DVD Review: Dragon Ball Z Kai – Season 2

When you think of Dragon Ball Z, the abiding image is of characters screaming with rage, summoning balls of energy from their fingertips … And waiting for the hero, Goku, to turn up! The show’s basic formula is to keep its musclebound protagonist out of the way on one pretext or another so as to give the other members of the cast a chance to struggle valiantly and take their lumps against seemingly invincible foes.

Last season, everyone headed off to planet Nemek, home of the dragon balls, and started trashing the place. Everyone, that is, except Goku, who’s lagging behind as usual, although to be fair he’s getting in some solid 100x gravity training in his space ship en route. This leaves pint-sized duo Krillin and Gohan obliged to team up with erstwhile nemesis Vegeta to take on boss villain Frezia and the Ginyu Force, a team of mercenaries so tough they get their own theme song.

The early scuffles are well up to par, with lots of crazy eyes and twitching faces as the tension crackles between combatants, and the surface of Nemek taking one almighty hammering. And things get even better once Goku finally touches down, ushering in a race with Vegeta to become something called a Super Saiyan, the universe’s ultimate warrior.

As for Frezia, he might look like a little purple squirt, but he is reputed to have a power level of 1 million (which really counts for something in a show where characters constantly compare power levels the way teenage boys compare the lengths of their appendages). And there’s one particularly shocking moment where he proves this by wearing Krillin as a hat. Things look set fair, then, for a humongous showdown between Frezia and Goku.

But you can have too much of a good thing, and while the Dragon Ball Z Kai edition has apparently trimmed off a lot of the fat from the show’s original release, the climax of Season 2 still feels more than a little long drawn out. Therefore even diehard fans are likely to get a tad restless as the battle between these two heavyweights goes on forever and a day, culminating in a five minute doomsday countdown which lasts three episodes.

However, this isn’t enough to spoil what is still a very lively and eventful box set. As ever, the old school animation comes up a treat on this new remaster, and while some of the visuals in Season 2 are a little more plain that we’ve seen in previous Dragon Ball arcs, they still have plenty of energy and pop. Roll on Season 3! 7/10

EXTRAS
7-min featurette with members of the cast chatting about the show’s characters and explaining how the Z Kai edition tightened up the editing of the original show (which was overloaded with filler in order to meet pressing deadlines).

DVD Review: Bleach Season 16, Part 2

bleach 16-2 1To recap, in Part 1 of Season 16, Bleach’s carrot-topped hero Ichigo Kurosaki buddied up with a colourful bunch of characters collectively known as Xcution in hopes that they might help him regain his Soul Reaper powers, which he expended back in the finale of Season 15. Part 2 finds him still hanging with his new besties and undergoing a training regime which even Rocky Balboa would consider dauntingly strenuous, given that it involves being impaled on a big sword on more than one occasion.

Meanwhile, old school buddies Chad and Orahime do some investigative work in an attempt to find out more about Ichigo’s latest nemesis, Sukashima, who has the power to twist minds and alter memories.

After some energetic opening episodes, Part 2 slows to a dawdle midway as Sukashima uses his powers to infiltrate Ichigo’s friends and family and turn them against him – an elaborate and over-subtle master-plan that has “filler” written all over it – and Ichigo responds by going into tortured, eyes-throbbing-in-disbelief mode. But the show slips back into top gear again with a well-timed twist or two, ushering in a kickass last third with some very inventive and intricately choreographed duels.

As always in Bleach, when the action picks up, so does the animation, and we’re treated to some very handsome fireballs and puffs of exploding masonry lighting up the skies over Karakura city. Needless to say, the show is never short of bizarre imaginative touches, and this time there’s a standout moment when Rukia gets turned into a stuffed plushie. Plus you’ve got to love the way Ichigo goes through more costume changes than Britney Spears in concert as he powers up through various levels of spiritual energy.

