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DVD Video Reviews, Pt. 3 - Nov. 2003

Winged Migration (2001)

Dir. by Jacques Perrin
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: widescreen 16:9 enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, English narration, optional closed captioned
Extras: Commentary by director, Theatrical trailers, Making-of documentary, Creating the music featurette, Photo gallery with filmmaker commentary, In-depth filmmaker interviews
Length: 89 minutes
Rating: *****

Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. There has never been a nature/wildlife film quite like this. Without CGI or other special effects (except for an obvious section zooming around the globe from space) French nature cinematographer Perrin takes the viewer to a place we have only been in our imagination - flying right alongside our feathered friends up in the sky! The plot couldn’t be simpler - this is the story of the many different species of migratory birds answering their instincts to flying thousands of miles every year with the changing seasons. How did Perrin and his crew do it? With planes, helicopters, gliders, balloons, radio-controlled models. And evidently with a really amazing amount of patience. You have never seen such gape-inducing nature photography, I guarantee! Some of the aerial shots go on seemingly forever, as though you are flying alongside the flock. The new age-ish music track supports the images perfectly, and there is minimal narration, plus identification of some of the various birds. (Some viewers find Perrin’s brief narration distracting and would prefer him to fermez-la.)

While this was a terrific experience in the theater, it’s even better in your home theater (with a big screen) because you can satisfy the desire to know exactly which birds you are seeing and what part of the world they are flying over at any moment in the film. You do this by either selecting Perrin’s commentary track or viewing the photo gallery which he also narrates. You can also select the close-caption feature and freeze a frame now and then if you wish. I thought of the Ken Burns History of Jazz DVDs, which have titles at the bottom of the screen identifying every selection of music - missing from the theatrical exhibition. The transfer is stunning. There are a couple scenes of birds in distress, which should be kept in mind although this is magnificent family movie. However, no birds were harmed. (I found it interesting that according to Amazon customers ordering this film were fans of the theatrical releases Whale Rider, Swimming Pool, Dirty Pretty Things, and American Splendor.) The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards but didn’t win. That’s also amazing. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Powaqqatsi (1988)

Dir. by Godfrey Reggio
Music: Philip Glass
Studio: Golan-Globus/MGM Home Entertainment
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, no dialog or narration
Extras: New interview with director and composer, Theatrical trailers for the Qatsi Trilogy
Length: 1 hour 37 minutes
Rating: ****

The second entry in Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy of non-narrative visual feasts again combines his usual exquisite hi-res 60mm cinematography with the compelling minimalist music of Philip Glass. The basic theme here is the human cost of society’s progress. Striking images of both ancient cultures and of modern high-tech life are juxtaposed to ask some extremely haunting questions about life on the planet today. The scene of the people scouring the garbage dump in India is heart-rending, for example. Reggio is at the opposite end of the spectrum from filmmakers who strive to manipulate audiences and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Without any spoken words whatever, he creates the most intelligent and mind-expanding films that could be imagined. The cornucopia of amazing sights and sounds is beautifully transferred; just as with the DVD series of IMAX films, there is a noticeable improvement in resolution due to the larger original film format that was used. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Bowling for Columbine - Special Edition (2002)

Dir. by and starring Michael Moore
Studio: MGM Home Entertainment
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Extras: and how!: Moore interview on his Oscar win & acceptance speech, Moore’s personal introduction, Featurette “Return to Denver/Littleton,” Former press secretary Joe Lockhart interviews Michael, Audio commentary by receptionists and interns, Teacher’s guide, Segment from The Awful Truth II, Action guide, Film festival scrapbook, Moor on The Charlie Rose Show, Marilyn Manson’s music video Fight Song, Photo gallery, Theatrical trailer
Length: 1 hours 59 minutes
Rating: ****

America’s love affair with guns and violence is the focus of Michael Moore’s latest investigation / diatribe (take your pick depending on your politics). The title comes from the story on the Columbine school massacre which revealed that the two boys who committed it had gone to a school class on bowling the morning of the shootings. Moore’s approach often supports the idea that real life is often stranger/funnier/more shocking than anything a fiction writer could come up with. Prior to the titles he is shown making a visit to a bank in his Michigan hometown area which offers a free rifle to anyone opening an account with them. After he signs up, he gets no reply when he asks if they don’t think that’s a rather bad idea.

