DVD Reviews for the Month cont.
January 2001 (Pt. 2 of 2)

Gladiator

  • Starring: Russell Crowe, Richard Harris, Joaquin Phoenix
  • Dir. by: Ridley Scott
  • Studio: Dreamworks/Universal
  • Video: 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced
  • Audio: DTS-ES 6.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
  • Subtitles: English
  • Extras: Theatrical trailers & TV spots, commentary on soundtrack by director, Separate disc containing: Deleted scenes with optional director's commentary, Interview with soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer, Behind-the-scenes featurette, One hour documentary on history and culture of gladiators, Still photo gallery, Slide show of storyboards and conceptual art, Production diary kept by young actor playing Lucius, Production notes, Cast bios
  • Length: 2 hrs. 35 min.
  • Rating: ****

Surely one of the best motion pictures of the past year, Gladiator has come to DVD quickly - in the process bringing home theater fans a host of additional material they wouldn't be exposed to in the theatrical showings. There is so much it requires a separate second DVD! The deleted scenes were very interesting, especially with Ridley Scott's commentary on why he shot them in the first place and why he deleted them. I did feel that a few of them fleshed out some vital parts of the plot that would have been much clearer had they been retained. The one-hour documentary (that looks as though it was slanted toward the History Channel) offers a fascinating history of the Roman practice of gladiatorial combat for entertainment and ties it into many of today's somewhat less bloody entertainments. Shots from the feature are effectively used to illustrate points in the history.

Russell Crowe (if you haven't heard yet) is Maximus the general and "The Spaniard" the gladiator, and superb in his unsmiling resolve and good intent (in spite of all the opponents he quickly dispatches). But he starts the film as a much-loved leader who has been successful fighting the Germanic barbarians in the hinterlands of the Roman Empire. Due to crossing a villainous Caesar he ends up condemned to death, escapes - but due to injury from a sword blow is captured into slavery and eventually into becomes a gladiator. The later dangerous life offers him eventually the opportunity to meet and avenge himself with the evil Caesar in combat at the Colosseum. Connie Nielsen is excellent as the Emperor's sister and Oliver Reed plays the African master of the gladiators. The sets and costumes are very impressive - shooting was carried out at exotic locales in Morocco and Malta. The viewer is given the impression of actually walking down the avenues of the million-strong city where all roads led. (No city on earth surpassed Rome in size until a thousand years after this!) Soundtrack composer Zimmer borrows heavily from Mars from Holst's The Planets - not the first composer to do that for battle scenes - and from Wagner in later scenes of pomp and circumstance. A haunting vocal theme representing Maximus'

The DVD transfer is top rate, without serious pixelation - even in fast-moving combat shots. The DTS version of the soundtrack has received much attention for its special mix emphasizing the surround capabilities. Instead of bullets or rocketships zooming terrifyingly around and across the home theater, we now have flaming arrows and cold steel. We Who Are About to Go Deaf Salute You! - no, really, there's nothing to grouse about in any department. This is an important film that you really should rent or purchase.

- John Sunier

 

American Beauty (1999)

  • Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney
  • Directed By: Sam Mendes
  • Screenplay: Alan Ball
  • Studio: Dreamworks
  • Video: 2.35:1 Widescreen Enhanced
  • Audio: DTS, DD, DD 2.0, Audio Commentary
  • Subtitles: English
  • Extras: Behind the Scenes Featurette, Storyboard Presentation, trailers (2), Cast & Crew, Production Notes
  • Length: 2 hrs. 2 min.
  • Rating: ****

Travelling through the clouds we are given the foreknowledge of a death about to occur. As in the case of many movies these days, it is not the ending that is important, but how you get there. The story begins in a regular town in a quite normal looking household with a man who has lost the way; he has lost all the excitement that one feels when you are alive. When a new family moves in next door, a chain of events upsets the dull routine that has been in place for many years. No one character is the central cause of this enormous change, but each in his own way is affected by it. As we follow each character and get to know them better, we see the power of this change culminating in the conclusion of the film.

