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Amistad - Good Movie, but Flawed Disc
Crawls with Fun
MouseHunt a Trap
Small Soldiers a Killer

Steven Spielberg's Amistad, the director's first movie for his DreamWorks SKG studio, is a courtroom drama with a liberal social conscience. It's a pretty gripping yarn, however, based on the true story of a group of black men and women found drifting at sea and brought to the US in chains to be tried as escaped slaves.

Whether the group is legally - and/or morally - slaves is the focus of this movie, and along the way we learn some really disturbing things about the treatment of slaves from the time they're captured until they're delivered to their eventual owners in the New World.

Amistad stars Matthew McConaughey as the lawyer who attempts to prove the defendants are legally free people. Morgan Freeman is the anti-slavery activist who hires him. Djimon Hounsou turns in a powerful and moving performance as Cinque, leader of the Africans at the center of the controversy. Anthony Hopkins pops up again, in what's actually little more than a cameo role, but he does a terrific job as former president John Quincy Adams, who takes the plaintiffs' case to the US Supreme Court. He may not be in the movie much, but he makes his presence felt.

Amistad was a pet project of co-producer Debbie Allen, who (according to the disc's production notes) brought the project to Spielberg after seeing his "Schindler's List." They apparently tried to cast as many African actors as possible in the film, to add to its feeling of accuracy (though that makes one wonder why Sir Anthony is there, playing an American!). The film does have kind of a documentary feel to it - and the scenes depicting the slaves' horrible treatment during their Atlantic crossing will remain forever etched in our minds.

Most of the film is a relatively straightforward courtroom drama, at least as straightforward as such a case could be. One of the most interesting aspects was the Americans' attempts at communicating with, and therefore understanding, the Africans. Fortunately, they happen across an "African Brit" who understands and can speak the Africans' tongue and from there their case becomes a lot more straightforward.

As a DVD, we had a large problem with Amistad: our home theater DVD player - and a DVD ROM drive we were testing, had great difficulty tracking the change from one layer to the other. The picture would freeze, or jump, and on one occasion when the layer change was actually accomplished, we discovered that the subtitles had somehow turned themselves on.

This was really annoying, especially since it happened at one of the most riveting moments in the film. Hopefully this was just a flaw in the disc we were sent and isn't representative of the entire production run.

Other than that, the widescreen (1.85:1) picture is outstanding, as is the Dolby Digital Sound (we're sure Spielberg wouldn't have it any other way). Only the widescreen version is offered on this disc.

Amistad has a good selection of extras, too. There's pretty good documentary on "the making of Amistad" as well as a substantial section of production notes. Naturally, you also get cast/filmmakers' bios/filmographies and the theatrical trailer.

Other than the major problem we had with the manufacturing of the disc, we found Amistad to be a moving and involving tale of humanity, inhumanity, and the pursuit of truth and justice.

Amistad, from DreamWorks Home Entertainment
155 minutes, widescreen (1.85:1)
starring Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, and Anthony Hopkins
Written by David Franzoni, Produced by Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson
Directed by Steven Spielberg

ANTZ Signature Selection packs lots of extras

DreamWorks and PDI's computer animated feature ANTZ is an enjoyable bit of fluff that takes us into the gigantic world inhabited by those six legged critters of the misspelled title. Z and Princess Bala, from ANTZ

But just because it's a cartoon doesn't mean this is a kids' movie. In fact, it's much darker and more adult than Disney's "A Bug's Life". Today's oh, so sophisticated kids will still enjoy ANTZ, and it isn't as frightening as "Bug's Life" is in places, but it's really a movie for "grownups of all ages."

Z (Woody Allen) is a worker ant disillusioned by life. Through a series of misadventures, he ends up a war hero, kidnapper, lover, and saviour - all in the 83 minutes it takes for the movie to spin on your DVD player.

Besides Allen, the well cast voices include Sharon Stone as Princess Bala, along with Sylvester Stallone, Gene Hackman, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Walken and "a cast of millions."

ANTZ is a must see for computer/animation buffs, and it's really quite spectacular to watch these creepy crawlers exploring their huge world. The animation is excellent, as are the special effects - and the voice casting is inspired.

DreamWorks' "Signature Selection" DVD release is "autographed" by directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, but that's only the beginning of the disc's extras. The widescreen release also includes decent liner notes inside, an audio-track commentary by the directors, a production featurette, production notes, cast/crew bios, and theatrical trailer.

And that isn't all. You also get a selection of ANTZ TV commercials, and a terrific selection of computer animation featurettes showing the development of a few of the film's scenes - from traditional storyboard sketches to final rendered and scored product. There are also a couple of tracks showing character design genesis and how the technowizards at PDI got the bugs' (sorry, ANTZ') faces to move so realistically.

Picture and sound quality are terrific, though the earthy tones of the ants' underground colony are a little dark at times. This isn't the fault of the disc, however, it's the way the movie was designed.

