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AUDIOPHILE AUDITION - web magazine for music, audio & home theater


Pt. 2 of 3 - December 2003
[Part 1] [Part 3]

Digital Video Essentials (NTSC version) (2003)

Studio: Joe Kane Productions
Video: 1.78:1 widescreen enhanced for 16:9
Audio: Dolby Surround EX, DTS 5.1, English Dolby ProLogic, Spanish Dolby ProLogic
Extras: Printed user guide listing all tracks on disc, 3 color filters for decoder calibration
Length: 114 minutes
Rating: ****

Most of us have come into the home theater world from the audio world, and we’ve quickly learned that everything is hugely more complicated than even the most arcane audio system setup. The myriad of different formats, settings, decoders, cables and adjustments are mind-numbing. Just as most of us have at least one test CD for properly adjusting our audio systems, video systems really cannot be even roughly optimized without some sort of test disc. It all started with Joe Kane’s laserdisc version - A Video Standard - many years ago, and continued with a DVD version in l997. There have been others - the Avia Guide to Home Theater and Sound & Vision’s Home Theater Tune-Up Disc. Now with HDTV and the availability of the D-VHS hi-def videotape system, it was time for a new and improved version of Video Essentials, and here it is.

Since it looks like hi-def DVD is a couple years off, it was necessary to do a downsampling from the HDTV master of this new Video Essentials to create an NTSC version that present-day DVD could accommodate. Even if you don’t have a widescreen display or don’t plan anytime soon to upgrade your HD-ready set with an HD receiver, there are many new tests and calibration aids in this new version which can tweak your video system to its highest technical level. In fact the abundance of testing options is at first off-putting, and accessing them isn’t helped by the use of two entirely different navigation methods. The section explaining how to navigate the disc describes how one of the options uses the Menu button and the other uses the Title button. Well, none of my present three DVD player remotes have a Title button, so there. It takes a good deal of effort and lots of patience to access a particular test you might want- such as the familiar Snell & Wilcox test pattern. Items such as this are much easier to access on the Avia DVD. The narrator of Digital Video Essentials uses a rather stilted approach which seems to vacillate between talking down as though the user is a home theater virgin, and in the more specialized tests addressing the user as though he is a professional video installer.

The disc begins with some spectacular live action and animated material identified as “Montage of Images” and running 5 1/2 minutes. The launch of a rocket at Cape Canaveral is gorgeously shot, as are several sequences of the camera roaming around a park and through a restaurant. Color and resolution of the specially-taped images is amazing - almost as good as HD. But here’s the rub: this all comes at the beginning of the disc, before you have made all the time-consuming adjustments that would get you the optimum reproduction of these images. It seems they should come at the end to show to the best advantage.

The introductory explanations of some of the parameters that are usually grossly misadjusted on TVs as they come from the factory go on at a length that is often trying, but even someone familiar with the procedure in a general way can come away with a deeper appreciation of the complexities. One of the first adjustment is for brightness, which nearly always should be reduced for the best image. Some guidance here would be helpful in case one’s particular set doesn’t use the term brightness (my Pioneer, for example). Sharpness is another parameter that is usually set way too high. The previous DVD instructed to just turn it down as far as it goes, but the new one has a more precise test pattern and instructs to just reduce it until the added white edges to dark lines go away but not before the dark lines become blurry. My set was slightly into the blurry site. The patterns for setting overscan and centering on the screen were of great interest to me since I have had problems with this with my Pioneer RPTV, and with HD reception they increased. There are adjustments for professionals which are separate from the consumer level adjustments. Kane’s disc says that using them most direct-view and RPTV sets can be adjusted to only overscan by about 2.5%. The ISF-trained technician who worked on my Pioneer stated that 4% is the best the Pioneer can do. The disc provides video test patterns for both widescreen 1.78 and standard screen 1.33 ratios.

There are also good tips in the instructions about details such as warming up the set, DVD player, receiver, or whatever you are adjusting for from a half hour to an hour before doing fine tuning such as color balancing or convergence. I recently had an extremely frustrating time adjusting the convergence between the NTSC input and the HDTV input - after getting one perfect I would return to the other and it was off again. But I was doing the adjustment shortly after turning on both the set and HD receiver. Kane points out that color must often be set up separately for HD vs. NTSC as well as for differing screen ratios. The three color filters allow for a more exact setup of color and tint than the single blue filter provided with such test discs in the past. Another very useful new section is on video delays which are caused b y increased processing of the video signal - which puts it behind the audio - thus losing lip sync. (I have noticed this even more with HD; the new Rotel AV processor offers a button right on the remote to delay the audio to match the video.) There are also extensive audio setup tests, which include DTS and Dolby 6.1 - this was not part of the previous version of the disc. Joe Kane has a continuing series running in WideScreen Review right now discussing most of the elements of DVE in much greater detail. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Cool World (Widescreen Collection) (1992)

Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Kim Basinger, Brad Pitt
Directed by: Ralph Bakshi
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0, French DD 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English and English Closed Captions
Extras: Scene selection
Length: 101 minutes
Rating: ***

Ex-con cartoonist Jack Deebs created a comic book called Cool World as a mental escape while he was in prison. One of the female cartoon characters in this world, Holli Would, attempts to seduce Jack to enter Cool World. Holli believes that if she has sex with Jack, she will become human and be able to enter the human world. The golden rule of Cool World, however, is that cartoons (a.k.a. doodles) can not have sex with humans (a.k.a. noids) or there is risk that both the human and cartoon universes will be destroyed. Detective Frank Harris, the lone human living in Cool World, makes it his mission in life to enforce this golden rule. Unfortunately, Holli is successful in seducing Jack and she becomes human after her night with him. Jack and Frank thereafter follow Holli back to the human world in hopes of undoing the damage she has created.

Being that Cool World is a blend of live action with animation, it is often compared to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This is not a completely fair comparison as the two movies are aimed at different target audiences. Cool World is an adult-oriented film whereas Who Framed Roger Rabbit is more kid-friendly. However, what made Who Framed Roger Rabbit a commercial success is the fact that it incorporated familiar cartoon characters with excellent special effects and humor. Cool World has some beautiful animation but isn’t able to take that next step from average film to great film in my opinion because it doesn’t have any big-name cartoon characters, there weren’t any ground-breaking new special effects, and the acting is merely mediocre despite the big name talent.

The video quality of this DVD is very good. Images are clean with fine detail. Black levels are consistently dark throughout. Colors are vibrant and rich with well saturated hues. Picture defect mastering is solid with no major flaws or 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 mix utilizes a nice balance of all of the discrete channels. Dialogue is intelligible and securely anchored in the center channel. The surround channels are fairly active, used for both music and ambient sounds, and include several split rear effects. The LFE channel is powerful and deep, especially in the music at the nightclub in Cool World. Present in about one-third of the DVD’s chapters, tactile effects take the form of light to moderate impacts originating from both the sound effects and the 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- V, Inc. Bravo D1; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- BIC America Venturis; Tactile Transducers- Clark Synthesis Gold; Video Switcher- Key Digital SW4x1; Cables/Wires- ]

Das Boot: The Director’s Cut – Superbit (1985)

Starring: Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronemeyer, Klaus Wennemann
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: German DTS 5.1, German DD 5.1, English DD 2.0
Extras: None
Length: 210 minutes
Rating: ****

The year is 1942 and the crew of a German submarine has set out to aid in the disablement and destruction of the English fleet in the Atlantic. The film begins with the assembly of the crew at their going away party. A political party member/journalist is along for the ride and will report back with news of the men and their journey. Little does he realize what lies ahead. From terrible battles to a most certain death at the depths of the ocean floor, the captain and crew manage to pull through. The film details the day-to-day life of the members, the encounters with the enemy, and the constant struggle to survive. At times the pace is slow, and at others harried giving the viewer the feeling of being submerged alongside the crew awaiting enemy contact.

There have been quite a few recent films involving submarines dating back to WWII and even during the cold war. None of them is as good as this film. Budding cinematographers should be forced to watch this film and see what can be done inside the confines of a submarine. As the crew rushes through the bulkheads, the camera follows, giving the impression the viewer is yet another crewmember hurrying to help use their body weight to make the submarine submerge faster. The times when the U-Boat leaves the depths of the ocean it is filmed as if a creature of the sea surfaces from the water. The excitement and beauty can be compared to that of watching whales as they rise and fall in the ocean. Apart from the film’s realistic quality, the acting is excellent by all involved, and the humanistic element is ever present throughout the film. The men in the film may be considered criminals by today’s standard, but this fact won’t detract from the natural connection made to these soldiers while watching the movie. In fact, there are many points in the film that the viewer may find he is rooting for the “bad guys.” Although the conclusion is some suspect, the film cannot be ignored as one of the great submarine films. Sound and video are impressive as well. Highly recommended. Purchase here

-Brian Bloom

Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers (1946, 1964)

