Magnolia Wrap-Up 4 (US - BD RA)
Gabe checks out the Journey to the West and Grand Piano Blu-rays...
Tom Selznick, the most talented pianist of his generation, stopped performing in public because of his stage fright. Years after a catastrophic performance, he reappears in public in a long awaited concert in Chicago. In a packed theater, in front of the expectant audience, Tom finds a message written on the score: ‘Play one wrong note and you die.’ Without leaving the piano, Tom must discover the anonymous sniper’s motives and look for help without anyone realizing. (From Magnolia’s official synopsis)
Many readers (including myself) are probably unfamiliar with Eugenio Mira’s work as a director, but many have heard his work as a composer, specifically for Nacho Vigalondo’s sci-fi thriller Time Crimes. Mira’s composer mentality melds perfectly with his latest film, Grand Piano, which features strong musical themes and is anchored to a symphonic concert setting. With the help of editor Jose Luis Romeu (who also worked on the exquisitely constructed Time Crimes), he crafts a flashy fusion of melody and rhythm that cuts to the operatic core of Damien Chazelle’s ( Last Exorcism Part II) terse screenplay. At its peaks, the film swirls with extended takes, gliding crane shots, smash cuts, split-screens and a kind of image-driven suspense achieved by the most flamboyant, show-offish filmmakers – people like Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma, and Argento. It’s all incredibly impressive (I’m not even sure how some shots were achieved), but the barrage of highly technical filmmaking tricks definitely holds the audience at an arms length from any emotional intrigue. Only the strength of Elijah Wood’s wide-eyed performance anchors the story in any kind of human emotion. Back on the other hand, the plot itself is mechanical and silly enough that a more emotional and performance-driven treatment might have strained the audience’s suspension of disbelief. In the end, I found myself buying into the slick and fancy ride, but can’t blame anyone else for finding the execution too cold.
Grand Piano appears to have been shot on 35mm film and is presented in 2.35:1, 1080p HD. A lot of the footage is shot using pinpointed focus, which blurs the backdrops behind otherwise crisp foreground textures. Wide-angle images are sharp and the darkest scenes are well-defined, despite minor uptakes in grain. Mira and cinematographer Unax Mendía use some digital grading effects, but mostly opt for natural colours. The palette is eclectic from location to location with soft pastel greens, cooled browns, and milky golds. Mira and Mendía’s ‘power colour’ is a garish red that is represented by fanciful highlights during the calmer moments and more vivid gels during the intense moments. The hues, especially those reds, are tightly separated and free of obvious compression artefacts. The black levels are a bit weak, but not at the risk of contrast levels. Music obviously plays an important role in this warm, dynamic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. From the beginning overture to the final credits, the sounds of the symphony ebb and flow from the speakers to create a fully immersive aural experience. Victor Reyes’ evocative score (and established classical pieces) move throughout the channels, depending on the camera’s subjective placement (i.e. the sound is aggressive from Tom’s seat at the piano and deadened when he is behind stage). The non-musical sounds, including incidental effects, environmental ambience, and dialogue, tend to be more delicate, but feature just as much multi-directional elements and aural tricks (John Cusack’s voice changes from distorted crackles to stereo booms based on the film’s dramatic needs). Extras include The Making-of Grand Piano (16:50, HD), Mira and Wood interviews (34:20, HD), a soundtrack featurette (3:30, HD), a musical coach featurette (5:00, HD), Following Eugenio (5:00, HD), stunts (4:10, HD), visual effects (3:30, HD), Wayne Shot (4:30, HD), AXS TV: A Look at Grand Piano (3:00, HD), and trailers for other Magnolia releases.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
In a world plagued by demons who cause great human suffering, young demon hunter Xuan Zang risks his all to conquer a water demon, a pig demon and the demon of all demons, Sun Wukong. Adhering to his firm belief in giving of one’s self for the greater cause, he embraces the demons as his disciples. However, in order to atone for their own sins and save the common people, the four of them must embark on a journey to the West that’s full of challenges. (From Magnolia’s official synopsis)
After the international success of Shaolin Soccer, writer, director, actor, and producer Stephen Chow (given name Chow Sing-Chi) immersed his creative talents in effects-driven, high-concept comedies, including his Chuck Jones meets wu xia follow-up, Kung Fu Hustle, and CJ7 – a failed attempt at applying his sarcastic wit to Spielbergian sentiment (this affinity for animation-inspired mayhem extends back even further to Forbidden City Cop and God of Cookery, where he used common Anime motifs without the aid of digital trickery). Kung Fu Hustle is, as yet, still his finest act in filmmaking, but his latest film, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, is the technical culmination of a bag of visual tricks he had been culling for decades. From a technical standpoint, Journey to the West is his most accomplished movie. The hand-to-hand aspects of the action sequences aren’t as elaborate as Kung Fu Hustle, but the special effects are better integrated and the scale is convincingly epic.
