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Arrow Review Wrap-Up

Pulse

(2001; BD Release Date: July 11, 2017)
A group of young people in Tokyo begin to experience strange phenomena involving missing co-workers and friends, technological breakdown, and a mysterious website which asks the compelling question, "Do you want to meet a ghost?" After the unexpected suicides of several friends, three strangers set out to explore a city which is growing more empty by the day and to solve the mystery of what lies within a forbidden room in an abandoned construction site, mysteriously sealed shut with red packing tape. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

I don’t think it’s particularly controversial for me to call Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (Japanese: Kairo) the best of the post- Ring J-Horror wave that swelled over the international film landscape in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. This particular haunting and shockingly apocalyptic vision acknowledges most of the subgenre’s key elements, but, unlike the majority of its competition, which were produced specifically to cash-in on the popularity of Hideo Nakata’s aforementioned Ring (Japanese: Ringu, 1998), Pulse brought thematic intelligence and a deeper meaning to the creepy, Twilight Zone-esque devices of its basic plot. Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) was actually instrumental in establishing the popular J-Horror mythos/style (along with Shinya Tsukamoto) well before Nakata cemented the clichés. His horror career began in kind with the release of Sweet Home (Japanese: Suwīto hōmu) in 1989; a semi-comedic video game tie-in that bears little resemblance to what most Western audiences would consider ‘Japanese horror’ (outside of its influence on the Resident Evil games), but continue his arc into The Guard from Underground (Japanese: Jigoku no Keibiin, 1992). Eventually he developed a distinctive style of psychological thriller with Cure (Japanese: Kyua) in 1997. This led to a series of smart, critically-acclaimed psycho-dramas, including Charisma (Japanese: Karisuma, 1999), Seance (Japanese: Kôrei, 2001, STV), and Retribution (Japanese: Sakebi, 2006), along with more fashionable, mainstream-friendly J-Horror staples, like Loft (2005) and Pulse.

Kurosawa wasn’t trailblazing when he made Pulse – he even admits that it is a conceptual extension of the Ringu tradition with internet technology standing in for the soon-to-be-obsolete VHS market (William Malone’s Feardotcom tried and failed to do the same for Western audiences in 2002). He even hired Nakata’s cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi to recreate Ringu’s gloomy look. The largely handheld camerawork is tight and intimate, allowing the compositions hide the true breadth of the horror until Kurosawa is ready to spring angst on the viewer in an eerily aloof fashion that extends to the film’s character-based drama. He largely avoids the simplistic jump scares that his lesser colleagues relied too heavily on (the audience is usually more prepared for startling moments than the on-screen characters are), in favour of an abstract sense of dread and inevitability. Pulse’s version of the established J-horror formula/style is clever and disturbing in its emotionally relatable, but its prescience is its its most deeply disturbing trait. Even detached from the supernatural elements and apocalyptic finale, Kurosawa somehow manages to capture the existential misery, zombie-like behavior, and abject loneliness of social media obsession a full decade before Facebook or Twitter became everyday cultural touchstones.

Pulse was released on DVD across the world and was pretty easily obtained in most territories. However, I’m not exaggerating when I saw that Magnolia’s US DVD and subsequent Netflix standard-definition streams were among the worst transfers I’ve ever seen from an official release (at least for a post-millennial, non-indie movie). This isn’t unusual, as the image quality of most Japanese films from the early days of DVD are almost always subpar. Despite hoping against hope that the delay in Pulse’s BD release was due to Arrow finding a new source for their transfer, this HD master was supplied directly to them by Kadokawa Pictures and it appears to be derived from the old DVD scan. It’s an upgrade over the previous blobby, muddy, grainy-filled mess and not a simple upconvert, but it is still very disappointing. The fuzzy details and weak contrast are probably the result of faulty scanning and being mastered at PC levels, rather than video levels, as has been the case with similar releases. The graininess is harder to judge objectively, because this particular film was designed to appear gritty. These questions extend to Hayashi’s desaturated colours, especially where the dingy, brown and grey coating is concerned. What I can assume is that the grain wasn’t meant to be so blocky or ‘artefacty,’ specifically in terms of sharpening enhancement effects.

