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DVD Video Reviews - May 2003 Pt. 2

We start off Part 2 with a Sci-Fi Blast... Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Complete Second Season (1993-1994)

Starring: Avery Brooks, Nana Visitor, Colm Meaney, Terry Farrell, Rene Auberjonois
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 4:3 Fullscreen
Audio: English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0
Subtitles: English, English Closed Captions
Extras: “New Frontiers: The Story of Deep Space Nine” Featurette, “Crew Dossier: Jadzia Dax” Featurette, “Michael Westmore’s Aliens: Season Two” Featurette, “New Station, New Ships” Featurette, Deep Space Nine Sketchbook: Season Two, Section 31 Hidden Files
Length: 1,182 minutes (7 discs)
Rating: ****

The Complete Second Season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine made its DVD debut on April 1st with the remaining five seasons of DS9 scheduled to be released throughout the 2003 calendar year. Like Season One, the outer packaging for Season Two is a clear plastic slipcase that houses an inner tri-fold with the seven discs centrally stacked like pages in a book. Each DVD features different artwork and the set’s insert color is green. Season Two’s memorable highlights include the three-part season opener (“The Homecoming, “The Circle” and “The Siege”) that focuses upon Bajoran politics and society; “Crossover” where Kira and Bashir become stranded in an alternate universe; and “The Jem’Hadar” where the crew of Deep Space Nine meets a new, violent enemy race. The entire 26 episodes from the 1993-1994 season plus the multiple special features are spread out over seven discs. (Disc One: The Homecoming, The Circle, The Siege, Invasive Procedures. Disc Two: Cardassians, Melora, Rules of Acquisition, Necessary Evil. Disc Three: Second Sight, Sanctuary, Rivals, The Alternate. Disc Four: Armageddon Game, Whispers, Paradise, Shadowplay. Disc Five: Playing God, Profit and Loss, Blood Oath, The Maquis- Part I. Disc Six: The Maquis- Part II, The Wire, Crossover, The Collaborator. Disc Seven: Tribunal, The Jem’Hadar, Special Features).

The video quality for Season Two is very good. Images are clean and well detailed. Colors are warm and rich with fully saturated hues. Black levels are consistently deep. 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 mix slightly favors the forward channels. Dialogue is crisp and natural sounding. The surround channels are 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 excellent. Tactile effects take the form of light to heavy impacts and they originate both from the sound effects and music score.Purchase Here

Reference equipment used for this review: [Video monitor- NetTV DTV-34XRT; Video scaler- Silicon Image iScan Pro; DVD player- Microsoft Xbox; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- BIC DV62si mains, DV62CLRs center, Adatto DV52si rears, D1210R subwoofer; Tactile Transducer- Clark Synthesis TST 329 Gold; Cables and Wires-]

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Stargate (1994) Ultimate Edition

Starring: Kurt Russell, James Spader, Jaye Davidson
Studio: Carolco/Artisan
Video: 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: DTS-ES 6.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: Spanish
Extras (Director’s cut on Disc 1, Theatrical Version on Disc 2): Featurette: Is There a Stargate?; Audio commentary by Director Roland Emmerich and Producer Dean Devlin; Featurette: The Making of Stargate; Production notes; Case and Crew information; Theatrical trailers
Length: 119 Min.
Rating: ****

Director Emmerich did both Independence Day and The Patriot, among other big films. In one of the featurettes with this set he talks about having wanted for years to do a sci-fi film with an ancient Egyptian setting, then meeting actor Dean Devlin during shooting of another sci-fi film who was also excited about the idea. They watched a number of previous films set in ancient times to prepare for the new script, and they point out in their commentary tracks homages they did to scenes in Spartacus, the Indiana Jones films and others - such as being a guest at an alien feast and having to eat something that looked entirely disgusting.

