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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits


Gladiator: Extended Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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Gladiator
Extended Edition - 2000 (2005) - DreamWorks/Universal

Film Ratings (Theatrical/Extended): A/A+

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


"He will bring them death, and they will love him for it."

There is a certain kind of film that I am, almost invariably, unable to resist - the epic story. It usually starts with a simple, noble character of humble origins, who suddenly loses everything that is most dear to him/her. Then the character finds him or herself thrust into the center of an epic conflict or struggle - some kind of dire situation whose outcome will have consequences far greater than they can possibly imagine. For such a character, the choice is simple - rise to meet the challenge or fall in defeat. Heroes are born in this way. So too are the best movies. Many of my favorite films share this common thread - Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart... the list goes on. There's just no better drama than a good epic struggle.

So here's a epic tale for you - a noble Roman army general named Maximus (Russell Crowe) has just won his greatest victory against the Barbarian hordes in the North, ensuring the continued security of Rome for ages to come. The battle has taken years to fight, and all Maximus wants now is return home, to farm his land and live in peace with his wife and son.


But his dying friend and Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, has one last task for Maximus. It seems that corruption is running rampant in the Empire, and the Emperor's only son and heir, Commodus, is not an honorable man. Fearing the worst for Rome upon his death, the Emperor asks Maximus to succeed him, and to eventually return Rome to its people - to make it a democracy again. Commodus soon learns of this plan and, feeling betrayed, kills the Emperor, taking control before his father's plans for Maximus are widely known. Commodus then demands Maximus' pledge of loyalty. When the general refuses, he strips Maximus of his command and has him taken away to be executed. Maximus escapes, but Commodus' wrath falls heavily upon his family before he can save them. Bereft, Maximus soon finds himself sold into slavery as a gladiator. But in this seemingly desperate situation, Maximus finds an opportunity for vengeance. As it happens, the new Emperor is holding gladiatorial games in the Coliseum in Rome to engender the love of his subjects. And the very best gladiators are given an audience with the Emperor himself.

Director Ridley Scott's amazing attention to detail and his command of cinematic style and process have never served him better. Given time, I think Gladiator will come to rank with Blade Runner and Alien as his best works in the eyes of film fans. The production design here is superb - the glory of Rome at the height of its power comes brilliantly to life on screen. The cast supporting Crowe is terrific, and includes the likes of Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus and Richard Harris as the Emperor, as well as Oliver Reed (who sadly died during this production), Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou and Connie Nielsen. The script is taut and well written, giving its characters just the right motivation needed to propel the story. And the gladiator action is intense and unrelenting, while still managing to leave a lot for your own imagination to fill in. As violent as this film is, you don't see a lot of actual blood. I'd say this is on par with Braveheart, if even a little less bloody.

This new DVD edition offers two versions of Gladiator... the original theatrical cut and a brand new extended edition prepared specifically by Scott. You can choose to watch one or the other via a seamless branching option. I'm pleased to say that this is one of those rare cases where more really is better - the roughly 17 minutes of added footage actually improves upon an already great film. Much of the new material was included as deleted scenes on the previous DVD release. It serves to round out and humanize the supporting characters more, particularly Commodus and Lucilla, and to significantly flesh out their own motivations. Commodus is a much more effective villain as a result. There are also a number of new moments of conspiracy and intrigue in Rome that add welcome depth to the overall story. The extended cut also intensifies the combat slightly.

Both versions of the film are presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), and they look fantastic. It's odd, because compared to the previous DVD release, the video here actually has a slightly reduced average video bit rate. However, I suspect that compression technology has improved enough over the last five years to compensate for this. As a result, the video here actually looks just slightly better, in my opinion, than the previous DVD. Colors are just as vibrant, contrast is as deep and there's plenty of detail. But the image here seems just a little less edgy, with slightly greater clarity overall. The difference is very subtle, but I like the new DVD's video quality just a hair more.

