Tag Archive: DVDs

All of Jane Austen’s completed novels have been made into films. This includes Mansfield Park, though I get the impression from reviews that in some the original plot is unrecognizable. The DVD I am commenting on here, however, is the only one I’ve watched, though I’ve ordered two more recent ones.

One of the things that came up during the Pride and Prejudice bicentennial was that as far as video was concerned, most people tended to like best the first video they saw. For me, that was the BBC version with Colin Firth as Darcy. That may be part of the reason I find the 1986 BBC video of Mansfield Park so much to my taste – it was the first I saw. Quite aside from that, it is very close to the book, with much of the dialog taken directly from Austen. The characters are very much true to those originally drawn by Miss Austen, and I particularly like Mrs. Norris, who is almost a caricature.

In reading reviews, I get the impression that people who liked the book like this video. People who find Fanny Price boring (I don’t) often preferred film versions that changed Fanny considerably from the way Jane Austin created her. I look forward to the arrival of other versions, but I doubt that I will like them any better.

I had hoped to find a film trailer for this DVD, but instead I found that the entire DVD is up on YouTube, chopped up into short segments. So I selected one of the shorter sequences, a conversation between Tom and Edmond Bertram and Mary Crawford, to give you a taste of the style. (NB: The YouTube episode says 1983, but it is clearly taken from the movie I am reviewing.)

Review of Pride and Prejudice (DVD)

Pride and Prejudice blogfestThe first time I watched this, the version with Kiera Knightly, I thought it came off rather poorly compared to the BBC version with Colin Firth. The second time, I liked it better, but while it generally stays close to the original book, there still seemed something a little off. Then I watched the movie with the commentary by the director (Joe Wright), and had an “aha!” moment.

DVD cover, Pride and PrejudiceI had always read the book – and I think Jane Austin wrote it – with Elizabeth totally hostile to Darcy at the time of his initial proposal. It seemed to me that the change in her attitude did not even start until the second time she read his letter – and then it took a long time to really sink in.

In this version, the director assumed that Elizabeth was actually attracted to Darcy at the time he first proposed to her, and refused him from pride and a bit of temper. I was watching from my understanding of the book, and when that clashed with the way the actors were playing their parts, l had a hard time following. I need to set it aside for a while and perhaps watch it again.

I was a little bothered by Lady Catherine showing up at the Bennett home late at night and the family all meeting her in their sleeping attire. Would this really have happened at this time of history? Would not a servant have opened the door, rather than Mr. Bennett?

All in all, this was an excellent movie, even if it did depart somewhat from the book.

Cover, Invitation to the DanceI don’t know how many times I’ve checked Amazon looking for this on DVD. I’ve wanted it ever since I saw the brief episode of Gene Kelly dancing with the cartoon harem guards on That’s Entertainment Vol. 2, and I’d almost given up. Then this spring I found it, finally put on DVD in 2011.

It wasn’t remastered, there is no menu (though it is possible to jump through the film with the buttons) and there are no extras on the DVD. Given the number of VHS reviews on Amazon that effectively said “where’s the DVD?” I suspect Warner simply put it from the vaults straight to DVD, and according to some reviews effectively made the DVDs to order. Too bad, as the movie is worth more than this cursory treatment – but it’s not the usual musical, and MGM apparently shelved it for four years before releasing it.

It’s really a dance and music performance, starring Gene Kelly and a number of other excellent dancers, with not a word spoken. Even the crooner (a takeoff of Frank Sinatra) has an instrumental voice – I think a trumpet, though I could be mistaken on that.

The performance is made up of three dances, only one of which I had seen at all before.

The first is a tragedy, told in mime and dance, set in a small circus. Gene Kelly is hopelessly in love with a girl who sees him only as a clown. The ballet sequences are beautiful, and I particularly liked the one danced on a fishnet hung vertically.

The second, with both ballet and tap dancing sequences, follows a bracelet from wrist to wrist. My favorites were the crooner and the stage door Johnnies.

The third was the tale of Sinbad the sailor. The meat of this one was a marriage of live action and animation, with Kelly dancing in cartoons representing book illustrations. This sequence had pieces that reminded me very much of Cyd Charisse’s dream dance in Singin’ In The Rain, a movie that came out 4 years after Invitation, but was actually being made the same year, also with Kelly as choreographer. Another part of that sequence might have helped inspire the Disney artists of Mary Poppins, which came out almost a decade later. Certainly it had very much the feel of Mary and Bert being carried across water by turtles.

