DVD Video Reviews, Pt. 3 - Oct. 2003

Lawrence of Arabia - Superbit (1962)

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn
Directed by: David Lean
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Video: 2.20:1 widescreen enhanced for 16x9
Audio: DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai
Extras: None
Length: 227 minutes (2 discs)
Rating: *****

Larry of Arabia beat even Chicago by winning seven Academy Awards back in l962, including Best Picture. This latest incarnation of the classic is newly re-mastered and employs the latest Superbit DVD process, which optimizes video quality by using only about half as much data reduction as standard DVDs, thus achieving the highest image resolution possible within the present DVD system - until we move on to Blu-Ray HD-DVD. The addition of the DTS soundtrack option is also a big improvement. What is lost are all the extras that came with the standard Lawrence DVD release, due to Superbit requiring twice as much data space on the discs. Some Superbit DVDs devote a separate second disc to only the extras, but that only works when the feature is closer to 90 minutes. There were formerly five different documentaries but the only one in color was The Making of Lawrence of Arabia. The others - including one on “casting the camels” - were only black and white. I realized they were made for TV and TV back then was only B&W. There was also a conversation with Steven Spielberg about the film and newsreel footage of the New York Premiere. However, I see PBS has a new documentary on Lawrence coming up this month. (What do you want to bet all these extras and probably even more will be included again in the first HD-DVD reissue of this classic? The new format has all sorts of available space - that's how it can accommodate hi-def!)

Well, on to what we’ve got, not what we don’t have. Is the improvement in picture quality worth it? Probably only if you have a front projector or a really large RPTV. Comparing the two on my Elite 51-incher did show a marginal improvement in detail, but on a scene where Laurence and Ali ride out with their camels against a blue sky, there was only slightly less edge enhancement on the Superbit vs. the standard version. The improvement of the DTS soundtrack does more I feel in making the newer DVD a more enjoyable experience to watch. Maurice Jarre’s familiar and haunting musical score comes to the fore with much better effect. Some of the images in this epic are just unforgettable, such as the real mirage which Lean filmed showing Ali riding toward the well in the desert from a great distance - appearing only as a wavy black line suspended in space. The color documentary (sorry) had some fascinating background on the difficulties of shooting in the desert in Jordan with the problems of the heat and the sand. Sharif had never been on a camel and had to train for some time; Guinness - playing an Arab sheik - picked up his accent just from talking to Sharif for one evening. Oh yes, the story, for those of you from another planet: The English soldier who didn’t fit into the military in Britain finds he thrives in the desert and ends up becoming a sort of messiah who unites the Arab tribes to fight the Ottoman Turks during WWI. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Nowhere in Africa (2002)

Director: Caroline Link
Studio: Bavarian Film/Columbia TriStar
Video: 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced for 16x9
Audio: Dolby Digital 6.1, German language
Subtitles: English
Extras: Deleted scenes with optional commentary, Filmmaker’s commentary; Making-Of Featurette; Interviews with cast and crew, Storyboard comparison, Selections from score, Photo montage, Theatrical trailer
Length: 142 minutes
Rating: *****

Chalk up another Academy Award here: this one for Best Foreign Film of 2002. And while there’s no camels in it there is some desert and it is Africa. The film is based on a true story of a Jewish attorney and his family who flee the Nazi regime in 1938 for a remote farm in Kenya. The war begins and life becomes increasingly complicated for all of them. His relationships with his wife and daughter are strained. The wife at first hates the primitive lifestyle and thinks it only temporary but eventually when her husband is taken away she learns to manage for herself. And the experience is positive for the young daughter (who wrote the book and is interviewed in the Making-Of documentary). She learns the language and culture from the family’s supportive black cook/servant. Nowhere in Africa is really a love story, and touchingly told in every way. The film is long but so stunning that one hardly notices. Picture quality is excellent and the subtitles are very strong and easy to read on the screen. I don’t use Dolby EX so didn’t check out the 6.1 gimmick.
Purchase here

- John Sunier

Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000)

