Blu-Ray Review: Brotherhood of Blades

Director: Yang Lu
Screenplay: Yang Lu, Chen Shu
Starring: Chen Chang, Shih-Chieh Chin, Dong-xue Li, Shi Shi Liu, Yuan Nie, Qianyuan Wang
Country: China
Running Time: 112 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 15


Decent new martial arts films from China or Hong Kong have been getting thin on the ground of late after the boom they enjoyed in the early 2000’s. That’s why I got very excited when the recent Call of Heroes ended up meeting my high expectations. Hot on its heels (in terms of a UK release date at least) is Brotherhood of Blades. Directed by Yang Lu, a newcomer to action movies, and featuring none of the big martial arts stars, I was nonetheless excited to check it out, as word of mouth was good and the marketing made it look impressive.

Brotherhood of Blades is set in late Ming Dynasty China and follows three friends, Shen Lian (Chen Chang), Lu Jianxing (Qianyuan Wang) and Jin Yichuan (Dong-xue Li), who are skilled members of the Imperial Assassins. All three of them are struggling with personal problems which could be solved with a large amount of money. Well, luckily for Shen Lian, when the three assassins are assigned with the mission of killing Wei Zhongxian (Shih-Chieh Chin), Shen is offered the chance of taking bags full of gold away with him in return for faking Wei’s death. When he takes up the offer however, he makes life incredibly difficult and dangerous for himself and his two friends as their honesty is put into question and they realise they’re being used as pawns in a much larger game.

This film didn’t impress me quite as much as Call of Heroes did unfortunately, but it’s still a solid entry to the wuxia genre. It’s handsomely presented – lit and shot beautifully with some lavish period production design.

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Blu-Ray Review: Call of Heroes

Director: Benny Chan
Starring: Sean Lau, Louis Koo, Eddie Peng, Yu Yan, Jiang Shu Ying, Wu Jing
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 120 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 15


My love of martial arts movies has been suffering these last few years. When I first properly developed a love of the genre, I was spoilt by the wealth of classic and new titles being released by Hong Kong Legends, a DVD label that started in 1999 which specialised in Hong Kong action movies. They distributed Drunken Master, which was the first kung-fu film I saw after Enter the Dragon and kick-started my swift trawl through most of the kung-fu movies available to the British public. The label seemed to flourish in the early 2000’s, with Hollywood action movies like The Matrix being famously influenced by their Hong Kong counterparts. However, this trend slowed down as the decade drew on and Hong Kong Legends was discontinued in 2007. Luckily, the mantel of Hong Kong action providers in the UK was passed on to Cine Asia. They continued to release new martial arts movies over here and began to re-release some of the Hong Kong Legends back catalogue. However, Cine Asia’s output slowed down over the next couple of years too and in 2012 they disappeared, much to the disappointment of martial arts fans like me, who relied on them to bring the best of Hong Kong action to the UK.

Just when I thought all hope was lost though, I got an email from one of my trusted PR contacts announcing that Cine Asia was back! Five years after their last new release, they’re re-entering the scene by releasing Benny Chan’s action blockbuster Call of Heroes. I snapped up the chance of reviewing a screener of course, and as you might imagine my excitement and expectations were high. Could it possibly live up to them?

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DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Ran

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
Based on ‘King Lear’ by: William Shakespeare
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu
Country: Japan, France
Running Time: 160 min
Year: 1985
BBFC Certificate: 12A


There are only a very small number of directors who have a fully ‘clean’ track record in my eyes (not including newcomers or those who died young). Even filmmakers like Spielberg or Scorsese, whose films I largely adore, have the odd clunker here and there or seem to have lost their touch over time. Akira Kurosawa however has blown me away with every film of his I’ve seen. Admittedly I’m far off watching everything he’s released, so I’m sure one or two of his lesser known titles won’t have the same impact, but I’ve watched a fairly healthy 8 from his filmography and haven’t been disappointed yet.

Ran, often considered his final masterpiece, is a film I first and, until now, last saw at least 15 years ago. At the time I did like it, but I’m not sure I fully appreciated it as I can remember feeling ever so slightly disappointed. I think it was the weight of expectation behind seeing it. I’d heard great things and from stills I was expecting an epic action extravaganza, but the battle scenes only make up a relatively small portion of the running time. What also probably didn’t help is that I saw it on VHS (probably in pan & scan) as DVD’s were only just beginning to grow in popularity at the time and high definition home viewing was but a dream. So I was delighted to be offered the chance to review Studiocanal’s new 4K restoration of the film, which is coming to cinemas, Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK. It gave me a chance to revisit the film with a more mature and clearer eye.

