Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Yellow Sea Blu Ray Review

Despite having investment from Fox International, Na Hong Jin's The Yellow Sea has suffered the indignity of being released on dvd in the US in cut form, not only that but the film was seemingly deemed unfit for a blu ray release. This new edited release leaves the film available in at least three different cuts, the US cut, the original Korean theatrical release and the international release also known as the director's cut. It is this international cut that has been released on both dvd and blu ray in the UK by Eureka, under their new genre imprint Monster Pictures.

This UK blu ray (Region B locked unfortunately) is a superb presentation of the film, virtually flawless with excellent image and audio quality and newly translated subtitles. Extras include three trailers and an eight part making of documentary. The only improvement this release could have seen would have been the addition of the original theatrical cut on a separate disc (due to the nature of the differences between the cuts, I'm not sure seamless branching could have worked, for more information visit the Wildgrounds comparison here). It could be a rights issue that prevented this, or maybe it was just a cost issue, either way it leaves this version unavailable in a legitimate English friendly version. Having now seen both the theatrical and International cuts, I'm hard pressed to say which is the better version. While there is no doubt the shorter by 16 minutes International cut is tighter and has less repetition, the 156 minute theatrical cut has a slightly different feel that I really liked. In the end it's irrelevant which is preferable as it's a great film in either form, and one that receives my highest recommendation.

For my review of the film itself click here.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Le Samourai Blu Ray

I didn't know Jean Pierre Melville's Le Samourai had been released on blu ray until I saw it on ebay recently, the disc is French and unfortunately lacks any English options. As it's one of my favourite films ever, I bid for it anyway, thinking I could make a custom version from it. It arrived today and it's gorgeous, packaged in one of those digibooks packed with great photos and with the film on a blu and a dvd.

Melville Delon blu ray

Melville Delon blu ray

I haven't had chance to look at the quality yet but as soon as I do I'll post again, possibly with some screen captures and maybe some comparison shots with the Criterion dvd. The disc also has a few decent looking extras which, if they are any good I may have a go at translating them. Until then here are a few more pics.

Melville Delon blu ray

Melville Delon blu ray

Melville Delon blu ray

Melville Delon blu ray

Melville Delon blu ray

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ringo Lam's City On Fire Review And Blu Ray.

Chow Yun Fat Danny Lee

Two words are unavoidable when discussing Ringo Lam's City on fire, the first one is "gritty". I don't think a review of this movie has ever been written without the use of the word gritty somewhere within it, there's no doubt about it, it's a gritty film. The second word is "Tarantino", it's quite obvious that QT "borrowed" the end of City on fire and expanded it into his Resevoir Dogs, this has had the unfortunate effect of colouring the view of both films to some degree. The only positive from the whole homage/rip off argument is that many more cinema fans have been exposed to Lam's film than would have been otherwise.

Ko Chow (Chow Yun Fat) is an undercover cop suffering from terrible guilt, after his last job, where his betrayal of a criminal friend in the line of duty resulted in his death. Chow is desperate to escape the incredibly intense lifestyle of an undercover officer but is pressured by his boss into taking another job before he can quit. His task to begin with is to sell weapons to a well drilled gang of jewellery thieves led by the experienced Tiger (Danny Lee). As the investigation goes on, Chow is manipulated by his superiors, until he's forced into being part of the gang. Torn away from his real life he forms a bond with Tiger, the very man he is supposed to bring down.

Chow Yun Fat Danny Lee

Another example of Hong Kong cinema's love/hate relationship with the Hong Kong police force, as all the cops with the exception of Chow are portrayed as back biting, pedantic, selfish and worse, to the extent that Chow is tortured by his own colleagues. Whereas the relationships between the robbers, and Chow and Tiger in particular are built on loyalty and respect. The characters on both sides are drawn quite loosely but are given more depth than usual for this kind of film. Chow's character is particularly well developed and we are given insight into not only the pressures of the job, but the serious toll the pressure takes on his private life, as he tries to marry his girlfriend played by Carrie Ng. Chow Yun Fat is superb in every facet of his performance, from the fear of being discovered as a cop to trying to keep up his faltering attempts at a normal life. Chow deservedly won the best actor award at the Hong Kong film awards for City on fire, it's possibly one of the best from his glittering career. Solid support comes from Danny Lee and the pair preview the excellent chemistry they would repeat later on in John Woo's The Killer. The supporting cast are all good, with a brief role for Elvis Tsui as an undercover cop and an early appearance from Roy Cheung, playing a cop in the style of one of his many great bad guys.