When the billboards for this film were on display while it was in the theater all you were told was "...look closer." But when a film wins 5 Academy Awards people who haven't heard the buzz might just start to take notice. When I first saw this film I thought about the things that could have been better, but mostly they were just differences of opinion. In fact this film is hard to criticize for what it is trying to do. My initial complaint was the overdone stereotypical characters. However, on further reflection, it is this presentation that helps make the movie so strong. Instead of identifying with one particular character, you can take just a little from each and see yourself in all. I think that most people will find at least one scene in this film that is simply beautiful. The mood of the film swings from seriousness to jest and back again, but does so in a manner that seems to keep perfect pace. American Beauty has the feel of an independent film, but has enough going on that it will appeal to the mainstream as well.

I always say romance films are the ones that win Best Picture awards. This is a romance film too, just not a conventional one. This is the story of how one man discovers that he loves life. If you haven't seen it, then you should. This is definitely a disc to add to the collection.

- Brian Bloom

 

Jean Cocteau's ORPHIC TRILOGY:

The Blood of a Poet (1930)

  • Studio: Cocteau/Criterion Collection 
  • Video: Full Screen 4:3, B & W
  • Audio: Mono Dolby Digital, French
  • Subtitles: English
  • Extras: Documentary "Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown" (1984), transcript of 1932 Cocteau lecture on the film, 1946 essay on the film, collection of behind-the scenes photos, Cocteau bibliofilmography
  • Length: 50 min.
  • Rating: ***

This three-DVD boxed set presents for the first time beautifully restored transfers of the French poet/artist/filmmaker's great trilogy of films, with new improved subtitle translations. I've seen horrible-looking16mm and videotape versions of the first two Cocteau films in the past, and these restorations are truly impressive. All three of the films, directed by a poet who was really not a filmmaker at all (and that's why their filmic language is so unconventional), deal very poetically with Cocteau's fascination with the struggle between forces of life and death.

Blood of a Poet, as in both of the later films, shows mirrors as the gateway to the world of the dead. Cocteau's means of showing this is rather primitive in this film, but in Orpheus he gets more sophisticated with ingenious special effects. The pace is extremely slow, with shots seemingly held on actors long after other directors would cut to the next shot. Cocteau himself says in one of his lectures that his images give the film an almost sickening slowness, and he's right, but it's still fascinating if you can let yourself fall into the special world of its dream/nightmare nature. Music for this and most of Cocteau's films is by Georges Auric, but the poor quality of the music track on this early sound film makes appreciation of it minimal.

Orpheus (l949)

  • Studio: Cocteau/Criterion Collection
  • Video: Full Screen 4:3, B & W
  • Audio: Mono Dolby Digital, French
  • Subtitles: English
  • Extras: Cocteau bibliofilmography; 1950 essays on the film
  • Length: 95 min.
  • Rating: ****

This is the real centerpiece of the trilogy - Cocteau's updating of the Orphic myth in which Orpheus seems not that much in love with his wife whom he attempts to bring back from the other side of the mirror, but quite a bit in love with the imperious princess who represents Death itself, and also with the younger poet Cegeste who becomes her assistant. Orpheus is obsessed with the cryptic messages which come to him from the strange radio station heard only on the car radio in the princess' vehicle. The messages are actually poems by Cocteau himself. Entering the mirror to pass thru to the nether world was shot from above, with a heavy welded pan on the floor holding gallons of mercury into which the actors dip their gloved hands to begin the journey. (When tried the first time, the seams burst from the weight and the dangerous mercury ran all over the studio!) This masterpiece adheres more closely to standard filmic language but abounds in highly creative and poetic special effects, of which the mirror-passage is only one. Another Cocteau favorite - verging on the overdone - is running the film backwards for dream-like effects. It's a pleasure to be able to view this film classic in such a gorgeous digital transfer, and to pause, slow down, or reverse frame by frame at any time.