Parts of all three sequences were obviously shot either speeded up or in slow motion, emphasizing the frenetic activity of a cocktail party or Gene trying to dance the guards into exhaustion,  or the floating motion of a dream.

Fans of Gene Kelly will want to watch this, as will those interested in the history of the combination of cartoon and real life characters. But I do wish the film had been remastered and color-corrected. As an example of the problems, the segment from Sinbad the Sailor on That’s Entertainment showed harem guards whose clothing varied from green to blue, and I believe that when the trousers are blue, the background is a much more bluish shade of red, suggesting that the yellow pigment has faded. In the Invitation to the Dance DVD the harem guards are consistently in green trousers, though some other colors look faded. Sometimes the skin tones are totally unrealistic.

In short, the film is wonderful. The DVD leaves a great deal to be desired, but for right now it is all we have.

The Great Race (DVD Review)

Cover, The Great RAce

This is one of the three 60’s comedies I play when I want a good laugh. Unlike Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines or Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies it does not really have an international cast, and is clearly a satire of movie stereotypes. It was based (very loosely) on a real event, an auto race from New York to Paris via Alaska.

In the real race, the first car to Alaska made it to Alaska via steamboat and was stopped by mud, not drifting sea ice. (Having driven the south end of the Richardson highway even after its paving, and knowing that there is still no summer overland access to Nome, where the cars were supposed to cross the sea ice to Siberia, I find it incredible that cars actually finished. The race was rerouted after the first car found the Alaskan “roads” impassible to allow steamship passage to Asia.) The geography of the movie makes no sense at all, especially drifting across the Pacific on an ice floe.

The movie version features three principal characters, all extreme stereotypes. Tony Curtis plays the Hero, the Great Leslie (cheers!) always in spotless white, with sparkling eyes and teeth, always succeeding in his daredevil stunts. Jack Lemmon is the mustachioed villain Professor Fate (boos and hisses), always wearing black, always failing in his daredevil stunts, and hating The Great Leslie. Natalie Wood is the suffragette newspaper reporter Maggie DuBois (wolf whistles) determined to cover the race start to finish, even if it means planting herself on one or the other (she switches off) of the contestants.

The hero and villain have sidekicks, of course. The Great Leslie’s is Horatio, a strong, silent, mechanical genius who is very much not impressed by Maggie. Professor Fate’s is Max, whose loyalty is somewhat surprising under the circumstances and whose obedience all too often leads to disaster.

The movie is full of things that, like cartoons, seem reasonable but are not — like the rocket-propelled railway carriage that goes so fast it starts flying. Or the “iceberg” that stays comfortably horizontal. I still wonder how the director managed to have the polar bear climb into Professor’s Fate’s car.

I think my favorite scene (though it’s difficult to choose just one) is the great and carefully choreographed pie fight. Choreographed? How else can you explain how The Great Leslie’s clothing stays spotlessly white in the midst of cream pies flying in all directions?

This is by no means a serious film, but it’s still wonderful satire.

DVD CoverThis is a sequel to Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, but it is in some ways a flawed sequel. Not that it doesn’t have its moments – I can never stop myself from laughing at the sequence where two of the cars in the Monte Carlo Rally take a wrong turning and land in the middle of a winter sports area. Suffice it to say that cars do not mix well with curling, hockey, skiing and bobsled runs.

The villain, again played by Terry-Thomas, is Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage, the son and heir of the late (and unlamented by his son) Sir Percy of Magnificent Men. Sir Cuthbert of course expects to get the Ware-Armitage auto factory on his father’s death, but finds to his shock that his father lost half the factory to an American efficiency expert, played by Tony Curtis. The American can’t see beyond the end of his nose without glasses, but he’s vain enough of his appearance to take them off at the most inappropriate times – and he, of course, is the hero to oppose Sir Cuthbert’s dastardly deeds.

The two make a bet: full control of the factory goes to whichever finishes ahead in the Monte Carlo Rally. Other teams include a pair of British officers from the Khyber Pass (read mad inventor,) a pair of escaped convicts (forced to use the Rally to smuggle jewels,) a couple of Italian policemen (one wants to be Cassanova,) and a doctor and two medical students (all female.)

