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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt (with Todd Doogan) of The Digital Bits

Seven Samurai (Criterion reissue)

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Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai)
3-Disc Special Edition - 1954 (2006) - Toho (Criterion)
Catalog No. 2 (re-issue)

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

[Editor's Note: Portions of the film review are by Todd Doogan]

Let's just say this right up front and get it out of the way: If The Bits staff had to name a selection for the best film of all time... Seven Samurai would absolutely be our choice. It is quite possibly the most watchable 207 minutes of film ever made. Where else are you going to find such depth of character development and so much action, matched with this level of human comedy and tragedy, without having to live it yourself? Seven Samurai has all of these things, along with some of the best character actors who have ever graced the silver screen, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura high among them.

All of this was put together by a man who was, quite simply, born to make films. Seven Samurai stands as director Akira Kurosawa's greatest effort, and it's certainly also his most accessible. Samurai follows the trials of a 16th century Japanese village that's plagued by bandits. Knowing that the bandits plan to strike when their next crop is harvested, the villagers "hire" masterless samurai to protect them from the upcoming attack. At first, they seem to have little chance of finding warriors willing to take on the task, or good enough to handle it. Then they bump into Shimura's Kambei, in a brilliant scene that raises many different cultural issues. Kambei agrees to help the villagers, and it's through him that the rest of the samurai are assembled.

After Kambei recruits his team, and they head for the village, we begin to learn more about each of these men, particularly Kikuchiyo, played by Mifune. Kikuchiyo's past allows the samurai to eventually identify with the farmers, and gain their trust. He soon becomes the heart and soul of both the samurai and the film itself. Mifune is wonderful here, and it's the one role he played in his long career that best summed up his own personality. Wild, angry, funny, caring... he was all these things and more. The character is also a surrogate for Kurosawa himself - having compassion for the farmers, but also disdain. Wanting the respect and fellowship of his peers, yet always striving to be an individual. Kurosawa's career shows these aspects of his own personality.

Kurosawa is widely regarded as the cinema's most eloquent speaker, and his prowess and artistry are on full display here. The way that he chooses to move his camera, the way he sets up and frames his scenes, his heavy use of deep focus technique and his selection of camera position... all of it is just beautiful and says far more about the story, and the man himself, than scripted dialogue could ever accomplish.

This film has been released in two previous versions on DVD by Criterion. Both featured the same full frame film transfer, which was of good quality for the time, but is lacking by today's standards. Clarity and contrast were solid, but there was a good deal of compression artifacting and the image had a very harsh, digital quality to it. For this new DVD release, the film has been re-transferred in 2K high-definition resolution from a new dupe negative that was created from the original fine-grain master positive. It's presented in the correct full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and has been windowboxed slightly to allow the maximum visible image to be seen on a wide variety of displays. The film has also been split over Discs One and Two of this set to allow for high video data rates. The result is simply stunning... a clean, crystal clear image with great depth, wonderful detail even in the darker picture areas, and delightfully subtle shadings and degrees of contrast. Film grain is visible but is never harsh, giving the image the atmosphere and character that you'd expect from a film of this age, without ever distracting you from the drama. The original mono soundtrack has also been remastered to reduce unwanted noise and age-related defects. It's presented here in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and a new 2.0 surround mix, both of which support the imagery well.

The original Criterion DVD, the company's second ever DVD release back in 1998, included audio commentary by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck, the original U.S. theatrical trailer and a restoration demonstration. The title was then re-issued a few years later by Criterion, but without the restoration demonstration at the request of Toho. At the time, these extras were satisfying enough, and it was nice just to have the film on DVD at all. But as the years passed, and more elaborate special editions were released, fans began to crave more. Thankfully, Criterion's new 3-disc DVD re-issue should more than satisfy them.

Let's start with the packaging. In a word, it's gorgeous! It starts with a high-quality paper slipcase featuring the banner of the seven samurai on the front. Inside this, you'll find the three discs contained in a fold-out Digipack of similar quality, featuring stunning black and white photographs from the film. Also included in the case is a lovely 28-page booklet, featuring more rare photography and liner notes by film critics, historians, filmmakers and even a reminiscence by Mifune on his experiences on the film. And all this is before you ever pop a disc into your player!

