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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

Monty Python's Flying Circus: John Cleese's Personal Best

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Monty Python's Flying Circus: John Cleese's Personal Best
1969-1974 (2006) - BBC (A&E)

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

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who appreciate the genius of Monty Python and dirty godless Communists who would sell their mothers on eBay to make money to buy Mohawk gin and Tiperillos! While any self-respecting member of the first cohort already has the complete 14-disc box set containing every episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, A&E has put together a series of discs featuring the works of each member of the legendary comedy troupe. (Must milk the cash cow, right?)

John Cleese's Personal Best opens with a title card announcing that Cleese had recently died and that in tribute, they would show a favorite fairy tale of his. Since I haven't actually watched my Python box set, I don't know if this tale of a princess named Mitzi Gaynor was from the series, but it occupies a full quarter of this disc's run time and Cleese is barely in it, playing two minor and inconsequential roles.

It then proceeds to John Cleese Remembers with Dayna Devon, a new interview of the allegedly 96-year-old Cleese crankily badmouthing people and getting flipped off by his hot young wife, Suki, while sitting in his wheelchair. As he reminisces, we get many brief snippets of sketches featuring him and longer bits from pieces that he doesn't even appear in. It's all quite odd.

The Upper Class Twit of the Year Competition and a sketch as a military self-defense instructor teaching a class on how to respond when attacked by someone wielding fruit are presented in their entirety, but anyone seeking The Parrot Sketch, The Cheese Shop Sketch or The Ministry of Silly Walks will be sorely disappointed. Cleese is credited with writing this special and the cover says that he personally selected these excerpts, but while they may be what he considers his best work, it's thin on what fans would consider his most popular.

The video quality of the fullscreen transfer is quite sharp, even on the oldest sketch material. While the older films have slightly muted colors, that's simply due to the limitations of the source films and the fact that England isn't called "Old Blighty" because of the lush jungles and colorful tropical birds. (Nudge-nudge.) The stereo audio is clear and reasonable free of hiss, but the new interview footage frequently has distortion when Cleese is bellowing about one thing or another.

Special features aren't particularly plentiful or worth going out of your way for. They include Behind the Scenes: A Look into the Real John Cleese (in which Cleese praises his video crew, and the crew rips on him), The John Cleese 15-Question, 15-Ton Megaquiz (which asks you questions and plays brief clips depending on your answer) and a brief text biography of Cleese with a list of credits.

While there are a few good bits in John Cleese's Personal Best, the lack of countless better sketches being properly represented makes this a poor value. If Saturday Night Live can routinely pull together better sets - excepting the David Spade set - than this, then anyone even slightly interested in getting the truly best of John Cleese would be best served by dropping a C-note on the complete box set of Monty Python.

The Polar Express

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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The Polar Express
Two-Disc Widescreen Edition - 2004 (2005) - Warner Bros.

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

"Photo-realistic" computer-generated imagery has been a Holy Grail of sorts for feature filmmakers for quite awhile and although startlingly realistic alien landscapes and creatures, green Jedi Masters and Scottish ogres, and teeming ocean deeps populated with talking fish have been realized, the one creation that has yet to be fully mimicked is the human being. Every so often, one outfit or another will boldly proclaim that they've solved the problem and have the best-looking hair and cloth simulations, but those who flock to their sideshow invariably are disappointed by the frozen visages and dead, doll-like eyes in films like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

In 2004, Oscar-winning technophile director Robert Zemeckis unveiled his $170 million feature film adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's beloved Christmas book, The Polar Express. Starring Tom Hanks in five (count 'em) roles and powered by an evolution in motion capture animation called "performance capture", The Polar Express promised to bring Van Allsburg's paintings to life and populate them with hyper-realistic characters that would seem both tactile and ethereal. Did they succeed in breaking the code for convincing characters?

Not really.

Set on Christmas Eve, The Polar Express tells the tale of a nameless boy - he's credited as Hero Boy (performed by Hanks; voiced by Spy Kids' Daryl Sabara), which sounds like a handle too lame for The Incredibles universe - who has lost his belief in Christmas and Santa Claus. He keeps a dossier of articles and Saturday Evening Post covers that confirm his lack of faith and goes to sleep expecting to hear his parents assembling the presents for him and his sister.

What he hears instead is the rumbling clatter of a steam locomotive pulling up in front of his Grand Rapids home; a neat feat considering no train tracks run in front of the house and no one else in the neighborhood seems to have heard its arrival. The Conductor (Hanks again) tells Hero Boy that this is the titular train to the North Pole and he needs to get aboard. Since Hero Boy's parents never mentioned magic trains in the list of things to avoid, like candy from strangers, he finds that he has a Golden Ticket in his robe pocket - gee, never seen that sort of thing before - and hops on with all the other gullible children who have willingly fled their families in the dark of night.

While on the train, Hero Boy meets the Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), Know-It-All Boy (Eddie Deezen) and Lonely Boy (Hanks' former Bosom Buddies co-star Peter Scolari), who sits all alone in the train's last car moping as they speed toward the North Pole for the big finale in which the children will meet Santa Claus and he will give out the first gift of Christmas to one of these lucky children. (I wonder who he'll pick?)