The plot - in case you missed the feature, the two previous DVDs of it, the spinoff TV series and the DVDs on each of its seasons - concerns an Egyptologist played by Spader who is called upon to translate some ancient Egyptian symbols on tiles. It turns out the correct translation will unlock a giant circular portal - The Stargate - that allows travel across space. The Stargate had been buried for milleniums to prevent the return of the Sun God Ra, who had used it to transport primitive peoples from Earth to his Egypt-like planet millions of light years away to be his slaves. (But he also had a giant spaceship shaped like a pyramid, so why he couldn’t return to rule Earth again is never explained.) Spader, Russell and a band of soldiers travel thru the Stargate to the other world and eventually try to stage a revolt of the people there against Ra. There’s also a subplot about Russell secretly having a nuclear device with which he has been ordered to blow up the gate to prevent any aliens coming back. The special effects are very good, and the story not bad though pacing is sometimes a bit off. The musical score by David Arnold has some catchy themes and adds a wonderfully adventurous feeling to the film. Acting is good enough, though Russell seems to be coasting thru this one. This was the next film for Jaye Davidson following that actor’s breakthru in The Crying Game. The, uh...personage is perfect for the role of the androgenous Ra. Reminded me of the also-appropriate choice of David Bowie for The Man Who Fell to Earth.

The extras provide much interesting material, but you may find the director’s commentary a bit of a bore - he peppers the word “like” thruout his descriptions. Devlin is more of interest. The information about the actual shooting is fascinating. There were as many as 1,500 extras and the site chosen for the alien planet was desert sand dunes outside of Yuma, Arizona, in 120-degree heat. They had to bring in over 12,000 gallons of water daily and up to 12,000 pounds of ice to keep the water chilled. Interior shots were made in a giant hangar in Long Beach which once housed Howard Hughes’ wooden flying boat. There were eight sets, including Ra’s palace/spaceship which was over 240 feet long. Digital effects were used primarily for the Stargate itself, Ra’s gull-wing planes, and the transporter inside the spaceship.

The previous version of Stargate was called a Special Edition but it doesn’t stand up to this new Ultimate Edition. The improvement in both image and sound quality is far greater than the subtle improvements I have seen in any of the Superbit DVD reissues. The Special Edition had notoriously exaggerated edge enhancement that puts white borders around most everything. It was also washed out color-wise and many of the darker scenes such as fighting Ra’s guards in the lower reaches of the palace were murky and much too dark. The aspect ratio was only 1.85:1 whereas the new edition is 2.35:1; interesting that both DVDs proclaim their particular screen ratio was the one used in the theatrical release! The older version 5.1 sound was Dolby Digital only whereas the new one is DTS-ES, with improved clarity, depth and dynamics even if you don’t use the center-rear signal decoding. Most immersive. The sounds for the sequences with the Gate are now demo quality and will really shake up your sub(s).

The image quality of the Ultimate Edition is simply superb: Richer and deeper colors thruout, without smearing. The light level is brought up considerably in the very dark scenes, without loss of black levels where needed, and flesh tones are more realistic than in the old version. The director’s cut has about seven minutes added and some of these scenes are a bit worn and/or grainy, but everything in general is 100% improved over the previous versions and well worth investing in for Stargate fans. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Heavy Metal (1981/2003) - Superbit Edition

Studio: Columbia Pictures
Video: 1.85:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: DTS 5.1 & Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: Enlgish, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai
Extras: None (no room on single Superbit disc)
Length: 90 min.
Rating: ****

Here’s another reissue we’ve covered before. It’s a collection of five separate animated featurettes inspired by some of the stories in the U.S. Version of the French fantasy/sci-fi graphic magazine of the same name. The sections are tied together - not too well - by a gimmick about an evil glowing green orb and a little girl frightened by it. The stories all use different animators and different styles, and among the character voices heard on the soundtrack are Harold Ramis and John Candy. A number of different rock groups provide backing on the soundtrack, including Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Devo, Donald Fagen, Journey and Stevie Nicks. My personal favorite of the stories is So Beautiful and So Dangerous; Candy and Ramis are hilarious as the cocaine-addled alien pilots of the whimsical spaceship - a sort of outer-space Cheech and Chong.

