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The Spin Sheet

DVD review by Bill Hunt, Editor of The Digital Bits

Speed Racer

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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Speed Racer
2008 (2008) - Warner Bros.

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

Well... the Blu-ray's not in yet, but we might as well pass the time until its arrival by checking out the DVD version of Speed Racer from Warner Home Video.

It should come as no surprise to any of you that I really LOVE this film, especially if you've been reading this site over the last few months. As a kid, I was just a humongous fan of the original Japanese animated series. It was my first experience with ANYTHING from the gadget crazy island nation, and I ate it up eagerly. So when a live-action film was announced by Warner, after many previous failed attempts to bring it to the big screen over the years, I was more than a little leery. How in the world could any filmmaker do the series justice? Then, when I heard The Wachowski Brothers were involved, that worry lessened substantially. If anyone could get it right, it was them. And get it right they have.

The story of their big screen Speed Racer will be familiar to anyone whose seen the original 1960s cartoon. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is a wunderkind driver with the coolest race car in the world, the Mach 5. His father, Pops (John Goodman), is a genius car designer with racing in his blood. He's got a supportive Mom (Susan Sarandon), a fun kid brother (with a pet chimp) and his gal pal Trixie (Christina Ricci) is always at his side. Speed lives in the shadow of his older brother Rex (played here by Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights), who was killed in a car crash years before. Speed's exploits at the local track earn him a lucrative offer from the head of Royalton Industries, who wants Speed to join his World Racing League team - the best of the best. But Speed prefers to stay loyal to his father instead, and soon learns that Royalton and other companies are fixing all the races. His offer refused, Royalton sets out to ruin Pops and make sure Speed never finishes another race. But just when all looks lost, the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox from Lost) and Inspector Detector arrive at the family's doorstep with an offer Speed can't refuse: A chance not only to race, but to bring down Royalton and his cronies once and for all.

I should say right now, up front, that this movie isn't going to be for everyone. Like the original Star Wars back in 1977, high-minded critics are going to pan this as representing everything they've come to hate in the cinema, all flash and no substance. But I'm here to tell you, just as they did back then, most of the critics are getting it wrong. Speed Racer is a gas. This is the most fun I'VE had in a theater so far this year, Iron Man included. Now, don't get me wrong, Iron Man is a better film, certainly in terms of story complexity, character sophistication, etc. But Speed Racer is a helluva lot more fun in my book. Unabashed fun. Over the top, trip you out, goofy, blow your mind fun. The fact is, sometimes as a moviegoer you just want to turn off the Thinkin' Cap, strap in and hold on tight. You want to take the ride, feel the thrill and enjoy it for all its worth, every penny's worth. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that, critics be damned. Don't let ANYONE tell you otherwise. The Wachowski Brothers weren't trying to make Citizen Kane here. They were trying to make the best damn Speed Racer film they possibly could, with all that entails... and they've succeeded brilliantly. On top of that, they've managed to push the visual language of film another big leap forward.

To say that The Wachowski's have done something different here is massive understatement. Nearly every effects house in the business was involved in the making of this film, and it shows - it's two hours of straight eye candy (it's also no coincidence that the DP is David Tattersall, who shot Star Wars: Episodes I-III). Speed Racer is as visually revolutionary as The Matrix films were before it, except this experience is the opposite of The Matrix in almost every other way. Whereas Matrix was dark, gritty, and Byzantine in its complexity, Speed Racer is bright, glossy and unashamedly simple. This is a pure popcorn family film, through and through. In fact, kids are going to go bat-s__t crazy for it. Not just boys who love Hot Wheels cars either, but I think girls will get a charge out of this as well. In terms of suitability, there are two or three curse words (one of which is beeped) and one of the characters flips a bad guy the bird. And that's it. There are a couple of fight scenes, but they're very stylized and no one dies. Even the car crashes (and there are DOZENS) are tame - the drivers all bounce free of the explosions to safety in balls of rubbery "Kwik-Save" foam. This is pretty safe PG material, so don't be afraid to take your kids. They'll have a blast.

