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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

A Very Long Engagement

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A Very Long Engagement
2005 (2004) - Warner Independent Pictures (Warner)

Film Rating: A-

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

Based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement is a charming but rather unlikely love story. It's a deceptively simple film. When Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) was young and needed a friend, Manech appeared and brought hope and joy into her life. As the two grew together from children to young adults, their friendship blossomed into love, and the pair inevitably became lovers.

Such innocent happiness rarely lasts forever however, and it's not long before Manech is shipped off to fight on the brutal front lines during the first World War. Though he remains pure of heart and true in his innocent dedication to Mathilde, upon the war's end, Manech fails to return home. In her initial investigation, Mathilde learns that he was reported killed. But Mathilde stubbornly will not believe it. She refuses to abandon her hope of being reunited with Manech, and so she sets upon a desperate but determined search to find him and restore happiness to her world.

Like Juenet's Amélie before it (which also starred Tautou), A Very Long Engagement has an unusual narrative structure, here moving from past to present effortlessly with a combination of effective cinematography, deft editing and computer graphics. The contrast of the young lovers' story, as it's unraveled a little at a time against the brutal realities of war that Mathilde gradually uncovers, gives the film a gritty but engaging quality. It's like a storybook that unfolds a page at a time. The narrative is certainly propelled by Mathilde's need to find Manech, as she uncovers clues about (and eventually from) some of the soldiers he was reportedly lost with, but it's the eclectic performances of the supporting cast that give it charm and warmth, and allow both the viewer and Mathilde to cling to the precariously slim hope of success.

Warner's anamorphic widescreen transfer on DVD is of the studio's typically high quality, with excellent clarity and crisp detail. The film's color palette is biased toward a warmer, sepia-toned look, and the DVD presentation preserves this perfectly, with lovely saturation and nicely subtle skin tones. Contrast is also quite good, with the wide range of shadings allowing for an appropriately gloomy look to the battle footage as well as an evocative and inviting feel to the lovers' story in flashback. The film's audio is presented only in the original French, in full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are provided). The mix is big and wide, with outstanding atmospheric immersion and lively use of the surrounds not just during the combat scenes but throughout the entire film.

Supplements on the 2-disc set include a full-length audio commentary with Juenet on Disc One (it's in French, of course, but when you view the film with it, English subtitle translation replaces the film's own subtitles on screen). He's a fascinating and clearly well-spoken character. Juenet lives and breaths his craft, and listening to him here actually made me want to revisit some of his other films on disc too (including the aforementioned Amélie, Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children and even Alien Resurrection). Present on Disc Two are an outstanding behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film (it runs a little over 70 minutes in length), a short featurette looking at the effort to recreate the look of Paris of the 1920s, and another examining the CG effects used to create the hospital explosion scene. Finally, you get a series of 14 deleted or extended scenes, each with optional commentary by Juenet. Once again, all of it is presented in French, with English subtitles.

A Very Long Engagement is certainly an unlikely love story, but it's refreshing and it's one of the most classically romantic films I've seen in years. It's charming, eclectic and it's well worth your time on DVD.

Team America: World Police
Special Collector's Edition - 2004 (2005) - Paramount

Film Rating (R-rated/Unrated): B+/B+

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

In this time of reactionary political correctness and extreme, self-important voices on both sides of the ideological isle, leave it to Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) to fearlessly cut through the crap and call things like they are. If you've seen South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, you'll have a very good idea what to expect from Team America: World Police. The main difference this time, is that rather than using deliberately bad looking animation, Trey and Matt here endeavor to offend half the planet with Gerry Anderson-style puppets on strings.

The story is driven by North Korean nut-job/president Kim Jong-Il, who is supplying terrorists with weapons of mass destruction as part of a secret plan to plunge the entire world into Third World chaos. Working to stop the terrorists is Team America, a Thunderbirds-like strike and rescue team headquartered deep inside Mount Rushmore. Their plan is to infiltrate the terrorists' organization and foil the plot... but they'll need the talent of the world's best actor, Gary Johnston, to do it. Once Gary's on board with the plan, Team America will spare no amount of bullets, missiles, explosives and cowboy gusto to prevent a disaster the likes of 9/11 times a hundred.

"9/11 times a hundred? Jesus, that's--"

"Yes... 91,100!"

