Thursday, May 06, 2010

Red Cliff

Magnolia Pictures sure releases a lot of good movies for a company with its head so far up its ass.

Take their distribution of Red Cliff, the much-anticipated return of John Woo to moviemaking in China after twelve years in Hollywood.

The movie is a little over 4 1/2 hours and was released internationally in two parts.

In the U.S., Magnolia cut the movie by nearly half the running time and gave it an arthouse release. Either of those decisions alone would have made sense to me, but both seems ridiculous.

Guys like me should have gone and led the charge to see this epic and come back and told the next wave about it.

Unfortunately, the guy most like me couldn't bring himself to see a cut down version of the movie, however much I did want to see it on a big screen.

And now having seen the full version on a smaller screen, I'm more than a little annoyed that I wasn't given that chance.

Worst of all, I can't help imagining that the trimmed down version is cut to simplify and remove the interpersonal relationships, the complicated chess game of personalities, military strategies and individual motivations that are the heart of the movie in order to get to the epic battle sequences faster.

Frankly, if forced at gunpoint to make cuts to this movie, my choices would be the opposite. You can say I have less commercial vision than them, and there could be some truth, but the movie doesn't seem to have even managed $1,000,000 in U.S. grosses. Releasing both parts could likely have doubled it.

Sure, you'd lose some people between part one and part two, but you'd gain at least as many from people like me who would've raved wildly about it and made sure people knew it was in theaters.

The movie itself is a return to form for Woo. It may not be my new favorite. It's always hard to tell before one lives with these things a while, and A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head are pretty high on my list of all-time favorites.

As with most fans, I've often wonder why Woo never did anything near as wonderful as his Hong Kong movies in Hollywood. I certainly have enjoyed a couple, but even the best seem to lack whatever it is makes his Chinese movies so special. Is it a language thing? The acting in his Hollywood movies seems acceptable at worst, so I'm not sure it is.

I suspect it just comes down to something closer to what would happen if one of your favorite chefs started working in the kitchen at Denny's. It might sound at first like it would make the Denny's fare super-outrageously-awesome, but really it would still basically taste like Denny's food.

Red Cliff does not taste like Denny's food. It is a rich complicated movie. It is also beautiful, both visually and in the ways it views and expresses the characters.

If I have a complaint, it's that the final sequences of The Battle of Red Cliffs lacked as much suspense as I'd have liked, considering how much screen time it takes up. This is probably related to the movie being made for a Chinese audience that would already know the outcome and what happened to these historical figures, and is just looking to soak up the grandeur of seeing it played out in so much rich detail and with such amazingly staged and choreographed sequences.

And it is amazingly staged. Having endured far too many recent Hollywood efforts, it's hard not to be blown away by action like this. It's enormous and thrilling. It has tremendous energy and excitement. It has soul and characters. And all the while it's easy to follow the action, understand where the characters and armies are in relation to one another.

Everything that a great action sequence should be and almost no Hollywood action sequences are anymore.

And that's absolutely the least of what Red Cliff offers as a cinematic achievement.


elgringo said...

Hi Neil, I’m hosting the My Best Post blog-a-thon. It goes from May 21st-23rd. Want to know the best part? You’ve already written your entry. Just send me a link to your best/favorite/underrated blog post! Thanks!

Tony Dayoub said...

Magnolia's also got a weird distribution system. Mark Cuban is an owner/investor in both Magnolia and Landmark Theatres (which I believe is usually the exclusive theater chain which screens Magnolia films). So its movies often open day-and-date on both VOD and arthouse theatres. While the VOD would presumably give people more exposure to films that don't readily reach them in most parts of the country, I find this aspect is not sufficiently promoted. And limiting the films to one theater chain doesn't help the film's chances of being seen either. Last year's awesome TWO LOVERS was a casualty of this approach also.

Neil Sarver said...

El Gringo, thanks for the invitation. I'm thinking on it. I'm not sure what, if anything, I feel is worthy of sharing in that forum, but we'll see.

Tony, yeah, I know a bit about that. Frankly, I'm rather intrigued by the day-and-date idea. I think there's actually a lot of potential in it, but I agree that it hasn't been executed very effectively so far.

In fact, looking at Red Cliff, I see that if they'd released the DVDs of the two-part international version on the same day they released the heavily edited version in theaters, I'd most likely have paid to do both. If the edited version was in theaters right now, I'd go see it. I got the whole picture, but I'd still like to experience as much as I could on the big screen.

That could have been an interesting compromise actually.

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