The original DVD release had a number of extras, including a documentary on the planning of Heavy Metal and some deleted scenes. Unfortunately, the Superbit process increases the low bit rate of standard DVDs (300+ kbps) to 754 kbps, and thus requires more space for the additional information, eliminating room for the extras unless a second disc is provided. However, the original didn’t have the more impactful DTS soundtrack option of this version, and I found more improvement in the image department than I had seen in any previous Superbit feature. The new version is higher resolution, with brighter and more vibrant color and much less dirt and spots visible on the cells or film itself. The dynamic graphic art of the film can now be truly appreciated, without the distraction of the artifacts seen in the earlier version. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Total Recall (2001)

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Studio: Carolco/Artisan
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1, DD. 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish plus English captioning
Extras: Commentary tracks by Schwarzenegger & Verhoeven; Documentary “Imaging Total Recall;” “Rekall’s Virtual Vacations Visions of Mars” featurette; Visual storyboard comparisons, Conceptual art; Photo gallery; Production notes; Cast & crew information
Length: 113 min.
Rating: ****1/2

There’s an “Arnold List” someone put up at, consisting of 25 movies. That someone was definitely not me, but of the few Arnold flicks I have seen, this is my favorite. This is a new all-digital all-singing & dancing remastering of both the images and the soundtrack. The discrete Dolby 5.1 track employs something called Nearfield Audio, whatever that is. Anyway, the sounds, cinematography, special effects and editing all combine for a knockout re-telling of another mind-bending Philip K. Dick sci-fi tale. The creation of a depressing and claustrophobic futureworld city environment is just as effective as that in Blade Runner.

I won’t detail the plot here; not even sure I could because it gets plenty convoluted. Perhaps viewing Memento a few times should be a pre-requisite for tying up all the loose ends in Total Recall. Suffice it to say someone has erased poor Arnold’s memory of leading a revolt on Mars and put him back on Earth with a real fake job and a real fake wife. His visit to a virtual vacation service plunges him into a violent journey to get himself un-erased. Knowing Verhoeven at all ensures that you’ll be prepared for plenty of over-the-top violence and bloodshed. On the other hand this may be the only Arnold vehicle (certainly not driving around the five Hummers he owns) in which you can see him in drag. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Ruling Class (1972)

Starring Peter O’Toole, Allistair Sims
Directed by: Peter Medak
Studio: Keep Films/The Criterion Collection
Video: 1.78:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: Theatrical trailer, Commentary tracks by O’Toole, Medak, writer Peter Barnes; Medak’s silent home movies during the shoot; Collection of publicity and production stills
Length: 154 min.
Rating: ****

Though it’s become something of a cult classic, this very dark foray into the world of the British aristocracy was seen in the U.S. in an edited-down version, and the lovingly-enhanced digital restoration returns the film to its full length. I’d intended to get this reviewed for last month’s Easter issue but didn’t quite make it...Peter O’Toole as Jack is the head of a dysfunctional aristocratic family who believes he is God and after getting released from an asylum relaxes in his Great Room up on a cross. The psychiatrist who is retained to “cure” him tries some non-standard treatments, including bringing in an inmate who believes he is a more powerful “electric” god. The cure appears to work, and just in time because the wife the family has procured for Jack has just given birth to the family’s new heir and they were plotting to lock Jack away at that point. However, he is just keeping up appearances - so perfectly that he ends up in the House of Lords and succeeds in sending the psychiatrist to the asylum as a patient - while inside he is now Jack the Ripper. An outrageous black comedy that mixes violent sarcasm with hilarious British humor - a sort of insane Masterpiece Theater. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Journey Into Amazing Caves (2001)

Produced for IMAX Theaters
Narration by Liam Neeson
Music by The Moody Blues
Studio: MacGillivray Freeman/Image Entertainment
Video: IMAX reduced to either 4:3 full screen or 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: DTS 5.1 in English, DD 5.1 with choice of English, French, Spanish
Extras: The Making of... Documentary
Length: Feature = 40 min.; Documentary = 40 min.
Rating: ****

