DVD Video Reviews - November 2002, Pt. 3 of 3

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Panic Room - Superbit (2002)

Starring: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Dwight  Yoakam, Jared  Leto
Directed by: David Fincher
Studio: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
Video: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English DTS 5.1, English DD 5.1, English DD  2.0, French  DD 2.0 Subtitles: English, French,  English Closed Captions
Extras: Theatrical teaser trailer, filmographies, scene  selection
Length: 112 minutes
Rating: ***

After the break-up of her marriage, Meg Altman begins a new life with her daughter by moving into an enormous residence in New York. One of the special features of the home is a panic room that no one can penetrate once its steel door is shut. When three home invaders break into the residence the very first night that Meg moves in, she grabs her daughter and escapes into the Panic Room. Unfortunately, that room is the exact place that holds the hidden money the intruders are seeking and they are not about to leave without getting what they came for.

With the director opting to shoot this film in almost exclusively dark settings, it was not an easy task to judge the video quality. With that in mind, the overall video quality is very good. Images are sharp and clean. Blacks are consistently dark throughout. Colors are accurate and deep with saturated hues. Picture defect mastering is perfect with no major flaws or digital compression artifacts.

The overall audio quality is also very good with the English DTS 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack mix favors the forward channels. Dialogue is crisp and properly anchored in the center channel. The surround channels are fairly active, used for both music and ambient sounds, and include a handful of split rear effects. Low frequency bass is punchy and tight. Tactile effects are in the form of light to moderate impacts and they originate both from sound effects and the music score.

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Starring: Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Kurt Russell
Studio: Paramount
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1, DD 2.0, French, Audio Commentary
Extras: “Prelude To A Dream” and “Hitting It Hard” featurettes, Teaser and International trailer, Photo Galleries (8) with audio introduction, “Afrika Shox” music video, Interview with Paul McCartney
Length: 135 minutes
Rating: ***+

LoveHateDreamsLifeWorkPlayFriendshipSex is the tag line at the bottom of the poster and DVD case on the latest film by Cameron Crowe, Vanilla Sky. To that list you could add Loss and possibly the feeling of constantly trying to find the meaning, the way, the path to one’s own fulfillment and happiness – a feeling I try to seek out in every film that I view. These concepts are not alien to the ideas in most films of the day, but the presentation in this remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre Los Ojos approach them from a markedly different direction. Many of the superficial plot elements are present only to confuse, while at the same time they help to flesh out the main character, David Aames, as well as those around him. David has inherited a media empire from his father – a man he could never live up to. He lives his life in a carefree way and this extends to a fallacious sense of invulnerability. The risks he takes will soon confront him in a very terrifying manner. He’s in a prison cell recounting the events that lead to his incarceration for a crime that seems to be unreal. What is real and what is a dream? Open your eyes…

We all look for answers, as you might happen to do when watching this film: What does it mean and what is going on? It is clear that Crowe expects this film to be a mind-altering experience and for some, no doubt, this will be the case. Others may feel a distance from the happenings and it will prevent them from entering the emotion and attraction that makes this film successful. In many ways Vanilla Sky has elements that are commonly associated with foreign films – these same things that often don’t appeal to the American viewing public – a public that likes a simple by-the-numbers intro, middle, and finish.

According to the director, this film can be interpreted in four different ways. You almost need to see the film more than once just to catch a few of the things you might have missed, much like The Game. Listening to the audio commentary will help shed light on many elements of the film and expose some of the clues that would help solve the puzzle of the film’s meaning. Lots of homage is paid to other films and directors, some of whom are commonly referenced, like Billy Wilder. Crowe is well known for his love of contemporary music and his passion for searching for the perfect song to help complement the image on the screen. In the audio commentary, he expresses (at length) the involvement of music during the filming and the choices made in the film itself. As another bonus there is a little snippet with McCartney explaining how he came to write a song for the film and an exciting upbeat video by the legendary Afrika Bambaataa. Nancy Wilson, Crowe’s wife, was in on the project helping to fill out the rest of the soundtrack. The featurettes are somewhat short, but give a little bit of insight into the filming and main concepts behind the production of the film. They include many spots of Tom and Penelope traveling and promoting the film.