Chow Yun Fat Danny Lee

Lam's story and direction are typically lean, with excellent use of camera placement and angles alongside superb location work in some of Hong Kong's busiest areas. Much of this shooting must have been done guerilla style and must have been extremely tricky to achieve for cinematographer Andrew Lau, the effort was extremely worthwhile as it gives the film an almost documentary style realism at times. Teddy Robin provides an excellent score, creating excitement for the action sequences and plenty of sombre atmosphere and tension in the film's quieter moments. Speaking of action, although not strictly an action film, what there is in City on fire is handled superbly with a couple of excellent robbery scenes and a fantastic on foot chase between Chow and the cops on his tail that's especially memorable.

Chow Yun Fat Danny Lee

Covering themes of loyalty and honour familiar to Hong Kong cinema and it's fans, the undercover cop sub-genre is one that is well mined, I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest City on fire is the best example of it. Lam's film creates a truly claustrophobic environment for Ko Chow, the feeling of the walls closing in on him (and the viewer) is palpable. It's testament to Chow Yun Fat's charisma and ability, just how much sympathy and anger the situation he's put in by his petty minded superior officers can generate. Superbly made in every area, City on fire is absolute must see cinema, plus did I mention it's gritty?

Blu ray review

Chow Yun Fat Danny Lee

Kam and Ronson's blu ray of City on fire is a definite upgrade from any previous dvd release, how much of an upgrade will depend on which dvd you have. Compared to my Universe HK dvd the difference is night and day, however, it's significantly less so compared to the HKL disc. The problem is the source material, like many HK films of this vintage, is very soft to begin with so the gain in resolution doesn't add much in the way of detail. I can't imagine the film will ever look any better than this release, as I said if you have the HKL disc the difference may not be enough. The audio is vastly superior to the dvd releases with the exception of the added foley effects, which while not as intrusive as on some titles, do stand out particularly in fight scenes. Teddy Robin's score sounds superb though on the Dolby TrueHD track. Is it worth the money? I guess it depends how much you can pick it up for, what version you already have and of course, how much you like the film. For me I think it's worth it, just.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Four Flies On Grey Velvet

The third part of Dario Argento's Animal trilogy, following The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and The Cat O'Nine Tails, Four Flies On Grey Velvet had long been the missing link in Argento's filmography for most of his fans, at least until recently. The film has the definite feel of a bridge between his earliest movies and his mid seventies work. By combining new techniques and styles within a thriller storyline, albeit one given an interesting spin, the result is a flawed film but one that has much to recommend it, particularly to the director's fans.

Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer in a rock band is being stalked by a man, having had enough he confronts the stalker and during a struggle kills the man with his own knife. A mysterious masked photographer is also present during the incident, taking pictures with meticulous detail. Rather than go to the police and confess, Tobias keeps quiet but struggles to cope with the weight of guilt, suffering sleepless nights and a vision in which he is beheaded. Things become even worse when he begins to be taunted about the killing, receiving mail and sinister phone calls before finding the photographic evidence planted in his own house. Still Tobias waits it out, his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) can do nothing to change his mind, even when their maid is murdered for being nosy. Instead Tobias hires a private detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle) to find the culprit, what he discovers is that things aren't always as they seem...

It has a slightly saggy narrative in common with the second entry in the trilogy, The Cat O'Nine Tails, but don't let that put you off, for me it's a significantly better film than that one. Four Flies On Grey Velvet also lacks the elegance and pure class of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and the punch and frisson of the later, personal favourite of mine, Deep Red. The film is the first of Argento's movies to focus on how the story is told, as much as the actual story itself. Argento has long been criticised as being a style over substance director, which I've always believed to be a little unfair, particularly during his heyday. It has to be said though that the narrative is a little sloppy in it's construction, as a mystery it gives little for the viewer to go on and the solution revolves around an idea introduced very late in the film, leading to the film's title. The idea being that the retina of the human eye captures the final image it sees before death and can be retrieved to help identify the victim's killer.

Argento utilises many stylised techniques during Four Flies, from unusual camera placement and angles, his famous roving camera, non linear editing and special camera trickery all to achieve the effects he wanted. Nowhere is this more prominent than the stunning final sequence of the film, where an ultra high speed camera is used to create an incredible slow motion shot, and combined with Ennio Morricone's score, it makes for a breathtaking scene.

