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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Sin City

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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Sin City
2005 (2005) - Troublemaker Studios/Dimension (Buena Vista)

(Editor's Note: The film portion of this review is by Todd Doogan)

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/D-

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A

Basin City: a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. Unless, of course, you're scum. The criminals there are more crooked than a crazy straw. And the cops are even worse. About the only thing worth a damn are the prostitutes in Old Town, the district where anything and everything goes... for a price.

For the longest time, I was comfortable knowing that no one, and I mean not even Frank Miller, would ever make a Sin City film. The comics were and are superb. They stand as some of the greatest noir ever done. Miller's art style was rendered genius in every panel. His dialogue was pitch perfect. About the only problem with Sin City, for me, is that there just aren't as many stories as I would like. At the time of this writing, there are only six graphic novels and a handful of filler shorts. Hopefully, the success of this film will bring us more - fingers crossed.

Anyway, when I first heard that a film version was coming, and Robert Rodriguez was spearheading it, I was scared. I like Rodriguez's work, don't get me wrong, but I just didn't think anyone SHOULD make a Sin City film.

Then I saw "The Short" at the 2004 ComicCon. I have to say, I was very impressed. Even Bill, who I dragged to the Sin City panel kicking and screaming, was impressed with what he saw. If you missed the presentation, don't you worry your pretty little heads - The Short actually serves as the opening of the film. For the uninitiated, its stylized look may be a bit jarring. For the fans of Miller's work, however, it's utterly perfect. It serves the film well, pulling its source material from a short story from the Sin City mythos. It draws you in and prepares you for a thrill ride. Then something bad happens.

Now, I'm a big, big fan of Michael Madsen. I love the guy, actually. But he's awful in this film. Madsen ALMOST ruins it. Why? Because he's emblematic of a problem that's ruined other, similarly CG-heavy films (like The Phantom Menace, Sky Captain and Casshern). Lately we've been hearing a lot about virtual sets, and how actors are having a hard time acting without something actually being there for them to act WITH. It's very clear that Madsen is working in front of a green screen in his scene, and it's giving him problems. Sure, he's with Bruce Willis in the scene, but as evidenced in Frank Miller's Sin City: The Making of the Movie book (it's bad ass - buy it) many shots were composited, so it's possible that Madsen was by his lonesome in this shot and had nothing to work with. Madsen is a brilliant craftsman and he's generally too good for him to be THIS bad, so I guess I feel compelled to make excuses for him. But listen - every actor out there, wanna be or award winner, needs to get comfortable with virtual sets because they're the wave of the future. “Talkies” killed the careers of many a silent film actor, who couldn't memorize lines or had awful voices, and I think the same might be the case here in the coming years.

Still, Sin City manages to become one of the best films I've seen in a long, long while. The biggest reason for this is two words. Make that three: Mickey Frickin’ Rourke. Rourke is Marv, plain and simple, and Marv IS Sin City. Marv stars in the first fully-told tale of Sin City (based on the original graphic novel), and it's the story of a big lug of a thug whose moral system is bigger and stronger than most straight people's. Someone does a bad thing to someone he thinks is worth going to bat for, and so he goes to bat and hits a homer... over and over again. It's a beautiful tale told with love, passion and plenty of bullets. Rourke should get an award nomination for his role in this. I've always loved his work, and Sin City sealed the deal. I'll see anything he does from this point forward.

The second tale of the film (known to comic fans as The Big Fat Kill) follows Dwight, a former photojournalist turned wanted felon (see the sequel for info about this or, better yet, pick up the graphic novel A Dame to Kill For) who involves himself in a little war between the girls of Old Town and a corrupt government out of loyalty. It's a war that will leave a lot of people dead in the streets, and a lot of blood on little Miho's sword. I'll let you discover Miho on your own.

The last tale of Sin City is That Yellow Bastard. For sequencing issues, the first chunk of this story appears at the front of the film (which includes the bad Madsen scene), but the meaty part is at the end. Bruce Willis stars as Hartigan, the only clean cop in Basin City, who goes after the pederast son of the crooked Senator Roark in order to save a young girl. His life is turned upside down and inside out in the effort. Years later, Hartigan finds himself protecting that same little girl again... except she ain't so little anymore.

With its three major stories merged all together, Sin City becomes a fanboy's Pulp Fiction. Time passes, characters come and go only to reappear later in the film to pay off their respective stories. It's all done with incredible visual flare and a gritty dramatic style... and it all works. Sin City is a lot of fun.

Shot entirely in high-definition video, Sin City looks outstanding on DVD. I don't know for sure whether this disc was mastered directly from the digital master files (but I suspect it was). In any case, the anamorphic widescreen image looks gorgeous. The film is almost entirely presented in B&W - a choice that helps to emulate the style of the original graphic novel. That means this film is ALL about contrast, and this DVD preserves the all the necessary shadings beautifully. There's a little tiny bit of digital artifacting here and there (during rain storms and chaotic motion) but that's probably unavoidable. Doesn't matter - the image quality is here is near breathtaking.

As good as the video is, the audio is even better. You're given the choice of both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround. Both tracks feature great clarity and a wide soundstage. There's surprising subtlety in the mix, resulting in a highly atmospheric audio experience. Music is well blended, there's lots of panning and directional play, the rear channels are active. Best of all, there's serious bass in the mix... not just for music and effects, but even the character voices have exactly the right amount of gritty rumble. The DTS track is just a hair smoother, but both mixes are excellent.

This disc's weakness is its extras, or lack thereof. Other than an 8-minute featurette - one that gives you just the barest look at the film's origins and makings - you get nothing of value at all. Nada. Zip. Don't let Buena Vista's marketing for this DVD fool you ("Collect all 4 limited edition covers!"). Anyone who buys more than a single copy of this disc is being taken for a ride. It shouldn't surprise you that Rodriguez has indicated (in recent interviews) that a fully-loaded special edition is ALREADY on the way, so beware the double-dip.

