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DVD Video Reviews - July-Aug. 2003, Pt. 3

Men In Black (Superbit Collection) (1997)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Studio: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
Video: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Thai
Extras: Scene selection
Length: 98 minutes
Rating: ****

Agents Jay and Kay are members of a top secret government organization formed to monitor and police extraterrestrial life on Earth. Cause for great concern arises when a giant alien cockroach arrives on an evil mission to assassinate ambassadors from opposing galaxies and steal a miniature galaxy being hidden here. Agents Jay and Agent Kay are summoned to not only to save the day but also save the entire planet Earth.

The video quality of this Superbit release is by far the best of all of the previous DVD releases for this film. Images are clean and finely detailed. Blacks are dark throughout and flesh tones are natural in appearance. Colors are faithfully reproduced with fully saturated hues. Picture defect mastering is perfect with no major flaws or digital compression artifacts. The overall audio quality is outstanding with the English DTS 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack mix actively utilizes all of the discrete channels with nice channel separation. The forward soundstage is spacious and wide. Dialogue is natural sounding and properly anchored in the center channel. The surround channels are often aggressive, used for both music and ambient sounds, and include multiple split rear effects. The low frequency bass is deep, explosive and also receives a decent workout from the numerous sound effects and vibrant Danny Elfman score. Purchase Here

Reference equipment used for this review: [Video projector- Studio Experience Cinema 17SF Projection screen- Da-Lite 106” Da-Snap; DVD player- Pioneer Elite DV-37; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- BIC DV62si mains, DV62CLRs center, Adatto DV52si rears, D1210R subwoofer; Tactile Transducers- Clark Synthesis Gold; Video Switcher- Key Digital SW4x1; Cables and Wires- Bettercables.com]

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Men In Black II (Superbit Collection) (2002)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Lara Flynn Boyle, Johnny Knoxville, Rosario Dawson, Tony Shalhoub, Rip Torn
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Studio: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
Video: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai
Extras: Scene selection
Length: 88 minutes
Rating: ****

Serleena, a renegade Kylothian monster travels to Earth and takes the physical form of a lingerie model. She is here in search of a power source called “The Light of Zartha” and Serleena is destroying everything in her path until she acquires it. Meanwhile, Agent Jay of the MIB has been struggling to find a new partner ever since Agent Kay retired. However, when Agent Kay appears to be the only key to finding this Light of Zartha, he is brought out of retirement. Once again pairing up with Agent Jay, the two set out to stop Serleena and save the world from destruction.

The video quality of the previous standard widescreen DVD release was excellent and this Superbit release is even a little better. Images are a tad more crisp and sharp. Blacks are continuously deep and dark throughout. Colors are vivid and rich with fully saturated hues. Picture defect mastering is perfect with no major flaws or digital compression artifacts. The overall audio quality is excellent as well with the English DTS 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack mix actively utilizes all of the discrete channels with good channel separation. Dialogue is intelligible and natural sounding. The surround channels are often aggressive, used for both music and ambient sounds, and include multiple split rear effects. The low frequency bass is dynamic, occasionally thunderous, and has better overall depth with the new DTS track. Purchase Here

Reference equipment used for this review: [Video projector- Studio Experience Cinema 17SF Projection screen- Da-Lite 106” Da-Snap; DVD player- Pioneer Elite DV-37; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- BIC DV62si mains, DV62CLRs center, Adatto DV52si rears, D1210R subwoofer; Tactile Transducers- Clark Synthesis Gold; Video Switcher- Key Digital SW4x1; Cables and Wires- Bettercables.com]

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Seven Years In Tibet (Superbit) (1997)

Starring: Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, B.D. Wong
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 2.35:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DTS 5.1, DD 5.1
Extras: None
Length: 134 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

