|Pt. 3 of 3 – January-February 2005 [Part 1] [Part 2]
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The Decline of the American Empire (1986)
Starring: Dominique Michel, Remy Girard, Yves Jacques
Studio: Koch Lorber
Video: 1.78:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1 French
Length: 102 minutes
Three men and women plan to meet for a weekend at a cottage and learn things about their friends and themselves that they were not prepared for. One of the characters is homosexual and struggling with AIDS. The others are married to each other, involved, or have had an affair with one or more of the others. These truths will come out as the picture continues, so that each character is forced to deal with it in his or her own terms. The men spend the day together waiting for the women to arrive later and talk about their favorite subjects: women and sex. They brag about their conquests and the viewer begins to wonder if they are really happy. While the women exercise (during the day) they talk about their relationships to their lovers and we find out they aren’t exactly innocent either.
Many of the scenes are told in flashbacks depicting the stories they tell. We are also given a brief history of some of the characters and how their relationship began or changed form. As the picture opens we are treated to a philosophical explanation of “personal happiness” and how it is presently linked to the decline of the American empire. The feeling throughout the film is the viewer is being taught a lesson through the use of these characters—characters who may resemble people who the viewer may know in life. Due to its age, the implication that sexual freedom is nearing its end due to the terrible spread of AIDS is prevalent. Each character seems to pay the price for their sexual behavior. One experiments with kinky sex where she is restrained and controlled (by choice) while at the same time she gives up some of her will to leave the relationship. Another, who is long married and values her monogamy, is “punished” by her husband who is in a constant state of infidelity. Another plays and enjoys sex, but is left alone without making a real “connection.” One after another they seem unsettled, troubled, or even destined to a degree of unhappiness. The tone of the film has a quality of despair to it and at conclusion the viewer isn’t left with a feeling of hope. There is, however, a degree of soul searching that will most likely follow the end of the film. Also, the film’s attempt at the depictions of middle-aged men and women may not be too far from the mark. At least, in these ways, it is successful.
The Mouse That Roared (1959)
Starring: Peter Sellers, Jean Seberg
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Video: 1.85:1 widescreen, color
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Subtitles: English, French
Length: 83 minutes
Another film with clever and fascinating satirical digs at typical international politics dealing with war and peace. Sellars excels at playing the three leading roles of characters in the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick in the middle of France somewhere. The miniature country is going broke and the prime minister and grand duchess come up with a plan they feel will save their nation: declare war on the U.S., lose, then collect all the postwar American aid. They send a tiny contingent of their soldiers – clad in chainmail and armed only with bows and arrows – across the Atlantic to land in New York and surrender. Unfortunately it is not made perfectly clear to the leader of the invasion force (also Sellers) that the idea is he’s supposed to lose!
The intrepid warriors arrive in New York during an air raid drill and the streets are entirely empty. He somehow finds the building housing an eccentric scientist who has developed a doomsday-style bomb. He captures the scientist, his bomb and his assistant (Jean Seberg) plus an Army general, and takes them all back to Grand Fenwick where the court is all prepared to welcome the invading U.S. troops. Jaws drop when they learn that the tiny invasion force won the war instead of losing it. Intrigue among different factions in the Duchy’s government and romance (between Force Leader Sellers and Seberg) follow, and in the end the U.S. is forced to surrender since Fenwick now has the bomb. Peace Forever are the terms of the victorious Duchy.
The transfer is excellent and it’s nice to have it widescreen. Of course 1.85:1 is exactly the same as 16:9, so there is no letterboxing at all and no cropping either. I originally saw this so long ago I had thought it was black and white, so the excellent color was a surprise. It doesn’t look dated at all. Never mind the unflattering recent HBO bio on Sellers – this film, plus Dr. Strangelove and Being There are the best examples of Sellers’ genius that we want to remember and treasure.
- John Sunier
The Buster Keaton Collection:
Free and Easy (sound)
Studio: Turner Entertainment/Warner Brothers
Video: Orig. aspect ratios (4:3 for the talkie and slightly wider for the two silents)
Audio: Dolby Digital, stereo (for Cameraman & documentary), mono for others
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: “So Funny It Hurt” – Buster Keaton and MGM featurette; Introductions by Turner Classic Movies Host Robert Osborne; Commentary on The Cameraman by the author of A-Z of Silent Film Comedy; Commentary on Spite Marriage by two silent-era film historians; Photo montages on the two silents
Length: 76 min.; 76 min.; 93 min. (for talkie)
This two-disc collection of three great Buster Keaton films comes to us courtesy of the Turner Classic Movies Archive. The Cameraman is easily the winner of the trio – one of the great Keaton silents, in which he plays a street tintype photographer who attempts to become a newsreel cameraman just to please a girl he has met who works as a receptionist at a movie newsreel company. Naturally his attempts at filming something they want meet with one disaster after another. But finally he is tipped off by the girl to a festival in Chinatown at which a wild Tong war breaks out, our hero gets it all and is successful. Some extended scenes ensue which prove that it is actually possible that having a monkey in a scene can make it hilarious. As long as you are Buster Keaton, that is. The silent has a new score written for it by Arthur Barnow.