Pulse is presented in its original Japanese stereo/surround and LPCM 2.0 audio. This is an intentionally ‘dirty’ mix, where the dialogue is understandable, but rarely differentiated from ambient incidental noises. The slightly fuzzy, documentary quality sound acts as a base canvas for the stereo-enhanced ‘digital ghost’ effects, as well as Takefumi Haketa’s melancholic and lyrical music. In comparison, these effect and musical tracks are crisp and clean, even at high volume, thanks to the uncompressed qualities of the LPCM track. The dynamic range is also important, because Kurosawa and his aural designers often pull the sound floor out from under the audience with shocking silence.

Extras include:
  • Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Broken Circuits (43:53, HD) – The director discusses his early career, from his straight-to-video (or Japanese V-cinema) thrillers/cop dramas to Pulse in this extensive new interview. Actor Show Aikawa also makes a brief appearance to describe his long working relationship with Kurosawa.
  • Junichiro Hayashi: Creepy Images (25:03, HD) – The cinematographer talks about his contributions to Japanese horror and work with Kurosawa in the second exclusive interview.
  • The Horror of Isolation (17:11, HD) – The writing/directing team behind Blair Witch (2016), The Guest (2014), and You’re Next (2011), Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett, breakdown the themes and styles of Pulse and the other Japanese horror of its generation in this new appreciation featurette.
  • Archival EPK documentary (41:03, SD) – This is mostly made up of raw behind-the-scenes footage and cast & crew interviews.
  • Footage from the Tokyo premiere introduction (7:04, SD)
  • Footage from the Cannes Film Festival premiere (2:57, SD)
  • Special effects breakdowns:
    • The suicide jump (6:22, SD)
    • Harue’s death scene (5:02, SD)
    • Junko’s death scene (4:31, SD)
    • Dark room scenes (10:18, SD)
  • TV spots and NHK station ID spots


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Arrow Review Wrap-Up

Stormy Monday

(1988; BD release date July 11, 2017)
Brendan (Sean Bean) is a young loafer taken under the wing of jazz club owner, Finney (Sting), who is under pressure from American mobster, Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones), to sell up in exchange for a cut of a local land development deal. Brendan just wants to earn an honest crust, but his burgeoning relationship with Cosmo’s ex-lover Kate (Melanie Griffith) threatens to drag him into the middle of the impending showdown…(From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Before he was nominated for multiple Oscars for his work on Leaving Las Vegas (1995), writer/director Mike Figgis made his feature directorial debut (following a 1984 made-for-TV film called The House) with a very ‘80s neo-noir thriller called Stormy Monday. In broad terms, Stormy Monday is sort of a British take on the Walter Hill formula with nods to similar work from Neil Jordan. Figgis’ work is at strongest as the film opens and the audience is treated to a montage of wordless, seemingly unrelated images that establish the characters, while the basic plot is set up by an unnamed radio announcer who creates mood with an eclectic assemblage of tunes. Like Hill and, later, Quentin Tarantino, he loads these undeniably cool shots with charming, but often awkward references to his favourite movies, cultural touchstones, and, most important to this particular picture, jazz music (even the title of the movie is a reference to an oft-covered blues song). As long as he sticks to this detached, artfully edited (by David Martin), and forcefully obtuse narrative style, Stormy Monday excels; but, as the plot and motivations come into focus, the film does backtrack into stereotypical crime thriller/doomed love story territory. Only the imagery, performances (especially supporting players Sting and Tommy Lee Jones), and not-so-subtle digs at the then-active political climate hold the film above water. UK readers may be aware that Stormy Monday was popular enough to spawn a prequel television series called Finney (1994) with a young David Morrissey in the title role.

