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Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Category: DVD

Ivan With The Head Of A Bear

How’s this for a bold, principled statement on a controversial topic:

“Jack Frost” is the best MST3K episode of all time.

Yes, better than its cousin, “The Day The Earth Froze.” Yes, better than “Manos, Hands of Fate,” largely because (let’s face it) “Manos” is just plain painful for most of its running time. Yes, better than “Gamera vs. Gaos.” Yes, better than “Prince Of Space.” Need I go on?

Let the evidence speak for itself, then.

  • “I thought Jerry Garcia was Father Mushroom.”
  • ‘No, not a princess. You are a queen!’ “In that you look like Freddy Mercury.”
  • “M is for the many times you beat me. O is for the other times you beat me…”
  • “Jack Frost opened fire on a stand of willows today…”
  • “I’m bacon! Baconbaconbaconbacon…”
  • “Bob Keeshan is Mr. Natural.”
  • “Michael Nelson is Lord of the Dance!”
  • “So I guess instead of vacuuming this house, you Zamboni it.”
  • “Hello, this is the sun. Your call is important to us, so please stay on the line…”

At any rate, until today I had to make do with an old VHS copy, but no longer. I now own this fine bit of televised hilarity in DVD form!

You may now bask in the glory of my awesomeness. Thank you.

James Burke on YouTube

Recently I Twittered (tweeted, whatever) about the sudden disappearance of the JamesBurkeFan collection of videos on YouTube containing the entirety of “Connections” (1, 2 and 3) as well as “The Day The Universe Changed,” my favorite educational series of all time. Turned out that YouTube pulled the videos at the request of the publisher of the upcoming new boxed set of “Universe Changed.”

Oh, by the way? My birthday is coming up

Alan Carre, the man behind the JamesBurkeFan collection, stopped by a couple of days ago to let me know that he’s back on YouTube. Awfully nice for a guy to follow me back here from Twitter, I think! Check out his page, say something nice, and patronize the folks offering the boxed sets if you can. I particularly recommend the original “Connections” and, of course, “The Day The Universe Changed.”

Curse of the Golden Flower

We managed to miss seeing it in the theater, so Kyla picked this one up on DVD a while back. Last night we made time to take it in. And oh, there’s so much to take in!

“Curse of the Golden Flower” is an expensive and beautiful Chinese film portraying an imperial family that, to put it simply, is one hell of a mess. The Emperor, his three sons, his consort, and the family of his key physician are almost the entirety of the cast… if you set aside the small army of servants and large army of… well, soldiers. I’ll try not to spoil much of the plot, but suffice to say that nobody has truly clean hands among the royal family.

The trailers make this movie look like just another pretty, wire-fu spectacle starring Chow Yun Fat. In fact the martial arts action is quite limited, and appropriately so. What we get instead is a slow-boiling cauldron of familial frustration, plots and counterplots, and a peel-the-layers sense that these people are all quite dreadfully messed up and miserable. As all hell finally breaks loose we’re treated to a series of action set pieces slightly more grounded in reality than one would expect, and it’s all the more effective for the restraint. (“House of Flying Daggers,” by comparison, becomes so completely absurd in this regard that the dramatic, tragic ending is thoroughly weakened because the audience’s suspension of disbelief is trampled beyond repair.)

In the meantime there’s plenty of good performances and outstanding costumes and sets to gaze upon. Seriously, this is a lavishly gorgeous film that you could run with the sound and subtitles off just for the sake of feasting on the eye candy. Apparently this is the most expensive Chinese feature film to date, and there’s no doubt that every penny of the cost made it to the screen.

If you’re remotely interested in Asian cinema, “Curse” should be on your “to see” list even if you don’t end up purchasing a copy. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and even someone who enjoys these movies as much as I do probably won’t watch it often. We’re not talking about a cheerful and uplifting film, after all, but Chinese actions dramas rarely feature happy endings. Still, this is a better movie sporting more depth than I originally expected, and is definitely worth the time.

I leave you with this parting thought: When in doubt, bet on the assassins with the chain-sickles. Those guys kick ass.

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind

If you came here expecting an unbiased review, forget about it. I have the manga, I have a battered old VHS copy of “Warriors of the Wind,” and I’ve been waiting for a DVD release of this movie for ages. I love this old movie, and for the most part the DVD provides a valuable and rewarding experience.

Let’s back up a bit, shall we? Cut to the mid-80s, and picture me holed up in a neat old house along a back-country road well outside of a tiny little town in Washington state. I was, oh, 16 or 17, and we had cable. Back then, “cable” consisted of about thirteen channels in all… USA, HBO, TNN, Cinemax, CNN, your local affiliates and probably WGN for some bizarre reason I’ve never fully understood. HBO and Cinemax, back then, were all about rotating rapidly through a small roster of films every month. This is the same way I ended up seeing stuff like “The Pirate Movie,” “Megaforce” and “Superfuzz” over and over and over again. (Shut up. I know. Just, shut up.)

