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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2-disc Criterion)

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Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
2-Disc Special Edition - 2004 (2005) - Touchstone (Criterion)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B+/A-

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B+/A-

"Son of a bitch, I'm sick of these dolphins..."

Somebody really needs to give Bill Murray an Oscar or a major award or something. The guy at least deserves a leg lamp - he's had a serious career renaissance in the last few years, with restrained, yet brilliantly comedic, turns in such films as Rushmore and Lost in Translation. Here, he plays Steve Zissou, a veteran oceanographer, explorer and all-around documentarian. Think an American Jacques Cousteau with a paunch and a droll attitude, and you've nailed it. In fact, nearly every detail of this film would seem to be a tribute, in-joke or reference to Cousteau's films, society and life's work. Actually, forget I said that. Imagine that you hear a BEEP when you see Cousteau's name from now on (you'll get it after you listen to the commentary).

Unfortunately, Steve's on the downslope of both his professional career and his personal life. In an age when people have seemingly lost interest in such amazing endeavors as space travel, Steve's filmed explorations of inner space just aren't the draw they once were. His ship is in dire need of repair, his finances are a mess, his nemesis (Jeff Goldblum) is hogging up all the grant money... even his wife (Anjelica Huston) has soured on him. To make matters worse, his longtime friend and closest colleague, Esteban du Plantier, has just been eaten (to death) by a rare and mysterious Jaguar shark.

Thankfully, things finally begin to look up for Steve when a young man named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) appears, claiming to be the son Steve almost never knew he had. Steve's also supported by his loyal, red-capped Team Zissou crew members (and several unpaid University of Alaska interns), led by ever-faithful engineer Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe, in a scene-stealing performance). Better still, Steve's got real motivation to carry on... revenge. He's about to go on an overnight drunk, then set out to find the shark that ate his friend and (hopefully) destroy it. And he'll let nothing stand in his way... least of all bond company stooges, high-seas pirates or disillusioned, pregnant, overly-emotional female reporters (like the one played here by Cate Blanchett). Steve IS, after all, the Zissou.

Directed by Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic is my favorite kind of film - the kind that more often goes for the smart joke rather than the obvious one, that's filled with amusing little details that'll make you smile as much after the twenty-first viewing as after the first, and that's rife with subtle (yet off-kilter) performances. Indeed, it's my opinion that The Life Aquatic is Anderson's best film to date, and was certainly one of the best of 2004. It's perfectly cast and everyone hits exactly the right note. The score, much of which consists of Portuguese renditions of classic David Bowie tunes or (alternately) music that sounds as if it was performed on a old Casio, is brilliantly executed. Even the film's underwater footage evokes just the right amount of whimsy, featuring traditional stop-motion animation of almost, but not quite, realistic aquatic creatures.

The film is presented on Criterion's DVD release in very good anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) video quality. Colors are warmly-biased and accurate to the theatrical experience, contrast is excellent and the print is clean as a whistle. There's some haloing that I think is the result of a bit of digital over-compression (there's quite a lot of material on Disc One in addition to just the film itself), but it's very, very nice looking overall. Audio is offered in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround. The Dolby Digital track is recorded at a louder level than the DTS when you compare them directly, on the fly. Once you increase the volume on the DTS, however, it has the slight edge, with the expected additional measure of clarity and smoothness. Both tracks are quite good, with the score (by ex-DEVO member Mark Mothersbaugh) in particular benefiting from each mix.

Extras on Disc One consist of a very thoughtful audio commentary with Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (actually recorded at the same New York restaurant where the film was written), a set of 9 deleted or alternate scenes (in letterboxed full frame), the film's theatrical trailer (anamorphic) and a Starz On the Set promotional featurette. I'd sure love to know why that bit with Klaus on fire was cut from the film. That's a damn funny moment. By the way, for those who appreciate them, there's a funny Easter egg hidden on this disc as well.

Disc Two brings a wealth of additional material, including the excellent (and lengthy) This Is an Adventure documentary on the making of the film, a behind-the-scenes video journal (produced by one of the actors who plays an intern in the film), 10 filmed outtakes featuring actor Seu Jorge performing Bowie songs in Portuguese, featurettes on the creation of the animated sea life, the characters of Esteban, Ned and Jane, and the film's costume and production design, a look at the shooting of the film festival reception scene, an interview with Mothersbaugh on the film's music and working with Anderson, the joke Mondo Monda interview with Anderson and Baumbach (featuring real life actor/film teacher Antonio Monda, who appeared in the film as the festival host, asking often absurd questions of his guests in Italian), and galleries of production photos and artwork. All of this is wrapped with menus and packaging that feature hand-drawn production art by Eric Anderson (Wes' brother). The liner notes booklet even includes Eric's cutaway drawing of Zissou's ship, the Belafonte. All in all, it's a truly lovely package.

