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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Star Trek: Insurrection - Special Collector's Edition

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Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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Star Trek: Insurrection
Special Collector's Edition - 1998 (2005) - Paramount

Film Rating: C-

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B/B-

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A+

Smack in the middle of the Federation, there's this dangerous area of nebula and gas-filled space called the Briar Patch... and smack in the middle of the Briar Patch is this little gem of a world. It's an idyllic paradise - green, lush, temperate... and oh, did I mention that if you life there, you never grow old? It seems that there's a strange kind of radiation in the planet's rings that rejuvenates living cellular tissue, making the planet a sort of fountain of youth. On this world, are a nice little race called the Ba'ku - all 600 of them - who have decided to give up the technology and live in harmony with nature.

Naturally, there's another race called the Son'a - a dying race - that desperately wants to harness this radiation to save themselves. They'll share the technology with the Federation... isn't that nice? Unfortunately, the Son'a are nasty little sons-of-you-know-whats, and their plan to harness the radiation will make the planet inhospitable for generations. So Starfleet Admiral Dougherty, who is in charge of the project, has made a deal with the devil and is about to break the Federation's most sacred principle - the Prime Directive of non-interference with less advanced civilizations. Unknown to his superiors, a secret plan to relocate the Ba'ku without their knowledge has been set in motion.

Fortunately, our old android pal Data has been helping to study the Ba'ku. When he stumbles onto the plan, he gets shot and goes nuts. Admiral Dougherty calls Captain Picard, aboard the good ship Enterprise, for the plans to deactivate Data. But Picard and his crew are suspicious. When the Enterprise arrives to locate and repair Data themselves, the crew soon realizes what's happening. Can Picard and company stop the Son'a, and get word to the Federation before it's too late? Well, if you don't already know the answer to that question, you've never seen an episode of Star Trek.

A lot of reviewers trashed this flick, and I think somewhat unjustly. No, this isn't loaded with action, and no, there aren't any Klingons, Romulans or Borg. Neither are there freaky Klingon woman with busty breast plates, or sexy half-robot Borg Queens. You know what I mean - the kind of Trek hokum that's so often thrown in to give the mostly-male fans a woody. No, this is a film about ideals. This is Star Trek which examines its principles, and has its characters forced to make a choice - betray Starfleet, or betray the very beliefs they hold most sacred.

Before you get too excited however, there's still plenty to cringe about. The problem here is not with second-time director Jonathan Frakes - he is clearly very capable, and keeps the action going as best he can. The problem here is the writing. The ratio of actual drama to sap is too imbalanced. There are lots of nice little character moments: we see Riker and Troi finally heating things up between the sheets (OK, we don't actually see that, but you know what I mean), we see Georgi finally seeing a sunrise with his real eyes, and Data's reaction to Riker having shaved his beard is very funny. All of this is great for longtime fans, but there's SO much of this that anyone who isn't a Trek fan will bore in a hurry. And do we really need to see Worf with nasty Klingon zits, or hear Troi and Crusher talking about how their boobs are firming up? Yikes. Or yawn. Take your pick.

Paramount's original DVD release of Insurrection featured a decent anamorphic widescreen transfer. This new 2-disc version appears to include the same transfer, albeit with much improved MPEG-2 compression. The original quality is good, with terrific contrast, gorgeous and richly saturated colors and only minor artifacting and edge enhancement. The improved compression on the new release results in slightly greater detail and a cleaner, more natural looking image with subtly improved depth. I can't say it's Paramount's best transfer in the Trek DVD series, but it's good.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack here is outstanding (I believe it's the same mix featured on the original DVD). There's lots of great directional play and panning, active use of the rear channels for atmosphere and effects, and excellent LFE. This new DVD release offers a superb DTS mix as well, featuring smoother panning and just that extra measure of additional clarity that helps to produce a more natural quality to the soundfield.

Strangely, the only extra on Disc One is another text commentary by longtime Trek art/technical staffers Michael and Denise Okuda. It's good as always, but it's probably only for the serious fans. Strangely, Jonathan Frakes doesn't follow up his director's audio commentary on the First Contact DVD with another one here. I'm not sure why, but more on that in a moment.

