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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

The Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

The Fifth Element
Superbit Ultimate Edition - 1997 (2005) - Gaumont (Columbia TriStar)

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/B

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

Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is a down-on-his-luck New York City cabbie. Retired from military service as a space fighter pilot, he's been having a hard time adjusting to civilian life. Things begin to change however, when a mysterious and beautiful girl named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) literally falls out of the sky and lands in the back seat of his cab one day. Before long, it seems as if everyone on Earth (and off it) is suddenly after either Leeloo or Dallas himself, including a priest (Ian Holm), a crimelord (Gary Oldman), the military, the police, a strange group of alien thugs and even a bizarre radio show host (Chris Tucker). Little does Dallas know, Leeloo may be the key to solving a thousand year old mystery... and possibly the only thing standing between the Earth and the threat of destruction by an unthinkable Evil.

The Fifth Element is an incredibly hard film to categorize. It's science fiction certainly, but it's also infused with elements of fantasy, action and even comedy. This is arguably the most visually captivating and stylish vision of the future to be seen onscreen since Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. It would exceptional for that reason alone if for nothing else. This vision was almost completely inspired by, and ultimately realized by, the legendary French comic book artists Jean-Claude Mézières and Jean Giraud (known as Moebius to his fans, the creator of Heavy Metal magazine).

Fortunately, beyond its simple visual design achievement, The Fifth Element works on a lot of other levels too. The story is fascinating and engaging, and surprising performances by Willis, Holm, Tucker, Oldman and Jovovich really bring it to life. That's a truly unusual bunch of actors to assemble together onscreen, but the ensemble gels against all expectations. Jovovich's Leeloo is not just authentically alien in the way she speaks, but also in the very way she looks at the world - indeed at everything around her. You buy that this is a being that's fresh off the turnip truck, so to speak. Earth isn't just new to her, she's new to life itself. Jovovich sells her character, and thus manages to really tie this film together convincingly.

The video presentation on this DVD is simply outstanding. Whenever I'm looking to show off the quality of my video display, Leeloo's balcony walk in future New York City from this film is always my first choice. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and it's the same high-def transfer that was used for the previous Superbit DVD release, complete with its maximum video bit rate. The colors are stunning - lush and vibrant enough to pop off the screen. Contrast is excellent too, with deep dark blacks. There's light to moderate film grain visible as appropriate and the image is clean at all times, with plenty of detail. THIS is reference quality video.

As you'd expect from Superbit, the audio options include both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. Whichever you choose, you're going to be more than happy. The tracks are dynamic and natural, with a big wide soundstage, good low frequency reinforcement in the sub, plenty of panning and atmospheric use of the surrounds. The DTS mix is just slightly more smooth and natural sounding to my ear. Both tracks are excellent, regardless.

I was frankly surprised at the quality of the bonus material on this set. There's over two hours of material in all, and every last bit of it is worth viewing. Disc One includes an interesting subtitle trivia track that constantly feeds you little bits of information, some of it quite unexpected. Disc Two includes the majority of the extras, complete with substantial featurettes on the production design, the digital effects and model work, the alien creatures and the costumes. There are also retrospective interview featurettes with Willis, Jovovich and Tucker, a gallery of poster artwork for the film from around the world, and an extensive look at test footage for costumes, characters, sets and other elements. My favorite of the extras is a featurette called The Visual Element, which focuses specifically on the lifelong friendship and work of Mézières and Moebius, and their involvement with this film. Sadly, there's no director's commentary, as Besson doesn't believe in them. There's also no trailer for this film on the disc, although you do get trailers for Léon: The Professional and for other Columbia TriStar titles.

My only major complaint with the extras on Disc Two is that the anamorphic coding seems to have been incorrectly done in the authoring stage. Normally, the DVI processing on my DVD player can smoothly switch between 4x3 and 16x9 material for display through an HD/anamorphic video projector. Most of the extras on Disc Two are anamorphic, but a few of the featurettes and bits of test footage are full frame. Unfortunately, my player isn't reading the aspect coding correctly on this disc - it thinks it's all anamorphic. So unless I switch video modes in my player's setup menu, some of this disc looks correct when displayed anamorphically, while the rest looks unnaturally stretched. I don't know if everyone will have this trouble, or if it's a specific issue with this title and my particularly model of DVD player (a Pioneer DV-59AVi), but I found it irritating.

The Fifth Element is far from the best science fiction film you'll ever see, but it's certainly among the most unique and intriguing. You'd be hard-pressed not to find something to like here. Even at its silliest and most outrageous, The Fifth Element remains fully entertaining and engaging. Its futuristic world is strange but functionally believable, and I enjoy it more with each viewing. Better still, this is a nice DVD special edition, and the quality of the Superbit presentation is absolutely eye-popping - perfect for dazzling your friends.

