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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Batman Begins: Deluxe Edition

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Batman Begins
Deluxe Edition - 2005 (2005) - Warner Bros.

Film Rating: B+

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

It's been a long dark time for Gotham City. Sagging under the burden of economic depression, the teeming metropolis is rife with corruption. The populace increasingly lives in fear, at the almost total mercy of the criminal underworld. The good people of Gotham, even those among the rich and powerful, are afraid to change things. In fact, not since billionaire industrialist Thomas Wayne and his wife were murdered years ago, has there really been anyone willing to give back to the city - to stand up for what's right, and act as a champion for the working class... the everyman.

Wayne's son, Bruce, was traumatized as a child by the murder of his parents, which occurred right before his very eyes. Twenty years later, he's abandoned his college studies in disillusionment and has wandered aimlessly through the seedy underworld, in an attempt to understand the events that shaped him. But it's not until a mysterious patron, Ra's Al Ghul, rescues him from his downward spiral that Bruce begins to find the answers he needs. Al Ghul's major domo, Henri Ducard, shows him a better way... a way to fight Evil on its own terms. Armed with this knowledge, Bruce will soon return to Gotham with a new calling... to protect the good citizens of his city, and to strike fear into the hearts of those who would prey upon the weak.

I'm happy to say that I quite enjoyed Christopher Nolan's new Batman Begins. It's significantly better than I was expecting, definitely an improvement on the previous live-action films. This film is dark and atmospheric, and I particularly liked the build up of the Bruce Wayne character - the classic origin mythos is handled with respect and care, and is well presented here. You see how Wayne becomes the Dark Knight, and it's entirely believable. As all the pieces of his character fall into place, you're never asked to make a leap of logic that isn't easy to make. Christian Bale is quite good as the title character. He's able to perfectly convey the uneasy sense of intensity and rage that lies just beneath Wayne's controlled exterior. Meanwhile, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman lend tremendous gravitas to their roles as Alfred and a Wayne Enterprises scientist who provides Bruce with all his crime-fighting toys. It's also great to see Gary Oldman playing a genuinely wholesome good guy for a change. I really liked him as Police Sergeant Gordon (it's nice to know that as the franchise continues, we'll see Gordon move up in the ranks). He even LOOKS like the Gordon I recall from the comics. Both Liam Neeson and Rutger Hauer contribute admirably to the film as well. Better still, the mood, look and production design is pitch perfect.

Batman Begins, however, isn't a perfect film. For one thing, it could easily be trimmed by 15 or 20 minutes and you'd never miss them. While the casting overall is excellent, there's one major bit of miscasting. Katie Holmes is certainly adequate in her role as Rachel Dawes (Bruce's childhood friend turned Gotham Assistant District Attorney), but she also brings nothing particularly unique to the part. And as good as the first half of the film is, the plot gets a little bit too paint-by-numbers in the second half. The build-up we see here gives this Batman its own unique style, separating it from the rest of the big-screen superhero pack nicely, but the action later is pretty pedestrian. There's also a twist in the last act that's entirely too predictable - it's basically given away by a line of dialogue about halfway through the film.

Still, one of my favorite things about this film is that it seldom feels as if it was shot on a soundstage. This is particularly helped by the Himalayan setting of much of the first half of the film (actually, it's Iceland, but it passes as Tibet nicely). I also think the stunt work here is exceptional. Most of the car chase footage involving the Tumbler (a.k.a. the new Batmobile) was shot with real vehicles, full scale and at genuinely high speeds, giving it an authenticity that similar scenes in previous superhero films have lacked. And I loved the use of Arkham Asylum in the story. Tied as he is to Arkham, The Scarecrow is also nicely creepy (he's clearly destined to return at some point). Better still, the film's final act wonderfully sets up the potential emergence of a number of the signature villains in future sequels, including (in a nifty little touch) The Joker. And that's the key, I think. How the sequels handle The Joker, in particular, will be the REAL test for this remodeled franchise.

