DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

DVD-Video Reviews, Part 3 of 3


Published on February 1, 2004

 

Part 3Jan/Feb 2004

[Part 1] [Part 2]

Northfork (2003)

Starring: James Woods, Nick Nolte, Peter Coyote, Daryl Hannah
Directed by: Michael and Mark Polish
Studio: Paramount
Video: Widescreen letterboxed
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English
Extras; Commentary by the Polish Brothers, The Construction of Northfork, 24-Frame news segment on Northfork, Theatrical trailer, Photo gallery

The basic plot line of this film seems at first to be the subject for a gritty 50s b&w 16mm documentary: The town of Northfork Montana is about to be flooded due to a big new hydroelectric dam and most of the former residents have left. But an odd group of stragglers remains, and they must be cleared out by the black-clad Evacuation Teams – men who have been promised waterfront land on the new lake in exchange for their efforts. There is a minister taking care of a dying boy convinced he’s an angel, a Mormon with two wives who has built a ready-to-sail ark, and a house thought to be already abandoned but is actually home to four even odder people who may or may not be angels themselves. The lives of all these characters begin to interact and soon we find ourselves in visionary epic country where everything is highly symbolic and fraught with emotion. The cinematography should get an Academy Award – some amazing images that will long remain in the mind. The cast is superb and the transfer to DVD is very hi-def with no noticeable edge enhancement. The extras are fascinating too, especially the documentary revealing that the brothers went ahead with the difficult filming on a cold and windswept Montana plain in spite of absolutely no money arriving from the investors in Los Angeles, and not knowing if Nolte would be able to show up at all.

- John Sunier

I Capture the Castle (2003)

Starring: Romola Garai, Bill Nighy, Rose Byrne, Tara Fitzgerald
Studio: BBC/Sony Pictures
Video: Both 1.33:1 Full & 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Filmmakers’ commentary, Interview with actress Romola Garai, Bonus trailers
Length: Approx. 113 minutes
Rating: ****

I Capture the Castle is based on the much-loved 1948 novel written by Dodie Smith. A poignant coming of age story, it is a romantic tale with elements of humor and heartbreak. Set in the lush English countryside in the 1930’s, the opening scene is strikingly beautiful. Three young children and their parents are filled with promise and excitement as they drive through the glorious countryside toward the castle they will inhabit. Suddenly, it is ten years later. There is now an eccentric but lovable stepmother in the mix. The previously optimistic father (Bill Nighy) has been afflicted with writer’s block for a decade. The rent hasn’t been paid in two years. Everyone’s out of sorts and hungry.

The story belongs to Cassandra Mortmain (Romola Garai), now 17, who is the soul of the film. She exclaims “I am never going to fall in love. Life is dangerous enough!” There is frequent voiceover by this character who writes prolifically in her journal as their lives become darker and more complicated. It is a pleasure to observe Cassandra evolve into a young woman who takes possession of herself. Her older sister Rose is more beautiful but with not nearly the intellect and depth of Cassandra. Two wealthy young American brothers who have inherited the castle arrive as disaster looms. Rose is determined to marry one of them for money in order to take care of her desperate family.

All the actors are well cast. A couple of fun facts: Bill Nighy, who plays the father, can be currently seen in Love Actually as the hilarious faded rock star. Henry Thomas, one of the young American men, was in ET (1982) as the little boy who befriended the alien. The cinematography is exquisite with particularly beautiful lighting of the landscapes and the castle’s interior and exterior. Delightful are the fantasy scenes imagined by Cassandra. The plot evolves in unpredictable ways. This could be a story out of Shakespeare. In fact, this little gem is from the producer of Shakespeare in Love. Dodie Smith was offered a half million dollars extra in the early 50’s by her American publishers to change the ending and she refused. The filmmakers stayed true to the novel.

