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Magnolia Pictures Wrap-Up 2

John Dies at the End

It's a drug that promises an out-of-body experience with each hit. On the street they call it Soy Sauce and users drift across time and dimensions. But some who come back are no longer human. Suddenly, a silent otherworldly invasion is underway and mankind needs a hero. What it gets instead is John and David, a pair of college dropouts who can barely hold down jobs. Can these two stop the oncoming horror in time to save humanity? No. No, they can't. (From author David Wong’s official synopsis)

Cult director Don Coscarelli’s films aren’t always good, but they’re usually interesting, or, at the very least, unique. In fact, his work is most disappointing when it’s not outstandingly weird. It’s difficult to argue that Survival Quest or Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road are any ‘worse’ than the third and fourth Phantasm movies, but their conventional genre trappings keep them heavily cemented in the ‘mediocre’ category. Really, my biggest problem with Coscarelli is that he takes such huge breaks between movies, which is really just a symptom of his fiercely independent behavior. After a decade of Don Coscarelli-free theaters, John Dies at the End finally scratches that maddening itch. In fact, the film is so specifically tweaked to the director’s usual specifications that it’s kind of shocking that this isn’t an original screenplay; rather, it’s based on an original webserial-turned-novel by writer Jason Pargin (pseudonym David Wong). I’ve never read Pargin’s book, but have been informed that Coscarelli made some substantial changes to the final act, which is the part of the movie that turns into an alternate universe Phantasm pseudo-sequel. The pastiche of ideas and influences (both parties take huge inspiration from Lovecraft) never quite gels into a cohesive whole.

So John Dies at the End is too scattered to be a real ‘triumph’ and definitely isn’t Coscarelli’s best, but it might be his most tightly edited and visually constructed film – almost in defiance of the story’s jagged and random structure. It’s tonally an obvious cousin of Bubba Ho-Tep, but rarely recalls that film’s languid pace. At best, the effect is an engaging bit of stream of conscious storytelling. At worst, it feels like a 60 year old man trying too hard to harness punk rock energy he doesn’t quite understand, which is still an awfully admirable achievement. And honestly, something as weird for weird’s sake as John Dies at the End kind of requires the hand of an experienced weird filmmaker. Coscarelli also manages to score a typically strong cast of character actors, including Paul Giamatti, Glynn Turman, Daniel Roebuck, Doug Jones (out of make-up!), personal favourite of mine Clancy Brown, and Coscarelli favourite Angus Scrimm. None of these guys appear to have worked for more than a day, but add a lot of texture to the bouncy, introduce-a-new-character-every-five-minute story structure and give relatively unknown leads Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes something extra to work off of.

Coscarelli and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis utilized Red One digital HD cameras and this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is particularly spic and span. Details are finely cut from foreground skin and clothing textures to background patterns, though Coscarelli and Gioulakis aren’t consistently interested in creating the sharpest edges while experimenting with the Red system’s lavish blending abilities. The colours are quite vibrant and eclectic, as if the filmmakers were trying to cram as many hues as possible into some sequences. The Chinese restaurant interiors are especially impressive with all of their smooth, warm gradients. I didn’t notice any notable digital noise effects on the bright reds or along the poppier contrasting hues, but there are some minor haloes along the otherwise solid black edges and occasional banding effects on some of the out of focus backgrounds. Aggressive sound design has been a vital part of Coscarelli’s movies since Phantasm, so it’s no surprise that this relatively cheap and simple motion picture features such a lively DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The busy, multi-channel mix is entirely unnatural in terms of element placement, but not in a slapdash or random manner – every bizarre twitch of directional noise is fully intended and expertly tweaked. Workhorse composer extraordinaire Brian Tyler’s score definitely recalls the spaghetti western, hillbilly rock meets eerie ambient tones he wrote for Bubba Ho-Tep. My only complaint in regards to this track is that the dynamic ranges are perhaps pitched a bit too high. I found myself scrambling for the remote to turn the volume up and down between dialogue-heavy and action-cue moments. The extras include a commentary with Coscarelli, producer Brad Baruh, and actors Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes, seven relatively important deleted/extended scenes (9:40, HD), Getting Sauced: The Making of John Dies at the End (6:50, HD), Creature Corps: The Effects of Soy Sauce (8:40, HD), Casting Sessions (7:10, HD), an interview with producer/star Paul Giamatti (9:50, HD), and trailers, including a trailer for the book sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders (1:10, HD).