Warner's 2-disc Batman Begins: Deluxe Edition features about as clean and fantastic looking an anamorphic widescreen transfer of a film as you're going to see on DVD, short of actual high-definition. There's almost nothing on Disc One but the film, so the average video bitrate is well over 6 Mbps throughout the presentation. Given all the chaotic motion and fog-shrouded action here, that's certainly for the best. I noticed a very tiny bit of compression artifacting on fine detail, like the rocky outcroppings and swirling swarms of bats at several points in the film, but otherwise this image is virtually blemish free. Contrast is outstanding, with deep, dark shadows and yet plenty of detail. The film's color palette is more subdued than vibrant, but all the subtle flesh-tone shadings are rendered wonderfully. This is absolutely state-of-the-art telecine, mastering and compression by Warner's DVD crew, so well done to all of them.

Audio-wise, the disc includes a very good English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix (a French 5.1 mix is also included). The soundstage is big and wide, with excellent panning, lively use of the rear channels for both directional and atmospheric effects, and fairly tight but natural spatial imaging. LFE reinforcement is good as well, kicking in nicely when, for example, the Tumbler's afterburners fire to escape Gotham's finest. I must say, I do find the lack of a DTS track regrettable, because I think this film would really have benefitted from such a mix's more natural sonic qualities. Still, this is excellent cinema surround sound, so no real complaints.

As I said, there's almost nothing on the first disc other than the film itself. You do, however, get the film's theatrical trailer and also the Tankman Begins short, better known as the infamous MTV Movie Awards spoof with Jimmy Fallon and Jon Heder. Sadly, Warner also included forced trailers for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Smallville: Seasons 1-4 on DVD, which play automatically when you first start up the disc (thankfully, you can skip them but they're still annoying).

The extras on Disc Two are presented in a surprisingly interesting way. When you first place the disc in your player, you're asked to choose the menu language: English or French. Once you do, you soon find yourself looking at the panels of an interactive comic book (called Inner Demons according to the DVD packaging). Using a tiny Bat symbol, you can navigate through the comic's pages. On most of the pages (but not quite all), you can also navigate down from the Bat symbol with your remote to highlight bits of text or artwork in the comic images. Hitting ENTER will then allow you to view various documentary featurettes and other items. If you ever tire of exploring the extras this way, you can simply use the Bat symbol to skip to the last page of the comic. Selecting the little icon that looks like a letter on the last page will take you to an itemized list of the bonus material for easier navigation. You should note, however, that there are at least a few Easter eggs (mostly brief featurettes) hidden in the comic pages that aren't on this list.

Taking you through the list, the extras open with Batman: The Journey Begins, a 14-minute featurette with Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer talking about how they began working on the project, and how the cast came together. The next piece, Shaping the Mind and Body, shows us how Bale physically prepared for the role through exhaustive training. Gotham City Rises looks at the film's production design, particularly the way New York and Chicago served as a model for the streets of Gotham. In Cape and Cowl, we see how the Dark Knight's signature appearance and equipment were given an overhaul and updating for the film. Batman: The Tumbler is a particularly fascinating piece that looks at the design of the new Batmobile... and just how much punishment it was designed to take (AND dish out). Path to Discovery focuses on Bruce's journey through the Tibetan wilderness in the first half of the film. Saving Gotham City takes you behind-the-scenes on the production of the film's climactic monorail sequence. Finally, Genesis of the Bat looks back at the Dark Knight's 70-year history, and we learn from the filmmakers and various comic experts which past stories in particular influenced the film. The disc also includes an elaborate section of interactive Confidential Files, which provide much more detail on the various characters and equipment. Finally, there's an Art Gallery featuring U.S. and International one-sheet art, as well as interesting one-sheet "explorations." In all, there's a good couple hours worth of material to check out. It's all very solid stuff, although I would really have liked at least one audio commentary track with Nolan and Goyer, and more interviews with the actual cast members (beyond just Bale himself). I would also have enjoyed a look at the film's production design artwork. Ah, well. No doubt Warner's saving all that for next year's HD DVD release.

