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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits


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2004 (2004) - 20th Century Fox

Film Rating: B

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

There has been a run lately of what I called "juvenile comedies for adults" which seem aimed more at the audience who consumed fare such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Porky's during their original theatrical runs than the stereotypical young moviegoer of today. Even the hilarious Not Another Teen Movie drew as many references from Eighties John Hughes films as recent works such as She's All That and 10 Things I Hate About You.

Starring a round-robin group of actors including Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Luke and Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell and Steve Carrel, this new breed of JCFA shows that being an aging member of Generation X doesn't mean that you can't provide amusement for your cohort. Recent smash hits Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin prove there is a sizeable audience for quality funny stuff starring funny adults.

Last year's Dodgeball is a modest effort telling the story of competing gyms and their owners. White Goodman (Ben Stiller) is a Tony Robbins-meets-Richard Simmons guru who owns Globo Gym, a shiny edifice of glass, steel and neon that is populated by perfect specimens of physical fitness. (If Leni Riefenstahl had done Bally's Fitness commercials, they would've looked like this.)

Across the street is Average Joe's, a run-down sweatbox operated, poorly, by Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn in typical Vince Vaughn mode) and patronized by your typical movie comedy cast of lovable losers. Peter's behind on the mortgage and unless he comes up with $25,000 within a month, the bank will foreclose and White will snap up the property to provide parking for his place.

One of Peter's customers, Gordon (Steven Root), discovers in Obscure Sports Quarterly magazine that there is a conveniently-timed dodgeball tournament with a top prize that somehow is exactly what Peter needs to save his gym. While they manage to beat their regional opponents, a Girl Scout troop - OK, the troop has to forfeit on a technicality - they realize their motley crew needs help... and it comes in the coaching form of Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn), a wheelchair-bound former dodgeball champion.

The team heads to Las Vegas and the inevitable final round showdown with White's Purple Cobras... and for a movie subtitled A True Underdog Story, you'd think the ending wouldn't be in doubt, but there are a few twists that occur along the way (that really don't add much to the story because what this movie is - and should be - about is people getting whacked in the head and groin with dodgeballs!)

If you aren't a fan of Three Stooges-style physical humor, you're not likely to enjoy this movie, because a huge amount of the comedy comes from our beleaguered characters getting thwonked upside the head with the attendant ringing "boing" of the red rubber ball. While I've long outgrown Larry, Curly and Moe, and generally prefer witty dialogue to kicks in the family jewels, I never failed to smile (and go "ooooh!") at the numerous occurrences of boinging beatdowns. (It's probably the sound of the ball that makes this work.)

Vaughn seems to have settled into a comfy career rut of playing the same fast-talking pseudo-slacker on the make, but it suits him well and he's a likeable presence. Even better is Stiller who creates an odd nutball of a character that is a welcome change of pace from the tired nebbish/put-upon victim he seems to have repeatedly been playing lately. The scenes in which he deals on real-life wife Christine Taylor look like they probably cracked up a lot on the set (and the outtakes reel proves it.) It's also funny that they didn't try to hide the vast height difference between him and Vaughn.

The supporting cast is also fun; especially Alan Tudyk as Steve the Pirate and Rip Torn as the crotchety coach who deals the pain that toughens our heroes. Details like the wrong uniforms they have to wear to their tournament game, the fact that it's being broadcast on ESPN8 ("the Ocho") and that the slogan for the event is "Go Balls Deep" up the comedic score nicely.

As far as the disc goes, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer does an adequate job with OK detail. However, too much filtering leads to some serious macroblocking on occasion - for example in the bar scene, where the smoky red background disintegrates into chunks of crimson Legos. Colors are generally OK, but this will never be a reference disc for your home theater.

Just as with the picture, the English Dolby 5.1 Surround audio is workmanlike, with decent use of the surround channels, but it's nothing to demo your sub-woofer. Dialogue is clear and no serious defects were noticed. Spanish and French Dolby 2.0 Surround audio is also available as are subtitles in English or Spanish.

While the movie is a minor triffle, there is a decent assortment of extras, kicking off with the feature audio commentary by writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber - previously known for the Terry Tate - Office Linebacker commercials - as well as Stiller and Vaughn. As you might expect, there's plenty of cutting up along with the chatter.

Seven deleted and extended scenes (totaling 7:51) and an alternate ending (with optional commentary by Thurber) are also included. Many of the deleted bits are pretty funny, but were cut for pacing. However, the alternate ending - which is actually the original ending - is a perfect example why studio interference isn't always a bad thing. While Thurber says the stars were on-board with this ending, it would've been a disaster and slapped the audience in the face.

The Dodgeball Boot Camp: Training for Dodgeball featurette (3:25) covers the cast's training for the games, while The Anatomy of a Hit (3:21) explains that if you want the big laughs, you've got to hit people in the head. Plus, the actors discuss the challenge of not flinching.