In all, ANTZ is worth having if you're a movie student or computer/animation aficionado. As an example of DVD technology, it's also first rate; the move may be short, but the dual layer DVD disc is long on extra content.

Which makes us very contented.

ANTZ, from DreamWorks Home Entertainment
83 minutes, widescreen (1.85:1)
starring Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone & Gene Hackman
Written by Todd Alcott and Chris Weitz and paul Weitz, Produced by Brad Lewis, Aron Warner, Patty Wooton
Directed by Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson

Live action Cartoons

Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks SKG movie studio looks like it can be depended on to release the imaginative, special effects-laden film for which the director has become justifiably famous. Two of the studio's earliest DVD releases, MouseHunt and Small Soldiers, are basically comic books or cartoons translated into "live" action big screen adventures, one of which is successful and the other of which is a disappointing failure.

Rodent's a trap...

MouseHunt, starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans as a couple of oafs trying to evict a mouse from their house, is basically a Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon. And that's not necessarily a bad thing! Peter Bogdanovich did the Bugs Bunny thing nearly 30 years ago with "What's Up, Doc?" and that was a terrific movie.

Unfortunately, MouseHunt isn't nearly as good. The premise has promise: a couple of down and out brothers inherit an old house that - despite being a rundown dump - turns out to be extremely valuable. They decide to auction it off for the money, but for some reason come to the conclusion that they have to get rid of the mouse that has made the house its home.

What follows is the sort of action you expect from a cartoon like this. When they attempt to "evict" the rodent, it fights for its home and survival. The only thing missing is the mouse saying "Of course you know, this means war!" as Bugs would utter after Elmer Fudd's (or whomever's!) first attempt at rousting him from his peaceful existence.

The mouse here is a lot smarter than the two brothers, and since he's basically defending his turf, it's hard not to root for the mouse. And perhaps that's part of the problem with MouseHunt: you can't really find it in yourself to root for the human characters, whose motivation is basically greed. Perhaps if they had filmed MouseHunt from the mouse's point of view it would have been a more satisfying movie. Unfortunately, they didn't.

Other than that, the production values, special effects, etc. are first rate, as one would expect from Spielberg's sphere of influence

As a DVD, MouseHunt is fine. You get the widescreen and the "full screen" versions, which is how it should be, and the image and sound quality are top notch. Extras are a bit sparse, limited to theatrical trailers, a couple of "from the cutting room floor" scenes that aren't bad, cast/filmmakers' bios, and production notes.

The disc (as does Small Soldiers) also has a fancy, animated main menu that's kind of cool to see once, but which quickly made us wish for a straightforward menu that didn't sing and dance. We'd rather see more substantive extras than fancy menus. Give us substance over form any day.

Soldiering On...

Small Soldiers (also from DreamWorks) is the latest treat from director Joe Dante, who in the past has brought us Gremlins, Explorers, and the Howling, among others. It's very much like Gremlins in a lot of ways, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"Soldiers" tells the tale of a struggling toy company that, thanks to some high tech microrprocessors it gets from its parent company, unleashes upon an unsuspecting neighbourhood a set of action figures that bring the term "action" to new heights.

The Commando Elite is a set of military action figures whose mission is to destroy the Gorgonites, a peaceful and humourous bunch of figures whose purpose is to be defeated by the Elite. Naturally, the toys get loose and run amok - generally trashing the neighbourhood in question and nearly destroying the people in it along the way.

Production values are first rate, and the special effects of the action figures are spectacular. There's one scene in particular, in which a Commando tries to fight its way aboard the main character's (Gregory Smith) bicycle, that's not only a great action sequence, but is funny and amazing at the same time.

Also in the live action cast are Phil Hartman, Kirsten Dunst and Denis Leary, while Tommy Lee Jones voices Commando Elite boss Chip Hazard and Frank Langella provides the voice for his Gorgonite nemesis, Archer. All of them play their roles straight, and pull it off well.

The effects that bring to live the Commando Elite and Gorgonites are a combination of animatronics courtesy Stan (Terminator/II, Jurassic Park) Winston and computer generated effects from Lucas Digital's Industrial Light and Magic, a company that has made a regular habit of redefining the special effects state-of-the-art over the past twenty years or so. The techniques blend seamlessly, and you're almost convinced that these action figures are real.

The "Signature Selection" DVD (Joe Dante's autograph adorns the case) is only in widescreen, which is a shame. It features another one of those noisy animated menus we can do without, and a reasonable selection of extra features. You get a behind the scenes look at the making of Small Soldiers, some outtakes, a demo of an interactive game, and the usual trailers, production notes, and bios.

The extras are nice, but it's the movie itself that makes this package worthwhile - and the DVD video and audio transfer is very good.

Neither Small Soldiers or MouseHunt look as good as, say Starship Troopers, but they still blow VHS and even laserdisc out of the water. And that makes them both excellent home video experiences.

MouseHunt, directed by Gore Verbinski
Small Soldiers, directed by Joe Dante
from Dreamworks Home Entertainment


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Updated May 14, 2006