Stormy Monday has been available on DVD for awhile now, from MGM in the US, AB Video in France, Force Entertainment in Australia, and E-M-S in Germany. The first Blu-ray was released by More2c in Germany back in 2011 and that appears to still be in print. Arrow’s disc represents the stateside and UK HD debut, however. This Blu-ray was mastered in HD by Cineserve in 2010 and supplied directly to Arrow. As tends to happen when they aren’t in charge of restoration, the results are mixed. The key issues, as usual, are the noisiness of the scan and softness of details. That said, there’s no question that this is an upgrade over all DVD releases – the details, contrasts, and colour qualities are better than a standard-definition disc could manage. Cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins rends atmosphere from neon lights and long shadows (both of which appear strong in HD), but he also leans on that classic noir cliché of smoky haze, which magnifies the aforementioned noise, grain, and general fuzziness.

The film is presented in its original stereo and uncompressed 2.0 LPCM sound. The tracks are clean and dialogue is clear – or at least when it matters, since the mix pointedly drowns out ‘unnecessary’ dialogue with music on several occasions. Most scenes appear to have been shot on location with loads of ambient sound and this creates some major issues with reverb, echo, and stereo delay effects. I’m mostly positive this is inherent in the original material and not the fault of bad authoring, but also assume that a mono mix might have solved the issue. The original jazzy, occasionally synthesized score was composed by Figgis himself and is expertly integrated between established jazz, blues, and soul hits from various eras. As opposed to the unfortunately ‘bouncy’ dialogue/effects, the music is tightly knit and warm.

Extras includes:
  • Commentary with Mike Figgis – This brand new, almost terminally soft-spoken track is moderated by critic Damon Wise (Empire Magazine), who guides the director through a series of questions concerning the film’s backstory, production, influences, politics, and the cast & crew’s careers. The first half-hour is fact-filled, but things turn a bit spotty as the film enters its second act.
  • Just the Same? Stormy Monday 30 Years On… (33:15, HD) – Film critic Neil Young (no relation) visits Stormy Monday’s Newcastle locations, discusses the area’s history, appearances in other movies, and offers then-and-now visual comparisons.
  • Trailer
  • Image gallery


 Arrow Review Wrap-Up

 Arrow Review Wrap-Up

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Arrow Review Wrap-Up

Ronin

(1998, BD release August 15, 2017)
On a rainswept night in Paris, an international crack team of professional thieves assembles, summoned by a shady crime syndicate fronted by the enigmatic Deirdre (Natascha McElhone). Their mission: to steal a heavily guarded briefcase from armed mobsters, its contents undisclosed. But what begins as a routine heist soon spirals into chaos with the group beset by a series of double-crosses and constantly shifting allegiances, and it falls to world-weary former CIA strategist Sam (Robert De Niro) and laconic Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno) to hold the mission together. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

From a quintessentially ‘80s crime flick, we move to a quintessential ’90s crime flick: John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. At the time, Hollywood was still trying to contend with the unexpected successes of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), ‘urban’ American gangster movies, like Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991), and violent, foreign market shoot ‘em ups, like John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) and Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional (1994), while also continuing the enduring tradition of star and action-driven thrillers, like Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). Ronin stuck mostly to the tradition model and, in fact, even attempted to take the conventions back to the ‘60s and ‘70s – the era in which Frankenheimer had established his talent. It did take the foreign market into account with an international slate of celebrities from France (Leon himself, Jean Reno), Britain (Sean Bean again), Wales (Jonathan Pryce), and Sweden (Stellan Skarsgård), but such a feat would not have been unusual for an actual ‘60s/’70s cops ‘n robbers thriller.

Ronin was popular upon its release, but few people were talking about J.D. Zeik & Richard Weisz’ by-the-numbers screenplay (for example, everyone is chasing a MacGuffin briefcase so textbook that we’re never allowed to know what’s inside) or even the superstar cast’s modest, but mostly unmemorable performances. Instead, Frankenheimer’s direction and coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez’ car stunts were all the rage, and this wasn’t a bad thing, because these technical aspects were so central to the film’s success. Arguably, the world hadn’t had a great car chase movie since the mid ‘80s (the case could be made for William Friedkin’s Jade, 1995, I suppose) and it was time to put new technologies (smaller cameras, in particular) throughout their paces. It was also about time that Frankenheimer had pulled himself out of near obscurity. The director of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) had spent the rest of the ‘90s directing made-for-TV movies, high-profile flops ( The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1996), and flops with such low profiles, you’ve probably never even heard of them ( The Fourth War, 1990). It was nice to see him flex his muscles one last time before shuffling off this mortal coil (we’ll just pretend Reindeer Games didn’t happen only two years after Ronin).