Now, I’d gotten hooked on Robotech and had all three of the “Art” books. (Come to think on it, I still do. Heh.) I knew what “anime” was, in general terms, but I didn’t think much more of it than simply, “Anime is where Robotech came from. Cool.” Then HBO put into rotation a movie called “Warriors of the Wind.” I watched it. Then I watched it again. In fact, during one particular two-week stretch of summer break when my stepdad left me to my own devices while he was back east doing job training, I watched that movie almost every time it came on. Somewhere in all of that, I taped it (on his clunky, two-piece VHS deck). (I still had that tape up until just a few years ago, when I picked up my retail copy of the movie.) Suffice to say that I got to a point where I didn’t necessarily need the sound on to follow all of the dialog.

(A possibly-amusing side note: To this day, I still expect to experience a tape-glitch artifact during the scene where the Ohmu is watching Nausicaa from a distance after she’s herded the Giant Gadfly most of the way back to the Toxic Jungle. One of these days I suspect I’ll get used to not seeing and hearing it, since it’s been years since I watched that old HBO-spawned tape. Even during my DVD viewing last night, knowing full well it wouldn’t be there, I found myself surprised at its absence. Weird, huh?)

I tell you all of this partly because I like reminiscing and partly so you understand that I have a strong attachment to this bit of film. This works in the DVD’s favor in almost every way, but actually detracts from it in one surprising area.

Here’s the nutshell-synopsis: Young Princess Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind comes into conflict with various other tribes of what’s left of humanity, in a time set 1000 years after some kind of holocaust has covered the globe with destruction and unleashed a “toxic jungle” that houses poisonous plants and giant insects that will attack humans at the slightest provocation. It’s her belief that the jungle can be lived with in relative harmony, if people would simply stop trying to annihilate it and treat it as nothing but an enemy force. Plot ensues, shots are fired, hostages are taken, bugs run (and fly) rampant, and so on. If you’ve seen “Princess Mononoke,” think of this as the early draft, with somewhat clearer battle lines and more straightforward plot threads.

For a twenty-year-old piece of anime filmmaking, it looks surprisingly good on DVD. Sure, you can see evidence of age from time to time, and it’s certainly not the sort of spit-and-polish computer-aided anime we’ve grown used to in the last few years. It is, however, undisputably a masterwork of its craft.

In case you didn’t know, the previous English dub version, the aforementioned “Warriors of the Wind,” is generally regarded as a travesty of epic proportions. Part of that is because of the amount of material cut (more on that in a minute), and the other part is because of the dub work. (Okay, there’s also the incredibly misleading cover art. Hoo boy. Incredibly misleading, I say.) Because of the general opinion about the previous dub, I decided that my first viewing, or more accurately my first listening, had to be of the new English dub. It sports an all-star cast, blah blah blah. For the most part, they do well, but I have some quibbles.

“Ohm”? The only explanation I can imagine for that is that someone told someone else somewhere along the line that trailing “u” sounds tend to be nigh-silent in Japanese, or something. It’s supposed to be “Ohmu,” dammit. I gave a little twitch every time I heard “Ohm.” I also had a problem with “peh-jyte,” where in my mind it’s been “peh-jee-tay” all along. (Okay, smarty pants, how would you pronounce “Pejite”?) Name pronunciations, I suppose, I’ll eventually get used to, but really now. Then again, at least they didn’t actually change 90% of the nomenclature like the previous dub is oh-so-guilty of doing.

No, that’s not the really surprising part of the new dub. What gets to me is how much less character comes through in the voice acting compared to the “Warriors” dub. Keep in mind that “Warriors” is generally considered to be a poorly-acted, poorly-scripted mess… and there were times when I found myself missing the verve and wit put into that other dub. Lines that were moderately clever in “Warriors” come off as lifeless, if more faithful, scraps of dialog in this new “Nausicaa.” The new voice work is servicable, but rarely inspired. This is rather sad because there are some very good-sounding voices at work here. I’ll give Patrick Stewart credit for making a very good Yupa, and Uma Thurman as Princess Kushana turned out to be a great choice, but nobody else really distinguishes themselves. Not that anybody does a bad job. In some ways, it’s a compliment to generally-recognizable folks like Mark Hamill and Edward James Olmos that you aren’t pulled out of the movie by thinking, “Hey, I know that voice!” But… I don’t know. The dub lacks something, and that’s a shame considering how little it had to work to have been truly better than what came before.