The documentary mixes together verite footage of Moore’s explorations on his theme, interviews with people ranging from rocker Marilyn Manson to the NRA’s Charlton Heston (Moore’s entree is that he has been a member of the NRA for years), and some hilarious animation. The latter includes a short history of the gun in America - done South Park style - a brilliantly wise-ass think piece that merits repeat viewing. Moore makes a visit to Canada, which has even more gun ownership than the U.S. yet has a tiny fraction of the shootings. He asks, “Are we a nation of gun nuts or are we just nuts?” Once again the ability of humor to get across important and vital concerns is shown by this hugely successful film. Whoa, now I recall why Winged Migration didn’t get the Oscar for Best Documentary - this one did! The Academy wouldn’t give Michael the videotape of his wonderful acceptance speech for some reason...Can’t imagine in his extras he simply reads to us what he said. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Burnt By The Sun (1994)

Dir. by Nikita Mikhalkov
Studio: Russian & French co-production/Sony Pictures Classics
Video: 1.62:1 letterboxed
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, Russian language
Subtitles: English
Extras: None
Length: 135 minutes
Rating: ****

This deeply affecting film was the l994 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film and fully deserved it. The director himself stars as an Army colonel who was a hero of the Revolution. He is spending an idyllic summer at his country dacha with his young daughter (his real-life daughter too), his wife and her family. Then the wife’s childhood lover suddenly appears and the lyrical and sunny situation is over. Though the colonel is completely dedicated to his country, the Revolution and his family, political paranoia rears its ugly head. The acting is completely natural and believable and the settings are glorious. This is very thoughtful movie that will stay with you. The oft-repeated tango the family plays on their gramophone and dances to is a haunting tune that in tandem with the subject matter of this superb film remains in my mind nearly a decade after seeing it in the theater. Purchase here

- John Sunier

The Fog (1979)

Dir. by (and music by:) John Carpenter
Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, John Houseman
Studio: Studio Canal/MGM Home Entertainment
Video: Both 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced for 16:9 & 4:3 standard screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 and mono, French mono
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
Extras: Original Documentary, New documentary, Outtakes, Storyboard-to Film comparison, Advertising gallery, Liner notes by Carpenter, Audio commentary by John Carpenter and Producer Debra Hill, more...
Length: 1 hour 30 minutes
Rating: ** 1/2

My main reason for wanting to see this feature was that it was shot in and around Inverness and Pt. Reyes Station on the Northern California coast and I used to visit that area occasionally. If you ever visit there, don’t ask the locals how they liked Hollywood’s takeover of their town during the filming - they didn’t. Carpenter had the area stand in for a sleepy seaside village named Antonio Bay (the long shot is actually Stinson Beach). The threatening “monster” is the fog. It’s all tied in with a shipwreck that occurred on the coast here a century earlier - caused deliberately by someone on shore who built a big fire to lure them onto the rocks. The person’s goal was the gold on board. Now at midnight 100 years later the sailors who drowned in that shipwreck have returned in the greenish, glowing fog to exact their bloody revenge. Oooooo.

It all takes place at night, which must have saved a bundle on production costs. There are some holes in the plot, and I loved the way the sailor zombies knocked at the door before coming in with their hatchets. Jamie is cute and nubile - unlike her more recent scarecrowness, but her mom’s acting is wooden. Andrienne Barbeau plays the owner of a local radio station which is inexplicably located in a lighthouse on the coast (go figure...). Naturally she is a hair’s breath from succumbing to the spectres when an arrangement is worked out between the leader of the zombie raid and the grandson of the man who stole the gold and suddenly the nasty fog creatures are gone. However, you too may be gone before it gets to that thrilling climax. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Frazier - The First Complete Season (1993-94)

Starring Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, John Mahoney, Jane Leeves
Studio: Grub Street/Paramount
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Extras: Commentary on the pilot episode by the executive producers/creators, Behind the Couch featurette, The Making of Frasier, Frasier Crane’s apartment, Celebrity voices
Length: 9 hours, 4 minutes (24 episodes on 4 discs)
Rating: ****

Intro for those without a TV in the house or total non-watchers of sitcoms: This Emmy Award winner stars Grammer is the spin-off psychiatrist from the show Cheers. He is now situated in his former hometown of Seattle and host of a radio call-in advice show. He lives with his retired police detective father, his father’s British physical therapist Daphne, and Eddie - his father’s devious terrier. His brother Niles visits frequently, always without his wife - who we never see. (By this current season he doesn’t see her anymore either and has married Daphne!) One of the running humor themes is that both Frazier and Niles are artistic and rather prissy, often mistaken for gay, and a great contrast to their blue collar/plaid shirt policeman father. Frazier’s ex-wife Lilith comes back to visit him in one interesting episode. Between the hassles at home and the problems of his broadcast audience Frazier has his hands full, and seems to get into embarrassing situations much too easily. His difficulties in the female relationship area are a natural subject of humor for the series. If you haven’t tried Frazier before, give it a try with this set; perhaps you will become a fan and find out why it’s been one of the favorite series on TV. Unfortunately, you’ll have to content yourself with the sets of all the other seasons because it looks like the series is ending with this year.

It’s a pleasure to watch these episodes all the way thru without the commercial breaks or even having to fast forward or skip. It’s also nice to be able to easily repeat dialog that you missed without rewinding. One thing I noticed was that the resolution was very soft, almost out of focus. The previously-reviewed Mad About You was the same. I don’t know if this is characteristic of DVD transfers of such shows. I didn’t find Stargate SG-1 to suffer from this problem. Purchase here

- John Sunier

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