Testament of Orpheus (1959)

  • Studio: Cocteau/Criterion Collection
  • Video: Full Screen 4:3, B & W
  • Audio: Mono Dolby Digital, French
  • Subtitles: English
  • Extras: Villa Santo Sospir - 16mm color film by Cocteau with many locations used in Testament, collection of Cocteau writings about the film, a Cocteau bibliofilmography
  • Length: 80 min.
  • Rating: ***

Cocteau himself plays the central role in this film, posing as an 18th-century poet traveling in time looking for divine wisdom. Various symbolic/ritualistic figures such as men with horses' heads and strange angel apparitions cause him to be alternately killed and resurrected. He uses the same Paris film studio in which to shoot and even some of the same props used in the Orphic film made a decade earlier. Again, there are some clever tricks for special effects that depended on creative thinking rather than expensive studio efforts. Cocteau brought in many of his celebrity friends to act as the audience in a theater watching his dramas. They included Picasso, Jean-Pierre Leaud, even a young Yul Brynner as a front man for a never-seen royal personage - a scene that struck me as blatantly borrowed from Kafka. The relationship between an artist and his creations is the main point here, and it serves as a means for Cocteau to sum up and display many of his past filmic and artistic accomplishments. There is a sort of self-aggrandizing flavor to this third in the series of films. Modesty was not one of the French poet's prime attributes.

- John Sunier

 

MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro

  • A co-production by Bel Air Media, VTHR, Muzzik, NHK
  • Picture format: 16:9 widescreen
  • Audio format: PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1
  • English subtitles; Sung in Italian
  • A performance at the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin/Conducted by Daniel Barenboim
  • Length: 151 min.
  • Figaro: René Pape
  • Susanna: Dorothea Röschmann
  • The Countess: Emily Magee
  • Count Almaviva: Roman Trekel
  • Cherubino: Patricia Risley
  • Don Basilio: Peter Schreier
  • Marcellina: Rosemarie Lang
  • Bartolo: Kwangschul Youn
  • Don Curzio: Peter Menzel
  • Barbarina: Yvonne Zeuge
  • Antonio: Bernd Zettisch

This performance of Mozart's beloved opera of comedy and intrigue is a frenetic affair exhibiting little subtlety or humor. Although the singers are generally competent, most of them look as though they are singing under duress. They also have the unfortunate tendency of addressing the audience rather than interacting with each other, even during tender love scenes. They make minimal eye contact, giving the impression that they are more focused on the blocking than on producing a coherent ensemble. The unmistakable effect is one of calculation rather than spontaneity.

The most accomplished performance is by Patricia Risley, whose Cherubino rings out lovely notes and at the same time is believable as a boy on the verge of manhood. Risley is in her element and has fun with the role. When Susanna and the Countess dress her as a woman, she convincingly mimics a boy who is uncomfortable with all their fussing. The famous aria "Voi che sapete" (Act 2) is well modulated, expressive, and expertly sung. Ironically, Risley is the least nervous of the singers, although her character has the most to feel nervous about.

Figaro is the comical center of the opera, but René Pape's unconvincing acting gives the performance a jerky feel. Pape makes a valiant attempt to be funny but ends up being skittish instead. Although he is a sufficiently engaging Figaro (especially in Act 3, when Figaro uncovers the identity of his parents), his nervous mannerisms, exaggerated facial expressions, and lack of charisma ultimately make the opera boring. However, when I listened to him with my eyes closed, his singing was a pleasure to hear.

Dorothea Röschmann does not have the necessary charm to portray a convincing Susanna. She is relatively calm and sensible, but her characterization is insipid. She appears more lively and appealing in Act 4, when she is disguised as the Countess in order to mislead the Count and to expose his infidelity.

Emily Magee as the Countess is competent and musical, but it's hard to warm up to her. The inevitable (and perhaps unfair) comparison with the splendid Renée Fleming in the Met's telecast last year detracts from our enjoyment. Fleming lent the role an irresistible charm. And what is Mozart without charm?

Roman Trekel as Count Almaviva is the least satisfying of all. He lacks the vocal power to sound menacing, and he attempts to compensate with aggressive and crude gestures. He seems manic when he could be subtle, and there is nothing redeeming in his portrayal, leading to a rather cold ending for the opera. For once, I wished that the Countess would refuse to forgive him.

