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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

Blade: The Series - The Complete Series

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Blade: The Series - The Complete Series
2006 (2008) - New Line

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

After a successful trio of films featuring the Marvel Comics day-walking vampire Blade - released in 1998, 2002, and 2004 - the decision to milk (bleed?) the franchise cow further led to the creation of Blade: The Series with Kirk "Sticky" Jones (aka Sticky Fingaz of the hardcore rap crew Onyx) taking up the sword from the film series' star Wesley Snipes. Airing on Spike TV, it lasted less time than most of the hapless vampires who cross Blade's path did and now lives in eternal infamy in the form of the vaguely redundantly-titled Blade: The Series - The Complete Series. (And nothing but the complete series, so help you God?) At the risk of sounding punny, it pretty much sucks.

When Blade returns to his native Detroit, with his sidekick/weapons master Shen (Nelson Lee), he is on the hunt to take down the House of Chthon, a Motown-based nest headed by the decidedly fair-skinned Marcus Van Sciver (Neil Jackson), an upstanding member of the Renaissance City's philanthropy and culture vulture set. Also interested in Marcus is Krista Starr (Jill Wagner), an Iraq War vet whose brother was killed by him. Reluctantly, Blade teams up with her to get a bead on where the Chthon vamps are holed up but their plan runs into a bit of a snag when she is found out, captured and turned into a vampire by Marcus!

With Krista as a double-agent inside the House of Chthon, they investigate Marcus’ development of a chemical that gives vampires immunity to the silver, garlic and ultraviolet weapons in Blade’s arsenal. However, as the series goes on, it is revealed that the true nature of this research is more complicated as the Purebloods - vampires born as such and not “turned” like most - are introduced, including Charlotte (Emily Hirst, who looks so much like Harry Potter’s Emma Watson that I thought her a sister) a 12-year-old-girl-appearing vamp with a taste for babies.

The problem with Blade: The Series is that it's running on too many concurrent tracks for any single thread to coagulate into a comprehensive dramatic element. In addition to Krista's new deathstyle, Blade's vendettas, and Marcus' schemes, there is an FBI agent sniffing around the edges of this underworld activity, but his story never amounts to much and the cliffhanger season (and series) finale begs a bunch of questions about why Marcus had let Krista run around as she has. The later episodes which include flashbacks to Blade's childhood, the introduction of the Purebloods, and an intriguing arc involving Krista's terminally-ill mother hint that the show may've been able to rise above its early splatterfest events, but it never had a chance before being staked. (Let's be realistic, though, it's not like it was going to turn into Firefly.)

While Snipes was never an option for the series, the casting of Jones really kills the thrills. Snipes played Blade as a hardcore badass, but he had a subtle undercurrent of acknowledging that these stories were all a little ridiculous; Jones merely spits out his dialog in the same rapid-fire manner regardless of the occasion and with his eyes almost always hidden behind sunglasses, there is little in the way of dynamics to his performance. Wagner is a little better, but still more a hardbody than a convincing fatal femme. The villains – both Jackson and Jessica Gower, who plays Marcus' blonde goth playmate Chase – are better, but still a tad on the fromage side.

Speaking of cheese - cheesecake that is – this DVD edition includes copious amounts of frightening breast implants, spraying blood geysers and bad words, so parents who may've let their children watch the Spike TV version should be aware that this is definitely an R-rated set. As a Detroiter who takes perverse bemusement at the unrealistic portrayals of the Motor City in the media, I have to say that I wish Detroit was remotely like the spiffy vision of urban living that this show, shot in Vancouver, portrayed. This series tops the notorious Star Trek: Enterprise episode Carpenter Street as the "Least Realistic Portrayal of Detroit Ever." Why bother setting the show in a location you aren't even going to try and replicate?

Shot on hi-def, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is generally clean, but somewhat flat in contrast and hazy in its black levels. Details are good, but close inspection reveals minor macroblocking and filtering that doesn't live up to New Line's usual superlative standards. On the audio front, all is in order with no major defects and the surround usage typical for a budget-priced television series.

The only extras here are recycled from the House of Chthon DVD release of the pilot episode and as such don’t delve into the series’ specifics at all. There are two commentary tracks on the pilot - one by director Peter O’Fallon and the other with writers David Goyer and Geoff Johns - and by far the better is the scribes' lively chatter. O'Fallon spends most of the time gushing over the low-light capabilities of the digital photography and admits at the end that since it had been a while since he'd seen the show, he fell into watching it. The writers, on the other hand, freely talk smack about the shortcomings of specific scenes and have a forthright appraisal of their creation.

The 62-minute Turning Blade documentary is broken into seven parts - A Sticky Transition, A Starr is Born, The House of Chthon, Weapons of Choice, On the Wires, Accessorize/Vampirize, Tattoo You - and while it’s mostly happy-talking EPK-grade material, there is plenty of behind the scenes looks at the stunt work involved. Eight Blade TV promos wrap up the extras. There are supposed to be DVD-ROM/online features provided via an InterActual Player, but I got an error on the laptop I tried it on and gave up. (Pan's Labyrinth, this isn't.)