Discs One and Two include the original audio commentary by Jeck, along with a "film scholars roundtable" commentary with David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns and Donal Richie. Three theatrical trailers and a teaser trailer for the film are also included on Disc One, as are a production photography gallery and a gallery of the film's poster artwork from around the world. Disc Two adds to this Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create, an excellent 50-minute documentary on the making of this film from the Toho Masterworks series (full frame video, with Japanese audio and English subtitles). The piece features insights and revelations, interviews with many of Kurosawa's collaborators, glimpses of original scripts and much more. The documentary even has its own chapter index, which is an appreciated touch. Disc Three then contributes two more video supplements. The first, My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa, is a 1993 interview with Kurosawa done for the Director's Guild of Japan, in which Kurosawa reminisces about his life and his career (also full frame with Japanese audio and English subtitles). The second, Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences, is a brand new 3-part documentary created by Criterion to examine the history of the samurai in Japanese life, and its influence on the making of this film (anamorphic widescreen video with audio in English). Both are chapter-indexed for viewing convenience. Each of these extras is superlative, and together they serve only to enhance and deepen your appreciation for both Kurosawa and his film. Finally, the disc-based material is tied together with elegant animated meuns that feature atmospheric film audio cues - wind, rain, etc.

By any standard of reckoning, Seven Samurai is a masterpiece of filmmaking, that remains as enjoyable today as it was when first released back in 1954... perhaps even more enjoyable, given the luxury of perspective afforded by the passage of time. Kurosawa is at his most brilliant here... and that's saying quite a lot. With its classic story, archetypal characters, abundant action and powerful human drama, this is the one film that every reader of The Digital Bits owes it to himself or herself to see. Criterion's new 3-disc DVD release is not only welcome re-issue, it should be considered the centerpiece of any respectable film library on disc. It deserves, and receives, our highest recommendation.

Saturday Night Live: The Best of Saturday TV Funhouse

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Saturday Night Live: The Best of Saturday TV Funhouse
1996-2006 (2006) - NBC (Universal)

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

"My left nut's more famous than Jerry Stiller!"

Have you gotten the feeling, like myself, that SNL has slipped into another one of those dark, Anthony Michael Hall periods in recent years? I keep trying to give the show a chance, and I keep on ending up shaking my head at the end of each episode, wondering to myself, "What can Lorne Michaels possibly be thinking?!" About the only reliably funny thing on the show these days are the commercial parodies and Robert Smigel's Saturday TV Funhouse segments. Those, at least, you can always count on for a laugh... or at least a good smile or two.

I would argue that Smigel's work is some of the very best social and political satire on TV today, ranking right up there with South Park in its fearlessness. He's tackled everything from the War in Iraq, to corporate greed, to political correctness, always with a unique twist and biting charm.

His shorts are often animated, though not always, and they're inevitably uniquely clever. The main feature on this DVD release includes 24 of the shorts, as well as the Ace & Gary "live" hosting segments from the Best of Saturday Night Live TV Funhouse TV special that aired on NBC in April of this year.

The shorts include Are You Hot?, Ambiguously Gary Duo: Blow Hot, Blow Cold, Fun with Real Audio: Bush Dress-Up, Bambi, Saddam and Osama, Sexual Harassment and You, Fun with Real Audio: Clinton Apology, Michael Jackson, Disney Vault (YES, it's here - the new classic!), Smurfette, The Narrator Who Ruined Christmas, Fun with Real Audio: Christmas, Peanuts Christmas, Divertor, Find the Black People at the Knick Game, Belated Black History Month, Christmastime for the Jews, The All New Adventures of Mr. T, X-Presidents: Constitution, Ambiguously Gary Duo: Safety Tips, Fun with Real Audio: Early Show, Fun with Real Audio: McCain, Shazzang and Anatominals.

Among the Ace & Gary segments are Monologue, Snack Table, Makeup, Wardrobe, Quick Change, Dressing Room and Conclusion.

But that's not all Don Pardo... you also get 25 additional shorts as extras, including the original uncut versions of Fun with Real Audio: Bush Dress-Up and Peanuts Christmas, 3 additional Ambiguously Gay Duo shorts including It Takes Two to Tango, Don We Now... or Never and A Hard One to Swallow, 3 additional X-Presidents shorts including Nixon, Clinton and The Search, 6 more Fun with Real Audio shorts including Perot/King, State of the Union, Snyder/Parton, Casablanca, Life of a Catchphrase and Entertainment Reporters, and 11 "additional additional cartoons" including Titey, Ray of Light, Heteroy, Globetrotters Christmas, Religetables, The All New Adventures of Mr. T #2, Passion of the Dumpty, Santa and the States, Wheaty, Bees (a scathing, unfinished and unaired cartoon featuring President Bush using honey bees to explain the Iraq war) and Conspiracy Theory Rock (only shown once, then pulled by NBC for taking shots at parent company GE). Combined with the main program, that means you get 49 of the 90 total shorts that have been done to date (as of this last weekend's episode). Not bad for a "best of" collection.

