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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

The Little Mermaid: Special Edition

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The Little Mermaid
Platinum Edition - 1989 (2006) - Disney

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

You know... I'd forgotten just how good this film is. I remember seeing it for the first time in theaters back in 1989. My wife Sarah (then my girlfriend) and I were in college in Madison at the time. It had been many, many years since a Disney animated film had thrilled or even really interested me much (not since The Jungle Book, in fact), so my expectations were fairly low. To our great surprise, however, we were both completely blown away.

A re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale, albeit with a happier ending, The Little Mermaid benefits greatly from the musical numbers crafted by Howard Ashman (whose previous work included the Broadway version of Little Shop of Horrors) and composer Alan Menken. It's from these numbers, in large part, that the film derives much of its wonderfully playful sense of humor and broad appeal. The writing is also surprisingly smart for an animated film, and the voice talent involved played the writing to its fullest potential.

Disney's new 2-disc DVD includes the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer at the 1.78 aspect ratio (the original DVD presentation was framed at 1.66 - while a little is cropped here on the top and bottom, you gain a little more on the sides). The video quality is very good on the whole, with lovely color saturation and texture. The image is clean and features solid contrast, although it does suffer from notable compression artifacting, particularly visible when any of the frequent storms of bubbles fly across the screen. Still, this image is much better than the previous DVD release. I'm looking forward to seeing it in high-definition at some point. The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 "Enhanced Home Theater Mix" that's quite good and yet still retains much of the sonic character of the original mix. Music and action offer enveloping staging and there's satisfying bass reinforcement. I can't help wishing that Disney had included the original theatrical mix as well, but what can you do?

Disney's new Platinum Edition offers a number fine extras, once you get past the usual clutter of straight-to-video previews and obvious product tie-ins. It starts with an engaging and lively audio commentary with filmmakers Ron Clements, John Musker and Alan Menken - one that's well worth a listen. Disc Two adds to this a good 45-minute documentary on the making of the film, nearly 20 minutes worth of unfinished (rough animation) deleted scenes, a demo audio version of an unused song and the exclusive animated short The Little Match Girl. By far the coolest thing on this disc, however, is a "virtual ride" experience. When this film was originally released, Disney Imagineering assembled plans for a theme park ride based upon the story. It was never actually built, but with the help of CG animation and 5.1 audio, you can now take the ride virtually on DVD, just as you would have experienced it at Disneyland in person. There's also a featurette on the ride that never was (though little is said about WHY it was never built), along with various ways to experience it with Imagineer commentary and the like. It's a VERY cool idea and a neat way to take advantage of the capabilities of the DVD format. The rest of the extras are pure kiddie fodder and promotional fluff. My only real complaint about the film-related extras is that they're widescreen but not anamorphic - a shame.

By the way, I should also point out that the film on this new edition includes a digital "correction" to the minister's infamous "bent knee" at the end of the film (the one that so many fans have mistaken for an erection over the years). I note this so that those of you who prefer your films "unretouched" might keep your original DVDs as well, if you wish.

The Little Mermaid represented a critical turning point in the history of Disney Animation, one that led to a second creative Golden Age with the likes of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin. But watching the film is also very bittersweet. Starting with this film, and growing ever more pervasive in each film that followed, computers began to take on a larger role in the animation process. And as much as I love the recent Pixar/Disney films, classic, hand-drawn animation has unfortunately become a lost art at Disney, and was shamefully abandoned altogether by the studio in 2004. Ironically, with the recent merger of Pixar into Disney, there's now hope that the studio might again embrace the hand-drawn artistry that made it special to begin with. In the meantime, the gorgeous work in this film stands as a testament to better times. And though I wish it were a little more geared toward pure film enthusiasts, this new DVD is a fine addition to the Platinum line. Hell, any Disney DVD that features interview clips with John Waters (no kidding) is easy to recommend.

One last note: the booklet included in The Little Mermaid teases the March 2007 Platinum Edition release of Peter Pan, as well as the October 2007 Pt-dipping of The Jungle Book... just a little something to look forward to.

The Vice Guide to Travel

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The Vice Guide to Travel
2006 (2006) - Vice Films

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

"My shoes are radioactive right now..."

I have to say, as long as I've been doing this now, it's rare that I'm surprised by a DVD release these days. But The Vice Guide to Travel is a rare little gem that I wasn't expecting. How to describe it? Hhhmmm...

