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DVD Reviews for June 2001, Pt. 1 of 2

[Click on each DVD to go directly to its review]

Four Bach Suites

The ornate Palace Het Loo in Holland serves as the venue for this equally elegant performance of the complete orchestral suites of J. S. Bach. Baroque keyboard specialist Koopman conducts from the harpsichord, using his head almost like a large baton. Seeing the musicians points up the changing personnel for the four suites - some just a quintet of musicians and others - such as the familiar Third Suite with Air for the G String - employing a large chamber orchestra with prominent tympani. The subtle details of ornamentation are cleanly limned, often at tempi that makes their accuracy seem a daunting task. This is an original instrument orchestra, yet never does the tone of either the strings or woodwinds become strident and annoying as with some authentic instrument ensembles. A very striking image is provided by the three long natural horns used in a couple of the suites, and understanding the great difficulty of achieving the proper pitches without benefit of valves only increases the wonder of it. Image quality and camera work is first rate. There was little difference in the fidelity of the two channel and the 5.1 DD tracks, with the surround option involving one much more deeply in the performance. The front channels appeared to be balanced strongly to the right for some reason.

- John Sunier

Miles Davis: Live in Montreal (1985)

Videotaped at the l985 Festival International de Jazz in Montreal, this appearance by the great trumpet star shows him in fine form with a six-man band including saxist Bob Berg and guitarist John Scofield. Some of the six selections are in Miles' super-cool, almost trance-like fusion style, aided by the synth patterns of Robert Irving III. Others - such as the ballad Time After Time - are lyrical and melodic. Berg takes some terrific solo stints on his soprano sax. Davis not only occasionally smiles, but at the end of the concert even turns around to face the audience and actually waves to the them! There's not a lot going on visually - on occasion the stage is extremely dark, but that's probably the way it looked. The PCM stereo track brought one right into the concert hall when fed through the L-R matrix surround playback of my receiver, but the 5.1 Dolby Digital track was also very clean and enveloping though slightly less transparent. Offering this pair of choices is going to please any audiophile more than just 2 and 5.1 channel versions of Dolby Digital.

- John Henry


The Jazz Channel presents Earl Klugh (2000)

What we have here is Earl Klugh in concert. His blend of light jazz and fusion literally pop from the screen. The DTS soundtrack on this title was preferred-it rendered acoustic space a little better. The picture is shot on video and some of the cuts to the audience are so dark that you can barely make them out. In fact, a lot of the cuts to the audience are useless. Luckily, they take up a very short amount of time in the entire video. The stage is well lit and all performers are easily seen. The songs performed on this disc are:

If you are an Earl Klugh fan then you won't be disappointed with this disc. It makes good background listening and will be enjoyable even to people who don't label themselves jazz fans. Check it out if you don't mind a little head bopping in time to the music.

- Brian Bloom


For The Boys (1991)

After many years of service to their country, it is time for Dixie and Eddie to receive an award for lifetime achievement. There is only one problem for the man who has come to take her to the benefit-she thinks that Eddie is a Sonofabitch, and is not going anywhere near him. Everyone has an interesting story, and Dixie is no different. In a matter of minutes we are transported back to where it all began: a time when she sang for soldiers of WWII, became an instant success, had a television variety program, and lived a hard life trying to raise her son. Along the way we travel to far away places, come to know Dixie and Eddie, to find out what hardships can be experienced in a lifetime, and the tolls they leave upon us. Through thick and thin it has always been Dixie and Eddie but they haven't seen each other for years. Will she be able to make this last big appearance and stand up with dignity and present herself to the world?

For The Boys is a little long, but rates high for sentimental value. Bette Midler does a good job and, of course, we get to hear her doing a few songs including a wonderful version of John Lennon's "In My Life." Picture is generally good, but is a little soft. Audio does not take much advantage of surround, but is not too bad. If you are in a sentimental mood then you'll warm right up to this film. It is really about accepting people even though they may have faults, and discovering the good they do and give to others even when they may not realize it themselves.