I should note that the Deluxe Edition also includes a mini-graphic novel in the packaging featuring three stories "that inspired the movie." Included are The Man Who Falls, The Long Halloween: Chapter One and Bob Kane's original The Bat-Man from Detective Comics #27 (note that there's a little card inserted in the book featuring a correction to the credits). You also get a couple of PC DVD-ROM features if you care about those (which I don't).

I have to give Nolan and Goyer a lot of credit... this new Batman works. The film is thoroughly entertaining and definitely holds up to repeated viewings. More critically, the character's origin story - Bruce Wayne's motivation and transformation into the Caped Crusader - is nicely effective, with Bale more than capably filling out the cowl and cape. My main question now is, how in the hell will the filmmakers make me forget Jack Nicholson as The Joker? I'll give them credit though... they're doing pretty damn good with Gotham so far. I'm certainly willing to take another ride in the Tumbler to see what's around the next corner. Batman Begins is highly recommended.

Star Trek: Nemesis - Special Collector's Edition

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Star Trek: Nemesis
Special Collector's Edition - 2002 (2005) - Paramount

Film Rating: C+

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

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

You know... you'd think that if the future's so bright, it wouldn't always be in as much jeopardy as it is in the Star Trek universe. This time, there's trouble brewing with the Romulans. It seems that a mysterious and power-hungry usurper named Shinzon, supported by his brethren in the Reman underclass, has staged a coup, wiped out the entire Romulan Senate and taken control of the Empire, naming himself the new Praetor. And now, this new Praetor wants to talk peace with the Federation. Who better to send that Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Starship Enterprise, right? After all, if only Nixon could go to China, only Picard can go to Romulus.

Well... it's a funny thing. You see, actually, Enterprise just happened to be the closest ship, otherwise some other Captain might have gone instead. But... and again, it's a funny thing... it just so happens that this new Praetor isn't Reman after all... but Human. And he isn't just Human... he's a clone of Picard himself. Of course, these coincidences aren't merely the work of random chance - Shinzon's manipulated the situation from the start. It seems he's got a plan to extend his power and control well beyond the borders of the Neutral Zone... and he needs Picard to make it happen. As you can probably guess... the galaxy just isn't going to be big enough for the both of them.

I have very mixed feelings about Star Trek: Nemesis. On one hand, this film has a lot going for it. The idea behind the conflict between Picard and Shinzon is absolutely brilliant. Having an aging Picard confronted with an aggressive younger version of himself forces all kind of interesting questions about the choices we make in life, and how differently we as people might have turned out had our circumstances been different. Picard vs. Shinzon is easily the best Trek film hero/villain duo since Kirk and Khan, which is clearly what it was modeled upon. Equally good in this film is the special effects footage - finally, we see a space battle between large ships on film that plays out like an actual space battle might. The ships spin, maneuver fully in three dimensions, must rotate damaged sections away from weapon's fire... and FINALLY the most obvious target on a starship, its Bridge, takes a real hit. Also intriguing is a real look at the heart of the Romulan Empire. We've seen Klingons and Borg to death in Trek, and it's nice to see the Roman-esqe Romulans get their due at last. I even admire the effort to bring fresh blood and pedigree to the franchise in the form of director Stuart Baird.