Arguably, Sukashima is a bit of a limp villain, but Season 16 compensates with some bleach 16-2 2great supporting characters – sharply individualised and snappily dressed, the Xcution gang are in many ways much more sympathetic than all those Soul Society timeservers who usually fill out the background of the show. Part 2 also adds significantly to Bleach lore by revealing some hitherto undisclosed info about the true purpose of combat passes and status of substitute soul reapers.

A little more uneven than Part 1, but a satisfying conclusion to what as a whole is a fresh, exuberant story arc. 8/10

DVD Review: Microbes and Men

Starring: Arthur Lowe, James Grout, Robert Lang

Picture Shows: Louis Pasteur (ARTHUR LOWE)

Picture Shows: Louis Pasteur (ARTHUR LOWE)

Germophobes probably won’t welcome the DVD release of this vintage BBC six-parter, but many others will be delighted. Combining fully dramatized scenes with factual narration (a format that has been all but abandoned nowadays but is very effective here), it charts the revolution in 19th and early 20th century medicine brought about by the discovery of harmful micro-organisms.

The first episode begins like a thriller, with a young doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis (Robert Lang) desperately trying to figure out why deadly puerperal fever is spreading through a maternity ward, and moves on through the decades, concluding with Paul Ehrlich’s work on syphilis. Different figures move in and out of the story, adding their nuggets to the sum of knowledge. But progress is slow, and not just because of the lethargy and ignorance of vested interests. One of the appealing aspects of Microbes and Men is the way it shows how these pioneers often combined high-mindedness and, in some cases, great personal bravery with the usual human frailties and pettiness.

The look of ’70s TV is perfect for evoking the chilly, grubby world of 19th century microbes-and-men 3sawboneses, and the production achieves remarkable levels of authenticity, with some attractive location shooting and surprisingly gory moments as various experiments are reproduced on screen. The scripts are models of precision and lucidity, and the series also benefits from top-notch casting, with actors like James Grout and Milo O’Shea donning whiskers and tailcoats to bring these important historical characters to life. In particular, Arthur Lowe takes on the central role of Louis Pasteur, a towering figure who dominates much of the story (not that he was by any means a saint, as the series makes clear). It’s a major performance that Lowe’s legions of fans will be delighted to rediscover, and it’s just one of the good things about a series which can hardly be bettered when it comes to turning people onto science and medicine. 9/10

Blu-ray review: The Man Who Could Cheat Death

Starring: Anton Diffring, Christopher Lee, Helen Court
Director: Terence Fisher

the-man-who-could-cheat-death 1A celebrated doctor, a brilliant sculptor – Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) might seem like an over-achiever, but then he does have a lot of time on his hands: he’s 106 years old and still going strong thanks to an artificial method of prolonging his youth! That said, he’s due for his 10-yearly organ replacement, and the bubbling green potion he has to keep swallowing in the meantime is making him seriously cranky…

With the studio’s old firm of director Terence Fisher, scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster and cinematographer Jack Asher all present and correct, it’s hard to see how The Man Who Could Cheat Death could be anything other than vintage Hammer. Sadly, it’s weighed down by a shortage of scares, a wordy script and a lead performance by Diffring that steers the film away from horror into the arena of mawkish, moonstruck melodrama. Still, there are a few good B-movie moments courtesy of Jack Asher and his lurid green gels, and the scenes of Bonnet’s old flame Janine (Hazel Court) posing for him (plus the resulting very naked-looking sculptures) add a welcome frisson of eroticism to proceedings.