Well, if any of you have ever experienced a travelogue film/lecture series in person before... this DVD is kinda like one of those. Except that you're travelling with a couple of old college drinking buddies who've unexpectedly done something interesting with their lives since you last saw them, and the places you're travelling to are some of the strangest, nastiest and/or most fucked-up dangerous spots on the planet. We're talking the kind of lovely locales that you see on the evening news and think, "Man, you couldn't PAY me enough money to go there!" That's the general vibe of The Vice Guide to Travel in a nutshell. Or let me put it another way... remember that Police song from the 1980s, When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around? Yeah, it's sorta like that.

Just think of the wonders that await you! You'll learn about a whole different kind of Boy Scout in Beruit. You'll meet "Ivanov," who for the right price can get you a dirty bomb on the black market. You'll visit the slums of Rio. You'll trudge deep into the darkest jungles of the Congo. You'll track down a lost Nazi colony in Paraguay. You'll shop the quaint gun bazaars of Pakistan. You'll even visit the ghost towns around Chernobyl. Just make sure to bring a big tube of SPF 500.

The video quality on this disc is excellent. Altogether, there's only a little over an hour of material on the disc, which is really my only complaint about it. But that means that the footage, which was all shot on video originally, needs less compression that your average feature film. The audio is also excellent, in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. It's mostly dialogue and natural sound, but there's the occasional musical transition that sounds pretty great.

The disc includes 7 main video segments, and then there are 7 more shorter clips of outtake footage and additional material. You should be aware that David Cross (of Mr. Show fame) and Johnny Knoxville (of Jackass) both make brief appearances. There's also a DVD-ROM weblink to the website, and there's at least one Easter egg hidden in the menus. What's even cooler is that the DVD comes packaged in a very high-quality, 65-page, hardcover book, that includes many of the original Vice Magazine articles that were written based on the trips depicted on the disc. There's also lots of full color pictures for the less literarily inclined. All in all, it's a helluva nice package - I hope the first of many.

The Vice Guide to Travel is sometimes funny, sometimes deeply disturbing and often both at the same time. One thing's for damn sure... you're going to get a glimpse of a world that most Westerners, and particularly most Americans, have NO idea exists. Some of these segments outta be eye-opening, to say the least. They certainly point to a global reality that's VASTLY different than the optimistic picture our government officials like to paint. Let's just say that this DVD is proof positive that our particular world view here in the old US of A tends to be a little, shall we say, simplistic. For whatever reason you might be interested, this one's well worth a look.

Flash Gordon: The Complete Series

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Flash Gordon: The Complete Series
(aka The New Adventures of Flash Gordon)

1979-1981 (2006) - Filmation (BCI Eclipse)

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

Bum, bum, bum, bum, FLASH... aaaaaahhhhhh!!!

Oh, wait... this isn't the cheesy-but-fun 1980 feature film. This is the cheesy-but-fun Saturday morning animated series from around the same time. I have to tell you, I loved Flash Gordon when I was a kid - both the film and the cartoon. This show and Star Trek: The Animated Series (also soon to arrive on DVD) were the perfect way to kick off a weekend of typical childhood fun and adventure back in the day. Because of this cartoon, I've since grown to love the original Buster Crabbe film serials as well.

The story should be familiar to most of you by now... Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov travel in their retro-rocketship to the planet Mongo, to save the Earth from the clutches of the evil Ming the Merciless. Along the way, they meet all kinds of strange creatures, brave unknown dangers, and make new allies and enemies. The animation quality was excellent for TV fare, with richly drawn backgrounds and characters, and the stories were, well... out of this world.

The series itself ran for two seasons - 24 episodes in all. They're presented on this DVD release on 4 discs, in the original full frame. The video is transferred from the original film elements, so it's fairly good looking, but the episodes do show their age. The prints are surprisingly clean, and feature excellent color and contrast, but they're also overly soft-looking from time to time, and the brightest areas of the picture are occasionally a little blown out. Still, have no doubt that this is as good as you've EVER seen these episodes looking before. Audio on the discs is Dolby 2.0, just as you'd expect.

As enjoyable as the series itself is, it's the extras that make this package truly special. BCI and DVD producer Andy Mangels have gone to incredible lengths to gather bonus material for inclusion here... which is really a surprise when you consider that, had almost any other studio released this title, they'd have dumped it out bare as a baby's bottom. Far more important animated series are being released these days with far less effort expended by the studio (Think I'm kidding? See Speed Racer below).

