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DVD Review: Pearl Harbor Vista Series

By Glenn Abel

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Pearl Harbor
art Artists, historians, war buffs, special effects fans -- Michael Bay wants you. Aviators, comics illustrators, A/V geeks, filmmakers -- fall in. Even shell-shocked defenders of the film should enlist right away for the mighty four-DVD rerelease of "Pearl Harbor."

Director Bay kept his powder dry on the initial Commemorative Edition of "Pearl Harbor" that came out Memorial Day 2001, saving the real DVD firepower for this Fourth of July.

Bay's latest campaign has produced the most ambitious DVD set to date. "Pearl Harbor: The Director's Cut," released by Buena Vista Home Entertainment as part of its high-end Vista Series, is made for people who are serious about film, art, technology and/or war. It's packed with special effects breakdowns, historical insight, full-length commentaries, interviews with survivors and a maze of other extras.

There's a movie in here somewhere, but those seeking the popcorn experience should go with the original DVD (retail $29.99) over the new (retail $39.99). The stunning audio and video are at least as good on the 2001 release; most people won't be able to tell a lot of content has been crammed onto the movie discs. Both come with the option for DTS or Dolby Digital (5.1) sound; the new set also has a surround headphone track. Both versions are widescreen (2.35:1) with enhancement for 16:9 playback. (Disc 1 on the new set has a widescreen demo reel; click on the menu's red star.)

The set comes in a handsome but hard-to-use package designed to simulate a pilot's journal. A series of beautiful menu screens use audio clips from 1940s radio.

Bay recut the film to add more realistic combat footage (mostly gore) and to remove some of the sappier moments (what he calls "earnest dialogue"). The changes -- including a shot of a severed head rolling around on a ship -- probably won't change anyone's opinion of the movie. "I always wanted to shoot (it as) an R-rated film," Bay says. The mandate to produce a PG-13 rating came from up high at the Walt Disney Co. after project booster Joe Roth left the company, Bay reports.

Bay points out many of the changes during his commentary track (at one point admitting a scene "sucked"). He's partnered in the talk with his former teacher Jeanine Basinger, who wrote a book on WWII movies. (All of the set's commentaries were recorded weeks after the 9/11 tragedy, a sad irony noted by the narrators.) Both Bay and Basinger start off slowly, but Bay soon proves to be an engaging narrator as he shares his extensive knowledge of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack. Basinger asks a few questions and praises Bay's work but doesn't have much to say until the end of the commentary, when she tries to counter the film's many critics.

Basinger says older audiences were much more receptive to the movie because they understood the innocence of the time and the realities of love in war. (This appears to be the production company line; most of the commentators say something similar.) Bay says one of the reasons many younger viewers disliked the film was their ignorance of history. Most think the president during WWII was JFK, his research shows. Bay does seems proud of his "old-fashioned" love story, but it seems he's an even bigger fan of the film's pyrotechnics and graphics technology.

One of the disc's highlights comes as Bay is seen in Pearl Harbor commanding location filming of the Japanese's first-wave attack. Huge diesel-fuel explosions go off on real U.S. aircraft carriers as planes fly close overhead. Six months of preparations come down to five minutes of shooting. A frenzied Bay uses a megaphone to tear into some of his crewmembers whose boat strays into harm's way. After some tense moments, the biggest explosions in movie history go off without a significant hitch. The footage is more dramatic than most in the film.

More compelling on-location footage comes as Bay's team builds a giant "gimble" device in Baja that simulates the rolling over of the USS Oklahoma -- 700,000 pounds of metal being tuned 180 degrees as stunt men cling to the deck. Bay gets down and demonstrates the proper technique for holding on for dear life.

"Pearl Harbor's" high-flying action sequences were first visualized by Bay on his office computers and then realized by Industrial Light + Magic. Bay's state-of-the-art "animatic" graphics developed the famous sequence of a CG bomb falling from the sky and through the USS Arizona's deck. The animatics "allowed us to take the sequence out of the realm of words," director of photography John Schwartzman says. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer says he used Bay's early animatics, set to music, to sell the Pentagon on the project, bringing tears to the military men's eyes. Chief pilot Steve Hinton used them to determine if stunts were possible or needed to be done in CGI. Most scenes used a combination of real planes and computer-generated aircraft.

An interactive breakdown of the 27-minute attack sequence (on Disc 4) allows viewers to watch animatics or storyboards while comparing them to shots of the crew filming and the finished product. The montage is so frantic you have to see it several times to catch all of the action. Several commentaries cover the attack section, including one with effects supervisor Eric Brevig. Audio options allow listeners to isolate the sound effects, music tracks or hear what was being said during filming.

The second commentary features Bruckheimer and actors Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett. (Affleck and Hartnett were taped together; the others' comments apparently were spliced in.) Bruckheimer has some good stories about winning the military's cooperation and the difficulty of holding the production together as the studio shut it down during budget battles. Veteran actor Baldwin has high praise for the film's traditional, noncomputerized production values: "It's like a film you would make 50-60 years ago." Affleck and Hartnett goof on their pal Bay, but Affleck turns serious once in a while. "Pearl Harbor" is about "a time before it was cool to be cool," he says.

Cinematographer Schwartzman, supervising art director Martin Laing, costume designer Michael Kaplan and production designer Nigel Phelps cover the crafts in the third commentary. Schwartzman dominates the conversation, giving plenty of credit to co-workers. Their efforts were "90% of the battle -- good-looking actors, good-looking costumes and beautiful sets. It's hard to go wrong," he says. Schwartzman notes that shooting in Hawaii was expensive and unpredictable because of the weather. What could be shot elsewhere was. Four camera crews worked in locations throughout the world to meet a relatively short timetable. The production came in just under its final $135 million budget.

A fun featurette shows the actors going through a hurry-up boot camp with real drill sergeants at an Army base, with Affleck looking particularly miserable and a game Baldwin providing a slow-moving target. "It was more grueling than the whole movie," Hartnett says.

The DVD set's historical content includes a fascinating documentary on U.S.-Japanese relations that covers several hundred years. The docu, unfortunately, was chopped up to fit a graphic timeline format that yanks viewers out of the narrative. Another interesting docu, from the History Channel, covers Dooley's Raiders, the flyboy heroes depicted in the film who bombed Tokyo after the Japanese sneak attack. Another History Channel docu looks at Pearl Harbor survivors.

Actual war footage runs throughout the DVD content. Some of Bay's compositions came directly from the historical images, as he points out.

Storyboards are explored in detail by head artist Robert Consing, who discusses his craft and displays drawings both detailed and hurried. An extensive art gallery includes a section on Stan Winston's special effects makeup for the film (mostly mangled bodies). Some beautiful advertising art includes images for the Japanese release (the film's No. 1 foreign market, followed by Germany). The standard-issue making of featurette from the first disc is squeezed in as well. DVD credits, topped by producer David Prior and editor Billy Schinski, take up nine screens.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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