Especially for the readers of the novel, the commentary by the director, screen writer and producer is a real plus. We learn that the landscape, as the movie opens, is actually on the Isle of Man and the castle is on the coast of Wales. Both masquerade as Suffolk. The filmmakers discuss the process of taking plot points and combining them into one scene as well as a montage sequence to show the passage of time.

Picture quality is excellent. There’s a bit of edge enhancement but it’s not bad. Most of the sound happens in the front channels with little use of the surrounds. This DVD seems to be part of a trend in offering no audio set up choices. I always wonder if that means that those with only two-channel playback lose most of the dialog that is normally carried on the center channel!

The filmmakers express their bewilderment and frustration with the film receiving an R rating in the states only because of two very brief and nonsexual nude scenes. The director and producer report that both their young children saw the film with no ill effects. Another extra is an interview with the slightly older Romola Garai, who, during filming, was the same age as the character she plays.

-Donna Dorsett

Heavens Above! (1963)

Starring Peter Sellers, Brock Peters, Cecil Parker
Studio: The Boulting Brothers/Anchor Bay
Video: B&W 1.66:1 enhanced for widescreen 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Extras: Peter Sellers bio
Length: 118 minutes
Rating: ****

Though Sellers plays only one role here, it’s a surprising one as an idealistic prison chaplain accidentally assigned to a wealthy little town dependent on a factory making a popular sedative/laxative product. He infuriates everybody when he attempts to minister to both the rich and the poor equally. He takes in a family of gypsies kicked off the land of the dowager who owns the factory, while he convinces the dowager to give her fortune to the poor and hungry. His sextant/assistant is played by Brock Peters with good humor. In the minister’s interactions with Church of England bigwigs writer-philosopher Malcolm Muggeridge plays one of the stuffed-collars. The film cleverly presents some very serious community socio-political problems which could spark much discussion in either a film appreciation class or a civics class. The church officials finally use the advent of the space age as a solution to their problem with the Reverend. They appoint him Minister to Outer Space, but he has a plan to carry out his calling even more actively than they had expected. Sellers is a total delight even when he’s not being a bit funny. The transfer to DVD is a bully success, with capital tonal depth and detail that makes viewing a widescreen black and white film a truly jolly experience, missing not a whiffle.

- John Sunier

The Road to Wellville (1994)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Bridget Fonda, Matthew Broderick, John Cusack, Dana Carvey
Studio: Columbia/Sony Pictures
Video: Full screen enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English
Extras: Bonus trailers
Length: approx. 120 minutes
Rating: ****

It’s 1907 in Battle Creek, Michigan at Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s grand sanitarium and hotel where hordes of health seekers flock for “the cure.” In one of the opening scenes Dr. Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins) is holding forth with newspaper reporters regarding sex, meat eating, and smoking (all unhealthy) and “exoneration of the bowels” (he’s obsessed with bowel health). Hopkins is hilarious (and unrecognizable with a mustache and prominent overbite) as he and his huge staff bustle about subjecting his patients to bizarre mechanical contraptions and procedures. Based on the novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle, this movie satirizes medical quackery, then and now. (Kellogg actually treated Thomas Edison, Upton Sinclair and Henry Ford at his sanitarium.)

Eleanor and Will Lightbody (Bridgett Fonda and Matthew Broderick), a young couple with a troubled marriage, are central to the plot. She’s a seasoned devotee; he’s a very reluctant novice. Oddly, they both appear radiantly healthy with sufficient energy to get into plenty of mischief. There’s a subplot that mostly takes place in the nearby town with John Cusack as a hopeful cereal tycoon and Michael Learner as a con man who causes Cusack’s character a lot of grief. George (Dana Carvey), one of Kellogg’s forty adopted children routinely arrives to harass his father in all kinds of increasingly outrageous and disgusting ways.

This is a very effective comedy with an excellent cast. Hopkins displays his versatility as a huckster for health with numerous amusing scenes. One of my favorites is when he holds forth on sex as unnecessary and dangerous-”we cannot afford the loss of life-giving fluids.” A good deal of the film concerns Eleanor and Will coming to terms with their marriage and romantic life. It is definitely bawdy and with some nudity in spots.

