Digital Versatile Dodo?
going to shock some of you this week with a thought that's been
haunting me lately. I'm slowly becoming afraid for the future of
DVD. In fact, I'm worried that if something isn't done, DVD as we
know and love it will die a quiet death.
DVD, as it was originally pitched to film fans, was supposed to be
an extension of laserdisc. No one wanted it to "replace"
LD, even though it did. Many major industry players I talked to back
in 1997 thought DVD was going to be a short-lived joke and refused
to give up on fan favorite LD. Most people in the know thought DVD
sounded great, but the video quality couldn't surpass the analog
aspects of laserdisc (especially given the poor quality of the early
demonstration discs and many of the first releases). Ultimately
though, DVD replaced laserdisc for most film fans. It held more
information about the film, it was smaller and easier to store, and
hey - it was the newest thing. Many fans were willing to set aside
their laserdisc players in favor of DVD, which (intentionally or
unintentionally) eventually killed the laserdisc format.
So what? Many of the special editions pouring out of Hollywood on
DVD were truly better than their laserdisc counterparts (for the
most part). Companies like The Criterion Collection waited out the
storm to make sure DVD was indeed going to be the next big thing,
then came onboard, bringing with them some of the greatest foreign
films ever made. Other, smaller companies also made the jump and
started putting out great, genre-based special editions. But it's
now about five years later. And as I look back at the history of DVD
with a critical eye, I'm not liking what I'm seeing. Let me tell you
In the last year, we've seen some really fluffy special editions -
stuff that at first looks like it might rock, but when you look a
little more closely, you see it for what it is. Take, for example,
How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
I fell victim to it like many of you out there. I gave the extras
some pretty high marks in my review. But a little time has passed
now, and the more I think about it, the more I'm realizing that I
was duped. That's especially true after hearing Universal crow to
the video store press that they didn't do anything special for the
disc and still sold a gazillion copies.
Look at How the Grinch Stole Christmas
for yourself, and tell me what you see. There's no REAL "making
of" stuff, no interviews with the cast and crew and, even more
importantly, there's no commentary. There's just a pile of kid
friendly interactive junk and loads of EPK/promotional material.
When I heard Universal crowing excitedly about the monetary result
of all their "hard work" on the title, I began hearing
DVD's death knell in the background.
Compound that with Arnold Schwarzenegger getting huge bank for his
talking about the filming of Total Recall
on DVD. Believe me, I'm not fooling myself. I know that many a cast
member has been paid for their commentary tracks in some way, shape
or form. Studios can either hide it as an appearance fee, like they
did in The Princess Diaries
with Julie Andrews' commentary, or they can flat out pay someone
like they did with Arnold. Ultimately, I'm not too surprised that
these special editions cost a lot of money to produce. Sadly, there
are some great special editions that got folded because the "talent"
involved felt they needed more money to participate. Or they had
some other reason to sabotage the DVD over a petty grievance.
Now. Take all of that - the high-priced talent issues and fuzzy
special editions making millions of dollars - and THEN take a look
at Warner's recently announced Harry
Potter DVD. Ask yourself why Warner feels it's cool to
dump a Harry Potter flick on
us with the same kind of crap Grinch
had piled onto it. See? The folly begins.
I was actually on the phone with Bill when the disc was being
announced to the press online. As we were reading through the
extras, Bill was heard to say, "Wow, this thing is packed."
I stared at the phone, my jaw dropped open and I dared to say, "Are
you crazy?" Now... it's important to keep in mind that for Bill
on the West coast, it's 9 in the morning. And for me here in
Atlanta, it's already Noon. Bill's not a morning person. His brain,
that early, is programmed for one thing and one thing only - get
coffee in system. So he was immediately put off by my comment, and
told me to call him back after he put the info online. I waited and
called him back about an hour later. What do you think happened? In
the time it took Bill to drink a pot o' Jo and read the extras
again, he came to the same realization I did - Harry
Potter seems great, and kids will love it, but there's
nothing there for people over the age of 14. There's nothing there
for people who love movies.
So okay, I'm not going to die because the Harry
Potter DVD isn't going to kick ass. It's not like that at
all. I just think that if this were a laserdisc release,
Harry Potter would have come
out from Warner as a movie-only disc... and they would have turned
around and sold the special edition rights to a company like Image
Entertainment. Image would have tracked everyone involved in making
the film down and done a wicked boxset that probably would have been
the best release this year. You'd have gotten a history of the
character, audio commentary with Rowling and the director, a
documentary about the phenom that is Harry
Potter and maybe even a look at the future of the movies
and books. Stuff like that. It would have been a cool and thoughtful
historical document of the film... rather than just the movie with a
lot of interactive games wrapped around it.
