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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Jason Paul Smith, Joe Massaro and Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

My Date with Drew

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My Date with Drew
2004 (2005) - Lucky Crow Films and Rusty Bear Entertainment (First Look)

Program Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/D

"If you don't take risks, you'll have a wasted soul." - Drew Barrymore

When Brian Herzlinger set out to make My Date with Drew, he had no expectations. Having just won $1,100 as a contestant on a game show, Herzlinger, a 27-year-old struggling filmmaker, decided to pursue his dream to have one date with movie star Drew Barrymore. With a video camera (that he has to return to Circuit City in 30 days) and his prize money in hand, Herzlinger and his friends set off on a scavenger hunt of agents, writers, actors, and assistants trying to find anyone with a connection to Drew.

When I set out to watch My Date with Drew, I also had no expectations. The story of a struggling filmmaker pursing his dream of meeting a celebrity seemed redundant and contrived; more reality television than documentary. But five minutes into the film, I was hooked. Herzlinger and friends Jon Gunn and Brett Winn are surprisingly charming. That charm earned My Date with Drew the Audience Awards at both the Gen Art Festival and the US Comedy Arts Festival. More than a game of six degrees of Drew Barrymore, this film is about following your dreams... no matter how ridiculous they may seem.

The image quality on this disc from First Look is surprisingly good, given that the footage was originally shot on digital video. The anamorphic widescreen image is clean and clear, with adequate contrast. A few scenes suffer from lighting issues (over or under exposure), but it's really a minor issue. Surprisingly, the soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but there's very little activity in the rear channels. That's fine - this is a dialogue-heavy film anyway. If the audio here isn't dynamic, it's more than good enough to get the job done.

Missing a director's commentary and deleted scenes, the extras on this DVD are the big disappointment. The only real bonus item on the disc is a 20-minute featurette, entitled On the Road to Hollywood. Essentially a sequel to the film, it follows Herzlinger and friends (now called the Drew Crew) through the process of distribution. From film festivals to distributors, we learn the steps that were necessary to get the film into theaters.

If you like charming, off-beat fare, you definitely need to check out My Date with Drew. If, on the other hand, you tend to steer clear of this kind of film, at least take a risk and give it five minutes of your time. You never know, it just might grab you. Like Drew says, "if you don't take risks, you'll have a wasted soul."

Jason Paul Smith

Ĉon Flux: The Complete Animated Collection

Æon Flux: The Complete Animated Collection
1995 (2005) - MTV Networks (Paramount)

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

Originally a group of six shorts on MTV's Liquid Television, the animated Æon Flux revolves around an agent/assassin of the same name; a silent femme fatale, whose sexual body language is matched only by her violent gun toting tendencies. The success of the pilot led to a second "season" of shorts (also on Liquid Television), or as I like to alternately call them... How Many Ways Can I Kill Æon Flux? This has do to the premise of the second season, which was the death of Æon Flux at the end of each episode and the subsequent failure of her missions, a point that both confounded and enthralled viewers. As in the pilot, there was no spoken dialogue in any of the episodes and it was the outrageously pseudo-sexual, kung-fu body language of the anti-heroine herself which conveyed the meaning behind the stories. Surprisingly, after the second series of shorts, Æon Flux was green lighted for a half-hour series of its own.

This series, which takes up two of the three discs in this DVD box set, is set in a dystopian, utilitarian future, where Æon Flux is an agent whose true motivations are as secret as her allegiances. In the series, there are two cities, Bregna and the Monican Republic. Bregna is an Orwellian dictatorship where "Big Brother" watches over and controls the citizens, who work for the collective good. The Monican Republic, meanwhile, is the quintessential utopia, a paradise where the citizen controls his own destiny. These two disparagingly different cities are separated by an impenetrable wall, riddled with booby traps, designed to keep people out as well as in. In each episode, Æon crosses the wall on her illusive mission to the other side, where she does battle (among other things) with her nemesis, Trevor Goodchild.

The ten episodes of the series are loosely linked, but each episode is actually a complete stand-alone, playing out a mini-story with a cast of familiar characters assuming new and different roles in each episode. Trevor Goodchild, the antagonist, wears many hats: scientist, ruler, doctor. The adversary of Æon Flux, he holds an obsessive and unhealthy sexual interest in the femme fatale, an interest she reciprocates. The two compete in a tête-à-tête dance of violent confrontation and kinky pseudo-sexual acts that evolve as the episodes progress. The addition of dialogue helps to flesh out new angles of the series, but don't look for any greater clarity. The series, like the shorts, are a juxtaposition of wild and distorted plots, spinning off into entropy of the absurd.

