DVD Video Reviews Part 1 - December 2001

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Appalachian Journey with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O-Connor (2000)

This concert takes place at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City on April 5th, 2000. Both Alison Krauss and James Taylor are special guests in quite a memorable concert. Although I'd normally consider Yo-Yo Ma a classical performer, these concerts are strictly American Music-a.k.a. early country music. You may want to get up and dance a little jig during some of the pieces or think back to life on a farm in the early 1900s. The performance is most impressive and from the applause in the crowd you can tell that they enjoyed it immensely too. The tracks on this disc are:

Emily's Reel
Misty Moonlight Waltz
Caprice For Three
Slumber My Darling
Hard Times Come Again No More
Appalachia Waltz
Fisher's Hornp
Duet For Cello And Bass
Chief Sitting In the Rain/ College Hornpipe
Poem For Carlita
Druid Fluid

The picture has the look of video, and the sound was very good. Just the presence of a fiddle can change the feeling of a piece of music. All of these performers are more than just skilled at their instruments and the excitement and enthusiasm for the pieces really come through on this disc. If you are in the mood for a little 'ole country, then check it out.

- Brian Bloom

PROKOFIEV: Third Piano Concerto in C; RAUTAVAARA: Lintukoto (Isle of Bliss); SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5 in E Flat Major; Valse Triste - City of Birmingham Sym. Orch. cond. by Sakari Oramo at the Cologne Music Triennale/Olli Mustonen, piano (2000)

A beautifully produced classical live concert that shows a welcome trend in offering both surround sound and widescreen display which has not been the usual thing in previous classical videos. The interior of the Cologne Philharmonie is striking, the acoustics fine, and the unfamiliar Oramo an interesting conductor to watch. Even more interesting, though, is the pianist in the great Prokofiev Concerto No. 3. Mustonen is really speedy with the hands and dramatic movements of same. He looks almost like a speeded-up film at times but never misses a note. Most interesting piano concerto performance I have every watched. The Rautavaara work struck me as a sort of Finnish version of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy - some very evocative and sensual sounds to be sure. Strangely, the two Sibelius works are not even mentioned on the front or spine of the case. I can't say I wasn't pleased with the fidelity of the Dolby 5.1 sound, but I was wondering what an A/B comparison with the same thing at DVD-Audio 96k (lossless packing) vs. DD 48k (lossy data reduction) would sound like. Of course there may not even be room for that on a 96-minute video DVD, though there would have been room for a DTS 5.1 option, as many music videos now provide.

- John Sunier

The Vanishing (1988)

Two Dutch tourists set off to take in the French countryside. A little car trouble tests their feelings for each other and leaves them emotionally tired. Saskia goes in to get something from the store, but after a time, she does not come back. Her boyfriend Rex devotes his life to finding her. The third character in this interesting story is the kidnapper. It seems he is a bit deranged, yet manages to maintain a relatively normal life. Rex's campaign finally begins to taunt the kidnapper, and pull him out of his anonymity. He has decided to give Rex a unique opportunity to finally put Saskia out of his life and settle the mystery that has been plaguing him for over three years. Rex is desperate to know what has happened to his love; against his better judgment he accompanies the man and hears the tale of how he has become who he is and what has happened to Saskia.

This film starts out as an interesting suspense thriller that even from the beginning keeps you on the edge of your seat. It settles into the feeling of a drama, but ends as a horror film. Within the movie there is haunting music and the characters have a dream that is quite worrisome when the film is finished and its meaning is divined. The picture is very good to excellent, with good depth. It is more film-like than other DVDs I've seen. The sound is also good. Perhaps it was the ending that changed my feeling for the film, and gave it a haunting quality that was disturbing. For some this will help elevate their like for this film, but for me it detracted as it slightly resembles an Edgar Allen Poe story. [Ed.: Brian, you're giving the ending away...] In any case, if you like a movie that doesn't end happily, and keeps you a little jumpy, then this is the one for you. [Ed.: A little? I passed this one on to you because my wife and I didn't want to get that jumpy all over again... And incidently, the later American redux of this film was a complete bust - don't waste your time on it.]