On the audio front, the disc includes what I believe is basically the same Dolby Digital 5.1 track that was on the original DVD release. The mix is highly atmospheric, with very active rear channels, a nicely wide forward soundstage and plenty of low frequency. Dialogue is clear and well centered, and Hans Zimmer's aggressive and haunting score is beautifully presented in the mix. Just listen to the wisp of arrows in the opening sequence, or the metallic ringing of swords beings sharpened in Proximo's dungeon. There's also plenty of low frequency reinforcement in the LFE to test you subwoofer. There is no DTS audio, which will no doubt upset some readers. Still, given that you get two versions of this film, plus mandatory Dolby 5.1 audio and a completely new audio commentary track all on one disc, we think it's a bit unreasonable to bemoan the lack of DTS. Hey... we love DTS too. But as we've said many times before, there's only so much room on a single dual-layered DVD disc. Someday, there will be a Blu-ray Disc version with plenty of extra disc space for all the bells and whistles. As it stands, omitting the DTS track was the right move, so people need to suck it up and deal. If it WERE on here, there would surely be complaints about reduced video quality. Bottom line: If you want DTS, watch the previous DVD release.

In addition to its dual versions of the film, Disc One offers a few more choice supplements as well. First of all, if you choose the extended edition, you'll get a video introduction by Scott. The disc also features a subtitle text trivia track, called Are You Not Entertained? In a welcome change of pace for a feature of this type, it includes production and historical details that are actually interesting. The track also points out features that you might want to experience on the set's other two discs (for example, when you view the film's opening sequence, it notes that Disc Three features an alternate version of the opening), and for the extended cut it identifies the deleted footage as you watch the film - a nice touch. And if you stick with the trivia track, towards the end of the film it actually starts to address the actual DVD production effort, including comments about the omission of DTS and more. By far the best extra on Disc One however, is an all-new, full-length audio commentary track featuring Ridley Scott with Russell Crowe (Crowe's first ever commentary for DVD). It's a great track - both entertaining and illuminating. The two are well versed in their craft, have obvious respect for one another and you can sense how invested they both are in this project still, even five years later. I don't want to say anything else about it, except that if you're a fan of this film, listening to this track is an absolute must.

Disc Two includes only a single extra, but in my opinion it's the jewel of this set: a whopping 200-minute documentary on the making of the film, called Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator. Produced by Charles de Lauzirika and his team (the same group responsible for the Alien Quadrilogy, Spider-Man 2, the Top Gun: SE and the 3-disc Black Hawk Down), the documentary is broken up into seven parts. You can watch each individually or play them all back to back. All are presented in anamorphic widescreen. Tale of the Scribes covers the origins of the story, the way the project developed and how Ridley got involved. The Tools of War examines the making of the film's arms and armor, and the logistical effort involved in staging the various battle scenes. Attire of the Realm provides insights on the costume design and the way the look of each character was developed. The Heat of Battle is the longest piece, covering the actual location shooting from England to Morocco to Malta. Shadows and Dust is a fascinating segment that shows you how the filmmakers dealt with the unfortunate death of actor Oliver Reed late in the production. It's also a moving tribute to the man and his work. The Glory of Rome takes you behind the scenes on the effort to recreate the wonder of ancient Rome via CG effects. Finally, Echoes in Eternity covers the eventual release of the film and its ultimate impact.

You've heard us talk a lot here at The Bits about how much we appreciate the work of independent DVD producers, and this documentary is a perfect example of why that is. Simply put, you'll never see an in-house producer at major studio produce something as good as this, in an environment with a dozen suits looking over his or her shoulder, with all the decisions made in committee. A piece this good requires an experienced producer operating with the creative freedom needed to explore the topics as necessary, and with full access to the people and materials involved in the making of the film. It also requires that the producer have an established relationship with the filmmaker, so that there's trust on both sides. Strength and Honor is thorough enough that you'll want for very little after watching it. Perhaps the best thing about the work, is that it literally offers you new perspectives on the film itself. Normally in a piece like this, you'll be shown occasional clips from the film that illustrate the topic at hand. Here, as he did in the Alien Quadrilogy, Lauzirika peppers in footage from the film... but you quickly realize that what you're seeing is often extended footage, alternate takes and different camera angles that what appeared in the final cut of the film. You're seeing familiar scenes and locations, but through previously unseen material. I suspect you're also occasionally hearing previously unheard bits of music as well. The cumulative effect is to add surprising texture and depth to the experience of the film, and to illuminate the world of the film in a way beyond what you'd normally get in a documentary like this. Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator is easily the best documentary on the making of a film we've seen on DVD this year. It's so good that after watching the entire thing front to back (wrapping it up at close to Midnight a few days ago), I found myself in such a Gladiator headspace that I was compelled to watch the ENTIRE extended cut of the film as well. It was close to 4 AM by the time I got to finally sleep, but I enjoyed the experience thoroughly.

