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The New Old: Battle Royale & Dead Man

This week in our first column looking specifically at older films coming to DVD and Blu-ray for the first time, Andrew Parker looks at the long awaited North American release of Battle Royale and Phil Brown takes on the Jim Jarmusch western Dead Man.

Battle Royale

Battle Royale (2000, Kinji Fukasaku) – Despite being a mega-blockbuster in Japan, the late Fukasaku’s highest regarded masterpiece was never released in North America (other than in the form of imports and bootlegs passed around in hushed tones) because studios were deathly afraid of releasing an ultraviolent film about kids killing kids in a battle to the death where only one survives. But now that The Hunger Games has arrived in theatres, apparently the world is now ready for it… almost 12 years later. At least Anchor Bay has put out a set for fans and newbies alike that proves to be worth the wait.

In the not too distant future and in a world where adults have lost faith with the teenagers of the world, Japan has passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act, also known as the B.R. Act. Under the act, a group of 9th graders are sent to an inescapable island and outfitted with explosive collars and told to battle to the death until only one of them remains standing. It also doesn’t help that the man overseeing the no-holds-barred carnage is a former teacher of this class out for revenge and harbouring secrets of his own.

On the surface, the inevitable comparisons to The Hunger Games are unavoidable, and the synergy for this release couldn’t be better, but Fukasaku’s film posits itself as more of a William Golding tale for the ADD generation, while the Suzanne Collins series puts far more weight in socio-economic matters and love stories.

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Battle Royale is a purposefully mean and gritty piece of work and definitely not for the squeamish. Even the “no children under 15” certificate at the start of the film feels like a complete piss take. Comedy and action don’t get much darker than this, and Battle Royale remains one of the greatest examples of shock cinema in our time.

Anchor Bay’s four disc Blu-ray set (even though the 4th disc for special features is a standard DVD) makes up for some admittedly lacklustre import transfers over the years. The original film takes up the first two discs, with disc one housing the re-released Special Edition and disc two, the theatrical cut. The first disc (which runs about 8 minutes longer) has an immaculate digital transfer that makes it look better than it probably did in theatres, and gives it a lush 7.1 sound mix. The theatrical cut looks equally as good, but the sound mix is bumped down to standard 5.1.

The third disc is the little seen and justifiably little remarked upon Battle Royale II: Requiem, which would end up being Fukasaku’s final film. While longer and louder, but by no means better, the sequel finds one of the survivors from the first film acting as a terrorist looking to bring down the B.R. system as a new group of students are subjected to a revised version of the game. It becomes more of a war film than the primal original, and while it isn’t awful, it’s just really noisy, sloppy, and slapped together. It does have a nice transfer and a decent enough 5.1 sound mix.

The fourth and final disc comes packed with special features including an hour long making of featurette, several other behind the scenes looks, the first ever press conference for the film, rehearsal footage, trailers and TV spots. They’re all pretty grainy, almost sub-standard definition stuff, but it feels legitimately archival and nostalgic. It almost makes you feel like you are there back in 2000 getting caught up in all the hype. And now that the other movie like this is out, you totally can. – Andrew Parker

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Dead Man

Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch) – What do you get when you mix a New York hipster filmmaker and an existential Western? Well, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, I suppose. Though Jarmusch had a knack for creating stories about characters embarking on strange quests across America before, I doubt anyone could have guessed that the man behind urban intellectual deadpan comedies like Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law would try his hand at the ultimate B-movie genre. Yet, somehow the guy made possibly the best and certainly the most ambitious movie of his career. It’s a strange beast of a film both easy to enjoy on the surface and confounding in its complexity. There’s really nothing else like it, and even though Miramax tried to bury the movie in it’s 1995 thetrical release, it now slips onto blu-ray as something of a cult classic.

The film stars a pre-superstar Johnny Depp as William Blake (no, not that one, but his writing is an influence), a humble accountant sent out to the isolated town of Machine with a job offer in hand. Unfortunately, when he gets there the job doesn’t exist, pleading with his potential boss (played by Robert Mitchum) doesn’t do any good. He then beds a lovely lady only to have her husband come home. There’s a shoot out and a bullet lands in Blake’s chest that slowly kills him for the rest of the movie. He’s discovered by a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who offers passage to the spiritual world and along the way is pursued by bounty hunters led by a particularly deranged Lance Henriksen (who allegedly raped, killed, and ate his parents) and encounters various Western eccentrics including Iggy Pop in a bonnet.

Dead Man is many things over its two hour running time: a surreal comedy, a hallucinogenic meditation on death, a Western deconstruction, a heartfelt recreation of native philosophies and culture, etc. One thing the movie is not is straightforward or simple. This is one of those films made for re-evaluation and exploration; revealing new themes and ideas with every viewing. The first time through you’ll appreciate the bizarre performances, Robby Mueller’s gorgeous monochrome cinematography, and Neal Young’s hypnotizing improvised score. The next time you’ll pick up on Jasmusch’s philosophical journey from life to death or maybe not.  Maybe you’ll just giggle at Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton’s strange drifter family. Regardless, it’s rich film even if I’m not entirely convinced that Jarmusch knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish with all the competing themes and ideas.

The new Blu-ray boasts an incredible transfer that serves the detailed, deep focus, high-contrast cinematography well. Given what a visual feast Dead Man is, that makes a huge difference. In terms of special features, you’ll get 15 minutes of deleted scenes and a music video, both carried over from the previous DVD and looking in rough shape compared to the HD transfer. Still, you’ll want this disc for the movie alone and it hasn’t looked even close to this good since the theatrical release. –Phil Brown

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