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The Spin Sheet

DVD review by Bill Hunt, Editor of The Digital Bits

Capricorn One: Special Edition

Capricorn One (Blu-ray Disc - UK All Region)

Capricorn One: Special Edition
1978 (2008) - Granada Int. (Lionsgate)
Released on DVD on October 14th, 2008.

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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


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Capricorn One
1978 (2007) - Granada Int. (ITV DVD)
Released on Blu-ray Disc in the U.K. on October 29, 2007.
(ALL REGION)

Dolby Digital

Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 15
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: F


Okay, okay... I know: This film is a little cheesy. And yeah, it's become a rallying point for a whole generation of morons (and make no mistake, that's EXACTLY what they are) who think NASA never landed on the Moon. But I still love it. (In fact, I love it so much that I actually own one of the original mission patches the cast members wear in the film - you can see it below.) Deftly written and directed by Peter Hyams (who would later go on to direct such gems as Hanover Street, 2010, Running Scared and Timecop), the film features great suspense, a nifty aerial chase sequence, a terrific late-70s cast and one of the most realistic portrayals of the technical trappings of space flight in a fictional film of that era.

Here's the story in a nutshell: After successfully completing the Apollo Moon landings, NASA is getting ready to send humans to the planet Mars. But a few weeks before lift-off, the space agency discovers a technical problem that will mean the astronauts won't survive the mission. Knowing that failure could mean the end of manned spaceflight, key NASA officials (led by Hal Holbrook) create an elaborate replica of the spacecraft and the surface of Mars in a remote movie studio in the desert, in order to "fake" the mission for the millions of viewers watching worldwide. All they need is the cooperation of the astronauts themselves, including James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson. The crew goes along with the ruse at first, feeling as if it's their patriotic duty. But when they eventually change their minds, things start to turn ugly... and deadly. Add in Elliott Gould as a Woodward-esque reporter trying to uncover the truth, and Telly Savalas as... well, you'll find out for yourself... and you've got the makings of a great little Government conspiracy thriller.

As good as this movie is, Capricorn One has only been made available on DVD once here in the States, from Live Entertainment (now Lionsgate) way back in the early days of the format. As such, it offered a mediocre non-anamorphic transfer and there were no extras to speak of. Thankfully, that injustice has finally been remedied. The film is now available in two far better versions: A new special edition DVD release here in the States, and a movie-only (but high-definition and all-region) Blu-ray Disc that you can import from the U.K. via Amazon.co.uk.

Let's talk DVD first: The new anamorphic widescreen video presentation is far superior to the previous non-anamorphic DVD. Colors are accurate, contrast is solid and there's generally good image detail. There's some grain, and the usual compression artifacting visible. You'll also notice occasional dust and dirt, and maybe a bit of edge-enhancement, but on the whole this is a nicely film-like image. The audio is available in a decent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that's mostly front biased, but becomes a bit more enveloping with Jerry Goldsmith's score and the use of the rear channels to create ambience (mission control calls, the slight echo of the vast film stage, etc). A 2.0 stereo mix is also available.

The best thing about the DVD, however, is not the new transfer but the fact that it includes a trio of nice special features. The first of these is a newly-recorded audio commentary with Hyams himself, who takes you through the film talking about how he got the idea for the story, how hard he had the crew work to reproduce the space capsule accurately (it's identical to an Apollo capsule) and more. He even talks a little about how he feels seeing O.J. on film after more recent events. Better still is the newly-produced featurette, Flights of Fancy: The Politics and Paranoia of Capricorn One. It's in anamorphic widescreen and it runs about 17 minutes. I didn't expect much from it, but as I was watching, I started thinking, "Wow, this is actually pretty interesting." The director talks about the film in the context of the paranoia of the late 60s and early 70s. Science historian, author and skeptic Michael Shermer and film historian Steven J. Ross chime in as well, discussing the film itself, how it is that people can believe something so outlandish as the idea that the Moon landings were faked, etc. Turns out the featurette was produced by our friend Charles de Lauzirika. (No wonder it's worth watching - well done, Charlie!) Finally, you get a non-anamorphic theatrical trailer for the film. Yeah, it's not a lot of bonus material, but it's GOOD material, and that's what really counts.