This film is based on the book by Heinrich Harrer describing his life. Heinrich is a famous and arrogant Austrian mountain climber who, in 1939, chose to go off on a Himalayan expedition. This decision meant leaving his pregnant wife—one of the many things he would have to deal with for many years to come. Difficulties arise on the expedition, and the group is captured by Allied forces and made prisoners of war. Heinrich tries many times to escape but is unsuccessful. When he finally does, he travels along with a fellow escapee, Peter Aufschnaiter, and reaches the Forbidden City of Tibet. They are refused access, but manage to ingratiate themselves with the right people who decide to let them stay in peace. They both vie for the affections of a beautiful tailor, but Heinrich is the loser. He stays on in the city trying to make sense of his life and make contact with his wife and child. The Dalai Lama soon befriends him and wants to keep his company. Heinrich goes to work for the Dalai Lama and stays with him during troubled times with the Chinese. As the title would suggest, the story covers a period of roughly seven years—a period filled with struggle, hardship, and wonder.

The original release of this DVD was noteworthy for its excellent picture quality. I didn’t have the original disc to make a comparison, but this Superbit version not only has excellent picture quality, but superb sound quality as well. Brad Pitt puts in a worthy performance, although his accent is not quite up to par. The relationship portrayed between Harrer and the Dalai Lama is most effective and leads to many opportunities for humor and light drama. Although the story takes place over many years and the film is over two hours, most will not find the film slow or boring. Cinematography is impressive and the scenery is breathtaking in its natural beauty. Romance plays a large part in the film. It is not just a love between man and woman, but is spiritual as well. There is love of man and city, man and fellow man, and life itself. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Houseboat (1958)

Starring: Cary Grant, Sophia Loren
Studio: Paramount
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: English 2.0 Mono, French 2.0 Mono
Extras: Photo Gallery, Trailer, Teaser Trailer
Length: 109 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

Three young children are currently in the custody of their aunt awaiting the return of their father to come get them. Their father arrives showering them with gifts to make up for the little time he has spent with them over the last few years. The children’s mother has just passed away, and the adults are debating the decision as to what will happen to the children. Although it is suggested that the kids be split up, their father does not agree and takes them with back to New York. After they arrive the comedy begins. The children are rebellious, outspoken, quite bright, but are troubled in their own ways. When the younger boy, Robert, disappears at a festival, he comes upon Cinzia, at Italian spitfire played by Sophia Loren. Although she has been showered with the many advantages of the good life, she is looking for more. Her attachment to Robert is immediate and she agrees to look after the children. Many of the social elite look down upon her—not realizing who she is. The children’s father, Tom (played by the suave Cary Grant) is struck between his newfound affections for Cinzia and a desire to be with his deceased wife’s sister. Following the ups and downs with both father and children, Cinzia must decide to stay with the family and try to win Tom’s heart, or go back to her old life traveling the world with her father.

This film is billed as a romantic comedy and it truly delivers. It also manages to handle some tough material like the issue of single parenting, treatment of women in society, and ideas about the difference between the social elite and the working class. The characters are well developed and Grant and Loren work very well together in the lead roles. Loren’s role as the outside surrogate mother to the children points to the importance of the family unit and stresses the need for communication and honesty. The children are scared, insecure, and do their best dealing with life as it throws its curves. In some ways it is like a bunch of episodes of the Brady Bunch all thrown together. The story moves along at friendly pace and manages to keep the viewer’s attention all the way through. The romantic aspect starts from a third of the way through the film and culminates at the film’s ending. Although not unpredictable, Houseboat is an enjoyable and (mostly) lighthearted film that can be viewed with the entire family. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

I See a Dark Stranger (1946)

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Trevor Howard, Raymond Huntley, Tom Macaulay
Studio: Janus Films/Home Video Entertainment
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame, B&W
Audio: DD 2.0 Mono
Extras: Trailer
Length: 112 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

Mysterious beginnings at the Isle of Man, and an introduction to the main character, Bridie Quilty, are where the film begins. The year is 1939 in the western half of Ireland at a tavern. A man recounts old stories about the revolution, and the icon Cromwell. All the while, young Bridie listens as she has every night year after year until her hate of the British is festering. At her 21st birthday, she is intent on going to Dublin to join the Irish Republican Army. Her efforts are thwarted by the man whom she believed would help her, so she exits in a huff. She runs into a German spy, a man whom she met on the train, and assists him in his spy work. It isn’t exactly what she bargained for and when people start dying she has severe second thoughts. A young officer who has romantic ideas about the lovely woman only serves to create more conflict. He’s completely in the dark about the true designs of our heroine, but his persistence is rewarded as Bridie grows fond for him, and lets him on the clandestine activity.