The Life Aquatic is not a laugh-a-minute comedy and it isn't going to appeal to everyone, but it sure as hell appeals to me. I love everything about it, from start to finish. It's a film that you either "get" almost immediately... or not (if you like Anderson's previous films and you've seen your share of Cousteau documentaries, I think you'll do just fine). In any case, it's worth viewing for Bill Murray's performance alone, which is rife with subtle humor and humanity. The actor is definitely at the top of his game here. If you think it might be your flavor, then by all means do give The Life Aquatic a try. You'll certainly get a few good chuckles out of it, and you might even be moved a little before it's through. Highly recommended.

Baa Baa Black Sheep - Volume 1

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Baa Baa Black Sheep
(a.k.a. The Black Sheep Squadron)
Volume 1 - 1976 (2005) - NBC/Stephen J. Cannell Productions (Universal)

Program Rating: B

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

Now here's a show from the 1970s that I'm particularly fond of. Baa Baa Black Sheep (retitled The Black Sheep Squadron for later syndication) first appeared on NBC in 1976, and ran for two seasons (it's most recently been seen in reruns on The History Channel). The series chronicles the missions of one of the most celebrated Marine fighter squadrons of World War II, the infamous Black Sheep of VMF-214. In fact, Baa Baa Black Sheep is loosely based on an autobiography of the same by the squadron's actual commander, Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington, who served as a consultant on the production before his death in 1988. The pilots are portrayed, somewhat inaccurately, as a band of misfits who pulled together under Pappy to become the terrors of the Pacific. Issues of accuracy aside, however, the short-lived series remains a helluva lot of fun, and it's certainly different that most TV fare of the 70s.

In addition to Robert Conrad, who played Boyington, the series is notable for its full roster of supporting players, many (in fact most) of whom would go on to have much larger roles in later, longer-lived series. These include the likes of John Larroquette, James Whitmore Jr., Sharon Gless, Charles Napier, Dana Elcar (who sadly passed away last week) and many others.

Some 37 episodes of the series were created in all, and Universal has collected the first 12 episodes on this 2-disc Volume One DVD set (the packaging says 11 episodes, but the first episode, Flying Misfits, is a 2-parter). We can reasonably assume that two more, as-yet-unannounced volumes will round out the series on disc later in 2005.

The thing that surprised me most about this set is how good the episodes look on DVD. In fact, they look great. Presented in their original full frame TV aspect ratio, the prints have been carefully handled and transferred for this release. Color and contrast is excellent at all times, and while you'll see the odd bit of dust or dirt now and again, the image is remarkably clean, with only light and appropriate film grain visible. The exception to this is the occasional use of actual combat film or outtake footage from other film productions (mostly in the aerial battle sequences). The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and while it's nothing dazzling, it's plenty fine. Suffice it to say that the video and audio quality here is significantly better than what you'll recall from the original TV broadcasts.

There's little in the way of extras on this set, but you do get a 7-minute clip of archived NBC interviews with the real Boyington. The first interview features Boyington with actor Robert Conrad on the set of the series, taken from a 1976 Today Show segment. The other clip is a vintage 1959 film interview with the aviator. One thing that's immediately clear, is that Boyington approved of Conrad's portrayal of him, and the two got along quite well. On future DVD volumes, it would be cool if Universal would try to license the interview clips with the real surviving Black Sheep that often run with the episodes on The History Channel, and maybe include a historical documentary or featurette on the squadron's real exploits. FYI, the two discs included here are dual-sided, and are housed in keep cases that fit into an outer slipcase.

If you're a WWII film buff, Baa Baa Black Sheep should be right up your alley. The series was always entertaining and the recreated aerial combat footage, much of it shot using real, vintage Corsair and Zero fighters, is outstanding. If you ARE a fan of the series, Boyington's autobiography is a helluva good read. You might also be interested in Once They Were Eagles: The Men of the Black Sheep Squadron, which was written by Frank Walton, VHF-214's intelligence officer. The books, and the DVDs, are recommended.

Coach Carter

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Coach Carter
2004 (2005) - MTV Films/Paramount (Paramount)

Program Rating: B-

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

Okay... there's only so many variations of the sports movie formula. There's a team or a player that's down and out, and they have to overcome obstacles to reach greatness. The coach becomes a father figure to the players. Usually one of the players has personal difficulties to solve. The team either pulls together and wins it all, or they lose right at the last moment, but actually win in the larger sense, etc. You know the drill. It's The Formula (TM), and it's damn hard to make a sports movie these days that doesn't play like every other example of the genre.