The two leads are solid, I was surprised I liked Brandon's performance, never an actor I've had any affinity for, he was a great choice for this film. While he feels cold and distant during the film, come the end of the movie, it makes perfect sense. Mimsy Farmer is always an interesting presence but again like Brandon's, her performance makes you wonder during the running time but makes perfect sense once you have finished the film, if anything she doesn't have enough screen time. Jean Pierre Marielle does exceptionally well to get the viewer so invested in his character, considering how ridiculously broad a caricature his gay detective is. The film has too many supporting characters, almost as if there were to be more red herrings in the mystery, that were then changed to comic relief instead, and unfortunately interrupt the tone and flow of the movie.

Four Flies On Grey Velvet ultimately has an experimental feel to it, with Argento searching for his voice and looking to push his own boundaries as a filmmaker. While good in it's own right, the film is perhaps more successful as a stepping stone and is thus an important film in the Argento canon, it is of course only within the last few years that the majority of his fans have been able to discover this for themselves.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Last Of My January Dvd And Blu Rays Buys

Final installment of my January buys.

Neil Marshall blu ray

The Descent. Neil Marshall's modern classic on blu ray, I waited and waited for the price to come down on this and finally it did. It should benefit tremendously from the quality upgrade.

David Cronenberg Michael Ironside

Scanners. I don't keep a record of the dvds I have like other more organised people do and occasionally I think I have something when I don't, such was the case with David Cronenberg's Scanners. I couldn't actually believe that I didn't have it as it's a real favourite from my youth, anyway after a quick hop onto ebay, here it is.

Conan Doyle jeremy Brett

Sherlock Holmes the complete collection. The Jeremy Brett TV series in it's entirety, despite being a fan of Holmes, I never got into Brett's take on the character. I only ever saw a few episodes as it was on at a time when watching TV wasn't something I really did, I know for many fans Brett is the definitive Holmes, so I'm looking forward to diving in.

Lastly a few more hd-dvds, these may well be the last ones I ever buy as I think I have everything that I would ever want to be released on the format.

Kinski McDowell hd dvd

Cat People. Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People, I saw this as a teenager but can only really remember Kinski from it. That may well be for a good reason but I wanted to see it again, as I doubt my teenage mind was up to appreciating the film.

childs play hd dvd

Seed of Chucky. Something a little more trashy with the last of the Chucky sequels (so far at least), I'm sure it will be terrible but I found the others fun.

Reynolds Voight Boorman hd dvd

Deliverance. If this is the last hd-dvd, then the format goes out in style with John Boorman's classic. This was another one I thought I had on dvd but didn't, so a chance to see it in high def instead.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

HKMS : Fist Of Fury 1991

A series of HK movie synopses regurgitated verbatim from the dvd/vcd/laserdisc cover

Stephen Chow Kenny Bee

Sing, a Chinese immigrant, and Siu, a thief, meet by accident. In order to win the million award of the World's Free Fight Competition, they join hands to identify a good Kung Fu teacher. During the process, they have joint the gangsters by mistake and have become students of the successor of "Ching Mu Mun", but are later framed to be exiled. Finally, they meet four retired Kung Fu teachers. With their support, Sing establishes the "New Ching Mu Mun" and enters the final of the Free Fight Competition. On the eve of the final competition, Sing is framed to have killed the successor "Ching Mu Mun". He steps on the stage with a heavy heart......

Friday, March 16, 2012

First Stills From Johnnie To's Forthcoming Drug War

A few stills and a behind the scenes photo from the forthcoming Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai collaboration currently known as Drug War or Dark War. These are the first images I've seen from the film and little is known about it so far, no doubt many posts on the film will follow! It remains to be seen how much the project changes from now until it's release but I'm already excited to see what the mighty Milkyway duo have in store for us.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lawyer Lawyer

Stephen Chow Karen Mok

Stephen Chow plays Chan Mong Gut, a Chinese lawyer who is as immature as he is intelligent, he wastes his intellect devising elaborate pranks to play on not only his enemies but his student Foon (Eric Kot) too. When Chan Mong Gut and Foon fall out, Foon leaves for Hong Kong and soon finds himself framed for a murder he didn't commit, can the genius lawyer's skills translate to the British law court and allow him to save his friend?

