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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits


King Arthur: Extended Unrated Version

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

THX-certified

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King Arthur
Extended Unrated Version - 2004 (2004) - Touchstone (Buena Vista)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C+/C+


It is the Dark Ages. Lucius Artorius Castus (Clive Owen) is a Roman centurion, charged with the protection of the empire's most far-flung outpost... Britain. For more than fifteen years, Artorius (known as Arthur) has led a group of legendary knights in this pursuit - knights from far-distant Sarmatia, who were conscripted as boys to serve in the Roman Legions. The term of service for these brave men has almost expired... but the Pope has ordered that they complete one final mission. Arthur must lead his knights to rescue a young Roman boy (and future Bishop), whose family lives in the northern most part of Britain - an area that's about to be invaded by Saxon barbarians. When the mission is complete, Arthur may retire to Rome with honors, and his men will finally be allowed to return to their families. But as his closest council Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) advises him, the mission will likely be the most dangerous they've even undertaken. Before it's done, Arthur must face the Saxon army, led by the powerful Cedric (Stellan Skarsgård). Arthur will also meet a pagan girl named Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who will present him with a choice - abandon Britain and his own ideals... or forsake his dreams of Rome and unite Britain for all time.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by David Franzoni (of Gladiator and Amistad fame), King Arthur is an intriguing film. This isn't the classic story that you're probably familiar with. You won't find any Camelot or shining armor or magic spells or romantic triangles here. Instead, this is a darker, grittier and more 'accurate' telling of the Arthurian legend. This story is grounded in realism, drawing upon what little historians know of the time period and the real historical figure that the mythic "Arthur" is likely based upon.


That dedication to realism is what makes this film so fascinating to watch. Unfortunately, it's also the very thing that hinders it. The problem is that when you watch a film with a name like King Arthur, you have a whole set of expectations (like the aforementioned Camelot, shining armor, magic spells and romantic triangles) that simply aren't going to be met by this particular narrative vision. Stylistically, and as a pure entertainment, this is a well made film. But if you don't go into it with an open mind, you're probably going to be disappointed.

On DVD, King Arthur is available in two versions - the original theatrical cut and an unrated extended version (called the Director's Cut at the start of the film). There's about 13 minutes more footage in the extended version, mostly additional bits of more graphic and intense battle footage.

The video on this extended version is of fair quality. It's not great, but it's not bad either. The print exhibits light to moderate film grain, which is not a problem, but the resulting video is a little but muddy looking and lacking on overall detail. There appears to be very light edge-enhancement, which is noticable but is also not overly problematic. Colors are generally accurate, and contrast is fairly good. Blacks are deep and dark, but the range of contrast isn't as full as you might prefer. The darkest areas of the picture are a little lacking in detail, and the brightest areas are maybe just a little too bright. Still, the video is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and it represents the film fairly well. King Arthur is meant to have a gritty look, and it certainly does on this DVD.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio quality, however, is disappointing. The mix features good low frequency reinforcement, but it's surprisingly flat sounding. Virtually all of the action takes place in the front part of the mix, and there's only very light use of the surrounds for action and atmosphere, even during the most intense battle scenes. The dialogue and music are well presented, but this is definitely not a particularly immersive surround mix.

There's a fair bit of supplemental material on this single-disc edition, but it's a mixed bag. Unfortunately, the disc starts with a batch of automatic preview trailers for other titles. You can easily skip past them, but I still hate the fact that they're there. There's an alternate ending on the disc, which I actually quite like. I don't want to say anything more about it - no sense spoiling the film - except to say that while I understand why it wasn't used, I think this alternate ending is more true to the concept that this is a different vision of the Arthurian legend. The ending that was used is a little bit too traditional in my opinion - an unnecessary bone thrown in to fulfill viewer expectations. This DVD features audio commentary by the director which is not available on the theatrical edition disc. It's a fairly average, laid-back track, but I do have to say that I like Fuqua quite a bit. He seems like a very intelligent filmmaker, and I'll be interested to see how his career develops. Also available here is a pretty standard "making of" featurette, a gallery of production photos, a "knight vision" trivia track (that can be used while watching the film), and a lame Xbox videogame promo. The trivia track is somewhat interesting, as it provides additional historical notes that help to ground the film a bit (there's also production related information). It's a bit sparse, and occasionally too obvious ("Troops trained to fight on horseback are called cavalry."), but it's still worth checking out. Of all the extras, however, I'm most intrigued by the round table discussion featurette. The director, the writer and four of the leading members of the cast (including Owen and Knightly) sit together at a table (yes, it's round), as producer Jerry Bruckheimer asks questions and moderates their discussion. This is a great idea, but the problem is it's a little too staged and it's also heavily edited. The discussion would have been much more effective and interesting if it were allowed to play out naturally. Just let the camera run and see where it goes. If this film is ever released as a more elaborate, 2-disc set, I hope we get to see the complete discussion.