Unfortunately, Baird's presence on this film doesn't help much, and all of the good I've just mentioned is seriously undermined by the usual pandering to the audience that nearly all of the Trek feature films haven fallen prey to. There's a conscious, almost bludgeoning effort to remind Trekkers why we've loved these characters for so many years (like we NEEDED a reminder?). There's also an unnecessary effort to "inform" audience members who might be new to Trek who these characters are in the shortest amount of time possible (I've got news for you: no one who ISN'T a Trek fan cares, and it seems that even Trekkers are having a hard time mustering enthusiasm for this franchise anymore). So we have to sit through Picard making a noble speech about his career... but oh, ha ha, it's all just a Best Man speech at Riker and Troi's wedding (which, I'm sorry, should have happened YEARS ago and I'm just not interested anymore). We have to watch as Data "gifts" Riker and Troi with the performance an Irving Berlin song. We have to endure Worf yet again being the party pooper, this time when he says he won't get naked for Riker and Troi during their forthcoming ceremony on Betazed (I'm not even going to explain that - "It's tradition, Worf!" Troi smirks). There's lame joke after lame joke ("Uuuggghhh, Romulan Ale should be illegal...," etc), and oh, ha ha... aren't they all cute together. What you begin to realize, is that these aren't characters anymore, they're caricatures. And there's not much left of interest here that we don't already know about them, and haven't known for years.

There's also a couple of rather unnecessary diversions in the plot that exist solely for the purpose of setting up events that transpire in the film's climax... and you can see them coming from light-years away. Chief among these is Picard, Data and Worf's silly off-road rally on a desert planet to pick up android parts that (surprise!) just happen to form Lore - oops, I mean B-4, an earlier prototype of Data himself. Gee... I wonder if that will be relevant later, hhmmm? I don't know whether it was screenwriter John Logan (of Gladiator fame) or director Baird (U.S. Marshals) or producer Rick Berman who came up with all this, and it probably doesn't matter. All of them should have known better.

One thing I'm pleased to say... the actual movie aside, Paramount's new 2-disc Special Collector's Edition is a damn fine piece of work quality-wise. Most of the extras have been relegated to Disc Two of this set, which means that the film itself has a lot more room to breathe on Disc One. The result is that the already great picture quality on the previous DVD release looks even better here. Contrast and clarity are near perfect, and the color shadings, both subtle and vibrant, are absolutely sublime. This is a beautiful anamorphic widescreen image.

As good as the video is, the audio is even better. These Star Trek feature film DVDs have always offered great surround sound, and I think this is the best of the lot. You get the previous disc's excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, along with a DTS 5.1 track that can best be described as a sonic tour-de-force. You're immersed in the film's environment though everything from the most subtle Bridge computer noises to the thunderous wallop of explosions. The DTS mix offers an expansive soundfield that wraps you in atmospheric effects, big wide panning and lively directional positioning. Just listen to the film's signature battle sequence, that packs chapters 16-19. The cavernous commander center of Shinzon's warbird SOUNDS cavernous. Phaser fire and torpedo volleys scream past your head and race away behind you. The Enterprise-E takes an absolute pounding, and you'll feel every hit in your chest through deep, gut-rumbling bass. The DTS mix is an almost tactile experience, and it's a real thrill.

By the way... blink and you'll miss it, but if you watch chapters 16-19 closely, you might just spot a cameo by X-Men director Bryan Singer as a Bridge crewmember.

Okay... on to the bonus material. The most important thing you need to know about the extras on this set, is that EVERYTHING that was available on the previous DVD release has made the transition to the new one. So don't hesitate to ditch the old disc. Better still, there's plenty of new material for you to enjoy as well.

Disc One offers a trio of interesting commentaries. The first is audio commentary with Baird, which is fascinating in that it reveals just how much he clearly DOESN'T know about Star Trek (it's the same track that was on the previous DVD). I have to say, however, while he might not know the franchise well, he really did give this film his best given the uneven material he had to work with. The second is audio commentary with producer Rick Berman, which is equally fascinating for the way it reveals just how much Berman clearly doesn't get what's gone WRONG with Star Trek and why. Fans are probably going to find many of Berman's sedately delivered thoughts frustrating, but it's still worth a listen. The third commentary is another subtitle-based text track by Trek-sperts Michael and Denise Okuda, packed with enough trivia to choke a Tribble... or a Targ.

