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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

House of Flying Daggers

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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House of Flying Daggers
2004 (2005) - Sony Pictures Classics (Sony)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/A-/B

In 9th Century China, as the decadent Tang Dynasty is in decline, a pair of provincial police officers is assigned the task of uncovering the identity of the new leader of a group of deadly revolutionaries known as the House of Flying Daggers. One of the officers, Leo, suspects that a dancer at the local brothel may be a member of this secret clan, so he sends his partner Jin in undercover to flush her out. The plan works and the dancer, a young blind woman named Mei, is quickly arrested.

Rather than interrogate her, Leo sets yet another plan in motion. He has Jin break her out of jail, pretending to be a sympathizer with the Daggers, and offer to return her to her clan. Leo and the rest of his police force will follow them, pretending to try to capture them. Mei is suspicious at first, but when their pursuers attack and Jin saves her life, she slowly begins to trust him. As their flight from the law grows more desperate, and the attacks on them more intense, the two begin to develop romantic feelings for one another. What follows is a surprisingly engaging story of love-on-the-run, with continually unfolding layers of intrigue and deception.

As a film, House of Flying Daggers is lush and visually gorgeous. Directed by HERO's Zhang Yimou, the story here is less intellectually rewarding than HERO, but in some ways more emotionally satisfying. This is a smaller, more personal story with three basic components - the initial detective plot, Jin and Mei's love story and flight from justice, and the larger conflict between the government soldiers and the House of Flying Daggers. Each is interesting in its own right. What Daggers lacks however, is a strong dramatic thru-line to unite these elements. While HERO was less obviously romantic, it's deceptively complex narrative purposefully built to a climax. Daggers leads you to believe that its story is going to be every bit as epic. But just as you get to the point where the larger conflict seems about to resolve, the film narrows its focus to the resolution of the personal story instead. That's not necessarily bad, it's just not what you're likely expecting. It also leaves Daggers feeling more than a little a bit disjointed narratively.

Still, the film is every bit the visual masterpiece that HERO is. While the previous film was a study in color, movement and often stark simplicity, here the images are more intricate and detailed. Daggers is a film that you could easily enjoy without any dialogue or subtitles - music and motion is all you really need. The wire-fu is just as complex and unbelievable as HERO or Crouching Tiger, and its an absolute thrill to watch. This film's final sequence alone - a powerful and personal battle in the snow - is worth sitting through the film for all by itself.

Sadly, I'm surprised and disappointed to say that the video quality on Sony's DVD release doesn't even begin to do this film justice. Daggers is presented in anamorphic widescreen video, but this seems like a case of way too much material crammed onto a single, dual-layered disc. In addition to the film, well over an hour of behind-the-scenes video has been included as well. For any other film on DVD, that might be fine. But Daggers is so visually intricate and complex that the amount of digital compression needed to shoehorn everything on to a single disc has resulted in an image that's rife with artifacting. The colors are also not as vibrant as they should be (or would be on, for example, one of Sony's Superbit releases). I can only assume that a Superbit release is already planned, because this video presentation just doesn't cut it at all.

The film's sound at least fares better on this disc, with a very strong Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. The sound stage is big and wide, with plenty of atmospheric imaging and reasonably active surrounds. Dialogue is clear (available in both the original Chinese, and dubbed English and French), the music is well blended and there's good bass reinforcement in the LFE. You'll be most pleased with the sound quality in all the obvious places - the "echo game" sequence, the battle scenes, etc. I suspect the DTS mix that would have been available on a Superbit release would be a bit smoother and more immersive, but the Dolby offering is quite good and will more than do in the meantime.

The real shame of this DVD is that the extras are surprisingly good - certainly more than I expected to get. You have a thoughtful and interesting feature-length audio commentary with the director and actress Ziyi Zhang (Mei). There's also a solid 45-minute documentary on the making of the film, as well as a short video clip on the film's visual effects. When you access either the commentary or the documentary, you automatically get on-screen English subtitle translation (these features were produced in the production's original Chinese). Also available on this disc is a music video for Lovers, the film's closing theme song, as well as a production photo gallery, a gallery of costume photos, preview trailers (for Daggers and four other films) and a set of 6 storyboard-to-film comparisons (it's amazing how closely the final film matches the artwork).

