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Laughing in the Wind Blog Review
Reviewing TV series is a dangerous thing. Sometimes, it's a way to get a sneak peek at a great series for free. If you get a bad one, though, things aren't so rosy. You still have to watch the whole thing, even if you spend the whole time wishing you could yank the disc from the player and hurling into the closest body of water.
The good news: I know now not to request Laughing in the Wind.
This is the first I've heard of this series, or even been aware of Chinese wuxia series. It plays out like a very complicated soap opera with kung-fu injected, introducing dozens of overacting stock characters in the midst of a hail of high kicks and fencing. The action is good, relatively well filmed and plentiful, but the first few episodes don't bode well for the rest of the production. Now, I've never been a fan of early '70s swordplay films, which Laughing in the Wind closely resembled. The show may appeal more to people who love this kind of thing, who are able to overlook some of its not-so-fine points.
If this disc is any indication, Facets Multimedia isn't so much rolling out the red carpet for the series so much as slipping it in the back door. The sample disc crams six episodes onto a single layered disc, and the compression is so bad that my neighbors across the street probably noticed it. The subtitles are poorly written and burned in, so quite a bit of viewing time is spent doing on-the-fly translation. The screener came with no indication whether the final product will look better than this, but I'm sure they will at least get it onto a dual layer disc and fix the compression a bit.
Maybe Laughing in the Wind gets better once you get engrossed in the labyrinthine plot. Maybe the bad acting isn't as distracting once you get to know the characters better. I don't have the patience to wait it out that long. With the flurry of television series released on DVD the past couple of years, it was only a matter of time before we started getting some foreign television releases. The possibilities for the industry are strong, but I doubt Laughing in the Wind is going to open the floodgates.
Blog Review: Save the Green Planet
Thanks to the cover art, I walked into Save the Green Planet expecting a quirky and surreal sci-fi comedy. Sometimes you can't judge a film by its cover.
Parts of Save the Green Planet are darkly comedic, but even these moments are laced with a grim, gritty, malevolent cruelty. The majority of the film is a thriller, as pitiful, insane Byeong-gu Lee (Ha-kyun Shin, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) kidnaps a rich executive named Man-shik Kang, believing him to be an alien from Andromeda. Kang faces cruel torture at the hands of his captor, who genuinely believes he is saving the planet. Meanwhile, several police detectives are searching desperately for the missing man.
Sometimes, you get a lot more than you bargained for in a film. Although I found Save the Green Planet disturbing and unsettling, I have to admit that it's a far more impressive film than I expected. It has one of the most powerful commentaries on human nature I have ever seen, mostly because it shows how quickly we dispense with humanity as soon as there is some greater cause. The violence at the end of this film would be cathartic in most other thrillers, but here it just feels heartbreaking: yet another unnecessary tragic death.
Save the Green Planet is also a film that shouldn't have worked. Thanks to a truly incredible cast and some razor-sharp and intense cinematography, director Jun-hwan Jeong jerks us viciously through a wide range of emotions. The film is a vicious roller coaster, eliciting wry laughs, cringes of pain and moments of thoughtful reflection. Although it's not always an enjoyable film, it had me in its clutches from the first minute.
It also looks like Koch Lorber is going to deliver a fine disc. The video transfer is flawless, a reference quality transfer to compliment Jeong's dark vision of the world. Although the screener I saw was only equipped with a stereo track, the separation in the channels suggest that the 5.1 track on the final copy will also be satisfying. The subtitles were readable as well.
Realistically, Save the Green Planet isn't for everyone. In fact, I can only really recommend it to adventurous viewers with strong stomachs who also like to think. It makes an interesting companion piece to Oldboy, though, if only for a similar outlook on human nature. This is a film that deserves to be watched and talked about, though, despite the lack of attention it has received.
JSA blog review
Regular readers probably already know my feelings about the Korean new wave already, but now with this release coming up, you too will have a chance to see the film that got me hooked on Korean films in the first place. I had seen Shiri and enjoyed it well enough, but it was JSA that showed me why South Korea had become the film industry to watch. It's also one of the best political thrillers ever made.
The Joint Security Area is the small border between North and South Korea, guarded by both sides and the location of occasional tension. One night, there's a double murder in the North Korean base, and a South Korean soldier is taken into custody after signing a confession. In order to keep the incident from exploding into another Korean war, a Swiss investigator with a Korean background is brought in to figure out what the hell happened.
I won't spoil anything else here. This is obviously being released now because it's directed by Park Chan-Wook, who also directed Oldboy, which has recently exploded into a cult sensation. Don't think for a second that makes JSA an inferior film. In fact, I think it's a better film, somehow cramming a heartfelt examination of human nature and war into the middle of an already full murder mystery. The great script and performances are backed by exquisite cinematography, making JSA a perfect primer for Korean cinema.