With plenty of available options for kickass monster-oriented TV-on-DVD – including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Supernatural – it's hard to recommend Blade: The Series - The Complete Series to anyone but the most thirsty vampire movie fans, including those who managed to still care about Blade after the so-so Blade: Trinity. While it has a few interesting angles, overall the series lacked the requisite bite to achieve immortal status.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

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Elizabeth: The Golden Age
2007 (2008) - Universal

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

Nine years after her star-making, Oscar-nominated turn in 1998's Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett reunites with director Shekhar Kapur to continue the story of the 16th Century British monarch in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. While Blanchett once again garnered an Oscar nod for her dynamic portrait of "The Virgin Queen", this time the film isn't a match for her performance.

It's 1585 and we're told that the fanatical Catholic ruler of Spain, King Philip II (Jordi Mollà), is bent on waging Holy War upon the what he considers the "bastard" Queen of England. He believes Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton) is God’s chosen monarch and has been collaborating with Mary to assassinate Elizabeth. While these intrigues swirl, Elizabeth is holding court and considering various suitors in order to assuage concerns about her producing an heir.

One chap who catches her eye is Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), a privateer who has returned from the New World with such curiosities as potatoes and tobacco and seeks Elizabeth’s warrant to return and lay further claim to the lands since he already named Virginia after her. While he likes her, he falls in love with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish), and their romance, when discovered, does not please Elizabeth at all.

After the conspiracy is uncovered and Mary, Queen of Scots, is beheaded – not a spoiler if you’ve taken a history class or seen the Monty Python sketch – Philip gets permission from the Pope to attack England and her navy is no match for the mighty Spanish Armada. Fortunately, Raleigh is quite the Errol Flynn and he manages to single-handedly sink the attacking fleet and save us all from speaking Spanish.

If this synopsis sounds a little at variance with your history lesson memories, it’s for good reason because Elizabeth: The Golden Age plays very fast and loose with the facts. While some dramatic license is always taken in these sorts of films and it would be akin to believing that The Da Vinci Code is a good theological resource, The Golden Age warps reality into knots to tell its story. The section about such license at Wikipedia is over two screens deep. Isabel of Spain (Aimee King) is portrayed as a child when she was 21; Elizabeth is shown armored up and rallying the troops in Braveheart / Henry V style when no record of such instance exists; and Raleigh was probably in charge of land defenses, meaning he wasn’t swinging around like Captain Blood. Even if you ignore the more trivial inaccuracies and anachronisms, there is the little problem that Elizabeth was 52 in 1585 and highly unlikely to be baby daddy shopping. Raleigh doesn’t like her in “that” way, but does like Bess but it seems contrived more for the sake of the film’s melodramatic love triangle than anything else, even though the two were an item at some point in time.

So Elizabeth: The Golden Age is lousy history; how is it as a movie? Merely OK. If you haven’t seen the first film (as I hadn’t), you aren’t given much in the way of introduction to the key players such as her advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). Moving along a brisk two hours in length, it never gets dull but it often felt like a Cliff’s Notes version of the story that seemed to be skipping over important details for the sake of brevity.

Blanchett is in turns sly, witty, jealous, imperious, and forlorn; in a word, complex. Along with Laura Linney, she is one of the most consistently excellent actors of her generation and her performance inspired me to go out and purchase the prequel to this film. Cornish is sweet, looking like a cross between Kate Winslett and Scarlett Johansson, and the rest of the supporting cast is solid, especially Rush and Morton. Odd men out are Mollà, whose Philip is little more than a simpering twit with funny walk, and Owen who is just too contemporary here; and oddly feels like an American trying to play English when he is a native Brit. Go figure.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is disappointing with weak, milky, dark gray black levels which render the image flat and hazy as if the sets were smoky. Outdoor scenes are washed-out and blown-out in the highlights. While fine detail is good and the colors adequate – there aren't many filtering or edge-enhancement problems - they would've benefited from proper black levels and a hi-def version. (The HD DVD version fairs much better on both fronts.) It's regrettable that the deleted scenes, despite being presented non-anamorphically, taunt us with a taste of what the feature should've looked like for the black levels are solid and the overall image far better in dimensionality. On the audio front, it's mostly confined to the front of the soundstage and clear with good environmental ambiance in the surrounds. During battle scenes, there is substantial LFE activity. It won’t replace Master and Commander as the showcase sea battle reference disc, but it’s meaty enough.

The feature commentary by Kapur is so-so, concentrating more on the underlying subtexts of the scenes rather than more nitty-gritty production anecdotes or broader discussion. There are eight deleted scenes (totaling 8:48), but some are so brief they could be labeled deleted shots. They are mostly superfluous, though a few would’ve helped sketch in some of the fuzzy plot details.

The quartet of featurettes - The Reign Contines - Making Elizabeth: The Golden Age (11:22), Inside Elizabeth’s World (brought to you by Volkswagen) (7:24), Commanding the Winds: Creating the Armada (12:03), Towers, Courts and Cathedrals (10:43) – are fairly good, rising above mere EPK puffery to give an in-depth look at the production process, the locations used and challenges of hiding modern improvements, and the construction of the ship replica that was used for both sides of the climatic battle scene.

Despite fine performances, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is just too pedestrian and melodramatic to match its epic ambitions, especially if you're like me and haven't seen the first film. Factor in the subpar transfer and this DVD is best considered a rental for fans of the original that hunger for more of Cate Blanchett's saucy portrayal of the Virgin Queen.

Peter Schorn
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