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DVD Video Reviews - July-Aug. 2003, Pt. 2

We’ll start this section with the No. 2 top-selling DVD at time of writing plus two other animated features...
Animatrix (2003) 9 Short Animated Films

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video: 16:9 enhanced for widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; Languages: English or Japanese
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Making-Of documentaries on each of the 9 films; “Scrolls to Screen” The History and Culture of Anime; Commentaries by the directors on three of the films; Bios of director and animation producers; Enter The Matrix video game trailer; Enhanced features for PC CD-ROM
Length: Films = 89 min.; Extras = 78 min.
Rating: ****

A collection exploring the special world of the three Matrix feature films could be just a commercial promotion for them or it could be an artistic achievement entirely on its own. I vote for the latter, and perhaps that’s why it’s become so instantly hot sales-wise. A collaboration between Japanese and American animators resulted in Animatrix, so the films should communicate directly to North American viewers without requiring explanations as with some Japanese anime. Some of the leading anima directors cooperated on these films, which use a variety of visual techniques from old-fashioned labor-intensive cels to computer animation.

The first three shorts - Final Flight of the Osiris and Parts I & II of The Second Renaissance - provide a sort of back-story or prequel to the feature The Matrix Reloaded. In fact I was wishing I had seen them prior to seeing the feature because it seemed to leave out much important material. Final Flight has a PG-13 rating for some nice sensuality at the start - a skillful computer-animated sparring match between a man and woman which turns out to be a sort of kung-fu striptease. The others are inspired by The Matrix but don’t actually fit into the main story. Kid’s Story is about a “haunted house” area which turns out to be a bug in a portion of the Matrix which allows the kids who play there to suspend themselves in mid-air and do other impossible things. A Detective Story creatively pairs up a 40s-era gumshoe with Trinity from The Matrix and the artwork is done in a monochrome style evocative of illustrations for dime novels of the period. There’s considerable violence in some of these films but after all it’s animation. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

R.O.D. Read or Die (2003)

Studio: Manga Entertainment
Video: 4:3
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DD stereo, English & Japanese audio
Subtitles: English
Extras: Original trailer, Historical biographies; Photo gallery; Interviews with crew & director; Manga previews; Fan Club & DVD catalog
Length: 90 min.
Rating: ****

Speaking of anime, here’s one with a plot subject that must be seen to be believed. The three episode series probably was designed for Japanese TV and won an award the 2002 Anime Expo. As the news release says, the Library of Congress Never Planned for This!: Sinister doings are afoot and a young schoolteacher and voracious reader - better-known to her fellow agents in Library Special Operations as “Agent Paper” - is the world’s only hope. Someone is trying to collect some rare lost volumes of writings by Beethoven and has resurrected some odd historical characters to find them - a scientist from the Japanese feudal era, a German aviation pioneer, and a French 19th century entomologist.

Agent Paper’s super-human power is to make little bits of paper do her bidding, such as beating up a villain or connecting themselves end to end to provide a lifeline for her to escape a threatening situation. She dresses like a schoolteacher, so natural she needs to hook up with a sidekick who is va-va-voom in a leatherish fetish costume. Together they find the books in spite of unbelievable obstacles and save the world. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Castle In The Sky (1986)

Vocal Talent: Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Cloris Leachman, Mark Hamill (English version)
Studio: Disney/Buena Vista
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1, Japanese, French
Extras: Introduction by John Lasseter, Behind The Microphone, Japanese Trailers (3), Previews (Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Finding Nemo, Atlantis: Milo’s Return, Stitch! The Movie, Bionicle: Mask Of Light, The Lion King Special Edition, New From Disney Interactive), Original Japanese Storyboards
Length: 125 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

Although this anime film is originally from 1986, a new English 5.1 track was recorded for the re-release. However, the dialogue is not the only thing that has been changed; the music and effects have been altered as well. If you are a film purist, then you will want to watch the original film with the subtitles on. If you want a more serious workout from your surround system, or just don’t feel like reading subtitles, then the English version will be the choice. At least a few others have noted that the changes made in the English track are not complementary to the original artistic intention of the film. Video is very good, and the young characters are drawn with large eyes and small noses like other Japanese animation. Many scenes are outdoors and incorporate rich, beautiful colors. The wonderful music helps to create a magical fantasy world with bodies of land and airships that glide like clouds above the landscape.