Stephen Chow Karen Mok

If that plot synopsis feels a little basic and underdone, then it's apt as a slim plot and woefully underdeveloped script undermines Joe Ma's Lawyer Lawyer. The film barely runs 80 minutes and is padded to 85 by an outtake sequence, a sign of just how barebones the story is. Stephen Chow does the best he can given the thin material and for fans his charisma is really all the movie has going for it. If you're not a fan of Chow, steer well clear as this will not convert anyone to his cause. The supporting cast, always important in a Chow film, are given little to do. Eric Kot is painfully annoying for the majority of the film before pulling it back slightly by the end. As for the ladies, Karen Mok has little to do other than look pretty and Chingmy Yau fares even worse and barely even registers. Why cast two such high profile stars and then not use them?

Lawyer Lawyer has the feel of an older Chow film, complete with a throw the kitchen sink in attitude and as ever it's predictably uneven, and given the thin material even more hit and miss. The film does have a few moments of Chow magic but they're few and far between, instead throughout the movie we get dizzying amounts of scatological humour which unfortunately feels lazy and tired and adds to the overwhelming feeling that the script was not good enough. If that isn't bad enough the movie also features some highly dubious racial "comedy", which is surprising for a film made so close to the turn of the millenium.

Stephen Chow Karen Mok

Certainly one of the lesser Stephen Chow movies from the late 90's, before he later went onto hit the worldwide stage with Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Despite one or two moments that are genuinely funny, this film feels like Chow cashing a pay cheque, and while there are glimpses of his skill, ultimately this feels like a waste of his time. It's hard to believe in two short years he went from this to King of Comedy, which remains my favourite of his films.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cool Crap : Japanese Poster For Die Hard

The last of my Japanese poster pick ups for now, is arguably the finest action movie ever made in Hollywood, John McTiernan's Die Hard. I've tried to get a UK quad or a US one sheet for this many times over the years without success, so when I saw this Japanese design I went for it. Not sure what anyone else thinks but I think this is better than the western designs, it has a real dynamism to it.

Bruce Willis Japanese poster

Monday, March 12, 2012

H.B.O's Tales From The Crypt Season 1 Part 2

Crypt keeper dvd

Episode 3 : Dig That Cat... He's Real Gone

Directed by : Richard Donner

Starring : Joe Pantoliano

Synopsis : Dr Manfried (Gustav Vintas) offers homeless man Ulric (Joe Pantoliano) much needed cash if he can experiment on him. Ulric agrees and before too long he has a gland from a cats brain grafted on to his own, supposedly giving him the cat's nine lives. The experiment is a success and sensing a money making opportunity the two men team up with a carnival owner Barker (Robert Wuhl), to exploit "Ulric The Undying" by killing him in a variety of ways. As the lives begin to run out, greed rears it's ugly head, just how many more times can Ulrich perform his trick?

Crypt keeper Pantoliano Wuhl

Drown him, electrocute him, shoot him, it doesn't matter what you do to Ulric The Undying, he just keeps coming back. People seem to just love seeing a killing and they keep coming back to see Ulric, it's completely obvious where the story is headed with the third episode but you know what? It doesn't matter, thanks to a strong, witty and knowing script by Terry Black, one that embraces it's silliness and runs with it. Coupled with strong performances from an amusingly caustic Pantoliano, a fantastic Wuhl, who if the acting gig were ever to dry up, would be a natural as a carnival barker and Kathleen York as a seemingly sweet and ditzy carnival worker who latches on to Ulric. An impressive story of greed, murder and maths, with excellent direction from Donner who seems to really enjoy himself with this show. My only issue is, with only a finite number of deaths surely they could have come up with a bigger money making idea than such a small carnival?

Note : Donner must have been having so much fun, he cameos as one of the crowd chanting for Ulric to die.

Episode 4 : Only Sin Deep

Directed by : Howard Deutch

Starring : Lea Thompson

Synopsis : Beautiful (At least on the outside) call girl Cynthia Vane (Lea Thompson) is looking to snag a rich man (Brett Cullen), in order to do this she needs cash, so she robs her pimp of his jewellery and kills him in the process. She takes her ill gotten gains to a pawn shop, where the pawnbroker (Britt Leach) won't buy the hot property, instead he offers her $10,000 for her "beauty". Thinking he's nuts Cynthia accepts the deal and is warned she has a four month window to change her mind.

