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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Kingdom of Heaven: 4-Disc Director's Cut

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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Kingdom of Heaven
4-Disc Director's Cut - 2005 (2006) - Scott Free (20th Century Fox)

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A-/A
Disc Ratings (DD/DTS): B+/A-

If you've read my review of the original theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven on DVD, you'll know that I've felt that that version of the film leaves quite a lot to be desired. Although visually stunning and as expertly crafted as you'd expect from director Ridley Scott, the theatrical cut has many problems story-wise, including a lack of character depth and motivation, a lack of subtle intrigue, a number of plot events that seem to unfold with unrealistic ease or speed, etc. However, I've also known that the original director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven presented to Fox was nearly an hour longer, and that the studio pressured Scott to trim the running time down to allow for more screenings per theater. As a savvy businessman and producer in addition to his role as director, Scott complied. Unfortunately, the result of all the cutting was a film that's beautiful to look at, but that's largely empty of greater intelligence and substance. Mixed critical reviews and lackluster box office followed, which led many viewers to dismiss the film entirely.

Thankfully though, Scott planned all along that his preferred cut would eventually see the light on DVD. Fox Home Entertainment agreed, and this exceptional 4-disc set is the result. THIS is the version of Kingdom of Heaven that Scott fans have been waiting for. And if you haven't seen the film yet, trust me, don't even bother with the theatrical cut.

The basic plot of the film is covered in our previous DVD review, but suffice it to say that the main thrust of the narrative follows Balian (Orlando Bloom), a 12th Century French blacksmith whose wife has just committed suicide after losing their child - an action that is considered a grave sin, and dooms her soul to Hell. Balian is given a chance to find redemption for his wife, however, when the father he never knew, Godfrey of Ibelin (played by Liam Neeson), passes through the village with his band of Crusaders and offers to take Balian to the Holy Land. As his epic journey unfolds, Balian eventually finds himself a loyal and trusted knight of the King of Jerusalem, serving in the midst of a brewing conflict between the Christian warriors who control the city and the Muslim armies of Saladian bent on retaking it, all of whom believe that God - and right - is on their side.

So what makes this 191-minute cut of the film better? Plenty, let me assure you. The restored footage fleshes out a number of characters and story points considerably. Finally, you understand more of what motivates Balian - you see more of his life and circumstances in France. You see his wife briefly in Balian's memory, and understand his grief better. You learn that he's fought in war previously, and was an experienced engineer, so his cleverness in defending Jerusalem later in the film makes more sense. You learn more of Godfrey's own connections to Balian's home and his village, and why he would not only return to find Balian, but also why the local lord's men would attack them later (it's another family connection). The animosity between Balian and his brother, a local priest, is shown in greater clarity. Once Balian arrives in the Holy Land, you learn that Sibylla (Eva Green)'s marriage to Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) is really one of convenience only, which puts Sibylla and Balian's romantic relationship into better context. You learn that Sibylla has a son (who was completely cut out of the theatrical version), and that her love of her son motivates almost every action she takes (which in turn makes sense out of her bizarre behavior late in the film). You see more of Balian's interactions with King Baldwin (Edward Norton, in an uncredited performance by his own choice), and their developing respect for one another. And, at last, you not only understand why Guy hates Balian (it isn't just about Sibylla), but their animosity actually pays off in a final confrontation that, again, is completely missing from the theatrical cut. I can't stress enough how different this version of the film is, and how much better and more rewarding an experience it becomes, with the restoration of the trimmed minutes.

This improved cut of the film is presented here on DVD in full anamorphic widescreen as you'd expect. It's been split over two discs so as to maximize the video bitrate, and now includes both a musical overture and an intermission break (at the end of Disc One). The overall image quality is excellent, and is notably improved over the theatrical version in the areas of color saturation and compression artifacting. The image is clear and clean, even in the most chaotic scenes, with excellent contrast and shadow detail. Scott's painterly cinematography is well presented here. Audio-wise, these discs offer both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround sound, as was the case on the theatrical DVD release. The Dolby Digital audio is good, with a wide front soundstage, tremendous low frequency reinforcement and lively use of the rear channels. The DTS improves upon this with a smoother, more unified soundfield and slightly more natural imaging. The DTS is my preference, but whichever track you choose, you'll enjoy an excellent surround experience.

