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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Potpourri for $1,000

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Over the course of the year, The Digital Bits HQ (which, I understand, resembles the Superfriends' Hall of Justice) sent me a number of review discs that, for one reason or another, I never got around to reviewing. Either they didn't seem to be such major releases that they warranted an entire review or I couldn't find a unifying theme to work them into a column. And so, we have this, the first annual Bottom Shelf-Clearing Special. Half a dozen discs that fell through the cracks (in some cases, literally falling through the crack between my desk and the wall). Some deserve to be swallowed up and never heard from again. Some warrant your attention. All of them have been sitting in a forlorn stack next to my computer for months, wondering what they could have done to be treated so shabbily. Now, at last, they get what's coming to them and I get a momentarily clean desk.

Bringing Down the House

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Bringing Down the House
2003 (2003) - Touchstone (Buena Vista)

Allow me to establish my credentials as a Steve Martin fan. Growing up in the 1970's, his albums and appearances on Saturday Night Live were a key formative influence. While other kids my age had posters of Star Wars or the Bee Gees, I had a poster of Steve Martin with an oversized fish in his pants, signed "Best Fishes, Steve Martin". I have seen every single movie he's done, whether I wanted to or not. His films can generally be divided into three categories. There's Classic Steve, movies in which he is firing on all cylinders like The Jerk and Roxanne. There's Experimental Steve, movies in which he tries to do something a little different. Sometimes the gamble pays off beautifully, like his turn in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. Sometimes it doesn't quite work out, as in the muddled but interesting Leap of Faith. But whether it works or not, the attempt almost always revitalizes his performance and makes the movie worth watching, even if it isn't entirely successful.

Finally, there's Zombie Steve. Unfortunately, Zombie Steve has become increasingly dominant of late. In interviews, Martin has said that acting doesn't hold the same excitement for him as it once did and he prefers to concentrate his energy on writing. That's fine and it's resulted in some very fine books and plays. Unfortunately, it's also produced some of the worst films of his career, movies in which he's running on empty and bringing just a fraction of his brilliant mind to the task at hand. These movies are the most painful for fans like me and include such DOA catastrophes as Mixed Nuts, Sgt. Bilko and, you guessed it, Bringing Down the House.

Here, Martin plays divorced tax attorney Peter Sanderson. He strikes up a relationship in an Internet chat room with someone he assumes is another lawyer but instead turns out to be an ex-con named Charlene (Queen Latifah). She wants Peter to help clear her name and, as you might surmise, wackiness ensues. In this case, borderline racist wackiness as Peter has to hide Charlene from his bigoted neighbor (Betty White) and a rich, dowager client (Joan Plowright, of all people). Laughs fail to arise from ultra-white guys like Martin and Eugene Levy acting black or from Latifah attempting to behave according to White and Plowright's Stepin Fetchit vision of African American standards.

Bringing Down the House has echoes of other, infinitely superior films, from Bulworth to Martin's All of Me. When I first saw this theatrically, I'll confess I smiled once or twice and may even have coughed out a minor chuckle at one point. But when I revisited The House on DVD, those meager pleasures were a long-gone memory. Unlike Steve Martin's best films, Bringing Down the House does not remain funny time and time again, making it an odd choice for a special edition DVD. Even if you liked this movie more than I did (and it wouldn't take much), I can't imagine anybody watching it more than once.

Nevertheless, Bringing Down the House raked in a surprisingly large amount of money, so Touchstone did as most studios are doing these days, releasing a semi-special edition of the recent blockbuster while other, worthier movies either languish in the vaults or get dumped without so much as a trailer. Picture quality is excellent, as it should be for such a recent film. There is minor edge enhancement and the 16x9 enhanced image is not the most creative use of the widescreen frame but overall, the movie looks fine. Sounds fine too, thanks to a 5.1 surround track, although given the sitcom antics on screen, you may expect a laugh track to rumble out of the rear field from time to time.

