DVD Video Reviews - October 2001

ALBAN BERG: Wozzeck

Wozzeck is one of the darkest operas of the 20th century. Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, it wavers in tone between satire and tragedy. And like Hamlet, there are doubts about the lead character's sanity. He is totally alone in trying to make sense of his world and in confronting his demons. But unlike the character Hamlet, Wozzeck is not intelligent; in fact, he is quite dense and much of the tragedy stems from others taking advantage of his obtuse nature. Wozzeck, a man whose thinking is derailed by horrific fantasies, is surrounded by people who hardly think at all. Has Berg given us a portrait of 19th century military life in Germany or a general statement about life's savagery? It almost doesn't matter, because the music, on the cusp between Mahlerian chromaticism and burgeoning atonality, is compelling throughout. Pundits have strewn much verbiage about this work's structure, its scenes that contain passacaglias, fugues, inventions, rhapsodies, and suites. The strings express a chaotic fugue in the trio between Wozzeck, the captain, and the doctor. In this cramped expressionist dimension, folk songs have an atonal edge, sunsets are fires that rattle, dance melodies are off-key and menacing, and lullabies are anything but soothing. Tension frequently erupts, only to suddenly subside. There is satire, as in the captain's falsettos whenever he's pompous or confused. And there are splendid effects for a stage production, like the striking one in which we see the last of Wozzeck, the man who "sliced like knife through the world."

I believe this recording is the only video version available. Luckily it is a good one. The cast is universally excellent, particularly Franz Grundheber's Wozzeck, who manages to evince sympathy, and Behrens, whose ambivalent Marie does not. The orchestral interludes, so perceptively performed by Abbado, enhance and heighten the tension. According to Berg, however, these musical devices are secondary. "Everyone should be filled only by idea of the opera, an idea which far transcends the individual fate of Wozzeck."

--Peter Bates

 

Viva Vivaldi!

Fans of Cecilia Bartoli and many other viewers will be enchanted with this DVD. Although most of these Vivaldi arias are available in different performances on a Grammy Award­winning CD on Decca, they are well worth watching on DVD. Bartoli is a consummate artist whose gossamer notes, scintillating coloratura, and extraordinary versatility will be remembered for a long time. In just a few short minutes, Bartoli can transform herself from a ferocious lupine creature, as in the fast-paced "Armatae Face et Anguibus" (from the opera Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernes barbarie), to a delicate hummingbird, as in "Gelido in ogni vena" (from Farnace) making for an entertaining performance. We watch in speechless wonder as her mellifluous, chocolaty voice embellishes "Di due rai languir costante" (from an unknown opera) with a lacy vibrato and adorable little warbles ornament the tender aria "Non ti lusinghi la crudeltade" (from Tito Manlio) with almost perfect intonation. Immediately after, she fiercely condemns jealousy in "Gelosia" (from Ottone in villa). This mezzosoprano, who is still in her thirties, is irrepressible, and although some strain is visible in her technique, her singing is never in dispute.

We are also regaled with two soloists besides Bartoli: Giovanni Antonini, who in addition to conducting Il Giardino Armonico, plays in the Concerto in C Major for Flute, and Luca Pianca, who plays in Concerto in D Major for Lute. Antonini is a virtuosic tour de force the likes of whom I have never seen. He is at one with the flute, and his flexibility is a marvel to watch. He becomes so absorbed in the music that nothing else seems to exist. His long legatos and agile sense of timing are exquisite. Pianca's lute playing is less stellar, somewhat hurried and mechanical.

Both the sound and the camera work in this recording are excellent. This DVD is not to be missed.

-Dalia Geffen

Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould

An absolutely fascinating film on the quirky Canadian pianist, carried out in the form of 32 vignettes from his unusual and varied life - which ranged from learning the piano before he could read to his early death at 50. While he was among other things a hypochondriac it turned out he really did have some medical conditions from which he succumbed. Gould was a composer, conductor, writer, satirist, artist, recluse and iconoclast. He shook up the classical piano world when he announced he would never perform in a live concert again, committing all of his performances to recordings in future. He also had many other interests besides music; he produced a series of radio documentaries for the CBC. Some of the vignettes give a deeper feeling for him than any talking head merely telling of their experiences with him - though there are a few of those too. The short film of Gould insisting on playing his newly-received Columbia record for the German hotel maid who didn't speak English was one of these gems.