As is the case on most of Ridley Scott's films on DVD, the production team at the Lauzirika Motion Picture Company has turned in an outstanding batch of special features for this set. The film itself features a brief video introduction by Scott, who admits that this is the version of Kingdom of Heaven he prefers. Discs One and Two offer a very good audio commentary track with Scott, joined by screenwriter William Monahan and star Orlando Bloom. It's packed with information and interesting little insights about the film's plot, development and historical background. There's a second, nuts-and-bolts commentary by executive producer Lisa Ellzey, effects supervisor Wesley Sewell and 1st AD Adam Somner, and a third track as well featuring editor Dody Dorn. The movie discs also include an optional text track, similar to the one that was on the Gladiator: Extended Edition, called The Engineer's Guide. It offers additional historical information, film production anecdotes and trivia, and even DVD production details.

Discs Three and Four together present a hefty, 6-part documentary on the film's production, entitled The Path to Redemption. The first three parts of this are on Disc Three, beginning with Part I: Good Intentions, which chronicles the development of the film. Included separately here are the early draft of Monahan's screenplay for the film, story notes, a gallery of location scout photos and a video overview of the original Tripoli film project out of which Kingdom of Heaven emerged. Part II: Faith and Courage looks more closely at the pre-production process. Also available in this section are cast rehearsal video, the Colors of the Crusade featurette on the film's costume design, a gallery of Ridleygrams (storyboards drawn by the director), the Production Design Primer featurette, a gallery of production design images and a costume design gallery. The final section of Disc Three focuses on the first part of the film's location filming in Spain. The documentary continues here with Part III: The Pilgrimage Begins. This section also includes the Creative Accuracy: The Scholars Speak featurette (on the historical accuracy of the film), additional galleries of storyboards from the film and a gallery of unit production photography images.

Disc Four offers the second half of The Path to Redemption, starting with Part IV: Into the Holy Land (which, as you might expect, chronicles the film's production as it continued in Morocco). There's a separate featurette here that focuses on the film's epic battle scenes, entitled Unholy War: Mounting the Siege. Also included here are more galleries of storyboards and additional unit production photography images. Moving on, Part V: The Burning Bush delves into the film's post-production process and addresses, among other things, the cuts that were made to the film. In this section, you'll also find 15 deleted and extended scenes (with optional commentary by Scott and Dorn) presented in anamorphic widescreen. Also available here is an interactive Sound Design Suite, which lets you view a scene from the film with a variety of different audio options (from different parts of the audio process), or view featurettes on the work involved at those same stages in the process. It's a great use of DVD's interactive capabilities that actually enhances your knowledge of the film - think of it as an extension of the Interactive Production Grid from the theatrical Kingdom of Heaven DVD. Rounding out this section is a set of four featurettes, covering different aspects of the visual effects process. These include The Burning Man: Fire Effects and Face Replacement, Building Jerusalem: Digital Matte Painting and 3D Modeling, Casualties of War: Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Warriors and Medieval Engines: The Physics and Firepower of Trebuchets, all of which are interesting viewing (personally, I particularly enjoyed the piece on the trebuchets constructed for the production). The final section of Disc Four examines the film's release and contains the remainder of the set's extras. The documentary concludes here with Part VI: Sins and Absolution. All of the film's trailers and TV spots are here too, along with video of the film's press junket and the premieres in London, New York and Tokyo, a gallery of "special shoot" photos, an extensive gallery of poster explorations for the film (including many that feature the title Crusade), and additional credits for the director's cut. Finally, there is the Paradise Found: Creating the Director's Cut featurette, in which Dorn and others address the work that went into creating the version of the film that's presented on this 4-disc set.

Need a nap yet? Trust me, you will after watching all of these extras - not because they'll put you to sleep, but simply for the sheer volume of material and the time it will take you to go through it all (you might want to pack a lunch before you start your viewing as well). These features are exceptionally well-constructed and thoughtful, offering real insights into the making of Kingdom of Heaven. Every bit of this material is worthy of your time and attention. I should note that all of the documentary features here are in anamorphic widescreen, from the featurettes to the galleries (only the TV spots are full frame, as you'd expect). I believe that this set is also meant to have a liner notes booklet, but one wasn't included in my review copy. It's my understanding that there's at least one Easter egg here too - when we find it, we'll update this review with the relevant details.