This particular sports film tells the story of Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), a self-made, Black businessman and former prep basketball star, who is offered the coaching job at his old high school. Naturally, his old school isn't what it used to be. It's in the wrong part of town, for one thing, and things have definitely gone downhill since Carter last walked the halls. Never one to resist a challenge, however, Carter decides to take the job. Of course, he quickly realizes that in order to teach the boys how to be winners on the court, he's going to have to teach them how to be winners in life. You can pretty much figure out the rest.

Based On a Real Story (TM), Coach Carter is certainly a variation of the expected formula... but the film surprisingly manages to avoid some of the most obvious clichés. And even when it does take the obvious turn, the film is just engaging enough that you're willing to go along for the ride and accept the convention. For example, just as the team begins to build up an impressive record of wins, Carter forfeits some of the season's biggest games because the players are failing in their school work (a move actually made by the real Carter in 1999, which was extremely controversial in his Richmond, CA community). That the film works is mostly the result of another excellent performance by Jackson (solid in almost every role) and a capable supporting cast. Veteran TV director Ken Carter (no relation to the coach) also keeps things moving along nicely, which always helps in a film like this.

Presented on DVD by Paramount, Coach Carter looks quite good in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen video, with excellent color fidelity and solid contrast. The main strike against the video is perhaps a little bit too much digital compression artifacting. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is somewhat atmospheric, but otherwise rather unremarkable. The surrounds really only get active during the game footage, and then not as much as I would have expected.

Extras include short featurettes on the real Coach Carter and the filming of the basketball action scenes (both in full frame), 6 deleted scenes (in anamorphic widescreen), the Hope music video by Twista (featuring Faith Evans) and previews for a bunch of other Paramount films. This disc also features that damned anti-piracy commercial that makes me want to pop this disc in my computer and burn a ROM with DVD-X Copy just so I can watch the film without having to see that damned anti-piracy commercial. I mean, come on guys... it's bad enough that people have to sit through forced previews and warning screens after paying their hard-earned $29. Don't start preaching to your customers as well.

All in all, Coach Carter isn't a film you're going to write home about, but it's certainly better than your average sports flick. If you like basketball, the work of actor Samuel L. Jackson or a decent disadvantaged-kids-make-good story, you'll definitely want to add it to your viewing list. There are better examples of this genre, but there are many worse ones too. If nothing else, I think you'll at least be entertained for 130 minutes. And that's not half bad, right?

Danger Mouse: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2

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Danger Mouse
The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 - 1981-82 (2005) - Cosgrove Hall/Thames (A&E)

Program Rating: B

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

Oh, crumbs! Ah, carrots! Danger Mouse has finally arrived on DVD!

I'm sure most of our U.K. readers will already be familiar with Danger Mouse, but the series is much less widely known to viewers here in the States, despite limited runs on Nickelodeon and in general syndication. The animated series follows the adventures of the title character - think of him as a rodent version of 007. D.M. and his hamster sidekick, Penfold, operate out of a secret London base disguised as a post box. They receive their mission orders from the blustery Colonel K (who just so happens to be a walrus). Together, D.M. and Penfold are the world's first, best line of defense against a rogue's gallery of evil-doers, including the likes of Silas Greenback and Stiletto (a toad and a crow, respectively).

Produced by the same team that created the animated The Wind in the Willows (1983) and Count Duckula, Danger Mouse ran for 10 seasons (or series) in the U.K., from 1981 to 1992, with some 90 episodes produced in all (technically 89 episodes and a pilot). This new 2-disc set from A&E includes the show's complete first two seasons - 17 episodes in all. Disc One contains the first season (eleven 7-minute episodes) plus extras, while Disc Two contains the second season (six 20-minute episodes).

As the series was produced on film, one would expect the quality of the full frame presentation to be very good. Unfortunately, the episodes on this set could have used a bit more re-mastering (both physical and digital). On some of the episodes, the color and contrast is good, but the footage itself looks like it was mastered from an analog videotape, with an overly soft appearance. Other episodes are crisp looking, but seem washed out color-wise. All of the prints used in the original transfers (whenever they might have been done) have significant dust, dirt and scratches. I would hope future seasons are given better treatment, because while this is adequate, the series should look a lot better than it does here. Thankfully, the audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, and is of more than acceptable quality. There's nothing remarkable or active about the mix, but it's always clean and clear.

In terms of extras on the set, you get the series' never-aired pilot episode, The Mystery of the Lost Chord, and text biographies of the characters. It isn't much, but the pilot episode in particular is a very welcome offering. For the record, the discs are packaged in a pair of plastic, Amaray-style keep cases that fit together in a cardboard slipcase.

Danger Mouse is one of those delightful imported gems that's well worth your time, especially if you've missed it thus far. If you're a fan of animation, trust me when I say that it's entertaining, inventive and original. The DVD quality could be a little better, but given the budget-friendly price, it's reasonably deserving of a place in your library.

Bill Hunt
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