How does the movie sound otherwise? Generally, it’s quite marvelous. The musical score is certainly “very 80s,” which lends a kind of quaint atmosphere to things for a viewer nowadays. It’s still perfectly enjoyable, though, and the more so because now we have the whole movie to see and hear.

This segues nicely into talking about all of that restored footage. During the scene of Nausicaa’s boarding the Torumekian airship as a hostage, in the “Warriors” version it goes from her walking up to the plane, and then with a sudden piano chord she’s waving from the doorway. That always seemed a bit jarring and odd to me, and now I know why. In the real movie, there’s a touching little scene involving three little girls who don’t want Nausicaa to go, and she promises that she’ll return soon. During that scene, there’s piano music… and the chord at the end flows naturally from that scene. Ah! This makes much more sense!

That phrase, “This makes much more sense,” came to mind so many times last night that I lost count. It’s amazing to notice just how much of the movie was cut for the “Warriors” release. Big scenes, little scenes, tiny bits out of the middle of otherwise-servicable scenes… wow. Chop, chop, chop went the editors of the previous release. I won’t bother trying to cover even half of what’s “back in” this release, because I could be here for another hour just bringing them back to mind. Suffice to say that this movie makes a whole lot more sense than what you may have seen before. And if you’ve not seen “Warriors of the Wind,” well, spare yourself. Really.

I’ve been rambling for a while now, and I think it’s time to wrap up. So, what do I think of Disney’s treatment of “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind”? Overall, I give them high marks for a good-looking release, with a workable-if-underwhelming dub but (of course) the original Japanese track for those of us who tend to prefer that sort of thing. There aren’t any genuinely interesting extras, but I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t care much about that. What I want is the movie, in as good a form as I can get it. This DVD delivers that, at least.

If you are into animation at all, you owe it to yourself to try this disc out. If you’re an anime fan and haven’t already seen it, well, why the hell haven’t you? It’s Miyazaki, for heaven’s sake! If you like a nice little man-versus-nature ecological-disaster tale, you should enjoy this movie. In fact, the only people I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this movie to are those who dislike animation in its entirety. (It’s okay, we can still be friends, I suppose. Heh.)

Again, in case you had any doubts: I love this movie.

Armitage: Dual-Matrix Special Edition

So what do you do when you’re handed a DVD, you look at the cover and title, and you pop the disc into your player right away because you’re certain that this is going to be a fun show to see… and then you have to work continually throughout the viewing to keep your enthusiasm up?

That pretty much sums up my experience with Pioneer’s Armitage: Dual-Matrix release, the sequel to the vastly-superior Armitage III: Poly-Matrix, itself a conglomeration of the original Armitage OAVs. I wanted to like this movie a lot. Instead I can only like it a little bit.

What’s wrong with it, you ask? The animation quality is good, but just a little too “computery.” The plot is good, but just a little too “contrived.” The voice work is good, but just a little too “cheesy.” (How often, by the way, do we need to be told that Juliette Lewis is the voice of Armitage? Big whoop, Pioneer.)

The story feels like it takes place in a vacuum, or that it’s a stage show with pretty sets but no background characters taking up available space. One gets the impression that for all the effort the animators went to in order to show us cool fight scenes, they didn’t want to be bothered animating background characters.

I won’t bore you with a plot synopsis. Suffice to say that the robot-girl Armitage is given cause to take a trip to Earth to provide us with lots of butt-kicking action. Oh, and her daughter is used as an emotional pawn at least once. And her husband spends a lot of time standing around like a statue. Hmm, I’ve given too much away already.

There are other minor problems as well, including a fully-3D car chase that looks, well, fully-3D. One also wonders at the animation technique used, since a lot of the shadows that fall on characters’ faces have stair-step jaggies. Every time I see that particular artifact I get pulled completely out of the story, amazed that anyone could have missed that glaring error even once, let alone as often as you see it in this film.

One positive note (pun intended) is that the Special Edition release has very pretty menus, including the option to play three of the musical selections in 5.1 surround sound. However, once the novelty of this feature has worn off you realize that the music isn’t all that great to begin with. It’s not bad, it’s just… not that good either. Sort of like the rest of this feature. The “making of” featurette is better than I expected, with the exception of the terrible interview with Juliette Lewis. One wonders if she threw some sort of star-power fit to get so much of her face and name on this release.

Oh yes, and check out Ahmed Best doing his best (pun intended) Jar-Jar impersonation. But wait, he is the voice of Jar-Jar. Um.

I do plan to use this DVD to make a music video or two, as it does contain a great many nicely-animated action sequences. If you’re handed this disc as a freebie, enjoy. If you’re out shopping, skip over this one in favor of the original.

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