Visually this performance is also less than satisfying. The sets are minimal and the camera angles occasionally frustrating, as when in an Act 2 dialogue between the Countess and Figaro, half of Figaro is left out of the frame. In Act 1, on two occasions a shot is heard, followed by the twirling figure of a deer superimposed on the action. Presumably this is meant to remind the audience of the Count, who is out hunting. The unintended interruption is distracting and of considerable annoyance to the viewer/listener. The sound quality is less than crystal-clear due to distant miking. In the darker scenes of Act 4, artifacts from the DVD encoding lead to some fuzziness.

-Dalia Geffen

 

New Year's Gala (1997)

  • A Tribute to Carmen:
  • Music by BIZET, RAVEL, BRAHMS, FALLA, SARASATE & RACHMANINOFF
  • The Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado
  • Studio: Euro Arts/Art Haus Musik
  • Video: 4:3 Fullscreen
  • Audio: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
  • Extras: none
  • Length: 85 min.
  • Rating: ****

Another superbly done music DVD from ArtHaus, distributed by Naxos. While this one doesn't have the 5.1 surround of some of the releases, sound is first-rate - superior in clarity and depth to that of most soundtracks on feature film DVDs. And while the image is not widescreen, it converts to cropped 16:9 widescreen quite well on my Pioneer RPTV and has better resolution and color than almost any other music DVD series I have yet viewed.

The program opens with a generous selection of hits from the opera Carmen done in concert dress with Anne Sophie von Otter as Carmen and Bryn Terfel as Don Jose. The remainder of the program leans in the Spanish direction with Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole, Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy (Gil Shaham, violin soloist), and Falla's Ritual Fire Dance. Mikhail Pletnev is the pianist in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninoff. The visual cutting of images to the music is some of the most sensible and least annoying I have seen in any classical music video. Combined with the highest standard of image and sonic quality, this puts all of the ArtHaus series I have viewed in a considerably higher echelon of achievement and enjoyment than the typical public television concert telecast. The packaging is also distinctive, classier, and more compact than that of any movie DVD I have seen.

- John Sunier

 

The Paris Concert For Amnesty International: The Struggle Continues... (1999)

  • Studio: Image
  • Video: 1.33:1
  • Audio: DD 5.1, DTS 5.1, DD 2.0
  • Subtitles: None
  • Extras: Discographies of various artists
  • Length: 2 hours 51 minutes
  • Rating: ***1/2

Song List & Artist(s):

-Get Up, Stand Up--Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springstein, Youssou N'Dour
-Baba; Hand In My Pocket; Thank U--Alanis Morissette
-Medley; Se Dam Bon Jou--Kassav'
-Black White; Buzzin'; Free Satpal Ram--Asian Dub Foundation
-Signal to Noise; In Your Eyes--Peter Gabriel with Youssou N'Dour
-New Beginning; Fast Car; Baby Can I Hold You--Tracy Chapman
-No Surrender; Born in the USA; Working on the Highway--Bruce Springsteen
-When the World Was Young; Babe I'm Gonna Leave You; Gallows Pole; Rock and Roll--Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
-You're Still the One; Black Eyes, Blue Tears--Shania Twain
-Karma Police; Bones; Paranoid Android--Radiohead
-Shaking the Tree--Youssou N'Dour with Peter Gabriel
-7 Seconds--Youssou N'Dour with Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Jocelyn Beroard

Not only does this DVD have a full selection of songs from this concert, but is chock full of information about the History of the Declaration of Human Rights which celebrated it's 50th anniversary at the time of production. There is a guest appearance by the Dalai Lama, and wonderful animated sequences representing different aspects of human rights, and fair treatment to everyone. There is a little something (musically) for everyone on this disc, and the animated sequences will be doubly impressive to anyone who has even the slightest interest in animated shorts. Some performances are stronger than others with a few by Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, and Radiohead standing out. The crowd in attendance seemed to be filled with many younger people who responded with such intensity to some of the songs which made the concert more enjoyable to watch.

When you pick up this disc you really get more than you bargained for. You get good music with a large variety of artists, and a lesson on human rights. Good for the young and old alike.

- Brian Bloom    bigbrianb@usa.net     

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