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DVD Video Reviews - April 2003 Pt. 2 of 3

I Spy (2002)

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen, Malcolm McDowell
Directed by: Betty Thomas

Studio: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
Video: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, 1.33:1 Fullscreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, and English Closed Captions
Extras: Filmmaker’s audio commentary, “Cloak and Camouflage” featurette, “Gadgets and Gizmos” featurette, “Schematics and Blueprints” featurette, “The Slugafest” featurette, 5 theatrical trailers, scene selection
Length: 97 minutes
Rating: ***

When an experimental spy plane that can become invisible to the naked eye is stolen, the United States springs into action to retrieve the plane before it falls into the hands of an international terrorist. In order to help good-natured yet clumsy U.S. government agent Alex Scott gain access to vital contacts needed to complete the crucial mission, egotistical boxing champion Kelly Robinson is recruited to provide assistance. Scott and Robinson are immediately at odds with one another and continuously vie for control throughout the mission. However, equipped with some high-tech gadgetry, the two become a formidable crime-fighting duo in spite of themselves.

The video quality of this DVD is excellent. Images are clean and finely detailed. Blacks are dark throughout. Colors are bright and vibrant with fully saturated hues. Picture defect mastering is perfect with no major flaws or digital compression artifacts. The overall audio quality is very good with the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack mix actively utilizes all of the discrete channels. Although the dialogue is at times difficult to hear amongst all of the action, it always remains properly anchored in the center channel. The surround channels are often aggressive, used for both music and ambient sounds, and include multiple split rear effects. The low frequency bass is deep and explosive. Present in about one-half of the DVD’s chapters, tactile effects appear as light to heavy impacts and originate from the sound effects and music score. Purchase Here

Reference equipment used for this review: Video projector- Studio Experience Cinema 17SF Projection screen- Da-Lite 106” Da-Snap; DVD player- Pioneer Elite DV-37; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- BIC DV62si mains, DV62CLRs center, Adatto DV52si rears, D1210R subwoofer; Tactile Transducers- Clark Synthesis Gold; Cables and Wires- Bettercables.com

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

Directed by Luis Bunuel
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli
Studio: Studio Canal/The Criterion Collection
Video: 2.35:1 16:9 widescreen enhanced, B & W
Audio: Dolby Digital mono, French
Subtitles: English (new & improved)
Extras: Video interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, Orig. Theatrical trailer with narration by Jeanne Moreau, Printed transcript of late-70s interview with Bunuel, Essay by film critic for The Village Voice
Length: 98 min.
Rating: ****


One of the most perfect films of the many gems from the Spanish director who was a compatriot of Bergman and Fellini. Perfectly described by Village Voice critic Michael Atkinson as having a “quietly wicked, tipsy-Voltairean sensibility,” Bunuel started out with the Surrealist short Un Chien Andalou (with Dali) in l928 and continued over a 50-year career to occasionally delve into surrealism while turning into great art his concerns about human folly. The original Mirbeau novel concerned a beautiful Parisian domestic who gets a new job at a country estate where the family is a sort of French combination of Upstairs, Downstairs (the domestics outnumber their employers) and a seriously warped version of the You Can’t Take It With You characters. Carriere transferred the time to l930s France since he and Bunuel knew the period and could insert a strong indictment of French fascism that was building up at the time.

Maid Celestine is sort of Bunuel’s stand-in the drama as she is exposed to the sexual hypocrisy, bigotry, fetishism, racism, cruelty, molestation, and in the end a terrible rape/murder. She surprisingly inserts herself into the mess because of concern about the murder victim. In the end she is powerless to solve the murder; things are left open and not tied up neatly as Hollywood would be prone to do. If you recall this one from a scratchy and murky print with badly-translated and difficult-to-read subtitles, you will be captivated by the luscious and detailed widescreen black & white cinematography and the new subtitles. Many scenes have a depth of related actions going on in them from close up to far distance - reminding me of the wide-angle cinematography in Citizen Kane. The long interview with Bunuel’s longtime collaborator Carriere is also of major interest. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Starring David Bowie, Buck Henry, Rip Torn, Candy Clark
Studio: Studio Canal/Anchor Bay Entertainment
Video: 2.35:1 16:9 widescreen enhanced, THX
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround EX, DTS-ES 6.1, THX
Extras: Watching the Alien (24 min. In 16:9 format), THX approved image & sound, Theatrical trailer, TV spots, Talent bios, Poster and still gallery, Original screenplay in DVD-ROM
Length: 139 min. (2 discs)
Rating: ****

