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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Heat: Special Edition

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Special Edition - 1995 (2005) - Regency (Warner Bros.)

Film Rating: A+

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

Heat is perhaps the ultimate guy flick. It's sexy and stylish - one of those films with great casting, acting and action that just gets under your skin. Directed by Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Collateral), it tells the story of two not-so-very-different men. One, an LAPD homicide detective named Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), is so consumed by his work that he's failing his third marriage. Hanna prowls the streets of L.A. like a wolf, stalking those who would do wrong, while his personal life falls into ruin. The other, a professional criminal named McCauley (Robert De Niro), is simply doing what he knows best - armed robbery. He also lives a lonely existence, making no personal connections that he couldn't walk out on at a moment's notice. McCauley and his crew are after one last score - a bank heist that could land them more than $12 million. As these two hardened pros go about their business, they gradually become aware of one another - predator and prey - and each begins to gain a certain respect for the other. But both also know that they're on a collision course: In the end, only one will be left standing.

As if the Pacino vs. De Niro match-up weren't cool enough, Mann has surrounded these two with an absolute dream cast of fine supporting players, including Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Ted Levine, Hank Azaria, Ashley Judd and Natalie Portman. Each character seems well-rounded and fully-dimensional. The plot itself is based on years of research by Mann into actual criminals and police work, making it both plausible and believable. And when the action heats up, it's first rate and entirely justified by the story.

Warner's original movie-only Heat DVD featured a decent anamorphic widescreen transfer. It was nothing special, but it was certainly solid enough. This new 2-disc special edition seems to feature the exact same transfer, albeit with the somewhat improved MPEG-2 compression you'd expect of a newer release (note that every time you re-author a film on DVD with new extras, the compression is redone - it's one of the very last steps in the process). Contrast is excellent overall and the colors are stylistically muted but accurate. There's good image detail visible and you'll see moderate film grain as appropriate. Some scenes appear a little soft, while others are crisp and clear. As with the first disc, this isn't reference quality video but it certainly gets the job done.

On the audio side, again this seems to be the same Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that appeared on the first DVD. Which is fine. The surround sound here is very well mixed, with clear dialogue and great spatial separation. You'll hear plenty of rear channel use, but it's appropriate use - not gimmicky. It creates a very good sense of three-dimensional space - important given that this is a highly atmospheric film. The soundstage is deep and full, and there's plenty of bass to put your subwoofer to work. The mix was first-rate back in 1999 when the original DVD appeared, but it doesn't quite stand up to more recent 5.1 work on disc. Still, this new DVD reproduces the sonic experience nicely.

The main reason to purchase this new release, of course, is all the new special edition material it offers. The best of this is a feature-length audio commentary with Michael Mann on Disc One. It's laid back in tone, but Mann is well-spoken and thoughtful, so the track stays interesting and informative all the way through. Mann talks about the character motivations, the filming of different aspects of the scene, how the story evolved and more. Given the length of the film, it's probably not for everyone. Still, fans should really appreciate this, especially given the fact that Mann had previously indicated that he wasn't interested in recording commentaries. Also on Disc One are a trio of non-anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailers for the film - identical to the ones that were on the original DVD.

Let me just say, before we move on to Disc Two, that the menus on these DVDs (and the intros to the featurettes) are more than a little cheesy, complete with footage of blue-tinted boiling flame. Subtle they're not. But if you can look past that, the material on Disc Two is pretty decent. First up, you get some 11 deleted scenes (running around 8 minutes in all), presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. Some are better than others, but they're all very cool to see and have here. Next up is a good documentary on The Making of Heat, divided into three separate featurettes (with a "play all" option). Together they run about an hour, and cover everything from the genesis and evolution of the story, to the casting, training the actors in proper police procedure, the filming, the stunt work and more. There are new and vintage interviews with the key production people and all of the film's stars. There's an interesting featurette about the two lead characters and their on-screen dynamic. Called Pacino and De Niro: The Conversation, it focuses largely on the specific scene in the film where they meet and discover that they actually like and respect one another. Finally, in Return to the Scene of the Crime, the film's location manager and associate producer take you back to a lot of the L.A.-area locations where the film was shot.

Heat is a film that's long deserved worthy special edition treatment on DVD. This new 2-disc set certainly isn't the most definitive special edition that could have been done, nor is it likely to be the last. It is, however, very good - far and away better than the previous DVD release. If you're a fan of this film, you'll certainly appreciate it. It's well worth the upgrade price.

Star Trek: First Contact - Special Collector's Edition

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Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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Star Trek: First Contact
Special Collector's Edition - 1996 (2005) - Paramount

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/B

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

During the shakedown cruise of the new Enterprise-E, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his crew learn of an invasion by the greatest enemy the Federation has ever faced... a race of cybernetic beings known as the Borg. Haunted by the experience of having once been 'assimilated' by the Borg, Picard is ordered to stay out of the fight, despite the fact that the Enterprise is the most powerful ship available. Starfleet is afraid the Borg may still have some control over his actions. But the fleet's best efforts are not enough - the Borg break through their defenses easily and head for Earth.