DVD is big business, but some of that business comes from real,
honest to God film fans. What do some the current rash of DVD
special editions say to film fans? That you're out of luck if you
want to delve deeper into the film. But boy... if you like playing
games, we've got your bells and whistles right here.
I'm going to stop now and let what I just said fester in your
minds. But please e-mail
me with your thoughts on this subject. You're either going to
write me and say, "Yeah, you go boy!" or, "Damn,
you're an idiot!". Next week, I'm going to talk about what you
think of this issue. Then I'll tell you what I would do if I had any
control over the future of DVD.
Until then, let's take a look at some cool as hell (or not so cool
as hell) DVDs I've spun over the last week...
2001 (2002) - PBS DVD Gold (Warner)
Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A
Specs and Features:
220 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), Amaray keep case packaging with
slipcase, dual-sided, RSDL dual-layered (Part
One layer switch at 1:25:17 in chapter 8, Part
Two layer switch at 1:26:20 in chapter 6),
The Making of Mark Twain
documentary featuring interviews with co-producer/director Ken Burns
and co-writer/co-producer Dayton Duncan, A
Conversation with Ken Burns video interview, video
gallery of photos (with Mark Twain quotes read by actor Kevin
Conway), Ken Burns Making History
featurette, 4 galleries of interview outtakes, weblinks, film-themed
menu screens, scene access (8 chapters for each part), languages:
English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none, Closed Captioned
Twain. He's a man most of us only appreciate for the fact that we
were forced to read his books in school. Then most of us never
looked back. Leave it to documentarian Ken Burns to help us
re-examine a writer many Americans owe a great debt to.
Personally, I was never a real fan of Twain's work. Maybe it's
because I was too young in my school years to really appreciate him
for what he was trying to say. I still can't really say that I'm a
reborn fan of his work. But after seeing this new documentary, I
really feel like I understand who the man was.
Twain, as you will learn while watching this film, was the purest
form of egotist. Now, I mean that from the most possible textbook
definition. This guy thought everything was all about him. So much
so, that even the death of his loved ones had to have been caused by
something he did. That belief followed him throughout his life. Even
though this film is about his work and his life, it's incredible how
Burns and company craft a story about the man over and above who he
was. Mark Twain really shows
you how this guy ticked... and death was a cog in his works that
clicked more than any other. What a sad life.
Mark Twain joked that he wasn't an American, that he was THE
American. I think that, behind the wit, there was a lot of truth
there. His life mirrored what it means to be an American, and in
these times of heightened patriotism, it might be nice to see what
we're so proud of. Besides that, the thing I walked away with after
watching this film, is reinforcement of my belief that everyone in
the world is a product of who they meet. There's one story in the
film, where Twain meets a former slave who teaches him a fact about
slavery he never considered in his life. That one moment made him
who he was, and still is today for everyone who has ever read his
work. That single moment solidified his work, and shaped the voice
we now know. And it was a simple chance encounter that lasted less
than an hour. It makes you imagine where you've come from, and how
you got to where you are in life.
I know I do this a lot, but I'm not going to sum up the film for
you beyond what I've already said. I review stuff, so I often think
that my job is to distill and point. Mark
Twain is a stellar documentary and totally stands on its
own merits. I don't think I need to sell it to you more than that.
It's simply worth your time. It's a documentary that sucked me in,
and I didn't even want to watch it in the first place. It was a
happy accident that I popped this disc into my player. I had no idea
what to expect... and that made the experience all the more
worthwhile. My advice for you is rent or buy this and check it out
Mark Twain on DVD is a fine
presentation. The video quality is above average for a full frame
feature. It's crystal clear and free of artifacts. The sound is also
very good, in Dolby Digital 2.0. It's way better than TV quality and
suits the feature fine. The extras on board aren't really necessary,
but end up being quite fun. First off, there's a set of video
interviews titled: The Making of Mark
Twain. They're with co-producer/director Ken Burns and
co-writer/co-producer Dayton Duncan separately. They discuss Twain
the man, Twain the production
and how the project came together. The featurette
A Conversation with Ken Burns
is an interview with Burns about his work as a whole and his
relationship with PBS. It has nothing to do with Twain but is a
great watch nonetheless. You'll also find a video gallery of photos,
with some really cool Mark Twain quotes read by actor Kevin Conway
running over them. There's also a featurette about Burns and his
documentary team doing what they do, entitled Ken
Burns Making History, and four galleries of interview
outtakes that round out the special features. The outtakes are
pretty cool, although the quality is a bit shabby. They include most
every interviewee from the feature, and some are actually extensions
of quotes given in the documentary. All in all, there's a lot of
worthwhile stuff here that you wouldn't be expecting on a single
disc (and a documentary at that).