One for Hammer completists, then, but it’s rarity makes it an attractive buy. 6/10

TRANSFER
The transfer is a little soft and grainy, and flesh tones look somewhat washed out. the-man-who-could-cheat-death 3However, the plush 1890’s Parisian set-dressing comes up nicely, as do the occasional weird-science lighting effects. And in case you’re wondering, no reappearance in this print of the mythical lost footage for European markets of Hazel Court going topless. 6/10

EXTRAS
Very nice interviews with two of the people you most want to hear from when it comes to Hammer. ~ Sitting on his usual sofa, Kim Newman talks for 17-mins about the film’s origins as a remake of the Paramount movie The Man in Half Moon Street and explains how Peter Cushing was due to play the lead but backed out. ~ 17-min interview with Jonathan Rigby, who makes a few wry comments about the film’s flaws as well as serving up info about the original source play and some of the real-life rejuvenating therapies that might have inspired the story. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Rashomon

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Michiko Kyo
Director: Akira Kurosawa

rashomon 1Although it was the film that launched him in the west, in retrospect Rashomon stands slightly apart from Kurosawa’s other work. Not just because of its famously complex structure, in which the violent death of a wealthy man and apparent rape of his young wife are examined and re-examined from the viewpoints of different witnesses and participants. What really makes Rashomon unique among the director’s costume dramas is its tight focus on a small group of characters and the psycho-sexual tensions between them.

As the stories diverge and contradict each other, the film’s message seems to be that people rarely tell the truth where their sexual pride is at state. And it’s a hang-up that lingers on after death: when, late in proceedings, the spirit of the slain man gives his testimony via a medium, there’s a kind of masochistic fervour to his account of his humiliation and demise that makes it hard to completely trust.

Fittingly, this is perhaps the most purely sensual film Kurosawa ever made, thanks to black-and-white cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa which brilliantly evokes the torrid, stifling, sun-dappled atmosphere in the forest where the crime takes place. As the braggart bandit who waylays the couple, Toshiro Mifune gives a trademark turn, showy and feral yet capable of disarming charm, but the standout performance comes from Machiko Kyo as the wife – considering that (unlike Mifune, who wears little more than a loincloth) she spends the entire film swathed in voluminous robes, the sexual heat she gives out is truly remarkable.

All of which is to say that, even if you’re left cold by the great thumping epics of Kurosawa’s later career, the small but perfectly formed early masterpiece still has the power to disturb and excite. 9/10

TRANSFER
A scattering of grain and occasional softness, but generally a very nice transfer from therashomon 2 2008 restoration. The opening two-shot of the priest and woodcutter has an etched sharpness and impressive range of skin tones, rather like an old silver nitrate print. Some of the close-ups of Mifune are quite something, all bristling hair and glistening sweat, and the forest scenes are all packed with crisp detail. 8/10

EXTRAS
5-min interview with John Boorman, who talks about meeting Kurosaws at a dinner (David Lean was there too!). ~ A 34-min documentary which returns to the location of the original Rashomon gate in Kyoto and the forest of Mount Wakasuka where the exteriors were shot. Not exactly thrilling, but nice for those interested in modern Japan, and some details to do with shooting with live sound and other technical matters eventually emerge. ~ A thorough, knowledgeable audio commentary with Stuart Galbraith, with info about the source material, the shooting schedule, actor bios and Kurosawa tricks such as the way he added black ink to the rain to make it stand out better on screen. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Eaten Alive

Starring: Neville Brand, Marilyn Burns, Robert Englund
Director: Tobe Hooper

Tobe Hooper’s second feature – about the owner of a backwoods motel who has the bad habit of murdering his guests before they even get up the stairs, then throwing their bodies to his pet alligator – has often been written off as the first of a long line of missteps in a career that never fulfilled its promise. But you could argue that its darkly comic Grand Guignol simply picks up where the second half of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (especially those scenes at the dinner table with Grandpa) left off. And as with Leatherface, Old Judd’s crimes seem less like acts of evil that a bewildered last line of defence against the onslaught of the outside world.

Another thing Eaten Alive (aka Death Trap) shares with Texas Chainsaw is the way that it unfolds in a dreamlike manner, with the minimum of conventional plot apparatus. The key difference, of course, is that where the earlier movie was shot on location, Eaten Alive was filmed entirely on a sound stage, with lurid, blood-red colour washes and swathes of studio smoke which revel in an alienating artificiality (an artistic decision that seems entirely vindicated when you see how good the results look on this Blu-ray).

