DVD

'Violent Cop': Beat Takeshi Kitano as a Japanese Dirty Harry

Sono otoko, kyôbô ni tsuki (Japanese title)

*** mild spoilers ***

He's not ready with the witty verbal quips – just the opposite, actually – but Detective Azuma is otherwise not all that unlike Dirty Harry. He slaps teenage punks around, would rather beat up than arrest drug dealers, and doesn't hesitate to run down a cop killer.

The plot eventually becomes about Azuma's investigation of a drug syndicate and how it's controlling more than it seems. But I have to warn Dirty Harry fans: This is no Magnum Force. In some ways, the Dirty Harry films are fairy tales compared with this movie. They are also much more sharp and focused in the western cinematic tradition. Violent Cop is very Japanese in understatedness of plot.

For those who like to see other cities, other cultures, like I do, there are lots of scenes on the streets of what might be Kyoto. (Filming location info is not currently found on Wikipedia or IMDB.) Much of the story takes place during the daytime, so there's much to see. (City streets at night could be almost anywhere.)

Interestingly, the movie was originally conceived as a comedy. IMDB:

The original script was a comedy. Kitano was then very concerned about the audience recognizing his acting skills and he didn't feel that a comedy would allow him to act nor allow the audience to abstract from his comic TV personality. So he rewrote the script, removed all comedy and turned it into a drama.

One wonders what elements of the final film could have been comedic in another context.

In 'Brother', Beat Takeshi shows LA hoods Yakuza style

This movie is interesting. Very dry. Very understated, for all the violence. Beat Takeshi Kitano directed this movie, his first outside of Japan.

Beat Takeshi Kitano
(If you don't know Beat, you may still recognize his face.)

Wikipedia currently remarks:

Brother (2001), shot in Los Angeles, had Kitano as a deposed Tokyo yakuza setting up a drug empire in L.A. with the aid of a local gangster played by Omar Epps. Despite a large buzz around Kitano's first English language film, the film was met with tepid response in the US and abroad....

Between the disappointing response to Brother and Dolls [another movie he directed], Kitano became a punching bag for the press in the United States, who wondered if he had lost his ability to make a good film. Criticism was less severe in Europe and Asia though many commentators were not as lavish with their praise as they had been with previous Kitano films.

To my own taste, I prefer Brother to Violent Cop, Kitano's first movie as director. For one thing, you get to know why Beat's character Aniki is the way he is. In Violent Cop, Azuma is more of a cipher.

That said, Aniki is not quite as transparently purposeful or ambitious as the Wikipedia description would have you believe. He's a guy who doesn't back down. Ever. And that leads to some interesting reactions as he makes his acquaintance of the LA drug gang world portrayed in the film. What makes it all hold together are the flashbacks that tell us why he's in LA in the first place. Enough said about that.

For anyone interested in gangster movies, I'd say this is probably worth seeing. But for me it's the Kitano-style Japanese touches in the story and some characters that puts this movie in the yes column. Omar Epps is a likable presence, too.

Laura's unofficial sci-fi geek Lords of Kobol lineage DVD collection

Some items are must-haves for any science fiction fan (and aren't all geeks and geekettes to some extent sci-fi fans?). We already know that Battlestar Galactica is the best show on television. Now we can celebrate not just this fabulous show in high-definition video, but those shows and movies that led to its creation (according to me -- Ron Moore may have different ideas).

Let's start at the top:

  1. Battlestar Galactica - Season One [HD DVD]

    If you've stumbled across the show broadcast in HDTV on the UHD cable channel, you know that Galactica is really something else when you can see all the detail.

    Price: $69.95

  2. Blade Runner (Five-Disc Complete Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray]

    Caprica Six, meet your cinematic ancestors -- the angry existentialist Ray, the touchy Leon, the cheerfully desperate Pris and the ass-kicking Zora. And, of course, Rachel. (I couldn't be offering a spoiler on this 1977 movie, could I?) You have to wonder if we'd have Battlestar Galactica if we didn't have Blade Runner. Remastered, re-edited by Ridley Scott, this is the definitive edition.

    Price: $27.95 for the 5-disc Blu-ray set, $66.95 for the Blade Runner (Five-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition) (aka the special edition with dead tree material added)

  3. Firefly - The Complete Series

    The mood of Galactica wouldn't be possible if it weren't for Firefly, which aired a few years before. This sci-fi classic series was ill-treated by the television, but lives on in gorgeous DVD video that upconverts very nicely, thank you.

    If you haven't seen Firefly, you're in for a treat. These characters you will love -- they will be your friends for life. I swear!

    Price: $39.99

  4. Cowboy Bebop Remix, Volume 1

    You couldn't have Firefly without Cowboy Bebop. This anime series manages to surprise you. And the music is pretty cool, too.