Magnolia Pictures Wrap-Up 2

Sushi Girl

Fish (Noah Hathaway) has spent six years in jail. Six years alone. Six years keeping his mouth shut about the robbery, about the other men involved. The night he is released, the four men he protected with silence celebrate his freedom with a congratulatory dinner. The meal is a lavish array of sushi, served off the naked body of a beautiful young woman. The sushi girl (Cortney Palm) seems catatonic, trained to ignore everything in the room, even if things become dangerous. Sure enough, the four unwieldy thieves can't help but open old wounds in an attempt to find their missing loot. (From the director’s official synopsis)

Kern Saxton’s Sushi Girl was released to little fanfare on a limited basis. Even several weeks past its initial release date, I was unable to find much in the way of opinions or buzz, despite an interesting looking trailer and an extensively cool cast. Saxton, working for the first time in a feature-length capacity, is absolutely a student of the Quentin Tarantino school of filmmaking. It doesn’t only match the glut of talky gangster flicks that came out of Pulp Fiction’s popularity, but Sushi Girl follows the lead set by every film in Tarantino’s oeuvre, including the slicker, post- Kill Bill movies. Visually, the film works pretty well –  the gory torture scenes sort of turn into a gruesome short film all their own – but the anecdote-driven storytelling style and Tarantinoesque cultural fetishism is continuously awkward (unlike John Dies at the End, the pastiche feels extraneous). Saxton and co-writer Destin Pfaff’s (the guy with the mohawk from Millionaire Matchmaker, of all people) screenplay is built around a unique concept (one that cleverly keeps the location to a budget-friendly minimum), but the storyline is disappointingly predictable (I really thought I was in for a surprise) and the dialogue veers between overly-chatty to annoyingly gabby. It’s hard not to appreciate Saxton’s collection of top-shelf cult character actors, though, including go-to sleazeball Andy Mackenzie, fellow Grindhouse thespians Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey, and some other guys that don’t need an introduction, like Danny Trejo, Tony Todd, Mark Hamill, and Sonny freakin’ Chiba. The cast is a little better on paper than in action, largely due to limited screen times, but Hamill’s performance is so out-of-hand campy that it’s hard to resist.

According to specs, Sushi Girl was shot using top of the line Red One digital HD cameras, but I suspect/assume all of the flashback sequences were shot 16mm. The current timeline detail levels suffer occasional inconsistencies, but are generally complex and well-separated where needed, though shallow focus leaves most of the backgrounds foggy. The palette is lively, complex, and saturated, revolving mostly around a warm backdrop and cool costumes (some of which feature additional poppy warm bits). Those plush Red One colour blends are certainly pretty, but aren’t the most pure I’ve seen from the format, especially in terms of green and blue blobs bleeding into the black levels. The flashbacks are gritty, grainy, and made to look as if they were shot on film. The focus is more even-handed here, but there’s also more detail lost in the grain, not to mention minor edge enhancement. The colours are also much more de-saturated. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is dynamically strong without being particularly aggressive. The film’s limited scope means that directional and immersive effects are mostly limited to off-screen voices and the sound of a rainstorm, though there are some exceptional ambient moments and a few punchy gunshots. The stereo and surround channels are often left dry in favour of Fritz Myers’ omnipresent, droning piano and bell score. The music is actually the track’s key problem. Besides the listless and overbearing melodies, the music extends surprisingly far back into the rear channels and has a strange ‘digital’ quality that sets it apart from the rest of the soundtrack. Extras include two commentaries – one with Saxton, Pfaff, and producers Neal Fischer and Suren M. Seron, the other with Saxton, Pfaff, and actors Tony Todd, James Duval, Noah Hathaway, Andy Mackenzie, David Dastmalchian – Sushi Girl: A Documentary (60:00, SD), two alternate scenes (2:22), outtakes (17:00, HD), three fake commercials, producer’s diaries (7:20, HD), a music video, cast and crew interviews from the international premiere, poster and behind-the-scenes galleries, storyboards, and trailers.

