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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Hoosiers: Collector's Edition

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Collector's Edition - 1986 (2005) - Hemdale/Orion (MGM)

Film Rating: A

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

High school sports is a way of life in many parts of America. Friday night gatherings at the local gym, or field, or diamond are an important part of the social fabric in many small towns across this country. Caravans to support your team during away games are sacred thing. If you grow up in rural Texas, football is what it's all about. In Minnesota, it's hockey. But growing up in Indiana, basketball is definitely your thing. And no game in the history of Indiana high school basketball is more legendary that small town Milan vs. big city Muncie in the 1954 Championship Game.

Hoosiers is based upon that Milan team and its players. Set in the tiny farm town of Hickory, it tells the story of Norman Dale (Gene Hackman in one of his best roles), a down on his luck coach called upon by an old friend to lead the local high school basketball team. Dale isn't easily accepted by the townspeople, including one his fellow teachers (Barbara Hershey). Making matters worse, Dale recruits the town drunk (Dennis Hopper) as his assistant coach. So when the season starts out rough, no one really believes that Dale and his boys can pull things together... until they suddenly do. Before long, the Hickory Huskers have not only restored their town's faith... they've got a real shot at the state championship.

At long last, MGM presents this film on DVD with an anamorphic widescreen transfer. I have to tell you, I'm surprised at how good this video looks. I had feared the worst based on the quality of previous DVD editions, but Hoosiers really shines here. You're going to see moderate film grain, but that's to be expected given the film's age and budget. Indeed, a certain amount of grain is desirable - this is, after all, a film. Contrast and shadow detailing is excellent, and the colors are gorgeous. I was particularly surprised at the amount of fine image detail visible - the texture of the hardwood floor, waving fields of wheat, the brick walls of school house. It's just superb. This isn't reference quality, but THIS film has absolutely never looked better in my opinion.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but as you might expect, this isn't the kind of movie that's going to wow you with dynamic surround sound. It is, however, a nicely atmospheric mix. You can hear the welcoming and familiar way that sound echoes around the Hickory gym - it just feels... RIGHT is the only word I can think of to describe it (and I've played a few games in gyms like this, believe me). Most of the activity takes place in the front of the soundstage, but the dialogue is clear at all times and Jerry Goldsmith's familiar score is well presented in the mix. It's a nice match to the visuals.

This 2-disc set isn't what you would call loaded, but what you do get is absolutely perfect. Starting on Disc One, you get feature length audio commentary with director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo, along with the film's theatrical trailer. To this, Disc Two then adds an terrific 30-minute documentary on the making of the film, Hoosier History: The Truth Behind the Legend. Produced by the folks at New Wave Entertainment, it features new interviews with many of the cast and crew (including Hackman and Hopper), as well as several of the original Milan players themselves (and other Indiana basketball coaches and players too). It's very entertaining and well worth your time. Then you get a whopping 13 deleted scenes, each with introduction by the writer and director. Excited yet? Well, as if that's not cool enough, you also get archival footage of the original 1954 Indiana High School Championship Game the film is based on. No kidding, the ENTIRE game, complete with original radio play by play. Finally, you get a gallery of production photos. For any other film, this would be a decent special edition. But for THIS film, I feel like I've just died and gone to heaven.

Hoosiers is the ultimate underdog story - a film for the little guy, the every man, the small town kid who dares to dream big. It's a film that celebrates the idea that sometimes, everybody needs a second chance. This film takes me back fondly to the small towns of my youth every time I watch it. For my money, it's easily the best sports movie ever made, and this new DVD release finally does it long deserved justice. Great for the whole family, Hoosiers is absolutely not to be missed.