Who else is this movie for? Well, if you enjoy The Wachowski's unique cinematic perspective, you'll enjoy this film. If you want to see something truly new, here it is. If you love racing and ever played with Matchbox cars, buy your tickets now. If you're young and/or young at heart, I think you'll dig it. Most importantly, if you loved the original animated Speed Racer, you will LOVE this. The Brothers absolutely nail the tone and spirit of the original. There are SO many little touches right out of the cartoon. All of the family relationships are here, but the great thing is that they've been expanded and fleshed out in a lot more detail. And you believe them - there's real heart here, genuine emotion (decent values are on display here too, like choosing family over fame and fortune, and standing up for what's right, even when it's difficult). Remember the Mammoth Car? It's here - Racer X duels it in the Shooting Star! Remember all those bad guys from the toon - Cruncher Block, Snake Oiler, The Grey Ghost? They're here too. There's even a moment when Speed finishes a race, where he leaps out of the Mach 5 and strikes the classic pose right out of the cartoon's opening credits (the original Bullet Time shot). I'll tell you when the movie got me: For about the first half of the film, I'm sitting there just trying to absorb it all (this film is MASSIVE visual input, almost to the point of overload). Then there's this scene where Ninjas burst into the hotel suite where Speed and his family are staying, hoping to put Speed out of action (and thus out of the race). One of them backs up into Pops, who grabs the guy with his beefy hands. Suddenly, there's this quick shot of the ring on Pop's hand. I'll be damned if it didn't say Greco-Roman Wrestling State Champion! Pops picks the guy up and spins him over his head... and that was it for me. I almost fell out of my seat laughing. That's a moment STRAIGHT out of the cartoon, just for the fans, and it's perfect. (The only difference being that in the original show, Pops was a member of the "Westside Grunters and Groaners" - same difference.) Even composer Michael Giacchino's score nails the mark, taking dozens of cues from the original show and expanding them into full-blown orchestrations that are a perfect match to the visuals. In a nice nod, the closing portions of the score even include samples not just from the animated show's theme song, but also from the original Japanese theme (so whenever you hear "Mach a-go-go!" you'll know why). By the way, original Speed voice actors Peter Fernandez and Connie Orr do have quick cameos as race announcers in the film, so be sure to watch for them.

As presented on DVD by Warner Bros, the film actually looks a lot better than I expected. The video is anamorphic widescreen, and it's far more vibrant looking that I would have guessed from standard definition. Now, don't get me wrong, there's TONS of compression artifacting. This movie is just way to busy with action and detail to not have artifacting on DVD. But much of it is hidden by fast pans and stylistically blurred motion. Detail is decent, contrast is adequate. The audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 and it's a good match for the video quality - not outstanding, but immersive, lively and with good bass, as you'd expect from a racing movie. Blu-ray Disc is definitely going to be THE way to best view Speed Racer at home, but if you haven't made the transition yet to HD, the DVD's not bad by any means.

There are only TWO extras on this disc, but they're also a little better that I would have expected. Both are featurettes: Spritle in the Big Leagues (15 mins) is a tour of the set and the various production departments, led by actor Paulie Litt, who plays Spritle. It's definitely kid-centric, but you still do see a number of interesting things behind-the-scenes, including the costume, prop and art departments. The other, Speed Racer: Supercharged! (16 mins), I actually enjoyed quite a bit. It's presented as if it's a piece on the real World Racing League, and what it does is offer cool (and completely fictional) technical details about the twelve key teams and race cars seen in the movie (including Racer Motors), as well as the three major race tracks. You get to see rotating models of each car, as the narrator explains its various features. It's extremely clever stuff. Here's an example: "Sempre Fi-Ber made its name in cutting-edge digestive aids. It's motto, First In, Last Out, has won over consumers of all ages..." The announcer goes on to talk about the non-regulation gear the team's drivers have installed on their cars, including: "an Articulating Scissorator! And this titanium chopper ain't for hedge clipping folks!" You get the idea. It's pretty funny. The only other bonus offered here is an option to download a Digital Copy version of the film to your laptop or what have you. There's a paper insert with a code on it, which you enter in on a specific download website the studio has set up. Yeah, I know... it's not much.

The original Speed Racer was goofy, vibrantly-colored, kinetic and wore its heart on its sleeve. This new movie takes those very same things and (respectfully) runs wild with them. As a lifelong fan, I was not disappointed. If you're looking for Masterpiece Theatre... you're in the WRONG movie, boy. But if you check your higher brain at the door, and go in expecting to be dazzled and entertained... that's exactly what you'll get. This is pure, good-hearted fun. See it on Blu-ray Disc if you can, but if not, don't hesitate to at least rent this film and watch it on DVD with your kids. You might even be surprised to discover that it actually WAS better than all those critics said.

Sports Night: The Complete Series - 10th Anniversary Edition

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Sports Night: The Complete Series
10th Anniversary Edition - 1998-2000 (2008) - Touchstone/Buena Vista (Shout! Factory)

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

"You're watching Sports Night on CSC, so stick around..."

