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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

TOP GEAR: THE COMPLETE SEASON 13 -- DVD review by porfle

I don't know the first thing about cars, but that didn't stop me from having a great time watching the BBC's TOP GEAR: THE COMPLETE SEASON 13.  The cars are stunning, the production values are first-rate, and the three hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, make for an entertaining comedy team.

The first of seven episodes on this three-disc set gets off to a fun start with an interesting challenge--pretend that it's 60 years in the past and have a three-man cross-country race in the most powerful automobile, motorcycle, and steam locomotive of the era.  As usual, the show opens with the first half of the challenge and closes with its conclusion.  While much of the verbal byplay between the hosts and the various mishaps they have along the way are obviously scripted, the suspense is real.

In other episodes, the trio must purchase used autos for a limited amount of money and either race them or compete in other ways which will decide which of the men has chosen his vehicle the most wisely.  A little friendy sabotage is often involved.  An arduous road rally in France tests these cars to their limit, some practically falling apart as they speed along.  My favorite challenge has the hosts having to pretend they're seventeen again and deal with the problems a teenager must face, such as sneaking their cars home after curfew with a minimum of noise. 

Some other good ones: Jeremy takes on the British Army and its armored (and heavily armed) vehicles with nothing but a tiny compact car; the boys take their dilapidated rear-wheel-drive heaps onto a crowded French ice track with wild results; James and Richard mail a letter at the southernmost tip of England and then try to beat it across the continent by road; and Jeremy and James try their hand at creating a new Volkwagen commercial with hilariously bad results.

These and other location segments are beautifully photographed and edited, and are thoroughly cinematic.  When the hosts are let loose behind the wheel of the latest supercar in order to weigh its plus and minus points, the result often resembles a cross between one of those high-end car commercials and an action flick.  Each car is judged by general performance, steering and cornering, and how it handles on the straightaway.

No matter how much or how little you know about cars, these stunning Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Aston Martins, and other mindboggling machines are captivating, and the unrestrained enthusiasm of the drivers is infectious.  Since most of us will never, ever, never, ever, ever be able to even make the down payment on anything like this, feasting our eyes on these gorgeous and incredibly-expensive fantasy machines is pure vehicle porn.  No need for the producers to dress this show up with sexy bikini babes--here, it's the cars that are sexy and you may find yourself flush with automotive lust. 

Between the location segments we go back to the studio, where the hosts recline on comfortable car-seat furniture amidst a live, in-the-round audience.  Scraggly-haired John May looks like a good-natured pub crawler while a more diminutive Richard Hammond is wiry and excitable. Jeremy Clarkson, the tall, older guy who seems wonderfully comfortable in his own skin, handles the interview segments with lighthearted ease.  His guests during season 13 include Michael Schumacher, Olympic track star Usain Bolt, actress Sienna Miller (G.I. JOE), AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson, and "The Chin" himself, Jay Leno, who's well-known for his obsession with cars.

The engagingly funny hosts shoot the breeze about the latest automotive news and take part in other weekly features such as "star in a reasonably-priced car", in which celebrity guests take a spin around a private racetrack and compete for the best time.  Resident racecar driver The Stig, a mysterious figure who never removes his helmet, tests the newest cars and their laptimes are kept on a seperate board.  In the first episode of this set, the identity of The Stig is revealed--or is it?  The issue is never fully resolved.

This three-disc set from BBC Video contains seven hour-long episodes in 16:9 and Dolby Stereo, with English subtitles.  Extras include POV views of Stig racing different supercars around the track, a POV view of a Lamborghini Murcielago LP640-4 SV's 200 mph run down a straightaway in Abu Dhabi, some beautiful additional footage of Jeremy's steam locomotive adventure, and extended interviews with Brian Johnson and Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button. 

We get to see the hosts going airborne in WWII Spitfires, with Jeremy bursting with unrestrained childlike glee the whole time, and there's extra footage of stunt driver Ken Block's insane, mostly sideways high-speed run around a secluded airport's runway and outer buildings.  The latter features the most stunning shot of the whole collection--Block's racecar and a daredevil dirtbike rider launch themselves over a gorge simultaneously from an earthen ramp while a large cargo plane crosses the frame going the other way, all in super slow-motion.  It's absolutely ethereal.   

Most of the time, you couldn't get me to care one way or the other about cars.  Somehow, though, TOP GEAR: THE COMPLETE SEASON 13 managed to make the subject fascinating and fun.  It's a show for gearheads that you don't have to be a gearhead (or "petrolhead", as the Brits say) to enjoy.

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