January 12, 2007

SEVEN SWORDS: SECOND THOUGHTS

Seven Swords key artSo I was talking to Brian White (name drop) over at Dragon Dynasty and telling him that I thought SEVEN SWORDS was the best disc they'd put out to date when he said, "Then why'd you give it such a bad review?"

Touche!

I didn't think it was a bad review, but when I went back and read my KILLZONE/SHA PO LANG review I realized that it was far more positive than the one I gave SEVEN SWORDS. So let me clarify:

SEVEN SWORDS is the best disc from Dragon Dynasty to date. The deleted scenes and the long interviews with the actors and Tsui Hark are exclusive to the disc and they're really valuable if you like the movie.

However, I don't like the movie. I am actually still broken up over SEVEN SWORDS because it's such a missed opportunity - unlimited resources and this is what my favorite director in the world came up with? I weep into my oatmeal.

And that audio commentary...I don't want to pick on Bey more than necessary but I hope the next time he records one of these he remembers that no cares what the white guy has to say.

But those issues aside, it's the best thing these folks have done so far.

January 12, 2007 at 12:49 PM in DVD Reviews | Permalink | Comments (12)

January 10, 2007

SEVEN SWORDS DVD REVIEW

Seven Swords key artSo here comes the SEVEN SWORDS DVD from the Weinstein Company's Dragon Dynasty label and right there on the spine is the number 4. I have to admit it, out of nowhere the Weinsteins have suddenly assembled a DVD imprint like a housing development that springs up overnight. The covers look a little too straight-to-video for me, but the design is consistent between all four titles, they show a lot of range for a martial arts line (three modern movies, one classic; three Hong Kong movies, one Thai) and each disc comes with respectable extras. No "Animated Menus!" listed as an extra, no "Star Bios!". Each disc has pros and cons but more often than not the pros far outweigh the cons, especially in the case of SHA PO LANG (aka KILLZONE) and POLICE STORY (not enough insightful extras, but at least the movie is out on an official Region 1 disc). And now they've gone and done a two disc version of Tsui Hark's SEVEN SWORDS.

My feelings on this movie are so mixed they may as well be a margarita. Produced with what looks like an unlimited budget, crammed with good-looking actors, action designed by Lau Kar-leung with assists from Xiong Xin-xin, Tung Wai and Donnie Yen, and with Tsui Hark at the helm of an evergreen story (basically THE SEVEN SAMURAI) this flick is custom designed to make me excited in a "Not suitable for children" way. So viewing this exhausting, two-and-a-half hour movie with its choppy storyline and shallow characters was a comedown of epic proportions. You can read my original review, but rewatching it again there were two things that leapt to mind. The first was that the action was far better than I originally thought. Watch the movie without expectations and most of the action cracks along, flowing like a river, with some neat character bits and camera tricks bobbing around. The other thing I noticed was that the characterizations were even shallower than I had originally believed. This production was such an epic that pulling it off at all was a well nigh impossible feat, so perhaps it's too much to expect Tsui to pull it off well.

Seven Swords

But you're here to read about the disc: is it tasty, does it blow, what's on it? This is as definitive an edition of SEVEN SWORDS as we're going to get until someone releases the 4 hour version. It seems to have the "Making of" and "Behind the Scenes" material ported over from the Hong Kong discs and they're terrific. I wish someone had edited them into one, massive, behind-the-scenes look at the film but they have plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses of the production with some nice looks at the wirework and camera rigs that were used to pull off the special effects and a lot of shots of the actors and crew suffering for their art. There's also an exhaustive interview with Tsui Hark, running 45 minutes, where he just talks. And talks. And talks. His English is great and he rabbits on about anything you could possibly want to know. There're interviews with a few other people from the film but who cares? This is Tsui Hark's show.

The two best special features are the audio commentary and the deleted and extended scenes - but one of them was so depressing that I would rather be consumed by wild weasels than sit through it again. The deleted and extended scenes aren't available anywhere else. From what I understand, Tsui Hark provided them for this DVD and they are:

- Master Fu Stealing the Tags
- Master Fu's Night Fight in Village (extended)
- Attack on the Village
- Great Hall Battle (extended)
- Chu's Great Hall Battle (alternate version)
- Death of Luzhu
- Final Fight Scene (alternate version)

Running a few minutes each, these are MOS (the score plays over them) but the picture looks good. They haven't been digitally fixed so you can see which weapons were CGI and the wires are still visible, but they're really interesting glimpses at how Tsui Hark does what he's best at doing: taking his footage and assembling it and re-assembling it like a jigsaw puzzle. I wish there had been some context for why these assemblies didn't work, or why they were cut, but they're a nice addition and unique to this release.