Disc Two contains the REAL quadrotriticale in this set (okay, I'm really showing my fan roots here). It begins as usual with a Production section. Here you'll find the all-new, 25-minute Nemesis Revisited retrospective featurette, in which virtually the entire cast and crew looks back at the making of the film. Even guest star Tom Hardy (Shinzon) is included in the fun. The New Frontiers: Stuart Baird on Directing Nemesis and Red Alert! Shooting the Action of Nemesis featurettes I won't go into here, as they were available on the previous DVD. Just know that they're good and cover exactly what you expect them to (the director's perspective and the stunt work). New to this edition, however, are Storyboarding the Action, Build and Rebuild and Four-Wheeling in the Final Frontier. Again, they're solid, they detail exactly what you expect them to (storyboarding, set construction and the aforementioned dune buggy to be exact) and they feature lots of interesting interview clips and behind-the-scene footage. Also available in this section is a fascinating bit of screen test footage for the role of Shinzon, featuring Hardy and Patrick Stewart doing their thing on a stand-in set. The next section, labeled The Star Trek Universe, contains the other two featurettes from the original DVD release: A Star Trek Family's Final Journey and A Bold Vision of the Final Frontier. There's also another new piece, The Enterprise E, which looks at how the starship design evolved from the previous film. The Romulan Empire offers five new featurettes (Romulan Lore, Shinzon & the Viceroy, Romulan Design, The Romulan Senate and The Scimitar) that look more closely at this film's villains, their environment and their technology, and also look back at their evolution throughout Trek history. There are LOTS of interesting interview clips here, including writers Manny Coto and Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens, talking about the Romulans' appearance in Star Trek: Enterprise's fourth and final season. Deleted Scenes is the real treat of this disc - all 7 of the deleted scenes from the original DVD are included here (along with Berman's video introduction). There's also 6 more that we haven't seen before - nice. Finally, the Archives and Trailers sections include galleries of storyboard art, prop and production design artwork and photos, the film's theatrical and teaser trailers, and yet another promo for the Borg Invasion experience. As I said, DVD-wise this Special Collector's Edition is a damn fine piece of work.

By the way, there are a trio of good Easter eggs, all of them hidden in the menu pages of Disc Two. The menus themselves are once again beautifully animated, taking us from the Enterprise in space down to the surfaces of Remus (Disc One) and the capitol city and Senate complex on Romulus (Disc Two). Very nice indeed.

DVD thoughts aside, whoever writes and directs the next Trek film... if there IS a next Trek film... would do well to take a page from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings playbook. We already KNOW who these people are. Quit pandering for laughs and sentimentality and get to the STORY already. Character moments should happen as a result of the narrative, not just be spoon-fed to us up front like something that needs to be gotten out of the way before anything else can happen.

I'll tell you this much... if I'm EVER going to shell out $10 in the theater to see these characters again, then I need SOMEONE to give me a reason to care. A REAL reason - not just yet another contrived character death that's supposed to make us feel all sentimental (I had this vision of Rick Berman sitting back in his office as I watched the film, pushing buttons to light up signs next to the screen labeled "laugh," "cry" and "applaud" to get some kind of audience response). And I want to see something new. Not new as in, "Oohhh, look at the cool Starfleet dune buggy!" but new as in refreshing and actually interesting to watch. Star Trek: Nemesis isn't as uninspired as the sleepy previous outing, Insurrection, but I have to tell you... when a buddy of mine (who's also been a Trek fan for years) and I saw this film on the big screen, we were both struggling to stay awake after the first 30 minutes. Nemesis gets better when it finally serves up the meat of its story, but it's ultimately just proof positive that until someone with genuine energy, enthusiasm and fresh ideas takes the reigns of this franchise, the spirit of Star Trek has decidedly left the building.

Bill Hunt
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