The video quality on these DVDs is superb. The transfer is flawless and the episodes have had a retooling by creator Peter Chung, who went back to "fix" parts he wanted to change. The image is clear and the colors are crisp, albeit deliberately muted to enhance the mood of the show. The new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio remix is top notch, giving the episodes a crisp, clear sound. The original 2.0 stereo track has been included as well for compleatists, but it's only worth using to compare it to the far superior 5.1 remix. There are just two drawbacks - the series does not have subtitles and there are no Closed Captions.

For those who may be interested, Disc One starts with a teaser trailer for the new live-action Æon Flux movie and a sequence from the new video game. In addition to extensive commentary tracks for the episodes, an entire disc (Disc Three) is dedicated just to extra features for the series.

First up is the pilot. All six of the original 2-minute segments are brought together for one twelve minute joyride of mayhem, intrigue and orgastic violence, with more than a hint of kinky sexual predilections. The pilot has an optional walk-through commentary with Peter Chung and Drew Neumann. Also included are the six shorts aired during season two of MTV's Liquid Television. Like the pilot, Peter Chung and Drew Neumann flesh out the scenes with commentary, giving insightful thoughts into the hidden meanings of the show.

Moving on, a pair of featurettes, running a combined 23 minutes, explore the behind-the-scenes workings of the series. The first, Investigation: The History of Æon Flux, examines the character's creation and the evolution of the series. Retrospective interviews are included from writers, artists, production designers, and voice artists. The second featurette, The Deviant Devices of Æon Flux, is a narration in Æon's voice, explaining the various weapons she uses and some back-story behind each of them - definitely an added tidbit for fans.

There's a gallery of production art, which has still photos, storyboards and artwork highlighting the development of the show from early concepts to the finished designs. Other Work by Peter Chung features some additional animation samples by the creator of Æon Flux. Then there's a final section that collects sample clips of other Liquid Television shorts. This is definitely a treat and hopefully is a prelude to more much-deserved DVD releases. The set finishes up with previews for other MTV DVD sets available from Paramount, including Jackass, Wildboyz and Viva la Bam.

Some final comments: Reading other reviews for this box set, I got the impression that a lot of reviewers just didn't get this series. For my money, MTV's Liquid Television was an experiment combining art noir, pop culture and television... and Æon Flux was the lasting expression of that experiment. If the series suffered from anything, it's that it was well ahead of its time. Sure, a lot of people didn't get it, but what many failed to realize was that they weren't supposed to. From beginning to end, Æon Flux is a wild ride through the mind of a creative genius. If you don't get it, don't worry. You're not alone. Æon Flux isn't for those looking for a straightforward plot that ties itself up, nice and neat by the end of the series. But if you've enjoyed such films as The Matrix, or Japanese manga like Fooli Cooli and Paranoia Agent, then you'll I think enjoy Æon Flux too. This definitive collected edition is long overdue and it's a must for any serious collector of the kind of wild and weird that pushes the envelope of the mainstream.

Joe Massaro

The Sting: Special Edition - Legacy Series

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Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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The Sting: Special Edition
Legacy Series - 1973 (2005) - Universal (Universal)

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B/C
Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B-/B-

There's a rule of thumb in movies about con men and con games, which is this: someone is going to double-cross and otherwise screw-over everyone else until they run out of time and film. Whether it's latter-day swindle flicks like Confidence and The Heist, or the granddaddy of them all, The Sting, nothing is as it appears. Unfortunately, since jaded viewers now know that another ace is probably up someone's sleeve, their effectiveness is diminished.

My only memories of The Sting prior to reviewing this set were shots of a train chugging through the night and something about the ending twist. Hey, I was only six then, what do you want from me? Given that I'm sort of grown-up now, and figuring it may be time to catch up on some films that came out before the first Star Wars, I thought that the new Legacy Edition of The Sting would be a good way to catch up. I thought right.

This story of a big-time con won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay. It also reunited the stars and director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, including Paul Newman, Robert Redford and George Roy Hill. To this mix were added Charles Durning, Robert Shaw, Ray Walston and Eileen Brennan, resulting in an great old-time caper.