A somewhat flawed sequel? In two ways. First, in Magnificent Men the airplanes, carefully reconstructed from the original blueprints, were characters in their own right. That is not true in this film. The automobiles differ from each other, but for the most part they are pretty tame compared with the demoiselle and the Antoinette airplanes, or Sir Percy’s triplane. (Not to mention some of the crazier planes from the era.)

The second involves the female team. They are totally inconsistent in how they are portrayed. First they show up as “women drivers,” running nurses with baby carriages off the sidewalk and chatting nonstop. Then they are competent drivers and capable of outwitting the Italian drivers in several ways. Then the doctor who leads them is essentially raped by one of the Italian drivers – and responds by falling in love with him. Then she forfeits the race to use her medical skills when needed in an emergency.

The other characters are silly and stereotyped, but they are consistent throughout the film. The women’s team, and especially the doctor who leads it, seem to have split personalities of awesome dimensions.

Of course the whole movie is to a large extent inconsistent with reality. The opening sequence, involving the delivery of a letter to the British officers in the Khyber pass, involves (1) a mountainous desert, (2) a jungle with chimpanzees, (3) swimming an elephant across a crocodile-infested river, and (4) finally a desert again, is a funny bit of satire of the British occupation of India, but a totally screwed up piece of geography.

If you like slapstick comedy, this movie has plenty. But it is not up with Those Magnificent Men.

DVD CoverBack when I was a graduate student in physics, studying for my PhD, the last thing I wanted was entertainment I had to think about. That was in the 60’s, and the movie production companies were running scared of television. Wide-screen extravaganzas with huge casts of well-known actors were all the rage, and quite a number were comedies. At some point during this period I saw “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines,” and fell in love with it.

Of course in those days you saw a movie once or maybe twice during the few days it was in town, but I remembered it well enough that it was one of the first I bought on VHS. I think I wore that tape out, and I’ve had it on DVD for some time now.

It’s one I watch when I’m in the mood for laughter, and it’s one of the few I cannot watch without cracking up. Especially the scene with the fire engine and the airplane chasing each other. Or the dastardly deeds of Sir Percival Ware-Armitage (played by Terry-Thomas.)

The plot centers on an international air race across the English Channel from London to Paris. The race is fiction, but he planes were replicas of those actually being flown (or that people were trying to fly) in the first decade if the 20th century. Some of the flying got a little help from special effects, which is pointed out in the accompanying commentary, but most actually used the planes rebuilt from the early plans, but with slightly more powerful engines. I found it amusing that they couldn’t get the French Demoiselle off the ground until they checked on the weight of the original pilot. Turns out he was a lightweight, so the flight scenes with that plane were done with a female pilot.

Some of the national stereotypes would be considered in questionable taste today, but I find the movie is more making fun of the stereotypes than promoting them.

The opening and closing make use of a good deal of real newsreel footage, a delightful performance by Red Skelton, and a series of wonderful animated cartoons of the flyers and their misadventures. This is a movie that keeps me grinning from ear to ear, and if you like broad, almost slapstick comedy you’ll enjoy it.

Frozen Planet: DVD Review

Frozen Planet DVD coverWhen I heard that the BBC was making a documentary about the Earth’s high latitudes, Frozen Planet, I knew I had to have the DVD if they made one. When stories appeared that the part on global warming would be cut for US audiences, I was horrified – and relieved when the Discovery Channel relented – at least partly. Since I do not have cable or satellite TV, I had to wait for the DVD. Finally it arrived and I have been watching it – when I have time between gardening, marketing and writing.

As you may have guessed from previous reviews, I adore David Attenborough and really don’t understand why so many of his nature programs for BBC have been released in the US with different narrators.

The first episode is a general overview, followed by one for each of the four seasons – but the seasons used: spring, summer, autumn and winter, are not the seasons as usually defined. In fact they are not well defined, but appear to be based on the weather rather than the usual spring = the period from the northward equinox to northern solstice in the northern hemisphere and from the southward equinox to the southern solstice in the southern hemisphere. Roughly, they seem to define the period of continuous (or at least very long) daylight as summer, that of continuous or very long night as winter, and the period of alternating daylight and dark as the transitional seasons – but even this is not well followed. Other ways of dividing the seasons may be the waning, absence, reformation and solidity of sea ice, or the melting, absence, buildup and universal presence of snow. All seem to be used to some extent.