Star Wars: Clone Wars - Volume One

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Star Wars: Clone Wars
Volume One - 2003 (2005) - Lucasfilm/Cartoon Network (20th Century Fox)

Film Rating: B+

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

Star Wars fans have long dreamed of the mythical Clone Wars - George Lucas' great, galaxy-wide conflict that every good fan knows ended the days of the Old Republic and ushered in the evil Galactic Empire. Unfortunately, we've never gotten to see it on film. It starts just as Star Wars: Episode II ends and concludes with a great opening battle in the forthcoming Episode III. However, wanting to show some of these epic events to fans, Lucas called upon the artistic talents of Genndy Tartakovsky (creator of the acclaimed Samurai Jack) to bring the action to the small screen. Having debuted on Cartoon Network in 2003 as a series of animated "micro" episodes, these first two seasons of Clone Wars depict the continuing adventures of Anakin, Obi-Wan, Mace, Yoda and the rest of the Jedi Knights, as they struggle to save the galaxy from Count Dooku and his Separatist armies.

Finally available on DVD from 20th Century Fox, the video quality of Clone Wars on disc is spectacular. Presented in full anamorphic widescreen, its colors are incredibly vibrant, and both contrast and image detail are outstanding at all times. I watched this via front projection on a 100-inch screen and it's just beautiful. Note that all 20 of the original 5-minute animated episodes (composing Seasons One and Two of Clone Wars) have been edited together for this presentation into a single long film (with credits only once each at the start and finish).

The audio isn't Dolby Digital 5.1, but you do get a surprisingly good 2.0 surround mix. It features excellent dynamic range, good overall clarity and imaging, and nicely active surrounds. It fits the images perfectly, and it's certainly better than what you heard on the original cable broadcasts.

Extras include a pair of audio commentaries with producer/director Tartakovsky. One is newly recorded and one was previously available on Star's Hyperspace community. Both are good, giving you plenty of background details on the story, artwork and production. There's a short, 4-minute featurette on the making of the micro-series that appeared previously on the Cartoon Network, along with galleries of storyboards, sketches, posters and other artwork. There's also a trio of Star Wars videogame featurettes and a playable level of the Republic Commando game (just pop this disc in your Xbox). By far the best of the extras, however, are the teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode III and the 7-minute Bridging the Saga featurette. Both are presented in anamorphic widescreen video with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The trailer is absolutely gorgeous looking, and the featurette includes new interviews with Tartakovsky, George Lucas and one or two of the animation staffers. Better still, Bridging the Saga features about 20 seconds of amazing footage from the space battle that opens Episode III - stuff you've definitely not seen before. If it's any indication of the film as a whole, Revenge of the Sith is going to be a helluva fun ride.

Lawrence of Arabia it's not, but Clone Wars: Volume One is great looking and a helluva lot of fun. Heck, story-wise it's better than half of what we've seen in Episodes I & II so far. Clone Wars: Volume Two (aka Season Three) begins airing on Cartoon Network in March (you'll get 5 episodes, but each will be 12 minutes long this time). Its story will lead you right into the opening scenes of Episode III (due May 19th in theaters). You can bet that both Clone Wars: Volume Two and Episode III will be on DVD as well before year is out. Don't miss any of it.

Be sure to read all our Star Wars DVD reviews here at The Bits:

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones
Star Wars: Clone Wars - Volume One
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
The Star Wars Trilogy - A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Special Collector's Edition

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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Special Collector's Edition - 2004 (2005) - Paramount

Film Rating: C-

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

In a world of future past, intrepid New York City reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is chasing the scent of a story involving dead scientists, when an army of giant robots suddenly invades Manhattan. Enter ace aviator Joe Sullivan (alias "Sky Captain," played by Jude Law), who roars into action in his souped-up P-40 Warhawk and saves the city in the nick of time. Teaming up to investigate the attack, Perkins and Sullivan soon learn that the robots are just part of the evil plans of the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf... plans which, if successful, could spell the very end of the world.

I have to be honest... I really wanted to like Sky Captain. Having seen the amazing preview trailers, I was absolutely looking forward to this film. It's certainly a clever concept - the idea of a live-action comic book brought to the big screen with highly-stylized CG animation. Unfortunately, the story here is almost completely uninspiring - an obvious and rather hastily assembled amalgam of Flash Gordon, The War of the Worlds, The Wizard of Oz, The Lost World, Moonraker and several other films.