A young girl is the keeper of a necklace that is coveted by pirates, the government, and anyone who realizes it has great power. A legend from long ago describes a floating city, Laputa, which utilizes vast quantities of the stone (that makes up the necklace) to provide power beyond a person’s wildest dreams. Sheeta narrowly escapes from a siege by pirates, but falls from the airship where she was being kept captive. Luckily, the necklace controls her fall and she lands in the hands of Pazu, an engineer’s apprentice. Together they try to evade the clutches of those who seek power and riches while discovering the importance of the necklace and Sheeta’s history. Although animated, the story will clearly appeal to adults, and is definitely worth checking out. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Grand Tour: Disaster in Time (1991)

Starring Jeff Daniels, Ariana Richards
Studio: Anchor Bay
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for widescreen 16x9
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround 2.0
Extras: None
Length: 99 min.
Rating: *** 1/2

Staying in sci-fi mod but returning to regular movies with human beings in them, we have a flick on the fertile subject of time travel from the director of Pitch Black and The Arrival, David Twohy. This is one of those sci-fi films that achieves its effect without using sci-fi environments or gadgets for the most part, but is still very effective. The film begins with the accidental death of the wife of a small town B & B owner with a young daughter. A group of rather odd tourists show up and insist on staying at his B & B even though he hasn’t finished refurbishing it. He slowly puts together that they are in fact visitors from the future come to view a disaster that is about to befall the town - a part of it destroyed by a giant meteorite. The group travels around to various places and times in the past to view disasters such as the San Francisco Earthquake, the Hindenberg explosion, and so forth; their future existence is so perfect and safe that they are bored with it. Of course nobody believes Bridge’s wacky tale, but in the end hooks up with one of women tourists and she provides him a way to save himself, some of the people in his town, any maybe even more. It’s a suspenseful and enjoyable tale with decent acting and production, though not quite as good in my book as Pitch Black and The Arrival. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969-1971)

Director: Marcel Ophuls
Studio: Milestone/Image Entertainment
Video: B&W, 4:3 screen
Audio: Dolby Digital mono; French with English subtitles
Extras: None
Length: 251 min.
Rating: ****

Woody Allen has long said this is his favorite film, he talked about it at length in Annie Hall, and he put his money where his mouth was by helping finance this reissue of the massive chronicle of a French city under the German occupation. The notes say it has been completely unavailable for more than 15 years, which I find it difficult to believe. The new version couldn’t be said to have outstanding visual quality - much of the footage is very washed-out but doesn’t take away from the ultimate power of the film. The subtitles are supposedly more complete in this version, yet there are long stretches here and there without any translations of the German or French being spoken. One small extra would have been really helpful in the understanding of the occupation: a map showing which portion of the country was occupied and which was considered Free France, and if the boundaries changed during the war. There are two discs to accommodate the extreme length of the documentary. Part One is titled The Collapse and Part Two The Choice.

Ophuls made his documentary for French TV originally but it was refused by them and had to open at a tiny Left Bank theater. It quickly was acclaimed as one of the most influential films of all time and was nominated for an Oscar. A good portion of the film consists of interviews Ophuls filmed with fighters in the Resistance, spies, government officials, writers, artists and veterans. Of course there is also German and French footage news footage (such as Hitler seeing Paris for the first time - he had never been out of Germany/Austria!), propaganda, and helpful wartime hints such as women having their legs sprayed with dye to look like they had nylons on.

Some of the standout interview subjects are Pierre Mendes-France, Sir Anthony Eden, and a German veteran who is seen at the very beginning of the film hosting the wedding reception dinner of one of his daughters. This cigar-chomping former soldier proudly wears his military ribbons on his jacket and coldly describes his dealings with the French during the occupation. The facial expressions of the Germans contrast tellingly with the French Resistance fighters, even without the often shocking revelations heard from both. Mendes-France telling of his politically motivated imprisonment, trial for desertion and final escape to Britain is harrowing, as well as stories of mistreatment both of Resistance members by collaborators and then later (after liberation) of former collaborators on former Resistance members.

