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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Spider-Man 2: Widescreen Special Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Spider-Man 2
Widescreen Special Edition - 2004 (2004) - Marvel/Sony Pictures (Columbia TriStar)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A

Two years have passed since the events of the original Spider-Man. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is struggling to fulfill all of his responsibilities - school, career, job... and, of course, being a superhero. Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) has moved on with her life, though Peter still loves her, and Harry Osborn (James Franco) still blames Spidey for the death of his father, though he has no idea that Spider-Man and his best friend are one and the same. Enter Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a brilliant scientist with a plan to harness the power of nuclear fusion for the benefit of all Mankind. Peter and Octavius find a genuine respect for one another through their love of science. But when his experiment goes horribly wrong, and Octavius is unwittingly transformed into the villainous Doc Ock, Peter and his mentor must face off in a battle that will have consequences on the lives of everyone Peter loves.

As realized by director Sam Raimi, Spider-Man 2 manages that rare trick of being an even better film than the original. It's a fuller and richer experience emotionally. The action is great, the effects are great, but it's the characters that shine really here. Whereas in the first film the story was about Peter learning how to be a superhero, this film turns the tables and becomes his struggle to learn how to still be Peter - an everyday guy with everyday concerns - at the same time as he's having to save everybody's day.

There's plenty of the humor of the first film here (even more this time actually), as well as a few fun wink-and-nod moments for the True Believers out there. Alfred Molina brings great humanity to the role of Dr. Octavius - his sinister transformation (and internal struggles thereafter) balance Parker's personal conflicts nicely. The film also opens up the comic book mythology in a big way and sets the stage for plenty of great sequels to come.

Columbia TriStar's DVD release is a 2-disc set. The film itself is presented in anamorphic widescreen, but while the transfer is quite good, it isn't as good as I think it could (and should) be. The main reason for this is that there's so much material packed onto Disc One, that the digital video has been compressed just a little bit too much. You're never going to notice this on a smaller TV screen, but those of you who view your DVDs on large front or rear projection systems are going to be a little disappointed. That said, color, contrast and overall image detail is solid. It's not bad, it's just not reference quality. More on that at the end of this review.

The film's surround sound is presented in good Dolby Digital 5.1. It's a decent mix, with nicely balanced music, dialogue and sound effects, a nicely wide soundstage, lively panning and solid LFE reinforcement. The mix serves the film quite well. Still, I can't help but think that a DTS track would really enhance the audio experience of this film. Again, more on that in a minute.

Disc One contains a pair of audio commentary tracks, one with Raimi, Maguire, producer Avi Arad (who runs Marvel Studios) and co-producer Grant Curtis, and a second with various members of the film's effects crew. While there's plenty of interesting information conveyed in the technical track, the director's commentary will have the most appeal to fans. In addition to being a helluva good filmmaker, Raimi is a real character and it's fun to listen to the easy interplay he has with Maguire. Raimi guards this film franchise zealously and rightfully so - he understands this character like few others in Hollywood.

Disc One also contains a short blooper reel, a soundtrack music video by Train, 4 "web-i-sodes" featurettes (that were available on the film's website), a "Spidey Sense 2" subtitle trivia track and, sadly, way too many frickin' preview trailers for other Sony films. The movie-related stuff is good, but the cross-promotional garbage has no business being on this disc (the previews play automatically when you start this disc, but thankfully you can skip them). That's my only other complaint about this DVD.

Disc Two contains the real gems among the bonus material, and I do mean gems. In these days when so many studios are trying to tease us with interactive bells and whistles on DVD (and they're already touting all the silly things Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD will be able to do), there's nothing I love more than a great, old-fashioned, in-depth, behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of a film - one that takes the time to tell its story right and covers all the bases, leaving no stones unturned. Bells and whistles compared to a good doc is like a bowl of icing compared to a juicy steak. Making the Amazing is fillet mignon. Clocking in at a hefty 126-minutes, it's nearly as long as the film itself. It's divided into 12 separate parts, but includes a handy "play all" option. Everything you want to know about is covered in detail, from Raimi discussing the importance of getting a comic book film right, to the lessons learned during the production. Everyone you want to hear from is interviewed - all the major cast, Spider-Man creator Stan Lee... you name it. It was produced by Charles de Lauzirika (and his staff at Lauzirika Productions) - a name that should be very familiar to those of you who have read this website for any length of time. Extras like this are why we love DVD.