In the end, it appears that the film lays out a plausible explanation for the occurrences and the lack of reality in parts of the movie. However, this in itself can be disregarded in favor of a few different interpretations of the reality in the film. Penelope Cruz and Cruise seem to be a somewhat unlikely pairing, but in real life who can argue? Jason Lee is a wonderful addition for both levity and character development and he really helps add to the cast. Picture quality is very good, and the soundtrack, although not as memorable as the one from Almost Famous, is definitely full of excellent songs from the past, as well as newer acoustic material by Wilson. Although a lot of the film is not heavy action, there is a good sense of surround envelopment when the rear channels are in use. I can’t say I loved this film, but I can say I learned something.

- Brian Bloom

Amélie (2001)

Starring Audrey Tautou
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Studio: Miramax
Video: 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced for 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, original Parisian French dialog track
Subtitles: English & Spanish
Extras: (mostly on separate DVD) The Look of Amelie, The Fantasies of Audrey Tautou, Inside the Making of Amelie, the Amelie Scrapbook, Q&A with director, Q & A with director and cast, An intimate chat with director Jeunet, Auditions by actors, Storyboard Comparison, TV spots in English & French, Cast & Crew Filmographies, whew!
Length: 122 minutes
Rating: *****

The warm-hearted and clever pastry of a movie about this little cute-as-a-bug French pastry who works in a Paris cafe and is painfully shy fully deserved the five Academy Award nominations it received. Why it didn’t win year’s best foreign film is as big an unanswered question in my mind as why the candidate the majority of us voted for a year ago isn’t President at the moment. When Amelie decides to help others to find happiness since she can’t seem to, beaucoup des delightful things begin to happen. The question is will she ever build up the courage to make her life happen the way she has aided others? The film is full of unexpected touches of visual fantasy; the animated talking photo booth photos was probably my favorite. The extras reveal that director Jeunet (City of Lost Children) works just as Hitchcock did in planning out every last iota of the film in advance via storyboards and index cards. Even the DVD packaging is a trip. The music is a delight (already reviewed last month). His use of color is extraordinary, making nearly every shot look like something you’d like to taste or touch. Don’t use this DVD to adjust your color and tint - you’d end up with all other DVDs looking practically black and white!

- John Sunier

Monsters, Inc. (2001) Collector’s Edition

Starring the voices of Billy Crystal and John Goodman
Music by Randy Newman
Studio: Pixar Animation Studios/Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Video: Both 1.33:1 full screen and 1.85:1widescreen enhanced options
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX, also sound effects only track
Extras: Animated Shorts: Mike’s New Car, For the Birds, Finding Nemo; “Outtakes” from the film and from the Company Play; Audio commentary tracks by the filmmakers; Explore two worlds = In the Monster World you become an employee of Monsters, Inc. And train for your first day, see the Monsters, Inc. Employee Handbook, learn the history of The Monster World, Fun-filled facts; In the Human World you meet the filmmakers and go on a fascinating tour of Pixar studios in Emeryville, CA, See deleted scenes, Monstropolis Art Gallery, 3D location flyarounds, Animation gags and guitar to In jokes, Behind the scenes of the Randy Newman song which won best original song in the Oscars, at least three “Easter eggs” which reveal even more extras - including a paper-plane championship and a chimp collecting Easter eggs.
Length: 93 min.
Rating: ****

It’s obvious from the factory tour of Pixar that the huge staff there has a lot of fun in spite of working long hours over the years it takes to get a feature all-animated film such as Monsters, Inc. off the ground and into the theaters. The department heads sail around the spacious building on those little skateboard scooters and one has his office heavily decorated like a Tiki Lounge. A great deal of very imaginative thinking is encouraged in this environment and evidently bears fruit because Monster, Inc. is one of the most creative and fun feature animations ever. I found it just a little shy of the perfection of Shrek, but it’s very close. Kids will probably like it even better. The myriad characters and the whole monster world are beautifully thought out and presented. And extra little touches to keep grownups guffawing abound. I especially dug the snail janitor in the monster factory who is shown busily mopping up the floor and then moves off, leaving a big trail of snail slime behind him. The extra feature on the recording of the soundtrack (which comes way before the animation is done) with Billy Crystal, John Goodman and James Coburn is informative fun to watch.