Reasons are discussed for France being the only country to collaborate with the Nazis and of the veneration of many of the people for the puppet president Petain. When asked how he feels about the French giving in so easily, Anthony Eden replies that he could never judge them since England was never overrun by the Nazis and he has no experience with what that would feel like. It was amazing to hear that thousands of French sailors were in Liverpool at the start of the war, but refused to fight along with the British. The gradual building up of the Resistance is a major part of the second half of The Sorrow and The Pity. One of the farmers whose interview is frequently used tells how he was ratted on to the Nazis by a fellow farmer and ended up at Buchenwald. He knows which person it was but prevented other former Resistance fighters from doing vengeance on him. I may not agree completely with Woody but this is certainly an epic documentary everyone should see. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Balzac- A Life of Passion (1999)

Starring: Gerard Depardieu, Jeanne Moreau, Fanny Ardant, Virna Lisi, Katja Riemann, Claude Rich
Studio: Fox Lorber/ Bravo Network
Video: 1.5:1 Aspect Ratio
Audio: DD French Stereo
Extras: Filmographies (7), TV Spot, Trailer (Count of Monte Cristo), Episode I/II selection
Length: 200 minutes
Rating: ***

When I first started this disc, I was surprised by a TV commercial (in English) for a Land Rover. I fumbled for the controls thinking I had not selected the correct input on the TV. Immediately following the commercial, the program started without warning. Perhaps it was this that left me feeling that this was a made-for-TV movie, or the just the general feel of the production. The disc is separated into two episodes, each of which is a good hour and forty minutes. Although the program starts with Balzac as a child, it is purely for the purpose of character development. He is scolded by his mother for being a less than stellar student—his exuberance crushed. No doubt his relationship with his mother is never the same, but his larger than life personality (easily portrayed by Depardieu who is clearly a larger than life actor), is unaffected.

Being poor, Balzac struggles with his serious novels, and in the meantime works writing magazine articles to make ends meet. His somewhat older lover helps finance his passion, while he helps to revive hers in the bedroom. His interests shift as he becomes obsessed with a young Countess with whom he intends to exchange favors. He will help to write her memoirs, while her reputation will help him obtain recognition in the literary world—or at least in the popular arena. His fellow contemporaries do not miss his skills, although he is very much underrated. He continues to write – the words practically ooze out of his being – and the characters he creates come to life. Finally, he hits big and the last effort he has created is a success. His actions are not always consistent with what one might expect, but are inline with his character. He has long since owed much to the government, and they come to take more and more of his possessions. His mother is disgraced by his lack of funds, but Balzac is much more concerned with his success on the page and in the bedroom.

His newest admirer is a young woman in Russia. He is resigned to get her affection and make her his own. His lust for her grows until he can no longer wait. Her husband discovers the affair, but Balzac manages to delicately extricate himself from the situation. His life continues to grow worse as he losses almost all his possessions and at the time he finally is united with his love, his health suffers. From a documentary point of view, we learn about many aspects of Balzac’s life, and his character is brought to life by Depardieu’s performance. The supporting actors are good, and the sets and scenes are beautiful—an Amadeus with a pen. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Cobra Verde (1987)

Starring: Klaus Kinski, King Ampaw, Jose Lewgoy, Salvatore Basile, Peter Berling, Nana Agyefi Kwame II
Studio: Anchor Bay
Video: 1.77:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: German 5.1, German 2.0, English 2.0, Audio commentary (Eng)
Extras: Talent Bios, Trailer (German), Trailer (German w/ subs), Trailer (English)
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: ***

This extraordinary film is based on a novel by Bruce Chatwin entitled The Viceroy of Ouidah. The movie tells the tale of the 19th century Brazilian bandit Francisco Manoel da Silva, Cobra Verde. In the beginning, all we see is desolation, dirt, solitude, barren scenes, and a bleak landscape. It is essential to listen to Herzog (director) talk about the film, and especially the hardships dealing with Kinski during production. On first watching, it is impressive how intense and crazed the performance by Kinski is delivered. After hearing the commentary, it is clear that he is like that in real life and as the director describes, “he was out of control and coming apart.” Kinski was crazed and actually physically attacked Werzog with a rock! He sloughs off the occurrence as though it weren’t a big deal. Real miners were used in the following scenes depicting gold mines that were devoid of almost any mineral. Da Silva’s life as a drifter ends abruptly when a sugar plantation owner in the town square discovers his abilities—control of slaves. He doesn’t last long in his position as overseer when the owner discovers that Da Silva has impregnated all of the owner’s daughters.

