DVD Video Reviews for April 2002, Pt. 2

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor (1997)

Though lacking the widescreen and surround sound of some recent classical and jazz music DVDs, this is a classy presentation from Arthaus nevertheless. The sound is unimpeachable, especially in the purist PCM version, which decodes well for surround effect with any of the good L - R ambience decoders. The visuals are much more interesting and pertinent to the music than those of the now-dated-looking Karajan videos, and the image resolution is also higher. Barenboim turns in a deeply-felt performance of this Mahler gem. The famous Adagietto for the string section and harp, used in the film Death in Venice, is given an affecting treatment heightened by the visuals of the performers. The enclosed booklet and large jewelbox packaging are also first rate.

- John Sunier


RICHARD STRAUSS: Don Juan, Ein Heldenleben, Holderlin Hymnen (1991)

This is the way a classical video should make intelligent use of the extras options of DVD. The music analyses are especially useful - they are available as an option not only with the song cycle but also with the two strictly instrumental works. They are well-worded to offer guidance both to musical initiates as well as knowledgeable listeners. (Made me think perhaps such as feature should be furnished at symphony concerts using the super-title equipment opera houses are now using. The best system would be the small displays in the back of the seat in front of you, as in certain new halls.) And of course it is an option that can be turned off if you wish. These are two of Strauss' finest tone poems and Strauss himself led this orchestra in l898. It is more closely associated with the composer than any other in the world. Don Juan is my favorite Strauss work and this is a brilliant performance of it. I had never heard the Holderlin orchestral songs and have to stretch a bit to get into vocal music of this sort, but having both the English lyrics and the analysis simultaneously aided my enjoyment of the work. The "uncompressed" sound is clean and extremely wide-range but the lesser-fidelity surround brings you more closely into the concert hall experience. This type of music video sorely needs wider promotion and advertising - the average music lover - even most audiophiles - know nothing of them. This format is not just for operas, you know!

- John Sunier

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 61 (1999)

Taped in l984 at Berlin Philharmonie, this is part of the Karajan video legacy, in which he carefully taped the music recording first, then mimed the orchestra through all the scores several times - once with the video cameras on one side of the hall, again with them on another side, etc. The idea was to eliminate seeing the cameras in the final edited concert. I think I prefer to see the cameras if means a greater variety of angles and shots that further the music more successfully, as many recent concert DVDs do. Mutter looks and plays great and the performance is without fault, though it seems bit short without an encore or overture included.

- John Sunier

GESUALDO - Death for Five Voices (1995)

What a perfect film subject for Herzog! This chilling musical bio appears to have been done for a European TV project, due to its 60 minute length. I doubt if we'll see this on PBS here. Filming on location in Italy, Herzog tells the story of the 16th century madrigal composer who was way ahead of his time. Some musicologists feel there was a break of centuries in the sort of expressionistic music he wrote, not picked up again until Wagner. It's amazing that the palace of the Prince of Venosa is still standing - though in great disrepair - and even the alleged skeletons of his wife and her lover who he murdered and for which he escaped punishment. His sexual excesses and obsessions are described, and his music is performed by two different Baroque music groups, one led by early music expert Alan Curtis.

- John Sunier

Storyville - The Naked Dance (1997)

Storyville is a documentary about the legendary red-light district that flourished in New Orleans from the late 1800s till World War I. The disc has many pictures and sounds of buildings, people, and all the surroundings of the period. There are early film clips as well as actual footage of what the town looked like during the period. The amount of background material is presented by interviews and narration, as well as what seemed to be a diary from one (or many) of the "working women". There are explanations of the whos, whys, wheres, and whats going on that were taking place in the early part of the century. There is also a nice section on the beginning of jazz!

Overall, this documentary is fascinating, but one should be forewarned that the subject matter gets a little X-rated at times. And, of course, there are tons of pictures of nude women (mostly posing). The video is black and white with the exception of the interviews that are filmed in color. Sound and picture is very good, excepting some of the older original footage that is no longer in the best of shape-who knows if it ever was? The music that accompanies the presentation, along with the narration, the nifty montage of images and video, and the completeness of the information presented, make this a recommended DVD.

- Brian Bloom

"Weird Al" Yankovic: The Videos (1996)

I don't know if these 22 music parody videos ever got on MTV or the equivalent, but they must have been made for some purpose other than a compilation DVD. Some have surprisingly lavish production values. One's appreciation would depend on how familiar one was with the pop music artists and songs parodied. Some of the general stuff such as Yankovic's hilarious imitations of Michael Jackson's or Madona's choreography would probably be immediately understood by most viewers. But some others are more subtle - in spite of most of the humor being a bit sophomoric and in your face.

Probably the best-known video here is Yankovic's takeoff on Jackson's Beat It, re-titled Eat It. In fact food seems to be a favorite subject, with other videos titled Fat, and I Love Rocky Road. Like a Surgeon is his version of Madonna's Like a Virgin. Dare to Be Stupid parodies Devo, and Smells Like Nirvana has great bits about rock vocalists with rocks in their mouth, whose lyrics are unintelligible. A big Vegas-style production is given his James Brown cover in Living With a Hernia. Jurassic Park uses clay animation for a wonderful parody, Gump has Yankovic as an even dumber Forrest Gump and Amish Paradise appears influenced by the movie Witness and is in surprisingly touching good taste. Some of the videos left me flat but others had me in stitches. Good shorts to show your party guests.

- John Sunier

Treasures from American Film Archives -
50 Preserved Films on 4 DVDs in boxed set with book (2000)

In recent years many different institutions have been working feverishly to preserve some of the important American film heritage that is mostly on original nitrate film and thus rapidly decaying. This is the first time examples of their work has been collected in a multi-DVD set. The DVDs were processed from the newly-restored film and video that will protect the original for years to come. There are many gems here that even film savy viewers have never seen before. The range is very wide, not limited only to commercial theatrical films at all. Some of the sections are: Silent features, Landmark independent and avantgarde films, Documentaries and newsreels, the Earliest American movies, Pioneers in Special Effects, One-reel Adventures and Comedies; Cartoons and Experimental Animation, Travel Films, Political Ads, Home movies, and more.

I was provided only the first program of the set of four as a sample. It began with some early 3-minute films from the Edison Company, proceed to a 16-minute l912 silent The Confederate Ironclad, and the major piece was an hour-long, color-tinted early Western starring William S. Hart. It had a much more cynical plot that most Westerns. The two minutes of Groucho Marx' home movies were a delight, and the wide variety of restored films is illustrated by a short 1939 silent documentary made by a doctor and his wife about life in a small Minnesota town. The final selection on this DVD was Scott Bartlett's watershed experimental film OffOn, which was one of the first to use video graphic effects on film and still dazzles with its creative eye-popping image dance.

- John Sunier

Richard Pryor - Here and Now (2002)

Here's a wonderful opportunity (for those who find it appealing) to select the option for all six foreign languages above and thus teach oneself all the worst profanity in all of those languages! Actually the main item of Pryor vocabulary he seems unable to get a sentence out without using is mofo. Pryor used to be one of my personal favorites, and a previous DVD was quite enjoyable. I'm far from a prude but I found this one appalling, some of the material (impressions of his drunkenness and drug shooting up) depressing, his putdown of women despicable, and his both trying to deal with and trying to ignore hecklers (or perhaps just over-zealous fans) to be a drag from beginning to end. The only bit I found really funny was Pryor's take on women's lack of self esteem about a certain body part, but that one is - like 99% of his act - not repeatable in this publication.

- John Henry


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