    Price: $17.49

    Happy Holidays, Space Cowboy!

This is part of a larger holiday geeky gift guide I posted on BlogHer.

Fighting piracy one Scout at a time

When it comes to digital copying of copyrighted works, the old-media conglomerates' automatic reaction has been to clamp down -- make

One would think that, with the exploding cultural, communications and market-driven phenomenon of online media, these international corporations run by very-well-paid executives would be all over it, bringing their vast libraries of creative content to new markets, leveraging their dominance in the 20th century economy into great advantage going after 21st century opportunities.

Instead, it seems their energy has gone into what Freud would call anal-retentive behavior: adding more "security seals" and un-clickable FBI and Interpol warnings to DVDS, producing slick ads propagandizing the evils of what they consider illegal copying, and, of course, suing consumers to keep them -- us -- in line.

The obvious change that has to happen, though, is cultural. Now the major studios have recruited the Boy Scouts to frame the issue, as they see it, in terms of Scouting values:

The movie industry has developed the curriculum.

"Working with the Boy Scouts of Los Angeles, we have a real opportunity to educate a new generation about how movies are made, why they are valuable, and hopefully change attitudes about intellectual property theft," Dan Glickman, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, said in a statement Friday.

Scouts will be instructed in the basics of copyright law and learn how to identify five types of copyrighted works and three ways copyrighted materials may be stolen.

Scouts also must choose one activity from a list that includes visiting a movie studio to see how many people can be harmed by film piracy. They also can create public service announcements urging others not to steal movies or music.

I don't know. There seems to be something a little perverse about this. Do we really want commercial interests to start propagandizing our kids through Boy Scouts? Should Coke and Pepsi consider something like this in their cola wars? I'm imagining a Pepsi Challenge Merit Badge.

Scouts are an obvious target for commercial and political interests who want to influence a new generation of Americans to think their way, but maybe it would be better if they stuck to camping, team-building and selling mediocre cookies.

Women kicking butt in Aeon Flux

Warning: Spoilers. (Not much, but hey, I warned you.)

So I saw Aeon Flux on DVD the other night. Given the mediocre reviews and lack of box-office love the film, um, enjoyed, I really didn't expect much. I wanted to see it mainly because of the production design I saw in the commercials. And because of Charlize Theron. And (okay okay) because I'm something of a scifi nut.

What I didn't quite expect was the heart of the story being driven by female characters. As you know, the norm in sci-fi movies is to have maybe a couple of interesting, perhaps powerful women who have their moments of personal power, but in the decisive cumination leave matters to the (male) hero. Not so in this movie. Aeon is unmistakeably the motivator of just about all the action here, and she's the one who comes through again and again, all the way up to the conclusion. (And, for the most part, the other major action characters are women as well.)

Charlize Theron brings a lot of presence to her performance. Her intensity practically leaps off the screen right at you. You can see it even in the NLE exports (i.e., raw out of the editing system) used in the making-of featurettes on the DVD. She doesn't phone in the performance, like some actors would in a similar movie, and she doesn't go for the easy campy out. She plays it straight, and as a result she carries this movie. Without her and the wonderful-yet-minimalist production values, this would be yet another forgettable B-movie you see only on the Internet Movie Database but never in the store, let alone theatres.

She's also astonishingly graceful in what is an extremely physical performance. I imagine the guys will appreciate her outfits even more. Very skin-tight, boys. But I thought more interesting was what she does, and how she does it. Aeon is a character of intention and purpose -- which, of course, is perfect for a story where all the certainties are not quite what they seem.

Still, first and foremost it's an action movie. The culmination isn't all that unusual. Explosions, guns -- lots of guns (though not the orgy The Matrix offers).

No, Aeon Flux is not a scifi classic. But it's a heckuva lot better than most of the stuff that passes for scifi on the big screen these days. And it's nice to see a women's vision of the future, without the usual phallic imagery and gizmo obsession. (I assume the fact that the producer, director, storyboard artist and star are women plays into that.) It's worth seeing, in my book.

Unfortunately, the website is yet another web 1.0 wonder, replete with Flash domination, un-asked-for music (so don't go there with your speakers turned up, or you'll rattle your monitor off the desk) and the usual brochure-ware offerings. If it weren't for some deliberate search-results skewing by Google, I doubt the site would even merit any pagerank. (Too many generations of website cloning, it seems. Wink wink. It'll make sense if you've seen the movie.)

Special effects: The Final Frontier

Why is it that the studios cannot leave enough alone? Apparently, Star Trek: The Original Series (ST:TOS to Trekkers and Trekkies out there [I'm of the latter, thank you very much]) is getting a makeover, not only being remastered for HDTV but also getting all the effects shots redone.