After small-time grifter with a gambling problem, Johnny Hooker (Redford), scams the wrong runner for the wrong mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw), his partner who was planning on quitting the grift life, gets tossed out a window. Suddenly, Hooker is on the run, both from Lonnegan and shady Chicago cop Lt. Snyder (Durning). Following up on a tip his partner gave him, Hooker tracks down Henry Gondorff (Newman), an allegedly ace scamster turned broken-down drunkard who maintains the merry-go-round adjacent to the bawdy house his lady friend, Billie (Brennan), operates.

The pair teams up and Gondorff sets in motion an elaborate "sting" to rip off Lonnegan, involving setting up a seemingly legitimate illegal betting parlor. Hooker's job is to convince Lonnegan that he's double-crossing his boss, Gondorff, and has a connection at the Western Union office that will get him the race results before they're "broadcast." (Back in olden times, sports broadcasts were created from news ticker reports.) Much chicanery and double-crossing ensues.

While the puzzle-box plot is meant to rachet up the stakes for the characters, I spotted the major twists two states away and it wasn't just because I had a vague recollection of the film. It's just that in the ensuing years, I've seen too many films based on the formula here to be bamboozled. (It's like the twist in The Sixth Sense: While that one gobsmacked the audience, subsequent attempts of films to amaze with similar twists are either just too obvious, or the viewer is now more alert) There is also a subplot involving an unseen killer bumping people off that doesn't really make sense.

With the story undercut somewhat in the dramatics department, there's still the performances and breezy direction by Hill to appreciate. Newman may be too old and Redford's character may be too self-destructive, but it's fun to watch them grind against each other here. A lengthy scene in which Gondorff outcheats Lonnegan at poker may be the best in the film, as Newman's abrasive manner sends Shaw into a simmering slow burn. Marvin Hamlisch's arrangements of Scott Joplin's rags also lend to the period atmosphere.

For an older movie released as a revamped special edition DVD, the print is fairly clean, though there are a few instances of wear and dirt including a light scratch early on. While detail is generally good on the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer, there are a few instances of softness from time to time in which some portions of the image appear fuzzy, while others are extremely sharp and detailed, especially in the fine texture of clothing. In keeping with the era, colors tend toward a warm-neutral palette which looks good in brighter scenes, but gets grainier and muddy in darker moments. Colors are free of noise and smearing, and there's little in the way of compression artifacting.

Not fairing as well is the audio, which has been expanded to a purported 5.1 Surround mix, in both Dolby and DTS flavors, from the original mono to provide a modern-sounding bullet point for the box. Unfortunately, rear channel activity is almost non-existent and what's up front doesn't impress very much either. There's little in the way of stereo separation and dialogue varies in clarity and tone.

Tracks cannot be switched on the fly and if you kick out the menu to select DTS while watching Dolby, it restarts the film from the beginning after displaying the DTS splash trailer. However, switching from DTS to Dolby will return you to where you left off - a particularly lame arrangement. Of the two, I preferred the DTS track with its warmer tone and depth and fewer instances of distortion compared to the Dolby option.

There is no commentary track with the movie on Disc One unfortunately, and the extras are saved for Disc Two, starting with brief text production notes. These are hampered by a clumsy navigation method which is inconsistent - it dumped me to the main menu a few times. The theatrical trailer offered here is one made to capitalize on the film's Oscar wins. It's non-anamorphic and very dingy to look at.

The real draw here is The Art of The Sting, a three-part documentary consisting of The Perfect Script (23:16), Making a Masterpiece (22:57) and The Legacy (10:05). It's presented in full frame video with stereo sound. With relatively recent interviews with Redford, Newman, Durning, Brennen, Walston (who passed in 2001), Arliss, Hamlisch, and screenwriter David S. Ward the development and shooting of the film is discussed, liberally padded with illustrative clips. Interesting tidbits include Hamlisch pointing out that the reason most people noticed the score was because there was very little underscore during dialogue; Shaw's limp was due to a handball injury and Durning pouring the booze on Brennan's hand was an accident. There is lots of praise all around for Hill's direction, too.

While the dramatic impact of The Sting may have been lost over the ensuing decades, it's still a genuinely entertaining romp. The extras are a bit thin on this new DVD reissue. Considering that almost all the film's stars are still alive, it's too bad that a commentary track wasn't done. Still, fans will likely appreciate the nice book-style packaging and the overall presentation quality Universal has given the film.

Peter Schorn

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