Seven Swords

Then there's the audio commentary with Tsui Hark and Bey Logan. I haven't heard a Tsui Hark audio commentary before but he was great here, full of stories, philosophies, and context for what he was trying to do and what came across onscreen. He's surprisingly undefensive, and critical of his own work. Between this and his interview you can see the movie he had in his head and how much better it might have been than what wound up onscreen.

But there's a problem. See, I talk a lot and in 2007 I've resolved to talk less and interrupt other people only when absolutely necessary. Please, dear God, someone force Bey Logan to make this resolution. I like Bey and I think his heart's in the right place, but he needs to stop talking because his fannish gushing sinks this commentary. On more than one occasion, Tsui Hark starts a story and is interrupted within seconds by Bey Logan reacting to something he sees onscreen. Once Tsui Hark starts talking about how the great battle in the hall where we're introduced to the seven swordsmen for the first time is a major disappointment for him and Bey interrupts to say how some shot is his favorite in the movie. We never get the rest of Tsui's story. In another sequence, Tsui Hark starts to talk about how hard it was to direct Donnie Yen but before you can hear any juicy details, that he seems happy to spill, Bey interrupts him to comment on a camera movement. Why was it hard to direct Donnie? We'll never know. It's exhausting, it's frustrating, and it happens over and over again.

By the end of the commentary Bey is talking on and on, reacting to things onscreen with genuine enthusiasm but not a lot of behind-the-scene knowledge, and Tsui is giving monosyllabic replies punctuated by bursts of conversation that soon get hijacked by Bey and driven down dead end roads.

I love Tsui Hark. I think he's one of the 20th Century's Great Directors (see?) and the idea of him providing audio commentaries for his films is the kind of idea that makes me sweaty and feverish. But this audio commentary was so frustrating that I gave up on it and that's too bad. There's a lot of good information here, but Bey does it a disservice. I'm sorry to go on and on about this but I was so frustrated by this that I just can't shut up about it.

Seven Swords

FINAL VERDICT - this is a good version of the film, with a lot of nice one-on-one material with Tsui Hark and most of the worthwhile behind-the-scenes material ported over from the HK disc. The deleted scenes are terrific, and the only disappointment is the audio commentary which features too much of the interviewer and not enough of the interviewee.

January 10, 2007 at 10:36 AM in DVD Reviews | Permalink | Comments (11)

THE PROTECTOR DVD REVIEW

The Protector key artI'm not a big fan of Tony Jaa's TOM YUM GOONG and somehow THE PROTECTOR was even worse. The idea of watching it again hurts my soul and makes black water drip out my ears. So Running Man, a frequent commentator here, has taken pity on me and done a deep, technical, comprehensive, exhaustive review of the disc, comparing it to all other versions of the movie in existence now or in the future.

Go read it and please try not to think about how many brain cells he lost by exposing himself to the toxic fumes radiating off this disc.

January 10, 2007 at 09:19 AM in DVD Reviews | Permalink | Comments (7)

December 15, 2006

POLICE STORY DVD REVIEW

Jackie Chan Title number two from the Weinstein Company's Dragon Dynasty line was the one I really was excited about: POLICE STORY. Jackie Chan's classic action flick is a great movie and one that I've never thought got the DVD treatment it deserved. What it deserves is a two-disc set with tons and tons of extras, but that largely depends on the co-operation of Jackie Chan and Co. and from what I understand he doesn't give much assistance to people trying to preserve his legacy.

That said, the new POLICE STORY disc isn't the triumph I had hoped it would be, and I don't think it's the definitive disc of this movie. It is, however, the best treatment of the film that may be possible right now. Running Man, who posts on this blog quite a bit, has a full, complete, insanely comprehensive look at the disc posted and it's the best comparison of this disc to the other versions of the movie out there. He compares the video quality, the subtitle translation, the extras, everything. So if that's what you want then go read his review. There's side-by-side shot comparisons...everything that I'm too lazy to do.

