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DVD-Video Reviews - January 2003, Pt. 1 of 2

The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring Platinum Series Extended Edition (2001)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, Sean Bean
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Studio: New Line/Warner Home Video
Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: DD 5.1 EX, DD 2.0, DTS 5.1 ES
Extras: Behind the Scenes Footage; Multiple Featurettes; Cast, Crew and Director Commentaries; Additional Footage; Deleted Scenes; Production Notes; Photo Gallery; Storyboards; Special Effects; Trailers, Interactive Game
Length: 178 minutes
Rating: *****

Being a longtime Tolkien fanatic, I was frothing when I first found out about a serious attempt to bring The Lord of the Rings to the big screen -- and terrified at the same time that it'd just be another hatchet job like Ralph Bakshi's animated version -- just enough to whet our appetites and then leave us hanging with no closure in sight for 20-plus years. Upon seeing The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater, I was pretty impressed with what I saw, having read the books (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Tolkien's biography, several Ring companions) several times over. Of course, there were omissions, and I'd already prepared myself for this -- but when family members who were not Tolkienopiles started asking questions as we were leaving the theater about certain characters and plot twists -- I couldn't help but wonder why Peter Jackson hadn't left less on the cutting room floor. But, being used to 20-plus years of disappointment, I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth and was happy with what we all got.

So when the word starts leaking out midsummer of this year about an extended edition (Peter Jackson insists that the theatrical release is his Director's cut) with 20 or so additional minutes of footage -- man, oh man, was I excited! This new cut fills in gaps that help the film's flow and gives us Tolkien addicts more of what we crave -- too much is never enough! And unlike the new Director's cut of Amadeus, nothing here is superfluous or extraneous -- everything fits perfectly into the storyline.
Besides the extra footage, the four-disc extended edition gives you a mind-boggling array of extras -- behind the scenes footage, multiple featurettes, multiple commentaries, deleted scenes, production notes, photo gallery, storyboards, special effects featurette, trailers and an interactive game -- I've only just cracked into the surface of everything. The first two discs contain the actual film (addition of DTS takes up much more disc space), while the second two contain all the special features. I've watched the extended film several times -- enough to elicit a collective groan from my family when they hear the opening music begin to play.

The new sound options are incredible -- the DTS ES track gives you a seamless surround experience that makes extensive use of the surrounds -- instances are too numerous to document where the surround presentation just blows away the original DVD package.
As with Amadeus above, the only glaring omission is the failure to include the theatrical release, but at four discs already, I guess they couldn't justify adding another disc -- just hang onto your current copy of the original. I'm totally pumped for the December release of The Two Towers -- I can't wait!

-- Tom Gibbs

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher
Directed by: Milos Forman
Studio: Warner Home Video
Video: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: DD 5.1, DD 2.0, French DD 2.0
Extras: Director and Producer Commentary, New Digital Transfer, Additional Scenes, Documentary, Theatrical Trailers
Length: 133 minutes
Rating: ****
Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has always had great appeal to the nonconformists in all of us. Jack Nicholson is excellent as Randle McMurphy, who’s sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His classic fight against the authorities of the institution, especially Nurse Ratched (expertly played by Louise Fletcher), his reluctance to conform to the system, and the oddball cast of fellow inmates he befriends has helped this movie achieve legendary status.
The new digital print, made from restored elements, is a significant improvement over the original DVD, with greatly improved video quality. The 2-disc set has a generous supply of extras -- multiple commentaries, 8 additional scenes and a documentary feature all combine to make this an impressive package. The remastered DD 5.1 soundtrack is an improvement over the original, and a DTS soundtrack would have been nice, but with this film pretty much being dialogue-driven, Dolby Digital is just fine. This is a great film, and this is definitely the version to own.

- Tom Gibbs

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (1988)

Starring: Richard Dempsey, Sophie Cook
Directed by: Marilyn Fox
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
Video: 4:3 Full Frame
Audio: DD 2.0 Mono
Extras: Interactive Game, Stills Gallery, Bookworm Excerpt, Turkish Delight Recipe
Length: 169 minutes
Rating: ***

C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has pretty much been required reading for all children of the last few generations. The Chronicles of Narnia (of which this book is the second installment) was originally broadcast on the BBC as a series, and has been edited into three feature-length DVDs, with this one clocking in at almost three hours in length.

The story revolves around four children who are leaving World War II's London to escape the almost nonstop German bombardment, and heading to the English countryside where they'll have some degree of safety. There, they discover a wardrobe whose back opens to the magical world of Narnia, where a witch's spell causes it to always be Winter (and no Christmas). The children are soon embroiled in an epic struggle of good against evil.

