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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits


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2005 (2005) - NBC (Universal)

Program Rating: C+

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

End-of-the-world and disaster-themed films have always been popular fare. Indeed, the fear of Armageddon has had a place in popular entertainment for as long as there have been people to imagine it. With virtually every kind of man-made and natural disaster having been depicted on film at least once, it was only a matter of time before filmmakers turned their attentions back to one of the original end of the world stories in The Bible, particularly given the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism (or at least its greater visibility) in recent years. And so it was that NBC, flush with the success of their craptastic 10.5 earthquake mini-series, ordered the production of Revelations.

The six-hour TV event stars Natascha McElhone (Braveheart, Solaris) as an out-of-favor Catholic nun who believes the signs are in place for the literal end of times. Her cynical counterpart is a Harvard astrophysicist played by Bill Pullman (ID4, Spaceballs). He's a non-believer haunted by the death of his daughter at the hands of a sinister cult leader who seems to have a larger, hidden agenda. A series of events leads the pair to each other, and soon they're hot on the trail of clues that may lead them to a divine infant - Christ returned as per the prophecies - with the forces of Evil never far behind.

I've always been a fan of a good disaster flick, but seldom are they any good. Usually they're slapped together quickly, feature paper-thin characterizations and have plot twists that are so contrived that you're constantly pulled out of the narrative for shaking your head in disgust. I expected Revelations to be more of the same. What I discovered instead, was a mini-series that never tries to be more than what it is, and actually manages to stay largely entertaining for its entire length. It's written just well enough that if you embrace the basic conceit (that the biblical end of times is more than just a good story), you can largely buy all of its various twists and turns. This is in large part thanks to writer/producer David Seltzer (author of The Omen). Yes, there are plenty of cliches here, and the dialogue early on is a bit preachy in favor of both religion and science (which, depending on your own views, you may mind or not). But Pullman and McElhone are just good enough to lend credibility to their roles, and the supporting cast (including Michael Massee, Fred Durst - yes, that Fred Durst - and John Rhys-Davies) is solid across the board. While the mini-series' subject matter is understandably epic, the filmmakers wisely keep the focus on the personal stories of their characters. That helps to keep you engaged, and gives the story believability it would otherwise lack. Unfortunately, that tight focus also means that the mini-series' larger Good vs. Evil arc simply can't be resolved... which is probably as it should be. After all, it's the rare TV mini-series that manages to resist neatly tying its plot up with a bow.

The worst thing about this 2-disc DVD release, and there's really no excuse for it in my opinion, is that Universal presents Revelations in its original broadcast widescreen format (1.78:1), but WITHOUT anamorphic enhancement. What you get is okay, with solid color and contrast, and only minor digital artifacting, but the lack of anamorphic makes absolutely no sense at all, unless you figure that the studio just decided to bang this 2-disc set out on the cheap. The audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 - nothing flashy but it's good enough to support the visuals. The only extras on the set are a series of deleted scenes and a brief EPK-style featurette that includes interviews with McElhone, Pullman, Massee and Seltzer. The deleted scenes are nice, but the featurette is nothing special. My main beef is the video. Universal really dropped the ball there, and the only conclusion one can make is that they just didn't care enough (or anticipate enough profit) to do anything about it.

Revelations isn't Shakespeare and it isn't in danger of usurping Ben-Hur of The Ten Commandments in terms of quality Biblical epics. It is, however, more entertaining than you'd guess. Whatever your own beliefs, one of its ultimate messages (in addition to the importance of hope) seems to be that science and religion don't have to conflict, but rather can actually complement one another - a sentiment that it's nice to see expressed in popular culture for a change (and that I happen to agree with). Color me surprised, but Revelations is better than I expected (I'll be even more surprised if NBC doesn't already have a sequel mini-series in its plans). It's worth at least a rent if you've got nothing else on your viewing slate, but the lack of anamorphic enhancement prevents me from recommending it as a purchase.