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Blu-Ray Review: Hard to be a God

Director: Aleksei German
Screenplay: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita
Based on a Novel by: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy
Starring: Gali Abaydulov, Yuriy Ashikhmin, Remigijus Bilinskas
Country: Russia
Running Time: 177 min
Year: 2013
BBFC Certificate: 15


I‘ve not made my life easy this week. Of the four films I’ve watched to review, three of them were lengthy, surreal, mind-benders and I saved probably the toughest one to last. Hard to be a God was a project its director Aleksei German had been interested in since the 60’s when he read the book of the same name, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (who also wrote the novel Tarkovsky adapted as Stalker). German supposedly planned to make the film in the 80’s, but was beaten to it by Peter Fleischmann, who made his own adaptation in 1989. German finally started work on his version in 2000, spending 6 years shooting it. It took a further 7 years to edit the film, with German actually dying in 2013, before completion. His son Aleksei German Jr, also a respected filmmaker, helped put the finishing touches to it (largely special effects and sound tweaks) alongside his mother Svetlana Karmalita. This epic undertaking finally hit British shores this year and I got my hands on Arrow’s impressive Blu-Ray release.

Hard to be a God is set on a planet called Arkanar, nearly identical to Earth but some 800 years behind in terms of development. Its progress is further hindered by the fact that the planet’s ruling classes have suppressed the birth of the renaissance, meaning the world is stuck in a bleak, ugly version of our middle ages. A group of scientists from Earth have landed on the planet to observe proceedings. One of these, a man named Anton, is asked to help the planet’s society progress, but without forcibly interfering with the advancement of technology or culture. He is given the identity of a nobleman named Don Rumata, who to many is considered a God. His promise of not interfering becomes difficult however as rebels and religious groups vie for control and the devious Prime Minister Don Reba tests his patience.

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Trailer: Baahubali

If you managed to catch the gonzo science-fiction romantic comedy slash revenge picture (musical), Eega from the Telugu speaking region of India, you might be wondering how does one follow up a movie about sentient housefly who tries to assassinate his romantic rival to win the pretty artist girl.

The answer that question can be found in the trailer for Baahubali: The Beginning. Namely, to make a Ridley Scott sized epic that is equal parts Game of Throne and Battle of Red Cliff. Yes the acting and special effects here often veer into silliness (note the raging bull), but the filmmaker has a way of mixing his sense of humour and over-the-top indulgences in a very self deprecating way. How this plays out in the sword and sandal epic he has crafted remains a mystery, but expect Telugu cinema to come out of the tiny cult circles in North America, and into some kind of light with this big-production design epic, that judging from “The Beginning” subtitle, is one of many from director S.S. Rajamouli.

Trailer: Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel’s marketing team is taking a slightly different approach in this new ‘more epic’ Guardians of the Galaxy trailer. Emphasizing the scale and hero-journey aspects bore the hell out of me and frankly, make the film look less interesting, but this one is catering more to the Marvel/Disney crowed who wolf down their product like sugary breakfast cereal.

The trailer hedges its bets a bit at the end, which gets back to the quirky character goofiness. I’m far more excited for this particular project due to the director James Gunn, who has specialized in R rated genre fare with a humourous bent (Slither, Super) than the usual Marvel tropes, but your mileage may vary.

Cinecast Episode 339 – Well, There it Is.

What does a 30 year old Oscar winner, a critically panned melodrama and the shocking death of a fine actor all have in common? They form the basis for discussion on this weeks Cinecast. Andrew & Kurt look back at the multitudinous highlights of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career, each offering a top performance list. We then dive deep into the 1984 Project with Milos Forman’s much fêted Amadeus. A Shakespearean-inflected tale of a 17th century court composer plotting the demise of his musical rival when he cannot deal with the melange of Wolfgang Mozart’s genius and crassness, Antonio Salieri fluctuates with all the hand wringing conflict, squandered piety and delightful vulgarity in front of him. In the meantime, Kurt does some hand-wringing of his own over his enjoyment of Jason Reitman’s Labour Day, and the young director’s career to date. A very small watchlist rounds out the show. Also, appy-polly-wollies in advance for an overly long opening bit.

As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!


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[mp3player width=560 height=76 config=cinecast.xml file=http://rowthree.com/audio/cinecast_14/episode_339.mp3] DOWNLOAD mp3 | 81.3 MB
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Full show notes are under the seats…
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DVD Review: The Assassins

Director: Linshan Zhao
Screenplay: Bin Wang
Starring: Yun-Fat Chow, Yifei Liu, Hiroshi Tamaki, Alec Su
Producer: Lou Yi
Country: China
Running Time: 107 min
Year: 2012
BBFC Certificate: 15


There looks to be a minor resurgence of glossy Chinese martial arts movies of late, at least amongst the companies I receive screeners from. Reign of Assassins kicked things off at the end of February and I quite enjoyed that, then I reviewed Dragon a couple of weeks ago and liked that even more. On Monday 9th September, Universal Pictures are releasing two more similar titles with The Four and The Assassins, the latter of which I got sent over to review recently. With my love of the wuxia genre ever strong, the great Chow Yun Fat taking a starring role and coming from a script by the man behind Hero and House of Flying Daggers, I was sure to be in reliable hands.