Picard ignores his orders, of course, and the Enterprise arrives just in time to stop the invasion. But a small Borg escape craft manages to create a temporal rift and disappear back in time. As our heroes watch, the Earth suddenly changes, becoming a Borg world before their eyes. Picard realizes that the Enterprise too must go back into the past, to undo whatever damage the Borg have done there. Upon arriving, he quickly discovers the Borg's nefarious plan: to prevent the most important event in Human history - first contact with extraterrestrial life.

The whole gang of regulars is back, in this second film outing by the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Also along for the ride are actors James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard, as denizens of a 21st Century Earth recovering from the devastation of World War III. Sitting behind the camera this time out is none other than Commander Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes. Frakes does an admirable job - he's clearly a capable director.

The film's weakness lies in its script (perhaps no surprise given Brannon Braga's involvement). It starts off with a bang - the battle scenes with the Borg are exciting and make for great spectacle. But it's all over in a matter of moments. Picard and crew defeat the bad guys easily - hard to believe for anyone who followed the Borg storyline on the TV series. Then we're into an overused time travel subplot and we quickly lose the dramatic tension. It would almost have been better if the good guys were losing the battle in the present, and had to chase the Borg back through time, in order to come back and repel the invasion. That, at least, would have raised the stakes and given the end of the film greater impact. Unfortunately, the writers also couldn't resist throwing other typically hokey Trek-isms into the mix, such as alien T&A in the form of the Borg Queen (Alice Krige). Worse yet, while she's at least given something to do, Counsellor Troi's drinking scene ranks right up there with the drunken Scotty subplot from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. All this aside, First Contact is still a solid piece of entertainment. It's well intentioned, the effects are excellent and Patrick Stewart's Captain Ahab speech is almost enough to pull it all off. Almost.

Paramount's original DVD release of this film featured a very solid anamorphic widescreen transfer - one of the studio's first. This new 2-disc version appears to include the same transfer, just with much improved MPEG-2 compression and less unnecessary 'tweaking'. The original image quality was very good, with terrific contrast, gorgeous and richly saturated colors and only minor artifacting and edge enhancement. The improved compression on the new release results in slightly greater detail and a cleaner, more natural looking image with subtly improved depth. The result is fantastic. First Contact looks amazing - one of Paramount's best recent efforts.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also outstanding (again, the same mix featured on the original DVD). Listen for yourself, particularly during the space battle early in the film - the shrill cry of phaser fire, the metallic thump of photon torpedoes. There's lots of great directional sound and very good use of the rear channels. When the Borg speak in their gravelly monotone, arrogantly demanding unconditional surrender, their voices seem to come from everywhere at once. Aboard Worf's ship, the Defiant, we hear the groaning of stressed metal and sizzle of overloaded circuitry all around. Better still, this new DVD release offers a fantastic DTS mix as well. The DTS track is superb, with smoother panning and the expected measure of additional clarity working to create a more natural soundfield overall.

Disc One includes a pair of newly-recorded audio commentary tracks, one featuring Frakes and the other scribes Braga and Ron Moore. The director's track is a bit... well, goofy. I believe this was Frakes' first turn at doing commentary and it shows. Unfortunately, he's all too often just reacting to what's happening on screen. But what also shows here is his enthusiasm. I've met Frakes on a couple of occasions and he's a truly good guy who loves Trek, his work here and his fellow cast and crew members. If you give the track a chance and stick with it, I think you'll get something positive out of the experience. Of the two commentaries, the writers' track is certainly the more interesting. There's a rather strange dynamic going on between Braga and Moore. You sense that they've got a lot of history together, but they're maybe not the best of friends outside of work. I have to admit, I'm not a huge fan of Braga, given how he and fellow producer Rick Berman have run both Enterprise and the Trek franchise as a whole into the ground in recent years (I could write a lengthy rant on that topic alone, believe me). But I love hearing him talk about his work. He obviously loves Star Trek, but he's just been too close to it for far too long. He seems to have creatively run out of steam, unlike Moore who always sounds energized and upbeat (no surprise given the success of his new Battlestar reboot). FYI, Disc One also includes another solid text trivia commentary by the unsung Michael and Denise Okuda.

