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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Battlestar Galactica: Season One

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Battlestar Galactica
Season One - 2005 (2005) - The SciFi Channel (Universal)

Program Rating: A

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

Picking up roughly five days after the end of the miniseries, Battlestar Galactica: Season One continues the story of some 50,000 surviving colonists who, in a ramshackle fleet of civilian spaceships led by the military "battlestar" Galactica, are desperately attempting to escape the pursuing Cylon forces bent on their destruction.

In the aftermath of the Cylon attack on their homeworlds, the fleet's supplies are running low... and tensions are high. Serious personal and political divisions begin to appear among the survivors. Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) struggle to balance their respective authority over the fleet: Who should make the decisions that could decide the very fate of Humanity? The military or a democratic government? Meanwhile, the beleaguered crew of the Galactica fights to meet the new challenges that protecting the fleet demands of them. Acts of sabotage aboard the battlestar make matters even more complicated, and word quickly spreads through the fleet that the Cylons have taken Human form. They could be anywhere... or anyone.

Little do the survivors know, the enemy's ambitions run much deeper than just the mere destruction of Humanity. The Cylons, it seems, have found God. And it may be that they've made their new and improved models a little TOO Human...

I have to give Ron Moore and his creative team a lot of credit. For a number of reasons, I was not looking forward to this show. For one thing, The SciFi Channel had just cancelled Farscape and, my other favorite show (Star Trek: Enterprise) was soon to be axed by UPN as well. It seemed as if TV science fiction could do no right, and the idea of seeing yet another cheesy genre series from the 1970s hauled out of mothballs just to die a quick death wasn't all that appealing to me. But Moore, who had been a long-suffering writer on a number of Star Trek film and TV productions over the years, had a plan for reviving the sci-fi genre: Make it real. Make it gritty. Shoot things like a documentary. Focus on the people and not the hardware. And give the audience characters with real problems - with as many flaws as virtues. Against the odds, and virtually all expectations, it worked. Moore's Galactica not only won over most of the original show's skeptical fans... it's earned the respect of television critics as well.

The casting on this series is pitch perfect. I don't know whose idea it was to tap Olmos as the commander of a military space ship, but it's absolutely brilliant. His weary, gutsy sense of determination gives this show exactly the grounding it needs to be believable. Playing opposite him, McDonnell is an equally surprising and effective choice. She brings a reluctant gravitas and vulnerability to her role as a low-level government official who's suddenly had leadership thrust upon her by catastrophe. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, including Michael Hogan as the crusty and deeply flawed Colonel Tigh, Jamie Bamber as the idealistic Lee "Apollo" Adama, and Katee Sackhoff as Kara "Starbuck" Thrace. Other standouts in the season include James Callis (you may remember him from Bridget Jones's Diary) as the schizophrenic Baltar and Aaron Douglas as the Galactica's overworked Chief Petty Officer, who looks out for both the ship and his people. And that's for starters. I haven't even mentioned Richard Hatch (he played Apollo on the original Battlestar TV series), who appears here in a recurring role as a political zealot working to undermine the fleet's leadership. Or Tricia Helfer as the is-she-there-or-isn't-she Number Six, a beautiful Cylon seductress who haunts Baltar's consciousness by day and by night.

Just how good is this new Battlestar Galactica? Let's put it this way: I dare you to watch the first ten minutes of the season's first episode, 33, and not be hooked. It's as taut and riveting a piece of drama as you'll see on ANY series this year. I don't want to tell you any more than I already have. Just watch this show and you'll be glad you did.

The video quality of this series on DVD is quite good. All of the episodes are presented in anamorphic widescreen, which it should be given that the series itself is shot on HD video. Colors are spot on, and even vibrant at times. Contrast is solid too. Overall image clarity is excellent, with only a few instances of the picture being a little too soft or a little too edgy. When this happens, it appears to be a result of the way the footage was original shot and processed digitally, rather than being caused by over-compression for DVD. You'll notice light to moderate film grain, which was obviously added electronically in-camera or in post to give the footage the look of having been shot on film. In any case, artifacting is rarely noticeable. It's a pleasing picture, and the bigger and wider you view it, the more cinematic the experience becomes.

Audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1. The surround sound isn't going to make your head turn - this is a more subtly atmospheric surround mix. You'll hear light use of the rear channels for ambient effects and music, but there's not a great deal of front-to-back panning. Still, the front soundstage is big and wide, and there's adequate bass in the mix. Most critically, the dialogue and music sound just fine, making the audio a good match to the visuals.

There's a surprisingly nice batch of extras on these five discs, but there's also a disappointment. Back to that in a minute. First, the good. The set includes the same full-length audio commentary track (with producers Moore and David Eick, along with director David Rymer) that was found on the previous miniseries DVD. Of the thirteen additional episodes in this set, nine of them feature audio commentary as well. Some of these are new, but you'll be pleased to know that all of Moore's "podcast" commentaries from are here as well. Disc Five contains the remaining bonus features, which include about 48 minutes of deleted scenes from the season's various episodes (identical to those offered on the Best Buy Season One (U.K. Version) exclusive - the only extra on that set), seven behind-the-scenes featurettes (63 minutes worth in all, including From Miniseries to Series, Change is Good - Now They're Babes, The Cylon Centurion, Future/Past Technology, The Doctor Is Out (Of His Mind), Production, Visual Effects and Epilogue), a short video of production artwork and set photos set to music, and the 20-minute Battlestar Galactica: The Series - The Lowdown documentary that aired on SciFi at the start of the season.

All of the commentaries are fascinating and worth your time if you're a fan of the show, and surprisingly all of the featurettes and the documentary are interesting as well (together the video features total over two hours in all, all of it full frame or letterboxed). So what's disappointing you might ask? Well... first of all, the behind-the-scenes featurettes are the same ones that have been available for viewing on for months. That's not bad in and of itself, but the thing is that four of the featurettes from the website were left out (specifically, Writing a Dark, Sexy, Political Sci-Fi Show, Women in Pivotal Roles, Like Father, Like Son and Director's Cut are all missing). While we're talking about things being left out, here's my biggest complaint about this set: Save for the audio commentary, NONE of the extras that were included on the previous miniseries DVD release are here. Missing is the original 40-minute Battlestar Galactica: The Lowdown documentary that focused specifically on the miniseries (which many of you may recall featured Sackhoff and Dirk Benedict talking about the character of Starbuck). Missing also are all 20 minutes worth of deleted scenes from the miniseries. So if you want ALL of the extras that are available on DVD, you have to buy the miniseries twice. It's little details like this - little omissions and oversights - that really make fans want to pull their hair out. Universal should have gone the extra mile and added another disc to this set (or just made Disc One, which contains the miniseries, double-sided like most copies of the previous DVD edition were in the first place).

Those issues with the extras aside, what you do get is quite good. Add in the very nice picture and sound quality, and this is a damn good DVD presentation of Battlestar's first season. If you've enjoyed this show on SciFi, you'll love it even more on disc. And if you haven't checked it out yet, this is the perfect way to do so. Ron Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica has made a believer out of me. It's breathed new life into the TV sci-fi genre. Better yet, at long last it's that rare science fiction show that even people who hate science fiction can enjoy (and when was the last time you saw one of those?). Color me surprised, but Battlestar Galactica is must-see television.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
2005 (2005) - Touchstone (Buena Vista)

Film Rating: B

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

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): C+/B-

Based on the original novel (and radio series) by the late Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy follows the adventures of one Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), a hapless Brit who is appalled to learn one morning that his house is about to be knocked down and that his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is really from another planet. As shocking as both of those developments are, however, Arthur is even more stunned when a fleet of interstellar spaceships suddenly shows up and vaporizes the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Arthur barely has time to grab his towel when Ford, who is actually a field researcher for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, hitches them a lift off the doomed planet just in the nick of time. The pair quickly gets rescued from a very sticky situation by the starship Heart of Gold, which was stolen by one Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), who just so happens to be Ford's semi-cousin and the two-headed, fugitive president of the galaxy (yes, there IS a second head). Also on board is Marvin, the manic depressive android, and a cute British girl who named Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) who, coincidentally, Arthur once met at a party but failed to hit it off with despite a rather promising start.