Spite Marriage was supposed to be a sound film – it was l928. But the studio Keaton was now part of had only one soundstage and it was all booked, so he had to make it silent. The story is unusual: Keaton is a typical hapless nobody who attends all the stage performances of a glamorous actress he admires. She wants to get back at her lover who has jilted her and asks Buster, who is hanging around, to marry her in spite. He does, but only suffers for it. The scene in which she passes out drunk and he has to try to get her put to bed is amazingly physical comedy. The original musical score accompanies the film.
Free and Easy was Keaton’s first sound film and suffers some of the problems of most early such. There is little camera movement and some scenes go on and on in exactly the same room – because the cameras had to be confined to a large soundproofed booth so they weren’t picked up by the mics. The dialog is often stilted and there are pregnant pauses between actors’ lines like a high school production. This was before Hollywood had figured out things like editing sound or post-dubbing. Robert Montgomery and Lionel Barrymore appear in this big production, but it’s too loose, too silly and too long. There are some dance sequences near the end that go on forever as if they are stalling for time. The transfers on all three films are excellent, with good detail and wide range of tones. The sound on the sound film is not nearly as bad as many others of that era. This would be a welcome addition to the DVD library of any Keaton fan. Definitely worth it for The Cameraman and some of the scenes in Spite Marriage.
- John Sunier
Frasier – The Complete Final Season (2003-2004)
Starring: Kelsey Grammer, John Mahoney, David Hyde Pierce, Peri Gilpin, Jane Leeves
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 4:3 Fullscreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English Closed Captions
Extras: Two featurettes (“Observations, Analyses and Good-byes” and “Frasier Says Farewell”), episode selection
Length: 535 minutes
Earning a total of six Emmy Awards for its final season, including Outstanding Lead Actor (Kelsey Grammar) and Outstanding Supporting Actor (David Hyde Pierce) in a Comedy Series, Frasier is a spin-off of the popular television show, Cheers. Set in Seattle, Frasier follows the lives of radio show psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane, his high-strung psychiatrist brother Niles, their gruff, ex-cop father Martin, Martin’s live-in home-care provider Daphne, and Frasier’s radio show producer Roz. The entire 23 episodes from the 2003-2004 season plus the special features are spread out over four discs. Memorable episodes from the Eleventh Season include: “Coots and Ladders” where Frasier steals an Olympic medal from his neighbor and then he and Niles attempt to return without being caught; “Boo!” in which Frasier’s clown costume inadvertently frightens Martin into having a slight cardiac event; and “Goodnight Seattle” where Niles and Daphne give birth to a son, Martin gets married and Frasier makes a career decision. (Disc One: No Sex Please We’re Skittish; A Man a Plan and a Gal Julia; The Doctor is Out; The Babysitter; The Placeholder; I’m Listening; Maris Returns. Disc Two: Murder Most Maris; Guns N’ Neuroses; SeaBee Jeebies; High Holidays; Frasier Lite; The Ann Who Came to Dinner. Disc Three: Freudian Sleep; Caught in the Act; Boo!; Coots and Ladders; Match Game; Miss Right Now. Disc Four: And Frasier Makes Three; Detour; Crock Tales; Goodnight Seattle; special features).
The overall video quality for this DVD set is very good. Images are pristine with fine detail. Colors are vivid and bright with nicely saturated hues. Black levels are consistently dark throughout all of the episodes. Picture defect mastering is solid with no major flaws or compression artifacts. The overall audio quality is good with the English Dolby Digital 2.0 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack mix favors the forward channels. Dialogue is crisp and natural sounding. Surround activity is limited to the audience laugh track and the show’s theme song. The LFE channel is minimally active.
Reference equipment: [Video monitor- NetTV DTV-34XRT; Video scaler- Silicon Image iScan Pro; DVD player- Philips Q35AT; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- Acoustech 5.1 channel speaker system; Tactile Transducer- Clark Synthesis TST 329 Gold; Cables and Wires- www.bettercables.com ]
- Calvin Harding Jr.