- Brian Bloom

Point Of View (Interactive Movie) (2001)

A famous New York model is attacked and raped, and shoots her attacker. Unfortunately she can't get work due to the bad publicity and goes off to be by herself in Vancouver. While she is there she paints and mainly stays to herself with the exception of some spying she does on her saxophone-playing neighbor across the street. She meets him by the street in the morning where he drops off papers. He has no idea who she is. Thus ends chapter 1 and now you have several questions to answer. Do you think spying is bad? Do you think Jane is dangerous? Several more follow. The movie now has changed to reflect your answers. If this sounds intriguing, then you will very much enjoy Point Of View. If you have played Tender Loving Care (which was previously reviewed) then you will like the fact that there have been improvements in the way this title plays.

At the end of each chapter is a group of questions that determine how the movie proceeds, and instead of wandering around a house/ office looking for clues and chance encounters, which is very time consuming, everything is right there to look at if you desire. This includes more personal interviews with the characters, up close views of objects, diaries, and other interesting items that relate to the movie. The movie can be saved much like a game and then started back up in the same place. As the movie proceeds you meet other characters and decide how you feel about them. There are some voyeuristic themes present and other adult subject matter although the movie is not as racy as Tender Loving Care. Overall, Point Of View was a lot of fun and better done than Tender Loving Care although not as disturbing. This is either good or bad depending on how you look at it.

The movie is shot with digital video and does not look like film. The picture is excellent except for certain parts where there are many horizontal lines on the pictures (as in hum bars)-ie chapter 1-interview with June. Sound is very involving, but almost entirely dialogue driven, so not much surround although the opening sound effects/ music are enjoyable.

- Brian Bloom


Fellini's Satyricon (1968)

Fellini pulls out all the stops in placing the viewer in a nightmarish vision of a completely decadent ancient Roman civilization. By turns erotic, cruel, gorgeous, disgusting, and shocking, his version of the original story portrays most Romans as interested only in their own self-gratification. Parallels to modern-day life are not hard to miss. The unique score by Nino Rota is completely different from any of his other music, and some even seems as though it could be authentic ancient Roman music - though we have absolutely no idea what that was.

I remembered the hypnotic effect of the music and the often unexpected visual images from the first time I saw the film. But I was unprepared for the unrelenting theme of man's inhumanity to man and the worthlessness of human life in this period. The plot concerns two young male teachers who are competing to own an attractive young boy for their own pleasure. Their odyssey takes them and the viewer through many wild Roman scenes. While the costumes look authentic, there is a stylized, typical Fellini fantasy quality about the entire design of the film. Without that, it would be even more depressing! Image quality is superb and without the distortion on the mono soundtrack as experienced on previous Fellini DVD transfers.

- John Sunier

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

One of the early Cinemascope features, following on the success of The Robe, this entry in the new five-DVD Marilyn Monroe Diamond Collection brings audiophiles a very special and unexpected present: In order to show off both the super-widescreen image and the multichannel sound, the movie comes with its own complete overture! Alfred Newman conducts the full-sized Fox studio symphony orchestra (in full concert dress in front of a series of Grecian columns holding up nothing) in his classic Street Scene. The Cinemascope camera sometimes pans slightly from one end of the wide stage to the other but never goes to closeups of any of the musicians as would a TV presentation. When the Gershwinesque piece is finished, the curtains close and the titles for the movie come up. The four-channel surround is terrific. This is a great test source for getting the most natural results out of your home theater system for music listening.

To the actual movie: The three actresses are models who rent a Manhattan penthouse by pooling their funds and then using it to get themselves rich husbands. In the end love prevails over money and on the way there are plenty of laughs and plenty of glamour from the three stars. Monroe's acting isn't up to the level of Grable and Bacall but never mind. Color is in-your-face Technicolor and the image quality throughout is really superb. They hadn't as yet begun to cut corners in audio production by funnelling all dialog to the center channel, so when Monroe is over on the left side of the room you hear her from the left side of the screen, and Bacall speaks from where she is on the right side. This also helped to emphasize the general wide feeling of the Cinemascope screen - all designed to work together to lure people away from the dreaded TV set!

