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The Spin Sheet

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

Forbidden Planet: 50th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition

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Two-Disc Special Edition
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Collector's Gift Set Tin
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Forbidden Planet
50th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition - 1956 (2006) - MGM (Warner Bros.)

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

The year is 2257. United Planets Cruiser C57D has been dispatched on a years-long mission to Altair IV, to rescue the survivors of the Bellerephon, a deep-space expedition ship with which Earth has lost contact. When they arrive, Commander Adams (played by Leslie Nielsen) and his crew discover that, of the Bellerephon's crew, only the mysterious Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter (Anne Francis) have survived. Yet despite seemingly dire circumstances, Morbius has built a virtual paradise for himself, with the assistance of his futuristic servant, Robby the Robot, and some kind of advanced, previously unknown technology. Shortly after Adams informs Morbius of his orders to collect the doctor and his daughter and return them to Earth, an invisible force begins attacking his crew. And when Morbius refuses the order to leave, Adams and his men quickly discover the doctor's shocking secret.

Directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox and filmed in spectacular CinemaScope, Forbidden Planet had a tremendous influence on virtually every sci-fi film and TV series that followed it. A surprisingly adept retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, it was one of the first genre films to treat its subject matter seriously, rather than playing it for camp in the over-dramatic style that dominated 1950s B-grade fare.

Pigeon is terrific here as the brilliant, but egomaniacal, Dr. Morbius. It's also easy to forget that, long before the Naked Gun films, Leslie Nielson made quite a name for himself in serious acting roles. And if you look closely, savvy genre fans will also spot another familiar face... Richard Anderson as the ship's chief engineer (you might know him better as Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man). With its then breakthrough special effects, its highly-stylized production design, and its eerie electronic score, Forbidden Planet is simply not to be missed.

MGM's previous DVD release was one of the first titles it issued on the format back in 1997. It was a flipper, featuring both 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and full frame video on opposite sides of the disc. Audio was available in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, and the only extra was a theatrical trailer. The disc was fine for its day, but as the years have passed, its transfer and compression quality in particular have suffered in comparison to more recent releases.

Thankfully, Warner Bros. has seen fit to release a new 2-disc special edition in honor of the film's 50th anniversary. The new high-definition transfer is breathtaking. The original film elements have been restored to exceptional condition, resulting in a video image of surprising clarity and depth. The image boasts bold, accurate and richly saturated colors, and a wide range of contrast that allows for copious detail and texture, even in darker areas of the frame. Audio is present in a newly-remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track that retains much of the character of the original mono presentation, and yet envelopes the listener in subtle atmosphere.

Extras on Disc One of the set include an interesting selection of deleted and extended scenes taken from a workprint version of the film (rough looking but cool to see), a sampling of 'lost' footage including various camera tests and unused effects shots, a pair of excerpts from episodes of MGM Parade that promoted the film, a complete episode of The Thin Man TV series featuring Robby the Robot, the film's theatrical trailer (in anamorphic widescreen) and trailers for six other Warner sci-fi titles. Disc Two adds a trio of excellent documentaries. The first is a fun piece called Watch the Skies!, that appeared on the TCM cable channel. It features a wide range of Hollywood directors talking about the history of science fiction films. Included are George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and James Cameron. The second piece, Amazing!, looks at the making of Forbidden Planet, and features interviews with cast members Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis, and a host of film effects wizards, historians and directors, including John Landis, Bob Burns, John Carpenter, John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Joe Dante and others. The third documentary focuses specifically on the design and construction of Robbie the Robot, again offering interviews and a look at rare photos and artwork. The final bonus item on Disc Two is a whole other film, MGM's The Invisible Boy (1957), which also features Robby as a main character. About the only thing you might wish to have that's missing on this disc is an audio commentary track. It's otherwise a great batch of bonus material.

This DVD is available as a stand-alone 2-disc set as well as an ultimate collector's edition gift set, packaged in a metal tin case, that also includes poster art cards and a plastic replica of Robby (see picture below). The film will also be released in high-definition 1080p video on the new HD-DVD format, also available both as a regular release and packaged in an identical tin gift set.

Forbidden Planet tin set

Whichever version you choose, Forbidden Planet is a landmark of the sci-fi genre, deservedly ranking right alongside such influential classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. It's also a surprisingly entertaining and thought-provoking film, as well as a veritable feast for the eyes with its wide CinemaScope canvas and lush color palate. Forbidden Planet is great fun and highly recommended.