Magnolia Pictures Wrap-Up 2

The Sorcerer and the White Snake

It wasn’t until after receiving the review disc for The Sorcerer and the White Snake that I realized it was a remake of Tsui Hark’s Green Snake – one of my personal favourites among the director’s films. The last time I watched a remake of a Tsui movie, it was a beautiful disaster called The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. The time before that was a hideous disaster called Legend of Zu. The words ‘remake’ and ‘Tsui’ don’t really mix. However, remaking legendary stories has been a successful Chinese cinema staple for generations (the legend of the White Snake had already been filmed at least three times before Green Snake) and, perhaps more importantly, Tsui personally had nothing to do with this production (as far as I can tell). The Sorcerer and the White Snake was directed by Ching Siu-tung, an unfortunately less famous name than Tsui, but one of the most important directors in fantasy wuxia filmmaking. A famed second unit action choreographer, Ching’s first film as lead director was the popular Duel to the Death, but his real breakthrough (as far as I’m concerned) was the wuxia/horror/comedy/romance classic A Chinese Ghost Story – a film often attributed entirely to Tsui, who worked in a production capacity. Ching continued working under Tsui on both Chinese Ghost Story sequels and the Swordsman series (the best of which is The Swordsman III: The East is Red). He also worked with Stephen Chow, directing him in The Royal Tramp and The Mad Monk, and choreographing action for Shaolin Soccer. More recently, he choreographed action for Zhang Yimou’s loose wuxia trilogy ( Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower) and directed Steven Seagal in a STV throwaway called Belly of the Beast.

Much like Tsui’s recent blockbuster releases, The Sorcerer and the White Snake recalls the genre hybrids Ching was making during the ‘80s and the ‘90s in tone and style, then updates the old school effects with expensive (occasionally cartoonish) digital animation. It was never easy to overcome the culture shock and follow every element of those older movies, but I was usually able to make sense of the plots and characters. With the exception of Detective Dee, I’ve found it nearly impossible to comprehend even the most basic story elements of the last dozen Chinese action and effects spectaculars I’ve seen. Perhaps being familiar with Green Snake and the original legend helps, but I also believe Ching is just better at/more interested in telling a straightforward story. Unfortunately, he’s stuck telling two straightforward stories and, though he’s adept at making sense of them, the two stories usually feel like two entirely different movies cobbled together. The first movie concerns the burgeoning love story of an ancient demon disguised as a woman (the White Snake of the title) and a humble physician, while the second movie features Jet Li’s largely episodic crusade against various animal-themed demons. There’s an awful lot of (sometimes admittedly cool) extraneous footage of Li playing Chinese Ghostbuster and Susu/White Snake talking to animals. The effects certainly look expensive, but the animated and live-action elements are rarely composited in a convincing manner. The action is a bit over-edited, but Ching captures a truly grand scale that has eluded many effects-heavy Chinese features lately by keeping his camera far enough from the fighting to capture the full choreography. He’s also clearly more comfortable with special effects in terms of action as well, though scenes like the one where Jet Li rides a demon into the center of the Earth (ala Gandalf the Grey) still look sort of embarrassing for a movie made only two years ago. At a certain point, though (a little over an hour in), I have to admit it was pretty easy to let go of my effects-based criticisms and just go with silly extremes.

The Sorcerer and the White Snake was shot on 35mm film and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p video. I usually hate to take sides in the film vs. digital war, but the grain and minor film-based artefacts on this transfer are a welcome change of pace compared to the uncanny utter clarity of most of the similar Chinese films I’ve seen recently. The effects really aren’t any better, but the ‘universe’ feels more anchored in reality. What’s interesting about this particular image is that it’s clean enough to make the difference between the shot-on-film and digitally composited shots and the shots created almost entirely with special effects. The detail levels are pretty consistent and sharp throughout both image types, but the artefacts all but disappear during some scenes. Colour quality is incredibly vibrant, though rarely what one would call natural. The eclectic palette is divided among locations, including basic blue/orange contrasts and super complex blends of entire rainbows of hues. The colors are tightly separated with strong shadow and highlight support without edge enhancement or noticeable blocking effects. The disc features two DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks, one in the original Mandarin and the other in dubbed English. As per usual, this review pertains only to the Mandarin track. The sound design is predictably lively, especially the big action sequences, where demon bats flutter, snakes slither, and Jet Li shoots chi from his hands. The waterlogged climax, though not particularly convincing on a visual effects level, is brimming with multi-channel noise and throbbing LFE support. Like the Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Blu-ray, the centered dialogue track is often pitched too loudly, making it sound like all the dialogue was dubbed in post. Mark Lui’s score settles pretty nicely beneath the action for most of the film, but when the music becomes the key aural element and spreads more widely throughout the channels, there is some odd reverb and other aural artefacts that mark the track as a bit over-produced. The extras are made up of promotional material, include Fighting, Stunts & Laughs (6:20, SD), Visual Effects & Production Design (6:50, SD), Beauties & The Beasts (5:20, SD), AXS TV: A Look at The Sorcerer and the White Snake (3:00, HD), and trailers.