By the way, there's actually a pretty great Easter egg hidden on Disc Two. I'm not going to tell you what it is, or how to find it, other than to say that it's a tricky one to locate. It's well worth the effort however. Enough said for now.

Disc Three serves as a sort of catch-all for the set. There's a featurette on the film's production design work (featuring designer Arthur Max), along with scores of elaborate design galleries packed with artwork covering every conceivable location and sequence in the film. There's a featurette in which artist Sylvain Despretz shows you how the storyboard process works. You get multi-angle comparisons of three sequences, comparing the storyboards to the final filmed sequences (with optional commentary by Despretz), as well as a complete archive of storyboards (including Ridley's own drawings) for 10 different scenes from the film. There are galleries of costume design artwork for the film's major characters. There are additional galleries of photographs shot during the production. There's a section of abandoned and deleted scenes (including an alternate version of the opening, as well as a newly-discovered deleted scene in which Maximus and Juba prepare for the chain fight in Zucchabar). Some of them feature optional commentary and there's a short featurette here as well. Next up is a featurette examining the development of certain visual effects shots of Germania and Rome. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer, teaser trailer and scores of TV spots are all available for viewing.

The discs' animated menu screens are simple and elegant. All three discs are packaged in a folding Digipack with an outer slipcase. You even get an insert booklet with liner notes by Scott himself. All in all, this is an absolutely fantastic piece of work - a worthy and welcome 3-disc special edition. Match it with the previous 2-disc release's excellent historical documentaries, its look at Hans Zimmer's music, its alternate audio commentary, the DTS track and the production diary by young Spencer Treat Clark (there's surprisingly little overlap between the two editions)... and what you get is a helluva great 5-disc special edition of Gladiator. What more could any fan of this film want? In fact, my only real complaint about this new edition is that it doesn't include 2 empty disc slots in the packaging to contain the original release as well.

Can you imagine the pitch session for this project? "We wanna make this kick-ass gladiator film with Russell Crowe and Richard Harris. We're gonna have lots of combat and we're gonna use CGI to bring the Roman Coliseum back to life. Oh... and Ridley Scott's gonna direct." How cool is that? Answer: Very. Gladiator is an undeniably great film... and it's now made even better with this new 3-disc DVD release. The new Scott/Crowe commentary, the extended cut of the film and the completely engrossing documentary offered here are WAY more than enough to justify the cost of adding this set to your DVD collection. Our advice is to pony up the greenbacks for this new edition and just be damn glad you've been given the chance to do so. We sure as hell are.




Steamboy: Director's Cut

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Steamboy
Director's Cut - 2005 (2005) - Triumph/Sunrise (Sony)

(Editor's Note: This review is by Todd Doogan & Bill Hunt)

Film Rating: D+

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

Packaged Extras (Limited Edition Box only): B


Don't believe the hype. Holding no bars whatsoever, we have to say that Steamboy sucks. Seriously, it's a huge disappointment. Katsuhiro Otomo blessed us with Akira, which ranks as one of the seminal anime titles (based on his own manga series) to date. So it only reasoned that Steamboy would rock the anime world's socks completely off, right?

Nope.

We have no idea how a film that A) looks as cool as this one does, and B) has the potential that this film does, could suck as badly as this film ultimately does.

The film's story is surprisingly anaemic and pointless, but let's take a look anyway, if only for the sake of this review.


In the late 1800s, a research team stationed in Russian Alaska discovers hyper-dense water with so much energy stored inside it that it could transform the world of steam power. But as they try and harness this power, something goes horribly wrong. Cut to Victorian England, where teen supreme Ray Steam is a boy genius in the world of steam power. His father and grandfather were the two men in charge of the Alaskan expedition, so he's got steam not only as his last name, but in his blood. But when a package from his grandfather (containing a steam engine built around the mysterious water source) arrives at his doorstep one day, evil quickly follows. Scientists/inventors with dark agendas, shady companies and even shadier governments with nefarious plans... all come knocking on Ray's door. They want the device that's now in Ray's possession, and only Ray can keep them from getting it. Or so you'd think. That's where this film starts to fall apart. The first fifteen minutes are interesting, but the rest of the movie pretty much fails almost entirely to remain coherent or even entertain.