The film has a quaint charm about it, and is reasonably well done for made-for-television, but some may be put off by the slow-moving pace of the action. The special effects are also somewhat lacking, especially the animal characters, who just look like humans in oversized stuffed animal suits (especially the beavers). These are minor quibbles, however, and this film is sure to find an audience with children of all ages. I found that after watching for only a short while, it was very absorbing and fairly well-acted.

The image quality is really quite good, considering it's age and that it was made for television, and the sound is a serviceable DD 2.0 mono. Extras include an interactive game, stills gallery, a BBC Bookworm excerpt on C. S. Lewis and the recipe for Turkish Delight.

-- Tom Gibbs

The Time of Your Life (1976)

Starring: Patty LuPone, Nicholas Surovy, Kevin Kline
Directed by: Kirk Browning
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD 1.0 Mono
Extras: Performer Credits, Historical Liner Notes
Length: 118 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

The Time of Your Life is from a 1976 PBS Great Performances broadcast of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by William Saroyan. Saroyan not only endorsed the production, but provides the voice-over narration in the play's prologue.
All the action takes place in Nick's Bar, where the regulars include Joe (Nicholas Surovy), a man of questionable intent and apparently limitless resources, and Kitty (Patti LuPone), a young, impressionable prostitute. The Great Depression is just ending, World War II is just around the corner, and an afternoon at Joe's is everyone's best defense against their worldly worries.
The image quality unfortunately is rather soft, due no doubt to the age and source material (probably early videotape). The sound is also a rather thin DD mono, and at times a bit screechy. Extras are skimpy, but not really to be expected in this kind of presentation. Aside from the obvious flaws, I really enjoyed the play and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys good drama and are not terribly concerned with the poor source material.

- Tom Gibbs

Husbands And Wives (1992)

Starring: Woody Allen, Blythe Danner, Judy Davis, Mia Farrow, Juliette Lewis, Liam Neeson, Sydney Pollack
Studio: Columbia Tristar
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced, 1.33:1 Fullscreen
Audio: Mono, French Mono
Extras: Trailers (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Husbands and Wives)
Length: 108 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

No matter with what film Woody Allen is connected, there will always be the sense that it is a “Woody Allen film” with a style that is undeniable from the opening credits with jazz music playing, to the whiny, paranoid character stuck in a familiar rut lusting after young women and spouting tidbits of knowledge. This movie is shot in a documentary film style replete with moving camera jiggling about, jump cuts, and interviews with the main characters and others who know them to help flesh out the story.

Two couples are set to go out for a nice dinner on the town when Jack and Sally drop a bombshell—they are getting a divorce. The reaction is explosive, as Judy can’t seem to cope with the news. It seems that she has taken it personally and both Judy and Gabe are forced to start evaluating their relationship together. Sally tries to date right away, but can’t seem to get over her break up--she’s uptight, angry, and anxious. Jack is doing quite well for himself and has found a young, vibrant, athletic trainer. She doesn’t have the culture or intelligence of his former wife Sally, but offers him fun and relaxation. Meanwhile, both Gabe and Judy are beginning to explore their feelings covertly with others. Gabe has a talented student (played by Juliette Lewis) who falls for older men and has torrid love affairs with them. She is exactly the type of woman that Woody (I mean Gabe) loves to go after. He tries to resist and does fairly well, being the obedient and faithful husband in deed if not in mind. In order to help Sally get over Jack, Judy sets her up with a colleague at the office—a man for whom Judy has feelings. Things get difficult as Sally’s relationship begins to grow and Judy’s begins to die. Jack’s isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and his path with soon collide with Sally once again. Towards the end, it isn’t so clear whose relationship will succeed and whose will fail.

If the plot seems a little convoluted and complicated, well, it is—just like relationships. At first I thought that the film might only appeal to older married couples, but I soon found that much of the material would appeal to anyone old enough to be involved in a serious relationship. The style of the film helps to reinforce the filmmaker’s vision and provide a structure for the delivery of the material. It is clear that Woody Allen is talented, and this is yet another example of that talent. The cast is strong, and the story flows in an enjoyable manner. Like many of his films, there isn’t always an ultra-happy ending, but the story mirrors the ups and downs of real life.

- Brian Bloom

The Mask Of Zorro – Superbit Deluxe (1998)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 2.35:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Extras: Filmographies (4), Marc Anthony and Tina Arena Music Video, Costume Designs, TV Spots (12), Publicity Photos (5 categories), Teaser and Full Trailer, Deleted Scenes (2), Documentary on the Making Of
Length: 137 minutes
Rating: **1/2

It was no surprise to me when this film was released as Superbit disc. If you look at most of the releases, you’ll see (with but a few exceptions) that they are all action/adventure films. The original release of this film was already a good transfer, but apparently the folks at Columbia decided that that was a while ago and they might be able to get some more money out of this title—and they are probably right! The transfer is very good, and now we have the inclusion of a DTS soundtrack as well. Also, there are subtitles in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai so no one should feel left out!