Crypt keeper Lea Thompson

Following the dark humour of the first three episodes, Only Sin Deep plays it much more serious and this works against it. Without the humour, the deficiencies in the format of the show are highlighted, it's much more difficult to create a serious episode within the confines of twenty something minutes. That isn't to say Only Sin Deep doesn't have it's moments however, the acting is good with Britt Leach suitably creepy as the pawnbroker with a hidden agenda and Thompson, so often the good girl, relishes the chance to play a cold, calculating heartless bitch. Another episode written by Fred Dekker and it feels less horror themed and more like a Twilight Zone episode, it moves quickly and has one moment in particular that resonates but it's effect is diminished by the characters being as shallow as they are, still that's kind of the point of the episode, so it seems harsh to criticise it for that. Not much in the way of violence in this episode apart from a surprisingly bloody shooting.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Life Without Principle

Lau Ching Wan Johnnie To

Life Without Principle, Johnnie To's latest of his more personal works, took three long years to get from page to screen. This method of filming is not unusual for To, fitting in shooting as and when the schedules of cast and crew allow, often resulting in a fluid and changing storyline. This approach can result in problems, so it's to To and his team of writers credit that even with it's fractured and non linear narrative, all of Life Without Principle's plot elements are kept tight and easy to follow.

Lau Ching Wan Johnnie To

Three interlocking stories revolve around a wily loan shark's (Lo Hoi Pang) bank withdrawal of 10 Million HK$ during the disastrous Greek financial meltdown in 2008. Characters weave in and around each other as the ripples of the crisis shatter the fragile monetary dreams of thousands of Hong Kongers. Following low level Triad Panther (Lau Ching Wan), a fiercely loyal man, completely out of time with not only his fellow Triads but also the world around him. A clerk at the bank, Teresa (Denise Ho), who is struggling to reach her sales quota and is in danger of losing her job as a result, and a cop Inspector Cheung (Richie Jen), a workaholic with plenty on his mind, a dying father and a wife (Myolie Wu) who is pressing him, desperate to buy a flat they can't afford. Twists of fate and circumstance combining to potentially change the lives of these seemingly unconnected people.

Lau Ching Wan Johnnie To

Much has been made of the film's lack of action and violence compared to To's other films and as a result has been heralded as a departure in the director's filmography. While it's true that none of the gunplay To is famous for is present and the plotting in both content and execution is significantly different to any of his other films, I would describe it as a departure in disguise. Aside from much of the film being set in a gangland milieu, Life Without Principle concerns itself with the same kind of fate, coincidence and irony that the best of his movies do and pulses with the same kind of black humour, making it easily recognisable as a Johnnie To film.

Lau Ching Wan Johnnie To

Filled with new faces to the Milkyway Image universe alongside many of the To regulars, these new faces add to the feeling of opening up and expanding the film's scope to embrace all the facets of Hong Kong's identity, rather than the insular world To's characters usually inhabit. The result is the movie feels like it has a chance to breathe and actually say something more than is usual for a To film. If it's commentary is somewhat pessimistic, given the culture of money madness that exists in Hong Kong, it's hard to argue against it and it is truly a film for and about Hong Kong people. For this viewer at least, it's less about what is being said and more about how it's being said. Dense with minutiae, the background is often as interesting as the foreground and the immaculate photography makes it a pleasure to study.

Lau Ching Wan Johnnie To

Life Without Principle is filled with superb performances, from some of the smallest of parts through to Lau Ching Wan's commanding presence. The wealth of razor sharp characterisations for even what amount to little more than walk on roles adds a real earthy richness to the film, the importance of which cannot not be underestimated. Without mentioning everyone, Lo Hoi Pang is great fun, as are Cheung Siu Fai, Felix Chong and Keung Ho Man. Denise Ho is good and convinces in her dilemmas but the stand out is Lau Ching Wan. Complete with a believable eye tick, Lau plays a brutish criminal with childlike enthusiasm, his belief in the loyalty of the sworn brothers is highly amusing and almost touching in both it's intensity and outdatedness.

The film does have a few issues, although they feel like nitpicking really. Most notable is the relative weakness of Richie Jen's Cheung story arc. He and his wife's story is given the least amount of screen time and while it works and makes sense within the confines of the film, it certainly could have been further developed to give Jen, who has developed into a very good actor, the chance to shine a little more. In addition, purely based on my own expectations as much as anything, I thought the three stories could have maybe converged a little more but again, the resolution works and makes sense, so it feels harsh to criticise it for that.

Lau Ching Wan Johnnie To

So, a new type of Johnnie To film but not really, it will be interesting to see where To goes from here (Mainland rom-coms aside) with his next film. While Life Without Principle is not top tier Johnnie To it is comfortably the best of 2011's Hong Kong films I've seen so far, it has wit and quality in spades and a standout performance from Lau Ching Wan more than worthy of winning the best actor award at the forthcoming Hong Kong Film Awards.
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