If the movie had built upon its interesting set-up, it could have been very cool. But it doesn't. Ray gets caught right after he gets away with the engine. He quickly looses the engine, and then finds out that his father and grandfather, whom he thought dead, are not only still alive, but somehow involved in all these dark dealings. Otomo claims that this is a film about the relationship between fathers and sons, but those relationships just don't pay off as they should. Instead of fighting his father and grandfather, because they seem to be evil now, Ray joins them for some odd reason. Other characters with wicked agendas, who could have been really badass villains (like say, Scarlett) are turned into comedy foils that run around with Ray as he meanders through the story. And while the animation and production design depicted in the film's climax offer a glimpse of all-stops-pulled-out coolness, nothing ultimately comes of it. No one pays a price for their actions and there are no repercussions for any of the major characters, save for the poor people of London, who are alternately stomped and frozen into oblivion. On a side note, but equally puzzling, it's hard to see the point of naming characters after both real historical figures and also literary figures. Robert Stephenson makes obvious sense, but Scarlett O'Hara? Stupid.

Adding insult to injury, a "sequel" story of sorts unfolds in the form of black and white drawings that play under the film's closing credits, teasing us with what REALLY WOULD have been a cool movie. We see a future Ray as a Rocketeer-like superhero saving the world from various disasters and evil-doers, aided by his steam-powered inventions, his friends and WWI fighter aces. Where the hell is THAT film? We'd actually like to see that one.

The anamorphic widescreen video on this DVD (presented at 1.85:1) is decent, but would have benefitted greatly from Sony's Superbit process. Sadly, given that Sony's focused all its energy on Blu-ray Disc, we may have seen the last of Superbit. As presented here, the video renders a film-like image, but there's a bit too much over-compression visible. The film's colors are muted by design, heavily favoring the drab grays and browns of industrial, turn-of-the-century London. Contrast is strangely lacking, giving the film a bit of a washed out, faded appearance.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mixes fare better, available in both English and the original Japanese (2.0 Surround audio is also offered in French, Spanish and Portuguese, with subtitles available in all five languages). This is one of those strange situations where listening to the film in its original language almost seems counter-intuitive: It's a film set in England, but produced in Japanese. We still recommend listening to the film in Japanese (with English subs), but it's going to be a bit off-putting at first. Nevertheless, both 5.1 tracks are very good, with well blended music and dialogue, highly active surrounds and deep, booming bass. The soundfield is big, wide and nicely atmospheric, which does help to draw you into the visuals.

The extras aren't particularly substantial, though they should probably have been included on a second disc so that the video could have been less compressed. You get Re-Voicing Steamboy, a short featurette on the usual process of finding English-speaking actors to re-dub the original Japanese dialogue (for the record, they include Alfred Molina, Patrick Stewart and Anna Paquin). There's a short interview with Otomo, who talks about the making of the film and all the intellectual ideas he tried (and failed, in our opinion) to convey. It's a shame that he doesn't seem to have a stronger emotional connection to the story - that might have actually made Steamboy work. Next up is a Multi-Screen Language Study, which is an odd little piece that includes final imagery from the film, film and video clips that seem to have inspired it, and also retrospective interview clips with various people involved in the making of the film (talking about their involvement)... all in 3-way split-screen. The DVD also includes The Adventure Continues - the film's ending credit sequence without text, in anamorphic widescreen (a nice touch, but it's still a bit of salt in the wound, because it looks like a much better film than the one we actually saw). Finally, you get Animation Onion Skins and Production Drawings, which are two additional video pieces that show you various stages in the animation of several scenes, as well as artwork created during the design phase of the production. The best of the lot is the Otomo interview, and The Adventure Continues and Production Drawings clips - but NONE of it is particularly outstanding.

This film is available on DVD in two versions - the "director's cut" reviewed here and also a Limited Edition Gift Set that includes the same DVD packaged in a box with a reproduction of the 22-page manga, a 166-page book of character and production design artwork and a set of 10 collectable postcards. It's a nice package. Shame the film doesn't deserve it.

Whereas Akira and Metropolis grappled with all kinds of high-concept ideas, Steamboy ultimately aspires to being little more than a massively overblown superhero origin story. Sadly, you don't even KNOW that it's a superhero origin story until it's already over. As a result, Steamboy becomes this year's The Cell on DVD: A movie that looks utterly cool, that would only play well as background imagery (with the sound turned off) at a rave party or dance club. It could have been, and SHOULD have been, much more than that. Given how much we love Otomo's other films here at The Bits, that sucks even more than the movie itself.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



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