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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Adam Jahnke and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits


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2004 (2005) - 20th Century Fox

Film Rating: A

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

After just four films, Alexander Payne has taken a place on my Short List of Directors. Every movie geek worth his or her weight in Milk Duds has such a list. These are the filmmakers whose careers you follow and whose films you will go see regardless of the actors, the story or the subject matter, confident that you will be entertained.

Since 1996's Citizen Ruth, Payne has been making the kinds of movies they're not supposed to make anymore: smart, wickedly funny, narrowly focused human comedies that are actually about something. The types of movies Woody Allen used to crank out on a regular basis back when he was still funny. But unlike Woody, who always had a problem, even at his best, with breaking out of his narrow slice of Manhattan, Payne (and his writing partner Jim Taylor) seem equally at ease with a wide range of characters. All of Payne and Taylor's characters ring true, whether it's the pregnant, homeless woman aspiring to be trailer trash in Citizen Ruth, the vicious high school microcosm in Election, the retired widower of About Schmidt or the middle-aged buddies of Sideways.

Sideways falls comfortably in the tradition of the great American road movie, in which the physical journey taken by our main characters is mirrored by the journey they take within themselves. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is taking his old friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a week-long bachelor party to the wine country of Santa Barbara, California. Miles promises good food, great wine, golf and a chance for two old friends to re-connect. Jack has less lofty goals in mind. He just wants to get laid and quickly seduces Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a pourer at one of the wineries. But he's also looking out for Miles and tries to set him up with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a nearby restaurant.

Payne and Taylor's Oscar-winning screenplay (based on a novel by Rex Pickett) is beautifully written with smart, clever dialogue that actually sounds like conversation. The ways in which we learn that Miles is a failed novelist and Jack is a past-his-prime actor aren't forced. It arises naturally out of the flow of the dialogue and Payne is fine with the fact that we don't know these details right away. More importantly, the lines are delivered by actors who truly embody these characters. I've enjoyed Sandra Oh since I first saw her in Don McKellar's underrated Last Night and she's terrific here as Stephanie. Lots of us have been in love with Virginia Madsen for quite some time now and thank god we now have a movie that's truly worthy of her (for awhile there, it seemed like her best film was going to be Candyman). As for Thomas Haden Church... I wish I could say I've known how great he is since his days on Wings but that would be a big fat lie (then again, Sideways itself is just a series of lies upon lies so maybe I should). No, I had no idea Thomas Haden Church was this fine an actor, so his performance was a real surprise to me. And then there's Paul Giamatti, 0 for 2 now in the Oscar department, since he was also robbed of a much-deserved nomination for American Splendor (and if you wanted to argue that he deserved a Supporting Actor nod for his performance as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern's Private Parts, I wouldn't necessarily disagree). Giamatti is just wonderful as Miles and I hope he can continue to find movies like this one and American Splendor.

Often when a movie is dialogue-driven, the other elements suffer in comparison. Happily, that's not the case here. Alexander Payne isn't just a glorified playwright with a camera but a highly skilled filmmaker. The movie looks gorgeous with beautifully composed photography by Phedon Papamichael. The restaurant scene (Miles and Jack's first date with Maya and Stephanie) is one of the best edited sequences I've seen in years (and where was editor Kevin Tent's Oscar nomination?). And Rolfe Kent's upbeat jazz score is a perfect counterpoint to the action. In a weird way, it reminded me of the Vince Guaraldi music in all the classic Charlie Brown specials. Perhaps it's not the first type of music you'd hear when you thought of the story but once you did hear it, it was suddenly so appropriate that you can never again think of one without the other.

Sideways was one of the best movies of 2004, so I'd like to say that Fox has pulled out all the stops on this DVD. But, as is so often the case with comedies, Fox has only pulled out a couple of stops. Most of the stops remain resolutely pushed in. Picture quality is OK but far from perfect. It's a little soft and a little grainy, but I assume it's meant to have that kind of 70's era grain to it. Less forgivable are some instances of digital artifacting during dark and dimly lit scenes that even I could notice. The audio is also just fine. Like I said, it's a dialogue-heavy movie so the most important thing is that the actors are clear and that Rolfe Kent's music is adequately conveyed. The DVD does both of those jobs as well as it needs to. No better. No worse.

As for extras, let's cut to the chase. The only thing on this disc you really need is the audio commentary by Giamatti and Haden Church. The boys are in the running for a Best Audio Commentary Bitsy next year. There's a smattering of information to be gleaned but basically, the track is laugh out loud funny. They're fully at ease with each other and the process of recording a commentary, resulting in some of the funniest stuff I've heard on a commentary track, whether they're making light of each other's less-than-sculpted physique or waxing rhapsodic over the "bejugged" Virginia Madsen. The rest of the extras are underwhelming at best. The seven deleted scenes are most interesting. Each comes with a text introduction by Payne explaining why the scenes were cut and, in some cases, why they were included in the first place. There's some pretty good stuff in here. The "behind-the-scenes featurette" is a textbook example of an Electronic Press Kit fluff piece. That and the film's trailer close the book on the disc's extras.