Brazil (Criterion reissue)

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Three-Disc Special Edition
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Single-Disc Edition
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Three-Disc Special Edition - 1985 (2006) - Universal (Criterion)
Catalog # 51.1-3 (reissue)

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

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

Brazil is visionary director Terry Gilliam's retro-futurist tale of one little man's fight against the Machine. The film depicts an Orwellian society that doesn't tolerate dissent or contrary thinking, so anyone who's against the government is scooped up, tortured for information and killed... all very quickly and efficiently. The story starts with a bug, literally, getting caught in the system and causing a typo. It seems that the government is after someone named Archibald Tuttle, but the bug causes one of the arrest sheets to read Archibald Buttle... and you can guess what happens next to poor Mr. Buttle. Enter Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a salaryman technocrat who discovers the error via an overcharge in government records (very nudge-nudge - the government charges those who are tortured a fee for the service). Lowry tries to remedy Buttle's situation, but encounters problems at every turn. He's drawn so deeply into the complex machinations of the system, that he eventually finds himself in the torturer's chair.

Those who know Gilliam are familiar with his gritty and visceral style of filmmaking. He knows how to conjure up compelling imagery - sights that are beautiful and disturbing, often at the same time - and he doesn't hold back an ounce here. Brazil is raw, surreal and visually stunning. It's not necessarily Gilliam's most accessible work, but it's certainly his masterpiece. That is to say, it most embodies the things Gilliam himself has stood for throughout his career.

Universal first released this film on DVD back in 1998, as a non-anamorphic, movie-only edition. A year later, Criterion released an elaborate 3-disc edition of Brazil, that was widely hailed by critics (including ourselves here at The Bits) as one of the best DVD special editions available at the time. The only problem with the release, was that it was issued before Criterion began using anamorphic enhancement on their widescreen releases. Thankfully, Criterion has finally been able to correct that oversight. The company has just reissued the original 3-disc set exactly as it was first presented, except with a brand new high-definition transfer of the film in anamorphic widescreen, personally supervised and approved by Gilliam himself.

Disc One of the set includes this gorgeous new anamorphic transfer of the director's 142-minute, "final cut" version of the film. The image is smooth and natural looking, with excellent texture and shadow detailing - important given the darker tone to the visuals. Light to moderate grain is visible but is never distracting, lending an appropriately film-like quality to the image. Colors are muted by design, but accurate and well represented. The added resolution here is a huge improvement over the previous version. The audio quality is somewhat improved as well. It's presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround mix that's surprisingly immersive, with good low frequency. The track has also been "restored" to remove pops, clicks, hiss and other unwanted audio defects.

Even today you'd have to go pretty far to find a more thorough special edition treatment of a film. This 3-disc set has everything you could ever possibly want to know about the film on it. In addition to the theatrical cut on Disc One, you also get audio commentary by Gilliam, who is always a joy to listen to, and a booklet (in the case) containing liner notes and an essay on the film by critic Jack Matthews.

Disc Two adds a pair of first-rate documentaries on the film, What is Brazil? and The Battle of Brazil: A Video History, which are each as witty and brilliant as they are informative. The disc also includes a Production Notebook, complete with storyboards from all the dream sequences (including some that were cut from the film), production photos, costume design sketches, production notes, special effects test clips, discussion of the script and score, the film's theatrical trailer and interviews with most every creative person behind the making of the film.

Finally, Disc Three includes the infamous 94-minute "Love Conquers All" television version of the Brazil. It's presented in full frame and features an alternate opening, an upbeat ending and many other changes that Gilliam himself refused to make. It's surprising just how different this version is. All of this footage was shot by Gilliam, but it was edited by someone else without his supervision (at Universal's direction), and you definitely see how editing can change things like character, tone and story. The video and audio quality here is just okay, but it's really only a curiosity piece anyway. It's more than good enough to serve its purpose for being included in the set. The "Love Conquers All" version features an audio commentary track by historian David Morgan. He's not as passionate about his commentary as Gilliam, but he does shed plenty of light on this cut of the film, pointing out which scenes were alternate takes and illuminating the plot points brought up in the more definitive version (and lost here).

We should note that the new anamorphic transfer is available both in the reissued 3-disc set and also in a new single-disc edition. If you haven't got the original 3-disc set, you owe it to yourself to add the reissued version to your collection. But if you do already have the original set, you can simply buy the new single-disc edition and replace Disc One of your set with it (the disc marked 51.1) - that's the only disc that's changed. Keep in mind again that, other than the transfer, the extras on each disc are identical in every respect.