As for extra features, Bringing Down the House should be Exhibit A in the case for eliminating bonuses on movies that do not deserve them. Leading off the disc is one of the most insufferable commentaries I have ever listened to, provided by director Adam Shankman and screenwriter Jason Filardi. They giggle and crack unfunny jokes throughout and discuss how working with Steve Martin, Queen Latifah and Eugene Levy was a privilege and an honor. No doubt it was but all I got out of the track was the discovery that a key scene in the film was shot within a few blocks of my apartment.

The mutual admiration society continues on the making-of featurette. Everybody loved working with everybody else, Steve and Eugene are just so funny, blah blah blah. You also get a collection of deleted scenes (which, by rights, should have been augmented with most of the finished film), a gag reel (because everybody loves watching actors flub lines), a Queen Latifah music video and a short comedy bit about Levy's legendary standing in the hip hop community. Har-de-har-har.

Sadly, Martin does not seem to be coming out of his malaise anytime soon if Cheaper by the Dozen is any indication. I'm glad that he's making hit movies again, I just wish they were worth his time and effort. Steve Martin is at his best when he either writes his own material or is paired with a strong director like Ron Howard or Frank Oz. Bringing Down the House may have allowed him to buy a few more paintings for his art collection, but it does nothing to bolster his own reputation as an artist.

Film Rating: D
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C-

Cronos: 10th Anniversary Special Edition

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10th Anniversary Special Edition - 1993 (2003) - Lions Gate

One nice thing about the horror genre is that every few years, a new director comes along to shake things up a little bit and join the ranks of such giants as Romero, Raimi, and Cronenberg. Back in 1993, Mexico made its most recent contribution to the pantheon with Guillermo Del Toro's debut, Cronos. Since then, Del Toro has gone back and forth between Mexico and Hollywood to varying degrees of success. His American debut, Mimic, wasn't too bad, certainly not the total sell-out that so many foreign directors unfortunately create when they come over here. Blade II kept Wesley Snipes' vampire hunter franchise chugging along for at least one more movie and his credibility was maintained with his excellent return to Mexican cinema, The Devil's Backbone. If early word is any indication, his 2004 comic book adaptation Hellboy may very well be his commercial breakthrough while staying true to his cultish roots. It's almost certain that it is anticipation of Hellboy that prompted Lions Gate to release a special edition of Cronos, rather than a bona fide celebration of that film's 10th anniversary. Either way, horror fans should be happy to have it.

In grand old horror movie tradition, Cronos revolves around the desire to possess an ancient object with supernatural powers. Here, it's the Cronos device, created by an alchemist hundreds of years ago and home to a parasitic insect that feeds off the device's owner and gives him eternal life in exchange. The device falls into the hands of an elderly antiques dealer (Federico Luppi) who discovers its powers by accident. Luppi soon finds himself targeted by eccentric dying millionaire Claudio Brook and his thuggish son (played by the man who would be Hellboy, Ron Perlman).

Essentially, Cronos is a vampire movie with a bit of a twist. It isn't the best horror film of the past ten years but it is one of the most memorable horror debuts. Del Toro distinguishes himself from his peers with his attention to telling character traits and developing believable and true relationships, particularly between Luppi and his young, mostly silent granddaughter. Perlman and Brook make for a memorable pair of villains and the device itself is a beautifully designed McGuffin that belongs in a horror movie museum alongside Sam Raimi's Necronomicon.

An anniversary edition DVD ought to be definitive and Lions Gate has made a nice effort at providing fans with just that. Unfortunately, the disc contains several major caveats. First off, the cover art displays a misleading image of the device attached to a sexy woman's neck. This woman isn't in the movie and in fact, the only people to use the device are older, not-particularly-sexy men. Worse than that, Del Toro makes several references in both his interview and commentary to features that are nowhere to be found on this disc, notably a number of deleted scenes. Also, a second commentary by producers Alejandro Springall, Bertha Navarro and American Arthur Gorson is conducted in both Spanish and English. However, the entire thing is subtitled in English, a somewhat distracting feature that takes some getting used to. Also, this commentary lapses into long stretches of silence. This is annoying under any circumstances and downright unforgivable when there are three participants. Surely somebody could have come up with something to say.