Ronin has been available on DVD since its original 1998 release, was put out on Blu-ray by Twentieth Century Fox in many territories, including North America, and is available in HD via various streaming services. Given its enduring popularity, Arrow’s new Blu-ray is a surprise, especially this RA version (there wasn’t a BD already available in the UK, where the company calls home). Fortunately, this is not just a reissue adorned by a couple of new extras – it’s a full, 4K restoration of the original camera negative, supervised and approved by director of photography Robert Fraisse. I don’t have a copy of the old Fox disc for direct comparison, but, glancing at the screen caps available from other sites, this 2.40:1, 1080p disc appears to be a notable upgrade. The 4K scan brings out a lot of detail, helps harden the edges, and supports a very fine grain structure. The colours lean cool and consistent without appearing heavily graded or unnatural, like post-millennial movies (which is a good thing, considering the orange & tealing of so many major 4K restorations). There are no signs of compression or notable DNR issues. The only problems I can see with the remaster are slight crushing (likely a conscious decision by Fraisse, given how often filmmakers choose to darken and up the contrast when offered the chance) and minor over-sharpening effects – not exactly haloes, just hot spots.

The film is presented in its original 5.1 sound and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio (there’s also a LPCM stereo track, but this movie was designed for surround, so I ignored it). 1998 was a time when audio designers were trying to fill every 5.1 channel with directional effects, but hadn’t quite gotten a handle on balancing such things. Ronin is typical in its excessive use of recognizable, ‘canned’ effects (especially incidental stuff, like doors closing and guns cocking) and the dialogue-driven scenes have the slightly tinny quality inherent in so many early-ish all-digital mixes. Otherwise, the busy action scenes with their revving engines, squealing tires, and booming gunshots are quite impressive, plenty loud, and never distorted, even at high volume levels. Composer Elia Cmiral’s sort of Asian-fusion classical score fits the film tonally, but is often overstated and all-too-obvious. Again, that’s not bad news for the DTS-HD MA track, because the music is quite loud and tight, it’s just an iffy choice by the filmmakers.

Extras includes:
  • Commentary with director John Frankenheimer – This track was recorded for the original MGM DVD and is making its Blu-ray debut here.
  • Close-Up (31:27, HD) – Director of photography Robert Fraisse talks about his early career in France, the technical aspects of film photography, working with other famous directors (Orson Welles and Jean-Jacques Annaud), and the specific challenges in filming Ronin.
  • You Talkin’ to Me? (27:01, SD) – A made-for-TV documentary (as part of the Cinefile series) on the career of Robert De Niro from 1994. It revolves around an interview with Quentin Tarantino, who contextualizes the actor’s career and cultural influence, alongside clips from his best roles.
  • Alternate ending (1:49, SD)
  • Trailer
  • Image gallery
  • Archival Collector’s Edition DVD featurettes:[list]
  • Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane (17:45, SD) – A general behind-the-scenes look with the filmmakers.
  • Through the Lens (17:57, SD) – An additional interview with Robert Fraisse.
  • The Driving of Ronin (15:29, SD) – This featurette focuses on the film’s explosive car stunts.
  • Natascha McElhone: An Actor’s Process (13:57, SD) – McElhone, who is practically the only woman in the movie with any lines, discusses the film, Frankenheimer’s style, and her castmates.
  • Composing the Ronin Score (11:52, SD) – Composer Elia Cmiral talks briefly about the music.
  • In the Ronin Cutting Room (18:56, SD) – The final archive interview is with editor Tony Gibbs, who breaks down his process.
  • Venice Film Festival interviews with Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Natascha McElhone (20:40, SD)[list]


 Arrow Review Wrap-Up

 Arrow Review Wrap-Up

 Arrow Review Wrap-Up

 Arrow Review Wrap-Up

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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