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Doogan's Views at The Digital Bits!
page added: 2/20/02

DVD: Digital Versatile Dodo?

I'm 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 why.

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...

Mark Twain

Mark Twain
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

Mark 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 yourself.

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.

Mark Twain
Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

The Grapes of Death: Special Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The 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

The 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.

The Grapes of Death: Special Edition
Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

Drawing Flies

Drawing Flies
1995 (2002) - View Askew Productions (IndieDVD)

Film Rating: D-

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

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

Hmm. 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, quite easily.

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 films.

Drawing Flies
Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

I'm 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 you...

Todd Doogan

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