A Very Long Engagement

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

A Very Long Engagement

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

One of the things that makes Team America work so well, is that it takes its absurd premise completely seriously. Better still, no one is spared from Parker and Stone's savage wit. Liberals, conservatives, terrorists, French people... ALL are made to look foolish here, which is as it should be. Team America is quick to shoot first and ask questions later, and quick to wave the flag to rally the cause, even when they've just blown up half of a foreign city to kill the bad guys (hey - it's a lousy job but who else is going to do it?). Anyone who isn't with Team America is against Team America, if you get the drift. Particularly scorned in this film are self-important Hollywood actors (like Alec Baldwin, George Clooney, Tim Robbins and Sean Penn) who spout their political opinions at inappropriate times and unwittingly play right into Kim Jong-Il's plans. They're scorned not so much for being liberal, but as Parker notes in one of the featurettes on the disc, "No matter how big or small the actor, they all have such an attitude and think that they're all rad. There's no lamer thing you can be in the world than an actor." Sometimes, it's hard to disagree. But the boys don't stop there. Hell, even director Michael Bay gets boned pretty good here.

Far and away the best things about Team America, however, are its depiction of Kim Jong-Il (as a lonely, misunderstood evil genius), and its outrageously funny soundtrack. If you give Parker and Stone credit for NOTHING else, you must admit that these two can write a savvy, biting tune like nobody's business. Remember how the South Park movie's Blame Canada became Oscar-nominated... and it wasn't even CLOSE to being the best track from the film? Well, the songs here are even better. When Gary initially wavers in joining the cause, he takes in a puppet's-eye view of various Washington memorials as a country singer twangs: "Freedom isn't free, no there's a hefty fuckin' fee..." As Team America blasts into action the first time, the soundtrack blares: "America, FUCK YEAH! Coming again to save the motherfucking day, yeah!" Kim Jong-Il mourns his sad little existence by crooning: "I'm so ronery, so ronery, so ronery and sadry arone..." Parker and Stone are even tongue-in-cheek about film conventions. As Gary trains frantically to save his friends late in the film, we hear: "In anything if you want to go, from just a beginner to a pro... you need a montage! Even Rocky had a montage!"

By the way, if you've gotten the sense that you might be offended by a little profanity in this film... boy, you haven't seen ANYTHING yet. This film's dialogue is the LEAST of the things you could take offense to. There's surprisingly graphic (though completely absurd) violence and there's a pretty outrageous puppet sex scene that's not for the faint of heart, even in the R-rated version. The unrated version of the film on DVD goes even farther with this scene, adding a standing 69, rimming, urination and defecation. Puppet scat. No kidding. The unrated naughty bits add nothing to the film (in fact, few will be able to resist cringing), but it wouldn't be a Trey Parker and Matt Stone production if the boys didn't try to push things well past the limits of good taste in an effort to piss of the MPAA. Bless their disgusting little hearts for it.

Both versions of the film on DVD feature excellent anamorphic widescreen video quality. Paramount has quietly been delivering some very nice digital transfers lately, and this one is no exception. The video has very good contrast, with deep, detailed blacks. Colors are relatively vibrant without bleed, and are true to the theatrical presentation. Clarity and image detail are both satisfactory and the print is crisp and clean at all times. Audio-wise, you have your choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1. The 5.1 track is exceptional, featuring a highly active sound mix, plenty of panning and atmospheric fill, and thunderous bass in the .LFE. Quality-wise, there's very little to complain about here.

The DVD extras include a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes that offer insights on how the puppets were designed and created, how the miniature effects were accomplished, etc. There's a particularly good look at the development of the Kim Jong-Il puppet and the character's personality. There are also a number of deleted scenes and outtakes (watch that giant statue of Kim in the palace closely - it's actually a full size person in a costume!), along with animated storyboards, puppet test footage and a pair of theatrical trailers. I would have loved an audio commentary, but I can imagine that it would have been mostly Trey and Matt bitching about all the actors they hate for two hours, so I get why they probably didn't do one. By the way, the extras are the same on both versions of the disc.

If you're thin-skinned, quick to take offense or an actor, just stay the hell away from this film. Trust me, it's best just not to go there. On the other hand, if you're sick of political blow-hards and PC hyper-correctness, and looking for some good laughs (sometimes even at the expense of your own beliefs), Team America is for you. It's by far the silliest, most absurd, offensive and kick-ass film of 2004 bar none, and the soundtrack simply rocks. I dare you to watch this and NOT catch yourself singing these tunes for days after. This is an instant cult classic and it's definitely recommended (not for everyone, but recommended nonetheless).