To start with, you get audio commentary on 3 of the episodes by producer Lou Scheimer and other creative talent, hosted by Mangels (hosted, as Andy tells me, to keep the participants TALKING about the episodes rather than just watching them, as many of those involved hadn't seen the show in many years). Next, there's a 20-minute featurette on the history and making of the show, featuring interviews with those involved. You get a gallery of original model sheet art for all the main characters, along with text information on the characters and settings. There's an interactive storyboard-to-clip comparison for two scenes. The chapter page for each episode features trivia and other interesting facts about the series. You get a bonus episode of the Defenders of the Earth animated series (the pilot), which also features the character of Flash. There are two postcards featuring original Flash artwork. There's a fold-out booklet with a complete episode guide and list of the extras. Finally, if you drop the last disc into a DVD-ROM drive, you can access the original 35-page series bible, 5 episode scripts and 2 complete storyboard sets. They're all in PDF format, so you can view them with either a PC or a Mac. I mean, come on! Are you kidding me?! That's a damn nice package for a niche DVD release like this. BCI (and Mangels) deserve a LOT of love in my opinion for putting in this kind of effort.

Cheesy sci-fi serials don't get much more fun than Flash Gordon, and this animated series exposed the adventures of Flash and his friends to whole new generations of fans, myself included. I'm thrilled to have the series on DVD, and BCI has released it with extras that wildly exceeded my paltry expectations. This set (and, frankly, just about everything else BCI is cooking up as far as animation and Saturday morning fare on DVD right now) is deserving of your attention. You definitely get your money's worth here, that's for sure.

United 93

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United 93
2006 (2006) - Universal

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

Critics have made a good deal of hay about how wise it is to make a film about the events of September 11th so soon after they took place. These same critics, however, completely overlook the fact that films were being made about World War II while the war was still being fought.

United 93, as you might guess, tells the story of the passengers, crew and even the hijackers of that fateful flight on that terrible day. It's worth noting that the film was actually sanctioned by the families of those involved in the real events. Director Paul Greengrass, whose previous work includes Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy, specifically sought out the advice and approval of the victim's family members. They approved the script and, in some cases, even approved the actors that played their loved ones. The film sticks as closely as possible to what we know happened, and that attention to detail makes it quite effective. Some events, conversations and the like, are dramatized, but the film is shot in a well-executed cinéma vérité style that serves the material well.

The film is presented on DVD with a solid anamorphic-enhanced widescreen transfer. Clarity is excellent, with good (if occasionally muted) color and excellent contrast. The audio quality is also good, in a nicely immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that matches the images well.

The disc is available in a single-disc set and a 2-disc limited edition (sadly, it's all TOO limited, as it was hard to find in stores even on its original street date). The single-disc version reviewed here (and picture above), includes a fascinating audio commentary with the director, along with a behind-the-scenes featurette (United 93: The Families and the Film) on how the project came together and how the family members got involved. There's also a series of memorial pages with photos and bios of the victims themselves, as well a trailer for the Two Towers documentary (available separately) about a pair of NYPD officers, who happened also to be brothers, who responded to the World Trade Center disaster that day.

Though it's not included in the review grade above, if you happen to find the limited edition, Disc Two of that set adds an absolutely fascinating 48-minute documentary, entitled Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11. It's the story of how the events unfolded from the perspective of the air traffic controllers and military commanders charged with managing and protecting U.S. airspace that day. It features moment by moment details, and interviews with many of the actual personnel who were there (some of whom play themselves in the film). Watching this piece, you realize just how confusing things were that day, and just how helpless and unprepared our country was to deal with the events that unfolded. The documentary is in anamorphic widescreen, and both video and audio quality are excellent.

United 93 seeks not to hype the drama of this terrorist hijacking, or even to demonize the hijackers themselves. Instead, it simply chooses to capture as much of the realism of the events of that day - as they likely happened - as possible, and to honor the heroism and sacrifice of the passengers. As you watch this film's mundane opening movements, you realize that this could have been any plane on any day. These passengers could have been anyone, and that knowledge makes the events more immediate, and the film more powerful an experience. United 93 isn't fun or enjoyable viewing, but it's well worth seeing. It is a very good film - a fitting reminder of the worst... and the best... that humanity is capable of.

Speed Racer: Volume 5

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Speed Racer: Volume 5
1968 (2006) - Tatsunoko Productions (Lionsgate)

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

FINALLY! It only took three long and frequently frustrating years, but Lionsgate has finally released the complete, classic Speed Racer animated series on DVD. Volume 5 includes the final 8 episodes of the series (specifically, episodes 45-52). I've reviewed the series before (see my reviews of Volumes 1-3 on DVD), so let's get right to talking about the disc itself.

As with the previous volumes, the video quality of these episodes is good, if not great. They look soft at times and there's the occasional bit of dust on the prints. You'll also see a little too much compression artifacting. But contrast and color are both generally excellent.

The audio is presented in the 'original' dubbed English mono. Note that Speed Racer was one of the first Japanese animated series to air in the States back in the late 1960s, so dubbed English (rather than the original Japanese) is how most fans in the U.S. will remember it.