The disc's biggest problem lies in its subtitling. Basically, there are no real English subtitles on the disc at all. Those that have been provided are for the hearing impaired, which means that you get things like "Bells Chiming" and "Whirring" in addition to the dialogue. The menu suggests that there are three subtitle options: English, Spanish, and English for the hearing impaired but all of them have these to a certain degree. The difference between the two English subtitle options is that on the first, English dialogue is not subtitled. But you still get stuck with the music and effects captions.

Now the good news. Del Toro's commentary is informative and enthusiastic, providing a great deal of insight into the making of the film. Del Toro also provides a fifteen-minute video interview which thankfully does not repeat exactly what he says in the commentary. Federico Luppi is also interviewed in a five-minute segment misleadingly called The Making of Cronos. The sound quality of this interview is extremely poor but is subtitled in English. Two still galleries are provided, a photo gallery that provides a number of candid behind-the-scenes shots and a more interesting art gallery with Del Toro's original sketches and comic-book-like storyboards.

Most importantly, the movie itself looks and sounds very fine indeed. The picture is 16x9 enhanced and captures the movie's vivid and dynamic color schemes extremely well. It succumbs to some excessive grain during a few nighttime shots but not to the point where it becomes impossible to make out what's happening. The soundtrack options are a respectable 5.1 mix or the original 2.0 version. The 5.1 won't blow the glass out of your windows but it's appropriate to the film.

In theory, the projected success of Hellboy should make a new legion of fans want to go out and discover Del Toro's first film. I hope their discovery of Cronos does not hinge on his next movie's success or failure. Cronos is an extremely interesting horror movie with plenty of memorable moments and disturbing imagery. It's well worth seeking out under any circumstances. Longtime fans may chalk Lions Gate's DVD as a disappointment in many regards but if you're new to Del Toro, it's a welcome addition.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/C+

Live from Baghdad

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Live from Baghdad
2003 (2003) - HBO

For the past several years, HBO has become a reliable provider of high quality original programming. Whether it's original series, documentaries, or movies, the HBO brand is often a recommendation in and of itself. The pay-cable station attracts some of the biggest names in the industry thanks to HBO's commitment to original, risk-taking programming that would be all but impossible to release either theatrically or on network TV. However, the inevitable by-product of this irresistible attraction is that HBO puts the bulk of its marketing muscle behind major events like the Spielberg/Hanks miniseries Band of Brothers or the long-awaited adaptation of Angels in America. Understandable, I suppose, but this means that plenty of smaller movies and series get far less attention than they deserve. Mr. Show never got the same push as Sex and the City (or even the execrable Arli$$, for that matter). Even Larry David's brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm took awhile to earn its place in the HBO pantheon. In the movie department, one of HBO's most underrated efforts of recent years is 2003's Live from Baghdad.

Set on the eve of the Gulf War (the classic original, that is, not the overlong, bloated-budget, tangentially related remake cum sequel that's still going on), Live from Baghdad casts Michael Keaton as CNN producer Robert Wiener, a chain-smoking, no-bullshit journalist who'll do just about anything to be at Ground Zero when war breaks out. Along with his partner Ingrid Formanek (played by a hair-tousled Helena Bonham Carter), Wiener manages to out-maneuver, out-think, and outlast his rivals from other networks, eventually forming an uneasy working relationship/quasi-friendship with Iraqi Minister of Information Naji Al-Nadithi (David Suchet).

Eventually, Wiener gets his story (this is not a spoiler… anybody with basic cable back in 1991 could tell you that). But the real thrill of Live from Baghdad isn't in seeing the CNN news team reporting from beneath a table as the bombs drop, although the scene is recreated quite well. As in all good movies about journalism, the excitement lies in seeing what these reporters go through on the way to getting the story. Live from Baghdad provides a lot of fascinating details specific to covering the war in Iraq but also makes broader points about combat journalism in general. Still, this isn't quite on the level of something like All the President's Men. Live from Baghdad is also the story of how CNN became a force to be reckoned with. Consequently, there's an unavoidable sense of CNN boosterism in some scenes and a little of it goes a long way. And that sense is only heightened when you realize that HBO and CNN are corporate siblings.