Brazil is one of the biggest little films ever made, interesting not only for its content but also its production. No matter what you think of it, your reaction will likely be passionate - it has that kind of effect on people. Once you learn about all of the problems and fights it took to get the film made (or even seen), you'll be amazed that it happened at all. Criterion's 3-disc release remains, to this day, one of the best DVD special editions you'll ever have the pleasure to experience, and it's finally been updated with a state of the art transfer. It's pretty tough not to be happy about that, and we certainly are. Very highly recommended.

It's a Wonderful Life: 60th Anniversary Edition

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It's a Wonderful Life
60th Anniversary Edition - 1946 (2006) - Liberty Films/R.K.O. (Paramount)

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

Both Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra have called It's a Wonderful Life their best work, and it's hard to argue the point. Stewart, in his first acting role after returning from World War II (he was a pilot in the Army Air Force) gives the performance of a lifetime as George Bailey, the likable everyman who yearns to leave his small town behind, to see the world and make his fortune. As fate would have it, of course, events conspire to keep George in tiny Bedford Falls, where he must bear the seemingly thankless task of keeping the family business (a tiny Building and Loan) afloat after the death of his father. To make matters worse, the greedy Mr. Potter (actor Lionel Barrymore as the local miser and Grinch) will stop at nothing to put the Building and Loan out of business, as part of his bid to own everything in town.

But George has the love, strength and inspiration of his childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) to help him endure, not to mention a true rogue's gallery of friends and family. And in his darkest hour, a lowly, second-class guardian angel named Clarence is there to show George the true value of his life.

Few filmmakers have been as prolific as Frank Capra in exploring the human condition. Ever idealistic, Capra endowed all his films (among them Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can't Take it With You, Lost Horizon and It Happened One Night) with a somewhat simplistic sense of hope and optimism, leading some to criticize his work. But that same optimism has helped to ensure that few filmmakers' work has been as enduing as Capra's. And no film is more exemplary of his ideals than It's a Wonderful Life.

The film boasts a terrific cast, from leads Stewart and Reed, right down to the supporting players (all top-flight character actors in their day). Few actors have breathed life into a character as vile and universally derided as Barrymore's Mr. Potter. Henry Travers and Thomas Mitchell are both wonderful as Clarence and Uncle Billy. But it's Ward Bond and Frank Faylen that I enjoy most, in their comical roles as the original Bert and Ernie.

It's hard to believe now, but It's a Wonderful Life was largely unsuccessful when first released in 1946. Moviegoers then found it too dark and depressing to embrace. It was not until the film's copyright expired in the 70's that it finally found a wide audience. TV stations around the country were suddenly able to air the film without charge, and air it they did, particularly around the holidays. The rest, of course, is film history.

Republic first released this film on DVD back in 1998, and the transfer was fine for its day. Paramount has recently taken over distribution of the film however, and for its 60th anniversary, they've taken the opportunity to restore the film and create a brand new high-definition master. The new disc features a superior video presentation in the original full frame aspect ratio. While the previous DVD had a slightly digital look to it, this new image is wonderfully smooth and detailed, without appearing edgy or artificially filtered. It's presented in the original B&W, and features excellent contrast, texture and shadow detailing. The image is noticeably cleaner than the previous DVD, with far less visible dust, dirt and nicks on the print, and with an appropriately film-like quality that's very pleasing to the eye. The audio is improved as well, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Dialogue is clear at all times, and the track thankfully fixes the defects that hampered the previous DVD's audio, which caused the sound to occasionally take on a muffled quality.

The previous disc featured a pair of documentaries, The Making of It's a Wonderful Life (hosted by Tom Bosley) and A Personal Remembrance (narrated by Frank Capra, Jr.), along with the film's theatrical trailer. These were included on the flip side of the disc. Paramount's new DVD includes the exact same features, but you no longer need to flip the disc over to access them.

As a student of film history, one of the greatest pleasures I've found in DVD is in rediscovering the rarely-seen original quality of classic films. I'm pleased to say that It's a Wonderful Life has never looked better than it does on this new 60th Anniversary DVD from Paramount. If you already have the previous DVD, the only reason to upgrade to this new disc is for the new transfer. Still, the video and audio improvements are noticeable, such that if you really love the film, it's worth trading up. If, on the other hand, you've never owned It's a Wonderful Life on DVD, there's never been a better time to add this delightful classic to your collection.

Bill Hunt
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