The Assassins is set in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, focussing on the legendary warlord and Chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Cao Cao (Chow Yun Fat) and the various plots against his rumoured move to become emperor. Gong Ling Ju (Yifei Liu) and Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki) were kidnapped as children and forced to train to be the ultimate assassins when they were of age. Their mission once released was to kill Cao Cao. Gong Ling Ju manages to get inside his estate, working as a handmaiden, but as she gets closer to achieving her goal she has second thoughts about it. Could there be more to the man and his seemingly ruthless tactics than his reputation suggests? She must decide soon though as a number of further plots against him are unveiled, concerning men close to Cao Cao as well as the current emperor. Added to this, the love between the two assassins which has simmered since childhood is threatened as Ling Ju begins to fall for the warlord.

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Blindspotting: La Dolce Vita and Farewell, My Concubine

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After watching La Dolce Vita and Farewell, My Concubine back to back, several parallels became apparent. The stunning cinematography and gorgeous frames of both are obvious (one in high contrast black and white, the other using a rather generous and wide palette of colours), but there’s also a strong commonality between two of the main characters since both Marcello and Shitou simply are unwillingly to ever really commit to anything – neither ideas nor people. My favourite similarity between the films, though, is each one’s ability to make 3 hours glide right on by…

Like most films in my blindspot list, these two had been lingering for a long time on the backburner and, to be honest, were there mostly because of their pretty epic lengths. Each is a shade over 170 minutes and appeared to be short on narrative and long on indirect references to central themes. Those, of course, aren’t bad elements in a film, but can certainly press you to “find the right time” to view them. What I hadn’t realized is that each is broken up into episodic pieces that felt like whole entities unto themselves and totaled up to something far greater. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, for example, travels from an iconic opening of Jesus flying through the air (carried by a helicopter), through terribly desperate parties and finishes with a fourth wall breaking stare into the lens showing you that there was at least one person who understands what “the sweet life” is all about. That someone, though, is certainly not the central character Marcello (played by the great and incomparable Marcello Mastroianni). The film follows him through several evenings of existence (by the end of the movie, you feel that calling it a “life” would be somewhat charitable) in his gossip columnist job that drifts him – usually as a hanger-on – through a multitude of parties and gatherings. He never seems to work, though, since he’s only looking for that special something to startle and excite him, that something to draw out his passion, that something to finally get him to exclaim “Yes! This is it!”. He’s not actually looking that hard, so his approach is that he wants it to find him and until it does, he simply won’t commit to anything that might prevent him from scooping it up. He hangs on to his girlfriend Emma and saves her from a suicide attempt, but won’t even promise her that he’ll be home for dinner. He hates his job and talks about having been a serious journalist, but he won’t act on offers to set him up with editors at newspapers. He doesn’t seem to own anything but his car, black suit and sunglasses – tools that allow him to worm his way into any event that may attract somebody or something interesting. But aside from a gorgeous American starlet that he tries to woo (who turns out to be less than the perfect image he had in mind), nothing really interests him. Religion, art, poetry, music, booze, sex – nothing quite galvanizes him. It’s all rather tragic…

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Mamo #298: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter

Just a couple days left to enter the Mamo Summer Box Office Contest! We roll out the wildest, weirdest summer we’ve ever encountered and break down week by week what we think will make what, and how. Now it’s your turn: listen to the episode, and enter your picks for the top ten grossing films to be released between May 1 and August 31. May the craziest bastard win.

To download this episode, use this URL: http://rowthree.com/audio/mamo/mamo298.mp3

THE CONTEST ENTRY PERIOD IS CLOSED. All entries dated May 1 or before have been entered into the Grosses Tabulator, which you can view here: http://bit.ly/SBO2013 (thanks to GE Hale!)

Rules:

THE SUMMER STARTS ON MAY 1 AND ENDS ON AUGUST 31, in terms of movies you can pick. Please work by domestic release dates only and with domestic grosses only. Scores will be tabulated after the Toronto International Film Festival is over. ALL ENTRIES MUST BE RECEIVED BY MAY 1 2013.

