Tim Curry wouldn't have been more amusing in the role on a number of levels... any of you who saw Ferngully in your repressed childhood memories will know exactly what I'm talking about.

Peter Jessop - best known as Wesker in the Resident Evil game franchise - costars as Virgil, and manages to put out the best performance of the bunch by way of him being one of the few characters who isn't either an asshole or given something jarringly moronic to spew out. He's basically just walking exposition, but a little class was still a breath of fresh air in this murky pool of machismo.

Vanessa Branch, however, is dead as dirt playing Dante's hell-bound lover Beatrice. Seriously, there isn't a stick pointy enough to make her scream with conviction. Why the fuck would you ever even think of casting a chick who sounds like-

Oh...

Sure, she's hot. And British. But what part of being quality spank material *EVER* equated to being a good voice performer? (Seriously, have you ever seen Megumi Hayashibara?!) Suddenly putting Jennifer Connolly in 9 seems like a stroke of casting brilliance.

Mark Hamill also hits a new low by playing Dante's monstrous father. I'm sorry Mark, but you've done so much better in the past. To be fair, I don't blame you for phoning this one in... it's been a while since anyone's had to say it, but Luke Skywalker, you're above this crap.

Nay, much like other psuedo-anime co-productions like Highlander: The Search for Vengeance and Halo Legends (and no, I'm never watching that), my sole interest here is in the visual execution. Unlike most projects that feature multiple directors, this one isn't a series of stand-alone vignettes that let the director's own personal style shine through. No, the only thing that happens is the character designs and animation quality changes every 10 minutes or so...

It was probably a good idea on paper, but in execution you watch the project go from fugly to gorgeous to mediocre, and the story and atmosphere never shift dramatically enough for it to feel justified.


So, how does each individual
"chapter" production hold up?


* THE ARRIVAL/ENTRY INTO HELL (Film Roman): Victor Cook's segment is - as with most over-budgeted American animation - competent, cinematic in a broad sense, and has a lot of smooth movement. But what it makes up for by meeting Hollywood expectations it loses by lacking in style or personality. It really does resemble a Saturday Morning feature that grew a pair of hairy balls, and while I can take that on its' own merits and try to have fun with it, it just looks dull compared to everything else around it.

Daisuke NISHIO > Bruce Timm.
That's right, I said it: DBZ > BTAS.

It's quite gory and even features a tit, which I guess is more than I can say for Avatar: The Last Air Bender, but if all I needed to be impressed by the average Cartoon Network production was some NC-17 content,I'd be a far happier man and worship Ralph Bakshi as the One True God. I guess Cook's clunky introduction isn't awful, but it sure isn't memorable either.



* LIMBO (Manglobe): Shukou MURASE's segment is probably the pick of the stunted litter, full of horrifying abortion imagery, freakish giant monsters, and absolutely gorgeous production values and design sensibilities.

Even Dante himself couldn't stand to watch
the other directors' entries after this...

I couldn't stand Witch Hunter Robin personally, but I'll admit that Murase's realistic character designs and gothic-horror aesthetic works into the material's favor, and this segment is... well, expectations be damned, it's actually pretty good. The animation quality never dips to cheap flash tricks, and it remains grim and dark in tone from start to finish without any jarring flaws to take you out of the experience. It's very dark visually, too, but making the monsters black things that peek out of the black void of Hell works into its' favor, particularly when coupled with the sense of depth given to this 2D production. The terrible hack-and-slack-and-repeat script is still evident, but it's so goddamn purty that I could almost ignore it totally.



* LUST/GLUTTONY/GREED/ANGER (Dong Woo): Jong-Sik Nam's entry is... fucking weird. First of all Dante becomes a Peter Chung sketch on acid, but I can forgive that (sorta). What's less permissible is the segment's fantastic and shockingly kinetic style is quickly hampered by its' severe lapses in animation continuity and general budget constraints. You need a dramatic close-up? Hey, let's just zoom in on the guy's face from that medium shot - that works, right? The two chapters covered - Lust and Gluttony - had a lot of potential, but before you get your hopes up know that the succubi have giant Wicked City not-quite-human-vagina school of design. And while Dante does indeed get shoved up Cerberus' pooper as the producers promised, he's not quite what the legendary poet had described...