Colin Meany (the engineer in Deep Space Nine) is featured in a minor role as the visiting Dr. Lionel Badger, prominent in the American Vegetarian Society and effective as a foil to Dr. Kellogg’s sex is unhealthy stance and is in some of the film’s funniest scenes. Sexual repression is a theme thoroughout. Camryn Mainheim (from TV’s The Practice), is also featured in a lesser role, and displays a good flair for comedy.

The plot is generally fast-paced. The acting and dialogue are first rate. However, if you have an aversion to an abundance of scatological references and humor, you should avoid this film. I think the deletion of the story involving Kellogg’s errant son would have been an improvement. The subplots interface well with the main plot, particularly during the last half hour. One of the best lines is “Follow your heart. It’s the one organ that will surely let you down. So don’t waste it while you’re living.”

The background for most of the film is the lavish interior and beautiful grounds of the hotel/sanitarium. The costumes and set designs are well conceived. The patients are entertained by violin and piano and even an opera singer so there’s many classical excerpts and salon music popular at the time on the soundtrack. Most of the sound is in the front channels, and again there were no audio set up choices. The excellent picture quality shows a good transfer.

-Donna Dorsett

I.Q. (1994)

Starring: Meg Ryan, Tim Robbins, Walter Matthau
Studio: Paramount
Video: Enhanced for widescreen letterbox
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Stereo Surround
Subtitles: English
Length: 95 minutes
Rating: ****

Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau) and his three physicist buddies are speaking of the “essential nature of the universe” in the opening scene of this delightful romantic comedy from 1994. Meg Ryan, Tim Robbins and Walter Matthau are all superb in their roles. (I recently saw Tim Robbins in Mystic River where his stunning performance is surely deserving of an Oscar. What a contrast to see Robbins as a fresh faced, happy young man after experiencing him as the defeated, lost soul in Mystic River!) As the film begins there are also scenes with Ed (Tim Robbins), an auto mechanic, talking to his two coworkers excitedly about Boyd’s Comet. Elsewhere Catherine (Meg Ryan), a mathematician and her British fiancé James are animatedly discussing some scientific matters. She’s lovably brilliant. He’s self admiring.

Catherine and James have car trouble and pull into the garage where Ed works. James, the snooty experimental psychologist, is predictably condescending. Ed (Tim Robbins) counters with double entendres directed to Catherine because the moment he sees her, he’s completely smitten. Ostensibly talking about the car, he gazes at her dreamily, having quickly assessed James, and says “ My guess is your stroke is too short and you’re getting premature ignition.” Sparks fly between them, though she’s nowhere near won over.

Einstein is frequently with his pals (“three of the greatest minds of the 20th century but they can’t change a light bulb”) being leisurely, playing
badmitton and such. Ed is happy to find Catherine has left behind her pocket watch so he wastes no time getting over to her home to return it which provides his first meeting with Einstein, who is Catherine’s devoted uncle.

There are some very engaging scenes with Ed and Einstein and friends as they all become more impressed with this unassuming but determined young man who fervently believes Catherine is his true love. It doesn’t hurt that he has a strong interest in science. They ask him if he thinks time exists. He responds with what he’s read in a science magazine but speaks about it in terms of feelings and happiness. It is clear neither Einstein nor his friends like James, the fiancé, or respect his work, referring to him as “the rat man.” He puts electrodes on the genitals of rats which is what they’d like to do to him!

Although it’s very obvious that Ed is all about warmth, spontaniety and intuition and James is caught up in pretentiousness, being rational and propriety, we don’t mind as the story is charming and we root for Ed too. Ryan is most effecting as a brilliant young woman of the Eisenhower era, conflicted over pursuing her research or focusing only on marriage and motherhood as well as her rational attraction to James, “brilliant, organized, a planner” to which her uncle counters “What about love?”