This IMAX production is far from a travelogue of colorful stalactites and stalagmites accompanied by pipe organ music in Carlsbad Caverns. First, there caves are not simple walk-in affairs. They happen to be underwater, inside solid ice in Greenland or high up on seemingly inaccessible cliffsides of the Grand Canyon. And the cavers are not crazy extreme-sports buffs but two young women scientists who specialize in researching the microscopic creatures that live in such hostile environments - known as extremeophiles. More people are killed exploring caves than any other sport or outdoor pursuit. The dangers of getting trapped underwater with no escape and no air are very real. Then in viewing this amazing footage one has to think about the IMAX crew that was down there (or up there) with the two women! - moving around the huge protective casing containing the sealed 70mm camera, which they dubbed Miss Piggy. A simply spectacular film! And as I’ve observed before, while reducing from a 100,000 sq. ft. screen (in the case of the Omnimax theater here in Portland) to your so-called “large-screen” TV monitor does entail necessary losses, the DVD image definitely has a higher resolution than standard DVDs. And that isn’t just due to the super-wide-angle views of the IMAX cameras. They’ll have a head start in converting productions to true High Definition DVD when it is finally introduced. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Pépé Le Moko (1937)

Starring: Jean Gabin
Directed by: Julien Duvivier
Studio: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection
Video: 4:3 full screen B & W
Audio: DD mono, French
Subtitles: English
Extras: French TV interview with the director; Excerpts from 1978 TV documentary “Remembering Jean Gabin;” Original theatrical trailer; Video comparison between Pepe and its U.S. remake the next year - Algiers; Essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, Printed excerpts from a study of the film’s historical and cultural background
Length: 94 min.
Rating: ***1/2

Gabin was the most famous French actor of his time, and this influential film was the epitome of the then-popular French crime story - which showed many influences of earlier and then-current American gangster films. The notorious Pepe is hiding out from the police in the confusion of Algiers’ Casbah - but a beautiful playgirl from Paris lures him to risk his life by leaving his protective but claustrophobic environment.

Criterion’s restoration is again lovingly accomplished. The sound is of course very dated but at least listenable, and the new translations of the subtitles and their appearance on the screen is elegant. The demonstrations and printed information about the film and its history are quite fascinating. A strange thing about Duvivier’s style is pointed up by having really clear images for once instead of the washed-out or contrasty images we have all seen in most of these classic B & W films: That is a serious softening of focus towards the edges of the frame all the way around. At first I thought this was an artistic choice of the director - something like the silent film technique of irising in and out to emphasize what is in the center of the frame. But it’s not because it’s in almost every shot. And I viewed in the prescribed 4:3 screen size - not stretching it to 16:9 which would emphasize such focus problems. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Directed by: Jiri Menzel
Studio: Filmové Barrandov (Czech)/ The Criterion Collection
Video: 4:3 B & W
Audio: DD mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: U.S. Theatrical trailer
Length: 93 min.
Rating: ****

This classic won an Academy Award for best foreign film in 1967 and is a gem of the Czech New Wave of the 60s. Taking place in Czechoslovakia under German occupation, it is the story of a young boy who begins work as an apprentice to a railroad dispatcher. A cute local girl who also works on the railway takes a shine to him but he is fearful of his first sexual encounter, yet longs to be delivered from his virginity. His dispatcher is quite a ladies’ man and his seduction of a girl via rubber stamping is a highly original scene that will be long remembered. All these rich characters are ordinary unglamorous people, but the wry eye of director Menzel makes you good friends with all of them by the end of the film.

Well, perhaps not friends with the Councilor who visits the station from time to time to make sure everything is going smoothly with the trains carrying supplies to the German army (the closely watched trains). He also leads a hearing in the station over the accusations of the mother of the rubber-stamped girl against the randy dispatcher. The young hero’s (and by the film’s end he really is a hero) goal of losing his virginity is finally realized via the arrival of a woman from the Czech underground who delivers the explosives the dispatcher is to drop onto one of the German supply trains to blow it up. Less than a year after this fresh and moving film burst on the cinema scene, the Iron Curtain was re-imposed by the Soviets in Czechoslovakia and the director was forced to denounce the “errors” of the Czech New Wave. The black & white image quality is excellent; I’m quite sure it didn‘t look nearly this good when I first saw it back in l968. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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