This, at long last, is Kingdom of Heaven as it was meant to be seen. It is finally a great film - the film Ridley Scott fans wanted and hoped it would be when they first saw it in theaters. It's worthy of inclusion among the director's best works (Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down) and it's well worth your time on DVD, even at 191 minutes (ESPECIALLY at 191 minutes). Forget the mixed reviews of critics - those all pertained to the other version, which you should just pretend doesn't exist. Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut is a feast for your mind as well as your eyes and ears. Better still, for those of you who are fans of the process of filmmaking, Scott's work or just great DVD special features, the extras on this 4-disc set are a damn fine desert. Very highly recommended.

Boston Legal: Season One

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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Boston Legal
Season One - (2004-05) 2006 - David E. Kelley Productions/ABC (Fox)

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

You know... as a card-carrying member of the Gen-X demographic, it's awfully nice to see those brash young Brat Pack kids we loved so much in teen movies back in the 1980s finally making good as serious adult actors. First it was Rob Lowe on The West Wing, then came Kiefer Sutherland on 24. In Boston Legal, the latest and greatest TV creation of acclaimed writer/producer David E. Kelley (originally conceived as a spin-off of Kelley's The Practice), James Spader finally gets his big chance. He's made the most of it and then some.

Set in the quirky Boston law firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt, Boston Legal stars Spader as Alan Shore, an unethical but surprisingly idealistic star attorney who uses every bit of his considerable ability to protect the firm's clients... and once in a while, maybe do a little good in the process. However, it's when he's teamed up with the legendary, and legendarily infamous, Denny Crane (William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, in a role as good as any he's ever played), that Shore truly shines.

To his surprise, not only does Alan find in Denny the perfect foil for his brilliant yet unconventional legal antics in the courtroom... he also gains a strong and unlikely friendship. Denny's well past his prime, a red meat conservative and staggeringly over-confident (think late movie-era James T. Kirk as a Republican lawyer). Alan seems always on the verge of a mid-life crisis, is staunchly liberal and is rife with personal quirks. Together, they're kindred spirits... and may be the best (and most unique) comedy pair since Abbot and Costello.

Fox's DVD release of Boston Legal contains all 17 first season episodes in anamorphic widescreen video. The episodes (presented 4 to a disc) look quite good, with solid color, contrast and clarity. There's some compression artifacting visible here and there, but unless you watch the series in broadcast high-definition, you've certainly never seen it looking as good before. The audio is presented in a solid Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix that supports the visuals nicely. Quality-wise, there's little to complain about.

In terms of extras, all you get are some deleted scenes from the pilot episode, Head Cases, and a pair of short behind-the-scenes featurettes. The first, How Boston Legal Came to Be, features interviews with the series creators on how they conceived the idea for the show, and the casting of the lead characters. An Unlikely Pair: Alan Shore and Denny Crane features interviews with actors James Spader and William Shatner, along with the producers, as they talk about the offbeat relationship that lies at the heart of the series. Both include interview bits with many of the additional cast members as well, along with excerpted footage from various season one episodes. It's good enough material, but you certainly wish there was a lot more if it - outtakes, more in-depth behind-the-scenes footage, etc. Perhaps in future seasons.

It was a long wait for more David E. Kelley TV material on DVD, but it's finally here and Boston Legal is a great place to start. The series is easily among the very best on television, with savvy writing and a great cast (which also includes Rene Auberjobois, Candice Bergen, Monica Potter and Mark Valley among others - season two has added Julie Bowen, late from NBC's Ed, and Tom Selleck as a guest star). In our opinion, Boston Legal is well worth your time for just Shatner and Spader alone. Give it a chance on disc, and I'm betting you'll be hooked before the end of the first episode. The good news is, you'll have 16 more left on this set to enjoy before you're done (and season two has been even better, so you have something to look forward to). Recommended (if at a sale price, for the lack of extras).