Léon: The Professional: Deluxe Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Léon: The Professional
Superbit Deluxe Edition - 1994 (2005) - Gaumont (Columbia TriStar)

Film Rating: A+

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

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

Léon is a simple man. He doesn't read or write. He's got few possessions. His only vice is watching Gene Kelly and John Wayne movies. But there's one thing he does better than anyone else - he's a cleaner. As in assassin. Hitman. When it comes to killing, he's the best hands down. Léon (Jean Reno) works for Tony (Danny Aiello) in New York City's Little Italy neighborhood. Tony is one of those guys in the neighborhood who gets things done, you know what I mean? You got a problem, you go to Tony. And when Tony's got a problem, he goes to Léon.

One day, Léon meets 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman, in her first film appearance). She's a latch-key kid, living with her white trash family in the apartment down the hall. He's nice to her, and it makes an impression - nobody is ever nice to Mathilda. While she's at the store one afternoon, her family is killed by a group of crooked DEA agents led by the psychotic Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Mathilda returns while the agents are still there, quickly realizes what's happening and pretends to be a neighbor, knocking terrified on Léon's door instead. Against his better judgement, Léon opens the door to his apartment, in that simple act saving her life. Before long, he finds that she's opened the door to his heart as well. What follows is an unlikely and touching Beauty and the Beast-style love story, albeit a somewhat innocent one. Léon quickly realizes that the one thing Mathilda wants more than anything else is revenge, so he does the only thing he can... he teaches her to clean.

Léon: The Professional is as close to perfect as any film I've ever seen. It's a spin-off of sorts from Luc Besson's previous La Femme Nikita, based on Jean Reno's character in that film (Victor the Cleaner). Léon plays right into Besson's strength's as a director and visual stylist - each killing, each action scene unfolds like a poetic dance. It is easily his best film, and it's the role Reno will always be remembered for. He brings tremendous depth to a character that we end up learning very little about. It's his nuances as an actor that flesh Léon out - we learn everything we need to from Reno's simple gestures and facial expressions. Gary Oldman plays a f__king nut better than anyone in the business, which is perfect because that's exactly what the pill-popping, on-the-edge Stansfield is. And it's hard to find words to describe Portman's performance. She simply steals the show. To make things even better composer Eric Serra provides the perfect musical score to accompany the visuals. How good is this movie? Just watch the scene as Stansfield's men first arrive to do their dirty work, slinking through the frame accompanied by music you'd expect to hear in a jungle film when the tiger's stalking its prey. Amazing.

This new 2-disc Deluxe Edition from Columbia TriStar includes the film in its extended, international version (133 minutes). The anamorphic widescreen video here is the exact same transfer as the previously released Superbit DVD. Colors and contrast are nearly perfect, and the video bit rate has been maxed out to ensure the highest quality. The only real video issue here is that the grain structure of the film occasionally seems a little... coarse isn't quite the right word. The print is occasionally a little soft looking, so the video is sometimes lacking in detail. But it's a minor quibble. This is absolutely the best possible presentation of this film on standard DVD.

The audio is also very good, available in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 flavors, as you'd expect of a Superbit DVD. Most of this film is driven by dialogue, which is clear and clean in both tracks. When the guns start blazing, you'll hear every shot rip through the air accompanied by hammering bass. The soundstage is nicely wide. The play in the rear speakers is subtle but it's there. The DTS track is slightly more atmospheric and immersive, while the Dolby Digital mix is a little more biased to the front part of the soundstage. That's really the only difference between them.

The good news is that the extras on this 2-disc set are well executed, but they're unfortunately not plentiful. Disc One includes a subtitle trivia track that actually imparts quite a lot of information, some of it truly fascinating. The rest of the extras are on Disc Two, and include a 25-minute retrospective featurette (featuring interviews with most of the cast and crew including Reno and Portman, although neither Besson or actor Gary Oldman appear), a 12-minute biographical featurette on Reno, and a 14-minute featurette on Portman (it's less biographical in terms of her life, but she does talk quite a bit about how she got involved with this film). All of these featurettes are anamorphic. There are also preview trailers for The Fifth Element and other Columbia films, but not this one. Again, there's no director's commentary - Besson doesn't believe in them.

The bad news is that this 2-disc set does NOT include the American cut of the film (110 minutes) so you'll have to keep the first DVD release of The Professional if you want that (rest assured THIS cut is much better however). As I said, this set doesn't include the film's theatrical trailer. Also missing is Serra's score for the film on an isolated track, so you'll also have to keep the previous DVD release of Léon: The Professional if you want both of those items. That means there are going to be three separate editions on your shelf if you want all the available bonus material for this film (the only one you can safely ditch is the previous Superbit release).

I just love those calm little moments before the storm... and I really love this film. If you haven't seen Léon: The Professional yet, you don't know what you're missing. The DVD quality here is first rate, and though it's sadly not comprehensive, this is arguably the best special edition treatment the film has received on DVD to date.

Bill Hunt
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