Mark Twain is a phenomenal
film and a great DVD. Do check it out.
Grapes of Death
Special Edition - 1978
(2002) - Synapse Films
Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A
Specs and Features:
90 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1), 16x9 enhanced, Amaray
keep case packaging, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch),
original French and German theatrical trailers, video interviews
with director Jean Rollin and actress Brigitte Lahaie, Jean Rollin
biography and filmography, stills gallery, animated film-themed menu
screens with sound, scene access (18 chapters), languages: French
(DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English
French love their wine something funky. Man - they just go crazy for
the stuff. And when a batch of grapes gets poisoned by some new
cutting-edge insecticides, those wacky French literally get crazy
from their wine. So crazy, in fact, that their brains melt and they
turn into flesh hungry, puss-filled, zombie-type killers. It's no
surprise that a young and beautiful woman gets sucked into the whole
mess. A train ride from Paris to her home town in the middle of the
countryside gets shut down, and she has to run from township to
township fighting the wine-drunk undead. Can she make it back home
to her loving boyfriend? Will the two construction workers (turned
zombie hunters) protect her? Isn't it a shame you weren't in the
French porn industry when the unbelievably hot Brigitte Lahaie was
going full-tilt boogey? These questions, and only a few more, will
get answered in The Grapes of Death,
the newest Euro-sleaze DVD from Synapse.
Jean Rollin (probably the best French filmmaker who used porn
actresses, minimal dialogue and improv filmmaking techniques) makes
what I think is his best film with Grapes.
As gross as it can get, this is a fun ride. Now... this is no
Italian zombie flick - don't get me wrong - nor is it Romero
caliber. But for Rollin, this is a well-formed flick with lots of
nice touches, including one of the best severed heads ever (and I
mean ever) to be created for film. If you like horror films, give
the flick a spin.
Grapes of Death is a
surprising DVD, especially given the impeccable performance of
Synapse. This film couldn't look any better on DVD if it wanted to.
The transfer is clean, the compression is luscious and, aside from
the expected source flaws, there isn't a thing wrong with the film
at all. Even the sound, in all its mono glory, is ripe and full. I
couldn't have imagined this film making such a fine DVD, yet here it
is. Good job Synapse.
And it's even a great special edition (who'd of thunk it?). First
off, you get a pair of ultra-rare video interviews with director
Jean Rollin and actress Brigitte Lahaie. If you're a fan of their
work, this ends up being an incredible feature. Rollin's French is a
bit thick at times, but this piece gives us a great look into his
mind and where he's been coming from all these years. And Lahaie is
as fine as ever. Whoo-hoo! There's also a mighty fine text-based
Jean Rollin biography and filmography and a short stills gallery.
But nothing beats the transfer and the interviews. Synapse, you've
done it again.
Grapes of Death: Special Edition
1995 (2002) - View Askew Productions (IndieDVD)
Film Rating: D-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras):
Specs and Features:
76 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), Amaray keep case packaging,
single-sided, single-layered (although there is a branching switch
at 10:38 in chapter 4), video introduction by executive producers
Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier, audio commentary (with directors
Malcolm Ingram and Matt Gissing, executive producers Kevin Smith and
Scott Mosier and cast members Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, Renee Humphrey
and Carmen Llwellyn), audio commentary (with directors Malcolm
Ingram and Matt Gissing), extended director's cut (80 mins),
IndieDVD previews, animated film-themed menu screens, scene access
(19 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: none
How can I do this without getting into trouble? I love Kevin Smith.
No, not that way. I love his work. I love his words. I love most of
his choices. But I hate Drawing Flies.
Why? I can see potential. Who couldn't? I'll give you the scenario:
you're a couple of guys who love movies and, since one of you writes
for a film magazine (widely respected even), you'd think you
understand what makes a film work. You meet Kevin Smith, and when
you pitch him your idea for a quirky, character-based flick, he
loves it and offers up 40 grand to help get it made. Not only that,
but you now have access to his cast of nameless (yet talented)
actors, who haven't quite made it yet but you know they will.