Although much of the screenplay was written by Adams himself before his untimely death, this big screen Hitchhiker's isn't a completely faithful adaptation of Adams' original book. As fans who have been with Hitchhiker's from the beginning will know, however, the book wasn't a completely faithful adaptation of the original radio series. In fact, NONE of the versions of Hitchhiker's (the radio show, the BBC TV series, the books and the new film) follow exactly the same storyline. There are common elements, but then each version explores its own territory independently.

The main differences in this film from the book [spoiler warning for this paragraph] are that instead of going straight to Magrathea after picking up Ford and Arthur, the Heart of Gold first visits Viltvodle VI (as you'll recall, the planet from the original books where the inhabitants had fifty arms each, so they invented the spray deodorant before the wheel). It seems that Zaphod's rival in the galactic presidential election, Humma Kavula (a brilliant cameo by John Malkovich), has become the leader of a religious cult there and Zaphod's got a score to settle with him. While there, the Vogons kidnap Trillian, so our heroes must make a quick detour to the Vogosphere as well to rescue her. But never fear, they DO finally get to Magrathea and, thanks to the detour, we get to see a lot of the amusing little side-stories that Adams' book was so famous for. The other major change in the film is an expansion of the awkward little love story between Arthur and Trillian (not awkward as in bad, but awkward as in the two are charming but a bit off-kilter and fumbling). [end spoiler warning]

Still, director Garth Jennings' film adaptation is completely faithful to the SPIRIT of the previous versions of Adams' Guide. As it should be, the humor here is decidedly British - smart, ironic and often subtle in many ways - and I'll tell you that there's PLENTY of it in this film. There are a few good laughs, scores of chuckles and if you go in with an open mind, you WILL leave the theater with a smile on your face. The singing dolphins alone are worth the price of admission.

To be completely fair though, newcomers who have never experienced the Guide before, may have a bit of a hard time following the story. And they will certainly not appreciate all of the subtle little touches here. The gags are fast and furious, and many are so subtle that newcomers will never pick up on them. But longtime fans will quickly get the deeper meaning and context. An example is when Zaphod and Ford take a moment to knock back a couple of Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters. Their reaction to the drink is very brief, but it had the long-timers in the audience I saw the film with in the theater laughing out loud.

That aside, I'm pleased to say that there's an awful lot that's good in this film - more than I expected frankly. The casting is absolutely inspired across the board. A lot of people were worried about Mos Def as Ford Prefect, but I'm happy to say that he's perfect in the role. Sam Rockwell steals the show as Zaphod. Those unfamiliar with him need only recall his turn as Guy Fleegman in Galaxy Quest to have their minds reassured. Martin Freeman (memorable from the BBC's The Office) is just the right disarming everyman to fill Arthur's bathrobe. Even Zooey Deschanel brings verve to her role, making Trillian a sympathetic and slightly off-kilter charmer. This Trillian is a major Betty. And Marvin! Looking like a mechanical Charlie Brown and voiced drolly by Alan Rickman, Marvin gets perhaps the best joke in the flick, thanks to a nifty little invention called the 'point of view' gun. Add Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast (how perfect is that?), outstanding Guide animations narrated by Stephen Fry, and great little cameos by Simon Jones (I shouldn't have to tell you who he is) and the original BBC TV Marvin, and this film is almost completely satisfying from start to finish. There's even a pair of great little visual nods to Adams himself.

The video is presented on DVD in anamorphic widescreen (a separate full frame version is also available). Unfortunately, given that this is a single-disc edition and so much has been packed onto it, the image suffers from notable compression problems. Take a look at the bubbles surrounding the opening title graphic... ugh. As a result of the over-compresion, colors seem a little faded on occasion, and the entire image has a slightly noisy quality. Contrast is good, but this is certainly not the video quality I'd been expecting or hoping for.

The audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, and this is that rare case where I wish the DTS track had been left off to give the video more disc room to breathe. Sadly, neither track is particularly noteworthy. Part of this is due, I think, to the fact that the film audio itself is rather poorly mixed. Dialogue suffers from occasional clarity problems and the music seems at times inappropriately placed, even intrusive - a far cry from the way audio mixing was used to enhance the dramatic perfection of the original radio series. There's plenty of panning and adequate bass, but while the mix is solid at times, it still feels surprisingly lifeless at others. The same issues that hamper the DTS mix knock down the Dolby Digital mix just that much more.

My real complaint, aside from all of the video and audio problems, is how half-assed the extras on this DVD are. There ought to be a 2-disc set with LOT more material than there is. Why is there so little here on the making of the film? Why isn't there anything about Douglas Adams and his years-long struggle to get this film made? Why is there nothing on how the Guide animations were done? Why isn't there a gallery of production design artwork? Where's the infamous Vote Beeblebrox music video? Where's ANYTHING of any real substance?


To be fair, the disc does include a pair of good audio commentary tracks, one featuring Jennings, producer Nick Goldsmith and actors Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy, and the other with executive producer Robbie Stamp and Sean Solle, who was a long-time colleague of Adams. There's an unused Guide animation, a trio of deleted scenes (all non-anamorphic) and a pair of outtakes. Unfortunately, the featurette you do get, Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is basically just a 9-minute EPK. There's also a silly sing-along feature to the film's opening musical number, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish which, even if you view it once, you'll certainly never view again. Finally, you get an interactive game (called Marvin's Hangman) that's just staggeringly, mind-bogglingly lame. I should also note that the DVD's menus (nicely designed to look like the Guide interface) feature an "improbability drive" option that simply sends you to a random part of the disc. Again... lame. And packing all of the above onto a single disc with the video and two 5.1 audio mixes was a HUGE mistake. Someone really dropped the ball on this title at Buena Vista. You'll probably not be surprised to learn that there's a U.K. edition of this DVD that includes a second disc featuring a lengthy documentary on the making of the film (entitled Don't Crash: The Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) that's not available in the States yet. I'm hoping that this means the film is going to get MUCH better treatment on DVD in 2006. It certainly deserves better. This DVD is extremely disappointing.

If, in the end, the DVD release leaves quite a lot to be desired, I thoroughly enjoyed the film itself. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy may not be the most side-splitting space adventure ever, but it sure as hell is the smartest. In fact, my only regret about the film is that Douglas didn't live to see it. I think he'd have quite enjoyed it. Here's hoping we'll all get to meet again soon at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (and be treated to a better DVD of Hitchhiker's in the meantime). If not, I'm likely to be as perpetually perturbed as Marvin. Quick... somebody pass me another Gargle Blaster...

Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag (IMAX)

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Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag - IMAX
2004 (2005) - Boeing/Montreal Pacific Films (Image)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A-/C+

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A+

Years of hard-won experience have taught experts in aerial warfare that if fighter pilots can survive their first ten combat missions, their chances of survival over the course of their entire careers increase dramatically. Established in 1975, Operation Red Flag was conceived to enable pilots to get those first ten missions under their belts.

For two grueling weeks every year, high over the Nevada desert, more than 120 high-performance aircraft engage in a series of intense air combat sorties. The best pilots and air crews from the United States and its allies around the world are tested, pushed to the very edge of their abilities and beyond. While the missile and gun fire is simulated, the Red Flag experience is said to be more challenging and dangerous that actual combat.

Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag follows one particular F-15 pilot, Captain John "Otter" Stratton, throughout the entire fourteen day experience, capturing it in full, large-format IMAX glory. If you thought Top Gun quenched your need for speed... you've seen nothing yet.

The DVD from Image offers you the option of watching the film in either the original full frame or anamorphic widescreen. Both look quite good. The camera is often mounted right in the cockpit with the pilots, providing a breathtaking, high-speed vantage point. The image is clear at all times, with accurate color and excellent contrast. The only flaw here, the thing that knocks this video down from being reference quality, is there's a little too much edge-enhancement used. You'll notice it on the edges of wings and on the fine detail of terrain passing below the aircraft. It's a shame, because this is otherwise an outstanding image. That issue aside, there's still quite a lot to be happy with here video-wise.