These first five episodes are almost entirely about the natural world: the wildlife, the weather, the geography.

The sixth program is about how humans interact with the polar regions. Our species evolved in the Ice Age, so it is hardly surprising that we invaded the northern parts of the continents almost as soon as we could reach them. Two domesticated or semi-domesticated animals made this spread to northern climates possible: the dog and the reindeer. Early migrants and their descendants today relied heavily on the polar oceans, as agriculture of any kind is difficult in permafrost country (though I was a little surprised that permafrost was never really mentioned.) There was little mention of wild plant foods, though in fact berries and other wild plants are definitely part of the arctic diet, and the arctic in spring and summer has high productivity, as indicated by the number of migratory birds that breed at high latitudes. Today human interactions – and impacts – are more often focused on resource extraction.

Antarctica has had quite a different history. Undiscovered until relatively recently, its fauna has evolved with a lack of land predators that could make it very vulnerable. Luckily Antarctica is protected by international treaties so most of the human activity there today is scientific research. But how long will that remain true as our appetite for resources increases?

The seventh program is the “controversial” one. I’m not sure what the controversy was supposed to be about. The program shows observations at both ends of the Earth that demonstrate the thinning and melting of sea ice in the Arctic and collapse of ice sheets, which may act to buttress glaciers draining the interior, in Antarctica. The importance of enhanced glacier calving to sea level rise was touched on. The cause of this warming might be controversial, as is the use of weather records to observe it, but these were not even mentioned. Just the observed changes, and their possible impact on both the human inhabitants and the animals of the polar regions.

As an atmospheric scientist for most of my professional career, the only thing I considered even remotely controversial was the lack of any mention that human activity might in any way be responsible for the observed changes. Somehow I don’t think that was what had Discovery Channel worried.

DVD cover, Waking the Baby MammothIn the spring of 2007 Yuri Khudi, a reindeer herder in northwestern Siberia, found a baby mammoth carcass, still frozen and remarkably complete, lying on the snowy tundra. Scientists named her Lyuba (little love) after Yuri’s wife – who did not appreciate the honor! Lyuba’s discovery and the scientific investigation that followed became the subject of a National Geographic program, first aired roughly two years after her discovery, and later made available as a DVD.

From a scientific point of view, the DVD is excellent. Certainly some of the scenes of the finding, disappearance and re-finding of Lyuba must have been re-enacted, but not obtrusively so. The long-distance travel, tomographic investigation and subsequent tissue sampling of Lyuba appear to have been photographed in real time, and give a much better idea of how a frozen mummy can be investigated than is generally available. Some of the discoveries included the definite identification of heat-producing brown fat in Lyuba’s hump, her age at death (only about a month) and that she died, probably by drowning, in excellent health.

The reindeer herder Yuri was able to be present at part of the autopsy, and a highlight of the DVD is Nenets culture as the scientists investigating Lyuba stayed with Yuri’s family as they examined where she had been found. The problem of how her body reached the surface of the tundra without thawing or decay is still unsolved.

As usual in National Geographic DVDs, the computer graphic imaging of mammoths in their Pleistocene setting consists of a relatively few clips repeated several times. To some extent this is offset by a series of charming vignettes of Lyuba against modern backgrounds – wandering the museum, appearing to scientists relaxing in modern settings, and interacting with Yuri’s reindeer.

Lyuba is featured a current exhibition touring the USA and the world from the Field Museum. She is just finishing a visit in Hong Kong.

If you like Pleistocene mammals, this is definitely a program to see. Of course I’m prejudiced, since I used mammoths, among other Pleistocene mammals, in Tourist Trap.

Cover, Perfect PredatorsThis is another Discovery channel DVD with a range of production dates. Although the DVD is dated 2011, the three programs contained are from 1997 through 2009.

The first, Dinosaurs: Perfect Predators, came out originally in 2009, so it is not too dated. However, it is totally unclear from the DVD that the three predators featured did not all live at the same time. T-Rex lived at the end of the Cretaceous, around 67 to 65.5 million years ago. Quetzalcoatius arrived a little earlier, though both were caught by the K-T extinction event 65.5 million years ago. Deinochychus, however, lived from 115-108 million ears ago in the early Cretaceous.