Starring: William Hurt
Directed: John Harrison
Studio: Sci-Fi Channel/Artisan
Video: 1.77:1 widescreen enhanced for 16x9
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Extras: Behind-the-Scenes featurette, Cast and crew information, Photo gallery of stills and sketches, Text treatise by Vittorio Storaro: “The Cinematographic Ideation of Frank Herbert’s Dune”
Length: 265 minutes (2 discs)
Rating: ****

This was the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries production of the Frank Herbert classic. It differs in many ways from David Lynch’s over-the-top 1984 theatrical film. It is of course much longer and therefore can delve into many more details from the novel, giving a better picture of the feudal worlds which nevertheless have advanced technology allowing for space travel and other futuristic gadgets. Many of the actors came from a theatrical background and most of the film technical people were not from TV, so the entire production had a different and classier look and sound to it, which garnered an Emmy. Hurt was the only well-known actor in the production and was the first to sign up because he was a great fan of the book and had wanted to appear in Lynch’s film.

An example of the contrast between the two treatments of Dune would be the handling of the navigators - who thru imbibing the valuable substance known as Spice, mined on the desert planet Arrakis - have transformed their bodies and become capable of folding space so that ships can travel immense distances in a short time. Lynch has a gigantic conveyance for the navigator in which he is suspended in special gases and all present see him and can speak to him. But we never see him folding space. Harrison’s version has a more modest conveyance and presentation and makes the point that no one is allowed to see the navigators. But the viewer gets to see one as he actually folds space.

The featurette in the extras is an interesting introduction to the miniseries, but the treatise by the cinematographer is too much. It’s not made clear in the navigation that it just a series of slides with lots of text and not a video. And I mean lots of text; it goes on and on and on, screen after screen, with New Age philosophical meanderings that seem like any second now they will make an understandable point, but they never do. I think Mr. Storaro imbibed too much Spice, frankly. But in spite of it he did a most creative job shooting both of these miniseries!

The Dune world becomes the center of a gigantic struggle that will change the power balance there forever. It involves the son of the new administrator of the planet and the mining of Spice, who is regarded as a messiah figure by the natives living in the desert who mine the Spice. An ancient prophecy, a controlling cult of psychic witches, and various intrigues and betrayals are part of the story. The previous ruling family are portrayed as corrupt, decadent and evil but not nearly to the twisted extent David Lynch had presented. Then we mustn’t forget the giant worms, who threaten the Spice miners but who are tamed and ridden by the Fremen who live in the desert.

The costumes and sets are strange and eccentric in both productions. There is never an explanation for the mix of high tech spaceships and weapons yet characters often fight with knives. The special effects are well-done and unusual. There are elements to the Dune story that may resonate with Star Wars fans, but I found Dune to be less predictable and to have more subtle character development. Three Episodes comprise the 4 1/2 hour series, and they are divided across two DVDs, with the second containing the extras. The often Arabic-flavored soundtrack music aided in supporting the story of visionary adventures in a future galaxy. The image transfer had no serious flaws that I could see. Even some of the extremely dark scenes looked fine. Since the soundtrack was only stereo, I ran it thru Pro Logic II and achieved a useful surround field for a more theatrical viewing experience. Purchase here

-- John Sunier

Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (2003)

Starring Alec Newman, Daniel Amavia, Susan Sarandon, Alice Krige
Directed: John Harrison
Studio: Sci-Fi Channel/Artisan
Video: 1.77:1 widescreen enhanced for 16x9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: “Making Dune’s Children” Featurette on the special effects in the series, Storyboard comparisons
Length: 266 minutes (2 discs)
Rating: ****

This sequel to the first Dune miniseries is based on the two Herbert novels that continued the saga after the original Dune. Alec Newman continues as the messianic Paul Atreides, who has defeated both the horrible Harkonens and the evil Emperor who killed his father. However, in his supreme position as the planet’s ruler Muad’Dib has tried to unify his subjects, which has resulted in great bloodshed and tyranny. He disappears into the desert and it is left to his twin children Ghanima and Leto II to try to return Arrakis to a state of grace in spite of the machinations of the deposed matriarch on another planet (played by Sarandon), some of the witches she has plotted with, and Princess Alia - Paul’s increasingly insane sister who is the reigning despot.