Still hungry for more? Okay... on top of all of the above, this disc also delivers a few great extras, including audio commentary on the main feature shorts with creator Smigel and his animators, along with a host of guests including Stephen Colbert and Steven Carell (the voices behind Ace and Gary), political wonks James Carville, Al Franken and Paul Begala, TV host Bryant Gumbel and many more. Mickey Mouse even appears (brilliant!) on the track. It's a very funny and highly entertaining commentary (particularly Colbert and Carell). You also get a brief video and still gallery of storyboard and production art featuring the Ambiguously Gay Duo. There's even an Easter egg... just the thing if you're hankering for a juicy bucket of Cluckin' Chicken! That's a helluva great batch of extras for a title like this.

The video is of generally good quality, in the proper full frame aspect ratio. It's nothing to die for, and some shorts seem to look a little better than others, but this certainly looks as good as (or better than) the original TV broadcasts. The audio is a solid Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo.

I've been hoping for a complete collection of the Saturday TV Funhouse shorts for a long time now. This isn't it, unfortunately, but it's pretty damn great for a "best of" set, that's for sure. With about half of the shorts left unreleased on DVD, I'm hoping we get a Volume Two. In the meantime, this disc is absolutely worth adding to your collection if you're a fan of Smigel's work. Recommended.

Harveytoons: The Complete Collection

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Harveytoons: The Complete Collection
1998-2005 (2006) - Harvey Entertainment/Classic Media (Sony Wonder)

Original shorts circa 1940s-1950s - Paramount/Famous Studios/Harvey Comics

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

I remember the original Harvey animated shorts with almost as much fondness as the classic Looney Tunes. The shorts tended to play very early in the morning on weekdays, on the local UHF broadcast station (way back in the early 70s, before there was cable TV), and I'd watch them while eating breakfast and getting ready for school. As such, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, Richie Rich, Herman and Katnip, Little Audrey, Tommy Tortoise... they were all a big part of my childhood.

Many of characters, of course, originated on the pages of Harvey comic books and became so popular that they were soon brought to the big screen, when Harvey began collaborating with Paramount's Famous Studios starting in the 1940s. Other characters, like Casper, began as animated shorts and were turned in to Harvey comic books (Harvey ultimately purchased the character from Famous). In any case, the shorts were as popular on the big screen as they were in print, so it was inevitable that they'd eventually make the move to the new medium of television. Harvey Comics later became Harvey Entertainment and was purchased by Classic Media, which means that the shorts have continued to be shown on TV in various forms (particularly on cable) ever since.

Unfortunately, this DVD release cannot be said to include the original Harveytoon shorts per se. Rather, this 4-disc set contains episodes of The Harveytoon Show, as seen on the Fox Family Channel, and more recently on Boomerang as Casper and Friends. Each episode of the series contained 4 original Harveytoon shorts. That might be tolerable to some, but it needs to be noted here that the set only includes 52 of the series' 78 episodes. The series' fifth and sixth are missing entirely (which means, sadly, that Richie Rich doesn't appear here at all). On top of that, while the episodes are listed by number on the discs' menu selection pages, they don't always correspond to the original series' episode numbers. Disc One seems to correspond to the Wikipedia episode list fairly well, but then the set starts to skip episodes and jump around like crazy. Some of the missing episodes can be explained by the fact that the series occasionally duplicated some of the same shorts over different episodes. To deal with this, new episodes seem to have been edited together for this DVD release such that there's little to no duplication on the set. Still, a LOT of the original shorts even from this series are simply missing altogether, and there are obviously MANY more original Harveytoon shorts that were never featured in this series.

The one bit of positive news that I can report about Harveytoons: The Complete Collection is that the video and audio quality here is very good. The shorts do show their age occasionally, with scratches and bits of dust on the prints, faded colors and the odd soft shot. But on the whole they look quite good, with solid contrast, nicely saturated hues and decent clarity. Frankly, I hadn't seen these shorts since I was less than 10 years old, so they certainly better than I've ever seen them before. They're presented in the original full frame on four DVD-18 (dual-sided, dual-layered) discs, with the episodes presented about 7 per side. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, just as you'd expect.

There are no extras to speak of on this set, which is a shame. Sadly, while some effort has been made to craft nice packaging and animated menus screens, something rather obvious has been overlooked. There's no list of the episodes and shorts included anywhere on the packaging. As I mentioned earlier, even when you pop the DVDs in, they're only identified by a number. A booklet listing the individual shorts included in each episode would have helped this set immensely, but no such convenience is included.

Sadly, calling this set "complete" is terribly misleading to say the least. Despite its problems, however, this is still a decent collection of great and classic shorts on DVD. If your kids haven't had the chance to see these before, this is a good way to expose them to a lot of wonderful animation. Indeed, many of these shorts simply aren't available elsewhere on DVD. But with a little more attention to detail, this could have been a truly great, definitive release, ranking right up there with Warner's Looney Tunes Golden Collections and Disney's Walt Disney Treasures sets. What a shame.

Bill Hunt
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