The film is based on the classic pulp fiction hero Zorro, created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley. One of the traits that made the character appealing was his ability to come up with many clever methods to defeat his enemies. For more information on the original movies, just go to Mask of Zorro is no low-budget remake and in addition to support from Steven Spielberg, includes a hefty cast with impressive sets, costuming, and tons of detail to help make the period look authentic. Work on the movie began in 1991 and after many changes and seven years is now the current film under review.

The story begins with an older Zorro fighting an evil Spanish despot who takes no interest in the lives of the people. In an execution scene, it is Zorro who comes to the rescue to save the innocent peasants. Two young children help to save the life of Zorro at the same time he manages to save the doomed peasants and mount an escape. Vowing never to let Zorro get away, the General and his men track Zorro to his hidden castle, and discovering his real identity a fight ensues that leaves his wife dead. The villain takes Zorro’s child and adopts her for his own. Zorro is thrown in jail and left to rot for the rest of his days. To avoid further uprisings, the General leaves the territories to the local dons and goes back to Spain. Many years pass and the two children are now thieves. The army has finally caught up with them and only Alejandro manages to escape alive. Vengeance is in his mind as he intends to kill the Captain who has taken the life of his brother. The old Zorro is (who had escaped prison) has a chance meeting with Alejandro right before he commits folly. He takes the younger man under his wing and has a plot to take down the General who has now returned to California in an effort to buy the land from Santa Ana using stolen gold. Needless to say, countless swashbuckling scenes, comedy, and romance are all ingredients in this film. In the end, strength of character and determination will be the saving grace of those who stand on the side of good.

The documentary (45 minutes) included in this two-disc set has footage from The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks playing Zorro. We learn much about the intentions of the filmmakers and why they decided to resurrect the old tale. The film was made with humor, and the adventure, romance, the presence of a strong-woman part and two heroes were elements thought to be of prime importance to the overall feel of the movie. There is discussion about the entire production including cast and crew selection, sets, costuming, storyboards, animal wrangling, music composition, sword fighting and choreography, and development of the film. The ending of the film was originally different and didn’t work well in testing, so with some help from Steven, the ending was altered. The entire movie was filmed on location in Mexico and it was necessary to restore a couple of haciendas that help give the authentic look. Even with all these things going for it, the film is still quite silly in many respects. Either it will be something that is overlooked, or it will give the film a definite “B” quality. You decide.

- Brian Bloom

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Director’s Edition (1982)

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Ricardo Montalban, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Paul Winfield, Kirstie Alley
Directed by: Nicholas Meyer
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0, French DD 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English and English Closed Captions
Extras: Audio Commentary with Director Nicholas Meyer, Text Commentary by Michael Okuda, “The Captain’s Log” (new cast & crew interviews), “Designing Khan” featurette; “Visual Effects” featurette, “The Star Trek Universe” featurette, original interviews, storyboard archives, theatrical trailer
Length: 116 minutes
Rating: *****

While on board the U.S.S. Enterprise for inspection of a new trainee crew during routine maneuvers, Admiral Kirk assumes command of the ship after receiving a distress call from Space Station Regula One. Unbeknownst to Kirk, his archenemy Khan has raided Regula One and gained control of a Federation starship. Khan is now scheming to steal Project Genesis, a top-secret device that is capable of monumental destruction, and to exact his revenge upon Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the entire crew of the Enterprise for leaving him stranded on a desolate planet several years ago.

The video quality of this DVD is very good. Although generally soft in appearance, images are clean and sport fine detail. Black levels are consistently deep and dark. Colors are warm and rich with fully saturated hues. Picture defect mastering is solid with no major flaws or digital artifacts. The overall audio quality is above average with the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack mix favors the forward channels. Dialogue is natural sounding and clear. The surround channels are active but not aggressive, used for both music and ambient sounds, and include a handful of split rear effects. There are some nice sequences with deep bass but the subwoofer is not utilized on a consistent basis throughout.

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; Cables and Wires-]

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Frailty (2001)

Starring: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Luke Askew, Jeremy Sumpter
Studio: Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1, Audio Commentary (3)
Extras: Trailer, The Making of the film, Anatomy of a Scene, Storyboards, Photo Gallery, Deleted Scenes (2)
Length: 99 minutes

It appears that Fenton Meiks has the answer to the “God’s Hand” killings. It is a dark, rainy night and Agent Dole is about to hear one of the most unbelievable stories of his career. Yet, as it goes on, it begins to hit a nerve and make a lot of sense. Meiks details the story of his late childhood and explains how his father was given a vision from God. He was then told that, as an instrument of God, he would be responsible for the destruction of demons. One night he produces a list of names--demons whom he and his family are to hunt and destroy. His younger son, Adam, is convinced that his father is not crazy, but Fenton thinks that his father has lost his mind. They all struggle with this divine prophecy, but when the killings start, there is no turning back. It is going to break up their family, but the killings are not going to stop. The terror felt by Fenton is compounded when he realizes that he is not dreaming. It might seem that the end is predictable, but it surely isn’t.