Also included on Disc Two are a trio of featurettes that address the issues of what it would mean to be a real superhero, the origins and realization of the central villain in this film, and the collective women in Spidey's life. They're also very thoughtful and entertaining. Together they clock in at more than 50 minutes. The Doc Ock piece contains some amazing test footage of the mechanical arms and all the things they're capable of doing.

Next to Making the Amazing however, my favorite thing on this disc is multi-angle video called Enter the Web. It gives you a look at the creation of a particular scene in the film, which was shot using multiple camera set-ups. There are four angles you can choose from on the fly with your remote - 3 on-set video camera feeds and a 4th showing all the video feeds simultaneously, plus the actual film footage shot during the take. If you've ever wanted to know what it's like to be on a movie set during the filming of a complicated stunt/effects scene, you'll love this piece. THIS is the kind of DVD interactivity we wholeheartedly approve of at The Bits.

The remainder of the extras on Disc Two include a gallery that gives you a closer look at the paintings comic artist Alex Ross created for the film's opening, and a pair of video clips for the Spider-Man 2 videogame. There's also at least one very funny Easter egg on this disc that I'll let you find and enjoy for yourself. Suffice it to say that it's a cool on-set moment.

Spider-Man 2 is a great sequel by any measure. Disc One of this set is a little weak, and the video quality of the film is somewhat less than ideal, but otherwise this is a great special edition DVD. I should point out here that Raimi has already revealed that a Spider-Man 2.5 DVD is planned. Plus, there's currently a Superbit release available, complete with superior video quality and DTS surround sound (see the review below). And a Blu-ray Disc edition surely isn't more than a year away. In the meantime, if you don't already have it... THIS edition is worth having for the documentary alone.

Spider-Man 2: Superbit

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Spider-Man 2
Superbit - 2004 (2004) - Marvel/Sony Pictures (Columbia TriStar)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/F

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

Ahhh... now THIS is just the ticket. Spider-Man 2 looks and sounds just about as good as it gets on this single-disc, Superbit edition from Columbia TriStar. There are no extras save for DVD-ROM weblinks (like you care about DVD-ROM), but it's the picture and sound you buy Superbit DVDs for anyway, right?

The film is presented in the same anamorphic transfer you'll find on the 2-disc SE version, but for this Superbit release, its digital video is significantly less compressed. You'll notice the difference the instant you start the film. Colors are visibly richer and more vibrant, as is often the case on these Superbit editions (color information seems to be one of the first things to suffer with MPEG-2 over-compression). Image detailing and texture is also much more refined - the webbing in Spidey's suit, the texture of cement and brick... it's all much improved. Artifacting is virtually nil. Contrast and shadow detailing are excellent here as well. Even presented on very large projection systems, the image quality never breaks down.

This DVD includes the same, decent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that's available on the other DVD version, but it adds a much improved DTS track as well. As we've come to expect, the DTS renders a much smoother, more natural and more immersive soundfield. The soundstage is wide up front but unified all the way around, really placing you in the middle of the action. The rear channels are lively with atmosphere and effects, and the bass reinforcement is excellent. It's a great track and is definitely our preferred choice for listening to this film.

If the absolute best picture and sound quality is what you care about with your DVDs, this is the version of Spider-Man 2 to get your hands on. But if good enough is good enough, and you're a fan of great DVD documentaries, the regular 2-disc special edition is probably the best choice for you. Choices, choices, choices...

Top Gun: Widescreen Special Collector's Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Top Gun
Widescreen Special Collector's Edition - 1986 (2004) - Paramount

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B+/A-

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

Anybody out there feelin' a little need for speed? Come on, admit it. Most of you have wanted to climb into an F-14 and rocket above the clouds ever since Tom Cruise first did it on the big screen back in '86. You can almost hear Danger Zone playing in the back of your minds, can't you?

