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Red Cliff

Calling John Woo an action director appears a dis-service to his fine reputation.  ‘Action artist’ would be more appropriate as he wants his audience to observe and feel every movement within every spectacularly staged sequence.  Red Cliff sees his skills refined further with a true Chinese tale benefiting from his energetic story-telling.  Although cut in length for Western audiences, Woo in his element in utilising Red Cliff’s rich historical background for his remarkable talents.
Wracked by division and seeing the Han Dynasty in decline, China in 208 A.D. was a fractured land.  Using this for his own ends, Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) persuaded the Emperor that the only way to unite China was to declare war on the Western kingdom of Xu and Southern kingdom of East Wu.  Regrettably for him, both decided to wage war for their cherished provinces with their best warriors Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Zhou Ye (Tony Leung) leading the charge.  This set the stage for the battle of Red Cliff where power and honour would carve a new chapter in Chinese history.
Back in his native China to construct the most expensive Asian film made, Woo ensures Red Cliff is grandiose in scope.  Using the camera to glide into its many battles, the viewer is driven head first into every bruising skirmish and ingenious tactical planning.  This brings immediacy to events with the employment of various cinematic techniques helping to maintain rhythm.  Possibly due to its editing from its original 4 hour plus runtime, the film literally sets a cracking pace from its first frame to an epic finale full of wonderfully majestic action.
In many ways Red Cliff feels very operatic in its approach.  By interweaving threads dealing with triumph, tragedy and solidarity, there’s almost a poetic sheen given to its combatant characters.  Even Cao Cao’s villainy has a veneer of valour as principle seems just as important as material gain.  Well played by a strong cast, perhaps the film could have gained from a little more character development to really engage with the mind despite the stunning visuals.  Certainly the extended version probably had this in spades whetting the appetite for further investigation when a fuller cut gets an inevitable ’special edition’ DVD release.
Edited or not, Red Cliff is an amazing looking film demanding the viewer’s full attention.  One could only imagine what an American version would be like, although it would be hard pressed to out-do its magnificent craftsmanship.
Rating out of 10:  8 

Drag Me To Hell

Opening with an 80’s era Universal logo, there’s a sense that director Sam Raimi wants to re-set the clock.  Using old studio monikers seems to be a recent trend applied by others in creating a nostalgic mood.  You can’t really blame them as horror films in the last decade have descended into a well of remakes and gore-fests.  Whilst Drag Me To Hell has its share of grisly frights, its playfulness with genre convention enables it to stand out with its own devilishly macabre imprint.
Desperate to obtain a promotion within her bank, loans officer Christine (Alison Lohman) faces a crucial test.  When customer Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver) pleas for an extension on her mortgage, Christine ignores her personal pity and refuses.  Angered at this slight, the old woman places a gypsy curse on Christine whereby a demon will come to take her to hellish depths.  Wanting to escape this seemingly inevitable fate, she turns to boyfriend Clint (Justin Long) and fortune teller Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) for help in banishing this evil from her once rosy existence.
Strange as this may sound, Drag Me To Hell’s noticeable feature is its pure joyfulness.  This is derived from Raimi’s obvious pleasure in echoing his early Evil Dead days by delivering a thumping spook-fest.  Although this doesn’t mean blood and guts galore, nor does he feel any need to take this easy route.  From its lurid title to tongue in cheek acting, there’s a real feeling for the care gone into making a coherent and fiendishly ghoulish time.  It’s this effort in providing an imaginative movie which makes it appealing, showing that Raimi’s creativity in providing the right scary ingredients proves he hasn’t forgotten the genre that established his career.
With a lot of good horror films, there’s always an element of warning fable attached.  Paying the price for ignoring her own beliefs, Christine’s undoing comes from an older woman using her own to wreak revenge.  This theme this theme is successfully expressed by a good cast bravely confronting the pyrotechnics placed in their way.  Interestingly the majority of scares occur in daylight which perhaps reflects a desire to prove sunshine hours are no deterrent from terror.  Assisted by a fantastically booming soundtrack, the scares are more than equalled by the stylish humour Raimi knows his audience want to experience.
One should be grateful that good horror films can still be made that are actually scary.  It’s also pleasing knowing that Raimi can still mix genres with ease, something to which upcoming film-makers should aspire.
Rating out of 10:  8