The most controversial aspect of the disc is the participation of Brett Ratner, the highly successful and widely disliked director of RUSH HOUR and X-MEN 3. Ratner was obviously included as an attempt to help the movie find some mainstream traction, and what I find odd about it is that his name isn't plastered all over the box in the "Quentin Tarantino Presents" manner. It doesn't bother me, but it would seem to make a lot of sense to trumpet his participation if the goal is to use his name as a mark of quality.

There's two places where Ratner participates: he and Bey Logan do an audio commentary and he and Bey Logan present a "Tribute to Jackie Chan". The "Tribute" is pretty worthless. A quick snippet of Bey introducing Ratner and then Ratner talks for a few minutes about how awesome Jackie Chan is. Next. The audio commentary isn't the disaster I expected, either. Bey is his typical self, dropping the factoids, speculating on how things were done, doing his best to put the movie in context. Ratner says a lot, but he's mostly wrong (Brigitte Lin is not Maggie Cheung no matter how hard you wish it was so) but he comes across as a harmless enthusiast rather than as some kind of monster. He obviously loves the movie but he doesn't have a whole lot to add beyond his love.

There are outtakes and deleted scenes that are very nice to have. Two big thumbs up for those.

There's also "Stunts Unlimited: A Retrospective with Members of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team" that is basically interviews with Benny Lai, Mars and Fung Hak-on broken up with clips from the film. It's a great extra and while the editing is a little repetitive (guy speaks, cut to clips, guy speaks, cut to clips, guy speaks, cut to clips) the information is great.

The best extra is a brief conversation with Jackie, himself. 20 years later he has a vivid memory of the production and he's a great storyteller. He's willing to look bad in his stories and to not always be the hero, and even though his English gets downright impenetrable at times he's riveting to watch and listen to.

The overall design of the disc is okay, a little anonymous, but not bad. The video transfer didn't look perfect to me, but I'm not good at this kind of thing. There seemed to be a black mist over a lot of the brighter shots, and while it was very, very faint and is probably just something natural like grain, I did notice it.

Overall, this disc is good, but not great. The Dragon Dynasty line have done a terrific job with the SPL DVD, a good (but not definitive) job with POLICE STORY, so let's see what's next. This disc is far better than it could have been, but we're still not at the Criterion level yet where great design, penetrating extras, and pristine transfers are combined into one awe-inspiring package. So far you get the impression that they're doing the best they have with what they got.

December 15, 2006 at 12:09 PM in DVD Reviews | Permalink | Comments (11)

August 23, 2006

KILL ZONE REVIEW

KILL ZONE DVD coverOkay, so not many people really like SHA PO LANG's new title, KILL ZONE, and some people may not like the name of the Weinstein Company's new line of Asian movies, Dragon Dynasty ("Dragon Dynasty. May I take your order, please?"), but after making a lot of noise about how they're committed to releasing top notch DVDs of Asian action movies and hiring Brian White from Hong Kong Legends to oversee Dragon Dynasty's DVD post-production, the real question about the KILL ZONE dvd is: does it suck?

The short answer: no. SHA PO LANG is not the world's greatest movie, but it was a very well-made, solid action flick with three dazzling action sequences that hit at a time when a lot of fans had written off the genre and figured Hong Kong couldn't do action anymore. To my mind, it's a B-list title, but a really well done one; more of a great hamburger than an excellent steak. It was also the movie that saved director Wilson Yip from vanishing down a rabbit hole of crummy films, made Wu Jing a bad guy and gave Sammo Hung his best performance in longer than I care to remember. And the KILL ZONE DVD is as good of a treatment as this movie can get.

So let's break it down:

Video
KILL ZONE uses the same HD transfer as the Hong Kong disc, but it's a very nice one with strong blacks and super-saturated colors. This movie can't look any better. KILL ZONE is an anamorphic 16:9 disc, however, which the Hong Kong disc was not (if I remember correctly).

Audio
Sounds the same to me. Which is to say that it sounds good. There's an English dub track in addition to the original soundtrack and it's nicely cheesy, sounding like one guy in a sound booth doing all the voices.

Sha Po LangSubtitles
The subs between the two discs are almost exactly the same. The timing and the translation were exactly the same everywhere I checked except for one punctuation change. According to Brian White there are probably a few timing and spelling changes here and there, but his team used the Hong Kong subtitle file as a starting place and so the changes are probably not too drastic. No characters are suddenly named "Larry" or "Don" and all the extras are subtitled.