The soundtrack is mostly performances by Gould, with an emphasis on his beloved Bach, which he performed in a harpsichord-like style completely unique with him. I first saw this film at the Mill Valley Film Festival and their main theater at the time was the only theater in the area that had not installed Dolby surround, let alone stereo. So some of the auditory impact of the compelling soundtrack was lost. It was a pleasure to hear it now properly played back with this DVD, though it seemed unusual that the Dolby Surround was digital without 5.1 surround as well. The excellent sonic quality didn't seem to suffer in the least.

- John Sunier

 

GIUSEPPE VERDI's Requiem (1982)

One of the three or four greatest Requiems was not even written by a composer who considered himself Christian. Verdi was so moved by the death of the Italian patriot and writer Manzoni that he created a work of convincing devotion. The Dies Irae section alone vies with Berlioz' for creating a very dramatic musical depiction of the Last Judgement. Both leaned heavily on the kettle drums and the chorus' outcries did the rest. This performance boasts four really top soloists and of course a leading orchestra. Abbado brings out the operatic moments in this glorious work but without taking them over the top. The 5.1 surround immerses the viewer quite successfully in the midst of the music festival audience. The only problem is that the video dates from 1982 and suffers from extremely low resolution. Closeups of Abbado and the soloists are passable, but shots of the full chorus are pretty much a big blur. However, the music is the main thing here and there's no complaints at all in that department.

- John Sunier

 

Mon Oncle (1958)

Some film critics feel this second major film by Tati to be even superior to his original Monseur Hulot's Holiday. That's the opinion of Monty Phythoner Jones in his informal introduction. Regardless, it's a complete gas to see this again after all these years in a lovely transfer that looks as though it was filmed last week. It's a good film for learning French since there is very little dialog and it's all quite simple. The translations are fine, though I have no way to assess if they are actually "improved" over the original as stated by the notes. Good-natured bumbler Monseur Hulot has always seemed to me more like a British eccentric than a French one; maybe that's why he's so hilarious. The theme of this film is the old-fashioned Hulot's encounters with all the trendy trappings of modern life, as exemplified by his sister's super-modern home and husband. Every time I step on separate little stepping stones in someone's garden I can't help thinking of the hilarious stepping stone ballet of the party guests in the designer-heavy yard of the film's modern house.

The husband works in a modern factory making plastic hose and when Hulot is given a job there you know it's only a matter of time before the assembly line is turning out some bizarre looking hose. Again, as in Hulot's Holiday, simple sound effects take on a vital role in the story-telling. The sound of the hose machine turning out sausages instead of continuous hose is akin to the squeak of the dining room door in the first film. The couple's overly sanitized son is taken for an excursion by Hulot and they both briefly enjoy some freedom from perfect mechanized living. The ending seems very dolorous as Hulot is shipped off to a regional office of the company to get rid of him rather than letting him continue his accidental assault on the excesses of so-called modern living.

- John Sunier

 

Fritz Lang: Circle of Destiny (1998)

Lang is a towering figure in film history who played his role of Director with a capitol D - the monocle, the cigar, the megaphone - similar to another famous German director - Erich Von Stroheim. Lang directed his first silent in l919 and electrified audiences with his masterpiece Metropolis - with a script by his Nazi girlfriend Thea Von Harbou. He got chummy with Goebbels, and learned that Metropolis and his Siegfriend and other Teutonic legend silents were favorites of Hitler's. When he was asked to be director of Nazi film projects even though he was a Jew, he decided it was time to move to Hollywood, where he directed many very influential film noir works. A quarter century later he returned to Germany to direct his last three films. He was dictatorial, given to bursts of temper during which he would flail a gun around. He may or may not have been guilty of shooting his first wife when she discovered him and Thea en flagrante. At the end of his life his closest pal was a stuffed monkey who he insisted be a part of every conversation, mixed martinis for, etc.

Among the fascinating remembrances of Lang in this British documentary are those from fellow directors Claude Chabrol and Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) and actor Curt Siodmak, who was in some of his noir projects. Lang's final appearance on the screen was in a scene of a Goddard film in which he played himself - conversing casually with the main actors who were touring a film lot in the story. The production's approach to the subject of Lang often tries to give a mood or impression through the use of a series of stills and film clips without continuous narration explaining it at all times. An unusual visual aspect of the documentary which improved its design was placement of the black & white stills, posters and other materials at various points around the widescreen area without trying to bleed off on all four sides. The Goddard film clip was about the only actual widescreen material shown.