There's no direct link to the email update I received, so I will simply quote from the SciFi news page the entire PR blurb:

The original 1960s Star Trek series will receive a high-tech makeover and return to broadcast syndication for the first time in 16 years, with digitally remastered episodes, Paramount announced. In honor of the show's 40th anniversary, CBS Domestic Television is releasing all 79 episodes with new special effects and music on 200 stations, beginning Sept. 16. The first batch of episodes will be chosen from a list of fan favorites.

The original special effects will be replaced with computer-generated images, including the exterior of the Starship Enterprise, based on the exact measurements of the original model, now resting in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The main title sequence will also be redone with new effects and a new digital stereo soundtrack re-recorded by an orchestra and a female singer. William Shatner's classic original recording of the 38-word "Space, the final frontier ..." monologue has been remastered and continues to open each episode.

All of the space scenes, alien landscapes and ships—including the Romulan Bird of Prey and Klingon Battle Cruisers—will be updated as well. The remastered episodes have been converted from the original film into a high-definition format, which gives viewers a clearer, crisper, more vibrant picture, even when viewed in standard definition.

Will the Star Trek series ever be the same?

Looking at the revisionist releases of Star Wars and its sequels, with not only "new" effects but entirely new (boring) scenes added and even replacement of the actor playing the Emperor (though the new Emperor was good), I worry that the original Original Series will be lost to the dustbin of history.

It's really a shame, since part of the real charm of ST:TOS is how it's so much a product of its time -- the miniskirts, the overt paternalism and chauvinism, the actors so young and vivid ... and, yes, the dated special effects, which really aren't all that bad, when it comes down to it.

Will "updating" the Romulan ships add anything to Star Trek? Will making our dear, beloved Enterprise NCC-1701 fly more like Picard's Enterprise and fire photon torpedoes with new CG subtlety seem like a modern show?

Will re-recording the title music help, or make the show seem alien to fans?

Maybe I'm just too much the geek. After reading Herb Solow and Robert Justman's book on how Star Trek was made totally on the cheap, I can appreciate the vigor and charm of the show even more. This decision by the tassled loafer set in Paramount to "update" Trek leaves me feeling uneasy....

...and wanting to rush to Best Buy and snap up those current box sets of the series before they're lost to the Orwellian world of special effects updates.


For a more sarcastic take: Blowing Smoke.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of how HDTV might change movies

They don't make movies like this anymore. Like many kids my age, I saw it may times on Saturday afternoon television, full frame with lots of cuts and lots of car commercials (which somehow weren't so obnoxious back then). It was fun enough just because of the characters. For a western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly didn't take itself so seriously -- mainly because Eli Wallach's weasely Tuco was so compelling.

But what I saw wasn't the real movie. Sergio Leone made widescreen movies, and he used the entire frame. What I saw, with pan-and-scan and interstitial advertising, was a Cliff's Notes version of the film.

Having recently watched on my 20" iMac the DVD of the restored version of the film, I can say it is a different movie. The iMac is not HDTV, and standard DVDs, though they have much more resolution than televisions can provide, are not HD DVD -- but even so, the movie offered what a lot of more recent movies do not:

Cinema.

Recent flicks like Batman Begins and even the well-done Good Night and Good Luck seem to lack the cinematic sense. Perhaps they're too much products of the TV age, shot for pan-and-scan and edited to keep things moving, rather than to give the next piece of the visual story.

And it really shows on high-resolution widescreen presentations. Last year's talk was the purportedly incredible effects of  King Kong. I had problems with the commercials, where Kong is batting cars around like Tonka trucks, when really, if you think about it, it should have been more like batting around Christmas ornaments. (How is a car that shatters upon 60mph impact with a wall going to not shatter when a wall-like hand smacks it at 60mph?). No, I was not impressed. It looked like The Incredible Hulk with fur.

Even so, I was pretty shocked when I saw how fake Peter Jackson's film looks on HDTV. Perhaps it's the contrast compression or the flicker effect, but really, Kong looked like a cartoon. (Oh, the ideas, like the dinosaur stampede down the ravine, seemed interesting. But realitic?)

By contrast, in another example of the power of cinema trumping the power of special effects, a much lower-budget movie that plays well on high resolution screens is the cult classic actioner Mad Max (which without the appalling American dubbing actually had some indie movie charm). George Miller's sequel, The Road Warrior, also holds up -- as do much older, cinematic, visual films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Searchers, and even the staid 2001: A Space Odyssey (whose special effects amounted to clear plexiglas, some inventive stage construction and old-fashioned matte photography.

How well will today's special-effects epics be regarded in 2 or 3 decades, as the technology gets better?

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