As for the U.K. Blu-ray release (from ITV DVD), the 1080p transfer is fairly decent, though it's not up to the level of quality of more recent films on the format. Color, contrast and detail are all good, but you will notice scratches and dirt on the print from time to time. The audio is available in a pretty run-of-the-mill Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The track is about on par with the video in terms of quality. As with the DVD, it's largely front-biased and the rear channels kick in mostly for music and ambience. There are no extras. I should note that Lionsgate tells me no U.S. Blu-ray release of this film is currently planned, so if you absolutely must have this film in high-def, this disc is the only way to go.

Personally, I enjoy Capricorn One enough that I'm happy to own both versions on disc. But if you're a more casual fan, I'd definitely recommend the new DVD special edition over the Blu-ray. The video quality improvement of the Blu-ray is far outweighed by the benefit of having the audio commentary track and the new featurette. Plus, the new anamorphic transfer gives the DVD improved video too, even if it's only standard-def (note that the DVD is actually sourced from the same HD digital master as the Blu-ray). Better still, the DVD is fairly cheap - less than $20 on Amazon. Whichever version you choose, Capricorn One is an oft-overlooked little gem of a thriller from the 1970s that I think you'll really enjoy.


Capricorn One crew patch
U2: Live - Under a Blood Red Sky - Deluxe Edition

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U2: Live - Under a Blood Red Sky
Deluxe Edition - 1983 (2008) - Island (Universal Music)
Released on CD/DVD on September 30th, 2008.

DTS

Program Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (DVD - Video/Audio/Extras): C+/A-/D


U2 fans should really love this. Following in the success of last year's 3-disc CD/DVD special edition box set reissue of The Joshua Tree, Island and Universal Music have been working with the band to give similar treatment to earlier U2 albums. Boy, War and October have all been re-released recently as 2-CD sets, featuring the original albums remastered, as well as a second disc of outtakes, demos, alternate versions and bonus tracks. Now comes U2's first live album to be given such deluxe treatment, Under a Blood Red Sky.


As with the previous reissues, the set comes in a hardcover book-like package with a slipcase. The original 8-song album is presented on CD in remastered quality, with the original art and newly-written liner notes. But as this was a live album, there are no outtakes and demos to include. So the second disc here is a DVD, featuring the video version of the live concert, which was originally released back in the 80s on VHS videotape under the same title.

Now... the concert itself was shot on analog videotape, so you're going to see a lot of the defects inherent in that format, including soft detail, color bleed and streaks of lingering "burn in" caused by the tube-based camera being pointed at bright light sources - unavoidable given the concert setting. But it's clear that a LOT of work has gone into making the footage look as good as possible by today's standards. The key thing, is that the video has been digitally post-processed to give it a slightly film-like texture and quality. It's amazing what a difference that's made - right off the top, it helps the video to not look as dated as it otherwise might. I should note that the video is presented in the original 4x3 ratio, as you'd expect, and surprisingly good audio quality is available in a variety of formats, including Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 and PCM stereo. The surround mix isn't quite as good or immersive as you might hear on a far more recent concert recording, but given the age of this material, the presentation quality is excellent.

The concert itself was recorded on a rainy June evening in 1983, at Colorado's famed Red Rocks Amphitheater (outside Denver), and it's just a great show, fully of energy, vigor and audience enthusiasm. Better still, while the original VHS release featured 13 tracks, the DVD version has been expanded to include 18 in all (the newly-added tracks are Out of Control, Twilight, An Cat Dubh, Into the Heart and Two Hearts Beat As One). The DVD also features an optional audio commentary track with director Gavin Taylor, and there's an additional ROM component that offers weblinks, screensavers and wallpapers compatible with both Mac and PC.

Having been a U2 fan since their first album, it's fascinating not only to view this concert again after so many years (I haven't seen that many mullets in a long time!) but also to look back and realize just how good this band really was, even at this early stage in their careers. This was before The Joshua Tree had rocketed them to commercial success, and long before they'd win so many Grammys and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And yet every bit of the talent, artistry, personality and swagger that the band exhibits in their concerts today, is right there on display in this early live performance. If you love this band as I do, it's no small thrill to see.

I just hope that Universal Music and the band members continue this deluxe album upgrade project, because I'm DYING to get my hands on special edition versions of The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby. In any case, this 2-disc release of U2: Live - Under a Blood Red Sky probably isn't for everyone, but it's a must-have for fans.



The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection

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The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection
1929-1938 (2008) - Hal Roach Studios/MGM (RHI/Genius)
Released on DVD on October 28th, 2008.