The story basis is that the alternate monster world needs a special sort of energy to keep alive, and that energy is provided by the screams of children that the monsters scare by jumping out of their closets at night. But the monsters are nearly all loveable monsters. The factory stores all the different secret doors to the back of all the children’s closets. They have to be very concerned about security - meaning no children and no items from the child’s world must come into the monster world or it will be destroyed. One tiny sock is enough for a major decontamination procedure. But one little child doesn’t buy the scary bit and loves her big blue hairy monster Sully (John Goodman's voice) and follows him back to the monster world. Chaos breaks out. This is a truly monster family film during which no parent need squirm.

- John Sunier

Pauline & Paulette (2002)

Dir. By Lieven Debrauwer
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Video: 4:3 standard screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Flemish language
Subtitles: English
Extras: Director’s commentary over soundtrack, Bonus trailers
Length: 78 min.
Rating: ***

This heartwarming film was presented at the Toronto Film Festival and at Cannes. Again, strong and vibrant color - mostly red - is an important actor in this film as it was in Amelie. The simple story is of two sisters, one of them mentally challenged. When another sister who has been taking care of the simple-minded woman dies suddenly, the remaining two sisters argue over who will take care of Pauline, and it generally falls to Paulette. These is resistance as Pauline turns things upside down at Paulette’s shop, but eventually Paulette finds their bond is too close to put Pauline in an institution and they will find their way together again. I believe I was expecting the story to be just a bit more dynamic than it was - perhaps a major plot turnabout near the end. But that didn’t happen in this very honest and forthright little human drama.

- John Sunier

Cat People (1982)

Starring Nastassia Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard
Dir. by Paul Schrader
Studio: Universal
Video: 1.85:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Documentary “Cat People: An Intimate Portrait,” Feature commentary track by director, On the set with the director, Makeup effects, Matte Paintings for the film, Robert Wise on the producer off the original Cat People - Val Lewton, Production notes, Length: 1 hr. 59 min.
Rating: ****

So many remakes are a bust, but although Val Lewton’s original Cat People is a classic, this much more explicit and sexy version has plenty to recommend it, including plenty of Nastassia Kinski. Director Schrader went in a completely different direction from the original and only used one scene in his film that duplicated the old black & white version. The setting is New Orleans and Kinski is a young woman recently out of an orphanage, who has been located after many years by her brother played by MacDowell. They have a bizarre family background... cutting to the bottom line, when either of them get sexually turned on they turn into dangerous black leopards. Her brother wants her (incest is also a plot device here) but she is attracted to a zookeeper played by Heard. Needless to say, neither sibling handles their special cat-curses very well, people die at the hands/claws of both of them. But in the end the woman and her zookeep still have one another, albeit in a rather surprising manner. The images are exotic and well-designed; again color (and again often the color red) is a vital player in the filmic story. This was a big-budget production - they even built the entire zoo set rather than using the New Orleans Zoo. One of the extras is an out-of-focus video interview with director Schrader shot during the filming, and he appears to be aping not only a Marlon Brando “look” (he was obviously working out) but also trying to sound like Brando. He admits he had an affair with Kinski that broke up his marriage at the time. Georgio Moroder’s music (basically just one tune) begins coming on suggestively about halfway thru the film and slowly builds over time until David Bowie finally sings the lyrics under the closing credits. I could imagine some thinking this is just trash. But it’s pretty good trash.

- John Sunier

The Brothers Quay Collection (1979-1993)

Studio: Koninck Studios/Kino Video
Video: fullscreen & widescreen, B&W and color
Audio: Dolby Digital mono and stereo
Extras: Theatrical trailer to their live-action feature Institute Benjamenta, Interview with the Brothers Quay, Their first short: Nocturna Artificialia (21 min.)
Rating: Difficult, could be * or **** depending on viewer

Somewhere, perhaps in the credits on their interview segment here, it states what the first names of these identical twin brothers are, but darned if I can find it now. These are two seriously strange dudes. They remind me a bit of the identical twin Kuchar Brothers of avantgarde low budget fame and even of the brothers who directed The Matrix. But the Quays are strangeness squared. If you weren’t sure just from viewing this collection of 11 of their animated films, you would be after viewing the short interview with them! They also share some trenchant comments in the four-page booklet that accompanies the DVD. They were born in Pennsylvania, they live in London in a studio, making their Kafkaesque nightmare visions of a world of inanimate dolls and objects becoming threateningly animate. They imagine themselves as a continuation of some of the Czech master puppet animators such as Jan Svankmajer. But in those films one could usually piece together some sort of story or plot. Not so with most Quay Bros. shorts. One of the two longest shorts here, “Street of Crocodiles,” follows a cobbled-together wild-eyed male doll’s traversal of a sort of haunted museum. The main point seems to be an awful feeling of menace and dread.