- Brian Bloom

Lilies of the Field (1963)

While driving through the desert, Homer Smith is in need of some water for his automobile. He sees the signs of civilization and runs into a small group of nuns. The head nun is convinced that the arrival of this handyman is God answering her prayers. She promptly insists that he stay with them and fix their roof. He takes the job expecting to receive some money, but all he receives is some strict orders and a sampling of plain food. He decides to leave and go off in search of work, but the helplessness of the nuns keeps him there. He takes them to the Sunday services and agrees to work on their chapel. He part times at a construction job in town, and this allows him to stay on and commune with the nuns and his desire to complete the design. The job seems almost insurmountable, and he refuses all help. But with some coaxing from the townspeople, he eventually relents and the work progresses rapidly.

A "nice" movie is a good way to describe Lilies of the Field. There were stereotypical scenes that I don't believe would be in any serious movie these days. But this film is lighthearted in parts and also communicates on a more serious emotional level as well. The very white, German nuns seem a huge contrast with the traveling American black man, and yet they get along naturally. The sound was a bit constrained, as if coming out of an old radio, but dialogue was still easily comprehensible. The picture had artifacts, was soft and fuzzy, but with very low video noise. Poitier won an Academy Award for his performance, and the movie really doesn't give you much to complain about. Either the story appeals and you can feel the humanistic aspects, or you can't.

- Brian Bloom

Hemingway (2001)

As Hemingway recounts the many years gone by that have influenced his life, his career, and have changed those around him, he begins with his first marriage. Off they go to Paris and to meet with Gertrude Stein. She doesn't exactly approve of his crude writings, but that does not stop Hemingway. We are soon introduced to his love of art, the human condition as he sees it, and his love of drinking, excitement and, of course, women! His wartime images haunt him; yet make him yearn for his security in a new life, with a child, and a new book. He boxes, gets disorderly and rude in restaurants, and parleys with his friends and enemies. As he travels the world, to the Alps, to Spain, to Venice, and to Africa we learn of his many struggles with inspiration, life, and his love of women and stimulation.

Stacey Keach does an admirable job as Hemingway (for which he won a Golden Globe award), but I couldn't really tell you how close he captures the essence of the real Hemingway. I suppose I believed him to be greater than the biography portrays--a sort of super human without the vices of men. Alas, he is as much a man struggling to find his place in the world as the rest of us. The series is quite long and becomes a bit boring and drags in parts. It seems he goes from one woman to the next, to the next, and to the next. There was very little attention paid to his actual writing in the film, and much more to the events and people surrounding it. I was hoping to get more insight into some of the famous works that makes Hemingway a must read.

If you like long British miniseries on PBS, then the feel of this series will appeal to you. The fact that it is a foreign production gives it a decidedly different feel as well. There is a sequence with a bull fight that seemed very real, in fact watching the stakes enter the bull's bloody hide made me quite uncomfortable. I did not think it was in any way faked. Perhaps I'm mistaken. In any case, the action for the most part in this film is nothing like the action in a typical American mainstream production. The picture itself was grainy, soft, and dull. It really does look more like a video. Sound was mostly dialogue and music, with occasional action sequences. It was muffled in parts, but it did not detract from the presentation. There aren't many surprises with this DVD set-it is as I described.

- Brian Bloom

The Man With Bogart's Face (1980)

This movie opens in a recovery room. We are under the impression that a strange transformation of a man has taken place, but to what end? It seems that our hero has decided to take the face of the mythical Humphrey Bogart, and in the way of his movies, become a gumshoe named Sam Marlow. Time passes as he waits for clients, but nothing. Luck is on his side when an investigation lands him on the front page of the paper. In no time at all the phone is ringing and he has clients and other less-desirable people seeking his company. One woman needs him to find out about her father and soon another case he is on begins to become intertwined with the first.