British director Mick Jackson may not be the first person you'd expect to make a film like this (his previous credits include Steve Martin's L.A. Story and the ludicrous guilty-pleasure disaster flick Volcano) but he brings a real immediacy to the events. There's genuine tension in the air during much of the film, a sense that anything could happen at any time. Most of all, Live from Baghdad reminds us what a fine actor Michael Keaton is. Why we don't see more of him these days is a mystery.

Unfortunately, the same marketing muscle that favors Band of Brothers over Live from Baghdad extends to the production of DVDs. Technically, the movie looks and sounds very good indeed. But Live from Baghdad would seem to be an obvious choice for a special edition. It would be fascinating to see comparisons of the real footage with the movie recreations. If nothing else, we should hear from the real Robert Wiener. After all, he wrote the book the movie is based on, wrote a draft of the screenplay, and is credited as co-producer, so it's not as if he's disowned the film. Instead, all we really get is a nuts-and-bolts commentary from Jackson that's more concerned with pointing out what was shot on a set in Culver City and what was shot on location in Morocco. There are a few interesting bits in here but all in all, this disc is a lost opportunity.

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

Michelangelo: Self-Portrait

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Michelangelo: Self-Portrait
1989 (2003) - Home Vision

First things first. I am not the target audience for a disc like this and I have no idea how I ended up with it. Michelangelo: Self-Portrait is the sort of DVD you see for sale in museum gift shops or on the 700 shelves of the non-fiction videos in your public library. Still, I figured if someone was nice enough to send me a copy, I ought to at least check it out.

Directed by Robert Snyder, Self-Portrait is a biography of the great Renaissance artist told entirely through his own writings, diaries and letters. The good news is that by the end of the film, I had learned quite a bit about Michelangelo. The bad news is that one of the things I learned is he wasn't the most fascinating character to ever sculpt marble. His life was characterized by internal struggle between the desire to create both spiritual and secular art. And while that struggle resulted in some of the most amazing art ever created, there's only so much Snyder can do to bring it to life on film, working only with voice-over narration and long, lingering shots of Michelangelo's work.

Interestingly, this disc is an example of how important technical issues can be in enhancing the film itself. Self-Portrait was originally released in 1989 and hasn't aged particularly well. The colors are subdued and the picture is soft and grainy. If the film was done exactly the same today, using the same voice-over but recreating the picture shot-for-shot with state-of-the-art high-def video equipment, Self-Portrait would instantly become a must-see. These long, detailed, close-up shots of Michelangelo's sculpture and paintings would spring to life with new equipment, allowing the viewer to get closer to these works than they ever could in real life. Snyder's film is a good one but it could have been so much better just ten years later.

While the film itself is primarily of interest to art history students, those who are interested in the subject will find a top-notch array of supplementary materials. Chief among them is Snyder's Oscar-winning 1950 documentary The Titan. Presented by Robert Flaherty, the father of documentary filmmaking, The Titan represents Snyder's first attempt at covering the story of Michelangelo. The story hasn't changed but the way in which it is told is quite different. Even if you're not particularly interested in Michelangelo, it's very interesting to see the differences in filmmaking styles and techniques. Also included is a brief interview with Snyder, as well as liner notes by Snyder and David Tseklenis. Finally, you can check out excerpts from six of Snyder's other films, all of which are about people I found more interesting than Michelangelo (including Buckminster Fuller, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin). I'd like to see Home Vision release some of these on DVD.

Is Michelangelo: Self-Portrait an essential addition to your non-fiction DVD library? If you're an art collector or student, perhaps. Otherwise, probably not. But considering you get two movies for the price of one and an extensive selection of other bonuses, Self-Portrait definitely makes a more edifying museum souvenir than a coffee mug or a Michelangelo mouse pad.

