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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits


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2004 (2005) - New Line

Film Rating: B

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

Anna (Nicole Kidman) is a New York socialite who's been struggling to come to grips with the death of her husband, Sean. More than ten years have passed since Anna was widowed. Although it's been difficult, she's finally begun to move on with her life. In fact, she's engaged to be re-married and her fiancée, Joseph, is trying to be patient with her. Anna appears, on the surface at least, to be happy.

All of this begins to change, however, when a ten-year-old boy suddenly appears one day, claiming to be her dead husband reincarnated. At first it seems like a silly fantasy and then a cruel joke. But the boy persists in his claims, and soon begins to reveal things he couldn't possibly (and shouldn't) know. As the boy struggles to make people believe him, Joseph's short fuse is revealed... and Anna's life begins to unravel.

Because of its rather unusual (and at times disturbing) subject matter, Birth is a film that may not appeal to everyone at first glance. It's a rather cold film, for one thing. Its characters are emotionally closed off to one another, and the way the film is shot gives everything a rather distant air. I also have to say that I've never been a huge fan of Nicole Kidman. She's certainly a fine actress, but I've never really seen her in a role I connected with. All that changed with this film. Birth, above all, is a fascinating character study. Is this boy really Sean reincarnated, or is he just confused? It almost doesn't matter. Either way, his sudden appearance in Anna's life is devastating. There's once scene in particular that really hooked me early in the film. Anna is just starting to question whether this boy might actually be telling the truth. She and Joseph attend a symphony performance (Wagner, of course), after an encounter with him. There's a long shot of Anna, sitting in the audience, where the camera moves in very slowly on her face as the music builds. You can just see this poor woman's sanity slowly starting to crack and come undone, conveyed by Kidman through tiny movements of her eyes and subtle variations of her expression. It's a stunning performance.

New Line's DVD delivers the film in nicely solid anamorphic widescreen video. The film is of the decidedly art house type, and the film stock that was chosen is rich with visible grain. It imparts a particular texture to the imagery, and evokes a particular feeling. The transfer renders all of this beautifully, so while it certainly doesn't appear reference quality, it serves the film itself very well. Color is muted by design, while contrast and detail are good and true to the theatrical presentation

Audio is a critically important element of this film. Given the often static and cold visuals, the soundtrack is used in different ways to convey emotion in Birth. Thankfully, this DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix doesn't disappoint. The track is by turns powerful and subtle, with solid ambience and a naturally staged sound field. You'll occasionally get a bit of a rumble from the LFE that sort of underlines key moments of emotional tension.

Sadly, there's little in the way of extras. I would have loved at least a commentary track by the writer and director, but there isn't one. You do get this film's theatrical trailer, plus previews of other films coming to theaters (and DVD) from New Line (Terrence Malick's The New World is the only one of interest). There's also the usual DVD-ROM weblinks to online material having nothing to do with the film itself.

Birth is one of those films that quickly slipped into and out of its theatrical run, so few actually managed to see it on the big screen. But those who did were treated to an odd but surprisingly fascinating little character study - one that really gets under your skin and sticks with you for a long while after. The film is worth watching for Nicole Kidman's performance alone, and that's saying a lot coming from me.

National Treasure

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National Treasure
Widescreen - 2005 (2005) - Disney Pictures/Bruckheimer Films (Buena Vista)

Film Rating: C

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

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is a historian and professional treasure hunter, who's spent his life on a quest to prove the reality of a long-held family legend. Hidden for centuries somewhere in America, Gates believes, lies the mythical treasure of Solomon, guarded once by the ancient Templar Knights, and later passed down to the Free Masons of the New World... Free Masons who eventually counted the likes of George Washington and many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence among their ranks.

Gates enlists the support of financier Ian Howe (Sean Bean) to find this treasure, and actually manages to uncover important clues - clues that lead Gates to believe that there's a map to the treasure hidden on the back of the Declaration itself. But when Howe betrays him, Gates finds himself in a race to steal one of the most heavily guarded pieces of paper on Earth... and to hopefully locate the treasure first, so he can share its wonders with the world.

Cage, Bean and guest stars Jon Voight and Christopher Plummer are all solid in their performances here, Jon Turteltaub's direction is adequate and the story (written by at least three people), while certainly contrived, is intriguing enough to keep you moderately engaged for the film's 131 minutes. At its best, however, National Treasure is little more than pure cotton candy adventure fare - enjoyable in the moment but completely forgettable when it's over. Just once, I'd like to see Sean Bean playing a good guy.

The video on this DVD is anamorphic widescreen, and while it's adequate to deliver the film itself, the quality isn't likely to impress anyone. Color, contrast and detail are good, if not great, and there's a lot of compression artifacting visible. The result is an image that looks a little soft at times, but edgy at others. Audio-wise, the film fares a little better. Sound is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 (French 5.1 is also available). The mix has a nicely wide front soundstage, with moderately active rear channels and decent LFE.

The disc does feature a number of extras, but there's nothing here that you're going to want to see more than once. You get a few deleted scenes, an optional ending and some animatic footage (all with optional director's commentary), an EPK-style featurette on the making of the film, and quick, fluffy pieces on real life treasure hunters and the history of the Templar Knights. Unfortunately, much of this material is accessible only after completing a 'treasure hunt' through the disc's menus and entering codes you've collected along the way. Some will find this an enjoyable experience, but I don't care for having to work to see a DVD's bonus materials, particularly when they're as mediocre as these.