While King Arthur probably isn't the film most moviegoers were expecting, it's still a well made piece of work. Thanks to Owen and solid performances by most of the cast, as well as Fuqua's stylistic contributions, this film is both engaging and entertaining. The DVD is just okay in terms of quality, but if you think you might be at all interested in the film's unique vision of Arthur, I'd say it's well worth a spin. If you take King Arthur for what it is... you just might like it.




Danny Deckchair

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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Danny Deckchair
2004 (2004) - Lions Gate

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/B-/D


Danny Morgan (Rhys Ifans of Notting Hill fame) is your typical Average Joe (or Joe Bloke as you folks down under might say), living a rather mundane existence in Sydney, Australia. He's got a boring job, and his girlfriend doesn't appreciate him (she thinks of him as one of the "little people" in life). But Danny's got one thing going for him - he's a dreamer, and his dreams are big ones. When Danny learns that his girlfriend may be cheating on him with a local TV personality, he comes up with his craziest scheme yet. He and his mates ties dozens of helium balloons to a deckchair and, in the middle of an afternoon barbecue... Danny simply floats up and away, quickly disappearing into the wild blue yonder.

Meanwhile, Glenda (Miranda Otto) is living a similarly humdrum existence in a small village in the Australian countryside. She's got a job she hates, and no man in her life... until one evening when Danny literally drops out of the sky into her backyard. With the chance to leave the baggage of his old life behind, Danny reinvents himself and quickly charms his way into the hearts of the local villagers. He soon discovers, however, that it's Glenda's heart he wants the most. But winning her love isn't going to be easy, for Glenda's given up hope on such things. To make things ever more difficult, Danny's old life just won't stay left behind. It seems that, back in Sydney, he's become a media darling - a kind of modern folk hero. Everyone wants to be the first to find the infamous "Danny Deckchair".


Danny Deckchair is one of those films with such an outlandish and fanciful premise, that it either really works... or really fails. Thankfully, the former is true here. Rhys Ifans has a charm that's tough to dismiss, and it's nice to see Miranda Otto in a different sort of role than the sword wielding Eowyn she's played recently in The Lord of the Rings. The pair are an unlikely match, but they're wonderful together onscreen. Based on its trailer, you might expect this film to be a laugh-a-minute comedy. It isn't... but it IS almost completely engaging.

The quality of the anamorphic widescreen video on this DVD from Lions Gate is okay, but it isn't likely to impress. There's moderate grain visible, as you'd expect from a lower budget film, and the overall image is somewhat too soft and lacking in detail. Contrast is good and edge enhancement isn't a problem, but the colors are just a bit on the warm side. Not having seen this film in the theater, I can't really say if that's intentional or not. This isn't a bad transfer, just very average.

The audio side of the presentation fares a bit better. This is a good Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, with a nicely wide front soundstage and fairly atmospheric use of the surrounds. While not always particularly active, the rear channels do come to life during Danny's flight, as he passes through a thunderstorm and eventually gets shot down in a literal hail of fireworks. Dialogue is clean, and you'll be pleased with the LFE (for example, during said thunderstorm and fireworks). Overall, the mix represents the film well.

Sadly, this disc is pretty sparse in terms of extras. You get a decent production featurette (called Taking Off) that's a bit more interesting than the typical EPK puff piece, complete with cast and crew interviews and plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. There's also the film's theatrical trailer (in 16x9 - a nice touch) and a batch of promotional trailers for other Lions Gate titles. The best of the lot is an audio commentary track, with Ifans and writer/director Jeff Balsmeyer, that's available in the setup menu. It's pretty lighthearted in tone. Ifans and Balsmeyer have good, friendly chemistry - you can tell they enjoyed working with one another, and their banter is fun to listen to.