Expanding a storybook of less than three dozen pages into a hundred-minute long movie requires the addition of plenty of new material and Zemeckis and co-writer William Broyles Jr. have packed in everything but some decent characters and a story. While many events occur, nothing really happens. Instead of giving the children names and life stories to compare - like why are they on this train in the first place and what's the criteria for abduction, er, selection - we follow a lost Golden Ticket through a single shot as it traverses a path that would set Rube Goldberg's eyes rolling, and the train encounters one cliff-hanging peril after another. (Ironically, actually hanging off a cliff isn't one of the perils.) And the less said about the weak and tacked-on songs by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, and the musical numbers themselves, the better.

There was a time when Robert Zemeckis was a solidly consistent director, cranking out entertaining yet intelligent fare like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Back to the Future trilogy. However, after winning the Oscar for Forrest Gump, he hasn't made anything as good since. The Polar Express is Zemeckis at his most self-indulgent and the result is a movie which is bloated beyond its humble origins. When the plot of a movie could be summed up succinctly as "Boy loses his belief in Santa. Wins trip to North Pole. Believes again. Fin.", it's obvious that there will be more padding than an anorexic department store Kris Kringle would require.

When it was released in 2004, I skipped seeing it and considered it to be The Polar Tech Demo for the year. Having now seen it, that's about the size of things. Despite being five times as long as the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, it doesn't possess a fraction of the story or character development of the 40-year-old Christmas special. A spectral hobo (played by guess who?) and the train's engineers, Smokey and Steamer (both Michael Jeter) come and go with little significance. Even the penultimate meeting with Santa falls short for the simple reason that these nameless cipher children don't freak out to find out that Santa is a real man living in a giant city at the North Pole.

While Pixar has made enough money to qualify as its own planet from their pixel-pushing, the elements that have made them successful are notable for their absence on The Polar Express. The visuals are sumptuously dreamy, but never become more than a self-serving exercise in needlessness. Just as the "Burly Brawl" scene in The Matrix Reloaded was little more than another demo reel for nifty gimcrackery, The Polar Express is an example of technology in search of a sense of life. Despite the presence of numerous sensors on Hanks' face to capture expressions, the characters all possess waxy, botoxed visages with furtive eyes that lack the emotive ability of hand-animated characters like Gollum or even Shrek. When a talking clownfish has more acting range than a 99.44% realistic human figure, that's not a good sign and the distance it places between the audience and the screen is a magic-killer.

When the most important portion of a movie is its visuals, it's crucial that the DVD transfer not stumble. Fortunately, the 2.35:1 anamorphic image is virtually flawless in its ability to reproduce the fine fur of Santa's coat sleeve and the fine patterns of bricks in the city without distracting moiré patterns. Because it's my job to nitpick these things, I did spot a few moments of compression blocking, but they're almost imperceptible. Colors are luscious and free of noise and black levels are as dark as the coal that fuels the locomotive.

On the audio front, the English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio is almost the equal of the visuals with excellent dynamic range and positional activity all around the room. The pounding of the train was enough to annoy the cats without breaking up in distortion. Alternate audio tracks are Spanish and French Dolby 5.1 Surround, and subtitles are available in English, Spanish or French.

Moving on to the extras, this two-disc set is thinner on goodies than the movie was on story, with no feature commentary and only the trailer on the first disc. For the additional coin that the second disc costs you, the short parade starts with You Look Familiar (4:11) showing Hanks performing the five roles in the movie with split-screen between the raw motion-capture and finished film. It doesn't get into the technical side at all, but A Genuine Ticket to Ride (1:58) is the intro to the actual behind-the-scenes featurettes, which include Performance Capture (2:18), Virtual Camera (2:02), Hair and Wardrobe (2:23), Creating the North Pole (1:44) and Music (2:59). These touch upon the computer wizardry behind the scenes, but wrap it in an annoying package that makes it seem like this was aimed more toward kids than film geeks.

True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure (5:28) is an interview with Chris Van Allsburg covering his youth in Michigan and his circuitous route toward becoming a beloved children's author. Josh Groban at the Greek (4:33) and Behind the Scenes of "Believe" (4:24) are a live performance of, and a look at the recording of, the film's theme song. They are as light and fluffy as snowflakes.

Polar Express Challenge (:46) is a game in which you have to keep the train from crashing and spilling toxic gas across a heavily-populated area. (Well, not really, but if I want to play games on my television, I've got an Xbox.) Meet the Snow Angels (2:43) is just the fond Christmas memories of the various participants, while THQ Game Demo (:30) is just a commercial for the tie-in game. Rounding out the disc, however, the vaguely-named Additional Song (7:04) is actually a deleted number with Smokey and Steamer. Since this was the last performance by Michael Jeter, the scene is here in "Michelin Man" form - an early, roughly animated state - as a tribute to the late actor.

For a movie that was hyped as a ground-breaking technical achievement, the sparsely-populated second disc and lack of a commentary with Zemeckis and Hanks is disappointing. With less than 45 minutes of extras, the two-discer is a very poor value.

When I saw Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in 2001, I thought that while a few moments almost passed for real, the bigger question was why was this necessary in the first place? Instead of lifeless digital avatars, why not plunk live actors into virtual sets a la the Star Wars prequels or the underappreciated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Just because you've got the money and computers to attempt such a project doesn't mean that it's a good idea. At some point, Hanks and Zemeckis should have asked themselves, "Is this trip really necessary?" Despite its electronic wizardry, The Polar Express is anything but expressive.

Peter Schorn
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