It looks like Palm is going to deliver a fine disc as well. The screening copy I received looks vastly better than my letterboxed Hong Kong edition. The sound transfer should be solid as well, although only a stereo dub track (shudder) was included on this disc. The original language track will be included in the final product My only major complaint is the flurry of spelling errors in the opening explanation. Hopefully it will get fixed before the disc ships.
I'm sorry to gush like this about a film. That said, I'm glad to act as an advocate for JSA. Looks like Palm has Memories of Murder coming down the pipe as well, which is going to make this a good summer for budding North American fans of Korean films. Check it out.
Some Japanese film thoughts
I promised a blog entry when I had finished Appleseed again. I trash talked it a lot before it came out on DVD. I had the opportunity to see it last fall at a local anime festival, and I came away disappointed. It looked nice on the most part, and had some great moments, but I came away with a bad taste in my mouth.
After a lot of positive reports in the jury room, I wanted to give it another try. I hunted down the DVD, which wasn't easy, and now I do have to backpedal a bit. It looks even better on a digital medium, and this is one of the nicest looking and sounding anime DVDs ever. I like the CGI cel animation, except in the human characters. Any frame paused looks fantastic, but when it moves everything looks plastic and shiny. There are some Barbie films out now if I were to want to see them, and I just don't feel right about the baby oil look.
I enjoyed the story a lot more this time, and I'm not sure why. Maybe my expectations were just lower. This film does have a serious problem, that is shared by most anime films based on Manga series. They are simply too condensed. We have to hit the plot points so quickly in these films that there's so rarely a chance to get caught up, so rarely a chance to build characters or escape the ridiculous jargon (bioroids?) and plot twists (the twisted web of conspiracies).
Still, it was a lot better this time around.
I also saw Casshern this week, and I'm glad I did. It makes sense most of the time, but I don't really mind when it doesn't. More than anything else I've seen, this is a story told through visuals and patterns and imagery. The action sequences are inventive and fun, the CGI is incredible, and it never apologizes for being over-the-top, melodramatic and more than a little cheesy. I wish I had seen this in theaters.
More Sith Thoughts...
I know that you don't really need anyone else talking about this film now, but everyone else is doing it.
I liked Episode III. It's not as good as any of the films in the original trilogy, but it's a long way from teeth-gratingly bad, which places it above the first two prequels. I liked the space battle at the beginning, and the rescue of Palpatine. Then, it got back into the two things that have mired the prequel trilogy: love and politics. The relationship between Anakin and Padme is still total crap, and the political maneuvering of the senate/council is still boring as hell. The second half was a lot stronger, with several great action sequences. I liked the lava fight, and the overall darker tone.
There were serious problems. Only Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Lee and (sometimes) Ewen McGregor are really able to handle this dialogue. From everyone else, especially our young friend Anakin and Sam Jackson, the lines just sound ridiculous. There's no getting around the fact that this is a poorly written script.
I think I've figured out one of the reasons that the prequels don't work as well as the OT. In serial adventure entertainment, the fun comes from not knowing what will come next. The fact that Darth Vader is Luke's father comes as a surprise. The fact that Luke and Leia are siblings is a surprise. Everything is a new world in the original trilogy, and it's exciting to experience it for the first time.
In the prequels, everything is leading up to what we have already seen. Palpatine's betrayal has been coming for four hours now. Even those who hadn't seen the OT could see it coming. We know that Anakin will become evil, that the Jedi Council will be destroyed, that Yoda and Obi Wan will not die. Even the small things all lead up to the original films. If Chewbacca was important in these films, it would be a pleasant surprise to see him in episode IV. He isn't, though, so seeing him here is only important because we already know he will become important (and apparantly change/forget a lot between now and then). The Star Wars films do not (and should not) have the resonance required to work when we already know what to expect. When every detail is important in retrospect, that's fun. When every detail is important because it needs to configure itself to what we already know is coming, the curtain comes up and we see the wizard at work.
It sure did look nice, though.
Of all the things to finally update my blog about... oh well, have to start somewhere.
I have found several of the used DVDs that I have also have a strange smell when I open the package. My Criterion edition of Brazil is the standout, which must have spent a long time sharing a kitchen with some sort of ethnic cuisine. Still plays well, though, so I guess it's not important (or really worth writing a blog about, actually)
My Sin City Thoughts...