Danny Deckchair isn't a great DVD, but the film is easy to recommend. This is a delightful romantic comedy... light, fanciful and thoroughly entertaining. It's definitely worth your time.




i, Robot (Widescreen)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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i, Robot
Widescreen - 2004 (2004) - 20th Century Fox

Film Rating: D+

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A-/C

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B+/A-


In a world of the not-so-distant future, where robots walk our dogs, take out our trash and mind our kids, Del Spooner (Will Smith of Will Smith fame) is that rarest of rare cinematic characters... a street-wise cop with a baaaaaddd attitude. You see... Del hates robots. I mean, he really hates robots. Did I say Del hate robots? 'Cause he does. Naturally, life in Chicago circa 2035 is anything but robot free. Still, things seem to be going along just fine for Del... that is until an old friend apparently commits suicide - an old friend who just happens to be Dr. Alfred Lansing (James Cromwell), the founder of mega-conglomerate U.S. Robotics. Lansing has turned up dead on the eve of the biggest new robot model rollout in the company's history, and Del is tasked with finding out what happened. Before you can recite the Three Laws, Del starts to suspect that Lansing was really murdered... you guessed it... by a robot. Can anyone guess what happens next? Well, let's just say that Del's day goes from bad to worse, as a whole army of shinny robots start gettin' all up in his grill. At least there's a pretty girl along for the ride (played by Bridget Moynahan, last seen in 2003's The Recruit), although she's so emotionally cold she might as well be a robot herself. Such is the lot of a street-wise cop with a baaaaaddd attitude who hates... you know... R-O-B-O-T-S.


i, Robot is almost completely (although not quite entirely) dreadful. I mean, you seriously have to question the sanity of whoever's idea it was take one of the all-time classics of science fiction literature and turn it into a Will Smith action flick. Whoever you are, bravo... I foresee a Razzy Award in your immediate future. This is as clear a case of story-by-committee as I've ever seen. The twists and turns here are obvious almost from the film's opening frame. Todd and I gave this a spin when he was out here last month, and we pretty much had the whole thing figured out after the first ten minutes. No amount of Will Smith one-liners and CGI effects can fill the gaping holes in this story. For example, wouldn't Del's car have a computer black box device that would validate his story about robots attacking him? Hell, my 1997 Saturn has an event data recorder! If Dr. Lanning were such a big deal to U.S. Robotics, wouldn't work have pretty much ground to a halt at the company out of shock, if not out of respect, even for a moment? Can you imagine business as usual at Microsoft if Bill Gates took a 20-story header in the company lobby? Speaking of which, can you imagine ANY corporation in today's competitive marketplace putting its mainframe on display in its lobby for any visitor to see? Talk about an open invitation to hackers! You know... I think I'm just gonna stop now. Identifying the many, many, many plot holes in this film is just giving me a headache.

20th Century Fox presents i, Robot in very good anamorphic widescreen video quality on DVD (note that a separate full frame version is also available). The transfer is crisp and clean, with plenty of detail. The colors are vibrant (when appropriate), the blacks are deep and detailed and contrast is excellent overall. The print is also nicely clean. The only minor issue here is a bit of digital compression artifacting, visible during the opening credits for example (look closely at the explosions of bubbles around the titles). It's almost certainly the result of the film, the extras and dual Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 audio tracks all being squeezed onto a single, dual-layered disc. It's not a big deal though - this is easily the best looking of the three DVDs reviewed here.

Speaking of the audio, both the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes are excellent. The Dolby track is wide and spacious sounding, with logical and active use of the surrounds and very good LFE. The DTS track improves on this further, adding a somewhat smoother and more natural character to the soundfield. You'll enjoy great DVD surround sound, whichever mix you choose.

Given that this is a single-disc release, there aren't a lot of supplements, but you do get a "making of" featurette, a gallery of still photos and audio commentary with director Alex Proyas and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. There's also a promo trailer for Arrested Development on DVD, and an "Inside Look" previewing the forthcoming theatrical releases of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Robots and Elektra. The featurette is fairly standard promotional fare, but the commentary is actually interesting, in that after listening to Proyas and Goldsmith for a while, it's pretty clear why the film is so bad. Proyas claims that he felt a great degree of budget pressure, Goldsmith was apparently "the final writer" involved in the project... and that's just for starters. You don't really see the lack of cash onscreen (although I expect better from Proyas given his fascinating Dark City), but the involvement of multiple writers is painfully obvious.

Speaking of obvious, there's really no way to describe i, Robot other than to say that the film was just poorly conceived from start to finish. As a piece of science fiction cinema, this is a barely adequate action film. And as an action film... well, it's just barely adequate. All that aside, I'm almost embarrassed to say that i, Robot still manages to be moderately entertaining on some rudimentary level... if you're able to switch off your brain in time to keep your hand from switching off the DVD player.

Somewhere, Isaac Asimov is spinning in his grave.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com
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