Einstein tells Ed that his niece is smart in her head but not in her heart. Ed says “just loan me your brain for a couple of days” and with that we are off and running as the four brilliant old gentlemen present him as a “vonderkind” to Catherine and to the world in a hilarious caper. Ed has supposedly figured out how to build a nuclear powered space craft. It’s a kick to observe the clever ruses used by Einstein and his playful gang to maintain Ed’s new image. In short order he’s presented his “paper” at a symposium and even meets Eisenhower as he is agonizing over how to tell Catherine, increasingly enamored, that he’s lied about his brilliance. The two young people play out their game of love. The message is, of course, not to let the brain get the better of the heart. This is a good transfer with no noticeable edge enhancement. There’s not a lot of use of the surrounds. See it anyway!

-Donna Dorsett

The Mystic’s Journey (1968, 1971, 1979, 1997)

Written and Narrated by: Huston Smith
Cinematographer: Elda Hartley
Studio: Wellspring
Video: 1.33:1 Full
Audio: Mono
Extras: Web Links
Length: Approx. 90 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

The Mystic’s Journey, narrated by Huston Smith, is about the pursuit of deep spiritual quests within three distinct cultures. This documentary includes three films, entitled Islamic Mysticism: The Sufi Way, Requiem for a Faith: Tibetian Buddhism, and India and the Infinite: The Soul of a People. They were produced in 1968, 1971,1979, and 1997, and were probably originally shot on 16mm by the appearance of the generally washed-out color and graininess. A strong interest in the content can easily get over that technical hurdle. The films provide an excellent view of exotic spiritual worlds where we can feel a strong sense of briefly experiencing not only religions with which we may be unfamiliar but the overall cultural environment as well. Educational and inspiring, this documentary engenders a greater awareness of and respect for differing belief systems and cultures.

Huston Smith, best selling author of The World’s Religions and lifelong scholar of religion and philosophy, taught at MIT, Syracuse University and the University of California at Berkeley. The Religion of Man is one of the most widely used college textbooks on comparative religion. His enthusiastic narration makes evident his deep interest in the exploration of other religious and spiritual cultures. He is particularly entranced by India as he describes the rich variety of that country’s religious life. Rather than focusing only on Hinduism, the basic Indian tradition, he emphasizes the rich variety of religious life there and their respect for differences. With scenes of everyday life, religious practices, art, etc. we feel immersed in the rich variety of this culture.

The section on Islam ,“the youngest of the great religions”, begins with a description of Arabs as world conquerors in the 7th century and how religion powered the explosion of this culture. The focus of the narration
quickly turns to Sufism as the soul of Islam. He compares mainstream Islam to Sufism in a variety of ways. We are shown an abundance of Sufi practices, aspirations and images as we enter the more intense world of
the Sufi. We learn that their music, dance and song created a scandal among orthodox Muslims. The segment on the Whirling Dervishes was mesmerizing.

The Tibetian Buddhism section begins with a lament on how the tradition was devastated by the 1951 Chinese invasion. This is a rich and poignant overview of Tibetian culture with scenes of ringing bells, dancing, monks chanting, prayer flags and prayer wheels, religiously inspired art and everyday life. One sixth of the male population were monks. The deep guttural monotone chanting sequence was as entrancing as the Whirling Dervishes. Smith describes Tibet as having the most religious society that has ever existed. On meeting a stranger from abroad, Tibetians used to ask, “To which sublime tradition, revered sir, do you belong?”

The 16 mm films do have something of a dated feeling, but they would look much better on a small screen with the contrast turned up a bit. The sound is mono and a bit scratchy-sounding at times. But it’s not difficult to disregard this technical glitch too, due to the content giving entry to some fascinating cultures and spiritual traditions. Huston is clearly passionate about his lifelong studies and makes these ideas and beliefs very accessible.