Extras
There's been some backing and forthing on the extras available on the KILL ZONE DVD but what they've wound up with is a solid selection of features. The biggest and best are two exhausting, and exhaustive, looks at shooting the Donnie Yen vs. Wu Jing alley fight and the Sammo vs. Donnie nightclub fight. These are long, behind-the-scenes dissections of the two fights and they cover every square inch, showing the actors arguing, rehearsing, getting exhausted, and finally busting out the champagne at the end.

There's a Bey Logan/Donnie Yen audio commentary over these two features and Donnie talks about absolutely everything. He may not be anyone you want to go on a car trip with, but he's very clear, precise and revealing about what goes into shooting a fight scene.

Then there are individual interviews with Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Sammo Hung, Wilson Yip and Wu Jing. Sammo is refreshingly frank ("To be honest, my character didn't have that much to do. It was pretty easy."); Simon pitches a new movie for himself (and reveals that while his brother is a police officer they don't talk about work and he learns about cops from movies); Wu Jing is hilariously self-effacing (revealing that he had no idea he was starring in his first movie until after shooting began); and Wilson Yip talks about why he made the movie and discusses what the prequel will probably look like.

But Donnie Yen doesn't do himself any favors. The guy's head is as big as the Goodyear blimp and it's infuriating that he's such an obviously talented action star that he can't be ignored. Throughout his commentary and interviews he refers to the movie as his own film, giving the impression that he made editing, script and cinematography decisions himself and he's patronizing towards the other actors, talking about what a legend Sammo is out of one side of his mouth while calling him slow and difficult to make look good out of the other. The honesty is appreciated, and he's got lots of interesting things to say, but his confidence comes across as arrogance and stands in stark contrast to the humility and graciousness of the rest of the cast.

The "Making of" featurette is the same as the one on the Hong Kong DVD.

There's also a trailer gallery.

Finally, there's an audio commentary from Bey Logan that runs during the film and it's perfectly serviceable. Logan doesn't have a lot of production information to add to the mix but he's good at giving bios on different actors and locations. If you want to know who that guy is over on the side of the screen or where they found that alley then click on over to the commentary track. Chances are, Logan'll tell you.

Sha Po LangDesign and Packaging
KILL ZONE has rejected the black and red design of the SHA PO LANG promotional materials for a black and desaturated blue tones but it looks far better than the frugly Photoshopped monstrosities that graced the covers of most of the previous Miramax Asian action DVDs. The layout is clear and, despite being a little hyphen heavy, the blurb on the back is simple and does a good job of selling the film. The cover features a blurb from Variety, which is a classy touch, but no mention that this was an official selection of the Toronto Film Festival. I personally preferred some of the pitch black posters of SHA PO LANG to the cover of KILL ZONE but this is hardly embarrasing and it sells the movie well, and that's the point.

Overall
If you liked SHA PO LANG and can get over the title change then this is indeed the "Ultimate" edition of the movie that it claims to be. For a straight-forward action flick this is an exhaustive disc and while I wish the "Making of" featurette was more interesting (dealing more with concepts and promoting the movie than documenting the production) it was something that was shot previously and couldn't be changed. The interviews are surprisingly informative and interesting and the two behind-the-scene featurettes are some of the best I've seen.

The Weinsteins have a lousy reputation for their treatment of Asian movies on DVD and rightly so. They have constantly re-edited, re-scored, re-titled, and generally savaged classic movies from Asian filmmakers with all the grace and refinement of a dog going after a dropped drumstick. But KILL ZONE is a step in the right direction. Actually, it's a bit more than that and it puts me in a weird position. I'm used to ignoring whatever these guys do, but if KILL ZONE is an example of their plans for their library of Asian action movies then I'm actually looking forward to their upcoming titles. (You can see some of them here. It looks like POLICE STORY, BORN TO FIGHT, THE PROTECTOR, SEVEN SWORDS and some Shaw Brothers films are coming up next).

For me there was one telling detail in this whole package that really told the tale. When you pop in the disc, the default mode is the original Cantonese soundtrack rather than the English dub track. That may be a tiny detail, but I'm glad that these discs are worried about getting the tiny details right.

August 23, 2006 at 12:43 PM in DVD Reviews | Permalink | Comments (46)