- John Sunier

Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days (2001)

AMC aired this fascinating documentary last month concerning the closing shoot in the tragic life of Monroe. Her final and unfinished film was Something's Got To Give, with co-stars Dean Martin and Cyd Cherise. She played a wife who was somehow stranded on a desert island for five years and returns to her home to find her husband has remarried. Footage not seen before that was stored in the Fox vaults has been carefully reassembled to create a half-hour long reconstruction of the portions of the film that were shot before the star's death. A major element was the strain between Marilyn, her studio and the director. There was also studio friction with her over-protective coach, acting maven Susan Strassberg. After Marilyn failed to show up for a number of shoots she was fired from the production but eventually amassed both public and studio favor to be asked back. The involvement with the Kennedys is of course also part of the story. James Coburn is the narrator. Not being a big Marilyn fan I didn't expect to find this special so special, but it was. You even get to see Marilyn in a nude swimming scene. Ah...the still frame - another of the many advantages of DVD.

- John Sunier

Mona Lisa (1986)

After a stint in jail a man is looking to get his life back together. A trip to see his daughter leaves him raging and after meeting up with an old buddy he goes out looking for work. He still has some connections with a few people from his past and of course they owe him for the time he spent wasting away in a cell. He's given a job as a driver for a prostitute-a woman struggling to forget her past and make him into the debonair man he could be. Their relationship goes from indifference to dislike to finally achieving a compassionate understanding of each other's faults and strengths. When she begins to trust him and let him into her world, he is asked for a large favor: to find a young girl who used to work the streets with her. The plot gets darker and he is thrust into the underworld of x-rated films, sex shows, and shady dealings. The ending is quite different than what you'd expect.

The film definitely has the feel of an independent movie: something contemporary yet appealing to the person who looks deeper into the characters than in a typical drama. There is good and bad in all of us, and sometimes our good intentions have a way of steering us into an unpredictable and undesirable outcome. And perhaps those difficulties and struggles make us grow as people and the actions of others begin to make more sense in the ultimate scheme of things. If this sounds a little heavy then I can feel confident that I've prepared you for the last 20 minutes or so of this film.

Sound is okay but can be congested and/ or muffled depending on the scene. The picture is good, has low video noise, but seems to tend towards red. It also seems to be lower in resolution than other widescreen- enhanced transfers. If you are up for a film that has an independent feel coupled with an offbeat story then you will like this one.

- Brian Bloom

The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World was the original dinosaur epic and created a sensation on first release. This proves a sensational restoration and DVD production as well. The idea of one of the monsters being captured and brought back to London where it wreaks havoc was later repeated in such classics as King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. The restoration of the film was made from eight different prints in various states of condition, and sophisticated technology was used to minimize scratches and damage to the films. The original tinting was replicated, and a small orchestra recorded the original music using the preserved score from the 1925 premiere. In addition, the Alloy Orchestra - a modern percussion-oriented duo - created their new original improvised score for the film, and you have a choice of hearing either one.

Technical Director Willis O'Brien achieved fairly believable movement of his clay dinosaurs, and the adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original story is quite gripping. The tinting - which was done with a number of feature films but usually was lost over time - adds interest to the story. The one corny element is an ape man who lurks around and threatens the explorers in various ways until they shoot him. Also, the inter-titles seem to sit on the screen forever - it suggests people read a lot more slowly in the 20s. I didn't stay the whole film with the optional commentary by author Roy Pilot, but it sounded as though he had some fascinating stories to relate about the production. (Accessing such a commentary on the sound track would be less confusing with a silent movie since the voice isn't being heard over the dialog of the film.) The souvenir booklet, originally 25 cents extra, is a kick with its dated language and unempathic attitude about dinosaurs - poking fun at their tiny brains, for example.