Essentially, you have it made. How could you screw up? Apparently,
Drawing Flies looks great on
paper, I have to admit. Five friends living in Canada, at the lowest
rung of the social ladder, habitate together in a rundown loft
apartment. One day, the pseudo-leader (played by Jason Lee) proposes
that they trek into the middle of nowhere and settle down in his
uncle's cabin. They agree, but suddenly learn that their friend had
ulterior motives. Motives that involve meeting up with a tribe of
Sasquatch and joining them as one of their own. Yeah, okay... even
on paper it's awful. But hey - it's an independent film, right? So
being quirky works in its favor, right? No. It's all in the
execution. And this flick is as flat as a Bigfoot track in the
middle of the forest.
If you compare Drawing Flies
to the other Smith-produced indy, A
Better Place, you'll see something. The something you'll
see is that A Better Place is
a remarkable independent film. That Pereira guy actually has some
directing talent - maybe more than Smith himself. Plus, he has
vision, even if he didn't have much money for his flick. On the
other hand, Drawing Flies was
directed by two guys, and it still seems like a high school fan
project shot on video. There's some production value here and there,
seen mostly in the forest journey and a wicked suspension bridge
sequence. But c'mon - you can't base a movie on that. The one
positive thing I can say here, is that Jason Lee actually acts much
better here than he did in A Better Place.
He shows some chops here that he's only recently begun to show.
So should you go out of your way to see Drawing
Flies? Sure, it's got Smith's seal of approval, so maybe
there's something here that I'm not seeing. The guy's a millionaire
for some reason, right? This DVD however, isn't the best way to do
it. This might as well be a bootleg. The video quality is horrid. It
looks like the print was taken off a video master of some sort. It's
flashy, overexposed and not very complimentary. The sound is even
worse. There is no production value whatsoever in the sound. There
are dropouts galore, out-of-synch dialogue exchanges and mixes that
don't match. I can't cut any slack for an indy movie from an indy
DVD company, because we've seen much better come out before. This
presentation is pretty shameful.
That is, however, sort of made up for in the extras. Sort of.
There's the standard (and seemingly mandatory) video introduction by
executive producers Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. It's neat, but
they've been funnier. It's actually pretty painful in the end.
During the film, you have a choice between two commentary tracks.
The first is a group effort with directors Malcolm Ingram and Matt
Gissing, executive producers Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier and cast
members Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, Renee Humphrey and Carmen Llwellyn.
If it sounds crowded, that's probably because it is. There are some
funny spots, but trying to hear anything over all these people
talking over each other gets annoying. The other commentary, with
directors Malcolm Ingram and Matt Gissing by themselves, isn't any
better than the group track. But at least it's less noisy. It's a
shame that a big selling point of this disc are the audio
commentaries. I mean... I'm a huge Smith fan, but I didn't find much
worth in it. You'd probably have to really worship Smith to like it
much. But the guy's got a fan base, so maybe there are a few out
there who will enjoy the disc.
The other major extra on this DVD is an extended director's cut.
This ends up being nothing more than a clot of added footage about
10 minutes into the film. What happens is, the DVD annoyingly pauses
as if it were a dual-layer disc. But instead of switching layers, we
cut to 5 minutes and 26 seconds of additional footage about scoring
weed, planning a party and loosing the kegs. The good thing is, this
footage does shed light on why Az (Jason "Jay" Mewes) and
the Jake character hate each other so much throughout the film.
There's no commentary for that footage, but both tracks do talk
about the footage and why it was cut during the main feature. in
fact, it ends up being one of the funniest bits on the group track.
I'm being a bit hard on Drawing Flies,
but I don't think I'm wrong. It's not a very well made film.
Technically it's lacking, the DVD is pretty poor and the extras are
simply okay. If that's good enough for you, just because Smith
slapped his name on it, then more power to ya. But Smith's name
means more to me than this DVD. Luckily, I get Jay
and Silent Bob Strike Back next week, so I can't get too
depressed. Until then, Drawing Flies
proves that people should be more careful what they name their
out of here. If you're a militaristic fan of Kevin Smith's, save
your breath and your typing finger. I'm sure I'll have plenty of
great things to say about his team next week. So until then, I say
this: buy a DVD this week and tell your Mom you lover her. I love