Humor abounds in this film, and you don't even have to be a Bogart fan. If you are, or if you've seen at least one of the Sam Marlow detective movies, then that will only make the movie funnier. The characters are very plastic and overdone, but that is the point. It seems everyone thinks he looks awfully familiar, but can't quite place him! And that is even after he makes references to Humphrey Bogart films. In the end everything gets tied up and all the twists are untwisted much like a Bogart film. Nothing is really that much of a surprise, but the getting there is so much fun. The transfer was especially good for a film of this vintage with really nice color. There was some film grain, but it didn't interfere at all with the look of the movie. Sound was nothing special but not bad either. Definitely worth checking out for a good laugh.

- Brian Bloom

There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

Another film in the Diamond Collection, There's No Business Like Show Business follows the history of a vaudeville family, the Donahues. As the original Donahues have kids, the act moves to a different level. The war and stock market crash change everything, and the gigs get harder to get, but the persistence and talent of the duo pulls them through in hard times. Their youngest son grows up to become quite the lady's man. While in a club he happens up a rising starlet (Monroe) checking coats and practicing her vocal intonations. He is so enamored with her that he pursues her after the performance. She is not one to give in so easily, and they go their own ways. Chance will have it when they meet again at a club where they both have an act to do. His pursuit starts anew, and eventually she falls for him as well. The courtship is going along well until she manages to become a headliner. Difficulties occur and the whole family is affected. The ripples of their relationship go throughout, and may never leave anyone the same.

Aside from this overriding story, there is much on the history of the entire family with lots of musical performance throughout. Marilyn is her typical saucy and desirable self, and Merman is Merman. Some of the movie feels dated, but the material is pretty good, and for this type of film, very involving. The subplots are good as well; they integrate into the overall theme, and that helps to make the movie that much stronger. The surround mix is much better than the stereo mix, and sound comes from all around. The screen image is a little dull, but with good color. This is a musical, and a romantic one in part. Keep that in mind if you are thinking about buying, but if you are a Marilyn or O'Connor fan, then I don't think you will be disappointed.

- Brian Bloom

Fireplace (2001)

I'm feeling a bit silly giving any rating to a movie that has no actors, no plot and no action other than lighting a fire in a fireplace, having it burn to embers and then go out. Still it is a movie - it was "shot on film for unsurpassed quality." This is from the same general source as the recent Aquarium video. It certainly is a very realistic fireplace just as the aquarium is very realistic. The crackling and burning sounds are also very realistic in surround sound. A problem might occur if you have a large front or rear projection set in that the fireplace then becomes so huge that when it really gets going it appears your entire viewing room is going up in smoke! Perhaps you could put it out with the water in the aquarium...

I'm still trying to figure out the logic of the "pan & scan" option or even how it could work. The image just looked cropped on the sides to me; it isn't like you might miss some important action going on at the ends of the log! Someone roasting a marshmellow perhaps? The two music tracks are well-reproduced in both DD and DTS surround. One is titled Night Music and consists of predictable peaceful, tuneful classical chestnuts such as the Adagio of the Moonlight Sonata, the Pachelbel Canon and Clair de lune. The other option is the Naxos CD Christmas Goes Baroque CD, with carols arranged in the style of Handel, Bach etc. Very fitting for the fireplace (that's not intended to be a double meaning.) Some TV stations in many major cities devote time to scenes of a fire in a fireplace at Christmas, and many viewers have taped this for flexible use. But those images and sound can't match the high resolution image and sound of this DVD. This fire is guaranteed never to set off your smoke alarms or smudge your walls. And it's a lot cheaper than, say, the Godfather Trilogy. Now if you had two DVD players and two monitors in the same room...hmmm...

- John Sunier

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