Sadly, as was the case on most of the previous volumes, there are no disc-based DVD extras here (unless you consider animated menus an extra). But Lionsgate has once again included an interesting swag item in the packaging: A collectible metal license plate. I couldn't give a rip about such things, but I'm sure there are plenty of fans who will be glad to have it.

I do hope that at some point, Lionsgate sees fit to release this series complete on DVD in a single box set, and maybe decides to actually produce some new extras. I'd love to see new interviews with Peter Hernandez and the surviving members of the voice cast, audio commentaries with Hernandez on the best episodes, maybe featurettes on the original Japanese creators and the history of the series. I'd love to have the original Japanese audio (with subtitles) as an option as well, and have a chance to see and hear the original Japanese opening and closing themes. I also wonder if these transfers were done in high-definition, so that we might eventually see a Blu-ray Disc version. In any case, in the meantime, the best thing you can say here is that the series is finally complete on DVD. Given the long wait, that's more than enough to make me happy for now.

Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out

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Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out
2006 (2006) - Hip-O/A&M/Universal Music

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

It should be no surprise to any of you longtime readers of The Bits that I'm a huge fan of The Police. This is a band that seemingly came out of nowhere in the late 1970s, by taking advantage of both the Punk and New Wave movements to gain attention, and then quickly began blending those musical genres with Reggae, Rock, Jazz, Pop and other influences to create a complete new and unique sound all of their own.

Their lyrics were surprisingly intelligent for a bleached-blonde, faux-Punk band. Little did those early listeners know, Sting, Stewart and Andy were each consummate musicians, whose sonic artistry would evolve dramatically with each new album. They had an edge and an energy that fueled both their music and their dramatic rise in popularity. And their lead-singer had a surprising knack for writing a catchy, memorable tune. They were the biggest three-piece band around, and though The Police only recorded five studio albums, they're still one of the most interesting and influential groups of the late 1970s and early 80s, the proof of which is their recent first-vote induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Just as their meteoric rise to popularity took off, drummer (sorry, rhythmatist) Stewart Copeland purchased a Super 8 movie camera and began documenting their life on the road, just for kicks. He captured hundreds of hours of footage, from the band playing on stage, to life in an endless series of hotel rooms, to goofing off in between. He also captured some extremely cool moments for fans to see, among them Sting and Andy working out the melody of Shadows in the Rain in the recording studio, the band sharing a tour bus with XTC, and even the infamous photo shoot for the album cover of Zenyatta Mondatta. The inevitable result is Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out... an inside look at The Police as written, shot, narrated, edited, scored and lived by Stewart Copeland.

Right off the bat, you should know that the video quality here is a really mixed bag. Obviously, film shot on Super 8 format is going to be soft, gritty and grain looking most of the time, and that's certainly the case here. It's nice to know that the footage is presented in widescreen and the transfer is anamorphic, but the simple fact is, larger you blow this image up, the less you're going to like it. The audio is also of mixed quality, again owing to the fact that you're mostly hearing what was captured via the camera's microphone. But Stewart has taken that audio and cleaned it up a great deal. He's also added his own narration, along with snippets of new mixes of a number of classic Police tunes (I'd LOVE to hear the new mixes in their entirety) to enhance the mood. The audio is presented in PCM 2.0 stereo, as well as Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. All sound great in terms of the music, as long as you temper your expectations here and there with regard to the original film audio. There are also subtitles in a variety of languages that definitely come in handy on occasion.

In terms of extras, the disc offers about 20 minutes worth of additional footage not seen in the theatrical cut of the film, as well as additional bits of raw footage ("Shards" as it were) of the band preforming various songs in various locations around the world. Best of all, you get a really entertaining audio commentary track with Copeland, joined by fellow Police-man and guitarist Andy Summers, that captures a great deal of the playful personality and humor that was so apparent in their music. It's a shame that Sting didn't participate, but then it's probably not surprising either. And Sting would have given the commentary a different quality anyway - not bad, just different. Ah, screw the bastard. Stewart, Andy... you guys rock.

Short of an unlikely reunion album or farewell tour, Everyone Stares is about as rare and rich a gem as Police fans could ever want. To be fair though, less avid music fans might not find much of interest here. For example, the documentary only hints at the creative rivalries and egomania that eventually led to the band's unofficial break-up in 1986. But if you ARE a fan, and you love this band as much as I do, you're going to savor every minute of this. This is vintage Sting, Stewart and Andy... being Sting, Stewart and Andy. And in my book, that's pretty damn cool.

Bill Hunt
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