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


Now, here's a DVD release I've been waiting for since the format launched: A high-quality, complete collection of the classic Little Rascals shorts we Generation X-ers grew up with! Mind you, this isn't all of the shorts that exist in the series. Producer Hal Roach first developed the Rascals (or the Our Gang series, as it was known at the time) in 1922 as a series of silent short films - some 88 in all. Years later, another 52 shorts were produced by MGM without Roach's involvement (there was a 1936 feature film as well, entitled General Spanky). But the 80 shorts collected here encompass all of those produced by Roach and MGM from 1929 to 1938, including the earliest with sound. The point is, these are all the shorts that you'll remember watching in TV syndication as kids.


Not only are the shorts here presented in the best available quality, mastered from the original camera negatives whenever possible, all of them are presented in their original, uncut form. During their syndication run over the years, many of the shorts had been edited for time and because of quality issues. Many more were edited because they contained objectionable racial and ethnic stereotypes, for depicting divorce or perceived violence, and for other reasons. Some shorts were banned from television altogether. So you're likely going to be seeing these shorts in their original form for the first time ever. What's more, I haven't seen these shorts on TV in years, so many of you are going to be discovering them for the very first time... period. That's pretty extraordinary, and it's to the credit of RHI Entertainment and Genius Products that they've gone to such efforts to preserve and present these shorts properly.

I've only sampled a few of the episodes on each disc (there are eight discs total), but the video quality itself seems to average from fair to very good, depending on the age of the short and the condition of the negatives. In general, however, what you get here is always better than what was seen in the TV broadcasts of the late 60s and 70s. The shorts are presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. All are in black and white, with excellent contrast and good detail. Other than the age-related issues, you'll see lots of film grain and some compression artifacting, but overall the video quality is very pleasing. Audio is presented in the original mono, the quality of which generally matches the video, and there are no subtitles or captions. Each of the shorts runs 20 minutes or less.

As if the 80 shorts themselves aren't enough, you also get an entire bonus disc of special features. Three of the silent era Our Gang shorts are available here, including Dog Heaven (1927), Spook Spoofing (1928) and Barnum & Ringling, Inc. (also 1928), the latter two with optional commentary by film historian Richard Lewis Ward. There are also a trio of newly-produced featurettes, presented in anamorphic widescreen. The Story of Hal Roach and Our Gang (30 mins) covers the history of Roach and the production, including the origins of various characters and information on the young actors who came and went throughout the course of the series. It includes interviews with the surviving actors (more on that in a minute), as well as Ward, historian Richard Bann (both of whom have written books about Roach and the Our Gang films) and others. The second piece, Racism and the Our Gang Comedies (7 mins), focuses more specifically on the controversial aspects of the various shorts, which are more complex than you'd think, as well as their historical context. On one hand, there's absolutely no doubt that many unfortunate racial stereotypes appear in these shorts. On the other hand, the films do offer one of the earliest depictions of white children playing, more or less on equal terms, alongside black, asian and other ethnic children. The short is fascinating and worth your time - the only problem here is that there seems to be a video aliasing issue with this piece, though it's not too distracting. The third featurette is Memories of Spanky (8 mins), which is an interview with Rick Saphire, who was Spanky McFarland's manager in his later years. Finally, nearly an hour of newly-shot, additional interview footage is available with the various surviving child stars, all now obviously quite elderly (but sharp as a tack). These include Dick Moore, Jean Darling (who also introduces the set - she's just cute as can be), Jerry Tucker and Annie Ross. Finally, you get an insert booklet with an episode list, some production notes and a timeline of the series. All of this is welcome, and it's a helluva lot more than I ever expected to see on a Rascals DVD release.

What's amazing to me while watching these shorts - and mind you I've only just scratched the surface - is just how many of them I remember. Like the one where Spanky, Alfalfa and Buckwheat swear off girls on Valentine's Day, but then Alfalfa falls for Darla, so Spanky and Buckwheat replace the cheese in his sandwich with soap, so every time he opens his mouth, bubbles come out! Or the one where the kids race down the street to save the day in a make-shift fire engine (that one brings a smile to my face to this day)! This is just great stuff, and it really takes me back. The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection is a long-awaited treasure trove of fun memories. The fact that the shorts are all here, that they're presented restored and uncut, and that a serious effort has been made to address their history and provide context with solid special features... well, how do you not love this? I'll be working my way through these eight discs for weeks. This set goes right onto my list of favorite DVD releases of the year. And how!

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com
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