Visually, Sky Captain is every bit as amazing as expected. But its dramatic tension is badly undermined by the fact that your brain always knows that what it's seeing isn't real (and the action isn't compelling enough to help you fool it into thinking otherwise). Complicating matters further, the acting here is stilted and often just completely flat. This is the worst case of Phantom Menace Syndrome since... well... The Phantom Menace. The actors are working on blue screen stages, doing their level best to imagine and react to what's going on around them, but they just don't seem connected to their virtual environment in any tangible or visceral way.

Still, as I said, this is an amazing looking film, and Paramount's DVD release presents it in absolutely breathtaking anamorphic widescreen video. Colors are stylized but accurate, contrast is solid and there's plenty of fine detail and subtle texture visible in the image. There's a little bit of compression artifacting (not surprising given how much material has been packed onto a single disc), but the film's overall look is soft enough to mask it. In general, once you get past all the forced preview trailers and warning screens, this is a great looking disc.

On the audio side, you get an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that's highly active and atmospheric. The front soundstage is big and wide, panning is smooth with lively surrounds, and bass reinforcement in the LFE is thunderous. Sky Captain on DVD sounds as good as it looks.

Bonus material on this single-disc release includes a pair decent (but unremarkable) audio commentary tracks, one with producer Jon Avnet and the other with writer/director Kerry Conran and members of his effects team. There's an interesting documentary on the making of the film, Brave New World, presented in two parts. There's also a featurette on the artistic look of the film, a short gag reel and a pair of deleted scenes. Best of the bunch is the original 6-minute short the film was based on, presented widescreen but unfortunately not anamorphic.

I certainly appreciate the tremendous creativity involved in the making of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but the film unfortunately fails on almost every level other than its visuals and production design. I'll be honest - I had a hard time just staying awake through it. Not even Angelina Jolie's plush-lipped appearance in the film's third act (in a tight leather catsuit no less) can save it. That said, the visuals and production design are more than impressive enough to justify giving this film a spin on DVD. But I'd definitely recommend renting it first before buying it.

Flight of the Phoenix

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Flight of the Phoenix
Widescreen Edition - 2004 (2005) - 20th Century Fox

Film Rating: D+

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

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

Flight of the Phoenix tells the story of Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid), an oil company pilot flying a down-on-their-luck drilling team back to civilization from a bum prospect site in Mongolia. As they're crossing over the vast desert, a sudden sandstorm brings their plane down. Having been blown off course and carrying limited water and supplies, Frank believes their chances of surviving are virtually zero... until one of his passengers suddenly hatches a crazy plan to build a new aircraft from the wreckage of the original that maybe... just maybe... can fly them all to safety.

That sounds like a great plot for a film, right? Well it was... back in 1965 when it starred Jimmy Stewart, Richard Attenborough and Ernest Borgnine. The original Flight of the Phoenix was a sparse and tightly-wound tale, in which the vast deserts of North Africa were just as much a character as any of the crash survivors. Here, the tension entirely wrung from special effects and the histrionics of cookie-cutter characters. This remake also throws in a band of desert smugglers just to make sure you knew this was supposed to be a nail-biter. Sadly, none of this matters. While the original took its time to build the tension to a boil through good old fashioned storytelling... this new version is pretty standard paint-by-numbers fare.

The anamorphic widescreen video quality on Fox's DVD release is generally first rate. Colors are accurate and skewed toward the warm side, with subtle tones of skin and sand well represented. Contrast is good, with deep blacks and nice shadow detailing. There's surprisingly little in the way of digital artifacting, and edge enhancement is never a problem. It's a great transfer.

The film's audio is presented in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround. Both are excellent tracks with a wide front soundstage, active use of the surrounds, smooth panning and bass reinforcement that will occasionally put your subwoofer to the test. The track is mostly atmospheric with the sound of wind and blowing sand, but the crash scene will just knock you out of your seat. You can feel the deep bass vibration of the airframe in your chest as the engines begin to fail and the plane starts going down. I would say the Dolby track is a little more directional and the DTS has a slightly smoother quality, but really there's very little difference otherwise.