Players will submit the following:

Top ten films, in order of total grosses. Also total gross $ amount and opening weekend gross $ amount. So as an example, submissions should look like this:

1. Dark Knight Rises, $402 million, $175 million
2. Avengers, $375 million, $150 million

(ha ha this example is hilarious now)

Points awarded for:

A. 1-10 Points for film rankings. If you are bang on (your #1 pick comes in #1) you get 10. If you are 5 places away (your #8 film comes in #3) you get 5, etc.
B. 10 bonus points for every film who’s gross you have within 5 million of the actual gross.
C. 5 bonus points for every film who’s gross you have within 10 million of the actual gross.
D. 1 bonus point for every film who’s gross you have within 20 million of the actual gross.
E. 10 Bonus Points for every film who’s opening weekend gross is within $1 million of the actual opening weekend gross.

F. 5 Bonus Points for every film who’s opening weekend gross is within $5 million of the actual opening weekend gross.

G. 1 Bonus Point for every film who’s opening weekend gross is within $10 million of the actual opening weekend gross.

E. 10 point bonus for every film you have ranked correctly AND within 5 million of the actual gross AND within $1 million of the opening weekend gross.

F. For the purposes of calculating weekends – Films opening on a Wednesday are counted until the first Sunday they are released. Films opening on Memorial Day weekend are counted until the following Monday. Films opening the week of July 4 are counted from whenever they open in that week until the first Sunday of their release. Example – Spiderman opens on Tuesday, July 3. Your guess for weekend gross would actually be its 6 day total, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Blindspotting #11 – Barry Lyndon and Doctor Zhivago

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Though I came up short by one post for the year – except for November, I’ve posted all my Blindspotting posts monthly at my own blog before pulling them to RowThree in batches – I’m happy with the 22 first time watches of classics I managed to squeeze in this year. I plan to keep up the two per monthly post strategy in 2013, if only because it enables some interesting comparisons between films. I hope to publish my proposed set (complete with pairings for each month) early in the new year.

 

If there’s one thing we likely all have in common when comparing lists of “major” films we haven’t seen, it’s that we have a couple of those Epics missing. You know the ones I mean: the 3+ hour epic love stories, epic period pieces and epic historical dramas that tend to be a bit foreboding. You’ll usually find one of them among our top movies of all time, but there’s a stack of others whose weighty nature and lengthy run times make viewing them seem like, well, “homework”. In many cases they turn out to be a joy to behold – quickly engaging, filled with characters of depth, chock full of interesting turns – and even feel much shorter than they really are. But when you hit one that doesn’t connect with you…Well, let’s just say that time crawls at around the same pace as it does when you’re in the dentist chair. And even though two great filmmakers were at the helm for this month’s choices, that was my concern with both films – two that have been sitting on my shelf for much, much longer than I’m comfortable admitting.

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I will admit it’s an odd reaction for me to have to a Kubrick film since I’ve loved everything else he’s done (short of his first features before the great The Killing). But Barry Lyndon struck me as a different beast and one whose apparently slow meandering nature might wear thin over its 184 minutes. Aside from knowing it was the tale of a farm-raised young Irish man who finds his way into the aristocracy of 18th century Britain, I knew nothing of the story. So the changing fortunes of Barry (Part 1 of the film is entitled: By what means Redmond Barry acquired the style and title of Barry Lyndon) throughout were unexpected and kept me engaged. Even more surprising was that the film is really somewhat of a comedy. Not laugh out loud by any stretch, but the ups and downs of Barry’s life after he leaves his village (along with many of the narrator’s comments) brings an almost farcical tone to much of the film. Though Barry has a promising life ahead of him (born to a genteel family and bred to be a lawyer), his father is killed in a duel. While his mother stays a widow, Barry struggles to deal with his first love Nora – she tries to get him to be more assertive by hiding a ribbon on her person, but he seems too meek to search her for it. After she shows interest in a British army captain (who would relieve her family of its debt), Barry challenges him to a duel and is forced to leave town afterwards. He’s actually a bit of a selfish dim-witted putz when you get right down to it and as he begins his travels, there’s a moment where I wondered how long I could stay invested with that kind of character. Fortunately, as mentioned above, fate seems to have a push/pull battle with Barry as it keeps changing things up on him – he swears he’ll remain a gentleman, gets pulled down again, new opportunities are once again presented and the cycle repeats. He gets robbed, joins the army, deserts the army, is forced to rejoin when found, learns “bad behaviour” from other low-lifes in the army, saves the captain who forced him back into service, is sent to spy on an Irish nobleman, etc. He’s like a cipher at times, so it’s not surprising when he can suddenly be heroic, fight well or handle weapons masterfully. Ryan O’Neal doesn’t bring a whole lot to the character, but his blank slate performance actually fits Barry Lyndon perfectly.

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