Samurai Jack: Season 2

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Samurai Jack: Season 2
2001-2004 (2005) - Cartoon Network (Warner)

Program Rating: A-

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

As you've probably guessed by now, we have a certain fondness for any film or TV offering with a samurai in them. Cartoon Network's Samurai Jack is certainly no exception. Debuting in 2001 and created by Genndy Tartakovsky of Star Wars: Clone Wars fame, this series features subtle and engaging storytelling, unusual characters and a completely unique style of animation, particularly remarkable given that this is an American production. Samurai Jack stands out creatively on many levels.

The story is quite simple: An evil conjurer named Aku has plunged the Earth into darkness and has sent the only man capable of stopping him, a noble samurai warrior with the nickname Jack, into the future to prevent him from causing trouble. The future Earth in which Jack finds himself is filled with Aku's evil, along with strange alien beings and technology from countless worlds. But Jack finds many allies as well - beings of all shapes and sizes who suffer under Aku's cruel reign. Thus unfolds Jack's quest to travel back into the past to stop Aku once and for all. The first season of this Emmy-winning series was released on DVD in 2004. This second season (13 episodes) continues the epic story without missing a beat.

The episodes are presented on DVD in their original full frame aspect ratio. Contrast is excellent, with lush, vibrant colors and only minor compression artifacting. The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround is crisp and clear, but is mostly biased to the front half of the soundstage. The rear channels are used largely for music and light atmospheric effects. The presentation isn't stellar, but it's quite good and it should make most fans of the series happy.

The DVD extras on this 2-disc set aren't voluminous, but what you do get is nice to have. They include a short but interesting featurette about creator Tartakovsky, a look at the storyboard/pitch process for the series (including specific excerpts of the pitch for Episode XVII), and optional filmmaker audio commentary (featuring Tartakovsky and writers/artists Brian Andrews and Scott Wills) on Episode XXV.

If you love animation and you haven't already checked out Samurai Jack, you're really doing yourself a disservice. The series is refreshingly original, inventive and highly stylish. I'd suggest that you check out Season One on DVD first. Once you do, THIS 2-disc set is highly recommended.

Sasquatch Horror Triple Feature

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Sasquatch Horror Triple Feature
1954-1977 (2005) - Retromedia (Image)

Film Ratings (all three): D+ (but A for B-movie fans)

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

Okay... I'm going to come right out and admit that the three movies included on this DVD are utter B-grade schlock. If all three of them disappeared without a trace, few would mourn their loss. Given these undeniable facts, I have to grade the films appropriately. However, I'm sure as hell glad to have them on disc. Sasquatch, The Legend of Bigfoot in particular is one of those flicks I remember fondly from Saturday afternoon cable TV viewing as a kid. It creeped the willies out of me and I loved every minute of it. The experience doesn't hold up with the passage of the years of course, but I still got a retro thrill watching it... and the other two films here as well.

Sasquatch, The Legend of Bigfoot is a pseudo-documentary that follows a scientific expedition in search of the legendary half-man, half-beast. Snow Beast is classic boogeyman fare, with a bloodthirsty Bigfoot picking off skiers at a mountain resort one by one. Both were made in 1977, and reek of bad acting. The best of the lot is probably The Snow Creature (1954), which also features bad acting and a silly scientific expedition to find the infamous monster, but benefits from the period's classic B-movie paranoia. Frankly, any film with dialogue like "Yeti steal my woman!" is worth a spin in my book.

All three are presented in their original full frame aspect ratios on this DVD, in quality that's not dazzling but is probably a helluva lot better than we have any right to expect. The '77 films are in color, while the '54 film is B&W. Audio on all three is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and there are no extras, which should come as no surprise. The bonus is simply having this stuff on DVD at all.

These films aren't going to appeal to everyone, but if you're cut from the same cloth as I am and thus have a fondness for squeezy-cheesy B-flicks, the Sasquatch Horror Triple Feature is right up your alley. These films aren't even good enough to be made fun of on Mystery Science Theater 3000... but they're still a good deal of fun in their own way. And the disc is cheap too. So what more do you want? Switch off your brain and enjoy.

Bill Hunt
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