The film is somewhat reminiscent of a Hitchcock flick, although there are elements of screwball comedy mixed in with the spy/saboteur genre. After this movie, Kerr became an international star. As the main character she shines—showing off her skill as an actress, her feisty appeal, and beauty. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and at moments it is a dark thriller, at others it is quite the farce. The story is smart, witty, and at times will manage to keep you on the edge of your seat. All the while it is difficult to keep your eyes off the magnetic personality of Bridie Quilty. Just when you think things are going to settle down, she’s up and running all over again propelling the film to its funny, yet desirable climax. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Black Hawk Down (3-Disc Deluxe Edition)(2001)

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, Sam Shepard
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Studio: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
Video: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English, French and Spanish DD 5.1
Subtitles and Captions: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Thai; English CC
Extras: Audio commentaries: Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer, Author Mark Bowden and screenwriter Ken Nolan, Task Force Ranger Veterans; “The Essence of Combat: Making Black Hawk Down” documentary, 8 deleted and alternate scenes, “Designing Mogadishu” featurette, Production design archive, Storyboards, Jerry Bruckheimer’s BHD photo album, Title design explorations, Photo galleries, “The True Story of Black Hawk Down” History Channel featurette, “Frontline: Ambush in Mogadishu” PBS featurette, Mission timeline, Target Building Insertion: multi-angle sequence, Question & Answer Forums, Music video, Theatrical poster concepts, Trailer & TV spots, Filmographies
Length: 144 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

Black Hawk Down is based on the true story of American soldiers involved in the conflict in Somalia. An elite group of American Rangers and Delta Force soldiers are sent on a mission in civil war-ravaged Somalia in 1993. These soldiers are to infiltrate a specific city building and capture high-ranking officers of the most powerful warlord in the country. However, the mission quickly goes awry and the American men are left separated from each other and scattered throughout the city. Greatly outnumbered by the warlord’s militia, the soldiers must battle for their lives as they await rescue operations.

The overall video quality of this DVD is excellent. Images are crisp and clean with solid black levels. Colors are accurate with fully saturated hues. Picture defect mastering is perfect with no major flaws or compression artifacts. The overall audio quality is also excellent with the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. It is readily apparent to see why this film won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Sound. The soundtrack mix actively incorporates all of the discrete channels. Dialogue is natural sounding but occasionally difficult to decipher amidst all of the action. The surround channels are very aggressive, utilized for both music and sound effects, and include multiple split rear effects. Tactile sound effects are present throughout the film as subtle and moderate impacts that originate from sound effects and the music score. Purchase Here

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Victim (1961)

Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Peter McEnery
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
Video: 1.66:1 B&W
Audio: DD 2.0
Extras: Trailer, Dirk Bogarde Interview (3 parts-28 minutes)
Length: 100 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

Before the Wolfenden report was published in 1966, homosexual acts of any type (between consenting adults) were illegal in Britain. This is relevant to Victim, because it is necessary to understand the social climate of the time, to understand the fear of many of the characters in the film—men who are gay, and are being blackmailed because of this fact. Ominous piano music signals the start of the movie and we find ‘Boy’ Barrett being chased by the police. Several desperate phone calls are soon to follow, but Barrett’s frantic attempt to find a ride out of town is unsuccessful. Money he owes is coming due and he doesn’t have it. But there is much more to the plot than a mere debt. He is being blackmailed, like many of the other successful men in the story, and is afraid to tell the police. He’s homosexual and that’s a crime in 1960 in England. A barrister, Melvin Farr, is one of the men whom he tries to contact—one of the men with whom he’s had a relationship, and who also happens to be married. His indifference to Barrett’s situation has catastrophic results, and his guilt pushes him to discover who the blackmailers are, all without the help of the police.