Triumph of the Will: Special Edition

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Triumph of the Will
Special Edition - 1934 (2006) - Synapse Films

Film portions of review text by Brad Pilcher

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

Triumph of the Will is one of those films where the quality is superb and memorable, and yet it's still dwarfed by the power of the story behind it. We should say right up front, that this documentary was made in the early 1930s as a propaganda film for and about the Nazis, specifically for their 1934 Party Convention in Nuremberg. It opens with Hitler flying into the city for a week of events, mostly marches and speeches by various officials, which makes sense given that this film was designed to both introduce the new Nazi leadership to the people of Germany, and also to pump those people up with displays of national unity. Triumph of the Will did both very well for the ten years it ran in Germany, but to say it gets repetitive would be an understatement. Two hours of saluting crowds, marching uniformed soldiers and Hitler's ranting can grate on the nerves, and the you'll often likely find the subject material boring as well as repulsive.

However, the structure and style of Triumph of the Will is as mesmerizing as Hitler's speeches were to the Germans of his time. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's B&W cinematography is nothing short of magnificent. With the full resources of the Nazi party at her disposal, Riefenstahl utilized a huge crew and tremendously elaborate camera set-ups. Even cameramen on roller skates were employed for select shots, which only illuminates the director's inventiveness and experimentation. From religious iconography, such as Hitler's cross-shaped plane shadowing the ground and the halo of light around him, to the early shot of a night rally through a sheer Nazi flag, the movie is still visually amazing more than 70 years later. It set new standards for documentary cinema when it was first released, and it remains influential even today (it's been referenced in recent years in such films as Starship Troopers and Ridley Scott's Gladiator, among others).

The saddest part of all of this, is that Riefenstahl's gifts as a filmmaker have never been fully appreciated due to the sheer depravity of her subject material. That she made several other films for Hitler, who personally selected her after viewing her 1931 release, The Blue Light, certainly hasn't helped her cause. So despite her enormous cinematic talent, "Hitler's Favorite Actress" was never really able to shake her Nazi connections. She was effectively blacklisted following World War II and remained a controversial figure for the rest of her life.

Synapse Films has just released a new DVD version featuring a 2005 digital remastering of the film's transfer. Presented in windowboxed format in its original full frame aspect ratio, the B&W imagery looks spectacular. There's no mistaking that this is old footage, as its age reveals itself occasionally in excessive grain and the odd bit of water damage. Still, for historical footage this old, it looks pretty great. Clarity and contrast are impressive - the contrast, in particular, seems markedly improved on this new release. Fewer shots look as washed out as they occasionally did on the previous DVD. It also appears that a bit of digital clean-up has been done to reduce the amount of visible dust and scratches on the print - not dramatically, but just enough to make difference. The audio is presented in the same Dolby Digital mono track that was featured on the original disc. It's in the original German, with removable English subtitles, and it serves the visuals just fine. There's not a huge amount of dialogue in the film anyway - mostly the subtitle text is just telling you where you are and what (or who) you're looking at.

The disc features new animated menus, but otherwise the same extras that were available on Synapse's previous DVD. These include an audio commentary track with historian Dr. Anthony Santoro, an insert booklet with liner notes by Films in Review editor Roy Frumkes, and Riefenstahl's 17-minute short film, Days of Freedom, which documents the German armed forces. Of these, Santoro's commentary is the real gem. It starts out as a play-by-play, with no allusions as to the real opinions of our Ph.D. Then, as we reach a portion where various Nazi officials are shown in snippets, Santoro starts ripping in with how much he thinks these guys are garbage. We learn about the pornography of one guy, the person who should've been executed (according to Santoro) but offed himself before they could try him, etc. The shift sort of throws you at first, but then you just smile at the genius of this commentary. It's full of information, and Santoro's even, nonchalant delivery makes the opinionated zingers all the better. Watching this film without the commentary can be tough, but Santoro's track actually makes it palatable and fascinating.

To be sure, the degree and nature of sympathy Riefenstahl had for the Nazi party is a question of some debate. She made numerous efforts to distance herself from the Nazi ideology before her death in 2003, if only out of professional necessity, but remained unrepentant for the films she made. The whole controversy surrounding her is as interesting as any of her films. In any case, Triumph of the Will's fusion of propaganda with documentary techniques has skewed the assumption of objectivity afforded the documentarian, and forever redefined the documentary form itself. If you can look past the vile nature of this material, you'll find a stunning and important film (important both in terms of world history, and the history of the cinema). If you already own the previous DVD, upgrading to this one is going to be a matter of how important the somewhat improved video quality is to you. If you don't have the previous DVD, it's a matter of personal taste for (and interest in) the film itself. In any case, Triumph of the Will certainly hasn't looked better than it does here.