Starring: Ava Gardner, But Lancaster, Edmond O’Brien (1946); Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan (1964)
Studio: Criterion
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame, B&W (1946), Color (1964)
Audio: DD Mono, Music and Effects Track
Extras: Stuart Kaminsky On The Killers, Biographies (10), Publicity Stills, Production Stills, Behind-The-Scenes, Original Press Book, Original Advertising, Winter Garden Theater NYC, Hemingway’s Short Story (orig. 1927, reading by Stacy Keach), Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Killers, Screen Director’s Playhouse 1948 broadcast by Anthony Vellier, Notes on Film Noir (8), Trailers (Son Of Dracula, Cobra Woman, The Killers, Cry Of the City, Criss Cross)
Length: 102/94 minutes
Rating: ***1/2 (1946)/ *** (1964)

When I first picked up this set I thought I was getting an old movie and a disc filled with extras, but surprise, surprise. Not only did I get lots of extras, but there are three films in this set! Film analysts should rejoice as they not only get to analyze three films but get to read a short story and contrast them all. The first is the 1946 film noir version directed by Robert Siodmak. In his interview on The Killers, Kaminsky (who is author of more than fifty books including, one on Don Siegel) spends a large part of the interview discussing the origination and style of film noir as well as the reason for the production differences between the two films, the latter of which was made to be debuted on television. He compares the two films to the short story.

It is important to mention that the times in which the films were made greatly affects the style of the films. The victim, the man of action who was previously thought of as the hero, dies. Each film examines how the people involved face death and how the people trying to face their lives deal with this situation. The investigations go back to the past to see where the present leads. An insurance investigator tries to find out why a decent man dies because he is a decent man. In the 1964 version, the killer wants to know because it questions his own sense of being. He doesn’t understand a man accepting his own death—he doesn’t understand and wants to learn why it happened. All the stories look at the same questions and come up with different answers depending on the time period.

Hired killers come to town looking for a man who has committed a mistake in his past. For this mistake, he must pay with his life. He accepts this sentence willingly which causes the men involved either directly or indirectly to try to discover why. This begins the series of flashbacks that build the story up to the present and explain what has come before. In both cases, a femme fatale has seduced the protagonist, and caused his life to be put in danger. In both stories, a crime is at the crux of the interaction between the woman, the man, and the other characters that will later be the cause of the man’s death. The earlier film has a few twists and is the far better of the two movies, but both are worth analysis. The extras and information provided with the DVDs offer a good amount of background that enhances the entire viewing experience. Recommended. Purchase here

- Brian Bloom

Spider (2003)

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Lynn Redgrave, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.78:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1
Extras: Trailers (Spider; Adaptation; Punch-Drunk Love; The Devil’s Backbone), Filmographies (6), Audio Commentary, Featurettes (3)
Length: 98 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

Patrick McGrath based this film on his book and the story behind the making of the film is rather interesting. David Cronenberg, like many directors, has a particular style that is often associated with his films and this film is no different. Just the mention of films like Scanners, Dead Ringers, The Fly, Crash, and Videodrome bring to mind all sorts of weird ideas about what this film could have been about. On the surface, the story is fairly simple: A man has been let out of a mental institution and an attempt is made for him to reintegrate into society at a halfway house where he stays. From the beginning of the film where we meet the main character, Spider, the viewer is immediately conscious of what will become an interesting, quirky, tragic tale. By revisiting his old neighborhood, Spider begins to relive his experiences as a young child and the viewer gets a glimpse of the terrible situations to which he has been exposed.

As the movie progresses, Spider’s memories become more suspect. Not only does he shift from the young boy he once was to the man of today, but the other characters change into other people as well. The fantasy and reality blend together in a way that makes it unclear what has really happened, and what is imagined in the mind of man who clearly suffers from a serious mental disorder—schizophrenia. The oddness that is typical in Cronenberg’s films is in this film in spades. The level of acting is usually better than expected, and in this film in particular helps to affect the viewer more profoundly. The featurettes really shed light on the ideas in the film, and the commentary will answer most of the questions and provoke further thought. The strangeness will prevent some viewers from connecting to this film, and will, no doubt be the main attraction for others. It’s dark in character and dark in style—a perfect late night film. Purchase here

-Brian Bloom

Read My Lips (2003)

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Devos
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1 French
Extras: Trailers (Read My Lips; Cowboy Bebop: The Movie; Double Vision)
Length: 119 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

Carla is overworked and under appreciated as the secretary in a big land development company. Her coworkers think very little of her and make fun of her plain appearance. She is somewhat of a shut-in who only lives through the experiences of her friends. She is almost completely deaf and wears hearing aids, although it isn’t clear that anyone who works with her is aware of this disability. Her boss does see how much she works, and offers her the chance to hire an assistant. Even though she is aware that the man she hires is not only an ex-con living out of the office, she takes it upon herself to make sure keeps the job, only later to use him to her benefit. It seems clear that she is attracted to him, but in an entirely unconventional way, and he feels as if she’s sending him mixed signals.

