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Region 4 DVD Reviews: Heroes, old and new

Originally published in Australian HI-FI, Dec/Jan 2002/3, v.33/6

Mad Max cover Mad Max
Director: George Miller
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne and Steve Bisley
Spider Man cover Spider Man (Collector's Edition)
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris and James Franco
Movie: A, Picture: C, Sound: B, Extras: C Movie: A, Picture: A, Sound: A, Extras: A++
Costing a tiny $300,000 to produce, the movie debut of our first hero held a Guiness Book of Records place for nearly two decades. It was only The Blair Witch Project that displaced it in the profit to cost ratio category.

Mad Max started Mel Gibson on the track to superstardom, and showed that an Australian movie, made without any government funding, could make a buck (even if Philip Adams detested it, even if it was banned in Sweden of all places!) It innovated: the first Australian movie made in anamorphic widescreen. Despite the low budget, incredible stunts. A now standard dystopian near-future, but then quite fresh. A story line that gave Gibson motivation for his character's actions (as, later, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2 were to do, but which 3 and 4 didn't bother with to their discredit). A foreshadowing of Strictly Ballroom in the male and female leads acting as normal humans in the midst of a storm of excessive characters.

Like so many Australian movies, Mad Max was released years ago as a Region 1 disc. But this bore only the US audio dub. It wasn't until early 2002 that it became available there with a restored Australian sound track, and it is this that appears on this version: 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS. This last is at the full DTS bit rate and is quite wasted for the cleaned up, but by no means high fidelity, sound.

The video is poor, poor, poor. Why? Okay, the print scrubs up okay for a low budget 70s flick. But the encoding is amazingly bad. While it's done in anamorphic widescreen, the interlaced fields in each displayed frame come from adjacent film frames, not the same one. So virtually all freeze frames have smeared, combed images, unless you have your DVD player set to 'Field' rather than 'Frame' for pausing. Doing this throws away half the resolution. What a pity.

[See here for more on this.]

Like Mad Max, Spider-Man is concerned with the making of a hero and it shares the bitter-sweet undercurrent of lost love. But while Max had to make do with shortening the lives of stuntmen, Spider-Man takes CGI special effects to a new level.

Tobey Maguire is an unlikely super hero, but he manages to look pleased and puzzled by his new abilities. Kirsten Dunst, as the romantic interest, is pleasingly down-to-earth, even though she adheres to the obligatory inability to see that Spidey really is mild-mannered Peter Parker. While their scenes together are moving, there is little doubt by the end that Spider-Man's choice between doing good and doing her was not difficult.

The reviewed Collector's Edition consists of a mere two discs, with commentaries, branching to explanatory mini-featurettes, and lots of longer featurettes. The Limited Edition Box Set has four discs: the two already mentioned plus a documentary DVD: 'Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters and Marvels', and the movie's CD soundtrack. Whew!

The picture quality of the feature was interesting: it looked rather like a mid-budget 80s feature. A slight lack of focus, a bias towards yellow, away from reds. I would have complained, except that it perfectly replicated the picture I remember from the cinema showing. The anamorphic widescreen picture is in 1.85:1 aspect, nicely using up the whole of a widescreen display device's screen.

The sound is superb. The 448kb/s Dolby Digital 5.1 provides not just spectacular effects all around, but nicely done panning between the surrounds. If your speakers are not properly matched and positioned, this will reveal it.

This disc takes DVD special extras to a new level. At least one relies on DVD's ability to display subtitles. The 'Weaving the Web' Factoids, rather than being mere text, are displayed in reasonably sophisticated graphic balloons anywhere on the screen, most commonly relating the movie to the comic.

Running time: 89 minutes
Aspect: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Sound track: English: Dolby Digital 5.1, 448kb/s and DTS 5.1, 1,509kb/s
Subtitles: English for the hearing impaired
Features: Trailers for Mad Max 2 and Mad Max 3; Production Notes (called 'To The Max - Behind the Scenes of a Cult Classic')
Running time: 116 minutes
Aspect: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Sound track: English: Dolby Digital 5.1; 448kb/s; Two commentary tracks: both Dolby Digital 2.0, 192kb/s
Subtitles: English, English for the hearing impaired, Dutch, Dutch for the hearing impaired, Hindi, Dutch commentary, English 'Weaving the Web' Factoids, Dutch 'Weaving the Web' Factoids
Features: Trailers, Music videos; 'Weaving the Web' pop-up factoids in Dutch and English; Branching to six 'web-I-sode' behind-the-scenes featurettes from within the film; DVD-ROM features; Several featurettes of well over an hour; Gags/outtakes; Rehearsal footage including screen tests, CGI tests, costume and make-up tests; Comic time-line; photo gallery including conceptual art, plus more ...

© 2002-2006, Stephen Dawson