Tick off here yet another film that has benefitted from being presented on DVD complete and uncensored, clearing up nagging questions and confusion elicited by the initial edited-down theatrical release. Roeg’s cult sci-fi gem has been fully restored from the original negatives with remastered 6.1 DTS and DD audio tracks, all according to strict THX criteria. (I can’t speak for the effect of the additional speaker or speakers in the center rear since I think the whole idea is absurd for music and very few videos have been released with it anyway.) This was the movie debut of Bowie, and a more perfect choice for the alien couldn’t have been made. His slight, white, androgynous face and body need only the stick-on cats’ eyes to look totally alien. The scene in which he finally shows his true self to mate Clark is horror movie stuff but seems to flow right into this thought-provoking, visually amazing film. The excellent widescreen documentary on the separate Extras DVD might be a good place to start even if you haven’t seen the feature previously.

Bowie is Mr. Newton, an alien who comes to earth in a desperate search for water to save his dying planet. It’s never explained why his advanced civilization who can do space travel and audiovisual miracles can’t make water from the most ubiquitous element in the universe - hydrogen. But don’t try to grok the plot details - just bathe in the unexpected widescreen montage of images conjured up by Roeg, whose work in this film was compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Newton never completes his mission, whatever it was, to return to his family on his own planet. His downfall is partly the seduction of alcohol and TV but also unprincipled (and murderous) industrial rivals who want his money-making inventions of instant photography and space travel. The story could also be viewed as an allegory. In fact, this is a sci-fi film for people who don’t like sci-fi films, just as are Solaris (either one), Close Encounters, Man Facing East, or E.T. The ending, however, is much less upbeat than any of those.

Rip Torn and Buck Henry are both superb in their roles, and this uncensored version displays much more of Bowie’s private parts than seen in the theatrical release. I think Candy Clark was the right type of actress for the role of Newton’s lover, but not the specifically the best actress. The entirely British crew shot most of the film on location in New Mexico and made extensive use of the striking widescreen scenery there. Picture quality is superb and detailed without noticeable artifacts. The original idea was to have Bowie also do the film soundtrack but that proved impossible (fortunately, to my mind) and John Philips of the Mamas and Papas was brought in. He used a variety of pop music but the most striking match of image and music was when he selected major portions of a work by the Japanese percussionist Yamash’ta to accompany an oft-repeated visual of a body falling and revolving. Altogether a sometimes puzzling but still stunning motion picture. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

La Vallée (Obscured by Clouds) (1972)

Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Starring Bulle Ogier, Michael Gothard
Orig. Music by Pink Floyd
Studio: Janus Films/Home Vision Entertainment
Video: 1.35:1 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo, French & English
Subtitles: English
Extras: Printed essay by Andrei Codrescu (NPR)
Length: 105 min.
Rating: ****

Without the connection with Pink Floyd - whose music is really only heard clearly towards the end of the film - I don’t know if this quirky, sensual film would have the cult status it does. [See this issue's Hi-Res section for a review of Dark Side of the Moon.] But it is definitely worth seeing in this expert digital transfer of the often-amazing cinematography of Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven). A French diplomat’s wife is at loose ends in exotic New Guinea, searching for rare bird feathers for a boutique in Paris. She runs into a group of freeloving hippies on an adventure trip into the rain forest, hooks up with one of the two young men and decides to join them on their journey to the secret and unknown valley which on the maps of the region is indicated only by the notation “obscured by clouds.” On their way they meet indigenous tribes, in one case being the first white people to have spent time with them. And they get plenty native with one another in between. Making the sign of the three-toed sloth, as Joe Bob used to say. The scene of Ogier being slowly approached by the Mud Men is one of the truly hypnotic high points of this visually fascinating film. Well, do they ever reach their valley? Stay tuned... Codrescu’s short essay on viewing the film in the company of his teenagers is a fun read as well. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Special Collector’s Edition) (1986)

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols Directed by: Leonard Nimoy
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 2.35:1 Widescreen enhanced
Audio: English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0, French DD 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English and English closed captions
Extras: Audio Commentary by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Text Commentary by Michael and Denise Okuda, The Star Trek Universe featurettes (“Time Travel: The Art of the Possible”, “The Language of Whales”, “A Vulcan Primer, “Kirk’s Women”), Production featurettes (“Future’s Past: A Look Back”, “On Location”, “Dailies Deconstruction”, “Below-the-Line: Sound Design”), Visual Effects featurettes (“From Outer Space to the Ocean”, “The Bird of Prey”), Tributes (“Roddenberry Scrapbook”, “Featured Artist: Mark Lenard”), Archives (Storyboards, Production Gallery), Original Interviews (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley), Theatrical trailer
Length: 118 minutes
Rating: ****

It is the year 2286 and Earth’s existence is threatened by a space probe that is vaporizing the oceans and blocking out all essential sunlight. The probe is trying to communicate with humpback whales, which are now extinct. In order to find some humpback whales to answer the probe’s destructive transmission, Admiral Kirk and his crew attempt to travel back in time to San Francisco, 1986.