The special effects for this one are even better than the earlier series. Most impressive is the capture of one of the giant worms by the matriarch in an effort to move Spice production to her planet. And the detailed description of exactly how it was done in the extras feature is equally impressive. The acting seems to be even a bit better than in the earlier production, and the image transfer is again excellent. Both series make for a gangbuster immersion in Herbert’s weird world of the year 10,103 - especially for those us who were attracted by the books but could never make it very far thru the endless language learning and terminology that he required.
Purchase here

- John Sunier

Mad About You, Second Season (1993 & 94)

Starring Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser
Studio: Sony TV/Columbia TriStar
Video: 4:3
Audio: Dolby 2.0 Surround, English, French or Spanish
Subtitles: English
Length: 554 minutes (3 discs, 25 episodes)
Rating: ***

This well-received comedy series also got an Emmy. Jamie and Paul are newlyweds in Greenwich Village keeping their love alive in spite of all the challenges that modern life may bring them. Some of the situations are completely improbable but others are surprisingly realistic and often moving. One of the main characters is Jamie’s luckless sister Lisa who always raids their refrigerator. In one episode she takes their dog Murray out for a walk and returns with another dog on the leash. In another a videotape they once made of themselves in bed gets switched with a videotape that Paul had just labored to edit for a client. One sketch has the couple stranded without cash or credit when their credit cards are confiscated due to a computer glitch which confuses Paul with another man of the same name who recently died. Personally I don’t care for sitcoms at all but I enjoyed the Mad About Youse which I watched. I’d certainly never make it thru the whole 554 minutes though! One thing I did notice was that the image quality was extremely soft, slightly out of focus compared to other DVDs. I did notice the Frazier DVDs were also lower resolution but not quite as soft as Mad About You. Purchase here

- John Sunier

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – Complete Second Season (2001-2002)

Starring: William Peterson, Marg Helgenberger, Gary Dourdan, George Eads, Jorja Fox, Paul Guilfoyle, Eric Szmanda

Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English DD 2.0, Spanish 2.0
Subtitles: English Closed Captions
Extras: “Makeup, Music & Special Effects” featurette, “CSI – Shooting Locations” featurette, “The CSI Tour” featurette, “Tools of the Trade” featurette, “The Making of a Hit” featurette, audio commentaries for three episodes, scene access
Running Time: 1,140 minutes (including special features)
Rating: *****

The highly successful television series, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, centers upon a Las Vegas forensics unit as they use state-of-the-art scientific equipment and technical methods to solve murder mysteries. Season Two again finds Gil Grissom and all of his top-notch team back to solve complex puzzles and catch even more criminals in this second season of the award-winning show. The packaging for the Season Two DVD set is a tri-fold design with all six discs centrally stacked like pages in a book. Each DVD’s artwork features a character from the show. The entire 23 episodes from the 2001-2002 season plus the special features are spread out over the six discs. (Disc One: Burked, Chaos Theory, Overload, Bully for You. Disc Two: Scuba Doobie-Doo, Alter Boys, Caged, Slaves of Las Vegas. Disc Three: And Then There Were None, Ellie, Organ Grinder, You’ve Got Male. Disc Four: Identity Crisis, The Finger, Burden of Proof, Primum Non Nocere. Disc Five: Felonious Monk, Chasing the Bus, Stalker, Cats in the Cradle…. Disc Six: Anatomy of a Lye, Cross-Jurisdictions, The Hunger Artist, Special Features).

With its widescreen anamorphic transfer, the video quality for CSI: Season Two is excellent and much improved over the Season One set. Images are immaculate and razor sharp. Colors are vivid and rich with well saturated hues. Black levels are deep and dark throughout. Picture defect mastering is commendable with no major flaws or digital compression artifacts. The overall audio quality is also greatly improved over the Season One set with the addition of an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track. While the soundtrack still favors the forward channels, the overall mix displays better channel separation. The surround channels are fairly active and are used for both ambient sound effects and the music score. The quality and quantity of tactile sound effects varies amongst episodes, ranging from fair to good. Purchase here

-- Calvin Harding Jr.

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