This is a single disc release, but it includes feature-length audio commentary with director John Moore (joined by the producers and production designer). There are four extended scenes and two deleted scenes (about 15 minutes in all). The extended footage is anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 sound, while the deleted material is letterboxed only with stereo sound (but features optional commentary). There's also a 40-minute documentary on the making of the film, The Phoenix Diaries (likewise letterboxed with stereo audio). All of the material is worth checking out once. The doc in particular has a nicely laid back and honest quality, but Moore's a bit of a stress case, so be advised if swearing's not your bag (he's likeable, but he's definitely a major rager). There's a particularly funny moment when Giovanni Ribisi is being asked to send videotaped "greetings" to Entertainment Tonight, E! and other vacuous entertainment fluff programming, and he's so not into it that he starts laughing. I got a pretty big kick out of the whole piece.

Film remakes are seldom as successful or entertaining as the original films they're based on. Flight of the Phoenix is no exception. It's certainly watchable. Quaid is likeable enough to keep things moving and Ribisi is nicely creepy. Still, it's almost entirely unmemorable, save for about ten minutes right around the crash scene. Now if only the crash scene were two hours long, you'd have something. My recommendation is to give this film a rent and buy the original 1965 version instead. It's also on DVD from Fox (click here for our review).

The Twilight Samurai

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The Twilight Samurai
(Tasogare seibei)

2002 (2004) - Shochiku (Empire Pictures)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D/C+/D

Set in late 19th Century Japan, at a time when the country's Feudal political and economic structure is gradually breaking down, The Twilight Samurai tells the story of Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a low-ranking samurai struggling to fulfill his day-to-day duties managing his clan's supply warehouses, while also raising two young daughters by himself and caring for his senile mother. Among his peers, Seibei is a disgrace. With no wife to help him, he smells bad, he's always tired and his clothes are thread bare. Things gets better for Seibei however, when his childhood sweetheart Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) suddenly reappears in the village, having just left her husband - a cruel, drunken samurai who beat her mercilessly. Seibei has always loved Tomoe and she returns his feelings. She soon begins caring for him and his family. But just when Seibei thinks life is finally looking up, his clan orders him to take up his sword and perform a dangerous assignment - one that could bring him honor and status at last... or death.

I don't think I've ever seen a modern samurai movie crafted with the kind of humanity and attention to detail that the great Akira Kurosawa brought to so many of his classic films, but The Twilight Samurai comes awfully close. Its depiction of a reluctant warrior who risks everything for honor, duty and love, is engaging and deeply affecting. Its tone reminds me a lot of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. This film takes its time developing, but everything we've been shown about the character of Seibei (his love of his family, his sense of duty) resonates powerfully in the final act. The Twilight Samurai is great cinema, easily among my top ten favorite films of 2004.

As great as this film is, however, I'm sad to say that the folks at Empire Pictures have really dropped the ball in terms of DVD quality. The film is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen video that looks, frankly, awful. The video has an overly soft appearance that almost makes it look like it was mastered on analog tape. It's also overcompressed, with plenty of digital artifacting. Meanwhile, such things as color, contrast and overall image detail are severely lacking. To top it all off, the English subtitles are burned into the print rather than generated by the player. You'll be okay if you're watching this on a small TV, but anyone with a better-than-passable home theater system is going to be very disappointed.

The film at least sounds good on DVD, with original Japanese audio presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. It's surprisingly engaging, with decent dynamic range and light, atmospheric use of the surrounds. The lack of a true 5.1 mix is disappointing, but this track supports the film well enough.

The DVD does include a couple of extras, including a pair of video interviews (one with director Yoji Yamada and the other with star Hiroyuki Sanada). They're dubbed in English and together run just shy of half an hour. You also get non-anamorphic trailers for this film, as well as Almost Peaceful and The Three Marias.

The Twilight Samurai is a rare gem, and it's absolutely worth your time. Sadly, this DVD is not. If you have an all-region player, we recommend picking up one of the Asian releases, which feature excellent anamorphic widescreen video and true 5.1 audio. Otherwise, just rent this disc or wait until Empire gets its act together and re-issues this film on DVD in better quality.

Bill Hunt
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