Journey to the West’s problems revolve mostly around the screenplay, which was written by no fewer than eight people, including Chow, co-director Derek (Chi-kin) Kwok ( Frozen, not the Disney movie), Xin Huo ( Kung Fu Hustle), and Chi Keung Fung ( Shaolin Soccer) (cast members also get credit for improvisation). It is an adaptation of Wu Cheng'en’s Journey to the West – the basis for the underrated American/Chinese co-production, Forbidden Kingdom, and Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball (Chow neglected to write/direct the live-action movie Dragonball Evolution, but was on staff in a production capacity). I’m not familiar enough with Wu’s story to judge exactly how true this version sticks to the original texts, but assume that things like Jaws references were added for the sake of comedy and spectacle. The film’s episodic structure and reliance on set-pieces keeps the film from gelling into a coherent whole for about half the run time. The story spins its wheels for almost 45 minutes until finally developing into a road movie with a defined goal (the source material lends itself to the structure). I didn’t find myself laughing as often as I’d like, but certainly enjoyed the consistent quirk, some off-kilter improvisation on the part of the actors, and adored the unexpected (all too brief), Bollywood-esque musical additions. Despite Chow’s penchant for playing with the fine line between comedy and drama and the original story’s religious proclivities, he loses points for the climax’s completely unearned tonal discrepancies, which left a bad taste in my mouth.
Journey to the West was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.40:1, full 1080p video. Chow, Kwok, and cinematographer ( Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) utilize the format’s colour grading abilities to change up the look between locations. They allow the prevalent hues of each major setting to define the general palette, sharpness, and overall contrast. Daylight scenes tend to be hyper-sunny with minty greens and pastel yellows. Here, the brighter highlights blow-out some of the finer details. Inside locations are more softly lit, often by artificial fire sources that bathe everything in glowing oranges. These allow for greater contrast and more complex textures. Nighttime exteriors are darker and cooler with tight details and poppy reds that speckle lush green and blue backdrops. I noticed a bit of noise and banding in the softer blends, but no edge enhancement or blocking effects. I’m mostly vexed by the soft black levels, but understand that this may be one of the stylistic choices. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin soundtrack sounds a bit compressed to my ears. There aren’t any issues with distortion, but the overall volume levels seem abnormally low. The effects work is playful, integrating more abstract fantasy sounds with real-world noises, like buzzsaws and squeaky toys. Some of the lip-sync is clearly off, probably due to some of the Chow regulars speaking Cantonese, instead of Mandarin, but the mix doesn’t suffer the same unnatural tones prevalent in other post-dubbed films from the region. Raymond (Ying-Wah) Wong’s score is typical Chinese fantasy type-stuff and nicely integrated into the mix, especially in the cases where it is used in place of more elaborate sound effect design.
Extras include a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes – stunts & special effects, cast & characters, director Stephen Chow, ‘the laughs,’ production design, and choreography (12:10, HD), a trailer, and trailers for other Magnolia releases.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and 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.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 27th May 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English (Grand Piano), DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin and English Dub (Journey to the West)
Extras: The Making of Grand Piano, Cast and Crew Interviews, Soundtrack Featurette, Following Eugenio, AXS TV: A Look at Grand Piano, Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Eugenio Mira, Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok
Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Huang Bo, Shu Qi, Wen Zhang, Show Luo
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Film-Noir and Thriller
Length: 200 minutes
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