The audio quality is even better. Whichever video option you choose, you have the ability to experience the film's soundtrack in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 surround. Both mixes are extremely active and immersive, with a ton of panning and directional imaging. The front soundstage is huge - big, wide and sublimely smooth. There's also a tremendous amount of bass in the mix. You'll feel the rumble of exploding bombs and screaming jet afterburners in the pit of your stomach. The DTS is just a little cleaner and more natural sounding, but whichever mix you choose, you'll enjoy a thrilling audio experience.

Extras include a 10-minute featurette on the making of the film, a 20-minute video of "ambient" flight footage set to music that you can program to play in a loop (unfortunately not anamorphic), an interactive film trivia quiz, a director's bio and trailers for this and other IMAX titles. Best of all, there's an entire second disc that includes the complete film in Windows Media 9 high-definition format, which can be played on an appropriately-equipped Windows PC (or one of the new DVD players capable of reading WMV-HD material). Granted, it's not a lot of bonus material, but the Windows Media disc in particular is a nice touch.

If you've got a large rear-projection HDTV or video front projection system, Fighter Pilot is just the sort of eye-candy you've been looking for. It isn't quite reference-grade material, but it's awfully good. It's also a helluva thrill ride. Pop this disc in your player, strap yourself into a nice comfy ejection seat and hold on tight. You can almost feel the Gs building. Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag is an exceptional piece of film.

Target You! Cold War Educational Films from the Golden Age of Homeland Security

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Target You! Cold War Educational Films from the Golden Age of Homeland Security
1951-1965 (2005) - U.S. Government (Bear Family)

Program Rating: B-

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

Oh, the insanity! We're we really ever THIS nutty here in the good old US of A? Well... I suppose we were. The proof is on this disc. Target You! is an impressive collection of nine classic civil defense educational films produced by and for the U.S. Government during the height of Cold War hysteria. Included are such vintage gems as What Is Communism?, Duck and Cover, Our Cities Must Fight, Warning Red, Bombproof, Target You, Information Program Within Public Shelters, Occupying a Public Shelter and Town of the Times. In all, there's over 130 minutes of delightful Red Scare paranoia. Just think of it! These are the films that made your parents piss their pants as school children. Nice.

Given the age of these films, you can't expect the video quality to be picture perfect. That said, they all still look surprisingly good. To be sure, there's all the age-related problems you'd expect from 16mm films shot in the 1950s and 60s (scratches, dust, heavy grain, etc), but the image clarity is still generally pretty good. Most of the films are in the original black & white, while a couple of the later ones are in color. All are full frame as you'd expect. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and the quality is on par with the video. It's not perfect, but it's perfectly appropriate to the presentation as a whole.

This DVD was produced by German company Bear Family Records, but it's All Region NTSC, so it will work just fine on players sold here in the States (that also means that optional German subtitles are available). The disc itself doesn't include any extras per se, however there's an excellent and substantial 27-page booklet included in the packaging that features vintage photographs, period illustrations and in-depth essays and interviews on the Cold War period and these films in particular. The complete text is presented in both English and German.

You know... one wonders what a "homeland security" training film made today might look like:

"This is Tommy. He's the quiet kid from down your block. You've known him all your life. But what you don't know is... he could be a TERRORIST!"

You can almost hear the narrator ticking down the telltale signs:

"Does little Tommy have a penchant for making his own footwear? Does he enjoy long vacations to war-torn Middle Eastern countries? Has he ever shown you a putty sculpture that he warned you not to drop? Has he recently converted to (bum, bum, baaaaaa)... Islam?!"

You know what's REALLY scary? It's not so hard to imagine paranoia like that taking hold in America today. After all, it wasn't so long ago that we were all told to stock up on plastic bags and duct tape in case of a biological warfare attack. Yikes.

Thirty bucks might seem like a lot to spend on a disc of this sort, and it is. On the other hand, if you're interested in a nice little slice of life in Cold War America, this is about as good as it gets. Target You! is creepy, hilarious and darkly disturbing fun. And it just might save your life. 'Cause remember what Bert the Turtle knows...


And, you know... your best friend could be a terrorist. 'Nuff said.

Bill Hunt
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