Don't let my negative spin on Madsen's performance make you think that this film is bad. Sin City is not perfect and it's certainly not for everyone. It is, however, a good movie and a great adaptation of a stellar piece of comic book history. If you just can't wait for the special edition, pick this disc up on sale and be glad you did. At the very least, while you wait for the better version, this one's worth a rent.


Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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2005 (2005) - Miramax (Buena Vista)

Film Rating: C+

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

It's hard to imagine Bruce Willis playing a hard-nosed cop isn't it? I mean... it just seems so out of character for the guy. I'm kidding. Hostage stars Willis as Jeff Talley, a former L.A.P.D. hostage negotiator who burned out after a particularly tough negotiation went south on him. In need of a change of pace, Talley left hostage negotiation and took a job as the Chief of Police of a small L.A. suburb instead. Unfortunately, the career move hasn't made his home life any easier. He and his wife are on the verge of divorce, and his daughter bitterly resents him. At least his work's less stressful, right? Well, you know that isn't going to last.

Sure enough, things go south for Talley again, when a trio of teenaged thugs' attempt at a car-jacking turns into a full blown hostage situation right smack in the middle of Talley's sleepy little suburban jurisdiction. But there's more to the situation: As it turns out, the guy whose house said thugs have taken over makes a comfortable living cooking the books for organized crime, so there's a DVD-ROM full of illicit banking records in this house that said criminals are determined to protect by whatever means necessary. And as Talley's day goes from bad to worse, you just know that, given his luck, the situation is likely to get even MORE complicated before it's all over.

By all rights, Hostage (which is based on a novel by Robert Crais) should be a pretty standard, paint-by-numbers crime thriller... and it most certainly is. But a couple of things work to the film's advantage. Willis is the first, of course. He's solid here in a performance that recalls just about every other Die Hard-esque cop role he's ever played. Surprisingly though, it's the story that keeps you interested... at least until the inevitable explosions begin. This isn't Shakespearean intrigue or anything, but the story delivers just enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. Once it's got you, unfortunately, the rest of the film's action plays out about as predictably as you'd imagine. But hey... I give them credit for trying.

The production quality of the DVD is generally good. The video is anamorphic widescreen and is as pleasing as it needs to be. Detail is sufficient... colors and contrast are just fine. It's not going to dazzle you, but there's nothing here to aggravate you either. The audio is the usual Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and it serves the film well. Dialogue's clear, music and sound effects are well blended. Again, it isn't particularly noteworthy, but neither does it disappoint.

The disc isn't loaded, but it probably contains more extras than the film really deserves. You get a run-of-the-mill audio commentary with the film's director (for the record, Florent Siri of... well, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell fame), a series of deleted and extended scenes (also with optional commentary) and an EPK-style featurette on the making of the film. I found it tough to muster enough enthusiasm to really care about any of it, but I suppose if you're a true blue fan of the film, you can be glad it's all there.

While it sets up better than it pays off, Hostage is still a decent enough little cop actioner to keep you mildly entertained. By the time the closing credits roll, the film will already have begun to blur with all those other B-grade cop films in your memory banks. But hey... I can think of a lot worse ways to spend 112 minutes. We'll call Hostage a fine rental choice (at the worst) or a decent discount purchase (at best) and leave it at that.

The Muppet Show: Season One

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The Muppet Show
Season One - 1976 (2005) - Henson Productions (Buena Vista)

Program Rating: B+

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

It's been a long wait for fans, but thanks to the recent purchase of the Muppet franchise by Disney, TV's classic and much-loved The Muppet Show is finally being given the attention it deserves on DVD.

This first season features guest appearances by the likes of Ruth Buzzi, Florence Henderson, Peter Ustinov, Harvey Korman and Vincent Price. These 24 half-hour episodes also include such beloved numbers as "Mahna Mahna," "Inchworm," "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" and "It's Not easy Bein' Green," along with the first sketch installments of "Muppet Labs," "Veterinarian's Hospital" and "At the Dance." Not bad at all for a first season.

Given the age of these episodes, and the fact that they were originally shot and mastered on analog video, they look surprisingly good here on disc. That said, this video isn't up to the level of more recent TV material. You should expect the 4x3 image to be a little soft looking, with color that's occasionally a bit washed out. That said, image detail is still decent and contrast is more than good enough. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, as you'd expect, but it sounds fine and matches the imagery well.

The 4-disc set doesn't include a lot of extras, but what you do get here is welcome. There's the original (and very funny) presentation reel used by Jim Henson to sell the series, along with the original pilot episode (which oddly featured not Kermit as the host, but a Kermit-like character named Nigel). Each episode also includes a "Muppet Morsels" option, which is basically a subtitle fact and trivia track. Particularly cute here is a promo reel for episodes and guests from the first season. You also get an insert booklet that lists all the episodes and contents on each disc. Statler and Waldorf even heckle you from the menu screens. All of this is included in a Digipack, with an outer sleeve colored and textured to look and feel like Kermit the Frog's green felt skin.

It's fortunate that fans don't have to deal with Sony's "best of" sets anymore. Disney expects to release the whole series (all five seasons) on disc in complete season sets in the months ahead (look for newly remastered DVDs of many of the Muppet feature films as well). Personally, I'd like to see the studio put more effort into the extras. Why not recruit Muppet Show alums like Frank Oz and others to record audio commentary, or at least do new video interviews to share stories and remembrances of their work on the series? In any case, it's just awfully nice to FINALLY see this show available on DVD, period. Recommended for the whole family.

Bill Hunt
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