Justin Long: A Study in Ham & Cheese (3:33) opens with a manic single-take improv that runs a couple of minutes (watch the reaction of the extras when they call "cut"). It ends with an excruciating montage of him suffering endless physical indignities.

Dodgeball: Go for the Gold (1:17) has Vaughn and Stiller pitching dodgeball as an Olympic sport. It rates a wan smile, but no laughs.

The bloopers/gag reel (3:00) is your usual batch of blown lines and accidents highlighted by an ad lib from the actor playing the German team's coach (I'm not saying who, because it's a killer cameo) and the problems caused by Vaughn's constant cracking up during another actor's dialogue.

A half-dozen Easter eggs are included as well, and if you pop the DVD into your computer's ROM drive, you can read the script via the included Hotllama Player software, which works on both PC and Mac.

Dodgeball isn't a landmark comedy destined for any Hall of Fame, but it does provide some laughs and entertainment for those seeking a humorous take on the traumatic torment that's sold as sport to children around the world.

EXPO: Magic of the White City

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EXPO: Magic of the White City
2005 (2005) - Inecom (Inecom)

Program Rating: B-

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

Since my public school education seemed to have a hard enough time getting the basics of our Founding Fathers and the birth of America across, I guess there's a legitimate reason why I had no knowledge of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 - aka the Chicago World's Fair. Still, anyone wanting to get a two-hour crash course on this massive historical event could do worse than watching EXPO: Magic of the White City.

Narrated by Gene Wilder, EXPO provides an exhaustive (and exhausting) primer on the event that drew 28 million visitors to a reclaimed swamp on the south shore of Lake Michigan over a span of only six months. Intended to one-up the 1889 Paris World's Fair - which saw the building of the Eiffel Tower - and also to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of America, the organizers missed the mark by a year, but made up for it with a gleaming spectacle.

The faux marble facades and electric lights earned it the "White City" nickname - it was like nothing people had seen before or since (unless you count the planet Krypton in Superman.) Future revolutionaries in their fields like Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry Ford were inspired by what they saw. The sheer number of "largest" things that were on display boggles even the modern mind.

In addition to exhibits from nations and corporations the world over, the Fair saw the introduction of the Ferris wheel and the snack that would become Cracker Jacks. So extensive were the wonders of the Fair that the sheer quantity becomes EXPO's biggest liability: There's just too much material for this sort of presentation.

Eschewing the PBS historical documentary model of breaking up the static visuals with talking head segments and recreations, producer/director Mark Bussler has relied on an avalanche of photographs and illustrations (narrated by Wilder). After a time, it becomes a hypnotic drone of facts and statistics that lull the viewer into inattention, to put it politely. When color live-action shots of beer mugs being filled, a belly dancer performing or aquarium footage to portray the sights and sounds are thrown in the mix, they feel out of place and amateurish.

Shot on hi-def video, the 1.78:1 anamorphic picture on this disc allows the super-fine details of the art to really come through, though there are occasions when the step down to DVD resolution causes some moiré shimmer on a large HD television; even more so on standard televisions where it becomes quite frequent. Minor noise artifacts crop up in a few of the live action shots, but they aren't too frequent. Overall, it's a good-looking picture.

The English Dolby 5.1 audio is rich enough sounding considering the simple demands of narration and the atmospheric score and sound effects. Surround activity is light, but this isn't Revenge of the Sith, so it's OK.

The primary extra is a feature-length commentary by World's Fair historian David Cope. It's an interesting talk which allows for more comprehensive discussion of the finer points (points that the main recitation of facts and figures doesn't allow for).

The featurettes are somewhat odd, because they're just loose montages of B-roll footage. You either have the option of watching them with just musical score or with commentaries. With music alone, Making the Fair (7:27) and Art of the Fair (10:02) don't really make any sense, as we watch shots of musical and computer gear being manipulated or random images. However, the tracks by Bussler alone (and also with writer Brian Connelly) are as close to a filmmaker's commentary as we get. (Note that Art of the Fair only has both together.)

Storyboards of the Fair (4:56) has Bussler talking about the boards for the original opening and the recreation of Chicago Mayor Harrison's shooting. Pictures of the Fair (4:41) has additional pix from the Library of Congress along with Bussler's solicitation for oral histories for a contemplated follow-on film. Be sure to watch all the way to the end for a secret last shot.

There are eight deleted scenes that average about two minutes each. They're just more of what is in the final product, but were likely cut for time. There is no "Play All" option and the general menu navigation a little counter-intuitive. A half-dozen trailers for other Inecom projects round out the extras.

There's a reason why public television and Ken Burns in particular are lauded for their historical programming: They've got the formula down. Because EXPO: Magic of the White City chose not to follow this proven road map of information presentation, the overall effect isn't as strong as it could've been, especially considering the phenomenal amount of wonderment this World's Fair possessed. Still, for history buffs (or poorly-served public school students), it's worth a look.

Peter Schorn
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