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

Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation: Full Frontal
Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation: Unprotected!

2003 - Shout! Factory/Sony Music

Back in the 80's, I regularly attended the annual International Tournée of Animation compilations. Like most such programs, they were hit or miss. But at the time, it was the only place you could see risk-taking, innovative animation. They weren't all great but every so often, you'd see something extraordinary. Eventually, the International Tournées stopped, replaced by things like Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival, and eventually, I stopped going. Now, Spike & Mike are invading DVD and now I remember why exactly it was I stopped going to these things in the first place.
Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation: Full FrontalSpike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation: Unprotected!

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Part of the problem with these two new compilations can be summed up in two words: Flash animation. Yes, that little computer program that has made animation accessible to the masses has given us some of the ugliest, most god-awful cartoons ever made. On the one hand, these discs will reassure you that the herky-jerky, hiccupy style of these cartoons is not the fault of your crappy Internet connection. On the other, did you really buy a DVD player to watch something that's little more than a glorified slide show?

Bad animation aside, the other major problem with these comps is the content of the films themselves and that one ain't so easy to get around. Back in the heyday of animation festivals, we had shorts from people like Bill Plympton, bizarre, surrealist mini-masterpieces unlike anything we'd ever seen. Now, even Plympton's recent thirty-second shorts (done for, what else, his website) suffer from the same one-joke malaise that hammers the audience over the head. Instead of wild visions that explore the limitless boundaries of animation, we get joke after joke about pot, sex, poop, farts, and injuries to tongues, eyes, and testicles. Excuse me if I do not fall off my chair laughing.

That said, each disc has at least one or two gems hiding amidst the garbage. Full Frontal is easily the superior of the two comps, kicking things off with three Happy Tree Friends shorts. Despite my hatred of Internet animation, Happy Tree Friends is easily the best of that subgenre. I know that may be damning it with faint praise but honestly, these are genuinely funny. However, they're so good that they've earned discs of their own, so you don't really need to buy Full Frontal to get your Happy Tree Friends fix. Other bright spots on Full Frontal include Bill Plympton's classic Eat, a Maakies short from Tony Millionaire (none of the Maakies cartoons are nearly as good as Millionaire's comic strip but in this company, they seem particularly choice), and Pickle's Day Out. Bambi Meets Godzilla is on here too, and it was funny the first twenty times I saw it, though it's considerably less amusing now. Without a doubt, though, the highlight of either of these discs is Don Hertzfeldt's Rejected. This is the funniest nine minutes I've seen in ages and I did fall off my chair laughing during this one. Rejected is good enough to make Full Frontal worth recommending on its own.

Unprotected doesn't have a spotlight gem like Rejected and, despite the fact that it's 12 minutes shorter than Full Frontal, it feels about half an hour longer. There are two more Maakies cartoons plus Marv Newland's classic, Lupo the Butcher, but that's about it. Otherwise, you get sequels and further adventures of some of the worst from Full Frontal. More No Neck Joe, more Coco the Junkie Pimp, more sub-sophomoric jokes about drugs and incest and animals having sex. By the end of Unprotected, I was in dire need of aspirin and fresh air.

Neither disc has much in the way of extras. Full Frontal has nothing at all and Unprotected has a pair of video intros to the festivals by Spike. They're even less amusing than the cartoons themselves and I have no idea why they put two on one disc and none on the other.

Animation is a limitless medium and god knows it can always use new blood, especially these days. But there isn't too much to cheer about with Spike & Mike's two new discs. If this is the future of animation, with too few exceptions, it's ugly, clumsy, loud, and abrasive. I could deal with all of that if it was also clever, inventive, and funny. Full Frontal is a fine example of the highs and lows of animation. Check out Eat, Rejected, and the Happy Tree Friends to see how good it can get. Then watch a few seconds of just about everything else to see the bottom of the barrel. As for Unprotected… don't say you weren't warned.

Full Frontal
Program Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/F

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

Adam Jahnke
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