I really loved Sideways and am a little mystified by people who don't like it because Miles and Jack are such unsympathetic characters. I can't argue with that assessment. Their actions are often virtually impossible to defend. Miles is self-absorbed and depressed. Jack is self-absorbed and childish. But they're also funny, interesting, and likeable. I don't have any friends who aren't like the characters in this movie. They're complex, fully-rounded individuals with as many flaws as virtues. That's what makes us people. And that's what makes spending two hours with the people in Sideways a real treat.

Adam Jahnke
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Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids
The Original Animated Series - Volume 1 - 1972 (2005) - UrbanWorks Entertainment

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

Fat Albert's Easter Special
1982 (2005) - UrbanWorks Entertainment

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

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: The Original Animated Series - Volume 1Fat Albert's Easter Special

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

You know, most of my friends and I are now at that age where we've begun to complain that kids today "just don't have any idea how good they've got it." You know what I'm talking about, right? Growing up in the 1970s, we didn't have personal computers, videogames or CDs. Hell, we didn't even have VHS tapes until the the early 80s! But we did have one thing over kids today - Saturdays were kid nirvana. You'd get up at 5 AM to start with The Little Rascals and Casper the Friendly Ghost, then move on to Speed Racer and The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour. Sigmund and the Sea Monsters came on later, along with Far-out Space Nuts, Shazaam!, Ark II and Space Academy. You'd get those awesome Schoolhouse Rock shorts in between everything and then you'd follow it all with a lunchtime "monster matinee" featuring the likes of Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Godzilla. Saturday mornings rocked in the 1970s! The cartoons were funny! They held your attention without trying to sell you some kid of lame toy! Some of them even dared to teach you a thing or two before they were done! And all of this was true of the classic Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids... a longtime favorite of the Gen-X set.

Not only did Fat Albert have one of the two best Saturday morning theme songs EVER (along with Land of the Lost, of course), the show was original and entertaining from start to finish. The genius of Bill Cosby's animated creation was that it didn't matter that it featured mostly black inner city kids (while I was growing up white bread in backwater North Dakota). Color, race, economic background - it was all irrelevant. These were guys you could hang with. They dealt with the same things you did, faced the same problems, were confronted by the same life issues. You watched this show and learned important lessons about how lying can get you in trouble, how you should accept those who are different from you, how everyone has value and a part to play in life. You learned about making friends when you moved to a new place, that you shouldn't be afraid of the hospital, that other people have feelings too. Best of all, you didn't KNOW you were being educated. You were just enjoying a truly fun show, with characters you laughed with and fun songs you kept singing long after the episode was over.

It's been a long time coming, but FINALLY UrbanWorks Entertainment has begun releasing Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: The Original Animated Series on DVD in complete episode sets. Volume 1, which is now available, includes the show's first 12 episodes. There were 36 episodes in all of the series, the rest of which will be released in two additional volumes later this year. There was also a trio of prime-time holiday specials. Fat Albert's Easter Special is now available. Fat Albert's Halloween Special and Fat Albert's Christmas Special are coming later in 2005 as well. For the record, there was also a second series, The New Adventures of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which included Brown Hornet cartoons. We believe UrbanWorks is planning on releasing these episodes on disc too at some point in the future.

The presentation quality for both Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: The Original Animated Series - Volume 1 and Fat Albert's Easter Special is fairly good. Both are presented in their original full frame video, with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio. Color is a little washed out on the series episodes, and there's a bit of a softness to the overall look (with a bit of edge-enhancement visible as well). But these episodes still look significantly better than I remember seeing them back in the 1970s. The special was produced about a decade later, so color, contrast and detail are somewhat better on this. The audio quality is fine across the board on all these discs. Dialogue is clear and the music sounds great. Most fans should be pleased with the quality of these discs.

The only real strike against these DVDs is the lack of substantial extras. I would really have loved interviews and maybe commentaries with Cosby himself, along with some of the other voice cast members and the artists who worked on the show at Filmation Studios. You get nothing of the kind. However, The Original Animated Series - Volume 1 does include a bonus CD featuring 14 songs from the episodes included in the set, along with the show's opening and closing themes. There's also a booklet with liner notes, episode summaries and lyrics to all the songs. Plus, the menus allow you to "play all" the episodes, view each individually or just jump right to the song from each episode - a nice touch. Fat Albert's Easter Special, on the other hand, includes a classic Brown Hornet episode and an interactive "Find the Bunny" game. The disc also holds a trio of PDF file character images that you can print on your computer - just add kids and a box of crayons. It's not a lot of bonus material, but it's okay I suppose. In any case, I do hope Cosby gets more involved with future sets.

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was so popular with kids and parents alike, that it ran on Saturday mornings from 1972 to 1984. Frankly, I wish Cosby would bring it back today. Sure, you'd have to update it a little: "Yo Albert... meth labs are for squares!" (meth being a HUGE problem in rural America as well as cities these days). But hey... there's little doubt that in today's do-anything-for-a-buck (or five minutes of fame) society, kids need lessons like these more than ever. Until that happy day when Albert and the gang lighten Saturday mornings again, don't hesitate to pick up these DVDs and watch them with your whole family. This classic 'toon is as relevant today as its ever been... and I'll bet YOU end up enjoying it as much as your kids do.

Bill Hunt
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