Barrett is indeed a victim as are the other gay men who are victims of the reigning laws, and of those who don’t understand their lifestyle. Victim tackles the forbidden topic of homosexuality and pulls out all the stops. Certain characters are prejudiced and clearly express their negative views about homosexuals. Other characters are more understanding, but are caught between what they feel is right and the law. The gay men are portrayed in a not-entirely-complete manner, and there are but a few superficial implications (aside from the main plot) of the secretive lifestyle. Together, the gay men form a socially isolated community, although none of the homosexual characters renounce their lifestyle (even after having gone to jail). They do however fear exposure. The style of the film is much like a thriller, and there are a few twists to keep the viewer guessing. Although today the topic of homosexuality is much less taboo, in the time of the film it was significant. Even taking this out of the equation, Victim is worth a look.
Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Straw Dogs (1971)

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George
Studio: Criterion Collection
Video: 1.78:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono, Audio Commentary track, Isolated Music and Effect Score
Extras: Documentary on Sam Peckinpah (80 minutes), On Location with Dustin Hoffman (25 minutes), Trailers (4), Correspondence (2), Behind the Scenes (8 minutes), Interviews (Susan George, Daniel Melnick)
Length: 117 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

David, a mathematician, and his new bride return to her UK village where he can work away from the hustle and bustle of American city life. It’s an old town with an interesting bunch of locals—a place where David is clearly out of place. The friction between some of the townspeople, who are laborers busy fixing his garage, and his wife escalate to the highest point possible. Their physical desire for his wife lead them to questionable actions and mind games with David, who is not entirely equipped to deal with them. When a supposed child molester is being kept for safe keeping at the couple’s home, the enraged townspeople take violent action and the film culminates in a way that is unexpected and brutal.

The audio commentary during this film is one of the best I’ve heard, although some may find it a bit biased. It is not only a scene-by-scene commentary, but also offers lots of background information and highlights the of the writer/director, Sam Peckinpah. Some his other films include The Getaway and The Wild Bunch (another film that was considered shocking for its display of violence). On disc #2, there is an 80-minute documentary that helps to explain Peckinpah’s motivations and what led to the production of Straw Dogs. Actors, friends, writers, and other people who were in close contact with the director provide the commentary. Peckinpah liked to make films about bad men. The more you learn about the man, the harder it is to reconcile the content of the films with his beliefs. In his work, Peckinpah offers commentary on the violent nature of man, and the effects of the violence.

With The Wild Bunch, the attempt was made to show how brutal people can be and purge the viewer, but the genre of the film, a Western, prevented the strong association from being made—almost turning the characters into heroes. Sam stated, “I was wrong.” He vowed not to make that mistake again and thus comes Straw Dogs. There is no doubt that the film was crafted exactly the way the director desired. Without a context, the rape and the reaction to the rape is disturbing to say the least. Peckinpah had a poor attitude towards women, and it undoubtedly manifested itself in that particular scene. The violence perpetrated by other characters in other scenes are likewise disturbing, but for other reasons. He said, “violence must be shown for what it is: horrifying, brutalizing, destructive.”

Many critics have attacked and/or condemned the film for its displays of violence. For this same reason, rating the film was most difficult. There is a question of believability. There is a question as to whether you like a film. There is a question of success. Was it successful? It is hard to separate dislike of the subject matter and characters, and dislike of the film in the case of Straw Dogs. The film confronts the viewer with violence and forces the viewer to look close at violence in society, and a lack of a solution to the struggles between conscience, action, and judgement. Peckinpah was unable to deal with his feelings and this manifests itself in his lifestyle and more importantly, his work. Whether the viewer can distance himself/herself from the indiscretions that take place on the screen or whether he/she sees the many undesirable faces of humanity rear their ugly heads will allow the viewer to decide whether this picture should be classified as art or pornography. As a student of film, it would be a mistake to miss this movie. You may not enjoy it, but in some ways, that is the point. [Ed.: Right. I find it in a similar category with Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, in that you can’t help being empathic with the main character’s actions during the movie and afterwards you are sorry you were.] Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

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