And here I was with visions of a
massive dog-anus dancing in my head...

I never expected "An Animated Epic" to have a sequence comparable to a bad acid trip set to a Slayer album cover, and that description brings with it both very great and terrible things. The execution of this segment as a whole is bizarre and - dare I say it? - often downright lulzy, but it never quite surpassed the level of "fascinating train wreck" into an outright work of mad genius.



* CITY OF DIS/HERESY/VIOLENCE (JM Animation): Lee Seunggyu at least created a stylish looking piece that screams "Look, I'm that exciting azn animotion!", and strangely enough features character designs that LOOK vaguely like Yasuomi Umetsu's... if Umetsu had ever directed a weekly TV adaptation of Bastard for the Shounen Jump crowd.

Wait. Why is he shirtless DURING the crusade?

The animation ranges from mediocre to quite excellent, and it could be the most exciting section of the film, yet it's all relatively cliché in execution, and is to Eastern "Anime" what the Film Roman section is to Western "Cartoons". When I heard that "Dante's Inferno: The Game" was getting a co-produced "Dante's Inferno: The Game ~ The Anime", this is exactly the sort of thing popped into my head. Much like the first chapter, wither or not this is appealing or horrifying will come down to personal taste rather than competency. It's just a shame that it relies on constantly using blur filters and ridiculously fast cuts when the animation hiding underneath isn't bad... it's like when it just starts cooking, it can't ever let itself be good for fear of kicking too much ass. Once more, we have a mixed bag that's more frustration than entertainment.



* FRAUD (JM Animation):Kim Sangjin may have created the single ugliest piece of animation here. To be perfectly fair the background and monster design was at times stellar, and the actual movement was better than average for this mess - lots of quick movement that would have been jerky at a lower framerate, but manage to look deceptively smooth at full speed. The nuts and bolts consistency is utter crap though, and the character design work is the real problem here.

Except that part.
That was cool.


Dante himself looks like a constipated chimpanzee, background human characters are undefined blobs of goo that would make any real character designer weep tears of blood soaked cartoonist rage, and we're even given a goddamn nipple-free titty. Come on now Sangjin, even the Avatar asshole gave us full-on nips! For every legitimate moment of brilliance, there's at least two that are pitiful, so perhaps it's for the best that this one clocks in at less than 8 minutes.



* TRECHARY (Production I.G.): Here we go... directed by Yasuomi UMETSU, the name for which I endured this monstrosity. Man, I was hoping they had saved the best for last. The "epic" finale is anything but: It's actually quite restrained, and Umetsu chooses to play up the cold atmosphere over monsters shouting "boo!" and then getting sliced in half - which would be fine if only this weren't the final 15 minutes of the otherwise pulse-pounding program. It's not that it doesn't work in and of itself, just that it's out of place in the work as a whole - but I'm not convinced the sluggish pacing on display is all Umetsu's fault either.

...oh fucking hell.

Much more troubling than the leisurely strolling is the fact that Dante now looks like bastard lovechild of Tolkien's Gimli and Dale Keown's Pitt - checking the credits it turns out the chara designs were from KOTOBUKI Tsukasa, the designer behind Saber Marionette J, Battle Arena Toshinden, Cyberteam in Akihabara and Marriage of God & Soul Godannar.

The only other show he's worked on in the last decade.
No, I'm not kidding - Godannar was it, man.

1) Why bother hiring Umetsu to animate something so devoid of his own unique style - realistic hands, shiny eyes, pretty girls, kinetic gunplay and hard boiled urban decay - that any and all of his positive qualities, other than being a generally competent animator, disappear?