Imagine a half-hour "dramedy" about the behind-the-scenes workings of a cable sports news show (think ESPN's SportsCenter and you're on the right track). You've got the irreverent and neurotic on-air hosts, Casey McCall (Peter Krause of Six Feet Under) and Dan Rydell (Josh Charles from Dead Poets Society). You've got the show's equally neurotic producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman, seen in Magnolia). Then there's the quirky assistant producer, Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd, from the cast of Ed), and sports statistician/geek extraordinaire Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina, of The West Wing).

And adding a touch of class and perspective to the mix are Robert Guillaume, as managing editor Isaac Jaffe, and second-season guest star William H. Macy, as Sam Donovan, a acerbic consultant brought on to improve ratings. Now imagine this hypothetical show is conceived and written by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The American President and TV's The West Wing and Studio 60. What you get is Sports Night... one of the most entertaining and original half-hours of network television in recent memory.

Sports Night was lauded by critics and viewers alike, won three Emmy Awards and garnered numerous other accolades. Unfortunately, ABC never really gave the show a fair shake, giving it a lousy slot on their primetime schedule and preempting it often. It also didn't help that ABC was at continual odds with Sorkin, who was engaged in a marathon of production, writing and producing virtually every single episode of both Sports Night and NBC's The West Wing at the same time. The show was ultimately cancelled by ABC at the end of its second season, but was very nearly picked up by HBO, who planned to turn it into a 12-episode cable series, a-la Sex and the City. The shorter schedule would have worked much better with Sorkin's West Wing duties, and the pay cable move would have allowed the writing to become richer and much more mature. But ABC nixed the deal, so Sports Night's 45 episodes were relegated late-night reruns on Comedy Central and a previous DVD box set from Buena Vista in 2002 (reviewed here). Unfortunately, that set was as bare-bones as they come, with nothing in the way of extras. Thankfully, that's been remedied by the good folks at Shout! Factory just in time for the show's 10th anniversary. Sports Night has finally been given the treatment it deserves on DVD.

The episodes are presented in their original full frame TV aspect ratio, and the quality is actually a little better than the previous DVDs. Color is good, contrast is fair and there's light grain. There's no edge-enhancement visible and there's less obvious compression artifacting than was apparent in the earlier discs. The audio is about the same as the previous DVDs, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It's a no frills mix, but it sounds good and does the job with clean, clear dialogue and well-mixed music. I should note that the first few episodes were taped before a live audience, so you'll hear a laugh track. But a decision was made early in the series run to ditch the audience in favor a much more complex stage layout and camera set-ups. It's was a good move - the show's funny enough that it doesn't need the extra kick of audience laughter.

The discs also feature animated menus that use the same graphic theme, and theme music, as the fictional show depicted in the series. They've even recreated key locations from the show (the set, the control room, etc) in 3D CG. It's all very cool and well presented.

But here's what really makes these DVDs so great: The extras are fantastic! On the episode discs, you get eight - count them EIGHT - audio commentary tracks featuring Sorkin, producer Tommy Schlamme and various members of the cast, including Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Sabrina Lloyd, Josh Malina and others. The set also includes 2 bonus discs with nothing but more special features. You get gag reels from both seasons. You get four featurettes on the series - nearly 2 hours worth of material in all. The Show (34 mins) offers a retrospective look back at the making of the show, and features new interviews with almost every major cast member giving their perspectives. Face-Off (21 mins) features ESPN SportsCenter anchors and staffers comparing their real life work to that of their fictional counterparts on Sports Night. Looking Back (26 mins) is an in-depth conversation with Sorkin and Schlamme on their work together and the show. And Inside the Locker Room (21 mins) is a more specific look behind the scenes at the actual day-to-day production of the series, featuring more interviews and on-set video. As if all that isn't enough, you get promos for several episodes too. PLUS, you get a 30-page insert booklet featuring liner notes and a detailed guide to all the episodes. Every bit of this material is great and worth your time, and it's all very welcome indeed.

Sports Night is a TV series that's very close to my heart. It'll entertain you, amuse you and even move you. More than a few of the episodes in this set will leave you with chills. This is superior television in every respect. If you haven't seen it, I can't recommend it more highly. For fans... well, there's no need to tell you folks to enjoy this, is there? With all 45 episodes in great quality and outstanding extras too, Sports Night on DVD from Shout! Factory is worth every penny. (And thanks to everyone involved in this set at Shout! for that.) So save up your shoe money and pick this box up ASAP. Just watch out for girls named Pixley. And pray it doesn't rain at Indian Wells.

Bill Hunt
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