Disc Two, however, is packed with extras - some two hours in all. First up, you get seven production featurettes that take you behind the scenes on the development of the story, the production design, the construction of the village set, the location shooting, the stunt work and more. Particularly nice here is a Director's Notebook (18 mins), in which Frakes talks about his approach and intent with this film. Frakes himself notes that the script here isn't as strong as his previous First Contact. You get to see fun off-camera moments and hear some surprisingly entertaining stories. Frakes talks about a number of different scenes and aspects of the production. This piece is good enough that perhaps it explains why there's no commentary. Moving on, there are additional featurettes on Michael Westmore's alien creature design and the 'beautiful alien women' of Star Trek. Three more featurettes detail the creation of a trio of effects sequences from the film, including the shuttle chase, the attack of the flying drones and the revelation of the 'duck blind'. The most welcome of all the extras on this disc is a series of six deleted/extended scenes, along with an alternate ending to the film (letterboxed widescreen but unfortunately not anamorphic). Strangely, these deleted scenes aren't listed on the back of the packaging. Finally, you get galleries of production photos and storyboard art, the film's teaser and theatrical trailers (again, letterboxed but not anamorphic), the original promotional featurette from the previous DVD release (which means you can sell your old disc) and a Borg Invasion promo. The video extras are all full frame and feature optional English subtitles.

I like what Rick Berman and Michael Piller tried to do with Star Trek: Insurrection, I really do. They just fell way short of the mark. There's not nearly enough dramatic tension here to support the story. Still, what action there is is generally solid, and there are some good performances. Plus, as I said, you get all those character moments. You might actually appreciate some of them... even if others drive you nuts.

Voyage to the Planets and Beyond

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Voyage to the Planets and Beyond
(a.k.a. Space Odyssey)

2004 (2005) - Impossible Pictures/BBC/Discovery Cannel (Warner Bros.)

Program Rating: A

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

Some of you may already be familiar with Voyage to the Planets and Beyond, which premiered this past weekend here in the States on The Discovery Channel. This two-part program (originally shown in the U.K. as Space Odyssey), follows the adventures of a team of five astronauts as they embark on a six-year-long grand tour of the planets in our solar system. They leave the Earth and travel to Venus and Mars for visits to each planet's surface, then cruise past the sun to pick up speed for a swing out to Jupiter, where a daring aero-braking maneuver allows for visits to the Jovian moons Io and Europa. Then it's on to Saturn and Pluto before heading home, with a quick stop off at a comet for good measure. And all this in just two hours. Trust me, it works. I would never have believed it, but it works.

Produced in cooperation with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Space Agency (Rosaviakosmos), the program is presented as if the events depicted were actually happening. Sometimes you're in the moment, watching the drama play out, and other times you're treated to interview clips with the crew or scientists on the ground, explaining various aspects of the mission or problems that are about to be faced. A narrator occasionally chimes in to move things along. This docudrama format works perfectly, keeping you engaged in the story all the while you're learning about the challenges of manned spaceflight and what our neighboring planets are like. The technology will fascinate you, the visuals will amaze you and real moments of peril and tension will keep you glued to your seat the entire time.

It's immediately obvious when you begin watching this program, that the writers and producers clearly knew their stuff. There's heavy-duty science on display here. The hardware is real, the physics are real. Everything you're going to see - every little detail, from the ship's design and technology, to the way the astronauts move and talk, the planetary surface environments - it's all meticulously researched and accurate, and it's absolutely believable.

Voyage was produced in high-definition, so the DVD presentation is anamorphic widescreen (and boy, will you ever be glad it is). The imagery here is a feast for the eyes. There are a couple of quality issues, however. There's nearly four hours worth of video content included on a single, dual-layered disc, so there's visible digital over-compression. It's not a big deal, and you'll only really notice it on large displays, but I'm certainly looking forward to seeing the high-def version someday (anyone out there make a D-VHS recording of this off Discovery HD?). Also, as part of the format of the program, you're sometimes seeing images shot as if by on-board video cameras, which are deliberately less than perfect looking. That's certainly not a problem, but it's worth noting.

Surprisingly, the audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo only. Why this isn't 5.1 surround, I don't know, because it would really enhance the visuals dramatically. The audio is okay - you'll understand the dialogue just fine, and the sound effects are good - but a real opportunity was missed here to surround you with the subtle atmosphere of spaceflight. It would have been nice to find yourself immersed in the machine noises of the ship, the sound of wind blowing during a dust storm on Mars, the ping of micrometeorites against the hull. Disappointing.

While not quite as disappointing as the lack of 5.1 surround sound, the extras included on this disc are a little less than I was hoping for too. You get an hour-long documentary on the various robotic missions to the planets that the filmmakers referenced to help tell their story. You get another half-hour's worth of short featurettes (four in all) on the making of the actual program itself. Then there are some text 'fact files' about the different planets of the solar system, there's an extensive gallery of production photos and there are trailers for other BBC science programs. Now, I know that sounds like a lot. But I was just so blown away by this program that I wanted a lot more substance.