The video quality of this DVD is very good. Images are clean but tend to be a little on the softer side. Black levels are consistently deep throughout. Colors are dark and rich with fully saturated hues. While there are some speckles and dirt present on the transfer, picture defect mastering is solid with no major flaws or digital compression artifacts. The overall audio quality is also very good with the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack’s mix favors the forward channels. Dialogue is natural sounding and crisp. The surround channels are moderately active, used for both music and ambient sounds, and even include a couple of split rear effects. The low frequency effects channel is not dynamic but does contain a smattering of sequences with strong bass. Present in about one-quarter of the DVD’s chapters, tactile effects are in the form of light to moderate impacts and they originate primarily from the sound effects. Purchase Here

Reference equipment for review: Video projector- Studio Experience Cinema 17SF; Projection screen- Da-Lite 106” Da-Snap; DVD player- Pioneer Elite DV-37; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- BIC DV62si mains, DV62CLR center, Adatto DV52si rears, D1210R subwoofer; Tactile Transducers- Clark Synthesis Gold; Cables and Wires- Bettercables.com

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Predator (1987)

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
Studio: Fox
Video: 1.85:1 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: DTS 5.1, Dolby 5.1, English & French Dolby surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: None
Length: 107 min.
Rating: ***

Not long ago while tramping thru the Mexican jungle at night with a large crowd to view a dance-theatrical presentation, someone called out “Where is Arnold when we need him?” The reference was to this Schwarzenegger classic which I had never seen before. Now I have. Has it changed my life? No.

Arnold and his crew are recruited to rescue some hostages held by guerrillas in a Central American country. (The hostages are all killed by the way - nice start...) Then they come up against a much more deadly enemy - one not of this earth. The Predator has all sorts of advanced gimmicks, including invisibility when he wants. But Arnold figures him all out, somehow gets the Predator to shuck his high-tech armor for a mano-a-mano, and works up to an eventual battle to the death. Guess whose. The special effects are quite good and the music and sounds effects perfectly support the action of the movie. Great use of surround, and no complaints about the picture quality. But there is far too much tramping thru the jungle and many combat scenes with wild uncontrolled shooting for my taste, especially considering the time in which we are viewing this. Predator is described as having combat scenes of gut-wrenching power, but we don’t need to slip an Arnold DVD in our players to see that on our screens at present thank you very much. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Best of Zagreb Film - Nudity Required

Seven animations from the Zagreb school
Studio: Rembrandt Films/Image Entertainment
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Subtitles: none required - no dialog
Extras: On screen text introductions to each film
Length: 59 min.
Rating: ****

A clever theme for presentation of these seven unique selections from the 600 animated films produced by the Yugoslavian studio over 40 years. There’s nothing terrible licentious about these films - just that each one has a bit of harmless cartoon nudity in it, however briefly in some. These particular cartoons are probably not for kids, but not because they’re shocking. The filmmakers at Zagreb had complete control of their films - writing, designing, drawing, shooting, directing. That gives them a variety of highly individual, boldly artistic, and often outrageous natures. I love the concept of not having any dialog at all; these are truly international cartoons!

Satie fans will probably be nuts about Satiemania, a collection of multiple animated drawings of people and animals walking by and other fallout from the fertile brain of its animator - to a few of the witty piano pieces of Erik Satie. Plop is the story of a man who picks up a girl in a bar and brings her home expecting her to do all his housework; he’s in for a little surprise! Dream Doll got an Academy Award nomination for its fantasy on a lonely man’s emotional relationship with a blowup doll. The very short final film is a clever twist on the Dracula legend, featuring a tiny mouse with fanged dentures and a large, sensual, sleeping, nude, female cat with an inviting neck. It’s titled Mouseferatu. The transfer to DVD is better here than on some of the earlier animation collections, but you will have to display it 4:3 screen size or important details at the top and bottom of the screen will be cropped off in a forced 16:9 display. The same ricky-tick piano theme is heard between each animation under the titles explaining the next one; it quickly becomes a bit of an annoyance. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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