Eventually, the fact that Judd (who spends much of the time muttering unintelligibly to himself) is such an impenetrable character takes its toll on the film, and this coincides with a couple of rather dull, earnest scenes involving the local sheriff (Stuart Whitman) which put a brake on the movie’s momentum. But even with these problems (some of which may have been caused by the director being taken off the movie before completion), Eaten Alive is memorable for its unique visuals and its delirious, anything-can-happen vibe, and in many ways it’s a more sheerly enjoyable film than Texas Chain Saw, moving restlessly from one gory, unhinged moment to the next. 7/10

TRANSFER
Just a very occasional touch of grain, but on the whole a very crisp transfer, and some of the set-ups using directional lighting and colour washes look outstanding. For example, the early scene in the foyer of Miss Hattie’s whorehouse looks extremely real and present, and all of the sequences which take place in the red-tinged motel forecourt come up with crystalline detail. 9/10

EXTRAS
The extras offer a mix of new and archive interviews, and highlights include: 14-min interview with Tobe Hooper – the director makes a few veiled references to interference from the producers, and also mentions that the tank at Raleigh Studios used for the alligator swamp was also used to shoot William Holden’s pool scene in Sunset Boulevard. ~ A really nice 11-min interview with fast-talking Janus Blythe (who plays the girl Buck brings back to the motel), who explains that Hooper was already off the film by the time she came on set and that her scenes were shot by one of the producers, before going on to paint a colourful picture of life as a jobbing actress. ~ 20-min archive interview with Hooper, in which he speaks very articulately about topics such as Neville Brand’s erratic behaviour on set and problems with the alligator (apparently it would soak up water if left in the tank overnight, which perhaps explains it’s rather bloated appearance in the scene where it attacks Buck). ~ A lovely, witty 15-min interview with Robert Englund, who talks about his early years and the way he instantly fell in love with horror when he first walked onto the Eaten Alive set. ~ Audio commentary with producer Mardi Rustam, very welcome as its offers a different perspective on the making of the film. 9/10

DVD Review: 19-2 Complete Series 1

Starring: Jared Keeso, Adrian Holmes

19-2 SERIES / SPHÈRE MÉDIA Photos : Bertrand Calmeau

19-2 SERIES / SPHÈRE MÉDIA
Photos : Bertrand Calmeau

19-2 is a police car that patrols the mean – well, actually quite nice and leafy – streets of Montreal. Patrolman Nick Barron (Adrian Holmes) has a reputation for having a bit of a ‘tude, and this only gets worse when his long-time partner is gunned down and he finds himself paired up with Ben Chartier, a cop who has transferred in from the sticks and has yet to find his legs in the big city.

This Canadian cop show (adapted from a French-language original by the same writing-producing team) starts out seeming like its going to be a gritty, hardboiled, high testosterone affair, especially when Chartier is asked by his slimy commander to spy on Barron and the antagonism between the two ratchets up. But after the first couple of episodes it finds it own identity, and it’s not what you’d expect. As first responders, the patrolmen (and women) of 19th precinct don’t see crimes through from beginning to end; instead, they bounce around the city dealing with anything from robberies and car accidents to domestic disputes and noise complaints. And the show reflects this fragmentary experience, breaking down into a series of melancholy-comic vignettes, with occasion chilling moments of jeopardy thrown in.

With crime (at least in the TV detective sense) taking a backseat, the show’s primarynineteen-two 2 subject is the damage that the job does to the protagonists – alcoholism, broken marriages and domestic violence being some of the symptoms – and their feeling of helplessness in the face of human suffering. Much of this is filtered through Chartier, a laid-back but sensitive character played with a touching dignity and stoical, sturdy Sterling Hayden-ish presence by Jared Keeso. The series is also very good on the red tape that’s ready to engulf the patrol officers whenever they put a foot wrong, and there’s an excellent episode dealing with “welfare day” (the day when all the crackpots come out) which is worthy of Hill Street Blues at its best. A sensitive, thoughtful cop show of real emotional power. 8/10