Star Trek: The Original Series– The Complete Third Season (1968-1969)
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English with English Closed Captions
Extras: Six featurettes (“A Star Trek Collector’s Dream Come True”, “Life Beyond Trek: Walter Koenig”, “To Boldly Go… Season Three”, “Chief Engineer’s Log”, “Memoir from Mr. Sulu” and “Star Trek’s Impact”), text commentary on two episodes, preview trailers, production art, Red Shirt Logs (hidden files)
Length: 1,349 minutes
The television series that launched the entire Star Trek phenomenon, Star Trek: The Original Series follows the adventures of the crew of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise as they embark on a mission to explore outer space. Commanded by Captain James T. Kirk, the crew also includes Vulcan first officer Lt. Commander Spock, feisty medical doctor “Bones” McCoy, creative engineer “Scotty” Scott, and officers Chekov, Sulu, and Uhura. During their travels, the crew encounters everything from time paradoxes to alien species such as Klingons and Romulans. Highlights from the third season DVD set include: the pilot episode “The Cage” in which Captain Pike is captured by a planet’s alien race for breeding purposes; “Spock’s Brain” in which an alien renders the Enterprise crew unconscious and then surgically removes Spock’s brain; and “Spectre of the Gun” where Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Chekov are forced to participate in a simulation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
This third season set contains 26 episodes plus special features on seven discs. (Disc One: Spock’s Brain, The Enterprise Incident, The Paradise Syndrome, And the Children Shall Lead. Disc Two: Is There in Truth No Beauty?, Spectre of the Gun, Day of the Dove, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. Disc Three: The Tholian Web, Plato’s Stepchildren, Wink of an Eye, The Empath. Disc Four: Elaan of Troyius, Whom Gods Destroy, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, The Mark of Gideon. Disc Five: That Which Survives, The Lights of Zetar, Requiem for Methuselah, The Way to Eden. Disc Six: The Cloud Minders, The Savage Curtain, All Our Yesterdays, Turnabout Intruder. Disc Seven: The Cage- Restored Version, The Cage- Original Version, Special Features).
The overall video quality of this DVD set is very good. Images are clean with nice detail. Colors are warm and dark with fully saturated hues. Black levels are consistently deep throughout. Picture defect mastering is solid with no major flaws. 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 favors the forward soundstage. Dialogue is intelligible and firmly anchored in the center channel. The surround channels are selectively used for both ambient effects and the music score. The LFE channel is mellow and subdued. Tactile sounds are present as light impacts from the sound effects and music.
– Calvin Harding Jr.
The 4400 – Complete First Season (2004)
Starring: Peter Coyote
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Surround English
Length: 4 hours 16 min. for all 5 episodes (2 discs)
I don’t know what channel this sci-fi series was on, or even if the first season was also its last season. But it has an interesting premise that seems to allow for a series that could go on forever. Over the last half century of so thousands of person have gone mysteriously missing. The pilot for the series shows what is first thought to be a comet coming to Earth and heading for the Seattle area – expected to destroy everything. Then it slows and becomes a rotating ball of light that eventually departs as fast as it came. When the mists clear, there are exactly 4400 people of all ages wandering around as a crowd and wondering how they got there. All they remember is what happened the day they vanished. One little girl had vanished as long ago as 1946.
At first the government quarantines the people while it attempts to piece together what it all means. The ACLU and others successfully plead for their release and one day they are allowed back into the community. Strangely, those from other parts of the U.S. make no attempt to return to their former homes but stay around the Seattle area. The stories of a few of the individuals are taken up and followed thru the four episodes following the pilot. If you hadn’t seen the pilot you would be very confused by what follows. It slowly because evident that many of the 4400 have mysterious powers that set them apart. The little girl is returned by her foster parents to the center because she freaks them out by predicting what will happen in the future. One man is able to make things around him shatter and break (including skulls) whenever he becomes angry or impatient enough. A teenager can pick up a dead bird and it comes back to life and flies away. Two of the characters are researchers working for the government agency directed by the Peter Coyote character. They follow up on the strange leads in true X Files style. It develops that the presence of these somehow-changed peoplee is going to change the human race in unforeseen ways.
The images are high quality and I saw few video artifacts. Lighting and contrast in dark sections such as a lengthy scene in a city park at night were clear and detailed. Sound was also fine, although like nearly all TV series using surround sound there was very little use of the surround channels. If there is a second season of this series, I now want to see it.