National Treasure is an entertaining enough film, but its plot is paper thin and there's little more going on here than what you'll see on the surface. Don't sprain anything in a rush to see it, but it's certainly not a bad Saturday afternoon spin if you've got nothing better to watch.

Monty Python's Graham Chapman: Looks Like a Brown Trouser Job

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Monty Python's Graham Chapman: Looks Like a Brown Trouser Job
2005 (2005) - The Graham Chapman Archives (Rykodisc)

Program Rating: B+

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

After his successful run as a founding member of the famed Monty Python troupe, Graham Chapman went on to enjoy something of a second career as a comedy lecturer. In the 1980s, he embarked on a series of tours of U.S. college campuses, regaling his welcoming audiences with stories from his life and experiences. This program is compiled from material videotaped during his final lecture tour in the spring of 1988, just a year before his death. Taken from his personal archives with the approval of his estate, the video captures Graham at his finest, recounting his misadventures with a rather dubious group called the Dangerous Sports Club, his friendship with The Who's rowdy (and equally dangerous) drummer Keith Moon, his not so dangerous but quite productive Python days and much, much more. Graham's stories and delivery are frequently amusing, always fascinating and sometimes side-achingly funny. "Looks like a bit of a brown trouser job..." indeed.

It's important to note, however, that the main program contained on this DVD was originally shot on consumer-grade analog video cameras in a decidedly amateur way. Don't expect this to be top, middle or even lower-middle quality footage... because it isn't. This looks exactly like a lot of mediocre video camera dawdlings from the 1980s - washed out, overly soft, poorly lit, sometimes shaky, you'll see the occasional tape hit and it's full frame. The audio appears to have been drawn from the house's P.A. system, so it fares a little better in scintillating monophonic. But don't let any of this discourage you because, as I said, the material contained herein is damned funny.

The DVD extras are entertaining as well. There are a number of bonus video clips, including four additional bits from his post lecture Q&A sessions, footage of Graham being catapulted into the air on a bungee cord, a Solaglas windows advert in which he appeared and Iron Maiden's Can I Play with Madness? music video in which he also appeared. If you buy this disc in Canada, you apparently get an additional bit called Graphic Scenes of Sex Involving Members of the British Government and Tawdry Call-Girls... which, being a U.S. resident, I'm a little put off that I don't get to see. You lucky Canadian bastards. There's also 4 clips exerted from audio interviews with Graham, an Easter egg featuring instructions for the proper staging of a rousing game of 'Shitties' (something you'll appreciate after watching the main program), and a detailed 'Chapmanography' of Graham's life and work that includes DVD liner notes.

All in all, this is a surprisingly nice package, A/V presentation quality issues aside. It's probably not something that's going to have a large appeal for casual viewers, but fans of Monty Python will absolutely get a kick out of this, and will definitely want to add it to their collections. Graham was a very funny man, and it's nice to spend a little more time with him again after all these years. If you appreciate the value of a silly walk or a good fish slapping, this disc is sure to put a smile on your face. It is, as they say, something completely different.

Sunset Story

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Sunset Story
2005 (2005) - Capital Entertainment

Film Rating: A-

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

Nestled in the middle of metropolitan Los Angeles, not so very far from the USC campus, is a quaint little retirement community called Sunset Hall. It has the distinction of being perhaps the only such community specializing in the care of aged liberals, political progressives, radicals, lefties, hippies, activists and all-around free-thinkers. You know... the kind of folks who heckle Ann Coulter from the picket lines in her worst nightmares.

Sunset Story follows a pair of octogenarian free-thinkers in particular, Lucile Alpert and Irja Lloyd, who became residents of the Hall within two weeks of one another and quickly struck up a lively friendship. One is a retired social worker, a non-practicing Jew and hobbles along with a walker. The other is a former Special Ed. teacher, an open-minded Finnish free spirit, and is bound by a wheel chair. In many ways, their personalities couldn't be more different. But both are savvy and opinionated, and they aren't about to let age and ailment keep them from speaking their minds or fighting for what they believe is right. This film is the story of their personal journeys through life, and the unlikely friendship they discover in their final years. Lucile and Irja's charm, wit and wisdom is undeniably engaging.

This film was shot with professional grade video and audio equipment, so the presentation quality is rarely an issue. It's offered on DVD in good-looking full frame, with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. The A/V quality is certainly not going to rock your world, but then it's not really meant to. The presentation services the program itself admirably, and that's more than enough.

The DVD contains a number of bonus features, including over 30 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, a pair of audio commentary tracks with the film's director (Laura Gabbert) and producers, video interviews with members of Sunset Hall's staff, a film festival Q&A, production crew bios, a poster gallery and the film's theatrical trailer. Most of the material is good and at least somewhat interesting. The extras are a little more focused on the filmmakers themselves, while I would have liked to see bios and more background information about Lucile and Irja themselves. But that's probably picking nits.

Don't get wrapped up in (or turned off by) issues of political leanings, because that's not what this film concerns itself with. Sunset Story is about two women facing the twilight of their lives with grace, dignity and determination. It is by turns charming, funny, moving and heartbreaking. It shows us a side of aging that's seldom seen in today's youth-worshiping media culture. It reminds us all that a person's life continues to have value and meaning long after their so-called 'productive' years have passed... and that no matter how long we've lived, there's always something new to learn. The film has won a number of awards, and deservedly so. It's is a great little piece of work and it deserves your attention.

Bill Hunt
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