Disc Two starts with a series of six production featurettes, covering the making of the film, the production design, the development of the story, the two major set-piece locations (the missile silo and the Enterprise's deflector dish) and the development of the new Enterprise E starship design. There's plenty of interview clips with the cast and crew, and lots of behind-the-scenes video and artwork. There's a trio of "scene deconstructions" covering two key moments involving the Borg Queen and the escape pod sequence. Another trio of featurettes covers wider aspects of the Trek universe, including a look at the character of Zefram Cochrane, the real and speculative science behind the idea of alien first contact and an outstanding tribute to the work of the late composer Jerry Goldsmith - the man who almost single-handedly crafted the Trek franchise's signature themes. There are three more featurettes that look at specific aspects of the Borg race. There are galleries of production photos and storyboard art (though sadly not for the opening space battle). Finally, you get the film's teaser and theatrical trailers (both non-anamorphic) as well as a promo for the Borg Invasion experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. The documentary material together runs just shy of three and a half hours in all. As with all of these Trek SEs, the menus are wonderfully well animated (using the actual CG models created for the films and here featuring an appropriately "Borg-a-fied" interface). They also hide a number of hidden Easter egg clips. My main criticism of Disc Two is the surprising lack of deleted scenes (a big disappointment), and the fact that all of the extras are non-anamorphic widescreen. The extras do at least offer optional subtitles.

Wrath of Khan it isn't, but if you're a Star Trek fan, you'll probably get everything you're looking for from First Contact. The action sequences are generally good and the story, while at times campy, is entertaining. The first (and probably ONLY) film appearance of the Borg should have packed a lot more punch though, and there's just a hair too much Trek hokum here for my taste. On the DVD side, this new 2-disc version delivers great looking video and outstanding surround sound, along with enough extras to satisfy most (if not quite all) fans.

The Lone Gunmen: The Complete Series

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The Lone Gunmen
The Complete Series - 2001 (2005) - 20th Century Fox

Program Rating: C+

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

They say the truth is out there... and if it is, leave it to the eclectic trio of John Fitzgerald Byers, Ringo Langly and Melvin Frohike to track it down, sort it out and shine the light of day upon it. Doesn't really matter if no one believes it, right? Call them geeks, call them hackers, call them gonzo journalists, this daring trio of unlikely freedom fighters publishes their findings semi-regularly (or as funds become available) in their always entertaining publication, The Lone Gunmen. The circulation isn't huge, but hey... Fox Mulder's a fan and Men In Black seem to get a big kick out of it too.

Created by Chris Carter, The Lone Gunmen was a 13-episode spin-off following the misadventures of a trio of much loved supporting characters (of the same name) from Fox's The X-Files. Sadly, like so many of the network's recent genre efforts, the series was cancelled just as it was starting to find its legs. Sure, the show wasn't great and it was never a big ratings draw, but it was always entertaining at least for the interactions of its characters. Thankfully, Fox has finally seen fit to release The Lone Gunmen complete on DVD, and it's surprisingly good fun to revisit them.

This 3-disc set includes all 13 episodes in full anamorphic widescreen (2-3 episodes are included per side of each disc). The video quality is very good overall, with excellent clarity, contrast and color, and only light digital artifacting and film grain visible. Absolutely no complaints here - this series certainly looks better than you've ever seen it before.

As with Fox's The X-Files on DVD, the eps are presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 surround audio (in both English and Spanish), also much improved over what you experienced in the original TV broadcasts. This isn't terribly active surround sound, but it works very well to convey all the action and is a good match with the visuals. Dialogue is clear, there's solid bass, lightly atmospheric use of the surrounds and the music sounds great. I can't stop humming that theme song.

There aren't a lot of extras on this set, but what you do get is pleasing. There are audio commentary tracks on 5 of the set's 13 episodes featuring the show's assorted producers, directors and cast members. Two of them (Bond, Jimmy Bond and Tango De Los Pistoleros) feature the complete series cast. There are 4 TV spots for the series and the Defenders of Justice: The Story of The Lone Gunmen featurette (which runs over 30 minutes). Finally, you get a complete episode of The X-Files as well. This isn't just a cross-promotional move. Since The Lone Gunmen was cancelled before an actual series finale could be produced, Carter and company wisely paid off the Gunmen's heroic story in one of the last X-Files episodes (the slyly named Jump the Shark).

On an interesting side note, you'll be glad to know that Fox has included the series' pilot episode uncut in its entirety. This might seem surprising, given that the episode dealt with a terrorist plot to crash a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center (scant months before 9/11) and actually features footage of the actual towers themselves. What's more, The Defenders of Justice featurette addresses this subject in some detail - it's fascinating viewing. Bravo to Fox for not bowing to some misguided sense of political correctness.

If you think of The Lone Gunmen as a sort of mini-series within The X-Files, I have a feeling you'll find it fairly easy to enjoy. On DVD, the quality is great and the extras are about what you'd expect. I'd recommend it unreservedly for fans... cautiously for the uninitiated. If you've never heard the names Byers, Langley and Frohike before, you're probably better off spinning a few seasons of X-Files on DVD first (that entire series is already available on DVD, thankfully cheaper than ever). Baring that, The Lone Gunmen is worth a spin. Any show that features Michael McKean as its recurring villain has to be worth try, right?

Bill Hunt
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