- John Sunier
Starhunter (2003) Complete Series
Starring Clive Robertson
Studio: Western Syndication/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo
Length: 17 hours, 30 minutes (6 discs)
Rating: *** 1/2
Another sci-fi TV series I seem to have missed along the way. It appears to be a Canadian production, and quite professional looking, with excellent computer graphics of the spaceships – although its lower budget is exposed by the continual re-use of the same outer space shots in each episode. The actors are fairly capable, but some of the stories bog down a bit. The setting is the 23rd century, with civilization spread out to the whole solar system. Since the various governments are mostly weak, there are great opportunities for criminal bounty-hunters to exploit this Old West-style lawlessness. They use futuristic gadgets to catch their quarries. The space liner The Tulip is the home for a rag-tag group of five adventurers who pool their talents to make it a bounty-hunting vessel plying the entire solo system. Travis, who takes over as captain, is searching for his father who once owned the space liner. His cousin is a female engineer who was aboard the spaceship when it returned from many years lost in space. Other characters include the burly sort of dumb guy, the sexy black special services officer, and the “bad boy” sidekick of Travis. Each episode has them tracking down the latest bounty they have been commissioned to bring in, as well as keeping out of the clutches of various other bountry hunters who want to bring Them in. The publicity says the series is perfect for fans of Babylon 5 and Farscape and I would agree, but would also say that both those series were better. No matter – I’m one of those guys who sees all sci-fi whether good or bad. (The only thing I deliberately skipped was Part 3 of The Matrix.) Transfer is excellent both visually and in the soundtrack.
- John Sunier
Ghost in the Shell [Stand Alone Complex Vol. 1] Special Edition
Studio: Bandai Entertainment/Manga Video
Video: Enhanced for widescreen 16:9 (3 discs)
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, also 2.0, all English or Japanese
Extras: Separate Soundtrack CD, Interview with Director Kenji Kamiyama; Interview with actress doing voice of Motoko; Special Edition booklet
Length: 110 minutes
The acclaimed anime feature Ghost in the Shell was based on the popular (in Japan) manga comics about female cybor Major Motoko Kusanagi and her fellow police officers of Section 9. It has spawned a sequel feature coming soon but also a series for Japanese TV which will air in the U.S. on the Cartoon Network. The series uses the latest in full CG animation and was designed originally for widescreen displays. The use of the first two of the three discs is interesting – they are identical with four episodes apiece, but the first is Dolby Digital 5.1 and stereo, while the second disc is DTS 5.1 and stereo. The only other slight difference is that the first has a choice of either English or the original Japanese on the stereo soundtrack while the second disc has only English on the stereo option.
In the first episode a hostage crisis is resolved by the Section 9 crew, in the second they hunt down a runaway robotic killing machine powered by the brain (only) of the scientist who invented the machine. In the third episode they track down the cause of a mass suicide of androids, and the fourth concerns a mysterious computer hacker. Major Kusanagi is distinguished by her outrageously sexy “uniform” with little clothing between knees and waist. But then being an android she probably has no concerns about protection of sensitive skin. The animation is of course not as flowing and continuous as in the feature films, but the shots where nothing moves or the camera zooms in on something in a still image are minimal, though they still stand out.
- John Sunier
Stormchasers (1995) IMAX feature
Studio: MacGillivray Freeman Films/Image Entertainment
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 widescreen (reduction from giant 70mm IMAX original)
Audio: DTS 5.1, English; also Dolby 5.1, English/Spanish/French (mixed down from IMAX multichannel original)
Extras: Second disc with complete WMV HD hi-def video playable on Windows XP PCs; “Making of” documentary; “Do-It-Yourself” Science Experiments to Try at Home; Trailers from other IMAX films
Length: 67 minutes
Wild weather is a perfect subject for another super-large-format IMAX feature. This one follows storm-chasing meteorologists who track extreme weather conditions to learn more about how they form. We fly into the actual eye of a hurricane with a glider pilot as well as a fully-equipped four-engine plane. The wide angle view of the IMAX lens is still preserved well in the transfer to DVD, and you can immediately tell that this DVD is sourced from a higher-res original that your average DVD. The sound also makes plenty of exciting use of the surround channels, making the viewer feel right in the middle of the extreme weather.
The last section of the film is a speedy ride in a van full of meteorologists and lots of equipment trying to confront one of the actual twisters frequenting the Oklahoma/Kansas area. See the Making Of documentary (shot on hi-def video) gives the viewer an appreciation of the work and perserverance required to get such a “reality show” on film. The filmmakes had almost given up on shooting a twister on IMAX film when they suddenly found themselves right in the path of a gigantic one. Fortunately it pooped out before it reach them but they got their thrilling twister footage.
- John Sunier