2) Kotobuki's specialty is creating hot gravity defying women, NOT blocky Rob Liefiend-esque antiheroes and Bleach-monster knock-offs. What was the goal here? To trick people who liked Battle Arena Toshinden into watching this nonsense?!

As if this titanic clash in identity weren't already a miserable mistake, it's obvious that the producers decided to add a bunch of additional dialog to the final stretch, so get ready to see a lot of repeated animation and poorly constructed freeze-frames to give a half-hearted try at matching the voices to the animation. There's clearly some sloppy editing on all of these segments, but this is the only one with frozen digital grain. Augh.

I will say that I.G's animation is consistently polished, looking technically better than even Manglobe's moody segment, but it's just so awkward looking that I just can't drum up much excitement for it. It's no Mezzo Forte that's for sure, but unlike Liberator I don't feel like it's really his fault. He was hired to bring some bad script and bad character designs to life, and at that, he excelled... too bad they didn't just let him co-write and design the thing himself.

I'm sure I'm being awfully hard on this production. It's clearly got a decent budget, and every animation director does their damnedest to put a unique visual spin on the material... and let's be honest, I like crappy animated train-wrecks. So why am I so bitter about this one? Probably because most epic abominations of animation have a singular, honest vision behind them, no matter how ugly or nonsensical the miserable results are. A show like Blassreiter, Super Heavyweight God Gravion or even Dance in the Vampire Bund may not be "good" titles in the conventional sense, but at least they still FEEL like genuine works of commercial art, spreading visual experiments, propaganda and entertainment to the very best of the staff's abilities.

Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic isn't an original story, or even an original take on a familiar story, it's just the video game without the benefit of user interaction. It's the laziest and most uninteresting sort of cash-in for fans who should be interested to its' connection the franchise, not because it is the entire franchise. The directors weren't allowed to write their own material, cast the lead voices, or make it their own in any way beyond the general art design, so the only appeal this feature has is in having pretty animation... so in effect, if the animation isn't pretty, this title literally has nothing going for it.


For "An Animated Epic" to be anything less than a cavalcade of gorgeous eye-candy means it's a failure by default, and when this production falls on hard times, it falls hard. I can easily accept intentionally ugly animation like Tokyo Tribe 2 and Kakugo no Susume, and I don't mind when the title tries to look "stylish" like a vintage etching or what have you (as "An Animated Epic" is want to do from time to time). What I have trouble swallowing is inconsistent and poorly planned animation, and I feel like this production features both out the Hellish wazoo. I know that picking and choosing which standards to hold a consistently changing and unique production like this is damning for any critic, but screw it, I've come this far...

If you can't even match the likes of Hellsing Ultimate and Afro Samurai - for better or worse, the gold standard of 200X action-pornography animation - and you've brought nothing else of interest to the table, then don't bother animating it at all. The goddamn game it's based on looks more impressive than "An Animated Epic", making this animated version of the same exact material largely redundant.

In the end, I'm sure that Dante is a massive step up from EA's prior stab at making an animated game tie-in: DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL. But that doesn't make it particularly good. Compared to other American-Japanese co-productions designed to appeal to a Western audience, including SIN: The Motion Picture, Lady Death, and Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, ol' Dante comes out looking pretty watchable.

If, however, you compare it to more successful short-subject minded compilations with a similar staff mix-up, like The Animatrix and Batman: Gotham Knight, well, even then it starts to feel broken. There's a little bit of fun to be had for any fans of extreme gore, freaky monsters and hilariously bad editing and design choices hiding in what's clearly a high budgeted project with lofty aims. The execution may still be a loud, bloody mess, but in the scheme of shitty direct-to-video American funded animation, this is purely middle of the road entertainment. Had Murase directed the whole feature, we might have had a minor masterpiece with a shit script... as it stands, his is about the only part worth renting it for.