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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits


Cars

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Cars
Widescreen - 2006 (2006) - Pixar (Disney)

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


Cars tells the story of Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a rookie race car who's hot in the running for the coveted Piston Cup at the Dinoco 400. But when McQueen finishes the 400 in a three-way tie with a pair of veteran racers, it's determined that the Piston Cup will be decided by a tie-breaker race in California. While on his way there, however, McQueen gets lost in the desert and soon finds himself stuck in the tiny, Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. There, he meets a number of new four-wheeled friends, including Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in a nifty audio cameo that recalls his work in the 1968 film Winning) and others, who teach him that what's truly important in life isn't speeding to your destination, but the adventures you have along the way.

I'll have to admit right off the bat that I wasn't all that excited about this film when I first saw the previews. Despite the fact that watching NASCAR in high-def has become a serious guilty pleasure for me lately, the trailers for Cars had me thinking that Pixar was in danger of jumping the shark into Thomas & Friends and Jay Jay the Jet Plane territory.

I eventually skipped this film when it first appeared in theaters, despite largely positive critical reviews. Thankfully, it's for just these kinds of situations that I'm grateful for DVD, because having finally seen this film... well, I was quite pleasantly surprised. To be fair, Cars starts out rather slow. In fact, I almost fell asleep in its first 30 minutes. But once the story gets going, and the film moves off the race track and onto Route 66... it becomes a surprisingly charming and even heartwarming tale. I particularly enjoyed a number of in-joke references to previous Pixar films (be sure to watch for a lightening quick cameo by the chirping cast of For the Birds). And it's awfully hard not to laugh at those little tiny VW bugs.

The video on Pixar and Disney's DVD release is anamorphic widescreen and it looks wonderful (full frame is also available, but avoid it at all costs). Color saturation, contrast and overall image detail are superb - so good in fact that watching this made me wonder how much better the film might look on Blu-ray Disc (and shame on Disney for not releasing one). You'll see a little bit of digital compression artifacting in the crowd shots during the racing scenes, but that's to be expected. This aside, you're going to enjoy a great video experience even on very large projection screens. The audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and 5.1. The disc defaults to the 2.0 track automatically, so make sure to change it before you start watching the film. The 5.1 mix is highly active and atmospheric, with a big, wide soundstage and excellent bass reinforcement.

Unfortunately, this isn't one of Pixar's loaded two-disc special editions, which should probably be a clue that a more elaborate DVD will be released at a later date. Still, if the extras here aren't plentiful, they're all pretty fun. In addition to the film itself, you get a pair of shorter animated films (Mater and the Ghostlight and One Man Band), the film's "epilogue" sequence without credits, four deleted scenes (mostly presented in storyboard format, with introduction by director John Lassiter) and a 16-minute featurette on the making of the film. This featurette in particular is well worth a look, as it features appearances by many of the folks who worked on the film, including the late Joe Ranft (Lassiter's co-director, who was sadly - and a bit ironically - killed in a car accident during the production), as they travel down the real Route 66 for inspiration in making the film. There's also a sneak peek of Pixar's forthcoming Ratatouille and other Disney DVD releases, as well as a rather disingenuous promo for Disney Blu-ray Disc (disingenuous, because it claims that many of the classic Disney Platinum animated films are "Coming to Disney Blu-ray!" Sure they are... eventually. But not anytime soon based on what I've been told. Maybe you'll see one or two by the end of 2007. Maybe.). There's even a cute animated Easter egg - a spoof of Pixar's Boundin' short done Cars style. Just wait for the 'Dinoco 400' logo to appear on the Main Menu, then navigate right to highlight it with your remote (and hit Enter). Best of all, on the widescreen version at least, all of these extras are anamorphic - greatly appreciated.

Cars is far from Pixar's best film, but it's still a significant cut above the recent CG animated fare of other studios. Fox Animation and DreamWorks Animation still have along way to go before they're in Pixar's league. Cars is good fun for the whole family. By the way, those of you with young children might want to scratch-proof your DVDs with one of those protective spray on coatings you can buy these days, because trust me... the discs are going to get a LOT of spin time.


Battlestar Galactica: Season 2.5

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Battlestar Galactica
Season 2.5 - 2006 (2006) - Sci-Fi Channel (Universal)

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


How in the hell does this show keep getting better and better? I don't really know, but the good news is that Battlestar Galactica continues to be the most original, well-told and innovative dramatic series on TV.

Season 2.5 picks right up where the previous Season 2.0 (reviewed here) left off. Scratch that - it actually starts a little farther back, by including an extended version of the mid-season finale, Pegasus (the original broadcast version was included on the 2.0 DVD release). The added footage gives additional depth to the narrative, in particularly enabling you to better empathize with Admiral Cain, and to understand exactly why she does the things she does. The second half of Battlestar's sophomore season unfolds on the remainder of this three-disc set, as the surviving members of the Human race continue to flee through space from the Cylon forces bent on their destruction.

Standout episodes include the Resurrection two-parter (in which the crews of the Galactica and Pegasus attempt to destroy a key Cylon asset, while secretly plotting against one another), Scar (in which the fleet's Viper pilots are tested by a seemingly invincible Cylon Raider, which picks them off one by one), The Captain's Hand (in which Apollo suddenly finds himself with responsibilities he never imagined) and the shocking two-part season finale, Lay Down Your Burdens (which changed much about this series in sudden and unexpected ways).