Well, since I've been waiting since Sin City was announced to see it, I guess it has earned a short blog entry. I am not disappointed. It seems that Tarantino and Rodriguez have decided to finally break the PG-13 action movie trend, and they are doing a great job of it. This movie is so full of horrors, atrocities and the macabre that it lives on the edge of no longer being entertaining. It's only the stilted dialogue, satirical characters and frequent humor that keep it from becoming completely repulsive.
In trying to explain to people what it's like, I've been trying to describe it as different than a comic book adaptation. When comic books are adapted to film, they change things to make it work as a film. Plots are made linear and compressed to fit into a smaller time period, characters are simplified. Elements are changed to fit the political situations of the time.
Sin City doesn't do that. It isn't a comic book adapted to film, it's a filmed comic book. Characters come and go, the action happens in short frames, nothing quite looks real, it has no sense of time and so many of the characters only exist as broad stereotypes. The great thing is that it actually works well a lot better than most comic book movies. It's an experience you can get completely lost in, partly because it doesn't feel like the explosive, violent world has been crammed into some linear storyline. The three stories here exist as examples of what happens every day in this crazy city. It would make a great HBO series.
I need to watch Sin City again, because it's far too much to absorb over the course of a couple hours. I liked it a lot, though, and it comes highly recommended for people who have the stomach for it.
Well, I'm halfway through my last practice teaching block, which has been slowing down my DVD Verdict activity. I'm getting caught up enough on my lesson planning that I've finally gotten some viewing in this weekend, though.
So, last night I finally watched Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It's been one of those titles I've been embarassed that I've never seen, and it turns out that all the hype is deserved. There are few directors still working today who trust an audience enough to make a movie that darn epic. I realize when I go back and watch movies like this and The Seven Samurai that I have become an impatient film viewer. It took me a little while to settle into the pattern and timing, and it wasn't until about half an hour in that I was really engrossed.
This lines up with an experience I had showing The Untouchables to a group of grade 10s this week in a History class. Even though it was made as recently as 1987, the students in the class were clearly not used to watching an action movie that was paced this slowly. They shifted and complained a lot in the scenes of dialogue, and it made me wonder what will happen to this generation of moviegoers if all they have the patience to watch are Hollywood blockbusters and Saturday morning cartoons. It's refreshing these days to find a film that slows down a little, giving time to see the characters in non-plot-critical situations.
It saddened me to see that happen (it's hard to imagine anyone getting bored during that baby cart scene), but as I watched Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it made me realize that I am in danger of letting the same thing happen to me. We live in such an time obsessed culture that we start to fidget as soon as filming is no longer "efficient". When a slowly paced film can draw you in, though, the process seems more complete somehow.
Well, the blogs have just gone public and I'm already falling behind what I had hoped. This entry is a fairly simple one, because I just want to pose a quick question that I'm not sure I can answer fully: Why is Asian cinema so much cooler than North American cinema?
This week, I have been working on reviews for The Sword of Doom, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and A Tree of Palme. They have all been very different experiences from each other, but I have been floored by how cool they all are. We don't have much stuff like this, and we never have.
I'm aware that a lot of it must have to do with the fact that it's different and exotic for me. I live in North America, so seeing North America represented on film isn't as exciting as seeing representations from other cultures. There's more to it than that, though, because I've now seen a whole lot of Asian films, and I've gotten used to the conventions reasonably well. They just seem to be able to do more interesting things within the conventions than the majority of Hollywood directors.
Perhaps it's just that Hollywood is now in a position of playing catch-up with what other filmmakers are doing around the world. At one point it used to be the other way around, but now so many Hollywood movies are just hollow attempts to cash in on something cool that some scriptwriter saw from somewhere else and thought he/she could match. Hopefully that will change with the increased popularity of indie films in North America.
I Want my Inserts
I got a stack of screeners in the mail today, and inside the A Tree of Palme case, I found something I have not seen in a while. There was a 3-page booklet, filled with design art, interviews with the creator of the film and some other text. It was very pleasant to sit down and read this on paper, rather than straining to read it on a television screen in print as large and fuzzy as a wooly mammoth.
Early on in the world of DVD, there were tons of these inserts, which were always a point of excitement when I first opened up a new DVD case. Now, all we usually get is a single page with the chapter list, but we often don't even get that anymore. Is this a way of saving a bit of cash? Do they think we don't care?
These are the first things that start to disappear, but it won't be long before we start to see other things vanish as well. When I am at work at the video store, customers often ask why there are two discs for many releases (they never seem to figure out the trend). It's special features, I tell them, to which they invariably respond: oh, that's stupid. Does anyone actually watch that crap?.
Yup, some of us do, and it's the same ones that like to get a nice insert with our discs, and the same ones that made DVD a big phenomenon in the first place. Hopefully, enough of us still care that we won't begin to lose the added value on DVDs.
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