Navy fighter ace Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Cruise) flies his Tomcat right on the edge. In the cockpit, no one can touch him. Unfortunately, Maverick sometimes flies too aggressively, often crossing a very dangerous line. This recklessness aside, when the lead flyer in his carrier squadron loses his edge and washes out, Maverick and his RIO "Goose" (Anthony Edwards) get the chance of a lifetime - the opportunity to fly against the best of the best at the Navy's TOP GUN fighter combat school. When the competition gets fierce, there's only one question to be answered: Can Maverick reign in his personal demons enough to beat these elite pilots... or will he beat himself?

As presented on Paramount's new 2-disc special edition, the anamorphic widescreen transfer is excellent. The film element itself is in quite good condition. There's always a balance between seeing enough print grain to be faithful to the film experience and yet not too much to be coarse or distracting. This video rides the balance very well. The only minor issues are perhaps a little compression artifacting and possibly a little bit of edge enhancement, but they're every minor. Color representation is outstanding, and contrast and shadow detailing are very good overall. Simply put, Top Gun has never before looked so good in your living room.

This is one of the best DTS 6.1 ES soundtracks I've heard in some time on DVD. The mix is crisp and tight in terms of its dialogue placement and effects imaging, and yet it's also completely expansive and highly atmospheric. Bass is thunderous. The track absolutely draws you into the onscreen images. Best of all, the music is exceptionally well presented in the mix. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also very good - but it's not as smooth and immersive. Simply put, the DTS is just outstanding. It should definitely be your listening choice.

The extras start on Disc One, with a feature-length audio commentary that includes director Tony Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, co-writer Jack Epps, Jr., Captain Mike Galpin, technical advisor Pete Petteigrew and Vice Admiral Mike McCabe. It's a very good track, mostly because of the mix of personnel included. While Bruckheimer starts to get a little par for the course, the Navy guys provide a lot of interesting information. The track is entertaining right off the bat - Scott reveals that he was fired from the project three times. He chimes in with a number of good stories in this track. Disc One next presents a set of 4 original soundtrack music videos you might remember from the good old days of MTV, including classic tracks by Kenny Loggins, Berlin, Loverboy and Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens. There's also 7 vintage TV spots for the film (but no theatrical trailer - a minor quibble). Both the videos and the TV spots are full frame.

Disc Two is anchored by an outstanding 147-minute documentary on the making of the film called, appropriately, Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun. It's broken into 6 individual featurettes but the disc offers a "play all" option. The doc is very thorough, covering everything from the origins of the story to the final post production. In between are steps on the writing and research, the casting, the filming on the ground, in the air, the effects work and even the music. It features NEW interviews with virtually all of the major players both in front of and behind the camera, including Tom Cruise. Better still, it's all presented 16x9 for widescreen displays. Not surprisingly, it was also created by the folks at Lauzirika productions. ' Nuff said.

Next up on Disc Two are multi-angle storyboard presentations for two sequences from the film. You can choose to watch the storyboards, or the boards compared to the final film, and you can listen to original film audio or optional commentary by Scott. It's short, but nicely done. Finally, the disc includes a number of vintage items, including behind-the-scenes and survival training featurettes, period interviews with Cruise and a gallery of production photos organized by various categories (included are photos of a deleted scene being shot - I'm guessing the film footage was lost). All of this material is wrapped with lively CG animated menus screens set on the hangar and flight decks of an aircraft carrier. Yeah, they're a bit over-the-top, but then so is the film. It's a nice match.

Top Gun is one of those films everybody loves from the 80s. You just can't help liking it. It's glossy, slick and a bit over-inflated... but in a strangely wholesome and completely entertaining way. It was, in many ways, the first of its genre of action film - naturally, it blew audiences away. Better still, if you like the film, this 2-disc set is about as good a DVD special edition as you could ever expect. The documentary in particular is excellent. Highly recommended.

Bill Hunt
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