- John Sunier


Spaceman

The concept for this hilarious flick is the best thing about it. Inspired by low budget sci-fi movies of the l950's, the story has some very up-to-date twists to it and some trenchant social commentary. The only problem is that the production values look like a Saturday Night Live sketch that didn't know when to stop. The acting is not excruciating, but everything could certainly be snapped up and made funnier with more professional cinematography and editing. Most of the DVD is slightly out of focus, and it looks like the fault is the original film. It opens with the Spaceman's abduction from earth as a small boy. Much later he returns as a super-warrior hit man. He has been trained on an alien planet to dutifully follow all orders. This is brought across when he is being chased by FBI agents but dutifully comes to a sudden halt at a street corner when confronted by a Don't Walk sign. He is haunted by bits of childhood memories, which are encouraged by his relationship with the girl in the next apartment. He also embarks on a search for his long-lost mother. One of the funniest scenes has Spaceman doing various tasks on his first job at a supermarket.

- John Sunier

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Much is expected from a performance of Tristan und Isolde. In this curiously static work, Wagner abandoned the plot-driven tonality of traditional nineteenth-century opera in favor of an exploration of his characters' inner mental states through the use of free chromaticism. In this way he altered the course of nineteenth-century music and greatly influenced the work of modern composers. The story Wagner used for his meditations on love and death derives from a well-known medieval legend. In Wagner's version of the story, Tristan is sent by his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, to woo and fetch Isolde, the Irish princess chosen to become Mark's wife. En route from Ireland to Cornwall, the hapless lovers fall irresistibly in love aboard the ship after drinking a love potion. Once they have landed in Cornwall, they throw all caution to the wind and meet in secret, unleashing their all-consuming passion in an intense and provocative love duet laced with complex musings on the contrast between night (representing one's true self) and day (symbolizing conventional feelings). (This passage, in addition to many others, makes almost superhuman demands on both singers, and two heldentenors are reputed to have died on stage while singing the role of Tristan.) The lovers are soon found out, leading to the tragic denouement in Act 3, in which Isolde sings her hauntingly beautiful excerpt "Das Liebestod" (The love death).

As this brief synopsis implies, Wagner felt a great affinity with the Greek tragedians and Shakespeare, and he envisaged his operas on a similarly grand, universal scale of human suffering and tragedy. Unfortunately, this production attempts to do away with the tragic component by offering a pseudo-optimistic ending that makes a travesty of this monumental work and deprives the viewer/listener of the deeply satisfying catharsis that Wagner intended to provide. Moreover, the tenor Jon Fredric West's cartoonish expressions and gestures (particularly in the first two acts) turn this sublime opera into a comic book rendition.

Act 1 opens with what appears to be a cruise ship furnished with modern sculptures, deck chairs, and colorful cocktail glasses. Waltraud Meier as Isolde, resplendent in a shiny white dress adorned with red poppies, is holding a sheepskin bag, and Marjana Lipovsek, as her conventional and worldly servant, Brangäne, is reading a modern-art magazine. Meier, a Wagner stalwart, generally evinces great professionalism on stage, and this performance is no exception. From her first, well-modulated notes, which come right on the heels of the helmsman -- with pleasing effects -- to her last mournful intonation, she is in complete control of her voice and of every facial expression and movement, no matter how trivial. Lipovsek, by contrast, is a disappointment. I had great hopes for her, but here she sounds breathless, forced, and overwrought, and she seems ill at ease.

When West appears after being summoned by Isolde, he sports shaving cream on his fully bearded face and has a white kitchen towel draped over his shoulders. He leaves, and when he returns ten minutes later, the shaving cream is still in place, significantly diminishing his romantic appeal. At this point, it is hard to understand what Isolde sees in him. The charade continues with Tristan pretending to shave while arguing with Isolde and using his straight razor as his sword. All this would be forgiven (after all, these inanities may be the director's idea) if West's singing were well supported and artful. Unfortunately, his voice is woefully lacking in heroic power, and his facial expressions evoke nothing but mirth. In addition, he seems to have adopted Wolfgang Windgassen's trick of saving his stamina for the third act (see below). To add insult to injury, before the lovers have even drunk their love potion, which, by the way, they think is poison, they are already "in lust" and tear each other's clothes off (but only partly). They then drink the potion from the pastel colored cocktail glasses with straws. Throughout this buffoonery, Meier manages to maintain her composure and to be totally correct.