There is a good amount of special features that will be of interest to fans of the film. Included are discussions of certain special effects, lighting and direction in certain scenes with explanation of intent and design, casting decisions, location descriptions and background, style and composition with emphasis on storyboard analysis and discussion, and much more. Since this is the first film directed by Bill Paxton, he is very forthcoming about the challenges he faced and the situations that helped bring about the film’s ultimate construction. All the cast members seemed to enjoy the production even considering the haunting, gloomy nature of the end product. Three distinct and very interesting audio commentaries will keep the viewer busy after the first viewing. This film is definitely not for everyone, but as is the case with most enjoyable thrillers, if you can make it through till the end it will be well worth your time. The subject matter is not for the young or the young at heart, but might just make you go “hmm.” Check it out and see for yourself.

- Brian Bloom

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
2-Disc Limited Collector’s Edition

Dir. By Steven Spielberg
Starring Dee Wallace, Drew Barrymore, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote
Music by John Williams
Studio: Universal
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital EX 6.1 & 2.0, DTS ES 6.1, also DD EX 6.1 with French language
Languages: English, Spanish, French
Subtitles: Captions, Spanish, French
Extras: Second DVD: Original theatrical release (without new added footage and enhanced special effects), Introduction by Spielberg, Williams conducting live orchestra at 2002 premiere of new version of E.T., The Evolution and Creation E.T., The Reunion - the cast and filmmakers reunite and discuss their thoughts about the film’s impact, The Music of John Williams, The designs, photographs and original E.T. advertising, Production notes and bios of cast and filmmakers, & more...
Length: 2 hrs., 1 min.(2002 version)
Rating: *****

Called by Leonard Maltin one of the great American films and felt by many critics to be Spielberg’s best ever, the new digitally-remastered version not only has improved image and sound quality but a second disc with over ten hours of bonus features, including the original theatrical release! In the new version Spielberg has gone back and touched up many of the special effects, making E.T. himself look a bit more believable and adding additional footage. For example in the original scene of E.T. running thru the woods from his pursuers he was represented by only a red light moving along a track behind bushes. Now we actually see E.T. running and hopping along. One of the extras shows several different examples of the visual upgrading. It’s great to see it again - we watched it on Christmas Day and it was perfect for that. This has to be one of the best all-around family films ever made, and it’s not just hype - it really is better than ever.

- John Sunier

The Rock (1996)

Starring Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris
Dir. By Michael Bay
Studio: Paramount/The Criterion Collection
Video: 2.35:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English for hearing impaired
Extras: Audio commentary by Bay, producer Jerry Bruckneimer, actors Harris and Cage, tech advisor Harry Humphries; On Disc Two: Video interview with Bruckheimer, Analysis of the dive sequence special effects, Movie Magic episode on special effects, Dos and don’t of Hollywood gunplay, Excerpts from documentary Secrets of Alcatraz, Theatrical trailer and TV spots; Storyboards, production design drawings and production stills; Outtakes selected by director; World Premiere of The Rock on Alcatraz.
Length: 136 min.
Rating: ****

I delayed viewing this DVD until I had my home theater surround system finalized, including my side-axis speakers, because it has such system-stressing soundtrack elements as the crash and explosion of a San Francisco cablecar, as well as fighters and missiles streaking overhead. I was expecting a completely corny story line but it’s not bad at all. Some of the special effects such as the cable car lifting high into the air may be a bit over the top but that’s expected in such a movie. A retired Marine general (Ed Harris) seizes a stockpile of dangerous bio-warfare missiles and takes over Alcatraz with 81 tourists as hostages. A Navy SEAL team, with help from an FBI chemical warfare expert (Cage) and a former fabled escapee from Alcatraz (Connery), attempt to penetrate the terrorists’ lair before time runs out and missiles are launched into San Francisco. Cage and Connery are a great team, the story and action are more original than most action movies, and the 5.1 soundtrack really shows off a good surround system. The image is exceptionally sharp too, with good color balance and black detail even in underwater and dark scenes. Didn’t notice any edge enhancement or other artifacts at all. The multitude of extras is a fun bonus too; the one on dos and don’ts of Hollywood gun play was especially interesting.

- John Sunier

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