Sony should really have released House of Flying Daggers as a 2-disc set, with the film presented in Superbit quality. Maybe it will be yet... or maybe Sony's waiting to wow people with this film on Blu-ray Disc instead. In don't know. In any case, what we get on this disc is a decidedly mixed bag - a good film with mediocre video quality but nice extras. I know that's not exactly a recommendation, but I'm afraid it's the best I can do.

Bring on the Night

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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Bring on the Night
1985 (2005) - A&M (Universal Music)

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B/C+

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A

Now THIS is old school Sting, the way I remember him. The guy with the giant ego and the dark, brooding aspect who seemed determined to conquer the musical world, the film world and whatever other world might interest him.

In 1985, Sting took a hiatus from the group that had launched him into superstardom, The Police. At least that's what fans thought. The reality was that The Police were for all practical purposes no more, because Sting felt he'd outgrown the 3-piece rock group format. Wanting to return to his musical roots instead, Sting enlisted the aid of a group of first-rate Jazz musicians, including the likes of Branford Marsalis (yes, THAT Branford), Kenny Kirkland, Darryl Jones, Omar Hakim and vocalists Dolette McDonald and Janice Pendarvis. He also enlisted the talents of filmmaker Michael Apted to capture the formation of this new band, and its first world tour. It didn't really matter that this new "band" was really creatively dominated by Sting (as even these musicians were aware), and that the group only lasted for a couple of albums and tours. None of that mattered because, while it lasted, this was an absolutely extraordinary musical endeavor.

Bring on the Night is far from the greatest concert film ever, but it is a wonderful study in character. Everything that is Sting... everything that motivates him, all his talent and ambition and subtle emotion... is on display in this film. What's fascinating is to see the way other, equally talented musicians react and adjust to his personality, pushing him in new directions and vise versa. More interesting than the performance footage itself, which IS quite good, are the countless scenes of this group interacting creatively and personally. You'll see Sting trying to bend the group to his will, and also you'll see the group pushing him out of his comfort zone. You'll see them forcing a more playful, creative side out of Sting. One minute they're rehearsing Fortress Around Your Heart or Love Is the Seventh Wave per Sting's direction, and the next the band is gleefully jamming out the theme to The Flintstones (to which Sting knows all the words, despite protests to the contrary) or teasing Sting about being the British George Jefferson. When the filmmaker asks Sting's wife, Trudy Styler, at one point what effect these musicians are having on him, she gleefully responds, "They're having a tremendous effect on him. He's very happy. He's very funny. He's lightened up a lot. He's not reading so many books..." You'll even see the delivery of one of Sting's sons during this film (Styler was pregnant at the time and actually went into labor the night of the first concert - talk about nervous energy).

This new DVD from Universal Music offers the film in anamorphic widescreen video. The quality is quite good - better than what I expected. The film is grainy and a little too edgy at times, but color and contrast are both excellent. The print could have used a good cleaning, but otherwise I'm fairly happy with this video presentation. On the audio side, this disc REALLY excels. Both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround mixes are included. Each sounds fantastic. In fact I'd say there are only very subtle differences between the two. Both feature wide and surprisingly immersive sound stages, with lots of subtle, atmospheric use of the rear channels during the concert and rehearsal footage, and very solid bass. This film has never sounded this good before.

Surprisingly, the disc includes a few extras as well. You get three music videos (for Bring on the Night, If You Love Somebody Set Them Free and Russians - I would have liked Fortress Around Your Heart as well, but that's a nitpick). You also get the film's original theatrical trailer, a photo gallery that includes audio of original radio spots for the film, and a programmable playlist option that lets you choose the order in which you'd like songs to play (if you wish).

If you're a fan of Sting and his music, Bring on the Night is absolutely required viewing. The thing you begin to understand about this guy is that while, yes... he does have a massive ego, he's easily got the talent and ambition to match it. You get the sense that Sting's a very restless guy. He keeps pushing himself to try new things, to break new ground, to force himself into new creative endeavors... simply because that's just who he is. It's what he HAS to do. For fans of his previous efforts, like The Police, that's somewhat disappointing. But it's also what makes his music interesting and gives it continued relevance. One can only wonder, what's next?

Bill Hunt
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