All eleven episodes that make up the back half of the second season are included here on three discs, and all are presented in excellent quality anamorphic widescreen video. Colors, contrast and image detail are all first-rate, with very little compression artifacting or other visible defects. If you've seen the previous Galactica DVDs, you'll know exactly what to expect. Audio is a good Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, that's more immersive and atmospheric than actively dynamic. It matches the visuals well.

As with the previous DVDs, you get all of producer Ron Moore's podcast commentaries from Sci-Fi.com. There's also a new commentary on the extended version of Pegasus with Moore and producer David Eick. You get seven video featurettes, also seen on Sci-Fi.com as Eick's video blogs. Deleted and extended scenes are included too - some twenty-seven in all on the various discs, from Resurrection Ship, Part I, Black Market, Scar, Sacrifice, The Captain's Hand, Downloaded and Lay Down Your Burdens, Parts I and II. Finally, you get all of Moore and Eick's goofy animated production company logos (seen on the end of each of the episodes as broadcast). I really couldn't care less about these, but I suppose there are fans who do.

A bonus disc was available exclusively at Best Buy stores with this set for a limited time, that included The Story So Far recap episode. Unfortunately, it's not in anamorphic widescreen as it claims to be on the disc's label - it's letterbox widescreen only.

A lot of readers have asked whether or not Universal plans to release both Season 2.0 and Season 2.5 as a "complete second season" box set at some point. I suspect they may bundle both sets together as a 2-pack eventually, and we've heard that a high-definition HD-DVD release is on the way as well. The idea in releasing the season in two parts on DVD was not so much to break the budgets of fans, as to allow people to catch up with the show during the broadcast breaks (specifically, the mid-season hiatus in the second season and also the months prior to the start of the third season). Still, I understand how the split releases are irritating to some of you.

Battlestar Galactica was recognized earlier this year with a rare honor - a prestigious Peabody Award, given in recognition of outstanding achievements in broadcasting. If you give the series a chance, I think you'll quickly understand why. Forget the "sci-fi" factor: TV drama just doesn't get much better than this. Highly recommended.


Ark II: The Complete Series

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Ark II: The Complete Series
1976 (2006) - Filmation/CBS (BCI Eclipse)

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


It's the 25th century, and Earth's gone to hell in a hand-basket. Civilization has collapsed into anarchy, the environment's crapped out and life is a constant struggle for survival. Never fear though... a group of scientists have built a futuristic truck loaded with all the latest technology to roam around the country and bring the light of... ahem... 'enlightenment' to the masses, protect the rights of others and restore hope for the future. Think it as the ultimate rolling lyceum.

Ark II is another Saturday morning show I enjoyed as a kid. Anything having to do with space travel or the future, you could count me in. I'll be the first to admit, however, that the series hasn't aged well. Imagine a group of tree-hugging hippies (each card carrying members of some future ACLU), wearing all the latest 1970s fashions, flying around in jet packs and telling everyone that science can save the day.

There's a white guy with a hip Dan Haggerty beard, his hot Asian babe, a Latino kid and a talking monkey, all cruising around and cohabitating in a pimped out RV. Oh, and they've all got Biblical names... even the monkey. Yeah, I don't imagine that neo-conservatives or the religious right would approve of much of this. It'd be pretty subversive stuff for Saturday morning fare circa 2006 (which isn't really even geared toward kids these days anyway).

BCI's DVD release includes all fifteen episodes of the series on four discs. The video quality isn't stellar. Like many shows of the period, it was shot on film. I suspect the masters were stored on analog tape, however. Either way, this isn't reference material. Contrast, color and image detail all suffer here, and there's abundant digital compression artifacting. Still, the show looks better than I've ever seen it before, so you have to keep it in perspective. Maybe BCI could have spent a lot of money to remaster it all, but hey... it's Ark II. It's not exactly high on the profit return scale. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, also nothing special but it's fine for what it is. You'll laugh at all the reused Star Trek sound effects.

I'm always impressed at much effort BCI puts into the extras on their vintage Saturday morning DVDs. Ark II is no exception. First up, you get a couple of audio commentary tracks with producers, writers and one of the stars (hosted by DVD producer Andy Mangels, so as to keep the discussion moving along nicely). Then you get a half-hour documentary on the making of the series, complete with interviews with many of those involved. Can that be right? Hang on... let me double check. Yeah, there's really a half-hour documentary on the making of Ark II on here. Wow. And it's surprisingly worth watching too (my favorite part - learning that the monkey was actually a vicious little bastard to work with). Moving on, you get galleries of promotional photos, behind-the-scenes photos and even a look at concept art for a proposed animated series. Can you imagine? On top of that, if you pop the last disc in your PC or Mac DVD-Rom drive, you get PDF files of the scripts for ALL fifteen episodes, as well as the original series bible. Finally, you get a booklet that lists the episodes and extras, and even offers bits of trivia. Sure, these extras don't really stack up with, say, a recent Criterion release, but come on! That's a helluva great batch of material for a show like this. If you're a fan of Ark II, there's not much more here that you could possibly want short of one of those nifty jetpacks (which, by the way, can only fly for about 60 seconds in reality - not exactly the future of air travel).

Ark II is about as cheesy a classic Saturday morning live action TV series as they come. But it's still campy good fun. And if it looks a little (okay, a LOT dated), well... it WAS the 1970s, right? It's no Quark, Salvage 1 or Supertrain, but Ark II on DVD sure as hell puts a smile on my face. Hippies or not, those kids sure knew how to roll. You've gotta love their wheels. I wonder what kind of gas mileage they got, anyway?

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com
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