reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.