Next, the plantation owners, having found out who the overseer really is, plot to have him sent to Africa where they believe he will not survive. They offer him a position to take over the slave trade in the area, and for that they will compensate him. He knows their plan, but his desire to take on the challenge overwhelms him, or perhaps it is just the knowledge that he has nothing to claim as his own. He meets with much hardship and difficulty in winning over the natives and defeating an enemy who is believed to be insane. He is successful at the moment, but that turns to despair, and in the end he is left alone again to live with that which he has done.

Herzog is a stickler about using natural scenery and local people to make the film look as authentic as possible. He even used a real slave fortress in Ghana for filming scenes of the second part of the film. He also likes to take a spectator view and present the material as he feels it would look during the time without political or social commentary (e.g., the issue of slavery). His personal experiences in Africa as a young man helped shape some of the themes in the film. Symbolically, the last scene of the movie even disturbs the director, not for its meaning necessarily, but for his use of a crippled man to show the crippling of the continent—a lack of discretion according to Herzog. As Kinski’s character struggles to free a beached boat off the shore where he must leave, he falls into the water, and is tossed and turned in despair. For sure, it is not an easy film to watch, but from a cinematic perspective, it can not be discounted. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Häxan - Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922)

Director: Benjamin Christensen
Studio: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection
Video: 4:3, B&W with restored tinting
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.0 music track newly recorded using score from the Danish premiere of the silent film
Subtitles: Option English, Swedish intertitles
Extras: Commentary by Danish silent film scholar Caspar Tybjerg; Introduction by the director to a 1941 re-release; Outtakes; A photographic exploration of the historical sources; Gallery of stills; New English translation of intertitles; Complete 76-min. 1968 version of the film with narration by Wm. S. Burroughs and music by an ensemble featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty - DD 2.0 sound.
Length: 104 min. for original silent film
Rating: **

I’d seen the 1968 edited-down version of this silent so-called documentary on TV years ago but had never seen the original. The director used a series of dramatic vignettes to tell the story of witchcraft from its earliest origins thru the Middle Ages. It’s a strange and in many ways laughable attempt at so-called scientific exposition which appears contrived and in some ways as illogical as the accusations of witches which abounded in the Middle Ages and later. There are alternately boring, scary, gross and blackly humorous scenes combined with intertitles explaining the phenomenon of the widespread belief in witches. The off hand manner in which accusations were made to the witch-hunting clergy against women who were old, crippled, poor or ugly (or all of the above) and the ease with which such accusations were believed is upsetting. But even more so is the revelation that during torture many of the victims were prevailed upon to name as fellow witches all the people who had ever crossed them and the circle of senseless burnings at the stake expanded wildly.

The original tinted black and white is interesting, and some shots are beautifully composed. The scenes in the nunnery infested with devilish shenanigans looks like early rehearsals for a Ken Russell film. The original music selections are played by the Czech Film Orchestra in a new multichannel recording, but this pastiche of silent-movie classical themes sounds dated. The 1968 version has a much more contemporary improvised soundtrack featuring a small ensemble and is faster-paced visually. The intertitles are simpler and less dated appearing, but the tinting is gone. However, the big negative here is the bored and amateurish-sounding narration by William Burroughs. He sounds like someone trying to do a parody of the old grade school instructional films narrators.

A surprising revelation concludes both versions of the film: One of the so called “tests” for determining if a woman was a witch was to have her disrobe and prick her on the back with a sharp stick. If the woman failed to react that assured her of being a witch. This is then shown as a doctor’s test for hysteria around 1900, with the hypothesis that hysterical women are numb in a certain area of their backs, and therefore many of the accused witches of the Middles Ages were merely hysterical women. Whether they were hysterical to begin with or just after they were brutally taken, accused, tortured and humiliated is not detailed. I’d say interest in this film would be almost entirely historical - as a filmic oddity. If you don’t consider yourself enough of a film buff to be interested, you bettah’ off not seein’ it. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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