- John Sunier

 

Ghost in the Shell (1997)

This epic from the creator of Dominion Tank Police won International Animation awards. It combines the latest computer images with traditional cel animation and also combines typical ultra-violent anime action with gorgeously artistic fantasy images and a complex and highly intelligent plot line. In the future world of the story artificial intelligence is more important than the real thing and only a nebulous element of natural human consciousness can determine which are living persons and which are cyber creations. The creation in the lab of the cyber version of beautiful security officer Kusanagi at the beginning of the film is similar to the air-lock strip by Jane Fonda in Barbarella, but in anime and in reverse. In general, though, the sexy side of the feature is minimal compared to some anime out there. Both on the artistic/design level and on the story level, this feature is far ahead of the typical Japanese anime cinema and worth repeat viewings. Of great interest is the included documentary. The transfer is especially high-resolution and with impactful surround sound that makes intelligent use of the spatial effects. It is light years from the poor quality VHS tapes many anime fans have been saddled with for years.

- John Sunier

 

The Mummy - Ultimate Edition (1999)

This film is based on the 1932 horror classic about a sorcerer in ancient Egypt who fell in love with the Pharaoh's woman. When the relationship is discovered, she will be put to death. The sorcerer can revive her with his magic so she kills herself, but he is found before he can complete her revival. He is cursed and lurks deep within the mystical pyramids waiting to take his revenge and come back to life. A young librarian is in search of the mysteries that ancient tomes and hidden places in the desert can provide. All she needs is an escort to help her find the location of the ruins. A soldier is quick to provide his assistance to the beautiful woman and off they go in search of treasure and secrets of the past. A secret group of men who watch over the ancient place intend to stop any disruption of the long-kept tombs for fear of the destruction of the world. When the powers are unleashed, we pray that our heroes will be able to contain the evil and save not only themselves, but also all humankind.

Basically, the only reason to watch this film is for the special effects and action. The sound would make a really impressive surround demonstration. There is very little substance to the film and the plot is very much by the numbers. You won't be surprised or jump from your seat on this one. It seems long and I began to grow weary early on in the picture. The main characters are very nice to look at, but they are almost comic in their development. Perhaps this was the intention, and therefore I am being too critical. In fact, there were some whom I spoke with that did enjoy the film. If you like brainless action films set in the past with lots of magic and mysticism then you will enjoy this movie. Otherwise it is hardly even a cheap thrill.

- Brian Bloom

 

Who'll Stop The Rain (1978)

A young photographer has a somewhat bleak job taking pictures of soldiers and combat during the Vietnam War. In an effort to go out with a bang, he secures a large amount of heroin that he plans to sell for a large profit when he gets back to the States. An old friend of his is able to smuggle it back into the country and deliver it to his wife for payment. Things are never this easy, especially when it comes to committing crimes. Nick Nolte is the friend who soon ends up on the run after an unfortunate encounter with a few men anxious to get a hold of the H. The unsuspecting wife becomes a fugitive as well when they go off together in an effort unload the large quantity of drugs. When the photographer comes back to town he is quickly snapped up and kept as a hostage and negotiations begin for the return of the drugs. I won't spoil the ending, but it doesn't get a whole lot better.

This film is billed as a contemporary classic. A few people I talked to had never even heard of this film. The whole time I watched I kept thinking how dated it seemed. Some films are timeless, but this is not one of them. There might have been a decent plot hiding beneath the somewhat silly action and dramatic sequences. Unfortunately, the viewer never really feels very sympathetic with any of the characters and that is one of the main problems. The other is that the picture is not all that great. In fact, it doesn't look that much better than a good videotape transfer. The picture is dark, grainy, and indistinct. The sound is quite ordinary and is monaural. I kept trying to get into this film but it just never happened. If you like Nick Nolte overacting and Tuesday Weld looking quite drugged then this film might have a chance with you. Otherwise it probably isn't even worth a rental. I can't say that I wasn't able to finish it, but I just really didn't care.

- Brian Bloom

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