I must drop just one more of their film titles here to set the scene: “Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies.” Right. They are passionate about the detail in their own special world of clicking and clacking mini- “action” movies to the point of being obsessive-compulsive. But it’s clearly not the excessively-neat version of OCD. The Quays create their nether worlds in miniature out of decaying materials that include lint, dust, worn fabrics, torn paper, rusty screws, broken tools - most anything that’s been discarded. Straaange musical accompaniments that often seems more sound effects than music are tied very closely to the screen images. It often sounds like an Edwardian version of some John Cage do-it-yourself scrapings and screechings. The camera work could drive anyone serious about photography nuts trying to deduce how the heck they do it: It is confounding how they can possibly shoot at the required single- or double-frame rate of animation and yet combine in the same shot an eldritch cracked-ceramic doll figure, a bouncing ball and a moving wind-up toy, plus having the camera itself (which they refer to as “the 3rd puppet’) smoothly swoop around their miniature set!

- John Sunier

Big Fat Liar (2002)

Starring: Frankie Muniz, Paul Giamatti, Amanda Bynes
Studio: Universal
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD 5.1, DTS 5.1, French 5.1
Extras: Spotlight on Location, Audio Commentary (2), Deleted Scenes (2), Trivia challenge, Universal Studios Back lot, Are you a big fat liar? Game, Spyro video game features, Theatrical trailer, Production Notes, Cast & Filmmakers (7), Recommendations (10 + 3 Previews), DVD-ROM features
Length: 88 minutes
Rating: ***

By putting two of the hottest kid stars on screen, adding a few pranks, and creating a monster of a nemesis for them to defeat in a grand 'ole Hollywood style ending, Universal has made an attempt to create the next Home Alone. Unfortunately, it seems that the Macaulay Culkins of the world only come around every 20 years or so. Jason Shepherd cruises through his life by telling one lie after another. A big paper is due, but he manages to weasel his way out of it until his parents show up. In order to pass his eighth grade class he needs to finish his paper before 6 p.m. that day. On the way to delivering what may be his finest effort, he collides with a big Hollywood studio executive who is in town producing his next picture. Accidentally the story ends up in the hands of the Wolf and he loses his credibility with his parents when he shows up without it. After his summer class, Jason and his best friend Kaylee decide to check out a movie. When a preview rolls for a movie named Big Fat Liar, Jason is stricken by the similarity to his lost story.

The pair do the natural thing: leave Michigan and head off to Hollywood to confront the big wig, get the story back, and regain the trust he lost to his father. Things don’t go exactly as planned. It turns out that the evil producer has no intention of sacrificing his career and admitting his theft of the story. This could mean war, and it seems that Jason is not going to give up so easily. The theft of Wolf’s PDA allows Jason and his friend access to daily schedules, phone numbers, and most of Marty’s life. The kids devise scheme after scheme in an effort to get the truth out. Comedy is a plenty in this film and in the end, with the help of a few fellow Wolf haters, the name on the big screen might just be changed from Wolf to Shepherd.

This disc is full of extras and even the opening of the DVD is fun to watch with the sassy Amanda Bynes prompting the viewer to “make a decision already.” The pair of kids work really well together and the movie is entertaining enough even for an adult. There are many jabs at the silliness of the entertainment industry, and a few familiar faces that might evoke a laugh or two. Paul Giamatti (Wolf) is a constant source of comic relief and really helps to buoy up the film. Picture is good although it is 4:3!! It shouldn’t bother the kids too much and they are really the ones that this film is geared towards. The extras include trivia and games that will give this disc more play than normal. For light, fluffy comedy with an age-old moral about tale telling, check out Big Fat Liar.

- Brian Bloom

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