It is also worth pointing out that though Deinochychus (terrible claw) was 3 meters long, its back was less than a meter high, its weight was about that of a man, and it quite possibly had feathers. That does not mean it was other than a terrifying predator, especially in a pack.

The second program, Monsters Resurrected: The Great American Predator, deals heavily with trace fossils: a dinosaur trackway in Texas which has been interpreted as a two-legged predatory dinosaur, an Acocanthosaurus, taking down a large sauropod, a Paluxysaurus. Again, these are early Cretaceous dinosaurs, and would not have been alive at the same time as T-Rex. This program also dates to 2009. Both of the 2009 programs are a mix of paleontology and computer animation, but the science strikes me as superficial. (The footprint casting is of some interest.)

The third program, Beyond T-Rex, is quite old by dinosaur program standards and is focused mainly on paleontology. The “theme,” whether or not the discoveries of two large predators in the southern hemisphere “dethrone” T-Rex, struck me as rather silly. Yet in spite of its age (1997) this is probably the best of the three programs as far as paleontology is concerned.

The two dinosaurs discussed are Carcharodontosaurus (sharp-toothed lizard, apparently native to Africa)) and Giganonosaurus (giant southern lizard, Patagonia.) The two are very similar, and are much more closely related to Allosaurus and each other than they are to Tyrannosaurus. In fact, they are so similar that their distribution has been used to argue that there was still a land bridge between South America and Africa in the early Cretaceous, when these giants were alive. No mention is made of feathers, which is hardly surprising given the date of the programs, well before the feathered dinosaurs of Mongolia were discovered.

The history of Carcharodontosaurus is intriguing. The first specimens were found by German paleontologists before WWII, but were lost to allied bombing. More fossils were discovered in Morocco in 1995, and this material is the subject of the program. The casting of the skull is of considerable interest, as is the part of the DVD dealing with the rediscovery.

The discovery of Giganonosaurus in Patgonia is covered as well. Here a better idea of the live animal can be obtained from the BBC DVD, Chased by Dinosaurs, as one of the episodes involves a pack hut of Argentinosaurus by Giganonosaurus.

As a discussion of dinosaurs as predators the DVD is rather incomplete, especially the first two episodes. It may be worth getting if you want a complete collection of dinosaur videos.

Arctic Dinosaur program coverDinosaurs in the Arctic? I live in Alaska and know several geologists, so I heard about the dinosaur bones on the North Slope almost as soon as they were rediscovered. My first reaction, years before this DVD was made, was, “what was the latitude at the time the dinosaurs lived there?” After all, the fossils were about seventy million years old, and plate tectonics has reshaped the continents and oceans considerably since that time. At first, the answer was “it hasn’t been checked yet,” but when it was checked, it turned out that the fossil location was even closer to the pole that it is now: probably at around latitude 80°.

Rediscovered? Turns out the bones were discovered clear back in 1961 by a Shell Oil geologist named Robert Liscomb. He sent them back to Shell, but when he was killed in a rockslide the following year, the bones were forgotten in the Shell archives. It was not until well into the 1980s and renewed interest in petroleum on the North Slope that the bones were sent to the Geological Survey, where they were first identified as being from a dinosaur.

None of which answers the question of how dinosaurs managed to live at a latitude where there was no sunlight for four months of the year, and no night for another four.

This DVD focuses on two questions. First, it examines the digging of a tunnel into the permafrost along the banks of the Colville River in an effort to find bones that were not broken up by freeze-thaw cycles. Second, it speculates on how dinosaurs managed to survive so near the pole. Were they migratory? What did they eat, especially in the winter? What ate them? What was the climate like? What does the discovery of dinosaurs at such a high latitude suggest about whether dinosaurs, like their bird descendants, were warm-blooded?

Certainly there is evidence for a climate far warmer than today’s on the North Slope, even though the latitude was higher. There is no evidence for sea ice that far back, and an open ocean would have made for a much warmer climate. But plants could not have grown without sunlight, so what did the herbivores eat? Moose today winter on bark and twigs – they certainly nipped all the buds off of my Amur maple last winter, and when I had a crab apple tree, it got smaller every year as the moose nibbled its twigs over the winter. Could dinosaurs have done the same?

Although this video does have some dinosaur animation of reasonable quality, it is of interest primarily for what it reveals about dinosaurs and their fossils. It was originally a TV program, from PBS on Nova. Get it for information, rather than entertainment.