-Donna Dorsett

Cinemania (2001-3)

Documentary by Angela Christlieb & Stephen Kijak
Studio: Hanfgarn & Ufer/Wellspring
Video: 4:3 (shot on video)
Audio: Dolby Digital
Extras: Deleted scenes, Theatrical trailer, Weblinks
Length: 80 minutes
Rating: ****

Do you think you spend a lot of time watching movies? You can’t possibly be spending as much time as the five film-frantic New Yorker’s profiled in this touching/humorous/disturbing documentary by two German videographers. They follow the four nerdy gentlemen and one elderly lady – chronicling their day-to-day life which is totally centered on viewing as many films each day as inhumanely possible – that’s usually around four, five or more. They modify their eating, sleeping, dressing patterns in order to accommodate their non-stop schedules of rushing from one repertory cinema house or museum to another in time to catch all the classic and rarely-seen films which are offered. Of course they have no jobs. One has total recall of the exact running time of every single film being shown, and another has the secret phone numbers for the projection booths of the theaters so that he can call the projectionist should be picture be out of focus, poorly framed, and so forth.

They are seen arguing with one another about the greatest actresses of the 30s or the highest quality projection to be found in town. The lady is barred from one of the museums for being so disagreeable; she is then described as showing up at the box office in an ineffective disguise trying to get in again. Eventually at least some of the film freaks seem genuinely demented in their obsessions. The final scene takes place at a screening room when the film about them is first shown to them. Their comments are a perfect windup for this cockeyed view of a very different sort of extreme sport. The transfer is not great, but after all it was shot on video. The sound on the DVD is actually much clearer than what I had heard in the theater. It’s obvious that were it not for shooting on video this film could not have been made. But why did German TV have to fund it – why didn’t PBS or a similar U.S. organization get it together? It can’t have been a very high budget picture!

- John Sunier

Young Sherlock Holmes (Widescreen Collection) (1985)

Starring: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward
Directed by: Barry Levinson
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen enhanced for 16:9
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Mono
Subtitles: English and English Closed Captions
Length: 108 minutes
Rating: ***

Young Sherlock Holmes explores the concept of what might have happened had Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson met as schoolboys. When Watson is transferred to a London boarding house, Holmes befriends him. The two boys quickly find themselves entangled in a mystery where someone is poisoning old men with blowdarts. These darts cause frightening hallucinations and cause the victims to kill themselves. As Holmes and Watson dig deeper into their first case, they discover that an evil Egyptian cult bent on revenge against some English businessmen is responsible for the murders. Now, it is up to the sleuthing duo to save the day.

I couldn’t believe how eerily similar this film was to the Harry Potter films. Between the Victorian type boarding school, shady professor, evil rival classmate, and elements of the supernatural, I thought I was watching the third installment in the Potter film series. The fact that the Chris Columbus wrote this film and then later directed the Potter films perhaps offers some explanation for the similarity. Nevertheless, Young Sherlock Holmes is a fun little action picture that still holds up well despite its age. Mystery lovers, as well as fans of the Harry Potter series, will definitely want to check out this film.

The video quality of this DVD is very good. Images are clean with sharp detail. Black levels are consistently deep throughout. Colors are accurate and bright with fully saturated hues. Picture defect mastering is solid with no major flaws or artifacts. The overall audio quality is also very good with the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack mix utilizes a nice balance of all of the discrete channels. Dialogue is crisp and intelligible. Used for both music and ambient sound effects, the surround channels are moderately active. The LFE channel does not have a strong presence in this soundtrack but does a satisfactory job with the material it is given. Present in about one-quarter of the DVD’s chapters, tactile effects take the form of light to moderate impacts originating from both the sound effects and the music score.

Reference equipment used for this review: [Video projector- Studio Experience Cinema 17SF; Projection screen- Da-Lite 106” Da-Snap; DVD player- V, Inc. Bravo D1; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- BIC America Venturis; Tactile Transducers- Clark Synthesis Gold; Video Switcher- Key Digital SW4x1; Cables/Wires- www.bettercables.com ]

- Calvin Harding Jr.




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