Fortunately, Bernd Weikl, another Wagnerian regular, has a satisfying intensity and delivers Kurwenal's notes with grace and artistry. If Meier had been the only one there to hold the fort in Act 1, I might have given up. In Act 2, when Meier, in anticipation of her clandestine rendezvous with Tristan invokes the love goddess, a red light shines on her red, curly hair. The effect is magical, and this excerpt may well be the cream of this recording. From here on, she is an ice princess, not a flesh-and-blood human being. Every movement, every turn of her head, seems rehearsed.

Meier extinguishes the torch as a signal for Tristan to approach, but in this production West heralds his arrival by flinging his armor ahead of him before coming on stage. Then he wheels in a yellow couch with pink flowers, which the lovers in their zeal later overturn. Meanwhile, they amuse themselves by throwing pillows into the air like two children frolicking in a meadow. This bit of acting is superfluous, as the music is eminently satisfactory in conveying the lovers' heartfelt joy at being reunited.

Throughout their love duet, Meier looks suitably in love, but West strains with the effort of completing this long and arduous passage; he can barely be heard above the orchestra. When the two singers reach "O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe" (Oh sink around us night of love), a high point in romantic music, their frenetic and pointless overacting at last gives way to a peaceful interlude, like the long-awaited calm after a hurricane; but, alas, this gorgeous passage is devoid of any frisson. West manages to sound pleasant but seems unsure of himself. Even the watch song by Brangäne, a voice from the netherworld, seems banal. I, for one, couldn't wait for "night to yield to day" already.

At the end of Act 2, King Mark and his men barge in on the lovers, bringing their dreamy idyll to an end. Claes H. Ahnsjo portrays Melot's wrath convincingly. Kurt Moll as Mark is suitably regal, and his acting is a delight to watch. The act concludes when Tristan, unwilling to face the harsh realities of daylight, throws himself on Melot and receives a mortal wound.

Act 3 opens with a slide projection of a desolate castle on a rock, presumably representing Kareol, Tristan's ancestral home in Brittany. The slide changes, showing a man and his dog, then a boy wading in water, a butterfly held in two hands, and a woman. The room in which Tristan is supposed to lie wounded (unfortunately, there is no bed) contains a radiator, and although the sun shines outside, the windows are pitch black. Despite these incongruities, West finally comes into his own in this act. Being wounded seems to suit him. However, the white towel is around his shoulders again, and he puts shaving cream on his face! When Isolde finally arrives, Tristan, who is supposed to die in her arms before she has time to heal his wound, opens his eyes, gets up, and the two lovers walk down the stage. Is this meant to be another hallucination of his? Mark eulogizes Tristan, but the young hero is nowhere to be seen on stage. Instead, Moll sings directly to Tristan's armor -- a jarring scene. Similarly, when Brangäne sings to Isolde, the Irish princess is nowhere in sight.

In "Das Liebestod," the sad culmination of this opera, Meier's stage presence hasn't diminished in the least, and there is no trace of fatigue in her demeanor after four hours of singing. At last, Meier and West pull the curtains closed, as though now they are beyond worldly concerns, and they walk off together. Is their reunion meant to be real, which would contradict Wagner's libretto, or is it only a metaphor? Two coffins appear on the stage, but we haven't seen Isolde collapse at the end of her "Liebestod," as Wagner directed. Are the lovers dead after all? We never know.

Zubin Mehta's conducting is adequate, although he struggles to accommodate Wagner's all-encompassing artistic scope and vision. And Mehta's expressive face registers every nuance of the prelude, like clouds in the sky. The camera work in this production is excellent, and the 5.1 surround sound most enjoyable. This may be its most attractive feature.

- Dalia Geffen

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