An opportune moment comes for Carla to advance her career, but only at the expense of blackmailing Paul into doing something illegal. She later uses his “skills” to convince a client to do as the company requires. When Paul discovers Carla’s lip reading talent, he puts her to work in a scheme to steal from a loan shark whom Paul owes a large sum of money. The tension mounts as the moment approaches and the intentions of the two are not necessarily going in the same direction.

The non-traditional characters are what help to give this film a more interesting and appealing quality. The acting is convincing, and the film work leaves nothing to be desired. From early on in the movie, the connection to the characters becomes high enough that the viewer is concerned about what will happen to them, and wants to see the film to its conclusion. The film won Best Screenplay at the 2002 Cesar Awards, and is definitely worth checking out. Purchase here

-Brian Bloom

Under Capricorn (1949)

Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, Michael Wilding
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD Mono
Extras: None
Length: 117 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

The year is 1831, and the place is New South Wales, Australia. The English run the area, and many of the inhabitants are former criminals who have served their sentence and were released to live in the territory. The story focuses on Sam Flusky, a native Brit, convicted of murder. His path happens to cross that of the new governor’s cousin, Adare. He happens to have been an old friend of Flusky’s wife, Henrietta. Henrietta is not herself as of late—forlorn, ill, and possibly going mad. Adare takes it upon himself (with the blessing of Flusky) to bring Henrietta out of her funk. It is soon discovered that she has been abusing alcohol and possibly something even worse. The woman in charge of the household is quite a different matter. She has it in for the Mrs. and will do everything in her power to make sure that Henrietta does not regain her will. As Adare digs deeper to discover the root of her struggles, he discovers things that may have been better left as they were. The characters become more intertwined and the friction causes outbursts of violence that bring the story to a close.

Aside from the well-known actors in this film, the director happens to Alfred Hitchcock. It is easy to see his influence on the film, including plot twists and suspense here and there. The story is good and interesting enough, but it is Bergman who manages to bring up the level of the film. It is hard not to feel sympathy for her character and quickly align yourself either with or against the other characters in the film. What at first seems to be innocence on her part is uncovered to be something completely different, and the characters are capable of things that we had not realized early on, or only suspected in the back-most regions of the mind. Picture is good, and although the pace is slower by today’s standards, the film is engrossing to a point. Those in the mood for an older suspense flick will most likely not be disappointed. Purchase here

-Brian Bloom

Die! Die! My Darling! (1965)

Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, Stefanie Powers, Donald Sutherland
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD mono
Extras: Trailers
Length: 97 minutes
Rating: ** 1/2

Pat is on vacation in England with her fiancé, but she has promised her ex-fiance’s mother that she will visit her while she is in the country. Still with me? Anyway, Mrs. Trefoile (the ex’s mother) is a religious fanatic and assumes that Pat will be staying with her for a good amount of time. Pat thinks it best that she not inform the woman of her new relationship or give the full details of the death of her son. There is a strange cast of characters who tend to the household who have criminal pasts. Mrs. Trefoile is convinced that she is communicating with her dead son, and takes it upon herself to show Pat the error of her ways. This involves her imprisonment at the house. The house-hands help to keep her in check even with the countless attempts that Pat makes to escape. Apparently, Mrs. Trefoile’s religious fervor doesn’t prevent her from threatening everyone with a loaded pistol to bring her point across. She is so convinced that Pat must be cleansed that she will do just about anything to make it so. Pat’s one and only hope is that her new fiancé arrive in time to save her.

This was Bankhead’s last film and let’s just say that she went out with style! The production company, Hammer Films, is well known for its Gothic horror classics, and this is no exception. The film isn’t really scary, but does border on the silly at times. Sutherland plays a dumb caretaker that reminded me of the character Robert Duvall played in To Kill A Mockingbird. The acting is over the top at best, but it is worth seeing Powers plodding along as the young woman. The DVD box describes the movie as “a campy, classic thriller fueled by Bankhead’s deliriously over-the-top turn as the ultimate Mother from Hell.” Well, okay. Even the tag line is funny: “There’s a beauty in the basement, bound for Hell…” You get the picture. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But I do have to say that the picture quality is quite good. Watch it at your own peril… Purchase here

-Brian Bloom

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