Zatoichi: The Television Series
Volumes One, Two & Three - 1974 (2005) - Katsu Productions/Saito Entertainment (Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters)

Program Rating (all three volumes): A
Disc Ratings (all three volumes - Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/F

Zatoichi: The Television Series - Volume OneZatoichi: The Television Series - Volume TwoZatoichi: The Television Series - Volume Three

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Okay... we've said this before and we'll likely say it again: There is NOTHING we love more here at The Bits than watching our favorite blind swordsman kicking a little ass on film. Zatoichi (played by Shintaro Katsu), as you may know from our long love (and coverage) of the character's adventures on disc, is a humble blind man struggling to make his way in Japan's late Edo period (roughly sometime in the 19th Century). A common occupation for the blind in Japan at the time was masseur, so Ichi often attempts to make a little gambling money that way. Little do people suspect, however, Zatoichi is actually a consummate swordsman who, with his superior sense of hearing, is a match for even the most skilled samurai. As Ichi is also a decent fellow, someone who feels compelled to help the needy and downtrodden, he's often at odds with the local thuggery who prey on the weak - crime lords and their gangs of armed henchmen. So no matter where Zatoichi goes, trouble is almost sure to find him. And it's never long before Ichi's deadly blade is whispering through the air... and the bodies begin to pile up.

These initial three volumes on DVD from Media Blasters (via their Tokyo Shock label) contain the first thirteen episodes of the vintage Japanese TV series (originally known as Zatoichi Monogatari) in broadcast order. Each volume contains four or five episodes each, on two discs, and each episode is roughly 47 minutes long. The stories are fairly typical of those you find in the film series, if just a little more condensed and varied. These are the specific episodes included:

Volume One - (001) A Challenge of Chance, (002) The Flower That Bloomed with the Lullaby, (003) A Memorial Day and the Bell of Life, (004) The Kannon Statue that was Tied and (005) The Heartless Man, Touched by Compassion

Volume Two - (006) Pouring Rain, (007) A Bird Lands on Ichi, (008) An Unforgettable Flower and (009) The Two Zatoichis

Volume Three - (010) The Sumo Wrestler Who Found His Home, (011) The Whirlwind of Kisoji, (012) Humanity and Justice and (013) The 1,000 Ryo Raffle

As far as picture and sound quality, you can't expect top grade here. Remember, these episodes were shot on film for TV broadcast in Japan back in the early 1970s. Many Japanese films from this period have suffered from lack of proper preservation and storage over the years. Still, as someone who's been watching these episodes on pretty ratty-looking bootleg videotapes, I'm very pleased. The quality here is a MAJOR improvement from what I've seen before. Presented in their original full frame aspect ratio, with Japanese mono audio (and removable English subs), there's little worth complaining about with these eps and seldom do the quality issues become distracting. It's also worth noting that there are no real extras on these discs... but that's okay too as far as we're concerned. Really, just HAVING these episodes on DVD at all is the bonus. Seriously, we never thought we'd see the day that this series was released on DVD here in the States, so we'll just say "Thank you!" and leave it at that.

If you love Zatoichi as much as we do, we think you'll really enjoy these episodes. They're not for everyone certainly, but if you dig the Ichi films, you won't regret adding these discs to your collection. The best news is, the fun doesn't stop here. Volume Four of the TV series has already been announced for release on 6/13, and Volume Five is currently due on 8/29. As far as we're concerned, the folks at Media Blasters are to be HUGELY commended for releasing the original Japanese TV series on DVD. We just hope that enough people will buy these to allow Media Blasters to continue and eventually release the complete series. After enjoying all 26 vintage Zatoichi films starring Shintaro Katsu, and the recent remake film from Beat Takeshi (nearly all of which are now available on DVD in the States), you might well think the fun is over. So what a thrill it is to have so much vintage Zatoichi - the TV adventures that most outside of Japan have never seen before - left to look forward to. There were approximately 100 episodes of the series produced in all (26 in 1974, 29 in 1976, 19 in 1978 and 26 in 1979). We say, "Bring 'em on!"

Bill Hunt
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