It's certainly too much for a single disc, which explains the video quality problems. Voyage to the Planets and Beyond should be AT LEAST a two-disc set. Hell, if I were the DVD producer involved in this, I'd push for a three-disc set. I'd let the program sit on a disc all by itself, with maxed-out video quality, 5.1 audio and dual audio commentary tracks with the filmmakers talking about the production, and real astronauts and scientists talking about the accuracy and details (like Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott, who was an advisor to this program). None of that is here.

I'd have a second disc be all about the making of this film. A half-hour is not nearly long enough to do justice to this production. Just as you start really getting into something interesting, the featurettes move on to something else. So much work went into getting every little detail right in this film, down to shooting bits of it in real (simulated) weightlessness aboard a 'vomit comet' aircraft (a-la Apollo 13). When I got done with Voyage, I was ready for another two hours of behind-the-scenes material. As I said, a half-hour is just not nearly enough.

Finally, I'd have a third disc with additional documentaries on the planets, the science, past missions, the difficulties of manned spaceflight, etc. The hour-long piece you DO get is okay, and it does include a little bit more on the making of the program, but it's not worth the price of compromising the video quality by squeezing it all onto a single disc. By bumping it to a second disc at least, you'd have that much more room to really go in-depth. Ah well. This will have to do for now.

I really wish Warner and the BBC would have given Voyage to the Planets and Beyond the kind of love and attention on DVD that the filmmakers clearly invested in its making. I'll tell you right now, this is the most realistic, most accurately imagined and by far the most interesting depiction of a manned deep space mission that I have ever seen. Forget Red Planet, forget Mission to Mars - neither can hold a candle to this. This program is proof that the reality of spaceflight is infinitely more interesting that anything Hollywood can conjure. My hats off to writer/director Joe Ahearne and everyone involved. Bravo!

Wooly Boys

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Wooly Boys
2001 (2005) - PFG/Wardenclyffe (Lions Gate)

Film Rating: C+

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

Stoney (Peter Fonda) and Shuck (Kris Kristofferson) are long-in-the-tooth wooly boys (that's sheep ranchers to you), living on a backwater ranch in the backwater Badlands of North Dakota. Shuck used to be Stoney's hired hand, but they've been working the same patch of dirt together for so long that now they're just old friends. But life isn't all good out on the ranch. Stoney's has been having these nasty headaches for a while now, that he's too afraid to have checked out. What's more, he hasn't seen his daughter or grandson, who live in Minneapolis, in many years. So when his birthday shows up again one day, but a card from his daughter doesn't, Stoney starts worrying that she might be sick. With the help of another old friend, who also happens to be the local sheriff (Keith Carradine), Stoney hops a Greyhound bus and sets off to track her down in the big city. Naturally, when he doesn't return… Shuck figures it's time to mount a rescue operation.

Wooly Boys is a film that never quite made it into wide theatrical release. I recall my folks back in North Dakota telling me that they'd seen it at the local theater, and that I should keep my eyes open for it. Movies shot completely on location in North Dakota and Minnesota are rather rare animals these days, so I was looking forward to seeing it myself for nothing else if not sentimental reasons. When I heard Lions Gate was going to be putting it out on DVD, I finally got the chance. Darned if it isn't a pretty cute little film. Oh sure, it's a little predictable and contrived in places, some (okay, most) of the characters are obvious and thinly drawn, and there's a whole subplot about a deputy sheriff and his nephews trying to steal the ranch out from under from Stony and Shuck that seems to have been lifted wholesale from a bad episode of The Dukes of Hazard… but it's still a cute little film in its way.

Lions Gate is decent enough to offer the film on DVD with an anamorphic widescreen transfer. It's surprisingly good. There's a bit of unnecessary edginess to the picture, but the overall detail is excellent, the color palate is warm and inviting, and the contrast is solid too. It won't win any awards, but I was pleasantly surprised. The film's audio is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround that, again, isn't going to raise the bar, but is a more than adequate match to the visuals.

The only thing that could remotely be called an extra on this disc is a series of trailers for other Lions Gate films on DVD, but sadly not one for Wooly Boys. I suppose that's not too unexpected - this film flew well under the radar when it was first issued in very limited theatrical release, so we should probably just be glad it's on DVD at all.

Wooly Boys isn't the best film ever made in Dakota territory by a long shot, but it's got an undeniable charm, a decent message and it's good for the whole family. And hell, as a Dakota boy myself, there's just nothing prettier than a big sky over an open prairie, with a warm summer breeze blowing through the tall grass. Life in the vast lane, I like to call it. You really outta give Wooly Boys a shot. I mean, come on… when was the last time you saw a North Dakota road movie? Seriously.

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