A Very Long Engagement

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Bill & Ted's Most Excellent Collection
1988/1991 (2005) - MGM (Sony)

Film Ratings (Excellent/Bogus): B/C-

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

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

Extras (Bonus Disc): B-

Here's another pair of films that once seemed destined for cult enshrinement... but I'm not quite sure that the years have been kind to Ted 'Theodore' Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esquire. They've been awfully good to Keanu Reeves on the other hand, but what the hell ever happened to Alex Winter? Hmmm.

Anyway, the original 1988 Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is definitely the better of the pair, and it's certainly the film that holds up best. It follows the title characters, a duo of largely ambitionless slacker dudes living in San Dimas, California (it's not quite the Valley, but it's close enough). Bill and Ted want nothing more than to hit it big with their wanna-be rock band, Wyld Stallyns. But both are flunking their history class and Ted's in danger of being sent away to military school, which would mean the Stallyns' heinous demise. Their only chance is to ace their final history report, but the chances of that seem slim. Thankfully, a cool futuristic dude named Rufus (George Carlin) arrives with a plan to send Bill and Ted on a twisted journey back through time to learn their history first-hand.

While the first film was surprisingly original and entertaining, the Cali-slacker schtick got a little old in the 1991 follow-up, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. This time, life is going along fairly well for Bill and Ted, complete with hot babes, a righteous pad and a prime slot in a big, upcoming Battle of the Bands competition. But just when the boys' wildest dreams seem about to come true, they're suddenly replaced by a pair of robot duplicates - duplicates who are determined not only to ruin Bill & Ted's lives, but to change the Future in the process. What follows is a decidedly over-the-top and mostly unfunny escapade that sends our favorite duo to Hell and back... literally.

Both films have been released on DVD previously by MGM, and those same discs are now being offered together in a new box set that includes an all-new disc of bonus material. The two films are presented in anamorphic widescreen video, but the quality is somewhat less than stellar. Each looks okay, with decent color fidelity, moderate grain and adequate (if only just) image detail. But contrast is lacking and the prints aren't in the best condition, with a great deal of dust, dirt and scratches visible. Both films feature Dolby Digital 5.1 audio on disc, but the mix on Excellent Adventure is shamefully flat and lifeless, with only very light use of the surrounds. Bogus Journey fares better audio-wise, with a somewhat more aggressive mix and more lively use of the rear channels.

The only extras on the movie discs are a trio of theatrical trailers (spread over both discs) and a vintage EPK featurette (on Bogus Journey). The good stuff is all on the new Non-Bogus Disc, and it's surprisingly (well, mostly) non-bogus. The disc starts with an entertaining video conversation between writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who created these characters and tell the story of how it all began. Next up is The Most Triumphant Making-of Documentary, which covers both films and the short-lived animated series. It runs about 30 minutes and features new interviews with virtually everyone involved except (sadly) Keanu Reeves and George Carlin. It's still pretty decent though, at least for one viewing, and you do finally get to learn what's up with Alex Winter. Quite appropriately, there's an interview with legendary rock axe-man Steve Vai, as well as a silly but equally appropriate air guitar tutorial with Bjorn Turoqe and The Rockness Monster (champion air jammers both). There's an amusing video biography of "nine historical personages" from the films (featuring vintage production photos) that can be viewed "full-length" or in "8 minutes or less" (played at double-speed for cramming). A particularly nice touch is that you get the complete premiere episode of the Saturday morning animated series. There's also a guide to Bill & Ted lingo, a gaggle of radio spots and an interesting (but rather hard to read) feature called From Scribble to Script, which lets you see the writers' original notes as the idea was developed. In the end, the absence of Reeves and Carlin remains disappointing, but this is still more material than I would ever have expected for these films, and some of it is rather clever.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure deserves a place in your DVD collection. If you don't already have it, this new box set is a great way to get it. The set carries a budget-friendly SRP of only $29.98, and it delivers Bogus Journey too. Better still, if you dig these films you'll probably be amused by the new bonus disc. It's certainly non-heinous and you'll definitely get your fill. Bill & Ted's Most Excellent Collection is worth a look for fans.

Bill Hunt
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